Author's note: Another chapter and with it comes another illustration. It's on my DA profile. But read the chapter first, the Picture contains spoilers.
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. I tried to save up enough money to buy it once, but I ended up spending it on ice-cream. Curse the hot summer.
Team Tenzo reached their destination shortly. It really was close to the base, which made the whole occurrence more worrisome. Who could sneak inside an occasionally patrolled area, kill a jounin and his team and sneak out without being spotted? All members of Team Tenzo asked the question silently and all of them wondered whether they were really up to the task. But all of them squashed their fear and resolved to handle whatever this mission had in store for them.
So now they stared at the sorry remains of Team 2. They really were too young. Probably this year's graduates. 'They really shouldn't be here,' Naruto thought, trying to banish the images of Kumo from his mind. He looked away, searching for anything else to focus on instead. He noticed that Hana seemed particularly anxious too. Her teammates looked at her questioningly.
"They were Kiba's classmates," she said in explanation. If she really tried she might even recall their names. She didn't need to speak any more. Everybody could imagine what was going through her head. It could have been her brother lying here murdered. All it took was a bit of bad luck while being assigned a mission. She could only thank whatever deity there might be that this didn't happen to him. Though getting captured by Oto ninja was bad enough, but at least he had survived.
She shook herself. There was no time to dillydally. They had to find whoever was responsible for this and make sure they won't do it to any more genin teams. And because she was the team's tracker, the finding part relied on her. It was a good think that the Haimaru brothers knew their duties and were already sniffing around. It wasn't long before one of them barked, announcing that he found a trail. It might be faint after the rain, but it wasn't too faint for his nose. They only stayed long enough to make sure that the body of the missing kunoichi wasn't anywhere near and then followed the trail.
She hadn't been paying attention where she was going. All she could care about was getting away from the ogre that had so suddenly appeared. It was a testimony to her panic that she didn't even think about leaving Sasuke behind once. She was too busy panicking. Therefore when the initial rush of adrenaline was spent and she could spare a thought to where she was running, it was already too late to turn around. She was at the outskirts of the bandit camp and there were many tough-looking unwashed individuals approaching her with obviously hostile intent. She screamed again, just because she couldn't think of anything better to do. Then she silently chastised herself. It was time to stop being a scared little girl and start acting like a kunoichi.
Now that her brain was functioning properly again she started working on a strategy to get out of this mess. Going forward didn't seem appealing, too many bandits there, and going backwards was completely out of the question. The Ogre was just too scary. She could only hope that Kakashi-sensei could deal with him. He was supposed to be one of the strongest jounin in Konoha, so he should be able to. So where else could she run? She took a look around. To her left there was a steep upwards slope offering very little cover. That wouldn't do. To her right was a meadow and behind it a forest began. If she ran at her top speed, she could make it there before they caught up with her and once she was between the trees, she could lose them. She was a kunoichi and could do a lot more than mere bandits, like tree-hopping or laying traps. Yes, once she was in the forest, she'd be reasonably safe.
She almost turned to implement her plan when she noticed something out of the corner of her eye. Her head snapped back towards the camp. There was it, the figure that had seemed familiar to her before. Short, dressed in filthy rags, curly brown hair tangled around an empty staring face. She looked different without her usual sneer, but this close up Sakura recognized her immediately. Kasumi. One of Ami's lackeys and the terror of her Academy days. Only now she didn't look like the self-assured schoolyard bully. She was a broken shell of a person, her eyes staring emptily ahead. Sakura wondered what could have happened to her to render her to this state.
"Hah!" Inner Sakura cheered. "The bitch finally got what she deserves!" But Sakura disagreed. Ami's gang might have picked at her mercilessly, but even they didn't deserve this. Nobody deserved this, whatever 'this' was.
She didn't even think about her next action. If she did, she wouldn't have done it, because it was extremely reckless and almost certainly fatal. But her hand slipped into her weapons pouch almost on its own and then hurled a fistful of shuriken at the approaching bandits. It was nigh impossible to miss the crowd. Two of the bandits collapsed to the ground with sharp pieces of metal embedded in various bodyparts, several others dodged belatedly. A path opened in the mob. Still not thinking about her actions Sakura dashed through.
She was very lucky that this particular gang was composed solely of lowly thugs only good for bullying unarmed villagers and they needed numerical advantage to accomplish even that. Otherwise they would have grabbed or cut her as she ran between them. This way they were too slow to react and the fastest of them merely brushed her hair. She reached her target unhindered.
She stopped in front of her captive classmate and grabbed her shoulders.
"Kasumi!" she shouted. The brown-haired girl just stared at her blankly.
"You bitch!" The angry shout from behind reminded Sakura that they weren't alone. She glanced over her shoulder. The bandits have gotten over their initial shock and were approaching her maliciously and a lot more alert that they had been before. And more than a few of them looked like they could actually use the weapons they were carrying. Sakura quickly calculated her chances and discarded the idea of fighting them.
"Let's go!" she shouted, but Kasumi didn't react. "Come!" Sakura repeated, grabbing her hand and tugging. Kasumi finally turned around, but didn't even try to run. She didn't seem to even comprehend the situation they were in. And if they didn't start running soon, they'd be captured. Sakura briefly wondered whether she'd end up the same way Kasumi did.
"Leave her and run!" Inner Sakura screamed. Sakura was tempted to obey, but she didn't want to abandon a friend in need. "She is no friend of yours!" Inner Sakura reminded her. And the thugs were coming closer and closer. Sakura was getting desperate. She tugged at Kasumi's hand again, but the curly-haired girl only made a slow, short step forward. "We have to go now or we're dead!" Inner Sakura urged. Sakura couldn't disagree. The bandits were almost upon them and her panic surged again. She let go of Kasumi's hand and ran. There was only one slight problem: Kasumi didn't let go of her hand, instead squeezing it as hard as she could. That threw her off-balance and both girls tumbled to the ground.
Sakura hissed as she landed on the rocky ground painfully, Kasumi falling on top of her. She pushed the shell-shocked kunoichi off. The good thing was that Kasumi had finally let go of her hand. The bad thing was that the bandits had finally caught up with them and were surrounding them now. The looks on their faces promised her a world of pain.
She almost screamed again, but she struggled to stay calm and think rationally of something that would help her to get out of this situation. She couldn't come up with anything. That made her urge to panic stronger. Her trained reflexes kicked in and she drew out a kunai. It seemed woefully inadequate against the multitude of swords and clubs the bandits were carrying.
"Little girl wants to fight?" One of them said, sounding amused.
"Thinks she's a kunoichi?" another added. "That one thought so too," he pointed at Kasumi, who was huddling on the ground. "We're gonna teach you just like we taught her!"
"Enough talking, let's get her already," yet another one suggested. This one had a trail of blood running down his sleeve, marking the spot where Sakura's shuriken hit. Judging from the way he held his double-handed sword he barely felt the wound. Yet his expression was downright murderous, as if he couldn't wait to pay her back for the scratch a hundred fold.
Sakura's attempt to keep her wits about her finally failed. She couldn't stand the waiting for the bandits to attack anymore. She screamed and charged. The bandit right in front of her was taken by surprise and she plunged the kunai into his stomach. But before she could pull it out, a club landed on her shoulder, knocking her to the ground. She landed hard, wondering whether any of her bones were broken. It certainly hurt bad enough.
She heard a moan. And the ground beneath her moved. She would have freaked out if she already wasn't. Then she realized that the warm and soft thing under her back was Kasumi. For a brief moment she wondered whether she was hurting the other girl, but then the sight of a tall hairy bandit approaching her with a spear poised to strike chased away all other concerns.
She dodged just as the bandit thrust his weapon forward. She escaped the sharp tip narrowly. Then she heard a scream quickly degenerating into gurgling. Kasumi! Sakura had completely forgotten that the brown-haired kunoichi had been lying under her and now the spear had pierced her back, not far from the spine. She watched in horror as the girl twitched on the ground, trying to move, struggling to draw a breath, but knowing that it was in vain. She remembered enough from her anatomy lessons at the Academy to realize it was a fatal wound.
Then the spear was withdrawn abruptly and Kasumi's body shook on the ground. Deep red blood flowed from the wound in a strong stream. An analytical part of Sakura's mind told her that it was from the superior vena cava and that more of it now filled Kasumi's torn lungs, drowning her slowly. But at the forefront of her mind there was only one thought: I've killed Kasumi. I've killed Kasumi. If I had blocked instead of dodging, I could have done that even empty-handed, if I had thought about her, I knew she was under me, I could have saved her, I wanted to save her, but I've killed her instead. She could have been still alive if I hadn't come. I've killed Kasumi. I've killed Kasumi. I've killed Kasumi!
Her mind snapped.
The trail was faint, but well within the ability of Inuzuka dogs to follow. It also helped that after a time of running through the trees the attackers had dropped down on a thin forest trail and followed it up to the mountains. Then Hana stopped at a crossroads.
"What is it?" Hotaru asked.
"They split up here," the Inuzuka explained.
"Where did they take the girl?" Tenzo wanted to know.
"That way," Hana pointed straight ahead. "But half of them headed there," she pointed at the path leading higher into the mountains.
"We just have to save the girl," Naruto said.
"That's just a part of our mission," the jounin reminded them. "We were tasked to eliminate the danger too."
"But the captive should come first," the boy insisted. "We can return here later."
"And they will have too big a headstart," Tenzo retorted. "We'll split up too. Hana, you go with me after the girl, Naruto, Hotaru, you explore the other track."
"Shouldn't we stick together?" Hana frowned. "They did take out a jounin."
"Can we afford the delay?" the jounin retorted. "Besides, the two of us should be enough. A jounin's position is always harder when he has to protect fresh genin. I don't have the handicap."
"I guess that's right," the Inuzuka sighed. "But what about the two of them?" She pointed at Naruto and Hotaru.
"If you see strong enemies, don't engage," Tenzo instructed them. "And now let's go. That girl could be getting killed right now."
Inner Sakura had spent all her existence in the back reaches of Sakura's consciousness. She could see everything the girl saw, she could hear everything she felt, but she could do nothing. As long as Sakura was in control, she could only offer her comments on everything and most of the times watch as her advice was unheeded. But not anymore. Now that Sakura went deep in shock and retreated inside herself, Inner Sakura was finally free. And she intended to enjoy every moment of it. The fact that she was currently surrounded by a lot of smelly thugs was only a minor inconvenience. Most of them were too busy staring at Kasumi's death throes to pay her much attention anyway. Unfortunately not all of them. One, probably a pal of the one Sakura had stabbed, was about to cut her in half with his sword. She had no intention to let him.
"Shannaro!" She screamed and charged under his sword and punched him in the groin. The man's eyes bulged and he folded to the ground. She didn't wait for him to fall and attacked another one. He lifted his staff to block, but she jumped high and kicked his face. Then somebody grabbed her other leg and smashed her to the ground. The air left her with a painful yelp, but that only enraged her further. Her right hand found a stone. A nice, big rock with sharp edges. Perfect. She threw it into the crowd. The guy she was aiming at blocked with his forearm, but the stone had a lot more momentum than he had expected. She wasn't sure whether she heard his bone crack or not, but his pained grimace was telling enough.
She sprung to her feet. She narrowly avoided a hand trying to grab her hair. Then she got very lucky when two swordsmen trying to kill her bumped into each other and were knocked off-balance. It was time to get out of here. She could come back and kill the thugs later. Now how to get out? A quick look around revealed a possibility. Two big guys were arguing with each other, leaving only a short, young one guarding that particular direction. That was her opportunity.
She made a movement as if to attack the man on her right and then suddenly sprinted to the left. A club glanced her flank, but she only hissed and raced on. The young thug lifted his sword to stop her, but she grabbed her remaining kunai and threw it at him. It hit his shoulder. Then she was upon him and punched his stomach for good measure. And then the circle of bandits was behind her.
"After her!" "Don't let her escape!" "Bitch!" And a few other angry shout followed her. She paid it no attention. The knife that sailed close to her ear and the rock that hit her left shoulder blade were worse, but she didn't let them stop her. She quickly changed directions, putting a wooden hut between her and her pursuers. Then she headed for the nearest forest as fast as her legs would carry her.
She took a look over her shoulder. The distance between her and her pursuers was growing. Heh. Stupid fat bandits. They could never dream of catching her. She'd teach them why they shouldn't mess with a kunoichi. Once she reached the forest, she built a trap. It was the easiest she could do and it wouldn't fool even an Academy student, but for such morons it was just enough. She used all her remaining kunai and shuriken to ensure she got as many of them as possible. Then she ran on, because the pursuers had almost caught up with her.
Agonized shouts from behind informed her that just as she had expected, the bandits had run straight into her trap. So how many did she get? She couldn't see it clearly through the trees in the falling twilight. It wasn't all of them, that was the only thing she was sure of. Some were still on her tail. But they couldn't catch her. She ran on. She ran until she couldn't run anymore.
A quick search of the surrounding underbrush quickly revealed that Sakura wasn't nearby. When Kakashi summoned Pakkun again, because the pug had returned to wherever he had come from the moment the fight had started, he quickly located her trail and realized that it lead to the bandit camp. Kakashi's mouth straightened into a grim line behind his mask. If Sakura had been taken captive, their situation just took a sharp turn for the worse. He looked towards the camp. He wished he could see what was going on there, but the sun had finally disappeared under the horizon and darkness was falling quickly. The only thing he could be sure of was that there had been a fight in the camp, because there were wounded brigands hobbling around. Also there seemed to be much fewer of them than he would expect from a camp of this size.
"Can you smell what's going on in there, Pakkun?" Kakashi asked. The pug's face wrinkled even more than usual.
"That hole stinks so bad it makes my nose water," he said. "But I can't smell Sakura there."
"Is she dead?" the jounin asked with trepidation.
"I think I could smell that. She's just not there."
"So where she is?"
"I'd have to get closer to find out," Pakkun replied. Kakashi sighed. There was nothing they could use for cover around the bandit camp. He had to admit they had picked their campsite well. But he wasn't a jounin for nothing. He knew many ways to escape detection. Though if there were more nukenin among that bunch, they might see through them.
Pakkun suddenly lifted his head and sniffed the air. "Somebody is coming," he announced. Kakashi's head snapped around. Sure enough, there was a group of three men approaching from the lower parts of the valley. Even at the distance, he could see that they were moving with the grace of skilled warriors. This was going to be troublesome.
"So what that somebody came?" Sasuke scoffed. "They are just some brigands. We can take them."
"Because we're awesome," Shinta added with a grin.
"No, they're ninja," Kakashi corrected them. "At least the three who just arrived."
"There's three of us too," Shinta pointed out.
"Hn." It sounded approvingly.
"They seem above genin level," Pakkun observed.
"Hn." Sasuke was almost smiling. A great opportunity to test his strength just walked into his life. He didn't doubt he could win. He considered himself way above genin level. He was the elite Uchiha after all.
"We can do it," Shinta repeated his opinion. He didn't feel as certain of their victory as Sasuke, but he was optimistic that he would do better than during the earlier fight. He had already survived one scare, he wasn't going to fall for it again.
"It's too dangerous," Kakashi decided. He had a much more realistic opinion on his students' abilities. "I'll go alone."
"What if something happens to you?" Shinta questioned.
"I'm an elite jounin," the one-eyed man replied. "I can take care of myself." 'And if I couldn't, you wouldn't be able to do a thing.'
"But..." It was Sasuke who spoke up this time. He didn't get any further than one word before Kakashi interrupted him.
"No, and that's final. I'm going alone and when I take care of them, we'll find Sakura. So you two stay here unless you want a black mark on your records for insubordination. Understood?" The two genin looked very unhappy, but they nodded obligingly. "Good," Kakashi smiled and sneaked towards the bandit camp.
"It's cold here," Hotaru grumbled, rubbing her bare arms.
"Nobody makes you wear so little," Naruto pointed out, trying not to shiver too obviously.
"This is my style," the purple-haired girl retorted. "I'm a kunoichi. I'm supposed to be sexy."
"I'm no expert on sexy," Naruto replied, "but I think that flak jacket ruins the effect."
"It does," Hotaru agreed with a sigh. "Why does it have to be so bulky? And can't they make it in some prettier color? This shade of green clashes with my hair. Can't they make it purple or black?"
"Then why do you wear it?"
"It might be ugly, but it saved my life a couple of times," the kunoichi answered. "It can stop kunai and shuriken pretty well."
"So if you're wearing the vest anyway, why do you bother showing off your legs?" Naruto questioned.
"As I said, it's my style. I have to show off something."
"Then you're not thorough enough. Remember that Suna kunoichi we met in River Country? The one who was also our chuunin exam proctor?"
"Don't remind me," Hotaru shivered and this time it had nothing to do with the cold. "I'm doing my best to forget her completely. But enough about me? Why do you wear so little? And don't tell me you're not cold, you're all blue."
"I can't help it," Naruto shrugged. "Whenever I use the Whirlwind Fist, my sleeves get shredded. And because I don't want to spend all my money on new clothes, I started wearing short sleeves and pants. Destroying my shoes every once in a while is costly enough."
"If you refine your technique any further, you'd get in trouble for public indecency," Hotaru muttered.
"I'm not that bad," Naruto said defensively.
"Yes, you are," his teammate disagreed. "Remember how you destroyed your pants completely in the battle last week?"
"That was an accident. And there was enough of my pants left. And I was more worried that I sliced my thigh."
"That got me worried too," Hotaru said. "Seriously, how comes you still have all your fingers considering all the Wind blades you use?"
"Sometimes I wonder too," Naruto admitted. There was a moment of silence. Then Naruto stiffened.
"What is it?" Hotaru asked, scanning the surroundings for any sign of danger. She couldn't detect any.
"I hear something."
"I'm not sure," he shrugged, "it's too faint. But I think we're close."
They continued forward, a bit more alert.
"I think it's singing," Naruto said after a while.
"What?" Hotaru startled.
"That sound I've been hearing. I think it's singing."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, it's either that or somebody is being quartered alive."
They continued forward. Soon Hotaru could hear it too. It was indeed singing, though horribly off-key. They proceeded forward with more caution. There wasn't much vegetation around to take cover in, but Hotaru cast a genjutsu that made them invisible unless somebody was really good at detecting. It didn't take them long to come within sight of the source of the singing. It was a bandit camp.
"There's a lot of them," Hotaru remarked.
"I've seen bigger camps," Naruto replied.
"Me too, but that was near big roads. This is in the middle of nowhere. How do they make their living?"
"Good question," the boy agreed. He wasn't very familiar with this region, but he knew that the population was sparse in the mountains. "Maybe they make raids into the lowlands?"
"They aren't ninja so it's a long way for them," the purple-haired kunoichi pointed out. Naruto nodded. That was true. With nothing to loot around, how did they make their living?
"I guess it doesn't matter," Hotaru shrugged after a while. "We can't just leave them be, can we?"
"Is it part of our mission?" Naruto asked. He really didn't want to kill, even if they were bandits and probably deserved it.
"Can we afford to have them at our backs?" the kunoichi retorted.
"They are just bandits. What can they do to us?" The idea of killing, of becoming the monster again was really revolting.
"I don't want to find out," Hotaru replied.
"We can wait for somebody to pay for their extermination," Naruto tried one last attempt to weasel himself out of the unpleasant duty.
"Here?" his teammate looked at him as if he was dumb. Naruto sighed. It was time to admit he had lost this debate and steel himself for what was to come.
"Alright. We're doing it."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~With Team 7~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"This sucks," Shinta complained almost as soon as Kakashi disappeared from their sights. "Why do we have to stay here when Sakura might be captured? They might even be killing her right now."
"Hn." Sasuke agreed with his teammate about the sucking part. He too wanted to run into the camp and kill some bandits, not out of concern for Sakura, though if he was honest with himself, he'd admit he was worried for her, but because he finally wanted to fight. He had to fight to activate his Sharingan. He had to activate his Sharingan to grow stronger. He had to grow stronger to kill Itachi and avenge his clan. Didn't Kakashi know it? Why was he holding him back so?
"Shall we go?" Shinta suggested.
"Too soon," Sasuke shook his head. "Kakashi would hear us and stop us. Let's wait until he starts fighting." He didn't even consider the possibility of obeying orders and staying hidden. Gaining strength took precedence over everything else for the avenger. If he would get a reprimand for it, then so be it. It wasn't going to be anything serious anyway. He was The Last Uchiha and everybody in Konoha loved him after all. He didn't have to fear anything more serious than a slap on his wrist. (He had a really inflated opinion of his own importance.)
"Alright," Shinta nodded. He didn't worry about reprimands because he worried about Sakura more. And so they waited.
They almost missed when the fight began. Kakashi's initial attack was so swift and stealthy that his target didn't even realize he was there until his throat was already slit. His companions reacted swiftly, proving that they were indeed experienced shinobi. One swiped his tanto at Kakashi, who blocked with a kunai. The other tried to punch him in the ribs, but the Copy Ninja dodged. The fight was on.
"Now," Sasuke decided. He took off towards the bandit camp, which was slow to react to the sudden commotion. Shinta followed at his heels. They made it about halfway towards their destination when the bandits finally reacted to the alarm and ran out of their hovels. Most of them looked toward where Kakashi was fighting the two ninja, but somebody noticed the two genin too. He pointed at them and shouted. Immediately most of the outlaws turned towards them. Sasuke just smirked. Slaughtering opponents who didn't even know he was there would give him very little experience. This way the fight would be much more valuable.
Sasuke stopped when he saw the row of armed men running towards him. 'Time to show them why the Uchiha are elite,' he thought. His hands clasped together, forming seals.
"Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!" he called before exhaling a ball of fire. It was a good one, even if he said so himself. The flames enveloped the four bandits closest to him. Their screams were terrible and Sasuke was a bit shaken. Though he had seen death before, it was never by burning. This looked much worse than being slain by a sword.
"You bastard!" somebody shouted. There was a lot of anger and hate in the voice, though not nearly as much as Sasuke felt for Itachi. It wasn't going to give the man enough strength to defeat him. Sasuke grabbed two kunai and stood in a ready stance. This was going to be a good fight.
Shinta silently cursed his teammate. He had continued his charge against the bandits even when Sasuke had stopped to cast his jutsu and as a result he had only narrowly escaped the fireball. Didn't Sasuke ever look where was he shooting his fancy Uchiha jutsu? He had thought the duck-haired boy had learned after the lecture Kakashi had given him when he had done something similar during a team practice, but apparently not. He should just keep out of Sasuke's range. He didn't mind, it gave him more space to look for Sakura.
But looking for his missing teammate would have to wait, because there were at least ten goons in his path. He didn't worry about them. He was a ninja, they weren't. He grabbed a handful of shuriken and threw. His aim was never the best, but at this distance he couldn't miss. Three of the men approaching stumbled with shuriken embedded in their torsos. The others continued in their charge. Shinta threw another bunch of shuriken, but this time his aim was off. Only one more bandit fell down. And he caught more rushing towards him out of the corner of his eye. This wasn't good. But he was a shinobi and they were not. Even if he was just a genin, he was levels above them.
He grabbed two kunai and charged at the closest one. The man swung his sword at him, but Shinta ducked under it and slashed the man's thigh. The bandit toppled with a curse. Shinta smirked. This was easy. He turned towards his next opponent. This man was better than the first one. He blocked Shinta's wild kunai swipe with his own blade. But Shinta's other hand was still free and he used it to stab the bandit in the chest. The bandit's legs gave under him and he began collapsing. Shinta wanted to jump away, but his kunai got stuck between the bandit's ribs. Instead of abandoning it and jumping away he yanked at it again. This time something gave and Shinta stumbled away, his balance completely off. Somebody was quick to capitalize on it. The genin didn't see whose club hit him on the shoulder and knocked him to the ground. He just saw that there was a spear aimed at him. He tried to roll away, but he was stopped by somebody's legs. He had only enough time to be surprised before the spear landed. Then there was only pain.
Another Evil Cliffhanger no Jutsu. Sorry to whoever hates it, but this was the place to cut the chapter.
Next time: What happened to Shinta? And how is Team Tenzo's investigation going?