August 11, Yondaime Year 5
Nijo Kozue had had better days.
A few significantly worse, of course, but that litany was hardly helpful now. She’d always preferred to avoid belaboring the past. Any fight you walked away from technically counted as a win.
Limping away was… still headed in the right direction, at least.
Her mauled leg hurt. Her teeth hurt, and everything else in between. Blisters ringed her hands and arms where barely-leashed lightning had charred ropes away. Her heart fluttered half a beat too fast inside the cage of her ribs, like a hawk fighting for the open air. Her ears rang with a high-pitched whine that almost drowned out the howl of the storm around her, and white spots blurred holes into her vision.
Not permanent injuries, she thought. Hoped. Channeling lightning was a fool’s game back in Kumogakure, risky even when seal-guided, but she hadn’t exactly been flush with options.
She’d always prided herself on her flexibility in a tight spot. No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, they used to say, and while she’d rejected most of Kumo’s stifling strictures she’d kept that maxim to mind. But the past two days had stretched her thin, as one plan snapped after another, and outcomes narrowed from winning to simply surviving. She might have hoped for help at Tochigi — Obaasan had occasionally been known to turn a kindly eye toward a regular supplier — but Tochigi was a massacre site now, and one decrypted ledger and a few more hours’ captivity seemed a small price to pay if it meant the ANBU would cover her tracks as she got the hell away.
Every kilometer closer to Konoha narrowed her options further. She’d no intentions of sitting down for a chat with Konoha’s T&I — none of them ever considered simply purchasing her secrets — and four of her five traveling companions were becoming distinctly tiresome. The storm had come as a godsend, and if that distressingly fast heartbeat was muscular damage and not just adrenaline—
Well. Limping away, with three Konoha ANBU and two Inuzuka left flattened in the cave behind her. That story alone would be worth the price of a drink, at some future bar very far away from Fire Country.
A shame she hadn’t managed to win over the tall one, though of course she’d never really expected to. He was their weak point; she’d seen that early enough, despite the terrifying ease with which he’d destroyed Sase’s corpse, three million ryou, and days of effort. A trusting subordinate, younger than the other two, and pretty enough that his officers likely had to fend off all sorts of offers. She wished she’d known that earlier. She could think of half a dozen needling comments now that might have cracked the burly officer’s high-and-mighty shields, unsettled them enough to allow her escape without the drastic measures they’d eventually forced her to take…
Might as well wish she’d been able to haul away Tall-and-Pretty over her shoulder as a consolation prize. Mistakes and might-have-beens lay behind her now. She’d left the Inuzuka woman and all the ANBU still breathing, at least — she hadn’t bothered to check the dog — but incapacitated enough that they wouldn’t be following soon.
Which wasn’t likely, on balance, to buy much Konoha good-will. They were stubborn bastards, and they held a grudge; but at least she wouldn’t be carrying any more of a blood-price on her shoulders. She generally preferred to avoid killing when there was no profit in it, and slitting the pretty one’s throat would have been a waste.
Maybe when her injuries healed, in a few months’ time when it was safe to operate in Fire Country again…
For now, she headed north-east toward the border. She scraped her burnt-down chakra together and left thinly built clones tucked away in the crook of two trees; in the shelter of an overhanging rock; at the fork of a crossroads. Shivering, half-transparent, the clones struggled to tend their burns and bind up bites. They wouldn’t fool any pursuer for long, but when they died they’d give her the warning that had — almost — saved her once before.
The storm outpaced her eventually. She limped on through a muggy morning and into a sweltering afternoon. Thirst nagged at her. Blisters throbbed. Her vision was clearing, and her heart rate slowing, but she was starting to worry over her dog-bitten calf. Animals had filthy mouths.
She should have liberated that too-clever lieutenant’s medical kit, while she had the chance.
“Should have won’t pay the bills,” she told herself aloud, and gritted her teeth as a jarring footfall spiked pain up her leg. “Keep walking, Kozue.”
One of her clones dissipated and passed on nothing but thin memories of chakra-burnt exhaustion. Not conclusive proof of safety, but enough. Nijo shivered in the first grips of fever, and bent her steps towards the smudge of industrial smoke in the distance.
She found a doctor, first. The clinic was closing up, but the kindly practitioner took a brief look at Nijo’s bared blisters, listened to half a minute of her story about a desperate escape from renegade ninja, and unlocked the door again.
Ninety unpleasant minutes and a broad-spectrum antibiotic later, Nijo left the clinic with new bandages, a borrowed shirt to cover the rope-burns, and a tube of antibiotic cream. The clinician refused more than a token payment, but Nijo stole a business card off the front desk. She paid her debts.
She’d had water at the clinic, but the last two days called for something stronger. Fortunately an izakaya hung its red lanterns not far from the town gate. Even more fortunately, the Konoha nin had left her cash when they confiscated the rest of her gear. (And it would take her ages to find or commission another thigh-holster she liked as well as the one a wizened old leather-worker had made for her after the war, but— No looking back. The lieutenant had sealed her gear away in one of his interminable scrolls; she hadn’t risked searching. Keep walking, Kozue.)
She paid upfront for a plate of curry, a bottle of shouchuu, and the promise of a rented room above the bar. The food was good, the shouchuu strong, and the room tempting. But gossip, unlike regrets, did occasionally pay the bills. Nijo took her half-empty bottle back to the bar, and listened.
Most of the gossip was everyday concerns: greedy landlords, asshole bosses, the promise of construction jobs at the site just outside town. The new provincial daimyou was building a hospital, or maybe a summer palace. Rumors varied depending on the speaker’s opinion of the new lord, who’d replaced the old provincial governor after the Leaf Hokage ripped his chest open.
“Lord Nobunori’s, not the Hokage’s,” the speaker assured his audience. “They’ve still got the same one, the fast one. Tore through Nobunori and his guards like— like— like a tomato in a blender.” He thumped his empty glass down, looking proud of his simile. “My neighbor’s nephew works for the cleaning company they called in after. He saw.”
“Ninja,” someone else said, and drained his glass. Concurring murmurs chased round the bar. “Y’hear about what just happened up Tochigi way?”
No one had. They crowded closer.
Nijo looked to the door, but her exit was clear. The crowded bar still felt civilian, to her own slightly burned senses: vivid with life-force chakra and nothing more. She signalled the bartender for another round and listened.
The ninja had tried to keep it secret, apparently; well, everyone knew how ninja were. But three-four kilometers outside Tochigi proper there was one of those ninja corpse disposeries, body or bounty offices they called ‘em. This one had a whole family running it, great-grandma on down. “And this morning when the grocer shows up on his cart with his regular weekly delivery, there’s one of those Leaf boys in uniform guarding the door, and a whole pile of corpses the other side of the door. New corpses, I should say,” the storyteller corrected himself. “Sliced up dead, even great-grandma in her bed. They had the grocer in to identify ‘em.”
“And let him go, afterwards?” someone asked skeptically.
“Guess they figured there was no hushing it up. Those were Tochigi folk, mind, not ninja. Grocer was on the evening news from Dazaifu, any rate.”
Nijo ordered a dish of pickles.
“So who did it? Leaf?”
“Wouldn’t need no grocer to identify the corpses if they were the ones killed ‘em, dumbass.”
“Unless they were faking. Ever think of that, professor? Ninja are sneaky. Could be they just wanted the grocer to think they were innocent.”
“Then they’d just’ve killed him, too.”
“Leaf ninja don’t kill bystanders,” the bartender put in suddenly. “Not when they can help it, anyway. This isn’t Water Country.”
“What about that ruckus up in Tsurugahama Port, then?” the skeptic demanded. “That was Leaf nin, sure enough.”
Nijo ate a pickle, and asked casually, “What’d they say on the news about Tochigi, though? Those Leaf boys still there?”
“Far as anyone knows,” the storyteller said, and went off into lurid details of what the newscasters or his own imagination had told him about the scene. More folk crowded in to listen. Nijo slid off her stool and was instantly replaced.
The Konoha nin at Tochigi must be the reinforcements the ANBU had signalled from Ishikawa, or perhaps the Ishikawa relay staff themselves. They would likely be focused on the Tochigi site for another day, two at the outside. They’d follow the trail the Inuzuka found, perhaps even find something, but Nijo doubted it. That trail was as likely a decoy as the folded Iwa uniforms or the blood-written mockery on the morgue wall.
Either way, they wouldn’t be following her trail. Not yet, anyway. The ANBU were another matter. But if they hadn’t tailed her already, as her remaining clones’ continued survival suggested, they might have chosen to complete their mission and take Yuuma-kun home.
They hadn’t shown that kind of sense in the time she’d known them, but one could always hope.
As for the killer—
She’d left no trail from Tochigi for almost 50 kilometers. That alone was worth the indignity of hours slung over a clone’s muscled shoulder. The storm had covered her departure, and tomorrow she’d find a likely caravan with room for an extra guard or passenger. Southeast, perhaps. She still had contacts in Tea Country…
She limped up the stairs to the rented room, and paused at the door for one last wary chakra-sweep. A thousand pinpricks of civilian light, the muted density of the bar below her, the tiny flicker of a cat hunting in the attic overhead. Nothing more.
Secure in the anonymity of a civilian city, Nijo opened the door.
The woman sitting on the bed looked up.
“Nijo Kozue,” she said, in pleasant surprise, and unveiled her chakra. “I do hope you brought the Tochigi ledger with you.”
Nijo wet her lips, reviewed her options, and changed her plans. “Let’s make a deal.”