November 6 – 7, Yondaime Year 5
They left the embassy before dawn.
The Suna guard captain, Dohi, proved to be stern, curt, and satisfyingly efficient. He made lists and summoned runners. The first messenger returned with a rumpled middle-aged woman, evidently dragged straight out of bed, because she blinked several times at Kakashi’s Walls of Colorful Chalk before plopping herself down on a chair and announcing, “I need coffee before I do anything.”
She was the first person in Suna that Ryouma actually liked. And they needed a new pot of coffee anyway. He brought her the first cup and then took up his stone-faced-guard / decorative-furniture pose, mirroring Raidou on the other side of the conference room door. Genma was packing up the bedrooms. Kakashi was sitting on the conference room table, glaring at the wall, and pointedly ignoring Sadayo’s rapid, low-voiced commentary.
The new kunoichi ignored everyone for her first few appreciative sips. Then she set the mug down, shook out her hands, and told Kakashi, “I don’t know whether to call you a genius or a madman. I hope it works. How much of it do you need copied? How big?”
Kakashi looked at her blankly. “Who are you?”
“Tsuchiya Akiyo. I’m…” She smiled crookedly. “Well, I guess you could call me Suna’s Copy Nin.”
“Oh?” He cocked his head, paying real attention now.
“I’m here to demonstrate.” She rubbed puffy eyes and looked at the wall again. “How does 80 percent scaling sound?”
Kakashi rubbed a hand through his hair. “Unnecessary? But knock yourself out.”
Tsuchiya snorted. “Rousted out of bed before 0630 and it’s ‘unnecessary,’ he says. I’ll remember this next time you come asking for a favor, Dohi.”
Dohi’s half-veiled face remained impassive. “Then do it quickly and go back to bed.”
“Right.” She took another gulp of coffee, pulled a folded piece of paper out of her pocket, and began unfolding it on the table.
Chakra tingled in Ryouma’s senses. Ozone bit at his nose. The paper kept unfolding, like a sealed scroll opening, until it covered most of the table: a stretch only a little smaller than Kakashi’s scribbled area of wall. “Usually I do this with ink,” Tsuchiya said, sounding dissatisfied, as she sorted out a few broken bits of chalk Kakashi had thrown aside as unusable. Black, orange, green, red, and blue. She tossed them all carelessly onto the paper, dusted off her hands, and shaped a sequence of hand seals almost too fast to follow.
The chalk pieces crumbled to powder. Color bloomed across the paper: an exact replica of Kakashi’s work, every squiggle and shape and smear, translated from wall to paper. Kakashi glanced swiftly between the two. His Sharingan eye was spinning.
Fortunately Tsuchiya hadn’t seemed to notice. She was gazing happily at her work. “Almost as good as ink, after all. Though you’ll want to spray with fixative before you roll it up. Or try oil pastels next time for some really intense color—”
“Thank you, that will be all,” Dohi said brusquely, escorting her out.
She grabbed her coffee cup on the way. “Good luck!” she called over her shoulder. She seemed to mean it.
“Okay, then,” Kakashi said, after a moment. He pulled the cloth band back down over his Sharingan. “Fixative?”
“Hairspray,” Sadayo said, brushing past him.
Kakashi’s nose wrinkled beneath the mask. He wiped the original chalk work off the walls with one carelessly brilliant jutsu and began sorting through his stacks of books and scrolls. Dohi went out into the embassy lobby to meet more messengers, which meant Ryouma and Raidou could finally leave their guard posts on either side of the conference room door.
Genma had already finished packing. The room he and Raidou had used was spotless; Kakashi’s room was almost as tidy, with his gear and Ryouma’s in two neat piles. Ryouma armored up and went back into the conference room, carrying Kakashi’s pack with him.
Sadayo must have been and gone; there was a hairspray can on the table and a lingering chemical smell in the air. The books, papers, and copied chalk work had vanished. Kakashi was tucking a sealing scroll away.
“Somebody got the rest of your weapons back.” Ryouma offered him the pack. “And your book.”
The frustrated crease disappeared from between Kakashi’s brows. He took Icha Icha in both hands, like a precious artifact, and ruffled gently through the pages. Familiarizing himself with the treasured words? No, Ryouma decided, even Kakashi couldn’t read that fast. Probably he was just checking for damage or traps.
Satisfied at last, Kakashi tucked the book into his belt pouch and went through the assorted weapons, rapidly tucking them away into concealed pockets that shouldn’t have hidden anything larger than a toothpick. He paused at one kunai that looked no different from the others. A tiny sigh of relief ruffled the mask over his nose. “Good. Still here.”
Chakra sparked. The kunai changed shape as the henge fell away. It had two short, edged prongs by the hilt now. The hilt itself was thicker, carved in pale wood instead of wrapped in cord or leather, and scrawled with a thick black row of sealwork. Kakashi held it out. “This one summons Minato.”
Ryouma took the blade gingerly. It was heavier than a normal kunai, but the prongs at the top of the blade helped center the balance that would’ve otherwise been weighted towards the hilt. “How?”
“Aim and throw.” Kakashi shrugged and took the blade back, vanishing it into an inner pocket of his jounin flak vest.
“No, I meant like— It’s not a summons, is it? Does he have to appear? What happens if you use it and he’s…in a meeting, or in the bath?”
“Naked rescue is better than no rescue,” Kakashi said dryly.
Ryouma squinted at him. That sounded like the voice of experience talking.
“It’s not like a summons contract,” Kakashi continued, zipping his flak vest up over his sleeveless ANBU turtleneck. “He doesn’t have to come. But it opens up a quick pathway for him, and alerts him when it’s thrown.”
“D’you think…” Ryouma hesitated. “How likely is it…”
Kakashi tilted his head quizzically. Hair immediately fell into his face; the cloth eyeband didn’t really hold it back as well as his hitai-ate usually did. “Is what?”
He was usually quicker to follow Ryouma’s thoughts than this, too. Guiltily, Ryouma recalled everything else clambering for Kakashi’s attention right now. He didn’t need Ryouma’s anxieties on top of his own. “Nothing. That’s all your gear? Is anything missing? Dohi’s still here, if you need me to fight him for your stuff.”
“This should be good.” Kakashi looked amused, at least. He relocated the sealing scroll to the scroll-pouches on his vest, checked the contents of all the others, nodded to himself, and shouldered his pack. “Let’s go.”
Genma and Raidou were waiting in the entrance hall, also armed and armored, patient behind their painted masks. Ryouma unclipped the Ram mask from his belt and slipped it over his face. It was weirdly settling. Insecurities and uncertainties hidden, and only the mission left.
Kakashi was the one who looked a little strange now, half-armored in ANBU underpinnings and jounin vest. His bared arms were corded with muscle and shockingly pale. The ANBU tattoo gleamed like blood. “I’m ready,” he told Dohi.
The Suna captain tipped his chin at Sadayo’s door. “The ambassador just stepped away.”
Kakashi regarded him. “So?”
After months behind the mask, it was easy enough to read surprise in the set of Dohi’s shoulders. “Did you want to…take your leave of her?”
“No,” Kakashi said, and opened the door.
Team Six fell into formation around him. Dohi’s squad of half-veiled guards, waiting outside the embassy doors, formed a perimeter. Dohi recovered his aplomb enough to lead the way: down the hall and four curving flights of stairs to the ground floor; then down another set of stairs, the ones that led to the basement baths. But they continued past the turn-off to the baths, following the staircase as it tunneled cooler and deeper into bedrock.
Ryouma counted eight flights—maybe nine—before they reached the bottom. A wall of bare rock confronted them. Dohi walked through it.
A moment later he reappeared, standing in front of a reinforced metal door, disengaging seals and unlocking the door. Stale air and darkness greeted them. Dohi had to duck his head to step through. Ryouma, significantly taller, bowed almost in half.
He straightened cautiously on the other side. The ceiling didn’t quite brush his hair, but when he raised his hand his fingertips met rough stone not far above. A little too reminiscent of the sea-tunnels outside Kirigakure for comfort. Hopefully there wouldn’t be crabs.
Dohi threw a switch. Electricity hummed. Caged bulbs strung up on exposed wire flickered reluctantly alight. Their wan pools of yellow light stretched farther than Ryouma could see.
“This way,” Dohi said, unnecessarily. He gestured for one of his subordinates to lock the door and rekey the seals. The rest of them started single-file down the tunnel.
Ryouma tried counting steps for a while. After 137, or maybe 147, he decided that silently playing Shuriken Force songs in his head was a better way of tracking time and therefore distance. He’d run through the first two songs on The Red Album before Dohi stopped, unlocked a door that appeared only after he’d touched it, and led them into a branching tunnel. The ceiling on this one did brush Ryouma’s head.
He realized he was humming only when Kakashi poked him in the back.
“‘Pull Away’?” The whisper was dry but affectionate.
“Four songs at roughly three and a half minutes each,” Ryouma whispered back. “Plus maybe two minutes before I thought of it. Where d’you think we are?”
“East,” Raidou rumbled, behind them.
“Somewhere in the Okabe district, I think,” Genma said. “At least 30 meters down.”
Kakashi nodded. “Close to the Leatherworkers’ Market.” He lifted his voice slightly, as if he meant Dohi to hear. “Are we going to the outer wall?”
“Almost,” Dohi said. He kept walking at the same brisk, tireless pace.
They took another tunnel branch—“Northeast,” Raidou said—and continued. The tunnels began to slope down, sometimes steeply. Ryouma had to work his jaw to clear the pressure from his ears.
The last three songs on The Red Album were war stories, too ominous for this venture. He started the significantly more upbeat At Sky’s End instead. He even let himself hum a little, since no one seemed to object and there was nothing but rock to hear. Once or twice Kakashi found the chorus with him.
After 12 songs, roughly 45 minutes, and approximately three kilometers, Dohi reached another door and stopped. The seals this time seemed much more involved, and the locks on the door took three keys. He opened the door and stepped aside.
Ryouma was point guard. He walked through.
The cavern opened up before him. It was enormous—bigger than the largest of the sea-caves they’d seen in Kiri, where they’d found the slaughtered remnants of the Kusakabe clan. Pole-lights on the broken ground cast a harsh glare but couldn’t reach the shadowed ceiling high above. Forty meters away, half-obscured by formations and spikes of rock, Ryouma saw a glimmer of light on water: an underground lake?
“You’ll stay here until you complete the work,” Dohi said. He pointed towards an open, relatively flattish area near the lake. “Latrine facilities there. Bedrolls over there. You’ve been provided with boxed meals. Water from the lake, but don’t go in.”
“Is there something in there?” Ryouma asked.
He’d meant it as a joke. Dohi gave him a flat stare over the veil. “Don’t go looking, Konoha.”
Because the Kazekage was absolutely going to risk his son’s biggest hope to an accidental lake monster snack. Raidou suppressed a snort.
… then again, it was Rasa, so maybe.
The rest of the tour, such as it was, took them through a tortuous network of broken ground, craggy ledges, and stalagmites that were anywhere from finger-width thick to built like a redwood. Somewhere up in the dark ceiling, there were presumably matching stalactites stretching down, but an intermittent dapple of water droplets was the only evidence.
Dohi led them down to the flat beach by the lake, where black sand formed a long, narrow crescent. More pole-lights made cool, green archipelagos of light. If Raidou squinted, looking up, the occasional falling spark of water could be mistaken for a star in a pitch, moonless sky.
Accompanying guards dropped their bedrolls, boxed meals, and campfire supplies on the sand. Someone else had already set up a handful of long, rough tables, a freestanding blackboard, stacks of seal paper and boxes of colored chalk, and a sizable heap of firewood.
Down at the far end of the beach, something bleated dolefully.
“Livestock has also been supplied, as requested,” Dohi said.
Dubious investigation revealed two large pens hastily constructed from ropes strung between stalagmites. One had half a dozen small, tan, round-bellied goats. The other held sleek, white-faced antelope with tall, twisting horns. Each pen had been stocked with water buckets and piles of shrubby hay. One of the goats was chewing on a piece of cactus.
Raidou thought of Suna’s famine, and wondered if a family had been made to give up this small bounty, or did the Kazekage keep his own herds?
As he watched, one of the goats made a spectacular leap over the rope fence, much higher than Raidou would have guessed a knee-high goat could jump, and bolted off into the maze. A Suna guard sighed heavily, making her veil flutter, and took off in pursuit.
Somewhere in Iwa, Katsuko was laughing.
Raidou managed to keep a smile off his face. All in all, he’d seen worse camps. The only things missing were sunlight, fresh air, showers, any discernible method of telling time, and Gaara.
Raidou said, “Is the Kazekage going to be dropping his son off any time soon?”
“Once the wards are finished,” Dohi said. “The sealing team is coming soon. My team will establish a perimeter. Please don’t cross it.”
Nothing in that answer, Raidou noted, actually established a timeframe. But the Kazekage had said 24 hours, even if Kakashi hadn’t exactly agreed to that deadline. Raidou tipped his head at Kakashi, who was watching Dohi with a single narrowed eye. After a moment, Kakashi shrugged. Good enough, then.
“In that case, I trust you have everything you need,” Dohi said, with a short, razor-straight bow, and departed to do whatever perimeter setting one could establish in a giant cave.
Personally, Raidou would have started small and worked his way outward, restricting ingress and egress as he went, but to each their own. Maybe there were tunnels running through the walls which raised Dohi’s concerns for weak spots.
Genma waited until the captain was out of earshot, then murmured, “Think they consulted one of those mystic compasses to determine the best placement of the goat pen?”
Ryouma choked behind his mask.
Raidou watched the beleaguered Suna guard dump the escapee goat back into the pen, then immediately have to snatch it out of mid-air when it ping-ponged back out again. “Might have been more useful to get some mystic structural advice. Taller fence, for starters.”
“Really they should have just haltered each goat and then anchored it to a peg,” Ryouma observed. “Like chaining a dog instead of trying to fence it.”
Kakashi’s nose wrinkled slightly.
“Maybe with an actual chain,” Genma said, regarding a goat which had started to nibble on a low rope. “Odds on how long it’ll take for one to eat its way out and let them all loose?”
“Next hour?” Raidou hazarded.
“Twenty minutes,” Ryouma said. “If you wanna get situated, Kakashi, we’ll set up our perimeter. Guard your research from your future victims.”
Kakashi hadn’t said anything about their new living quarters. In the harsh floodlights, the readable quarter of his face was cut down to slivers of shadow, distilled to an eye glimmer and fractures of pale skin. Raidou wasn’t the best Hatake-translator under normal circumstances, but he thought Kakashi looked thoughtful. Or perhaps just tired. Regardless, Kakashi nodded, and so they got to work.
Ryouma took point on cave exploration, vanishing into the fractal maze to scout dangers, advantages, exits, giant spiders, and—as he put it—make sure there weren’t any enormous Holes to Nowhere in the floor. Genma followed after him, establishing a tighter perimeter around Beach Camp Konoha, which he reinforced with tripwires, nonlethal poison traps, and all manner of other sneakery. Occasionally, he’d return to report Ryouma’s findings—“twelve Suna shinobi on the east side”—and fill Raidou and Kakashi in on the ever-tightening web of security. He was a quick, lean figure in the darkness, here and gone between heartbeats.
Raidou tasked himself with making a more comfortable camp—or at least one that kept the indoor rain off. Structures first. He used earth jutsu to raise four tall, square pillars from the sand, laid canvas overtop, and staked down a taut roof with strong Konoha rope. It was primitive, but the sand would be soft enough underneath the bedrolls. His next job was digging a shallow campfire pit and erecting a semi-circular wall around it, with an upward channel to guide the smoke. The wall would reflect heat back towards the cookfire and the camp, heating both more efficiently. The cave was tall enough to easily disperse the smoke. That complete, he turned towards organizing supplies, building and lighting a campfire, and investigating what Suna considered worthy of a meal.
While he did all this, Kakashi dragged the tables and blackboard around, and set about organizing his tiny kingdom of research. The copied seals were unfolded and laid out in all their colorful splendor. A small library’s worth of books and scrolls took up most of another table.
By the time Raidou had conjured up hot tea, Kakashi had staked out a sizable section of beach and was using a sharp piece of rock to trace lines in the sand, starting with a giant spiral. Looking at it made the back of Raidou’s neck prickle.
Could they truly do this?
He had faith in Kakashi’s skills, but even the Yondaime hadn’t been able to repair Kushina’s seal, and he’d surely been working with all the information. Bijuu were monsters made of pure chakra, literal world-breakers. Kakashi had a handful of theories and some goats.
Genma dropped down behind Raidou, making him yelp, jump, and splash burning water on his wrist, which was probably the universe’s way of punishing him for doubting. Genma looked startled behind his mask, but made a hasty apology and took over tea while Raidou went to stick his hand in the lake. Nothing bit it off. When he returned, Ryouma was also back. Between them, they’d scouted a number of Suna ninja, more cave spiders than Ryouma ever wanted to see again, and the sealing team had arrived.
“Finally,” Kakashi said, and took off before Raidou could even open his mouth.
Raidou sighed. “I still hate when he does that.”
Ryouma pointed at his wrist. “Want me to heal that?”
Wordlessly, Raidou stuck out his arm. It was a matter of moments for Ryouma to wash away the little sting, patch of red skin, and beginnings of a blister. When the jutsu was done, Raidou rotated his wrist and flexed his fingers. “Thanks.”
The grin wasn’t visible behind Ryouma’s ram mask, but it threaded warmly through his voice. “Welcome.”
Genma, who’d been covertly watching while trying not to hover, said, “Nicely done.”
Ryouma didn’t quite glow, but it was pretty close.
It took a while for Kakashi to return, long enough that Raidou was seriously considering a search party and a lot of yelling. When he finally did show up, he was accompanied by a half-dozen Suna shinobi wearing long, black-bordered, kimono-like robes. They were… an interesting group.
A pair of red-headed twins built short and very slender, almost willowy, with pale skin that suggested an ancestral vitamin D deficiency. One woman who seemed to be missing her entire upper lip, but had sharpened her bared teeth and decorated them with gemstones. A man with a whistling hole in his throat, remnant of some long-ago tracheostomy. A youngster with glowing skin, a bright white grin, and lightless black eyes. And, the apparent leader of the group, a kunoichi who might have been a long-lost Akimichi. Raidou—not used to cranking his neck—blinked up at a woman who topped him by at least 30 centimeters, and had shoulders like an ox. Her skin was deep brown, but her eyes were a startling pale green, like sun-drenched lake water. Her hair was the same strange color, bound into hundreds of tiny braids. Raidou thought she was probably about his age.
She bowed gravely, followed by her cohort. Kakashi made rapid introductions, told Team Six they might as well take their ANBU masks off and get comfortable, it was going to be a while, and left again to fetch a goat.
The next several hours were distressing and messy. Kakashi and his new group ran a series of experiments that seemed to involve staking an animal to a peg in the sand, drawing a seal around it, and—about fifty percent of the time—watching it explode. Then someone would add an excited note to the blackboard and run for another goat.
Genma and Ryouma, meanwhile, took a series of antelopes to one side and gently, methodically stuck them with senbon until they collapsed.
Every few hours, the two groups would stop to confer and Raidou would remind them to do things like drink water, eat roasted goat, and take bathroom breaks.
Sometime after midnight, the red-headed twins fainted dead away. Ryouma got to practice his skills on actual humans, and Raidou was asked to step in and provide a little chakra-bolstering, since he was the only one not currently pouring his out.
By morning—Raidou assumed, based on his internal clock—there were only two nervous antelopes left, and the blackboard finally had a single, cohesive design. Kakashi was sitting meditatively on blood-soaked sand, red to the elbows, staring at it. The extremely tall woman, whose name was Shiori, crouched next to him, hands dangling between her knees.
“I think that’s it,” she said. Her voice was a warm, lilting burr.
“As much as I can do without Gaara, at least,” Kakashi said.
“It should work,” Shiori said.
Kakashi didn’t answer her. He rubbed his thumb and index finger together, crumbling dried blood off his skin.
Raidou traded a glance with Genma, who was sitting on the other side of the fire, studiously cleaning and sharpening his senbon. Genma’s mouth pulled at the corner, the facial equivalent of an uneasy shrug. Next to him, Ryouma was working on hand-seal exercises and watching Kakashi with dark, worried eyes. None of them had gotten much sleep.
Raidou was tipping towards head-nodding territory again, when one of Genma’s alarm seals tripped. A truly unpleasant burst of chakra made Raidou’s nervous system judder, then silenced abruptly. He snapped awake, regaining his feet well before the intruders reached the beach. Genma and Ryouma moved seamlessly to flank Kakashi, who was barely paying attention to the interruption.
It was Rasa, still carrying Gaara, surrounded by two dozen elite Suna guards. On the Kazekage’s left was Minpei, tramping along with their hands tucked into their sleeves. On his right was Sadayo, moving in a bubble of icy calm. Behind them, supported by a guard’s firm hand, was— Yashamaru? Good gods.
Gaara’s guardian had been pale before; he was almost translucent now. Half of his face was livid with dark bruises. His right sleeve hung empty below the elbow. He leaned heavily on his escort, very much like a man who should still be in the hospital and not on mad spelunking adventures with his autocrat brother-in-law.
Raidou was so distracted by Yashamaru, he almost missed the two small children behind him.
There was a headache in Kakashi’s teeth, his senses were rancid with animal blood, and his left eyelid had started twitching shortly after midnight. The world had the soft-edged unreality of insomnia, and he was not in the mood.
“I’m not making you another jinchuuriki,” he told Rasa flatly. “We’ve been over this.”
Rasa barely glanced at his children. “Temari and Kankurou were never compatible with the Ichibi’s chakra reserves. I brought them so you would have a point of reference for what Gaara’s chakra pathways might have looked like had he not become a jinchuuriki.”
Kakashi frowned. That was almost helpful.
Rasa directed a critical look over the beach, taking in the empty pens, the blood-churned sand, the seals. “Are we ready to proceed?”
Once again, Kakashi reminded himself that it was not his mission to assassinate the Kazekage. If Minato ever asked for volunteers, though…
He reined himself in. “We’d stand a better chance with more time.” And more sleep.
To his surprise, Rasa actually hesitated and looked down at his son. Then his expression hardened again. “Gaara’s… the Ichibi’s suppression requires constant application of my chakra. My reserves are not infinite.” Rasa’s gaze flicked briefly to Minpei. “I cannot afford to overuse my chakra. Particularly if enemy agents are on the way.”
“Ah,” said Kakashi, feeling disconnected and vicious. “Better to give the job back to the toddler. Then you can get a nap.”
A snarl of murderous chakra made his neck prickle.
“You seem to have an inexhaustible supply of energy to waste on useless antagonism,” Rasa snapped, voice splintering into shards of ice.
Kakashi’s head went back, surprised. Before he could spit something nastier, Ryouma’s hand fell onto his shoulder. Behind Rasa, Sadayo moved swiftly forward, stepping between her son and the source of literally everyone’s problem. “Kazekage-sama,” she said smoothly, “if you would bring the child this way, we can see to getting the final preparations in place.”
Rasa visibly regained his composure, gave a stiff-necked nod to Sadayo. To Kakashi, flatly calm once more, he said, “Where do I put the child?”
Raidou stepped in. “This way, Kazekage-sama.” Accompanied by Shiori and the rest of the Seal Team, who were bowing and fawning and generally acting like Rasa could fart gold, Raidou led them to the finished blackboard. Most of Rasa’s retinue followed, including Yashamaru, who gave Kakashi a somewhat drugged, wide-eyed look, and Sadayo, whose look promised A Conversation.
Which left Kakashi, Ryouma, Genma, and the two new children.
Kakashi looked down at them. They looked up at him.
The boy was dark-haired, with a flat mouth and Rasa’s hard jaw underneath a layer of puppy-fat. He darted a nervous look between Kakashi and his father’s back. The girl shared none of Rasa’s features—she was blonde-haired and blue-eyed—but she carried herself with his cold arrogance. She seemed the older of the two, or at least taller, but they both had the quasi-organized chakra of academy students. Kakashi guessed Temari was about six or seven. Kankurou was maybe five.
It took Kakashi a moment to marshall a useful thought. “Do either of you know any jutsu?”
Temari hiked her chin higher, clearly offended. “Yes.”
Kankurou hesitated a second, looking at his sister, then said aggressively, “Me too.”
“No, you don’t,” Temari hissed.
“I can do this.” Kankurou stamped his foot and a tiny vortex of pebbles and sand burst away from him in a wobbly circle. Not a jutsu, but at least a deliberate chakra movement. He glared at Kakashi, putting Kakashi strongly in mind of a puffed-up kitten.
Kakashi thumbed his headband up, blinking until double vision settled into an overlay of Sharingan, and squatted down to Kankurou’s height. “Do that again.”
Kankurou visibly wavered between showing off and not wanting to perform for the weird foreigner who’d been rude to his dad. After a moment, he stamped again. The spray was weaker this time, but still enough for Kakashi to watch the cascade of chakra and fate-lines trace the shape of a very normal five-year-old. Kankurou shoved his chin out and demanded, “Are you going to steal it? That’s what you do, don’t you. Copy Ninja Kakashi. We know all about you.”
Well, that was adorable.
Temari snorted. “Why would he need to steal a baby trick like that?”
“I’m not a baby! At least I can use my own chakra, not like that— that thing over there.” Kankurou shot a darkling look at Gaara, still folded like wet laundry over Rasa’s shoulder, and stepped a little closer to his sister.
Without looking at them, Rasa said sharply, “Temari, show him your bunshin.”
Both siblings flinched, though Temari controlled it better. She stepped away from Kankurou with a tiny scowl, folded her hands, breathed out, and closed her eyes. Her expression smoothed. Kakashi waited.
One blue eye cracked halfway open, looking at Kakashi’s Sharingan with deep suspicion.
Rasa’s head swiveled.
Temari shut her eye hurriedly and summoned a respectable bunshin. There was a flicker of time where the copy looked like a dust sculpture—its basic shape was crafted with earth chakra—before the illusion solidified and Temari’s twin stood next to her, glowering. She opened her eyes, looked triumphant, then tried to look like she didn’t care.
Her chakra was also completely normal. Kakashi folded both blueprints into memory, re-covered the Sharingan, and nodded to both children. “Thank you.”
He should have said more, but his brain felt like a friable resource, and there was so much else to think about.
Yashamaru, Sadayo, and Minpei were standing with Rasa. The guards and the sealing team were arranged around them in a loose fan. Kakashi made his way over, still flanked by Genma and Ryouma. Raidou moved to stand within arm’s reach of Sadayo, which Kakashi appreciated, but doubted was necessary.
Rasa’s face was still chiseled and hard, but Kakashi thought he looked a little tired around the eyes. A little thinner at his collar.
Kakashi hoped he had a vicious migraine.
“I trust that was useful,” said the Kazekage.
Kakashi shrugged, glanced at his mother, and didn’t say, As useful as most things you’ve offered.
In the tense little silence that followed, Raidou cleared his throat carefully. “Before we proceed further, can I ask what the situation is with Iwa?”
“Our scouts caught a trail moving into the Meiro Spires canyons,” Minpei said calmly, naming a torturous, maze-like area nearby that Suna left undisturbed primarily for situations like this. Sakumo had gotten lost in there once; he’d fried scorpions and gently dehydrated for a couple of days before managing to find his way back out. A story which Kakashi had found hilarious afterwards. “An effective bottleneck, usually, although with Iwa nin one might expect they’d simply tunnel through rock when they hit one too many dead-ends. But any earth movement or chakra use will alert us to their location. I expect word of engagement soon.”
“Then let’s not waste time,” said Rasa, giving Kakashi a hard look.
Heroically, Kakashi did not roll his eyes.
Things moved quickly after that. The two children and surviving antelopes were escorted out. Yashamaru flatly refused to leave, but did permit Sadayo to help him sit down at one of the tables. Minpei sat solicitously next to him, offering a canteen that seemed unlikely to contain water. The Seal Team and Team Six worked together to clear an area of Kakashi’s choosing by the lakeside, making sure the ground was swept clean, stamped flat, and perfectly level. While they worked, Kakashi went down to the lake and cleaned himself up, taking the extra time to scrape blood out from under his nails.
Every clan had their own ceremonies around sealings. Hyuuga went in for candles in a big way. Uchiha liked to fast and meditate. Jiraiya, traditionally, liked to get roaring drunk and heartily slapped before he showed up six hours late to attempt anything. Kakashi, when he had the chance, just liked to be clean. Rin’s influence, maybe.
A single footstep crunched in the sand behind him, before Ryouma said quietly, “The site’s prepared. What do you want us to do?”
Kakashi raked damp hair out of his eyes, stood up, and turned to find Ryouma, Genma, Raidou, and Sadayo standing in a loose semi-circle. Their masks were clipped to their belts, faces bare. His teammates looked as tired and jittery as Kakashi felt, adrenaline warring with fatigue to make everything a little blurred at the edges, hyper-focused at the center. Sadayo’s face was calm, smooth, but her eyes were tight.
Kakashi exhaled slowly. “Just like we talked about. I’ll draw the seal. When I’m ready, you and Shiranui will work together to dam the Ichibi back. When you feel like you’ve got it held, Rasa will release his jutsu, and I’ll activate the seal. Namiashi…”
Raidou’s smile was crooked. “Will watch your backs. I know.”
And everything will go fine and we’ll be home for dinner.
Kakashi smiled thinly, “Last chance if anyone wants to back out.”
Raidou said, “Hatake?”
Genma’s lips curved. “What Taichou said.”
Ryouma reached out and clasped Kakashi’s hand for a brief, fierce squeeze. “Let’s be tigers.”
Genma opened his mouth, then visibly changed his mind about what he was about to say. He caught Raidou’s hand on one side, Ryouma’s shoulder on the other. “As long as we’re the tigers.”
Warmth settled like a cloak on Kakashi’s shoulders. He glanced at Raidou, who lifted his eyebrows and offered a closed fist. It had been his thing with Katsuko, but they’d all had to grow without her. Kakashi bumped his fist against Raidou’s square, scarred knuckles.
Raidou grinned. Just beyond him, Sadayo stood with her lips parted, startled.
“Okay,” said Kakashi, feeling more than a little viciously pleased about that. “Let’s save this stupid village.”
As with all great works, 90% of it was the set up.
Shiori and her team measured out the framework, but Kakashi drew the seal. That was important. His hands etched every single line and curve into the sand, and left blood behind. At each junction and joint, he anchored a little spark of chakra. Tiny, promissory seedlings. Hooks to hang the jutsu on.
When he stepped back, pressing stinging fingertips together, the effect was like red embossing stamped into the beach. It was not an Uzushiogakure seal, elegance swirled into perfect balance, but it wasn’t Ojima’s jury-rigged replicant either, with elemental patches papered over deep cracks and entirely the wrong structure underneath. Kakashi had started on a blank wall and built his way back up.
Containment first, with an octagonal double-chained base structure to limit the Ichibi’s leaching curse seals. Surrounding rings of Earth defense and Wind defense, for the Ichibi’s dual natures. The next layer was control, and here were chains, too. Hundreds of lethally thorned, slender, unbreakable chakra strands ready to manacle every inch of the maddened creature and bind it tight. They wouldn’t need Gaara’s conscious mind to activate them, only to break them. The boy could sleep again.
A muzzle here, to take the Ichibi’s voice.
And then, protection. Redundancies. Circuit breakers. Twists and coils and switchbacks of chakra to keep the Ichibi buried until Gaara could control it, if he ever wanted to, when he was much, much older.
Kakashi might have overbuilt that a little. It was possible Gaara might never be able to unleash 100% of the Ichibi’s violent potential in his lifetime, or summon it out to walk the earth and wreak havoc on certain neighboring villages.
It wasn’t a beautiful seal. It was dense, squared off, busy looking. But it would work. Kakashi could feel the rightness of it.
He directed Ryouma and Genma to their places near the center, waved Raidou back to his, and turned to Rasa. “Ready?”
Minpei, who had shown no prior tendency towards religion, murmured, “May the gods have mercy on us.” They gestured Rasa’s veiled guards closer.
Rasa also stepped forward, still carrying Gaara, and inspected the seal for several long, silent moments. Whatever he thought about it, he kept to himself, but he spared a cutting look to his advisor. “Superstition is the refuge of the weak and unwary.”
It was possible, Kakashi supposed, that if one had a microscope, a lot of time, and a particular skill for mining bullshit, one could comb through that statement and find a molecule of a compliment. If Rasa didn’t believe in the unlikely or the unworthy, then what did he consider Kakashi’s work?
Then again, Kakashi couldn’t help noticing that one of the veiled guards appeared to be carrying an iron tea-kettle roughly the right size and shape to consider stuffing a tailed beast in. So perhaps Rasa just believed in covering all his bases.
Rasa pulled his son off his shoulder and held him out to Kakashi. Gaara dangled limply in his father’s hands. His head lolled on his neck in a way that looked broken. Rasa’s repressing jutsu made the air shiver faintly around him, thrumming with a steady stream of power.
“If the Ichibi breaks free, I will immediately move to suppress,” Rasa said. “I will not wait if you are slow in getting to safety.”
Kakashi could not think of a suitably diplomatic way to say go fuck yourself, so he just grunted. Very carefully, he took Gaara and folded that small body against his chest. The boy was lighter than he expected, almost bird-boned, but it wasn’t like chakra or pain carried actual weight.
Behind Rasa, Yashamaru looked like he needed to be sick.
Gently, Kakashi carried Gaara to the center of the seal, and laid him down on top of it. Then Kakashi stepped back and took his own place at the head of the seal.
“Alright,” he said, very calmly. “Let’s begin. Shiranui, Tousaki, whenever you’re ready.”
Ryouma knelt on Gaara’s left side, across from Genma, and waited, hands loose on his thighs, while Genma laid out a clean, undyed cloth, a glass bottle of alcohol, and a roll of cotton. On top of the cloth, he meticulously placed 36 slender medical senbon, which gleamed silver under the cavern lights. They had been sharpened, polished, and sterilized for this purpose.
Gently, the two of them undressed Gaara down to his underwear, which had little turtles on them. Ryouma folded the removed clothes and placed them aside, while Genma tore two wads of cotton from the roll and soaked them with alcohol. He pointed out specific landmarks for Ryouma, beginning at the base of Gaara’s throat, and started cleaning points down the right side of Gaara’s body. “Don’t worry about hitting the tenketsu perfectly accurately,” he told Ryouma. “Just clean the whole area.”
“What I wouldn’t give for a Hyuuga right now,” Ryouma murmured, as he bent to his task. His hands were quick and sure, though, finding their way with ease. When he and Genma were both done—which took about the same amount of time, Kakashi noted proudly—Genma began setting needles. He undertook this alone. It was an advanced medical technique that few field medics ever learned and Ryouma’s training certainly hadn’t covered. But when the first few needles were placed, he asked Ryouma to confirm Gaara’s chakra was responding accordingly.
Ryouma’s hands lit with a pale green glow as he hovered them over the still little body. He closed his eyes, brow furrowing slightly, and confirmed the chakra flow was starting to gate.
It was six more needles before Shukaku took notice. Kakashi heard Rasa hiss between his teeth, and the steady flow of the Kazekage’s chakra hitched.
Without missing a beat, Genma’s hands took up that same steady green glow, infusing chakra along with his needles to magnify the effect. Kakashi felt the rippling, answering prickle throughout the seal—chakra reacting to chakra. Genma said coolly, “Monitor the previous placements and tell me if you feel backflows or leaks.”
Ryouma nodded, chewing on the corner of his lip.
The rest of the needles found their targets without incident, though a few placements made Gaara’s skin twitch. The combination of skillful placement, chakra application, and Rasa’s redoubled effort kept the Ichibi quiescent. Gently, Genma pulled Ryouma into the chakra infusion—their commingled energy wove through Gaara like a quiet breath, supporting Genma’s gating senbon. Genma looked up at Kakashi, eyes gone dreamy and distant, and said, “That’s as much as I can contain it without hurting the child. Can you work with this?”
Kakashi touched two fingertips to the center of Gaara’s forehead. The Ichibi’s presence was still there, but muted. “That’ll do.”
“Pace yourself,” Genma told Ryouma, “but don’t let your chakra fluctuate. We’re both going to need to work at this.”
Ryouma made an acknowledging sound in the back of his throat without opening his eyes.
To Rasa, Kakashi said, “Drop your jutsu.”
Rasa was still for a moment, looking at Kakashi with naked trepidation in his dark, cool eyes. For himself? For his son? For Suna? Kakashi had no idea. Then, without a word, the Kazekage released his jutsu.
Sand thumped flat around Gaara in a two-meter circle, and Kakashi felt a glassy, distant spike of panic that his seal had just torn in half—but it was still intact. Genma and Ryouma both grunted and swayed with the impact as Shukaku’s chakra slammed against their barriers, but they held. The barriers held. The Ichibi’s chaka was a roiling, malevolent thing, shivering on the periphery like a thwarted stone avalanche. Kakashi could feel it pressing under Gaara’s skin, trying to slide claws out into the world.
But not for much longer.
He centered himself, fixed the roadmap in his mind, and opened himself up to the seal.
The blood he’d drawn it with was already dead, moisture long eaten by the sand. It was just a remnant and a roadway to run living chakra through, spilling out into a pattern he’d spent days weaving together. He didn’t even need to look at it anymore; he could feel it in his bones and his teeth and his heartbeat, like a piece chiseled out from something deep, clicking back into place.
The lines in the sand began to glow red. Kakashi drew a breath and it tasted like bright metal. His chest felt light and open, his hands were warm. He laced his fingers together and the hand seals felt like bright lightning—electricity leaping away to hunt its purpose, grounding in the growing web of chakra. The seal was moving now, coming alive. He could feel the swirl of it echoed in his veins. Luminous tendrils of red began to trace over Gaara’s skin.
Very distantly, he felt a hitch as Genma and Ryouma started to struggle. The Ichibi was fighting harder against containment, now. Kakashi started to swim towards his own surface, but another chakra presence joined the other two—steady rock, abundant water, easy calm. Raidou. His strength tilted the fight in Konoha’s favor, and both Kakashi and the Ichibi went back under.
And here was the old seal.
It sat like a lodestone in the center of Gaara’s being, a slab of rock pinning the Ichibi to him. There was no finesse in it. No room to grow. As Gaara got older, Kakashi could see the welds where it would fracture. Where it was already straining. He began the delicate task of lacing his own chakra through it, preparing to pull it apart.
He held that process in one half of his mind. The other half focused on the construction of the new seal. The glowing red strands covering Gaara’s body were coalescing now, swirling around his abdomen and surrounding the old seal. A thick circle split into two concentric circles. The edges formed, becoming flat, then octagonal. The borders looked solid at first, but a deeper dive revealed their inner structure—hundreds of chains, thousands of chains, anchoring down into Gaara’s chakra, sliding between the cracks of the old seal and finding the Ichibi. Kakashi felt its scream of rage in the base of his skull, and ignored it. Within the annulus of the circles, he began to build the layers of control and protection.
Here was where the sealing team came in. As he dove deeper and deeper into the layers of construction, they maintained a steady stream of chakra into the seal on the sand. Adding power so Kakashi didn’t have to drain himself dry. It was an extra little complexity to work with chakra that wasn’t his own, balancing the blend of chakra natures, but it would make the final seal stronger.
The chains grew thorns, biting deep. The muzzle snapped into place, and Kakashi’s skull quietened. The seal was sinking into Gaara’s chakra like an ocean finding its bed. Very distantly, Kakashi felt himself grin.
And then he felt a thump.
His next breath didn’t catch right.
His chakra control stuttered, then slipped. He caught it, anchored down the next part of the seal, and it slipped again. It— what— something wasn’t—
He opened his eye. Shiori was right in front of him, crouching next to Gaara, her fist pressed against Kakashi’s chest.
Oh. No, not a fist.
That was a kunai.
Kakashi didn’t quite manage to blink. Then Sadayo was there, a flash of metal in her hand, and a red line split open across Shiori’s throat. Shiori’s head rocked back, neck opening like a gutted hare, but Kakashi couldn’t focus on that because the jutsu was coming apart under his hands. He dropped back down, reaching deeper for that bright river of energy—but it was gone. The sealing team wasn’t there anymore.
Genma and Ryouma’s containment was still up, still holding. Kakashi’s chains were starting to unravel. He threw himself after them, finding his way back into the jutsu. Here, if he started here, caught these ends, those twelve-hundred were linked, that five-thousand were solid, but this main branch—
He coughed. Opened his eye.
The sealing team were attacking Rasa’s guards.
Shit, no. Closed his eye.
Okay, start here.
The muzzle slipped. Kakashi’s head filled up with screaming. He shoved that aside and went for his chains again. Raidou’s presence vanished. Ryouma and Genma became brighter in Kakashi’s senses, pouring themselves into their attempt to dam the Ichibi back. Cool chakra slipped beneath Kakashi’s skin, steadying him—familiar in a way that reached beyond memory. Sadayo. He could feel her knee against his back, keeping him upright.
The Ichibi was thrashing, but he still had it. He could salvage this. Rebuild the containment, shove it back under.
Massive external chakra pressure built around them, making his teeth ache. He was yanked back by the collar before it dropped.
Rasa’s golden containment jutsu, It should have felt like a sandstorm, or metal slag, but it was like water. A wave that drowned. It hit the Ichibi’s leaking chakra and smashed it flat, obliterating Ryouma and Genma’s carefully constructed dams. Kakashi’s seal fractured, chains shearing apart. Their destruction damaged the already critically stressed original seal, which cracked.
For fuck’s sake.
Kakashi opened his eyes and ripped his headband off, freeing the Sharingan. His chest ached, but not as much as he would have expected. It was a dull, distant feeling, left-sided, more breathless than painful. He could ignore it. He found his team—Raidou, there, with Genma wrapped in one arm and his other hand fisted in Ryouma’s armor, all three unhurt by Rasa’s intervention. Though Genma and Ryouma both looked sick.
Rasa advanced, pouring a golden wave down on Gaara’s body—which was rising, glowing, changing. The red streaks of Kakashi’s jutsu had gone out, blowing away like dust. Gaara’s teeth lengthened; his ears crawled up the sides of his head. A growl like breaking mountains reverberated out of that narrow chest. Genma’s senbon exploded out as the Ichibi’s chakra flicked them contemptuously away. Kakashi barely felt one score a line over his cheek.
He saw one future. The Ichibi was going to break loose.
Rasa wouldn’t be able to contain it; he’d never fought it unbound, and he was already losing. Killing Gaara wouldn’t take the Ichibi with him—the seal was broken. The boy would just die. The beast would get loose regardless.
A lot of people were going to die.
There was, maybe, one life Kakashi could save. Maybe more, if the Ichibi focused on the one target it had wanted all along.
It was getting harder to breathe. He thought he might have punctured a lung. He reached blindly back and found his mother’s hand on his shoulder. She clenched his fingers.
He rasped, “Minato.”
Then he reached into the last vestiges of his dying seal and through it, to Gaara’s original seal, still wrapped in the binding strings of Kakashi’s chakra, and ripped it apart. Right in front of Rasa.
Everything happened at once, as it always did on a battlefield. All at once, in a kind of stop-motion sequence of extreme clarity alternating with breathtaking blurs where nothing made sense. And all of it drenched in blood.
A battle they hadn’t seen coming, because the enemies were the allies. Robed and veil-faced Suna ninja were at each other’s throats. The jutsu was lost. The Ichibi was tearing loose, blazing with malevolent chakra that would have dwarfed Katsuko’s in an instant. It was the Nine Tails all over again. Vertigo and deafening noise. Pressure inside Genma’s skull that turned his vision into star-sprinkled haze.
He retched. Someone dragged him back by the shoulders. More blood spray. Air too thick to breathe. Tidal waves of clashing chakra. The small, still body of the toddler lying on the broken seal. Kakashi was… There. Mouth an open gape behind his mask. Red eye open. The hilt of a kunai protruding from his chest. His mother had him, was reaching for another blade.
Was she a turncoat too? Against her own son?
Genma’s stomach heaved, but he managed to cast a chakra-sense dampening jutsu, even with his own chakra half tapped out. It was like trying to hold back the sea with a shovel, but for a moment, it helped. Raidou’s arm was around his shoulders. Ryouma was pushing himself back up from his knees. Sadayo hurled her kunai at the back of a Suna ninja, striking them in the base of the skull.
Screams and roars echoed from the cavern walls. Genma risked a nauseating head turn. Defended by a pair of loyal Suna nin, the Kazekage was pouring chakra in glittering waves of gilded sand over the rapidly rising form of the Ichibi.
It wasn’t contained in the child anymore. It wasn’t even connected. It snarled, huge and menacing, shedding the Kazekage’s jutsu, snapping gold filaments before they could connect. Forge-bright irises blazed in black sclera. Teeth longer than Genma’s arms slashed the air. Its massive tail swept through a cluster of Suna ninja, crushing them against the wall of the cavern in a mist of blood and sand.
Movement snapped his attention left. Ryouma was on his feet, sprinting towards Kakashi and Sadayo. “Ram, don’t remove—” he shouted against the enraged howl of the Ichibi.
The massive sandstorm of a tanuki—nothing like Himself or the others they’d met that summer—turned. For a millisecond, Genma felt the full force of its fury like a skewer of chakra through his sternum, and then Rasa threw a fresh net of gold at the beast.
The Ichibi opened its horrible jaws and roared.
Time slowed. Raidou hauled Genma a few more steps back. Ryouma made it a few more steps forward. A wall of ice rose in front of Sadayo and Kakashi; Ryouma vaulted it and disappeared with them.
Gaara didn’t move.
Rasa bellowed something impossible to hear over the din.
A rush of air and sand half-blinded Genma, followed by an awful scream, as one clawed foot of the Ichibi tore a Suna ninja’s body in half.
They couldn’t fight this beast. Not alone. Not as few as they were. “We have to get to the others,” Genma gasped. “Get Kakashi and the kid out of here.” Which meant dashing directly in front of the monster.
Raidou didn’t hesitate. Powerful, stubborn, brave beyond measure. He sighted their target, watched for the moment the Kazekage renewed his attack, and shouted, “Now.”
They made it as far as Gaara before the beast noticed them. Genma’s dampening jutsu shattered, no match for the intensity of this chakra hurricane. His vision whited out. He fumbled for the child with numb hands. His stomach convulsed, but he clutched the toddler against his chest. Raidou propelled him onward with a shove.
The ground under them turned to sucking sand.
Genma went down hard on his knees and one hand, still holding Gaara’s limp body with the other. A huge forepaw coalesced out of the maelstrom, and a dreadful certainty closed around Genma’s heart: this was how he was going to die. He turned his back to the coming blow, curling tightly over Gaara in the vain hope it would be enough to save the boy.
And then Raidou was there, roaring a challenge at the bastard tanuki. Adding his own body to the shield Genma’s made for the child. Even against the titanic chakra of the beast, Raidou’s was distinct. Earth walls rose around them, curving over the three of them. For a moment Genma breathed. “Are you—” he started.
The shelter imploded in a deluge of blade-sharp sand. It blistered across his bare shoulders and the nape of his neck. Raidou’s voice rose, but his bellow changed tenor, from fury to agony. He stumbled and fell, clutching at his face. Somehow Genma found his feet. He grabbed for the strap of Raidou’s armor and bolted for the scant shelter a stalagmite column offered.
The beast didn’t give chase. Its true prey faced it with raised arms and a mantle of gold. Genma collapsed against the stone spire and watched through streaming, sand-stung eyes, as the Ichibi descended on the Kazekage with massive forepaws and scything claws.
Rasa met the death blow with a broad shield of gold pulled from the air. He shoved it hard, forcing the Ichibi to stagger back. The curve of the shield inverted, turning from defense to offense, from a bulwark to a trap. The Ichibi faltered. The gold wall descended.
A sandstone spike as thick as a man’s arm, as sharp as Raidou’s black-bladed sword, burst through the Kazekage’s chest from behind.
Rasa’s mouth moved soundlessly. Blood fountained for an instant before the weapon plugged the wound. Gilded clumps of sand broke apart and fell heavily to the ground as his jutsu died.
The Ichibi stared right at Rasa, and for a breathless stretch, its blazing eyes looked almost sane. It grinned, pulling black lips back from blacker teeth. The stone spike withdrew. Rasa clutched at his chest. The Ichibi lunged forward. Obsidian teeth in a sandstorm jaw closed over the Fourth Kazekage. Closed, and crushed, and lifted, tossing Rasa’s limp, bleeding body into the air, before they snapped shut again, and swallowed him whole.
Chaos roared. Wind and sand blasted the air half opaque. Shouts and groans echoed off the cavern walls. Suna shinobi rushed the Ichibi, to their certain deaths. Gaara whimpered, stirring in Genma’s grasp. Genma laid him down next to Raidou, and whirled back just in time to block a descending blade with a whip-fast kunai.
The Suna ninja behind the sword grunted and shoved, forcing Genma back. Genma drew a second blade with his left hand and drove it into his attacker’s groin. The ninja faltered. Their blade scraped the side of Genma’s neck. He twisted his embedded kunai and jerked upward, severing the femoral artery. The Suna ninja tried to renew their attack with the sword, but Genma shoved his other blade into his enemy’s armpit and tore back, showering himself in blood. The sword clattered free from a suddenly slack grip. Genma shoved the falling body away from himself and refocused on the bigger threat.
The Ichibi lunged for the ice wall at the lake shore where Ryouma and Sadayo had retreated with Kakashi. There was a crackle of chakra discharge, an intensification in the howling maelstrom echoing from the cavern walls. Scant light reflected on the black water and damp walls, illuminating a huge waterspout that shoved the beast bodily back. It roared and renewed its assault, and was met with a coordinated fire attack this time, from a doomed Suna squad. Faintly, through dust and shadow, Genma thought he saw the clotted blood red glow of Ryouma’s rot jutsu.
A purple-white lightning flash blinded Genma. Next to him, Raidou made a noise, half gasp, half groan, far too wet.
Genma grabbed Raidou’s shoulders, shoving him from his side to his back. His face was sheened in blood. Genma snapped a glowstick, and was nearly sick again. The right side of Raidou’s face was sour-milk pale where it wasn’t abraded and sunburn-red. The left was more than bloodied—it was flayed, in some places to the bone.
The Ichibi’s unnatural wind picked up, choking the air with more scorching sand. It blasted like flames across Genma’s shoulders and neck, wringing a choked gasp from his throat. He borrowed from Raidou’s playbook and cast an earth jutsu, raising protective walls around them.
Kakashi was injured, but Kakashi had Ryouma and Sadayo. The Ichibi might still kill them all, but for now, Genma had one priority: keep the patient in front of him alive. Keep Raidou alive.
He schooled the thickness out of his voice, the tremor out of his breath, and took Raidou’s hand. “Rai, are you with me? Squeeze my hand.”
Raidou crushed the bones of Genma’s hand together with adrenaline-fueled strength. His other hand groped for his face before Genma could stop him. As soon as his fingers hit raw flesh, he flinched back, swearing and half choking.
“Don’t!” Genma grabbed for Raidou’s wrist before he could try again. ”You’re hurt. Badly. Don’t touch it. Don’t try to open your left eye. Just… Let me.” He took a breath and set fear and attachment aside. “I’m going to let your hand go and open my med kit. Don’t touch your face.”
Raidou released his death grip on Genma and braced himself half upright. His breath and voice rasped through clenched, careful teeth. “Did you see what happened to the others?”
That mostly answered the question of whether Raidou was alert and oriented. “Hatake got stabbed,” Genma said. “The ambassador got him to cover. Ryouma’s with them. Kyuu— Ichibi’s fully loose. Suna nin are fighting it and each other. Kazekage’s dead, I’m pretty sure.”
Raidou hissed and swore.
Genma dampened a wad of bandage with his canteen. “I’m going to try to clean some of this blood off. I wish I could give you something for pain, but the only thing injectable I have is morphine.” And they were in an active battlefield with no escape route. Raidou would understand that.
Raidou shook his head. “Just— Fuck, just slap something over it. We need to get back out there.”
“Let me clean it and make sure the bleeding’s not life-threatening. We still have Gaara to protect.” The toddler hadn’t stopped crying, though he had grown hoarse and quieter—it was just one more awful noise in a world of awful noises. Genma lifted the light stick with his left hand and held it over Raidou’s face at the hairline, where the skin looked intact under the sheen of blood. He started there. “Tell me if it hurts.”
Raidou grunted an acknowledgement, and Genma swabbed carefully, until he had a fair idea of where the edges of the wound lay. The worst was Raidou’s cheek, where bone glinted white within raw red over the zygomatic arch. The bridge of his nose was scoured down to pale cartilage. The wound trailed over the edge of his jaw and down the side of his neck, but by some mercy it was shallower there, not threatening the vital vessels within.
A trickle of blood—Genma’s or the Suna ninja’s he’d killed?—rolled down one bare shoulder as he worked. His knuckles were abraded and oozing, but nothing like the carnage of Raidou’s face. He needed to clean his hands, but there wasn’t time.
Something shuddered against their fragile earthen shelter; the walls rained dusty shards, but it held. For now. A high-pitched voice screamed, then cut off abruptly. Genma threw the sodden bandage on the ground and dug out a clotting pad and fresh roll of gauze. “It’s bad, but non-lethal. Looks like it missed your eye completely, and most of your ear. Just got the lobe. Let me put this over your cheek and we can move out.”
Raidou sucked air through his teeth but held still while Genma wrapped the bandage in place. While Genma packed up his medkit, Raidou scooped Gaara up, making vague, distracted, soothing sounds, holding the child to the uninjured side of his chest. He pivoted on his knee to face one wall. “Bring it down. If we can make it to the others, that’s the goal. Okay?”
“Okay.” Genma unwove his earth jutsu and let a third of the wall around them crumble back to the ground.
In the few minutes they’d been behind cover, everything had changed. Genma squinted his eyes against flying sand. The cavern, already dark, was dimmer still, with some of the lamps knocked over, and dust blotting the light of the lamps that still stood. Lightning crackled again, but this time it lit billowing sand and dust from within, like a storm trapped in its clouds.
The Ichibi was between them and the lake now. Between them and their comrades. Not knowing if it would work, Genma cast the air-bubble jutsu they’d learned from Fukuda. If it could keep water out, could it keep a sandstorm out?
As soon as he pressed forward, the bubble collapsed. Sand scourged his neck and shoulders, driving him to his knees with a guttural groan. Choking dust smothered his voice. “Keep your head down!” he rasped. “Mask if you can.” He slapped on his own mask. It blocked out enough of the onslaught for him to keep moving.
On the other side of the Ichibi, the water roiled. A brilliant flash of light, neither lightning nor fire, exploded somewhere to the right of the beast, and with it a chakra presence like the warmth of the sun. Kakashi must have thrown his Hiraishin kunai, because the Hokage was there, along with five fresh ANBU, whose sparks winked into being like points on a map in Genma’s awareness.
The Ichibi reacted like a dog whose chain had been viciously yanked, howling a challenge as it launched itself towards Minato.
For a second—not even that—Genma thought he saw a huge serpentine shadow rise from the lake, but when he blinked to clear his vision, it was gone again.
A slender, light-haired man staggered out of the gloom. His face was drawn with pain, his eyes blazing. “Give me Gaara,” he demanded.
Yashamaru. He freed his arm from its sling and reached towards Raidou with one intact hand and one bandaged stump.
Raidou hesitated less than a heartbeat, before snapping, “Stay near us!” and shoving Gaara into Yashamaru’s arms.
Raidou’s bandages and injuries were hidden behind the impassive blankness of his crescent moon mask. Adrenaline and iron-willed focus had to take the place of the morphine Genma couldn’t give him.
Genma grit his teeth against the rising burn where the sand raked his shoulders. He flexed distantly stiff fingers through half a dozen seals, bringing a wind jutsu to life to blast a path through the maelstrom.
Minato used wind, too. The Hokage’s battle jutsu was a fierce typhoon compressed to the size of a shuriken. He thrust his arms at the Ichibi as he closed with the beast, shoving a screaming ball of wind energy into its body. The Ichibi’s unearthly howl rose to a shriek. A huge rent tore its chest and shoulder, and one foreleg dangled. There was no blood.
It didn’t counterattack, but leapt towards the cavern roof. A segment of stone cracked and gave way; a huge stalactite crashed to the ground. Before the monster could escape, a bright surge of chakra erupted from Minato. It coalesced into a toad as big as the Ichibi—Gamabunta. The toad’s tongue flicked out and wrapped around the sand-beast’s middle, yanking it back down. Gouts of oil poured from Gamabunta’s mouth. The spark of a fire jutsu from Minato set it alight. Dust and sand exploded as the Ichibi was engulfed in flames.
The fire died in the next instant, smothered in a crushing weight of sand. The sound of cracking rock filled the air, and the chakra pressure rose again. Genma’s head felt like it would explode with the stones. There was no light to see by anymore. The toad and the Ichibi crashed against the cave wall, sending tremors through the floor. The Hokage’s chakra blazed against a background cacophony of smaller jutsu. Lightning. Fire. Water. Wind. Earth. All trying to subdue and contain.
An earthquake knocked Genma off his feet. He staggered, crashing against Raidou. The cracking-shattering-grinding sounds rose to a deafening roar, and sudden sunlight filled the cave. Massive chunks of cavern roof slammed to the ground and splashed into the lake. Raidou yanked Genma back with an ungentle arm around his chest and throat as a slab crashed down in front of them.
Genma caught a glimpse of the Ichibi fleeing for the surprisingly blue sky, with the Hokage atop Gamabunta in pursuit. The trailing edge of the Hokage’s flame-edged white coat was the last thing Genma saw before the rest of the roof came down, knocking him to the ground and the breath from his lungs with an ear-popping wave of pressure.