A\N: I do not own Eyeshield 21 or Naruto.

This update delay brought to you by laziness, real life deadlines, and getting caught up reading "Embers" by Vathara.

Seriously, if any of you have any liking for Avatar: The Last Airbender fanfics, I recommend Embers because it is the kind of fic I wish I could write.

vegetanime: I judge Kurenai as too proud to admit she's been pranked… the incident will most likely end up being swept under the rug. As for Orochimaru, that you will have to wait and see.

This chapter contains my first major fight scene, so please review!


"TWANG!"

The arrow flew downrange and Tenten, clanless kunoichi and weapon-mistress-in-training, smirked as it buried itself in the center of the target one hundred and fifty yards away.

Reaching down to pluck another arrow from the bunch standing up from the ground at her feet, a movement drew her attention to the observers. After the slightest of hesitation, Tenten continued with the practiced motion, swiftly drawing another arrow and sending it into the target. It wasn't that she minded an appreciative audience, but having four boys standing around barely outside touching range, staring at her from every angle, was slightly off-putting. Especially when all four wore the same face. Still, she couldn't argue with results. By observing her motion from so many angles, Hiruma had come as far with his archery in a day as she had in weeks. Plus, being critiqued by so many observers had ironed out a few kinks in her action.

I've got to hand it to him, I haven't caught him ogling me a single time since we started. Didn't think any guy his age could manage that. Tenten honestly didn't know whether to be pleased or offended by this. Instead she fired off yet another arrow.

As this one scored another bull's-eye she remarked,"This is a fantastic bow, Hiruma, but there's a reason shinobi don't usually bother. The speed and power of an arrow is limited by the bow, where the upper limit on a hurled kunai is limited by muscle and chakra reinforcement. Someone like Gai-sensei could easily hurl a kunai with more speed than this bow can shoot an arrow."

"Maito Gai is a fucking freak of nature. And even he can't get this kind of accuracy at that range with a kunai."

TWANG!

"At that range, hitting even a trained civilian is a tall order if the target is evading. Better hope you can get the drop on your target – and crossbows work better for ambushes. I could give you a very good crossbow in trade…."

"No fucking deal. I'll find some way to solve the missile speed issue."

Tenten shrugged and went back to shooting. Three arrows later, Hiruma spoke once more. "So… I hear your team is participating in the chuunin exams this time around?"

"Yeah. How about your team?"

TWANG!

"Asuma-sensei hasn't said anything. We're due to leave tomorrow on our second C-rank."

"The exams are still a month away. If it's a C-Rank you ought to be back in time."

TWANG!

"Hmm….Speaking of missions, did you hear fucking Kakashi's team became the first in our class to complete an A-rank?"

TWANG!

This time, the arrow landed perhaps three inches off-center – which for Tenten was as good as a double-spit-take.

"A-rank! Please don't tell Gai-sensei that Kakashi was crazy enough to take his rookies on an A-rank, you just know he'll drag us on one in order to keep up with his 'most hip and cool rival'."

Hiruma cackled appreciatively at Tenten's imitation of her sensei's tones. "It was only partly Kakashi's fault. The client failed to mention he had missing-nin on his ass. Of course, when the truth came out Kakashi was too stubborn to back off, and the group ended up facing Momochi Zabuza, an A-rank missing-nin."

"That sounds strange. I mean, I can see Gai-sensei pushing on against all sense, but Kakashi never struck me as the gung-ho type. I guess he basically ended up taking on Zabuza solo while his team cowered behind him?"

TWANG!

"The first time, yeah, that's pretty much how it went down. Kakashi drove fucking Zabuza off. Second time, well, there wasn't one, because while Kakashi was busy recovering, his genin team went and assassinated Zabuza's employer. Some rich asshole from Wave named Gatou."

"A rookie genin squad managed to assassinate someone guarded by missing-nin? Color me impressed."

TWANG!

"It's a lot less impressive when you realize that the fool Gatou hadn't bothered hiring any shinobi for protecting himself. I mean, the fuck's with that? The idiot can afford A-rank ninja to kill a civilian, but he doesn't bother hiring any decent bodyguards?"

Tenten gave a light laugh. "I've actually seen that once or twice on my missions. Rich idiots so used to getting their way they stop believing that anything bad can possibly happen to them."

TWANG!

Having sent ten arrows downrange, Tenten paused in her drill. "So, think you got enough pointers, or do you need to…ahem…'observe' some more?"

"Fuckin' gimme that."

Dispelling his clones, Hiruma took a minute to assimilate the memories before pulling out a fresh set of ten arrows and lining up at a second target.

Tenten noted how Hiruma's stance had, again, improved. Honestly, she was envious of his ability to learn using his shadow clones, and she once more promised herself to learn the technique as soon as she could.

TWANG!

Continuing their conversation, Tenten said, "Kakashi's team, that's the one with Sasuke Uchiha in it, right? Did he lead the assassination?"

"Hah! Like that idiot's got the smarts to plan something like that. The whole thing was put together by Shikamaru Nara."

TWANG!

"I've heard of the Nara, but I don't know Shikamaru."

"He's fucking smart and fucking lazy. Lazy enough to prefer killing civilians to fighting shinobi, smart enough to figure out how."

TWANG!

"So, question: if their mission got reclassified as an A-rank, who's paying for it?"

Hiruma's cackle was truly evil. "Shikamaru actually managed to clean out Gatou's petty cash after the assassination. Enough there to pay the mission twice over. 'Course, Kakashi didn't mention that when renegotiating the contract. By the time the various tolls and trade agreements have run their course, the whole island's likely to be in Konoha's pocket."

TWANG!

"I kinda feel sorry for them. First Gatou and now we're taking advantage of them."

"I don't. It's obvious those fuckers are too weak to look after themselves. At least with us they'll get a fair deal."

TWANG!

"So, Tenten, you gonna be bringing anything new to the Chuunin exams, or you just gonna stick with your knife-throwing act?"

"Why mess with what works?"

TWANG!

"Just because I like ramen don't mean I eat at fucking Ichiruka's three times a day."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

TWANG!

"It means one of these days, you'll meet some fucker you can't turn into a pincushion. On that day you're gonna get your ass kicked, and I'll get to say 'I fucking told you so'."

"Shut up and aim properly, you haven't hit the bull's eye yet." grumbled Tenten.

TWANG!

o-o-o-o-o

Sena breathed deeply, trying to stifle her nervousness and the pain in her muscles. She was training, but not in any training area of the village. Instead she was in a forested area near the Nara compound, with trees on all sides. On the ground in front of her lay a few dozen brightly painted hoops, scattered in a zigzag line winding around the tree trunks. Dangling from the branches, near each hoop, was a small wooden target.

Putting her hands in the ram seal, Sena gathered chakra for a second, and then whispered, "Shushin." The target hanging near the closest hoop shattered with a flash of light and a whiff of ozone.

An elite ninja could go from 0 to 40 from a standing start, and reach speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour in a sprint. The same ninja, using the Shushin jutsu, could hit 200 miles per hour in an instant.

In a gap of time so small that only the most expensive chronometers in Fire country could accurately measure it, a second target exploded in a similar fashion, as a grey blur shot past it.

But to use the Shushin one had to select the destination beforehand, and there was no stopping or changing direction. Thus, shinobi use the technique in combat only when assured the opponent was not going to intercept.

The blur zigzagged through the path marked by the hoops. Dirt exploded from the center of those hoops that marked particularly sharp course changes. A third target was split apart, but without the flash. Two targets were set swinging by the breeze of passage, but remained unmarked. The sixth target, again, exploded.

A further limitation is that the Shushin, like many other delicate jutsu, works best when performed carefully. Any competent shinobi can use the technique with pin-point accuracy, provided he takes a second to prepare.

Target after target shattered or simply broke. Perhaps one in three stayed intact. But even then, it happened so quickly that it was all one single noise, like someone tearing a door off its hinges.

Without that moment of preparation, the margin of error on the Shushin is limited by the user's chakra control and skill with the technique. For the average shinobi, this means an error of several yards even over short distances. This is why only the elite even attempt to use it in close combat.

It may be noted that none of the hoops were placed further than eight feet apart, and most of them were within three to five feet of each other.

The blur had gone past the halfway point on the course, when it suddenly went off path, resolving itself into a small figure tumbling at a speed well in excess of safe.

With the habit of long, painful experience, Sena tucked her chin into her chest and wrapped her arms around her head, rolling into a defensive ball. Chakra flared as she reinforced her body and tried to gain traction on the ground. By the time of the inevitable collision with a nearby tree, her speed had slowed down to 'painful'.

For a long moment, Sena lay crumpled at the base of the tree, heart thundering in her ears. Slowly, she gathered herself, checking to make sure that every part of her body was still reasonably functional. Once assured of her continuing physical health, she simply lay there, trying to catch her breath.

Sena was tired. It wasn't just from low chakra reserves after a long day of training, or the bruises from her fall, or the agony of muscles wrenched by rapid changes of direction at inhuman speeds. It was the bone-deep weariness that comes from operating for too long on too little rest.

Everyday she would be up at the crack of dawn for three hours of medical training at the hospital. (Asuma had been the one to suggest it, but Hiruma had run with it. Sena carefully did not ask how Hiruma arranged training with a med-nin on the graveyard shift without going through official channels.) After that, there would be just enough time to wash and snack, before joining Team Asuma for a full day of training and D-rank missions. In the evening, twice a week, there would be genjutsu training with Team Kurenai. These were usually relaxed affairs, but in recent weeks Kurenai Yuhi had been positively vicious for some reason. And all of this was in addition to the countless hours of self-training.

Thanks to her medical training, Sena knew that her training schedule was not just intensive, but borderline self-destructive, but she couldn't bring herself to stop. Hiruma would make bloodcurdling threats and seemingly impossible demands of her, but whenever she succeeded, his praise was just as violent and over-the-top. Asuma-sensei was a steady reassuring presence, murmuring quiet encouragement and measured praise. As for Kurita, he took pleasure in everyone's company, uncomplicated by such mundane issues as success and failure. For them, Sena would willingly train until her flesh tore and her bones cracked. But – she was ashamed to admit to herself – there was a second, more pressing reason to push so hard. The more tired she was when she came home, the less chance of her being thrown into yet another humiliating duel with either Hanabi or Neji. Her father was a fanatic about training her Jyuuken in every available moment, but even he wasn't going to expect her to win a spar when she could barely stand on her feet. As far as Sena was concerned, the longer she went without a duel, the better. She didn't want to reveal that she was slowly but surely abandoning traditional Jyuuken in favor of her own hit-and-run style.

Speaking of hit-and-run… Sena slowly got to her feet, and went over to examine the targets. She had managed to pass 26 hoops – 26 consecutive Shushin with no pause for orientation – but in only 18 cases had she managed to strike the accompanying target. Of the 18 hits, 10 carried scorch marks. Sena smiled. It was far from perfect, but still an improvement. She raised her hand in a special one-handed seal, and sparks flashed between her fingertips.

The Shock jutsu was ridiculously simple, particularly for someone like her with a Lightning affinity. A one-handed sign to generate the chakra, then pure control to will it to the hands, where it waited ready to zap anything she touched with 50,000 volts. It was an obscure D-rank ninjutsu that Asuma had dug up from who knows where, but it was ideal for a taijutsu specialist. Of course, the trick lay in the timing, to combine the shock with the finger-strike in the fraction of a second between Shushin. Sena knew she could achieve a 100% success rate if she would increase the time gap between Shushin, but she already knew how her team would react to that –

"Fucking shrimp! You're so fucking weak you'd break in half if an enemy gets a hand on you! So don't let them fucking touch you! It doesn't matter if you only hit them one time in ten, if they can only hit you zero times!"

Behind Hiruma, Asuma puffed away for a moment before saying quietly, "The Shushin always comes with a high risk of interception. I don't recommend you use Shushin in melee at all, but if you have to, prioritize not getting hit."

Sena smiled at the memory. Asuma-sensei was always a bit conservative, but honestly, she couldn't imagine not using the Shushin in combat. When Asuma had first started training them in the technique, even Hiruma with his shadow clones had taken several days to pick it up. Sena had learned it in a matter of hours. It was the first time in her life that Sena had understood what it was to have a gift, to be a natural at something. Like a shark in the water or a falcon in the sky. When the crackling corona of the chakra enveloped her, and time slowed and colors bled into each other, it was like returning to a long-forgotten home, embraced in the arms of a friend from a half-remembered dream.

Sighing, Sena shook herself out of her tired daze and started picking up the equipment and sealing it away. She would normally train for a while longer, but today was not the day to take unnecessary risks with her health. Tomorrow, her team was leaving for their second C-rank.

A more introspective person might have been worried by how much she looked forward to leaving her clan behind.

o-o-o-o-o

It was dinner time and Kurita was not at the table. His father Chouza, head of the Akimichi clan, was worried enough by this that he went into the training areas to look for him personally.

The Akimichi was perhaps the only clan in Konoha with a training area dedicated to Earth jutsu. Unsurprising, as they produced more earth-aligned ninja than any clan in Konoha. It was here that Chouza made his way, because his boy had been focusing on Earth jutsu in recent weeks. Chouza had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, he was proud that his son's sensei was already starting the team on elemental affinity techniques, albeit low-level ones. On the other hand, he was worried that Asuma might be pushing things a bit too hard.

Stepping into the twilight of the training area, Chouza raised an eyebrow. The training ground was littered with large wall-like rock formations, a sure sign of the Earth Wall technique his son had been attempting to master. But where was the boy….

Reflexes trained over the years allowed Chouza to step smoothly out of the way as Kurita careened past in Meatball Tank mode. The human boulder slammed into a wall and instead off slowing down, bounced off even faster than before with a flare of chakra. The tank hit a rut and bounced briefly in the air. At this point, Kurita dropped his jutsu. Chouza thought Kurita was about to stop, but instead Kurita slammed his hands into the ground as he landed after flashing through several signs. Another earth wall popped up in front of Kurita, and the boy used his pre-existing forward momentum to transition into another Meatball Tank, that bounced off the new wall with even greater velocity.

Fascinating as this display was, Chouza was getting hungry. "KURITA! IT'S DINNER TIME!"

The tank deflated immediately as Kurita regained his human shape, "Sorry, father! I didn't realize it was so late!"

"Well, it is, so move before all the food is gone."

As they ate dinner, Chouza brought up the topic of Kurita's training. "Kurita-kun, can you explain what you were trying to do, bouncing off those earth walls?"

"Oh, it's a strategy Hiruma-san came up with for letting me change directions quickly in Meatball Tank mode, Chouza-sama. Create a wall, and then bounce off it. Kind of like in pachinko. We've even practiced me bouncing off the Gale Palm jutsu that Hiruma is learning."

Chouza was not one of those who hated Hiruma for being the Kyuubi's container, but he was wary of the boy. Too many reports of jinchuriki instability from Suna and Kiri for him to rest easy with Kurita on Hiruma's team. So, he involuntarily winced when Hiruma's name came up. "I wish the Hokage had put you with Shikamaru and Ino. I bet you miss your old friends, and you wouldn't have to learn such stupid techniques with them on your team."

Kurita kept his face in its usual gentle smile, but he mentally wished his father would find something else to complain about. The man hadn't stopped grousing since the team assignments, and it was beginning to try even Kurita's enormous patience. Besides, Asuma-sensei had said that any battle plan stops working once the enemy shows up. That's why he's called the enemy. Even with a Nara and a Yamanaka, there was no guarantee that the enemy would always be immobilized for Kurita to pound them.

Frankly, Kurita was looking forward to tomorrow's C-rank. He loved his parents, but their overprotective behavior and oblique digs at his best (and for a long time, only,) friend was beginning to get on his nerves.

o-o-o-o-o

(Three days later)

Team Asuma ran in the shinobi's trademark ground-eating lope as they entered the country of Rice. The mission was a standard C-rank escort. A man in Rice named Kenichi Haiiro was interested in commissioning some work from Konoha's seal-makers, and had requested an escort to Konoha, paying cash up front.

Asuma Sarutobi was on edge, and he had warned his team to exercise maximum caution. On the face of it, the mission was a bog-standard C-rank, but there were a few things that Asuma's paranoia had picked up on.

For starters, they were only escorting a single person, who Konoha's contacts in Rice had never heard of. According to their spies, Kenichi Haiiro had showed up one day in Misato, a village on the border of Rice and Fire, and sent a request for an escort by courier to Konoha. Someone rich enough to afford shinobi escort, yet with no prior history, was an oddity.

The other thing setting Asuma on edge was the reports on the up and coming hidden village of Oto. Oto had established itself around the northern border of Fire, and was aggressively expanding operations, drawing support from the various independent principalities north of Fire. The allied hidden villages of Taki and Kusa were all reporting being crowded by shinobi wearing musical-note emblems, and several of Konoha's border patrols had reported coming under observation. Three Konoha border patrols had gone missing in the previous year. An Anbu team sent to infiltrate had lost half their members before being chased out, and reported back that the Oto-nin used previously unknown sound-based jutsu and were aggressive, fearless, and heavily into body modification.

Rice was much closer to Oto than Konoha, and that combined with the mystery surrounding their client was enough to put Asuma on a hair trigger.

It was nearing lunchtime when Team Asuma entered Misato. It was a sprawling unfortified village of perhaps fifty families, primarily farmers. Locating Kenichi Haiiro was simplicity itself, as there was only one inn for travelers. Team Asuma settled themselves around a table, and within a few minutes, their prospective client cam down from his room carrying a large backpack.

Kenichi Haiiro was the most ordinary-looking man any of the four shinobi had ever seen. He was middle-aged, fairly tall but stooped shoulders making him seem smaller, his skin was of a slightly dark shade that could have come from any country save perhaps Kumo, and his plain face and brown eyes had no particular distinguishing features that could point to any sort of heritage. His dress and posture might as well have been labeled, "civilian traveler, prosperous, conservative". From his short graying hair to his worn traveling boots, he virtually screamed, "Don't remember me!"

Sena activated her bakyugan to check his chakra coils, and for a henge. All tests for shinobi-in-disguise coming up negative, Asuma got up to greet their client. "Haiiro-san, I am Asuma Sarutobi, and this is my genin team – Hiruma Uzumaki, Sena Hyuuga, and Kurita Akimichi. We shall be your escort to Konoha."

"Honored to make your acquaintance, Sarutobi-san." Even his voice was blandly polite, with no particular accent. "Any relationship to the Hokage Hiruzen Sarutobi?"

"My father, Haiiro-san. And please, call me Asuma, whenever I hear Sarutobi I think someone's talking about him."

"Only if you call me Kenichi, Asuma-san. And this lovely young lady is a member of the famous Hyuuga clan? I must say, I am flattered to have received such illustrious escorts."

As Sena blushed and mumbled her thanks, Hiruma squinted at the man, wondering if he was being sarcastic. But no, the man seemed genuinely pleased about the identity of his guards.

"Asuma-san, does your team need to rest, or can we leave right after lunch?"

"We're ready to leave whenever you are, Kenichi-san."

"In that case, let us eat, and then we'll be off. This is a charming village, but a little short on entertainment."

o-o-o-o-o

Haiiro proved to be fairly fit, and the team set a good pace by civilian standards. Two days later, the team stopped for a breather at Okuma, a small village in Fire noted for its hot springs. It was no Hot Water resort, but the place was clean and comfortable, and sufficiently out of the way to be fairly empty.

Sena breathed out deeply as she sank into the water, trying to relax and enjoy herself. They had crossed the border without interference, and it seemed like Asuma-sensei's paranoia would remain unfounded this time around. On the other side of the fence, she could hear Hiruma's cackle as he shared a joke with Kurita.

She was just beginning to feel comfortable and slightly drowsy, when a bright flare of chakra skimmed across her senses, originating from the inn where Asuma and Kenichi were located.

Sena's heart skipped a beat, and she froze for a moment before her sensei's words came to her. When in doubt, MOVE! It was a lesson Asuma had repeatedly pounded into his team – whenever you suspect something is wrong, change your position before taking stock.

As Sena shushined to solid ground, she heard two loud splashes where she had been resting. Turning around, she saw two grey-and-white camo-pattern wearing shinobi with musical-note headbands standing up on the water, senbon clutched in their fists.

Activating her bakyugan, she was just in time to see Hiruma and Kurita switch out with some ornamental rocks that were promptly riddled with kunai.

"Slippery one ain't she?" sneered one of her assailants.

"Kinda cute too, even if she is flat. I say we have some fun with her before selling her to Kumo."

Again. It's happening again. People I care about are going to be hurt because of me. Her arms wrapped around herself in a futile effort to cover her nakedness, as the mention of Kumo brought a decade of guilt and pain crashing down on her head. Why can't they just leave me alone…?

"EARTH WALL!"

"GALE PALM!"

Kurita's roar and Hiruma's screech yanked Sena out of her funk, and just in time too, as the Oto-nin were done gloating and on the attack.

Stepping forward, Sena cocked one hand into the special sign, and brought down sparking fingers into the water. The Oto-nin saw it coming and leaped into the air, a barrage of senbon headed for her position.

The senbon were neither as fast nor as accurate as Hiruma's throws. With her bakyugan active, it was easy for her to duck and spin through the gaps or slap them aside while avoiding the poisoned tips, and Sena positioned herself to be directly underneath one of the shinobi as they were about to land. The man instantly kicked out, but Sena sidestepped the attack, and a hand flicked out to transfer several thousand volts in a chakra-enhanced strike to the hip. The shock caused the Oto-nin to freeze up for a little over one second, more than enough time for Sena to spin around and place him between herself and the second opponent. The rock path cracked under her feet as she braced herself before sending two chakra reinforced hands into the man's floating ribs in a textbook double palm strike. The ninja was blasted off his feet and towards his comrade, and Sena used the moment's distraction to flicker out of the bathing area.

However, the second enemy was very much on his toes, and immediately followed while pulling a kunai. With a squeak of terror, Sena initiated another Shushin to take her towards her teammates and away from the slashing kunai.

The Shushin was a technique that Sena had performed flawlessly a thousand times in practice. So, when she stepped out of the Shushin, she tripped over her own feet, sending her crashing down face-first. Her bakyugan was still active, so when the stars cleared from her vision, she didn't need to turn her head to see the enemy ninja flicker into existence above her, kunai stabbing down.

o-o-o-o-o

When Kurita and Hiruma had entered the water, they had left their clothes and gear right next to a pair of ornamental rocks that were ideal targets for a Kawarimi. When Asuma's warning flare had gone up, they hadn't hesitated.

Appearing next to their gear, Kurita immediately ran through the signs and slammed his palms into the ground.

"EARTH WALL!"

A six-foot high, fifteen-foot long curving wall of earth rose up from the paving, protecting the boys from a follow-up shot. Even as the wall rose, Kurita saw Hiruma grab his weapons pouch and produce several shadow clones. Three nude Hirumas vaulted to the top of the wall and started rapid-firing shuriken. Two more joined them with palms outthrust.

"GALE PALM!"

As Hiruma and his clones engaged the attackers in a projectile duel (pity the poor Oto-nin) Kurita looked around for Sena. He blushed as he saw her emerge with no clothes on, but any embarrassment was forgotten as he saw her fall down and an enemy approach to stab her from behind. Before he had even processed it, he had leaped forward, his right hand expanding in size to catch the downthrust kunai.

The Oto-nin struggled to free his weapon from Kurita's flesh, even as Kurita's left hand expanded to match his right.

"FUNARABAAA!" he roared, bringing his left fist around in a massive hook. Giving up the struggle for his kunai, the Oto-nin blocked the punch with a cross-guard, but the force was still enough to knock him into the water.

Kurita didn't waste any time, grabbing Sena and dragging her behind their makeshift defenses. "Wh-what do we do, Hiruma?" blubbered Kurita, his momentary fearlessness now a distant memory.

"It's fucking obvious! We will KILL THEM!" the last two words were chorused by every surviving clone, as they doubled their efforts to keep the enemy ninja from flanking their position.

It was at this point that the inn exploded.

o-o-o-o-o

"Asuma-san, we need to talk. Join me for a drink?"

Asuma glanced sharply at his client, and noted the signs of nervousness. And so the other shoe drops.

He nodded and allowed Kenichi Haiiro to lead the way to the bar area. As they approached, Asuma caught the faint but unmistakable copper-and-shit odor of violent death.

"Asuma-san?" Kenichi had turned around, eyes puzzled, as Asuma froze in place.

Asuma didn't reply. Instead, his hand flashed out, grabbing the man and dragging him to the ground, just as a giant shuriken punched through the flimsy wall and through their previous position.

Still holding on to the client, Asuma rolled away, just as a shockwave blasted through the ceiling, rapidly followed by a man in Oto-nin uniform and flak jacket with strange metal gauntlets.

Whipping out his trench knife, Asuma released wind chakra and sent a Hien at the ninja, but the man smoothly rolled out of the way, leaving the jutsu to carve its way through the wall behind him. A second ninja entered the room, two more giant shuriken in his hands.

Asuma studied his opponent's postures and mentally cursed. Chuunin, maybe even jounin. He was confident he could beat them on his own, but with a civilian to look after, it was a different ball game.

"No need for you to die, Konoha-nin. Let us have the worm behind you, and you can go free." stated the shuriken-wielder coldly.

Asuma quirked his lips. "Really? You'll let me walk? I guess you must be rich, if you don't need 35 million ryo."

The eyes of the Oto-nin opened wide at the figure. The man with the gauntlets exclaimed, "Look at that sash, that's the Fire Daimyo's symbol. He must be Asuma of the Twelve Guardians!"

The man grinned wide and slammed his arms together. "Alright, you talked us into it, we'll take both your heads! Air Cutter!"

His comrade launched both giant shuriken at he same time, looking to cleave Asuma in half.

Asuma smirked. That's it, go for the power shots, they're so easy to read. He immediately dropped into a Shushin, aiming to weave the gaps between the attacks. Even as the technique took him in its grasp, he reached back to grab his client and take him along for the ride – his hand grasped nothing but air.

Reappearing safely away from the attacks, Asuma looked back in horror to see the shockwave impact, his client – and pass right through as the Bunshin popped like a soap bubble.

Shit, he was a ninja, how'd I miss it? Asuma had no time to solve the mystery, as the giant shuriken had curled around to follow him. Taking a trench knife in each hand, he slashed out with the Hien, bisecting one shuriken and cutting the controlling chakra string of another.

Since the last Air Cutter had very obligingly opened a big hole in the wall, Asuma accepted the invitation to exit the room. As soon as he stepped out, he turned to face the two shinobi attempting to follow him, holding a storage scroll to his lips. One Wind Release spewed the contents of the scroll all over the room, and when he transitioned from Wind Release to Fire Release, the cloud of black powder ignited with a dull WHOOSH! Windows shattered and wood cracked as the temperature in the room immediately shot up by several hundred degrees, and Asuma ducked away, patting his face to put out the embers in his beard.

He didn't know if he had caught the enemy in his Ash Volcano jutsu, and he didn't care. His team was undoubtedly under attack. He would locate them first, then search for his client and ask him some very pointed questions.

o-o-o-o-o

"Use the smoke! Let's go!"

With the clones providing covering fire, the three genin ran up to the roof of the inn while carrying as much gear as they could, and used the smoke from the burning building to obscure the line of sight between them and the enemy ninja.

"There you are!"

"Asuma-san!" Sena almost cried in relief as she saw their sensei emerging from the smoke.

"Hold it! Password?" asked Hiruma.

"Swordfish." Asuma replied with a grin. "Glad to see you three are in one piece –"

"Air Cutter!"

The roof nearby was blasted apart and a smoking hand reached up, grasping the broken edge. The Oto jounin pulled himself up, followed by his partner. Both of them looked much the worse for wear, with large chunks of their uniforms scorched away and angry burns covering their arms and faces, but they both looked ready to fight. At the same time, five more Oto-nin from the bathing area landed on the roof, many of them sporting nicks and cuts but nothing serious.

"All right, you and your little kiddies are surrounded! Now where's your client?" snarled the gauntleted one.

No one had a chance to answer, as a Hiruma clone charged out of the shadows, heading for the five from the baths. It was a reckless charge, and was promptly answered by a swift gutting from the one who had almost caught Sena. As the clone poofed out of existence, all that remained were three fluttering slips of paper that promptly detonated. Whether they were alive or dead, it was clear that none of the five were on the roof any longer.

"Dead-man triggers, gotta love 'em." cackled Hiruma. "Now who's surrounded?"

"You really think some little genin is going to worry us? We are jou- AARGH!" The shuriken-wielder staggered while clutching a leg that had suddenly sprouted a kunai. Peeking up from the edge of the roof was Team Asuma's client, one hand extended in a completed throwing motion.

Asuma immediately lunged forward, chakra blades extended to slice apart the weakened enemy. Fast as he was, the other Oto-jounin was faster, grabbing his comrade and shushining out of danger.

"Come on, we have to move before they regroup." said Asuma, and Team Asuma headed for the trees, without even stopping to dress.

Somehow, no one was surprised when their client kept up.

o-o-o-o-o

An hour later, the team stopped to regroup. Hiruma and Kurita had lost some clothes and weapons, but much of their gear was in storage scrolls that they had managed to grab before evacuating. Sena had not been so lucky, and she was currently dressed in a ridiculously baggy orange jacket with the sleeves folded six times over, and orange trousers that were held up by ninja wire and prayers. Green chakra played over her fingers as she ran her hands over her team. She hadn't yet learned how to heal injuries, but she could give them the ninja equivalent of a deep-tissue massage and ease some of the fatigue and strain.

Asuma turned to their client. "All right, Haiiro-san, care to explain why a ninja is requesting ninja escort, and why there is what looks like a hunter-nin team after you?"

Haiiro took a calming breath before replying, "If I could have paid for a higher-ranked mission, I would have, but this took all the money I had. Honestly, I thought I'd ditched my pursuers before reaching Misato. I certainly didn't expect them to follow across borders."

As he spoke, he carefully reached into his pocket and brought out a small flask. When he opened it, the smell of nail polish filled the air. Dripping a few drops in a handkerchief, he reached up and started wiping his face and hair. With each wipe, gray hair turned into black, and age lines were wiped away. His posture also changed, and the decades rolled off his shoulders. By the time he was finished, he couldn't have been more than a tall and strong sixteen. The only thing unchanged was the eyes, which still looked like they belonged on someone much older.

Team Asuma watched the metamorphosis with something akin to awe – none of the genin had ever seen such a rapid transformation without a jutsu. Once he had finished cleaning his face, the boy reached deep inside his clothes, and pulled out a hitai-ate that carried the spiral leaf symbol of Konoha. Putting it on his head, he stood at attention and tossed off a salute to Asuma.

"Ishimaru Tetsuo, genin of Konoha, ninja ID 012552, reporting back from a failed River border patrol mission. I am six months overdue, but I bring information indicating an imminent invasion of Konoha."


Well, that's the introduction for the fourth character from ES21, Ishimaru Tetsuo. It just seemed so right to introduce him as someone who can pass off as a civilian even under Asuma's nose… even in ES21 canon, the author lampshaded how no one seems to notice him, even though he played in every one of the Devil Bats' matches. Who else from ES21 will show up? Heck if I know, I'm just making it up as I go along ;)

"…he virtually screamed, "Don't remember me!"" – This is a direct quote describing Arthur Gray, a top government agent from the Hardy Boys Casefiles #1: Dead on Target. The HB Casefiles are my favorite series out of the (many) hundreds of Hardy Boys books published. 'Haiiro' is Japanese for gray.

For those who want to point out errors in Naruto geography or how jutsu work, they work the way I say because fanfiction.

For those who want to point out grammatical errors, please do so, since I can use the help :)