Team of One
dedicated to
Fuuko no Miko


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Author's Note: Raiha's fight in the manga was different from his fight in the anime. There, Raiha came up and forfeited to Kurei, whereas in the manga, he lost on purpose to Noroi. This is based mostly on the manga version, although someone's bound to notice that I've shuffled some events and dialogue around. Arigatou to Shuusai, as always, for telling me what my little pictures were saying. This is the prepayment for the Second Bribe.. *waves cheerfully* and I hope it's to your liking! I was feeling introspective when I wrote this fic… so there's a lot of introspecting within it. Hope you guys like it… these two fics ('Yume' being the other) have been my first attempts at writing Raiha seriously, as opposed to part of what Lynn-chan has dubbed the Joker/Neon/Raiha comedy team. :o) It's also the first FoR fic I've tried writing in the first person… I think it works.

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I stood quietly at the sidelines, waiting to be announced. The crowd was roaring as always, and even with her microphone, it was difficult to hear Ushino announce the teams for the semifinals.

"Uruha Kurenai versus Uruha Rai!" she shouted, although her voice was a bit querulous. I couldn't help but smile. She was cute… they all were, ne? But the girl needed more confidence. I had asked her out to dinner last night, but she had blushed and stammered and refused. Such a shy girl. Too bad… I had been in need of some kind of female company last night. It would have cheered me up to face today. Nothing like a girl with a pleasant voice, a pretty face, and a good figure… add in good food and a candlelit dinner… add in a casual midnight stroll through the garden… nothing like that to take death from your mind. But it hadn't happened, and so I had spent the night in meditation. But this was not the time for regrets. This was the time to enjoy life while it lasted.

I kept my perpetual smile plastered to my face. It made me look goofy… very well. So I looked foolish. What of it?

It had led to more than one opponent underestimating me. What the crowd thought didn't matter.

But did I want this opponent to underestimate me?

I walked towards the arena. I had a fanclub… they were waving banners, whistling, and cheering loudly for me. Impressed that I was the only one-man team on the lists. Impressed that I had singlehandedly made it to the semi-finals. Impressed that I was Jyushinshuu, yet had never once used my madougu in my fights. And they had a right to be impressed. I was a very deadly individual. My edge was effectively concealed beneath the foolish exterior. And yet the sunny personality was just as effective a technique in combat was was my katana or one of my throwing-stars. Ninjas no longer existed, yet I was one. And to be ninja meant to fight with one's mind, not with one's brute strength. I had a mirror. I knew I looked frail. I didn't have the body of Kai or Gashekura. But it was deceptive. I had strength. I had endurance. Agility. Speed. Brains. And I knew how to optimize those qualities.

Snippets of voices could be distinguished through the babble of the crowd.

"That's Raiha-sama! He's singlehandedly made it this far!"

"That Noroi's gonna kill him…"

"Not Raiha-sama! He's so strong!"

I was on the arena steps. I lost my footing and fell on my face. I laughed it off in apparent embarrassment, although the entire scenario had been carefully calculated by me. Laughter rippled through the crowd, too. Some of it was in amusement. Others laughed derisively. I quickly hopped back onto my feet and made my way up to the raised platform. Again… it didn't matter what the crowd thought.

It only mattered what my opponent thought.

I had kept an eye on Noroi during his fights. He, too, was Jyushinshuu. He was a walking corpse. He could feel no pain. His current host had had great strength when he was alive. He was a difficult opponent. How can one kill someone who's already dead? Yet if I was fighting for real, I could easily take him, especially if I used my Raijin.

But did I want to fight him for real?

Or did I want to lose?

I glanced over at my master, who was standing over in Uruha Kurenai's corner. How I had wished to have been allowed onto that team! But Kurei had said no. Kurei had placed me by myself for his own reasons. I was Kurei's pawn. And so I had agreed to be sacrificed.

It was for Kurei, after all.

The ring quieted down, and I could hear Kurei's voice.

"Anyone who stands in our way will be crushed," he said ominously. More for the crowd's benefit than for mine.

I already knew that.

And I would allow it to be so.

I was Jyushinshuu, after all. What's more, I was loyal to Kurei, and not to Mori Kouran.

I could count on one hand the number of Uruha who shared my allegiance.

Why did Kurei have to sacrifice me? Was he so blind as to think he didn't need faithful support? Was he so ignorant as to not know my feelings? My loyalty? I think not. Perhaps it was my devotion that placed me in this situation in the first place. He knew he could count on me to throw the fight.

Yet why could he have not chosen someone weaker?

The answer was obvious. Someone weaker would not have advanced to the semifinals.

"Go easy on me. I'm scared, Kurei-sama," I answered him, but I lied. What did I have to fear? Death? How ridiculous. I was familiar with death. I had caused it frequently. The guilt of my bloodstained hands was always with me. How I longed to be free from my duties as an assassin. Yet I was bound to serve Kurei … bound by blood. It was of my own free will, ne? Perhaps Kurei knew this… perhaps this was his way of releasing me honorably from his service.

One remains Uruha forever. Only death can shrink our ranks.

And so I would die. I was prepared. But I would not go down whimpering, like a frightened child. Nor would I allow myself to be cut down silently, making no effort to defend myself. I would prove to Kurei that I was perfectly capable of defending myself. That I was perfectly capable of continuing to live. That it was my choice to die, and not his. I would die because I allowed it. I would die because it was what Kurei wanted for me.

My life was for Kurei. My death would be for him, too.

I turned to Noroi with my goofy grin. "Long time, no see," I said casually. He didn't deign to answer. Not surprising. The Jyushinshuu was rarely assembled like this. It was rather like a reunion for us. Not under the best of circumstances, considering that many of us were being weeded out.

Was I merely a weed?

Genjuro was dead. I believe Kurei had planned that from the start. Genjuro had been strong, granted, but his loyalties had been elsewhere. Jisho was dead. Jisho had been one of the first to join Kurei's Group of Ten. Had he outlived his usefulness? I think not. Kurei had been particularly displeased when Magensha had killed him, although he would  never have admitted it. But I believe that Jisho's demise had been a result more of Mori's plotting rather than Kurei's. Kurei had dispatched of Magensha swiftly after that little fiasco, using J-Kipa. I sincerely doubt J-Kipa would survive to see the final battle of this tournament, either. He, too, was only a pawn in Kurei's complicated game. Allowed to exist, under the illusion he was one of the Ten!

I longed to tell him otherwise, but knew better than that. Besides, he was such an arrogant fool. If he played his cards properly, he could remain Uruha after the tournament was over. But if he got on a certain someone's bad side… there would be no consequences for cutting him down after his usefulness was over.

My eyes fell on Kai, standing off in the corner talking to Mikoto. Would he survive? I knew he had been handpicked to fight against Mikagami of the Hokage. I wondered if Mikagami knew what Meguri Kyoza had planned for him… I wondered if Mikagami knew anything. The Hokage had managed to get this far without shedding blood… well, without taking life, anyhow. Children… such innocents! Still, it was admirable how they stood up for their ideals. But when Kai fought against Mikagami, one of the two would not leave the ring. I knew that much. Kai had very specific instructions. I wondered vaguely why Rassen and Meguri had not joined in the tournament. The Ten were not completely represented… then again, the Ten were no longer the Ten.

We were only the Eight. And after this fight, we would be the Seven.

Rather, they would be the Seven. I would no longer be a part of them.

I had daydreamed on occasion. Of having a wife. A warm, loving woman who could share my life… who I could come home to and tell about my day. We could have dinner, do the dishes. We could curl up on the couch together, snuggled under blankets, and watch a movie from the video store… we could end up being too distracted by each other so that we missed the movie's end, but neither of us would care. Maybe we could even have a little girl… a little boy, perhaps. Either could end up looking like me. How amusing! Little Raiha's… with Raiha eyes and Raiha hair. They could be adorable… I could teach them to fight with wooden sticks, and tell them stories about the ninja. But I wouldn't let them grow up like me. I wouldn't let them know the smell of blood, or the sound of death. Is it good to shelter children? To have them grow up oblivious to the less-pleasant side of life?

If it kept them from becoming me, then yes.

But I would never have been able to do that… I could never marry a woman with such a weighty secret in my heart, defiling my conscience. How can one keep such enormous secrets from someone they cherish? I could never have told my hypothetical wife about my life as Uruha. That I was an assassin. Who could forgive me for robbing so many people of their most precious possession? Who would love a hit-man? For that was what I was. Not a nice term, but that was me. The people I killed were not pleasant people. They were murderers. Thieves. Con-men. Gangsters. Drug dealers. Pimps. Kidnappers. People who were in dangerous professions, and knew it. The dregs of society. But even the dregs have their friends. Their mothers. Their families. Even the dregs were mourned.

Would I be mourned? Would anyone comment upon my passing? I lived in the shadows. I would die in the shadows. I would be discreetly buried in Mori's private plot with a minimum of fuss.

What a pleasant thought.

My fingers wrapped around the end of my katana, and I drew it, ready for the signal.

"Hajime!" cried Ushino, looking frightened. Her eyes were squeezed shut, as though forgetting she was supposed to referee and watch.

Noroi lunged at me stiffly. That was one of the advantages to fighting a dead man. They weren't the most flexible. I easily avoided him, twisting, sliding across the floor. I had speed and agility over Noroi. He had brute strength on his side. If even one of his punches connected… I felt I would shatter into a thousand pieces.

Perhaps he would take over my body when he was finished with me. I sincerely doubted it, though. Noroi looked for superficial strength… brute force. I had a different kind of strength. It was difficult for people to remember that strength comes in many forms.

Sometimes, to be strong is to allow yourself to lose.

I noticed he had ripped the shoulder of my robe, but Noroi had not completely escaped my katana. There was blood on his shoulder… he was wounded. Like wounding him would do anything... still, the audience was pleased and they clapped. I had been the first to get anywhere near Noroi.

I slid my fingers into a concealed pocket and produced several throwing stars, which hurtled towards my opponent. However, he shot energy from his hands, and they disintegrated before they reached their mark.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Kurei was not pleased with my actions.

"Why don't you use the raijin?" he asked, his eyes staring coldly at me.

The game was up. "It's not time yet," I said, tossing my katana to the side. It slid across the floor harmlessly, and I stood there motionless, waiting.

Noroi seemed a bit confused, but took advantage of my stationary position. With one giant punch to my stomach, he scooped me off my feet, bruising my ribs and knocking the wind from me. I gasped in pain; my eyes bulged from the shock of impact; I could taste the blood spurting from my mouth. I flew through the air, landing roughly on the ground, knocked dazed and disoriented. In a moment, Noroi was on top of me.

I stared up at him. The mask… indifferent to pain and suffering and death. Indifferent to the fact he was about to murder a fellow Uruha. Nothing was to stand in Kurei's way… my position in the Inner Circle did not matter. All that mattered was that I was disposed of.

The 'nin' in ninja meant to endure… I had endured much during my time. There was only one last thing to endure. The final blow.

The pain, I could handle. The physical pain, anyways. I couldn't make such a blanket statement concerning the emotional pain. The regret that I had neglected to focus on what I wanted out of life. Look at the Hokage… if one of them died, they would be mourned by their friends and family. The Uruha was my family, they were my friends… but they would not mourn me.

Why was I doing this again? There was still time…

My gaze fell upon Kurei, standing to the side with his face inscrutably covered by his mask.

It was for him.

And so I was content.

My lips curled into a smile. Not a fake smile, not a goofy smile… but a real smile. So this was what death would be… it wasn't that bad, ne? It was something that I wanted. Something that I allowed. Because my death would mean more to Kurei than my life did.

"WAIT!" shouted Kurei, his voice rising aggressively above the crowd. Noroi's fist was already on the downward plunge, and it rammed deep into the ring, barely missing my head and shoulder, shattering the stone tile.

I lay there unflinchingly.

"What do you mean by that?" asked Kurei coldly. "You're not scared… yet you refuse to fight."

I picked myself up, brushing off bits of dust and powder and stone flakes from my robe. "Why should I fight?" I asked, spreading my hands calmly. "All I'm here for is to help Kurei-sama advance." I retrieved my katana and sheathed it behind my back. "Why do I need raijin now? Perhaps when you're in danger one day… but I'm only a day lamp." I gave him a significant look.

He knew what I meant. And he approved.

"I forfeit this match to Uruha Kurenai," I informed Ushino cheerily as I descended from the ring. She seemed a bit shocked, but dutifully called out the results.

"And Uruha Kurenai advances to the Final Round!"

I walked over to rejoin Uruha Kurenai in their corner, taking up my place next to Neon. She looked at me, a myriad of questions forming in her mind. I shook my head slightly, giving her my goofy grin.

"It's all right."