Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto
Team 7's Ascension
Chapter XV – Grow the Tree V
Rays of light shone through the canopy, prompting Shikamaru to get up and stretch his legs. Above the campfire, fresh morning air mixed with smoke, and Shikamaru crinkled his nose at the chilling tang.
"We're done," he said, turning to Hinata and Sasuke.
Both were staring at the dying embers, had done so since they had taken their place next to him. Sasuke was the first to avert his eyes from the fire. He rose to his feet and glanced at Shikamaru.
"I'll get new wood," Sasuke said, then ambled toward the tree line that marked their camp's border.
His movement startled Hinata out of her trance, and she jumped up, a red hue painted across her cheeks. "Is there something I can do to help?"
Shikamaru scratched his chin. "Why don't you wake the others?"
Her face lit up, but before she had the chance to leave, Shikamaru cleared his throat.
"Don't worry about Naruto though. I've to talk with him anyhow, so I'll get him myself."
Her eyes tightened, and she pursed her lips. The signs of displeasure were faint, vanishing as quickly as they had come, and Hinata soon shuffled away to the others. He grinned. Naruto had quite the devoted follower in her.
Yawning, Shikamaru strolled over to Naruto. The blond had started sleeping apart from the others two nights ago, and was leaning against a large tree, his head nestled between two roots.
Before he roused Naruto out of his slumber though, Shikamaru moved to a safer distance and went through the hand seals of his clan technique. Naruto had almost killed him on accident the previous morning.
Black tendrils connected with the blond, and like a puppet dancing to its master's tune, Naruto's body rose and settled into a slouch. The shadows writhed around as the semi-conscious Naruto resisted the unknown forces holding him in place. Then they stopped moving altogether, and Shikamaru ended his technique. He wiped the sweat off his forehead – binding Naruto wasn't easy.
"I hate to wake up like that," Naruto said.
"Don't blame me," Shikamaru replied. "You're the guy who can't get up without attacking the innocent."
Naruto sighed, massaging his shoulder. "I'm sorry."
"Don't worry too much about it. I'll get Sakura something womanly for saving me and the thing's forgotten."
"Gunning for my teammate now?"
Shikamaru snorted. "Hardly. I already have one woman in my life with my mother… I don't need a second one."
Naruto laughed and fastened the leather cords of his shoulder plate. Shikamaru waited until the blond was done before he spoke again.
"Suna, Kumo, and Kiri won't wait forever. They'll come soon – tomorrow probably - and when that happens we need everyone here in the camp."
"There's no way we'll get enough chips if we don't send teams tomorrow."
Shikamaru shook his head. The point was valid, but it wasn't enough. This task was for more than just advancing in rank. He had noticed that the moment the slaughter began.
"We probably won't, you're right."
"And you want to give up now? We're almost through Shika. We've almost made it!"
"We haven't, and you know it. Are those chips more important than our lives?"
Naruto became silent and stared at the tree opposite of him, while in the distance a bird chirped as though it would exit the world soon.
"Of course they aren't," Naruto said after a while. "You should know that."
"I do, but it's good to hear it." Looking back to the camp, Shikamaru saw Chōji serving breakfast to their sleepy friends. "I don't like losing either, but I dislike dying more."
Naruto said nothing, but his hands were shaking. So many expectations, so much planning… and in the end, nothing of it would matter. This couldn't be easy on the blond.
Shikamaru gripped Naruto's shoulder. "There'll always be another chance to make Chūnin, Naruto. All we have to do is survive till then."
He got a grunt in response that sounded vaguely like an agreement, and took that as his sign to leave the blond in peace.
Sakura stood at the edge of the camp, staring into the forest. Her weapon pouch was heavier than usual. It was her time to lead a group now, and Naruto hadn't made it any easier with his latest instructions.
Chōji leaned against a tree next to her, his eyes lingering on the campfire where Ino and Shikamaru were talking and eating. His Bo-staff was mounted on his back, and his chest plate bore the symbol of his clan. He looked ready for combat, but also as though his mind was someplace far away.
Would he follow her orders? Would Kiba?
"Are you alright?" she asked, walking up to him. "You seem distracted."
Chōji's left hand twitched and he glanced at her, his lips turning into a poor imitation of a smile. "I'm fine, Sakura-san. Thank you." He wiped his hand over his face and yawned. "Just sleepy is all. I'll be good to go once Kiba's here."
"There is no need for formality in this place, Chōji. Sakura is fine."
"No, I imagine not," he said.
"Has Naruto told you more about what we're going to do? What he said at breakfast was very vague," Chōji said.
Sakura observed a plant some distance away which had revealed large roots covered with thorns, and lashed out against a snake nearby.
"We're sending out two teams today, because we can't send any tomorrow. The area we're covering is in the South mostly, and after two hours we circle back to camp over the East. Naruto wants us back by noon."
"Do you think there are still some teams we can find at this point?"
She pointed at Kiba who was jogging toward them. "If there are teams left in that direction, he can definitely find them. He could smell you in those animal carcasses after all."
Kiba stopped in front of them, laughed, and dusted off his jacket. His grin was wide, and he saluted jauntily. "Hey guys, sorry for the wait."
Sakura blinked. His unruly brown hair wasn't hidden under his fur hood anymore, and on his left cheek was a second, smaller mark. She inspected the new facial decoration. It wasn't as precise as its big brother, had a darker shade, and looked jagged in some places.
"This is blood."
Her voice was neutral, but the words were enough to make Chōji look up. "Blood? Has something happened?"
"Na, don't worry." Kiba raised his hands. "It's a gift from Akamaru."
"He bit you?"
"What? No! It's just that he's staying in the camp during the mission. Akamaru is sentimental like that sometimes."
The Akimichi scratched his chin. "It's a promise then? That you'll come back to him?"
"Yep, something like that."
"Why aren't you taking him with you?" Sakura asked. "You two were attached at the hip back in the academy."
Kiba clenched his fists. "That team of hunters on the first day… the woman caught him with a glancing blow. He's still not completely fit again. Hinata is trying her best though… Anyway, my nose is as good as always! Let's start, eh?"
"Right. Everyone ready?"
When she received two nods, a grin lit up her face. "Team, move out!"
As Sakura and her team left, Sasuke found himself a cozy spot at the edge of the camp. He lazed in the shadows, partially hidden by high shrubbery, and was glad that for once he had the time to enjoy the forest. He'd do his part should trouble find them, of course, but he had no mind for the useless banter the others engaged in.
The only upside he saw in it was Naruto's steadily improving mood – same with Sakura, really. He hadn't noticed it before, but as much good as Kakashi's training had done them, it had also isolated them. And while he was content with only his teammates, they, apparently, needed a greater variety of social contacts. Naruto in particular flourished the longer he interacted with others.
Sasuke blinked as he noticed a person leaving the group around the fire and nearing his hiding place. Ino was on her way, and moments later, her purple-clad figure crouched next to him, smiling encouragingly. He should have known the damn Aburame wouldn't let the matter slide.
"Shino said you wanted to talk with me," she said as she tucked a few loose strands of hair behind her ear.
He was tempted to curse out loud. The Aburame clan was filled with horrible people.
Ino laughed. "You guess?"
There wasn't a point in postponing the issue any longer. Naruto and Sakura might glower at him for a while, but he had no intention of making this discussion longer than necessary.
"Yesterday, I hadn't forgotten our chips. I went back to kill them."
As she slowly processed his words, her smile vanished and she turned pale. She shook her head in denial.
"Why?" she asked. "Why did you kill them?"
"Dead people don't seek revenge," he answered.
A callous statement, one he related only in part to their mission. One day he'd make sure that leaving him alive all those years ago would become Itachi's greatest mistake.
"And the lie? Why lie to me?"
Sasuke focused his attention on the task at hand. He didn't move to console her, but his features softened.
"You're not used to death. Shino had next to no bugs and we were still in hostile territory. Would you have kept your cool had I killed them in front of you?"
"I- No," she admitted. Sasuke had to give her credit – she didn't cry.
"Had we been closer to our camp it wouldn't have been necessary."
He omitted that it had been Naruto who asked him and Sakura to make sure no one was left alive. The Uzumaki desperately wanted everyone to make it out of the forest and tried to eliminate as many variables as possible – who was he to go against it?
The look he got from the Yamanaka heiress wasn't all that friendly, but when he heard Naruto's energetic laughter in the distance, he decided to continue keeping silent about the 'order' he had received from him.
The dobe had earned a break.
"Look," he said. "It's done now, and we don't have the luxury to ease you into it."
Her eyes tightened and Sasuke cursed his inability to be encouraging. Where was Sakura when he needed her? This wasn't a comfortable task by any stretch of the imagination, and he firmly believed Ino would have been happier had she never learned about what had happened.
With stocky motions, she rose to her feet. "Excuse me," she said. "I'll see you later."
Once she had left his vicinity, he leaned back and stared up at the many leaves obscuring his view of the sky.
Aburame was a horrible person.
It was a simple command; only two words, nothing more. Yet, despite being older, Temari obeyed the instant she heard her youngest brother's apathetic voice. As she and Kankuro sprang to their feet, the sticks with grilled fish they had been eating fell to the ground.
In the complicated relationship between the three siblings, age definitely wasn't the dominant factor when it came to the matter of hierarchy.
"Gaara, you're back."
The redhead stared at her, and any courage she had left her, as Gaara met her gaze. Unable to bear it any longer, she fixed her sight on a point above his shoulder. A gasp escaped her. She had been so focused on her little brother that she missed the armada of eyeballs behind him. Made of sand, hovering in the air… there were just so many.
Temari turned her head around, ostensibly to check what Kankuro was doing, and saw that he had busied himself with putting out their campfire as inconspicuously as he could. A wave of sand smashed into the fire, smothering the flames, and interrupted his work.
Losing his balance, Kankuro landed on his backside and crawled away from the sand as fast as possible. Temari often argued with the puppeteer, but it hurt to see such obvious signs of fear on his face; and as a consequence of their younger brother's action no less.
There was a slight tremor in Kankuro's voice as he began to talk, but it vanished seconds later as if nothing had happened. "Ah, hey, Gaara… What's up?"
"There are no teams left in this area," her brother answered.
"None at all?" Temari asked carefully, shouldering her large metal fan.
She received the answer in the shape of another dead stare that struck her to the core.
"Right, of course you're sure," she muttered. "What's our next move then?"
Gaara started to crush the eyeballs hovering behind him one by one. It was only sand, but Temari's stomach lurched. She wanted answers, but letting Gaara set the pace was always better – anything else could end in violence.
As the last grains of sand he used for his eerie technique returned to his gourd, Gaara turned back to them. "There is a large group a few hours to the south."
Her throat dried up. He wanted to attack one of the fortified camps? This couldn't end well.
"Eh, Gaara, isn't that awfully risky. We haven't got your sand armor, you know?" said Kankuro.
Temari sent a silent prayer of thanks to him for mentioning that fact. He'd never learn of it, but she admired his resilience when facing their brother. Even if frightened, Kankuro always approached Gaara with the more difficult topics; mostly the issues that went against Gaara's plans and could maim them.
Every time he did it, she feared for his life. On this day, however, the redhead appeared to be more reasonable. Kankuro wasn't maimed… yet.
"You can leave."
"What about the task? They want us to arrive together."
Temari involuntarily took a step back as Gaara began to frown. His impatience always led to bloodshed of some sort.
"Go north," he commanded. "I will find you tomorrow."
Without another word, the redhead walked away. She saw that Kankuro opened his mouth to say something else, and quickly grabbed him by his shoulder. He was brave, but sometimes stupid. Any other words would only serve to provoke Gaara.
"Do you know why he wants us to go north?" Kankuro asked once their little brother was out of sight.
Temari nodded, releasing him from her iron grip. "The camp from our alliance is somewhere in the north."
"So, we join them and wait for Gaara to catch up?"
"There's not much else we can do."
As she followed Kiba through the forest – with Chōji safeguarding their rear – Sakura's good mood didn't change. Back in the academy, she'd had no appreciation at all for the wild and unruly Inuzuka – except for his puppy. Time and the Forest of Death, however, had apparently mellowed him out a bit, which made him pleasant company while traveling.
Then there was his sense of smell which, frankly, astounded her. After they had left the camp, Kiba had only needed fifteen minutes – fifteen – until he found the scent of a team several miles to the south.
She couldn't help but feel like a predator, and the manner in which they pursued the team Kiba had smelled definitely made said team the prey.
Kiba stopped on a branch and waited for her and Chōji to catch up. "We're there soon. They haven't moved at all."
"They haven't spotted us then." Her smile widened. "Nice work."
"How are we going to do this?" Chōji asked.
Kiba laughed. She found that his canines, the markings and the shaggy hair gave him a feral appearance. "I say we take them head on."
The Akimichi looked worried. "… Do we have to kill them?"
Sakura's eyes widened. That's what had been bothering Chōji? But hadn't Naruto talked with him about it? If so, he had done a poor job. Chōji looked uncomfortable with the thought of shedding blood again.
Kiba lost his grin, and frowned. "It's better, isn't it? No chance that they'll seek revenge that way. Imagine what would happen if we leave them alive and they'll involve themselves once we fight the other alliances."
Sakura sighed. She wasn't pleased by all the killing either, but Kakashi's training had desensitized her in that regard, and Naruto's orders as acting leader of their alliance had been clear. When they relieved a group of their chips, they had to kill the survivors to avoid acts of revenge. It wasn't that he liked it that way.
Kami, she hoped it wasn't like that. Their situation in the forest was simply that precarious, and Naruto did what he thought best for the whole group – what he believed would see them through alive.
"Let's… Let's just fight them first. If they are still alive afterward, we can always discuss what to do with them," she said.
Her comrades nodded reluctantly, more so in Chōji's case. Her words had been supposed to make them more comfortable, but it was a weak attempt. As if they couldn't already die during the fight…
Subduing shinōbi was always harder than simply killing them.
It didn't take them long to reach their prey, and after exchanging a last glance with Chōji and Kiba, Sakura threw two small balls into their small camp. Purplish-black smoke erupted, clouding the whole area, and Sakura jumped directly into it, a kunai in each hand.
She sensed the boys following her shortly after that; Kiba's sense of smell wouldn't be impaired in the slightest by her odorless smoke bombs. Chōji, too, wouldn't have much of a problem. He was no Inuzuka, but she had seen him memorize the position of his target, before the bombs went off.
Once Sakura had subdued her opponent, she took a second to become aware of her surroundings. Chōji was fighting with an enemy kunoichi, holding her at bay with his staff. The woman nimbly dodged one of his attacks and from one second to the next, she had closed the distance between them, ready to strike.
Sakura was glade that the woman's attack never made it. Kiba had finished his own opponent just in time to help Chōji. His fist crashed into her face, and Sakura took the opportunity to sneak behind the kunoichi and slash at her legs. With a cry of pain, the woman fell to the ground.
The fight was over as quickly as it had begun.
"I- That was fast," said Chōji.
Kiba nodded. "We surprised them. They weren't much of a challenge."
The smoke cleared up, and Sakura walked with her teammates over to the destroyed camp. The other two from the enemy team were only unconscious, not dead.
Before she could say anything, Chōji turned around to her. "I don't want to kill them."
"No. There's been enough carnage in this damn forest already. I'm not going to kill them."
Silence ensued after Chōji's outburst.
Sakura's expression lost all its warmth as she looked at him. "We follow Naruto's orders. If you do not want to kill them, that is fine. I won't burden you with such a task, but they will die – one way or another."
It didn't take long until the shock on Chōji's face changed into disgust.
"Do what you wish. I'll have no part in this senseless murder." With a high leap he vanished into the tree line.
Sakura turned to Kiba. "Follow him please. Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid."
"What about you?"
"I will catch up once I am done here."
"Are you going to execute them?" Kiba asked neutrally.
Sakura narrowed her eyes. "Naruto's orders are absolute in this forest."
"If you say so…"
Soon, she was alone with the three they had fought. The two men were unconscious, but the woman stared daggers at her.
"Stay away from them!" Her anger overshadowed the despair in her voice.
Crouching down, Sakura freed the men of the wire Kiba had bound their hands with. "Don't worry. I am not going to kill them."
The kunoichi looked baffled. "Sounded a lot different to me when you answered the big guy's question."
"I am not big on all that carnage if I can avoid it. Too much blood."
"Why'd you lie then?"
"Our leader will think you are dead when both tell him that I killed you."
"This Naruto guy? Sounds like an ass to me."
Sakura flung a kunai in her general direction. It embedded itself in front of her.
"Careful. I am the one who dislikes killing, not him. Besides, if Naruto learns that you are still alive, he will come himself to finish you off. In this forest, everyone's a threat."
"And you're still leaving us alive?"
"Yep." Sakura crouched in front of her. "Make sure I don't regret it. If I see any of you again in this forest, I will stab you right through the heart without any remorse."
The kunoichi lowered her head. "What about my hands. Won't you free me?"
"Nope. Wait for your comrades to wake up. Go a few miles further south once they are fit again, and climb over the fence. Your part in this hell will be over then. Hope you're not disappointed if you exit by disqualification."
"Not if I live. Beats dying…"
"Well, that's that then." Sakura bent down and searched the pockets of the kunoichi.
"Hey, what're you doing?"
"Just searching for your chips."
"Why only me? The other two could have them."
"It is only a guess, but you were the best fighter on their team."
"How'd you know?"
Sakura briefly looked up from her search. "You were as surprised by the attack as your friends, but you still dodged my first slash in the smoke. That, and Chōji would be dead now hadn't we intervened."
"Don't lie to me, please. Your intent was potent enough to feel it on the other side of the camp. Anyway, where are you from? I don't recognize the symbol on your headband."
"Muyogakure (Hidden Haze Village). Small village in the Land of Mountains…"
"I will remember that." Sakura, having finally found the chips, coated them in the blood of the kunoichi's leg wound. Then she grabbed a few handfuls of dirt and rubbed it all over the chips and her dress.
"What're you doing?"
Sakura smirked. "Trade secret. Well, I'm off now. Remember, if I see you again in this forest…"
The kunoichi remained silent after her threat, and Sakura moved away.
Following the small signs Kiba had left her, and the visible ones of the enraged Akimichi, she soon caught up with her team. It was only an hour or so until noon, and their patrol had been successful, even if Chōji now held her in the lowest esteem possible.
"You smell like blood and dirt," said Kiba.
"You don't talk with a lady about stuff like that."
Chōji in front of them snorted disdainfully. "You are no lady…" Then he sped up and left the two alone.
Sakura wanted to follow, but Kiba put a hand on her shoulder. "Let him cool off. It isn't far to the camp, so there's not much danger anyway."
Sakura sighed. "Fine."
"So… why the dirt?"
"Haven't I just told you?"
"Didn't listen, I'm afraid. And I'm going to keep asking."
"I buried them. That is all. I didn't want to leave any trails in the camp."
Kiba laughed and shook his head mirthfully. He looked at her and tapped his nose twice. "You're a tricky one, aren't you? The smell of blood isn't strong enough either for three murders… so, again please."
"… I left them alive."
"I thought so. Why lie to Chōji though? He's taken this badly."
"Just making it more believable… If Naruto learns they're still alive, he'll send Sasuke or go himself to snuff them out."
"Missions… and this place, I guess. He doesn't want any of us to die, so he has adapted his policy to killing everyone else. It is the easy way out, but I am not sure if someone else would have done it better. We are still alive, after all."
More than any wild beast in the forest, it was the sweltering heat that troubled the shinōbi of Kiri. The sun's relentless stare bore down on them, and even the many shadows around them brought no relief.
Languishing as they were, it was no wonder that they were surprised by the sudden arrival of a young boy. He couldn't be older than thirteen, and beneath a shock of red hair, turquoise eyes leered at them.
The older Kiri-nin were baffled. None of their sensors had alerted them, and their accusing stares were only returned with confusion. The sensors themselves had no idea where the boy had come from. He lacked an insignia affiliating him with a shinōbi village, but they recognized the clothes he wore as being of Suna origin.
If there had been any doubt about the redhead's intention, it disappeared the moment he started to leak killing intent. Many of them had been subjected to the feeling before. The potent aura of the boy, however, came as a surprise.
Their leader, Shirei, a young man of twenty-five with broad shoulders and chiseled muscles, unsheathed his cleaver-like blade. As he stepped forward, his comrades behind him got ready for the imminent fight.
"Who are you?" At this point, the question was a mere formality.
The kid's lips twitched and another wave of intent rolled over them. This time, the Kiri-nin were ready though and responded in kind. Next to Shirei were two kunoichi, Setsuna and Yuri, as well as his best friend Kenta. All of them specialized in close combat.
On the right side of the camp, large wooden containers filled with water had been prepared. They had worked tirelessly to give themselves this advantage in case of an attack. Two Kiri-nin standing close to the containers were weaving through hand seals.
"Suiton: Suigadan (Water Release: Water Fang Bullet)!"
"Suiton: Mizurappa (Water Release: Wild Water Wave)!"
He watched with pride as shuriken and kunai rained down on the boy in dozens; two or three of them also having exploding tags wrapped around their handles.
As the full might of their arsenal hit the boy, Shirei raised his hand for all his comrades to see. "No more Ninjutsu! Don't waste the water! Same goes for the exploding tags!
"Do you think he's still alive?" asked Setsuna.
"I doubt it. But let's be careful."
The smoke cleared up soon enough, and Shirei got a good look at his opponent. His eyes widened and he tensed up. The boy was missing half of his head and grinned in a deformed way before turning into sand and crumbling to the ground.
"Suna Bunshin (Sand Clone)?"
Shirei turned to Kenta, but had no answer for him.
His own confusion turned into terror as one of their sensors cried out, "The water!"
The redhead had reappeared next to the containers and knocked them over with a large push from his sand. Completely emptied out he then encased them in a net of sand. He moved his hands, testing out the maneuverability of his improvised 'mace'.
"Run! Substitute!" Shirei shouted, but it was too late.
With a resounding crunch, the mace crashed into the two shinōbi who had used Ninjutsu only seconds ago. The wooden planks broke under the impact and fell out of the net, burying the boy's victims beneath it. One seemed to be still alive, and coughed up blood.
The mace was lifted and crashed down on them again. The third time followed swiftly, and afterward nothing but guts, shreds of skin, and blood could be found on the ground, nestled between sand and wood.
Shirei turned to his comrades farther away. "Stop attacking. We'll take care of him!"
The redhead looked at him and an expression of ecstasy crossed his face. He threw his head back and stared at the sky; a high pitched laugh escaped him. "Yes! You will do fine. You will do just fine!"
As Shirei and his group of close range fighters neared, the boy's head snapped down and his eyes shimmered with bloodlust. "Come! Confirm my existence!"
They weren't intimidated by the redhead's insanity, and when the group reached him, Shirei let his blade soar through the air. Despite the great momentum behind his swing, the blade connected with nothing but sand. He suddenly lost his grip on the handle and looked on disbelievingly as his sword was ripped out of his hands and thrown by the sand, nearly cleaving his best friend in half.
It was a moment of inattention that cost him dearly. A fist of sand buried itself into his stomach with enough force to make him lose his breakfast. Shirei blinked away the tears of pain that surfaced as he tried to get a grasp on the situation.
Why weren't they able to kill a single boy? He stumbled forward and pulled back his arm. He wouldn't let himself be defeated by a psychopathic child! His punch didn't make it through, and the sand that had defended the redhead against his attack slithered up his arms.
Next to him, the swords of Yuri and Setsuna were blocked in a similar manner, although they were quick enough to pull them pack. This, however, made them unable to press the attack and they had to retreat once more.
The hopelessness began to dawn on Shirei and his feet barely supported him. His feet? He looked down, and saw that the sand had almost encased him by now. A glance told him that it had also crept up to the legs of the two women. Only Kenta had managed to avoid it till now due to his footwork.
"Sabaku Kyū (Sand Coffin)!"
The words echoed throughout the camp, and the other Kiri-nin who had witnessed the turn of events and were racing toward them, stopped in their tracks as a new wave of unbridled killing intent crashed into them.
They had stood no chance. Never! Not against this demon child. Sand wrapped itself tightly around Shirei's body, leaving only his mouth, ears, and eyes free. The boy wanted to hear him scream, wanted him to watch how everyone would perish without exception.
Shirei saw Kenta move toward them. The Taijutsu expert was the only one who could still move under the effect of the killing intent. There was nothing they could do. Nothing, but flee. Shirei's eyes widened minutely. There was still something he could do to help.
Reaching for the last of his energy, he cried out, "Run! Kenta, take the others and ru-"
Sand gagged him and he couldn't speak anymore. But it wasn't over yet. Releasing all of his remaining chakra at once, he blanketed the area around the rookies and enabled them to move. It wouldn't hold long, but it was enough for them to run away.
His best friend looked at him, but after he felt the chakra settle around their affected comrades he turned away abruptly. Kenta knew that this would be the only chance; and, while issuing commands and defending against the retaliatory attacks from the redhead, most of the Kiri-nins ran away as fast as they could. Kenta soon followed them.
A Moment of silence passed. Then the boy walked up to him with a demented grimace that reeked of malice. "You kept them from dying… Mother is furious."
The sand in his mouth vanished. The demon child wanted a reply – he'd get one. "Your whore of a mother ca-"
He was gagged once more. With precise movements of his hands, the redhead slowly levitated the encased bodies of Setsuna and Yuri into his field of view.
Shirei tried to close his eyes, but sand made sure that his eyelids couldn't move even an inch.
"Sabaku Sōsō (Sand Burial)!"
The sand coffin around Setsuna tightened with incredible force and pressure. Shirei heard the sickening crunch of crushed bones ringing in his ears. Soon, blood leaked through the sand and dripped on the ground; then the same procedure was repeated with the coffin that encased Yuri.
He damned the depraved child to the deepest pits of hell.
"You will confirm my existence… soon, everyone will. Sabaku Sōsō!"
A bell chimed in the command center, interrupting the cacophony of sounds that had been little else but occasional footsteps and idle conversation.
"The first team is approaching the entrance, Sir."
Hayate's chair creaked as he got up. "Put it on the big one."
The Chūnin manning the consoles did as instructed and after pressing some buttons, the large screen on the far side of the room activated. It showed a team – two women and a young man – entering the arrival hall of the tower.
Hayate blinked. They looked far too aloof for having spent days in the Forest of Death. "What information do we have on them?"
"Only the data from the Foreign Intelligence Bureau and a few side notes from the time they have been actively observed in the forest."
The Chūnin pulled up several dossiers. "They hail from Kusa and this is their second time taking the Chūnin Exams. The members range from age twenty to twenty-six. They also have been designated the title 'Hunters'."
Turning away from the screen, the last surviving member of the Gekkō family peered at the one who had given the report. "That's all we got on them?"
"Apologies, Sir. Our efforts have mostly been concentrated on the movements of the larger groups and the teams from Konoha."
Hayate took another look at the team that had just strolled into the tower. "I'm going to welcome them."
He vanished in a puff of smoke.
A moment later, he reappeared in the arrival hall; and in accordance to the protocol specified by the Hokage, he checked their names on the team roster, collected their chips with the promise of giving them back once the task was over, and explained the accommodations in the tower allocated to participants.
The team made no fuss at all. They were polite – overly so, in fact.
Once they had left toward their assigned room, Hayate returned to the command central. His face was set in a frown which didn't abate even as Yūgao walked up to him. She was still dressed in her ANBU gear, but it wasn't hard to guess at her identity, at least not for him.
"Is something wrong?"
"I know that sending ringer teams is a common practice…" he murmured.
"But?" asked Yūgao.
"They aren't Chūnin, and they're definitely not Genin." Hayate looked at the screen that showed the now empty hall.
In a moment when none of the room's other occupants looked, she squeezed his hand. "We appraised every team before beginning the task. There were no high alerts, but if you want I can check in with whoever tested them and make an inquiry."
"I'd appreciate it. Thanks, Neko."
The purple haired ANBU saw the frown on her lover's face being replaced by a grin she knew all too well. Before his hand reached her rear however, she had already vanished in a swirl of leaves. Hayate sighed. Yugao was many things, but she wasn't unprofessional.
Hours after the redheaded demon child had descended upon them, the survivors stopped running and fell to the ground. The physical exertion and the mental exhaustion proved to be too much for them. Some were weeping openly; others were lying on their backs and stared at the canopy, their chests heaving up and down.
Leaning against a tree, Kenta gasped for air while observing his comrades. Tears burned in his eyes too, but he couldn't weep, not yet at least. Tremors were running through his arms causing him to look at them. His fists were clenched, blood seeping out between his fingers as his nails dug into his flesh.
That boy, the demon, who was he? How could any child bring such force to bear against his enemies? He had seen mentally unstable shinōbi in his village before, young ones too, but they never had the power to make their twisted thoughts a reality. Not like he had.
There was no time for tears. He had been given command over the rest of their group, and he would make sure of its survival. The noise of someone being slapped made him look up again. He quickly found its origin and walked up to the arguing pair.
"Why? Why didn't you sense him?" The girl's face was tear-streaked.
Kenta recognized her as Setsuna's little sister. She'd only been a Genin for a year and a half. She couldn't have anticipated what utter carnage would await them in this forest in her worst nightmares. None of them could have.
The young man, who had been slapped, older than her by a year or two, was seemingly lost in his own sea of confusing thoughts. He acknowledged her rage, but didn't know how to answer her, let alone how to answer his own questions.
"I- I don't know." He was their Sensor. He should know. He should have sensed him.
Kenta rid himself of this thought immediately, or tried to at least. Much as he wanted to hate him, this wasn't the way for them to survive. The girl raised her hand to strike again, but found her wrist encased in an iron grip.
"Don't." His face was blank as he spoke.
She tried to pry herself free of his grip. It wasn't even a contest, and so she settled her furious gaze on Kenta. "He killed my sister!"
"It wasn't him," he said, clutching her shoulder with his free hand. "You saw who did this."
Her attempts to fight him became weaker as her strength left her. He loosened his grip, and once she had freed herself, he bowed down until he could look directly into her eyes.
They really looked like Setsuna's.
"We need to be strong. He isn't at fault, you know that."
"But why couldn't he sense him?" The girl asked again.
She looked miserable, and had sunk to the ground as soon as Kenta's hands had left her shoulders. He glanced at the young man standing next to him, but there would be no answer forthcoming any time soon.
"We know nothing about this Gaara. It could be a technique of his, or a bloodline… we just don't know," he said after turning his attention back to the girl. "Blaming our own friends and comrades won't help us here."
He looked behind him when he heard his name. There, the remnants of Kiri's Alliance stood. Once, they had numbered up to eighteen capable shinōbi and kunoichi. Now, only ten remained, seven of them now facing him with grim expressions. Setsuna's little sister took the still dazed young man that she had slapped minutes before roughly by his arm, and pulled him over to the group. Good. His words had helped.
Kenta turned fully around to the men and women under his command. How would Shirei have handled their situation? He shook his head minutely as the thought crossed his mind. They had been friends, but their personalities had always been vastly different. He wouldn't be able to copy him half as good as Shirei deserved. It was better not to copy him at all then.
"Did someone grab the chips?"
"I did," a young woman with auburn hair answered. "I counted them. We have twenty-one."
She threw the pouch at him and he quickly confirmed its content. "Next, we all went out on patrol at some point. I don't know this area. Is there someone here who does?"
His question was answered with silence as everyone looked around. Kenta was about to repeat his query, when a boy took one step forward. He was young, sixteen years at most. "I think I recognize it. We fled to the east… I don't know how far we've come, but in this direction was the camp of Konoha-nin we spotted two days ago."
"Konoha? Why can't we get a fucking break?"
The outcry of rage was supported by some murmurs from the group, but Kenta didn't pay the arguing woman any attention. Could they be this lucky? Had they truly found a ray of hope after of their panicked flight?
"This is a chance," he whispered and began to pace.
One had heard him and asked, "A chance? A chance for what?"
Kenta looked at the man. "Don't you see? We can still salvage something from this! These Konoha-nins… I saw them during the first task. They're beginners, complete rookies. If we get their chips-"
"Are you an idiot?" His head snapped toward the voice. It was the woman that previously complained about being in the vicinity of Konoha-nin, who had interrupted him. She was shorter than him, but only by a bit. Her eyes glittered dangerously as she took a step forward. "We barely got away from this red-haired psychopath, who – by the way – appeared to be only a rookie too, and you want us to attack the camp of a large group consisting of rookies?"
"Watch your tone, Chieko. I-"
"Let me iterate my question. Are you an idiot? We know nothing about them. Nothing! And we're exhausted from hours of running. This task has cost us too much already. I say we get the hell out of here."
Her teammates nodded in response to her words, and Kenta's expression soured as if he had tasted something distasteful. Couldn't they understand? This was the only chance they had left to get at least something out of this exam. What would he tell the Godaime Mizukage if they left now?
His face was set like flint as he looked at her. "I never knew you to be a coward. We swore an oath to Terumi-sama. We swore to show the world that Kiri is well on its way back to greatness."
He turned to each of his comrades, imploring them to heed his words, until his eyes came to rest on Chieko. "You swore that oath too! She put her trust in us, and you're willing to betray it? You're willing to disregard the death of Shirei and the others and turn tails?"
For a short moment, he had seen her features soften slightly, but it passed and as he finished his speech, she looked just as angry as before, if not more so. "Don't you dare imply that I don't care about their deaths! I do, but they died for us to flee! Do you think he would have wanted you to attack the next best camp in utter desperation? Fool!"
"I knew him better than anyone else here!" Red blotches became visible on his cheeks. "What about the oath? Are you truly willing to break it?"
"This isn't what Terumi-sama wanted. It can't be." Chieko shook her head and turned away from him, looking at the others instead. Her stance became rigid. "I don't know what is wrong with this fucking place, and I don't want to learn it either. I'm out of here. Please, don't go through with this mad quest."
He watched her exchanging glances with every member of their alliance, and although he felt no satisfaction at seeing her distraught face, an invisible weight was seemingly lifted from his shoulders when only her teammates stepped away from the group. Setsuna's little sister appeared to be torn, but stayed in the tight circle in the end.
Chieko welcomed her teammates with open arms, but once she saw that no one else would be following her, a bitter laugh escaped her lips.
She turned around and faced Kenta. "Good luck. You have your army… your crusade for glory. I'll pray for your victory, but I doubt we'll see each other again."
Naruto and his team were walking carefully through the forest, but so far they hadn't spotted anything else than the place's natural inhabitants and the gray tower a few miles away from them.
He stopped, and turned to the Hyūga heiress as he had done so often since they began their scouting mission. "Time's up, Hinata."
Her cheeks reddened, but she nodded firmly and put her hands together in a seal. "Byakugan!"
Naruto smiled slightly as he watched her. That she'd use the Byakugan had been a given. The restriction of only making one thorough sweep every five minutes, however, had not. It was Shikamaru who had pointed out the obvious – not everyone had Naruto's abnormal reserves. Additionally, to have such a vision intensive technique activated for longer periods of time would be an incredible strain on the eyes.
He was peeved to have forgotten about something like this, but it was a situation they had easily adapted to. It struck him far more that Shikamaru had given his advice only after they had already been walking for some time.
Twenty minutes, to be precise, in which Hinata hadn't once deactivated her bloodline limit.
He had the feeling that she would have continued like this until she collapsed from the strain. Honestly, the devotion she showed to the task he gave her surprised him. Had she always believed in him like this?
If this was how responsibility for a person felt, he wondered how he'd feel once he took the hat and became Hokage.
He saw Hinata's brow furrow. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
"I found a team two miles to the north," she answered.
Shikamaru pushed himself away from the tree he leaned on and walked over to them. "Do you know the team?"
"I do," she confirmed. "It's Neji-niisan's team, Team 9."
"Potential allies then, good."
Naruto wasn't as assured of the friendliness of Hinata's cousin. He shifted into a combat stance and pulled a kunai out of his pouch, almost as if expecting Neji to come jumping out of the underbrush any moment.
"Has he seen us?" he asked.
The Hyūga heiress nodded. "He's on his way here."
Naruto moved closer to her. He settled in a position that would shield her from everything coming from the north. To his right, he noticed Shikamaru frown.
"Is there something you want to tell us, Naruto?" The Nara pulled out a kunai of his own.
"I don't think Neji's going to be friendly. That's all."
"Any specific rea-"
A kunai sped toward them, and Naruto moved is arm. The kunai hit the metal ring of his weapon's handle at an unusual angle and ascended in front of him. It spun violently, but once it submitted to gravity and fell down, he snatched it out of the air and slid it into his pouch.
"That was uncalled for," he shouted.
The long-haired newcomer opposite of them snorted contemptuously. "As is stealing my weapon, but I should have expected this from someone like you."
Naruto tensed. Hinata had provided them with some basic information about her cousin's team, but it was unclear how the rest of Team 9 would react once they arrived. If they were equally as blood-thirsty a fight was inevitable. He glanced at Shikamaru and Hinata. It wasn't his ability to subdue Neji that he doubted, but the chances his friends would have against their opponents.
"Nii-san." Hinata stepped forward. "Please, there is no need for you to fight."
Naruto saw her pleading look and had almost put his kunai away. Then he saw Neji pull out a few shuriken and felt the murderous intent he directed against his cousin. Naruto moved in front of Hinata immediately. He had granted the guy a free shot and hadn't retaliated. However, should something else be aimed at his team, he'd fight back with prejudice.
"Geez, Neji. Why didn't you wait?"
Hearing the irritated question alerted him to the arrival of another member from Team 9. Naruto even recognized the girl, having seen her around Konoha a few times. He noticed the small scrolls secured on her belt – they were partly hidden by her top.
It was something to be careful about. For all he knew, she could be a Fūinjutsu prodigy.
Neji looked at the girl. "This doesn't concern you."
Naruto felt a violent dispersion of air and turned his head slightly to the right. The green boy with the bowl cut was fast, extremely so.
"Neji-kun! You found comrades of ours!"
"Comrades? What are y-" Tenten turned around to the voice of her teammate. Her eyes widened as she saw Naruto and his team. "Oh." She laughed embarrassedly. "Didn't see you there, sorry. Never thought there was still another team from Konoha around."
Her friendly demeanor, as well as the green boy's cheerful behavior surprised Naruto. He didn't lower his guard though, as Neji was still staring at Hinata. Shikamaru walked past him, having put away his kunai, and smiled at the new arrivals.
Naruto had had a vague idea what the Nara would try. His lips formed a thin line.
"Same here, actually," said Shikamaru. "We're not the only team though."
"There are more?" Tenten asked surprised.
The Nara hummed. "We rookies, if you will, have formed a large group for this task. Definitely makes it easier to survive."
Naruto heard Neji snort in the background, but he was quickly drowned out by his teammate. "What a youthful idea!"
"I guess that's clever," said Tenten. "We've avoided the larger groups completely till now. It didn't get us many chips, but we're still alive."
"What?" She craned her neck to look at the Hyūga standing behind her. "They're from Konoha. I doubt they'll kill us."
"We won't. It's quite the opposite, really."
Naruto's frown deepened. He could see the value in having a team of experienced Genin around, but the trouble Neji presented made him wary of simply accepting them into the alliance. There were still roughly two days to go, and constantly keeping watch on the long-haired prodigy would be tiring; something he couldn't as long as they were still in danger.
"I propose that you join our group," said Shikamaru. "There's strength in numbers, after all."
"That's all fine and dandy, but what about the chips?" she asked. "How are you going to distribute them?"
"Evenly – each team will get the same amount, or at least enough to pass."
"A fool's idea," Neji said. "You'll never have enough chips for everybody."
"Are you sure? There's no doubt that another group will attack us soon. We win, and we have enough chips. It won't be the largest alliance either. We're tracking Kumo's movement."
Tenten appeared to be deep in thought. Looking at her teammates she said, "I say we go for it… beats what we're doing anyway."
She turned back to the Nara. "I'm up for it… eh…"
"Right, Shikamaru it is. I'm Tenten, and these two are Lee and Neji."
Shikamaru nodded politely to both, and Naruto assumed it was just for formalities sake. The gesture was only returned by one of them, however.
The Nara pointed lazily at him and Hinata. "Uzumaki Naruto and Hyūga Hinata."
Naruto continued to stare at Neji, taking in every twitch the older boy made. He wouldn't have believed it possible, but the Hyūga looked as repulsed by the idea of teaming up as he did. Next to him, Hinata bowed toward Tenten and Lee.
"Do you really think we can trust him?" Naruto asked.
Shikamaru glanced at Naruto and Hinata. "He's not the friendliest guy I know, but I think we can manage. Many clans have internal problems. That's no reason to stab us in the back."
"Neji would never do that!" Tenten lower her voice to a stage whisper. "He's a sourpuss, I give you that, but he'd never betray someone like that."
Lee nodded energetically. Naruto gave up and sighed. Gesturing vaguely to Hinata he said, "It's not up to me. Hinata's the one Neji has a problem with. It's her decision."
He actually felt sorry for the girl. Her lips opened and closed multiple times, and her eyes shied away from all of them. She was clearly uncomfortable with the amount of attention suddenly paid to her.
"I- I have nothing against them joining us," she said after a few beats of silence.
Naruto saw the rage in her cousin's eyes as soon as she spoke, and he readied himself. This could get ugly.
"I don't need permission from the Main House!"
Before the situation got worse, however, Lee jumped toward his teammate. "Neji-kun! Don't let your anger overcome the soaring spirit of youth! Remember Guy-sensei's words!" He pointed animatedly at Naruto. "It is a fabulous idea, this alliance. Let us join and kindle the flames!"
Tenten glanced at the Hyuga prodigy. "Lee's right… well, sort of. You've seen the other groups. This way we still have a good chance to make it."
"Do we have a deal then?" asked Shikamaru.
Naruto saw a smile blossom on her face once Neji grunted affirmatively. She quickly took the Nara's outstretched hand and shook it. "We have a deal!"
Shikamaru responded to her enthusiasm with a grin. "Let's get a move on then, so you can meet the others."
Naruto walked up to him. "Take the lead on that one. I'll catch up soon."
"You have something else to do?"
"I need to talk with Neji in private."
Naruto almost smiled as he heard Shikamaru groan; almost. "You're not going to start a fight, are you?" the Nara asked.
"Are you sure?"
Shikamaru looked at Tenten and Lee – the former shrugged, while the latter said it was good for the two of them to bond so soon. It took another minute until they had set out toward the camp, leaving Naruto alone with Neji.
The Hyuga remained as unmoving as a statue when Naruto walked up to him until they were standing side by side.
"If something happens to Hinata and you're the reason for it… I'll end you."
"Is this supposed to intimidate me? If Hinata-sama perishes, it is because she was destined to."
Naruto slapped him on the back once, faster than Neji's eyes could track. It could have been mistaken for a friendly slap even, if not for the healthy dose of chakra Naruto's hand had been imbued with.
"Just keep what I said in mind, Hyūga."
Kiba patted his stomach and grinned. "Chōji's food is better than my mom's. Don't tell her I said that though."
Sakura, who sat cross-legged next to him, snorted. "Are you scared of her?"
"You haven't met her, have you?"
"Nope. I have met your sister though; found a stray once and brought it to her clinic. She's nice."
"Only if you don't know her…"
Sakura looked up from her food. "You are scared of her too? That makes two out of two women in your family."
"His reasons are most valid though," said Shino. Tsume-sama is fierce, as is Hana-san." He sat opposite of them and nodded toward Kiba. "You have my vow of silence."
"That bad?" asked Sakura.
Kiba ignored her and bowed his head. "My eternal gratitude to you, Master of Bu-"
His abrupt stop surprised Sakura, and her eyes widened as she saw him sniff the air. Her hand went up to her right shoulder where she hid her knives.
Kiba rose from the trunk he had sat on, his nose high in the air, and Sakura alerted Sasuke, who joined them a moment later. When Kiba turned back to them, fear stretched across his face.
"There are people coming this way. Seven of them… they smell of water, blood, and… sand."
"Maybe they're wandering around?" asked Sakura.
"I don't think so," answered Kiba. "They've split up, but both groups are on the way to our camp."
"We can take them easily," said Sasuke. "Let's get the others."
Sakura turned to her teammate and rolled her eyes when she saw the predatory gleam in his eyes. "Come off it, Sasuke. I'd rather not die because we underestimated them."
"They're Genin just like us." He gripped the hilt of his sword.
Sakura appeared next to him and leaned toward his ear, lowering her voice to a whisper. "Just like Izumo and Kotetsu were only Chūnin?"
"That's different… you had to bring that up, didn't you?"
Sakura gave Sasuke a pat on the shoulder. "Don't worry. We're still fighting them."
Looking at him, she gently moved his hand away from the sword. "It's just… I don't want you to die, 'kay?"
Sasuke favored her with a rare smile, then straightened his shoulders and turned to the other two.
"Shino! Get Ino and Chōji."
Shino complied and sprinted to the cave where the alliance hid their chips. It was the place where they had last seen them.
"Kiba, how long do we have?"
"Five minutes at most. They're fast."
Sasuke closed his eyes for a second, then turned around and looked at her. "Remember what Kakashi taught us."
Sasuke shook his head. "Not teamwork. The one lesson he taught us above all else – survival."
Shino returned and interrupted her. "They aren't in the cave."
Sakura turned to Kiba and saw that the Inuzuka was already trying to track their scents.
"This is bad," he said. "They're walking into one of the groups."
"Sasuke, you are the quickest of us."
She looked at him pleadingly, but he seemed reluctant.
"Go, please. I'll hold them off until you're back."
Leaves whirled through the air as Sasuke sped through the forest, sprinting past countless trees. Why had they left the camp? This wasn't the place for an evening stroll.
Some distance away he heard metal clashing and a cracking noise he couldn't identify. Sasuke unsheathed his sword and dashed into the area where the battle took place. A volley of shuriken flew at him and he parried them.
His eyes turned red.
To the right, he saw Choji block a sword with his staff. The force of the attack drove the Akimichi to his knees, but Ino stepped up behind him and sliced with her kunai through the air, forcing the Kiri-nin to dance out of reach.
Sasuke heard the cracking noise again. He turned his head and noticed movement at the edge of his vision. A whip made of water closed in on him and he flipped backward to avoid it. The whip left a deep gauge in the ground, before it collapsed.
He took a deep breath, then narrowed his eyes and searched the area. Where was the third Kiri-nin that had thrown the shuriken? Once more, he heard the odd noise, and the grass under his feet was ripped away as he avoided the whip in a burst of speed.
"Dotōn: Doryūtama (Mud Ball)!"
The voice came from behind him and he jumped upward to dodge the heavy mud projectile. Sasuke turned mid-air to the shinōbi who stood on a low-hanging branch. The tomoe in his eyes spun as he layered two minor illusions around the man.
As he landed in a crouch, the whip woman threw two kunai at him. He shifted to the left and retaliated with three of his own – the last one flying in the shadows of the first two.
His actions would buy him a few seconds at most, and Sasuke sprinted toward the swordsman attacking Ino and Chōji. He needed them to get out of this place and help Sakura in the camp. If the Kiri alliance attacked them, these three were hardly the main force, or the strongest.
The hidden kunai hadn't worked. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the woman pursuing him. Sasuke scattered caltrops on the ground and when he saw the kunoichi jump, he threw a kunai at her. She twisted her body mid-jump. The kunai missed.
It was the second he needed though. He appeared between the swordsman and Chōji and deflected the horizontal slash with his sword. The Akimichi used the chance and lashed out with his staff. He caught the Kiri-nin in the shin and staggered him. Sasuke capitalized on it with kick to the man's stomach.
The swordsman flew away from them. He crashed into the kunoichi who had just regained her bearings and both tumbled to the ground.
Sasuke weaved through hand seals and inhaled deeply.
"Katōn: Gōkakyū no Jutsu (Great Fireball Technique)!"
His Jutsu traversed the distance quickly. However, a wall of earth rose from the ground and stopped the fire before it could impact on his enemies. The illusions on the third Kiri-nin must have stopped working.
Sasuke ended his technique abruptly. He couldn't waste chakra in a fight like this. His three opponents prepared themselves for another round a few feet opposite of him, and he gritted his teeth. The last attack had been aimed to kill two of them.
He had no time for this!
Behind him, Chōji pushed himself to his feet with the help of Ino. His arms bore red angry lines, but he was fine otherwise.
"Get out of here," said Sasuke.
He glanced at Ino and the black spinning tomoe in his eyes silenced her. "The camp's under attack. Get back!"
Sasuke reacted instantly and shoved both to the ground. The whip snapped through the air above them, and something sharp entered his leg. He grunted in pain. Sasuke rolled away from Ino and Chōji and saw three shuriken buried in his flesh.
He had no time to take them out, as another volley of projectiles sped toward him. He dove away and the shuriken dug deeply into the ground behind him. Sasuke rolled out of the dive and tensed his muscles before he transitioned into a handstand. He flipped backward until he had solid ground under his feet again.
Sasuke heard the sound of heavy footsteps – Chōji and Ino were finally leaving.
In front of him, two of the hostile shinōbi raced through hand seals and the third threw three kunai. His eyes widened minutely. They aimed for Ino who was pulling a reluctant Chōji away from the battle.
His face contorted in anger. Sakura and Naruto would be irritable for months if they died.
Sasuke pushed chakra out of his feet and the earth beneath him broke open as he leaped away to intercept the attacks. The kunai clashed against his sword and fell to the ground. Behind him, the pair continued to run away.
Good. She had learned.
The sword-fighter appeared next to him and let his blade soar through the air. Sasuke lifted his own sword and deflected the blow but was unprepared as the kunoichi's whip impacted on his arm. He flinched, and when the swordsman attacked again, he dodged to the side.
He jumped back and avoided the whip this time.
The mud projectile was aimed at him, but it hit nothing. On a branch several feet away from his opponents, Sasuke reappeared in a low crouch. The familiar smell of iron, grass, and sweat filtered through his nose.
He finally had the time to pull the shuriken out of his leg, and blood flowed freely from his wounds. He didn't have much time to worry about it however. The longer he hid from the Kiri-nin, the sooner they would make their way toward the camp.
Sasuke evened his breathing and then jumped out of his hiding place, spitting medium-sized fireballs at them as he descended.
These weren't the best odds, but he's had worse with Kakashi.
The attacks of the Kiri-nin were relentless, and his blade sped past her nose as she stepped back to avoid the lethal weapon. Someone tried to sweep her legs and Sakura jumped upward. As her feet touched the ground, she had to crouch immediately though. The wicked cleaver split the air above her in half, and a droplet of sweat ran down her brow. Sakura substituted with a rock a few feet away, but the new place she found herself in wasn't any better. The whizzing noise of flying kunai reached her ears and she dropped flat on her stomach, letting the projectiles sail over her head.
This wasn't good – as if the forest alone wasn't bad enough. A shadow fell on her and she jumped up, putting her arms in a cross block. The axe-kick from the stocky Kiri-nin drove her to her knees, and she dived away when the pressure lessened and the man retreated.
A second later, a compact ball of water smashed into the ground and she substituted again.
Why did these guys attack when Naruto was away?
The answer came as a volley of shuriken, and Sakura shook her head, ridding herself of useless thoughts. She didn't have to depend on Sasuke and Naruto anymore.
The close combat Kiri-nin lashed out with his fist, but as Sakura shifted backward, she bumped into a tree. Her eyes widened, and when the follow up punch came, she leaned to the side and tapped the opponent's fist. It crashed into the tree behind her, and the bark exploded outward under the impact. A few splinters left thin, red lines on her face and the hairs on her neck stood on end.
Sakura whirled away and grabbed one of her hidden knives and tried to stab the guy in the biceps. He was too fast though and jumped out of reach. She changed the grip on her knife and threw it at him while he was in the air. It wouldn't hit, but it gave her space to work. She turned to her second opponent who held his sword in a defensive position.
Sakura ran toward him and raced through hand seals. "Magen – Narakumi no Jutsu (Hell-viewing Technique)!"
She saw him stumble – good, he was affected. It was a weak illusion and wouldn't hold for long, but it gave her an opening. The dazed look in the man's eyes cleared up, but it was too late. Sakura aimed a precise kick at his hands, and he let go of his sword in surprise as it hit. Having disarmed him, Sakura pressed the attack.
As she tried to ram a kunai through his head though, she felt a sudden displacement of air behind her – the other shinōbi had caught up again. His right fist flew toward her face, forcing her to abandon her attack so she could twist away from it.
A kunai sliced through her dress and bit into her flesh. Pain flooded her mind. She had noticed his real intention too late. The guy she had disarmed didn't pick up his sword, but capitalized on her disadvantageous position instead. His punch was weak, but it was enough to unbalance her, and the older Kiri-nin smacked her with enough force for her head to fly sideward, before he finished with a kick to the stomach.
Sakura flew through the air and crashed down a few feet away from them. Blood dripped from the corners of her mouth onto the lush grass beneath her. Her eyes watered in pain and through the ringing in her ears, she heard heavy footsteps. Balling her fists, and ripping out grass and dirt, she tried to get up.
She had barely made it to her knees, when the Kiri-nin grabbed her by the end of her ponytail and yanked her head upward. The man looked at her, and she noticed at the edge of her vision how he pulled a kunai out of his pouch. His companion crouched next to him. He had already recovered his sword.
The kunai moved, and she spit a mouthful of blood into his face. Sakura jerked her head back. The kunai missed – for the most part. Pink hair floated through the air between them; a thin line ran across her throat. She threw the grass and dirt between her fists at the other shinōbi and he raised his arms to prevent it from getting in his eyes.
She didn't have much time; only a short moment. The Kiri-nin she had spit at slashed wildly through the air, one hand wiping away the blood in his eyes. Sakura threw herself to the ground. She pulled a knife out of her dress and rammed it through the nearest foot she found. The scream told her it belonged to the swordsman.
Not her preferred target, but she would take anything at the moment.
She yanked the knife out of one foot and stabbed through the other one. Pulling it out again, Sakura threw it at his face with all her strength. The knife pierced through the man's throat despite the odd angle from which she had thrown it.
Sakura saw the other Kiri-nin had managed to clear up his vision, and she knew she had to get away - fast. The shinōbi raised his leg to stomp on her, and as Sakura rolled away her muscles cried out in agony.
His coat was ripped, his glasses were on the ground, shattered, and his head throbbed from a punch delivered at the start of the fight.
Just minutes ago, the hot and humid weather that had dominated the forest for most of the day had given way to a torrential downpour. Shino shifted to the right and had to pay extra attention not to slip. The earth had softened and mixed with the wet grass, turning the ground beneath his feet into a mess.
From afar, he heard the angry bark of Akamaru, and Kiba's shouts as he taunted his enemy.
Shino's opponent was a muscular kunoichi with quick fists and even quicker feet. Her auburn hair barely reached her chin, and was wet enough to cling to her head. She smiled at him. He looked back stoically.
The Kiri-nin threw a handful of shuriken and jumped over the destroyed campfire. Shino parried the projectiles. However, as the last shuriken fell useless to the ground, the woman was already in front of him. He sliced through the air with his kunai, but she leaned to the side, avoided the attack, and stepped into his guard.
She drove her elbow deep into his stomach, and Shino buckled. The woman twisted to the side and placed accurate jabs alongside his arm. Pain lanced through him; the grip on his kunai loosened, and after she performed a heel-kick to his hand, it flew away.
He lamented the loss of his kunai, but had no time to draw a new one as she lashed out with another kick and he had to crouch. Weight suddenly pressed against his head, and as he lost his balance, it drove him to his knees. The strain got worse and his face smashed into the mud.
It was a most unfavorable position. Shino sent out his remaining Kickaichu, letting them leave through his coat sleeves. They quickly returned with information. The woman was doing a handstand on his head, pressing it firmly into the ground. He commanded his colony – what little there was left of it – to latch onto her. It wouldn't do much, but it was all he could do to use the rest of his Kickaichu efficiently. He didn't have enough of them to use his clan techniques anyway.
The weight disappeared and he tried to stand up. But, in the blink of an eye, she was on his right. Her plated boot crashed into the side of his head and he flew away. He turned in the air, but it wasn't enough. Shino smashed against the barren surface of the cliff a few feet away from the entrance to the cave. He avoided hitting his head on it, but his back bore the brunt of the crash and he slumped into a sitting position.
His mind clouded over, and his eyes were only half-open. He saw the kunoichi's legs. She was leisurely walking toward him, each step measured and assured. His thoughts whirled through his head in unfathomable patterns and only a few correlated with reality. And, perhaps for the first time in his life, Shino experienced raw fear. Anxiety clawed at his heart; the pit in his stomach deepened.
The woman had robbed him of the last weapon he possessed – his rational mind.
This wasn't how he intended to end. He propped himself against the cliff, and struggled to his feet. Aburame didn't burden their fellow shinōbi. He wouldn't burden his comrades, his friends. The kunoichi was coming closer and closer. Sweat burned on his scraped skin. Leaning against the rough rock behind him, he was nearly standing now.
"You weren't much of a challenge, but that's all right," she said, halting in front of him.
He moved his head until he saw her face. She was still smiling.
Shino lashed out with his fist, but the kunoichi deflected the slow punch almost casually. Her right hand snapped forward and pressed him against the wall. She was choking him. "I'm glad Kenta was right. You really are rookies."
She chuckled, but Shino didn't care. He clawed feebly at her iron grip as the woman pulled a jagged kunai out of her pouch and twirled it once in her hand. He tried to kick at her legs, but she easily shifted away from his attack.
She scowled. "Stay sti-"
Shino heard a smacking noise and the pressure on his throat vanished. He slouched against the cliff, barely finding enough strength to hold himself up. His breath sounded wheezy as he took in as much air as he could.
"Oi! Are you alright?"
That voice. He knew that voice. Shino lifted his head and stared at his savior. Kiba stood in front of him, his fist still extended. A few feet away, the kunoichi was lying on the ground and struggled to get to her feet.
He stared past his teammate, noticing the hazy outlines of a person appear at the edge of his vision. Shino tried to warn Kiba, but his voice deserted him. His teammate turned fully to him. He appeared to be shocked.
"Fuck, Shino. You look like shit."
Shino struggled against the pain in his body. He wouldn't become a burden. The shinōbi behind Kiba lifted his sword and Shino reacted on instinct. With the last strength he had, he thrust his hand out and shoved the Inuzuka out of the way.
The sword cleaved through the air and sliced cleanly through his arm. Agony surged through him, and his screams echoed throughout the camp as he fell to the ground. Specks of white color danced in his vision.
A few inches away from him, he saw his severed arm, and he threw up.
Sakura leaned against a tree, breathing harshly. Avoiding the juggernaut had cost nearly all her energy. Exhaustion ran rampant through her body, and her concentration slipped with each passing second.
And still, a grin tugged at her bloodied lips. Evading nearly every attack and the death of his comrade had made the shinōbi furious, and the angrier he became, the easier it got to spin her illusions around him. It was a shame that she had needed nearly two thirds of her chakra to even make it that far.
The man was upon her again, and Sakura saw his muscles tense as he cocked his fist back. She dived away from the attack and threw a shuriken at a thin, nearly invisible wire spanning between the trees some shrubbery. The shuriken cut it, and kunai flew out of the bushes.
Her opponent dodged them with nimble footwork, but it gave her the time to weave another illusion around him. Genjutsu wasn't chakra intensive, but it still dug into her reserves.
Having weathered the hailstorm of shuriken, the man advanced once more and lashed out with a combination of punches. They all missed her by a few inches, and she saw his face contort in rage. He had recognized the reason for his failure.
A second later, the Genjutsu she had used to influence his depth perception lost its hold on him before she managed to capitalize on it. She twisted out of the way of a haymaker and activated another trap. From the top of a tree and once nestled between two branches, a large rock fell onto the ground.
Sakura cursed as the guy simply side-stepped it and reappeared in her guard. Her wounds slowed her down. She deflected the first, but the second met its mark. He buried his hand in her stomach and left her gasping for air.
She saw him stare at her with utter contempt as he pulled his fist back. There was no time for another substitution and she had used up nearly every trap in the area to survive this long.
"Nikudan Sensha (Human Bullet Tank)!"
Her head snapped up just in time to witness her opponent fly away as Chōji crashed into him with the force of a sledgehammer. Sasuke had succeeded!
Sakura struggled to her feet, supporting herself on her knees. "Where are Ino and Sasuke?" she asked.
"Ino's helping Kiba – he's fighting against two. Sasuke's holding up the group that ambushed us."
She knew that Sasuke could hold himself, but a horrible feeling crept up inside of her as Chōji mentioned Kiba. "Two? What about Shino?"
She saw his expression darken. "He's out. They cut off his arm."
Sakura would have said more, but her senses warned her of danger.
She saw Chōji whirl around, twirling his Bo-staff before lashing out against the hostile shinōbi. The Kiri-nin dodged to the side and kicked the staff away from the Akimichi. Sakura threw a kunai, and as the Kiri-nin's fist neared the Chōji's face, the weapon whizzed past the man's face and made him withdraw for a second.
"Go for it! I'll support you!" Sakura cried out, and saw her fellow shinōbi nod seriously.
Hope blossomed in her heart as she watched the two Taijutsu specialists fight. The Kiri-nin was still stronger than Chōji – the gulf in experience was clearly visible – but with her support from the sidelines, she evened the odds.
Then, an explosion rocked the area. Her gaze swiveled to the direction the sound came from. Her heart beat faster, and her eyes widened minutely. She saw Sasuke stumble into the camp, half his face caked with blood. He desperately clung to his sword and parried a volley of shuriken that came from behind, before rolling out of the way as a spike of earth that erupted from the ground beneath him.
She remembered Kiba telling them that the group had been three men strong. That meant Sasuke must have killed one of them as he currently engaged only two. Kami, she hoped that this wasn't just an elaborate ploy, and that there were really only two left – Sasuke looked dead on his feet.
For a split-second they made eye contact. Sasuke nodded toward Chōji; then he had to look away as a whip of water snapped through the air.
It was hard to tear herself away from the desperate struggle for survival her teammate was in, but Sasuke was right. She knew of his abilities. He wouldn't die so easily, and Chōji needed her more at the moment.
Sakura turned back to Chōji's fight and was surprised to see the Kiri-nin on the defense against the Akimichi's furious assault. The tables had finally turned, and she decided to end it as fast as possible. The sooner she could help Sasuke, the better.
She raced through a sequence of hand seals and layered another illusion around the Kiri-nin. This time around, his depth perception was only affected for a short moment – whether it was due to him knowing the technique, or her own exhaustion, she didn't now – but that moment was enough.
Chōji's fist crashed into the man's face. Sakura dragged up the last dredges of chakra she could spare without falling in a prolonged coma, and pressed her palms against the ground.
This would be her last technique and she had to make it count. "Dotōn: Doroku Gaeshi (Earth Shore Return)!"
Her chakra traveled through the ground, and behind the Kiri-nin, a 'wall' of earth rose out of the ground. It wasn't high, barely a few inches. The man, still faltering from the blow, stumbled over her technique.
"Now!" she shouted.
Chōji landed a brutal punch on the man's temple, and the Kiri-nin slumped to the ground, unconscious.
She had no time to waste though. The others were still in danger.
"Great work, Chōji. Finish that guy, and then help Ino and Kiba. We're still not out of the woods."
After he had recovered his Bo-staff, Chōji walked over to the unconscious shinōbi on the ground. He held his side – the man had given him quite the fight. Sakura's order had been clear, and after having seen Shino's severed arm, he wasn't in a merciful mood either.
He knelt down and pulled a kunai out of his weapon pouch as he looked at the shinōbi's face. But, the closer he came with his kunai to the jugular of the man, the more his hand began to tremble. The edge of his kunai punctured the man's skin slightly, and a few droplets of blood gathered before they trickled alongside his throat.
Chōji hesitated and pulled his arm back. He stared at the Kiri-nin, who was completely out of it.
Was this truly the extent of his resolve? Hadn't he sworn only hours ago not to take part in this carnage anymore? From the corner of his eyes, he noticed that Kiba and Ino were in desperate need for help. They held up admirably against the two Kiri-nin, but exhaustion and wounds made them easy prey.
Chōji looked back to the shinōbi lying in front of him and shook his head. He pocketed his kunai, gripped his staff with both hands and then ran toward his friends to help them.
Once he reached them, he jumped into the fight and deflected a sword away from Kiba. The Inuzuka looked terrible. He had wounds all over his chest, his jacket was torn in several places as were his pants, and dirt marred his face. Chōji deflected another blow away from Kiba to give him some time to catch his breath.
Kiba must really have fought like a devil, as both his enemies seemed to be equally as tired. Chōji lashed out with his staff and caught one of the exhausted Kiri-nin in the chin with it. A punch was aimed at him, but Ino intercepted it and forced the kunoichi to step backward. She, too, appeared to be almost out of energy.
He turned his attention back to the shinōbi in front of him. Chōji's next attack with his staff was dodged as the man stumbled out of the way. Before Chōji could go after him however, Kiba sprinted past him and buried a kunai hilt-deep into the man's stomach. Chōji's eyes widened as he watched Kiba stabbing the man over and over.
A fist smashed into his face, and he stagger back. The hostile kunoichi had slipped past Ino and attacked him with a combination of punches and kicks, most of which he avoided. Those that met their mark, however, hurt badly.
He dodged a hook to his chin and ducked under a kick. The woman had slowed down noticeably over the last seconds, and her attacks started to lack precision. She was exhausted. And Chōji was aided by two comrades, no matter how tired they were. He sidestepped another careless punch and he threw his staff at her. The woman tried to dodge, but was hit in the shoulder.
"Bubun Baika no Jutsu (Partial Multi-Size Technique)!"
Chōji's arm extended, and his enlarged fist crashed into her hastily put up guard. She was thrown back by the force of his attack, and – once more – he saw Kiba run past him. The woman was tough and already tried to get back in a fighting position. But Kiba didn't seem to care. He jumped toward her, and mid-fly started to rotate wildly.
Chōji knew this to be an Inuzuka clan technique, and he briefly closed his eyes as the human tornado ripped into the defenseless kunoichi, ripping her apart. This wasn't how he wanted to help them. Wasn't there anyone left in this camp who shared his dislike for killing?
An outcry of pain from behind alerted him toward danger. He turned around, and his mouth opened in a silent expression of horror. Ino was lying on the ground, holding her right leg; tears of pain were streaming out of her eyes; and her face contorted in a grimace of agony. Chōji looked to the shinōbi that had attacked her, and his world shattered.
It was the same man he had beaten with Sakura's help and whom he had believed to be unconscious. The bulky Kiri-nin wielded a sword that was drenched in blood from top to bottom – Ino's blood. Chōji froze. His legs were filled with led, and his arms dangled useless at his sides.
A growl snapped him out of his trance. Ino was still on the ground, unable to move, as the man stabbed his sword at her. Chōji heard the growl again; this time even louder. Akamaru raced past him and jumped directly into the way of the blade.
The growl changed into a pained yelp, and Chōji watched helplessly how Kiba's lifelong companion got speared by the tip of the sword. Ino had crawled backward, her eyes wide with fear, and avoided the part of the blade that stuck out of Akamaru's belly.
"No!" Kiba's cry echoed throughout the camp.
Chōji watched him turn toward the Kiri-nin with murderous rage, but before the Inuzuka had the chance to take revenge, the man slumped over. Two kunai had buried themselves deeply in his back and only their metal rings stuck out.
Naruto had arrived. He stood behind the corpse with outstretched arms, and Chōji had never before seen such an expression of primal fury on his face. Behind him were Hinata and Shikamaru – the former with a grief-stricken expression, and the latter with disbelief written all over his face.
A group of people Chōji didn't know came running out of the forest and after a quick exchange of glances, they ran toward Sasuke and Sakura who were still fighting against the last two enemies.
Naruto didn't even look at him as he walked toward Kiba. The Inuzuka knelt next to Akamaru and tears of despair left wet trails on his red marks. Naruto put a hand on his shoulder while surveying the camp.
"Hinata, Shikamaru… please take care of Ino and Shino."
Then, Naruto's gaze met his own. "Chōji," he said. "Tell me what happened."
AN: Many thanks to the people from DLP who have helped me with this chapter.