June 5, Sandaime Year 30/Yondaime Year 1, four months before the Kyuubi
The war had officially been over for a year. The first anniversary celebration had been a few days of somber memorials followed by a week of wild revelry, and Konoha hadn’t stopped celebrating yet. Banners strung between buildings honored the troops, and the spiral-leaf emblem of Konohagakure rippled and fluttered on flags and pennants decorating nearly every door. Even dripping leftover raindrops from the latest one of Fire Country’s perennial June showers, the decorations were a cheery sight.
At seventeen, Genma was still too young to join the platoons of off-duty ninja enjoying the early June evening by getting tipsy, but no one was checking a uniformed shinobi’s ID too closely. Walking into certain bars with a hitai-ate tied around your head and a faintly blood-stained flak vest on over patched and repaired chuunin blues was an easy way to get a free drink or three, and maybe a willing partner for the night. Even for an awkwardly big-handed, skinny guy who still had a few pimples on his cheeks and nothing resembling a full beard.
It had been a long enough day running messages between the Hokage’s palace and Intel, but duty as an in-village courier was hardly exhausting. There would be a real mission in the next day or two—something interesting, Genma hoped—but for now he was looking forward to an evening of illicit carousing. The worst that could happen, if some bartender decided to get literal about that drinking age business, was he’d get a fruit juice instead of a beer—no one was going to call the MPs unless he got drunk and disorderly. And his dad wasn’t expecting him home until much later.
He took a circuitous path, staying street level mostly for the novelty of it—there were interesting things to look at in the surrounding shop windows, and it was never a bad practice to vary your route, even in village. Slipping into a narrow cobbled alley between two buildings, he headed downhill towards the river’s edge and Konoha’s nightlife.
Footsteps and the creak of a door warned him someone was about to join him. Genma sidestepped into a shadow, expecting a shopkeeper heading home for the night or maybe an upstairs apartment dweller heading out for the evening, but the person that came lurching out of the dark, low-eaved doorway was neither.
It was a kid.
She looked like she was maybe eleven or twelve, with spiky dark hair and a loose-fitting, dirty, red t-shirt. A genin, Genma guessed, because chakra was spilling off of her in waves no civilian could produce.
Sick chakra. Damaged chakra.
He’d seen a lot of chakra like that on the battlefields and in the medical tents.
She stumbled, and he moved, catching her shoulder before she could fall. Her pained cry was unsurprising. The kunai she raked Genma’s thigh with was another matter.
“Whoa, hey,” he said, dancing back out of striking range without letting go. “I’m a friend. A medic. We’re in Konoha. It’s safe here.”
The kunai clattered to the cobbles, and the girl’s fingers curled into the fabric of his pants, digging into the fresh cut on his left leg and scrabbling for purchase at the holster on his right.
He closed his hand around her wrist before she could grab fresh ammunition and stab him again. “Shinobi, listen.” He pitched his voice low and intense, giving an order. “I’m a Konoha chuunin. You’re safe. There’s no one to fight here.”
This wasn’t the first time he’d seen another ninja falling apart in the throes of a flashback, but this genin—this little girl—was definitely the youngest. She struggled weakly for a moment more, then shivered and stopped fighting, looking up at him for the first time. Her face was whey-pale, with dark hollows under wide, fear-filled eyes. Fever bloomed bright spots over each cheek, and the corners of her mouth were crusted with blood.
“You’re a chuunin? We have to find the Hokage,” she said. Her brow furrowed and she focused on Genma at last. “There’s a girl all cut open and people are dead in the wall and my sensei is killing people.”
“Your sensei is killing people?”
“Yes! He’s killing people.”
Genma crouched down to look her in the eye, and found a painful mixture of intensity and delirium staring back. Disorientation backed by righteous fury and grim determination. And terror.
“He killed Kazayuki and Itsuo and Nobuye and Motoko and Misaye and Shota-kun and Akane-kun and some genin I didn’t even know, and he tried to kill me but I didn’t die.” Her voice broke. “That girl is going to die next and go in the wall with all the other people who died, and we have to tell the Hokage.” Tears welled in fever-bright eyes, reflecting orange sparks of setting mid-summer sun. “Please, chuunin-san. We have to hurry.”
“I’m going to take you to the hospital,” Genma told her. “Will you let me carry you?”
“No, the Hokage!” she insisted. “You don’t understand! He’s killing them. They’re dying!” She grabbed for his holster again.
He pulled her into a restraining hold. That’s when he saw the bruised and angry-looking swelling on the back of her neck, where a trio of black tomoe marked a curse seal newly activated.
There weren’t many ninja in Konoha who could create a seal like that. Minato-sensei, soon to be Konoha’s Fourth Hokage, was one, but as far as Genma knew, he didn’t have any genin pupils.
“I’ll take you to the Hokage,” Genma said, letting her go. “What’s your name? Who’s your sensei?”
“Mitarashi Anko.” She sagged when Genma picked her up, shaking uncontrollably. “Orochimaru-sensei is my teacher,” she said in a whisper.
Merciful Bodhisattva, shield us, ”Hold on to my neck,” he told Anko. When she did, he brought his hands together for as secure a genjutsu as he knew how to create—something to hide the pair of them from any but the most dedicated searcher. “Is he looking for you?”
“He left. He thinks I’m dead,” she said. There was no emotion in her voice anymore.
Good. Let him keep thinking that.
“Do you know where he was going?”
She shook her head against his neck.
“Alright, hang on. I’ve got you.” Genma zipped up the space between the buildings in three quick, ricocheting leaps, and ran, taking the most direct path across the roofs of Konoha, aiming straight for the Hokage’s Palace.
He dropped the genjutsu before entering the building. A pair of masked and cloaked ANBU stood guard outside Sandaime’s door. When they saw the mark on Anko’s neck, and heard her whisper her sensei’s name, they took her from Genma.
“Wait here,” the one in the bull mask told him.
Minutes stretched out painfully, as the last of the sunlight faded. Konoha’s skies turned violet, and her streets lit with hundreds of lamps that didn’t seem so cheerful anymore.
The doors to the Hokage’s office remained closed.
When they finally opened again, more ANBU came out than had entered the room. One in a green and white bird mask cradled Anko, wrapped in a blanket, to her armored chest. The girl’s eyes were closed, but her drawn face looked even more wretched than it had before.
Three more of the Hokage’s personal guard came out, followed by Sandaime himself. He looked small next to his armored spooks, and his face, up close, surprisingly old and tired.
Genma dropped to a crouch, fist on the floor, head bowed in obedience.
“Shiranui Genma,” Sandaime said.
Genma looked up, startled the Hokage knew his name.
“What you have seen and heard tonight—swear to me, on your honor as a shinobi, your oath to Konoha, and your very life’s blood—you will not repeat it.”
“I swear it, Sandaime-sama,” Genma said. His mouth was dry.
The Hokage nodded. “Let’s go,” he said. The three unencumbered ANBU snapped to attention. Gloved hands flicked through seals, the Hokage’s robes fluttered briefly, and they disappeared, leaving only a swirl of dust and the faint scent of ozone.
The bird-masked ANBU turned toward Genma.
“Will she be alright?” Genma asked her.
Anko stirred in the ANBU’s arms and opened her eyes, looking at Genma, and through him.
“If you break your oath,” the ANBU said, “you will not live to see the next sunrise.”
The ANBU flicked a seal and vanished.
Genma took a breath. Then he recast his evasion genjutsu—if Orochimaru-sensei had done what the girl said, and if he’d seen Genma with her and wanted revenge, he’d have to try to catch Genma off guard. It would be stupid to have survived the war only to die at the hands of one of Konoha’s greatest shinobi.
He didn’t sleep well at all that night. Nor the next, nor the next.
Three days later, the news was everywhere: Sandaime’s pupil, the legendary sannin Orochimaru, had turned traitor. An undisclosed number of ANBU had died trying to stop him when he fled Konoha. A secret lab had been discovered, where Orochimaru had conducted gruesome experiments on living human subjects. Two genin, one of whom was Orochimaru’s own student, were hospitalized in grave condition. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of corpses had been found in Orochimaru’s lab, buried in the walls.
Genma wanted to go to the hospital and see Anko. To reassure himself that he’d gotten her to safety in time, that the guards watching over her were being kind to her, that she would recover.
He wanted to know about the other genin—the girl Anko had said was cut open and dying. The rumor mill said she was a diplomat’s daughter.
How could one of Konoha’s most famous ninja, one of the legendary Sannin, have turned traitor against his own village? How could any Konoha ninja have done what Orochimaru had done?
How could any human being have done what Orochimaru had done?
Genma didn’t discuss it with anyone. He remembered the Hokage of three nights ago—small, almost frail-looking next to his ANBU. An illusion, surely, since everyone knew Sarutobi Hiruzen was the greatest ninja alive.
He remembered the aching fury in the Sandaime’s eyes.
The Hokage been Orochimaru’s teacher, and even he hadn’t been able to prevent the madness seething at Orochimaru’s core from taking hold.
And Genma didn’t dare mention he even knew Anko’s name.
On the fourth day, with the cut in his leg nearly healed and the rent in his uniform pants still not stitched, he packed up a box of cream buns from his father’s bakery. At the hospital gift shop he added a floppy-eared plush rabbit with a ribbon tied around its neck, and tucked in a small card. For Mitarashi Anko. From the chuunin.
If he was lucky, the right person would find the package where he left it, sitting quietly on a bench in the hospital lobby, and deliver it to her floor.