Shadows of Dawn

Jedi Goat

Disclaimer - I don't own Naruto. I do however own my four OCs :)

Special Thanks - to my awesome beta, Dancing Roses and Sunny Rain!

Author's Note - Okay, first off I want to say I don't usually write OC-centrics, but this idea's been bouncing around in my head just demanding to be written. I'm still working on Angel's Wings, to all my readers out there, don't worry ;)

This is only my second time dealing with original characters (the first being Rising Moon, my Warriors fic), so I'll gladly take constructive criticism. This is OC-centric particularly during the first chapters, but the Akatsuki will play a major role soon, don't worry. I've worked really hard to develop my characters so they're all different, with their own flaws and abilities. And since I've already been asked, there may be pairings later in this story - they're still pending, though, and they won't be my central focus.

I'm really enjoying writing this so far, so I hope you like it too!


Part 1 - Between Light and Darkness

-Tenmayuki Minako-

The marshes were perfectly silent; the reeds twitching feebly in the breeze made no sound as the first light of dawn accentuated the sky. The air was crisp with dew, the mists not yet risen from where they hugged the riverbanks. Clear, beautiful stillness prevailed.

Two shadows flickered through the grasses, running soundlessly onward. My breath puffed out a long, misty trail after me; my worn blue sandals thwacked at the murky ground, the sound deafened by the fog around me. My companion arced a trail a meter or so in front of me, and even at this distance her silhouette was faded in white mist, her clothing a dark blot against the pale canvas, hair streaming behind her, beads of dew flashing golden between the strands as she moved.

The sun was rising before us, the burning light level with us through the trees. I squinted, perceiving the faintest shadowy outline of a town on the horizon just beyond these bogs. My heartbeat sped up with the thought, and I hurriedly churned ahead.

A stream lay ahead, and we leaped across with well-practiced ease, bounding across the surface of the water with a fluidity as though walking on clouds. I glanced back as we landed on the mucky bank. Not a ripple remained of our presence.

Neither of us spoke as we raced up the slope through waving reeds, seeking the shelter of the treeline. From shadow to shadow we flitted, the sole disturbance in the still dawn. We were like ripples in the glassy air, one second there, the next disappeared, as elusive as a mirage. Our flight increased as we darted through the trees, and I sensed with a tight knotting of my stomach that we were nearly there.

The Land of Water lay quiet around us as we raced in on our target. The only bystander to our presence was the flaming sun, blazing red as a beacon through the tainted clouds. Under its furious eye we traveled, clandestine and unwelcome.

My companion stopped short. We had reached the edge of a deep pond, its waters spreading as far as the eye could see to either side. A single low shadow hung in the mist, far beyond us; I knew, across this lake, lay the entrance to the village we now sought. The village we'd left, so long ago.

She rose from her crouch, folding her arms across her silver chest plate. A gray kimono beneath hung to her knees, flapping in the wind, the right sleeve torn away and black bandages swathing her arm. She was hardly out of breath from our venture; with a wry grin she now turned to me, tossing aside the blond bangs draping her face.

"This is it, Minako. The Village Hidden in the Mist..." She trailed off as a gentle breeze picked up, her headband clinking noisily from her belt where it bounced against a silvery metal sheath. The band seemed telltale with its frosted leaf symbol.

I smiled back at my best friend. "He said it was somewhere around here, right?"

She nodded, straightening, her expression suddenly professional. Tilting her head sideways, she faced into the wind; her long blond hair tipped with black billowed behind her as her gray kimono fluttered in the breeze. She breathed deeply.

"This way," she reported momentarily, springing onto the bank. She raced along the water's edge with a whisper of white sandals, and I hastened to follow.

My bangs toyed in my eyes, and I blew them back impatiently; my light brown hair, tied back in pigtails, bobbed against my neck which was suddenly slick with sweat. I closed my eyes briefly, uttering a silent prayer.

Hang on, sensei. We're coming.

When I glanced back up she was changing direction, leaping lightly across the surface of the water. Without hesitation I followed, doubling my pace to match her long stride.

"Rei-chan!" I panted, "What are we going to do...once we find them?"

I glanced sideways at her grim expression. Her face was set, her jaw jutting slightly. Her wildly swinging blond bangs disguised her eyes, but I knew what I would see: hardened determination. "We'll do whatever we need to," she growled. "This is our teammates we're talking about. No one hurts them and gets away with it!"

I nodded slightly, drawing in her radiating confidence to reassure myself. Surfacing with a small smile I agreed, "Then I will do... whatever you ask of me, Reinen."

We raced onward together into the ruby dawn, ready for anything.

It was growing lighter with every passing moment. The air was thick with humidity, clinging to my olive long-sleeved sweater; the sleeves were rolled up, and I now tugged them down to my wrists, where white fingerless gloves adorned my hands. My legs, bare aside from khaki capris falling just above my knees, were chilled; a golden necklace bounced against my Mist headband around my neck. I was shivering, eyes searching the eerie mists for enemies. We couldn't be discovered, not here, not now. The circumstances of our leave from the village - it had to be two years ago now, I calculated swiftly - made me uncertain of our welcome. Even if the Mist ninja were benign, there were other, less welcoming presences waiting in the moors...

I swallowed back the bitter taste in my mouth, forcing myself to focus. The urgent letter calling us back had detailed the ugliness of the situation. Our homeland was drowning in turmoil and corruption; rich business leaders controlled the hearts of the citizens and feuded for dominance over the country. One man in particular rose to power in a storm of dark dealings and fear. That man... He had endangered our teammates. My stomach clenched with recoiling disgust. It wasn't enough that he had pillaged the countryside, sucked the riches from poor towns and left them starving, ruled the market with a cold fist, but to dare...

I shuddered uncontrollably. Deep down my anger fought against a vigilant fear of this man, whose powers outmatched those of the two greatest Mist shinobi I had ever the honor to meet... I breathed deeply, closing off my mind from my raging emotions. Neither would get me anywhere; I had to calm down, to focus.

Reinen slid to a stop in front of me, drops of water showering off her bare heels. I pulled myself from my thoughts, landing in a battle crouch next to her. Instinctively my white-gloved hand flew to my side: the pockets of my capris were loaded with supplies. Three senbon fitted neatly between the fingers of my right hand as I whispered, "What is it?"

As I spoke my eyes scored our surroundings - water stretched to either side, the coasts invisible through the rising mists. Reinen shook her head slowly, icy eyes narrowed. Her lips were drawn back in a nearly animalistic snarl as she growled, "I sensed something coming - a massive presence of chakra..."

Reinen exhaled slowly, features softening. "It's gone now."

I remained silent; I knew her senses to be far greater than my own. If Reinen thought someone was close by, she was probably right; I bit my lip, worriedly checking over my shoulder. Silence; repressive, emancipating. My heart thundered in my chest.

Reinen rose, shaking back her hair. "They weren't heading in this direction, anyway," she murmured as if to resolve my fear. "C'mon, we've got to hurry."

We shot off, angling away from the civilization of the village. I tried to put Rei's words from my mind, but they continued to haunt my every movement as we left the lake behind and plunged into a forest of weeping willows. Crackling leaves draped the ground; at a sharp glance from my companion we slowed our pace, maneuvering cautiously as to make as little sound as possible. Tiptoeing along, I kept an eye on Reinen's back: she moved purposefully as a predator, grayish outfit camouflaging her among the ancient trunks.

We had to be getting close. The village's border was distant from here, and it was far enough away to escape disruption from stray shinobi, I deduced. Our sensei had always preferred seclusion; our numerous nomad abodes throughout our apprenticeship were more than proof of that. I smiled slightly at the memories, tinged with sadness.

We had better not be too late...

We had been brought up in the Mist Village, but in reality, the four of us – our sensei and three trainees – had been rogues. Working outside the law, moderating the power struggles and protecting the villages of our country just as well as any true shinobi... I had not always approved of our methods, but one thing held true: we were bound together by our loyalty, our desire to stand beside each other in battle. And that was why we were here now, our travels cut short by the need of our beloved companions.

Reinen turned back to me, a finger pressed to her lips. She raised her chin; I followed her gaze to the twined treetops high above us. Perched among them, hidden in the converging mists, was a carefully constructed wooden tree house. Supported over the reaching branches of two tall trees, it was large as a single room and rounded at the outsides. It was concealed in shades of peeling gray paint and covered by a thatched dome roof.

"He's branching out," I said with a small smile. "We never had a place this nice."

Rei's lips quirked at a grin, and I relaxed ever so slightly; in a way, we were home. She stepped forward, fingering a nearly invisible thread that I now saw lay across our path. The next instant she hopped back, narrowly avoiding the barrage of kunai flashing down from either side. The silvered knives thudded into the ground one after the other, littering our path. We stood still, soundlessly surveying. Rei turned to me.

"Sensei's doing," she said flatly. The rest of her thought hung unsaid in the air, though I understood instantly. Swallowing, I nodded. Traps were usually his responsibility...our other teammate. He was more subtle, leaving the victim only a second to wallow in fear before a senbon ended their life.

My worry was reflected in Reinen's eyes, and without a word we glanced up at the house hanging above us. The windows were empty gaps; I could see nothing in the shadows within. Were we being watched...? I tested the air, reaching out with my chakra. Nothing...whoever was up there was either disguising their presence well...or was gone.

Unfazed, Reinen strode forward, raising her head high and squaring her jaw. "Zabuza-sensei!" she shouted into the mist. "Haku-kun!"

I drew a sharp breath. Silence echoed back at us; cold, hardened.

Then, sudden movement behind us. I heard the rapid snapping of branches and whirled, hand grasping over my shoulder for the smooth wooden bo staff tied to my back. I swung it out protectively in front of me just in time to deflect the kunai aimed at my chest. A large figure barreled toward us; I jumped back, landing in a defensive pose, all muscles tensed.

Reinen hadn't moved; she scarcely blinked as the figure stopped behind her in a shower of leaves, burly right arm swinging around to hold the tip of a second kunai to her throat. The blonde only smiled coldly, unblinking.

"Morning, sensei. It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"Toramura Reinen," growled the familiar voice of Momochi Zabuza. "Throwing caution to the winds, as always."

Reinen sniffed, ignoring his reprimand. "I knew it was you. You can't fool my senses."

I eased, slipping my bo back into the sash on my back. "Ohayo, Zabuza-sensei," I concurred brightly. "It's good to see you again."

Zabuza inclined his head, lowering the blade from Rei's neck. "Tenmayuki Minako, welcome back. I wondered when the two of you might show up."

"You said there was trouble," Reinen growled, all business again. She folded her arms across the metal plate protecting her front. "Where's this Gato bastard?"

I flinched involuntarily at her language. Spinning on her heel, Rei added with a degree of anxiousness, "and where's Haku-kun?"

Zabuza calmly collected his kunai, taking time in answering. "Haku was gravely injured in our encounter with Gato-san," he reported, voice edged with anger. He took a step, gesturing for us to follow him. With a grimace, touching the bandages coating his chest, he continued, "And I am in not much better condition, unfortunately. Otherwise... I would deal with this alone." He seemed fighting to contain his anger, visible in his tense stride and narrowed eyes.

Reinen clenched her fists. "I don't care," she muttered. "He hurt Haku, I swear I'll kill him with my bare hands if I have to!"

"Rei-chan," I pressed gently; she sighed, subduing at my plea to control herself.

"Gato himself won't be much of a problem," Zabuza continued with cold focus. He was limping slightly, I noticed, the numerous bandages on his body stained with blood. "He's well guarded; many of the Mist ninjas are paid to protect his enterprise, and he's got two samurai working under him as well. We made a mistake in hiring ourselves out to him." He growled, "After betraying us to the Leaf ninjas, we had no choice but to flee."

I nodded; his letter had already informed us of his and Haku's confrontation with a squad of Leaf ninjas in the Land of Waves. I glanced sideways at Rei, but her face was emotionless. The ninja from Reinen's old village had convinced Zabuza of Gato's wrongdoing in attempting to murder the bridge builder Tazuna. Sensei had already had his misgivings, as the gang leader was badly harming the country in his mad search for power. However, Gato himself then showed up with an army of Mist ninjas at his disposal. With the Leaf ninjas' help, Zabuza and Haku managed to hold them off; in the end, however, Gato escaped, swearing to kill them. Considering the current state of affairs, the already injured duo were unable to do anything but flee and bide their time.

"So he's plotting revenge, huh," Rei mused.

"We know too much about his corporation," Zabuza agreed. "He has no choice but to kill us."

"But," Reinen continued, turning to him with a foxy grin, "he doesn't know about us. That's where we come in, right?"

"Not so fast!" I protested. "We can't just rush in there. We need a plan, Rei-chan, this guy's a lot stronger than you or I alone."

Reinen snorted. "Just give me five minutes with this guy and I'll show you how strong he is. We haven't been lazing around these past two years; we're a lot stronger now."

"Even so," Zabuza cut in, "Minako is right. We must plan carefully. Gato has his base within the Mist Village. We'll have to overthrow the village's security as well as whatever he has up his sleeve."

"Sounds like my kind of game," Rei grinned. "Let's get to it!"

***

-Tanakachi Hanabiki-

Absent-mindedly I swirled my drink around with my straw, staring off into space. The blare of boisterous conversation around me blurred into a single, distant rumble. I sighed deeply, twining a strand of reddish-brown hair around my finger. Casting a disinterested look at the dark liquid in front of me, I sighed again and took a long draught, thumping the glass back down a bit more heavily than necessary.

I grimaced. Over the years I had been to some down-in-the-dumps places, but this pub had the goddamn worst vodka imaginable.

Across the counter, the bartender was mindlessly scrubbing a glass, leering at me with yellowed teeth. I glared at him through a shroud of bangs, amusing myself with the idea of torturing him. A slip of poison into that bottle he sneaked gulps from beneath the counter... a kunai accidentally shoved in his red-rimmed eye...

From the corner of my eye I caught sight of a figure maneuvering toward me through the crowd; I fiddled aimlessly with the collar of my open leather jacket, awaiting her approach. As the young woman perched on the stool next to me I spoke lazily.

"So?"

"Nothing," she sighed, brushing back a strand of brown hair that had fallen from her ponytail. Her expression was apologetic. "Every hotel around these parts is full-up."

I rolled my eyes. "You're just not pushy enough, Kao-nee-chan. Anyone can be convinced." I flashed a wry grin.

Kaoyumi shook her head. "We can't go making enemies now, Hanabiki, you know that." Despite her gentle tone, there was a warning in her voice: her tired gray eyes sharpened as she scanned our surroundings.

"I know, nee-chan," I complained, "I'm not a kid anymore, yeesh. But come on," I regarded her imploringly, swinging my legs. "I'll go crazy if we have to sleep outside again! You may like the outdoors, but me... I won't hurt anyone, promise, just let me flirt a little..."

"No." Kao's flat voice was final, exasperation in her slight smile. "It's too dangerous, Hana."

"Damn." I leaned my head on my palm, letting out a long sigh and watching my bangs fly out with my breath. So much for that... Huh, maybe it's for the best. My eyes wandered to the mirror above the bar; beyond my morose expression, I surveyed the dark milling crowd. There's not a good looking one in that bunch. I smirked.

Kaoyumi drew me back to earth. "At least we can rest easily for a while," she pointed out. "I've heard nothing since the last assault went off without a hitch. From the latest news, our side's gaining ground. We'll be able to return to the village soon."

I nodded slightly, playing with the Cloud headband glinting on my left sleeve. The Land of Lightning had fallen into civil war before I had been born; the shinobi were divided between the Raikage and numerous rebel groups seeking to overthrow his tyranny. At sixteen I was part of an extremist sect, along with my older sister, known only by the code name Kurotokage - the Black Dragon. We were some of the organization's best assassins, if I do say so myself; our most recent assassination mission had unbalanced the high-class nobility supporting the Raikage.

Needless to say, we were undercover most of the time, lying low in the numerous small villages littering the mountainside. It wasn't the prettiest of jobs, but it had to be done; and if it paid for our food and the occasional drink, hey, I was game.

I took another swig of my drink, grimacing. "Let's blow this place," I muttered. "There's gotta be a half-decent bar in this godforsaken town."

Kaoyumi said nothing, only biting her lip as I cast aside my drink and rose, smoothing my skirt. I knew she disapproved of my drinking - especially considering my age - but it wasn't my fault if bartenders couldn't tell the difference, right? If it weren't for my unfair height, passing for an adult would be even easier; nevertheless, even if someone cared to check, I had plenty of fake documents to "prove" my age.

I tossed back my shoulder-length curls, casting a last disgusted glance at the hawk-eyed bartender. I tugged my jacket tighter over my chest, stalking toward the exit.

Kaoyumi shadowed me, fidgety as a bird in her hunter's tunic. I smirked; she was so unlike me, tall and willowy where I was stout, and shy whereas I was extroverted. It was a mystery how we ended up sisters.

As I clunked outside in my knee-high boots, my eyes slid back to the shadows and the cloaked figure pursuing us outside. I held my tongue to stop from smiling; could they be any more obvious?

I traipsed along the darkened street, meandering away from the sunset - and the last lighted buildings of town. The one tailing us hung back a ways, nearly invisible in the shadows.

Kaoyumi reached my side wordlessly, her hand delving into the pouch at her side. She was aware of our guest, as well; this would be exciting, I mused. Might even make up for that crappy drink.

I let Kaoyumi take the lead, weaving a path along a side road and out into a deserted field. Against a backdrop of fiery dying sun the shadows of small houses crouched, dark and silent. There was hardly a breeze whispering through the surrounding trees; it was if the world was holding its breath, waiting.

And now... We had stopped, alone, out in the deep grasses. I hooked my hands into my belt, fingers just brushing against the leathery hilts of my twin sai. ...Let the show begin.

The darkness was growing; Kaoyumi, a few feet away from me, was merely a silhouette. I knew more than sensed that she, too, had her weapon at hand.

The intruder had barely stepped into the grassy meadow before I heard the faint twinge of string. Kao's arm pulled back as an arrow whispered through the air. A muffled grunt reached us and the figure staggered.

"That was a warning shot," Kaoyumi announced, her voice soft but cold. She braced her bow, notching another arrow. "Tell us who you are and we might let you live."

Silence; the figure stood again, yanking a shaft from his leg. "You're with Kurotokage," the figure shouted in a decidedly masculine voice. "The Tanakachi sisters, right?" He threw aside his cloak, revealing a standard ninja vest covered with protective armor. "You've caused quite a bit of trouble for us lately. Now I found you...and now I'll have the honor of killing you," he snarled mockingly.

"Hey, hold on," I growled back. "Don't go acting all high and mighty. Take a look, jerkface: we're the ones cornering you."

"Do you really think so?" The Cloud shinobi laughed. His voice irked me, filled with pompousness that made me eager to smash his ugly face in. "No, I lured you here." He raised his hands, rapidly forming hand signs.

"Ninja Art: Black Lightning Storm-!"

His proclamation was suddenly cut off. I caught only a brief glimpse of red steel flashing before the Cloud ninja toppled over, now lacking a head. Beside me Kaoyumi gasped in horrified shock; I whirled, seeking out the intruder who had eliminated my prey.

Cold, high laughter echoed across the field, and two shadows advanced from behind where our tormentor had stood. One was tall, expression cloaked by a mask of some sort; the other was shorter and laughing maniacally, his voice making my blood boil. He drew back a huge three-bladed scythe, its tips still glimmering with blood.

"And thank you for making our job so much easier," the man continued jeeringly, smirking at the body of the ninja on the ground. He stepped forward, shouldering his weapon. "So... the Tanakachi siblings," he grinned. "I've heard a lot about you. Let's see if you live up to the rumors...or if you live at all!"

I fell into a defensive pose, clenching a sai in my left hand, thumb braced against its shaft; with my other, I reached for a kunai. Beside me I sensed Kaoyumi readying her bow.

My face contorted to a snarl. "And who the hell are you?"

To be continued...


Translations:

Ohayo - hello or good morning

Kurotokage - kuro is dark, tokage is lizard; so, black dragon ;)

'Kay, I know the Akatsuki didn't quite make an appearance yet, but believe me, they'll get involved soon ;) A question for everyone reading - I know the POV switch is a bit confusing, so if you have any suggestions please let me know :)

Please review!