Disclaimer: Thaw your chickens before using the chicken gun.

A/N: I shouldn't write my stories in notebooks, first. Turns out it makes for messy chapter cut offs. Anyway… more fight sequences… I know it's not what everyone's waiting for, but it's important to get there.

CHAPTER 21: Circumstance Awry

You know how they say as soon as you realize that it's been quiet for far too long the air will instantly change? Well, it's true. After hours of ranting in my head I take a look up and what do I feel but a cold serpentine air, something bad that just starts to stir through the dust like an omen of the end of the world. It feels like an impending attack. Not guerilla tactics like one would assume, but a straight on balls to the wall attack. The feeling of reservation that would come with guerilla tactics is missing. A quick survey of my companions reveals a similar realization throughout. This unease is far from a trick of my imagination.

Only a short time ago we passed out of Fire Country, and this terrain is completely foreign to the lot of us. But if we decide to take the initiative… no, we can't. Not the way Naruto is twitching. Our best bet would be to wait for a signal, give no one real initiative. Be ready for an attack and retaliate with simultaneous force. I won't be able to see the signal, but Gaara will, and if our minds are on the same wavelength at all, he'll let us know in his own subtle way. I risk a glance at the party leader, and as if he hears it he returns the glance with a sideways look and a nod of the head. Though I've never been on a mission with Gaara before this, I've seen him work, and it doesn't surprise me to find he remembers how I work as well. I have a feeling the strategies will build themselves if we continue.

The only ones I'm worried about are Kiba and Naruto. Kiba is brash and easily provoked, Naruto has a tendency to go against orders. If we do it right, keep Kiba away from dead center he'll be all right. But I wish I had a leash for Naruto. That boy can be hard to work with sometimes. A real handful. Way harder to control than Lee, and far more headstrong than Kiba… but I've done it before. Numerous times. Tsunade-sama claims we make a good team, but if you ask me it's mostly coincidence. If he weren't so damn tough he'd have been dead years ago, and if I couldn't think on my feet, I'd have been a goner, too.

There. That's all the signal I need. The sands starting to creep from Gaara's gourd seem almost excited, if that's possible without a monster to lead them on, and as that happens I notice a movement passing through the corner of my eye. That's definitely not the wind. I pull a kunai from my leg holster slowly and let it catch a ray of sunlight that peeks through the trees. The glint pulls the attention of even our more dense companions, and the sight of a drawn weapon is clear enough to ready anyone who wasn't already aware.

The first nin in the group goes for the one he thinks is the weakest link, but we all no that despite being a kunoichi, traditionally the weak links, Tenten is nobody to be taken so lightly. He's a pincushion before he can finalize his attack.

And just as the mood indicated, the entire group is upon us as soon as the first man falls. The snakes… they're still coming, the summoners must be the second wave. That means the sooner we dispatch these decoys the real battle will begin. If they thought this elementary of a tactic would work on Konoha ninja, they're gravely mistaken.

There are eleven men in the first wave, outnumbering us by a few, but far from outclassing us. Their highest possible probability still only brings them a forty percent chance, and that would be assuming every man was the rank of a Konoha jounin, which is highly improbable. No, these soldiers are sacrificial pieces, trying to buy time as the summoners finish their work. Without a more complex strategy this resistance is toast.

All this means is that we're better off keeping our big guns at bay until the second stage. Tenten, Kankuro and I will have to finish off this batch before the others start wasting chakra. No problem. Catching their attention will be the worst of it. As we spread out for battle formation, the both of them ended up on opposite sides. Relaying the message might be a pain.

In perspective Kankuro is closer, but I think this will have a better chance of working if I go the other way. Tenten is a better bet. I dodge an enemy attack by the skin of my neck and make a beeline for my companion as the others start to fight. She's keen to my presence and immediately divides her attention.

"Cut chakra expenditure for stage two." I say simply at a half whisper.

She gives a quick nod, whips out a scroll, and instantaneously throws it across the field. How she can write, attach and send a message that quickly I'll never know. The kunai sticks hard into a tree beside the target, and as Kankuro glances the note he nods, and the sound of chittering fills the air like an army of insects. That sound is maddening, I don't know how one could stand it for so long without destroying some very vital parts of the sanity. But there's no guarantee on any of our sanity anymore, now is there? Kankuro steps up to the plate first, jumping in front of Naruto's advances without hesitation. Not the safest thing to do, but I cannot contest.

All three minor jutsu are released in a single blast, and the apparent chaos does as it should. The enemy nin try to scramble from puppet shards, sword like shadows and various weaponry without much success. They obviously don't know what to block, what to dodge and which could possibly be harmless. Truth is, none of them are harmless, and with the very specific control we each have over our attacks, anything left open is going to hit something vital. And with all three of us attacking at once, we used almost none of our chakra. Strength in numbers as they say.

As soon as the chaos quells Naruto is the first to jump out front, and though wave two hasn't made their appearance, Naruto obviously isn't wasting any time. The rest of us follow his lead, although it might be walking into a trap we can't very well leave Naruto on his own. I don't know, I suppose he can handle himself for the most part, but I'm not very good at letting my companions go off on their own. Not since my very first mission as a chuunin. If anyone is going on an odds against solo battle its going to be me. I'm done risking people, especially Naruto, he's done his fair share over the years.

Good, I can see him now, stopping before the enemy attacks. I jump the gun a little and toss out a few exploding tags, some of the last ones I've got… to draw out the snakes I can see slithering in the tall brush. Since the summoners finished their primary objective, we have a little more to worry about. They obviously aren't hand to had combat types, so they will probably focus on ranged combat, maybe even sniping from the trees. We've got to keep a sharp eye, avoid unnecessary injury, as minor as it would be.

The exploding tags work like a charm, drawing out a total of seven oversized serpents, one of which appears to have been severely injured by one of my tags. Naruto instantly lets out a battle cry and charges, but not before I notice a shape start to move in the trees. No, not a person, something much more dangerous than that… I can't tell which puppet it is, but Kankuro is definitely on top of things. A blood curdling scream erupts from that general direction. Good. Now I can take care of what really needs to be done.

I take note of each of my companions' positions like points on a map, easily dictating their area of attack and enemy likely to be facing them. Even with Kankuro setting borders, our battle area is still pretty huge, and there are a lot of obstacles to account for, plenty of places to hide, as well, a nice speckling of sunlight through the tree branches, and not a whole lot of rocks or debris. Looks like only one of the snakes is going to be my problem, too. Perfect.

There's only one tree between me and my target. Hiding quietly behind the trunk, my target seems unsure of action, which leaves it in a still, easy to capture position. I push my fingers together and send out my jutsu, concentrating until I feel it catch. I spin around the tree trunk to catch a glance and its just like I hoped. Trapped. I keep still, even when half of a snake crashes in front of me, splattering blood every which way. I can't hold such a big creature for long, but until then, let's see what kind of damage I can do. "Deadly shadow, shadow assassination!"

I pull out a kunai, infuse it with the first stage of the jutsu and stab it directly into the ground where the snake's shadow begins. That should hold for about five seconds, which gives me only one shot with my shadow assassination. Now to see if it will even effect the beast. I sprint past another skirmish, almost getting whipped with a gigantic tail, and when I finally stop it's right in the center of the shadow that outlines the snake's head. I pull back until I feel the energy twisting around my fist and swing upward, upper cutting thin air if you must. But that's not the reality of it. The energy around my fist continues skyward, taking the shadows surrounding with it. The shadow spike thrusts upward and right through the creature's skull just before the shadow snap wears off, traveling several meters up into the air, even after the creature regains mobility. But even that isn't enough, and the impaled creature thrashes wildly, its twists and turns even more dangerous as the spike melts back into the shadows. This could be a problem, but I was prepared for this.

I roll back a ways and start forming seals. But that's-fuck! No time to concentrate, one of the other snakes is headed this way with what looks like a damaged eye. It hits the tree behind me full force, and when I regain my bearings I'm on my knees, covering my head until the rain of splinters stops. Great! It's not dead, either! Now that makes two extremely pissed reptiles within a five meter span. Time to run, meet up with another companion and reassess the situation. It looks like Naruto is the closest, but I'd never find him through his clones… so which snake is it that got away? Were there more that hadn't come out yet? No time to check, have to keep running. Gaara is the next closest, but that's too dangerous. I can't see them, but Tenten, Temari and Kiba must be on the other side…I don't have much of a choice.

I try ducking behind a large rock, but the snakes don't seem phased. The more injured of the two smashes right into the rock headfirst… I don't remember flying through the air, but now that I'm picking myself off the ground I find myself almost pinned up against a cluster of trees and shrubs. I'm just lucky it wasn't worse, I took some pretty good scrapes, though, and now that I'm bleeding they'll have me on lockdown. But it's not serious, so I'm not defenseless.

Wait… how did I get this far? A quick glance shows Gaara on the other side of me now. I must've lost consciousness for a second of two. I've got to think of something, I've lost sight of my companions and I can't just wait until the snakes eat me. Judging by the distance between us, I f I can stop both snakes even momentarily I'll still have time to take the offensive. I crouch down and form the seal for my Kage Mane-fuck.

"Shit!" I reach back and grab hold of the kunai suddenly lodged into my right shoulder blade. It's stuck, hit the bone, I'm going to have to leave it until I have more time. But my jutsu's fucked!

I turn my head and launch my last set of shuriken toward my attacker. It's a clean hit and he falls like a rock, but now I've got to improvise, the snakes are too close. The snake closest to me swings its tail, too fast to completely dodge. I activate the kawarami technique only to watch in horror as the log is obliterated. Pulling a length of wire from my weapons pouch, I swing the wire over the snake's head and land as lightly as I can on the thing's back. Not as easy as it sounds. When it feels the wire around its neck it starts thrashing and all I can do to stay aboard is pull tighter, catching only a flash of reflected light from the point where the scales bend. I barely avoid a gnash of the other snake's enormous fangs as if it's trying to remind me it's still there. As if I could forget. I cross the wires by switching hands, at the same time attaching a kunai to each. I need to buy some time since I can't take them both at once. I'm only a chuunin.

As soon as I locate the nearest tree I let my weapons loose, and with a quick twist using shadow sewing to knock the kunai around the tree, I let it loop several times before driving both kunai deeply into the tree. To the hilts, in fact. It should hold, at least for a little while. I leap down and away, leaving the bound snake to fight with the tree for a little while. But the fact that my wire didn't even cut the beast a little… what are those things made of, anyway? It doesn't matter, though. I already know my shadows can pierce them when I use the proper jutsu. But to make time for concentration, that's a little tougher. Luckily for me, it's the snake I initially damaged with my exploding tags that's still loose.

If I'm going to do this'll have to make use of those blind spots. I'm aware that snakes don't have very good eyes in the first place, and that their sensory is mostly through heat, but if I pop out a few Kage Bunshin and keep moving, I should be able to confuse its senses long enough to take advantage of the blind spot and make a fatal blow with shadow assassination. Only problem is that doesn't leave much chakra for the other snake, but it's far too big to take out with Kage Shibari and shadow sewing isn't nearly powerful enough to do more than give it some scrapes. I suppose I'll just have to be a good decoy and keep it occupied until help arrives. Speaking of which… there isn't much noise elsewhere. Where is everyone? There's pieces of snake everywhere but I can only see Kiba and Temari from my latest position, finishing off a snake together, which means help shouldn't be far off…

I summon three Kage Bunshin and we four corner the beast, and just to finalize we start trading position. One, two, three times and the blind spot… there! My clones disappear instantly as I thrust my hand to the ground. "Deadly shadow, shadow decapitation!"

A round house kick to the air and a huge shadow blade follows, slicing only halfway through. I'll be damned. It's tough all right, but that should still be enough for a fatal blow. If nothing else it will suffocate or its lungs will fill up with blood.

At least the other snake is still bound, so that saves me time and chakra, but if I've learned anything about these beasts, I don't have much time to think something up. But I should manage. After all, I may not be much of a fighter, but I can sure play chicken. I have plenty of kunai left, and enough chakra that as long as I don't have to do something big I'll hold out.

The first kunai I let off hits dead center in the creature's eye, but even the thrashing that ensues does nothing to shake the wire bonds. I let off another shot, clean into the upper pallet. It doesn't rip through like I'd hoped, instead sticking in about a third of the way and pissing it off even more. I guess the soft pallet must have been farther back, either that or my shot was somewhat off center.

And of course that's the last straw. Only one of the kunai rips from the tree, but luckily the multiple wraps drop it harmlessly to the ground. Not that it matters now with the raging worm coming right at me again. I throw together the seals for Kage Mane and just in time, too. I can feel its breath, it's that close. I don't have enough strength to make it back up, so all I can do is stand here with the sweat rolling down the back of my neck. It's resisting as best as it can, which is straining me, but I'm still in control and that's what matters. If someone doesn't get here soon, though, I may end up losing a limb.

That's not good…there's a shift in my jutsu, and I swear the snake is a little closer than before. No, I'm not imagining things. My hands are getting shaky. I'm just about out of chakra. Crap. I shouldn't have let it get so close. I don't have many options here. I'm going to have to try the run and shoot technique. Granted I don't know how well that's going to work on a creature that doesn't rely on ligaments for its mobility. But that means I'll just have to move faster.

Fuck. My eyes snap shut involuntarily and a sharp spike of pain shoots through my body… I guess I'm not fast enough. I don't feel death creeping in on me, but I know I'm in trouble. I'm pinned between the snake and a tree. This is bad. I'm not bleeding but I can feel that fang all the way through… my collarbone might be broken… and when I crack my eyes open, which feels like the most I can do, I see a green vest with a familiar red swirl. It's no coincidence I wasn't broken in half. Like usual, someone else had to come save my ass.

"Shikamaru!" I hear Temari shout from the other side of the snake. This must be the last one… of course. What luck.

"Shikamaru! Get out of here, now!" Kiba grates through his teeth.

"I can't…" He doesn't know… he wasn't quite fast enough either.

"Fuck…"is all I hear from him as he shakingly struggles against the serpent's jaws. He must be using all he has to keep them open. "Temari! Help! Kill this fucker!"

"No! Don't!" I shout, though I hate the sound of my voice as it escapes my throat.

"We have no choice!" and I know he's right, but I don't know how bad the bleeding will be when the fang's removed. All I can do is hope the barest medical attention will be enough to hold me over until Suna.

I don't see the attack, but I know the furthest half of the snake poofs away first, and I also know the pain forces the creature to rear back, ripping away from my collarbone and tossing Kiba to the side. I'm pulled down to the ground from the force. As soon as my hands and knees hit the ground my vision flashes white and the sensation of pain erupts through my entire body. My whole left side goes all but numb suddenly and I grab hold of the wound… it needs pressure…shit. I'm doing my best not to cry out, and it's working so far, but fuck it's hard. I pull myself up to my knees without aid from my hands and hesitantly I start fumbling through my things for some gauze.

Various mumbling curses are all I hear from my companions so I guess, yep. It's bleeding fast. I need to wrap it before I pass out. "Oh my gods, what happened to them?"

Temari's scream is a surprise to me. But now I know why the battle turned out as badly as it did. Gaara and Tenten are both crumpled on the battlefield, and Kankuro is nowhere to be seen. "Poison?" she says with a gasp. "How the hell? When?"

Kiba doesn't turn when he speaks, instead furrowing his brow in concern. "He almost got me, too, but lucky for me I smelled him right when he was about to strike. I've never seen someone move that fast."

"An assassination specialist? Hell."

Kiba brushes back his hair. "Naruto went after him, but he won't be able to see him, so I sent Akamaru with him."

Temari gazes at the prone figures of her brother and girlfriend. "They better get back soon, we can't move until they get back and I don't know what kind of poison they used."

But still they miss an important detail. "Where's Kankuro?" I grunt through the pain of removing my vest.

"Shit." Kiba says, though I don't think he's talking about Kankuro, because as he says this his hands shoot forward and stop me from finishing my work. Kiba is careful when pulling the vest away, but truthfully I can't feel it much anymore.

"This is a bad omen." I whisper. Kiba turns attention but says nothing. "She gets very irrational when her brothers are in trouble." I gaze out at the forestry.

"It's just not a good feeling when you think you might be losing someone you care about." He stops tugging at my wound for a moment, why, I don't know but….

"Yeah, I know." I say on the edge of my breath. I do know, all too well.

"You're still bleeding!" he snaps back into the moment. "You're getting loopy, let's get this over before you pass out. I don't know about Temari, but I don't think I can carry more than one of you assholes."

"We're going to have to travel at an almost insane pace, too." I add, cementing the change of subject.

"Yeah that's well and whatever, but arms up." He's got the right idea, though. We can't go tearing apart my shirt at this point, if the enemy is still on our tails the best thing to do is hide my injury altogether. The less signs of weakness the better… though I'm aware we're already pretty screwed in that regard. The shirt looks pretty wrecked, though, so if I have enough time I might need to give it a good thorough washing. A hard tug on the gauze from Kiba makes me remember the pain, but I try not to cringe too much. It has to be tight if we're expecting it to keep the wound from opening up in the next eight hours or so. It's all we can expect without proper supplies. "Best I can do." Kiba says, tying it off quickly.

"Thanks." I awkwardly pull my shirt down, feeling much like a doll with my arm stiffened from the gauze. "I guess I won't be much but dead weight… but I'll pull as much of it as I can."

He smiles half heartedly. "Heh. It won't be the first time I've pulled your dead weight, and you weren't even injured last time. "I smile back at him, but I fear that smile is also half hearted. I guess I can't really expect much else, given the situation. I mean, I'm just hurt, the others could very well be knocking on death's door.

I push myself up with my free arm and head toward Temari, who's currently crouched over her youngest brother. It looks like Tenten has been pulled over so the two are side by side. "It's bad, but we have some time… four days to a week I'm guessing," Temari whispers. "But the sooner the better, I don't know how bad the permanent damage will be… it has mild acidic properties."

We know she can't fix this on her own, we have to find Kankuro and get to Suna fast. "We'll find Kankuro." Kiba says sternly, but only above a whisper. "If you can stand guard I'm sure Naruto and Akamaru will be back in no time." When he turns toward me I nod and we both start at a conservative pace to the area where Kankuro was last seen on defense.


Next time:

Victory often leaves a taste in the mouth one would describe as bittersweet, maybe a coppery taste that reminds one of cold iron or blood. But this tang, while maybe a little unpleasant, is not a taste one wants to wash from their mouths. It is a better taste than defeat.

After all, to the victor go the spoils.