Disclaimer – Don't own Naruto. Don't own his world. All I own is hangin' on my back.
Chapter 7 – Across the Board
"Takeru-sama, please tell us exactly what happened," Asuma says in his best soothing voice, trying to relax the distressed father enough to comprehend his frantic words. The man had started babbling as soon as Gai had asked his first question. While the client takes a deep calming breath, it's the thin man in the scarlet dress to answer.
"They came here when we were outside for business," he says gesturing with his hands, large sleeves flapping around wildly. "If the guards had actually guarded Heiki-sama instead of doing who knows what, then this would have never happened!"
"Kugara," the security head says through gritted teeth, as the bodyguards all around grumble under their breath. "Don't you dare blaming my men. If you hadn't insisted so much on going to that meeting, every one of my guards would have been here to protect both Takeru-sama and the girl. If you weren't so greedy-"
"It was an important business contract, you ignorant brute!" the thin man, apparently Kugara, shouts reddening to purple. "If your good-for-nothing bodyguards weren't this inept, Yoroi, then-"
This single word, calmly spoken, stops the blame-game immediately, as part of what truly makes Maito Gai the Green Beast of Konoha surfaces in his voice. Silence falls for two good seconds, while Kugara squirms slightly under the cold eyes of the taijutsu master. When Gai turns towards Shintei Takeru, his expression is once again a reassuring one. "How many bandits attacked and where did they escape to?"
The little man shakes his head as if confused. "I don't know. Maybe fifteen or twenty. The few men stationed here couldn't tell," he says quietly. "It all happened very fast, less than an hour ago, but they were already far away by the time we came back here. We sent part of the guards to chase them, but they already were so much ahead..."
I frown a little as Heiki's father takes his head in his hands.
"Where to?" Gai repeats gently.
The client points towards the back of the manor. "They ran into the forest behind the house," he says weakly. "It's where Gaou lives."
"Gaou?" The question escapes my lips softly, but Takeru answers it anyway.
"Yes, he's the one who wants to stop me from signing that contract. He kidnapped my daughter." His voice cracks at the end as his eyes glisten. "Please, you have to save her from him. They say... they say he does things to little girls..."
Ino and Tenten shudder visibly at that, while the expression on Gai and strangely enough Shikamaru's face turns to murderous.
"Have there been other attempts since the failed one two days ago?" the Green Beast of Konoha asks.
"No," Takeru says wiping his eyes. "It was all quiet ever since what happened that morning..."
My interest is piqued by the strange tone of his words and the shudder that accompanies it. Gai doesn't miss a beat, of course. "What happened exactly?"
The little man shifts uncomfortably on his spot. "Well, Heiki was attacked on her carriage and..." He hesitates. "And the few bodyguards with her protected her with their lives."
"What else?" Gai presses on.
"Uhm... t-they killed..." he stammers before pausing and taking a deep breath."They killed many bandits during the fight. I mean, a lot." He coughs nervously as his eyes shift around as if searching for help.
"And?" Gai says impatiently. "Come on, Takeru-sama, the life of your daughter could depend on this."
Heiki's father stiffens visibly at that before finally meeting the Jounin's eyes.
"And they weren't just killed," he says very quietly. "They were torn to shreds. Mauled."
An eerie silence falls inside the circle of bodyguards as the words sink in. I can't say I'm surprised, but I admit I had hoped the situation wasn't so critical already.
"It probably was a group of vultures," the large security head, Yoroi, says trying to hide his nervousness. "It's not a big deal."
"Vultures?" Kugara repeats scornfully, fear in his shifty eyes. "Vultures only leave the carcasses of the bodies, eating the rest. And so do the mammal predators. But near that carriage..." He shudders in sync with Takeru without ending the sentence.
"And how did the girl - Heiki, right? - manage to escape?" Gai asks starting the conversation again.
"We don't know," Takeru says with shining eyes.
"She was in shock when my men and I found her outside the gates," Yoroi says. "And she didn't want to talk about it afterwards. She had even been hurt at the shoulder, but wouldn't tell us how."
I try to contain my resigned sigh as Asuma and Gai exchange a significant look.
"How many bodyguards did you send after the bandits?" the bearded Jounin asks lighting up another cigarette.
"Thirty of my best men are out there with the orders to not come back without the girl before midnight," the large bodyguard answers at once. "And though I didn't totally agree with the decision of sending this many for this kind of task," he adds tossing a sharp look to Kugara, "I'm not sure they'll be able to rescue the girl anyway."
Gai looks intently at him for a moment before nodding his head shortly. "We'll bring her back." He immediately turns on his heel and gestures for us to follow him. The sea of bodyguards parts in front of him and lets us pass to a more isolated place.
"Something's not quite right here," Asuma eventually says taking a long drag from his cigarette. Gai, Shikamaru, Neji and I all nod our heads in agreement at that.
"What?" Tenten asks grimly shifting her eyes to every one of us.
The bearded ninja blows out some smoke before speaking up again. "Don't know for sure. It seems like a setup, though."
"A setup?" Lee asks blinking confused.
"Yes," Gai agrees. "Whether for us or for the client I'm not sure, but maybe we're just too paranoid."
"Yeah," I scoff lightly. "It's not like this Kugara instills much reassurance. He has 'bad guy' written all over his villainous face."
I'm pleased even Neji snorted at my joke, but I understand it's not the time for it.
"Okay," Gai says cracking his knuckles. "The mission changed slightly due to the circumstances. We will split up. One team will go rescue the girl and the other one will stay here to see what exactly is going on. Now... who stays and who goes?"
Asuma shrugs. "With Naruto's Kage Bunshins, we could cover the whole area very quickly, and Shikamaru's clan techniques would almost assure that nothing bad happens to the little girl once we find her and the kidnappers."
"There's that," Gai agrees rubbing his chin. "But with our superior endurance and speed, not to mention Neji's Byakugan, we would probably find the girl more easily."
We exchange some thoughtful looks before Neji puts his two cents in.
"Team 10 should stay," he says looking impassively at his Sensei. "We need to move fast if we want to save the girl and they already slowed us down too much during the trip. With my eyes, it will be easier to spot the bandits and distinguish them from the client's bodyguards." His gaze shifts to us at this point. "Besides, I don't want to fail this mission because of your incapacity in battle, and considering we're not sure there will be a fight here, then you should stay."
Ino starts growling dangerously at that, but it's Shikamaru, of all people, to speak up.
"You can go run wherever you want and save whoever you like for all I care," the young Nara says pointing a pair of lazy eyes at the Hyuuga. "But I want to tell you something first," he adds as his eyes and jaw harden. "Stop being an asshole."
I refrain from snorting as Lee gasps next to me and Tenten holds her breath. Meanwhile, Neji's expression mirrors Shikamaru's. "Only if you stop pretending to be real ninjas."
"Hey you little-" Ino starts, being appropriately riled up, but Asuma blocks her.
"Relax, Ino," the Hokage's son says putting a hand on her shoulder. "There's no need for that. Besides, what Neji said is as close to the truth as you can get from him. And remember that we're the supporting team here." He hesitates before adding. "You too, Shikamaru."
"As I said," the young Nara comments not completely honestly and looking bored again, "I couldn't care less about that."
Ino grumbles some more before eventually settling for glaring at the Hyuuga as Asuma chuckles lightly, looking at Gai.
"I had forgotten how Genins usually interact with each other," he says amused. "It reminded me of a certain Green Beast and a Copycat of a long time ago."
The spandex-clad Jounin smiles nostalgically for a moment at the thought, but sobers up soon.
"I would be delighted to tell you all about my youthful rivalry with the cool Hatake Kakashi, but the life of a little girl is in danger," he says in a grim tone. "Does anyone want to object to what Neji said with his harsh and yet truthful words?"
I notice how some of my fellow Genins are darting their eyes in my direction, while my Sensei does nothing to conceal his curiosity as he stares expectantly at me.
I think it over for a long minute before answering. The decision is not as simple as they think. What Gai said is true. Shintei Heiki is in danger. But the thing the Jounin doesn't know is another.
Shintei Heiki is a danger.
Not in herself, of course; the girl is as cute and harmless as a wet chick. It's just that the seal keeping the Demon Sparrow-Hawk sedated inside her is falling. It's always like that - the only thing to change being when - but it happens every single time. All it needs is for the girl to be distressed. Not 'dad doesn't want to buy me ice-cream!' distressed. More like 'I'm gonna die!' distressed. And I think the example applies perfectly here. The simple fact that these bandits were able to kidnap her today is surprising. She must have passed out somehow, because I doubt there would have been anyone alive here otherwise. The five-tails would have destroyed everything and everyone. That would also explain why I can't sense at the moment the simply huge chakra entity that the bijuu is.
So apparently the girl was unconscious when kidnapped and is currently as well. The seal is still up and functioning too, though I don't know how long that will last. When the deteriorating process of the seal starts, it is just a matter of time before the bijuu surfaces. He doesn't get free, fortunately. He just merges with the girl, completely taking control of her body and mind. That doesn't make him much less dangerous though.
I glance at Team Gai and can only shake my head slightly. They're not ready for it. Hell, I could be not ready for it! Well, not really, but it would be hard for sure.
Anyway, there are many things to take into consideration. Heiki's seal is gonna crumble soon and, although it would probably mean explaining lots of things to Asuma now and the Sandaime once back in Konoha, I'm the only person able to stop that. I could simply reapply it later, or even a better version of it, but there's the pesky problem of keeping the Sparrow-Hawk still and quiet while I do that. Of course, there's the possibility that the seal will last long enough for Team Gai to rescue the girl and bring her back here for me to tamper a little with her body and make it safe for us all without anyone being none the wiser... It seems it was just yesterday that it started to fall, after all. We could still have time...
Bah! Who am I kidding? This is all bullshit! I know what I have to ask myself right now and that has nothing to do with possibilities and time. 'How much do I value my teammates' lives?' That's the real question. Are they more important than keeping- no, than risking my secret?
Yes, they are.
"Naruto?" Asuma asks me with his brow furrowed. "Do you want to say something instead of just sighing, shaking your head and frowning?"
I snort at him as I feel everyone's eyes on me. Refraining from shaking my head and sighing again, I finally speak up.
"Yes, I have something to say," I start seriously. Maybe if things had gone differently and we had arrived here earlier, before the kidnapping, then I could have acted more carefully, plan things ahead without jeopardizing my secret. But that wasn't to be, apparently. I just hope I won't regret this decision later. "I-"
At this point I have to stop, shocked at first, incredulous then, and amused finally. And this time, I really can't help myself from shaking my head.
"I can't believe it," I snort, a large grin appearing on my face. "Are you trying the Puppy-Dog Eyes no Jutsu on me?"
Everyone turns immediately towards Lee, finding him with huge, pleading eyes, bright with unshed tears.
"No?" he half-asks cautiously, blinking the expression away. "But... was it working?"
I chuckle lightly at that.
"No, seriously, Naruto-kun," he says quietly. "I..." he hesitates as his gaze lowers to the ground. When the boy looks up at me again, there's a determined light in his eyes. "This is our mission," he says quietly, and hearing the tone in his voice, my fellow teammates of Team 10 can finally understand what Gai means when he babbles about 'the Will of Fire'. "I know I shouldn't treat it like it - we're talking about saving a life after all, and that should be all that matters - but... I can't help it." He clenches his hands tightly, balling them into fists. "I want to test my skills with my first B-rank mission."
There's a moment of silence during which the others all seem to look in awe at his impressive show of resolution, until the spandex-clad boy ruins it all by assuming his infamous nice-guy pose.
"Besides, I want to battle and defeat Ryuugi's Law!" He laughs amused after a moment, his thumb still up. "Right, Naruto-kun?"
I give him a small smile as Tenten nods her head almost approvingly at the boy.
I was completely wrong, and it took someone like Rock Lee to make me realize that. The question to ask myself shouldn't have been 'How much do I value my teammates' lives'. Not at all. The real question is...
How much do I respect them?
Because that's what they - and everyone else for that matter - wants. Not that I save their lives, no.
That I respect them.
It's a sad smile playing on my lips as I look at them – Lee, Tenten and Neji - so young and yet so determined to jump into a dangerous situation.
'We're ninjas,' their eyes say. 'Don't underestimate us.'
Okay, Lee-kun. I won't.
"Alright, I agree," I say shrugging. "We'll stay here."
The boy just nods his head deeply at me, while Shikamaru frowns slightly.
"As usual," Neji says in a cold voice, "you just made us waste precious time."
I grin amusedly at him and that seems to irk him slightly, judging by the crease forming between his pale eyes.
"Time is always precious," I say wisely, though that doesn't really apply to me. I sigh slightly, turning serious again. "Anyway, I have a bad feeling about this," I say grimly. "Be careful."
I catch Gai's eyes trying to convey my worries without any more words, and from his part, the Green Beast of Konoha just tilts his head to the side before nodding briefly at me.
Half an hour has already passed since Team Gai left the Shintei Manor to chase down the bandits, and now I'm even more certain that something fishy is going on here. I can't believe that Kugara is Takeru's business adviser. Someone with such awful acting skills surely can't be able to tell when a good liar is trying to swindle him... Anyway, the man is definitely hiding something and it isn't so big of a stretch to think he has a part in what is happening. His repeated looks at the clock and at the ashes beyond the iron fence are two telltale signs that he's impatiently expecting something.
I already caught Shikamaru's eyes long ago, right after I had caught Asuma's, and they all said the same thing: 'look out for any trouble.' Of the team, Ino seems the only one not suspecting anything, and that's what's bothering me at the moment. The little confrontation with Neji left her quite annoyed, and the delicacy of the mission is playing on her nerves. Add to that the empathy she feels for the distressed father crying in the yard, and you have a really worked up walking bomb in a young girl's body.
Only, instead of walking, Ino is pacing.
"Would you please stay still for a moment, Ino?" I say sitting down on the grass. "Come here."
She complies eventually, visibly restraining herself from snapping at me. She huffs irritated as she crosses her legs underneath her.
"Relax," I tell her. "Team Gai will find the girl and it'll all work out in the end."
"I know," she growls dangerously. "It's... it's all this tension," she admits frustrated. "It's almost like something is about to happen any time, but it never does! It's driving me crazy!"
I can't help but chuckle at her, despite the sharp look she tosses me. "Sorry, sorry," I apologize quickly, gesturing placatingly with my hands. "And don't worry too much about it. You'll get used to it. This kind of missions will become a routine eventually, though the thrill won't ever disappear completely." I shrug with a small smile. "You'll just learn to live with it."
I realize my mistake a second too late as I see Ino's glare bore into me for a brief second.
"Please Naruto," she grits through her teeth, closing her eyes in irritation. "Don't start it now. I'm not in the mood for it."
I just sigh quietly before standing up. This is an old argument between us Genins of Team 10, but I can clearly remember it from other past lives of mine. Every one of my teammates finds out there's something strange about me, eventually, and while not many of them confront me about it, some don't really seem to be able to accept my repeated refusal to answer. And I'm not talking about my furry prisoner here. That's not something I hide so jealously, really, simply because I know it rarely changes my relationship with teammates and friends if revealed in the right way, at the right time. But my real secret… that's just too big to not affect everything – and I really mean everything – about me.
Ino and partially Shikamaru are definitely curious people by nature, but if it was just curiosity to drive them, then it wouldn't matter much, I could handle it easily. The problem is they think I don't trust them.
And they're right.
Call me a bastard, call me weak, call me whatever you want. I have no problem with saying I'm afraid to reveal my dirtiest secret to them because they are who they are.
That is to say human beings.
Well, there's a little clarification to make. They're sane human beings. My stomach still churns every time I think about that life I talked about my traveling back in time to Orochimaru. I've never repeated that mistake and don't plan to do it again anytime soon. Twisted little bastard…
Anyway, Ino and Shikamaru are sane human beings, and there's no way some sane human beings would shrug that secret off, ignore it and continue treating me normally. They could never accept what I am. No, that's not exactly right, because many people accepted me countless times in the past. Even during this life, Ino and Shikamaru have accepted what I am. But that's because I didn't tell them. Seeing the truth is not the same thing as hearing it. And the latter is often harder than the former.
It's a rather complicated matter, but it gave me so much trouble in the past that my mind is completely made up now. The fact is this: I don't pretend to be something I'm not. Not really. Every one of us has much more facets than they show, or even can show. I just act like myself with the people I consider my friends, without pretences of any sort. I'm just Uzumaki Naruto, nothing more, maybe a little less...
"Sorry, Ino," I say quietly, looking down at her face. My apology is really felt, and I think she knows that as she slowly opens her eyes and sighs softly. Our gazes meet for a moment and I can't help but smile sadly at the swirling of emotions I see in her blue orbs. Shikamaru's eyes are not so different either when I glance at them.
I manage to contain my tired sigh as I dust some invisible dirt from my orange trousers. I know there's a big wall between me and them, but if I revealed my secret now - especially now - that wall would soon become an overwhelming gap. I know that. I know that very well...
Asuma clears his throat seriously, effectively attracting everyone's attention. "What Naruto said was true, Ino," he says in his deep voice. "And you don't have to worry. I would have never proposed our team for this mission, if I didn't know you were able to face its risks."
A low murmur resonates from behind Ino, and though I couldn't make out the words, the young Yamanaka clearly could, seeing as her head immediately snaps in Kugara's direction.
"What was that?" she hisses sharply at the thin man.
Takeru's adviser sneers at her, not even bothering to mask his scorn. "I said 'It's foolish to send little children to do a man's job.'" He raises a disdainful eyebrow at us. "I just hope nothing bad will happen to you."
His derisive words have a smug tone in them that makes me shake my head in disbelief. I can't remember this Kugara from any one of the lives I spent here with Heiki, and I hope the memory from this one will disappear from my mind soon, should this crap of traveling back in time continue any longer. I mean... how can he be such an idiot? All he needs now is to stroke his moustache with his fingers and burst out in villain-like laughter.
Ino just growls at him dangerously, before glancing suspiciously at Asuma. The Jounin's nod is almost imperceptible, but it's enough for Ino to finally realize that something is probably about to happen soon.
Make that immediately.
Sure enough, as if on cue a startled yell suddenly rises from the crumbled portion of the wall surrounding the property, followed by the clashing sounds of blade against blade and by human screams of rage.
"Naruto!" Asuma shouts at once, while Ino jumps up from her seated position. "Protect the client!"
"Consider it done," I reply licking my lips excitedly and nodding to a small group of Kage Bunshins just appeared around the frightened figure of Shintei Takeru. A second later, a strong explosion resonates from the iron gates, leaving in its wake a blurring cloud of dust and enraged and alarmed bodyguards who start drawing their weapons and circling the fence.
"Defend the hole in the wall!" the Hokage's son shouts at us amidst the chaos all around. He gives us a meaningful and somewhat measuring look before nodding his head seriously, the cigarette still dangling from the corner of his mouth. "Fight well."
The Jounin is already sprinting towards the fence when our forceful "Yes!" leave our lips, and he immediately starts barking orders to the seemingly disorganized bodyguards standing around, before engaging a large bandit just popped out of the dust. Needless to say, the enemy is down in less than a second.
"So..." I start, turning to my tense but charged up teammates, "what do you say, Shikamaru? Do you think it's too soon to try that?"
He smirks at me, though a tad nervously. "I think this is the right occasion to experiment with it a little," he says. "Ino?"
The girl just nods her head grimly, breathing slightly heavily already. Her wide eyes continue to shift wildly from us to the battle near the walls, and I'm reminded again of how much young and inexperienced she - and Shikamaru as well for that matter - is. That said, looking into her eyes, I'm also reminded of the great kunoichi I've come to know in pretty much every past life of mine.
As Shikamaru decisively takes the lead towards the nearest group of men fighting against each other, I slip right to his left, while Ino stays behind. When a bandit stumbles away from his downed enemy and starts facing us clasping a short sword, I hit him quickly on his left temple with the round end of my kunai, sending him to the ground without giving him the possibility to strike. I smile guiltily at Shikamaru who is giving me an annoyed glare.
"If you wanted to attack on you own, then you shouldn't have proposed the Board."
"Sorry," I reply sheepishly.
"Now…" he huffs, noticing the next bandit in front of us, a slim man with sandy blond hair and a dagger as weapon. "Let's start it simple." The young Nara performs the seals for the Kage Mane no Jutsu as his shadow starts twirling unnaturally around his feet. "Lance."
I quickly move out of the way when the boy's shadow surges forward, soon meeting the bandit and freezing him into place. At that point, it's far too easy for me to knock out the wide-eyed man with an expert use of my kunai. His head has still to touch the ground when Shikamaru takes a step forward in order to position himself right between two small groups of both bandits and bodyguards, and scrunches his expression up in concentration.
This time around, the shadow shoots to both sides of Shikamaru as well as forward, and traps bandits and bodyguards alike like a large dark beam. After simply sidestepping the jutsu, I run rapidly to the left, drop three enemies and proceed to do the same on the other side, while Shikamaru's shadow slowly retreats back, freeing the startled bodyguards who can only stumble unsteadily and give us looks of disbelief.
I go back hovering around Shikamaru as the boy takes a deep breath before sprinting forward again, Ino in tow. We move past various groups of fighters, defeating some of them and ignoring others, under the orders of the young Nara. He is the one to make the calls, and we just have to follow his lead. That is how the Board works.
"Pawn! Silver!" Shikamaru shouts suddenly, rectifying his first order almost at once.
I had started my attack already, so I have to jump aside hurriedly to avoid being trapped as well. The large shadow rolls forward like a black wave of ink on a sheet of paper, making contact a second later with four enemies in front of us – which I knock out quickly – and two more behind. Unfortunately, Shikamaru couldn't block completely the surprising attack from behind, and a muscular bandit managed to escape his jutsu and charge at him extending his short blade. I am too far away to defend my teammate's helpless back, but that's exactly what the third member of Team 10 is here for.
There is a loud clang of steel as the man's and Ino's blades meet. The girl retracts her kunai quickly, her eyes as wide as they can get, while she moves to parry the next attack. She does it while blinking repeatedly in confusion.
"Slow…" she murmurs pushing the angry bandit back, making him fall to the ground. "Weak…"
I can't help but grin wolfishly as I hit the downed man in the head, having dispatched the last two trapped bandits already.
"Piece of cake, right Ino?" I tell the bewildered girl. "Good to know Shika has someone to watch his back when he slips like that."
The dazed Yamanaka manages a small smile, while the boy just huffs annoyed, wiping sweat off his forehead. "We ideated the Board like that for a reason, didn't we?"
"Yeah," I reply yanking a nearby bodyguard out of the way of a bandit's sword, before kicking said bandit in the nose and eliciting a quite satisfying crunch from the now unmoving man. "You know that if we had been training against my Kage Bunshins as always, we would be all tied up and laughed at now, right?" I chuckle at the thought, while pumping a bit of chakra in my legs to slip easily inside another bandit's guard and punching him under his chin.
"This is different," he says rolling his eyes. "With all these enemies and allies, it's more like playing Go than Shogi." He punches a wandering bandit in the stomach as if to make a point.
"What?" I tease him with an amused smirk, knocking that same bandit out cold with the ring of my kunai. "Too many pieces on the board for the lazy Nara Shikamaru to play with?"
"Stop fooling around!" Ino grunts, neatly dodging a spear-thrust and striking a large bandit on his chest with her small palm. It's a funny sight to see a little girl such as Ino launch a tall and muscular man off his feet. "This is serious!"
I laugh at her – earning myself an angry glare – and at how confident and comfortable she looks now. All it took was finding out what's the physical difference between a common fighter and a ninja, no matter the size and age. Chakra really is a magical thing.
"Rested enough?" I ask Shikamaru, elbowing a resilient bandit away while punching another one. "You up for a little more of Board?"
He answers the question after his flying kick has landed on the head of his enemy, which promptly passes out after looking around dazedly for a moment.
He takes a deep breath before going over the seals of his Kage Mane no Jutsu and a second later, his shadow starts swirling at his feet, stretching and slithering in fascinating movements.
"Knight!" he shouts loudly, and our special game of Shogi resumes.
We go on for a little while in a blur of fighting that makes my blood quiver in excitement and my teeth flash between my lips. Ino and Shikamaru's expressions, though, are very different from mine. The boy seems almost sickened as he traps the umpteenth bandit with his jutsu, while the young blonde's face has gone from horrified to angry, to finally detached after seeing countless of bodies and blood. To think that such a messy battle will be their first real ninja experience... it could be as much a blessing as a curse later on. Needless to say, I will do my best to stop it from becoming the latter.
Screams of pain and anger are resonating from all around now, and an acrid stink of explosives and blood is starting to drift through the Shintei Manor, making the bastard inside me howl in laughter at the destruction and death. He's not a young, inexperienced Genin like us, after all...
'That's it!' he shouts cackling madly. 'That's exactly it!'
I ignore him entirely, concentrating on downing another batch of bandits frozen by Shikamaru's jutsu. It's not as easy as it can appear at first. I'm not just going around and hitting in the head harmless men trapped by my teammate's shadow. The task is far more complicated than that. First of all, I have to know at all times Shikamaru's exact position, and I'm not just talking about where he is; where he's facing is at least as much important. Then I have to pay extra attention to his directives and act accordingly to try and drop the targets as soon as possible while following a precise strategy. And last but not least, I have to avoid being trapped myself by his swirling shadow. That's probably the most difficult task of the Board for me. The Kage Mane no Jutsu is very hard to follow all by itself already, but if you also add that the targets usually don't stay still when they see this eerie shadow moving towards them and chasing them, but they start running away from it, it should be easily understandable how much of a headache it can become.
That said, my role in the Board is probably the easiest of the three. Or maybe that's Ino's. It's debatable, I think. After all, all Ino has to do is to fight whoever escapes Shikamaru's jutsu and tries to attack him. Well, she also has to pay attention to the freezing shadow and try to avoid being frozen herself, but there's a really marginal possibility for that to happen, because it's very rare that Shikamaru sends his jutsu right behind his position, and that's exactly where Ino has to stand, usually. Anyway, what the girl does that I don't is... actually fighting. Because, much to the Kyuubi's irritation, I don't fight anyone; all I do is hit unmoving targets.
'Go for it! Go for it!' the Demon shouts at me as I - or should I say 'we'? - look at a pair of agile-looking bandits teaming up against a lonely bodyguard and effectively overwhelming him. I assist at the scene from a couple of feet of distance without doing anything, and when the two start attacking another nearby bodyguard, the Kyuubi snarls in anger. 'What the fuck are you doing? Attack! Kill those weaklings! Kill them!'
'Oh, shut up,' I reply rolling my eyes. 'The boss is Shikamaru at the moment. Leave the decision-making to him.'
He growls dangerously at me, otherwise staying quiet, while I take care of a couple of men frozen in front of us with an expert use of my kunai.
'Use the sharp end, at least!' the Demon Fox whines childishly as my enemies drop to the ground, unconscious. 'I wanna see blood!'
I almost burst out laughing at him, but eventually settle for rolling my eyes again. 'I have no reason to kill them if I can help it.' I knock out another bandit while smiling slightly. 'You should know that.'
The Kyuubi sighs almost exasperatedly after an instant of silence.
'I can't wait for you to go back to be a murderous bastard again,' he says evidently displeased. 'I miss those times...'
Sensing his somewhat depressed state, I decide to indulge him a little in my next attack. I hope he appreciates my thought as my kunai dips slightly into the target's neck, finally drawing blood. It's not a fatal wound by any means - and the bandit probably didn't feel it either considering he had already passed out from the previous blow to the head - but it's enough for the Kyuubi to start chuckling amusedly, part of his normal demeanor re-established.
'You're welcome, bastard,' I say shaking my head slowly, knowing that he would never thank me.
"Stay as one! As one! Bushi! Take Wasida with you and help defend the side, hurry! Go!"
The security head, Yoroi, is shouting like a madman, furiously inciting his men dressed in black and battling the enemy. He has assembled a dozen of bodyguards around him and he's directing them with extreme efficiency. It appears clear that he has training and experience on his heavy-built shoulders, and the small but well-organized group of men surrounding him is an evident proof of it. When two of them – most certainly Bushi and Wasida – move away from the formation and run up to the chaotic-looking left side, the hole they leave is immediately refilled under Yoroi's barking orders. The large man's clothes – once pitch black like his men's – now are more similar to Kugara's crimson vest, as blood is splattered all over them together with mud and grass. When he finally notices our presence, his focused eyes look uncertainly at us before narrowing.
"What the hell are they doing here, Kusano?" he shouts at one of the nearby bodyguards. "Get them somewhere safe!"
Shikamaru doesn't pay any attention to him, and I barely contain my snort, while not even bothering to hide my wide grin. Ino is watching the man's clothes with a dangerously expressionless face, but she follows the young Nara closely without missing a beat. We're running through a fairly large portion of the garden that seems completely untouched by blood and death, and I slowly come to a halt, effectively stopping my teammates. I look impressed at the security head, at his men and at the scuttling line of the enemy, taking the battleground in… if it even can be called that. It's like no battle has been fought here on this immaculate plot of land. Apparently, Yoroi's small group managed to stop the largest wave of bandits from moving on, and the lonely ones able to get past them weren't brave, foolish or organized enough to attack from behind. That's quite impressive considering this was such a chaotic fight.
As an old-looking bodyguard approaches us, I turn around towards Shikamaru.
"How are you?" I ask him, knowing the answer already.
The boy grimaces at me, but then nods his head. "Ready." He glances at Ino who still looks uncharacteristically expressionless. "We'll go with the easiest. I'm not completely confident with the others yet."
"Okay," I agree shrugging, before gesturing to the reorganizing bandits. "Lead the way."
As the young Nara does just that, I create a Kage Bunshin right in front of the dashing bodyguard, startling him badly. He reacts instinctively by raising his long katana and thrusting it forward, but the clone just twists sideways avoiding the blow. I can't see the rest of the scene as Shikamaru is finally starting our final Shogi attack, but I can easily imagine it.
"Now, now," my clone is probably saying at the moment, disarming the old bodyguard easily. "Leave the rest of the battle to us. We're gonna end this fight soon." Under the man's scowl, the Kage Bunshin will definitely grin. "Tell your fellow bodyguards to stand aside and watch what three Genins of Konoha are capable of."
I have instructed him to say something cocky, after all.
So... that's probably what is happening, while I run forward, right in the direction of the assembled bandits near the crumbled portion of the wall, flanked by my young teammates. I ignore the cries of shock and warning coming from Yoroi's line of defense as I pump a bit of chakra into my legs and jump directly in the midst of the enemies, landing nimbly barely a second later than Shikamaru and Ino. I ponder the idea of saying something to the startled men looking at us with their mouths open, but in the end decide it is unnecessary. We've already impressed them enough, I think. Impressed them too much, even, considering their frozen state.
"Uhm..." I murmur perplexed. "Shouldn't you...say, attack us?"
My words seem to shake them from their shock, but as the nearest bandit makes a move in my direction, Shikamaru's voice roars defiantly and yet tiredly from my right.
It takes a little longer than normal - meaning one or two seconds - but then the familiar feeling of helpless immobility envelops me like a cold blanket. I fight the uncomfortable sensation instinctively, tensing my muscles and willing my body to respond, despite knowing it's of no use. I'm effectively trapped under the Kage Mane no Jutsu.
Just like everyone standing ten feet from me.
I look fascinated at the horrified terror slowly filling the eyes of the men surrounding me, and at the farthest ones stopped in their tracks while trying to run away, having realized what was happening. It's an odd sight, incredibly eerie and very unnatural. It's like the whole world has stopped. Nothing in my field of vision is moving barred the grey dust drifting left and right under the gentle breeze. Silence reigns around for a long minute before the screams start.
"I can't move!"
"What the fuck is happening?"
I listen to the cacophony of enraged, frightened and confused shouts as I wait as patiently as I can for Shikamaru to free me. He does it eventually, and the feeling of cold and helplessness is washed away as the boy's shadow retreats from me. I don't waste any time as I immediately start to make quick work of all the bandits, starting from my left. The young Nara has already used a lot of his chakra, and even though the 'King' move is the easiest of all the grand finale of our Board, I don't think he can last much longer. I swiftly knock out the bandits on my path, paying extra attention to Shikamaru's shadow and eventually deciding that he's even more at his limits than I thought. His clan jutsu is getting a little shaky and his timing less precise as I start to drop the last batch of enemies around us. I'm still impressed, of course. What he managed to do in the last few months has gone way beyond what a Genin should be capable of. What the young Nara does during the Board is something definitely deserving Chuunin status. The simple awareness he demonstrates in our game of sorts is nothing short of outstanding. His control over the Kage Mane no Jutsu is almost perfect, and that's probably the hardest part of his role in the Board. Catching numerous moving targets at once is extremely trying, and withdrawing his shadow right before I hit them to avoid taking the hit himself is doubly so. Sure, we previously decided what attacking pattern I had to follow, but that made it just a touch less difficult. And finally, even his endurance and chakra reserves have increased very noticeably in these last few months thanks to all our training against my Kage Bunshins, and though I have to actually fight the last three bandits together with Ino because he's too tired to keep them trapped, I know he wouldn't have lasted half what he did today just a month ago.
"Sorry," he pants out as the last bandit drops to the ground. "Couldn't... any longer..."
I chuckle lightly in seeing his exhausted and sweaty face. "I hope you won't have to say that too often in your life... especially in bed."
I skip back to him as he rolls his eyes, breathing heavily. Ino is looking around at the dozens of unconscious bandits lying still, and she's as tense as if those men were readying their weapons against her. I put my hand on her shoulder and she startles badly, turning towards me. My reassuring smile is all for her, but it doesn't get much of a reaction from the young Yamanaka except for a slight relaxing of her stance.
"Come on. Let's check on Asuma-sensei. You know he's hopeless without us," I say gently. "It seems the battle has quieted down near the fence too."
She nods her head and follows me away from the downed bandits, while Yoroi and his men start to make sure they won't go anywhere anytime soon. I ignore their stares in our direction and lead my teammates to where I can feel the chakra signature of the Hokage's son. We find him still barking orders to the remaining bodyguards as they help the wounded and apprehend the enemy. A relieved sigh immediately escapes his lips upon seeing our safe - though bloody - figures and he meets us down the road with a small smile.
"You were working for Gaou all this time?" the plump Shintei Takeru is saying, trembling from head to toe. He's looking into the bloodshot eyes of his business adviser with stunned incredulity.
"He pays better than you!" Kugara screams, thrashing wildly despite the tight ropes retraining him.
"But-but-but... we are friends," Heiki's father stammers taking a step back.
"The fuck we are, you poltroon idiot!" the tied-up man shouts before bursting out into hysterical laughter. "Give me my knife back and I'll open you up to search for your missing spine for you!"
Takeru-sama actually falls to the ground at that, shaking his head repeatedly and mumbling under his breath. Asuma crouches to his side and murmurs soothing words in his ear, while silencing the mad Kugara with a dangerous look. My Kage Bunshins had blocked him easily as he attempted to stab the client in his back during the confusion of the battle. He didn't think the clones of a child could punch just that hard.
I'm not paying much attention to him now, anyway, too busy keeping a worried eye out for everything around us. Shikamaru is lying on his back, resting a little after his extensive use of the Kage Mane no Jutsu. His gaze is inevitably pointed to the few clouds flying through the clear sky at a great speed, but I already caught him looking at Ino a couple of times. As for the Yamanaka girl, she's sitting under a just bloomed cherry-tree with her eyes closed, a look of deep concentration on her pretty face. I too - like the young Nara - look for any sign of tiredness on her, but don't find any. It's been almost ten minutes now that she's using the Shintenshin no Jutsu to search the nearby area for Team Gai and/or Heiki, but if she still has to come out of the bird she has temporarily took as a host, then it means she has yet to find them. I avert my eyes from her as well and glance in the direction of the assembled bodyguards, or at least those alive and well. They're glaring at Kugara with pained, hateful eyes, and I can clearly see how some of them would make a move against him if not for our guarding presence here. Many of them lost friends, some even family, during the battle, and Takeru's former adviser can be easily considered at fault for it. But it's not them I am worried about.
The security head is hiding something, and he's doing a far better job at it than that fool Kugara had. He just assisted without uttering a single word as Asuma questioned the thin man, soon finding out the truth. He seemed really surprised when we discovered Kugara was on Takeru's rival's pay-book since a couple of weeks ago, and he was genuinely angry at the man when we found out he had set the kidnapping of Heiki just to leave Takeru less protected. The adviser's idea of sending so many bodyguards after her and the bandits had made much more sense to him at that point, that he said he couldn't believe he hadn't started to suspect anything right there and then.
So... his reactions seemed completely comprehensible and normal, absolutely honest considering all that happened, but there is something in him that isn't quite right. It's the fact that he also seems relieved, I think. That really wouldn't make much sense if there wasn't something else going on. Eleven of his men are dead, twenty-eight are wounded, some more seriously than others, and Heiki has yet to be saved. The simple fact that Kugara won't see the sunlight for a while or maybe forever can't really explain his relief, even considering how much he hated the thin man.
No, he's hiding something, I'm sure of it.
I turn slowly towards Asuma and after some seconds, I finally catch his eyes. I make sure he sees my brief nod before approaching the security head, who is standing on guard right beside a now gagged Kugara.
"I want to know what is happening here," I say in my most serious voice. It's not threatening, that's not my intention at the moment.
Yoroi turns in my direction at once, calm at first as he glances down at Kugara, more guarded a second later when he notices I'm not talking to the tied-up man.
"What are you talking about?" he asks sharply.
"I'm talking about you," I reply immediately, feeling Asuma stepping up behind me. "You're hiding something and I want to know what."
I state this very matter-of-factly and his eyes widen a little before appearing confused and skeptic again. He looks at me as if I was a little kid... really.
"I don't know what you're babbling about, brat." He straightens up, towering over me in his impressively bloody clothes. "Why you are even here is beyond my understanding. Do you really think yourself a ninja?"
"I'm paid to be here as much as you are," I say quietly. "This is my job and you're hampering it. Now tell me what you're hiding."
A flash of anger covers the panic in his eyes a second too late. Now Asuma too knows the man knows something.
"I won't stand here listening to this stupid blond speaking nonsense against me," Yoroi growls dangerously, looking at my Sensei. The bodyguards nearby start drifting closer. "You better keep him quiet or I'll have to do that myself."
I sigh a little, closing my eyes for a moment. When I open them again, they're not just serious anymore. They are threatening.
"Do you see the girl sitting over there?" I ask the security head while pointing at Ino. "She's a member of a clan famous for getting inside others' bodies and minds. She can take a look at your thoughts and memories like you were a book in just a few seconds." Technically, I add to myself. She's not quite that skilled yet, but Yoroi doesn't have to know it, of course. I sense Shikamaru joining Asuma behind me as I press on. "And she's not the only one with nice jutsus. I can do much more than copies of myself; the lazy boy here," I point my thumb in the young Nara's direction, "isn't a one-trick pony either, and you can't even start to imagine what a Jounin like Asuma-sensei is capable of. So..." I take a step forward and enjoy for a moment the sight of Kugara wriggling his way away from me. "I think it's better if you talk now on your own before we make you."
I stare hard into the security head's face and am partly impressed and partly disappointed that he's managing to keep a perfectly blank face. When I start to think that things might very well get ugly before he starts singing for us, his eyes shine more brightly for a moment. A scene, incredibly vivid and at the same time vague, flashes in Yoroi's gray pupils until he blinks them closed and then open again. It was just an instant but it was enough. Now I have a much better idea of what he could be hiding.
That wouldn't be of much help either, if Kugara, of all people, didn't speak. Or tried to, anyway.
I narrow my eyes at the large bodyguard, while Asuma crouches down and frees Takeru's former adviser from his gag.
"He sent a falcon!" the thin man shouts at once, a victorious smile playing on his smug face. "He sent a falcon to someone in secret, soon after the attack on the girl! And he put a strange seal on it with a-"
When his strong kick hits Kugara's side, making him roll over, gasping in shock and coughing out blood, Yoroi lets out a furious snarl, looking down at the suffering fool. He then lets out a tired, calming sigh, before turning towards me again. The bitter smile on his face suits perfectly his scarred appearance. He looks at his boss, who had approached all the ruckus again in the meantime, and then lowers his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Takeru-sama," he says in a voice barely above a whisper. "Your daughter isn't coming back."
"W-what?" the man stammers out, fear widening his watering eyes.
The security head remains silent for a long moment before looking away. "I'm sorry."
"Who did you send that falcon to?" Asuma asks firmly, attracting his attention for just a moment, but the large man doesn't seem intent on saying anything.
Yoroi's gaze snaps up and upon his boss in hearing his angry voice. Takeru's eyes are hard and determined as they bore into his man like a sharp knife, and the surprise on the latter is evident on his scarred face. He probably never saw such a demonstration of power from the plump, gentle merchant in the past, but he seems almost approving for a moment before he straightens up visibly.
"I sent it to the Village of the Dew," he replies turning to Asuma again.
There is a brief pause in which the Jounin visibly ponders the answer before nodding. "What did the message say?"
"It said," Yoroi stated, "that Shintei Heiki is a jinchuuriki."
A stunned and confused silence greets this revelation. Asuma just shoots a glance at me once under Shikamaru's watchful gaze.
"A jinchuuriki?" Takeru-sama asks puzzled. "What does that mean?"
It's the young Nara who answers. "A jinchuuriki is the human host of a bijuu." The boy looks at me first before turning towards the client again. "It means that a demon was sealed inside your daughter."
The plump merchant blanches like a ghost at the explanation, looking lost as he mumbles under his breath. "My little girl... a demon? Impossible!"
"She's not a demon," Shikamaru replies with as much a straight face as mine. "She's just its jailor. They're two perfectly separate entities."
Shintei Takeru just shakes his head repeatedly at that, as if to clear it from that information. "It doesn't matter," he murmurs quietly before repeating it more assuredly. "It doesn't matter. I want her back."
We all turn again towards Yoroi and Asuma steps up again, taking the easiest route.
"Explain," he demands simply.
The security head looks at Takeru once more, but his demeanor now is evidently changed. Yoroi answers as if he has just been asked to make a report.
"I'm from Tsuyugakure," he starts looking right in front of him. "It's not a recognized Village like yours but it's big and brave enough to be considered one. Our leader is one of the strongest ninjas ever, our base of Genins and Chuunins is incredibly large and powerful, and though they aren't many, our Jounins are very skilled as well. What we need," he pauses to stare at Asuma, "is a jinchuuriki."
"Bastard," Kugara manages to gasp out, his coughing fit finally ended. He flinches under Yoroi's disgusted gaze, wriggling his way away from him as well.
"Konoha, Kumo, Suna. They are the strongest Shinobi Villages in the world," the security head resumes. "And there's just one thing they have that we don't. A jinchuuriki."
I look blankly at him, not very impressed by his opinion. "Cut it short," I say coldly.
He doesn't even glance at me as he nods affirmatively.
"When I found little Heiki outside the property after the attack that killed four of my best men, it was impossible not to notice the singular seal on her broken shoulder. It was also impossible not to find something odd in how quickly that same shoulder healed. It was back to normal in a couple of hours." He shrugs slightly at that. "I didn't even get to Genin back when I lived in the Village - I simply wasn't gifted enough - but even I knew what a jinchuuriki was and I'm sure Heiki is one." He finally breaks his stance to turn in his boss' direction. "So I told my Village to come and get her. A team of Jounins should have her at the moment. I told them I would make arrangements to let them sneak easily inside the house and take her quietly, but this snake," he stops long enough to glare down at Kugara, "this snake changed everything by betraying you. Now they have probably slaughtered Gaou's men and taken her. I'm sorry Takeru-sama."
"After all these years..." the client all but whispers. "After all these years, you stab me in the back like this." His gaze shifts for a moment to Kugara before quickly going back to Yoroi. "You too... I can't believe it..."
The large man struggles with his next words as he bears Takeru's disappointed eyes. "I... I would never have betrayed you."
"You did!" Heiki's father shouts angrily.
"I'm just still loyal to my Village."
"Does that justify you?" The plump man takes a daring step forward, his indecision and fear completely gone from his very being. "If my daughter dies, I'll kill you with my own hands!" he hisses.
"They won't kill her," he says quietly, looking away. "They'll train her."
"If she lets them," I say expressionless. "If she doesn't, they'll extract the bijuu, which will kill her."
Yoroi's eyes stay fixed on the ground. "Yeah."
Shintei Takeru seems almost sickened as he utters his next words. "Men, arrest him."
At first, no one moves from his spot, and I'm pondering the idea of tying the man up on my own when something surprising happens.
"What are you doing, idiots? Arrest me!" Yoroi orders them furiously. "Didn't you hear the boss? What have I been teaching you all these years?"
A large, very old-looking bodyguard finally approaches him, his face set into a grim expression. He takes a grip of the man's forearms and brings them behind his back. A second bodyguard produces some steel manacles and Yoroi is eventually secured. He gives them all a fierce look before staring again right in front of him.
It's a sobering sight. All these huge men almost in tears as they are forced to apprehend their leader and probably mentor. I don't know and can't remember anything about these people from my past lives, but it's clear that what is going on right now is very important to them. I scan their sad faces and they only remind me that I'm not the center of the world. There is so much – both good and bad – going on everywhere that we're all simply risible when we think we're the only ones important. Hopefully, tomorrow my team and I will leave this place and won't think ever again about these men we left behind and about how their whole world changed this day.
That's how much selfish we all are. Nothing matters but us.
We remain in silence for a long moment, Takeru still glaring at his former right and left hands, the bodyguards looking depressed and upset all around, and Ino still concentrated on her jutsu. Then Asuma speaks up, turning towards me and Shikamaru and taking the situation under his control.
"Our first priority now is to go find the little girl and Team Gai," he says dead-serious. "This mission now potentially became an A-rank." He scans our expressions for a brief moment before nodding. "Takeru-sama," he resumes turning towards the client, "we'll do our best to bring your daughter back to you. Please stay put here and you should be safe. Naruto..."
I don't even let him say it as I create twenty-five Kage Bunshins spread around the Shintei Manor. I look at the bodyguards nearby seriously. "Just a measure to discourage anyone from making trouble."
"They won't," Yoroi says with certainty, looking at us.
I nod at him before turning towards Asuma again.
"So, where do we start, Sensei?"
As if on cue, Ino gasps loudly from her seated position under the cherry-tree, opening her eyes.
"Found them. They have the girl, but..." she says, taking a deep breath and looking at us with concern. "They're in trouble. Ninjas, strong ones, I think."
I curse internally, while the Kyuubi sighs contentedly.
'Finally,' he murmurs.
I ignore him as I help Ino up. Shikamaru flanks us a moment later, a studied bored expression on his face. I smile at the sight, while the young Yamanaka growls dangerously.
Asuma was right. We are predictable alright.
The Hokage's son takes a long drag from his cigarette before putting it out under his foot. He looks at it for a short moment before raising his gaze again, an excited glint in his eyes.
Thank you for reading this. I hope you liked this chapter. I'm not entirely satisfied with it – again – but couldn't find in me the will to improve it more than I already did. I swear it, if I start rereading it again, I'll surely spot something else I don't like or something I should add!
Anyway… the next chapter will be where the real action takes place. I've already written most of the battle scene, but the rest is still just in my mind. I only hope it won't stay there too long. Tsuyugakure is a Village of my invention. You'll know something more about it in the next chapter(s). I wasted a whole afternoon thinking of a name, but in the end the dew won the final coin-flip. I'm happy with it.
As to answer some anonymous reviewers, I disagree with those questioning my decision of writing the story from a first-person point of view. My reasoning is simple, really. My Naruto wouldn't have worked in any other way. I know it even without trying.
Now let's all thank Big Pája for making this chapter readable. He'll take a bow.