June 12–14, Yondaime Year 5
The morning—if you could call breaking camp at 0300 morning—had been a hectic rush of getting two ANBU teams, two Intel agents, a one-armed prisoner, and an unsatisfiable and ill-tempered commander moving in time to make port by their departure window. The ship awaiting them had looked like any of a dozen others in the dark: a long, looming hulk riding high in the water, with a pair of masts jutting up into the dark sky like two lightning-struck pines. Viney ropes had draped from mast spars, but the dragon-wing sails had still been furled.
Now, though, the sails were open and straining with the brisk breeze blowing from the west. The water was mercifully calm, an artifact of an unexpectedly late start to the June rains, according to their captain. Despite their speed, the junk cut through the sparkling waves almost without a ripple.
Genma lounged back in a coil of rope near the ship’s prow, shielding his eyes as he squinted up at his counterpart lieutenant from Team Thirteen. Sakamoto Ginta had his knees hooked through the rungs of a rope ladder and was contentedly hanging upside down, with his blond hair, for once, obeying gravity.
“He’s not much for conversation, is he?” Ginta asked, pointing a bare toe at Kakashi, who was perched above them both on the topmost spar on the forward sail.
“He grows on you,” Genma said.
“Like foot fungus?” Ginta snickered. “Rumor has it he’s at least as unpleasant, but a lot easier to get rid of.”
“He’s not actually that easy to get rid of. Especially if he’s tailing you.”
“He tailed you?”
“No manners. Guess it’s not surprising, given what a shitty education he had.”
“Yeah, who’d want Namikaze Minato-sama for a sensei? I know I wouldn’t,” Genma said, playing along.
“That’s because you’d be so distracted by his beauty you’d never learn anything.”
“I think you mean you’d be distracted that way if he were your sensei. Get back down here,” Genma said, forestalling further discussion. “You’re giving me a crick in my neck.”
“Are you sure that isn’t just a ploy to get me to give you a backrub?” asked Ginta. He slipped his legs free from the ropes and flipped neatly over in a somersault to land on the deck next to Genma.
“With Kuroda watching?” Genma raised an eyebrow. “You might have your granddad’s protection, but he’d bust me straight out of my commission, dock me a month’s pay, and probably take it out on Namiashi-taichou anyway.”
The mention of Raidou’s name dialed Ginta’s flippance back and his curiosity up. “Namiashi finished out his special training and he’s back on full duty, isn’t he? Or is that why Yuuhi is here? I guess Kuroda, too…” He sucked his lips in against his teeth, then turned piercing blue eyes on Genma. His voice dropped to a hush. “He’s still on probation, isn’t he?”
Genma glanced up at Kakashi, who was probably eavesdropping, and lowered his own voice to match. “Kuroda’s still got a target painted on him. On our whole team, actually. He really had it in for Ueno before she got reassigned, and he’s an ass to Tousaki.”
“And to you,” Ginta said. “None of us liked him before, except for that pencil-dick Sato on Team Sixteen and a couple of others, but you didn’t used to have that jaw twitch every time he walked by.”
“Shit, I have a twitch?” Genma reached a hand up to smooth along his jaw almost by instinct.
“Nope,” Ginta said cheerfully. “But he is under your skin.”
“Dammit, Ginta.” Genma kicked at his companion’s foot with his own, but Ginta used it as leverage to spin into a seated position on a neighboring coil of rope.
“Look, if Usagi-taichou got turfed next week and we got Kuroda in her place, he’d make our lives a living hell, too.” Ginta blew a stray lock of hair out of his eyes. “No one in ANBU — except the aforementioned toadies — has anything but sympathy for you and your team.”
“What’s Usagi like?” Genma asked, trying to turn the tide of this conversation before it drifted into even more dangerous territory. Kuroda was ostensibly interrogating Fukuda in her cabin, but the bastard could be anywhere.
“Oh, you know her,” Ginta said. “I mean, she’s not much different now than she was last year, except she has more authority and leeway since she’s a captain. About as subtle as a fireball to the face. One that laughs at you after it burns your eyebrows off.”
“I haven’t spent much time around her,” Genma said. “But that much I knew already.”
“Ok, how about this?” Ginta asked. “She busted out two of Abe’s teeth for being a ‘sexist pig fart.’ Her words, not mine.”
“Your medic?” Genma asked. “Did he have it coming?”
“More than. I thought about stepping in, but I was having too much fun watching.”
“Now he brings her breakfast rolls every morning.”
“I hope he’s getting them at our bakery,” Genma joked.
“If he’s not, I’ll just tell Usagi how much better the rolls are from Shiranui Bakery while he’s listening. She likes you. She’ll totally play along.”
“She likes me?” Genma heard his voice crack on the shock. “She barely knows me.”
“She likes Namiashi, and she knows you stuck up for him and by him. Of course she likes you.” Ginta grinned.
Genma couldn’t help raising himself on his elbows to scan down towards the raised stern of the ship. Usagi-taichou’s opinion of him wasn’t really important, as long as she accepted him as a competent mission-mate, but still… It was nice to know.
Their captains and the two women from Intel were in some kind of conference around a small table — clad in their civilian clothing, they almost looked like a group of hanafuda players intent on their cards. Team Thirteen’s fifth member, the broad-shouldered Tsuda Eizo, was bare-chested and at work in the rigging with a couple of the sailors. Genma glanced away before Ginta could make some too-salient observation about his choice of scenery, and picked out Tousaki and the two rookies from Team Thirteen lounging in the shade of the big sail. Tousaki said something with a wide grin, got a laugh from Abe, and a cold shut-down from Yamada Kasumi.
Genma liberated a senbon from his sleeve — civilian dress still had plenty of places to conceal weapons — and chewed thoughtfully on one end. “I see your other rookie still wants to be in the running with Hatake for ‘Most Friendly’.”
“That’s our Yamada,” Ginta said. “Brings a smile to every lip when she enters a room.” His expression turned a little more sincere. “I don’t mind her. She’s a hard worker, she knows her stuff, and she’s got ambition. Usagi likes her, too. I think Yamada reminds our captain of herself as a rookie.”
“I guess that doesn’t surprise me, except for the whole friendliness thing.”
“Eh, opposites attract?” Ginta shrugged.
“That might explain Tousaki and Hatake,” Genma said.
“They get along?” Ginta tipped himself over backwards to stare up at Kakashi, who was still perched like a moody albatross in the uppermost rigging. Kakashi’s dyed brown hair, eye patch, and thick cotton allergy mask added to the picture of shabby distress.
“Something like that,” Genma agreed. “They show it for the most part by trying to kill each other in training and trying to outdo each other at noble self-sacrifice on missions. But they’re okay. Scary as hell in a fight. Tousaki’s the one who took Fukuda’s arm off.”
“I thought you did that,” Ginta said. “That’s what she told me.”
“Tousaki rotted it. I cut it off to save her life. If the rot had gotten to her chest—”
“Ugly,” Ginta said.
“Since when did you get cozy with our prisoner, anyway?” Genma rolled onto one hip, angling himself towards his companion.
Ginta waved an airy hand. “Oh, you know. When I had some time.”
Which didn’t answer anything. Was it in the bowels of T&I? On guard duty sometime in the last three weeks? Somewhere in the last thirty-six hours when Genma was occupied elsewhere and not paying attention? He debated pressing for more details, but Ginta stood up, newly alert.
“Captains are both waving at us.” He reached down to help Genma to his feet, surprisingly strong for his size. “Time to act like responsible officers.”
Genma’s questions would have to wait.
Raidou braced an elbow on the bolted table, watching the pair of lieutenants vault down from the prow. Sakamoto Ginta was a short, blonde shadow on Genma’s left, with bright blue eyes and a smile that was just a little on the suspicious side of friendly. Together, sun-glowing and dressed in unremarkable dark clothes, they looked like a couple of young men on a working vacation.
Across the table from Raidou and Usagi, Yuuhi Kurenai and Uchiha Satomi had also swapped their Intel uniforms for wrap shirts and sturdy pants, loose-fitting enough to conceal blades. Kurenai hid her crimson eyes behind muddy brown contacts; her tumbling black curls were tied up in a high ponytail. Satomi—
Raidou really didn’t know where to start with Satomi.
In his general experience, Intel agents were either stunning or blandly unremarkable — Kurenai was the former; Oita, the department commander, was definitely the latter — but Satomi took a sharp left from standard. The pale skin, short stature, and delicate bone structure were typical Uchiha, along with a personality like a bitten snake. Her head was shaved nearly to the scalp, leaving only an aggressive suggestion of dark hair. A dozen healed holes in her earlobes marked the former presence of piercings. She looked more like a Yakuza than a shinobi, minus the tattoos.
Katsuko probably would have loved her.
She and Kakashi also seemed inclined to circle each other like territorial cats. But for a mission where accurate recall was crucial, Raidou would take all the Sharingan he could get.
Genma and Ginta chose seats for themselves, and Usagi launched into a rapid fire explanation of the details Kuroda had handed down. Kurenai interjected with her own thoughts; Satomi sliced the conversation short whenever it started to derail. Both lieutenants readily offered their own commentary — Genma’s, thoughtful and clear; Ginta’s, incisive but occasionally confusing — and Raidou threw in his own ideas.
They were young teams, with fledgling leaders, but as information flew between them, Raidou found himself fighting down an impatient smile. A sane infiltration needed weeks of planning, veteran commanders, and concrete information from a source other than a one-armed kunoichi with very good reason to murder them all. But this was ANBU: sanity optional. They’d crack Kiri open and bring the bones back for Konoha, and they’d do it with rookies.
Raidou leaned forward. “Yuuhi, talk us through those caves again.”
Kurenai spun a freshly drawn chart around on the table, and took them through Kirigakure’s first line of defenses.
Kuroda returned from Fukuda’s cabin when the sailors were lighting the evening lamps, and ordered Kakashi out of the rigging to guard Fukuda. The remaining rookies were tasked with re-checking equipment and preparing the evening meal.
With only minimal unpleasantness, Kuroda sat down at the table and critiqued their plans.
It took two days to reach Torishima Island’s coastline, and Raidou only knew they’d made it by the sailors’ ratcheting tension. The Eastern Sea was a challenge for a reliable navigator under favorable conditions, but the dense fog shrouding Mist made it downright treacherous. Jagged sea stacks made the currents swirl unpredictably. Strange reefs and whirlpools marked the presence of underwater caverns. Sandbars rose to scrape the ship’s shallow draft. They all had comforting names, Raidou learned, like Drowner’s Bar and Widow’s Revenge.
When turbulent clouds swallowed the moon, erasing the last glimmer of light, the captain threw down the anchor and refused to go any further.
“Y’can swim from here,” he growled, squaring his shoulders like he expected a fight. Nervous sailors gripped long boat-hooks and edged in front of the few life rafts, prepared to defend them from thieving ninja.
Usagi snorted loudly.
“This is sufficient, Arakida-senchou,” Kuroda said. “We’ll meet you at Satsujin-Sha Cove in two days. Leave by sunrise if we don’t arrive.”
The captain didn’t relax, precisely, but he did breathe again.
It was a matter of minutes to collect supplies and Fukuda, and disembark. Eizo, Team Thirteen’s muscular veteran, fell into lockstep with Fukuda, and was immediately flanked by the rest of his team. Kuroda took point with the two Intel agents. Raidou and Team Six assumed the rearguard.
It wasn’t Raidou’s favorite thing in the world to wave-walk on a black ocean, and not only because of the poor light. Even the smallest wave was a balance challenge. The ship receded behind them. Ahead stretched grey nothingness. Raidou glanced down at his feet, leaving choppy ripples, and wondered how much truth there was in the rumors of Kiri’s blood-thirsty sea monsters.
The group reached slick cliffs, and navigated the transition from ocean to breakers to barnacled rock with only a few wet feet. The cliff-climb necessitated less chakra use and more muscle, as they kept their presence concealed. Even Kuroda was breathing a little hard when they finally made it to the top.
Kakashi inhaled the leaden, iron-salt air. “Smells like blood.”
“Welcome to Water Country,” said Fukuda, with a tired shark’s smile.
Ryouma resisted, just barely, the impulse to spit.
He’d managed to keep his distance from Fukuda so far. Team Thirteen had primary custody, and Kuroda preferred assigning Ryouma to scutwork anyway. But Fukuda looked…different, from how he remembered her. Paler, thinner, her blond ponytail chopped off into a short easy-to-tend bob, her mouth etched with fine lines of pain. She wore the same dark, loose-cut pants and wrapped shirt as the Konoha nin, empty sleeve pinned over her stump. Unlike the ANBU, she carried no hidden weapons or scrolls. On the run, and on the junk, she’d kept her gaze fixed on the horizon.
Now, with the rocky soil of her own country under her feet, her shoulders straightened. “Your timid ship-captain lost us time,” she said. “We’ll have to run.” The sharp-tooth smile tugged at her lips again. “Watch your step, Konoha.”
Kakashi’s eye narrowed, a glimmer in the darkness, but Kuroda said dismissively, “Lead, Kiri.”
The squad reformed, three interlocking triangle shapes with Fukuda and Eizo at the point and the Intel agents protected towards the center. They ran, or tried to. The vegetation was a tangle of low trees and dense shrubs, with no branches high or thick enough to hold a shinobi’s weight. Knotted roots caught at their feet, and jagged spurs of rock struck up unexpectedly out of ferns to bruise their shins.
Shredding clouds let a little moonlight slip through, then hid it again. They left the wave-cut line of the cliffs and plunged abruptly into a steep ravine, clambering over rocks and splashing through a stream too thin to chakra-walk. At least there were no trees, here.
Fog found them again, cold and clammy, and their clothes clung to their skin. Wet boots chafed. Ryouma was fairly certain he was rubbing a blister.
The ravine cut off at the base of a waterfall. Fukuda led them scrambling up slick rock and plunged into jungled hills. Once or twice, as they crested yet another ridge, Ryouma saw the dim watch-lights of villages a long way off.
“Thought Kirigakure wasn’t on this island,” he muttered to Genma, when he had breath to spare. “Why the hell couldn’t we start closer to the access point, instead of running from one side of the damn thing to the other?”
“We couldn’t just sail around the island and drop anchor in the closest harbor,” Genma reminded him. “Even if the captain had been willing to take us that close, you think Water Country villagers won’t report?”
A seafaring junk in a fishing village probably was more noticeable than a bunch of suspiciously young and healthy strangers hiking through isolated forest. Ryouma wished they’d bludgeoned the captain into bringing them in a little closer, anyway. Maybe Fukuda just wanted to run them all to exhaustion before she sprang her trap.
“Not enjoying the scenery, Tousaki?” Kakashi asked mildly, resettling the elastic band of the dark cotton allergy mask around his ear. With his dyed hair and civilian clothes he looked like some wanna-be civvie delinquent, and Ryouma told him so.
“Settle down,” Raidou rumbled, behind them.
Ryouma gritted his teeth, and kept running.
A sharp ridge led them down from the island’s spine toward the eastern coast. The sky began to grey toward dawn, and Fukuda picked up the pace, hurtling down the treacherous slope toward a thin strand of pebbled beach and a rock-strewn cove.
“High tide,” Ryouma heard one of the Intel agents murmur to the other as they reached the shore. Yuuhi Kurenai, the pretty one, who seemed friendlier with Raidou than Ryouma liked. She freed her curling hair from its high ponytail, ran her hands through it, and began to braid it swiftly into a tight rope.
Uchiha Satomi uncorked her canteen, drank, and passed it to Fukuda. “You set a good pace.”
“I had good reason,” Fukuda said, coldly. But she took the canteen.
“Five minutes,” Kuroda told the rest of the squad, breaking a rat bar out of his pocket. He paced down the shore, eyeing the waves. “Get ready to swim.”
Ryouma stuck his own rat bar between his teeth and stripped off his shirt. Sakamoto Ginta, Team Thirteen’s lieutenant, spread out a long scroll; piles of clothes, boots, and belts quickly began to build. Genma passed out jars of a dark, smelly grease to smear over exposed skin. Kakashi shed his shirt but kept a tank-top. He double-checked the straps of his mask around his ears and ignored Kasumi’s incredulous stare.
Fukuda stripped down to sports bra and underwear without assistance, then rigidly accepted the Intel agents’ help in greasing her skin. The stump of her arm had healed tight and shiny, purple with scar tissue. Ryouma looked away.
“Two minutes,” Kuroda said.
Genma collected the jars and piled them on the edge of Ginta’s sealing scroll. The thinnest spark of chakra, a puff of smoke, and the scroll was empty, its contents marked only by an inky scrawl. Ginta rolled the scroll, slid it into a watertight case, and belted the case to his narrow hips. “Ready,” he said.
Kuroda checked his watch, the only personal item they’d kept back from the sealing scroll, and nodded. “Well done,” he said, grudgingly. “Fukuda?”
She walked to the edge of the shore, her bare feet steady on the sharp rocks, and stood where the oncoming swash could ripple over her toes. “Bird,” she said. Her remaining hand formed half a seal. “Monkey. Dog. Horse. Hare. Bird. Rat.”
Uchiha Satomi’s Sharingan were wide and spinning red. So was Kakashi’s.
“Could’ve given us more time to practice,” Ryouma muttered between his teeth. He followed the seals, but had to guess at the path his chakra would take: a twist here, a loop there, opening wide then closing sharply in…
Fukuda bared her shark-sharpened teeth. “Could’ve left my arm to shape the seals for you, Konoha.”
Genma put a warning hand on Ryouma’s wrist.
Sakamoto Ginta looked up from his practice hand-seals, and gave Fukuda a cold smile full of promise. “How well would you swim armless?”
“Still better than a Leaf-nin,” Fukuda said, unflinching. “If I told you all my secrets, you’d have fed me to the fish already, and let Kimiko rot.”
“You’ve told us enough,” Kuroda said, unsympathetic as granite. “Kindly proceed, so we can avoid that unpleasantness.” He glanced over his shoulder, and fixed Raidou with a narrow glare: keep your children in line.
Raidou gazed back impassively until Kuroda turned away. Then he reached around without looking, and swatted Ryouma on the back of the head. Ryouma kept his feet, with effort.
“Once more.” Fukuda stood ankle-deep in the black sea now. “Bird. Monkey. Dog.” Her chakra rasped Ryouma’s senses, but Satomi and Kakashi had to be seeing more; their hands echoed hers without hesitation, and their chakra flowed tight and controlled. Satomi took two steps forward, passing Fukuda, and then knelt and bent her head directly into a breaking wave.
The water flowed over and around her in a perfect bubble, leaving her shaven head dry. She stood, shivering, and terminated the jutsu with an abrupt Ram. “It works. Fifteen minutes, I’d guess, no more. We’ll have to surface during the swim.”
“There are air pockets,” Fukuda said. Her eyes were on the sea, hungry.
“Stay close,” Kuroda ordered. “Hatake, you’re with Fukuda. Team Six, Yuuhi, then Thirteen. Uchiha and I take rearguard. The rest of you, partner up. Chakra flare if there’s a problem, but keep it tight.” He looked around at them, his eyes dark and steady. “We get one shot at this. If you can’t do it, fall out now.”
No one moved.
“What are you waiting for?” Kuroda demanded. “Hatake, move out!”
Kakashi offered a greasy, half-naked salute, took hold of Fukuda’s amputated arm, and spun them both into separate air-bubble jutsu.
The moment her bubble closed, Fukuda launched herself into the ocean. Kakashi locked his grip on her arm — slightly more difficult with the grease — and mimicked her dive with the Sharingan’s help. Behind them, muted swirls of chakra marked eleven more bubbles popping into being.
A steep coastal shelf dropped them almost immediately into deep water. Kakashi hissed at the cold shock, but Fukuda kicked down to the ocean floor, groping among murky weeds. She pulled up a heavy rock and shoved it into Kakashi’s hands, then collected a second for herself, tucking it under her good arm. The weight helped him to orient down, staying below the surge of restless waves.
Bubbles streamed as both teams, the Intel agents, and Fukuda dropped into the water. There was a brief chaos of pale limbs and tangled pairs before Ginta and Genma cast pale blue witch-lights, beating back the darkness enough for everyone to get situated and collect their own rocks. Ryouma, Kasumi, Abe, and the Uchiha followed suit with their own light jutsu, surrounding the group with an eerie glow.
Ryouma, Kakashi noted, had paired up with Genma. Raidou, further back, was next to Kurenai; they seemed much more comfortable with each other than Kakashi remembered.
Fukuda tugged on Kakashi’s arm and pushed off. With a certain amount of reluctance, Kakashi followed her into deeper waters, then North, paralleling the coastline. The air bubble distorted sound, echoing his own breathing back at him and reducing everything else to muffled white noise. Beyond the dim circle of light, the ocean was a solid wall of black, interrupted occasionally by strange flickers. Kakashi couldn’t help thinking of teeth.
Unerringly, Fukuda led them along a route without apparent landmarks. She swam with sleek, powerful kicks, a creature in her element. The Konoha-nin, more used to trees and Konoha’s broad, lazy river, were awkward — and cold — but they kept pace, and Kakashi kept his grip.
Just when he was starting to wonder how much longer the air would last, Fukuda slowed, and the lights illuminated the melted shape of a stone slope stretching along the ocean floor. A saw-toothed gap yawned darkly. Fukuda nodded to it, and Kakashi thought, Of course.
They surfaced quickly to refill their bubbles, then dove down.
Kakashi dropped his rock to catch hold of the opening’s edge, squinting for the telltale chakra flicker of a trap. Fukuda’s heel drove into his hip, slamming him sideways into rock. Bare skin scraped over jagged, salted stone. Kakashi caught himself with a spark of chakra, and twisted around with a snarl to grab her by the neck.
He stopped short.
Fukuda’s feet kicked gently, keeping her in place. Held tightly in her good hand, a long silvery shape thrashed, snapping at her face. The eel was as thick as Raidou’s arm, and easily as long as Kakashi was tall. Fukuda ripped its throat out with her teeth, destroying her bubble in the process, and calmly threw the dying fish out into open water. Something large surged by, there and gone in a heartbeat, along with the eel.
Alarmed chakra flared behind them, quickly throttled.
Fukuda shaped a half seal, and opened her hand like a question. Understanding, Kakashi hauled her close and echoed the seal. His air bubble ripped and stretched enough to close over her head. Fukuda drew a shallow breath. “Pay attention, Konoha.”
She stank of brine and flesh. Blood lined the edges of her teeth.
“Hatake,” Kakashi said, over the thrum of adrenaline and irritation. “It’s going to get confusing if you call us all Konoha.”
She gave him a flat look that fell somewhere between ‘murdered my teammates’ and ‘nearly killed by fish’. “I’ll manage. Move before its friends come.”
He scowled, and moved. They hauled themselves through the opening, followed rapidly by everyone else. Inside the stone was a branching network of straight tunnels: lava tubes, long cooled. They were broad enough to swim through in pairs, if you were careful to avoid the sharp edges. Kakashi split their shared air bubble into two smaller ones, and turned when Genma tapped him on the shoulder.
Hurt? the lieutenant signed in truncated ANBU-sign.
Kakashi shook his head.
Impatiently, Fukuda tugged at him and kicked forward through the tunnels. The air in Kakashi’s bubble grew warm and stale, and as the minutes passed he started to see pinpricks of light out of the corners of his eyes. He squinted, but the light just smeared into thin lines. She’d promised air pockets, but they’d planned for more time—
Ahead, Fukuda broke through the surface and climbed out.
Kakashi pushed up after her, air bubble popping the moment it touched air, and drew a full breath. It smelled of brine and rotten seaweed, but it was air. Genma and Ryouma burst up behind them, followed in short order by the rest. Kakashi shoved himself out of the water, finding a carved ledge to sit on. The cavern was small, perhaps the size of his kitchenette at home, and cool, but it wasn’t dark. As his eyes adjusted, Kakashi realized he really had been seeing lights. Along the walls, scattered clusters of tiny, barnacle-like creatures glowed softly green. From the ceiling, glowing plant strings hung down, brushing his wet hair.
The teams settled along the ledges. With the exception of Raidou, Eizo, and Ginta, everyone was breathing hard enough to warm the air. Ryouma raked a hand through his hair, rumpling it into black-glass spikes. Genma stretched his shoulders as if they ached. Ginta produced a scroll, unsealed it, and handed out knives and sheathes to everyone except Fukuda, now they had the free hands to wield them.
“We’re a quarter of the way there,” Fukuda told Kuroda. “There’s a bigger set of supply caverns closer in where we can rest. They’re— no longer used.”
Kuroda just nodded, but Abe cocked his blue head to one side and asked, “Why?”
Usagi rapped her knuckles on the back of his head. “Think, dumbass.”
“Don’t need supplies if you don’t have people to give them to,” Ginta said.
Fukuda wiped the blood off her mouth and looked away.
Genma cracked his shoulders again and chafed his arms to warm them. The protective film of grease on his skin had stiffened to a tacky sludge in the cold water, and the cold had sunk into his bones despite it, but he was warming now, in the close chamber. It was hard to tell how far below the sea they were — not too deep, he guessed, or their eardrums would be aching. Maybe that accounted for the presence of air here.
In the dim light it was impossible to tell whether Kakashi’s collision with the jagged lava rock had done any harm.
Team Thirteen’s rookie kunoichi Kasumi slicked her fingers through her hair, wringing water out of long brown locks. “How much more sea life are we expecting in these tunnels?” she asked. “Do those things come in here?”
The eel that had gone after Kakashi had been in the open ocean, but it wasn’t hard to imagine one of them slithering down into the lava tube caves to wait for an unsuspecting meal to swim by.
Fukuda’s answering shrug was nonreassuring.
There were starfish and sea cucumbers clustered along the rock walls below the water’s surface in the chamber, and anemones spread their slender tentacles just a few feet from where they’d surfaced.
“Don’t touch those,” he said, pointing to a feathery-backed blob of a nudibranch making its way across a lip of hardened lava. “They secrete a neurotoxin there’s no antidote for.”
Fukuda looked up, surprised. “You know about them?”
Genma shrugged, not wanting to give too much away. “I’ve seen them before.” In an aquarium in Konoha’s poison lab.
“He’s right,” she told the rest of them. “There’s no antidote. But if you don’t bother them they’ll leave you alone.”
Ryouma was staring at a translucent brown sea slug with fascinated disgust. “It looks like snot.”
“They taste good, though,” Ginta said. He stabbed the point of his knife through another of the gelatinous-looking animals and plucked it from the water. “Want some?”
“Better if you clean it first.” Eizo leaned over to liberate the knife and critter from Ginta, disemboweled it, slit it into two lengthwise halves, and diced each half into a series of slender crescents. He ate one immediately, crunching it down with evident pleasure, and offered the next slice to Raidou. “Tastes like razor clam.”
Raidou chewed with dubious caution. A surprised, happy look spread across his face a moment later, and he grinned at Eizo and accepted a second piece.
Eizo’s teammates each took some, though Abe looked less than enthusiastic about it. When Kurenai declined her share, Satomi took two at once and made a show of enjoying them. Ryouma took one, chewed it briefly, then leaned over and spat it back into the water. Kakashi made one slice disappear, and then another and another, without ever seeming to disturb the waterlogged dark mask.
Genma crunched through his slice. It tasted briny and fresh, with a texture like cartilage that took some work to get through.
Ginta fanned out three slices and offered them to Fukuda, who took them without comment.
Kuroda gave the whole meal a sour, disapproving look. “Let’s move.”
Eizo tossed Ginta his knife back. Fukuda slipped back into the water. “Watch out for sharks and eels, don’t touch anything that looks like that,” she said, nodding at the nudibranch again, “and don’t put your hands or feet into any crevices. The next section is riskier, but it’s shorter.”
As soon as Kakashi cast the air bubble jutsu for both of them, they dove. Genma and Ryouma followed suit. It wasn’t a hard jutsu to cast, but enclosing enough volume of air in the tiny capsule to last a full fifteen minutes was a guessing game. Maybe with practice it got easier.
As soon as they were underwater, the bioluminescent lights seemed brighter. It reminded Genma of the demon tunnels; not a comforting thought when they were about to squirm into an underwater tube barely wide enough for two bodies.
Kakashi snapped a guide light into existence, and, with his hand firmly on Fukuda’s shoulder, they plunged into a dark hole at the bottom of their little cavern.
The middle of a mission was no time to develop trauma-induced claustrophobia. Genma cast his own light, nodded at Ryouma, and dove after Kakashi and their reluctant guide.
This time the tube was narrower. He and Ryouma were able to swim side by side for a short ways, but they soon had to go single file or risk jamming against the rough sides of the tube. Their lights were barely adequate, and Genma scraped his head against an unexpected bit of rock, feeling the sting of salt water in shallow scratches.
Kakashi and Fukuda disappeared around a bend, and a rush of bubbles flowed back towards Genma and Ryouma in their wake. Genma hesitated, drawing his knife. He signed for Ryouma to take his heel before he plunged ahead. As he rounded the corner, light flared around him.
A tatami-mat sized section of the roof of the lava tube had caved in, exposing them to open ocean again. They were shallower this time, with a sand bar under them and the sky much closer than before. Light filtered through a forest of kelp that swayed in the undersea currents. A silvery shoal of sardines came darting out of the distance, turning in precision formation as tightly as well-drilled soldiers.
Genma thought they’d have a chance to refill their air supplies here, but Fukuda waved an urgent hurry up gesture, and Kakashi pointed into the distance, where a huge moving shadow loomed. Genma’s heart tripped faster, and he motioned for them to go on, keeping a wary eye on the behemoth.
Fukuda didn’t waste any time, She took Kakashi’s arm this time, tugging him towards another open-roofed lava tube. By the time Raidou and Kurenai appeared, Kakashi and Fukuda were both out of sight. Genma gave his teammates the same warning he’d gotten, pointing at the distant threat, then shot for the new lava tube with Ryouma close behind.
It was a strange relief to be back in the cramped and perilous tunnel. With his air growing staler by the minute, and his heart beating a little too hard, Genma pressed on into the dark.
The tube Fukuda led them down this time was wider, with smoother walls. The floor was sand-covered, with shrimp scuttling here, a cluster of sand dollars standing on edge there. It was straighter, too, easier to follow. Genma risked a glance behind them and was relieved to see Raidou and Kurenai close behind, and the lights of at least some of the others further back.
Genma was starting to get a headache from the carbon dioxide he was rebreathing before they finally surfaced into a low, broad cavern. The floor sloped up, leaving sand behind and becoming smooth basalt. Fukuda and Kakashi were both out of the water already, shaking droplets out of their hair and gasping like they’d run marathons.
“You good?” Genma asked, as soon as Ryouma popped up panting hard beside him.
Ryouma hoisted himself up out of the water and rolled flat on his back, arms spread wide, chest still heaving. “Guess I should… thank you…f’r making us swim laps back home. Maybe later.”
Genma followed him out of the water and sat tripodded beside him with his hands on his outstretched thighs, rasping in huge lungfuls of air. “Go ahead… thank me now. So I hear it before I die.”
Ryouma lifted his head to gaze intently into Genma’s eyes. “Thank you.” He let his head flop back with a groan. “Half a slice of sea-mucus is not nearly enough food.”
Raidou and Kurenai surfaced, followed by Kasumi, and shortly after that by Usagi, red-faced and gasping; Abe; and Ginta, who looked far too serene. They hauled themselves out of the water and lay catching their breaths.
Genma watched the water for Eizo, Kuroda, and Satomi with mounting apprehension. He signalled to Raidou and was about to dive back in when silver bubbles rose and two of the missing ninja surged to the surface.
Satomi’s Sharingan eyes were whirling red. Kuroda was pale, darkening the water around him with blood.
“Help him up!” Satomi snapped.
Both captains were already moving. Usagi shouted for Abe in almost the same breath that Raidou yelled for Genma. They pulled Kuroda out of the water and laid him on the ground, one checking for a pulse, the other scanning for injuries.
“Where’s Eizo?” Usagi demanded. Satomi shook her head.
Ginta stiffened, fumbling the carrying scroll he was attempting to unseal, and for a moment he and Usagi just held a look. His shoulders shook once, then his mouth firmed into a flat line and he turned back to his task. The scroll released its contents with a faint burst of chakra, and Ginta tossed Genma his medical bag, followed by one for a pale-faced Abe.
Genma nodded at the rookie. “You get a blood pill into him, I’ll explore the wounds.”
Over the past four weeks Ryouma had wished, aloud and repeatedly, for something bad to happen to the ANBU vice commander. He hadn’t exactly pictured this: Kuroda’s blood slicking the dark basalt floor, Usagi steadying his shoulders while Abe mixed a blood pill into a canteen, Raidou turning Kuroda’s right arm to show Genma the deep gouges from biceps to wrist. It looked like something had tried to chew his arm off.
Satomi crouched on the edge of the water, panting. Her hands were scraped and bloody, and she’d lost her knife. Ginta tossed her another canteen; she guzzled half before she explained. “Eizo had the rear. We were coming out of the kelp when — something — grabbed him.” She looked up, meeting Usagi’s eyes. “I couldn’t get back in time.”
Usagi’s jaw worked sideways. “Sakamoto,” she rapped out, and started for the water. Ginta threw the sealing scroll to Kasumi and followed her.
Satomi lurched to her feet, barring their way. Her eyes still spun like black pinwheels in blood. She said hoarsely, “There wasn’t enough to bring back.”
Kuroda said, almost steadily, “It bit him in half.” He hissed as Genma clamped a disinfectant-soaked bandage over the wounds. “Stay put, Usagi.” The bandages began to turn red.
For a heartbeat moment, Ryouma thought Usagi would jump anyway.
Ginta’s chakra pulsed out in a brief lightning-flash, crackling around the ember of his ANBU spark. He stood beside Usagi like a hunting hound at point, every muscle straining forward as his senses stretched outward. Then the taut muscles of his legs relaxed, and his shoulders dropped. He touched his shoulder, where the ANBU tattoo curled beneath a flesh-toned patch, and looked up at his captain.
Usagi said, quietly, “Dammit.” She let her breath out slowly, staring at the water.
Then she turned. Ginta slipped back to join Kasumi in unpacking the sealing scroll. Usagi asked Satomi, “What was it?”
“Looked like an eel,” Satomi said, “but eight meters long and about twice as thick through the torso as— as Namiashi, there. Our knives broke on it.” Her voice shook, for the first time. “I’m sorry.”
Usagi cupped a hand over Satomi’s shaved head, wordless acknowledgment: You did what you could. Satomi closed her eyes, opened them on black again, and looked down at her scraped-raw hands.
Fukuda said, “Fanged eel. They take pearl divers every year.” Her face was carved marble, unreadable.
Genma glanced up briefly, then focused on Kuroda again. “Can you move your fingers, Vice-commander?”
Kuroda gritted his teeth. His fingers curled towards his palm. The disinfecting bandages were fully crimson, now; Genma peeled them away, and Abe slipped in to hand him a thick pad of clotting gauze.
“The shoulder may be dislocated,” Kuroda said, in a distant voice.
“We’ll get to it once the bleeding’s controlled.” Genma pressed the clotting gauze to the vice-commander’s arm. Blood welled into it from distinct, ragged-edged puncture wounds, carved in a deep semicircle through the flesh of biceps and forearm. Shallower gouges marked where the creature had torn free—without, luckily, tearing Kuroda’s arm away with it. The fanged eel must barely have set its teeth in before Satomi counter-attacked.
Uchiha. Rumor said their Sharingan could see an attack before it happened.
Not fast enough for Eizo, though.
“How good are you with a tourniquet jutsu?” Genma asked Abe. “We can do physical, if you’re not familiar with it.”
“I know it.” Abe raced through the seals: Ox and Tiger to start, like most other medical ninjutsu, then reverse Rat, Serpent, Boar, Dragon, reverse Ox, half Tiger. His hands lit green. He held them high, studying Kuroda’s arm.
“Block the brachial artery,” Genma directed. “That ought to be sufficient.”
Abe nodded and curved his palm against the pit of Kuroda’s arm. Kuroda hissed again, then clenched his jaw.
Genma wiped the blood away again with the soaked dressing. The wounds seeped a little, but not enough to drip.
A lightstick cracked behind them, shedding a neon green glow. Kurenai moved quietly around, finding a ledge to wedge one stick into, then passing two more to Ryouma and Raidou. The lights cast eerie shadows beneath Genma’s hands, and then none at all as Genma’s fingers lit with medical chakra.
“I’ll close the wounds from the bottom, so they doesn’t trap infection,” Genma said, placing his fingertips on each side of the first set of punctures. Wet hair dripped into his face and coiled on his neck. He asked Kuroda, absently, “Do you want pain meds?”
“No.” Kuroda was still pale, and beginning to shiver, but he didn’t flinch.
Ryouma held the lightstick high and watched Genma work. He was vaguely aware of rustlings and movement behind him; murmured voices, opened sealing scrolls, ripping foil. Ginta was bandaging Satomi’s hands. Kurenai came by again with rat bars for Abe, Ryouma, and Raidou. Genma shook his head no without even looking up.
Kakashi hunkered down beside Genma. “We’ve made a bed away from the water,” he said quietly. “We can move him when you’re ready.”
Between Genma’s fingers, the ragged edges of the puncture wound slowly crept closed. Genma drew a breath and looked up. “Do it quickly. I don’t want to keep that vessel tourniqueted too long.” He met Abe’s eyes. “Ready?”
Abe nodded, his jaw clenched tight. Genma pitched back on his heels and scrambled out of the way as Usagi, Kakashi, and Raidou closed in. Ryouma helped them lift Kuroda and settle him further up the cave, on a bed Kakashi had built out of piled cloaks over gear bags. Abe crouched down again, fingers still curled into Kuroda’s armpit. Genma accepted a proffered elastic from Kurenai, scraped the wet hair off his neck, and got back to work.
At last the deep holes were shallow pink dimples, their gouged edges faintly oozing. The green glow around Genma’s hands died. “Let it drop,” he told Abe hoarsely. Abe released Kuroda’s arm and cut the jutsu, swearing softly at his cramped fingers. They were both breathing hard, and sweat sheened Genma’s skin instead of seawater.
Sluggish bleeding welled from the shallower lacerations. Genma ignored them for the moment, reaching for the vice-commander’s wrist. He nodded to Ryouma. “Help him sit up.”
Ryouma switched places with Abe, sliding around behind the vice-commander. Kuroda’s skin was fever-hot. His shoulder lumped beneath the skin. Ryouma braced him, wrists locked around his chest, and felt Kuroda’s pulse hammer.
Genma slowly extended the arm up from Kuroda’s side at a 90 degree angle, elbow bent. Then he rotated the forearm up, pressing the elbow in with his other hand. Kuroda breathed through his teeth.
The joint clicked into place. Kuroda made a soft, suppressed noise — almost a sigh of relief — and said, “Tousaki, you can let go.”
Would it kill the man to be grateful? Ryouma scrambled free. His shoulder bumped into damp, clammy rock, and he stood abruptly still.
This tunnel flooded.
“You can handle bandaging, Tousaki. And a sling.” Genma sat back on his heels, steadied himself with a hand on the floor, and looked around blankly. “I should—”
“Drink this.” Kakashi shoved a steaming canteen into his hand, and draped another of the oilskin cloaks around his shoulders. Kasumi had the same for Abe. Usagi knelt briefly beside Kuroda with another canteen and a blood pill.
Ryouma sorted through the medical kit, finding ointment, bandaging, long strips of waterproof patching. They’d used similar patches on their shoulders, skin-dyed, to cover their ANBU tattoos. He bound bandages over Kuroda’s arm from armpit to wrist, sealing them with the waterproof patching, then used another roll of bandaging to fashion a sling and strap it down. Kuroda lay still, lips pressed thin, and gazed at the ceiling.
“That’s it. I think. Vice-commander.” Ryouma finally dropped his hands to his thighs. He hadn’t made much of a mess of the medical kit; there was nothing to sort through and clean up. He almost did, anyway.
Kuroda grunted. He levered himself back upright, flexing his fingers against his side. They moved, but stiffly. The grim lines carved a little deeper into his face. He looked up. “Any other injuries?”
Raidou glanced around. Except for Satomi’s hands, which Ginta had bandaged, and the empty hole in the middle of Team Thirteen, they were barely scratched.
“No, sir,” Usagi said flatly.
“Can you continue, Vice-commander?” Raidou asked.
“Yes,” Kuroda said. Genma’s head came up, worry scrawling over exhaustion. At his side, Abe just looked faintly nauseous. Before an objection could be voiced, Kuroda continued, “We’ll rest for half an hour. Sakamoto, tend the healers. Namiashi, I want to see the map. Usagi—” he hesitated for just a moment. “Have the rest cleaned up and fed.”
“Sir,” Usagi said.
Raidou eyed her with concern, but there was nothing but competent efficiency when Usagi collared the two nearest rookies — Ryouma and Kasumi — and herded them to a rockpool where they could scrub the cold grease and shock off. Ginta followed in short order with Genma and Abe, supporting them each by an elbow.
Kurenai touched Satomi lightly on the shoulder, and handed her one of the steaming canteens Kakashi had prepared over a circle of heated rocks. Only Fukuda stood alone, single hand loosely open at her side, eyes averted. She looked less pleased at the death of a Leaf-nin than Raidou might have expected.
He collected his maps and crouched to unfold them at Kuroda’s side, spreading them out over dark rocks. The oiled parchment glowed faintly green under the lights, but the inked lines stood out clear enough.
“Kiri,” Kuroda said.
Fukuda came over and hunkered down on his other side. Unprompted, she tapped a section of the map: a marked cavern at the edge of the first island. “We’re here.”
Raidou unclipped a small, waterproof pen attached to the corner of the map, and drew a tiny character where Eizo had died. Fukuda’s finger skated further inland. “Nagazame caverns are here, where it’s safer to rest. There’s access to the surface there. We can travel overland to Isonade Cove, through the Sugizawa marsh, and cross Sagami-wan Strait to Aoshima after dark.”
“The likelihood of traps between here and Nagazame caverns?” Kuroda asked.
“Significant,” Fukuda said. “The caverns are abandoned, but only recently.”
Kuroda nodded, winced faintly, and leaned back against the damp stone wall. He hadn’t accepted any painkillers, but Raidou wasn’t going to be the sacrificial lamb who pointed that out. “Send Sakamoto, Hatake, and the Uchiha ahead to scout the terrain. They can disable anything still functioning and report back.”
That… was not Raidou’s ideal choice of team-members, but medics aside, they would be the most chakra-sensitive. “You think it’s wise to split up, sir?”
Kuroda skewered him with a look. “Yes, captain. That’s why I said it.”
“Yes, sir,” Raidou said, swallowing a few black thoughts about the fanged eel’s choice of targets.
Kuroda dismissed them shortly after, and Raidou went to take his place at the rockpool. Usagi, Ryouma, and Kasumi were drying up. Ginta was gently bullying Genma and Abe through the mechanical process of getting clean, sharing around a bar of soap and handfuls of pumice sand for scrubbing.
In another context, Raidou might have enjoyed the sight of so much wet skin. Usagi’s curves, Ryouma’s careful hands, the defined muscles of Genma’s back — but a) that was a train of thought that was going to land him in trouble, and b) this context had Genma’s cold shivers, the tight hunch in Abe’s shoulders, and Usagi’s flat, unhappy mouth.
Raidou kept his eyes to himself, scrubbed down, sluiced off, and gestured Kakashi, Satomi, and Kurenai to take his place after Ginta and his charges vacated the pool. The tired pair of healers were settled with warm clothes and a cloak to sit on, while Ryouma set about finding sturdier food for them. Kakashi and the two Intel women managed to wash up without anyone accidentally touching or making eye contact. Raidou was unsurprised to learn that Kakashi’s talent for vanishing food also extended to achieving clothing without ever, apparently, being naked.
Satomi and Kurenai stretched their bath to include Fukuda — an operation that involved even less eye contact — and then the three women joined Usagi and Ginta for a quiet conference, which Raidou interrupted to explain the vice-commander’s plan.
Ginta took his assignment in stride. “I want Tousaki, too. We’ll need muscle in case there’s trouble.”
“Fine,” Raidou said. “Usagi?”
“Works for me,” she said. “You want Fukuda too?”
Ginta regarded Fukuda — seated between Satomi and Kurenai — with indifference. “She already told us where she thinks the traps are, and what to expect. With her injury, she’s more liability than help on a scouting mission.”
That also had the advantage of keeping her away from Ryouma and Kakashi. Raidou approved.
Usagi raised her voice. “Hatake, Tousaki, gear up. Vice wants you for a scouting mission.”
Ryouma scrambled to his feet. Kakashi loped over at an easier pace to inquire: “Did we do something wrong?”
“Probably,” Usagi said. “Sakamoto-fukuchou is in charge. Satomi’s going, too.”
Kakashi’s face, hard to read at the best of times, went completely expressionless.
Ryouma glanced at him sidelong, then at Satomi — she was equally stone-faced — and tugged on the collar of his wrap-shirt. “If anyone asks, we’re just suspiciously athletic hikers from no particular country lost in these caves.”
“Spelunkers,” Ginta said, with a brittle diamond smile.
Ryouma gave a wary blink, his standard response to a word outside his lexicon. “Yes, sir.”
Raidou had good feelings about this expedition already.
Usagi’s eyes skimmed over Kakashi, Ryouma, and Satomi to fix on Ginta. “Be back within the hour,” she ordered, and it was an order, no room for flex.
Ginta’s salute was razor sharp, held just a fraction of a second longer than necessary. He jerked his head at the others. “You heard the captain.”
As the mismatched party moved out, Kakashi leaned up to say something inaudible in Ryouma’s ear, and Ryouma’s expression cleared. New definition learned, Raidou guessed.
Usagi, watching silently, stayed put until the group rounded a corner, and the glint of Ginta’s pale hair vanished. When she turned, Raidou touched her shoulder. She tipped her head up, and he could still see his friend there, in the steady line of her mouth, the square set of her shoulders.
“Taichou,” he said softly, acknowledging.
Her mouth tilted fractionally. “Taichou.”
Together, they returned to care for their medics.
The floor of the cavern sloped up gradually from the sea-tunnel entrance, damp and sandy, scattered with chunks of broken rock and crunchy cave-creature shells. Water pooled in shallow depressions; more small creatures with too many legs scuttled outside the narrow circle of Ryouma’s light-stick.
Ten meters from the rock pool where they’d cleaned up, the ceiling curved down to find the floor, like some enormous lava bubble. Two roughly oblong tubes led out. One curved back to the left, out to sea again; the other vanished into darkness, straight ahead. Inland?
At least the ceiling stayed clear of Ryouma’s head, for now.
Satomi took point. Ryouma’d expected Kakashi to argue, maybe even jockey for position, but instead he slouched back and tied his eyepatch on. The air grew warmer, and the strong salt smell of the sea turned musty.
The lava tube narrowed, forcing them to walk single file. Translucent insects with many-jointed limbs crept over the walls, feeding on glowing fungi and each other. Something dripped into Ryouma’s hair. He nearly bit through his tongue, but he brushed it away without looking.
After only a few minutes of silent hiking, Satomi stopped. “There’s something ahead.” She crouched, feeling over the rock floor with her fingertips, and then threw a pebble up the path. It splashed in darkness. She drew a breath. “Trap of some kind.”
“So disarm it,” Kakashi said, sounding bored.
Satomi glanced back irritably. “No wonder half your missions end up in the hospital.”
“Ahhh,” Ginta said, slipping past Ryouma. “You’re as charming as the rest of your cousins, Uchiha-san. Hatake, your reputation for teamwork precedes you.”
Satomi straightened, thin-lipped. Kakashi glanced sidelong at Ginta and then away, with a studied nonchalance.
“Any idea what kind of death we’re looking at?” Ginta inquired. “Crushed from above? Garotted as we pass by? Dropped into a bottomless pit?”
“There’s a trigger-seal carved into the cave floor, beneath that pool,” Satomi said, pointing. “Just disturbing the water didn’t set it off, but there’s enough residual chakra that the trap likely hasn’t decayed.”
“Chakra-walk around it?” Ryouma suggested.
There was just enough room in the passage for a kage bunshin to puff into being beside him. He jerked his chin at it. The clone grimaced and took off jogging up the curving side of the basalt wall.
Satomi stepped back from the water and folded her arms to watch. Kakashi tipped his head, focusing his good eye. Ginta took another prudent step backward, just as the faint light of the clone’s glow-stick caught a reflection in the water below.
The Uchiha stiffened. That was all the warning they had, before a lethal rain of senbon exploded from the lava tube’s walls and ceiling. The clone’s body jerked, pincushioned by needles, and fell.
Just before it hit the water, it burst.
Ryouma locked his jaw against the flood of death. The pain wasn’t real, but the memory still jarred: tiny lances of agony, a spreading burn, chakra suddenly dissolving away beneath his feet…
“Poison,” he said hoarsely. “On the senbon. Some kinda paralytic, maybe. Lost chakra control.” He looked around. “Somebody oughta grab one of those needles for the lieutenant…”
Kakashi stooped to pluck two senbon from the stone at the water’s edge. He sniffed them carefully, almost brushing the steel against the thick fabric of his mask. “Not one I recognize.” He tucked the senbon away in a thin metal case, vanished the case back into a pocket, and asked Satomi, “Did the seal defuse?”
“There’s still chakra in it.” Satomi tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling, then took two steps sideways, changing the angle. Her voice thickened with disgust. “And a mirrored seal above, behind that lump of rock. I missed that. My apologies, Tousaki.”
That was almost as good as an apology from Kakashi. Ryouma cleared his throat. “No problem.”
Ginta prowled up the curving wall, a prudent step behind the path Ryouma’s shadow clone had taken. At the edge of the senbon launch-field, he curled up into a perpendicular crouch to inspect the surface of the rock. “Clever. They’re using the porosity of the lava.” He prodded gently at the rough, pitted basalt. “I’ll try to set it off again.” He took three long steps backward — now hanging almost upside down — and sent in a clone.
Senbon glittered. The clone burst like rotten fruit. Ginta’s breath huffed out in a low grunt, but his hands were already flashing through the seals. Another clone puffed into existence beside him and walked steadily forward to its death.
And another. And another.
The senbon were perceptibly fewer, now. They splashed into the water and glimmered in the glowstick light, but the deadly rain was nearly spent. The fifth clone dodged a sad sprinkling of needles, somersaulted in the air, and landed on the surface of the pool with barely a splash. Ryouma clapped, before he caught himself.
The clone swept him a bow, and looked around. “That it?”
“The trap-seal’s burnt out.” Satomi blinked hard, rubbed her eyes, and stepped sideways again, tracing a slow path across the narrow tube. “I don’t see anything more.”
Ryouma glanced, not quite casually enough, at Kakashi. Satomi’s lips tightened, but she said nothing.
Kakashi thumbed his eyepatch up. Black dots in his scarred red eye spun lazily, a beat behind Satomi’s faster tomoe. He scanned the terrain for a silent moment, then tugged his patch down and nodded.
The shadow clone pumped its fist in brief victory, then puffed into smoke. Ginta dropped neatly onto the sandy floor behind Ryouma and smoothed his hair down, looking pleased. “We’ll put another clone out front to be safe. Uchiha, you take point behind it.” His sharp blue gaze swept over them, gently mocking. “Who wants to make the next clone? Don’t all volunteer at once.”
Kakashi needed to conserve his chakra, and Satomi couldn’t afford the distraction. Ginta’d just re-lived his clones’ deaths four times already. Ryouma sighed. “I’ll do it.”
Ginta gave him a small, quick smile. “Good man. Maybe your lieutenant was right about you.” He squeezed Ryouma’s biceps, edged past, and snagged Satomi to investigate the burned-out seals.
Ryouma stared after him. “Whoa.” He glanced sidelong at Kakashi. “D’you think the lieutenant bragged about us?”
“About you,” Kakashi said, without ire. A teacher should be proud of their student.
The seal-viewing party was wrapping up. Kakashi stepped around Ryouma to take a look, but there wasn’t anything special to glean. Except for its longevity and clever placement, the trap was just a simple trip-trigger.
Ryouma summoned his new clone, which set off with an extra bounce in its step, and the scouting trip recommenced. When they came to a fork in the tunnel, Ginta pulled a slim kaiken dagger out of nowhere and spun the polished wooden scabbard on the ground. It landed with the handle pointing left. Ginta pocketed it again and directed them right.
They passed the remains of several defunct traps, just shreds of energy clinging to stone. Ryouma’s clone loped ahead, followed closely by Satomi and Kakashi. The tunnel wound through a series of bends that eventually dead-ended in a collapsed heap of jagged rock. Ryouma’s clone poked around a little, but turned up nothing more ominous than a skittering cave spider, which reared at them. The clone took a hasty step back.
They backtracked to the fork and took the left tunnel, which angled upward. A few short side-tunnels contained the remains of abandoned supplies, destroyed by mold and crabs, but the main tunnel continued true. In the dim light, Satomi’s Sharingan glittered almost black. Kakashi held his own in reserve, relying on his nose and chakra senses.
A warning prickle shivered over his skin, just as Satomi’s head jerked up. “Tousaki—!”
Ryouma’s clone didn’t get the chance to react. The floor beneath its feet shifted, rippling, and stone tendrils lashed up to wrap around its legs. The clone staggered. The tendrils wrenched apart. False bone snapped, both knees collapsing into unnatural angles. The clone, coded to be a perfect battlefield distraction, cried out with Ryouma’s voice. Kakashi jerked half a step forward, then caught himself.
Behind them, the real Ryouma muttered a curse. The clone dissolved in a burst of smoke before the floor finished sucking it down. When Kakashi looked back, Ryouma grimaced and rubbed his right knee.
Ginta moved up to stand between Kakashi and Satomi. “Well, kids,” he said brightly. “What’s it look like this time? More mirrored-seals, or did our Mist friends get creative?”
There was a sharp, glinting edge to him, and Kakashi realized Ginta was enjoying himself.
Satomi, by contrast, was narrow-eyed and tense, pacing the width of the corridor for different viewing angles. “I don’t see the seal.” She stalked back again, like a frustrated tiger. “It triggered out of—nowhere. Now it’s gone again.”
Kakashi crouched at the edge of the trap, where the floor had returned to solid stone. Cautiously, he flicked a fragment of rock across the surface. When that triggered nothing, unsheathed his knife to tap the blade’s point against the floor. It chinked dully, metal against rock.
Very carefully, he teased out a half-dozen strands of chakra and feathered them over the ground, searching for the sensation that had first warned him. He’d barely stretched beyond the edge when the ground heaved, lashing out at him with grasping stone tendrils.
Kakashi leapt back, snapping his chakra back under his skin. The tendrils rippled along the edge, like a predator denied its catch, before slinking back into the floor.
“It’s chakra-sensing,” Kakashi said.
“It’s fucking creepy,” Ryouma said.
Satomi hissed between her teeth and resumed prowling. “The seal’s embedded in the rock. I saw it flare, this time.”
Ginta’s eyebrows creased thoughtfully. “I’m not sure we can burn it out like we did with the last one. There was an exhaustible supply of senbon, but a cave floor will be hard to deplete of resources.”
“Where exactly did you see the seal?” Kakashi asked Satomi.
Satomi turned, found a pebble, and flicked it at the surface of the floor, about two meters from the edge of the sentient zone. “Half a meter down from there.”
A quick burst of chakra announced the appearance of Ginta’s clone. It leapt lightly up the wall and strolled across the ceiling, blond hair hanging down. It made it only a few paces before a stalactite speared out of the ceiling and nailed it to the ground. Stone tendrils embraced it almost kindly, before snapping all four limbs with brutal accuracy.
The clone shivered once and vanished.
“Nope,” Ginta said.
“Earth jutsu, maybe?” Ryouma suggested, only a little wide-eyed. “If you could disrupt the seal…”
Which begged the question of affinity. “Who’s earth nature?” Kakashi asked.
He already knew Ryouma was water and fire. Satomi, if she was anything like the rest of her kin, was fire and air. She shook her head with a quick jerk. Ginta shrugged; his chakra had a quicksilver quality, more like water than earth, but Kakashi had seen him play with sparks on the ship, crackling them along metal sail fastenings. Another one of Konoha’s rare lightning users, but no help here.
Ginta eyed Kakashi. “If you’re not, Kuroda made a mistake putting this party together.”
Kakashi crouched at the edge again, flicked his eye patch up, and summoned a clone. The construct backed up a few steps, then took a running start and flung itself over the trap. Stone lashed up and grabbed it by the ankle.
The bone snap and dying chakra backlash took a fraction of Kakashi’s attention. The rest centered on his Sharingan-view of a brief, bright seal flaring exactly where Satomi had indicated. He cast seals, pulled on the stonier elements of his chakra, and spun a jutsu that sunk into the ground and smashed the trap seal.
At least, that was the intention.
The seal twisted like metal under stress, and instead of compacting neatly, exploded. Razor shards of volcanic stone sprayed. A chunk of the ceiling came down, nearly crushing Ginta. Satomi yanked him out of the way, but the lieutenant still caught a nasty hit in the temple. They both fell, buried under a curtain of stones, and Kakashi jerked back in horror. Lines of fate criss-crossed through the Sharingan: falling rock, falling people, but his vision blurred with hot salt and he couldn’t see—
A stinging line scored over Kakashi’s cheek. Ryouma grabbed him by the collar and hauled him back.
They hit the ground. Ryouma yelped, and blood filled the air with a copper burn. Kakashi fought to sit up and Ryouma shoved him back down, curling over him. Stone showered down around them, to the distant tune of Ginta swearing. Kakashi covered his head and reflected on how much he really hated rockslides until the world stopped imploding.
When it ended, Kakashi pushed himself shakily up and turned to make sure Ryouma’s head was still attached. Dust and stone shards covered them both. A deep, straight cut angled down from Ryouma’s hairline and bisected his right eyebrow, stopping just short of his eye. It bled messily. Kakashi slapped a dusty hand over it and craned to see Ginta and Satomi.
The lieutenant was on one knee, holding his head, but didn’t seem to be bleeding dangerously. Satomi was crouched back against the wall, covered in scratches and blinking hard. The look she gave Kakashi was dust-covered and deeply unimpressed.
Since that qualified for alive on both counts, Kakashi turned back to Ryouma and worked on making the bleeding stop.
The stoic ninja thing to do — the thing Raidou would have done — was probably to shove his teammate’s hands away and get up to survey the damage and the danger. Genma would’ve known some clever jutsu to instantly seal the cut, probably without even a scar.
Ryouma wasn’t allowed to try wound-sealing yet, and he sure as hell didn’t feel stoic. He couldn’t see out of his right eye. It stung. Wet warmth dripped down his cheek. He tried to steady his breathing, but fear locked in his throat.
Fuck Rule 25. He fumbled for his cheek, his eye. Kakashi didn’t slap his hands away. Ryouma found blood-clotted lashes, the swelling curve of the lid, the soft hollow under his brow, and the fiery edge of the cut.
“That’s gonna scar,” he said. His voice shook.
“Makes you look like a ninja,” Kakashi said. He was working one-handed with something: clotting gauze, Ryouma realized, when it briefly passed into his reduced field of vision. Kakashi pressed the gauze to Ryouma’s forehead, commandeered Ryouma’s hand to hold it there, and then pulled out his canteen and a water jutsu to flush the blood from Ryouma’s eye.
Ryouma had only a moment to blink water from his lashes before Kakashi thumbed his lid back and leaned in. Returning sight dazzled into glowstick green and the rapid spin of Kakashi’s Sharingan eye. Black tomoe almost blurred together, like the spokes of a wheel. Ryouma gazed back dazedly. If he watched just a little longer, he might almost see—
Kakashi pulled back. His scarred eyelid slid shut. “Eye’s fine. Cut didn’t get close.”
Relief slackened Ryouma’s muscles. He kept himself, just barely, from leaning into Kakashi’s hands.
Kakashi’d lost his own eye, after all.
“Thanks.” His voice sounded rusty, but steadier now. He pressed the clotting bandages harder against his forehead. “You got tagged yourself, there. Here….” He reached out with two fingers and grazed the lacerated edge of the mask over Kakashi’s cheekbone. The dark cotton was spotted and damp with blood.
Kakashi blinked. Ryouma dropped his hand, groping for more of the clotting gauze. Kakashi batted his fingers away and picked up a fresh pad and a set of bandage wraps.
“Neither of you are going to lose your looks over a few cuts,” Ginta said mildly, from the other side of the tunnel. Another open medkit lay in the dust between him and Satomi. She was picking rock shards out of the worst of her scratches, while he dabbed at the abrasions on his temple with a folded pad of gauze. His left eye was already beginning to swell shut, but a wry humor still edged his voice. “Genma told me you two get along, but I had no idea. Do we need to give you a moment?”
Ryouma stiffened. Kakashi snorted, tied off the bandage wrap around Ryouma’s head, and stuck a spare scrap of gauze to his own cheek under the torn mask. He shifted from his crouch.
Two steps took him across the tunnel, where he hunkered down again to grip Ginta’s chin and check his pupils in the soft light of the glowstick. Ginta blinked owlishly, but his head turned at Kakashi’s direction. Kakashi released him, rocked back, and said, reluctantly, “Sorry, Sakamoto-fukuchou. I should have predicted the rebound.”
Ginta waved him off. “No one died; you’re forgiven.”
Satomi’s bandaged fingers stalled, then moved again, brushing stone splinters out of her shaved hair.
Ginta checked the blood-spotted pad once more, sneered at the red stains, and incinerated it in a brief crackle of blue-edged chakra. “What exactly did you do? Was the seal itself trapped? Because if that’s the case, these Mist bastards are geniuses.”
Satomi pushed abruptly to her feet. Her voice was as sharp as a slap. “One would have expected Sharingan no Kakashi not to endanger his teammates with another rock fall, this time.”
The tendons flexed in the side of Kakashi’s neck. For a long moment he did not move, not even to look up at her. Unease prickled up Ryouma’s spine. Then Kakashi said levelly to Ginta, “There was more chakra in the seal than I anticipated.”
Satomi’s fist clenched. The tomoe in her crimson eyes spun into solid rings of black. She turned and walked up the tunnel, over inert, broken rock. Nothing spun itself out of the stone to grab her. In a moment the faint glow of her lightstick disappeared around a bend.
“What the hell was that?” Ryouma demanded.
“Bad blood,” Kakashi said shortly. He turned, scooped up his med kit in one hand, and hauled Ryouma to his feet with the other. “Come on, before something eats her.”
Bad blood? Ryouma met Ginta’s eyes for a fleeting moment, as they picked their way through the debris. The lieutenant shook his head.
Everyone knew the broad sketches of Kakashi’s story — well, everyone who’d been sane and sober during the last desperate months of the war, at least. He’d gone out on a mission with an Uchiha and a medic, and come back with the Uchiha’s ashes in a box and the Uchiha’s eye in his head. Plenty of people guessed at what might have gone wrong, but no one swore to the truth.
Another rockfall, Satomi’d said. And for a moment there, while basalt slivers sliced the air and Satomi tried to pull Ginta out of danger, Kakashi had just…frozen.
A man could lose an eye from flying rock. Ryouma nearly had. A boy could be crushed, killed, and yet just enough of his body left unmangled by rock for one precious eye to be retrieved.
A present from a friend, the Hokage’s small son had said. Kakashi wouldn’t have scavenged that Sharingan eye from a corpse.
Did Uchiha Satomi know that?
She was waiting for them beyond the bend, at yet another fork in the tunnel: flat-mouthed, crimson-eyed, running a hand over her close-shaven scalp. She said, “Someone passed here. Recently.” She pointed her lightstick at the rough, rocky floor.
They were shinobi. All of them recognized the thick, dark spatter of dried blood.
Kakashi crouched, inhaling; the stained mask fluttered briefly against his mouth and nose. His eye narrowed. He raked his fingernails across the crusted splatter and sniffed the black residue. “There were two. Male, young.” He tilted his head back, eye squeezing closed. The mask clung to his features, shaping the press of his lips, the flared wing of a nostril. Then he opened his eye again, and stood. “Decay. Something died ahead.”
Ginta’s hands rose into the Hare seal. “Tousaki, clone. Uchiha, you and Tousaki take point on this, but send the clone in first in case this is another trap. I’ll mask your presence. Hatake, you and I follow the the blood trail back.”
Splitting up wasn’t Ryouma’s favorite idea, but of all of them, he was probably best equipped to deal with dead things. He gave his kage bunshin a little extra jolt of chakra to the eyes, and focused a stronger thread to his own. The eerie glow of bioluminescent fungi strengthened, and the lightsticks cast sharper shadows. The kage bunshin blinked, nodded, and trotted down the tunnel after the trail of blood.
Ginta’s genjutsu settled around them like mist, muffling the occasional scuff of boots on stone or crunch of shell. Satomi vanished from the corner of Ryouma’s eye; ahead of them, the clone turned visible only in brief moments of movement, then faded again in stillness. Ryouma found himself holding his breath.
The tunnel narrowed and forked again, splitting into two tubes less than half its original height. Blood splotched the left entrance. Ryouma’s bunshin cast a despairing look back and then stooped to enter. Ryouma had to duck behind it. A damp, craggy ceiling brushed his head, and forced him lower. Only Satomi, barely shoulder-high, could walk upright.
The scent of decay grew stronger. The blood-trail thickened, streaking the narrowing walls: a stagger here, fingerprints there. Ahead of them, the clone called out in a voice muffled to a whisper. “Found ’em.”
Ryouma crowded into the tiny dead-end cavern after it. The clone edged against the wall, made a rapid calculation of the amount of space remaining, then dispelled itself. Ryouma waved ozone away and breathed through his teeth.
He was used to the stench of putrefaction. The two huddled corpses had been here a week, maybe, and the cave-creatures had found them days ago. Tiny crabs scuttled and crunched as Ryouma crouched over the bodies and drew a knife to poke the more stubborn crawlies away.
A teenage boy, maybe fourteen or fifteen. Another, younger, perhaps twelve. The older boy had a Mist nin’s sharpened teeth; both of them had hitai’ate, scratched and scored. Neither of them had eyes.
Satomi made a thick, rough sound at the back of her throat. Ryouma didn’t look up. “If you’re gonna be sick, do it back there.”
“I’m not,” Satomi said tightly. “Check for injuries.”
Ryouma stabbed one last obstinate crab, shook it off the blade of his knife, and reached out to turn the smaller corpse over. His fingers slipped on the remains of sloughing skin. A new rush of scavengers scattered.
Two deep stab wounds bared white ribs under the smaller boy’s arm, enlarged by a week of scavengers feeding. One cut had merely skidded over the ribs; the second had penetrated, likely to the liver. Smaller wounds paired with each entry might have been crab-holes, but were more likely left by the secondary blade of a pronged kunai.
“Kiri kunai,” Satomi muttered. Ryouma nodded, jaw clenched.
The second boy’s forearms and shoulders were lacerated with smaller wounds—shuriken, Ryouma guessed—but the injury that killed him was a slashing wound that bit deep into his side, scoring his pelvis. Even with the smaller boy’s help, he couldn’t have staggered far.
Footsteps scuffed behind them as Ginta’s genjutsu dropped. “Think I can guess what you found,” the lieutenant said grimly. “Come out. They’re not the only bodies.”
Satomi met Ryouma’s eyes. Then she reached out, fumbled at the boys’ throats, and snapped the dogtags from their necks. Clutching the silvery disks tight in her fist, she scrambled out of the cave again.
Ryouma lingered a moment longer. The Nikutai Hakai lent no dignity to death, but it was better than being crab food.
The other two were waiting for him back in the larger tunnel. Neither of them mentioned the smell, but Ginta had a handful of packaged towelettes. Ryouma wiped his fingers clean and burned the damp paper to a handful of stinking ash as they walked.
Back to the first fork where Satomi’d spotted the blood, and then up an angling slope of the second tunnel, following the blood trail the fleeing boys had left. Ryouma wondered how far they’d come, whether they were still under the sea. How far Kirigakure lay ahead, and how long those boys had lasted, bleeding in the dark, before they died.
The tunnel swung a wide bend and abruptly opened out, and the scent of decay clinging to Ryouma was drowned, suddenly, in the battlefield reek of bowel and piss and rot. Kakashi stood, straight-backed and alone, at the entrance to a vast cavern where bodies lay twisted, piled, scattered as they’d been cut down.
Kakashi said softly, “They’re all from the same family.” He turned, finally, and his eye found Ryouma for a brief, lancing moment before skipping to Ginta. “We should get Kuroda.”
Genma woke to a warm hand on his shoulder and icy, wet feet.
“Up and at ‘em, lieutenant, before you drown,” Raidou said lightly, in a tone that didn’t quite match the tension written on his face.
Salt water lapped at Genma’s calves. He jerked his feet back, alarmed to see how high the water had risen. All of the shinobi had moved to the remaining dry edges of the cavern. The shallow tide pool where they’d bathed had become one with the water rising from the sea entrance.
“Tide came in fast,” Genma said, scrambling away from the water line. “Did we miscalculate the time?”
“Scouting took longer than expected.” Raidou gave him a hand up. “Satomi just got back. They found a couple traps, and a lot of bodies. We need to move out.”
That shook the remaining drowsiness right out of Genma. “Just bodies? Are we going into a fight?”
Satomi appeared at Raidou’s elbow, grim faced. Her hair and skin were dusted with grime; dozens of crusted-over cuts and scratches littered her exposed skin. “They’re days old,” she said. “Someone brought a whole clan down here and slaughtered them. Sakamoto and your rookies are cleaning up.”
Genma tugged his shirt straight and remade his ponytail with the elastic he’d borrowed from Kurenai. “How did you get hurt?” he asked, scrutinizing Satomi for hidden injuries.
Satomi’s mouth twisted in disdain. “Hatake disarmed a trap. Badly. Sakamoto got clipped on the head by a falling rock, and Tousaki took a bad cut over one eye, but they’re both fine.”
“Scratches,” she said impatiently. “Tousaki’s fretting about his face scarring, though, so if you’re ready to move…”
Genma did a quick tally of the people in the cave. Usagi looked ready to depart. Kasumi was tugging straps tight on a traveling pack. Kurenai, as plainly dressed as the rest of them but somehow more elegant despite it, seemed to be in conference with Kuroda. He was still paler than usual, but he didn’t look as shocky as he had before. Abe crouched beside with his med-kit open.
That left only Genma and Raidou.
And their prisoner. Fukuda sat on a stony ledge, staring down at a set of dogtags on a broken chain in her hand. They had to have come from one of the the corpses.
“She knew them?”
“Seems like,” Raidou said. He went to get her on her feet; there was no time for sympathy, especially for an enemy, when the tide was inching higher with every passing second.
It looked like Genma’s own belongings had already been stowed. He tugged his satchel on, tightened the straps of his sandals, and went to confer with Abe and Kuroda. After the briefest of salutes for Kuroda, he asked Abe, “How’re his vitals?”
“Stable. There’s no further bleeding.”
Genma turned back to the vice-commander. “Can you—”
“I’m fine, lieutenant,” Kuroda snapped. “Let’s proceed.”
Genma exchanged a look with Abe and backed out of Kuroda’s way. They waited for the vice-commander to move a few paces away before Abe said quietly, “I gave him an additional blood pill about ten minutes ago, and tried to get him to drink more to build his volume back up.”
“Keep an eye on him,” Genma said. Abe nodded, and fell in with the rest of his teammates.
Usagi’s team took point, with Satomi. What was left of Team Six — Genma and Raidou — had rear guard. They moved fast, until they came to the jumbled rock where Kakashi had somehow set off a minor cave in.
“Damn,” Genma said. “Look at the size of that block. I’m surprised they weren’t killed.”
“The day is still young,” Raidou said grimly.
Genma made a warding gesture. “Let’s hope it ages gracefully and dies in peace. It’s already taken more than enough.”
They edged past the rockfall to find a new tunnel angling upwards. At a junction, Satomi led them to the right. The cavern floor was unmistakably stained with old blood. They didn’t have to go much further before the stomach-turning reek of decay was in the air. With every step they took it grew stronger.
Ahead of them, Abe shuddered and gagged. Kurenai, who had gone even paler than Kuroda, coughed, shoulders heaving, then raised her hands to cast. Her jutsu blossomed around them, blanking the stench out of existence.
Usagi blew a relieved sigh. “Thank gods. I could kiss you, Yuuhi.”
Genma took a few deep breaths, counting the seconds while his own nausea diminished. “That’s worse that anything Tousaki has ever done,” he said. “I haven’t smelled that much death since the Fox.”
Fukuda’s expressing turned even darker, and she picked up her pace to just short of a jog, with the dogtags clenched tight in her fist.
“If we’re done suffering from vapors, perhaps we could continue like shinobi,” Kuroda said, voice dripping with scorn.
Kurenai casting that genjutsu was acting like a shinobi. So was dry-heaving but not vomiting. Genma gritted his teeth. One more mission. All they had to do was get through this mission, and Team Six would be out from under Kuroda’s thumb.
They rounded a final curve, and the tunnel broadened out to reveal an expansive chamber. The soft greyish light of a genjutsu illuminated a scene out of a nightmare. More than twenty bodies lay scattered on the cave floor in dried pools of rusty brown. Fresh drag marks spattered with gore led the way to the far end of the cavern, where blue-white lightning crawled over the rock walls and ceiling of another tunnel.
Kakashi and Ryouma were nowhere to be seen, but Ginta was bent over the bodies of a young woman and a baby, checking the woman’s pockets. He’d rolled his sleeves up past his elbows and cuffed his pants to the knee, presumably to keep his clothes from touching the decaying corpses. A dozen more sets of dogtags dangled from chains around his wrist.
Fukuda stood at the edge of the killing field, eyes wide with horror, jaw clenched tight. Her shoulders shook for a moment, and then she broke into a near run, rushing towards Ginta and the corpses.
Kurenai exchanged a tight look with Satomi, and followed Fukuda.
Ginta jerked to his feet and stood in front of the bodies, looking all the more forbidding with his gruesomely swollen eye and battered cheek. He caught Fukuda by the shoulders as she sank to her knees. Kurenai shook her head at him, and he nodded, stepping to the side. His hand stayed on Fukuda’s back. Genma couldn’t tell if he was comforting or restraining her.
Fukuda’s hand reached out to stroke the long tea-brown hair of the dead woman. Then she looked helplessly up at Ginta and Kurenai. “It’s not her.” Her voice was hollow.
Kurenai helped her to her feet, leading her away from the carnage.
Ginta followed, heading straight to Kuroda and the two captains to deliver a clipped report. “There were thirty-four dead here, and two more in a smaller cave back a ways. Tousaki and Hatake are on corpse disposal; I’m checking ID and valuables. Hatake says they’re all related, though I don’t know how he smelled that through the decomp stench. So far I count thirteen sets of dogtags, one chuunin and the rest genin. Fourteen if we count the ones I sent back with Satomi.”
Kuroda surveyed the corpses with the dispassionate eye of a farmer studying a fallow field. “What clan name?”
“Kusakabe,” Ginta said. “It looks like they’d been hiding here for at least a week before they were slaughtered. Only the chuunin and one of the genin managed to fight back, and they were overpowered almost immediately.” He gestured at one of the corpses, a teenaged boy, it looked like, by the size of his hands. The boy lay awkwardly on his side with a broken blade beneath him, surrounded by a litter of shuriken. His throat had been slashed all the way to the spine.
“They probably trapped the rest of them with genjutsu,” Ginta continued, “then slit their throats. Hatake said he didn’t smell any poison.”
“Kusakabe. Water transformation bloodline,” Kuroda said, looking grimly satisfied. “That confirms it: Kiri is slaughtering their kekkei genkai.”
“This can’t be the whole clan,” Usagi said. “There’re no jounin.”
“Stood their ground while the rest fled?” suggested Raidou. “Probably got massacred on the surface.”
Ginta nodded. “One of the bodies had a letter in its pocket that said to stay safe in the caves until the fighting was over. Looks like the fighting didn’t go the way the sender hoped.”
Genma glanced at Fukuda. Her face was composed and blank again, but her shoulders were tense, and the stump of her severed arm twitched like she wanted to reach for a weapon with her missing hand.
A pair of figures emerged from the lightning-filled tunnel. They started towards the nearest corpse, then changed direction when they caught sight of their teammates. They were both stripped to the waist, with their pants rolled up like Ginta’s. Their hands were gore-covered, but neither of them were limping.
“What have they been doing with the bodies?” Genma asked. “Too many for Tousaki to use his jutsu for disposal?”
“And too much chakra,” Ginta said. “We guessed since Kiri thinks everyone who would have used these caves is dead, they probably aren’t monitoring too closely, but just in case…” He nodded towards the tunnel the rookies had emerged from. “There’s a sea-passage that way. A few rocks to weigh the bodies down, and the sharks can have them.”
When Ryouma was closer and in better light, Genma checked more carefully for visible injuries. Other than the bandage wrapped around his forehead, and some redness on his back that would probably be bruises in a few more hours, he seemed fine. Kakashi’s cheek was scratched above his mask, but he looked otherwise unharmed. Ginta’s eye, though, was alarming. Genma glanced at Raidou, hoping for backup. “I’d like to check Sakamoto’s injury,” he said to Kuroda. “Permission to do so?”
Kuroda didn’t even look at Genma. “Do you require a medic, Sakamoto?”
Ginta glanced between Kuroda and Genma with his one good eye. “I will soon, but not immediately, if you need me here.”
Whatever knock he’d taken to the head clearly hadn’t damaged the contents.
Kuroda grunted and switched topics. “Tell us about the traps you encountered.”
While Ginta launched into a rapid recount of poisoned senbon, melting floors, and broken-legged clones, Raidou spared a piece of attention for his own team. True to form, Kakashi had caused a minor disaster and caught Ryouma in the crossfire, but the end result was two disabled traps and no one dead, so Raidou still counted it as a win.
“Very well,” Kuroda said, when Ginta finished. “We’ll keep the original plan. Rest here for a few hours, reach the surface by midday, cross Sagami-wan Strait at nightfall. That should put us in position to reach Kirigakure just after midnight.”
Fukuda’s head came up. “You’re waiting?”
“Yes,” Kuroda said, without a flicker of emotion. “If your sister is killed in the next eighteen hours, take it up with the gods. I’m not risking a daylight attack.”
Fukuda’s lips parted on a slow, deadly breath. The points of her teeth glimmered in phosphorescent light. She gave Kuroda a fixed look that slid from his eyes to his throat, then swept her gaze over the collected ninja, landing on Raidou last. He met her eyes steadily.
“If she dies,” Fukuda said at last, “I won’t be the only one arguing with the gods.”
She slid to her feet and went to join Kakashi and Ryouma. They stared as she crouched over the same young woman’s body, carefully freed the baby from its lifeless grasp, and gathered the tiny body against her chest. Holding it one-handed, she walked out to the disposal tunnel. Behind her, Ryouma’s hands clenched and relaxed. Then he bent, picked up the young woman’s body, and followed.
Kakashi glanced blankly at Genma and Raidou, then hauled the ragged corpse of an older man over his shoulder, and traipsed after Ryouma.
“Usagi, have your team assist with body disposal,” Kuroda said. With that, he stalked over to the driest and least bloody portion of the cave, and settled down to study the maps yet again.
Usagi twitched, caught herself, and signalled her rookies. Abe and Kasumi waded in with varying levels of reluctance.
“We’ll organize food,” Kurenai said, tilting her head at Satomi, who shrugged reluctantly.
Raidou nodded. “Usagi, if you take first watch, I’ll sub in for Abe — he and Shiranui should get more rest.”
“After I see to Ginta’s face,” Genma said, but there was a hint of relief in the tired set of his shoulders.
“Deal,” Usagi said. She clapped Ginta once on the shoulder, making him wince, and strode off to find a perch away from Kuroda.
Ginta spread his hands in willing surrender, and told Genma, “I’m all yours, sensei.”
Genma’s mouth twitched, ever so slightly.
“Don’t overdo it,” Raidou said, and left them to rescue Abe.
Body disposal was not a job that improved with practice. Especially because the more intact bodies were easier to move, and got first preference. By the end, they were down to limbs and other parts, and Kakashi was thoroughly tired of stepping on scavenging crabs.
The smell, at least, was manageable with genjutsu, but the constant brush of foreign chakra was making his skin itch. The addition of Raidou’s was familiar and solid, but Ryouma’s was so tightly clamped down, Kakashi could barely sense it.
When the last piece of anonymous flesh had been wrapped around a chunk of volcanic stone and sunk, Ryouma stood back and wiped sweat off his face with the back of his arm. “I think I’ll be ready to kill whoever did this. Tomorrow.” He looked down at his hands, gloved to the wrists with fresh gore. “Kind of had my fill of corpses today…”
Kasumi made a quiet, bitter sound, and turned away to stride back into the cave.
Watching her go, Raidou sighed. “Kurenai and the Uchiha should have food ready by now. Get cleaned up and take a rest.”
Ryouma, also watching Kasumi, scuffed his foot awkwardly on stone, smearing a fragment of something rotten, and dragged his gaze Fukuda, who stood staring down at the dark water. “Any other outlets?” he asked her. “We didn’t scout beyond this one.”
So far, that was the politest thing he’d said to her.
Fukuda didn’t move for a moment, watching a silver roil in deep waters, then her pale eyes went to Ryouma’s hands — to the gore dripping from his fingers. Kakashi straightened, a ripple of tension rolling down his spine, but Fukuda just said flatly: “Try looking.”
A few hours ago, that would have made Ryouma’s lip curl. Now he just turned, brushed past Raidou, and walked away. Kakashi growled softly under his breath and went after him, leaving Raidou to deal with Fukuda.
The main cavern floor was a map of dark stains and a handful of tired living people. Ryouma avoided both by picking a side-tunnel at random and striding up it. Kakashi had to jog to catch up with him. The tunnel bent away from the ocean, but it led to a slender crack in the floor, where a shallow pool of brackish seawater collected. It was just outside the effect of the anti-smell area genjutsu. Ryouma, inured or past caring, didn’t pause. Kakashi did for a moment, then made himself push on.
The scent hit like a rotting wall. Flesh and sewage and death, with a sweet-foul edge that clung to the roof of his mouth. Kakashi drew a slow breath and resolved to burn his clothes later.
Hunkering down at the edge, Ryouma swirled his hands through the rockpool. The water darkened, a greasy film sliding over the surface. Kakashi crouched on the other side and sluiced his own hands, washing black and red away.
Two days ago, Ryouma’s feelings about Kiri had been simple. They’d tried to murder his team. He would not forgive. Now, though, there were slain children and Fukuda’s shaking hand turning a woman who wasn’t, thankfully, her sister, and it was hard to keep clarity when you had a massacre soaking into your skin.
This isn’t our problem, Kakashi thought. They had one objective, and if Kiri was dealing with civil war, the confusion would only help.
A third of the rockpool was still clean; Kakashi picked an upstream spot and dunked his entire head violently under the water. The cold was a sharp, briney shock. When he came back up, his mask was plastered to his face, the world tasted of salt and wet cloth, and Ryouma was staring at him.
“Judge when you have my nose,” Kakashi told him.
Ryouma gave him a small, crooked smile. “Sorry. It’s a good nose, though.” He tapped the bridge of his own nose, leaving a smudge, to indicate Kakashi’s allergy mask wasn’t as stay-fast as the normal ninja variety. Kakashi tugged it up hastily.
The compliment, he suspected, was Ryouma’s way of using air while his mind was on other things. Kakashi said, “Your bandage is starting to bleed through.”
Ryouma sighed. “It was a good forehead.” He looked down at his hands — still disgusting — then craned his neck in an awkward attempt to rub his forehead against his shoulder, which was also less than clean.
“Stop, stop, you’ll give yourself a brain infection and Shiranui will yell,” Kakashi said. He shook water off his hands, flash-dried them clean with a controlled fire jutsu, and moved around to prevent Ryouma from grinding sludge into his open head wound.
Obediently, Ryouma lifted his head into Kakashi’s hands. The bandage was grey with sweat, speckled with unnamable things, and fraying at the knot. A pinkish stain seeped through just above Ryouma’s eyebrow. In retrospect, Kakashi could have done a more competent job, but if he was going to reevaluate anything, he’d have to start with not dropping a goddamn ceiling on Ryouma’s head in a first place.
He unwound the bandage, burned that too, and took stock of the damage underneath. The cut was long, deep, and oozing sluggishly past a half-formed scab of blackish dried blood. The right eyebrow had been split clean through. Ryouma hissed softly when Kakashi touched the edge of it.
Kakashi bit his lip. “I think you need stitches.”
Ryouma gave a muted groan. “Kuroda’s gonna be pissed at me. Again. And Genma’s worn out already.” He squinted up at Kakashi. “Butterfly bandages won’t do it?”
“You’re the medic,” Kakashi pointed out. “You tell me.”
“If I were a real medic, I could heal it myself,” Ryouma muttered. He grimaced, wrinkling his forehead like he wanted to feel exactly where it hurt, and sighed again. “Stitches’d be best. Especially given the damp here, and more swimming across the Strait— Adhesive might not hold. But the lieutenant…” He worried the inside of his cheek, making a dent, then blinked and knocked his cheekbone against Kakashi’s hand. “You know basic field med.”
“I don’t think Shiranui’s actually dying,” Kakashi said, with caution.
“He performed major healing on Kuroda,” Ryouma said hotly. “You saw how flat he was afterwards! And he’s gonna be working on Sakamoto’s eye now, if Kuroda let him. And we’ve still got swimming and fighting and fucking mass murder ahead of us. Can’t ask him to waste chakra sealing up my eyebrow when we might need it sealing up someone’s ribcage later.” He paused. “Can you do stitches?”
“Only when I forget my staple gun,” Kakashi said. He considered asking are you sure? because it was Ryouma’s face, and Kakashi was fairly certain Ryouma had strong opinions about his face not being hacked about by amateurs, but apparently his opinions on Genma’s welfare were stronger.
Kakashi’s mouth twitched. He had a few scars he hadn’t let Rin waste chakra on, either.
“Okay,” he said. “Sit against the wall.”
After all that, it wasn’t much work to clean the wound, blot the last bleeders, and put a simple running stitch through it. Ryouma sat like a patient — or very tired — stone, only flinching once when the needle hit a particularly raw nerve. Kakashi tied the final knot, clipped the thread, and studied the result. It wasn’t the fine work of a properly trained hand, but the wound was closed and the sutures were small and neat. With any luck, Ryouma would just end up with a faint line through his eyebrow.
“You know what’ll be fashionable this summer?” he said, as he smeared ointment and re-bandaged the wound. “Headscarves. We can get you one.”
Ryouma tipped his head for better bandaging access. “Hitai-ate’ll hide it. You can keep the scarf. Though—” he flicked a look up at Kakashi’s hair— “not the brown. Silver suits you better.”
“I’ll take that under advisement,” Kakashi said slowly, and tied the last knot. “Done.”
Ryouma let out a breath, soft with relief, and let his head drop so that his cheek rested against Kakashi’s wrist. Startled, Kakashi held still, then gave Ryouma’s hair a careful tug with his free hand. “C’mon, up. There’s food waiting.”
Most of the others had already collected their rations by the time Ryouma and Kakashi made it back.
Usagi still stood stiff-backed and alert near the main entrance to the cavern, on watch. The remaining members of Team Thirteen clustered near her. Abe leaned against the cavern rock, staring into a silver foil pouch; beside him, Kasumi methodically shredded a rat bar wrapper. Only Ginta seemed to be eating with anything like an appetite.
Then again, healing took a lot out of a man. And Ginta’s eye was markedly less swollen than before.
Genma and Raidou had claimed their own little patch of dry ground, not far from Ginta. They’d spread cloaks on the cold stone. Genma had one around his shoulders, too. He was eating with the dogged persistence of a man who knows he should be hungry, while Raidou scowled at a metal canteen until it steamed. He pushed the canteen into Genma’s hand and said something, too low to hear. Genma frowned, but he took the canteen.
Kakashi pushed Ryouma’s shoulder. The two Intel agents had unpacked a tiny gas burner from a sealing scroll, and an aluminum pan of rehydrated curry sat next to several foil packets of heat-and-serve rice. Kurenai caught Ryouma’s eye, and offered half a smile. “You’re just in time. Already cleaned up?”
“Wouldn’t turn down a hot shower if you’ve got one,” Ryouma said.
“Towelettes are the best I can do, I’m afraid.” She passed over a package. Ryouma’s hands were theoretically clean, but he’d never missed an opportunity to scrub them again. He accepted, gratefully.
Kakashi tapped the side of his masked nose. Ryouma stared at him.
“You have a smudge,” Kurenai said, helpfully. “Have you not yet learned the language of brooding and significant glowers?”
“That wasn’t a glower,” Ryouma said, obscurely offended on Kakashi’s behalf. He swiped the towelette over his nose. “Do we have more water?”
“A little. Satomi’s got the scroll.” Kurenai glanced between them. Her thin black brows rose, very slightly, over contact-brown eyes. But she said only, “Curry?”
Kakashi accepted two pouches of curry-over-rice and bore them off to stake out a spot on Raidou’s other side. Ryouma lingered while Satomi unsealed the scroll with its heavy jars of fresh water. On a mission like this, where they could not rely on the possibility of finding clean drinking water, each team carried its own supplies. Fortunately, water endured the chakra-charged ordeal of sealing better than food, which inevitably spoiled after only a few hours in a scroll. Ryouma refilled his canteen and Kakashi’s, and then hesitated a moment longer.
“Uchiha. About that rockfall. Kakashi’s not— He didn’t mean for any of us to get hurt.”
For a woman whose eyes weren’t quite level with his collarbone, Satomi had an unpleasant way of managing to look down her nose at him anyway. “Hatake explained himself to you?”
“I’m getting to know him,” Ryouma said. “Enough to know he’d never endanger a teammate on purpose. Not unless he knew you could defend yourself, at least.”
“That might be a convincing testimonial, if it came with fewer caveats.” Satomi folded her arms.
Fewer what? Ryouma tried again. “He cares about people. He’s just not always good at showing it. But he’d put himself in the blade’s path for any of us. Setting off that trap was a mistake, and not even a careless one. He—”
“He nearly blinded you,” Satomi said harshly. “He can’t afford many more mistakes like that. Careless or not.” Her chin jerked up. “Have you noticed, yet, that it’s always the people around him who suffer the most?”
“I dunno what happened with your cousin,” Ryouma said, “but I jumped in this time. He didn’t make me.”
Red flickered in Satomi’s eyes. “Yes,” she said, in a voice like ice. “I imagine that’s what Obito would have said, too. Of course, it didn’t matter for him, in the end. No— Hatake doesn’t need your defense, and I don’t want to hear it. Go eat.” She shoved the opened water jug into his hands. “And pass this around.” She turned, abruptly, to join Kurenai and Fukuda over the last of the curry.
Ryouma’s hand clenched on the handle of the water jug. He trekked up the sloping cave floor to drop it off with Abe, and then skirted the rest of the group to sit, pointedly, at Kakashi’s side.
Kakashi said softly, “Making friends?”
“It’s my winning personality,” Ryouma said, accepting a packet of curry-rice and spoon. “You put up with me, though, so sooner or later I’ll win the rest of ’em over.” He scowled at Satomi’s slim back. “What’s a caveat?”
“A warning or cautionary detail.” Kakashi’s eyebrow cocked. “Why?”
“Building my vocabulary,” Ryouma said vaguely, with his mouth full.
Genma looked up from his own curry-rice pouch, blinked, and focused on Ryouma’s face. “I assume you did the fresh bandage, Hatake. All Sakamoto said is that it was bloody — how bad is it? And please tell me you didn’t get decomp fluids into the wound.”
“Three inch lac, didn’t go down to the bone,” Kakashi said, as if he were rattling off case details from one of the medical textbooks he’d been reading to Ryouma recently. “Put some sutures in. It’ll be a rakish scar.”
Three inches? Ryouma lifted his hand to touch the bandage, caught himself, and dropped it again.
“Is there a reason you didn’t get Abe or me to look at it first?” Genma asked, in a carefully controlled tone. “Stitches are an infection risk.” He motioned for Ryouma to come nearer.
Ryouma’s brilliantly altruistic idea was starting to look slightly more idiotic. He glanced nervously at Kakashi, then pushed up and circled around to crouch in between Genma and Ginta. Ginta made room, obligingly, with his spoon dangling from his lips and bright interest in his eyes. On Genma’s other side, Raidou polished off a rat bar and sat back to watch.
“You both seemed pretty tired,” Ryouma explained. Genma unwrapped the bandage, swiftly and skillfully; Ryouma watched the lines of tension deepen around his mouth, and dropped his gaze to Genma’s collarbones. “I was thinking about conserving medics’ chakra — and we’ll be fighting later…”
Kakashi slid behind Raidou’s broad shoulder, and began wrestling into a shirt.
“Well,” Genma said, “that’s true. And it’s good thinking.”
Ryouma looked up, startled.
Genma flicked the tip of his nose, lightly stinging. “But that’s when you’re the medic. When you’re the patient, let the medic be the judge of how best to manage his chakra.”
He prodded gently at the stitches, which stung worse. “You didn’t do a bad job, Hatake. But I’m still going to have to take them out. Shallow wound sealing isn’t that taxing for most higher level field medics,” he added to Ryouma. “And we don’t need you with a big white target on your head if we end up in a fight.”
“No rakish scar for you after all,” Ginta said, sounding amused.
Kakashi’s head lifted above Raidou’s shoulder, just enough for Ryouma to see his narrowed eye. “So you’re not tired, Lieutenant?”
Raidou snorted, before Genma could respond. “He is. Which is why both of you will doing exactly what he says for the rest of this mission.” He paused. “And no more exploding mountains.”
“It was an exploding tunnel,” Ryouma muttered. “And he didn’t do it on purpose.”
“If anyone thought he’d done it on purpose,” Genma said quietly, “we’d be having a very different conversation right now.” He looked past Ryouma, at Ginta. “Hand me that kit, Sakamoto?”
Taking the stitches out hurt only a little more than putting them in. Ryouma sat very still, even when Genma dropped the last bloody bit of thread and raised green-lit fingers to Ryouma’s brow instead. He could feel his flesh rippling, fever-hot, furiously itchy.
Genma sat back, dropping his hands, and Ryouma released a shaky breath. Genma’s breathing wasn’t much steadier. His face was eerily pale in the grey genjutsu light, and he braced himself with one hand on the stone floor while he dug in his med kit with the other.
He came up with a handful of single-use ointment packets, and dropped them into Ryouma’s lap. “Apply antibiotic ointment a couple of times a day for the next few days, and make sure your hands are clean. How does it feel now?”
“Better.” The unbearable itchiness had faded, and his teeth were no longer buzzing. A little pain lingered as nerves fired misplaced signals to each other, but that would fade too. He resisted the urge to finger the cut, for now. “Thanks, lieutenant.”
Ginta leaned in to inspect the result. “If you skip the ointment, you might still get that sexy scar Hatake wanted.”
Kakashi looked blank. Genma clicked his tongue. “Sakamoto, please…”
Ginta shrugged, head cocked impishly to one side. “Or you can go with Genma’s advice. I’m sure Hatake will like you without the scar just as much.”
Kakashi shoved up and walked away, up the rim of the cavern to the point near the tunnel-mouth where Usagi stood watch. He spoke to her briefly. She clapped his shoulder, and jogged back for food. Kakashi stayed, staring out into the tunnel darkness.
Not quite as frantic an escape as when he’d translocated to the other side of Ryouma’s apartment, but the point was equally clear.
Raidou gave Ginta a thin, edged look, and scooped Ryouma’s foil pouch of curry-rice off the ground. He dropped the pouch into Ryouma’s hands, pressed a steaming canteen back into Genma’s, and said, “We could use more blankets, Sakamoto.”
“Blankets I can do,” Ginta said brightly. He pulled out another sealing scroll. Chakra snapped, smoke bloomed, and a quartermaster’s half-dozen of thick cotton blankets dropped over Ryouma’s head.
Ryouma clawed out from underneath, nearly spilling his curry. A snarl built at the back of his throat. The man was enjoying this. If he weren’t a lieutenant—
The last blanket slipped off. He saw Kasumi watching, almost smiling, and Abe a little less pale. Ginta was watching them, too.
Anger died. He clutched an armful of warm, ozone-scented blanket, and thought, That could have been Kakashi. Or the captain. Or Genma. Or me.
Eizo was there and then he was gone, and Ryouma didn’t think he’d ever exchanged more than a few words with the man. Maybe a brief conversation or two on the run from Konoha to Ofunato Port, or on the junk, but he’d be hard-pressed to remember more than a rumbling voice and a muscular back. He wasn’t even sure he knew Eizo’s full name.
To Team Thirteen, though, he’d been their veteran — Abe and Kasumi’s senpai, Ginta and Usagi’s reliable left hand. Like Katsuko, before she left.
They didn’t even have his dogtags to bring back.
He pushed two of the blankets towards Genma, and held up the remainder. “Sakamoto-fukuchou. Your team should rest. We’ll cover the watches today.”
Ginta looked down at him over the blankets. Angular blue eyes narrowed, as if he was searching for the catch. He said slowly, “Unless my rookies want to stand watches to keep their minds occupied…”
Kasumi shook her head. Usagi, coming back with a new pot of curry, snorted. She grabbed a couple of blanket off the top of Ryouma’s pile as she passed.
“If your captain and mine agree,” Ginta said wryly, “we won’t turn you down.”
Raidou cocked his head at Usagi, inquiring. She smiled, small and tight, but with a lick of irrepressible fire. “If your rookie wants to play sheepdog, I’m not arguing.” She dropped a blanket on Kasumi’s lap, and settled down between her rookies with her curry pot. “Get some rest, kids.”
Genma rubbed his eye, and glanced at Raidou. “Have you got this? I can take last watch if you need me.”
“Kakashi and I’ll do it,” Ryouma said, quickly. “You sleep too, lieutenant. We won’t be here long enough for four full watches, anyway.”
Raidou stared at him now, too. At last he nodded. “Eat first.”
“Taichou.” Ryouma bent his head, shoveling curry-soaked rice in. The curry was lukewarm, the rice mushy, but it was food, and he was alive to eat it.
He looked up and caught sight of Fukuda, braced by the two Intel agents. She had a foil pouch in her lap and a spoon in her hand, too, but her eyes rested on the dark-iron stains on the floor.
They’d be in Kirigakure by midnight.