On the other side of the house, the second wing of the guard patrol hadn’t caught the change in the wind. They carried themselves like fighters, comfortable with their weapons and scarred from old victories. Not ninja-trained, but they’d obviously seen combat. Which wasn’t unusual, given Fire Country’s recent history.
Mercenaries, most likely.
Raidou didn’t feel good about putting them down, but that was the job. You couldn’t blame a dog for what its master had done, but you didn’t leave it standing to bite you, either. He dropped down into the center of the group and broke two necks, stabbed the third man in the chest. The fourth guard dodged. A woman, muscular and fast, scrambling to bring an iron-shod staff into play. He blocked her first hit with an arm-guard, irritated by the muffled clang, and yanked the staff out of her hands.
She went for him with a knife. Raidou flipped the staff and staved her chest in with the iron end, ending the fight in a crunch of bone. Her body dropped. He stowed all four corpses behind a manicured collection of shrubbery and slipped around the east side of the house. On the edges of his senses, Katsuko’s spark was already heading west. There was one outlying guard on each side of the house.
Judging by the fractional hesitation in Katsuko’s movements, hers only took a second. Raidou’s was no more complicated.
He touched his target-entry window frame, feeling for the threads of a chakra trap, and acknowledged a passing thought. This is too easy.
There was no trap.
The latch took a second, then the window slid soundlessly up. He boosted himself inside, landing in a light crouch on grassy-smelling tatami floor of a storeroom. The lights were off. The house had the soft-breathing quality of sleeping occupants. Intel suggested there was probably a guard or two inside, but they’d only had two days of data to pull a pattern from.
Raidou cracked the sliding paper door, checked his sight lines, and padded down the hallway. On the other side of the house, he could feel Katsuko circling right. Her spark glowed on his mental map like a single constellation, heading towards the master bedroom. Raidou’s path took him to the servant's quarters, where no one was awake enough to require an immediate solution. Unlike his father, who housed a full recruitment of servants, Tsuto Masaaki kept a much smaller staff on-site: just a manservant, two maids, a cook, and a nanny in the kid’s room. From a passing glance, Raidou was pretty certain none of the sleeping servants had combat training, though the cook was surprisingly sturdy in the biceps. Probably came from punching dough.
He left them in peace and reversed directions, heading for the nursery.
There was no guard, which put him on edge, but the nanny was dozing in a rocking chair with an open book on her lap. She barely stirred when Raidou closed a hand around her neck and put hard pressure on her carotid, tipping her off the ledge into actual unconsciousness. That wouldn’t last long; he tightened a loop of wire around her wrists, locking her hands together, and left her slumped in the chair as he moved quietly forward.
There was a crib on one side of the nursery, and a small bed set just beneath the window. A little girl was tucked underneath the covers, breathing with the faintest rasp of a recovering cold. Her headboard had cherry blossoms carved into the varnished wood.
That was a thought Raidou really didn’t need.
He swept it aside and stood over the crib, deliberately trying to see Masaaki’s son as a collection of target points. Soft baby skull, fragile baby throat. Six months old. Even a civilian could handle that; all you needed to do was grab and shake. But there were cleaner ways.
From his kunai-holder, Raidou drew the single steel senbon he’d borrowed from Genma.
Before he could set the tip to pale, blue-veined skin, something flickered behind him. Raidou spun, swapping the senbon into his left hand and unsheathing his black sword.
The room was empty, cut across with moon-lit shadows.
The nanny was still slumped in her chair. He glanced at the corners, searching for anything out of the place. The door was half-open, the window still shut. The little girl—Tomoko, his brain helpfully supplied—snuffled and turned over, burrowing down beneath the covers.
Warily, he glanced back at the crib.
Which was empty.
The single blanket was neatly folded down, as if it had never been disturbed. The baby was gone. Raidou’s grip tightened on his sword hilt. He took a step to the left, eyes sweeping over the room again, senses extending. The side of his knee brushed the bedframe. He flicked the sword into his left hand, prepared to stab down and at least take out one target—
The bed was empty, too.
The covers lay flat and tidy, conscientiously pulled down to let the mattress air. There was no trace of the dark-haired little girl.
What the hell…
A hammer-blow between the shoulderblades knocked the breath out of him. He staggered one step forwards, felt something tear inside his chest, and stared down in shock as three feet of steel punched out through his sternum. A sword blade, streaked with blood.
“Hello, Konoha,” said a soft voice in his ear.
The two guards outside the master bedroom died without a sound, faces frozen in rictuses of shock. Katsuko flicked the blood off her blades and stepped over the threshold. The soft sound of breathing greeted her: Masaaki and his wife, asleep behind the silk curtains drawn around their large canopy bed. Moonlight filtered through the maple trees outside and fell in dappled patterns on the thick carpet. Paintings in extravagant frames hung on the walls, details lost in the shifting shadows. An intricately carved jade dragon loomed on its marble base in the center of the room; its cut ruby eyes gleamed down at Katsuko in watchful censure.
Katsuko crossed the floor on silent feet, passing by a large desk laden with scrolls and calligraphy brushes. A framed picture next to the inkwell caught her eye; unlike the rest of the art in Masaaki’s room, this one was simple, rendered on lined notebook paper. A child’s clumsy hand had drawn crayon roses arranged in a circle; a blob with a tail that might have been a cat frolicked in the center. The clarity that directed her focus during missions wavered like the surface of a lake, weakening enough for one selfish, human thought to coalesce:
Thank god I’m not the one in charge of killing the kids.
Shame prickled down Katsuko’s spine and curdled into a stone in her gut. She’d executed children before, snapped fragile necks and stopped young hearts. Hesitation was a weakness—and she was not weak.
Somehow, though, the memory of the Fujiyama house (blood-soaked tatami, the glimpse of a blue sundress in the space underneath the floor) lingered.
Her katana hilt creaked in her grip. Katsuko forced herself to turn away.
Masaaki and his wife slumbered on. Katsuko sheathed her katana and pushed aside the curtains, flipping her kodachi so the blade pointed downwards. Two clean strikes; Masaaki wouldn’t feel a thing—
Except he wasn’t there.
The even, rhythmic sound of two sleepers breathing didn’t stop, but Masaaki’s bed was empty of occupants, blankets folded and pillows propped up against the headboard. Katsuko’s heart pounded in her chest.
On the other side of the house, Raidou’s chakra signature flickered and bloomed open, its owner either too wounded or too distracted to conceal its presence.
Instinct forced Katsuko into action. Dimly, as if on the other side of a fog, she saw herself slice the edge of her kodachi in a smooth motion across the palm of her free hand. Blood welled up in a thin line through the lacerated fabric of her glove, followed by stinging pain. It was enough to knock her back into her own head; enough to feel the web of illusion settling over her mind. She slammed her kodachi back into its sheath and slapped her palms together.
The genjutsu shattered. The bed remained empty, but the phantom breathing cut off. She shook off the last clinging threads of the illusion and stretched her chakra out in time to sense a second foreign presence closing in on her like an arrow. Katsuko cursed and went for her blades.
Which was when a third enemy shinobi lunged up out of nowhere and crashed into Katsuko like a tidal wave.
An armored shoulder dug into Katsuko’s sternum; the back of her head smacked the wall hard enough to make lights explode behind her eyes. Wood and plaster caved underneath their combined weight; the bastard had tackled her through the wall.
For a heart-stopping second, everything went black. Her pain centers shut down. Katsuko’s focus narrowed down to the buzzing in her ears and the isolated sound of her own breath rasping in her throat.
They hit the floor with a crash. Katsuko lashed out blindly, breaking the enemy shinobi’s hold on her with an elbow to the underside of his chin. He cursed, breath hot against her ear; Katsuko kicked him away and flipped back up to her feet in a graceless, jerky movement. The world dipped and swayed around her like a drunken carousel as she lurched. She managed to stay upright and drew her katana, forcing her grip to remain steady. Her vision filtered back slowly, the blurred edges of the world resolving into a cloud of dust and scattered debris. They were in the hall outside Masaaki’s room.
The complete lunatic who’d used her for interior renovations surged to his feet, shaking plaster off of his shoulders. Tall, Katsuko’s brain supplied, helpfully. Maybe taller than Raidou. Definitely taller than Kakashi and the lieutenant. There were no lights in the narrow hallway, but the moon shone from Masaaki’s room through the ruined wall. The four dashed rain-marks of Kirigakure glinted on the man’s hitai-ate. He smiled, showing long white teeth filed into dagger-points, and opened his mouth.
Raidou’s chakra was still wavering at the edge of her senses. Katsuko didn’t have time for small talk. She lunged at the Kiri-nin and he drew a kunai from nowhere to block the scything edge of her katana, dancing backwards out of range. She snarled and gave chase.
Adrenaline could do a lot for you.
Raidou grabbed the blade with a gloved hand, choking his grip up around the base where it exited his chest-plate. There wasn’t much blood; he could feel a trickle inside his armor, but steel plugged most of the hole. He had ten seconds, maybe, before his body figured out it was supposed to fall.
Enough time to kill the ninja who’d killed him.
His own sword was still in his left hand. He flipped the grip and stabbed backwards, aiming for his attacker.
And hit nothing.
He was getting really tired of that theme.
“Try again,” said the voice, and now it sounded like it was coming from all four corners of the room.
Dark flickers scratched at the edges of his vision, distracting. Blood pressure dropping, probably. He turned, spreading his chakra out, but it came sluggishly—dammit, he wasn’t a sensor. He slammed it all down into the ground instead, sheathing his sword and dropping the senbon, freeing both hands just long enough to work quick seals. He reached for his most basic affinity. If he couldn’t stab the shinobi or find the children, he’d break the earth and pull the whole house down. Katsuko would know what to do with the wreckage.
He felt the ground begin to tremble around the foundations, and then the sword in his chest melted.
Gleaming metal spilled down across his armor like running water, liquid-silver, and ran sideways across his chest-plate. He yelled and slapped at it, expecting raw heat, but cold silver tendrils clung glue-like to his hands and flowed around his wrists, then up his arms. It was more metal than the sword could have held, and it was heavy. It weighed his arms down, sealing them against his sides. More ran down his legs, forcing his knees to bend.
What the hell kind of jutsu…
His chest was on fire now, numbness given way to the kind of beautifully constructed agony only a talented genjutsu-caster could force onto someone’s nerve-endings. But Raidou hadn’t dropped, he could still think, and that was a pretty good clue his impending death was exaggerated.
He couldn’t get his hands together for a kai, but he never had much luck with them anyway. He never had luck with genjutsu in general, but that was a thought he could panic about later, when he got out of this one. The metal weight forced him down to his knees. Raidou drew a furious breath and bit down as hard as he could on his tongue.
Blood burst into his mouth.
Pain came with it, more sturdy than the false burning in his chest. He tightened his jaw and felt the ripple-shock in his chakra. His vision shivered, and there was reality, overlaid with someone else’s mental playground. The metal wasn’t really there. His sword was in its sheath. He was standing, hands loose at his sides, senbon still dangling between his fingertips, and there was a woman in the room. Light-haired and curvy, solid-muscled, mouth a painted red slash. Light gleamed on the hitai-ate tied loosely around her throat: Kirigakure markings, no slash.
Sanctioned shinobi for hire.
She held the baby in one arm and the little girl in the other. The baby was screaming. The woman regarded Raidou with calm, measuring eyes.
“You can’t have the children,” she said, and cracked her neck sideways.
The genjutsu poured over his head again, sinking hooks into his psyche. He was stabbed, he was burning; his skin peeled off in strips. A long way away, he saw the grey shadow of her movement, splitting into mirror images—clones taking the kids while she moved towards him, the slender stretch of a silver garotte glittering between her hands.
Raidou bit down on his tongue again, wrenching enough control back to regain movement in one hand. He flipped Genma’s senbon around and drove it into his thigh. It was enough real hurt to knock him back onto his mental footing. He slapped his hands together and croaked out, “Kai.”
The illusion cracked.
“You’re not good at this, are you?” said the woman.
“I have other skills,” Raidou said, and got his hands up just before she lashed the wire around his throat. It bit into the reinforced material of his gloves and the back of his neck, but not—and this was important—into his larynx. She spat irritation and sent real, actual fire burning up the metal noose, but Raidou knew where she was now. He had her on a line.
And she expected him to jerk away.
He grabbed further down the wire with both hands, ignoring the hiss of smothering flames, and wrenched her forward. She staggered, caught by surprise. Raidou surged forward, let go of the wire, and in a move Katsuko was particularly fond of, unsheathed his sword in a single arc right across the woman’s ribs. Her flak-jacket peeled open under the black blade, and flesh pared away from bone. Blood washed down the flat plane of her stomach. She choke-gasped and drew two kunai, forcing him to block one with a quick reversal of his stroke and the other with his arm-guard. Clashing metal struck sparks. She was fast and light on her feet, like most genjutsu-artists. But she was close enough to grapple, and that was his playground—
An exploding tag flapped gently on the ring of her second kunai. She slammed it into the ground at Raidou’s feet with a thunk, and looked at him. “Three,” she said. “Two—”
He threw an arm up.
The explosion blew them both into the walls. Raidou hit hard enough to dent plaster and dropped to floor, head ringing. He fought his way back upright, shedding pieces of wood and bits of foam—the crib had been caught in the blast, though the little girl’s bed was remarkably untouched—and ripped the wire free, dropping it to the ground where it smoked and blackened. In the corner of the room, the nanny had been knocked out of the rocking chair; she fought dazedly with the wire he’d tied around her wrists, blood smearing her clothes from half a dozen wooden shrapnel injuries. Not a threat. The kunoichi was already up and scrambling towards the doorway, casting shimmering threads of genjutsu to cover her escape, but they were weak, visible. Raidou yanked the senbon out of his leg and flung it at the back of the her neck.
It struck, but missed the nerve cluster he’d been aiming for. She yelped, and vanished around the doorframe into a hallway that wavered with weird blue flames and—giant scorpions.
Raidou was ninety percent certain those weren’t real.
He could also feel Katsuko’s spark again, like a grounding beacon. He grabbed his sword and bolted after the kunoichi before he could lose the last shreds of his advantage to a new set of illusions. She met him with fresh kunai and the incredibly disturbing vision of all his skin spontaneously melting into blood, but he could see reality through it. Her gasp was definitely real when he broke her guard and kicked her in the ribs. She went down on one knee, cradling the mess he’d made of her stomach. Her uniform was shredded and scorched all over, but her eyes were still calm.
“They haven’t done anything,” she said.
“I know,” Raidou said, words smearing around blood, and cut her head off.
His vision cleared immediately, genjutsu vanishing as if it had never existed. He felt the collapsing lurch of a dying clone at the end of the house, and heard the twin thumps of small bodies hitting the ground—the baby screamed again, and the little girl had woken up enough to join in. Servants shouted, footsteps hammering down wooden hallways. The nanny was shrieking.
Close by, Katsuko’s chakra swirled violently, locked in the tight pattern of combat.
Raidou hit his throat-mic. “One enemy down. Watch yourself, they use genjutsu. You need back up?”
The radio hissed empty static just long enough to make his throat tighten with worry, then Katsuko’s voice came over the line. “Roger that,” she said, clipped and professional. “I’ve got three hostiles. They’re using genjutsu to hide Masaaki. I can handle it, taichou.”
He’d struggled with one, but Katsuko was a lot better with illusion. Three jounin were a handful for anyone, though. Then again, Katsuko was her whole own class of fighter.
“Status?” she added.
“Little singed,” he said. “Mind the explosion tags. I’m going after the kids. Keep me updated.”
Something crashed on the other side of the house.
Aching all over, Raidou smiled faintly, flicked blood away from his sword blade, and headed towards the thin sound of infant terror.
The knot in Katsuko’s chest loosened when she felt Raidou’s chakra signature stabilize. She clicked her throat-mic off. Then she threw herself underneath the Kiri-nin’s next strike and rolled between his legs, slamming the heel of her boot up into his groin on her way through. He yelled and leapt out of the way before she could take out his knees, lashing out at her with a water jutsu that filled the air with a veil of steam. Katsuko twisted aside and surged back up to her feet.
The hallways were too narrow to accommodate the broad sweep of her katana. Katsuko switched to her kodachi instead, relying on its shorter blade to slide in underneath the Kiri-nin’s guard. He dodged, despicably nimble for such a tall man, and kicked her in the ribs. She turned aside at the last second to divert the force of the blow and stabbed her kodachi downwards; he yanked his leg back fast enough that she only scored a long line down his calf instead of hamstringing him. Katsuko leapt back and slapped her palms together as she started to flicker through the first seal for her clones.
Metal flashed out of the corner of her eye. A machete blade cut through the steam with deadly accuracy, aiming for her throat. Katsuko flinched backwards and knocked it aside with her armguard, gritting her teeth at the high-pitched screech of steel against armor. The newcomer was another Kiri-nin: a kunoichi with a thin scar bisecting the crooked tilt of her mouth. Pale eyes glinted at Katsuko from underneath the Kiri hitai-ate.
“Konoha,” the kunoichi hissed.
Katsuko lashed out with her kodachi and ducked underneath the other woman’s whip-fast counter-strike. The machete whistled a centimeter over her head.
The kunoichi and the shinobi with the shark teeth made for two out of the three enemy presences she’d sensed. She cast her chakra out, searching, and found the third energy signature hovering nearby, in the master bedroom.
The kunoichi slammed a knee into Katsuko’s stomach. Katsuko doubled over, gasping in a lungful of steam, and wrenched her hands together to call fire out from the empty spaces of the world. Flames licked her palms and fingers, raced along the floorboards, surged up the walls in a roaring wave of heat. The kunoichi swore. Further down the hall, the shinobi let out a guttural snarl.
Rage lit Katsuko’s veins. She knocked the kunoichi away with a torrent of fire. The stench of charred hair and flesh filled the air. Steam from the water jutsu still filled the hallway like a bathhouse; it hung in a stubborn fog, some sort of jutsu trick keeping it from evaporating. Katsuko sent a surge of chakra into her next onslaught of flames to kick the heat up a few more degrees.
The steam began to boil.
The Kiri ninja screamed, the kunoichi’s shriek and the shinobi’s yell rising to an inhuman pitch. Katsuko pivoted on her heel and sprinted for Masaaki’s room. The scent of burning meat dogged her heels.
Entering the master bedroom through the main doors would mean running the gauntlet of flames and steam again. She climbed back through the giant hole in the wall instead and turned on her throat-mic.
“Two hostiles down,” she informed Raidou. “Going after the genjutsu user and Masaaki now. Also, this side of the house is on fire.”
Static crackled for a short beat. "Did you set the house on fire?"
“It’s spreading fast,” Katsuko said, scanning the shadows of Masaaki’s room. The estate was big, but chakra-fueled fire was even hungrier than its mundane counterpart. “I’d say ten minutes til it reaches you, taichou.”
"Great," Raidou said. His side of the comm hissed background noise for a moment as a resounding crash and the sound of servants screaming filtered through. "Try not to bring the roof down."
“Understood,” Katsuko said, and switched her mic off. She spread her chakra out again, encompassing the room to search for the genjutsu user. Only emptiness greeted her. Frowning, she re-catalogued the details of the sculptures and paintings around her, trying to find a flaw that would tell her if she was caught in a hastily-crafted illusion. Everything was as it should be at first glance; even the crayon roses on Masaaki’s daughter’s drawing had the correct number of lopsided petals.
Behind Katsuko, the fire in the hallway surged higher. She walked further into the room to escape the stench of cooking bodies and froze mid-step when a whisper of fresh air filtered through her mask.
The window in the far corner had been left a fraction ajar. Katsuko threw her chakra out like an arrow, homing in on the gardens beyond the curtain of maple trees outside, and caught the barest shimmer of foreign chakra racing towards the outer wall.
Katsuko launched herself out the window, ducking her head to avoid the shower of shattering glass, and hit the ground at a dead sprint. Cool night air hit her mask and chased away the lingering traces of smoke in her throat. The enemy ninja’s chakra flickered as Katsuko closed in; after a moment, it stopped dead and flared in challenge, sharp and savage as a cornered tiger.
Tigers, Ryouma’s voice whispered in the back of her mind. The memory of Kakashi’s snarl shivered in her hindbrain.
Katsuko’s mouth tilted up in satisfaction. “My turn,” she said, and slid her swords free of their sheaths. Fire spilled down the gleaming edges of her blades.
The garden gave way without warning to a graveled path. The estate wall loomed high and forbidding overhead. In the dim pool of light cast by a hanging lantern, a green-haired man in shinobi armor was struggling with a civilian couple. Katsuko didn’t need to see the civilian man’s opulent dressing gown to identify the master of the house: the twin streaks of grey hair at Tsuto Masaaki’s temples were distinctive, even if grief and terror had twisted his face into something unrecognizable.
“My children!” the woman shouted, wild-eyed. Masaaki’s wife, Euiko. Her unbound hair flew every which way as she attempted to yank free of the Kiri shinobi’s grip.
“Already dead,” the shinobi snapped. Masaaki moaned in horror; the shinobi’s free hand shot out and grabbed him by the collar, giving the merchant a violent shake. “Keep it together! You and your wife—”
The shinobi’s gaze snapped sideways. He shoved Masaaki and Euiko out of the way and spun two kunai into his hands, bringing them up in time to catch Katsuko’s swords in a cross-block. Fire licked at his fingers and seared the fabric of his gloves away; he cursed and disengaged, jumping back to gain more breathing space. Reddened fingers interlaced and flickered through the beginnings of a jutsu.
Katsuko lunged at him and scythed her katana out in a broad arc, shearing his hands off at the wrist. Smoke rose from cauterized flesh. The Kiri shinobi screamed and buckled, falling down to one knee. His chakra roiled in agony.
Then it disintegrated like ashes in the wind. Katsuko stared as the clone unraveled into thin air and realized she’d been tricked. There’d been enough chakra in the bunshin to convince her it had been the real thing. She bit her lip until it bled, drawing on the spike of pain, and twisted her fingers in a seal. “Kai!” she barked.
Masaaki and Euiko huddled together against the garden wall. Their wide eyes and pinched faces faded into nothingness as the illusion broke, leaving Katsuko alone with her rising fury.
A thin infant scream rose from inside the house. Part of the roof caved in with a hungry roar of flames.
The servants tried to protect the children.
A manservant, a maid, and a cook weren’t much of a hurdle, even if the cook did punch like a boxer. Raidou put them down one by one, dropping them into unconscious heaps, and chased the second maid trying to carry the children out the back door. He caught her in the hallway, grabbing her by the back of her sleeping yukata. Her socked feet skidded on the polished wooden floorboards.
“No!” she screamed, and flailed around to kick him, desperately hanging onto the frantic little girl and wailing baby.
“I know, I know,” Raidou told her, and closed a hand around her throat. “I’m sorry.”
He squeezed, hard and merciless, hitting pressure points to disrupt the blood-flow to her brain. Her eyes rolled up and her knees sagged. He caught the children as she fell, landing in a crumpled curl of blue-patterned fabric at his feet. The little girl, Tomoko, shrieked and beat at his armored chest, seeing a monster in the white mask looming over her. The boy’s name was Sorai, Raidou remembered; he was scarlet and screaming behind a mask of tears and snot, choking on smoke.
They’d done literally nothing. The girl was barely old enough to form permanent memories. The boy wasn’t old enough to have first words.
But Konoha wanted them dead.
The heat was already at Raidou’s back, pieces of the roof thundering as they collapsed. If he wanted any chance of giving Katsuko backup and getting the servants out unburned, he was out of time.
He’d lost Genma’s senbon in the back of the kunoichi’s neck. He pinned the girl against his side, freeing one hand, and drew a kunai. Set the blade to the baby’s throat. Sorai twitched at the touch of cold steel, his fingers splaying in an infant’s grab reflex. Raidou breathed out, and cut deep.
Blood sprayed across the floor.
The little body shuddered and went still, cries extinguished. Raidou made himself drop the boy and re-juggled the girl. She fought him, screaming hysterically. He got a grip on her long, dark hair, pulling her head back to bare her throat.
He brought the blade down again. But as it touched her skin, chakra twitched behind him and her body burst into red flowers.
Raidou swore and spun, coming face to face with a shinobi in the dark grey jounin-uniform of Kirigakure. Firelight glinted on spiky, grass-green hair. Equally green eyes narrowed over the white bandages Kiri-nin used in place of a mask. The shinobi’s hands were folded into a dragon seal. Ninjutsu or genjutsu?
Henge or more head-fuckery?
Raidou flipped his kunai, raking a hot line of pain across the inner side of his left arm, and slapped his hands together. “Kai.”
Nothing changed. Crimson petals blew across the floor.
Behind the bandage-mask, the man’s mouth quirked. “We don’t always do the same thing twice.”
“I do, when it works,” Raidou said, and flung the kunai at the man’s face, drawing his black-bladed sword in the same motion. He launched himself on the heels of his kunai, hitting the Kiri-ninja just as the man deflected the flying blade with the contemptuous sweep of an armored forearm. The kunai spun away. Raidou’s sword clashed down on a short-bladed wakizashi that appeared with lightning speed.
Steel ground against steel, making a thin, shrill noise.
“I’m Aoisuke,” said the Kiri-ninja calmly, as they strained against each other. Of course his name had blue in it. “I’d say it’s a pleasure, but…”
“Can you not narrate?” Raidou said.
“Just making conversation.” Aoisuke's other hand vanished and reappeared, bristling with shuriken. He threw them at point-blank range.
Raidou ducked his head, protecting his neck; steel sliced his shoulders. One thunked into his chestplate, the blade sinking through a joint in the ceramic plating deeply enough to scratch his chest. It felt real.
Henge to hide the girl, kawarimi to swap her with with an explosion of flowers? Or just a localized illusion to fold her presence away? The petals were still there, sinking into the spreading puddle of Sorai’s blood.
Raidou hated genjutsu-users. You had to think on three levels at once, while trying not to get your face carved off. If you couldn’t trust your senses, what could you trust?
He put his weight behind his sword, breaking through Aoisuke's weaker, one-handed grip, and kicked the man’s legs out from under him. Aoisuke tumbled, hit the ground, and flipped himself back to his feet, but Raidou was there to harry him, forcing him back up against the wall.
“You getting paid enough for this?” Raidou rasped.
“Are you?” Aoisuke said.
Above them, flames raced across the ceiling. The air boiled with smoke, filling Raidou’s lungs with dense, choking heat. The house was traditionally designed, hand-built and beautiful, which meant paper walls and varnished wood—and a deadly firetrap. The servants might already be lost.
Which, goddammit, he hadn’t wanted their deaths on his hands.
Aoisuke strained against him, muscles bunching. Raidou shifted his footing, shoved the other man’s sword high, and created the perfect opening to drive his knee through. He hit Aoisuke hard in the solar plexus, thumping the breath out of him; the other man grunted, fighting against the knee-jerk instinct to bend double. Raidou knocked the wakizashi aside and whipped his katana around, taking Aoisuke's head off at the neck.
And a clone exploded.
Oh, for the love of—
He turned, already expecting a knife between the shoulders. Instead, Katsuko smashed in through the exterior wall, scattering wooden panels.
“Taichou!” she shouted, as the backdraft of her entrance whipped the flames up into an inferno.
He didn’t have time to be surprised.
“Mind your back,” he snapped, turning to rake his gaze over the corners of the burning room. Genjutsu users were almost always sensor-types, which made their chakra-hiding skills better than most—
A shadow moved.
There wasn’t time to react. The wall next to Katsuko shivered, illusion breaking to reveal Aoisuke right behind her. He had Tomoko in one hand, cradled to his chest, and bare steel in the other: the short, curving wakizashi with its wicked edge.
In liquid slow-motion, he lunged forward and stabbed Katsuko through the back.
Raidou went cold.
Katsuko looked down at the length of bloodied metal punched out of her armored chest, right through her heart, and said, very quietly, “Oh.”
Aoisuke pulled his sword back, steel making a gritty sound against bone, and kicked her in the spine. She staggered forward and landed on her knees. Blood slid down her white chestplate. Her face lifted towards Raidou, throat working as her breath bubbled in her chest, but she couldn’t manage words. Crimson flooded out beneath the bottom edge of her mask, streaking down her neck. She collapsed in a boneless heap on the floorboards.
He couldn’t feel her chakra.
“What’s that worth to you?” Aoisuke said, and ducked out through the hole in the wall.
On the floor, Katsuko’s blood spilled gently out and mixed with the infant boy’s.
This is going to hurt later, Raidou thought distinctly, through layers of ice. This is going to hurt a lot.
It was his last thought for a while. He set his hands together, pulling up the dense, rarely-used reserves of his chakra—
And it wouldn’t come.
His feet wouldn’t move. When he looked down, the floorboards had wrapped around his ankles, soaked with arterial-crimson streaks, moved by a jutsu he hadn’t noticed. The heat roared at his back, bright as dragon’s breath. His skin, already tight, started to burn.
Katsuko was dead, and he was trapped.
He grabbed his sword and crouched to hack at the living wood tightening around his legs. The blade struck sparks, as if it was meeting steel. The fire drew closer.
Raidou screamed rage.
In the depths of the burning house, Raidou’s chakra howled like a storm. Katsuko ducked low to avoid the smoke and called up five clones. They went racing down the hallways in search of survivors while Katsuko kicked in a screen door. She tapped her throat-mic. “Taichou, can you hear me?”
Static crackled and hissed on Raidou’s end of the comm. Katsuko bit down on the fear that rose like bile in her throat and doubled her speed.
She took the next corner at a sprint, eyes streaming from the smoke, and almost tripped when she caught the faint glimmer of foreign chakra. It moved at a fast clip, away from the house, and veered abruptly to make a beeline in the direction of the docks. Raidou’s chakra still flared somewhere in the house—or at least, she thought it did.
Had the Kiri genjutsu specialist lured her in with another illusion?
Katsuko reached out with her chakra and gasped in relief when Raidou’s ANBU tattoo shone like a homing beacon in response to her own.
Another part of the ceiling caved in with a shower of white-hot sparks. She was out of time.
Five quick seals and a directed twist of chakra sent wind blasting through the closest wall. It punched through wood and plaster like a spear, barreling through the next wall—and the next. Katsuko ducked through her impromptu shortcut and shouldered a burning bookcase aside. A flood of memories from a dispelled clone hit her over the head like a brick: a quick glimpse of two blistered bodies sprawled on the floor, barely recognizable as the two Kiri ninja she’d boiled alive in the hallway outside Masaaki’s room. At least they hadn’t been a genjutsu.
Another burst of memories: one of her bunshin picking the half-unconscious nanny from the floor of the burning nursery; the sharp burst of night air as the rest of Katsuko’s clones piled all the household servants they could find in an unconscious, crumpled heap outside the front gate, popping of existence once their purpose was complete.
Well, if Raidou and Katsuko died in the flames of their target’s burning house, at least they wouldn’t bring any innocent bystanders with them to the afterlife.
Katsuko darted through the wreckage, coughing hard enough to make her chest ache, and narrowed her focus down to the cacophony of her captain’s chakra. It felt wrong, sharp and disjointed where Raidou was usually smooth and contained, but it meant he was still alive.
Her vision started to dim. She blasted aside a blockade of burning debris and focused on putting one foot in front of the other; she was nearly on top of Raidou’s chakra signature now, all she needed to do was hang on—
Katsuko rounded the corner and stopped short.
Raidou stood with his back to her at the other end of the hallway, hands clenched at his sides as he stared into space. Fire lit his armor up in flashes of orange and red; sparks landed on his bleeding shoulders, but he gave no sign of noticing.
He didn’t even twitch.
A genjutsu, then. The Kiri shinobi had trapped Raidou in a nightmare and left him to burn.
Katsuko had enough control to shock his system free from the genjutsu without flooding it. She started forward, gathering chakra into her hands.
She made it three steps before the ceiling collapsed inwards in a hail of splinters. A wooden support beam toppled in slow motion, one end catching on the jagged edges of a wall. The other end swung down like a pendulum, down towards Raidou.
Adrenaline surged. Katsuko didn’t remember moving; she was just there, the distance between them vanished in an eyeblink. She shoved Raidou out of the way with chakra-glowing hands, sending a jolt of directed energy straight into his system to break the genjutsu, and twisted aside to avoid the beam. Not fast enough; it slammed into her like ten tons of agony, but she caught the brunt of the impact on one side of her body instead of her spine.
Very distantly, she felt something in her shoulder crack.
Katsuko tucked into a roll, letting the force of the blow propel her out of the way, and tried to push herself back to her feet. Screaming pain caught her halfway up; she staggered and fell to one knee, clutching her shoulder.
The rising wave of Raidou’s killing intent made her head snap up. Raidou let out a terrible, grating sound, rage twisting his voice into something inhuman, and shoved himself up from where he’d fallen. Katsuko met his gaze through the crescent moon mask and felt her breath catch in her throat. Nothing recognizable looked back at her through his eyes.
Her mask was still on, but Raidou must have read something in the stillness of her body. He paused, killing intent retreating, and wrenched his mask aside. His lips were all-over bloody, red trickling down from the corners of his mouth.
“Rai?” Katsuko asked.
She saw the moment he realized it was her. His chakra rose again, blackened fury surging, but this time Katsuko was in the eye of the storm instead of its focus. Raidou grabbed her and slung her good arm over his shoulders, dragging her out of the burning house through a hole in the wall. A little bundle on the floor, half-hidden by the smoke, caught her eye; Katsuko reared back in instinctive horror when she recognized the unnaturally still face of the Tsuto family’s young son.
Raidou’s grip on her tightened, but he didn’t say a word. He hauled her out into the cool night air. Katsuko sagged against his side and didn’t let herself look back. Behind them, the house crumbled, consigning its dead to the flames.
The yard was a nightmare of reflected firelight, glowing dull orange as sparks and ash rained down. Raidou dropped Katsuko in the middle, next to the ornamental koi pond. Blood thundered in his ears, hot as the smoke in his lungs.
“Stay here,” he grated.
She grabbed his arm, grip tightening. Her voice rasped. “I can still fight.”
The fragile vestiges of his control sheared through.
“Stay,” he snarled, and wrenched out of her grip.
In the distance, Aoisuke’s chakra signature was weak and half-hidden, folded in on itself at the bare edges of Raidou’s reach, but it was accompanied by three civilians—two adults, one child, and those couldn’t be hidden.
He pulled on his chakra, and this time, it came. Deep energy lit up the inside of his skin, smothering everything that hurt. Ready to pull flesh from bones. Tonight, Kirigakure owed him blood.
Katsuko froze very still, the whites of her eyes gleaming behind her mask.
He turned away from her and put his hands together, letting the first jutsu go. It ripped the ground apart under his feet and tore a V-shaped opening in the compound’s perimeter wall. He left Katsuko where she was, alive and breathing, and went after the man who’d made him think she’d died.
Aoisuke might have been a fast runner under ordinary circumstances, but two panicked parents—neither one in sprinting condition—and a traumatized toddler would slow anyone down. They were almost to the docks when Raidou caught up with them, but they hadn’t made it to a ship.
The odds of that got a little worse when Raidou broke three of the piers.
There were more than a dozen jutting out into the ocean like the teeth of a wide comb, interspersed with docked merchant ships, bright sails furled for the night. Raidou didn’t have wood jutsu that could affect them—no one did, not since Hashirama had died—but he had earth, and he had water, and when he reached for both, a stretch of the waterfront ripped itself apart. Piers wrenched loose from the stone wharf and battering waves smashed them underwater. Four of the ships lurched, crashing into the wharf and each other, and foundered, including the vessel the tiny party had been running for.
Aoisuke skidded to a halt on the cracking edge of the wharf, caught between open water and the threat at his back. Beneath his feet, the weight of Raidou’s furious chakra made cobblestones crack and split, denting down into disintegrating concrete.
There was a moment, just a split-second of a pause, and then Aoisuke made his decision.
He shoved Tomoko into her mother’s arms and turned, stepping away from the family. Splintered moonlight lit the planes of his face as he raised his chin. He was young behind the bandages, maybe Raidou’s age. “Couldn’t just burn, could you?” he yelled over the chaos.
Raidou didn’t have words. He had Katsuko’s blood in his mind’s eye, and two feet of steel jutting out of her chest. He had Oh, and a slow fall, and How much is that worth to you?
He had rage, and he had running.
He hit Aoisuke square in the chest, and smashed him down onto the water. The ocean flattened beneath them, thumping down beneath the chakra-pressure of two jounin who could water-walk in their sleep. Salt burned into open wounds, but that just made Raidou madder. Aoisuke bucked and slithered out of his hold, slashing with kunai. Raidou knocked the gleaming blades aside, and took the first three openings that presented themselves: sternum, solar-plexus, and the narrow edge of the man’s jaw. Bone cracked beneath his knuckles.
Aoisuke spun backwards and fell, sinking a foot into the shallow waves before he regained his balance. When he coughed, blood sprayed through his bandage-mask and dappled the ocean’s surface.
It was a rare genjutsu-user who could go hand-to-hand on Raidou’s playing field.
But then he brought his hands up, and shuriken flashed through the air. Raidou was ready for them this time; he twisted and stamped down on the crest of a wave, shoving chakra through quick seals. The wave roared up, answering the water affinity in Raidou’s blood, and swallowed the shuriken. It kept going, curving higher before it crashed down on Aoisuke's head. The Kiri-nin vanished under the surface, forced down deep.
A second later, chakra sparked.
Waves split beneath Raidou’s feet, wrenched apart by the force of a jutsu. He dropped down into the valley and the ocean closed icy jaws over him, ripping his mask right off the side of his head. Breath jolted out of his lungs, but he didn’t need it, he didn’t care. He could feel Aoisuke struggling to the surface, almost within reach, and Raidou wasn’t going anywhere until he broke more bones.
He kicked upwards.
When he broke through, Aoisuke's chakra was circling in on itself, gathering close to split into another mind-bending illusion or infuriating chakra trick. Raidou yanked on his own chakra faster and shoved it down into the water; a summoned wave grabbed him and hurled him up into the air. He landed crouched next to his target, balanced on the ocean’s surface. Ducked Aoisuke's frantic sword swipe as chakra splintered apart, jutsu unformed, and lunged up to drive a clenched fist into Aoisuke's chest.
Ribs snapped beneath his knuckles.
There was chakra behind the hit. Aoisuke caught air, arcing up and crashing back down on the wharf, sword flying from his hand. Stone cratered beneath him. He landed flat on his back, chest heaving, and flung empty hands up. Blood streamed down his face, and Raidou might have felt something about that, once upon a time, might have stopped at the open-palmed plea, but there was no mercy left in him tonight.
He leapt and came down on top of the man, straddling the broken chest. His knees pinned Aousuke’s arms down, and he looked at the dazed, desperate face.
And hit it.
And hit it again.
He didn’t stop. Teeth broke, bone caved, and somewhere along the way, the body beneath him quit fighting. In the shivering distance, someone screamed. Or maybe they’d always been screaming.
They didn’t stop, either.
The support beam had snapped something when it hit Katsuko. Clavicle, judging by the burning agony when she prodded at her collarbone. The break was in almost the same place as last time, when the demon queen had knocked Katsuko flying. Ryouri-sensei was going to have a field day lecturing her on re-breaking just-healed bones.
Stay, Raidou had told Katsuko. Like she was a damn dog.
To hell with Ryouri-sensei. And to hell with Raidou, too. Katsuko staggered to her feet, dropped a concealing veil over her chakra, and followed her captain.
Heat from the fire warmed her back as she shadowed Raidou down to the docks. Around her, Tsurugahama was in chaos. Watchmens’ bells rang like klaxons as firefighting crews barreled towards the Tsuto estate. Dark clouds roiled at the edge of the sky, above the clamor of city lights and panicked civilians, threatening to encroach on the cold glare of the moon and stars.
Raidou’s chakra howled in counterpoint.
The unearthly rage that had claimed her captain back at the mansion still gripped him in its teeth. Katsuko kept a half-step behind Raidou as he tore down to the docks, watching as he homed in on the Kiri ninja’s chakra signature. Mere hours ago, while she’d been running with him down to the coast, she’d thought Raidou had looked like a vengeful ghost.
That version of Raidou, with his calm control and directed purpose, was nothing compared to this revenant with bloody hands and smoke-stained armor.
She hung back and watched, mute witness to the destruction Raidou rained down upon the docks. The green-eyed shinobi shouted something at Raidou over the cacophony of shattering wood and concrete; Raidou responded with a headlong tackle that sent both men catapulting off the docks. They disappeared beneath the waves.
Katsuko twitched forward before she stopped herself. Fighting a Kiri-nin in the ocean would be suicide for anyone without a strong water affinity. Raidou’s chakra pulsed strong and steady, no trace of distress in his signature. She left him to it and ghosted down the quay to where the Tsuto family stood frozen in terror. None of them saw her approach; their attention stayed riveted on the vicious fight between Raidou and the Kiri shinobi. Katsuko melted out of the shadows behind Tsuto Masaaki.
After all the struggle and pain Katsuko had gone through to reach him, killing Masaaki was anticlimactic. Her kodachi sank between his ribs, puncturing his right lung; he made a wet, choking noise, breath bubbling in his throat, and slid off the end of her blade to land on the cobbles. Euiko screamed. Katsuko sheathed her kodachi, kicked Masaaki onto his side and crouched down to look him in the eye.
“Watch,” she said, very softly, and waited until his face twisted in horrified comprehension. Then she rose to her feet.
Tsuto Euiko roused from her fear-glazed stupor and turned on her heel, clutching her daughter to her chest as she ran. Her long black hair streamed like a banner behind her. Katsuko caught her before she made it ten steps, grabbing a fistful of Euiko’s dark tresses and yanking the woman off her feet. The back of Euiko’s head hit the ground with an audible crack. Her daughter flew out of her arms and landed in a small, screaming heap a few feet away. Katsuko let out a breath and drew her kodachi.
Masaaki made a anguished noise. Euiko groaned. Katsuko flipped the kodachi hilt in her grip and drove the blade down one-handed between Euiko’s eyes, chakra-enhanced strength punching steel through the woman’s skull and impaling her to the concrete.
In the silence that followed, Katsuko felt the life fleeing Euiko’s body. She yanked her kodachi free with a scraping sound and turned away from Euiko’s empty, staring eyes.
Masaaki’s daughter— Tomoko, Katsuko remembered—sobbed when Katsuko stopped in front of her. Katsuko studied her in silence, taking in the tear-stained face and grubby pajamas. Then she sheathed her kodachi and knelt down, reaching out to grip Tomoko’s shoulder.
“Close your eyes, sweetheart,” Katsuko said, gently.
“No,” Masaaki begged. His voice was thick with blood and tears.
Katsuko held Tomoko’s gaze. “Close your eyes,” she said. “It won’t hurt.”
Tomoko whimpered and squeezed her eyes shut. Katsuko’s blade flashed once in the darkness.
Masaaki was crying when Katsuko returned to his side. Tears ran down his face to pool with the blood drying on the ground. Katsuko looked down at him, too hollow inside to feel anything like pity, and slit his throat.
She left the bodies where they’d fallen and went to search for Raidou. She found him pulverizing the Kiri-nin’s corpse on the wharf, stripping skin from bone with each frenzied punch. Blood and gore stained Raidou’s hands and bare face, ran in fresh rivulets down his drenched armor; skull fragments clung stubbornly to his knuckles.
Katsuko’s right arm hung useless at her side, crippled by the break in her collarbone. She’d taken out the Tsutos with only one working hand. Raidou was different; even if she could use both arms, Katsuko doubted she’d be able to stop him when he was like this without using lethal force.
“Taichou!” No response. Katsuko hadn’t expected any. She gritted her teeth and flared her chakra, alerting him to her presence, before she gripped him by the shoulder and tried to haul him off the body.
Raidou didn’t even look at her. He snarled instead, wrathful and bloody, and slammed a gore-covered fist into her armored stomach. The impact sent her flying, leaving her airborne just long enough to realize that this was going to hurt. She crashed into a pile of wood and debris hard enough to split concrete; her broken collarbone screamed agony, consuming her vision in a haze of white for a few wavering seconds.
Raidou had skirted the line between controlled rage and wholesale slaughter on a few missions with their old ANBU team, but he’d never tipped over before. Not like this.
Katsuko gasped for air. Anger roared hot and tight in her throat, forcing her back from the brink of unconsciousness. She staggered upright, shaking off dust and wood shards, and broke into a sprint.
Raidou was still crouched over the Kiri-nin’s corpse, intent on reducing it to a pile of organs and bone mush. Slick red gore sprayed into the air with every frenzied strike.
Katsuko rammed her armored fist into the side of his head, curtailing her chakra-enhanced strength to avoid doing brain damage, and sent Raidou soaring. She didn’t even have time to gloat before her collarbone flared in agony. The world around her lurched like a ship in a storm.
Katsuko staggered and fell to her knees.
The closest stopping point was the weathered stone wall belonging to an inn. Raidou hit it sideways, putting a heavy dent in the masonry and a slightly smaller one in his ribs. He landed in a welter of fractured stone, blood, and someone else’s bone chips.
The entire world rang loudly, banging like a gong.
Or maybe that was his skull.
He levered himself back upright, step-staggering sideways, and reeled around with base, bedrock wrath. This time, Aoisuke was going to die—
On the ground, Katsuko knelt in a spreading lake of blood, and Raidou’s heart stopped.
That wasn't real. He'd left her behind, alive. He'd done the nesting-doll universe of genjutsu and lost his grip, but she'd broken the world back together. He'd given it up again to kill the last enemy part of it, but he'd left her safe. His death and hers, both fake. The baby's death: real. He couldn’t see Katsuko fall again. He didn’t know what else to fight.
She set one gloved hand against red cobblestones and pushed herself up, listed, steadied, and made it to her feet. Her right arm hung deadweight at her side, but she brought the left up in a ready guard and set her stance. Through the smoke-blackened eyeholes of her mask, she stared him down.
“Come on, taichou,” she rasped. “I can do this all day.”
At her feet, a flayed sack of flesh and bone almost looked like it might, once, have belonged to a person. Except most people had more head. The neck ended in a pulped stump, edged in the shards of a glistening, shattered jawbone and the torn remains of a bandage-mask. Chunks of hair were almost too blood-matted to see the color, but a little green showed through the red. Below the throat, the Kirigakure uniform was still clearly visible. Raidou looked down at his hands. Through a slick sheet of gore, his knuckles were torn open.
Katsuko had a bloody fist-print in the center of her ANBU vest.
Raidou thought, Oh.
She must have seen something in his face, because she paused, straightened out of her guard, and took a careful step forward. Raidou lowered and opened his hands: no threat.
Katsuko’s whole body slumped with obvious relief, though her masked face didn’t show anything. She drew a deep breath, ribs expanding beneath soot-streaked armor—and marched over to punch him in the face.
There was no chakra in the blow, just a glove-wrapped fist and good aim. In terms of ninja aggression, it fell somewhere between you idiot bastard and welcome back. On Katsuko’s radar, it was practically affectionate. It still turned his head gently inside out and stitched agony into the remains. Raidou winced.
“Ow,” he managed, dragging up a rusty croak from the distant place his words had gone. It burned in his throat, like he’d filled up the absence of thought with screaming instead.
“Ow?” Katsuko repeated, dangerously. “Ow?” She shoved into his personal space, in blatant disregard of the fact that he’d just turned a man to mulch with his bare hands. “That’s not ‘ow’. Do you want to know what’s ‘ow’, taichou?”
She jabbed a backwards thumb at the crimson fist-print.
Raidou cleared his throat. In the sea of returning emotions—of which there were many—shame and embarrassment clawed for an equal lead, just edging out bone-hurting relief. Very carefully, he touched two shaking fingertips to the dropped angle of Katsuko’s right shoulder: dislocated, or broken again. “I would have guessed this,” he said. And, much quieter, “Sorry.”
Katsuko’s good hand fisted in the collar of his black turtleneck and dragged him down to face-level. Behind the mask, her eyes were narrow as a blade edge. “When this is over,” she said. “You are buying me food for a month.”
Then she let go and threw her left arm around his shoulders in a fierce, tight hug.
A hot ache closed Raidou’s throat. He held completely still for a moment, bloody hands hovering gingerly in the air at Katsuko’s back, unwilling to touch for fear that something else might crack under her skin. But her weight was straightforward and solid, pressing chakra-heat against his ocean-soaked skin, and she didn’t let go.
Very, very carefully, he gathered his arms around her, and let himself believe she was alive.
Judging by the way her grip tightened hard, he wasn’t the only one trying to get grounded. Katsuko’s hug evolved into something more like an exhausted lean, which radiated little spikes of pain up through Raidou’s ribs, but he figured he’d kind of earned that. He let her stay and glanced up, remembering, suddenly, that he’d never gotten confirmation on Masaaki’s death—
That looked pretty confirmed.
Two adult bodies lay crumpled in their nightclothes, and a smaller body between them. Mission completed.
There was no satisfaction in it, just a drained, sick hollowness.
Raidou’s situational awareness slunk reluctantly back and gave him a nudge. He glanced around, taking more in, and realized several things: the thumping noise in his skull wasn’t just a gathering migraine, someone was furiously ringing a bell. In the close distance, the sky was glowing rich orange and pouring black smoke, presumably as Masaaki’s compound burned itself to cinders. Much closer, and more worryingly, a growing crowd of horrified, armed civilians were watching Katsuko and Raidou with the nervous anger that just needed a single thrown stone to spark a riot.
Also, a fair chunk of the harbour seemed to be… broken.
Katsuko felt him stiffen. “Taichou?”
“We should leave,” Raidou murmured, barely moving his lips.
She glanced over her shoulder. “Good idea.”
Roof-running seemed like a painful option. Raidou didn’t really want to smash through that crowd, either. He’d killed enough people today.
He glanced just once more at Aoisuke’s body, remembering the sharp green eyes in what had once been a face, then forcibly made himself stop. “Got everything?” he asked Katsuko.
She grunted confirmation. He could see the hilts of both of her swords, and feel the weight of his. Anything else was replaceable. He set his hands together behind her shoulderblades—the crowd scrambled backwards—and worked two fast jutsu. The first tore the ground up in front of Masaaki and his family, unzipping a spiralling trench into the shape of Konoha’s leaf symbol: proof of execution. The second peeled open the skin of the universe and shoved them through it, into the teeth of Raidou’s hasty translocation.
The remains of Tsurugahama Port vanished, left to its flames and corpses.
A series of translocation jumps slung Katsuko and Raidou to the outskirts of the city, where paved streets and buildings gave way to thickly forested hills. The ocean roared at their backs as they faded into the night like specters. Clouds rolled over the sky, killing the moonlight and leaving them only darkness to navigate by.
They met the oncoming storm and ran through it. Rain shattered against their bare shoulders and stung healing cuts. Katsuko ignored the dull throb of her broken collarbone and fell in at Raidou’s side, staying a half-step behind so she could keep an eye on the tense set of his shoulders.
She tapped on her throat-mic. No sense in shouting over the rising wind, even if their close proximity meant there would be a little feedback. “Rai,” she said. “What are you going to tell the others?”
Droplets splashed on her mask and hissed over the comm.
“I don’t know,” Raidou said.
Katsuko swallowed and switched the radio line off, only to bring her hand back up to her throat-mic a second later. “I won’t tell them anything,” she said. “Not until you decide what to do.”
The silence that followed made anxiety twist hot and tight in Katsuko’s stomach. Then the defensive curl of Raidou’s spine straightened. His end of the line crackled. “I won’t make you lie for me, but— thank you. I’ll figure it out.” He closed some of the distance between them, falling in just behind her right shoulder: making a wall between the world and her wounded side. “How’s the arm?”
“It’s been better.” As if on cue, sharp pain spiked from her clavicle, running down her arm and making the fingers of her right hand curl. “I don’t even care if the lieutenant yells at me, I’ll love him forever if he heals this damn break.”
Raidou glanced back over his shoulder, measuring distance, and then slowed down and came to a stop. “I’m not the lieutenant, but let me see if we can at least bind it up.” A bare flicker of his usual wryness shone through. “I promise not to yell.”
“Pinky-swear?” Katsuko asked, but followed him anyways. They ducked into a hollow shielded from the rain by a rock outcropping. Raidou dug into his medkit for a sling and eased Katsuko into it, using additional bandages to secure her arm against her side. She didn’t say anything about the red streaks his hands left on the bandages, and he didn’t say anything about the exhausted waver in her voice.
She waited until he’d finished tightening the sling straps before she pushed her mask aside. “Was it the genjutsu that set you off?” she asked, because working up to delicate questions required the sort of energy she didn’t have right now. “Or did that Kiri-nin do something before he got you with an illusion?”
Raidou’s expression closed down. “He— No, it was just the genjutsu.” He shoved back up to his feet. Katsuko rose with him and caught his arm before he could turn away.
“Rai—” she said, and then cut herself short. She squeezed his arm and let go. “Captain. What happened?”
He stopped, spine rigid. And then sighed. "They made me think you'd died."
He hadn't recognized her, after he'd snapped out of the genjutsu. Had turned on her, even, killing intent clear and deadly.
"Did you think I was an imposter?" she asked. "After I woke you up, I mean."
“Honestly? I wasn’t really thinking anymore,” he said, very low. “I just wanted to… well, you saw what I wanted to do.”
Raidou’s surrender to berserker rage—and the resulting carnage—abruptly took on a new light. Katsuko examined the memories of Tsurugahama from all angles and felt the pieces of the puzzle she’d been missing slot into place.
“Oh,” Katsuko said at first, because anything else she could offer in response paled in comparison. She had to try, though. “I’d do the same. If you were the one who—if I thought—” she struggled for eloquence and came up empty. In desperation, she offered, “Do you want a hug?”
Raidou looked at her, mouth curving in a slight, rueful smile. “We did that already.” He glanced back at the entrance to the hollow, where the storm raged outside. “We need to get moving. If we ran into trouble, the others might have, too.”
The thought hadn’t ever occurred to her. Kakashi and Ryouma were deadly as solo fighters; working together, with the lieutenant’s steady hand and level head to keep them in line, they should be nigh unstoppable. Now, though, a little of her surety wavered.
“Hound does have that fainting problem,” Katsuko said, voice light. “And Ram falls into things a lot after he’s done pulling heroics.”
Raidou snorted ragged laughter. “Exactly. We’ll hit the safehouse. If they’re not there, we’ll patch up and… figure something out.”
“The lieutenant will get them there safe,” Katsuko said, following Raidou out into the rain. “And they’ll tear through anything that tries to get in their way.”
“Let’s hope,” he said, and picked up the pace.
They ran the rest of the way in silence. Fear mounted in Katsuko’s chest with each step.
Ryouma had thrown a twig at her just hours earlier. Kakashi had joined in their good-natured ribbing, and the lieutenant had brought them all back into line. They were starting to become a team, instead of a disjointed jumble of specialized skillsets and personality clashes.
She’d already started to think of them all as hers. If something happened—
No. It was useless to speculate. Ryouma was lethal with his rot jutsu and as sharp as the blade of her katana; Kakashi had torn through entire battlefields before he’d turned fifteen. The lieutenant was cunning and competent, the hand that nocked the arrow to the string and guided its flight. She had to trust that they knew how to take care of themselves.
In retrospect, Katsuko really should have expected the ringing emptiness that greeted her and Raidou when they opened the safehouse door.