August 10, Yondaime Year 5
The upper floors of the bounty office were as ransacked as below. But these were living quarters, and Genma had no idea what might have been taken.
The corridor was empty. The first room he came to was a kitchen. Cupboard doors stood open, a pot of dashi had boiled dry, and there was a finely chopped pile of green onion on a cutting board next to a block of dried-out tofu — someone had been preparing the breakfast soup. Maybe the woman he’d passed on his way to the stairs—had she had a kitchen knife in her hand?
The next few rooms were empty as well. Two bedrooms, a sitting room, a toilet, a bath. At the hallway’s end, a partly open door was guarded by the lifeless body of a small black and tan dog. Its head was cranked back at an unnatural angle, trailing clotted blood from a broken jaw and lacerated throat.
Genma stepped over it and slipped inside to find a tiny, elderly woman slaughtered in her bed. A rich red stain beneath her sent uneven fingers through the rough weave of her futon cover. There was a meal on a tray, half eaten. A closet door stood open, spilling slashed-up bedding into the room. Clothing trailed from open tansu drawers. A toppled memorial tablet lay on its side on the floor, next to a shattered hand mirror.
Genma pulled the bedding the rest of the way out, but there was nothing more inside. He took a breath of death and copper scented air, and asked Amida’s blessing for the old woman. Then he picked up the tablet to put it back on its stand.
Something inside it shifted and clicked.
On close examination, he found a tiny notch hidden under the overhanging lip at the top of the tablet. He removed his glove at the wrist, fit his thumbnail against the notch, and pulled. A latch gave way. The decorative top of the tablet rotated smoothly on a single pin hinge. Inside the tablet, metal glinted. Genma tipped the tablet up, and dropped a silver key into his open hand.
There didn’t seem to be anything in the room it could have opened. It was too large to be a jewelry box key, too small to fit a door lock. He searched the other rooms again, but found nothing. Taking key and tablet with him, he went back downstairs to report what he’d discovered.
Raidou and Ryouma were in the emptied morgue, next to three folded Iwa uniforms. “No survivors,” Genma said. He did a quick chakra scan to reconfirm, but other than finding Ashi outside rather than in, there were no reflections he wasn’t expecting. “And no present threats.”
He stared at the blood-inked message on the wall: Too slow, Konoha.
“Iwa did this? I think they were looking for something. I found these.” He held up the tablet and key. “I didn’t find anything the key fits, though.”
“If it was Iwa, I don’t think they’d be stupid enough to announce it,” Raidou said tightly. “And they wouldn’t leave the uniforms behind. This is someone else gloating at us.”
“Who else’d hold a grudge?” Ryouma countered. “Unless you think it’s Kumo framing Iwa.”
“Kumo framing Iwa framing Konoha, you mean?” Genma asked. “Since this is the Fire Country bounty office. Why? I can’t see either of them wanting another war. Maybe it’s Mist, if they figured out we were behind what went down there.”
“Pretty subtle for Mist,” said Raidou.
“Why’d Mist want to kill the bounty officers, instead of coming at us?” Ryouma asked. “Do they even buy into the bounty system? Maybe they’re pissed about a bounty getting paid out on Iebara…”
Genma shook his head. “If it was revenge, they wouldn’t bother trying to pin it on Iwa.”
Raidou held his hand out to take the tablet and key. “Where did you find these?”
“In a bedroom with an old woman murdered in her sleep. She was the only one up there. Her and a dog,” Genma said. “The room had been completely tossed, but I guess they didn’t think to check a memorial tablet for a secret compartment. I wouldn’t have found it either, if I hadn’t picked it up to put it back on its stand.”
Raidou turned the key over, squinting at it, then cast a look around like something might dance out of the walls with an obvious keyhole. An aggravated sound rumbled in his throat. “Where’s Nijo?” He raised his voice to a carrying boom. “Get her in here!”
His clone stalked in with the bounty hunter still slung over its shoulder. Raidou shoved the key in Nijo’s upside-down face. “Thoughts on what this unlocks, go.”
Her dark skin didn’t completely hide the flush of her extended time inverted over the clone’s shoulder, and her voice was a little thick, but she managed a cool, “I could see it better from rightside-up.”
The clone traded a glance with Raidou, and dropped her without ceremony.
She managed to turn herself as she fell so she didn’t crack her face on the floor, hitting instead with her shoulder, and rolling with a wince. A sinuous twist of her spine and hips levered her upright on her knees despite her bound arms. She swept a gaze around the morgue, eyes catching on the bloody writing on the wall, and the empty morgue drawers. A flicker of something more fearful than flippant crossed her face, but was quickly replaced by her usual bland disdain. “I saw Obaasan on the way in. I take it whoever left that message for you already searched her office safe?”
“Open. Empty,” Raidou said.
“Hmm.” Nijo rocked from her knees to her feet in a nearly smooth motion, and strolled around the morgue. She took in the Iwa uniforms, studied the drawers. “Three men. Took the bounties, left the worthless bodies…” she murmured. Her brows knit and her mouth turned down. Pausing at a half-open drawer near the characters on the wall, she asked, “Have you ever claimed a bounty?”
“Yes,” Genma said. “But I’ve never been the one to turn one in.”
Ryouma shook his head.
“Not in person,” Raidou said.
“There’s a standard, at most offices,” Nijo told them. “A certain amount of evidence, a cross-check against the Bingo Books. Bounty offices keep very careful ledgers. You wouldn’t want to pay out for the head at one office, when another office has already paid for the hands…” She stooped to investigate the underside of the drawer, then straightened and strolled on. “The last time I was here, Tochigi kept two sets of ledgers.”
“And you know that how?” Raidou asked, distrust underlying every word.
She paused in her slow circumnavigation of the room to give Raidou an amused look. “What’s that Shinobi Rule of yours? A shinobi never wastes an opportunity to gather intelligence… Free agents don’t either.”
Raidou grunted, dissatisfied with her evasion.
Genma had no patience for her games, either. “So where was it?” he asked. “I’m assuming in here, since I can’t see any other reason for your fascination with the bottoms of morgue drawers.”
“Smart man, your lieutenant,” she told Raidou. If she thought she could flatter Genma into a better mood, she was sorely mistaken.
She tapped her hip against a drawer in the middle of the line. “Here, or one more over.”
Genma nodded at Ryouma. “Pull them out, Ram.”
Ryouma stepped forward and leaned in to pull both drawers out at once, staying as far out of Nijo’s space as possible, and knelt down to peer at their undersides. “Nothing here, Fukuchou. Or— No, wait.” He ran his fingers over the metal base of the second drawer, pausing partway back. “There shouldn’t be a screw there…”
Genma took the key back from Raidou, and crouched with Ryouma to study the drawer. “False bottom. I don’t see a keyhole, though.” He pulled a compact multi-tool from its holster on his belt, flipped out the screwdriver, and handed it to Ryouma. “I’m not sensing any chakra on it, but go slow and be prepared to move, in case it’s trapped.”
“Poison needles in the mechanism?” Ryouma suggested. “Explosive seals between the panels?” The real danger was more likely stabbing his own fingers in the shadows beneath the drawer. He spared a thread of chakra to strengthen his vision in the dark, and spread out a denser weave at his fingertips. Found the misplaced screw again, and set the sharp head against it.
The screw moved gratifyingly easily. No needles pricked his skin; no chakra seals flared against his extended senses. The screw dropped into his waiting hand, and a narrow panel in the bottom of the drawer opened with it. He ran his fingers over the cold metal surface and found a gap at last. “Here’s your keyhole, Fukuchou.”
Genma reached over to trade him the key in place of the multi-tool. Nijo mused aloud, “Your subordinate seems quite useful. Is he decorative, too?”
“You can’t have me,” Ryouma said loudly. His voice echoed against the underside of the drawer.
Raidou sighed. “Ram, next time she asks, you’re permitted to take off the limb of your choice.”
“See if you think I’m decorative then,” Ryouma muttered. Genma shook his head, just a subtle twitch of the tanuki mask, and leaned a little further in to watch as Ryouma set the key to the hole.
It fit, and turned. The panel slid smoothly back. A wide leatherbound book tipped out of its hiding space and into Ryouma’s hand.
“That old lady was short enough, I bet she could do that just stooping…” Ryouma passed the book over to Genma and scrambled up after him. Squinting in the light, he pinched off the chakra thread to his eyes. “Is that the right one? What’s it say?”
Genma set the book on the smooth steel top of the drawer and flipped it open. He scanned slowly through, marking pages with his fingers. “Looks like it. Most of it’s bounties paid and collected, going back years. They’re all indexed to Bingo Book entries. But this section at the back is all in code, separated by village — maybe lists of clan names? And these have to be individual names. Some of them are crossed off…”
The ones that were crossed off had numbers and dates set against them, along with several more columns of coded characters. Some of the others had numbers, too.
“Whole-body bounties,” Nijo said. “That’s the list they wouldn’t want the villages seeing. Bloodlines and mutations, the agent who turned in the bounty, the amount they paid out and the commission they scraped off the top. Look under Grass for early autumn last year, three million two hundred thousand ryou.”
The tanuki mask stared blankly at her for a moment. Probably wondering the same thing Ryouma was: what the hell are you doing with the money? Genma shook his head and looked down again at the ledger. He paged back, stopped, ran his finger down a handwritten list. “Here. This was you?”
“For Tamura Genichirou, chuunin out of Grass,” Nijo said, as calmly as if she were discussing a meal she’d ordered, and not a corpse she’d sold. “That should be enough to help your cryptanalysts crack the code.” She flexed her shoulders, working her arms against her bonds.
Genma produced a pen and jotted down neat kana characters over the line of unreadable symbols. “You said you collected two bounties. What was the other one?”
Nijo hesitated for a moment. Then she said, “April last year, a jounin out of Kumo, three and a half million ryou. Sugiyama Yukihiko.”
“You turned in one of your own comrades?” Ryouma said in horror.
“Countrymen, not comrades,” Nijo said tiredly. “You’d have killed him, if you met; why the moral high ground?”
Raidou snorted. “Because you killed him and ours. Were you expecting sympathy?”
She lifted a brow. “From you?”
“From anyone,” Raidou said. “You’re a traitor. Live with it.”
Deliberate amusement curved Nijo’s lips. “Small boys never quite outgrow schoolyard name-calling, do they…” She turned back to the list. “What are the most recent dates for whole-body bounties claimed? June is too early, they wouldn’t still have the corpse. Look for anything in the past three weeks.”
Genma ran his finger down the ledger, turned the page, checked another village’s list, and then another. “August 2, July 23, and there’s one from July 16. That’s outside your three-week window, but just barely.”
“It’s a possibility. They do — did — good work with preservatives here.” Nijo’s brows creased briefly at the misstep. She studied the entries Genma’d pointed out. “Mist, Lightning, Snow. Bringing that one back must’ve been a hell of a trip. Wonder if that hunter figured out how to counteract the accelerated decay in a sealing scroll…”
“Why bring a body all the way here from Snow?” Genma asked. “There are closer bounty offices up there. Unless they got caught in Fire Country, in which case, what the hell was a Snow Country shinobi doing down here?”
Nijo shrugged. “Does it really matter where they were caught? The real question is, who set the bounty. Who took the bodies. There’s a similar set of coded characters between the Mist and Lightning entries; same buyer, or same claimant…?” Her voice sharpened. “Turn back to the page for Grass.”
The tanuki mask tilted, as if Genma was giving her a sharp look. But he turned the page without comment. Nijo bent closer. Her eyes narrowed; her lips moved soundlessly, as if she was puzzling something out.
Then she straightened. She said crisply, “Different agents turned the bodies in. Same buyer set the bounties. They set Tamura and Sugiyama’s bounties, too.”
Raidou cut short his edgy pacing. “Who?”
Nijo shrugged again. Somehow this time the movement emphasized her bound arms, her cooperative helplessness. “Your cryptanalysts may be able to decipher that.”
“Fine,” Raidou said. He jerked a thumb at his clone. “Pack her up. We’re getting out of here.”
Genma delayed a few minutes to seal the ledger into a prepared scroll. They left the bodies where they’d fallen, and did their best to rekey the damaged defensive seals. Someone would need to investigate further, Raidou said. Someone who wasn’t Team Six.
They had a genin and a prisoner to escort home to Konoha. Yuuma was still waiting outside the compound, huddled on a rock with his arm around Taiyou’s shoulders and his face half-buried in her ruff. Asleep, Ryouma realized, as they drew closer. Taiyou craned her head and licked his grimy face. “Time to get moving, kid.”
Yuuma jerked awake, stared wildly from one masked face to another, and then slumped back against Taiyou. “Was just resting my eyes,” he mumbled. They were red-rimmed in the twilight, smeared from tears.
The kid needed sleep. They all did, though at least Team Six’d had soldier pills. Raidou crouched down level with Yuuma. “We need to leave,” he said. “Can you keep up at a run?”
Yuuma shuddered, rubbed the heel of his hand over his eyes, and shoved himself up. His beefy shoulders squared. “I can keep up,” he said. “Need to eat, though.”
Genma was probably running low on rat bars by now. Ryouma reached for his own belt pouch instead. “Hope you like peanut butter. Or sesame-ginger.”
“Either,” Yuuma said. “Both.” He took two foil-wrapped bars from Ryouma’s hand without noticeable hesitation. Maybe he was just that tired. He winced as he chewed, favoring the left side of his jaw, but didn’t stop.
Ryouma offered the rest of his handful around, deliberately ignoring Nijo. Taiyou accepted peanut butter. Genma took a sesame-ginger bar, with a nod of approval. Ryouma gave the last sesame one to Raidou, who peeled it efficiently and shoved it under his mask without exposing more than a sliver of unshaven chin.
Ashi loped back into view, returning from her perimeter patrol. She waved off the proffered rat bar and noisily bit into a strip of jerky instead. “Last scent trail’s at least 12 hours old,” she reported. “Three shinobi, same scent as the Iwa fuckers we met last night, traveling northeast. I left markers on the trail. We following?”
The question hung for a long moment in the muggy air. Raidou looked northeast. He almost leaned forward, like a runner about to start. Then he glanced down at Yuuma, and shook his head. “No. We’re taking Yuuma home.”
Genma cleared his throat. “I haven’t really tried this yet, but it seems like we could use a guardian to keep watch over the bounty office while we’re gone. I could summon Hotaru or one of her comrades.”
Raidou turned back. “If you can spare the chakra, that’s not a bad idea.”
“I can. And I can take another soldier pill if I really need it, but I don’t think it will come to that.” Genma flexed his fingers through practice seals, then removed both gloves at the wrist. He pulled out a senbon and pricked his smallest finger until a bead of blood welled up, dark in the fading twilight.
Boar, Dog, Bird, Monkey, Ram. Genma muttered, “Kuchiyose no Jutsu,” as if engraving the jutsu’s name in his mind along with the chakra pattern, and slapped his bloody hand down on the ground.
Bloody-black squiggles rayed out from his hand like the spokes of a wheel. Smoke bloomed, scented with the bitter bite of ozone. Genma lifted his hand.
A slender, long-legged cat stretched and yawned, displaying gleaming white teeth the length of Genma’s thumbnail. Tawny fur, with a white belly and chest, marked by two dark stripes that ran over the back of the head and broke into mottled spots across the back, legs, and luxuriant tail.
“Hotaru was right,” the cat observed. A pink tongue darted out to lick its nose. It swept a disinterested golden gaze over five ninja, one dog, one clone, and one captive, and blinked up at Genma. “I’m Hibiki,” it said. “Who are we going to kill?”
The cat looked like a pocket-sized leopard. Its sleek spine just about reached Raidou’s knee.
“Thank you for coming though, Hibiki-san,” Genma said politely, but Raidou caught the rippling undertone of satisfaction; Genma was very pleased with himself. “Not killing for now. I need you to watch the bounty house and let the next Konoha team that comes know if anyone tries to go in, and what they do. There are bodies inside.”
Hibiki’s eyes narrowed. “Guarding the prey. I understand.”
“Watching the prey,” Taiyou corrected. She stretched lazily, toes spreading. “We didn’t kill them, so guard your back, small one.”
The tip of Hibiki’s tail twitched. He mirrored the stretch, casually displaying long, lethal claws. “I’m not worried.”
It struck Raidou, amusingly, that there wasn’t much difference between Kakashi’s more wolfish dogs and Genma’s touchy cats.
Not that he’d ever tell either of them.
Genma reached a hand out, a natural, thoughtless gesture, and Hibiki butted his head right into it. The cat’s spine arched. It twined around Genma’s legs, and Raidou honestly couldn’t tell if it was affectionate or scent-marking or both.
It brought a memory to mind: a garden, a different twilight, an evil bag of fur curled up in Genma’s lap, tamed in the thirty seconds Raidou had absented himself for food. And a little white kitten, dancing on its hindpaws to bat at Genma’s ponytail.
He really was good with cats.
Genma said, “We have to return to Konoha. We’ll be radioing for another team to come here at the first relay station we come to, so I’ll need you to report to them. After that, though, I’m not sure how to send you back if we’re not together.”
“You’ll know when I’m ready to go back,” Hibiki said, unconcerned. “Just break the link.”
Genma nodded, and looked at Raidou. “Ready, Taichou.”
They left without fanfare. Behind them, Hibiki climbed nimbly up onto the bounty office’s roof and skulked along the apex. The striped and spotted fur broke up his silhouette — he was a cat, then a collection of shadows, then gone.
The first radio relay between Tochigi and Konoha was half a night’s run southwest, moving at a healthy ANBU’s pace. At an exhausted genin’s stagger, it was a lot longer. Yuuma did his best, only occasionally weaving off the trail. Taiyou hip-checked him back every time, but it wasn’t a lasting solution.
In fairness, Raidou wasn’t feeling exactly chipper himself. Judging by Ryouma’s leaden run, Genma’s stiff spine, and Ashi’s constant grumbling, neither were they. Only Taiyou and Raidou’s happy clone bounced along like there was a fair waiting for them on the dark horizon. Nijo, upside down over the clone’s shoulder, seemed to have settled in for a nap. Or a silent meditation on her next piece of treachery. One of the two.
An hour in, Yuuma stumbled, careened his shoulder off a tree, and took out a cluster of spindly saplings on his way down. He landed like a shinobi, protecting his wrists, but lay like a teenager, shoulderblades heaving with exhaustion. The adults came to a ragged halt.
Between them, Raidou and Ryouma hauled the boy back to his feet. Genma turned his arm over and healed the ugly graze on one elbow.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” Yuuma managed. A tear ran down his nose and dripped off his blunt chin. He scrubbed his eyes furiously. “I can keep going.”
Genma tipped his masked face towards Raidou and shook his head, silent confirmation: Yuuma was done.
But Team Six couldn’t afford to stop. Every minute wasted was time lost to the next team, who needed to figure out what the hell had happened at Tochigi before other villages caught wind.
Raidou didn’t want to abandon the kid in the dark either, even with a guard, while unknown assassins roved around. Historically, splitting up Team Six had never gone well.
You know what would be nice right about now? he thought bitterly. A giant mastiff.
Thanks again, Hatake.
Raidou looked at Yuuma, appraising how much he weighed. He was an Akimichi’s height, but not filled out to his adult proportions yet. So, maybe a little more than Raidou? Half as much again? A clone would struggle — the one under Nijo was already getting thin — and even Raidou didn’t have endless chakra to pour into repeated constructs. Maybe if he and Ryouma traded off carrying him…
Ryouma looked at Genma. “Could you summon another cat?”
Genma blinked behind his mask, and flicked an apologetic glance at Yuuma. “To carry—? I don’t know if I can do one that big.”
“To go to the relay station,” Ryouma said. “They talk, right?”
“Some of them talk. I don’t know if they all do. I could try to summon Hotaru again.”
That— might actually work. A summons had its own mind. They wouldn’t need to try and stuff every scrap of information into a clone and hope it didn’t screw something up.
With Ryouma’s help, Raidou half-lowered, half-forced Yuuma to sit back down. “Try,” he said.
Genma rolled his shoulders back, shaking his arms out like his hands ached, and drew blood again. There was more of it this time — either he’d stabbed accidentally deeper, or learned something from his last attempt. His fingertips gleamed dark as he wove the seals, faster this time. He dropped to a knee and smacked his palm down in the dirt. Lines clawed out from his hand.
Standing this close, even Raidou felt the snatch-catch of chakra latching on to something. Smoke erupted around Genma.
When it cleared, Hotaru was not there.
It took a moment for Raidou to realize he wasn’t just looking at empty space in front of Genma. A low shadow moved, hugging close to the ground. Ryouma cracked a light-stick. The anemic green light reflected from a pair of luminous eyes.
It was a very small cat.
Not a kitten, Raidou realized, after the first glance. The proportions were all wrong for that — it was an adult, fully grown into its ears and paws. Just… very petite. Its fur was an indeterminate mottled color, sort of grey and sort of brown, with no truly distinct markings. Even its belly was the same color. The effect was something like a living smudge.
It flicked one ear and leapt delicately onto Genma’s knee, landing without sound. “I knew Hibiki would screw up,” it said, sounding pleased by the idea. Its voice was light and male. “I’m Shin. What do you need me to fix?”
“Shin-san,” Genma said, as if he were memorizing the name. “Thank you for coming. I need you to go to the radio outpost at Ishikawa.” He tipped his chin towards Yuuma’s boneless slump. “We can’t go any further without a rest, but the message we need to get out is urgent.”
Shin’s tail curled neatly around his legs. He licked one paw and rubbed it over an ear. “Tell me your message.”
Genma relayed everything as concisely as possible, parceling out the most crucial information — Sase-sensei: dead, Kitame Chousuke: dead, Akimichi Yuuma: recovered, bounty hunter: captured, Tochigi: destroyed — and had Shin repeat it back to confirm his understanding. The little cat asked pertinent questions, clarifying, probing. Genma walked him almost inaudibly through the most recent radio codes, a process that became much easier to keep secret from Nijo when Shin mentioned that he could read. After that, Genma scrawled in the dirt with a stick.
When everything was shared to both parties’ mutual satisfaction, Shin planted his little paws on Genma’s chestplate and rubbed his head over the bottom edge of the tanuki mask. Genma ran two careful fingers down the narrow spine.
“I’m pleased to be back in the human world,” Shin informed him, which made Raidou wonder just exactly how old the tiny summons was.
Shin hopped onto Genma’s shoulder, then to the top of his head, and used this platform as a springboard to launch himself into the nearest tree. Astonishingly quickly, the cat swarmed up the trunk and vanished among the leafy branches. A flick of shadow almost immediately caught Raidou’s eye to the right; he jerked his head around and saw the briefest flash of movement between one tree and the next. Then another, moving away. It might have been a cat, but in the dark it was easy enough to mistake for a bat, or an insect, or an errant leaf on a sharp breeze…
Shin was gone.
“Speedy little guy,” Raidou observed. “How come you got him instead of Hotaru?”
Genma shrugged one tired shoulder. “I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t mold the chakra right, or put enough in. Hotaru said the amount of chakra you use governs the size of the gateway it opens.” He added, with wry amusement: “I’m just glad I got a skilled adult, and not a kitten with its eyes barely open.”
“Hotaru also said they each agreed to answer a summons,” Ryouma put in. “Maybe Shin didn’t want to wait while Hotaru got two turns?”
“That seems very… cat,” Raidou said.
“Well… yes,” Genma said. “They are cats.” He cast about himself, at a brief loss for what to do now that the immediate future didn’t demand running, and continued absently, “Good thing I grew up with cats as pets. Maybe that’s why they were willing to work with me.”
Raidou’s clone abruptly failed to exist. Nijo dropped to the ground with a yelp.
A quick assault of memories dumped into Raidou’s brain, which had the strange effect of making him relive moments from a second angle. Was his hair really that red from the back? Then Nijo was spitting acid into the dirt — something about having been goddamn asleep finally — and Ryouma started to laugh with the loud, glassy edge of someone operating on fumes. Ashi joined him.
Yuuma stared blankly at them, as if they were crazy. Or maybe he’d just run out of the energy to care.
“Yeah, okay,” Raidou said, and hauled Nijo over his own shoulder. She made a credible attempt to bite him on the neck, so he smacked her into a tree. She hung quietly after that, probably plotting against his spine. “Ram, get Yuuma. Tanuki, can you help him?”
“Got it,” Genma said. He already had a hand on Ryouma’s elbow, a quick, calming gesture. The laughter eased away, like water filtering into bedrock, and Ryouma pulled his self-control back together. The two of them got Yuuma upright again, bolstering the teenager between them.
Ashi kept laughing, but Raidou thought she was just being mean.
“Taiyou, find us somewhere to bed down,” he ordered, which made Ashi clamp her mouth shut and look outraged that he’d circumvented her.
Taiyou’s long tail waved with amusement. “Captain,” she said. Ashi’s outrage snapped to her. Taiyou thumped a broad head into Ashi’s hip, shoving her deeper into the tree thickets.
It didn’t take long for them to sniff out something reasonable. A narrow creek bent like a silver snake through the woods; tucked into one of its sinuous curves was a shallow cave with smooth, dark walls. There was no rear exit, which gave Raidou mixed feelings: easier to guard, harder to escape from. Foxhole versus trap, pick your poison.
Taiyou tipped her nose to the sky. “Smells like rain,” she informed them.
Raidou settled on the option with the roof. “This is good,” he said.
Yuuma, or possibly Ryouma, made a fervent noise of relief. The three-headed tangle of ANBU and teenager collapsed down into the cave with more haste than grace, but Raidou didn’t hear anyone — Ryouma — cracking their skull open on the ceiling. Scrolls were opened, bedrolls rustled, Genma’s voice echoed off the rock. “Yuuma-kun, let me see your feet.”
Raidou smiled behind his mask. He couldn’t help it. It was such a normal mission thing — such a Genma thing.
Nijo elbowed him in the back, a maneuver that did more damage to her elbow than his spine. “I need to pee.”
Raidou considered tossing her into the stream.
“Fine,” he said, with a sigh, and called into the cave: “Bathroom break for the bounty hunter. I’ll be right back.”
Someone — Genma? — made an acknowledging sound. Yuuma said plaintively, “It’s not that big a blister.”
Raidou grabbed Ashi on his way to the closest set of bushes and enlisted her hands for the actual pulling down of pants, since a) he was not untying Nijo’s hands, b) letting her do anything unsupervised, or c) giving her the excuse to be more creepy. Ashi’s gleaming canines discouraged shenanigans.
Plants were watered. Raidou lugged Nijo back to the cave and stuffed her unceremoniously into a modest side-niche about halfway down, which was just big enough to accommodate a slender, angry woman. There was a scuttling noise as she landed, like something with a lot of tiny legs. He hoped any local scrabbling creatures felt compelled to bite her.
“You awake enough to guard her?” he asked Taiyou.
The dog flicked a dismissive ear and lay down in front of the niche, blocking Nijo’s way to the cave entrance with her long body. Her tongue lolled black between her fangs. “Am I allowed to bite something off if she annoys me?”
“Whatever limb makes you happy,” Raidou said.
The enormous fluffy tail whacked happily against the dry, rocky ground. Ashi made a snorting sound and sat down on on Taiyou’s other side, pillowing herself against the dog’s ribs. “We will guard her,” she said, like her eyelids weren’t drooping.
“Even better,” Raidou said, and went to make sure Yuuma was surviving the ministrations of one exhausted medic and his equally exhausted baby-chick protege.
Genma seemed to be talking Ryouma through the finer points of foot-bandaging: the first choice for medics who wanted to save their chakra. Yuuma was lying flat on a bedroll, one arm flung over his eyes. His right heel was encased in neat white cotton. Ryouma was bending studiously over his left foot, bandages half-unwound between his hands. Raidou eyed Yuuma’s foot and winced. It was amazing the kid hadn’t fallen over sooner.
“—just like that. You want to make sure it’s tight, but not so tight that—”
The mellow cadence of Genma’s voice made pleasant background noise as Raidou unpacked self-heating ration pouches and supplies for making tea. Ryouma asked questions. Genma was ready with answers that led Ryouma to more questions. Raidou heated water sleepily between his hands in lieu of fire.
Then something caught his eye.
He put the water down and reached out to pick Genma’s hand up, turning it over at the wrist. “Lieutenant, why is this still bleeding?”
Raidou almost never used Genma’s rank as a form of direct address. It was sharply arresting now. Genma looked down at his gloved hand in Raidou’s, then at the smeared red fingerprints on the jar of blister ointment he’d been holding.
“I’m not sure,” Genma said. “Must have nicked it harder than I thought, when I summoned Shin-san.”
He detached his left glove at the wrist and pulled it off. The creases of his palm were outlined in red. Paler smears, trapped by the glove, shaded the edges of his hand.
The second summoning effort had bled enough he’d had to clench his fist hard to staunch it before he put his glove back on. He’d thought it had stopped.
A dark droplet welled up from the senbon puncture and ran down the side of his ring finger. He reached for a scrap of unused gauze left over from Ryouma’s bandaging efforts, pressing it hard against the finger pad.
Ryouma looked over, Yuuma’s blisters forgotten for the moment. “You didn’t sneak another soldier pill, did you?” His expression was hidden behind the ram mask, but the worry in his voice was plain.
“No,” Genma said, “I just had the one. I was considering another, after that second summoning, but maybe I’ll rethink that.” He frowned at the stain starting to show through the gauze. “Ram, what’s the treatment for a bleeding minor puncture wound?”
“Direct pressure until it stops,” Ryouma answered promptly. His gaze didn’t waver from Genma’s hand. “But it’s not stopping.” He edged in closer and passed over a another thick swatch of gauze, sounding even more worried. “Do you want me to try sealing it?”
“Let’s give it a minute,” Genma said. “I probably just didn’t put enough pressure on it at first. Hands sometimes bleed more than you think they will.” And Ryouma wasn’t ready for that kind of jutsu. Especially not in the field, already exhausted and under stress.
“It’s been twenty minutes,” Ryouma said.
Raidou glanced over his shoulder. “Ashi, throw a blindfold on her, would you?”
Nijo muttered, “Oh for fucks sake,” but with her arms securely bound behind her, and Taiyou’s heavy front paws draped over her legs, she didn’t have a choice.
When her eyes were covered, Ashi pushed her back down, and Taiyou shifted to block any possible line of sight just in case the blindfold was insufficient.
Raidou shoved his crescent-moon mask up, revealing heat-flushed cheeks. Searching, dark eyes reflected glints of the blue-white snaplight that illuminated the cave. He lifted Genma’s mask next, setting it carefully aside, and squinted at Genma’s face. Then looped warm fingers around Genma’s right wrist, counting heart beats for fifteen seconds. “Hm. Not that fast. Put your hand up above your heart, medic, you know better.”
Genma arched eyebrow at the fussing, but adjusted his grip on the bleeding finger and raised his hand as told.
Raidou snapped a second, greener-hued light stick and leaned in again, close enough that his breath warmed Genma’s cheek. He reached up and pulled Genma’s lower eyelid down, checking mucus membranes as if Genma’d bled out a liter somehow. “Bruises?” he asked. “Bleeding gums? Pissing blood?”
Genma shook his head. “Is this what I sound like to you when I’m checking you over? Don’t worry, I get plenty of vitamin C, it’s not scurvy.”
“You are much worse than this,” Raidou assured him. He lowered his voice so it only carried as far as Ryouma and Genma. “And I was thinking something blood-related, since you were just at the hospital for iron transfusions.”
“Infusions,” Genma corrected. Yuuma mumbled something that turned into a soft snore. But there were still too many ears in that small space. “Let’s discuss this outside.” Genma shoved to his feet, carefully keeping his hand elevated. “Ram, think you can finish those bandages without me?”
Ryouma ducked a nod, but shoved an extra roll of bandage into Genma’s hand, too. “If it doesn’t stop in the next ten minutes—”
“I’ll let you watch me seal it, or we can try some skin glue,” Genma said. “But it’s really fine, I promise.”
The anxious tension in Ryouma’s shoulders didn’t diminish. “Fukuchou,” he said, with heavy doubt in his voice, but he picked up the blood-splotched jar of ointment and turned back to Yuuma.
Raidou led the way down to a spot by the stream, where the burble of flowing water provided nominal cover for their conversation. He planted his feet and turned to meet Genma’s eyes. His voice was pleasant and agreeable, his words less so. “That’s not really fine.”
Genma peeled the gauze back to peer at the wound. Still oozing but not as heavily. He clamped it tight again. “I know. It’s strange. But maybe I just nicked a bigger vessel. I was lower on chakra for that second summons, so I wanted to use a bigger blood anchor.”
Raidou nodded agreement with Genma’s completely reasonable explanation, but he said, “Can I test the theory?”
“Sure,” Genma said. “What do you have in mind?”
In answer, Raidou tucked his glowstick under the strap of his armor, then took Genma’s other hand and removed the glove. With a clean kunai, he made a careful, shallow cut on the back of Genma’s hand. They both watched as blood, black in the greenish light, welled up and quickly ran in a rivulet over the ridged tendons.
After several seconds, he tore a strip of bandage off the roll Ryouma had sent with them and wiped the blood away. More welled up, but slower this time. After two repetitions, he switched to applying direct pressure. When they checked one more time, the bleeding had all but stopped.
It should have stopped sooner.
Genma sucked his lip over his teeth. “What’s your theory? Soldier pill reaction?”
Raidou checked Genma’s punctured finger, which had also finally clotted. “Could be,” he said, frowning. “I’ve heard some people are extra sensitive.” He sounded dubious.
“I’ve never had a problem with them before, though,” Genma said. He huffed out a frustrated breath. “Except on the Tsuto mission, and I definitely spaced them too closely then. But I’ve been careful since.”
Raidou’s lips twitched in a wry half-smile. “Lack of mouse livers?”
“Please no,” Genma said. “Do you know how many I’d have to eat to equal even one chicken liver? They’re tiny.” He grimaced. “And I don’t like liver.”
“Poor man,” Raidou said. He patted Genma’s shoulder with an amused lack of sympathy, then straightened up and declared, “Either way, you’re barred from combat—unless absolutely necessary—until we get home and someone can check you out.”
“Unless absolutely necessary,” Genma agreed. “And if it is necessary, I’ll do my best to stay ranged. I don’t know what there is to find, though. I just was checked out, and there wasn’t anything except the low iron. Which they corrected.” He ground his teeth for a moment, then remembered he didn’t have his mask on and stuck a senbon in his mouth to chew instead.
He’d never had a problem until the Tsuto mission…
“What if Minato-sama was right? Maybe it’s some lingering effect from Iebara’s jutsu, but for some reason it didn’t affect Tousaki the same way.”
Raidou’s frown deepened. “Did they check everything, or just do a standard physical?”
“Standard physical,” Genma said. “So you’re right, there are more tests they can do. Clotting time, for example.” He shook his head. “Which I’m guessing based on your field test here would be abnormal.”
And if bad enough, could end his career right here, right now.
Not a good thought to have on a mission. He packed it away with all the other disturbing thoughts this mission had created.
“Whatever it is, it had better be temporary.”
“It will be,” Raidou said, firm and brisk. “We’ve got good medics.”
“We do,” Genma agreed. “And Hound knows the jutsu, too, even if he can’t execute it perfectly. Maybe he’ll have some insight.” He took the opportunity to crouch down at water’s edge and splash the sweat off his face. “Be nice if he could have joined us on this mission.”
“Wouldn’t it just?” Raidou said, with the perfectly flat cadence of a man who’d gotten himself through the preceding twenty-four hours of dealing with Ashi by coming up with an alphabetical list of ways to throttle Kakashi when they got home.
Genma straightened back up, checked his finger: still fine. And hand: not bleeding but the scab looked fragile. He wound a length of bandage around it and held it up to Raidou. “Can you tie this off for me?”
While Raidou did that, Genma one-handed open the belt pouch he kept his personal things in, to extract a small, foil-wrapped bar. “Emergency morale-boosting rations,” he said, breaking it in half and offering it to Raidou. “Nice chocolate from the import goods place near my loft.”
Raidou turned his half over, with a surprised, pleased look on his face. “Didn’t you give this same stuff to the tanuki?”
“I did.” Genma said. “I always make sure to bring a bar with me on missions. Not like a superstition, but… It’s come in handy for me more than once.” He peeled the foil back on his half. “Our secret, though,” he said with a conspiratorial smile. “This is officers-only unless the rookies are in dire need.”
“Pretty sure Tousaki always thinks he’s in dire need,” Raidou said, as truthful as he was ironic. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Genma, contemplating the reflected light on the creek’s surface while they ate their chocolate in companionable silence.
It would be fine. Genma glanced at his bandaged hand, and saw only white, no red.
Raidou’s low baritone broke the silence. “Thank you, Genma.”
Genma turned to meet Raidou’s eyes, then nodded. “Thank you, too, Raidou.”
Raidou took a deep, chest expanding breath and stretched his arms behind him. “We should get back. I don’t trust Nijo alone with them.”
“You’re right. She is a real snake in the grass. I’ll be glad when we’ve handed her over to your friend Shibata’s tender mercies.” Genma balled the empty foil up, stuffed it back in his pouch, and turned to head back.
Raidou snorted. “‘My friend’, sure.”
Genma shrugged. “Better than your enemy?”
“Friend might actually be scarier,” Raidou said as they walked slowly back to the cave. “Imagine if you forgot his birthday, or got him the wrong present…”
“Or insulted his favorite movie.” Genma shuddered. “Probably better to remain friendly acquaintances.”
They paused at the cave mouth to put their masks back on. Nijo was still blindfolded and buried under Taiyou’s fluffy mass. Ashi was faintly snoring. Yuma was utterly unconscious. And Ryouma was on his feet the second they ducked under the cave roof, staring daggers at Genma’s hands.
“Why d’you have both hands injured now?” Ryouma demanded in an urgent hiss, remembering just in time that he should be keeping his voice down.
Genma beckoned him over into the faint green light cast by the glowstick hooked onto Raidou’s shoulder-strap. “Snagged it on a thorn, and I’d rather sleep a little than waste chakra on a healing jutsu right now.”
That lie was almost insultingly obvious. But Genma didn’t let it hang there, at least; he was already digging in his belt pouch, pulling out a tiny notepad and pencil. He flipped to a blank page and began to scribble.
Ryouma said, “Fukuchou.”
Genma stopped. “Sorry, that was dumb of me,” he said quietly. He glanced back at the shadow-swallowed Inuzuka and their prisoner, then took Ryouma’s elbow in his bandaged hand and towed him further into the cave. Raidou followed, ducking his head when Ryouma did.
“We did a field test of my clotting time,” Genma murmured. “It’s not perfect, but it’s not dangerous. I’ll get checked out as soon as we get home.”
The mask muffled his voice, hid his face, turned even his eyes to nothing more than a dull glitter reflecting glowstick light. Ryouma brushed off his grip and caught the wrist in his own hand.
“Really, it’s not any worse than I’d get from too many soldier pills,” Genma said. But he let Ryouma inspect the bandage — clean, no staining even under pressure — and then the fingertips of his other hand: clotted, with tiny red scabs, and blood drying brown under the nails.
He was okay. Ryouma had missed an injury he should’ve caught, had let Genma bleed until finally Raidou noticed, but Genma hadn’t bled out. Raidou’d looked after him. Raidou’d known what to do, and Genma’d listened to him, and he’d be okay.
Carefully, Ryouma released Genma’s wrist. “You should rest, Fukuchou. Taichou. I’ll take watch.”
Genma clapped him on the shoulder. “We all should rest,” he said easily, “but if you want first watch, please take it.”
“Seconded,” Raidou said, already turning.
Ryouma walked back with them to the huddle of gear, blankets, and sleeping genin. Genma checked over the self-heating ration pouches, pressed one on Raidou, and handed Ryouma all but one of the rest. He settled that pouch conscientiously by his feet and turned his attention first to tea.
He was fine.
Ryouma trudged back to the mouth of the cave. He stopped to leave the rations with Taiyou, who thumped her tail politely and lifted her head to nip Ashi awake. Ryouma didn’t stay to watch them eat, or to see whether they’d bother feeding Nijo. He had his own clammy foil pouch of some kind of fish in some kind of sauce. He carried it out to the mouth of the cave, where the cloudy night’s darkness made little difference.
The fish was mackerel. Ryouma ate two bites before his stomach rebelled. He set his jaw and breathed through his teeth, willing himself to keep it down.
They were more than 500 kilometers away from Konoha, with unknown killers behind them and a jounin-level captive with them, and Genma thought he’d believe that a clotting problem wasn’t dangerous?
What if Nijo’d fought? What if the fake Iwa nin had stayed? If a minor senbon puncture took that long to clot, what if Genma’d caught a kunai? Ryouma still hadn’t practiced sealing wounds on anything more complicated than a fish, and he hadn’t even noticed.
Genma hadn’t noticed either, but Genma had been focusing on helping Yuuma, on teaching Ryouma. Surely, if the wound were worse, he wouldn’t have let them distract him.
Something cool spattered over the back of Ryouma’s hand. Another droplet dampened his hair. Taiyou’s promised rain, brought on a rising wind that sighed through the trees and rocked little waves to the darkly glimmering surface of the stream. Lightning brightened the western sky. Thunder rumbled in its wake. Was the stream running higher than it had been half an hour ago?
Ryouma retreated briefly to the cave. The coldlights’ glow showed two more blanketed lumps bracketing Yuuma, good. Maybe rest would help Genma heal. Ashi was snoring again, but Taiyou’s eye slitted open at Ryouma’s footstep, and she raised her head off Nijo’s pinned legs.
Ryouma whispered hoarsely, “Rain upstream. Water’s rising.”
“Do we need to move?”
“I don’t think so.” The cave floor slanted slightly upwards, rising to meet the descending ceiling at the back. The stream would have to rise several centimeters to overflow its banks and risk wetting their feet. “I’ll keep watch on it.”
Taiyou huffed out a breath and dropped her head again. “Are you going to eat that mackerel?”
“Oh. Uh. Probably not.” Genma would be annoyed at him, but Genma was asleep. Ryouma stooped to offer Taiyou the open foil packet. She swiped out half the contents out with one flick of her enormous tongue, and buried her snout in for the rest.
In the shadowed alcove above her, Nijo said, “Mind removing the blindfold, Konoha? If there’s a storm, I’d like to see it.”
They looked up together. Taiyou licked her chops. Ryouma straightened warily. “You kept Yuuma blindfolded. Seems fair.”
“Interesting standard,” she observed. “Most shinobi aren’t overly concerned with ‘fair.’ Does ANBU teach you that?”
“You’re not going to get me to turn traitor by talking at me,” Ryouma said. “Or trying to bribe me, or— whatever. Give it up and go to sleep. You’re running again tomorrow.”
“Oh?” Nijo said softly. “That’s good to know.”
He stared at her in the darkness. Taiyou said gruffly, “Walk away, ANBU. She’s just trying to get in your head.” She reached her own heavy head out and snapped. Nijo grunted.
Taiyou probably hadn’t bitten her leg off. There’d be more screaming. Ryouma hesitated a moment, remembering bloody gouges in the bounty hunter’s calf that afternoon. Nobody’d bothered to clean or disinfect those bites, either.
Well, even if they festered, she’d still be able to move long enough to make it back to T&I in Konoha. When Fukuda was a prisoner in Arechi Hill, they’d given her only enough medical care to keep her alive. Nijo didn’t merit even that much.
The bounty hunter said hoarsely, “Still here? You’re the ram-masked one, aren’t you? Compassion’s an unusual trait in a killer. Especially one as skilled as you.” Her voice went ragged at the end, as if teeth were sinking deeper.
“You don’t have anything I want,” Ryouma said. “And I don’t really care what you think about me. Stop talking before Taiyou really does bite your leg off.”
Nijo hissed. “Well,” she said, “it was worth a shot.”
Ryouma turned away. Rain was sheeting heavily now over the mouth of the wave, wind-whipped across the first few meters inside. He stepped out into it, shivering at the first pelting sting; was that hail? No, just summer raindrops as fat as a fingernail, splattering off mask and armguards, veiling even the near view across the stream.
Lightning split the sky. Thunder followed it without a breath between. Ryouma blinked hard against the blinding afterimages. The stream did look higher now, rushing darkly over its banks. He retreated back up the slope toward the cave and stood dripping on drier ground.
Taiyou said, “Your officers slept right through that.” She was a dim shape in the shadows, head turned, the momentary blaze of another lightning flash outside glowing in her teeth and eyes. “So’d my partner, but she’s been known to sleep through war.”
“Did not,” Ashi said groggily. “Was only a raid anyway.” She yawned and rubbed her eyes. “Stream flooding?”
“Not yet,” Ryouma said, squeezing water out of his hair. “Storm’s moving fast. Hopefully it’ll pass us over soon.”
Nijo said, “I have to pee.”
Ashi said blankly, “Now?”
“All that water,” Nijo said. “Rushing down, washing away.”
“You’re a big girl,” Ashi said. “Hold it.”
Lightning lit Nijo’s careless shrug. “Could go right here, I suppose. Inuzuka mark their territory that way, don’t they?”
“You want to sit in pissy pants, be my guest,” Ashi retorted. “Enjoy your chafing.”
Taiyou stretched, yawning enormously. “Try asking nicely,” she advised.
“And risk another bite for sweet-talking your ANBU?” Nijo’s voice curled around a smile. “He’s young, isn’t he?”
“He’s three hundred,” Taiyou said, and added with dark suspicion, “You’re one of those humans that pees on her mate for fun, aren’t you?” She shook out her forelegs, swatted Ashi upright with her tail, and leaned in to scruff the back of Nijo’s shirt with her teeth.
Ryouma stepped back to clear the path toward the rain-swept cave mouth. Nijo went obligingly limp, letting herself be dragged. Another flash of lightning silhouetted them against the cave mouth: the massive dog, the slim woman, with Ashi rumpling her hair and yawning as she followed—
Then the lightning flooded inside the cave, and Ryouma’s world went white.
Sensation returned slowly. Pain locked every muscle of his body. The wet howl of the storm faded back into his ears like a stereo turned partway up. He was lying on his back, and he couldn’t move.
Something moved in the darkness above him. His mask lifted away.
Lightning glittered in Nijo Kozue’s eyes and tangled in her hair. She smiled at him, and sparks danced across the whiteness of her teeth. “Very decorative,” she murmured. “I’ll remember you.”
Ryouma’s jaw clenched against any attempt at speech. His fingers twitched on the wet stone.
The mask clattered to the ground beside his face. Her limping footsteps receded, swallowed by the storm.
Raidou was asleep. Then he was electrocuted. Then he was pissed.
He had plenty of time to enjoy the sensation, since he couldn’t goddamn move for twenty minutes. His muscles seized and cramped and generally made their displeasure of sudden high voltage known, writhing against his bones like distressed snakes. There was blood in his mouth, where locked teeth had clipped the edge of his tongue. And again, electrocuted. Indoors, by a presumably fleeing prisoner, what the actual fuck.
Eventually, he was able to twitch his fingers. Then clench his hands. Then flex his neck. Movement returned slowly and excruciatingly, accompanied by a throttled sound of wrath that he finally realized was coming from him. It stopped when he creaked his way upright, scraping one shoulder over the cave wall, and managed a kind of ragged slump against the rock. At his feet, Yuuma was breathing but unmoving, eyes closed — unconscious?
On the boy’s other side, Genma was a gasping curve half-spilled from his bedroll. Blood ran from his nose and cut a dark line over his mouth, dripping from his chin. Muscles twitched disturbingly in his neck and jaw, illuminated green by the snap-lights. His fingers bridged, claw-like; his arms jerked and shook. His hair, loosened from its tie, was a riot of static. But like Raidou, he was gaining purpose in his movements. He fumbled a hand to Yuuma’s throat, feeling for the pulse.
“Alive.” His voice was harsh and unnatural, strangled by a spasming throat.
“Stay with him,” Raidou rasped, and shoved himself away from the wall. Genma started up with a sound of protest, but shut up when Raidou made a guttural snarl. Barred from combat.
The tunnel was not long. It still took an age to reach three fallen bodies.
Ryouma first, collapsed on his back. His mask was off. Blood ran from one nostril and both ears. His chest heaved, which was at least a sign of life. Raidou dropped to a knee and pressed two fingers under his jaw; the pulse kicked back through skin, violent and far too fast, but regular. A quick sweep revealed no other obvious injuries: throat intact, armor intact, breathing uncompromised. Ryouma’s eyes were tracking. He made an unintelligible sound, like a crow trapped in a rusty gate. Raidou hoped that wasn’t brain damage.
No time to check; nothing he could do it if was. He thumped a clenched fist on Ryouma’s shoulder and moved on.
Ashi next, face-down. He rolled her over. She went limply, like a ragdoll. Blood again, from nose and ears, scrawling snail trails over her face. She smelled like burned hair and flesh. There was a stark white patch on her throat surrounded by livid red, like someone had pressed an ice cube to the skin. Rainwater beaded off her uniform; she was close enough to the cave entrance to be soaked. He found a pulse. Her breathing was shallower; her eyes were closed. He planted his knuckles on her sternum and ground down, hard.
She groaned, withdrawing; a hand flailed at him.
Rousable, thank gods. He slapped the side of her face. “Open your eyes, Ashi.”
She whined something doubtless uncomplimentary, but a sliver of blue glimmered between her eyelids. Good enough.
“Keep breathing,” Raidou told her, and went to Taiyou.
The giant dog was sprawled half in, half out of the cave. Her muzzle lay in a shallow puddle, leaking blood that swirled through the water. Her fur was plastered to her skin, flat gold to about halfway down her ribcage, then raggedly fluffy below where the cave’s overhang had kept the rain off. He hauled her head out of the water, laying it on a less drowning patch of rock, and hesitated, briefly stumped by canine anatomy. He tried for a pulse at her throat. Found nothing. Nasty red patches glistened between the parted lines of her fur: electrical burns. He slapped his hand over her deep chest, finding the heavy sternum, and slid up, under fur, looking for the fourth rib.
A heartbeat met his palm. Solid, regular — fast, like Ryouma and Ashi’s, but there. When he ground his fist, she whimpered softly.
“Fucking fuck,” Raidou said, with wobbly relief. All five of them had survived.
Nijo was nowhere in sight.
He spared a vicious moment to hope she fell off a cliff in the rain and broke every limb twice, then rerouted his attention back to where it needed to be. “Tanuki!” he bellowed. “Need you up here!”
“Coming!” Urgent scuffling suggested the grabbing of a med-kit and a stumbling run on unsteady legs. With a trust Raidou wasn’t entirely sure he’d earned, Genma bypassed his own triage to land at Raidou’s side. “How bad?”
“Taiyou’s worst,” Radiou rattled off. “Then Ashi, then Ram. All breathing, but pulses are fast. Taiyou’s pain-responsive, visible burns. Ashi’s rousible, Ram’s conscious.”
Genma nodded and, to Raidou’s relief, did his own rapid triage of all three, repeating Raidou’s hunt for basic life signs, as well as examining pupils, spines, and doing something that involved a quick sweep of green-glowing fingers. His nose continued to bleed while he worked; he wiped it once, absently, then seemed to forget about it. “Let’s move them to the back, get those clothes off them, and check for burns.” His voice was weirdly stiff, like a man speaking through lockjaw. “Yuuma’s coming around. I’ll stabilize Taiyou and bring her inside too.”
Raidou waved that off. “I’ll carry. Set up a space for us to put her.” Genma’s eyebrow twitched fractionally. Raidou levelled him a look. “I’m not leaving you alone out here.”
He bent and scooped up Taiyou’s limp weight.
Genma sighed. “Fine. We can each carry one in, then I’ll start treatment while you get Ram inside.” He leaned over Ashi, enunciating carefully, “I’m picking you up to get you inside for treatment. Don’t fight me or we’ll both fall.”
Ashi did fight, just briefly, in a way that started on pure reflex and ended when cognition kicked in enough to say ow. Despite his prediction, Genma managed to stay on his feet.
Taiyou went on Raidou’s bedroll. Yuuma, dazed and alarmed, scuttled out of the way, leaving his bedroll for Ashi. Raidou went back for Ryouma, who grabbed him urgently and said, “Ngh!”
“Come again?” Raidou said.
It was a mark of present circumstances that Ryouma didn’t even acknowledge the potential for innuendo. He slammed a clenched fist against Raidou’s chestplate and forced out, “Nijo.”
“Is gone,” Raidou said. “I know. We’ll deal with it when I know everyone’s going to continue breathing. Now hup.”
Ryouma did not hup. Raidou swung him up in a soldier-carry, balancing all that excessive height over his shoulders, and hiked him back to Genma’s abandoned bedroll. Care was already ongoing in the cave. Genma had both hands pressed to Taiyou’s throat, green medic’s glow filtering out through the wet fur and glinting off water-splattered rock. Yuuma had produced an honest-to-gods handkerchief from somewhere and was blotting helplessly at the dog’s bloody muzzle.
Raidou laid Ryouma down, and did not think about how useful Kakashi’s water-yanking jutsu would be here, or how his hands and hounds and tracking ability would help, or how his goddamn experience with lightning jutsu might have helped them avoid being electrocuted indoors—
Raidou did not think these things. Or put his foot through a wall. He tossed a blanket over Ryouma and carefully, systematically stripped Ashi down to her underwear. The burn at her throat wasn’t the only one. Flash-burns peppered her chest, like she’d survived a shower of hot coins. Several had already started to raise and blister. A particularly nasty one fishhooked over her flank, curling down the edge of her right hip. Painful, certainly, but unless there was more damage Raidou couldn’t see, hardly fatal.
Deliberately so? Nijo hadn’t taken the chance to cut all their throats. But she might not have trusted her jutsu to take down Genma and Raidou quite as effectively as it had.
He bundled Ashi in a blanket, running a current of lukewarm air under it to keep the cold out. She hissed, but her eyes stayed open, fixed on Taiyou.
Ryouma was harder to wrestle out of his clothes, alternating between half-fight and half-mannequin until Raidou yelled at him to just pick one, and then Ryouma looked like he’d been slapped. Raidou had to take a few deep breaths, but he made himself be gentle after that. Under his shirt, Ryouma was in better shape than the canine pair; Raidou didn’t see any burns at all. He was prepared to wait for Genma’s full assessment, but he was starting to think Ryouma had just had his bell badly rung.
He repeated the blanket-and-warm-air trick with Ryouma, then turned his attention to Genma and Taiyou. Water soaked from her fur into the bedroll. Was it better to get her dry, or was the cold helping her burns? Was Genma throwing healing into her skin, or deeper damage?
Genma’s nose was still bleeding. It ran in a thin, steady stream down his mouth and dripped off his chin, spotting his hands and Taiyou’s fur. To Raidou’s blunt senses, his chakra felt too thin.
Raidou dug in his own med-kit, extracting gauze, and very precisely bounced a roll off the center of Genma’s forehead.
Genma blinked at him, snapping out of his jutsu. Then down at the gauze roll. “What?”
“You’re getting blood on your patient,” Raidou said. “Need a chakra transfusion?”
Genma closed his eyes hard and opened them again, hoping to blink clarity into the world. Keeping his thoughts orderly felt like wading through waist-deep mud. Concussion, probably. They were probably all concussed, but that could wait. Right now he had to get Taiyou stable, then Ashi, then Ryouma. And he hadn’t even checked on Raidou.
He squinted at Raidou, trying to assess his condition in the inadequate light the glowsticks shed. “Are you okay? I didn’t check.”
His hands were still numb and tingling. Muscles still tight and clenching. Raidou was right, he was getting down to the last twenty percent of his chakra reserves. And bleeding on Taiyou. He stripped off his arm guards and wiped his nose on his wrist and swallowed at the thick metallic taste of blood at the back of his throat.
“Yeah, that did not actually answer my question,” Raidou said. “I’m fine, and I don’t mean in a bullshit way. Do you need a chakra transfusion?”
“I will. I can keep going a little longer.” When another blood drop spattered onto his hand, and Raidou made an impatient gesture at the gauze he’d tossed at Genma, Genma finally realized it was for him, not for bandaging Taiyou. He tore off a strip and rolled it into a plug for his nostril. “Get some pain meds into everyone. And put a wet dressing on Ashi’s burns. I’ll finish doing what I can for Taiyou.”
Ashi’s eyes flickered wide.
“She’s — I’m not going to let her die,” he told her. “She’s got a strong heartbeat. Some partial-thickness burns. Her chakra’s steady, but her nerves are misfiring. She’s in pain and groggy, but she’s not in immediate danger.”
Taiyou made a low, whimpering sound that alarmed Genma, but seemed to reassure Ashi.
“Doses?” Raidou asked. He pulled together supplies with mathematical orderliness: a notebook and pen from his utility pouch, the case containing his allotment of narcotics for this mission from his med kit, and a rattling bottle of non-narcotic tablets.
Genma eyed Ashi, guessing at her mass and likely tolerance for heavier drugs. “Four tabs each for you, me, Ram, and Yuuma. Three for Ashi, and a half syrette. Give the other half to Taiyou, plus a full one.”
Raidou dosed Ashi first, then Taiyou, who whimpered again at the needle prick.
“It’ll be okay,” Genma told her, stroking her damp fur as gently as he could. “I’ll work on those burns next. The morphine will help.”
While Raidou was doling out tablets, he told Ryouma, “Ram, if you’re conscious in there, you should take a look at what your teacher’s doing.”
“T’chou,” Ryouma mumbled. He fought his way out of the blanket again, with jerky, uncoordinated movements. He managed to sit upright, though listing heavily. His eyes were squinted in evident pain, but he reached out to Genma. “C’n transfuse. Got chakra.”
Genma’s shocked, “No,” overlapped Raidou’s growled, “I said look, not volunteer for medical procedures.”
Genma turned to gesture Ryouma gently back down. “Taichou can get me. Recovery position, Ram. It’ll be easier for me to treat you if you hang on to your chakra and recover a little more first. You should be able to see what I’m doing from there.”
“‘m okay,” Ryouma protested. He sagged back, though not all the way down. “Jus’ need. Get m’hands working.” He shook his fingers out — they were probably as numb as Genma’s — and seemed to gain focus, if not clearer speech. In a smaller voice, he said, “She saw m’face.”
“She saw all our faces,” Genma told him. “My mask was off when I came to, and so was Taichou’s.” He swallowed again, a little sick and dizzy, and tried to think of a task he could set for Ryouma. Outside the storm still rumbled, flashing shadows into the dim cave. “I need to finish working on Taiyou. If you don’t want to rest, you can rig up another pair of light sticks for me. The blue-white ones, not the green ones.”
Yuuma made a noise, barely audible, as if he were afraid to interrupt. When Genma looked up, Yuuma held out a foil-wrapped light stick.
“Yes, that’s the kind. You can help Ram set up.”
Raidou, busy with Ashi’s dressing, glanced over, but didn’t say anything.
Blood was still trickling down the back of Genma’s throat. He swallowed again, pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment, and pushed the gauze plug more firmly into place. Then turned back to the job at hand.
Taiyou’s eyes were half closed, and she looked less anxious now that the morphine had had a chance to kick in. Genma focused his mind and reached for his chakra, drawing it up carefully, like water from a well in drought. He’d cast this jutsu so many times he didn’t usually bother with hand seals anymore, but with Ryouma watching and his head throbbing, he wasn’t taking chances. “Feeling to make sure what I already repaired is holding,” he told Ryouma. “It is. Now I’m going to close the skin over these burns.”
He flexed fingers through another set of long-familiar seals. He ought to be talking Ryouma through every step, or quizzing him as he worked. “Similar to closing a laceration,” he said. The jutsu felt awkward in his numb-burning hands. It was too much work to teach it and do it. Not now. “We’ll practice it when we’re home. I’ll explain better.”
He pushed past the paresthesia and let the chakra itself form sensation. Coaxing translucent layers of epithelial cells to cover exposed dermis, and leaked plasma back into Taiyou’s bloodstream where it belonged was a painstaking ordeal that should have been easy.
He closed his eyes and fell into his work, until every distraction faded.
Raidou shifted next to him, pushing close. Genma started to turn his head to ask what Raidou wanted; Raidou pre-empted him with a broad palm pressed flat against Genma’s forehead. Chakra like a warm pebble filled the space between Raidou’s skin and his.
“Wait. Almost finished. Don’t want to do that while I have an open channel.” Genma eased off the healing jutsu, pulling connections free from Taiyou’s chakra as gently as he could. When he’d stopped the flow entirely, he let out a long, slow breath, and sagged against Raidou’s side, newly aware of the trembling chill that came with low chakra.
He met Raidou’s exasperated eyes. “Now.”
Raidou’s chakra flooded in. They’d done this before, in the bunker after the Tsuto mission. After Iebara. Genma’s fire nature fought Raidou’s water, but earth sought earth. It was an imperfect, turbulent transfer, and Genma couldn’t have been more grateful. It went easier this time, as it often did with partners who’d transfused one another before. Genma relaxed into it, feeling chakra warm his limbs the way hot tea warmed an empty stomach.
“Don’t drain yourself too far,” he murmured.
Raidou snorted. “Have you ever seen me chakra drained? Take what you need.”
“Mm. Hope I never do,” Genma said. Raidou was right about the rich density of his chakra. While it was nothing next to Katsuko’s inexhaustible blast furnace, it was still sturdier by half than most jounin’s. And Genma absolutely could not take another soldier pill right now. He leaned into Raidou’s hand and left his channels open.
Raidou transfused chakra at an even, steady rate. Even with their water-fire mismatch, Genma’s own levels rose steadily. When the chill subsided, and the shakey, heavy weakness that came with chakra drain steadied out, he took a slow breath, sighed, and raised a hand. “That’s good for now.”
Raidou kept the connection open for a moment more, before he eased off. His hand left Genma’s forehead to skim over Genma’s back for a rough, comforting pat. Genma opened his eyes and met Raidou’s. The edge between pupil and dark iris was lost in the dim light; concern and pain etched lines between Raidou’s brows. “Now what?” asked Raidou.
“Now Ashi. Can you bandage Taiyou? I closed the burns but I’d feel better if the new skin was protected.”
“Done,” Raidou said. He swapped places with Genma, moving stiffly but with purpose.
“Use the bandages in the blue wrappers from my med kit,” Genma said. “They’ll stick to themselves so you won’t have to use tape on her fur.” Ryouma produced a roll of the requested bandage, opening the packaging with clumsy fingers, and spooling it out while Raidou wrapped it in careful figure-eight loops around Taiyou’s chest and back.
Genma turned his attention to Ashi. “Taiyou’s doing well,” he told her. “I’m going to remove the damp dressing and heal your burns next. How’s the pain?”
“It’s my favorite thing ever,” Ashi said. If her eyes weren’t fixed on Taiyou, she would have rolled them hard. “It hurts, nutsack.”
Genma’s head was still throbbing—the tablets hadn’t had enough time to work—but the morphine ought to have kicked in for Ashi already. “Did you get any relief from the injection, or do you need more?” he asked, and tried not to wish she were Kakashi, whose snark at least would have taken a familiar, more subtly-barbed form.
“Just heal them,” she said.
Genma didn’t waste energy on a reply. He peeled the water-soaked bandages away from Ashi’s skin, exposing the red-ringed burn on her throat where the lightning must have hit her first. Conducted by her dogtags, maybe? The center was white, devoid of bloodflow, the edges starting to blister. The scattered burns over her chest and trunk were varying degrees of pink, red, and blistered, and the large blister on her flank strained the skin. It wasn’t the worst burn, but it was probably the most painful. He started there.
The process was much the same as it had been with Taiyou: ease swelling, reduce the blisters, speed the clearing of dead cells, repair the damage with new growth. Ashi’s chakra was easier to work with that Taiyou’s had been, and her injuries, though serious, less extensive. Genma moved from burn to burn in half the time it had taken him to heal Taiyou. When he was satisfied, he cut the jutsu and cast a critical eye over his patient. “That’s all I have the chakra to do for now, but that should feel better,” he told her.
Ashi easied herself up on an elbow, careful how she flexed her torso, and peered down at herself. She poked the flank burn, which was still an angry red, though the blister was collapsed and the skin smooth again, and winced. Then she nodded. “Thanks, doc,” she said. Holding her head with one hand, she scrambled over to Taiyou, where she immediately leaned over to press her forehead against her dog’s. Taiyou whined something, and Ashi whined back, speaking the Inuzuka’s secret canine language. They both seemed to rest easier as soon as they were in physical contact.
They’d probably been bonded since before Ashi had even entered the Academy. Genma spared a moment for empathy, than moved on to his next patient.
“Ram, Moon, can one of you put burn ointment on Ashi where her skin is still red, and bandage her, while I take a look at Yuuma? Ram, you’re next.”
“Don’t need it,” Ryouma said, or thought he did; his tongue was still clumsy, too big for his mouth. The officers ignored him. Raidou slathered palmfuls of shiny ointment onto Ashi’s reddened skin, while Genma turned his gentle voice and soothing hands to the genin.
Tears carved tracks down Yuuma’s dirty face, and though he did his best to hold still for Genma, his shoulder still hunched and shuddered. Pain or fear or both? He’d seen teammate and sensei slaughtered, had survived almost two days of terror with Nijo before rescue… Had they told him they’d keep him safe?
Ryouma looked away. He pushed to his feet, gritting his teeth against muscles that still twitched and shook. “Set watch,” he said, though how useless had his last attempt been? “In case…”
Genma lifted his head and speared Ryouma with a glance equal parts concerned and commanding. “Not until I’ve cleared you, Ram.”
Ryouma flattened his hand against the slimy cave wall and kept himself mostly upright. After a moment he worked up the strength to crouch without topping over, and begin sorting through the tangle of his discarded gear for dry clothes.
He managed pants, and paused again to catch his breath, by the time Genma finished with Yuuma and eased the boy back down. Raidou took over swaddling the kid in blankets and emptying a canteen into him.
Genma turned his head slowly, like his neck hurt. His mouth set in a flat line under a crust of drying blood.
“Ram, please sit down. Don’t make me make it an order, I already have a headache.”
Ryouma blinked. Genma was there, abruptly, standing in front of him, with a chakra-warm hand pressing Ryouma’s bare shoulder down. There was a bruise darkening on the side of Genma’s face, where he’d hit his head against the rock in his spasms.
Knees unlocked without conscious effort. Ryouma sank down. Genma came with him, steady only by comparison. Their legs tangled awkwardly, but Genma seemed too tired to move.
“I’m okay,” Ryouma said. His voice was working better. He swallowed. “We fucked up. We let her near the storm.”
“What happened, exactly?” Genma’s voice remained level. He released Ryouma’s shoulder and reached for his face, thumbing his eyelid up. A cold bright light pierced Ryouma’s eye. He blinked reflexively, tried to pull away, but Genma’s thumb pinned his eye open and Genma’s fingers cradled around the side of Ryouma’s head, holding him still. The light moved. Checking pupillary response and eye-tracking, Ryouma realized at last, and did his best to hold still.
“She said she had to pee. Ashi was gonna make her stay there, but she’d been— just talking, so Taiyou got her up. I didn’t stop them. I let them go. They were both holding her when the lightning hit. Then she came back and took my mask off, and said she’d remember me.”
“Wonderful,” Raidou grunted. He lifted his voice. “Tanuki, who can walk? If no one’s actively dying, we need to get out of here.”
Genma lowered the penlight and released Ryouma’s head. “All of us except Taiyou,” he said, while Ryouma blinked furiously against the afterimages. “But we’ll need to stay on ground-level. I don’t trust anyone’s balance right now.”
“Agreed,” Raidou said. His voice changed again. This time it was the commander, no room for argument or hesitation. “Ram, you get your wish. On your feet, I want you managing Yuuma. Carry the kid if you have to. Ashi, we’re gonna stretcher Taiyou. You can stay next to her, but I need your senses outward. You’re our first warning if someone’s tracking us. Tanuki, no more healing. I want you dead center, next to Taiyou. Conserve your chakra.”
Two clones snapped to life next to him. One of them delved into a sealing scroll for the tents they hadn’t yet used on this mission. As canvas and poles bloomed into existence, the other clone moved in to assist in swift deconstruction and repurposing.
Genma rocked back on his heels, drew a breath, and clambered painfully to his feet. “All of you tell me immediately if your headache gets worse, you get dizzy or nauseated, you get short of breath, or anything else changes or starts hurting. Immediately.” He reached a hand down to help lever Ryouma up.
Ryouma took it, and then wished he hadn’t. Genma didn’t quite suppress a grunt of pained effort. But the lieutenant didn’t stay standing, either. He squeezed Ryouma’s hand briefly, dropped it, and turned to pack up his medkit.
Yuuma shrugged off his blanket and tried, clumsily, to help. Whatever this nightmare night threw at him, the kid didn’t give up. Ryouma staggered in to assist him, and then to transparently beg the kid’s aid in re-armoring. He stopped to wipe the blood off his face before he put on his mask. Yuuma pretended not to look. But he did ask, a breathy whisper: “Is she coming back?”
Either of the officers would’ve known how to answer him. Kakashi would have. Ryouma stared down at him, at this boy who shivered in fear and refused to give up, and said, “I don’t know.”
That wasn’t good enough. He settled the mask over his face, feeling his breath curl back against his lips, trying for the reassuring anonymity the ANBU mask lent. I have no face but this face. “If she does, we’ll gut her.”
Yuuma said, pitying, “She’s interested in you now.”
“So, I’ll be the bait.” He’d played that game before. He could do it again. “And when she’s distracted, my captain will rip her spine out through her back.”
“To start with,” Raidou promised darkly, and worked on getting a re-dressed Ashi back on her feet.
“I’ll poison what’s left,” Genma said, stowing the last of his gear. “In case she’s still breathing without her spine.”
Yuuma gave a cracked half-laugh before he caught himself, looking startled. “Sorry,” he muttered, ducking his head. “I know it’s not funny…”
“It was kinda funny,” Ryouma said. “How d’you feel about walking?”
The boy’s shoulders sagged. He forced them straight. “Ready.”
Raidou’s clones had the stretcher constructed and Taiyou bundled in. Ashi fussed over her, tucking in a blanket, tugging at the ropes that lashed down a waterproof top-layer. Raidou’s clones moved her gently aside and finished the work. They stood tall and easy-moving, constructed without the pain that still pinched Raidou’s eyes. When Raidou himself moved in to envelop Ashi in a too-big hooded oilskin slicker, he looked almost awkward by comparison.
At least he was still thinking, though. Ryouma fumbled belatedly through his own sealed gear to produce the standard-issue slicker, shake out the stiff folds, and drape it over Yuuma’s shoulders. “Need anything more to eat?” He had a vague idea that Akimichi had to be fed almost constantly, like shrews, or they’d stop moving.
Yuuma wiggled his arms into the slicker’s sleeves and nodded sheepishly. “If you have some rat bars to share?”
“Sure.” Ryouma dug out his last two bars. Genma, with the lieutenant’s sharp ear for anyone low on protein, handed over a packet of dried squid, then tore another open for Ashi. Yuuma wolfed down one rat bar and three pieces of squid before he slowed down enough to shyly offer Ryouma a handful. Conscious of his uneaten dinner, Ryouma accepted. The hollow pit in his stomach eased a little when Yuuma summoned up a weak but unfeigned smile.
Raidou swept a sharp glance around the emptied cave, nodded to himself, and set his mask back on. “Move out.”
They trudged out into the storm.
Rain still lashed. Lightning still shattered the sky, but it had moved further east, and thunder followed after a seconds-long gap. Yuuma shuddered. Ryouma dipped his head against the kid’s hooded ear and said, “Me, too.”
Yuuma shot him a startled look. Ryouma pointed at the eastern sky. He had to raise his voice above wind and rain, but the officers probably wouldn’t hear anyway. “Storm’s moving that way. We’re moving—” he swung his hand to point southwest— “thatta way. And I know a guy who can split lightning, once we get home.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “Cool. I wish he’d been on this mission.” He seemed to hear what he’d said a moment too late. “I didn’t mean—”
“No, it’s okay,” Ryouma said. “I do, too.”
He’d missed Kakashi from the start of the mission, when they were running through muggy woods with a clean mission-plan ahead of them and no reason to suspect anything more. Kakashi’s absence throbbed like a sprain now, a steady background ache that stabbed hotter at an unwary step or an unguarded thought. If he were here he might’ve got things right, if he were here I might not’ve fucked things up—
Or he might have fucked things up some entirely new way. Kakashi wasn’t immune to mistakes, either. He was suspended now because of one. What if he hadn’t stopped the lightning strike either, or if he’d antagonized Nijo into slitting their throats instead of merely tipping their masks off and walking away?
Kakashi was in the Bingo Book, too. Ryouma didn’t want Nijo anywhere near him.
“Come on,” he said to Yuuma. “Let’s get out of this storm.”
They lowered their heads against the rain and walked on.
The storm blew itself out, or blew itself eastward, leaving a soggy dawn in its wake. One foot followed the other, slogging through mud and wet grass and last years’ slick leaves. At some point in midmorning, they found a road.
Yuuma, almost sleepwalking in exhaustion, tripped over the level ground. Ryouma barely caught him before he fell, and the extra hundred kilos nearly tipped him over too, before he chakra-anchored his boots in the mud.
“Traffic coming,” Genma said, hoarse. It was the first time anyone had spoken in hours.
“Off the road,” Raidou said. His clones backtracked, using Taiyou’s stretcher to herd the rest of them back off the beaten-mud track and into the sheltering trees. Raidou followed partway, then turned back. His hands shaped seals for a henge. A weatherbeaten middle-aged man replaced him on the verge, farmer-clad in muddy jeans and a rice-straw raincoat, smoking a bedraggled cigarette.
“Do we need henge?” Ryouma hissed at Genma. Ashi and Yuuma looked anonymous enough in their oversized slickers, but no one would overlook an unconscious dog bigger than most tigers, or two ANBU in armor.
Genma shook his head. “Feels civilian. I think we’re okay.” He kept watching the road through the dripping screen of branches, his hands ready to shape a seal. A screening genjutsu, Ryouma hoped, not a more chakra-hungry henge, or an even more intensive combat jutsu. Genma’s chakra felt alarmingly thin already.
He was about to suggest casting the genjutsu himself when Genma leaned forward, intent on something further up the road. A moment later Ryouma sensed the live sparks of chakra. Two reassuringly dim — civilian, as Genma’d said — and two puzzlingly large but even less focused. Possibly even bigger dogs?
The ox-cart squelched into view before Ryouma got too tangled in exhausted thoughts. Raidou-as-farmer lounged out from under his tree to greet it. They were too far away for Ryouma to hear the conversation, but he could see the sturdy driver leaning down to speak, and a curious teenager peering from the other side of the driver’s seat. The cart-bed was piled with sacks of rice or grain, lashed down with rope.
After barely a minute of conversation, Raidou dropped the henge. He stood abruptly taller, straighter, ominous in mask and armor. The driver seemed startled, but unafraid; the kid made a sound like a muffled cheer. The oxen stood placidly, occasionally flicking their tails at flies.
Raidou pointed back toward the tree-line and then made an expansive gesture with his arms. The driver shrugged, pointed to her oxen, and then to her cart-load. Raidou said something that provoked a laugh. Then Raidou turned and beckoned toward the trees.
Genma sighed in relief and stepped out from his screening branches. “Looks like we might have a ride.”
Taiyou had a ride, at least, cradled comfortably on sweet-scented sacks of buckwheat. Yuuma, who could barely keep his feet, tried valiantly to insist that Ashi should take the other spot. Ashi solved that argument by collaring him and bodily tossing him into the cart. She walked beside the big wheel, close enough that she could reach over the piled sacks and touch Taiyou’s paw.
The ANBU walked, too. Raidou kept up an easy stream of conversation with the cart-driver, Hiroko, who was apparently hauling her load to sell to the grain-dealers at the Yosan railway station. The teenager was her sister’s kid, brought along for the muscle, “and to knock some sense into his fool head.” The kid grinned at Yuuma over the wagon-seat when his aunt said that, so possibly it wasn’t a real threat. Yuuma looked briefly taken aback, then shyly returned the smile.
Cicadas sawed. Mud splashed the oxen to their bellies and the ANBU to their knees, but the road eventually began to steam itself drier. At midafternoon Hiroko stopped to rest the oxen and to share around cold buckwheat dumplings, boiled eggs, and pickled vegetables. Genma volunteered the last of his dried squid. After a silent-speaking glance with Raidou, he produced several pouches of self-heating rations. Hiroko’s nephew bubbled over with enthusiasm at tasting real ninja food.
Yuuma warmed a little more. “I’m a ninja too,” he told the older boy. “I even got injured. See?” He opened his mouth to show off the broken molar.
“Guess he doesn’t need another nerve block yet,” Genma murmured, watching.
Hiroko said delicately, “I don’t wish to inquire into your business, shinobi-san, but, ah… You did say you don’t expect pursuit?”
Raidou and Genma exchanged another masked glance. Raidou shrugged one shoulder, outwardly calm. “Expect, no. But we’ll handle it if the need arises.”
“Consider yourself as having a free ANBU escort,” Genma added.
Hiroko cackled. “Well, and plenty of those lordly rice and silk merchants can’t say as much! Bandits won’t usually stop for buckwheat, but there’s those as might stoop to envy my good yoke of oxen here, so I’m thankful all the same for the company.”
Bandits wouldn’t bother her, but if Nijo returned…
Ryouma pushed up from his place in the thick roadside grass. “I’ll scout around. Just to see what’s out there.”
“Ten minutes,” Raidou said. “No longer.”
Ryouma flicked a salute and slipped away.
“Tall fella, isn’t he?” Hiroko commented, while Raidou wondered if he’d just made a stupid decision. Nijo had shown a special interest in Ryouma more than once, and Ryouma, at the best of times, was about as level-headed as a spike. But Ryouma was still a jounin, and Raidou wasn’t — yet — prepared to tie him to the ox-cart.
“You too,” Hiroko continued, looking at Yuuma. “They put something in those ninja rations?”
Yuuma drew up to his full height, which was considerable. “No, ma’am,” he said, and tilted his face to display one of his spiral clan tattoos. “Runs in my family.”
Hiroko whistled through the gap of a missing tooth. Her obvious admiration made the good side of Yuuma’s mouth pull into a smile. The nephew leaned forward and pressed him for details: what was Yuuma’s family like, how tall was his tallest relative, did they have special ninja magic?
Their conversation carried through the rest of the short meal and watering the oxen at a thin stream. The nephew — Hirata, Raidou finally learned — was just showing Yumma how to persuade the grumbling cart back onto the road, when Ryouma returned. “Clear roads as far as I can sense.”
Raidou glanced at Ashi, who gave a short, corroborating nod. Nothing had pinged her nose, either.
They got back on the road. The sun was hot and high now, baking the top layer of mud. From her nest of buckwheat pillows, Taiyou began to pant. Yuuma’s fair skin threatened to burn. Since Raidou hadn’t banished his clones, he directed them to convert the former-stretcher into a makeshift canopy over the cart.
Genma, ever pragmatic, swiped sunscreen over his bare arms, and walked under the dappled shelter of trees when he could. Which had the additional advantage of breaking up his color-blocked uniform into more subtle camouflage. Ryouma, like Raidou, was more inclined to tan than burn, and so did nothing except squint when the sun caught his eyes.
“Do none of you have hats?” Hiroko demanded.
Raidou hauled his brain back from the problem of Nijo. “What?”
Hiroko had produced a wide straw hat from somewhere, which now perched on her brown curls at a jaunty angle. Someone had woven the edges into a neat braid. At her side, Hirata wore its rougher cousin, with golden straw spokes sticking out of the unfinished brim.
“Hats,” she said. “Sun protection. Keeps your skin young. I can see you all squinting behind your scary masks, you know.”
Raidou was pretty sure that was because all of them had thumping headaches.
“They don’t come standard, ma’am,” Ryouma said cautiously.
“We’re generally more active at night,” Genma said. “Like tree frogs.”
“I see,” Hiroko said. She elbowed Hirata in the ribs. “Off, down. Go ride in the back. You,” she pointed at Ashi, “dog-girl, hop up here.”
“What?” said Ashi, from her self-appointed post walking next to the cart. “No, I’m fine back here. Make the sheep do it.”
“It’s a ram,” Ryouma said stiffly.
“It’s my cart,” Hiroko said. “And I’m making a rule that only people with faces can sit next to me. Up, girl.”
Ashi rolled her eyes at Genma, who looked at Raidou, who shrugged. “Taiyou can probably see you better if you sit up front.”
Hirata slipped out of his spot and offered Ashi a hand up. She accepted with scathing irony, but settled onto the worn wooden bench seat with an awkward thump that spoke of pain. Hirata scrambled into the back, dropping down happily next to Yuuma, who smiled uncertainly at him.
Hiroko procured a burlap sack and, to the collective bafflement of the ninja, opened it to reveal neat sheaves of straw. At first, Raidou thought she’d just decided to make them hats, which must have been one of the many little craft tasks used to fill a long, slow journey, but Hiroko was clearly from the teach-a-ninja-to-fish school of thought. She pressed a straw sheaf into Ashi’s hands, and half-cajoled, half-bullied her through the initial steps of hat-weaving.
It was hard to say who was more surprised, an hour later, when Ashi reluctantly tossed Genma a rough but passable straw hat. It was a brother to Hirata’s hat, with spokes sticking out from the brim. Genma put it on and with his grinning tanuki mask, looked like a terrifying children’s story come to life.
Ashi was quicker with her next effort. She narrated everything she was doing to Taiyou, who waved a sleepy, drugged tail, and Raidou couldn’t help noticing that both of them seemed a little more at ease, resting within reach of each other. The second hat landed on Raidou’s head, spun there by a casual wrist flick. He inspected the offering. “We don’t get the braided band?”
Hiroko snorted. “That’s a girl’s hat. Yours is a boy hat.”
“Ah,” Raidou said, and decided he’d just stick a flower in it later.
It did keep the sun out of his eyes, though. Ashi bent to her third creation, ignoring when Ryouma drifted curiously over to watch. Raidou strolled along next to the oxen, occasionally resting his palm on a sturdy, sun-warmed flank. Against his skin, the slow, peaceful chakra of the large beast was like a wide river curving through a meadow. The ox snorted and flicked one fuzzy ear, regarding him from a liquid brown eye. He gave it a scratch on the shoulder, making its hide quiver.
The problem with post-emergency downtime — one of the problems — was a need to keep a sharp focus, which was made significantly harder by exhaustion. And sun. And familiar territory. And a complete lack of anything else happening. Raidou yawned behind his mask, which made his headache do something ugly.
Fortunately, before he got too sleepy, Shin landed lightly on the hand-carved wooden yoke and scared the hell out of him. “Hi, shinobi!”
“Mother of—” He lurched away from the tiny cat before he accidentally backhanded it into a tree.
Shin made a whispery little sound, which Raidou decided not to interpret as an evil cat laugh, and leapt daintily from the yoke to the cart to Genma’s shoulder. “Your message is delivered,” he said proudly.
“Thank you.” Genma reached up and ran a gentle finger between the cat’s ears. “Was there any message back?”
Shin’s eyes went half-lidded. He draped himself around Genma’s shoulders like a dusty fur shawl, small paws hanging down on Genma’s chest. His claws flexed and extended, kneading at scratches on the armor. “Just an acknowledgement.”
“Good, it’s out of our hands, then.” Genma glanced at the ox-cart — checking for civilian alarm at a talking cat, Raidou guessed — but Hiroko had merely observed for a moment, then gone back to guiding Ashi through a finicky straw bend. Hirata was hanging breathlessly over the side of the cart, but Raidou suspected he was more interested in stealing Shin than planning to start yelling about demon cats. “Do you want to stay longer or shall I send you back?”
“He wants to stay longer!” Hirata yelped.
Shin rolled over to expose part of his belly to the sunlight. “I could,” he said lazily. “Since the dog seems to have fallen down.”
The thump-yowl that followed was predictable. Ashi hurled a wadded handful of straw at Shin’s tail, and Genma got a set of unexpected claws in the shoulder when the startled cat levitated. One gloved hand clamped down on the back of Shin’s neck before retaliation could happen.
“Really?” Raidou asked Ashi.
“My hand slipped,” she said.
Genma gave her a look that would have scorched metal. Then another, only slightly cooler one to Shin. “It was straw, you didn’t need to take the skin off my neck. Also, what kind of situational awareness was that supposed to be? A genin could have seen that coming.”
Shin’s ears flattened back. He freed himself from Genma’s hand and sat up. “You may send me back.”
Genma inhaled slowly, audible even behind the mask, in a way that suggested he was getting his temper under control by a thread. “I’m sorry for snapping at you. Thank you for helping us, Shin-san. I hope to see you again soon.”
Shin sniffed, but Raidou saw the little cat’s tail curl briefly, almost regretfully, over the claw marks on Genma’s shoulder. Then the link broke, and he was gone.
“Aw,” Hirata said.
Ashi broke her third hat. She swore, dropped the remains into the mud, and refused Hiroko’s attempts to get her to continue. When Hiroko pushed, Ashi swore at her too and clambered into the back of the cart, kicking the nephew out of his place next to Yuuma. She spent the rest of the journey tucked up against Taiyou, showing her teeth to anyone except Genma, who was permitted to get close and check on the fallen dog.
Genma’s cat scratches bled for too long.
Yuuma slept, eventually. The rest of them trudged. The sun fell below the horizon, and they stopped. It rose and they started again. The shine seemed to have worn off Hirata’s excitement, once he realized that grumpy, painful shinobi were about as much fun as grumpy, painful anyone. Hiroko smoked a slender pipe and guided the oxen with uncomplaining patience. Late afternoon brought them to Yosan Railway Station, and the end of the ox-cart’s journey.
Genma slipped a handful of coin to Hiroko, who tugged the brim of his ridiculous hat with a rough kind of affection. Hirata waved at them forlornly, before his aunt bent him to the task of unloading barley sacks.
Another handful of coin went to the station master. That and the masks bought them a place on a train-car filled with vegetables. Yuuma slept again. Taiyou got more drugs, and Genma got more chakra. The ANBU peeled out of their — at this point, revolting — uniforms, sealed them in scrolls, and changed into more anonymous jounin blues. Ryouma unearthed a withered gourd from its sack of better-looking brothers, and devoted himself to carving a reasonable attempt at an anatomic heart. Genma quizzed him on veins and valves and blood flow until Raidou napped out of sheer self-defense.
It was only a few hours to Nagiso, the closest station to Konoha. Between Genma. Ryouma, Raidou, and Raidou’s last remaining clone, they were able to haul Taiyou out of the train without Ashi doing any of them lasting damage. Then, with the dog carefully laid out in the warm grass beneath a leafy tree, and the rest of the team collapsed around her like broken kunai, Raidou considered their next move.
Travelling with civilians and hand-pulled carts, it had taken Team Six a day and a half to get to Konoha from Nagiso last time.
He looked at his team, looked at the road, considered when any of them had last eaten a decent meal or slept on a surface without rocks, and made the executive decision to find a goddamn inn. Or, rather, he sent Ryouma to find one. Genma and Yuuma were tasked with finding the closest doctor and/or vet, Ashi was told to sit the hell down and yell loudly if she needed anything, and Raidou went to find a radio tower.
It didn’t take long to send Konoha an update. When he returned, Ryouma was already back with a destination, and Genma had a line on a local medic with ninja experience (who was willing to do house-calls). The paper-thin clone was sent to fetch them, while everyone else worked on getting Taiyou to the inn.
To the innmaster’s credit, he didn’t bat an eye at the mountain of burned, bandaged fur being carted into one of his nicest rooms. Neither did the medic, when she showed up and found out her primary patient was four-legged and lightning-struck.
Taiyou had dry gums. An IV pole made a quick appearance after the medic noticed that, followed by several hanging bags that Genma and Ryouma examined closely, while Raidou negotiated an early dinner out of the innmaster.
“Perhaps a bath first?” the man suggested. He managed, just about, not to wrinkle his nose in the close room.
“Yes,” Ryouma said prayerfully. He wasn’t the only one.
“I’ll make sure the facilities are free. You won’t be disturbed.” The innmaster strode away.
Ashi sat by Taiyou’s head, gently stroking the large golden ears. Taiyou tracked her partner with hazy eyes, then shifted to lay her muzzle on Ashi’s lean thigh. Raidou crouched quietly down next to them. “Guessing you’re not up for a dunk, Taiyou.”
One golden eye rolled towards him. A long tongue swiped out, licking dry lips. “Funny,” rasped the dog. Her voice was a wreck, but it was there. “I’d take a drink.”
“No alcohol,” said the medic, as she worked to snip away grubby bandages.
Taiyou grumbled, but her eyelids were already sliding closed again. Raidou guessed one of those bags held better painkillers.
“Need anything?” he asked Ashi.
“Food,” she said, eyes fixed on the medic’s hands. “After this.”
“Easy enough,” Raidou said. He looked up, found Ryouma edging towards the door. Snorted softly. “Wanna go scout the baths, Tousaki?”
“We all stink,” Ryouma said virtuously.
Raidou snorted again. “Take Shiranui, and Yuuma. I’ll catch up.”
Ryouma had to drag Genma, just a little, until Genma was satisfied the medic knew what she was doing — and then Genma almost beat him down the hallway. Raidou heard him say, “I hope you brought your fancy soap.”
“Always,” Ryouma said.
The exact words of Yuuma’s confused question were lost behind the slide of a closing door, but Raidou imagined he was about to get an extended lesson in the ways of cherry-blossom and green tea and drywall, or whatever other flavor Ryouma was carrying this week.
The innmaster returned a moment after that. “Is there anything else you need?”
Raidou exchanged a glance with Taiyou.
“Steak,” she said. “Lots of it.”
Down the hallway, there was a splash and a yelp, which sounded like Ryouma, and a laugh, which might have been Yuuma. Raidou felt his mouth curve, weight easing off his shoulders. He could pick it back up later. “And green tea, something fried, something sweet, and — y’know what, just bring us a bit of everything.”
“Very good,” the man said, and eased away to make the world a better place. At least for a while.