Disclaimer: Not mine, don't sue.
I leaned against the tree trunk, panting. He was somewhere behind me, I knew. I could feel his chakra. He wasn't even trying to mask it. He didn't need to at this point. It was a game of cat and mouse, and the mouse was bleeding to death. Somehow – maybe it was a shift in his chakra – I sensed that he was grinning.
This was bad. I was no match for him. I had already almost run out of chakra beating my last opponent, and then this one seemed to come out of nowhere. He watched while Naruto rampaged as the demon fox, watched and waited, biding his time, because he knew the pattern of the beast, knew that Naruto couldn't hold out for long as the fox, and when he came back down he would be prone, helpless. This one was a familiar enemy. Unfortunately, his style was not familiar to me. But then, my style was not familiar to him either.
It hardly mattered. My wind attacks barely fazed him. I cut down half the forest and managed only a scratch on his cheek. He just smiled serenely and looked at me coolly through those ridiculous round glasses. He had the chance to move in closer and did so; hand-to-hand combat has always been my weakest genre. He took out my legs. I don't know what he did to them or how, but from the blinding pain and their utter failure to respond to my brain's commands I have to conclude that he tore the muscles and ligaments somehow. I don't honestly know what the last attack with my fan did to him, but I managed to throw him back far enough that I had the chance to crawl away. It wasn't easy on one arm, with my legs screaming pain and my other arm, I soon learned, almost completely useless, bleeding freely, but I managed to drag my body behind this tree so at least I had the chance to gather my thoughts before he was on his feet again.
I was going to die.
It was not merely a consciousness of his murderous intent. I knew he was after Naruto's unconscious body, not to kill, just to take; according to him, the killing of Naruto was for Uchiha Sasuke. As far as I knew he only wanted to kidnap for that purpose. Well, I wasn't about to just let him, even if Naruto's death wouldn't be immediate. This was the boy who had saved my brother. I don't think he understands how important he is to my family. Gaara needs him. I don't want to think of what would happen to Gaara if he died. My fear is that he would slowly go back to being that thing he was long ago as a kid, before the invasion of Konoha. I couldn't let that happen. I would die before I let that happen. I might have to.
I knew I was outmatched. I had heard of this one. I knew the names of shinobi that had fallen to him and they were shinobi far above me, even if I was a jounin. Never mind that more than half of my limbs were out of action. Oh, he knew that. Now he was just toying with me.
But no… but no… I couldn't let him take Naruto. I thought of Gaara. I couldn't fail Gaara. I had failed him too many times for too many years. Even if it meant my life, I couldn't fail him now. There had to be a way. Think. Think.
What would the lazy one do?
These thoughts were running through my head at lightning speed – only a few seconds had gone by since I dropped my fan – but I had time to smile at myself anyway. What a thought. First of all, he wouldn't have let it get this far. He would have planned a feint much sooner, whereas I had gone all out, not hiding anything, and now had no trump card to draw on. He would have had a better strategy, one involving deception. He would have something unexpected. All I had was the expected: wait, bleed, die.
No. I can't die yet.
I have to beat him. I have to beat him somehow. The Konoha kids always found a way to keep going after you thought they were dead. That was their strength. That had to be mine now. For Naruto. For Gaara. There has to be a way.
Stay cool. Take stock. That's what the lazy one would do.
Thirteen kunai, five shuriken, a handful of exploding tags. Could I summon? … Not if I could barely move, no. And I didn't have my fan. That was out of the question. Think faster. Thirteen kunai and the use of one arm. The idea that I could take this one down by throwing a few kunai with exploding tags was laughable.
Pain throbbed like the desert sun; my mind pushed it aside. I reasoned with myself that I would have plenty of time to feel pain later.
In the space of a few seconds, my brain ran through the formations of every ninja technique at my disposal. I had nothing left, nothing usable, if half my body were dead. I had tried to learn a genjutsu move once, but I doubted…
But maybe it was time to use the skills you doubted.
My left arm, gushing blood, was starting to go numb, but I thought I might still have the strength for a few hand symbols. I never was lucky – never believed in luck, actually, but I remembered something my teacher had taught me, the lesson that was the most crucial to all my techniques. My philosophy. My way of the ninja. It was simple, really. Everyone else tried to make it so complicated, but it all came down to this idea: kill the other guy. Don't mess around with ninja bullshit, just cut off his air supply, make him bleed in the right place, fast, before he knows what's coming, and you're done. Beat him to a bloody pulp before he knows what hit him. Try a kunai at the throat. Too many people get distracted by style. The point is the kill. Why spend half your life dancing around when you can shred the bastard with a quick whirlwind of chakra? The weakness of so many shinobi is that they forgot the importance of the kill.
Of course, the one with the round glasses didn't seem to have that problem.
Another second passed. He thinks you're weak; he's right, but never mind. Use what he thinks. That's what the lazy kid would do. He would plot it out to play on his opponent's expectations. That's why they made him a chuunin so soon, that's why he was a jounin now, that's why he was leading this mission, even if he was a lousy ninja on the surface.
Keep pretending you're about to die. It amuses him. That'll buy you time.
This genjutsu – anything was worth a try at this point. I had only made it work once before. Such a simple illusion, so hard to pull off – the trick was to distract, to make the opponent think you were trying a different technique. Think three steps ahead. Get into his twisted head and imagine what he will be thinking. Try. If it's the last thing you do, try. For Naruto. For Gaara.
He casually rose to his feet and brushed himself off. This had turned out to be a nice little exercise for him, not too strenuous, fairly amusing. The girl had nice legs (not that she could use them anymore). Too bad he'd probably have to kill her. He'd never built much of an interest in female bodies, but she wasn't a bad one to start with. He could leave her alive. He didn't have bloodlust; his desires were more clinical. If she continued to get in the way, he would kill her. If not, he might let her live. After all, one more shinobi against Akatsuki wouldn't hurt Orochimaru's cause.
He paused on his feet. She should be close to immobile right now, but just in case, he waited and listened. She was breathing hard behind that tree. He laughed under his breath. He wondered what the expression on her face would be like if he approached her. Would it be the fear of death? Would she beg? He was curious. He had time. He could tell that the only ninjas near were her, Naruto, and himself.
In a few quick jumps he landed twenty feet in front of her. She was panting, sweating, legs sprawled out uselessly, clutching her bleeding arm, eyeing him with no expression, eyes half-lidded. He walked toward her slowly. "You're not really worth the trouble, are you?" he said. "Did you really think you could do any damage to me?"
She was still trying to move. Her movements were clumsy and slow; she obviously wasn't much of a ninja. Her only trick had been that fan; without it she was practically useless. And she was all they left to protect the boy? What were they coming to?
He watched with amusement as she snapped into action and threw a few kunai, trying to catch him off guard. He'd been able to see what was coming quite easily, whipped out his own and knocked hers aside without even missing a step. The nearer he got to her, the more clearly he could see the desperation in her eyes. Two more kunai. This was really quite funny. What was she doing now? Those hurried movements. Was this… genjutsu? This had to be the most pathetic genjutsu he'd ever seen. He laughed. "You think you're going to fool me with an elementary move like that? You really are desperate." The forest blurred slightly; he kept walking casually forward, not even bothering to dissipate such a laughable illusion. Two more kunai came at him. He was only ten feet away now. She was nearly out of strength. What should he do with her? Kill her? Knock her out? She was almost unconscious already. She was quivering. Look, she's trying to throw another kunai, how amusing…
Three seconds after that thought, he fell down dead, the kunai lodged firmly in his forehead, just above the bridge of his glasses.
She cut the whole quivering act, looked down at him, and laughed softly. "Idiot…"
Genjutsu – she'd tried a few times, never really gotten the hang of them. She wasn't motivated for it. It was too indirect a technique for her tastes. But this one had been so very practical. Weak genjutsu only distort appearances just enough so that the differences are barely noticeable. If you took a weak genjutsu like this one and made it look like you were trying to do a different kind of illusion, as she had, chances are your opponent wouldn't even notice what you were really aiming for.
Such a simple little trick: the chakra interfered with the senses in such a way not as to mask reality, but to delay the opponent's awareness of reality by a fraction of a second. His senses would still tell him the kunai was there, coming at him, but the readings would be slightly off – it was like trying to spear a fish in the water; it was that kind of bending of light and sound within the mind. It only worked for tiny increments, fractions of a second. If it took longer than that to kill him, it would be too late; genjutsu were easily readable, after all, unless the user was extremely skilled. But when it came to a ninja and a flying kunai, one thrown with one's last strength to achieve the maximum momentum, a fraction of a second was the difference between swatting it aside easily and missing it completely. A key difference, as it happened.
I slumped against the tree and breathed, not really believing he was dead, but I was at the end of my strength. The whimpering-girl act was a tough one for me to pull off. Blackness was starting to cloud in around my eyes. I was still going to die. At least they wouldn't be getting Naruto this time. At least he had that much more of a chance. Naruto needed to live because Gaara couldn't go back to the way he was, that was no life for anyone, and I had failed him time and time again – my thoughts were blending into one another, becoming muddled – now I would fail for the last time, now he would be free of me, maybe it was better this way, Kankurou was always the stronger one anyway…
My eyes were almost closed. It would be so easy to go to sleep. Maybe the pain in my legs would stop.
But. But. But.
But if I died, that damn crybaby would blame himself, of course, since this was his mission…
I heaved a breath and opened my eyes a little wider, almost aggravated. I don't know why, but I just wouldn't stand for that. It's pathetic when a man cries. Although I couldn't pinpoint why this man in particular bothered me so much, I was going to stay alive no matter what, because I couldn't stand the thought of him crying over me.
I was blearily aware when other people approached. The mission was accomplished; they were merely picking up the pieces. I noted that I could hear Naruto's voice again. They were shapes and colors now in my foggy vision. Someone was making a fuss over me. I dully realized that my opponent's dead body was still nearby. I thought of the way the kunai was sticking out of his forehead and tried to laugh. They thought I was coughing. It seemed like five different people were telling me not to move. The pink-haired one was leaning over me and trying something – I could feel the pain to recede a little in one of my legs. I knew I liked her. I had liked that one ever since she'd cured Kankurou.
And lo and behold, there was pineapple-head himself, looking mildly concerned. Of course, coming from him, looking mildly concerned equated to a hissy fit from someone normal. "You beat him," he said.
I opened my mouth. He leaned closer. "I don't see why," I said, breathed, and continued, "everyone seems to be so surprised by that."
Arrogance runs in the family.
He didn't have a smart rejoinder. This in itself was disconcerting. He shrugged. "You beat him," he repeated.
Like it was a game of shougi or something. "No," I explained. "I just killed him first."
He smiled at me. I remember feeling good about that.
Things got dimmer in my eyes, but I let them fade. I was in good hands now and the mission was done.
Author's Note. This probably makes no sense. But it has served its purpose. I have now put off writing my paper for yet another evening. Hurrah.