Natsumi turned, one finger still marking her place on the B-rank escort brief she'd been reading, to meet a friendly grin standing just a little too close. She had to tip her head back to meet his eyes; he was nearly as tall as Ibiki. The carelessly spiking hair, still gleaming damp from the shower, might even put him an inch taller. Dark eyes danced over an angular jaw blurred by a few days' growth of stubble and a rumpled dark red shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the collar undone.
He'd been taking fashion lessons from her brother Takeo, apparently. And perhaps flirtation lessons as well, although his grin still looked more hopeful than suave. Natsumi's mouth quirked. "As you can see, I'm deeply engaged in communing with the mission board. Can I help you? To a hair brush and a razor, perhaps?"
"And destroy my perfect track record at avoiding them?" Asuma said cheerfully. "Heathen."
Years of carefully cultivated practice--and one run in with a master in the East--had left him with the ability to avoid giving any knock out woman the obligatory once over, but this one made it hard. Even without letting his eyes sweep down, he could tell she had more curves than most guys knew what to do with. And the skintight Hunter's uniform could only be doing great things for them...
He kept his gaze squarely at face level--which was a treat all by itself. Sharp dark eyes, straight-bladed nose, a fine jaw with just enough edge to make it dangerous, and a pretty mouth curved like an ironic bow. Her hair was bound up in a sensible ponytail, spilling down past her shoulders like a black wave, but loose bangs cut down one side of her face.
Pretty. Artful. He wondered briefly if she was a seductionist, but there were muscles in the shoulders left bare by armour. A few bruises, too.
He pulled his eyes up--not by much; she was tall for a woman--and held out his newly acquired mission brief. Communing with the mission board, she'd said. Maybe he was just that lucky.
"Don't suppose you're in market for something interesting? Because I could use a partner."
"Interesting?" That could mean...a great many things. On the other hand, it wasn't likely to be a B-ranked escort mission. "This doesn't involve a quest to visit the priest of a shrine dedicated to holy beard-growing, does it? Because I don't think I'm likely to convert." She took the brief anyway, flipped it open, and scanned the top page.
Well... His personal grooming was questionable, but she couldn't fault his taste in missions. The daimyo of Heijo province had entered his treasure room to find two of his guards slain, his family's ancestral sword missing, and a ransom demand left in its place. The thieves who'd stolen the sword demanded a hundred thousand ryou for its return. The daimyo was willing to pay twice that for two ANBU to ensure that no one dared steal from him again.
"The ransom is to be paid at Amatsuki Shrine before sunset on the day after tomorrow," she read. "The client expects his sword and the thieves' heads to be delivered to him, in person, no later than three days after that. Apparently he recognizes that even ANBU can't perform miracles..."
She glanced up again, brows lifting. "Unless, of course, you can."
Halfway through scanning the brief upside-down, Asuma paused and met deep brown eyes filled with wry amusement. Oh, come on, he thought, now she was just making it easy. "With the right inspiration." Teeth flashed in a lazy smile.
The kunoichi's fine-cut eyebrows arched higher, sliced across by dark strands of black hair. Damn, but she was a looker...
Asuma dragged his attention back by the scruff of its neck. If she was on board with the mission--and it sure sounded like she was--then he had all the time in the world to make a good impression. And that was better done without falling at her feet in the first five minutes.
"So--a little haggling, a few heads on sticks... Told you I had something interesting." He leaned his weight back, standing hipshot, and tipped his head. "How about it, sweetheart? You in?"
"It's Shiota Natsumi, actually. My father calls me sweetheart." He didn't--'Little Bird' had been his name for her almost from the first--but the tall man's reaction was worth the lie. You didn't often see someone trying to fit surprised, amused, and working on a come-back all into one expression.
Natsumi smiled sweetly at him and dropped her eyes to the brief again, skimming through the last few lines. The thieves were expected to be at least chuunin-rank ninja, which explained the B-ranking; there were two of them, possibly more. The dead guards had been killed by bladed weapons at close range. Perfect. Her shoulder was fully functional again, with only a greening bruise to remind her of the injury; she'd be able to pick their targets off at any distance she chose.
She closed the brief and finger-combed her bangs out of her eyes, thinking. "If they're foolish enough not to take cover within the shrine itself, I should be able to take them out within seventy-five meters. At close range, I'm much less effective." The shame of her brief struggle with the ninja in the dungeons of Yoshioka Castle still rankled, even as the last of the bruises faded. She took a deep breath and looked up into his eyes again. "If that works for you, I'm in."
Asuma flipped a trench-knife from the flat sheath hooked to his belt and spun it briefly over the backs of his knuckles. "Perfect match," he said, tucking it back with a grin. "And from the range I'm at you look plenty effective to me."
That got a snort and a flickering eyeroll, which was far closer to a laugh than the raised eyebrows had been. He smiled to himself and stole the brief back, glancing over the neatly printed kanji (much easier to read when they were the right way up) before slapping the folder closed with a papery fwap. Thieves, ransoms, shrines and rewards--it was all pretty simple, really, and he was fairly certain he knew exactly where that shrine was. Provided the landscape hadn't moved.
He glanced at his new partner--she was in!--and caught the edge of a shadow lurking behind those dark eyes. A here and gone flicker, so fast he almost missed it.
He smiled at her.
"I'm Asuma. No family name you need to worry about. You want to take the brief back to the desk while I get my kit? Won't be a minute." He offered it back, balanced on the upside of his palm.
"The desk is less than ten feet behind you," Natsumi pointed out, but she took the folder anyway. It wasn't like she needed to run upstairs to skin out of rumpled civvies and into uniform, anyway. Her scrolls were already packed in her hip-pouch, her mask clipped to her belt. "You're signed up for this already, I take it. Can you meet me in the lobby in fifteen minutes?"
He tapped his right fist to his heart, an unfamiliar gesture that resembled nothing so much as a salute, and strolled off up the hall. Natsumi watched the way broad shoulders worked under wrinkled cloth for just a moment before she headed into the Mission Office to add her name and registration number to mission B-75-0322-003.
Interesting certainly seemed appropriate.
Asuma sauntered until he got around the corner, then broke into a flat-out run. Fifteen minutes was long enough to get into normal armour (jeans and jackets were perfectly normal), but clambering into ANBU's ridiculous get up took a lot more practice and patience than any sane man could hope to possess.
He ignored the lift and bolted up the stairs, taking them three at a time. Why ANBU had their living quarters on the third damn floor--
A quick scramble with the stairway door, a dash down the hushed corridor, and a fumble with his keys (he was just going to start leaving his door unlocked), saw him in his room and facing the tangle of monochrome armour thrown messily across the bed.
Right. Skin-tight bits first.
He kept his bracelets on, pulled his cigarettes out of his pocket, and unknotted his fire-kanji sash from his waist. Then he folded it carefully and tied it around his forehead, squarely in place of a hitai-ate. It wasn't a sign of Konoha, technically, but it meant Fire Country and loyalty, and he wasn't ready to lose it yet. Not when he was one of the last two alive left to wear it.
A head shake got rid of darker thoughts and he dived for his armour, shucking jeans and shirt along the way. Blacks went on first, followed by tightly buckled whites. Chest-plate, backplate, long night-coloured gloves held in place with white... he wasn't quite sure what. Gauntlets? Arm-armour? Whatever they were, they had far too many damn straps, even if they did look sturdy enough to shake off a bladed blow.
Bracelets sliding oddly against ceramic, he fixed the assorted hip-pouches into place, checked they contained everything he needed, strapped on his shin-guards and buckled his trench-knives onto his belt. There were no freakin' pockets for cigarettes, so he stowed them in the one hip-pouch with a little space left.
And that was it--no, wait, sandal things.
Asuma regarded the standard-issue footgear with a curling lip and tossed them aside for his heavy black boots. He could run in them; they protected his feet. Good enough.
Right, that was everything.
He was two minutes to go and halfway down the stairs before he realized he'd forgotten the stupid mask.
The mission assignment bore Asuma's full name, but it was an illegible scrawl of kanji; even his personal name was almost completely indecipherable. His registration number wasn't much better. Natsumi signed neatly below it, considered asking the young woman staffing the desk, and decided against it. The girl had gone brusque to the point of hostility as soon as Natsumi handed over the brief and requested to sign up. If she knew, she wouldn't tell.
Besides, Natsumi really didn't need to acquire a reputation for asking personal questions about her attractively scruffy teammates. Ibiki would never let her live it down.
She left the prickly brunette to her paperwork and headed for the stairs. HQ was beginning to wake; she passed a bright-eyed boy in civvies evidently heading for the mission desk, an older man lugging a wicker basket of laundry, and a pissed-off kunoichi with a scorched chestplate. Natsumi silently wished her luck. Her own argument with the Quartermaster had ended in a mutually unsatisfactory stalemate; the chestplate she'd been issued was at least two sizes too small, but she'd wrung the name of the manufacturer out of him, and had scraped together enough money to commission one of her own. Given how expensive even this single piece of ANBU equipment was, next time it would probably be better to appeal to Arakaki.
The lobby channeled a steady trickle of agents either tromping down to breakfast in the cafeteria or heading into the bright morning sunshine to risk their stomachs somewhere safer. Natsumi hesitated a moment, watching the seconds tick past on the clock over the front desk, and decided to take her chances. Even the cafeteria couldn't mess up coffee, and the packaged muffins came from the bakery down the street. She carried her armload of cups and blueberry-studded breakfast back to the potted plant in the lobby and spent the next two minutes trying very hard to ignore the dust on the plastic leaves.
Asuma arrived just before her fraying nerve broke. He hadn't shaved, and dragging a turtleneck and armor over his head and then topping it off with a bandana had done no good to his hair. But somehow the sleek ANBU gear turned scruffy into--well, sexy was the only word that seemed to work. Gods help the world if Takeo ever discovered that particular effect.
"It's probably a good thing you waited to gear up until after you signed up," Natsumi said, offering him a styrofoam cup and a plastic-wrapped muffin. "I'm not sure your fan downstairs would have let you out, otherwise."
"Jealousy is an ugly colour on you, princess," Asuma teased, and waited a beat to see if he'd tripped over another daddy endearment. A delicate smile played around Natsumi's face for a moment, sharpening the wings of her cheekbones--then she dropped his muffin.
"Hey--!" He stooped fast and caught it before it smacked off the carpet, lifting his head to laugh up at her. From this angle, the tight fit of her chestplate was doing magnificent things for the curvature of his view... "See? Touchy. A guy could get the wrong impression if you go flinging his bakery goods around."
He straightened up, stealing the paper coffee cup still held out towards him, and beamed at her. "'course, if bakery goods become a common theme of this mission, all will be forgiven. Particularly if they come with anymore backwards compliments." Coffee held in his left hand, muffin caught between his wrist and breastplate, he reached out with his right, tweaked her bangs, and slipped away before she could catch him with a kunai, heading for the doors.
Princess wasn't so bad at first--better than sweetheart, surely. But by noon on the second day, even Natsumi's practiced patience was wearing a little thin. In the last fifty hours Asuma had called her princess twenty-six times (occasionally changing it up with other spur-of-the-moment endearments) and hadn't used her name once. He also snored, smoked, slept with his boots on, claimed he'd forgotten his razor, tried new pick-up lines by reflex or boredom, and whistled enthusiastically and only occasionally tunefully.
He was relentlessly, mercilessly cheerful. Natsumi was beginning to get a headache from gritted teeth and the suppressed desire to either hit him or laugh at him. Or, possibly, knock him down, sit on his chest, and use a kunai instead of that razor he'd forgotten to pack.
The closer they got to Amatsuki Shrine, the worse the whistling got. When they turned off the main road onto a narrow, overgrown path winding through a pine forest up the slope of a steep hill, Asuma switched to singing. He had a deep, pleasant bass, and he even managed to stay on pitch most of the time. Natsumi wasn't sure he had the right words; she hadn't remembered the lyrics to the old Second Ninja War marching song as being quite that raunchy. But that wasn't even the point!
"The sign back at the turn-off said five miles to the shrine," she pointed out, scrambling over a fallen tree. "Do you plan to sing the whole way there? Are you sure there's no better way to let them know we're coming? I have fireworks in my kit."
"I thought I could change it up with a little dancing," Asuma said easily, vaulting after his touchy partner. "Just to keep things fresh. Variety's important, y'know." And it was
more than a little entertaining to watch Natsumi's mood skid between annoyed and reluctantly amused, with occasional touches of homicidal.
She was an interesting travelling companion. Occasionally talkative--even snarky sometimes, when he caught her just right--but often thoughtfully silent, when she wasn't being bossy as all hell. Picky about their camping site, fiddly with little things (like the arrangement of branches in the campfire, which was just weird), determined to lead the way (which included stealing his map--then handing it right back when she couldn't make sense of the coded annotations; he'd had to laugh at that), and she took far too long getting ready in the morning.
It was just too easy to like her.
Especially with his current view.
"Besides, they'll expect to see us coming," he added, leaping another scatter of fallen branches. "Or one of us, at least. Unless you can be stealthy on the middle of a rope bridge."
The closer they got, the more he recognized the landscape. And on the other side of that hilltop was nature's version of a hole in the world; a tall, rocky canyon stretched high above a violent white-water river. It was a human nature thing, he thought, to see something like that and decide the other side was the perfect real estate for a shrine. How they'd wrestled the building materials over one slender rope bridge, he had no idea.
Good place for a ransom, though. Provided you weren't the guy paying up.
Natsumi stumbled on a stone in the eroded path. "Rope bridge?" That hadn't been marked on the map, at least insofar as Asuma had explained it. He'd pointed out a thin blue thread of river and the tiny red-ink torii gate of a shrine, but he hadn't mentioned any bridges, much less rope ones. The map, presumably made for water-walking ninja, hadn't hinted to the contrary. Natsumi's hopeful visions of a wide approach abruptly dimmed. Although a target trapped on a bridge was easy pickings...
That wasn't the point. She wheeled, hands braced on her hips, jaw set beneath her mask. "You didn't mention you'd been here before. Do you usually leave out critical bits of intelligence until the last second?"
"Who, me?" Asuma skidded to an abrupt halt before he accidentally body-slammed Natsumi into a shrub. Half a breath away from a dark, dangerous glare doing its best to imprint you fucked up on the inside of his skull, he caught his breath, dragged a hand through rumpled hair, and grinned. "Well, sometimes. You were doing such a good job playing fearless leader, I didn't want to cramp your style."
And it was just a little bit fun to toss a stick in the path of all that high-strung control.
He tapped two fingers to his bare temple (he wasn't wearing the stupid, vision-restricting mask until he had to). "'Sides, you can't tell me a good ninja throws away the chance to think on her feet. It's good for your brain." He grinned wider, showing off every pleased-with-itself tooth. "At least I told you about the cliffs."
Except he really hadn't.
Growing up with Takeo had involved years of tearful tantrums, until Natsumi finally learned that keeping her temper under the brunt of her brother's teasing was a victory in itself. The lesson should have transferred equally well to dealing with Asuma. Natsumi took a deep breath and reminded herself that she wasn't angry, she was just--
Put out worked well enough. And involved a far greater degree of control and class. "I could lead better without insubordination within the ranks," she suggested. "For instance, you could tell me what you know, and then I could think on my feet."
About cliffs. This was sounding better and better. A river wide and strong enough to carve cliffs out of these granite hills could put the shrine out of bow-shot. Picking off everyone from a safe distance might not be an option after all.
Which meant sending Asuma in to do the job at close range. Natsumi cheered up a little at the thought.t
Asuma leaned his weight on one hip. "Technically true," he admitted. "But much less fun. There're cliffs. Big ones. With a rope bridge." He set his tongue against his teeth and made a thoughtful hissing noise. "It has rope."
The slightest flex in Natsumi's fingers suggested she was contemplating the finer points of a good throttling. Asuma weighed the option of pushing more--and possibly winning another one of those chest-plate lifting, I-am-completely-in-control-of-myself deep breaths she seemed so fond of--and decided he wanted to live long enough to see another sunrise.
"There might be shrubbery, too."
He lit the last cigarette he was probably going to get for a while, misting the air with pale whorls of smoke, and found a speck of seriousness. "The gap is maybe a hundred feet across. The bridge is wide enough for one at a time, and strong enough to hold a few more. 'Least it was the last time I was here." Which, granted, hadn't exactly been recently. "If you're as bright as you think you are, you'll've already hit on the same idea I did. Want to get moving so we'll be all punctual? I'd hate to cast a bad impression."
He stepped around Natsumi, jostling her unbruised shoulder affectionately with his own, and carried on up the path at a cheerful saunter. A henge spilled over his armour and replaced it with a servant's uniform before the last sparks of ash finished drifting between his fingers.
Infuriating was a good word--especially when she couldn't decide whether she wanted to laugh or to murder him. Maybe both. 'As smart as you think you are'? She hadn't been that overbearing, had she?
In any case, he'd deserved it.
And she was doing a great job of loosing her cool before they even reached the battlefield. Natsumi tugged on her ponytail, re-adjusted her mask, and set off after him. He wasn't walking particularly fast; she caught up within just a few strides. "Looks like you're right. My plan was to send you off to draw the thieves out while I lurk in the conveniently placed shrubbery and pick them off. You don't get jumpy with arrows whistling past your cheeks, do you?"
Even if he didn't, she'd still have to be careful. A gorge that wide and deep would be a natural funnel for contrary winds; she might even have to employ a few of her own Wind jutsu to keep her arrows on course. Still, one hundred feet was well within her comfortable range. She could split a soybean at seventy-five.
That might be enough to impress even Asuma.
A sliding sideways glance told him exactly nothing; Natsumi's mask hid her face, and she talked almost as precisely as she walked, when she wasn't tripping over things. There might have been a flicker of humour... "Depends which cheeks." He thought briefly, then amended: "Scratch that. I like them all. Just promise you don't intend to give me a buttock piercing in the near future? I'm sorta attached to my ability to sit down."
At close range, I'm much less effective., she'd said. But archery hadn't featured anywhere in that sentence. And she wasn't exactly lugging around the equipment to start slinging arrows--
But she was carrying scrolls. A bow couldn't be that hard to seal.
Asuma let his eyes dip from hard-muscled shoulders to a trim waist, hugged by armour, then back up to everything that filled out the curving chest-plate in-between. Thoughtfully, he lifted an eyebrow.
"I hate to point out a stereotype, but don't you need to be a little less--" He picked and discarded words before finally settling on, "Developed, for bow-work?"
"Huh." Natsumi tipped her head. "That was surprisingly tactful. Are you sure you don't want to rephrase?"
Asuma smirked and flicked his cigarette butt into the bushes. Natsumi managed, just barely, not to double back and pick it up. It had rained recently enough that he wasn't going to start a forest fire--and it wasn't as though there were any convenient trash cans out here in the wilderness. She focused on the question instead.
"It was easier when I was younger, certainly. I had to re-adjust my form a few times in my teens, but when you know what you're doing, it's not any more difficult than not slapping your arm with the string." Breast-bindings and a chest-protector helped, too, but she didn't need to mention those. "I've been practicing seriously since I was four years old. It's not as though I picked the bow up when I was sixteen and had to learn to deal."
And that was, she decided, quite enough talking about her breasts. "Within fifty meters, I never miss." Or at least, infrequently enough to be never, for all practical purposes. She qualified, "That's as long as the target's not moving or shielding with a jutsu. If you can get them out on the bridge, I can take care of them."
As long as Asuma stayed out of the way, she could even do it without pincushioning that admittedly fine rear end.
"Are we having an adult conversation?" Asuma ducked beneath a low branch that arched over the path, and quirked a lopsided smile. "Remind me to ask about anatomy more often."
He managed to dodge when Natsumi bent the branch back and almost swiped the back of his skull off. And again when he cast an obvious leer at her anatomy and got a low-flying ballistic pine cone in return.
She really was just too easy to like.
And not that built, if he actually stopped to think about it. Curvy for a kunoichi, but anything looked curvy next to the average shinobi woman's teenage-boy-chic. Asuma had come up with a private theory in his youth involving Tsunade, a breast-stealing jutsu, and too much time spent listening to Jiriaya...
He refocused on the path as they hit the one mile marker, highlighted by the tiny red-paint torii gate of the shrine, and put the final touches on his phantom servant's uniform. The client had provided Intel with enough information about their personal colours and crest; it was easy to jury-rig a decent enough replica.
"Y'know, I don't think this is really my colour." He tugged a cloth bag with the same crest out of his (now hidden) hip pouch, and stooped to fill it with stones from the path. Just enough to give it the weight of money they didn't have: a pretend ransom. Then he straightened up and spun on one heel, hands held out. "What d'you reckon? Still pretty though, right?"
Natsumi could talk about tactics if she really wanted, but it was more fun to do without.
"You're a delight to the eyes," Natsumi assured him. Hidden by the mask, she could gratify the instinctive urge to grin. Asuma's rich purple kimono looked somewhat the worse for wear from his recent scramble through the woodlands; his silly square hat was cocked at a rakish angle, and the gold embroidery on his kimono glittered in the late afternoon sun. Several days' growth of rugged dark stubble looked almost absurdly incongruous against the court foppery. He must have a fantastic eye for detail.
"Have you been to court recently?" She circled him, trying to find some flaw in the henge, and couldn't. "You must have used your spare time studying the latest fashions. That's a very fine hat." And something of a departure from the pointier shape that had been all the rage the last time Natsumi had visited her mother's family, two or three years ago. Natsumi remembered a few pertinent details in the brief, but nothing about haberdashery.
Apparently there was more to her new partner than cigarettes and bad pick-up lines.
"I have very fine taste," Asuma murmured, craning his head around and trying to follow Natsumi as she prowled behind him. "If you're going to check me out, you could at least take your mask off first. Flash those pretty eyes."
A quick breath against ceramic; gasp or a hidden laugh, it was impossible to tell. He watched her circling back around to face him, flicking his eyes down to track the fluid hip-swing of a woman who might be just a little bit flattered...
And who definitely wasn't thinking about court anymore. Gods, but she asked a lot of questions. (Which was technically the mark of a good ninja, but it got damn annoying after a while.) If she hadn't figured out who he was yet, he didn't plan to give her the tools to do it. It was nice, finally, to enjoy a bit of anonymity.
Nicer still not to think too hard about court and finery and ten bodies cooling their heels six feet under.
"If I've passed milady's inspection?" He dropped a teasing bow, tossed the fake money-sack over his shoulder, and picked up the trail again.
These masks were wonderful. Natsumi didn't even have to school her features to something approaching soldier-serious; she left the path and drifted whisper-silent up the wooded hill on Asuma's right flank, grinning ridiculously to herself. Just another of his cheesy lines, of course, but...
No one else could see her smile. She didn't have to justify it.
She had to concentrate, instead, as the path twisted its way up to the crest of the hill and the forest thinned. Genjutsu had never been her strong suit, but the unseen sniper worked best when he stayed unseen, or at least unnoticed. The lightning-struck bole of a massive pine gave her a moment's cover; she paused to unseal her longest bow, the powerful two-meter yumi, and to work one of her few effective genjutsu. When she ghosted into the open again, only someone staring directly at her would see more than fallen pine needles rustling in the breeze.
That was still no excuse for over-confidence. She hung back with an arrow to the string as Asuma crested the hill and strode through the dwindling trees onto an open plateau. The rising wind ripped gleefully at his embroidered robes; he bent his head and trudged on, silly hat bobbing. Natsumi followed him to the edge of the tree-line and hesitated again.
Fifty meters of bare, wind-torn rock, with no more cover than a few scrubby shrubs and stunted trees, stretched between the forest and the rim of the gorge. She could hear the river thundering below now, deeper and rougher than the wind tearing through the trees; it would be swollen and angry with melting snow. Thirty-five meters beyond the broken rim of the canyon, the other cliff reared up in grim granite. Only a thin thread of ropes and slats, swaying in the fierce wind, bridged the gap. A tall red torii gate bracketed the bridge on each side of the gorge; the old shrine crouched on the far side, humbled by its surroundings.
Natsumi bit her tongue. If Asuma was heading out on that bridge, she didn't blame him for not talking about it. How far below those weather-warped slats did the river run? Some falls even a ninja couldn't survive. And it only took one knife to cut four ropes...
"All right," she whispered to the broad shoulders bent against the wind. "You go out, and I'll make sure you come back." She squared her own shoulders, anchored her genjutsu, tested her bowstring, and set out for the canyon rim.
Ten paces out on old, creaking planks and frayed rope, Asuma had to pause, resist the urge to flare easily-detectable chakra into his feet, and remind himself he wasn't afraid of heights. Grounds, on the other hand...
"Either my depth perception's gotten better in the last ten years," he muttered, keeping his gaze squarely in front, "or my memory's fried. I could've sworn this canyon had a bottom before."
It still did, probably; just not one he could see. High winds, tall rocks, and whipping currents had lashed up enough white spray to blanket the river in its own low-lying cloud cover, thick and impenetrable. Halfway down the sheer stone walls, all he could see was nothing.
Ahead was a different story. Leaning casually against one pillar of the red torii gate, picking his nails with a long hunting knife, was a man clearly trying to prove the whole monkeys-to-humans evolutionary theory was completely unfounded. Asuma couldn't decide if it was prehistoric lizard genes adding that thick, leathery quality to his skin, or if his mother had gotten just a little too friendly with a crocodile. He tossed up a friendly wave; Lizard-Boy answered with a rictus grin.
He'd filed his teeth into points.
"Ooo-kay," Asuma muttered, and kept walking. Next to Lizard-man, sprawled against the opposite pillar, was a pretty-boy teenager distinguishable mostly by his blond mullet, long pale fingers with a few too many joints, and an outfit that seemed to be constructed entirely of blades strung on belts. Asuma didn't bother waving at him.
Lizard-man and Fingers weren't his main problem, anyway. That special honour fell to the tall, slim, completely unreadable woman standing hipshot in the middle of the bridge, shedding the last concealing threads of a complicated genjutsu. Asuma swept a glance over scarlet hair, impressive cleavage that didn't quite outrank Natsumi's, and a stern face networked by slim white scars.
The stolen antique sword hanging from her hip was pretty interesting, too.
"Afternoon," he said amiably, as soon as he drew near enough to be heard over thundering water. "Don't suppose you'd be interested in resolving this over drinks and a lapdance? I know a really good place that does a buffet. Has very little death." He paused, then amended: "Well, unless you eat the sea-bass."
The redhead stonewalled him. "Are you an idiot?" she asked, after a too-long moment of white noise silence.
"Occasionally," Asuma agreed, setting his feet square as the bridge lurched. "It's genetic." He held up the money-sack, letting it swing from one hand. "This is your money; that is my master's sword. You want to do the pretty pleases first, or do I need to get down on one knee?"
The redhead didn't twitch an eyebrow. "I don't think you're a servant."
"And I don't think you're too smart, lady. Lookit. Easy money, right here. You want to keep me waiting all day, or can we do some business?"
Natsumi couldn't fire a single shot until the sword was in his hands, safe from falling. He just hoped she knew that.
Maybe one tactic wouldn't've hurt.
The redhead's lips lifted fractionally, drawing a pale bow. "Business. Of course. Would you like to say goodbye to your friend first?"
Icy mist slid over Asuma's skin. "What--"
He didn't need to ask. The suddenly-glimmering threads of a jutsu wound straight through the bridge's ropes, leading back to wind-burned dirt where the slightest footstep would be a screaming warning to its caster, was answer enough.
Chakra lashed, and something bone-deep began to rumble. Asuma wrenched himself around.
His focus narrowed on the cliff-side, searching desperately for the flicker of black and bone. He didn't notice (didn't care about) the flash of antique steel until it bit into his side.
Cared even less when giant chunks of ancient granite ripped themselves free, destroying the only place where an archer would stand, spiderwebbing cracks through the entire cliffside, and shattering into the abyss below.
She had warning: plenty of it, as chakra flared and the ground shook beneath her feet, and the wind shredded Asuma's shout and whipped it away. Natsumi took one step backward, nearly turned her ankle on a tumbling stone, and saw steel swing and sink.
"Oh hell no!" she screamed over the earthquake thunder. The bow was a living thing in her hand; she sheathed the arrow in chakra and sent it slicing through the wind. The quiver was at her hip; she set another arrow to the string, drew, and loosed before she took another breath.
Her fraying genjutsu couldn't hide the arrows. The woman turned, contemptuous as a flame, and let the first arrow barely kiss the side of her throat. The squat man with the knife wasn't quite so fast. Her second arrow pinned him by the throat to the red-painted pillar of the gate.
The third arrow never left the string.
Rock splintered with a sound like a giant's scream. Natsumi didn't even have time to turn before the cliffside sheered away and she was falling. She spun anyway, gathering chakra into her legs for a leap back to solid ground and safety, but another slab of granite smashed sideways into hers, and she lost her footing and her control. Her chakra exploded; the rock shattered beneath her feet. A razor-edged shard sliced her thigh. Something else hit her right hand. The arrow splintered. And she was falling, gods, gods--
Already the bridge was a thin, swaying thread down the gorge and against the sky. She caught only a glimpse of purple before the rising cliffs blocked out the sun. Too high to jump; she could have managed twenty feet, but never sixty. Seventy. Ten meters with each second, they'd learned that in the Academy, and velocity increased the farther you fell--
Just hitting the water would be enough to kill. She wrenched chakra up, slammed it into her bones. A rock hit her elbow and ricocheted away; she barely felt it. The fingers of her right hand would barely move; she dropped the bow and forced them through the seals anyway. Bird, Boar, Monkey, Ox, Horse, and a cushion of air caught her and slowed her fall. She took one breath--Oh gods, let him be safe, let me go home again--and then she hit the water.
Striking metal hammered the air out of his chest; he didn't have the breath to scream Natsumi's name. There was nothing to mark her fall but an avalanche of stone, a double-dozen ripples in low-lying mist, and a gut-punch of bright white rage.
He didn't have breath, but he damn sure had enough chakra to slap his palm over the blade scoring his ribs and wrench it free, tearing it from the redhead's hands. Blood splattered over twisted wooden slats; his still-new chestplate was a crunching mess, porcelain shards stitched together in gashed cloth.
And none of it mattered, because he'd just let another pretty girl die.
Asuma snarled, stripped his henge away, and smashed the centuries' old hilt straight into the redhead's teeth.
Or where her teeth would have been, if she hadn't bent like a reed and vanished in a glimmer of chakra. Genjutsu. He snapped the fake money-bag around, letting the mouth fall open, and cast a cascade of rocks at the suddenly empty air. A throttled grunt--twenty feet away--was enough of a target to fling a kunai at, but there was no second sound.
Natsumi was in the river.
And the target still had the damn scabbard. Asuma swore, threw himself forward, and barely dodged the vicious black shuriken that nearly embedded in his voicebox. Fingers--and the kid was winding up for another throw.
Asuma answered him with a pillar of flame. It engulfed the torii gate, lashed into the bridge's gang-ropes, and drained away enough chakra to make his head swim. But the teenager skidded from a slick baby assassin to a screaming, blackening, falling chunk of panic, and that made for two (three) corpses and one vanishing bitch, and there was nothing else to care about.
Natsumi had to be dead. The redhead still had the scabbard. Still counted as a mission--
"Fuck you," Asuma bellowed, and slammed chakra through his stolen, re-stolen sword. One scything strike was enough to part rope and wood like breaking ice; two was enough to destroy them entirely. The bridge shuddered and snapped apart, dropping him with the last vestiges of falling stone and a bloodied weapon held tight against his side. A high scream tore the air; it wasn't his.
The translocation halfway down damn sure was.
Natsumi had learned to swim in Konoha River in the hottest days of summer, when the clear water was warm as blood and the current ran lazy as a sunning snake. This wasn't swimming. The current caught her in an iron grip and threw her into rocks, pounded her with sadistic glee until she clawed her way free, and then tumbled her under the surface again. She found the surface, half on accident, and choked on air and water; then the river threw her against the canyon wall and she lost the breath she'd gained. There was a vise around her ribs, squeezing tighter and tighter; a fire lit in the bottom of her lungs, and she couldn't breathe or see or be anything but water--
She hit the cliff again, and somehow desperate fingers found the strength to cling. Chakra came a moment later. She wormed her way up the slick wall, sealing herself to the stone like a limpet with the ragged threads of dredged-up chakra, and sobbed for breath. Two of her fingers slipped. They were crooked, already swelling; she could barely force any chakra through.
She couldn't feel the pain.
Oh gods, she was going to freeze to death even if she didn't drown. One week into her ANBU career and she'd managed to kill herself twice. Was that a new record? Presumably they'd find her body--ANBU was good about that--and carry what they could home, but she couldn't remember how they would tell her parents. Did the Hokage do it? Would Asuma, if he made it back alive?
She glanced up, and saw only froth and fog and dark granite walls. He was probably still fighting up there. Three enemies, she'd taken out one, and the boy with the blades wouldn't cut the bridge while his leader was still on it...
Hope strangled despair. "Asuma!" she screamed. Her voice shook with cold. Not fear, she told herself. Not fear.
She wasn't a very good liar.
Half a second after he reappeared ten feet below the violent, confusing, freakin' cold surface of the river, Asuma remembered the definition of a bad idea. Like always, it was anything he'd decided to call a good idea.
Gravity--still determined to make him pay for at least half of that fall--dragged him down. The current wrenched him sideways. He scraped through a jagged forest of black-toothed rocks, smashed against a canyon wall, and lost all sense of direction. A hip pouch caught in a crag and tore away. His mask put up even less resistance. Only the sword stayed, jammed hurriedly through armour straps. He lost breath swearing, lost even more when a chunk of stone like a damn reef sprung up from the depths and tried to stave his ribs in, and latched a millisecond hold on something he couldn't even see.
Chakra didn't work so well when you forgot to focus it.
Another rock greeted him spine-first, guaranteeing the back of his armour was just as smashed as the front. The full weight of a million tons of water with a place to be right now pinned him there. Ice clamped around his chest. White blotches exploded across his vision, obscuring his view of--
There wasn't time for panic; he needed air. The urge to inhale spilled up behind his gag reflex, spasming from lungs that didn't care about the difference between breeze and current. Splayed against stone, bloodless fingers flexed, then clenched.
Death was a great motivator for focus. He smashed chakra through his pathways, drawing strength from desperation, control, and sheer bloody-mindedness, and grabbed a hold in the water itself. Then another, higher. The current wrenched his arms back; Asuma hauled himself up.
It was like working on a chin-up bar, only backwards and blind and bleeding. He grabbed another hold, felt his back scrape a razor edge of stone, and pulled. The river slammed him backwards--then free. He twisted wildly, clipped his elbow on something hard, and struck out for the first direction that felt like up. Faint light glimmered above him. Chakra flooded down to his feet, burned in the tips of his fingers; he climbed the water, bursting up so fast that friction burns almost became an issue.
His head broke the surface. One gasp filled lungs to the breaking point; two put some steel back in his spine. He scrambled onto the surface, chakra flashing in knees and shins, hands and elbows, and tried to get up; then tumbled back under a third gasp later.
His second attempt got him to a rock crest big enough to grab. He latched on, breathed, looked around wildly for Natsumi, then pulled himself out and ran. Water lashed beneath his feet, punched into momentary craters. He headed straight downstream, caught in a long snapshot between standing and falling, and relied entirely on momentum to keep him upright. Entirely on luck (prayer) that he wasn't doing all this just to find a waterlogged corpse.
As it turned out, black and white was easier to see in the gloom of the canyon than the green of the forest.
He spotted battered armour plastered against spray-wet rock, gloved fingers clinging desperately to slick stone, dark, bedraggled hair unbound like a shredded flag, and didn't have time--or breath--to yell a warning.
Crashing into Natsumi's flank and tearing her straight off the sheer granite cliff-face worked almost as well as a rescue.
Chakra bonds snapped like old bowstrings, whiplashing back into her tenketsu. If she cried out, she couldn't hear it over the roaring rapids. Spray blinded her; a strong arm crushed her against a shattered chest-plate. When she twisted, fighting to break free, fighting to see, steel scraped against the chipped ceramic surface of her mask. One narrow eye-hole offered a slice of bleeding shoulder, black shirt and white strap and a sword shoved carelessly through...
The idiot had completed the mission, retrieved the sword, and come back for her.
And her added weight had thrown off whatever delicate balance of chakra and speed he'd found to run on white-water. He reeled into the cliff wall again with his next step, and one foot sank to the knee in the churning water. Natsumi threw her left arm around his neck, clenched her frozen fingers in his shoulder-strap, and filled her lungs one last, desperate time before the river took them both.
The water seemed warmer this time, the current faster. Natsumi warded them off another submerged boulder with a jolt that burned like fire through her broken hand. A sunken snag shredded her knee; her ribs creaked under Asuma's iron grip. His chakra crackled over her skin. They broke the surface again, and Asuma flattened a blue-burning hand on the raging water and shoved.
He made it only chest-high out of the water before the cresting rapid collapsed and dropped them again, but that was enough to see what lay ahead.
Sheer human instinct to do something stupid for the hell of it wasn't the only reason the shrine had been built atop a screaming gorge. The monks that had lived there, long before the Third Great Ninja War had swept through the villages and wiped out half the world, had practiced a traditional brand of Shinto. Prayers, fasting, charity--
Meditation beneath a waterfall.
Which made for a damn good reason to try that cliff-jumping idea again. Asuma kicked off the first rock to meet his feet, demanding strength from leaden muscles, and dragged them back to the surface. Natsumi's arm tightened around his throat as she gasped a desperate, choking breath; he wrenched his head back and did the same. Low-level mist and high-flying spray dampened the air, spilling yet more cold into burning lungs.
Which really wasn't the issue, because that distant, thundering roar wasn't just for ambiance.
"Hang on!" He didn't have a plan--he barely had an idea--but he did have an urgent, very definite desire to not die, and that did incredible things for the willpower. Even if he was leaving bloody trails curling through froth and foam.
Chakra sliced through thinning pathways when he called it. Hands worked, legs kicked; Natsumi tightened her grip, wrapped her legs around his hips, and yelled something incomprehensible in his ear. Asuma grabbed everything he had left, and leapt.
The cliff-face rushed forward to meet them with a slap that crushed the air from Natsumi's lungs, and rasped his gloves right down to skin. He snatched a hold, clinging with chakra, and scrabbled for another one. Booted feet skidded over slick, lichen-covered rock, finding nothing. Natsumi's weight dragged at his shoulder, driving daggers of hot ice through muscles stretched to the limit. She was gasping, coughing, curling involuntarily around the fight to fill empty lungs, pressing the sword-blade into his collarbones. He didn't even know if she was injured--
Two fingers of his left hand found a crag; he hooked into it desperately, flooding chakra down to his feet, and tried to pull up. Rock crumbled away beneath his touch. Both arms trembled; his shoulders felt like someone was doing something creative with a blowtorch. There were no footholds.
And no chance. His grip gave out, ripping a hollow noise through white lips, and they plummeted back into the river. Water closed high above their heads, dark as ink. Asuma forced himself to kick back up. They broke the surface just in time to see the edge of the world, rushing up hard and fast, and there was nothing left to do but wrap Natsumi up in the best hold he could manage, and waste his breath on the one prayer that really mattered. The soldier's prayer.
Please, God, don't let us die.
Natsumi buried her masked face in Asuma's shoulder and threw her other arm around his neck as the thundering force of a swollen river swept them over the edge. Then they were falling. And if she had a chance, it was now.
Her left hand was stiff and numb with cold, but it moved enough to bend the searing fingers of her right hand halfway into the Bird seal. Bone ground against bone; white light flashed against her closed eyelids. She bit down on a scream and forced the pitiful remainder of her chakra into shape. Boar next...
Too slow. She was forming the seals at a fifth of her usual speed; there was no way she could finish the jutsu in time. Natsumi strangled panic and locked her hands together behind Asuma's neck. "Brace yourself!" She could barely hear her cracking voice over the thunder of the falls; she didn't have time to wait for him to understand. She set her index fingers together in a crooked parody of the reverse Horse-seal, palms facing outward, and slammed chakra through her hands with everything she had.
Pounding water exploded into spray around them as the blast of concentrated wind ripped through. A hollow boom shook the cliff behind them; then the reflected wind hit Asuma in the back like a straight-line tornado, flinging them clear of the waterfall and the rocks below.
When he thought about it later, Asuma was kind of glad Natsumi's freakin' air-missile knocked all the breath from his lungs (again). There was nothing quite like a girly howl of terror to seriously dent your reputation.
He was a little less glad that the shock of the wind's impact snapped his eyes wide open. One glance was enough to laser an image of the velvety evening sky, easy to see now that the spray was behind them, and the carpet of trees flanking the river far below, stretching out towards the horizon. Close up, it was pretty. From a hundred feet and falling, it was just plain scary.
The fact that they were spinning wildly through the air, sandwiched around a naked sword, didn't help. Though it did kick him right in the survival instinct. Behind Natsumi's back, frozen fingers twisted together, knotting into one of the first seal combinations a chuunin learned.
Chakra he didn't have. He yanked it straight from his chest, where the deepest coils wound around heart and lungs, and tore it through his fingers. The world lurched--
And filled with water.
Hitting the river halfway to the bottom didn't hurt quite as much as smacking into the surface would have, but it was still pretty damn painful. Asuma cried out, inhaled, and choked. Natsumi jerked and spasmed in his grip, bubbles streaming out from beneath her mask. The current grabbed them, violent and swirling from the waterfall that was still way too close, and snatched them downstream. Underwater debris lashed at limbs and backs; broken branches from trees far up in the mountains, stones ripped from the riverbed. The water was warmer, but it was bruising and black and inside his lungs...
When he thought about it later, Asuma decided drowning was the bit that really sucked.