Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any Naruto characters portrayed in this fic.
A/N: Part (iii) of Chapter 11: Hunting Grounds! The timeline of this story follows the time-skip, after Naruto develops the Fuuton Rasengan (as pointed out by a very sharp reviewer) technique, but after that deviates from canon. Reviews and feedback appreciated!
PART 2: Flight
Chapter 11: Hunting Grounds, Part (iii)
Day 7 since Team Kakashi's departure from Konoha (17:30)
"What the fuck are they thinking?"
Kiba's voice had risen to a yelp as he dodged another projectile. Beside him, Hinata whipped her head around, face pale with disbelief. There, clearly visible in the afternoon light, were two teams of Iwa ANBU in close pursuit. Jiraiya slowed his pace, falling back behind them, his face grim.
"You lot follow Naruto and stay with him. I'll handle this."
"Jiraiya-sama!" Sakura's wide green eyes were visible over her shoulder as she half-turned. "Two of us will stay with you!"
"That's a negative!"
The Sannin's roar caused them all to straighten slightly, hearts pounding a little faster in spite of the fact that the real danger lay behind.
"You will surround Naruto in formation. And you will stay that way, until further instruction. Those are my orders. Now do as I say!"
With no further argument, the team of young shinobi fell precisely into the pattern they had developed over the past few days. Sakura gritted her teeth as she kept her gaze focused on Naruto's bright head of yellow hair, standing up in dirty spikes just ahead of her. Prodigy as she was, Sakura was fully aware that she was no Shikamaru. The reasoning behind some of the things that had happened during this mission was far beyond her reckoning. Yet something like this . . .
They're actually following us and engaging us outside their borders? Jiraiya-sama was very clear about the fact that Leaf shinobi have complete clemency in Waterfall Country . . . They could start a war this way! And they know who they're up against. He's one of the legendary Sannin, they don't stand a chance -
Realisation hit her like one of Tsunade's finger flicks. With a gasp, she twisted, watching as Jiraiya deflected another barrage of missiles with the hardening elongation of his hair. "Jiraiya-sama! Let us take them!"
Meeting her eyes, the Sannin saw, with some trepidation, that the Hokage's young apprentice had deduced the full implications of their situation. Damn cocky brat. "You heard my orders, Haruno!"
She flinched slightly, but, to his horror, he saw her falling back to his pace, closely followed by Shino. Naruto was now looking back, consternation on his face.
"I know what they're trying to do!" She was running alongside him now, drawing a kunai and deflecting with brisk, practiced movements. "They're setting us up. Making us look like the aggressors! I know! Nobody in their right mind would take you on in open battle. If you let us fight them and go ahead with Naruto, it won't look that way!"
Hinata and Kiba were listening closely. Shaking his head, Jiraiya gave a snort. "And to whom are you proving a point, you little twerps? Whether you stay behind and fight or not, who's watching to say that you did? I'm here already, and that's all that will matter. Now shut the hell up and do as I say!"
There was no arguing with that rebuke. Sakura was about to resume her position up front with Naruto, when Jiraiya called out to her and Shino. "They're almost on us."
She shot a questioning gaze at him. His craggy face was set and unreadable. "Slow them down."
"W - what?"
Deciding that this was not the time to rationalize the Sannin and his strange orders, she complied, falling even further behind, Shino moving with her. Gathering chakra into her fist, she whirled on her heel, sending up a small cloud of grass and dust. Shino had his arms spread out, sleeves falling open. The three ANBU in the lead showed no signs of slowing down, gaining ground with every second. The others behind them spread out even more, obviously intending to bypass them while they dealt with her. A deep, thrumming hum met her ears and she readied herself as a dark cloud emerged from the Aburame's sleeves, shooting out in a wide arc and obscuring the view of the ANBU. Cries and shouted orders could be heard over the buzzing of the bugs and some of the Iwa nin were already substituting and flying through hand signs.
Big mistake, assholes. With a roar worthy of her mentor, Sakura's fist met the ground. A deafening rumble and tremor shook them, the ground splitting and yawning beneath the Iwa nins' feet. Two of them went down with screams as limbs and torsos were trapped and crushed beneath the weight of tumbling earth. The remaining ANBU sailed through the air, making great leaps for safety beyond Sakura's position. They were met with a wall of spiky white, Jiraiya sailing overhead and whipping them out of the air with breathtaking speed, firing jutsu and explosives with deadly accuracy.
"Sakura! Let's go!"
Turning to face Shino, she nodded sharply, sprinting away on his tail to where Hinata and Kiba were flanking the bounding form of Gamakichi.
Sakura swore softly when she realised what she had missed earlier. What Jiraiya, with his infinitely greater experience, had planned for. Naruto was making to jump off Gamakichi and join the fray. The Sannin had seen her doubt his orders, had let her and Shino participate in the battle even if only to provide a short distraction. He had let her decide for herself which choice she would make; follow her instinct and back him up or follow his orders and prevent Naruto from sacrificing his own safety for his mentor. And she knew that they would need every one of their team, Hinata, Kiba, herself and Shino, to stop the young shinobi once he had made up his mind to fight for someone important to him.
"No you don't!"
Watching with no small surprise, Sakura saw Hinata suddenly swoop in from the right, seize Naruto's arm and throw him bodily over her shoulder back onto Gamakichi. His outraged scream would have been funny under other circumstances.
"Hinata! What the hell?"
"Silence! Follow Jiraiya-sama's orders!"
"But - "
Byakugan active, she stabbed her fingers towards his leg, earning a howl of pain and surprise. "HINATA!"
"I'm sorry, Naruto-kun. I cannot allow you to jeopardise this mission. Your safety is priority."
Seeing him struggle and knowing that the effects of the jyuuken would wear off faster on his system, Sakura closed in. "Listen to her, Naruto. Jiraiya-sama can handle himself just fine. Why don't you take a look?"
Glancing back to where the Sannin was facing off against the remaining ANBU, Naruto grimaced. "Yeah, yeah, I know, but - "
"Kakashi." Sakura's sharp reminder snapped his eyes back to her face. "We have to get him to safety. He's right in front of you, or did you forget?"
"I DIDN'T - "
"Stop your shit already!" Kiba snarled from behind them. "We're doing what shinobi do. Go along with it or we'll truss you up and let you watch everything from the sidelines!"
Growling softly, Naruto turned away, just as something sleek and sharp whizzed by his cheek, slicing a small cut along the whisker-marks.
"What the fu - "
Sakura's shout came just in time as they threw themselves away from the kunai with a small, sizzling tag attached. The explosion flung them out of formation, rolling and skidding towards the forest that loomed ahead.
"Shit!" Kiba lowered his arms, "They set up an ambush!"
Day 8 since Team Kakashi's departure from Konoha
To say that it was a tense few minutes in the Hokage's office would be something of an understatement. Shikamaru had to mentally force his hand away from his weapons pouch. He would rather not draw a stray kunai in a room full of antsy ANBU. Wiping a wrist across his brow, he waited, the nervous anticipation coiling in his stomach with poisonous intensity. There was a soft tapped signal from the window and they all turned simultaneously to see the heron-masked ANBU crouching at attention. Tsunade strode over to her.
"Hokage-sama. An explosion was set off at 13 hours, 47 minutes in the former Uchiha district. No casualties. The investigative team is still searching the rubble, but we have found traces of explosive tags and heavy-duty explosives generally used in demolition. We believe these to be the source of the explosion. The most extensive damages were centred around the Uchiha district, with minimal damage to the surrounding commercial district." The ANBU paused, as if weighing words. "The destruction was aimed exclusively at the Uchiha district. We have yet to confirm this, but there seems to be careful placement of explosives such that this was the case. Also . . . there is something which Hokage-sama should see for herself."
Tsunade had received the report with an equanimity fitting of a true village leader, but her brow furrowed slightly over the last words. "Explain. What is it that cannot be stated in this report?"
"It involves the monument within the district. The one erected in honour of all that died in the massacre. It has been . . . defaced."
Shikamaru glanced sharply at Tsunade who, surprisingly, looked back at him. Something flickered in her eyes momentarily and he looked away, straightening slightly. Her order was clipped and cold, the voice she used in dire circumstances.
"We're heading there immediately. Shizune, take over here and handle all enquiries."
"Shikamaru. You will accompany us."
Snatching her coat off the back of her chair, Tsunade shrugged it on before exiting after the fore-guard of ANBU through the spacious window. Brushing a hand across the top of his head to steady his nerves, Shikamaru followed, close in the wake of the black cloaks snapping in the wind.
Day 7 since Team Kakashi's departure from Konoha (17:45)
There were six of them. Sakura didn't know how they had arrived first or gotten past the keen nose of Akamaru, but the smell of burning chakra and the dust-laden air could have contributed to them escaping detection. All wore the Iwa ANBU masks and, judging from the weapons and equipment they carried, varied in specialization. Three soft, measured pulses of chakra emanated from her pocket, close to her hip. Glancing over, she saw that Hinata had her Byakugan activated and had chosen the appropriate formation and attack form to use against them. It was a strategy implemented by Jiraiya before the extraction attempt. The small leaf of chakra paper stored away in her clothes was connected by an elaborate sealing jutsu to those on the persons of her team members, allowing them to pass unnoticed signals back and forth.
The only issue that could offset their attack was Naruto himself, although, judging from the attack pattern Hinata had chosen, she had considered that too. It was risky and allowed more room for free maneuvering, creating ample opportunities for a wild card like the blonde shinobi to score some devastating hits. Naruto had already leapt off Gamakichi's back, taking up a defensive stance in front of the toad. He was panting slightly, something Sakura took note of with worry. For someone with Naruto's stamina and regeneration ability, fatigue was an indicator of just how much he had been through shortly before.
"Gamakichi! Get going! Get sensei as far from here as you can!"
The toad gave a small salute before sliding and leaping for the trees. Seeing that some of the Iwa nin moved to cut him off, they took initiative and attacked. Two of the ANBU immediately went for the Hyuuga heiress, one attacking head on with a sword, whilst the other rapidly unrolled a small scroll and summoned a weapon. Smoke bombs filled with nerve gas were sent rolling Shino's way while one very large, heavyset ANBU, seeming to specialize in earth jutsu, launched rampart after rampart of solidified rock and soil into the air to neutralize Kiba and Akamaru's combined attacks. Sakura and Naruto found themselves in the centre of a pincer formation, one approaching from either side, electricity sparking on the fingers of the former and the latter wielding two short swords.
Dodging around the sword strikes, Sakura placed her back to Naruto, ensuring cover in her blind spot and performing the same function for him. At such close range, and with her companions close around her, her large-scale destruction techniques would do more harm than good. Channeling chakra to her palm, she kept up her evasive movements, gritting her teeth as small cuts and slashes appeared on her arms, until she felt a sharp tap at the base of her spine. Smiling internally, she dropped low, lashing out unexpectedly with her left hand. Even with no prior planning, she and Naruto operated well together, thanks to hours of grueling training under the watchful eye of a certain silver-haired man. Focusing her chakra in a reversal of the mystic palm technique, she aimed for the ANBU's sternum, drawing her hand up in a slashing motion. He staggered away, a bubbling cough rising up in his throat. She was so close she could see through the shadowed slits of his mask to the widening eyes beneath. Pivoting on her heel, she executed a sharp turn, exchanging positions with Naruto.
The coughs turned rapidly to wet gasps and the sound of a body collapsing heavily. Her new opponent was breathing hard, his lightning technique evidently using a great deal of chakra. Naruto, from years of training with Sasuke and Kakashi, had developed a much higher recovery rate from such nerve-numbing attacks, making their battle a stalemate. As such, her new opponent was winded and much slower. Chakra gathering around her fists, Sakura lunged at him, forcing him on the defensive with punch after punch. He caught her wrist, a burst of intense pain causing her to utter a cry and drop to the ground, clutching her arm close to her body. Gathering up sizzling electricity to his fingers once again, he prepared for a finishing blow. He was unprepared for her foot lashing out, a sharp crack followed by a howl of agony as she shattered the bones in his leg in a controlled burst of strengthening chakra. Upright once again, she glanced over at Naruto who grinned, expression hardening when he looked over to where their companions were fighting.
"You take that one. I'm helping Shino."
Hinata danced around the ANBU's sharp strikes, hands parrying away the flat side of the blade whenever possible. Her opponent kept reaching for his pouch, so she thwarted him at every turn, aiming jyuuken strikes at his legs and knees. Byakugan active, she threw her head to the side as a long, dark projectile whipped past her. Certain that she had executed a clean dodge, she uttered a small gasp as pain and a bloom of blood appeared on her shoulder. Intensifying her focus, she saw that her guess of carefully applied wind chakra to the whip was incorrect. The ANBU wielder had threaded chakra through the thin tails, allowing him to send small spikes out of the individual strands at will. Dodging and weaving, she lashed out, managing a strike at the ribcage of the ANBU closer to her. Gasping and wheezing slightly, he leapt away from her. At that moment, Kiba, who had been focusing his attacks on his own opponent, suddenly switched direction in mid-air, mowing down the unsuspecting Iwa nin. The whip-wielding ANBU struck at Hinata with renewed ferocity, aiming primarily for her face, only to find his legs suddenly bereft of movement. Looking down, he uttered a shout as a flood of kikaichu shot from the ground, enveloping his torso.
Further away, the hulking form of the earth-jutsu user re-appeared as he dropped his walls, realising that Akamaru was his single adversary. Eyes widening, he only had a moment to register the flash of black and purple as Hinata's fingers smashed into his chest and arms in a flurry of strikes. Unable to form jutsu, he aimed a pole-axe kick at her that split the ground as she darted away. Spinning in mid-air, she released a flurry of kunai, most of them finding their mark due to his hefty size and inability to dodge. Stumbling away, he shook his head, uttering a rumbling roar of defiance. Heedless of the kunai peppering his form, he charged at her once again, a massive leap carrying him up to her defenseless form. Eyes widening, Hinata readied herself for the blinding pain when Sakura came in from the left, arm curled back. The ANBU, completely focused on the Hyuuga girl only registered a crushing force, wind rushing around his ears, the ground flying up to meet him and then, darkness.
"Hokage-sama . . . "
"I know." Her voice was almost weary. Turning to the ANBU at her side, she sighed. "We won't clean it up just yet. The message is obviously intended for as many people as possible. Who knows what this madman might think up next if we disregard his warning and remove it."
"Yes. I'll inform the other squads immediately."
Gazing up at the scrawled message on the monument Shikamaru was all but oblivious to the destruction around him. He had registered Hawk's presence a few minutes ago, but made no move to acknowledge him.
"Your case?" Hawk's hollow visage was turned towards him.
"Definitely. Going from the pattern so far, this is very specific. And I know exactly who it's aimed at. You don't really have to be much of genius to figure it out. In fact, you don't have to be a shinobi at all. Everyone knew when we got back from that mission." Grimacing slightly in memory, he paused. "It was also common knowledge that he tried to kill Naruto."
Surveying the monument, Hawk nodded. "You're right." He paused. "There's a difference in pattern here. No murder. Just widespread damage."
"Hmm. The target is stronger than most. S-rank, probably, by this time. Also, he's out of town."
"I wonder what he'll make of all this once word reaches him. Sasuke Uchiha is unpredictable at best."
Grunting, Shikamaru turned away. "With any luck, he never will. Counter-intelligence should have it covered. Until some of the damage is repaired, at least."
Making their way back to the main group and Tsunade, Shikamaru shot one last glance over his shoulder at the monument, standing solid and tall amidst the chaos on all sides. Its sole presence as a distinct structure drew even more attention to the letters etched deeply into the surface, the names of those it honoured chipped and scratched away into non-existence. Each line a foot tall, the grooves painted in stark, metallic black, heavily dusted with brown from the explosions, it was a declaration of fearless madness and vengeance.
THE PATHS THAT LEAD
FROM VALLEY OF THE END
End of Part Two.
A/N: So rounds up the last chapter of Part 2. To answer any queries in advance, yes the Iwa nin attacked outside their borders. It was a gamble on their part (which didn't pay off). If it were made to look like Konoha were the aggressors (which is pretty easy, considering that Jiraiya is present) and a war started, more of the neutral countries would be allied to Iwa. However, without the presence of Naruto and Kakashi, who they failed to capture, they would be hard pressed to provide concrete evidence of this. Secondly, the fight scene. I always imagine that Konoha shinobi place greater emphasis on teamwork, especially with the younger generations, and in battle against strong opponents, such as the ANBU teams, it would give them an edge given their in-depth knowledge of each other's abilities. Third (and last), I have no knowledge of a monument to the Uchiha. This is purely speculation on my part. I would imagine that they would have a separate monument in the Uchiha compound itself. Next up, Part 3: Reprisal.