Categories > Anime/Manga > Naruto

Level Sands

by Adara 1 review

AU at 245. Sound attacks Sand, and Leaf comes to their aid. Gen (rating for violence), Temari-centric.

Category: Naruto - Rating: PG - Genres: Action/Adventure - Characters:  Kiba, Neji, Shikamaru, Temari, Gaara, Rock Lee - Warnings: [!!] [?] [V] - Published: 2005-05-07 - Updated: 2005-05-07 - 7840 words

notes: Diverges from timeline at 245 by way of the Kazekage and the situation in Hidden Sand. This was mostly written in December 2004, which is why. (Not that the vast majority of fanfiction totally follows canon, anyway.) So yes, I know my portrayal of Gaara isn't in line with canon any longer. You don't need to tell me. This is the first of two parts and this story is pretty much just gen.

The sun rises over Wind Country the same as it does every morning, early and relentless from the moment it slips above the horizon. It's even harsher in the arid region surrounding the Hidden Village of Sand, where windblown grains of sand have scoured the stones and buildings down to the point they hardly insulate anymore. It's too much bother to fix, and harsher conditions breed hardier shinobi. This is especially true in Sand, where the feudal lords have been decreasing the size of the village for years.

Now that Leaf Village is all but destroyed, that tide is changing slowly- but these changes are too little, too late. Sand's numbers are still nowhere near what they should be, because even with an increased amount of money and support it takes time for children to grow up into shinobi. It's only been two and a half years since Orochimaru set events into motion; that means only two classes of genin have joined the ranks and even fewer have gone onto chuunin level.

Temari knows this better than most, because she's on one precious squad of chuunin that morning. After the disastrous exam in Fire Country, the newly appointed Kazekage had taken one look at the files and promoted both Temari and Kankuro to chuunin despite the outcome of the exam. They should have both been there two years ago, he'd said, and they were only held back because of Gaara. It wasn't their responsibility to watch Gaara any longer.

Now Temari sits against a stone wall ground to thinness by swirling sand, between two men who are not her younger brothers. A message arrived in Sand the night before, informing them that a squad from Leaf would be pursuing five Sound ninjas into Sand's territory. Her team's job is to watch for them and to aid them if need be. They haven't forgotten the previous Kazekage, murdered and dumped into a crevasse en route to Fire Country.

Temari hasn't forgotten that she spent weeks with Orochimaru and never realized he wasn't her father.

"There they are, past the dunes." Morizuna, one of the shinobi on her team, informs them softly. He has the best eyesight in their village, and is mostly the reason their team was chosen as watch over a higher-ranked squad. "There are nine people there that I can detect. So Leaf sent four after them."

"Four you can /detect/," Sunahara, the third shinobi of the team, points out in an even softer voice. Temari wants to hit them both, because don't they realize the Sound ninjas have already as good as heard them?Perhaps the feudal lords of Wind had a reason for turning to Leaf Village for their mercenaries, after all. Or perhaps in desperation and inexperience the Kazekage promoted a few genin that weren't quite up to the job.

The Sound ninjas are nearly upon them, and all three of them are ready to spring when the first attacks reach the wall. A barrage of needles lands on the ground just past their feet, and a slight dark stain on the pale sand around each one reveals that they are poisoned. Temari stands, fan already open to the first star, and the next volley rebounds on the four from Sound. The wind from it stirs up the sand under their feet and masks Morizuna's simultaneous attack; they don't know about his technique until they find themselves trapped by the sand around their feet, piled around their ankles and immovable.

"There's something wrong here." Temari speaks for the first time that morning, since they've already engaged the Sound ninjas at this point. Four Sound shinobi, presumably of chuunin or jounin level if they've been sent into hostile territory, shouldn't be caught so easily. Morizuna is a chuunin of average level at best, the weakest member of their team. If these Sound nin are so weak, why hasn't the team from Leaf caught up to them?

A sudden gust of wind that has nothing to do with Temari's fan rises around them, and in the face of that blinding sand Temari knows how such a weak group could outrun a team from Hidden Leaf: the disadvantage of the terrain. Winds are sudden and vicious, especially close to Hidden Sand, and the ensuing sandstorms can rob anyone not used to desert travel of nearly all visibility. The Sound nin wouldn't be nearly so hampered as their Leaf counterparts. They would detect their pursuers and potential ambushes by Sand through their ears, not their eyes.

One Leaf nin reaches the group, finally, but only one. He walks confidently forward, dodging three shuriken, a kunai, and a barrage of needles. This wouldn't be anything special, except that he is blindfolded. Fabric obviously hastily torn from clothing is wrapped around his eyes in a makeshift veil to keep the sand out, but he moves as if he can see perfectly.

Temari realizes that Leaf hasn't sent anyone weak. She knows this man, at least by sight and ability; she took the chuunin exam with him. He steps very precisely, and then the person following comes into view. The second man has his entire face veiled, but follows his companion perfectly. At first she thinks they've sent an entire team of Hyuugas, that will be able to see while protecting their eyes from the damaging sand, but then she sees the man's shadow.

Oh, this Leaf team isn't what she thought it was at all. She knows Nara Shikamaru's signature technique better than most, having lost to it in that exam only to fight alongside it later against Orochimaru's underlings. He's used his shadow binding on himself and the Hyuuga he follows, so that his movements will mirror his companions and get him to the objective.

If the Sound team is getting away from a group with these two, they must be at least as strong as the one she fought alongside them two and a half years ago, jounin level or even higher. Probably higher, since these two can't have come alone if Morizuna saw nine people.

"They're only pretending to be held," Sunahara murmurs.

"I know," Temari agrees under her breath. It didn't really matter if they whispered, because a team that could navigate by ear could certainly hear what they said at this range. Then she raised her voice and addressed the shinobi before her. "You are in Sand territory now. Sand and Sound are at war."

Their only answers are more knives. If they're throwing kunai now, she will need something stronger. This isn't the chuunin exam, however, so she simply opens the fan to the second star without her taunting words about defeat coming with the release of the third star. She can hear Sunahara behind her, forming the words and hand seals that precede his main technique.

It had unnerved Temari the first time she saw Sunahara fight. He reminds her of Gaara, even though now she knows he controls sand with his own chakra and without the aid of a demon. The sand rises around the four Sound shinobi, caught on an unnatural wind running counter to that produced by the desert around them. A death given by Sunahara is cleaner than that of Gaara, but no less sure and even quicker. The four bodies fall to the ground, totally desiccated by thirsty desert sand.

"How did you not catch them?" Temari demands of the two Leaf nin. Sunahara is the strongest chuunin in Hidden Sand now that Gaara no longer takes missions, but he would be no match for what she's seen Shikamaru and the Hyuuga do.

"We weren't intending to catch them yet, we were following them." Though his voice is different, deeper, only Shikamaru could manage such an utterly bored tone in the midst of a mission on foreign soil. "Two of our teammates had to stay behind because of the storm, but we were ordered to see the Sound squad's objective." He ends the shadow binding and both he and the Hyuuga boy can move freely again. "We also have a message for the Kazekage from the Hokage."

"They could be the Sound nin in disguise," Sunahara protests softly, but Temari shakes her head.

"He's seeing with an advanced bloodline. I saw it during the chuunin exam in Hidden Leaf." Temari snaps the fan closed in one heavy motion and slings it onto her back again. "Sound wouldn't have access to it."

"Temari?" Shikamaru reaches for the veil over his eyes but then thinks better of it, and drops his hands back to his sides.

"That's right, kid. For such a genius, you sure take a long time to figure things out." Temari looks out into the distance, adjusting the veil protecting her own nose and mouth from the sand. "Where are your teammates?"

The sandstorm is already dying down as Shikamaru and the Hyuuga- Temari still can't place his given name- lead them to the other two Leaf shinobi. Temari recognizes both of them from the chuunin exam as well. One of them is Inuzuka, the boy who fought with his dog, which is still with him. Despite his now large size he's pressed his face against Inuzuka's vest to keep the sand away. The other is the boy who nearly beat Gaara, the one who uses nothing but taijutsu.

Now she knows they were telling the truth about their mission, because they have a tactical genius, an advanced bloodline, and a shinobi stronger than any currently active in all of Hidden Sand. The Sound nin got away because the Leaf nin were allowing them to for the sake of information.

Teammates reunited, they head back to the Hidden Village of Sand.

Things are just as tense in Sand as they are in Leaf. There are more shinobi here than there are in Leaf, but they're nowhere near the numbers present before Orochimaru's attacks. They weren't lying, then, when they said that the quality of each individual shinobi was the most important thing in Hidden Sand.

"It's too quiet here." Kiba interrupts Shikamaru's silent observations, already shaking sand out of his shaggy hair in the relatively calmer winds of the village itself. The buildings are arranged so that the worst of the sand is kept out of the center, so that people can travel from building to building without harm.

"Don't be rude, Kiba." Lee unwinds the bandages that have been around his eyes, protecting them from the sand. Still, all four of the Leaf shinobi know he's right; it's nearly midmorning after all the time they spent fighting and making their way to the hidden village.

"No, he's right," one of the two men with the Sand squad, introduced to them as Morizuna, voices what they all think. "It's odd."

"This way," Temari directs them, not commenting on their observation. She leads them to a building like any other in the town, near the center. "This is the Kazekage's office. Sunahara, Morizuna, you two keep watch outside."

Inside it could be the Hokage's office, done in different colors and with a different symbol. There are record books, brushes, scrolls, and maps piled everywhere, along with mission directives and weapons. The Kazekage is a fairly young man, certainly younger than Tsunade's real age, but he looks exhausted.

"You're back, then." He looks up at them from under the shadow of the wide-brimmed hat of office, the face veil customary to the Kazekage missing while he works inside. "The Sound squad was a decoy. There's a much larger force coming from the border- we just received the message from the border with Fire Country. It looks like Orochimaru's decided to finish us."

"Why Sand, though? Leaf is weaker than we are!" Temari pulls off the loose, veil-like mask worn by Sand shinobi on missions, shaking sand out of it.

"There are two people we know Orochimaru is afraid to fight, and either one would consider it an affront if he attacked Leaf. He wants to make sure of his power base before he attacks." Lee, of all the people on the squad, steps forward with the message. Tsunade gave it to him despite Shikamaru being team leader, because she said he was the most reliable of the group. "The Hokage sent us with a message for you, Lord Kazekage. Their buildup pattern lately suggests that they're going to attempt a full assault on Hidden Sand before turning to Hidden Leaf, both to ensure his own power and to prevent Sand from aiding us."

"Afraid? Orochimaru?" The Kazekage looks up sharply enough to shake the thin veiling that hangs from the back of his hat.

"Yes, sir. We knew that he would stand on equal terms to the Fifth Hokage, but he seems to want to avoid conflict with Lord Jiraiya as well." Lee bows after that sentence, as if the two legendary shinobi were in the room to see him. The other members of his team look at him oddly, but none of them say anything. They're marginally used to Lee's strange behavior. "In fact, he fled from battle the last time he faced Lord Jiraiya and the Hokage."

"Of course, the prowess of the hermit Jiraiya and the Fifth Hokage is legendary even outside of Fire Country." The Kazekage seems relieved that there isn't some sudden new force that Orochimaru would fear, only the same two ninjas he's always faced on an equal standing. "Well, Sound has launched their prepared assault, and most of our teams are already dealing with it. Was there anything else to their message?"

"Only that you are to use our team however you should need to for the duration of the invasion." Lee sounds impassioned at the very idea, while Shikamaru and Kiba both seem annoyed with it. Kiba hides it passingly well, but Shikamaru doesn't even try to mask it. Neji stands impassively, showing no emotion one way or the other about the mission.

"You're all chuunin rank?" The Kazekage looks them up and down for a moment, eyes moving from Lee to Kiba to Neji to Shikamaru and sharply back to Neji, studying him as if trying to remember something. "You're a Hyuuga?"

"Yes, sir." Of them all, Neji appears to be in the worst shape; his fair skin took a considerable burn from the sun and wind.

"Then I see how you made it through the storm. What about the others?" He takes note of something on his paper, brush swirling elaborately. "And who is your squad leader?"

"I'm squad leader." Shikamaru sighs and raises his hand wearily. "Nara Shikamaru. I bound my shadow to Hyuuga's and followed him that way. The others had to stay behind to wait out the storm or for us to come back."

"All right, then. Temari, you and Sunahara will go on a team with Nara and Hyuuga to fight as soon as we find a place to assign you. The other two will have to stay here and work on the defense of those who can't leave, since they'll apparently be useless in desert fighting." The Kazekage finishes writing with a flourish and sets the brush aside. "Have Morizuna go to the western part of the area and find out the situation. That's the only direction we don't have a report on already, and we think it may be the worst. While you're waiting for Morizuna return, you and Sunahara take Nara and Hyuuga and prepare to deploy. We'll brief the other two here on their duties."

"Of course." Temari nods her assent without any sort of bow, and motions for the two shinobi who will accompany her to follow. That leaves Kiba and Lee alone in the office with the Kazekage.

"And you two. Who are you and what can you do?" The Kazekage is abrupt; such a question is rude, but not unacceptable. Hidden Leaf volunteered their services in alliance, after all, and the Kazekage needs to know where to use them.

"Rock Lee. I'm a taijutsu specialist, sir." Lee foregoes the bow this time, his spine very straight. He doesn't mention that this is his specialty because it's his only area. There's no need to tell Kazekage everything, not even for someone as brutally honest as Lee.

"Inuzuka Kiba. This is Akamaru," Kiba introduces lazily, gesturing at the large white dog at his side. He makes no mention of his abilities.

"Rock, Inuzuka... you two were both in the last chuunin exam." Another book is pulled from the pile, replacing the one the Kazekage had been writing in, and he flips through the pages until he reaches the appropriate one. "Inuzuka... you were defeated in the preliminaries of the third exam by another Leaf shinobi. Rock, also defeated in the preliminaries of the third exam, by... Gaara." He looks up at Lee sharply. "It says here you injured Gaara. The fact that you managed that and lived says a great deal about your skill."

"Thank you, sir." Lee bows his head at the compliment.

"Inuzuka also both served on the squad that dealt with the Sound nin in Leaf two and a half years ago, along with Nara Shikamaru, Hyuuga Neji, Akimichi Chouji, and Uzumaki Naruto with Rock Lee arriving later as reinforcement. Also aiding were three shinobi from Hidden Sand: Temari, Kankuro, and Gaara." The Kazekage doesn't mention how he got such information; after all, it's not as if the Hokage doesn't have similar data on the shinobi of Sand.

"And?" Kiba asks, heedless of any respect he should be giving the leader of another hidden village.

"Rock Lee, you'll be accompanying the patrol of the village once they arrive here to report to me on their current rounds. Inuzuka Kiba, you may assist me here, since there's not anything to utilize your abilities and your... companion... will be at a significant disadvantage in the desert." The Kazekage gestures for Lee to have a seat. "It may be a short while before the current patrol is completed, so please sit. Inuzuka, if you could retrieve the second volume of reports on Hidden Sound from the shelf just above your head?"

"Do either of you need anything before we leave?" Sunahara asks them politely, which may or may not be a polite way of digging for information on their specific abilities. "Food pills, weapons, scrolls?"

"A veil like the sort you people wear would be helpful for both of us, so we aren't blinded by the sand," Neji says shortly. He volunteers no other information, about their abilities or otherwise. "Contrary to what you seem to think, Leaf shinobi do come to their missions prepared."

"How long can you last at the level of chakra output you used to follow him before, Nara? I remember your technique from the chuunin exam." Temari's question is beyond rude for one shinobi to ask one from another team, let alone another village, and she clearly doesn't care.

"Hours." Shikamaru shrugs. "I've trained a bit since then, and all."

"Good, because we don't know how far out the Sound nin are to the west, or if they've even taken that direction." Temari nods curtly, shading her eyes against the sun and wind to look west. "Sunahara, get them something to cover their eyes with, and some extra water. Then we can get going."

With the storm slowed and the sun at their backs instead of in their eyes, it's only a short time before they come across the first Sound nin. He's young, even compared to Shikamaru, and his long dark hair is combed forward to veil his eyes from the sand. He carries no visible weaponry.

"I was afraid no one from Hidden Sand would come to meet me." His voice is light, airy almost, and doesn't carry well through the moving gritty air.

"Are you aware that any further hostilities on your part will constitute a declaration of war against the Hidden Village of Sand and possibly Wind Country?" Temari asks, merely a formality before her offensive begins. She was raised the daughter of the Kazekage, and knows that not observing the niceties of inter-village etiquette may hurt her later. Even in a case like this.

"I should certainly hope so!" He sounds offended at the very idea that he isn't trying to start a war. "That's what Lord Orochimaru sent me to do, after all."

He doesn't approach them further, instead pulling a handful of needles from his sleeve and throwing them into the air in front of him. They hover there, pointing straight out towards his opponents, and he sings a piercingly high note- clearly he's even younger than he first appeared, his voice not yet broken. The needles all split in tandem, the sound of metal shearing and splitting around them, and then they split again so that there are four times as many fine, thin needles. They don't look like they will do much damage, even if they manage to pierce the skin.

Another high note sends them flying, far too many for one person to block totally, and several things happen at once. Temari swings her fan fully open to three stars and places it in front of her; the cloth is peppered with tiny needles that can't totally pierce the heavy fabric and the ground at her feet is littered with those that bounced from the metal ribbing. Only her fan-arm has been pierced. Sunahara forms a hand seal and the sand coalesces in front of him, and the ground before him is silver with bent and broken needles. Neji, rather than launch into a kaiten so early in battle, blocks the needles by hand. He's pierced in numerous places, but seems to have a pattern to where he defends.

Shikamaru has no defense against so many tiny needles, so hair-fine that they scarcely cast a shadow in the bright light of near-noon. He's hit full on, only protecting his eyes and throat, and when it's over he looks to Neji to assess his teammate's damage. And he realizes the pattern to Neji's blocks: he's protecting the sixty-four most vital chakra points, the very places he attacks in his fighting style. If these needles aren't made to do damage they may be made to hit those vital spots and manipulate the target's chakra via sound waves. It would fit the pattern of Hidden Sound styles they've seen so far. So he begins to pull needles out as quickly as he can, looking to the places left unharmed on Neji for a guide.

"Playing again, Genya?"

A second Sound shinobi joins the dark-haired boy, this one much older and obviously a woman. Genya frowns slightly, but quickly smoothes his expression and with a flick of his wrist has a second set of needles- and promptly drops them onto the ground, hands clenched at his sides.

"Which one of you did this?" Genya asks, voice wavering. "I can't move!" His voice rises until he's shrieking the last word, and the needles on the ground twitch. Shikamaru silently curses his oversight, because a Sound shinobi doesn't necessarily need to move at all to kill. Vocal cords cast no shadows.

The needles embedded in Temari's fan rattle and fall to the ground in time with Genya's wailing, and those still in all of the shinobi save Sunahara begin to embed themselves deeper.

"My arm-" Temari drops her fan, arm nerveless, but Shikamaru and Neji are unaffected save for the purely physical aspect of needles driving further into their bodies, proving Shikamaru's hypothesis that it was an attack on the vital chakra points. Neji begins to pull needles from his skin as Shikamaru does, though some of them are far enough in now that doing so draws blood.

"Kill the one that's doing this, Ito!" Genya's hair falls back from around his face and his eyes begin to water, unable to close against the sand.

The woman, Ito, taps a foot against the sand again and again in staccato rhythm before stepping forward to meet them.

"You should be able to move now, Genya," she informs him.

"I can't!" Genya's voice twists as if that could free him, and the needles on the ground skitter forward uselessly.

"Then you're not being held with chakra strings. You should be able to get out of anything else." Ito removes her attention from Genya and looks appraisingly at the line of veiled shinobi. "But then again, you only managed to disable one of them with your needle trick."

She chooses Shikamaru as her target, launching herself at him without prelude with a kick that's easy to dodge. Genya shrieks from his position farther back, forced to twist and hit the sand the same way Shikamaru does.

"I thought that might be it." Ito smiles very slightly, the ends of her painted lips turning up in a slow sly twitch. She reaches out with dazing speed and rips the veil from his face, revealing the Hidden Leaf forehead protector. "Leaf shinobi, come to help their allies. Lord Orochimaru taught us a great deal about what your bloodlines can do, even those of us trained to destroy Hidden Sand." Then she raises her feet with the same speed and hits Shikamaru full in the chest, knocking him down to the sand. However, Genya doesn't follow suit.

"She's fast," Temari murmurs. "Could anyone here match her speed?"

"If that's her limit, I can manage. But I get the feeling that isn't the fastest she can go. I would feel better if Lee were here," Neji admits just as quietly. "He could exceed this movement easily."

Genya has another set of needles palmed the instant he's freed from the shadow bind, and repeats his previous technique of splitting the needles in front of him- but instead of releasing them, he begins to form the hand seals that any shinobi from their genin group in Leaf would recognize, with Uzumaki Naruto or away from him. Even before the words 'kage bunshin technique' are formed and the copies break away from the original Genya, Neji is moving towards him so that he is between Genya's assault and the rest of the group.

The needles clone along with Genya, and so each copy of the shinobi voices the note to split the needles. There are so many of them that the clones seem almost veiled themselves, behind a curtain of silver slivers.

"You knew where to block. Memorizing your own chakra points like that must have taken a lot of study," Genya says sweetly, all four of him speaking but not in tandem, so that there's an odd echo effect to what he says. It's disorienting to hear, and were he a Sand shinobi relying on hearing and tremors in the ground to detect his enemies through the sand he would have been thwarted.

But unfortunately for Genya, Neji is a Hyuuga- and a Hyuuga only relies on what he sees. When the needles twitch and split apart he braces his ankle to pivot, and when they finally fly towards him he pushes off with his other foot into his kaiten technique. The effect is even more devastating to the battlefield than it would be normally, loose sand flying in all directions with all the force of the storm that descended on them that morning. It has all the disadvantage to Genya that the disorienting noise has to Neji- none. A Hyuuga uses his eyes where a Sound shinobi uses his ears, and neither has a handicap.

"Be ready to call the sand," Temari warns Sunahara quietly; he's already formed most of the hand seals and is ready to finish the technique in an instant.

Hakkeshou Kaiten can rip a person apart- anyone who saw the chuunin exam two years ago knows what the technique did to Uzumaki Naruto's shadow clones- and the thinned and cloned needles certainly don't stand a chance. Some of them ricochet cleanly off the cyclone of chakra, raining outward from Neji as if he'd thrown them with a far greater force than Genya had; others fall short in their flight, bent at odd angles where they collided with a particularly strong point in Neji's chakra defense. Still others simply disappear in a wisp of smoke, like the shadow clones that made them.

All three copies of Genya disappear in an instant, riddled with needles at a high velocity. Genya recoils as his clones go up in smoke, and gives a high, wordless command to the remaining needles on their path towards them, expecting them to stop and fall to the ground on his order. They don't. It isn't chakra itself that pulls them, after all- it's pure physical force, the speed of the spinning chakra propelling the needles back. A technique that controls the chakra behind the needles is useless.

Sunahara lowers the wall of sand in front of Temari and himself, needles intermingled with the sand pooling back on the ground. He'd raised it at the last second, the two of them having no other defense against projectiles at such a high velocity. Shikamaru and his adversary are well out of the needles' path- and perhaps that's unfortunate for Shikamaru, because he's clearly not standing up well to the harsh physical fight.

"Genya-" Ito twists her body around so that she can see where there is abruptly no sound from her ally. The entire front of Genya's body is riddled with his own needles, driven in nearly their entire lengths, and it's clearly a corpse that's topples backward onto the sand.

Shikamaru doesn't waste her distraction. He distances himself immediately, pulling back towards where Sunahara and Temari hold their defense. The sand flying through the air finally stops, Neji skidding to a halt with his arms already at the ready for an attack. There is no crater in the ground around him, as there would be on normal terrain, because the sand flows into the space carved by his feet and chakra, but there are sand piles on the battlefield like drifted snow.

Ito doesn't pursue him, instead standing back. She's just out of the reach of his shadow, and she knows it. None of the sand drifts- already dissipating in the wind without Neji's motion forcing more sand onto them- cast a shadow long enough to touch her, not in the small shadows of near-noon. Temari picks up the fan she's dropped and holds it in her off hand. She won't be able to muster enough force to use her normal techniques, but if this works she won't need to.

She opens the fan to the first star and holds it high, gaining Ito's immediate attention as she walks away from Sunahara and towards Shikamaru.

"I should have known Genya couldn't even disable one of you properly." Ito doesn't move forward, still wary of Shikamaru and his shadows, instead waiting for Temari to come to her. And she does, opening her fan to the second star as she walks. She stops a few feet short of Ito, well within range of a thrown weapon or even a well-aimed kick if Ito weren't afraid of moving back and entering Shikamaru's line of attack.

Ito reaches behind her to draw something out, and Temari opens her fan to the third star. Then she backs away slowly- one step, two steps, three steps- and holds her position. Ito of Hidden Sound never draws what she plans to use, because she finds herself completely immobilized.

Temari's shadow touches the edge of Shikamaru's, and the extension that the shadow of the fully open fan gives her allows the combined shadow to touch Ito's. Ito says nothing to them as Sunahara moves forward, the only member of their team that hasn't joined the offensive yet, and begins to form the hand seals for his technique. When he speaks the words "desert wind technique" and performs the final seal, Temari snaps her fan closed and breaks the line of shadow so that Ito is freed of Shikamaru's binding.

It's too late for Ito, of course, and Sunahara's technique destroys her just as it did the shinobi they encountered before.

"If we're the first people that went west, we should keep going." Shikamaru replaces the veiling that Ito ripped aside, once again protecting his eyes and nose from the sun and sand.

"Temari's arm needs attention." Sunahara shakes his head.

"I'm fine," Temari snaps, yanking the needle from her arm and dropping it to the ground, a fine line of blood following it. "He's dead, so his chakra control is gone. I'll be ready to fight again in a few minutes."

"Chakra control isn't the only consequence to a technique that." Neji crosses his arms. "Even a soft physical blow can stop the flow of chakra entirely, if applied correctly. His attacks weren't concentrated strictly on vital points, though, so I doubt that he was specialized enough to accomplish that. But it's a real possibility that your arm will take days to recover."

"It seems we have more company," Shikamaru says suddenly, looking over Temari's shoulder at the dunes beyond them. "Neji, who are they?"

"Sound shinobi." Neji says after a brief pause. That means he's not using his byakugan technique constantly outside of battle- to save chakra, perhaps. They won't be able to hold up indefinitely against shinobi as strong as Genya and Ito, especially if they attack in groups. "Their chakra is much weaker than that of these two, but that may not mean anything."

"They could be as strong as Lee and not touch their chakra," Shikamaru agrees, but he sounds confident at this news.

"Let's welcome them to Hidden Sand. then." Temari moves her fan back to her main hand, holding it upright as if nothing had happened. That doesn't mean she'll be able to wield it in a fight, but it's promising.

The evacuation of Hidden Sand begins only twenty minutes after the final scouting squad, Temari's, heads to the west. Sound nin come from the south and the east, which doesn't bode well for the squads sent in those directions. There is nothing from the north and the west, where the strongest shinobi were sent.

Lee is assigned to the evacuation efforts, to get the children and the elderly to the caves that Hidden Sand uses as a hiding place in events such as these. The other shinobi on his team soon realize, however, that he's much more effective than they are in fighting the Sound nin in the streets. These aren't jounin level shinobi, which is strange in itself- they are chuunin level, if that, and Lee can defeat them fairly easily.

Instead of taking him on the rounds with him, they send him to the outlying houses to look for evacuees, and bring them safely to the teams waiting to relay them to the caves. It only takes a short time to evacuate the village, and soon Lee approaches the last outlying house alone.

There is no answer when Lee pounds on the door, but the house is definitely inhabited. There are lights visible through the one small window set high in the building, and Lee can hear someone inside. So he opens the door.

"Hello?" He asks politely, standing just inside the door. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but the village is being evacuated by order of the Kazekage. If you could..."

His voice trails off into nothing when the small house's inhabitant steps into his line of vision. Gaara is the last person he expected to find in the village- shouldn't he be out with the other squads, fighting the Sound nin?

"I will obey the Kazekage's orders, of course." Gaara's voice is as flat and listless as it was during most of his time in Hidden Leaf, though his eyes seem less dead than they were then. Less dead, though not totally alive as he stares at Lee intently. "I know you from somewhere."

He doesn't speak beyond that, merely brushes past Lee and picks up the gourd resting near his front door. Lee hadn't noticed it when he walked in, but now he thinks it's odd- he's never seen Gaara without it on his back before. Lee follows him out onto the sandy street. It's clear that the final Sand squad left without Lee, probably assuming that he could deal with any of the weak Sound shinobi in the town easily and make it to the caves.

"Has everyone else left?" Gaara asks quietly, surveying the street before them.

"Of course not." They both look up at the sound of a voice above them and see someone that definitely isn't in the mission report Tsunade sent with them.

Yakushi Kabuto stands on the low domed rooftop, looking oddly out of place away from Orochimaru's side.

"Tsunade truly is as talented as they say, if you're fighting again." Kabuto makes no move to jump down from the roof. "And the monster of the desert as well- the last team I would expect to see working together."

"You!" Lee comes to him instead, the leap from ground to roof nothing for such a specialized fighter. "Konoha senpu technique!"

As Lee feints in a way that only a shinobi would- seeming to move to the back but in reality attacking head on in a way a clever opponent wouldn't expect- and his kick connects with Kabuto's midsection, Gaara realizes where he's seen Rock Lee before. It's the Shukaku that recognizes him, anger rising at the sight of the same move that damaged Gaara for the first time, and Gaara clenches his fists at his sides in an attempt to get the demon under control.

"Unfortunately, I don't have time to play with you children." Kabuto manages to dodge Lee's next move, heading to the opposite end of the roof. When he gets there, Lee is already there, thick eyebrows drawn down in irritation.

"I can't let you do whatever it is Orochimaru wants." Lee is behind Kabuto before the words leave his mouth, and as he speaks he delivers what looks from Gaara's vantage point on the street to be a devastating blow to the shoulder. "To betray your village that way is something I can't let go."

Kabuto knows that for all his strength, this isn't a fight he can win easily- if it were merely Gaara he could win easily, and if it were merely Lee he would stand a chance. But both of them together- to defeat Gaara will require a great deal of care and consideration, to know where the weak points in his sand armor lie, and to defeat Lee will unfortunately be a test of luck. His taijutsu specialization means that he's especially vulnerable should Kabuto cut his muscles with a chakra blade, but he's so fast that Kabuto will be hard pressed to actually connect with such an attack. If he can score even one hit, the tides will turn- but then there is still Gaara with his sand. He needs to run.

As he lunges for the next roof, Lee catches his leg and drags him back- surely such speed isn't human? Even with ninja techniques and soldier pills, a person can't be this fast. And Kabuto knows that this is just the beginning for him; he watched that fatal chuunin selection exam, and he knows that if Rock Lee is this powerful without the Lotus technique he will exceed any jounin in Leaf in sheer taijutsu if he opens even one gate. And for all Kabuto doesn't like it, when Orochimaru said that he was only as strong as Kakashi, he was correct. Besides that, hand-to-hand combat was never his strongest point.

"Gaara." Lee calls down to his companion, and the Sand shinobi immediately appears on the roof in a rush of sand and wind. He makes no move to join Lee's fight, however; he merely watches.

And then, with one lucky thrust, Kabuto manages to connect with Lee's upper arm. Lee skids to a stop on the roof, clutching at his elbow- with a severed muscle, his left arm is now useless until he can see a medical ninja of great skill; unless Tsunade's errand girl accompanied them and is lurking somewhere, it's unlikely they'll receive such care short of returning to Leaf. Sand is hardly fabled for its medical specialization ninjas the way Leaf is for Tsunade and her squad.

"Desert coffin technique." Gaara holds out his arm and clenches his fingers in an odd half-fist with his palm held flat. Sand surges out of the gourd slung over his back and circles around Kabuto like a predatory thing. Still, it seems sluggish compared to his performance during the chuunin exam, as if he hasn't been in practice as often or there is something interfering with his chakra control, and Kabuto slips away easily.

"Give Lord Orochimaru's regards to Lady Tsunade," Kabuto calls back to them before he disappears into the swirling sand.

Several battles later, they settle into an outcropping that may be natural and may be the remains of a building for all the erosion that the wind-driven sand causes. They're all feeling the effects of so much fighting in harsh conditions, including the two from Sand, and they rest to share soldier pills and water.

"I think we should go back and survey the situation in the village." Sunahara looks from Temari, whose arm is being cradled suspiciously in her lap, to Neji, who leans against the stone wall and is obviously in the early stages of heat exhaustion. Even veiled, such a fair-skinned shinobi was a bad choice for a desert mission. "We're in no condition to go on. Don't take the soldier pill, Hyuuga, just drink the water. The stimulants will just dehydrate you more and you'll get sicker than you already are."

"I'm fine. We can go on," Neji protests, but he sounds worn down and weak, and heeds Sunahara's advice to not take the medicine with his water.

"You're not used to desert terrain." Temari speaks up sharply, massaging the place where she pulled the needle from her arm. "The sun is more dangerous than any Sound shinobi could be. The caves where the people of the village would take refuge in an invasion aren't far from here- they're closer than the village itself, at any rate. Even if the village hasn't evacuated, it's cooler and there are stores of water. We can rest there and get back to the village when we've recovered a bit. If the village has evacuated there, we can get some medical attention for my arm and for Hyuuga."

"Don't drink too fast- you can't afford to get sick and lose the water," Sunahara warns him. The fact that Neji doesn't so much as glower at being told what to do tells Shikamaru volumes about how ill Neji must be.

"What's wrong with him?" Shikamaru asks Temari quietly.

"It's the sun and the heat. Even Sand shinobi get sick from it sometimes- I'm surprised that you aren't sick as well, actually." Temari stops massaging her arm to raise her good hand and shade her eyes, so that she can look out from their makeshift shelter and survey the area. "Although you're darker than he is, and the darker you are the better you tend to take the heat. Once we get some more water into him, we'll go for the caves."

Shikamaru crosses his legs and folds his hands, observing his surroundings and meditating on the best course of action. True, he's not used to desert terrain- but he has read on it, and can apply that knowledge to the situation just as well as he can any other piece of mission briefing. Temari leans against the wall, fan open to grant more shade, and continues to watch the sands blow by as Shikamaru analyzes the situation.

"Do you always do that in battle?" Temari asks him abruptly.

"Do what?" Shikamaru asks, opening his eyes and looking at her. His gaze is full of possible moves and outcomes, analyzing what Temari brings to the team and what she can do should they be attacked in their weakened state. And that's the same young chuunin that she remembers fighting against in the exam and alongside against the Sound shinobi years earlier, the boy who forms battle formations and movement strategies as easily as he speaks.

"Meditate," Temari clarifies.

"Not all the time. Only when I need to think- and I was only passing the time until the sun started setting during the chuunin exam." Shikamaru breaks his position and stretches out backward, using an arm to shield his eyes from the sun as he lies back on the sand.

"It's hot," Temari warns. She steps to the side, so that the shadow of her fan falls over Shikamaru.

"I'll live." Shikamaru closes his eyes again. "How soon do you think we'll be able to leave? More Sound shinobi may come this way."

Temari looks over her shoulder; Sunahara's taken off Neji's forehead protector and soaks it with water before tying it back around the other shinobi's forehead. Neji sits passively, eyes closed, and allows Sunahara to do as he will. He's getting worse, says the look Sunahara gives her.

"As soon as possible. We may have to give Hyuuga the soldier pill after all, if only to get him up and walking before he goes into heat stroke. He'll be sicker later, when we're in the caves, but at least he'll be alive." Temari exchanges nods with Sunahara, who presses another canteen and one of the stimulant pills into Neji's hands. "We can leave as soon as it kicks in and he gets up."

It's only a minute or so before the pill starts to work; Sunahara forces more water on Neji and then they leave their windbreak for the surer shelter and water of the caves. Neji takes the forward position so that he can scout ahead with his byakugan technique and warn them of any approaching enemies. Sunahara is just behind him, because he has the most powerful offensive technique on the group and can strike wherever Neji indicates.

This leaves Shikamaru and Temari as the rear guard, neither of them at full strength right now- the sun is high, blazing bright with noon, and that puts Shikamaru at the biggest disadvantage possible short of full darkness. Temari can't use her fan to full capacity because of her arm, which means they're an almost useless pair at this point.
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