A/N: I'm gonna tell you all right up front: This chapter almost caused me to quit writing this whole fic. I was very close. Seriously, I've written and rewritten this bastard of a chapter so many times that I was beginning to think that it wasn't worth it anymore. I'm still not satisfied that it's up to my own standards, but today I made the decision that this was as good as I was going to get it, and sent it out before it drove me insane. So finally, mercifully, in all of its 20K worded three month delayed glory, here is Chapter 11, the ending to the Ame vs. Kusa Arc.
As the rain had finally begun to let up over the forests of Ame, the twins, Kazuya and Kasumi, bounded skillfully through the trees, the first with a look of determination on his face, the second looking very troubled.
Kazuya made it past four more trees before sensing that his sister wasn't following him anymore. He stopped and looked over his shoulder, realizing that Kasumi had not just stopped, but dropped from the branches and was now staring fixatedly on the ground. Frowning, he descended to the ground as well, coming to a stop right in front of her.
"What are you doing, Kasumi?" he questioned. It was difficult to see the expression on her face with the rain plastering her long hair against it, but he could swear that she looked saddened about something. "Come on, if we don't hurry up we might be too late!"
Kasumi brushed the sheet of hair away, letting Kazuya see exactly how troubled she really looked.
"Brother..." she began, struggling to keep her emotions in check. "Why didn't...why didn't you ever tell me you felt this way?"
Kazuya's brow furrowed. He looked down, not daring to look her in the eye. "I don't know what you mean. If this is about what I did to that Amateur, I left him alive like you wanted."
She shook her head. "No, not just what you did to him, but also what you said to him."
Kazuya noticed that Kasumi's hands were trembling as she clasped them together over her chest. "Sis..."
"All those things you said about not caring if Kusa and Ame destroyed each other and all their citizens dying, is that really how you feel now?"
Kazuya flinched and turned completely away from her. "That's...not something that you need to worry about."
"Kazuya!" she shouted, her tone bordering on desperation. "How can you say that? You're my brother and you're wishing the death of people who weren't responsible for our pain! How can I not worry about that?!"
He remained silent, still refusing to look at her. Kasumi's body drooped. "Brother, talk to me," she pleaded. "All we've ever talked about before has been killing Masamuri and Takara. How long have you been holding this hatred for so many others who honestly did nothing to us?"
Kasumi could see Kazuya's eyes narrow and his jaw tighten as he tried in vain to suppress his anger. "That's the just the point, Kasumi. They all did nothing."
Kasumi tried to respond but he wasn't finished. "Before and during the attack yes, I admit that was all Masamuri and Takara's fault. But what about after the attack? After the bandits were gone and there was no more danger; why did no one come to offer any sort of support even then?"
Kasumi could do nothing but shrug. "I don't-"
"How many days did it take us to give everyone proper burials? God, there were more people dead than there were still alive at the time! Are we to believe that the people of Kusa and Ame needed their leader's permission to assist us with that?
"How many months did it take us to rebuild everything that had been destroyed or burned down? Was it too much to ask that more than the occasional two or three construction workers stopped by to lend us a hand? How many years has our home had to suffer in poverty and starvation because neither village could seem to afford sending any extra food or money to us?"
He paused for a second, appearing to be listening for something, then shook his head. "There were so many things that any of those people could have done...just the simplest of things to let us know that they actually cared about what happened to us and what we'd gone through, but they did nothing. They all did nothing." He slammed his fist into the tree trunk that he stood next to before stepping forward until he was directly in front of his twin. He stared deeply into her eyes. "We already know that war won't be avoided. It's a fact just waiting to happen now. Is it really so horrible for me to wish the same fate upon them that happened to us, so that they might feel our pain and realize exactly what we had to go through? Does that really make me such an evil person?"
Kasumi, for the first time in her life, felt a twinge of fear course through her as she stared back at her brother's hardened eyes. The warmth and kindness that had always been there every other time she looked at them had completely vanished, leaving nothing but a cold, empty hatred in its place. He didn't even feel like her own brother anymore.
But nonetheless, she still shook her head. "No brother, you're not evil. I could never think that of you. I just wish that you had told me about this years ago instead of keeping it locked up inside you. I could have helped you-"
Kazuya stopped her by pressing a finger to her lips. "You've been helping me for the last ten years, Kasumi. I'd have been driven insane by my anger a long time ago if not for you, but this is my burden, and once it's all over with... But enough of that now, we don't have time. If we don't move now we'll miss our chance. You do still want this, don't you?"
Kasumi dimmed, wondering if Kazuya even realized that he was sounding pretty insane right now. She reached out and pulled her brother's hand into her own, giving it a tight squeeze as she nodded. "Yes, you're right. Let's go."
Both twins' head's jerked around, spotting a ragged figure pushing through the brush of trees into the opening with them.
"You..." Kasumi stammered. Kazuya could only stare, completely dumbfounded.
"You know," Naruto stated through heavy breaths. He gestured down to his body, where the blisters and red rashes left by Kazuya's earlier technique could be seen slowly growing fainter through his ruined outfit. "These clothes were expensive...and I really liked them."
The Pride of Suna
By Legendary Legacy
A Naruto fic
Standard disclaimer still applies.
The stare down between the Ame twins and Suna genin lasted only a few seconds more before Kazuya absolutely exploded.
"You little FOOL!" he bellowed, causing his sister to stumble away from him in surprise. "I actually spared your life, and you dare show your thanks by trying to stand in our way yet again! Not even the biggest of amateurs would be that stupid! What in the hell is wrong with you!?"
The boy in question grinned weakly. "I guess I'm just not very smart."
A snarl escaped Kazuya's throat as he unsheathed his kodachi.
"NO! No more mercy for this fool! If he's really that set on throwing his life away here, then I've got no problem being the one to do it!"
"I won't die. Not while my friends are in danger."
The twins froze in uncertainty. That voice had been Naruto's, but the boy standing before them hadn't said it. Then they saw it: A second Naruto, looking just as tattered and angry as the first, making its way through the brush into the clearing.
Kazuya laughed. "Bunshins, that's your trump card?"
"Your sister is right, you know?"
This time the voice came from above them, and they looked up to see three more Naruto's standing on branches. Kazuya's frown continued to deepen. "What are you babbling about?" he asked the original Naruto.
Naruto dropped his gaze to the ground. "About how nothing that has happened to you being the fault of those people, and how you're being controlled by your own hate."
"Don't even start with me, Amateur! You know nothing about it!"
He nodded. "I may not know exactly how it feels to have your family and friends killed right in front of you...but I do know how it feels to be hated for something that I had no control over; And how it felt to hate them all back."
While her brother wasn't looking it, Kasumi was feeling a bout of unease rise up inside her. The five Narutos' had been joined by ten more, and it was impossible to tell if there were more to come or not. It wasn't just the number of bunshins that the boy had created, though; any mid to high-level genin could make as many. The real problem was that ordinary bunshins were almost never capable of independent speech and movement. She had to wonder whether Naruto was just overly proficient in the art of Bunshins that he could control them so well, or whether they were all more than just normal clones.
But one thing was for sure: For all of Kazuya's talk, she had a good feeling that Naruto wasn't the amateur that he appeared to be.
"All my life, I watched people scowl at me with cold, hate-filled eyes. Anyone who didn't yell at me, insult me or try to hit me just completely ignored me. I could never figure out why everyone treated me like that, and I hated them for it for a long time. Then when I finally did find out why, it made me hate them even more. Even though it was only for a moment, I really wanted them all to feel the pain that they'd given me.
"But when it came down to it, I couldn't do it. I realized that they weren't really who I should be angry at, they were just the easiest for me to blame. I ended up running instead. No matter how horrible I was treated by them, I knew I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I had killed any of them. And I'm glad I didn't, because even if none of them cared about me, I know that deep down they were still good people."
Kazuya snorted. "You keep spewing all of this crap at me knowing full well that I don't give a damn about you or your sob story, right? If anything, I sympathize with the rest of them. Hell, I've only known you for a few hours and I hate you, too."
"You just don't get it, do you?" all the Naruto's questioned at once.
Kazuya held strong, not letting the boy's mind games affect his judgment. "I understand perfectly. I know that you're a coward who'd rather run than deal with your problems. Well make no mistake, I'm not you and I know that I am ready to fight against mine. Ame and Kusa brought this whole thing upon themselves a long time ago-"
"Wrong," the first Naruto spoke again. "You are like me. You're angry at the wrong people because they're the only people available for you to be angry with."
Kazuya's jaw clenched tightly.
"Naruto," Kasumi finally spoke up. "Don't make things-"
"I think I realized something after hearing that story that you told me earlier," Naruto stated. "You may be right in getting revenge on Takara and Masamuri, that's plain to see. But the people that you really want revenge on are the bandits that attacked you. That's one of the reasons you became shinobi in the first place, so you could have the opportunity to hunt for them, right? Unfortunately, you've been shinobi of Ame for ten years now and you still haven't been able to track them down, have you? If you had found them and managed to get your revenge on them, things never would have had to come this far, would they?"
"Shut the Hell up, Amateur!"
"So since you can't get your revenge on the bandits, you're trying to take your anger out on someone else. You find any reason to justify yourself for it even though you know in your heart that they're innocent. But then, what if you do succeed in destroying both Ame and Kusa through this war? That doesn't get you what you really want, and it does nothing to honor the memory of all the people in your village who were killed. You'll still have hate in your heart and you'll just look for someone else to blame for it!"
That was the final straw, as Kazuya let out a snarl of rage and charged Naruto. Kasumi yelled something to him but whatever it was didn't register through the cloud of fury. He closed the distance between himself and Naruto in an instance, the blade of the kodachi glinted sharply through the rain before being embedded in Naruto's chest.
Except it was the wrong Naruto, and the clone that had jumped in front of the intended boy poofed out of existence. Undaunted, Kazuya slashed again, and again a sacrificial Naruto copy disappeared.
As if by a signal, the remaining Naruto's jumped into the fray in an attempt to overwhelm the Ame ninja. Kazuya moved like a man possessed, dodging, twisting, lunging and slashing at everything that moved around him. The deadly dance lasted all of fifteen seconds before the blond army was reduced to one.
Kazuya spun the kodachi in his hand, grinning predatorily. "An army of amateurs is just as useless as one against a real shinobi."
Naruto grinned back, and formed a hand seal. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" In a cloud of smoke, another wave of clones filled the area.
Kasumi looked on in wonder. "That's impossible. No one could make that many solid clones at one time!"
Kazuya was impressed, despite himself, but his anger covered it well. "Still such an amateur. If all your clones couldn't touch me the first time, what makes you think they'll do any better the second time?"
Naruto just kept grinning, and formed another seal. "Henge!"
Another cloud of smoke, and when this one cleared, the twins got an even bigger surprise.
"What the hell is this?" Kazuya demanded.
Where only a moment ago stood dozens of tatter-clothed Narutos now stood two dozen identical copies of Kazuya and two dozen more copies of Kasumi. Each Kazuya clone unsheathed their kodachi and took up a stance exactly like the one the real Kazuya had used before.
Kasumi silently sized up the situation. Her hand gripped the scythe handle of her kusarigama, and flinched uncomfortably as the horde of Kasumi clones mimicked her action.
He's trying to confuse us, she deducted. He's banking on the hope that neither of us will attack for fear of accidentally hitting each other. But there's a flaw with that tactic...
Kazuya chuckled darkly, having come to the same conclusion as his sister. "Don't be fooled, Kasumi!" he called to the crowd, not being sure which girl was his real sister. "Just destroy your copies and I'll destroy mine. Got it?"
To his irritation, not one, but all of the Kasumi's gave a word of affirmation, then stared among each other in apprehension. He grunted. The kid was still trying to screw with them. He was confident enough to not get caught up in his games, but he wasn't so certain about Kasumi. She was already filled with doubt before Naruto showed up, and her uncertainty was just going to make her all the more easy to fluster.
If that were going to be the case, then he would just have to take the initiative.
Twirling his short blade, he dove into the pack of clones, dispatching three of them in the blink of an eye. Adjusting his hold on the weapon, he sunk the tip into the stomach of another. Two of the clones charged him; their own kodachi's raised to meet him. He parried both attackers, and in one fluid motion slashed through one while planting a heel kick into the other's face. Both vanished with an audible 'pop'.
Kazuya found his already high resentment of Naruto growing even further. The amateur dared to assume his form, yet even a whole swarm of them couldn't put up a decent fight. It was rather insulting...
He heard several more 'pops' starting up, knowing that Kasumi had finally begun her own attacks. The hooked blade of her scythe flashed again and again in the dimly lit forest while the weighted end of the long chain twisted and soared about in the girl's masterful hands. Kasumi clones began falling just as quickly as the Kazuya clones.
A sense of unsettlement hit him. While he had been watched after Kasumi, not a single clone had attacked him. He hadn't even sensed any danger to himself from any of them. Bringing his full attention back to that matter, he was stunned to find that the clones had begun fighting amongst themselves, as they continued to snuff each other out with their own attacks.
Kazuya couldn't help but laugh. The fool had been hoping to confuse them, but he hadn't even been able to keep track of which Kazuya he really was. Now they were the ones striking blindly in a desperate attempt to find him.
"Truly pitiful," he muttered.
He calmly watched the display a while longer before his eyes narrowed in puzzlement. The clones weren't actually attacking blindly, they were all ganging up on one clone, and it was that one clone that was slaying them all on his own. That's when it dawned on him.
He's still pretending to be me. By killing the clones himself, he wants to confuse Kasumi into coming after me! He smirked. It's still hopeless. Kasumi knows my fighting style just as well as her own. She'll see through your feeble charade in an instant.
That thought had barely crossed his mind when an even more startling revelation appeared.
He's using my fighting style! But that's impossible! He's only seen me use it twice, how could he copy it so closely that soon?
The Ame nin had really grown unsettled now. This boy that he labeled an amateur was turning into quite the magician. How many more tricks did the boy have up his sleeve?
None, as far as he was concerned, because just like he had done before, the amateur had made a mistake.
His dark grin reappeared. Kasumi wasn't watching them anyway; she was too tied up with getting rid of her own clones. The fool could pretend to be him all he wanted, she would see none of it. And if he were dumb enough to destroy all the clones that he had made, it would just wear him out and make it much simpler for him to kill him when it was over. Smirking widely, he crouched down to wait for his opportunity.
Naruto frowned. Kazuya wasn't taking the bait. When he saw Kazuya realize that he was copying his fighting style, he'd expected him to run in and try to finish him off quickly. That wasn't the case...he'd have to come up with something else.
He felt sorry for involving Kasumi with his ploy. She appeared truly reluctant about this whole thing in comparison to her brother. She had stopped Kazuya from killing him with his Acid Rain and had tried to talk him out of his crazy plan. But Kazuya was too headstrong, and it seemed that not even his own sister could talk any sense into him now. If he could just beat Kazuya...
Kasumi sunk her scythe into the arm of another mirror image of herself, her body relaxing ever so slightly in relief when it disappeared in a cloud of smoke like the ones before it. She had no desire whatsoever to kill the boy, and as such was aiming for non-vital parts of the body. She already felt terrible enough about what they'd done to the rest of his team; she didn't want to go even lower by killing the boy when he was, like them, just trying to do what he thought was right.
Though, ever since Kazuya's unexpected revelations, she no longer felt that they were trying to do was right. Unfortunately, this late into the plan, she had no way of stopping it on her own. Kazuya had already shown that he was dead-set on pushing forward no matter what happened, and try as she might, she just couldn't turn her back on the only real family she had left. What was she supposed to do?
Knocking away the last of her own clones and not having found the real Naruto, she turned to the other side, expecting him to be dead at Kazuya's feet. She got a surprise at seeing that Kazuya was still fighting. He had always been a better fighter than her, he should have finished long before she had. But there were still three clones attacking him, and-
No, there was a fourth! He was standing only a few feet away from the battling clones, his kodachi raised and looking ready to strike the moment that Kazuya left an opening.
Still torn between what was right and what might not be right, she did the only thing she could.
Kazuya readied himself. Two clones and the real one left...he would strike the moment the last clone vanished.
Then the chain of Kasumi's kusarigama whipped around his chest, tightly binding the upper portions of his arms to his side and causing him to drop his kodachi in surprise.
"No Kasumi!" he bellowed, nearly causing her to drop the chain.
"Good work, Kasumi! Just hold him down now!" he heard his copy say. Having finished the final clone, he dashed toward the tied up Kazuya, blade in hand.
Time seemed to slow down, and a hundred different thoughts flew through Kazuya's head as he saw Naruto charge him.
He's nothing but an amateur! I can't lose here! Not to him, not when we're so close to fulfilling our goal! How could he have fooled Kasumi? Damnit, why did he have to interfere? We already might be too late to stop Masamuri!
He shot a glance at his feet where his sword lay. The way Kasumi had herself braced he couldn't even bend to grab it. ...On the other hand, he could still reach his...
No! Kasumi's too close; she'd be hit too!
But if I don't the fool's going to kill me!
There's no time left!
He grasped the umbrella from his lower back. Forgive me, Sister! Eyes tightly shut, he flung the black umbrella high overhead. "Yorozu-Hari no Ame!"
The umbrella snapped itself open and immediately began spewing forth thousands of long, thin needles in a wide circle around Kazuya. In her shock, Kasumi dropped her chain and reached for her own umbrellas, but was far too slow. Skidding to a halt, the phony Kazuya went on pure instinct and curled into a ball, covering his head and neck with his arms.
Both boy and girl screamed in pain as their bodies were pierced a hundred times over by the rain of needles. When the needles stopped falling, they collapsed to the ground. Kasumi lay motionless, while the fallen Kazuya transformed back to Naruto, whose back was now so heavily covered in needles that he resembled a blond porcupine.
In a daze, Kazuya ran to his sister, moving across the patch of needles sticking out of the ground as though they weren't there. Kneeling down beside her, he carefully rolled her to her back and cradled her in his arms. Studying her closely, he was relieved to see that her head and neck area had been spared of most of the needles, but the rest of her body hadn't been so fortunate.
"Kasumi," he whispered softly, causing the girl's eyes to flutter open. "I'm so sorry. I never...this wasn't supposed to happen!"
"Kazuya," she managed to force out. "You..."
Kazuya's head shot up when he heard a soft groan from behind him. He turned, and saw that Naruto was painfully making his way back to his feet. A new level of blazing hatred appeared on his face as he set Kasumi softly on the ground and stood up. Kasumi tried to protest what he was doing, but the pain she was in was clouding her mind too much for her to think straight.
Kazuya walked to the edge of the area and picked up his discarded kodachi, then he stalked his way toward Naruto, who had barely made it to his hands and knees. He was so fixated on his target that he didn't even realize that he was speaking hysterically to himself.
"Death is too good for you. If it took me the rest of my life I wouldn't be able to torture you enough for this!" He bent down and seized Naruto by the throat, lifting him off his feet. "Damn you to Hell! How dare you make me do that to my own sister!"
Naruto futilely pulled at Kazuya's iron grip, trying to get air into his lungs. "Didn't...make...you..."
His grip tightened even further as his eyes burned with insanity. "IT'S YOUR FAULT! IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT! WHY DO YOU KEEP INTERFERING WITH US?! WHY COULDN'T YOU LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE?!" He raised the kodachi high above his head. "WHY WON'T YOU JUST DIE?!"
Kazuya's body was pulled backward as a large weight suddenly appeared on his raised hand, pulling it down hard behind him. The unexpected shift caused him to release his hold on Naruto as he tried to prevent himself from falling over.
"How long are you going to keep blaming everyone else for everything that happens to you?" a familiar voice asked, causing his blood to run cold. His head jerked back and, to his utter bewilderment, came face to face with yet another Uzumaki Naruto.
In his current mental condition, all he could do was stare. All rational thought was completely gone. Too far gone to realize that for some odd reason his kodachi had seemingly vanished from his hand. Too far gone to comprehend how he could repeatedly be taken by surprise by the boy. And too far gone to bother avoiding the fist that impacted against his jaw.
As the Ame nin staggered from the blow, the clone helped the original Naruto back to his feet. He brushed aside the pain he was in and, together with his clone, formed a set of seals.
"Tatsumaki Shouheki!" they shouted as one, driving their fists into the earth.
The combined winds kicked up a vortex so powerful that the unsuspecting Kazuya was blown off his feet, where he was then slammed head first into the trunk of a large tree.
The wind died down and Kazuya slumped to the ground, his eyes already glazing over as he stared through double vision at the boys standing tall before him.
"Beaten...by that...amateur?" he whispered as darkness began to overtake him. "How did I...become so...pathetic...?"
Naruto didn't relax his stance until he saw Kazuya's head drop into unconsciousness. When it did, he let out of ragged sigh and fell to his knees while his clone disappeared. With the fight over and his adrenaline wearing off, he realized just how much pain he was really in. His blistering skin still wasn't fully healed from the Acid Rain, and was now screaming in pain, protesting every movement he made. His back was bleeding profusely due to the strong wind from his jutsu forcefully ripping out a good share of the needles that had been embedded there. But above all else, he was exhausted.
However, there was no time for rest yet. There was still a war that needed stopping and teammates and friends that were in danger. Not to mention putting a stop to Masamuri.
Groaning, he began staggering to his feet when he spotted Kasumi slowly crawling to her brother. He stumbled toward her just as she reached him. Naruto noticed that all the needles were gone from Kasumi's body, and aside from the puncture wounds left behind, she appeared to be in a stable condition.
He stood there for several moments, watching as Kasumi silently wept with Kazuya's head positioned in her lap.
"I'm really sorry about all this, Kasumi-neechan," he said softly.
She shook her head. "Don't apologize, Naruto. Before today, I had never seen Kazuya act the way he has. I could tell that he had slowly grown colder and more spiteful in the last few years, but after seeing him like this, I think this is something that needed to happen. If you hadn't stopped us from doing this, I can't even imagine what might have become of him."
Naruto frowned. "Maybe, but still..."
Kasumi brushed at her eyes before looking up at him. "Don't waste time talking with me, Naruto. Your team is still fighting out there."
"But what about you?" he asked in concern.
"We'll be fine. I'm proficient in a few medical jutsus that will sustain us until we can get to a hospital." She paused, looking thoughtful. "Naruto, let me mend your back."
"No, you should save your chakra for yourselves," he protested.
"Please Naruto," she insisted. She moved Kazuya's head from her lap and stood up. "I know that it's no way of repenting for what my brother and I have put you through, but it is the least that I can do for now."
Naruto wanted to protest further, but the pain in his back was something that he wouldn't be able to deal with if there was still more fighting to come. Reluctantly, he turned and presented his bloodied back to Kasumi, who placed her hands flat against it.
"This will only take a moment," she told him.
They both closed their eyes and, true to her word, Naruto instantly felt a wave of cool relief cascade through his body. A few seconds later, the feeling was gone, and the pain along with it. He tested himself by bending his arms and back in various directions, pleased to find that even the burn marks weren't nearly as bad as before.
"Thanks, Kasumi-neechan," he said, giving her a warm smile, which she returned.
"I wish there was more that I could do...even if it were as little as getting you some new clothes," she added, taking in the sad looking ragged remains of cloth that were basically hanging off his body. Naruto stared at himself, letting out a weak chuckle. Kasumi, however, remained solemn. "Please stop them, Naruto. After seeing all that you've done so far, I know you can. ...And tell your team that I'm sorry for deceiving them like this."
Naruto nodded firmly. "I promise," he said with as much resolve as he could. "Thanks again, Kasumi."
As he started to leave and Kasumi was returning her attention to her brother, a realization struck her. "Naruto wait!"
"I need to tell you about Masamuri's kekkei genkai."
Temari was feeling incredibly let down. The Konoha girl was definitely not what she had hoped for when the fighting began. It seemed the only thing she was good at was chucking weapons. Granted, if Temari wasn't the wind specialist that she was, she might have found a lot more challenge in trying to dodge the highly accurate barrage of deadly projectiles.
As her opponent paused in her assault, probably realizing that her best strategy was proving to be futile against her, Temari took a moment to check on her brothers.
Kankuro had gone with his basic tactic of hiding in a tree while he used Karasu to fight the boy in spandex out in the open. The boy was putting up quite a fight, but was so far unsuccessful in locating the puppeteer.
A little more disconcerting than that was Gaara, who still had yet to move a muscle against his equally stone-bodied opponent. Temari had an idea of why Gaara was waiting; with the rain about to stop it would make his sand much easier to manipulate in a fight. But still, the fact that Gaara had yet to make a single move against his enemy, even with the rain hindering his skills, spoke volumes for the ability of the white-eyed Konoha boy.
And what had happened to Naruto? The last time she had seen him was when Gaara threw him out of the meeting hall and the boy in spandex had chased after him. Surely he had gotten away? Maybe he had met up with Kasumi and Kazuya and gone back with them to Ame for their reinforcements. Though it was equally likely that he'd been attacked by Kusa ninja. Wherever he was, he'd better be okay.
Danger senses kicked in and she distractedly swung her fan again, seeing five more shuriken fall harmlessly before her, joining the multitude of other sharp objects that already littered the area. She was about to make a snide remark about the girl's overused technique when she noticed two tiny puncture holes in her fan. Temari frowned; apparently that last try had come closer to her than she'd thought. She'd have to finish with this girl before letting her mind wander again.
Tenten cursed her ill fortune. How could it have happened that she should end up fighting against someone who was able to render all of her attacks completely useless? What made it even worse was that the blonde girl wasn't even fighting back. She had done nothing more than stand in place and wave her fan every time she threw a weapon at her, then toss back a few biting comments and promises of pain if she kept this up.
Disheartened, but not yet defeated, she opened a pocket on her pink vest and reached for the two scrolls that set inside.
"My turn," Temari announced. Too unprepared to react, Tenten could only watch as she opened her fan to its maximum size and swung it in a steep, upwards arch. A powerful blast of wind hit her from below and shot her into the air. The second her feet left the ground, Temari charged forward, snapped her fan closed and leapt up to meet her.
As Tenten fought to steady her body, she saw Temari rising toward her. In an act of desperation, she tried to grab a weapon from her holster, but was fully aware that she'd be too late.
Giving her body a mid-air twist, Temari allowed the weight of her fan to increase her spin, and then brought it around again like she were swinging of a bat, and connected solidly with Tenten's stomach. She watched with satisfaction as the girl's body was sent crashing into the trees below.
Becoming a true puppet master was no mean feat. You couldn't imagine how difficult it was to learn how to control a full-bodied, multi-limbed humanoid object that could both disassemble itself as well as reshape itself to conform to its own many hidden weapons, all with the use of just one hand.
Or with one finger, in the case of someone like Chiyo-sama. Even Kankuro still hadn't learned how she managed to pull that off.
But once you got the hang of it, there was no easier way of fighting. Case in point: While his fashion-challenged opponent ran, jumped, dodged and worked himself into a small frenzy trying to disable the nightmarish Karasu, Kankuro was leisurely reclining on a tree branch, wishing he had a magazine to read.
Well, perhaps he was getting a little too comfortable in his safety role. Karasu's body had taken some mighty big dents from the blows that the boy had landed, but nothing that a night of careful maintenance couldn't fix. Worse than that though was that the boy wasn't wearing himself out; He'd been fighting the puppet for over five minutes nonstop and he didn't even look like he was breathing hard.
Lee dodged another large needle fired from the doll's mouth, rolled along the soaked ground and landed another hard kick to its body. The hit sent the puppet sprawling in a limp pile, but it was only a second later that it staggered back to its feet like a zombie rising from its grave. Unrelenting, Lee charged again, raining a series of punches to its head and upper body. Karasu's four arms rose to defend itself. Kankuro pulled on the chakra strings, trying to pull the puppet out of Lee's reach, but as he did the taijutsu specialist reached out, gripped two of the arms just below the shoulders and, with a mighty pull, ripped them both from their sockets.
Grinning at his small victory, Lee tossed the arms away and called out to Kankuro. "Your puppet manipulation is impressive, but I will not be beaten by it! Tell me, will you still be able to fight after your puppet has been completely disabled?"
Kankuro smirked. Nice try, Moe, but you're not gonna lure me out with taunts. Besides, you may think you know my weaknesses, but you still don't know all of my strengths.
He gave a small wag of his ring and pinky fingers and, unbeknownst to Lee, the two severed arms of Karasu silently rose into the air, producing twin blades from their sockets in the process. He curled his fingers up, and the blades flew toward Lee's back. "Game over."
Lee followed the command before he was even aware who had given it, and the bladed arms sailed harmlessly over his head before floating back to Karasu and reattaching themselves to their owner.
Kankuro frowned. From his position in the tree, he could see the bodies of his brother and the other boy from Konoha. The warning had come from him, he was certain, but at the same time, it couldn't have come from him. He was staring in the complete opposite direction of where he and Lee were fighting. If Lee hadn't sensed the danger he was in, how could the other guy have possibly known?
"Quit fooling around, Lee!" the boy continued without bothering to turn around to face his teammate. "Tenten is struggling already, finish with that one and go assist her! He's hiding in the tree to your right!"
Kankuro's jaw fell open. "How in the fu-?"
He didn't get to finish before Lee's foot connected with his chest, rocketing him from his perch and into the trunk of another tree. His body slid to the ground where he fought with the dizziness that was clouding his vision. He could swear that at least three of his ribs were now cracked, and strangely enough, that gave him a small sense of pride in knowing that he had built Karasu with enough durability to withstand multiple kicks of that force. Shame that he himself wasn't so tough...
Grunting in pain, he began pushing himself back to his feet. He may have been hurting to high Hell, but he'd be damned if he were the only one on his team to lose. At the very least, Temari had to go down first.
Then something fell out of the sky, plowing right into him and sending him back into the trunk of the tree.
His eyes watered from the pain in his chest, blurring his vision of what hit him, though he imagined it had been the bug-eyed boy not waiting for him to catch his breath. But that didn't explain why he was still laying on top of him.
He groaned, blinking the blurriness from his eyes. "Dirty, cheap-shot taking, son of...oh."
He realized with some amount of surprise that the person that had hit him was the Konoha girl who had been stuck fighting Temari. From the looks of her, she was unconscious.
"Well, Happy Birthday, Kankuro," he muttered with a sly grin. "Jeez, I told Temari not to be so rough."
Then the girl began to stir. She opened her eyes, and nearly screamed as the painted face of Kankuro came into view. It didn't help that his paint had run terribly in the rain, washing the intricate purple designs into ugly runny streaks. Pain temporarily forgotten, Tenten scurried away, a pair of kunai magically appearing in her hands.
"Well, I guess that's gratitude for you," the puppet master muttered sardonically. "Last time I ever sacrifice my own body to help someone."
Tenten eyed him suspiciously. What did he expect her to do? Apologize for his teammate knocking her into him?
"You know, you're even prettier up close," Kankuro commented. The highly unexpected compliment caused her cheeks to redden slightly.
"What are you talking about?" she sputtered.
Kankuro gave her a cheeky grin. "Modest, huh? That's nice. ...So tell me, you doing anything after the battle?"
Tenten stared at him like he'd grown a second head. "You're asking me, a complete stranger and, more importantly, someone who's fighting on the opposing team of you, on a date after we get done trying to kill each other?"
"Totally romantic, isn't it?" His grin grew wider. "It's got that whole Romeo and Juliet thing going for it. Two children of rival armies meet and fall head over heels for each other, and even though their families would never approve of it, their love pulls through in the end."
"Romeo and Juliet both commit suicide in the end," Tenten pointed out dryly.
"But they never stopped loving each other, did they?" Kankuro retaliated. "So what do you say? I saw this nice looking restaurant back in Ame that we could-."
Tenten cut him off. "As tempted as I am, I'm going to have to decline. I just can't see myself dating a guy who wears more make-up than I do."
The puppet master's eye twitched and he barely bit back a nasty retort. "Fiery, I like that," he said with a grimace. What the Hell is with all the Konoha people making fun of my face paint?
"I'm leaving now," she announced. Kankuro sighed as she walked away, noticing her pull two scrolls from her vest pocket before she vanished from sight.
"So much for finding a cute foreign girl who doesn't already know how psychotic the rest of my family is... Oh well, if Temari doesn't kill her I can still try again later."
Lee dropped from the tree branch where he'd been watching the exchange from and raised his right hand in front of him. "I commend you for sacrificing your own body to protect that of my teammate even while in the heat of battle as we are."
Kankuro smirked. "Well at least someone cares. If you could put in a good word to her for me I'd appreciate it." He glanced behind Lee, where Karasu lay limp on the ground. The chakra strings had been cut, now it would take a few seconds to stretch them back to it without Lee noticing.
"Uzumaki-kun was very astute in his acclamation of his teammates. The flames of youth burn brightly in Suna as well!"
Kankuro had no comment for that.
"Shall we begin our battle anew, then?" Lee asked, reassuming his stance. "This time, I will give you everything I have."
The puppet master stole another glance behind Lee where his chakra lines had finally reattached themselves to Karasu. He gave them a tug to make sure, and Karasu sprung to its feet. He smirked; this would be easy enough now.
"Bring it on," he challenged as Karasu flew forward, preparing to wrap Lee in its constricting limbs.
Unfortunately, Karasu didn't even come close, for Lee chose that same moment to spring forward himself, crouch down before Kankuro, and deliver a brutal kick that not only snapped the boy's head back, but lifted him high into the air.
He was still seeing stars when Lee appeared behind him, following his trajectory so perfectly it was like he'd become the boy's shadow. As soon as they reached the end of their upward momentum, a long stream of bandages began wrapping themselves around Kankuro's body. Without thinking, he swung his hand that was still connected to Karasu up, freeing it a split second before the constricting bandages tightened around him, rendering him completely immobile.
Unconcerned that Kankuro's arm was free, Lee grasped him and heaved backward, causing them both to start falling back to the ground headfirst. He then twisted hard to the right, pulling his prisoner with him until they were both spinning like a top.
Finally thinking clearly enough to realize the situation he was in, Kankuro tried futilely to break free. "Let go, damnit!" he demanded.
"No, sorry," was Lee's reply.
Kankuro's mind raced. This was definitely going to hurt. There was only one thing left to try. With a flick of the wrist, Karasu flew toward them and wrapped its four long arms and legs around both boys' bodies. He smirked triumphantly. "Now let go, or you'll get it too."
"I can handle it," Lee stated calmly.
"That's not the answer I'm looking for here!" He looked toward the ground, which was coming at them like a spiraling freight train now. Cursing helplessly, he squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself for the impact.
The trio landed with the force of a small meteor, kicking up a sheet of mud, water and rock debris in the air.
Hyuga Neji didn't like it, but it seemed that he was going to have to be the one to make the first move. It wasn't something that he liked to do often, preferring instead to lure his opponents into an attack and then penetrate their open defenses from there. But the sand manipulator wasn't moving an inch, almost as though he were stalling; waiting for conditions to somehow turn in his favor. If that was the case, then the Hyuga prodigy had no choice but to strike fast. Lee and Tenten had both decided that it was necessary to pull out their best techniques against their own opponents. If they were that desperate already, then he was going to have to do something as well. After all, he was fighting with the most dangerous member of the Suna team; he had no doubt about that.
Neji pivoted and sprang to the side, the large spike of sand that had jutted out of the ground beneath him missing by inches. Now in motion, he leapt for Gaara, aiming for the dozens of tenketsu across the boy's body.
Gaara stood his ground firmly while a wall of sand rose to halt Neji's initial strike. With one hand stuck in the sand, Neji swiped with his other palm, brushing the sand away and striking for his body again. Thus was developed a pattern of Neji attacking, the sand defending, and Neji breaking through to attack again. Unrelenting as he was, he still couldn't keep the sand at bay long enough to land a blow on Gaara.
Gaara lifted one hand and sent the large wall of sand crashing into Neji, tossing him backward. Neji had barely managed to keep his footing before being smothered beneath a second wave of sand. The sand twisted and tightened around the struggling boy, then lifted him into the air. Gaara watched it rise, feeling a bit disappointed at how easily even this opponent with the demonic eyes had fallen before him.
Then the sand simply melted off, falling into a pile on the ground and allowing Neji to drop to his feet as well. Caught off guard for the first time in quite a while, Gaara brought up both hands, hoping to trap him again before he could escape, but was astounded when the sand on the ground beneath his enemy refused to respond to him.
Taking advantage of his opponent's plight, Neji flew forward again, and Gaara felt something he hadn't felt in nearly six years: Panic.
He took one step back and again swung both arms in front of him, sending twin snaking lines of sand from his gourd. The sand bore down on the charging Hyuga, but the graceful warrior managed to dodge, sidestep and deflect them both. His hands slashed through the streams of sand with the ease of a shark traveling through water, and slowly he closed the distance between himself and Gaara.
Gaara involuntarily stepped back again, constantly clenching and twisting his fists, bringing more and more sand to life to crush his foe. He still couldn't understand why his sand was failing him the way it was. All the sand that touched the boy seemed to have the chakra drained out of it, making it nearly impossible for him to manipulate.
Despite that, he was beginning to feel an all-to-familiar excitement rouse up within him: the feeling of Him waking up. He had caught a taste of Gaara's own second of panic and, in His intrigue, now wanted to join the battle to claim the worthy foe as his own. He was going to want blood. A lot of blood.
The ground shuddered around them, as sand began separating from the mud and rock below. To onlookers, Neji appeared to have his eyes locked on the boy before him, but he still saw the tactic that was being used against him. The sand particles were gathering around him in the shape of a large sphere, and would try to close in on him all at once, making it impossible for him to stop it all before getting crushed.
A deadly tactic...if it were being used on anyone else.
A grin split across Gaara's face. He clasped both hands together and pulled them to his stomach. "Sabaku Sosu!"
"Kaiten!" Neji shouted at the same time. The Hyuga prodigy began spinning like a miniature cyclone as the dome of sand bore down on him from all sides. For a moment, the first bits of sand clung to the boy, trying to hold him still long enough for the rest of the sand to finish the kill. Neji gave a low groan of effort and managed to increase his speed even further, effectively keeping every last grain of sand out of his small barrier. He continued until the sand dome grew thin and, still spinning, pushed off the ground and burst through it. He landed a foot away from Gaara, already set into his stance before he had even finished spinning.
"Hakke Rokujuyon Sho!" he shouted, driving both index and middle fingers into the boy's chest. "Two!"
Gaara grunted but held his ground.
"Four! Eight! Sixteen! Thirty-two!" Blow after blow rained down until his hands were nothing but a blur. "Sixty-four!"
The final blow knocked Gaara back, his feet digging into the ground. His body sagged as deep, ragged breaths escaped his body.
The feeling of triumph didn't even set in before Neji knew that something was wrong. Closing off so many of his opponent's tenketsu should have ended the fight, but not only was Gaara still standing, but there was still sand floating around him.
Then his Byakugan picked something up. The boy's skin was starting to crack open all over his body. ...No, it wasn't his skin!
More sand covering his body? How could that have fooled my eyes?
Gaara raised his head up, the sinister look on his face growing even wilder as large fragments of his Sand Armor broke away from his head and upper body. He let out a long hiss like an angry cat. "You've proven my existence. Now...show me your blood!"
From the shadows, a lone figure watched on.
So much fighting going on, the man thought with a twisted grin on his face. Everyone trying so hard for absolutely nothing.
Shifting through the leaves, he spotted his first target: A large group of men standing as far away from any of the fighting as possible. From the center of the group, a portly, balding man was screaming some unintelligible nonsense.
A low laugh escaped Masamuri's throat. This would be entirely too easy. Once Takara was dead, the rest of the Kusa army would lose morale, they would retreat back into the holes they crawled out of, and the gold would all belong to him.
Of course, he would have to do away with the Suna shinobi as well. Once they discovered that their teammate was dead there was a good chance that they would grow hostile. Better to take them out now so as not to have to worry about them later.
There was only one thing that could possibly muck up his plan now, and he was currently occupied with fighting against that sand freak. How the boy managed to see him in his astral form, even while inside of someone else, he would probably never figure out. As long as the redhead kept him busy (or killed him, that would be fine too), there would be no trouble. But if he couldn't...
After thinking the matter over, he decided it would be best to find a safe place to leave his body where no one but him would find. He'd have to be far enough away to escape discovery and to give him time to complete his jutsu, while still being close enough to be able to reach Takara before expiring. The boy had been able to push him out of Halek, but he hadn't hurt him. As long as he couldn't locate his physical body, he would be in no real danger.
He backtracked several meters and measured precisely the distance between himself and Takara. This would have to be enough. Dropping to the ground, he crawled beneath a large bush at the base of the tree. With a deep breath, he closed his eyes, and formed a seal.
Naruto trudged on, skipping the tree-jumping path, as he wasn't really feeling up to a lot of constant jumping. Kasumi had done wonders for the pain in his back, but he still felt more worn out now than he had in quite some time.
"Looks to me like you could use a pick-me-up, huh mortal?"
Naruto didn't slow down, though he had the sudden urge to punch himself in the stomach. "You just won't drop it, will you?"
"You'll give in long before I give up," the demon rumbled from within him.
"We'll see about that," Naruto grumbled stubbornly.
There was a much larger rumble that Naruto took as a noise of exasperation from the Kyubi.
"Look mortal," it spoke, in a more menacing tone than before. "You and I are going to be stuck together for a very long time whether we like it or not. I think it would be in both of our best interests to come to some sort of general compromise. So I'll make this really easy for you: All you have to do is say four little words. Just say 'Please help me, Kyubi-sama', and I'll have you fresh as a daisy in no time. Sound good?"
Naruto gave him four little words. "Go to Hell, fox."
The Kyubi was literally struck speechless by the statement. Naruto could actually feel the demon seething inside him.
"FOOLISH MORTAL!" the beast raged. "I am the most powerful being in the entire world! I have an unlimited source of power at my disposal that could all be yours! How could you refuse such an offer?!"
"Because I don't need it!" Naruto shouted right back, increasing his pace as though to somehow outrun the voice in his own head. "I don't want your help and I've never asked you for it! What sort of Hok...Kazekage would I be if I needed some demon to fight my battles for me? Besides, I've gotten this far on my own, haven't I?"
Kyubi considered his words resentfully. "And how many times in the past month alone have you been face to face with death, boy? Will your luck continue to hold out for the rest of your life?" The fox paused, then chuckled. "I wonder though...perhaps the real reason that you don't want my help is because you may find out that you enjoy wielding that sort of power? You remember how it felt to defeat that Konoha traitor with my power; you did it with ease, he couldn't touch you. And you know the same would be the case with anyone else that you used it on. You would be invincible...and you just may find yourself wanting that power more and more. That scares you, doesn't it, boy? You're scared to death that you may someday turn yourself into the very monster that everyone has always seen you as."
Naruto stopped dead in his tracks. "I'm not afraid of anything, bastard fox, and I will never, EVER be like you! I can get as strong as I want without using you as a shortcut! Deal with it!"
Again the fox fell silent. "You keep telling yourself that, mortal. It's going to make it all the sweeter when you finally break down and beg. And you will...you will."
Snarling in anger, Naruto ignored the Kyubi's final barb and went back to running. According to Kasumi, he should be getting close to the mining site by now.
You guys all better be okay. That means you too, Lee.
The dust and debris had completely settled in the newly made crater before Lee wearily opened his eyes. He stared at the sky in extreme pain, remembering the only other time he had ever messed up the Omote Renge. It hadn't been all that long ago, around the time he had first learned it. He hadn't let go in time and had crashed headlong into the ground along with the training dummy he had been using. That time he had been knocked out for several hours and had been hospitalized for the next few days. Whether it was the rain that had softened the ground for him or just the fact that he had gotten stronger he wasn't sure, but he was already regretting not letting go like Kankuro had demanded.
Fortunately, he had won the match, of that he was certain. He didn't know how physically strong his opponent had been, but he was willing to bet it was far lower than his own. With luck the boy had only been knocked unconscious and not killed.
Slowly, he tried picking himself up off the ground, when a dark figure appeared above him.
"Do us both a favor and just stay down, will ya?"
Lee's bug-eyes widened in shock. "How are you-?"
Kankuro pointed into the crater next to him. Looking to his left, Lee realized that the body lying next to him, the one he had believed to be Kankuro's, was really the broken, mangled form of Karasu.
"You have no idea how long that's gonna take me to fix," Kankuro informed him dryly.
Lee felt a sharp pain shoot through his back as he sat up. "You managed to switch places with your puppet at the last second to escape injury."
"Pretty much." He decided it would be best to not tell him that the intensity of his own landing had broken his right ankle. "What do you say you give up?" He produced two short daggers from the inner folds of his black outfit. "Sensei told us not to kill any of you if we could help it, but if you want to keep going...I may not be able to help it."
Lee didn't move, trying to weight his choices. He was hurt, yes, but he still had the option of opening more of his Inner Gates and his real trump card. Victory would be assured if he did, but would it be worth it in the end?
He lowered his head. Gai-sensei would be angry with him if he were to open his other gates against an opponent who didn't wish to kill him. "I yield. If I had not been so reckless with using my Omote Renge, I may have won. I can only blame myself for this lose."
Kankuro gave him a sour look. "Yeah...or, you know, you could maybe give me, the guy who beat you, some credit for it."
If Lee heard him, he didn't show it. He leapt to his feet and raised his shaking fist to the sky, tears visibly running down his face in streams. "Gai-sensei! Please forgive my hot-headedness! I swear that I will train myself three times as hard from this day forward!" Then a bout of dizziness struck him and he collapsed in a heap in the crater.
"And here I was willing to bet my life that I'd never meet a person more annoying than the midget." Leaving Lee to recover, Kankuro crawled his way into the crater and began gathering the busted remains of Karasu. He picked up the disembodied head and stared woefully at it. "Sorry about that pal, but it was either you or me, and it sure as hell wasn't gonna be me. Don't worry, though, we'll be terrorizing the neighbor kids again before you know it."
While picking up the remaining pieces, he took two long bits that had made up segments of Karasu's legs and, using a strip of bandage, fitted them onto his ankle for a makeshift splint.
Testing his ankle, he wrapped the rest of the pieces together and slung them over his shoulder. Nothing left to do but go see how the others were doing.
The fight had really been over before it had even started. Temari was rather depressed by the outcome. When she saw that the girl had returned after her first attack, it had gotten her hopes up that maybe she had a bit more to offer than originally thought.
But in the end, her big finisher was just more weapons. It may have been more weapons than she was able to count, but all were useless just the same. The girl now lay unconscious at her feet, amid an area so full of bladed objects that anyone who hadn't been there before might mistake it for the remains of an entire army.
Now Temari was on to more pressing matters, as she stared mesmerized at the struggle still going on between the white-eyed boy and her brother.
In the last five minutes of watching them, she had seen three things that she though she would never see in her entire life: Someone actually lasting for five minutes with Gaara, someone who could almost completely neutralize Gaara's sand, and most importantly of all, someone who could actually HIT Gaara.
Through all of this, the worst-case scenario was taking place. While the boy's barrage of strikes didn't seem to have hurt Gaara, it had roused the attention of his Inner Self. Now Gaara's bloodlust was reaching its boiling point, and that was going to mean big trouble for her and everyone else if it wasn't quelled soon.
"You've gotta be kidding!" a voice from behind her shouted. "He's not dead yet?"
Temari didn't even bother to nod as Kankuro limped up beside her. She stole a quick glance at him out of the corner of her eye before focusing back on Gaara and Neji. "You ended up better off then I thought. I was fully expecting to have to carry you back to Suna."
"I'd have liked to see you try to beat that guy," he shot back. "Instead of picking on a cute girls that isn't in your league."
The greetings over with, their worry set back in. "He'll calm down again once he kills him, right?" Kankuro asked.
Temari shrugged. "We can hope."
"Hey, weren't we supposed to be getting some help from Ame a while back? What happened with that?"
She shrugged again. "Beats me, though right now I'm more worried about Gaara and Naruto."
"Oh yeah, the idiot's still gone, isn't he?" Kankuro snorted. "Probably ran back to that village to eat their ramen."
"Don't be stupid," Temari told him, giving him a small shove. The puppet master struggled to right himself, avoiding a possibly fatal fall onto the weapon-littered ground.
"Jeez, it was a joke," he grumbled. "He's probably just hiding somewhere so the Konoha guys don't find him."
Temari looked thoughtful. That would make more sense, but it didn't stop her from worrying.
Baki was beginning to regret challenging this man. He knew from the start that he would be in for a tough fight, he just didn't think that he would be so outclassed in the areas of speed and power. The only weakness he had been able to find in Gai's abilities was that he was a strict taijutsu user who fought close-range. The obvious thing to do would have been to fight from a distance with his ninjutsu, but he wasn't being given that opportunity.
He was forced to stay in constant movement, leaping backward and swerving from side to side to avoid the piston-speed punches and kicks that Maito Gai was throwing at him. At the speed he was going, he couldn't even find a decent opening to strike back.
Not far off from where their fight was leading to, Takara and the members of his excavation squad were huddled, ready to run if the two jounin got any closer to them.
"Keep him away from me!" Takara screamed at Gai. "Kill him quickly before anything else goes wrong!"
Both men ignored the shouts of the portly man. Gai continued to shower blows down on Baki, while Baki continued to dodge, knowing well that he was going to have to come up with something soon. Staying on defense like this was not going to help him in the slightest. He had a desperate plan formed in his head if he could just get an opening for it; It would hurt like hell, but it was all he had to work with at the moment.
He began focusing chakra into both of his hands, and waited.
He didn't have to wait long at all before he saw his opening. Gai paused in his barrage to shift weight onto his left foot, spinning and bringing his other foot up in a wide arc, aiming a kick that could take his head clean off of his shoulders. Bracing himself, Baki brought his left fist up and connected with the incoming foot.
The impact was even worse than he thought it would be. Just as he felt his entire arm go numb, he released the built-up chakra in a blast of wind, which succeeded in knocking Gai off balance. Seeing his chance, he struck with his other hand, but for all his effort, Gai was faster yet. The taijutsu master sprung back with his one foot, landing sloppily from his already awkward position.
While he had managed to stop the onslaught, his limp arm also put an end to any plan for a counterassault. Taking the moment to rest, he popped his shoulder back into place and began shaking the feeling back into his arm, while Gai examined his chest, where a long, but fairly shallow diagonal line of blood had appeared.
To willingly take such a damaging blow in the hopes of getting to hit me back... Gai grimaced; there weren't many men with the fortitude for that, though he himself had been known to do it from time to time.
Baki flexed his hand, checking for any broken bones. Feeling that there was no sever damage, he returned his attention to Gai. He managed to avoid my Kaze no Yaiba...if I can't find some way of slowing him down this next time, I won't last.
The Suna jounin sneered in increasing frustration. This whole battle was growing more and more senseless by the minute. Where in the hell were the Ame reinforcements? Kasumi and Kazuya were also conspicuous by their absences. He wanted to hold onto the belief that they had been hindered by enemy shinobi somewhere else, but the more time passed, the more the whole thing reeked of one big set up.
There was going to be hell to pay if that were truly the case.
In the distance, the screams of Takara could still be heard, telling Gai to get back to work, do what he was being paid to do, follow orders and finish off the enemy, among many other things. Both jounin glared at the man. It reminded Baki of an old saying that his father used to quote a lot. Sometimes, the worst part about the life of a shinobi is not having to obey orders, but having to listen to the orders that are being given.
His father had never been wiser.
Both being wary to attack again, Baki due to his obvious disadvantage and Gai due to his concern of his opponent's invisible weapon, they took a moment to scan the battlefield. Tenten had fallen to Temari despite her best efforts, neither Lee nor Kankuro were in a condition to continue, and the bloodlust that was radiating from Gaara as he tried repeatedly to crush the life out of Neji could be felt all the way across the battlefield.
If Gaara kept fighting at this rate, it would quickly spell trouble for not just the Konoha and Kusa men, but for the rest of them as well. That combined with everything else that had transpired made Baki come to a decision.
"Go gather your students," he told Gai. "This fight between us is over."
Gai eyed him suspiciously.
"Our employers have failed to uphold their word to us," Baki elaborated. "And since no one from Ame has come to give us further aid or orders, my team and I have no reason to keep fighting. We will pull back for now before Gaara gets too out of hand. I warn you, if that happens, even I won't be able to control his actions."
Gai had been a shinobi for too long to be won over by the mere words of an enemy, but he also heard the sincerity in the man's declaration. Scanning the battlefield again, he saw the boy in black standing by the girl, which left him to believe that Lee had lost as well, and now even Neji was beginning to lose what little ground he had gained against the redhead.
Obviously, the Suna team had the upper hand in this battle. There would be no need for Baki to deceive him by calling for a ceasefire unless what he was saying was true.
While he deliberated, neither he nor Baki noticed when Takara's manic shouting suddenly turned into gasps of pain.
Neji leapt into a tree to avoid an extra large wave of sand, then sprang to the next one to avoid getting caught in its grip again. The battle was no longer in his favor, and he couldn't understand the reason why. Keeping his Byakugan activated for such an extended period of time while using his strongest techniques might have been trying on his chakra reserves, but the Suna boy had been manipulating his sand nonstop since their fight began, and yet his attacks were only growing in speed and fury rather than declining.
The difference in their power couldn't be this great, could it?
Still dodging, he saw his opponent's teammates watching them from a safe distance. Tenten was unconscious next to them. Further away, Lee was still awake, but having trouble getting to his feet again. The Hyuga's brow knitted. What was it about this Suna team that put them on a different level from his own?
Then, in the distance, he saw something that brought even more dread to his foul mood.
The cloud of chakra was back, and it was headed for Takara. Neji grimaced. He had never fully trusted the man since meeting him back in Kusa, but he was their daimyo and, for the moment, in charge of their mission. He had to help him.
And he would have, had a thin string of sand not snaked itself around his leg. It snapped up like a whip, and pulled him forcefully to the ground.
The fall hadn't hurt much, but it was enough to knock the wind out of him. He began sucking in breaths, trying to recover before the next attack came, but he couldn't see it because the distraction had caused his Byakugan to deactivate as well. Lifting his head up, he expected to see Gaara standing over him, or more sand barreling down on him, ready to bury him alive or rip him to shreds, but instead saw Gaara standing in the same place as before, clutching at his head as though he were suddenly suffering from a migraine.
Gaara growled and lowered his hands, then looked away from Neji, off to where Baki and Gai were standing. Perplexed at being ignored so suddenly, Neji followed his gaze to see what had caught his attention.
Naruto burst through the last grove of trees into the opening of the mining site, and let out a sigh at the sight that greeted him.
They're all still okay! Maybe I'm not too late after all!
Naruto sprinted the final stretch of the field as fast as he could, heading straight for Baki.
"Sensei!" he shouted, drawing the attention of not just Baki and Gai, but Kankuro, Temari and Gaara as well. He stopped in front of the two jounin, opened his mouth to speak, and froze when he saw Gai staring at him.
Oh shit, I forgot...
"What in God's name happened to you, boy?" Baki questioned.
That question did a lot to calm him. On second glance, Gai was looking at him the same way Baki was: Not in recognition, but in wonder at how he had come to be in such a pitiful state. Shredded clothes, his whole body blistered, bloodied, face and chest smeared with mud...if he were to look in a mirror he doubted he'd be able to recognize himself. And thankfully Baki had been smart enough to not address him by name.
"That's not important!" he said quickly before Gai was able to get a better look at his face. "Sensei, have you seen Masamuri recently?"
Baki looked quizzical. "Masamuri? No, not since the meeting when the twins took him back to Ame. Why?"
"We have to find him! He was coming here to assassinate Takara!"
"Are you sure about that?" Gai asked him.
"Y-yeah," Naruto stammered, trying not to make eye contact with the man. "He set us up, sensei! He expected us all to die fighting against Kusa and Konoha without sending reinforcements. Then he's going to kill Takara and take all the gold buried here for himself."
If Baki were surprised by this news, he hid it well. "How does he plan-?"
The question went unfinished as an uproar was heard. The three turned to the sound, and saw the group of miners kneeling around Takara who was on his back, convulsing wildly.
"No!" Gai shouted, racing toward the daimyo.
"Now what's going on?" Kankuro asked as he and Temari joined Baki and Naruto.
"Damn! I was too late!"
"What's happening, Naruto?" Temari asked. From looking at the boy, that was just one of the many questions she had for him, but personal questions would have to wait until later.
"It's Masamuri," he explained. "He's using a kekkei genkai to split a phantom body from his real body. Now he's inside Takara and is destroying him from the inside!"
It took a few seconds for that knowledge to really sink into his listeners.
"Just like what happened to the old man earlier, huh?" Kankuro wondered aloud.
Baki thought quickly. "In that case, we need to find Masamuri's physical body and kill it."
Naruto shook his head. "That won't be enough. Kasumi told me that even if his real body is destroyed, his phantom body could keep living inside other people."
"Then how the hell are we supposed to fight that?" Kankuro yelled.
"Our only choice is to withdraw," Baki concluded. "We stand no chance against an opponent that we can't kill or even see."
Naruto again shook his head in protest. "But we can't just leave! What about the others?"
"You can't save everyone every time, kid," Kankuro stated bluntly.
Temari tried to voice her own opinion, but a sharp pain in her stomach stopped her, and she doubled over in pain.
The phantom body of Masamuri laughed, a sound which no one else heard even though he was standing a mere foot away from some of them. He stared down at the still convulsing form of his nemesis. He always did enjoy the way their faces twisted in such peculiar ways after their insides were ripped apart.
"We must get him to a hospital!" one of the men cried.
"I think it's too late for that, but do what you can for him," the man in green told them sadly.
You're not as dumb as you look, Masamuri thought. He'll be dead in two minutes. Now then...
Leaving Takara for the dead man that he'd soon be, he turned his attention to the Suna team. He didn't know why the Naruto boy was still alive or how he'd managed to get past Kasumi and Kazuya, but he already looked half dead. Of the others, the jounin, the redhead and the girl looked the healthiest. They would have to be the first ones to go before they had the chance to run away. He definitely didn't need all of Suna breathing down him back any time soon.
"Well then," he said with a grin as he eyed the young girl. "Ladies first, I suppose."
Without another second of delay, he passed into the body of Temari and set to work.
"Temari!" Naruto cried, moving to the girl's side. Kankuro was quick to join him at her other side.
"Now what?" he shouted, having already grown sick of all the surprises taking place today.
"It's Masamuri again! He's inside Temari now!"
Kankuro's panic increased as blood began appearing from Temari's mouth. "Well what are we supposed to do!?"
Naruto's fists clenched in desperation. "I don't know...I don't know!"
"Yes, it's what he used to try to kill Halek earlier, and he'll use it again to kill Takara and anyone else that is still fighting out there, including your teammates."
"What is it then?"
"It's called Seikitai, or Astral Body. By accumulating a vast amount of chakra, Masamuri is able to split his body into a physical form and a 'phantom form'. While in his astral phantom form, his physical body grows deathly weak, but he gains the ability to enter other bodies. When he does, he releases his stored chakra which runs rampant through the victim, destroying their internal organs, and ultimately leading to their death."
"...So how do I stop him?"
"That's the problem. Once Masamuri's phantom form leaves his body and enters another, the only surefire way of stopping him is to kill the person he's in, then the phantom form will perish along with him and his physical body will be as helpless as an invalid."
"Isn't there any other way?"
"None that I know of. The phantom form can't be damaged through normal methods, and even if you kill his physical body, the astral form can live on so long as it has a body to inhabit. If you can't kill him before he leaves his own body, it's the only way."
Temari's violent coughing grew harsher, making Naruto feel more helpless than any other time in his life. How was he supposed to save her like this? There had to be some way that Kasumi didn't know of, there HAD to be! If Temari were to die right in front of him like this, he'd...
A sheet of sand made both boys instinctively jump back before they realized what was happening. By the time they did, Temari had been bound tightly within Gaara's Sabaku Kyu.
"What do you think you're doing?" Naruto cried as he furiously began clawing and digging at the mound of sand to reach the girl trapped within.
"I am going to destroy him," Gaara answered.
"But you'll kill Temari!"
Naruto froze. He turned to Gaara with horror in his eyes. "You..."
"She will die regardless, better that I kill him along with her," Gaara rationalized. He raised his right hand toward the sand prison.
Naruto's fist connected with Gaara's jaw with a sharp crack. The force knocked Gaara off his feet onto a floating blanket of sand that had formed a split second before he hit the ground. Kankuro gave a shrill cry of surprise while Gaara simply stared up at the darkened sky above him. The hovering mound of sand that enveloped Temari dissipated, dropping her in a heap.
Kankuro's good leg gave out beneath him and he fell backward onto the ground next to his sister. "He didn't. Tell me that idiot didn't just..."
Naruto's bloody eyes slowly turned back to their normal blue hue. "What kind of human being are you?" he demanded, his body trembling with rage. "You were actually going to kill your own sister, weren't you?"
From it's sealed prison, the Kyubi gave a growl of surprise and annoyance.
The sand beneath Gaara slipped away, setting him gently on the wet ground. He rose to his knees and placed two fingers to his split lip, pulling them back with a smear of blood at their tips.
He hit me?
HE hit ME?
Naruto was about to turn around to check on the condition of Temari when he saw Gaara's body start to shake. He gave a fleeting glace behind him where Temari was lying on the ground next to a sitting Kankuro. She had stopped coughing, but beyond that he had no idea how she was doing. For his part, Kankuro might not have even realized that Temari was still there by the way his terrified eyes were glued to Gaara.
A low rumbling began resonating from the redheaded boy, and it wasn't until he raised his head from the ground that the others realized he was laughing a chilling, deranged laugh.
Shit! Kankuro mentally cursed. I was right! The only time Gaara laughs is when He takes control! Damnit, why did this have to happen now?
"I KNEW IT!" Gaara rasped in a voice far deeper and more gravelly than normal. "I sensed YOU before! You're HIM, just like ME! THE FOX!"
Gai, who was returning after the others had carried off Takara, froze at Gaara's words. Fox...?
Kankuro stared back and forth between his demented brother and Naruto, trying in vain to make sense of what had just been said. Naruto's body tensed up with a feeling of impending disaster.
The sand freak truly was insane. If the Naruto boy hadn't stopped him, he really would have killed the girl in order to kill him. He had to make a decision quickly, and there was no way he could afford to leave that one alone. He would have to be the first to die.
Unseen by all, the astral body of Masamuri drifted down into the body of Sabaku no Gaara.
He knew something was wrong the moment he entered. He was definitely inside the boy's body, but nothing seemed to be in place. Everything was pitch black, he couldn't feel any of the boy's internal organs around him, and yet everything felt so...heavy, nothing like how he normally felt when in someone else's body.
Nonetheless, he would have to work fast. There was no telling when the Konoha boy would recover, or worse, if another enemy got it into their heads to try killing the boy before he could escape again. But how was he supposed to start when he couldn't feel anything to destroy?
As he pondered, a pair of giant gold and black orbs appeared above him. A chill of terror passed through him when he sensed the presence of a menacing killing intent. Looking up, he saw the giant glowing orbs hanging above him, and directly below it, an enormous jagged maw appeared, releasing a breath that felt like the parched winds of the desert.
The astral man and demonic creature stared at each other before the creature gave a bloodcurdling scream.
Terrified beyond belief, Masamuri barely formed the seal to expel himself from the body before the thing was able to consume him.
At the same time, Gaara gave a shriek of pain and clutched at his head with both hands. Everyone else scattered back in terror, expecting the boy to snap at any moment. Gaara fell to his knees, still clutching and clawing at his head, and Baki took the time to scoop up Temari, who had gone still but was now watching the events through bleary eyes. Gai felt the time was right to get his students and run. The aura the boy was giving off had just grown twice as strong and five times as deadly in a matter of seconds.
As Gai moved toward him, Neji, for the first time in his young life, was doubting his own eyes. After the mass of chakra had left the girl's body and entered Gaara's, that strange black object lodged within his abdomen had flared with a dark light for the briefest of seconds, and the next moment the chakra cloud was out again, this time without having inflicted any damage on Gaara's organs.
What is that guy?
As he got to his feet, he saw Lee stumbling toward him, a still unconscious Tenten supported on his shoulder.
"What is happening, Gai-sensei?" he asked.
"Can you run with her?" he asked back, ignoring his question.
"I think so," Lee answered firmly before his knees began to buckle under the weight. Gai steadied him with one hand, and turned to Neji.
Sighing in understanding, Neji lifted Tenten away from his and positioned her on his back.
"As far as I can tell, the mission has fallen through, and we'll be retreating shortly," Gai explained.
"Retreating?" Lee repeated. "But what about-?"
"There's nothing else to achieve here," he cut in, sounding bitter. "Takara's been killed, and if we stay any longer, we could be next."
Lee nodded reluctantly. So they had failed a mission. Their first one since becoming a team last year. He thought back as he watched what was happening with the others, trying to think of what they could have done better to help them succeed, when he noticed a familiar figure.
Uzumaki-san? he wondered, not sure if he was correct or not. The boy had a Suna hitai-ite and what looked like blond hair underneath the caked in mud on his head, but the boy himself looked like he'd just come out from a week in the Konoha Interrogation dungeon.
He tried to run to him, but crashed as his body gave out again.
"Lee, what are you doing?" Gai demanded, kneeling down at his side.
Lee grimaced, getting back up despite the disapproving cracks of his bones. "I apologize for being so weak, Gai-sensei. You trained me better than this."
Gai smiled despite himself. "It can't be helped, Lee. Luck just wasn't on our side today. We can at least count our blessings that we're all still alive and will be able to return home."
"Not yet, we can't," Neji commented, gaining his team's full attention. "I don't think we're out of the woods just yet."
What in the name of all things holy was that? If I had been even a millisecond slower, that...thing would have devoured me completely. The boy is an even bigger freak than I thought. I've heard tales about humans with demons sealed inside them, but to actually meet one like this? And at such a delicate time...
Masamuri cursed. His phantom body wouldn't be able to hold out much longer if he couldn't get into a body and stay in it for longer than a few seconds. At this rate, he'd have to return to his own body and that would give them all time to escape.
What had gone wrong? Everything should have played out perfectly, he should have won by now! But...
His eyes landed on the blonde brat, Naruto. That was it. It was that boy who had stumbled onto his plan in the first place. It was him that had somehow stopped Kasumi and Kazuya from coming to help him. He had screwed up everything!
Masamuri scowled down at him. If there was one person that he was absolutely not going to let get away, it was going to be that one. He would have to move fast, before the others had the chance to sacrifice the boy to get him, which was a shame. He really wanted this boy to suffer for a long time. Oh well, he also had to make some sacrifices.
Kasumi had just managed to finish mending the last cut on Kazuya's head when he began to stir.
"Brother?" she spoke cautiously.
His eyes opened slowly, staring up at his sister. "Kasumi? What-?" He sat up in a flash, staring down as his hand in disbelief. "That amateur actually beat me!?"
"Brother-" she repeated, sounding more desperate this time.
He whirled on her, grabbing her by the shoulders harder than intended. "How long have I been out?"
Kasumi flinched. "I...about ten minutes, but-"
"Then there still might be time!" He leapt to his feet and ran to pick up his dropped kodachi. "Let's hurry. There's a chance that they're still fighting out there-"
He froze and stared at her, confusion evident in his face. "What's wrong? We don't have time to stand around and talk or everything will be ruined! We can still-"
Kasumi ran to him and threw her arms around him, burying her face into his chest. "Just stop this, brother," she sobbed. "Please, just...no more."
His confusion mounting even more, he pulled the girl away from his body so to be able to look her in the face. "I don't understand what you're saying, Kasumi. Stop what?"
"All of this! All of this revenge nonsense! I just can't take it anymore!" she forced out between sobs.
Kazuya's look of confusion and worry immediately turned to rage. "Did that amateur say something to make you-?"
"It's not Naruto, you fool! It's you! My God, Kazuya, look at what's become of you! You've gone insane! You're so obsessed with your vengeance that you were even willing to hurt me to accomplish it! The Kazuya that I've grown up with my whole life would never do that!"
Kazuya's arms fell limply to his side. "I...I didn't want to-" he said feebly.
"But you still did it!" Kasumi went on, still choking up from her emotional outburst. "If I didn't have medical jutsu knowledge, that attack of your could have killed me! And for what? So you could get your revenge on Masamuri and Takara and start a war between the countries?"
Kazuya's dark, guilt-ridden eyes dropped to the ground. "Kasumi," he spoke hopelessly. "I love you. You're my sister and the only real family I have now. But...but we've been working toward this moment for ten years now. Ten years of complete dedication to killing those two bastards and never once looking back. ...Do you really want to turn back now that we've come so close?"
Kasumi nodded firmly, brushing the tears from her face. "Getting to this point is what brought you to such a horrible state in the first place. I can't bear to see what might happen to you if we go any further." Slowly, she embraced him again, much more gently this time. "I just want my brother back. If I lose him, then I'll have nothing left."
The boy's entire body shook, trying to come to terms with what was happening. Did this mean that the last ten years of their life would be completely worthless? Would their home have to continue suffering as it had been just because his sister was having a change of heart? How could he just turn back now?
He couldn't! Not this late, not this close...
He couldn't just forgive and forget after all this time!
His fist clenched tightly around the hilt of his kodachi.
But he was going to have to, because it's what Kasumi wanted.
And the blade fell from his hand.
"What is this!?" an utterly baffled Masamuri shouted. First it was the demon creature inside the sand user, and now this?
Once again, the area that he found himself in was devoid of any internal organs. In fact, the place more resembled a...a sewer. Murky water lay an inch deep on the floor, leading down a darkening corridor in front of him. And directly in front of him was a gigantic cage door. It was large enough that even if he had been in his physical body he could easily slip through the bars. But what then? Where in the bloody hell would this sewer lead him? And what the hell was it doing inside this boy's body?
Further questions froze in his throat when he felt it: A killing intent so sinister that it made the creature in the sand freak's body feel like a housecat in comparison. He could feel the very chakra sustaining his astral form being broken away by this new power.
There were many things that Masamuri was incapable of doing while in his astral form. Since he didn't have a solid form or organs of his own, such things included being able to tremble in fear, dying due to cardiac arrest, and urinating. This was fortunate, because as he stared in horror at the new sight before him, he would have done all three.
An enormous red face with even deeper red eyes was gazing at him in some sort of mild curiosity. The face and body of the thing swirled and billowed, as though it were just as formless as his own current form. The animal's jaw opened, showing off a row of very sharp, and very solid teeth. The mouth continued to stretch until it resembled a very feral grin.
"My oh my," it's dark voice boomed. "Company. How...lovely."
This was the final push. Masamuri absolutely couldn't take any more of this. Forget the riches and the revenge! Forget everything else! He had to get out of here! Out of this body, away from this field, and back to Ame where he would never have to set eyes upon another freak from Suna ever again!
Like a bullet, he flew to the cage...and found himself stopped dead, and then yanked back in by some unseen force. Not stopping to question how or why, he tried passing through the ceiling, only to receive the same result.
He tried five more times to escape from the prison, all the while the Kyubi watched on in amusement.
"Ho...how is t-this possible?" Masamuri whispered in a trancelike state. "I...this body...it can't be held by anything!"
Kyubi laughed a loud, merciless laugh. "In your last few moments of life, human, I advise you to direct your attention to that slip of paper up there on the door."
Still petrified at the very sound of the fox demon's voice, the leader of Ame slowly inclined his head upward, his eyes coming to rest on a tattered slip of paper stuck to one of the bars.
His mouth opened, forming the word 'seal', but no noise accompanied it.
"I'm afraid that's all there is to the little tour of my domain," Kyubi continued in a voice that could almost be conversational if it wasn't for the deathly undertones. "So then, since you're my first official guest, and since it's been so long that I could care less which way we do it, I'll let you decide. Quick and Easy, or Slow and Excruciatingly Painful?"
The Ame leader snapped from his stupor and pressed himself as far as he could into the corner of the prison. "S-s-stay away from me, monster! Don't come near me!"
The fox's eyes narrowed slightly, before another demonic grin appeared. "Slow and Painful it is, then."
"NO!" he screamed. "No, I don't deserve this! Leave me alone! Leave me al-AHHHHHHHH!"
"What do we do now?"
"We have no choice. Takara-sama gave us orders. And even if he has been taken out, we must follow them."
"So we move in?"
"AAHHHH!" Naruto screamed, clutching tightly at his stomach.
Baki was at his side in a flash, careful to keep a trained eye on Gaara, who was now muttering softly to himself. "Naruto, is it him again?"
Naruto suddenly relaxed. He sat back on his feet, sweat running down his muddy face in quick beads. "I'm okay," he assured him. "I think...I think It got him."
"It?" Baki asked before it dawned on him. "You mean...the fox?"
He nodded. "Yeah, I think so. I felt them both for just a second, now I don't feel either."
That didn't rule out the option that Masamuri fled from his body like he did with Gaara and Temari, Baki thought.
"What's happening to Gaara?" Naruto questioned.
Damn, Baki mentally cursed. "We need to get away before he wakes up any further. Can you move on your own?"
Naruto stared at him uncertainly. "Yeah, but what's going on? Who's waking up?"
Before Baki had the chance to answer, a large rustling of trees drew his attention away. Looking around, the group saw several armed shinobi leap into the clearing, moving quickly to surround both the Suna and Konoha teams.
It was Kankuro who summed up just about everyone's thoughts at the moment. "For the love of God! Is this giant clusterfuck of a battle ever going to end?!"
"Strike them all down!" one of the Kusa shinobi shouted to the rest. "Don't let Takara-sama's death go unpunished!" A loud cry of agreement resounded from the others.
Gai couldn't help but feel that the situation was growing hopeless. They were now faced with over twenty fresh enemies, none of his students were in any condition to fight again, and the same could probably be said for the Suna team. How were they going to get out of this one?
The Kusa army began to move in, when the ground began to shake. The rumbling grew harder, knocking several shinobi off their feet.
Baki lifted Temari into his arms. "Naruto," he shouted over the rumbling. "Help Kankuro! We have to get away now!"
Naruto gaped, confused. "What about Gaara?"
"That's who we're getting away from!" the jounin shouted frantically. "NOW MOVE!"
Naruto took only a split second to seek out Gaara, who was kneeling with his hands pressed firmly to the ground. He could barely see his face, but the part that he could see was contorted into a savage glower.
Not thinking twice, Naruto ran to Kankuro and positioned himself under the boy's arm, keeping his weight off his injured foot, and ran as fast as he could. In the other direction, Neji and Gai, carrying Tenten and Lee respectively, were doing the same thing.
"Stop them!" the lead Kusa ninja shouted.
As they began to give chase, the ground beneath them erupted in a large geyser of sand, sweeping them off their feet. Naruto and the others could feel themselves sinking into the sand below them, but pushed on even harder. Team Gai, who had further to run, felt strands of the sand grabbing onto them, attempting to pull them back. Neji, with the last of his chakra, slashed one-handed at the sand ropes, severing them. That bought them enough time to make it back to solid ground, but they didn't stop there.
Upon reaching the trees again, Naruto stumbled and fell to the ground with Kankuro. Kankuro bit back an insult as pain shot through him, feeling that now was not the time to be snide, though he would be sure to give the midget a punch when they were out of this. As they rose to their feet, Naruto turned back and lost his breath at the sight.
The sand had flattened the entire Kusa army, and was now lifting them high into the air.
"He's not going to...?" Naruto stammered.
Baki placed a hand on his shoulder. "When Gaara gets excited or angry, his Inner Self awakens. This is the result of that."
Naruto couldn't understand how Baki could sound so calm while watching this. And what was 'Inner Self' supposed to mean?
"Shouldn't we stop him?" he asked.
"There is no stopping him like this. We can only let it go, so that his Inner Self will be sated and returns to sleep."
The mass of sand stopped rising, now in the shape of a large sphere. Various screams of fear from the captives could still be heard as Gaara brought his hands above his head.
"Chinoumi: Sabaku Soso!"
And to the horror of four of the six conscious onlookers, the orb exploded, sending sand and blood showering down over the field and the last remaining person still standing among it, his face once again returning to a stoic mask.
"In a way, we couldn't have been more fortunate to have those Kusa nin show up."
"Fortunate?" Naruto asked in disbelief.
"Yes," Baki said firmly. "If they hadn't been there, it would have been us who got crushed to death by Gaara."
Naruto let that soak in as his eyes drifted around the campsite. Being late as it was and with all of them in such bad condition, they'd barely made it a mile before being forced to stop to treat their wounds and set up camp.
They had found a stream nearby, which Naruto had used to wash away the mud and dried blood from his body. Upon his return, Baki had given him a spare cloak to wear until they got back to Suna.
Kankuro's leg had been properly wrapped, and he now lay asleep among the large pile of Karasu's parts that he had already started repairing.
A large, ugly bruise had spread across Baki's left hand and lower arm where it had connected with Gai's foot, but aside from that, he was fine, and was again staring deep into the campfire.
Temari shifted uncomfortably in her sleeping bag, catching Naruto's attention. She had been drifting in and out of consciousness since being attacked by Masamuri. All of her injuries had been internal, so there wasn't much that Baki could do for her, and Naruto had stayed right by her side just in case.
Her eyes fluttered open and gazed at Naruto. "Hey," she said weakly.
He crouched down next to her, eyes filled with concern. "How do you feel?"
She grinned softly. "Hurt like a bitch...but I'll live."
Naruto sighed. "That's good."
Temari chuckled, which turned into a painful cough. Naruto grimaced and bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Temari-neechan. If I'd gotten there sooner I could have stopped him from-"
"Shut up, Naruto," she told him with no real force behind it. "I don't need you beating yourself up over it. Besides, if you hadn't found out what Masamuri was planning in the first place, then we might all be dead, right?"
"...I guess so," he relented.
"Good." She shifted her body again, feeling another small pain in her stomach. "So whatever happened to you? I was getting worried."
Naruto lifted his head again, and Temari could see the surprise on his face.
She nodded, feeling slightly awkward all of a sudden. "Of course. You were the one I was most worried about."
He felt his heart swell at the admission, but the feeling was only fleeting. "Because I'm still the weakest?"
Temari glared at him. "Don't you start talking like that Kazuya creep," she warned. "If we hadn't been on a mission with him, I'd have beat the snot out of him for the way he was treating you and the rest of us."
Naruto couldn't help but chuckle, wondering what her reaction would be when he told her what actually happened.
"And no, it's not because you're the weakest," she added, suddenly feeling the darkness close in on her again. "It's because we're friends, and friends look out for each other."
Her eyes closed too soon for her to see the look of joy appear on his face.
Friends. Not just teammates, not just someone that she's being forced to put up with, but friends.
He never thought that it would feel so good to be accepted like that.
...And He had tried to kill her. The only person besides Lee who had called him a friend, and that bastard had tried to kill her! He glared fiercely at Gaara, standing far off from the rest of the camp looking as blank as ever, as though he hadn't just slaughtered an army of shinobi all by himself, as though he hadn't intended to kill his own sister without the slightest bit of remorse.
He was not going to let that stand for long. He'd make him pay for that soon.
Gai watched the sleeping forms of his students, all of whom had some serious recovering to do. Who would have guessed that the mission would turn out so horribly, or that they would be facing such powerful opponents? Then there had been the betrayals on both sides, and about a dozen things that he couldn't find answers for. The whole mission didn't even feel worth it anymore.
Who exactly was that Gaara boy? He knew ANBU back in Konoha who didn't have that kind of power.
That made him think of the other boy. The one that Gaara had called 'the Fox'. He wished that he could have gotten a better look at the boy, or at least caught his name. Fox...that didn't necessarily mean it was 'him', right? 'Fox' could have meant something else; a nickname, a title...Was it really just a big coincidence? The odds of Uzumaki Naruto joining the ranks of Suna and just happening to show up on the same mission as them was probably a one in a million shot. If only they hadn't been forced to flee so quickly...
Well either way, it would still be a good idea to report it to the Hokage. Just in case.
Several hours passed, and Naruto lay wide awake in his tent thinking about the first mission he'd ever had. Now that it was all over with, he still felt that something needed to be done about it. Apparently, both Takara and Masamuri were dead, and there was a chance that that would be enough to stop the war from happening, but he still felt bitter. A lot of people had died or gotten hurt, which he knew would be unavoidable in the end, but would there be more fighting and more deaths tomorrow or the next day? Would both sides come seeking some ill-conceived retribution against the other?
And what about Kasumi and Kazuya? And their village, what would they all do now?
Still deep in thought, he climbed out of his tent and started walking into woods.
"Where do you think you're going?" Baki asked.
Naruto barely faltered. He had thought that Baki was asleep like the others.
"Gotta pee," he answered.
Baki studied him, then turned away without another word. As the boy walked off, his eyes fell onto the dying embers of the fire. Kyubi container or not, a mission like this one had to be a bit traumatic for a child's first time. But he had performed well enough, and he was sure to grow from it.
With the mission over with, that still left Baki with his...other problem that the Kazekage had assigned to him. He glanced over at Gaara, who appeared to be sleeping, though Baki knew better. He had seen only one possible opportunity during their fight, and he probably could have taken it if he'd wanted to. But he'd frozen at the last second, the consequences of a mishap all too apparent to him. The Kazekage would have to understand. After all, he hadn't made it a direct order...
He heard Naruto return and silently crawl back into his tent. His inner turmoil pushed aside, the exhausted jounin closed his eyes again, drifting into a very light sleep, ready to wake at the mere sign of trouble.
A shadowy figure approached the mining site, which still bared the scars of the deadly battle that had just taken place. The broken bodies of the Kusa nin still littered the ground. The previously rocky ground had been transformed into a miniature desert, and the air reeked of blood.
It was a gruesome sight, but he wasn't here for the view. He had work to do, and little time to do it.
It was midmorning when Kazuya and Kasumi reached what used to be the gold mining field. They were so surprised by the sudden change to the landscape that it took them several long seconds to notice the handful of Kusa shinobi already there. Kazuya was quick to reach for his kodachi, but the Kusa nin raised their arms in a gesture of peace.
"Please wait," a young man named Yoshihide spoke, moving toward them. "There's no reason for us to fight again."
Kasumi relaxed while Kazuya kept his hand on the hilt. "What in the world happened here?" the girl asked.
Yoshihide sighed in distress. "That kid from Suna, the one with the big gourd and red hair, he did this. Turned the ground and rock into sand and crushed an entire regiment of our soldiers with it."
The twins stared at him like he was making a bad joke, but with the evidence right in front of them, they found themselves nodding. Since being shown up by Naruto the night before, it was taking a lot more to shock them again.
"But where are the bodies?" Kasumi asked. "Is that what you were doing here?"
"Or were you digging for the gold?" Kazuya asked, receiving a look from his sister.
The Kusa nin scratched his head. "Well, we were planning to come here to bring the dead back to Kusa, but when we got here they were already buried." He gestured to the far end of the field where several long sticks were seen sticking out of the sand. "We'll probably still take them all back to Kusa so they can be buried properly," he continued. "But...as for the gold...it seems that most of it is gone."
"Gone?" an aghast Kasumi said.
Kazuya's hand reflexively unsheathed his blade. "Don't play games with us! I'm in no mood-"
He stepped back, bringing his hands back up in front of him. "No games, honest! I admit, we first got here about two hours ago, and when we saw the others already buried, we decided to start searching for it. We started where the workers had begun yesterday but we didn't find anything. When we started moving outwards to where the sand ended we found a little bit, but it seems that the majority of it was destroyed when that kid turned the ground into sand."
"You mean it was all dissolved?"
"That's a possibility, I guess. There's probably a fortune of powdered gold still here, but among all this sand..." he shrugged helplessly.
Kazuya cursed under his breath and turned away, not letting his grief show.
Kasumi held onto hope. "You said that you found some still intact though, right?"
He sighed. "Yeah, there's definitely still some left here. I can't even guess how much, though not nearly enough to bother fighting over again...not worth losing more comrades..." He snapped his fingers. "Oh, that reminds me. Halek-sama gave us a message to deliver to any Ame shinobi that we met."
"Halek-sama?" Kasumi questioned.
"Yeah, Takara-sama died last night as well," he told them, making Kazuya turn back to him in awe. "It was the same thing that happened to Halek-sama, but he died before we could get him back to Kusa. Since he had no immediate successors, as his closest associate, Halek-sama was put in charge until a more suitable candidate could be named. He's still bedridden from that strange attack yesterday, but he's awake and of sound mind. In any case, he wanted to offer Ame one more declaration of peace, without any tricks or deception this time."
The twins shared an apprehensive look. "And we're just supposed to believe that?"
"I guess I don't really expect you to, but Takara-sama never had any intention of holding up to his end of the treaty before. Halek was fearful that his greed would do more harm than good to the rest of us, but...he couldn't risk going against the daimyo's orders, you know? But with him gone, perhaps you can convince Masamuri-san to reconsider?"
Kasumi looked back at her brother again. The look he gave was clearly translated as 'No need to tell them if they don't already know.'
"We will...see to it that Masamuri-sama receives your message."
"Thank you," Yoshihide said, bowing to them both. "I should get back to work. As a show of good faith, please tell the rest of your men that they're welcome to dig alongside us. There's no telling if there's much left, but we're willing to split the findings."
Kazuya sighed deeply and began walking away. Kasumi gave a quick 'We will' before following after him.
"Brother?" she said softly as she slowed to match his pace.
He laughed. It was a shallow sound devoid of humor. "Even if the amateur hadn't stopped us, we still wouldn't have been able to do anything, would we? We might even have ended up dead along with all those Kusa nin."
Kasumi remained silent, but she still sympathized with him.
"Does this mean I should be grateful to that little bastard?" he rambled on as they left the mining area. "I mean, he stopped us from doing something that we would have regretted farther down the road, but what did we actually get out of this?"
"Takara is dead," she answered. "He may not have died at our hands like we hoped, but his sins have been punished for. As for Masamuri-"
Kazuya brought his arm up in front of her, bringing her to a stop. She went to question his action, but stopped when they both heard a low-pitched moan from nearby. Hearing it a second time, they walked to a large gathering of brush at the base of a tree and pushed it aside. Both twins' eyes hardened at the sight of the sickly, near-motionless Masamuri they had found.
"His kekkei genkai is still active?" Kasumi wondered aloud.
Kazuya didn't respond, just unsheathed his kodachi. As he brought it up, he stopped and looked at his sister, as though he were seeking her approval. Steeling herself, Kasumi nodded, and with a single slash, Kazuya ended his former master's life, making certain to put every last bit of pent-up hate, rage, and thoughts of vengeance into it.
Masamuri slumped down without a sound, and the twins felt the weight of ten years of suppressed pain and anger lifted from their bodies. As he started to re-sheath his blade, Kazuya stopped, and reached up and sliced off the Amegakure hitai-ite from around his head. Handing the blade to his sister, he watched her do the same.
With tears of relief in her eyes, Kasumi smiled. "Let's go home, brother."
It was a very long three miles back to the village. There was a deep sense of melancholy about the Twins. They were happier than they had been since the attack on their village, but things still didn't feel right. Masamuri had killed Takara, and they had killed Masamuri. In a sense, their ten-year mission was complete. But without the gold to bring back home and no way of making their village prosper again, it made it a rather empty victory.
As they entered the village, they noticed a great deal of racket going on from the town square.
"What's going on?" Kasumi wondered.
"Maybe they've already heard about Takara's death?" Kazuya guessed.
Curious, they began walking faster, until the reach the crowd in the square.
"Kas-chan! Kaz-kun!" a female voice rang out above the shouts and cheers of the crowd.
"Izumi-san?" Kasumi greeted, spotting the middle-aged woman pushing her way toward them. "What's all this about?"
"It's wonderful!" Izumi gushed. Grabbing them both by the wrists, she began pulling them through the mass of people. "Come look! Come look!"
More confused than ever, the twins allowed the lady to direct them to the center of the rowdy crowd.
"Izumi-san, can't you just tell us what's-?"
Kasumi's words died in her throat. Sitting on the stone road directly in front of them was no less than thirty gold nuggets of various size. Both she and her brother stared frozen, open-mouthed at it, fearing that if they so much as blinked or looked away it might suddenly vanish.
"I couldn't believe my eyes either!" Izumi went on. "I just woke up this morning and was going to the store, when suddenly I find this pile of gold sitting right here in the middle of the street! Was this your doing, you two?"
Neither answered, but in their minds, both were coming to the same conclusion. It was crazy to believe, but for someone like him. Kazuya turned and stared off into the distance.
The former shinobi bowed his head, letting his long hair cover his grin. You ended up surprising me yet again...Uzumaki Naruto.
As the group walked, Gaara far out in front, Kankuro using a slightly repaired arm of Karasu as a crutch, Temari leaning on Naruto for support and Baki bringing up the rear, Temari made a strange discovery.
"Naruto, didn't you wash yourself last night?"
The sudden question made him blank. "Yeah, why?"
The wind mistress wrinkled her nose. "You didn't do a very good job then. You still smell like blood...and you still have sand in your hair."
Naruto laughed nervously. "G-guess I'll have to make a stop at the next lake we pass by, huh?"
Behind him, Baki's eyes narrowed. Last night, had he really...?
He rolled his eyes and sighed. That renegade personality will be the death of you yet, Uzumaki. ...Or of me, for that matter.
"No kidding!" Kankuro interjected. "Would you do me the favor of staying downwind of me, midget?"
"Shut up! You're just upset that I've gotten to see how ugly your real face is without all the cover-up!"
But for now, perhaps having someone like him around is just the thing that this team really needs.
End Chapter 11
A/N: In case it's not apparent, when Naruto 'went to pee', he sent back a Kage Bunshin and went off to the site himself. And as far as I can surmise, the gold among the sand would still be intact because Gaara's technique only separates minerals from stone to create sand, so it shouldn't affect gold...I don't think. Also, the word 'chinoumi' that Gaara used toward the end means 'Sea of Blood'. It just seemed appropriate.
Twenty thousand words. That's more than a third the size of the entire rest of the story. I've never written anything so long and I probably never will again. Mainly because I didn't like it, but I wanted to end this arc of the story as soon as possible, so...
Reading back over this, I think my own biggest concern was that I put myself in over my head by trying to have too many things going on at once. The last half of the story felt especially sloppy to me, but considering all the time it's taken me to write it, I have no intention of going back and fixing it once again unless it's really really really necessary. Maybe not even then. Like I said, I've grown to hate this godforsaken chapter and I hope to never have to write another one like it again. On the other hand, I can only hope that you readers enjoyed reading it more than I enjoying trying to write it, and I especially hope it was at least sort of worth the extra long wait.
Until next time,