Asuma didn’t immediately recognize the voice cutting through his daze. In fact he wasn’t sure there was anyone actually there. It could have been a product of his imagination, or a distant shout from further down the twisting corridors. That voice was just in his head...
...damnit, no, he had to check. The Daimyou and his family were still locked behind the heavy door. He had to stay alert, to be sure every threat had passed. With great effort Asuma shifted to look around, cheek lifting from Chiriku’s bald head.
When he saw the Yondaime’s distinctive coat, the identity of the voice finally clicked into place. He started to tap his covered ANBU tattoo in an automatic salute, but grimaced and paled at the grating of bones in his forearm. There would be no normal salutes from him any time soon. Asuma uncurled his fingers from Chiriku’s cooling hand and gingerly touched his right shoulder instead. Better a backward salute than none at all.
“Yes,” Asuma managed, voice hoarse.
Yondaime-sama made a brief gesture, two fingers flicked forward at shoulder-level, and two of the silhouettes behind him moved. ANBU, a rabbit and a badger; they didn’t bother to pick their way cautiously through the bodies. They started to hoist him to his feet, but the state of his right arm and the noise he made when Rabbit touched it made them quickly adjust their grip. Badger took most of his weight, slinging Asuma’s good arm over his own broad shoulders. Rabbit counterbalanced them, gripping the belt loops of Asuma’s jeans. The effort left him breathless and trembling; it was all he could do not to trip and send them all into the muck.
Asuma thought he saw a flicker of recognition in the Hokage’s eyes as the ANBU hauled him closer. He must look a right mess. “Sarutobi,” Yondaime-sama greeted. “What happened?”
Lightning charring flesh from the bone. Harsh words and even harsher blows. Chiriku’s bloody smile. Asuma took a breath and tried to focus.
“Kazuma,” he started, exhaustion making his speech stilted—“the captain of the Twelve, led a coup to overthrow the Daimyou. They failed.”
Yondaime-sama’s mouth thinned. “Kazuma’s dead?”
Asuma nodded once and closed his eyes against the swimming sensation in his skull. “Yes, sir.”
“Rabbit.” At the Hokage’s quiet words, the ANBU adjusted her grip, jarring Asuma’s injured arm and digging her fingers into his waist. He looked up again with a grunt, finding Yondaime-sama’s blue gaze intent on him. “Sarutobi. I need you to lead me to the Daimyou.”
“The door,” Asuma said, and tipped his head back to where Chiriku still lay. “It’s sealed.”
The Hokage gave him a long, searching look, before nodding and stepping forward. Rabbit and Badger helped turn Asuma around, but didn’t follow. The other two ANBU silently flanked their leader as he crossed the hall. He took a moment to examine the door, hands running over the elegant carvings, before he bent and moved Chiriku’s body aside. Asuma tried not to flinch, failed, and sternly told himself that Hokage-sama would not treat the monk’s body with disrespect. It wasn’t Konoha that had been the enemy here.
“Yoshihara-sama,” Hokage-sama called out, rapping his knuckles against the reinforced wood. His voice seemed overly loud in the narrow hallway. “This is the Yondaime. Please stand back. I’m going to open the door.”
His hands moved through multiple seals before he pressed one palm against the door, his chakra rising to force open the seal. No wonder Asuma had thought he was hearing voices earlier—except for Yondaime-sama’s sudden symphony, Asuma could sense no chakra in the people surrounding him. They must have been suppressing it.
Blue lines spun away from the decorative center panel before an audible crack signaled the seal’s release. The handle turned easily, but Hokage-sama had to put his shoulder into it before the stubborn door came unstuck. He glanced back and signaled the rest of the group to follow down the hall after him.
“Hokage,” the Daimyou said from where he waited in the foyer, eyes wide and fearful despite his otherwise calm face. He waited behind a trio of palace guards who stood nervously against the gathering ninja. “Is it done?”
“You’re secure here, Yoshihara-sama,” the Hokage replied evenly. “I have additional ANBU teams on the palace grounds. Please remain still for a moment.” He glanced back toward the group of jounin in the rear. “Yuuhi?”
A woman stepped forward, unusually clad in a red sleeveless turtleneck and black trousers instead of jounin blues. She blinked her deep red eyes and stared hard at the Daimyo, but otherwise made no movement. Asuma recognized her as one of his fellow classmates from back at the academy. He hadn’t heard that Kurenai had gotten involved with ANBU, even in an ancillary position. Of course, they hadn’t really spoken since the academy, so much as he teased and hit on her, and she replied with biting insults and suggestions on how to use his free time with a goat.
“None of them are under genjutsu, sir,” she reported after a long pause. “Although that doesn’t rule out henge.”
The Hokage turned back. “Yoshihara-sama—”
“Yes, yes,” the Daimyou replied, and brushed his guards aside to take the hand Yondaime-sama offered. The Hokage’s chakra was quieter this time, more subtle, and the application of it made the Daimyou jump as though shocked. Nothing seemed to happen.
Yondaime-sama released the Daimyo’s hand, took a step back, and bowed politely. “Thank you for your understanding, Yoshihara-sama,” he said on straightening. “I believe it would be best for you to remain here while my forces strengthen the palace’s security. I'd like to discuss what happened here with you, but I hope you'll wait until I have a firmer grasp of the situation. I'll try not to take too long."
The Daimyou nodded. “Of course. My guards are yours to command. I will be in the sitting room with my wife.” He made a fluttering motion at the guard on his left as he turned to leave. “You, assist the Hokage with everything he needs. You know the palace better than most.”
The guard bowed deeply to his master’s departing back. “Yes, Daimyo-sama.”
Yondaime-sama turned back to his ninja. “Rabbit, have your team secure the immediate area, and then send someone to find the radio and tell them to start assembling reinforcements. I want a dozen jounin and fifty chuunin here by midday tomorrow. And—Dammit, actually, just let me know when they've established contact with Konoha; I'll come. Kawasaki, take the loyal guards and start cleaning up the bodies and triaging the injured. Give medical aid to the emergency cases; right now I don't care what their loyalties are. We'll question them later.” The ANBU supporting Asuma received their orders with a nod, and one of the white-clad medics saluted and darted back into the hall. “Hyuuga, Yuuhi, you're with me. And with Sarutobi, here.” He looked at Asuma. “Can you walk at all?"
Asuma shifted his weight, trying not to lean so heavily on Badger. His head still swam, but at least he didn’t feel like he was going to collapse. “Slowly?” he offered.
Yondaime-sama’s mouth twitched toward a smile. “Well, we already passed out the prizes for speed. Here, Badger, hand him over.” The ANBU obediently transferred their burden before saluting and taking their leave as well. Asuma needed to lean more to one side than his back liked in order to use the Hokage as a crutch, but he gritted his teeth and ignored it as best he could. Yondaime-sama, for his part, hardly seemed to notice the extra weight Asuma put on him.
Once settled, the Hokage turned to their medic. “Hyuuga?”
“We’ll need water,” the medic said to the guard who had remained behind. “Do you have a kitchenette or a sink available?”
“Would a bathroom be acceptable?” the guard asked. After Hyuuga’s affirmative nod, the man gestured to the hallway opposite the one the Daimyou had taken. “Please follow me.”
The safe room wasn’t much different from the rest of the palace in terms of decorations; there was no point in inconveniencing the Daimyou just because of a potential threat to his life. Asuma had only been through it once or twice, but the layout was one of the few things still clear in his mind at the moment. The foyer led to entertaining and food preparation rooms on one side, and to several bedrooms with their own attached bathrooms on the other. There were no windows or other methods of entry, beyond the one they just came through, that could compromise safety. In total the area was large enough to house the Daimyou, his immediate family, and up to three other sets of visiting dignitaries.
The bathroom the guard led them to fit all five people easily, with a wide double sink, a large bathtub separate from a walk-in shower, and a toilet that was probably cleaner than Asuma was. Yondaime-sama decided to remedy that problem by dropping the lid and plunking Asuma down on top of it.
Asuma rested against the back of the toilet with an unconcealed sigh, and didn’t think too hard about the grime that had rubbed off onto the Hokage’s coat. He should probably offer to pay for the dry-cleaning later.
Sarutobi looked as if he might fall asleep where he sat if they just left him alone a few minutes longer. No chance of that with Hyuuga Iori here, of course. She stole just a moment to run a sinkful of warm water and find an armful of expensively soft towels, and then she was easing Sarutobi's charred and bloody leather jacket off and frowning at what she found.
Minato caught the palace guard's eye and jerked his head at the door. The man was certainly trained for discretion; he bowed low and slipped away, closing the door behind him.
"Give me an area genjutsu, Yuuhi," Minato said quietly. "I don't want anyone hearing what happens in here."
Yuuhi Kurenai nodded, crimson eyes half-shuttering, and set her hands together. Chakra molded in her hands, following the shape of her seals, and then melted away. Minato eased his tight hold on his own chakra. His people would need to find him eventually, and they all knew the flavor of his chakra as well as they knew their own.
Sarutobi Asuma had been one of his people, once. Was he still?
"Report," Minato said. "You said the leader of the Guardian Twelve is dead. Who else? Why did Kazuma attempt a coup?"
Asuma's breath sucked in between his teeth as Hyuuga sponged smoke and char and blood away from his bared arm. There was an ugly cut on the forearm, with a lumpiness beneath the torn skin that suggested broken bones. Seeping burns blistered from elbow to biceps. He winced away from the wreckage and looked up. His shoulders squared; his back straightened, as if he were giving a formal report.
"Kazuma requested a meeting with the Daimyou and all of the Twelve." Asuma's voice was raw with smoke and pain, but steady. "We met earlier today at 1830 hours. Kazuma...suggested that Fire Country would be better off if the Daimyou had direct control of Konoha's army."
Yuuhi had been taking notes in a clear, flowing Intel shorthand, her notebook braced on one arm as she leaned against the sink. Her pen stopped abruptly, and she glanced toward the door.
Hyuuga Iori had activated her Byakugan.
"Hikouto wouldn't be on fire now if Yoshihara-sama had agreed," Minato said quietly. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the glass shower door.
Asuma nodded jerkily. "Daimyou-sama refused to hear him out. Said he'd uphold the oaths his father made with the First and wouldn't have anything to do with the idea. He walked out of the audience, but the twelve of us ended up getting in an argument in the greeting hall. We split down the middle, six for and six against the idea." He caught his breath, hissing in pain, as Hyuuga drew a thin cotton swab from her medical kit and began probing the gash in his forearm.
He wouldn't be telling this to Minato now if he'd been one of the traitor six. Sarutobi Asuma, the Sandaime Hokage's only son. He'd been ANBU a year ago, jounin before that. No serious black marks on his record that Minato could recall. And whatever the Saindaime's other faults, the old man had raised his children, at least, to be loyal to Konoha…
But the Sandaime had practically raised Orochimaru, too, genin to jounin. And Asuma was clever, with all his father's wiliness and a year's independent thinking under his belt. Had Minato had arrived just a moment too soon, surprising Asuma in the act of trying to break through the saferoom door? Was Asuma even now waiting for his moment to strike?
He'd be a fool to do so, with Minato here. And while the boy in Minato's memory had been smart-mouthed and impatient, stubborn and impulsive, he hadn't been a fool.
Hyuuga hadn't signaled an elevation in heart rate or respiration, either. Her head was still bent over Asuma's torn arm, but she hadn't released the Byakugan, and those blank white eyes saw far more than the injury beneath her hands. And Yuuhi was Intel; she'd hear a lie long before Minato did.
"The Twelve argued," Minato prompted.
Asuma was white with pain beneath the smoke and blood, and his good hand clenched hard on his knee. "Kazuma said he'd replace the Daimyou by force, if he had to. If there was no other way to make him listen. Then he attacked. The five who agreed with him fell in like it was premeditated. Three divisions of the palace guard joined them, too."
He faltered, then, red-rimmed eyes dropping to his filthy hand. His raw voice thickened. "Chiriku broke off early to ensure the Daimyou and his family were safe. Masaki managed to leave the fight without me knowing, and led a contingent of palace guards down here to the safe house. Chiriku stopped them. The rest… They weren't willing to surrender. They all fought to the death."
They'd been dead men anyway, Minato thought, from the moment they'd rebelled against their sworn lord. A daimyou couldn't pardon mutineers, much less traitors from his elite bodyguard. Every man and women among them had known when they first lifted their hands that they had to win, or die.
That didn't make it any easier for the ones who killed them.
His questions wouldn't, either. But he wasn't here to coddle a wounded boy. He was Fire Country's military commander, and he had no time for gentleness.
"I need details, Sarutobi," he said, hardening his voice. "Exactly how many of the guard rebelled? Whose deaths can you confirm? Where are the rest of the Twelve?"
Hyuuga chose that moment to start picking debris from the gash in his arm. Asuma clenched his jaw, closed his eyes, and suppressed a curse. He only needed to remember the facts right now. The rest could come… later. Much, much later.
“At least three divisions,” he answered. “They’re seventy-five men each here. Plus an additional forty or so—the ones that’re outside in the hall. All the guards we met on the field we killed. The rest of the Twelve…” Just the facts, just the facts. “They’re dead, sir.”
Hokage-sama’s voice remained as cold as steel. “Which of them did you personally kill?”
Momotaru and Masaki had been the first to fall—or so Asuma had thought, before he discovered how Masaki had backtracked to ambush Chiriku—burned to ash in the limelight jutsu. Then Tou, which ensured the limelight jutsu could never be cast again. More had fallen in rapid succession, Kazuma and his people doing their best to separate and destroy rather than allowing Asuma and his allies to effectively fight as a team. Far too quickly, the Twelve had been culled to two.
“Koga,” Asuma said after a pause. His hadn’t been the killing blow, but he didn’t think Yondaime-sama would see much difference between ‘helped a lot’ and ‘killed without assistance’. “And Kazuma.”
A long silence followed. Asuma dared to open his eyes again and look to his Hokage, as dignified and commanding in a bathroom as anywhere else in the world.
“I recognize you’re injured and low on chakra, Sarutobi, and that this is difficult for you.” Yondaime-sama’s face was stern. “But I need information, if I’m to keep the Daimyou and my own people safe. Are you absolutely certain the rest of the Twelve are dead?”
Asuma met Yondaime-sama’s eyes, forced himself to hold the gaze and not think of his dead friends. “Yes sir. Two are in the hall outside. I can place the—“ Not the bodies. “—the others on a map. For retrieval.”
That response, finally, seemed to earn Hokage-sama’s approval; he nodded, sharp and apparently satisfied. “Yuuhi, see to it,” he ordered, and gave Asuma one more piercing look. “Before I meet with the Daimyou, Sarutobi, is there anything else I need to know?”
Asuma cast one more net to dredge through the clutter of his exhausted mind. Each member of the Twelve had been semi-autonomous, with their own responsibilities to look after and report on. The palace guards and their rotations had been Asuma’s responsibility, which didn’t reflect well on him considering how many had joined Kazuma’s cause. It did, however, give him more insight than usual on what to do with who was left and how to ferret out any additional deserters.
“How’d word get to you?” he asked, looking back up after a moment of thought.
“Via the Daimyou’s radiomen,” Yondaime-sama replied. “Unencrypted, but on the correct channel.”
Asuma nodded, closing his eyes once more. “Then the captain of the guard, Ito Hiroki, is clean. And the radioman that sent the message, if you can find them.”
Hiroki was the only one, outside the Twelve, who knew the correct channel to use in order to send an urgent distress call to Konoha. Chiriku wouldn’t have left the Daimyou’s side once the coup was under way, and Masaki wouldn’t have initiated a call only to attack the safe room. That the message hadn’t been encrypted meant Hiroki couldn’t stay for the duration of the call; that the message went through at all meant the radioman had no other allegiances. It was an extremely small start to reorganizing the guard, but a start nonetheless.
“I’ll give orders to look for them,” Yondaime-sama said. “Hyuuga, when you’ve put his arm together, join up with Kawasaki in triage. Yuuhi, I want that map as soon as you can produce it. Sarutobi’s full report can follow.”
The stress was faint, but audible enough that Asuma picked it up even through his exhaustion. It was the kind of emphasis that said by ‘full report’, Hokage-sama actually meant ‘interrogation’. Or something near to it, at least. Asuma supposed he couldn’t blame the man, considering there weren’t any other Guardians left to back up his story. The thought left his chest heavy with resignation.
“Sarutobi,” Yondaime-sama continued, “we’ll find a secure place for you to rest once you’ve finished answering Yuuhi’s questions.” A pause, pregnant with meaning. “Thank you for your loyalty.”
Asuma looked back up and raised his uninjured arm to tap the opposite shoulder. “Thank you, Hokage-sama,” he said quietly.
The others offered their own salutes, and then the Hokage was gone. The bathroom suddenly felt much larger.
Kurenai’s red eyes went out of focus for a moment, as though she was staring through the door that closed behind the Hokage, before she turned back to her notepad. “The map,” she began. “Can you draw it? Or will you need assistance?”
Referring to his messed up arm, no doubt. “Lefty,” Asuma replied, and held his good hand out to her, palm up. “Thankfully. I can draw it.”
“If I may?” the medic interrupted, putting aside her cleaning tools to pull a pair of small, rattling vials from her kit. “Blood and chakra pills. Best to get that in your system first.”
Asuma offered his hand to the medic, and was rewarded with two small pills. He swallowed them down along with a provided canteen of water, blinked back the copper-bright aftertaste that threatened a sneeze soon after, and relished the sensation of artificially replaced chakra. But that energy wouldn’t last him long. The sooner he could debrief, the sooner he could sleep.
He took a breath, a moment to center himself, and accepted the pen and scrap of notepad paper Kurenai gave him.
The hour that followed passed quickly, hastened by the pills that helped Asuma wrestle his emotions into place. For now he could pretend that those were only letters on a hastily scribbled map; they were not markers for the bodies of ninja who had become closer than family in the last year. The wounds that Hyuuga carefully cleaned and stitched up could have been from any mission; they were not inflicted by friends who inexplicably became enemies in a matter of minutes. With faces carefully obscured in memory, the actions he described to answer Kurenai’s questions could have been performed by any missing-nin that defected in the last ten years.
Undoubtedly he’d be forced to write all this himself, later, a report penned in his own hand and filed away with Kurenai’s and other investigators’ impersonal observations of this night’s aborted war. But at least that retelling of the story could be done in private. No one would be trying to interpret his reactions then.
“Thank you, Sarutobi-san,” Kurenai said, and tucked the messy map into her vest when he handed it to her. She’d embodied nothing but cool professionalism from the moment she showed up, with a pokerface that rivaled any Hyuuga. There was something bizarrely reassuring about it, to be debriefed by someone who displayed absolutely no opinion one way or another about all of this. “I believe that will suffice for now. Hyuuga-san, how close are you to finishing?”
The medic didn’t look up from her work, focusing on the worst parts of the burn—or at least Asuma assumed she was focusing on the burn. Could never tell, with those eyes. “Ten minutes or so,” she replied. “A bit left here, and then I can set the break.”
Kurenai nodded, flipped her notepad closed, and tucked it away. “We’ll continue this discussion once you’ve rested, Sarutobi-san,” she said. With a quick seal she dispelled the silencing jutsu she’d cast earlier, every move as efficient as her debriefing technique, and turned neatly on her heel. The bathroom door opened under her light knock, and a familiar badger-masked ANBU poked his head into the room.
“I’m finished here,” Kurenai said.
The mask dipped in acknowledgement, pulled back to let her through, then stepped in to fill the doorway. “We have a room for you, Sarutobi-san, when you’re ready.”
Code for ‘prison cell with amenities’, more likely. Until they could verify that he wasn’t lying through his teeth, it was only proper to treat him as a potential threat. Things had a tendency to look suspicious when only one person in a thwarted coup survived.
“Thank you,” Asuma said quietly.
Hyuuga pulled her hands away from the burn on his upper arm, and laid cool fingers on his wrist and elbow.
“You don’t have any antibiotic sensitivities, do you?” she asked, and set the break.