[Please enjoy this post-canon story by Aubrey, which offers one potential version of a future, set approximately 10 years after the main events of ANBU Legacy take place]
Autumn, Yondaime Year 15
“This is so dumb,” Hyuuga Hikaru muttered into his radio mic. “Since when do real ninja have to chase some spoiled rich lady’s cat?”
“Since it’s what we’ve been ordered to do,” Sagara Yui replied testily. “And real ninja have to follow orders.”
Hikaru rubbed his tired eyes and activated his Byakugan again. “Whatever, it’s still dumb. I’m so bored of doing D-ranks.”
“We’ve only been genin for a month,” Yui said.
“When my cousin was a genin, he started doing C-ranks after two weeks.”
“Well, maybe if we had your cousin on our team instead of a whiner like you, it wouldn’t be taking us two days to find the stupid thing.”
“Like you’re doing any better! How many of your ‘absolutely foolproof traps’ worked? Oh right! None of them.”
“Will you both be quiet?” Fukuda Sango hissed into her mic. “Look, cats like warm, quiet places where they can get lots of sun, right? So, Hikaru-kun: look at roofs and treetops, and other places where there aren’t a lot of people. Yui-chan, get ready to grab it once we flush it out.”
There was a moment of silence.
Then, “Geez, who died and made you Hokage?” Yui sneered.
“At least I have a plan! You don’t even know what you’re doing—”
“Guys, shut up! I see it! Northeast sector, on the roof of the Yamanaka flower shop.”
“Told you,” Sango muttered smugly. “Okay, Hikaru-kun and I will go after it from the front. Yui-chan, be ready to cut off its escape. Let’s go!”
Three figures converged on the Yamanaka flower shop. As silently as their prey, they blurred into view on the roof.
“I’ve got—Ow! That little monster swatted at me!”
“Don’t let go of it!”
“I’m not going to let g—oh shit, Yui! Grab it!”
“Wha—ow! Damnit, you stupid—gotcha! Hah, thought you could get away from me, eh? Well take that, you little furball—”
“Yui-chan watch out for its teeth!”
A few minutes later, three genin emerged onto the street, battered and bruised but beaming with victory. Their quarry, defiant even in defeat, yowled and squirmed furiously in Yui’s arms.
“Ryouma-sensei,” Sango announced into her headpiece. “Mission ‘Find Mama’s Precious Tora-chan’ is a success!”
Ryouma-sensei met them outside the Mission Office afterwards, with a white pastry box and an assortment of what he liked to call ‘juice boxes,’ but were actually packets of electrolytes and liquid amino acids. “Congratulations on another successful mission, Team Eight!” he said, leading them to a nearby bench. “How did it go?”
“I hate cats,” Yui said, picking out two strawberry-flavored juice boxes and a coconut-flavored one.
“It definitely didn’t want to be returned to its owner,” said Sango, accepting one of the strawberry juice boxes. “Though I don’t blame it.”
“When do we get to go on a real mission?” asked Hikaru. He took out a chestnut cream bun from the pastry box, and two anko daifuku that he gave to Sango and Yui, in exchange for the coconut juice box.
Ryouma-sensei tossed his head back and laughed, loudly enough for several passersby to turn their heads and look in his direction. More than a few of them kept looking, Yui noticed with disdain, because according to her older sister, Ryouma-sensei was “hot stuff.”
Yui didn’t get it. Ryouma-sensei was old. Already thirty!
“What, you don’t think catching a cat is real mission work?” He gave Hikaru a wink. “Wily, maneuverable target who knows the terrain and is clearly motivated to avoid capture?” He tapped the bite mark on Yui’s forearm. “Gave you some battle wounds too.”
Yui scowled and held out her arm for healing.
“I meant a mission where we actually get to leave the village,” Hikaru insisted, between bites of his bun. “We’ve been on this team for a month now, and all we’ve done is help people fix up their homes.”
“And relay messages,” Yui agreed grimly.
That had been even worse than chasing the cat, at least for her. Sango and Hikaru had delivered their messages, but Yui had gotten a jounin who she couldn’t find for hours, even after she’d bribed Hikaru into using his Byakugan to help her look. And when she’d finally managed to find him, he’d already known that A Likely Story had the book he wanted.
For some reason, Ryouma-sensei had found that hilarious.
“Inuzuka Rika on Team Seven left for a mission last week,” added Sango. Then she looked uncertain. “It’s… it’s not because of me, is it? I’ve been practicing my henge! I can even keep it up in my sleep now!”
Hikaru and Yui exchanged a glance. They’d known Sango since their Academy days, long enough that her blue skin and gills were no more remarkable than any other clan’s markings. When they’d all been assigned to Team Eight, she’d told them a little about her history, how she’d been rescued from Kirigakure’s horrible massacres, the last remaining member of her clan. And why she wasn’t allowed out of the village without a henge.
“I know, Sango-chan,” Ryouma-sensei said, patting a reassuring hand on her head. “It’s not because of you, I swear.”
Sango bit her lip and stared down into her lap, gills darkening. Hikaru passed her another daifuku.
“In fact…” Ryouma-sensei rubbed his neck, looking a little embarrassed. “Okay I’m technically not supposed to tell you guys this yet, but there might be a C-rank escort mission in the works for us very soon.”
Hikaru jerked upright. “What? To where?”
“How soon?” Yui asked.
Sango, mouth full of daifuku, just jumped to her feet and stood at attention, as if demonstrating her readiness to set off right now if necessary.
Ryouma-sensei grinned. “Let’s just say you’ve got about three days to familiarize yourselves with maps of Fire Country’s northeastern border. And you should maybe start packing enough clothes for a two-week trip.”
The three genin beamed at one another. Two weeks—that might even be enough time to go to another country!
They left Konoha three days later, heading northeast toward Hotsprings Country. A few hours poring over maps had revealed, much to Sango and her teammates’ disappointment, that rough terrain meant that they would not actually have time to enter Hotsprings Country. Instead their destination would be one of the radio towers right at the border, where Fire Country’s rolling hills began their jagged growth into Hotsprings Country’s famous mountains.
It didn’t help that the person they were escorting was a civilian, which meant they all had to walk, instead of running or jumping through the trees. Though at least Kurokawa Isamu had interesting stories to tell about his career as an electrical engineer.
Well, when he wasn’t spending his time trying to flirt with Ryouma-sensei.
“I can’t imagine why,” Yui muttered, as they crouched by a stream to refill their water supply. “Ryouma-sensei’s so boring.”
“He never lets anyone have any fun,” Hikaru agreed, plopping his canteen sulkily into the cold water.
Sango sighed. She and her team had presented Ryouma-sensei with what they’d all thought was an excellent plan of action: Hikaru ranging ahead as their scout, with Yui and her excellent taijutsu skills guarding their client, and Sango’s stout chakra presence trailing behind to watch their backs. Except their sensei had just smiled and ruffled their hair, before telling them that they’d be spending the entire mission together, as a unit, and always under his watch.
Part of her understood; her mother had long since impressed upon her that the world was a dangerous place, no matter how skilled you may be. But a much bigger part of her was just annoyed that she’d managed to escape one overprotective adult only to land in the clutches of another one. It wasn’t as if they were infiltrating enemy territory, or carrying a bandit’s fortune in gold. What could possibly happen to them on a mission like this?
Isamu-san laughed when she brought that up at dinner that evening. “It’s true, I’m not in anyone’s Bingo Book, and thank the gods for that!”
They were supposed to camp for most of the trip, but it had started raining earlier in the afternoon, and Isamu-san had offered to pay for a hot meal and an overnight stay at an inn.
“Though you’d be surprised how much enemy ninja would pay for a chance to infiltrate our radio towers,” Isamu-san continued, tapping an absent finger against his cup. “Get your people inside a radio tower and you can monitor communications, intercept calls for help, send false intel and lure your enemy into traps.”
Sango shivered. She didn’t think of that. Her irritation at Ryouma-sensei’s caution seemed silly now, even careless.
“Konoha knows this, of course,” Ryouma-sensei said brightly, though there was a hint of an edge to his voice. “That’s why no one’s allowed inside a radio tower unless they know the secret password.”
Isamu-san glanced at Sango and her teammates, and laughed again. “Right, right, so there’s no chance of any enemy agents infiltrating our towers. Not to mention, we get escorted by members of Konoha’s finest.”
He beamed at Ryouma-sensei and leaned in closer, giving him a slow blink as he refilled Ryouma-sensei’s cup.
Yui rolled her eyes. Hikaru scrunched his nose. Sango looked away, checked her henge again, and wondered what other dangers lurked in the vast plains of her ignorance.
Their boredom went away as they left Konoha’s woodlands, replaced with long days of orienteering, weather-watching, and foraging, and nights learning how to set up camp. Yui, who’d gone camping before with her family, taught the other two how to pitch a tent and make a fire pit, while Ryouma-sensei dug the latrine trench and his clone collected firewood. On the fourth day, they stopped by a lake, and Sango got to impress everyone with how good she was at catching fish.
She even managed not to gag when Ryouma-sensei taught them how to clean and gut the fish.
They reached the radio tower early in the sixth day. Hikaru spotted it first, of course—a tall stone-clad structure, with stairs that zigzagged up to a cabin at the top.
The moment it got within view of everyone else, Yui yelled, “Last one there’s a smelly Iwa-nin!” and took off running. She only got a few steps away though, before Ryouma-sensei grabbed her collar and hauled her back to the rest of them.
“We go as a team,” he said, and frowned sternly at her until she grumbled reluctant agreement.
A pair of chuunin guards met them as they approached. The guards checked everyone’s identification, and performed a kai in case anyone had cast a genjutsu on them, which made Hikaru’s Hyuuga pride bristle a little. But they left Sango’s henge alone once Ryouma-sensei talked to them, and turned to Kurokawa Isamu instead.
“How was your journey?” one of them asked.
“The persimmons are ripening slowly in this frost,” Kurokawa replied.
Since they were currently experiencing an unusually warm autumn, Hikaru assumed this must be the secret password that Ryouma-sensei had been talking about.
The chuunin nodded. “A late winter brings a good apple harvest.”
Kurokawa grinned, visibly relaxing. “Well. It would appear that your mission is completed. Thank you, shinobi-san.” He gave Team Eight a low, gracious bow. “Sensei. I do hope we’ll meet again.”
“Take care of yourself, Isamu-san,” Ryouma-sensei said, smiling. “You’ve got an important job to do.”
The ninja at the radio tower sent them off with a small basket of fresh fruit, which tasted especially delicious after almost a week of trail rations and under-seasoned fish. With their mission objective complete, Ryouma-sensei relaxed enough to let the three of them actually roam around a bit, even joining in a quick game of Hunter Tag. He won easily, even when they all ganged up on him, because all jounin were dirty sneaks who didn’t fight fair. As penalty for losing, they had to hunt and trap their own dinner. Hikaru quickly learned that while spotting prey with his Byakugan was easy, actually catching the prey was much, much harder.
Maybe all those cat-chasing missions had been useful, after all.
The evening of their seventh day passed uneventfully, after a dinner of foraged mushrooms and snared rabbit (that Yui gutted with a worrying amount of enthusiasm). Then they played cards, which Ryouma-sensei lost as always, so he took the first watch while the rest of them slept.
A touch woke Hikaru, deep in the night. He opened his eyes, and felt Ryouma-sensei’s hand cover his mouth.
“Quiet.” Sensei’s voice was barely above a whisper. His chakra, normally loose and warm, was spiky with tension. “We’re being followed. Get your pack.”
Sango and Yui were already awake, their faces pinched and pale in the dim glow of the moon. Neither of them were sensors; they stared wide-eyed into the surrounding trees, jerking like rabbits whenever there was a sound. Hikaru sent out his chakra to the limit of his sensory range—just beyond fifty meters—and found nothing. The forest slept fitfully, twitching with the scuttling of small, nocturnal animals.
In the quiet darkness, Hikaru’s thumping heart felt very, very loud.
Standard ninja protocol meant that you packed up most of your belongings each night before going to bed, to make for a quicker breaking of camp the next morning when you were groggy and tired. Wordlessly, they strapped on their weapons pouches and slung on their packs. Hikaru bent to fold up his bedroll, but Ryouma-sensei shook his head.
“No time.” He beckoned to them. “Get close and hold on to me. I’m going to translocate.”
In the Academy, a jounin had once come as a guest instructor and demonstrated translocation. It was faster than shunshin, and could cover a greater distance than kawarimi. Hikaru hadn’t been one of the kids who’d volunteered for a ride-along, but the ones who did described it as kind of like being squeezed through a tiny hole so fast you barely felt it before you popped out the other side.
Hikaru held onto Ryouma-sensei’s side, felt Sango’s cool wrist against his right hand and Yui’s fingers bump his left, and squeezed his eyes shut.
Chakra snapped up around them, and shoved.
A heartbeat later, they dropped. Hikaru stumbled, but Ryouma-sensei grabbed him before he could fall.
“Once more,” Ryouma-sensei said, in almost a growl, and they translocated again.
This time, it was Ryouma-sensei who staggered as they landed, white-faced and gasping like he was about to throw up. Hikaru rushed to brace his right side, and felt Yui’s weight thump against sensei as she did the same against his right. Sango fumbled open her canteen and brought it to Ryouma-sensei’s lips.
“I’m fine,” he said, pulling gently out of Hikaru and Yui’s grasp. He took the canteen and drank, then spat out a mouthful of water onto the grass at his feet. “I’m all right, really. It’s just been a while since I’ve had to translocate this far, and… well, I’ve never liked space-time ninjutsu.”
“Where are we?” Yui asked, looking around.
“About a kilometer west of our campsite.” Ryouma-sensei straightened and wiped his mouth. “I left a genjutsu back there, but I doubt that’ll stop them for long, if they’re as good as I think they are.”
He gave the canteen back to Sango, who clipped it back onto her pack. “Who are they? Why are they after us?” she asked.
“I’m guessing bounty hunters,” Ryouma-sensei replied. His expression was grim. “Four of them. I thought I sensed them a few days ago, but then they disappeared. They must have been waiting for us to come back from the radio tower.” He looked down at his team. “We need to keep moving.”
Yui’s head snapped up. “We’re not gonna stay and fight?”
“No.” Ryouma-sensei’s voice was like ice.
Ryouma-sensei grimaced. More gently, he said, “If you can run, you always run. If you can’t run away, then at least go someplace where you’ll have the advantage. My chakra affinities are fire and water. There’s a river about five kilometers further west of here. That’s where we’re going. Stay together. Don’t get separated.”
They leapt for the trees, channeling chakra into their eyes to help them see better in the dark. Sango, the worst of them at tree-running, tripped over a broken branch and almost fell, her henge flickering for just a moment before Yui grabbed her wrist and yanked her upright.
Ryouma-sensei was silent at their back, his chakra looming dark as a thunderstorm.
Bounty hunters. Everyone knew about the Bingo Book, even if genin weren’t allowed to read it. But Hikaru had thought that only famous or important people had Bingo Book bounties put on them, and Ryouma-sensei wasn’t either of those. He wasn’t a missing-nin, either. He was just their sensei, who gave them homework and listened to old people music and wore a haori with jeans like a weirdo. Why would people pay money to kill him?
It was still dark when they reached the river, though there was a thin band lightening the seam of the eastern horizon. Ryouma-sensei carried Hikaru and Yui, one at a time, across the fast-moving water, while Sango shed her henge and swam.
The other side of the river had a wide strip of land that backed onto the base of a rocky outcropping. Ryouma-sensei translocated them one more time up to the top, where a copse of trees and shrubs dug stubborn roots into the windworn dirt.
“Get under there,” he said, herding them beneath the bushy leaves of a rhododendron. He dug a scroll out of his flak vest and unrolled it on the ground, revealing a complicated-looking seal that he activated with a touch. Chakra flared, then grew, and kept growing until their entire bush was engulfed. “All right. You’ll be safe here.”
Yui’s hand shot out and snagged his sleeve. “You’re leaving us?”
Ryouma-sensei nodded. “They’re only after me. Don’t worry, this ward will keep anyone from finding you unless they’re really looking for it.”
“That’s not—” Yui shook her head frantically. “You can’t fight them all by yourself!”
“We want to help!” Sango added.
Hikaru bit his lip. He didn’t want to seem like a coward, especially in front of the girls. But they couldn’t feel their sensei’s chakra the way he could, all that roiling stress and dread. If Ryouma-sensei was worried…
“Thank you. That means a lot.” Ryouma-sensei smiled at them, and tugged Yui’s hand off his sleeve. “But you guys remember how my rot jutsu works, right? I won’t be able to fight properly if I’m worried about it hitting one of you.”
Nikutai Tokasu, Ryouma-sensei’s flesh-melting jutsu that could rot any organic thing it touched to sludge. He’d demonstrated it for them on their first day as a team, when he’d dissolved a whole fish in less than a minute. He had two other jutsu that were even more powerful, but he hadn’t demonstrated those—just warned them to never, ever approach him if his hands glowed.
Yui swallowed hard, but nodded. Sango sniffed, her eyes shiny.
Hikaru looked at them, and fisted his hands in his lap. A ninja’s greatest enemy is fear, his mother had always said. It must never be permitted to rule us.
“Then we’ll watch your back,” he said, and put his hands together in the opening seal for Byakugan. “At least we can do that, right?”
“As long as you do that from inside the ward. I’ll come get you when the fight’s over. If I can’t—which is extremely unlikely,” Ryouma-sensei stressed, when Sango opened her mouth to protest, “wait until the bounty hunters leave, and then go straight to the nearest radio tower to report in. There’s one that’s half a day’s run south of here. Got it?”
“Good.” Ryouma-sensei stood up and grinned, an almost perfect copy of his usual exuberant cheer. “Awww, don’t give me those long faces. Trust me, your sensei has had way scarier things than a few bounty hunters try to kill him, and none of them even got close. So have some faith, will you?”
Sango wiped her eyes, and grinned back, just a little wobbly. “Go get’em, Ryouma-sensei.”
“That’s the spirit,” he replied. He turned and jumped off the ledge, back down to the riverbank.
Hikaru activated his Byakugan, and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long.
“Three chakra presences approaching from across the river,” he said, as glowing whirlwinds sprinted into his visual range. “They’re heading for Ryouma-sensei.”
It was obvious why Ryouma-sensei hadn’t decided to keep running. These new ninja were fast, much faster than Hikaru and his teammates. Maybe if Ryouma-sensei had been by himself— Hikaru bit back the pang of guilt.
“Three?” Yui asked, voice sharp. “I thought there were four bounty hunters after him.”
Hikaru looked harder, channeling more chakra to his eyes. It didn’t make his thirty-meter range any greater, but it did let him see more, in case someone was hiding under a genjutsu or something. A few civilians caught his gaze, their chakra dim and sluggish. Some small animals— birds, mostly, and fish. No other ninja.
“I still only see three.”
“Maybe one of them was using a shadow clone?” Sango suggested.
Hikaru frowned. “Maybe, but— oh gods!”
Down on the riverbank, gruesome chakra, hideous and huge, spewed from Ryouma-sensei’s coils.
“Is Ryouma-sensei hurt?”
It had to be Ryouma-sensei’s rot jutsu, but this felt nothing like the demonstration he’d given them. Two of the enemy ninja stopped. The third kept going.
A bolt of that sickening chakra shot out from Ryouma-sensei’s hands, hit the third ninja square in the center of his chest, and ate his chakra from the inside.
Someone screamed, a high, hoarse shriek.
“He’s… he just killed one of them,” Hikaru managed, before he couldn’t watch anymore and vomited into the dirt.
“Hikaru-kun!” Sango cried, bending over Hikaru as he threw up. “Are you all right?”
Yui unclipped his canteen and shoved it into his hand, before digging out a handkerchief from her pocket. “He’s fine, stop hovering, Sango. Hey, Ryouma-sensei’s still okay, right? That wasn’t him who screamed?”
Hikaru spat one last time and brought the canteen to his lips, drinking deeply. His eyes were normal again, with a bit of redness starting to creep into the sclera—the beginning signs of Byakugan overuse.
“He’s okay,” Hikaru said, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve (even though Yui’s handkerchief was right there). “I’m okay too. It was just…” He grimaced, shuddering. “Ryouma-sensei’s jutsu is disgusting!”
Yui smacked the back of his head. “Don’t insult our sensei!”
“You’re only saying that ‘cause you can’t see what his jutsu does!” Hikaru shot back, holding his hands protectively over his head. “It’s awful! It doesn’t just rot people’s bodies, it rots their chakras too!”
“But that’s good, right?” Sango asked, pushing herself between Hikaru and Yui. “It means Ryouma-sensei will beat those bounty hunters!”
Yui rolled her eyes. “Of course he’ll beat those bounty hunters, he’s our sensei. He’s probably already killed the rest of them by now. Hikaru, go look.”
Hikaru shook his head violently, eyes squeezing shut. “No way! I’m not looking at that again. Let’s just wait here. Sensei can come get us once he’s done fighting.”
“Stop being a baby! You—”
“Wait.” Sango’s hand shot up, in the ninja field sign for Be alert. Her gaze was fixed on a dense thicket of bushes on the other side of the outcropping. “I think I heard something.”
Yui slid a kunai into her hand.
Veins bulged at Hikaru’s temples. “There’s someone in those bushes. It’s…” His shoulders slumped, bulging veins receding. “It’s okay, it’s just a civilian.”
They watched the bushes silently.
For a moment, there was nothing, just the dim blue-grey silence of early dawn. Then, a faint rustle, before the branches parted, revealing a short, dark-haired woman. She was wearing a civilian’s loose pants and cloth shoes, but her sleeves were bound, her forearms covered in what looked like long leather cuffs. An archer’s wristguards, Yui realized, when she saw the bow and quiver slung across her back.
“I think she’s a hunter,” Yui murmured.
“Should we warn her that there’s fighting?” Hikaru whispered. “She’s just a civilian, what if a jutsu misses and hits her?”
Yui frowned and shook her head. “Ryouma-sensei said the ward’s supposed to keep those enemy ninja from noticing us. What if we call out to her, and the ward breaks?”
“So we’re just supposed to let her endanger herself?”
“Well—I’m sure she’ll notice that there are ninja fighting! I mean, it’s kind of hard to miss! Right, Sango?”
They both turned to Sango—who wasn’t looking at them at all, but at the woman. “Where are the rest of her arrows?”
Yui blinked. “Huh?”
“She’s only got three,” Sango said hesitantly. Her expression was troubled. “Shouldn’t she have more arrows?”
Yui turned back to the woman, who did in fact only have three arrows. She was creeping towards the edge of the outcropping. “Huh. Maybe she… already used up the rest?”
But that wasn’t right either. Hunters didn’t waste their arrows. If she’d already used them then where was her catch? And why would she be moving away from the cover of the shrubbery, when there were clearly signs of fighting down below? Unless—
Four bounty hunters, Yui remembered, as horror iced her belly. Four, while Hikaru had only seen three.
“She’s gonna attack Ryouma-sensei!” Yui shouted, just as the woman put an arrow to her bowstring and loosed it down onto the riverbank.
Cool hands grabbed her, one clamping over her mouth as the other shoved her back down into the dirt. “Shhh!” Sango hissed. “The ward!”
Yui froze—stupid, stupid, stupid—but the archer didn’t even flinch, just swore softly and scooted backward. Ryouma-sensei’s ward must block sound as well as chakra. Thank the gods.
“Did she get him?” Sango asked.
Hikaru nodded, Byakugan activated again. “Just his leg. He’s still fighting.”
“How many?” Yui demanded.
“Still two. They’re keeping their distance.”
Learning from the mistakes of their dead comrade. Or buying time for their archer to line up a second shot. She was already moving, skimming the edge of the outcropping—looking for a better angle?
Yui wriggled out from underneath Sango. “Hikaru, you’re sure that archer’s a civilian? Really sure?”
“I… yeah?” Hikaru frowned, and refocused his gaze on the woman. “Her chakra’s too underdeveloped to be a ninja.”
“Could she be masking? Or muffling her chakra?” Sango asked.
Hikaru shook his head. “That’d look different from what I’m seeing. She’s not a ninja, I’m sure of it.”
Didn’t mean she wasn’t dangerous, but there was no time for that, not when she still had two arrows. “Okay. Here’s what we’re gonna do: Hikaru, lure her over here. Throw some rocks or something. Sango, you’re the strongest—when she gets close enough, jump out and grab her.” Yui swallowed hard. “Then I’ll take her down.”
She didn’t say kill, but the grim expressions of her teammates told her that she didn’t have to. It was fine; every ninja went into the field knowing that they might have to kill someone. And Yui was already nearly thirteen, older than both her sister and her mother had been when they’d had their first kill.
Hikaru tossed a pebble at the archer, capturing her attention. It must have also broken the ward, because when he shook the leaves of their rhododendron bush, she noticed and came toward them.
The woman looked young. Maybe just a little older than Mariko-neesan.
Cool fingers slid into Yui’s free hand, squeezing it tightly.
Yui’s eyes prickled. She shook her head and took a deep breath. This woman had tried to kill her sensei; would try again if Yui didn’t stop her. And it had to be Yui. Sango was too sweet and kind, and Hikaru was a spoiled brat from a high-and-mighty clan that probably did everything for him. Yui was the daughter of Sagara Okiku, commander of Konoha’s elite ANBU. She’d get the job done.
Strike fast and be decisive, Ryouma-sensei had said, when he was showing them how to kill and gut a rabbit. If your mind doesn’t waver, neither will your blade.
“Sango-chan, get ready,” Hikaru murmured, as the woman came closer. “I’ll grab the bow.”
Sango nodded, and rose to a crouch.
Hikaru held up his hand, then folded down a finger. Then another. 3. 2. 1—
They sprang forward, Sango jumping high, Hikaru sweeping low. The archer yelped and stumbled, Sango’s weight on her shoulders dragging her down to one knee. Hikaru wrenched her bow from her other arm and tossed it into the bushes, sending the arrow scattering across the dirt.
“What the fuck,” the archer spat, and then there was a knife in her bow hand, the blade arcing toward Sango, who was still holding her other arm down.
Yui shot out of the bush, grabbed the back of Sango’s shirt, and hauled her back. The archer’s blade hit empty air, but she recovered fast, scrabbling to her feet and staggering backwards, keeping the three genin in front of her.
“Get back!” she snarled, eyes wide and panicked as she brandished her knife. “You can’t touch me, I’m a Fire Country citizen! Konoha ninja can’t kill their own people!”
“We can kill traitors though,” a familiar voice said, before Ryouma-sensei flashed right behind her, and slashed a kunai across her throat.
Blood erupted. The knife dropped from the woman’s fingers. The rest of her body followed after it, crumpling into a heap on the grass.
Ryouma-sensei watched her fall, then turned his glare on the genin. “I told you to stay inside the ward.”
Sango shrank back. Yui edged in front of her and retorted, “You needed help! She was gonna shoot you—again!”
Hikaru had told them that the archer had gotten Ryouma-sensei in the leg, but it was still a shock to see the stub of arrow shaft sticking out of his thigh, surrounded by a wet, dark circle of blood. There was more blood on his arms, and a single horizontal cut across the edge of his jaw.
Yui had never seen Ryouma-sensei bleed before.
“Yeah!” Hikaru piped up, flanking Sango’s other side. “And we found the fourth bounty hunter!”
Ryouma-sensei’s expression darkened even further. “That’s not the fourth bounty hunter.”
“Came in handy, though.” A length of shadow peeled away from one of the darkly shaded trees and unfolded into a tall, lanky man. Iwa hitai-ate, scratched out. “No one keeps an eye out for civilians.”
“Iwa,” Ryouma-sensei sneered. Red-black chakra flared in his hands.
“Formerly,” the man corrected, stepping forward, though still staying far out of Ryouma-sensei’s jutsu range. “Just Ishida Ran, now.” He slid his gaze over to Yui and her teammates. “And these must be your genin. I was wondering where you’d stashed them.”
Yui’s gut clenched. He’d been lying in wait, trying to find them, use them as bait or blackmail for Ryouma-sensei, and they’d just handed themselves over to him like a gift.
“Picking on kids now?” Ryouma-sensei laughed, a cold cruel sound that he’d never made before. “No wonder even Iwa didn’t want you.”
That got a reaction. The man snarled—and vanished, reappearing suddenly behind Ryouma-sensei with two wakizashi against Ryouma-sensei’s throat. Yui nearly shrieked, but there was a puff of smoke and the daggers were cutting tree bark instead. A kawarimi no jutsu, the fastest Yui had ever seen, and Ryouma-sensei was back, hands rot-red and grasping. The bounty hunter met those hands with his daggers, his reach even longer than Ryouma-sensei’s, and the rot jutsu fizzled into nothing against the steel.
Ryouma-sensei fell back a step. The man smirked, and shook the last vestiges of rot chakra from his dagger like he was flicking away a stray drop of blood.
“Now you’re getting it,” the man said. “We can keep going, of course, but how long do you think you’ll last with that wound? I’ll give you another five minutes before the poison numbs that whole leg.”
Poison? Hikaru hadn’t said—but Yui could see it now, the slight stiffness of Ryouma-sensei’s wounded leg, the way he kept flash-stepping instead of running.
“Let’s make this easy for everyone.” The bounty hunter held up one of his daggers. “Option one: Kill yourself now. You get to die knowing that your genin are safe; I get to bring in an intact corpse.” He held up the other dagger. “Option two: you keep fighting. You die anyway, and I’ll make sure your dead genin are the last things you see. I bring in a… possibly less intact corpse, but it’s your bloodline that’s worth the most anyway, so I’ll still get paid if I bring in your balls.”
Ryouma-sensei lowered his hands, the haloing chakra fading away. Yui stared, horrified, as he tucked one hand behind his leg, and signed: Run.
“My balls are already spoken for,” Ryouma-sensei said. “And you’re not my type.”
His hands went back up, flashed through seals too fast for Yui to catch, and he charged.
Someone grabbed Yui and yanked. It was Sango, already running just like Ryouma-sensei’d ordered, heading for the treeline. Hikaru was right by her side. They were both white-lipped and pale. Neither of them looked back, but Yui couldn’t help it, she turned—just as blood gushed out from the dead archer’s throat and wrapped around Ryouma-sensei’s hands, coalescing into a pair of scything blades that were longer than his arm.
Yui turned back around and kept running.
They’d just made it into the trees when Hikaru’s head jerked up. “It was a clone!”
“Huh?” Yui asked.
“That wasn’t Ryouma-sensei, it was just a clone—” He cut off, his Byakugan fading, and dropped.
“Hikaru-kun!” Sango yelled, skidding to a stop.
A second later, Yui felt it too: killing intent like ice in her veins, shoving her to her knees. This was nothing like the demonstrations they’d gotten in school. This was real, and their sensei wasn’t here to protect them. They’d all die. There was nothing she could do. She couldn’t fight, she couldn’t move, she couldn’t even breathe, she was going to die bloody and alone and her family wouldn’t even know—
She heard Sango scream. It took everything she had just to turn her head.
The bounty hunter had Sango, one arm in a chokehold around her neck. Blood splashed his face and soaked his collar. One of his ears had been cut in half. He was staring down at Sango, who was blue again, her henge gone.
“What the—” he said, before Sango made a furious sound and bit him.
The man shouted and jerked his arm away. Skin tore, along with a chunk of actual flesh. He swore viciously and grabbed her again, by the hair this time, and pressed his blade under her chin.
“Well,” the bounty hunter said, a feral grin lighting his face. “Guess I will be getting paid after all.”
“Or you’ll be dead,” said Ryouma-sensei—the real Ryouma-sensei, it had to be. He dashed straight for the bounty hunter, hands glowing with red.
The man yanked Sango in front of him like a shield, but Ryouma-sensei didn’t stop, didn’t even slow down. He punched straight through Sango’s head, her face dissolving around her crumbling skull, and went for the bounty hunter’s heart.
Yui’s throat closed with horror.
An arm like iron slung around Yui’s waist. Chakra cracked, once, and she was being yanked away, so fast she lost breath entirely. Another crack, another yank. Her head was ringing, she was going to throw up. A third crack, and this time she fell, tumbling onto mercifully soft grass. She clung to it and retched, willing the world to stop spinning.
Hikaru was crying, in huge heaving sobs that shook his whole body. Yui was throwing up. Sango wanted to do both, and then plunge into deep water, where no one would be able to reach her, and hide.
“You’re okay,” Ryouma-sensei said, coughing as he shoved himself up to his feet. He reached out to Sango.
She flinched. And then felt awful when that made Ryouma-sensei freeze, a gutted look on his face.
“I’m so sorry, Sango-chan,” he said quietly. “I should have found another way.”
It was just his normal hand, not glowing with chakra or covered in rot. It was battered though, palm scraped, knuckles torn, fingernails filthy. He rubbed at a tattoo on the side of his neck, and left bloody fingerprints behind.
The rest of him didn’t look any better; he was even bloodier than his clone had been when it had killed the archer woman, and trembling faintly like he was cold. His skin was grey under his tan.
Sango took a deep breath, reminded herself that this was Ryouma-sensei, and took his hand. “It’s all right, Sensei. Are you okay?”
Ryouma-sensei’s face did something complicated.
“Did you kill him?” Yui asked, scrubbing a sleeve across her mouth. “Are we safe?”
“No. I’m sorry.” Ryouma-sensei grimaced. “I killed the three on the riverbank, but not the one that went after you. What you saw was just a genjutsu. I meant for it to only target him, but my chakra control isn’t great right now.”
“It looked really real,” Hikaru murmured softly, still hiccuping. His eyes were red-rimmed, wet and wary.
Ryouma-sensei’s throat bobbed. “I know, Hikaru-kun. I’m so sorry.”
Yui pressed up against Hikaru and handed him her handkerchief. “What do we do now?”
“We have to get away from here,” Ryouma-sensei said. “I’ve bought us a little time, but it won’t be long before he picks up our trail. We need to lose him. Can you all run?”
Sango nodded. Yui did the same.
Hikaru wiped his face, and frowned at Ryouma-sensei’s leg. “Can you, Sensei? What about the poison?”
Ryouma-sensei dropped his gaze down to his injured leg. “I can’t stop the poison from spreading without disabling my leg, and translocating takes too much chakra. But if we can find a place to hide, I can try to get rid of the poison and heal myself.”
Fighting when you were wounded was dangerous. Sango knew that, it was how her aunt had died. But healing was chakra-costly, especially self-healing, and they still had an enemy after them. Ryouma-sensei was saving his chakra in case he needed to fight again.
“We’re near Iwaki Ridge,” Ryouma-sensei continued, squinting to the east, where a tepid yellow sun was just cresting the horizon. “There’s a network of waterfalls not far from here. Eat something while I bind up my wounds.”
They ate ration bars in swift, tense silence, while Ryouma-sensei slashed open his pants and ripped a hole big enough to fit clotting bandages. He ate a rat bar too, and crunched a soldier pill between his teeth.
Then they ran, heading southwest, with the sun at their backs. They weren’t far from the waterfalls, but they had to double back multiple times, and strike out in different directions to lay false trails and traps. Ryouma-sensei kept speed with them, breathing hard, his wounded leg dragging behind him. More than once, he had to stop and use his chakra to push back the poison enough for his stiffened leg to move again. Each time, afterward, he looked worse.
“A couple of my old teammates worked on building immunity to poisons,” Ryouma-sensei said, smiling crookedly around ashen lips. “They offered to teach me, but I never took them up on it. Kinda regretting that now.”
“It’s not just the poison,” Hikaru muttered later, during another of the stops. “His chakra’s getting low. He’s pushing himself too hard.”
Ryouma-sensei wasn’t the only one. Hikaru had kept his Byakugan almost constantly activated for the last half hour, even though during training, he’d complain of headaches after just ten minutes. Yui, who was the best at setting traps, was doing at least twice as much running around as everyone else.
Sango, who was neither chakra-sensitive enough to help scout nor clever and nimble enough to help set traps, tended to her teammates and sensei as best she could, and tried not to feel useless.
It was another hour before they got to the waterfalls. In any other situation, Sango would have found it a beautiful sight, white froth like layers of lace tumbling down the cliffside to plunge into a broad, rushing river. But now, as worn and weary as she was, as they all were, all she could see was pounding water and slick, slippery rock.
“We’re not going to have to climb up that, are we?” Yui asked, horrified.
Ryouma-sensei shook his head, but he didn’t look happy either. “There’s a hidden cave near the base of the falls. But we have to swim to it, and there must have been a lot of rain here recently. The water’s higher than I expected it to be.” His jaw firmed as he glanced down at the three of them. “Sango-chan should be okay, but the rest of you won’t be able to swim that. I’ll tow you one at a time.”
Sango bit her lip. Ryouma-sensei was normally a strong swimmer, but he was as far from normal as she’d ever seen him, pale-lipped and starting to tremble again. She looked at the river again, swift and swollen, dark and deep. She straightened. “Sensei, I can take one of my teammates.”
Ryouma-sensei frowned down at her. “The water’ll be heavy, and cold, and fast. You’d have to fight the current the whole way.”
“I can take one of my teammates,” Sango said again.
Yui stepped up and took Sango’s hand. “I’ll go with her, Ryouma-sensei.”
Hikaru took her other side. “Better if I go, Ryouma-sensei. Yui’ll kick if she gets scared.”
“All right, all right,” Ryouma-sensei said hurriedly, and blocked Yui before she could retaliate. “I’ll take Hikaru-kun.”
They picked their way across slippery rocks, as close to the waterfall as they could.
“If you get in trouble, cut the rope and I’ll come back for you,” Ryouma-sensei said, as he unwound a long rope from his pack and tied one end around his waist. “When you get underwater, go for the sides of the waterfall’s plunge pool. Don’t get dragged into the middle. The water will force you down and you won’t know which way to go.”
Sango bit her lip again, and nodded.
He held out the other end of the rope and looked at her, dark eyes searching. “Last chance to back out.”
She took the rope. “I can do it.”
“Okay,” he said quietly, and tied the other end of the rope under her armpits. Then he turned to Hikaru. “Let’s go.”
They waded into the water. Ryouma-sensei wrapped an arm securely around Hikaru’s waist, and they started to swim.
“You can do it, you know,” Yui murmured, and tugged Sango into the river too.
The first part of the swim wasn’t bad. They hugged the shore for a while, where the rocky riverbed slowed the current enough that swimming was easy. As they approached the waterfall though, the water deepened and the current grew stronger, pushing back against Sango’s kicks. It was so loud that Sango couldn’t even hear Yui unless she was shouting in Sango’s ear. Ryouma-sensei and Hikaru were just blurry shapes in the blinding mist.
Sango felt a single, sharp tug on the rope around her waist, and then Ryouma-sensei and Hikaru disappeared into the churning froth. She took a slow, calming breath and turned to Yui. “Okay, we’re gonna follow them. Don’t try to swim while we’re underwater. Just focus on saving your air.”
Yui nodded, wrapped her arms more tightly around Sango’s torso, and took in a big gulp of air.
They dove. Sound muffled instantly. Sango’s nostrils sealed shut, leaving her gills to flare open instead. Her eyes stung for a moment, before the nictitating membranes came down and she could see again. Everything was in shades of blue and green, with shimmers of silver where the light hit fish scales or smooth rocks. Yui was a dim blue-green too, eyes closed, lips pressed tight. Sango couldn’t see Ryouma-sensei, just his rope, listing left toward the edge of the plunge pool, where the water pressure would be weakest.
She followed the rope, kicking harder when it started to grow taut. The churning water fought her, alternatively shoving her back or pulling her forward. Swirling clouds of grit blocked the light and blurred her vision. Slime-slick rocks jutted out at her from the murky half-darkness; she kicked hurriedly away before Yui could bump into them.
The rope was getting taut again. They were going too slow. Sango had to hurry or Yui would start running out of air, but she couldn’t see where she was going. Should she just cut the rope, resurface, and try again? Or wait for Ryouma-sensei to come back for them?
A sharp tug on the rope jerked her forward, away from the rocks entirely and into the middle of the plunge pool. The force of the water hit her instantly, threatening to pull Yui away from her. Sango crushed Yui to her and just kicked, letting the rope pull them into the crushing, roiling dark—
A broad hand gripped her shoulder and yanked. She broke the surface, felt air, and gasped for breath, her gills flattening against her neck.
“I’ve got you,” Ryouma-sensei said. “It’s all right, you made it.” He grabbed Yui and hauled her onto a rocky shelf, before doing the same for Sango.
She collapsed onto the damp stone, arms and legs trembling. Beside her, Yui was coughing, wheezing raggedly as Hikaru held back her lank, sodden hair and pounded her back. But when Sango glanced worriedly over, she held up a thumb.
“Said you could do it,” she rasped, and managed a few seconds of smile before she was coughing again.
Ryouma-sensei’s hand came back down on Sango’s shoulder. “Good job, Sango-chan. That wasn’t easy.”
Inexplicably, that made Sango want to cry. She ducked her head before her eyes could spill over, leaning against the sturdy weight of his arm. “Thanks, Sensei.”
When Yui could breathe properly again, Ryouma-sensei made them climb up the slick rock, until it opened up into a cave. It wasn’t much of a cave though, just a rough concave of rock like someone had carelessly scooped out a chunk from the cliff. The curtain of falling water and swirling mist blocked out most of the light, casting deep blue shadows on everything around them.
“All right,” Ryouma-sensei said, looking around. “We should be safe here for a while.”
They couldn’t risk a fire, or even glowsticks for light. Ryouma-sensei checked them over for injuries, then did a jutsu that pulled all the water out of their hair and clothes and dumped it back down the waterfall. Only when he’d bullied them all into another rat bar and juice box (and headache relievers, for Hikaru) did he finally sit down and open his medkit.
The look on Ryouma-sensei’s face as he examined his leg again made Sango’s gut clench. Fresh blood bloomed when he peeled back the clotting bandages, welling up from a wound that had swollen almost purple around the broken arrow shaft.
Sango eyed the collection of… instruments in Ryouma-sensei’s medkit, and swallowed hard.
“Do you,” she began, hesitantly, “want help, um, taking the arrow out?”
If he said yes, she was volunteering Yui or Hikaru, she didn’t care if they made fun of her forever—
“I can’t take it out,” Ryouma-sensei said. His mouth was tight. “I don’t have the right tools, so the arrowhead would cause more damage to remove than if I just leave it. All I can do now is slow the bleeding.”
“What about the poison?” Hikaru asked.
Ryouma-sensei sighed, and touched his tattooed neck. “That’s another problem. But if I can use chakra to raise my body temperature, I should be able to burn the poison out.”
“Is that… safe?” Yui asked, looking dubious.
Ryouma-sensei shrugged and see-sawed one of his hands. “I used to have a teammate who’d do it all the time.”
Given the other stories that Ryouma-sensei had told about his former teammates (including one about fighting a giant leech monster that couldn’t possibly be true), Sango was starting to wonder if making jounin also made you a little crazy.
He took another two pills — blood and chakra, he told them, because chakra pills messed with your clotting ability and he was already bleeding — and sat down on a flat rock.
“I’ve got wards that’ll alert me if any of the perimeter traps trigger,” he said, arranging his limbs in a cross-legged meditation position. “So take this time to eat more, hydrate, rest. Especially you, Hikaru-kun. Stop using your Byakugan.”
Hikaru jolted, dark hair flailing away from his face to reveal thick, reddening veins around his eyes. “Sorry, Sensei.” The bulges faded guiltily away for a moment, then he frowned and said, “Ryouma-sensei, what’s that seal on your neck? It’s active.”
Ryouma-sensei dropped his gaze. His mouth tugged wryly at the corners. “Let’s just say it’s a long shot.”
Sango didn’t know what that meant. Was Ryouma-sensei planning to do something? She’d heard that Senju Tsunade-hime could store chakra in a seal and then do incredible things when she activated it, but Tsunade-hime was a legend. And Ryouma-sensei was already doing something crazy. Fevers were dangerous; Sango’d had one when she was just a baby, and her mother still brought it up every time Sango went out of the house without a jacket. Burning too high for too long could damage your kidneys, your liver, cook your brain—
“Yui-chan, did we keep the foil blanket?” The four of them had consolidated their packed belongings before going into the water, so that the two swimmers wouldn’t have to carry a passenger and their pack.
Yui nodded, darted off, and returned with a shiny folded pouch that she unfolded into a surprisingly large blanket. She took a side, Sango took the other side, and together they marched the blanket to Ryouma-sensei.
He looked up as they approached, and smiled. “Smart. I forgot we had that.” He was already red-faced and sweating, his eyes fever-bright, his breathing shallow and fast. His movements, when he bent down to let Sango and Yui cocoon him in foil, were slow and stiff.
Sango checked his canteen, found it low, and handed it to Hikaru for refilling.
“Thank you,” Ryouma-sensei said, when Hikaru returned with a full canteen. “I’m all right. You guys should get some rest. Rule 15 of being a ninja: always get shut-eye when you can.”
“That’s not what rule 15 says,” Hikaru corrected primly, placing the canteen in his hand.
Ryouma-sensei flicked him gently on the forehead. “You’re gonna argue with your sensei? Do as I say, go on. I’ll be fine.”
Reluctantly, they went. Yui led them to a secluded nook right at the edge of the cave, tucked between the falling water and the rock face.
“Well?” she said, turning to Hikaru. “I know you looked. How is he, really?”
Sango blinked, surprised, but Hikaru just made a face and shook his head.
“Bad. That thing he’s doing, maybe it is burning out the poison, but it’s also using up a lot of his chakra.”
“He took a soldier pill, though,” Sango said.
Hikaru shook his head again. “Soldier pill chakra’s not the same. It’s only supposed to give you a bit of a boost, tide you over until your reserves recover naturally. It also gets used up faster than the body’s natural chakra.”
“But if this works, he’ll be able to run properly again, right?” Sango asked. “At least get to a hospital where they can take out the arrowhead.”
“Unless that bounty hunter finds us first,” Yui said. “Then what? Do we try to fight him?”
Sango sighed. “We tried that with the archer, remember? And look how that turned out. This isn’t like chasing a cat. If we’re going to take down an enemy jounin, we have to be smart.”
“Yeah.” Hikaru put his hands on his hips and huffed out a breath through his mist-damp bangs. “Got any ideas for how we do that?”
Sango did not. But neither did anyone else, which meant that they probably were tired. They relieved themselves discreetly over the edge of the rocky lip, then drew lots for who’d take watch first. Hikaru lost, but he looked so glum about it that Sango let him take her turn instead, and kept watch while the other two hunkered down to try to nap.
She didn’t mean to doze off.
Footsteps woke up, the soft scrape of boots on stone. Sango jerked upright and scrabbled for her kunai, only to be stopped by a familiar hand on her shoulder.
“It’s me,” said Ryouma-sensei, low-voiced and intent. “Wake the others.”
“What’s wrong?” she demanded.
“The perimeter wards just tripped. Bounty hunter’s found us.”
He was sweat-soaked and panting, shoulders slumped, eyelids low and heavy. The hand on her shoulder was hot and clammy; his other hand was braced against the rock for support.
He didn’t look ready for a fight.
Cold terror slid down her throat.
Yui and Hikaru woke at a touch. They didn’t ask her what was happening; one glance at her face must have told them everything they needed to know. Wordlessly, they armed themselves and joined Sango in a huddle around Ryouma-sensei.
“What do you want us to do?” Sango asked.
“Hide,” Ryouma-sensei said, implacable as iron. “Sango, do you know the Kirigakure mist jutsu?”
Sango flinched. “I… Why do you—”
“Answer the question. Do you know it or not?”
“I—” she stammered. Yui and Hikaru were staring at her too. She dropped her gaze. “Yes. But I… I can’t…” Konoha had her heart and her loyalty, but her mother had made her promise—
“I’m not asking you to show it to me,” Ryouma-sensei said, more gently. “I’m asking you to use it to protect your teammates. Stay by the edge of the cave where there’s already a lot of mist. He won’t even notice you’re there. If I can’t kill him, wait until he leaves, then head for the nearest radio tower.”
This time, he didn’t say ‘extremely unlikely.’ His eyes were glassy and bleak.
“No matter what happens, you must stay hidden.” He stared each of them down, pinning them in place like bugs beneath glass. “Do not disobey me.”
Numbly, Sango nodded. Yui lowered her head, blinking rapidly.
“Do you,” Hikaru began, with a hitch in his voice, “do you think you can beat him?”
Ryouma-sensei gave them a grin. It was broad and feral and ugly. “Don’t underestimate your sensei. My life doesn’t come cheap. Now go. Remember what I said.”
They went back to the edge of the cave. Sango felt Ryouma-sensei’s eyes on her back the entire way, and fought the urge to turn around.
None of them spoke. They found a lip off to the side, shadowed by an overhanging chunk of rock and still curtained by water and mist. Yui and Hikaru covered their eyes as Sango put her hands together — Ox, Snake, Ram — and released her chakra in a gossamer-thin net.
She wasn’t good enough to create mist; not like her aunt, who’d been able to pull moisture straight out of the air. But Sango still had enough control to bind her chakra to the water droplets and create a thick, dense screen.
“Okay,” she said, when she was done.
Hikaru opened his eyes to blinding white. Sango was next to him, washed out and fuzzy like someone had taken an eraser to her. Yui, farther away, was barely visible at all.
“Looks good,” came Ryouma-sensei’s voice from deeper in the cave. “I can’t see you at all.”
Kirigakure’s infamous mist jutsu. Everyone knew about it, of course; it was one of the reasons Kiri nin were so feared. Even the Sharingan couldn’t see through it.
The Byakugan could, though. Hikaru put his hands together and activated his Byakugan. His headache, which had dropped to a simmer after his nap, came roaring back to life.
Sango noticed immediately. “Hikaru-kun!” she hissed. “Ryouma-sensei just said—”
“So what?” Hikaru hissed back. “Don’t you want to know what’s going on?”
“Don’t be such a goody-goody, Sango,” Yui added, coming closer. She bumped her arm against Hikaru’s. “You’d better not start bleeding out of your eyeballs or anything.”
Rolling his eyes in active Byakugan made him dizzy, so he stuck out his tongue instead. Sango subsided into sulky silence.
Even with the Byakugan, seeing through the mist wasn’t easy. He kept getting distracted by pinpricks of chakra within the mist, like a constantly winking field of stars. It took focus to filter through and look past, look beyond.
“I see him,” Hikaru said. “He’s in the river.” He squinted, looking harder. “He’s swimming weirdly. I think one of his arms is broken.”
“Not broken enough,” Yui muttered, scowling. “I should have laid more traps.”
Too late now. Broken arm or not, the hunter was making good time through the water. He’d reach them within minutes.
There was a low tearing sound, barely audible over the rushing water. Hikaru shifted his attention back to Ryouma-sensei — who was tearing off the layers of bandage around his injured leg.
“Why’s Sensei taking his clotting bandage off?” Hikaru murmured. “He’s still bleeding.”
Beside him, Yui went suddenly stiff. “Oh no. He’s going to use the blood jutsu.”
Hikaru frowned at her. “The what?”
“The one he used before.” Yui’s face was slack with horror. “When he made blades from that dead archer’s blood. I think he’s going to do it again, but use his own blood this time.”
He hadn’t seen that jutsu; he’d been too focused on running. But the amount of blood it’d take to make a blade, with Ryouma-sensei already on blood pills and artificial chakra—
“He’ll bleed to death,” Hikaru realized.
“We have to stop him,” Yui said, and lunged toward the interior of the cave.
Sango grabbed her arm and yanked her back. “Sensei said we had to stay hidden no matter what happens!”
“So we should just let him die?”
Chakra presence thrummed at the edge of Hikaru’s senses. He reached out and slapped a hand over each of his teammates’ mouths, silencing them. “Quiet. He’s coming.”
Sango and Yui froze. The three of them edged away from the edge of the lip, pressing back against the slick rock. Kunai wouldn’t help them now. If the bounty hunter saw them through Sango’s mist, they’d have no choice but to jump and hope that they survived.
The bounty hunter didn’t climb up from the cliff edge. He came up from the cave floor instead, a perfect circle of rock sinking in to reveal a deep tunnel. Hikaru had been right: the man’s arm was broken, and bound across his chest in a high sling — probably so that he could still do hand seals. His good hand held a wakizashi, unsheathed. Burn marks scattered across his exposed skin, too small and neat to be from injury.
Cauterizing cuts, Hikaru realized. It seemed the bounty hunter remembered the blood jutsu too.
The three of them held their breath as the man walked past them, but he didn’t even pause. All his attention was on Ryouma-sensei.
“Nowhere left to run, Tousaki.”
Hikaru didn’t want to keep watching. He knew he should; he was the only one who could. But the outcome was clear: even battered and drained, the bounty hunter would be more than a match for Ryouma-sensei in his current condition. It was bad enough that they’d have to hear their sensei die. Hikaru didn’t want to have to see it too, watch his chakra coils gutter out like a burnt-out candle.
“You know, I was going to make it easy for you. Nice and clean. You’d barely have felt it. But now you’ve pissed me off.”
Ryouma-sensei didn’t say anything in response, just closed his hand around the stub of arrow shaft. He’d been silent ever since Sango had finished casting her mist jutsu. He wasn’t any more badly hurt than he’d been earlier…
Maybe he didn’t want the three of them to hear him die. He’d already made sure they wouldn’t be able to see him die. Ryouma-sensei was cheerful, and a little silly, but he was always, always kind. That was something Hikaru could imagine he’d do.
Ryouma-sensei wouldn’t blame Hikaru, if Hikaru didn’t watch.
He lowered his head, and let the Byakugan fade. “My head hurts. I’m sorry.”
Sango slipped her hand into his. On his other side, Yui was silent and trembling.
“Let’s see,” said the bounty hunter. “Where should I start first?”
Then, suddenly, Ryouma-sensei laughed, loud and rasping. “Took you long enough.”
The bounty hunter scoffed. “If this is your way of begging for death, you’ll have to—”
“Wasn’t talking to you,” Ryouma-sensei said.
Lightning exploded from the floor of the cave, shrieking like a storm of furious birds. Sango jolted and lost the jutsu; the mist shredded instantly as blood and ozone filled the air.
The bounty hunter lay in a crumpled heap, wide-eyed and open-mouthed above the gaping hole in his chest. Standing above him, red to the elbow with gore and still crackling faintly with electricity, was a masked ninja in the black and white uniform of Konoha’s ANBU.
The man looked down at the dead bounty hunter, then lifted his head and looked at Ryouma-sensei. “What is it with you and caves?”
Yui had never seen an ANBU up close before. Her mother made it a point to never bring work home, though she’d equally made it a point to tell her children that behind the mask, all ANBU were just regular ninja—just with harder duties to fulfill.
This one didn’t look much like a regular ninja, though. He had hair and skin as pale as his armor, and he moved like a predatory animal. Plus, he was rude.
But Ryouma-sensei just laughed again. “Just wanted to give you a chance for another daring rescue.” He grinned dazedly as the ANBU went over to him and crouched by his side. “Guess the seal worked.”
“Guess so.” The ANBU reached for Ryouma-sensei, then seemed to realize that one of his hands was covered in blood. He flicked his fingers together, and a stream of falling water changed course and shot into the cave instead, sluicing his arm clean. His non-bloody hand felt its way down Ryouma-sensei’s body, pausing at the arrow stub protruding from his leg. “Chakra drain, blood loss… poison? Anything else?”
Ryouma-sensei shook his head, still smiling. He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the ANBU’s face, which was weird since it was hidden behind a ceramic, snarling-dog mask. “I’m all right. It looks a lot worse than it is. Go check on my kids.”
The ANBU didn’t move to get up, just turned his head toward the three of them. “Team Eight, injury report.”
Hikaru and Sango both jerked to attention, but were clearly too busy staring at the ANBU to actually answer his question.
Yui answered for all of them. “Minor cuts and bruises only.” And then, because Ryouma-sensei had always told them not to lie about their injuries and was therefore being a giant hypocrite, she continued, “Ryouma-sensei is severely wounded, ANBU-san. He was shot in the leg with a poisoned arrow and then had to run for over two hours.”
Ryouma-sensei’s smile fell, replaced by an expression of utter betrayal.
“Yeah!” Sango chimed in. “And he gave himself a fever to try to burn the poison out.”
“He was also going to use his own blood in a jutsu that would probably have killed him,” added Hikaru.
The ANBU turned his head back around. “Ryouma-sensei?” he prompted, flatly.
Ryouma-sensei swallowed hard. “Um. In my defense… look, just don’t tell Gen—”
“I’m telling Genma,” the ANBU said. Ignoring Ryouma-sensei’s aggrieved groan, he slid one arm behind Ryouma-sensei’s back and pulled him against his chest. The other arm, he stuck out toward Yui and her teammates. “You three, hold on to me. I’m translocating all of you out of here.”
“I’ll throw up on you,” Ryouma-sensei warned peevishly, as the three genin scrambled over and grabbed hold of the ANBU’s arm.
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” the ANBU replied, and yanked them all away.
They landed on the riverbank that bracketed the waterfalls on either side. Three more ANBU were waiting, two women and a man. They rushed forward, caught Yui and her teammates as they lost their grip on the dog-mask ANBU’s arm, and laid them gently down on the soft grass.
“You kids all right?” asked an ANBU with a tree branch painted on her mask, as she wrapped a foil blanket around all three of them and pressed juice boxes into their hands.
“We’re not hurt,” Hikaru said, though he was looking a bit green. “Our sensei—”
A few meters away, Ryouma-sensei was throwing up. He leaned away from the dog-masked ANBU to do it, though, doubling over on the grass while the ANBU held him around the waist.
“Threat neutralized, Taichou?” the tiger-masked ANBU asked.
“One enemy dead,” dog-mask—who was apparently the captain—said, with a clear curl of satisfaction in his voice. “Rain, retrieve the corpse.”
Rain, a red-haired man whose mask bore a diagonal stripe of falling raindrops, snapped to attention and tapped his ANBU tattoo. “Yes, Taichou.” He translocated away.
“He was a bounty hunter,” Ryouma-sensei rasped, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “Ishida Ran. Worked with a team of three and a civilian archer. That’s how I got shot.”
“They’re getting creative,” Tiger said. “You need a transfusion, Tousaki?”
“He does,” the dog-masked ANBU said. He handed Ryouma-sensei a canteen of water to rinse his mouth, and lowered him onto his back. “Willow, he’s got a poisoned arrowhead in his leg.”
“On it.” Willow stood up—she was big, nearly as tall as Ryouma-sensei and much broader—and went over to Ryouma-sensei, pulling out a scroll from her pack.
Tiger settled down at Ryouma-sensei’s other side. She tipped her mask away from her face, still hiding her features, and leaned in. And paused. “You, uh, plan on letting go of him anytime soon, Hound?”
Dog-mask ANBU (whose mask looked much more like a lion-dog statue’s face than any hound Yui’d ever seen) froze, the way Yui’s twin brother did when their mom caught him mid-misbehavior. He didn’t let Ryouma-sensei go, but he did scoot backwards a little, to crouch behind Ryouma-sensei.
Ryouma-sensei’s mouth twitched, like he was biting back a grin. “Be gentle with me,” he told Tiger as she put their foreheads together. “I’m very injured.”
“You sure look it,” Willow agreed, unrolling the scroll and unsealing a medkit even bigger than Ryouma-sensei’s. Her hands glowed green as she peeled back the stained clotting bandages and examined his wound. “Leg’s not terrible, though. I should be able to get the arrowhead out without much more blood loss. There’s no sign of infection; is your fever self-induced?”
“Yeah,” Ryouma-sensei said, without opening his eyes. “Tried to burn the poison out.”
Willow lifted her head. “That’s… gutsy.”
“Dangerous,” Hound retorted.
Ryouma-sensei huffed a laugh, tilting his head back as Tiger broke their transfusion. He looked better already, the sickly pallor fading from his skin. “Coming from you, that’s a compliment, right?”
Willow laughed too, which was weird when Yui couldn’t see her face. “He’s got a point there, Taichou. In fact you should probably top up your chakra too, before you fall over.”
Hound did something with his shoulders that gave the impression of a full-body eyeroll, and reached up underneath his mask. There was the sound of a pointedly loud crunch.
Ryouma-sensei watched him, eyes narrowing, and caught his hand on its way back down to his side. Hound went still again, but didn’t stop Ryouma-sensei from tucking his thumb against the pulse-point.
“How far away were you when I activated the seal?” Ryouma-sensei asked quietly.
Hound shrugged. “We were on our way back from Grass Country. Not that far.”
“Don’t listen to him, Tousaki, we were at least a hundred kilometers away.” Tiger got up with a groan and headed for Yui and her teammates, snagging a bottle of disinfectant and a roll of bandages on the way. “Ran four hours, almost non-stop, one translocation every thirty minutes. The only reason we kept up was because we knew Hound would’ve left us behind.”
“Lieutenant, are you volunteering for two weeks of 0500 training sessions?” Hound asked, voice icy.
“That’ll hurt us less than it’ll hurt you, Captain,” Tiger said sweetly, and crouched down in front of the three genin. “Sorry kids, Willow’s our only medic, and she needs to save her chakra for your sensei. So you’ll have to settle for basic first aid.”
“Is Ryouma-sensei going to be okay?” Sango asked, pitching her voice low.
“He’ll be fine, sweetheart, don’t worry.” Tiger reached for Sango, hands gentle as she cleaned and bandaged the scrapes on her arms and knees. “Our Willow’s a good medic, and your sensei’s a tough guy.”
“He was going to kill himself so he could save us,” Hikaru whispered. He was pale and his hands were shaking—adrenaline crashing, probably.
Yui wasn’t feeling great, either. Exhaustion was starting to hit, weighing down her limbs and making her unpleasantly aware of all the places she hurt.
“But he didn’t,” Tiger said, pressing a rat bar into Hikaru’s hands and tucking the foil blanket more securely around his shoulders. “We got here in time, and Hound killed the asshol—uh, the bad guy. You’re all safe now. We won’t let anything happen to you.”
Yui looked over Tiger’s shoulder, to where Willow was injecting something into the back of Ryouma-sensei’s leg. He looked exhausted too, slumped against Hound’s chest with his face pressed against the base of Hound’s throat. The ANBU captain had one hand cupped around Ryouma-sensei’s head. The other was holding Ryouma-sensei’s hand, fingers tight in each other’s grasp.
Oh, she realized, feeling heat prickle in her cheeks. That… explained a lot, actually.
A soft, amused sound drew her gaze away from Ryouma-sensei and his—boyfriend? Lover? Husband?—ANBU, and back to Tiger.
“You see?” she murmured, a smile audible in her voice. “He’s in good hands.”
Well. That was all right, then.
Sango didn’t think she’d ever felt so tired. Even the stinging from the disinfectant wasn’t enough to keep her eyelids from drooping, or yawns from bubbling up in her throat. She fought both, especially the yawning because it was probably rude to yawn in someone’s face while they were helping you, and tried to focus on what Tiger was doing instead.
Tiger finished bandaging Sango’s scrapes, and moved on to Hikaru, then Yui. Her movements were efficient and precise, with none of the fumbling of Sango’s attempts at tending to her teammates’ injuries. Watching Tiger work was strangely soothing, kind of like watching her mother, all gentle hands and quiet competence.
She wasn’t looking forward to telling her mother about this mission. Ninja belonged to the village once they made genin, so her mother couldn’t remove her from Ryouma-sensei’s team or anything like that, but… maybe if she told her mother that an ANBU team had rescued them, her mother wouldn’t be as upset.
(And maybe if she told her mother that Ryouma-sensei was dating an ANBU captain, one that loved him enough to come running to save him, she’d stop getting that pinched look on her face whenever Sango mentioned his name.)
“What was that, sweetheart?” Tiger asked, making Sango suddenly worried that she’d said all of that out loud.
“Uh, n-nothing,” she stammered. “Um, ANBU-san, how did you know that we were in trouble?”
“The captain felt it. He and your sensei have a very special bond, you know.” Tiger sighed gustily, and raised her voice. “Ah, true love! The rest of us sad singles can only dream.”
Something hit Tiger’s shoulder with a sharp plink. A pebble dropped to the ground by her feet.
“Was it that seal thing?” Hikaru asked, brows furrowing. “I saw it on Ryouma-sensei’s neck.”
“He called it a ‘long shot,’” Yui added. “Was he talking about you guys?”
Tiger huffed. “Long shot’s a bit insulting; we’re one of Konoha’s fastest teams. I’d like to see anyone else make a run like this. But yes, essentially. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it led us straight to you, so I’m sure not complaining.” She rolled up the rest of the bandages and capped the bottle of disinfectant. “There, you’re as healed as I can make you.”
She dug out two more ration bars and held them out to Sango and Yui. Sango accepted hers, and abruptly lost the fight with an enormous yawn.
“Sorry!” Sango cried, covering her mouth belatedly, but Tiger just waved a hand and laughed.
“Don’t worry about it. You kids have had a rough day.” She hauled herself up to her feet and looked over at Ryouma-sensei and the other ANBU. “Why don’t you guys take a nap? Willow will be a while yet. We’ll wake you when she’s done.”
Sango glanced at her teammates. Hikaru was still pale, but frowning like he wanted to argue. Yui, always the most practical out of the three of them, was already lying on the grass, her pack shoved under her head for a pillow.
Ryouma-sensei was still having his leg healed, but there was nothing she or her teammates could do to help with that. Except, perhaps, be rested enough to not be a burden on these already overworked ANBU.
“Thank you, ANBU-san,” Sango said, and lay down next to Yui, tugging at Hikaru’s sleeve until he sighed and joined them.
She didn’t remember falling asleep, but when she woke again, it was to a warm weight against her side and a gentle nudge to her shoulder. She blinked her eyes open, and saw Hikaru curled around her hip with his cheek flattened against the crook of her arm, and Yui starfished on the grass next to them.
“We’re leaving soon,” Tiger murmured, before reaching across Sango to nudge Yui and Hikaru awake as well.
Sango nodded and pushed herself upright. Her arms and legs were even sorer now than she’d been before the nap, though she wasn’t as brain-numbingly tired. They’d slept for a good few hours; the sun had gone away, tucked behind heavy clouds, and there was the scent of rain in the air.
The ANBU who’d gone to retrieve the bounty hunter’s body was back, though there was no sign of the body itself. Sealed away in a scroll, probably? He and Willow were bent over a map that they’d spread out over a large, flat rock. Hound was with Ryouma-sensei, supporting him as they came out from behind a tall bush. Ryouma-sensei’s injured leg was bandaged up again, bent at the knee so that he wasn’t putting any weight on it. He didn’t seem like he was in pain though, and his face lit up in a smile when he saw Sango and her teammates.
The three of them fumbled with their foil blankets for a few moments, trying to fold them back up into neat rectangles, before Tiger laughed and took over instead. Relieved of their task, they ran to Ryouma-sensei, as Hound brought him to a nearby tree and propped him against the base of the trunk.
“Is your leg okay?” Yui asked, by virtue of being the one who got to him first. “Are you still poisoned?”
“I’m okay,” Ryouma-sensei said, then glanced down at his leg. “Mostly okay. Willow got the arrowhead out, and repaired the worst of the damage. But everyone’s pretty tired, so we’re gonna go to a safehouse near here, get some proper rest, and then she’ll do another round of healing with me.”
Ryouma-sensei looked pretty tired too. They’d learned in school that chakra healing took a lot out of the patient as well as the healer, and Ryouma-sensei had been down to the dregs of his reserves. He was also still flushed and sweaty, and didn’t look like he’d be up to running anytime soon.
“How far is the safehouse?” Sango asked, eyeing his bandaged leg dubiously.
“About an hour’s run—”
“None of which he’ll be doing,” Hound interrupted. He had one hand fisted in Ryouma-sensei’s flak jacket, like he was expecting Ryouma-sensei to fall over at any moment. “Willow’s going to carry him. The rest of us will each carry one of you.”
Hikaru stiffened. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Sango felt her face heat with shame.
“You don’t have to carry us, ANBU-san,” Yui said, scowling. “We’re genin. We can run.”
Hound looked down at the three of them. “I know you can run; you wouldn’t be here otherwise. But you’ve worked hard today, and now you have help. There’s no shame in taking it. That’s part of being a ninja too.”
“Hound’s right,” Ryouma-sensei said gently. He gave Yui a wink. “And he should know. We used to work together, and I’ve carried him home after missions more times than I can count.”
Hound snorted. “You can’t count to one?”
“Pretty sure it was more than that,” Ryouma-sensei replied.
“Anyway,” Ryouma-sensei continued, waving a dismissive hand, “it’ll only be until we get to the safehouse. Once we’ve all rested and my leg’s usable again, everyone’s running themselves back to Konoha.”
That… wasn’t so bad. Sango’d faced some stark realizations today about how big the world was, and how small and powerless she was in comparison. But she’d been useful. They all had been. Rest would just give them time to recover, so that they could be useful again later.
She squared her shoulders and lifted her head. “Okay, Ryouma-sensei.”
“Good.” Ryouma-sensei smiled at her, then tipped his face up at Hound. “You should take Sango-chan, Hound. She bites.”
Sango’s jaw dropped, appalled by her sensei’s betrayal.
“A good quality in a ninja.” Hound gave her an approving nod. “You can be my last line of defense.”
He was joking, of course (and how weird was it that ANBU joked; they always looked so scary and serious), but Sango ducked her head anyway, biting back a grin.
Everyone got water, a ration bar, and one last trip to the latrine trench. Yui and Hikaru shouldered their own packs, and Sango took Ryouma-sensei’s, so that Willow just had to carry Ryouma-sensei. He looked a bit funny on Willow’s back, with his long legs dangling like lop rabbit ears almost to her knees.
Rain carried Hikaru, who’d already started yawning again; Yui had asked Tiger to bully him into taking another painkiller for his headache. Tiger got Yui, taking Yui’s weight easily despite being smaller than all her ANBU teammates. She whispered something to Yui, and they both laughed, loud and ringing in the dampening air.
Hound was bony, but strong, and he carried Sango like he was used to it, settling her comfortably against his back. His silver hair was thistledown-soft. It tickled when it touched her nose. She rested her chin on the top of his head instead, where it wouldn’t bump against the edge of his ANBU mask.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Ready,” she said, then remembered that she was still blue and gilled. “Should I put my henge back on? I’m not supposed to be seen outside the village without it.”
He paused, then shook his head. “Save your chakra. I won’t let anyone see you.”
There was a sense of confidence and certainty to him, to all of them. Sango envied it, even as it reassured her. She wanted to be like Ryouma-sensei, who always knew where to go and what to do, no matter how bad things got. She wanted to be like these ANBU, who could be someone’s long shot and still show up in the nick of time to save everyone.
Maybe, by the time she made jounin, she’d have learned how they did that.
She tightened her arms around Hound’s neck as he started running. He took the lead, with Rain and Willow side by side in the middle, and Tiger at the rear.
The first drops of rain began to fall as they ran back into the forest, but Sango didn’t mind. Her team was safe, and they were going home.