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Thread: Naruto Fanfiction: Kyoukan Chronicles

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    Naruto Fanfiction: Kyoukan Chronicles


    Back in August 2007, I asked my friend's daughter what she wanted for her 12th birthday. She asked for a story, with her own character in the Naruto world. If it hadn't been for her request, I'd likely have never written anything like it: I had never written any fanfiction with original characters, just the occasional what-if stories involving the canon characters and stories. But really, what kind of monster would I be to deny a young girl's request like that?

    You know what? It was fun.

    It's not as serious as more contemporary work, not as important as my original writing, but it's fun. It's a way to just write ideas, put down a cool story without worrying about the long-term appeal. Back in August of 2007, I wrote a little one-shot story about three young girls taking their graduating exam from the Academy -- or rather, the post-graduation exam. She liked it... so much that I ended up writing more. What had started as a one-off became the Prologue and first chapter of a much longer work. Over the next three years, I continued adding to it, finally finishing the first story arc in December of 2010.

    Although written for a young girl, the story treads some darker tones, and the action pieces actually get quite serious. It's a blend of light and shadow, with a combination of original characters and some crossovers from some of her and her father's favorite series (some very loose and some quite faithful).

    Read -- and hopefully enjoy! I welcome any and all comments and criticism.

    So first, let's give credit where credit is due:

    Naruto settings, concepts, and characters belong to Masashi Kishimoto.
    Various characters are property of Square-Enix, Peach-Pit, and Sunrise Inc.




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    Prologue

    "He's late-nii~!"

    The weirdly-dressed girl was peeking out into the hallway. Bandit dropped her head on the desk. This was the eighth time Nia had said that.

    Nia was like the exact opposite of a ninja. Everything about the girl seemed made to draw attention: the backs of her hands and her sandals looked like puffy white cat paws, she was wearing a bright orange tank top, skirt, and leggings, and she looked like she had a tail growing out of her orange-blond head!

    "We don't need him anyway," Yuffie said confidently from the other side. "Right, Bandit?" The spirited girl was sitting on the desk to Bandit's left, legs kicking from underneath her khaki skirt-shorts. She wore a sleeveless yellow vest with a teal hood, the same color as her short boots. The Konoha symbol sat squarely on her forehead, tied around her short brown hair.

    "Um," Bandit began quietly, not sure if she agreed. She kicked her wooden-sandaled feet idly, not sure how to answer.

    "But everyone else already has their sensei-nii~!" Nia protested, flailing her arms. "How long are we supposed to wait for him-nii~?"

    "He must have a reason for being late," Bandit suggested. They had been waiting a long time, though. She pulled her sleeves back again. It was her favorite shirt, but a little too big for her small frame so the sleeves kept sliding down, covering her hands.

    Yuffie laughed. "And he's supposed to be a jounin? How are we supposed to learn something from someone who's so late on the first day?"

    There was a deep, sarcastic chuckle behind them, and the three girls turned around sharply. "Who's late, eh?" the giant of a man asked, sprawled out with his feet on one of the desks in the middle of the classroom. Bandit gasped at the sight of him. He had to be around seven feet tall, and looked to be as strong as an ox.

    His heavy boots and loose pants were the same dark blue as the ankle-length trench coat that hung open around him. Underneath that, he was wearing a squad leader vest, but that also hung open, revealing his bare chest. The man had long, unkempt black hair, and some rough stubble dotted his face. One eye covered by his headband, he grinned evilly at the three genin, arms held out against the desks behind him. "It's about time you three got here," he said with a wink, teasingly.

    He hadn't been there when they walked in!

    Nia stared in surprise while Bandit struggled to figure out when he'd slipped inside. Yuffie, however, growled angrily. "We've been here all morning!" she shouted back. "Where have you been!"

    Ignoring her, their teacher grabbed a jug hanging on his waist, taking a deep gulp. Looking at them again, he gently shook the neck of the jug next to his ear. "About long enough to drink half of this," he replied with a grin. Bandit covered a grin, seeing the act for what it was.

    "You've kept us here all morning when we could have been starting our first mission!" Yuffie shouted angrily, grabbing an eraser and chucking it at their sensei.

    Bandit gasped in surprise, thinking Yuffie would get them all in trouble. At that moment, though, the teacher lurched forward, slamming his feet on the ground as the eraser flew harmlessly past where his head had been a second ago. As if he hadn't noticed it, he shakily straightened himself out and stretched.

    Nia and Bandit goggled openly. Yuffie never missed.

    "Well," he said, grinning brightly, "How about we get to know each other?"

    ___

    "How far are we going, sensei?" Bandit asked, as they continued climbing up the stairs.

    "Almost to the top now," he replied, never shortening his stride. Bandit let out a sigh of relief.

    Hearing his words, first Nia, and then the other two, ran up ahead of their teacher, finally reaching the large railed balcony. Moving calmly, their large teacher soon enough met them up there. "Why'd we have to come all the way up here-nii~?" Nia asked once he crested the final step. She'd been making kind of funny faces ever since they first met the jounin.

    Seeming to ignore her, he stepped over to the balcony, leaning against it. "It's a pretty good view, isn't it?"

    Bandit was already pressing her face against the bars, staring out over the village of Konoha. The sun shone brightly overhead, illuminating everything clearly. It looked so pristine from up here, as if it were brand new.

    They all four stared off into the distance for a while, but their teacher finally spoke up. "Alright, now how about you introduce yourselves?" He turned around and leaned against the railing.

    The girls moved over to kneel in front of him while he brought his jug to his lips. Bandit looked at the other two curiously, not exactly sure where to start. "Come on, now," he said, "tell me... who you are, likes, dislikes... dreams, hobbies... that kind of stuff."

    Yuffie looked over at Bandit, who shrugged. The brown-haired genin looked over at their teacher and said, "Well, how about you first, sensei?"

    "Me, eh?" he said with a short laugh. Taking another swig from the jug, he crossed his arms in thought. "My name is Bikuta Heishi. Let's not get into the things I dislike, but I like the wind on my face and some sake at my hip. I'm not much for hobbies, and," he went on, looking up in thought, "as for dreams...."

    He never finished. After a long moment, Bandit spoke up. "Sensei..?"

    "Ok, you're up, blue."

    "Huh? But..." Bandit looked up in surprise, but then looked down, her chin against the metal plate of her bandana. "My name is Bandit Kyoukan. I like...stuffed animals... and action movies and my dad. Also my baby brother and sister."

    Bikuta nodded, as she trailed off. "So what about dislikes, then?" He lifted the jug once more.

    "Well," she started, not sure what to say. "I hate thunder storms." He waved for her to continue. "I guess my dream right now... would be to make my father proud of me!"

    Bikuta smiled encouragingly at her, and Bandit shyly smiled back, still nervous.

    "Like your dad's not already proud of you," Yuffie whispered quietly, a small grin on her lips, causing Bandit to blush.

    "Couldn't quite hear you," Bikuta said teasingly, "What did you say your name was?" He was pointing at Yuffie.

    Yuffie gave him a cocky grin. "I'm the great ninja Yuffie Kisaragi!" She pumped a fist up in the air. "I like cats and games...and stones. I like to collect some of the nicer looking ones." A frown crossed the girl's face. "I can't stand my father... and if I had a dream it would be to undo the disgrace he's brought to the Kisaragi name!"

    Bandit noticed Bikuta's eyebrow lift. He took another sip -- the girl saw Yuffie clenching her fist -- and then pointed at Nia. "Now you, sunshine."

    "I'm Nia-nii~!" she said cheerfully. "I'm a Hitonomi, and I like melons and bread and sweets-nii~! I like the sun and the sky and my friends and cats and..."

    "Ok, ok," Bikuta said, holding his hands out. "What about dislikes?"

    "I don't like the smell of that jug-nii~!"

    Yuffie and Bandit both burst out laughing. Confused, Bikuta lifted it to his nose and took a whiff. With a shrug, he took another sip.

    "Gawd! Stop that already!" Yuffie shouted. "You shouldn't be drinking while on the job!"

    Bandit looked nervously between the two, not liking the tension between them. Bikuta merely grinned, taking another long swallow. He wiped one forearm across his lips and then leaned toward Yuffie. "Make me," he said with a wink.

    "What?"

    "Now's as good a time as any," he said cryptically, winking his eye. "Brace yourselves." He took a moment to secure the jug back at his waist. Still grinning, he went on. "We're going to have a test. A very simple test, really: you three have to try to defeat me."

    Bandit's eyes went wide. How were they supposed to beat a jounin?

    Yuffie, however, didn't seem to share her doubts. "So what do we win, then?"

    "You get to be genin," he replied simply.

    "We're already genin-nii~!" Nia exclaimed, pointing at the headband on top of her head.

    Bandit spoke up as well. "We already passed all the tests and graduated from the Academy!"

    Bikuta laughed softly. "Yes, but... graduation only means that you have a chance to become a genin." He held up a finger. "If you can beat me, then we'll begin missions tomorrow. If you can't, then you go back to the Academy for another year."

    Yuffie growled under her breath. Nia's shoulders drooped in confusion. Bandit looked down at the ground. All that time in the training sessions, taking test after test... would it all be for nothing? Abruptly she looked up -- she hadn't worked so hard for nothing! "What are the rules? How far do we have to go to beat you?"

    Bikuta smiled slowly, lifting his jug back to his lips. He took a quick sip and then wagged it in front of them. "Make me stop drinking," he replied with a wink.

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    Chapter One

    Yuffie walked in front, hands behind her head and a sour expression on her face. Bandit walked not far behind her, calmly watching Bikuta-sensei, trying to find some weakness as they followed him wherever he was leading. Trailing behind, Nia grumbled quietly.

    "How much further-nii~?" she asked pitifully, clutching her stomach. "I'm getting hungry-nii~!"

    As if he heard her -- how unusual that seemed by now -- Bikuta stopped in front of a restaurant and reached for the door. He wobbled back and forth unsteadily.

    "That shop's closed," Yuffie said irritably. Bandit looked at her curiously, wondering why she was in such a foul mood. Noticing the way her eyes seemed to take in everything, Bandit realized what it was: like her, Yuffie hadn't been able to think of a way to win the teacher's game.

    "Is it, now?" Bikuta asked with a laugh as he slipped a key into the door and walked inside. Surprised, Bandit quickly looked up at the sign, paying more attention to the name: Heishi Spirits.

    "You own this place?" Bandit asked incredulously.

    Strolling confidently inside, he replied, "That I do, blue." Bandit frowned at the nickname.

    As they followed him in, Nia complained once more about being hungry. Shrugging, Bikuta slid a bowl of pretzels across the smooth wooden bar toward her. Eagerly, the ditzy girl hopped up on the nearest stool and began loudly crunching down the salty snacks. "Thank you, sensei-nii~!"

    Without flipping the lights on, Bikuta took a seat near the other end of the bar in front of a bottle of liquor. Bandit's nose wrinkled distastefully at the smells in the place and looked around. The room was surprisingly large, with a high, arched ceiling. There were bunches of round tables and chairs, but with plenty of space between them. Behind the bar, there was an assortment of alcoholic drinks. The floor was concrete rather than wood, an unusual feature.

    "Well?" Yuffie asked after a long moment. Bikuta-sensei set his jug loudly on the counter and reached behind it to grab a choko, a sake bowl. "When do we start this test!"

    Bikuta looked amused. Pouring some of his sake into the choko, he grinned at Yuffie and held it out as if in a toast. "I wanted to ask you three the same thing." At their questioning looks, he took a sip and told them, "The test has been started since the moment we first saw each other."

    "What!" Bandit cried out. That wasn't fair!

    Bikuta slipped from his chair then, holding his choko up so that it wouldn't spill. Bandit blinked: there was a kunai embedded in the bar where he'd just been drinking. "Well," Yuffie shouted, "Let's do this! You'll regret messing with the great ninja Yuffie!"

    Yuffie grabbed three more kunai, throwing them one after another. Bikuta merely grinned as he moved to dodge. Instead, he tripped, falling backwards into a chair, the first kunai flying harmlessly past. Bikuta-sensei leaned too far back, tipping the entire chair over, and then rolling backwards as it crashed -- evading the other two kunai.

    Bandit's eyes widened as she began to understand some of the method behind the teacher's fumbling movements.

    Somehow Bikuta managed to get back to his feet without spilling the sake in his choko. Still grinning, with his long hair hanging around his face in disarray, he drained the shallow bowl.

    Eyes narrowing, Bandit raised her arms, hands hanging loosely, and rushed forward on the assault. Hair whirling, the young ninja leapt at Bikuta with a flying roundhouse, but the teacher slipped out of the way at the last second. Bandit's red eyes tracked him closely, however, and she agilely rebounded off of the solid table that had been behind him.

    Bandit flipped backwards from the table, coming down with both feet aimed at Bikuta-sensei's head. Yet again he stumbled out of harm's way, but Bandit was hot on his tail. Bouncing backwards, Bandit kicked up her heel sensei's kneecap, but he twisted out of the way. Without pause, however, she thrust out her left elbow -- air -- then spun with a right backhand -- air again -- followed by a whirling roundhouse.

    There was a loud crack as her attack splintered a wooden chair. Bikuta-sensei smiled at her from another nearby chair, cockily filling his choko once more.

    The jounin lurched forward out of the chair, two kunai flying past where his head was a second ago, then stumbled, falling backwards into the chair again as an orange blur shot past. "I'll get you-nii~!" Bikuta-sensei twirled to the side out of his chair just before Nia lunged at it. He came up from his spin taking a long sip.

    Bandit rushed forward, moving left to right to left, launching her left foot at Bikuta-sensei's thigh. His foot slid another chair in her way, but Bandit angled her attack downward into the seat -- rather than the back -- kicking herself up into a swift spin. As her right foot came around in a wicked hook kick, Bikuta-sensei fell backward onto the ground with a loud snore.

    Bandit growled as he propped himself up on one elbow and smiled, draining the rest of the choko.

    Nia lunged at the prone jounin, who yawned and rolled to the side. Bandit rushed forward and did a sweep kick along the ground, but Bikuta rolled backwards on his shoulders and then bounded unsteadily to his feet. From behind, Nia rushed at him on all fours, but he somehow got behind the girl and gave her hair tail a light yank. "Ow-nii~!"

    Abruptly the dim room filled the light, and Bandit squinted in surprise. Standing over by the light switch, Yuffie grinned, launching three more kunai. "Try to evade me now!"

    Bikuta-sensei stumbled backward, slipping past the first kunai, but the other two slammed into his back. Bandit let out a gasp, thinking Yuffie had gone too far, but then there was a poof of smoke and a dartboard clattered to the ground. A replacement jutsu?

    From behind her, Bikuta laughed. "Perfect aim, smiles." Bandit spared a glance at the dartboard: the two kunai had hit the bulls-eye and one of the high-point slots around the rim. Another trick?

    Up till now it had all been taijutsu... but if sensei wanted to bring ninjutsu into the mix...

    Bandit spun with a sweep kick, but Bikuta-sensei easily stepped aside, sipping from his refilled bowl. Bandit swiftly went through three hand-signs and thrust both hands out at him. "Frost flower jutsu!" she announced as a wide blast of frozen air flew toward the jounin. Left or right? she wondered, mentally flipping a coin and going right.

    Bikuta-sensei dodged to the right, and Bandit was right there to meet him. The teacher grinned, his hands nearly blurring as he formed his own hand-signs. "Frost flower jutsu," he said, winking his one eye. From the side, Nia came flying at his head with both feet out. Bikuta slipped to the side.

    His frost jutsu misfired into the concrete floor, and Bandit slipped, falling on her rear.

    Was it even really a misfire? Bandit jumped back to her feet quickly, resisting the urge to rub the smart in her bottom. She held out both her hands in front of her, deciding to switch up her approach. The girl crouched lower, her hands waving loosely in front of her.

    "We're never going to get anywhere by ourselves," Yuffie said quietly, at her shoulder. Bandit looked over her shoulder at her and nodded in understanding, unwilling to pull her eyes away from Bikuta-sensei. Nia was attacking him swiftly and ferociously, but not making the least bit of headway. Her tail twirled around her while Bikuta appeared to barely be moving at all.

    "Got an idea?" she asked.

    "There's only so many directions he can dodge... less if we back him into a corner."

    Bandit glanced over her shoulder at Yuffie. "I think he's too smart to be herded. Don't forget, all we have to do is stop him from drinking, not kill him." To be honest, she'd forgotten that herself.

    Yuffie nodded, watching as Nia tirelessly launched her assault against the teacher. "Dunno why he likes that cheap crap so much anyway," she muttered. Bandit looked at her curiously. Cheap?

    Yuffie pulled out her fuuma shuriken, looking just like a wide blade with a ring for a handle. With a flick of her wrist, the four blades spread out and locked into place. "All that changes is the target."

    Bandit grinned, thinking of something. "Your first idea... we need to give him nowhere to dodge. We can't back him into a corner, but..."

    Yuffie smiled. "Got it. As soon as Nia's out of the way."

    Even as she said that, they heard a cry of protest from the cat-like girl. Bikuta-sensei had spun around her, wrapping Nia's arms in her own long hair. Bikuta flopped down into a nearby seat, holding Nia on his knee with one arm against her chest. "Let me gooo-nii~!" Bikuta calmly took another sip of his sake as Nia squirmed and wiggled in his grasp.

    Nia managed to get her foot down behind one of the chair legs and kicked hard, sending both of them tumbling backward. Arms still tied to her sides by her hair, Nia stomped at him with both feet, hitting him in the shins before he rolled away. It was the first solid hit any of them had gotten, but Bikuta-sensei acted like he didn't feel it.

    He calmly took two unsteady steps away and refilled his bowl, replacing the jug at his waist.

    Yuffie and Bandit leapt into action, hand-seals flowing rapidly. Both girls created two clones of themselves. Bandit grabbed four kunai from her weapon pouch, while Yuffie ran across the room and readied her fuuma shuriken. Bikuta-sensei hadn't even looked toward them, but Bandit didn't take that as any reassurance.

    Preparing her hand-signs, Bandit and her clones each threw their four shuriken followed by the call of, "Shadow Kunai Jutsu!" From the twelve kunai, there were now thirty-six flying at Bikuta-sensei! Only four of them were real, but she wasn't sure even a jounin could tell which.

    At the same time, from across the room Yuffie called out, "Demon Shadow Shuriken!" Catching on to the plan, Nia threw a pair of her own kunai from only a couple feet away. All three girls rushed in, even as the projectiles left their hands. Nia was closest, and attacked low to avoid the weapons.

    Seemingly unconcerned, Bikuta downed the rest of his choko, rolling backward onto the table behind him, leaving Nia to ram headfirst into the table leg. Bandit watched in amazement as Bikuta-sensei's legs spun around in a dervish whirlwind, knocking aside her four real shuriken and passing through nearly half the illusions.

    The whirl ended with him back on his feet on the table so quickly that he knocked aside the three fuuma shuriken from Yuffie and her clones with his choko bowl. The two illusions disappeared and the real shuriken deflected into the table. Bikuta-sensei grinned smugly, even though the sake bowl was now useless, and then for the first time Bandit saw his eyes widen.

    Another wave of the fuuma shuriken followed right behind the first, in the shadow of the first. Bikuta swiftly knelt down and brushed aside this second wave, the second real shuriken landing on the opposite side of the table -- the first really conscious deflection she'd seen him make -- but then there was a third wave in their shadows.

    Bikuta rolled backwards off the table, while Bandit darted under it. As soon as their teacher's boots touched the floor, Bandit lashed out with three snake-palm strikes aimed at his sake jug. The jug was harder than expected, but Bandit managed to put three cracks in it before Bikuta-sensei fell backward.

    Unexpectedly, Bandit felt the breath knocked completely out of her. Ignoring her clones, sensei's foot had come up, unseen, into her stomach as he was falling. Bandit felt herself falling backward, but as she did so, she saw Yuffie and her clones leaping from the top of the table with the deflected fuuma shuriken in her hands.

    "Landscaper!" Yuffie called out, both shuriken spinning in her hands. Bikuta-sensei rolled to the side, propping himself on one elbow, even as Yuffie's first shuriken scraped against the ground, throwing sparks up. Bandit was starting to catch her breath, jumping to her feet while Yuffie turned her whirling blades to chase after Bikuta.

    Then he began twirling his feet again, lifting his hips. Stunned, Yuffie released her fuuma shuriken just before getting kicked across the room. Bandit winced in sympathy, having felt the same pain less than a moment before. Bikuta-sensei landed on his feet, taking a long swallow from the jug and stumbling just before Nia hit him from underneath.

    Bandit was trying to think of another plan, and for some reason she looked at the jug again, at the symbol painted on its side. Yuffie had called it cheap, although Bandit didn't recognize the brand. Her dad sometimes commented on cheap sake.

    Bandit's eyes widened as she saw the final bit of Yuffie's attack. Bikuta whirled clumsily, somehow managing to catch one of Yuffie's shuriken that had reversed its direction. He used it to deflect the second one -- but not enough. The whirling blades took a wide chunk out of the side of the jug. Bikuta's eyes widened, and he ducked under a flying drop kick from Nia.

    Bandit sighed. The hit was too shallow and too high -- the sake was well below the level of the cut, and it hadn't hit hard enough to shatter.

    "I thought you three wanted to be genin," Bikuta remarked, his grin returned. He flipped the shuriken closed and slammed it down into the table top. He took another swallow from the jug. "If this keeps up, I might actually get tired of the drink."

    Not by force, then, but how?

    Her dad said something before about cheaper sake... Bandit's eyes lit up. That might work!

    Nia rushed at the teacher on all fours, but Bikuta easily dodged. Nia stood up and put her hands together. Bandit raised an eyebrow: she'd thought the paws were just cute, but they concealed Nia's hand-signs. "Nia Whirlwind Jutsu-nii~!" Nia lunged forward, both paws swinging out wide, just as her chakra accelerated her into a powerful spin.

    While she was distracting him, Bandit jumped behind the bar, looking for what she needed. Finding it, she grabbed a paper napkin to wrap it in, slipping it up her sleeve. Bandit slipped back out from behind the bar, surprised to see Nia still whirling around. Her jutsu was a lot stronger than it originally appeared, she realized, seeing the path of destroyed chairs and tables.

    "Can she control that?" Bandit wondered out loud, realizing that Nia was moving away from Bikuta-sensei.

    Nia crashed into the back wall of the bar.

    Trying not to laugh, Bandit rushed over toward Bikuta-sensei, trying to stay under the tables. "Too dizzy-nii~," she heard Nia mumble from across the room. Bikuta laughed out loud, taking yet another swig from the jug. He didn't seem tired at all, amused by the whole game.

    Bandit closed in, quickly moving through the hand-seals. From above, she heard Yuffie renewing her own attack. Bikuta-sensei stumbled away from one of Yuffie's attacks -- and straight into Bandit's. With a grin, Bandit called out, "Frost Flower Jutsu!" slapping one hand against the jug and slipping the napkin-wrapped bundle into the wide opening. Bikuta-sensei was quick to turn, and for the first time went on the offensive.

    Rearing back like a snake, Bikuta-sensei lunged forward with his upper body, swinging around with one fist above the other. Reflexively, Bandit spun her arms in an arc to parry the attack to the side, then stepped forward with a double open-palm attack to his stomach.

    Bikuta-sensei managed to weave away from the attack, but Bandit pressed forward with a sweep kick, spinning up into a roundhouse. When both of those missed, Bandit did another sweep and moved into a cart-wheeling kick, continually pushing forward. She slipped into a low crouch with arms spread and bounced forward in a spinning butterfly kick.

    Yuffie launched a barrage of smaller shuriken from atop one of the tables right when Bikuta-sensei was in the middle of dodging one of Bandit's low attacks. He had no way to dodge, and nothing in hand to block with. Every one of Yuffie's shuriken thudded into Bikuta-sensei's coat.

    Only his coat, though. With a poof of smoke, his body was replaced by a mannequin. Bandit blinked in surprise: there hadn't been any mannequin in the room!

    "Whew, you girls are really getting serious now. At this rate you might be genin next year," Bikuta remarked from across the room, sitting calmly in one of the few unbroken chairs. He looked at them with his one eye, his long hair hanging every which way. If not for the hair, though, you could hardly tell he'd even been fighting.

    Grinning smugly, Bikuta-sensei raised his jug to his lips... and promptly spit the liquid out. "Ugh," he muttered distastefully. He looked at Bandit and understanding lit in his eyes. "Well played, blue," he said with a laugh. "When the sake's warm, you can't taste some of the cheaper ingredients. You're starting to use your head."

    Bikuta's confident grin returned. "But you forget that I'm a jounin. Phoenix Fire Jutsu," he said quietly, while the three girls watched, and spit a single fireball at the clay jug, heating the contents inside. "Keep it up, though. You might still be genin one day!"

    Bandit did her best to keep a straight face, but Yuffie -- who'd seen what Bandit did -- grinned deviously. Nia looked forlorn, and still a little dizzy. As Bikuta raised the jug to his lips, a small smile worked its way onto Bandit's face.

    Bikuta-sensei took a deep draught from the jug -- and then began coughing it up roughly. "What..? How..?" Comprehension lit on his face, and he looked at the three girls suspiciously. "When?"

    Bandit burst out laughing at the expression on his face. Yuffie decided to explain it to him. "While Nia had your attention, Bandit went behind your bar to find what we needed. I served as the second distraction while Bandit used her Frost jutsu to sour the taste of your precious sake. But that's not all she did."

    Bandit grinned proudly. "I expected that you could heat the drink back up, even if I landed my Frost Flower. That's when I figured out what we needed. When I slipped in for the Frost Flower, I also tossed in a napkin full of ice cubes. That way, when you used your fire jutsu, you melted all the ice."

    Bikuta-sensei laughed heartily. Stubbornly, he lifted the jug to his lips and tried another sip of the watered-down sake, but spit it back out once more. "Well," he said, "you've managed to ruin some perfectly good sake, and you did it past a jounin's guard. I certainly can't drink any more of this... so I guess that means we've got a new squad."

    Bikuta stood up, a friendlier smile lighting his face. "Squad twelve," he announced, "You pass."

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    Chapter Two

    "Target spotted," Yuffie's voice crackled in the ear piece. Bandit looked over in her general direction. "Nia, it's heading your way."

    "Roger that-nii~!" Nia shouted back, nearly breaking Bandit's eardrum.

    Bikuta-sensei's voice came over then. "It's a good thing you can see it, because you won't be able to hear it after that. Nia, please turn down the feedback on your mic. Bandit, Yuffie, what's the status?"

    Bandit scanned the streets in Nia and Yuffie's direction, not seeing the target quite yet. "Clear this way," she responded quietly.

    "Keep your eyes open," Yuffie said urgently, "The target just slipped behind Nia."

    "Wha--? How-nii~?" Bandit grit her teeth and yanked the ear piece out.

    There! Bandit jumped out at the last second, trying to tackle the target, but before she could figure out what was happening the target had slipped away, heading back toward Nia at a breakneck speed. Bandit's eyebrows drew forward and she jumped back to her feet, giving chase.

    Ahead of her, Bandit saw Nia trying to intercept the blurring image. In a flash of movement almost too fast to be seen, Nia ended up on her rear and the target was halfway up a nearby telephone pole. "That hurt-nii~!" Nia cried out, holding her hand.

    In answer, the runaway cat hissed, climbing the rest of the way up the pole.

    Bandit watched as the cat climbed up on the top of the pole and looked around in confusion. "It has nowhere to go from there," Bandit said quietly, listening to the cat mew plaintively. She wondered how they could get it down without it getting hurt.

    "I'll get him-nii~!" Nia declared excitedly. The orange-clad girl jumped up and then swiftly started climbing up the pole behind her.

    "Not that one..!" Bandit tried to tell her, but Nia was already at the top... of a different pole fifteen feet away.

    Humming to herself, Nia held her arms out to the sides and began walking along the power lines in between the two poles. Bandit gaped, surprised that the normally-clumsy Nia could pull that off with such ease. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Yuffie and Bikuta-sensei arrive on scene.

    The cat backed up as much as it could and hissed at Nia as she got closer. Smiling cheerfully, Nia squatted down, balancing on two power lines. She spoke softly to the cat, too soft for Bandit to make out the words. She grinned, though, thinking the chase might finally be over. They'd been at it all morning, and it was well past lunch-time.

    Nia inched closer, still grinning, and held her arms out to the cat. Even though it seemed to have calmed down, as soon as she did that it let out an angry yowl and leapt at her, claws outstretched. "Wait-nii~!" Nia yelped loudly, falling backwards in surprise as the cat shot right at her.

    But not far enough.

    Bandit gasped as the cat fell short of Nia and plummeted toward the ground. "Yuffie!" she cried out, pointing at the pole. Bandit ran forward and jumped toward the pole, just as Yuffie's folded up fuuma shuriken sank deeply into the wood. Bandit bounced off of the shuriken to get higher, moving into a roll as she grabbed the cat, wrapping it tightly in her arms as she landed and rolled to a sitting position.

    The cat was not happy.

    Bandit screamed as its claws sank into her arm, but she quickly repositioned her grip, trying not to let go. Yuffie showed up then, holding out her arms, and Bandit passed off the demon cat. It didn't take long before Yuffie shrieked herself, but the girl grabbed the cat by the scruff of the neck and held it out at arm's length.

    Behind them, Bikuta-sensei laughed at the spectacle.

    Nia came up then, grinning at the evil cat. It yowled angrily at her, and Nia just laughed. She reached out and grabbed the cat under its forelegs, taking it from Yuffie, ignoring its wild thrashing. "Aww, you're a feisty one-nii~!"

    Bandit and Yuffie looked at each other in surprise.

    Nia turned the angry cat around, holding it to her chest with one arm. She reached behind herself, and grabbed her long pony tail. Giggling, she dangled it in front of the cat who promptly latched onto it with claws and teeth, growling as it ripped savagely at the hair.

    Bikuta laughed again, taking a deep draught from his jug. He grimaced, apparently having forgotten that Yuffie insisted he only drink water when they were on missions.

    Putting the jug back, he clapped his hands. "Alright! Target acquired. Let's get this little fellow back to his owner and then get something to eat." He looked at Nia curiously, still toying with the vicious animal. "I trust that you three don't want to take turns carrying it?"

    Bandit and Yuffie quickly shook their heads.

    ___

    "Isn't that the same cat that Naruto was chasing last year?" Bandit asked Yuffie about halfway back. She'd been trying to figure out where she'd seen it before.

    "Naruto?" Yuffie asked. "I must have missed that one."

    "So much energy-nii~!" Nia giggled, still entertaining the monster.

    "Most probably," Bikuta told Bandit. She looked up at him, not realizing he'd been paying attention. Seeing her questioning look, he explained. "Most genin are a little more subtle about it than the blond kid, but I'd wager that every ninja team in that cat's lifetime has had a mission to retrieve it... at least once."

    "Really? But... why would they keep accepting the mission if the owner doesn't keep up with the cat?"

    Bikuta snorted. "We don't work for charity, remember? The fees the village pulls in for our services are what keep the hidden village thriving. In fact... I'm thinking the owner of this cat has personally paid for two or three genin to go all the way through the Academy."

    Nia was now holding one of her paws in front of the cat, giggling as it tried to find a tooth-hold.

    Yuffie's eyes widened. "Are you serious? This devil cat has been caught that many times?"

    "It gets smarter every time," Bikuta said, taking another swig of water. He made a face and then went on. "In another year or two, I bet the cat might qualify as a C-rank mission."

    Bandit shook her head incredulously then blinked in shock as her eyes turned to Nia. All three of them stopped in their tracks.

    The cat was now curled up in Nia's arms purring.

    A short time later, after returning the cat to its owner and reporting the mission complete, the squad was walking on their way to lunch. Bikuta and Yuffie were arguing over where to go. Yuffie wanted to go get some ramen, but Bikuta-sensei said he wanted to get barbecue.

    Nia and Bandit would both be happy with either choice, but Bandit suspected that their argument stemmed more from the fact that you couldn't order sake at Ichiraku Ramen.

    Bandit giggled quietly at seeing Bikuta-sensei bending over to argue with a girl practically half his size. She looked up then and saw one of the other genin teams walking over, and recognized her classmates. Bandit stretched up and waved her arm at them cheerfully.

    Seeing the wave, Tyger energetically returned it and came running over. The dark-skinned girl was close to Bandit's height and wore a pair of rectangular framed glasses. "Hey Bandit-chan!" she said as she drew close. "Hey Yuffie and Nia!"

    Tyger was wearing dark purple shorts and a light purple tank top. She had a dark pink skirt belted on, coming to a point in the back, and her headband covered the buckle. As soon as she got there, Tyger threw her arms -- with light purple arm bands to her elbows -- around Bandit's neck.

    A little surprised by her energy, Bandit tried to return the hug, but Tyger had already caught Nia by then.

    "How's your squad doing, Bikuta?" the jounin with them asked as the rest of Tyger's team walked up. He was tall, but not nearly as tall as Bikuta-sensei. His short hair was red, he had a trimmed goatee, and he wore his own pair of glasses. The jounin wore his squad-leader uniform more professionally than Bikuta-sensei, and had the hilt of a sword protruding over his right shoulder.

    "With the exception of this troublemaker," he said, resting his hand on Yuffie's head -- which she promptly swatted aside -- before finishing, "they're doing pretty good so far. How about yours, Mune?"

    "It's a little louder than you'd expect," he laughed, "but these three work together well." They reached out to clasp hands, which allowed Bandit to see the thin chain going from the hilt of the sword to Mune's wrist.

    Bandit looked at the other two next to Mune and waved shyly. Kazuki gave a small wave back and Nanaki tilted his head toward her with a small smile. Kazuki still had that katana strapped to his back, even though Bandit had never seen him do anything with it. He was wearing an extra long navy blue vest and a light blue t-shirt with white sleeves under that. His dark blue pants and sandals clung tightly to him while the vest waved lightly.

    The pants actually closely matched his eye-color. Kazuki's straight ash-blond hair barely fluttered in the breeze as he looked away from Bandit. His headband was tied squarely on his forehead.

    Tyger and Nia were chatting excitedly with each other. Yuffie finally realized who was there and forgot all about her argument with Bikuta-sensei. "Nanaki!" she shouted just before rushing over to throw her arms around him. The shorter genin looked at her helplessly, too shy to hug her back in front of everyone else. Kazuki snickered once but looked away.

    Nanaki's face used to scare Bandit. He had a big scar across his right eye, and his left one was a piercing amber. He even had some red rectangles painted on his cheeks. Nanaki's hair was spiky and red, and he had two braided tails hanging down his shoulders. He never said very much or smiled really big, but over time she'd figured out that he was really smart and even sweet at times.

    Except for Yuffie, pretty much everyone called him Red, and he lived up to the name. He liked to wear loose pants and a short-sleeved shirt, both dark red. The shirt, like now, was usually unbuttoned. He had some cool symbols in black on his clothes, at his thighs and shoulders. The only one Bandit knew was the XIII on his left shoulder. The one on his back was supposed to be Red's family symbol, a pointed circle with lines radiating out and some triangle-like formations coming in from the left and right.

    Nanaki never really answered when she asked, but Yuffie had told her that it was a symbol of burning pride and Konoha's will of fire.

    Right now, though, it could just as easily represent Nanaki's embarrassment. His face was turning bright red while Yuffie kept her arms around him and excitedly talked to him about how their boring missions were too easy for a ninja of her ability.

    "What do you think, Bandit-chan?" Tyger was asking her. Bandit blinked in embarrassment.

    "Sorry, I didn't hear..." she started to say.

    Tyger cut her off, grinning hugely, "They're thinking of having us do a C-rank mission together!"

    "If!" Bikuta-sensei cut in, "If we think you're ready."

    Bikuta's warning barely fazed her. A C-rank? Bandit grinned hopefully. In the three weeks since they had passed Bikuta-sensei's test, they'd done nothing but lame D-ranks. This crazy cat escape was the most exciting thing to have happened by far!

    "Plus," Mune added, "we have to find out if there's any C-ranks available that you can complete. We also have to make sure there's enough of a lull in the D-ranks to allow it."

    "Let's go check now!" Bandit burst out, looking at Bikuta-sensei pleadingly. "Please?"

    The two jounin laughed. "We have to wait till tomorrow to check. Don't get your hopes up yet -- it could be weeks before we get an opening." Mune leveled a look at Tyger. "That's why some genin shouldn't be eavesdropping and spreading rumors." Tyger looked away sheepishly, but the grin stayed there.

    "For right now, though," Bikuta-sensei announced, "Let's go get something to eat. Fifteen successful missions! Time for some barbecue." He glanced meaningfully to Yuffie, but with Nanaki in her arms she didn't offer any argument. He decided to play his hand anyway. "Unless someone would rather eat ramen while Mune takes his team for barbecue?"

    Bandit giggled: Yuffie wasn't even listening to him. Bikuta threw his hands up in the air, and then the eight of them made their way over to the restaurant.

    Bandit sidled over toward Yuffie and Red. "Hey Red, which number is your team?"

    He looked at her for a second, surprised to get a brief moment of freedom from Yuffie's attention. Red lifted his gloved hand up and pointed to his left shoulder. "We're team thirteen," he told her smoothly.

    "What?" Yuffie asked. "How'd you end up with thirteen as your number!" Red just smirked and shrugged. The XIII on his shirt had been there long before they were assigned teams.

    ___

    "That was so yummy-nii~..." Nia moaned, rubbing her belly.

    Bandit had to agree, rubbing her own tummy. She couldn't believe how much she had eaten! "Maybe too good," she commented, wishing she could have another taste of the spiced beef even though she knew she couldn't handle another bite.

    Mune and Bikuta-sensei were still at the restaurant, talking over some sake. Mune didn't drink much of it, but he sipped at it while they talked. Bandit wondered if they even realized their teams had left. The six of them were walking around now, heading toward the outskirts of town.

    "I can't believe how late it is already," Tyger said, watching the sun dip below the horizon. "I mean, it was late when we met up, but were we really at the restaurant for a few hours?"

    "We haven't had time to talk for a while," Red remarked. "Time passes all too quickly when you're enjoying yourself." He glanced at Yuffie and his face turned red again. Bandit tried not to giggle when she saw that his arm was now around Yuffie's waist.

    "One day we might end up like them." Bandit turned around, surprised to hear Kazuki speaking up. He jerked his thumb in the general direction of the restaurant. "Talking for hours just to try and catch up."

    Tyger laughed. "You act like someone's dying! It's only been three weeks, and it's not like we haven't seen each other! We just haven't had the time to sit and talk." She grinned, and added, "I'm sure we'll see each other more when we're doing higher-ranking missions. There can't be as many of them as the Ds!"

    Bandit smiled back, hoping she was right. She looked ahead, seeing one of the training grounds up ahead. There were three thick poles stuck in the middle of a grassy field, giving off lengthening shadows as the sun sank lower behind the horizon. The purple-orange sky was wide open above the genin as they walked slowly toward the poles.

    Yuffie and Nanaki looked at each other and then, grinning, they suddenly broke out in a sprint.

    "Can't catch me!" Yuffie shouted teasingly as she dashed ahead. With a smooth, easy gait Nanaki slipped ahead of her, laughing. Bandit giggled when Yuffie cried out in shock.

    Kazuki cheered when Nanaki reached the poles first. He easily bounded up to the top of the pole, sitting back triumphantly to watch Yuffie run the last few feet. "You cheater!" she yelled out playfully then jumped straight at him.

    Nanaki's eye widened as she knocked him backwards off the pole. Nia and Bandit both cheered while Yuffie stuck her tongue out at the fallen genin. Nia turned to Bandit and winked, and she had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing as Nia snuck up to the pole. Yuffie didn't have a clue what was about to happen. With a loud, "Nii~!" the girl shot upwards and knocked Yuffie from her perch.

    Everyone laughed out loud as Nia did a silly little victory dance.

    "Way to go, Nia!" Tyger shouted. "Woohoo!"

    "Traitor!" Yuffie shouted in between laughs. Bandit didn't think Yuffie was too upset, sitting on the ground with her amber-eyed boy.

    The sky was beginning to darken to purple, and the six genin watched it mostly quietly. Nia and Tyger sat next to each other on top of the middle pole, legs swinging. Red was sitting on the edge of the far pole and Yuffie sat right behind him, resting her chin on his shoulder. Bandit, meanwhile, was sitting cross-legged on top of the third pole. Kazuki stood with his arms folded, leaning against the pole.

    It was a welcome moment of serenity as the genin pondered what their first C-rank mission might be like. Bandit wondered what it would be like working alongside the others, how well their abilities might complement one another. It would be exciting to find out, she was sure.

    As the last streams of light faded out of the starry sky, Bandit thought she saw something in the distance. She sat up straighter, trying to get a better look.

    "What..?" Kazuki started, sounding confused as he looked in the same direction.

    "Who was that?" Yuffie asked, sounding just as confused. She probably had the best eyesight of them all.

    Bandit hopped down to the ground. "I didn't recognize them, but I didn't get a good look."

    "Looked like silver hair," Yuffie added, also hopping down.

    "An enemy nin?" Tyger asked nervously, before Nia cut them off.

    "Silver hair?" she asked eagerly. She turned in the direction they'd seen the figure. "We have to find them-nii~!" Nia jumped down and broke out in a dead run without looking back.

    The other genin looked at each other briefly. Bandit looked at Yuffie and silently mouthed, Xaki? Yuffie shook her head hesitantly, but then shrugged her shoulders to say she wasn't sure.

    "Well, let's go!" Tyger said, starting into a run. "We can't let Nia go alone if it's dangerous!" Without another word, the rest of the genin began chasing after their orange-haired companion.

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    Chapter Three

    Like a shadow, the genin swept through the forest, blending into its ever-deepening darkness. Etched into the barely seen lines of their faces were countenances of calm focus, eyes that took in everything around them as they pursued their quarry. As they had been trained, they all passed by with no more sound than a breath of air, a whisper that promised death in the forest they called their home.

    All but one, anyway.

    "Get...back...here...Nii~!"

    Nia crashed loudly through the foliage in her frantic pursuit. Bandit was amazed at how fast she was able to run, but worried at what the unknown person would do when she arrived. At the rate they were going, they'd probably be exhausted before they caught up.

    Bandit noticed something on her right, and spared a glance to see Tyger rolling an explosive note around a kunai handle. She winked at Bandit and then tossed the kunai to Yuffie. Curious, the two girls watched to see what the other team had planned. Yuffie held the kunai at the ready.

    On their left, Nanaki suddenly increased his pace, easily separating from the others. His run was fluid, smooth in a way that implied he was also tireless. Bandit wished she could learn how he did that.

    "Stop running-nii~!"

    "Now," Tyger said, pointing at the kunai. Apparently getting the gist of it, Yuffie leaped up to a low branch and launched the kunai far out ahead. On the side, Tyger brought her fingers together and used her chakra to light the "fuse" even as it disappeared into the darkness.

    The kunai flew right over the fleeing figure's shoulder, the faint trickle of flames on the note illuminating the silver hair once more as it passed.

    Abruptly, the relative silence of the forest was shattered. Nearly at the edge of their vision, the kunai exploded. The thunderous roar shook the night around them, louder for the stillness that preceded it. Backlit by the flames, they could see their target shielding hi-- .. no, herself from the brightness.

    Barely losing a step the kunoichi fled to the left, streams of light green cloth and a silver ponytail trailing behind her. Bandit and the others rushed to close the distance while Nia had stopped up ahead, shoulders drooping. In the direction the ninja was headed a semicircular wall of fire sprang up and then another one almost immediately after, illuminating the dark wood around them. The mysterious girl was surrounded by the flames.

    As Bandit stared in amazement at the huge circle, Tyger laughed. "Nanaki used his fire wall technique, but only a portion of that is real. The rest of it is Kazuki's doing."

    Bandit looked over in surprise at Kazuki, belatedly realizing that he'd left an illusionary clone with them. The clone winked before they caught up with Nia. Bandit stopped to talk with her, but waved Tyger, Yuffie, and the Kazuki-clone onward.

    Nia slumped forward, her arms hanging limply. "It's not him-nii..." she said sadly.

    Bandit whispered quickly, "But we still have to catch her! Come on, Nia!" She gave the girl a quick, fierce hug for support. "Even if it's not him, you'll still see him again one day." Nia blinked her watery eyes at Bandit, but then grinned and nodded.

    "Right! Let's go-nii~!"

    Glad to see her cheerfulness returned, Bandit ran alongside her, trying to keep up with the taller girl's long strides. The two hopped up into a tree at the edge of the ring of fire, on a branch next to the others. Bandit didn't see Nanaki or the real Kazuki.

    Finally getting her first good look at the intruder, Bandit wondered how much of a threat she could be. She was dressed like a ninja, to be sure, but she couldn't have been any older than them. The kunoichi had a long silver ponytail, hanging down to her butt where it ended in a large gold-colored ring.

    The girl wore a dark green long-sleeved shirt and pants. She was covering her face against the glare, but Bandit noted the long, lighter green scarf around her neck. Both ends floated lightly behind her shoulders. She had a wide belt around her midsection that looked like it was made of the same material.

    "Why are you doing this?" the girl shouted shrilly. "I haven't done anything to you!" She desperately looked around at the ring, trying to find an opening. Bandit frowned, realizing that was technically true, but...

    "But," Nanaki said in a sinister voice as his silhouette materialized within the flames, "you did trespass in the Village Hidden in the Leaves."

    Ooh, Bandit thought. A shiver ran down her spine at the cold tone Red used, even though it wasn't directed at her. She blinked. He's good at this.

    "I was only running past!" the girl shouted angrily, after a moment, throwing her arms out to the side. Bandit saw that she had a dark tan complexion, and it looked like her eyes were green. There was a collar with a bell on it around her neck.

    "After you made your little stop?" Nanaki asked smugly. Little stop? Did Nanaki know something or was it a bluff?

    "So what if I stopped to look for a friend?" the girl growled defiantly. Her tone sounded completely genuine. Bandit tensed as she watched the drama unfold, wondering what would happen. More than that, what were they expected to do? Bring her in?

    "The Village Hidden in the Clouds," Nanaki replied in a smooth tone, causing the silver-haired ninja to throw her hands up to cover the bandana on her forehead, "has never been on friendly terms with the Village Hidden in the Leaves."

    The girl growled, angry at her own stupidity. She turned a glare toward Nanaki. "Stop trying to second-guess me! You're gonna pay for that. My name is Aisha Kuranran and I am your worst nightmare!" The threat was unoriginal and boastful, but nonetheless impressive.

    Aisha's expression changed from frustration to confusion as she put her hands on her hips and looked upward. "How in the world did I end up in this mess? I just wanted to see my village again. Well... never mind." Abruptly she switched into a fighting stance, a half-crouch with both hands out at the ready. "Always attack the problem that life places right in front of you."

    Aisha lunged forward, doing a waist-high roundhouse kick at Nanaki's silhouette straight through the flames. Yuffie gasped, but the ninja connected only with air. It was like a giant hand came down and snuffed the light, smothering the circle of fire and leaving only one little ten-foot long section. The kunoichi's green eyes flared intensely in the light from the remaining fire.

    Bandit leapt down to the ground, followed by Nia and Kazuki's clone. Bandit took a second to consider that. She'd seen Naruto use solid shadow clones that could move and act independently, but the normal illusionary clones usually just mimicked the original. Bandit thought again of the ring of fire, which had even given off light.

    Kazuki was better with genjutsu than she thought.

    Aisha turned to face them and started to rush towards them. Surprised, though, she stopped and pointed straight at Bandit. "You..!" She growled and resumed rushing in, straight at the confused Bandit.

    The first kick was aimed at her head. Even though she wasn't sure what was going on, Bandit parried the kick upward with a quick spin of her arms and then countered with a straight kick at Aisha's stomach. The girl took the hit while swinging her right arm at Bandit, who twisted out of the attack's path.

    "What do you want with me?" she asked in frustration, blocking another punch and then jumping over a low kick. Her arms were stinging from that block -- the girl punched hard!Bandit ducked low under another kick and came up with a sharp, spinning uppercut that terminated in a solid kick to her chest.

    The kick barely staggered Aisha, but it pushed Bandit back a few feet. She held her arms up defensively, and the enraged Cloud-nin jumped forward with a straight right punch. Bandit started to parry it again, but then Tyger stepped in from the side. She grabbed Aisha's hand and, moving with the forward momentum, pulled the arm down and then twisted it behind her back.

    "Let me go or you'll regret it!" Aisha shouted, thrusting behind herself with her left elbow. Tyger jumped back out of the way and Aisha whirled to face her, pony tail flying and bell jingling sharply.

    "Stop already!" Bandit shouted, moving to protect Tyger. It was unnecessary, though: as soon as Aisha turned toward Tyger, Nia leapt at her back, slamming into her with both feet. With a loud thud, Aisha pounded face first into the forest ground.

    "Why don't you all stay out of this?" Aisha yelled. "All I want is the Hyuuga girl!" She spat out a mouthful of dirt and jumped back to her feet.

    "Hyuuga?" the three girls asked simultaneously (with a "nii" added onto one).

    "Don't play stupid! I can see her red eyes!" Aisha pointed accusingly. "The Hyuuga are the only ones that have Byakugan!"

    There was utter silence as the genin stared blankly.

    "But," Nia said after a moment where even Aisha looked confused, "the Hyuuga have white eyes-nii~."

    "What? Who can see with white eyes? That makes no sense."

    Tyger and Bandit looked at each other. Tyger, confused, asked, "Do you think she's looking for a Sharingan user?"

    Bandit remembered one that had infiltrated the village after the big invasion.

    "I don't care about your Sharin-yawn or whatever it is! I need a Hyuuga with the Byakugan!" Aisha lunged at Bandit again, unexpectedly. Bandit dodged, but Aisha was brought up short by three kunai that landed in the ground at her feet. Growling she looked up toward the trees. "Who did that?" she shouted at the trees, but Yuffie had already moved to a new vantage point.

    "Sharingan eyes are red-nii..." Nia pointed out.

    Tyger added, "But a different red from hers."

    Bandit nodded. "My eyes are normal."

    "Then why are you running away from me?" Aisha asked smugly, as if she could see right through their deception.

    Bandit blinked. "Because you're trying to hit me!"

    Aisha stared for a second. "Oh...." She shook her head. "No! You won't trick me! You're coming with me even if I have to break both your legs!"

    Bandit slapped her forehead, but then she rushed forward, tired of being on the defensive. Not expecting that, Aisha didn't react quickly enough. Bandit punched her twice in the stomach, then side-stepped the counter attack and crossed her arms in front of her. She snapped them back quickly, palms outward, straight at the girl's knee.

    Aisha stumbled only slightly and then turned quickly toward Bandit, swinging an open hand with her fingers splayed open like claws. Bandit bounced backward out of reach. "Stay back!" she shouted, when she saw Nia rushing in to help. She wanted to deal with this Cloud-nin on her own.

    Aisha swung with both hands at once. The girl expertly parried the two swipes to either side and then kicked the girl in the chin. Again, Aisha took the blow a lot lighter than she should have, and Bandit actually saw an eager gleam in her luminous green eyes. Getting angry now, Bandit attacked faster, connecting again and again but not showing much for it.

    The silver-haired ninja jumped at her with roundhouse kick, but Bandit spun underneath and then stole a page from Bikuta-sensei's book. While Aisha was still flying past, Bandit grabbed the ring in her ponytail and yanked hard, knocking her flat on her rear.

    Nia commented from the side, "She fights like Kiba-nii~..." The girl was already back on her feet, but fuming in embarrassment.

    Tyger agreed. "Except instead of fighting with an animal, she acts like she is the animal!"

    Aisha snapped her glare over toward Tyger, the bell jingling. "Who are you calling an animal?" she yelled. As if intimidated by her voice, the flame wall dissipated then, leaving the ninjas in moonlight.

    Bandit switched into a different stance, turned sideways towards her opponent. She bounced lightly on the balls of her feet but kept her fists low. Aisha, still pissed off, rushed at Bandit with a lightning fast kick. Surprised by the speed, Bandit barely managed a counter, snapping her foot up and hooking it behind Aisha's knee. The movement twisted Aisha around and pulled both girls down to their knees.

    Bandit hammered both of her elbows into the silver-haired ninja's shoulders. Aisha shrieked and then caught Bandit straight in the ribs.

    A nauseating cracking noise filled her ears.

    The impact of Aisha's elbow sent an explosion of pain into her. Bandit's eyes shot widen open even though her vision narrowed to a tiny dot. Unable to cry out with the intense pain, she gasped deeply and then rolled backwards, clutching at the injury. It felt like her ribs were shattered, like a fire was burning in her side.

    Distantly, she saw Aisha rolling in pain in front of her, but already she had turned that emerald glare toward her. Desperately, Bandit tried to uncurl herself, to get up, to defend herself, but the hot shards of pain only twisted inside her as she moved.

    Aisha was up on her feet, clutching at one shoulder. She was saying something, but all Bandit could hear was the pounding in her ears. Desperately, she straightened herself out, one eye squinting shut at the resurgence of the pain. Her hair hung down in front of her face, but she could still see as Aisha pulled back a fist her other arm still clutching at one side of her collarbone. Breathless, agony washing through her, Bandit threw herself up back up on her knees, trying to get an arm up to block.

    Yellow flashed in her eyes and she heard a shrill scream even over the pounding in her ears. Still fogged by the pain, Bandit tried to see what was going on, finally realizing Yuffie was standing protectively in front of her. Relieved, she slumped backward, clutching at her ribs.

    Past Yuffie, Aisha tossed a pair of bloody kunai to the ground. Bandit's heart-rate was starting to return to normal, and she could hear the shouting going on all around her. Aisha was yelling, saying they were all cowards and she'd take them all on. She charged forward again.

    A small burst of fire balls cut off the Cloud-nin's path and she growled in frustration. "Give up-nii~!" their orange companion shouted, kicking Aisha straight in the face. The girl fell backward, but immediately bounced back to her feet and countered with a hard punch. Bandit winced, knowing all too well just how much that hurt!

    Nia took it mostly in stride, though. She swung out with both arms, hitting Aisha twice and taking another hit in return. Bandit stared in amazement at the brutal catfight, the two girls swiping, punching, and kicking at each other ferociously.

    Tyger was by her side then, and Bandit gasped sharply as her fingers jabbed painfully into her side. "Bandit!" she exclaimed, feeling the injury. "Oh wow, lay down!" Too dazed to argue, she lowered herself gingerly down to the ground.

    "Hold still," Tyger said calmly, even as her fingers poked at her excruciating injury again. "One of your ribs is broken in two places," she explained, still in a calm tone of voice. Surprisingly, through the pain there came a slight soothing sensation. Bandit could feel her heart-rate returning to normal.

    "I'm going to give you a small chakra infusion," Tyger went on, keeping Bandit focused on her voice and not on what was happening around them. "I'm also going to put your bone back into place, and mend it." The sensations alternated from soothing to burning, but Tyger never stopped talking. Bandit couldn't begin to express her relief as the pain began to fade away.

    Tyger's forehead was dripping sweat. "Ok... now I'm going to... use some of my chakra to strengthen the rib, to keep it strong while it finishes healing." Bandit let out a quiet murmur of pleasure, this last technique relieving the last bit of remaining pain.

    It was as if she was waking from a dream.

    Bandit sat bolt upright. She turned to Tyger and gave her a strong hug, but then jumped back up to her feet. Tyger smiled back at her, exhausted.

    The fight was still on. It had felt much longer, but the healing couldn't have taken more than a few minutes.

    Aisha took another swing at Nia, noticeably slower than before but still frightening. Nia crossed her arms to block it, looking just as tired but still eager. Nanaki jumped in swinging, but Aisha narrowly dodged. The spikes on the back of his glove ripped part of her sleeve. He slipped away before she could counter attack.

    Still sore, but feeling ready again, Bandit dashed over, slipping in with a sweep kick. Aisha saw it coming, her green eyes flashing in the moonlight. She jumped over Bandit's leg, just in time to get a bright white paw in the chest. Knocked breathless into the ground, Aisha nonetheless rolled back to her feet unsteadily.

    "Six on one," she muttered breathlessly, "How fair is this?"

    From behind her, Kazuki made the obvious observation. "You could always surrender."

    Aisha laughed sarcastically, moving to stand up straight. She put one hand on her hip, the other gesturing vaguely. "I'm Aisha Kuranran... I can't get beaten here. Not now, not here...not by you." She turned to look at Kazuki over her shoulder, and Bandit could see the corner of a confident grin on her face. "So why don't you surrender?"

    She turned back forward, looking directly at Bandit. "I just need Hyuuga's daughter. This doesn't concern any of the rest of you."

    Bandit felt something burning inside her, and burst out without thinking. "My name is Kyoukan! My father's name is Ky-ou-kan!"

    Aisha stared blankly for a minute. "But--"

    "Kyoukan!" Bandit screamed again.

    The silver-haired ninja's shoulders slumped. "You've got to be kidding me." She looked around at the genin around her, then finally seemed to recognize some of her injuries. She reached up to rub a particularly sore spot, giving a slight wince. Sounding dejected, she finally said, "Forget this, then. I'm out of here."

    "No, you're not!" Kazuki said sharply. "You're coming back with us so you can explain what you're doing here and what you want with the Hyuugas!"

    "No, really," she said, some of the bravado returning to her voice, "I am!" Aisha looked over her shoulder at Kazuki then brought her hand to her face. "Xaki is going to be so pissed at me..." Bandit's eyes widened and she saw Nia's body suddenly turn rigid.

    Suddenly she whirled and rushed at Kazuki, alone on the other side of her. Bandit gasped and began running to stop her, but there wasn't enough time. Aisha slammed her fist into Kazuki's face -- but instead of a cracking sound there was a poof of white smoke and then a sizzling noise. A replacement jutsu with an explosive tag!

    The genin quickly averted their eyes just before it exploded. Bandit immediately turned back around, not expecting the attack to put the girl down.

    The only things in sight, though, were two charred logs resting on the ground.

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    Chapter Four

    The orange-haired girl was standing stiffly, shoulders quivering. In the aftermath of the explosion, there was only silence. Bandit looked from one friend to the next, unsure what to do. The enemy ninja had mentioned the name Xaki... but what did that mean?

    Could it be the same Xaki?

    The dim starlight filtered through the treetops, barely illuminating the battlefield. Looking Bandit's way, Yuffie flipped her fuuma shuriken closed, the quiet metal rasp breaking the stillness that had surrounded them.

    As if a spell had been broken, Kazuki spoke up then from behind Bandit's shoulder. "I didn't expect a replacement... she didn't seem afraid to take any hits."

    Nia jerked then, her knees tensing. Yuffie and Bandit both jumped forward to stop her, knowing she would run blindly after the strange ninja. Neither was fast enough, though, and the green-eyed girl slipped between their outreached arms.

    This time she didn't shout anything, too caught up in her head.

    "Nia, wait!" Bandit cried out as Red moved to intercept the bolting genin. They needed to stop her, or else they'd have to chase after her!

    "Owww-nii~!" the girl yelped unexpectedly, landing on her bottom with her paws clutching at her head.

    Bandit blinked. Where did Bikuta-sensei come from?

    The jounin stood behind Nia, holding the end of her tail. "Let me go-nii~!" she shouted at him, jumping back to her feet. Bandit squinted as an odd feeling nagged at her. Something wasn't right about their sensei.

    Mune stood nearby as well, surveying the scene of the fight. He looked at the genin as well. Bandit and Nia looked a little rough, and Tyger seemed worn down. "Combat practice..?" he asked doubtfully.

    Bikuta laughed. "Maybe the girls were fighting over the boys."

    Over the boys? Even with the gravity of the situation, Bandit, Tyger, and even Nia made sounds of shock and disgust, fervently shaking their heads. Yuffie and Nanaki glanced at each other then looked away, embarrassed. Kazuki was the only one who didn't seem fazed by the remark.

    Bandit was quick to try and explain. "There was a ninja from another village! We saw her near the village and chased after her, and--!"

    "No time-nii~! She's getting away, so let me gooo-nii~!"

    Bikuta looked at Bandit, seemingly worried. "The enemy managed to get away from all six of you without doing serious injury? Chuunin or jounin-level?"

    The others glanced at Bandit as well, and she felt her face color. Even if they didn't say it, she knew they were thinking that if Bandit hadn't jumped in the fight by herself, they might have been able to catch the silver-haired girl before she decided to escape.

    Bandit opened her mouth to admit her mistake, but Kazuki was the first to respond. "We're fairly sure it was a genin, but we were trying to capture her without doing too much harm. If we accidentally knocked the enemy-nin unconscious, it might have been hours before we were able to find out her reasons for being here."

    Mune nodded, also speaking up before Bandit could protest. "We'd definitely want to know if this was part of something larger against the village. Still, I would have thought you all could handle one genin," he added, looking suspiciously at Kazuki.

    Kazuki shrugged, meeting his sensei's gaze. From the side, Nia abruptly let out an angry growl. "If you weren't holding me back I could have already caught her-nii~!" She stomped her foot -- a somewhat futile gesture, since her cat paws muffled the sound -- and glared up at Bikuta-sensei. Bandit mentally sighed and gave up on blaming herself if no one else would.

    Bikuta put a hand to his chin and nodded as if realizing the wisdom of her words. He let the girl's hair go and told her. "You're right, Nia! Now, just lead the way and we'll try to keep up!"

    Nia stuck her tongue out at him and then whirled around, about to dash off into the darkness. The girl blinked, looking around. She put a paw to her chin and tilted her head in confusion. "Which way did she go-nii~?" she whined quietly.

    Bandit, trying to distract Nia from running off blindly, finally got a word in. "We did manage to get a little information before she escaped!"

    Tyger cut her off, and Bandit looked over at her, a little irritated. "She said she was looking for the daughter of Hyuuga! She didn't know much about Hyuuga, though -- she thought Bandit was one!"

    "Her name was Aisha Kuranran, she said," added Nanaki, his arms folded.

    Yuffie grinned and told their teachers, "From the Village Hidden in the Clouds."

    "Very strong-nii~!" Nia remarked. As if it reminded her, she reached down to rub at her side.

    Bandit nodded at all they said. "Strictly close combat," she said, looking at Bikuta-sensei. "Not only did she not use any weapons, but I didn't see any on her. She didn't use any ninjutsu or genjutsu until her escape, and that was only a replacement." The girl crossed her arms, recalling Aisha's parting words. "Very proud, but not very smart."

    Mune and Bikuta looked at each other. "Not bad at all," Mune said. "And that also reinforces your opinion that this was a genin. Not to belittle your skills of observation, but a chuunin or jounin wouldn't have given away so much information in so little time."

    Bikuta pulled his jug up and took a long swallow. Bandit saw Yuffie's eyes narrow as the strong smell rolled across them -- he'd refilled it with sake again. "Kuranran... I know that name isn't in the bingo book, but it sounds familiar. Were there any marks through her village symbol?"

    The genin all shook their heads. Bikuta frowned. "Most rogue ninja scratch out their village marks. It'd be unusual for a village to send a single ninja, especially a genin, to scout on their own. This Aisha most likely isn't alone."

    Mune clapped his hands. "Ok, there's definitely enough for us to follow this through. Red, run to town and inform the Hyuuga as quickly as you can. We're going to track Kuranran down."

    Yuffie protested immediately. "Why Nanaki? How's he supposed to meet back up with us?"

    Mune and Bikuta looked at each other again. The red-haired jounin started to explain, but Bikuta grinned and cut him off. "I've got long legs: I can be there and catch back up with you all in no time. Hiashi would probably prefer a jounin deliver such a message anyway."

    With a sigh, Mune shrugged. "You'd probably have a harder time finding us than Red would. But... I guess if Hiashi comes back with you, the Byakugan will make up for that." He pulled his hands together, first two fingers of each held straight up against each other as he called up his chakra. "Hurry back, man."

    With a lopsided salute, Bikuta-sensei was gone, moving almost too fast for Bandit to see.

    Mune was already going into a series of hand-signs, slowly, quietly murmuring the name of each. "Pick the most likely direction to start with," he said, hand-signs still flowing, "This is going to drain a lot of chakra, so we're going to have to move fast for as long as I can keep it up!"

    Bandit and the others looked at each other, unsure where to begin. They looked around the area, as if hoping her tracks would suddenly become visible. Brutish strength or not, Aisha was apparently light on her feet.

    She could have gone any direction!

    Tyger whispered something to Nanaki, who shook his head. Yuffie was scanning the area, as if trying to find something. Kazuki stood impassively, eyes closed in thought.

    Bandit and Nia looked around, and then her eyes caught on the two charred logs from her escape. Aisha had turned straight toward Kazuki when she escaped which would be... west!

    No, that wasn't right. Aisha went that way because it was the weakest part of their defense.

    Then how to tell?

    "Hurry guys, it's almost ready."

    What was Yuffie looking for? Bandit followed her eyes, and saw that she wasn't looking on the ground, but at the trees around them. The first kunai! Bandit slapped her forehead.

    "Red, Kazu, can you get us some light?" she asked. Nanaki looked up, then nodded and went through a few rapid hand-signs. A flame enveloped his right forearm, and he held it up, brightening the area. Kazuki just shrugged apologetically.

    "Over here, Nanaki!" Yuffie called. Bandit grinned, seeing the scorch marks as soon as Nanaki took a couple steps over. Aisha had run in a perfectly straight line from the moment they saw her until they blocked her path with the explosive tag!

    Nia jumped up, realizing immediately what was going on. "I've got her now-nii~!" she cried out triumphantly.

    "Hold up a sec, kiddo," Mune said quietly.

    Bandit looked in the direction that Aisha had been running. Kazuki walked over and then looked up at the stars. "Northeast," he remarked.

    "The direction of the Land of Lightning," Bandit added with a grin. The Land of Lightning... home to the Village Hidden in the Clouds.

    Mune grunted, a half-grin on his face as he held the wrist of his other hand, palm downward. Bandit felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck and stared in surprise as a soft blue glow started at Mune's feet. The glow began to grow outward, covering the ground in a circle around the jounin. He was breathing hard with the effort, widening the circle until it extended a full six feet away from him!

    "Ok," he said breathlessly, "Northeast? Then let's go! Quickly!"

    The jounin took off running, the six genin right behind him. The glowing circle followed his every step, moving with his feet almost as flawlessly as a shadow. Bandit and the others struggled to keep up with Mune-sensei, except for Nanaki who paced him easily.

    Her hair flying out behind her, sleeves flapping in the wind, Bandit stared at the blue glow curiously. Knowing that Aisha had a five or even ten minute lead on them, and remembering how quickly she had run before, Bandit expected this to be a long chase. She took a deeper breath, trying to keep up without exhausting herself completely.

    The night was only beginning.

    ___

    Aisha panted heavily as she ran. She was worn down, and had expended too much chakra. She pushed on harder, but knew she couldn't keep it up much longer.

    The girl couldn't afford to be much later in getting back. Already it would be hard to explain the delay.

    Aisha didn't regret being caught or getting into her drawn-out fight with the Konoha genin. By now, they were little more than an afterthought. She had taken a few precautions in her trek through the dark forest, but she was now focused on where she needed to be.

    She hoped Xaki wouldn't be too upset with her.

    The silver-haired girl stumbled on a root, managing to catch herself on a tree trunk. Pausing to get her breath, she let out a dramatic sigh. She was too low on chakra to keep this up. Aisha released her jutsu, hoping the chakra would recover before long.

    Until then, she had to keep moving, even if it was a bit slower than before.

    I'm Aisha Kuranran! she thought to herself. It will take a lot more than this to put me down!

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    Chapter Five

    Silence surrounded the seven shinobi as they ran, jumped, leaped, flew through the shadowy forest. The sound of their hoarse breathing as they abandoned all subtlety for speed was their only accompaniment. Brief glimpses of the stars through the thick tree canopies steered them straight on their course, with no end in sight.

    The blue glow softly illuminated the trees around them. Chakra so thick that it was visible...Bandit had never seen such before. In the faint blue glow, Bandit could see the strain it was having on the red-headed jounin. Sweat trickled down his face, wrinkled in concentration as they hurtled through the trees.

    Not a word was exchanged between the ninja, and no explanation was offered for the purpose of Mune's jutsu.

    There was a brief, faint flash of green and Bandit blinked in surprise. Immediately, Mune turned slightly and there was another brief spark of green.

    It wasn't until the third one that Bandit recognized what was happening: the glowing chakra field was highlighting small oval splotches -- partial footprints.

    ___

    Aisha was panting by now as she jogged rapidly onward. Her hair and scarf trailed far out behind her as she ran heedlessly, even in her weakened state, to get back to the camp.

    Overhead, Aisha noticed a barely perceptible lightening of the dark sky: the coming of the pre-dawn. She was going to make it!

    There was a sharp crack in her shin and Aisha fell forward with a sharp hiss. Too tired to bounce to her feet, Aisha rolled over to see what she had run into. Her green eyes widened. "Reese?" she squeaked, surprised.

    The boy looked down at her dully from beneath his blue-dyed bangs. His stringy black hair hung loosely, almost casting his face in shadow. He wore tan pants and a splotchy blue and white shirt, with a strong leather baldric crossing from his right shoulder to his left hip. Although several inches shorter than her, that didn't make the girl feel any better about the situation.

    Reese reached down and grabbed the handle of his nearly four-foot-long sword, pulling it from the ground where Aisha had run right over it. Hefting the thick blade easily in one hand, Reese rested it against his shoulder as he turned toward the girl more fully. "What are you doing here?" he asked coldly.

    Aisha looked nervously at the deep scratch through the bandana on his baldric.

    ___

    Her legs burned as they moved deeper and deeper into the forest. Bandit wondered how much longer she could keep this up. She thought that she'd reached her limit hours ago, but still they ran on. Tyger seemed to have it the worst, and was currently being supported by both her teammates. How much longer could they keep this up?

    The green spots had disappeared many minutes ago.

    Ahead, there was a brief flicker in the shimmering blue circle. It solidified, but then flickered again, violently, like a guttering candle flame. Mune stumbled, falling awkwardly to his knees, and the blue light died out completely.

    Relieved, Bandit bent over, trying to catch her breath. To the side, Nia let out a tired, "Nii," and fell face-first to the ground -- asleep before she even touched it. Her sore legs quivering, Bandit leaned back against the nearest tree and slid to the ground, looking over at Mune-sensei.

    Yuffie flopped down next to Bandit, just as exhausted. On the other side of Mune, Team Thirteen slumped against another tree. Tyger, with an arm still around each of her teammate's shoulders, was already passed out. Kazuki seemed close to it himself, but Red's amber eye still seemed bright.

    "Mune-sensei," Bandit whispered. The jounin was still on his knees where he'd fallen. "Why did your jutsu lose her trail?"

    The red-haired ninja laughed. "Because she's about as tired as we are," he explained. He turned, sliding backward to lean against his own tree. The jounin's eyes were already closed. "The Cobalt Shadow reveals chakra," he went on. "That's why it took so long to find the trail -- we had to catch up enough that her chakra trail hadn't faded."

    Bandit tilted her head. "Why did we lose it again, then?"

    "She was using chakra to move faster and lighter. That's why her feet left traces of chakra." Mune left it at that, but Bandit could easily tell the rest: when the footprints stopped appearing was when the girl had drained all her chakra.

    Overhead, the sky had just begun to fade to gray.

    "We need to recover before we see what we're up against. We've closed enough of the gap that Hyuuga should have no trouble locating our target." Mune weakly lifted a hand toward Nanaki. "Red... give me about an hour and then I'll take watch for you all." Bandit couldn't tell if Red answered or not as her eyelids began drifting closed. The girl was only vaguely aware of Yuffie's head leaning against her shoulder.

    Distantly, she wondered if this counted as a real mission.

    ___

    "Get off of me!" Aisha screamed futilely. If she were rested she'd rip his face off! Right now, though, the corded muscles in his arm felt like iron. Ignoring her, Reese lifted her over his shoulder and began running.

    Aisha beat weakly at his back, but she had nothing left. Her muscles were burning, and now that she had stopped moving, she wasn't sure if she'd be able to start again.

    It wasn't long before the boy unceremoniously tossed Aisha to the ground. She groaned and rolled into a sitting position, looking around.

    Ahead of her was the other boy, with short red hair that stuck straight up in pointy spikes. He had on white shorts and was just pulling on his brown shirt. Even freshly woken up, Neith's pale blue eyes were clear and bright. The ninja frowned at her, looking at Reese curiously.

    "What's going..?" Neith started to ask, before a disgusted growl interrupted them.

    "You filthy piece of trash," came a sinister voice from behind the red-head. Aisha looked up at Serim defiantly as he moved menacingly -- but silently -- towards her. The jounin was covered in blood red, form-fitting clothing. His greasy black hair hung loose, unshorn. He was thin and pale, a bitter scowl etched permanently into his stubbled face. A wicked, curvy blade was strapped to his thigh and his hand twitched next to the handle impatiently. "What were you doing, you worthless vermin?" he demanded viciously.

    Neith watched impassively. His hand rested on one of his weapons, but Aisha knew there'd be no help coming from him. Still glaring fearlessly at him -- since a glare was all she had left -- Aisha told him, "I was coming back in from my watch!"

    Serim laughed sardonically. "Well aren't you all just alike?" he half-yelled sarcastically, peering at her with his dark eyes, "Dishonest, backstabbing, useless harlots!"

    The sound of that word rang painfully in her ears. Raising her voice, as much at Serim as at her memories, Aisha screamed, "I am not useless!"

    From behind, Reese put a hand on her shoulder, but it felt more like it was there to restrain her than anything else. Serim gave a depraved grin. "But the rest is true?"

    Tears forming at the corner of her eyes, Aisha shook her head vehemently, realizing even as she did that she was lying about being dishonest. The jounin could see it, but she didn't care. "You're the one that made me stand watch the entire day!" she reminded him angrily.

    "I thought standing might be within your talents!" he mocked. "Why is it that I set you to watch from the north, but the Mist boy brought you in from the southwest? Explain that, girl!"

    "I was circling the camp!" Aisha lied quickly. "Just to be safe!"

    Serim nodded as if it made sense, even though his condescending look never left his face. "So, then," he asked dramatically, "did you find any trouble?" He looked at Neith and then Reese.

    Thinking he expected her to invent some stupid story about driving away enemies, she shook her head. "None," she replied, still glaring. Neith put a hand to his forehead, shaking his head, and Aisha knew it was a mistake.

    With a bitter grin, Serim leaned close and asked, "So who cut your arm?"

    Reflexively, Aisha reached over and grabbed at the shallow wound, the three parallel lines that were too clean to be from animal claws. Even as she made the move, renewing the twinges of stinging pain in her upper arm, Aisha knew it had given her away.

    Seeing the movement, his depraved grin widened. It changed quickly into a glower, though. "As I thought: a traitorous, lying, useless wh--!"

    "Don't ever call me useless!" Aisha screamed. Ignoring the burning in her aching muscles, Aisha jumped to her feet unsteadily, enraged. One angry glance made Reese pull his hand from her shoulder and step back.

    As soon as her eyes turned back forward, she felt an explosion in the side of her face, followed by a loud metal ringing.

    Without realizing how, Aisha was face-first in the dirt. The entire right side of her face felt on fire, and she spat out blood from where her teeth cut the inside of her cheek. Gasping weakly for breath, she tried to lift herself up, but that last burst of adrenaline was already gone.

    Aisha felt a hand on the back of her scarf lifting her head up. She coughed wetly, spitting out a little more blood while the bell in her collar jingled. The girl opened her eyes to see Serim crouched down in front of her, frowning at her. "Don't ever raise your voice like that to me!" he growled. He lifted his right hand to accentuate the point -- on the back of it was his metal headband, the symbol of the Stone village with a jagged line through it. There were a couple drops of blood -- her blood -- on the edge of the metal from where he'd backhanded her.

    All the fight, all the strength, all the adrenaline was gone from her. Aisha looked back at him fearfully, as he lifted her head higher off the ground. The girl felt a tear trickle down her cheek.

    "You're right, though!" Serim growled, whipping out his serpent-bladed kunai faster than she could blink. Holding the blade underhanded, the jounin pressed it to the base of her neck. "There is one thing females are useful for," he told her threateningly, past his oily smile.

    Aisha's eyes shot wide in terror, jerking backward enough to rattle her bell as she felt the tip of the blade sliding downward, separating the fabric at the neck of her shirt. The tip sliced into her skin as well, drawing a fine line of blood.

    The girl trembled as Serim leaned closer, bringing his lips closer to her ear but never pulling the blade away. Aisha squinted her eyes tightly shut in revulsion, another tear rolling down.

    "But you know," Serim whispered straight in her ear, "you don't do anything to stir my appetite." Aisha's eyes shot open. "So you really are worthless."

    With a sinister laugh, Serim pulled his face -- and the kunai -- away, apparently done teaching her a lesson. She couldn't let it go like that, though! Against all her better judgment, against the fear that shivered throughout her body, Aisha dredged up that last bit of courage and spit in the jounin's greasy face.

    Aisha could already feel that wavy blade ripping into her, even as the bloody saliva left her lips. She already expected the pain, the retaliation... the end... but it was worth it to salvage that little shred of pride. Dauntless, Aisha refused to look away as Serim's face contorted in rage, as the blade turned back around, as he tightened his grip on the back of her scarf. "You dirty little tramp!"

    The hints of a defiant smile graced her terrified face as she awaited her impending death.

    "That's enough, Urami." The blade stopped abruptly, jerking to the side at the sound of the voice.

    Even though the tip of the blade had already penetrated her skin and the surprised turn had caused him to drive a shallow cut across her collar bone, Aisha smiled past the pain. Then, as if all the stress and fear and exhaustion all caught up with her at once, the girl let her eyes dip closed, her head hanging forward.

    She didn't hear the words the two jounin exchanged as her long-overdue rest caught up with her. Distantly, she felt her face dropped roughly to the dirt, but that vague smile stayed on her face.

    Xaki...

    ___

    Neith watched tensely from the side as the two jounin squared off.

    Serim still wore that contorted mask of rage, with the serpent-bladed kunai held in the fist with his bandana on it. A single drop of blood fell from the tip of the weapon, and Neith's fist tightened. The out-of-proportion wrath that coursed through Serim had his shoulders trembling.

    Xaki stood impassively, a perfect contrast to the volatile Serim. His medium, bushy hair was a perfect match for the slate grey of the pre-dawn sky. He was wearing black and grey pants along with a short-sleeved grey vest. He also wore a spiked red collar. The vest covered little, the young jounin's well-toned chest and abs clearly visible. He crossed his arms over his chest calmly as he and Serim stared each other down.

    In the end, though, Serim's dark glower was no match for Xaki's emerald gaze. He turned back to words.

    "Stay out of this! The girl is a useless piece of filth and I say it's time we got rid of her!"

    Xaki uncrossed his arms, holding them out and to the side. There was nothing outwardly threatening about the posture, but Neith took a step back as the jounin stepped closer to Serim. He flexed one black-gloved hand. "You weren't given that kind of authority," Xaki replied calmly, the much taller ninja looking down at his blood-red peer.

    "What good is she?" Serim demanded. "Do you really think we need a weak shrew like her to find the other sniveling little wench?"

    "Her worth is yet to be determined," Xaki replied calmly. He gave Serim a cold look. "Even so, I am the one to decide how much -- and if -- she will receive any punishment."

    Looking nervously between the two, Neith feared that they would break out in a fight right there. Xaki stared for a moment longer to get his point across, but when Serim failed to come up with a retort, he walked over toward Aisha. He kneeled down, giving Neith a clear view of the Konoha headband wrapped around his left bicep, with a deep scratch through it.

    Xaki turned the girl over and lifted her in his arms.

    "If you want to keep it as a pet," Serim snarled, unwilling to stay silent, "then make sure it doesn't get in my way!"

    Ignoring him, Xaki walked back to the other side of the camp. "You should clean yourself off," the tall jounin suggested, not even looking Serim's way.

    With a growl, the volatile man quickly rubbed his sleeve across his face, wiping away the bloody spit. Disgustedly, Serim spat at the ground where she'd fallen, drawing Neith's eyes to the bloody stains in the dirt. He felt his fist tightening, and met Reese's eyes.

    Serim turned in Neith's direction, the glower on his face darkening. "Put that away," he hissed threateningly.

    It wasn't till then that Neith realized he was holding one of his weapons tightly in a fist. He slowly, reluctantly, put the blade away, never breaking eye contact with Serim.

    "I don't know why I expected better from my own village." Spitting one more time, Serim glanced back at Reese and muttered, "You're both nearly as worthless as her."

    Neith released his pent-up breath as Serim stalked past him, but didn't fail to hear the jounin's last threat, under his breath. "That applies to you, too, Hitonomi."

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    Nine months down the line, I realize I never did get around to posting the rest of this.

    Chapter Six

    The frigid rain poured down, drowning out everything. The world was washed away in a relentless grey river. Stealing away color, sound, and even warmth, the downpour soaked down into her very soul.

    But it couldn't erase the vision of the black obelisk in front of them. It couldn't hide the image of the sobbing, orange-haired girl.

    It couldn't wash away the sound of her sobs.

    Shivering, she reached out for the girl's shoulder.

    ___

    The ninja held his breath as he moved stealthily forward, closer to the pair in front of him. Even as the sun began cresting over the horizon, he did not fear detection. The thick grass muffled his already soundless footsteps. The long, deep shadows of the trees hid him from sight. The blanket of morning mist softened the silhouette of his form.

    He took another step closer to the jounin tending the hurt girl.

    Xaki worked methodically but efficiently. Kneeling over the girl's prone body with his back to the searching eyes, the jounin pulled the top of the shirt down. Without tenderness, the tall ninja poked and prodded at the limp girl. She didn't respond.

    "You're concerned?" the jounin asked abruptly, never turning around.

    Embarrassed at having thought he could sneak up on a jounin, Reese stepped forward into plain sight. "Is she alive?" he asked tentatively. From here he couldn't see if she was breathing, although he had seen the vivid collection of bruises over her front before he'd looked away modestly.

    "And if she wasn't?" Xaki asked, still not turning around. He finished his prodding and pulled the girl's shirt back up partway. Apparently none of her ribs were broken.

    Reese looked away. There was nothing accusatory in Xaki's voice, but he still felt the guilt. He had been the one to bring Aisha in, letting Serim get hold of her.

    When no answer came, Xaki told him, "She's alive."

    Reese still had nothing to say, but his relieved sigh probably told the perceptive man all he needed to know.

    "This one is not so easy to kill," Xaki explained simply. He turned an eye toward Reese, lifting an eyebrow. "Easier without allies, though." Xaki abruptly stood up, rummaging in the pouch behind his belt.

    Reese looked aside, wondering whether the admonishment was for her... or for him.

    True, he had been ordered by Serim specifically to watch for her, insinuating betrayal. He'd been so surprised to actually see her that he had followed the command without a thought, without even figuring out what was going on first.

    The rogue genin had not expected what followed, though. Serim was always broody, but he had never been so vicious before... so venomous.

    "I should have trusted her," Reese said quietly, thinking of the horrible way Aisha had been belittled and tormented.

    "Trusted? The girl is a liar," Xaki pointed out. Reese looked at him in surprise then glanced down at the puffy red cuts on her arm. He was right...but wasn't Xaki on Aisha's side? Xaki strode over and handed Reese two small bottles. "Clean those cuts out, if you don't want them infected," the jounin instructed as he began walking past the boy, "including the kunai wounds behind her shoulder."

    Reese reared back in surprise. "Wha-- me?" It was partly his fault that Aisha was in this condition. The Mist rogue looked at Xaki's back incredulously.

    "Triage," Xaki replied, disappearing into the quiet woods.

    ___

    "Nia..."

    Bandit opened her eyes, shivering once more. Blearily she looked around, warm afternoon sun shining down on her through the trees. It did little to banish the chill from her memory.

    The girl looked around, her gaze passing over the sleeping forms of Team Thirteen and Mune-sensei. Yuffie was still leaning against her shoulder, leaving a fairly large drool stain on Bandit's shirt. Bandit, vaguely recalling why they were there, first thought she should wake everyone up, but then thought she might slip back asleep herself.

    Nia..?

    Bandit's eyes popped open again and she looked left, right, and even up in the trees. The orange-clad girl was nowhere to be seen. She stood up quickly, ignoring the protest from her aching thighs.

    Yuffie groaned at being moved. Bandit desperately searched around, easily finding Nia's distinctive paw tracks. "Nn... Bandit..?"

    Without looking over at her, Bandit simply said, "Nia's gone." Heart beating rapidly out of fear for her friend, Bandit was reassured by how quickly Yuffie leapt to her feet. The girl pointed at the trail.

    The two girls ran swiftly down the trail after their lost friend.

    ___

    "Uwah-nii!"

    Nia grinned and dipped her hands in for another scoop of the refreshing spring water. The cold water splashed down her cheeks as she guzzled it down, reaching in for more. After finally drinking her fill, Nia got one more scoop and splashed it on her face.

    Revitalized, the girl wiped a forearm across her face and stood up. Still grinning, Nia quickly shook her arms and face to dry off some. "So tasty-nii~!" she exclaimed.

    The girl looked around at the woods, beaming. "Now... what was I supposed to be doing-nii..?" she mumbled, her face scrunching up in thought, one paw against her chin. Her eyes lit up. "Oh! I need to--!" A loud gurgling noise came from her stomach, and Nia groaned, rubbing one paw over it. "So hungry-nii~!" she whined.

    Her bright green eyes slid back over to the stream, but it really wasn't big enough for any good fish. With a dramatic sigh, Nia dropped to her butt in the grass, crossing her arms with her feet pressed together.

    She scrunched up her face in thought, trying to remember her survival training and what was safe to eat. Her stomach grumbled again. Nia sighed again and flopped onto her back, spread-eagled in defeat. As if to rub it in, her tummy growled again, louder than before.

    Nia's eyes popped open. That wasn't her tummy! The girl turned her eyes upward, worriedly looking upside down at what was behind her. A grin split across her face and the girl quickly rolled over. "What a cute doggie-nii~!" she exclaimed starting over toward it, before another growl stopped her in her tracks.

    Curiously, Nia tilted her head as she looked at the big golden-brown dog. It didn't look wild or even that dirty, but it had big teeth! The dog had something in its mouth, but the girl was looking into its deep brown eyes, meeting its stare without challenging it. Nia crouched down as she smiled at the big doggie.

    It dropped what it was carrying as it bared its teeth at her. Gradually, though, the doggie's growling trailed away as Nia grinned at it. The girl leaned forward and began moving slowly over to the fluffy beast on all fours. It tilted its head at her, growling again briefly since it wasn't sure what to make of the girl. Nia could see what looked like a scarf around its neck.

    "What do you have there-nii~?" Nia asked sweetly as she got closer, getting a closer look at what it had dropped. "A bag-nii~?" she asked, confused. Then the smell reached her. It smelled like melon! But warm?

    The dog jerked backward as if it was surprised itself. Shaking its head, the golden-brown canine abruptly snatched the bag and began running. Nia jumped to her feet, holding out one paw pleadingly. "No, wait-nii~!" The girl's stomach groaned as she started running after the dog. She looked around at the woods. "Where did you get that-nii~?"

    The dog ignored her and hurtled full speed through the trees. "So fast-nii~!" the girl exclaimed. "Wait for me, puppy-nii~!"

    ___

    Slowly, his eyes drifted open. The jounin groaned at the feeling of the coarse tree bark against his back. He sat up, rubbing at his back.

    Abruptly, his mind kicked back into gear. Mune shot a glance skyward. Mid-day! How could he have been asleep that long? He turned to his left and saw that his team was all still asleep.

    "Red!" Mune shrieked, "I thought you were going to wake me after an hour!"

    Nanaki stirred slightly, blinking his eye a couple times before jerking suddenly as Mune's words registered. "Sorry, sensei," was all he could reply.

    Mune growled and looked up at the sky again. How far behind their target were they now? Hopefully she had stopped for rest herself, but if not she could be clear out of the Landof Fire already! If that was the case, how could they know what that would mean for Konoha?

    "Where are Bikuta and Hiashi?" Mune asked out loud. They should have been here long ago, between their tracks and the Byakugan! The jounin glanced around the camp and suddenly felt ill. "Where is team Twelve!" Red jumped to his feet, amber eye popping wide.

    Did Bikuta arrive in their sleep and take his team onward? No, there weren't any of his tracks nearby.

    "This way!" Red shouted, quickly finding the girls' tracks.

    "Wait! We can't leave--!" Red was already gone. Mune clutched at his head in exasperation. Prodding Tyger and Kazuki, the jounin urged, "Get up, guys!"

    While the two slowly -- too slowly -- stirred, Mune muttered angrily to himself. "Yeah, sure, catch up when you can! I can keep track of a few genin, no problem! Oh wait, two thirds of them are gone now!"

    "I'm surprised you kept up with two of them."

    ___

    Nia crashed through the underbrush as she chased after the big puppy. She was grinning, enjoying the brisk chase. The girl couldn't quite remember why she was chasing it, but it was fun!

    The dog, realizing it was being followed abruptly darted to the right, Nia right behind. Thunk!

    "Oww-nii~!" the girl screamed, clutching at her head. "That wasn't fair-nii~!" she complained, quickly jumping back to her feet and racing after the canine, this time more wary of low-hanging branches. The dog kept running, darting under low branches and between close trees. Nia giggled as she dodged each obstacle, feeling like she was playing tag back home.

    The dog finally gave up on trying to trip the girl up and started running straight. "Aww, wait-nii~!" she cried out as it outran the tiring girl. The big dog turned its head to give her a triumphant look, and Nia yelled out in alarm. "Watch out, puppy-nii~!"

    As if it understood her, the dog jerked its head back forward. With a yelp it tried to turn before it went headfirst into a tree, but crossed up its legs. The poor dog landed hard on its side, dropping the bag with another loud yelp.

    The girl gasped. "Oh no! Are you ok-nii~?" Nia asked as she pulled up to the dog. It growled at her half-heartedly, but Nia ignored it and began softly petting it, seeing how badly it was hurt. "That looked painful-nii~!"

    Its growl died away as it looked at her. Nia smiled at the dog reassuringly as she petted between its shoulders. The girl reached her paw behind its head and began softly scratching its ears. "See? It's alright-nii~..." Nia told it softly as it looked back at her with its big brown eyes.

    The big dog was probably heavier than she was. The dog pushed its head against her hand as she scratched, making Nia grin.

    A clear whistle echoed through the trees then. The dog immediately jerked its head aside, ears turned toward the sound. Before Nia could stop it, the dog jumped to its feet and grabbed the bag clumsily in its teeth.

    "Don't run away-nii~!" Nia shouted as the dog bolted away, holding her arms out pleadingly. She was about to continue the chase, but there was a light smack near her feet. Nia looked down to see a lumpy round loaf of bread.

    Nia paused in her tracks, staring curiously at the loaf. Slowly, the girl crouched down, still looking at it sitting in the grass. Her stomach gurgled again. Nia's arms shot out and she snatched the loaf quickly. "What is this-nii~?" she asked curiously, wondering why it was so lumpy. The smell of melon wafted toward her from the slightly warm loaf and drool started rolling down Nia's chin. "It smells wonderful-nii~!"

    Sitting on her knees, Nia stared at it for a moment longer and then took a small bite. As soon as the taste hit her tongue, Nia nearly swooned. It was so yummy! Unable to help herself, Nia wolfed it down in seconds! "Mmm-uwah!" she moaned as she plopped down on her bottom, rubbing her filled tummy. "Now I'm happy-nii~!"

    Nia grinned with satisfaction as the warmth from the bread filled her tummy. She blinked, suddenly confused. "What did Nia come here for-nii~?" she asked, tilting her head.

    ___

    Mune stared for a moment, dumbfounded. "Xaki..?" he asked, looking at the tall, silver-haired ninja. He stood a short distance away, his low-riding pants rippling slightly as a surprisingly cold wind blew past. His powerful arms were crossed over his chest.

    Tyger and Kazuki, now finally awake, looked at the newcomer warily. Tyger looked up at Mune, worried by how tense he was. "Who is he, sensei?" she asked. Kazuki looked from one to the other nervously.

    "We used to be friends," Xaki explained calmly, but his tone was unclear. Mune wondered how final the used-to-be was.

    Still stunned, Mune shook his head. "Where have you been? We thought you--"

    "You never could keep track of a team," Xaki remarked. He lifted his gaze, staring straight at Mune. The cold expression in his green eyes sent a shiver down Mune's spine. Xaki uncrossed his arms. "It won't take much longer," the jounin stated, raising more questions than it answered.

    With that, Xaki turned to the right and walked off -- giving Mune a clear view of the Konoha headband and the deep scratch through it.

    A long moment passed after the rogue had gone before Mune let out his held breath and uncurled his fist. The red-headed jounin reached a sleeve up to wipe the sweat from his brow.

    "What was that about?" Tyger asked urgently. "Who was he?"

    Not sure how to begin to explain, Mune shrugged. "A ghost," he told her quietly, hoping to cut off any further questions.

    "A ghost with a cut through his headband," Kazuki muttered.

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    Chapter Seven

    "Yo, Hito-sensei!"

    Xaki opened his eyes, pushing aside the memory as he rushed through the trees. The sooner they finished their job, the sooner they could leave this forest.

    "Xaki-ni! Ohayo~!"

    The sooner he could distance himself from his memories.

    ___

    With a groan, Aisha abruptly sat up and rubbed at her shoulder. There was a dull, burning ache throughout her, but especially sharp right there. Vaguely, the girl recalled her fight the night before, and running and....

    With a gasp, Aisha's eyes shot open and she looked around frantically. "Xaki..?"

    "He's gone," a bored voice said from behind her. Aisha turned, surprised to see her Mist-nin 'teammate' sitting back against a tree. His apathy was downright annoying at times. Reese Sokkenai... probably the dullest person she'd ever been around.

    Aisha looked up, trying to guess what time it was. She looked over her shoulder at Reese again. "What are you doing here?" she asked suspiciously.

    Reese held up a bottle with some kind of ointment. "I was trying to treat your wounds," he told her calmly. "I don't know how much good it did, though. I'm no nurse."

    Aisha turned around to face him squarely. Why would he..? She shook her head. "Where's Xaki?" the girl asked, an edge slipping into her voice.

    Reese lifted his hands up in the air. "He's the one that made me do this. He just muttered something about tree watch, told me to do it, and left!"

    "'Triage' is probably what you mean." Reese and Aisha looked over to see Neith walking up. "Just means prioritizing resources." Aisha tilted her head curiously. Neith saw it and explained. "Meaning that Reese could handle treating your injuries and there was something more important Xaki needed to take care of."

    Nodding, Aisha rose to her feet, careful not to show any wince as her wounds burned in protest. With a short nod at Reese, she told him, "I owe you thanks for the treatment." As far as she was concerned, that was that. She needed to figure out what to do next.

    "Are your injuries serious?" Neith asked, leaning back against another tree and crossing his arms.

    "Nothing I can't handle," she huffed indignantly.

    "Whose side are you on!" Neith shouted in frustration.

    Aisha's eyes narrowed. The girl looked over her shoulder at Reese, then back to Neith's clear blue eyes. "The same side both of you are on," she said sarcastically. As Neith opened his mouth to call her a liar, she finished. "My own!"

    The red-headed ninja's eyebrows shot upwards and then he looked aside, unable to deny her simple declaration and accusation. Instead, he turned back forward and fixed her with an iron stare. "Let me ask it this way: was Serim right or wrong?"

    Aisha's first instinct was to leap over there and rip his face off for even suggesting that Serim's words were true. Even trying to keep a calm facade, she felt the deep and profound aching as that one venomous word echoed in her mind. The girl's hand balled into a fist.

    Neith's hand was wrapped around the hilt of one of his weapons. His stare only hardened as he faced her down. "Have you betrayed us?" he asked, knuckles whitening.

    Betrayed..? The Cloud-nin blinked, remembering one of the other things Serim accused her of. Her fist slowly relaxed and Aisha stood up straighter, looking Neith directly in the eyes. "I haven't liked either of you from the start," she told them firmly, "and Serim would be happier to kill me than look at me. But I am not, and never will be, a traitor! My name is Aisha Kuranran, and I am no backstabber!"

    Neith, impressed, slowly moved his hand away from his weapon. After a brief moment, he gave her a nod of respect.

    "Now that we've decided we're not going to kill each other," Reese said from the side, surprising them both, "what's next?"

    Aisha rolled her head back to look at the boy, seriously thinking about what she was going to do. It didn't take long to decide, though. Rogue or not, she was bound to her duty.

    "I'll be staying behind," Aisha announced, her back toward the two. Neith and Reese looked at her curiously. Aisha looked over her shoulder at them and grinned. "After the job is done, I'll remain behind here until I'm finished."

    Reese tilted his head at her. "You're giving up your share?"

    "That's not what I came here for," she replied. Aisha spotted her pack against a tree nearby and headed toward it.

    ___

    Bandit rocketed through the trees, Yuffie easily pacing her, as the pair searched for their lost friend. Her heart pounded in her chest as she followed the tracks, still unnerved by the large, clawed paw-tracks. The girl clutched a kunai in her fist.

    "Bandit-chan! Yuffie-nii~!"

    Bandit turned, stunned, to see the orange-clad girl waving cheerfully through the trees. "Where..?" The girl yelped as she tripped and crashed sideways against the forest floor.

    Nia gasped, both hands covering her mouth. "Bandit-nii~!"

    With a slight groan, Bandit sat up. "I'm all right," she said, cheeks red with embarrassment. Nia came closer and Bandit pounced on her, hugging her fiercely. Nia squeaked in surprise, and again when Yuffie threw an arm around them both.

    The relieved smile abruptly disappeared. "What were you doing out here?" Bandit demanded sharply.

    "I ate yummy food-nii~!" she replied with a grin, making Bandit's stomach grumble at the reminder that they hadn't eaten since the night before.

    Yuffie looked around. "What happened to the thing that was chasing you?"

    "Chasing..? Oh! The puppy-nii~!" Nia looked around rapidly. "Which way'd it go-nii~?"

    "Puppy..?" Bandit asked, thinking of the large tracks. "You were being chased by a dog? Or a wolf?"

    "I almost caught it-nii~!" Nia protested, throwing her arms down to her sides. "Then someone whistled and it ran away again-nii~!"

    Yuffie looked at Bandit, both of them wondering what this could mean. "Someone calling for a pet way out here..?"

    Bandit frowned. It could be coincidence, but... "Do you think it could be the Cloud girl?"

    The girl turned her grey-violet eyes toward Nia. "Well, she did say it last night: 'she fights like Kiba.'"

    Wincing at the thought -- the girl had been devastating on her own -- Bandit nonetheless rushed back over to the tracks, trying to see where they went. There was so much relatively loose dirt underneath the trees that the tracks were easy to follow.

    "So, what's the plan, then?" Yuffie asked, a half-grin on her face in anticipation. "Run back and get Mune and the others? Or look into it ourselves?"

    Bandit looked back and forth. Running back for Mune-sensei would be the sensible thing to do, but on the other hand... this could be her chance to redeem herself after last night's embarrassment. She could even settle the score. Wouldn't her dad be proud of her?

    Yuffie's grin was widening as she watched Bandit, already guessing what she'd say. Nia beamed nearby, happy to go wherever her friends went.

    "Let's go," Bandit announced, feeling a twinge of excitement. The three girls turned, Yuffie leading, to chase after the canine and its mysterious master.

    Ahead there was a vague munching sound, coming from behind a ring of tall bushes. Holding back her groan, Bandit couldn't help but rub her empty tummy.

    The long-haired genin crept slowly up to the line of bushes. Above, Yuffie inched along in the branches. The two girls strained their ears, trying to hear anything else past the chewing, gulping noises.

    Yuffie, standing on the thin end up a branch, reached out tentatively to part some of the leaves in front of her. Bandit looked at her questioningly, but Yuffie shook her head. Not Aisha? Bandit thought, disappointed. Maybe there was still a connection. Bandit realized that Yuffie was waving to get her attention and looked back up.

    The brown-haired girl brought two fingers up and adjusted her forehead protector, looking at Bandit meaningfully. A ninja? Bandit nodded up at her. Aisha or not, they needed to find out what was going on.

    Gripping two kunai loosely, Bandit took a breath to steady herself. The way the bushes ringed the area, it was unlikely that the girl could slip through the branches silently. Especially not with the big dog in there. Better to make a quick entrance if a silent one wasn't an option.

    Bandit's arms snapped forward, slicing through the largest braches in her way before leaping through the created opening. She gasped in surprise as the bright sunlight hit her, dazzling her after so long in the perpetual shade. As her vision quickly returned Bandit swept the area to see what she was getting into.

    There was a kid lying on his stomach wearing dark shorts and a sleeveless white shirt. He had short but bushy red hair, and a light copper complexion. Barefoot, the kid's heels knocked together as he turned away from what he was doing to look at Bandit curiously.

    Then she heard the growling.

    Bandit squealed in surprise as the huge dog, teeth gnashing, rushed toward her. It was bigger than she was! Desperate to get out of its way, she stumbled backward, falling flat on her rear.

    "Puppy-nii~!" Nia cried out happily. The dog let out a yelp as Nia bowled it over from the side, hugging its neck.

    Staring in shock at the scene, Bandit was amazed that Nia wasn't torn to pieces.

    "Hii~!" the red-headed kid called out -- in a decidedly girlish voice -- and made Bandit jump again. She turned to see the girl sitting up with her legs crossed, grinning at her. She had bright amber-colored eyes.

    "Who are you?" Yuffie asked, hopping down from the tree branch. Now that Bandit could get a better look, she saw that the tight black shorts had a purplish tint to them. The sleeveless shirt was both too small, cutting off just above her stomach, and too large, hanging loosely on her very-thin frame. She had a pair of goggles hanging around her neck.

    She also had a bandana hung around her neck, underneath the goggles.

    "Edward!" she replied cheerfully. "Ed's a cryptographer from Uzu!"

    "Uzu-nii~?" came a bemused question from the side. Bandit was wondering the same thing.

    "Yeah," she replied, nodding, "Right! So what are your names, anyway?"

    Bandit looked at her incredulously, wondering what was going on. "I'm Nia-nii~!" the orange-haired genin eagerly replied.

    "The great ninja Yuffie!"

    Following their lead, Bandit hesitantly opened her mouth and then looked away. "My name is Bandit," she said softly.

    "Bandit?" the girl asked, a weird look on her face. Bandit nodded, fearing she would make fun of the name, but the strange girl only quirked her mouth in thought. "I know!" she exclaimed, "I'll call you Hito!"

    Bandit blinked. Where did that come from? "Why?" she asked tersely.

    The girl rolled backwards and came up standing on her hands. Bandit's eyebrows raised in surprise as the gangly redhead hand-walked over to her, grinning. "'Hito' is like 'Bandit,' only neater!" she explained.

    "Huh?"

    Yuffie broke in from the side. "You said your name was Ed..? Isn't that a bo--?"

    "Ed is short for Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV!" Ed replied, still smiling. "Ed made it up, you know." The redhead, still standing on her hands, waved her bare feet at them. "Nice to meet you!"

    From the side, the big dog barked, making Bandit jerk reflexively. "Ed forgot about Ein!" she exclaimed, rolling back to her feet, and then walking weirdly over to the huge animal. "Ein helps protect Ed," she told them with a grin, leaning down to pat the dog's head.

    "Protect you from what?" Bandit asked, trying to figure out what was going on. She still didn't believe in coincidences, but... this didn't seem at all relevant to the strange Cloud-nin.

    "From... anything," Ed replied as if it wasn't important. Bandit huffed with exasperation.

    Nia was standing over the spot where Ed had been laying down. "What's that-nii~?" she asked.

    Ed turned toward her, a proud smirk on her face as she gave a short hop and then rolled straight over to the open box. "Ed likes to draw maps of new places!" she explained.

    Bandit got to her feet and walked over to take a look. The wooden box opened like a suitcase, with a thick stack of papers in the bottom half. The upper half held several drawing implements. Ed eagerly picked up the top sheet to show to them.

    Noticing the sheet beneath it, Bandit reached down to pull out the lower sheets. "May I?" she asked, getting an eager affirmative.

    The map was incredibly detailed. Looking at some of the landmarks, Bandit recognized it as the area northeast of them. Trees, hills, rivers... everything was drawn on the map with bright colors. If not for the cute yellow smiley faces at random places on the paper, Bandit would never have believed this strange girl had drawn them.

    She looked at the next sheet, but didn't recognize it. Flipping to the one behind that, she saw that it showed part of the outer boundary of the Land of Fire, although it wasn't marked that way on the map. Bandit looked over at Ed curiously. That part of the border was about due north from the first sheet in her hands.

    "Are these in order?" Bandit asked, interrupting Ed who was still explaining parts of the newest map to Yuffie and Nia.

    Ed nodded, crawling over toward Bandit. "Ever since leaving home."

    Yuffie prodded the girl's shoulder. "What's a ninja from...Uzu... doing out here?" she asked suspiciously.

    "Ninja?"

    Reaching forward, Bandit lifted the bandana from behind Ed's goggles. "We can see your forehead protector," she pointed out, even as she stared curiously at the symbol engraved in it.

    A sad look crossed Ed's face, then, but disappeared just as quickly. Holding up the bandana still tied behind her neck, Ed smiled. "This was Ed's brother's. Ein has one, too." Bandit and Yuffie both looked over; Nia, giggling as she pet the dog, nodded and turned the dog's scarf to show the metal plate with the same swirling symbol.

    Having seen the look that crossed her face, Bandit didn't ask where her brother was.

    "Ed was told to find the village hidden in the leaves, and to trust Ein. Brother wanted Ed to find aunt Kushi there." The girl dropped the headband back down.

    Yuffie frowned, as if thinking.

    "Where did you come from..?" Bandit wondered out loud. "Where is this Uzu place?" Bandit lifted up the maps again, intending to backtrack through the papers.

    "Well isn't this lovely?" a man's voice grated sourly from behind. The girls all turned sharply, stunned by the sight of a man covered in blood-red clothing forcing his way through the ring of bushes.

    Taking a look at the four girls in front of him, the man spat his disgust. Looking up at the sky, he growled, "Who in heaven or hell did I piss off this morning?" The sarcasm practically dripped from his words. Slowly, he lowered his head back down.

    Bandit felt her knees go weak as his dark eyes passed over her from behind his stringy hair.

    The sunlight flashed red from the tip of the blade in his hand.
    Last edited by swaswj; 09-09-2012 at 12:43 PM.

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    Chapter Eight

    "Aisha!"

    The girl turned, fumbling to catch the tiny brown pill. She raised an eyebrow curiously at Neith. "Soldier pill," he told her, still leaning against the tree. "Or food pill, depending on who's talking. Haven't you had one before?"

    Her eyebrows drew forward. "I know what a soldier pill is! I'm wondering why you're giving me one!"

    The red-head shrugged. "I could be sarcastic and say something like, 'the sooner we finish, the sooner we get rid of you,' but what would be the point?" He frowned, looking aside. "I just felt like you needed one... or maybe that I owed it to you."

    Aisha opened her palm and looked at the small pill curiously. They were hard to make, so they were expensive... or for most rogue ninja, without village connections, rare. After all she'd been through, she couldn't deny that the pill would be more appealing than dried rations and hours of exhaustion, but could she really allow herself to trust these two?

    Reese looked as amazed as Aisha, though, so she supposed it was just about Neith.

    Letting out a huff of frustration, Neith moved from the tree, arms crossed over his chest. He turned to walk away. "If you don't want it, then throw it away." Neith paused. "Maybe I just wanted you to know that our entire village isn't like him."

    It took her a second to remember that Neith and Serim were rogues from the same village. "I already knew that you were different," she told him, "and I don't care at all about your village." If she was lucky, she'd never have to go there. "But... thank you," she told him, uncomfortably.

    Neith uncrossed his arms and continued on his way, back still turned. "Why are you with him?" Aisha asked, suddenly. Embarrassed, she changed the question. "I mean, why aren't you still in your village?"

    The red-head turned around, his head down in thought. "I'm with him... I guess because we left at the same time." He paused for a long moment. Aisha finally decided he wasn't going to answer the second part.

    "I don't really want to talk about it," he told her honestly. "I did something that would have made Serim proud." Neith lifted an eyebrow. "That says enough."

    Aisha stared in surprise, unable to reconcile the two images: volatile and unpredictable Serim with calm and efficient Neith. She wanted to ask more, wanted to figure out how that was possible. If she did, though, she might have to answer the same about herself.

    "It does," she agreed. Aisha tossed the pill up and caught it. "Thank you," she said again, gratefully. "A Kuranran always repays her debts," Aisha promised, giving him a look that brooked no argument.

    "Touching as all this is," Reese muttered, "shouldn't we be finding that Uzu kid?"

    __

    "Hii~!"

    A vein over his eye twitched at the cheerful greeting. Bandit stared sidelong at Ed, wishing she could yell at her to shut up. The red-garbed man's oily gaze moved from one to the next.

    Unfazed, Ed asked, "So, what's your name?"

    "Konoha's newest generation of cloth-wringers?" he asked distastefully, ignoring the question.

    A deep growl started up, and Bandit felt reassured by Ein's presence. Glancing over, she saw Nia crouched down fearfully on the other side of the bristling dog.

    The sinister man tilted his head, as if curious. "What's this?" he asked, mock surprise in his voice. "Being surrounded by so many boxes makes you think you got some balls hidden back there?" Ein began barking furiously in between the growls, baring his fangs.

    Bandit felt a chill run down her spine. Before Bandit even realized he moved, Nia let out a terrified squeak. Her eyes widened, seeing the red-clothed man's curvy blade pressed up against Nia's throat. Down on one knee, not even looking at Nia, the man had his face pressed right into the dog's snarling visage, grinning wickedly. "Let's see them," he whispered, venom filling his words.

    Bandit fell to her knees, disbelieving. Wisely, fearfully, Ein ceased his growling.

    Nearby, Ed stood stock still, staring in shock. The man's eyes turned to her, the grin widening.

    "Please... stop this-nii~," Nia pleaded quietly, her lip trembling.

    There was a loud smack, followed by a shriek of pain.

    "Nia!" Bandit and Yuffie shouted in unison.

    The man was standing back on his feet, trembling uncontrollably with wrath. Nia, sobbing with pain, clutched at her face. "No one told you to speak!" he shouted. "Keep your worthless tongue still! That means now!" he growled, as Nia tried to quiet her sobs.

    "If you can't keep that mouth shut, then put it to better use," he snarled. The man crouched down and snatched up a fistful of Ed's maps. "Are these your papers?" he demanded, pointing his kunai at her. "Answer!"

    "No!" Nia squeaked out.

    Immediately, he spun on Yuffie. Her usual fire gone, Yuffie quickly put up her hands defensively. "They're not mine!" she protested. No sooner than the words left her mouth, the man drove his knee into her stomach.

    Ein's growl returned full-force, but before the dog could take a step, he met the man's dark gaze. Ein, whimpering, tucked his tail between his legs.

    Yuffie fell down to her knees, coughing and gasping wetly. "You'll speak when spoken to!" the man shouted. He grabbed her hair and yanked her head up. "Name!" he demanded.

    Eyes tightly shut, the girl gasped out, "Yuffie!" Bandit trembled, wanting to save her friend. Her fingers twitched as she tried to summon the courage to grab a weapon, to stand up, just to stop shaking. The terror was paralyzing, though.

    Yanking harder on her hair, holding her up on her tiptoes, he asked again. "Are those your papers?"

    "No!" Yuffie shouted, a little defiance creeping into her tone. Disinterested, he threw her to the ground and turned around.

    Bandit numbly tried to scoot backward as his dreaded gaze fell over her. Her eyes felt watery as the blood-cloaked man stalked over toward her. His fingers locked around her throat, tightening, lifting her up from the ground.

    Her eyes widened in terror and she gasped for air. His fingers tightened even more and she felt her feet leaving the ground. Bandit kicked desperately, trying to find a foothold, but the grip only got tighter and the edges of her vision turned black.

    "Name?" he asked, grinning again, his soulless eyes burning into her own. Bandit gasped desperately, trying to answer, trying to squeeze out a syllable, anything. She couldn't.

    He knew it.

    The girl clutched futilely at his vice grip, trying to pry his fingers apart. His grin only grew darker as the pounding of blood in her ears grew louder.

    "Leave Hito alone!" she heard vaguely, as if from a long way off. Distantly, she felt a hard thud as she hit the ground, but was more concerned with sucking in a deep breath. Each gasp hurt her lungs, but Bandit kept sucking them in desperately, the pounding in her ears slowly fading away.

    She heard Ed shouting, and looked over to see the man's wavy kunai tickling the edge's of Ed's throat. "Edward Wong H--!" She cut short in a brief shriek as the man turned and sauntered away. Ed clutched at her throat, her amber eyes filled with pain as a light trickle of blood flowed down from her neck.

    "Nia, Yuffie, Hito, Edward..." the man muttered, tapping his blade against his finger in a pose of mock thoughtfulness. "Something about those names just seems wrong!" he said, pretending to be shocked.

    The three genin each watched fearfully from the ground, with Edward the only one still on her feet.

    "It appears that I made a grave mistake, and should apologize copiously for any discomfort I've caused here," he went on sarcastically, walking among them in a circle. "Unless..." he said, drawing out the word. That cold dread washed through Bandit again.

    The man turned a slow circle, still tapping his knife against his finger. "Unless," he repeated, his voice lowering into a threatening growl, "one of you happened to be lying to me." He shook his head. Instead of sarcasm, his words carried no less than the weight of contempt. "No, no, to suggest such vilification of the fairer sex is surely...insanity," he said coldly, emphasizing the last word.

    He whirled on Edward, the only one still standing, crossing the ground to her in an instant, catching the shoulder of her shirt before her knees could collapse beneath her. With the blade waving in front of her eyes, he growled. "What's your name!"

    "Ed... Edw--!" the girl stammered. She whimpered as the tip of the kunai dug into the skin over her eye. Bandit struggled to move, to speak, but the image of that wicked kunai ripping into her had her frozen. Tears ran down her eyes as she tried to act.

    "I asked for your name!" the man yelled, trembling with fury. "We can find harder things than truth to pass those lips!" he growled, the cold steel blade of the kunai twisting for emphasis, sending small rivulets of blood trailing down to her eyes as she squealed in pain.

    "Oh..?" the man mumbled, interested. The sadistic grin only grew wider as his blade trailed down to Ed's neck, lifting the goggles up slightly. "Not from Konoha," he laughed sadistically, "eh Fra--?"

    Unable to take it anymore, Bandit summoned up the courage and shouted, "Bandit!" The man turned to her sharply, his dark gaze feeling as if it would steal her very soul. "My name is Bandit," she whispered fearfully, "not Hito!"

    Nothing prepared her for the wrath that suddenly poured out of him. His face twisted grotesquely as a blood-curdling rage-filled growl poured through his tightly gritted teeth. "You shiftless, unprincipled, dishonest little guttersnipe! You would dare to shower your filth, your lies, on me!"

    She was going to die.

    There was no doubt of that now. She wasn't even the one who said it, but that wouldn't matter to him. Bandit desperately reached behind herself, but she couldn't scoot away any further, couldn't even try to escape. She watched hopelessly as the man stormed slowly toward her, his face nearly as red as his clothing, his knuckles shining white on the handle of his kunai.

    She was going to die.

    Bandit's entire body trembled. It couldn't have taken more than a few seconds, but each thundering step taken felt like a lifetime. Distantly, she could hear her friends screaming for her, even that scary dog was barking, but all she could see was those dark eyes full of hate and disgust, filled with wrath so far out of proportion to reality. She closed her eyes against the madness of it all.

    She was going to die.

    Bandit thought about the brief few weeks she'd had as a real ninja, of the fun times she had with Nia and Yuffie. She thought of the years at the Academy, thought about that boy she had a crush on but never had the courage to talk to. She thought about her dad and her little brother and sister, and all the things she never said to them.

    She opened her eyes, tears rolling down her cheeks, looking up at the embodiment of death standing right over her. He pulled his arm across his chest, the beginnings of a dramatic underhanded slash. She thought of how much she had done... but how much she still had left to do. The muscles in his upper arm jerked as the downward stroke began, impossibly fast.

    She was going to die.

    Bandit lunged forward, just as impossibly fast. As the blade whipped through the air a fraction of an inch behind her, she brought her arm around and slammed her own kunai through the back of his knee, the tip stabbing through at an angle.

    She knew she was going to die, and that made it easier to do what needed to be done. The man, reflexively, grabbed her hair before she could even begin to run, even as he fell to one knee. He never cried out in pain, but she saw it mixed in with the burning wrath in his eyes. Despite it all, Bandit smiled.

    "Run!" she yelled at the others. He wasn't incapacitated, he wasn't helpless, but there was no way he could chase them now.

    Just because she was going to die didn't mean they all had to.

    Understanding lit up in his eyes. In the calm center of her acceptance, smiling for the chance she gave the others if not herself, she couldn't even hear his words, even as he practically foamed at the mouth.

    That wicked blade came down again, and Bandit closed her eyes.
    Last edited by swaswj; 09-09-2012 at 12:43 PM.

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    Chapter Nine

    "Run!" she yelled again, eyes shut tight against the specter of death looming before her.

    Please, she prayed to whoever might be listening, let my friends get away from this devil!

    Bandit screamed as a burning pain shot through her.

    ___

    Staring aimlessly at a rocky outcropping, Xaki paused. It wasn't the same, but it was similar enough. It was enough, after his recent run-in, to get his blood boiling again.

    Xaki groaned as he rose back to his feet, Kuhn's arm over his shoulders. The genin didn't protest, scanning about warily for their pursuers. Reaching down with his free hand, Xaki gingerly touched at the deep gash through his Chuunin vest. With Kuhn's broken leg, they'd be in bad straits indeed if it came to a fight.

    Hearing something, Xaki quickly spun around, causing Kuhn to gasp sharply. There was a confident laugh as they stared at the black-shrouded ninja in front of them. "Not very good at hiding, are you?" he asked, whipping out the same wicked, curved kunai that he'd used on Xaki earlier. The heavy hooded cloak made him seem all the more menacing.

    Xaki slowly lowered Kuhn to the ground and then settled into a fighting crouch. The ninja just laughed again as he circled them -- confident yet cautious. "You've lost too much blood now," the ninja mused. "Maybe you'd have had a chance if you hadn't run like a whipped dog."

    With a glance at Kuhn, Xaki said nothing at all. Team before pride. Taking a deep breath, Xaki lunged forward, nearly buckling as pain flared up in his wound. With a laugh, the ninja side-stepped the off-balance punch, slashing the side of the chuunin's wrist in the process.

    Xaki growled and attacked again, scoring a light hit but taking another cut. He continued circling around, attacking viciously but sluggishly. His body was giving out, he could tell. Regardless, he wouldn't give up this fight. It wasn't just his life on the line.

    Suddenly, the ninja darted forward, brushing aside Xaki's half-hearted attempts to block. Grinning wickedly under his hood, the enemy-nin pressed his face up to Xaki's, his blade nicking into his ribs. This was it, Xaki realized. He could smell the sickening garlic on his enemy's breath.

    Still, he glared back defiantly, too numb from the pain and the adrenaline to feel real fear. "See ya," the ninja whispered coldly, but then his eyes shot wide and he hissed. Shoving Xaki roughly to the ground, their enemy whirled rapidly. "Ohh, you'll regret that you little worm!" Dazed, Xaki saw Kuhn grinning on the opposite side, and a kunai handle embedded in their enemy's back.

    He wanted to congratulate Kuhn on getting in one strike. He wanted to return the favor, score a second hit. He wanted to defeat this guy and walk away from this place! He wasn't even sure he could stand back up.

    Without another word, the black-shrouded ninja lifted his curved kunai and hurled it at Kuhn's prone form. Xaki closed his eyes wearily, not wanting to see his teammate killed, see his failure. His bloodied fist pounded into the ground.

    A clang of metal rang through the air. Surprised, Xaki opened his eyes again, trying to process what he saw in front of him. Crouching protectively over Kuhn, Rena -- looking just as worn as the rest of them -- held a kunai out, having deflected the enemy's throw.

    In front of him, Mune stood. As Xaki watched, the jounin pulled his ninja-to blade out of the enemy's back, splashing a line of blood across the rocks. He let go of the black hood, allowing the body to fall to the ground.

    Gritting his teeth at the memory, Xaki slammed his fist into the tree in front of him. Instead of relief, all he had felt was anger. Even if he made it back in time... Mune-sensei had abandoned the team for the mission!

    How could he ever forgive that?

    A scream echoed through the trees then, and Xaki looked up.

    ___

    The burn seared across her front and burst outward, knocking her backward. Something hard slammed into her back, knocking the wind from her lungs.

    By the time Bandit caught her breath -- a breath she never thought she'd take -- she realized that she was moving. As soon as she opened her eyes, she was tossed roughly to the ground, rolling over once and stopping on her hands and knees.

    Dazed, confused, Bandit just stared at the grass underneath her hands.

    "Go!"

    Bandit turned around sharply at the sound of that voice.

    Red!

    Bandit looked incredulously at the red-clothed boy, his back toward her. She held up her hands and looked at them, then looked at Red again. "I should be dead," she told him, numbly. She should be!

    "Die later!" Red growled. "Run now!"

    "But..!" It was then that she finally noticed the dark-eyed man getting to his feet past Nanaki. Her voice cut short as she stared fearfully at that wrathful visage. The kunai was still stuck through his knee! He shouldn't be able to stand!

    What was he?

    "Go now!" Red yelled again.

    "None of you are going anywhere!" the sinister ninja growled from across the clearing, hands flying through several signs. "Fire Style!" his ominous voice echoed harshly in their heads as he pulled his head back, sucking in a deep breath. "Fireball Jutsu!"

    The clearing lit up in dark whorls of deep orange and red, an immense ball of licking flames roaring with monstrous ferocity. Bandit's eyes widened.

    Red was already forming handsigns before the rogue finished. "Fire Style!" he countered, his voice sounding pitiful against the cacophony of death coming toward them, "Fire Wall Jutsu!"

    The amber-eyed genin put both hands to the ground, calling up a pillar of sizzling flames. These, too, paled in comparison to the sheer raw power embodied by that sphere of destruction.

    But they were enough. As the fireball collided with the burning wall, it was deflected upward, not a lot, but enough. The immense burning sphere roared past, more than close enough to feel the waves of heat rolling off of it, and crashed into the branches of a tree behind them.

    Bandit, still dazed, felt two arms grab her from behind. "Time to go-nii~!"

    Try as she might, until Nia pulled her away, Bandit could not turn away from that dark gaze that haunted her, even past that wall of flames.

    ___

    "Come on, Nanaki!" Yuffie shouted. Red stared past his wall of flames, trying to match the gaze of their ominous assailant.

    Never breaking eye contact, Red waved a hand back at her. "Go! I'll catch up!" When she started to protest again, he cut her off. "Let me have this fight my way!"

    There was a brief pause, and then Yuffie yelled back, "You better not take too long!" He could hear her footsteps moving quickly away.

    "Get the others to safety, Yuffie," he said quietly. He wanted to turn and look at her one more time, but he didn't want to pull his eye away from the vicious rogue in front of him.

    More than that, though, he knew he could never get Yuffie away from here if she could see how terrified he was.

    The man walked slowly toward him, but there was no slip in his stride. Even though Red could see the kunai stabbed through his knee, the man showed no limp. Still, it had to be affecting him, or else he'd have chased after the others by now. He took another smooth stride forward. It had to be!

    If it wasn't, then Red was already as good as dead.

    "How brave," the man grated cynically, a half-smirk on his face. "Throwing your life away to save them! So...heroic."

    Red's eye narrowed. He was still a good fifteen feet away, with the fire wall burning strong between them. Would he go left? Or right?

    The man continued slowly, purposefully, forward. "And yet they were so quick to abandon you."

    Red frowned, trying not to let the man distract him. Still he couldn't help but respond. "They have faith in me," he said calmly, still watching intently. Left? Or right?

    The greasy-haired rogue's grin widened, mockingly. "Oh? You must be quite the exceptional jounin, then," he rasped, sarcastically. Red winced slightly at the admission of the rogue's level. Catching it, the man tilted his head. "No? Well, then surely you're an advanced Chuunin!" He laughed harshly, still moving inexorably forward.

    Red didn't respond, watching even more intently with every step forward. The flames flickered strongly, but he stared straight through them, watching the jounin's feet. Which way would he go?

    Whichever way he started to move, Red would go the other, running the complete opposite direction from the others. A fight was something he wanted to avoid at all costs. He's going to move, Red told himself, Don't you dare miss it! Which way would it be?

    "You're sweet on one of them, aren't you?" the man accused. "Was it the thick-headed one with the short hair? Yuffie..?" he asked tauntingly, before shaking his head. "No... surely if she had feelings for you, she would not have left so easily, without even a glance backward." Red tightened his knuckles. Another step forward.

    "The air-headed one, then..?" the man went on. "Probably the easiest of the bunch," he laughed. Red frowned at the implication. "But no... you're an upstanding young man! You're looking for more, aren't you?" Another step. He was no more than five feet from the fire wall.

    "Couldn't be the one who looks so much like your sister... or could it? Keep it in the family..?" the jounin asked, tilting his head. Red dropped his mouth in disgust, but quickly regained his composure. "No... and that leaves us with the most obvious of all: the tiny one, the one who looked like she was about to wet herself... or did she already?" Another step. Which way? "The one you saved at the cost of your own life."

    Red felt a cold wave of dread wash through him at that statement given so boldly, so calmly. The dark-eyed jounin stood right in front of the wall of flames now. Would he go left? Or right?

    The genin twitched as another possibility occurred to him. Or over?

    Which way..?

    "You hoped for a kiss..? A sweet embrace..?" the man's voice grated as he stared ominously through the waving flames. "Would it have been your first..?" he laughed harshly.

    Embarrassed, Red shot back, "Seems like more than you could have ever gotten."

    The man leaned forward, face almost touching the flames. "Thus am I the smarter of us two," he muttered coldly, sending a chill down Red's spine.

    Fearfully, Red pulled his eye away from those dark orbs, looking, watching, trying to catch the slightest movement, to figure out which way the jounin would go. Left? Right? Over? Under?

    Which way! Red thought frantically.

    Red's eye shot wide as the man moved his right hand straight through the flames. The flames curled around the skin, filling the air with the smell of cooking meat. There wasn't a wince, a flinch, even a twitch of the eye -- nothing but that cocksure grin, that arrogant, self-important smirk. Not the slightest cry of pain, even as Red watched the skin burning from his hands, as the crackling sound filled the air.

    Horrified, Red watched as the flames wrapped around the symbol on the metal plate on the back of his hand, the symbol of the Stone village with a jagged etch through it.

    The grin widened. "Like a summer breeze..." he said calmly, reaching forward and wrapping his cracked and bleeding hand around the boy's throat.

  12. #12
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    Chapter Ten

    The hand tightened on his throat, streams of smoke still rising from the crisp and blackened skin.

    Red could only stare in horror at the sinister eyes that showed no hint of pain or of fear. He could feel the cracked, bleeding skin pressing tightly against his throat, still burning hot.

    Beyond the searing, dancing flames, those eyes stared back calmly, displaying no emotion beyond sadistic amusement. The sheer malevolence in those eyes had Red frozen stiff, as the flames still curled around the rogue's arm, as the hand tightened on his throat, as his lungs cried out for air.

    The hand began pulling him forward, into the waiting flames.

    __

    "Follow me as quickly as you can!" Mune shouted at Tyger and Kazuki, looking worriedly at the rising smoke in the distance. "I can't afford to pace myself for you."

    The two genin nodded their understanding and Mune bolted off.

    A Fireball jutsu, he was sure of it. No genin should be able to do that -- it was still a surprise that the Uchiha from the year before had been able to do so.

    The situation's scope had suddenly gotten much more dangerous. Where in the world were Bikuta and Hyuuga?

    __

    Bandit fell to her knees, still shaking uncontrollably. Nia immediately started to help her back up again, while Ed and Ein both paused in their flight.

    Yuffie, grabbing Bandit's other shoulder, was looking back the way they came. Bandit shook her head, terrified, knowing what she was about to say.

    "Keep going," Yuffie said irritably. "I'm gonna go kick his butt for taking so long."

    "No, don't!" Bandit cried out, grabbing her arm.

    Nia, likewise, grabbed her other arm. "Stay with us-nii~!"

    Ed chimed in from behind. "Yuffie-chan should not go back that way. Ed knows somewhere we can hide!"

    Yuffie angrily shook her arms free from her teammates, knocking Bandit to the ground in the process. The girl looked at her guiltily, but didn't offer an apology as she took a step back. The grey-eyed girl pulled out her folded fuuma shuriken, one in each hand. "I'm not going to fight," she assured them half-heartedly. "I can't keep going without knowing Nanaki's alright, though." Yuffie looked down and added, "He didn't even look my way before we ran."

    With that, the girl shook her head and ran back the way they came.

    Bandit stared blankly as the lithe girl shrank in the distance. "Yuffie..." she whispered incredulously, her eyes starting to water. She tried to will her legs to stop trembling, but that evil smile, that bloodlust, those eyes... she couldn't shake it.

    Nia looked worriedly at Bandit, then at their departing teammate and back again. "Bandit-nii~..." she whined uncertainly.

    Those eyes!

    __

    "The people you were fighting with..?" Reese asked uncertainly, looking at the flames through the trees.

    Aisha shook her head, knowing who it really was. "One of them used a fire technique, yes. You both know better who caused this one." She growled in frustration then threw the brown pill in her mouth and crunched down hard on it. Immediately, Aisha could feel some strength returning to her body. The girl gasped in a few deep breaths, stretching her still-sore muscles, and then looking over at the distant flames again.

    "You're going?" Neith asked, raising an eyebrow. He crossed his arms over his brown shirt, giving the still-weary girl a critical look.

    Aisha patted his spiky red hair teasingly. "You boys can stay here. I'll bring back the Uzu girl for you and then you can get out of my sight." Flashing a quick grin, she turned and started running, trailing her long white ponytail out behind her, green eyes glowing eagerly.

    Behind her, she could hear Neith shouting in surprise, and then both of them were running after her. She grinned wider.

    Aisha needed a second chance at that girl. These guys had helped her get this far, but now she needed them out of the way. If that meant she needed to give everything to capture the target, then she would.

    The Kuranrans were an honorable warrior family. No matter how much she disliked or despised her allies... she would not become a traitor.

    Not for anyone.

    __

    With a burst of black smoke, the wall of fire extinguished just before it could touch Red's skin.

    The boy looked fearfully into the rogue's eyes as a sadistic grin spread across the man's face. Red looked, terrified, at the burnt and charred skin of the man's hand and forearm.

    "Quick thinking," the man congratulated him sarcastically. "Abandon your defense before it consumes you." He loosened his death grip on the wide-eyed boy's throat just slightly, but enough for Red to take a breath.

    Staring incredulously at the still-smoking skin, the lines of blood visible past the charred flesh, Red shook his head in denial. "An illusion..!" he whispered loudly, certain that it could not be possible any other way, that no human could intentionally hurt themselves like that and not even blink.

    "An illusion?" the man mocked. Red tried prying the man's hand open, but though he could feel all the burnt skin under his hands, he could not budge the damaged fingers. With horror, Red realized that his hands were now covered in the bloody black soot. Instead of wincing or screaming in pain, the man laughed, amused.

    The laughs quickly went from humor to hatred, though, a range that unnerved the genin that little bit more. "An illusion..?" he repeated. "Like peace..? Like happiness..?" His voice grated angrily, varying wildly from sarcastic to pure anger. Red gasped for breath as the rogue's fist clenched and unclenched seemingly randomly.

    "Like the sweet words of a cherished one..? Like the dreams whispered softly in an ear under the stars..?" Wrath coursing through his words, the rogue-nin put his face right into Red's, grinning wildly, his dark eyes wide open and devoid of sanity. "Like the promises of eternal love..?" he spat out viciously.

    Violently, the man growled and threw Red. As he slammed roughly into the tree trunk, Red was engulfed by waves of heat and smoke. It was the same tree that he'd deflected the fireball into. The genin gasped desperately for air, lowering his face down near the ground to get beneath the smoke.

    A hand snatched at his hair, lifting him back up into the choking clouds of smoke. Speaking clearly, undeterred by the burning air around them, the rogue growled straight into his ear. "You have not yet learned what real illusions are."

    Red coughed and hacked as the insidious coils burned into his lungs, the smell and taste almost like charcoal clogging his mouth and nose. The genin struggled desperately to escape, to get away or low enough to breathe.

    The man laughed coldly. "Maybe I'll spare you from that lesson."

    __

    "Aisha! Slow down!" Reese yelled after the girl futilely. Grumbling, he hefted his heavy blade over his shoulder and chased after her. His red-headed companion had a smooth gait, but was running more desperately. Reese rolled his eyes and chuffed in disdain.

    Neith was making a mistake. Again.

    Reese knew it would come back to bite him, but he didn't plan to stop the rogue genin. This was something Neith would have to see for himself. But Reese would at least bail him out -- he owed his partner that much.

    "She's fast!" Neith complained as the two raced after the impetuous girl.

    "Run faster!" Reese replied. He could probably catch her himself, but he didn't want to overextend himself while carrying Monosugoi. It wasn't worth the trouble at the moment.

    "She's going to get herself killed!" Neith protested angrily, easily figuring out what Reese was thinking. The chuunin didn't respond, just kept pacing his ally. Neith huffed angrily but then started running faster after the girl who was already fading away past the trees.

    Suddenly, another figure flew past, crossing in front of Aisha and darting away so fast Reese had barely seen him. But he did see him, saw the vest, the sword, the flash of red hair. Stunned, Reese and Neith stopped in their tracks. "A jounin..?!" Reese whispered in surprise, more than a little unnerved by the sight of an elite Konoha ninja -- especially one carrying a ninja-to, one of the trademark weapons of the Leaf Village's ANBU black ops!

    Aisha kept right on running, bouncing lightly over a small creek in front of her. Neith looked over at Reese and then started to run forward again when two more figures nearly ran right into him, following in the path of the jounin. A younger boy and girl, one with dark hair and skin, the other with light hair and skin. The light-haired boy had a katana across his back.

    Reese, stunned, rushed forward in-between them and Neith. "Back off," he growled, his sword still hanging behind his shoulder.

    "Move out of the way!" the girl replied. Her eyes looked fiery behind her glasses, and her hand inched down toward her weapon pack on her thigh.

    "More rogue-nin," the blond one remarked, moving into a defensive posture, his long blue vest flaring out.

    Reese turned to look at Neith, who was watching anxiously in the direction that Aisha disappeared in. He sighed inwardly before a determined grin spread across his face. The rogue chuunin of the Village Hidden in the Mist lifted his eyes to match stares with the two Konoha brats, particularly the blond with the sword.

    "Go on, Neith," he said, pulling the heavy, four-foot-long Monosugoi over his shoulder, brandishing it in front of himself. "I can handle this."

    His companion shook his head, reaching down to grab one of his weapons. "No way, man."

    Reese's grin widened. Maybe Neith's head was still in the right place after all. "I said go!" he repeated. "I need this," he told his comrade, "and you're no good to me if you keep looking off to the right! So go!"

    "But... thanks," Neith replied quietly, before he rushed off after Aisha, splashing through the creek.

    "Bold," the blond one remarked. "Two against one, though?"

    "My name is Reese Sokkenai," he told them, eyes shining with his eagerness, holding his sword out in front of himself in both hands. "Former Chuunin of the Village Hidden in the Bloody Mist."

    The two Konoha kids' eyes widened. "You should have brought a few more," Reese told them coldly.

    __

    "Hey there, dollface." She looked up, then looked around, not really sure if the man was speaking to her. The tall visitor was wearing loose black pants and a cool blue long-sleeved shirt.

    He was smiling straight at her.

    Bandit wished he was here now, as she huddled on the ground, shaking. Her best friend was running off into danger, with Nia and the redheaded girl staying out in the open because of her. She was just a burden to all of them, especially cowering in fear like this.

    He had grown his hair longer, but he was still wearing the same shirt. Even so, she couldn't remember where she knew him from until... "How's it going down there, dollface?" The girl blushed and smiled shyly up at him.

    This time he stayed and talked even longer.

    Bandit couldn't believe how torn she was inside. She desperately wanted to prove herself, to show that she was strong, to make him proud. Yet, she had never wanted so much to scream out for him, to call for him to save her, to protect her.

    She grinned happily every time he came to see her. Nobody ever made her feel as special as he did. They'd sit and talk, or he'd go on walks with her. Every time he'd be wearing that same blue shirt, even when it was really too warm for it.

    And always that silly nickname, "dollface."

    Bandit felt so inadequate, kneeling there, still quivering in terror. What would he think if he saw her like this? ... He would probably sweep her up in his arms and hug her, and tell her everything would be alright. He would make everything right. She really wanted him to.

    "Hey dollface," he said with a teasing grin. She jumped up and hugged his knee, happy to see him again. He crouched down to get closer to her eye level and pulled back his blue sleeves. His smile seemed even wider than normal. "Do you like sushi?" She looked at him blankly, making him laugh.

    "I hope you'll try it at least, since my wife is going through so much trouble to make it." Her eyes widened, wondering if... "You wouldn't want to upset your mother, would you?"

    She hugged him so fiercely that he fell to the floor, laughing.

    Bandit hugged herself desperately, trying to stop the chills, the shaking, the trembling. The genin needed someone else's arms, though. Arms that could smother her in warmth, that could make all the pain fade away. Arms she could fall into and feel safe.

    Her arms were so tired from hugging that she could barely lift them. A mother, a baby brother and sister, dogs and a little ferret. She stared up at the ceiling of her new room, a stuffed animal held to her chest.

    He walked in, stretching a little in his unclasped blue shirt. He reached down to gently brush back her hair. "Sweet dreams, dollface."

    Tears rolled from Bandit's eyes as she kneeled there, ignoring the distant words from the two girls with her. She couldn't shake that paralyzing fear, and hated herself for being so weak. Why couldn't she be as strong as him? As brave as him?

    She had to ask him. Her curiosity could not be contained any more. He laughed quietly. "Why so interested, dollface?" He grinned and pulled on the collar of the blue shirt, his smile getting softer.

    "My mom's mom made this," he said, "for my older brother." He looked at her. "He passed it on to me."

    Bandit opened her eyes, looking down at her hands on the ground, the sleeves hanging down in the dirt. Shocked, she lifted her hands up, turning them towards herself, seeing the dirt and scrapes on her palms.

    She could not hold back her excitement, and neither could he hold back his pride. She had graduated! He scooped her up in his arms, spinning her around in a circle. She smiled up at him, embarrassed, and then her eyes widened.

    "I think," he said, unclasping the buttons near his shoulder, "it's about the right time now." She blinked in surprise as he threw the blue shirt around her shoulders. "Wear it proudly," he told her as he fixed the buttons on the oversized shirt, "daughter."

    Tears formed in her eyes. "I will," she promised, throwing her arms around him again, "father!"

    Bandit stared for a moment then shook her head furiously. The genin quickly brought up both arms and wiped the tears from her eyes. She jumped unsteadily to her feet, patting the dirt off on her capris.

    Nia and Ed looked at her expectantly, wondering what she was going to do. Bandit looked at them, trying to justify her reasoning. Ed wasn't a combatant, she needed to be taken somewhere safe. Nia and Bandit were both genin, very new ones.

    So were Yuffie and Red.

    The dark-eyed man was nothing less than a jounin, an experienced and deadly one.

    There was nothing to justify her decision.

    "I won't let Yuffie go back by herself!" she announced with determination, pulling her sleeves back. She turned back the way they came, and an icy cold dread washed through her again. She forced it down, thinking of her best friend and the amber-eyed boy that saved her life.

    "I'm coming, too-nii~!"

    Bandit nodded, sniffing once and then rushing off without another word. If the red-headed girl could get to safety, that would be wonderful, but that wasn't her immediate concern.

    She had to protect her friends, or how could she ever look her father in the eyes again when he smiled at her?

  13. #13
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    Chapter Eleven

    The air grew tense around them as the two genin faced off against the chuunin. The two from Konoha lightly trembled, whether from anticipation or fear, while the one from the Mist faced them confidently, unflinching.

    Kazuki tried to size him up, taking in his tan pants, the blue and white splotched shirt, the huge sword. With blue-dyed bangs hanging in front of his face, the chuunin was grinning eagerly, a glint of excitement in his eyes. The ash blond-headed genin looked at his teammate.

    Tyger was trembling softly, but he could see her holding a kunai in one hand, slowly spinning it nervously. Or at least, that's how she liked it to appear. Kazuki grinned then turned his attention back to the rogue in front of them.

    "You could have just walked away," Kazuki commented, lifting his hand as if reaching for the katana strapped on his back. "We didn't have a quarrel with you."

    "Maybe I could have," the chuunin, Reese, replied. A slight frown marred his confident grin briefly. "Maybe I feel like I owe you for what happened to Aisha." The former Mist-nin's grin returned full force. "Maybe I'm just itching for a good fight."

    So he is related to the white-haired girl, Kazuki thought to himself. Did that mean she really was rogue, even though she hadn't scratched out her headband?

    "Well that sucks," Reese commented dryly. Kazuki looked up sharply. "I'd hoped you knew how to use that thing."

    Miki Kazuki faked a confident grin. "I just haven't decided if I need to, yet."

    "Even if you could unsheathe it in that position, what would you do about that string?" Reese laughed. The hilt was tied to the sheath -- the katana couldn't be drawn unless the string were cut or untied, which Kazuki wasn't about to do. He hadn't expected the foreign ninja to recognize that so easily, though. "Ah well. Maybe that means mine will sit this one out." Arrogantly, the rogue chuunin lifted the heavy -- and blunt, Kazuki could now see -- blade and slammed it hard into the ground.

    In a way, Kazuki felt relief, but also a bit of frustration. He'd been planning on the sword and now he had to figure out how the enemy-nin would fight without it. Easier to predict a big, heavy weapon than an unarmed ninja. There were any number of ways to fight without a weapon.

    He looked at Tyger, noticing that her kunai was finished spinning. They were in bad shape for this fight, he knew. Most of their team strategies relied on Red to tie them together. Kazuki himself wasn't very good at taijutsu or weapons, and Tyger was good at avoiding attacks but not so good at giving them. She had some exploding tags, but they hadn't come prepared for a mission. How many more could she have? One or two? It would be foolish to carry around more than that just around Konoha.

    "Ahh!" Tyger yelped out as the rogue rushed at her with a vicious backhand that she narrowly avoided.

    "Hey!" Kazuki shouted. "What kind of coward are you?" Attacking a girl first? He pulled out a kunai and jumped at the older ninja.

    Reese grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm roughly behind his back before he could react then shoved him roughly at his dark-skinned teammate. Kazuki grunted in pain as they crashed into one another, but they managed to stay on their feet. The blond-headed genin shook his wrist out, stunned by how easily he'd been overtaken.

    "Coward?" Reese asked, holding up a kunai -- with an exploding tag wrapped around it. Tyger's hands were empty. He spun the kunai around a finger and then threw it high over his shoulder. He looked more pissed off than amused.

    Kazuki knew they were screwed.

    __

    "Let him go!"

    Yuffie could see the burning tree, the clouds of smoke rising into the sky and crawling over the ground. She could see the faint outline of the two figures past the smoke, the larger one holding up the smaller one. Rage in her eyes, Yuffie unfurled her two fuuma shuriken with a quick flick of her wrists and threw both of them as hard as she could.

    "Get your filthy hands off him!" she yelled for good measure.

    The rogue ninja snapped a hand out and caught one of her shuriken. Without a hint of hesitation, the jounin lifted his uninjured leg high and slammed the second spinning star to the ground with his heel. Yuffie growled under her breath, glaring and pulling out a kunai and a handful of throwing stars.

    The jounin leaned his shoulder back and turned his head to look at her.

    Even through the swirling coils of flame-lit, acrid smoke, Yuffie felt a deep chill course through her, even past the heat of the flames, even past the rage burning inside her.

    Denying her own fear, Yuffie threw the handful of shuriken and followed them with the kunai.

    The rogue dropped Nanaki roughly to the ground, where he laid completely still. Seemingly effortlessly, he spun the fuuma shuriken he'd caught, knocking aside all of the smaller shuriken. He turned to face her directly and began walking slowly out of the coiling smoke, straight toward her.

    Yuffie's eyes watered from seeing Red down on the ground, motionless. "I let him go," the rogue grated sarcastically as he moved forward, smoke breaking around him. The malevolence in that tone threatened to steal the rest of her strength away. "My dirty hands are off him," he went on, holding up one hand.

    The sight of the man's blackened right hand made the girl's stomach queasy.

    The dark figure stepped out of coiling tendrils, though the mass still twisted behind him. Smeared from head to toe in the noxious ash, with slight patches of the blood red leather showing past the blackness, the sinister rogue jounin flashed her a white-toothed grin. "So what now..?" he asked, idly spinning her fuuma shuriken.

    "Now you're going to get away from him and go away!" she demanded, her voice cracking as her vision grew more watery. Kunai gripped tightly in each fist, she had to struggle to resist the urges welling up in her, unable to decide if she should rush to Nanaki or try to kill the black-hearted rogue.

    Yuffie wished she wasn't alone.

    "What..? But I just got here...," he said with a harsh laugh.

    "Go to h... go to hell!" she screamed at him, knuckles white on the kunai handles.

    The rogue lifted his arm out, holding the fuuma shuriken straight out to his left. "But it's so much nicer here." He fixed her with a cold stare. "Are you sure I can't stay?"

    "Yeaghhh!" Yuffie closed her eyes and screamed as loud as she could before glaring at the evil man with the most determined stare she had. "Shadow Kunai Jutsu!" she yelled out throwing the two kunai in her hands, which soon multiplied into six. Yuffie reached behind her back, under her vest and pulled out her third fuuma shuriken, creating another illusionary copy and spreading out both arms as if she had two of them. Without announcing it, she executed a Demon Wind Shuriken and threw both arms out, six huge, whirling blades filling the air.

    Then she dashed straight for Nanaki's crumpled form.

    The harsh clang of metal filled the air, followed by three muffled thuds. Yuffie's eyes widened as her kunai and fuuma shuriken sank into the dirt right in her path. The girl narrowly jumped over large throwing star, turning the dive into a roll and yanking the blade from the grass.

    The smoke enveloped her then, hot and oily. Coughing once, Yuffie threw her forearm over her mouth and threw the shuriken hard with her other hand. All while still moving toward Nanaki's crumpled form.

    There was a dull, wet sound, but Yuffie ignored it, making the final dive to Nanaki. "Come on, come on!" she yelled desperately, tugging on his shoulders and coughing. "You can't die on me! Come on, get up!"

    "Aww... I didn't know you cared." Yuffie's eyes jerked wide in terror and she jumped back, scooting rapidly away on her rear. The dark form lifted its head, grinning white teeth showing even through the clouds of blackness. It wasn't... it was him! But then where..?

    "How..?" she asked, dumbfounded, hacking up another cough as the inky tendrils coiled around her.

    The rogue was drawing himself up to his feet, seemingly unperturbed by the noxious smoke. "You really should watch where you're throwing those things..." he remarked sarcastically.

    Yuffie thought of the wet impact she'd heard.

    Horrified, Yuffie turned, stumbling roughly to her feet and rushing out of the cloud of smoke. No, no, no, no, no... she protested silently trying to shove the awful clouds of burning ash out of her face. Yuffie felt a sharp crack in her shin and gasped as she tripped and went rolling forward.

    Her face pounded hard into the soft, cool grass and Yuffie greedily sucked up the untainted air while she struggled to untangle her limbs and get her feet back under her. She opened her grey-violet eyes... and a chill ran through her entire body.

    There was Red, laying flat on his back, soot-blackened clothes spread loosely over his body. He wasn't moving.

    Yuffie's fuuma shuriken stuck out of the center of his chest.

    Riveted to the spot, on all fours, Yuffie stared blankly at the spot, unwilling to believe her eyes.

    She was vaguely aware of the rogue lifting up one of the fuuma shuriken from the grass. She knew what was coming next, but it somehow didn't matter.

    "Oh, how unfortunate," the deep voice commented sarcastically. "That's why you shouldn't throw blindly. Tsk, tsk."

    Yuffie hung her head, unwilling to look, to watch the killing blow that she knew was coming.

    "Yuffie!"

    Bandit..? Yuffie opened her eyes, looking at the bright green grass under her.

    "Wind Petal Jutsu!" Bandit's voice cried out, suddenly right beside Yuffie, between her and the enemy. Stunned, Yuffie snapped her head to the side, seeing Bandit's over-sized blue shirt, arms stretched out in front of her. The air rippled lightly in front of the small girl's hands, and Yuffie saw her fuuma shuriken flying off to the side, knocked aside by Bandit's technique.

    "Bandit! But what about..?"

    "You're gonna get it now-nii~!" their other teammate shouted confidently. Yuffie looked upward, seeing the girl fly overhead in an orange blur, landing in the grass right in front of them and--! Falling flat on her face. "Nii...."

    "Aww, you all came back!" the rogue exclaimed with mock happiness. "Did you change into clean undies..?"

    "Bandit..!" Yuffie exclaimed, grabbing the back of her friend's shirt. "Red... he's... I...!" she started, trying to explain what happened.

    "Where is he?" Bandit interrupted her urgently.

    Yuffie's eyebrows raised. How could she not see his body right over..?

    It was gone. There was nothing but a jagged log lying there, split most of the way down the middle by her shuriken.

    The rogue jounin laughed harshly, thoroughly enjoying her pain and misery.

    "How could you..!?" Yuffie growled at him, making him laugh all the harder. She jumped to her feet and yanked the large throwing star out of the log. The three girls faced off against him, and although they each still trembled, none of them were planning to run. For his part, the jounin seemed thoroughly -- and sadistically -- amused by the entire thing, his white-toothed grin shining out from his soot- and blood-covered body.

    Nia threw out one paw-covered fist. "Where's Red-nii~!?" she demanded.

    The enemy-nin shrugged as if it didn't matter. "He wasn't to my tastes," he explained cryptically, eyes narrowing dangerously as his grin widened. "I prefer something... more tender."

    Yuffie shuddered involuntarily. What was that supposed to mean..? What happened to Red?

    "I wonder now," he asked, putting his good hand to his chin as if in thought. "Without his little fire technique, what would you do if I used another fireball..?" His eyebrows drew forward. "I do wonder, indeed."

    Flames still licking at the sky from the burning tree behind him, smoke curling around him and floating over the ground, he snapped his fingers. "I know how to find out!" he announced, sarcasm thick in his voice.

    No....

    "Please don't-nii~!" Nia exclaimed fearfully, waving both hands frantically.

    "Fire Style," the man's deep voice resonated through the air as he sucked in a deep breath, inhaling a fair amount of the dark ash.

    In front of her, Yuffie could see Bandit trembling visibly. The girl stood her ground, though, pulling the sleeves back from her hands. Will her techniques actually work..? We should just run away! No... then what about Nanaki?

    "Don't-nii~!" Nia cried out again. "Pretty please-nii~!"

    "Fireball Jutsu!" The rogue exhaled dramatically, searing flames pouring from his lips, coalescing into an enormous sphere of burning devastation.

    Yuffie desperately threw her shuriken into the massive flame. From behind it, the rogue jounin gave a heartless laugh, the chilling tone echoing through the air. Bandit stepped forward, throwing both arms in a twisting upward motion. "Wind Petal--!"

    Abruptly, the seething light coming off the ball of fire was cut off. Yuffie blinked in surprise, hardly having time to recognize the long dark blue coat before a deafening belch filled the air, drowning out even the roar of the whirling flames.

    Yuffie leaned to the side quickly, stunned to see the sphere of flames abruptly stop mid-air -- and then explode violently back in the opposite direction! The firestorm expanded beyond its previous size, the cacophonous explosion knocking all three girls from their feet.

    The torrent of flames rushed backward, a bellow of pain rising from the immolation before the flames snuffed out as abruptly as they appeared.

    Incredulously, Yuffie stared in awe up at their teacher before noticing the unexpected figure standing nearby.

  14. #14
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    Chapter Twelve

    "Sensei-nii~!" Nia shouted cheerfully, throwing her arms around the man's knees before the force of the blast even reached them.

    Bandit stared, amazed, at the tall jounin. If he hadn't shown up just then...

    "Where have you been!" Yuffie shouted. Bandit looked over, surprised to see what looked like tears in the girl's eyes. "You were just sitting there waiting so you could come in looking all cool, didn't you!" she accused loudly, shaking a finger at the jounin.

    Bikuta stood up straight, back still toward them. He roughly wiped an arm across his face then looked over his shoulder at them with a wide grin. "How'd you like that?" he asked gruffly, lifting a hand toward the new scorched lines of flames. The jounin sneered at Yuffie, tapping the jug on his belt. "Can't do that with water."

    Yuffie tried to glare at him, but it dissolved into a laugh. Bandit smiled, too, but her relief was tempered by worry. Something felt wrong and she wasn't sure what. The girl tried to smile brighter, wiping her face with her sleeves. Bikuta kneeled down, putting an arm around Nia and Yuffie, although Yuffie shrugged it off stubbornly.

    "You all were really brave, and I'm really proud of everything you did. Especially you, short stuff," he said, looking at Bandit. She felt her cheeks color. "But! Even though that was the coolest, bravest thing I've ever seen a genin try to do... next time, just get out of the way!" He rapped Yuffie in the head with his knuckles.

    Just get out of the way..? That uncertain feeling returned.

    "What took you so long-nii~!"

    Yuffie nodded and punched him in the stomach. "Yeah! And where's the Hyuuga dude?"

    The jounin shrugged. "It took a lot longer than I expected! You girls are fast! Besides, my companion here," he turned to indicate another girl behind him, not much older than them, "can't see quite as far as her dad."

    Bandit's eyes widened as she finally got a good look at the girl. She stood nervously behind the man, a little pigeon-toed. Her purple pants came to just below her knees, and over that she had a bulky tan jacket with a flame symbol on the shoulder. Bandit stared at the girl's short black hair and pretty round face while she shyly looked away pressing her index fingers together. Her eyes flicked briefly to meet Bandit's, a pale white-violet with no visible pupils.

    The red-eyed girl reached up self-consciously, covering the bandana around her neck. She was a little embarrassed to be wearing hers in the same fashion. Nia clapped her hands as if in sudden recognition. Yuffie blinked. "Ohh... Hyuuga dudette."

    Bikuta nodded. "Hinata Hyuuga," he said, introducing her. "Hiashi-dono sent her in his stead."

    "I'm pleased to meet you all!" Hinata announced in a breathy voice, bowing to them hurriedly.

    Yuffie turned around in a circle, urgency in her motions. "Wait, wait, if you defeated that guy, then any illusions of his should be gone, right..?" The smoke and flames in the area were all real enough, and something that couldn't go unattended for much longer.

    "Right," Bikuta replied guardedly, getting to his feet.

    Yuffie grabbed Bikuta's coat sleeve. "Then where's Nanaki?" she asked him, voice choking up.

    The jounin looked surprised, but couldn't offer an answer. "I... don't know," he told her, sympathetically. "What--?"

    "Defeated?" Bandit suddenly burst out, cutting him off. "Bikuta-sensei! When you did that fire burp thing, there was a scream! But he never even flinched before when we hurt him."

    The jounin looked like he wasn't sure whether to believe her. He started to say something, but Yuffie and Nia both realized the implications right away, looking around warily. Behind him, Hinata had closed her eyes and started doing several hand-signs. The jounin stood up straighter, fist tightening in anticipation.

    "Byakugan!" Hinata whispered out, opening her eyes to reveal an intense, scary look. Immediately the girl spun around, whipping her hands up in front of her. "Behind!" she cried out. Bikuta quickly rushed in front of the girl.

    "What a funny little technique," the dark-eyed man's voice muttered cockily, echoing across the grass. Bandit became aware of the flames now burning at their backs, feeling the heat more keenly despite being well enough away. She shivered, more from disgust than fear. The man laughed harshly and slowly raised himself from the grass only a few yards away, a disconcertingly smooth motion. His sinister chuckle grew louder as he rose up to his full height, head hanging until the last second when he jerked it upward. That self-assured grin was spread on his face. "Even the miniature Hyuuga can spot a jounin so easily?"

    "Get out of here, girls," Bikuta said quickly, throwing his arm out to the side as he faced the shorter man. The Konoha jounin looked strong and impressive, his long blue coat rippling lightly. The rogue-nin's oily smile didn't fade in the slightest, his tight, charred red leather a stain on the scene's backdrop. "Funny enough to try to kidnap a child?" he asked sarcastically.

    Bandit looked at the two jounin uncertainly. The three girls stayed in place, not sure whether to stay or go. She noticed Hinata looking off to one side. Bikuta-sensei couldn't really know what he was getting into, could he..?

    "Who knows?" the rogue asked with a shrug.

    Shifting gears, Bikuta stepped forward, glaring at the enemy. "Where's the red-headed boy?" he demanded, an edge of threat to his voice. Yuffie looked up expectantly.

    The rogue's eyes looked immediately to Yuffie and then Bandit, sending a shiver through their legs. With another shrug, he coldly replied, "Who cares?"

    "Girls," Bikuta muttered through clenched teeth. "It's time for you to go. Now!"

    Bandit slipped an arm around Yuffie's waist -- and the four of them ran.

    __

    Lying flat on the ground, the silver-haired ninja girl gritted her teeth to keep from making a sound. Her green eyes gleamed with hatred, seeing the red-garbed jounin rise from the grass. Aisha wondered if the giant Konoha jounin could silence the foul-mouthed rogue once and for all.

    She felt her emotions torn again, between her earnest desire to see Serim torn apart and the longing to reclaim her honor. She had, however foolishly, joined the group. That means that she couldn't betray anyone in it, no matter how much they deserved it.

    The new girl out in the grass looked her way and Aisha froze up. How..? She was all the way across the clearing and under a bush! The girl was looking straight at her, though.

    Aisha's eyes widened in realization.

    All four girls turned and ran, although Aisha didn't see the new one say anything. They were running in the opposite direction from the green-eyed girl, though. She quickly looked left then right, trying to figure out a way around without getting spotted. If she ran through the center, she wasn't sure what the guy in the blue coat would do. When it came down to it, she was more worried about what Serim would do if he saw her.

    Her hands tightened on the grass beneath her, frustrated. Could she really chase that girl? She had already promised to Neith and Reese that she would help them.

    How could she turn down this opportunity, though? This might be her only shot to capture the Hyuuga girl.

    __

    Kazuki rolled back to his feet, spitting out a mouthful of dirt. Stubbornly, he rushed back in, throwing a pair of shuriken to lead the way. On the opposite side of the rogue Chuunin, Tyger was dashing in, open-palmed.

    Reese reached out, grabbed Tyger's right shoulder in his left hand and violently pushed her -- with her own momentum -- forward to the ground while he threw his leg out in the same turning motion. The spinning leg knocked the shuriken out of the air, but Reese didn't stop his spin there. The Chuunin spun a full circuit before Kazuki reacted, his balled left fist flying straight for the genin's face.

    Replacement! Kazuki thought desperately, resisting the urge to cover his face and instead doing the necessary hand-signs. There was a heavy thud as the chunk of wood went flying from the hit. Kazuki, standing behind and to the side of the rogue, sucked in a relieved breath. He noted that one of the shuriken had actually wounded the Mist rogue's leg, very slightly. Encouraged, he looked to Tyger.

    His partner was curled up on the ground near their enemy's feet, where he had pushed her down. Even as he started to watch, the dark-skinned girl quickly jumped away from the Chuunin, who was whirling around. "What!" Reese shouted, right after spotting Kazuki -- sparks lit up near his feet. "Crap!" Another of Tyger's exploding tags went off right at his feet!

    The same wood stump Kazuki had just used for his replacement went hurtling out of the cloud of debris. Not good! A heavy foot planted itself solidly in his back, knocking Kazuki to the dirt. "Oh come on!" Reese shouted. "Even Aisha wouldn't have trouble with you novices!" The ash-blond genin gasped for breath, curling up on his side.

    Tyger stood defensively, holding both hands low. Her shoulders were shaking, but her eyes looked ready. "Learn when to stay on the ground!" the rogue shouted, rushing at her with a hard right thrust. Kazuki watched in awe as Tyger side-stepped the punch, grabbed the wrist, and yanked it around to flip the Chuunin onto his back.

    Reese twisted his hips in mid-throw and planted his heels on the ground.

    Tyger realized the danger and let go, jumping away. She wasn't quick enough to escape the retaliatory elbow, but she did block it. Kazuki turned on his back, still trying to recover his breath, gasping helplessly as he watched through watery eyes. Come on, Ty-chan, he encouraged silently.

    "Get up, Miki-kun!" Tyger cried out, before squealing and ducking out of the way of a mean kick.

    Still struggling for air, Kazuki managed to get to his knees, and up to his feet. Tyger was still desperately parrying and dodging all of Reese's attacks, but he saw the Chuunin's eyes flick towards him more than once. Agh, this is never going to work, he complained to himself, as he fumbled the katana off his back.

    "Be a man and attack someone your own size!" Kazuki shouted, running over and swinging the sheathed sword like a staff. Reese turned to face him, in the middle of a punch toward Tyger.

    The steel pommel smacked hard against the side of the head.

    "Yagh!" the rogue cried out, catching the katana in his fist and covering the point of impact with his free hand. "Gah, that was a good hit," the older boy complained, lashing out with a kick. Kazuki managed to get a knee up to block, but the kick still stung painfully. Kazuki glared up at the Chuunin, unwilling to let go of the sword. "But it's about time you got serious!"

    Reese jerked the sword away and quickly tossed it to his other hand when Kazuki grabbed for it.

    "Drop it!" Tyger cried out angrily. Both boys looked over to see the girl standing next to the rogue-nin's sword. She had a hand at the middle of the blade, another exploding tag ready. "Give it back or I break it!" she warned. Kazuki tried not to let his relief shine through: there was no way he could give up that sword.

    Reese laughed, slipping the katana behind his neck and holding it with both hands. "Go ahead. Break mine and I break his. Whose do you think is worth more?" he asked calmly. Kazuki looked up, catching something in his tone.

    Tyger looked to him uncertainly, but Kazuki merely nodded. "Go ahead, Ty-chan. I can save up for another one." Not in a million years... but he hoped his own tone was more convincing. "We'll have enough trouble with him without worrying about that chunk of iron."

    The three ninjas each stood tensely, when finally Reese faked a smile. "Alright," he said, looking sidelong as Kazuki. "Want your sword back, Mikkun? Go get it!" The Chuunin threw the sword roughly, sending the sheathed weapon flying far past his own blade, over Tyger's blade. Kazuki cursed, immediately seeing the Chuunin's plan.

    Just as both of them expected, Tyger turned and went after Kazuki's sword, leaving the rogue's free for retaking.

    Reese broke into a run for his weapon, and Kazuki quickly pulled out a pair of shuriken to throw at the rogue. He snatched up the weapon faster than the ash-blond kid would have believed possible. From the distance, Tyger shouted, "Ha!" even as Reese brought the sword up to block the two throwing stars.

    There was a distinctive sizzle and Reese cursed aloud right before the sword exploded.

    Another tag? Kazuki stared in disbelief. How many did the girl have? He had been walking around Konoha with that many explosives within a few feet?!

    "Heh, as if such a wimpy attack could hurt my blade!" Despite his words, he sounded relieved. The rogue Chuunin stood there, gripping his blackened but unharmed sword up in both hands. He had at least turned the blast away from himself, unfortunately for them. "Okay! That's enough. If you're going to keep doing the same cheap trick again and again..!" Kazuki jogged over to Tyger, who tossed his sword to him. "...then I'm through going easy on you!"

    The pissed-off teen slammed the blunt weapon into the dirt next to him, blue bangs waving. His hands moved quickly through several hand-signs before the genin pair could think of a way to stop him. "See how amusing your little novice bombs are when you can't see your enemy!" A cloud of mist started rising up, starting from the trickling creek.

    "Oh no!" Kazuki cried out in mock horror, "Not the hidden mist jutsu!"

    "What are you talking about?" Tyger snapped quietly. "What are we supposed to do if we can't see him! We couldn't do anything when we could!"

    "Laugh it up, little brats," Reese told them, "while you can." He chuckled ominously, the sound echoing around into the mist that was soon covering his face.

    Finally. As soon as Reese faded from visibility, Kazuki reached down and cracked open the hidden compartment in his sword's sheath. The mist jutsu was perfect for this! It was time for Ikusen Teisei, one of his favorite techniques that he'd never had the opportunity to use before.

    Grinning reassurance to Ty-chan, Kazuki lifted the small wooden flute from the compartment, and put it to his lips.

    __

    Reese grinned smugly as the pair faded from view. At first he wanted to just rush right at them, but there wouldn't be any fun in that. The rogue Chuunin slipped around the sides, planning to come up on the two Leaf genin from behind. He didn't particularly want to kill them, but it was past time to do something lasting and permanent.

    Perhaps he'd break an arm... or a leg. Smashing just the foot might be even more rewarding.

    They deserved it, after what they had done to Aisha and for relying on such amateurish tricks. Reese's grin widened as closed in on the faint shadows in the clouds of vapor. An odd sound came forth, an eerie whistling noise, but Reese ignored it. With a roar, the Chuunin plowed forward and swept his sword across at about knee level.

    There was nothing there.

    "Hehe, so they're smarter than they look," Reese remarked, starting to enjoy the game a little more.

    He moved silently through the mist, hefting his huge sword. There! A light splashing of water echoed past. Reese quickly rushed to the creek, splashing into the water and cutting hard with his sword. Nothing. Grumbling to himself, Reese closed his eyes to listen again.

    "Ha!" he shouted, swinging his sword to the left, where he heard the guy, Miki, whisper something. Before the disappointment of the miss could register, he heard the girl off to the right. A snarl came from his lips then as he rushed to attack. The game was getting tiring already!

    Reese had trained to fight blindly in the mist a hundred times, a thousand times! He had never before had such trouble with anyone not of the Village Hidden in the Mist! How were these two novices evading him like this?

    Another voice sounded behind him, and Reese frowned. That voice... couldn't be here. "Dad..." he whispered in disbelief, recognizing the sound of the man's voice as surely as he recognized the back of his own hand.

    His father was dead.

    The memories welled up then, warming and painful all at once. He cast them aside. Another voice appeared, also one he hadn't heard in far too long.

    Enough, he thought, and banished the hidden mist jutsu. He could teach those genin a lesson without the mist!

    More voices revealed themselves quietly, and the mist grew only thicker.

    Confused, Reese started stalking around swinging wildly. "Where are you!" he shouted, wincing as his sword slammed into a tree. The voices were surrounding him now.

    The rogue ninja backed away from the tree, trying to find the creek. He could follow it out of this unnatural fog. The voices kept getting louder, louder, each clamoring to be heard.

    Reese dropped his sword and covered his ears, but the voices only got louder. "Go away, go away, go away!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. The voices were all around him, above him, below him! Faint shadows flitted past in the mist, and he started screaming trying to drown out the noises.

    Reese slipped to his knees, lost in the swirling white-out, still covering his ears. The voices only got louder.

    __

    "This way-nii~!" the orange-blonde genin shouted, pointing one paw-covered hand to the left and running quickly in that direction. The other three girls ran right past her, ignoring her change in direction. "Huh?! Wait, hold on-nii~!" She bounded quickly to catch up to her friends.

    "Where are we going?" Yuffie yelled ahead to Bandit, who was leading the small group.

    Wearing a determined look on her face, Bandit didn't turn to answer. "We left that weird girl behind. We have to find her!" She's part of this somehow, Bandit thought to herself, remembering the rogue jounin's expression when he got a close look at Edward. Long black hair rippled wildly as they rushed onward.

    Yuffie nodded, and her next question was quieter. "What about Nanaki?"

    "Red is A-okay-nii~!" Nia shouted confidently. "No one beats Red-san-nii~!"

    Bandit came to a stop, looking around rapidly, trying to remember the way she'd come. "I'm sure Red is ok, Yuffie. If he was dead, that jerk would have enjoyed showing you. I don't know where he is, but he's got to be ok!" Recognizing a low-hanging branch, Bandit was off again, driven to find the red-headed traveler.

    "I..."

    Bandit looked over her shoulder. Hinata had started to speak, but didn't finish. She stopped again, turning to the noble heiress curiously. "What is it, Hinata-chan... uh... -san..? Um..."

    The girl blushed, shaking her head quickly. "Just...," she started, before looking away. Hinata shook her head. "I don't think...your friend was anywhere in the area. Not alive...and not dead."

    Yuffie tilted her head, apparently sensing more. "But..?"

    "There were...two others, hiding. A girl with long hair...and a boy."

    Nia held up one paw angrily. "Aisha-nii~!"

    Yuffie nodded. "But who's the boy..?" Her eyes brightened. "It could be Nanaki-kun! Was he alright?"

    "I.. um..." The Hyuuga girl looked nervous, unsure how to respond.

    Bandit shook her head. Red wouldn't have just stood around while they were fighting that psycho. "Probably another enemy. How many could there be..?" Hinata was looking at her curiously. "Aisha Kuranran was the one we encountered before, who attacked us because she thought I was you."

    Hinata gasped. "I'm so sorry..!" she breathed out, bowing her head. Bandit blushed and looked away. "The girl... she saw me," Hinata admitted. Bandit looked up.

    "Then she'll be coming after us," Yuffie said matter-of-factly. She punched the air several times, a cocky grin spreading. "This time we'll kick her butt!"

    Blue sleeves slumped uncertainly, but Bandit nodded anyway. "I want to find Edward, though." The others looked at her a little confused, especially Hinata. "She's part of this, I know it!"

    __

    The sound of a swift creek rolled by, steady and smooth. A few small leaves fell from their branches overhead, drifting lazily downward to fall upon the ground and in the water.

    One small green leaf fell with the others, drifting to the side, toward the base of a thick tree trunk. There it landed, settling lightly onto the blackened metal strip that bore the symbol of the leaf village, and the boy who wore it.

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    Chapter Thirteen

    The trickling water seemed loud in the quiet. The birds, the squirrels, even the bugs seemed to have fallen silent, sensing the intensity in the air. Only the wind and the water continued unabated, unperturbed by the happenings in the forests of the Land of Fire.

    The tree's roots rose thick and tall out of the ground, cradling the boy's limp body in their firm, protective embrace. The red clothes he wore were covered in layers of ash. The same oily black substance coated his skin, his bandana, and likely his lungs. Though the boy's eye was closed and his limbs hung loosely, his breath did indeed rise ever so slightly.

    The jounin wrung out the cloth in his hand. On impulse, rather than cleaning the face of the genin, he rubbed the rag across the metal strip in the boy's bandana. Shining, practically sparkling when compared to the soot around it, the symbol of the Village Hidden in the Leaves jumped out.

    The rag fell from his shaking hand.

    Though his eyes were open, they were seeing something else. A different young genin with long, straight brown hair, who lay in much the same position, in much the same condition, with just the one exception: he hadn't been moving. There had been no sign of life, no hints. No hopes.

    His hand rested grimly on the genin's chin, thumb rubbing at the layer of soot that had landed itself on the boy's cheek.

    Fukasa...

    The feeling of cold steel against the back of his neck snapped the jounin to attention. He turned his head, unsurprised to be looking down the length of a ninja-to blade, one wielded by his former sensei and mentor.

    Xaki , unfazed, rose up to his full height and turned around. The blade followed him upward. Mune was a respectable height, but even he had to tilt his head up to the younger jounin. Mune stared hard at him, eyes narrowed behind his rectangular-framed glasses. His body was turned sideways toward Xaki, right arm extended with the ninja-to blade held out. The short red hair hung down loosely.

    The thin goatee around his chin and the hard look in his eyes belied the weak, nerdy look of his hair and glasses.

    "You were a little late for your hero's entrance," Xaki told his former friend, an angry timbre to his voice. "You must be slipping."

    The elder jounin tilted his head. "I'm here now," he replied calmly, still measuring Xaki in his eyes.

    "Too late to save the boy, though," Xaki grated, taking some degree of satisfaction from Mune's alarmed expression. He jerked a thumb to his chest. "I had to do it for you."

    Mune looked confused, but shook his head and pulled his sword away. "So let me tend to him." He didn't thank Xaki.

    Xaki lowered his head and thrust out an arm, grabbing Mune's shoulder when he took a step forward. "If you would keep an eye on your charge, you wouldn't need to tend to him." He raised his eyes up, the emerald eyes full of hatred. "If you were there when he needed you, you wouldn't have to pick up the pieces."

    "I'm here now!" Mune barked out. Xaki saw his hand tighten on the ninja-to's hilt. Mune raised an eyebrow to the younger jounin. "I was always there when you needed me!"

    "Were you?" Xaki shouted, tightening his grip on his former teacher's shoulder. He grit his teeth and looked down, then suddenly lifted his head again. He waved his free arm toward the redheaded genin. "You call this being there?"

    Fukasa, caught in a powerful exploding trap. His black crew cut charred, face blackened, body limp.

    He let go of Mune, lifting up his left arm and holding it up to display the scars crisscrossing all over it. "You call this being there?"

    Ilana, turning around to report the all-clear when a surprise attack came from the room she just checked. Splashes of blood, lines of red slung across the walls.

    Mune fell back a step, shocked. "When did...?"

    "Always at the last possible minute, always on the verge of death, always a second before the irretrievable!" Xaki shouted, venting pent-up anger and frustration he had been holding onto for years. "You were there at the last moment, yes, but where were you when we needed you?"

    "I was doing what I had to do!" Mune shouted back, lifting the ninja-to blade again, threatening Xaki with it. "What needed to be..!"

    "What you were told to do," Xaki growled. "Finish the mission and then worry about your squad, right? Put the objective first. Isn't that the way it goes?"

    Instead of answering, Mune pointed the sword at his throat. "Move out of the way, Xaki. I'm not about to let one of my students die because you want to have a breakdown!"

    Xaki laughed harshly. "Where are the other two? What kind of trouble did you abandon them to?"

    "They can take care of themselves," Mune replied, but uncertainly. "Once I've tended to Red, I'll gather them up."

    "Always the way, isn't it? If they keep themselves alive long enough, you'll arrive in time to pick up the pieces." Xaki's eyes flared again with the barely concealed hatred.

    The red-headed jounin yelled, a wordless cry of outrage and denial. The ninja-to blade swung at Xaki, hard and fast, but only with the intent to make him move. The white-haired rogue easily side-stepped the attack and snatched the bronze bracer on Mune's wrist. Xaki held the man's arm straight out, pressing his face close to Mune's angrily. "Always ready to play the hero, aren't you, Rihatsu-sensei?"

    "Always ready to do what's right, even if it sometimes feels wrong," the former mentor replied. His free hand came up with a hand-sign. Xaki jumped back, holding both arms open invitingly.

    "Which is this, then?" Xaki growled back. "Because this... feels like it was a long time coming!" The jounin lunged forward, snapping his arm out as hard as he could, putting all of the pent-up frustration, emotions, and angst into his fist. Mune's eyes widened, but he couldn't back away quickly enough. The fist connected squarely with his nose, crunching in his face, cracking the bone and cartilage.

    Even as his fist connected, Xaki's eyes widened. A clone! he realized just before the body disappeared in a cloud of smoke. His head jerked sharply behind him, his other arm quickly flying out to smack the flat of the ninja-to blade that was coming straight at his back. Left fist still straight out from his previous punch, his right arm went straight from the slap into a straight-fingered thrust at the jounin's throat.

    Another flash of smoke and Xaki growled out a strangled curse, yanking back his sore fingers while a thick log flipped and rolled in the opposite direction.

    "You've lost your mind, Xaki!" Mune shouted -- from two directions at once! Perpendicular to his previous two positions, the redheaded jounin rushed in from the left and the right. Xaki's eyes widened, but he twisted his upper body, slamming his left elbow into one Mune's collarbone and catching the second one with a vicious right uppercut. Whichever one was real would be feeling the pain.

    Both bodies disappeared in clouds of smoke, as insubstantial as the mist.

    Shocked, Xaki leapt straight backward, expecting more than sensing his teacher's next attack. Mune hurtled down from above, sword-first in a wild spinning drop. The rogue's feet cleared the area just in time as Mune's blade slammed into the dirt. The younger jounin lunged forward, preparing to slam both fists into him after the foiled surprise attack.

    The redheaded jounin kept his spinning velocity, however. When the blade spun into the ground, Mune tilted to the side, whirling his whole body around in a sliding sweep. Xaki was knocked clean off his feet, landing roughly on his shoulders. Without even waiting for the breath to be knocked out of him, Xaki quickly rolled backward, flipping his legs over his head and rolling back to his feet. Winded, but not out, Xaki roared, a wordless sound filled with the hurt he could not explain or even express.

    "I don't want to fight you!" the Konoha jounin shouted, facing off against his former student. His former teammate. Xaki answered him with a glare, bringing his fists up in front of him again. With a shake of his head, Mune jerked his wrist forward, yanking his blade out of the ground by its chain. The jounin soon had the blade spinning in front of him, almost like a shield. "Fire style, Fireball Jutsu!" Mune intoned, sucking in a deep breath.

    Not good... Xaki thought. "Earth style, Mud Wall Jutsu!" The white-haired jounin's hand flew through the hand-seals and slammed into the ground, but it didn't feel fast enough. Mune exhaled, flames pouring from his mouth and straight into his bladed fan. The ball of fire exploded, sent in a hundred directions at once, but all inexorably forward, toward Xaki.

    The foot-thick walls of mud shot up from the ground, surrounding Xaki on three sides. Not before a thin stream of fire slipped by, singing his left shoulder. His left eye squinted shut, but he refused to cry out with the pain. Xaki watched in horror as his shield of mud abruptly dried, then hardened.

    The now-clay walls held strong, though, deflecting the powerful attack. Xaki could feel the rush and pull of the hot air through the open back wall.

    Xaki leapt backward, stunned, as a red-hot sword blade crashed through his defense. The blade quickly retreated before slashing through again, sending flakes of hard clay flying at the rogue. The blade crashed through again and again, tearing the walls down around him. Xaki caught a glimpse of Mune through a hole, standing back and slinging the heated blade by its chain.

    "Earth style, Head-hunter Jutsu!" Xaki growled, marking the distance as he slipped into the ground. He pushed forward as fast as he could, feeling like he was swimming through molasses, but in truth moving rapidly. He crashed out of the ground at Mune's feet, fist leading.

    The red-headed jounin let out a cry of surprise as he was sent flying, landing roughly against a tree nearby. Xaki had the opening he needed, a perfect shot at Mune, stunned against the roots, but for a moment he was overwhelmed by the scene around him. Fire consumed leaves and branches in a huge swath before them, surrounding the make-shift earthy defense.

    His knuckles turned white as Xaki's fists tightened even more. Eyes filled with rage, he turned on Mune again, who was only just beginning to regain his bearings. Burning with wrath he couldn't begin to explain, Xaki leapt high in the air, coming straight down at his former teacher, former teammate, former friend... fist leading.

    His fist pounded once more into the limp form beneath him, stilling the rogue-nin. The heat waves rolled over him, sweat mixing with the blood caking him. The fires that burned around the three couldn't even begin to match the inferno of fury building within him.

    The client stared fearfully at the two ninja, eyes darting from one to the other. The building they were in was consumed by fire, but the jounin hesitated, staring blankly at his blood-soaked fist as he thought of the other two faces that should have been there.

    "We're, uh, we're almost there," the client assured them, quickly growing silent again as Xaki's burning glare fell over him. If not for him..! The jounin's fist clenched tightly, slowly pulling away from the corpse it had embedded itself in.

    "Hito-sensei! Look out!"

    The voice from so long ago rang through his ears, opening his eyes. Xaki slammed his fist against the tree, pushing himself away from the trunk. The ninja-to blade cracked into the tree where he had just been. Mune jumped and swung himself up, using the sword as an anchor. Kicking his feet against the nearest tree, Xaki launched himself at the jounin once more. Mune snatched his sword out of the trunk and hopped back across the branches rapidly, watching Xaki sharply.

    The redheaded jounin moved swiftly through the branches, expertly diving through the smoke and flames. "Would you really turn against everything we ever learned or accomplished together?" the teacher shouted behind himself, voice lost in the cracking flames and heat of rage. Mune slipped around another trunk and turned back to face back around the trunk, ready to make a stand. A sinister grin spread on Xaki's lips -- he had shot around the opposite side of the trunk. The white-haired rogue landed behind his former sensei, fists tightened.

    His footing dropped out from under him with a barely perceptible crack. Xaki stared in surprise -- Mune had slashed through the branch behind himself. He had no purchase, no leverage, no handholds. Wide-eyed, Xaki looked downward, helplessly watching his own fall.

    In the blink of an eye, Xaki whirled around. His eyes widened and he felt like the world dropped out from under him. The single word of protest already forming on his lips, Xaki leapt forward, already knowing it was too late.

    Tenken jumped in front of the bladed chain, stopping it from catching his teacher across his exposed back. The chain, undeterred, swung around the genin. The boy had his arms up to protect his more vital areas, but as Xaki watched in horror, the barbed tip of the chain looped around his back and caught Tenken in the side of his neck.

    "No!" Xaki shouted, not in protest or fear, but as a command, as if the mere force of his voice could prevent what was about to happen.

    That brief second seemed to hang in time interminably. He could see the corner of Tenken's smirk, the lines of blood already dripping from the wicked chain wrapped around him. He could see the flame-covered form of the rogue ninja, face twisted insanely.

    He could see as the rogue's arm tightened, yanking backward on the vicious weapon.

    Arcs of vivid red seemed to hang in the air before Xaki felt a hot splash across his face.

    Xaki managed to catch the boy as he fell, oblivious to everything else around him. The horrid gashes across his body might not have been fatal, but the gaping wound ripped into his throat... The jounin held the boy in his arms helplessly, watching his very life pour out onto the ground, onto his knees.

    Impossibly, Tenken opened his eyes slightly, his customary smirk returning. "Yo... Hito-sensei..." he whispered, weakly lifting the fingers of one hand in a V-symbol. The smirk stayed on his face even as the blood stopped pouring, as his heart stopped pumping.

    Thoughts of the boy, only days earlier, running around foolishly, grinning joyfully as he pulled pranks on his team, ran through his mind. The one Xaki had thought least promising jumped to defend him without a second thought, without a single regret.

    Without conscious thought, Xaki lifted his left arm as the bladed chain came in once more. The sharp edges dug deeply into his skin as they wrapped around his upper arm, but he felt nothing at all. His hand grabbed down on the chain, ignoring the pain as it cut into his palm, and hauled on it powerfully.

    The rogue-nin flew across the burning building, landing at Xaki's feet as the jounin rose to his feet. Desperately, the rogue pulled out a blade with the hand not entangled in the chain, but Xaki stepped on his wrist.

    He reached down with his right arm, grabbing the rogue's skull in a vice grip. The room around him grew colder, feeling almost icy. The rogue cried out painfully as Xaki's fingers tightened, as the pressure increased. He begged and pleaded, screaming for mercy.

    If he could have seen the look on Xaki's face he wouldn't have even tried.

    The burning hatred and rage roaring through him went straight into that fist, pressing harder against the skull as the ninja struggled futilely to pull away. There was a sickening cracking noise, and the rogue briefly struggled harder, more urgently. Xaki's grip continued tightening, increasing the pressure. There was a second crack, and the rogue stopped moving completely.

    With one last growl of wrath, with the burning blood of his student rolling down his face, Xaki put one last surge of strength into his arm, crushing the enemy's skull completely.

    Empty, Xaki turned, looking for the client. He was nowhere to be found. Moving slowly, the jounin walked out of the building, ignoring the flames as they consumed it, beams dropping from the ceiling.

    He followed the trail of the client out into the night, hardly aware of his wounds. In his mind's eye, he was seeing his teammates. Tenken, Ilana, and Fukasa: his first genin team. He thought of all the missions they'd done together, fresh from the Academy. He remembered their smiling faces, the playful jokes they continually thought up.

    Somehow, Xaki was smiling when he caught up to the client, fearfully searching through a ring of keys as he stood outside of an inconspicuous house. Finally finding the right key, the man jumped with fright as he noticed Xaki's approach. Even after realizing who he was, the man still looked terrified.

    "You, uh, you... defeated them..?" he asked fearfully, looking behind Xaki at the empty countryside. The keys jingled loudly in his hands.

    "They are dead," Xaki replied calmly.

    "That's... that's great!" the client said uncertainly. "Mission... um, complete!" He hurriedly slipped the key into the door and turned it.

    Xaki took a step closer. "There's one last thing," he told the man, still smiling distantly at the memories of the three genin.

    With the door open behind him, the man looked around nervously before asking, "One last...thing..?"

    Xaki nodded, taking one more step closer. The smile abruptly left his face. The client, smarter than he looked immediately turned to flee. The jounin, the rage returning full force, whipped his left arm around, catching the man around his middle with the bladed chain still wrapped around his arm. With a furious growl, he yanked back on the chain as hard as he could, spinning the man around and digging deeply into his flesh.

    He fell to the ground, crying out helplessly as Xaki strode forward. "Mission," he growled, "aborted!" The white-haired jounin slammed his fist down into the man's spine, putting into it every last ounce of wrath he had in him.

    The man screamed pitifully as Xaki withdrew his bleeding knuckles. Desperately, he dragged himself with his arms, his legs no longer working. The wicked tear from the chain poured his blood out onto the floor.

    Empty, with nothing left, Xaki unclenched his fists, the reality of what he'd done starting to set in. As he let his muscles go slack, the chain slipped from his arm down to the ground. Once it fell, Xaki saw that it had etched a single deep line through the bandana tied around his upper arm.

    He nodded silently, turning to stumble away into the darkness, leaving the whimpers and pleas of the man behind him, leaving the bodies of his fallen teammates behind... leaving all ties to his village behind him.

    His tightly corded muscles barely softened the blow as Xaki slammed into a branch far below. The jounin attempted to grab it to stop his fall, but instead it snapped under his weight, under the force of his fall. Again and again he slammed into the branches, knocked side to side by them until he finally slammed hard into the ground, broken wood beneath him and more branches falling from above.

    He lay there in a daze, seeing only through the eyes of his memories.

    "Come on, Xaki, don't end it like this," Mune said quietly, kneeling over the fallen ninja. "I don't know what happened, but..."

    "No, you don't!" Xaki growled, lifting himself to his feet. "You don't know, you never knew! You always had to be there because you never were there!" The teacher stared, confused, at his student's eyes. The sword was sheathed over his shoulder.

    "What do you..?"

    Xaki yelled out another wordless curse and slammed a fist forward. Mune brought up both arms to block but was still knocked flat on his back. "Xaki! Enough of this!" Ignoring his protests, the rogue rushed forward, slamming his fists into Mune again and again. The elder jounin covered himself as best he could, but Xaki couldn't stop himself, slamming his fists again and again, punching until his arms felt weary, until his knuckles felt raw, until his rage had nearly played itself out.

    He paused, breathing heavily, a looked straight into his teacher's face. Even in the depths of his rage, he hadn't struck at the man's head. Mune Rihatsu, current leader to the amber-eyed kid, former sensei to Xaki's squad, short-lived ANBU member... Xaki lifted up his right arm, gritting his teeth as he poured every last ounce of his anger in his fist. Mune stared back impassively, resigned and perhaps accepting the blame for the unknown crime he had committed.

    The fist crashed down, pouring all of Xaki's wrath out with it, leaving him feeling hollow and empty.

    Drained, Xaki pulled his hand back, dirt falling from the knuckles.

    Mune watched calmly, silently appraising his former teammate, not even acknowledging the deep hole in the ground right next to his face. The redheaded jounin put an arm across his ribs, slowly and painfully pulling himself up into a sitting position. He didn't say a word to him.

    Xaki turned his back, slowly rising from his knees. His hands hung loosely at his sides.

    "I don't know," Xaki began, "whether I was happy that you messed up, that you weren't there to save the boy... or whether I was angry that you were right there, where I had him, to protect him.

    "I don't know," he went on gruffly, voice hoarse, "whether I'm pissed off at you because you weren't there when I needed you most, when my team needed you most--" There was no way that he could have been. "-- or... because I couldn't be there for them."

    Xaki looked over his shoulder, straight into the sympathetic brown eyes of his former teacher. "I failed them," he whispered quietly, before looking at his chain-scarred arm. "I was right there... but I couldn't save them... like you always did."

    His voice was barely audible as he added, "Like you always do."

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    Chapter Fourteen

    Black plumes obscured the blue sky, ushered onward by a strong breeze, pulled beyond the call of the fires that created them. The scent of burning wood filled the air, smoke curling around the two figures facing each other in the open clearing. One face was grim. The other was uncaring. While the first stood tall, the clouds of darkness breaking around his stalwart form, the other slouched lazily, appearing as a dirty clot upon the landscape, smoke engulfing him with familiarity.

    "So quick to send your whelps out from under those protective skirts?" the red-clothed rogue asked sarcastically. His fingers idly peeled away a strip of charred skin and tossed it aside.

    Bikuta shrugged, taking a swig from his jug and swaying a little. His voice, though, was still clear. "There are ways to make anyone talk," the Konoha jounin said calmly. A hard look appeared in his eyes, then. "I didn't want them to have to see what I'll have to do."

    The rogue laughed aloud. "Sounds gruesome, Bikuta Heishi. Sure you have the stomach for it..?" The burnt flesh of his hand curled into a defiant fist, tightening until fresh blood ran from the cracks. The man's smile only widened as the dirty blood trickled down his wrist only to drip to the grass at his feet. "Do you have the kind of resolve you'll need to stand up against me?"

    Bikuta's only response was a headlong rush straight at the rogue. He swayed from side to side in his run but still closed the distance unbelievably fast. The red-clothed ninja leapt to the side, dodging the straightforward attack with a short laugh.

    The tall jounin abruptly twisted his body, facing in the opposite direction that the rogue had gone. Seeing an opportunity, the greasy-haired monster took his curve-bladed kunai in hand and stabbed at the Konoha-nin's exposed back. "Too easy!" he shouted.

    Instead of blade sinking into flesh, there was a loud crack as knuckles slammed into face. The jounin had fallen backward, his tightened fist backhanding the rogue clean in the nose. Despite the look of shock, the dark-eyed man let out no noise of complaint -- even after Bikuta, continuing with the roll, brought both feet smashing up into his chin. The Konoha jounin landed on his feet, back toward the invading ninja once more.

    "Know your folly!" The rogue-nin, knocked backward, thrust with his dagger once again, but the jounin was already ducking low, spinning through the grass in a rapid sweep kick. His heavy combat boot hooked behind one of the enemy ninja's, yanking the foot out from under him. Continuing into yet another whirl, Bikuta came around with both fists leading, one over the other, both pounding audibly into the man's chest, sending the already-off-balance man flying backward.

    Unshaken, the rogue flipped back onto his feet. "Fire style, fire--!" The taller jounin was already there, grabbing the soot-streaked shoulders and slamming his forehead squarely into the man's nose, filling the air with a loud crunching sound. The man's eyes rolled back in his head, and he fell to the ground, flailing a bit.

    Bikuta spat in his face, swaying cockily above him. "Even Nia would have enough resolve to take out one such as you, Serim Urami."

    A harsh laugh rose up from the grass where the man lay. "It sure didn't seem that way," Serim said coldly, raising his head up, "when she felt the back of my hand."

    With a grunt of disgust, Bikuta snapped his heavy foot out into the monster's face, knocking him back to the ground. Another laugh was the only response. Serim spat blood from his mouth, grin still wide as his dark eyes looked into Bikuta's blue one. "So even the Village Hidden in the Leaves knows my name," he remarked with a grin. "Aren't I a popular one?"

    "Where's the boy at?" Bikuta demanded, reaching into a bag at his thigh.

    A sneer curled at the corner of Serim's face. "I believe I already told you," he replied coldly, eyes narrowing.

    "Oh..?" the jounin asked, pulling a fingerless black glove onto his left hand. The glove had sixteen short spikes on the back of the hand, and one more on the front of each finger. He flexed the fist, all twenty spikes sticking out dangerously.

    "Nobody cares," Serim muttered, positively amused with himself. "He could be rotting in a hole by now, but it doesn't matter."

    Bikuta shook his head, teeth gritted behind his stubble. "Too bad you feel that way," he said.

    His boot slammed down on Serim's hand, pinning it, and the rogue's hidden blade, to the ground. The cocky grin faded for the first time. Was it even worth playing games with him? By the time he got a straight answer, who knew what might have happened to the red-headed kid. Thinking of what he had done to Bandit, Yuffie, and Nia, a look of wrath crossed the jounin's face. End it now and be done with it. Bikuta flexed his fist again and punched straight down at the rogue's skull.

    There was a blur, and a dull clang as his fist hit something metal.

    There, staring defiantly up at him with fierce green eyes, was a young tanned girl with bright white hair. "So, you're the one...." Bikuta muttered, looking at the large gold-colored ring tied at the end of the girl's hair -- the ring she was holding with both hands to stop his fist.

    __

    Stupid, stupid, stupid! Aisha yelled at herself as her knees trembled. This was a real jounin, an enemy jounin! Why the heck was she jumping in front of his fist like that? For that jerk, no less!

    Her arms quivered from the force of the blow. Even bracing with all her strength, it made her arms feel like rubber. Aisha didn't even have a clue whether she should attack or try to block again or just run away. No, she couldn't run away, for the same stupid reason that she jumped in.

    Serim deserved it, the arrogant mongrel! After the way he treated her, and even treated the boys, and the way he talked to Xaki, and just for being an all-around nasty person, she should have just let him take the hit! Aisha would love to crack him in the skull a few times herself! She had agreed to work together with Xaki and Serim, though.

    "I won't back down...," Aisha promised, glaring the tall jounin down. He meanwhile, just looked at her curiously. Do I kick him..? the girl wondered nervously. Serim doesn't deserve this! A Kuranran never turns her back on a teammate, though, no matter how much of a butthead he is!

    Suddenly there was a sharp crack in the side of her head. Aisha yelped as the blow knocked her to the grass. Pain crashed through her head as the ground span around her. In a daze, Aisha stared back in disbelief, clutching her head.

    __

    "Idiot," Serim spat, getting to his feet. "Learn when to stay out of men's business."

    The girl -- Aisha? -- was clutching the side of her head and trying to get back on her feet, but her legs were wobbly. Bikuta's fist tightened as he glared at the detestable rogue. "What?!" the girl shouted. "I just saved you, you sick, stupid, smelly jerk!"

    "Go back to your ovens and crochet," Serim muttered. "All you did was cost me an easy victory." He turned to the girl with a depraved grin. "You're lucky I didn't slit your throat myself."

    The white-haired genin, braver than she was smart, snarled at Serim. "Think you won't miss next time?" she retorted, pulling the neck of her shirt down slightly.

    The Konoha jounin felt his blood boiling when he saw the poorly tended gouge across the kid's collarbone. "You better leave now, kid," he said, his voice grating angrily.

    "Aww, how touching," Serim muttered. "He can't protect his own girls, so why not take pity on the pathetic, useless kiddie on the enemy side?"

    Aisha lunged straight at the jounin. "I am not use--!" Serim lifted his burnt hand again.

    "Enough!" Bikuta shouted, snapping his spiked fist out at the rogue.

    Effortlessly, Serim caught Bikuta's fist before backhanding the genin once again. Aisha cried out, landing face-first in the grass and bouncing back up, enraged. Serim had his serpent-bladed kunai in hand, though, which gave the girl pause. Her emerald eyes were wide, but still full of anger. "Get your sorry tail after those other genin," Serim growled, fixing his dark glare on the white-haired girl. "Don't show your face again unless you have the target with you!"

    The girl hesitated, torn between following her apparent orders and attacking the one who had humiliated her so. Finally, the girl turned, snapping something unintelligible. Just before Bikuta turned to face the rogue fully, another small figure darted past, chasing after the white-haired kid.

    Bikuta smirked at the rogue, who also let an oily smile spread onto his face. "You just have to let them know their place," Serim suggested, letting go of Bikuta's wrist and taking a step back. He held his arms out to the sides, inviting the Konoha jounin to attack.

    "A shame," Bikuta remarked, calmly lifting his jug to his lips, "to treat a girl so after she saved your worthless life."

    Serim laughed, a hideous, deep noise. "Is that what you think..?" the rogue-nin asked. He lifted up the wavy-bladed kunai and gave it a quick spin. Bikuta arched an eyebrow when the blade split in two. "This one," Serim said, holding up one of the halves, "would have been lodged in your skull. If she hadn't interfered."

    Bikuta chuckled, swaying a bit on his feet. He lifted his gloved hand up, turning it in front of his own eyes. "Before these guys lodged in yours?" he asked, flicking one of the spikes.

    "Long before," Serim promised before locking the blades together again. "But now I'll have to do it the slow and painful way. That's so much more boring." He held up his burnt hand while spinning the kunai around his finger with the other.

    Bikuta started to nod, but his whole body tipped forward. Suddenly, the man was rushing headlong at the rogue-nin. "Ha! This again?" Serim crowed. He cackled with amusement. "I'm not laying down again, you sorry fool."

    The tall jounin leapt straight in the air, twisting his body to bring both boots forward. With a loud crunch, the man's heels crashed into Serim's ribs. A satisfied grin crossed Bikuta's face as he fell to the ground.

    Serim, unfazed by the devastating kick, lunged forward and stabbed his kunai into the jounin's chest.

    Bikuta laughed drunkenly from the side as his body disappeared in a puff of smoke. Serim laughed back, a sinister edge to the noise. A chunk of burnt wood stuck to his kunai. The rogue-nin threw the log at Bikuta, the laugh growing harsher and more sarcastic. He darted in right behind the missile.

    Bikuta snapped an arm out and brushed the log aside, following through with a spiked punch straight into Serim's grinning visage. There was a dull thunk and another cloud of smoke -- dark smoke this time, with a smell like burnt charcoal -- followed by an echoing laugh. "Isn't this fun, Konoha hen?"

    Serim's foot connected soundly with the back of Bikuta's neck. Another burst of white smoke poured forth. "About as fun as squashing a spider!" the jounin retorted sourly, smashing his spiked hand into the rogue's spine. More burning black smoke!

    "Oh, where's your sense of humor?" Serim laughed. "Did you lose it when they castrated you for babysitting duty?" His burnt hand knifed in and jabbed Bikuta in the throat, revealing another replacement. Bikuta jumped straight out of the smoke from the replacement, prompting a surprised look from the rogue. "What!" Bikuta's forehead smashed into Serim's face once again.

    The sour-faced ninja slammed a knee up into his stomach. Bikuta felt a blossom of pain flare up and stumbled away, stunned. He quickly straightened, but winced as he looked down to see a vicious gouge in his side. He could feel warmth flowing down his skin, his blood leaking out from the wound.

    Serim grinned, a gruesome sight after the tenderizing his face had received. He lifted the knee, showing off the kunai point sticking out through the front. "Thank your girls for that one," he hissed. Flames still burned around them, although they were growing further away, burning slowly deeper.

    Bikuta managed a grin past the pain. What's the deal with this guy..? Is he even human..? He stood back up straight. Not even a flinch... but he does bleed. The jounin pulled a kunai from his leg pouch and threw it before dashing forward again. He swung his spiked fist in a powerful uppercut motion.

    Serim laughed, darkly amused, and knocked the kunai from the air before easily dodging around the jounin's fist. Bikuta grinned smugly. The rogue-nin's eyes shot wide open, although no sound still came out. How's that for a flinch?

    "I'll be sure to thank them later," Bikuta promised, grinning through the clogging smoke that lingered. Serim's eyes poured out pure hatred as he leaned toward his left leg. The jounin's surprise kick had twisted the kunai, all but crippling the man's leg. Even if he wouldn't cry out, even if he could ignore the pain, the wound would still hinder him.

    "Funny, is it?" Serim muttered. The grin was gone. "You should be careful who you make light of, dog of Konoha." His hands came together in off-center hand-signs, only slightly hindered by the vicious burns across the rogue's hand. Bikuta started to move, but not fast enough. "Fire style! Serpent Flame Jutsu!"

    The ground beneath Bikuta rumbled. All around him, the dirt bubbled upward in awkward bumps and hills. Cracks broke through the turf, spewing chains of flame in every direction. Bikuta gasped in a sharp breath, dodging two spinning coils of serpent fire. "Agh!" he cried out as a third coil struck him in the back, burning as well as stinging like a whip.

    One of the first coils struck back and flashed into his shoulder, searing pain up his arm and scorching away his sleeve. Bikuta grit his teeth against the pain, glaring forward at the sinister dark eyes staring through the fire and flames. "Don't think this is over, yet, Urami!" Bikuta bellowed, charging forward and taking another burn. "Haaagh!" the jounin shouted, slamming his fist into Serim's chest before the rogue could react.

    His fist sank straight in, all the way to the wrist, blood oozing out of the gaping hole.

    Then the blood turned brown. As Bikuta watched, stunned, the rogue's grinning visage melted, revealing itself as a mud clone right before it solidified. Furious, Bikuta jerked back on his hand, but it was stuck fast. Serim appeared at his side -- the real Serim -- and the jounin lunged weakly with his burnt arm. With a laugh, the rogue snatched his wrist out of the air and then bent it behind the jounin's back.

    "Well, well, look at this," Serim whispered straight into Bikuta's ear. The taller man struggled futilely against the mud and the enemy's grip. "I think I've grown thoroughly tired of this now, mouse of Konoha. What do you say... I give you a death fitting for one such as you?" He laughed harshly.

    "Do your worst, worm," Bikuta growled.

    "Worm, am I? Sure, why not?" Serim laughed. The rogue reached his free, burnt hand down to the jounin's sake jug. "Ahh, perfect. Just what I'd expect from a lush like you."

    Bikuta struggled harder, trying to escape or figure out what the sick rogue was up to. "Water style," Serim began slowly. The jounin's eyebrows raised. Where would he find water to use..? "Water prison jutsu," Serim finished after letting the suspense build for a long moment.

    An orb of liquid surrounded the jounin's head.

    He yelled reflexively, coughing as burning sake was sucked down his windpipe. Both eyes felt scorched, even the one underneath his bandana. He gurgled helplessly, while behind him all he could hear was the rogue-nin's cutting laughter.

    __

    Perfect was all he could think of to describe it. Serim laughed again as the jounin flailed, his head surrounded in the drink he so loved. How fitting to be done in so... ironically! He had practically asked for this, with the way he kept sipping so daintily at the jug, smiling so smugly, and laughing with his eyes!

    Serim's grin nearly cracked his face in half as the jounin suddenly stopped struggling under his hands. Oh no, too soon for that, the rogue-nin thought, tightening his grip. No sudden escapes for you! It would be another several minutes before he actually drowned or suffocated!

    Wait, what? The sphere was shrinking. Did he inhale that much of it..?

    The laughter started to die away. Serim noticed the man's throat moving, almost like he was...

    No!

    __

    By the time he finished chugging, he had forgotten what the wagers were. Grinning triumphantly, he sucked in a huge breath of air and laughed. His eyes still burned, but now the rest of him felt warm, too warm. It was like an oven in there. Especially his arm: that really burned.

    Bikuta tried to uncurl his arm so he could stretch it, but somebody was holding it. He frowned; he didn't want anybody holding his arm. He shook his arm and received a tap on the head. Abruptly, clarity returned.

    Serim Urami.

    Bikuta tried to elbow the rogue, but ended up smashing his head back into the man's face. What was that? Three times, now? Bikuta laughed and slurred something out, before doing it again. The grip on his arm loosened, so Bikuta slammed his head forward and felt dried mud crack.

    "Still having fun, Urami?" the jounin asked with a laugh as he turned around. His hand broke free of the dried mud clone. With an angry huff, Serim let go of his arm. Bikuta turned around, grinning hugely as he looked at the rogue-nin. The tiny little guy kept swaying back and forth crazily, though. Where did his knife go?

    Thoughts of what the man had done to the white-haired girl crossed his mind, and what he had tried to do to his team.

    Bikuta's hands started forming hand-signs and he laughed, starting to run at the weaving little punk. "Fire style, fireball jutsu!" he bellowed just before the ground around them began trembling, erupting with violent earthquakes. Serim was yelling something, Bikuta wasn't sure what. The greasy little fellow was running to the right, so Bikuta ran right after him.

    And right past him.

    He was still forming hand-signs non-stop, whatever came to mind. "Come back here, buddy," Bikuta sang out, snapping one huge boot out and stomping the rogue into a cloud of smoke. "Shadow clone jutsu!"

    The jounin reared back and blew a dozen tiny fireballs from his lips, blanketing the already-scorched ground in more flames. Serim was yelling again, and Bikuta grinned. "Shadow kunai jutsu!" he shouted while he stepped out of the way of a knife in the air. The earth quaked again, knocking the red-clothed ninja down to one knee.

    His boot was aimed for Serim's chest, but it ended up hitting him in the face instead. "Fire style, fireball jutsu!" Bikuta bellowed out with another drunken laugh. A massive ball of howling flames erupted from his mouth, bearing down on the rogue-nin.

    Serim shouted again, this time vaguely breaking through. "Not for me!" or something like that. Out of nowhere, the red-clothed ninja appeared and flicked him in the forehead. Bikuta tried to flick him back, but he didn't kick the finger out quickly enough and accidentally pounded his fist into the rogue-nin.

    "Fire style--!"

    "Earth style--!"

    "Phoenix fire jutsu!" they both yelled. A dozen tiny fireballs appeared in mid-air before a wall of mud rose up from the ground in front of the Konoha jounin. He grinned and pushed the wall down as it started to dry.

    "Enough!" Serim yelled, leaping out of the way of the falling wall. "Fire style, dragon fla--!"

    Bikuta's fist missed Serim's face... but the spikes on the back of the glove didn't.

    The rogue fell back but then Bikuta hammered his other fist into Serim's stomach. This time there was a burst of thick black smoke that made the jounin cough. "Forget it! This is a waste of time!" the rogue was yelling. Bikuta spotted him darting away, and remembered it was the same way the girls had gone.

    "Aw, don't leave yet!" he shouted. "The fun's only beginning!" He started running after the rogue, only to stop and fall to his knees. "Ugh!" At first he couldn't figure out why, until his stomach decided to empty itself all over the charred, broken ground.

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    Chapter Fifteen

    There, lying on her stomach with her feet kicking aimlessly. Ed was right out in the open, completely oblivious to the idea that one of those ninjas might come after her again. Bandit and Yuffie shared a look of exasperation as they stepped over a pair of crude wire traps. The huge dog laying next to Ed lifted his head to look at them.

    The two girls strode out into the sunlight and Ed immediately jumped to her feet. "Hito! Yuffie!" she cried out excitedly. "You came back for Ed!" Ein let out an excited bark.

    Instead of returning the cheerful greeting, Bandit waved her blue sleeves and hissed out, "What were you thinking! People are after you! You were supposed to hide !" She shook her head incredulously, looking around.

    The dark-haired Hyuuga girl came up from another side, looking around. With her help they had found Ed in record time, but even without Byakugan it would be a cinch for any experienced ninja to track the girl. Hinata was now resting her eyes, but Bandit was worried they would need them again soon.

    The red-haired girl grinned. "Ed would have been A-okay! Traps all around, with Ed as the bait !" She threw her arms out and spun around, clearly pleased with her idea.

    Bandit shook her head, an incredulous look in her red eyes. "I can't believe you think that amateur traps like that will work! You're up against real ninjas here. Even the freshest genin can spot these traps from a mile away!"

    There was a crack from the back side of the clearing and then a familiar voice yelling, "Help-nii~!" Ed looked that way and then turned back to the genin with a winning grin.

    Hanging her head in embarrassment, Bandit just nodded when Yuffie said, "I'll go get her."

    The tiny genin lifted a finger up. "Nia is... a special case! That won't work on any other...!"

    Practically right behind them, there was a loud snap and an angry growl. Bandit and Hinata both gasped in surprise, whirling around into defensive stances. Ed let out a cocky, "hee hee," and Bandit put an arm out to urge her to stand back.

    "Get me down from here!" a very angry Aisha shouted loudly from just past the trees. "Rawr... you are all! Dead! Meat!" The distinct sound of snapping rope could be heard. Bandit and Hinata looked at each other nervously. "You hear me! I am going to tear you to pieces! No matter who you are! My name is Aisha! Aisha Kuranra--ahh!" There was another snap as the violent Cloud-nin walked straight into the second trap.

    Bandit and Hinata shared another look, this one incredulous as they both struggled not to giggle.

    __

    Neith raced through the trees, leaves and branches whipping by, spider webs breaking across his face, struggling to catch up with the silver-haired girl. She just kept getting further and further ahead. He was starting to regret giving her that soldier pill -- now she was going to use it to go get herself killed!

    The redhead didn't even have the strength left to yell out her name anymore: he was struggling just to keep his breath and avoid skewering himself on low-hanging branches.

    He didn't even see the wild boar until the shuriken hurtled past his face and embedded itself in the large beast's forehead. With a pained squeal, the huge pig slumped over to the side. Neith halted in his tracks, staring fearfully at the dead animal, at the bloody weapon jutting from it. With a nervous swallow, he began to turn his head, but the acrid smell of smoke and charred leather filled his nostrils. A hand grabbed his shoulder roughly.

    "So amazingly slow," Serim's voice hissed, stepping past him. Neith's eyes wandered up and his stomach lurched. The entire side of Serim's face was brutalized, vivid red stains flowing down his throat and fading against the crimson of his clothes. Seeming to sense the boy's discomfort, Serim grinned. Only then did Neith realize that he could see teeth through the ragged flesh of the man's cheek.

    The rogue jounin limped forward, prompting the genin to look at his mangled knee. No words came to mind as the muscles flexed and pulled, fluids gushing from the jagged tears in the flesh and cartilage. Neith shut his eyes and looked away sharply, trying with all his concentration to avoid vomiting then and there, trying not to think of how the jounin could catch up to him with his leg in such a state. Desperate to get away from the man, he replied simply, "I'll run faster, then!" and started to go, steadfastly looking away from Serim.

    "Stay where you are," the greasy-haired rogue ordered. Chilled to the bone, Neith halted, still not looking at the man. He gulped, unsure what to expect. "I have a different task for you," Serim growled, shuffling forward through the grass. "I need a happy little helper."

    Neith's eyes looked off in the direction Aisha had rushed. There were at least four enemies up there, even if they weren't high-ranking. Alone, would Aisha stand a chance..? He looked nervously over to the soot-streaked jounin, whose back was turned, seemingly admiring his kill. What would Serim do if he refused..?

    How long would Aisha last if he didn't show up..?

    "No," Neith replied, his voice cracking.

    Serim's shoulders stiffened and his head slowly turned, the split cheek lifting over his shoulder. One dark eye staring at him, the jounin asked, "No?" Then as if leading a student on after they gave a particularly foolish answer, Serim asked again, "Are you sure that's what you want to say to me?" Somehow, the innocently surprised tone made the words feel all the more threatening.

    "Aisha's all by herself up ahead," Neith tried to explain, immediately realizing it was a poor defense. Serim would just as quickly kill Aisha himself as worry about her safety. He pressed on anyway. "She could very well die if I don't catch up."

    With a dark laugh, teeth clacking behind their red veil, Serim shook his head. "So," he began slowly, his voice coming out in a sinister growl, "you plan to make the same mistake again." A sickening grin spread on the man's mangled face. "And for a worthless female... Just. Like. Before." He laughed again.

    The redhead shrank back, eyes widening. How did..? "That has nothing to do with this!" he shouted.

    Serim chuckled and looked around, lifting a bloody hand to shade his eyes from the nonexistent glare. "Where oh where might your other little friend be, I wonder?" The mocking, arrogant smirk spread as his hand dropped to hang loosely. "What ever happened to noble Reese while you were chasing your latest charmless little crush..?"

    Guiltily, Neith's head jerked in the general direction where he had split from Reese. "He.. uh... he..." He should have caught up already. Neith turned a determined look at Serim. "He wouldn't go down against these novices!"

    The rogue jounin let out a dark cackle, then reached up and casually scratched at his shredded cheek. "No... no, I suppose he wouldn't get hurt at all against enemies of this caliber. He's such an incredibly gifted young man, after all."

    The boy paled as he watched Serim's blackened nails scratching at the vicious wound, doubts beginning to enter into his mind. He thought back to Farin and Jurai, shaking his head. No, he told himself, this is not the same! This is nothing like that time!

    "I'm going," he whispered out, his voice cracking a little. He tried to give Serim a defiant look, but his gaze turned away.

    "You're staying," Serim ordered, a cocksure grin fixing itself on his battered face. Neith had never stood up to him before, so why should the jounin expect him to now?

    Fighting past the quivering in his limbs, Neith turned and began walking away, unable to muster the courage to speak out again. With his back turned, though, a little more bravado crawled out and he told the dark-eyed man, "The mission comes first." After a pause he began walking on.

    A hand snatched at him, halting him in place. Fingers tightened on his right shoulder, a faint cracking noise rising from them as they dug into him. He nearly screamed out, remaining silent only because of the strength in that grip. The boy's terrified eyes looked to the side, stared at the scorched and broken flesh of Serim's right hand. The smell of fire and smoke rose up to his nose and this time, it did not smell like a cooking bonfire, nor even a burning field. It did not smell like a man's flesh critically seared, nor of charred leather.

    As he stared at that hand, the smell reminded Neith of cremation... of the ashes of corpses burnt in heaping piles.

    "Your kunai," came the instruction. No amusement, no cockiness. Just pure malice, the certainty that there would be no questioning, no denial. And there wasn't: Neith pulled out a kunai, shakily holding it up for the demonic figure to take away, even expecting the blade to cut into him.

    The hand lifted from his shoulder, leaving behind bloody soot. "Even you might have learned something if you had stayed," Serim told the boy with disgust. The dark edge returned to his voice. "Are you still here? You know, I think, how I feel about... dishonesty."

    Neith broke out into a run, not even daring to look back. His eyes turned ahead, to Aisha, to their target.

    To staying alive.

    __
    This wire trap was not as high as the first ones. Short as she was, Aisha's long pony tail still lay halfway on the ground. The three girls and Ein crept warily forward, finding the white-haired girl's face to be just about at eye level. Her arms were crossed angrily, and her bright green ribbons hung down to the grass.

    "What kind of lame ninja sets the same trap twice in a row!" she yelled angrily.

    Reflexively, the two genin both pointed at Ed, hesitant smirks spreading on their faces. The gangly tomboy waved with a huge grin. "Except she's not a ninja," Bandit pointed out helpfully. She politely refrained from asking what kind of ninja falls into the same trap twice in a row.

    "Ha ha," Aisha replied drily, crossing her free leg across her knee. The rope looked like it was digging painfully into her ankle, but she didn't complain. "Now let me down."

    "Okay!" Ed replied cheerfully. Bandit held an arm out in front of her.

    It was Hinata who spoke up from the side. "Why would we let you down..?" she asked quietly.

    Aisha threw her arms out emphatically. "So that we can fight!" The dark-skinned young girl shook her head as if that should have been obvious.

    "Well, we don't want to fight!" Bandit exclaimed, pushing Ed back a little more. "We're not like you!"

    The trapped girl crossed her arms and tilted her head. "You're the ones who started the first fight before you even knew who I was."

    Bandit's eyes widened. "Did not!" she protested, thinking of Aisha slamming her fist into Red's shadow. "You started it!"

    "Oh right," Aisha retorted sarcastically, "cause I threw a bomb at myself!" She stuck her tongue out.

    Hinata and Ed looked at Bandit uncertainly. She held up her arms and tried to explain. "It wasn't supposed to hit her! We just needed her to stop running!" The girl turned and pointed a sleeve accusingly at Aisha. "And good thing she did, since all she wants to do is kidnap you, Hinata-san!"

    "I don't want her."

    Bandit looked up, confused. "What?"

    Although the words came reluctantly, Aisha repeated firmly, "I don't want her."

    Angrily, Bandit waved her sleeves around. "Are you going to lie now and pretend you didn't admit to hunting her?"

    "Not anymore!" Aisha shouted angrily, her voice cracking slightly. Her voice lowered to little more than a whisper. "I screwed up, okay? I will not put myself or my pride ahead of my team again, not even Serim, that disgusting excuse for human being." The words struck a chord in Bandit, who couldn't think of a retort.

    Warily, the girls stepped back. Nervously, Hinata asked, "If you're not after me anymore, then why were you chasing us?"

    She pointed between the two of them, to Ed. The redhead took an uncertain step back, pointing at herself as if she had no idea why. "We're supposed to find her, and return her to the Land of Whirlpools." Then she added, as if disappointed by it, "If you don't want to fight then she can just come with me."

    While Aisha swayed back and forth on the rope, Bandit looked nervously at the wire that dug deeply into her ankle. Was this entire mess a huge misunderstanding? Was all of it their fault, for jumping into something without knowing the full story..? She looked at Ed, who was talking quietly to Hinata. She didn't know the first thing about this girl, except that her brother had died and she came from Uzu. Maybe she had family that wanted her back?

    If Bandit hadn't insisted on fighting Aisha one on one before, might they have captured her and sorted everything out before they had to deal with that violent rogue? Before Red was taken away?

    "Ed doesn't want to go back to Uzu, yet," the redhead said, breaking Bandit's depressing train of thought. "Ed's brother wanted Ed to meet her aunt, in Konoha!"

    Quietly but bravely, Hinata told Aisha, "If she doesn't want to go, then we won't let you take her."

    Irritably, Aisha said, "We have our orders, we can't just go back and say, 'well she didn't want to!' Ugh." Grumbling to herself for a minute, Aisha's emerald eyes suddenly flashed with eagerness. Bandit watched warily; the Cloud-nin's uncertainty was gone, some of her earlier bravado returning. "You'll come with me," Aisha stated boldly. "No way that Serim will allow it, but if we talk to Xaki first, he'll probably take you to see your precious auntie before we leave."

    "She already said she doesn't want to go!" Hinata said firmly, slipping into a defensive stance. "Byakugan!"

    Bandit jumped in front of Hinata. "Wait! Xaki... what does he look like? Is he really tall with hair your color? Tell me!" Aisha's eyes widened with surprise, and that was answer enough for Bandit. "Where is he!?" she demanded while the girl struggled for a response.

    Without warning, Aisha bent upward, grabbing the rope with both hands and sinking her teeth into it. There was a loud snap and she fell to the ground, quickly bouncing upward into a fighting crouch. "No more talking!" she declared with a snarl.

    "Where is he?" Bandit demanded again. "Why is he working with that psycho?" Her red eyes narrowed dangerously. "Why are you working with that psycho if your intentions are so innocent?"

    Ed took several steps further back and the big dog began growling.

    "I said I'm done talking!" Aisha snarled, lunging forward with a vicious jab. Remembering the previous fight, Bandit ducked out of the way rather than try to block. Hinata similarly gave the punch a wide berth.

    "Guilt," Hinata said, inexplicably. They all looked at her. "The answers make you feel guilty."

    "Don't try to second-guess me!" Aisha shouted, rushing at Hinata with a vicious uppercut. The wind from the blow ruffled the Hyuuga girl's hair, but she easily avoided the attack itself.

    "You don't understand," Hinata said quietly. She hopped several steps back, her eyes intense, staring into the dark-skinned girl, reading her expressions, her body language. "You don't know which path to take." The girl squeaked and ducked under a high kick, circling around behind her opponent rapidly.

    Bandit watched, amazed. She thought of how all six of them had fought against Aisha at one time and couldn't gain the upper hand. Hinata... it really looked like Hinata could handle the savage genin on her own.

    "You don't want to fight, but you don't have any other answer," the girl said. "To give a different answer would be to admit your guilt, your shame."

    "You don't even know what shame is!" Aisha shouted, fire in her emerald eyes. "How could you, living your perfect little life here, with your friends and your daddy and people you don't even know willing to fight your battles for you?" With another snarl, she lunged forward, attacking with a barrage of rapid punches that the Hyuuga girl deftly avoided. She never allowed one to get through, never touched the fists.

    Bandit caught an unhappy look before Hinata's face resumed its seriousness.

    "I know better than you think," Hinata replied quietly, though it was nearly drowned out by the white-haired girl's sudden shout of rage. Aisha's attacks increased in speed, coming closer and closer but never quite touching Hinata.

    Making a quick decision, Bandit jumped in and swept Aisha's feet out from under her. The girl growled and leapt back to her feet, looking from one girl to the other. "Lousy Leaf cowards! Too afraid to fight anyone one on one!" Her glare turned to Hinata. "And yet again, someone steps in to fight your--!"

    "This isn't her fight!" Bandit shouted. "You already said that you weren't after her anymore, so your fight is with us!" The diminutive genin crouched low in a defensive posture. Her eyes flashed with determination. "Fight me, Kuranran!"

    Aisha turned to face her, shaking her head. "You don't remember what happened last time, do you?"

    The girl reached up and began to unbutton her father's shirt at her right shoulder. "Last time I was fighting for myself. This time I'm fighting for Ed, for my team." She looked behind Aisha. "Hinata-san, please don't interfere. I know you can probably handle her by yourself, but I, we, will never get stronger if you handle it for us."

    With a hesitant nod, Hinata turned and moved in front of Ed, assuring that Aisha wouldn't be able to simply take out her frustrations on the mysterious Uzu kid. "Bandit-san... when she attacks, every ounce of chakra is at the point of impact. She shifts her chakra like it's nothing at all, putting all of her strength exactly where it's needed in an instant."

    Bandit nodded and then let out a yelp of surprise as Aisha rushed forward without warning. The tiny girl ducked under the arc of Aisha's claws, her oversized blue shirt, flying open with the force of the attack. Resolve in her eyes, Bandit reacted with a high kick, her foot snapping up and driving the wooden pegs of her sandals into Aisha's jaw.

    For her part, Aisha reacted with her normal stoicism, shrugging off what would be a decisive blow to most people.

    Bandit leapt back toward Hinata, away from Aisha's counterattack, throwing the blue shirt to Ed. She stood up taller, holding her arms out, wrists loose. Her black-edged white tank-top had a cute outline of a fox on the front of it. Ignoring the slight embarrassment from the childish shirt, Bandit began circling Aisha.

    "Fighting for your team... ha!" The dark-skinned girl kicked toward Bandit's head. When she ducked underneath it, Aisha spun and aimed at backhand straight at her. Bandit slid backward and then leapt forward, kicking Aisha twice in the shoulder and flipping backward. Her sandals slid across the grass and Aisha grinned confidently. "This is the same as before!"

    Bandit frowned and rushed in low. Aisha whirled into a roundhouse, but Bandit leapt straight over the leg, one hand knifing in and hitting the girl in the throat. She pulled back again, shaking her hand -- the fingers hurt, as if she'd hit a tree rather than a vulnerable throat. Her opponent laughed.

    "You're good," Aisha admitted, rubbing her throat but otherwise unbothered. "But there's just no getting around it: I'm stronger, I'm faster, and I have the will to win. I'm Aisha Kuranran!" She shook her head. "You're just some kid."

    "I told you before," she retorted, "My name is Bandit Kyoukan!"

    With that, Bandit rushed forward, diving into a roll underneath Aisha's kick. That leg whistled over her head, whipping her long hair violently as it passed, sending grave images of what might have happened if she failed to duck running through her head. Bandit slapped both palms to the grass, though and kicked out with both legs... in different directions.

    Her left foot slammed futilely against the back of Aisha's other leg -- she would have been better off kicking a boulder.

    Her right foot reached higher though, slamming hard into the back of the girl's left shoulder. Aisha cried out, bouncing away and clutching awkwardly at the point of impact. "You..!" she snarled angrily.

    Hinata had said it: Aisha was concentrating all of her chakra at the points of impact. That meant that everywhere else was vulnerable.

    All she needed to do was hit in two different places simultaneously.

    "Think you can do it again?" Aisha asked with a growl, letting go of the injury. "Before I hit you back?" It had only taken one hit to put Bandit out of the fight before... and this time Tyger wouldn't be here to patch her up. "How long can you avoid getting hit, one on one?"

    A shiver of fear ran down her body, but Bandit stood straight and rushed forward, spinning around the girl's vicious lunge and sweeping at her legs. Again, it was like hitting solid rock... but Aisha cried out in surprise anyway, slamming face-first to the ground and quickly lifting herself on all fours.

    "Take that-nii~!"

    Bandit smiled, bouncing back to her feet as Nia shook out her paw-covered fist and walked up on her right. Yuffie appeared on her left, one folded fuuma shuriken in hand. She looked at Bandit's shirt and remarked, "Cute fox."

    With a faint blush, Bandit faced Aisha and repeated, "I'm not fighting for myself this time." With a sad smile, she looked at her friends, then back to Aisha, who was getting to her feet and rubbing her forearm across her face. "I'm sorry that you're always alone... but that doesn't mean I have to be!"

    Aisha had no reply to that, instead just flashing forward, eyes flaring with intensity as her fist hurtled straight toward Bandit's face.

    Nia leapt in front, blocking the punch with both arms, sliding back several inches while the shorter girl darted around her friend and delivered a swift series of punches to Aisha's side. Yuffie leapt over their heads, delivering a flying roundhouse that narrowly missed the top of Aisha's head.

    A paw-covered fist snapped forward, met by Aisha's forearm. Bandit's wooden sandal slammed into the iron-like back of Aisha's knee and Yuffie's fist crashed painfully into the white-haired girl's stomach.

    Growling, Aisha, snapped her arms out, throwing the girls off her. Singling Nia out as the biggest threat, the Cloud-nin delivered a devastating flying drop-kick in her direction. Bandit jumped forward, grabbing the metal ring in Aisha's ponytail and yanking as hard as she could to stop the double-kick. The girl slammed roughly to the ground and before she could get up, Yuffie slammed her fuuma shuriken through the metal ring, pinning it to the ground.

    Aisha tried to jump back to her feet and was halted by the pin, able to rise only about halfway. Her green eyes darted around desperately, recognizing that she couldn't possibly escape three attacks at once while held down. She kicked weakly at Bandit and held up her arms to block Nia's coming attack.

    She had nothing to spare to deflect the kunai that Yuffie was preparing to throw.

    It's over! Bandit thought triumphantly.

    Then a pair of metallic chimes filled the air and everyone halted at once. Yuffie's kunai stood upright in the grass. There, in between Yuffie and Aisha, stood a boy with spiky red hair and a brown shirt. He was breathing heavily, arms out to both sides, each hand clutching a weapon. The metallic hand-scythes glinted lazily in the sunlight that filtered down toward them.

    The kama in his left hand, held underhanded, had slipped through the ring of Yuffie's fuuma shuriken and yanked it out of the ground, freeing Aisha. With the one in his right, he had deflected the kunai.

    Bandit tensed when she saw the red and black handprint on his right shoulder.

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    Chapter Sixteen

    The red-headed rogue's eyes slid from one enemy to the next, his body tense, his knuckles tight on the kama hafts. Though he had leapt into the fray without hesitation -- there really wasn't any other option -- Neith was beginning to regret the decision. The odds were stacked heavily against them... at least five, no six, against just the two of them. He had no idea how to fight a dog, and he really didn't like fighting girls.

    "I didn't ask for your help, Neith," Aisha told him as she regained her feet, quickly but shakily. She moved a bit so they were standing back to back.

    Without looking at her -- unwilling to pull his eyes away from the dangerous-looking bob-headed girl in front of him -- he retorted, "I didn't ask if you wanted my help." Neith paused, getting a better look at the tan-skinned redhead. "Is that her..?" he asked, hoping it wasn't.

    Ed lifted a finger and pointed at herself as if to ask, Who, me?

    "That's her," Aisha confirmed.

    "I think there's been a misundersta--," Neith started to say, hoping to defuse the situation. A shout from the little one in front of Aisha cut him off and he groaned, readying his weapons.

    "Yuffie, cover that Neith kid! Hinata-san and Ed-chan, please continue to stay back! Nia, with me!" Bandit yelled.

    The white-haired girl flashed Bandit a cocky grin. "Too proud to accept their help?" she taunted. "Just makes it even easier on me!"

    Bandit grinned, recognizing the hypocrisy right away. The boy looked to Aisha, seemingly hoping for aid, but then Yuffie descended on him, weapons whirling and thrusting. She slung her arm across, wielding her remaining fuuma shuriken like a sword. Neith swung a sickle down, catching the blade before she could cut him.

    Grinning, Yuffie immediately halted the horizontal swing and turned it into a forward thrust. The redhead's eyes widened and he snapped his second kama down, catching the shuriken tight between them.

    Yuffie gave her wrist a quick twist, yanking the weapon free. Neith's face filled with alarm as his weapons shot out to the sides. The fuuma shuriken shot through the opening in his defense in an underhanded slash.

    Strings of blood flew high into the air.

    A grunt escaped from Aisha's mouth as wooden sandals slammed once more against her shoulder blades. She whirled around with a vicious elbow, but Bandit was already slipping away. Nia was right there again, and Aisha hurriedly leapt away from the straight kick, countering with a jab to the girl's shoulder. Immediately she felt punches in her kidney, one, two, three, light and fast but painful. "Arggh!" she yelled out, spinning into a backhand that Bandit ducked under, landing a swift chop on the inside of Aisha's elbow.

    Nia, pounced down on all fours, launched herself forward, bowling Aisha over as Bandit slipped nimbly out of the way. The cat-like girl somersaulted off the downed Cloud-nin, landing on all fours facing her adversary. Aisha pushed herself up, the two green-eyed ninjas staring at each other; Aisha's eyes filled with anger, Nia's with excitement. In a burst of movement, the two lunged at each other.

    Sparks lifted into the air as kama and shuriken clashed just as violently. Neith's arms moved faster and faster, the deep gash across his collarbone awakening a ferocity he hadn't felt in quite some time. His blades moved in perfect harmony, not always moving identically, but always to the same rhythm, always in tandem. Yuffie slipped a low kick into her attack, but Neith expertly side-stepped the attack and then rushed forward, chopping with two short side-strokes and driving the girl back.

    He moved as precisely as if he were a mantis himself.

    Yuffie grinned, breathlessly remarking, "It's not your fault you're so unlucky." She struggled to keep up with each of his attacks as he drove her further back, closer to the trees, but she still grinned confidently. "I even feel bad for you!" Yuffie explained, "Having to fight the Great Ninja Yuffie!"

    His eyes narrowed, but he said nothing as he pressed forward, his arms moving smoothly as he chopped high, low, vertical and horizontal, a haunting harmony in his movements that spoke of intense control.

    It was the complete opposite of the undisciplined melee that his partner was engaged in. White and blond and green and orange whirled around in a maddening display as Aisha and Nia furiously went at each other, the latter on all fours as often as not. It soon became clear that where Aisha had a clear advantage in power, Nia edged her out for sheer agility. As Bandit watched, Nia leapt into a vertical flip, her heel slamming into her opponent's head with the full force of the spin.

    Aisha slammed to the ground and Nia yelled, "Nia's Slicer-nii~!" She flashed a victory sign to Bandit.

    "Nia, look out!" the shorter girl cried out.

    A swift kama blade sliced past, returning Yuffie grey-violet gaze firmly to Neith. "Worried about your friends?" he taunted calmly. The girl frowned and then chopped forward with her shuriken, the attack easily being caught by her opponent. "What makes you think Aisha is the dangerous one?"

    His arms were a blur and Yuffie cried out as one of his razor sharp blades dug into her forearm. She managed to pull her arm away, but the burning pain washed through the arm already, blood slipping down to her wrist.

    Aisha slammed her fist into Nia's stomach, doubling the catlike girl over and stunning her. "Don't ever take me lightly!" Aisha shouted, lifting both fists together over her head, preparing to bash in Nia's skull.

    Bandit snagged one of the ends of the white-haired girl's green scarf and tugged it as hard as she could, forcing the attack off target. Nia slipped to her knees, even so. "Don't take us lightly, either!" she cried out, her voice sounding tiny compared to the Cloud-nin's angry shout.

    "The next hit will be your last!" Aisha promised. "Permanently!"

    Bandit crouched down in a fighting stance, her hands held palm forward in front of herself, one leg extended. Aisha started to rush in again, but halted, quickly yanking off her scarf and throwing it to the ground beside Nia.

    "Crap!" Yuffie shouted as another sickle slipped past, ripping through her shorts to tear a line in her left thigh. "You jerk!" she yelled, finding a second wind and pushing back even harder despite the stinging pain in her cuts. Neith, for his part, kept his emotionless expression, his movements remaining firm but fluid. Every swing, every thrust, was easily brushed aside. Yuffie found herself falling back again.

    Neith's eyes lit up as he finally saw what he was looking for behind the ninja girl. He pressed forward even faster. There! An opening! The rogue genin attacked straight down with his left kama, and Yuffie snapped her blade up to intercept... but Neith immediately followed with a similar attack from his right kama.

    With her blade tied up, she would take a deep gash in her side.

    Unexpectedly, there was the chime of metal on metal. The brunette was grinning, holding her fully unfurled shuriken. With a quick spin, she drove aside his sickles and he retreated several steps uncertainly. "I told you that you were unlucky," she said with a grin.

    Aisha rolled forward in a sweeping kick, but Bandit lithely hopped over it, landing back in her stance. The white-haired girl bounced to her feet in an instant, snapping her foot up high, about to slam her heel straight into Bandit's head. "Take thi--urlk!?"

    Bandit had pressed her hands to the ground, rising out of her stance in a swift handstand, bicycling her wooden sandal straight into Aisha's stomach. "Ack!" Her other foot planted itself solidly in the girl's chest.

    "Hyah!" Bandit cried out, pushing up with her hands and kicking up with her first leg as hard as she could, the wooden pegs cracking straight into Aisha's unprotected chin while all her chakra was struggling to shift from her heel to her midsection. Smiling, Bandit let herself fall backward from the handstand, rolling to her feet away from Aisha, who was bent over and clutching her face.

    Bandit caught eyes with Nia, back on her own feet.

    The shuriken spun, sparks flying again and again as Yuffie's blades scraped against Neith's. The girl was still wielding it as a hand weapon, but Neith was fighting desperately to stay at close range. Up close, he could fight head-on against her, even continue to push her back. If he let her get distance, though, there was little he could do to retaliate with his hand-sickles.

    He sucked in a breath as her shuriken forced its way past his weapons, landing a gash across his upper left arm. "Two for two," Yuffie taunted, sending Neith's mind whirling to dark places. The rogue angrily shook his head, refusing to lose focus, struggling on, keeping his movements smooth and swift even as his shoulder protested.

    Blood ran from both of them, but the two ninjas continued to fight on, and Yuffie continued to steadily lose ground, nearly past the edge of the trees now. If she was at all concerned she didn't show it, and that only encouraged Neith to press on harder, even as sweat mingled painfully with his open wounds.

    His goal was in sight.

    Aisha rose to her feet, shoulders stiff. She pulled her hands away from her face, revealing blood running down her chin and into her hands. Like cold fire, her green eyes glared at Bandit, and the proud Kuranran said nothing. Bandit watched a little fearfully, as Aisha stood up straight, her arms loose at her sides.

    "Don't forget about me-nii~!" the orange-haired genin shouted as she ran up from behind Aisha. She spun her whole arm into a powerful straight-armed punch. The white-haired girl calmly side-stepped the attack, her glare fixating on Nia, but then her eyebrows shot up and she snapped both arms up to block. Filled with the momentum from her punch, the hook kick slid Aisha back several inches.

    Bandit watched, a bit amazed, as Nia continued her straight-limbed assault, whirling and dipping. She built momentum as she went, and most punches turned into kicks. Chakra erupted from her fists or feet at times, rocketing the limbs forward to pound heavily against Aisha's arms or legs.

    For her part, Aisha stayed completely on the defensive, ducking and blocking, letting out small grunts when Nia landed particularly hard hits. Bandit crouched low, ready to spring in when there was an opening.

    The orange-clothed genin bounced back from one particularly strong deflection. Grinning confidently, even as a sheen of sweat covered her skin, Nia cried out, "How about this-nii?" She leapt forward, both fists leading.

    Neith huffed, gasping for breath almost as much as his adversary. There was only one other person who had ever pushed him this far before, but he blamed it on his lack of practice more than any skills on the part of this 'Great Ninja.' Seeing that she was beginning to tire, and realizing that he actually might lose at this rate, Neith leapt back a few steps, causing Yuffie to overbalance.

    She caught herself immediately, but it gave the rogue enough time to bring his hands together and flash through several quick hand-signs. Then he was right back in the fray, slashing and chopping with disciplined strokes. Yuffie was smirking though, thinking he had shown his own weakness in the desperate movements.

    "You shouldn't... act so superior," Neith gasped out, "You fight... like a total novice!"

    Yuffie's smirk didn't fade as she spun her weapon to block two strikes at once. "Best novice you ever lost to!"

    The boy frowned. He thrust his kama forward, past her guard, an attack with would intentionally miss. She let it through, unsuspecting.

    A line of crimson splashed against the tree behind her.

    Nia's attack fell short, and she hit the ground. Just as Aisha relaxed her guard and prepared to counterattack, though, Nia rolled with the momentum, kicking up with both legs. The paw-like sandals slammed painfully into Aisha's chest, throwing her back against a tree. There was a resounding thud as the back of her head cracked into the wood.

    Instead of being dazed, though, it merely made her more feral. Snarling viciously, Aisha held onto Nia's legs, lifting the girl and swinging her whole body at the next tree over. Nia hit it hard and crumpled, letting out a pained, "nii..."

    Aisha's cold eyes snapped over to Bandit. Without a word, she picked Nia up once again, throwing the girl as hard as she could straight at the tiny genin. Bandit's eyes widened and she gasped out, "Nia!" Uncertain what to do, Bandit tried to catch her friend.

    The most she could do was break the girl's fall. The two crashed to the ground in a heap. Both groaned, and Bandit, stuck underneath Nia's stunned body, could only stare fearfully as the bestial Cloud-nin stalked toward them, hands extended like claws, blood-coated teeth bared. Desperately, Bandit slipped out from under Nia, but Aisha was already on them. "Yuffie!" she yelled out.

    Without any other instruction needed, Yuffie leapt away from Neith and launched her shuriken across the field. The newest gash on her arm was bleeding pretty badly and Neith paused in disbelief. "You're not really in a position to be helping them," he said.

    Breathing heavily, Yuffie laughed. "We're a team," was her only explanation.

    The rogue shook his head, lifting both kama. Blood coated the air behind one kama, revealing the invisible chakra blade, its curve the reverse of the original.

    The shuriken whirled in, its aim dead on. Aisha leapt out of the way and the four-edged fuuma shuriken sank into the grass right where she'd been standing. Bandit quickly snatched the metal ring, flipping the blades closed and leaping forward with a deft slice. The unarmed Aisha reared back and did a quick twirl.

    Bandit swung again and this time, there was a metallic clang: Aisha held the metal ring in her hair. Surprised, Bandit didn't react quickly enough as Aisha's leg snapped up, catching her in the side and sending her rolling across the grass.

    The kama descended, aiming for the muscles in the girl's arms. Neith wanted to disable her, not kill her. Yuffie surprised him yet again, though: with another muted chime, she blocked both attacks and before Neith realized what was happening, she sank one sneaker clean into his gut. The girl bounced back a step, in a fighter's crouch with her fists up. In each, she held three kunai between her fingers, like claws.

    The boy frowned, more memories welling up. He forced them down again, refusing to acknowledge the similarities. She was right there, just one step away and she hadn't even noticed.

    Regaining his composure, Neith poured another helping of chakra into his blades. He had never used the technique for long stretches like this before, and he hadn't realized how draining it would be. Making a quick decision, the boy spun low, slipping right up to Yuffie and then rising up with a crossed double-slash.

    His eyes widened in horror as his blades sank straight into the girl's body. She was supposed to jump back! Time seemed to slow as he watched the blades dig into her stomach, tearing through her bright yellow shirt. Slowly, his eyes lifted, and then he saw it: her hands.

    Just as Neith recognized the hand-sign, there was a puff of smoke and then two sneakers slammed into his back, knocking him off-balance. The rogue turned as he fell, watching as Yuffie gracefully executed her backward flip off of him. Her arms were folded across her chest -- even as he watched, the arms snapped forward, all six kunai flying from her hands straight at him. Desperately, he jerked his weapons, realizing only then that none of the blades were intended to hit.

    His elbow hit the ground first, and he felt the wire just before it snapped tight around his arm and yanked him straight up into the trees.

    "I will not let anyone stop me!" Aisha shouted angrily as she ran after Bandit. The girl managed to roll out of the way, a crippling pain just beneath her ribs. Eyes watery with pain, it was all Bandit could do to continue evading, rolling over the girl's kicks, sliding past her punches.

    The genin kicked off her sandals, her bare feet moving easier across the slick grass. Spying an opening, Bandit punched out, her fists barely making an impact against the dark-skinned girl. She rolled again under yet another dangerous kick, coming up with her back against Aisha's. Desperately, she moved with the violent enemy, trusting to cues from the physical contact in order to stay out of the girl's reach.

    But then Aisha bolted straight away, jerking around to face Bandit. "Enough games!" she roared, running forward, claws bared. An orange-and-white blur tackled her from the side, though, both forms rolling across the grass and back toward the trees.

    "Clever," Neith groaned as the wire trap dug painfully into his left arm. "You knew it was there all along, didn't you?"

    "Did you expect the Great Ninja Yuffie to fall for a trick like that?" she replied. Scooping up some more weapons from her depleted pouches, she turned, preparing to race over to help against Aisha. "Hang there for a bit, would ya?"

    There was a snapping sound. The girl turned back around, facing the boy and his one remaining kama underhanded. He held his left arm close at his side, the deep score marks from the wire trap still plainly visible. "I can't do that," he replied, though he looked at her with new respect. "Reese'd never let me live it down." Neith reached down to a pocket as if to grab something, but his eyes widened and he started patting all his pockets and looking across the ground.

    Yuffie held up a small pouch. "Looking for these..?" she asked with a smirk. "They sounded like little rocks -- I couldn't resist myself." She slipped the pills back into her pocket then faced off against the boy, one kunai in each hand.

    Neith's eyes darkened and he set his stance. He gave his weapon a deft spin and then moved in.

    Nia pounded her fists against Aisha's midsection, and the white-haired girl responded in kind. The orange-clothed genin lifted her fists high and punched down, while Aisha mostly swung wildly from the sides. The two powerful genin separated, and then Nia attacked with a side-kick followed by a roundhouse. Aisha grunted in pain as the second kick landed, but retaliated with an open-palmed strike to the center of Nia's head.

    "Bad move," Bandit remarked. Completely unfazed, Nia bent her knees and then leapt forward, slamming her forehead into Aisha's and knocked the Cloud-nin back. Bandit saw her opening and rushed in, jumping at the back of Aisha's legs, knocking the girl to the ground.

    Her nearly-insurmountable strength was waning.

    Yuffie and Neith were circling each other, each swinging rapidly, ignoring the sweat that ran down in their eyes and in their wounds, each struggling to overcome the other. Even with only one arm, the boy's disciplined fighting style and longer weapons allowed him to hold his own easily against the weary but still energetic girl. With only a pair of kunai left, Yuffie found herself unable to attack and defend -- only able to pull off one or the other successfully.

    Neith was gaining the upper hand again.

    Desperately, Yuffie snapped a leg out and kicked the boy in the knee before bouncing back several feet and yelling, "Bandit!" She launched one of her kunai across the field, facing Neith now with only one.

    "You surrender any advantage you happen to find," Neith remarked. "It's almost perverse."

    Huffing for breath, Yuffie couldn't help but remark, "You gave up a huge advantage yourself, so don't lecture me!"

    At hearing her name, Bandit looked over, saw the flash of metal. Understanding immediately, the girl reached out and grabbed the kunai from the air, adjusted her grip, and then threw it back across the clearing.

    Then, realization hit her and she yelled out, "Nia!" and began running to the girl.

    Neith swung his kama, catching the remaining kunai just under the blade and throwing the weapon from Yuffie's hand. Completely unarmed now, Yuffie still showed no signs of backing down. Even so, the boy held out his kama and told her, "Surrender!"

    Then the second kunai returned, slicing across Neith's wrist. He dropped his blade.

    Yuffie punched him straight in the face and shouted, "No!"

    She began to punch again, but he caught her fist, giving her a determined look from beneath his spiky red hair.

    Yuffie's eyes flashed upward and she grinned, retreating several steps. Before Neith could react, a screaming Bandit came out of the sky and crashed roughly against his back, sending him to the ground.

    The petite genin blinked from her seat on Neith's back, gradually realizing that she had really survived the insane flight. The boy groaned underneath her and Bandit giggled a bit. "Uh... sorry."

    Yuffie waved. "Yo."

    "Let him go!" an older boy with a huge sword shouted as he ran up from the woods.

    The two girls turned to face this new threat, unsure if they had enough strength left for another fight. "Edward!" Hinata shouted from across the clearing, snapping everyone's attention in that direction.

    Ein was barking wildly and Hinata was in a fighting stance... and right in-between them was Ed, held off the ground by the back of her throat by a clean, strong hand.

    Serim, his clothes still burnt but without a visible wound on him, grinned wickedly at the assembled children. His dark eyes bored into them as Ed struggled in his powerful grip.

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    Chapter Seventeen

    "Did you miss me?" the greasy-haired rogue asked, a sickening smile on his face.

    Everyone, even the other invaders, looked over to the man fearfully. "Serim's face..." Neith whispered incredulously from the ground, shaking his head. There wasn't a scratch on it.

    Ed kicked and shook violently in his grip, but it only made his grin widen. He lifted up a bloody kunai, looking over toward Bandit, Yuffie, and the boys. Both girls shivered, and it looked like the boy with the sword tensed up. "Thank you for the loan, brat," the rogue said sarcastically, unclear who he was speaking to. His dark eyes swept across the entire scene. Just a few feet from him, Hinata and Ein both faced him uncertainly, the Hyuuga heiress in a defensive fighting crouch.

    Neith was on the ground, Bandit still sitting on his back where she landed. Yuffie stood right beside her, half-turned, unsure whether to face their tormentor or the boy with the sword.

    Across the clearing, Aisha and Nia both stood facing the dark jounin, both wearied and battered but neither down, yet.

    A curt, sarcastic chuckle escaped the man's lips. It grew louder, making all of them wince. Even Ed stopped kicking, unnerved by the sinister laughter. His head tilted back as his laughter roared across the clearing, hysterical almost, maniacal certainly.

    Trembling, Bandit moved a hand behind her back.

    "Isn't it just absolutely sickening how inconceivably simple that was?" Serim growled, his laughter abruptly halting. His dark eyes roamed from one to the next, disgust dominating his features. Ed pulled and tugged at his hand, but to no avail. "One insignificant little moll, and you three incompetent mongrels can't even lay a hand on her."

    The kunai in his hand lifted up, and Ed whimpered as the flat of the cold steel blade pressed against her forehead. Serim's grin returned, a sickening and sadistic twist to his face as he gently stroked the girl's skin with the weapon. "Pitiful... absolutely pitiful... that you sacks of garbage cannot even defeat a single one of these spineless Leaf neonates."

    The grin abruptly faded and Edward screamed as the blade turned in his hand, the edge slicing just under her hairline. She squirmed and struggled and tried to pull her head away, but no matter how much she fought, she couldn't shake his hold on her. Ignoring the resistance, Serim looked at the gathered ninjas. His eyes settled briefly on Neith, down on the ground underneath Bandit. "Actually," he threatened darkly, "if this keeps up, I don't think Gouza will be at all surprised or concerned if he finds that none of you survived."

    The implication was crimson clear: either they kill the Konoha-nin or he would kill them.

    Shudders coursed down Bandit's spine and as his dark, empty eyes bored into her soul again, she struggled to move, to fight off the fear. Where was Bikuta-sensei? Had Serim actually killed him..? What about Mune-sensei? Why hadn't he caught up with them?

    The ease with which Serim had captured Ed had Bandit's legs locked tight. His injuries were gone, completely... could he have really killed Bikuta-sensei? Could they do anything but run away? It had taken a selfless sacrifice just to wound him once, and now that was erased, completely. Could they run? Could they even attempt that now?

    No!

    Bandit opened her mouth to shout her defiance, but instead it was Aisha who yelled first. Still full of fire, even after the painful beating she had undergone, the tan-skinned girl proudly and foolishly challenged the red-garbed jounin. "Don't dare to threaten us for your own stupidity! You're nothing more than a reeking troll!"

    Staring in amazement, Bandit shared an uncertain look with Yuffie. Dissension in the ranks..? Even Neith and the new boy seemed stunned, and the abject fear on their faces told the two girls that the Cloud-nin's words wouldn't come without consequence.

    For once, the sinister rogue seemed at a loss for words. He stared, stone-faced, for a long minute. Bruised and battered, Aisha stood tall, her emerald glare filled with determination, filled with the pride that she seemed unable to let go. "My stupidity?" he finally asked, the false calm in his voice only accentuating his building wrath.

    "Your stupidity!" Aisha repeated, bristling. "All your high and mighty talk and threats and insults and you haven't done a thing! You need us!" Pointing at Edward accusingly, she shouted, "We had to find her because you were too stupid to do it yourself!"

    Eyes narrowing, he replied darkly, "I found her before your blood even dried."

    Bandit remembered the red tint on the kunai when he first appeared. That was Aisha's..?

    The Cloud-nin crossed her arms smugly. "Then you lost her."

    "Shut up, Aisha," Neith whispered desperately.

    "Sounds kind of pathetic to me," Aisha went on then turned to the boys. "How about you two?"

    Neither of the two said a word. Serim looked at them and a grim smile crossed his face, satisfaction in their cowardice. Bandit frowned, moving off of the redheaded boy, his silence somehow upsetting her. She didn't even really want to touch him, even to hold him down. It didn't matter, though; even as the diminutive genin stood up, gingerly straightening up, the boy stayed on the ground.

    With no warning, Serim darted forward, dragging Ed along with him. In just a second, he crossed the distance between him and Aisha, the kunai in his hands slashing upward at her. Blood arced into the air, spurting from the girl's forearm as she got an arm up to block. Though she cried out, she didn't back away.

    She stepped forward, slamming one foot deep into his groin.

    There was no response, no shout, no fall.

    "Reese," Neith called out desperately, "help her!" The other boy didn't answer.

    There was a bone-splitting crack as Serim backhanded Aisha across the jaw, sending the stalwart genin flying backward to crash heavily to the ground. Bandit tensed, watching in horror as that deadly blade fell downward, arcing straight down toward the girl's back as she pushed herself up to her knees.

    There was a clang of metal. Nia stood in front of Serim, arms crossed with a pair of kunai blocking his own blade. "Leave her alone-nii~!"

    "Nia!" Bandit and Yuffie both yelled out.

    "If you've got time to be looking over there," the rogue with the huge sword suddenly snapped, "then you'd better start worrying about yourselves."

    Bandit and Yuffie immediately jumped back as the massive weapon whipped through the air at waist-level. Neith yelled something, trying to stop his ally, but received only a harsh kick in the side as response.

    The blade shot in again, and the boy growled out a rushed introduction, not even pausing in his attacks. "Reese Sokkenai! Former... Chuunin of the Mist!"

    Bandit ducked under another attack and reflexively, breathlessly, replied, "Bandit!"

    "Billy-bob!" Yuffie quipped sarcastically. At Bandit's confused look, the brunette shrugged. "He doesn't need to know my name!"

    "Enough!" Reese shouted, roaring as he brought the weapon down from overhead, the heavy and blunt blade slamming deep into the grass just between the girls.

    Mid-dodge, Bandit unsnapped her entire weapon pouch, throwing it to Yuffie. In response, Yuffie threw back a small bag. "Eat one!" she explained, quickly slipping the weapons on her own belt and pulling out a pair of kunai.

    Not questioning it, Bandit pulled out one of the brown pills and popped it in her mouth, swallowing the bitter pill whole. She dove to the side to avoid a vicious swipe.

    "No!" Yuffie exclaimed, throwing a pair of shuriken at the boy. He grunted as one of them sank into his shoulder. "You're s'posed to crunch them!"

    "'Kay!" she replied, pulling out another one and biting down, feeling a tingling on her tongue almost immediately.

    Her friend's grey-violet eyes widened. "You're not supposed to take two of them!"

    Reese laughed, suddenly slashing with his sword. As Yuffie dodged away, he lunged forward, his free hand balled into a fist. The girl cried out as it connected with her shoulder, spinning her around and throwing her to the ground.

    Bandit's eyes turned to her friend, but then saw the others in a dizzying melee behind Yuffie. Hinata was strafing circles around the rogue jounin, jabbing rapidly at him as he struggled to retaliate against the smaller target. Nia was pulling Ed off of Aisha and lifting the white-haired girl to her feet.

    Then the petite genin's attention was fully back on her own fight. Yuffie crashed to the grass and rolled rapidly away, narrowly avoiding the heavy steel blade that plowed into the ground next to her.

    Bandit felt a sick churning in her stomach and her whole body was beginning to burn. Suddenly, she was glad that she had taken off the heavier blue shirt. The red irises of her eyes widened and she swayed back and forth a bit. Strangely, as soon as she thought of how hot her body was getting, a strange cold wave washed over her and was gone again.

    She felt like she might throw up.

    Seeming to recognize her vulnerability, Reese switched his attention to her, the tendons in his wrists popping as he twisted the heavy sword in his grip and thrust violently at the swaying girl.

    It was only distantly that Bandit recognized the threat, noticing it at the last instant and sluggishly trying to move out of the way.

    The second she started to move, it seemed like the heavy sword slowed to a crawl.

    Bandit blinked, watching the weapon slowly creep toward her as she backed out of the way. Strangely, moving seemed to make all her nausea fade away, filled her with energy, with a strange excitement. The world began slowly speeding up to normal, then began moving even faster.

    The girl was bouncing up and down on her bare toes, her skin flushing to a light pink as her disheveled black hair hung around her shoulders. Suddenly her mind snapped into overdrive, and her eyes snapped from Reese to Neith to Yuffie back to Reese and she ran forward, feeling exhilarated. "Don't you hurt my friends!" Bandit shouted out in staccato, her words coming sharp and fast.

    In a blur of motion, her fists and feet lashed out, striking at the boy, struggling to dig in, to sink a fist deep into his soft spots. It was like punching old leather, and Reese weathered the attacks with light grunts, holding his sword out to the side and trying to block with one forearm.

    Yuffie was back on her feet, her left arm tingling and numb. She grumbled, holding a kunai underhanded in that hand, not trusting it for throwing. Withdrawing a few more shuriken with her good arm, she threw the stars at the boy's back while Bandit attacked viciously from in front.

    "Behind!" Neith shouted from the ground. Taking the hint, Reese ducked, taking the hits high on his shoulder blades. Yuffie glared at the redhead, but he returned the stare firmly.

    Bandit refused to let up on her assault, but Reese finally found an opening and punched forward, prompting the girl to skip back out of the way. She bounced there on her tippy-toes just out of range.

    In her giddiness, she thought of a technique she hadn't used in forever. It always sapped all her energy before she could really do anything with it... but she didn't feel tired at all now! Her fingers flew through the hand-signs, calling up her chakra and focusing it into her hands and feet. The air around the limbs began to vibrate, almost like heat waves were lifting off of her bare hands. The grass around her feet rippled, pushed away by the energies at work.

    "Stay back, Yuffie-chan!" Bandit cried out, grinning as she ran back in, ducking under a punch by Reese. "You don't want to get touched by this!"

    "No kidding!" Yuffie cried out, stepping away from the fight.

    Thrumming with power, Bandit's open palm punched in toward Reese's belly, his sword and fist too far out of the way to block it. Eyes wide, he leapt back desperately, Bandit's hand passing less than an inch from his blue- and white-splotched shirt. Spinning with the punch, the girl brought her foot around, moving even faster than before.

    Reese slipped out of the way once more, gained stronger footing, and then jumped even further away, getting his sword in front of him. "I don't know what that jutsu is, but...!"

    Bandit had to keep moving; her body was on fire. Even her forearms and calves were tinged with pink now, her cheeks practically shining. So, while Reese was trying to talk, she was moving to attack. The rogue responded swiftly, though, his massive blade crossing in from the side, too fast.

    At least, it would have been too fast normally. Bandit rolled to the side, the chunk of metal passing over her head. In seconds it was back again. Reese's muscles tightened from the strain. Heavy, thick steel, whistled through the air. The girl slid to her knees, leaning back as far as she could. Reese's sword passed inches from her face.

    Bandit twisted and brought her right heel across in a sweep kick; Reese hopped over it. Continuing with the spin, she punched out with her left fist, passing within an inch of the off-balance rogue's body, and moving straight into a wickedly fast roundhouse. Desperate to avoid the unknown jutsu, Reese managed, barely, to escape the attacks.

    "You little..!"

    "Yeah, go Bandit!" Yuffie cheered.

    "Watch out, Reese! Don't let that attack touch you!" Neith shouted.

    The larger boy lashed out with a hard kick, but Bandit quick-hopped out of range. "I know!" he shouted irately. The girl darted in and bounced into the air, her tiny feet whirling straight toward his face in a double hurricane kick. The rogue Chuunin could feel the vibrations of chakra radiating from her feet and hands with every near-hit. Each pass felt like it was pulling at him, tearing into his personal space, prodding at his balance.

    Sweat rolled down his forehead as he punched out, driving the little girl back before she managed a hit.

    Undeterred, Bandit bounced to the side in a feint, and as soon as his attention went there, she ran back around to the other side. "Stay still!" Reese struggled to keep up with the wildly grinning genin. Bandit snapped forward with five rapid snake-palm punches, side-stepping and jumping up into a forward flip with her heel leading. Every attack, narrowly evaded.

    "Get back!" Reese shouted, thrusting at Bandit's stomach with the hilt of his sword and then punching as she stepped back. A confident smirk crossed his face and he snapped the heavy sword across horizontally in the now open gap.

    Bandit hopped up onto the tip of the blade, dropping it to the ground. In a flash, she had run straight up the length of the sword. She kicked both legs forward in a vicious back-flip. Reflexively, Reese lifted up on the hilt just before she attacked, lifting the girl's assault over his head. With only a faint impact, the girl touched down on the grass behind him. Without missing a beat, the giddy genin moved into a backwards cartwheel, her heels passing just a fraction of an inch from the retreating Chuunin.

    "Doesn't matter how powerful that technique is!" Reese shouted as he whirled to face her again. "If you can't hit anything with it, it's useless!" He threw the sword to the ground, holding both arms ahead and to the side. "If this is all you've got, then you're going down, little girl."

    "Bandit!" she shouted in response, causing him to raise an eyebrow. "My name is Bandit Kyoukan," she clarified, still bouncing on her tiptoes. She lifted up a fist and pointed a thumb toward herself. The Chuunin could see that the waves around her hands had grown larger and more chaotic: he took that as a sign that her control was wavering.

    He didn't take her seriously when she cried out, "You're the one who's going down!"

    The boy cracked his knuckles, confident now that he had figured out how fast she could move. Without his sword, he could easily keep up with her. She hadn't landed a single hit with her weird jutsu, even when the weapon was slowing him down -- what would she do now?

    Bandit swayed on her feet, feeling another cold wave rush through her body. She shook it off, bouncing just a little less as she stared at the Chuunin. I can't hold this jutsu much longer, she thought, looking at her hands.

    Reese lunged forward, his fists flying furiously, a snarl on his lips. With a squeak of surprise, the girl slid back into a half-crouch, narrowly avoiding the enraged assault. Undeterred, the rogue stepped forward, pressing his attack, swinging fast, far faster than Bandit's own attacks had been. He knew she couldn't keep up, knew that her burst of energy was wearing off and his momentum was only building.

    The girl dodged and rolled and leaped out of the way, avoiding any contact, even a block, like the plague itself. Each attack came closer than the last, dangerously close.

    "This is it!" Reese shouted, his fists nothing more than a blur. Then, without warning, while Bandit was off-balance, the boy's left foot shot up, straight toward her vulnerable right side. There was no way for her to avoid it. Her red eyes lit up with surprise and Reese let out a sharp laugh of victory.

    The genin snapped her right hand out, slapping it to Reese's calf.

    There was a concussion to the air, a flash of light. The grass around the pair flattened outward while their hair and clothing flapped wildly. A dull ache rolled through the boy's bones and muscles, soreness settling in immediately.

    His eyes widened as he recognized his error.

    Momentum halted entirely, his leg was still right where she grabbed it. Before Reese could pull it back, Bandit slammed her elbow into his knee. Dropping the leg, she lunged forward with a straight left dragon kick to the boy's stomach. Still reeling from the pain in his knee, Reese couldn't believe the force behind that second attack. Bandit jumped up and hammered her elbows into both of his collarbones.

    He fell inelegantly to one knee. "You..!"

    Body still burning hot, Bandit grabbed both of his elbows and jumped up, slamming both of her heels straight into the bottom of his jaw. The boy's head snapped back as she pulled on both elbows.

    The tendon in his jaw popped, sending him into darkness.

    With Bandit atop him, Reese went down. Hard.

    __

    Aisha panted heavily, no longer sure who was on whose side. Blood ran heavily from her right arm and she felt numb in her chest and face.

    The strange dark-skinned girl with glasses, the one who had disguised herself as that Uzu kid, jumped in front of Aisha and the hyperactive Konoha kid. The ash-blond kid was tending the Hyuuga girl.

    Serim scowled, spitting blood from his lip. There were no more words, only hatred and pure, sadistic pleasure. Aisha wasn't sure how long she could continue fighting. The bright blond girl beside her didn't seem much better off, but at least she was strong.

    This other girl, though...

    With a snarl, Aisha snatched the back of the girl's vest and threw her out of the way, ignoring her cries of protest. She put a hand to the other genin next to her and shoved, her cold green eyes firmly on Serim. "Go!" she growled awkwardly, the swelling in her jaw making it hard to talk.

    "Nuh-uh!" the girl responded stubbornly, weakly shaking off Aisha's hand. "You go-nii~!"

    Aisha sighed, slumping forward a bit more. It didn't matter... neither of them had the strength to run, much less to fight. Why would this girl go so far for an enemy..? Why would any of them..?

    "So touching," Serim grated, looking from one to the other, breaking his long silence. "So endearing... so inspiring... so disgusting." Shaking his head snapped his arm across, kunai blade extended from the tips of his fingers.

    The white-haired girl glared at Serim, defiant to the end.

    But that killing blow never came.

    The Cloud-nin blinked, staring at the black and grey pants incredulously, her eyes lifting up to the bare back, the bottom of the high-cut vest. His gloved hand held Serim's weapon hand out to the side, halted in mid-attack. Her eyes moved higher, to his bushy white hair.

    "Xaki-sensei..?" she breathed out, relieved.

    "Xaki-ni..?" the girl beside her whispered.

    The two girls looked at each other, their bright green eyes questioning each other.

    "Why am I not surprised by this betrayal?" Serim asked sarcastically.

    "I told you before," Xaki said coldly, "not to harm my student." His shoulders quaked with barely controlled tension. "But you really shouldn't have laid a hand on my sister."

    As Aisha struggled to process that, there was a loud cracking sound: Xaki's free hand slammed forward.

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    Chapter Eighteen

    Splatters of blood hung in the air, glittering rubies reflecting the simmering flame of the sun overhead. The entire field seemed frozen in that instant, stunned by the utter repudiation of the sinister threat the red-garbed rogue embodied. Xaki's gloved left hand shattered Serim's nose, sending a crunching noise through the air. The shorter jounin reeled backward, though he voiced no noise of pain or protest. Xaki's grip tightened on Serim's wrist, preventing him from falling too far back.

    Those tight muscles flexed, cocking backward and letting fly with another punishing blow. The rogue's cheekbone disintegrated under the impact.

    The arrogant smile never left Serim's face.

    The genin arrayed around the two rogue jounin stared in awe, amazed both by the sheer controlled violence Xaki epitomized as well as Serim's persistent disdain for everything, especially pain.

    The two green-eyed girls watched their idol in amazement, several surprised looks exchanged between the two, each filled with questions that burned to be answered but unable to pull their eyes away from the spectacle. The taller jounin, white hair flying wildly, delivered another crushing blow, this time to Serim's ribs.

    The dark-skinned girl behind Aisha and Nia winced with every blow, mentally tallying Serim's mounting injuries. Tyger shook her head, straightening her glasses before looking over toward Kazuki and Hinata. She started rushing over, hoping she could be more helpful there. The ash-blonde genin was mostly uninjured, but Hinata had taken a deep gash under the ribs.

    Xaki yanked Serim back and let go of his wrist. His shoulders twisted as the jounin's left fist shot forward in a vicious hook, jerking Serim's head to one side. In an instant, his right fist shot forward, snapping the bitter jounin's head back the opposite direction. Xaki moved forward, his punches flying faster, each blow knocking the man back another step, arms flailing limply. The genin all watched in awe, jaws dropped.

    The corded muscles crossing over Xaki's body tightened as he slammed his right heel to the ground and twisted his upper body. Too fast to follow, his fist launched into a savage uppercut.

    The blood-stained knuckles of his left arm cracked as his fist tightened, his muscles curled. As Serim reeled backward from the uppercut, Xaki's shoulders pistoned again. Sweat beaded his skin, pooling in the deep etches of the scar covering his arm. His fist hurtled straight into the center of Serim's chest, filling the air with one last brutal, wet sound.

    The body of the sinister rogue-nin flew backward, crashing to the grass and sliding slackly away. Xaki's chest heaved with the exertion, his entire body quivering with the rush of adrenaline still coursing through his body. He stared at Serim's body, lying there broken and listless. The jounin looked down at his own hands, at the crimson stains covering his arms, at the blood-covered knuckles: it wasn't all Serim's blood. Utter silence filled the clearing, save for the sounds of Xaki's labored breathing.

    Until that moment, he hadn't considered that there were genin there, that his own little sister was witness to his wrath. Xaki winced inwardly, not daring to turn and face her, afraid to look into her eyes and see the hurt and disappointment he had been avoiding.

    "Way to go, Xaki-ni~!" The man's eyes widened and he slowly lifted his head.

    "Yeah, go sensei!"

    Hesitantly, the tall Konoha rogue turned, daring to face the two girls. He barely had a chance to react as Nia threw herself at him. "Ooph!" he gasped out, stunned speechless. Nia threw her arms tightly around him, the surprisingly light girl clinging to him with no trouble at all. Guiltily, Xaki struggled to find an explanation, to tell the girl why he had been gone so long, why he couldn't come back.

    "I'm so glad you're back-nii~!" Nia exclaimed, rubbing her cheek against him.

    The turmoil of emotions began to settle. Xaki let a small, sad smile cross his face. After roughly wiping most of the blood onto his pants, he patted his little sister on the head. "You've grown up so much," he said proudly, unable to tell her that he might not be back, that he might have to leave again.

    __

    "It really is Xaki-san!" Bandit remarked happily. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet.

    Aisha turned sharply, amazed to see the tiny girl there. Stunned, she looked from the tiny girl up to where she had been fighting with Reese. The brown-haired girl stood there over the two fallen boys, a cocky grin on her face. "But... how did you..? Reese..?" she stuttered, struggling to process everything that was going on.

    The girl let out a giddy grin, still feeling the effects of the pills, though not as strongly. "I beat him!" she replied proudly. Her red eyes shone with eagerness. "I used the same technique I originally wanted to use on you. By the time I got the chance to, though, I was too worn out! Then Yuffie-chan gave me these pills, so I was all fired up!"

    Aisha stared blankly. "Technique..?" She puffed her chest out and stood a little taller, despite her weariness. "What technique could you possibly have that could stop the likes of Aisha Kuranran?"

    "Dekigokoro!" Bandit announced excitedly, throwing one fist in the air. No longer seeming to consider the Cloud-nin an enemy, she eagerly explained, "It takes proximity and chakra to build it up! You've got to keep your hands or feet near the target as much as possible without touching! Then, once it's strong enough, you touch them to unleash the pent up energy!" Aisha just stared blankly, so Bandit explained more simply, "It's a chakra EMP!"

    "EMP?" Aisha repeated uncertainly. Was this really the same girl she'd fought?

    "Electromagnetic pulse! It's a huge burst of energy that destabilizes all of the chakra networks anywhere nearby! I used it on Reese and kablow, both of us were de-chakra-fied!" Bandit bounced a couple times and grinned proudly. "I don't use chakra in all my attacks like the two of you, so I can still fight at my best while you're trying to adjust to the sudden loss of chakra control!"

    Aisha's eyes widened. "That's... not right..." She shivered, imagining if that had been used on her. She was confident that she would have still won... but it definitely would have been a lot harder. The Cloud-nin looked over at Xaki and his little sister. Thinking of how she had acted toward the girls, Aisha guiltily looked down, struggling with her pride to say what she needed to. "Listen... Kyoukan... I'm so--!"

    "Where's Ed?" the girl asked suddenly, looking back and forth sharply.

    Tyger lifted a hand from where she knelt beside Hinata. "Right here, Bandit-chan!" She looked over her shoulder and gave a winning grin. Then, in a perfect imitation, "Ty-chan makes a very good Ed!"

    Bandit blinked. "Huh..? But... when..?"

    Kazuki laughed. The ash-blond boy shrugged at Bandit and said, "Woof woof."

    "But..?"

    "Heh... heh... heh..."

    __

    Xaki snapped his attention over toward the crumpled body, the harshness returning to his face in an instant. He roughly pulled Nia off of himself and shoved her away.

    "No way," Aisha whispered incredulously.

    Over on the side, Kazuki shook his head in denial. "What is he made of..?"

    The dark laughter grew louder, the rogue's body convulsing with each harsh noise. "Heh heh heh heh heh..."

    "What's so funny about being face down in a pool of your own blood?" Xaki snapped.

    The sinister laughter abated, faded to silence. The former Konoha-nin watched the body warily, suddenly suspicious of trickery, that it might have somehow not been the real Serim. It shouldn't have been possible, though. "... everything..." Serim whispered harshly, suddenly. The sound of his voice sent chills down the spines of the surrounding genin. The twisted, wet laughter resumed.

    Xaki flexed his knuckles, the leather of his fingerless gloves creaking.

    Eyes flicking around cautiously, Xaki stalked over toward Serim. Without preamble, he shoved the rogue's shoulder, knocking him over onto his back. The gruesome sight of Serim's pulverized face would have made lesser men vomit. Nose, cheekbones, jaw... all shattered. Blood flowed from his nose, from fragments of bone sticking out through the flesh of his cheek, out of the tears inside his mouth.

    Somehow, the dark-eyed man was still smiling. Somehow, he was still laughing, blood bubbling up with each wheezing noise.

    "Any last words?" Xaki asked coldly. The laughter died away, but no words came forth. The two rogues stared at each other for a long moment before Xaki decided that Serim would not be speaking up. He shook his head with disgust, thinking of how the dark-eyed man had treated the children, especially Aisha. "I should have done this a long time ago." He cocked his fist back, prepared to finish the job once and for all.

    Far behind the two, Bandit covered her eyes.

    "Are you sure you want to do that?" Serim asked abruptly.

    Unwilling to be taken in by any ruse, Xaki hesitated only a second before retorting with, "Yeah, I think I am."

    "...don't you want to know why Tenken had to die?" Serim whispered.

    Xaki's blood ran cold. "What did you say..?" he whispered, eyes narrowing.

    "Xaki-ni..?" Nia called out from behind him. The awareness that she was watching made him struggle to restrain the violent urges that were welling up within him. With great effort, he forced them down, trembling with wrath as he glared at Serim, wanting to kill him, afraid to do so.

    "How do you know that name?" he asked sharply. There were no other ninjas there, no survivors. He had made sure of that.

    "Poor, dull Fukasa," Serim taunted, "and tender little Ilana."

    Enraged, Xaki grabbed the rogue by the throat and lifted him up off the ground. "Talk!" he shouted desperately. "What do you kn--?!" There was a dull impact to his chest. Paling, his eyes slowly turned downward.

    With a dark chuckle, Serim pulled his arm back, the jagged metal bandana plate pulling out of Xaki's ribs. A thick river of blood started pouring from the wound. "I know not to kick a dead serpent," Serim grated with another laugh. His feet settled against the ground and the rogue stood up straight. Xaki stumbled back several steps, clutching at the wound and groaning in pain. His emerald glare met Serim with utter malice. His fist cracked out, slamming into the shorter man's face once again.

    This time, Serim didn't even budge.

    The monster grinned wickedly, caring for the fist in his face no more than the dirt he trod over. "Ohh, how you've diminished, Hitonomi," Serim hissed out in a gravelly voice. His own arm cocked back, punching forward with the metal plate leading. Xaki swiftly leapt away, clutching at his wound but not stumbling again, eyes wide.

    "Where are you looking?" that sick voice whispered in his ear with a laugh. Xaki whirled, elbow leading, but Serim was calmly walking backward, shrugging cockily. The attack passed within an inch of the rogue's face, but he didn't so much as flinch.

    Xaki growled, chest heaving. "Your petty tricks don't scare me, Urami!" His legs tensed to lunge.

    "Xaki-san, don't!" Bandit shouted.

    Ignoring her, the rogue jounin shot forward after the casually retreating opponent, easily slapping aside Serim's hidden kunai to knife his arm straight forward. In a gush of blood, his extended fingers sank straight through Serim's chest, crunching and squelching to erupt from the rogue's spine. "Earth style," Xaki was murmuring, an intense look in his eyes.

    The body turned to clinging mud around his arm and the real Serim gave a condescending laugh as he appeared directly behind Xaki, blade poised to strike.

    Without looking, his free arm shot out, slamming into Serim's face yet again. Before the enemy jounin could recover, Xaki let out a growl of effort. The solidified mud clone shattered at the bottom. He spun around, the whole mass on his arm, and yelled out, "Shrapnel Cannon!"

    "Oh..?" Serim remarked curiously, raising an eyebrow.

    The stone body exploded forward, sending a blast of jagged rocks and dust rushing at Serim. The barrage of deadly stone spikes hit the man dead-on, shrapnel sinking deep into his skin and sending up sprays of blood. Serim stumbled one step back, barely managing to stand. "Hitonomi..!"

    The former Konoha jounin slumped forward wearily, but growled and straightened himself again, not daring to let Serim out of his sight. "Xaki-ni!" his sister suddenly shouted. Alarmed, the man turned; a kunai blade was heading straight for him. He watched helplessly, the chipped and jagged metal weapon held at the end of a red-sleeved arm. His arm shot upward, his head twisted to the side... too slow, too late.

    There was a flash of silver hair, a streak of orange-blonde.

    The weapon fell to the dirt as its owner went flying down to the grass. Aisha and Nia each landed on one side of their idol, each grinning at the other as Xaki blinked, stunned.

    "Way to go, Aisha-nii~!" Nia cried out proudly.

    The silver-haired girl smirked, watching as Serim rose to his feet. "Not bad yourself, kid."

    "Stay back, you idiots," Xaki growled, warily staring at his vicious opponent.

    In response, the two girls moved into fighting stances. "No way, sensei," Aisha replied.

    "We're all part of this-nii~!" Nia added.

    From near the trees, Kazuki called out, "That's right!"

    Tyger, helping Hinata up to her feet, threw in a simple, "Yeah!"

    Over on the opposite side of the clearing, Yuffie yelled out, "He's just that much a prick!"

    "He can't win if we work together!" Hinata said, her voice quiet but determined.

    Bandit was feeling sick to her stomach but still standing. A different, happy warmth was building inside her as each of her friends stood up, ready to fight for each other. "He doesn't scare us anymore!" she boldly declared, looking at the sinister jounin's back. "We're not going to run away!"

    Serim laughed maliciously, his shoulders rolling with each harsh syllable that escaped his throat. He calmed and met Xaki's eyes. "Like dead weight hanging all over you, eh, Hitonomi..?"

    The former Konoha ninja was quiet. He looked at each of the gathered ninjas, meeting their resolute gazes. He looked down at Aisha, who smiled confidently, and then at Nia, who grinned cheerfully. At last, his eyes returned to Serim. "No, I think not." With that he smiled, a confident and genuine smile.

    Seeming to have no response for that, Serim simply stood there, smirking. Then the two jounin burst into motion all at once. Serim's arm jerked forward, launching a kunai at Nia. Lightning-fast, Xaki smacked it out of the air and punched forward with his other arm. Dodging the blow, Serim instead set his sights on Aisha, dashing forward and slashing toward the girl's throat with his headband.

    Xaki snatched the shoulder of the red leather clothes and threw Serim to the side.

    Regaining his balance after a few steps, the rogue laughed. "Very good... but how long can you keep fighting and protecting such useless trash..?"

    Aisha's eyebrows drew forward. "I am not--!"

    "Seems like they've accomplished more than you have, Urami," Xaki coolly replied.

    "Tch..." the rogue spat, lacking an immediate retort.

    "Sensei!" Aisha turned and leaped for Xaki's arm. Catching her hands, the jounin did a full spin and then pumped his fist out, launching the silver-haired girl through the air. Serim could only blink in surprise before the girl's foot sank straight into his face.

    Aisha kicked off into a back-flip... right over her sensei's second fist as he slammed it straight where her foot landed. Already off-balance from the kick, Serim was thrown backward, crashing to the grass and rolling roughly to his feet.

    "Nia!" Xaki barked out.

    "Not this time!" Serim growled, running forward at the bright-eyed young genin. Before he reached her, Xaki grabbed the girl and threw her up in the air, out of Serim's reach. "Hitonomi!" the dark-eyed man shouted angrily, turning to face his apparent rival. He punched out with the metal plate.

    Xaki snatched his wrist, holding it tight, and then leaned down on his right side. Like a tightly coiled spring, his body snapped forward, his fist arcing upward in a vicious uppercut. Xaki's fist snapped the man's head back... just in time to see a puffy white heel whirling toward him, pounding straight between his eyes.

    "Double-slicer-nii~!"

    Serim dropped heavily to the ground. Aisha ran forward and jumped into a double-heeled drop kick, but Xaki snatched the back of her shirt and threw her back just before Serim sliced at her. The trio faced the rogue squarely as he rose slowly to his feet, spitting some of the blood from his pulverized face. Slowly, a grin spread on his face. "Everyone's part of this, right?" He lifted his hands up, rushing through hand-signs.

    Xaki jumped forward and backhanded him... connecting only with a thick chunk of wood in a burst of black smoke. Coughing from the thick, oily fumes, Xaki's eyes widened and he shouted, "No!" as he caught sight of Serim again.

    "Fireball Jutsu!" the rogue finished, his powerful voice rolling across the clearing. He exhaled violently, an enormous orb of churning flames flying forward... straight toward Yuffie and the two downed boys.

    The girl's grey-violet eyes widened and she turned to leap out of the way just before she realized that the big guy was coming to, lifting his head up, oblivious to the coming destruction. Not enough... Yuffie angrily thought to herself, shaking her head.

    She turned and yelled, "Stay down!" as she kicked him in the face. It had only taken a second, but it was a second too long. The girl could already feel her back burning before it even touched her, could barely hear her friends yelling over the roaring fires.

    All she could think was that it was such a lame way to die.

    Suddenly, Yuffie was hit by a flying tackle from the side, before her foot even touched the ground again. She cried out as she fell almost face-first to the grass, rolling across the ground with her unknown assailant as the deadly fireball passed inches over them. The back of her vest caught fire but was snuffed out as they continued to roll.

    Finally, Yuffie came to a stop, lying on her face. She blinked dizzily as she tried to focus on the arms still protectively around her. The girl sucked in a breath as she saw the arm, followed it up to the short red sleeve, the XIII stitched there, and finally up to the face, the familiar red hair, the scar over the eye. "Red..." she breathed out in disbelief.

    The boy coughed roughly and managed a smile. "Hey."

    "Urami!" Xaki roared, hitting the monster with a clothesline from behind. Another cloud of black smoke burst up.

    "Earth Spear Jutsu!" the dark voice called out this time as he appeared in front of Kazuki, Tyger, and Hinata. A spire of solid earth fired from the ground at his feet, heading straight for Tyger, still trying to finish Hinata's healing. The Hyuuga girl pushed in front of her and moved into a defensive stance, her fingertips starting to glow blue.

    There was a blur of dark green and then an ear-splitting squealing noise filled the air. Mune stood in front of Hinata, the two halves of the stone spear breaking to either side of him as he sliced forward with his ninja-to. "Whew... Hiashi-dono would have my head if I let anything happen to you!" the red-headed jounin exclaimed.

    "They just keep multiplying!" Serim laughed, sarcastically. "But oh dear... that just leaves the little one... all by herself..."

    Red eyes blinked suddenly, as Bandit realized he was talking about her. She ducked down into a defensive crouch, bare feet sliding across the grass, disheveled hair hanging down her back. "Just try me!" she cried out defiantly, her voice sounding tiny in her own ears.

    Mune let loose with a handful of shuriken, but they caught nothing but air. Serim reappeared off to Bandit's right and she squeaked in surprise, spinning to face him. "Fire Style! Serpent Flame Jutsu!" he called out, grinning wickedly with his broken face.

    Bandit's eyes widened as the ground under her feet began to tremble and churn, odd little bumps rising in the dirt. "What's going..?"

    "Mind if I cut in?" Suddenly Bandit's hands were snatched up and she was pulled off to the side in a rapid spin -- right before a gout of coiling flame shot up from where she'd been standing and a dozen other places.

    Eyes wide, the girl looked up, surprised and elated to see it was Bikuta that had rescued her! "Sensei, you're o--!" Abruptly the jounin dragged her in another smooth motion, twisting her so that she was facing him. "What are... wait..!" He grinned as they moved faster flames coiling and lashing just inches away, always pulled along just before the flames came in contact. Bandit blushed as she realized what was happening: Bikuta was dancing around the flames with her!

    The flames died away and the tall jounin finished by whirling the girl into a dizzying spin before charging straight at Serim himself.

    Bandit caught her balance and watched in dismay as the rogue once again disappeared in a burst of acrid smoke. Her eyes immediately caught the sinister demon as he reappeared. "Nia!" she shouted desperately.

    "Always a second too late!" Serim crowed triumphantly from behind Nia and Aisha, a kunai in each hand. He was glaring straight at Xaki, already in motion but too slow. "Always a survivor, Hitonomi... but never the savior!" All three jounin were moving, but none of them were close enough.

    Both girls were turning, just in time to see the blades coming for their throats, to watch the glint off the blades' edges, to witness the utter hatred and bitterness that boiled in Serim's dark eyes. There would be no escape for either of them, no mercy, no remorse.

    Impossibly, the blades stopped, halted perfectly in mid-air. Nia and Aisha both rolled away, finishing their desperate evasive maneuvers, each knowing it shouldn't have been enough. The two girls looked back, watching in awe. Entire body trembling with exertion, with wrath, with desperation, with redemption... Xaki stood, between Serim and those who were precious to him. Each hand held a death grip on one of Serim's forearms.

    Serim blinked and could only ask, "How..?"

    "Not... this... time..!" Xaki roared in response, tightening down both hands, feeling bone snap, feeling flesh split. There was no cry of pain, no shout of agony, but the sound of cracking bone told it all. Both blades thudded dully against the grass. With simmering, controlled, directed wrath, Xaki stepped forward, twisting the shattered arms in his hands, forcing Serim back; he twisted the other way, forcing him back another step; the red-clothed rogue glared with cold fire, but no words came forth, no bold threats, no hateful insults.

    Releasing the mangled limbs, Xaki grabbed the neck of Serim's clothing in both hands, lifted him off the ground and threw him to slam hard against a tree, sliding down to the dirt. His face was battered nearly beyond recognition and both arms laid at unnatural angles, broken and useless. His fingers twitched as if he were trying to move them, but hand-signs were beyond him now.

    Xaki stood over the fallen rogue, still heaving, still panting for breath, still burning with rage. Mune appeared at his right side, laying one supportive hand on his former student's shoulder. Bikuta strolled up casually on the left, briefly meeting Xaki's eyes but saying nothing.

    Serim slowly looked from one to the next and then down at his useless arms. Finally, he opened his mouth... and he started to laugh.

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    Chapter Nineteen

    The chilling laughter hung around the gathered ninja, a sickness in the air, a morbid disdain for whatever pain or fear might be. It was the embodiment of Serim's utter bitterness and hatred for everything. The greasy-haired rogue sat there with his back against the tree, bruises and blood covering his face. Bone protruded from his skin in several spots.

    Both arms were broken, shattered beyond any usefulness. He could not form hand-signs, could not grasp a weapon, could not even push himself up from the ground.

    Even if he could, the rogue was faced off against three jounin, each more than ready to kill him.

    There was nothing he could do: no chance at victory, no chance at escape, not even a chance for one last revenge.

    Still... he laughed.

    Xaki leaned down and grabbed his collar, yanking him forward. "How do you know those names? You weren't there!" There was no response other than the halt of laughter. Xaki shook him roughly. "You weren't!" he shouted this time, as though trying to convince himself. "What did you do to Tenken?" he demanded after more silence. "What did you do to Ilana and Fukasa?"

    Serim lifted his head, revealing a crooked, broken grin. "Not a thing," he grated out. "I wasn't there."

    Behind the jounin, Aisha stayed where she had rolled, halfway sitting up. Her muscles were already beginning to stiffen, pushed so far past their limits that her whole body was one throbbing ache. Nia, only a little better off, made her way over toward the silver-haired girl.

    "Who is he talking about?" Aisha whispered.

    Nia looked sad, crouching down next to Aisha. "Xaki-ni's first team. They died-nii."

    "You know something, then!" Xaki growled, shrugging away Mune's calming hand. "What did you have to do with it? What do you know?"

    Serim laughed again. "Those are better questions, Hitonomi," he remarked sarcastically.

    When it was clear that the dark-eyed man wasn't going to elaborate, Xaki slammed his head forward into the tree. "Answer!"

    "Which one?" Serim asked sarcastically.

    Mune put his hand back on Xaki's shoulder, holding on this time in spite of the vicious shrug to dislodge it. Xaki snapped his emerald glare up at his former teacher. "Don't let him get you worked up. They're just the desperate games of a man on the verge of death."

    Xaki's eyes softened and then he squinted his eyes shut painfully. When he looked back at Serim, he was back in control. "Tell me what you know about Tenken, Fukasa, and Ilana."

    The rogue's face twisted, his grin widening. "Who?" he asked innocently.

    "His chakra is fading fast," Hinata quietly interjected before Xaki could lose his temper. The Hyuuga girl was walking closer, using her Byakugan.

    Bikuta leaned back, tapping the jug at his hip. "Hear that?" he asked. "You won't be blocking all that pain for much longer."

    The sick grin disappeared. "I am not so weak," he snarled. "I don't squirm and squeal for every little thing. I won't cringe and crawl for fear of pain. I am not so weak." His dark eyes glared upward. "You don't even know what pain is."

    "How did you ever defeat me..?" Serim grated incredulously. He sneered at the injuries showing on Xaki's chest. "Mewling like a kitten and gasping for breath from just this? How could you ever possess the immovable heart, the unconquerable resolve, of a ninja? Crumbling at the slightest wind that whispers by," he spat with disgust.

    "Life is pain. The pain you're feeling now, the pain of a blade tearing into your muscles, the pain of dirt scoured into your flesh, the pain of fire ripping at your nerves... what is it compared to the pain of others..?" He grinned wickedly. "What is it to the pain of someone watching their best friends brutally murdered right before their eyes while they are incapable of doing anything?" Serim's voice grew louder, making sure the tiny one and her friends could hear. "What is it next to the pain of watching someone sacrifice their life so that you can run like utter cowards..?"

    Serim grinned wider, white teeth shining beneath the dark, soot-covered face, past the blood. His clothing was stained with fresh blood, blackened with soot, ripped and burned. "Life is pain," he repeated, "and pain is life. A burning misery that consumes all and leaves behind only the core, the solid knot of that which can not be consumed, that which refuses to be reduced to nothingness."

    Fixing his eyes on the white-haired jounin, Serim lifted his chin. "Pain is life," he whispered again before raising his voice, "Your pain. Her pain. My pain."

    The sickening grin widened. "The pure, exquisite agony of having half your body scorched, thanks to the sheer imbecility of two would-be rescuers," he snarled. The jounin stared at him in disbelief. Was he talking about..?

    His smile, any sort of mirth, disappeared all at once. "The sad, tear-stained anguish of watching your love writhing helplessly on the ground, your fist clenched so tight that your fingernails draw blood," he went on darkly. As if to accentuate his point, one of his twitching hands opened, drawing their attention. There was so much blood and dirt, though, that nothing could be determined.

    Bandit, standing near Hinata, breathed out, "You could feel everything?" She shook her head. "How is that even possible?"

    "Because I am strong!" Serim shouted wildly, his arms flopping weakly. "Because I am strong, because I can take the pain, because I can handle it, overcome it, take it inside myself and ignore it. I am strong enough to reach into the flames to get what I need, I am strong enough to take a stab in the stomach and return one in kind. I am strong enough that I don't need to take anything from anyone, least of all any treacherous, useless females or stumbling, ignorant children. I am strong enough that it takes three jounin and a gaggle of traitors and children to overcome me!" His contorted face softened as he laughed once harshly. His dark glare turned up to meet Xaki's gaze. "But I am not strong enough," he finished quietly.

    Xaki released his collar, letting him slump back against the tree. "No, you're not," he snapped, missing the hidden meaning in those words. "Tell me what you know. You may not care in the slightest about any life except your own, but I do."

    Serim's voice was soft as he replied, cryptically, "An assassin should care very much about every life he takes. No pain... is random." He fell silent there, looking into Xaki's eyes.

    "This is going nowhere," Bikuta grumbled. "Why are you here in the Land of Fire?" he asked, leaning forward out of the shadows of the tree.

    The other two jounin waved that aside. "We already know that."

    There was a gasp from behind. "Bikuta-sensei!" Bandit screamed. "Your head!"

    "Huh?" The tall jounin reached up to feel the back of his head, wincing when his hand brushed against what had caught her attention. Varied sounds of shock and disgust rose up from the genin as Bikuta's fingers tightened painfully around the object: Serim's serpent-bladed kunai, embedded in the back of his skull.

    Serim only shook his head. "So blind to the pain you don't even know it's there. Pathetic."

    Xaki and Mune both reached over to help, but by the time they did, Bikuta let out a pained grunt of effort, roughly yanking the weapon out. Groaning, he looked at the kunai. "That one'll hurt in the morning. I guess you all are right when you say I've got a thick skull," he joked, looking at Mune.

    "Your scar," Red called out suddenly. He and Yuffie stood not far behind. Even though he had been the rescuer, it was Yuffie who was mostly holding the red-headed boy upright. Xaki looked over, realizing the words were aimed at him. Red pointed at the scar over his own eye. "No pain is random," he repeated.

    Xaki whirled back on Serim. "What does my scar have to do with anything?" he demanded.

    Serim laughed weakly. "Ahh, Hitonomi, don't you ever get tired of being so completely and irretrievably ignorant to the workings of the world around you?" With one weary shake of his head, Serim snapped his dark glare on Xaki. "Enough. The last thing I want is for these sickening whelps to be your brains for you. Did you never find it odd that the resistance was so strong, Hitonomi? Did you never question how well-prepared they were for your precious squad?"

    Xaki swallowed. "A thousand times every day," he replied.

    "Oho, there may be some inkling of hope for you yet," Serim remarked sarcastically. He leaned closer. "You pissed someone off. I don't know or care who. Somebody that you let live, probably running away with your tail between your legs." His broken, twisted grin returned. "Somebody who took his time, waited for the moment when it would hurt most. They went to a professional!" he laughed.

    The pieces were beginning to come together. Xaki started shaking his head. "No. No, don't you even say it!"

    Serim laughed harshly. "Oh yes. They hired Gouza. Oh but the irony doesn't end there! Even the mission itself was a sham." Serim tilted his head. "From the beginning, it was a false mission. How did that slip through, eh? Someone in Konoha on the payroll, perhaps? One of your close, esteemed colleagues? Your best friend perhaps, or a loving parent?" His voice darkened. "Who exists in this world who would never betray you?"

    "Lots of people," Xaki retorted, weakly.

    "Oh Gouza was so pissed to find out he failed the assassination. He had sent bumbling fools, cheap imbeciles with hardly any right to call themselves ninja." Serim smiled. "They only managed to get the worthless children."

    With a grunt of rage, Xaki slammed a fist into Serim's face. Undeterred, the rogue went on. "The brats weren't even on the menu," he laughed. "That's what happens when you send an amateur." Darkening again, he muttered, "What a twisted joke it was when he found you, a cast-off rogue. What a demented, horrid, and absolutely hilarious joke it was when he hired you, and profited from you for years."

    The genin stared uncertainly at Xaki's back as his head and shoulders slumped. "Xaki-ni," Nia whispered quietly, lifting a hand as if to comfort him but then lowering it again.

    "That's not the punchline, though, not at all," Serim chuckled, a wet, shaking sound that forced blood to roll from his lips. "How many times did you enter the boss's office, Hitonomi? How many missions did you accept and turn in there? How many times did you collect your pitiful earnings from those pathetic, neophyte missions you always took on?" The rogue shook his head. "Yet you never noticed the coiled chain hanging behind his chair, still stained with blood."

    Xaki's eyes widened.

    "Your blood," Serim clarified before adding, "Some of it, at least."

    The white-haired jounin turned, clutching at his head, shaking it in disbelief.

    "Do you know why I'm here?" Serim asked suddenly.

    Xaki turned and looked over his shoulder, eyes wet. "To finish the job," he stated.

    Voice growing quieter, Serim nodded. "Oh how terrified that fat tub of lard looked when he found out you were requesting a mission near Konoha. So sure that you had realized what was going on, that you would retreat to Konoha and come back for your vengeance. So he sent me... to make sure that brat never reached Konoha... to make sure you never left these woods."

    His dark glare shifted to Aisha, sitting weakly on the ground, now being tended to by Tyger. The girl shivered, then... not out of fear for Serim, but in the realization that if not for her run-in with the genin, she would probably be dead, Xaki would be dead, that girl would be dead, maybe even the boys.

    Wicked laughter bubbled up in his throat. "Betrayed, attacked, used, Hitonomi." He leaned closer and repeated, "Life is pain. Pain is life." He tilted his head and smiled. "Who do you know in this world who would never betray you?"

    Xaki closed his eyes slowly, silently. Finally he opened them, meeting Serim's gaze head-on. "My sister," he said firmly. "My student. My teacher!" A pause. "Everyone here!" His voice was filled with dark promise as he looked off in the distance, in the direction of the far-off rogue mercenary leader, Gouza. "I know one other who will never get the chance again."

    "Xaki-ni!" Nia suddenly got up and ran over to her brother. The harshness in his expression faded immediately. Turning, he got down on one knee, hugging her tightly, overwhelmed and unsure, not knowing what he would or should do.

    "Look out!" Bandit and Hinata both yelled.

    Xaki smiled, didn't even flinch, didn't even turn to look at the dark-eyed rogue or the hidden blade jutting from his foot.

    Long before that blade ever reached his back, Serim was pinned to the tree: his own kunai stabbed through his throat, Mune's ninja-to through his chest.

    Xaki couldn't see it, but the bitter ninja gave one last sarcastic smile, eyes rolling back into his head as he silently mouthed the words, "Pain is life."

    For Serim Urami, there was no more pain.

    __

    Xaki held Nia up in the crook of one arm, ignoring his injuries as best he could. Aisha stood beside him, his other arm draped around her shoulder. Bikuta was rousing the two rogue boys while Tyger and Kazuki had left to go get Ed from her hiding place.

    "What will you do now?" Mune was asking. "You're coming back, right?"

    The white-haired jounin looked at his sister, saw the pleading in her eyes. He also looked down at Aisha, though. The stubborn girl looked away, seeming expectant that Xaki would stay, prepared to not care when he said it. Serim's words echoed in his mind, though. Who do you know in this world who would never betray you?

    How could he leave Aisha to fend for herself? He was the only person she actually seemed to trust anymore.

    Seeming to understand, his former teacher nodded, walking over to check on Red. The one-eyed genin was laying on his back in the grass with Yuffie sitting cross-legged right next to him.

    Bandit and Hinata walked up. Xaki smiled vaguely at her and she shyly returned it. "You've grown a lot, Bandit-chan," he remarked quietly. "Not the same little girl I used to play with at the orphanage." It felt like he should say more, but he wasn't sure what.

    The short genin gulped, remembering standing in the freezing rain at the memorial stone, trying to comfort Nia, a girl she barely knew, then. A friend she always looked out for after that. Bandit blinked really fast, trying to stop herself from crying. Managing a big smile, she asked, "Why did you come back..? Why did you take this mission, knowing it would come here?"

    Shifting uncomfortably at his side, Aisha spoke up. "Because of me."

    "What? Why?" Bandit blinked.

    The silver-haired girl shrugged. "I begged him to. Ever since I was hired in, Xaki always trained me and looked out for me. I knew he didn't want to go to Konoha, but... I begged him anyway. I was afraid I wouldn't see him again if he didn't come with me."

    Xaki kneeled down, letting Nia down from his tiring arm. "Why were you after Hinata-san in the first place-nii~?"

    With a thoughtful frown, Xaki looked from Aisha to Hinata. "Is that what this was about?" Fixing a withering glare on Aisha, he added, "You never mentioned anything about this."

    Aisha crossed her arms, wincing as she pulled her sore muscles. She tried to glare back at Xaki, but couldn't keep it up. With a sigh, she looked at Hinata, grudgingly admitting, "I wanted to kidnap you... because it was the only way to restore my family's honor." She frowned, looking away. "It was the only way I would be welcomed back in the Village Hidden in the Clouds."

    The Hyuuga heiress gasped. "Then that means..."

    Aisha hung her head. "My father refused to do it, refused it under direct order! Then, when the mission failed, they blamed him. They gave him another chance, told him he could lead a second mission to capture a Byakugan. He refused again. He disgraced the Kuranran name!" She growled and looked at Xaki. "I couldn't shake that stigma no matter how hard I tried! They called us cowards, called us weak, said we would always be... useless."

    Bandit looked at her sadly, able in some way to empathize with the feelings. "Why aren't you allowed back in the village, though?"

    "I bit another student," she explained, looking away.

    Nia laughed. "That's it-nii~?"

    "She bit another student's throat," Xaki clarified.

    Bandit shuddered, pitying that poor student. "What about your dad, though? He just left you by yourself?"

    "Dead."

    "Huh? But you just said...?"

    "Dead," she repeated flatly. "Don't look at me that way! I am Aisha Kuranran! I don't need pity from anyone, especially you!"

    Nia suddenly jumped on Aisha, knocking the weary girl to the ground. "Come live with us-nii~!"

    Aisha blinked, struggling against the orange-clothed genin's sudden affection. "What? I can't..."

    Ignoring her, Nia kept rubbing her cheek against the girl. "You can meet mom and dad-nii, and my little sisters, and climb our big tree out back and show us some of your moves-nii~!" Nia was beaming when she looked up at Xaki. "Right, Xaki-ni? We can keep her, right?"

    "Keep..?! I am not a pe..!"

    Unwilling to admit that it might not be possible, Xaki chuckled quietly and nodded. "That sounds like it would be fun. We can even get her very own bowl with her name on it."

    "Sensei!" Aisha cried out, trying to stay angry and not laugh.

    "Whoa, what's going on here?" Yuffie suddenly yelled. Everyone's attention immediately snapped over: she was standing over Serim's body.

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    Chapter Twenty

    In a blink, Yuffie was grabbed and thrown away from the body. The three jounin stood there over Serim's corpse, each entirely convinced that the bitter rogue could and would pull one final trick from beyond the grave.

    Nothing happened.

    To be more precise, something was happening, but it wasn't at all what any of them expected: portions of Serim's skin and clothing were changing, growing thick, wiry fur. Far from covering the rogue's entire body, it appeared in patches. Patches, Bikuta realized, that seemed to correspond to where he had injured Serim most severely in their first fight.

    The young, red-haired rogue stumbled forward, staring incredulously. "The boar..." he whispered.

    Xaki turned his way. "A boar?"

    Neith blinked and looked at Xaki, as though not realizing he had spoken aloud. "The last time... before here... when Serim was all torn up -- I mean, not as much as now, but..."

    "Just say it!" Yuffie shouted. Bandit nodded her agreement, keeping her eyes away from the gruesome, monstrous sight.

    "Serim killed a boar... at the time it didn't seem like there was a reason, but... it looks like... he..."

    Realizing what he was getting at, Bandit shuddered. It was Mune who spelled it out, though. "He somehow spliced parts of the boar to himself to heal his injuries? Is that possible..?"

    Bikuta shrugged. "He did it."

    From behind, Hinata spoke up quietly. "It would hurt a lot... the body would reject it. I don't think it's something just anyone could do..."

    Xaki stared, words failing him. At last, he managed a simple, "Good." The others nodded their agreement with the declaration.

    Tyger and Kazuki, looking eager to get away from the body, started heading to the edge of the clearing. "We're going to go get Edward!" Tyger called.

    Over to the side, Yuffie plopped back down to a sitting position next to Red. Grinning over at Bandit, she cheerfully asked, "I guess that means our first team mission is complete!"

    "Mission?" Bikuta snorted. He winked at Mune.

    The red-headed jounin joined in. "You can't call it a mission if no one gave you orders for it..."

    "You did-nii~!" Nia quickly pointed out, jabbing a finger at their teachers.

    Bandit nodded and quickly put in, "When you met us out in the forest! You gave orders to follow Aisha!"

    The two teachers shared a look while Xaki laughed and tiredly sat down in the grass. "I suppose that's right," Bikuta admitted, lifting his jug to his lips. "Congratulations! You completed your first C-rank mission!"

    "C-rank!?" the girls shouted. Yuffie waved her arms furiously. "That was totally S-rank!"

    "S-rank?" Mune asked. "How do you figure?"

    Yuffie growled. "That dude was an insanely bad rogue that wouldn't die! Super, super high-rank jounin!"

    Bikuta shrugged. "It was only one jounin, though, and you had three on your side. I think we did most of the work at the end there."

    Bandit jumped forward, jabbing a finger at Bikuta's stomach. "We had to fight him on our own before you got here! Three times! And we survived and injured him! And and... we found and protected their assassination target. And! We captured three enemies -- four if you count Xaki-sensei!"

    The girl pointed at Aisha. "Aisha and that red-headed boy are really strong for genin--"

    "Don't you forget it!" the silver-haired girl proclaimed.

    "--and that other boy said he was a Chuunin!"

    Realizing she meant him, Reese managed a tired salute. "Yes, sirs."

    "Alright, alright," Bikuta said, laughing and holding up his hands to calm her down.

    "A B*-rank, then," Mune conceded.

    The girls all cried out in unison again, with Yuffie the loudest as she demanded, "S-rank! S-rank!"

    The adults all laughed while Reese and Neith looked at each other with smirks. Yuffie had jumped up and was now standing next to Bandit, yelling right at their overly-tall teacher. Watching her friend standing toe-to-toe with the jounin, she stopped yelling, realizing then that it was truly over. Things were getting back to normal.

    Nia suddenly jumped up on Bikuta's back, joining Yuffie in yelling, "S-rank!"

    "Okay, okay, okay!" the teacher shouted, laughing and taking another swig from his jug. "An A-rank."

    "S-rank!" Yuffie started shouting again, but Bikuta cut her off.

    "A-rank. You kids did great out there, better than I ever would have thought! Don't push it, though. You all plan to get stronger and become jounin? Get used to what you did here: this is what a jounin-level mission is like. This is the A-rank stuff that jounin handle." Giving them all a serious look, he explained, "These are the serious ones, and often they directly involve Konoha's well-being."

    Mune nodded and added, "With a start like this, though, I think our village is in good hands."

    Even Yuffie quieted down, while Bandit blushed. Nia pumped a fist in the air from her perch on Bikuta's back.

    "What now?" Reese asked. The gloomy-looking Mist rogue rubbed at the swelled side of his face.

    It was Xaki who answered. "They've captured us. We go with them to face our punishment."

    Everyone grew quiet, then, as reality seemed to fall around them. "Yeah," Bikuta said with forced cheerfulness, "let's go home."

    __

    "So, Aisha is really staying with you now?" Tyger asked. The two teams were gathered in the training field again. The sun was still high over the horizon, although the sky was darkening to orange.

    Tyger leaned against the pillar on the left. Seated atop that pillar, Nia nodded, kicking her feet eagerly. "Yeah-nii~! Everyone's so excited! My sisters all love her-nii~!"

    Seated atop the pillar on the right, back-to-back with Red, Yuffie laughed. "That's kinda scary! You're wicked strong already -- if Aisha starts teaching you her techs, then we're in some real trouble!"

    "What was the story with that Edward girl?" Red asked.

    It was Kazuki who answered. He stood in front of the middle pillar, his katana resuming its normal place on his back. "She apparently drew maps of some confidential areas. Xaki and the others were sent to capture her and bring her back to find out how much information was compromised, confiscate all her papers." He crossed his arms. "Their boss got paranoid because of Xaki requesting the mission, so it seemed like he gave Serim different orders: to kill Edward and the others on the mission, also.

    "Xaki wouldn't have taken the mission if it was for a kill."

    Seated cross-legged on top of the center pillar, Bandit smiled. Her long black hair fell all the way to the wood. She was wearing her father's over-sized blue shirt, the sleeves hanging far below her arms. It felt... comfortable now. "I don't think Aisha would have, either. Not sure about the other two."

    "The village let them go, though, so they couldn't have had that evil a history."

    Bandit nodded. She turned then, looked at her friends: Nia, Tyger, Kazuki, Red, Yuffie... they had rescued Edward, helped Xaki to redeem himself, and found Aisha a new home. She thought of all the different ways things could have gone, all the ways things could have gone wrong.

    Then she thought of all the ways they had gone right.

    "You know," she said quietly, "I don't think I could ask for any better team."

    The other two members of Team Twelve snickered. "Good thing," Yuffie said playfully, "since you're the leader now."

    Bandit blinked. "What?"

    "Yay, leader-nii~!"

    Her red eyes widened. "No!"

    "Yep!"

    __

    "You're sure? They offered you guys a chance to stay."

    Neith nodded. "We don't belong here. Don't worry, though." He clapped his taller friend on the shoulder and grinned at Aisha. "I'll look after him."

    The three rogues -- two rogues and former rogue -- stood at the gates of Konoha. The two special jounin guarding the entrance watched passively, though they gave the kids a respectful privacy.

    Reese returned the clap, knocking Neith forward a step. "Yeah, he'll look after me since I'm the one always saving his butt."

    The silver-haired girl managed a smile. She had never really given them an opportunity to get close to her, but she still felt a bit of... fondness for them. Enough that she genuinely hoped they would be okay. "Just don't..."

    "We aren't going back to work for Gouza," Neith said, already knowing what she was going to say. "The retirement options aren't very appealing."

    The girl nodded, and the three stood there awkwardly for a long moment. Aisha held off for a long moment before finally asking a question that had been burning at her. "Neith... you were in the same village: what made Serim the way he was?"

    Reese and Neith shared a look. It was something they had discussed at length without coming to a real answer. The redhead shrugged. "I don't know much. I don't think he was ever a nice guy... but he wasn't always so... hateful. From what I know, he used to have a lover."

    Some of the rogue's words flashed through her head. "Was she... killed?"

    Neith nodded. "I think so. Or maybe she betrayed him. I don't know. Whatever it was, it hurt him -- hurt him enough that he decided that nothing in this world could ever hurt him more than that."

    Aisha fell silent, a shudder running down her spine. Serim had taken that to the literal extreme and then stepped way past that.

    There was another question she wanted to ask, but she couldn't. It wasn't any of her business.

    After a brief pause, the boy hiked his bag higher up on his shoulders. "Goodbye Aisha... thank you."

    She tilted her head. "For what?"

    The redhead shrugged. Reese spoke up for him. "Because of you, he regained a little honor, I think he's trying to say."

    "Reese!"

    "When you asked before about why he was a rogue, he dodged the answer. The reason was..."

    "I can tell it," Neith said, an edge in his voice. He looked away. "I was in love with one of my teammates." His words came sharp and rushed, stripped of the emotions that surrounded them and replaced with tension. "She was in love with our other teammate. I got jealous, and thought that, if I could beat him, that I would win her over."

    The boy turned and met Aisha's eyes. "I challenged him, my friend, to a duel. I fought him for that girl. I won. He lost."

    "She wasn't impressed?" Aisha asked.

    Neith shook his head. "I didn't stick around to find out. I won... by cutting the tendons in the back of both ankles. In a stupid fight over a girl, I permanently hobbled my best friend. I don't even know if he can still be a ninja. I just... left. Then and there, as soon as I realized what I had done."

    Slowly, it began to make sense. By protecting Aisha, he had somehow been atoning for hurting his teammate before.

    Expectantly, both of them turned to look at Reese. The Chuunin laughed, throwing his oversized, blunt sword over one shoulder. "Sorry, no sad stories from me."

    Aisha stuck her tongue out at him. "Fine. Just go then! You boys better stay safe -- and don't screw with Konoha! If you start any funny business, you'll have to deal with me, Aisha Kuranran!"

    Neith laughed. "We wouldn't want that." Waving, the two rogues turned. They wouldn't be coming back: since they had turned down the offer to stay, they were still considered enemy ninja. They would be followed until they exited the Land of Fire, and possibly hunted if they came back.

    Aisha stood there and watched them go, unsure how she should feel.

    When they reached a bend in the road and moved out of sight, Aisha finally moved, heading back to her new home.

    __

    Xaki lifted the drink to his lips, downing it and coughing roughly. "Agh! What's in this?" he asked between coughs, pounding a fist to his chest. Tears began forming in the corners of his eyes as he kept coughing.

    Chuckling, Bikuta gulped down his own glass smoothly. His only response was a loud belch that rattled the glasses hanging over his head.

    The red-headed jounin clapped Xaki on the back, also laughing. "You'd do well to sip that! Not everyone has an iron stomach like Bikuta!"

    At last, Xaki got the coughing under control, gasping for breath as his head spun. Groaning, he leaned across the bar, pushing away the next glass the bartending jounin sent his way. The two older men laughed again, and even Xaki managed a light chuckle.

    "I never thought I would be back here," he said quietly, still leaning with his head against the bar. "So many people I never thought I'd see again. I can't believe I put Nia through that..."

    The rest of the bar was empty -- too early for most patrons. Bikuta had his bandana pulled up, revealing his two different-colored eyes. He nodded empathetically, pouring himself another glass. "You should have come back right away."

    "How could I?" Xaki asked. "I had no idea that the client or the mission were a fake. As far as I knew, I had just murdered the man I was supposed to protect." He groaned again. "Even now, I wouldn't take me back: I lost control, did something I never should have..."

    Seated next to him, Mune frowned into his own glass. "You wouldn't be human, otherwise." He took a long gulp of the fiery alcohol, coughing a little. "Every one of us has made mistakes somewhere, some of them just as bad, some of them worse. It's important what you learn from them."

    "Yeah," Xaki agreed noncommittally. He slowly raised his head, reaching down to feel his chest where Serim had stabbed him. "One thing's for certain: I'm not going to let myself become like him. I can't let one thing fester and turn me into a monster." The white-haired jounin leaned back on his stool. "It would make my little sister cry..."

    The two elder men shared a look and then grinned. "Maybe you'd like to deliver the news, then..." Bikuta pulled a scroll from under the counter, setting it upright on the bar in front of Xaki. The younger man raised an eyebrow, looking at his teacher and the bartender suspiciously, before taking the scroll and pulling it open.

    __

    "Nooo!" Bandit squealed from where she was pinned to the ground. Yuffie was holding her legs down and Nia sat her fat rump right on Bandit's chest, legs splayed out to either side of her head. "Get off!"

    "You have to say 'yes'-nii~!" her blond friend teased, grinning cheerfully down at the girl. Bandit wriggled unsuccessfully, trying to push the girl off.

    Team Thirteen, watching from nearby, merely laughed, offering no aid to the poor girl.

    Yuffie spoke up from behind. "You know, if you were the leader, you could just order us to get off!"

    The girl's face was turning red. "Fine!" she squealed. "Just get! Off!"

    Giggling, the two girls moved off, and Yuffie reached down to grab Bandit's hand and pull the shorter girl to her feet. Bandit glared, reluctantly accepting the hand up. Huffing, she brushed the grass and dirt off her shirt.

    "Glad you girls got that sorted out already."

    "Xaki-ni!" Nia called out, rushing over to her brother. The tall jounin stood at the edge of the training field. His black vest had been replaced by a dark green Konoha squad leader vest. His powerful arms were folded across his chest, a sign even Bandit recognized as him being at ease.

    Aisha stepped out from behind Xaki. The tan-skinned girl crossed her arms like Xaki, her emerald eyes surveying the gathered teams curiously. She didn't say anything.

    "Aisha-nee!" Nia squealed out, aborting her rush at Xaki to pounce on Aisha.

    "Wha? Hey!" Nia giggled, hanging onto Aisha's back and nearly choking the girl. "I told you! I'm not your sister!"

    Nia giggled even louder and retorted, "You are now~!"

    With a light chuckle at both of his sisters, Xaki looked straight at Bandit. The girl smiled back shyly, remembering that special smile of his from when she was younger. "New orders for Team Twelve: you have a C-rank mission to complete near the Land of Waves. I'll be taking Bikuta-senpai's place for this mission, and Aisha will be accompanying you."

    Bandit stared incredulously. "What? Already?"

    "If you aren't ready..." Xaki started to say.

    "That's great!" Bandit finished, throwing her arms up eagerly.

    "Only a C-rank? We'll be back by dinner," Yuffie added cockily.

    "You know it," Aisha replied with a feral grin. "I'm Aisha Kuranran! There's no way you can lose with me on your side."

    "I'm Nia Hitonomi!" Nia mimicked, "There's no way we can lose with both of us on one side-nii~!"

    Bandit eagerly bounced over toward Xaki, red eyes gleaming with excitement. "When do we leave?"

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