The blood was flowing faster now, in an excited rush to leave the body that had always allowed too much of it to be spilled. And never for a good enough cause. This blood was too precious to be wasted. It seeped into the dirt. So many years it had spent sustaining its owner's life, unappreciated. Well perhaps its absence would be lamented. Even if it won't, it was too late. Thankfully, his comrades' blood was safe, in some place far from where these spiteful rivulets were flowing. But his blood was flowing faster now.
Kakashi tried to tear his mind away from the growing pool of red. It was speaking to him. Harsh, resentful words. Knowing that he had no choice he drove the kunai in deeper, trying to purge his system of the poison that – at this very moment – was telling him those now safe had not been worth saving. The bright red, which glinted in the moonlight, hurt his eyes. The battle to keep control of his mind continued, as did the relentless crimson flow.
"You should have let them die." He refused to recognise the cold, harsh voice as his own. "The mission would have been completed a lot faster, and you wouldn't have been in this mess right now."
The logic was sound. The words felt true. Indeed he knew that they had all the potency of incredible intelligence behind them. But there were two principles that Kakashi Hatake always followed. Never trust a genius. And always play the fool. He twisted the blade sharply before pulling it loose.
Grabbing a roll of bandages from his pack, Kakashi bound the wound tightly. It was located at the base of his ribcage on the left side of his body. The proximity to his lungs made breathing almost more pain than it was worth. And yet his breath was coming in short, sharp bursts now, uncontrolled.
'Damn it,' he thought, 'I've lost too much blood.'
Kakashi rose slowly, not allowing himself to accept the level of agony his wound was trying to present him with. He leant against a nearby tree as a wave of nausea tested his resolve to stay conscious to the absolute limits. Then gradually and with immense effort, he regulated his breathing and the rapid beating of his heart as it tried desperately to circulate what little blood there remained.
Treating each step as a separate but vital mission, he began to make his way slowly back to the village. At his normal pace, such a journey would have taken about four hours. But as the moon crept steadily across the sky, Kakashi realised that his normal pace was far beyond his current capabilities.
His feet moved instinctively, knowing that if they stopped he would collapse, and probably not get up again. He let his feet continue to drag him onwards, one step at a time, and allowed his mind to reflect on the mission that – although successful – might yet prove to claim his life.
"And what makes you think you're not just being paranoid?" Genma's subtly musical voice carried to where Kakashi was perched on a branch above the Tokubetsu Jonin's head.
"Or just imagining things," Asuma added sceptically, and Kakashi heard him shifting his weight restlessly from foot to foot. "I think there's a town about a half hour's walk from here. Me and Genma were going to grab a drink, and maybe find someplace to stay for the night."
"The Hokage wants that scroll immediately," Kakashi replied absently, his thoughts lost in scouring the rapidly darkening sky.
"So you take it to her then," Genma rejoined. "I never heard her say it was urgent. If she's pissed with us for wanting to relax for an evening then she can make the next mission seem a bit more pressing than playing mailman for an overfed landlord."
Kakashi's mind was racing. The chance to take the scroll and go hovered overhead like a wide open door. And that's what they wanted him to do. No one would blame him if he went now. He clenched his fists until his knuckles were white beneath his fingerless gloves.
"Actually," he began, his voice deceptively calm, "this was your and Asuma's mission in the first place. Tsunade just let me tag along because she wouldn't give me anything better."
"You mean until you've got enough chakra to handle it?" Asuma smirked derisively.
Three weeks earlier, Kakashi had returned from an S-rank mission gone wrong. Eliminating a band of supposedly five Rogue Ninja near Konoha's border had somehow turned into an all-out twenty-on-one battle. In terms of injuries Kakashi had been relatively unharmed, but he'd had to use close to all his chakra to keep it that way. A border patrol had found him unconscious in a secluded section of woods, surrounded by twenty prone forms that had all been dispatched by various means. After carrying him back to Konoha, the patrol – which Kakashi had later found out consisted of Izumo, Kotetsu, and Raido – had taken him to the Hospital where he'd been forced to stay for two weeks. Tsunade had told him he would be released on one condition – which was in fact an order – that he would not be given any missions for at least a fortnight.
Kakashi ignored Asuma's comment. His chakra was close enough to restored, Tsunade was just being stubborn. "It's your mission, and she said she wanted that scroll before tomorrow morning."
To emphasise his point Kakashi tossed the ribbon-bound document in Asuma's direction. The bearded fool caught it without looking before glaring at Kakashi defiantly.
"Whatever," Genma drawled, "Asuma's too pissed-off to be any fun tonight, let's just go." He started off in the direction of the village but Asuma made no move to follow.
"You coming Kakashi?" the Jonin called, a little louder than was strictly necessary. "Or are you going to keep bird-watching all night?"
"Actually, bird-watching does sound appealing," the Copy-Ninja answered in an effortlessly relaxed tone. "Especially considering this is the first time I've been allowed out in three weeks. But like I said, you guys better go complete the mission. I'll be along later."
"Bastard," muttered Asuma, "you expect us to deliver this back to the village while you stay out here and relax?"
"Pretty much, yeah." Kakashi's reply was even, but his heart was pounding.
"Okay then 'Kashi, hope you don't mind me letting the Fifth Hokage know you've lost your mind." Genma waved over his shoulder as he disappeared into the tree-line with Asuma in tow – the Jonin still grumbling to himself.
"Oh she already knows," was Kakashi's response as his two friends finally faded from view. They vanished into the darkness. Just like the crow had vanished mid-flight, not dropped out of the sky, just vanished.
Kakashi had immediately guessed that it was someone's poor attempt at a genjutsu. He'd sent out a spike of his chakra, as many shinobi would do automatically upon sensing a threat. Although, in this case, Kakashi had used it to warn whoever was out there that their stunt had been detected. And luckily the jutsu had been lifted before it had fully formed.
Suddenly though, Kakashi had realised that the sloppiness of the attempted genjutsu may not have been as unintentional as it had first appeared. It could have been just as much of a warning to him as Kakashi's response had been to the caster. And there was only one genjutsu user Kakashi knew who favoured the manipulation of crows.
He hadn't shared his thoughts with the others, but they knew he'd seen something strange when he'd jumped into the tree to have a clearer view of the sky above. And they'd just rolled their eyes when he said he'd seen a bird appear and disappear out of nowhere. With his suspicion firmly planted in his mind Kakashi's task had then become getting rid of the other two. If his guess proved accurate then the initial genjutsu had been cast with the knowledge that – out of the three of them – only Kakashi would have been able to detect it. Whoever it was – and Kakashi felt he had a pretty clear idea – they wanted to meet him one on one. And if that condition wasn't met, Kakashi was fairly sure Genma and Asuma would have been taken out of the equation quicker than he could have prevented it. And if he'd returned to the village alone he would have left his comrades unprotected, and he couldn't risk leaving them behind in the presence of so great a threat.
So now all he could do was wait, and hope that by the time this was over his friends would have returned to the village safely. He didn't have to wait long. The lengthening shadow of the tree on which he stood slowly began to solidify. It rose in the form of a cloaked figure. Kakashi jumped down from the tree to face the scourge of the Uchiha Clan.
"Good evening Itachi. Long time no see." Kakashi's hands were tucked firmly into his pockets, his expression decidedly vacant. Of course they both knew that his left hand was clasped tightly around a kunai, and that chakra was already being channelled into his right, ready to be given a change of form and elemental composition.
"Long time indeed, Kakashi. I'll get straight to the point. I've been sent here because the Akatsuki want to use you in a test. You should be honoured."
"A test, eh? Well I've never really been into exams. I assume it's nothing I'm going to go along with willingly."
"You could. It will mean less pain for you in the long-run. But then again, if you try and fight the process your death will be beneficial to our cause as well."
Kakashi rolled his eyes. He hated these cryptic, smug bastards. Exposing his Sharingan and shifting his weight to the balls of his feet the Copy-Ninja readied himself for battle. He no longer cared what Itachi's intentions were. They had his death as a possible outcome, beyond that, he wasn't bothered to hear the full story.
Itachi wasted no time either, launching a frontal assault with a kunai in hand. Kakashi parried the attack, but allowed his kunai to be forced from his grip as Itachi twisted his own blade. Knowing the move that the Uchiha was about to make, Kakashi's electrically charged, bright blue chakra began collecting in his right palm. With his left hand – which was now free of the kunai – he held Itachi's wrist in a vice-like grip, even as the Uchiha's blade slid neatly into his side. Swiftly Kakashi thrust forward with his Raikiri and Itachi exploded into a dozen crows.
As the birds gained height, Kakashi could hear Itachi's voice lingering somewhere on the wind. "I've completed my task. If we've mixed the components correctly, the poison I've introduced into your system will drive you to kill those that you hold most dear. Fortunately for us, that includes some of the stronger Konoha Ninja, and perhaps even the Hokage, and the Nine-tails Jinchuriki. If we haven't mixed them correctly, I suppose it's back to the drawing board, but it's likely you'll die either way. The poison will kill you once it's run its course, we've spared you from having to live with the guilt of killing those that you love." There was an undercurrent to Itachi's voice that Kakashi couldn't quite make out.
"How considerate," Kakashi's retort was spoken through clenched teeth. Itachi, or rather his crows, had already disappeared. And so the Copy-Ninja lifted his kunai from the ground and, as usual, prepared to carry out the action that seemed least likely to result in his comrades' deaths. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind a voice was already trying to tell him that it wouldn't be worth the bother. With malice Kakashi drove the kunai in and allowed his blood to flow freely. It was a desperate act but after that Raikiri he had little chakra left to aid him – he hated to admit it, but Tsunade's assessment was seeming more accurate by the second. However, of one thing Kakashi was absolutely certain: no comrades of his were going to die today. Not if he could help it.
"You did WHAT?" The sheer volume of Tsunade's voice was enough to make Asuma and Genma take a step backwards. So when she abruptly rose from her seat, fists clenched and knuckles white, it was all they could do not to make a run for it.
But the two shinobi were made of sterner stuff than that, so they returned her furious gaze with defiant ones of their own.
"How could you just leave him there?" Tsunade's thoughts went to Kakashi. Sure it hadn't been a complicated mission, and it wasn't altogether far from the village, but she knew that the brat didn't have enough chakra right now to handle anything major. But maybe the two were right; they'd said he just wanted some fresh air. Maybe she was overreacting. It was just that the winning lottery ticket, which lay crumpled in her waste-paper basket, begged to differ. She sighed and slowly sat back down.
When Asuma spoke he sounded uncharacteristically agitated. "It's simple. The kid said he wanted to relax for a while and seeing as it was never really his mission we thought we'd just head back. It was you who wanted the scroll so damn badly."
The Hokage shrugged. "Not really. It's just some landlord asking to expand his property and we're the only neighbours he thinks care enough to mind."
Asuma and Genma exchanged confused glances before Genma spoke. "Kakashi definitely said it was urgent. Otherwise why would he've wanted us to get back so soon?"
It was a good question. Tsunade pondered the various options. There was the possibility that Kakashi had simply wanted to get rid of the others so that he could have some time to relax. Maybe he'd even brought one of Jiraiya's perverted novels along. But it was out of character for the brat to lie about Hokage's orders. Surely there was a better reason than wanting to enjoy a few hours of uninterrupted lechery. But then again, he did seem capable of doing just about anything if it meant some quality time with his favourite reading material. No, something just didn't seem right with having that as the reason.
She finally responded. "You said he saw something unusual. Tell me."
"Well I didn't see anything," Genma began, "but Kakashi thought he saw a bird flying and then it just disappeared. But I never saw it in the first place; me and Asuma reckon he imagined it. Right Asuma?"
"Actually," the Jonin replied slowly, "the more I think about it the more I feel Kakashi just wouldn't make a mistake like that – I mean thinking he saw something when there wasn't anything there."
Genma frowned for a moment. "We're all human Asuma, even Kakashi. He can make mistakes too you know. Though he did seem pretty certain…"
Tsunade listened to the exchange with her elbows perched on the desk, her chin resting on her steepled fingertips.
"Did he say what type of bird it was?" She wasn't sure what the relevance of this might be, if indeed there was any, but she felt compelled to find out all she could. It wasn't every day that Kakashi Hatake sent his comrades back to the village on false pretences.
"I'm not sure," responded Asuma.
Tsunade was certain there was something he was withholding.
Genma soon confirmed her suspicions. "You mean you were too busy thinking about the nearest bar, Asuma?"
The bearded Jonin's eyes were fixed on the floor with seeming fascination, and Tsunade could have sworn she saw his cheeks redden slightly. Genma continued.
"I think Kakashi said something about it being a raven – or a crow. Yeah actually I'm pretty sure he said crow."
This somewhat sketchy report didn't exactly inspire Tsunade with confidence but she had nothing else to go on. So she took Genma's word for it and tried to work out what Kakashi's line of thinking might have been. A bird disappearing mid-flight; assuming it wasn't simply the kid's imagination there was only one other way the senses could be thus manipulated. Genjutsu.
"Had either of you considered the possibility of it being a genjutsu?" she asked after a pause.
The two ninja's eyes widened. That was enough to inform Tsunade that they hadn't thought of this at the time, and by the looks on their faces they were starting to think that Kakashi had. A vanishing crow, but why? Tsunade felt she was missing something important.
She thought hard about every genjutsu wielder outside of the Land of Fire strong enough that Kakashi knew his friends would not be safe – and that he would not be able to protect them. She didn't have to think for long. Her face paled and for a moment she held her head in her hands. Then she met the eyes of two of Kakashi's most loyal comrades, knowing she was about to utter a word that would make their blood freeze.