Welcome back to the next segment of ASLNO. Quick summary of the past months: came back to the States from Japan, started a translation project at the same time, have been working nonstop on it up until last week, and am now working a new project. I wanted to work on this story, but, I literally haven't had much time. Oh well.

As always, I ask that you help me out a bit by heading to my P.a.t.r.e.o.n. and giving some support. Also, I might need some help with Spanish soon, so anyone out there fluent in Mexican Spanish, preferably? If not, any dialect's cool. I ain't picky.

Guest reviews:

Heartbroken: Eh...Anko has her reasons. Not necessarily good ones, but, reasons nonetheless.

MyVenomousRomanc: The next chapter has come! For you! Congrats.

A Non-Y Mouse: I'm always glad to make yet another person cry. And trust me, there will be some crying later, if I can manage it. I'm excited.

I sat quietly on my bed, my hands flipping slowly through various different seals as I gazed blankly down at them. I hadn't had the courage to contact my Citlali just yet, and every time I thought to do so, I got cold feet again. I was sure that I'd gotten her out of harm's way in time, but not sure enough for the prospect of failure to leave my mind entirely. Licking my lips slightly, I lifted my gaze to glance at my sister as she pulled on her trench coat, her brow narrowed while she concentrated on getting ready for the day.

More than likely having sensed my staring, she nodded her head down at my restless hands. "What's going on?"

I forced my hands to stay still and shrugged my shoulders. "Just jittery."

"Will you be all right to do this?" Anko asked with a touch of concern. She'd been wary around me ever since I'd gotten out of the hospital, and to be honest, I hadn't really been talking to her much after that answer she'd given me, anyway.

"Looking forward to it," I muttered. It would give me something to focus all of my energy on, at least.

She frowned briefly, but said nothing, only motioning for me to follow after her. I grabbed my pack and walked out of our room and into the next in her wake, fastening the clasps across my chest and making sure it was sturdy and set on my shoulders and back. Shisui and Hitomi awaited us in their room, with him sitting on his bed with one leg propped up, and Hitomi standing off to the side, not a smile in sight.

The atmosphere seemed really tense for whatever reason, and grew even more so when he looked over at me. Shisui studied me intently, eyes narrowing before he finally closed his eyes and I let out a very short sigh of relief.

"Now that we're all accounted for," he began, and I winced at the obvious jibe, "allow me to discuss how the next few weeks or so, at least, will be executed. Kazekage-sama has requested our prolonged presence within his village to help with minor issues within the territory. While our status as a Konoha team still holds true, we will be lending our strength to other Suna teams and working with them. In this situation, you are to consider them as if they were a part of Konoha, or you all a part of Suna, so ranks apply as per normal, and leaders will be assigned as the mission necessitates."

After making sure we were all on board with the new decision, not that we had a choice in the matter, Shisui pulled out a few scrolls, stood up, and passed one to each of us after checking the side. I wanted to open it immediately, but let my hands fall to my sides as I looked back at our leader.

He sat down again. "Upon completion, report directly to the mission desk, just as you would in Konoha. I can't be certain how long we'll be staying here, but I'm hearing interesting things from HQ, so it may not be for too much longer. And, I cannot stress this enough, but following the mission to a key is absolutely essential, especially considering that we are in a foreign land, friendly or not. At the moment, we are the only Konoha team here in Suna, and we are only capable of so much, but it is crucial that we do our utmost, with little chance of anything going awry."

Shisui looked down for a moment before letting out a sigh. "And keep your eyes peeled. Things could go off the charts at any time. Dismissed."

The next second, he took both his pack and mission scroll in hand and shunshined away. I watched Hitomi turn away and analyze the contents, and Anko gave me a nod as she walked past, opening her scroll along the way. I pulled my own scroll up into view, perusing through as quickly as I could.

Rank: B

Type: Bodyguard/Escort

Risk of Danger: Moderate

Team: Nisha (L), Kori, Mitarashi Hotaru

Task: Meet with client at [Disclosed Location] and safely guard from possible threats. Escort client to the town of Shirasha at indicated coordinates, maintaining good health in the client. Remain together with the client until all threat of danger is extinguished. Exert sound judgment.

Threat: Client claims to have been followed, and personally, and nearly bodily, threatened. Suspects include members of the Kuran Clan. The Kuran Clan associated felonies include: drug trades; human trafficking; mass theft; mass murder.

Kuran Clan Key Figures: Kuran Taima (M): Clan leader. History of smuggling children from various villages. Has a number of contracts throughout Elemental Nations involving taxation for protection. Kuran Fuho (F): daughter of Taima. Commands combative forces. Kuran Shouya (M): Runs the many concentration camps across Suna.

Client: Waraku (M): Age 52. Family yields the sweet pea flower, a plant which produces toxic seeds used in a variety of poisons. Has a tendency to panic.

"Oh, shit," I whispered. I think Hitomi glanced over at me with amusement, but I couldn't take my eyes away from the scroll.

I stared down at it, my eyes growing wider and wider as I looked next at the floor plan of the location. I slowly, slowly rolled it back up, and took in a deep breath. I gave an absentminded nod over at Hitomi, who I think definitely smirked at me, and started walking away and down the corridor. Stuffing the scroll in one of my pockets, I then buried my face in my hands.

"I," I began, "am in some deep shit."

I could feel nervousness begin to pool in my stomach, my stress growing from the unknown situation as I walked up to the meeting point to see a woman's gaze narrow in on me, her mouth thinning as her brow furrowed. The guy beside her pushed off from the wall and gave a slight wave – one I chose to completely ignore. Adjusting my pack on my shoulders again, I glanced from the guy to the woman and back again, and then tilted my chin up slightly.

"Nisha and Kori, right? Who's who?"

"I'm Kori!" exclaimed the friendly man next to me. "This is Nisha. I've never worked with a Konoha resident before. Should be fun."

I gave him a slight nod for lack of anything better to actually say and then turned to the leader. Nisha snorted and turned away.


I flipped the card out before quickly putting it back where it belonged. Nisha shrugged her shoulders and looked around at the open area of the market we were in. People shuffled around, rushing from place to place, deal to deal. There was shouting everywhere as vendors tried to lure people in to buy their goods for cheaper and better quality than any other vendor in the entire district. Old ladies pushed past unsuspecting victims to the front of the lines, bumping their hips against others to make room. Several men went directly towards the hunting supplies and the meat stands to buy enough for their next meal. Children ran around, laughing, squealing, and generally being children in a crowded area.

Honestly, it didn't look like Suna was in the middle of a war either, just like Konoha. From the outside in, nothing seemed to have changed in their daily lives, and people continued on as they always had. But, in looking more carefully, I could see the tightness at the edge of some people's eyes, the harried movements as they tried to get all of the materials and ingredients they needed. I noticed how some vendors had to apologize because they didn't have as ample a stock as usual, but considering it was Suna, I wasn't sure how well-stocked they ordinarily were.

I looked away. I wasn't sure which was the better scenario: being outside in the thick of things and knowing what's going on for the most part, or being stuck in a bubble, where I might not know what could happen to me, but wasn't afraid that it might be that last time to open my eyes.

"Bah," Nisha grunted, garnet eyes focused intensely at the scene lay before us. "Every day, there's just a little bit less to work with. Wars are worthless. But better here than there. Mindless sheeple."

Kori smiled faintly, though it seemed somewhat sad. "I don't know. I kind of envy them. I'd like to pretend none of this was ever happening. You know, go back to the good ole days."

Nisha didn't answer at first, but stared at him straight in the eyes. "And when were those?"

Shaking her head, she turned to me. "Whatever, back to the main mission. As you've already heard, I'm Nisha. I'll be in charge of this ridiculous farce. I'm trained in the art of medicine, but I'm not like those stupid med-nin you see flying around, and I ain't no Tsunade – the fucking bitch. I'm more the tanking type – I'll beat them until they're half-dead, and then bring them back just enough to beat the living hell out of them again. I don't do miracles though. Leave that to Chiyo-baa-sama. I do quick fix-ups and some patches."

"I'm Kori," the man said, running a hand through his grey hair. "I specialize in poisons of all types. Tell me how you want someone killed and I've got you covered. I'm a little rounded, but I don't operate front and center very well. I'm better as back-up. What do you do, Mitarashi-kun?"

I frowned, my hands automatically rising to my hips. "I'm not sure. Some subterfuge, I guess. Stealth. I'm kind of fast?"

Kori only smiled, his dark-blue eyes calm and reassuring, but Nisha looked less than impressed.

"A rookie. Great," she stated with as much enthusiasm as one would when watching wallpaper dry. "Well, as long as you can follow orders, I don't really give a damn. You can do that, can't you?"

I held my tongue, literally biting it so that I wouldn't snap back at a superior I didn't know in any way, shape, or form. Curtly nodding my head instead, I gritted my teeth when Nisha rolled her eyes. Kori rubbed the back of his neck as he eyed the both of us before spreading his arms out in a placating manner.

"Hey, come on, we don't have time for this, right? Let's get this show on the road."

"Right," Nisha agreed, a stony expression taking over as she frowned at us. "So, I don't know how Konoha normally operates, but we usually get introduced to our clients in the mission office, to get a better feel for what we're doing here. The fact that we're meeting in some random slipshod place is strange in and of itself, but, wait – you read the missive, right?"

Kori and I both nodded and Nisha continued. "Fine, moving on. The guy is paying the village a hell of a lot for this mission, plus he's promising most of his supply of sweet pea – whatever the fuck that is –"

"It's a plant indigenous to the northern Iwa region," Kori interjected. "Its seeds are –"

"Mindfuck, I know," Nisha interrupted, "but I don't actually give a damn. Anyway, he usually ships the stuff out to a lot of places, but he promised Suna fifty percent of the next crop to make sure he gets back A-OK. What gets me about the ludicrousness of the whole thing are the people going after him. The Kuran clan is no joke – those assholes don't mess around. The only reason no one goes after them is because for the right amount of money, a lot of avenues open up. Their main HQ is here in the Suna region, but they've got people all over. You seriously don't mess with an underground faction like that, but they're going after this guy.

"Problem is," she continued, her gaze lazily looking around us, taking in the situation constantly, "these guys are off-limits, normally. For good reason. Suna has its sticky fingers all wrapped up in their shit and one wrong move could hurt us in a lot of ways. Could hurt any country. We're only lucky that they don't give a shit about the major villages, or any village. They are concerned with only themselves. But they're after our guy."

Kori shook his head. "But they won't make a move on him in a place that could start an outright war – not that there's any chance of us actually retaliating, what with the Kumo warlords over there. There's a treaty though, between them and, well, really any village out there. We don't touch their men, they don't touch ours. We don't ruin their businesses, and they don't screw with ours. It's a lucrative deal for everyone involved."

I opened my mouth slightly before closing it and shaking my head. "But, they kidnap children."

"Just street rats though," Kori specified. "They don't lay a hand on nobles' kids, clan kids, kids who become ninjas, or kids under the age of like, five? After five, they've decided on their path, or had it decided for them, and that's free game. So, only civilian kids get taken."

"Only?" I mouthed, incredulous. "How is this a thing? How can you guys accept that bullshit?"

"Hey," Nisha intervened, frowning at me. "Do we look like good guys to you? Do you think you're some kind of good guy, some hero who jumps into the fray and saves the poor, pathetic citizen like some holy figure? Have you killed before?"

She cut me off before I could answer. "I know you have. You have that look to you. You've experienced it – we all have. Let's get one thing straight – we kill for a living. Our paycheck comes from screwing others' lives. Some things out there are necessary evils, and with the kind of support the Kuran Clan supplies Suna, and your village too, for that matter, you have no right to be panicking over some stupid civ kids. And you don't have the time for it, either.

"Thing is, that clan is gunning for our guy. That means, we have to protect him, make sure that crop comes to fruition. It's only got another week, at most. The problem therein lies with not harming the Kuran Clan. Or at least, not first. And, they can't touch us, either. They operate off of trust – they lay a hand on a ninja and they are going to get buttfucked in way too many ways. The scale's currently balanced, but anything could tilt it. But they've got the advantage."

Kori stepped in, shaking his head. "Not quite. See, this is important: sweet pea is indigenous to the northern Iwa region, but it was wiped out in the previous wars. It doesn't exist anymore. But this guy, our client, bioengineered the flower back to life. But it took him at least ten years to achieve success. And, it takes the better part of half a year for this specimen, since they're not natural, to fully grow and blossom. That's a long time. But, this is an important ingredient of a special concoction the clan uses. It's addictive in multiple doses, and the clan is running out. Seriously running out. That's why they're focusing so hard on this guy."

I nodded slowly. "Take out the flower, and you take them out, but then they'll reap revenge on both our villages, and we're done. Keep it and this guy safe, and we run the possibility of it falling it the Kuran Clan's hands. Touch them and we die. They touch us and they die."

Kori gave a grin and looked over at Nisha, and shrugged his shoulders.

"Get this, though. One more wrench in this crazy mess. Waraku is dying. That's why this harvest is so important – if it doesn't make it, it'll be his last, and the flower will cease to exist. BUT, the clan doesn't want that. And neither does Suna. You know our village – we thrive on poisons. This would be great to add to our arsenal. And the key part is that Waraku's also willing to part with the recipe, for Chiyo-baa-sama to utilize. With it, we can make both poisons, and antidotes. It would be a major success for us. Not even Tsunade should have much experience with this particular flower. Suna would have an edge. We need him alive – both sides do. Either side could control the market, as far as that goes, with that recipe of his. But once it's in Suna's hands, Kuran can't touch it."

"And we can't touch Kuran if it gets in their hands," Nisha finished up. "It's a mess, and the whole damn thing should be ranked as an S, or at least an A, as far as I'm concerned, but, we're only escorting and guarding. That's it. Just three of us. We may personally be safe from members of the clan, but we don't know what they might send after us. This might turn into a hell of a clusterfuck."

There was a slight pause in our conversation as each one of us glanced over at a couple of civilians who had drifted a bit too close for comfort. Both noticed our hitai-ate quickly enough and darted out of sight, but our place of "secrecy" had been foiled now, which meant we needed to move on. Nisha cleared her throat slightly and nodded for us to follow her, which we did, with me trailing dead-last.

I felt a major urge to do some research on this Kuran clan because why wasn't every single detail of this world in the damn manga? Damn it, Kishimoto – make my life a little easier, would you?

I also had this crazy need to flip out my phone and look things up on an internet that didn't exist in this reality. Google, Wikipedia, whatever other information-filled websites were out there, it had all been at the touch of a fingertip in my previous life and now I was back to something resembling the Dewey Decimal System. I didn't mind that...completely, but it was hard to get around to looking at what needed to be researched. I had been spoiled to the benefits of the modern world of 2015, and now look at me. It's the month of June, year fifty-three of Great Nations. Year "fifty-three" of any current era just doesn't reek of modern life. It makes me feel like I'm trapped in the days before Japan opened its borders to other countries for trade.

Getting back on track, though, I'd really never heard much about the Kuran Clan. That wasn't one of the things I'd found out about back when I was with Yugito, but to be fair, there had been a lot I hadn't known about at the time. I was starting to realize just how much I'd missed by skipping through school. I might have had the intellect and possible wisdom, but experience just couldn't be beat. I didn't have that, and it looked like I needed to pay the library a visit or two once I had some time to myself. As if that was a thing.

Most of the time, civilians paid us no mind, though they did eye my forehead protector quite a bit, considering it blatantly shouted out that I wasn't from around these parts. Kori walked on normally, his head twitching minimally left and right as he sought out possible threats, but his gait was always relaxed and calm, like he had everything under control. Nisha, on the other hand, couldn't be bothered to give a fuck about much of anything. It was like a group of people parted the moment she came close, like the Red Sea and Moses. She wasn't actively telling them to move, but they did regardless, like they knew something bad would happen otherwise.

We neared our destination towards the main road going through the village. It was a nice looking pub from what I could tell, but it didn't appear to be open to the public just yet. And, that made sense, considering it was close to eight in the morning. Nisha knocked at the door in a strange rhythm, with it opening hardly even seconds later. All three of us walked in, and with every possible escape route shut or blocked, the place was dark and kind of uninviting. Behind the bar, I could see the visage of a man in his late twenties to early thirties looking over at us as we walked into the main area. He leant against the countertop of the bar, not really seeming as if he wanted to be there at the moment.

"Hey Renta," called Nisha as she rested her forearm on the counter. "Rough night?"

He gave her this look, as if her observation was so ridiculously understated that she shouldn't have bothered. Renta shook his head miserably. "You know, I think the best part of everything had to be when the Clan actually showed up."

I wasn't the only one alarmed by this. Nisha's posture stiffened some.

"They actually showed up, for real?"

"Not them, exactly," Renta clarified, eyes narrowing as he averted his gaze. "Looks like they're taking steps to get around their constraints."

Nisha scowled, her arms folding over her chest. "Who, or what, then?"

"Couldn't say. When they got caught, they literally fell into pieces."

As I raised an eyebrow, Kori and Nisha stood up straight, eyes attentive. Kori held up a hand, as if full of disbelief.

"Wait, wait, wait," he started, "are we talking puppets here? The Clan hired someone from Suna or something?"

Renta shrugged a bit. "Or something."

Nisha rubbed her bottom lip in thought as she made eye contact with Kori. "Oh, this is going to be a real pain in the ass..."

"Nah," mumbled Renta. "The real pain in the ass is in there. Behind that door. Get him the hell out of here before I'm forced to kill him and go on the run."

Kori let out a chuckle as he walked towards the door, pushing it open. "Aw, he can't be that ba–"

"AAAAHHHHHH!" came a scream that sounded like nothing short of a banshee on drugs. "THEY'RE HERE! THEY'RE GOING TO KILL ME! SAVE ME!"

I stared openmouthed at the sight of a grown ass man with grey hair covered by something like a toupee hiding beneath a table and trying to direct two very annoyed Suna ninja to attack us. The man stared up at the ninja who looked absolutely done with his life right then and when he noticed the ninja wasn't making a move, he threw back the table, grabbed a chair, and whirled it at us. Kori and I simply sidestepped it as it crashed against the ground. When the man – our client – tried to pick up the table next, he screeched when a kunai shot into it and skittered across the floor to a booth seat.

Scratching the back of my head, I felt it tilt to the side bit by bit. It was like a comedy act, which I was unfortunately a part of. Nisha gave our client a cold glare.

"My name is Nisha," she stated clearly. "We are under contract to escort you back to Shirasha. So might I begin by saying you probably shouldn't irritate those who are being paid to protect you. Just a piece of advice."

Waraku narrowed his crazed eyes at us. "How do I know you're really my protectors?"

She let out a huff of air in exasperation, but pulled something out of one of her pockets. Flicking it over, the small item slid across the ground up to the base of the booth. He stared down at it closely before looking back over at us with some suspicion.

"What took you? I could have died!"

"I believe eight o'clock sharp was the agreed time," she explained curtly, before adding, "that you, yourself, set. Now, have you more questions, or can we get going?"

The client drew back some before shrugging his shoulders, grabbing a bag and self-righteously walking towards, between, and past us. Kori gave a sigh and followed after the man as I watched Nisha step threateningly towards the other Suna ninja, who were mocking her with goofy faces full of relief. She flipped them off before walking out. When Renta just gave her a knowing glance, she told him to fuck off and gave him the bird as well.

"Do you hear that? Do you hear it? I hear it. It's there, I know it is. Something, something..."

The time: nineteen-hundred hours. Distance traveled: approximately thirty kilometers. I couldn't remember the last time I'd walked so slowly. And the worst part was that he never shut up. Never.

I'd tried clapping my hands over my ears, but it merely drowned him out, and never completely. From some ways away, Kori groaned, shielding his eyes with an arm. Nisha, the one standing watch, was losing her patience, very quickly.

"If you make me get up from my spot, I am going to shove this weapon up your ass so far that every single pile of poop you've farted out will scream with terror," she uttered slowly, her eyes deadly serious. "Shut. Up."

I only heard some silence for a moment before: "That isn't scientifically possible."

"...Try me."

No more sounds came after that, and I finally closed my eyes to get some much needed sleep.

After which, nothing filtered through my consciousness and I was practically dead to the world. I slept so deeply that had someone screamed, I'm not so certain I would have heard it whatsoever. When I was awoken far too soon later, Kori directed for me to get up and take watch. I groaned, slowly rising as I rubbed my face with my hands. I watched him slip into his sleeping bag – it was freezing right now – and, shivering, I pushed myself to my feet and yawned.

Looking back at Nisha, who was nearly as dead to the world as I'd been, and yet so not, I let a small smile slip before clearing my throat softly and taking up a position next to the remains of the fire. Taking out a few heat patches, I waved them around to build up heat before sticking them in various places under my vest. Then I wrapped my arms around my body, huddling lest I freeze more. My head tilted back some.

The stars were laid barren throughout the night sky, spread across endless kilometers of desert. Each one twinkled brightly, and I absently looked for the only constellations I'd known in my own world, but of course, they weren't there. Here, there were one's like "Advent of the Tiger" and "Recluse Dragon's Flare". No Latin in sight.

It wasn't bad, just...weird. But then, things different from a person's norm usually are.

"Stars, aflame with energy, never dying..."

My eyes narrowed as I frowned over at the bundle of covers near me. The old man's eyes were fervent with something I couldn't pinpoint, and they turned towards me slowly. His face was pale with sunken cheeks, and the both eyes had deep, dark bags underneath them. He looked as if he hadn't slept a wink the entire night. Rolling my eyes, I turned away.

"Get some sleep," I muttered, just barely loud enough to direct him without waking my comrades.

"Sleep is for the satiated," Waraku drawled, rising up and staring straight at me. "For the safe, the unburdened."

I wrapped my arms around myself more tightly, not bothering to answer him. He turned his gaze away from me and stared upwards again.

"You..." he began slowly. "You aren't from Suna."

No shit, bro, was the first thought to come to my mind. Just figure that out?

"You aren't like them... Those two..."

He sat up fully, mouth tightening. "Not a snake, some cold-blooded killer."

That phrasing made me snap my gaze over towards him, but I held my tongue. He made eye contact with me again, never blinking.

"It's a part of me," Waraku stated, voice low. "The recipe. The process. My passion. It's on my heart."

The man suddenly had my full attention now. I automatically shifted forward onto my knees, staring hard at him. "What do you mean? You mean, you had it surgically attached to your heart? Or, do you mean 'heart' in the spiritual sense, where it's a part of you, and seared into your mind? What do you mean?"

For once, the client fell silent, as if the conversation was over. I waited for a few seconds, just to see if he was maybe gathering his thoughts together, but he never continued talking even after that. I was on my feet before I knew it, walking over towards him and looking down with a scowl.

"Hey, what were you going on about?" I whispered harshly, acting like I had some iota of control with the situation. "Don't leave us hanging."

Waraku's gaze found me again, and he gave this strange smile, one I wasn't sure how to take in any capacity. I found myself drawing away slightly, my eyes searching through his odd expression, like it was a puzzle I couldn't solve due to some missing pieces. Then, Waraku turned away again.

"Do you hear that?" he breathed. "I hear it."

Once more, he looked at me, that strange, bewildering smile on his face and then: "It's there."

All of a sudden, from the sand meters away burst out five figures, the fwoom sound of sand flying everywhere taking me off guard just as I saw something, something, glint through the night sky. My kunai were in my hands immediately as I raced in front of Waraku and blocked the oncoming weapon just barely in time enough to keep it from hurting the client.

"ENEMY INCOMING!" I shouted, though it was hardly necessary as Kori and Nisha had already pushed themselves out of their sleeping bags, adrenaline flowing through their bodies from the rude awakening. I took a stance in front of Waraku, fending off someone as they came racing at me, teeth chattering wildly.

"What?" I gasped out, eyes widening when I saw the thing open its mouth and –

Pushing off of the ground, I planted my hands onto the sand as my foot swirled around to crash straight...absolutely nothing. Sand sprayed everywhere when I spun around, regaining my bearings while I held my kunai tightly and took position in front of the client yet again. The thing's movements were irregular, its head swooping down and darting forward for my shin, with me parrying the poisonous (?), sharp weapon just enough for it to slide aside. Waraku let out a high-pitched scream as he clambered up behind me. He wrapped his arms around my waist, and I looked back, incredulous.

"What the –? Get off!"

I pushed him back and out of the way as I yelled out "Seals: Release!" and pushed my chakra to the bottoms of my feet. The head's sharp weapon dug into the sand where I'd been, embedding deeply into it as I spun around, a wave of sand rising up behind me. Zoning in on the enemy, I blasted forward, throwing my kunai forward as an introduction. Electricity flowed through my arms as I clapped them together, my legs pumping and pushing me closer and closer. Flying back into position in front of the client yet again, I swept my leg back, up, and around to try an axe kick, not altogether surprised when the creature moved back abnormally.

I pressed forward still, and knowing I wouldn't have the time or opportunity, I pushed all of my electric chakra into my right fist, jumped up, and sent it spiraling into the thing's head. The resulting cracking and splintering of the parts was satisfying, but not the shard of metal that slid straight the palm of my hand. I could feel my eyes widen ridiculously as I cradled my hand to my chest, grunts of pain escaping my mouth as I forced myself back and away from the monstrosity. It, however, clicked around a bit more, righted itself, and then came at me again. The constant clacking of parts was starting to get on my nerves.

Gritting my teeth, I looked down at the metal inside my hand – inside my hand! – and desperately hoped it wasn't as poisonous as it had seemed. The puppet, because that's definitely what it had to be, rushed at me again, and I took a one-handed stance, keeping my right one flush with my chest as best I could. As the clicking and clacking grew more and more infuriating, something zoomed through the air and crashed directly into my target, sending them both flopping and spinning in a flurry through the sand.

My jaw dropped some and I turned to watch Nisha, no – two of her – weave in between some of the third puppet's attacks and whip her nunchakus around, each blow blazing with chakra as it blasted one piece after another off of the puppet's body. She zipped in more closely, chucking out a kick hard enough to crack through a chest piece, planted a foot against the remains of its face and flipped back around, nunchakus spinning rapidly to her sides. Nisha made another side flip before spiraling around in a central position, chakra and wind flowing around her until she lashed out her nunchakus at her target.

"Fuuton: Tenryuuran!"

A concentrated spiraling gust of wind with what looked like the strength of a tornado flew into her target with the force of a few megaton trucks. The puppet shattered completely, chips and pieces flying everywhere as a kunai trap within went off, shards of metal blitzing everywhere. Nisha exhaled slowly, her nunchakus whipping through the air even faster than before, wind chakra emanating from them and expanding to make a huge barrier, enough to block a great majority of the trap.

Garnet eyes flying back to narrow in on my injured hand, she only allowed half a moment to pass before joining my side, hands glowing a soft green as she pulled out some disgusting looking fluid from my hand. Soon, all that was dripping from my limb was bright red blood, each drop sinking down into the sand and turning a darker, uglier color. Nisha glanced up once over at Kori, noted that he was having no trouble as he methodically took apart one limb after another of the last puppet, walked over to her pack, and pulled out a small flask. The disgusting fluid fell into it, and the flask was corked almost immediately. When Kori turned around, a relieved smile on his face as he tossed back the last puppet arm, Nisha tossed the flask at him.

"Mark that for analyzation," she directed, turning back towards me and swiftly starting to heal my hand. "How soon can it be finished?"

"I'll get on it as soon as we set up a base," Kori answered back quickly. "Just have to run a few tests on it, although I've already got an idea of what we're dealing with."

I looked down at my hand the moment she released it, Nisha's gaze looking around us suspiciously. Each puppet lay destroyed and left for dead, the people behind their strings nowhere in sight. Her long strides moving her across the sand quickly, Nisha went to kneel next to mound of two, consisting of both my target and one of hers. She rummaged around, picking up one wooden piece after another. While Waraku clung to me, annoyingly, though thankfully silent, Kori came up next to Nisha with his hands on his hips. Snorting, she tossed the piece to the side.

"I thought I might figure out who the puppeteer was by its make, but it's made in the traditional format, with no real personal touches. Nothing to set the people apart from anyone else who went to the academy. This part," she continued, pointing at the lining of one edge, "looks like some spruce? I'm not an expert on vegetation, honestly."

Shaking her head, Nisha stood up and turned back to look at me, and then her eyes lowered to concentrate on the man hugging my waist. One glance at Kori later, she was charging forward and grabbing Waraku by his shirt, hoisting him up to his feet. Waraku only grunted in return as Nisha glared at him.

"Start explaining," she ordered coldly. "You knew they were coming. If you know anything else, I suggest you let us know, now."

Waraku tilted his head before chuckling some. "The inane seek to speak to the insane? How...underwhelming a prospect. Yes, quite, quite. I know nothing, nothing at all! I am just a mere old man."

Nisha couldn't quite mask her sneer as she shoved the man away, but he grabbed steadfastly ahold of her sleeve, and when she turned to push him away again, he leaned in closely.

"My passion...it's on my heart."

She stared at him blankly for a bit before pushing him hard enough that he fell back a few steps and tripped backwards. Taking in a shaky breath, she clenched a fist and pointed directly at me.

"The next time you decide to withhold important information," she started, her voice soft, "it might not just be a cut through her hand. Next time, one of us might die, and there will be that less number of people to protect you. And I...refuse, to let any of my comrades die, no matter who they are, or where they're from."

Her garnet eyes met mine briefly before Nisha turned away, and even despite the quick glance, I could tell out the raw emotion ever present there. I looked down for a moment, not knowing what to say amidst the silence before turning towards Kori, who watched after Nisha with a solemn expression. I followed his gaze back to her, watching from behind as she irritably wrapped up her pack. Her eyes were back to their previous façade of coldness when she turned back though.

"Clean up the camp," she told us. "Sorry, Kori, I know you didn't get much sleep, but I'd rather we just got there and set up a base." She glared at our client. "Before any other bullshit happens to us."

Kori waved her off with a grin, already moving to get his gear together. I sighed softly, my head tilting a bit as I tried to crack my neck unsuccessfully. I ignored the client as he slowly rose to make his own preparations and started rolling up my sleeping bag.

It was another near couple of days before we arrived at Shirasha, with everyone exhausted and ready to relax within the relative safety and confines of the village. Waraku's daughter was the first to greet us, her eyes soft and gentle as she took us to our room. Admittedly, I chose to forego dinner, or breakfast, or whatever the hell it actually was in favor of getting some much needed rest. Unlike Nisha, who had to be well into her twenties, and Kori, who was somewhere in his late teens, I was still a growing child and couldn't take the stress as well as the others. I barely managed a dip in the bath before dragging myself off to bed, and I swear that I was out the moment I hit the pillow.

And, while I'd known I was tired, I woke up to complete darkness, whereas it had been bright as fuck when I went to bed. I'm not sure which I felt worse about – the fact that no one woke me to help, or the thought that no one felt any need to wake me to help. I sighed and flopped my arms out to my sides, taking some comfort in the snores I heard coming from who had to be Kori. Pushing myself up sleepily, I groaned softly when my stomach gurgled and complained. My eyes found his sleeping form easily enough in the darkness, and I turned away, letting out a sigh.

Getting up, I moseyed down to the kitchen, wherever the hell that was, to see if I could scrounge up some rice or something to at least satisfy my stomach a little. I looked up and down the hallways, getting irritated when I found the house was a bit bigger than I'd remembered. Closing my eyes, I looked internally, spreading out my senses for what all I could.

Let's see... Three sources of chakra upstairs, two downstairs on the floor with me, and one last one up on the... My eyes flashed open quickly, before narrowing as I looked up high above me. I backed up a couple of steps as I stared straight up, before heading down the hallway into what had to be the kitchen, grabbing a piece of fruit, and then heading outside. I tossed up the fruit in my hand as I looked up towards the roof, chakra building within my legs as I leapt high into the air and landed with a light tip onto it.

I walked over to the other side to see Nisha sitting at the edge, smoke wafting into the air from her. She hardly gave me a glance as I sat beside her. Nisha brought her cigarette to her lips, taking in a deep breath, and letting it out smoothly. She flicked the butt, ashes spreading around.

"Sleep well?" she asked, taking another long drag.

I took a bite of the fruit, which was apparently a mango. "You guys didn't wake me."

"You're still growing," Nisha murmured. "You're no good to me half-dead."

"Did Kori get a read on that poison?"

She shook her head, taking in one last drag before smashing the lit end against the sole of her sandal. Almost as quickly, she pulled out yet another from a carton in her pocket. Lighting it, it immediately went to her mouth for a quick drag.

"Not yet," came the eventual reply. "It's a strain he's not completely familiar with. It'll take a bit more time."

I looked down. "Nisha, I'm sorry about...well, sucking. Taking out only one of them, and just barely."

Nisha snorted. "You protected the client. You got us a possible lead. You did fine."

I opened my mouth to deny that statement, but she just held up a hand. "Look, we've all been there. Everyone starts somewhere. That's how it works. Don't blame your inability to do something – just get better. That's all you can do."

"Right," I muttered warily. "Sorry."

"Yeah, so if we're done pitying ourselves, let's talk about what you did wrong, why don't we?" She took in another drag. There was a pause, and then: "Oh wait, there's nothing. Defended the client, called out the threat... The only thing I might scold you about is that only an idiot punches into a puppet. Those things are definitely going to have some kind of ridiculous trap in them to make lives difficult. They require long distance assaults, or some impressive speed. I can tell you're working on the latter, but you aren't there yet, so figure something out."


Nisha let out a sigh and gazed out tiredly over the village. "Don't be in a rush to get better – the end result isn't always worth it, and brings more trouble than it's worth sometimes."

She took one more drag. "One thing you can do, though, is get closer to the client. There's something we're not quite up to date on with this mission, and it's bothering the hell out of me. I'm pretty sure he knows as much as us about the enemy, but there's something about that recipe thing that's bothering me. He said it was 'on his heart', and I want to know what that means."

"Uh, if he isn't going to tell you, then how the hell would I find out?"

"I'm a seasoned veteran," she explained, "and obviously don't give a fuck about anything. I was violent, virulent, and unprofessional in my conduct with a client, something I've got record of doing. For me to go back and make peace and friends with him would be nothing short of weird, and he wouldn't buy it. He's not an idiot, no matter how much he acts it. And Kori... Kori is too nice. And too fucking scary with that poison shit of his, which is a terrible combination.

"You though," Nisha continued, "you're legit young. You look innocent, and you had a conversation with him, without practically killing him. You're the best option out of all of us. Plus, you wanted to be helpful, you don't know jack about managing missions, you don't know anything about poisons, you aren't skilled enough to run reconnaissance, and you are naturally lacking with sleep, which is why you slept for nearly twelve hours straight. So, that's the assignment I'm giving you.

"Talk to the client. Get buddy-buddy with him. Figure out what's going on. Hell, talk to the other damn people in this village. Get some info. Make sure to find out every damn thing you can."

"Okay," I told her, glancing at her as she took yet another drag. I bit my upper lip slightly before forging ahead. "Hey, Nisha?"


"Are, you okay?" I asked hesitantly, and I saw her hand pause before falling away from her lips.

Her eyes turned towards me for a second, holding my gaze before shifting away. "I'm fine. I just refuse to fail. Anyway, you'd better get some more rest. We've all got a long day tomorrow."

I reacted slowly, gingerly rising to my feet. I wanted to try and force the topic a bit more, but I knew when it was time to skedaddle. I scratched the back of my head, turning just enough to say, "Good night. And...don't stay up too late – you'll get sick."

One of her eyebrows rose in what I took to be amusement. "Good night."

Meanwhile, I chided myself inwardly on how stupid I was to treat her as if she were younger than me, even though she technically was. Regardless, she didn't know that. And, as far as gathering info was concerned... Well, that's what I was interested in, wasn't it?

So, chapter's done. Good show. Again, Spanish helper, please. And, hey, P.a.t.r.e.o.n. Thanks.

Also, what do you think of Nisha and Kori, and Waraku, for that matter. I, personally, love Nisha, but, I'm biased. What can I say?