November 7, Yondaime Year 5
There was blood on Kakashi’s chest.
It wasn’t all his. There was a great scarlet spray, smeared and clotted, where Shiori’s throat had opened and fountained on him. More from the Suna nin who’d stabbed each other over him, or who’d been torn apart in midair by the Ichibi’s sandstorm claws. The kunai embedded in his chest was red from hilt to blade.
Sadayo dragged him on his back down the beach, towards the water, and raised a wall of ice around him. Ryouma hurdled the barrier and dropped down on his knees beside them.
“I’m close combat ninjutsu,” he told Sadayo breathlessly. “Can’t fight that thing but I just qualified Field Medic Five, let me help—”
“Yes, I know,” she snapped. “Do something.” She was on her knees too, heedless of the blood and wet sand ruining her fine kimono. Her manicured hands scrabbled through the spilled contents of Kakashi’s kunai pouch. “Where is it, where is it— Kakashi, help me!”
Kakashi was breathing fast and shallow. His chest rose unevenly, barely expanding on the left side. The knife was buried just above the scroll pouches on that side. Between the second and third ribs, Ryouma thought. Deep in the center of the lung.
They’d covered chest wounds in Week Four. He knew this. He knew what to do. He could keep Kakashi alive until Genma got here. He reached for the zipper of Kakashi’s flak vest.
Kakashi’s fingers lifted, red-gloved, slow. He fumbled at the opening as Ryouma yanked the zipper down. Ryouma almost stopped him, until he realized Kakashi was trying to reach something below the knife that still pinned him through.
It was the three-pronged Hokage-summoning kunai, tucked into an inside pocket where it could lie flat against Kakashi’s ribs. Blood smeared the handle as Kakashi drew it out.
Sadayo snatched it from his fingers. “Aim and throw,” Kakashi rasped, and coughed.
Sadayo threw the kunai. Ryouma didn’t see where. “Don’t talk,” he said. “You’ll be okay.” His voice shook, but his hands stayed steady.
Behind them the Ichibi’s chakra raged. Shinobi screamed. The air reeked of blood and shit and the hot dusty scour of desert. Ryouma bent his head, letting his shoulders shield Kakashi from the wind-whipped sand that surmounted Sadayo’s icy wall. She was standing—he was vaguely aware of her glasslike chakra building, a cool counterpoint to the Ichibi’s sandstorm—but he couldn’t look up. He’d have to trust her to protect them both.
Working with one of Kakashi’s own kunai, he cut away the flak vest and shirt. Shiori’s kunai was embedded halfway up the blade. Blood seeped from the raw lips of the wound; it wasn’t a perfect seal. She must have twisted the blade going in, or trying to pull it out.
Hemorrhage was the greatest fear. Kakashi bleeding out, under his hands. But after that—
When he pressed his ear against Kakashi’s chest he could hear a faint wheezing, synchronized to labored breathing. He put his fingers around the wound, on either side of the kunai blade, and felt the subtle suction of air going in but none coming out. He pressed harder, pulsing chakra through his fingers. Instead of a clean echo, it dissipated in a choking cloud.
Hakone’s voice, reading from a textbook, while Ryouma sharpened kunai: The open pneumothorax can become tension pneumothorax if a flap has been created that allows air into the pleural cavity, but not out. The volume of this nonabsorbable intrapleural air increases with each inspiration. As a result, pressure rises within the affected hemithorax, compressing the other lung and right atrium of the heart…
The kunai hadn’t nicked Kakashi’s heart or pulmonary artery; Ryouma’s chakra pulse hadn’t detected significant vascular damage. He could remove the kunai without risk of immediate hemorrhage. But Kakashi would still die, suffocating, as air filled up his chest cavity instead of his lungs.
Ryouma reached for Kakashi’s mask with his other hand. “Sorry,” he said briefly, and pulled it down.
Kakashi’s hand lifted, hooked on the side-straps of Ryouma’s armor, as if that was the highest he could reach. He couldn’t speak. His face was horribly pale, lips tinged blue, but his tongue and the tips of his teeth were wet red. His breath came shallow, rapid, useless.
Ryouma yanked the mask down further, all the way to Kakashi’s collarbones, and saw the bulge of the trachea pushed to the right by the growing pressure inside Kakashi’s chest. The neck veins ropy as worms beneath the skin.
Genma should be here, should be taking over now. Why wasn’t Genma here? Why wasn’t the Hokage here? Sadayo had thrown the kunai at least ten seconds ago…
The Ichibi roared. Bone crunched wetly in the distance. Kakashi’s hand tightened on Ryouma’s armor. His eyes—both eyes, the Sharingan vivid red and spinning—fixed on Ryouma’s face.
Genma wasn’t here. The Hokage wasn’t. Ryouma was.
“I’m going to seal the kunai wound and do a needle decompression,” he said, as clearly as he could. “I’ll work fast.”
“It— it just ate the Kazekage,” Sadayo said. Her voice trembled with distant horror. Then it firmed. “I’ll keep it distracted. Save my son.”
He couldn’t look up. He whispered, “I will.”
She bent to touch Kakashi’s hair. Then she was gone, and her chakra bloomed.
The med kit was in the pouch on Ryouma’s left hip. His hands still weren’t shaking as he pulled it out. He sterilized them briefly, then found absorbent wadding and packed it around each side of the kunai blade. He gripped the blood-slick hilt with his other hand, pressed down on the wadding, and pulled the blade free.
Blood gushed. But it was a steady flow, not an arterial spurt. He could pack wadding into the wound and seal it with an occlusive dressing, and that bought enough time to deal with the rest.
The steps unspooled like tape from a ruined cassette. Cut the rest of Kakashi’s shirt off. Select the site. Affected side, between the first and second ribs, mid-clavicular line—no, that was too close to the wound itself. Beneath the arm then, in the fifth intercostal space, at the anterior axillary line. Sterilize the area. Peel the prepared 16-gauge needle and catheter out of its sterile packaging.
He drew a deep, steadying breath, braced two fingers over the selected site, and drove the needle between them.
It went in as smoothly and steadily as any kunai he’d ever driven between an opponent’s ribs. He advanced the catheter down to the hub and bent, waiting, listening.
Screams. The Ichibi’s roar. The unearthly shriek of a waterspout rising from the lake, surging across the beach to smash into the monster. And beneath them all, against Ryouma’s ear, a faint whoosh of air escaping through the catheter.
It had worked. He threaded the needle out of the catheter, dropped it in his open kit, checked Kakashi’s breathing.
Steadier. Easier. Beginning to slow.
“Oh, well done, Konoha,” a woman said.
Ryouma looked up.
One of the Suna nin was wading out of the shallows of the lake, pushing her wet veil back from straight black hair chopped jaw-length on one side and shaved on the other. She smiled at him, and lightning glittered in her teeth. “You’ve leveled up. Useful as well as decorative. Remember me?”
“Nijo,” Ryouma snarled. He pushed up from his knees. Kakashi lay very still, fighting to regain breath. Ryouma stepped over him, towards the lake. His fingers found the Monkey seal. “There’s no bounty here for you.”
“Oh, there is,” she said, almost regretfully. “Only one of the two I came for—do you think they’ll contain that thing before it destroys the entire village?—but this one was higher on the list anyway. More useful. I was worried for a moment there, but you patched him up beautifully. I’m almost tempted to offer you a cut of the bounty.”
“Walk away,” Ryouma said. Rot-red chakra lit his hands. “Or die. Your choice.”
“Neither,” she said, and smiled. Her hands raised.
But this time he was ready. She couldn’t call lightning from the sky in a cave, this was just a jutsu, and a jutsu he could dodge. He was moving the moment he saw her fingers twitch, and the sizzling electric bolt that left her hands shattered Sadayo’s ice wall instead.
Kakashi would be all right. He was lightning-natured, he was breathing, he could cope. Ryouma dodged another bolt and his boots nearly skidded out beneath him on the wet sand. He caught himself with one hand and lurched back upright.
She’d stepped back down the beach, towards the black water lapping the shore. He remembered what she’d done to escape after Tochigi—lightning, channeled through a rainstorm—and circled back up the beach towards dry sand, refusing to follow her towards the water. If he couldn’t close the distance, maybe he could lure her closer to the Ichibi, get her eaten—
She pulled a scroll out of a pocket in her dust-colored Suna vest, produced a thin glass vial from another. Broke the vial and smeared its contents over the scroll. Tossed the scroll in the water. “Playtime’s ending, I’m afraid.”
The water bubbled. Ozone bit the nose.
She hadn’t used a summons before.
Stone shattered behind them. A high-pitched scream cut abruptly silent. Kakashi was struggling up, catching himself on hands and knees. For the moment both bijuu and bounty hunter were ignoring him, but that would change as soon as he became a threat again.
Ryouma twisted his hands in a new set of seals. Ox, Hare, Bird. As fast as he’d ever worked, fingers blurring through the seals as he forced chakra through the Naizou Tokasu’s molding path. Boar, Hare, Monkey, Dog, Ram. Nijo was standing by the lake, shaping her own seals again, and maybe she had fewer but he was faster. Horse, Monkey, Dragon, Ox—
Both her hands lit with lightning, long coils that draped around her fists and fizzled on the sand like whips. She raised her arms and the whips sang spitting through the air.
Chakra left his palm in a sizzling bolt, arrowing for Nijo’s chest.
She struck it away with one lightning whip in an almost contemptuous motion. And then her eyes widened, as the bolt ate the whip, severing the chakra line in half, and sizzling greedily up toward her hand.
Nijo cut her jutsu with a single seal. The whip disappeared. Ryouma’s chakra died with it.
And the second whip came snarling and snapping to lash his knees out from under him, smashing him headlong into the sand.
He lost his breath for just one moment. That was enough. A glittering net fell over him, searing, paralyzing. He lost control of his jutsu and his muscles. He screamed.
“Lie still,” Nijo panted. “I’ll collect you in a moment.” She started up the beach. Fresh whips uncoiled from her fists.
Kakashi made a rasping, choking snarl. Ryouma could just see him, kneeling in the sand on a tilted horizon, blood sliding down his chin and smeared over his chest. The needle catheter was a dark spot beneath his arm. One hand scrabbled in the sand beside him and came up with two of the kunai that had spilled from his pouch. He flung them at Nijo.
She snapped them out of the air. One spun away into the dark. The other dissolved in a puff of smoke, and in its shadow a third kunai streaked past the lightning whip and scored Nijo’s arm.
Her spark-lit smile curled. “Not good enough, Sharingan no Kakashi.”
The whips lashed out. Kakashi fell.
Another glittering, paralytic net fluttered over him and sank beneath the skin. Kakashi seized, facedown in the sand. Nijo strolled up the beach to turn him over.
Sadayo’s voice rose in a distant shout. Had she seen? Could she win free of the Ichibi in time? For a heartening moment Ryouma heard the churning surge of a waterspout in the lake behind him—then an echoing splash as it collapsed. Metal clashed. Sadayo had been intercepted.
Then chakra presence exploded like the sun somewhere in the cavern beyond them. A brilliant light cast towering shadows over the black sand beach. The Ichibi roared challenge. Namikaze Minato’s voice, thin and human, shouted answer.
“Fuck your mother,” Nijo spat, and came skidding down the beach, dragging Kakashi by the belt with one hand. Ryouma’s half-stuffed medkit dangled from the other. She crammed the kit into Ryouma’s belt pouch and dragged him down the sand too, rolling him onto his back in the lake’s shallows.
He couldn’t see Minato anymore. Sadayo had made it no further near them. The black water surged, filling his ears, lapping over his cheeks.
If water filled Kakashi’s catheter—
He fought to speak, to move. A tongueless gurgle and spasm: that was all.
And then the snake rose out of the water, immense, towering taller than the Ichibi. Hornlike protrusions crowned its massive skull. Its scales gleamed purple, banded with black.
It had no chakra presence at all.
“Took you long enough!” Nijo snapped. “Take them both.”
“Speak with care, little servant.” The snake’s voice rumbled almost below the point of hearing. Its head bent. Its jaws opened and kept opening, impossibly wide, around dripping fangs and a forked tongue.
Then the head came down. The jaws closed. The whole world narrowed to a wet, hot, crushing darkness.
And then to nothing at all.