Effloresco Secundus

Chapter 9: Spider traps


Naruto was crossing and uncrossing his arm, an unusually aggravated frown on his face. "I don't get why we have to capture her if she isn't really doing anything illegal," he said, for what felt like the umpteenth time. Admittedly, Kakashi hadn't really answered the question properly the first time Naruto had posed it.

"Because a Kumo-nin traipsing over Fire Country is suspicious," Sasuke answered in place of their teacher, annoyed.

"But we don't know if she's doing anything suspicious," Naruto said, glaring at Sasuke. Kakashi, bent over the room's glass table with a paper and pen, was ignoring them both.

"I suppose you think an A-ranked kunoichi from a foreign country is more likely to just be on vacation here." His voice was snide and contemptuous, and Naruto bit out some insult and off they were, arguing away in hushed voices.

Sakura knew Naruto wasn't stupid. He just hadn't been stripped of his innate belief in the general trustworthiness of strangers. Which was fairly odd, considering that he hadn't had a lot of friends in the Academy- but perhaps it was a coping mechanism? Or else just a personality trait.

She doubted he'd be able to keep that faith in humanity for much longer now that they'd started their careers as shinobi. Normally she'd have taken that thought further, perhaps worried for Naruto's sake, but as it was Sakura's focus remained firmly on how to get a hold of wand wood before they left this place. She'd need to acquire a core of some kind too, of course, but one step in the right direction was one step further than she'd been able to take in all her years in this world.

"Enough," said Kakashi finally, before the boys could exchange verbal insults for physical blows. He rolled the piece of paper he'd been writing on into a cylinder that disappeared into a pocket.

The jounin ordered the two ANBU to scout, and made a few quick handsigns that Sakura didn't recognize. Must be internal ANBU-speak. 'An A-ranked ninja hovering around a member of Fire Country's ruling family would set off all kinds of alarms in a jounin's head.' It was definitely of enough concern for their original mission to be shoved to the side, at least for the moment.

Though officially Konoha and Kumo's relations were amiable if distant, the unofficial but widely-known truth was that those relations teetered precariously close to being antagonistic. Konoha and Kumo hadn't clashed often in the last war, and their cordial relations afterward had been of as genuine a nature as relations between two major Hidden Villages ever could be, but about a decade ago something had happened. Sakura knew it had involved the Hyuga and a Kumo diplomat, but had not been able to suss out the exact details. Whatever had happened soured the two villages' tentative burgeoning alliance and slit the throats of all their regular transactions. Kumo had been considered 'borderline-hostile' ever since.

"What are we going to do?" Sakura wondered out loud in Kakashi's direction. He'd been tense and stiff-browed since he and Naruto climbed into the room.

Kakashi sighed. "We only have until tomorrow to resolve this, as per the agreement made with Shima about our journey to Konoha. That means I'll have to trust your Academy scores on infiltration to be accurate on that. Sakura- yours was the highest, so I expect the most from you."

Sakura nodded when the jounin looked her way, but didn't see why they couldn't try to stall for time. Kakashi probably had his reasons, though. She wasn't too eager for whatever plan would have need of their infiltration skills, hoping in the back of her mind that it wouldn't have anything to do with Shima or Oshinobu's apparent interest in her.

"Do you think she recognized us as shinobi?" Sasuke asked. A very good question, though since Kakashi had just mentioned infiltration, Sakura was leaning towards the answer being 'no'. If O-Hisa had recognized them, what would be the point in even attempting any level of infiltration at this point?

"You three? No. And I doubt she recognized me in this get-up. The only reason I recognized her was because she was not in disguise herself." The cold moonlight coming through the window threw glints of bright silver over the dyed, limp strands of Kakashi's hair.

"That weird though, isn't it? That she's not disguised?" Naruto sat down on the bed, head tilted curiously. He didn't seem particularly worried about the developing situation.

"Not particularly. She utilizes different disguises every time she appears, so most Bingo Books don't have an accurate picture or description of her appearance."

Naruto frowned. "But if we don't have pictures of her, how do you know she's not wearing a disguise now?"

Kakashi's mouth was a straight, narrow line. "Because this isn't the first time she's gotten herself involved with Fire Country nobility." The jounin explained what he needed them to do.

-.-.-.-

The plan wasn't particularly complicated, but Sakura couldn't help being just a bit nervous anyway. Kakashi had waved the paper he'd been writing on their way after explaining that he was going to cause a distraction. The intention was for that distraction to make everyone in the hotel rush out of their rooms, leaving Sakura and Sasuke free to put on a little show.

"I don't get why I can't do the same thing you guys are," Naruto muttered, leaning his chin into his palm. "I'm not that bad at infiltration."

"I don't think Kakashi-sensei meant to imply that he didn't believe you could do what we're doing," said Sakura, and hoped she didn't sound insincere. Kakashi definitely thought better of hers and Sasuke's ability to stay in character when needed. And hers and Sasuke's little show only required the two of them at this stage anyway.

"Plus, sneaking into O-Hisa's room isn't a task to sneeze at." She tried to sound encouraging, because that part was actually true.

"It's only 'cause I said I'd stolen things before. And because I can use Kage Bunshin. So it won't even be me sneaking anywhere." Naruto blew out a breath and stared moodily at the hole in the wall. "I don't even know what a 'gold digger' would steal. Don't they use up other people's money with their consent?"

"Well, yes, typically. But I think he only used that word to make it easier to understand what kind of woman we're trying to portray O-Hisa as." Sakura clasped her hands together, fidgeting enough to feel the comforting outline of the long senbon strapped to her arm wriggle in its fastenings.

Naruto thought on that and then nodded, still frowning. "But maybe she doesn't have a purse for me to put the stolen stuff into..."

"It's unlikely that a civilian woman would travel to a hotel without bringing a purse or a bag. It might even be unusual enough for someone to take notice, and that's the last thing you want when you're doing infiltration work."

"But isn't she trying to be a classy prostitute?"

"We don't know that for sure," said Sakura, though privately she thought it unlikely that Ginzou and O-Hisa weren't sleeping together. But the two of them having sex didn't mean O-Hisa was going for a 'working girl' portrayal.

"Make the clone," Sasuke said suddenly and as always, he made it sound like an order. Naruto glared at him, crossed his arms and huffed, muttering about how he was going to wait until he heard the sound of Kakashi's distraction.

As if conjured by his words, there was the sudden sound of something very big exploding somewhere on the other side of the building. The whoosh-bang of a house being thoroughly obliterated, Sakura thought.

Naruto quickly created the clone that was to sneak into Ginzou's room, pushing as much chakra into it as he could without overloading the technique, as Kakashi has told them all that would enable it to last longer. The clone transformed, giving itself a dull, unremarkable appearance, and moved out the window.

Sakura ruffled her hair to make herself look more like she'd just woken up, and despite Sasuke's glare, did the same to him. Naruto grinned and copied her, making his own already messy hair even messier.

"Shouldn't we cover up the hole in the wall?" Sasuke muttered as they moved out of the room, and Sakura shrugged. If he'd wanted it covered up, Kakashi would have said something. Naruto had jumped back into the room beside theirs to come out of his own room, just in case, and they met up again in the corridor outside. People milled about, shouting questions and staring out the windows, gawking at the flames reaching for the sky only a hundred meters or so outside.

Everyone congregated in the ante room, where the Hankyuu's employees were attempting to diffuse the brewing panic among their guests. Sasuke tapped the back of his knuckles discreetly on her shoulder and tilted his head towards the group of people in a corner taking up more room than they needed. Ginzou's entourage was difficult to miss, if only because their night clothes were the most elaborate in sight. 'And so the show begins.' Sakura adopted a worried expression and reached for Sasuke.

"Sakura-chan!" Ginzou greeted when she and Sasuke, hand in hand, approached the group. Naruto trailed after them, eyes wide as he looked at the enormous amount of people milling about the hall. "And Kensuke-kun. What a terrifying way to be woken up, huh?"

"Yes, awful," Sakura agreed, and they spent a few minutes wondering aloud what could possibly be happening. It wasn't as difficult as she'd feared to put on the scared-little-girl act. Or even to keep their focus on her as she did.

"Perhaps we should consider leaving the resort?" O-Hisa piped up, voice sleep-roughened. Or roughened by other activities. Ginzou hummed, obviously considering his companion's words. 'Well, crap,' Sakura thought. They couldn't be allowed to leave just yet.

Sasuke spoke up, and Sakura was glad she was the only one who could feel the telling tension in his muscles. "I don't want to go out there before the police arrive to steer up the crowds. We'd be trampled. The panic is worse out there than in here." Here he gave her an artificially concerned look. Sakura was impressed. Maybe her teammate worked better under pressure, because she'd never thought that the grumpy, everyday Sasuke would be able to turn on an expression like that. It didn't look completely genuine, but that she could only tell because she was meeting his eyes and the concerned warmth there was lacking. "I'm not sure it's any safer out there. What if there is fighting? Or what if more things explode?"

Sakura put her head on his shoulder and nodded into his neck. Sasuke tensed even more, and a second later she felt the muscles of his throat forcibly relax against her forehead. "I agree with Kensuke. It's warmer in here, and there's food. I don't think it could hurt to wait a little longer before going out. Maybe things will have cleared up some by then."

"You have a point," said Ginzou and Sakura might have imagined it because her attention was focused more on O-Hisa than on Ginzou, but she thought she saw something flutter in the kunoichi's gaze.

"We'll stay in here," said Naruto, patting her arm in a comforting way. And also tapping the 'all-clear' signal more discreetly than she'd believed him capable of. So his clone had dispelled. Sakura tapped the message into Sasuke's palm.

"Where is your uncle, children?" asked O-Hisa, the corners of her mouth turning up a little as she spoke. It looked less like a smile and more like a threat, but that was the way of all O-Hisa's expressions, really. It was fortunate for her that she wasn't trying to portray a kinder woman, because she had edges too sharp to ever be seen as kindly. Or at least as the person she was currently posing as did.

"He went to find out what's happening," Sakura said, making sure to sound miserable and worried. The boys came together around her, patting her back and murmuring comforting words. It felt quite nice, so it was too bad that it was all just for show.

It did have the added benefit of making Ginzou look down at them warmly. "I'm sure your uncle is just fine."

-.-.-.-

But Kakashi didn't return for half an hour, and the concern Sakura was pretending to feel was starting to become real. It didn't help that Ginzou and Oshinobu kept fussing over her and Sasuke either. She had a feeling her Uchiha teammate had reached the point where he was entertaining himself with homicidal fantasies just to keep from snapping at them, and Naruto had been tapping his foot against the ground rhythmically for the past ten minutes. Sakura doubted it was to stay in character, but since the impatient movements wouldn't cause suspicion and she knew he found it difficult to stay quiet and in the background even with Kakashi's orders to do so, she said nothing.

An employee had placed a tray with steaming tea on their table before rushing by with an apology for the current chaos in the hall. Just as Sakura was about to discreetly suggest that Naruto send out a few clones to look for Kakashi, their teacher appeared.

"I apologize for the wait," he said, smiling that awkward smile. The stench of smoke clung to him like invisible mist. "Trying to find someone who knew anything about the goings-on outside was more difficult than I expected. And navigating the throng of people wasn't too easy either."

Ginzou waved off the apology. "No matter. What did you find out?"

"It seems a few teenagers were playing with fire in the distillery across the street, of all places." He rolled his eyes a little, shrugging his shoulders in a nonverbal comment about the stupidity of children. Sakura had to admire the way his easy body language and casual tone relaxed the atmosphere.

It wasn't too long after Kakashi's return that the Hankyuu employees began steering people back into their rooms with explanations and apologies about the disturbance. The number of employees rushing around seemed to have doubled, and they were all still smiling in that professional serial-killer-shiny way.

"I guess this means we'll get a few more hours of sleep," said Ginzou and smiled at his group. There were murmurs of agreement, as there always was when the Daimyo's son said anything, and they began to move en masse.

Team seven separated and moved into their respective rooms, but a second later Kakashi and Naruto were climbing through the hole to join Sakura and Sasuke in theirs.

"What really happened, Kakashi?" demanded Sasuke, crossing his arms over his chest and turning towards their teacher.

Kakashi gave him a slow glance. "I ran into some unexpected opposition." Without further explanation, he took off his eye-patch to reveal a Sharingan eye even Sakura, who had little experience with dojutsu eyes, recognized as infected.

Naruto rushed forward and would probably have put his fingers close to the eye if Kakashi hadn't batted him away. "What happened?"

"O-Hisa isn't the only Kumo shinobi in the neighborhood." Kakashi sat down on the bed and leaned his chin on the knuckles of his right hand. For having an eye that looked like someone had poured a cup of lemon juice into it, he seemed remarkably unbothered. "I encountered a man- blond, mid-twenties, genjutsu-oriented, hitai-ate around his forehead. We fought, he used some kind of blinding technique and escaped."

Sakura frowned. "Are you injured anywhere else, besides your eye?" It wasn't like she was going to be of much use even if he was injured, but it couldn't hurt to ask. "And should we be standing guard? Or move out?"

"Shallow stab-wound. Already taken care of." He eye-smiled in that infuriating way of his, before adding, "And I don't think that particular Kumo shinobi will get very far, regardless." He pulled out a small sealing scroll and waved it in the direction of the floor. The scroll promptly spit out a dismembered arm, the long fingers and bruised, bony knuckles twitching against the carpet as it rolled.

Sasuke made a disgusted sound when it stopped at his feet in the same moment Naruto gave a strangled yelp and jumped back, hands flailing. "Was that really necessary?" Sakura asked, frowning down at it and feeling strangely nostalgic. There'd been a spell once that could take off an opponent's limbs in such a way that it was still magically linked to the body, for easy reattachment. Very useful for capturing prisoners unharmed.

The arm was very neatly severed and bloodless, the flesh a pinkish white where it would have been attached to the shoulder. 'What kind of technique does that?' Sakura wondered.

"Do you think there are more Kumo shinobi in the area?" Sasuke asked, stepping around the arm to lean against the wall opposite Kakashi. Sakura looked up briefly at that and caught the jounin watching her for a moment before he turned to answer the question.

"I sent out two clones to ensure that if that is the case, they won't be able to make contact with O-Hisa."

"Unless they have some other way of contacting her, one that doesn't require a physical meeting," said Sakura, looking up from where her gaze had caught on the dead limb again to stare at their teacher. "And if they don't have a set contact time everyday where an absence would be noted immediately."

Kakashi rolled his shoulders and gave her a ridiculous pout. "Maa, so pessimistic."

"Realistic, you mean," said Sasuke. Their teacher smiled, both eyes crinkling.

"I've taken care of it. Don't worry your cute little heads, you'll get premature wrinkles." Sasuke huffed irritably, Naruto muttered something insulting under his breath and Sakura sighed. It was good to have the jounin back, but she really could do without the exasperating commentary.

"Get some sleep, brats, we have work to do in the morning." Kakashi picked up the arm and wandered back into the other room.

Sasuke sat down on the floor and leaned his head back on the wall with a frown. Naruto jumped into bed, literally, and bounced a few times before settling under the covers. Sakura made herself comfortable beside him by the headboard, closed her eyes and descended once more to feel the magic beneath the ground in her mindscape.

-.-.-.-

The morning dawned with loud shouting coming from Ginzou's room, and both Sakura and Sasuke were on their feet and looking out the door a moment later.

"Where is it? Where? You're the only person to have been in this room besides me!" It was more screeching than angry growling, but Sakura thought it suited Ginzou's personality. She could just imagine him stamping his foot and believing that it looked imposing.

Sakura turned towards the bed, where her other teammate was rubbing his blond hair and yawning. "Naruto, what exactly did you steal from Ginzou?"

"You mean, what did O-Hisa steal from him? Heheh, I got this really nice watch he had in his pocket. You know, one of those traditional ones with zodiac signs?"

"You mean a wadokei?" said Sasuke, raising a brow. "He had a wadokei in his pocket?"

By the incredulous tone, Sakura assumed wadokei generally weren't kept in pockets. Too big maybe, or too expensive.

"I'm not lying!" said Naruto. "It was really old-looking, with a golden backside, and a strap made of some scaly leather. It smelled really funny too, like flowers."

"Sounds like it's made with rose-tanned crocodile leather. Both exclusive and expensive." Sasuke nodded a little, and then apparently noticed that both Sakura and Naruto were staring at him. If she hadn't been standing so close to him, she'd never have noticed the tips of his ears turning pink at their attention. "What?" he said irritably. "I once had a cousin who was into sculpting and pottery and mechanical arts." Apparently realizing that he'd just revealed something personal on impulse, Sasuke blinked and quickly turned away. Sakura and Naruto glanced at each other before putting their focus back on the corridor.

Kakashi waved them forward a second later. Sasuke walked out ahead of her and Naruto with his shoulders stiffly drawn back. She hoped it wouldn't seem suspicious to Ginzou's people that they weren't walking together, because she didn't really want to force his hand into hers right now.

"You think I would need to steal from you?" O-Hisa's voice was high and offended, and her slim neck strained as she tilted her chin up in challenge.

Ginzou was flushed with anger, which seemed to make his companions quite nervous. "'Need'? No, I think you saw the maker's name on the back and decided you wanted it!"

"Who was the maker?" Sakura whispered to Naruto, hoping he remembered.

"Tanaka Hisashige," said Naruto very quietly, but shrugged to show that he didn't know the name. Sakura didn't recognize it either, but she would bet that Sasuke would have.

"Let's calm down, shall we," Kakashi tried in his disguise's awkward-sounding voice while making ineffective calming hand gestures. "What has happened? Has something been stolen?"

Ginzou spun to face him. "Yes! This woman has stolen an antique wristwatch from me. It's been in my family for generations, and now she's probably planning to pawn it to earn a quick coin!"

That was one hell of a leap to make, in Sakura's opinion. But then, Ginzou hadn't struck her as the kind of person who would stand back and try to observe a situation critically. Or logically. Or quietly.

"I demand we call the police! Or better yet, my father's court!"

'Who the hell takes a petty theft to the Daimyo's court?' thought Sakura and tried not to let her less-than-impressed thoughts show on her face. 'Alright, so maybe it's not petty theft but grand larceny, considering how expensive and old the clock apparently is, but still.' Ginzou was being ridiculously, entitled-rich-boy dramatic. At least calling the police, if premature, wasn't an unreasonable response.

"But, eh, we're on our way to Konoha... and there's a council..." Kakashi tried, and Sakura saw just how he planned to play it. Konoha's village council dealt with nobility problems quite often, as she'd understood it. And if O-Hisa accompanied them there, they'd have a Kumo-nin in custody without having to fight for it.

Over the din of Ginzou's accusations and O-Hisa's indignant protestations, apparently only Oshinobu heard what Kakashi attempted to say to stave off the fight. He cleared his throat and began, "I believe Konohagakure's council could be of assistance in this case. They are an objective power, and the court has utilized their services before."

If the man honestly believed that Konoha's village council was in any way objective, he was an idiot. The Daimyo's court held a lot of sway in the country, and any issue could be made political if someone felt it would be useful to their agenda. That thought was in the back of Sakura's mind even as she gave Kakashi, who was so conveniently placed next to Oshinobu when he'd said what he did, a dry look. Nobody would suspect that he'd put the idea of O-Hisa and Ginzou accompanying them to Konoha into Oshinobu's head.

And now, depending on O-Hisa's response, they'd know just what kind of game she was running. Sakura had dealt with infiltrators before, of course. And not just during her Hogwarts years. Kingsley Shacklebolt had been made Minister after the Battle of Hogwarts, true, but he hadn't been seated solidly in his position from the start. During those days, it had seemed like Death Eaters were potentially hiding behind every stranger's smile.

"Fine," said O-Hisa, voice trembling with outrage. "Take me to Konohagakure. I have done nothing wrong."

'So it's a long game, then,' Sakura thought. If the kunoichi was so sure of her cover that she was willing to walk straight into Konoha, she must be very deep undercover.

"Ah…" said Kakashi, a masterful expression of helpless confusion on his face. "So I guess we have more company on our way to Konoha," he said, half-turned towards Shima.

"It would seem so," said Shima and didn't look particularly happy about the prospect. "Perhaps we should have one of their shinobi meet us half-way?" he said to Ginzou, who nodded fiercely and then glared at O-Hisa.

Oshinobu made an imperious gesture towards one harried-looking Hankyuu employee. "I'll send a bird," he said.


Traveling at a civilian's pace was far more boring than Sakura remembered it being as Hermione. Maybe because back then she'd had no other choice other than flying, and she'd never been very fond of great heights.

Her left hand had remained in her pocket ever since they left the Hankyuu, fingertips ghosting over the handful of thin branches therein. The vibrated faintly at her touch, and every time they responded like she'd spent years hoping a wood would respond to her, she had to fight down a smile.

Kakashi and Shima were speaking quietly up ahead, with Sasuke listening in and Naruto thoroughly distracted by the still ongoing, if now silent, drama between O-Hisa and Ginzou. The man had left most of his retinue behind, excepting two servants and some kind of retainer or bodyguard, and was obviously unused to walking for long periods of time.

'Perhaps we should have brought a palanquin for him to be carried around in,' Sakura thought uncharitably. At least the nobleman wasn't complaining about having to walk... yet. Though perhaps that was only due to his and O-Hisa's silent battle-of-wills staring contest distracting him.

They continued in silence for what felt like only a little while longer to Sakura, lost in thought as she was, until a low female voice called out for them to halt and she realized the trees surrounding them had gone from being mostly spruce to mostly beech.

"I am Mitarashi Anko, tokubetsu jounin of Konohagakure no Sato, and I am searching for Ginzou-dono of the Fire Daimyo's court. Have I found him?" she asked, coming closer and looking like she was actually wondering just that. But there was no way she would have announced herself like that if she hadn't been sure. Maybe it was just politeness to ask. Somewhat pompous politeness, though it could be that that's what someone of Ginzou's station required.

"You have found me, kunoichi-san." Ginzou didn't sound nearly as casual as he had when speaking to everyone else at the Hankyuu, and the tint of nervousness coloring his voice made Sakura wonder about the reputation of shinobi in the world at large. The opinions of the civilians living in Konoha didn't necessarily mirror the opinions of civilians living outside the Hidden Villages, those who didn't run into shinobi on a day-to-day basis. What did those unused to shinobi think of them? Were they seen as weapons to be wielded or as barely-caged tigers? As soldiers, perhaps?

Kakashi pulled an anxious expression over his visible features, and Sakura wondered if he'd be recognized. Or maybe if he'd sent a message ahead to whoever was coming. His current disguise might be enough to fool an acquaintance, but if he'd worked with this Mitarashi before, there was little chance she wouldn't recognize him. Sakura decided to let her teacher handle that potential worry and attempted to copy his uneasy look at the sight of the approaching shinobi.

"I understand there has been a theft," said the woman when she was close enough that she didn't have to raise her voice. Her pale brown eyes glanced over them all, never lingering on any one person. Sakura tried not to stare at her mesh body suit, which although clearly made of a material that closely matched her skin in between the actual latticework, was still tight enough for her to appear to be naked underneath.

"Indeed. This woman," and here Ginzou unnecessarily pointed at O-Hisa, who was standing only three meters to his right, "- has stolen a very important heirloom from me. I wish for her to be tried by Konohagakure's village council!"

Mitarashi turned her head to look O-Hisa up and down. The Kumo-nin pursed her lips and then straightened her back. "I haven't stolen anything from him, and I don't mind being tried by your council."

The Konoha kunoichi smiled. It was not a nice smile. "Well, then. Looks like we're all in agreement about what comes next. How fortunate!" She turned to dig in one of the large pockets in her overcoat until she she found what she was looking for: two large, wooden rings. Sakura could see chakra moving through active seals in what appeared to be some kind of bracelets, and wondered if O-Hisa would let herself be handcuffed with them.

Apparently so. Although she frowned down at the rings circling her wrists, the Kumo kunoichi made no attempt to stop Mitarashi from securing them there.

"It's a shame I couldn't handcuff you under more pleasant circumstances, pretty woman," she murmured to O-Hisa, and Sakura tried not to stare at either of them. Was that really protocol? No, stupid thought, of course it wasn't. Was she trying to unnerve O-Hisa? Seduce her? What?

O-Hisa blinked quickly, didn't blush or look down, and then smiled a little. Sakura wondered if she thought she had an in, there. Maybe she did. For all Sakura knew, Mitarashi could be weak for a pretty face. Though the shinobi forces were portrayed as consummate professionals in the Academy, they were only human and therefor prone to human deficiencies.

"I'll take you both with me," said Mitarashi, nodding towards Ginzou. "The journey to Konoha will be much faster if we travel my way."

Ginzou approached with visible hesitance, and as soon as he was within her reach, the kunoichi shunshined them all away. Sakura wondered if she was fast enough that she could move them all to Konoha in one go, or if she was going to have to shunshin in jumps every few hundred meters.

"Well, that was eventful," said Kakashi after a few long seconds of silence. They were all staring at the spot where the kunoichi had disappeared with varying degrees of interest. Ginzou's servants looked horrified. His retainer, perhaps having dealt with abrupt shinobi departures before, just seemed irritated.

They slowly began moving again, with Shima taking command of Ginzou's servants like they were expected to obey him now that their master had gone. Perhaps they were. Sakura knew little of how hierarchy worked within the noble ranks in instances like this.

As the servants fluttered around Shima, Kakashi drifted back a little until he was by Naruto, bending down to murmur a question in his ear. Sakura couldn't make it out, but Naruto's whispered reply was just loud enough for her to catch. "I put it in the little pouch-thing she had inside the kimono she was wearing."

Nodding, Kakashi casually drifted back to speak with Shima. Naruto stared at him for a moment, perhaps expecting more from their teacher, before shrugging and going to bicker with Sasuke. Despite being in the middle of a mission, the air about their group was relaxed and easy. Sakura allowed herself to daydream, her hand against her new collection of branches, and was thus nearly skewered by the rain of senbon that suddenly came flying in her direction.

The ANBU with the purple hair was suddenly there, yanking her out of the way with a grip strong enough that Sakura briefly thought her arm might break. Naruto shouted something, Sasuke jumped back with a kunai in hand and Sakura looked over at Kakashi to find him holding an apparently unconscious Shima under his arm while the servants cowered behind him.

Mist rolled in over the road and the trees lining it. Very odd, since there were no bodies of water here. Sakura pulled out her long senbon and frowned. She recalled reading about a jutsu that would cause mist thick enough for a shinobi to hide in and with her frown deepening, Sakura looked about the trees. It was becoming difficult to see the individual branches, the mist seeping into every nook and cranny and blurring all contours.

"I was wondering if you were really as defenseless as you looked," said a deep male voice echoing at them from every direction. She'd heard about that jutsu too, though it was a lot less frightening in text than in reality. Before the ground between her and her teammates disappeared completely from view, Sakura darted through the encroaching mist to stand by Sasuke.

Naruto made a handful of clones, all of which spread out with their heads swiveling back and forth to try to catch sight of the speaker. The original Naruto pulled in close to her and Sasuke, arming himself as he did so.

"But some no-name shinobi could never hope to defeat me." There was a deep laugh before the voice continued. "So how about you hand over the lordling? You needn't bleed and die for someone of so little importance."

"Hmm, I'm afraid we can't do that. Once we accept a mission, we see it through." Kakashi slouched and looked as lazy as ever, but his voice was firm.

A man appeared through a shiver in the mist over the road ahead, walking towards them through the haze. He was shirtless with most of his face bandaged, leaving only his eyes visible. Striped gray trousers were held up by the strangest suspenders Sakura had ever seen. Cowskin-patterned arm- and legwarmers completed the strange get-up. If not for the dangerous feel the man gave off, Sakura would probably have laughed at him.

"Momochi Zabuza," Kakashi muttered and suddenly laughing was the farthest thing from Sakura's mind. She'd heard of that name. Momochi Zabuza was a missing-nin from Mist, one of the really dangerous ones. 'Shit,' Sakura thought, drawing a kunai with her unoccupied hand as discreetly as she could.

"My, how nice to be recognized. And you know, I always thought it fitting to know the name of the shinobi whose hands you'll die at."

Despite the bandages, Sakura could see him smile.


A/N: This chapter only took me about two days to write (which rarely happens) and I really enjoyed writing it. As always, thanks go out to Against-The-Current for her thoughts!

And as usual, I'm curious about what you liked in this chapter. What did you think about the way they handled O-Hisa? The team seven interactions? Zabuza's sudden appearance here at the end? Your thoughts are much appreciated!

On a completely different note, I posted a darkish, kind-of-slash-but-not-really story on my profile I'd like any interested readers' thoughts on.