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Red Blossom (Fanfic: Action/Adventure/Comedy; PG13)

Discussion in 'Naruto Fanworks' started by YamisuiOnna, Nov 15, 2004.

  1. YamisuiOnna

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    Nov 15, 2004
    In the aftermath of Orochimaru's attack on Konoha, Kakashi is coerced into accepting a mission guarding a Water Country feudal lord from assassins. The mission risks war with the Mist Ninja, who are under suspicion of being behind the attacks...and the danger may extend as far as Konoha itself and beyond, for it seems that someone is also sending killers after Gaara of the Sand. Thus Naruto and his friends embark on a perilous journey, leading them down the perilous Aoite Road and across the sea; through the deep forests surrounding the Mist Village and into the Water-lord's city, carved into the sea cliffs. It is there in Mizutou--a stone-walled city besieged by assassins and steeped in political intrigue--that Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, and Kakashi must face the terrible Shinkuhana no Jutsu--an assassin's technique known to bring instant death to both its victim and its wielder...

    Author?s Note: This story takes place in the span of time after the great Chuunin Exam arc and right before Itachi Uchiha comes to Konoha after Naruto. (Think of this story as a bridge between the two.) Though Orochimaru has been driven away and temporarily defeated, the Third Hokage is dead, and Konoha Village is in shambles after the war. At this point Jiraiya hasn?t seen Naruto since before the Chuunin Exam finals, and neither has he made his presence known to anyone in the village. Konoha is under drastic reconstruction, and, in order to pay for damage repairs, the Leaf Ninja are hiring themselves out with near-desperate zeal...

    Before we begin, some terms defined:
    Kunai: the knives that the ninja use
    Tanuki: a ?raccoon-dog?
    Shuriken: ninja stars
    Levels of Ninja-hood: Genin (lowest), Chuunin, Jounin
    Mizukage: the Mist Village?s equivalent of Konoha?s Hokage
    Baka: what you are if you don?t know what ?baka? means​

    {o} {o} {o} RED BLOSSOM {o} {o} {o}

    {o} Chapter 1: The Water-Lord?s Request? A Chance For Glory! {o}

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    It was autumn then.

    The crimson leaves fell soft upon the road;

    The blood of ninja, trampled underfoot.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    Beneath the maple trees, the young man stood with his family, keeping vigil over the grave of his comrade. The afternoon sun, which was sinking slowly beyond the wood, turned the leaves to crimson as they fell. They drifted down gently in a soft rain of blood, falling at the feet of those gathered there for the funeral, and on the grave itself. The young man?s face was taut with grief, but he allowed no tears to come. That was the shinobi way.

    His uncle laid a hand on his shoulder. He could scarcely feel it through the thick vest that he wore, which marked him as one of the Jounin. The gesture was meant to comfort, but he was too numb with shock to be comforted. Neither tears nor comfort could raise the dead.

    ?I know what a blow this is to you,? his uncle murmured. ?And I commend you for your loyalty...but sorrow should not be the force that shapes the course of your life. You?re still very young. Obito?s memory will fade in your heart one day, for his spirit has moved on to where you can?t follow.?

    A soft breeze stole through the forest, and the young man brushed absently at his hair to keep it from blowing over his forehead protector and across his brow. Numbly, he thought, ?You?re wrong. There IS one way I can follow him...? But he didn?t dare speak this aloud in the presence of his clan, for even the Hatake elders didn?t know of the secret that he carried.

    ?My decision to quit ANBU wasn?t rashly made,? the young man murmured in reply. ?I?ve put some thought into this...?

    More leaves drifted onto the stone obelisk that marked the gravesite, and finally one of the attending Hatake clan stepped forward to sweep them away. His uncle?s grip tightened on his shoulder.

    ?You mustn?t let this sorrow shape the man you become,? his uncle insisted. ?I don?t expect you to see that now, but in time...?

    The young man turned a faint smile upward over one shoulder---a smile that his uncle could scarcely see through the cloth that covered it.

    ?I?m not condemning myself to solitude,? he said calmly. There was a terrible, beautiful serenity in his voice---the peace that comes only after a man has cried until he can cry no more. ?Not at all. That was not my intent. Because I?ve quit ANBU, I will lead young shinobi and make them strong. And I will protect them with my life.?

    His uncle returned the smile, but it was a sad, bemused expression beneath the shadow of a frown. He sensed the terrible loneliness that tormented the young man, but he did not fully understand its cause.

    ?Being a soldier won?t replace being a man who loves and is loved by other people,? he told his nephew. ?Do you recall the rule that a ninja must not give in to emotions? It doesn?t mean to make yourself a stone, or to hide behind a mask---it means that you can?t let grief and anger shape who you are.? He bent nearer, to whisper in his nephew?s ear. ?After all, even if he?s left you, you are going to LIVE...?

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    Fourteen Years Later


    ?Oi! It?s a disgrace for an adult to be this lazy!?

    ?You?re late.?

    Kakashi emerged from the woods at half past noon beneath a clear autumn sky. The air was brisk and cold, and he drew in a deep breath, savoring it as he turned his attention toward an irritable Sakura, who was standing and glaring at him with her hands on her hips. The second came from Naruto, who had just leaped to his feet and begun shaking a fist at his teacher. The third came from Sasuke, who was leaning against one of the training posts a little ways apart from his fellow ninja. Sasuke wore his perpetually bored expression, which meant that he was glad to see his teacher no matter how late he was.

    Kakashi, in return, beamed at them all from beneath the cloth covering his face.

    ?I?m sorry,? he apologized cheerily. ?I was just admiring the maple leaves, while my mind wandered down many a path of meditation.?

    ?Your mind wanders--I?ll give you that,? Naruto grumbled, already bored with chewing his teacher out. ?You promised you?d work with me on the Chidori technique today.?

    Sakura glanced over at him in surprise.

    ?What--you?re still trying to learn that one?? she asked. ?Why won?t you give it up already? Sasuke?s the only one besides Kakashi-sensei who can use it, and both of them can only use it because they have the Sharingan.?

    Sasuke shifted his weight to the other foot as he leaned against the training post. He didn?t seem pleased. In fact, lately he seemed to grow inexplicably irritable whenever his personal techniques and Naruto were mentioned together.

    ?I could do it if I trained my hardest!? Naruto insisted, whirling around to face her with his hands balled into fists at his sides.

    Sakura merely folded her arms, looking skeptical.

    ?I?ve watched you try to ?train? for Chidori,? she remarked flatly. ?You stand there all hunched over, clutching your wrist and screwing up your face like you?re constipated.?

    ?Ahem.? Kakashi cleared his throat loudly, coming into the clearing to stand in their midst. ?I know it?s bad enough that I?m late, but I regret to inform you that I won?t have time to teach you today.?

    A look of profound horror cross Naruto?s face, as if Kakashi had just cancelled Christmas. He hastened over to stand directly in front of the Jounin, gazing up at him pleadingly.

    ?But, but, but I?m going to get weak if you don?t train me!? he protested.

    ?And fat,? Sakura added helpfully. ?With all that ramen you eat...? But she seemed disappointed as well.

    Sasuke?s eyes narrowed.

    ?How am I supposed to get any stronger if you keep making excuses for leaving us to train on our own?? he asked, a bit too intensely.

    ?Hey, I'll train with you!? Naruto suggested, turning toward the brooding, dark-haired Genin. Kakashi gave him a sharp look that clearly meant No, but as usual Naruto?s enthusiasm rendered him completely oblivious.

    Sasuke, in the meantime, had stopped leaning against the training post and moved out onto the grass, looking interested. An unusually fierce look came into Naruto?s eye, and he straightened, one hand lingering near his kunai.

    ?We never did get to fight,? he remarked.

    Sasuke nodded slowly. ?Because the Chuunin Exam was interrupted.?

    The two boys stood there a moment, sizing each other up. Naruto was grinning eagerly; Sasuke wasn?t smiling at all.

    The sudden tension in the air made Sakura nervous.

    ?Wait--? she began, starting toward them, but fortunately Kakashi--no doubt sensing that blood was about to be spilt--interfered first.

    ?Ahem.? The white-haired Jounin stepped forward, raising one fist to his mouth and clearing his throat loudly. ?I can?t make today?s practice, but I can make it up to you,? he said, addressing all three of them. ?Our team has just been assigned to a new mission; I?m afraid you?ll have to postpone killing each other.?

    Naruto turned toward him, raising an eyebrow.
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2005
  2. YamisuiOnna

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    Nov 15, 2004
    Chapter 1 (continued)

    ?It?s not raking leaves, is it?? he asked suspiciously, glancing at the fiery-red maple leaves scattered across the practice field.

    Sasuke scowled, obviously equally displeased with the notion.

    Kakashi held up both hands for silence.

    ?Let me explain,? he told them. ?This isn?t an ordinary mission. It?s Class-A. Do you recall what that means??

    Naruto?s mouth fell open.

    ?Class A?!? Sakura exclaimed in astonishment. ?That?s for Jounin! Kakashi-sensei, we shouldn?t be doing something of that caliber...?

    Sasuke cast her a sidelong glance, looking as if he wanted to strangle her for protesting. A slow grin spread over Naruto?s face.

    ?Hey, hey, Kakashi-sensei---what is it we?re doing?? he asked excitedly.

    Kakashi folded his arms, arching his back to gaze up at the sky. He wasn?t smiling.

    ?An unusual request has been made of us,? he said coolly. ?We?ve been asked to make the journey to the Water Country. There?s a city there called Mizutou, built right into the cliffs along the eastern coast. Its ruler, Lord Garyu, has requested our service as bodyguards.?

    Naruto was practically hopping up and down with impatience.

    ?So? Where are we taking him?? he asked. ?So our route will take us across the ocean? Wow! Class-A! A real chance for glory! Can we go to the beach on our way back??

    Kakashi looked down at him, wearing an oddly closed expression.

    ?We?re not taking him anywhere. We?ll be guarding him there in Mizutou.?

    ?Eh?? Naruto pulled a face. ?Why us, then? Konoha ninjas, I mean. Doesn?t Mizutou have its own ninja??

    Kakashi merely eyed him gravely, saying nothing. Sasuke sat down in the grass, smiling grimly.

    ?Heh. I see,? he said, lowering his head so that his dark bangs fell across his forehead. ?So that?s why the mission has an A-ranking.?

    ?Am I missing something?? Sakura asked, glancing from Sasuke to Kakashi and back again.

    With a sigh, Kakashi unfolded his arms.

    ?Lord Garyu has reason to believe that ninja from the Hidden Village of Mist are after his life. He?s spoken with the Mizukage already, but the Mizukage denies it. And there have been several attacks of late---Garyu can?t afford to wait for evidence of the Mist ninja?s involvement to present itself. So he seeks help from the ninja from another country.? The Jounin paused, looking askance at Sasuke. ?And yes, you?re right---the mission has an A-ranking because what we?re being hired to do here is to fight off ninja specifically trained for assassination.?

    ?Fine,? Sasuke responded, resting one hand on his knee and twiddling a blade of grass between the fingers of the other.

    Sakura rounded on him, upset by his attitude.

    ?What do you mean, ?fine??! This is very dangerous! We have to take this seriously!?

    Sasuke dropped the grass.

    ?Just what I said: fine,? he repeated calmly. Then he glanced up at Kakashi. ?When do we leave??

    Kakashi frowned a little, but didn?t comment on his student?s attitude.

    ?Tomorrow,? he told them. ?Pack light, and pack plainclothes. No ninja attire,? he repeated firmly, directing this at Naruto, who was regarding him with a look of abject horror. ?When we get to Mizutou, Lord Garyu will provide local clothes for us to wear, because we?ll be staying in the city for quite some time and we need to blend in. I want you all to eat well tonight and go to sleep early---we?ve got a long journey ahead of us, and it?s important that we make good time. The longer we take, the longer Garyu?s life will be in danger.?

    Then he ceased speaking, and his three students stared at him.

    ?That?s all,? Kakashi told them, realizing that they expected him to say more. ?I?ll fill you in once we?ve left Konoha. Just go home.?

    Then he turned and walked off into the trees.

    The three Genin watched him leave, wearing expressions with varying degrees of frustration and bemusement.

    After a moment had passed in silence, Naruto could no longer contain himself.

    ?What the hell?s he doing?! Going for a stroll?! He could have stayed to train with us...?

    Sasuke---also watching the Jounin meander off into the woods---wore a rather sour expression as well. Sakura turned to face them. She sensed that this was a good time to lighten the mood, before her two friends decided to have a go at each other again.

    ?Why don?t we all pack now, and then you can come over to my house for dinner?? she offered, a bit nervously.

    Naruto?s scowl vanished immediately, and he turned a sunny grin and a pair of very large, liquid blue eyes her way.

    ?Really, Sakura-chan? REALLY?!?

    Somewhat disturbed by the liquid blue eyes trained on her so adoringly, Sakura turned to Sasuke and held her breath. She managed to appear nonchalant about it, though the Inner Sakura was urging him, ?SAY ?YES?, DAMMIT!? She had never invited either Sasuke or Naruto home before, but she figured that a pre-mission sendoff dinner was as good an opportunity as any.

    Sasuke?s reaction was far from satisfactory. He merely persisted in glaring off in the direction Kakashi had taken, restlessly tearing at the grass. In Naruto?s case, however, she seemed to have won his undying affection.

    ?All RIGHT!? he exulted, balling his fists in front of him eagerly. ?Sakura-chan?s cooking!?

    ?Er---it?s my mother?s---? Sakura began, somewhat taken aback by his exuberance, but then she decided against setting him straight.

    ?Oh, well,? she thought. ?At least I?ve made SOMEONE happy...?

    ?I?ll come.?

    Sakura was so shocked to hear this that she nearly keeled over. Sasuke was looking straight at her. He wasn?t smiling, but by this time she knew better than to expect that of him.

    ?Ah---okay,? she managed, blushing furiously while the Inner Sakura exulted at the top of her lungs. ?I guess I?ll be going then. See you at sundown.?

    Having laid these plans for the evening, the three Genin went their separate ways.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}​

    Naruto strolled down Konoha?s thoroughfare with a bit of a spring in his step.

    ?Dinner with Sakura-chan, dinner with Sakura-chan!? he sang to himself as he went.

    He was in such high spirits that he grinned widely at everyone he passed---which earned him a plethora of bemused stares from the shopkeepers and errand-runners, and more than a few worried looks from people who knew the kind of mischief he could get into. The restaurants were just beginning to open for the evening, and the savory scent of ramen wafted past his nose. Inhaling deeply, Naruto turned his head eagerly this way and that, trying to locate the source of the smell. Then he realized what he was doing and stopped himself, pounding a fist against his stomach and shaking his head vehemently.

    ?Sakura-chan is feeding me tonight!? he told his stomach firmly. ?I will be strong and hold out for Sakura-chan!?

    His stomach responded with a hearty gurgle. Then, because he wasn?t paying attention, Naruto managed to walk right into the tall white-haired hermit heading in the opposite direction.

    ?Why hold out for one girl?? the man asked cheerily as Naruto bounced off him. ?She?ll never know if you get a little something on the side, too...?

    Naruto realized immediately who it was and jumped back a good three feet.

    ?ERO-SENNIN!? he shouted, pointing an accusatory finger at the Sannin?s chest.

    Jiraiya?s grin melted into a scowl, and he waved hastily at Naruto, trying to get him to shut up.

    ?Brat! Do you have to yell that out here?? People walking around them were beginning to stare, and not merely because they had stopped right in the middle of the street.

    Naruto, of course, who was notorious for not shutting up until he was good and ready, merely squinted at the Sannin and went on with his tirade.

    ?Where were you when all hell was breaking loose in Konoha?? he demanded. ?Out playing with your frogs? Or peeping at girls, maybe...?

    This was the final straw for Jiraiya---passing women were giving him rather hostile looks. Mothers were beginning to steer their children as far away from the quarreling pair as was possible amid the crowded street. Before Naruto could utter another word, the Sannin clamped one hand around the Genin?s mouth and dragged him kicking and flailing into a nearby alleyway.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  3. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 1 (continued)

    ?Oy, oy!? Naruto exclaimed when Jiraiya had finally released him. ?Ero-sennin---what?s going on??

    ?Hush!? Jiraiya admonished, more sternly this time. ?I don?t want all of Konoha to know I?m here.?

    ?Really?? Naruto immediately quieted down, regarding the Sannin with wide, curious eyes. ?Then why are you HERE??

    ?Ah...? Jiraiya?s frown eased, and he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ?I came to see you, actually. I heard an interesting rumor from a frog about what happened while I was away. . .something about the Sand ninja Gaara and a giant demon??

    ?Ehh...oh, that.? Naruto looked mildly bemused. ?I always thought tanuki were supposed to be cute, but he had an evil one inside him.?

    ?A tanuki demon? Inside him?? Jiraiya smiled, but he wore an expression of uncharacteristic puzzlement. ?Ah...that?s interesting...?

    ?What? What?? Naruto peered up at him, curious because he had never seen the Sannin wear such a face.

    Jiraiya stroked his chin, looking thoughtful.

    ?What can you tell me about this ?Gaara??? he asked. ?What sort of techniques does he use??

    Naruto cast a furtive glance down the alleyway, but the nearest people were walking past it along the main road, well beyond earshot. When he turned back toward the white-haired Sannin his face was very solemn.

    ?Gaara is like me,? he said simply. Slowly, Jiraiya nodded understanding. ?But he uses sand, like a shield. No one gets near him because of it.?

    ?Except you,? the Sannin thought, ?because you?re like him.?

    But he didn?t say this out loud. Instead he patted Naruto on the head in an absent sort of way, which made the yellow-haired Genin scowl. ?Thanks,? he said. ?I think it?s becoming clearer to me...?

    Naruto cocked his head to one side, squinting up at the hermit in confusion.

    ?Ehh? What is??

    Jiraiya flashed him a conspiratorial grin and a thumbs-up.

    ?Secret business,? he declared cryptically. Then, in a rush of wind, the Sannin was gone, no doubt navigating the rooftops to pursue some mysterious errand.

    Naruto blinked in bemusement.

    ?Ehh? He asked about Gaara, so it can?t have to do with peeping...? Naruto grimaced. ?At least, I HOPE it doesn?t have to do with peeping... With Ero-sennin you never know.?

    Still shaking his head, Naruto wandered back onto the main thoroughfare, earning a few suspicious looks as he emerged from the dark alley. Then he remembered...

    ?SHIT!? he exclaimed, causing several women with shopping bags to jump. ?SAKURA-CHAN!? Then he took off at a dead run.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    Kakashi sat on the balcony outside his room, which overlooked one of Konoha?s quieter streets. The moon shone down over the village, casting blue shadows across the streets wherever there weren?t lanterns strung to hold them at bay. Shadows, of course, were no real threat to a shinobi---it was the ones who moved in them that inspired caution.

    ?I don?t like this,? Kakashi thought, gazing off into the distance and frowning. A cold wind ruffled his hair, blowing westward.

    He had promised to explain the nature of the pending mission in greater detail once his team was clear of Konoha, but there were still some secrets that he had no intention of divulging. He had been quite surprised when the village elders---some of whom were close relatives of the late Third Hokage---summoned him personally to meet with the messenger from the Water Country. It was not standard procedure, and it was also extremely unusual for the elders to concern themselves with a mission when Konoha was still ungoverned and in shambles.

    They met in the ANBU Council Room in the Hokage?s headquarters, which served to unnerve Kakashi even further. Going to this extent to preserve a mission?s secrecy had seemed unduly excessive...until the elders explained the nature of this particular mission.

    Kakashi?s first impression of the Water-Lord?s messenger was that this was a ninja whose enemies would underestimate him and then immediately come to regret it. He was introduced to the Jounin as Arashi Shikyo---a short, slender man from the Hidden Village of Rain with a quiet, unassuming manner and an easy way of moving that belied lightning-fast reflexes. Once the situation in Mizutou was explained, Kakashi understood why such a man had been dispatched. Shikyo was apparently one of Lord Garyu?s personal bodyguards, and was the candidate most likely to survive a journey past the Hidden Village of Mist---where the assassins after Garyu purportedly had their base.

    ?But why choose me?? Kakashi had asked, frowning beneath his mask. ?There are others...perhaps even ANBU would be more ideal in this situation.? There were no ANBU members attending the meeting.

    ?The Water-Lord was one of the attending guests at your Chuunin Exam,? Shikyo told Kakashi. ?He witnessed your students? trials, and has complete faith in those you place your faith in.? The Rain ninja nodded toward the chamber?s one open window, which revealed a panoramic view of the Leaf Village. ?My instructions are clear. You are invited to bring anyone from Konoha that you wish. However, Garyu-sama requested that you not bring ANBU into this. The Mist Ninja already have fingers pointing to them in accusation; they would no doubt interpret it as a threat to their Village if they learned that Konoha was involved. That is why Garyu-sama requested a small company of Leaf Ninja---so that Konoha?s presence there would not be intrusive.? Shikyo?s sharp gaze turned back toward Kakashi. ?And my lord will only provide funding for you and your team. All others will come only at your behest.?

    Kakashi?s eyes narrowed.

    ?He?s trapped me---forcing me to undertake this mission with only myself and my team, because Konoha can?t afford to send shinobi on missions for which they won?t be paid. But WHY? Why MY team??

    Aloud, he asked, ?Which still leaves me to wonder: why was I chosen in particular??

    Shikyo?s smooth expression turned grim.

    ?There is a special technique used by the assassins each time they make an attempt on Garyu-sama?s life,? he murmured. ?According to the dossiers my lord acquired on his last visit to Konoha---during the Chuunin Exam---there are only two living in your village able to use this technique. Your name was listed, as was your profile, and the profile of the other man.?

    Kakashi was so shocked that he took an involuntary step backward.

    ?Then...you mean...?? The Jounin glanced at the attending Leaf elders for confirmation. To his horror, they nodded gravely.

    That night, seated cross-legged on his balcony, Kakashi whispered the accursed name.

    ?Shinkuhana no Jutsu---the Crimson Blossom Technique...?

    It was an assassin?s technique---one Kakashi had spent thirteen years praying he would never need to use...
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  4. YamisuiOnna

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    Nov 15, 2004
    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    Despite the haste with which he traversed the streets, Naruto was still the last to arrive at Sakura?s house.

    ?Damn that Ero-sennin, making me late,? he muttered as he wrapped on her door.

    From inside he heard a brief exchange between several people, followed by someone?s footsteps as they approached the door. Suddenly feeling a bit nervous, he straightened his jacket-collar and readied the bunch of flowers he?d bought on the way. They were pink, like Sakura?s hair.

    The door swung open, and Naruto swallowed hard, holding the bouquet out in front of him.

    What he got was an eyeful of Sasuke, who had been elected to let him in because the rest of Sakura?s family was busy in the kitchen. The two Genin stared silently at each other for a minute beneath the glow of the porch light. Then Sasuke turned a cool eye down toward the proffered flowers.

    ?Those had better not be for me,? he said, backing up and opening the door further to allow Naruto passage.

    Naruto, whose flesh was crawling at the very thought, grumbled, ?Hell no,? and brushed past his fellow Genin. Once inside, however, he stopped in his tracks and took to gazing intently at his surroundings. Sakura?s house was much neater than his own apartment, and much larger. The walls in the dining room were painted yellow and everywhere he looked there was evidence of a woman?s touch, from the d?cor to the arrangement of the framed photos on the shelves. Though he couldn?t quite pinpoint why, Naruto decided he liked it.

    ?Stop grinning like that; you?re making me nervous.?

    Sakura had just entered the room, wearing an apron over her red jumper and carrying a ladle in one hand.

    ?Sakura-chan!? Naruto greeted her excitedly, turning and offering her the bouquet.

    Caught off-guard, she accepted it and bent to breathe in the scent. Naruto beamed; Sasuke merely folded his arms and looked bored.

    ?Erm---thanks,? Sakura finally responded, returning his smile for once. Then she disappeared back into the kitchen with them, presumably to find a vase.

    While Sasuke seated himself at the table, Naruto took to examining the photos on the shelves. Having never had one of his own, he was curious to see what sort of family Sakura had.

    ?Hey, hey, Sasuke, you should see this!? he called, picking one of them up and waving it in the air. ?Sakura-chan as a baby, butt naked!?

    ?NARUTO! DON?T BE LOOKING AT THAT!? Sakura shouted, hurtling back into the room and looking so outraged she seemed possessed.

    Sasuke watched with folded arms as Naruto received a fist in the jaw for his troubles, wearing a slight smile. At that moment, Sakura?s mother emerged from the kitchen bearing a tray of dumplings.

    ?May I help you with anything else, Mother?? Sakura asked sweetly. Both Sasuke and Naruto stared at her in amazement.

    ?Her---her personality just did a full one-eighty,? Naruto thought, gaping in wonderment and rubbing his chin. ?So scary...?

    ?Ehh, it?s all right, Sakura,? her mother replied, eyeing the two boys speculatively. ?You can keep your friends company while your father finishes cooking the yakisoba.?

    She was a rather pretty woman, with dark hair and eyes and a very fine oval-shaped face. She looked more like she could have given birth to Sasuke than Sakura. Sasuke favored her with one of his rare genuine smiles and bowed respectfully. Sakura?s mother returned the smile briefly, but her eyes were on Naruto. Her expression was wary, as if he were a stray dog her daughter had let into the house that might possibly be rabid. Still rubbing his jaw, Naruto grinned at her, which unfortunately made him look every bit as impish as his reputation suggested.

    Without another word, she turned briskly and strode back into the kitchen. Sakura turned toward Naruto with her fists on her hips.

    ?You didn?t break anything yet, did you??

    ?No,? Naruto replied somewhat indignantly. ?See?? He held up the picture to show that it was still intact and then replaced it on the shelf with exaggerated carefulness.

    Sakura scowled at it.

    ?It?d be okay if you broke that,? she muttered.

    ?Hey, Sakura, let?s go to your room!? Naruto suggested, his mind already jumping to the next impulse to flash through his brain.

    Sakura laid a finger to her lower lip, looking somewhat uneasy. Then, without warning, she took off down the hall, shouting, ?Wait there a sec!? over her shoulder. Presently several banging and scraping noises echoed down the hall. Naruto and Sasuke exchanged bemused glances, and then looked up when Sakura came hurtling back into the room.

    ?All clean now,? she panted, and the two of them followed her to her bedroom.

    Naruto, who had never seen the inside of a girl?s bedroom, immediately began making a case study of it. Sakura immediately found her hands full with keeping him out of the drawers containing her underwear; he was rampantly curious about every bit of jewelry lying around and every poster on the wall, and most of all the framed pictures of her family that she had on display. ?Sakura?s clan? he called them, which seemed to embarrass her because she didn?t understand his enthusiasm.

    ?Of course not,? Naruto thought to himself. ?She has a family.?

    This made him feel a bit odd, so he turned his attention to the enormous mirror mounted into a stand near Sakura?s dresser.

    ?I bet Sakura-chan primps in front of it every morning,? he remarked, casting an impish eye toward Sasuke. Then he formed a quick seal, shouted ?Henge!? and abruptly another Sakura stood in front of the mirror.

    ?Naruto!? Sakura protested, ?what are you---??

    ?I can?t wear this; it makes me look fat!? Naruto simpered in Sakura?s voice. ?Oh, Sasuke, will you ever notice my lovely white legs?? Sakura?s double struck a pose in front of the mirror, lifting one corner of his/her red jumper to expose more of his/her thigh.

    Sakura, who did primp every morning, rewarded his prank with a fist in the gut.

    ?Oy!? Naruto wheezed, staggering backward and clutching at his belly. ?You shouldn?t hit a girl!? Then the transformation vanished in a puff of smoke, and he landed on his rear end on the floor. While Sakura glanced nervously at Sasuke, who was sitting on her bed, Naruto doubled over with laughter. However, he still hadn?t quite recovered from having the wind knocked out of him, and so it sounded more like he was choking.

    Sasuke had been watching the proceedings with folded arms and his perpetually bored expression.

    ?What an idiot, eh?? Sakura remarked, laughing a bit nervously. It was a bit hard to think clearly when the Inner Sakura was shouting, ?YES! Sasuke is in MY bedroom, on MY bed!? and other such impure thoughts. Then she turned back toward Naruto, who was rolling around on the floor. ?It would be perfect if HE weren?t here...?

    ?Kakashi seems awfully close-mouthed about this mission,? Sasuke said unexpectedly. His friends abandoned their previous engagements to turn and stare at him.

    The dark-haired Genin was gazing absently at his own reflection in the mirror.

    ?What do you mean?? Naruto asked, sitting up and drawing his knees into a cross-legged position. ?He seemed pretty straight-forward about it to me...?

    Sasuke leaned forward, steepling his fingers in front of his chin.

    ?Think about it. He admitted that he isn?t going to tell us everything until we?ve left Konoha.? His sharp black eyes switched from the mirror to Naruto?s face. ?That?s like saying there?s some sort of danger in Konoha itself---danger that might put the mission at risk.?

    Sakura shook her head.

    ?But why would someone in the Leaf Village care about some feudal lord in the Water Country??

    ?Precisely,? Sasuke agreed, nodding to himself.

    ?What a freak,? Naruto thought, staring at the other boy with one eye squinted and the opposite eyebrow raised. ?Worrying about all that stuff NOW... Kakashi-sensei?s just going to tell us anyway tomorrow morning.?

    Sakura, on the other hand, looked starry-eyed and impressed.

    ?You?re right,? she breathed. ?There has to be more to this. After all, it is an A-Class mission.? Her last modicum of misgivings about the danger level seemed to have evaporated in the presence of her object of desire. ?And if the Mist Ninja are involved, then---?

    ?Sakura!? her mother called from the kitchen. ?Dinner is ready!?

    ?Coming!? Sakura shouted. Her two friends followed her back down the hall to the dining room, where everything had already been served and was now steaming gently on their plates.

    ?All RIGHT!? Naruto exulted as he seated himself across from Sakura. ?Itadakimasu!?

    ?Itadakimasu,? Sasuke said, taking hold of a dumpling between his chopsticks in a far more dignified manner.

    ?Itadakimasu,? Sakura echoed. She had seated herself next to Sasuke so that their hands could ?accidentally? brush every time he passed a dish around. She fully intended to eat her fill tonight.

    Sakura?s mother was still giving Naruto the evil eye. Naruto, who was quite accustomed to people giving him the evil eye, grinned at her and said, ?Delicious!? before popping an entire rice-ball into his mouth. The woman?s scowl deepened, and she turned away to avoid looking at him at all.

    ?So your mission this time is to act as bodyguards for a foreign lord, is it?? Sakura?s father asked them, helping himself to the yakisoba. ?And you?re meeting Kakashi-san early tomorrow morning??

    ?That?s right,? Sakura replied, forcing a smile, as if fending off skilled assassins were something she looked forward to.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  5. YamisuiOnna

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    Nov 15, 2004
    Chapter 1 (continued)

    ?It?s so odd, though, that Kakashi-san feels your mission could last as long as a month,? her mother remarked.

    The three Genin exchanged bemused glances. In the end, none of them replied.

    ?Well, Sasuke-kun, I saw your fight at the Chuunin Exam, and it was quite impressive!? Sakura?s father said, leaning forward to gaze down the table at the dark-haired boy. He was a somewhat homely man, but he had a wide, honest face and an engaging smile. Naruto could see where Sakura inherited her forehead from, but her father?s hair was brown. Somehow he felt that a black-haired mother and a brown-haired father should not have been able to produce a daughter with light pink hair.

    ?Or maybe genetics don?t apply to anime heroines,? he decided, nodding to himself while chewing soba.

    At the mention of the Chuunin Exam Sasuke?s black eyes narrowed, and his mood visibly soured.

    ?Ah...Sasuke-kun, can you please pass the gyoza?? Sakura asked, seeking to distract him before he could lapse into silent brooding. For some reason, any mention of his fight with Gaara seemed to instantly darken his mood.

    Oblivious to the delicacy of the situation, Naruto warmed to the topic.

    ?Yeah! It?s too bad Orochimaru attacked, or Sasuke would have really kicked that creepy guy?s ass!?

    Sakura shot him a glare while piling gyoza on her plate, completely missing the fact that Sasuke?s hand brushed hers in the process. Sakura?s father nodded seriously.

    ?I was amazed at how strong you were against him,? he remarked. ?Gaara was dangerous---dangerous even to his own comrades. One of the men placing bets told me that even the Sand Ninja were afraid of him, and that he killed people in his own village.?

    Sakura?s mother?s lips pursed, giving her face a rather pinched, fierce look to it.

    ?The rumor was going around the stadium that he had a demon beast inside him,? she said distastefully. ?Sealed into him, and then they gave him a shield of sand to protect him! Who would want to protect such a monster?? As she spoke, her gaze slid sideways toward Naruto, who paused mid-chew in surprise.

    ?They only kept him to use against Konoha,? Sakura?s father suggested. ?But he was definitely what I?d call a dangerous tool.?

    Naruto swallowed hurriedly.

    ?Gaara was strong, but he used his strength in a bad way,? he told them. ?He was alone, and it made him angry because he didn?t trust or rely on anyone.? He shrugged. ?He?s creepy, but I don?t think he?s the sort of guy who can?t change.?

    Sakura blinked, unsure what to make of this strange little speech. Her parents, on the other hand, seemed to be radiating disapproval in Naruto?s direction.

    ?You sympathize with him?? Sakura?s father asked. Suddenly his smile was no longer engaging. ?But, then, you of all---?

    His wife cut him off sharply.

    ?Gaara may be able to change on the outside,? she agreed with Naruto, but her tone was frosty. ?And maybe the Sand may come to see him as a hero...?

    With a jolt, realization hit Naruto like one of Sakura?s left-hooks: Sakura?s parents knew that the Nine-Tails demon had been sealed inside him. Of course they knew. How could he have forgotten? All the adults knew... And just now, if Sakura?s mother had not interrupted what her husband was about to say, he might have blurted out the secret, right in front of Sasuke and Sakura.

    ?However,? Sakura?s mother went on, ?inside he will always be a monster.? Delicately, she captured a dumpling between her chopsticks. ?Regardless of whom he fools.?

    Naruto tried to swallow, but the piece of tofu stuck in his throat. Every instinct in his brain was telling him to leave Right Now, before the conversation got any uglier. It had been a while since he?d come across people like this. He had no way of knowing if Sakura?s parents had lost an uncle; a sister; a friend---but it was all the same. They blamed him because he was like a living symbol of their pain---a living legacy of their grief for those killed by the Nine-Tails. It never stopped hurting him because he was the sort of boy who understood the pain of others, and this nearly defied his understanding. He didn?t think he could bear it if his friends found out.

    Sakura stared back and forth between her parents in confusion. The Inner Sakura was demanding, ?WHAT THE HELL?!? Sasuke merely folded his hands in front of his mouth and studied Sakura?s mother intently. He had been listening to the entire conversation with keen interest, because he had no idea what was going on either and his sharp mind liked to wrap itself around things that puzzled him.

    Naruto laid his chopsticks across his plate and wiped his fingers on the front of his pant legs beneath the table.

    ?Thank you for the meal,? he told Sakura?s mother, who was chewing her dumpling idly as if she hadn?t just delivered such a stinging veiled insult. ?It was delicious.? Then he shoved his chair back from the table and stood up to leave.

    Sakura finally recovered from her confusion enough to be surprised at the abruptness of his leave-taking.

    ?Eh---Naruto? Why are---?? she began, but her father interrupted her.

    ?I?m sure he wants to turn in early so he?s well rested for the start of the mission tomorrow.?

    ?Right.? Naruto nodded, and with a forced grin he turned quickly and headed for the door. ?See you in the morning, then.?

    There was an unnatural spring in his step so obviously false that Sakura and Sasuke merely stared at him in silence. Then the door swung shut behind him, and he stood alone on the porch. It was later now, and the streets had grown quiet. Most of the people who had been out before had either arrived home, could be found sitting in bars and restaurants with friends and family. Naruto took a deep breath, and then stepped beyond the light of Sakura?s porch and onto the road.

    He took his time going home; the truth was he wasn?t the least bit tired, or inclined to turn in early for the sake of the mission. He was still hungry as well, and as he walked alone he had his stomach?s growling to keep him company. Because of the noise and his hurt feelings, it took Naruto quite some time before he noticed that he was being trailed.

    At first he thought it was just his imagination---that he was seeing the shadow of someone passing by him on the main road, but then he realized that the shadow had no accompanying person to cast it.

    ?Ero-sennin?? he muttered, a bit uncertainly, wondering if the old frog-hermit were trying to get him alone to talk. However, from the fleeting glimpses of it that he caught he could see that it was someone much shorter and thinner around the shoulders. ?It?s not Konohamaru,? he thought with a grimace. ?That kid couldn?t hide his ass with both hands and a camouflage technique.?

    Naruto scratched his head, squinting at the surrounding buildings and trying to catch another glimpse. None came. Whoever it was, they apparently didn?t want to talk to him; they wanted to follow him. Naruto jammed his hands in his pockets, adopting a casual swagger and whistling as he moved down the street.

    ?I hope it?s not Sakura?s mother, coming to kill me,? he thought, a bit worriedly.

    After about fifteen minutes of pretending to be unaware of his stalker, Naruto turned and ducked abruptly into a narrow side-street. He was about to take off at a dead run using shinobi speed, but curiosity got the better of him and he hesitated, peering back the way he?d come to see if the shadow moved again.

    Nothing moved; the street was empty.

    Slowly, Naruto backed up, preparing to turn and run like hell for home. Instead he found himself backing into someone standing behind him. An arm swathed in white cloth clamped around his neck, immediately trapping him in a choke-hold. In the other hand his captor held a kunai, with the blade pressed against Naruto?s throat.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  6. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 1 (continued and finished)

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    Within the privacy of the ANBU Council Room, where just seven hours earlier Hatake Kakashi had met with Konoha?s Elders, the Elders now presided over the report of an ANBU squad that had recently returned to the village. The squad was large---composed of ten people---but this wasn?t unusual given the nature of their previous mission. They had been sent out onto the public roads in groups of two and three, posing as ordinary wayfarers in order to trail the Sand Ninja as they made their way home. Or, more specifically, they had been sent to follow Gaara, the leader of the Sand?s only representing team. A full report on what had transpired in the Forest of Death during the chaos after the Chuunin Exam had been made, composed of the accounts of several eye-witnesses. What concerned ANBU the most was the fact that Gaara, like Uzumaki Naruto, had a demon sealed inside him, and thus they?d elected to begin immediate investigation of the boy. The investigation was mainly to determine what precautions the Sand were taking to keep him under control.

    The investigation took a sudden dark turn when the corpses began turning up along the road. Only one ANBU team trailed Gaara all the way to the Sand Village; the rest ended up investigating the strange deaths. It was obvious that Gaara was the killer, but what puzzled the Leaf ninja was the fact that the ?victims? were apparently anything but innocent. Some of the bodies were mangled beyond recognition, for Gaara had apparently employed his ?Desert Coffin? technique against them, but ANBU found discarded weapons lying near them, indicating that they had died because they dared to attack the Sand boy. Those attackers that he had not used Desert Coffin on were usually to be found lying with their mouths grotesquely open and their lungs filled with sand. Upon investigating these gruesome sites ANBU found that all of the attackers had at least two things in common: they were all shinobi, and all of them were exiles from their various villages. This was evident from their forehead protectors, upon which there was always a slantwise slash across the village emblems.

    The matter had been brought before the Leaf Elders because ANBU was at a loss. Their first intuitive guess was that some of the feudal lords attending the Chuunin Exam had bet against Sasuke and lost a great deal of money, and that these lords were sending assassins to get their revenge against Gaara himself. However, this didn?t seem entirely plausible because of the sheer number of assassins that had been sent. Shinobi assassins didn?t come cheap, and exiled shinobi living as mercenaries were oftentimes even more expensive. It seemed unlikely that feudal lords who had just lost enough money to make them seek vengeance against Gaara would be able to afford hiring this many killers.

    The Leaf Elders ruled that it was far more likely that the assassins had all come from one group, which implied that there was some form of hidden organization built up somewhere. After the havoc that Orochimaru had wreaked with his forces from the Hidden Village of Sound, such an investigation was well worth pursuing. Konoha had learned its lesson, and wasn?t going to be taking any more chances.

    In the shadows on the rooftop just above the Council Room, Jiraiya was seated cross-legged, eavesdropping. ?Another secret organization, like Orochimaru?s?? he murmured softly to himself, stroking his chin with his thick fingers. ?Or maybe it is Orochimaru?s.?

    The Sannin had missed the aftermath of the Chuunin Exam fiasco, having spent that weekend carousing in a civilian village some thirty miles away after staying just long enough to attend the Third Hokage?s funeral. However, en route back to Konoha, he happened to cross paths with one of the ANBU squads trailing Gaara, and had incidentally developed in interest in the strange nature of the murders. What little Naruto told him about Gaara had been enough to arouse his concern, and thus when he?d caught wind of the place and time for the ANBU meeting---namely, by getting one of the ANBU members roaring drunk and plying her for information---he?d decided to listen in.

    ?The real question,? one of the Leaf Elders told the assembled squad, ?is not whom but why. From the report, it almost seems as if someone is testing this Sand boy---pitting him against assassins of varied skills, perhaps to see if he is truly invulnerable.?

    Jiraiya frowned, shadows pooling in the deepening creases of his face. Gaara?s innate uniqueness stemmed from the demon contained within him. Whoever was sending the assassins could just as easily send them after Naruto...

    Abruptly, the Sannin rose to his feet and leaped from the roof. He moved swiftly and silently through the village, never once slowing until he had arrived at Naruto?s apartment. When his knocking went unanswered, Jiraiya simply let himself in. The apartment was dark and empty, and from the looks of things Naruto had left recently and with great haste. His regular orange jumpsuit lay in a crumpled heap across the bed, but Naruto seemed to have taken everything else with him that wasn?t nailed down. Perhaps it had merely been carelessness, but the boy had also left his door unlocked.

    Jiraiya was beginning to be alarmed. Standing in his student?s abandoned apartment, he found himself giving serious consideration to revealing his presence here to the Leaf Elders. He sighed.

    Sadly, some things were more important than having the freedom to drink and womanize in complete anonymity. There weren?t many, but this was one of them.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    Two Hours Earlier

    ?If I were an assassin,? Naruto?s captor murmured in his ear, ?I could have killed you by now.?

    Then the arm across Naruto?s neck loosened, and Naruto sprang away from his attacker.

    ?What the HELL?!? Naruto bellowed indignantly, standing splay-legged and brandishing his fists. ?What are you doing here??

    Calmly, Sasuke reinserted the kunai into his pouch and folded his arms in front of him, regarding Naruto coolly.

    ?On my way home, I met Kakashi,? he informed his fellow Genin. ?He sent me to find you. Really, if you?re going to let yourself be caught this easily you shouldn?t bother with A-Class missions.?

    Naruto squinted at him suspiciously.

    ?If you had something to tell me, why didn?t you just tell me, instead of following me all this way? Creepy guy...?

    Sasuke?s faint look of amusement darkened into a frown.

    ?I wasn?t,? he said, casting a brief, bemused glance at the street behind Naruto. ?You must be imagining things. But anyway, Kakashi sent me to fetch you and your supplies.?

    Naruto blinked.

    ?Eh? Now??

    Sasuke?s eyes narrowed.

    ?It seems he?s changed his mind about the mission. We?re leaving tonight.?

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    Twenty minutes later, Kakashi?s Team Seven had regrouped outside the village gates. After Kakashi had taken a swift inventory of what his young charges were bringing with them---doubtlessly suspecting that Naruto?s favorite orange jumpsuit might be stowing away in his pack---they took off through the forest beyond at a dead run. Kakashi?s expression---what they could see of it, at any rate---seemed unusually grim. The three Genin exchanged puzzled glances as they ran.

    Finally, Sakura broke the silence.

    ?Uh, Kakashi-sensei, is something wrong?? she asked, a bit nervously because Kakashi looked a bit pale.

    ?I will answer when we?ve reached the place where the road forks and veers to the east,? the Jounin replied quietly. ?But not before. The mission?s danger may have begun before we even left the village, and I won?t risk the possibility of anyone overtaking us.?

    ?But I don?t understand, Kakashi-sensei,? Naruto insisted. ?Why would the road going east be any safer??

    Kakashi?s one visible eye narrowed.

    ?We?ll be meeting Garyu?s personal guard there. He knows the enemy better than we do.? The Jounin paused, and went silent for a moment as they flew from tree to tree. ?I want you all to be prepared,? he went on, ducking his head to avoid a low-hanging branch. ?That is where our Mizutou ally comes in. If you go into this without knowing exactly what to expect, I can guarantee you that this mission will cost at least one of our lives.?


    Yamisui: Man, that was long... I hope you haven?t fallen asleep halfway through. A bit slow for a first chapter, I know, but I promise it will pick up...and pick up...and then pick up a whole lot more. I hope you were paying attention, by the way, because EVERYTHING?S important. I NEVER put details into a story without good reason, because generally I have no patience for details myself. This is my first Naruto fanfic, by the way. All my others have been Inuyasha-themed.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  7. YamisuiOnna

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    Nov 15, 2004
    Chapter 2: "Shikyo's Warning: The Touch of Death"

    Author?s Note: ?Senpuu? means ?whirlwind.? ?Kenjutsu? means ?sword technique.? ?Kai? was a technique used in Episode 103. Most of the techniques I use in here are true to the series. There will only be a few I make up for convenience? sake. For example, ?Mizutate? means ?water-shield.? Regardless, if I get something wrong no flames! There are about a hundred ninjutsu (ninja techniques) in the series---you can?t seriously expect me to memorize them ALL. . Oh, and a ?sigil? is a symbol usually referring to a rune inscribed in the shape of a whorl. It?s not a Japanese word, but it?s not one people see often so I thought I?d include a definition of that as well. A ?haori? is a Japanese shirt that opens in front like a kimono but has a square flap tied across the opening. For reference, check out the red haori Inuyasha wears.

    {o} {o} {o} RED BLOSSOM {o} {o} {o}

    {o}{o} Chapter 2: Shikyo?s Warning: The Touch of Death {o}{o}

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}​

    After Kakashi?s rather grim pronouncement, the four of them moved in silence through the forest. Predictions of imminent doom had a way of stifling conversation. The only sounds were the faint scratch of their shoes where they made contact with the tree limbs. There were no public roads leading out of Konoha; they would have to travel a good twenty miles before they came to a town with an inn. Ninja villages weren?t called ?Hidden? without good reason.

    Naruto, naturally, was the first to break the silence. He alone was in quite a cheerful mood, despite the nastiness of the previous night?s dinner. Sasuke seemed to be in good spirits as well, but then Sasuke?s one great ambition in life was to kill someone, so Naruto didn?t really feel this counted.

    ?What town will we be spending the night in?? he asked Kakashi. ?I mean, we are going to get some sleep at some point, right??

    Kakashi smiled wanly beneath his mask.

    ?There are a number of inns along the road toward the Water Country,? he replied. ?In case you?re wondering, I happen to know the ones with the best food.?

    ?Ramen?? Naruto inquired eagerly.

    As if in response, his stomach gurgled loudly.

    ?Geez,? Sasuke muttered without looking at any of them. ?Your stomach alone is going to draw every enemy in the forest.?

    ?Heh heh.? Naruto grinned sheepishly, patting his gut with one hand.

    Sakura, who was running a little ways behind the two boys, frowned at Naruto.

    ?You wouldn?t be so hungry if you hadn?t left halfway through dinner,? she remarked. ?Really, it was rude.?

    Naruto fell silent, and his impish face settled into an uncharacteristically serious look.

    Kakashi stole a brief glance at him over one shoulder. The Jounin had been morose and withdrawn throughout the night; something troubling him beyond mere nerves. Sasuke had noticed it immediately, and was watching Kakashi like a hawk to try and figure out what he was hiding from his team.

    Sakura, fortunately, was paying attention to the trees ahead of them.

    ?I see the road!? she announced, pointing toward an opening in the trees, beyond which there gleamed the promise of moonlight. ?It looks like it?s veering southeast; we might be near the fork.?

    Kakashi?s head snapped up, and his eye narrowed as he peered in the direction she was indicating. Then, abruptly, he slowed and fell a little ways behind his three students. Sasuke slowed as well, his hand already flying to the kunai pouch strapped to his thigh. Kakashi shook his head, motioning the boy forward.

    ?What is it, Kakashi-sensei?? Sakura asked, looking back at them over her shoulder. ?Do you see someone??

    ?I see no one,? Sasuke said, sharply surveying the surrounding forest and grasping a kunai in one hand. ?Not even a shadow.?

    ?I don?t see anyone, either,? Kakashi agreed in a low voice. ?But the southern branch of the Aoite Road is thirty miles from Konoha. We should not be reaching it for another hour.?

    Sasuke?s brow lifted.

    ?Then you mean. . .??

    ?We seem to have run into a Genjutsu,? Kakashi finished for him. ?An illusion technique. It seems someone wants us to think we?ve already reached the road, so that we?ll jump to the ground and travel more slowly.

    ?So how do we get out of it?? Naruto demanded, falling back to join Sasuke. ?I?m not very good at Genjutsu.?

    Kakashi gave them both a shove, propelling them forward.

    ?Stay ahead of me!? he ordered, in a tone unusually sharp for such a lackadaisical man. ?They want us to slow down, so it?s likely that whoever it is will attack from behind us.?

    As the Jounin ran, his hands formed a quick seal that ended with his two index and middle fingers steepled in front of his face.

    ?KAI!? he cried in a clarion voice, and abruptly an odd sort of pulse radiated from his head in all directions.

    The forest around them wavered and shifted. Some trees melted into shadow, while others spiraled into focus in different places. Looking at it made Naruto feel rather ill. To distract himself from his treacherous, roiling stomach, Naruto squinted into the darkness ahead, searching for some sign to confirm that this new view of the world was real.

    ?Sharingan.? Both Naruto and Sakura glanced over at Sasuke, who was watching Kakashi with eyes gone red. After a few seconds of staring while the wheels turned in his pupils, the dark-haired Genin returned his attention to the trees ahead. He looked rather smug; he had just acquired a new technique.

    ?You?ll have to help me with that one,? Naruto suggested hopefully.

    Sasuke didn?t reply.

    ?In front of me,? Kakashi reminded Sasuke, pushing his student in front of him yet again. ?I can see that the illusion is completely gone now. I want you three to go as fast as you can until you reach the road. No looking back, whatever happens. Keep to the trees. Do you understand? When you reach it, wait for me there. Now GO!?

    Naruto and Sakura glanced back at the Jounin in alarm, but Sasuke surged on ahead of them, grabbing each of them by the arm and pulling them along with him.

    ?He said ?Go?, so we go!? the Genin told them through clenched teeth.

    Now that they had abandoned all stealth, the three young ninja tore through the forest at breakneck speed. Branches snapped against them, scratching their arms and legs and faces and cracking like a thousand tiny fireworks. The forest was darker now without the illusionary moonlight from the Genjutsu, and they were scarcely aware of where they were going. Sasuke refused to let go of his teammates? arms, well aware of the fact that if any of them became separated they could end up lost or worse.

    ?Ow!? Sakura cried, and they were all temporarily jolted backward.

    Because Sasuke was pulling her along, she had just run into a low-hanging branch, which had struck her in the face.

    ?Sakura, are you all right?? Naruto asked worriedly.

    ?Eh. . .yeah.? Her voice sounded muffled, as if she were rubbing her face with her free hand. ?We have to keep going!?

    The two boys nodded assent, and then they were off again, eyes straining for some sight of the road ahead. Sasuke?s Sharingan abilities apparently didn?t extend to being able to see in the dark, but he led his teammates without hesitation to the northwest, as if he knew exactly where they were.

    ?Uh, Sasuke, I can?t see a thing,? Sakura admitted. ?How do you know where we?re going??

    Sasuke was silent for a while, but just as she was about to give up on an answer, he replied in a low voice, ?I don?t. I?m just following the same direction Kakashi-sensei was leading us, which seemed to be a straight shot to the road.?

    ?GAH!? Naruto exclaimed, tearing at his hair with his free right hand. ?Kakashi-sensei gets lost every morning on the way to the training grounds!?

    Both his teammates turned toward the sound of his voice, wearing identical withering looks that none of them could see in the darkness.

    ?You mean you actually believe him when he says that?? Sakura asked him.

    But Naruto?s attention had just been diverted by something more important.

    ?A breeze!? he exclaimed, wrenching his left arm free of Sasuke?s grasp to point directly ahead of them. ?It?s coming from that way!?

    ?I don?t feel anything,? Sakura said doubtfully.

    But Naruto was sure of it now. The forest smelled like rich soil and tree bark and damp, rotting leaves. The scent from up ahead was cleaner somehow, like air that hadn?t been confined to a dark, stuffy forest for the past hour and a half.

    ?It?s definitely there!? Naruto insisted. ?My nose doesn?t lie.?

    This was an odd thing to hear, even from him. But Sasuke seemed to take it seriously.

    ?Shh,? he told his teammates.

    The three of them came to a halt atop a particularly wide branch. Sasuke flung out an arm to either side, preventing them from moving further. Naruto and Sakura listened with him, scarcely daring to breathe. They waited a long while, but no sound came.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  8. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 2: "Shikyo's Warning: The Touch of Death"

    ?There?s---there?s nothing,? Sakura said after a while. ?They must have gone after Kakashi-sensei.? She tried to take a step forward, but Sasuke?s arm held her back.

    ?No, it?s there,? he insisted in a low voice. ?I felt a breeze, just now, on my legs. That means we?re definitely close to the road---we just can?t see it.?

    Sakura took a step backward with a sharp intake of breath.

    ?Then this is...another Genjutsu.?

    She couldn?t see him nod, but Sasuke lowered his arm.

    ?That and the moon shouldn?t have set this early,? he added. ?Someone?s cast an illusion of darkness to keep us from reaching the road.? Then he formed a quick seal and shouted ?KAI!?

    Once again, the world around them melted, but this time the darkness melted away to reveal a parting of the trees up ahead. Beyond that the moon shone down over a clearing of some sort---a road, in all likelihood. They weren?t far away from it at all; roughly a quarter of a mile.

    Naruto let out a sharp exhalation as something struck him in the neck.

    ?Naruto?? Sakura asked nervously. ?What---??

    ?Go!? Sasuke ordered.

    At his sharp command the three of them sprang into motion, sprinting across the branches toward the clearing. Slender boughs whipped past their faces, but this time Sasuke wasn?t holding them together and they had the freedom to dodge the worst of these. The darkness was no longer so complete; at various places ahead of them thin shafts of moonlight filtered down through the canopy.

    ?Almost there,? Sakura gasped, her short hair fluttering behind her.

    Sasuke happened to pass through one of the shafts of light, and suddenly the air was full of needles. A thousand gleaming points shot upward toward him from somewhere on the ground. He didn?t have time to react, and they struck him multiple times in the legs and lower back.

    ?Sasuke!? Sakura cried as he stumbled.

    She increased her speed and managed to catch him around the waist before he could fall. In the process, several needles sank into her calves, but they missed their targeted pressure points and she was able to keep moving. She slung one of Sasuke?s arms around her neck and half-carried, half-dragged him with her as she went. Naruto, in the meantime, immediately dropped down into the lower branches, seeking out the hidden enemy. A rain of needles sang after him, like a swarm of silver hornets.

    ?NARUTO!? Sakura shouted as he plunged into the darkness of the deeper forest. ?Stay WITH us! Remember Kakashi-sensei?s orders!?

    But her cries fell upon deaf ears; Naruto could not hear her over the hiss of needles through the air. Torn between keeping the group together and proceeding to safety, Sakura hesitated, pausing atop a moss-covered bough. Abruptly, Sasuke half-turned away from her, freeing his arm from her grasp. He leaned out over the branch and formed the Seal of the Tiger with both hands. In her effort to keep a hold of him, the balls of Sakura?s feet skidded across the damp moss. Both of them nearly slipped off their perch and fell, but fortunately Sakura already had a kunai in her left hand, which she immediately jammed into the wood as hard as she could and hung on for dear life. Her other arm was now hooked around Sasuke?s waist to prevent him from plummeting downward over the thick side of the bough. After recovering from the sudden jolt, Sasuke raised the tips of his fingers to his lips and blew.

    A helix of fire when spiraling down into the darkness below, driving it back and bathing everything there in flickering orange light.

    Down near the forest floor, Naruto squatted on a massive tree root, surveying the area with the aid of Sasuke?s illumination. On his way down he had landed on a low branch and then executing a twisting leap sideways. As his body corkscrewed in mid-air his chakra formed a vortex that deflected the majority of the needles away from his vital points. As he landed in a crouch on the balls of his feet, the tiny weapons sank into the trees around him with vicious staccato. Keeping his head bowed so that his face was protected from any subsequent assaults, Naruto drew a kunai from his pouch and formed a quick one-handed seal with his right hand.

    As his left arm curved around and released the knife, it was suddenly multiplied tenfold in number, flying out in all directions in a deadly shower of his own. This was the replication technique, applied to weaponry. A sudden burst of needles from among the shadows of the trees deflected many of the kunai, and Naruto was forced to cover his face with both arms to keep from being cut. Yet even through the needles singing past his head he thought he heard the abrupt popping noise of a ninjutsu being dispelled.

    ?But I can?t SEE anyone,? he thought in confusion as he peered between his fingers. The main draft of Sasuke?s fire had already died, though some of the drier leaves nearby had caught fire and still cast a flickering, crackling light on the forest floor. Above him, Naruto could vaguely hear Sakura?s voice, calling him back. But he elected to ignore her, setting his jaw and leaping off the root. He was determined to stop this hidden enemy from following his friends.

    He began a slow, careful approach in what he thought was the direction the needles had come from, beginning to draw upon his greater reserves of chakra for Shadow Replication.

    Then the darkness around him exploded, swallowing everything in a dizzying haze of flame and shrapnel. The shockwaves knocked him flat.

    For a moment, Naruto thought he had gone deaf. He had landed hard on his back, and the impact had temporarily stunned him. Dimly he was aware that somehow the enemy had surrounded him with some sort of bombs, but at first this didn?t make sense because there was no way such a large circle of bombs could have been planted around one specific area so quickly. He thought before that there had only been one attacker, because the needles were only coming from one direction at a time...

    Then realization hit him, and he pushed himself upright: Bunshin. The enemy had used some sort of clones to plant the bombs; the sound he?d heard a moment ago had been the technique dispelling as the enemy fled to avoid the explosions.

    Somewhat shakily, he pushed himself to his feet. The bombs had done their work; the forest immediately surrounding him was ablaze. The ringing in Naruto?s ears faded a little, and he became aware of Sakura shouting his name from above. Hurriedly, Naruto clamored back onto the root and hoisted himself onto the nearest low branch. His first priority right now was getting off the forest floor, which was littered with dried autumn leaves and other materials that would be ideal for kindling. As he climbed higher, he could see Sasuke coming down to meet him, apparently having plucked the needles out of his legs. Further up in the tree, Sakura?s pale face could be seen peering down at them both.

    ?Hurry!? she urged them. ?We have to get away from here---if our enemy has allies, they?ll see the light and be drawn right to us!?

    Both boys glanced down at the forest floor, which was carpeted with tiny tongues of flame.

    ?Oil,? Sasuke exclaimed. ?The needles were soaked in oil! That?s why the fire isn?t dying!?

    Naruto caught hold of Sasuke?s hand, and the other Genin pulled him up onto the next branch. Then the two of them gathered chakra in their feet and began running up the tree trunk toward Sakura. Behind them, flames were beginning to lick at the roots. Both boys glanced downward over their shoulders something below caught fire with a loud crack.

    ?The tree?s bark is thick,? Sasuke said, looking sideways at Naruto. ?It won?t burn out from under us.? Then, because he read hesitation in Naruto?s expression, he added, ?We can?t waste time with putting it out. We have to obey Kakashi?s orders. We must find the road.?

    Then Sakura?s scream echoed down from above.

    Both Genin turned their faces upward in alarm. Sakura?s face was no longer visible over the side of the bough; she was gone.

    Naruto and Sasuke raced upward with renewed speed, all thoughts of flames and orders supplanted.

    Upon reaching the branch, they found a stranger standing there, waiting for them. He stood a little ways back from the edge. They couldn?t see him clearly because of the shadows, but he clearly wasn?t Kakashi. In a flash, Naruto had a knife in each hand. Sasuke didn?t bother reaching for his kunai pouch this time; his hands moved swiftly, beginning to form the seal for Chidori. Then he clasped one hand around the wrist of the other, and electricity began to gather in his palm. The stranger stepped back a pace, eyeing the lightning playing about the Genin?s fist, but he made no move to defend himself.

    ?Uchiha Sasuke,? he said softly.

    Sasuke froze.

    ?How do you know me?? he demanded in a low, dangerous tone. The electricity in his palm flickered distorted shadows across his face.

    ?Sasuke.? Sakura stepped out from behind the man, who had been blocking Sasuke?s view of her. ?This is Arashi Shikyo of the Hidden Village of Rain---the man we?re supposed to be meeting.?
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  9. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 2 (continued)

    Naruto had just finished climbing onto the bough, but the man ignored him. His sharp gaze traveled from the electricity in Sasuke?s hand to the forest below, where the fire was still blazing healthily.

    ?The road isn?t far,? the man explained. ?I heard the explosion and knew that it was your party being attacked.?

    Sasuke didn?t seem convinced; the jutsu in his hand didn?t fade. His gaze traveled slowly between Sakura and the stranger, and the Sharingan stained his eyes crimson. He was trying to gauge the truth of the man?s story.

    ?He?s not lying,? Sakura reassured him. ?He just startled me at first.?

    Slowly, Sasuke lowered his fist, and the light died.

    ?We don?t have time for full-fledged introductions,? the man told them, brushing past Sasuke and Naruto to peer over the edge of the bough. ?The bombs and the needles are a terrorist technique used by the assassins to drive their targets into positions of vulnerability.?

    ?Vulnerability?? Sasuke asked, frowning down at the fire below. ?How could we possibly have been any more vulnerable than we already were, running across the branches in the dark??

    ?You don?t know the enemy like I do,? the man snapped. ?If they had succeeded in luring you to the forest floor, and I had not come, the three of you would be dead by now. Now GO!?

    Naruto, who didn?t need to be told twice, grabbed Sasuke by the sleeve and pulled him along. Together the three of them raced toward the clearing ahead. No more needles hurtled toward them as they went, but behind them the stranger appeared to be preparing to do battle with someone. When Naruto glanced over his shoulder he saw some sort of liquid gravitating toward the man?s upraised fist from all directions.

    ?A water technique?? Naruto wondered.

    Then they passed beyond range of view.

    By the time the three of them reached the clearing, they were breathing hard---though more from tension than from exhaustion. The road stretched out from east to west; apparently this was well past then eastern fork. The moon shone down on the long stretch of dirt, fading it to gray.

    Standing in the shadows of the trees at its opposite edge was Kakashi.

    ?Kakashi-sensei!? Sakura exclaimed in relief.

    Naruto made ready to leap down from the branches, but Sasuke caught him by the collar and held him back.

    ?Don?t go,? he warned in a low voice, his eyes on the man standing silently on the road. ?That isn?t Kakashi.?

    The man?s head was turned upward toward them; he was obviously aware of their presence, but he made no move to cross the road and approach them.

    ?Someone using the Transformation Technique?? Sakura whispered to Sasuke, who nodded but didn?t take his eyes off the impostor.

    ?If he?s wearing Kakashi-sensei?s face he must?ve seen him before,? Naruto thought worriedly, fingering the kunai in his hand. ?Why hasn?t Kakashi-sensei come yet? He CAN?T have met this guy in combat...and LOST...??

    The three Genin crouched tensely atop the tree limb, waiting for the enemy to make his first move. The man standing in the shadows opposite them stood utterly still, and made no move to attack.

    After several moments had passed like this, Sasuke made a vague noise of impatience and drew his shuriken forth from the pack on his back.

    ?We?re going to attack,? he told his teammates grimly. ?He probably has needles, and bombs. Be prepared for that.? Then he shifted his weight on the branch, preparing to descend.

    ?Wait!? Sakura tugged at his sleeve. ?Shikyo-san warned us that the enemy wanted to lure us to the ground! There must be something dangerous about engaging them at earth-level!?

    Sasuke?s dark eyes narrowed, and he jerked his sleeve free of her grasp. Slowly, he pulled back the arm holding the shuriken in preparation to throw it in a curve toward the man below. The impostor clearly saw what the Chuunin intended, but still he made no move.

    However, before Sasuke could begin any sort of attack, another man wearing Kakashi?s face stepped out from among the trees. He appeared a little ways down the road from where the three of them had emerged; if he was the real Kakashi then their paths had not diverged drastically at all. Naruto thought this was somewhat suspicious, because they had been separated for so long and also because both Kakashi and his students had been attacked and doubtlessly driven off-course. Sakura seemed to be harboring similar suspicions.

    ?Sasuke...is that Kakashi-sensei?? she asked nervously, drawing eight kunai at once between her fingers.

    The Sharingan?s wheels turned in Sasuke?s eyes, and he frowned.

    ?It is.?

    On the road below, the impostor?s gaze lowered and turned toward his new opponent, who was approaching him slowly and cautiously. However, as Kakashi drew nearer, his students could see that caution wasn?t the only thing slowing him down. He was breathing hard, and some of his clothing was torn, though he still carried his pack of supplies strapped across his back. Both sleeves of the dark green shirt he wore were soaked through with what appeared to be blood.

    His Sharingan eye was uncovered.

    He glanced up briefly at his students, crouched in the tree, but then his gaze returned to the impostor.

    ?You three---stay where you are,? he called up to them. His voice sounded very tight and strained.

    The impostor waited in silence as Kakashi approached him. There was nothing mocking about the man?s lack of response---he was not implying by his stillness that Kakashi wasn?t a worthy opponent. Rather, his gaze upon the Jounin was fiercely intent, like a predator gauging the strength of its prey. It was a look that Sasuke understood.

    ?He?s going to let Kakashi attack first,? the Genin murmured, watching them. He had not lowered the arm holding the shuriken.

    Slowly, but with surprising steadiness for someone whose arms were drenched with blood, Kakashi reached one arm behind his head and drew something forth that had been strapped to the underside of his pack. It gleamed in the moonlight as he brought it up to bear in front of him: a short sword. Now that his concealed weapon was free of its scabbard, he let the pack slip from his shoulders and fall onto the dirt behind him.

    His three students watched in silence, mystified. Never during training or during any of the battles they had shared had they seen Kakashi favor using any sort of weapon---and it seemed particularly odd now because his Sharingan eye was exposed. For someone dubbed the ?Copy Ninja,? the Sharingan alone should have been enough; the sword seemed superfluous and unnecessary.

    But Kakashi gripped the sword?s hilt with both hands, turning the blade horizontal and level with his opponent?s heart, clearly intending to attack with it. Slowly he circled the impostor, moving around the man in an ever-tightening spiral. The man stood utterly still even when Kakashi circled behind him, clearly refusing to let his opponent goad him into attacking first.

    A cold breeze stole along the road, stirring the leaves that lay at the feet of the two men.

    ?Sasuke, Sakura, Naruto,? he called sharply, without taking his eyes off the enemy. ?If I should fall, you?ll go straight back to Konoha. No hesitating. If I fall, you flee. From now on, any enemy that you meet, you must not let them touch you. Understood? Not even a finger.? None of his students could see his face; his white hair fell across his brow, hiding his eyes in shadow.

    ?What are you---?? Sakura began, but at that instant Kakashi launched an offense.

    ?Konoha no Senpuu!? he cried, in a voice that rang through the forest.

    Then the clearing was full of wind.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  10. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 2 (continued)

    Leaves blew downward from the surrounding trees, rustling loudly as the wind snapped them off the branches. The three younger ninja were forced to press themselves tightly against the trunk of the tree they were perched in, for the wind was strong enough to topple them from their eyrie. It shrieked and whistled between the branches, drawing every bit of debris into its current. At this speed the leaves were razor-sharp, and they were forced to look away from the battle to cover their faces and necks as well to keep from being slashed in vital areas. The hiss of blowing leaves and the buffeting wind was nearly deafening. The moon and sky were temporarily obscured as the clearing became filled with a whirlwind of leaves.

    When the main stream of debris has finally subsided, Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura were able to uncover their eyes and peer down into the maelstrom below. Amid the tornado of leaves, they could see that the impostor had finally moved to defend himself. The illusion he?d cast to give him the Jounin?s appearance had melted away, but they couldn?t see his true appearance clearly. All that they could make out was that he was tall and lean like Kakashi, and that he moved with equal swiftness. In between the leaves the moonlight glimmered off of Kakashi?s sword, and then disappeared as he swung it. The technique the Jounin was using involved swinging the sword in a complex series of arcs on either side of his body. His hands moved so fast that only the blade could be seen when it caught the light. His opponent, on the other hand, did not seem to be using any offensive techniques at all. He seemed to be devoting all his energy to avoiding being struck by the lightning-fast blade in Kakashi?s hand, using what appeared to be some kind of liquid shield about his hands and arms.

    ?He isn?t fighting back,? Sakura murmured wonderingly. ?If he was that weak and he knew Kakashi-sensei?s strength, why on earth did he pick a fight??

    ?Biding his time,? Sasuke replied, one hand clenched around his shuriken as he watched the fight. ?He?s waiting for an opening... But for what??

    Kakashi?s objective, on the other hand, seemed to be to kill the man outright. Every second the sword sliced near one of his enemy?s vital areas. Oftentimes it hit, though the man dodged with lightning speed surpassing even the Jounin?s and avoided being struck down. Naruto watched the battle with a scowl.

    ?The impostor doesn?t seem to care if he?s hurt,? he thought.

    ?I see,? Sasuke whispered excitedly. His black eyes opened wide as if in response to a sudden epiphany. ?I see! Kakashi said ?you must not let them touch you.? He?s using only the sword to fight, because he?s trying to avoid being touched by his opponent.?

    Sakura glanced over at him.

    ?But why isn?t he using one of his ninjutsu? Some of his most powerful techniques are long-range.?

    Sasuke shook his head.

    ?He must have met other shinobi in the forest and used too much chakra already. You saw him; he looks exhausted.?

    ?Who ARE these people?? Naruto wondered. ?THESE are the assassins we?ll face?? It took a truly deadly opponent to exhaust Kakashi.

    ?A hit!? Sakura exclaimed suddenly, taking an involuntary step closer to the edge of the branch.

    True to her word, Kakashi had scored what appeared to be a mortal wound. The Jounin?s opponent had finally made an offensive move, lunging for Kakashi with a sudden flash of multiple blades in his right hand. Yet none of the blades touched Kakashi, for at moment the Jounin altered the angle of his sword?s arc mid-slash and instead caught the enemy straight through the chest. The man let out a cry of agony; it was a serious blow. Straight through the lung, next to the heart and its descending arteries. The man?s right hand released the blades between his fingers and flew to the length of the sword embedded in his flesh, as if attempting to block the blow out of reflex even though it was already too late. Then the liquid shield around his arm flowed from his wrist to the sword, wrapping itself around the blade as if he intended to pull it out.

    ?No...? Naruto realized in dawning horror. ?Not to pull it OUT---he?s using his Mizutate jutsu to pull the sword IN...?

    As if in confirmation of Naruto?s observation, the impostor?s hand closed around the blade and began pulling the sword deeper into him with both flesh and chakra. That the sword?s razor-sharp edge was slicing the flesh of his hand to ribbons did not seem to deter him. He knew he was a dead man, and it seemed he had only one thought now: to take his opponent with him to the underworld.

    His right hand and its Mizutate gripped the sword...

    ...but his left hand was free.

    Kakashi realized it too late. The enemy?s Mizutate spiraled up the sword and over Kakashi?s own wrist. Kakashi tried to release his hold on the hilt, but he could not break free of the liquid. His concentration was broken, and the leaves swirling around him began to fall lifeless to the ground. With his free left hand, the enemy was working a very swift and complicated one-handed seal. Naruto stared at it in amazement; the man?s hand moved so fast it was nearly impossible to see his fingers.

    Even from twenty feet up, Kakashi?s students could see the sweat streaming down the sides of their teacher?s face. He reached for his kunai pouch, but for some reason it was gone---it had evidently been torn from his pant-leg at some point in the forest.

    Kakashi had been rendered weaponless.

    In the moment that followed, everything happened at once. Ignoring the protests of his companions, Sasuke leapt from the branch with a muttered curse, hurling his shuriken as he jumped. The enemy completed his one-handed seal and quickly dipped the tips of his fingers in his own blood, which stained the sword-blade in front of him. Sakura gasped in fear; there was something eerily precise about the dying man?s attack that suggested a great deal more power was being put into this strange jutsu than any normal attack. Sasuke?s shuriken cut through the winds of Kakashi?s Konoha Whirlwind jutsu, slicing across the enemy?s throat. Kakashi half-turned and tried once again to pull away from the man?s shield jutsu and caught sight of Sasuke running toward him, kunai in hand. The enemy?s head turned quickly as well even as the wind spattered blood from the wound on his throat in all directions. His pale face turned directly toward Sasuke.

    ?NO!? Kakashi shouted, going wide-eyed with alarm. ?SASUKE, GO BACK!?

    But the enemy?s face turned away from Sasuke just as swiftly, and his hand shot forward toward Kakashi?s right arm, which was held fast to the sword by the Mizutate. Clearly his intent was to attack while Kakashi?s attention was temporarily diverted. Even if the white-haired Jounin had turned away from Sasuke a split-second sooner, he would not have been able to free himself quickly enough to dodge the attack.

    There came a sickening crunch of bone, and then a fountain of blood spiraled upward in the wind amid the leaves.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  11. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 2 continued

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    A Valley Somewhere Northwest of Konoha; Exact Location Unknown

    A lone man stood within the sentry tower atop the high walls, gazing down into the forest as the moon set behind the hills. He stood in the shadows beneath the tower?s thatched roof, for at the angle where the moon now hovered in the sky the light would cast a glare upon the lenses of his glasses, and he preferred being able to see the forest clearly. He was waiting for a party of important guests to arrive---the sort who would not take kindly to being ignored or delayed in their business here.

    The sort whom it would be dangerous to ignore.

    A cloud passed before the moon, and then slid onward into the night. When it had passed, a group of nine shinobi stood silently in front of the wooden gate below. The man atop the sentry tower spotted them immediately and, after hastening to the inner edge of the wall, leaned over the railing and signaled to the watchmen posted at the gate. The group outside stood patiently and utterly still as there came a grinding of pulleys from within. Then the gates swung open with a groan of wood as the watchmen rolled the weights aside.

    The young man descended from the walls, ignoring the ladders positioned nearby and simply leaping the twenty feet to ground-level. He moved swiftly between the open gates and strode into the midst of the visitors, who watched him in expectant silence. All of them wore voluminous black capes over their shoulders, which heightened the impression that they were a group of stone statues, planted in the forest just beyond the Village gates. The young man surveyed them with sharp eyes, crossing his arms over his gray-clad chest. Given the strangeness of recent events, he had suspected they might come here bearing accusations against his master. He had expected them, but nonetheless they had come solely of their own authority, and their presence here was uninvited.

    ?We were under the impression that five would be coming,? he told them. ?But I see only four.?

    One of the cloaked figures stepped forward, addressing him with a frown.

    ?We met with some...heavy interference in the forest. One of our numbers was killed.? He nodded toward the open gates. ?We will speak with Orochimaru on this matter.? The man paused, and then added in darker tones, ?He has much to answer for.?

    The young man nodded, and a sly smile crept across his lips.

    ?Well, then,? he said, addressing the group as a whole. ?Come, representatives of Akatsuki. My master awaits your council.? He bowed low, and the dying moonlight flashed in the lenses of his glasses. ?The Otokage wishes me to bid you welcome...to the Hidden Village of Sound.?

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    The Aoite Road, Thirty Miles Southeast of Konoha

    The leaves borne upward by Kakashi?s whirlwind sank slowly toward the earth as the swift rush of air faded and dispersed. Through the soft rain of debris falling around the two warriors locked in combat, Naruto saw the enemy?s outstretched fingers had been stopped inches from Kakashi?s wrist. A sword protruded through the enemy?s wrist, at the critical joint where the veins converged; this was what had stopped him from touching Kakashi.

    ?Who---how---?? Sakura stammered, but Naruto had already jumped down from the tree limb after Sasuke, and was heading pell-mell for Kakashi. Then she happened to glance down and saw the man who had just entered the clearing below her.

    ?Kakashi-san! Move away from him!? Shikyo called in a low, urgent tone.

    Kakashi did not take his eyes off the enemy in front of him. The man stood frozen in surprise, still grasping Kakashi?s blade with his right hand. His eyes upon Kakashi were wide and intense---crazed, like a man staring into hell itself. For one horrible moment, Naruto thought he was going to try to reach Kakashi again to finish the attack. Reaching into his kunai pouch, the young Genin pulled out three knives, which he slipped between his fingers in preparation to throw.

    Sasuke, however, appeared to have abandoned all inclination to attack. The dark-haired Genin had come to a halt the instant the sword struck the enemy?s wrist.

    Though the impostor?s eyes were trained madly upon Kakashi?s face, he was a dead man on his feet. A horrid gurgling arose in his throat, which Sasuke?s shuriken had slit, and a gout of blood fountained over his lower lip, washing down the front of the black vest that he wore. As the enemy?s dying breath dyed his chest crimson, the Mizutate jutsu binding Kakashi?s arm to the sword trickled to the ground. The impostor sank to his knees, one hand still outstretched toward Kakashi, who backed away, lowering the sword. His shield fell away from his arms and trickled onto the dirt; it had turned out to be made of sand, not water.

    The assassin?s outstretched hand was the last part of him to fall, despite the weight of Shikyo?s sword impaling the his wrist.

    Naruto skidded to an abrupt halt beside Sasuke, who stared at this grim spectacle with a face deathly pale as the dying man?s.

    ?Kakashi-sensei!? Sakura called, descending from the tree and hurrying toward them.

    Kakashi finally took notice of his students again. His face was as white as Sasuke?s, though he stood firm and unflinching.

    ?Naruto...Sasuke...stand back,? he ordered them, in a voice hoarse from tension. His eyes were heavy-lidded from exhaustion but still wary, and he added as he stepped backward a few paces, ?You?re going to feel it when he dies.?

    These words stopped Sakura dead in her tracks, and she glanced questioningly at the Jounin. However, he offered no further explanation, sinking to his knees upon the road amid the debris strewn across it.

    Something very odd was happening to the dead man. On his face, and on the skin of his hand, red sigils trailed their way across his flesh like veins---even across his lips, which were drawn back in a grimace of horror. The fingers of the hand stretched toward Kakashi curled claw-like into the dirt. Then the man?s entire body went stiff, as if rigor mortis had already set in.

    ?Get back,? Shikyo ordered Naruto and Sasuke, moving to stand between them and pushing them both even further backward with a hand on each boy?s chest. ?The further away from him you are, the better.? Neither of them offered any protest.

    Abruptly, the enemy?s body contorted, the limbs splaying out at odd angles. Sakura let out a little scream; it looked as if something had possessed the corpse. Then the body went limp, slumping down again to lie prone against the earth. An eerie pulse of something like pure energy radiated outward from the man?s inert form, propagating wavelike in every direction. Naruto did not understand exactly what the wave was; its passage was only vaguely evident to the eyes of all present. The air wavered where it passed, as if each of them were looking at it through a shaken glass of water. They could not properly see it, but all who were present felt it in the very marrow of their bones. It was cold---deathly cold, like ice against the flesh, chilling so intensely that it burned. Yet it only touched them for an instant, and then this, too passed. In its wake, it left them standing shaken and whey-faced and very much unnerved.

    The sigils on the dead man?s skin had vanished.

    Kakashi bowed his head, rubbing the sweat off his brow beneath his forehead protector. He let out a long, deep sigh. At Naruto?s side, Sasuke sank to his knees. Naruto glanced down at him in alarm; the other boy?s face was oddly blank, and very pale.

    ?Sasuke-kun!? Sakura cried, hastening to his side. ?Are you all right?? She knelt beside him, peering up into his face with concern.

    Sasuke offered no reply, but her voice seemed to bring him to his senses. Slowly, he pushed himself to his feet. His legs were shaking. Ultimately, it had been his shuriken that slew the impostor.

    ?You?ve never killed before, have you, Uchiha Sasuke?? Shikyo asked softly. The Mizutou shinobi looked as if he were about to lay a reassuring hand on the Genin?s shoulder, but then seemed to think better of it. Instead, Shikyo turned to address the others. ?Kakashi, you?re unharmed??

    The Jounin lifted his head and nodded, but made no move to get up.

    ?Yes, but I need to rest before we move on,? he said hoarsely. ?I?ve used up most of my chakra, and I don?t think there will be another attack for tonight, at least. If events proceed according to this group?s past actions, they won?t dispatch any more than ten at a time.?

    ?TEN?? Sakura exclaimed, staring at Kakashi in unabashed amazement. ?Kakashi-sensei, what HAPPENED to you in the forest??

    The ghost of a smile returned some of the life to the Jounin?s face.

    ?Five attacked me. I believe between us we?ve dispatched them all.?

    ?You mean...you killed them all?? Sasuke asked, his gaze traveling back and forth between the Jounin and the dead man on the road. ?Were they all...like this one??

    ?He killed FIVE of them?? Naruto thought, gaping at the Jounin. ?By HIMSELF? No WONDER he?s exhausted...? Then his gaze slid sideways to Shikyo. If Kakashi had killed five of the ten assassins, then that meant Shikyo had killed the other five. ?Who IS this guy?? Naruto found himself wondering as he stared at the short, quiet shinobi standing beside him.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  12. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 2 (continued)

    Shikyo had a very narrow, angular face, blue eyes, and brows that slanted upward over his temples. His hair was black, but with an odd bluish sheen to it that suggested a bloodline trait of his clan. He wore it bound atop his head in a topknot that hung loose at the end like a horse?s tail. His movements were fluid and quick; Naruto recalled how the sword he had flung to impale the impostor?s hand had flown so swiftly it blurred. And Shikyo?s eyes were pale blue and very hard-looking; he looked as if he had killed many times.

    A significant glance now passed between Kakashi and Shikyo, but Kakashi shook his head. Shikyo turned toward Kakashi?s students, a faint frown creasing his brow.

    ?The cold feeling will pass,? he told them. They were all still very pale. ?But are you injured in any way? Sakura? Sasuke?? He paused, and then turned toward the third member of their team. ?Naruto??

    Naruto opened his mouth to reply, but only a hoarse choking noise emerged from his throat.

    ?Naruto, your neck...? Sakura said suddenly, gazing up at his back from where she knelt.

    Naruto?s hands flew immediately to his throat, feeling around for the source of the problem. Shikyo located it first, pushing the Genin?s hands away and touching a point on the side of his neck.

    ?Hold still,? he ordered. Then he yanked the needle free.

    ?Ow!? Naruto rasped as the point came clear of his skin. He clapped one hand against it as blood began to trickle from the wound.

    ?That hit him pretty near the jugular vein for being thrown in the dark,? Sasuke remarked, standing up and peering at the injury.

    Shikyo?s eyes narrowed as he pried Naruto?s fingers aside and probed the wound carefully.

    ?Kakashi-san, his voice will---?

    ?Naruto will be fine,? Kakashi interrupted. ?He?ll heal quickly.? The Jounin spoke nonchalantly, but in such a way as to clearly indicate that this was not a topic to be discussed at length.

    Naruto glanced up at Shikyo out of the corner of his eye.

    ?Does Shikyo-san know about the Nine-Tails?? he wondered. But he didn?t have the freedom to ask that here.

    ?When is someone going to explain that to us?? Sasuke asked, turning away from Naruto and nodding toward the corpse in the road.

    ?We have to tell them immediately,? Shikyo told Kakashi grimly. ?The sooner they know, the better we can train them in the ways to survive against it.?

    The Jounin rested his hands against his thighs. He was no longer breathing heavily, but a cold sweat had beaded on his brow. He nodded briskly.

    Shikyo walked to the edge of the road and retrieved his pack, which he?d flung to the ground before joining the skirmish. Then he walked over to the dead man, planted one leather-sandaled foot on the man?s palm, and yanked the sword he had thrown free of the man?s wrist.

    ?Ten men like this were sent to kill us,? he began, nudging the dead man?s elbow with the toe of his sandal. ?Kakashi and I were able to kill them all, between us, because of the kenjutsu we?ve learned to combat the assassins? main technique. You three will have to learn it as well if you?re to be of any use on this mission.? He glanced over his shoulder, offering them a faint smile that didn?t reach his eyes. ?Lord Garyu appears to have faith that you will.?

    ?This technique...? Sasuke murmured, seating himself cross-legged atop a nearby boulder. ?You mean the strange jutsu the enemy used as he died??

    ?It?s called ?Shinkuhana?,? Shikyo answered, still examining the corpse. It seemed he felt it was safe to touch the man?s flesh now. ?The ?Crimson Blossom? skill.? Leaning forward, he removed the dead man?s cloth head-guard and plucked a few of his hairs.

    Naruto watched him do this with a look of ill-concealed disgust. Kakashi must have noticed the look and sensed that the Genin was about to interrupt with some comment on it, because he cleared his throat loudly.

    ?Ahem. Naruto, come here,? he ordered, beckoning with one blood-stained hand. ?I?ll see to the wound. Sakura, bring my pack.?

    As Sakura and Naruto moved to oblige him, Shikyo went on.

    ?It?s not hard to guess why that name was given to it,? he remarked, pointing to the exposed skin of the dead man?s forearm. ?You saw the marks that appeared on his skin before the wave of chakra went out from his body. If the technique is done properly, all the assassin must do is touch the victim and a red sigil appears on the victim?s body. It?s a round sigil, and it spirals outward like the petals of a rose. All of this happens in the brief instant between the touch and the victim?s death. The victim will die a split-second after he?s touched, and the sigil will disappear. It?s the ultimate assassin?s technique---it kills swiftly and silently, and leaves no mark on the body to bear evidence. And it only requires one hand to perform the seal.?

    ?How?? Sasuke insisted, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. ?How does it kill? What is it that the seal does that kills so quickly??

    ?Kataame,? Shikyo murmured, forming a quick, fluid seal. Droplets of water rose from the dirt around him, and spattered down briefly from the trees above to gather in a sort of hovering puddle above his hand. Keeping his eyes trained on the puddle, Shikyo lifted his sword and stuck it through the water. Then, having successfully wet the sword, he proceeded to clean it on the cloth he?d removed from the dead man?s head.

    ?Now... You ask about the method. Well, the actual method is almost laughably simple. The assassin performs the seal and dips those fingers in his own blood. When he does that, he is using the very chakra that sustains his life to open a sort of vortex between him and his intended victim. If the blood on his fingers touches any part of the victim?s body---regardless of whether it?s vital or not---the vortex draws all of that person?s chakra into itself.

    ?Think of it like electricity---like your Chidori, Sasuke. The assassin is creating a positive charge with his chakra. That is the ground---the earth. Then it draws the negative charge of the lightning---the chakra sustaining the victim?s life. Together, they clash; lightning strikes. Only this lightning isn?t bright; it burns red sigils into the victim?s skin. And this vortex---this meeting of positive and negative chakras---causes both to cancel each other out.?

    ?What do you mean by that?? Sakura asked, cutting bandages and handing them to Kakashi.

    Shikyo had finished washing his sword and was now drying it carefully against the dark blue fabric of his haori.

    ?The ultimate assassin?s technique comes with a terrible price,? he said darkly. ?When I say that both chakras cancel each other out, I mean that both victim and wielder will draw their last breath at the same moment. In order for Shinkuhana to work, it must kill the one who performed the seal.?

    ?How horrible,? Sakura breathed. ?You?d have to really want to kill someone to use it.?

    ?Kakashi-sensei, you?re hurting me,? Naruto croaked, his hands flying to his throat.

    ?Oh...I?m sorry, Naruto.? Kakashi loosened the bandages around the Genin?s neck, making an effort to be gentler as he did so.

    ?But how is that the ultimate technique?? Sasuke insisted, staring at Shikyo?s blue-clad back. ?To throw your life away, when your target may not even die??

    Shikyo finished drying the sword and proceeded to lift Sasuke?s shuriken out of the dirt to wash it.

    ?The assassin won?t die if his fingers are unable to touch his victim. His chakra merely resumes its normal flow and he remains unharmed.? He nodded toward the dead man. ?This one never touched Kakashi; he died when your weapon slit his throat, before the technique could be dispelled. That?s why you felt the wave sent out from his body. That was his chakra leaving him and dispersing into the air. It felt cold because its flow had been reversed to perform the Shinkuhana. However... If the victim is touched, then there is no cure. The target dies instantly, without even the time to utter a cry. There are none who can withstand this technique.?
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  13. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 2 (continued and finished)

    He hefted the newly-cleansed shuriken in one hand and tossed it over to Sasuke, who caught it and sat there studying it, as if the dead man?s blood might have left some imprint upon its fan-like blades.

    ?Kakashi-san and I will be teaching you kenjutsu to prepare you for the dangers ahead,? Shikyo informed them, pushing himself to his feet and brushing the dirt off his pants. ?If ever you find yourselves in a position where your chakra is greatly depleted but your enemies keep coming, you will need to use a sword to keep them at a distance---to prevent them from touching you.? He turned a shrewd blue eye in Sasuke?s direction. ?Long-range weapons like shuriken will do for the journey, but in Mizutou the quarters will be much closer. The city has narrow streets and enclosed buildings with narrow halls. When you encounter assassins there, they may only be two feet away from you.?

    Naruto stared at the Mizutou shinobi in silence. ?The target dies instantly, without even the time to utter a cry...? These words chilled him to the bone---not so much out of fear for himself but out of horror that someone could be killed that easily.

    Sasuke was thinking to himself, ?Sannin-level ninja like Orochimaru or Itachi would never use such a technique. They wouldn?t want to kill anyone badly enough to sacrifice themselves. They?re too selfish, and too intent upon living to enact their agendas.? His eyes narrowed as he contemplated the blades of his shuriken. ?Itachi...?

    ?Kakashi-san, this is the first of the Shinkuhana assassins that I?ve gotten a proper look at,? Shikyo told the Jounin. He held up the lock of hair he?d plucked from the man?s head. ?Orange hair. And he used a sand-shield technique to block your sword. These alone are enough evidence to prove that he?s not a Mist Ninja.?

    Kakashi finished dressing Naruto?s wound and rose to his feet. The two men regarded each other for a moment; a grim understanding passing between them that none of the Genin present could fathom. Then Kakashi tilted back his head to gaze at the sky. A vague, fuzzy dawn was beginning over the treetops, but its light was gray because a thick blanket of clouds now stretched across the horizon.

    ?We should find an inn,? he decided, slipping his pack back over his lean shoulders. ?It will rain soon, and we?ll need sleep before we head out into the forest again.?

    His students complied, re-shouldering their own supplies and hurrying over to join him. Sasuke snapped his shuriken blades closed with a sharp snick and reinserted it into his pack.

    ?Sakura-chan, you look pale,? Naruto rasped, peering at her anxiously. Mutely, Sakura shook her head. She was regarding Naruto in return and thinking, ?He?s been impaled through the throat and he STILL looks the healthiest out of all of us...?

    Then she noticed Shikyo watching Naruto out of the corner of his cold blue eye, and rightly guessed that the Rain ninja was thinking something along the same lines. She decided she didn?t like Shikyo much.

    ?Kakashi-sensei, do you know this technique?? Sasuke asked suddenly as he hurried after the Jounin. ?This ?Shinkuhana???

    There was a moment of silence, in which Kakashi didn?t answer and the eyes of all present turned toward him. The Jounin didn?t slow down or face any of them.

    Then he finally answered, quietly, ?Yes.?

    A thousand questions flooded Naruto?s mouth, but as the first word rolled off his tongue his wound throbbed and he decided they could wait until after it had healed.

    Sasuke, however, appeared to have only one agenda. His dark eyes had a faraway, shadowed look to them, as if he were seeing not the road ahead but some grim specter of the past.

    ?You know ?Shinkuhana?,? he murmured slowly. ?Are you going to teach it to us??

    This time Kakashi paused mid-step.


    Then he resumed walking, leaving the three Genin to stare at his back and wonder.

    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  14. YamisuiOnna

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    Nov 15, 2004
    Chapter 3: Kenjutsu Training: The Three Cross Blades

    Author?s Note: A ?boken? is a wooden practice sword. ?Hajime? means ?begin.? Uh...just to warn all present, this chapter definitely earns its rating for violence. Sort of pushes the rating?s limits, actually... Kinda icky, even for me.

    All right; enough jabber. Time for Chapter 3.

    {o} {o} {o} RED BLOSSOM {o} {o} {o}

    {o}{o} Chapter 3: Kenjutsu Training: The Three Cross Blades {o}{o}

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}​

    The road northward led them deeper into the soft autumn rainfall, which pattered pleasantly on the leaves and rather unpleasantly on their heads as they walked.

    Naturally, this put Sakura in the foulest of moods, partly because Sasuke had lapsed into silent brooding since the Shinkuhana incident and partly because the moisture in the air made her pink hair frizzy.

    ?Naruto, why are you twitching your nose like that? You look like a dog about to sneeze.?

    Naruto sniffed loudly, scratching at the outside of one nostril with his pinky.

    ?Well, it smells good out here,? he replied with a fox-like grin. ?The rain makes the trees smell fresh. Right, Sasuke?? He turned expectantly toward the dark-haired Genin, but Sasuke ignored him, staring moodily at a spot somewhere near the middle of Kakashi?s back.

    ?We should come to a town soon,? Shikyo said, falling back a little to match their pace. ?We?ll get you some food, and you?ll finally be able to sleep.?

    Ahead of them, Kakashi?s head lifted sharply.

    ?They need to begin training immediately,? he said quietly. ?I don?t want a repeat of last night.?

    Shikyo turned away from the three Genin to frown at the back of Kakashi?s head.

    ?You need rest as well, Kakashi-san,? he told the Jounin. ?The last thing I need is a Shinkuhana expert who?s half-dead from exhaustion and nearly empty of chakra.?

    Kakashi made no reply to this, which earned him Naruto?s immediate attention because it put the possible future consumption of ramen on the line.

    ?Hey, hey, Kakashi-sensei!? he croaked, scurrying around to stand in front of the Jounin. ?I don?t care about sleep, but we can still eat, right? Right?? The pain from the wound on his neck had already died down enough to be eclipsed by the need to defend his right to breakfast.

    ?Speak for yourself,? Sakura muttered, tugging at the straps of her pack to give her shoulders a moment?s respite from its weight. She had never been a morning person, especially when she?d spent the night dodging assassins in near-complete darkness.

    Kakashi eyed the Genin in front of him with what appeared to be a vague frown, judging from the slight narrowing of his one visible eye. Naruto was walking backwards to keep from getting in the Jounin?s way and grinning up at him hopefully. After a moment of thoughtful silence, the faint knit of Kakashi?s brow smoothed and he let slip a brief smile.

    ?Well, I did say I knew the inns along this road,? he admitted blandly, sounding more like himself.

    ?YaTTA!? Naruto exclaimed, jumping a good three feet and punching the air with one fist. Then he landed with a thud, clutching his throat with both hands and coughing.

    Kakashi?s frown returned as the Genin scurried along the road ahead of him.

    ?Food first, but then you train,? he admonished.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    Another hour passed, and another. The rain let up, and the sun began to burn through the cloud-layer in places, dotting the land haphazardly with patches of yellow. The Aoite Road rounded a bend and veered due south.

    ?Oy... Kakashi-sensei.? Naruto?s previously cheery expression had evaporated, and now his impish face had settled into a rather square-shaped pout. ?You?re not lost are you??

    Kakashi?s chin lifted a little, and his gaze turned toward somewhere above Naruto?s head.

    ?If you weren?t walking backwards and squinting at me,? he said blithely, ?then you might?ve noticed the village beyond those trees ahead. You can see it from here, you know.?

    Naruto turned in a hurry, and upon catching sight of what Kakashi was looking at, took off in that direction with a grin.

    His forward progress was arrested, however, by Kakashi?s hand catching hold of the back of his collar. His sandaled feet nearly skidded out from under him.

    ?Stay with us,? the Jounin admonished, before Naruto could open his mouth to protest. ?Until you learn kenjutsu to my satisfaction, you are not to go anywhere on this trip unless you are in the company of Shikyo or myself.? Then he released Naruto?s collar and turned to the two trudging along behind him. ?That goes for all three of you.?

    Sasuke and Sakura nodded wordlessly; both of them were too tired to protest even if they?d had it in them. Naruto, on the other hand, was newly energized by the sight of civilization ahead.

    ?Hey, hey, hey, Kakashi-sensei! EVERYWHERE? Even the BATHROOM??

    Kakashi scratched his head.

    ?Well, yes, I suppose.?

    Sasuke took this news without batting an eye. Sakura, on the other hand, suddenly looked as if she were about to burst a blood vessel. Naruto grinned impishly at her around Kakashi.

    ?Keep moving,? Kakashi told him, giving him a bit of a shove before he could start harassing the one female member of the team.

    The inn that the Jounin led them to was quiet and nearly entirely vacant, which, as he pointed out over lunch, was why he?d chosen it. It was run by an elderly couple and their daughter (who was eyeing Kakashi rather speculatively as she served them their meal). They knew him from several stays on missions in his ANBU days, which made Naruto wonder exactly why they?d remembered him after all those years. The daughter, who was flaxen blond and rather buxom, certainly seemed to remember him; she kept hovering around their table and offering him tea or sake because out of the group he was the only one not eating.

    ?Go rest in the room, Kakashi-san,? Shikyo urged him while the Genin practically shoveled ramen into their mouths. ?I?ll start them with boken, so it?s doubtful they?ll decapitate each other while you?re sleeping.?

    Kakashi sat there for a minute with his eye at half-mast, staring dubiously at Naruto. Naruto, in turn, was squinting across the table at Sasuke.

    ?I bet if anyone could chop a limb off with a boken, HE could...? Naruto thought, slurping at the noodles dangling down his chin.

    Kakashi was thinking: ?I hope Sasuke doesn?t kill him.?

    But after his initial hesitation, the Jounin swung his long legs around the wooden bench and pushed himself up from the table.

    ?He?ll make it to the room okay, won?t he?? Sakura asked, pausing with her chopsticks poised over her steaming bowl. Kakashi?s walk had a bit of a wobble to it.

    Shikyo ignored her question.

    ?Very well,? he said mildly, laying his own chopsticks across his empty bowl. ?You three, hurry up with it. The sooner you begin practice, the sooner you?ll be allowed to sleep.?

    All three pairs of young eyes turned his way. None of the Genin were entirely keen on being taught by the Rain ninja, but Sasuke had a pragmatic gleam in his eye that would have troubled Kakashi had the Jounin been there to notice it.

    ?I wonder,? Sasuke thought, ?if this Arashi Shikyo knows the Shinkuhana jutsu...?

    Shikyo had been the one to dispose of the assassin?s corpse in the woods. In response to Kakashi?s questioning glance he had merely said, ?Acid,? and left it at that. After the particularly gruesome imagery that brought to mind, no one had been particularly inclined to ask.

    Now the three Leaf ninja finished their ramen and came up for air.

    ?All right!? Naruto pounded the table with his fist. ?Let?s go!?

    The four of them rose and left the kitchen, bowing briskly to the inn?s cook before filing down the hall. Shikyo led them around two corners and through a sliding door into the inn?s central courtyard. It appeared to have been an ornamental garden once, but now it was overgrown with weeds. They stepped off the wooden terrace that lined it and found themselves knee-deep in undergrowth.

    Shikyo fished five boken out of his pack, which he then dumped unceremoniously on the ground at the center of the courtyard. Two of these he picked up; the other three he nodded toward and grunted, indicating that the Genin were to pick their own. Naruto practically dived for his.

    ?Hey, hey, Shikyo-san, why do you have TWO?? Naruto protested once he had emerged from the weeds with his boken.

    The Rain ninja crossed his swords in front of him, tossing the blue-black hair hanging from his topknot over one shoulder.

    ?I want you all to come at me at once,? he told them, smiling mirthlessly. ?Pretend I?m an assassin. No ninjutsu. I want to see what I have to work with.?

    All three of them raised their boken into various positions of readiness. Shikyo made a soft noise of impatience, sinking his stance.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  15. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 3 continued

    ?Well? Hajime.?

    Sasuke and Naruto flew at him from either side. Sasuke kept his sword low during the charge, but with the intent of using a feint to conceal his real target: Shikyo?s neck. From what he had observed during Kakashi?s battle with the assassin on the road, that man had betrayed a weakness in his skills when it came to protecting his throat. Of course, Sasuke?s shuriken might not have struck the assassin had the man not been on a suicide mission. The man hadn?t exactly put forth the most valiant effort to defend himself. However, this was all that Sasuke had to go on---none of Team Seven?s members had ever trained for swordplay. Naruto?s intended strategy was more straightforward: to hit Shikyo as hard as he could in the wrist. There was a nerve there which, if hit just right, would make the older shinobi release his sword.

    Neither boy?s attack hit the mark. Shikyo used the side of his right arm to turn Naruto?s blow aside, and then proceeded to knock the yellow-haired Genin in the gut with the hilt of the sword in his right hand. Simultaneously, the Rain ninja easily anticipated Sasuke?s feint and stopped a crosswise blow from the boy?s boken with the sword in his left hand, snapping it upward in front of his neck. Sasuke?s blade struck Shikyo?s with a loud crack, and then Shikyo used the weight of his left arm to thrust the dark-haired Genin away from him. Sasuke staggered backward a few steps from the force of the counter, and then lost his balance and fell on his backside in the long grass.

    Naruto landed hard, gasping and doubled up; he?d had the wind knocked out of him. Sasuke merely sat where he?d fallen, looking quite stunned because all of this had happened so quickly.

    Sakura had not moved at all.

    She stood ten feet away from Shikyo, still holding her boken out in front of her in a position of readiness, with her feet planted shoulder-width apart.

    Slowly, Shikyo lowered his swords and rose from his low stance.

    ?Very good, Sakura-chan,? he told her, nodding his approval. Then he pointed the boken in either hand down at the two boys. ?As for you both, you?re dead.?

    Naruto?s jaw dropped, and Sasuke?s eyes widened in disbelief.

    ?Mark well what your teammate has done,? Shikyo told them sternly. ?One of you tell me what she?s done right.?

    Sasuke?s look of incredulity faded, and his chin lowered.

    ?I see,? he muttered, glowering at the Rain ninja?s feet. ?She didn?t attack. She waited to see what maneuvers you would use against us.?

    Shikyo shook his head, dropping the two practice swords into the weeds and flexing his fingers.

    ?You?re half right,? the Rain ninja told him. ?But you?re missing one important detail.?

    Sakura lowered her sword.

    ?You said to pretend you?re an assassin,? she responded, a bit nervously. ?You said not to use ninjutsu, but you said nothing about not using it yourself. An assassin might come at us with ninjutsu regardless of whether or not we?re prepared to use it ourselves. So I waited to see if you planned on dropping the weapons at the last minute to use ninjutsu instead.?

    ?Precisely,? Shikyo agreed. Then he rounded on the two boys on the ground. ?Kenjutsu Lesson One: Do NOT rush in.? He jabbed an index finger eastward, in the general direction of the Aoite Road. ?In Mizutou, you won?t be able to tell who is a ninja and who is not. Even with the Sharingan.?

    Sasuke?s scowl deepened.

    ?In my experience,? Shikyo went on, ?none of the killers has ever used the transformation technique when attempting a direct attack on their target. They may use henge to infiltrate the place where the target is located, but Shinkuhana requires all of a ninja?s chakra to work, and thus the transformation technique can?t be maintained at that point. These assassins look and dress like normal citizens, and they take measures to disguise themselves that include colored lenses over the eyes or dyed hair to conceal bloodline traits. Thus you will have no way of knowing whether the person you brush past in the hall at night intends to use the Crimson Blossom technique against you...or merely intends to slip a dagger between your ribs. When dealing with assassins in close quarters, no technique---ninjutsu OR simple weaponry---may be ruled out.?

    ?That?s right!? Naruto exclaimed in his raspy voice, having finally regained his air. ?Kakashi-sensei waited until the last minute to charge the man on the road.?

    ?You remember that now,? Sakura scoffed, ?now that you?ve been knocked on your ass. Geez, you never---? But she stopped short of ridiculing him, because shadows were pooling in the furrows of Sasuke?s face, and she?d just realized that Naruto wasn?t the only one who?d been defeated so easily. She didn?t mind teasing Naruto, but Sasuke was another story.

    ?He?s been on edge lately,? Sakura thought, prudently shutting her mouth and lowering the finger she?d been pointing at Naruto. ?I wonder if it?s because of the Chuunin Exam...?

    Shikyo harbored no such patience for adolescent drama.

    ?Get up,? he ordered the two boys. ?Now that you?ve shown me what you can?t do, it?s time to show me what you can do. Pick up your boken.?

    Sasuke and Naruto scrambled to their feet, fishing their swords out of the long grass. Sakura stepped forward to join them. Shikyo made no move to retrieve his own weapons, but beckoned with one hand.

    ?Raise your swords,? he bade them. ?And take a deep breath. What you are about to endure is going to be very painful.?

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    The Country of Wind

    The boy walked alone down the narrow alleyway, carrying in his arms a large sack that bulged at odd angles. He moved with a slow and measured pace, eyes trained on the way ahead, utterly focused on the errand he was running. He felt a vague sort of satisfaction in completing a task of such importance---and satisfaction was the closest he?d ever come to happiness, which was why he?d elected himself to go on this particular mission.

    Someone was following him, of course. He knew this from the soft scraping noise inside the gourd strapped across his back. The sand sensed an enemy approaching as clearly as if it had eyes that saw behind him. It began to stir.

    ?No,? he told it silently. ?Be still.?

    The steady crunch of his sandals in the dirt came to a halt. He stood utterly still in the middle of the alley, making no move to arm himself or to affect any sort of defensive posture. He was tired of being attacked, and---truth be told---he was also growing weary of killing them. How many of them had died senseless deaths attacking him? Ten? Twenty? He had lost count a week ago. These men were driven by a definite, organized purpose---of that he was sure. Whoever gave them orders them was sending them after him in deadly earnest. Attempts had been made on his life countless times before the advent of the Chuunin Exam in Konoha, but they had always occurred in the cities and towns that he passed through. These shinobi had pursued him across the desert itself, coming at him regardless of heat and sun and sand and wind and rock...which pretty much summed up everything contained in the Wind Country. One bold soul had even dared to cross the Dune Sea in the midst of the storm three days ago. That particular assassin had braved the elements with what seemed to be no concern whatsoever for his own survival, attacking his target amid the fury of the wilderness.

    ?So,? the boy thought, ?they?re willing to die to see me dead.?

    He felt no real anger or sorrow as he mulled over this prospect, but what he did feel was a growing irritation because his mission was being interrupted.

    The last one---the one who?d attacked him in the wilderness---now lay buried beneath the shifting sand, in pieces.

    And now, standing alone in a deserted side-street, he didn?t bother turning around. Whoever the assassin was would be making himself scarce in the shadows, or perhaps clinging spider-like to the stone walls that rose on either side of him, waiting to pounce. It hardly mattered; Gaara of the Sand had never needed to watch his back.

    ?Why are you following me?? he asked coldly, addressing the general darkness surrounding him. ?Are you my enemy, or an enemy of the Sand??

    In the shadows behind him, someone landed softly in the dirt, and the sand in Gaara?s gourd stirred restlessly. There was a moment?s pause, in which Gaara didn?t move and the man behind him didn?t speak.

    ?Be still,? Gaara silently ordered the sand.

    The stranger let out the soft, brisk exhalation of a man rising out of a crouch, and then answered in a woman?s voice, ?Neither, Gaara of the Sand. I?m Hanone Oujou of Konoha, captain of ANBU Squad Nine.? The woman paused, but when Gaara still didn?t turn around she added, ?I?ve come to warn you.?

    Gaara smiled thinly.

    ?Really? Warn me of what?? He spoke in a flat, toneless way, clearly warning the woman that he wasn?t stupid.

    She caught his implication and hastily changed tactics.

    ?My squad was sent after you following the Chuunin Exam because we learned you were being hunted,? she told him. ?The Elders fear that the killers dispatched to find you are members of some new organization. We haven?t yet put a name to it, or to its purpose, but it definitely wants you dead, so that was why our investigation required us to follow you.?
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  16. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 3 continued

    Slowly, Gaara turned to face her. He made no immediate reply to her explanation, but stood there in silence, taking her measure with his cold, dark-rimmed eyes. She seemed young, and stood but a few inches taller than himself. Over her face she wore a pale mask carved in the vague semblance of a snake?s head. The rest of her was cloaked in some kind of black bodysuit, over which she wore a gray cloak with the hood pulled low over her Konoha forehead protector.

    ?ANBU...? he murmured, eyes narrowing slightly as he tasted the word. ?So. Konoha wants to protect me? How good of them. But where is your squad??

    He couldn?t see the woman?s facial expression, but her shoulders slumped a little.

    ?Dead,? she admitted in a low voice. ?We were careful but not careful enough. They drew us into battle with them here before you arrived. Because the killers are aware of Konoha?s presence in this now, I felt it became necessary to warn you, because the protection we?ve been affording you will no longer be as effective. The assassins have begun hunting our investigative squads as well.?

    Gaara shrugged faintly.

    ?That?s your problem. I have all the protection I need.?

    The woman nodded toward the street behind him.

    ?But what about your team? Unless we were gravely mistaken, you haven?t come all this way alone, have you??

    A frown darkened Gaara?s pale brow.

    The woman noted it, and seemed to interpret it as a weakness she?d found in him.

    ?Allow me to accompany you on your return to your Village,? she offered. ?For your friends? sake, if not for yours.?

    The sand within his gourd suddenly roiled sharply, scraping harshly against its round inner walls. The woman heard it this time and tensed. Gaara eyed her narrowly. It was obvious that she knew his capability of killing, and that her superiors had warned her to be wary of him. If nothing else, the bodies strewn along the roads he?d traveled should have been enough of an indication.

    ?Is it so important that you protect us?? he asked her. ?Why does Konoha order its policing force to guard ninja of another Village??

    The woman inclined her head, crossing one fist over her breast.

    ?Those are my orders,? she replied, her voice sounding oddly muffled behind the mask. ?It is not my duty to question their importance.?

    The sand shifted again in the gourd, sensing blood. Gaara realized she had dug the sharp nails of the fisted hand into her palm so hard she?d cut herself. He pretended not to notice, though the sand was growing more restless by the minute.

    ?Hanone Oujou, you may come with us,? he told her calmly. ?But only if you remove your mask. My sand shield doesn?t seem to trust you, and while you hide your face I don?t trust you either.?

    The woman hesitated for a few seconds, but then appeared to judge it wiser to go along with him. She unclenched her fist and pulled her hood back, reaching behind her head to loosen the mask?s fastenings.

    Watching her, Gaara pressed his lips together in a firm line. The sand in his gourd scratched angrily at the cork stoppering it inside, begging for release. This time, he made no effort to stop it.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}


    ?You can?t be serious!?

    ?I?m afraid I don?t understand your objections.?

    Jiraiya stood in front of a long table in Konoha?s administration building, staring down one very bored-looking woman with a very large stack of paperwork in front of her.

    ?You?re saying you?re going to deny me a look at the records when a ninja?s life is on the line??

    The woman blinked slowly, eyeing him in a rather droll fashion.

    ?Sir, thus far you?ve given me no proof of that,? she told him. ?All you?ve done is tromp in here, tracking mud across our wood floor, and ask me for classified information on this?this??

    ?Uzumaki Naruto,? Jiraiya prompted impatiently, folding his arms across his chest.

    ?Uzumaki, yes, well, I?ve told you---we don?t just give classified information to any random civilian who wanders into this building.?

    Jiraiya?s eye twitched.

    ?Random civilian? Young lady, don?t you know who I am??

    The woman rubbed at her temple, with one ink-stained hand.

    ?No, but I sense you?re about to expound on that.?

    Taking this as his cue, Jiraiya whipped out a scroll and tugged its fastenings apart with his teeth. Then he unrolled the entire thing with a single snap of his wrist, sending leathery paper sailing through the air. One enormous puff of smoke later, he was perched majestically atop an orange bullfrog roughly the size of a small horse. The woman behind the table blinked and recoiled in surprise, but quickly regained her composure as the smoke cleared.

    ?Oh, I see,? she said, before the Sannin could open his mouth to proclaim his glory. ?Jiraiya-sama the Frog Hermit. You?ve returned to Konoha after all.?

    Jiraiya froze mid-pose, grinning down at her.

    ?You?ve heard of me, have you? Well, it has been a while since my last visit...?

    The woman behind the table was beginning to look less bored and more put-out.

    ?Not long enough,? she said flatly. ?As I recall, you spent your last visit peeping outside the women?s bath-houses.?

    ?Why young lady!? Jiraiya crowed from atop the frog. ?Are you accusing one of the three great Sannin of being some kind of pervert?? Even as he said this, he was using his high vantage point to look down her cleavage.

    This time the woman lost her composure entirely, banging the flats of her palms against the table and scattering papers every which way.

    ?Baka hentai! I was in the bath house when some kid finally caught you at it!?

    Jiraiya?s grin vanished. The frog beneath him rolled its huge, bulbous eyes upward to look at him, and then vanished with a loud pop and yet another cloud of smoke.

    ?HEY! Stupid frog!? the Sannin bellowed as he landed in a crouch on the wood floor. ?Don?t run out on me like a coward!?

    The woman, in the meantime, had moved out from behind the table and was currently gathering the upset documents from the floor. Giving up on the frog, Jiraiya turned toward her. Though her face was averted, he could practically see the veins popping in her forehead. He sighed; this was no time to be worrying about his reputation, such as it was.

    ?All frivolities set aside, I seriously need to see that information,? Jiraiya told her, bending to help retrieve the documents.

    ?No means no,? she snapped, standing up with a pile of papers under both arms.

    Jiraiya handed her the files, looking up at her from a crouched position.

    ?Uzumaki Naruto?s just a kid,? he told her grimly. ?But I have reason to believe someone may send assassins after him. If he?s currently out on a mission, I would very much like to know where. Team Seven, I believe.?

    At his mention of the team?s number, the woman seemed somewhat startled. Then she sighed, gazing down at him as she packed the files back into an orderly stack.

    ?Regulations are regulations,? she told him firmly. ?But I will tell you this: I do have the report on Team Seven?s current mission. It seems like a dangerous one. I?m told Hatake Kakashi left with his Genin in the middle of the night, and that Konoha?s Council of Elders was involved. Aside from that, all other information remains classified.?

    Jiraiya let out a breath he hadn?t realized he?d been holding. It relieved him somewhat to hear that Naruto was actually on a mission and hadn?t simply been trussed up and kidnapped in the night. But he frowned as he pushed himself to his feet. The Council involving itself with a mission wasn?t standard procedure.

    ?I?m sorry, Sannin-sama,? the woman told him, skirting around the table and reseating herself. She seemed more sympathetic now that she could see he was genuinely concerned about a kid.

    ?I understand,? Jiraiya responded. He was looking down her cleavage again.

    The woman waited for him to leave, but when he merely stood there staring she realized abruptly the location his eyes were directed toward.

    ?YOU!!!? she fumed, bristling.

    ?Sorry, sorry,? Jiraiya apologized with a grin, backing away and making placating motions with his hands.

    The woman?s eyes narrowed to slits, and she clapped her hands together, preparing to form a seal. Jiraiya didn?t wait to see what seal; he practically fled the room.

    Once he was safely one block away from the administration building, he pulled the file he?d filched out from beneath his maroon vest. When he was helping the woman retrieve the scattered papers he?d happened to notice that one of them was the report he wanted and proceeded to tuck it into his belt beneath his vest when she wasn?t looking. He stared down at it now, wearing a satisfied smile. Once he returned to his room at the inn, he intended to make a thorough study of it.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  17. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 3 continued

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    A gray shadow traversed the rooftops of Konoha, cloak fluttering ghost-like behind it as it went. Night had fallen, and the sky was blanketed with clouds, but the shadow moved as sure-footedly and as with as much certainty as if it were broad daylight. To the members of ANBU, the Village?s rooftops were almost as familiar as the streets. A soft rain pattered on the shadow?s hood as it finally reached its destination and slipped in through the open window in the Council Room.

    ?Ryotate-sama, I?ve returned with news,? she said, sinking into a kneeling position before the Elder standing watch there. Since the investigation of the assassination cases had begun, ANBU had been working around the clock, and so had the Village Council.

    ?Who reports?? the older man asked, rising from his chair and moving closer to address her.

    She raised her head, sliding aside her mask.

    ?Hanone Oujou of Squad Nine, Sir. My team sent me personally because the birds we sent as messengers mysteriously never seemed to reach you. We lost contact with half of the other squads as well. I can only assume they?ve gone on ahead of us because I didn?t meet any of them on the return trip. As for my squad, we were delayed in Kazeya Town due to a sandstorm. It came sweeping across the desert without warning; we had no choice but to seek shelter until it passed. We were unable to follow Gaara to the city of Gairu.?

    The storms in the Wind Country could rip the flesh right off a man?s bones.

    Slowly, the Elder nodded.

    ?And where was the Sand boy last seen??

    The young woman?s face darkened beneath the shadow of a frown.

    ?We lost sight of him in the desert. I believe he knows that we were following him.?

    ?Ahh...? The Elder turned and began pacing the length of the room, hands clasped behind his back. ?I?ll read your report later. But first I want to hear your personal account. It troubles me that we?ve lost contact.? His restless footsteps carried him to the window, where he leaned his elbows on the sill, gazing out into the rain. ?It may be that the storm was the cause of the birds never reaching Konoha. Or it may not.?

    He lingered near the window for a while, lost in thought. Oujou stared at the cracks in the wood floor beneath her fist, thinking worriedly of her squad. She had abandoned them only with the utmost reluctance, braving the desert alone to return and report. She didn?t like leaving the comrades under her command when one ANBU squad had already turned up dead.

    ?I want a new team assembled,? the Elder said abruptly. ?It seems a specialized force is needed to keep a clear watch on these assassins.? He turned away from the window. ?Send word to the Hyuuga.?

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    The Country of Wind

    As Hanone Oujou slid her mask aside, the sand burst forth from the gourd and flew toward her with breakneck speed. Gaara made no move to stop it, planting himself firmly in the middle of the alley and watching her with narrowed eyes. Her face registered surprise as she realized she was being attacked, but her swift reflexes saved her. Chakra shot rapidly to her feet, and she sprang sideways, landing in a gravity-defying crouch on the side of the stone wall to her right. The sand shot past her left shoulder so swiftly that it scraped the fabric from her sleeve and some of the flesh beneath as well.

    ?What is the meaning of this?!? she demanded angrily, clutching at her shoulder. ?You---?

    She was unable to finish whatever accusation she was about to fling at him, because the sand swerved abruptly mid-air and shot toward her again. This time she was ready for it, though, and melted backward into the shadows on the wall. The sand struck the wall so hard the stone cracked, but Gaara sensed that it had not damaged the woman in any way. With wide, sharp eyes he scanned the darkness pervading the alleyway. He could sense an odd energy emanating from her, and it was making his blood stir.

    ?Hiding yourself won?t kill me,? he called to the shadows. ?Come. Show me what it was you were sent to do.?

    ?I wasn?t sent to kill you!? her disembodied voice insisted. Though it echoed through the alleyway, it seemed strangely muffled, as if she were speaking through the stones themselves.

    Gaara made no reply to her attempt to defend herself, but merely stood where he was, waiting. The sand scraped along the walls, seeking out the body that accompanied the voice.

    ?I won?t attack you,? the young woman promised. ?And I won?t fight back. I can?t; to do so would be to violate my orders.?

    Suddenly, she slid into view from a place nearer to him on the wall, and then leaped down with a somersault to land crouched in front of him. Then she rose to her feet, slowly and warily, holding one hand out before her as if to hold him at bay.

    ?Regardless of the risk, a mission should not be compromised,? she said. ?And I will protect you even if it costs my life to convince you of that!?

    Briefly, Gaara?s eyes widened as he recalled a Konoha ninja who had once said something very similar. The sand scraping along the walls began reaching toward the young woman from behind with tendril-like fingers, moving slowly and hesitantly because its master was distracted. But Gaara was not to be distracted for long. The words spoken by that Konoha ninja resonated strongly in his memory...

    ...but this young woman was not from Konoha.

    ?Tell me,? Gaara said coldly, taking one step toward her. ?What is it that your organization wants? Blood money? Or do you think my death would somehow reveal to you the secret of the demon sealed within me??

    She shook her head vehemently.

    ?You should tell me,? Gaara continued, taking another step forward. ?At least it would give your death some meaning.?

    Now the gray-cloaked shinobi became aware of the sand drifting through the air around her, the tendrils beginning to tighten their orbit around her body.

    ?No!? she protested angrily. ?You must trust me! I am Hanone Oujou, Rank Chuunin, captain to ANBU?s Squad Nine, on the orders of the Village Council themselves to---?

    Gaara tilted his head to one side, peering at the ANBU mask now rotated to rest against the side of her head to reveal her face.

    ?You are not one of the ANBU,? he said softly. ?Before I took part in the Chuunin Exam, I was briefed on what to expect from Konoha?s guardians. On missions, in front of outsiders, they do not remove their masks.?

    The young woman?s eyes widened, and her jaw clenched. Calmly, Gaara tossed the sack he?d been carrying behind him and to the side, and then used his newly-freed hands to form a seal before it even hit the ground.

    ?Desert Coffin,? Gaara said quietly.

    The sand swirling around the woman abruptly folded in on itself, closing in around her body with crushing force. Gaara?s hand tightened into a fist, and the death-trap clenched inward.

    Yet there was no spurt of blood, and no crunch of bone. There was only a splash of liquid, jetting out between the clumps of sand.

    ?A Water Clone?? Gaara mused. ?In the desert, no less...?

    He advanced another step forward as the sand exploded and fell, staring at the falling liquid. The woman was gone.

    ?She sank down into the shadows again,? Gaara thought, wearing a faint, dark smile. If he was going to have to kill again, at least this one was proving to be interesting.

    The sound of soft, rapid footsteps made him turn his head upward. The woman was running swiftly up the wall, clearly intending to escape via the rooftops. The instant her movements caught Gaara?s attention, the sand she had previously escaped now rose upward along the wall after her. Its velocity was now reduced, however, by the liquid her clone had showered it with, making it heavier and less aerodynamic. Watching it give chase, Gaara thought for a moment that she might actually outrun it. The walls here were nearly four stories high, but if she were to reach the top and change the direction of her flight by ninety degrees, the sand would not be able to maneuver fast enough to prevent her from sprinting the straight shot across the town?s roofs. She would be running directly into the sandstorm raging overhead, of course, but she had more of a chance of surviving that than she did his particular breed of sand.

    She never reached the top. The sand surged upward mightily, swallowing her from feet to head. Again Gaara clenched his fist, and again the sand clenched inward. There were no shadows for her to melt into this time; the sand had thoroughly encased her.

    And again, only liquid spurted out when the Desert Coffin closed.

    Gaara?s eyes widened.

    ?A decoy,? he realized, watching the liquid shower earthward. ?That time it wasn?t even a replacement---she deliberately used the clone to distract me...?
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  18. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 3 continued

    In the split-second that this realization hit him, something sharp jabbed him in the back of the neck.

    ?Kunai?? he thought in surprise as the sharp point pierced through the armor of sand that he wore like a second skin. ?No...a needle...?

    At close range, even his sand armor had vulnerabilities. The back of the neck was one of them. His enemy had arisen behind him from his own shadow, and her needle had caught him off-guard. Liquid flame radiated outward into his shoulders and head from where the point had pierced the flesh at the base of his skull.

    ?Paralyzing poison,? he thought. The demon chakra inside him would eventually work to counteract it, but it would be a while before he would be able to move properly.

    Behind him he heard a sharp, metallic click, and suddenly everything around him went up in a rush of flames. His own clothes ignited as if he were a match someone had just struck alight. Startled, Gaara tipped his head backward to avoid the abrupt rush of flames jetting upward past his face from the front of the robes he wore over his shirt. Now he understood that the woman?s clones had been formed from some kind of igniting liquid, for the purpose of spattering him with it. The gourd strapped across his back was torn from him and cast aside, and the assassin pressed herself against him from behind, she locking one arm around his throat.

    By this time the sand that had chased the decoy upward came seething down the wall, making straight for Gaara?s attacker. It bore down upon the woman, peeling away at her exposed flesh and scraping away the layers of clothing to expose the rest. The instant the flames touched it, the sand ignited as well, for it was still carried with it the droplets from the second exploded decoy. Gaara wasn?t being burned at all, for his sand armor protected his skin from the fire, but the heat was becoming distinctly uncomfortable. Sand and smoke roiled around them, gritty and acrid against his vulnerable eyes and nostrils. Gaara understood that the threat of smoke inhalation was not something to which he was invulnerable, and noted with growing concern that the paralysis was not wearing off as swiftly as he had anticipated.

    The woman?s choke-hold apparently wasn?t meant to strangle him, but to buy her time. Gaara felt her frantic breath at his ear, rasping from the smoke and guttural with blood from what the sand was doing to the flesh of her face. Because she was clinging to him so tightly he could not use the Desert Coffin to stop her, and it seemed that even the roiling sand flaying the flesh from her bones was not enough to deter her.

    Her words from before echoed in his ears: ?Regardless of the risk, a mission must not be compromised.?

    ?That is an assassin?s way,? he thought detachedly, while his brain fought for oxygen. ?To kill even unto death.? It was something he understood; something he had always known by instinct. Or perhaps. . .perhaps it was merely something that the demon inside him had always known; an instinct not his own but essentially become his own...

    Through the haze of grit he could see that the woman was forming what looked to be a very complex seal using only one hand. Tattered flesh hung from her arm along with the rags of her sleeves, blowing with the sand?s flow and spraying everything crimson. But her hand...her hand was...

    ?That SEAL,? Gaara thought, attempting to put up a struggle against the drug and the arm locked around his neck. ?That seal is...it?s not natural...? His struggle only succeeded in making both of them stumble forward a pace.

    An unnatural chill pervaded the air between them, intensifying rapidly as she completed another part of the seal. It was unlike any cold he had felt before; so icy it burned. It was like death become air. It turned his blood to ice in his veins, raising the short red hairs on the back of his neck.

    ?What IS this?? Gaara thought. Every instinct for self-preservation was now screaming for him to kill her before she could complete the strange jutsu.

    Her right hand finished the seal at last, and then retracted from view. Watching her out of the corner of his eye, Gaara saw that she was dipping the fingers of that hand in her own blood, which now ran freely down the mess that had once been her face.

    The muscles in his limbs went tense and rigid, and instinct took over. Gathering itself inward and risking the exposure of his flesh, the sand armor that covered his shoulder reshaped itself into a point and jabbed upward. Gaara let out a short, choked gasp as the flames on his clothes licked across his bared shoulder, but the wound was well worth the pain. The blade of sand caught his attacker through the chin, skewering her through the upper trachea and stabbing through the harder tissue beyond before passing into her brain.

    Even at this instant of her death, the assassin?s jutsu hand flailed upward, striking Gaara across the cheek and brow.

    There swept over him a wave of chakra so icy he imagined she was pulling him down into the dark underworld after her. Her left arm loosened and slid away from his throat, and the sand-blade retracted back onto his arm as the cloud of sand finally tore her off of him.

    Free of her weight but also free of her support, Gaara sank to his knees in the sooty dirt, coughing and shedding his outer robes to beat the flames from them against the ground. Behind him, over the crackle of the dying flames, he heard the sickening crunch of bone and the softer, disintegration of the pulpier organs. The sand had acted of its own accord, exacting vengeance on his attacker for the death she had so nearly dealt him.

    There had been death in her touch. Gaara knew it as surely as he felt the movements of the sand. For that brief instant after dipping her fingers in her own blood, the assassin had held death in her hand. She had been reaching for some vulnerable part of him, seeking a wider opening in his sand armor than the one her needle had made in the back of his neck. At the last, she had been reaching for his widened eye---one of the few places on his body where the shield did not cover him. Had her hand not fallen short, Gaara sensed that he would have been swallowed by that yawning, dark void that had opened between them.

    He, Gaara of the Sand, the untouchable Gaara, would have been felled by a mere touch.

    Slowly, shakily, he pushed himself to his feet and turned to look at what remained of the assassin?s body. Though somewhat dizzy from the poison, he stepped closer to the mess, silently commanding the sand to return. It rose from the scattered remains like a cloud of flies, circling overhead a bit to purge itself of the flame-liquid. Then it flowed past its master, returning at last to the gourd, which---upon being cast aside by the assassin---had rolled up against the wall some ten feet away.

    By this time Gaara was aware of the shouts of the townspeople echoing through the dark streets. The alley was near Kazeya Town?s outer wall, and also in a portion of the settlement that had been abandoned. However, someone traversing one of the cross-streets had inevitably caught sight of the flames and raised an alarm. Gaara fully intended to flee the scene as quickly as possible, as he had done following the previous attempts on his life, but this time the damage done to him did not permit the necessary haste. The freedom of movement had returned to his limbs completely, but his head was reeling from the last effects of the drug and the smoke he?d inhaled, and his shoulder stung from the burn. He scooped up the tattered, charred remains of his outer robes and then re-stoppered the gourd. As he slung it over his back with one hand, he stooped to reach for the sack that he had been carrying earlier, which by some miracle had escaped with very little damage.

    Then he heard footsteps, and a strong hand clamped down on his left shoulder. He tensed, straightening and whirling about so fast that he nearly lost his balance.

    ?Easy, boy,? a man?s voice said.

    Gaara found himself face to face with what appeared to be two shopkeepers carrying lanterns. One of them was young; roughly Gaara?s age. The other was elderly, with streaks of gray in his beard and food stains on his apron. It was the older man who had laid a hand on the Sand ninja?s shoulder.

    ?I---? Gaara opened his mouth to lie, but the words didn?t come easily. His throat had gone bone-dry. ?It was---? He did not want to kill these men. He did not. Nausea surged through him at the thought.

    ?A bomb,? the young shopkeeper spoke up, eyeing the charred remains lying strewn about the alley.

    The shopkeeper?s gaze flickered downward to Gaara?s hands, and then back up to the boy?s face.

    ?Are you all right, boy?? he asked, seeming genuinely concerned.

    It was then that Gaara realized he was still clutching the sack, and that this was the man who had sold it to him earlier. For such a petty reason, the shopkeepers had naturally assumed that Gaara was the victim.

    ?A bomb,? Gaara repeated, finding his tongue at last. ?I?m under attack. I?m going to my village, to seek protection.? For good measure, he clasped the sack more tightly against him---a gesture he sensed would enhance the lie.

    The shopkeeper stepped back from the Sand ninja in a hurry, some of the sympathy evaporating from his face.

    ?You?re a Sand ninja, aren?t you?? he asked. ?Well, it?s best you move on from this town soon if this sort of trouble is following you.?
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  19. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 3, continued and finished

    Then he nodded sharply to the younger man, and the two fell into a discussion about what to do with the remains. Sensing that any further explanation on his part would be unwelcome, Gaara set off down the streets again with his sack and his gourd. He had intended to leave Kazeya Town as soon as the storm let up, anyway. But for now, there was still a mission to complete.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    Twenty minutes later, Gaara arrived at his destination. He had chosen to stay in an abandoned building near the outskirts of town on purpose, anticipating trouble and wanting to avoid mainstream attention. As he swung open the rusty door to the room, he called, ?Temari! Kankurou! The storm is cleared,? before crossing the threshold. It was the password they had all agreed upon, signaling that whoever had left the group was returning safely.

    His comrades sat on the cold stone floor, both of them almost as coated with dust as their surroundings. Kankurou was attempting to polish the wood finish of his puppet. Temari was attempting to comb the tangles from her fluffy blond hair by running her fingers through it. Both of them looked very tired. Gaara felt somewhat guilty seeing them thus; it was his fault that they were having to live like this while they traveled.

    ?Gaara, what happened?? Kankurou asked, looking up from his work and taking in Gaara?s bloody, disheveled appearance in a glance.

    Gaara held up the sack he?d been carrying. It was slightly singed on one side, and the steamed dumplings inside were cold, but everything was still intact.

    ?Mission complete,? he informed them.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    The Aoite Road; Southeast of Konoha


    ?Shut up, moron. I?ve got blood blisters on my hands and you don?t hear me whining.?

    The complaint was Naruto?s; the retort Sasuke?s. As background noise to this sudden bout of bickering, there came the steady swish-swishing of boken chopping downward through the air. Shikyo, having immediately assessed Team Seven?s kenjutsu potential with ill-concealed disgust, had set them all practicing the same striking motions for the remainder of the day. Night had fallen now, but the Rain ninja---observing their movements with intent skepticism---had decreed that they were to keep repeating the exercises until Kakashi awoke and rejoined them.

    Naruto shot a glare Shikyo?s way, but the man ignored it. Like Kakashi, the Rain ninja seemed impervious to their youthful resentment, but recalling how easily Shikyo had thrown both himself and Sasuke at once Naruto judged it best not to revolt. Rebellion, he sensed, would earn him far worse than a mere sword-hilt in the gut.

    ?He wasn?t kidding when he said ?pain?,? Sakura muttered under her breath. She seemed to be taking quite naturally to the exercise, however. Sweat streamed down her face, but the expression she wore was one of the utmost determination. Though she hadn?t gloated at all, her two comrades sensed that she was pleased with herself for being the only one Shikyo had praised. If nothing else, this served to make their sour moods sourer.

    And to make matters worse, Naruto was bored. Even Naruto knew that when he was bored trouble was inevitable.

    He wasn?t about to start anything, but of course there were always ways of getting Sasuke to start something...

    A slow grin spread across his face. Sakura noticed it and blanched.

    ?Uh...? she began, but Operation Boredom Cure was already beginning.

    ?Shikyo-sensei, I have to take a leak!? Naruto called, lowering his boken and turning toward the Rain ninja, who was seated cross-legged on the terrace at the garden?s edge.

    The blue-robed shinobi rose quietly to his feet, motioning for Naruto to follow him into the inn. Sasuke and Sakura hung back, as Naruto had anticipated they would.

    ?You guys have to come too,? Naruto told them, smirking. ?We always have to stay with one of the Jounin, right??

    Just as Shikyo stepped inside the sliding door and turned the corner leading into the hallway, Naruto formed a quick seal, and abruptly there were three extra Naruto?s standing in the garden. The Genin proceeded to form another seal, muttering ?Henge,? and then two of the Naruto?s became Sasuke and Sakura.

    The real Sasuke and Sakura eyed Naruto with great misgivings as the three duplicates went trotting after Shikyo. Naruto grinned at them, tossing his boken into the grass.

    ?Well, you?ve tricked him,? Sakura finally managed to say, placing her hands on her hips in irritation. ?Just what are we supposed to do now? Don?t you think we?re going to be in a crap-load of trouble when we?re caught??

    Naruto shrugged.

    ?Probably. But for now, we hide. That way when he comes back we?ve got my Shadow Clones to swing those stupid sticks for us.?

    Sakura stared at him.

    ?That...is the dumbest idea I?ve ever heard,? she declared.

    But Naruto noted with satisfaction that she was making no move to hurry after Shikyo and clear things up.

    ?I?m going to hide,? he informed them. ?If you rat on me, I?ll have the other me?s use you for kunai target practice.?

    He spun on his heel with exaggerated bravado, heading for the terrace at the garden?s opposite end.

    He stopped short when he felt Sasuke?s boken poke him between the shoulder blades.

    ?You?re going to stop this and you?re going to stop this now.? Sasuke?s voice was cold enough to freeze hell.

    Naruto barely managed to suppress a cackle of glee. Things were about to get interesting.

    ?He?s right, Naruto,? Sakura chimed in. ?Disobeying our superiors here is dangerous.?

    Naruto turned around slowly, for dramatic effect.

    ?So you?re gonna fight me, is that it?? he drawled, waggling his eyebrows at Sasuke. ?Sasuke-chan with his leetle stick? Going to swordfight me if I don?t go take a leak like a good boy??

    This, of course, was precisely what Naruto wanted. Sasuke?s gloomy demeanor since the previous day had been getting on his nerves, and if anything the yellow-haired Genin felt a good swordfight would snap him out of it. It seemed he was about to get his wish; Sasuke looked appropriately incensed, gripping the boken?s hilt so tightly his hands turned white at the knuckles.

    ?Pick up your sword,? he told Naruto between clenched teeth.

    Grinning fiercely, Naruto fished his boken out of the weeds.

    ?STOP it. BOTH of you!? Sakura snapped. ?This is stupid. I?M going to tell Shikyo-sensei.?

    ?Okay,? Naruto replied, shooting her a grin. ?We may have killed each other off by the time you get back, of course...?

    Again Sakura blanched, her gaze traveling back and forth from one boy to the other. Then, unexpectedly, she stooped down and lifted both of Shikyo?s practice swords from the ground. With sudden, lightning speed, she brought both blades up to bear, pointing them at either boy with the tips just under their chins.

    ?S-stop it NOW!? she demanded. ?I won?t let you do this!?

    Naruto took one look at her dual-sword stance and burst out laughing. Staring at her pale-faced, determined expression, Sasuke suddenly let out a snort of disgust, flinging down his boken.

    ?Forget it,? he snapped. ?This is stupid.?

    ?Oh, by all means, continue.?

    All three Genin jumped, whirling around to face the new voice?s owner.

    Kakashi was sitting on the inn?s low roof, his long legs dangling over the edge as he watched them.

    ?Don?t look so surprised,? he told them in response to their shocked faces. ?I knew you?d try to pull something stupid if I left you alone for too long. Shikyo?s a sharp man, but he doesn?t know you three like I do.? He paused, resting his hands on his thighs, and then added thoughtfully, ?But I daresay this looks interesting. Do continue.?

    The three Genin exchanged bemused glances, and then, slowly, Sasuke bent to retrieve his sword. Atop the roof, Kakashi leaned forward.

    ?All right, you lot,? he said lightly. ?Hajime.?


    Yamisui: I apologize for the length of this, but I just couldn?t see any way of breaking it up without making it overly choppy. The Gaara side-story almost seems irrelevant at this point, but if you?ve any power of recollection at all you?ve noticed that the technique the assassin just used against him was Shinkuhana. There definitely IS a connection...to be revealed at a later date. We swearsss it on the preciousss. Anyway, stay tuned for Chapter 4: The Crossing of Swords and Seas.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2004
  20. shadow_sand

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    wow this is really good. I like the storyline a lot
  21. tato82

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    Hey YamisuiOnna, I hope you keep on going, this is really good.
  22. YamisuiOnna

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    Nov 15, 2004
    Chapter 4: The Crossing of Swords and Seas

    Author?s Notes of Luv: I had to make another correction to chapter 2, because in rereading the manga I noticed the part where one Akatsuki member remarked that the entire group hadn?t met together in seven years. Whoopsies. . . So anyway, in this chapter I?ve changed it to FOUR Akatsuki members visiting the Sound Village instead of nine. Also, having read the most recent installment of the manga?s ?Kakashi Gaiden,? I?ve changed the flashback part in chapter 1 yet AGAIN, so that only Kakashi knew the Shinkuhana jutsu, and Obito had no part in it. In short: ARG!!! Damn the callow canon!!!

    I?m sure you were all hoping to see our beloved Team Seven boken the crap out of each other in the previous chapter; I?m sorry if the title was misleading. I had originally intended to put that in at the end, but then it occurred to me that anything over 25 pages was a bit long for a chapter, so I ended before that part. So anyway, here?s some boken-nihilation to compensate for that.

    {o} {o} {o} RED BLOSSOM {o} {o} {o}

    {o} {o} Chapter 4: The Crossing of Swords and Seas {o} {o}

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    At first the three Genin merely stared at one another, each one?s gaze darting between his or her two potential opponents. Then Sasuke and Naruto locked eyes with each other, and the previous tense mood returned. A slow grin spread across Naruto?s face.

    ?Hee hee,? he chuckled ominously.

    Sasuke was smiling, too, although it was a smile that implied he was feeling inclined to mix a little murder in with his training.

    The two boys rushed at each other, each one leveling his boken at the other?s chest.

    At that moment Shikyo burst into the courtyard, flinging aside the sliding doors with a loud bang. In a flash he had leaped off the wooden terrace and into the long grass, positioning himself between the two charging Genin and stopping their boken with either hand. He surveyed the area with sharp blue eyes, taking stock of the situation, and then his gaze turned upward as he noticed Kakashi seated on the roof.

    ?Kakashi-san!? he called out. ?They have---?

    ?Oh, I know,? Kakashi interrupted, vaguely gesturing the matter aside. ?But they?re about to beat each other senseless. Come watch.?

    Wearing an expression of acute disapproval, the Rain ninja cleared the space between ground and rooftop in one bound. He seated himself cross-legged beside the white-haired Jounin, folding his arms across his chest and looking displeased.

    ?This will not help their training,? he remarked, frowning down at the Genin on the grass below. ?At any rate they require discipline. . .?

    ?Well, then let?s make this even more fun. . .? Kakashi suggested, raising one hand to his chin. His three subordinates peered up at him with great misgivings; there was a familiar ominous gleam in one eye, very much like one he?d worn at the end of the bell test he?d once given them. ?How about. . . The last one standing gets to go to bed. The other two get to keep practicing boken exercises with me until you either pass out or I get bored.? He paused, producing the sequel edition of Icha Icha Paradise from a pocket in his vest. ?And believe me,? he added, in sepulchral tones, ?I will not be bored.?

    His three students gaped up at him in abject horror. Shikyo stared down at the book in the Jounin?s hand with one eyebrow raised; Kakashi?s affinity for novels of questionable nature had obviously not been mentioned in the dossiers.

    ?He?s---he?s using this to PUNISH us!? Sakura thought, shutting her mouth and swallowing hard.

    Sasuke?s jaw clenched, as did his hands around the hilt of his boken. Naruto, in the meantime, pointed a finger up at Kakashi as realization hit him.

    ?Ero-sennin?s BOOK just came out?!? he exclaimed loudly. ?All hell broke loose in Konoha, and he STILL managed to publish that dirty stuff?!?

    ? ?Ero-sennin??? Kakashi murmured, scratching his head in bemusement.

    In the garden below, Naruto?s two fellow Genin had no idea what he was hollering about, and neither did they care. Slowly, their heads swiveled his way, their eyes full of Death.

    ?That Naruto. . .? Sasuke thought darkly. ?This is. . .?

    ?HIS fault. . .? Sakura finished the thought.

    Naruto was lying prone on the ground before he even knew what hit him. It didn?t take him long to figure out, however, because no sooner did he manage to roll over onto his back to see what had befallen him than his teammates moved in for the kill. Sasuke?s first blow had caught him directly in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him. Sakura?s had caught him from behind, jabbing the vulnerable soft spot at the base of his skull and temporarily causing his vision to go dark.

    ?He?s STILL moving?!? Sakura exclaimed, jabbing the downed Genin in the gut with the tip of her boken. ?Just pass out already!?

    ?OW!? Naruto wheezed, rolling swiftly to one side just in time to avoid being pummeled in the head by Sasuke?s blade stabbing downward. The dark-haired Genin?s blow was so forceful that the weapon sank a good two inches into the damp earth beside its target.

    Naruto rolled and sprang onto his feet, shaking his head to clear the stars currently orbiting it. Fortunately, his hand still maintained a death-grip on his boken, because by instinct alone he managed to raise it in time to block another blow from Sakura, aimed for his stomach. As Sasuke suddenly lunged toward him from behind, Naruto aimed a vicious kick in his direction, which Sasuke arrested with one hand just in the nick of time. The Sharingan, now wheeling red in Sasuke?s eyes, had given him the foresight needed to stop Naruto?s foot from connecting with his mid-section.

    ?That?s RIGHT,? Sasuke thought, clenching his teeth. ?Kakashi never told us no TAIJUTSU. . .?

    With his left hand he chopped downward with his boken, aiming for the nerve in the back of Naruto?s knee which, if struck properly, would cause Naruto?s entire right leg to go completely numb and useless. The blow connected. However, at the same time Naruto ducked into an awkward sort of somersault, planting one hand on the ground and arcing his boken around in a circle aimed for Sasuke?s ankles. With lightning speed, Sasuke pushed off from the ground, avoiding the blow. He was still clutching Naruto?s foot, so that he dragged Naruto with him. A good ten feet up in the air, Sasuke flipped the practice sword in his hand so that his fist gripped its hilt while its wooden blade pointed earthward. As Naruto attempted to somersault mid-air to bring himself upright, Sasuke stabbed downward.

    The blow caught Naruto directly in the throat. His jaw clicked shut and his head snapped back with the force of it. Together they plummeted toward the earth. Just before they hit the ground, Sasuke stamped downward, planting both feet on Naruto?s middle and slamming the Genin into the grass. It was a downsized variation of his formidable ?Lion Combo.? He landed in a crouch atop his comrade, blade poised above Naruto?s face in case Naruto had any fight left in him. But Naruto was quite finished, lying passed out and blank-eyed amid the damp grass, with spittle trailing from one corner of his mouth.

    Wearing a faint smirk, Sasuke allowed the Sharingan to fade from his eyes. Then he remembered Sakura, and rose to his feet again. She stood not five feet behind him, arms dangling at her sides. She still held her boken, but as he turned to face her Sasuke saw her grip on the two hilts loosen so much that he thought she might drop them.

    ?Heh,? he snorted, relaxing his stance. ?Don?t think I?m going to take it easy on you because you?re a girl.?

    Sakura started slightly, her eyes widening. She was still reeling from the recent strike of realization: by aiding Sasuke in dispatching Naruto, she had precluded the possibility that she and Sasuke would have to fight. And she didn?t even have the nerve to land a kiss on Sasuke?s face, let alone a blow. . .

    She didn?t drop the boken.

    But neither of them moved.

    ?Oy, you two.? On the roof, Kakashi was leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees. ?A staring match does not count as sparring.?

    Sasuke?s pale face hardened into a look of grim determination. Nervously, Sakura tightened her grip on the boken, hands turning white at the knuckles.

    ?He?s. . .he?s SERIOUSLY going to. . .?

    ?I am not spending the night being punished alongside that moron,? Sasuke informed her in a low voice.

    Sakura shut her gaping mouth, sinking into a defensive stance. She could see clearly that there was no way out of this. Sasuke lifted his practice sword and turned it sideways, clearly taking aim for what he felt would be a swift end to the match. His concentration was now focused solely on her.

    It was a grave error; he never sensed the blow coming.

    That moron?s blade rammed into a pressure point between his shoulder blades---one which temporarily caused the lungs to freeze. Yet the part of Sasuke?s brain driven by instinct compelled him to complete his attack. Even as Naruto?s blow buffeted him to his knees, he managed to lunge forward with superhuman speed, striking low at Sakura with the boken still clutched in his hand.

  23. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 4 continued

    However, instead of striking the inside of her ankle and toppling her to the ground, the flat of his blade only struck her slantwise across the shins. This caused her to gasp with pain and to stumble backward, beyond reach of any further assault. Of course, at this point the chance of him launching any further assault was quite slim. It was rapidly becoming difficult to breathe, and his vision was going hazy. Behind him, Naruto yelled, ?HEY!?---presumably because Sasuke had hit Sakura---and suddenly he found himself planted prone on the ground with a mouthful of grass. Mouthing a curse, Sasuke spit out the grass, attempting to throw off the weight pressing him down.

    ?What the. . .?? he thought, but thoughts were beginning to flow disconnectedly through his brain.

    Then there came a loud crack, and a sudden jolt above him. Something landed hard across his back, forcing his head down into the weeds again. And then. . .silence.

    Sensing that no further blows were coming his way, Sasuke turned his focus inward to his lungs, fighting the lingering effects of Naruto?s pressure-point strike. Then, just as the stars were beginning to fade from his vision and the strength began returning to his limbs, he heard Sakura?s voice close by.

    ?Uh. . .are you alright, Sasuke-kun??

    Sasuke blinked away the last of the stars, straining to lift his head. Sakura was kneeling in front of him, peering down at him in concern. She had cast her boken aside, apparently the better to wring her hands in worry.

    ?Yeah,? he grunted irritably, trying to sit up. Yet his body felt strangely heavy, as if a great weight were keeping him pinned to the ground.

    Then he heard a familiar noise behind him.

    ?Owwwwwww. . .?

    ?Get off me, dumbass!? Sasuke snapped, abruptly losing patience with the dead weight across his back. Wrenching his shoulders to the right, he managed to roll onto his side, dumping Naruto onto the ground. Naruto lay where he?d fallen, apparently still seeing stars from the blow Sakura had dealt him after he?d struck Sasuke down.

    Up on the roof, Shikyo averted his gaze in disgust.

    ?You should know, Kakashi-san,? he said in a low voice, ?that had it been my choice I would have brought you alone, and left these children at home. It?s a sign of sheer obedience to my lord that I?ve respected his adamant wish and brought your team as well.?

    Kakashi, who was watching the proceedings in the courtyard below with folded arms, merely frowned and offered no reply. Shikyo sighed, running a hand across his brow, displaying signs of weariness for the first time along the journey.

    ?They?re skilled at long-range combat and move well in difficult terrain,? he conceded, ?especially the Uchiha boy. But they lack the discipline for what we?ll be facing. The girl?s the only one who seems to have any common sense,? he added, nodding toward Sakura below. ?She waited for the other two to beat each other down before making her move.?

    Kakashi finally spared him a glance.

    ?They?re stupid,? he agreed calmly, unfolding his arms. ?But they?re also full of surprises.?

    Shaking his head, the Rain ninja leaped down from the roof, landing easily in the courtyard. His sandals squeaked in the wet grass as he rose to his feet.

    ?I read the dossiers,? he told Kakashi without turning around. ?I know what they?re capable of. But Mizutou has its own surprises. The Mist Ninja are. . .? He broke off, seeming unsure of how to word it. Finally, he gave up and shook his head again, looking up at the Leaf Jounin on the roof. ?I hope you understand the delicacy of the situation.?

    Kakashi nodded slowly, his one visible eye unreadable as he stared thoughtfully at the man below him.

    ?I think I understand quite well,? he murmured.

    When it became apparent that this was all Kakashi had to say, Shikyo turned and headed across the courtyard toward the opposite terrace.

    ?I?m tired, Kakashi-san,? he called sharply. ?I?m going to bed. I leave them to you.?

    Kakashi watched him go in silence, but his uncovered eye narrowed, and beneath his mask he wore a frown.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    The Hidden Village of Sound

    Kabuto walked briskly through the narrow, walled streets that led to his master?s headquarters. Behind him, the four Akatsuki members moved with purposeful stride, swift and silent as ghosts. They appeared to be taking no interest in the village itself, for which Kabuto was somewhat grateful, but he could feel their eyes boring into the back of his skull, and the feeling raised the short hairs on the back of his neck. When the Sound Village was formed, Akatsuki had displayed no real interest in it, but he sensed that this was only because they didn?t perceive any of its denizens as a threat. He supposed that they did perceive Orochimaru as a threat, but the news of the Sannin?s injured arms had no doubt reached their ears swiftly and assuaged any concern they might have had.

    Walking ahead of them, Kabuto smiled thinly. If they thought his master helpless because his hands had been rendered unable to perform seals, then that was for the best. Orochimaru?s immortality jutsu did not require the Sannin to perform hand-seals himself. Kabuto knew that his master was merely waiting to change bodies once he had acquired the Uchiha boy. And if Akatsuki remained unaware of this, then that was also for the best.

    ?Let them see him wounded here. Let them think his only ambition lies in revenge on Konoha. . .?

    Some of the Sound residents crept out onto their balconies to watch the silent procession below. The village had no buildings over two stories tall; Orochimaru had purposefully constructed it to make it difficult to locate. Entrenched deep in the forest, away from all public roads and civilian establishments, it was ?hidden? in the fullest sense.

    Wordlessly, Kabuto led the four behind him down a long, shadowed corridor that sloped into a hall beneath the earth, like a dugout. Inside the walls were stone and sunless, and the way slanted steeper still into a flight of stairs leading down to his master?s chambers. At the end of another long hall, Kabuto opened a door and held it open as the four Akatsuki members filed past. None of them spared him a glance; their eyes were now trained upon the Sannin inside.

    Orochimaru sat at the head of a long table with his useless arms resting in his lap. The scroll that he?d been studying had already been shoved clumsily to one side. There was a small, round lantern hanging from the ceiling, through which a soft red glow spilled down onto the table?s dark wood, and the two corners of the room behind him harbored low tables with braziers burning atop them. Beside the braziers there were bowls of hot ash, in which sticks of incense smoked gently, lending a faint tang to the air. Other than these, there was no light in the room. Kabuto knew his master preferred the shadows because his afflicted arms pained him, and also because the darkness hid from his four visitors the sweat beaded on his pale brow. Even if the Sannin?s powerlessness was a temporary deceit, Orochimaru in his hubris abhorred displaying weakness in front of his enemies.
  24. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 4 continued

    ?Four I see, when five were expected,? Orochimaru said, a bit sharply. He had received word from his network of spies days ago that five Akatsuki were within close range of the Sound Village. Suspecting that they might be coming to see him, he had ordered Kabuto to meet them should they approach the gates.

    ?The fifth was killed, yeah,? one of the remaining four answered softly. ?Only a potential recruit, it was, but we can?t let this slide, yeah.?

    None of them deigned to move toward chairs or table, evidently preferring to stand. There was a definitive hostile air about them, so thick it was almost tangible.

    ?What is it you want from me?? Orochimaru asked in a smoother tone, leaning back in his chair.

    Kabuto took his seat in a far corner of the room, where he could observe the faces of all present.

    ?We will make this short and clear,? another of the four answered, ?so that there will be no misunderstanding. The organization has become aware of recent events that suggest an Assassins? Ring has been formed.? A pause. ?Normally, we would not pay heed to such matters, but the Ring?s activities seem widespread. There is a heavy presence in the Water Country, and possibly in the Fire Country as well. There is even a. . .tenuous presence in the Country of Wind. But that is a special case---there, they seem to be pursuing only one target. A trio of Sand brats. . .?

    Orochimaru?s pale brow furrowed.

    ?What involvement I had with the Sand is over,? he murmured. ?I have no hand in this, and I have nothing to say on this matter.?

    The first Akatsuki member to speak stirred restlessly, shifting leathery wings behind him.

    ?We?ve seen firsthand, yeah, what methods they use. Not bad, yeah. It?s the Shinkuhana jutsu.?

    One corner of Orochimaru?s mouth twisted upward into a crooked smile.

    ?I know of it,? he told them. ?The ?technique that kills inevitably?---target and assassin. But why do you suggest my involvement in this??

    ?The Crimson Blossom technique was developed by the Fourth Mizukage in the Water Country,? the second Akatsuki member responded levelly. ?Soon after, it became forbidden there, for reasons known only to the privileged few in the Mist Village. But there have been. . .instances of its use since then. And now there are many instances.? Another pause. ?The technique is rare---extremely so. It takes a supremely expert amount of chakra control to wield it. . . And the fact does not escape us that there are renegade Mist shinobi under your command.?

    Orochimaru snorted faintly, a lock of dark, lanky hair falling forward over one cold eye.

    ?I take in the trash that comes to my doorstep in greed,? he replied. ?The unpolished Genin; the criminal Jounin---all unprivileged and weak until I take the scrap metal that they are and forge from them a newer, stronger blade. I don?t take in those stupid enough to grow in power and then waste it by dying to kill someone.? He tilted his head thoughtfully, causing his lanky hair to lend further shadow to his eyes. ?Pawns I use as I see fit, but there?s no one I fear to the extent that I would waste a fine blade to silence them.?

    Forgotten in his corner, Kabuto?s sharp gaze flickered.

    ?Of course he deliberately neglects to mention Sasuke,? he thought wryly to himself. ?That is ONE fine pawn he would willingly sacrifice. After all, it was his lust for the Sharingan bloodline limit that made these men his enemies. . .? Kabuto?s smile faded.

    The first Akatsuki member stepped forward, curving the claw-like nails of one hand over the back of one of the chairs. The lantern?s light reflecting off the table illuminated the grotesque features of his face.

    ?We?re not here to talk about blades. We?ve come to hear your take on this, yeah. Where you stand.?

    Sweat began gathering at Kabuto?s temples; the reason for this unwelcome visit was becoming dauntingly clear.

    ?If you?ve come to threaten me, you?ve made a wasted journey,? Orochimaru said coolly. ?My sole concern right now is Konoha. I?ve no care for killing Sand brats, and even less for the Water Country.? He paused, and then added, almost as an afterthought, ?And I?ve no quarrel with you.?

    Kabuto?s attention was now riveted solely upon the faces of the Akatsuki, eyes straining in the near-darkness to gauge their reaction. Of course, there was no question that they had come here expecting Orochimaru to deny involvement. Orochimaru?s near-immortal hide was very precious to him; he would deny his own mother if he thought it would keep him breathing for just one moment longer. And these men knew him; knew his selfishness and his pride very well. Of course they?d been expecting him to claim innocence. . .

    ?The question is: have they come to attack him, using the Assassins? Ring as a mere excuse, or do they seek information about this because it actually DOES concern them?? Silently, subtly, Kabuto began to call upon the chakra he reserved for regeneration in battle. If the four visitors? reasoning was the former, then the possibility that he would die right here in this room was highly likely. If it was the latter. . .then Orochimaru would continue to spout vague half-truths until they gave up in disgust. In the best possible case they would leave the Sound Village quietly, melting back into the forest from whence they?d emerged.

    A tense moment passed---a moment in which the four Akatsuki exchanged significant glances. At his sides, Kabuto?s hands clenched into fists, and he shifted slightly in his chair, already assessing what course of defense he might take should they choose to attack his master.

    But the moment passed. . .and the Akatsuki made no move toward the Sannin at the table.

    ?What we desire, Orochimaru, is information, which it seems you don?t have. How. . .disappointing. I believe we?re finished here.?

    Orochimaru?s expression darkened into a scowl.

    ?You intend to leave so abruptly?? he asked sharply. ?After bringing false accusations? Tell me: what do you know of this Assassins? Ring? Whom are they targeting??

    ?We?re investigating, yeah,? the winged one replied carelessly. ?Time we leave to find answers.?

    He turned toward the door. His clawed hand had nearly closed around the door?s handle when, in a flash, Kabuto moved between him and the exit. Then the gray-haired shinobi opened the door for him, gesturing him through with a smile that was perilously close to mocking. The Akatsuki didn?t bat an eye, and filed out without further comment.

    Once outside, they appeared to know exactly where they were going, but nevertheless Kabuto followed them all the way back to the gate. He found it extremely hard to believe that they had come all this way just to pay Orochimaru a courtesy call and to ask him one question. He found it extremely hard to believe that they would be satisfied with the Sannin?s denial of involvement, and that they would leave so peaceably when they?d gained nothing from this.

    When at last the gate had been closed behind the Akatsuki, and they had vanished into the trees, he returned to his master?s chamber.

    ?That went well,? Orochimaru remarked as Kabuto entered and shut the door behind him. He didn?t even bother to look up from the scroll in front of him.
  25. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 4 continued

    Kabuto, for once, was completely floored.

    ?You?you do have a hand in this?? he exclaimed, one hand clenching into a fist at his side. ?You risked too much, then, letting them in.?

    This time the Sannin favored him with a brief glare before returning to his studies.

    ?Don?t be stupid,? he snapped, frowning down at the scroll. ?I?m not involved in this. The last thing I want is to draw that much attention to us right now.?

    ?Akatsuki?s behavior is illogical,? Kabuto insisted, moving further into the room and taking a seat at the far end of the table. ?Why would they travel all that way just to ask you one question? And why were they anywhere near the assassins in the first place, when their comrade was killed? They couldn?t have developed an interest in this ?Assassins? Ring? before his death, could they??

    Orochimaru finally gave up on the scroll, losing patience. Kabuto tensed in his chair; when Orochimaru lost patience, heads tended to find themselves detached from their bodies.

    Fortunately, the Sannin was in a relatively good mood because the Akatsuki interrogation ?went well.?

    ?They didn?t come all this way for that,? Orochimaru agreed. ?Akatsuki does nothing without deliberation. They were already in the Fire Country with their five members when my underlings caught sight of them. At the time, my shinobi learned that Uchiha Sasuke had left Konoha. That in itself was of minor concern to me, but then they came upon the five Akatsuki traveling northwest, and that report did concern me. The point, Kabuto-kun, is that the Akatsuki were already in the Fire Country when they were attacked. So yes, something about this ?Assassins? Ring? concerns them, the death of the fifth one aside.?

    Kabuto ran a hand across his mouth, speculating.

    ?Something this widespread, commanding the attention of Akatsuki. . .shouldn?t it demand our attention as well?? he mused.

    Orochimaru snorted derisively.

    ?No. The Sound shinobi obviously aren?t the targets, or with our heavy presence in the northwestern forests we would have been attacked by now. Let Akatsuki deal with this threat if they choose; we stay focused on our own goals.?

    Kabuto?s frown deepened. He lowered his head, red lantern-light gleaming in the lenses of his glasses.

    ?The four were satisfied too easily,? he remarked, unwilling to drop the subject. ?They took your word too quickly. They must have had ulterior motives for coming here tonight. . .?

    Orochimaru went back to his reading.

    ?Tch, Kabuto-kun. Pay better attention. The other two---the ones who didn?t speak---were Bunshin. No doubt their real counterparts were busy investigating the city while you led their clones to me.?

    Kabuto glanced up sharply in alarm.

    ?In that case, how can you possibly say this went well?? he demanded, spreading his palms against the table?s surface. ?They sent spies into our midst.?

    Orochimaru pushed the scroll open further, seeming unconcerned.

    ?I?m quite confident that they found nothing dangerous,? he said mildly. ?Everything that could possibly be of interest to them is safely hidden in the underground chambers, the location of which is known only to the select few. Doubtless they left with the impression that this really is just another upstart shinobi village. No doubt they?ll think I?ve grown relatively complacent.? He smiled wryly at this; a private joke.

    ?This was a bold move on their part,? Kabuto said in a low voice.

    Once again Orochimaru paused in his reading, his cold, reptilian eyes narrowing to slits. ?We will deal with the Akatsuki problem later,? he murmured, ?when we have replenished our ranks again, and the Sharingan is mine??

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    Moving swiftly through the forest beyond the Sound Village, the four Akatsuki now kept a sharp eye out for any sign of movement among the trees.

    ?He claims he cares only about Konoha, where we allowed him to believe the assassins weren?t necessarily present,? one recanted. ?But they are present in the forests southeast of Konoha---heavily so. The fact that he doesn?t know this proves his lack of involvement.?

    ?So Orochimaru was telling the truth. . .? another murmured. ?What a rarity.?

    ?I could number the times that has happened on one hand,? yet another remarked dryly. ?But in this case, I?m surprised. Given the ones the assassins appear to be targeting, it was natural to assume Orochimaru had a hand in this.?

    ?Then how shall we go about this, yeah? Do we follow, to investigate??

    The first speaker lowered his head.

    ?It seems the best choice. Given the assassins? targets.?

    ?Then we follow, yeah.?

    Their course drew them southeast through the dark wood.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    The Aoite Road

    Slowly, painfully, Sasuke rolled into a sitting position, rubbing his forehead and scowling. The haziness was taking a long time to clear from his vision. To his right, he heard the soft sound of footsteps through the grass, and then Kakashi?s gray-clad legs moved into view.

    ?Sakura?s won,? the Jounin said quietly.

    Sitting beside Sasuke, Sakura was rubbing her legs and wincing. A long, dark bruise was already forming across her shins. Naruto was still flat on his back.

    ?However, all three of you will be spending the rest of the night training,? Kakashi went on, looking down at the three Genin at his feet.

    Sakura?s head snapped up, injuries temporarily forgotten.

    ?WHAT?!? Her jaw dropped. ?WHY??

    Sasuke opened his mouth to protest as well, but then promptly shut it again as he looked up at Kakashi. The Jounin was not pleased. When something worried him, there was a certain subtle heaviness to the air around Kakashi that made up for the concealment of facial expressions behind the mask.

    Anything that worried the easygoing Kakashi usually meant Imminent Death.

    The Jounin crouched beside Naruto, briefly laying a hand to the Genin?s forehead.

    When the contact elicited no response, he returned his attention to the two sitting up.

    ?In a sense, really, you all lost,? Kakashi told them, settling back on his heels. ?From the very beginning I intended to make you practice for the remainder of the night. You need basics before you?ll be any good in combat, and you need discipline for pulling a stunt that stupid when you know we?re being hunted by killers.?

    Sleep deprivation and the recent tense mood had made Sakura especially grumpy, and she only grumbled in response, ?It was Naruto?s idea.?

    Kakashi elected to ignore this particular relegation of blame.
  26. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 4 continued

    ?You all lost,? he went on inexorably, ?because you didn?t fight with skill. You went for what you thought would do the most damage instead of aiming to incapacitate your opponent swiftly. So now you?re all covered with bruises and lumps on the head, which is going to make the training a lot more unpleasant. I told you---the last one standing would be the winner. All you had to do was keep your two opponents on the ground to win.? He paused, scratching his head and eyeing them drolly. ?But of course you lot missed that point from the beginning. You were all too keen on beating the tar out of each other.?

    Sasuke cast a glare Naruto?s way, but then he rose to his feet, fishing his boken out of the grass again. Sakura remained on the ground, looking as if she couldn?t decide which she wanted to kill more---Naruto or Sasuke.

    ?THEY started this,? the Inner Sakura fumed. ?BOYS and their damned EGOS!? Of course, Sakura hadn?t exactly stopped Naruto from initiating the prank in the first place, but the Inner Sakura could be pretty selective in her perception of things.

    ?Get up,? Kakashi ordered, rising to stand himself. ?Pick up your weapons.? He paused, looking down to his left. ?Naruto, you?ll want to stop faking unconsciousness, because I?m going to work with you all on a certain blocking technique that I feel is the most important.?

    One blue eye cracked open, cautiously at first, but then Naruto sprang to his feet.

    ?Really? We?re done with the exercises??

    Sasuke and Sakura stared at him wordlessly; he seemed as energetic as if he?d just risen from a good night?s sleep.

    ?I should?ve hit him HARDER,? both thought at once.

    Kakashi, in the meantime, was already calmly picking up the boken their Rain ninja escort had left behind.

    ?Listen, you three,? he said in a low voice as the Genin finished retrieving their practice swords. ?Before we begin, I?ll say this: I want none of you to be alone with Shikyo. Ever. Understood? If for some reason we?re separated, do not allow any one of you to remain with him without another present.? He made this pronouncement calmly, as if it were as trivial as discussing the weather, but the fact that he?d mentioned it at all meant that it wasn?t.

    It sounded like a warning.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    The three Genin trained long into the night, and almost until dawn, when a fuzzy gray light spread thinly over the inn?s roof, and the night-lanterns were finally extinguished by one of the staff. Only then did Kakashi see fit to let them stagger back to their room. The Jounin was satisfied with the progress they?d made; they were now able to use their swords to block flesh contact from every angle he came at them. There were exceptions, of course, made because of his phenomenal speed and their exhaustion-dulled reflexes, but he felt these were only temporary setbacks at worst. They were idiots, but they did learn quickly.

    Having obtained an adequate amount of rest himself, Kakashi kept watch over them all as they slept. He allowed them all what he estimated to be about five hours of rest before awakening them to set off down the road again. They didn?t take lunch before leaving; Shikyo felt that they?d wasted enough time as it was. Kakashi, on the other hand, felt that the delay had been quite necessary. As they traveled, he forced his three subordinates to walk in a formation of sorts, so that they could practice blocking each other with the boken. The training involved a lot of poke-and-jab, because the Genin playing the role of ?attacker? had to come at his or her armed opponent with bare hands, trying to touch bare skin. The result involved everyone?s arms being decorated black and blue, and more than one smashed finger.

    ?I think I?m going to lose this nail,? Sakura observed sadly, eyeing a pinky-finger that had turned a nasty shade of purple.

    Naruto, in the meantime, rubbed his arms and affected a sour expression like his friends?, but his bruises hadn?t lasted at all. They had disappeared almost as soon as they formed. Fortunately, he was wearing long sleeves, which helped him to avoid drawing the suspicion of his fellow Genin and possibly Shikyo as well. Naruto squinted sidelong at Shikyo; he still hadn?t figured out whether the Rain ninja knew about the Nine-Tails. If not, then he decided that was how it was going to stay.

    By late afternoon the dark clouds had come rolling in to cover the blue autumn sky, fading the forest leaves around them to dull brown and blood-dark crimson. Then it began to rain steadily---a rain which persisted and showed no sign of letting up. When the sun had finally set, Kakashi allowed everyone a break for dinner, disregarding Shikyo?s now-customary impatience. The Konoha Jounin produced from his pack a sack of dumplings purchased from the inn. The rain hadn?t gotten any less steady, however, and the meal was eaten cold with no fire to cook it over. After dinner there was another three hours? travel as steady and monotonous as the rain, and then to everyone?s dismay they came upon no other towns and were forced to spend the night outdoors.

    Kakashi enlisted the boys? aid in erecting a crude shelter, made of branches and the tarp he?d brought in his pack. Sakura, he said, was exempted from this task because she?d won the previous night?s sparring. Sasuke and Naruto spent half the time holding up branches while Kakashi tied them together and half the time shooting Sakura dirty looks. Sakura was blissfully unaware of the dirty looks because she was busy trying to run a comb through her hair---which, at this point, was too soaked and filthy even to be frizzy.

    The shelter proved to be entirely too small for four people in four sleeping bags to fit in comfortably, so Naruto found himself crammed in quite uncomfortably with his teacher and two teammates and four very damp, very squashed sleeping bags. Kakashi?s legs were so long that his feet stuck out part-way. Only Sakura seemed happy with this arrangement, because even though they lay head-to-foot she was practically sleeping on top of Sasuke. Naruto pulled a face, squinting at her feet in the near-perfect darkness. Why she liked sleeping next to Sasuke was beyond him---they were now nearly three days out of Konoha and exhausted from training, and they all smelled like it.

    Shikyo alone remained outside, keeping watch. Naruto craned his neck to peer out at the man, who sat perched on a tree root several yards away.

    ?Oi,? he whispered to his fellow Genin. ?Shikyo-san isn?t even sitting under a branch or anything. He?s soaked!?

    ?Well, he is a Rain ninja,? Sakura murmured sleepily. Then she chuckled woozily at her own pun.

    Sasuke merely snorted irritably. He was lying on his back, with both arms drawn in as tightly to his chest as he could manage. It was difficult being morose and antisocial when one was packed in tightly enough with one?s comrades to smell onion on their breath from the previous meal.

    For a while, there was silence save for the rain pattering on the leaves. Then Naruto revealed that the cogs in his brain were still grinding.

    ?Maybe he does like rain,? he suggested. ?Maybe his clan?s bloodline trait is to absorb rain like food, and that?s why he never wants to stop and eat.?

    Neither Sakura nor Sasuke replied; both went silent with amazement at the idea?s sheer stupidity. Naruto chose to interpret the silence as a sign that they were listening.

    ?Maybe. . .? he rambled on, ?this whole rotten trip is all a plot by the Hidden Village of Rain to---?

    ?Naruto, shut up,? Kakashi said, unexpectedly.

    Naruto obeyed, scowling and finally closing his eyes.

    Soon Kakashi was the only one left awake. He was listening intently for sounds other than the raindrops.
  27. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 4 continued

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    In the morning, the travelers awoke to the pleasant surprise of sunshine streaming in slantwise through the shelter. Sasuke awoke to the not-so-gentle sensation of Naruto poking him repeatedly in the head, chattering something about breakfast. He tried to scoot out of his sleeping bag, grumbling something about not wanting breakfast, only to find that find that Sakura was hugging his legs in her sleep.

    Later, after he?d finally pried himself loose from her, Sasuke joined their four companions around a fire.

    ?Nice hair,? Naruto remarked, grinning impishly and pointing across the fire at Sasuke. ?You look like a cockatiel.?

    Sasuke?s only retort was a withering look. Kakashi blinked drolly at Naruto, wondering vaguely how the boy had managed to miss the presence of the stick in his yellow hair. It stuck out slantwise, like some sort of mutant antler.

    The clamor for breakfast, as it turned out, was utterly justified, for Kakashi had bought a string of fish. They were small, but once gutted, skewered, and roasted over the fire they tasted far better than cold dumplings. Everyone?s spirits had lifted by the end of the meal, except for Shikyo?s, which seemed to be worsening the further they traveled. If Kakashi noticed---which was likely; he didn?t miss much---he chose to ignore it, and his students followed suit. Though they didn?t understand Kakashi?s warning, it had served to deepen the feeling of unease each of them had around Shikyo.

    As they ate, Kakashi relayed tidings that made even Sasuke crack an almost-smile. The fish was fresh because it had been purchased from a merchant heading north from the ocean. According to the merchant, the sea was only one day?s journey away down the Aoite Road, which to the traveling shinobi meant a temporary respite from all the walking. They would follow the road to a seaport village and cross by boat the strait between the Fire and Water Countries.

    After breakfast the group set out with a good deal more optimism in their stride. No one even saw fit to grimace over the ankle deep mud that the rain had made of the road---except for Naruto, who amused himself by goose-stepping his way along. He was wearing a pair of blue boots that fit but looked as if they?d seen their better years, and he pretended to be disgusted by the splotching noise they made whenever he put his foot down.

    ?It?s just like stepping in dog shit,? he remarked cheerily. ?Over and over and over again.?

    No one replied; it wasn?t a conversation any of them wanted to start.

    By nightfall they had reached the village by the sea---a small, rustic place where there was only one inn and it didn?t have indoor toilets.

    ?The watchman?s sighted the passenger boat in the distance,? Kakashi announced over dinner. ?We?ll be taking that one as soon as it arrives. Everyone dress warmly; the watchmen also says his back?s hurting him, and in these parts that passes for a storm warning.?

    Sasuke nodded absently, slurping at the hot tea in front of him.

    ?Sakura-chan, why aren?t you drinking yours?? Naruto asked, setting his down to squint at Sakura, who was looking rather quiet and peakish.

    Sakura scowled at him, which meant that she preferred to go on being quiet and peakish in peace. Truth be told, she was avoiding the tea because there weren?t any indoor toilets, and she didn?t want the embarrassment of having one of the Jounin follow her when she peed outdoors. ?Hell no!? the Inner Sakura agreed. The Outer Sakura blushed.

    She counted herself fortunate enough that she?d managed to avoid it during the day-and-a-half journey from the inn.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    The shinobi were only allowed an hour of sleep at the inn before Kakashi roused them to board the ship. Then they shouldered their packs once again and stumbled up the gangplank.

    The ship was a grander affair than the boats they?d seen in the Wave Country. It was fashioned from a darker, harder wood, which Shikyo told them grew only in the forests of the Water Country. Lanterns hung on posts at various intervals around the ship?s railings, revealing that the sides of the hull were painted with the patterns of rolling waves. The hull itself was large, allowing room for its passengers to sleep on hammocks in a space nearly four feet high. As it was raining and nothing was currently being required of them, the Genin made straight for the hammocks. Three hours later, they emerged at Kakashi?s behest and immediately wished they hadn?t, because that was when the seasickness set in.

    To distract himself from the nausea, Naruto immediately made a beeline for the prow, peering out into the darkness ahead in hopes of catching the first glimpse of their destination. The ocean below---which he could see by lantern-light---was a choppy, uninviting bluish black.

    ?Nothing out there but blue water and black sky,? Shikyo called to him. The Rain ninja was perched on a crate nearby, busy sharpening the points of the needles he carried on a whetstone.

    Naruto squinted back at him in suspicion. He took Kakashi?s warning quite seriously, and he also hadn?t forgotten the fact that the assassins in the Fire Country had come after them with needles. By his simple reasoning, both these things only served to confirm the negative impression he?d first received. Naruto liked people who knew how to have fun, while Shikyo never seemed to relax at all. To Naruto?s count, he had never once seen the man slouch, let alone laugh. Wherever the Rain ninja sat, he sat poker-straight, and he always looked tense and grave.

    Giving up on sighting land, Naruto made his way back across the deck wearing a scowl. His stomach was churning right along with the waves underneath him.

    It was still raining.

    Once the entire team was assembled, Kakashi cast Naruto a brief, interested glance.

    ?Apparently,? the Jounin mused, ?Kyuubi?s chakra doesn?t heal afflictions caused by an imbalance of the inner ear.? This made sense, considering the fact that Naruto was vulnerable to Genjutsu.

    ?In a bit I want you three resuming your exercises,? he said aloud. ?This is the last real opportunity you?ll have to train in the way you?re. . .used to.?

    Naruto and Sakura exchanged bemused glances; Sasuke frowned at Kakashi.

    ?What does that mean?? he asked in a low voice.

    Kakashi motioned for them to sit, and they settled down on the deck, leaning their backs against the ship?s wooden railing.

    ?There was a reason behind my making you wear plainclothes,? he explained. ?And it wasn?t just to keep us from revealing our presence in Mizutou to the Mist Ninja. According to Shikyo-san, Mizutou is home to a unique class of warriors. By unique, I mean to say that they use only kenjutsu. They are Lord Garyu?s elite guard---part of some tradition that goes back many generations in his family.? He paused, his one visible eye narrowing. ?They also have an unspoken tradition of hating shinobi.?

    Naruto?s mouth fell open.

    ?What?! Why?? Sakura demanded, planting both of her palms hard on the deck. When outraged, the Outer and Inner Sakura?s tended to move in sync.

    ?They?re jealous of our power.?

    The four Leaf ninja turned toward Shikyo, who was still honing his needles atop the crate.

    ?Garyu-sama?s ancestral predecessors named them the ?Heikou Force?,? he went on, without bothering to look up from his work. ?I don?t know much about their reasoning; they don?t exactly speak freely in front of me. Even my lord claims he doesn?t understand the tradition. But the Heikou are the reason why I am the only shinobi under the Water-lord?s command.?

    After this cryptic pronouncement, the Rain ninja fell silent.

    Sasuke turned back toward Kakashi.

    ?So we?re going to hide ourselves from them?? he asked in a low voice. ?Is that it??

    Kakashi studied the three young faces, peering up at him in various degrees of outrage. They were proud of what they were, his team. These were children raised in a place where they were taught to view their strength with pride. In this way, he supposed, they had led a sheltered life. Others, like the boy Haku, had not been so fortunate.

    Having lived longer and seen more of the world, Kakashi knew there were places where the ninja bloodlines were feared and hated.

    ?You?re going to keep a low profile,? he corrected Sasuke. ?The Heikou already know we?re coming. But they, unlike the lord they serve, do not know what we?re capable of. They aren?t privy to any information about us at all, and that?s the way I?d like to keep it. I want you to avoid displays of your ninjutsu in all but two situations: if Lord Garyu is in immediate danger, or if your own lives are threatened. Then and only then may you act.? He paused here for emphasis, to show his students how serious he was, his gaze sliding pointedly between Naruto and Sasuke. ?No more stunts,? he admonished sternly. ?We?re the foreigners here, in the territory of the Mist shinobi, and if we fail this can result in not only our deaths but war between our Villages.?

    All three Genin nodded solemnly. Sakura and Naruto?s eyes were wide as owls?, and Sasuke?s were narrowed as if in boredom, which Kakashi interpreted to mean the Uchiha boy was nervous as well. He nodded curtly in satisfaction; it was good that they respected the gravity of the situation. In a situation like this he needed soldiers, not children.
  28. YamisuiOnna

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    Chapter 4 continued and finished

    ?Good,? he told them after the prolonged silence. ?Now that I?ve said that, you can go resume your exercises. Once the captain?s sighted land, we?ll be changing course to sail toward the northernmost port to dock. There you?ll be sleeping a few hours on board the ship before we take the western road around the coast toward Mizutou.?

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    The last round of kenjutsu training was ended prematurely by circumstances quite beyond mortal control. The rain gave way to a lightning storm, which caused Kakashi to call off the practice and send his students back down into the hull for a rest. After a while he joined them, conceding to his own exhaustion.

    In the musty darkness of the hull, Sasuke lay awake on his back. The hammock beneath him swayed none too gently, because the rough water was rocking the whole ship back and forth. His companions were somehow all asleep despite the fact that all hell seemed to be coming at them with a hammer---slamming low, hard waves into the wood. It sounded like it was going to break.

    Even above the din from outside he could still hear Naruto snoring.

    Sasuke lay there for a while with his hands tucked beneath his neck, staring up at the low ceiling above him. He listened for the deep, quiet breathing of his other companions, waiting for them to fall asleep, all the while watching the play of lightning through the cracks and knotholes in the wood.

    Then he rolled deftly onto his feet and crept on hands and knees across the floor toward the ladder.

    The short climb led him onto the deck, where after opening the hatch and replacing it quietly behind him he found himself nearly bowled over by the wind. Clutching a nearby mast and glancing about him, he saw the captain at the helm and the four other crew members securing the side riggings to keep the sails straight. He released the mast and made his way toward the rear of the ship.

    ?You?re a restless one, aren?t you?? Shikyo remarked mildly as the dark-haired Genin approached him from behind.

    The Rain ninja was standing near one of the lanterns, peering out across the heaving sea. Sasuke rather admired his fortitude; even Kakashi hadn?t wanted to take the watch during this.

    ?You?re not just out for a walk, either,? Shikyo went on without turning around as Sasuke approached him. ?Well, I know what you?re going to ask. And the answer?s no.?

    Behind him, the Rain ninja heard the Uchiha boy?s soft steps halt.

    ?No you don?t know it, or no you won?t teach it to me?? Sasuke asked after pausing a beat.

    Shikyo sighed, tipping his head back as a fresh gust of sea-spray blew against him.

    ?There?s a dark look in your eye, boy. I understand what you want---or what you think you want. But the answer?s still no.?

    The Rain ninja stood still as a statue, gazing out over the sea until at last he heard the footsteps begin a stealthy retreat. He pressed his lips together in a grim line.

    ?Sasuke. . .? he mused. ?This one. . .may be useful. . .?

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}


    Early in the morning---at a time to which he was highly unaccustomed---Jiraiya made his way through the crowds of early market-goers, heading southward from the inn where he was staying. In his hand, he carried the documents he?d borrowed the previous day.

    He had spent all night studying them, trying to make sense of this.

    And now. . .in the cool gray of morning, his swift stride carried him to the very door mentioned in the papers. There were only two living men who knew the technique known as Shinkuhana. One was away on a mission; the other answered the door when he knocked.

    ?Morino Ibiki?? Jiraiya said quietly. ?I?m sorry to wake you, but there?s something I need to discuss.?

    The bald-headed Jounin had come to the door in a gray, faded shirt and trousers that apparently served for nightclothes. He wasn?t wearing his forehead-protector, and the ugly scars across his scalp stood out even in the faint light. He took one look at his unexpected visitor and his sharp eyes narrowed.

    ?Sannin-sama. Come in.?

    Jiraiya was concise, explaining his concerns as swiftly as he could while Ibiki listened. At the end of his tale, the Jounin nodded, his grizzled brow wrinkling.

    ?You want to know how I came to learn the Crimson Blossom Technique? I can?t tell you anything useful. I didn?t learn it from the Mist shinobi, its creators; I learned it from the Jounin Kakashi, many years ago. This was primarily for the purpose of preserving knowledge of the technique for inscription so that it could be studied once we had safely returned to Konoha. . .?

    Jiraiya frowned as well.

    ?. . .before the Fourth declared it forbidden,? he finished. ?Even the scroll was destroyed; only you and Kakashi carry knowledge of it.?

    Ibiki?s mouth twisted wryly.

    ?I?ve banished it from my memory,? he said, a bit sharply. ?It?s more than just a danger when it?s put to use.?

    ?What do you mean??

    The Jounin lowered his head, and for once he averted his sharp gaze.

    ?What it does and what it does to your mind are not so very different,? he said cryptically. ?It?s hard to explain---the strange contradiction of knowing that you can kill anyone you choose while knowing that you must die as well. You look around you, and you begin to wonder ?Who?s worth it? How important does it have to be to be worth dying for?? You become so preoccupied with wasting or not wasting your life---or wasting your chance to bring down even the most powerful---that it begins to consume your strength as a soldier.? He looked up, shaking his head and smiling grimly. ?I chose to bury it, through hypnosis and memory drugs, so that I would never use it. I didn?t want that kind of power to eat away my strength of mind.?

    Slowly, Jiraiya nodded. On several levels, he did understand.

    ?And Hatake Kakashi?? he prompted. ?Has he also chosen to forget??

    ?Hmm. . .? Ibiki murmured thoughtfully. ?No. Long ago he chose his purpose for keeping it, given special circumstances. He already made his choice of where and when to use it, so he won?t be unraveled by the inner confusion.? He paused, noting Jiraiya?s questioning look. ?So what was the choice? It?s a great burden on him, no doubt---one that may never be lifted. But the answer is staring you in the face.?

    Ibiki reached across the table, laying one thick finger on the dossier in front of the Sannin. Jiraiya looked down.

    The Jounin was pointing to the page where Kakashi?s team members were listed.


    Yamisui: The scenario with Akatsuki paying a visit to the Sound Village stretches the canon quite a bit, because I only recently found out that the Sound Village is just one year old. However, it isn?t totally implausible, either---all the ninja seem to know the location of each others? ?Hidden? villages, and I would think Akatsuki would certainly be interested in the one set up by their enemy. At this point it?s really too late to change that part anyway, so you readers commenting on it won?t help me. Just try to enjoy the story for its own sake; hopefully I?ve made it interesting enough to distract you from the canon holes. I?ll admit this chapter?s been a bit slow compared to 2 and 3, but think of it as the quiet before the storm. . . ;-) Stay tuned for Chapter 5: ?Mizutou Arrival: Shinobi Under Cover!? I believe that?s about the time all hell starts breaking loose.
  29. YamisuiOnna

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    Nov 15, 2004
    Chapter 5: Mizutou Arrival! Shinobi Under Cover!

    Author?s Note: On a ship, ?fore? means ?front? and ?aft? means ?back.? I?m not trying to be condescending; I felt I had to define these for you readers because when it came to ships I had to go look up some of the terms myself. (Yamisui is a land-lubber.) Also, ?Suiton? means ?waterfall,? used in context with Kakashi?s technique for controlling powerful columns of water.

    {o} {o} {o} RED BLOSSOM {o} {o} {o}

    {o} {o} Chapter 5: Mizutou Arrival! Shinobi Under Cover! {o} {o}

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}​

    The Water Country

    The rains that followed the storm were by far the worst, drumming relentlessly against the deck of the ship. However, as its passengers neared their destination, the hard weather finally abated. The low clouds remained, but the air grew warmer and mist rolled in around the ship.

    Kakashi was none too pleased.

    ?Can nothing be done for the visibility?? he pressed, joining several of the crewmen at the lanterns. ?Can?t the lights be suspended out over the water? I don?t like not being able to see what I?m floating through.?

    The crewmen looked to their captain, who was standing beside Shikyo at the helm. Shikyo nodded and spoke quietly with the captain, gesturing toward the cliffs jutting darkly out of the sea ahead. Then the captain barked an order, and his men proceeded to remove the lantern-posts from their fastenings. These they turned sideways and re-fastened suspended over the water, hanging from their poles. In this fashion the water was illuminated for ten feet out from the ship in every direction.

    ?Not enough,? Kakashi murmured, his frown remaining. ?Sasuke!?

    Sasuke hastened over. Naruto and Sakura followed a little ways behind, curious as to what Kakashi wanted. The three of them had appeared above deck as soon as land was sighted, filled with renewed hope that their heaving guts would soon be at peace.

    ?Sasuke, we?re going to make an exception to my rule about keeping a low profile,? Kakashi explained, nodding toward the fog-laden waters ahead. ?When we pass by those rocks up ahead, I want you to lend us some light.? Sasuke murmured assent, but his dark eyes slid sideways toward the crewmen standing nearby. ?The crew knows what we are,? Kakashi added in a low voice. ?But more importantly, so do the ones in the water.?

    ?WHAT?? Naruto exclaimed loudly. ?In the WA. . .?

    He was immediately silenced as Kakashi clapped a hand across his mouth.

    ?Idiot,? Sasuke hissed. ?If our enemies know we know they?re there, we won?t have the element of surprise.?

    Naruto and Sakura nodded grimly, and Kakashi released his hold, satisfied that there would be no more forthcoming noise.

    ?If for some reason we should be separated,? he told them, ?you all carry a map of the island. Go to Mizutou and we?ll regroup there. We are all in danger here, but so is our contractor. Garyu-sama is lord of the Water Country. His protection is to be prioritized at all costs.?

    Naruto said nothing, but lowered his eyes a little. As sensible and just as it was, something about the order disagreed with him. But Kakashi knew best in a situation like this, and so he kept his silence.

    ?Sakura, you take starboard; Naruto, port,? the Jounin instructed calmly. ?I?ll take aft.?

    Naruto blinked quizzically, raising one eyebrow. Sakura poked him in the arm.

    ??Port? means ?left?,? she whispered.

    ?Oh, right,? Naruto agreed, as if he?d known all along.

    Kakashi distributed the weapons he?d brought for them in his pack, and added one final warning: ?Remember your training.? There was no question as to what training Kakashi meant; the three Genin nodded grimly. Strapped across their backs, they now carried real katana.

    ?They?re going to attack the ship?? Sasuke muttered dubiously. ?Are they targeting the Water-Lord or us??

    The three comrades exchanged serious glances. If Kakashi?s suspicions proved correct, they were about to face the Crimson Blossom Jutsu once again. . .and here there wasn?t anywhere to run.

    They departed for their posts. Kakashi conferred briefly with the captain, and the crew lowered the sails, taking up posts at the oars on either side of the ship. Shikyo had ordered them to take the ship into port as swiftly as possible, growing impatient with the lack of wind, but Kakashi was reluctant. He was more concerned with keeping all the members of his team alive at this point.

    Shikyo, who was standing at the prow, suddenly turned and hastened to join Kakashi at the stern. Sasuke took his place, watching the Rain ninja hurry past with narrowed eyes. If Shikyo noticed the dark look, he chose not to acknowledge it.

    ?Kakashi-san!? he snapped, approaching the Leaf Jounin, who stood facing the fog-veiled waters behind them. ?What is the meaning of this? We were to make port in Harbor Village, which lies but one mile in from here! Why has the ship changed course??

    ?We?re passing by the rocks instead of through them because we?re rounding the coast instead of making port,? Kakashi replied calmly, without turning around. ?The original plan is useless now, for our enemies know we?re here. We?ll abandon stealth now and aim for speed.? Ahead of him, he could see the faintest dark shadow, gliding through the water after the ship just beyond the range of the lantern-light.

    Shikyo did not take this news gracefully.

    ?Rounding the. . .? Rounding the coast? Are you mad??

    ?Possibly,? Kakashi mused, rubbing his chin with the long fingers of one hand. ?But if so, it?s going to take a madman to see us through this course alive, so I suggest you remove your hand from my arm.?

    Shikyo hastily removed the hand he?d laid on the Jounin?s shoulder. Kakashi?s tone was light, but his words were a warning.

    The ship veered southeast. Shikyo left Kakashi?s side to join Sasuke at his post. Kakashi watched him with his peripheral vision, assessing the situation. As Shikyo retreated he?d surreptitiously pulled his mask down, uncovering his Sharingan eye. With it he could see that the Rain ninja was gathering chakra into the flesh of his hands. This could mean one of two things: he was preparing to defend the ship. . .or he was about to betray them.

    Hidden in the shadows of the ship?s railing, Kakashi?s hands began forming a seal. The coming battle would decide whether Shikyo lived to see another sunrise.

    On either side of the ship, the lanterns spontaneously snuffed out, one by one.

    The mist-shrouded waters were plunged into darkness.

    ?I don?t like this,? Naruto muttered, squinting to see over the railing on his side. The mist rose up the side of the hull, chilling his face.

    A hand shot out of the mist, caught him by the front of his jacket, and pulled him swiftly over the side.

    Naruto plummeted downward into the water.

    His descent was accelerated by the strong grip of the arm pulling him. The impact stung his face, but even so he?d had the presence of mind to take a breath as he fell, which was fortunate because his attacker seemed intent on pulling him deep beneath the surface. Naruto suppressed the very natural instinct to thrash. Instead, with some difficulty, he drew the katana from its sheath, which was still securely strapped to his back.

    Experimentally, he slashed at the arm pulling him, only to find that his blade glanced harmlessly off some kind of hard-plated armor around the wrist. The pressure of the water around him was going to make it too difficult for him to slash hard enough to pierce the armor. Also, he now had a sword in his hand that he couldn?t reinsert into its sheath because the water and the darkness wouldn?t permit. . .which eliminated the option of forming seals for ninjutsu because only one hand was free.

    Mind racing furiously, Naruto tried the next best thing he could think of: using the sheer strength reserved for Taijutsu, he took hold of his jacket with hand and teeth and tore it apart. The fabric was ripped asunder in one quick motion, sending clouds of bubbles up from his body. Now he had only two sleeves and the back half of a jacket, while his attacker had a fistful of shredded cloth.

    Immediately, Naruto felt his body begin to rise toward the surface, finally putting some distance between them.

    The sea was too dark for his vision to penetrate, and he hadn?t the foggiest idea of what his attacker looked like. He had only a vague impression of a dark, slender shape rising after him, and of two arms reaching for him, as if to wrap him in an embrace. . .

    Naruto gritted his teeth and slashed outward and downward with both hands, executing a move meant to deflect the grasping arms. His vision wavered. . .

    . . .and then the Genjutsu melted away, revealing the truth of the situation.

    His enemy was actually pressed close to him, wrapping the arms around him beneath the reach of the Taijutsu strike he?d just employed. There was a wan glow in the water now, originating from somewhere above the surface. In its light, he saw a flash of movement; a gleam of metal.

    And then the sickle-like blades hidden in the enemy?s wrist-armor emerged. He saw them too late in his peripheral vision; in one vicious movement his attacker curled both fists downward, stabbing twin scythes into Naruto?s back.

    The pain was immediate and intense; Naruto couldn?t suppress a cry. With it, he expelled the last of his air supply in an effervescent cloud. Blood began to swirl outward from him, darkening the water and staining the glow from above.

    He inhaled sharply and found himself choking on blood and salty water. Salt stung his eyes; his nose.
  30. YamisuiOnna

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    Nov 15, 2004
    Chapter 5

    In response to the sudden wound, he could feel red chakra beginning to stir in his body. But mere chakra wasn?t enough. The sickle-blades in his back were meant to act as hooks, rendering him unable to break free as the enemy pulled him down to drown.

    Somehow, he had to break free. . .

    Dimly, as he screwed his eyes shut against the pain, he remembered that he still held the katana in one hand. The enemy was pressed too tightly against him in front to make stabbing a good tactic. Thus it was, with the last coherent impulse in his oxygen-deprived brain, that Naruto crooked his elbow behind him and slashed upward.

    The blow from the katana?s razor-sharp edge caught the enemy?s wrists from beneath, where the armor didn?t extend to cover flesh.

    In the confusion that followed, Naruto no longer cared what became of his attacker. His single priority was air. The instant the blow struck home he felt the blades in his back loosen their hold, and somehow he was finally able to thrash his way free of the enemy?s grip.

    His final rise to the surface seemed like an eternity. His boots and clothing weighed him down. He tore the remainder of the jacket from his back, and with it the blades fell away free. He didn?t bother trying to retrieve them. They sank into the dark depths, along with the boots he?d just kicked off, while his head finally broke the surface. He drew in a gasp, shaking his head to clear the water from his eyes and nose.

    The ship was now nearly fifty feet away.

    Squinting at it as he treaded water and caught his breath, Naruto could make out the shapes of what looked like a whole host of men crowded onto the deck. All were locked in combat. He couldn?t see clearly, but it looked like there were more people fighting than just his team. It was hard to tell; the lanterns were extinguished, and the only current illumination was provided by flashes of white light, which looked like either Sasuke or Kakashi using Chidori.

    ?Shit,? he breathed. If either of them was using Chidori, things were getting serious.

    Taking advantage of the red chakra circulating through him now, Naruto drew some of it down into his feet and rose to run along the surface toward the ship. His eyes were trained on the battle ahead; he never saw the shadow gliding swiftly after him beneath the water.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}

    ?Sasuke, don?t use that jutsu again,? Kakashi admonished. ?At least, not until I give the order.?

    Gritting his teeth, Sasuke allowed the electricity in his palm to dispel, crackling as it vanished into thin air. There was something profoundly unpleasant about having to call back Chidori, akin to holding himself shut inside. The excitement of it brought crimson to his eyes; made him want to raze down every enemy standing in his way with lightning. But he knew Kakashi was right, and he wasn?t stupid enough to disobey orders.

    Not like Naruto.

    Now that he thought of it. . .

    ?Where IS Naruto?? Sakura asked him. She had just managed to fight her way to her teammates? side. She looked shaken and very pale. In the gleam of his dying Chidori, Sasuke noticed that she carried her katana unsheathed, and that there was a good deal of blood slathered across the blade.

    ?How the hell should I know?? he snapped, forced to retreat several steps until he was back-to-back with Kakashi. A new opponent had just appeared in front of him, slashing at his face with what looked to be very long finger-blades stained with poison. ?That moron can take care of himself!? He?d been wondering the same thing, however. He couldn?t see Naruto anywhere on board.

    Drawing his shuriken in a flash, Sasuke launched himself forward again, slicing low across the stomach of his opponent. Instead of a spurt of hot blood, he suddenly found himself drenched with salt water.

    ?Water clones,? he muttered, spinning on one foot to regain his balance after the lunge. ?But where?s the real one??

    Another materialized beside him, having just scuttled spider-like over the side of the hull. However many there were in the water waiting to board after him, Sasuke had no idea. His Sharingan eyes couldn?t pierce through fog.

    ?Forget the one using the Mizu Bunshin, Sasuke,? Kakashi said sharply, even as he used his katana to slice another of the Bunshin in half. ?I?ll worry about that. Find Naruto.?

    Sasuke gritted his teeth, landing a punch to his own opponent?s throat that sent the man sprawling onto the deck. Water splashed every which way as the Bunshin dispelled. Then, with the way suddenly cleared, he launched himself forward. All the while he was cursing Naruto in his head; his comrades and the one remaining lantern were all at the ship?s fore-front, and Kakashi was sending him aft, into the fog rolling in with the darkness.

    It was only a journey of thirty feet or so, but Sasuke soon found himself blinder than he had been during their run through the Fire Country?s forests. . .and considerably more confused. He saw no sign of Naruto, but soon found himself confronted with an enemy no matter what direction he turned.

    ?Just how many of them ARE there?? he wondered, with deep misgivings. His sharp intuition told him that this was a confusion tactic, and a good one. The enemy was using a combination of Bunshin and fog to disorient the Leaf ninja. The ship was also beginning to rock back and forth, which made no sense because the waters through which they were sailing had been still moments before. He had no idea what this sudden choppiness meant, but he severely doubted it was a good thing.

    There also seemed to be more shinobi fighting off the attackers than Sasuke remembered. At one point he could?ve sworn he was spared a blade in the gut by someone too tall and broad-shouldered to be either Shikyo or Naruto. The man wielding the blade disappeared into the fog with a grunt of pain as the stranger?s fist met his head. Sasuke, however, didn?t have time to dwell on the mystery of this. He had reached the stern bow of the ship, but he still couldn?t see a damn thing. The sly caress of cold mist and sea-spray on his cheeks was beginning to annoy him.

    Drawing chakra into his lungs, he formed a seal, heaved a great breath, and exhaled fire.

    A brilliant helix of flame spiraled out over the water behind the ship, cutting through the gray-blue darkness and banishing the fog from its immediate vicinity. In the lee of this sudden illumination, he saw Naruto running barefoot toward the ship, splashing softly as he moved. He also noticed another, more curious thing: the water seemed to be naturally choppy. Somehow, the helmsman had steered the ship into a place where the ocean current was rougher. . .or the enemy had somehow maneuvered the ship for them. . . The latter seemed more likely, to the end of using the turbulent motion to disorient the Leaf ninja aboard.

    However, this particular problem was more immediately eclipsed by what Sasuke saw behind Naruto. A dark shape moved beneath the water, gliding swift and silent after the oblivious Genin. Something that this figure carried with it as it moved was glowing an ominous, fiery red, despite the fact that it was underwater.

    ?SASUKE!? Naruto called loudly, running pell-mell for the stern.

    ?Run FASTER, you DUMB SHIT!? Sasuke shouted back at him.

    And Naruto, being Naruto, actually slowed down to glance back over his shoulder.

    ?WHAT?! WHAT?! Is it a SHAR. . .?

    At that instant, the very last flames from Sasuke?s jutsu dispelled. A split second later, the explosion came.

    {o---O---o} {o---O---o} {o---O---o}


    Kakashi, who had just managed to block an attack aimed for Sakura with one vicious swipe of his katana, looked up in time to see Shikyo appear beside him out of nowhere. At the sight of him stepping into the pool of light cast by the lone lantern, Kakashi?s eyes narrowed.

    Beneath them, the deck heaved abruptly.

    Kakashi held his ground.

    ?Sakura,? he called sharply. ?We?ll be abandoning ship shortly.?

    Sakura, who was standing at his back, stumbled to her feet. The impact had thrown her.

    ?Kakashi-sensei, what about the crew?? she asked, sounding confused. ?They need us for. . .?

    ?The captain and his crew are Leaf shinobi,? Kakashi answered shortly. ?They don?t need our protection.?

    Shikyo didn?t register any sign of surprise or disapproval of this, but his face was grim. The ship lurched again, and the Rain ninja stumbled.

    ?We must abandon soon, Kakashi!? he urged, grabbing hold of the mast to regain his balance. ?The ship will round the coast and be caught in the Hinan Current. Your men won?t be able to turn it back.?

    ?We?re not leaving without all of our team,? Kakashi said firmly. ?Splitting up would be a bad idea. . . I?ve sent Sasuke to find Naruto.?

    From somewhere aft, there came a sudden explosion, so violent that the ship simultaneously surged forward and rolled sideways.