November 7, Yondaime Year 5
As it turned out, there were worse things in life than getting half your face sanded off. You could do that and then have a goddamn cave dropped on your head.
Raidou didn’t know if he’d lost consciousness or just gotten his bell rung, but awareness returned on the floor. He was sprawled on his back, uncomfortably wedged between two toppled stalagmites, breathing dust. Something warm and weighted pressed against his hip. Everything was dark, silent.
He shoved one of the stalagmites; it toppled a few inches and crunched into something. The hip-weight gave an absolutely ear-piercing shriek, and Raidou nearly rammed himself backwards through a rock wall before he realized it was Gaara.
There was scrabbling in the dark, swearing, the disturbing clatter of more falling rock, and then Genma cracked a light-stick. The sickly green glow illuminated a tiny pocket-cave. After a confused second, Raidou was able to sort the jumble of limbs into separate people. Genma, crouched and bleeding from the shoulder, with a long crack running up the side of his mask. Yashamaru, one leg pinned underneath a tumble of shattered stone, empty sleeve crumpled below his right elbow. Gaara hunched against Raidou’s hip, naked save for his underwear and covered in bleeding scrapes, dissolving into hysterical tears.
Well, if anyone had earned the right.
Yashamaru tried to shove himself up, but fell back onto his good elbow. Genma said something, but Raidou couldn’t hear over Gaara. They traded short hand signs.
Nope. Help him?
While Genma moved to dig Yashamaru out, Raidou levered himself up and extracted one of his emergency supply scrolls. He unsealed a wool blanket, flopped it over Gaara, and bundled both up off the ground and onto his—dusty, bloody, sorry kid—lap. Gaara found one of the straps of Raidou’s ANBU vest and clung to it, smashing his face into the armor. It took a little while for any words to emerge from the sobs, but Raidou finally heard, “He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone.”
Uselessly, Raidou could only pat the narrow, shaking back until Yashamaru got untombed enough to crawl up and take over. Gaara practically flung himself around his uncle’s neck, half-throttling the man, and—oh, yep, both crying now.
Raidou winced, absolutely not without sympathy, but signed to Genma: Noise. Enemies.
While Genma did his soothing best to make the traumatized little family shut up, Raidou looked for a way out. There was a thin, pale shaft of light coming through a crack near the ceiling, which was not very tall. Raidou squeezed up between jagged surfaces, put his shoulder against it, and shoved.
Half the wall fell away with a thunderous crack-boom—excellent stealth, well done—and then he and Genma had to move fast and haul Yashamaru and Gaara out before the cave collapsed on itself. In the tense aftermath, Raidou and Genma waited, crouched, for Suna shinobi to fall on them, but no one did.
High above them, a massive rent in the cave ceiling let in the glorious blue of a beautiful Suna morning, and the distant screams of a city under siege. Plumes of black smoke drifted over one edge. The entire cave shuddered at random intervals, as massive bodies and buildings clashed. It sounded like the buildings were losing.
“Fuck,” Raidou said quietly.
“The Hokage and Gamabunta went after it,” Genma said.
They’d both lived through a bijuu attack before: 90% of survival was just getting people out of the way. The rest was having someone powerful and crazy enough to try and murder a natural disaster. Minato had both, plus his massive summons, and a fresh team to back them up. If they weren’t caught up in Suna’s civil war, they would have started the evacuation already.
Raidou’s first thought was, we should be up there. Then, how do we get up there? Then, shit, Genma’s bleeding a lot.
The giant cave was a crazed, collapsed mess. On one side, the tunnel entrance was buried. On the other, a massive wall of stone blocked access to the lake—and wherever Kakashi, Ryouma, and Sadayo were. If they were even still alive. Raidou looked up at the ceiling again. The only way up there was to chakra-walk up the walls, carrying Gaara and Yashamaru, who looked none too sturdy on his injured leg. Doable, but exhausting, and they’d be broadly visible the entire way up.
Raidou could get them through the rockfall and into the tunnel entrance—and into whatever mess of warring Suna shinobi were beyond it, filling the maze of tunnels.
The other way, towards the lake—if Kakashi was still alive, getting Genma to him was his best bet of staying alive. And only Kakashi knew what the hell he’d done to the Ichibi’s seal.
“Turn around,” he told Genma.
Genma’s masked face tipped quizzically, but he did as asked. Behind him, Raidou winced, then regretted it immediately. The back of Genma’s neck, shoulders, and arms were deeply scoured, in some places down to muscle. His armor straps and steel-woven ANBU turtleneck had deflected some of the Ichibi’s sand, but not nearly enough. Most of the damage was just oozing clear serum, but a deep gouge in the meat of Genma’s upper right shoulder was bleeding freely. He must have gotten that from the cavefall and hadn’t noticed it past the adrenaline yet.
To forestall the inevitable argument about not needing care, Raidou poked the shallowest part of the wound.
Genma jerked away from him with a mangled, “Motherfuck—” He bit off the curse and stood, hunched and quivering, while he fought to get a handle on his breathing.
Beyond him, Yashamaru looked at Raidou with raised eyebrows.
“Yeah,” Raidou said. “Toss me your med-kit.”
Genma used his less injured arm to unhook the kit and toss it over, before glancing, still masked, over his shoulder. “How bad?”
“Needs stitches,” Raidou said. “Rest of you looks like you got dragged about five klicks up a gravel road. A proper medic would tell you to get antibiotics, like, now, but you’re gonna live. Hold still; I’ll try to be quick.”
Genma held still through the cleaning, the quick packing with stinging antibacterial powder, and the slapped-on steri-strips that served in place of sutures. It wasn’t a pretty job; Raidou deliberately left gaps for drainage, as he’d been taught for dirty wounds, but it would hold. The rest deserved to be treated like burns. Raidou couldn’t tell if Genma had earned the future privilege of skin grafts, but for now he got fast bandages on the worst parts and a clean shirt, and that would have to do.
When Raidou was done, Genma turned and touched the very edge of Raidou’s mask. “Is that bandage holding?”
“Think so,” Raidou said, and was queasily relieved when Genma left it alone.
Yashamaru’s leg was bruised and wrenched, maybe hiding a fracture, but nothing that Genma could afford the chakra to fix. He got bracing sympathy and a broken light-post padded with Genma’s old shirt to use as a crutch. Gaara got Genma’s only spare civilian shirt, which went halfway down to his shins, a lieutenant juice box and a ration bar, and a free ride on Raidou’s back, since it was the only one capable of carrying him. He was quieter now, hiccuping occasionally, worn out from his shock and terror, but he did okay as long as he could see his uncle. They kept him wrapped up in the blanket, hiding the distinctive bright red hair.
And then they went looking for the others.
Measured in distance, it wasn’t a long journey to the beachfront. Measured in throbbing, skinless, how-much-of-my-nose-is-gone pain, it was about a thousand years. Raidou’s left eye seemed to be swollen shut, which didn’t exactly help, though it did give him a little insight into Kakashi’s worldview.
Eventually, they reached the wall of fallen rock that blocked the path. Raidou spent precious minutes figuring out where it was thinnest, and then where he could risk disturbing the balance of a landslide-in-stasis. When he was reasonably sure, he cast a jutsu he’d learned during the war, on the frontlines against Iwa. Beneath his palms, a narrow section of rock melted into clay.
He waited several seconds. The world didn’t fall. He cast a second jutsu to peel out the clay in thick slab cylinders, stacking them to one side like a man with pottery ambitions. Slowly, a tunnel emerged. It was roughly seven meters long, barely shoulder-height, and looked about as inviting as an eye socket
Raidou stepped in, ducking low enough to keep Gaara’s head from banging on the ceiling. Genma and Yashamaru followed him.
Halfway through, an immense thundering boom from above made the entire rock wall shake. Gaara made a sharp, strange noise of fright. The low ceiling heaved, a crack splitting down one side with a breaking sound that made Raidou’s teeth hurt. He slapped his hands to the ceiling and shoved chakra through, throwing reinforcement into the tiny space around them. He met familiar chakra in the walls. When he looked down, Genma was crouched at his feet, palms pressed against the floor. Yashamaru had been yanked down next to him, crutch lost in the scramble.
Ahead and behind them, with offensive finality, the tunnel collapsed. It took a while to stop. In the dusty, deafened aftermath, Raidou tasted blood, grit, and annoyance. He said, “Can you keep holding the ceiling?”
Genma grunted. “Think so.”
Raidou reshaped his first jutsu, softening the smallest possible amount of stone back into clay. This time, he used his second jutsu to just shove, clearing the way ahead like a popped cork. Light burst back into their second—fuck, third?—cavefall of the day. The space around them tremored. Genma hissed, chakra straining. Raidou grabbed him and Yashamaru by the wrists, ducked as low as he could, and dragged them all out.
Milliseconds behind them, the tunnel collapsed again.
They landed in a painful, ungraceful tangle. Gaara yelped and grabbed Raidou’s mask, which made Raidou see several horrible colors until Genma pried him off. Yashamaru just sat and wheezed; his skin was gathering an unhealthy greyish tinge. Genma was breathing hard.
When Raidou’s half-vision cleared and he stopped wanting to cauterize certain nerve endings, he staggered to his feet. Genma pulled Yashamaru back upright, awkwardly taking the place of his new crutch. Raidou swung Gaara up onto his back again—a procedure that Gaara did not want to participate in, but allowed when Yashamaru’s tone sharpened just the tiniest bit—and looked around.
They’d made it to the beachfront.
At least, what was left of it.
Fallen chunks of ceiling had destroyed almost everything. Three of the canvas-covered structures Raidou had made were stoved in and buried. Kakashi’s sealing site was obliterated. The tables, the blackboard, and all the books and scrolls Kakashi had carefully curated were trampled, crushed by rocks, or burnt by the exploded fire pit.
Strewn between the scattered debris, were bodies.
Yashamaru whispered, “Merciful Buddha.”
Raidou’s eyes flicked efficiently over the dead: checking for uniforms, signs of life, moving on. He saw only Suna.
Then he saw movement.
It was the quickest flicker. A flash of metal, a stinging line against the side of his throat. The crack of a kunai hitting the wall behind him. Gaara’s startled yelp. A Suna veil. Then a wall of ice slammed down like the wrath of a frozen continent, and the Suna shinobi—burst. The sound was something like a leather bag full of giblets falling from a great height. Mostly wet, with a thud.
Genma shoved himself in front of Raidou, bristling like an aggravated cat, and in the distance, Sadayo stepped out from the shadow of a rockfall.
She was not the elegant figure Raidou remembered. Blood smeared her mouth and chin, coursing from a broken nose. Her hair had been half-yanked from its elegant knot, and something had shredded the collar and shoulder of her refined kimono. Her hands were sleeved with blood that Raidou did not think was her own. Ice shards dripped from her fingers, but her eyes burned.
She did not look like a woman relieved that her son still breathed. She looked like a revenant.
“Ambassador?” Genma said tentatively.
Sadayo’s chin lowered in a way that reminded Raidou of Kakashi’s predatory head tilt. Her voice was a scorched earth rasp. “Manda took them.”
Raidou drew a blank, but Genma made a tiny, choked sound of shock.
“What?” Raidou demanded. “Who’s Manda?”
Genma’s throat clicked, voice gone dry. On his second attempt, he got out, “Snake summons. Orochimaru’s giant snake.”
It was Raidou’s turn to go dry-mouthed. “Where?”
Sadayo looked at the water’s glassy surface. “It came from the lake, swallowed them, and went back into the lake. There was a kunoichi with it. Ram called her Nijo.”
Letting his mouth fall open was a mistake. Raidou snapped his jaw shut.
Don’t go in, Dohi had said. Don’t go looking, Konoha.
Had he known?
Suna had stabbed Kakashi, but Manda had taken Kakashi and Ryouma. Was Suna working with Orochimaru?
The Kazekage was dead. Suna was at war with itself and the Ichibi. Iwa was at the gates. The Yondaime was here and he didn’t know Orochimaru was a threat on the field.
“We need to get to the Hokage,” Raidou snapped.
Sadayo’s bloody fingers flexed. She dragged her gaze from the lake, and everything about her was steel and frost. “Yes.”
Yashamaru said, “How?”
“Translocate,” Raidou said.
“Straight up?” Genma said.
“Run the wall,” Raidou said. “Up through that crack in the ceiling there. Enough speed, get the angle right, we’ll make it.”
A little reality-skimming up a craggy, unstable, nearly vertical surface would cost less and be faster than any other method Raidou could think of, and it was nearly impossible for anyone to murder them mid-jump.
“Very well,” Sadayo said.
Genma looked at her. “Are you comfortable with the jutsu? Moon or I can bring Yashamaru-san and Gaara along, but they might be safer here.”
“And be rescued when?” Yashamaru said tightly.
Sadayo’s eyes narrowed, looking between the two men, but she only said, “I will take Yashamaru-san.”
“What about Gaara?” Yashamaru said. “Will this hurt him?”
“Probably not,” Raidou said honestly, because who knew with a broken jinchuuriki. “Your choice: stay or go?”
“Go,” Yashamaru said. He reached out his hand to Gaara and his voice softened. “It’s all right. Just keep your eyes closed, okay?”
Gaara nodded against Raidou’s shoulder, sniffling, and caught his uncle’s hand. They clutched each other for a moment, then Sadayo gripped Yashamaru’s shoulder and pulled him away.
Air stretched and snapped like a rubber band, and they were both gone.
She was just like her goddamn son.
Raidou didn’t look at the lake again. He watched Genma hiss a frustrated little breath between masked teeth, and then they both threw themselves outside the curvature of the world.
It wasn’t hard to figure out which direction to go. A broad path of destruction led towards clouds of grit and smoke rising from the center of Sunagakure, as if a volcano had suddenly erupted in its midst. The ground shook and trembled, toppling unstable masonry from the edges of ruined walls. Booms and crashes rose with fresh plumes of dust. And at the center of it all blazed a malevolent chakra presence that almost froze Genma in place.
It had been worse—more intense and sickening—trapped underground with it. But it was harder to act now, to force himself to run towards it.
A quick glance left and right showed only broken buildings and broken bodies. Here a Suna ninja face down, unmoving, crushed under a pile of broken tile. There a civilian woman sprawled halfway down a flight of stairs, where she stared sightlessly at the sun. Somewhere a child’s voice wailed, but it wasn’t Gaara. The former Kazekage’s son was curled tight and silent against Raidou’s back. Close by, Yashamaru crouched in the shadow of a destroyed building, looking sick. Sadayo was with him.
“Leave her here with them or bring the Ambassador with us?” Genma asked Raidou. There was no question of taking Yashamaru or Gaara anywhere near the fighting. Raidou turned so Genma could lift the child down and hand him, still bundled in Raidou’s blanket, to his guardian.
Sadayo’s dark eyes narrowed. “ANBU, if you attempt to prevent me from reaching the Hokage,” she said, with more malice than inflection, “I will take that personally.”
Genma sucked in a silent breath behind his mask.
“Right,” Raidou said, as if he had a choice in the matter. “With us, then. Just— please don’t make that the dumbest decision I’ve ever made.”
“I am still a jounin,” she said with a bit more bite. She softened only a fraction when she said to Yashamaru, “The south wall still looks intact: leave the city that way. Stay hidden.”
Yashamaru hefted Gaara with his good arm. The toddler immediately looped scrawny bare arms around his uncle’s neck, fisting his hands into Yashamaru’s collar, and hiding his blanket-shrouded face. Yashamaru turned to the ANBU and Sadayo. He still looked shocky and nauseated, but beneath that, determined. Here, too, was a ninja. His jaw was set, his mouth a fierce line. He nodded a shallow bow. “Thank you. All of you. And… good luck.”
“And to you,” Genma said. They turned back towards Sunagakure’s center, racing over rubble where there used to be streets. Moaning, bleeding civilians cradled lifeless bodies next to collapsed homes. Dogs barked and howled. Someone lurched out of the cavernous mouth of a partly destroyed building to scream an accusation at the Konoha ninja.
After that, they took to what remained of the rooftops.
It was too soon for the smell of death to set in above the metallic reek of fresh blood. The air was choked with dust rather than ash. It was blinding mid-morning, not the dead of night, and there were no wooden buildings here for demonic chakra to set ablaze. But the terror and the certainty of death were the same as they had been that October night four years ago, when the Kyuubi tried to destroy Konoha.
Genma’s feet skidded on loose tile. Something like an explosion shook the city center, and choking dust fountained up as yet another building came down.
Movement caught Genma’s eye. “There! Gamabunta.” The massive toad leapt high into the air and came down hard on the sand-blurred form of the Ichibi. The demon hurled the toad off in the next breath, throwing Gamabunta through the tiled roof of a stone warehouse.
“Go,” Raidou said. All three of them translocated as far as they dared, not wanting to land blind.
The rooftop they came down on next was a flat garden-topped one, with short walls that allowed them some cover. They crouched low to plan their next move. Below them, Suna ninja were streaming in both directions. Many fled from the chaos, herding civilians and more junior shinobi towards cover. But almost as many rushed towards the battle. Genma swallowed back a sickening empathy. He’d been one of those running in to help fight the Kyuubi the last time, and he’d been one of only a handful to survive the effort.
Distantly he was aware that he was one of the probably-doomed running in again, but somehow it was different. This wasn’t his village; that wasn’t Konoha’s bijuu suddenly free of its jinchuuriki. Those weren’t his friends and family in death’s path.
Except for the few who were.
Gamabunta’s bulk loomed out of the clouds of dust and debris. He snapped out his long tongue, snaring one of the Ichibi’s paws this time. The monster staggered for an instant, off balance. Black and white armored Konoha ANBU stood out starkly from their sand-colored counterparts as they charged the distracted monster.
“It’s got to be heading for the Palace,” Genma said. “If we can get there first we can regroup with the other ANBU on the ground.”
Raidou peered over the shallow wall, surveying the urban battlefield. His good eye narrowed behind his mask. “We do this fast, low, and out of sight. Ambassador, stay between us.”
Sadayo gave a clipped nod.
Genma checked his scroll pouches and weapons one last reflexive time, and followed suit.
They dropped over the wall, zigzagging between the close walls of a narrow alley until they were at ground level. The dust was choking here, but it hid them as much as it hindered their sight. Raidou took point, dodging around tumbled wreckage, sticking to the shadows. The Palace was east, and so were the faint beacons of ANBU sparks. Still five.
They almost made it in time.
The Ichibi howled. Its sandstorm filled the air with scouring grains. Genma stumbled with a sharp gasp when a blast ripped across his shoulders. Sadayo grabbed one elbow to steady him, but he was already back on his feet. He took a hissing breath and shook his head when Raidou turned to look. “Go. I’m fine.”
A lie they all were forced to live with.
They emerged on the far side of the plaza in front of the palace just in time to see the Ichibi tear into its ornate walls. Thick masonry crumbled under the Ichibi’s giant paws like it was a seaside sand castle. The sound of the collapsing building was deafening. The ground shook, and they had to dodge huge chunks of stone and brick, splinters of wood, shards of flying tile.
A group of Suna shinobi led by two of Minato’s ANBU attacked the beast’s flank with a coordinated fire blast. It kicked them away, flinging them into the rubble it was creating, and laughed—a delighted, child-like cackle in a voice that grated through Genma’s bones. Only one of the ANBU rose again.
Only four of the sparks still pulsed.
Raidou led the way towards the three that were still with Minato and Gamabunta. The lone ANBU who’d survived the last attack ran towards them, too. Boar, Genma could see now, Sato Ken. Was it his unit here?
Lightning cracked the sky and struck the beast, and for a moment Genma had wild hope Kakashi was somehow here, but none of the ANBU sparks were his or Ryouma’s. And he was hardly the only ninja who could cast a lightning jutsu.
Gamabunta crashed into the cleared plaza, with Minato on his shoulder.
The Ichibi turned away from its destructive frenzy to lunge at the new threat. Boar was almost across the plaza. Almost to the Hokage. Almost wasn’t close enough. The Ichibi crushed the lone ANBU like a child crushing ants.
Minato vaulted off the toad to the roof of a still-standing building. Gamabunta leapt again, shooting out his sticky tongue to wrap around the Ichibi’s head, landing with his full weight on the Ichibi’s back.
Sadayo immediately broke away from Genma and Raidou, racing towards Minato. She wasn’t quite as fast as Kakashi, but she moved with his sharp economy, no motion wasted.
“For the love of fuck,” Raidou said. They followed her.
The moment Sadayo was within reach of the Hokage she rapped out, “Hokage-sama, Manda was here. He took Kakashi and another ANBU.”
The Hokage looked up. He had a large, three-pronged kunai in his left hand. Blood dripped down the index finger of his right, and swirled in seals that covered the kunai’s wooden handle. He gave Sadayo a hard, bleak stare. “Then I’ll try to be fast. Bunta!” He added one last sharp sigil to the kunai and flung it straight at his summons, embedding it in one of the toad’s warty brow ridges.
Gamabunta retracted his tongue from the Ichibi’s smothered head, and rumbled, “You got it, boss.” There was a flash of chakra and a billow of orange smoke, and the toad was gone.
The Ichibi seemed momentarily confused, but it quickly righted itself and turned its spiteful gaze towards the Hokage.
“Clear the field,” Minato shouted. His voice rang loud. All the ANBU and the remaining Sand nin fell back. Raidou drew Sadayo back with a touch. Minato stood alone at the edge of the roof, facing the Ichibi. His chakra pressure grew a hundredfold. A staggering intensity. All the killing intent that a Kage could radiate, focused on the Ichibi.
His hands blurred through seals, ending with his arms thrust forward, fingers spread wide with index and thumbs touching. The air in front of him distorted subtly, like a mirage shimmering in the desert heat.
The Ichibi grinned like a nightmare, and its crazed cackle rose. It charged at the Hokage.
Then it hit the shimmering air, and was sucked partway into it. Everything distorted around the trapped demon and its surroundings, spiraling towards a point in the center.
Genma recognized the jutsu—a reverse Hiraishin he’d seen the Hokage use just once before. When he’d faced down the Fox. “Back farther!” he shouted, pulling Raidou and Sadayo both with him, to the farthest corner of the roof.
The jutsu continued its inexorable pull, sucking greedily at the Ichibi. The right half of its body stretched and spooled into the whirlpool. It howled, thrashing violently, trying to free itself. Adobe walls cracked and shattered, and another small building collapsed in a cloud of dust and debris.
Minato’s shoulders lifted. “I’ll be back,” he said, clear and definite. He crouched, then sprang into the air, leaping at the Ichibi. Straight at the spiraling heart of the jutsu. He landed on the beast’s half-dissolved head.
For an eye blink, the jutsu’s shimmer turned into a raging storm. Then it snapped out of existence, taking the Hokage and the Ichibi with it.
It was the loudest quiet Raidou had ever heard. A spiral breeze stirred the dust over the rooftop, radiating out from the center of nothing. Humans still screamed in the rubble, but the sound was thin, removed.
Lynx thumped gracelessly down by Raidou’s elbow, nearly earning himself a kunai in the eye socket, and snarled, “What the hell went wrong here?”
Raidou saw red. He rounded on Lynx and snarled right back: “Suna fucking stabbed Hatake in the middle of his sealing jutsu.”
“One of their own sealing team.” Genma’s voice was deadly calm. “Hand-picked by the Kazekage—who’s dead, by the way. Followed by a full scale insurrection. Suna against Suna.”
“They released the Ichibi?” Lynx swung around, looking out over the devastated city. He was bleeding down the nape of his neck; Raidou couldn’t see the actual injury buried under short, thick hair. When he turned back, his voice was colder, controlled, and he looked at Sadayo. “Ambassador Hatake. You are the ranking official here, I suppose. Will you establish contact with… whatever remains of Suna’s leadership? Frog and Vulture, you’re her guards. I need to get a message back to Konoha.”
“And tell them what?” Sadayo said. “You left a contingent of five Konoha shinobi behind, two of them injured, to bring scraps of intel home?” She shoved around Raidou, actually pushing his shoulder out of the way, and hiked her chin up to stare Lynx in the mask. Blood still dripped off her jaw from her broken nose. “Orochimaru’s snake was here and it took my son. I don’t know if Orochimaru is working with Suna. I don’t know what faction of leadership is left, and I certainly don’t know if they are friendly to Konoha.”
Lynx said coldly, “Then I suggest you find out quickly. I’ll aid you as soon as I can get to a messenger hawk station, if there is one left in this hellhole. But Hokage-sama is now fighting the Ichibi through the Summoning Dimension, he left Konoha so quickly his housekeeper is trying to cover up the leadership void, and I need to prepare Sagara-sama to face the council before Konoha fractures like Suna has.”
There was a brittleness around the edge of his words, and Raidou was reminded that Lynx had lost his entire family to the Fox. It made it fractionally easier not to punch him.
“Just fucking go,” Raidou said.
Behind them, the last standing wall of the palace lost its war with gravity and shattered down in a broken landslide of stone and rubble. A choking cloud of white dust rolled over them, turning the world to chalk and powder. Raidou threw an arm over his masked face. Someone—Sadayo?—coughed.
There was a clap, a shiver of chakra, and a weird whooshing sound. He dropped his arm and found they were surrounded by a bubble of clear air, with Frog at the center. A slight man with a bright green mask and quick hands; he was the veteran who’d gotten his knee kicked sideways by Ryouma in Trials, about a million years ago.
Frog said, “Probably shouldn’t stay here. Looks none too stable.”
“The Anzen-sei oasis,” Sadayo said. “It’s an evacuation point for council members.”
Vulture cocked her head at the palace ruins. She was a tall, angular woman with long arms and oddly stooped shoulders. Something of her stance reflected her mask, and Raidou guessed the Quartermaster thought, once again, that he was funny. “Did the rest of the embassy evacuate?”
“I hope so,” Sadayo said.
“Ah,” Vulture said, more quietly.
“Did your entire team come with you?” Genma asked. “We saw Boar and one other, but…”
“Just us from my team,” Frog said. “Vulture and I just happened to be nearby. Yondame-sama didn’t want to wait for more. The other two—Tamura Kiriko. Panther. She was one of the Hokage’s regular guards, with Lynx. I guess Sato was on guard duty for the day, too.” He took a breath and the masked face looked away. “Maybe we can retrieve their masks and tags.”
Another building staggered over, as something in its foundation splintered with a sound like cracked teeth. It hit the neighboring building and tore down half the western wall, obliterating a small, neatly kept garden of drought-tolerant plants.
“Later. Let’s move,” Raidou said.
They translocated through the city in a series of jumps. Landing once near a marketplace choked with bodies, once near a fountain smashed into a giant pawprint, and once at the main gate. It was throttled with people, but the crowd wasn’t a mob—Raidou saw orders being given and followed, shinobi managing the chaos. There were wounded and elderly being transported. A group of schoolchildren surrounded by pale, determined teachers. Civilians making it through the gate without being trampled. It was the recognizable discipline of a village that had been drilled over and over on emergency response. Konoha had it, too.
They translocated again.
Anzen-sei oasis was seven kilometers south of the village, tucked into the shelter of a shallow valley. The Konoha group landed a prudent distance away and approached cautiously, chakra clamped down tight.
It was a heart of surprising green in the middle of Suna’s heat-scorched desert. Trees surrounded a clear, deep pond in the center of the valley, its waters presumably fed by the same aquifer that supported Suna. Littleleaf elms and salt cedars arched and twined into a patchy canopy, casting pale green shadows. Black saxauls hunched closer to the ground; they had twisted, multi-legged trunks which gave the effect of a shrub temporarily paused during a hike. They were also the first native Suna vegetation Raidou had ever learned to recognize, since their dense bark could be squeezed for emergency water. Brindlegrass and needlegrass grew in feathery clumps at the pond’s edge, bowed by a heavy growth of purple flowers.
On the northern shore, a group of people gathered.
Raidou spotted two of the three advisors immediately. Shimizu Hanako, tall and lean and knifelike, and Kawase Yasutaro, the world’s sweetest grandpa with something sharp behind his smile. They were flanked by a number of extremely competent looking shinobi with various degrees of injury. There were also about two-dozen people Raidou took to be family members or councilors: a few in uniform, but most dressed in variations of casual clothing, with a haphazard collection of personal belongings and more than one smoke-stained, shocky expression.
Raidou gave a silent signal and the Konoha party melted through the undergrowth, slowly ghosting closer. Suna might have skilled, dangerous shinobi, but no one knew how to move through trees like Konoha.
A sudden commotion on the opposite treeline made them all freeze, crouching low. The Suna shinobi closed ranks around the two advisors, tense and bristling—then relaxed again when someone unseen whistled three notes. A moment later, Minpei stepped through the trees, dark-skinned, muscular, genderless, accompanied by a single bloodied, limping kunoichi. They were both burdened. Held securely in one arm, face buried against Minpei’s shoulder, was Kankuro. The kunoichi lugged a twisted, cracked metal object about the size of a ribcage—it was so badly damaged that it took Raidou a second look to realize it was the Ichibi’s kettle, mangled beyond use. Behind the kunoichi, Temari stepped through the trees.
Both children and Minpei appeared unscathed, if filthy. Minpei, it seemed, had encountered no difficulty escaping the collapsing cave.
Kawase began to say something, but Temari cut across him. “Where’s our dad?” she demanded, scowling, the faintest tremor in her voice. “No one told us anything.”
Minpei made to speak, coughed, spat dust, and tried again. “I can see Kazekage-sama has not made it to the evacuation point.”
Kawase waved aside a guard and stepped forward, leaning heavily on his cane, to peer at Minpei, Kankurou, Temari, and the kettle. His eyes lingered longest on the kettle. “I’m sure he’ll be here as soon as he’s able, Temari-chan.”
Didn’t they know the Kazekage was dead?
Temari’s mouth flattened. Kawase beckoned to a short, wispy, gray-haired grandmother, who Raidou thought might be his wife. She walked over with the lingering grace of a former shinobi, and listened as Kawase said, “The children have had a terrible fright and probably missed their breakfasts, too.”
The little grandmother didn’t miss her cue. She held out a slender, blue-veined hand to Temari. “Why don’t you come sit with me in the shade? We’ll have rice crackers and tea while we wait.”
Temari looked mulish. The little grandmother waited for her patiently, but it was only when Kankuro lifted a smoke- and tear-stained face and made a sound indicating tentative interest in rice crackers that she sighed, shoulders slumping, and muttered, “Fine.”
Minpei lowered Kankuro to the ground. Temari grabbed him by the wrist. “Come on, Kankuro.”
He sniffed, wiped his face with his free hand, and said, “Not the spicy ones.” The two children followed the little grandmother back to a grouping under the shade of trees, where a handful of other kids sat.
Once they were safely away, Kawase gave the broken iron kettle another pointed look. “That doesn’t seem capable of containing anything,” he said. “Not at all according to plan.”
Son of a bitch.
Fresh ice dropped through Genma’s solar plexus. Three simple words—according to plan—and everything about this entire mission was a lie, in shambles worse than the wreckage of the Sunagakure Palace.
“We argued our case too successfully, my friend,” Minpei said, looking bitter. “Hatake’s seal worked. We could all sense that. No possibility of a fracture, no slippage around the seams—no opportunity for the subtle sort of sabotage we’d planned. Shiori lost her head and tried to stop it in the most efficient way possible.”
The ice spread. Genma exchanged a tense, angry glance with Raidou, before they both turned to check on the ambassador. Her face was bone-white beneath the blood still streaking it. Her chakra was undetectable, but there was, for a moment, absolute murder in her eyes. Then it was gone, leaving an even more frightening blankness.
“Oh, Shiori,” Kawase said, sounding like a disappointed parent.
Before he could say more, Shimizu, visibly fuming, barked, “This is why I was against bringing in Konoha. Our people we know and can control. Outsiders, on the other hand—” She cut herself off with a sharp head shake. “What of Rasa? Dead, I hope? It’d be the only consolation in this whole shitshow.”
“Oh, yes. Rasa’s dead,” Minpei confirmed, “and most of our elite forces with him. I left a sand clone behind when I evacuated; it survived long enough to see the Ichibi completely freed, Rasa vanishing down its gullet, and the blasted Hokage showing up before the Ichibi brought the cave down.”
That got a startled widening of eyes from the old councilor, and a sharper scowl from Shimizu.
“How did none of our spies know Namikaze could cross countries with that space-time jutsu of his?” Minpei asked.
Kawase just shrugged one shoulder and waved the question off. “A problem for another time. We know it now. Assuming Namikaze survives—and that’s a big assumption—we need to decide how to present the new facts in a way that doesn’t put us in a war. We have no Kage—for the moment…” He and Minpei both looked over at Shimizu, who shook her head impatiently at them.
“No Kage, then, and no bijuu or jinchuuriki—unless you surprise me again and tell me Gaara survived? I don’t see him with you, so…”
“Without the Ichibi, Gaara’s no jinchuuriki—just a child,” Minpei said. “I saw Yashamaru go for him; I didn’t see if he’d succeeded. Some of the Konoha nin might have survived. Ambassador Hatake almost certainly did.”
Even from their concealed distance, Genma could see Minpei’s molars grind.
“She might have been more willing to cooperate before Shiori killed her son.”
Shimizu grimaced. “Cooperation from Konoha might be the last thing we need. If they know we’ve lost our Kage and our bijuu…” Her expression, already grim, darkened even further. “Even if Namikaze isn’t a warhawk, his is not the only voice that gets listened to in Konoha.”
“You think they’ll press their advantage?” Kawase looked dubious. “I’m not sure I see what it would gain them, though I suppose they might wish to place someone sympathetic to their interests in the Kazekage’s seat. We still have our friends from Iwa to worry about, too.”
“And a village in ruins—you should be seen back there, in the throes of it, if you still intend to declare your candidacy,” Minpei said, with a pointed look at Shimizu. “I trust you all felt the Ichibi’s chakra disappear, even here. I have no possible notion what Namikaze did or is doing, and at the moment I don’t intend to find out.” They shoved up the sleeves of their dun-colored samue top, revealing muscle-corded forearms. “If you can spare me anyone fresh, I’ll go mop up our Iwa friends. We could use a scapegoat.”
Shimizu sighed, anger melting into weary frustration. “So, that’s our story then? Iwa infiltrated our sealing team and caused the Ichibi’s release. Konoha bravely defended us, losing a sealing expert and possibly their Kage in the process.” She shook her head. “I can’t imagine that going over well with our people. Or with the Daimyou.”
“The Daimyou isn’t going to be happy no matter what we say,” Kawase said. “But he’ll be happier if we haven’t made an enemy of Konoha in the process. Iwa is weaker than Konoha, and Earth Country is less of a trading partner than Fire.” He studied a pair of large raptors soaring on a thermal above them. “He knows Gaara’s seal was unstable, and he knows what kind of threat Shukaku posed not just to our village, but to Wind Country as a whole. We’ll tell him Rasa invited Konoha’s assistance. It’s not that far from the truth.” He turned a grim smile back on Shimizu. “You’ll just have to find a way to make it palatable to our people. I suspect the Ichibi no longer laying waste to the village will go a long way to helping there.”
Shimizu glared balefully at Kawase. “Fine.” She huffed aggravation, but turned to Minpei. “Bring back bodies. Intact enough to be recognizable, mutilated enough to indicate painful death. Contact me when you’re on your way back, so we can make your return public.”
Kawase lifted his walking stick and waved over a trio of Suna guards. None injured, by the looks of them. “You’re with them,” he said, indicating Minpei. “Iwa was behind this. You know your duty.”
They saluted and turned expectantly to Minpei, clearly acting as military subordinates, not councilor’s guards. Minpei nodded coolly. “Where will I find you?” they asked Shimizu.
“The palace, if it’s intact.” Shimizu made a snappy motion to summon another pair of Suna shinobi.
“We’ll keep the peace here, until we hear from you,” Kawase said, gesturing in a way that seemed to indicate both his wife and the remaining uniformed Suna shinobi in that ‘we.’ “Of course if there is important news—”
Shimizu cut him off with an impatient jerk. “I’ll be in contact.” She snugged her hitai-ate tighter over iron-grey hair, patted down scroll pouches and kunai holster, and lifted her chin. “Let’s go.”
It wasn’t a translocation, but Genma didn’t really see her move either. Just a blur of motion and then she and her escort were gone.
Minpei gave Kawase a quick, feral smile. “Wish us good hunting,” they said, and then they and their tiny squadron were gone, too.
Kawase turned his back to the Konoha ninja in their hiding spot, and headed for the other evacuees on the far side of the oasis, leaning on his walking stick like he actually needed it. Maybe he did.
When Kawase was well out of hearing range, Genma eased around to face Sadayo and Raidou. “How do we want to play this, Ambassador?”
She took Frog’s canteen and dampened the edge of the sleeve of her ruined kimono, using the cloth to dab the blood and grime from her face. Her broken nose had stopped bleeding, but the swelling was starting to show, and the beginnings of bruises in the hollows under her eyes. “Stay put,” she said, and tied her hair back into neat, severe control. “Assassinate any Suna shinobi who looks like a threat.”
There was the barest flicker of chakra as she translocated, rematerializing in front of Kawase, with a very slim, very sharp blade laid against his throat. She sounded almost serene when she said, “We need to talk.”
Three of the remaining Suna ninja descended on her with weapons raised. Kawase swept his staff in an arc over her head, knocking one Suna sword to the ground. “Down,” he commanded, as if to unruly dogs. Too late to save them all, as the closest of the three fell, clutching at his neck. Half a senbon protruded between his fingers, the other half buried in his carotid artery.
Frog and Vulture melted right, Genma and Raidou left, as the remaining Suna ninja looked for the thrower.
From their new vantage point, they could hear Kawase more clearly. “Sadayo-san,” he said mildly, “I suppose we do. Perhaps with fewer blades involved? I’m quite willing to converse without coercion.”
One of the guards knelt next to her fallen comrade, assessing life signs. The other remained tensely poised, but his sword was sheathed.
“I am quite willing to remove your eyes,” Sadayo said just as calmly. “Perhaps it’s best we both make compromises.”
Genma rolled a second senbon between his fingers, but held his throw.
Kawase raised his voice to carry. “Everything is fine,” he said, mostly addressing the shinobi and civilians on the other side of the pool. “Ambassador Hatake and I have a few points about the evacuation to discuss. We’ll keep our conversation over here, so as not to disturb your rest.”
There were murmurs from the other side, and some uneasy glances, but no one seemed inclined to challenge the blatant falsehood, despite their dead comrade at Kawase’s feet.
Kawase turned to the guard still with him. “Assist Furutani with Soga, if he lives. I’ll be safe with the Ambassador.”
He didn’t let go of his walking stick; if it didn’t conceal a blade, Genma was the Hokage. If Kawase shifted his grip to anything resembling a draw, he was a dead man, but he doubtless knew that.
When his guard had withdrawn to a respectful enough distance to give the illusion of not eavesdropping, he said. “Shall we sit down while we talk?”
Sadayo gave him a long, malignant look, then lifted her blade so the point rested against the lower lid of his left eye. “What do you know of Orochimaru?”
The old man was a canny actor, but Genma didn’t think the flicker of confusion on his face was faked. “Orochimaru? That’s not a name I’ve heard since the end of the war. I know he’s no longer loyal to Konoha, but beyond that…” His eyes ticked down towards the blade and back up. “Why does that name come up now?”
“You brought my son here, Kawase. You asked for his help.” Sadayo didn’t blink. Her voice slid lower and harsher. “He risked his life. Your people betrayed him. Your people murdered him.” The tip of her knife slit the skin under his eye, drawing a single bead of blood. “I could ask for sanctions from the Wind Daimyou. I could take my information home and start a war. Or I could extract a blood-price from your family right here, Kawase. What do you think I should do?”
The Sand shinobi snapped to attention at the rise in tension, hands going to weapons again. Genma raised an arm to throw, targeting the closest ninja to Sadayo. Beside him, Raidou was ready with his black sword drawn.
Kawase made another ‘stand down’ gesture at his subordinates. His eyes didn’t leave Sadayo’s face. “I think perhaps you should discuss your options with your Kage,” he said. “My latest report has him in Sunagakure. I assume it’s he who banished or secured the Ichibi.” He swallowed as Sadayo pressed her blade, turning the bead of blood on his face to a small rivulet. “Whatever you decide, Sadayo-san, I hope you will consider our long years of collaboration and allow me to explain our actions. Sabotage, not malice, lies behind the tragedy of your son’s death.”
“Your sabotage,” she hissed.
“No,” he said. “Not Suna’s. Not mine. What could it possibly gain us to arrange for the death of Konoha’s Ambassador’s son? Or the destruction of our own village?” He didn’t seem to expect an answer. “Your own agents brought word of Iwagakure moving against us. Surely it’s more reasonable to assume they are to blame.”
Sadayo’s lips curled in a slow, tight, terrible smile. “I’m so glad you lied to me.” In one seamless motion, she pierced his left eye, rupturing the globe but leaving everything else unscathed.
The old man gasped a high, choked, “No.”
Before shock could overtake, or any of them react, she grabbed his head and brought the blade to his right eye, holding him there. “I heard everything, Kawase. I know Shimizu aims to be Kazekage. I know Minpei plans to bring false evidence of Iwa’s involvemen—” She paused. “Iwa.” She looked directly at Genma and Raidou’s hiding spot. “We need to get to them before Minpei does.”
Suna shinobi were on their feet now. A pair of razor-edged kunai flew at Sadayo’s head, but a shuriken from Frog knocked them harmlessly off course. He and Vulture translocated to the Ambassador’s side.
“Stand down, you fools!” Kawase snapped.
“Go, Six!” Frog said. “We’ve got this.”
Genma glanced Raidou’s way. Raidou nodded.
“Meiro Spires,” Genma said. Together, they translocated towards the canyonlands where Iwa had last been reported.
Raidou was starting to get tired. Or, rather, was feeling the tired he had been for a very long time. There wasn’t anything to do with the feeling except shove it down, stamp on it, and keep moving. Various things hurt. He shoved that down, too.
He was braced for a long, grueling cat-and-mouse chase through the Spires. Dodging Minpei’s hunting party, flushing Iwa shinobi out of their boltholes, picking off one from the herd to drag back to Sadayo…
He was not expecting to land right in the middle of a group of Iwa nin.
There were four of them, dusty and bloody and sunburned, wearing the bizarre, one-armed burgundy and tan uniform Iwa considered a good choice, clearly taking a break. Two were sharing a cold ration pouch between them. The third was bandaging a nasty slash on the fourth’s shoulder.
It was hard to say who was more shocked, but the Konoha ninja recovered first.
“Oh,” said Raidou, “Cool.” And he punched the nearest one in the face.
It was a solid hit. She went sprawling back, scattering the contents of an open medical kit everywhere. Her half-bandaged partner leapt to his feet, ducked Raidou’s next blow—too slow, Namiashi, sharpen up—and met a pair of senbon in the throat before he could swing back around. He dropped, paralyzed.
A kusarigama snarled out and would have torn Raidou’s left shoulder open, if he hadn’t jerked sideways and caught it around his forearm instead. The chain wrapped his arm and the sickle blade thudded into the arm-guard with a good, meaty sound. Raidou wrenched the remaining length of chain out of its owner’s hand and was rewarded with shiny new armor for his forearm and a dangling metal weight.
He palmed the weight. The first shinobi he’d punched scrambled back to her feet, and this time Raidou broke her jaw. She went down. She didn’t get back up.
Genma dispatched the kusarigama-wielder with a nasty little genjutsu and a bare-handed strike that crushed the man’s throat.
And then there was one.
The last woman—teenager, really—tried to run. Genma was faster. A kunai in the thigh and a senbon in a vital nerve-cluster, and down she went to join her paralysed colleague.
Breathing only a little fast, Raidou wiped his hands on his thighs and leaned against a slab of rock to peel the kusarigama off his arm. The point had gone through the guard, but only a little way into the flesh; he removed it without difficulty. Genma knelt to check the wounded.
“Dead,” he pronounced the man with the crushed throat. No surprises there. The woman with the broken jaw got: “Unconscious. Might live.” The last two were breathing shallowly, with little garbled throat-sounds, but in relatively good health if you ignored the paralysis, the newly ventilated thigh, and a general scattering of wounds they must have gotten from dodging Suna sentries. Genma considered the kunai standing up from the teenager’s thigh, then withdrew it with a quick, clean motion. She made a throttled sound, which Raidou guessed was a scream in a deadened throat, but the trickle of red that followed the blade was venous, not arterial, so she’d probably live. Genma tied a quick-clotting bandage around her leg, and the trickle stopped.
They looked again at the woman with the broken jaw. It wasn’t just the mandible, Raidou realized. It was the upper jaw, the cheekbone, the eye socket. Half her face had cratered around his weighted fist. Raidou couldn’t guess how many broken bones floated under the skin. She might wake up. She probably wouldn’t.
Genma sighed through his nose. He started to reach for his kunai pouch, but Raidou put a hand on his wrist. Genma paused, head tilting. Raidou crouched, took the woman’s skull gently between his hands, and snapped her neck. The paralyzed man and teenager both made those throttled throat noises. Raidou straightened up the woman’s head again and lowered it back down.
Wordlessly, the Konoha ninja straightened, each hefting one living body with them. Genma took the teenager, Raidou took the man, and they translocated with their cargo, leaving the two dead behind for Minpei to puzzle over.
Back at the oasis, the tableau was largely unchanged. The ambassador’s blade threatened Kawase’s right eye. The Suna shinobi still lingered nearby like a bad smell. Vulture and Frog had moved to flank Sadayo, faced outwards with weapons drawn. No one else appeared to be dead. Raidou’s sense of time was dilated and fractured by adrenaline and translocation, but he thought it really hadn’t been that long. They’d gotten remarkably lucky.
He and Genma dropped their respective bounties. “Iwa ninja, express delivery,” Raidou said briskly.
“Very good,” Sadayo said, without looking at them. And then just: “West cliff.”
She put her hand on Kawase’s shoulder and they both blurred and vanished, leaving a swirl of dust and a lot of very upset Suna ninja behind.
Vulture and Frog reacted quickest, translocating just a fractional moment later. Genma next, dropping down to grab his teenager and snap out of existence. Comparatively, Raidou took a subjective eon to react—objective, almost a full second—and his reaction was: “For fuck’s sake.”
His next reaction was wincing at Kawase’s wife’s scream.
Then ducking a kunai.
Then, finally, dropping down to grab his captive by the nearest body part and hurl himself into the ether after Kakashi’s insane mother.
The Western Cliff encircling Sunagakure was giant and craggy and sun-scorched and Raidou was going to have the stupidest possible tan when this was all over.
It took him nearly an hour to track everyone down again, triangulating by the distant blips of ANBU sparks and dodging the occasional Suna shinobi. His tagalong had not fared well being dragged through the liminal space between worlds ass-backwards by one ankle, and was blearily half-conscious with a clotted nosebleed. Raidou carried him slung over one shoulder and trudged along to the fun feeling of a migraine in his cheekbone.
Frog and Vulture had managed fine, of course, and been rejoined by Lynx at some point. Genma had been divested of his teenage cargo and was moving with a stiff-shouldered hitch that suggested his injuries were tightening up. They had found a shallow depression in the cliff face—not quite a cave, but the little sister to one, with just enough overhang to provide shade, and a slab of rock where Kawase sat in a slumped huddle, sandaled feet dangling. Someone—Genma, probably—had cleaned and bandaged his ruined eye. Someone else had taken his cane and snapped it in half, discarding the pieces in the corner. Metal glinted within one of them.
On Kawase’s right side was the teenage Iwa kunoichi, looking significantly more awake and furious than her quasi-conscious companion on Raidou’s shoulder. Her hands and feet had been skillfully bound, and—Raidou winced a little—someone had broken three fingers and a thumb in multiple places. There were bright tears in her eyes and a wobble to hard-bitten lips and she was Iwa, Raidou reminded himself sharply, get a grip.
In the shadow of the cavelet, Sadayo didn’t quite look human. There was something pale and predatory about her, an unnatural stillness. A rime of blood still crusted one nostril. Her eyes were a lightless black, like the bottom of a well. She glanced aside, just once, when Raidou drew close, and said, “Iwa is working with the Snake.”
This called for an intelligent response.
Raidou, lacking one, said, “Shit,” and dropped his useless cargo in a heap. “Now what?”
Sadayo’s eyes flicked to Kawase. She had put her blade away, but the look was cutting enough. To the old man’s credit, he didn’t flinch. “Then we have a common enemy,” he said, voice just a little ragged. “Two common enemies.”
And no Kages, Raidou thought.
The Yondaime had promised he’d be back, but— when?
Suna would be picking itself up for months. Konoha was— Raidou actually had no idea what Konoha was doing, but ten minutes after Lynx’s hawk landed at the radio relay station, there was going to be some serious chaos at council-level. Would Sagara run things until the Hokage returned?
And in the meantime, Iwa had a Kage, their own bijuu, fucking Orochimaru apparently, and now Kakashi and Ryouma strung up by their ears in some festering pit for— bargaining chips? Snake experiments?
Maybe they could do a hostage exchange. Not for these poor bastards, but Konoha might have a high value someone tucked away somewhere.
“Unlikely,” Sadayo murmured, and Raidou realized with exquisite horror that he had said that out loud.
“Ambassador, I—” he started.
“Captain,” Sadayo said, with flat, impersonal calm, like a mallet. “Perhaps you should wait outside.”
Yep. Absolutely. That seemed wise.
Raidou fumbled a salute, turned on his heel, and went outside. Lynx stayed behind. The scorched-metal heat of Suna’s midday—mid-afternoon?—hit him like the slap of Bishamonten. He blinked his good eye until the white-out faded. Frog and Vulture looked at him. Raidou waved them away and looked for a spot to sit down. That rock looked good. Nice and flat, friendly even.
He sat down.
The various hurting things crowded up and filled his head with ouch. He stamped them all back down and realized he hadn’t drunk anything recently, which was a remarkably stupid thing to do when you were running around in a desert. A-plus move, Namiashi.
He dug his canteen out and looked up to find Genma crouched in front of him.
“They’re still talking,” he told Genma. “How’re you doing?”
And then, weirdly, he dropped his canteen.
Nothing about Raidou’s posture or actions were good. Genma was on the ragged edge of chakra depletion, and at this point even Raidou’s dense reserves were starting to feel thin to Genma’s senses. They were both injured, exhausted, sleep deprived, and parched. But this was something beyond that.
Genma turned his crouch into a kneel, picked up the canteen and uncapped it, and offered it back with one hand. The other he stretched painfully out to brace Raidou’s shoulder. It was hot. Red, hot, and tacky with dried sweat. “We need to get your mask off,” he said, keeping his voice low and calm. “Do you want me to help?”
“I got it,” Raidou said. He splayed his palm over it and yanked it free with a sharp jerk, hissing shakily through clenched teeth. The mask fell with a rattling clatter to rest at Raidou’s hip. Genma had never once seen Raidou treat his mask with anything other than care, ringing more alarm bells. A shudder ran through Raidou’s shoulder as he tipped the canteen up and drank.
And no wonder.
The bandage Genma’d slapped so hastily over Raidou’s sand-shredded cheek was saturated with blood and serum, peeling free at the edges. His eye was swollen completely shut, so puffy that his eyelashes disappeared. And everywhere his skin was red red red. Brick red. Bloodstained red. Heatstroke red. Burn red.
“I’m going to make us some shade,” Genma said. “Keep drinking that, but slowly, if you can.” Reaching for chakra reserves felt like dragging a bucket along the walls of a nearly-dry well. He stopped, looked over at their comrades, and chose the one he knew the best. “Frog.”
Ono’s head lifted, and at Genma’s gesture, he came over. Genma stood and took two steps away from Raidou to meet him.
“Can you build us a shelter? Something to block out the sun?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
“Is Moon—?” Ono asked.
“No,” Genma said, with a head shake. “I’m working on it. It’s why I need a shelter.”
“You’re not, either,” Ono said. “Are you sure?”
“Do we have another medic here?”
Ono conceded that point with a low-voiced grunt.
“You’re fire-natured, right?” Genma asked.
“Like half of Konoha,” Ono agreed. He was already halfway through the seals for a simple earth jutsu. “Fire and water.”
“That will work,” Genma said.
Ono pressed his palms against the rust-red canyon cliff face and drew an arched shell of a roof and a gritty wall from it, partially enclosing the three of them in a shallow artificial cave. It cut them off from the others.
“Work for what?”
“Chakra transfer,” Genma said. “For me, if I need it.”
Ono shook his head. “Gen— Tanuki. I haven’t done one since the war.”
“So I don’t want to fuck it up.”
“You won’t fuck it up.”
Raidou squinted up at Ono with his one functioning eye, moving carefully like he was trying hard to prevent the liquid agony in his skull from spilling over.
Concussion, Genma thought. He needed to check Raidou for concussion, too.
“Since the war?” Raidou asked. “Did your team forget how to engage with the enemy or something?”
“Not all of us are so combat-crazed we end up in the hospital every month, Moon,” Ono said.
Genma’s own head was pounding. He’d been knocked out, too, in the cave-fall, hadn’t he? He should check himself for concussion. Or more likely, follow his own advice and drink some water. He hooked his own mask off and clipped it to his belt, trading it for his canteen, which he drained in several long swallows.
It was getting harder and harder to move his shoulders under the bandages.
“I need to work on— Work on Moon’s injuries now,” he said. “If you have a weak stomach, don’t stay.”
Ono shook his masked head dismissively. “Give me a little credit,” he said. All the same, he stepped away from their shelter. “I’ll let Vulture and Lynx know what’s happening over here. And get you some more water.”
Genma dropped back down next to Raidou, who was holding his now-empty canteen between his knees. “Do you want to lean against the wall or lie down?” he asked. “And can you handle a couple of pills?”
Raidou blinked at him, refocusing one hazy eye with a faintly embarrassed, “Sorry, what’s happening?”
“I need to remove your bandage and see if I can do some healing on your face,” Genma said. “At least close the wounds a little, if I can. And I want to give you something for pain before I do it. Also fever meds and a chakra pill.” He unlatched his small med kit and flipped the canvas flap open, extracting a rolled container of morphine syrettes, and two rattling metal tins. “Frog’s getting us more water. I can dissolve the pills if you don’t think you can safely swallow them.”
He reached for one of Raidou’s hands, covering it carefully with his own. “It’s going to hurt, but it can’t wait.”
The good side of Raidou’s mouth pulled up, a little ironic. “That bad?”
Genma bit his lower lip. “That bad. It’s like a burn. A bad burn.”
Raidou reached over with his other hand and sandwiched Genma’s, patting it reassuringly, until Genma met his gaze. “Okay,” he said. There was a world of trust and bravery in that one word.
Genma took a quick breath, let it go, and pulled his hand free. “Okay.”
Ono came back with fresh canteens. Raidou got the pills down with a small, pained sound. He drank fresh water, while Genma did the same. Genma took two of the white fever tablets himself, and hesitated. He hadn’t had a soldier pill since the situation with his blood counts being off. But he needed one now, and whether or not it was a good idea in the long term, it was essential in the moment. He crunched the bitter brown pill between his molars, and shuddered at the heady rush of chemical chakra and caffeine.
Raidou grabbed for Genma’s hand again, and gave the container of soldier pills a sharp look.
“Just the one,” Genma said. “Promise.”
“Hmm,” Raidou said. He didn’t look entirely happy, but he let it go.
“Thought you wanted a transfer?” Ono said.
“I did. I do.” Genma turned back towards Ono. “I need both. You ready to do this?”
“No,” Ono said. He took off his mask and swiped the sweat off his face with one gloved hand. “Now I’m ready.” He knelt next to Genma and leaned in to press his forehead to Genma’s. Fire chakra met fire chakra in an easy surge, but Ono’s water undercut it, dragging like an undertow as his chakra flooded Genma’s dry coils. When it started to make him queasy, Genma tapped Ono’s arm and pulled back.
“That’s good,” he said. “Thanks.”
“You look a little pale,” Ono said. “Did I—?”
“You didn’t fuck it up.”
“Need anything else?”
“Watch our backs,” Genma said.
Ono saluted and stepped away from them, leaving Genma and Raidou alone in the shelter again.
“Morphine now,” Genma said, extracting a slim syrette from the roll. “When you’re ready.”
“Just give me a sec,” Raidou said. He moved to sit cross-legged with his back against the shelter wall. Genma injected his upper arm. Raidou rested his hands gently on his knees, and took several slow, deliberate, meditative breaths. When he opened his eye again it was a little glassy. “Okay.”
He still groaned when Genma unwound the gauze and pulled the saturated bandage away, and his shoulders trembled, but he stayed still. Here, in the light, after a handful of hours to fester and swell, the wound looked hideous. Genma took a shaky breath. Raidou didn’t need a field medic, he needed a burn unit.
Clots had formed in the deepest parts of the wound, black and malevolent. Bright red subcutaneous flesh lay exposed over the bridge of Raidou’s nose and across his left cheek, with brown and white dead skin peeling back in shreds and at the edges. It faded into reddened swelling where the skin was still intact. A thick, sweet odor mingled with the coppery scent of blood, turning Genma’s stomach.
He swallowed, called up freshly donated, boosted chakra, and set glowing green hands a few millimeters over Raidou’s cheek. They didn’t shake. Even when Raidou flinched and hissed, when he felt his chakra beginning to ebb away, when his shoulders started screaming, he kept his hands steady. And slowly, carefully, coaxed a fragile layer of epithelium to grow over that raw flesh. Teased serum back into capillaries. Drew immune cells in to attack the nascent infection.
It was a painstaking balancing act, drawing cells in, pushing cells away. When he finally had to stop, at the end of his reserves and Raidou’s, the wound looked… better. But still catastrophic.
He was surprised to find he was breathing hard. Braced with his hands on his knees, he asked, “You okay, Rai?”
Raidou’s eyes stayed closed; his breath came deep and shaky. It took him several seconds to swim back to the surface. He blinked a few times, with both eyes. Then the right opened fully, the left to a narrow slit. But open, released from some of the swelling, at least for now. He flexed his jaw very carefully to the side, wincing at the extremes. The right side of his mouth quirked up in half of that crooked smile Genma was so fond of.
“Well,” Raidou said, “that sucked ass. Is it still attached?”
“Yep,” Genma said, pulling an answering smile from somewhere lightyears away. “But… I…” He stuttered to a halt, shoving emotion under layers of training. “You still need a real medic. Probably skin grafts. Definitely antibiotics. How’s the pain?”
“Would not recommend to friends or family,” Raidou said, easing himself away from the wall. “But— better, I think, than earlier. We have any more water?”
Genma found one of the canteens Ono had brought and uncapped it for Raidou. “I’ll need to bandage you back up. Also you have a mild concussion, but I put all my energy into the wounds. After I’ve rested a bit, I can do something about that.” He ran out of breath and words at the same time.
Raidou took a careful few sips, trying to drink out of the uninjured side of his mouth, then offered the canteen back to Genma. While Genma drank, Raidou narrowed his eyes at Genma, pinprick morphine pupils roving from Genma’s face to his shoulders and back again. “You’re bleeding,” he said.
Genma tried to get a look at his own upper arm, but turning his head that far pulled on the sand-burned skin on his neck and shoulders too painfully.
Raidou raised his voice while Genma was still trying to assess himself. “Oi, Frog, get back here.”
Ono ducked back under their small shelter. “What’s up? Need more water already?”
“How’re your suturing skills?” Raidou asked.
“Acceptable. Why? Tanuki, can’t you— Ohhhh.”
“Oh what?” Genma asked.
“Oh shit, if you want it spelled out,” Ono said, staring at Raidou’s injury. “You want me to suture that?”
“He wants you to suture my shoulder. But I’m bandaged, Moon isn’t,” Genma said.
Ono gave Genma a once-over. “Yeah, your bandage is kind of—soaked.”
“Forget about that,” Genma said. “We need to cover Moon’s wound before we work on mine.”
Ono crouched next to Genma but his gaze was riveted on Raidou. “Shit, Moon.”
“Fuck you very much too,” Raidou said, sounding oddly cheerful. “I’d like to see you take on a bijuu and come out looking pretty.”
“I just did,” Ono said. “With a lot of backup,” he amended, before anyone objected.
A lot of that backup was dead now, Genma added mentally, including Panther and Boar.
“I thought you were going to lay some healing in there,” Ono said, interrupting Genma’s dark thoughts.
“I did,” Genma said. “A lot. You just can’t tell because you don’t know what you’re looking at. I re-epithelialized the—” He stopped himself. This wasn’t Ryouma he was trying to teach, and it was Raidou, who was going to be in screaming pain soon if they didn’t cover the partially-healed burns. “Nevermind. It’s a lot better than it was when I started. But it needs to be covered.”
“Okay, bandage me,” Raidou said. “But then you really need sutures. Those steri-strips probably shredded.”
They probably had. And the abrasions on his shoulders had probably rubbed even rawer against his bandages during their skirmish with the Iwa nin, so those were probably bleeding, too. How much, though? Had that soldier pill been a bad decision after all? But then he wouldn’t have been able to heal as much of Raidou’s injury as he had, and…
“Do you want me to do that?” Ono asked.
Genma shook his head. This was Raidou. “I’ll do it. You can help, though,” he added. “Push my med kit closer so I don’t have to reach for it.”
Ono did as asked, and Genma pulled out supplies and laid them out. A pair of occlusive burn dressings soaked in greasy yellow ointment. A larger gauze sponge. Fresh rolls of soft bandage gauze. He picked up one of the burn dressings and started to peel the sterile packaging open. “Damn, wait. Let me clean my hands again.”
After a quick scrub with alcohol and rough gauze, he picked up the burn dressing again. “Sorry if this hurts,” he told Raidou. “I’ll try to be quick. Should feel better once it’s covered over.”
Raidou remained as stoic as ever through the bandaging. The only sign of discomfort he gave was the tired slump of his shoulders when it was finished and he could lean back against the rough rock wall behind him. He sat up again almost immediately to supervise Ono’s work peeling Genma’s shirt and then bandages off.
Ono sucked in a sharp, “Oh sh—”, his favorite expression, it seemed. “Don’t you feel that?”
“I feel everything and it fucking well hurts,” Genma said. He took a breath, blew it out, and tried again. “Sorry. I’m just—”
“You’re fine,” Ono said. “Well, not fine. But you know what I mean.” He knelt on Genma’s right and started to go through Genma’s open med kit. “What do you want me to do?”
“Clean it,” Genma said, although the last thing he wanted was alcohol touching the wounds. “Stitch wherever Moon says, he can see it better than I can. And then rebandage.”
“Little bit insulting,” Ono muttered.
Raidou’s unbandaged eyebrow lifted, more a question of Genma’s judgment than Ono’s hurt feelings, but he obligingly scooted around to get a better view of Genma’s back. Then Ono started in with the alcohol, and Genma had to squeeze his eyes shut so tight that a whole festival night of fireworks went off behind his eyes. While he tried to remember to breathe, and Ono cleaned, Raidou wrapped a hand tightly around one of Genma’s. That helped.
When the cleaning was done, Raidou let go and pointed at the area where the steri-strips had been on Genma’s right shoulder, which was presumably gaping open now, and said, “Suture there.”
“Thanks, captain,” Ono said, dry as the desert they were in the middle of. He laid in stitches with a steady hand.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean—” Genma started.
“You can buy me a beer when this is over and make it up to me,” Ono said. He tied off another knot. “Gods help us, let that be soon.”
He laid more of the burn dressings over Genma’s shoulders, and wrapped them in a figure-eight of fresh bandages. “No excuse for bad posture now,” he told Genma. He was just helping Genma get his shirt back down when Vulture poked her head around the side of the shade-partition.
“Lynx wants an update,” she said. When Genma started to get up she waved him back down. “Frog can do it. You two rest a minute longer. Eat something. We’ll tell you as soon as there’s any kind of a plan.”
Kakashi was right, it was sort of annoying being nagged about eating, especially when you were feeling a little queasy.
Merciful gods let Kakashi survive. Kakashi and Ryouma. If anyone had a glimmer of a chance of escaping from whatever Orochimaru was up to, it was the two of them. But the two of them at full strength, not chest-stabbed and chakra depleted and exhausted. I’ll make offerings at every shrine on the way home, Genma silently prayed, just let Ryouma’s training be enough to keep Kakashi alive. Give them a chance to get away. Bring Minato-sama back. Don’t let Raidou’s wound get worse. Keep me going so I can keep us both going.
When Frog and Vulture had both gone to report to Lynx, Genma leaned his less injured shoulder carefully against the wall, next to Raidou, and closed his eyes. Raidou found his hand again.
“This is so fucked up,” Genma said. “Are you okay?”
There wasn’t really a good way to answer that.
Morphine made Raidou a little glassy around the edges, but it dulled the headache that was trying to eat his brain stem alive. Water helped. Fever meds helped. Chakra pills helped. His face— well. Yeah.
On the other hand, he was alive. That counted for something.
On the other other hand, every fucking thing else.
“I’ve been worse,” he said at last, with absolute truth. He squeezed Genma’s fingers gently. “How’s your head? Your shoulder’s fucked.”
“Feel like I got knocked out and concussed by a ton of falling rocks,” Genma said contemplatively, “while my head was already exploding from being that close to a bijuu. But yeah, I’ve been worse, too.”
He returned Raidou’s finger-squeeze. His hand was cool and light in Raidou’s. Long, slim, scarred fingers with slightly prominent knuckles and short, blunt nails. He had scabbed sand-burns on the heel of his hand and the striking edge of his palm. It was an expressive hand. Raidou had seen it save lives and end them, bring comfort, tease pleasure, weaponize pain. Wield blades. Raise drinks. He rubbed his thumb gently over the crease of Genma’s lifeline and watched the answering curl of fingers.
Genma’s voice tugged his attention back. “I wish I could do more for you, though. I’d take another soldier pill, but…”
“I appreciate the gesture,” Raidou said. “But as your captain, I explicitly order you not to do anything that makes you bleed from the eyes.”
Genma huffed a laugh. “Noted.” He rolled his shoulder against its new bandaging, winced, and gave up the attempt. “Already did a good amount of bleeding, anyway. How fucked is my shoulder?”
Raidou raised a hand and see-sawed it in the universal gesture of eeeeehhhhh. “Not bad enough for an early retirement. S’probably gonna need a proper clean out and a real medic later. And a tetanus booster.”
Genma seemed rather cheered by this.
They lapsed into a mutual silence, while Raidou felt hot and strange and occasionally queasy, and Genma felt like a cool mist against his shoulder. They both drank more water. It was flat, tepid, and iron-flavored. Lynx dropped by with a notably crisp, professional attitude, which Raidou guessed had something to do with the distant, hushed conversation that had featured a lot of “—ucking shit—” and “—half his face—”, and reported a successful rendezvous with the messenger hawk station. He also offered them a surprising taste of home in the form of a jar of bright mixed tsukemono drawn from his belt pouch, with a muttered, “My landlady makes them,” before retreating to his surviving teammates.
Raidou blinked at a slowly twirling piece of yellow daikon. “Okay.”
Genma, who treated all pickled items as beloved, looked like he’d been handed a tiny religious icon. He quickly liberated a senbon—“Don’t worry, not poisoned.”—unscrewed the lid, and speared out a purple bit of shiso-dyed cucumber. He savored it, eyes closed, a tiny smile at the corners of his lips, and Raidou forgave Lynx everything. After a moment, Genma impaled a piece of takuan and offered it to Raidou. “Helps with nausea. And we both need the salt.”
That was unequivocal.
Chewing wasn’t fun, but the little pickle was crunchy, salty, and sweet, and to Raidou, who was probably down a liter on salt and should by rights have been licking rocks for whatever ancient remnant of ocean remained in this desert bed, it was amazing.
They traded the jar back and forth, interspersed with more sips of the flat, warm canteen water, and began to feel marginally less like death. Raidou might have lost a little time in there, or dozed, because Genma had to catch the senbon at one point, but a scuffling in the cave brought him back to alertness. Well, alertness’s drunken cousin.
Sadayo strode out, looking like a ship cresting a dangerous wave. In her wake, Vulture supported Kawase under one arm. Behind them, Frog had the teenage girl hefted under one arm. Lynx had the older Iwa shinobi over his shoulder. Genma and Raidou scrambled to their feet, and Raidou very skillfully did not tip right over again.
Sadayo said curtly, “We’re returning to the palace.”
Raidou squinted at her.
“With all due respect, Ambassador,” Genma said, very carefully, “that seems unwise.”
“Does it,” Sadayo said, with a lack of inflection that made the question stillborn. She gave Genma a narrow, unimpressed look that cataloged his new bandages, then transferred it to Raidou. “Can you walk?”
“Yes,” said Raidou, who hadn’t tried yet, but also hadn’t been injured in the legs, so the theory seemed sound. “Why are we going to the palace?” In the middle of Suna. Presumably crawling with Suna shinobi. Who by now all had to know that Konoha had landed in their secret oasis and kidnapped one third of their surviving leadership force.
He was very pleased not to have said this out loud.
“To make a deal,” Sadayo said.
None of the ANBU made a noise, or shuffled, or even breathed loudly. It was, perhaps, the vacuum of protest in the wide, airless universe of no Hokage and a general feeling of having been recently beaten up by a mountain that made Sadayo sigh through her broken nose and relent.
“I am going to trade Kawase’s life, several key pieces of information, and the promise not to personally instigate a war, in exchange for Konoha’s strategic… support during Suna’s renewal,” she said.
Raidou’s temples thudded. This was— important yes, but did it have to be now? What about the Hokage? What about Iwa? What about— “What about your son?”
She rounded on him with sudden blazing fury, like a firestorm from a clear sky. “This is how I help my son.”
Raidou snapped his mouth shut.
There was no more discussion after that. Sadayo took Kawase herself, circling one of his thin wrists with her left hand. Lynx took both Iwa captives. Raidou found himself paired with Vulture, who was very carefully not looking him in the eye. And Frog had Genma. They weren’t being trusted to translocate themselves, it seemed.
He had to admit, probably wise.
With a short little hiss of breath through his teeth, he slotted his ANBU mask back into place, hiding whatever ruin was left beneath its smooth, blank lunar face.
As a group, with the clean, faint ripple of chakra, they went.