AN: What could Shizune be hiding! OMG, even I don't know! I know I keep saying this, but I can't thank those who took the time to read my story enough. You guys' comments keep me working hard!

The Red Ribbon
Chapter 5 Encounter

By Enkie

The sky was still dark and the birds nestled deeper in peaceful sleep. Dawn was approaching in a few hours.

"Oi, Genma, wake up. It's time." Kotetsu's deep voice rumbled. His boot roughly nudged the sleeping form on the ground.

Genma, immediately alert, bolted straight up from being startled. Something playful in Kotetsu's voice suggested that he enjoyed doing that to his teammate on a regular basis. Genma grunted his protestation and glared at Kotetsu's smirking face.

Genma slipped out of his bedroll and quickly gathered his things. Izumo was in the process of carefully wiping out all traces of their stay. He worked with methodical efficiency; his usual slothful demeanor is now anything but. First, he extinguished the fire and buried the charred wood away from the campsite. Then, scrutinizing the ground surface closely, he replaced any loose rock that was disturbed from its socket in the soil. He gathered dead leaves and twigs to arranged them in a natural pattern over indents made by their sleeping form. Finally, when he was done, he marveled at his handy work with a satisfied grin. Genma gave him a congratulatory clap on the shoulder. Izumo is a dependable man.

Meanwhile, Kotetsu and Shizune kept close watch on opposite ends of their campsite ready to pounce on any uninvited intruder. The hours before dawn were dangerous and vulnerable to enemy ambushes. This is when the last watch was tired and concentration lax. The condensation gathered during the night started to morph into fog as the temperature fluctuated, with the combination of darkness, it created the perfect cover for raids.

According to Genma's game plan, they were to arrive in Country of Ash by nightfall and scout the perimeters thoroughly, including the rendezvous point. They would spend the next day, disguised as regular civilians, analyzing the city layout and searching for information on the whereabouts of Hitori Shuji-sama and his family.

However, this plan was tentative. They have yet to complete the most difficult portion of their journey—spending a full day crossing the rocky treacherous slopes in southern Country of Earth while keeping heedful watch of any signs of the enemy was a daunting task, even for experienced nins with tremendous amount of endurance. This dangerous stretch of land had an infamous name, The Death Valley, because very few living things dwelled here. The soil was barren and hard, making it difficult for any vegetation to grow, and the air was dry from lack of water anywhere nearby. The only animals that lived here were poisonous insects, snakes and bald eagles that made the rocky cliffs their nesting zone, away from predators who hunted their chicks and eggs.

The secretive nature of their mission gave the team no choice but to travel through Death Valley and avoid the well-traveled routes that went around the area. The routes were usually under heavy surveillance. This way, they ran less risk of discovery.

The sunless sky was thick with rolling black clouds and the fog persisted through the day. Genma spent the morning in brooding silence. He led the team at an exhausting pace, resting little if at all, plowing determinedly ahead. Kotetsu and Izumo, having an almost telepathic connection, exchanged perturbed glances. Shizune's endurance level wasn't as high as the rest of them, and her lungs had a tendency to wheeze when she over exerted herself. At their current pace, she was starting to lag behind, but she wasn't about to let the men see her weakness. She had too much pride to admit her shortcomings. I've promised myself never to be weak again. She gritted her teeth and forced herself to dash faster from tree to tree, despite the tightness forming in her chest.

It was apparent that they were getting closer to Death Valley; the trees were getting thinner and more brittle, no longer green and thick-leafed. But the air was still damp and the moisture bred an impenetrable fog. Something isn't right. This region should be too dry for fogs to form, Genma thought.

Suddenly, a crashing noise came from behind.

"Genma!" Kotetsu alarmed cry snapped Genma out from his preoccupation.

Kotetsu and Izumo hovered over Shizune's kneeling form on the ground. She was holding one hand to her chest, coughing uncontrollably. Izumo held her other hand and gently patted her back, his eyes full of worry.

"What happened?"

"I think Shizune-san landed on one of the dead branches, it gave out under the weight." Izumo motioned with his chin upwards where a broken branch was visible. With Shizune's reflexes and skills, avoiding a fall like this shouldn't have been a problem. Genma suspiciously peered into the fog.

"I…I'm fine…sometimes…when I run…" She could barely get out a coherent sentence.

"Shizune-san, you're bleeding!" Kotetsu exclaimed and bent down to examine the gash on her calf. He plucked a long sharp splinter from her wound. She gasped softly from the pain.

"Must've been when the branch broke off…" She said between wheezes. She was no longer coughing, but was having difficulty breathing.

"But…" Kotetsu squinted curiously, "the flesh around the cut is turning purple…"

"Just give me a minute to breathe. I'll take care of…"

"Be quiet!" Genma's harsh tone immediately silenced them. He was in a half-crouch position with kunais in both hands. Izumo and Kotetsu instinctively followed his lead. They formed a protective triangle around Shizune.

"Oh, how touching, heros protecting the beauty." A cold, sardonic voice said. A tall figure emerged from the depths of the dense brume. His long silver hair was loosely held in a low ponytail, features perfectly balanced between stark masculinity and soft femininity; a long slender nose divided the high-cheekboned face in perfect halves; beautiful, long almond-shaped eyes that were a breathtaking golden hue crinkled at the corners as his lips formed an apathetic smile. A white traditional robe loosely clad his slender form, revealing a portion of his well-defined torso, a black sash held it together at the waist. Underneath, he wore black samaurai pants that accentuated his slimness. In his right hand, he held a sheathed sword.

This is a very dangerous man. Genma's eyes followed his every movement as the stranger roamed unconcernedly towards them. The fact that none of the jounins were able to detect this man before he made himself known was enough to make him wary.

"Who are you?" Kotetsu barked irascibly. He hated people who appeared out of nowhere, especially ones with long girly hair. Orochimaru has long girly hair, so does Itachi, he thought irritably. This guy can't be a good character.

The stranger merely raised an eyebrow and ignored Kotetsu's outburst. He turned to regard Genma, the same apathetic smile on his face.

"You should tend to her wound." He pointed with mock concern to Shizune with his sheathed sword. "Her charka level is too low right now to do it herself." His eyes gleamed with pleasure, "but have you the skill to drive the poison from her body? That is the question."

"Poison? How…" Izumo's eyes shifted uneasily between the stranger and Shizune's kneeling form.

"He cast a jitsu that coats every inanimate object within five hundred yard radius with poison." Shizune's voice trembled. "The tree was dead, so it was affected as well. When the splinters scraped my calf…" Her voice trailed off as she began to wheeze in short rasps. Half of her right calf was now a disconcerting purple.

"Very good! You are Tsunade's pride and joy after all, aren't you?" He cooed silkily. "But I didn't think I was going to get you this easily. Your breathing problem seems to be aggravated by my poison. What's the matter? You ran too fast with your playmates?"

"You bastard!" Kotetsu shouted and sprinted forward. Genma held an arm out, blocking his advance.

"Why?" Genma asked, his composure was cool and collected but his mind was reeling in a million directions. This isn't the time for mindless heroics, I need to find out how to help her.

"Just testing the waters. I suppose." The stranger casually cast aside a strand of loose hair from his brow. His gaze was on Shizune. "To tell the truth, I'm a bit disappointed."

"What do you mean…"

"It means we'll meet again. Maybe." He turned to leave.

"Hold it!" Genma lunged forth to prevent his departure.

It was too late, a thick blanket of fog engulfed the stranger and he disappeared from sight.

His voice trailed in the muted air. "Shizune-chan…"

Shizune-chan! He knows her…?

Startled by this realization, Genma turned just in time to see Shizune collapse to the ground unconscious.

To be continued...