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.
o o o RED BLOSSOM o o o
oo Chapter 3: Kenjutsu Training: The Three Cross Blades oo
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.
"Oi . . . 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 anywhereon 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 whythey'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.
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 nothingabout not using it yourselfAn 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."
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 are gravelymistaken, 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'tbe 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 lastvisit 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 seethe 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 meansno," 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 whereTeam 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 dohave 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.
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 meaningof 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'tto 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.
"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 . . .'
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, 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."
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. Open 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 Sasuketo 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?"
"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 owner of this new voice.
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."
END OF CHAPTER 3
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. And that he survived, even though his sand techniques use a great deal of chakra, which is just as vulnerable to the attack as flesh. This is not an error on my part. There definitely is a reason . . . to be revealed at a later date.
In general, there has been much debate as to what can and can't kill Gaara of the Sand. It was difficult trying to figure out a way for the assassin to come at him effectively when he's so darn invulnerable. However, while grasping at straws, I recalled when Naruto fought him, and that Gaara reveals (or thinks, at any rate) that there are places of vulnerability in his sand armor, even when he's half-transformed into demon-shape. Thus I figured that those vulnerabilities would be even more pronounced when he was in human-shape. As someone with a masters in physics and two fluid dynamics courses under my belt, I can safely assert that where a blunt blow like a punch might not penetrate hard-packed sand, a hard enough jab with an object of small radius will penetrate it. Hence the plausibility of the assassin's needle piercing the vulnerable spot in Gaara's sand armor. The only other technique I could see being affective was smoke, because as far as I know Gaara doesn't have sand protecting his lungs.