Catching himself tapping his fingers on the neck of his saké bottle, Ritsu grabbed it tightly and lifted it to his lips. Checking the others at the table, he was relieved to find no one was paying attention to him. He nervously set the bottle back down, trying to make as little sound as possible.
Sitting closest to him, on his right, was Hanzei, infamously known as the Skull Collector. The barbaric-looking and massive man was the undisputed crime lord in Nekokami City. Except for a few Kaunto, pretty much everyone followed Hanzei’s orders. Those that didn’t met an untimely end.
Personally, like many others, he’d been working under Hanzei for several years as a simple thug, following out the orders given to him. Five months ago, he’d been promoted.
For some reason that he didn’t know, his boss had been “fired.”
When he’d been called to Hanzei’s office for his promotion, his boss’s head had been mounted on the wall with dozens of others. Since then, he hadn’t been in Hanzei’s office, and he couldn’t help but wonder if his head would end up next to his ex-bosses, or if more heads had been added.
As hard as he was trying to hide his nerves, he was sure the other people at the table had caught on. He was nervous because a matter he’d been assigned to deal with… wasn’t going as well as Hanzei would want.
“Ritsu, how much longer till we receive the ransom for the bitch?”
Inosuke’s smooth, buttery voice nearly made him jump out of his boots, but he managed to play it off with a shrug. Taking what he hoped was an unconcerned-looking swig from his saké, he set it down and wiped his chin. If he was honest, he didn’t think Inosuke, Hanzei’s second in command, bought it. The man had the position because he deserved it. Able to read people like a book, and play them like a fiddle, he kept Hanzei’s men in line in a way that Hanzei himself couldn’t.
“Should be tomorrow,” Ritsu said, licking his dry lips. “Her father is going to give it up. He tried sending some blokes to rescue her, but they were easily dealt with. The idiot is out of options, and he knows it.”
Hanzei’s grunt made him instinctually move for the dagger strapped to his right thigh, but he fought the urge and caught himself before his arm moved under the table. Gulping in fear as Hanzei glanced at him, he tried to calmly take another swig of his saké.
Ritsu knew that he couldn’t defend himself against Hanzei should the crime lord decide to actually kill him for his failure. That wasn’t what scared him. What frightened him was how close he’d come to willingly giving up his own life. If Hanzei didn’t intend to kill him right now, reaching for a weapon would certainly change that.
Inosuke continued on, “He’d better pay up soon.”
Ritsu leaned back in his chair, realizing he’d been sitting rigidly in his chair for some time. He tried to relax. “He will, don’t worry about it.”
Forcing himself to keep the stress out of his voice, he was relieved when Hanzei finally turned back to the food in front of him. Weakness wasn’t tolerated under Hanzei’s command, and neither were idiots.
Ritsu wasn’t stupid, and he knew Hanzei wasn’t either, despite the man looking like a barbarian cannibal more than a sophisticated crime lord. Hanzei hadn’t had any sort of uprising or threat to his control of Nekokami in ten years, which was superb for a crime lord.
Nekokami was not an out-of-the-way city in the Land of Wind, but most of the country seemed to have forgotten about it. Ritsu doubted that was actually the case, but for whatever reason, the Shinobi had never arrived to remove them from the city.
Many under Hanzei’s command believed it was because of the crime lord’s stringent rule to avoid Shinobi at all costs. Additionally, there were several rules about dealing with traders and travelers passing through the Shazo Pass. Thanks to his laws, they were able to keep away any unwanted attention.
Of course, this resulted in a lot of potential spoils being lost, and some had undoubtedly complained about it. Hanzei had simply added their heads to his wall and moved on.
Hearing the doors to the bar being pushed open, Ritsu sat up and looked over. Placing his hand on his dagger’s handle, he prepared himself to defend his boss if necessary.
Two men stepped into the bar like they owned the place. They seemed to be civilians, dirty ones at that. He didn’t recognize them, but that didn’t mean they were newcomers.
“They’re not from around here,” Inosuke whispered excitedly. He moved his hand back up on the table. They weren’t an immediate threat.
“Hey, bartender. Give us the strongest saké you got, pal,” one of the men said, sitting down on one of the several barstools hard enough to make it squeak loudly.
They were definitely newcomers.
This was Hanzei’s private bar, no one entered here without his permission. They hadn’t recognized Hanzei from behind either. The bartender looked over for instructions, and Inosuke gestured for him to serve the intruders.
Ritsu leaned back in his chair again and took another swig of his bottle, carefully eyeing Inosuke, who was focused on the two men at the bar. He knew the Goddess of Luck had smiled on him again. There were a lot of bars in Nekokami, and these two idiots had walked into this one exactly like they owned it.
He could hear the two men talking about something, quite passionately as well, with the bartender. However, he couldn’t hear it clearly from this far across the room. Ritsu hoped for their sake that they had some sort of value, or they weren’t going to leave this bar alive.
As he’d expected, Inosuke waited until the two men had gotten through about half of their saké before getting up and walking over. Surprisingly, Hanzei had seemingly yet to even notice there were intruders in his bar. The crime lord was focused on the expensive leg of deer meat in front of him.
Being unable to walk down a crowded street and exclusively use his Byakugan without falling or tripping bothered Naruto. He resolved to practice using his Byakugan while moving in his spare time when possible. In the past, he had never run into this problem before. He’d always been able to stop moving and take time to observe his surroundings.
Relying on being able to stop long enough to use his Byakugan wasn’t something he would be able to do as a Shinobi.
Until he was able to practice, he was forced to stay focused on his immediate surroundings. Keeping track of the four Elite Shinobi with him, he was walking in between them all down one of Nekokami’s many crowded streets.
He’d been invited by Toshi, one of the Shinobi, to come with them as they went to buy supplies for the rest of the journey and more clothes for him. Rasa and Sasori had left the hotel shortly after everyone had arrived, and his bandages had been replaced by Tanyu.
Lifting his hand to his side underneath his cloak, Naruto winced, his wound stinging from his touch. Tanyu had told him he was healing well, and that seemed to be true from what he could see, but it still hurt.
He thought that perhaps he should be angry at Gaara for attempting to kill him for a second time, but he couldn’t seem to care. It wasn’t that he forgave Gaara…
“Do you see the alleyway on the right, Naruto?”
Looking toward where Toshi was pointing, he nodded. It was more narrow than the alleyways in Kazedama but wide enough for two men to walk down it side by side. It exited onto the next street over.
“Good,” Toshi said as he walked to the right side of the street. Naruto followed closely behind. “I want you to walk down it, I’ll be behind you.”
Walking around the Shinobi, Naruto stepped up off the sand onto the elevated sandstone platforms that the buildings were on. Entering the alleyway, he found it to be mostly empty and clear of rubble. Able to manage walking forward and looking behind with relative ease, Naruto focused his attention on Toshi.
Toshi entered into the alleyway and followed after him slowly. Naruto expanded his range and spotted Doppo a split second before the Shinobi vanished into thin air.
Reaching the end, he stopped at the edge of the shadow cast from the building on his left. Toshi was halfway to him when two men stepped off the street and into the alley behind him. Both wore a strange combination of black and grey clothing. For the most part, their clothes were black, a grey sash running from their left shoulder to their right hip.
Naruto’s attention focused on one man as they drew daggers.
Toshi came to a halt, seemingly genuinely surprised at the command as he turned around. Seeing the daggers the two men were holding, he raised his hands in the air.
Naruto’s years of being followed by his guard and looking out for the assassins allowed him to see Doppo’s nearly invisible movements in the shadows above. Less than a second later, the Elite Shinobi dropped down and hit both men in the back of the neck.
He watched the flow of Doppo’s chakra as it exited his hand and entered the two men’s nervous systems, systematically shutting them down as it spread across their bodies. The two would-be attackers collapsed to the ground with a thud.
Feeling a hand on his shoulder, Naruto reduced his range and saw Toshi next to him. Toshi looked at him for a moment before gesturing for him to follow. Exiting out onto the street with the Elite Shinobi, he made sure to stay close as they walked for several minutes to a small shop with traveling supplies.
Naruto was torn between looking for more of the men who’d attacked them, and paying attention to where he was walking. He stumbled twice and nearly fell, but he located several more. He remembered having seen a lot of grey sash-wearing men in black throughout Nekokami, but he’d thought they were guards for the Kaunto.
People are avoiding them… they’re scared of them, Naruto realized.
Stepping into the rundown shop after Toshi, he moved to a dark corner and was finally able to entirely focus on the strange men nearby. One was directly across the street from the shop. He couldn’t tell if the man saw them enter or not.
He couldn’t find Tanyu and Yoshinaka nearby, but Doppo was obvious. The Shinobi had taken a seat in the sand near one of the strange men across the street. He looked like any other civilian needing to sit down for a bit.
There is some form of control here in Nekokami, Naruto mused. Now that he was looking, he had spotted three of the men in black and grey nearby. They were clearly a part of some sort of organization, but it wasn’t one he knew anything about.
He sensed something happening close to him and reduced his range. Naruto immediately noticed the chakra in the air and followed it to its source. Toshi was weaving a Genjutsu on the shopkeeper, but that was all he was able to discern.
His father had told him that he may be able to peer into a Genjutsu not directed toward him, but there was nothing to confirm that. What information the palace libraries had about his Byakugan was limited and vague, usually little more than guesses.
“Let’s go, Naruto,” Toshi called as he finished sealing up the supplies in a scroll that he slipped into his pocket. Naruto met him at the door and followed behind him outside.
The sun had entirely disappeared behind the mountains, and there was very little light on the street. Keeping his head down, he avoided looking at the man across the street.
Staying close to Toshi, they joined the small group of people walking past the shop back toward the hotel. The streets had mostly cleared of people, and it made Naruto wonder where they were all going during the day. He’d watched the foot traffic throughout Kazedama, and never seen anything like what he’d seen earlier that day.
Naruto stopped behind Toshi as the Shinobi came to a stop in the street. The civilians around them passed by, ignoring them entirely. Naruto expanded his sight immediately, and the problem came into view.
The other two he’d seen before were clearly blocking them a couple dozen feet down the road. What made it worse was that there were now three more behind them that he hadn’t seen earlier.
Doppo was coming up behind them all, but that didn’t help. Naruto knew what Toshi was thinking. Rasa’s instructions had been to remain hidden and not draw attention to themselves. A fight out in the open would bring a lot of attention to them.
What’s more, he wasn’t able to fight and would be little more than deadweight.
Naruto barely noticed that Toshi had begun to move again. Struggling to follow the Shinobi, Naruto entered into yet another alleyway, this one not as clear as the first one.
Why are they after us? Naruto wondered, trying to figure out how they had drawn attention to themselves. The Elite Shinobi were almost impossible to discern from the thousands of civilians in the city, and he was only able to tell them apart because he knew their faces.
Naruto knew he wasn’t as skilled as the Shinobi in disguising his posture, but that couldn’t be the reason.
“Naruto, go with Tanyu. Hurry.” Toshi ordered, and Naruto barely had time to brace himself before he was hit with a sudden rush of wind and speed as the world around him blurred.
Downing half of his third bottle in a row, he slammed it back down on the bar harder than needed and swayed unsteadily on his barstool. He’d never used this jutsu before, but it was prevalent among intelligence missions.
Before entering the bar, Rasa and Sasori had activated a jutsu that prevented the usual intoxication that came from drinking from reaching the user’s mind. Signals to the body were slow, and sometimes unresponsive, but it allowed the user to think clearly. Rasa couldn’t stop himself from burping.
“Just, fuck man! You know? Why can’t the damn prick walk on his own, like what the fuck?” Sasori, from the next barstool over, complained loudly before taking another swig. When they had entered the bar, it had been pretty much empty save for one table. Not long afterward, they had been joined at the bar by two men from that table.
Neither of the men had introduced themselves yet, but they pretended to have not noticed or cared.
“Well, you know how the rich are, gotta use the wealth to make life easier for themselves in every way possible.” The one on Sasori’s right said. He had light blueish-toned hair in a wild mess, looked to be blind in his left eye, and had been the first to join them.
“Well…” Sasori seemed to think about it, “Yeah… I guess if I had money, that’s what I’d be doing. However! I’d at least have Shinobi carrying me… rather than poor fucks like myself and Koukiaru here.”
Sasori burped before continuing on with his rant, “At least the smug bastard has to wear civilian clothes while we’re here, makes me feel a little better, ya know? Heh, Koukairu, remember his hood? Too fucking big for him. It was so hard not to laugh at his pompous ass right in front of his guard.”
Rasa laughed along with Sasori and returned to his saké. He sneaked a glance at the man sitting at the bar on his left and noticed the dagger strapped to their right thigh.
“I don’t think Shinobi would carry anyone around, my friend.” The man sitting next to Sasori said.
“Ha! No, the Shinobi would definitely do it.” Sasori declared confidently, genuinely wobbling on his stool as he threw off his balance.
“We must know very different Shinobi. The ones I know wouldn’t lower themselves to the level of carrying some guy around, no matter how rich he was.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” Sasori hiccuped and took yet another swig of his third bottle of saké before continuing. “This boy ain’t just some kid… he’s the fucking Irezumi Shichō’s son, Shinobi would damn well carry him if he bothered to request it.”
Rasa feigned a reaction, leaning over and shaking Sasori’s shoulder roughly. “You can’t say that… Tessai…”
Sasori pushed his hand away without looking at him. “So… you’re wrong… and I’m right. Ha. What’s worse is we get a shitty, tiny hotel room, crammed in with his guards, and the prick gets an entire room to himself. He’s rich enough to buy the whole freaking hotel.”
The sly-looking man nodded thoughtfully, his face seemingly sympathetic.
“I’m guessing you’re staying at the Shainingu Hotel? That place is trash.”
Sasori nodded as he sipped from his bottle, spilling some down his chin. Rasa had to admit that Sasori’s performance was beyond incredible. When they’d arrived at the bar, Sasori had requested that Rasa let him lead, and it had undoubtedly been the right choice.
Making an attempt to stand, his eyes widened as his leg refused to cooperate, and he collapsed on the wooden floor of the bar. He could hear Sasori laughing at him, but Rasa ignored him. Slowly moving his hands up, he pushed himself off the floor. Never once in his life had he gotten this drunk, and he feared to think of the state his mind would be in if he hadn’t used the Jutsu.
“Tessai… We need to get back…” He said, his words slurring more than he intended. Slowly getting to his feet, Rasa felt his pocket to make sure what he’d put in it earlier was still there. He hadn’t planned to become this intoxicated, but the men in the bar hadn’t started asking questions until they had consumed quite a lot.
Sasori stumbled past him toward the doorway, and Rasa followed after him. He expected to hear the bartender call for them to pay for their drinks, but the call never came.
“It was good talking to you, I hope you enjoy your stay in Nekokami!” Someone yelled after them as they slipped out into the chilly night.
As soon as they reached a secluded street, Rasa pulled out the Silver-leaf Fir Cone Mushroom he had stuffed in his pocket and clumsily shoved it in his mouth. It would take a few minutes to take effect, during which he collapsed against the side of a building.
Shainingu Hotel, Nekokami City, Land of Wind, EN.
His vision swam as the sudden speed halted abruptly. Stumbling forward, he reached out for whatever was closest to steady himself. Finding what seemed to be a wall in front of him, he waited for his Byakugan to calm, essentially blind.
Tanyu stood silently nearby, waiting for Naruto to recover. The prince was more used to the Shunshin that he had been when they’d begun this journey. However, he hadn’t been able to give the boy a warning, and with his injury, it probably made it worse. For whatever reason, Toshi had been picked out by the criminals in Nekokami, and they were forced to get Naruto to safety immediately.
Toshi would lead the men on a pointless chase at a civilian’s speed for a while before losing them. They would have to hope the criminals simply thought Toshi got away.
Naruto’s Byakugan finally stopped spinning, and he observed his surroundings. Peering through the nearby walls, he realized he was on the first floor of the Shainingu Hotel. Expanding his range further, he found Gaara still in his room on the third floor.
Seeing that Naruto was standing up straight again, Tanyu stepped closer to him. “Naruto, we need you to stay in your room until Rasa returns.”
Turning to his right, Tanyu nodded to Doppo as the Shinobi stepped out of a swirl of sand.
“We’ve got a serious problem,” Doppo said grimly.
Tanyu unfolded his arms, his hand hovering near the weapon pouch strapped to his side. “What?”
“Group of ten Gūru are approaching the hotel from the east,” Doppo said.
Naruto shifted his focus to the east, rapidly scanning between the buildings, some in a severe state of disrepair. It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for. There were indeed ten men walking toward them, all wearing black and grey clothing. So they’re called Gūru, Naruto mused.
“Are Rasa-sama and Sasori-sama back?” Tanyu inquired.
Doppo shook his head, “They didn’t say where they were going or when they would be back. We don’t have a way to notify them. We have to deal with this ourselves, carefully. If our cover is blown, then trying to keep this low will be pointless, but we have to hope.”
Tanyu shook his shoulders, loosening them up. “We don’t have any choice right now.”
Doppo shrugged and turned toward the stairwell at the end of the hall. “Regardless, we’re going to have to leave Nekokami a lot sooner than we’d hoped.”
“There are more coming…” Naruto caught himself too late. Doppo stopped and looked at him, his eyes narrowing. Tanyu looked between Doppo and Naruto, staying quiet when Doppo looked at Naruto questioningly.
Naruto watched through the back of his head as Doppo shifted through several hand signals that he couldn’t understand to Tanyu. Tanyu signed something in response, and Doppo nodded before vanishing in a swirl of sand.
“Follow me, Naruto. This is going to get out of hand really quickly.”
They climbed the stairs to the third floor and stopped outside of Gaara’s room. Unlocking the rotting and cracked door, Tanyu ushered him inside and followed him in. Gaara didn’t react in the slightest as they entered, ignoring them entirely as he continued to blankly stare at a patch of mold on the opposite wall.
“Both of you stay here,” Tanyu ordered, looking between Naruto and Gaara. Naruto was the only one to acknowledge the command. Tanyu hesitated for a moment before exiting and closing the door behind him.
Naruto watched him through the wall until Tanyu reached the stairwell, then lost track of the Shinobi. Reducing his Byakugan’s range to the extent of the room, he stared at Gaara through his blindfold. He’d expected to find the Jinchuriki staring back at him, but he wasn’t.
Reaching up, Naruto slipped off his hood and walked over to the other bed in the room. He carefully sat down on it, the bed creaking beneath him. He was careful to avoid bumping his side with his arm as he crossed his legs on the bed.
Slipping off his blindfold, he deactivated his Byakugan, and color returned to his sight. Gaara continued to ignore him, his pale green eyes staring at something behind him on his right. Naruto wasn’t sure why Tanyu had left him alone with Gaara, but for whatever reason, Gaara didn’t seem interested in killing him.
“Are you going to kill me, Gaara?” He asked.
Gaara ignored him.
Hearing something crash to the ground beneath him, Naruto activated his Byakugan and peered through the floor. A fight had just broken out in the hotel lobby. The Shinobi weren’t using any jutsu or even chakra, only fighting with their hands against the growing number of Gūru.
Why are so many coming? Did they go after Rasa and Sasori as well? Naruto wondered. A moment later, he realized both Sasori and Rasa were in the brawl on the first floor. Seeing chakra flare on the other side of the lobby, he shifted his attention to Doppo. Hitting another attacker in the back of the neck, Doppo flowed chakra into their nervous system and shut it down.
A scream split the air. Naruto focused on Rasa, who’d just used an attacker’s dagger to stab him in the shoulder.
Why aren’t they just ending the fight? Our cover has been blown, we need to leave Nekokami immediately. If we’re being followed by the Assassins, they’re going to notice this. Naruto thought. Three men managed to get past Rasa and rushed toward the stairs. Where are they going?
He tried to make sense of what was happening, but his mind came up blank. His best guess was that Rasa and Sasori had been spotted as well, and the extra attention came from something they had done. However, that didn’t explain the number of Gūru that had come to rob what was presumably just a small group of civilian travelers. If they’re an organized group, perhaps the Assassins hired them? Why wouldn’t the Assassins themselves attack instead?
Naruto focused back on the hotel room as the pungent smell of blood reached his nose through the cracked and warped floorboards.
“They’re losing.” He said though it was unlikely that Gaara cared. What’s more, it wasn’t really true. If the Shinobi decided to stop fighting like civilians, they would win instantly. As it was now, they were slowly being pushed back towards the stairwell. Remembering the three that had made it by, he started searching for them.
He found them on the floor below, kicking doors and looking in each room before moving to the next. They’re looking for me, Naruto realized. That proves it, they have to be connected to the Assassins.
Looking up at Gaara, he wondered if Gaara would care if the Assassins broke into their room and attacked him.
“I was sure the smell of blood would have riled you up,” he said, but Gaara continued to ignore him.
The three men were now on their floor and working their way toward their room. Standing up quickly, he winced as his side stung painfully. He backed away from the door, watching now as the men stopped outside of it. He raised his arms in front of his face as one lifted their leg. The door burst apart, and dust rose in the air as the bottom half crashed to the ground.
Glancing at Gaara, he saw the Jinchuriki was at least somewhat paying attention, now looking toward the entrance of the room. As the men entered, he tried to figure out what he should do. He wasn’t strong enough to fight them, his wound sapping most of his strength.
Naruto backed up as far as he could as all three of them focused on him, ignoring Gaara entirely.
“There he is,” one said, coughing heavily from the dust. Naruto noticed blood pouring down his left arm from a knife wound. His back hit the wall, nowhere left to go. Two of them grabbed his arms. He tried to fight back but couldn’t break free. Even if he was at full strength, he wasn’t sure he would be able to overpower them, they were strong.
One tied his hands together with a rope they pulled out of their pocket. The other jammed a sack over his head. He tried to dig his feet in, but they dragged him toward the doorway regardless. Pulling as hard as he could, he felt his Byakugan flaring.
“Ritsu, what about the other kid?” The man in front of him asked, their grip on Naruto’s arm completely unmoving as he tried desperately to break their hold.
Ritsu looked up from tending to his wound, having ripped his shirt to create a makeshift bandage. Glancing over at Gaara, he quickly returned to working on his shoulder. He didn’t recognize the kid. Probably just some friend of the Shichō’s son, not significant. They didn’t have the time to wait around anyway.
“Useless, let’s move.”
He backed up a bit as Koin leaned past him, sticking his head into the hallway with the kid in tow. Ritsu noticed the kid’s pale skin for the first time as their sleeve rode up on their arm. Brat probably never goes outside. Rich bastard.
Standing just behind the kid and keeping his hands on the boy’s shoulders was Izumo, who looked impatient.
“Is the coast clear — Ack!”
Ritsu froze, his eyes wide in shock. His vision narrowed to the spike of sand protruding through Izumo’s head, blood dripping from its tip. Koin turned around, and before he even realized what was going on, the spike darted forward and impaled him through the forehead as well. The blood hitting his face snapped Ritsu out of his shock.
Immediately he tried to back up, not noticing his clothes catching on a sharp rusty nail sticking out of the doorframe. His skin tore horribly, but he didn’t notice. All Ritsu could see was the redheaded boy standing in the room, sand whirling around the room as the demon child pointed his open palm at Ritsu.
“No! Stop!” He screamed, “What are you-!?”
His foot caught on something, and he fell backward. He watched in horror as the sand rushed forward, disappearing from view underneath him.
Naruto pulled the sack off his head, having been able to slip his hands out of the hastily-tied rope. Getting to his feet, he calmly brushed what sand he could off his clothes; most of it stuck to the blood on him. He looked at the three dead men on the floor around him for a moment before turning toward Gaara.
When nothing happened, he stepped over one of the bodies and sat back down on his bed. Neither of them said anything for several moments. Naruto could still hear the sounds of a fight beneath them, but they were quieter than before. He didn’t look away, focused entirely on Gaara.
“Thank you, Gaara.”
The redhead ignored him.
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This chapter was posted on: 1/24/20
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