Author's Note: Taking a friend's advice, I'm going to start listing the cast of characters thus far, just so it's less confusing. (There are quite a few important OC's in this story.)
Arashi Shikyo: Rain ninja, servant of the Water-lord
Garyu: highest feudal lord of the Water Country
Moritome: currently the highest ranking officer among the Heikou, now that the Elite are dead
Heikou: the swordsmen who act as guards for the city
the Elite: the most skillful Heikou, who act as both ambassadors and honor guard for Lord Garyu---or at least they did until they got whacked
o o o RED BLOSSOM o o o
o o Chapter 7: The Nightingale Floor o o
o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o
The main quarters of Mizutou's palace were opulent beyond anything the three Genin had ever seen. Azure veins of lapis marbled the white columns lining the walkways, and lining the halls were vases so expensive-looking Naruto was sure he'd end up breaking one during his stay here. There were tapestries hung everywhere, cut from silk and embroidered with scenes of men in bulky-looking armor waging war with katana.
'Stupid-looking helmets,' Naruto thought as he rubbernecked. 'They look like upside-down baskets with horns.'
"We'll use the remainder of the day to take care of your needs," Kakashi informed his students as they trailed after him. Sakura seemed like she was having a bit of trouble keeping up. "I'll acquire medical supplies courtesy of Garyu-sama, and I'm sure you want out of those wet clothes."
"Hey, at least Sasuke has clothes," Naruto grumbled, scratching at his back, which was bare save for one thin, ragged strand of shirt hanging low round his waist. He felt naked compared to everyone else.
"Naruto, don't scratch that," Sakura ordered. She was walking behind him and trying not to notice how the muscles of his back rippled when he moved and becoming irritated with herself for noticing anyway. "It's almost closed; you'll start it bleeding again."
Naruto saw Kakashi cast an eye back his way and quickly turned toward Sakura to avoid meeting his sensei's gaze. He didn't know why Kakashi seemed more concerned with his injuries than Sasuke's, and he didn't like it. After all, he was the one who healed fastest, so it wasn't like he was going to be a burden to anyone.
'Not as bad as Sasuke, anyway . . .' Naruto snuck a glance at Sasuke's bandaged hand. The rag wound round it was dark with blood. It looked bad---too useless to hold a sword.
Sasuke saw him looking and jammed the hand in his pocket. Several of his fingers stuck out through a tear in the pocket's lining.
"Oi, Sasuke," Naruto said. "Your---"
"Here we are," Kakashi interrupted him, sliding open the door panels to a room in front of them.
The panels were shiny; painted with various brightly-colored fish. Naruto trailed a hand along one of them as he prepared to follow his comrades in. Kakashi, however, stopped dead in the doorway. Just as he'd set one foot past the threshold, the four of them heard the loud, distinct sound of a musical tone, like a harp-chord being plucked.
Sasuke bumped into him.
"Hmm," the Jounin murmured, scratching his head through the layers of cloth wound round it. "What's this?"
"An A-note," Sasuke observed.
"You weren't informed of this?" a voice asked from behind them. "This room contains a nightingale floor."
It was the tall Heikou captain, Moritome. He'd come up behind them so silently none of them had heard him move.
"I know what it is," Kakashi replied dryly. "My question is: why is it here?"
"Garyu-sama saw fit to make me privy to your identity, Kakashi-san," Moritome answered evasively. "He trusts me, and I shall keep your secret for his sake. As for the floor . . . perhaps the young shinobi are unaware of what this is? I believe an explanation is warranted." The swordsman glanced pointedly at Naruto, who was trying to edge around Sasuke to see inside the room.
Kakashi sighed, turning to face his students. "I've come across a nightingale floor before. They're used to deter shinobi assassins. Each floor panel you step on will play a different note, so that even if the room is completely dark the person inside will hear intruders approaching and know precisely where they are by the tone played." It was clear from Kakashi's tone that staying in a room with such a floor was going to be a royal pain.
Naruto thought it sounded like fun.
Kakashi turned back toward Moritome.
"You know, these things don't really work," he said drolly. "On shinobi, anyway . . ."
To demonstrate, the Jounin flipped the light switch nearest the door, stepped inside, and began strolling up the wall. Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura followed him in on the ground, setting off respective tones on the floor as they walked. Given the ordeal on the southern cliffs, none of them were particularly keen on summoning chakra into their feet to take the ceiling route.
"This is annoying," Sasuke muttered, glowering at the panels.
Moritome remained in the doorway, watching Kakashi's progress in silence.
Naruto, in the meantime, was temporarily distracted from whole nightingale floor business because he'd noticed Sakura suddenly going gray in the face and swaying where she stood. He caught her elbow to steady her, and for once she didn't pull away. Her gaze turned longingly toward the lavish bed at the center of the room, as if she wanted a lie-down very badly.
The bed was gilded and lacquered and festooned with green silk curtains to the point of being tacky. To top off the effect, the frame was shaped like a pair of giant silver swans who were Siamese twins. It was also the only piece of furniture in the room aside from a gaudy chandelier overhead, raised on a kind of low platform one foot above the nightingale floor. Naruto squinted at it, wondering what sort of man this Garyu-sama was to want to sleep in something so freakish.
"I am well aware of your kind's way of drawing chakra into their feet to defy gravity," Moritome finally remarked, as Kakashi made a ninety-degree turn and started across the ceiling. "But this floor was made specifically to deter shinobi using the Crimson Blossom jutsu. As far as we were able to determine from the previous attacks, the assassins can't use your wall-walking techniques before performing the Shinkuhana. They've all been forced to go straight across the floor."
Kakashi reached the center of the room and let himself drop, turning a neat somersault onto the huge bed. He stumbled a bit upon landing; the bed was a lot springier than it looked. His students made their way noisily over to join him, Naruto still steadying Sakura as she sat down on the mattress.
"Well, I can't say that's not plausible," Kakashi said, "but I have known wielders of the jutsu to use other techniques at the same time . . ."
"The attacks follow a consistent pattern," Moritome interrupted. "There is always just one assassin. All the assassins had accomplices whose footsteps made no sound on the floor initially. This implies that the accomplices were shinobi, using the wall-walking technique you've just demonstrated. The three assassins who were caught in the act and killed---both by their accomplices and by the Heikou---were all caught because they stepped on the nightingale floor. The others were presumably carried across the ceiling by their comrades."
'Which means a Mist-Rain alliance,' Naruto thought, proud of himself for making the connection even though he was just remembering what Sasuke had said half an hour ago.
Kakashi sat down cross-legged on the bed, scratching his head.
"Thank you for the information," he said. "I'll bear it in mind, and be sure to ask appropriate questions when I go to dinner as the Water-lord. But for now, as Shigure-sama of Thunder Country, I request that you send someone to fetch the medical supplies Garyu-sama sent to my 'daughter' Sakura's quarters. And the katana I requested from the armory."
For one brief instant, Moritome's cheek twitched, as if it irked him greatly to play servant to "their kind." Then he cleared his throat, nodded, and disappeared from the doorway.
Naruto turned to Kakashi. "Sakura's rooming by herself?" he asked anxiously.
The girl in question was sitting slouched on the bed, looking rather ill.
"For a while," Kakashi agreed. "She was badly injured, and I want her to rest for the next few days before she joins you in dealing with the assassin problem."
Sakura flushed and slouched even more, causing her head ornament to jangle and fall over her eyes. She seemed embarrassed.
Kakashi noticed, and crinkled his one visible eye in her direction.
"You were the only one of the lot to come back to help me at the cliffs, and you pulled me out of the ocean, didn't you?" he reminded her gently. "That counts for something. You've earned a rest." He nodded pointedly toward her other teammates. "Unlike these two. They got themselves arrested and probably had a nice chat while sitting around in custody."
"Shikyo-san dragged us all over the city first!" Naruto insisted indignantly. "We didn't get a rest! Then he ditched us and I had to use MORE chakra to make a water clone. We're---" Kakashi cut him short with a glance as Moritome returned, carrying a basket full of the requested items.
Kakashi thanked him quietly, to which Moritome replied stiffly, "I shall see you at dinner."
It seemed the Heikou captain couldn't get away from them fast enough. Naruto tromped back across the floor to slide the door panels closed behind him.
"Good riddance," he remarked sourly.
"Heh," was Sasuke's reply from the bed.
"Here, face this way." Kakashi had just taken Sakura gently by the shoulders and turned her toward the opposite wall. He drew a roll of bandages and some antiseptic from the basket. "Naruto, Sasuke: tonight I'm afraid you're going to have to use up more of your energy. This room simply allows nowhere to hide, so you're going to have to conceal yourself in places where you can move without triggering the nightingale floor."
Sasuke looked up sharply. "That means---"
"You, Sasuke, will be under the bed," Kakashi finished for him. "Positioning you at the center of the room would be to your best advantage if we're attacked."
Somewhat shyly, Sakura was pulling down her kimono to expose her back. Naruto found his attention switching back and forth between the nasty-looking wound in her side and the fact that he could see her bra from the back. The wound still appeared to be oozing a little blood; the bandages that Kakashi removed were stained with it. The bra was pink.
"Naruto," Kakashi said sharply. Naruto blinked, forcing his gaze elsewhere. "You will be spending tonight on the ceiling."
Naruto's jaw dropped, and Sasuke let out a short, barking, "Ha!" Clearly he felt Naruto was getting his due for the incident back at the inn on the Aoite Road.
"Because of your stamina," Kakashi finished, which confused Naruto because he didn't know whether to grin or scowl. The praise felt good, especially in front of Sasuke. But spending the night wasting chakra was going to be hellish.
Once Kakashi had finished slathering Sakura's side with disinfectant he re-wrapped the bandages and she replaced her kimono.
"You will rest," he told her decisively. "There was poison on the spines; it may be an entire day before the medicine fights it off. You'll probably get a fever when the night comes and the fog rolls over the mountains here, so try to sleep as much as you can."
Sakura nodded woozily. Naruto noticed she seemed to have lost some of her embarrassment now that the prospect of bed was an imminent one. Kakashi helped her up, handed her katana to her, and accompanied her across the room to the door adjoining to hers, which he opened for her and then shut behind her. His long-legged stride then played a G-scale as he walked back to the bed.
"Your turn," he said lightly, motioning for Sasuke to show his wounded hand.
"He was stabbed by a poisonous spine, too," Naruto informed Kakashi, tromping a straight line of A-notes over to join them. He didn't sit down on the bed but stood there staring at the bloody hole in his teammate's hand. It looked vaguely purplish around the edges.
"It won't impair my movement," Sasuke insisted, flexing the fingers to demonstrate. The movement made blood ooze from the hole between where it had clotted.
"Make a fist," Kakashi told him patiently. This Sasuke did with alacrity, but the gesture was obviously agonizing because his face turned ghastly white immediately after doing so. "As I thought," the Jounin murmured gravely. "There's some nerve damage. Sasuke, I think for the next week or so, until your body's chakra can heal the damage, you will not attempt taijutsu or use of weapons with that hand. Also no Chidori. Keep use of it reserved for forming seals, but for other things . . ." He paused, setting Sasuke's katana beside him on the bed. "You're going to have to be a left-handed swordsman."
Naruto swallowed hard, staring at the hole in his comrade's hand and seeing it in a whole new light. While Sakura needed rest to heal the spine-wound in her side, Sasuke's injury was a more serious matter. The katana techniques they had learned either involved both hands or skillful use of the sword-hand. Sasuke's kenjutsu training had just been rendered near-obsolete.
Sasuke obviously knew it as well; he was glaring down at the hand as if he'd rather cut it off than have it hold him back.
"No Chidori," Kakashi warned him, driving the message home with repetition because he knew Sasuke very well. "And no physical use of the hand in combat. If you do . . . you may find it useless even when it comes to forming seals." He helped Sasuke to wrap clean strips of cloth around his palm to replace the bloody rags he'd been using, then rose to his feet again.
"Sensei, are you going to go to dinner now?" Naruto asked somewhat irritably. He didn't much like being left alone with Sasuke when Sasuke was in such a dour mood. There was a dark air that seemed to have been hovering over the Uchiha Genin since . . . since . . . well, since Shikyo had first explained the Shinkuhana technique.
"I'm going," Kakashi agreed, "but before I do I want you to take off your shirt, Naruto."
Naruto looked down at himself. The shirt was little better than a rag covering his chest and one shoulder. It had been one of his favorites, too. He grasped two fistfuls of cloth and ripped it in half, letting it slide off him onto the floor, where it played a soft A-note. He wished Sakura had been here to see this; he felt he had nice pecs.
But what Kakashi wanted was to take yet another look at his back. And neck.
"Kakashi-sensei, you already saw those wounds," Naruto protested, not wanting to be taken down a notch to Sasuke's level. "I'm all better!"
But Kakashi seemed to be done with his examination.
"Yes, and you're very lucky, Naruto," he remarked. "These two wounds, unlike Sasuke's and Sakura's, were meant to kill instantly. The needle in your neck, and the hooks in your back---"
"The guy with the hooks was trying to drown me, not puncture anything vital," Naruto interrupted, turning around. "That's why he pulled me down."
Kakashi sighed. "That may be so, but the location of that wound . . . If you recall the studies of taijutsu, of which you're so fond, you'll realize the strike was probably meant to sever your spine at the neck. Instead, you probably lost your balance and your attacker didn't expect that, so he got your back instead and tried to drown you."
Slowly, Naruto nodded. Clumsiness had its perks.
"Regardless," Kakashi went on, "the point is that whoever attacked us seemed to know our capabilities well. They knew about your regenerative abilities." The Jounin put a vague emphasis on abilities, and Naruto wondered if he didn't really mean "they knew about the demon inside you." But Kakashi immediately turned to Sasuke and added, "They also knew to attack you under water, where it was dark and your Sharingan would be impaired."
Naruto realized what Kakashi was warning them of, but he didn't like seeing his teacher in such a grave mood any more than he liked Sasuke's aura of gloom.
"That's alright, Sensei!" he asserted, brandishing a fist in the air. "If they think they know us, we'll just have to surprise them, won't we?"
"Well, surprises are your specialty," Kakashi remarked dryly. "In the meantime, there's a set of fresh clothes for each of you in the bottom of the basket. Lay low, both of you, and try to conserve your strength. It's highly likely that you'll need it. Henge!"
Before the Jounin turned a smart about-face, his students caught a good glimpse of the shape he'd transformed into---purportedly the Water-lord. A man of about fifty; short, stocky, with a wrinkled face and blue eyes.
Wearing some of the most foppish clothes either Genin had ever seen.
Naruto's stomach muscles began to cramp as he reined in the savage impulse to howl with laughter. He knew he should show a bit of respect when his teacher was wearing the likeness of such a powerful nobleman---the ruler of the whole country---who also happened to be a client, and he didn't want his Sensei to suspect him of another prank like the boken incident. So he held it in.
The fop raised two fingers vaguely in the familiar Kakashi salute. "Ja mata," he said. Then he was out the door, and his Genin were left to themselves.
Sasuke was sitting on the bed, alternately scowling at Naruto and at the hideous sculpted swan's head that formed one of the bedposts.
"Go on, let it out before your spleen explodes," he snapped.
Naruto obliged, finally giving in to the urge to bend double with laughter. "He's . . . he's . . . worse than the BED!" he gasped. "The hat looks like a six-year-old girl's PILLOW with a . . . with a . . ."
"Weather vane on top?" Sasuke finished for him. "Yeah, well, laugh now, but he's the only one of us on this mission who's worth a damn."
This sobered Naruto a good deal, and he straightened. "Hey! Don't count ME out! I'm still---" He paused, then realized expounding on his own good health was not helping the injured Sasuke's wounded pride. "You too," he added, but it was already too late. Sasuke's scowl deepened, and for a moment Naruto thought he'd come back with a truly cutting retort.
Sasuke, however, finally sighed in disgust and flopped backward onto the bed, arms spread-eagled. "So now we wait," was all he said.
Naruto, who had no intention of waiting quietly, quickly found a way to occupy himself. Soon he was hopping madly across the room in all directions, and musical notes were ringing off the walls. After about ten minutes had passed he was forced to stop as a pillow slammed into him hard enough to take his head off. He went crashing to the floor, landing with a discordant jangle of G- and F-notes.
"What the hell?" he sputtered, sitting up and rubbing his jaw. "Didn't you recognize 'Tsukiyaki'?"
Sasuke, who had thrown the pillow left-handed, flopped backward onto the bed again. "I don't care what song you were playing. Just shut UP." He paused a beat, then added in slightly more civil tone, "Besides, you'll wake Sakura."
It was the most thoughtful thing Sasuke had said the entire trip, and this more than anything else made Naruto pay attention and oblige him. He trotted over and flopped down on the other side of the bed. The movement jounced Sasuke a bit; the mattress was springy.
"You should sleep, too," Sasuke reminded Naruto. "You're the one who's spending the night creeping along the ceiling like a spider."
Soon after Naruto was snoring, dreaming that he was scuttling up the room's chandelier on eight legs.
o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o
Sasuke lay there for a far longer time before drifting off, staring at the ceiling. He did this a lot; he felt he knew every inch of every ceiling of every place he'd ever slept. But he couldn't help it. There was something about lying in silence that allowed the memories to close in like four walls.
He was beginning to feel as if his time were running out. That somehow, inevitably, he must fulfill his vengeance soon before Itachi moved forever beyond his reach. In daylight it was easier to tell himself that he had all the time in the world to grow stronger; Itachi wasn't going to die before Sasuke got his hands on him. At night, in the deeper watches, it was getting harder and harder to dispel those nagging doubts---and to convince himself that he wasn't just wasting time with his comrades on these missions.
Tonight, however, he felt certain that this mission was going to be well worth his while. If he could just find the right opportunity . . .
'There's still a chance,' he mused grimly. 'So long as I can still use the Sharingan to learn seals . . . there's a chance.'
o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o
Both Naruto and Sasuke woke much later that evening in a state of considerable confusion. What greeted their ears as the chamber door slid open was not the soft, cautious greeting heralding Kakashi's return but the sound of a woman's voice, dulcet and pretty, humming a snatch of song. Naruto had already run up the wall at the sound of the door sliding, and was now forced to crouch on the ceiling and use a camouflage technique all at once. He gritted his teeth as he saw Kakashi-in-disguise enter behind the woman; because the Jounin had brought someone new in here he would be forced to waste even more chakra tonight. He hoped fervently the woman would leave soon.
It soon became apparent that she wouldn't.
"You really mustn't keep eating without letting one of your servants taste the food first," she told Kakashi-in-disguise. "You're too trusting, Husband."
As she spoke she unfastened the wrappings of her obi and kimono, letting them slide carelessly to the floor. She was wearing nothing but a thin silk shift underneath. Naruto grinned, thinking that poor Sasuke was missing out on an eyeful. This woman---obviously the Water-lord's wife---had a figure Jiraiya would give a ten. But Kakashi seemed to take no notice, turning away and doffing only the weather-vane-pillow-hat before rolling into bed.
"I trust the Heikou," he replied curtly. His voice sounded muffled because he was facing the opposite wall and had drawn the covers up to his chin.
The woman crossed the room and slid the door shut, plunging the room into darkness. Naruto followed the light tones of her feet back across the floor, then heard the rustling of fabric as she, too slid into bed.
"Good night," she said softly.
There was silence for a while. Naruto shifted restlessly on the ceiling. He was still sleepy, which made him twitchy. He was debating grabbing onto the chandelier fixture for a while to ease some of the weight off his feet when a light suddenly came on over the bed. He froze, staring down at it. He'd stupidly abandoned caution and let the camouflaging jutsu dispel because the lights had been out. If she looked up at the ceiling, she'd see him for sure. If he moved to a better spot or restored the jutsu, she'd hear him.
Fortunately, she only had eyes for Kakashi. She had flicked a switch somewhere on the bed, and little lights had come on in the swans' eyes, making them look rather demonic. The canopy frame suspended over the top half of the bed was also lined with little twinkle-lights, clearly illuminating the woman and the Water-lord's form lying beside her. She had very long blond hair, which spilled down over her shoulders in a silk waterfall, and very long legs.
"I know you're not my husband," she said coldly, rising onto her knees and glaring down at Kakashi with her arms folded over her chest. "Who are you?"
Kakashi-in-disguise rolled over onto his back, forearms crooked behind his head.
"I'm a double," he said simply. "I know you were informed there would be a double tonight, weren't you? Well, that's who I am."
The woman bent nearer to him, frowning and pursing full lips.
"I've never seen a double like you before," she remarked. "You are him. To a fault. Why do you look exactly like him?"
Kakashi sighed. Naruto sighed as well, thinking how stupid it had been not to tell the Water-lord's own wife about the transformation jutsu. It was bad enough the poor woman was having to endure all the assassination attempts, let alone having to share her bed with a stranger . . .
"I'm a ninja," Kakashi replied soothingly, "using a transformation technique. This isn't what I actually look like."
The woman stared dubiously at him, keeping her arms cross over her breasts like she thought he was going to attack her.
"Can you un-transform?" she asked. "I like to know who I'm dealing with." She was shaking visibly; even from ceiling-height Naruto could see her shoulders move.
Kakashi obliged, and in a faint puff of dispelling jutsu there was a masked shinobi lying under the covers in place of the fop. The woman eyed him shrewdly without a word, and he bore her scrutiny patiently. Then, unexpectedly, she whipped the blankets off him, inspecting his person with the same shrewd look in her eye. She unwrapped the turban-like mantle from around his head. She parted the robes over his chest and patted the pockets of the shinobi vest he still wore beneath, bending nearer and sniffing at him as she did so.
He let her do this without a word or a movement, which puzzled Naruto. 'Does he LIKE being pawed by married women?'
Finally she looked up at Kakashi's face again, and her expression smoothed.
"No weapons," she murmured. "And no scent of poison. Good. I'll trust you."
Then she lay down beside him---very close beside him, resting her head just under the curve of his chin. "I'm glad you're here," she said softly. "I won't be alone."
Naruto was now staring goggle-eyed down at his teacher. Kakashi's one visible eye narrowed briefly up at him. It was a warning; it meant: Stay quiet or your cover's blown.
"What about the lights?" Kakashi asked the Water-lord's wife after a minute. "Don't you want them off?"
"Mm," she mumbled, shifting. Naruto thought she was going to push herself up into a sitting position to hit the switch again. Instead, she slung one long leg over Kakashi's and pulled herself on top of him.
This time Naruto's jaw dropped, but he was in no danger of making a sound. This was not a situation they taught you about in the Academy. He waited to see what Kakashi would do.
What Kakashi did was raise his one visible eyebrow as the woman started making little mewling noises like a hungry kitten, trying to bite at his neck through the fabric of the gray mask he wore. He didn't move at all. After the woman realized he wasn't going to respond, she sat up a little, leaning both elbows on his chest.
"Going to be an honorable man?" she purred throatily. "Well, I guess you can try. They all tried."
She lifted her body off him a little, so that she crouched over him on all fours, but she proceeded to bury her face between the parted folds of his robes, which Naruto took to mean she wasn't done yet.
Still Kakashi didn't move. Finally she raised her head again, breathing a little harder now, but her eyes were shining.
"That's all right," she breathed. "You don't even have to move."
She lowered herself again and began moving her hips against his in a very slow, undulating rhythm, which even through Kakashi's layers of clothing must have been quite pleasant. The Jounin's eyebrow rose even further.
On the ceiling, Naruto swallowed thickly. He wondered if this was like something Jiraiya would put in his novels. He could understand now why they didn't mention situations like this in school, but he wondered why there weren't warnings about this for older shinobi. Maybe it was something they told you about when you reached Jounin level. No sex with clients' spouses, and that means YOU, right there, in the green vest. With the mask.
She was panting now, grinding herself against him faster but at the same time reaching with one hand for the mask over his face. Two crimson-nailed fingers hooked under the cloth and began to drag it down over his nose.
Kakashi's hand closed round her wrist in a split-second, forcing her hand back while his other hand replaced the mask. He sat up quickly, the one exposed eye back to its droll, deadpan regard.
"I don't think so," he told her.
She froze mid-thrust, maintaining her balance atop him but seeming startled because he'd moved so fast. Then her sly smile crept back across her lips, and she pulled his hand toward her, taking two of his fingers delicately in her mouth and sucking at them.
"Get off," he ordered, a great deal less gently than the way he'd addressed her before.
"Shall I scream?" she asked, shifting teasingly in his lap. He twitched; Naruto didn't blame him. "Shall I make you scream?'' she murmured. "Either way, the Heikou will come running."
Something flickered in Kakashi's gaze. "The Heikou may well be the ones targeting your husband."
Her hips went still, and the smile froze on her lips.
Kakashi disengaged his hand from hers and pulled the mask away from his Sharingan eye. Naruto saw it flare red briefly and the woman gasped. Then she flopped over sideways onto the bed. Kakashi arranged her in a more comfortable position and deftly drew the covers up to her chin. Then he rose from the bed, using another Henge no Jutsu to replace the Water-lord's appearance.
"I'll be back in five minutes," he said, tilting his head upward to peer at Naruto. "You watch over her until I return."
The Jounin walked a line of A-notes to the door and exited the chambers. His step sounded somewhat heavy; probably he was walking a bit more bowlegged than usual.
Naruto stared down at the sleeping woman and let out a long exhalation. He was thinking, 'She's going to be trouble.' But he was also thinking, 'I can't wait to be a Jounin.'
o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o
In the morning, the Water-lord's wife appeared to be the only one well-rested. She rose from the bed with a dainty yawn and a much-less-dainty stretching of her arms, which caused her well-formed bosom to rise a good four inches. Kakashi sat up and deftly replaced the mantle round his face and neck again, righting the robes he wore without so much as a glance in her direction.
"I won't tell my husband about last night," she informed him unabashedly. When this elicited no response, she laughed a little, reaching for the kimono she'd dropped on the floor. "Can you help me with the obi?"
Naruto, still clinging to the ceiling like a fly on the wall, blinked blearily down at her. The previous night he'd thought she was sexy. This morning, he just wished she were dead. Because of her he was being forced to stay where he was far later into the morning than he'd anticipated. His feet were burning terribly from the strain of maintaining chakra concentration in them. Of Sasuke, he had seen neither hide nor hair. Apparently the dark-haired Genin was still secreted under the bed.
Kakashi, acting the gentleman, helped the woman to tie her obi, which made Naruto wonder because the Jounin was awfully adept at it. Why was Kakashi so familiar with women's clothing? The Water-lord's wife tried to use the opportunity to get him to touch her breasts, but Kakashi was too quick for her.
"I'm going out," he informed her cheerily, stepping back. "I'll be attending breakfast as Shigure of the Thunder Country, so please make the appropriate excuses for your husband's absence."
She was obviously displeased, because she smiled even more sweetly and nodded. "Why, I shall accompany you myself, Ninja-san."
"Afterward I must return to my investigation of the assassination attempts," Kakashi went on. "Also as Shigure."
Naruto could see that Kakashi's usual subtlety wasn't working, and that even though the Jounin was going to be wearing the disguise of a man who wasn't her husband she clearly intended to stick to him like glue all day.
'I wonder if all his porn's prepared him for this,' Naruto thought, waiting for Kakashi's reaction.
Kakashi merely smiled, cool as a cucumber.
"Very well, you can follow me if you like," he conceded. "But before we set out I have to go wake my daughter."
To her credit, the Water-lord's wife didn't even blink. "You didn't come alone, then?"
"No," he replied, strolling toward the door adjoining his room with Sakura's. To Naruto's chagrin and bemusement, the woman's smile went sly for a second, and then she sauntered in the opposite direction, heading for the chamber's exit into the hall.
"I shall see you both at breakfast, then," she called gaily. Then she was gone.
Naruto heaved an enormous sigh of relief. Then he realized that it was quite a long ways across the ceiling and down the wall to get to the door to shut it. And his feet were burning so bad it was like his nerves were on fire. He had just finished cursing out the woman in his head for leaving the door wide open when something black and white took a flying leap from the bed's platform to the ceiling, then went streaking across the ceiling and down the wall like a bat out of hell. Sasuke skidded to a halt inches above the door and slid it shut from the top.
For a moment afterward Sasuke crouched there silently, and it looked to Naruto like he'd zoned out. Then his face contorted and he sneezed explosively.
"There's probably a snot rag in the medicine bag," Naruto told him, pointing down at the basket beside the bed. Naruto's face acquired a squinty-eyed look of distaste. The sneeze was huge and messy; probably one of the most disgusting things he'd ever seen Sasuke do. All the girls who thought Sasuke was perfect needed to spend a mission or two with him. Familiarity had a way of dispelling certain illusions.
"Oi, Sasuke, are you okay?" he called out as Sasuke made a straight beeline for the bag. The Uchiha Genin's fit continued in a string of smaller sneezes, which alternated in bizarre countermeasure to the tones his sprinting feet played across the floor. He found a clean cloth and blew his nose noisily.
In the meantime, Naruto decided he was just going to let himself drop straight from the ceiling to the bed. He felt too worn to take the long way down---across the ceiling and down the wall, like Sasuke. Instead he let the chakra in his feet dispel.
Naruto fell a good twenty feet, bounced hard off the springy mattress, and landed on his back on the nightingale floor next to the bed. One of the tiles under him cracked; at first he thought it was his spine.
"Owwww," he moaned, once he'd regained the wind knocked out of him by the belly-flop on the mattress. He lay there reflecting that freefall, while fun in theory, had been a rather stupid idea.
"Nice, dumbass," Sasuke remarked after a final swipe at his nose. "The sun's only just risen and you've already managed to break something. What're you up to, fuck-up number five? Or maybe it's six---one for each day of the mission."
"Shove it," Naruto retorted, pushing himself up into a sitting position and rubbing at the back of his head. He was too weary to rise to Sasuke's goading. "I feel like hell. I want breakfast. And a foot massage."
"Stop acting like you're so put-upon," Sasuke mumbled, losing his sneer in a yawn. "I had to lie right under them. And I'm allergic to whatever perfume she's wearing. Try spending an hour holding in the urge to sneeze."
"Ha!" Naruto crowed woozily, climbing to his feet and stepping off of the broken tile. "So you did hear them from under all those layers of dust-ruffle. Bet you liked THAT, nee? Bet your thing got all---"
"Finish that sentence and I'll break your teeth," Sasuke snapped. He rubbed at his eyes with both fists as he came over to examine the tile. "I hope we don't have to pay for this."
"But SERIOUSLY," Naruto persisted, "that lady has DEFINITELY got some big---"
Sasuke sighed, shaking his head in disgust. "If the bedsprings start creaking tonight, I swear I'll stick a katana straight up through the mattress."
He spun a sharp about-face, and simultaneously henge'd into the taller, blue-clad form of a Heikou swordsman.
"Where're YOU going?" Naruto asked him. He was heading for the door.
"Where's it look like?" Sasuke said dourly. "Breakfast."
"Oi! Wait for me!"
o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o
As it turned out, getting breakfast while wearing ubiquitous Heikou-disguises was laughably easy. The breakfast itself was woefully un-filling.
The two Genin followed one of the Heikou down several corridors to a mess hall of sorts, where some kind of seafood paste was being served over rice along with one small bowl of miso and tea. While it was apparently permissible to converse over the meal, the Heikou still ate kneeling on pads on the floor, in orderly lines. In short, it was probably the worst kind of breakfast for someone like Naruto. He ducked out of the room several times, henge'd and returned to get more food, left the room with his food, henge'd again, then came back to sit beside Sasuke. He'd managed two extra servings before Sasuke finally hissed, "Stop that. You've had enough."
Naruto downed his last cup of tea and set it down by his knee, grimacing because he'd found it bitter. "I'm a warrior; I need my food," he argued.
Sasuke's stomach chose that moment to gurgle loudly. He rose to his feet, lip curling in disgust. "Let's go," he said, tugging at Naruto's sleeve to force him to his feet as well. "We should attend the dojo, to investigate."
Moments later, they were walking briskly down the myriad hallways, utterly lost.
"This place is a maze," Naruto remarked. "It's like someone meant to build it to confuse us." He added, under his breath, "Probably the same freak who designed the Water-lord's bed." Naruto could've sworn they'd passed the tapestry with the geishariding the elephant twice already, but couldn't be sure because he might have been remembering the previous day. It was like trying to navigate through a veil of genjutsu, except that wasn't possible because Sasuke would have noticed if there was one.
Sasuke stopped dead in his tracks.
"Hey, Sasuke! What is it?" Naruto asked, peering at his comrade's face, which wore an uncharacteristic look of surprise.
"It is," Sasuke whispered, black eyes wide with epiphany. "You're right. It is like a maze. Not just the palace, but the whole city."
Naruto mulled this over. The long trek from the gates to the palace with Shikyo had certainly been confusing, but he'd thought it was just because he was so tired then.
"Why would they build a maze to get to the center of their own city?" Naruto asked, squinting. "That's stupid. It's not like there were people trying to assassinate the Water-lord back when Mizutou was built, were there? It was built like a billion years ago."
"Hardly," Sasuke said. He started walking again, much more briskly. "People build mazes to keep other people out. Maybe the Mist weren't always on good terms with the civilians of the Water Country."
"Oi, wait up!" Naruto complained. "Why're you going so fast? Did you finally figure out where you're going?"
Sasuke turned a corner and stepped through a doorway onto an outdoor terrace. The sun was shining softly through the morning mists, which slanted downward between the buildings and into the courtyard in front of him.
"I remember this courtyard," he finally replied. "We're going to cross it, then the next, and beyond that is the gate."
Naruto frowned, taking the slightest of steps back from Sasuke. Leaving the palace was something he knew Kakashi would be firmly against. "Uh, hey, we're supposed to lay low. If someone notices your hand they might---"
Sasuke gave no sign that he was angry. None, that was, save the tension visible in the line of his neck, which Naruto could see from behind because Sasuke wasn't wearing his usual high collar. But Naruto tensed as well, not sure what was to come next.
"We're supposed to be useful," the dark-haired Genin said quietly. "You want to be useful . . . right? I'm going out as 'myself' to find a map. I think there's more to this place than the Heikou let on. You can go hide in the room. Or you can follow me." He took a suggestive step away from Naruto, into the soft light of the courtyard.
Something about the sight of Sasuke's receding back was an icy touch down Naruto's spine. The cold finger of premonition.
Pressing his lips together grimly, Naruto hurried after.
o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o
"Konoha shinobi. What are they searching for in the city?"
"They'll find nothing. Or things will move too swiftly for them to even begin understanding. It doesn't matter, with the recent developments. Once the Water-lord is dead, all the Mist will need are the children. And the body of Hatake Kakashi."
o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o
Sakura attended breakfast with Kakashi, feeling very much out of place. The table to which she sat down that morning was very different from Naruto and Sasuke's Spartan fare. The Water-lord ate at a long table in an ornate hall lined with what looked like gold statues of various gods and goddesses and heroes from old stories. In between the statues, Heikou swordsmen stood at attention, looking like statues themselves.
Sakura had to sit at a place next to Kakashi---who sat at the head in full royal attire and genjutsu---because she was supposed to be the daughter of the Water-lord's guest, "Shigure," who wasn't able to attend. Sakura was attending in his place, as befit a good lord's daughter. It meant she was supposed to make conversation and appear to be what she was dressed as.
It meant she found herself seated across from a very beautiful woman with blond hair, blue eyes, and breasts that made themselves apparent even though the woman wore an obi. She wore her hair loose, with no ornaments, but her kimono was a rich dark blue, the color of the night sky. This, Sakura had recently learned, was the Water-lord's wife.
She smiled sweetly at Sakura. Sakura tried to smile back just as sweetly, but there was something shrewd in the woman's gaze she didn't like.
"You must have had a terribly damp journey, dear," the woman remarked, picking up her chopsticks and angling them toward her plate. "The weather has been terrible lately, with all the rain. And I hear you rounded the coast?"
Sakura opened her mouth to agree politely, but she caught a slight warning shift of Kakashi's thick, bejeweled fingers. Then she realized that the Water-lord's wife had asked something odd. Kakashi had told the Water-lord and several of the most prominent Heikou captains about the peril they'd faced while rounding the coast, but no one else. The few Heikou were purportedly keeping Kakashi's confidence, and the Water-lord's wife had had no contact with her husband since Kakashi's arrival, according to the Heikou. She should not have known about it; someone had a loose tongue.
"We did journey by sea, but not rounding the coast, Mizutou-sama," Sakura replied carefully. "There was a storm. Then our escorts were attacked in the harbor."
"Oh, call me Chizuru-chan," the woman tittered, waving her free hand languidly. "My husband does. But really . . ." She leaned forward, looking Sakura straight in the eye. "I am indeed grateful that you were not forced to round the coast. The Mist have small outposts there, and it might not have been safe . . . for you."
Sakura had no idea what to make of this rather peculiar bit of conversation. Quickly she filled her mouth with seafood to stall for time while she formulated a reply.
Kakashi saved her. "The shinobi Shigure-sama hired to escort he and his daughter returned safely to the Wave Country. As for the Mist . . . From what I've heard, I'm not so certain the Mist are the assassins." His eyes flickered left, then right, gauging the reactions of the Heikou standing watch. But the guards only stood poker straight and silent.
"Come now, Husband, you needn't hide everything from me," Chizuru murmured coyly, watching him. "I know you've hired two young ninja from the Fire Country to protect you. Even if I can't see where they are." Her blue-eyed gaze swept the length of the room. Then she smiled again, looking straight across the table at Sakura.
Sakura pretended to have been studying the statue behind the Water-lord's wife. It was a goddess with six breasts. And pointy nipples. "The Water-lord seriously needs to see a shrink," the Inner Sakura remarked.
"Sakura-san," Kakashi addressed her, "if you will, please deliver this message to your father: 'Should you feel in better health this morning, please feel free to visit the Heikou dojo to observe my men at their training. It is quite the sight to see.'"
Sakura found herself meeting Chizuru's gaze once again. There was something almost predatory about the way the woman stared at a person; as if she could see right through them. "I will," she answered Kakashi.
After breakfast, Kakashi henge'd in a bathroom, and then he and Sakura set out for the dojo as Shigure and his daughter.
With a third party.
Chizuru accompanied them. Sakura found herself trailing along like a third wheel after 'Shigure' and the Water-lord's wife, who walked with her arm linked through Kakashi's.
"LEAVE US THE HELL ALONE!" the Inner Sakura ranted. The woman was quite obviously attracted to . . . well, Sakura wasn't sure just which person Chizuru was after. Either Kakashi or Shigure---neither of whom were her husband.
Fortunately, the walk to the dojo wasn't very long, and she soon found other scenery to study.
The dojo's long sliding panel doors were open, and the cold sea breeze wafted through the place. The place was full of Heikou, training and sparring with each other. Sakura seated herself on a bench just inside the door.
It was interesting, watching them. Watching the kenjutsu experts at their work, she came to appreciate just how much a normal human body was capable of, without the aid of chakra molding. Kakashi watched them just as intently from a bench nearby. For the longest time he didn't move or speak, and Sakura could see that Chizuru was becoming bored. After several failed attempts to engage the Jounin in conversation, she finally contented herself with seating herself as close to him as possible, allowing the rounded side of one breast to brush his shoulder.
Briefly, Sakura glanced down at her own breasts. Then she sighed, looking elsewhere.
"You can't grow melons from raisins," the Inner Sakura railed at the Outer one. "Stop worrying about that woman and look for possible assassins!"
And she did.
But after about twenty minutes, Kakashi still seemed intent upon monitoring the goings-on of the dojo, and Sakura wasn't feeling well. The bandages round her middle were starting to chafe, and the wounded place in her side was burning a little. She thought she might feel better if she stood up, because then the bandages might not dig into her skin as much. Standing up, however, proved to be the end of one problem and the cause of the next. Her head reeled as she rose, and she became aware of the sweat trickling between her shoulder blades and down the backs of her knees.
Almost automatically, Sakura turned toward Kakashi, opening her mouth to tell him she was going to nip out for some fresh air. Then she noticed that he had shifted the mantle over his face aside ever so slightly.
Uncovering his left eye.
Sakura knew what that meant. She didn't know why he was even risking such a thing, but she did know instinctively that if she said anything to him at all now, it would draw at least Chizuru's attention to his face, and that could be disastrous. So instead she turned and slipped quietly out the door.
Outside the air was damp and light and cool, and it did do her some good. The dizziness subsided a little, and her face didn't feel as hot. Breathing deeply and slowly, Sakura meandered round the dojo terrace, occasionally brushing a hand across the plain wood pillars along the way and hoping that whatever Kakashi was looking for, he would find it quickly. She wasn't used to feeling awful when she was this far away from home.
'I guess I'm still just a kid,' she thought, rounding a corner. Sucking in a shorter breath, she lifted her chin, squaring her shoulders. 'But I should still act strong. I don't want to be a burden.'
It was true that Sakura had, for the past two days, been entertaining fantasies about fainting into Sasuke's arms so that he could whisper into her ear how it was going to be all right and how she felt feverish and how of course he would sleep holding her so she could stay warm . . . But now reality had settled in, and she was well aware that being injured was no picnic and to hell with waiting for Sasuke to catch her if she fainted, she wanted drugs.
It was with these thoughts rolling through her mind that she turned the corner and found herself in a secluded courtyard behind the dojo. There was a young man practicing kenjutsu out on the grass, but no one else was around. Sakura kept walking, but she found her gaze drawn to him. His movements with the sword were very different from the ones Kakashi and Shikyo used. He spun with it, slicing it upward left, then downward right in arcs that seemed graceful but in reality would have taken off heads and slit throats. His movements, in fact, seemed so precise that Sakura could imagine he was slicing the fine grains of moisture that formed the mist in two with every stroke.
"My son, Toru," someone said quietly.
Sakura turned quickly and found that the Heikou captain Moritome had come to stand her on the dojo terrace. He hadn't come soundlessly; now that she saw him she realized she'd heard his soft footsteps across the wood. It was just that she'd been too intent on watching the swordsman in the courtyard.
"Your---your son?" she stammered, flustered because she'd let down her guard. "Is Toru-sama a soldier as well, then?" Even though Moritome knew who she really was, Sakura hoped desperately that she sounded like a Thunder Country lord's daughter was supposed to sound; Kakashi hadn't exactly had the opportunity to school her in etiquette.
"To you we may seem cruel and biased, because we don't trust your kind," Moritome said abruptly. His gaze slid from her to the more distant figure of his son, who was oblivious to all but his kenjutsu practice. The tall Heikou captain sighed. "But don't think us ignorant. Our hatred if shinobi is born of bitterness, not fear. The Heikou are actually the remnant of what was once a proud tradition. Once upon a time, before your kind began appearing and rising to power, warriors were men and women called samurai, who wielded swords and human strength to protect their own."
Sakura blinked. 'Why does he word it so weird? "Rise to power"? Shinobi don't rule the world . . .' Aloud, she asked, carefully, "So that's why the Heikou are so devoted, isn't it? But my team hasn't come to insult you by doing your job for you; we've come to your aid because we believe in protecting your lord just like you do."
"Beautiful, isn't he?" Moritome murmured, eyes still resting on his son. Sakura glanced up at him in surprise. His usually cold blue eyes seemed a little sad.
She didn't understand why. But she looked at the young man in the courtyard again, whose blade flashed in the morning sun. And she answered, "He is."
"There you are, Sakura." Kakashi's voice startled her. Sakura turned to him quickly, wondering just how much he'd heard.
His eye was smiling at her, in such a way that she knew he had heard---and that he'd found something.
"Ah, yes, it was hot inside the dojo," she replied carefully, not wanting to say anything to draw Moritome's suspicion to her Sensei.
For some reason, Moritome seemed more intent upon glaring at Chizuru, who was still latched onto Kakashi's elbow. The Heikou captain merely bowed politely to them both, and then stalked off down the length of the terrace, rounded a corner and disappeared.
"How are you feeling, Daughter?" Kakashi asked, stepping a little ways ahead of the strumpet glued to his side to get a little space. The eye lost its twinkle and went dead serious, and suddenly Sakura felt her stomach plummet right down to her newly-purchased, expensive wooden sandals. Something was wrong, the eye was saying. Something was amiss. And that something was going to have to be dealt with soon.
But there was a complication; the Water-lord's wife was with them, and they couldn't hold council in private. If they attempted shinobi tricks to evade her, she could well cause problems for them by spreading word of their identities. Sakura didn't trust the woman, and she doubted Kakashi did, either.
"I---I'm fine, Otou-san," Sakura answered, managing a shaky little laugh. "It's just the food here was richer than I'm used to."
Kakashi shrugged Chizuru's hand off his arm entirely, taking Sakura firmly by the shoulder.
"I think you need your medicine," he corrected her in a low voice. "It's in your quarters."
Mutely, Sakura nodded. Better to shut her mouth and play along when he was the only one who knew what was going on.
"If you will excuse us," Kakashi told Chizuru politely over one shoulder, "my daughter's health, you understand."
The Water-lord's wife didn't even blink. "Of course," she agreed, smiling sweetly. When Kakashi turned to go, she managed to give his backside a pat before he'd moved beyond reach.
o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o
By evening, Naruto and Sasuke were seated on the bed in the room again, having already slept for several hours after their foray into the city. Sasuke was poring over the large map scroll spread across the mattress, rubbing incessantly at his nonexistent beard and trying to ignore Naruto's fidgeting. Naruto was bored and well-rested---a bad combination, Sasuke knew. As a last resort, he'd already tried convincing Naruto to have another go at the nightingale floor, but by this point---having eaten nothing since breakfast---both were so hungry exercise was not a viable option. Neither boy had decided to risk using shinobi techniques to steal food from the city market; both felt that somehow that was a violation of contract. Honorability did have its drawbacks.
Namely, that hunger made Naruto restless.
And it made Sasuke waspish.
''Look, why don't you go try to find us some food in the Heikou mess hall?'' Sasuke finally snapped, jerking his head toward the door. "Kakashi might have his hands full and not be able to bring us anything back."
"Fine," Naruto muttered, scuffing a line of G-notes to the door.
Just as his fingertips brushed the wood panel, it began to slide open.
"Shit," Sasuke swore under his breath. He grabbed hold of the map and disappeared under the bed with it. Naruto, who anticipated another long night on ceiling duty and had no desire to start it this early, ran, tucked and rolled under the bed after Sasuke.
"It's us; it's safe," someone said. The voice was unmistakably Sakura's, but she sounded very out of sorts.
Sasuke and Naruto emerged from their hiding place, dust-bunnies clinging to their clothes.
"Why didn't you come through the door from Shigure's chambers?" Sasuke asked, peering at his sensei and teammate curiously. "Wouldn't anyone who sees you think it's odd that a foreign diplomat and his daughter are strolling straight into the Water-lord's bedroom?"
"Sasuke, how do you feel?" Kakashi asked, ignoring the question. "Show me your hand."
Sasuke scowled, but obliged him. Kakashi immediately set to unwrapping the bandages on the proffered palm. What he found brought a shadow to his brow.
"Someone," he said, "is trying to force our hand."
Puzzled, Naruto and Sakura moved closer to peer down at Sasuke's palm. The wound looked worse, if anything. Ugly, purple striations were beginning to appear on the skin, radiating outward from the wound. They looked like bruises, except bruises didn't spread like that.
"What do you mean?" Sasuke asked in a low voice. His eyes upon his Sensei were grim and resentful.
Kakashi sighed. "I know the look of this wound. Sakura's, too. I've seen it before, a long time ago when I took the Chuunin Exam in the Hidden Village of Mist."
Naruto's mouth fell open. "Why'd you take the Chuunin Exam in the WATER country, Kakashi-sensei?"
Kakashi waved the matter aside. "Both of you were wounded by the same person, right? That kunoichi with the spines? She was probably one of the Aoite Clan."
This time Sakura interrupted. "You mean 'Aoite' like the road we were on?"
Sasuke kept silent. He was torn between wanting his teammates to shut up so Kakashi could explain and wishing Kakashi would stop reminding him that he was the one wounded when Naruto was standing there perfectly healthy and strong and---
"The Aoite Road was named after the clan, because centuries ago the Mist attempted to invade the Fire Country," Kakashi went on. "That was the route the invaders took. But the name isn't important. The Aoite Clan is famous for its poisons. Its members are able to create and secrete poison through their pores like sweat. From the look of your hand, Sasuke, I'd say there's little doubt where that kunoichi was from. And the poison . . . the bruise pattern tells me that it's a potentially deadly type, but a slow-acting one. If an antidote is administered before the bruising spreads all the way up to the chest, the threat will be over. However . . . only the Aoite Clan themselves are able to produce the antidote. And the Aoite are like the Hyuuga---a trump card of the Village, whose secrets and members are guarded from outside intrusion . . . Which brings me to a rather obtrusive problem."
Naruto and Sakura just stared at him expectantly, but Sasuke had an inkling. "The Mist want us to go to their Village? They're using our need for an antidote to draw us away from the Water-lord?"
Kakashi unwrapped the mantle from his head and let it drop carelessly to the floor. He wore his mask over nose and mouth, but his Sharingan eye was left exposed. "I have many theories," he replied. "None of them good for our case; each more confusing than the last." As the Jounin walked over and sat down on the bed, Sasuke was struck by the realization of just how tired his Sensei was. Kakashi's normal eye looked glassy and bloodshot.
"What I meant when I said 'force our hand' is that I think someone very desperately wants the Mist to know that Leaf Ninja are present here," Kakashi went on. He sighed again, running his fingers through his gray hair and managing to rumple it further.
"That makes no sense," Sakura cut in. "If the Aoite Clan were really the ones who attacked us, then the Mist already know we're here. Why would they want us to go to them?"
"To draw us away from the Water-lord," Sasuke told her impatiently. "You and I wouldn't be able to find the Village on our own; we'd need Kakashi-sensei, who's already been there."
Naruto shook his head, perplexed. "Hey, but wouldn't that still leave me here? Why didn't they use this poison on me?"
Kakashi didn't answer, but fixed Naruto with a particularly meaningful stare. Sasuke noted the silent exchange with narrowed eyes; it probably had something to with Naruto's regenerative abilities, but apparently this was a secret Kakashi wasn't going to share with the rest of them.
'Well, whatever,' Sasuke thought, dismissing it. 'The Mist must've left Naruto un-poisoned because they know he's a screw-up.'
"There's a problem with that, though," Kakashi continued. "Even though it was definitely Mist shinobi who attacked us on the cliffs, they may have been a group of renegades---like Zabuza was. Otherwise, like Sakura said, they wouldn't be so desperate to make us go to the Mist on our own. Somehow, I think the governing parties in the actual Mist Village still don't know we're here. And there's another problem . . . the Heikou. I don't trust them. I used my left eye for a little experiment, because I've become somewhat suspicious of the Heikou. Sakura and I went to the dojo with the lady of Mizutou. We watched the swordsmen train. I was curious, you see, because as you've all noticed by now some of the Heikou seem to have shinobi reflexes."
"Yeah!" Naruto exclaimed, pointing at Kakashi as if he were the one postulating the idea. "The guards at the gates, when Shikyo brought us into the palace walls!"
"I saw nothing in the dojo," Kakashi informed him. "I think they may have been being careful because they knew who I was. Or they didn't know who I was, and they were innocent. But outside . . ."
"Toru!" Sakura said suddenly. "Moritome's son was---"
"Your eyes weren't fooling you," Kakashi told her. "He was using kenjutsu, all right, but with thick streams of chakra flowing from his arms into the blade. Moritome's son, Toru, is a shinobi."
Three jaws dropped, this time Sasuke's included.
"Tha-that's---he's---even though the Heikou hate us?" Naruto stammered, obviously struggling against a barrage of questions that were trying to push and shove their way out his mouth. "The Heikou hate us! They think we're 'unnatural'; you remember what Shikyo-san said!"
"And that's the problem," Kakashi agreed. "Moritome's son may not be the only shinobi among them. It may be that the Heikou themselves are the assassins."
"Maybe the Mist planted spies among the Heikou?" Sasuke suggested.
"Shikyo-san would've seen through them, though, wouldn't he?" Sakura argued.
"I don't think we should trust that guy," Naruto warned. "Besides, he's gone AWOL. For all we know, he's gone to report to the Mist."
"He's definitely one of the Rain ninja," Kakashi argued, shaking his head. "He possesses his clan's bloodline limit. Which, if he is a traitor, means---"
"A Mist-Rain alliance," Naruto and Sasuke said at once.
Kakashi blinked at them, surprised. "Well, you two certainly seem sharp. You must have had sleep. But regardless of who is responsible for our difficulties . . . the difficulties themselves require action." He took a deep breath, and then said in a low voice, "If we don't go to the Mist, you two will die. If we go to the Mist, the Water-lord remains unguarded---I don't trust the Heikou to keep him alive. This---Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke---is where as a leader you have to make hard decisions."
The three Genin waited, holding their breath.
Their Sensei straightened, squaring his shoulders. "Sakura and I will go to the Mist. Naruto and Sasuke will stay here, to continue carrying out the mission for which we were hired."
And then: "You're leaving me behind?" Sasuke struggled to keep his expression calm and complacent, but felt the anger twitching muscles in his jaw. "Why not leave Sakura with Naruto? She's in much worse shape than I am; she needs to rest."
Kakashi spared him a brief, measuring glance. "That wouldn't make much sense, now, would it? She's wounded closer to the heart than you are. The bruising will soon spread into her chest. You may have about a week to live at the rate yours is spreading; she probably has less than two days."
Sakura blanched at this, and Sasuke paled a bit as well. He wasn't a selfish person, after all. Just a driven one.
"When are you going to leave?" Naruto asked, looking distinctly uneasy. He kept stealing worried, darting glances at Sasuke.
Sasuke noticed, of course, and it did nothing to improve his mood. 'What, does HE not think I'm reliable now, either? It's this HAND . . .' He felt as if his body were betraying him. He felt he'd rather cut it off than be the burden that forced Kakashi to go to the Mist as their enemies wished.
"Now," Kakashi answered blithely, in a manner all three Genin felt was way too lighthearted for someone about to go venturing into enemy territory to get an antidote.
"In the dark?" Sakura protested, blanching even more. "But if the Mist Village is somewhere north of here, we'll be tripping through the jungle! Or, rather, tripping over the jungle."
Kakashi stood up, pulling his mantle back round his neck. "I've decided. It's a risk I'm willing to take." He wound it deftly round his head. "At any rate," he added, in a voice muffled by cloth, "I won't lose comrades to this mission. And Mizutou won't lose its lord." To Sakura, he said, "That long skirt will be a bother. Cut it. The sleeves, too." He handed her a katana.
Sakura began a brisk, businesslike hacking of the skirt, but she looked doubtful. "Sensei, won't I be cold? The fog---"
"The cooler you keep your body, the slower the poison will spread," Kakashi told her. "The same goes for you, Sasuke."
Sasuke nodded grimly.
"'Cause if you faint I'm not doing mouth-to-mouth," Naruto asserted, folding his arms and looking a bit cross. "Besides, it's not like anything's going to happen tonight, is it? Just another night under the bed . . ."
o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o
Twenty minutes later, Kakashi and Sakura were gone, and Naruto was bored. Sasuke was equally restless. The Uchiha was pacing back and forth, carrying the map he'd acquired with him and squinting at it. The only lights they'd agreed to put on were the ones on the bed itself---the ones that shone creepily through the swans' eyes---because the switch could be flipped easier without anyone entering the room taking notice. Unfortunately, this meant semidarkness and creepy swan-eyes glaring across the room.
"Oi. Sasuke. Why do you keep studying that thing, anyway?" Naruto finally demanded, plunking down on the bed. "So the city looks like a maze. Are you looking for cheese?"
"There's something about the pattern of the maze, though," Sasuke muttered. "It almost seems like there's a center to it . . ."
"Cheese," Naruto insisted, falling backward onto the mattress with a plop. "Geez, this is so boring. All this waiting . . ."
Sasuke finally paused in his pacing and looked askance at his teammate. "Why don't you stop complaining and figure out what you're going to do about the Water-lord's wife?"
Naruto's face contorted into a grimace, and he sat up in a hurry as if the bed had burned him. "SHIT! I forgot! Oi, Sasuke, why can't YOU be Kakashi? Or the double? Or whoever it is that's taking the Water-lord's place that she seems to want to grind into the bedsprings?"
Sasuke went back to his map studies in a hurry. "I'm supposed to keep cool, remember?"
Naruto made a noise of frustration, rumpling his spiky hair between his fingers like a dog scratching at fleas. "Gah! Why am I stuck with her?"
"Come to think of it . . ." Sasuke looked up again, stopping dead in his tracks. "Where is she?"
For a moment, both boys regarded each other in mutual disquiet. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Naruto saw a shadow cross over the line of light at the bottom of the chamber door. "Hide!" he breathed.
Sasuke heard, and dived for the bed. Naruto sprang off the mattress, missed the ceiling and landed on the chandelier. For a moment he flailed, and the chandelier swung. Then he shinnied up the chain and situated himself on the ceiling directly above it. 'DAMNIT!' he thought, gritting his teeth as he looked down. 'Stop SWINGING, stupid chandelier! They'll see me . . .'
The person who entered the room was not Chizuru. It was a man carrying a sword. He shut the door behind him with a smart clack.
He was a young man, with a handsome face and a steady stance. He looked up at the chandelier swinging, then at the gleaming swan-eyes. "I'm Toru of the Heikou," he said calmly. "My father sent me to be the Water-lord's double tonight. The lady will be joining us shortly, I believe."
Naruto said nothing, even though the young man obviously knew he and Sasuke were there. For once he kept his mouth shut, waiting to see what this person would do. This shinobi who pretended not to be one.
"You needn't pretend not to exist," Toru continued mildly, running a hand down the katana blade and making it sing. "My father saw fit to inform me of the current situation. I know Konoha has sent a four-man team to give us aid. And I'm glad you're here."
When neither Naruto nor Sasuke offered any reply, Toru shrugged and sat down on the bed, laying the sword across his knees. "But . . ." He seemed puzzled; his brows knit in a faint frown. "Where are the others? The girl was injured, I'm told. And I don't see the Jounin who leads you. Is he keeping watch over the girl?"
No one was given the opportunity to answer, because the Water-lord's wife chose that moment to make her entrance.
"Chizuru-sama," Toru greeted her, rising from his seat and ushering her in. "You mustn't linger in the doorway with your back to the hall."
The Water-lord's wife stopped short when she saw what she deemed to be no one else in the room. Her eyes narrowed, and Naruto saw a look on her face that had nothing to do with being a temptress and a flirt. It was the look she'd given Kakashi when she checked him for weapons, before the whole dry-humping incident. Fear. And shrewd notice of detail.
"Where," she asked slowly, "is the Leaf ninja?"
No one present saw Toru move---not even Sasuke, who hadn't activated his dojutsu. One instant the Heikou swordsman's hand was at her elbow, gently guiding her into the room. The next, he held the blade at her throat.
"Leaf ninja," he said mildly, looking straight up at Naruto now. "If you so much as twitch, you won't have time to stop my sword."
Naruto swallowed hard. As perverted as the woman was, it was his duty to protect her, and he wasn't doing a very good job. Also, something struck him as odd. "What is it you want?" he asked, without moving from his eyrie. "For us to give ourselves up to you? Or to the Mist?"
The swordsman didn't answer; he was backing toward the door.
"I'm the one he wants!" Chizuru cried, abruptly, heedless of the sword-edge less than an inch from her neck. "He doesn't know where the Water-lord is!"
In a flash, Sasuke was out from under the bed, charging. At first Naruto was too surprised to react. Then he realized that if the swordsman needed the woman, then he obviously wasn't going to carry out his threat to kill her. He scurried along the ceiling on all fours, heading for the wall with the door.
Clasping the Water-lord's wife against him, Toru sprang backwards and reached the door first. Someone slid it open for him, and he disappeared into the torch-lit hallway beyond. Then the door slid shut again, and once again Naruto found himself maneuvering in semidarkness. He rose into a horizontal standing position and went tearing down the wall, making for the door.
"NARUTO!" Sasuke shouted in warning.
Naruto skidded to a halt and changed directions on a dime, just in time to avoid something sharp and cold that went whistling past his face. Blinking to adjust his eyes to the dim lighting, he realized that someone was standing in the shadow of the doorway. He couldn't tell who it was; the person was clothed entirely in black and wore a mask with a blue double-helix painted on it. Sasuke was rushing the man, weaponless but forming hand-seals at breakneck speed.
"SASUKE!" Naruto yelled at him, "KAKASHI-SENSEI SAID NOT TO USE---"
"Shut UP!" Sasuke snarled. He raised two steepled fingers to his lips and blew. Pellets of fire, like an angry swarm of bees, engulfed their attacker.
But Naruto, who by this time had jumped down from wall to floor, focused his attention on what lay behind Sasuke. The light of the Katon jutsu had just illuminated what the swan-eye lights didn't reveal: the shadowy shapes of many black-swathed figures, crouched spider-like in the dark corners of the ceiling; a dozen blue helices on white ovals turned his way. He thought he caught a gleam of metal; they carried katana.
Sasuke's target dodged the fireballs and landed Sasuke with a roundhouse kick that sent him flying backward, toward the center of the room. Away from the door and potential escape.
"Naruto! Get to the hall and stop Toru!" Sasuke cried, bracing himself with one hand so that he slid to a halt. A long, rippling string of G-notes echoed from where his feet had struck the tiles.
"We're NOT splitting up AGAIN!" Naruto fired back. "That's what they want!"
He rushed the one who'd kicked Sasuke, gritting his teeth and preparing a punch of his own.
But it seemed one of the assassins had landed on the bed and found the switch. The swans' eyes flickered out, and the room was plunged into darkness.
And then, from every direction, there came the tinkling notes of tiles singing.
END OF CHAPTER 7
Yamisui: Um, yeah. Sorry this chapter took so long to write; I'm stupidly trying to work on another Naruto fic at the same time. But it IS long, so I get some leeway for that, at least. I had to make this chapter lay ass-loads of groundwork because all hell is going to break loose again and I prefer that there be a point and a reason for all that hell. Next chapter: "Into the Mist."