May 7 and 8, Yondaime Year 5
Genma’s team arrived in Ibaragashi City with hours to kill before the strike. They used the time to explore the city itself, and verify the maps Intel had given them. The Tsuto estate was nestled in the wealthiest, most exclusive part of Ibaragashi City. It occupied half a block at the pinnacle of one of the city’s many hills, built in an era when a lack of indoor plumbing had made it de rigueur for the wealthy to live uphill of the common riffraff. Modernization had come to Ibaragashi, as it had to the rest of Fire Country, but neighborhoods long established had little incentive to change. Electric lights twinkled in Tsuto’s gardens, and clay pipes under the street carried waste water away, but the compound still reeked of pomp and privilege.
The temperature had been rising steadily since noon, and even sunset didn’t seem likely to cool things off. Muggy haloes ringed early-lit lamps, and sweat trickled down the side of Genma’s face under his mask.
Intel’s reports said Tsuto Takayoshi took dinner with his family every night at 19:00 and retired shortly afterwards. The servants ate when the family was settled for the night, often as late as 21:00. That didn’t leave a lot of time to take the staff down before a 22:00 strike time. Under cover of genjutsu, Genma and his rookies studied their options from the rooftops of Tsuto’s neighbors’ homes, then reconvened in the narrow alley between the walled plots.
There were guards patrolling the compound, unsurprisingly. Tsuto Takayoshi might have made his name importing and exporting luxury goods, but he made the bulk of his money these days lending it out at exorbitant rates of interest. His home in Ibaragashi City was also, for all intents and purposes, a private bank with enough gold inside to tempt even the most cautious thief.
And the man had just funded a failed coup.
If he were truly smart, he’d have fled Fire Country by now and sought asylum in an unallied country like Lightning or Water, but according to Intel he was confident his treachery was untraceable.
Genma was going to enjoy proving him wrong about that.
He looked at the masked faces of his companions. “I’ll take care of the household staff as planned. If you miss my radio signal, when you see the guard with the birthmark go down, that’s your cue. I’ll take him out first.”
Kakashi nodded once, sharply precise. His extreme economy of motion was the only outward sign of mission tension.
Ryouma was more animated, flexing his hands through practice seals in rapid sequence to keep his fingers limber. “Signal us if anything goes wrong,” he said.
Genma nodded and touched the collar holding his radio mike, then tapped his earpiece into place. “Radio silence unless there’s a problem,” he told them.
He got twin nods from Ryouma and Kakashi.
The crunch of feet on gravel announced the pass of one of the guards. Now was Genma’s window. He shimmied through a narrow gap at the back gate and used ninjutsu to melt into the shadows of the compound’s wall. Slipping across the courtyard was relatively easy with its many shade-casting features.
By the time a second guard rounded the corner, Genma was in position under the raised porch skirting the building.
He ghosted under the house, mentally following the blueprints they’d received from Intel. The building was traditionally constructed, raised on heavy wooden beams over a generous crawl space. There were signs of its long history at every turn—scorched wood from what could have been a disastrous fire, damp staining left by a flood long past, and drifts of unswept sawdust beneath fresh drilled holes that accommodated the snaking wires of electrification.
Above him the floor joists creaked as someone moved within. Here the floor was wooden—a hallway—but in an adjoining space the grassy scent of fresh tatami mats showed the boundaries of one of the many living rooms. He counted off mats—twelve and a half. That made this the reception room where Tsuto entertained guests. It was unused tonight—the Tsuto clan were dining alone in the smaller family room—which made it an ideal place for Genma to sneak up into the high-beamed ceiling. He pushed the corner of one mat cautiously up and shimmied between the floor joists into the unlit room. Seconds later, the mat was back in place, and Genma was a wraith in the beams.
It was easier to move in the ceiling. The family room was set for dinner, and all six members of the Tsuto household were there: Takayoshi and his wife, his elderly parents, and two teenagers—a son and a daughter. Three servants in pale early-summer kimono served the meal. The adults in the Tsuto family were traditionally dressed as well, despite the rising heat, but both teenagers wore modern clothing. The boy, in particular, looked like he’d rather be anywhere else but at table with his parents and grandparents.
The rest of the house was still plenty busy even as the family took time to eat. There were a pair of young women folding freshly laundered clothing and putting it away, a gardener tending seedlings in a small greenhouse bright with electric light, a cook and three scullery helpers in the kitchen. The head of house staff—an older man in a starched kimono and hakama—was carefully going over paperwork at a desk in one of the smaller rooms, while his apprentice knelt beside him taking notes.
That was going to be a lot of staff to put down.
Genma slithered along the beam in the kitchen until he was just over the stove. A pair of rice cookers stood beside it, one battered and old, one brand new, both on and steaming. It was an easy guess which one held the rice for the masters and which for the servants.
A diversion now would go well for him—time to manufacture one. He cast the jutsu for a kage bunshin with a very short fuse, and sent his shadow self scuttling along the rafters into the dark. A few moments later there was a clatter in the hallway. Cook and kitchen staff all turned towards the sound, giving Genma just enough time to snake the lid of the battered rice cooker open, dump a vial of a near-flavorless knock-out-drug over the contents, and disappear again.
Then it was just a matter of continuing to wait. The clone ended itself as soon as its mission was complete, dumping a brief memory of knocking a wall scroll down into Genma’s awareness.
By the time the family was settling down in their quarters and the servants sitting down to their meal, Genma was tired of watching and waiting. He hoped Ryouma and Kakashi had managed to acquire themselves good spots to launch their assault from.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for his drug to start to work. Sleepy servants excused themselves one by one, leaving only the kitchen staff yawning and shuffling through cleanup. When the youngest and smallest of them slumped unconscious in a corner, the other two were too drugged themselves to notice. Moments later, they were down, too. Genma sent another clone to scout the servants’ quarters. It reported back quickly: the only ones in the household still awake were the guards, the family members, and their hunter.
There was a school of thought that said waiting was the worst part of any mission.
Kakashi was inclined to think gruesome and painful injury was the worst part, but waiting came a close second. Especially when the timeline was nebulous. ‘Guard with a birthmark’ wasn’t the most terrible signal he’d ever seen, but it wasn’t winning any awards for precise.
The guard in question was a leanly muscular man in his mid-twenties, light-haired, with a port-wine splash across the left side of his face. From their vantage point on the neighbor’s rooftop, it looked a lot like arterial spray. Or, from a less morbid frame of mind, dark autumn leaves. He was leaning against the sheltered eastern side of the building, taking the chance to have a surreptitious smoke.
“That’s going to get him in trouble,” Kakashi murmured.
“More trouble than dead?” Ryouma murmured back, almost soundless. He was nearly invisible at Kakashi’s back, resting in the space between shadows with the casual talent of a shinobi used to disappearing. It said something about their training, Kakashi thought, that even a man as loud as Ryouma could erase himself from the universe with a hand-wave. Or maybe it just said something about Ryouma.
“Look at his teammates,” Kakashi said. “Notice anything?”
“Less obvious vices?” Ryouma quipped, but Kakashi felt his attention sharpen, flicking from guard to guard. “They’re tense.”
“Us, you think?”
Kakashi tapped half-gloved fingertips soundlessly against his knee. “Intel didn’t think so.”
“Reinforcements,” Ryouma said, landing on the next likely thought. “Kiri ninja would make me nervous, if I was a baby guard.”
“Yeah,” Kakashi said. “Exactly.”
“Lieutenant’s got a sharp chakra-sense. He’d’ve let us know by now if he’d landed on a Mist nin’s lap.”
“Yeah,” said Kakashi again, only slightly doubtful.
The lightshow of civilian chakra made it hard to pick out an enemy signature deliberately hiding itself. If enemy shinobi were already lying in wait, there wouldn’t be any warning.
Still, every mission had its hiccups. And if nothing else, Kirigakure always brought an interesting challenge with them.
Bloodthirsty insanity had that effect.
“There,” Ryouma said, a half-second before distant steel flashed, blood sprayed, and the guard’s body dropped in a boneless heap.
The radio crackled. “Go,” said Genma.
“Roger,” said Kakashi and Ryouma in the same breath, and took off. Ryouma arrowed to the left, leaping across the alley to the Tsuto estate’s outer wall, before he dropped like a stooping hawk on his chosen knot of three guards. That took care of the northern side. Genma had already dispatched a second guard and was handling a third on his side. Kakashi translocated with a tight shiver of chakra, landed on the steel spine of a greenhouse roof, and vaulted lightly down between the southern guards.
One man was so tense, the surprise made him drop his sword.
Kakashi caught it, saving the movement it would have taken him to draw his own, and twisted through one vicious, scything circle. Three bodies fell. He let the sword drop back on its former owner—good steel, but poor balance—and went for the house.
“Going in,” he muttered, trusting the throat-mic to pick up the faint vibration of his voice.
Ryouma’s answer was undercut by the dull gasp of someone breathing through a severed windpipe. “Meet you in the bedroom.”
“Staff are all taken care of,” Genma said. “Kids are still awake, so watch yourselves. I’m on the grandparents.”
“Roger,” Kakashi said, and again, Ryouma was almost in perfect unison.
The back door was the closest point of entry. It wasn’t even locked. Kakashi cut through a foyer, passing a neat row of outdoor shoes, and padded swiftly down a wood-floored hallway. He let his chakra unfurl just a fraction, spreading thin, cautious tendrils out to feel for signatures and traps. The house blueprints unfolded in his mind, memorized and waiting. He passed an antechamber, two well-appointed family rooms, an altar—laid out for several deaths, he noted—and a formal room kept aside for guests and ceremonies. The master bedroom was towards the east…
A shadow moved at the end of the hallway.
“Ram,” Kakashi murmured.
Ryouma shook blood off his hands and put a single finger to his masked mouth. With his free hand, he slid a wood-framed paper door aside and vanished into the room.
The master bedroom was warm and sleepy, colored with the twined scents of a woman who liked expensive perfume and a man medicating himself for acid-stomach, judging by the chalky twist in the air. Blue moonlight spilled through a partially shrouded window, outlining two shapes on the large, modern bed. Ryouma was already standing on the opposite side, looking down at the slimmer, curvier one. Tsuto Sakako, Takayoshi’s second wife, mother of the two teenagers still living with them. Intel thought she helped Takayoshi keep the books.
Tsuto was about ten years older than her, in his middle-fifties. An average-sized man, greying at the temples and starting to run to seed around his middle. He snored softly on his back, breath catching in his throat.
If Intel was right, he was responsible for the deaths of eleven Guardians and countless members of the Daimyou’s service. And for even greater crimes under Fire Country law: funding a direct threat against the Daimyou, creating instability in the Capital. Treason.
But the thing that really itched at Kakashi was the next thought: if the coup had succeeded, they would have come after Minato next. This man had targeted Kakashi’s family.
On the mantlepiece, a brass-plated clock gently chimed the hour: 2200.
Kakashi glanced at Ryouma, who nodded once, fine blood droplets gleaming against the white of his mask like rubies. Kakashi drew a kunai, spinning it around his fingers. Ryouma leaned down and closed his hand around Sakako’s throat.
She jolted awake, eyes flying wide, and choked on a scream.
Tsuto jerked upright with the hair-trigger of a man who had things weighing on his mind. Kakashi caught his hands as they came up, pinned them against the wall above Tsuto’s head, and drove the kunai through both stacked palms. The triangular blade sank deeply into the wood panelling, fixing Tsuto’s hands in place.
Tsuto screamed, fingers spasming.
Kakashi slapped the man’s legs down before a frantic kick could connect, and set his kodachi blade to Tsuto’s throat. “Yondaime-sama has a message for you.”
Tsuto froze. “Oh gods,” he managed, tears of pain coursing down his face. “I—”
“Shh,” Kakashi said, and twitched the blade, forcing the man to turn his head. “Just watch.”
Tsuto Takayoshi’s eyes bulged wide and frightened, but Sakako’s were wider. She fought for air, manicured fingernails splintering as she raked at the steel-plated back of Ryouma’s glove. He tightened his grip.
Two hands would have been faster. He could have broken her neck with a swift jerk. But Intel thought Tsuto Sakako assisted her husband with the business books, and that meant she knew about the flow of money from the Tsuto treasury to Lord Nobunori in Taishin Province, and from there to Hikouto to buy the loyalty of the Daimyou’s guards. That meant she had to die slowly, in pain and terror, while her husband watched.
Her face darkened. Her broken nails slipped off the back-plate, skated down his fingers above the hem of the fingerless gloves. He felt his skin catch and tear.
Tsuto was making thin, desperate whimpers of pain and fear, and he’d added the sharp burn of urine to the perfumed scent of the room. Ryouma didn’t look up; Kakashi had him covered. He watched Sakako’s face instead, as she faded from the struggle for a breath that wouldn’t come. A blood vessel had burst in her eye, filling the white with shadow. Her swollen tongue protruded from her mouth, almost black in the moonlight. Her scrabbling, desperate hands relaxed and fell away.
Genma’s voice crackled suddenly in his ear. “My clone just took a knife in the side. On my way to assess. Watch your backs.”
Ryouma wrapped his other hand around Sakako’s throat, fingers sinking into her swollen flesh, and snapped her neck.
There was a noise at the open door: a slide of bare feet on polished boards, breath caught in horror, too late. A teenage girl, dressed for sleep in a loose t-shirt, smart enough not to scream but torn for one fatal moment between helping her parents or saving herself.
Kakashi’s kunai took her just above the collarbones. She crumpled, choking on blood. A small, ornamental tanto skittered across the floor.
Tsuto screamed and wrenched at his pinned hands. Kakashi pulled his kodachi back from Tsuto’s neck before the man actually killed himself on the edge, reversed his grip on the hilt, and set the tip of the blade just below Tsuto’s right eye. His voice iced the air. “Be still.”
The money-lender quivered, gulping down sobs. He hadn’t screamed for his wife’s death: did the daughter matter more? Maybe it was the suddenness of it, the shock. Ryouma eased his hands free from Sakako’s corpse and went silently across the floor toward the dying girl. Kakashi’s kunai had opened her throat but not penetrated to sever the spinal cord. She was drowning in her own blood.
Her brown eyes caught him as he knelt over her. Begged him, tear-filled. He laid a gloved hand over her eyes and shoved the kunai in. Her body convulsed and was still.
Ryouma spared a quick glance up and down the corridor, then dragged the corpse inside and thumbed his throat-mic back on. His voice came steady. “Mother and daughter dead. Did you get the grandparents and the boy?”
“Grandparents are down,” Genma said in his ear. “Just got to the son.”
Ryouma glanced back. Kakashi had taken the receiver from his ear and was holding it to the side of Tsuto’s head. A trickle of blood ran down the fleshy cheek, under the shadow of Kakashi’s blade.
Tsuto was shaking, tears streaming, smearing the blood-trail. “Don’t,” he begged. “Oh god, please don’t. He’s just a boy, he didn’t do anything. I’ll give you whatever you want. I have information, money— You don’t need to kill him.”
“That’s why it’s a punishment,” Kakashi said. His voice was empty of any emotion that Tsuto could have seized on. He tucked the receiver back in his ear and added, “Hold a second, lieutenant.”
Kakashi twisted the blade, very gently, carving a tiny divot beneath Tsuto’s eye. The blood-trickle thickened. Tsuto blinked uncontrollably. Kakashi flicked the volume up on the mic at his throat and said, “What information.”
“Oh god, oh god,” Tsuto said, and spilled words like a man vomiting: names of co-conspirators, places and dates they’d met, payments and the men who’d taken them, the location of his strongboxes, promises and prayers—
Kakashi turned down the volume on his mic. “Lieutenant?”
“Got it. Nothing new. Proceed with the mission as planned.”
Kakashi took the receiver out of his ear and leaned in again. Ryouma looked down the hall, empty and dark except for a square of moonlight from a skylight near the end. Over the radio he heard the thunk of steel into flesh and the gurgle of breath as Genma killed Tsuto’s son, and in the room behind him Tsuto screamed and wept.
“Primary objective here complete,” Genma said at last. “Moving on to secondary. I’ll start in his accounting room. Check for a hidden compartment under the tatami in the southwest corner of his bedroom when you finish up with him.”
“Roger,” Kakashi said quietly. “Ram.”
Holding that image of the square of moonlight in his mind, Ryouma went back to the bed. His fingers slipped through the familiar seals of the Nikutai Tokasu. Chakra grew and hummed red-black around his gloved hands, lighting the room with a sickly glow.
Tsuto hung from his pinned hands, still weeping, but the sharp edge of Ryouma’s killing intent touched him and his head came up, eyes blank with horror.
“This will hurt,” Kakashi said in the same flat voice. “You’ve earned it. But then it will end. Do better in your next life.”
Tsuto didn’t seem to hear him. His gaze was fixed on Ryouma, on the shifting fire of visible chakra around his hands. The palms of Ryouma’s gloves had begun to shred away. Tsuto made a thin wail at the back of his throat and tried to pull his legs up, kicking and scrabbling at the bedcovers, but there was nowhere to go.
Ryouma leaned over the bed and set both hands on Tsuto’s belly. He let the chakra seep in, instead of shoving. Tsuto’s anemic chakra system was nothing like a shinobi’s robust pathways, barely a life-sustaining flicker instead of coils brimming with fire, but there was enough and more than enough for the Human Flesh Melt Technique to seize and eat. The crumpled sleeping yukata rotted away like the gloves, and Ryouma’s fingertips sank into a spongy mass of tissue that dissolved beneath his touch, releasing a fetid reek of decay.
Tsuto screamed and did not stop.
Ryouma pulled back, cutting the jutsu. Tsuto writhed, wrenched one hand free from the kunai in a shower of blood, and curled onto his side, trying to hold his belly with his ruined hand. His fingers sank inside. Liquid rot spilled like blood onto the bedding, and Tsuto’s scream found a new throat-shredding pitch.
Even drugged, the servants might begin to wake soon.
Kakashi flicked blood from the tip of his kodachi, sheathed it, and slipped into handseals almost too quick for Ryouma to follow. Ox and Rabbit he caught, but the last might have been either Monkey or Snake. Lightning crackled around Kakashi’s right hand with a sound like the chirping of a thousand birds, and Kakashi leaned in and plunged his hand through Tsuto’s heart. Blood sprayed like a fountain.
The silence rang in Ryouma’s ears, in the aftermath of Tsuto’s scream. He wiped his hands, slowly, on a sheet, and then offered Kakashi a clean edge. Kakashi eased his hand out through shattered ribs and took it without a word. He wiped the worst of the clotted matter from his hand and then turned to lead the way out of the bedroom, past Tsuto’s daughter’s corpse and the pool of blood she’d left in the doorway.
Ryouma couldn’t remember her name.
They stopped just down the hall, at a bathroom with its sliding door left half-open. The bath was lidded, still full. Kakashi fouled the water with his bloody hands, scrubbing up the insides of his gloved arms and scooping up palmfuls to sluice down his armguards. Ryouma waited against the door until he was done, then took his place. The soap was expensive stuff, sandalwood scented, soft under his fingers. He peeled out of the flapping shreds of his gloves, ripped the backplates off, and burned the rest in a brief chakra flare.
Kakashi was at the door, looking out. Ryouma scrubbed his hands one final time, turned the tap to rinse them in clean water, and then joined him.
His throat scratched when he finally found words. “Do you really think there is a next life?”
“No,” Kakashi said. He started down the hall, back to the bedroom to search for Genma’s hidden compartment. “But he had a shrine. So he might.”
Small comfort to a man they’d tortured and murdered. No comfort at all, to the murderers.
Ryouma’s and Kakashi’s voices came thinly through Genma’s earpiece. It was unsurprising, Genma supposed, that Kakashi didn’t believe in gods or karma. At least half the ninja Genma knew had left their childhood religious beliefs in tatters on the corpse-littered battlefields of the Third War. And amongst ANBU— even those who hadn’t seen the wholesale bloodshed of the war—believers were few and far between. Some days Genma agreed with them, but usually he took the opposite view: it was far easier to be the Hokage’s death-edged tool if you believed there was a next life for your victims.
Especially for targets like Tsuto’s children. Pick better parents in your next life.
Tsuto himself was probably just as karma-bound as the ninja who’d dispatched him.
Tsuto’s counting room was tidy and organized, with ledgers filed neatly on a shelf near a low desk, and locked safes built into the walls to hold the private bank’s reserves. Securing the gold and documents would have to wait, though. The drug Genma’d poured into the servants’ rice was powerful, but it was impossible to be sure every eater had taken a sufficient dose to keep them unconscious through Tsuto’s agonized screams.
He doubled back through the kitchen on his way to the servants’ quarters. The cook raised a groggy head and thrust out an arm, struggling to coordinate her movements. Her fingers brushed at the handle of a chef’s knife that had fallen to the floor near her. Genma kicked it away, knelt down, and clamped a hand over her mouth. “Shhh,” he told her. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
But of course he was.
He pulsed chakra through the coils at the base of her skull, tripping her into deep unconsciousness. When she woke, she’d find her employers dead, her home half destroyed, and her livelihood in ruins.
Genma shook the thought away. At least she and the other servants would live. There were other employers—better ones—though he didn’t doubt there was corruption under the surface in most of the homes of the very wealthy.
He dragged her body carefully next to the other drugged kitchen servants, checked them all for breathing to be sure none had overdosed on the poisoned rice, and as extra insurance, repeated that chakra pulse on each of the others. It would be at least half an hour before they had any hope of shaking that off, at which point Genma and his team would be long gone.
In his earpiece he could hear muffled sounds as Ryouma and Kakashi searched Tsuto’s room for the hiding place Genma’d told them about. His journey under the floor had revealed it; it hadn’t been on Intel’s blueprints.
A brief static burst announced someone turning up his mic. ”Found the compartment,” said Kakashi. “Looks like accounting ledgers. It’s all encoded, but the numbers stack up with some of Intel’s information on the coup.” There was a subtle edge to Kakashi’s voice—relief, maybe, that they had solid proof to validate the vengeance they’d just wreaked on Konoha’s behalf.
“Good,” Genma said quietly. “Secure it, and if there’s anything else worth taking, grab it and move on. I’m double checking the staff. Meet you in the counting room when I finish here.”
“Roger,” Kakashi said. Ryouma murmured an indistinct acknowledgment.
“Ram?” Genma said. “Everything okay on your end?”
“I’m fine,” Ryouma said, clipped and entirely unlike his usually vocal self.
So, not fine. But not injured. This was Team Six’s first mission of the sort ANBU was infamous for; it wasn’t that surprising Ryouma was taking it hard. At least the rookies weren’t responsible for killing the youngest children. Genma didn’t envy Raidou and Katsuko their half of this split operation.
There’d be time for an in-field debrief on the way back to the rendezvous point. He tried to remember what Hyuuga-taichou had said to him after his first truly nasty mission as a rookie, but all he could recall was his own shaking horror at what they’d had to do.
He’d just have to improvise, and hope Ryouma was as resilient as his background suggested he was.
In the servants’ quarters, Genma found one room full of women sleeping side by side on several evenly spaced futon. None stirred when he entered, and it took only minimal chakra to assure their continued slumber. The male servants—the gardener, the head of staff, and his assistant—slept in a second room. Only the assistant, youngest of the three, seemed to be shaking off the knock-out drug. Perhaps he’d taken less of the rice than the others, or maybe it was just his younger, faster metabolism at work. It didn’t matter. Genma settled him back down with a palmful of focused chakra.
“On my way to you,” he said, keying his mike. “Staff are taken care of.”
“We’re in the counting room,” Ryouma answered. The radio thinned his voice, but he sounded less shell-shocked than he had before. Maybe leaving the room full of corpses behind had helped.
Genma found Kakashi and Ryouma stacking bundles of gold koban coins onto prepared sealing scrolls. Hundreds of thousands of ryou by Genma’s estimate—more than enough to pay for this mission—and they hadn’t even finished emptying the safes. They were ghoulish in their blood-streaked uniforms and masks. Kakashi’s hair was dyed crimson, the ends dripping with congealing gore. Their hands were surprisingly clean, though, and Ryouma’s gloves were gone. They must have washed up just enough to avoid getting blood all over Konoha’s spoils. Under the metal-heavy tang of blood, there was a strong scent of expensive soap. It almost covered up the reek of decay that wafted down the hall from Tsuto’s bedroom.
Both ninja looked up when Genma entered, turning masked faces towards him. Kakashi nodded once and went back to stacking coins. Ryouma offered a cautious, “Lieutenant.”
“Ram. Hound,” Genma said. “Injuries?”
Both men shook their heads.
“Good.” He checked his watch. “We’re on schedule. Hound, did you seal the ledgers you found already?”
Kakashi flipped a slender, sealed scroll into Genma’s hands without looking up. The fire symbol on the seal still felt warm from recent activation. Genma slid it into the bottom of one belt pouch, swapping it for a set of lockpicks. They jangled softly between his fingers, like less lethal senbon. “I’ll start on this one,” he said, approaching the unopened wall safe. “Was that one trapped?” He didn’t sense any active chakra, but a mechanical trap could be just as deadly, and a well-made chakra trap could lie invisibly dormant until triggered or disarmed.
“Minor fire-trigger,” Kakashi said. “Three-pointed rabbit seal unlocked it.”
A skilled ninja must have set up Tsuto’s security, then. Probably a Konoha ninja, given that until very recently, Tsuto had been a lawful citizen of Fire Country. Preparing keyed safes for paying customers was the sort of chuunin-level job that kept Konoha in business.
“You didn’t find his key, I take it?” Genma asked. There would have had to be a chakra-charged key for Tsuto to open his safes, since he certainly wasn’t capable of working jutsu himself.
Kakashi shook his head.
“Okay, thanks,” Genma said. He knelt next to the closed safe and cast the unlocking jutsu Kakashi had suggested. Chakra threaded out from his hands and into the metal of the lock, and for a moment Genma didn’t think it was going to work. He was about to drop the jutsu when he felt a jolt as his shaped chakra latched onto the chakra matrix built into the mechanism. A faint scent of ozone rose from the broken jutsu, like the leftovers from a lightning strike. With the trap disabled, it was a small matter of picking the lock itself, and Genma had the safe open.
More stacks of koban greeted him, all wrapped discreetly in plain, creamy rice paper. They were heavy in his hands, individual coins clinking within their wrappers as he set them down on a sealing scroll of his own. “Look at all this,” he said softly when he had a minor daimyou’s ransom piled up and ready to be sealed. “What do you want to bet this guy was a tax cheat as well as a traitor?”
“Could be a reason for supporting the coup,” Ryouma offered. “If he didn’t like the taxes.”
“If he was even paying them,” Genma said. He activated the seal on his scroll, pouring chakra into it to account for the hefty mass of gold. When he was finished, he slipped the scroll in with the first. It looked like between the three of them, they’d be able to seal all the wealth into three scrolls, with one more for Tsuto’s books and ledgers. Kakashi activated the seal on his scroll, vanishing the gold into the ether, and Ryouma followed suit.
“Ram, see if you can find Tsuto’s hanko, and seal up the paperwork on that desk and shelf. Hound come with me,” said Genma. “We’ll start in the reception room. I’ll set the fires, you douse them with a water jutsu before they spread too far.”
Kakashi slid to his feet. Ryouma didn’t react beyond dipping his head in a quick, acknowledging nod as he gathered materials together. Genma’s tanuki mask tilted towards Ryouma for a moment, silent, then the lieutenant turned and led the way to his target room. Kakashi followed, leaving bloody footprints on the polished wooden floors.
He could have gotten cleaner, but the copper edge helped drown out the scent of Ryouma’s rot still clinging to him. It had been bad on the open training field of the First Trial, when Ryouma had reduced a pig carcass to rotten slag under a breezy spring sky. But here, in closed rooms on a living body that thrashed the mess around, it was halfway to intolerable. Even with the ANBU mask, it felt like the back of Kakashi’s throat was coated in slime.
Tsuto’s chest had caved under his hand like wet sponge.
Deliberately, he set the thought aside and focused on the small fires springing up around the reception room, racing over antique furniture and fragile paper wall-hangings. Genma conducted his flames with an artist’s touch, wrecking everything valuable. Kakashi chased the occasional errant spark with an absent water jutsu, but he was barely needed.
When Genma was satisfied, they moved onto the next room.
It was simple work to gut most of the house, leaving smoke and ruin behind. Only the occupied bedrooms—for a given value of ‘occupied’—and servant’s quarters were left untouched.
“You didn’t have the easy part of this mission,” Genma said, as he set the Tsuto family shrine ablaze. The altar-room was the last one, and furthest away from Ryouma. “Ram seems unsettled.”
Kakashi weighed his answer. “Is he impairing the mission?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Genma said carefully. “Do you have concerns?”
For a man who’d just turned another human being into a skin-sack of rot? Ryouma was an experienced shinobi, a full-blooded jounin, who’d come of age on the battlefield like everyone else in their generation. He’d seen terrible things, and done terrible things, and—
Probably never strangled a civilian in slow, cold blood before.
But they’d been warned what taking the mask would mean. Minato had told them. Once you swear the oath, there’s no glory to be had. They weren’t here because it was noble; they were here to take care of Konoha’s gory scutwork, see the job finished, and go home.
A memorial tablet cracked in the heat.
“No,” Kakashi said, meaning yes, but there was no time for them here. “We’re almost finished.”
“We are,” said Genma, with a nod. He made a fleeting religious handsign at the shrine, obviously uncomfortable with its desecration. Of everyone on the team, the lieutenant seemed the most likely to carry the weight of spirituality with him. “It helps that we found those ledgers.”
“Nice to know you’re killing someone who actually deserves it,” Kakashi said softly. And their children.
Genma hesitated. “It’s not our job to justify our targets,” he said, calling back a curl of flame climbing eagerly across the ceiling. “But yeah, it helps. Helped hearing him spill that confession out, too. Too bad for him it wasn’t enough to buy his life with.” He was silent for a moment. “Or his son’s.”
Kakashi flicked a glance sideways.
The lieutenant seemed almost exactly the same as when they’d first walked into the house, lean and anonymous in his black-and-bone armor. The only flashes of color were the matching red of his tanuki mask and swirling ANBU tattoo, and the glints of gold the firelight picked out in his hair. He’d avoided getting any blood on him.
It took a hard look to see the faintest tired slump in the other man’s shoulders.
Maybe it didn’t get easier.
Or Kakashi needed to be stronger, for when his teammates weren’t. He straightened his back, folding philosophy away for a moment when reflection could actually be useful, instead of distracting, and doused the remaining fire with a final jutsu.
“Time to get moving, lieutenant?” he said, putting just enough spin on the inflection to make it a question.
Genma nodded and thumbed his mic back on. “Ram, we’re good here. You ready to go?”
“I’m in the garden,” Ryouma said, over a static crackle. “No one’s called the firefighters yet.”
If anyone had seen the light from Kakashi’s chidori, or the repetitive glow of fires starting and stopping, or heard all the screaming, which was most likely, they’d already suspect ninja. In which case, whatever passed for a city police force was gathering.
They might even be trying to get word to the closest Konoha outpost, but that was hours away and nothing to worry about.
Ryouma was leaning against the wall next to a slumped pile of dead guards, cleaning out the undersides of his nails with the point of a kunai. It didn’t seem like a show. Based on what Kakashi had seen in the bathroom, Ryouma really, really wanted clean hands. The ram mask lifted at their silent approach, and Ryouma tossed a single scroll to the lieutenant. Genma caught it, weighed it briefly in one hand, and tucked it away. Even standing next to him, Kakashi could feel the subtle density of chakra. A lot of things compacted into a very small space just… did something to the surrounding air, like a weight gently bending the universe.
They each had one scroll full of gold. Genma had two extra scrolls for Tsuto’s paperwork. In the event of attack, it was safer to split the risk of carrying valuables. That, and no one liked the feeling of carrying a chakra brick on their hip. Chakra half-brick was better.
Genma raised his chin, casting one last look over the building. Almost as an afterthought, he threaded his hands through quick seals and let one final jutsu fly. Flames curled up through the air, a bright twist against the hot, overcast night, and sank their teeth into the front door. Genma curled his wrist, and the fire followed the gesture, spiralling into a tight circle and extinguishing.
On the door, Konoha’s leaf symbol glowed like a brand.
“Come on,” Genma said, turning away.
Ryouma fell into step on his right, a tall slip of shadow just behind Genma’s shoulder. Kakashi raked a hand through his own hair, pulling blood-sticky strands away from the eye-holes of his mask, and followed.
The air smelled like distant thunder. Behind them, the stricken house settled around the weight of slaughtered dead.
It was four blocks before Kakashi heard a servant’s first thin scream, rising into the night like smoke.
They made it to the red light district on the city outskirts, ghosting over the rooftops of a town that wouldn’t sleep til dawn, before Kakashi’s head came up again like a hound catching a scent. He glanced back. Ryouma was just behind him; he saw the glitter of streetlights catch in the shadowed eyehole of Kakashi’s mask.
“Trouble?” Ryouma asked. He knew about Kakashi’s uncanny sense of smell, but he was beginning to believe now that Kakashi had uncanny everything. He’d heard the servant’s scream when neither of the others had, though the city alarm bells had joined in soon enough.
Kakashi stopped on the very edge of a roof, one straight line of tension, head lifted into the still, muggy air. Half a roof ahead of them, Genma paused and turned back. He was too far to speak without shouting; he lifted a hand to flick his radio mic open. “Problem?”
“Chakra signatures,” Kakashi said. “North-east.”
Coming in from the coast. Kiri nin.
Genma came back to their roof in two swift leaps and stood beside Kakashi, almost mirroring his pose: head lifted, shoulders rigid, senses straining out. Ryouma didn’t bother; his chakra-sensing range was nothing like theirs. He kept an eye on the street below, where carousing wouldn’t pause even for the alarm bells ringing in the rich neighborhood far up the hill, and waited for them to tell him who to kill.
Thunder rolled in the distance.
“Four,” Genma said crisply. “They’re tamped down but they’re not bothering to hide.” He reached up to rub the back of his neck, lifting sweaty tendrils of hair that had worked free of his ponytail.
“If they’re coming from the coast, they’ve already hit Tsurugahama Port, or left people there,” Kakashi pointed out with a sharp edge to his voice. “We should stop them before they get into the city.” He crouched to leap from the roof-edge, but pulled up abruptly when Genma flung up his hand in the ANBU sign for hold.
“If we can sense them,” Genma warned, “there’s a possibility they can sense us. We need to draw them away from the city, toward the rendezvous point. If there’s trouble, we’ll have reinforcements when Moon and Rat finish their mission.” He paused. “And we’ll be closer to them if they need us.”
Not that much closer, Ryouma thought. The rendezvous point at Arechi Hill Safehouse was two hours’ run north-east, but the port was just under three hours east of that—nearly five hours from here, even if they cut cross country. They could push faster, hit their top speed and cut the time in half, but they’d arrive exhausted and chakra-burned and useless.
And far too late, if the Kiri nin had already been and gone.
The hell they would.
“Like the captain’s gonna let some Mist snaggle-tooth take him down,” he said, scornfully as he could. “He’ll unleash Rat on ’em, let her play.” He fidgeted with the buckle on an arm-guard. “You want me to draw these guys off? You both hide your chakra better than I do. I’ll play beacon, you can set up an ambush.”
And maybe he’d have a chance to fight someone who could actually fight back.
Genma was silent a moment, thinking it through, then nodded. “Don’t get too far ahead. Hound and I should be able to tell if they sense you and change direction. If they stay on course and don’t follow, we’ll need to come up with another plan.”
Kakashi said very softly, “I have another plan.” A single blue spark crackled across the backs of his fingers.
Killing them all was about the only plan Ryouma could think of, too. But a fight on an empty hillside was far preferable to a fight in a crowded city, and both were preferable to standing here with blood drying on his armor and the faces of death in his mind.
Raidou and Katsuko were veterans. They knew how to handle themselves. They’d known going in that the targets would have guards, that they’d likely have Kiri shinobi, and that Tsuto Takayoshi and his son could afford to buy anyone in the Bingo Book. Tsuto hadn’t had shinobi guards, which could mean foolhardy confidence or just that they hadn’t arrived in time—
And he was done thinking. He threw himself off the roof, flared his chakra like a falling star, and ran.
The city fell away beneath him, rooftops and powercables and washing lines just strong enough to hold a shinobi’s weight for the moment it took him to leap again to another roof. There was the gate of the red light district, and here was the untidy sprawl of slum huddled against the old city walls to the riverbanks. No rooftops sturdy enough to run on here; he took to the streets, a fleeting shadow gone before the startled dogs could make up their minds to bark after him. He crossed the river, running on the water, dodging between moored boats and drifting night fishermen, and reached the far bank.
His radio crackled to life. “They’ve split off two chakra signatures, but there are still four heading for the city. Coming faster. We’re continuing for the main party. Regroup.”
Behind him, the faint sparks of their ANBU tattoos veered off to the right, heading north-east. Ryouma spared the breath for just one curse and slapped his mic open. “Should I pursue the two?”
“Negative. Shield your chakra and evade.”
The ANBU sparks winked out.
A frenzied heartbeat later they reappeared again, even fainter. Five hundred meters further north-east to the centimeter, he’d have bet, the very limit a sensible jounin would push a translocation. Three running steps later they blinked out and reappeared again. A kilometer in five seconds, chakra-intensive but shaving off precious time, widening the margin of safety between the sleeping city and any shinobi battle. A few hops further, and they’d be out of his sensory range.
He stopped running. He stood on the narrow trodden-dirt pathway above a rice paddy, quiet water reflecting the cloud-wracked moon. He caught his breath and gave himself a moment more to swear at Kiri nin for existing, Genma and Kakashi for pushing too fast, and the Hokage for inventing the damn jutsu that made it possible for them to do it. Then he shaped the seals and his chakra and ripped himself along the edge of the universe.
He didn’t throw up this time, but he did fall into some godsdamned farmer’s pigpen.
Genma and Kakashi’s ANBU sparks were still at the edges of his senses, but they’d stopped translocating and dropped back into a less-exhausting run. He shoved a grunting sow aside, hauled himself over the fence, sluiced off the worst of the muck with a fast jutsu and the water from the trough, clamped his chakra down again, and staggered wearily on. After a little while he found his balance again, and his ears stopped ringing.
He hit the mic again. “Still on a collision course?”
“Dead on,” Genma’s voice crackled. He sounded barely winded. “There are some trees up ahead. Hoping they’re out in the open and we’ll have cover to operate from.”
Kakashi added, “The signatures on your tail have vanished.”
Bunshin, Ryouma decided, called off when their creators realized it made no sense to chase someone who could translocate away—even if he did it poorly. Konoha’s new translocation jutsu had turned the tide in more than a few shinobi clashes since the Yondaime had begun to teach it to the jounin; other villages were beginning to work out their own methods of fast movement now, but evidently these Kiri nin weren’t on the cutting edge. Ryouma cheered up a little. Better to be shit at translocation than not be able to do it at all.
“Catching up,” he said. “You’ll smell me before you see me.” He cut the mic, so his breath wouldn’t rattle in their ears, and poured the speed on.
A jounin’s steady run was ten miles to the hour, sustainable for hours or days if food and rest were available at regular intervals. Twenty miles an hour was a sprint, and if he were running to Tsurugahama Port he’d push that fast only with another shinobi’s life on the line, but Kakashi and Genma were only a mile or two ahead. They were pushing hard, too. He caught up with them just short of the copse of trees Genma’d mentioned, panting but not yet tired. The humid air curdled in his lungs when he tried to catch his breath.
Genma’s pace slackened into a slow jog. Grateful, Ryouma fell in at his side. “How far?”
Genma tipped his chin up at the trees. “If we cut straight through, we should be on them pretty quickly. Another two-fifty meters, maybe.”
Close enough that Ryouma could have sensed them himself, if he’d tried, but neither of them ragged him for it. Kakashi said only, “Meet them head on, or spread out and flank?”
“Assess first,” Genma responded. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with here.”
Kakashi nodded. “So, meet them head on, or spread out and flank?”
Ryouma choked on a laugh and turned it into a gasp for breath. Genma’s mask glimmered pale in the moonlight as he glanced aside at Kakashi. “Spread out,” he said coolly. “Let me take point. Stay in visual contact.”
“Roger.” Kakashi cut away to the right, chakra tamped down to barely a glimmer.
Ryouma faded to the left, where the trees thickened over a groundswell and the wild grass was already growing tall. Cover enough, especially when he pulled together the faintest haze of genjutsu. Moonlight and shadow, and nothing else…
A scatter of raindrops pelted his mask and bare shoulders. Thunder rumbled again in the distance. Ryouma squinted down the slope and saw movement in the darkness, sensed chakra held tight but not concealed. A wet breeze finally shivered the still, muggy air, briefly overriding the reek of blood and pigs with the fresh scent of rain and ozone.
The Kiri nin were bringing the storm with them.
Genma wrapped himself in ninjutsu, melting into the shadows. As the weather moved in, the moonlight faded, leaving flat, featureless gloom amongst the trees. Heavy trunks loomed around him, and a dull patter of rain on the canopy joined the rustle of storm-breeze in the leaves.
The foreign chakra signatures were strong and well-defined: all four felt jounin-sharp, and one had an edge that pricked at Genma’s chakra sense the way Ryouma’s did when he’d just used his rot-jutsu. It made the hairs on the back of Genma’s neck rise.
His first sight of the enemy confirmed his instinct: this wasn’t a fight he wanted to push his team into. They were Kiri ninja as suspected—their hitai-ate were marked with Mist’s four-slashed sigils, and they wore Mist’s heavy grey flack vests and darkly striped underpinnings. They ran in an elongated diamond, moving with the silence and ease of a well-practiced squad. And of course they were armed to the teeth. Two wore Kirigakure’s traditional white cowls, their faces masked in strips of bandage. Two were barefaced. It looked like two women and two men, but in the dark appearances could be deceiving.
What was clear was that the smaller ninja running out front was the squad leader. Genma dropped his concealing jutsu and let his chakra presence swell. All four Mist ninja reacted swiftly; the pony-tailed leader flicked rapid handsigns at her team as they turned towards Genma’s position at the edge of the woods. Genma stepped into the clearing, flashing back handsigns of his own to his concealed comrades.
Close in. Maintain concealment.
The reaction to his ANBU mask and uniform was instant and menacing, as blades came to hands. One of the shorter ninja, a man with flaming orange hair and a scar-hooked lip, flipped his hands through seals, raising a dense fog despite the falling rain.
Genma stood his ground. “Kirigakure, this is Fire Country. State your business.”
“Hold,” the woman in front ordered. The mist thinned and coalesced around their knees, allowing her a clear sight of Genma. She took a step forward. “Leaf ANBU-san,” she said. “Our mission doesn’t concern you.”
Genma just bet it didn’t. He eyed the ninja behind her warily, especially the tall man with the unsettling chakra presence. His heightened sense of peril didn’t ease. Behind him he felt the twin sparks of Ryouma’s and Kakashi’s ANBU tattoos shift fluidly to flank him from the trees. Kakashi’s was half-strength, tamped down but still detectable.
“If you’re here at the employ of Tsuto Takayoshi, you have no mission here at all,” Genma said. “We’ve taken care of it for you.”
Something hard and calculating flickered over the woman’s face. “Is that so, ANBU-san?”
Genma just stared at her, rooting himself to the earth. A flicker of lightning turned the clouds in the west an eerie violet, but the thunder rumbling in its wake said the strike was still distant.
“We’ll be happy to escort you back to the coast,” Genma told her.
“We? I don’t see a ‘we,’ ANBU-san. I see a you.” The corner of her lip lifted in a smile that was half sneer. “Unless you mean the two lurkers too scared to come out. You can show yourselves, Leaf ninja. We won’t bite.”
The orange haired man guffawed, and the masked woman’s eyebrows twitched in evident amusement. Only the broad-built man at the back of the quartet remained emotionless, radiating nothing but ‘threat’. Another flash of lightning, brighter and closer this time, illuminated the clearing. That was when Genma saw the tattoo curling around the tall man’s right eye.
He recognized that face. Even with the mask. He’d seen it only two days ago, in his Bingo Book.
Iebara Shigematsu was a ninjutsu powerhouse, known primarily for leaving bloody carnage and no survivors in his wake. He was one of Mist’s most dangerous shinobi, at least according to information gleaned from a captured Kumogakure ninja. All Konoha had was a description, a reputation, and a sketch of that distinctive tattoo. No Leaf ninja had ever survived an encounter with Iebara to fill in any blanks.
Genma motioned to his comrades, flicking the signs for extreme danger and hold for my signal.
“My team and I will escort you to the coast,” Genma repeated. “Your mission here is over. Tsuto is no longer in need of your protection.”
“You’ll understand if I don’t take your word for it,” the Mist leader said. “Even if Tsuto is dead—which, if he is, nice job killing one of your own—he still owes us travel expenses. It’s not cheap to reach the mainland, you know.”
“Tsuto is dead, and the Tsuto estate no longer has the funds to pay for your services,” Genma said. “But as the Hokage’s representative, I’ll front you the fare back to Water Country.”
The leader’s eyes narrowed, and she glanced back to her orange-haired colleague. “Moto, doesn’t that sound like the Leaf nin stole our fee?”
“Sounds like,” he grunted. Steel points that hadn’t been there a moment before glinted between his fingers.
“Nakeda, what do you think of thieves who won’t even show their faces?” the captain asked.
The masked woman looked Genma up and down, eyes glittering. “That it doesn’t surprise me from a Leaf. If they came to our land, I wouldn’t just stand and talk about it.” Her katana tip lifted into the scorpion pose.
The captain smiled, showing a mouth full of Kirigakure’s trademark file-pointed teeth. “Agreed. Pay us everything, ANBU-san. And we’ll think about leaving.” She took a step forward, a curve-edged kunai in each hand.
Genma didn’t need to give any orders—Ryouma materialized at his right elbow, looming out of the dark with as much sinister presence as Iebara was projecting from the back of the Mist squad. At his left, he felt Kakashi’s icy-fierce chakra, killing intent rising like the crest of dawn.
“I’ll let you rethink that,” Genma said, pitching his voice low. “Turn around, Kirigakure. You do not want to pick a fight with ANBU. The Hokage’s vengeance won’t end at Fire Country’s borders.”
The skies opened up as if to underscore his threat, sheeting down in torrents. Lightning flickered, and the Mist captain hesitated, meeting Genma’s eyes through his mask. She reholstered one of her kunai, and raised her hand to draw her team into a conference.
“You make a good point. Allow me to discuss this with my squad, ANBU-san.”
They huddled together, and for a heartbeat, Genma caught a breath. This woman was smart. Mist didn’t want a war with Konoha, no matter how badly they might want Tsuto’s hoard. He could hear muffled argument over the din of the storm, but it seemed cooler heads were prevailing.
Kakashi didn’t say anything, but his attention was riveted on Iebara. He must have recognized the Bingo Book target when Genma did.
Ryouma shifted his weight slightly, leaning a little closer to Genma. “Are we seriously going to talk our way out of a fight?”
”Yes,” Genma hissed. Out of this fight? Definitely.
Ryouma twitched a surprised glance at Genma, then his masked head tipped back as he studied the Mist ninja. “Recognize someone?” he asked.
Genma nodded once, sharply, and held a hand up for quiet. He couldn’t hear what the Kiri ninja were saying and he doubted they had heard Ryouma, but caution was a shinobi’s best weapon.
The rain continued to bucket down, scouring rivulets of white through the sticky blood coating Ryouma’s and Kakashi’s armor. Kakashi’s hair dripped red-stained water as the rain sluiced away the gore, leaving silver in its wake.
Iebara’s head came up, tattooed stare fixing on Kakashi for a blazing moment. Then he was a blur. The Mist captain shouted a curse.
All three ANBU reacted, but none quickly enough. Iebara materialized between Genma and Ryouma, slashing both men’s shoulders open as he rushed past them to his real target. Genma spun, falling, reaching for a handful of senbon, but his arm wouldn’t move. A bright ribbon of blood streamed away from his cut shoulder, arrowing through the falling rain like a living thing. A second blood-snake joined it, sourced from Ryouma’s lacerated shoulder. They laced around Kakashi’s unarmoured throat, tightening like a garotte.
Ninja of the Bloody Mist.
Just once, Kakashi would like to run into a piece of hyperbole someone didn’t try to take seriously.
Red and black lights exploded behind his eyes. He choked and (remembered the color bursting into Sakako’s dying face like a ruptured blood-orange) drew his tanto, slashing the blade down. The steaming blood-ropes bent like flexible steel, absorbing the strike without breaking. Iebara twitched his fingers and the jutsu yanked Kakashi off his feet, hiking him into the air.
That was worse.
His weight hung from his neck, cutting off his air. From the corner of his eye, he saw the stretching crimson lines break loose from Genma and Ryouma, dropping them both to their knees. The trailing ends lifted up and spread wide, like terrible wings above Kakashi’s head. He grabbed at the loop around his throat with his free hand, trying to wrench it away, and struck again with the tanto. His nails dug into the slippery, body-warm surface, but couldn’t find purchase. The blade didn’t pierce.
His lungs burned. His vision was starting to dim.
Movement. Genma rising, staggering up with senbon glinting between the knuckles. A humming cloud of shuriken cut him off before he could throw them, forcing him to vault backwards out of the way. The orange-haired man—Moto—hefted another handful of sharp, warning blades.
Ryouma made a deep, terrible sound, and shoved himself up off the muddy ground. Blood streamed down his arm, washing out his ANBU tattoo.
Iebara put his head on one side, almost thoughtful, and shaped blurringly fast seals. A dark ripple of chakra twisted through the world.
Ryouma gasped and went back down on one knee, still in the grip of the jutsu. Genma’s second attempt at a counter-attack faltered, senbon falling like silver rain between his fingers. He fell to a shaking crouch. Blood burst from their open shoulders, rising up and coalescing into six distinct blades. They hung in the air, almost black under lowering stormclouds. Three over Genma, three over Ryouma. The sluicing rain cut over them, droplets sliced by lethally sharp edges.
That threat was clear enough: Die, or your teammates do.
Do nothing and they’d die anyway, along with Kakashi.
He tightened his grip on the tanto-hilt and poured his last bit of focus into a gamble. Sakumo’s bloodline, one of the first tricks Kakashi had ever learned. The chakra burned hot down his arm, filling the blade with blazing white light. He forced it all into the edge and brought the tanto around again, in one clean slash.
The ropes sheared through.
Blood burned away, sizzling with the sharp edge of hot copper, and Kakashi fell. He landed in a jarring crouch and stabbed his tanto into the dirt, reached for fast seals as the broken garotte splattered down around him. Iebara’s hands were already a blur.
The six floating blood-blades shivered and leapt through the air, dropping like guillotines down onto Genma and Ryouma. Getting rid of witnesses.
Cold rage gave Kakashi the extra edge of speed he needed. He poured chakra through his hands and smacked both palms down on the ground.
A rising tide of drenched earth wrenched itself up and over his teammates, putting a solid wall between them and their own weaponized blood. The blades impacted with dull thuds, and burst into crimson splashes.
There was a moment of rain-filled silence, undercut by the rasp of Kakashi’s breath.
Iebara laughed hoarsely. “White Fang’s whelp.”
“Have we met?” Kakashi croaked.
“Iebara!” snapped the blond Kiri-captain. “If that’s the Hokage’s student—”
Iebara rolled his shoulders, as if shaking off an irritating itch, and extended one hand to Kakashi in a welcoming gesture, curling his fingers. Come and play.
Kakashi felt his lip curl. He flicked his fingers through the bird-seal, melting the Quartermater’s clever little Sharingan-covering mesh, and straightened up. His vision spiralled into chakra-blue, layers of intent pouring over the world. Iebara’s energy signature glowed like a dark beacon, shifting and ugly. In contrast, Genma and Ryouma’s signatures were buried and safe—at least for now.
“Last chance to take that boat ride home,” Kakashi said.
“Did you inherit your father’s cowardice, too?” Iebara said, with the special scorn Kirigakure seemed to install in their shinobi at birth. “I can give you a blade to kill yourself against, if you’d like.”
Kakashi had never liked diplomacy anyway.
“Not necessary,” he said, and wrenched his tanto out of the ground.
Fate-lines shifted. Iebara sank steel-lined nails into his own palms, sharpened edges biting deep, and shaped new seals—almost invisibly fast, but this time the Sharingan caught them. Blood burst around his hands, fountaining up and twisting into two long, latticed blades that stretched and glimmered in the rain. The hilts melted around his wrists, locking the blades into place like manacles.
Not something that could be disarmed, then.
But the blood-jutsu didn’t stand up against hot chakra, and the air was full of lightning.
Iebara blurred into motion. Kakashi moved in copycat symmetry, filling his tanto with charged energy. Obito’s eye handed him Iebara’s subtle tells, showing Kakashi a slender opening.
In the split-second before he and Iebara clashed, the subtlest tremble went through the earth. Genma’s hand punched up through the ground and wrapped around Iebara’s ankle. The lieutenant hauled downwards, yanking the bigger shinobi shin-deep into shifting ground. Ryouma exploded out of the shield of molten earth Kakashi had made, and flung a roaring javelin of fire at Iebara’s head. Kakashi recalculated on the fly, twisting around to avoid the jutsu and aim for for Iebara’s throat.
In the silent space between violent moments, Iebara made a sound like, Tch.
He dodged smoothly and threw one of the blades, which met Ryouma’s fire-jutsu and consumed it in a boiling hiss. The blood bubbled, smoking, and the blade re-warped itself to strike Ryouma squarely in the armored chest, knocking him out of the air. He crashed down hard on his back, skidding like a landed comet, and made a dull choking sound as the blood poured over him, smothering his mask.
With his other hand, Iebara blocked Kakashi’s chakra-blade strike. The tanto sank deeply into Iebara’s remaining blood-blade, but didn’t shear all the way through. Blood closed around the glowing metal, twisted, and ripped the tanto out of Kakashi’s hand, flinging it out of reach. Iebara snorted, blurred again, and punched Kakashi like an anvil in the face, knocking him backwards in a welter of rain and cracked porcelain.
Kakashi hit the ground with his ears ringing, and felt his ANBU mask fall away in pieces.
A throttled noise snapped his attention back. He struggled up to see Iebara dragging Genma out of the ground by the throat.
“Fight someone your level,” Iebara advised Genma, and tightened his grip. Genma made a strangled gasp, back arching, feet hanging off the ground—but his hands were free. They blurred through seals, and flames burst up between the lieutenant and Iebara, setting the Kiri ninja’s face bandages alight.
Iebara snarled and changed his handhold, moving into a form Kakashi recognized as the precursor to snapping Genma’s neck.
The Sharingan slowed things down just enough for Kakashi to act. He yanked up chakra, forced it through rapid seals, and let it go. Above Genma, rain slammed itself together into a solid shape and roared down, twisting into a water-dragon around both struggling men. The fire hissed out, which was unfortunate, but his second choice—hitting them both with a another landslide—would’ve done more bone-breaking damage than Genma wanted to deal with. The dragon flexed, knife-like teeth snapping at Iebara’s face. Iebara swore, deflecting. A translucent tail wrapped around Genma and yanked him away, tossing him high into the air.
Objective achieved, the dragon used the remainder of its chakra to smash down hard on Iebara, bringing several tons of water-weight down on the Kiri nin’s shoulders. For a moment, Iebara staggered.
There was a flash of dark energy and the construct tore itself apart, splashing down into harmless puddles. Iebara lifted his head and glared at Kakashi through dripping dark hair.
Blood-manipulating Mist shinobi—of course he knew water jutsu.
Fifty feet away, Genma landed, tumbled, flipped upright and bolted towards Ryouma.
Kakashi pushed himself to his feet, and shook his head. Iebara’s seals were bright and clear in his mind’s eye, wrapped around new, corrupted ways Kakashi could twist his chakra. With his tanto gone, it was an option to play with. He flexed his fingers. “Let’s try that again.”
Iebara cracked his neck. “This time, I’ll take your blood.”
Anything that took him away from the other two.
“Come and get it,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma’s pulse roared like the crashing tide in his ears. His lungs burned, empty, or else filling with breathed-in blood. His own blood, or Genma’s, ripped out and turned against him, slipping under his mask, sealing his nose, filling his mouth with hot copper and salt.
Tsuto Sakako had died like this, on her back and fighting for breath, vision shattering into darkness.
But there were no hands to claw away here, no grip to break. His fingers slid over the slick surface of his mask and found no purchase, not even an edge to grip and tear the mask away. Iebara’s jutsu covered his head like a caul. He was going to drown on his own blood, choking for air like Sakako and her daughter, and that bastard Mist nin would rip his body open and use his blood to kill his teammates, too—
Noise, beyond the roaring in his ears. A low, rasping voice: “Ram, I’ve got you. Hold on, don’t fight me.” Gloved fingers tangled with his own and held them briefly still, then pulled away again. Chakra ignited.
The pressure of the blood-caul broke, and the mask wrenched away. He gasped for a breath.
For a moment there was nothing, just blood and darkness and the surety that Genma’d come too late. Then Genma’s chakra rose over against him again, shaping and twisting into something he almost recognized, and plunged inside.
Horror twisted backwards.
The blood ripped out of his lungs and left only fire in its wake.
But there was air on the other side, wet and metallic, harsh with the scent of blood and ozone. He sobbed after it, curling onto his side, wracked with coughs that ripped what was left of his lacerated throat. Genma’s gloved hands steadied him. The ground was torn grass and red mud beneath him, but Genma lifted his face from it and braced Ryouma’s head against his knee, leaning over him to block the rain. He breathed easier, without the rain pouring down.
“Slow breaths,” Genma urged. His throat sounded raw, too. “Try not to cough. Let the air in.”
Raidou’d told him the same, when he dragged Ryouma out of the drowning lake of the demon queen’s rotting corpse. Ryouma tried to obey again. He was dimly aware of Genma’s chakra gathering once more, twisting and splitting into two new shapes: clones, set to guard.
Beyond them, in the rain, Kakashi and Iebara blazed.
Ryouma struggled up to his elbow and twisted to see over his left shoulder. Stormclouds still darkened the moon, but the unearthly glow of chakra-edged weapons chased blurring lines through the field and beneath the trees. Two white-glowing kunai for Kakashi, Ryouma saw in a brief moment of stillness, when the combatants landed crouched on tree branches at the edge of the copse. The steel blades looked like they were already beginning to deform with chakra-heat. Iebara had blades of blood again, casting a faint red light like a reflection from the pit of hell.
Iebara struck, and Kakashi was no longer there. He’d fled further back into the trees, forcing Iebara to pursue. Drawing him off.
Trying to protect Ryouma and Genma. So far, they’d been nothing but a liability for him.
They were both still bleeding, though the rain did its best to wash the trails away. A vicious slash angled high on Genma’s right shoulder, dark on pale skin. Its twin burned on Ryouma’s arm, just above his ANBU tattoo. He drew a final rasping breath and tried to speak. “Can you seal the cuts?”
Genma’s shadowed head dipped in a nod above him. “In a sec. We need blood pills.” He sounded a little breathless, as well as hoarse. “Don’t know how much he got out of you, but I’m feeling pretty light-headed. Seeing haloes.” He shifted, reaching into his hip-pouch, and drew out a small metal canister. The hunch of his shoulders offered a little protection from the driving rain as he twisted the top off and shook pills out into his gloved palm. “Can you get that down?”
Ryouma’s left arm hurt to move, but if he could push through seals he could pick up one pill. He wasn’t going to lip it off Genma’s palm, at any rate. The pill tasted of salt and copper, already beginning to dissolve from the wet. For a moment he choked on an vicious flare of fear, but he swallowed it down.
The lieutenant swallowed his own blood pill and chased it with a soldier pill, then tipped his mask back down. He looked up, over Ryouma’s head. “Those bastards are just standing there. What’re they waiting for?”
The Kiri captain and her two subordinates seemed to have moved further away from the woodline, though distance wasn’t easy to judge in the dark and the rain, through broken lightning flashes. They stood stiff-backed in the downpour, just out of shuriken range. The captain had crossed her arms over her chest. The stocky orange-haired man was spinning one of Kiri’s viciously pronged kunai around his finger, while the other woman simply stood still, loose-jointed, with her hands in her pockets.
If they cared about Genma’s guarding clones, they didn’t show it.
“Their captain didn’t want a fight,” Ryouma said, dazedly. He had to stop when Genma set the open mouth of a canteen to his lips, but the warm water soothed his throat and helped clear his thoughts. “You were talking sense to her. She didn’t want a fight, she yelled after him, but she didn’t chase him down. No way our taichou’d let that stand. So she’s scared of him. ‘Cause he won’t hesitate to turn on them, I bet, if they got in his way.”
Genma took a long pull at his canteen and then capped and stowed it. He fumbled in the muddy dark for a moment and came up with the pale glimmer of Ryouma’s mask, bloodless, clean. He didn’t press it to Ryouma’s face, just held it out. After a moment Ryouma steeled himself, and took it.
“I’m scared of him, too,” Genma said, low, “but fuck that.” He shaped a dizzying sequence of seals and lifted a green-lit hand to his injured shoulder. “We’re taking him down, and the rest of them, too, if we have to. Hound’s not the only one in this fight with a bounty on his head. I don’t want to fight that Kiri bastard, but if he insists, I’ll be happy to move his page to the back tab of my Bingo Book.”
Ryouma glanced out into the lightning-lit darkness again. He couldn’t see either Kakashi or Iebara, not even their chakra flares, but he could feel the wintry sunlight-on-steel chill of Kakashi’s chakra and the dark, twisted weight of Iebara’s, somewhere in the trees. Coming closer, now, nearly to the edge of the treeline. Genma’s clones tensed. The three Kiri nin took a few measured steps back.
It wasn’t Konoha that the Kiri captain was keeping her distance from.
Ryouma struggled up to his knees. “They’re staying outside his range. D’you see? They pulled clear when he attacked, instead of trying to stop him, and they’re still playing careful now. Fifteen meters, maybe. If they stay outside his range, he can’t affect them.”
Fifteen meters was a hell of a range for a jutsu that powerful. Ryouma’s Naizou Tokasu was only accurate within five, and fizzled within eight. The more powerful a jutsu, generally, the shorter the range its caster could manage while still keeping the jutsu’s effects under control. Did that mean fifteen meters was the absolute limit of Iebara’s range, and that further inside—say, ten meters—his control might be shaky, not absolute? Ryouma tried to remember how far apart they’d been when the Kiri nin wrenched the blood from his veins, but all he could remember was the dark wet ribbon ripping out of his shoulder, and the pain.
“I’m going to touch you now,” Genma said, and Ryouma looked back, startled, as Genma’s glowing hand closed on his bleeding shoulder. Genma’d remembered Ryouma didn’t react well to being touched without warning. But his mind was clearly somewhere else, following the trail Ryouma had laid, even as the warmth of his chakra sank into Ryouma’s shoulder and the healing flesh began to sting and itch. “He cut us when he wanted blood to use. That jutsu probably needs the blood to come from a living source to manipulate it like that. Blood cells have chakra outside the body, but the minute the blood’s exposed to air, it starts to die.”
Which explained why Iebara hadn’t pulled the dried blood from Ryouma and Kakashi’s uniforms, or from the shallow gouges over the backs of Ryouma’s fingers where Tsuto Sakako’s broken nails had caught his skin. And why he hadn’t recalled the blood that splashed when he lost control of the first blood-knives, or of the broken garrotte that had dyed Kakashi’s armor red.
“If we can keep from bleeding, and keep Hound from bleeding, we’ll have an advantage,” Genma said. He turned his head, glancing back into the wood, where a fitful flicker of white and red light clashed, broken apart, and vanished again. “I’ve got a jutsu that will trash the metal in his blades, if I can get within five meters.”
“And I’ve got a jutsu that’ll turn his insides to soup, if I can get within five meters.” Ryouma twitched his shoulder out from under Genma’s hand, inspected the pink-knotted line of the closed wound, and nodded. “I can’t take a risk when he’s too close to Hound, though—it’s why I had to use fire earlier, instead of rot. But if we can draw him off Hound, and you distract him, I’ll get him.”
Another crack of lightning flashed, casting their black and white uniforms into stark relief. “I’ve got the same issue with my Toi no tetsu o hakai,” Genma said. “It doesn’t need direct contact, but it can latch onto any iron nearby, including your weapons or mine, or Hound’s.” And, he hoped, the iron holding together Iebara’s blood blades.
He had another jutsu he could reach for, kinzoku o hikidaru, that could pull iron straight from the blood in a target’s veins, but like most medical jutsu, the metal condensing technique required direct, sustained contact to work. He just had to hope the metal corruption jutsu could do the job. The blood wasoutside Iebara’s body, and the iron in the blood blades was no different than the iron in a katana or kunai, in theory.
Even if it didn’t work, he could still try to push Iebara away from Kakashi, towards Ryouma.
“You and I should come at Iebara from two sides to minimize the risk. I’ll try to draw him towards me. Give him a bleeding clone to reach for.”
He spoke low, trusting the downpour to keep them from being overheard by the distant Mist ninja. A quick sweep of his chakra-sense picked out the familiar flicker of his own clones, his teammates, one sickly twisted signature engaged with Kakashi, and the three Mist ninja they could see. “They don’t have any clones in play,” Genma said, as he poured chakra into making a third kage bunshin as lifelike as possible, this time adding back the bleeding shoulder wound. It crouched with them, hiding itself from prying eyes.
Ryouma glanced back towards the tense knot of Mist ninja. “Let’s hope they stay out of play altogether. They don’t look happy.” He turned his face back to Genma, dark eyes fierce and glittering in the shadowed recesses of his mask. “Lieutenant,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t get in the way. I won’t fire if there’s any danger to you or Hound, but— Just stay clear.”
Genma’d seen the carnage Ryouma’s jutsu had wreaked on the demons. He’d watched Ryouma reduce a man-sized pig carcass to putrid slime in a matter of minutes at the ANBU Trials. Genma’s jutsu could destroy a shinobi’s weapons, but Ryouma’s would take a life in an eyeblink.
“I’ll be careful. If you don’t have a clear shot, use fire again. I’m fire-affinity, too; I can add to it.”
Ryouma nodded. “Hound’s not fire, but better a little singed than bled out.” He rocked from a kneel to a crouch, shoulders tensing as he prepared to move. “Got a signal for me?”
“I’ll pulse my tattoo spark twice,” Genma said. Kakashi would feel it, too, but by the time Genma gave the signal they’d be within Kakashi’s sight—he’d be able to see it wasn’t a distress call.
Ryouma nodded an acknowledgement.
“You wanted to call down tigers,” Genma said. “Let’s go.” He and his new clone bolted to their feet as one and took off at a dead run towards the bright flare of Kakashi’s chakra. Lightning cracked again, striking a tall tree in the grove not far from where Kakashi and Iebara were battling. The thunderclap was almost instantaneous and deafening, leaving Genma’s ears ringing as he raced towards the fight. Ryouma darted left as he swung right, going for the flank.
Within the trees, there was a blasted-clear area, torn apart by clashing jutsu. The earth was shattered into rough trenches and churned into mud. Trunks were scorched and splintered, raw white heartwood laid bare where massive force had exploded the wood into matchsticks. The trees still standing were peppered with shuriken and kunai—some Konoha’s slender black daggers, some Mist’s savage tooth-edged blades.
Both shinobi were moving at a frenzied pace, blade against blade. Iebara’s sickly-hued blood weapons clashed against Kakashi’s chakra-charged kodachi—he must have lost or broken his kunai. The new blade glowed almost white, looking like a fresh-forged sword still radiant from the furnace. It hissed and steamed in the falling rain, metal ringing against metal again and again, as Kakashi and Iebara drove each other in a perfect, deadly ballet.
Iebara was bleeding from several shallow cuts, but Kakashi looked uninjured. Both men were breathing hard. Neither looked like he was giving ground. Across the combat zone, Genma felt Ryouma’s ANBU spark twinkle as Ryouma got in position. Genma flicked his hands through seals, sent his decoy clone in towards Iebara from Ryouma’s direction, and cloaked himself in shadow.
When Iebara caught sight of the clone, his mouth curled into an evil grin behind the blackened tatters of his charred mask. His fingers whipped through seals, reaching for the blood streaming from the clone’s shoulder. The clone staggered and went down on one knee.
Before Iebara could realize the blood was illusory, Genma cast his jutsu.
It drew chakra like a whirlpool, surging against Genma’s control. His own kunai and shuriken rattled in their holsters as the jutsu tried to rob the nearest sources of iron first, but he forced the energy away from himself, aiming for Iebara. When it latched onto the iron in the blood blades, it settled and strengthened, feeding on the iron-rich blood almost as easily as it did solid steel.
Iebara twitched, turning towards Genma’s concealed position with a furious roar. “You don’t learn do you, Konoha?” He broke away from Kakashi and came at Genma, and Genma ran, trying to get distance between himself and Kakashi. Just a meter or two should be enough. Kakashi was already closing in to take advantage of the distraction Genma’d provided.
Genma threw up an arm to ward off the blow as Iebara caught up to him.
The red blades struck his arm guard and shattered into hundreds of blood-colored shards.
Was Kakashi out of range?
Now. Genma pulsed the signal from his ANBU spark twice, and jumped back out of range himself.
Across the clearing, there was an explosion of chakra as Ryouma stepped out of the trees. His left hand braced his extended right arm. From his right palm, a bolt of red-black chakra raced straight for Iebara’s torso.
At the last minute, Iebara lunged to the right—some preternatural danger-sense warning him of the threat. Ryouma’s sick-hued chakra struck a glancing blow against Iebara’s side, wringing a guttural grunt from their target. Iebara clamped his arm around his side as if he were protecting broken ribs. He coughed, tore the shreds of his mask off, and spat blood, but there was no decay spreading across his torso. He’d taken internal damage, but not nearly enough to take him out of the fight. His fingers twitched through seals.
Kakashi darted in, glowing kodachi aimed for the death blow. Iebara crumpled under the strike, but as his body hit the ground, it exploded in a flood of water quickly washed away by the falling rain.
Substitution jutsu. He’d swapped himself with a water clone.
Genma dove for the ground, hands a blur as he called chakra together for an earth jutsu, but Iebara, fresh kunai in hand, was faster. His tooth-edged blade bit deep into Genma’s thigh.
Lightning turned the world technicolor as twitching muscle sheared apart, sliced nearly to the bone. Iebara cast his signature jutsu again; a crimson cloud erupted from Genma’s thigh. His leg twisted inside out with pain as the alien chakra stole blood from severed vessels and coalesced it into a strangling hood.
Chakra Genma’d called up for his unfinished earth jutsu was still unreleased—he shaped new seals in a panicked frenzy and worked the same jutsu he’d used to draw the blood away from Ryouma’s mask. When the blood hood disintegrated, he found three identical ANBU in liondog masks, glowing swords raised in unison, closing in on Iebara. A fourth Kakashi grabbed Genma roughly by the shoulder and waist, and hurled him towards Ryouma.
“Ram, catch!” Kakashi shouted.
Genma tucked into the motion, drawing his arms and legs in close as he fell towards his comrade. The image of the rot-chakra limning Ryouma’s palms flashed through his head.
”Whatever you do, don’t get in the way. I won’t fire if there’s any danger to you or Hound, but— Just stay clear.”
Lightning ripped down behind him, burning rain into plasma, filling the air with the scent of ozone, and a deafening roll of thunder.
Ryouma slammed into Genma midair, pulling him barehanded into a tight embrace. One broad hand cradled Genma’s head protectively, guarding his neck as they tumbled to a stop.
There was no reek of spoiled meat; no agonizing disintegration of flesh.
Thank the gods.
Perhaps Bishamon, armor-clad god of warfare and warriors, was on their side after all.
Ryouma found his footing first. He hauled Genma’s right arm over his shoulder, making sure Genma’s injured leg was between them, and raced for the trees. “How bad?” he shouted over the roar of the thunder.
“It’s deep,” Genma panted. Blood poured from the wound, but it was steady—Iebara’d missed the major arteries, at least. “Hurt like hell, and he got a fair amount of blood out of me, but I can close it.” He focused chakra into a wound-sealing jutsu and set his hands against his leg. Self-healing took twice the chakra healing another shinobi did, but he had no choice. Any open wound was a liability with Iebara nearby.
In the clearing, Kakashi’s trio of clones died in an eruption of smoke. Iebara lurched towards the real Kakashi, but he had one hand pressed to his injured side.
Genma didn’t see what Kakashi did next; a double hit of chakra jolted into him, flooding his senses with his own clones’ memories. “Shit! My clones are dead. Those other bastards finally decided to get in the fight.”
Ryouma swore, turning towards the oncoming flare of unshielded chakra.
Genma poured his own chakra into the healing jutsu, sacrificing accuracy and control for speed. As soon as he felt the wound close, he yanked his hands free, armed himself with a pair of kunai, and ran towards the closing Kiri ninja. Away from Kakashi and Iebara. The farther they could take the new fight from the blood ninja, the better. He just had to trust Ryouma’s slow-spreading rot had done enough damage to give Kakashi the advantage he needed.
When this was over, Kakashi was going to have a serious word with his teammates about not getting themselves killed.
At least they were withdrawing, even if it was straight into the teeth of another fight. He could feel Ryouma’s chakra twisting itself into a new jutsu, swirled through with the rank edges of more flesh-melting destruction. Genma’s was still bright and brilliant with the after-images of healing—another thing to be grateful for.
Kakashi just wished they hadn’t left blood all over Iebara’s hands.
But they had done some damage.
Kakashi dodged a viciously fast pattern of strikes, flipped around behind Iebara and dropped low, scything his kodachi across the back of the bigger man’s legs. He wanted a hamstringing, but at this point he’d take anything that delivered an injury. Iebara leapt—still blurringly fast for a shinobi who had a) used that much chakra and was b) rotting inside—and spun, lashing out with a kick that snapped Kakashi’s kodachi in half. The chakra-charged blade whirled away into rain-lashed darkness.
That was the problem with regular steel; it couldn’t withstand the White Fang’s bloodline limit.
Kakashi gritted his teeth and hurled the useless hilt at Iebara’s face. Iebara swiped it contemptuously aside, but the distraction bought Kakashi a second to vault backwards and form rapid seals. Rain coalesced above Iebara’s head, forming into wicked, senbon-shaped needles. They glowed blue beneath a sky full of sparks, and hammered down fast enough to make the air scream.
Hampered by his crippled side, Iebara was a fraction too slow.
Kakashi had seen Rin use jet-injectors at the hospital, needleless hypodermics that accelerated liquid so fast it punched through skin. A month later she’d turned it into a jutsu, something to save time. He’d taken it, with her wry permission, and weaponized it.
A blizzard of sharp edges shredded Iebara’s clothes, lancing through the skin underneath. He flung his hands over his head and a shield of Genma’s blood exploded upwards, denting under the lethal shower. It opened up his chest into a broad, beautiful target. Kakashi obliged by hurling his last two kunai at it.
They thunked solidly into Iebara’s flak-vest, just below his collarbones, and quivered there, like black fangs.
Slowly, Iebara raised his head and snarled.
What was he made of?
A black roil of chakra shivered the air. Iebara shaped seals, and the kunai punched backwards out of his chest, carried on ropes of spiralling blood. He whipped the blades at Kakashi, who blocked with an upflung arm-guard, and the new blood rose up to join the remainder of Genma’s. All over Iebara, thin lacerations offered up more ammunition, dozens of crimson strings that rose and braided, and, as Kakashi watched, became a hovering cloud of gleaming dark needles.
“Crap,” Kakashi said quietly.
The cloud exploded.
There was no safe path to take, even with the Sharingan. Kakashi flung crossed arms in front of his face, dropped his chin to protect his throat, and braced against the stinging storm. The force blasted him backwards, boots skidding on soaked earth. He shoved chakra into his soles and kept his balance. Pain sliced into unprotected skin, scouring the nerves raw. Kakashi clenched his teeth. For a burning second he could feel every individual cut, and then it just melted into a wall of white noise.
When it stopped, he had to jerk backwards to keep from falling on his face.
Cautiously, he raised his head. Blood dripped like syrup off his fingertips. He was covered in it, steaming-hot and coppery, blocking all the smell out of the world. Even with the driving rain, he couldn’t see skin underneath—or tell where Iebara’s blood ended, and his own began.
At least he couldn’t see flayed bone.
And Iebara was moving, so there was no time to linger on it. Kakashi jerked his hands down, trying to force feeling back into numbed fingers, and looked up into the shifting, blue-drenched fate lines of Obito’s worldview. A single red blade arched in Iebara’s hands, about the length of a katana. Its current path would carve Kakashi’s chest out.
Above them, a new fork of lightning blazed.
The thing about affinities was that they were strongest when you had a natural source. Sand-shinobi ruled the desert; water ninja had tides and deep currents in their blood; Konoha’s Uchiha could turn back a forest fire, or burn a village down with one. Kakashi had lightning, water, and earth in his bones, and right now the sky was singing.
Lightning called to lightning.
Iebara closed in. Kakashi flung his chakra wide open, letting loose a violet dance of sparks across blood-soaked skin. He felt the answering pull above him. Dark clouds roared with thunder, splitting around the last massive electrostatic discharge. The next strike poured down on them like a waterfall of light.
It was a lot like standing underneath the end of the world, but Kakashi had split lightning before. He had a jutsu named for it, and he could damn well reach into the electric lifeblood of his own nature, meet it, and bend it around to kill the bastard who’d nearly bled his teammates dry.
The world went white, and loud, and faded silent.
Then it came back.
Kakashi choked on a staggered heartbeat and lurched upright, shoving himself up on unsteady elbows. The ground smoked in front of him, torn apart in a deep, blasted crater. His ears rang. Purple haloes crowded his blurring vision. His gloves fell away in charred, shredded strips as he levered himself into a weaving crouch, and his armored vest hung at a crazy angle. Sparks crackled over his hair.
He’d poured out most of his chakra; his senses were down to less than twenty feet, dwindling like a fading watermark. He couldn’t feel Genma and Ryouma at all, or the ninja they were fighting. He couldn’t see Iebara.
Maybe the Kiri ninja had exploded.
Kakashi’s breath cracked on an exhausted laugh, because that really wasn’t funny, but—boom.
Movement flickered through smoke.
He jerked one leaden arm halfway up, and Iebara—blood-soaked, skin blistered with third-degree burns, clothes shredded away—heaved over the edge of the crater like the smoking reject from one of the war’s worst trenches. The Kiri nin staggered upright and smashed Kakashi’s arm aside. Kakashi stumbled, nearly falling. Iebara grabbed him, yanked him around, and locked a slick, blackened arm around his throat.
Whatever Iebara was running on—willpower, fumes, pure rage—it didn’t care about the way his burned flesh split against Kakashi’s buckled armor, peeling open and pouring blood. Or the way his blackened chakra was flickering, dwindling down to a pilot light. He just wanted to kill a Leaf ninja, and he didn’t care if he destroyed himself doing it.
Kakashi’s fingers scrabbled over Iebara’s forearm, digging into raw, bunching muscles. He kicked, and they tumbled backwards into the crater. Mud splashed underneath them. Steel strength tightened around his throat, clamping down. He couldn’t breathe.
He didn’t have any weapons left.
But he was not goddamn dying on his second mission while his teammates were still fighting.
Seals unfolded in his mind’s eye. They were fresh and new, unmastered, but he could see how the chakra flowed, where it would bite. All it needed was blood, and Iebara was losing plenty of that.
Kakashi forced his hands together. The last reserves of his chakra surged, rising into a vile, corrupted shape, and lashed out. He felt it sink hooks into Iebara, pouring into all the ripped-open, ragged places that remained of the man’s flesh.
Iebara went still.
“You didn’t,” he said, voice burned raw.
Kakashi didn’t have the breath to respond, he just pulled. Blood burst like a landmine detonation, spraying out into the lashing rain, and Iebara ripped apart.
Warm pieces slid slowly down Kakashi’s back. The arm, attached to nothing, fell away from his throat.
Kakashi gasped, swaying to his feet. He managed not to fall. The air tasted like raw copper and storm water.
Ryouma, he thought. Genma.
He turned and staggered through the wet remains, tripping over the streaked arch of a rib. The stench of Ryouma’s jutsu bloomed up from half-rotted viscera. He righted himself and mostly crawled up to the lip of the crater, pulling himself over the edge to land chest-down in more mud. The rain was starting to thin out, fading from a deluge to a miserable drizzle. Just beyond the charred, lightning-blasted trees, flares of active chakra signatures wavered and hazed in the Sharingan’s vision.
He just had to get there.
Panting, Kakashi forced himself up again. He took a step, slipped, and crashed down on one knee and both hands. When he got his head up, one of the lights had broken away, darting across open ground in his direction.
Maybe they’d come to him instead.
When the lightning struck in the trees it blinded all of them. Ryouma used that moment of white, deafening earth-shaking to kill.
The tall woman with the bandage-masked face had turned out to be a kenjutsu user. She’d nearly taken Ryouma’s head off when he first burst out of the trees, and his armguards were notched and scarred from blocking. He couldn’t close with her, until Kakashi brought the sky down on the woods behind them. She struck wildly, blind and deafened, and the sword lodged in the thick reinforced strap over his shoulder. He seized the blade with one hand and found her side with the other, and then it was all over but the screaming.
When he could see again, the kunoichi was writhing at his feet, and the two shinobi tag-teaming Genma—the ponytailed captain and the orange-haired man—had taken advantage of the strike to close inside the defensive circle Genma had created with his viciously accurate senbon strikes. Genma slapped a pair of kunai up out of his leg holster, but the left-hand dagger shattered with the captain’s first blow. The orange-haired man grinned viciously and stepped in.
Genma met him with fire. The Kiri shinobi called up a shield of water from the rain, but the storm was moving on, its wild strength spent, and the rain sizzled away. Ryouma closed in, circling to flank the two Kiri nin. The woman whose side he’d rotted away was still whimpering, but she wouldn’t be for long. The captain’s pale eyes kept dropping to her, and then jerking back up.
Chakra flared like a firestorm, back in the trees, and abruptly went out.
That had felt like Kakashi’s cold sunlight-on-steel chakra, wrapped up and twisted in Iebara’s bloody massacre of a jutsu, and now Ryouma couldn’t feel either of them anymore. He shouted into his radio mic, “Hound!” and heard nothing but a static hiss.
Of course Kakashi’s lightning jutsu must have fried their circuits. That was a better thought than Kakashi dead or dying, his radio crushed beneath his shattered body, and Genma was hurt and weary and Ryouma couldn’t help either of them—
The Kiri captain breathed, “Iebara.” And then she was gone, arrowing through the trees.
Ryouma bolted at her heels.
Genma was holding his own against the orange-haired nin, anyway. Without the Kiri captain double-teaming him, he’d be fine. And he couldn’t have run fast enough; his leg would slow him down. Kakashi was the one in danger. Ryouma was right to run.
He didn’t quite believe it until he burst into the clearing and saw the crater, the blood, the burning trees, Kakashi on his knees with his head lolling back and his bare throat exposed beneath the shredded mask, and the Kiri captain stooping in for the kill.
Ryouma had never ripped through a kawarimi no jutsu faster in his life. He latched onto the faint, almost undetectable ember of Kakashi’s chakra, and wrenched them both through the universe. Smoke broke around him, catching in his throat, and he stumbled on the charred, broken ground at the edge of the crater where Kakashi had knelt.
The Kiri captain was only two meters away, eyes wide with shock at the substitution. She tried to stop, to pivot back to the spot across the clearing where Kakashi now lay, but momentum was against her. She skidded in the mud, and Ryouma caught her by the elbow with a hand edged rot-red. He shoved chakra through.
Her lower arm dropped away, splashing rot, and landed in a puddle of blood.
He tossed her back into the crater, still alive but not for long, and went to Kakashi.
His hands were trembling when he cut the jutsu and knelt. Kakashi lay where he’d fallen when the substitution technique had dropped him, but he was trying to lever himself up, and both his eyes were wide open beneath the bloody-wet shock of his hair. There was barely anything left of his mask, just a few shreds of black cloth stretching from the bridge of his nose to the edge of his jawbone, a fluttering panel that only half-concealed his mouth. His armor hung half-open, banging against his bent elbow, and the black fabric of his underpinnings was nearly as shredded. There was nowhere that Ryouma could touch him that was not dark with charred blood.
“Tanuki’s coming,” Ryouma said, uselessly. He curled his filthy hands over his knees. “Can you hold on?”
Kakashi’s head came up. He seemed to be trying to focus on Ryouma’s face. The faint light from a few burning trees caught in his mismatched eyes. “He’s gonna yell,” he managed, in a voice like crushed gravel. “A lot.” His head swung, almost too heavy for his neck, but he put his other hand down in the muck and braced himself. The edge of his mouth curled. He had a scar there, slicing down the corner of his lip like he’d tried to kiss a kunai. “They shoulda taken that boat.”
“Yeah,” Ryouma said. His own mouth tugged. “There’s no tigers in the sea.”
Kakashi coughed, cracked, on a laugh. Ryouma rocked forward and just barely caught himself. He wanted desperately to reach out, to touch, to assure himself that he’d made it in time, this time. But Kakashi’s bare skin was a mess of raw wounds, slick fresh blood oozing over the burnt crusts of the old, and touching him would hurt more than it would help. Ryouma hooked his filthy fingers into the straps of his knee-pads, feeling the hard line of the brace beneath his pant leg. “You sure took that blood bastard apart,” he said, half at random. “Did you copy his jutsu?”
“Killed him with it,” Kakashi said. “Because—irony.” There was a kind of hunted pride in his voice. Ryouma remembered the carnage in the crater, only half-glimpsed; Kakashi looked like he was remembering it too. “I need—I should—” He tried to turn his head and almost fell, before he stiffened his bracing arm. He was shaking, starting to slur. “You got all yours, right? Saw you get the captain.” The scarred lips parted on bloody teeth; it took Ryouma a moment to recognize it as a grin. “That was perfect.”
The cold rain was still drizzling down, painting blood-trails down Kakashi’s arms and sinking them deeper into mud, but Ryouma’s chest warmed. He shoved his mask back with the heel of his hand and beamed at Kakashi. “Left one missing half of her ribcage, and Tanuki taking care of the other one. I wish I’d seen you. We got the lightning, at least—it gave me the opening I needed to get past a sword—and we felt your jutsu, but—”
He stopped. “The hell. We felt your chakra go out. You need a transfer?”
Kakashi huffed his cracked laugh again. “That’d be nice.”
Then his elbow buckled and he dropped, facedown in the mud.
Ryouma was too slow to catch him. Too slow, too late, always too late— He grabbed for the melted edges of Kakashi’s armor and flipped him over, shaking with fear and haste. But when he crouched low, with his ear over Kakashi’s mouth, he heard the slight rasp of slow breathing and felt the flutter of a torn mask against his ear.
Unconscious. With his chakra guttering perilously low, even his ANBU spark barely an ember. Soldier pills wouldn’t be enough for him, in this state; they’d only tax a system already strained to its limits. Raidou’s style of floodwaters transfer wouldn’t be much better. But if Ryouma kept tight control, eased his chakra in, tried to sooth its passage along scorched pathways…
He knocked his mask off the side of his head with the back of his wrist, and leaned down. Pressed his forehead to Kakashi’s, clammy cold, and closed his eyes. Breathed in, slowly, and let his chakra unfurl as he exhaled.
He began tentatively, coaxing, searching for the moment when Kakashi’s chakra would open up a door into its pathways and invite him in. Slower than usual, without Kakashi conscious to meet him on the other side, but easier in some ways; there was no instinctive battle of wills, just a gradual mesh and then a gentle pour. He tried to shape it as water chakra, matching Kakashi’s affinity. Slow, slow, warming and soothing and refusing to let himself tremble…
Maybe this is what healing will be like.
Genma flung a handful of senbon at his opponent and cursed. Kakashi was down, Ryouma was no medic, and this fight needed to be over, but the orange-haired Mist ninja was relentless.
Orangy raised a muddy tsunami from the saturated ground in a two-pronged assault. Shuriken flew out of the wave faster than Genma could dodge. He blocked instead, grabbing instinctively for kunai and crossing his arms in front of his throat as knife-edged stars raked furrows across his shoulders.
He felt the impacts in his palms with each shuriken that cracked against his blades. One kunai fractured almost to the hilt, weakened by the iron-stealing jutsu he’d used on Iebara’s blood blades, but the other held.
As the jutsu wave crested he threw broken and intact kunai at the enemy ninja and dove for the ground, opening the earth with a moguragakure technique. Relying on chakra sense to tell him where his quarry lay, Genma surged up from below and hurled a poison-tipped senbon straight for his opponent’s face.
The jutsu-sabotaged steel failed, shattering on impact.
Orangy cursed, leaping back. There were a dozen fresh cuts on his face where senbon shrapnel had hit him, but if he’d gotten a dose of Genma’s poison, he didn’t show it. Chakra flared, and a cannon blast of icy wind hit Genma in the face, throwing him to the ground. His mask slammed against his nose and cheeks, splinter-cracking under the onslaught before the jutsu died. Bone crunched, and his head rang as sparks bloomed behind his eyelids. He hurled himself blindly to one side before Orangy could strike again.
With untrustworthy senbon, accuracy was critical, and a moving target hard to hit. Genma tucked into a roll, twisting fingers through seals to cast a fresh jutsu of his own. Manacles of hardened mud locked around Orangy’s ankles, and Genma unleashed a fresh volley.
Two of the senbon broke, but a third sank home, delivering its payload. Orangy gasped, raising a hand too late to block, and fell with his legs still encased in Genma’s muddy shackles, choking on a last breath as he died.
Genma sprinted for the trees. When he tried to vault over the body of the tall woman Ryouma’d taken down, his injured leg buckled; he fell almost on top of her. Her ribcage was half-rotted away, with macerated viscera spilling out. Ryouma’s jutsu continued to eat into her corpse, feeding on the residual chakra of recent death.
He gagged on the stench and shoved himself to his feet, forcing his leg to hold just a little longer.
There were still three chakra signatures in the trees. Two ANBU sparks made a beacon to navigate by. As a slow roll of thunder pealed overhead, Genma ran.
In the devastated grove of trees, Ryouma knelt over Kakashi’s unnaturally still body. Both shinobi had lost their masks; Ryouma was bent so low their foreheads touched. It looked terrifyingly like a man mourning a fallen comrade, but Genma could feel the sputtering flame of Kakashi’s chakra, and the current of a transfusion flowing from Ryouma.
At the bottom of a scorched crater, the Mist captain groaned and gasped, dying by degrees from whatever wounds she’d incurred. Iebara was nowhere; his brackish chakra had disappeared in that lightning strike. Genma extended his chakra sense, but there was still no sign of the enemy. He went to one knee next to his comrades. “Ram, what’s the status?”
Ryouma didn’t move. “I’m not hurt,” he said, tight with concentration. “Hound’s a mess, but I don’t think he’s bleeding out. Passed out from chakra depletion.”
“Hound copied his jutsu and killed him with it,” Ryouma answered. He maintained his focus on the task of transfusing Kakashi, but there was a thread of fierce pleasure in his voice.
Genma stripped his soiled gloves off, detaching them from the sleeves at the wrist, and cracked open a lightstick, shedding a greenish, phosphorescent glow over the grisly scene. Every exposed bit of Kakashi’s skin was a welter of shallow cuts, and his uniform was in shreds. It looked as if Iebara had tried to scour Kakashi’s skin off with some variant of that heinous blood jutsu—Genma could only hope at least some of the blood covering Kakashi’s skin wasn’t Kakashi’s own.
He put as little chakra as he dared into creating a shadow clone to hold the light aloft.
Ryouma smelled like blood and decay.
“Ease off on the transfusion for a minute,” Genma said. “I want to assess him. If you have the chakra reserves for it, wash off. I’m going to need your hands clean.”
Ryouma hesitated before he let his chakra flow dwindle to nothing. He stayed where he was for a moment, breathing slowly, with his forehead pressed against Kakashi’s. When he finally sat up, he moved stiffly and with evident reluctance. “I’m still about fifty percent,” he said. The hollowness of his voice suggested he was far from steady. Genma gave him a sharp look, and found Ryouma doing the same to him.
When Ryouma seemed satisfied that Genma wasn’t in danger of collapse, he gave a relieved sigh and got to his feet. Stooping to pick up his mask from the mud, he moved off a few meters and sluiced himself clean with a water jutsu.
Hold it together a little longer, Tousaki, we have a long way to go.
Splinters of his mask dug into Genma’s cheek when he turned his head; shifting pieces of ceramic raked agonizingly against his broken nose, and one damaged eye opening buckled, partially obscuring his vision. He snatched the fractured mask off and hooked it to his belt, then laid two fingers into Kakashi’s limp palm. “Hound, if you hear me, squeeze my hand.”
There was no response.
Kakashi’s breathing was shallow, but at least he was maintaining his airway. Genma checked for a pulse: weak, but not too rapid. A quick survey revealed no broken bones or obvious major wounds. The hundreds of small cuts were still oozing, but there were no arterial gushes or flooding open veins. It was, as Ryouma had said, chakra exhaustion and not blood loss.
Ryouma’s transfusion was keeping Kakashi’s basic life systems functioning, but even with it Kakashi’s chakra was a pale imitation of itself. It felt skeletonized, and the pathways themselves were inflamed—ravaged by sudden overuse.
What Kakashi needed was a soldier pill, but unconscious he couldn’t swallow one. If only there were an injectible solution, but the chakra-active component of a soldier pill was dangerously anticoagulant. Filtered through the digestive system, it was a manageable risk: injected it was deadly. Even if he could swallow a pill, with Kakashi’s chakra system so fragile, there was a risk the artificial chakra could tip him into chakra-shock and seizures, but there wasn’t a safe alternative. The average chakra transfer depleted the donor at a rate of half again what the recipient got—Ryouma would have to drain himself to give Kakashi enough of a boost to really make a difference, and there could still be enemies heading their way.
But a soldier pill could boost Kakashi’s chakra by twenty percent, two taken together up to forty, even if only temporarily.
They had to wake Kakashi up.
Genma unbuckled Kakashi’s ruined vest. He fisted his hand and rubbed his knuckles against Kakashi’s sternum. “Come on, Hound, open your eyes.”
From the crater, the injured Mist captain continued to groan.
Ryouma’d estimated he had fifty percent of his chakra reserves left: more than Genma. Genma glanced over his shoulder to find Ryouma shaking water from his hands. “Ram, are you clean? I need you to transfuse him again. No more than twenty percent of your reserves, but if he regains consciousness, stop sooner.”
Ryouma came over instantly, kneeling down at Kakashi’s other side. He held his gloveless hands up, keeping them carefully out of the mud. “Should we get a blanket on him?” he asked. “I mostly remember being cold.”
“On it,” Genma said. He pulled a slim-folded foil blanket from his field kit and spread it over the churned up earth. At least the mud on this part of the battleground was free of the bloody mess that was, presumably, all that remained of Iebara. “Help me lift him, and we’ll wrap him in it.”
Kakashi remained as still as death as they positioned him on the blanket and wrapped it around him. Genma checked his pulse and respirations again—no better, but at least no worse.
The Mist captain’s moaning rose in stark contrast to Kakashi’s painful silence.
As soon as Ryouma had begun the transfusion, Genma broke open a second lightstick and went to see about their dying enemy. She lay in the lightning-blasted crater, nearly two meters below the level of the ground, surrounded by unimaginable gore. Bloody hunks of flesh and shattered bone filled the bottom of the crater: Iebara’s remains.
The Mist captain had fallen face upturned. The stump of her right arm twitched spasmodically, as oozing decay crawled towards her shoulder. Ryouma’s jutsu would reach her chest soon—an agonizing death. At the crater’s edge, a sword lay near her severed hand; Genma picked it up, and jumped down into the nightmare.
Emotion said kill her and be done, but when Genma swung the blade down, it was to part her rotting arm from her body. She cried out, low and hoarse, and her eyes fluttered open. Severed arteries pulsed bright arcs, but Genma was prepared. He slapped hands glowing with chakra over the remains of her stump and cauterized the bleeding vessels shut. When he was sure they wouldn’t reopen, he dragged her out of the crater, wrapped a coagulating bandage tight against the wound, and injected the woman with a full syrette of morphine.
It might be a waste. They might still have to kill her. But there was a chance, if they could get her back to Konoha, that Intel would have a use for her.
She was still whimpering, clearly shocky. Genma extracted a second foil blanket and wrapped her in it, turning her onto her side in the recovery position. When he was finished with her, he called up enough chakra to pull pure water from the drizzling rain and puddles around them, and doused himself. It stung his cut shoulders and face, and reopened some of the wounds that had started to clot, but at least he was cleaner. It took a second water jutsu with some force behind it to get the nauseating gore off his legs and feet.
Dripping and starting to shiver, he limped back to Kakashi and Ryouma. Ryouma glanced up, chakra transfusion evidently complete.
In his silvery cocoon, Kakashi twitched and groaned, and opened his eyes.
His mouth tasted like dry-gulched shock and rainwater. Kakashi blinked once, trying to think around the ice-pick driven through his skull, and found himself with a view of dark skies and the underside of someone’s chin, lit by green shadows. Blue fate-lines shivered across his vision, and a warm tear coursed down the left side of his face. The Sharingan, badly overworked. It was an agonizing pull on his coils. He closed it, shutting Obito out of the world.
Painfully, he blinked his good eye, and realized there was foreign chakra running through his veins. Water and fire, blended together like a complex ying-yang that didn’t quite complement itself.
“T’saki?” he rasped.
“Hey,” Ryouma said, with warm relief. “Welcome back.”
“I’m not dead,” Kakashi said, because that seemed worth mentioning.
“You’re doing okay, Hound,” said another voice, close and clear—the lieutenant. Genma knelt down on Kakashi’s right, and put two fingers against the side of Kakashi’s neck. They were warm, skin-to-skin, and an entire part of Kakashi’s brain curled itself up around a cold, tight thought: where’s my mask?
There was a crinkle of foil blankets, then a sting against his arm—Genma’s other hand, with a needle—and a rush of familiar warmth. Morphine.
Well, he’d probably been done running for the day, anyway.
“Can you feel your hands and feet?” Genma asked, clipping the spent syrette to Kakashi’s dog-tags, where it would flap as a dosage marker.
“Yeah,” Kakashi croaked, because they were definitely there, sending all kinds of signals about how much they didn’t want to be. He focused and managed to haul his right hand up. It was like dragging a tectonic plate, but it moved. He wrestled it out of the silver heat-blanket and brought it up to his face, curving unsteady fingers over his mouth. There was shredded cloth there, but not much of it.
“We can see the tip of your nose and about half your mouth,” Ryouma said, because he’d picked up mind-reading while Kakashi had been studying the insides of his eyelids. Or Kakashi was just screamingly obvious. “Some cheek. It’s not a whole picture, though, so your secret identity’s safe from us.” He glanced up at Genma and added lightly, “Looks like you’ve gone in for some facial rearrangement, too, lieutenant.”
Kakashi focused over the edge of his own fingers. Genma’s bare face was shadow-drenched and blurry, but there were twin channels of blood cutting down from his nose. And the bridge looked… less straight than Kakashi remembered. Broken.
Kakashi tried to find a thought about that, and came up with, “Ouch.”
“Yeah,” Genma said, with a ginger touch to his upper lip, eyes half-shuttering for a moment, then he visibly diverted himself. There was a quick blur of warm-handed movement, and Kakashi found himself rebundled up in the foil blanket. This time, Genma pulled the silvery material higher, up over the lower half of Kakashi’s face. “You need to keep warm. I’ve got jutsu that will help, but first I need to get some meds into you.”
Kakashi wasn’t sure he remembered what warm felt like.
That was chakra drain; it always froze you from the inside out.
“O-okay,” he said, and looked up at Ryouma again, a silhouette cut out against the clearing sky. “We got everyone?”
“You and I got ours,” Ryouma said, and glanced at Genma. “I assume, since the lieutenant’s here…”
“Three dead,” Genma confirmed. “One disabled prisoner.”
Kakashi followed the lieutenant’s nod to another silver-wrapped person laid out on the edge of the crater. A blood-slick ponytail looked like it might be blonde underneath. The captain, who’d almost cut Kakashi down.
“What?” Ryouma demanded, jerking up to his feet.
The lines of her body didn’t look complete. Kakashi tracked two legs and what looked like an arm pinned beneath her ribcage; his eye tripped over the missing space where another arm should have dented the foil-blanket out sideways.
“Their captain,” Genma said, over his head. “I amputated what was left of the arm you got, Ram. She might be useful to Intel, if we can get her back to Konoha, but if she hinders us, we’ll do what we have to.”
“Amputation,” Ryouma said, sounding stunned and a little distant. “Right. Well, that’d work…” He stared at the woman for one more moment, then hunkered back down next to Kakashi. “How’re you feeling?”
“B-better than her,” Kakashi said, and felt like a monster when laughter spilled up his throat. But then, he had just detonated a man. And they’d all killed a family, so at least he was in good company. Shivering took over and wouldn’t stop. “C-cold.”
“Ram, heat the water in your canteen to a little above body temperature,” Genma ordered. He slid a pill vial from his med-kit, shaking out a pair of soldier pills. “Morphine getting a handle on your pain, Hound? This isn’t going to feel nice, but I need to get soldier pills in you before I can try to heal you.”
Because healing pulled on the injured party’s chakra. No chakra, no healing.
Soldier pills were going to hurt a lot, though.
“Morphine’s helping,” Kakashi said. It was starting to blunt the edges, at least, making him feel leaden and heavy, like the ground could pull him right down.
Ryouma set a broad hand on Kakashi’s shoulder, and sudden heat suffused through the foil-blanket. Ryouma’s other hand held a metal canteen. He was warming everything at once, spilling a careful trickle of his fire-nature out. With good control, it didn’t even take a jutsu.
“Think you can sit up?” he asked Kakashi.
“Better if he stays lying down, Ram, he’s a little shocky,” Genma cut in, before Kakashi could answer. “Just lift his head and shoulders enough for him to swallow.”
Ryouma nodded and tossed the steaming canteen across. Genma caught it deftly, dropping in the soldier pills and swirling them until they dissolved.
“M’not shocky,” Kakashi protested, through chattering teeth.
A warm hand slid under the back of his neck, carefully cradling, and lifted his head up just enough for Ryouma to settle in behind him, notching a muddy knee into the gap for Kakashi to brace against. “You’re shocking me,” Ryouma murmured, as his chakra rolled heat across Kakashi’s skin. “Awake five minutes and you haven’t even insulted me yet.”
Kakashi blinked hazily at him. “You really smell.”
Ryouma blinked back, then white teeth flashed in a broad smile. “See? Recovering already.”
“Mm,” Kakashi agreed, and settled against Ryouma’s knee.
He didn’t realize he’d closed his eye until the lieutenant’s voice cut sharply through the hissing drizzle of dying rain—“Hound, Hound.”—and a hand touched his face.
Kakashi jerked back awake, and winced.
Genma let out a breath. “Stay awake a little longer, okay?” he said, and tweaked the foil-blanket down to set the lip of the canteen against the unmasked side of Kakashi’s mouth. “You need to drink this. Little sips.”
Tip of your nose, half the mouth, some cheek. Not the whole picture.
Kakashi choked, chakra-rich water spilling down his chin, and flailed a hand up to slap, or grab, or something, anything to get their eyes off his face. Genma’s free hand caught his wrist, careful but rock-solid, and a shadow moved above Kakashi’s head.
Ryouma’s hand curved over the lower half of Kakashi’s face.
“Easy,” Ryouma said, low behind him. “We can’t see.”
Kakashi’s rapid breaths washed over the back of Ryouma’s fingers, curling up warm into his own face. Genma shifted, easing Kakashi’s hand back down under the foil blanket, and said, “Slow breaths, Hound. You’re safe, we’re your team.”
Ryouma’s hand stayed where it was, laid like a steady steel band over Kakashi’s mouth. It was a lot heavier than a mask, and it didn’t cover Kakashi’s nose—because breathing—but it was solid protection, and it kept them from seeing.
Slowly, Kakashi managed to untense.
“Good. Slow, even breaths,” Genma said, in the calm voice of a man used to seeing strange things and not commenting on them. All medics had that. Probably most lieutenants, too. He raised the canteen again. “I need you to drink this.”
Despite himself, Kakashi’s whole body made its best effort to press back through Ryouma’s knee.
Ryouma reached over him and took the canteen from Genma. “Lieutenant, turn your head?”
Genma hesitated, then he nodded and pivoted on one knee, angling himself away. “Get him to drink all of it, if you can,” he said. “If you can’t, I’ll do a transfusion myself and we’ll figure something else out.” He unearthed a soldier pill for himself and swallowed it, chakra flaring brighter with the punch of new energy.
Kakashi wasn’t deaf, he was just—
Having a blind-stupid reaction that delayed things for everyone else.
Ryouma tipped the bottom edge of his hand up and slid the canteen mouth underneath it, lining it up blind with Kakashi’s lower teeth. Kakashi got a grip on himself and drank, tasting the particular metal-edge that went with soldier pills. The water was still warm, and it washed smoothly down his throat. Swallowing hurt, but getting choked—twice—would do that.
He finished it, and fought his right hand up again, wrapping it around Ryouma’s wrist. He meant to drag Ryouma’s guarding hand down, prove to them that he could deal like an actual shinobi, but the chakra hit his coils like a burning wave, and the next few moments wiped out in a dark, shaking void until Genma shoved more morphine into him.
Ryouma’s hand was still over his face when Kakashi could focus again, and the world was a little bit warmer. Blurrier, too. Another red-flagged syrette hung on his dog-tags.
“Sorry, lieutenant,” Kakashi mumbled.
Genma glanced at him, light eyes picking up eerie green reflections. “Nothing to be sorry about, you’re fine. When we get to the safehouse, I’ll have a few more options for dealing with your coil damage, but for now all I have is morphine.” His mouth tightened into a thin line. “Sorry for putting you through so much.”
“Less than Iebara,” Kakashi said, with an eye-curving smile. “Or Tsuto.”
And there was that ugly, ragged humor again, brimming up under the drugs. He swallowed it down with the last edge of metal and tried to have a linear thought. “Now what?”
“Now we clean you up, get you stable, and get to the safehouse,” Genma said immediately. “Ram, can you fill our canteens? We need all need to drink at least a liter.”
Because blood-pills didn’t give you plasma back, they just upgraded whatever red cells you had left to be better temporary oxygen-carriers, so you didn’t die the highly ironic death of suffocating with air still in your lungs. You still had to offset the fluid loss. There was probably some other magic in there, too, but Kakashi’s medical knowledge tended to run dry around ‘slap gauze on it and hope for the best’.
Ryouma needed both hands for seals.
Kakashi’s fingers were still curled around the heavy bones of Ryouma’s wrist, holding him in place. Slowly, Kakashi made himself let go.
Ryouma didn’t move for a moment after Kakashi’s fingers relaxed their bone-biting grip on his wrist and slipped back down under the foil blanket. Kakashi didn’t try to tug the blanket up higher, or squirm down under it, or even turn his face away. He just set his half-bared jaw, sharp-carved in the steady green light, and stared fixedly at a point just over Genma’s left shoulder.
Well. That was clear enough.
Genma was already digging in his kit again, pulling out the familiar metal vial of blood pills. Ryouma balanced the emptied canteen against his knee and pulled his own canteen out as well. His chakra still molded smoothly, flowing into the hand-seals and then surging out eagerly to focus streams of clean water out of the dying mizzle. No need even for a soldier pill yet.
Later, maybe. They had miles to run and an injured enemy to guard, and Kakashi was clearly in no shape even to sit up on his own. Genma wouldn’t be good for much either, if he kept spending his chakra like water.
Why the hell had he saved the Kiri captain? She’d meant to kill them. She would have killed Kakashi, if Ryouma hadn’t intervened. Maybe she hadn’t wanted the fight in the first place, but she hadn’t called Iebara back and she’d plunged into the fight when she realized Konoha was beginning to get the upper hand. She might not be a threat now, but she would be later. Even if she couldn’t form seals without her right arm, that wouldn’t stop her from palming a kunai and cutting any throat she could get to.
Maybe Genma just meant to leave her here. She’d be a danger at their backs, but with luck she’d be too busy dying of shock to follow them.
The canteens were full, and Ryouma’s pants—and the top of Kakashi’s head—were a little cleaner from the spray. He cut the jutsu and held both bottles out to Genma. “I didn’t lose much blood.”
Genma accepted his own canteen, but waved off Ryouma’s. He took a long drink. “Hound, if I give you a pill, can you swallow it? Ram will help you with water.” He tipped a dull red-brown blood pill into his own mouth, crunched it between his back molars, and took another throat-bobbing pull at his canteen.
“Yes,” Kakashi said. He was starting to slur, heavy eyelid dragging down over the grey right eye. Morphine kicking in, Ryouma hoped, not chakra-depletion slamming back. He was still shivering, but not quite as violently as before.
Genma passed a pill over. Kakashi swallowed it obediently, and managed most of the canteen before he coughed and shook his head.
Ryouma drained the last few swallows, and wished he’d heated it first. The condensed rain water chilled his throat and iced in his belly. Kakashi hadn’t protested, but Kakashi didn’t seem quite capable of complaining about anything at the moment. His head rocked back on Ryouma’s crossed shins and then tipped sideways to rest his lacerated cheek against Ryouma’s left knee. He didn’t pull away this time when Genma reached out to check his pulse.
“Soldier pills are helping,” Genma said, relieved. He was breathing a little easier, though his voice was still nasal and raw, thickened by his broken nose. He capped his empty canteen, tucked it away, and began slathering his hands with an antibacterial wash. “I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, but we need to close what wounds we can before we move him.” He rubbed the last of the sticky gel off his fingers onto his wrist, and then touched Kakashi’s shoulder. “Sorry, Hound, we need to strip you down. I’ll be as fast and gentle as I can. Ram will keep you warm.”
That begged for a joke. Ryouma couldn’t think of one.
Kakashi took over for him. His eye slivered open, and he rasped, “B-big jutsu. Gets ev’ryone ‘n my p-pants.”
“You wish,” Ryouma scoffed, which was possibly near the top of his list of Least Successful Comebacks Ever. But Kakashi’s scarred mouth curved in half a smile, and if he could joke things couldn’t be nearly as bad as they seemed. Ryouma tousled his blood-matted hair, and then left his hand there, wrist-deep in sodden spikes. He called up fire chakra, tempered it, sent it trickling down again through Kakashi’s skin. The shivering didn’t ease, but Kakashi’s bare lips were finally beginning to look a little less blue.
Genma moved as efficiently as he’d promised, if maybe not quite as quickly or as gently as Kakashi might have hoped. In short order he unwrapped the foil blanket, stripped off the wreckage of Kakashi’s armor and underpinnings, and swabbed blood and filth away with prepackaged alcohol wipes. Kakashi hissed at the first stinging touch, but thereafter lay silent. Then it was the light, hovering touch of hands lit green with healing chakra, and the shallow gashes in Kakashi’s pale skin knit themselves closed, lacing vivid pink lines out of what had been raw meat. Genma was particularly careful over Kakashi’s face, but Kakashi seemed to have made up his mind to endure. He shivered, but he didn’t make a sound.
There were clean jounin blues, when it was over, produced with a puff of smoke from one of Genma’s sealing scrolls. Genma skinned Kakashi into the long-sleeved shirt and pants with the same careful, impersonal touch he’d used all along. They were much of a size, though Genma was a trifle wider through the shoulders and chest. He tucked the foil blanket back around Kakashi, and then pulled out a roll of clean bandages to wrap a quick, makeshift mask around Kakashi’s lower face.
“He looks like a Kiri nin,” Ryouma said, disturbed.
“Less dead,” Kakashi said, without opening his eyes. His voice was still sluggish with exhaustion, but some of the painful rasp was gone. He turned his head again and pressed his face against Ryouma’s knee.
Genma said gravely, “Much less dead. Also better dressed. They have some ugly uniforms in Mist.”
Kakashi’s watery chuckle tickled Ryouma’s knee.
Genma’s mouth twitched, not quite a smile, but maybe dredging up a fragment of pleased relief. He rocked back on his heels and wiped the back of his wrist across his brow, shoving stringy-wet hair aside with a wince. Then he settled down, weariness dragging at his shoulders, to begin packing up his kit.
“Time to move out?” Ryouma suggested, hopefully. “I’ll carry Hound.”
He didn’t mention the Kiri captain. Her anguished groans had finally stilled. Maybe Genma would forget her. Maybe, if they were lucky, she was already dead.
“What’s your chakra at now?” Genma glanced up from his neatened kit, a vial of pills in his hand. “Are you in good shape if we run into trouble?”
“Down to maybe a third of my normal capacity, but that still leaves me pretty strong. I only used the Naizou Tokasu once, and that was mostly soldier pill chakra. None of the rest of my jutsu are nearly as chakra intensive.” He’d spent about as much chakra on Kakashi’s transfusion as he might have on one bolt of the Internal Organs Melt technique, though transfer inefficiency meant Kakashi’s chakra system still ebbed alarmingly low. Had he looked that white-lipped and hollow-cheeked when Raidou’d pulled him out of the demon queen’s liquified guts?
The eerie green glow of the lightstick wasn’t doing any of them any favors. Rain had loosened the crust of blood from Genma’s newly uneven nose, but his eyes were bruise-shadowed pits and his hair hung lank and dripping. The blow that had broken his nose must have shattered his mask at the edges, too, because there were a scattering of scrapes and gouges at his jawline and hairline, with a dark clotting of blood in his right brow.
Ryouma snorted softly. “Guess I’m in the best shape and the best looking out of us right now. Not that it’s much of a change.”
Kakashi groaned, muffled against Ryouma’s knee. Ryouma patted his head carefully.
“Too bad you’re the only one who still has an intact mask,” Genma said, after a sharp look at Kakashi. He tipped a soldier pill out of the vial and held it out. “Take this anyway. I want you at fifty percent. Make a clone, too. We’ll need an extra guard.”
Ryouma couldn’t help the quick flicker of a glance beyond him, this time. The Kiri captain lay still, but the swaddled lines of her body had shifted; she’d pulled her remaining arm up, beneath the foil blanket, to put pressure on the stump. Still alive. Still thinking.
He took the pill, crunched it viciously between his molars, and swallowed. False chakra flooded into his pathways with a chemical burn. Physical energy from the caffeine and added calories would take a little longer. He shaped seals and spun off chakra, and a second version of himself appeared in a bloom of smoke. The shadow clone settled its mask on and strode over to stand midway between Genma and the Kiri nin, its arms loosely folded and its shoulders rigid with tension.
Ryouma unclipped his own mask from his belt. “Anything else before we move out?”
Genma shook his head. “There’s no sense wasting the chakra to hide this mess. We’d be here for a week.” He finished sealing Kakashi’s ruined armor in the emptied scroll from which he’d pulled the clean jounin uniform, tucked it away, and pushed himself up.
His right leg buckled. The light-bearing shadow clone caught Genma just before his knee hit the mud again. He swore, shook his head, and straightened, leaning heavily on his clone. “You get Hound. I’ll go get our prisoner moving. We can take care of the other dead on our way out of here.”
“If she stabs you,” Ryouma said, “I warned you.” He met his own kage bunshin’s eyes, behind the Ram mask. The bunshin nodded, short and sharp, and drew its sword. If the Kiri captain so much as moved wrong, it would strike.
Genma jerked his chin, either acknowledging Ryouma’s concerns or dismissing them, and limped away. The light from his clone’s glowstick faded with each heavy step, and the shadows crept back in. Ryouma fumbled with Kakashi’s blanket while he could still see, unwrapping enough to free Kakashi’s arms and then lapping it back over his shoulders like a cloak. He secured the ends with a pin from his field repair kit, only stabbing his fingers twice in the dark.
“If I got you on my back,” he asked Kakashi, “d’you think you could hold on?”
“‘f I can’t, should leave me in a d-ditch,” Kakash muttered. He made an effort to draw his elbows up under him. The right one wobbled, but held; the left slid out from under him, pitching him back into Ryouma’s knee. Ryouma caught his head just before his temple cracked against the edge of the knee-guard.
“Just hold on,” he said. “I’ll do the heavy lifting.”
Kakashi was, it turned out, heavier than he looked. Or maybe Ryouma was weaker, after a night of running and fighting in the rain. His shoulder burned a little where Iebara had cut and Genma quickly healed, but the muscles still worked the way they were meant to, and the cut was low enough that Kakashi’s arms, wrapped around Ryouma’s neck, didn’t rub it. He locked his hands together under Kakashi’s seat, bracing his wrists at the small of his back, and thought: Katsuko’d have something to say about touching Kakashi’s butt.
Raidou’d have something to say about boundaries, too.
They’d better be waiting at the safehouse to say it.
He got his knees under him, hefted Kakashi’s weight a little more securely up on his shoulders, and stood with a surge of muscle and a slosh of mud. When he glanced back, Genma had the Mist nin on her feet, still wrapped like a peasant woman in her foil blanket, her face bloody and set in the glowstick light. Ryouma refused to meet her eyes. He looked at Genma instead.
“We’ll be late,” he said.
Genma hauled his arm off his clone’s shoulders and glanced at the watch sheltered on the inside of his wrist. He looked up at the Mist nin, and his mouth tightened. “They’ll wait for us.”
Breath warmed Ryouma’s ear. Kakashi mumbled, “She c-conscious? Ask her if they left people at the p-port.”
Ryouma didn’t want to say anything at all to her, but he gritted his teeth and repeated Kakashi’s question, louder. The Kiri captain lifted her eyes from the mud and stared at him, cold and silent.
His kage bunshin stepped in, out of the wet darkness, and laid the blade of its sword against her neck. She didn’t even glance aside at it. “If you had friends that way,” she said, in a ravaged voice like a viper’s hiss, “they’re already dead.”
Ryouma stiffened. The shadow clone drew its blade back the barest inch, ready to swing.
“Hold,” Genma snapped.
The bunshin’s sword stopped, vibrating slightly in the misty air. The Kiri nin’s mouth curled contemptuously.
Genma said quietly, “It’s your friends you should be worried about, Kiri. Ours are just fine.” His gaze lifted to Ryouma’s kage bunshin. “Knock her out and carry her if she steps out of line. We’re not done with her.”
“Lieutenant,” the bunshin said, with a stiff nod. It wasn’t happy with the order, but it stepped back again.
“Triad formation,” Genma told it, looping his arm around his own clone’s shoulders again. “You and she take point, but mark the pace we set.” The clone grabbed his wrist and slid its other hand behind Genma’s back to grip his belt on his opposite hip. Genma tested his weight on the injured leg, leaned a little more heavily on his clone’s shoulders, and nodded to Ryouma. “Let’s go.”
They struck out for the woods at an almost unbearably slow pace, with Ryouma’s clone and its prisoner leading while Genma and his clone limped behind and to the left. They passed through the narrow belt of charred woods that was left of the copse, and Kakashi stirred on Ryouma’s back.
“Wait,” he rasped. “M’tanto.” One hand unlocked from its clasp at Ryouma’s neck and pointed waveringly at the churned mud.
It took Ryouma a moment to see the glimmer of metal in the darkness, near the dark lump of a ruined body. He hefted Kakashi higher on his back and stooped to pick up the blade. It was lighter than he’d expected, as if the steel were some sort of alloy. He tried to pass it up, realized Kakashi had nowhere to keep it, and finally wedged it through his belt, under Kakashi’s hip. Kakashi gave a little sigh of relief and slumped forward again over Ryouma’s shoulder.
Genma and the clones had just reached the bottom of the slope with their reluctant prisoner; they were nearly invisible in the darkness now, identified only by the faint glow of Genma’s ANBU spark and the ebb of low chakra. His clone must have pocketed the glowstick. They paused on level ground, maybe waiting for him to catch up, maybe consulting map and compass to find their course to the safehouse where Raidou and Katsuko would be waiting for them.
Ryouma spared just two minutes more. A string of seals, a handful of reddish-black chakra. He knelt clumsily again beside the woman with the half-rotted torso. “Remember this?” he asked Kakashi. “It’s the Nikutai Hakai. Said I’d show you if you showed me your face.”
“Mm,” Kakashi mumbled, half-asleep.
Well, he’d only shown Ryouma half his face, and not on purpose anyway. It probably didn’t count. Ryouma set a hand to the nearest bit of cooling flesh and sent his chakra surging through, leaving black slag and crumbling bone in its wake. Kakashi whined in protest at the slap of rot-reek and buried his bandage-masked face in the side of Ryouma’s neck.
“Just one more,” Ryouma promised him. He waited a few seconds longer, until there was nothing left but rot, then cut the jutsu, heaved them both up, and slogged over to the earth-shackled man to repeat the process of corpse destruction. Kakashi was too tired to protest this time.
The others had set off again, arrowing north-east. Or, at least, limping that way. Ryouma rinsed his hands with the last rain in the air, hefted Kakashi higher onto his back, and trudged after them, toward the promise of dawn.