Strength Of Will – Escort
Kurenai launched herself from the branch that she had landed on, being careful to keep herself within easy visual range of the road on which their client was being carried by Naruto. Behind her, Hinata followed, her byakugan activating in short bursts to scan the surrounding area without excessively draining her chakra, but Kurenai spotted the signs that the girl's stamina was waning.
"Switch." She commanded and Hinata nodded, then used the natural springiness of the branch that she had landed on to catapult herself out of the tree-line. Even as she flew through the air, Shino had swung himself from Naruto's back to crouch on the larger boy's right hand. As they had practiced many times under Kurenai's supervision, Naruto launched Shino on a high arc into the trees, then Hinata landed on his other hand, one hand flashing to his shoulder to stabilize herself. As she re-positioned herself using the carry-straps (being careful not to bump against the sling in which Tazuna was slumped, moaning about his hangover), Shino slotted into position behind Kurenai, several dozen of his bugs flying outwards to reinforce the perimeter that he had been maintaining.
"We appear to be making far better time than anticipated." Shino mused as he briefly caught up with Kurenai. "Naruto is proving his worth."
Kurenai nodded, then glanced over at Hinata, whose eyes had widened in shock. Reaching out with her senses, Kurenai caught the feeling of a localized Genjutsu ahead of them.
"Sensei!" Hinata called. "Two men in a hole in the path ahead, disguised as a puddle!"
"My kikkai confirm." Shino added and Kurenai nodded.
"Who among you throws best?" She asked and Shino pointed at Naruto. "Alright. All stop, I have a plan."
The Demon Brothers were renowned for their ability to launch merciless strikes from concealment. While their ability to actually engage in sustained combat was less than expected for shinobi of their level, they rarely needed to due to their concentration on ambush techniques.
Their specialization was one reason that they had lasted as long as they had as Nukenin. Shinobi without Villages rarely engaged in pitched battle as they lacked the support structures that would let them recover quickly from any injuries that they had received. The longest-lasting Nukenin tended to be those who either avoided combat, learned how to win fast or who were so skilled that they did not need the backup that a Village represented.
However, Nukenin also lacked much of the supply structure that Villages represented. While many could just manage to make basic exploding notes or one-use Storage Scrolls, very few indeed used anything more complex than that and as such, they rarely contemplated having such things used against them.
The blunted Kunai that plunged out of the sky and through the illusory puddle that concealed them came as quite a painful surprise to them, especially since the impact of it would leave a huge bruise on the back of one of them. They didn't have enough time to truly consider things, however, as the impact was enough to trigger the tag tied to the ring of the kunai.
Hinata winced. "Both Shinobi have been taken down, Sensei."
"That must have hurt." Naruto said, his voice showing a mix of pride and unwilling sympathy. "I've been caught in a Shock Tag trap during training. It really, really stings."
Kurenai simply nodded, a crinkling of her eyes showing her pride in her students, then she pulled out a pair of prisoner scrolls. "Let's secure them, then I can find out who they were after."
"Alright." Kurenai stated as she returned to the temporary camp. "I've handed the Demon Brothers over to a patrol that was nearby and sent them back with a request for reinforcements as the situation is not what we were told. With luck, we'll get a Chunin Squad to back us up, if we're really lucky, we may even get a Jonin Trio, although I expect we'll get a Genin Team."
"Wonder if it'll be team ten." Naruto mused and Kurenai shrugged.
"No way of telling. It depends entirely on who's available and willing. It's getting late. We'll camp out here tonight and set off before dawn tomorrow."
The fisherman that Tazuna had hired to transport the team to Wave couldn't help but stare at Naruto, who was almost effortlessly running ahead of them, pulling the boat along with a rope that had been fastened to the bow. In the middle of the boat, Hinata sat with her byakugan active, the thick fog engulfing them not hindering her ability to spot any vessels that could intercept them.
"Small boat at two, headed away from us." She whispered just loud enough for Naruto to hear. "They haven't detected us."
Naruto nodded in confirmation that he had heard her, his pace never slacking.
"Shoreline up ahead, no sign at this point of any observers."
The misty woods were surprisingly quiet, but it was a deceptive quiet. Shino's bugs had reported at least two Chakra sources around while Hinata had spotted a Kiri Hunter-nin in the area, one who had taken to watching them from concealment. A second person was ahead of them, but Hinata had been hard-pushed to learn more than his location due to the Chakra-heavy technique he was using to increase the density of the mist around himself. Even at this close range, she couldn't see anything about him, other than that he had unslung a large sword and… "Down! Sword left!"
Shino dropped instantly, joining Hinata and Kurenai on the floor while Naruto dropped Tazuna and spun to face the incoming threat. His hand snapped out and was suddenly filled with a blade that would be a two-handed sword for anyone else, but looked a lot like a tanto in his.
"I recognize that blade…" Kurenai breathed as she stood up. "That's the blade of Momochi Zabuza!"
"He seems irritated." Hinata noted as she turned to face where the Nukenin in question was standing.
"It's a nice blade." Naruto added as he hefted the weapon in question. "Handle's a bit thin, but once I re-wrap it enough, it could work. Either that or replace the handle with a shaft so I can use it like a naginata."
Hinata's hand snapped out and a clang of the kunai she had launched being deflected alerted the others to an incoming attacker. Naruto stepped forwards, his spare hand dropped to the fuuinjutsu tag on his belt which held his staff, then sweeping round to impact the pair of kunai that the attacker tried to use to block with. The block proved unequal to the task as Naruto's strength caused one Kunai to break while the other was wrenched out of the attacker's hand, then the continuation of the move slammed the masked man off his feet, sending him smashing into a nearby tree with enough force to leave a large dent. Kurenai's hands snapped through a sequence of seals and their would-be attacker slumped to the ground, then he twitched and bonelessly fell onto his side as a pair of senbon appeared in the side of his neck.
"Thank you for incapacitating him, allowing me to finish him off." The masked figure that had appeared by the now-dead man stated, one hand resting on the shoulder of the one he had taken down. "If you will excuse me, I must dispose of his corpse."
The new arrival vanished with his burden and Kurenai frowned. "That seemed… off."
"He wasn't dead, Sensei." Hinata half-whispered. "He was in a coma… one of the deepest I've seen, but a coma."
"My Kikkai confirm that he wasn't dead." Shino added. "I have a pair of bugs on him and one on the one who removed him. Should we need to, we can find them."
"Let's wait for backup to arrive first." Kurenai decided. "Tazuna-san, are you ready to proceed?"
The elderly man picked himself up from where he had finally wriggled out of the tangled sling that he had been in and nodded, looking round nervously.
"Then let's move out."
For a full mile, the group walked in silence, then Naruto spoke. "This Zabuza, who is he?"
"He's one of the Seven Swordsman of the Mist. Yo're carrying his blade. As a Swordsman, he's a Jonin-level Shinobi, but he fled the Land of Water at the start of their civil war."
Naruto stared at the sword, then at Kurenai. "How did I beat him?"
"I've been wondering that as well, Sensei." Shino added and Kurenai laughed mirthlessly.
"He probably assumed that you were an Akamichi. Their relative lack of speed is well documented and since you're far larger than a normal person… If he'd managed to dodge that first strike, we would have been in serious trouble. In a very real sense, his assumption saved us. I'm not the right sort of Jonin to go head to head against someone like him."
Zabuza lay on his bed, his body motionless as his assistant prepared the medicines that would help him recover faster from the near-death state that had been employed to get him away from his adversaries.
"Haku." He finally commanded, albeit far less firmly than he normally would. "That team… your observations?"
Haku slowed as he contemplated the request, matching it up with what he had seen. "One of them has unusual eyes, Zabuza-sama. The young girl… the veins around her eyes kept bulging."
"That was probably the Byakugan." Zabuza groaned. " A fucking Hyuuga. They knew I was there all along. No wonder they were prepared."
"I saw the large one carrying our target and one of the other two smaller shinobi. He also did some water-walking." Haku continued.
"He's probably a Chunin." Zabuza deduced after a thoughtful pause. "I would guess that he's been trained by that damned Konoha Taijutsu Specialist… the Kamis alone know how he got so large, though. No way in hell is he an Akamichi. I've fought some before and he's completely the wrong body-shape. They're stout strength, this one's a wall of muscle that would put Kisame to shame. Heh, would love to be there to see the Bloody Fish meet him face to face… although I think I need to get Kubikiribocho back first. So, we're up against a Jonin, a skilled Chunin and two genin, one of whom is a natural sensor."
"I… believe that you are correct, Zabuza-sama." Hku replied as he glided across with a bowl of green paste which he began applying to Zabuza's neck. The paralyzed man hissed as the paste was applied.
"Shit, that stuff stings. The woman had red eyes… could she be an Uchiha? I thought most were dead."
"I had heard that too, Zabuza-sama." Haku agreed as he continued to gently apply the paste. "If she survived the death of her clan, she must be very skilled."
"Means that I daren't go head-to-head against her." Zabuza grumbled. "Going up against another Shisui… this mission just gets worse and worse."
"Why is this sword so important?" Naruto asked as he turned the blade over in his hands.
"It's one of the Seven Swords of the Mist." Kurenai replied, lowering her goblet. "The Kubikiribocho. In combat, it never dulls and it absorbs blood to repair itself."
"That sounds… almost worrying." Shino admitted. "A swordsman who does not need to disengage in order to wipe off the blade, who can perform moves that would damage the blade knowing that it will repair itself… that is the weapon of one who is very skilled."
"Fortunately, the Swordsmen tended to be specialists." Kurenai stated. "Their skill-sets were based around their weapons and the use thereof. Without their weapon to work with, their threat levels were generally assumed to be reduced by a rank or two."
"So as long as I hold this, we could take him out?" Naruto asked, only for Kurenai to shake her head.
"I think it more than likely that Zabuza would have a backup sword with which he could use his techniques. While it would not have the same self-repair abilities as that one, he would probably use it specifically to reclaim Kubikiribocho."
"Shame I'm too big for a sword to be useful." Naruto sighed. "Either of you two want this?"
"I do not believe that I am strong enough to be able to use a blade that size." Shino managed after a moment.
"My clan don't like using weapons." Hinata sighed.
"Keep it for now. Maybe you'll be able to get it adjusted for you."
"Times like this I wish I'd listened to my Sensei." Zabuza sighed. "But noooooo, I was an arrogant bastard. Always have a backup weapon he said. I was selected to be a Swordsman, I don't need a backup weapon I said. Why the hell didn't I learn from what happened to Biwa Juzo. Haku, remind me to get a backup sword once we get out of this mess!"
"Of course, Zabuza-sama."
"Is there anything else that could go wrong?"
Zabuza blinked, then managed to roll his head to see the trio in the doorway. His eyes focused on one of them and hardened. "You'd better be treating my sword right or I'll squirm over there and bite you!"
"Youthful, isn't he?" The green-clad man laughed and the red-eyes woman (who wasn't an Uchiha, now that he had managed to get a good look at her eyes) shrugged.
"I think he'll be disappointed that with your help, we took down Gato. Of course we also found out that Gato planned to have him killed, so…"
Zabuza stared at them, then rolled his head back so that he was staring at the ceiling. "Haku."
"Next time I declare that things can't get worse, give me a good clout to the head. That or freeze me and drag me somewhere that I can't get in trouble."
"…freeze?" The woman asked and Zabuza blinked, then gave Haku a long look before rolling to face her again.
"What's your name?"
"Kurenai, Jonin of Konoha."
"Konoha loves bloodlimits." Zabuza mused. "You know, I think that we may be able to make a deal… but I want my sword back!"
Haku stood motionless, then he half-turned to look at his Sensei. "Zabuza-sama, why do I not think that I am going to like this?"
"Naruto, take Hinata and Shino back to the house." Kurenai commanded. "Leave Kubikiribocho here."
Several hours later, Kurenai emerged from the hideout and rejoined Gai, who was passing the time by performing one-handed vertical push-ups. The Taijutsu specialist flipped to his feet and smiled broadly.
"It is all finished?"
"It is." Kurenai stated as she tucked a notebook and small stasis-scroll into a concealed pocket. "It may take another generation or two to pay off, but we also have even more information on more of the unaffiliated Nukenin."
"I cannot believe that you made me do that." Haku grumbled, facing away from Zabuza.
"Stop complaining and pack up the cash." The older man replied sharply, his limp hand resting on the handle of his sword. "As soon as I get better, we're heading back to liberate Kirigakure."
The bandage-wrapped man frowned. He may have pushed his apprentice too far this time.
He'd have to try and think of some way to restore the boy's respect for him.