April 16, Yondaime Year 5
Kakashi visited the Heroes’ Stone on the morning of the second trial.
It had stopped raining; the air was cold and clean, and Obito had zero useful advice to offer. Kakashi left a single flower at the foot of the stone, mostly to annoy him.
Dawn was still a distant possibility when he arrived at the hidden training field behind the Hokage’s monument. The commander wasn’t there yet. Kakashi slipped in behind the loose knot of sleepy-eyed candidates. Today, most of them had thought to bundle up in oiled rain-cloaks over their uniforms. All of them had visible weapons—slung swords, kunai, shuriken. One woman had a giant folded fan strapped to her back.
It took Ryouma less than four seconds to find him. “You’re late.”
“I was getting a haircut,” Kakashi said.
Dark eyes gave him a blatant once-over, stopping at the bedhead Kakashi hadn’t really attended to. “You need to fire your barber,” Ryouma said.
There was a dark shadow of stubble angling over the planes of Ryouma’s jaw and the length of his throat, barely lit by moonlight. Kakashi gave it a dry look.
Ryouma rubbed his palm over his chin. “I’m growing a beard,” he defended. “Last chance before the mask goes on.”
Kakashi was starting to suspect Ryouma was a morning person, or an extremely well-caffeinated night owl, and it was a horrible thought.
“Reconsidered showing me your jutsu?” he asked, just to needle.
Ryouma flipped him off, cheerfully. “You missed out yesterday, Hatake. There were two fights and an amateur drag show. And civilian ninja groupies, eventually.” He ruffled a hand through his hair and smirked. “Nobody went home alone.”
There was a sliver of white bandage showing at the neck of Ryouma’s jounin vest, and the shadows under his eyes weren’t dark. If he had taken someone home, he’d slept afterwards.
Only half-stupid, then.
“I’m glad you could feel validated,” Kakashi said, and lifted his head as chakra whispered around the edges of his senses. Ryouma tensed, sensitive enough to feel it too. Some of the candidates weren’t, but they followed the example of their temporary teammates, getting quiet and watchful.
The commander stepped out of the shadows.
“Welcome to the second stage,” she said. “I’m glad to see you can follow basic instructions.”
Like showing up at 0400 was the hardest thing they’d had to do so far. Ryouma shifted, folding his arms across his chest. The stitches in his shoulder pulled a little; you didn’t ask for chakra-healing on a scrape like that, not when there were men and women brought in bleeding out every day, but the medic had cleaned and sutured him just fine. It didn’t impair his range of motion much, anyway. He didn’t think it’d hold him back.
Hold him back from what, was the question. Everybody’d had theories—each more ludicrous and more dangerous than the last, yesterday, as the empty glasses stacked up—but nobody knew. The ANBU trials were one of the few secrets Konoha’s gossip-mill kept.
0400 with weapons and limited supplies was enough to start guessing on, though. And the commander, apparently, didn’t believe in suspense for its own sake.
She gestured briefly. A deer-masked ANBU faded out of the darkness with a bundle in his arms. It spread out into a cloth, pale on the dewy grass, with a jumble of six-inch scrolls on top.
“Abe,” the commander said.
The blue-haired man Ryouma didn’t know stepped forward, selected a scroll from the side of the pile, stepped back.
Another man, dark-haired, with a giant fuuma shuriken folded on his back. They were going in order, Ryouma realized, and settled back on his heels, ready to be bored.
Names he didn’t know. Some he did. One name was called and not answered. Silence pooled in the moonlit darkness.
“Wise choice,” the commander said at last. “Hatake.”
Kakashi walked silently to collect a scroll. He chose the first that came to hand, from the top of the shrinking pile, and came back without stirring dew from the grass beneath his feet.
Himura. Nakashima. Others, and at long last, Tousaki.
There were only three scrolls left. Ryouma chose the center one, and took up his place again by Kakashi. Ayane had drifted over from somewhere; they exchanged brief nods as Yamada was called up to select the final scroll.
The deer-masked ANBU rolled up the cloth and slipped back into shadows again. The commander said, “Open the scrolls.”
Ryouma slid his thumbnail under the seal, unrolled it, and barely registered the incomprehensible scrawl inked on the white paper before the world skewed sideways and spiraled into smoke.
He landed on one knee in thick moss, dizzy and faintly nauseated, on the broad branch of a tree so high in the air that the ground was lost in darkness below him. Paper crunched under his knee, gleaming faintly in the faint moonlight that managed to filter through the high canopy. He eased it out, blinked hard against the dizziness, and compared the inked scribbles to those on the first scroll still in his hand.
A matched set. Space-time seals, linked over dozens—perhaps hundreds—of miles.
And something more, written in thick brush strokes on the second scroll. He tilted it to the light; it made little difference.
Find, he knew that character. They used it often enough on mission briefs. Two was easy enough. So was days. The rest might as well have been fancy pictures, shimmering and swimming against white paper, and he was already getting a headache.
He rolled the scrolls up, jammed them inside his vest, and took his bearings. The moon was sinking over his left shoulder; there was west. The forest was alive around him, spring peepers, insects, an owl ghosting past on silent wings. Somewhere, twenty ANBU candidates.
One of them had to be able to read the trial objective.
He focused chakra in his feet, tested his grip on the rugged tree branch, and set off into darkness.
Kakashi landed in a grove of twenty-foot mushrooms that collapsed under his weight, releasing a thick cloud of spores. Paper crackled beneath him; he grabbed it and vaulted free, coughing.
Covered in orange. That was a good way to start.
Tall trees ringed the grove. He swung up into the nearest one, gaining higher ground, and took stock. It didn’t smell like the Forest of Death. Mostly it smelled like fungi. He pulled a twist of wind around himself, shedding the spores.
Welcome to Stage Two, the second scroll said. You have two days to find your way back to Konoha. Use any means necessary. Only the first ten candidates to succeed will be considered. Death disqualifies you.
The stylized looping flame printed underneath was Minato-sensei’s signature.
“Son of a bitch,” Kakashi muttered. They’d had dinner together last week. He could have mentioned—
Well, no, of course he couldn’t.
In his next life, Kakashi decided, he was going to be the kind of man who actually used nepotism. It would make things so much easier.
He climbed higher, until the branches became thin and dangerous, bending underfoot. Trees stretched in all directions, silver-green beneath the broad moon. Away in the east, a tall mountain range raked the clouds. That looked like the Tomuraushi volcanic cluster, fortunately not active, which meant—
A hundred and thirty miles, or thereabouts, through some of the worst territory Fire Country had to offer.
He hadn’t thought to pack a toothbrush.
Dawn came late, filtering through the canopy, weak and greenish by the time it reached the forest floor. Ryouma surprised a clan of rabbits feeding in the thin undergrowth and butchered his kill quickly and neatly. He’d eaten raw rabbit before, and been grateful for it, but he took the time now to build a small, smoky fire near a stream and skewer chunks of meat on stripped sticks.
It still felt wrong to crouch in an open glen, with his back to the woods and not a trap or wire laid at the perimeter, and listen for the footstep he might never hear. But while he was (almost) entirely certain he wasn’t alone in the forest, he wasn’t a tracker.
And besides, he was hungry.
The first skewer was done. He slid the sizzling chunks of meat off the stick with the point of his kunai, tumbled them onto the clean inside of the rabbit’s own skin, wrapped the whole bundle swiftly up, and jammed it in his over-full belt pouch on top of his med kit and exploding tags. He laid the next skewers on at an inviting angle, and wished for salt.
Smoke drifted. Steel, cold and sharp, kissed the side of his throat.
“I’ll bleed on breakfast,” he said, without looking up.
That wasn’t, evidently, the expected response. The blade pressed a little closer, but flesh wasn’t quite parting yet. If he jerked, ducked, he might only lose a slice of his jaw and the rest of his ear, instead of his head…
“Sit down,” he said, as steadily as he could. “It’s nearly done.”
The silence stretched out. He could hear fat dripping on the coals, wood popping, spring peepers singing in the distance by a stream. His pulse thumped against the blade.
Mistake, he thought.
“That needs salt,” a man said, finally.
The blade fell away. Ryouma turned, looked up at the blue-haired man he’d noticed in yesterday’s trials: Abe, the first candidate to choose a scroll today. One of the seven he’d pegged as a shoe-in for ANBU. He was perhaps a year or two older than Ryouma, with a square jaw cut by an L-shaped scar and a tousled, wind-blown look to the short, straight hair. Dyed or natural, Ryouma couldn’t tell.
“I packed for a stay in Kawashima’s red-light district,” he said apologetically. “Not the Forest of Death, or wherever this is. No salt. On the other hand, no poison, and you get to save your rat bars for tomorrow or next week or whenever you really need them. Which d’you want?”
“You first,” Abe said, pointing with his sword-blade. “That one, third from the top.”
The meat was searing hot, still a little bloody in the center; Ryouma ate it in careful bites from the tip of his kunai, then held the rest of the stick out. Abe hesitated a moment more, then sheathed his ninjato in a swift, sharp movement, and hunkered down on the other side of the fire. “So what’s your angle?” he asked.
There was no point in deceit. “Information,” Ryouma said bluntly. “What did that scroll say?”
Abe’s eyes narrowed. “What happened to yours?”
“Can’t read,” Ryouma said. “Mostly.” He shrugged. “Something weird in my head, and we needed bodies on battlefield so bad by then that the Academy sensei thought it wouldn’t much matter. Usually I get my teammates to read the mission assignment to me, but looks like we’re independent operators out here.”
Abe studied him, measuring. “So you’re the guy.” He nibbled at the seared edge of a rabbit shank, made a thoughtful noise, and tore half the chunk off. Swallowing, he added, “And you’ve got the rot thing going. Must be hard to make friends.”
“So long as nobody asks me to read ‘em a bedtime story, we’re good,” Ryouma said. He blew on another piece of sizzling meat and bit it in half. “So. What’re we doing out here?”
“Racing,” Abe said, with his mouth full. “First ten back to Konoha win the cake.”
Two days, the scroll had said, in the few characters Ryouma could read. He chewed thoughtfully. Two days was time enough to run halfway to the border of Wind Country, which meant either those scrolls had landed them more than a thousand klicks from home, or they were expected to be delayed on the way.
Abe hadn’t come in just for breakfast. He’d meant to attack, to eliminate or at least incapacitate the competition, and it was luck and friendliness and, most probably, Abe’s empty stomach that had stayed his blade. Which meant Ryouma had been far, far stupider than he’d thought in baiting his trap.
He stripped another chunk off the stick. “Run into anyone else yet?”
Abe shook his head. “Your smoke’s the first sign I saw. From about two miles away.”
Dammit. Too successful. Ryouma popped three cubes off the skewer and into his mouth, thinking furiously. He still didn’t know exactly where he was, that was the problem. Had to be somewhere in northern or southeastern Fire Country, because if you went too far west of Konoha you’d run into the endless sweeping grasslands from which Kusa no Kuni took its name, and due east there were too many population centers.
He should’ve taken the opportunity at first light to climb above the canopy and look for landmarks. He hadn’t known what the objective was, but that was no excuse. One mistake might be survivable, if you were lucky. Two meant you probably deserved to die.
The slight shift in his weight, drawing his knee under him, brought Abe’s attention flickering back. Ryouma tried a crooked smile. “How many ANBU d’you think they’ve got hunting us?”
“Shit,” Abe said, and was gone. Ryouma killed the fire with a water jutsu, scuffed mud over the tracks where he’d been crouching, and took to the trees.
A twang of chakra and a flurry of swearing brought Raidou slipping out of the shadows to inspect trap forty-two. He was particularly proud of this one; the mesh net had all kinds of sneaky jutsu built into it.
He reached the clearing and stopped.
A little too sneaky, apparently.
“God-fucking-dammit, Namiashi!” yelled a slim ANBU with a grasshopper mask. He was bundled high up on the side of a bending ash tree, thrashing in the net. Blood streaked and splattered the pale bark, dark red in the dim forest light.
That’d be the fish hooks Raidou had woven in.
“The hell are you doing in my quadrant, Omashi?” he said blankly.
“Oh, y’know, tea-partying,” said Omashi. “I’m bleeding, you giant stupid fucktruck. Let me down!”
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Raidou asked, crouching at the tree’s base to inspect the seal.
“You wanna talk moms, Namiashi? Because I’m about to get real detailed about yours,” Omashi spat.
Raidou paused. The tone of voice was right, but— “Which one?” he said.
“What?” said Omashi.
“Which mom?” said Raidou, sitting back on his heels and looking up. “I have two.”
There was a pause. “Either mom!” Omashi said.
“Well, let’s get specific. If you’re gonna threaten a man’s mother, you should at least have a basic idea of your target. No one likes an empty threat.” Raidou stood up. “Omashi’s met both my moms, by the way.”
There was a longer pause.
“Goddammit,” said the person in the trap, and dropped the illusion. Raidou blinked at the sudden reveal of curves, braided red hair, and a sweet round face that included lipstick.
“Tottori,” he said, recognizing the candidate notable for her giant-ass fan and a collection of neat, dangerous ninjutsu techniques. “That was pretty good. You had me going for a minute there.”
She gave him a narrow, green-eyed look. “Really?”
He see-sawed one hand. “About four seconds. How do you know Omashi?”
“He babysits for my sister,” Tottori lied blatantly. “What did you put in this net that jutsu won’t break?”
“Kitten whiskers,” Raidou said, grinning. “And chakra-drinkers.”
“Clever,” she said, in a tone that mostly implied annoying. “Now what? I assume you don’t intend to slit my throat.”
“Nope,” Raidou said. He crouched and tapped the seal again, making it glow under his fingers. “Now you get to go home, explain what you did wrong, and, I’m guessing, try out for Intel, because there’s no way you should know who I am, or how Omashi talks to me, unless you’re good at getting information you shouldn’t have.”
The dark purple curve of her mouth was proud, but also a little sad. “I really wanted to make ANBU,” she said, quiet enough that he almost didn’t catch it.
“Try again in September, then,” he said, and activated the Heaven and Earth scroll hidden above the trap. The net lit up, twisted, and sucked out of existence, taking Tottori with it. Someone in Konoha would have the job of peeling her out of it and extracting the hooks.
He tapped the radio comm collared at his throat, raising a bust of static in the earpiece. “Tottori down,” he said. “Made herself look like Omashi. Clever jutsu.”
Static hissed for a moment, then Omashi came on the line. “What the fu—”
“You need to swear less, man,” Raidou said, and signed back off as the other hunters laughed.
Out of twenty-two, that was three reported candidates down. He hoped the next one was just as interesting.
Either his see-me-not jutsu was particularly effective, or Kakashi had managed to land in a mostly unmanned section of the forest. He thought he saw a distant hint of smoke near dawn, rising up further west, but it vanished soon afterward. Other than that, nothing disturbed his run until past midday, when a giant centipede tried to eat him.
It was a short, grisly fight, which ended when Kakashi ran hot chakra through his tanto and split the insect’s back open from neck to tail, spilling yellow guts across the forest floor.
The blood smelled like steel and rancid plantlife, and plumed steam into the air.
Kakashi cleaned his blade and moved hastily upwind. There was nothing he could eat on a centipede without making himself sick, but the corpse was too big to leave as it was, marking an obvious shinobi kill.
After a moment of debate, he risked an earth jutsu. The ground opened beneath the centipede and swallowed it, zipping closed afterwards. There was a visible scar left behind; he kicked loam over it and called it good. The air still smelled foul, but most ninja didn’t have his nose.
Time to not be here.
A translocation dropped him a mile away, helpfully not in the middle of a tree, though it was a near miss. He crouched low on a sturdy branch and took a look at the new lay of the land.
Miles of forest to the south and east, but to the north-west…
Kakashi whistled very, very softly.
The trees gave way to open grassland, which faded fast into broken black earth that spilled all the way to the horizon. He’d known the past year had been dry, but this looked like a wildfire had razed it all down. Skeletons of trees reached blackened fingers towards the unforgiving sun.
Reaching up, he straightened his hitai-ate, giving Obito a look. The blue wash of chakra lines didn’t make the landscape look any more forgiving, but he didn’t see any lurking energy signatures either.
“Any thoughts?” he murmured.
A hot salt tear ran down the edge of his cheek. He pulled the hitai-ate back down.
No cover, no rivers, and he knew that desertscape ended in a treacherous rocky valley. A smart ANBU could hide himself anywhere along the way, like a spider in a trap, and wait for someone to trip the web.
Kakashi thumbed the tear away. “Water first. Okay, dead-last.”
He dropped out of the tree and went river-hunting in the forest to restock his canteen.
The mushrooms seemed an obvious trap. It was clear from the way the candidate was prodding them with a cautious kunai point that he didn’t trust them. Too bad, though, because those were perfectly edible takenoko, and with the sun creeping up past noon behind the clouds, Genma had no doubt the guy was hungry. Hell, he was hungry, and he’d eaten two rat bars already.
He held his position and the jutsu that concealed him, smiling when the candidate gave up on the mushrooms and started digging for the slender bamboo shoots instead. April bamboo shoots would be about perfect right now. Sweet, full of moisture to save canteen water, not too fibrous, and rich in nutrients for a vegetable. They were a smart choice for a hungry ninja on the forage.
Or they would have been, if Genma hadn’t gotten to them first.
The candidate was definitely hungry, though. And not stupid. He dug up the shoots, peeled them, sniffed them carefully, and tasted a sliver of one, waiting fifteen agonizing minutes before he wolfed down the rest of the shoot, and a second one.
Genma was disappointed. Maybe the guy had some immunities he didn’t know about? It was an unfortunate waste of a brilliant idea, really. He was just about to give up and go for something more obvious, like a fire jutsu, when the candidate coughed.
Then he coughed again.
And again. He clutched at his throat, hacking and choking on a feeling Genma knew from his own experience was like swallowing a live sea urchin. Poor guy.
Scrabbling in a pouch at his side, the candidate pulled out a small medkit, which he opened with shaking hands, scattering bottles and bandages over the mushrooms. He was drooling by the time he got a vial opened and tipped the contents into his mouth.
The choking coughs eased off a little, but the drooling didn’t. Genma waited until, judging by the way the candidate was slumped against the mature bamboo and shaking his wrists, his muscles were getting weak and his hands were going numb.
That’s when Genma dropped his jutsu and slid into view.
The candidate reached for a kunai, but his numb hands spasmed as his fingers closed on the steel, and all he managed to do was gouge his own thigh with the dropped blade. He choked out a hoarse curse and glared instead. And drooled.
“Don’t try to talk,” Genma told him. “Let’s see, what did you use?” He picked up the empty vial and inspected the label: a standard antitoxin for a variety of caustic-type agents. “Not a bad choice. Unknown ingested poison affecting the respiratory system. It’s a good start.”
The man made a questioning sound, raspy and raw in the back of his throat. His eyes flicked to Genma’s belt pack.
“It’s okay, I’ve got you covered,” Genma told him. He reached for the candidate’s chest and freed the man’s dog tags. Tonbo Iwaji. “Sit tight, Iwaji, I have an antidote; you’re not going to die.”
He unrolled a soft leather case and extracted a slender syringe, already prepared with the antidote in question. Iwaji got the shot in the upper arm, in a single, swift motion. Then Genma carefully zip-tied the man’s wrists together, bound his ankles with sticky tape, and dropped a scroll onto his chest. He collected up Iwaji’s weapons and reassembled the man’s med kit for him, laying them across Iwaji’s lap.
“Next time you’re suspicious of a food substance, you might try cooking it,” Genma said. He started to activate the scroll, then stopped. “When you get back to Konoha, make sure you drink some water.”
Iwaji blinked an acknowledgement, and Genma let the scroll’s jutsu run.
“Tonbo Iwaji down,” he said, keying his radio mike on. “Irakusa poison. I’ve already given him the antidote. Base, tell the other end to make sure he drinks some water.”
“Relax, Mom,” came Hajime’s voice. “Base has it covered.”
By mid-afternoon, Ryouma calculated, he’d run, walked, jogged, and very occasionally translocated more than thirty miles. The translocations left him light-headed and nauseated, and once landed him in the center of Fire Country’s biggest briar thicket. He spent five minutes trying to fight his way out before he gave up and translocated out. That time he had to climb a tree and spend ten minutes shaking before he could come down again. Space-time jutsu had never been his forte, and Yondaime-sama’s new skimming-the-borders-of-reality trick felt uncomfortably like he’d left his stomach behind.
He lost an hour when an ANBU hunter picked up his trail. At least, he assumed it was a hunter, although he never caught more than a fleeting glimpse and a distant chakra flare. Another candidate wouldn’t have wasted the time. He wasn’t sure if he shook the hunter, eventually, or if the ANBU simply lost interest. Maybe they were assigned to special quadrants, and weren’t allowed to leave.
Which meant he’d moved into someone else’s territory. Shit.
He slowed a little more, took his time testing clearings that looked suspiciously empty, circled around branches that hung invitingly low. Once, in the distance, he heard a woman scream. He kept his head down and pushed on.
Konoha lay somewhere northwest, he’d figured out by now. Northwest still covered about a quarter of the shinobi world, but if he struck too far west he’d hit the road to Tanzaku City, eventually, and too far east he’d find the road to Otafuku Gai. Within fifty miles of Konoha, he’d know the land. It was as good a plan as any, and better than some he’d tried.
Much better, he hoped. Some of those plans had ended with pretty ugly scars.
Eventually, he came to the forest’s edge.
And to a boar-masked hunter, standing in the very last of the shade.
He was so still, black-and-bone armor dappled in green shadows and sunlight, that Ryouma almost didn’t spot him. If it hadn’t been for an errant breeze that shook the leaves and ruffled the ANBU’s reddish hair, he wouldn’t have. But the movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention; he glanced, and froze.
A voice whispered very softly into the back of his neck, “Like the bunshin?”
Ryouma threw himself out of the tree, hit the fire-blasted soil on his shoulder, and rolled. He came up with his hands already slipping from Monkey to Hare seal, before he remembered this was a Konoha nin: his comrade in arms for the last six years; his senpai, if he survived.
“Hesitate,” the voice murmured into his ear, “and you’re dead.”
He spun, striking at throat-height with the knife-blade of his hand. There was nothing to hit. Just blackened dust spurting up where feet might have struck, prints already swirling away in the wind. The bunshin was gone from under the trees, if it had ever been there at all.
“Easy, boy,” the voice said mockingly behind him. “You almost nicked me that ti—”
Ryouma didn’t bother spinning. He dropped, snapping his head back with all the force he could muster. His skull cracked hard against ceramic before resistance broke away. He caught himself with one hand in the dirt, pushed off, and sprinted three steps before he finished the seals for the translocation jutsu and yanked himself somewhere else.
When he landed five hundred meters away on a rocky outcropping thrusting up out of a tangle of charcoal that used to be trees, he barely managed to pitch to his knees before he was sick.
At least, he thought bleakly, spitting onto the dirt, he’d packed mouthwash in his kit. He’d come prepared for something.
The burning lands were even less fun than they’d looked.
Dust was the main problem. The faster Kakashi ran, the more incredibly obvious his rising dust-trail became, billowing up behind him like a come-kill-me flag. He didn’t have the chakra for multiple translocations, and even if he did, it was too hard on the body. He had to run, and he had to run slow.
Then there was the hammered-iron heat.
Konoha wasn’t stupid; the jounin uniforms were designed to breathe and move and, for preference, deflect sharp weapons. An overheated shinobi was a sad shinobi; sweat-wicking was important. But it was still April, and April in Konoha was breezy, rainy, and edged with the last traces of winter. Kakashi’s cold weather clothes—wool woven with slender steel threads—were killing him by inches.
After an hour, he gave up, sheared his sleeves off, and fashioned himself a desert hat. A splash of precious water and some of the black dust made a dark, gritty paste to cover the white glare of his arms and, hopefully, ward off sunburn. He thumbed a dark line under his uncovered eye, on the slim chance it would help eat some of the sun’s glare.
He dropped the see-me-not jutsu. There were no shadows for it to steal.
Another hour of jog-trotting and he was halfway to the horizon, wondering if he’d gotten something wrong. If ANBU were tracking him, surely he would have seen one by now? Or at least run across a trail. The only sign of anyone was that nebulous smoke trail he’d seen, and nothing since. He couldn’t have outrun all the competition already.
Maybe he’d missed something.
Minato-sensei had an unhealthy love of evil little puzzles. If he’d built an under-layer into the scroll, and Kakashi hadn’t even thought to check it…
“Goddammit,” he muttered, sliding to a halt.
The scrolls were paired together in a pocket of his jounin vest; he pulled the second one out, unfurling it in the strong, dry wind, and read it again.
Welcome to Stage Two. You have two days to find your way back to Konoha. Use any means necessary. Only the first ten candidates to succeed will be considered. Death disqualifies you.
He let Obito have a look, eye narrowed against the swirling dust. There was a chakra print stamped into a corner of the scroll, tiny and tucked away, and incredibly unfair, how was anyone else supposed to read—
Smartass, it said.
Kakashi rolled the scroll back up. Shinobi rule #87, slightly paraphrased: Don’t psyche yourself out.
Bright chakra flared in the corner of the Sharingan, sending him down into a wary crouch. Steel unsheathed between his fingers. See what happens when you ask for it? A kick-up of dark dust obscured the view, but he was pretty sure he could see someone moving out there, and they weren’t wearing ANBU armor.
A light wind jutsu—not his—blew the dust away. It swirled back instantly, but Kakashi got a good look.
He blinked, then winced.
It was Akiyama, the candidate with the giant fuuma shuriken strapped to his back. This morning he’d been neat and sleek looking, dark-haired, with fine features.
He looked mostly bloody now.
“Run into some issues?” Kakashi asked.
Bright crimson froth spilled over Akiyama’s pale lips. “Help,” he rasped, and staggered, falling to his knees.
Yeah, that wasn’t suspicious at all.
Narrow-eyed, Kakashi sheathed his kunai and approached the man, keeping a careful watch on the empty landscape around them. Nothing else stirred. He stopped just out of arm’s reach.
Akiyama braced himself on empty hands. “ANBU,” he managed; the word came out smeared. He spat red into the black dust, where it shined. “Tripped a trap.”
It smelled like real blood.
“What do you want?” Kakashi said.
There were deserts less dry than the look Akiyama gave him. “Medical assistance?”
“You have a med-kit,” Kakashi pointed out.
Akiyama’s back heaved as he retched and brought up a stomachful of bile and blood that splattered between his hands. He didn’t look stabbed, just sliced and torn, like someone had gone at him with shuriken and a briar thicket. Poison, maybe?
And then he’d translocated into the middle of the burning lands and somehow landed on Kakashi’s head?
“Drop your weapons,” Kakashi said, after a moment. “Then we’ll see.”
Akiyama almost threw his weapons down. The fuuma shuriken hit the dust first, then a welter of kunai, shuriken, senbon needles, and a short blade he’d strapped in the small of his back. He shoved them out of reach and sat back, visibly shaking with effort. His skin was waxy pale.
Kakashi scratched the back of his neck.
“Okay, then,” he said, and pulled his canteen off his belt, offering it across.
Akiyama reached for it, closing unsteady fingers around the neck. “Thank you,” he croaked.
Lines of intent snapped together in the Sharingan’s sight.
Kakashi yanked his hand back, but Akiyama caught him by the wrist. Two sharp, hot lines scratched across his skin—needle points from steel rings. He broke the grip and reversed it, forcing Akiyama’s elbow against the joint until something popped. Akiyama hissed and spat blood, splattering Kakashi’s arms and jounin vest.
Three openings presented themselves. Kakashi hit all of them, jaw, neck, and a knee in the side, and translocated the hell away while Akiyama choked.
He landed in cool, dark shadows between overhanging rocks, and resisted the urge to whack his head against one of them.
His arm was burning, and Akiyama still had his canteen. He ripped into his med-kit and flushed the scratches with alcohol, wishing he’d thought to pack more antitoxins. He had two; one of them covered contact poisons. He found the slim tube, swiped the thick green paste over his arm, and bandaged it. The burning faded, replaced by a dull ache.
At least his throat wasn’t closing up.
He lifted a scarlet-splattered hand to his face, inhaling carefully. Blood, yes, and something else—sugar water, he realized, to keep it wet and fresh and red.
He spared another pour of alcohol, sluicing the mess off his skin, and raised his head.
Crags and broken stone stretched out in front of him, splintering up into dark, jagged sides of sheer rock. He’d landed halfway up the side, in the shelter of a shallow cave. Further down at the bottom, an anemic creek wound poisonously along a stony bed.
Well, Kakashi thought, at least I made it to the valley.
By 2200 hours on the first day of the hunt, five candidates had been eliminated, one was teetering on the brink of failure, and sixteen were still in the running. Radio chatter amongst the dozen proctors had waxed and waned throughout the day, as candidates fell into traps, or evaded them and impressed their hunters.
“Ooh. He just stepped on my wasp nest. Bet you all fifty he’s going down,” came Usagi’s voice in Genma’s earpiece. She sounded as fresh and chipper as she had at 0400; he kind of hated her. Just a little.
“None of us are fool enough to take that bet,” Shikaku observed, sounding just as weary as Usagi sounded bright.
Genma didn’t bother offering an opinion. He pushed his mask up and wished he had a cigarette while he waited for the all-clear.
“Aaaaaaand… He’s down. Komozaki Minorou down. You all owe me a five-double-o.”
Radio-silence begged to differ with her.
“You guys are no fun,” Usagi complained. “Alright, I’m gonna go collect my toys, patch Komozaki up, and I’m good to go.” Her comm clicked off.
“Is that a go from Base?” Shikaku asked.
“That’s affirmative,” came Hajime’s voice. “If you haven’t already cleared your sector, we’re pushing on to phase three. Sound off if you’re in the outer ring and still have actives in your quadrant.”
“I’ve got one in Boar sector.” Sato’s voice crackled and hissed over the distance. He must be in one of the rockier areas where radio signal was weak. “Tousaki’s still with me.”
“One in Grasshopper,” Omashi said.
There was silence.
“Anyone else?” asked Hajime.
“One in Tanuki,” Genma said. Fukui Ayane, the impressive kenjutsu user from the first day of trials, had crossed into his sector about an hour ago. Unlike her predecessor, she’d cooked—and eaten—the safe mushrooms, and left Genma’s bamboo shoots alone.
“Roger that. Anyone else?”
No one spoke.
“Phase three commence,” Hajime told them. “You have until 0400 to get them to Hebi Valley.”
A dozen voices acknowledged the command and clicked off their comms. Genma yawned and stretched. First, a soldier pill, because it was going to be a long night. Next a long, deep drink of water, followed by a quick piss against a tree, because… it was going to be a long night. There weren’t likely to be many rest breaks between now and 0400, and getting the candidates to Hebi Valley was just the beginning.
He wondered if the proctors at his trials two years ago had had as much fun as he was having, even if it was tiring. So far the trials had been a blast. They got to use all the skills they would on a mission—at least the non-lethal ones—without any of the usual risks or consequences. There were no innocent bystanders to worry about, no real enemies lurking around the next corner, and in two days time they’d be back in Konoha, sipping sake in the park where the cherries were almost at peak bloom.
Well, he and the other proctors would, anyway. The candidates, if they made it through, had a few more hurdles to deal with before their ordeal was over. He sleeked his hair back into its tie, flipped his mask down, and flexed his shoulders. Time to go get Ayane moving.
Raidou’s sector—Crescent Moon sector, because he needed a better mask—was a forty-square-mile swath of forest that bled out onto the Shoudo Plains, ending just after the land blackened and cracked. The rumor was demon fire, but they’d had no confirmation on that. Something had blighted the grasslands; Raidou would’ve put even money on a regular nasty-ass jutsu.
Either way, his sector was empty. Time to say goodbye and move on.
From chatter, he’d gleaned a pretty good idea of where most of the candidates had landed, but a few were dust in the wind. Hatake had vanished and stayed gone—best guess put him somewhere in the badlands, maybe as far as the valley. Tousaki had shown and split a few times. The guy with the fuuma shuriken—Aki-something—had given Omashi some serious trouble and rabbited.
Nakashima, the kid who liked to use ice spears as punctuation, was firmly on Raidou’s shit list.
He packed up his last trap, sealing the twists of wire and hooks in a scroll to prevent a self-stabbing, and pulled his mask off for a brief, glorious second. His hair was plastered to his forehead; he raked it back, wiped his face, and took a deep breath of blessedly cooler night air.
It tasted like sweat and leaf mulch.
“This glamorous life of mine,” he murmured. He put the mask back on and went to stir the rabbits from their bolt holes.
The Shodou Plains were still warm underfoot, reflecting back a day of soaked-in sunshine. He took a quick, graceless roll in the dust to darken the bone-white parts of his armor, and set a quick pace under the broad yellow moon.
When he reached the marker, he clicked his comm. “Crescent Moon ready.”
“Your name, man,” came Omashi’s voice, crackling.
“Crescent Moon also willing to squash Grasshopper,” Raidou said.
“Grasshopper invites Crescent Moon to suck his giant hairy—”
“Gentlemen,” said Hajime.
Hissing static filled the air for a moment, then Usagi came on the line. “You had to interrupt.”
“Focus,” said Hajime.
One by one, the ANBU checked in, a few breathless from chasing quarry. Genma was the last.
“Let’s go,” he said, “before she gives me the slip.”
“Light ‘em up,” ordered Hajime.
Raidou cupped his hands, calling a spark of chakra into a flickering, thumbnail-sized flame. He set it to the trigger buried in the dust, and stepped quickly back. A long fuse hissed to life, racing a snake-trail through the blackened earth.
When it reached its target, the badlands detonated.
Not all of it, but a long, broad strip went up in glorious shower of boiling fire. Twelve separate explosions, triggered simultaneously by twelve ANBU. The heat crisped the tiny hairs off Raidou’s arms. Some terrible joker added a thread of chakra to theirs and made an exploding phoenix from the flames.
“There they go!” said Usagi.
She was more sensitive than Raidou, but even he caught the flicker-edge of someone’s distant chakra bursting into alarmed movement.
“Goddamn, I saw that blast from here,” said Hajime. “Good job, boys and girls. Have at ‘em.”
Someone—Usagi, probably—let loose a loud, ululating wolf’s howl and burst through the fire wall, scattering it to shreds in the distance. Yowls and roars went up from half a dozen other agents, as they followed her example and tossed subtlety to the wind.
Laughing, Raidou threw himself through the fire and went after that distant chakra signature.
Nakashima, it turned out.
What followed was very, very fun.
Ryouma wasn’t sleeping, exactly, when the horizon lit up like the Hokage’s birthday. He was still on his feet, still moving generally in a straight line, but his pace had slowed to something between a saunter and a stumble. When the ground shook and the sky went briefly orange, he did stumble. He caught himself with a knee and one hand and looked back to see the fiery glow at the edge of the burned lands, some twenty miles behind him.
Twenty miles wasn’t much to a ninja.
He tightened his bootlaces, since he was kneeling anyway, and drank a little of the stale, warm water remaining in his canteen. There was still cooked rabbit in his belt-pouch. He hesitated over it, then went for a soldier pill instead.
Chemical chakra sizzled through his pathways. He straightened, fastening the flap on his belt pouch, and looked back again. He couldn’t yet see the tiny little figures in black-and-bone running across the burned lands, but Boar would be among them, lethal and fast and mocking.
They called ANBU hunters for a reason.
Ryouma bared his teeth. “Come and get me,” he said.
Within an hour, they did.
He’d made it out of the burned lands by then, scrambled down broken slopes and boot-gouging slides to the slab-bordered rivulet of black water at the valley bottom. Only shreds of moonlight fell down here, turning shadows even darker where they didn’t touch, and he wasn’t wearing a white mask and armor the color of old bone.
He wasn’t alone, either. Another shadow, blacker against the dark stone, flitted across the other side of the stream, twenty meters away. Ryouma pressed against a rock, watching. A paler blotch tipped, looking up at the cliff above him; he heard a muttered curse, the scrape of steel on scabbard. Ayane.
Two ANBU flowed like ghosts out of the darkness. Ayane spun, struck, releasing wind-chakra like a scythe. One ANBU flipped out of the way, hit the steep canyon wall with one foot and stuck there, sideways to the world. The other ducked in under the arc of blade and chakra to close with Ayane, hand to hand.
“You like to watch?” the boar-masked ANBU whispered behind Ryouma’s shoulder.
Ryouma looked up, smiling, and lifted hands humming with chakra the color of clotted blood. “Knew you’d come for me,” he said.
Boar lurched back one quick-half step. Ryouma slammed forward, wrapped his palm over the cool ceramic mask, and rapped Boar’s head sharply into the rock slab behind him.
Boar’s knees buckled. Ryouma dropped him, and cut the genjutsu.
“Some of us learn from our mistakes,” he said, and slid back into shadow.
Ayane was still fighting the other ANBU, and holding more than her own. He left her to it and made his way up the valley, following its river-crazed twists and angles vaguely northward. The stones were loose beneath his feet, slab and shale prone to cracking; he had to step slowly and carefully, picking his way by instinct more than sight.
He was just beginning to think about risking a run up the other side of the valley when another candidate lurched up out of a cleft in the rocks. Ryouma eased back, drawing a kunai, but the dark blot shook its head and put out an empty hand.
“Don’t—” he said, hoarsely. “No, I’m not— It’s Hatake.”
Ryouma snorted. “Try again.”
“Hatake’s hurt, I mean,” the candidate said. “I found him just now—I think he got away from them, but somebody cut him up bad, and I lost my med-kit. He’s still bleeding.”
Ryouma’s hand dropped to his own med-kit, but he hesitated, fingers lost halfway through opening the flap. “Why ask me?”
The candidate made an angry gesture, cut short. “Hell, I’d’ve gone to the ANBU commander herself if she was here! You’re the first person I’ve seen. I sent a clone to find someone else, but I didn’t dare leave him.”
“Shit,” Ryouma breathed. He dropped his head, lifted it again. “All right. Where is he?”
“Back here,” the candidate said, scrambling back between rocks. There was more than just a cleft there; a narrow passage led into blackness, dank and dripping. Not the sort of place he’d have chosen to hole up, but if Kakashi was that badly hurt he was probably half out of his head with pain and blood loss, gone like an animal to ground.
Ryouma ducked his head to follow the other candidate in.
And realized, in the flickering moment before the pain in his neck drove him to his knees, that some mistakes you didn’t survive.
Since they’d ignited their charges, Genma had harried Fukui Ayane for almost an hour, driving her towards the narrowest point of the valley. When Raidou turned up at just the right moment to engage with her and give Genma a breather, Genma took it as a sign from providence. He was catching his breath from a chakra-anchored position on the side of the cliff face, watching Raidou work taijutsu magic with the sword user, when a glint of moonlight on a pale mask further down in the valley caught his attention.
The blue and white boar’s mask was definitely Sato, and the candidate he was engaged with was…
Tall. Dark-haired. And aiming a handful of liver-red, rot-making chakra straight for Sato’s masked face.
Genma didn’t think, he moved.
Tousaki’s jutsu flickered out as Sato fell.
By the time Genma arrived, Tousaki was gone, melted into shadows like he’d never been there.
Genma keyed his mike. “Code three, agent down.” He scanned the area frantically, but the candidate was nowhere to be seen. “Tousaki just did his decomp jutsu on Boar. I’m checking status.”
“Roger code three,” Hajime said. “Watch your back. Any other agents in your vicinity?”
“Crescent Moon’s on my ten. Engaged with Fukui.”
“Roger that,” Hajime said. “Crescent Moon, disengage target and get me eyes on Tousaki if you can. I don’t want Tanuki getting it in the back if this guy’s snapped.”
There was a crackle of static and the sound of a breath being drawn, followed by several sharp clangs, then Raidou’s voice came over the comm. “Disengaged. She’s rabbiting. The hell happened?”
“Tousaki took down Boar with his special. Have you got eyes on him yet?” Hajime asked. “Tanuki, give me a status on Boar.”
Fun had evaporated, replaced with the heart-pounding terror of a real mission. What had Tousaki been thinking? Had he been thinking, when he turned his utterly lethal jutsu on a comrade?
“He’s breathing,” Genma said. Depending on what he found underneath Sato’s still-pristine looking mask, that might not be a good thing. All he could think about was that pig carcass disintegrating into black slime at Tousaki’s touch yesterday. It was painfully ironic that Sato’s mask was a boar.
A chakra presence behind him sent a shiver racing through Genma’s guts, but a quick glance revealed his new captain at his back, wary and on guard. “No sign of Tousaki,” Raidou said.
Genma reached gingerly for the side of Sato’s face and released the strap. “Removing Boar’s mask,” he said, and steeled himself for a nightmare of putrefied flesh.
Sato’s face was completely unharmed.
“What the hell? Did his mask protect him?”
“Say again?” Hajime said.
“He’s okay. Well, not rotted. He’s out, though. Checking for head injury,” Genma said, pulling himself together.
Sato groaned, and his eyes fluttered open. “Shit,” he said thickly. “Bastard got away, didn’t he?”
“How did you even survive that?” Genma asked him.
“Genjutsu,” Sato answered. He groaned again. “Gods my head hurts.”
“You’re a lucky son of a bitch,” Genma said, almost shaking with relief. He keyed his mike open again. “Base, looks like it’s a false alarm. Boar’s conscious. He thinks it was genjutsu. He’s a little concussed, but I think we’re ok here.”
“Roger,” Hajime said. “Crescent Moon, see if you can pick up Tousaki’s trail. Tanuki, once you get Boar set, you can join him.”
“Roger. Tanuki out,” Genma said. He nodded at Raidou. “I’m five behind you.”
Behind his mask, Raidou let out a slow breath.
“Watch your back,” he said. He carefully jostled Sato with the toe of his boot, making the man groan. “Nice dodging, Boar.”
“Bite me, Moon-face,” Sato managed.
“Maybe later,” said Raidou, and left them to it.
Ryouma’s trail was two minutes old and already cold—a scuff on a rock, a scrape against a tall mossy stone where a hasty hand might have grabbed too hard, then nothing. The inner valley was a rabbit-run of broken trails and crisscrossing paths. Ryouma could have picked any of them.
“Clever little bastard,” Raidou said quietly, and had to smile.
Two ANBU agents in a panic, one dropped bloodlessly, Base’s attention distracted, and a clean getaway. Screw that one night complication; if Raidou had the choice, he wanted Ryouma for his team.
Assuming Ryouma made it through.
He clicked the comm. “Heading true north, Tanuki. Try north-west when you get here. Left a mark for you.”
Static hissed. “Roger that,” said Genma.
Raidou scored an X on the stone next to the possible hand-mark, stowed his kunai, and picked the trail he would have chosen if he’d had ANBU on his tail. Steep, with sliding shale underfoot; the kind of thing that might slow a pursuit, or at least announce it coming. He left the path and chakra-ran from rock-to-rock instead, more interested in catching a glimpse of dark hair and a jounin vest than avoiding notice entirely.
A flicker of motion made him drop.
Through cracks between black rocks, he saw the tail end of a confrontation silvered in patchy moonlight. The pale guy with the glass-cut jaw—Raidou hunted for a moment, and turned up the name Akiyama—leading Ryouma into a crevasse, apparently willingly.
Did they know each other? He was pretty sure Akiyama had been in an entirely different section, but maybe pre-Trials…
Metal flashed and drove into Ryouma’s neck. Ryouma staggered, long legs collapsing beneath him, and Raidou startled up. A knife? No, a needle. Who the hell brought a needle to Trials?
Whatever it contained was strong and nasty. Ryouma went down like a tree, arms and legs shaking, fingers spasming. Akiyama hauled him into the cave like a successful desert scorpion dragging its catch home.
Raidou hit his comm hard. “Head’s up, Base, we’ve got some kid-on-kid violence. Akiyama just took Tousaki down with a needle. Don’t know his intentions, but I doubt they’re friendly.”
“Is Tousaki breathing?” Hajime asked.
“Twitching,” Raidou said.
“Boar’s taken care of,” Genma said, voice clipped between what had to be long jumps. “I’m on my way.”
“Roger that,” Raidou began. “I’ll—”
A second silver flash made him twitch, but this one wasn’t metal. Moonlight caught a lean figure running down the valley wall, briefly lighting up some very distinctive hair.
“Crescent Moon?” demanded Hajime.
“I’ll be damned,” Raidou said. “Hatake just showed up.”
“Helping or hurting?” Genma said.
“Too soon to tell,” Raidou said. “But he’s making for Akiyama’s cave.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Cave?” Hajime said.
Kakashi had been scrupulously careful about avoiding other ninja in the valley—until the ANBU had blown up half the desert and driven everyone together, disrupting his plans to be the world’s fastest hermit for the rest of the second stage. Despite that, he’d done mostly fine avoiding notice, using the fading evening light to scout the valley floor and his route up into the mountains.
He’d even spotted what he thought might be an ANBU base camp, nestled up high and hidden.
The drawing darkness had kinked his plans; he didn’t want to navigate the treacherous Kubire Pass without light, not with his dominant arm still burning fitfully. Better to wait until dawn, hidden safely.
On his way back down into the valley, the obvious chakra flashes of Ayane’s charged blade and Ryouma’s subtler genjutsu pulled his attention sideways, goosing his curiosity. Ayane fled when the crescent-moon ANBU let her go, but Ryouma earned a full on chase.
And a needle in the neck.
Who, if Kakashi was lip-reading correctly, used Kakashi’s name.
Entirely against his better judgment, Kakashi was not okay with that. He didn’t take the time to examine why; he just moved, ignoring the watchful ANBU masks.
Ryouma’s heels had vanished inside the narrow cave entrance when Kakashi arrived. The jagged gap was a black mouth ringed with stone teeth, smelling faintly of blood. Quiet scraping sounds came from inside.
Kakashi slipped inside, following his nose.
The cave was surprisingly deep, turning a sharp corner to the right. Inside, it was pitch black, and stank strongly of overworked bodies. Kakashi trailed a hand along the damp wall and paused when he saw the dim green light of a cracked glowstick.
Behind a rocky outcrop, a slab of stone had pitched at a crazy angle, making a platform that was almost table-shaped. Ryouma’s booted feet dangled over the edge of it. He’d been dropped flat on his back, one hand hanging down, fingers loosely open.
The other hand was held in Akiyama’s long, pale fingers, with a scalpel pressed to the wrist.
“Hello, Hatake,” Akiyama said. He was sheened with sweat. “I thought you might show up.”
Kakashi dropped his hand to his kunai holster. “What are you doing?”
“Grocery shopping,” said Akiyama. The scalpel pressed down lightly, drawing up a droplet of blood. “We wanted your eye, but a flesh-melter’s hands are nearly as good, don’t you think?”
A scuff of stone near the cave entrance gave Kakashi a half-second warning.
“For what?” he asked, easing back just enough to flash a wait sign behind his back, hopefully visible to the coiled chakra signal there.
“Cocktails,” Akiyama said, rolling his eyes. “Research, obviously. They told me you were smart.”
“Research in a cave,” Kakashi said, glancing at Ryouma’s chest. Very faintly, it rose and fell beneath the flak jacket. Still breathing. Impossible to tell his skin color in the neon green glow, but Kakashi thought it wasn’t good. “Are you testing infection rates?”
“You like this one, don’t you?” said Akiyama, making Kakashi blink. “I saw you talking at the first stage.”
“I’m talking to you,” Kakashi pointed out quietly.
“Very calmly, I note. Well done.” The tip of the scalpel twitched. “I’d tell you to drop your weapons, but we both know that won’t make a difference. So I’m going to need you to break your fingers, or I’ll slice Tousaki’s face off in front of you.”
Kakashi lifted a hand to his hitai-ate.
“Ah,” said Akiyama warningly, and pressed the scalpel in, slicing a deep line across Ryouma’s wrist. Tendons glistened for a moment, before blood welled up and drowned the view. Ryouma’s blank face didn’t change, but his scent soured like rotten lemons.
Was he awake?
Kakashi still had one hand held behind his back. He flicked three quick signs, felt the tiny flare of acknowledging chakra, and brought his hand forward, lacing his fingers together. “Okay,” he said. “But only if you clamp that wound.”
Akiyama transferred the blade to the soft skin at Ryouma’s temple, where a hard thrust could puncture the thin skull bone, and wrapped his free hand around Ryouma’s wrist, quelling the blood. “Done,” he said. “You know, you’ve done remarkably well with that dose I gave you. Most people would be comatose by now.”
“I inherited some immunities,” Kakashi said, and flexed his fingers backward. “You realize I’m only going to be able to do one hand?”
“You’ll do both,” said Akiyama, and drew a scratch across Ryouma’s skin.
Kakashi sighed and braced himself, forcing his fingers backward until they began to pop—
The wall behind Akiyama trembled and lurched, flaring with chakra. The solid stone transformed to thick clay, which sheared away in slabs.
“What—?” Akiyama demanded, head jerking around. The scalpel lifted an inch.
Kakashi twisted a six-seal sequence, filling his right hand with screaming birdsong, and threw himself forwards. Without the Sharingan to guide him, it went too fast to pick a perfect target; he just aimed for central mass. Akiyama whipped around just as the Raikiri punched through his ribcage, and the wall behind him collapsed.
Kakashi drove the taller man backwards, through the falling clay, away from Ryouma, into the shattered moonlight of the open valley. He kept going until Akiyama’s back slammed into a tall spur of black shale, which exploded.
In the falling rain of stone chips, Akiyama’s choking cough was quiet. Blood washed down his chin—real this time. Shredded muscles constricted around Kakashi’s arm. Empty hands wrapped around Kakashi’s elbow, pale fingers stuttering and weak.
“Who do you work for?” Kakashi demanded.
Akiyama tried to speak, but only managed a gargle. His lips pulled back, showing red teeth, and his tongue slid out, dark and obscene.
He flexed it like a snake.
Ice slurried through Kakashi’s blood. “Orochimaru?” he whispered.
Akiyama managed a thin, bubbling sound—a laugh with broken lungs behind it—and slumped, eyes sliding half-closed. Blood drooled thickly out of his mouth.
Kakashi wrenched his burning arm back and let the body drop.
“Hatake!” someone yelled.
He jerked around. The moon-masked ANBU agent was bracing the cave ceiling up with earth jutsu and his bare hands. Behind him, his tanuki-masked partner was dragging Ryouma clear and laying him down on an open rock slab, quickly checking a pulse and wrapping a hard grip around that gashed wrist.
Kakashi took a step forward.
“Hatake, stop,” snapped moon-mask.
Kakashi froze. “I didn’t—” he began.
“Your shoulder,” said the ANBU.
Kakashi looked down. Jutting out of the join between his arm and his flak vest, Akiyama’s scalpel stood out like a dart. Thin red trickles of blood ran down his bare arm, because he’d cut the sleeves off.
“Oh,” he said. “Damn.”
That was why you didn’t use the Raikiri without the Sharingan.
Tousaki looked bad. His breathing was shallow, his skin clammy, and that cut across his wrist was deep enough to be alarming. The only mercy was the steadiness of the bleeding—the ulnar artery was still intact. Genma’s gloved hands twisted through a series of seals, lighting with a cool green glow as he held them over Tousaki’s wrist, splicing cut veins back together. He dropped the jutsu as soon as the bleeding had stopped—nerves and tendons would have to wait until Tousaki was stable, which he most definitely wasn’t yet.
He looked poisoned.
Genma snapped a bright white glowstick into life, casting eerie shadows across his patient. “Moon, what kind of needle did you see him get hit with?” he called over his shoulder.
“Hypodermic, back of the neck,” Raidou answered.
A quick inspection showed the faintest trace of a needle mark. There were a number of knock-out drugs and poisons that might be at work, then. Tousaki’s respiratory rate and sweating made it easy to discount a few of them. Genma reached for an eyelid to check Tousaki’s pupils.
He was startled to find an anxious brown eye looking back at him.
“Tousaki? Are you conscious?”
The eye twitched.
“Okay, hang on. You’re going to be okay,” Genma told him. He let Tousaki’s eye slip shut, reaching for his med kit with practiced hands. There were two likely suspects: a poison made from salamander secretions, and one that came from a night-blooming cactus. Two entirely different antidotes. The poisoner had been a Konoha ninja, though, which made the amphibian toxin the more likely. Genma filled a syringe from a vial of eresine, working as quickly as it was safe to do.
Tousaki’s breath rattled in his throat like a dying man’s.
“I’m giving you an antitoxin now,” Genma told him, injecting the drug directly into Tousaki’s jugular. The effect was immediate and gratifying: a deeply drawn breath, and a twitch of Tousaki’s head.
“Don’t move, I’ve still got a needle in you,” Genma said. “I need to inject this slowly. Can you open your eyes?”
Tousaki didn’t respond at first, but then his lashes fluttered as if he were working the lids against a tremendous weight. As the last of the antitoxin flowed into his vein, he managed to slit his eyes open.
“Good,” Genma told him. He checked Tousaki’s pulse and found it steadier. “You’re going to be okay. Keep looking at me, okay? You got hit with imori poison. I’ve given you a big dose of antitoxin, so you might feel a little shaky, but you’re going to be fine. Can you take a deep breath?”
Tousaki’s eyes opened a little wider, and his chest heaved as he inhaled. Even through the mask of immobility the paralytic poison had stamped on his face, he looked frightened. His eyes twitched towards his cut wrist.
“Your hand’s fine. Still attached,” Genma told him. He’d seen that fear on faces during the war, when his answer had been a much scarier one. “Can you make a fist for me?”
Tousaki’s hand twitched, and the index and little fingers curled in, but the two middle fingers merely flexed. That wasn’t what Genma’d been hoping to see.
“Good,” he said. “Relax your hand now. Can you talk yet?” He wanted to take his mask off and give Tousaki a reassuring human face to focus on, not the impassive red and white Tanuki mask, but protocol forbade it. And Tousaki wasn’t dying, thanks be to the merciful Amida; Genma couldn’t justify the breach.
Tousaki scowled slightly as he took another breath in. “Thanks.” His voice was slurred, but intelligible. “Sorr’ I hit boar mask, now. F’this’s what he felt like.” He tried to close his hand again, doing a better job with the working two, and not at all with the others. “Can’t feel m’fingers,” he said quietly. The fear was still there, hitching his breath and drawing his gaze back towards his hand.
“You might have a little bit of nerve injury,” Genma said. “A little tendon damage. I can stabilize it, and we’ll get you back to Konoha if you need surgery. I don’t think the tendons are severed.” The nerves were another story, and potentially a worse one, but if the tendons and at least some of the nerves were mostly intact, the damage could probably be repaired. “Relax your hand?”
After a moment of hesitation, Tousaki did.
“I’m going to test your sensation now,” Genma told him. “Let me know if you can feel this.” He plucked a senbon from the holster at his hip and lightly tapped the end of Tousaki’s thumb. The reaction was instant, an instinctive twitch away from the prick of the needle. “Good. Good job. Your thumb is fine, that’s the most important one.”
Index finger got him a sluggish reaction, and pinky was fine. But the two middle fingers didn’t move. “Do you feel this at all?” he asked, pressing hard enough to draw tiny beads of blood.
The furrow between Tousaki’s eyebrows deepened, then his breath released in a gush as he dropped his head back. “Jus’ a bit. They’re still there?” His voice cracked with relief.
“They’re still there,” Genma said, mirroring Tousaki’s relief with his own. “I’m going to stabilize everything in there now, so nothing gets misaligned while we transport you to the medics for treatment.” He flicked through handseals, bringing the healing chakra back into his palms, and pressed them around Tousaki’s wrist.
“Moon, how’s Hatake?” he asked. “Tell base we’ve got at least one stable who needs further medical.”
“Make that two,” Raidou told Genma and his open comm-line. Agent chatter hissed and crackled on the line, commands getting snapped between alerted ANBU. “You catch that, base?”
“Already working it,” Hajime said. “Got teams locking the other candidates down. How bad?”
“Cluster-fuck,” said Raidou. “Akiyama’s dead. Tousaki’s stable, but needs a full medic. Hatake’s got a scalpel in his shoulder.”
And no real inclination to let Raidou get near him, which, yeah, made sense after a full day of being chased by spooks in masks and getting sliced by a teammate.
Genma’s masked face whipped around like someone had tasered him. “Bring him over here in the light.”
“Working on it,” Raidou said calmly.
He’d crouched to check Akiyama first, in the interests of proper triage, but the smoking hole between the man’s ribs was pretty definitive. Kakashi was still on his feet, at least, watching Raidou from the corner of one grey eye, lean chest heaving. He was significantly less relaxed-looking than he’d been this morning. His shirt sleeves had been torn off and fashioned into some sort of strange object hanging off his belt. His bare arms were caked in black dust, the left red-streaked, the right bandaged around the wrist and sleeved in Akiyama’s scorched blood to the shoulder. His jounin-vest was splattered with dried dark stains. The jutting scalpel looked like a surgical event gone wrong.
Despite all that, and the extremely pale quarter of skin showing around the one eye, Raidou wasn’t prepared to take Yondaime-sama’s former student lightly. Particularly not when he’d just seen Kakashi pin a man through two walls like a beetle.
Quietly, he snapped two fingers, making Kakashi twitch.
“With me, Hatake?” Raidou said.
Something flickered, there and gone, then Kakashi’s blank, adrenaline-blanched look turned extremely dry. “Present,” he said.
“Care to join the medic?” Raidou invited, gesturing at Genma.
Kakashi’s eye tracked, but stopped when it reached Ryouma, fixing on the skin melting back together like wax beneath Genma’s fingers.
“I can wait,” he said.
“I’m thinking no,” said Raidou. “On account of the bleeding stab wound. Tousaki’s fine, it’s all surface stuff. How about we make sure you keep a functioning shoulder?”
Kakashi lifted a hand, slotting his fingers either side of the scalpel and pressing down hard, staunching the blood flow—which would have been an excellent step if his hand wasn’t covered in gross. He didn’t look away from Ryouma. Either something very nasty had happened in that cave, beyond what Raidou had heard, or something else was needling the genius, because that was not a man operating on all visible planes of reality. Hatake’s head was elsewhere.
Of course, he had just killed a teammate.
The green glow lessened, and Genma turned fully, still crouching. “Hatake,” he said, accessing the special medic voice that grabbed you by the spine. “I need you to come over here now.”
Kakashi took a step, then his attention went back to Raidou. “You need to get Minato—” He stopped, corrected himself. “Yondaime-sama here, right now.”
Behind his mask, Raidou felt his eyebrows go up. “For one dead rogue?”
For the first time, all of Kakashi’s focus narrowed down to one thing, which was Raidou. It was a little like being speared in the eyeballs, except slightly less lethal.
“Get Yondaime-sama,” Kakashi said, in a voice like iced steel.
“Base—” Raidou started.
“Heard that,” Hajime said, over the open comm line. “We’ve already sent a relay message, expect a ten minute delay. We’ve got one of his special kunai here. Medics should be inbound, too.”
“Done,” Raidou told Kakashi, tapping two fingers to his radio-collar as punctuation. “Now let him look at your shoulder. Trials are on hold for a minute. We’re all just Konoha boys, okay?”
Ryouma’s dark head lifted, and his voice came slurred and weak. “They don’ bite, Hatake,” he managed. Then, “Maybe if you ask nicely…”
In the interest of seeming like a qualified field commander, Raidou swallowed his entirely inappropriate laugh.
Kakashi took a subtle breath through his nose, and visibly unclenched himself enough to walk over to Ryouma and crouch down next to him, only just within arm’s reach of Genma. He dropped his hand from the scalpel and turned, presenting a red-black smeared shoulder.
Good enough, Raidou decided.
He stepped closer to the little group in their glowstick light, and finally returned his attention to the earth jutsu keeping the cave’s ceiling up. Better not to destroy evidence, if there was any. He flicked two seals, changing the jutsu’s pattern by one small element, and forced the ceiling up with a dull crunch, molding it into a shape that would hold.
When that was done, he settled on Ryouma’s other side and carefully helped the man sit up, giving him a knee to brace his back against, while Genma turned his attention to Kakashi’s issues.
The world wavered, like a reflection in unquiet water, when the crescent moon-masked ANBU eased Ryouma upright. He flung out a hand to catch himself; the ANBU caught him by the elbow in a firm, steady grip. “Careful,” he said.
Ryouma nodded. He dropped the hand into his lap. It was streaked with blood from elbow to fingertips, and the cold light of the glowstick picked up the tremors that he couldn’t stop.
His right hand was still there, with an angry, swollen red line under flaking blood across his wrist. Two fingers and a thumb still worked. But the medic was very carefully not making promises, and two fingers and a thumb couldn’t form a seal.
He tried flexing again. The middle finger barely twitched. He found his left hand, cupped it under his right, and tried pressing the fingers closed.
“Just let your hand relax, Tousaki,” the medic said. “Moon, you want to do up a splint on that for me? It needs to be immobilized.”
Kakashi looked over, face unreadable in mask and darkness. There was blood all over his right arm and side, and more blood streaking down his left shoulder; he didn’t look as if he minded much. The medic made a hissing sound, and poked at something in his shoulder. Kakashi looked away again.
“You got it,” Moon said briskly. He hefted Ryouma up again, with a little more help this time; Ryouma’s legs were beginning to come back, and he could scuttle awkwardly where Moon guided him, to a solid slab of rock a few feet away. Moon braced him up with his back to the rock and then crouched down in front of him, pulling a med kit out of his belt pouch. “Hell of a day for you, huh?” His voice had gentled a little; the smoky baritone sounded almost familiar. His gloved hands were warm.
Ryouma was, he was beginning to realize, very cold.
And still shaking. He leaned his head back against the rock, staring up at the knife-cut of starry sky above the valley rim, and thought about pretending that the hand being swiftly and competently wrapped in splints and bandages wasn’t his.
After a moment he stirred, catching the ANBU’s notice. The pale ceramic mask, painted only with a slicing crimson crescent through the left eye, tilted up at him inquiringly.
“Guess I’m washin’ out here,” Ryouma said, as steadily as he could. His tongue was still thick, prone to slurring. He couldn’t quite make it a question.
“Are you dead?” the ANBU asked.
Ryouma blinked. “Not yet.”
“Then you’re good.” The ANBU finished wrapping bandage around Ryouma’s wrist, tore the bandage neatly, and tied it off. “Think you can drink something?”
“You’re looking forward to watching me drool, aren’t you?” Well, maybe not; that had come out reasonably articulate. He worked his jaw, testingly, and decided, “Yes.”
The ANBU hesitated a moment, then said dryly, “No comment.” He unhooked the canteen from his belt, screwed the cap off the top, and held it out. Ryouma took it left-handed, and only spilled a little.
“Thanks,” he said, handing it back. His tongue felt almost normal again, and the tremors were beginning to ease. His wrist was also starting to throb savagely, as shocked nerves began to finally re-establish connections. He flexed the fingers almost unconsciously, but the tight bandaging didn’t let him move far.
Kakashi was still sitting quietly, behind the moon-masked ANBU’s tattooed left shoulder, as the medic’s green-glowing hands hovered over knitting flesh. Beyond him, a lump of shadow lay crumpled among shards of broken stone. Ryouma wet his lips, and raised his voice. “Thanks, Hatake.”
Was he supposed to say you’re welcome?
Something scraped in his shoulder, distant and dull, as the medic pulled the blade out. Probably not steel on bone; he didn’t think it had gone that deep. Just a nerve misfire drowned in adrenaline.
His hands were still steady.
Well, the right was. The left felt leaden.
“Are you nearly done?” Kakashi asked, when he’d pulled himself back inside his skin enough to find words again. Chakra signatures still glimmered at the edges of his flung-wide senses, some orderly, some more tangled, but none of them had the bruised malevolence he remembered.
If Orochimaru was here, he was even better at hiding himself.
Behind the Tanuki mask’s red-circled eye holes, a flicker of surprise went past, but the medic just said, “Hi. Can you lift your arm?”
Kakashi clenched his left hand. A faint twist of pain darted down his arm, following the muscle tension, but it barely ranked. The arm lifted stiffly; he held it in midair, then turned his hand over, testing the range of motion. Wrist was fine, elbow was fine, all his fingers flexed. It ached in the joint, but not deeply. He raised his eyebrows at the medic.
“Good,” said Tanuki. He pulled Kakashi’s fingerless glove off and took a kunai to his fingertips, pricking each one in turn, then ran a series of tracks up the back of Kakashi’s hand. “Can you feel this? Do they all feel the same?”
Focusing on sensations that small took a degree of effort. “Yes,” said Kakashi after a moment, twitching his fingertips together.
Tanuki offered two of his own gloved fingers. “Squeeze,” he ordered. When Kakashi passed that strength test, the medic made him hold his hand out, fingers spread, and keep them there while the other man tried to force his fingers together.
Kakashi passed that one, too, and decided he was done. “That’s good enough,” he said, pulling his hand back.
Away in the distance, high in the mountain, a sudden thunderclap of familiar chakra made his chest loosen. Minato-sensei had landed at the base.
Bracing his better hand on the ground, Kakashi started to his feet.
“Not yet,” Tanuki said, reaching to grab him. “Sit—”
ANBU or not, Kakashi knew how to evade. He flickered back, pulling up a twist of chakra to get out of arm’s reach. Tanuki’s hand closed on empty air.
Tanuki paused. The mask lifted, reassessing.
“They’ll come to us,” he said, after a moment. “I need to see your other arm. What did you get tagged with?”
“It can wait,” Kakashi said. “How many ANBU do you have near? I can feel—five close, not including you two. Do you have a perimeter set up? Eyes on the other candidates?”
Tanuki was up and inside Kakashi’s personal space in the edge of a second, but he kept his hands to himself. “The area’s secure,” he said. “What kind of threat are you anticipating?” Two gloved fingers tapped the comm in his ear.
Behind Kakashi, the crescent moon ANBU asked for a status update.
Kakashi hesitated. He didn’t know—he just had a guess, based on a dying man’s mockery and a gut feeling. But if Orochimaru had planted a rotten seed in the candidates, there was no telling what he could have already twisted into ANBU’s central corps. If you wanted to strike Konoha’s heart, hitting her best soldiers would give you direct access through the arteries.
Of course, if you already had the soldiers, why bother with a candidate?
“Potential S-class,” he said. “Can you vouch for everyone in range?”
That was an alarming answer and a troubling question. “I can vouch for Squirrel, who’s manning base,” Genma said. “Crescent Moon is my new captain. I haven’t worked with him long, but I have absolutely no reason not to trust him with my life.” He concentrated on picking up the chakra signatures of the nearby agents. Usagi was closest, with Omashi and Shikaku not much further off. Sato was there, too, with Munenori, and a little further out he could feel Kobayashi closing in.
“Every one of the ANBU working the trials is either a lieutenant or a captain. Of the six closest, I’ve worked directly with four and indirectly with two.” He turned to face Kakashi. “I take it you think we have a breach.”
Kakashi’s eye flicked towards the corpse of the former candidate, then back to Genma, with a look that asked whether Genma was altogether an idiot.
“I wasn’t privy to your conversation with the deceased,” Genma said mildly. “How imminent do you think this threat is?” He could count on one hand the enemies that would rate an S-class distinction, although any enemy planting a spy as a candidate at the ANBU trials was a terrifying thought.
“What’s going on?” Raidou asked tensely, looking up from Tousaki. He’d draped the candidate with a blanket and was still bracing him upright.
“Just be ready,” Kakashi told them. His attention was clearly elsewhere. If Genma had to guess, it was on the rapidly approaching cluster of chakra signatures that heralded the imminent arrival of the Hokage and Sagara. There was a third chakra signature with them that Genma didn’t recognize, probably a medic.
Genma tapped his earpiece. “Base, this is Tanuki. Say IDs on inbound, our location.”
“Tanuki, you should be seeing Flash, Hawk, and Hyuuga Iori. Confirm?”
There was a muffled pop as air was displaced by incoming bodies. The Hokage was in a jounin’s uniform, minus the showy coat he wore on more public occasions. Sagara flanked him in bone and black, with her sharp eyes hidden behind her hawk mask. The Hyuuga wore a white medic’s hood that matched her moon-pale eyes.
Genma and Raidou both snapped salutes, touching fingertips to inked spirals on their shoulders, and Tousaki struggled to rise. Raidou stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Confirm that, Base,” Genma told Hajime. “We have eyes on all three.”
Yondaime-sama looked like he should have a cape flaring around him, even when he stood in plain jounin blues. He acknowledged Genma and Raidou’s salutes with a brief nod, and swept an icy pale look around the little tableau, taking in the torn out cave, shattered stone pillar, Ryouma beneath his blanket, Kakashi in his blood-sleeves, and the crumple of Akiyama’s slumped corpse.
He raised exasperated hands. “I should’ve expected to see you, Kakashi. Death disqualifies you wasn’t supposed to be an invitation!”
Kakashi shrugged one shoulder.
The living golden legend of Konoha walked past his former student, gave Kakashi a quick, rough pat to the head, which did strange things to Raidou’s worldview, and crouched down next to the corpse.
Hyuuga Iori looked between Kakashi and Ryouma, visibly deciding who needed her attention more, and settled on Ryouma, probably because he was sitting down, corpse-white, and still shaking faintly under Raidou’s hand. She crossed over to them and knelt down, veins bulging around her Byakugan.
“What’s the status on this one, Tanuki?” she asked.
“Imori poisoning by injection,” Genma said, mask still tilted in Kakashi’s direction. “I gave him four CCs of eresine, and heart rate and respiration stabilized. He’s got what looks like an incomplete laceration of the median nerve and a couple flexor tendons on the left. I healed the bleeders and skin nerves, but didn’t touch the deeper stuff.”
A harder shiver ran through Ryouma’s muscles, but he only said, very quietly, “I’m a ninjutsu man.”
Raidou squeezed his shoulder.
“Hmm,” said Iori, which could have been more reassuring. “Hatake, what’s going on with your arm?”
Kakashi was standing almost directly behind her and she hadn’t looked at him. Even though he’d seen Hyuuga do that particular trick before, it still kind of knocked Raidou down.
The tousled grey head didn’t turn. “Scalpel. Tanuki fixed it.”
“Your other arm,” Iori said.
Kakashi’s fingers twitched, which was pretty telltale, actually. “Minor injury.”
Raidou couldn’t even see an injury under all the blood—unless Iori meant the square of clotted gauze slapped on the inside of Kakashi’s arm, but that would barely cover a scratch.
“Your chakra’s roiling,” Iori said, in the tone of voice of someone discovering something mildly interesting. “Are you poisoned?”
Genma’s head turned sharply.
“He would be,” said Yondaime-sama. He straightened up, wiping his hands on his trousers, and returned to Kakashi. “What happened?”
Kakashi stood at least two inches taller than the Hokage; he had to tip his head down to put his masked mouth next to Minato’s ear, grey hair shading over blond spikes. He must have whispered something, but the mask made it impossible to lip-read, and the wind carried any faint words away.
Yondaime-sama’s head jerked back.
Every shinobi present tensed. Even Sagara-sama, standing watchful and silent, put her hand to the hilt of the katana strapped across her back.
Every scrap of humor had fled from Yondaime-sama’s face. “Get ready to move,” he said.
Raidou barely had time to throw an arm around Ryouma, bracing him, before the Yellow Flash ripped open a hole in the universe and shoved them all through it. There was a dizzy, wretched moment of passing through intense cold and howling white noise, then the air lurched and popped like the moment before an earthquake, and they landed on a dry wooden floor.
Genma staggered, going down on one knee. Raidou’s stomach turned over. Iori let out a long, slow breath.
Sagara-sama and Kakashi both looked unaffected, presumably used to being dragged through Hell’s half-acre and back again.
Against Raidou’s shoulder, Ryouma made a dry choking sound and clapped his good hand to his face. Raidou turned hastily, expecting a lost lunch and subsequent unpleasantness, but Ryouma wasn’t heaving—he was bleeding. Red strings dripped between long, unsteady fingers and splattered his jounin vest, and Raidou had an acute moment of panic before Iori spoke.
“Tip your head forward, Tousaki,” she said.
Nosebleed, Raidou realized. Ryouma hadn’t just randomly burst both lungs.
Relieved, he ruffled a hand through Ryouma’s sweaty black hair before he realized he really shouldn’t, but then it was too late. “Can’t catch a break today, can you?” he said.
Ryouma shook his head very carefully, and mumbled past his fingers, “S’my secret plan to impress you all. With how good I am at bein’ rescued.”
“If I may interrupt,” Iori said, touching green-glowing fingertips to the bridge of Ryouma’s nose. The blood flow ceased instantly.
“Rousing success so far,” Raidou said dryly, and raised his eyes to the room.
Sagara-sama had moved to Kakashi and Yondaime-sama, standing slightly off-set from the two men, but clearly waiting to be let in on the details of whatever threat Kakashi had decided outranked ANBU clearance.
Genma was still braced on one knee, but his masked face lifted to focus on Kakashi—itching to get healing hands on him, Raidou bet.
And in the corner, seated at a paper-stacked desk and staring at them through a blue-swirled squirrel mask, was Hajime. Behind him, a map clustered with pins had been tacked to the wall.
At his feet, Akiyama’s body bled gently onto the floorboards.
Raidou lifted his free hand. “Hey, Base.”
After a moment, Hajime returned the wave. “Hey.”
“I need to attend to these tendons before they get the chance to retract further,” Iori said, unsplinting Ryouma’s wrist and wrapping chakra-haloed hands around the ugly red scar. She raised her voice. “Tanuki, watch Hatake. He should keep for a minute, but grab him if he goes down.”
Genma nodded, stood, and moved just in range of Kakashi.
“Orochimaru?” said Minato, almost inaudibly. “Are you sure?”
“No,” said Kakashi, frustrated. “It was just a feeling.”
The Tanuki hovered at his back, uncomfortably close. Kakashi twitched an irritated look at him.
Minato followed his gaze. “Stand down, Tanuki.”
Tanuki tapped his right hand to his scarlet spiral tattoo, sketching the ANBU salute. “Sir, Kakashi-san is suffering from unknown poison. If we find you some chairs, would you consider having this meeting seated?”
Minato dropped down to sit cross-legged on the floor. Sagara, ANBU’s commander, glanced down at him from behind her mask and remained standing.
“It’s fine,” said Kakashi, but at Minato’s pointed look he settled into an impatient crouch. Tanuki stepped back out of immediate range, folding his arms.
A flicker-shot of expressions sped over Minato’s face, rueful pride and exasperation—he liked to complain about hovering guards in his office, but he never got rid of them—then he returned to Kakashi. “Just a feeling?” he echoed, very low. “Did he say anything before you put your hand through his lungs?”
Given that Minato had made a career out of shredding enemy ninja like bagged lettuce, Kakashi didn’t think he had much room to criticize.
“He said he wanted my eye, but Tousaki’s hands would do instead. He called it grocery shopping for research, and he said ‘we’, not ‘I’,” Kakashi said. “When I asked him who he was working for—”
It was easier to show them.
Kakashi pulled up his hitai-ate, unfolded the memory, and spun it into a genjutsu for Minato and Sagara. He gave them image and sound, but nothing more visceral—just the cave, Ryouma under the blade, the falling wall, and the blue-light crash into Akiyama’s dying joke. He broke the illusion before he got to the part where he noticed the scalpel.
Sagara let out a short, hard breath and looked to Minato.
Minato sat back, lips thinning. “Dammit. Jiraiya’s last report had the snake in western Earth Country, but it’s not impossible for him to have recruited someone.” Apparently everyone in this room had enough security clearance to hear this conversation, because Minato had just killed any attempt at subtlety. “Why here, though? Why now?” He leapt to his feet, paced the length of the room, turned, and fixed Kakashi with a blue ice stare. “He wanted your eye. Did you run into him before he attacked Tousaki?”
“Once,” said Kakashi.
Minato whirled on the squirrel-masked ANBU, but Sagara beat him to it. “Are any candidates missing?” she demanded.
“All sixteen remaining candidates are present and accounted for,” Squirrel said calmly. “I have agents with eyes on everyone.”
That explained the extra chakra signatures in the field, and the lack of other agents in this room.
“So he tried Kakashi, then went for Tousaki.” Minato looked at Ryouma. “Your jutsu isn’t linked to a bloodline limit, is it?”
Kakashi turned. Ryouma was leaning against the crescent moon ANBU’s shoulder, dark head hanging low, breathing hard as the Hyuuga medic attended to his wrist. He struggled to sit upright under Minato’s attention.
“Nossir. Hokage-sama,” said Ryouma, clearly not a man at ease. “If he’d carved off my hands, he’d just get meat and chakra scars. I—” He hesitated; Minato waited. “I think I was just bait, most likely. He threatened me to get Kakashi to stand down.” Ryouma’s mouth twisted bleakly. “And he got me in the first place telling me Kakashi’d been injured. Guess that’s where makin’ nice at the ANBU trials gets you.” There was silence after that. Belatedly, Ryouma tacked on, “Sir.”
If he was talking about the sucker-punching introduction, Kakashi had a different word for that.
“I heard about that,” Minato said, with a dry glance at Sagara. “Though you didn’t precisely describe it as ‘making nice,’ as I recall.” He turned, rubbing the back of his neck. “I want our best analysts on that corpse, Sagara. Forensics and Intel, classified at S-level. I want every contact he made, every mission he took, every thought he had since he graduated from the Academy. Double village security until further notice. As for the Trials…”
“You can’t cancel Trials,” Kakashi said.
Every face in the room, masked and bare, looked at him. He pushed himself to his feet.
“I assume you have a reason?” Minato said, eyebrows raised.
“Because there’s no point. If it is Orochimaru, the surprise is gone, and he’s not stupid enough to go up against this many ANBU, plus the candidates, and the Yellow Flash without an army at his back—which we’d feel coming. If I’m wrong, or Akiyama lied, then the threat’s already neutralized. And if he had a different partner—” Kakashi shrugged. “They can’t be worse than Orochimaru, so the first argument stands.”
Minato’s mouth twitched. “How about an argument for why I shouldn’t disqualify you anyway?”
“We’re not dead,” Ryouma said.
Minato looked at him, surprised. He wasn’t the only one.
Ryouma was stark pale behind the blood, but he set his jaw and lifted his chin. “Death disqualifies you. You said it wasn’t an invitation, Hokage-sama, but if it’s a rule, we haven’t broken it.”
“What he said,” said Kakashi.
The crescent mask ANBU providing shoulder support for Ryouma spoke for the first time. “Can I raise the point about poisoned and injured? Because that seems slightly crucial if there’s a risk of major attack.”
“Thank you, Crescent Moon,” said Minato dryly. “So does the diversion of sixteen jounin and almost as many ANBU, if this were meant to distract us from a pincer attack on Konoha itself.”
Kakashi hadn’t thought of that.
He should have thought of that, he realized, feeling like an idiot—what better way to get Minato out of the village than to attack Kakashi’s Trial directly, when the whole shinobi world knew Minato had a soft spot for him?
“You need to get back to Konoha,” he told Minato. “Right now. I should never—”
Have called for you, he meant to say, but Minato cut him off.
“We’re all going back to Konoha,” Minato dug in his vest, pulling out a handful of slim scrolls, and tossed them to Hajime. “The proctors may regret having their fun cut short, but I doubt any of the candidates will be sad to skip the mountains and Mamushi Swamp. Bring them in as quickly as you can.” Turning to Sagara, he added, “We’ll hold the third stage tomorrow, if Konoha is still standing.”
“Orochimaru can try,” she said dangerously. A flicker of killing intent unsheathed like a claw, barely coloring the air before she slid it away again.
Minato smiled, then turned to Ryouma. “Take a good hold, Tousaki,” he said, voice gentling. “I’ll try not to be as rough this time.”
The Hyuuga withdrew her hand from Ryouma’s wrist, transferring the grip to his unbraced shoulder. “I can help,” she said.
On Ryouma’s other side, the crescent moon ANBU nodded. At Kakashi’s back, Tanuki stepped closer.
Minato put a hand on Kakashi’s shoulder, called up a golden landslide of chakra, and took them through the skin of the world. The distance was much longer this time, sixty miles instead of barely two, but Minato managed it in the space between heartbeats, carrying them gently through the howling void and into the heart of the Hokage’s tower.
They landed on carpet, Ryouma held between the Hyuuga and Crescent Moon, Tanuki alone, Sagara with the charred corpse at her feet, and Kakashi at Minato’s side.
By the door, two masked guards twitched to attention.
Sagara pointed at one of them and indicated the corpse. “Take this to Intel. For Oita Gennosuke’s eyes only,” she said, naming Intel’s commander.
The guard stepped forward, touched the body, and vanished with it.
“Iori-sensei, you have Tousaki in hand?”
The Hyuuga nodded, her hand glowing green again on Ryouma’s shoulder. He swallowed hard, but managed not to bleed or throw up.
“Hospital, then,” Sagara ordered. “Moon, you and Tanuki with me. I want your full reports. And— Hatake, what’s wrong?”
Minato’s tightening grip stopped Kakashi from dropping into the crouch he wanted to, when the world did a melting spin sideways. The dull burning in his arm was—less dull, suddenly, throbbing up to his shoulder.
“My mouth’s gone numb,” he said.
Minato glanced over and barked, “Tanuki!”
The Tanuki-masked ANBU must have been waiting to spring, because he was there in less than a second, competent, gloved hands catching Kakashi’s right arm at the wrist and elbow—then at the shoulder when Kakashi hissed and jerked his arm free. Tanuki peeled the blood-cracked gauze away, revealing oozing scratches with livid red lines spiraling out around them.
“Do you have any immunity to Oomukade poison?” Tanuki said calmly.
“I thought I did,” Kakashi said, staring at his arm. The words slurred.
“Hospital for both,” Sagara ordered. “Go now.”
“Take charge,” Minato told her crisply. “I’ll be back in five.”
Liquid-light chakra burst out again, grabbing Kakashi, Ryouma, the two ANBU, and Iori, and spinning them away.
The hospital was still standing. That meant that probably most of Konoha was, because the hospital was about as central as you got: two blocks away from the Hokage’s Palace, five minutes’ run from the Academy, a short jog from Intel’s main offices. Nightshift medics and anxious-eyed patients flurried around the red-tiled circle in the corner of the lobby where the Hokage landed them; somewhere a bell began to ring.
“Shut that down,” the Hokage said sharply. Someone jerked a guilty finger away from a button and pressed another one. The bell cut off, and ordinary sounds filtered back: a child crying, footsteps on tile, a querulous old man asking what the hell was going on. The flurry had resolved itself into a thin, wide-eyed crowd ringing the Hokage’s translocation circle.
Not translocation, Ryouma thought muzzily. Hiraishin no Jutsu, the Flying Thunder God Technique only the Yondaime Hokage—Konoha’s Yellow Flash—could master. He’d taught a variant of it to the jounin, but the real thing was nothing like its reality-skimming stepchild. At least Iori’s green-lit hand on his shoulder kept bile and blood where they belonged.
Braced between the Hokage and the tanuki-masked ANBU, Kakashi looked just as crumpled as Ryouma felt. One of his knees seemed to be trying to buckle. The Yondaime looked down at him, lips thinning, and then up again.
“Is Nohara Rin available?”
“She’s in surgery,” a stocky woman with short-cropped white hair said, pushing through the crowd. “All right, everyone, as you were, nothing to do here…” She shooed them with her hands. Parents with colicky babies and old folks with midnight heartburn began to shuffle shamefacedly away. A few uniformed shinobi, back from a mission with bloody bandages tied around wounds too minor for immediate surgery, stayed where they were. The white-haired woman eyed them direly, but turned back. “What’s our status, Yondaime-sama?”
“Poisoning,” the Hokage said, with a gentle little shake of Kakashi’s shoulder. “Probably stupidity as well—his and mine—though I don’t think anyone’s invented a pill for that yet.” He looked back to Ryouma.
“Recovering, mostly, at this point,” Iori-sensei said. Her hand dropped from Ryouma’s shoulder to cup his elbow. He tried to cooperate as she levered him up, but his boots skidded on the slick tiles; the crescent moon-masked ANBU ended up taking most of his weight. “I’ll want Asuka-sensei to see him eventually, but there’s no rush. You did good work, Tanuki.”
Tanuki bowed his head. “Thank you, sensei.” He straightened, looking around; spotted whatever he was looking for, and gestured. A gangly chuunin medic-nin who’d been hovering less-than-discreetly looked startled, then pleased, and darted towards a stack of folded wheelchairs by the entrance. “I don’t mean to overstep,” Tanuki added, “but I really think Kakashi-san needs a dose of hashirido in an isotonic solution.”
“Hmm,” the white-haired medic said, eyeing him more thoughtfully. “We’ll see to it.” She stepped aside as the chuunin came rushing up with two clattering wheelchairs. Ryouma stumbled where Iori-sensei pointed him, nearly tripping on the blanket Crescent Moon had tucked around him thirty minutes and sixty miles ago, and collapsed gratefully into one.
Kakashi drew himself up like an affronted cat when Tanuki tried to direct him into the other. He shook himself, as if resettling his balance and coordination along with the hang of his flak vest, and shrugged neatly out of Tanuki’s and the Hokage’s holds. “I can walk,” he said. “The jutsu just knocked me.”
“You can sit,” Yondaime said pleasantly, “before I knock you. Our medics work hard; they don’t need to pick you up from the floor after you face-plant, too.”
Kakashi gave him a long, flat stare, cold as water under ice. Then, slowly, he sat.
Yondaime brushed a hand over the wild grey hair. “Good work,” he said quietly. “I’ll see you later.” He looked up, and his blue gaze caught Ryouma’s. He smiled. “Tomorrow, maybe.”
Chakra flared across Ryouma’s senses. The Hokage, and his ANBU, were gone.
The white-haired medic let out a long breath. “Well,” she said. “Well.” Then she straightened, and pointed at the boy behind Kakashi’s chair. “What are you waiting for? Toxins ward! And Iori-sensei, there aren’t any open beds in General right now, but we should at least be able to find you room to run an IV. Asuka-sensei will be coming on shift soon, if you’ll wait for him. Let’s see your ID tags before you go, boys, and I’ll get the paperwork started…”
Ryouma fumbled at his throat. “Not that one,” he said, when Iori tried to help him. “Here’s mine.” He hooked the second chain off over his head and passed it across, leaving the old single tag to dangle alone. Even that slight effort was exhausting; his heart pounded against the cage of his ribs as he slumped back in the chair, breathing hard.
But he’d used his right hand. And his middle finger had closed, almost halfway.
Tomorrow, maybe, the Hokage had said. They were cutting the second stage short for everyone.
Are you dead? Crescent Moon had demanded, when Ryouma wondered if he’d washed out, after one mistake too many. Then you’re good.
“Wake me up f’r the third stage,” he mumbled, and closed his eyes.