I do not own, or receive any benefit, from the Naruto properties.
A Teacher's Glory: A Union of Rejects: Chapter 17
By Larry Huss
Twelve days after the invasion of Konoha and the breaking of Suna, Hyuga Hiashi requested an audience with the Emergency Executive Committee of Konohagakure. His justification was that he had an interesting proposition for them, and perhaps the answer to a problem that had been troubling them in the few hours they had free to fret about things other than repairing the structure of the village, and ensuring its food and water supplies. The Committee's inner group, the team that the Temporary Head, Nara Shikaku, consulted with before any major action, was resigned to having to make nice with the Hyuga clan leader for political reasons. Despite, having in their opinion, many more important things to do.
"Beyond the rubbish that Konoha is, somehow, a non-violent village of ninjas, there exists an odd fact," Hyuga Hiashi said, trying for an unnatural friendly tone. "We are in fact perhaps the only reliably non-genocidal one. At least if we are left to our own devices. Currently we have an embarrassment of victory on our hands: 1,800 Suna soldiers, including most, if not all, of their elites. You, as the ruling junta of Konoha, are in a predicament. You must either release them in order to fulfill the prescriptions of the First Hokage that the founding of the Hidden Villages was intended to end the mass slaughter and endless warfare of the time when each ninja clan was isolated and at war with all the others, and we were the playthings of the Daimyos and their armies and their gold… or our captives must be executed quickly to prevent their escape or their 'rescue' by an outside force.
"What that will do to our reputation… and to us… if we destroy so many that are at our mercy? It will gnaw at the foundations of our village, cripple our diplomacy, and probably damage the minds of those who are assigned to do the killing. Perhaps they can be tied up, and we could hire some of our civilians to chop off their heads? Or will that give the civilians an unfortunate idea that ninja can be slaughtered like so many sheep, if the right conditions can be arranged? No matter. Afterwards they won't talk about the 'Bloody Mist' anymore. Between the Nine-Tails attack, the Uchiha Massacre, the Invasion, and the executions, the only way that outsiders will speak about us will be as 'the Bloody Leaf.'"
Yamanaka Inoichi, veteran of more interrogations and mind ravagings than he cared to remember, tried to get things moving in some meaningful direction. They all had better things to do than have the Hyuga recite the obvious.
"And if we let them go, Suna remains desperate and dangerous, and no matter what oaths we make them swear, unreliable. A lot will hold grudges for their casualties. For that matter, a lot of us are holding grudges for their betrayal and the deaths they've caused. If your daughter, Hyuga-sama, hadn't been at the right spot at the right time, we'd have had a demon loose in the town, as well as all those damn snakes."
Yamanaka looked over to his teammate, and the current village leader, who nodded.
"So we can't just let them go, and we lack the space and the staff to imprison them indefinitely as we are still going to keep this war going until we destroy… no genocide if they surrender… Oto. Orochimaru… we'll have to find some way to send him to Hell. Do you have a solution to this little quandary? We owe you some of our time, for your daughter's sake if nothing else, but all of us are trying to do at least two jobs at once right now."
The Hyuga smiled; it was sometimes a relief to talk to rude men with a real job to do, and not have to put up with those who tradition and filial piety demanded he obey, no matter how much he saw them mistaken.
"Surely we can use our problems to solve each other? The war we must wage with Oto will need many troops. One way or another, casualties will be heavy. One way of controlling our losses… and not the worst… would be to use the Suna ninja, all of them here and those still out in their sand-box, to lead the way in locating the Village Hidden in the Sound, and taking the losses of the first assaults."
Akimichi Choza chuckled. "Just the people I'd want at my back, when I'm in a death-duel with one of those Oto cursed-seal freaks!
"I don't care how many hostages we keep, there'll be more of the Suna ninja going missing nin, or backstabbing us, than will be willing to go up to the battlefront, much less leading the assault."
It was the Hyuga's turn to smile. "And, no doubt, we would be hard pressed to keep enough hostage-guards off of other duties to keep all those women and children in one place to be slaughtered if their relations decide go bad on us.
"There are problems with the old 'you've drunk a timed release poison, and only I have the antidote' thing. They're that any poison we use would weaken our new troops, or that they can either find their own antidote, or miss their safety dosage. And so that wouldn't do, at all!"
A cat-masked ANBU moved out of the shadows, and asked, "Do you have a better alternative?"
The clan-head nodded. Then he drew a scroll from the loose sleeve of his robe, and tossed it onto the table the Temporary Head was seated out. The parchment roll was yellowed, and stiff with time. On the outside there was a beautifully drawn figure of an elegant and serene room… with a bird cage in one corner.
"We will need the Sannin Jiraiya, and probably some other talented seal-masters and scholars to do the needed modifications.
"While the Uchiha had a deserved reputation for being able to make those outside of their clan do their bidding, the Hyuga have been the experts in making sure that those inside of it were properly obedient. I have a few, humble, suggestions on what the modifications should actually do. And, for revealing one of the most sacred secrets of my clan, I only want a few little favors from you. Some personal matters that should probably be resolved… should have been resolved, long ago…"
Thirty-four days after the fall of Suna, and sixteen after she was given a dream of hope, Temari, who might soon be of Konoha and made free, mentally rehearsed the sequence in pantomime. The Uchiha would start his flame technique, firing it down the ventilation flue concealed in the stand of bamboo near the marsh. When it was at its hottest she would advance, and use her Battle Fan to feed and force (and intensify) the heat down into the corridors and tunnels of the underground Oto base. Loath him though she did, she had to admit that he wasn't just all dirty tricks and cheap shots. His Fire Lance could have been used to heat a blast furnace.
A half-kilometer away the blond Sorcerer had already started to slowly and subtly increase the exhaust of stale air from the hidden fortress at the other ventilation shaft (hidden in a rocky islet actually in the marsh) that the Bug Boy's insects had discovered. Between her and the other blond, both of them Wind Release types, at least a part of the underground labyrinth would become an oven, baking to death at least some of the enemy. However many she helped kill here, that would be the be the number that wouldn't be alive to defend against the assault going through the camouflaged entrances that the Hyuga Bitch and her cousin had discovered. As the first ranks of the assault forces would be all composed of ex-Suna ninja, this was the best she could do for her former neighbors and might-have-someday-been-friends. She owed them that. After all, it had been Father who had managed to both get them all involved in that stupid plan, and then get himself killed by being inferior in treachery when it mattered most.
Nervously, her hand went up to her forehead, touching the tattoo that was still new and sore. Would they do it, she wondered. Would, when the war was satisfactorily concluded, they erase it from the heads of all the soldiers of fallen Suna, and let them walk without fear of paralyzing pain or sudden death from a mere hand sign? Or whatever it was they used for a trigger; she had felt the pain demonstrated on herself when she had been put on the team. The Uchiha had been merciful, in his own way. He'd only fed her enough discomfort to let her know he could do far worse.
She looked over to her left, where the Bug Boy, Shino, was trying to pretend he wasn't worriedly trying to look in all directions at once. He was their security perimeter right now, with all his insects on the ground or on the wing, trying to locate any sally ports or hidden exits that might erupt with unpleasant surprises. With all the area he was trying to cover, he was denuded of enough of his hive to make him conducting an actual fight impossible.
This was her third combat in the Oto War, and the first time they were trying to use this new "bellows and smokestack" tactic. Maybe it would save them from a brutal head-to-head fight through all the booby-trapped tunnels. That was how Kankuro had gotten hurt during their first battle, when a hidden cross tunnel had suddenly erupted with enemy ninjas while his puppets were up ahead cleaning out a defended barricade set up behind a dip in the tunnel, filled with poison gas. The Yamanakas were looking after him during his convalescence, and from his last letter it seemed he had imprinted on Mrs. Yamanaka like a lost duckling finally finding a mother. Gods and demons, she wished Ino was here to talk with. Teamed up with the Bug Boy, the Uchiha, and their resident genius who had worked out this plan, the Pinkette, was bad enough. That the other two on the team were the Sorcerer (who talked so much and said so little), and the Hyuga Bitch was what made it almost unbearable. How could that shy and dull as dishwater creature have killed her demon-filled brother? How could the Bitch be such a stuttering fool and still four days ago cut her way through corridors full of older and more experienced killers?
Haruno (the Pinkette), out on the island, waved a flag, the signal that the air was moving right, and a good draw was in operation. Uchiha started shooting a blue stream of fire out of his mouth and down the metal pipe (at least 15 meters long the Aburame had said his bugs thought), and she ran forward and put all her chakra into raising a tight tornado of swirling air, cupping her Battle Fan to direct it down the pipe as well. The Uchiha kept up his flame for almost a minute, until he finally stumbled off to the side to actual draw a breath of air for himself. Temari kept fanning air down into the caverns below, then gave a startled jump backwards as the pipe collapsed in on itself as it lost all its strength from the fierce heat. She looked out at the exhaust area on the island, and saw the three out there (Sorcerer, Haruno, and Hyuga) backing away from the flue there, which was venting a pillar of yellow flame. In fact, as she looked to the right, there were two other burning columns shooting out of the ground. She wondered how large the complex below them was if the fires were coming up that fiercely hundreds of meters away…
The Aburame was signaling to his insects to come home, and the Uchiha had finally caught his breath, so they headed off to their secondary assignment to backstop the force at the nearest entrance that Konoha had discovered.
They got there just as the door burst open, and one of those survivors of the Cursed Seal came out at a full run. Through the flames that covered his body and had burned off all his clothing, they could see that he was showing the marks that said that he was using the tainted chakra that enhanced him. No one stopped him as he ran almost a hundred meters, too confused by the pain to even head for the marsh's water, and finally dropped to the ground screaming. No one came to give him any relief though; you could never tell with those Cursed Seal creatures.
They left the area for the next suspected location a few hours later. It would be days, perhaps, before the interior of the underground warren cooled off enough for anyone to enter safely. Only a small unit would be left to check things out then, and collapse any tunnels that remained functional. The rest of the force was moving as quickly as they could. It would be wise to get as many of the Oto buried fortresses burned out before the Sanin who ruled the Village Hidden in the Sound found out about the new tactic, and discovered a counter to it.
Even ninja at war had to sleep sometime, Naruto thought, as he looked around him at the others members of what some of their other regimental mates were starting to call "Team Inferno." They'd been moving at the run for the last two days, and after cleaning out the latest nest of Orochimaru's troops they had only managed to get far enough away that they couldn't smell the odor of burnt meat before they just had to take a rest. In a few hours they would be heading north again, to where Team Guy had located another tunnel complex to take care of. Even Guy wasn't crazy enough to enjoy doing a few kilometers of frontal assaults through tunnels under the earth by himself. The team would be spending their time keeping the place under observation, and preparing a pre-battle briefing for the rest of the Assault Unit Asuma.
It was a shame that Sensei wasn't there with them, but she had somehow gotten involved in weird, high-level, diplomatic stuff back at Konoha. Still, he couldn't complain. They were a self-contained bunker-busting unit that could handle most anything. Shino and Hinata-chan gave tactical reconnaissance, while Sasuke, Temari-chan, and he had close-in power and sheer blasting talent. And Sakura-chan had all the brains they could ever hope to need. Their second operation had gone almost as smoothly as the first. Still, a few of the enemy had been confirmed to have escaped, so it was only a matter of time until they started to put in protective baffles or something to stop fire from pouring down on them. So Asuma-sama was trying to hit as many of the Oto outposts as possible before the word got out.
He felt Hinata-chan snuggle in a bit against his side. It had taken a stern talking to, but Sakura-chan had finally gotten it through his head that the Hyuga princess was actually interested in him. After all those years of rejection (for various reasons by various people) it was a weird feeling. He liked it.
Still… the war was going to last a while longer. Oto was too dispersed to be finished off in one quick battle, but that also meant that it was almost impossible for them to organize and concentrate their strength. The Cursed Seal guys were really tough, but the stronger they got, the stupider they fought.
There was probably a lesson in there for him, wasn't there?
And after the war… he had some commitments. He'd told Hinata-chan, and she'd sort of beamed at him. That was kind of odd; he'd expect anyone not on Team Seven to at least be a little suspicious when he said something like that, but she just believed him right off the bat. 'I have to go to a far off mountain and learn really great ninja stuff from a monkey.' She'd just got a faraway look in her eyes, and said in her little voice "Contract?" And believed him as soon as he'd nodded. Weird girl.
In an hour or so he'd have to wake up Temari of… of no place in particular right now… for her turn of guard duty. Naruto hoped that the promises that had been made to all the ninja once from Suna would be kept; it must suck to know that they had a death sentence tattooed on the middle of their foreheads for everybody to see. Hinata-chan could barely look at the girl; it was like she felt guilty that the modified slave-seal had been stitched onto her. Temari-san glaring at her and doing more growling than speaking when she had to answer a question didn't help much, either. The blond could even handle Sasuke better than that. She had nasty nicknames for each of them, except for Naruto himself. If she didn't use his real name, she just called him Sorcerer. Having someone, well a lot of folks, call him that wasn't as satisfying as he had thought it would be. 'Be careful what you wish for…'
Despite how grumpy Temari was all the time, no one ever brought up how she cried herself to sleep every night. She wasn't loud or anything, and after what she had been through it really seemed it would be mean to make fun of her. Naruto guessed that Sasuke, especially, must have a feeling for her, what with the similarities between what had happened to them and all. Naruto himself… well he'd always wanted parents and everything, but at least he'd never had a family taken away from him that he could remember. That must be terrible! So, after Shino and Sakura-chan, he was one of the lucky ones… how pathetic was that?
He heard a commotion off at the northern perimeter of the Unit's sentry line. With his keen ears he could hear… it sounded like Lee, and the words were indistinct… but the noise patterns sounded like he was talking every time he could catch his breath. Now someone was running from the guard outpost and yelling for Asuma-sama, and for a medic. Why wasn't Guy the person giving the report? Naruto gave Hinata-chan a shake, and as she came-to he got up and carefully (you don't want to suddenly wake up ninja when they might be in the middle of a nightmare) the others of his Team. Something was up, and short of the half-dozen Jonin in the Unit his Team were the best Reconnaissance troopers Asuma-sensei had with them. With Shino's insects and Hinata-chan's Byakugan they were even as good in the dark as during the day. It sounded like something had gone wrong, up at the next target, and they'd be doing something a little more… directly confrontational… pretty damn soon.
By the time the messenger from Asuma located them in the dark, Uchiha Sasuke had already managed to get a pot of coffee half-heated. All around them the Unit was waking up, but Naruto's quick actions meant that at least their Team had a chance to get something hot in their bellies before they had to get back on the road. He was trying something new right now: heating the water directly, without bothering with creating a flame. It took a bit more chakra, but it was faster. He looked over at Sakura; she nodded and began to get the canteen cups from the rest of the Team.
The messenger blurted out that the Team Leader should report immediately to the Commander for special orders. Shino looked at him with a raised eyelid; they'd been driving Asuma-sama crazy by sending different people (even their Suna conscript) up to get their orders briefing each time they were summoned. "Two?" Sasuke inquired.
"Save some coffee for Shino and me, will ya'?" Naruto said as he grabbed the Aburame and headed off to where they'd been told to go. Sasuke was still a bit too groggy to work out how many more briefings it would take until they showed up as a committee-of-the-whole in order to do something unique in confusing/annoying the more rigid minds of the other Team leaders. Ah, the stuff was ready… he began to pour it out, and even the confirmed tea-drinkers Sakura and Hinata were glad to get something hot and caffeinated into them at this time of the night.
He'd knocked back his oversized cup of bean-based consciousness by the time Shino and Naruto returned. He motioned to the partially filled pot, now sitting and keeping warm on a small, smokeless fire he'd set up. Naruto looked over, gave a nod of thanks, and made a beeline to get himself something to drink while he could. He brought back Shino's filled cup also, as the boy unbuttoned his tall coat-collar. That way he could relax while he gave them their mission as he sipped something to get himself awake. Sasuke expected it was some sort of badge of honor and trust that Shino was even that informal with his teammates.
"Team Guy ran into an unexpected intruder detection system earlier this evening. The enemy base responded with an outflanking move that caught them off-guard, and attacked from an unexpected direction with great numbers. Team Guy was falling back when unexpectedly powerful attacks, perhaps some sort of Earth Jutsu, hit them suddenly. Hyuga Neji and Tamura Tenten were injured in the enemies' first strike. Rock Lee had to evacuate them while Jonin Guy preformed rear-guard duty.
"Because he had to carry both of his team-mates, Lee was unable to adequately cover his trail, and he is sure that he is being pursued by a force from the base. We are to act as a recon team to backtrack Lee, and find out if this is true. We will, of course, provide any needed assistance to friendly ninjas we encounter. Our mission will continue as close to the enemy base as seems practicable." He took a long and appreciative sip.
Naruto threw back the remains of his coffee, and winced as it burned his tongue.
"So let's get going; even Guy is goin' to be getting tired by the time we get up to where he's been giving those Oto jerks a run-around."
In less than a minute they had packed up their stuff, and it took even less time for them to organize their formation. It was still night, so Hinata with her Byakugan would be in the center and up front. Next to her would be Naruto to give her close-in protection and the aid of his sensitive nose and ears. Triplets of Naruto Shadow Clones would be to the flanks, to expand their frontage and give alert when they either discovered something, or were self-dispersed. Aburame and Uchiha deployed slightly back and to the right, and Haruno and Temari staggered a bit back and to the left. Behind them all were twenty Clones to either set up a defensive (and trapped) line if they had to fall back, or provide a deep flanking force if they met a properly small-enough sized group of the enemy to take down in one gulp. Each of the Clones was given a standard set of kunai and varied paper explosive and smoke tags. Mixing the real and the merely chakra-formed in a night battle was sure to bring a little welcome chaos to the situation.
At the last minute Naruto made five Clones to stay with Asuma-sama. Orochimaru's agents could have penetrated the Konoha communications systems; no one knew for sure, but it was hard to figure how he'd be able to intercept the chakra (and information) that would return to Naruto when one of the Clones with the headquarters group dispersed itself.
They hadn't gone ten minutes at speed through the brushy scrub before Sasuke and Shino had to pull up to a stop as Naruto and Hinata rushed back to them, with five newly made Clones shooting off; one to the left, one to the right, and three straight back. So... Sasuke thought, flanks are warned, and messengers gone off to alert the main body.
"They're coming up at a trot, two-three minutes away at most. We'll give them a bump, and start leading them off to the left," Naruto said, pointing in one direction to avoid any 'my left/your left' hilarity. "Sakura's getting briefed, and a message is going back to base. Don't worry about making things spectacular… we'll want to attract their attention as well as let Asuma-sama… shit here they are!"
With that he threw an explosive tag wrapped around a lead weight at a group of ninja about forty meters away that had just appeared at the run out of the star-lit gloom. Before it had landed and gone off, the four teammates had sorted themselves out in a line and were starting to angle themselves to make their retreat in the desired direction look like a natural falling-back toward their main body. The right flank guard of Naruto Clones cut across the front of the enemy force to join their originator, throwing smoke bombs and generally creating confusion in the enemy ranks. Sasuke noted that the Clones had taken on different faces.
As the enemy cautiously poked their heads out of the smokescreen, Sasuke spat a Great Fireball at them, more to slow down their advance than in hopes that he'd do much damage. Still, it was gratifying to see two of them catch fire. Oto ninja! So damn specialized they didn't know how to defend themselves from something so basic!
As Naruto drew the enemy further toward the left, Sasuke wondered why they weren't waiting for the rest of the Team to come. As the smoke screen finally dissipated they could see that the Oto force was well over forty, and increasing quickly. Most were pretty short and scraggily, though. 'Kunai bait,' Sasuke thought to himself. About one in four seemed to be larger; probably older and more experienced. Some maybe even carrying Orochimaru's special augmentations. Those were the ones who'd send in the small fry to keep the Konoha ninja occupied, while the more skilled organized themselves and set up kill zones for their long range attacks, probably sound-based.
"Try to keep them clustered up in front of us, but out of contact," Naruto said.
Sasuke noted that Shino was being cautious about sending out his insect allies, and Hinata was carefully trying to direct the just-arrived left flank Clone force to use their missiles to keep the Oto troops from spreading out in that direction. The enemy were trying to set up a covering barrage of senbon and kunai to protect their augmented combat specialists closing in, but evidently when Orochimaru had set up Oto as a sort of anti-Konoha he had done too good a job of it. Instead of sets of tightly coordinated teams that naturally followed the leader of their next larger unit, Oto seemed to tend toward a mob of individuals who followed the strongest perceived fighter. And the ad-hoc nature of the pursuit of Team Guy had evidently not let them sort out who that was. Some of the would-be Alphas (to use an Inuzuka- term) were for falling back, some were trying to direct outflanking moves, and some were going for a mass rush straight forward.
Before they got themselves sorted out, Sasuke heard the noise of a great storm start, and Temari's contribution to the fight showed up as a wall of wind came in from the darkness on the right. The sudden wall of wind hitting them before they could get braced knocked down dozens of the smaller ones; there were even a few who were lifted off of their feet and who sailed through the air until they collided with something solid and vertical. There were still about ten of the bigger ones, either getting up quicker or never having been knocked down. From behind them there was the sound of another gaggle or mob (calling them a company, or even a war-band seemed too generous) coming up fast. Higher pitched was the sound of Sakura's methodical Quick Needles coming out about once every three seconds as she tried long-range sniping from the shadows.
A group of perhaps fifteen rushed toward the main group of Konoha ninja, one of the Oto force visibly swelling as he charged forward. Sasuke pulled out his kodachi, and began to charge and give it an extended Fire Blade when the now two-meter and more tall ninja leading the charge suddenly had his back explode, throwing his body forward the last twenty meters to the Konoha ninja (Shino) he had been charging. Before he ran forward and chopped the enemy's head off, Sasuke noticed that a pattern of purple, vein-like patterns were quickly fading from the corpse. Then it was all close range stuff with the ten or so who had managed to close with the Konoha battle line.
For whatever reason, the Shadow Clones on one flank had a hard time with the three Oto ninja who opened their mouths and evidently emitted some sort of Silent Scream that destabilized them. So much for pretending that Team Seven(+) was a scouting and delaying team staffed by all living members. Still, the really-living members of it had quickly managed to cut down six of the initial charge that had reached them.
Unfortunately, the next mob had finally shown up and decided to get involved in the only battle they could see. At least seventy more enemy were charging in, and Sakura and Temari evidently didn't have a good angle to shoot from without targeting their own side with any misses.
The whole Konoha line fell back, until Sasuke noticed a series of blazes cut into the bark of a line of spindly trees. He went back another ten meters and turned. Reluctantly Naruto nodded agreement and did the same, yelling out to the others, "Defend on this line for now!" Sensei had taught them that a line defended by traps and obstacles alone really didn't delay the enemy very long or well.
Sasuke saw several Clones that had been setting up the traps dissipate, letting Naruto know exactly where the limits of the booby-trapped zone were, and more importantly where the safe path through it was. The blond began desperately to yell to Hinata to close in on him… she wasn't quite quick enough, as one of the swiftest of their pursuers managed to hit an explosive tag trap and she was clipped in the side by a piece of his leg, going down for a second.
She was up in an instant, hardly limping, and tucked herself two steps to the left and a half pace forward of Naruto, while Shino did the same to the right of Sasuke. Sasuke extended his Fire Blade until it was just short of two meters long; he knew that Naruto had done the same (with Wind Chakra) for his sword. Most enemy would shy away from two meters of fire swinging and stabbing at them in the dark, and run into Naruto's invisible two meters of cutting winds. If anyone managed to close inside of the best cutting range of the long weapons… well, that was what Shino and Hinata were there for. Shadow Clones were covering the flanks for about twenty meters on either side, and some were preparing to do Substitution Techniques to rescue any of the living fighters who were injured.
The next few minutes were busy, slashing work, with a number of corpses actually set alight and providing flickering illumination. They didn't make one of those poetic 'walls of the fallen enemy' in front of their position. In the dark (except for the light of Sasuke's blade and the few ignited dead) it was probably inevitable that a thrown kunai managed to actually get through the confusion of moving bodies and stick itself into Sasuke's thigh.
Before he could protest that he was still alright, he was suddenly twenty meters back as two Narutos filled in his place at the front. Cursing, he let his fires die, sheathed his blade, then pulled it out quickly as the heated metal began to set the leather sheath on fire, and began to gently extract the knife from his leg and bandage it.
He was barely done when the others suddenly pulled back, and two Clones grabbed him by his arms and carried him back a hundred meters more before they let him stand alone. Behind them there was the sound of battle as Clones were delaying the enemy; by the sound of it now over a hundred. Sasuke started cursing out Naruto: "Your idiots made me lose an absolutely great kodachi back there! I don't know if I'll ever be able to buy one as well balanced as that one! You Owe Me!"
Hinata cringed a little at his volume while she helped Shino pull off his overcoat and began to put a compression bandage on a longish but shallow slice in his side. His insects were moving all around on his exposed body, and were even moving over her arms as she worked, but she was well used to them, and they to her, so there were no unpleasant incidents.
"Don't worry, guy," Naruto said. "They ain't getting closer 'cause they're too busy right now. We'll just walk back in a couple of minutes and pick it right back up. We'll wait now, until things quiet down. Ya' notice they ain't closing in on us anymore? They was spending so much time looking at the bright lights I bet they never even noticed Asuma-sensei getting into position to give them a poke in the behind."
'Yes,' Sasuke thought, 'that was what we were supposed to be doing in the first place. It's so easy to get caught up in the actual fighting that you can forget why you were actually doing it. The idea isn't to kill people; it's to win. Killing people is just one way to do it.'
"How are you doing, Shino?" he asked.
"Hinata-san's ointments do a good job of dulling the pain, and otherwise it is more frightening appearing than dangerous," Shino said.
"It's not a paper-cut," Hinata managed to somehow scold him in a soft and gentle voice.
In the end Naruto was proven right… Sasuke did manage to locate his sword, though he wasn't afterwards sure that the temper of the metal wasn't a little damaged by all the flame it had been coated with for so long.
After an hour's rest they began moving up again, though their role as a scouting force had been taken by another group. Too many niggling, small injuries had worked to slow them up enough that Commander Asuma had decided to fold them back into the Main Body, and include them in his bodyguard detachment. Their other skills were being considered too valuable for them to be risked in a task that they were, at best, currently only marginally capable of. That was why when the new scout team reported back of something odder than usual, they went up front with Sarutobi Asuma when he personally went forward to investigate.
Among the expanse of new-made muddy craters, with a few corpses scattered about, stood a forest of four- and five-story tall, sharp-tipped cones of white bone. Perched on top of an arrangement of three of them was what looked like a hut-sized turtle shell, glistening in the sun, smashed at by a flail (the links larger than those used to moor great ocean-going ships) of what seemed to be more bone. Occasionally the shell squirted out to one side or the other when hit, and a suddenly growing spike put it back in position for the next assault. With all that large-scale action, it was a little time until Hinata spotted a mud-streaked figure sitting all hunched up on the edge of a small platform of… white bone. He looked both terribly tired and very depressed.
When they got closer, moving so that there would be at least three open escape routes if things went bad, they saw that the man was pale-skinned, white-haired, young, very thin, and was covered by the now all-too-familiar blotching pattern of the Cursed Seal. It was fading, though, and there was a trickle of blood coming out of the corner of his mouth. When he finally noticed them, he staggered to his feet and tried to brace himself, thrusting his right arm straight out in front of him. A score of pebble-sized objects spurted out of his hand, and fell to earth fifteen meters in front of him, well short of the approaching party. The purple pattern covering his exposed skin began to fade more quickly, the white pillars all around them to shrink, and the man collapsed onto the now crumbling platform he had been standing upon.
Asuma motioned Naruto forward, knowing that if the stranger was just playing at weakness the genin was the person most likely to survive any surprise attack. Naruto looked at his unit commander with a skeptical 'are you crazy?' look, and created a Shadow Clone with a different face, and sent the possible non-human sacrifice forward.
"Hi there?" the brown-haired, tall young man with a Konoha head-band said timidly.
"Die, Konoha dog," the white-haired man said, and unhooked a small knife from a belt loop (right next to a dangling spoon and a long case that held either a very few senbon needles, or a pair of chopsticks), and staggered to his feet. He took a stance that showed he had once seen someone prepare to fight with a kunai, but had never before tried to do that himself.
That made sense, the Clone thought, if he could (when fresh) shoot bone bullets out of his hands. He probably could also do some sort of instant armor (a memory of Gaara made the Clone shudder). With that sort of combination, training for a conventional fight was probably the last thing he'd have thought he had to do. He'd just probably had never been so worn-down before. The Clone took a step forward and disarmed the Oto ninja, and then suddenly dispersed (with the knife dropping to the ground). There was a sharp spike of bone growing out of the Oto soldier's wrist that those looking on could have sworn hadn't been there a few seconds ago. The Oto ninja dropped to his knees in exhaustion, blood dripping down off of his chin to make a small, red puddle on the now bare and muddy ground.
By now, the igloo-sized turtle shell had finally come to ground, rocking slightly. After a moment a subtle change occurred where the upper and lower protective plates met, a slight blurring, and the nose of a giant reptile timidly poked out from between the two surfaces. It pulled back in immediately, and to those keen-eared enough a muffled conversation seemed to be taking place inside, followed by the shell losing its just-waxed appearance and becoming somewhat dingy and scuffed, with even a few noticeable scratches on it. A moment later a beaten and weary Guy dragged himself out, staggered to one foot, and hopped one-legged over to Asuma's command group. There was a crudely tied dressing on his injured calf.
"Have my youthful students reported in? Are they well?" the Jonin blurted out. Naruto thought it was a very Guy way for the de-briefing to start; he always worried about his precious people first.
"Lee got them to us fine… they should be up and running in two or three days. I made sure to get as many field medics as I could when I signed up for this joy-ride," Asuma said.
Guy gave a sigh of relief and began his official report.
"The enemy camp is about five kilometers North-Northwest. It might be one of their basic training and supply bases; there are a fair number of above-ground facilities, as well as a fairly exposed main entrance to their underground areas. Neji was able to confirm the entrance is larger than usual, and he could trace it back down under a hill for perhaps fifty meters; that's as close as we got before the alarm got out and we had to break off. I'd estimate the above ground buildings could house about four hundred trainees and staff. The number of enemy in the underground areas is unknown, but we must reasonably expect that at least as many, perhaps three times as much, could be down there. Or preparing either defenses or an armed reconnaissance-in-force.
"The one over there boasted about being one of Orochimaru's favorites, and perhaps his 'host,' whatever he means by that. Not in charge of the base, but evidently a powerful member of Orochimaru's elite troops. We know he doesn't really have an inner circle… he's too egotistical for that.
"In any case, Kimimaro there boasted of some bone using blood-line talent. Very odd and I'd of thought anatomically impossible, but I did see it with my own eyes. Spikes shot up out of the ground and only Lee of my genin was fast enough to evade them, so I had him evacuate the others while I delayed the enemy forces." He looked around, and saw no Oto troops, living, except for Kimimaro.
"It seems when I had to summoned Ningame to help me deal with… well… survive the several hundred enemies and this Kimimaro person, I must have lost track of things a bit. I had to retreat into Ningame's shell to compensate for my loss of mobility when my leg was injured. Luckily I know a jutsu that puts a smooth wax-like coating on things, and I made sure that none of the bone clamps or weapons managed to get an effective blow in onto my friend and refuge. Of course, both of us got rattled around a little bit."
From the bruises on his face, the bleeding abrasions on his hands and generally wincing way he was moving, beyond any possible effect of the wound on his leg, it appeared that Guy was being a little under-exaggerating things.
"Ningame wanted to use his un-summoning ability to get us to safety on Tortoise Island, but with no way to get back to Konoha within the next four months I was persuasive on getting him to stay here, and continue to distract… at least their greatest asset.
"Ningame, old friend, thank you. And if you wish to return home, do so knowing you have accomplished all the bright and burning Power of Youth could have desired!" Guy yelled out to his Summons.
"Power of Youth my arthritic tail! I'm five hundred years old, come next summer, and three days more, and I think I'm getting a little tired of your childish pranks and games!
"But don't be such a stranger. Maybe we can get together for a picnic sometime?" And with that the giant tortoise vanished in a burst of smoke.
The sole remaining living Oto ninja present had, from his seat on the muddy earth, been following this exchange, and dropped his head to his chest with a groan. Naruto made another Shadow Clone, and sent it forward to talk with the man.
"Yeah, we feel that way about Guy a lot also, from time to time. I think it mainly starts with the jumpsuit; and then the whole Power of Youth thing just confirms the opinion. But, he really isn't that bad when ya' get to know him… really. Uh… would you like to surrender now? I mean… you are sorta' beat up, and you got no friends around, or anything. Really… think about it. I'm serious 'bout this!"
Kimimaro tried to rise to his feet to strangle the impertinent Konoha genin, but finally shrugged and let out another groan. He had never imagined being taken prisoner by child that barely came up to his chest and who had as much an air of authority and dignity as a scruffy pariah hound. Dying in fierce battle, being extinguished as a person when his body was allowed to host Orochimaru-sama, even falling victim to some inferior but scheming rival from among the ambitious survivors of Orochimaru-sama's experiments had all been possibilities. But not this ignominy; not this!
It was only later, as he lay for his brief spell in a hospital bed back in the medical wing of the Torture and Interrogation offices back in Konoha, did he learn he had been taken into custody by the Sorcerer, and his pride was healed.
With Guy banged up so badly that even his sturdy body would need significant time to heal, Neji was given temporary leadership of the advanced scouting force. To it were added a few of the more promising genin, including a newly arrived and operational Inuzuka Kiba as backup. After a rest, they set out to the next hot lead. Before they left on the way to pinpoint the next Oto location, Neji (and Hinata) had determined the perimeter and exits from what turned out to be one of Orochimaru's original and most developed strongpoint's and training bases.
As they established their positions around the underground bunker's sally ports, the Konoha forces preemptively started flattening the above-ground housing and supply and service buildings. The first few yielded some pretty secondary explosions and a few scattered Oto ninja body parts. Then, when it was noticed by at least some of the defenders that the opportunity for a glorious death slaying the enemies of Orochimaru-sama yielded only the plain 'death' part, a number of houses emptied themselves before they were destroyed, and their less-dedicated-than-expected defenders were taken prisoner. It was hardly to be wondered at. As might be expected from the ninja philosophy of Otogakure, those who had been assigned to destroy themselves were the least trained and "valuable" of the troops. Often these were also mere frightened children, who were often kept in line with beatings, threats, and sometimes drugs. With their abusers fled, dead, or hiding out in what they thought was an impregnable hidden fortress, there was little incentive for the more recent recruits (often the victim of kidnappings) to willingly pass on to their next incarnation in defense of those that had abandoned them.
Looking at those wretched prisoners, listening to their stories, Temari gave a wheezing, bitter laugh. Konoha actually was the "nice" Ninja Village. 'Of course,' she thought, 'we're still going to roast those bastards alive in their kindly-built oven that they hide inside. I must be morally deficient, somehow. After all this I still don't have any urge to join a reclusive nunnery, fall on my own knife, or even take up vegetarianism.'
Two more fortresses were burned out before the first effective counter-measures were run up against. And at that, it was really just a more effective set of long distance escape tunnels for the leaders and more valuable specialists to flee through. From then on half the stations, posts, and bases that Assault Unit Asuma ran into were empty, except for a few bewildered stragglers or deserters, and the occasional local civilian refugee trying to loot something useful to help them get by until the next harvest (one that wouldn't be confiscated by the Kage of Otogakure) came in. The others, those that resisted, were fanatic without being especially effective. Even the few Cursed Seal survivors they came up against tended to get sliced to pieces by a storm of kunai before they could do much damage. The number of troops lost in the attack on Konoha, as well as the number of bases already gobbled up, one-by-one, meant that except for a few places only supply and training cadres were left to be dealt with.
It seemed that the hard crust of defended positions that had surrounded what was once the Land of Rice Fields was all there was to deal with. There was no core, no center, no defended citadel to rally on. It had all been a scattering of bases that had been arranged for the benefit of ease of feeding a large number of hastily recruited and sketchily trained expendables for a quick war of conquest. Orochimaru had never intended it to be a lasting ninja country; it was just his way of getting the troops he needed to destroy his old village. The buried fortifications had been for research and development of his various Cursed and surgically modified special soldiers. They had been buried to avoid attracting notice, as the work needed to do such things to humans needed extra years of preparation, and a place to work on many test subjects for each successful abomination produced.
Sakura and Hinata were the leaders of "Team Inferno" when the call came for a conference of all the leaders. This time there was a difference; the outer security perimeter was far enough away that they couldn't overhear what was being said… something special was coming up.
As they approached the knot of twenty or so ninja surrounding Commander Asuma, Hinata nervously called up her Byakugan, and after scanning all those in front of her, began to peer downward to check to see if there were enemies trying to Earth Walk close enough to either attack or eavesdrop. Sakura was so proud of her; she'd been about to suggest to the Hyuga heiress that she do something like that anyway.
Sakura saw… for the first time since he had been given the command… Sarutobi Asuma light up a cigarette and take a deep breath of smoke. Whatever he had to say must be pretty earth shattering she thought.
"I've received word from home. The Emergency Committee is ordering us back to Konoha. We've just about cleared out all of Orochimaru's bases, and right now we're more valuable taking commissions and retraining our troops.
"I want each team leader to give me a list of their subordinates that they think are suitable for battlefield promotion to Chunin. No favoritism please… ex-Suna ninja are certainly eligible. Merit is the only criteria. For the troops originally from Suna I'll also want an evaluation on whether or not you think they'll run if their… restraints are removed. They've already started to take them off some of the more reliable ones back home.
"Get your recommendations back to me right after lunch. We'll be starting our movement after that, so get things organized for a quick move out. Note the degree of mobility-restricted troops you have, we'll accommodate our speed to their pace. I've already sent word to our scouting teams; they're falling back onto the main body right now.
"Good work troops. We haven't gotten our hands on the Snake, but we've broken the back of his little village. They shouldn't be giving us trouble for quite some time. Dismissed!"
As they walked back to the campfire, Sakura talked over the brief briefing they'd received with her co-leader for the day. Pulling up stakes to go on the road would only take them five minutes… the real question was Temari.
"I grant that she's good enough for a promotion," Sakura said, "but do you think that she's either loyal, or intimidated enough, to work for us without the Seal keeping her honest? Do you think she's stable enough for the freedom?"
Hinata grimaced for a second; mention of the Caged Bird Seal tended to do that to her. No matter how disrespectfully Temari had acted to her, she'd never activated it. Even when the Seal had been tested (to ensure it had been put on right) and shown to be effective to its victim it had been someone else who had done the torture. Currently, in the team, both she and Sasuke knew the techniques for activating it, and neither had felt any urge to "play" with the girl. Not all mixed combat squads could say that.
"I received a letter from Tamaki-san recently, " the Hyuga said, "and she said that Kankuro was completely healed, and very happy living with the Yamanakas. He's been working on building his own puppets, and has given demonstrations of what they can do at the Academy. All the children send him cards thanking him, and asking him to come again. He likes that.
"They took his Seal off, too. I don't know if she knows that yet. He isn't the best correspondent. Maybe he's just waiting for his sister before running off, but they think back home that he's starting to feel loyal. And after all, where else does he have to go that he won't have to just start over again?
"You've seen how she acted when he was hurt, and how she lives for his letters. Besides anything else, she won't run away as long as he's loyal. I think she'll always be a little misplaced, but she'll be reliable if she's quartered in the Village. Probably it'll be better not to have her living in one of the satellite villages the Committee is planning, though. If she's living in Konoha she'll be near her brother, and she seems to want to be able to tend her younger brother's grave, also. Things like that are important to her."
Sakura nodded: "So, we'll recommend her for promotion and the removal then?"
Hinata agreed, and added, "And Naruto-kun for promotion. I think he's earned it, don't you?"
The long spell in frequent danger, and away from her family and all the memories and habits that she had associated with them, had made Hinata more confident and decisive. And she was happier to be in a warzone, eating hasty meals, pulling long bouts of sentry duty, and risking death or injury, than being in a place of feasts, luxurious baths and soft mattresses. And having to be with her relatives. She completely agreed with the old saying, 'there's no place like home.'
Sannin, Kage, fugitive. Orochimaru, once of Konohagakure, once of Otogakure, now master of as much land as his feet covered at each instant, looked at the wisps of smoke rising from the ventilation chimney of the last place he had stored an almost suitable replacement body to inhabit, and the needed medical staff and equipment to ensure a successful transfer. Now he'd have to risk using an even more inferior receiving unit, and a potentially damaging possession jutsu.
He put his hand down to the ground. The heat from the still smoldering fires twenty meters below could be felt, even weeks after the attack. He knew there was no point in even checking belowground to see if there was anything worth salvaging. Everything would be ruined, and even any tunnels still standing would be just waiting for a loud footstep to come crashing down. Any of the staff who had escaped would be far away by now, setting themselves up as either petty brigands or obscure laborers, depending on how much their spirits had been broken. Except for his Cursed Ones, and his amusing experiments, he hadn't worried too much about positive loyalty in his ninjas; fear was enough to motivate the merely human ones. But that had meant that when things had gone bad only the elite had offered serious resistance, and unsupported they had died one-by-one. Now what he could have rounded up, even if he had cared to, would only be dregs, as bad as those idiots from the village he had left.
He had despised Konoha the Weak for decades; his senile Sensei, his perverted fellow Sannin, all the teamwork-addicted ninja who didn't dare reach for greatness. All of them not worthy of anything but his scorn. But the Container… he was worthy of hate.
Vendettas would have to be put off for another time. Now Orochimaru had wounds that somehow refused to heal (no doubt due to the corrupted chakra the Container had filled his blade with when he had attacked), and a pressing need to find a halfway suitable body to steal before this already failing one completely refused to support his existence.
For now he had to move fast and far, even in his damaged state. Not only pitiful Konoha was after him, there were other and more dangerous enemies from his past that he couldn't afford to meet. It was amazing to him how many people felt obligated to get in his way, and deny him the opportunity to engage in his personal researches. Perhaps he had angered some deity in another life.
If so, he would find out which one it was, and add that name to the list of future victims.
Nara Shikaku looked up from the last completed operations order. There was a risk involved in setting the forces of Konoha into motion again, so soon after they had finished (hopefully) with Oto, but Kiri might never be so ripe again, and something had to be done with the third or so of ex-Suna ninjas who couldn't be trusted to be loyal to the Village that had defeated them and abolished the independence of their former home. Giving them to Zabuza, funding the remnants of the resistance to the Mizukage, and then allowing that weakened Village to remain nominally independent would do a lot toward mitigating the changes in the balance of power that Suna's dissolving had caused. At least it should suggest to the other Villages, great and small, that Konoha wasn't on a drive to monopolize control of the ninja world.
And frankly… the Mizukage gave Shikaku the creeps. The whole "Bloody Mist" graduation test, the Bloodline exterminations, the whole insane way things were being run there was a hint that whatever plans Yagura had were unlikely to be tolerable to any sane person. It would be better to disrupt the place before the damage it had been self-inflicting was healed.
This way potentially disruptive elements were directed away from likely enemies that would love to hire them, and a potential new ally could be put in place, protecting Konoha's eastern sea-frontiers. And at the worst, the place would be so wrecked that it wouldn't be a danger for some years anyway. The only real drawback would occur if Zabuza and his troops (and subsidy) would make common cause with the Mizukage, and join in a conspiracy with Iwa or Kumo. But Yaguara was unlikely to be so forgiving, or Zabuza so trusting for that to happen. And there were some very significant strings that Konoha had attached to Zabuza, anyway.
Shikaku put his head down onto the Hokage's desk. All this thinking and uncertainty hurt his brain. He tried to think happy thoughts:
Orochimaru was on the run, and it was unlikely that anyone would ever trust him enough to give him refuge. Asuma had done well, and the plans for him were proceeding as smoothly as possible. With the ex-Suna ninja that looked like they were reliable, Konoha was almost as strong as it had been before the Kyubi had visited last. Almost all the damage to the Village defenses had been repaired and emergency stores had started to be built up again. Shikamaru was finally beginning to notice girls, and Uzumaki Naruto would be out of his hair for a few years, starting in the summer.
There, that had been refreshing!
At this point "A Teacher's Glory" wraps up. The story of the members of what had been Team Seven and their friends will be continued in a story tentatively to be called "The Hiltless Blade," wherein Powers best left undisturbed will show why.
Once again I would like to express my thanks for the hard work Nathan has done editing my often baroque writing, and bringing me back to intelligibility. Without his work my sentences would be even longer, my attempts at typographic distinction even more confusing, and none of us would have enjoyed things nearly as much as we have so far.