Naga, confident, brash Naga, wrapped her arms around her knees and shook.
Yukiko pinched the assassin's nose shut and laid her hand across his mouth, counting time until he fell unconscious; he had no need to be part of this conversation and after what he'd said to Naga, she really didn't want him awake at all.
"Naga?" Iruka said again. "It's all right, we trust you. Are you hurt?"
"She has a kunai in her back," Kakashi offered. "It seems to have missed the kidney."
"Right," Iruka said, moving over to the shaking girl. "Lie down on your stomach and I'll take care of this."
Slowly, Naga straightened herself and lay on the leaves carpeting the forest floor. "It isn't deep," she said quietly. "He didn't throw very hard." She shivered. "If he'd realized it was me..."
"Whatever he might or might not have realized, he's unconscious," Yukiko said, standing. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"I guess. You should know, in case it happens again." Naga winced as Iruka pulled the kunai from her back and lifted her shirt to examine the wound. She pushed his hands away and sat up so he could wrap bandages around her waist.
"It isn't about me. It's about my family. You heard what he said -- snake tongue -- traitor's blood. Have you heard of Orochimaru?"
Yukiko blinked. "Sarutobi-sama's student, one of the Three? ...Isn't he a missing-nin?"
"S-class missing-nin," Kakashi said blandly. "He killed a number of ninja, civilians, and children near the end of the wars, just before the Fourth Hokage was chosen, and escaped when the Third Hokage confronted him."
Naga nodded, blank-faced. "He's my mother's cousin. We're the last of the Sasayaki; the others died when Hidden Grass drove out clans with bloodline limits. My mother disowned him from the clan, but people see the limit and..." She shrugged, and winced as the motion pulled at her wound.
"But Orochimaru left Konoha almost ten years ago -- you were too young to have anything to do with it," Iruka said, sounding puzzled. "Why blame you?"
"They want to blame somebody. Naga's here, he isn't. They can hurt her, but hurting one of the Three? That's harder." Yukiko rolled the assassin over to lie face-down in the dirt, kicking him in the kidneys for good measure. "It's just like Naruto, and just as unfair."
Iruka was silent for several seconds, but the growing scowl on his face spoke volumes. He jerked the bandages tight around Naga's waist, tucking the end back under the wrapping and pinning it in place. "If anyone tries to hurt you again--" he started.
"I'll take care of it myself," Naga said, glaring at him. "Don't patronize me."
"Fascinating as this conversation is," Kakashi said, startling the team, who had largely been ignoring him, "we do have to reach Kashiwa at some point. I'm perfectly happy to be late, but you might have other ideas."
"...Right," Iruka said slowly. "Naga, will the wound keep you from fighting?"
"Okay. Same positions as before, but call me if someone attacks. The next assassin might not be alone."
With that comforting thought in mind, they resumed their journey through the eerily silent forest.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, and they halted as the sun perched on the horizon, bloated and orange, its rays slanting dimly through the trees and casting hundred-yard shadows that stretched forward into the thickening gloom. "There's a clearing ahead," Iruka said, "and beyond that the old growth starts to fade and the underbrush thickens. We could push on -- there might be better cover."
Yukiko shook her head. "Enemies might already be hiding in that cover. Let's wait until tomorrow, when we're rested."
Iruka agreed, so they made camp at the base of a giant oak, sheltering between two massive roots that thrust nearly three feet above the soil. It was far from perfect cover but much better than nothing, especially after Yukiko circled the area with traps. By mutual agreement they made no fire; it would only attract attention and reduce their own night vision.
Naga took first watch, Iruka second, and Yukiko third. She perched on a branch above the camp and let her mind and awareness drift lightly through the area, occasionally snagging on a passing squirrel or bird. If they didn't need to be unobtrusive, she might have used the animals as target practice in hopes of providing fresh meat for the morning meal -- ration bars, while healthy and compact, were distinctly unappetizing.
As the grey sky of false dawn, visible in tiny swatches through the forest canopy, brightened into rose and silvery-gold, Kakashi stirred, snapping Yukiko's attention back from her unfocused searching. She climbed down to the camp as he folded his blankets and stuffed them into his pack, pulling out his book in return.
"You're up early," Yukiko whispered, trying not to wake her teammates.
Kakashi shrugged. "Habit. Normally I'd sleep in, but this feels like a mission."
Some mission. He was probably used to hunting A- or S-class missing-nin, guarding feudal lords from real assassins, or fighting in the wars that had plagued the hidden villages for decades until the Fourth Hokage hammered out truces and peace treaties. He must be bored out of his mind, watching three genin muddle through a test he could pass in his sleep.
"It doesn't seem like much of a mission, just walking around and letting us do all the work. Aren't you bored?"
"A bit," Kakashi said as he flipped a page. "But it pays well. And I've been meaning to catch up on my reading for a few months."
"That," Yukiko said with melodramatically exaggerated distaste, pointing at the little orange book, "is not reading. That is rotting your brain."
His uncovered eye twinkled at her. "I prefer to think of it as ripening."
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, Kakashi reading and Yukiko watching the sky change from rose to lavender to blue, before she woke her teammates for breakfast.
They moved cautiously out of the deep forest into the patch of scrubland, Iruka hanging close to his teammates so no one would be caught alone. Despite the danger of the situation, Kakashi seemed to delight in playing the infuriating client, responding slowly to directions, making excessive noise, and fidgeting when asked to remain still. "Every team gets a day of this," he said when Naga snapped at him. "I'll be good again tomorrow -- if I 'live' that long."
Iruka held up his hand, signaling a halt, and hurried back to the others. "I hear running water; I think we're approaching the river between Konoha and Kashiwa. Should we look for one of the bridges or climb down into the gorge?"
"You're the leader," Yukiko said. "Why do you keep asking us?"
"Because we haven't worked together long enough for me to know what to do in every situation!" Iruka flushed at his outburst. "Um. I'd rather cross directly -- the bridges are obvious spots for an ambush -- but can we guard Kakashi-san while we're halfway down a cliff?"
"Let's see this cliff before we decide," Yukiko said carefully.
The gorge, when they reached it, turned out to be fairly wide at this point in its course, and its western wall was more of a very steep hill, dotted with bushes and spindly trees, than an actual cliff. The eastern side, across the river, was much more forbidding, layers upon layers of crumbling shale rising vertically from a talus slope and at some points leaning forward to hang threateningly over the water.
"That," Naga said, "is not good."
Iruka looked at the gorge, looked at the team and a lazily blinking Kakashi, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Let's go north a little and see if the other side looks any better."
After fifteen minutes of nerve-wracking travel along the lip of the gorge, with Kakashi blithely crunching twigs and leaves underfoot, they stood across from a narrow defile in the eastern wall, which rose gently upward as it vanished back into the cliff. The three genin looked skeptically at the gap; it was convenient, it would save them the effort of climbing up a cliff wall... and it was an even more obvious spot for an ambush than a bridge would be.
But the cliff showed no signs of leveling to a more reasonable slope, and climbing shale was always risky; it would break under your fingers with the slightest pressure at the wrong spot. With Kakashi playing an incompetent, there was no way they could get him up without exposing themselves to unacceptable degrees.
"We'll have to go through there," Iruka concluded. "Yukiko, start a genjutsu when we break cover. I'll guard you. Naga, guard Kakashi-san. And Kakashi-san, please don't talk until we tell you it's safe."
Kakashi shrugged. Iruka rubbed his nose, but took that as agreement. "Let's go."
They eased down the western slope, wary of how exposed they were to anyone on top of the cliff across the river. The riverbank itself was thickly wooded, trees flourishing on the narrow strip of land at the bottom of the gorge, and the river was relatively shallow, rushing noisily over rocks and fallen branches. That was good, since Kakashi wasn't allowed to water-walk during the test and it would have been awkward to carry him over deep water.
After one last look around, Iruka nodded to Yukiko. She closed her eyes for concentration, let her chakra spill outward to spread the genjutsu, and formed the seals for the Wandering Eye. Instead of blending them into the environment, like Chameleon, this jutsu was a suggestion that made ambient sounds and sights more dramatic, more attention-grabbing, thus distracting watchers from the travelers.
It wasn't as effective as Chameleon, but it took less chakra so she could spread it over a greater area and hold it longer.
Yukiko opened her eyes, and Iruka waved the team forward. He and Naga stepped lightly on the surface of the river, while Kakashi splashed and slogged through the water, slipping on the muddy, plant-slick rocks under his feet. Yukiko, who was focused on holding the Wandering Eye genjutsu, hopped from stone to stone rather than burn chakra on water-walking. The natural noise and motion of the river helped cover Kakashi's lurching progress, but they were totally exposed. She couldn't afford to let the jutsu falter for an instant.
Once they reached the defile, Iruka picked up the pace, leading them over the uneven stones almost at a jog; Naga kept one hand on Kakashi's arm, steadying him whenever he deliberately stumbled. They had nearly reached the top of the gorge when the defile abruptly dead-ended in a sheer cliff that showed signs of water erosion.
"Runoff waterfall," Iruka muttered. "At least we're only fifteen feet down."
"Wonderful. How will we get out? I can't use chakra to climb while I'm holding the genjutsu over the area."
Iruka rubbed his scar, thinking. "Um... give me a coil of rope. I'll climb up, scout around, and then lower the rope for Kakashi-san. Naga can climb beside him, and then I'll bring you up too."
Yukiko pulled a coil of thin, colorless rope from her jacket and handed it to Iruka. "Hurry -- I'm getting tired." And something about the defile felt wrong; she wanted out.
Iruka made it safely to the top and vanished. Naga herded Kakashi into the shadows of a slight overhang, making him harder for potential assassins to spot, while Yukiko sat on a handy shelf of stone and wove her fingers through a set of seals, changing the form of her genjutsu. There were no waving leaves and moving water here to attract a searching eye, so she dropped the Wandering Eye in favor of the Shadow Cloak, blurring their forms into nondescript patches of darkness against the gray-brown shale.
The renewed disguise didn't ease the feeling of wrongness. The back of her neck itched, and something prickled in the corners of her eyes. Yukiko slipped her left hand into her pocket, checking her explosive notes and wires, and ran her right hand over her kunai holster, hooking her fingers through the hilt loops of five knives.
A crash sounded from above, followed by the choked-off call of a crow.
Yukiko and Naga stared at each other.
"You go! I'll guard Kakashi," Yukiko said, and Naga sprinted up the rock to rescue Iruka from whatever trouble he'd found. Yukiko nudged Kakashi further into the shadows, dropping her pack and stationing herself beside him.
"Just the two of us now," Kakashi said with a smile. "So tell me, how did a pretty young woman like you end up with such a patchwork team?"
"This is not the time, you pervert! Be quiet," Yukiko whispered, drawing her handful of kunai. The air was too calm; she should have been able to hear at least some noise from her teammates above, but the defile was deathly silent. She had to concentrate, but Kakashi was so distracting!
"Why shouldn't we talk? All the danger is up there -- who could find us down in the shadows?" Kakashi's one visible eye closed in a lazy wink.
A pebble shifted to her left.
Yukiko whipped her kunai toward the sudden movement, cursing as she finally spotted the slight shimmer in the air that betrayed a concealing genjutsu. A ninja-to flashed, deflecting the knives, and a slim, broad-shouldered man -- a Sand-nin, judging by his heavy face paint and the symbol on his forehead-protector -- wavered into sight nearly ten feet from where his sword had been a second ago.
"Who could find you?" he said, smirking. "That would be me. Step aside, little kunoichi; my business is with your client, not with you."
Assassin. He was fast, he could make himself nearly invisible, and he had a sword. Yukiko swallowed as fear hollowed her insides and crashed into the pit of her stomach like a stone. She was in big trouble if Iruka and Naga didn't come back soon.
"My mission is to escort Kakashi-san safely to Kashiwa," she said, drawing another handful of kunai and hoping her voice didn't waver too badly. "I can't let you kill him." She couldn't let Iruka and Naga down; it didn't matter if she failed the exam, but they deserved to be chuunin. She wasn't going to let anyone interfere with their dreams.
The assassin shrugged. "Too bad. I'll make your death swift." He held his sword crosswise, preparing for an attack. With his speed, Yukiko had no hope of dodging.
Only one chance, then. Yukiko clenched her left hand, folding down the corners of the explosive notes hidden in her sleeve, and held her five kunai loosely in her right hand. She planted herself in front of Kakashi and raised her arms. "Come and try."
The assassin smiled. "You're brave, I'll give you that. But you can't stop me." He raised his sword and charged.
Yukiko crossed her arms, right over left, and opened her left hand.
The explosion flung her back into Kakashi and sent them both smashing into the rocks, blinded by the flash and deafened by the bang. Her arm felt like it was torn to burning shreds, with specks of fire burrowing into the remnants of her bones and racing up through her shoulder where they clashed with the leaden ache of her collision with the cliff wall.
Yukiko forced herself upright, panting, and blinked, trying to see through the brilliant white haze floating before her eyes.
The assassin, blackened and swaying, stood several yards down the defile with two kunai in his shoulder, one in his chest, one in his gut, and one in his thigh. He eyed Yukiko with a sliver of respect. "That was either very clever or completely insane."
"I think insane is probably more accurate," Yukiko managed, tearing loose the remains of her jacket sleeve and pressing it against her burned, bloody arm. Behind the screen of fabric, she started forming seals, wincing as the movement pulled her torn muscles. "But it worked."
"For a moment, yes," the assassin said. "But only for a moment, and that's not good enough." He pulled the kunai from his body, glancing down with a grimace as one grated against a rib. "This time, little kunoichi, you die."
He charged again, fast enough to blur nearly out of sight, the air screaming as his sword sliced forward.
Yukiko sank to her knees, fingers locked into one last seal, as the assassin hurled himself face-first into the unforgiving rock wall of the defile.
"A moment's all I need, you overconfident bastard."
"That," Kakashi said, propping himself into a sitting position and wiping soot from his face, "was an interesting genjutsu. He went ten degrees left of where he wanted to go and was moving too fast to adjust. That could be useful. What made you think of distorting his movement instead of his perception?"
Yukiko glared at the jounin, too drained to be nervous about the exposed Sharingan in his left eye. "You copied my jutsu. You wouldn't be quiet, you kept me from noticing the assassin, you got me blown up, and now you copied my new jutsu! You... you bastard."
Kakashi shrugged. "Sometimes clients are like that. A chuunin has to be able to adapt to adverse circumstances; if you can't think on your feet, you'll never pass the test. So, what made you think of distorting his movement?"
Yukiko reached over to dig through her pack for some bandages, wincing as she pulled her abused muscles. "...He'd already seen through my Wandering Eye and Shadow Cloak, so I knew I couldn't fool his eyes," she said grudgingly. "He'd be expecting that. But even though he moved so fast when he attacked, he didn't avoid my kunai. I figured he committed everything to his attack and couldn't shift directions easily.
"So I just had to make him move in the wrong direction." She shrugged, then winced again and continued trying to wrap bandages one-handed.
Kakashi nodded, slipping his forehead protector back over his left eye. "Good thinking. Not many people realize that speed can have disadvantages."
"Yukiko! Kakashi-san!" Iruka's frantic voice rang through the defile, and he jumped down to meet them; Naga remained above, sitting on the edge of the cliff. "We heard the explosion -- you're hurt! -- what happened?"
"Assassin," Yukiko said, tipping her head toward the bleeding, battered man. "He was hiding under genjutsu and attacked when you left."
Iruka rubbed his nose and scowled. "I knew there was something fishy about the way the other one tried to lead Naga and me away. How did you stop him?"
Yukiko held up her sloppily bandaged arm. "Kunai and explosive notes. Then I made him run in the wrong direction."
"I see." Iruka frowned, but didn't press for details. Yukiko was grateful; if she'd let the assassin at Kakashi, they would have failed the test, but if she hadn't gotten lucky with the explosion, he might well have killed her. The chuunin exam was always potentially deadly -- they all knew that from experience -- but there was no need for Iruka and Naga to know just how close that encounter had been. Worrying wouldn't help anyone.
Iruka tugged the bandage roll from Yukiko's hands and began rewrapping her arm properly. She held herself as still as possible, hissing through her teeth when he jarred her sore shoulder. He tied off the bandage, and then used a scrap of excess fabric to wipe at the blood and soot on her face and neck.
"...Your jacket looks a bit battered," Iruka said, sitting back. He raised his sooty hand to his nose, stopped, and then scratched awkwardly at the back of his head.
"Yeah," Yukiko said, looking at herself. "Maybe I should tear off the other sleeve so it matches."
"That'd look good," Naga said from above. "Like a chuunin vest."
Yukiko tipped her head back and smiled up at the girl. "You're right. You know what? I think it's a sign that we'll pass this test -- the kami are trying to give us the right uniforms already."
They turned to look at Kakashi, who was still sitting slumped against the rocks. "I hate to interrupt this touching moment of team solidarity, but I am still your client and I have injuries that need to be tended. I'd also like to point out that we're still at the bottom of a defile where I just almost died."
He attempted to look pathetic; Yukiko and Iruka watched him skeptically. "I'm scared of dead bodies!" he whined, unable to disguise the smile crinkling his eye. "Get me out of here! You're supposed to be protecting me better than this!"
"You sure there's a rule against killing clients?" Naga asked, kicking her heels against the rocks. "We could pretend the assassin won."
Iruka flushed. "We can't kill Kakashi-san, Naga. It would defeat the purpose of this test."
Naga aimed her cockeyed smile at Kakashi, her eyes cold. "You heard Iruka. You're safe for now, but you almost got Yukiko killed -- after this test, I'm going to hurt you."
Kakashi blinked lazily. "You can try. I might even let you touch me."
Naga scowled, but she tossed down the rope when Iruka asked and contented herself with 'accidentally' knocking Kakashi to the ground as she helped him over the edge of the defile. She smirked, but behind her, Kakashi's grin -- obvious even under his mask -- made it clear she'd only succeeded because he let her.
Yukiko suppressed a sigh. She really wanted this test to be over. After spending this long with her teammates and Kakashi, Naruto's jokes and hyperactivity would almost be a relief, and what that said about her state of mind didn't bear thinking about.
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