Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any Naruto characters portrayed in this fic.
A/N: Here is my first foray into Naruto fanfiction! I hope my character portrayals are accurate . . . The timeline follows the time-skip, after Naruto develops the Rasen-shuriken technique, but after that deviates from canon. Reviews and feedback appreciated!
PART 1: Rift
Chapter 1: First Blood
"What's his problem?"
"Shut it, Naruto!"
"Seriously, Sakura-chan! I only asked for . . . "
"I know . . . he's just . . . a little stingy."
They landed on the same branch simultaneously, sandals striking the bark in muffled synchronicity before launching themselves off again. Naruto was slightly ahead of her, his annoyance lending him more energy than usual.
"One riceball . . . that was it . . . "
She gave an exasperated sigh. "What's the big deal? We packed our own food."
He shot her a pained look over his shoulder. She sensed the whine in his voice before she heard it.
"But Sakura-chaaaan . . . ration bars are yuuuurggg."
"I'm not the one who packed them!"
"Then pack the food next time! Kakash-sensei wouldn't know good food if you strapped it to a kunai and shoved it up his arse."
"I didn't know he was capable of anal ingestion," she replied acidly.
"Well, it's not like we've seen him eat with his mouth . . . "
"Naruto. I'm not having this conversation with you."
Good humour rapidly restored, he bounded noisily off a tree trunk, landed in a squat on a branch below then leaped again, twisting in mid-air so that he faced her.
"Soo . . . Sakura-chan, we're alone up here . . . "
"Turn around you idiot! You'll crash!"
He back-flipped neatly over a branch and grinned. "You were saying?"
Despite herself, her mouth twitched. "It's not the trees you should be looking out for . . . "
"Aaaah . . . Kakash-sensei's with the old fart. Don't worry about him."
"Let's wait for them a bit. We've scouted far enough, I think."
She dropped onto a branch and ducked from long habit as Naruto sailed over her and scampered up the trunk to the upper branches. Leaning back, she sighed and tilted her head until it touched the dark, gnarled wood behind her, mentally going over their mission briefing. It was a simple B-rank, an escort for the antiquities and incense merchant, Igarashi Saburo. He was returning from a very successful run through Wave Country where he had sold most of his stock. Instead of depositing the bulk of the proceeds at a bank, however, he had chosen to hire shinobi and thus keep his money close without incurring any of the risk. His hometown, when Kakashi had indicated its position on the map, had been north-west of Konoha, near the border of Grass Country. It also seemed, from what they had experienced of him thus far, that he did not easily part with anything ranging from money to food. Glancing up at her team-mate, she found him perched precariously at the apex, the wind rippling in familiar patterns through his sunburst hair, eyes squinting against the sudden glare.
"There's a halfway house up ahead," he called down to her.
"Right. They're almost here."
Down below, their sensei and the client came slowly into her field of vision. She dropped down before them, dusting off her skirt. "All clear, Kakash-sensei. Naruto saw a rest-stop a short while away."
The jounin nodded, snapping shut 'Icha Icha Tactics' and turning to the wizened man beside him. "We'll stop there to eat and rest. Is that in order, Igarashi-san?"
"Kakash-sensei!" Naruto landed beside her, dropping his voice to a none-too-soft stage whisper, "Sakura-chan and I think you're an anal connoisseur!"
Said kunoichi sputtered in outrage, face a startling shade of puce. "WHA . . . Naruto! You . . . "
Kakashi gave them a slightly hurt look. "Now, just because I prefer certain reading material, you should not judge . . . "
"Sensei, I didn't say anything! And stop talking about your book!"
Naruto shot the silent merchant a scowl before turning back to Kakashi. "Yeah. You packed those nutrition bars, Kakash-sensei. Can't you get a wife already?"
"Thank you for the suggestion, Naruto. I'll make sure I pick up a wife at the next stop." The book in his hand fell open at a strategic page. "Let's get moving, we're all a little hungry."
"Hmph. That stingy old man . . . can't share even one riceball . . . "
If the merchant heard any of Naruto's complaints, he certainly wasn't acknowledging it. Setting his lips in a thin, sour line he looked away from the banter of Team Kakashi and sniffed. Sakura caught her sensei's eye and raised an eyebrow. He shrugged, sauntering down the road that widened ahead to open ground. It had never been his priority to question the nature of their clientele.
"Come on, Naruto."
"Forward march! To the victor go the spoils!"
"Wait, you idiot!"
Watching the trail of dust hanging in the air of his student's precipitous wake, Kakashi wondered idly when Naruto had mastered such a convincing imitation of Maito Gai.
The weeks following the onset of Spring were certainly the glory days for Konoha's weather. Fresh and exhilarating, the mornings would dance in with light-footed gaiety, and, by the time the working day had started, the balmy atmosphere and abundant warmth and sunshine provided ample opportunities for optimal activity. The marketplace was busier than ever on weekends, civilians rubbing shoulders with shinobi, hawkers calling out the merits of their wares, stores thronging with the morning customer crowds and teams of harried genin weaving between all on errand and message delivery duty.
One particular genin team had an errand which found them in the less frequented outskirts of Konoha. Their route took them past the lake and down towards the small cottages forming a cluster on the east side of the village.
"It's too hot for this," moaned Udon, "So tired . . . "
"Stop moaning!" snapped Moegi, "We're done, we just need to report back."
"Look at them." This comment was directed rather resentfully at the small children splashing about at the edge of the lake below, older siblings in close attendance. "So carefree."
"Oh, for heaven's sake . . . "
"You two should get married," Konohamaru muttered, hands shoved deep in his pockets.
"What was that?"
"Nothing. Think we'll get anything better than D-rank this time round?"
It was Moegi's turn to assume a defeated attitude. "No way. Ebisu-sensei is so boring."
"Naruto-niisan always said he was a closet pervert."
This earned him a slightly baffled look. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Why do you think he always leaves us with the mission and runs off?"
"So he can spy at the hot springs, obviously." Konohamaru concluded his reasoning with a worldly nod.
"How do you know?" Udon chipped in, "Maybe he's getting some real action."
The three genin paused mid-stride, looked at each other and collapsed, howling with laughter. Their disloyalty went largely unnoticed. Straightening up, Udon reached behind his glasses to wipe away a stray tear. "Oh man, if he hears us . . . "
"I'll take him down with Sexy-no-jutsu!" Automatically, Konohamaru ducked, expecting a heavy blow from Moegi. Turning, he found her standing a little apart, a slight frown wrinkling her brow.
"Eh?" Her attention was still focused on the small cottages below the hill.
"Hey!" Konohamaru waved a hand a few inches from her nose, "What's up?"
"Guys . . . there's something . . . " she paused, pointing.
Following the line of her arm, her two team-mates stared in the direction indicated, Konohamaru squinting and Udon pushing his glasses a little further up his nose.
"What? What's there?"
"I don't see anything . . . "
And simultaneously they felt it, a shudder racing through their frames in collective disturbance. Moegi took an involuntary step backwards and Konohamaru tensed, fists clenching at his sides.
"Konohamaru . . . "
"Come on." He bit the words out, breaking out of his stupor and into a jagged descent down the sloping shoulder of the hill, hand flying to his waist to retrieve a kunai from his weapons pouch.
"Wait! You don't know what's over there!"
"No time! Move!"
His urgency galvanized the other two and they sprinted after him, uncertainty clouding the glances they sent each other. The scream reached them when they were halfway down, halting them dead in their tracks.
"What the – "
He had darted forward once again, mouth set in a grim line of determination as the screams went on, high pitched, rising in a crescendo of terror and hysteria. The closer they got, the more intelligible the sounds became, words hurled through the cries in staccato bursts.
"Kenzo! Kenzo! Help . . . please! Oh Kami . . . please Kenzo!"
They rounded the corner of the last house, colliding with each other at the sight which met them in the backyard. A neat square of grassy lawn, a border of well-tended shrubs and a clothes line hung with pristine white sheets, hanging heavy and translucent with moisture. An overturned clothes basket, the smaller items within spilling across the grass as it rolled towards them. An open doorway, three concrete stairs leading down to the lawn. And a woman kneeling on the lower stair, a young woman, fair hair escaping the neat knot at the nape of her neck, sticking to her contorted wet face in dark tendrils. Her mouth opened wide when she saw them, hand reaching out as if struck dumb at the sight of the assistance she had been begging. A wide crimson splash covered the front of her floral dress, bright, wet and vibrantly harsh against the faint pink and blue flowers. Her hands and arms were covered too, red droplets hanging from the tips of her fingers and smearing over the grass as she lowered her hand back to the ground, another wail building in her throat. A dark shape rested on her lap, lolling lifelessly with every motion she made.
"Oh Kami . . . Kenzo . . . please . . . "
"Udon." Konohamaru's voice was a whisper and he cleared his throat, shook his head. "Udon, go get help. NOW."
The bespectacled boy stared at him, dumbfounded. "Udon, now!"
Something returned to his team-mate then, and he collected himself, nodded and shot away, arms trailing behind him as he sped towards Konoha's main gate. Konohamaru chest felt constricted by an invisible vice, the kunai slipping slightly in his damp palm. He hefted it firmly, planting himself defensively towards the only entrance to the yard. "Moegi, get her away from him."
Without a word, she complied, approaching the woman and gently, but firmly, prying her hands away from the still warm form sprawled across the rear stairs. Instantly, she reacted, shoving at the genin, hysteria rising in her throat as she fought and scratched.
Swearing slightly, he hesitated, his senses not detecting any hostile chakra nearby. An audience was already gathering slowly at the front of the house, frightened glances and hushed whispers preceding them. Turning, he made his way over to Moegi, tucking the kunai away, and helped her drag the screaming woman away, fingers finding a pressure point on the wildly thrashing neck. They were both short of breath, even though they had run a short distance, the smell of blood overwhelming. Moegi supported the unconscious woman's head and neck in the crook of her arm and looked up at him, face pale, sweat beading her upper lip.
"Is he . . . ?"
Konohamaru straightened slowly, brushing off his arms and leaving faint red smears behind where the woman had pushed at him. Approaching the dead man cautiously, he squatted, careful not to touch the grass and the stairs. The man was dark-haired and looked fairly young, similar in age to the woman. His eyes were closed, mouth open in a dull expression of surprise. He had obviously never even seen his death coming, probably hadn't even had time to realize fully what had happened to him before he died. His throat had been slashed open, ear to ear, air bubbles coalescing in the stream of blood making its vivid path down his Adam's apple, still pulsing slowly from the ruptured trachea. There was clearly no hope for his survival. Konohamaru had sensed, as soon as he seen the couple on the stairs, that they were both civilians.
Meeting Moegi's eyes, he shook his head. She bit her lip and looked down at the woman on her arm. "Her husband?"
He nodded then shrugged. "Probably."
"Who could have done - "
A soft thrumming disturbance in the air nearby alerted them to another presence. Konohamaru stiffened, hand halfway to his pouch when he saw the hawk-masked ANBU. Straightening, he backed off hastily. "W . . . We found them like this. He was . . . " The ANBU raised a hand and cut him off.
"Report to your jounin-sensei. I will handle this." The muffled voice was toneless, authoritarian, brooking no argument.
Wordlessly, Konohamaru nodded and turned to Moegi who hastily, but carefully, laid the woman on the grass and followed him away, out of the increasingly claustrophobic shoebox yard. As soon as they were out of sight of the ANBU, they took off at a run, Moegi stumbling slightly as they picked up pace. He saw, but did not comment, merely taking her hand. She made no move to resist.
At the rest-stop, Team Kakashi ran into another obstacle. Igarashi declared that he was too tired to travel any further that day, and, seeing as he was an elderly man and paying for their services, they had no choice but to comply with his wishes. However, they soon found that his generosity did not extend to providing them with accommodation, if there was any generosity to begin with. A view Naruto verbalized with much volume and overt hand gestures. Kakashi eventually rewarded the shocked and scandalized patrons of the small building with a happy eye-crinkle and a quick removal of their presence from the premises.
"Did you have to use that language?"
"He's such a . . . selfish . . . such a bastard . . . "
"Now, now," Kakashi cut in, his deeper tones halting Naruto's escalating tirade, "There's an outbuilding out back. There aren't any more rooms available, even if we did dip into mission expenses. We'll camp there for the night. Naruto, if you would be so kind as to set up the sleeping bags. Sakura, see if you can convince them to serve us some food."
Nodding, Naruto a trifle reluctantly, they set off to perform their respective tasks. Finding himself alone, Kakashi sighed, running a gloved hand through his unruly hair. Adjusting the hitai-ate on his forehead, he settled comfortably on a stack of firewood, elbows resting on his long legs. He licked a finger and turned a page to a highly instructive illustration. He really did love this new edition. It came in colour.
Some hours later, well fed and slightly lethargic, the three shinobi relaxed in the outhouse in companionable silence, blankets wrapped around their shoulders. Sakura shifted, pulling her legs up to her body.
She shook her head absently. "You think there's any real danger to Igarashi-san, Kakash-sensei?"
"No more than there is on any escort mission. He paid for a B-rank mission, so that is the level of vigilance we must exercise."
Naruto grunted. "I'm surprised the old bastard shelled out for a B-rank, anyhow. It must have felt like giving up his mother to missing-nin."
Sakura grinned. "Or Kakash-sensei giving up 'Icha Icha Tactics'."
Their sensei's lone grey eye took on a forlorn, distant expression. "Let's not speak of such things," he whispered. Their laughter echoed around the small room. Sakura yawned and stretched. "I'm turning in. Night."
Naruto promptly followed her, earning his first solid punch of the mission when he attempted to climb into the same sleeping bag. The last image Sakura saw before she drifted off to sleep was as familiar as the chafe of the sleeping bag and the chill of the night air on her cheeks. Naruto's recumbent form and spiky yellow hair, arms sprawled out of his sleeping bag and Kakashi, headband hanging from between his slim, clever fingers, elbow propped on one raised knee, outlined against the dim moonlit glow beyond the doorway. And the dull ache that had accompanied seeing one less sleeping bag, one less softly breathing form, the missing puzzle piece to completing Team 7 of old, was somehow stilled by the stability of that vision.
The rude awakening she received a few hours later was something any shinobi had to be prepared for, and she was awake in moments after her sensei's brisk shake and quiet command, weapons pouch strapped on and ready. But what came after, the consequences of their midnight excursion and the subsequent menace to everything she held close to her heart, nothing could have prepared her for that.
A/N: I write it as 'Kakash-sensei' in direct speech, because, when I watch the anime, Naruto and Sakura always sound as if they drop the 'i' at the end of his name. It sounds affectionate :) My knowledge of Japanese culture and language is shaky at best, although I have researched to the best of my ability, so please feel free to criticize or correct me when necessary.