Apparently signing yourself up for one high-ranking mission was all the clue ANBU needed before they started dishing 'em out left, right, and centre. Asuma skim-read the scroll while the antsy runner panted for breath, and grinned to himself. Stolen weapons, definite bad guys, the proposition of a knock-down fight on the horizon--oh yeah.
"Count me in," he said, ignoring the fact that he was already in. "Who's my partner?"
The runner had to gasp a minute before he could answer. But eventually Asuma managed to catch a strangled, "Inuzuka Tsume."
His grin widened. Apparently every high-ranker came with a chaser of hot women. ANBU sure knew how to treat their agents right. Although--
"Isn't she a chuunin?" Or a really lucky, incredibly suicidal genin. He'd felt her chakra once, his second day in town when he'd found her on the losing side of a clan fight, and it hadn't exactly been impressive. "Thought they were restricted to B-missions?"
Unless they were probationary-jounin.
The tracker flapped a hand. "I don't know! She's a tracker, you're a fighter. Clearly they're desperate. Are you going or not?"
Asuma glanced down at himself, dressed in jeans and a complete lack of shirt, and leaned more comfortably against his door-frame. "Isn't armour kind of traditional...?"
"So put it on!" The tracker flapped again, breathless and flushed. "It's an emergency."
A snort cut the air like ironic smoke. "It's always an emergency. Try not to pass out while I get my kit? I'd hate to see you all concussed while you panic."
He left the door open to hear the runner choking, and padded barefoot back into his room, scroll dangling from loose fingers. Black cloth and white ceramic lay thrown across his bed, tangled up in rumpled blankets. His jockstrap was--somewhere.
By the time he'd found everything, given the neat row of stitches tracking down his ribcage a quick lookover (almost a week old, now, and healing well), sheathed himself in ANBU colours, and discovered his mask lurking in the bathroom, the runner was about ready to spit tacks. Or just spit. Asuma dodged a spray of angry words when he landed back in the hallway, and didn't bother to lock the door; it wasn't like he'd managed to pick up anything worth stealing since his last mission.
"You'll give yourself an aneurysm if you keep that up," he pointed out, shoving his mask to rest on the side of his head. "Stress is a killer."
The runner made an inarticulate noise. "Just go. Your partner's probably halfway to the ocean by now!"
Asuma slid a thumb beneath his fire-sash-turned-headband, adjusting it more comfortably. "And you expect me to catch her how? I'm not exactly nasally gifted."
Three fingers drew sharp lines down his breastplate. "Look for those. And you better hope she's got a sense of humour--"
"Oh, we go way back," Asuma assured the man. "Like a whole week. You know where she started the trail? Or am I just heading out and hoping?"
"You're ANBU!" snapped the runner, which Asuma translated as I have no idea. "Figure it out!"
"Excellent wisdom. Almost poetical." He was on the move, heading down the corridor before the runner finished bellowing, "Go!"
The sun was high and shining, glinting off rooftops and the distant monument. Asuma tossed the stony faces a hand-to-heart salute before he winged his way to the nearest crop of forest, stretching his chakra through coils and into muscle. Hopefully Tsume was a better sign-leaver than she was a fighter.
She found the trail, carved in the lines, reinforced them with chakra, and took off before she caught any sight of a partner. Her orders, which she had every intention of following, said not to engage; wait for back up. In her current condition that was an order she needed to follow. She really hoped her crotch-bitten back up got here soon.
The trail was easy to find, easy to track. The ninja had run a straight line, not even worrying about covering their passage beyond the basics. Kiba could have followed this trail. She ran down it, making another mark every hundred feet, keeping chakra and ears open for her partner.
She was almost two miles from Konoha and beginning to worry when a nigglingly familiar energy signature whispered along the edges of her awareness. Tsume paused, hidden in the shadow of a tree, and turned to watch. Someone she knew. Someone she didn't know well. But he was too big to mistake as he drew closer: few men were that tall and that broad, and she'd have recognized Raidou or Ryouma instantly.
A rookie was her back up. He'd better be good.
It took twenty minutes of searching before Asuma finally hit on three lines of chakra carved into the lee of a weathered elm. Then another five before he found the next glimmer of chakra and worked out which way Tsume was heading. Genin or chuunin, the only signs of her passage were the marks she'd left with metal and energy; he couldn't find a single scuffed footprint or disturbed leaf to point the way and, despite all nasal claims, he wasn't a bad tracker.
Well, he could hunt game and civilians. He'd leave the ninja to Tsume.
Once he found it the trail was easy enough to follow, cutting an arrow-line away from Konoha and heading south-east. If it kept going, the runner was probably going to be dead-right about reaching the ocean...
The distant flicker of moving chakra scraped his senses long before brine and seagulls became a landscape feature. Asuma slowed briefly, then sped up when the flicker became nothing: a shinobi gone to ground.
White and black in the middle of a bright green forest was actually pretty hard to find. He stayed on the same straight heading, eyes open for movement, and ran out of markers before he ran into Tsume. If she was hiding--
He turned on one heel, preparing to backtrack, and spotted a whip-cord shape painted in shadows, masked face tipped to one side. Cat-masked face, which was probably Arakaki's version of stellar humour.
"Afternoon, sweetheart." His weight canted onto one hip. "Where's your pooch?"
Behind ceramic, one eyebrow winged up. "At home, dollface. They just needed a tracker; you're the back up. I realize he locked you in a cell, but I'm hoping you'll do better against ninja with opposable thumbs."
Asuma looked good, though, if he'd been going about the same speed the whole time. Not too sweaty--he didn't cover the scent-trail--and he wasn't breathing hard.
Tsume launched herself forward and around him, body crouched low and hugging the tree trunks. There were traces of skin-scent there; one of the enemy ninja wasn't entirely confident about bough-leaping and kept putting a hand out for balance. Tsume glanced back to make sure Asuma was following, then faced forward again and kept on the trail.
"You have a plan for stealing our weapon back? Or do I get to sit back and laugh while you wing it?" She really hoped he had a plan. She wasn't supposed to be fighting, but so many rookies forgot the planning part...
"You know what would help with a plan?" Asuma called after her. "Facts. A blind grasshopper could have put a better mission brief together." Besides, winging it just meant your plan was flexible.
Tsume's version of tracking apparently went from standing still to dead run without any gears in-between. He had to step quick just to keep up, not that he was complaining, what with the view...
He fell into sync a few feet back, leaving her room to do her thing, and wondered what she was hiding. Inuzuka didn't go anywhere without their dogs. Of course, most of them didn't have that snarled feeling to their chakra, either.
"You are fit to do this, right?" he said, leaping from branch to tree-trunk. "Or am I coming up with a plan involving 'collapse' as a key feature?"
"I can track in my sleep." Tsume paused, kneeling to better check the scent before tree-hopping sideways and checking there. The trail picked up again, and she vaulted forward. "Not planning on collapsing, either. Of course, they did tell me you'd be doing all the fighting." She didn't glance back, hating the admission of weakness and knowing if she didn't she could jeopardize their mission. "'Fraid I'm not off medical leave yet, though. So if you'd be good enough not to snap teeth, I'd appreciate it." This time, she flashed a grin over at him--not that he could see it, with her mask on.
"You've been wandering, obviously staying in shape," good shape, though she didn't let that distract her, "and using your chakra. You been in ANBU long enough to get bloody, yet?" More importantly, had he even been fighting ninja-battles? Black-faced Wolf, he'd probably been on vacation. Surely the Hokage wouldn't put his own son on the front lines to get killed, no matter how badly they used to get along or how much the kid begged.
Not that Asuma looked like he ever begged. Men that tall and that muscular didn't have to.
Asuma reflected briefly on a sword scraping over his ribs, breaking Natsumi's fingers back into shape, dragging a needle and thread through his own flesh, losing his mind to fever... "I've taken my stripes," he said, dry as desert sand. "And--snapping teeth? You expecting me to punch you in the face?"
A sharp snort answered him. He seriously needed to get a Tsume-translator.
He also needed to get over the mental stumble of running into someone who didn't think he could fight. Civilians took one look at him and thought brawler. Most ninja fell between taijutsu guy or, for the last three years, Guardian Twelve bastard. He hadn't run into rookie for years.
And he'd never been judged by someone whose ass he'd saved.
"So what's wrong with you?" Tsume's head jerked around to give him a masked glare. He flicked his fingers towards his face, marking where he remembered that white bandage. "The medical leave thing. What's your issue?"
It was a fair question. She glared at him anyway. "Ran into a nasty jutsu. It's taking me a while to recover." It was a fair question, but he didn't need all the gory details. Knowing she was down was enough for the fight.
She switched topics before he could respond. "There's only two ninja on this trail. Probably safe to assume they're both jounin, if they broke in and stole a weapon." Under her breath, she added, "Or we need better security." She continued louder. "The trail's too old to tell if they had more scents on them--other ninja. One of the guys is your size, but his balance isn't great." A touch here, there, all around the same height Asuma's hands would rest. Maybe he had bad hips. That'd explain the balance issues.
"How fast can you run?" They were headed straight for the ocean, and even she couldn't track over water.
"'Bout as fast as you dodge issues," Asuma shot back, drawing level. He shoved the
boring less necessary details about enemy ninja to the back of his mind (two, four, eight--whatever, just so long as he got to hit someone) and focused on the much more interesting problem of Inuzuka Tsume. "How nasty a jutsu? Can you fight at all?"
He threw on a burst of speed, still following the unwavering trail line, and leapt ahead, answering her question and asking a new one with the same easy tree-top run.
"Can you keep up?"
She watched him go with vast annoyance, then shoved chakra into her muscles and shot forward, trying not to notice the pull on her coils. "I can keep up," she snapped into the wind. "I can even fight." Then she skidded to a halt, standing with her arms folded across her chest, hair whipping around her head for a moment before it settled. "But if you want me to track, I'd better do that rather than keep up. And if I want to stop Haruichi from sealing every chakra pathway I have, I'd better not do much fighting."
Honesty, and the threat to their mission, made her continue grudgingly. "I've got taijutsu. Ninjutsu's weak at the moment." Without Kuromaru there, and with their main chakra centers still blocked off, 'weak' was an understatement. She let it stand. At least, with Katsuko's exercises, the minor pathways were stronger. The stitches Haruichi had put in place seemed to have melted off almost entirely. "Unfortunately, whether or not I can fight, I'm the only scent tracker we've got right now." Which meant the only tracker of much use following a jounin pair. She started forward again, breaking into a sustainable run. "So... we should probably plan on you doing the fighting." And hopefully that would forestall any more questions she actually had to answer.
It kind of destroyed the point if she answered his challenge by standing and talking, but at least she'd answered. Asuma slowed fast, catching himself on the broad branch of a leafy oak, and sat down. When Tsume finished her piece and broke into movement again, he let his legs swing free and dug out a cigarette.
Tsume didn't actually stop, but at least that gave him a second to think. He was half a smoke down and well into the first stages of a decent nicotine flush when he caught up again, ash flicking away between his fingers.
Two unknown high-level enemy with a stolen weapon, a straight shot to the coast, and intentions that definitely weren't friendly. And all he had was a chuunin partner with a decent nose and zero sharp edges. Unless you counted her personality.
He could have said Screw this, I want to keep breathing. Let's go home.
Or How about we take the non-crazy option and send for back up?
Or Are you sure this isn't a suicide mission?
But there was no point wearing the black-and-bone if you were going to pussy out in your third week. Asuma blew a blue stream of smoke, grinned slow and sharp and lazy, and said, "This is going to be awesome."
Tsume came to a screeching halt as tar and nicotine and smoke obliterated the faint smell of people. It had already gotten between her face and her mask. Faintly, she was aware of Asuma--directly behind her--twisting violently to avoid knocking her right off the branch. She didn't care. Yanking the ANBU ceramic off, she exhaled heavily in a vain attempt to clear her sinuses. Then she hacked and spat and turned a livid glare on the tail-bit pup beside her.
"I'm glad to know you have faith in my tracking abilities," she nearly snarled, hoping that the trail kept going straight long enough for her to pick it up on the other side of the smoke-scent. "But even I can't follow the very very faint odor of people through cigarettes! Get back!"
Mask pushed aside, looking like he really didn't understand her outburst, Asuma took a step away.
"Farther! Like, a hundred feet!" She waved and glared.
He settled back, looking thoughtful. "You know, the trail's still going the same direction--"
Tsume cut him off with a bellow. "And if it changes I'll never know! Just get back!"
"They never taught you an indoor voice? You're scaring the wildlife." He grinned and hopped back before she could kill him.
With a final glare Tsume sprang forward again, smoke-coated mask off. She didn't expect most people to know if bedsheets or trees carried human-scent better, but anyone could tell tar and nicotine was stronger than anything.
Under her breath, she muttered, "Rookies."
From a hundred feet back and well out of bellowing range, the view stayed interesting all the way to the coast. Just to be perverse, Asuma indulged himself in a pack and a half of Inuzuka-irritants, measuring out a hundred-and-change miles in stolen smoke. Tsume didn't stop--mostly out of annoyance, he thought--but she slowed every time her breath started to labour, catching air and her second (third-fourth-fifth) wind before she shot off again. Asuma kept pace, feeling the sweat trickle down his back, and stayed alert.
In-between watching for bad guys, he studied the play of well-worked muscles beneath Tsume's armour. The way her backplate pulled in just a little at the waist, clinging to the upper curve of lean hips--
The impressive glare she aimed at his throat, when the trail stayed razor-blade straight all the way to the ocean and ended.
"Don't blame me," he panted, finally drawing to a halt on the weathered, salt-crusted jetty that held a complete lack of bad guys. He swept a glance over the horizon; it was deep blue and purple, cut with orange and yellow where the sinking sun bronzed the waves. There were no ships.
There was a port town--now behind them--winding down from a bustling day. Tsume had scented her way straight through it, weaving between people and carts and stalls of unsold fish with scary accuracy, straight to the jetty where the nothing in the world could keep tracking.
Asuma dragged a hand through sweat-soaked hair. His stitched ribcage pulled, but just a little. "Guess we know why they didn't care about leaving a trail. I don't suppose you can smell underwater?"
She took a deep breath, filling her lungs before letting it out. Now that they were standing still--and Asuma was standing next to her--all she could smell was sweat and smoke. "Sure," she said blandly. "I have a jutsu for that." Then she turned and gave him an unimpressed look.
His hair was wet, his uniform soaked. She doubted she looked much better. Wearily, Tsume walked back to a rundown building and collapsed in its shade, leaning against wood gone pale with salt and sunshine.
"Straight ahead is Wave country. Beyond that, Water." And the Mist ninja. She hated Mist ninja. Right then, she hated them more than any other ninja.
Tsume rubbed her arm across her face, trying to clear off the sweat. "I suppose we should probably ask around. Find out who saw what." She craned her neck to look back the way they'd come. This part of the bay wasn't too busy, though every jetty had at least a few buildings around it. Someone had to have seen something.
Whether or not they would tell, though...
Tsume took another deep breath and closed her eyes. "If no one wants to talk... Give me a minute and I can figure out who's lying." After her muscles stopped quivering from the full day's run.
A bead of moisture whicked down Asuma's face when he lifted an eyebrow. "Don't tell me; you have a jutsu for that, too?"
Tsume opened one eye just enough to glare at him with a sliver of blue, then closed it again. Asuma snorted and folded down next to her in a tangle of limbs, bracing his back against the building, and tried to decide if it was worth risking another cigarette. Technically they'd run out of trail...
He left the distraction in his hip-pouch and fished out a canteen instead, throwing back a long swallow of skin-warm water. To his untrained nose, the air smelled of nothing but brine and salt, cast off from an ocean coastline he hadn't seen in years.
It looked mostly the same; all drama and high waves from the strong, heated currents sweeping up from the south. Lots of spray, a few high-wheeling seagulls in the distance. Fading light dancing on the highest crests...
He smiled, mostly to himself, and returned his attention to his highly entertaining partner. Tsume's head was tipped back, braced against weather-beaten wood, slender neck stretched out as she inhaled deeply, ribcage lifting. The high-cut ANBU turtleneck sliced a line of black straight across her jugular, cloth dyed even darker with sweat.
She flicked an eye open, caught him looking, and ducked her chin sharply. Asuma grinned.
"Minute's up. Let's frighten the locals."
She huffed a quiet laugh and dragged herself to her feet. Asuma still looked relatively fresh, the flush in his skin already fading. Tsume didn't feel anywhere near that prepared. Weeks on medical leave had sorely affected her stamina, despite her recent attempts to get back into peak shape. A hundred miles plus might be just over average for most ninja--but she wasn't most ninja. She tugged experimentally on her pathways, feeling chakra respond more sluggishly than ever before. The main points were still down; she had to rely on the smaller veins to carry everything. At home, it hadn't been nearly so hard. With a frown she pulled more and more chakra, carefully and quietly feeding it into her muscles. Sparring with Raidou had taught her not to yank. The exercises Katsuko had given her had strengthened what she could use.
Both sets of knowledge and practice were taxed to the limit, in a way she hadn't expected. Half of her chakra system was stretched over most of Fire country.
She rolled her shoulders as if that would somehow help, then started toward the wharf. Halfway there, she stopped and looked at Asuma.
Big, bulky, heavily muscled, with facial scruff--he was exactly what the people here would expect. No one would mess with him, and as long as he was with her they'd leave her be, too.
With a heavy sigh, Tsume glared way up at him. "You have to stay back. I can't smell something as subtle as a lie over your cigarette smoke." Wolf, she was going to have to acclimate herself to this like she'd acclimated to Ryouma's jutsu. Great.
Asuma pulled the stretchy fabric of his own turtleneck up to his nose and inhaled. "It's not that bad," he protested, catching a body-warm twist of ash and salt, which smelled nice. Or manly, at least. "And if you can smell an hours-old trail over rotten fish--"
Tsume just held her ground, trying to cut him down with a narrow-eyed glare. Asuma couldn't remember the last time he'd been on the wrong end of so much bad humour.
Well, unless you counted Arakaki.
And the Quartermaster.
And Tsume, the first time he'd met her.
He shook his head and popped up a--hopefully--scentless clone. It tipped its head, mask shoved to the side like his own, and gave Tsume a very unsubtle once-over. Then it whistled.
"I know." Asuma agreed, and had to throttle a laugh at Tsume's expression. "Your very own bodyguard," he explained, stepping back. "Have fun questioning fishermen. I'm gonna grab food and admire the sunset. Meet you back here in ten."
He swung about and headed for the town before Tsume could decide which version of him she wanted to kneecap first.
She watched him go, then turned and gave the clone a mildly horrified look. "Whistle again and I'll rip your throat out."
Sharply, Tsume turned on her heel and marched toward the docks. She started forming seals on the way there, carefully drawing on her limited chakra, trying not to strain her pathways. When she thought she'd collected enough, she let it fly with a burst and a prayer.
A henge settled over her, removing too-long teeth and bright red clan markings, putting her in normal clothes. Even that minor jutsu tugged uncomfortably on the chakra pathways stretching thin and strained between her and Kuromaru.
The clone could henge himself.
She avoided the nearest people, making the assumption they could have seen her quick transformation. Give them an hour and they'd have convinced themselves otherwise, but until then...
She wandered to the docks, keenly aware of the gazes on her as she moved. She paused here and there, asking brief questions before moving on.
It just figured that the man who lied was the one who reeked of halitosis. Tsume cuddled up to him anyway, the better to get under the greased-pig scent. By the time she'd battered him with enough questions to get an approximation of the truth, only Asuma's clone was keeping his unhappy cronies at bay. They all smelled like halitosis, and she was beginning to feel queasy.
She tipped her head and the clone followed her out, angry stares boring into her back.
Asuma's smoke-scent was a welcome change. She flopped down next to him, sliding over until her head was against his shoulder, where nicotine from both cloth and skin and the healthy sweat-scent of a heavily worked male masked the last disgusting rot of filthy teeth. "The things I do for my village," she mumbled, then looked up when muscles shifted and it smelled like food. His hand dwarfed the paper container.
Food was even better.
Tsume pushed herself upright and took the tiny meat pie. "Our two jounin got a ship this morning and headed not-north, and not along the coast." She gestured to the ocean. "I'm guessing Water Country."
Asuma's own pie had been a sorry-looking scrap of pastry stuffed with bland vegetables; good for his soul and conscience, but not for his muscles. Or tastebuds. He'd supplemented it with a brace of ration bars and a chakra pill, enjoying the dark red hum of false energy that was still new to him. Slightly painful, mostly tingly; a masochist's wet dream.
Tsume's head against his shoulder was even more welcome, if unexpected. He decided not to question it; gorgeous, heavily exhausted women could get away with a lot.
"Water Country makes sense," he agreed, breaking his hold on his clone. It bamphed out of existence, dumping its memories straight into his head. "At least, as much sense as any of this makes. And I think you broke your informant's heart, getting so snuggly and then not following through. Poor bastard."
Tsume's elbow dug into his ribs. Asuma's grin hooked sideways.
"Seriously. They have a word for that kind of woman, y'know--" He moved his hand to catch her next elbow-jab, long fingers wrapping around the joint. "But with that guy, I'd just call you smart. So what's our plan? I'm thinking boats, unless you feel like water-running."
She shoveled meat, over-cooked vegetables, sauce and crust into her mouth with all the fervor of a starving person. It was amazing how much real food could replenish what you burned off running. They always said rations could do it, too, but it never seemed the same.
She eyed the pie holder, running her index finger around the edges to gather up the rest of the fatty sauce. It was loaded with beef flavor; unusual in a port town, but she wasn't going to complain. Protein, much-needed fat--she might even start feeling human again.
Really needed to step up her training regimen.
Tsume licked off her fingers, angling a look up at Asuma from under her hair. "Water running's a brilliant plan. You really wanted that collapse bit you were talking about earlier, huh?" She continued without waiting for a response, peering back down at her empty pie holder. "You get much practice boating in your wanderings? S'pose we could charter a ship..." Konoha would pay for it. She and Asuma could secure it, even if the captain wasn't thrilled with the idea. It was amazing what a smile with slightly pointed canines would do. Tsume eyed the cardboard container and debated licking up the last of the sauce. Possibly, if she was that hungry, she ought to be eating rations. She licked the cardboard instead.
Asuma would have said something witty, but it was hard to keep a thought straight when your mission partner looked a step away from a post-coital pastry experience. Especially when she started licking her fingers, blue eyes gleaming beneath her wild hair, and he could smell steak in the air...
It helped when she stuck her nose into the container and looked twelve, instead. But not by much.
Asuma corralled his thoughts into line with a little more force than necessary. "Some practice," he hedged, casting his mind back. "I spent a month with a fishing trawler when I was sixteen. And another two with smugglers just before my eighteenth, which was a damn sight more entertaining. Less fish guts, for starters."
More human guts, but at least he'd gotten better pay for those.
He glanced down at Tsume, studying the curve of cheekbone that had come back to rest against his shoulder. This close, he could feel the edge of a tremble in her muscles, see the faintest grey cast around her lips. But food had put colour back into her cheeks, and she could rest more on a ship...
He didn't get up.
"How 'bout you? Ever been pirating?"
Tsume stared out at glittering water and a slowly setting sun. "Spent more days than I can remember down by the river, stealing things from kids who thought they were tougher than me. Eventually even started to win. That count?"
There was a drawback to eating heavy, fatty, warm meat pie. It made you sleepy while you digested. A chakra pill would solve the problem, but a nap would certainly help more in the long run. They had limited time; a nap wasn't high priority right now. She wasn't sure how a chakra pill would react, with her lines stretched as they were. It likely wouldn't be fun.
Leaning on Asuma probably wasn't helping with the sleepiness, but he smelled like something other than fish and halitosis--even if she still wasn't thrilled with cigarette smoke--and his chakra was calm and warm. The swell of muscle under her jaw wasn't unpleasant, either.
"How far out do you think they got? Wolf's teeth, that's my job." She grimaced, trying to remember the scent she'd been tracking. "They've got hours on us. Trail's at least six hours old." They'd made good time--when they'd started, the trail had been easily eight hours ahead of them. Six hours wasn't good enough, though. "Don't suppose you have enough boating experience to find us a fast one...?"
That was as good a reminder as any to get up and get moving. They had a target to catch, and Konoha definitely wouldn't be impressed with 'But, sir, I had a pretty girl leaning on my shoulder,' as an excuse.
"Reckon I can dig up something," he said, with the complete confidence of a man who had sharp weapons and an attractive smile at his disposal. He tightened his grip on Tsume's elbow, getting to his feet and taking her along for the ride. She pulled away, but not quite as fast as she would have a few hours ago.
Progress, he thought with a flickering smile, releasing her. Or she was just really tired.
He hooked his hands into his belt and glanced down the coastline, eying the silhouettes of anchored ships. Dark eyes narrowed in thought. Too big...too bulky...recently damaged in bad weather...
Finally, he settled on a sleek-looking three-masted sloop, built a little bigger than normal. Big enough to manage ocean swells with ease, and carry the heavy cannons he would have bet a decent chunk of his next paycheck were lurking behind closed hatches; the exact kind of ship his former smuggling-mates would've hated to see. From a distance, it looked like an elegant dagger.
"That one," he said, gesturing as he set off. "Put your best charming smile on, darlin'."
Tsume let Asuma lead the way, in no small part because she wasn't sure which ship he'd pointed to. They all looked like wood and sails to her.
Exhaustion receded as they headed toward the ocean, battered back by sheer determination and a lifetime of training. She watched Asuma, relieved when he didn't henge. The fewer ninjutsu
she could use, the better. If they were going to barter for passage, she supposed looking formidably ninja was probably best--might get them on board with less fuss. No one wanted to argue with shinobi, and pay was guaranteed.
Whether or not she had a charming smile didn't seem to matter; she was swallowed in Asuma's shadow. Since he had the boat knowledge she didn't protest--even if letting him lead did rankle.
The boat looked like it was getting ready to depart. At least, there were lines being thrown around and ropes being tied. Wolf's teeth, for all she knew they were getting ready to dismantle it.
A few quick words between Asuma and the men on deck had them changing directions, heading into a tavern.
Tsume paused at the door, hackles rising. Body odor and fire smoke overwhelmed even alcohol and cigarettes. It would take long minutes before she'd be able to sort out scents. Warily, feeling like a stranger in a wolf pack, she tracked Asuma inside.
Here, everything was shadows and dim light. The ANBU armor was the only white surface visible. Camouflage made them stand out. Tsume lifted her upper lip and gave her most charming smile to a man who edged too close. She much preferred the outdoors. At least there, it was harder to get cornered--chakra damage or no. Inside, enough civilians could take down a ninja who had only mid-level taijutsu to fall back on--with no retreat possible and surrounded by flesh and blades, even the best could slip up.
As Raidou had shown her, Tsume wasn't the best.
The man they were looking for was sitting at a table in the middle of the floor. There were men everywhere, and no easy way to cover all the angles. Tsume stood beside Asuma, making herself more obvious but able to put him partially at her back without screaming weakness.
The tavern noise had lowered to a dull hum, and all eyes were on them.
Apparently Tsume's level of charm ranked down there with disgruntled porcupines. He tilted a glance at her, noting how she'd positioned herself just slightly in front of him, and doubted it was for his own protection. Well, if he was going into unfamiliar territory, he'd pick himself as a backrest, too.
He looked up and directed a dazzling grin at the table of staring men. "Evenin', gents."
That cut about as much ice as a soap hacksaw. At length, the sharp-eyed man in the middle tipped his head in acknowledgement. He was lean and tanned, clad in dark clothes and a hat with a single hawk feather, set at a rakish angle. At his right hip, a lethal looking sword drew quiet attention to itself. His hand hesitated near it. "Looking for something, shinobi?"
"Yamada Shin, captain of the Akizuki." Autumn Moon; pretty name for a ship. "I'm guessing that's you."
Either side of the sharp-eyed man, heavily muscled sailors stood a little straighter, drawing attention to physiques that ranked somewhere around 'normal' in a ninja's world. Impressive for civillians.
"Depends," said the sharp-eyed man. "Who's asking?"
Asuma grinned wider, leaned his weight on one casual hip, and called up the most useful genjutsu he'd ever learned. Like all basic illusion-jutsu, it didn't need seals.
To every eye in the room, he reached into his pack, pulled out a heavy leather bag, and tossed it onto the table. Coins spilled out, clinking with the rich satisfaction of pure gold. In reality, he didn't move.
"Asuma, looking to charter a ship." He nodded right. "And Inuzuka Tsume. She's mostly looking to break some skulls. Want to help us out?"
The sharp-eyed man reached out and fingered coins that didn't exist. After a second, he smiled.
"Yamada Shin. Delighted to meet you. Would I be right in thinking your chartering plans are of an urgent nature?"
"Smart man," Asuma agreed, and quirked an eyebrow when he noticed Shin's gaze staying on him just a little longer than was strictly necessary. You could put that down to curiosity about ninja, but he'd barely even glanced at Tsume... "How soon can you be ready to go?"
"Twenty minutes. Less if you and the skull-cracker pitch in."
Asuma spat on his hand and held it out. "Deal."
It was funny, he thought, as Shin's hand clasped his and he locked eyes with the steady, level gaze of a born liar, how he suddenly felt at home. Nothing quite like swindling a cheater.
It was full dark by the time they got underway--Tsume'd had no idea how much it took to get a ship ready--and the moon was high when she woke from her nap belowdecks.
Next to Asuma.
She couldn't decide which was more disturbing: falling asleep alone and waking with a partner, or not waking up when he'd come in.
Quietly, Tsume crept out past him and headed up the stairs--what passed for stairs--clutching the rail the whole way. Napping didn't make for sea legs, that was the truth.
The moon shed enough light to see what looked like the whole world, stretched out into the horizon in glittering blue. She knew it was an optical illusion, that there was land not far away, but it still felt disturbingly lonely. Tsume liked the earth. Liked trees and forests and the solidity of ground beneath her feet.
Even the planks that made their floating island didn't seem stable, no matter how big the trees they'd come from. They rocked and moved, unpredictable and off-kilter. All the scents were wrong. Salt and fish, the world pregnant with water, water itself teeming with sea life. The men smelled like they'd been made of coral and seaweed instead of the heavy, green scent of land.
Then she caught something familiar, and turned to watch Asuma come out of the bowels of the hold. Starlight turned his skin ghostly, dyed his hair so dark it matched the night, and twisted the white armor into the disfigured skeleton of a man. The ANBU tattoo absorbed light, shining black against his pale skin.
He looked like he knew how to stand a deck. That frog-eating blood tick.
"Well, it's official," Tsume muttered, looking back out over the ocean. "I can't track across water."
Which was about the time the captain showed up. Tsume eyed him suspiciously. He always smelled faintly of arousal. It was disconcerting.
Asuma yawned hugely, cracking his jaw, and dragged a hand through rumpled hair. "And here was me thinking you were a magic woman," he mumbled, propping his elbows on the railing. "My faith in you is destroyed. I may never recover."
He was turning over vague thoughts about shunting Tsume back to their small cabin--he doubted she'd had enough sleep; he definitely hadn't--when movement and a drift of scent like old spice pulled his attention sideways.
"You two haven't been teammates long, have you?" said Shin, braced casually against the railing.
Asuma lifted an eyebrow. "Make a habit of questioning all your passengers?" he returned.
"Only when they interest me." Moonlight silvered the captain's lean profile, providing the perfect light to see exactly where his gaze settled. Subjected to the most intense scrutiny he'd encountered since Arakaki's flat grey eyes and Kuromaru's lone gold one, Asuma realized he had a potential problem.
And hey, at least Shin was keeping his innuendo away from Tsume.
"S'that right?" he said, watching the words become steam in the cold sea air. "Don't suppose you happened to see anything interesting heading out for Water Country sometime this afternoon?"
"Or in general. Let's not limit our options."
Shin tipped his head thoughtfully, eyes flickering briefly to Tsume. "Maybe," he allowed. "But I don't recall information being part of our contract."
Asuma flicked a cigarette out, lighting it with a snap of chakra. Always impressed civillians. "Don't recall us ever agreeing on a contract," he said, making sure to keep his smoke away from Tsume. He glanced at her, expression turned wry for a heartbeat-moment. "What d'you reckon, O partner of mine?"
Tsume did her very best to keep a straight face. At least the captain wasn't interested in her. "I think, ah, that we should make a new contract." Her glance flicked from Asuma to the captain and back. The only way she could keep from laughing was to open her eyes really wide and purse her lips. "Anything for the--for the mission."
The captain was glowering at her. It was almost too much. A smile cracked, and she looked away quickly.
From across the ship, one of the crew bellowed. "Sails off the starboard bow!"
Tsume frowned as the captain lost interest in them and went racing toward the front of the boat, while the crew became suddenly alert. She leaned against the railing, out over the swelling ocean, to try and see what everyone else was looking at.
Not that 'sails' didn't give her a pretty good idea.
"We shouldn't be anywhere near them, yet," she muttered. "Not until long after we hit land." A battle on a bit of floating wood didn't fill her with excitement.
The sails were getting bigger. Tsume lifted her face to the wind and scented, but they were much too far away; she smelled only salt and ocean. Frowning, she turned to look at Asuma. "Is the ocean a crowded place? What's the likelihood those aren't our ninja?"
"Slim odds," said Asuma, straightening up. His cigarette hissed as he flicked it into the water, extinguishing the tiny light. Around them, the crew were hastily dousing lanterns. "You'd get night traders, maybe, but not in a channel this small. And smugglers wouldn't be looking to dance with other ships. Could be pirates..."
It was hard to make out the other ship as anything beyond a dark shape; even its sails were black. He squinted, wishing the moon would shine brighter. Luck was on his side; clouds parted briefly, casting light on a bow you could've used to sharpen a sword. For a brief moment, he could see the full silhouette of a ship with no interest in cargo capacity, but a prow that could slice through waves like a damn juggernaut...
"It's a clipper," he said. "Designed for speed. I don't think it's got friendly intentions."
The captain was shouting commands. The crew were in frantic motion.
"We can't outrun it," Asuma translated. "They're gearing up for a fight. Hey, Tsume, if you had a shiny new weapon and a village you hated, what would you do with it?"
"We just stepped right into this, didn't we?" If she had a shiny new weapon and a village she hated...? She'd sit, and wait, and annihilate whoever came. Land, Wolf's teeth. She was a land fighter.
She pushed away from the rail, pulling a solider pill out of her pouch. She wasn't sure what good it would do, with her major pathways still sealed and the minor ones stretched and thin, but it couldn't hurt.
Actually, it could hurt. She winced as it burned down her coils, too much power trying to force itself into too small a space. She parried it as quickly as she could, shunting it away from the major, blocked, arteries and down the minor ones, and realized too late that it had spread between her and Kuromaru--and most of it hadn't seemed to come back.
Could false chakra flow properly along unnaturally stretched pathways? Or did it simply lie fallow, too chemical to work? She locked her jaw and steeled her spine, glaring at the approaching ship as if that alone could make it back off. Whatever her chakra was doing, she had a mission to complete.
The oncoming craft seemed to have trebled in size. "Who knew they could go that fast," she muttered, carefully pulling chakra and shaping seals. It took long moments to gather enough energy for the Shikyaku no Jutsu, and when she finally released it the transformation happened slowly.
Because there wasn't enough chakra moving, or she was too far from Kuromaru? She had no way of knowing. She didn't know of any Inuzuka who'd traveled more than forty miles from their familiar--and that, only in grave emergency. They'd tripled that distance. Slowly, though, her teeth and claws lengthened, her musculature changing slightly to a stronger, more feral shape. She flexed her fingers, staring at the boat.
"'Fraid I'm not gonna be much use, 'less they get up close and personal." They were close enough now for her sharp eyes to make out individual people dashing around on deck. She had no idea what they were doing.
I've got taijutsu. Ninjutsu's weak at the moment.
Asuma leapt up onto the railing, grabbed a gang-rope, and steadied himself against the ship's rolling movement with a flicker of chakra. He couldn't sworn the waves were getting rougher. The ocean had a sense for atmospherics. Or the flush of new adrenaline coursing through his veins just made him notice things more.
Like that ship reaching the outer limits of cannon-range.
Like the rumble of moving metal beneath their feet.
Like Tsume growing claws.
He shot a glance back at her, clocking sharper teeth, shifting muscles, and slender fingers now edged with dagger-tip points, and whistled. "Nice. Brace yourself, love."
She arched an eyebrow at him--her eyes were bluer, icier, pupils narrowed to slits--then lunged to grab the railing when the first barrage of cannon fire split the air like a thunderclap. The enemy ship was quicker off the mark. Asuma grabbed his chakra, twisting it out in flurry of seals, and slammed up a solid wall of air. Incoming cannon balls cracked against the wind-shield before they met wood; Asuma grinned and flung them back, turning Shin's first salvo into a double attack.
Chakra lashed around the enemy ship. An orchestra of curses went up from Shin's crew when every single cannon ball landed harmlessly in the sea, but Asuma smiled. No more tracking; they'd found their ninja.
"Get closer!" he bellowed. They'd never outrun the other ship, but he'd wager they could inflict some interesting damage.
"Are you crazy?" Shin roared back.
"Probably! Get closer!" He could see three shapes on the other deck, standing perfectly still amid the chaos of running sailors. Steel glinted blue in the moonlight. "Now, captain!"
"Son of a whore!"
The ship lurched beneath them, heeling around like a spurred horse. Asuma snapped a clone to life, sent it to stand at Tsume's back, and called up a whirlwind of fire.
It seemed a waste to use hard-won chakra to hang onto the ship when there were ropes flying all over the place. Tsume grabbed hold of one, her feet braced as the worn boards beneath her groaned. That couldn't be a good sound. Still, no one else seemed concerned--or more concerned than they had been a moment ago--so she tried to ignore it.
Boats. If people were meant to sail, they'd have been born with yards of fabric.
Chakra crackled through the air, making her hair stand on end. Storm clouds whipped up out of nowhere, blocking out the stars, seeming to rise from the very ocean itself. Asuma gestured and fire leaped, twisting toward the other ship only to be caught and held by a water dragon. Steam hissed and rose as their battle raged, dancing perilously close to each boat in turn.
The waves began to build. Sailors shouted and scrambled, running to and fro, trying to do something or other with the sails--Tsume heard something about breaking and wind, and tuned it out as incomprehensible.
When the ship began to lift seemingly forever out of the water, only to plunge back down again in the valley between swells more than twice her height, Asuma's clone grabbed her arm. Since he'd apparently stuck himself to the deck with chakra, Tsume didn't protest. She grabbed back, completing the forearm lock, and kept pulling energy down her pathways as rapidly as possible, for whatever she might need to do.
Fire only lasted so long in a world of water. Asuma returned to his primary element, harnessing the growing winds that whipped around them; it didn't take much effort to redirect a force that was already there. He slammed it into their own sails, making the ship leap forward, and twisted the rest into a violent tornado. The water dragon lunged forwards, roaring spray from watery lungs.
Asuma grinned, wrenched his creation around, and swallowed the writhing jutsu in a spinning melee of storm winds. The dragon shredded, joining waves already sucked up by the vortex, and lent a glitter to Asuma's natural disaster. He threw it at the enemy ship.
And had to call up an emergency fireball when daggers of ice rained down on them from above. Crew members screamed, impaled before he could catch half of the frozen blades. Asuma swore, melting the remaining daggers into a harmless burst of rain that hissed and evaporated.
His tornado hit the enemy ship broadside--and sheered away, crippled by threads of ice that splintered through it, tearing water from wind. The time, the clone swore; Asuma was too busy. The ships circled, spun by unnatural waves and straining sails. Cannon fire still cracked, mostly ignored by ninja; whenever a shot brushed too close, absent chakra flicked it away. The distance between ships was closing, soon they'd be able to leap...
Asuma smashed his dying tornado back at the enemy ship, using it as a distraction while he sank his chakra into the ocean and hauled up a towering wave. Let them freeze that--
Darkness hammered straight into his skull, obliterating the world.
It wasn't the darkness that nearly sent her to the deck, ducking for cover like a cub outside its lair. It was the silence.
The ocean was gone. Footsteps, calls, the lashing wind and water, the hiss of steam off jutsu, the crack of sails. Even the deafening roar of cannon fire and the quiet cursing of the clone had vanished. The deck trembled under her booted feet. She could feel the clone, chakra given form, still holding onto her arm. She gripped it with both of hers, clinging to touch to keep panic at bay.
She couldn't even hear her own heartbeat under the weight of nothing.
There had been ninja. Deprived of vision, her mind twisted into memory. Three of them in view, standing like rocks on the bow of the plunging ship, outlined in shadow. Two men, and a woman who carried a katana strapped to her back. One shinobi had a face wrapped in bandages, only his eyes showing. The other carried a whip, twined across his massive chest.
The ship rocked again, nearly knocking her off her feet. She slammed into the clone, felt it wrap an arm around her to stabilize her, all the while taking several steps of its own.
She didn't hear its steps. She felt the movement of legs, but couldn't hear--
The clone vanished. There one instant, gone the next. Tsume dropped to all fours, snarling. She couldn't hear that, either. A boot caught her in her midsection. She crashed to the ground, rolled up to her feet, and felt something that reeked of leather snap around her neck and pull hard, yanking her back toward her assailant.
She smelled it when he got close.
She couldn't be sure if she growled or not, couldn't see her own arms moving or know where she was aiming. She did feel her claws tear into cloth and flesh, felt the warm spill of blood, smelled the coppery red of an injury, and she thought she smiled savagely.
The whip--it had to be the whip, they'd been close enough to board--around her neck tightened. Pulled up. Lifted her off her feet. Tsume twisted, trying to reach upward, to find some way to release it. She scratched at the binding with her claws, only to feel them skitter off, repelled by chakra. Grabbing the leather leading upward, she started to pull, to ease the choke on her throat. Fire burned down her hands, forcing her to let go. She might have screamed. She couldn't tell.
Translocate. She needed to--
Her initial panic had released the reserves of power she'd drawn, and air-starved and sense-deaf, she couldn't focus enough to drag it slowly, slowly back. She kicked, lashing out, hoping to connect with something.
How long since she'd taken a breath? She'd lost one when she'd been kicked. Hadn't inhaled before she'd been grabbed. Her mind swam, begging for oxygen.
Her muscles grew heavy. Her lungs burned. Her heart must have been laboring, but she couldn't hear it through her blood. With dangerously pointed claws she raked at her own neck, trying to get a breath, a purchase on the coils. Skin tore, but the whip didn't. Her fingers fumbled, starting to go numb. Her toes pointed, legs tensing to reach downward toward a ground somewhere below her. Half an inch, half a league, it could have been either.
Muscles weakened. She gagged, her body's natural reaction to choking. She still couldn't breathe. For an eternity she struggled, and for an eternity it was useless.
With one last burst of strength, she lashed outward, hoping unnaturally sharp claws might connect. Someone had to be holding her up.
Or a jutsu was holding her up.
Half a step, half a league. She didn't know how far away they might be.
Claws swiped at invulnerable air. She spun in empy space, putting more pressure on her throat.
Her head fell back, mouth working. Her arms dropped. One foot kicked a final time, as if it might yet find purchase.
The world didn't go dark. It ceased to exist.
He wasn't unconscious, he was blind. The clone died, pouring its memories straight into Asuma's head: three ninja, leaping effortlessly across the gap between ships. His own not-hands grabbing Tsume, trying to drag her out of range--
A booted foot smashing his head in.
The clone's head in.
He lunged away from the railing, breaking his grip on wave and wind before he accidentally destroyed the wrong ship, and cast his chakra out like a net. It washed over the deck, coursing past the tangled, disorganized energy signatures of panicking sailors, and ran aground against three sleek, well-ordered patterns like unsheathed blades. And one fading one.
He bellowed something--he couldn't hear himself--and wrenched his chakra apart, breaking it into a dozen solid clones. Two died instantly, smashing more memories into his head. Dizzy shots of a ship in chaos, a glimpse of Tsume strangling in the grip of a bullwhip, held aloft by a man muscled like a tiger. A blonde kunoichi laughing. A third ninja flinging kunai, moving like a dervish.
Chakra flickered. Asuma threw himself right, crashed hip-first into something that felt like solid wood, and staggered to catch his balance. A white-hot line carved into his shoulder. He flinched and kawarimi'd, swapping places with the first thing he remembered.
The mast made no sound at all when it landed on the deck, but three civilian chakra patterns winked out of existence. Asuma clung to the first rope his hand touched, jaw clenching. He couldn't feel Tsume at all.
Three more clones died. Two gave him nothing but a scrambled view of water, wood, and glinting blades. The last attacked the man with the bullwhip, hitting him solidly in the flank. The massive shinobi tossed Tsume aside like a rag doll, gathered the lash back, and slew the clone with a blow from its heavy, iron-shod handle.
The ship trembled, slewing with one mast gone and the remaining sails untended by a dying crew. Chakra patterns vanished one by one, leaving Asuma without any kind of map to anchor himself. He had no idea where the deck railings were, where ropes stretched and bodies lay. Where Tsume had fallen.
He got a damn good idea where one of the enemy ninja was when a punch like a landslide caught his jaw and knocked him straight out of the rigging. Tangled ropes slowed his fall, but the abrupt meeting with the deck's wooden planking still smashed the breath from his lungs. He choked, gasping, and couldn't hear himself.
More clones died. Crew-ship-ninja-blood-waves-no Tsume--
Something that felt a lot like a blade hooked beneath his armour and slid up, slicing through the shoulder strap. He shoved himself up, caught a blow that spun his shoved-aside mask away and made his blackened vision swim red, and hit the deck again. The blade danced back, slicing through the second shoulder strap. His chest- and backplate crumpled down, tangling around belted hip-pouches.
The bastards were playing with him.
His final clone died; Tsume was against the rail, limp body trapped between two dead crew-members. Asuma slapped his hands together, twisting the first seals he could think of, and ripped the deck apart. Wood splintered around him; he could feel the ship wallowing.
Liquid fire cracked between his shoulderblades.
He scrambled up, throat raw with a scream he couldn't hear, and took a second lash across his hipbone. A third across the backs of his thighs. He spun, trying to follow the trajectory of the hit, and stumbled over the deadweight of something too small to be a complete body. Warmth splashed his shins. His hands jerked for his trench-blades and met his tangled chest-plate. A fourth blow tore cloth and split skin wide open from the point of one shoulder to the middle of his lower back; he arched with an agonized, soundless hiss as flame licked the wound.
A blade kissed his throat.
Asuma thanked the world for small favours, grabbed it, and smashed his chakra through it. It wasn't as good as his trench-blades--the metal was different, and he was pretty damn sure he'd sliced his hands open--but he felt something shudder and spasm as his attack connected. One organized chakra pattern disintegrated into chaos. The blade came free in his grip.
He tossed it, caught the handle blind, and jerked around. His back shrieked a protest; warmth soaked through cloth all the way down to the backs of his knees. He absolutely didn't care.
The bastards had killed Tsume. He was going to murder them.
The lash swung back. A lucky side-step saved his eyes, won him a cheek split down to the bone, and brought him within striking range of a second energy signature. He charged for it, filling reluctant steel with chakra--
The bullwhip caught him by the throat.
He didn't see the fist aimed for his temple, couldn't hear the ugly crack it made, but he damn sure felt it. The broken deck lurched up; he drove the sword-point into water-slick wood, fought to catch himself, and failed.
Braided, blood-drenched leather tightened around his neck, lifting his head. He choked and tried to get a hand up. Chakra patterns shivered through with something that might have been laughter. Might have been anger. A boot came down on his wrist, grinding flesh against bone; one final solid blow dropped him into the kind of darkness where thought didn't exist.