June 15, Yondaime Year 5

genma 2Before the sound of the first explosion had died, a second shook the air, raining dust down on them from the tenement’s swaying beams. The baby’s sudden cries were muffled against Kakashi’s chest. Kimiko jerked against the straps of her sling.

“Go!” Raidou hissed.

“With me,” Genma told Fukuda. “Tousaki, you take our six.”

They emerged from the door to the wail of sirens, but a surprisingly empty street. Lights shone behind previously dark windows, but their doors were still firmly shut. A civilian populace in fear for their lives, Genma guessed.

They ran east, sticking to the darkest corners and crevices, emerging into a dank court of even more ramshackle tenements than the one where they’d found Kimiko. Sirens continued to wail, and searchlights flared to life, playing over the faces of the steep ring of mountains surrounding Kirigakure. Clouds of dust and smoke rose where the blasts had shattered whole sections of stone and set trees ablaze.

Genma gestured to the others to stay hidden, and climbed a leaning power pole to get a better view of their way out. In almost the same moment, a thundering shock wave rolled through the village, emanating from the top of the aqueduct. It was answered by a second, even louder explosion from the south peaks. Flame flashed across the sky, hellish orange through the mist. An entire cliff face began to shear away, crumbling into a landslide that poured down on tall, cylindrical buildings Fukuda had flagged as grain silos. They were swallowed instantly.

At the top of the aqueduct, something had gone terribly structurally wrong. Dust billowed, and the few trees that had clung to the cliffside were bright spots of flame. The aqueduct itself listed to the side, swaying precariously. Water sheeted over the edge where one whole support column had buckled.

Under the searchlights, swarms of shinobi raced up the mountain side to shore up the crippled aqueduct. Scores more were already converged on the buried grain silos.

Genma dropped to the ground. “We have a clear shot to the east pass,” he said. And from there down a steep, seldom used trail that Fukuda had sketched for them. “It looks minimally guarded, but we should hurry.”

Fukuda nodded agreement, and they set off at an even faster pace. The baby was mercifully quiet, although as they entered a more prosperous section of the village, there was enough confusion in the streets that a wailing infant would have been little more than background noise.

The road broadened, paved with cobbles and well lit, and started climbing towards the checkpoint. Fukuda led them into an alley at the back of a row of shops. There were shouts and running footsteps from behind them. They crouched in the lee of a large refuse bin, and Genma took the scout position again, shimmying up a drainpipe to spy on their exit path.

“They’re bringing in more guards,” he said, when he was back on the ground. “At least eight just now, and more are on their way. I could take Tousaki with me and try to eliminate them, but we’d definitely be noticed.” He met his teammates’ eyes. “We need a new plan.”

Fukuda was the first to speak. “There’s the sewer.” Her face was grim with tension. “I didn’t want to take Sango in there, but— The system’s old, it’s walkable in parts. There’s an entrance a street over.”

“Two streets,” Kimiko said. “It’s in block six, halfway up.”

Genma didn’t like the idea of taking an infant into a sewer, either. But possibly infected was better than definitely tortured and killed. He nodded. “Taichou?”

Raidou didn’t hesitate, although his eyes said he wished there was any other choice. “Sewers. Move fast.”

“Of course it’s sewers,” Ryouma muttered. He let the others move past him and took up the rear-guard position again.

Fukuda led them through another alley, this one narrower and darker, to emerge between two buildings, one with a tiny walled garden enclosing someone’s home, the other a restaurant specializing in eel.

There was a storm grate with a round, slotted cover, partly hidden under a wisteria vine at the edge of the garden wall.

Genma had the cover off in seconds. The hole was barely large enough to admit a single climber. Ryouma and Kakashi helped untie the sling holding Kimiko to Raidou’s back, so they could go down one after the other. Genma took point again, descending into an echoing, brick-walled hole with a damp stench that rose like the arms of a demon trying to drag a soul into one of the Hells. This time there was no genjutsu expert to deaden it for them.

He snapped a lightstick, lighting the man-made cavern with eerie green. The tunnel was almost perfectly circular, more of a pipe than something meant for human travel, but there were painted arrows and a few signs high on the brick, pointing in the direction of the next access point. The water level — if you could call the thick sludge at the bottom of the tunnel water — was only ankle deep, but black stains climbed the walls to Genma’s shoulder height where previous torrents had filled the sewer nearly to capacity.

Raidou came down next, followed by Kimiko, then Fukuda, Kakashi and the baby, and Ryouma at the last. He dragged the sewer grate back into place with a metallic scrape and a dull clunk.

It was almost impossible to be sure they were going the right way. Smaller tunnels fed into the larger one, and the main line itself bifurcated more than once. Faded signs painted at every junction on the tunnel ceiling mirrored the streets above. With only Kimiko and Fukuda’s knowledge of the village, and a compass showing they were heading more or less east, they forged on into the dark.

raidou 5On Raidou’s personal list of nightmares, a cramped, mouldering tunnel of unknown structural integrity ranked slightly above getting hamstrung. He tried to think open-air thoughts while he bent nearly double, ducking low so Fukuda’s grouchy sister didn’t concuss herself on the roof. Behind him, the occasional thunk of skull on stone suggested Ryouma hadn’t been so lucky.

Fukuda, well under six feet, had no such problems. She jogged with a straight spine and wire-strung tension. Genma and Kakashi followed her with ducked heads; Kakashi’s unruly hair just brushed the brick.

The first sections were storm sewers, designed to siphon rain and grey-water. The sludge underfoot was mostly street run-off, thick with leaves. Immeasurably preferable to the alternative.

In Konoha, it would have stayed that way. Rain and grey-water ran to the river. Sewage filtered through an entirely separate system to keep their drinking water uncontaminated. In Kiri, everything went to the ocean. Ahead, the two tunnels converged and the smell, already nauseating, came down like a hammer.

Kakashi balked first, one hand jerking up to slap over his mouth and nose. The baby whimpered. Genma followed suit a second later, choking quietly against his palm. Kimiko buried her face against Raidou’s shoulder — which, after the day’s events, was probably fairly fragrant in its own right.

Ryouma made a disgusted sound. “Somebody remind me why Thirteen had to set off the ‘distraction’ before we got clear of the walls?”

“To cover Intel,” Genma said, muffled.

Somewhere in Kiri, Kurenai and Satomi were wraithing silently between targets, gathering whatever they could from record offices, highborn homes, and if their nerve held, the Mizukage’s squat palace.

“Intel’d probably do a lot better at covering themselves if they didn’t have to drag Kuroda around behind ‘em,” Ryouma muttered.

Raidou’s private inclination was to agree, but a shinobi didn’t make it to the position of Vice-commander without something significant to back him up. Plus, worse case scenario, Kurenai and Satomi could always throw him at Kiri and run.

“Complain later,” he said, ripping apart a bandage to stuff two fluffy plugs up his nose. “Run now.”

The next leg of the journey was, put mildly, unpleasant. Since they were still limiting their chakra use, wading was unavoidable. Raidou wasn’t the only one who resorted to nose protection. Genma wrapped a cloth around his face. Ryouma just tugged his shirt up over his nose. Except for that first, reflexive gesture, Kakashi was rigidly composed behind his mask, more focused on keeping the fretful baby quiet. Fukuda was stone-faced.

At the city’s edge, the tunnel slanted downward, beginning the long slope to the sea. The stream picked up speed, gurgling around their shins. The walls began to roughen, bricks transitioning to naturally hewn rock.

“We should be able to get out soon,” Fukuda said, as they rounded a bend.

And stopped.

In front of them, a heavy black-iron grate filled the entire tunnel. Etched seals ran around the circumference, and thick bars criss-crossed the welded wire. Effluent flowed through easily enough, but there wasn’t a lock to break, or hinges to pry loose. The grate had been built in place; it wasn’t intended to come out.

Presumably it had been intended to stop someone breaking in to Kirigakure, but it was just as effective at forestalling an escape.

Raidou spared half a second to think, dammit, then marshalled. “Tousaki, up front with Shiranui.” And Hatake, but Raidou didn’t plan to say a name that recognizable anywhere on the island. “Can we get through it? Around it?”

Genma peered at the bars. “I could weaken the metal enough for us to break through. But I don’t know about those seals.” He pointed to a seal at shoulder-height, and glanced back. “Do either of you recognize that combination?”

Ryouma edged carefully past Raidou, trying to avoid touching the slimy walls in this narrow section. There was a lot of sloshing. He leaned over Genma’s shoulder to squint at the seal. “I don’t recognize any of these. Is tunneling through the rock an option?”

Kakashi had a hand hovering, palm down, close to the wall. “There’re seals here, too, behind the rock. And in the ceiling. And the floor.” He dropped his hand, scowling. “Without getting a closer look, I don’t know what they’re set for — but destroying one in the last tunnel almost collapsed the whole thing.”

Ryouma gave him a quick, sharp look.

“I veto cave-ins,” Raidou said.

Genma shook his head, agreeing, and turned to Fukuda. “You’re a jounin and this is your country. What do these seals do?”

Fukuda held the glo-stick closer, casting green shadows across the grate. In the sickly light, the seals shimmered oddly. “That one is a chakra-inhibitor,” she said, indicating Genma’s seal. “These, lower down, are flash-sterilization seals — to decontaminate the waste before it enters the ocean.”

“That’s all very interesting,” Raidou said. “But how do we break them?”

“The whole point of chakra-inhibitor seals is that you can’t break them,” Ryouma said. He stooped to peer at the seal, frowning distractedly. “Maybe if you could work out a jutsu to eat the chakra powering the inhibitor seal…”

Kakashi made a quiet, dry sound. “Yes, let’s invent a new school of jutsu.”

“Does the inhibitor cover the entire grate?” Kimiko asked, from Raidou’s shoulder.

There was a short beat of silence.

“We’d have to activate it to tell,” Kakashi said at last.

ryouma intenseNo one exactly rushed to volunteer. Ryouma flexed his hands and remembered the last time he’d touched an chakra-limiter sealed cell, the bars that had bitten and blistered his fingers. If Kakashi wouldn’t spare him the time to experiment, maybe they could poke it with a stick…

Genma told Kakashi, “You watch for where it flares.” He swept a narrow, assessing glance around the rest of the huddled team. “We’re all about equally spent, but Namiashi’s got the densest reserves.” The corner of his mouth edged into shadow with an apologetic lilt. “Maybe if you brush it with the back of your hand?”

Muck squelched as Kakashi edged back, shielding himself from Kimiko’s view behind Ryouma’s shoulder. He pushed his eyepatch up, squinted at the grate, and then craned his neck for a better angle. “Ready.”

Raidou sighed, reached carefully past Genma, and tapped two scar-toughened knuckles against the grate.

Seals ignited with a crackle. Raidou snatched his hand back, swearing. The seals burnt out again, subsiding to an eerie shimmer where the glow-light caught their edges.

Beside Ryouma, Kakashi made a soft, satisfied little sound. “It doesn’t stretch all the way to the edge.” He tugged his eyepatch back down, covering the Sharingan, and dug out a new light-stick. Squeezing past Ryouma to the front again, he snapped the stick in half.

Glowing goo spilled out, dribbling down his fingers. A few drops fell, shining, in the muck. Kakashi reached up to paint quick, slashing marks around the upper circumference of the grate, at the edge where iron sank into rock. He kept his other hand curled over Sango’s fuzzy head, shielding her from drips.

When Kakashi finally stepped back, Genma took his place. He brushed his fingers over the outer edge of one of the bars Kakashi had marked, testing it carefully. No seals blazed, this time; no limiters bit. Genma pulled his hand back and flipped through fluid handseals. His chakra bloomed in a tight, contained halo. He reached up again, and touched the first bar.

Nothing happened.

Genma’s eyes narrowed in concentration. His jaw worked sideways, teeth grinding as if he had a senbon there to chew. He released the bar, dragged a finger down to smear the glowing paint, and moved on to the next bar.

Ryouma glanced sideways at Kakashi, about to ask if he had any idea what Genma was doing, and saw the eyepatch pushed up again and the Sharingan spinning.

“You ass,” he hissed.

Kakashi leaned easily out of elbow-range. “Keep it down,” he murmured, barely a whisper. “Sango-chan’s listening.”

Raidou looked over, frowning. Kimiko and Fukuda were looking, too. Ryouma shut up, seething, and shifted again to block Kimiko’s view of that treacherous red eye.

Genma ignored them, working his way slowly around the grate. He skipped several bars in a row, moving from 3 o’clock at the grate’s edge to 12, then back down to 9. Grimacing, he stooped and felt in the stinking sludge for the bottom of the grate. Ryouma began a preemptive search for the rest of the moist towelettes he’d begged off Kurenai.

“A little lower,” Kakashi said, narrow-eyed. He hadn’t marked the lowest bars, presumably because glow-paint was useless under sewer ooze. “Just about—”

His head came up, alert, the tendons in his neck cording with tension. Genma’s did, too.

Fukuda leaned away from the wall where she’d been pressed, but she didn’t take even a single step to disturb the muck. She stared back into the blackness of the tunnel behind them, and her chakra slivered out like a thin sensory arrow, instead of the Konoha nin’s broad sweep.

Kakashi said, between his teeth, “Six. Coming fast.”

Kimiko sucked in her breath, but made no other sound. Genma swung back to the grate, lifting dripping hands from the muck to grip two bars at once. “Eight more points, and we can take this down. Hound, can you do it?”

Pale fingers were already slipping into seals, in the corner of Ryouma’s eye. Kakashi pushed forward to crouch in the ooze beside Genma, curling one hand around an unmarked bar. His spinning red eye seemed alight in the darkness.

Raidou began to loosen the jury-rigged straps of his sling. Fukuda made a harsh sound at the back of her throat, and tugged one strap tight again. “Get her out.

She pushed past Raidou, chakra-walking on the muck now, with no attempt at concealment. Kimiko said, desperately, “Nee-san—”

“I’ve got this, Taichou,” Ryouma said, shouldering past Raidou as well. He focused chakra to his feet and slogged to the surface after Fukuda. Her shoulders were straight, hips aligned, empty hand rigid in preparation for a strike.

Ryouma shoved an unmarked knife into her hand. “Just don’t stick that in my back.”

He could feel enemy chakra ahead of them, now: six, as Kakashi’d said, and closing in fast. Fukuda didn’t even look at him. She said, her voice low and steady: “I told you, once, my team didn’t murder their own countrymen.”

Ryouma bit his lip. “Yes.”

“If I’d come back from that mission,” Fukuda said, staring fixedly into the dark tunnel, “they’d have expected me to turn Kimiko and Sango in.” The blade spun in her hand, and ended pointing downward in a reverse stabbing grip, a knife-fighter’s grip. “Help me protect them, Konoha, and we’ll call it quits between us.”

“My name’s Ryouma,” he said.

The edge of her mouth curled, before darkness swallowed them.

kakashi 9Chakra poured away beneath Kakashi’s fingers, soaking into metal like blood into a sponge. It was a strange-feeling jutsu: earth and fire natures combining to manipulate something that wasn’t quite either. Microscopic holes tunneled through the grate, turning it brittle.

Genma worked two-handed. Beads of sweat rolled down his temples. Iron weakened under his touch. Slowly, slowly, they gained ground.

A shout echoed up the tunnel.

Splashing, chakra glimmers, more voices. Then the searing, ugly flare of Ryouma’s jutsu burning a hole in the world. Metal clashed. Someone screamed.

Kakashi slapped his hands on the next point. Genma kept moving, careful and meticulous. Metal fragments swirled away in the foul sludge. Four points left, then three. The jutsu sucked chakra like a fountain. Metal wasn’t like earth; it didn’t want to yield. They had to make it.

Blood caught on the air, distinctive even in a sewer.

One chakra signature went out.

Genma’s fingers skidded over metal. Two points left. Kakashi narrowed his focus like a needle, fighting to conserve every scrap of energy he could. The grate shifted fractionally, groaning on its supports. Genma reached for the last point.

Ryouma shouted— and was cut off mid-word. More blood gashed the air.

Kakashi reared back and kicked the grate, putting his weight into it. Genma swore and twisted to the side, yanking his hands back. Cracks split the iron where he’d been touching. Then Raidou was in his place, Kimiko holding on with white fingers, and Genma was gone. Back down the tunnel towards the battle, his chakra signature streaming a comet tail behind him. Raidou hit the grate like a landslide. Metal screamed and wrenched. The grate held.

“Again,” Raidou snapped.

This time they hit together, and something gave. Iron buckled, shearing where it was weak. Two bars snapped. The chakra-limiters snarled and snapped like thwarted guard dogs. In unison, Kakashi and Raidou hammered it again. The top portion of the grate tore free, collapsing forward. Its weight ripped the side-supports free and the barrier began to fall. Before Kakashi could turn back to the fight, Raidou grabbed him by the back of the neck and shoved him through the upper gap. “Run!”

Kakashi skidded over sparking metal. “But—”

“That’s an order!”

Kakashi tumbled down on the other side, splashing knee-deep, and snapped his mouth shut. He took one look back. In the distance, steel flashed and a double red-halo blazed. A tall, bloody shadow shoved its hand through someone’s throat. Someone else was on their knees.

He turned and ran.

Metal squealed behind him as Raidou beat the rest of the grate down. Voices rolled back and forth, bounced around by strange acoustics.




Then it was just screams, and then as the distance stretched, nothing. Kakashi tightened his arms around the small body tucked against his chest, clenched his jaw, and ran faster.

genma kusoThere were six Kiri ninja, but two were down. Genma shunted chakra to his irises, drinking in the red-filtered light from their enemies’ lanterns. Ryouma’s hands glowed with crimson death, raking for his opponent’s belly, but the Kiri ninja twisted away. There was barely room for two to fight abreast. Genma twitched a trio of senbon into his hand, points protruding between his knuckles like claws.

“Tousaki, down!” he shouted.

Ryouma ducked hard left, giving Genma the opening he needed. He hurled the senbon with chakra-fueled speed. The Kiri ninja deflected two with a kunai, but a third one sank home in her shoulder.

Her arm dropped, fingers limp. Her knife clattered against the stone and splashed into the sewer muck. Rage lit her face, and she lunged again, to meet a swift death at Ryouma’s hands. His fingers spanned her throat. He only let go when her neck was rotted through to the spine.

Another Kiri ninja was in her place almost before the body dropped. Fukuda was holding her own, fighting with a long hunting knife — had she managed to arm herself at her sister’s house?

She struck viciously, flaying a strip of skin from her opponent’s forearm.

“Takedo?” The man sounded incredulous.

Fukuda gave him no quarter, driving at him.

Senbon flew again, but this time from behind one of the Kiri ninja. Ryouma dodged, and Genma sent them spinning away with the back of his hand.

“Takedo, you traitor! the man screamed. “I wept at your funeral.” His hands furiously twisted through seals. “What are you doing?

My funeral?” Fukuda bared her teeth, her fury unbridled. “What about the Kusakabe? The Yuki? Did you go to their funerals, too?”

The other ninja spat contemptuously, “Trash traitors. Kill her, Rikyu.”

Ryouma didn’t give him time to say more. His foot lashed out, catching the Kiri ninja’s knee from the side. As the fractured joint gave way, Ryouma’s jutsu-lit fingers closed over the man’s arm. Decay spread quickly, turning flesh to grotesque liquid. The man screamed, but Ryouma’s other hand, just as deadly, found purchase on his face. An open-palmed strike was all it took to rot away skin and substance, and with it life. The scream turned into a gargled shriek, then died completely as the body fell backwards into the sludge.

The last Kiri ninja, who’d had no room to fight until now, surged over the body of her comrade. Razor-edged knives flashed in her hands. Ryouma dodged again, knocking back into Genma and the sewer wall.

Fukuda drove hard at Rikyu, slicing for his face. The skin at his temple parted, but he turned in time to protect his eye. Blood sheeted over his face in a wet mask. The red light of the lanterns turned everything blood-colored, but the injury was plain.

In the moment after her strike, though, Fukuda was unguarded. Her balance was off as she pivoted away. The stump of her missing arm twitched forward as if to block.

Rikyu thrust his hands forward, releasing chakra in a tremendous blast. Fukuda grunted and flew backwards, folding up as if she’d been kicked. She crashed against the tunnel wall and slid down it. Genma grabbed her by the shoulder and hauled her further back, vaulting to take her place. He hurled a fresh handful of senbon at Rikyu, and followed with a knife. There was just time to dodge when Rikyu snatched one of the lanterns and swung it at Genma’s head. It shattered against the stone wall. Rikyu met him with a blade of his own, scraping steel against steel.

“Tousaki, we need to end this,” Genma shouted. He blocked a kick and drove his elbow into Rikyu’s side. Rikyu twisted away, jerking his knife free. The blade arced over Genma’s head, and Genma lunged forward, aiming for Rikyu’s belly. Rikyu’s knee came up to block, and his foot, dripping with sludge, slammed into Genma’s wrist. Genma’s knife fell from numb fingers, splashing into the pool of sewage. His footing slipped in the slime, and he nearly went down before he could anchor himself with a burst of chakra.

Behind him, the sounds of Ryouma’s combat echoed off the stone.

Rikyu swung his knife at Genma’s chest, but Genma was faster. His elbow caught Rikyu in the face, bashing him against the wall with no room to maneuver. He was close enough to jerk a kunai free from the holster on Rikyu’s thigh. The blade was a good one; he barely felt the drag as it severed the cartilage and vessels in Rikyu’s throat.

Ryouma’s chakra flared behind him, sickly strong, and the last standing Kiri ninja gasped, then fell with a heavy splash.

Genma reached for his own chakra, scraping at strained reserves for enough to power an earth jutsu. “Get to Fukuda. I’ll try to bring the tunnel down behind us.”

“You okay?” Ryouma asked. His panting breaths echoed over the splashes of his feet as he followed Genma’s order.

“I’m good. You?” One of the Kiri lanterns was smashed beyond repair, but the other still shone, illuminating the carnage. Six Kiri ninja lay dead, four already rotting as if they’d been dead for days. In the dim light, Genma searched the bodies, taking useable weapons and scrolls.

“Just a couple scratches,” Ryouma said. “Fukuda kept them off me.” He was still breathing hard as he sloshed towards her in the gloom beyond the circle of red light. The unearthly glow of his jutsu died. “Hey, you hit your head?” he asked her.

Genma picked up the lantern and headed towards them.

“I can give you a hand up, but you probably won’t want it…” Ryouma said.

Fukuda grunted a denial and reached for Ryouma’s arm, grabbing at his elbow. Ryouma hauled her to her feet, where she stood, still holding on to him, swaying unsteadily.

It had been a hard hit, she was probably concussed. “Get moving. Get her out of here,” Genma said. “Taichou has the grate down.” He snapped open a glowstick and handed the lantern to Ryouma. “I’m right behind you.”

ryouma angryThe red glow of the lantern didn’t do much for footing, except to make the filth they waded through more visible. Fukuda’s sleek chakra was a roil of disorder; she couldn’t chakra-walk reliably, and so Ryouma sloshed beside her, with her hand curled like a cuff above his elbow. The stench of rot mingled with sewer-reek and curdled in his throat.

They found the grate, and stumbled over it; Fukuda nearly put her foot through one of the gaps. She was sweating, breathing open-mouthed. So was he. It helped with the stench, a little.

Another pipe opened into the main tunnel, on the other side of the grate; the current tugged at their knees now, instead of their calves. Each step splashed up to Ryouma’s thighs. He couldn’t hear Genma coming behind him, or Raidou and Kakashi ahead.

“Think you can chakra-walk yet?” he asked Fukuda, glancing back. No lightstick glow catching up. Was Genma setting explosive tags, instead of risking being caught inside a jutsu’s range? Genma’s ANBU spark was the faintest ember, tamped down nearly to extinction. Kakashi and Raidou must be further away; he couldn’t sense them at all.

Fukuda gritted her teeth. “Help me up.”

Together, they clambered to the surface of the muck. Fukuda’s chakra clenched, as her hand tightened on his arm. Her feet still dipped below the surface, then struck off with a sound like rubber. She lurched against him, swore, and tried again.

Slow going, but still better than wading. Ryouma stretched out his own chakra; after a moment, he dared pulse his ANBU spark.

Nothing pulsed back in response. But distantly, behind him, rocks splashed into water. Twenty seconds later, the sewer sludge rippled beneath their feet.

Ryouma looked back again. Fukuda tugged him savagely on.

“That’s my lieutenant,” Ryouma said, wrenching against her grip. “If he’s—”

“He killed Niigaki Rikyu,” Fukuda said, flatly. “He can take care of himself.”

Maybe, but that didn’t mean he should have to. And if something’d gone wrong— If there was another Kiri team in the sewers, following Rikyu’s…

He pulsed his spark again.

This time, an echo, like the second beat of a heart.

Distant splashing, drawing closer. Running feet, unburdened. Genma vaulted over the fallen grate, plunged twenty meters down the narrow tunnel toward them, and called out as soon as he was within ear shot. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Ryouma said. “I just—”

“Talk while you move.” Fukuda started off again, jogging unsteadily over wave-ripped muck, towing Ryouma along after her. Genma caught up, glanced distractedly down at Fukuda, and fell into step at Ryouma’s heels.

“Can you sense the others?” Ryouma demanded. “What did you do?”

“We’ll catch up to the others.” Genma’s hand closed over Ryouma’s shoulder, briefly, then fell away. “I sealed off the tunnel and buried the bodies in the rockfall. A good earth jutsu could reopen it, but by the time they figure out where the blockage in the sewer is, we’ll be as far from here as possible.”

So long as they didn’t run into another grate.

No— if Kakashi and Raidou had been stopped by another blockade, Ryouma would have sensed them by now. They must have found the end of the sewer and made it out into open air. Kakashi was fast, and Raidou could hold a jounin’s run for hours without tiring. They’d be finding someplace safe and clean for Kimiko and the baby, maybe even a stream or waterfall to clean up…

Fukuda stumbled. Ryouma hauled her up automatically. “How far does this tunnel go?”

“Opens to the river,” Fukuda panted. “Downstream of the city. A few kilometers.”

A few kilometers was certainly outside Ryouma’s sensing range, but not too far for Kakashi to run while Ryouma fought.

Farther than Ryouma wanted to run through a sewer with a concussed Kiri nin on his arm, but life hadn’t exactly been handing him all his choices, lately.

They forged on, chakra senses straining. Fukuda’s breathing rasped harsh in Ryouma’s ears; the muscles of her arm were rigid against him. The tunnel grew narrower, pressing them against each other. The ceiling scraped at Ryouma’s head. He stooped, then stopped chakra-walking, dropping back knee-deep into the muck. Their pace slowed to a panting slog.

He tried to count paces, estimate distance. They’d covered half a kilometer from entering the sewer until hitting the grate. He started over again, estimating the gap widening between them and Kirigakure’s walls: two kilometers. Three. Three and a half, and was that light ahead…?

Light and sound: a crash and roar of water, rising over even the sucking splash of their boots. Fukuda’s pace quickened. They took the last hundred meters in a slipping, splashing rush, fast enough that Ryouma nearly missed the moment that rough-hewn rock tunnel transitioned to concrete culvert.

He couldn’t miss the second grate, though. It lay half-submerged in sewer muck, blasted out of the culvert by a jutsu that had chewed huge chunks of concrete out of the culvert walls and left them scattered stumbling-blocks.

“No seals on this one,” Genma panted. “And I didn’t feel the chakra.”

Which meant Kakashi was even farther ahead of them than Ryouma’d thought. Had he made it to safety already?

Ryouma stepped to the edge of the culvert, bracing himself with chakra and a hand on the weathered concrete rim, and looked out into the grey light of early dawn.

Below them, the stream of sewage choked a rocky bed. Thick foliage crowded greedily around its edges, luridly green even in this drained light, and spread out into a broad strip of cessfield. They helped filter the stream, but not by much; fifty meters away, a silvery river turned muddy at watersmeet.

Ryouma looked upstream, toward the waterfall. It tumbled in a misting ribbon from the shadowy shoulders of the mountains guarding Kirigakure’s flanks. Froth churned at its foot, then broadened into a pool half-dammed by fallen boulders. The river ran swift and strong again below the boulders, sweeping up the effluent of Kirigakure’s sewers and rushing out to sea.

Gemma said, pointing over Ryouma’s shoulder: “There.”

There was a scuffed patch on the virulently green streambank, where broken plants crushed into the mud. A man scrambling up the bank toward the river might leave that sort of mark, especially if he was moving fast and burdened…

Fukuda dropped from the culvert. She hit in a crouch and pitched to one knee. Ryouma and Genma leapt down after her, chakra-balancing on the surface of the stream, but Fukuda struggled to her feet before Ryouma could reach for her. She wrapped her arm around her ribs and staggered for the bank, for the torn ground where Kakashi or Raidou had left footprints and nothing else.

“They’re not here,” Ryouma said. “Lieutenant, they’re—”

Genma’s head lifted. The warmth of his chakra washed over Ryouma and through him, unfurling far beyond the limit of Ryouma’s own stretched senses. His eyes unfocused, wide and blind.

Ryouma held his breath, and waited for Genma to find them.

genma 7If he focused on nothing but chakra sensing, and poured his own chakra into the effort, Genma could stretch his range to nearly four kilometers, more than twice his ordinary distance. It was harder to control for shadows and blips — predatory animals with big, unfocused chakra were the usual false positives — but with a familiar chakra to feel for it was possible to sift out the misleading signals.

“Namiashi’s approximately 3400 meters northwest, with Kimiko,” Genma said. “And they’ve got company. At that range it’s hard for me to tell, but it felt like they were using combat jutsu.” He hesitated, then added, “Hound’s not with them.”

Without a word, Fukuda scrambled up the bank and tore across the spongy marsh that bordered it, heading towards Raidou and her sister. Ryouma spat a heartfelt, “Fuck,” as he raced after her. It wasn’t orderly, and it wasn’t good mission discipline, but given the circumstances, Genma couldn’t blame either of them. If they weren’t desperate to preserve the secrecy of their identities, he’d have translocated on the spot himself. But Konoha was the only ninja village that had mastered the art of translocation. If they used that jutsu, and any Mist ninja lived to tell the tale, Konoha’s fingerprints would be all over this mission.

He ran, instead, as fast and hard as his legs could pump. His thighs burned and his lungs ached. In seconds he’d caught up to both his current teammates. There wasn’t breath to spare for words, just mutual understanding that Raidou’s and Kimiko’s lives, and possibly Kakashi’s and the baby’s, too, depended on their getting to the fight inhumanly fast, and ending it before word could get back to Kirigakure’s center.

The earth rumbled beneath their feet, and a half second later the concussion hit their ears, as an explosive jutsu slammed into being. There were dim flashes of light in the dense mist ahead. Genma strained to see through it, cursing when he stumbled over hidden sinkholes in the marsh. With every footfall the fog grew thicker, and their pace slower. But the sounds of combat became more distinct.

Genma dropped back to match pace with Fukuda. “Is this mist natural or a jutsu?” he rasped.

“Jutsu,” she panted. “Dispel with Air and Water. Ram, Dog, Ox, Ram.”

Kirigakure’s technique for creating and hiding in a dense fog was a jutsu every rival nation longed to possess. It couldn’t have been easy for Fukuda to give up its secrets. Genma spared a breath for a “Thanks,” and flipped his hands through the seals once, dry, before he shaped chakra and tried it again.

Water and Air were the opposite elements to Genma’s native Fire and Earth, but even a newly-promoted chuunin could shape chakra of any element. It consumed a little more energy, but it was second nature for him to feed his chakra into the right forms.

His first attempt was too weak to do much beyond clearing the mist away from his own face. “Tousaki, did you get that? It’s going to take a lot of chakra to clear this much mist.”

In the gloom all he could see of Ryouma was a shadowy silhouette. Ryouma’s hand lifted for a moment, and he tilted his head back and swallowed. “Chakra I can do.”

When Ryouma cast the jutsu, a training-field’s worth of mist vanished. They still couldn’t see Raidou, but Genma could feel Raidou’s ANBU spark, a beacon in the darkness. He followed Ryouma’s example and crunched a soldier pill before he attempted the jutsu again. This time the mist billowed away, revealing sparse trees and dense reeds.

The mist was a blank white wall where their jutsu hadn’t reached it. From somewhere beyond it, there was a nasty sounding crunch, and a sharp, strangled grunt. “Go right! I’ve got him,” someone called.

Ryouma’s chakra bloomed huge as he cast the jutsu again, driving the mist away. Genma cast again, too. The rising sun turned the remaining mist a watery lemon yellow, the shadowed bodies blue violet. There were four of them, closing in on a cornered Raidou and Kimiko, who had their backs to a sandy rock wall. He was in front of her, acting as a shield. His hands were wrapped around the chain of a kusarigama, which snaked around his neck. Blood sheened his face. From his left, a tall ninja with an outsized sickle twirled the blade for a lethal throw.

Ryouma charged, hands already rimmed red with killing chakra. As soon as he had a clear shot at the sickle-wielder, he braced his right arm with the left, palm forward. Red-black chakra surged between him and his target.

The other ninja turned at the last moment, eyes wide in surprise, as the bolt caught him square in the chest. The sickle dropped, and so did the dying ninja. A foul red slime gurgled from his mouth as his last breaths left rotting lungs.

Fukuda darted left, aiming for the flanking pair. Steel rang against steel. The chain around Raidou’s neck pulled tighter.

“Go with her!” Genma shouted to Ryouma. “I’ve got this one.” He poured chakra through easy channels of Fire and Earth, locked one arm around the neck of the ninja holding the other end of the weighted chain, and wrapped the fingers of his other hand around the chain itself. Links crumbled to coarse powder in his palm. The broken chain went slack.

Raidou dropped to his knees, coughing, with Kimiko crouched behind him.

Genma’s opponent squirmed and twisted, elbowing Genma in the solar plexus with trained precision. Genma grunted as the air was driven from his lungs, but grabbed for a hold on the man’s arm and wrenched it back, dislocating the shoulder with a slick pop and crunch.

The man roared in pain. Genma let one of the anonymous, unmarked kunai slip from his sleeve and drew the blade tight against the man’s throat.

“You can kill the others,” he called to Ryouma and Fukuda. “We’ll interrogate this one.”

raidou 8Black and red haloes pulsed across Raidou’s vision. He tried for words, achieved a grating rasp. Tried again and got out, “No—time.”

Kimiko’s nails dug painfully into his shoulder, but she was shouting at Genma. “Where’s Sango? Is she with you? Where’s my baby?

Where was Kakashi?

Two chakra signals went out, messily. Raidou pulled the chain away from his throat and flung it down. Air whistled with each breath, but it was moving. He staggered upright.

Just in time to see Fukuda fall.

The sound Kimiko made was like a woman stabbed. Ryouma’s head snapped up. He saw Fukuda on the ground, yanked his hands free from a melting corpse, and bolted to her. Kimiko was only seconds behind.

Genma’s hands made one short movement. Bone cracked. The man he’d been holding slumped to the ground, neck bent to an unsurvivable angle. He flicked a single glance to Fukuda, saw Ryouma with her, and moved swiftly to place green-glowing hands on Raidou’s throat. Blessed cool sank into Raidou’s skin; his breathing eased.

“Hound wasn’t with you?” Genma asked.

“Gone,” Raidou rasped. “No tracks.”

Ryouma’s voice cut up, high with something very like panic before Genma could even swear. “Lieutenant!”

Genma’s head jerked around, but his voice was iced calm. “Has she got a pulse?”

“Fast and weak. I think she’s in shock. She’s not even hurt—” Ryouma’s blackened hands shook over Fukuda’s throat.

Genma cut his healing jutsu and ran.

When Raidou made it to them, Genma was on his knees at Fukuda’s side. Kimiko had both fists pressed against her own mouth, knuckles blanched to bone. One of Genma’s hands curled around Fukuda’s wrist; the other touched to her neck, avoiding black smears. Fukuda’s skin was salt-white, covered in sweat. She was breathing high in her chest, far too fast.

When Genma pressed a hand to her abdomen, she groaned and her knees jerked up.

Raidou’s heart sank. He crouched down at Genma’s side, steadying himself with a hand on the ground, and asked quietly, “Spleen?”

Genma’s lips had compressed to a flat white line. “Or liver. I hope not, but…” He laid both hands very gently over her abdomen, where her lower ribs arched down. “Slow, easy breaths. I’ll do what I can.” To Ryouma, he rapped out, “Morphine. Give her ten and have another dose ready.”

Ryouma wiped his hands over his shirt and fumbled with his med kit, leaving black streaks on both. His hands were still shaking. “I thought it was just a concussion.”

Fukuda groaned, sweat dripping off the sharp blade of her jaw. “Rikyu’s jutsu. Broke a rib, I thought…”

And she’d still run headlong in to save her sister.

Raidou wasn’t medic-trained, but he’d been through a war. He took the kit from Ryouma before the syrettes fell and said, “Tousaki, clean your hands.”

Ryouma swallowed and jerked a nod. He pulled back enough to twist a water jutsu out of the misty air, making a thin stream pour over his hands. Filth sleeted away. He did something with fire next, burning off whatever remained. Raidou stopped watching; he freed a morphine syrette from Ryouma’s kit and sank the needle under Fukuda’s skin. Fukuda blew out a shaky breath.

Kimiko knelt by her sister’s head, stroking Fukuda’s blonde hair with thin, steady hands. There were tears in her eyes, but she held them back. Raidou thought: Kakashi, Sango. They didn’t have time for this.

Chakra made the air shiver. Genma’s hands blazed with it, burning through energy he — they — couldn’t afford, attempting some kind of deep healing that was vastly above his paygrade. The tight lines around Fukuda’s eyes had eased, morphine kicking in, but her breathing was only getting faster. Her fingernails were dusky blue.

Genma stopped.

The light faded around his hands. Without looking up, he took another syrette from Raidou’s hand and injected it into Fukuda’s shoulder. Her eyes fluttered open.

Genma shook his head. His voice, when he spoke, was achingly gentle. “I’m sorry, Fukuda-san. Your spleen is ruptured, and you’ve lost a large amount of blood internally. I’ll try to keep you comfortable.”

Kimiko’s expression shattered. “Takedo,” she choked. The tears spilled.

Fukuda groped for her sister’s hand, catching it in a hard grip. Her eyes stayed on Genma, burning, then flicked to Raidou. “Sango.”

“We don’t know,” Raidou said. “Hound’s gone.”

“Your team,” Fukuda grated. “He wouldn’t split.”

“No,” Raidou said. Kakashi wasn’t betraying them to bolt with the valuable kekkai genkai child. If he wasn’t here, there was a good reason. Like someone chasing.

“He’s our fastest runner, and one of our strongest fighters,” Genma said, a thread of tension rippling through his voice. “He’ll keep her safe. We’ll catch up to him.”

Fukuda rasped a laugh. “You won’t. Not in time.” She lifted her eyes to Kimiko’s face, and then her hand, cupping her palm over the tears streaking down Kimiko’s cheek. “Go with them. They’ll treat you well. Sango…” She paused, gathering breath. “She’ll grow up strong. Unafraid.”

Now Kimiko’s hands were shaking. “Takedo… Don’t… You have to come with us. You have to. I can’t do this without you. Sango needs you. Neechan…” She grabbed Genma’s shoulder with a sudden, violent movement that made Raidou twitch. Her grip nearly ripped the shirt from his neck. “Heal her! You have to heal her! Why aren’t you trying to heal her?”

Low and urgent, Ryouma said, “Lieutenant, you can’t just let her go— Can’t you drain it? We’ve got blood pills, if it’s chakra you need I can transfuse you—”

Genma shook his head sharply. Ryouma subsided. Taking Kimiko’s wrists, Genma freed her hands from his shirt and guided them back down to her sister. “This isn’t something I can heal. I’m sorry, I really am. Even if we were at a hospital with the best equipment and doctors right now, it might be impossible. Out here… Blood pills can’t make up for this degree of blood loss. It wouldn’t matter how much chakra I poured in.”

He returned his attention to Fukuda, focusing on his patient above everything else. “How’s your pain?”

She bared her filed teeth. “Doesn’t matter. Sango doesn’t have time.” Her hand still cupped her sister’s cheek, but her stump twitched, as if she was reaching for Genma. “You started this, Shiranui. End it.”

ryouma 9She wasn’t asking for the mercy stroke. She couldn’t be.

Ryouma clenched fists over his thighs and rocked forward, uselessly. If a chakra transfusion wouldn’t help, if blood pills wouldn’t work, if Genma couldn’t heal, there was absolutely nothing Ryouma could offer that would make any difference. And yet—

Genma’d spared her outside Ibaragashi, when any other man would’ve cut her throat or just left her to die. Even after the mission in Tsuto Takayoshi’s house, where Genma killed grandparents and teenagers, he’d denied that he was looking for someone to save. He said he’d done it for Konoha, for the information she could provide under interrogation, for the confirmation of Kakashi’s Bingo Book kill.

But he wasn’t looking down at her, now, with the eyes of a man who saw her utility as done. There was tension behind that wrought-iron calm: pain in his mouth, a darkness like grief in his eyes. He said, low and quiet, “Tell your sister you love her.”

A sob broke in Kimiko’s throat. Her hand moved in Fukuda’s hair, stroking over the filthy tangles. “Takedo-neechan,” she whispered. “I’ll make sure Sango knows all about you. I’ll tell her how you saved us.” She bent, tears dripping, and kissed her sister’s face.

Fukuda said something indistinct, too low for Ryouma to hear anything but a single recognizable word: “Konoha.” Kimiko’s eyes darted up, across Fukuda’s prone body, to Raidou’s blood-masked face, then dropped again. She shook her head. Fukuda gripped her jaw and tugged her back down. “Promise me,” she said. “Until you’re safe.”

The words dragged out of Kimiko, heavy as gravestones. “I promise.”

Fukuda drew a breath, slow and painful. Her lips were pale, nearly blue. “Look after yourself. Not just Sango.” Her eyes flitted past her sister’s head, skipping over Raidou, finding Ryouma. “And you. You’ll protect them both.”

It wasn’t a request. Not even a demand. Just—certainty.

He ducked his head. Her breath eased out. She kissed Kimiko’s cheek, and then pushed her gently back. “Be quick.”

Genma said quietly, “I’ll make sure you don’t suffer.”

Fukuda shook her head. Her hand fell to Kimiko’s. She turned her head, exposing her throat, and watched her sister’s tears fall.

Genma shifted up to his knees. His hands moved in seals, a jutsu Ryouma didn’t recognize; no healing light kindled. He reached up to slip a hand around the side of Fukuda’s neck, just at the base of her skull, and said clearly, “May the name of the Amitabha Buddha draw you to rebirth in the Pure Land.”

Chakra pulsed.

Fukuda’s next breath never came.

Genma withdrew his hand and sank back. His face was closed off, locked and shuttered. He asked Raidou, “Any major injuries besides your throat?”

Raidou was still staring at Fukuda’s body. He didn’t quite startle when Genma spoke, but his eyes landed first on Genma’s hands. He pulled his gaze away, touched his face, and blinked down at bloody fingertips. “I don’t think so.”

“It may take me a minute to isolate Hound, if he’s in range. Tousaki, do what you can for their injuries.” Genma repacked syrettes into his medkit, moving quickly, with steady hands; he didn’t seem to be looking. He pushed the kit at Ryouma without quite seeming to see him, either. “Use glue for scalp wounds. It’s in the green bottle with the white nozzle.”

Ryouma clambered to his feet. Kimiko didn’t move, bent over her sister’s corpse, her shoulders rounded with repressed sobs. Her maimed hand pushed tangled hair away from Fukuda’s face, and then cradled her sister close.

If Ryouma’d succeeded in killing Fukuda in that rain-drenched grove outside Ibaragashi— If Genma hadn’t saved her then—

He crouched at Raidou’s side. “Here. Your forehead’s cut.” A long, shallow slice above the brows, just where a hitai’ate would have protected. Ryouma imagined the whirling tip of a kusarigama, Raidou dodging not-quite-far enough. Or perhaps not dodging at all, with Kimiko at his back.

No flinching, as Ryouma began to clean the wound. Raidou was watching Genma again, but after a moment, as Ryouma switched from disinfectant to wound glue, Raidou reached up to grab his wrist.

Ryouma held still, or meant to.

His hands were shaking.

Raidou squeezed, thumb and forefinger meeting over the bones. He breathed in, very slowly, and out again.

Ryouma forced himself to match. Breathe in, count seven, breathe out. Repeat. The vise on his wrist ground tendon against bone, but his hands steadied.

Raidou released him, hand dropping back to his lap, and looked to Genma again. Ryouma breathed out, and worked on sealing Raidou’s wound.

By the time he finished, and taped the last of Genma’s flesh-toned patching over a bandage, Genma was stirring again. He rubbed a hand over his temples, wincing as if they hurt, and then jerked his chin northeast. “There are several strong signature at the edge of my range. I don’t have Hound, but he’s probably masking.”

Kimiko looked up at last, her eyes swollen red, her face blotched and wet. She took a deep, shaking breath, and eased her sister’s head back down. Then she stood, hands fisted at her sides. “I’m ready. One of you needs to cremate her before we go. We can’t leave her like this.”

Ryouma said quietly, “I’ll do it.” He closed the medkit and pushed it back to Genma. “I’ll catch up.”

Raidou nodded. “Be quick.” He shoved up, and begun to hunt back through the churned mud and corpses for the harness he must have shed when the Kiri nin cornered them.

Genma took the medkit, but didn’t tuck it away. “I need to boost my chakra. You both should too, if you haven’t taken more than two soldier pills in the last 24 hours.”

“Just the one.” Ryouma accepted the little brown pill and crunched it down. Salt and bitter coated his tongue briefly before he swallowed. Chemical chakra hit his coils, quickening his pulse. Caffeine and calories would follow more slowly, absorbing into his bloodstream. How long had it been since he’d slept?

It didn’t matter. Clean up corpses. Find Kakashi. Kill anyone tracking him. And get the hell back to the ship, and out of this country.

Genma gave Kimiko a rat bar, with the last soldier pill reserved for Raidou. The woman’s eyes followed the pills with a sort of deadened curiosity, but she said nothing. She ate the rat bar mechanically, in short, forced bites. She was still chewing as Genma helped her into the harness.

They said nothing more. Genma touched Ryouma’s shoulder, just one brief squeeze before his hand fell away. Ryouma crouched by Fukuda’s corpse and watched as Raidou bolted into the returning mist, Kimiko huddled on his back, Genma lean and fleet at his side.

He waited until the mist had almost swallowed them, until Kimiko would see nothing even if she looked back. Then he shaped the seals for the Nikutai Hakai, the Human Body Destruction Technique. False chakra surged through his hands, coalescing into a sickly reddish-black glow. He placed one hand at Fukuda’s shoulder and the other at her hip, and he forced himself to watch until she was gone.

Four bodies left. Five minutes.

He did it in three, and then he ran.

genma no cheatingThis entire region of Water Country seemed to be nothing but marsh. There were rises here and there like the one where they’d found Raidou and Kimiko, and sparse groves of trees that loomed up out of the mist, but for the most part, the weak, fog-filtered morning light revealed a monotonous and bleak landscape of bogs and reeds. It was hopeless to look for tracks; the mud swallowed every footprint almost before it was laid down.

They almost missed the first corpse.

Ryouma, who’d run point since he’d caught up, was the first to spot it. His hand came up, signalling for a halt. A shoulder and arm protruded from the mud, and a black-forged shuriken lay half sunken in a clump of marsh grass.

Genma and Ryouma worked together to haul the body free of the muck. It was a man about their own age, in a uniform that looked eerily like their own ANBU uniforms. Dark underpinnings, this one with sleeves. A heavy, armored vest in a dull brown over that, with epaulettes stamped with Kirigakure’s insignia. His face mask was a simple oval, with slit eyes and a yellow crescent arcing under each cheek. Kiri’s four wavy lines decorated the forehead.

Once the body was out of the water, it was plain how he’d died. A darkening purple mass of shredded bowel spilled from a wound just below the edge of the man’s vest.

“Messy,” Raidou said. “But looks like Hound.”

Kimiko took a sharp breath. “He’s a Hunter-nin.” Her voice was laced with fear.

Genma looked at her squarely for the first time since Fukuda’s death. Her face was a little rounder, her eyes a darker shade, but all he could see was the woman Ryouma had tried to kill and Genma had once saved. Who’d been their enemy, then their ally.

“So are we.”

Kimiko’s brows knitted in horror. “You’re—”

“We’ll find your baby, and we’ll get you out of this country,” Genma said. “Trust us. Your sister did.”

Raidou added, with a faint, grim smile, “You’ll also note how this guy is dead, but Hound isn’t.”

Kimiko held Genma’s gaze a second longer, then looked past him to the body. She shuddered once, but said nothing more.

Ryouma prodded at the ninja’s stiffening neck. “He’s got a radio collar.”

“Is it still live?” Genma asked.

Ryouma shoved the dead man’s jaw up to get to the radio collar’s latch. He flicked it open, pulled the collar and its earpiece free, and twisted the dial. There was a thin static crackle, and then tinny, distinct words interrupted by bursts of electrical interference. “—he’s up———try to flank———watch your six—”

Genma looked at Ryouma. “Has to be lightning jutsu. Our radios did that when Hound was fighting—” He stopped himself before he said Iebara’s name. He’d already revealed more than he should have, when he’d told Kimiko they were ANBU.

Ryouma nodded, straightening from his crouch with the radio collar dangling from his hand. Something on the misty horizon caught his attention; he shielded his eyes and squinted into the distance. “Is that smoke?”

“Move,” snapped Raidou.

The radio in Ryouma’s hand continued to crackle with voices and static, but it was harder to hear over the rush of wind and the splashes of their feet as they raced towards the battle. As long as they could hear the electric discharges, Kakashi was alive, that was what mattered.

And then, between one step and the next, the radio voice became suddenly clear. “You’ll have backup your location in thirty. Over.”

The static resumed. “——need——soon——” followed by the clear voice again. “Negative. We have a Code S event at base. Backup arrives in thirty. Hold until then. Over and out.

Ryouma, who was on point, flung a wild look back at his officers. “Translocation? If we kill them all?

“No.” Raidou slashed a hand across his chest, reinforcing his order with ANBU sign. “Run.”

It was the right decision. Even if it cost them Kakashi and the baby. As long as they arrived in time to kill every one of the Kiri ninja, and retrieve or dispose of Kakashi’s body, Konoha’s presence would remain secret.

It was the right decision. Genma would have made the same call. And he hated it.

They ran right over a second body. Her face was a charred suggestion of human features. Genma had seen similar corpses of enemy ninja during the war, the result of the Uchiha Great Fireball jutsu. Kakashi must have copied it from one of them.

The closer they got, the more chakra-filled mist swirled, shrouding the battle and muffling its sounds. The hair on Genma’s arms stood on end, the air crackled, and lightning flashed inside the fog. “Tousaki, cast that jutsu!” Genma shouted. He flipped his own hands through Fukuda’s technique, Ram, Dog, Ox, Ram, and released a blast of Air and Water shaped chakra. The fog shredded away.

Five Mist Hunter-nin were arrayed around the edge of a small pond. A sixth lay unmoving at the water’s edge. In the center, there was a grove of trees, and high in the trees, a dark figure. One of the Hunters made a movement towards the water, and a bolt of lightning shot from the trees, arcing down to boil the water and sheen its surface with electric sparks. When the thunderclap that came with it died away, Genma heard the high, angry wail of a baby who needed to be fed.

ryouma 7If Raidou gave an order, Ryouma didn’t hear it.

Naizou Tokasu turned the closest Hunter’s soft organs to jelly. Then Ryouma was ducking under the swing of a massive horse-killing sword, lunging up with a palmful of death. One hand tore the man’s mask away; the other locked over his face. His thumb sank through the man’s cheek, and then through his cheekbone.

Metal clashed and shattered behind him. He dropped the corpse and spun. The lethal straight blade of a yari spear stopped in midair, just short of his eye.

Raidou’s hand clenched. The spear shaft snapped. Genma flashed by, a streak of black and steel, to take out the spear-wielder.

Raidou snapped: “There!” He flung out a hand, pointing halfway around the pond to the pair of Hunters with a water jutsu rising between them.

Lightning shattered the air. One of the Hunter-nin snarled but neither went down. The twisting column of water began to take on shape: gaping jaws, malevolent eyes, fangs like arm-length icicles. The water dragon reared back, ready to lunge.

Ryouma bolted beneath its looming breast and slammed his hand into the unprotected throat of the nearest Kiri nin. A knife skittered across his ribs, catching in the wrapped panel of his shirt, but there was no force behind it. The woman was a dead weight on his arm. He ripped his hand out, and her body collapsed. Her masked head rolled away.

Someone screamed, and choked off.

Water spattered him. The Suiton dragon was wavering, high as Kakashi’s tree, its features dissolving, the great head bent like a wave about to crash. Genma shouted, from its other side, “Hound, take hold!

Small in the treetops, Kakashi dropped down on his branch, one arm wrapped around the infant, and curled over her.

The dragon smashed down like a tsunami. Ryouma lost footing, sight, jutsu, breath. The wave tossed him like a dirty rag and bludgeoned him down again. He clutched blindly for support. Something struck him a glancing blow and spun away. He hit something else, hard and immobile, and clung with all the strength he had left.

Sky replaced water at last. Ryouma coughed. His lungs burned, but inflated. He was lying on sodden ground in a litter of broken branches and ruined leaves, and Kakashi was bending over him with a shrieking baby still lashed to his chest.

“Did you get crap in your lungs again?”

A slender young tree trunk dented Ryouma’s ribcage. He shifted his grip, hoisting himself up. “Good to see you alive, too.”

“You had doubts?” Kakashi caught his elbow and helped heave him up, one-handed. The other arm was still firmly wrapped around Sango, as she thrashed and wailed.

They both looked wave-battered, sodden and breathless. Small cuts lacerated Kakashi’s hands, and bark shards clung to his clothes. The tip of one ear was crusted with dried blood, as if he’d just missed a shuriken, but his much-abused allergy mask still clung to his face. He scanned Ryouma with the same quick concern, and sighed relief.

Then he looked back, finding Genma and Raidou picking themselves out of the mud on opposite sides of the island, and Kimiko splashing with unsteady chakra-edged steps over the pond. He frowned. “Where’s Fukuda?”

Kimiko’s step faltered, sinking her to the knee. But she found her footing again, and lurched out of the water. Kakashi tried to help her release Sango from the drenched wrappings; Kimiko seemed not to notice. She tore Sango free and cradled her screaming child to her breast, head bent, arms wrapped so tightly the baby’s shrieks reached a higher pitch.

Raidou gripped her shoulder, pulled her away. Sango’s cries muffled, then stopped, as Kimiko sat down heavily on an uprooted tree. Raidou stood with his back toward her, watching the curling mist.

Kakashi said, pressing, “Fukuda.”

Ryouma looked down at his hands.

Genma squelched through the trees toward them, and thumped a half-empty water bottle against Ryouma’s chest. He looked past them, at Kimiko, then met Kakashi’s eye unflinchingly. “She died of internal injuries from our fight in the sewers.”

The worried pinch between Kakashi’s brows wiped clean. His face was perfectly blank, as empty and accusing as Raidou’s porcelain moon mask. He looked at Ryouma, and said nothing.

Genma said sharply, “She took a bad hit from one of her own people, but she didn’t let us know how bad until it was too late. I tried to save her. I couldn’t.”

At least Genma’d tried. Ryouma’d tugged her stumbling through three and a half kilometers of sewer, and never bothered to notice she was dying.

kakashi 4Kakashi bit back a half-dozen cruel responses. Ryouma had gotten what he wanted: Fukuda dead. Plus a dozen Kiri-ninja on top.

Happy slaughter, Tousaki.

But the look on Ryouma’s face wasn’t the pride of a strike well-executed, or the satisfaction of a problem resolved. He hadn’t gotten vengeance, Kakashi realized slowly; his great stupid self had gotten attached.

Which still left Fukuda dead, Ryouma guilty, and Genma worse. Even with rot and sewer and death on the air, Kakashi could smell the lieutenant’s ratcheting stress.

And Fukuda dead.

He hadn’t liked her. She’d nearly killed him. She’d stopped a wolf eel from tearing his throat out. She’d given them Kirigakure’s heart on a plate — but only after they’d come for her family.

Kakashi breathed out once through his nose, slowly, and said, “We need to go. They’re sending reinforcements.”

“We heard,” Ryouma said. He cast a distracted look down, slapped a hand to his back pocket, and finally located a half-crushed radio collar hooked to his belt. It was splattered with unnamable filth. Kakashi stole it from Ryouma’s unsteady fingers and held it near his ear.

“——respond——are——there? Respond——”

The tiny speaker drowned itself in a scramble of static. Kakashi shook it, which did nothing. On the principle that Kiri-tech was probably similar to Konoha-tech, he shook it again and whacked it against the side of his leg.

The voice snapped into clarity. “——nemy genjutsu confirmed at base. Backup delayed. Confirm you are holding. Repeat, confirm——”

The signal futzed out again.

“Or not,” Kakashi said. He threw the radio back to Ryouma. “We should leave anyway.”

Kimiko flat-out refused to be separated from Sango, so for the next leg Raidou carried them both. Genma and Ryouma flanked him, while Kakashi hung back to cover their trail. They went due East, keeping the pace fast and the conversation nil. Only Sango made an occasional sound, quickly hushed by her mother. Kimiko refused to look at any of them; the back of Raidou’s shirt grew quickly damp.

Genma kept his eyes on the horizon. Ryouma focused on the ground.

The radio hissed and spat, providing static-y snapshots of a village in chaos. Team Thirteen’s answer to Intel’s need for a diversion was a daisy chain of explosions with the occasional multi-layered genjutsu thrown in for interest. Ginta, Kakashi suspected, was having fun. But most importantly, there was no mention of Kurenai, Satomi, or Kuroda being discovered.

Gradually, the sodden swampland yielded to tough, scrubby coastal grasses. Salt gave the morning air a briney sting. The radio, increasingly patchy with distance, finally died at the edge of a sheer cliff overlooking a fingernail-shaped beach. The ocean was a fiery sunrise spill stretching to distant, dawn-lit clouds that hid Inokosaka island. It was the smallest island on the chain, mostly uninhabited and lurking in Aoshima’s shadow. The ship was due to collect them at Satsujin-Sha Cove, on the farthest side, in eighteen hours.

Kakashi looked at the water and thought, Sharks.

And an infant. And no Fukuda to guide them.

For the briefest of moments, the waves blurred. Kakashi rubbed his uncovered eye. They were going on forty-eight hours without sleep. He could feel the weight starting to drag at his bones.

“Keep moving,” Raidou said, voice a low rumble. He levered himself over the edge of the cliff and began to walk down its face. Genma and Ryouma followed, muted chakra glimmering with the unnatural crackle of soldier pills.

Maybe they could sleep on the other side, while they waited for Thirteen and Intel to catch up.

Kakashi brushed a scuff from Genma’s boot away, unbent some grass Ryouma had stepped through, and slid down to join the rest of his team.



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