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The Phantom of Konoha

Chapter Five: A Few More Threads

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Hatake Kakashi and Maito Gai had been friends—and rivals—for over a decade. Theirs was a complicated relationship, but they knew each other well. So when Kakashi shrugged—as best he could with his left arm in a sling—Gai knew that his presence wouldn't be a problem.

"Where are you headed?" Gai asked as they meandered toward the outskirts of the city. It was near lunch time, so there were few people out and about.

"The Himura estate," Kakashi replied neutrally.

Gai flashed a smile in his rival's direction. He had wondered occasionally if there might be something between Kakashi and his former ANBU squadmate, Himura Taro. "She's a pretty girl," Gai said with a grin. It was about time Kakashi let some of his repressed youthful urges come to the surface.

There was a pause. Kakashi turned his head in Gai's direction. "Hmm?"

Gai fumed briefly but let it go. Kakashi would always be better at that revolutionary non-reactive reaction than the other jounin. The Copy-nin was a person who rarely showed what his true feelings were, while Gai rarely hid his. But they understood each other well, so Gai didn't take offense this time, because he knew that Kakashi was distracted and concerned without even having to ask. A portion of the concern obviously had to be for his students; the other probably had to do with Himura Taro.

It took nearly an hour of walking to reach the Himura estate. If they had been running, it would have taken just a few minutes, but Kakashi hadn't hinted that the matter might be urgent. Besides, it was only polite to have the injured member in the party set the pace. If Kakashi was content to walk, that was fine with Gai. Sensing that perhaps Kakashi just needed some time to think, Gai left the silence unbroken. Sometimes Kakashi just wanted company and not conversation.

Instead of talking, Gai took the time to enjoy the great forest outside of Konoha's walls. The majestic trees were some of the tallest on the continent. The early summer weather was just right for invigorating any youthful spirit, and the soft breeze played through the leaves, causing the shadows on the forest floor to shiver and change. It was a perfect day to train; Gai would have to round up his genin for an impromptu taijutsu session after he got back. The rest of the walk was filled with Gai devising the training regimen for that evening. Lee would love it.

They were nearly to their destination when the breeze shifted in direction. Gai took a deep breath and promptly choked. That smell . . . It was a smell that Gai hadn't been forced to endure for a long time, but one that was forever engraved in his mind as one of the relics of the last ninja war Konoha had been involved in. All previous thoughts of training his team evaporated.

Gai didn't even have to look at Kakashi—they both knew what the smell meant. As one they broke into a run, Kakashi holding his left arm as steady as he could against his side. They covered the last meters to the Himura's clearing in just a few seconds.

They stopped at the edge of the clearing and took in the partially collapsed house and decomposing bodies strewn about the yard. Kakashi and Gai picked their way through the destruction cautiously. The bodies were bloated from the sun. Flies buzzed lazily, flitting in and out of open orifices.

Kakashi and Gai split up to search for survivors, but it was quick and pointless. Gai found Kakashi inside the ruined house, straightening what limbs remained on the corpse of a woman. The only identifiable feature left on the body was an ANBU tattoo on the upper left arm. "They've been dead at least a week is my guess," Kakashi said evenly, brushing a fly away from the ruin of a face. "Probably just before the Sound and Sand attacked."

Gai nodded as Kakashi straightened up. The Himura Clan, graced with a phenomenal sensing range and the ability to detect a person's emotional state, had always lived outside of Konoha's protective walls. Too many people made them uncomfortable; they avoided the village proper as often as possible. In hind sight, it was easy to see how their absence might have been overlooked in the last chaotic week.

"Orochimaru probably had them taken out first thing," Kakashi continued. He moved to the room's empty bookshelf and started examining it. "He knew that they would be able to sense his army approaching."

Gai looked about the room, his mind working. One of the corners was scorched black; ash stirred in the breeze. Had anyone in Konoha known about the deaths, the bodies would have been cremated or buried days ago. Shinobi of the Fire Country didn't leave their comrades to rot if they could help it. "They would have sensed strangers heading here," Gai added. A few scraps of charred paper fluttered along the ground. The fact that no one had noticed any of the clan members' absence spoke volumes of the disarray Konoha was in, and the small clan's isolationist tendencies. "A patrol of enemy shinobi wouldn't have worked."

Kakashi swept a finger across one of the bare shelves. "Whoever killed the Himura was known by them." He considered his finger for a moment and then shoved his hand into his pants pocket.

Gai contemplated the implications of Kakashi's words. "Then whoever did this was not someone they considered a threat." The whispers of the presence of a spy within Konoha had spread through the jounin ranks during the month long break between the second and third Chuunin Exams. Gai frowned, thinking about Kakashi foisting off Uzumaki Naruto's training onto Ebisu during that month. Even with two students in the finals, Gai had still managed to train them both, but Kakashi had shoved his only qualifying student aside for—what? Only something more important than the exam would have pulled Kakashi away, which probably meant a mission. But Kakashi had been in Konoha during that time . . .

Before Gai could continue that train of thought, Kakashi spoke. "We'll need a squad of medic-nin to identify the bodies." He sighed, and Gai could hear in that soft sound thoughts that Kakashi would probably never vocalize. Kakashi turned his back on the shelf and walked back towards Gai. "Let's go."

They ran back to the village, despite Kakashi's mending collar bone. Gai knew that it was causing Kakashi pain, even though the other man showed no signs of overt discomfort. And he also knew that any inquiries about his rival's health would be brushed aside. The trip to the hospital was silent, each man thinking his own thoughts.

-

Akira plucked the roll of ryou from the front of her abundantly-filled kimono. Immediately she began counting the bills. "I thought you learned last time that you're not paying to fondle me," she said with a touch of satisfaction. The Sannin might be a slow learner, but he paid well, which was what counted.

Jiraiya opened and closed his mouth, checking to see if his jaw was relatively undamaged. Perhaps she shouldn't have punched him—a well-placed slap worked just as well—but the news he brought her hadn't put her in the best of moods. For a woman in her early forties, she was just as strong—and desirable, which was the far more important attribute in her line of work—as any female two decades younger. Which was probably why the pervert tried to feel her up at almost every opportunity.

Jiraiya's jaw evidently worked well enough for him to speak. "This is more important than what you usually do," he said, perhaps a bit more gruffly than normal. Akira could detect a hint of a sulk behind the words. In her opinion, Jiraiya was still trapped in the mindset of an adolescent, and it showed, especially when he got snubbed by a member of the opposite sex.

Akira nodded, still counting the bills. Jiraiya had come to her, the owner and manager of more than a dozen Pleasure Houses, nearly a decade ago with an interesting proposition. A mutually beneficial proposition—large amounts of cash in exchange for information. Over the years, the money had allowed Akira to expand her line of work, until one of her establishments could be found in every major city in the Fire Country and even a few in the border cities of neighboring countries. It was an impressive network of disreputability and clandestine information gathering. A few hand-selected girls scattered about at different Houses reported anything of interest to Akira.

It was an impressive amount of bills, Akira decided, especially since it was an advance payment. She rolled the ryou up and tucked them into the sash about her waist. "Finding the Legendary Sucker shouldn't be too difficult," she said. One of the first places a male gambler, high off of winning, would head to would be one of her establishments. "But finding out why the"—she snorted—"'research' was tainted is going to—"

Jiraiya swore loudly. Akira only had time to shoot a surprised look at him before the white-haired shinobi disappeared in the cloud of smoke. "Ninja," she muttered, before exiting her office. It was about time she checked on the other customers.

-

There were times when Clan Heads needed to speak to their Heirs privately, without interruption. For the clans with land holdings—like the Nara, Inuzuka, and Tsuchiya, for example—it was much easier for the Head and the Heir to simply take a stroll through the woods than to secret themselves away in a hidden spot.

Tsuchiya Minagi had taken many of those walks with her father over the past year. Whenever Tsuchiya Hiro returned from one of the Clan Council meetings, he usually pulled her away from teaching the pre-Academy children and they walked through the clan's woods. Minagi knew her father never told her everything that went on in the Council, but he did tell her the things he could, asking her opinion on this matter or that one. It was all in preparation for when she came of age—just a few weeks away—and would be presented to the Clan Council as the one to take Hiro's position should he be unable to make it to a meeting.

The topic on today's walk was as confusing as it was disturbing. "He killed his clan?" Minagi asked, trying to fathom how it was possible. The Uchiha had been the second largest clan—second only to the Inuzuka—in Konoha.

Hiro twirled the stem leaf he had plucked from a low-hanging branch between his thumb and pointer finger. "That's what his accomplice said."

Minagi shook her head in disbelief. "But Itachi-san was dead." Minagi had been just a few months younger than the Uchiha Heir, but didn't know him well; Minagi had never attended the Academy.

"Presumed dead," Hiro corrected. "The Head's house was burned down; there were no bodies left to identify." He ducked slightly to avoid a tree branch. "The one survivor the ANBU did find—Sasuke, the younger brother—didn't speak at all. Gave the Council fits—he wouldn't tell us anything about what happened that night."

"So it might not have been Itachi that killed everyone."

"The ANBU investigation squad concluded that it was just one person who carried out the attacks." Hiro tossed the leaf he was fiddling with onto the dirt. "According to Gagami's sensei, Itachi didn't deny killing his family, but he denied setting the fire."

"It doesn't make any sense," Minagi muttered as she stepped carefully over an exposed tree-root. "Why would he . . ." she trailed off as her father came to a halt in front of her. "What's the matter?"

Hiro paused a moment longer, and then shook his head. "Just paranoid," he said with an attempt at a smile. "I thought I saw something." He resumed his unhurried pace.

"Probably just one of the feral cats," Minagi reassured her father. The Tsuchiya land had been home to over half a dozen former house cats for several years. They preferred the woods to humans but weren't above accepting the table scraps left out for them by the various Tsuchiya households. Minagi herself didn't care much for them; cats made her sneeze. "But if he didn't set the fire," she started, returning back to the original conversation, "then it must have been the younger brother."

"That's the conclusion that ANBU and the Council came up with," Hiro agreed. "But we never found out why. The boy disappeared not long afterward, and no one has seen him since." He ducked underneath a second branch. "In my study I have a few scrolls on the case; you can read them if you want."

-

Jiraiya was not an idiot, even though he'd been called one innumerable times. He had set his plan into motion the night before. But that didn't mean that the activation of the second jutsu didn't catch him off guard. He had thought that the Akatsuki pair would have waited at least a day after his and Naruto's departure. Anything less would have been extremely arrogant on their part or else spoke of a deadline they needed to meet.

It took just the briefest instant for the translocation and then Jiraiya was in the hallway outside the room he and Naruto had rented.

Naruto was down on one knee about four meters away, his back to Jiraiya. The two Akatsuki stood over him, the Mist-nin grinning fiercely down at the boy. Uchiha looked up from the boy in front of him. "Jiraiya-sama," he acknowledged. "I didn't expect you this quickly."

Jiraiya took a few steps forward to close the gap between them. He hated fighting in cramped spaces, but the location was out of his choosing. "Even an old toad has a few tricks the tadpoles don't know about." Like using one tracking jutsu as a decoy for the real one. There were no signs of a fight in the hallway, but Naruto was still kneeling, shoulders slumped. Is he under some sort of jutsu?

The Uchiha didn't respond although his companion's sword twitched. It looked like he had rewrapped the bandages that were torn freeing the sword from the bridge the day before.

Jiraiya stamped down hard on the fledgling fear threatening to get in the way. What if they did something to the seal? He had lived to an age few powerful ninja dared hope to reach. What do they want with the Kyuubi? He was a living legend. What did they do to Naruto? He had been a student of Sandaime and the jounin sensei of Yondaime. How can I capture them? There was no reason why he couldn't handle two children after a demon-possessed genin.

"Y-you bas. . ." Naruto's shoulders twitched. Jiraiya tensed as he watched the boy struggle slowly to his feet. With Naruto standing between him and the missing-nin, the boy effectively prevented Jiraiya from any long-range projectile attack. Idiot boy, why couldn't you have stayed down? Jiraiya thought quickly, searching for some sort of jutsu that he could use to both protect Naruto and attack.

Naruto, however, had his own ideas. He brought his hands together in front of him. Immediately Jiraiya felt the boy's chakra increase exponentially. Red chakra started swirling around him, and Jiraiya regretted for the first time ever teaching the genin how to successfully call upon the Kyuubi's power.

In that instant, the perfect technique came to mind. Jiraiya brought his hands together and flashed through the required sequence. He'd save that boy from his own stupidity and take care of two of the Akatsuki in one move.

"Too slow!" Hoshigaki's sword sliced the air just over Naruto's head. As suddenly as it had come, the demon's chakra disappeared. Naruto collapsed with all the grace of a puppet whose strings had been severed.

Jiraiya slammed his palms onto the ground. "Ninpou gamaguchi shibari!"

-

Tsuchiya Kusanagi was a light sleeper even in comparison to other ninja. So it was no surprise to him when he woke up in the middle of the night at the sound of a door sliding shut. He got up reluctantly from his bed and crossed soundlessly to his half-open door. It had been a hot night when he went to sleep and the open door in conjunction with his open window had created a nice breeze.

The sound had come from the direction of his father's study. It's probably Minagi, looking over those scrolls again. She had poured over them endlessly after dinner, and Kusanagi knew better than to ask her what she had found so fascinating in them. Those scrolls were off-limits to everyone but her and Hiro unless either disclosed the information personally. Not for the first time, Kusanagi was grateful that he hadn't been the first born child.

He padded silently down the hallway, intent on making Minagi go to bed. Light spilled through the gap under the study door and out into the corridor. The scrolls could wait until the morning, and besides if she kept rustling through them he'd never be able to get back to bed. This wasn't the first time Kusanagi had caught her reading in their father's study by candlelight.

He was about two meters away when he realized that the light coming from the study wasn't the gentle flicker of candlelight. It was too steady for that, more like his father's desk lamp. Kusanagi frowned. When Minagi was sneaking, she always used one of the many candles she collected. Was Hiro up late then?

He took the last few steps to the closed door. "Father?"

Instead of his father's voice, Kusanagi heard the clink of metal. He ducked just in time for a kunai to burst through the thin sliding door and bury itself deep into the wall behind him.

In one fluid movement, Kusanagi slid open the now-ruined door and dove through the opening. He just had enough time to take in the scene—scrolls and papers scattered haphazardly across his father's usually neat desk—when something hit the ground behind him.

Kusanagi whipped around and managed to bring his arm down in time to block a kick to his middle. I didn't even sense him! The intruder was quick and good at concealing his presence, but Kusanagi was just as fast. He hadn't become a chuunin by riding on his teammate's coattails.

This time the kick came at his face. Kusanagi was ready, and instead of blocking, he ducked down and let the attack fly over him. In that same instant, he swept his own leg around low. His kick made contact with the intruder's foot and knocked the boy's support out from under him.

Kusanagi leapt away from the intruder and behind the desk as the black-haired boy hit the ground. The Tsuchiya boy knew he needed to end the fight quickly, before whoever it was used a jutsu that could put anyone else in danger. Kusanagi didn't have a single kunai or shuriken on him. But a Tsuchiya was never unarmed as long as there was a single sheet of paper nearby.

The boy got to his feet just as Kusanagi formed the final Dragon seal. "Kami shibari no jutsu!" The papers scattered across the desk glowed for a second and then launched themselves at the other boy. The boy started to form a series a seals, but the papers wrapped around him before he could finish, trapping his arms against his sides and binding his legs tightly together. He held his balance for a moment, but ultimately tipped over and smashed into the floor of the study.

Kusanagi jumped back over the desk and approached the intruder warily. He heard footsteps rushing down the hallway and turned in time to see the concerned faces of his father and two sisters. "Someone was going through your study," he said, gesturing to the boy lying on the floor.

Hiro turned on the main light as he stepped into his damaged study to look the paper-encased boy up and down. Kusanagi took the time to study his beaten opponent. The boy had dirty black hair and eyes and was obviously struggling to break free of his bonds. Because of the Paper Bind he was in, really the only thing visible was the boy's neck and head. Kusanagi guessed that he was probably around Gagami's height, but it was hard to say for certain. "Never seen him before." Kusanagi said to his father. "Have you?"

"I'm pretty sure I have," Hiro said quietly, watching the boy try to break his way free of the paper imprisoning him. "I think this is Uchiha Sasuke."

-

Author's Notes—

Happy now?

Gratitude, as always, to Kilerkki for betaing. Many thanks to Hikaru, gear, Lukita Ravenwing, iamzuul, and link no miko for comments and constructive criticism, which served as motivation for me to write this chapter.

Extra love to gear, who drew two amazing pictures for me: sweet!Gagami and Sasuke (in a scene from Anniversaries). Be sure to check out the pictures at fifthgearlove dot sheezyart dot com or through my author profile. Additional love to Laz (timelapse dot deviantart dot com) for translating Paper Bind Technique (kami shibari no jutsu) for me.

Questions, comments, constructive criticism, complaints, etc., are welcome and wanted.

-Phoenix