Kazuhiko rose suddenly, his jaw tight. “It’s been too long.”“Oh, now you think it’s been too long,”
Natsuko said, arms crossed as she followed suit. “What about ten minutes ago when I said Ruru was taking too long, huh?”
But Kazuhiko ignored her, taking off into the desert and forcing Natsuko to chase after him. So, yes, she’d asked multiple times, perhaps too many times why Koharu was taking so long. She’d asked out of boredom, but clearly she’d been right. Of their team, Koharu had the most experience with hunting, which she’d mentioned was from her time in the Land of Snow, so her taking as long as Kazuhiko or Natsuko was strange. Her taking even longer, though, was just wrong, and this is what kept Natsuko from continuing her previous train of thought. Where was Koharu, and what had happened? Had some wild animal gotten to her, or had some other team? Both seemed unlikely to Natsuko given that Koharu was a naturally careful person, but she did tend to get too wrapped up in what she was doing, which could cause her to lose track of her surroundings, but she was never not
careful, so… “Where are we going?”
Natsuko called to Kazuhiko, whose anxiousness showed in his pace across the sand. Again, he didn’t respond, and Natsuko had to figuratively bite her tongue to keep from snapping at him since biting her tongue while running was a good way to lose her tongue. As for holding back, she was doing that because she felt for Kazuhiko. His silence stemmed from annoyance, which stemmed from worry. Deeper still, Natsuko knew, was fear—fear that something had happened to Koharu, that she’d been hurt, was currently bleeding out somewhere, or worse. Death was not expected in the chunin exams, but it was not unthinkable either. Every exam there were deaths or injuries, unintentional and perhaps accidental, but they existed. That’s what came with being a shinobi, what could be expected more and more often after making chunin, and that’s what made the whole situation that much more terrifying. “Kazu-kun, where are we going?”
Natsuko asked again, her tone sharp now. She understood his feelings and was sympathetic to them, but even she had limits. “Kazuhiko?”
After another second, she attempted to sprint forward and corner him, remembered that she wasn’t fast enough, and instead settled on grabbing him. She caught his arm, and he whirled on her, eyes bright.“Kazuhiko, stop it. Koharu’s my teammate too. I want to find her as much as you do,”
she said, meeting his eyes with an anger of her own. She’d tried to be understanding, but it was clear he needed more than just time and silence. He needed a voice of reason, and maybe someone to shout some sense into him, if need be. “Tell me where we’re going and how I can help.”
He stared at her for another beat, and Natsuko willed herself not to be cowed. Having spent so much time with Kazuhiko only made his current state scarier because he wasn’t usually like this. The intenseness of his gaze was wholly foreign and barely seemed to belong on his face, his features accentuated with new tautness, but in another beat he deflated, his gaze shooting to the side, then to the ground before settling back on Natsuko.“Yeah. Yeah you do. I’m sorry,”
he said. “I just…”
He looked around, his jaw set. “I don’t know. I just ran in the direction we saw her leave in. There aren’t any footprints so I have no idea where she went, but the land’s so flat I figured we’d spot her, or whoever got her, sooner or later, and…”“It’s definitely a genin then? Not some wild animal from the desert?”
Natsuko asked.“No, not an animal. Koharu’s too smart for that, too fast to go down easily, and she can hold her own against almost anyone for at least a few minutes.”
He looked back to Natsuko. “No, it has to be another team. A team got to her.”“Yeah, that makes sense,”
Natsuko said. She’d known the facts and been aware of the reasoning, but Kazuhiko’s words streamlined it for her, highlighting the obvious conclusion. “So we’re looking for a team. Should we split up? So we cover more ground, I mean.”“No, too risky. Splitting up would make it easier for them to ambush us separately, which is the tactic they must have used on Koharu,”
Kazuhiko said. His jaw was clenched again, his eyes on the ground. Then they shot up. “Clones. We can split off clones. If one of them gets dispelled early—”“We’ll know that it found Koharu,”
Natsuko finished. “Good idea.”
They signed the cloning jutsu in sync, their skills from their high-stakes games of tag and playing lookout coming forward easily. Eight clones popped up—three Natsuko’s and five Kazuhiko’s—and ran off in different directions. “Hey, I only made two less than you!”
Natsuko said, shooting Kazuhiko a cocky grin.
He returned with a blank look. “We don’t know how long it’ll take to find her.”“Right.”
Timing. She’d forgotten about that, gone ahead and made the maximum amount of clones she could sustain, giving her around… twenty minutes? Thirty minutes? “Well, hopefully it won’t take that long,”
she concluded, and Kazuhiko gave her a nod.
Minutes ticked by as they waited, and Natsuko kept herself busy by repeatedly going over which clone went where. Since clones didn’t pass information back to the user like shadow clones, there was usually little to glean from a clone being dispelled. That said, the user could still tell when one of their clones was dispelled. Natsuko would describe it as somewhat of a twinge, or a metaphorical poke. It wasn’t intrusive, but it was easy to register all the same. With multiple clones, the trick was putting a different amount of chakra into each so the twinges felt different. The more chakra, the more… dimension the twinge, for lack of a better term. But for Natsuko, the hardest part was keeping track of which clone was which. With two it was easy since one had more chakra and one had less; with three, she had to keep track of the order. She’d made it easier on herself by having them head off in order, so all she had to do was keep track of which directions her clones went and which one had the most chakra, which wasn’t hard, but she didn’t have a great track record with keeping track of clones either.“Oh!”
she shouted, shooting to her feet at the first sign of a twinge. “Which way?”
Kazuhiko asked, on his feet as well, a kunai already in hand. “Um.”
Natsuko hesitated. It was the middle twinge, wasn’t it? Not too large and not too small?
Kazuhiko deflated slightly. “We can call the clo—”“No, I got it! This way!”
she said, taking off into the sand in the right direction. It was
the middle twinge. Definitely. And, for some reason Natsuko didn’t know but appreciated anyway, Kazuhiko didn’t question her. No, she did know: It was because they both knew how much Koharu meant to each other, and Kazuhiko was right. There was no way Natsuko was making mistakes with Koharu’s safety on the line.
Midmorning || Land of Wind: Demon Desert
At some point during the run, Kazuhiko had taken the lead, which was fine since all the clone had only given Natsuko a direction to head in. If the group had used shadow clones, the whole thing would’ve been a lot easier, but none of them had enough chakra to be splitting up their chakra at this point. Kazuhiko himself was winded after summoning two, and they still had a fight ahead, so it wasn’t really an option. But it should’ve been, really. In the event of this happening, he should’ve been able to summon clones, should’ve been able to pinpoint exactly where Koharu was, should’ve insisted that she take a shadow clone with her, however much that might wear him or her out.
But there was no point in dwelling on that now. For now, he needed to focus on finding Koharu. Given the flat landscape, they’d be looking for some sort of hideout—a cave or some ruins, most likely. Dunes here and there could obstruct their view or hide an opening, but the ones they’d passed thus far hadn’t been big enough for that to be a concern.
Figures gathered beside a large rock in the distance prompted Kazuhiko to stop, crouching down to observe the group. From the looks of it, it was a three-member team gathered around something. Koharu.“Um, Kazu-kun, I think they see us,”
Jaw clenched, he stood. Of course they did. Unlike in the forest, there was no room for stealth in the open desert, and if there was, it’d be the Suna genin who knew about it, not them. “Wait, wha—”
The figures in the distance stood as well, a fourth figure—Koharu—joining them after a brief struggle. Kazuhiko walked forwards, pocketing his kunai as the distance between the groups closed. “Kazu-kun, what are we doing? Are we fighting them? Should I hide some clones?”
Natsuko asked from behind.“No, negotiation’s our best move since they have a hostage,”
he said, clenching and unclenching a hand. “Depending on how strong they look and what state Koharu is in, we can decide whether combat’s worth pursuing, but first we should talk to them. See if fighting’s necessary.”
Part of him wanted not to be so reasonable. Part of him wanted to charge into battle, screw the consequences. He was fast, and given how his skills catered towards burst tactics, he’d be able to take down at least one of the genin, if not two. But the other, more reasonable, sensible, and present part of him knew that was beyond stupid. Settling this peacefully was the method. Their team was strong and they still had three days, which was more than enough time to take two characters each. Settling this without wasting any more energy or getting any more injuries would allow them to start going on the offensive as soon as possible, and Kazuhiko was willing to wager that they’d be able to take this Suna team on if they’d been together. Teams that were confident in their skills wouldn’t be wasting time with a hostage situation, after all, so they were likely weak, injured, or looking for something.
As they got closer, Kazuhiko got a better look at them—and Koharu. Thankfully, Koharu so much beat up as she did livid, despite the kunai at her throat. What shone through more than her relief or the way she was keeping her hands from touching, as if they were hurt, was how ready she was for a fight, and Kazuhiko was again tempted to agree. But, unfortunately, he was him, and his father’s talk of feinting and striking from behind had rubbed off on him. He’d wait for a better opportunity, when Koharu wasn’t hurt and hostage.“That tall dude looks like he could use a good punch or two,”
Natsuko muttered to him as they walked. “And the shorter guy—those are sunglasses right? I’ll never understand Suna nin. At least the girl looks normal.”“The one in glasses could be hiding a weapon in his pockets. Or an injury,”
Kazuhiko said. “The tallest one looks like the one in charge. He thinks he won, though,”
he said, noting the boy’s faint smile. “We should keep him thinking that.”
Natsuko snorted. “And hit him as soon as Ruru’s free, you mean?” “We’ll see,”
Now a few meters away, the Suna nin stopped, and Kazuhiko did the same.
“So,” the tallest boy said. When Kazuhiko stayed silent, annoyance flashed across his face, but it was quickly replaced by veiled smugness. “Well, as you can probably see, we have your teammate here, and we’re not afraid to hurt her.” The blade in his hand glinted in the sun, and Kazuhiko clenched a hand, careful to keep his emotions off his face. Though the other boy was pretty good with hiding his expressions, it was no poker face compared to the ones Kazuhiko saw regularly in clan and council meetings. The boy was no heir, likely had little exposure to or interest in clan politics. “You—”
Kazuhiko’s hand was on Natsuko’s shoulder in an instant, clamping down and holding her still. She was tense with rage, but that was what the boy wanted. He was basking in his success.“What do you want?”
“Your characters. And any supplies you have on you—kunai, explosive tags, everything,” he said. At his side, his teammates attempted to maintain similar poker faces, the other boy doing better than the girl. In fact, if the girl bit her lip any harder, Kazuhiko was sure it’d bleed.“You realize that if you take our supplies, we’re going to come after you,”
The boy with the kunai narrowed his eyes, adjusting his grip on his kunai as Kazuhiko pressed down on Natsuko’s shoulder, maintaining eye contact with the boy. Then, after a beat, the boy relaxed again, smiling. “I look forward to it, then. Now put your supplies on the floor and back away. Slowly.”
Natsuko opened her mouth to protest, but Kazuhiko squeezed her shoulder, giving her a small shake of his head as he pulled out his kunai. Onto the floor they went, along with the two explosive tags he carried with him. Given that he favored his lightning release, he didn’t tend to stock too many tags, but there they were.
After he and Natsuko had finished tossing down their supplies, they backed away. The boy with the kunai turned to his teammates, nodding, and the girl stepped forward and gathered all the tools, shooting Kazuhiko and Natsuko an apologetic look before running back to her team.
“Now turn around and put your hands on your head,” the boy with the kunai said.
Kazuhiko did as told, giving Natsuko a look that told her to do the same.“I’m going to kick his ass so hard later, I swear,”
she muttered as she raised her hands.
Footsteps sounded behind him, then went quiet. Kazuhiko strained his ears, the hand signs for a simple but effective jolt of lightning in his mind’s eye, but after a flutter of clothes and a shove, he stumbled forward, whirling around to see the boy in sunglasses already halfway back to his teammates. How had he gotten so close to Kazuhiko, so quietly? Kazuhiko had been planning on grabbing him when he got close so that they could even out the hostage situation, but that hadn’t even been an option. The boy was in and out in an instant, taking Kazuhiko’s character with him, and now all they had to barter was the word of the kunai-wielding boy.
“Well, that was fun,” the taller boy said as his teammates rejoined him. “See you—or not.”
Shoving Koharu forward, he took off in the other direction, taking his teammates with him. Kazuhiko sprinted forward, catching Koharu and leaning her against a shoulder as he watched the Suna nin sprint off. They were faster than his team, but they were also more tired. They’d fought another group recently, most likely, and probably lost, or they wouldn’t have been so quick to lose their hostage and run. They could’ve forced Kazuhiko to lead them back to his team’s camp, but they didn’t. “Koharu! Koharu, are you okay?”
Natsuko was at his side in an instant, kneeling down and grabbing Koharu, looking her over. “Oh, are those burns? Those bastards, here, I’ve got some ointment,”
she said, fishing a canister from her pocket. Kazuhiko looked at her, surprised, and she rolled her eyes. “What, was I supposed to give them all of my stuff or something?”
He managed a smile, then helped Koharu into a sitting position, giving her a tired but relieved look. “Let’s not do that again,”
Natsuko scoffed. “You’re kidding, right? We’re chasing them as soon as I finish rubbing this ointment, right?”“Well.”
Kazuhiko looked to Koharu. Chase or rest, it was up to her, because he and Natsuko were more than ready for a fight.