August 9, Yondaime Year 5
The message came at 0300, because of course it did. Short, urgent: Mission. Now.
Raidou put his uniform on. Grabbed his pack, his sword, his cloak. Shoved a ration bar between his teeth and went to wake Ryouma. “Tell Hatake we’re leaving.”
Ryouma clutched his doorframe blearily. “Righ’ now?”
“Ten minutes ago. Meet us at the north gate when you’re done.”
The tone got through. Ryouma straightened, eyes clearing as adrenaline started to wake him up, and vanished back into his room.
Dark rooftops took Raidou to Genma’s loft. Moonlight glimmered on dew-slick tiles, making the building look like it was wearing a crown of bones. A single candle burned in one high window, casting an orange circle of light. Raidou landed on the exterior iron staircase and banged on the door with a heavy fist. There was no sound inside, but after a moment the light flickered.
Locks slid. Seals lowered.
Genma answered the door in thin pajama pants, candle held in one hand and shielded by the other. It was in a little clay dish with a handle, protected by storm-glass. Light spilled over his torso and put gold in his eyes, hollows in his throat. His hair was loose around his shoulders, mussed with sleep.
For a moment, Raidou entirely forgot why he was here.
“Taichou?” Genma said hoarsely.
Raidou’s eyes jerked up from shadowed collarbones. “New mission.”
Like Ryouma, Genma came swiftly awake, but with a sharpening of intent rather than a jagged spike of energy. This pre-dawn ANBU routine was equally unpleasant, but more familiar to him. He yawned and stretched. Raidou studied the lintel with sudden interest. Genma said, “Briefing, or read the scroll while we run?”
“Read and run,” Raidou said. “We’re getting a Hatake replacement. Meeting her at the north gate, along with Tousaki.”
Genma nodded, unsurprised. “Give me three minutes.”
It barely took that. Genma stepped out armored and booted, hair tied back, fingers limbering up around an absently spinning senbon. He smelled faintly of toothpaste. The loft seals flared back to life as the door closed.
The north gate was guarded by a pair of bored ANBU — both veterans that Raidou recognized by mask, but wouldn’t know if he met them out of uniform on the street. Leaning next to the gate was a short, slender figure with short, wild hair, and lying at her feet, a hulking shadow. It was just possible to make out curving red tattoos on the woman’s cheeks, shaped like fangs. She grinned. “About time.”
“Kept you waiting?” Raidou said. “Sorry. We just got the call.”
Ryouma landed lightly at Genma’s side. Alert, armored, smelling distinctly like coffee.
The woman pushed away from the wall. She had the piercing blue eyes of her clan, and long sharp canines. She wasn’t ANBU; she wore a jounin vest zipped up to her throat, armored pants with an elaborate abundance of pockets, and heavy-soled boots. In a generous light, if she stretched, she might come up to Raidou’s sternum. “Inuzuka Ashi. Tracker,” she said, with a proud lift of her chin. “This is Taiyou.”
The hulking shadow rose to its feet and stretched luxuriously, front legs first, then back. It was a dog of indeterminate breed, at least to Raidou’s untrained eye. Something like a wolf, with a long muzzle and hefty paws, but bulkier in the shoulders, with an astonishing amount of soft, custard-colored fur. Its tail arched high over its back, and its tongue, when it yawned, was a dark blue-black.
Genma crouched and politely offered his fingers for the dog to sniff. It looked at him with dark eyes and said, kindly, “I’m not a pet.”
The voice was female, sandy and warm, with a rumbling quality, but surprisingly clear given the mouth it issued from.
Genma straightened hastily and bowed. “Of course not, Taiyou-san. My apologies.”
Taiyou inclined her head with regal grace, but her tail swished once, twice, and Raidou had to hide a smile at that fluffy giveaway. He imagined most shinobi didn’t take Inuzuka nin-dogs entirely seriously as ninja, considering them more like quasi-intelligent weapons, extensions of their… Owner was probably the wrong word. Partner?
“What’re we tracking?” Ryouma asked, glancing over his shoulder into the dark. He looked worried. Raidou followed his gaze and, just for a moment, thought he caught a vanishing flash of silver.
Kakashi had gotten out of bed. Sweet of him.
Ashi’s smile darkened. “Dead bodies.”
“And the trail’s not getting warmer,” Taiyou added impatiently. “Is everyone here? Can we go?”
They could finish introductions on the road. Raidou nodded. “Let’s.”
The guarding ANBU didn’t bother to open the gate, and Team Six didn’t ask. They went up and over the wall as a unit, accompanied by Ashi’s fleeting shadow and Taiyou’s silent leap. The dirt road welcomed them, wide and solid, leading north.
Before the first curve took them into the trees, Raidou glanced back. Perched high on the wall, a lonely figure in the cold moonlight, Kakashi watched them leave.
They left the road to angle northeast, and left the ground to take to the trees. Taiyou was the only member of their party who stayed low, easily dodging through dense undergrowth, while the humans raced from branch to branch. Ashi filled them in on the specifics, since she’d actually had time to read the mission scroll, or maybe even been briefed.
They were heading to the Tochigi Bounty Office, but not to collect any reward.
“Do any of you know Sase Yutaro?” Ashi asked.
Collectively, the answer was no, though Raidou knew the name.
“Jounin-sensei. He was killed by a bounty hunter last night, when they were making camp. One of his students got away and reported in to a radio outpost.”
“Just one?” Genma asked.
There was space for a single, silent breath. A soft inhale through clenched teeth from Ryouma. Then Raidou asked, “Who took them out?”
“The genin didn’t see anyone, but she said it got cold and foggy just before the attack.”
Kirigakure. Again. Or perhaps Mist ninja who’d renounced their village and gone rogue. In the weeks since Team Six’s and Thirteen’s joint mission to Mist, talk of civil war had been rising, as had the numbers of reported missing nin with scratched through Mist insignia.
“Definitely a bounty hunter, and not anything political?” Genma asked.
Below them, Taiyou snorted. “Everything’s political.”
“Mist’s been—” Genma started.
“Purging their rolls of kekkei genkai?” Ashi supplied, before he could say it. “Falling into a civil war? Yeah. No surprise if these bounty hunters are deserters.”
Ryouma, in rear guard, asked, “The genin who survived— Did she see anything more than fog? Any other jutsu?”
“Yeah, she got faces, forbidden jutsu, and ID tags, I just forgot to mention,” Ashi said with an audible eyeroll. “She saw fog. Then she saw bits of genin raining all over the landscape. Then she ran, ’cos she’s not an idiot.” Unlike some question askers, her tone implied.
“The sensei must have been the target, unless one of the genin was a Hyuuga or Uchiha,” Genma said. “Do we know why?”
Ashi shrugged. “Something about a bloodline or a new jutsu. I dunno. Science. One of the missing kids is an Akimichi, but the fuck would you want an Akimichi for?”
From below, Taiyou called up, “Sase-sensei was developing a new jutsu. Intel thinks it may stem from a mutation, possibly a developing bloodline.”
“Sase had a bounty on his head,” Raidou said. “Got added to Kumo’s bingo book two months ago for a steam-manifestation jutsu. We missed the update.”
When they’d missed two weeks of their own world’s calendar. Raidou must have only just gotten his hands on the updated information, since Genma hadn’t seen it yet.
“Steam would be deadly. Not easy to dodge, and if you inhaled it…” Genma shuddered at the thought of lungs boiled from the inside.
“Or worse,” Raidou said. “If he could turn all the water inside your body to steam.”
The implications were far more horrifying than mere scalds. “Your whole body would inflate, your soft organs and eyeballs would rupture, your brain would turn to mush inside your skull…” Genma said, repulsed and fascinated at the same time. He glanced back at Ryouma’s masked form. “It’s as bad as your jutsu in some ways. Fire and Water natures like yours, too.”
Ryouma’s fingers seemed to be twitching through seals. “I can… think of maybe a way I’d do something like that. Like the Naizou Tokasu, but diffused. Only I’d lose the chakra-hooks if I lost the bolt…” He trailed off into incomprehensibility, talking himself through his own jutsu. “What was Sase’s bloodline?”
“He didn’t have one, officially,” Raidou answered.
Taiyou added from below, “That’s what developing bloodline means, whelp. Listen to your elders.”
Ryouma ducked his head in an offended sulk, but after a few minutes asked, “So… is the bounty because of his jutsu or his developing bloodline?”
Oh good, Ryouma was making up for Kakashi’s absence by supplying the sullen teen voice. But it was an important question. If it was just the jutsu, Sase was almost certainly dead, but if it was his genetics they wanted, there was a chance—
“Since we’re scrambling for this, the bounty must not have been claimed yet,” Genma said. “Is there any hope this is an extraction mission, not a body retrieval?”
Ashi snorted. “What jounin teacher lets his students die first? I hope he’s dead.”
“I guess it doesn’t matter. Even if it’s his bloodline they want, there are ways to harvest sperm after death,” Genma said. “With chakra-preservation of the body, you’d have three or four days before the decomposition became overwhelming.”
“They can do that?” Ryouma said, aghast.
“I could have lived my whole life without knowing that,” Raidou added. “I would have been happy.”
“They can do that. There are—” Genma made a quick, executive decision not to go into detail “—multiple methods. It’s something you might come across in higher grade field medic training, Ram, if you keep going with it. It was a question on my last recert exam, but I’ve never actually seen it done.”
“Oh,” Ryouma said, in a small, horrified voice. He didn’t ask any follow up questions, and neither did anyone else.
After a few moments, Genma said, “If we think these bounty hunters have Sase’s body and are planning to claim the bounty, then are we actually worried about jutsu theft? If they were planning to study the body, or harvest from it, they wouldn’t want to turn it in for the bounty in the first place, would they?”
Ashi slowed her steps long enough to roll a blue eye at him, bright-faced in the light of the late-rising moon. “Do you always ask this many questions? I don’t know. Intel points, I track. You can ask when we get there.”
Genma sighed. Ashi might be Kakashi’s functional replacement on this mission, but she was no replacement Kakashi.
Dawn broke, turning the world first grey, then paler grey, under a cloudy sky. At mid-morning Raidou called a ten-minute halt at a swift, shallow stream. They refilled emptied canteens, forced down a rat bar each, and pissed in the bushes. Then they ran on.
The sky stayed the dull color of steel. Muggy heat slicked ANBU shoulders with sweat. Taiyou ran with her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth, blue-black against white teeth. At their next break, Ashi unzipped her jounin vest, peeled carelessly out of her long-sleeved shirt, and zipped her flak vest back up again. She didn’t bother finding a separate bush, either.
They ran, draining their canteens between strides, cramming rat bars into rebelling stomachs. Cicadas droned, until a late afternoon storm broke. The rain passed through, soaking them to the skin, and left the forest more sweltering than before.
The sun sank, though the heat didn’t. When the last light faded, Raidou called another rest-break. His voice was hoarse. “One-eighty kilometers to go. Six hours, if we push.”
Taiyou’s black-lipped jaws and fluffy chest were soaked from panting, but her ears were still cheerfully pricked, her tail a cloudy plume. She gave herself a full-body shake. “Quicker if you boys could actually run.”
Genma was bent over in tripod position, catching his breath, but he lifted his masked head enough to give the dog a dead-eyed stare. Against the back of his leg, he shaped one of the ANBU handsigns that wasn’t in the official logbooks. Eyeroll.
Ryouma dumped the rest of his canteen over his head, then knelt on the muddy streambank to refill. Genma didn’t usually use those handsigns, the rude ones invented by veterans and passed down through teams. Katsuko’d taught them, and Ryouma and Kakashi sometimes traded them behind the officers’ backs. It wasn’t weird that Genma knew them—he’d been a veteran and a rookie once too—but it still made Ryouma want to look over his shoulder, as if Kakashi would be there to share a bemused glance.
He’d looked back too many times already. It was like the first days after Katsuko left, the gap he kept forgetting until no one laughed at his joke or tried to steal his food. It left him off-balance: adjusting for the step that didn’t hit the branch beside him, shoulders prickling with the sense of a back unguarded.
“You’re smarter than you think you are,” Kakashi’d said, before Ryouma joined the officers at the gate. “Don’t be stupid.”
Missing a man he’d only known for four months would probably count as stupid, in Kakashi’s book.
It was one mission. Bounty-hunters and genin-killers. Konoha nin to save or dogtags to retrieve. Quick and clean and nothing to complicate. Ryouma screwed the top back onto his water bottle and stood up. “You got anything better than rat bars, Fukuchou?”
Genma was checking the standard purification seal on the side of his own water bottle. He looked up. “Depends on how long we’re stopping. Freeze-dried rations, jerky, almonds, and rat bars. And some rehyd solution.” He pulled a couple slender packets of electrolyte powder out of a hip pouch. “Should have mixed these in our canteens at the last break.”
“Jerky’d be good.” Ryouma caught the packets Genma tossed him. “We keep going, Taichou?”
The blank Crescent Moon mask turned slightly, as Raidou scanned across the team from Ryouma to Genma, then Taiyou and finally Ashi. Assessing their condition, like any good captain. “Yep,” he said, apparently satisfied no one was about to die from a pulled hamstring. He asked Ashi, “Besides tracking, what can you do?”
She smiled with all her teeth. They were very white, and very sharp. The canines weren’t the only teeth that looked too long. “Fight. Bite. Make big men cry.”
“Ninjutsu?” Raidou asked. “Taijutsu?”
Taiyou shook herself again, spraying foam and water. Her tail swept in a pleased arc. “We’re good with pointy edges. And wire. She likes wire.”
Raidou nodded. “Close range? Or distance?”
Ashi rolled her eyes. “Close. We can handle ourselves, Captain-san. Don’t worry.”
“I wasn’t.” Raidou tipped his chin towards Ryouma, an eerie movement of pale mask in the twilight. “Close range puts you with me and Ram. His hands are lethal. When they glow, don’t get near.”
The derision died in Ashi’s face. Her pale eyes sharpened, flicking down to Ryouma’s hands. She gave a short nod. “We know about the rot ninja.”
Taiyou trotted over to sit in front of Ryouma, just outside reach. Black nostrils flared. “You smell nice,” she informed him. “Like dead things.”
“I— uh. Not like lemongrass-thyme?”
He hadn’t used his jutsu since rotting trees in that spar against the Hokage, two days ago. Before that, it had been weeks. Kakashi hadn’t complained.
Genma told Taiyou wryly, “You’re probably the first one in history to say that to him.” He handed Ryouma a plastic-wrapped packet of jerky. “Don’t worry, I don’t smell anything besides how sweaty we all are.”
Ryouma hadn’t, either. Sweat and wet dog were strong enough. He shoved his mask back on his rain-wet head, ate jerky and drank electrolyte-salty water, and tried to ignore the dog watching him.
They refilled their canteens once more, and then they ran.
Hours and kilometers bled away. Dense woodlands fell behind them. Under starless skies they raced across flooded paddy fields, thick with the autumn rice planting. They crossed the Mitsuishi River, and swung further east into hill country.
Raidou paused more often now, consulting a map with the aid of a cracked glowstick. Taiyou began ranging further afield. She ran with her heavy head low, her fur a pale glimmer in the night.
Ryouma caught up with Genma. “Are we going straight to the bounty office? If we know that’s where they’ll be headed?”
“That’s the plan,” Raidou said, ahead of them. He rolled up his map again. “Start there, backtrack out if the body hasn’t arrived.”
“Taiyou’s casting for a trail,” Ashi said. “In case they’re ahead of us.”
Midnight came. Taiyou returned, her fur thick with mud, her ears laid back. “No scent of recent blood,” she said. “The bounty office is just ahead.”
“Staffed?” Genma asked. “Or are they shuttered for the night?”
“There’s a light.” Taiyou shook herself and sneezed.
“Any sign of Sase-sensei?” Raidou asked.
“No scents I recognize.” The Inuzuka had picked up Sase’s scent before leaving Konoha; Ashi had a scrap of torn shirtsleeve in her belt pouch. She pulled it out now, offering to Taiyou for comparison. Taiyou sniffed deeply. A low whine vibrated at the back of her throat. Her tail curled unhappily. “No.”
Ashi looked at Raidou. “Your call, ANBU.”
Raidou had never been inside a bounty office. He doubted that Genma or Ryouma had, either. Kakashi probably had, since Kakashi had apparently been everywhere, but Kakashi wasn’t here. So that didn’t help. Goddammit, Hound.
He had two pieces of knowledge.
- Bounty offices were neutral.
- Neutral didn’t mean safe.
This office was on Fire Country land, but that didn’t make it Fire Country’s property. Or sympathetic to Konoha. That said, Konoha needed this office, so Raidou wasn’t allowed to just go in and break things.
It occurred to him to wonder why Sagara hadn’t sent a more subtle team.
“We go in,” he decided. “Just to collect information. Keep your weapons in your holsters. Teeth included.”
Genma said, “Maybe Taiyou will catch a scent indoors that the rain hasn’t washed away out here. Do we have a cover, though? A Konoha ANBU unit waltzing in and asking questions is probably going to set off some alarm bells.”
“Claiming a bounty?” Ryouma suggested. “Kakashi hasn’t got payment for Iebara yet.”
Raidou shook his head. “Bounty goes to the village first. Konoha takes her chunk before the rest gets parceled out. It’s probably buried in a stack of paperwork at home somewhere.”
Taiyou held up a paw the size of a ramen bowl and licked it daintily. “What about an ANBU unit tracking a missing teammate, and checking to make sure he didn’t end up here? It doesn’t have to be Sase.”
Plausible, close enough to true.“Worth a shot,” Raidou decided.
“Who’s our teammate, then?” Ryouma asked. “In case there’re questions. We’re not— is Katsuko in the Bingo Book?”
Raidou wasn’t braced to hear her name. His chest twinged. His team was full of holes.
Genma said, “They shouldn’t know who any individual ANBU are. We remain masked, so we don’t have to tell them who we are. We can make up a name.”
This seemed like a somewhat optimistic view of an organization whose entire business model was keeping track of high-level ninja, but there were probably enough no-names in ANBU to make it fly. Raidou and Genma, for example. Ryouma for now, but he’d be in the Bingo Book soon enough.
Raidou said, “Teammate is… Uchiha Daijou. If bloodlines are involved, that might perk some interest.” He rolled his shoulders back, straightening up. “Tousaki, I want you to keep your mouth closed in there. Ashi, same for you.”
Taiyou’s tail swept the dirt with amusement. “And me?”
“And you,” Raidou said. Though, of the three, she seemed the least inclined to swallow her own feet.
Ashi snorted, but didn’t argue.
“Silent, scary looming,” Ryouma said. “I can do that.”
As long as something didn’t offend him or distract him, but Raidou was prepared to trip him if necessary.
“If they ask for a reg number, we can give them one down from mine,” Genma said. “The girl it was assigned to died a chuunin, so she’d never have made it to any bounty records.”
Raidou considered that. “Smart. I like it.”
The bounty office was a tall stone structure, with narrow windows and a heavy, reinforced door. A lantern hung over the lintel, casting crooked shadows. Smoke filtered from a squat chimney stack, making the air smell charnel and meaty. It looked like a cross between a medical office and something grimly bureaucratic. As they drew closer, a little frisson played over Raidou’s senses, like tiny spiders wandering up and down his spine. He glanced sideways.
Chakra wards, Genma’s hands said.
Strong ones, for Raidou to feel them.
There was something unbalanced about the building, as if it ran too tall for its foundations. Raidou wondered if a section of it went underground. They’d want the extra cold, surely, for body storage.
A pull string dangled by the door.
Raidou pulled it. Inside, a clang like a shovel hitting brass made him twitch.
It took several long minutes before something ratcheted inside the door. A small panel slid back at eye-level, revealing the shadowy line of a suspicious nose. “Fire Country or foreign?” it demanded.
The voice was female, cracked with age.
“Fire Country,” Raidou said, after a surprised beat. “Konoha.”
The face shifted. An eyeball gleamed in the gap. “How many?”
“Four. And a dog.”
The eye glanced down. Sitting calm and silent, Taiyou merely flicked an ear. The eye rolled back up. “Put your weapons in the bin.”
It took a moment to locate. Ryouma brushed a lanky bush aside and found a metal container resting against the wall, sealed with a half-rusted lid. He tipped his masked face in question.
Raidou sighed, unloaded blades and explosive tags into an empty scroll, sealed it, and set it carefully in the damp metal box. With various degrees of reluctance, Genma, Ryouma, and Ashi followed suit. It wasn’t like any of them were truly disarmed—a ninja with access to his hands was always lethal—but it was annoying.
The hidden person watched them closely. When Ashi shut the bin, looking leisurely about the whole thing, the little panel slid shut. Mechanisms clicked and whirred, and the sound of multiple sliding bolts echoed dully.
The door opened smoothly, on well-greased hinges.
On the other side, a short, elderly woman stood next to a stepladder. She lifted a single twiggy finger. “We got other people in the building. If yer not polite, I’ll be sending a note to Konoha. An’ other places. Unnerstand?
If he stepped wrong and tripped, Raidou could have killed her just by landing on her. But there was no fear in that small face, wrinkled like a dried apple. The woman glared at the four shinobi and giant dog as if they were a mild inconvenience.
“Understood,” Raidou said.
The woman nodded, grabbed a knotted cane from where it leaned against the wall, and stumped down the corridor. “Someone put that ladder back.”
If there were ever a mission for Kakashi to miss, this was a good one. The interior of the bounty office looked and smelled like a charnel house. With his delicate nose, Kakashi would have been gagging behind his mask. Or worse, his hair would have given him away as a Bingo Book target, like it had with Iebara.
Also there was the trio of ninja in Iwagakure’s distinctive burgundy and tan uniforms and hitai-ate.
Kakashi would definitely have had a problem with that. To be honest, they all did. Raidou’s already tense shoulders squared broader and iron-hard. Ryouma’s stride hitched a step, before he pulled himself up into an even taller, more menacing stance. Taiyou’s dark lip peeled back to show gleaming teeth, her ears flattened against her skull, and the whites of her eyes showed as she skulked behind Ashi, curling around her like a protective wall at her back.
The armistice might be five years in the past, but no one who had fought on Konoha’s northwestern front had forgotten. Or forgiven.
The Iwa ninja didn’t look exactly pleased to see Konoha ANBU, either. The smallest, youngest one gaped openly at Team Six and their Inuzuka companions. Judging by his height and hairless cheeks, he couldn’t have been a front-line combatant. But the older pair slanted wary, angry eyes at their Konoha counterparts, hands twitching like they were limbering up for jutsu.
Genma ground his teeth behind his mask, and reminded himself that this was neutral territory. Any breach of the peace here would bring the wrath of Kages and Daimyou alike on their heads. All their heads. The Iwa ninja weren’t stupid enough to take action against Konoha, especially when they were so far from home; so squarely inside Fire Country’s border. And Genma’s team was far too smart to make the first move.
That knowledge didn’t stop the low, rumbling growl that vibrated between Ashi and Taiyou, though. Or the muttered, “Here to turn in some dead babies, Konoha?” from the other side.
When Ryouma stiffened, Genma shoved one booted foot against his. Ryouma jerked his masked chin up, and pulled his roiling, static-sharp chakra under better control. Raidou just stared at the Iwa ninja with his arms folded across his chest, implacable behind his blood-crescent marked mask.
The Iwa boy flinched first, turning his head away with a faint shudder like he’d been slapped. Raidou held his uncomfortable stare for two breaths longer, then turned to the old woman and said in a carrying voice, “Do you have somewhere more private to go? The air in here smells bad.”
The woman rolled her eyes and stumped past the Iwa ninja, waving her stick at them like she was shooing cattle until they stepped aside. She made a curt gesture for Team Six to follow her into another hallway, past a very large room walled with morgue drawers, and a smaller one that held two glowing iron furnaces and a single, occupied gurney. The bloodless face was turned away, but one naked shoulder was neatly cleaved down to the fifth rib, exposing her scapular anatomy as clearly as a study specimen.
The old woman led them into a tiny, airless office. Heat from the furnaces bled through the thin walls, sending sweat slicking down the back of Genma’s neck. The air in here smelled less of Iwa animosity and more of smoke and death and the sharp, resinous scent of incense. A red-cheeked, skinny boy sat at a desk, counting out bundles of koban. The old woman grabbed his shoulder and hauled him ungently to his feet. “Get Renge to take care of the Iwa boys,” she told him. When he was gone, and the door slid shut behind him, she perched stiffly on a chair with several cushions and stared Team Six down. “What d’you want?”
“We’re looking for one of our own,” Genma said. “Have any Konoha bodies crossed your doorstep in the last day or so?”
She sucked her teeth thoughtfully. “Show me a dogtag.”
“Not happening,” Raidou said.
Genma tapped his mask. “You know we can’t.”
“Don’t care who,” she countered, “but someone shows me a dogtag afore you get anything.”
Ashi was the only unmasked among them. Genma inclined his head toward her. Before she could move to retrieve her tags, Ryouma stepped forward and pulled a single tag on a ball chain over his head, and slapped it down on the counter.
Not his own tags, then, but his mother’s. Ryouma had never talked about her, but Genma’d moved Ryouma’s tags out of the way when treating his pneumonia on the ferry home after their first mission, and wearing a third dogtag was against regulations. It hadn’t been hard to look up the name when they were back in Konoha. And to decide not to bring up the uniform infraction.
The bounty office woman picked the tag up with yellow-grey nails and turned it over, squinting at it through a magnifier she unearthed from a stack of papers on the desk. She looked up at Ryouma with a derisive snort. “This woman is at least twenty years older than you. Did you kill her?”
Ryouma went completely rigid. He shook his head once, short and sharp, and closed his hand around the dangling chain to take it back.
The old woman cackled, not nicely, and clutched the tag in her gnarled fist, refusing to let go. “I see. Important to you. Family?”
Genma tugged Ryouma’s hand away and stepped close to the desk, interposing himself between his rookie and their antagonist. “You asked to see a dogtag. You’ve seen a dogtag. If we were trying to claim a bounty on it, we’d give you more details, but we aren’t.” He held his hand out and waited for her to give it back.
She gave Genma a sour look for spoiling her fun. To Ryouma, with another nasty little laugh, she said, “Shouldn’t be so quick to give away precious things, boy,” and tossed the tag and chain over Genma’s shoulder for Ryouma to catch.
Genma took a half step back, with murderous political disaster less imminent.
Abruptly, she turned to Ashi. “Who’s the Hokage’s favorite advisor?”
Ashi arched an eyebrow and curled her lip, nonplussed. “The fuck would I know that?”
The old woman grinned, showing black-stained teeth, a fashion that had long died out in the cities of Fire Country. “You wouldn’t. Inuzuka don’t know anythin’.” She nodded to Raidou. “Alright, I believe you’re Konoha. Foreigns would do a better job pretendin’. We’ve had… two of yours turned over in the last month. Nothin’ since middle of last week.”
Good news. That was too long ago to be Sase; there was still time to try an intercept. Genma flashed handsigns at Raidou. No good. Go now?
Yes, Raidou tapped against his thigh. But he didn’t move. “What’re Iwa here for?”
“You want I should tell them what you’re here for?” she asked back. “Their business, Konoha.”
Unsurprising response, but it had been worth a shot.
“Are there any claims on the two of ours you’ve got?” Genma asked.
“Who said we still had ‘em?”
Taiyou shifted behind them, letting out an aggrieved sigh.
Raidou was silent for a moment, then said, “Thank you for your time.” Far more polite than the woman deserved.
She stood up just as the door slid open. The boy from before was back, a little out of breath.“Obaasan, Renge needs you up front.”
Now her shooing stick was directed at the Konoha ninja, as she herded them out of her office and back up the macabre corridors to the lobby. At least it was cooler in the larger space. The Iwa ninja were nowhere to be seen, but a grubby pair in patched, threadbare samurai garb stood towering over a fierce-looking young woman who had to be the old lady’s granddaughter. On the floor next to them, a red-stained burlap sack was lumpy with unpleasant contents.
“I told you, that’s not how it works,” Renge said. “You prove you have a legitimate claim against a posted bounty, we pay you. You bring us a whole body we can match against a future claim, you get a cut when we do. We don’t take parts, unless you can prove they came from a ninja.”
Raidou paused at the door, hand up towards his teammates in the sign for wait. Ashi leaned hipshot behind him, one hand resting on Taiyou’s head. Ryouma seemed marginally less stressed with his mother’s dogtag back around his neck. He stood stiffly at Genma’s right, an imposing presence.
This wasn’t their fight, at all, and the bounty office undoubtedly had more than enough security measures to protect themselves from two swordless samurai, but as odious as they were, the old woman and her family were Fire Country residents. Operating in neutral territory didn’t strip them of their own citizenship. And Konoha’s ninja were sworn to the Daimyou to protect the people of Fire Country.
Genma pressed his lips flat behind his mask and stood a little taller. He brushed his leg against a chair in the lobby, scraping it along the wooden floor.
The samurai looked up, and up, at the ninja. It didn’t take them long to come to a decision. One picked up the sack of grisly remains. The other scowled. “I see how it is here.”
“Good. Next time come with proof or don’t waste our time,” Renge said, sharp as a wasp.
Raidou headed for the door, too, before they were ordered to depart. Once they were outside, he cocked his head in the direction the samurai were retreating. “Ram, go find out who they’re killing on Fire Country land. Meet us towards the northwest when you’re done.”
Ryouma tapped out a sharp salute and headed to the bin to retrieve their weapon scrolls, silent and focused.
While Ryouma peeled off eastward, the rest of them continued towards Sase and his team’s last known location. The night had finally started to cool off, as the remaining rain evaporated. Taiyou and Ashi took the lead, still trying to catch a scent. Still frustratingly unable to.
“Good choice sending Ram to track those two down and work off his edge a little,” Genma said, jogging next to Raidou. “That was rough.”
Raidou made a low sound of agreement as they followed Ashi and Taiyou into the darkness. “Makes you wonder how they defend themselves when we’re not around.”
The swordsmen were easy to follow. Ryouma didn’t need a tracker to trail the thick iron tang of blood and the rising grumbles of two resentful men.
“—your idea,” the shorter one was whining, thumping his leaking bag down the road. “Head and hands are enough to prove it’s a ninja, you said. And then you turn too coward to even—”
“Those were Konoha ANBU, you fool,” the taller one snapped. “I’m not pulling one of their worthless little forehead-protectors out of a bloody bag with them staring me down. Hells, I could’ve shit myself when I saw them come in. Did you see the shoulders on that big one?”
“We could’ve taken him,” Whiner said, surly.
“All four of them, unarmed?” The taller samurai spat on the dusty road. “Fuck your grandmother. You’re still drunk. That dog would’ve taken you down before you drew. Even if that shitstained bounty office let us keep our swords.”
They were both dead, Ryouma decided, but the smart one would get to die quicker than Whiner.
Not that he had time to draw it out for either of them. He detached his gloves at the wrist and stripped them off, tucking them into his belt pouch. He let his boots come down a little more heavily on the packed dirt road, let the edge of his killing intent reach out. “Who’s in the bag?”
The men stopped, ragged-edged shadows in the darkness. This close Ryouma could sense their chakra without even reaching for it: more powerful than a civilian’s, but barely trained. Their smell was almost stronger: rank body odor, rancid oil, fresh blood.
The bag thumped to the road. Steel whispered against wooden scabbards. “Who’s there?” Whiner demanded.
Without chakra concentrated to their eyes, they couldn’t see in the darkness as well as Ryouma could. He circled, letting his killing intent build. His bared fingers flexed through seals: Monkey, Hare, Dragon…
“If you had a hitai-ate, why not show it to the bounty office? Prove you killed a ninja. Whose bounty were you hoping to collect? Uchiha Fugaku? Tsunade of the Sannin? Or maybe some poor genin team you ambushed on the road…”
“Face me like a man,” Whiner said, backing up against his partner. They were clumsily molding their chakra, trying to channel it into their swords. The faintest blue glow chased down the edge of the blades. “Fucking coward, come out and fight!”
Ryouma unleashed the full surge of his killing intent. The taller samurai wavered, almost hammered to his knees. Whiner kept his feet, but only just.
If Sase and his kids were in that bag—or if their heads and hands and hitai-ate were—Taiyou would have smelled them. Wouldn’t she? These men weren’t bounty hunters, they were barely bandits, probably flogged out of the Land of Iron before they’d even reached the samurai equivalent of genin rank. They might’ve taken down an unwary chuunin courier, but a jounin-sensei like Sase should’ve been able to hold his own.
Which meant Sase’s real killers were probably still out there, somewhere, and Ryouma was wasting time.
He struck fast and low. A crescent slash of chakra sizzled over his shoulder as he melted back into the darkness. Whiner screamed, clutching at his thigh. The smarter one spun, lifting his sword in shaking hands.
Ryouma said, “Who did you kill?”
“No one!” the samurai stammered. “No one, we found him, he was already dead, someone else cut him down, there were already flies—”
“From ronin to corpse-snatchers?” Ryouma wouldn’t have believed it, but it did explain why they’d been willing to leave the bounty office without a fight. No real investment in their kill. “Where did you find him?”
“Northwest of here, in a clearing near Urakawa.”
That was the direction Raidou and Genma were heading. Ryouma stepped closer, watching the wavering sword. “Was he a child?”
“Fucking godsdamned ninja cheat,” Whiner howled, and came up from his knees with his sword slicing like a scythe. Raw, uncontrolled chakra blazed from the blade.
Ryouma sidestepped, spun, and brought the knife-edge of his chakra-red hand against the back of Whiner’s neck. It sank halfway through the crumbling spinal column. He jerked free, spattering black fluid as the body fell.
The other samurai dropped his sword. “ANBU,” he said, backing away. He must have finally seen Ryouma’s mask and armor, in that blue-lit chakra glow. “I didn’t want to fight you. I didn’t kill him. I wouldn’t kill a kid, but he was already dead, we needed the money, but I wouldn’t have killed him—”
Urine sharpened the air, under the heavy stink of rot.
“Run,” Ryouma said. “Leave Fire Country. Don’t come back.”
He waited until the frantic footsteps died away. Then he cracked a glowstick, drew a careful breath, and opened the bag.
There was a hitai-ate. There were dogtags. He cut a square from the back of the dead samurai’s haori to wrap them.
He didn’t recognize the head. He wasn’t sure family or teammates would have recognized it by now, under the blood and battering. Pale hair under the filth. The hands had neatly trimmed nails, painted blue.
He couldn’t put the boy back in the bag.
Wearily, he summoned the Nikutai Hakai. He waited, on his knees, till it was done. Then he rinsed his hands in the ditch beside the road, picked up the wrapped hitai-ate and dogtags, and left the dead samurai lying in the dust.
He caught up with the officers and the Inuzuka ten kilometers away. “Fukuchou,” he said. His voice scraped. “Do you know their names?”
Genma took the wrapped packet in one hand, looked down briefly, then passed it on to Raidou. He closed his other hand over Ryouma’s shoulder. “Ram.” Armor straps creaked under his grip. “Report.”
“I killed one and let the other go. They found a Konoha corpse in a field near Urakawa. They meant to turn in the head and hands to the bounty office, but didn’t want us to recognize the hitai-ate. I can’t read the dogtags. Who is it?”
Raidou cracked a glowstick and hung it on a shoulder buckle. He unwrapped the tags, rubbing a thumb over the dull metal to clear dried blood away. “Kitame Chousuke. It’s one of our genin.”
Genma’s hand dropped. “They only found a single corpse?”
“He could’ve been lying,” Ryouma said. He’d thought about that, over the last ten kilometers. Once or twice he’d almost turned around. “But they weren’t strong. Scavengers, not soldiers. If they’d killed or found more, they’d have brought it.”
Taiyou ghosted up pale out of the darkness and touched her nose to Raidou’s hand. She backed up and sneezed. “Just blood and boy. I can’t smell Sase.” Her head swung around, fixing Ashi with an accusing stare. “We needed all the scents.”
Ashi shrugged, tight-eyed in the cold green glow. “Take it up with Intel.”
“If our bounty hunters have the other two,” Genma said, “why would those ronin have beat them to the office? We’re taking the most direct path between there and Urakawa.” He looked back into the darkness, then ahead.
“Injury?” Taiyou suggested.
“There’s a hospital in Urakawa,” Raidou said, studying his map. The dogtags and hitai-ate hung looped from his fingers, swaying as he moved.
Ryouma looked away. His breath curled shallowly against his mask. Urakawa was another 60 kilometers away, running. They’d reach the town by dawn, and then what? A fight in the streets, in the hospital? Against bounty hunters who could take down a jounin with a developing jutsu. Who could kill a genin and leave him to scavengers.
“There’s a possibility the third genin is still alive,” Raidou said. He wrapped the dogtags and hitai-ate up again and stowed them carefully in a belt pouch. His voice hardened with the slab determination of tectonic plates coming together. “Ashi, I’d like to pick up the pace.”
Ashi set her face to the wind and ran. Taiyou was a wraith of smoke and bone at her side. Team Six followed.
They raced into dawn and through it. Stars became sunrise became warm morning. Forest blended from old growth to new saplings to open fields and back to forest. They crossed a wide river, chakra-running across coursing water. Taiyou swam. Mostly to cool down, Raidou thought.
It was good to run, in a purely animal way. Uncomplicated movement that required almost no input from the brain. Muscle, bone, blood, and tendon surged together, and kilometers melted away. There was a song beating in the back of Raidou’s skull, something he hadn’t listened to in a long time, made of baseline and threat. He couldn’t quite remember the words, but it felt like this moment. A murdered boy’s dogtags in his pocket, and a direct path to the jugular of the person responsible.
It felt, he realized, like foundered ships and bone splinters in his knuckles.
That was enough to step him back from the edge. He bit the inside of his cheek, sharp, and grounded himself back in his body, where his lungs ached and thought existed.
Taiyou skidded to a halt in a shower of old leaves. Her ears flicked forwards, back. She twisted, almost graceful, and dropped her nose to the ground. Ashi stopped next to her, hands planted on bent knees, wheezing.
Genma had slowed too, much less winded. He pushed his mask to the side and took several quick sips from his canteen, rationing water and breath, watching the Inuzuka and her companion. “What have you got?”
“Something.” Taiyou’s voice was a dark, wary rumble. She circled, raking a furrow through the forest undergrowth with her muzzle. Leaf-litter dyed her fur black. She turned the other way, snorting inelegantly, and froze next to a rotten log. The fur down her spine rose in a jagged ridge. One massive paw scraped the dirt. A tiny white object rolled loose.
Ashi leaned down and picked up a human tooth. She studied it for a moment, narrow-eyed. There was still blood on the root. Then she looked up.
Raidou followed her gaze to the trees. He watched as she scrambled up into the canopy, leaping from branch to branch, until one made her stop. She dropped back down.
“Bark’s scuffed,” she reported. “And it stinks. They passed by overhead, sometime in the last day. I’ve got four scents. One is Sase. I’m pretty sure he’s dead.”
One fleck of optimism extinguished.
“Who else?” Raidou asked.
Ashi’s nose wrinkled. “Woman and a man. Man’s hurt, I think.”
“Burned,” Taiyou confirmed.
“And a kid. Teenager, boy, scared.”
Softly, Genma asked, “Who does the tooth belong to?”
“Are there any other teeth?” Genma asked calmly. “Or anything else?”
“You see me holding any other body parts?” Ashi snapped. Taiyou stepped close and nosed her hand, the one not curled around the tooth. Ashi blew out a sigh and looked away. “No. Nothing else.”
“You can follow the trail now?” Ryouma asked. He was looking at Taiyou, ram mask pushed up on his head. There were purple hollows under his eyes.
“Yes,” Taiyou said. “All the way.”
They’d been running for over twenty-four hours, Raidou realized. They could go longer, especially with soldier pills and ration bars, or more of the terrible sugar-gel packets Genma had been doling out every hour, but just because a man could stagger on broken legs, didn’t mean he should.
“Two hour break,” he said. “Stretch, drink, sit. Sleep if you can.”
Genma, of all people, countered him. “Half hour. Cat nap, soldier pills, and we keep going.”
His eyes were molten, impatient. The boy was alive.
“Stretch, soldier pills, and skip the cat nap,” Ryouma said, scratched hoarse. “None of us would sleep anyway.”
Raidou cracked his jaw, gearing up for an argument, when assistance came from an unexpected corner.
“The fuck I wouldn’t,” Ashi said, falling down in a heap. She groaned, stretching her calf. “Are all ANBU stupid? Captain says you can sit, grab it with both hands.”
Taiyou collapsed down next to her, chest soaked with panted saliva. Her luxuriant fur was a good disguise, but her flanks still heaved under it.
Raidou raised his eyebrows at the other two.
Genma sighed. “We need at least a short rest. We won’t be any good to our genin if we catch up to them and we’re hallucinating from sleep deprivation or too tired to fight. Soldier pills can only do so much.” He looked down at the slumped pair. “I should have asked — can you even take them?”
Ashi said, “We can. Doesn’t mean we want to.”
Taiyou wrinkled her nose. “It burns.”
“Like a yeast infection,” Ashi added, and cackled as Genma paused, halfway through taking off his mask, to stare at her.
Wearily, Raidou sat down with his back against a tree, shoved his mask off and reflected on what Kakashi would have done. Taken the pill, probably, kept going. Bullied Ryouma, challenged Raidou, exasperated Genma into doing the same, until all of them were more annoyed than tired, and their targets were right in front of them. He definitely wouldn’t have talked about yeast.
On the other hand, there was a reason Kakashi collapsed more often than most.
Raidou said, “Two hours. If they haven’t killed the kid already, they probably have other plans for him.”
What those other plans might be didn’t bear thinking about, but Genma couldn’t help the dark turns his mind took. The boy could be a hostage and bargaining chip if the bounty hunters were caught, or a turnable asset to be sold—even a genin would be privy to secrets a rival village might prize. Or, more revoltingly, a plaything for the highest bidder.
He unclipped his utility belt and kodachi and set them on the damp ground at the base of the rough-barked oak Raidou was leaning against. Facing Raidou, he followed Ashi’s lead and spread his legs wide to stretch his hamstrings while they were still warm. “If their injured party is bad off enough, they may not make that much progress in two hours, anyway,” he said, conceding. “Do you want to set watches, or risk it and maximize sleep for all of us?”
A deep frown furrowed Raidou’s eyebrows. Without opening his eyes, he flipped through a familiar seal sequence and split a chakra-dense clone off. It glanced wordlessly at them, then vanished up into the tree canopy to keep a hawk-eyed watch. “We’re still in Fire Country,” Raidou said. “It’s an acceptable risk.”
“Good. It can wake us, then.” Genma tugged the tie out of his sweaty hair and shoved both hands through it, lifting it off his scalp for the faint cooling that afforded. He folded over one outstretched leg, then the other, stretching his sides.
Ryouma paced restlessly while he chugged the contents of his water bottle, vanished briefly to empty his bladder in the shrubby undergrowth, and came back with a rat bar in his mouth. He held it there like a fat, nutrient-rich senbon while he scowled at the leaf litter, selected a spot, divested himself of sword and utility belt, and finally dropped to the ground. His cheeks were dark with stubble, echoing the shadow tinge under his eyes. Shoving the rest of the rat bar in his mouth, he lay on his back staring up at Raidou’s clone. “Still not gonna sleep,” he muttered as he chewed.
“Your call,” Genma said. “But you may as well at least rest.”
Ashi and Taiyou were curled together, with Ashi almost hidden in the thick fluff of Taiyou’s flank. One tan, sharp-nailed hand lay loosely over one of Taiyou’s huge, black-clawed paws. Ashi’s eyes were slitted nearly closed. Taiyou’s breathing had settled and slowed, though her tongue still lolled. She tucked her muzzle down against Ashi’s scalp for a moment, then lay her head between her paws and let her own eyes fall closed.
Raidou tapped a silent count against his thigh: …four-five-six… and opened his eyes to slide them towards Ryouma. Who was asleep. He traded a wry look with Genma, and arranged himself on the ground, fully-armored, with his back to the tree and a folded cloak tucked under his head for a pillow. He made a ‘you, too’ face at Genma, before he closed his eyes again.
Genma yawned and stretched one last time, and drained his canteen of its lukewarm contents. The earth, when he stretched flat against it, was cool and damp from the previous night’s rain. In fewer than three breaths, he was asleep and dreamless.
It felt like no time had passed at all when Raidou shook him gently awake.
“Rise and shine, time to kill people,” Raidou said, and vanished in an ozone-scented whumph.
Next to Genma, the real Raidou startled awake with a violent curse.
“I like how your clones always wake me instead of you when one of them’s been keeping watch,” Genma said through a yawn. “I guess they think I’m less likely to gut them with a kunai before they can vanish themselves?”
Raidou dragged a hand over his face, muttering something that sounded like soulless, disloyal bastard, and staggered upright. “Does anyone know why clones do anything?” He selected a small pebble and flicked it with precision to clack loudly on Ryouma’s mask. “Up, Ram.”
Ryouma jerked to his knees with a kunai in hand. “Movin’ out?’ he asked, in a thick voice. His eyes were bloodshot and narrow. He reached for his pack with the stiff-limbed movement of adrenaline fighting bone-deep exhaustion.
Genma felt for him. He pulled himself to his feet with only a little more grace, and went to piss in the brush while Raidou woke their Inuzuka comrades. When he came back, Ashi was sitting on her haunches, chewing something, and Taiyou was licking her chops.
Genma reassembled himself, belt first, then sword, and did a fast count of the kunai and senbon in his holster, before he dug into his pack to find a semi-appetizing flavor of rat bar for breakfast. Or lunch. Whatever meal this was that they were skipping.
Matcha with white chocolate. That would do.
He glanced up at his team. “Ram, can you fill canteens for us?”
“Air’s almost thick enough to drink,” Ryouma groused. He caught the canteens as they were tossed to him, and cast a quick, confident jutsu, condensing water from the oppressive humidity and the dew on the green leaves around them, which trembled in response.
Ashi drained her canteen as soon as Ryouma handed it to her, and thrust it back at him for a refill. After a moment’s hesitation, Genma did the same. “Thanks, Ram.”
Ordinarily Ryouma would have ducked a smile, but now he only scrunched one shoulder up in an acknowledging shrug and keep working, brows knit in concentration on the jutsu. The effects spread in a wider circle around him; the air, robbed of its moisture, cooled perceptibly.
Genma took his refilled canteen back and stowed it. He pulled his hair into a tight ponytail, and resettled his sword against his back.
Raidou drank the contents of one canteen, dumped a second over his head, and stowed the refills. He pulled out a slim metal container and flipped the lid open to shake a familiar dark brown ball of compressed chakra and fuel into his hand, grimacing at the taste as he crunched it down.
Genma followed his lead, welcoming the salty bitter tang, and the hot slap of fresh adrenaline and chakra that flooded his system from core to periphery in a bright wave.
Raidou shook his whole body, arms and shoulders first, then legs, stamping his feet to settle the renewed power into every cell. He grinned at Genma, sharp-eyed and unnaturally awake.
Genma grinned back.
Ryouma rinsed the taste of his own soldier pill out of his mouth with a quick swish and a sharp exhale as the chakra hit his coils. He looked ten times more alert, jogging lightly in place, champing at the bit to be on the move again. He tugged his mask on.
Ashi gave the three ANBU a look that said you’re confirming every stereotype about ANBU being crazy.
When Genma and Raidou had both remasked, Raidou said, “Lead on, bloodhound.”
“Taiyou isn’t a bloodhound—” Ashi started, but Taiyou shook her head, forestalling any further argument, and nudged her partner to one side. She put her nose to the ground briefly, sniffed the air, then the ground again, and moved out at a confident clip, in the direction of Urakawa.
The trail grew fresher. Out of the woodlands and into cultivated farmland, along muddy embankments between rice paddies, through browning fields of ripening buckwheat. Farmhouses, thatched or tile-roofed, dotted the landscape. A smudge on the horizon resolved into a smokey haze hanging over a walled town. Urakawa.
Ashi’s pace slowed. “They went into the town.”
“Carrying a corpse?” Ryouma said. “And a hostage?”
Ashi shrugged irritably. “Before dawn, maybe. Trail’s old, but not more than half a day. Are you going in like that?” Her pale gaze traveled over their distinctive armor.
Raidou mirrored her shrug. “It’s Fire Country. Why wouldn’t we?”
“If they see us coming, it might spook them,” Genma pointed out. “But it also might flush them out. Your call, Taichou.”
Raidou’s mask tilted down towards Taiyou. His voice grew thoughtful. “Two people, one injured, plus a kid and a corpse. They’re not going to want to take on a full team. If we move fast, we might even be able to negotiate this down without bloodshed.”
Not likely. Ryouma flexed his hands.
“To start with,” Raidou added grimly, as if his thoughts tracked the same target. “I say we go in fast and hard. Ashi, you and Taiyou stay outside the village, catch anyone who jumps the wall.”
Taiyou yawned, showing teeth. Ashi said dubiously, “You’re gonna find them in that town without us?”
Behind the blank holes of the Crescent Moon mask, Raidou’s eyes flicked to Genma, then Ryouma. “Two sensors looking for a cluster of ninja in a civilian village? Our odds are good.”
Ryouma’s range wasn’t actually strong enough to certify as a sensor, but he didn’t contradict. The town couldn’t be more than a couple of kilometers across, just within his sensory range. And shinobi chakra, even genin-raw, stood out among civilian sparks like a bonfire among candles. So long as the bounty hunters didn’t panic and kill the kid—
He said, “What’s his name? The genin.”
“Akimichi Yuuma,” Taiyou rumbled.
Yuuma. Ryouma repeated the name to himself, silently. We’re coming. Hold on.
The two Inuzuka split away, angling through rustling stalks of buckwheat. Raidou led the ANBU straight on. Genma’s chakra swept out as they ran, brushing Ryouma with its focused intensity.
A ramshackle shantytown had sprung up outside the timbered walls, rickety huts with woven reed blankets instead of doors, half-naked children playing in the muddy street. Team Six darted past them. The children’s startled cries rang out and faded behind. They reached the wall, focused chakra to their soles, and kept running.
Almost at the wall’s peak, Genma gritted out, “Found him.”
As one, Raidou and Ryouma veered toward him. He leapt from the sharpened timber stakes, swung like a bird into empty air, and landed crouched on the tiled roof of a warehouse. “South-west.” He was off again before they reached him.
Ryouma let his own chakra swell out as he sprinted after. Rooftop, TV aerial, rooftop again, with a distant shout below as townspeople noticed the ninja in their midst. Their chakra shone like fireflies, engulfed by the officers’ nearer glare, but there, only a few hundred meters away—
They passed a medical clinic’s sign, and the three-story bulk of the clinic itself, rising like a promontory out of the huddle of shops and restaurants around it. Genma didn’t veer. He led on, toward the steady glow embedded in a shabby rooftop apartment just two blocks away from the clinic.
Their boots touched the crumbling concrete of the rooftop terrace, and the apartment door burst open.
Ryouma dodged automatically, out of the line of fire. Genma and Raidou veered the opposite direction. The terrace was only ten meters wide, strung with laundry, cluttered with miso pots and vegetable planters. Nothing big enough to serve as shelter—
But the woman in the doorway wasn’t attacking.
She was dark-skinned and slim, with straight dark hair chopped jaw-length on one side and shaved on the other. No shinobi flak jacket, just well-worn pants and a sleeveless black top, crossed with thin leather straps over her cleavage. She wasn’t visibly armed. She took the masked ANBU in with one swift glance, and curved her mouth in a deliberate smile. “Konoha. What’s the occasion?”
“I think you know,” Genma said. His voice was low and clear, soft as a sword coming out of the scabbard. “You sent us the invitation.”
The bounty hunter tipped her head back. “I don’t recall signing any cards. Sure you’re not confusing me with some other prey?”
In the dark room behind her, the genin’s chakra shone like a beacon to Ryouma’s senses. He slipped the leash on his killing intent.
The woman’s dark eyes darted toward him, but unlike the scavenger samurai, she never wavered. Her own chakra was sleek and tightly controlled, jounin-strong. “Hackles down, ANBU,” she said, almost gently. “We can talk this out.”
Raidou’s killing intent crashed down like a wall, bone-shakingly dense. Ryouma almost staggered. The woman put a casual hand on the doorframe, but her knuckles paled.
“You’re trespassing on Konoha land,” Raidou said, in a voice like ice underfoot: calm until it cracks. “You’ve killed two of ours and taken another. Negotiate fast.”
A muscle ticked in the bounty hunter’s cheek. Her gaze flicked rapidly between the Konoha ANBU and the roof edge. Ryouma shifted, blocking the most obvious path. He held his chakra half-shaped, humming in his hands. Ten seals and six steps, and he’d have her…
The woman’s mouth curled. She leaned back slightly, without ever taking her eyes off Team Six, and said, “Yuuma-kun, your luck’s turned. Wait a little longer.”
Chakra surged within the darkened apartment. Ryouma’s own pulse quickened. He took a step forward.
“Not too close, Konoha.” She held up a hand. “I know when a job’s not worth my skin. The boy’s yours; I’d have loosed him at the bounty office anyway. He was just… insurance, for the road.”
“And the other boy?” Ryouma demanded. “Kitame Chousuke, the one you butchered?”
“I didn’t kill him,” she said, sounding almost injured. “We don’t always pick our coworkers, do we? Believe me, I’d have given Mizuno hell for that bungled ambush, if your jounin hadn’t sent him there anyway.”
“Bounty office is behind us,” Genma said. “You’ve been going the wrong way. Try again.”
“This way has a medical clinic,” she pointed out reasonably. “Where we’ve conducted ourselves very civilly, without a fuss. If you’d just waited for us at Tochigi, you’d have had the boy and redeemed the body without having to run all this way.”
“Enough,” Raidou said, flat. “Bring out Yuuma and your companion, or I’ll let Ram have your throat.”
Ryouma knew his cue. He shaped the last seal, stepped sideways, and grazed a chakra-lit hand over the nearest potted tomato plant.
Leaves shriveled and fell away as ooze. A ripe tomato burst into putrescent goo. The bounty hunter’s eyes widened slightly. “Interesting,” she remarked. “Are you looking for a job?”
Ryouma stared at her, at his officers, and back again. “No.”
“Pity. I’ve got an open spot on my crew… All right, no need to be hasty. Wait here.” She stepped back and shut the door.
Were they actually waiting?
Raidou swore and started forward with Genma at his side, but the door opened again before they reached it. A stocky, brown-haired teenage boy stumbled through, pale with nerves, his hands bound together before him in an intricate web of knots that immobilized each finger. He wore a Konoha hitai-ate tied like a blindfold across his eyes. The bounty hunter stepped out behind him, one hand resting lightly on the boy’s shoulder, against his neck.
“Back a bit,” she said, pleasantly. “I’ve never liked being loomed at.”
“If you hurt him, your body won’t even hit the ground,” Raidou said. “Get on with it.”
Ryouma didn’t even see Genma move: no muscle tension, no seal-flick. One moment he stood lean and stalwart at Raidou’s shoulder; the next he was on the roof of the blocky little apartment, wisps of smoke dissipating around him, the Tanuki mask’s blank black gaze fixed on the bounty hunter directly below. She twitched, as if she felt him there, but she didn’t look up.
“Hands out, Yuuma-kun,” she said.
The boy was taller than his captor, but his round cheeks were smooth, bruised and swollen on one side under the circular clan tattoo. Thirteen or fourteen, Ryouma guessed. Genin were graduating later these days. The boy tried to stand still, but his tied hands were shaking as he raised them.
In one swift, sure movement, the bounty hunter reached out and ran a finger along the knotted ropes. Chakra sizzled. The ropes parted as if sliced, and fell away. Yuuma took a shaking breath. His blindfolded head lifted in desperate hope.
Raidou’s chakra twisted sideways and rippled out in a way Ryouma didn’t quite recognize, almost like a sensory sweep. He waited a moment, then said, “Take the blindfold off, kid.” His voice hardened, addressing the bounty hunter. “Let him walk forward.”
Her mouth tilted sideways again. She stepped back, under the shadow of the doorframe, and out from beneath Genma’s direct line of attack. Yuuma lifted an uncertain hand to his hitai-ate. When nothing stopped him, he ripped it away. His brown eyes were swollen and red-rimmed, blinking dazedly in the overcast daylight. He drank in the sight of the Konoha ANBU and then lurched forward, crying out: “Asuka? She got away?”
Raidou caught him by the shoulder and yanked him forward. “She’s fine. Hush.” He pushed the boy past him, behind the shelter of his broad shoulders. “Now your teammate, with the body.”
The bounty hunter blinked. “Not here. You could go ask at the clinic, I’m sure.”
Genma’s chakra blurred against Ryouma’s as they both swept out, scanning the rooftop room. At this close range, and injured, the second bounty hunter would have to be as good as Kakashi to hide his chakra. But no life-spark larger than a mouse met their senses. The rooftop room lay empty and sweltering in the August heat.
“Fine, he’s not here,” Genma confirmed. “But you wouldn’t let that body out of your possession after working this hard to get it. So where is it?”
“You boys are persistent, aren’t you.” She took a moment to inspect her nails, as if that chakra-scalpel might have dulled her manicure. “Let’s talk business, shall we? My crew took a bounty; well, I’m sure you’ve done the same in your time. Konoha does keep a Bingo Book, so let’s not come over high-and-mighty. In the normal course of things, I’d turn the parcel in, collect the bounty, and leave you boys free to redeem your colleague back at whatever price the bounty office fixes. Well, I admit my crew botched the job, and I’m just as glad I won’t be working with them again. But I’ve given your boy back in good faith; I don’t see why we can’t end this conversation here, and all meet up in Tochigi in two or three days to settle things like civilized people.”
“If we take a bounty,” Genma countered, “we know we’re not in the clear until the body is turned in and the money collected. And we expect pursuit. You were expecting us, and here we are. Surrender the body, leave Fire Country, and go hunt somewhere safer.”
“Kumo should be nice, this time of year,” Raidou suggested idly. He raised a hand to scratch his head. Three fingers crooked against his crown in the ANBU sign for Sleep.
Genma’s hand moved. Senbon glinted. The bounty hunter had barely moved out from beneath the doorway, but Genma had the angle right; one senbon struck the edge of her hairline and the other embedded itself in the bare flesh just below her collarbone.
The bounty hunter made a soft, surprised sound, and burst into smoke.
Electrical sparks snapped and danced, grounding themselves harmlessly in the tiled rooftop. Genma’s senbon clattered to the floor.
Yuuma found his voice first. “That whole time, she was a clone?”
“Fucking fuck,” Raidou said, because it was that or kill something.
“The clinic,” Ryouma said quickly. “Her teammate’s there, they’ve got a morgue, they could be keeping the body—”
“Go,” Raidou snapped.
Ryouma went like he’d been hurled. Raidou spun. Genma was already in front of him. Raidou grabbed Yuuma by a brawny teenage shoulder and shoved him into Genma’s arms. “Check him, get him to Ashi. Follow us when you’re done.”
Genma didn’t waste the time it took to salute. Chakra surged and snatched him away in the tidy claws of a translocation, taking the kid with him.
Raidou went after Ryouma.
A clone. A clone. A goddamn, rat-bastard, piece of shit clone. Raidou had checked for genjutsu. He’d used Benihime’s fancy training and Kurenai’s hard work, considered traps, ambush, missing nin, corrupt civilians — and he’d missed a genin’s graduation trick.
He was putting himself in remedial goddamn training.
It took less than a minute to reach the clinic. Judging by the kicked-in door, Ryouma had already made his entrance. There was a lot of screaming inside. Raidou stepped over the threshold into chaos.
It wasn’t, disappointingly, caused by Ryouma throttling the bounty hunter on the receptionist’s desk. Instead, there seemed to be a lot of staff running around. Raidou jerked aside for two white-knuckled nurses dragging a rickety crash cart. They scrambled into a curtained room, where a doctor was snapping orders. A stocky woman in scrubs pounded compressions on a man’s chest. Another doctor struggled to force a breathing tube down the lax throat.
First glance, Raidou could tell the man was beyond saving. Second glance, he recognized that scarred, grizzled face from Konoha’s Bingo Book. Third glance, there was a livid pink note-card stapled to the man’s forehead.
He stepped around a nurse who said desperately, “I was just in here! He was breathing!” and pulled the note-card free.
In lavish, flowing kanji, it said: Call it quits, Konoha.
Raidou looked at the man. Shimaji Ichiro, Kirigakure ninja, missing for nineteen months. His skin was lobster-red where it wasn’t wrapped in bandages crusted with yellow serum.
Ryouma burst into the room. “She was here. Took a body from the morgue.”
Raidou swore. The lead doctor finally noticed him standing there, masked and armored and pissed, and shrieked. Which set the rest of them off. There was a scramble, more screaming. A skinny metal table with medical instruments went crashing to the floor. The lead doctor bolted out of the room, taking at least four nurses with him. Chest compression woman continued single-mindedly in her valiant and pointless mission of thumping a heartbeat back into a dead man’s chest. Breathing-tube doctor finally succeeded in her task, connected an ambu-bag to the tube, and looked up. She was now the only white coat in a much emptier room. To her credit, she continued squeezing the bag.
Raidou said, “He’s dead.”
Ryouma said, “Living people have more throat.”
Squeeze, thump-thump-thump, squeeze.
Raidou said, “Look, he’s a bad ninja and no one will miss him and he’s dead. You can stop.”
Squeeze. Blood oozed out of the sides of the Kiri-nin’s neck. It should have pulsed. Raidou briefly considered picking the doctor up and just shoving her out into the lobby, but refocused himself on the important things. Bounty hunter. Body.
Call it quits, Konoha.
Shimaji had a moderate bounty. Was she hoping they’d decide she was too much trouble and trade it for Sase’s? It was like she didn’t know them at all.
Raidou reached out, took hold of the ambu-bag, and pulled it and the breathing tube out of the doctor’s hands and Shimaji’s throat, respectively. It made no actual difference, since Shimaji was still dead, but the doctor made a shocked little whimpery noise. Chest compression woman finally, mercifully stopped.
“We’re ANBU,” Raidou said, as gently as he could make himself. Which, currently, was about as much as granite. “Konoha. This man is Kirigakure.” Or close enough. “He’s a murderer. Put him in the morgue, we’ll be back for him later.”
A new burst of screaming from outside suggested Genma had arrived. Raidou turned on his heel and shoved out through the curtains. Ryouma followed. Genma stood in the lobby, sleek and wrathful in his armor. He tilted his head interrogatively.
“She was here,” Raidou said curtly. “Took Sase and ran. Killed her partner on the way out.” He flipped the note into Genma’s hands. “With any luck, Taiyou’s already tailing them.”
The colorful, incongruous tanuki mask tilted down. Behind it, Genma read the note and made an angry sound in the back of his throat. Raidou felt his chakra sweep out, liquidly graceful. A moment later, Genma confirmed: “Taiyou’s on the move. Akimichi kid’s bruised and freaked out, otherwise okay. I don’t like the idea of sending him on his way alone, but what choice do we have? Clone?”
“Keep him with us,” Raidou said, after rapid thought. “It’s dangerous, but so is everything else.”
“He witnessed the fight with the bounty hunters and Sase,” Ryouma put in. “Might have information we need.”
“He won’t be able to keep up,” Genma said.
“Clone can carry him,” Raidou said. He had chakra to spare. “Let’s move.”
They did, fast. Out of the clinic, over the roofs, then over the wall, led by Genma like an arrow. A breath from the village, they found Ashi sitting cheerfully on a rock, telling Yuuma about replacement tooth options.
“—poison’s the best. An’ they make ‘em chakra-triggered now, so you don’t accidentally bite on it in your sleep and die. Hi, ANBU.” This last was said over Yuuma’s head, making the teenager jerk twitchily around.
Raidou eyed him. Yuuma was built with the generous proportions of his clan, already nose to nose with Raidou, and bulkier at the neck, waist, and shoulder. Raidou wasn’t fooled, though: there was solid muscle under the Akimichi padding. Kid would have a punch like a mountain when he finished growing into it.
In the meantime, though, he was a heavy problem.
“She got away,” Raidou said, without preamble. Yuuma, already white, went sickly grey. “We’re going after her. I’d like to send you home, but we’ve got no one spare to go with you.”
“I don’t need—” Yuuma began numbly.
“So we’re taking you with us,” Raidou overrode him.
The teenager blinked. Blinked again. Then something went click. “To get Sase-sensei back?”
“Yes,” Raidou said, watching him closely.
Yuuma licked his lips, and straightened up. When he unfolded his spine, he was actually taller than Raidou. “Okay, ANBU-san. I’ll try not to get in the way.”
Raidou thumped him on the shoulder. “Good man. I’m Moon. That’s Tanuki, my lieutenant, and Ram, our rookie.” Yuuma stared at Ryouma, as if the idea of a rookie ANBU was news. “You’ve met Ashi.”
Ashi twiddled her fingers in a little wave, not looking especially surprised by anything. Then she cocked her head and twisted around on her rock. A second later, Raidou heard the distant lilting howl rise above the treeline. She smiled, pointily, and stood, dusting her knees off. “Can’t move fast with a body on your back. Taiyou’s runnin’ her down.”
Raidou cracked his knuckles. This time he’d punch first, make small talk second. “Let’s go.”
Yuuma managed to keep up with them at first, to Genma’s surprise. What he lacked in training, he made up for in the Akimichi’s legendary stamina. He scarfed down three of Genma’s rat bars as they ran, on top of the several Ashi had already given him, and matched the ANBU’s swift pace without complaint. Unsurprisingly, he stuck closer to Ashi than to the masked and code-named Team Six—they might be his rescuers, but even inside Konoha, most lower-level ninja tended to give uniformed ANBU a wide berth.
They raced over the distance between themselves and Taiyou under August’s relentless morning sun. Fields baked brown around them, and lingering moisture from the previous day’s rain rose from the earth to form an oppressive haze. Cicadas filled the thick air with their incessant ringing burr. Sweat stuck Genma’s blacks to his shoulderblades, and ran in rivulets down his temples under his mask. His breath curled back against his face like steam from a hot oven. Ashi’s cheeks were flushed dull red around her clan tattoos. Yuuma’s face was entirely crimson.
“Drink,” Genma said. He slowed his pace to a jog and held his canteen out to the boy. “Moon, Ram, Ashi—you, too. Heatstroke won’t help us catch her.”
Ryouma turned away from Yuuma as he lifted his mask, maintaining his anonymity, and drained his canteen in three steady chugs. “Could really do with a wind jutsu just now,” he said, lowering his canteen and fitting his mask back with a sigh.
“Next time, let’s see if we can get a mission to Snow Country,” Genma said. He waved Yuuma’s offer to return his canteen away. “Finish what’s in there and keep it. You need one, too.” He tipped his mask up and drained his second canteen, watching with faint envy as Ashi dumped the entire contents of hers over her head. She shook like a freshly bathed terrier, spraying water and sweat in equal amounts from her sopping hair, and drained her second canteen as swiftly as Ryouma had.
“Frostbite doesn’t feel a whole lot better,” Raidou observed. He drank efficiently, squinted at Yuuma through his mask for a moment, then picked up the pace again.
Ashi led, relying on the beacon of her pack-bond with Taiyou to guide them. Genma swept his chakra out in a long, narrow cone, but even at a stretch he didn’t pick up Taiyou’s signature. Or the bounty hunter’s. “Are we closing in at all?” he asked Ashi.
“Trail smells stressed,” Ashi said, flashing a sweaty grin.
That sounded like a yes.
Cultivated fields gave way to bamboo thickets and soaring trees. Their path wasn’t quite the straight line they’d taken from the bounty office. As they came to a small clearing, Yuuma stumbled.
The grass was churned to mud. Lightning marks scorched down several of the trees. Leaves were stripped from branches in others.
“Hold up, Taichou,” Genma said. He turned to Yuuma. “Was this where they attacked you?”
Yuuma swallowed, sallow under his flushed cheeks, and took a few steadying breaths before he answered, “Yes, Tanuki-san.”
The reek of decomposing flesh and blood wafted from the clearing.
Genma put himself between Yuuma and the grisly scene. “Can you keep going?”
Yuuma’s gaze stayed fixed past Genma, on the bloody mess of a battlefield. “But what about Chousuke? Can we take him with us?”
“We can’t. We’d risk losing the bounty hunter and Sase-sensei’s body,” Genma said, as gently as he could.
Ryouma looked into the clearing. “Taichou, I’ll catch up,” he said.
“Ram will take care of Chousuke’s remains,” Genma said. There was no sugar-coating things. Yuuma was only a genin now, but one with a promising career—this might be his first brush with the death of a comrade, but it wouldn’t be his last.
Raidou pulled a scrap of fabric out of a pouch and unfolded it to reveal Chousuke’s bloodied dogtags. He wrapped the chain loosely around Yuuma’s wrist and tucked the tags into the genin’s palm. “Don’t let them rattle,” he said, not unkindly.
Yuuma stared down at the tags for a moment, confirming the name, then looked up at Raidou. “How did—” He didn’t finish the question, but Genma could guess the rest. How did you get these?
Yuma closed his fist around the tags. “I won’t,” he said, in a steadier voice. He lifted his head, growing steel in his spine.
“Good,” Genma said. He nodded at Raidou and Ashi, and the four of them took off at a fresh run, leaving Ryouma to his unpleasant task.
As they ran, Genma asked, “What can you tell us about the fighting style of the woman we’re after?”
“She was fast,” Yuuma said. “They all were.” Away from the bloody scene of his teammate’s and sensei’s deaths, he seemed armed with fresh determination. “Even Sase-sensei didn’t know they were there until they attacked us.” He thought for a moment, then added, “She has lightning jutsu. That’s how she got me. After I woke up again, she kept me blindfolded the entire time.”
“And we know she’s good with substantial clones,” Genma said. Raidou made an angry sound under his breath. Ashi snickered.
Ryouma caught up to them again, panting from his sprint, and smelling faintly of decay. His chakra had the eerie, storm-cloud cast to it that it always did after he’d worked one of his rot jutsu. He flashed a mission complete hand sign at his officers, and took rear guard.
Genma swept his chakra out again, and this time he got the echo he was looking for. Taiyou’s midsummer-sun, and the bounty hunter’s smooth, violet midnight. “We’re close,” Genma said. In the distance, lightning flashed from the cloudless sky. Seconds later thunder growled, and Taiyou’s voice rose in a long, low howl.
“That’s my girl,” Ashi said, grinning. She ran faster.
“She’s not—” Genma started.
“She’s too smart to get hit,” Ashi assured him.
“When we get close, hang back and stay near Tanuki,” Raidou ordered Yuuma. “He’ll keep you safe. Ram, I want you on point with me.”
Ryouma tapped a salute.
Genma handed a trio of kunai to Yuuma. “I know she disarmed you,” he said, looking at Yuuma’s empty thigh holster. “Take these, but don’t use them unless you have to.”
Taiyou’s howl rose higher, and closer.
Another chakra sweep, and Genma said, “They’ve stopped moving.”
“That’s ‘cause Taiyou’s got her treed,” Ashi said gleefully.
Not just treed, Ryouma realized as they approached. The rapid drum of their own footsteps had drowned out other sounds, but the roar and crash of whitewater soon grew too loud to ignore. They must have reached the Ura River, cutting its swift way down from the mountains before it broadened and slowed amid farmland.
The ground grew rockier, the trees stunted and wind-bent. Then they came out of the trees altogether, into the spray-dazzled morning sunlight, and lightning crackled out of the sky.
It grounded well short of them, splintering rocks. Fifty meters away a single gnarled tree clung to an outcrop over the river, with a slim dark figure crouched in its branches. Taiyou skulked at the base of the tree, her tawny fur singed but unbloodied. Too close for any lightning strike that wouldn’t take out the tree itself, too agile to hit with a kunai. She’d caught one in her teeth already, and tossed it contemptuously over the cliff-edge.
“Tell me that’s not another fucking clone,” Raidou rasped.
“If Hound hadn’t gone and gotten himself suspended, he could tell,” Genma said bitterly.
To Ryouma’s senses, the bounty hunter’s chakra seemed as solid as any of them — but then, her first clone had felt jounin-strong, too. Did this one seem any weaker? She must have spent a significant percentage of her chakra creating that clone, and now she’d been running for hours, carrying a heavy load. Even if she had access to soldier pills off Sase’s corpse, she should be at a lower ebb…
“Sensei!” Yuuma said, and grabbed at Genma’s arm. He pointed at a long, dark shape slung like laundry over one of the sturdier branches. “She’s still got him. It’s got to be her.”
Genma motioned Yuuma to move behind him and stay low. “Moon and Ram will take care of it. Stay quiet and focused.”
The boy nodded seriously and scrunched himself down behind a rock, kunai in hand, eyes fixed on the bounty hunter.
Raidou, Ryouma, and Ashi struck out together. Fifty meters became forty, then thirty. Raidou stopped just out of effective shuriken range, planted his hands on his hips, and raised his voice. “You want to quit being a jackass and come down, or do we need to send the chakra-walking dog up to fetch you?”
“I left you a trade, Konoha,” she called back. “You didn’t pick it up?”
“Taiyou,” Raidou said, “drag her down.”
The dog’s heavy haunches bunched. She leapt up almost three meters against the twisted trunk, struck the bark with her paws, and prowled higher with a low, vibrating growl.
“I’ve got no quarrel with you, ANBU.” The bounty hunter retreated, up into wind-whipped branches that bent under her weight. “You’ve got Yuuma-kun safe and sound. Mizuno and Shimaji are dead, blood for blood. That’s what you asked for.” Her chakra glittered like sparks in Ryouma’s extended senses. “We can all walk away from this.”
Raidou sighed like the last tether snapping, set six swift handseals, and shoved his chakra into the ground.
An arm of stone slammed out of the cliff and sheared up through the branch on which the bounty hunter stood. She jumped sideways, catching another branch and tucking her knees up to whip around it. Taiyou leapt, teeth flashing. The woman’s right leg snapped out, catching Taiyou on the shoulder, but the dog was too heavy to knock off-course. Taiyou’s head lashed sideways, and her teeth sank into the bounty hunter’s calf.
Raidou’s stone arm curved back and bent down, crushing the tree’s top branches back toward the cliff. The woman’s voice rose for the first time. “Enough! I yield, Konoha!”
Stone shuddered and held. The tree groaned, branches snapping under pressure, twigs popping like tiny explosive tags. Raidou said pleasantly, “You have three seconds to come down. Taiyou, feel free to take her leg off if she fights you.”
Taiyou’s tail wagged briefly. She took one step down the buckled trunk, dragging the bounty hunter with her.
“I’ll walk,” the woman said coldly. She caught at a splintered branch to lever herself upright. Taiyou released her and licked blood off white teeth.
The bounty hunter limped straight-backed out of the tree, ignoring Sase’s dangling corpse. She kept her hands loose and open at her sides, as far from seals as any ninja could manage. “Well? I suppose you have terms?”
“Term one is you stand still while Ram binds your hands,” Raidou said. “Term two is why the hell are you carrying around an entire body when you only need pieces to collect a bounty—or did you not know that?”
Ryouma had rope, somewhere in his gear. He fumbled for it without taking his eyes off the bounty hunter. She tested her weight on her bitten leg, frowning. “The bounty at Tochigi called for whole body only. No payment for parts. I’d have had to haul all the way to Biei to collect the standard Bingo Book bounty, and in this heat I’d’ve been lucky to arrive with bones.”
Ashi hawked and spat on the ground. “That’s weird. Does anyone else think that’s weird?”
“Very,” Genma said darkly, coming closer. He’d left Yuuma still lurking behind his rock, and a senbon spun dangerously through his fingers.
The bounty hunter shrugged, holding her hands out to Ryouma. “First time I’ve seen a call like that, especially one that requires turn-in at a single office. Thought maybe it was a vengeance call: he must have done something awful enough that a bereaved husband or vengeful daughter would put up a three million bounty, when his Bingo Book entry’s barely five hundred thousand… Careful with the middle finger there, boy; I’ve broken it before.”
Boy? Ryouma glanced up from his knotwork to glare through his mask. She smiled.
“Sase-sensei did not do anything awful!” Yuuma yelled, behind them. Ryouma jerked, tugging the bounty hunter, and saw the boy had bounded over the rock, drawn up to full Akimichi height in outrage. “And I heard you tell that Shimaji bastard that this would be the third full body you’d brought to the bounty office!”
Ryouma yanked the knots tighter. The bounty hunter’s eyes dropped ruefully under lowered lids. “Well, I needed to tell him something to get him to believe in the bounty. He was already whining about hauling a body with his burns.”
“You’re lying,” Ryouma snapped.
Her dark eyes widened. “To him, or to you?”
He ran the rope around her elbows and grimly began lashing them to her sides. “Why aren’t we killing her, Taichou?”
If she turned into another Fukuda—
She killed kids. Or let her thugs kill them, and then stabbed Shimaji in the throat when he’d lived out his usefulness to her. At least Fukuda’d been loyal where it counted.
“Because it’s hard to unkill someone if you want to ask them something later,” Raidou said. He crossed his arms, gloved fingers tapping against his arm-guard. “But he raises a good point,” he told the bounty hunter. “Got any compelling reasons for us to keep you alive?”
Her muscles tightened under Ryouma’s hands. Then, deliberately, she relaxed. She lifted her gaze to Raidou’s masked face and said, “Yes. That was a lie, but this is true: I’ve claimed two full-body bounties at Tochigi, and both of them paid three million or more. There are at least six more bounties posted at Tochigi that aren’t in your Bingo Book, and two of them are Konoha. Still think that’s weird? I can help you find out why.”
Raidou tilted his head toward Genma, inviting input. Genma took a step closer, senbon weaving a silver glint between his fingers. “That’s a good start. Have you got a name? And how long ago did you desert Kumogakure?”
“Nijo Kozue,” she said promptly. “I’ve been a free agent for… going on six years, now? I had better things to do than die on the front lines of a war I didn’t believe in.”
Genma’s senbon slowed thoughtfully. “Kumo used to have a bounty on you, but I think they let it lapse.”
“They’ve always been stingy,” she agreed. “Is it true that Konoha nin keep one hundred percent of any bounties they collect?”
That couldn’t possibly be a real rumor. Genma didn’t even bother answering it. “You know, I always wondered what stories other villages told about us. Are you hoping we’ll say yes, and bring you back with us to apply for asylum? You’ve burned that bridge pretty badly.” He gestured up at Sase’s body, cradled in the splintered wreck of the tree, and inclined his head toward Raidou.
Raidou nodded. Genma turned away, tucked his senbon into his armguard, and started up into the tree to retrieve Sase’s body. Raidou said, “Ram, how’re those ropes coming?”
“Almost done, Taichou.” Mindful of Nijo’s chakra-scalpel trick in Urakawa, he’d immobilized her elbows as well as her fingers; even if she managed to cut through the knotwork around her fingers, she wouldn’t be able to bring her hands together for seals. “This was easier when we just amputated one arm, y’know.”
Nijo’s breath caught. She steadied it a heartbeat later. She even managed to keep her voice almost light: “I’ve heard plenty of stories about Konoha, though not many of them praise your hospitality. Applying for asylum isn’t really my style, anyway. Especially if the village really takes forty or sixty percent of whatever you earn on a bounty or a mission. You know, a free agent—”
“Are you trying to bribe us?” Ryouma demanded. “Or— or hire us?”
“Or stall us,” Taiyou added, with an irritated tail-flick.
Raidou said, “How did you hear about Tochigi’s higher bounties? Why aren’t we swarmed with other hunters right now?”
The edge of Nijo’s lip caught between two teeth, then pulled free. “There’s a network,” she said. “Word of mouth, drop boxes, the occasional shopkeeper with a bulletin board in her back office. The same way we get updates when the villages issue new editions of their Bingo Books, only… targeted, sometimes. If Tochigi has a call for a particular bounty, and they know of a few reliable free agents who can be trusted to handle a delicate package, they’ll pass the word along, maybe make a few connections… That’s how,” she added disdainfully, “I ended up saddled with Mizuno and Shimaji. The pair of them barely added up to one good chuunin, but it was…suggested I add some muscle to my crew. No one mentioned Sase had a genin team with him, though.”
“Would you have turned the bounty down?” Ryouma asked.
She flicked a thoughtful glance at him. “For that kind of money? No. But I’m sure ANBU would understand.”
Ryouma flinched. Nijo’s lip curled in a soft smile.
Raidou huffed irritably behind his mask. “Do you want us to gag you?” His broad palm smacked the back of Ryouma’s head. “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to hear the answer to.”
“I wasn’t—” Ryouma protested, but Raidou had already moved on, calling to Genma: “Need help?”
“Got it,” Genma called back, a little breathless. He’d tugged Sase clear of the wreckage and hefted the corpse over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and he jumped down from the tree with a heavy thud.
On firm ground away from the cliff-edge, he bent to lay the body down. It rolled easily, the death-stiffness already worn off. Blood had pooled like bruises in patches of visible skin, and the battered jounin vest stretched tight over the distended abdomen.
Genma inspected the body with a swift, professional air: checking wounds, collecting hitai-ate and dogtags, opening scroll-pouches and unbuckling the utility belt. He had to unzip the vest a little to pull out the dogtags, and couldn’t force the zipper back up again. Yuuma, watching, went ghost-pale.
Genma looked up. “Stay over there,” he told Yuuma. “Inuzuka-san, would you…”
Taiyou trotted over to the boy and nudged him away. “They’re going to melt your teacher now,” she said kindly, “and he wouldn’t want you to watch, so we’re going down to the river to fill canteens.”
Yuuma flinched so hard it was almost a shudder. He managed a jerky nod. “Can I have Sensei’s tags, after?”
“Yes,” Genma said, quietly.
Taiyou leaned against Yuuma’s legs. He put a hand in her soft fur and allowed himself to be led away, shoulders hunching, head ducked low.
Nijo said, “You’re melting him?”
Ryouma tried to ignore her. Ashi and Raidou could handle her, now; he went to Genma instead, and crouched down next to the corpse.
They’d treated Sase better than his poor hacked-apart genin, but there was no dignity in death. Sase’s staring eyes were dry and wrinkly; his mouth hung a little open, despite Genma’s attempt to push it closed. His body reeked of blood and bowel and gas. There were superficial wounds on his hands and arms, crusted with black blood, but a deep burned gash ran all the way around his throat, as if someone had garrotted him with hot wire. The waxed canvas of the jounin collar had melted into skin. It added a charred-sweet smell, like roasted meat.
“Electricity channeled through wire, I think,” Genma said.
“At least he boiled one of them,” Ryouma said. He’d found that corpse in the clearing, too, with what was left of Kitame Chousuke. “You were right about his steam jutsu’s effects.” He gathered chakra, set seals. “You’d better leave, Fukuchou. You won’t want to watch this.”
Genma rocked back on his heels, but didn’t rise. “I’m not that easily grossed-out. And Sase-sensei was one of our own. Or do you need me to go?”
“No.” Kakashi’d stayed, once, but that was because he was chakra-drained and drugged off his head, and he couldn’t walk on his own. Otherwise it had always been Ryouma alone with the bodies, turning flesh to slag, and then racing to catch up.
But this time, Genma didn’t have any other goal to chase down: their mission objective lay here, cool beneath Ryouma’s hands. He wasn’t an Uchiha. If he thought he could stand it, there was no reason to send him away.
Ryouma looked down. He finished the last two seals: Bird, then Tiger. The chakra release haloed his hands with reddish-black glow, darker than the burns or pooling blood on Sase’s skin. Ryouma reached with one hand to cover Sase’s staring eyes. He set the other hand on the bloated stomach, and sent his chakra surging through.
Raidou had seen Ryouma’s jutsu up close only a handful of times: rotting the pig carcass at Trials, punching through the demon queen at Hayama mountain, liquifying Kirigakure ninja. The first had been a science experiment, the rest were fragment memories half-lost to chaos and adrenaline. It was a little different to watch, stone sober, as Ryouma laid hands on a body wearing Konoha colors and carefully, respectfully melted it to slag.
Sase’s lower jaw flopped open as tendons dissolved at the hinges and his cheeks liquified. It made his face stretch as it blackened, looking like a dog, a horse, a glistening dragon, until it collapsed into mulch.
After that, Raidou focused his attention on Nijo. Her skin was too dark to noticeably blanch, but she looked ashy. Her mouth was a thin, nauseated line. She stared at the tableau as if she couldn’t make herself look away.
The smell was close and rich, clinging in the moist air. The entire process took a minute at most, and in the end Sase was a dark smear on the dirt and a few unmelted snaps and clasps from his jounin blues. Even his bones were gone. Ryouma kicked claggy earth over the detritus, blurring the mark and burying the few scraps of metal.
Then he wiped his hands on the grass and stood. Behind him, Genma was a carved statue of neutral shoulders and tightly closed body language.
“That,” Ashi said, sounding impressed, “was gross.”
Ryouma rubbed his fingertips together, smearing a dark film of grease that still remained. His mask swung towards Genma. “I warned you.”
“You did.” Genma reached into his med-kit with and pulled out a little glass jar. The contents were grassy green and unlabeled. He applied a smear under his mask and tossed the jar to Raidou, who caught it reflexively. The smell was sharp and menthol, like a cold axe to the sinuses. Raidou wiped a generous line on the inner face of his mask and passed the jar to Ashi, who sniffed it dubiously. Genma offered Ryouma hand sanitizer.
“In case you’re wondering, that’s how our last POW lost her arm,” Raidou told Nijo. “She would’ve lost more, but Tanuki amputated early. Do I make my point?”
The bounty hunter nodded jerkily. “How is he not in the Bingo Book?”
Raidou smiled, not nicely. “No one’s survived long enough to report it.”
“I… can see that.” Nijo’s eyes were deeply brown, becoming thoughtful.
Raidou wrapped his hand around the back of her neck. She was relatively slender. Without too much effort, he could press his thumb and fingertips into the large, crucial blood vessels bracketing her throat. “Whatever you’re thinking,” he said, very quietly. “Stop.”
She quivered under his grip, unable to raise her arms to claw at his hand. It might have been terror, probably was, but he thought there was a lethal glimmer of anger in there too. “Understood,” she managed, strangled.
He let her neck go.
Ryouma was staring at them. So was Genma. Ashi just looked entertained. Raidou made a quick gesture with his hand, all okay, and turned his mind to the bigger picture. “If Tochigi is supplying bodies to a specific contractor, I want to know who and why.”
Ryouma’s fingers gleamed with hand sanitizer, but his nails remained black. “They didn’t seem too talkative when we visited.”
Ashi grinned. “People with secrets don’t tend to be.” She tipped her head back and whistled piercingly. Raidou winced. Down by the river, an aggrieved howl answered.
Taiyou reappeared a moment later. Yuuma followed her. His cheeks were blotchy red, the tip of his nose miserably crimson. His eyes skittered over the patch of dirt where his sensei had been, caught on Ryouma’s muddy boots. Raidou gave him a second, waiting for tears. Yuuma swallowed hard and raised his chin.
Nijo looked away, and Raidou realized she was uncomfortable. In a nasty, hypocritical way, he was pleased. Feel bad.
Ashi punched Yuuma’s shoulder. “We’re going to the Bounty Office that ordered your sensei dead. Want revenge?”
“We’re going for recon,” Genma said sharply. “If there’s combat — and that’s not the plan — leave it to the trained ANBU.”
Ashi rolled her eyes. “Sir, yes, sir.”
This minor bit of insubordination accomplished, she took Yuuma by both shoulders and steered him out of the clearing, away from smeared dirt and the lingering stench of decay. Taiyou trotted at their heels.
Genma put his hands up in the air, as if struggling to find language, gave his own ponytail a frustrated yank, and followed them. Raidou watched him slip between Ashi and Yuuma, and offer Yuuma a ration bar. The boy took it.
Raidou glanced at Ryouma, who shrugged. There was a notable silence where Kakashi’s dry sarcasm might have undercut the moment. Ryouma grabbed Nijo by the elbow — she almost managed to hide her flinch — and dragged her after the others, making her match his long stride.
The seventy kilometer journey back to Tochigi was mostly unremarkable. Yuuma proved himself once again able to keep pace, occasionally helped by holding on to Taiyou’s thick ruff. Ashi somehow cajoled Genma into relinquishing two more ration bars from his dwindling supply. Nijo’s balance suffered from her bound arms, but Ryouma kept her ruthlessly upright, and Raidou preferred she wear herself out with the extra effort. An exhausted bounty hunter was markedly preferable to a stab-you-in-the-back bounty hunter.
Then he heard her murmuring in Ryouma’s ear about a borderless life lived on your own terms, without village oversight, and had he ever considered monetizing his jutsu…?
Raidou’s clone carried her the rest of the way, bouncing on its shoulder like a thwarted sack of yams.
It was late afternoon when the stark walls of the bounty office came into view. The lantern was still lit over the door, anemic in the hazy golden sunlight. Smoke still oozed from the chimney, black and bruised. The slit-windows were opaque, likely coated with rice-paper on the inside of the glass.
They’d had a plan this morning, sort of. Last minute and sketchy, but something. This time, Raidou had a hostage, two dead Konoha ninja, and the fuck do you think you’re doing? Which, as righteous as any reason was, still wouldn’t let him get away with kicking the building to the ground.
“No killing,” he told his team. “Ashi, Tousaki, I’m looking at you.”
“I’m not an idiot,” Ashi said.
Taiyou nipped her wrist. “Means no maiming, either.”
Ashi folded her arms grumpily and muttered, “Don’t understand why Konoha didn’t just send diplomats.” She said ‘diplomats’ like other people said ‘fungus.’
“Fukuchou can be diplomatic,” Ryouma said. “We can be scary behind him.”
“I’ll try. ANBU-diplomatic, anyway,” Genma said.
Since that was more diplomatic than Raidou was feeling, he just nodded and tugged the string pull. It came away in his hand.
Raidou blinked at it. Then raised a hand and knocked on the heavy door — or tried to. On the first rap of his knuckles, it creaked open an inch. Taiyou snorted and backed up, swinging her huge body in front of Yuuma, who looked alarmed. Her fur ridged like an earthquake. “Blood,” she rumbled.
“A lot of it,” Ashi confirmed, steel appearing in both hands. “Fresh.”
Raidou shoved the door open.
Crumpled on the other side, the elderly woman lay under her cane, like a bag of broken sticks. She might have looked surprised, but there wasn’t much face left to judge. Behind her, the body of the skinny teenager was missing limbs.
Ryouma hissed a low curse.
Raidou rippled his chakra, as automatic as Kurenai had beaten into him, but the scene didn’t change. No genjutsu.
“The seals are down,” Genma murmured, one hand resting on the doorframe.
Raidou stepped over the threshold, past half-dried pools of blood — the surface was tacky, dimpling — and moved swift and silent down the hallway. Further inside, he found Renge’s body. She’d been cleaved nearly in half, from shoulder to opposite hip. A little way beyond, there were others Raidou didn’t recognize, but their features were similar to Renge and her grandmother. Two older brothers, another woman who might have been a mother or an aunt, a balding man with knobbled joints. Whoever had killed them had done so very thoroughly, with prejudice.
Ryouma ghosted past, heading down hallways to the north. Genma took the opposite tack, vanishing up a staircase to upper levels. Ashi went downstairs, to a level Raidou had theorized was for cold storage. Taiyou, Yuuma, and Raidou’s clone with Nijo still clamped on its shoulder remained outside.
Raidou went straight to the old woman’s office, bypassing the morgue and furnaces. It was stripped empty. The gold was gone. The desk had been destroyed, secret drawers dangling like broken teeth. Filing cabinets hung open and empty. A floor safe had been torn into and eviscerated. Every scrap of paperwork had been taken.
On a hunch, Raidou went to the furnace room next. Cardboard boxes were piled haphazardly in front of open furnace doors. The heat was even more intense than he remembered. He squinted into a cherry-red heart and saw the blackened rings of binders half-swallowed in a fresh heap of ash.
The body was also gone, along with its gurney.
One door down, the morgue was also shut. Raidou shouldered a door open, and stopped. Every morgue drawer was open. Every one was empty. Some still had old blood puddled in them, dried dark. A few had hair. But every body part larger than a fingernail was gone.
In the very center of the room, three tan and burgundy uniforms had been folded into neat piles. A hitai-ate lay on top of each one.
On the opposite wall, gleeful red writing scrawled large over the grey brick.
Too slow, Konoha.