Chapter Two: Demons of Mist and Leaf
"Itachi-san, a word if you will?"
The captain of ANBU squad 15 paused in the middle of the hallway and turned to see Councilman Danzou striding towards him. The elderly former ninja had a chuunin-level ANBU keeping pace behind him, possibly to add some sort of psychological intimidation factor in his approach.
"Walk with me Itachi-san. We have much to discuss."
The odd trio walked the halls in silence, heading in the direction of Danzou's office. Every few moments the old man's assistant (for that was how Itachi thought of him) handed over a scroll which was perused with barely any interest before being returned with a barked command. It was interesting to note how the old man dealt with paperwork even on the run, but right now this was not to be Uchiha Itachi's most pressing concern.
"Have you given any thought to enrolling Uzumaki-kun in the accelerated program yet?"
"My answer is the same."
"Oh come now Itachi," Danzou countered, dispensing with the honorifics in an attempt to be more familiar. "Surely you see the boy's potential wasting away on these kinds of missions. A ninja like that should be groomed so as to make him the best he will ever be."
"His performance is good enough," Itachi said, not even bothering to rise to the bait. The bastards from ROOT had wanted to get their grubby paws on his subordinate for years, so this kind of proposition would only be one in half a dozen average he would endure throughout the week. It was a small bit of routine. Annoying, yes, but something one gets used to quickly.
"Are you really satisfied with good enough?"
Danzou smiled, not even expecting the young heir to budge. It was a minor point, but it never hurt to try. "Very well then," he said, switching gears. "Step inside my office for a moment and we'll discuss why I even approached you today."
A scroll was shoved into Itachi's hands. "This is a description of troop movements from nearby Suna," the chuunin said. "They seem to be moving in small squads to our borders. A troop of jounin here, a squad of chuunin there. All seemingly to project the illusion of scattered long term missions." The admin chuunin pointed out these places on a map illustrated in the same scroll, one after the other.
"Now, mind you, there's precedent for that kind of behavior in any major ninja village to earn its income," Danzou pointed out. "But for the forces to be concentrated mainly on select areas of River Country and Tea Country? And at the rate the teams are moving? I think not."
"We have reason to believe a small, close knit clan of ninja called the Fuuma are also aiding them," the nondescript chuunin said. "It may be an unimportant detail as of now but informants stress the importance of their having access to a superior steel mine all the way in Rice Field Country, and thus this also makes them a threat."
"Now you may be wondering what this has to do with Konoha as a whole," Danzou said, gesturing emphatically with one hand. "I would too. While it might be paranoia to believe Suna is currently massing its forces along key points along our borders, the involvement of a very specific person who was a key individual behind several incidents in Konoha history may prove that it's not."
"Who is it then?"
"The third member of the Densetsu no Sannin," the chuunin explained. "A man named Orochimaru."
Itachi kept his face impassive, which earned him a few more points in Danzou's eyes. "Why has this report not been given to the Hokage then?" the Uchiha asked, his eyes watching his counterpart's single one very carefully.
Danzou's face was completely unreadable.
"Think carefully, Uchiha," the old man said. "The Hokage is the man's sensei. He has no reason to believe the traitor's even still alive after all these years, let alone give any attention to reports he's leading what may be a massive strike force against Konoha. We cannot risk him being soft on Orochimaru like he did the last time."
"With all due respect sir," Itachi vocalized, keeping his voice level. "What is it you actually want me to do?"
"I need your squad to lead some information gathering missions on the troop movement," Danzou explained. "Possibly leave one or two teams in the village to see if they have any Sleepers planted and root them out as soon as possible."
"With the chuunin exams coming up that doesn't leave us with a whole lot of security in the premises," Itachi said. "That means work for the reserve squads."
"The reserve squads are trained for this kind of possibility, you know that," came Danzou's counter
Itachi leaned back, looking as relaxed as an Uchiha could possibly be. Three active squads in ANBU Special Tactics, squad 15, 14 and 13, the 13th being the alumni from the recently disbanded ROOT program. It also didn't help that ROOT had a lot of graduates in the reserves as well.
So what is your game, old man?
"I have a better solution," Itachi said, speaking after a minute long silence. "Send ANBU Reconnaissance Squads 16 and 17. They already have resources in both River and Rice Field. Squad 15 will send an hunter team over to Tea Country to evaluate possible risks there. It would be unlikely that Suna would move troops over water if that were their intention, as it's all too easy to trace which merchant ships," he continued, referring to an obscure trade agreement made with Konoha some years before.
Well played Itachi-kun. Well played indeed. Subtle but with a calculated amount of arrogance. Recon squads were designated hunter teams with diplomatic immunity on the pretext that they need to capture rogue ninja from Konoha that have not yet been given political asylum in neighboring villages. A single squad of those usually needs no more backup, but to send two and leave most of the forces loyal to the Hokage within their borders…
"Shall I draw up the paperwork for the Hokage to sign?"
"Yes, please do that Itachi-san. I do apologize for the trouble I caused you on my behalf."
"No trouble at all sir," the younger man drawled, excusing himself to leave.
Itachi waited a full twenty minutes upon reaching his office before he called for his lieutentant. "Send for Uzuki-san in the 22nd squad," he said. "Make sure she keeps her team on high alert during the days before the chuunin exams themselves and right after."
"Tell her to make sure to keep an eye on the ROOT alumni as well. They're up to something and time will tell exactly what."
A flicker of leaves was the only telltale of the lieutenant's departure.
The forest surrounding Tazuna's residence was dotted with identical-looking blondes. Naruto suggested that he remain behind during the day Zabuza was estimated to have recovered enough to make a second strike, Team 7 remaining at the bridge with the client himself, and Uzumaki Naruto bringing up the rear as support.
There were at least forty clones created that morning, half of them the chakra-draining kage bunshin, half being elemental clones. The blond's self-created army covered an area of nearly two square kilometers, covering all the routes that samurai might use or the trees where the ninja might want to roost. Once a hostile was identified, the kage bunshin would dispel itself and pass on knowledge to the rest of the non-elemental clones, including the original.
It was almost a chakra powered version of radar that Naruto had learned to use during solo missions, and the resulting support from his selves meant that he didn't really need a lot of backup. He still had the sense to tail Kakashi-san's troop with a shadow clone though, just to keep him informed. Which left him all but unattended and seeing to a modest (but very filling) breakfast care of Tazuna's daughter.
And her annoying little brat.
"You can't win you know," Inari glared at him balefully, watching the older boy try to eat without taking off his half mask. "Gatou will kill your friends and you too if you try to do anything."
"Such a delightful little boy you are!" Naruto said, his smiling eyes betraying the fact that he's actually gritting his teeth underneath his mask. This was precisely why he hated kids. They're annoying and you get in so much trouble if you slap them around a bit. He reached his hand to ruffle the boy's hair, and possibly use a small burst of chakra to compel the boy to walk away and leave him the hell alone.
The brat swatted his hand away. "This is all useless," Inari continued, intensifying his glare. "You'll all die and nothing will have changed!"
Fine, Naruto thought to himself as he frowned. Be that way.
"So what's it to you then if I live or die?" the feral-eyed blond began conversationally. "I'm sure you don't even want me here. So why bother try discouraging me?"
"Because I don't like people like you!" Inari practically shouted. "You people make the most impossible promises, saying you'd fight to protect but you never keep them!"
Naruto said nothing, only focusing his crimson gaze upon the boy as he continued to rant. "You should just admit your own weaknesses and back out when you can and not let people get their hopes up like you do! I hate you and all your kind, you bastard!" Inari yelled, leaving the kitchen area in a huff.
Oh. One of those, Naruto sighed to himself, reaching for a mug of tea placed before him. War orphans were almost always the biggest head cases there were. Second to people in ANBU anyway, though one might argue that a war orphan in ANBU would be an even bigger head case. He shook his head to clear it off random thoughts and was about to take a sip of some tea when Tsunami's presence registered in the periphery of his vision.
"I'm sorry," the young mother apologized. "He's been like that since his father died."
"Figured as much," countered the blond. "Let me guess, his father was one of the few who chose to oppose that fat gangster in the beginning huh?"
"Why yes. How did you—"
"I have a very encyclopedic knowledge of what its like to be a war orphan, Tsunami-san," Naruto cut in. "Their lives are never as pleasant, and most of them grow up to be head cases like your adorable little boy or vengeance-lusting avengers of the worst sort. Nothing'll ever be simple for the kid until he grows a spine."
Flinching slightly at the blond's harsh words, Tsunami held her tongue when he started reaching for the hilt of his sword. "Stay here with the kid ma'am," the blond said, drawing his weapon. "I don't think our visitors are here for tea and crumpets."
Outside, a quartet of samurai mercenaries walk from their hiding place in the shadows.
"What is this then Kakashi?" Zabuza taunted. "The final confrontation?"
The son of the White Fang gimaced under his half mask. He couldn't leave his opponent alone for a second and not risk him going after Sakura and the old man. Sasuke with his premature Sharingan isn't going to last much longer with that Hyouton user's barrage of senbon needles, with his meager chakra reserves.
He needed to finish this and finish this now.
Kakashi kept his gaze on his opponent but kept an open ear to the masked blond directly behind him. "Shinobi-san," he grimaced. "Weren't you supposed to guard Tazuna's family today?"
"I am sir," came the response. "Kage Bunshin number 25 reporting for duty sir!"
A shadow clone, Kakashi realized immediately the implications of that sort of fact. "25," he barked. "Dispel yourself and have Shinobi-san absorb your memories. We need reinforcements and we need them now!"
"Affirmative sir!" came the reply, a salute snapping up crisply. "Dispelling now."
"Reinforcements will be here in twenty minutes!" Kakashi yelled to his team. "Hold your positions until the end of that time limit. We're about to even the odds in our favor."
"Hai, sensei!" Sakura replied, tightening her grip on her kunai and taking a more protective stance over the bridge builder. Sasuke, who was trapped in a circle of hovering mirrors, only grunted in response.
"It appears you have friends who have come to aid you," the fake Hunter Ninja said from inside one of the numerous mirrors. "Unfortunately I cannot allow any more people to aid the fight against Zabuza-sama. You must therefore die, little Uchiha."
Sasuke's mismatched Sharingan widened as a thousand razor-sharp needles began raining from the mirrors. He drew a second kunai from his pouch and started swinging, deflecting what he could and making sure the remaining ones only hit non-vital areas. After the fifth barrage, his arms could barely move.
After the sixth, he dropped to a single knee.
The seventh approached in the slow motion perspective of his bloodline-enhanced eyes, and as they were about to hit…
He found a solid wall of water collapsing around him.
"Sasuke-san, are you all right?"
He opened his eyes and was almost startled enough to deactivate his bloodline. A group of five clones surrounded him, all of them holding identical weapons, a straight edge chokuto. The clone in front of him had the same feral red eyes as the reinforcement ninja from Konoha.
"I think so," the boy managed. "How did you get here so quickly?"
"Shinobi-taicho sent out whole patrols of elemental and shadow clones to tail Kakashi-taicho's squad," came the explanation. "There are approximately fifty eight clones remaining, after the three that expired when they took the senbon meant for you."
Sasuke turned to see his kunoichi teammate being surrounded by another troop of identical ninja, one of them conversing with her casually while the other six held their weapons out protectively. He himself was surrounded by eight, elemental clones interspersed with shadow ones as near as his underdeveloped bloodline could tell. The one crouching down assisted him in getting up, wincing as he felt the senbon needles shift with the unexpected movement. Then, an odd thought crossed his mind.
"Why aren't there any clones guarding Kakashi-sensei?"
"He can take care of himself, Sasuke-san."
And he apparently could, parrying the monstrous zanbatou with only a kunai, lashing out with any strikes he could manage once his opponent was within range. The legend was sneered upon by members of his clan, the Copy Ninja was called the bloodline thief. But he never really began to appreciate the power behind Konoha's elite jounin before this moment.
Was this the power of a jounin?
Was this niisan's power?
Sasuke flinched as he heard a clang of metal close to his head, a chokuto-wielding clone had flicked off a surprise attack from one of the mirrors. The other clones surrounded him protectively, taking up defensive stances with their edged weapon.
The clones surrounding Sakura also started dropping into similarly defensive stances, with the intent to kill anyone and anything that came within their attack radius. Tazuna could only look on in shock at the number of hostile chakra constructs protecting all three of them.
"Sasuke-san," the clone said to break the silence. "We will need to extract you from this location with a shunshin. Clone squads 3 and 4 will be waiting near the trees to help you flee from this location should you choose. You've exhausted your chakra and will only be 25% combat effective. Please allow us to extract you."
There was a similar conversation with the clones and Sakura. The girl apparently agreed wholeheartedly, and a flicker of leaves marked her and the client's departure.
Sasuke glared at the clone who had a strange look of concern in his eyes. "We don't have much time sir," the clone said. "The fake hunter already proved he was fast enough to dispose of three elemental clones, and while those were only a tenth the speed of the original, it would be more worrisome to realize there are only three remaining shadow clones in this specific unit. None of us would be fast enough to deflect the strikes should us three be dispelled."
The young Uchiha shook his head. "No," he said. "A clone will make him dispel his mirrors and chase after us. It won't help Sakura and the old man if we ran from here and they get chased instead. We need to be here where he has a target so he won't leave."
"Affirmative," the clone said, tilting his head. "But what do we do about—"
A flying needle cut of the clone's words, dispelling it and two others in a shower of smoke and water. "It's not polite to ignore an opponent during battle," came the voice of the masked ninja from inside one of the mirrors. "Do you really think these clones can protect you? Four clones against two dozen mirrors, each one of them capable of firing a needle through the air and into a single clone. It's a simple matter to pick off your bodyguards one at a time, Uchiha."
Sasuke grimaced as he stood, gripping a chipped kunai in his barely functioning left hand. "We can't run," he said. "We have to hold him in place until that nameless bastard gets here."
The remaining clones understood. "Affirmative, Sasuke-san," one of them said. "Estimated arrival time of Shinobi-taicho is 14 minutes 22 seconds. We only need to hold out until then."
The group of four gripped their weapons and watched the mirrors for the oncoming assault.
Naruto blinked as a dispelled clone's memories flooded into his mind. Four samurai intent on taking Tsunami or Inari as a hostage were lying on the ground, in varying states of dismemberment. The blond swung his sword, shaking of the blood and gore in one move, leaving the edge of his weapon pristine again.
"Tsunami-san," he called to the residents of the house. "I'm needed by Kakashi-san. If you have any neighbors nearby, please go and hide out at another house. I will be sending a clone to watch over you as well."
The young mother peaked from behind the locked door and paled. The blond was covered in blood, his slitted red eyes peeking out from under a layer of gore. "Y-yes," she finally managed, running inside to grab her boy and leave by the back door. No one so young should witness the scene in the front yard.
Even if a boy barely older than Inari-chan himself caused it.
The second dispelling clone's memories caught Naruto by surprise. The ANBU special operative wasted no time, breaking into a full sprint as he ran into the trees. Sasuke remained behind to hold down a fake hunter nin it seemed, Sakura was already extracted from the location, as was the client. Forming a quick seal, he created one other shadow clone who kept pace with him, told him of a change of plans and said to lead Tazuna and the girl to one of the other houses close by.
Dispelling the clone, he drew his sword and leapt through the branches, pushing his chakra through his legs hard enough to cause the branches he leapt on to explode as he made contact, propelling him even faster.
A fake Kiri hunter huh? He said to himself absently. Seems like it'll be interesting enough. With those words he patted down a seal sown into the lining of his coat, something he'd earned when he graduated the special ANBU course.
A quick slice across his right thumb with his blade drew blood, which was then used to unseal the item: a porcelain mask depicting a grinning fox.
A/N: Sorry about the late updates. I lost the chapters when I was walking through the Road of Life.
Seriously people, I was just caught up with work and didn't have a lot of time to review the betas. Tech support and graveyard shifts and the difficulty of sleeping in the daytime does that to a person. Oddly enough there are five finished chapters already, I just never got the time to bother with making the changes the betas made.
Yes, you read that right. There are betas for this story now! Many thanks to charmcharm and khellanrafe who proofread the chapter. I think both of them still have beta'd chapters in my hands that need to be applied to the next update but I may have time to post that tomorrow.
Thank you for your patience!