Asuma woke up feeling roughly like he'd been thrown down a mountain. Twice. And then tied up in a sack and clubbed with rocks.
And heard himself.
Memory rushed back in bits and pieces, breaking over his head like a wave. He felt hands on his chest, lived through a quick-fire rush of darkness-ninja-Tsume-pain, and lunged upright with a raw-throated cry to break the first neck that presented itself.
Agony crippled him.
It was the mark of a good shinobi that they could still fight blind, deaf, and halfway convinced their bones were falling out. He'd already done it once. His wild grab caught the arch of flesh and bone that stretched between throat and shoulder, hand tightening brutally over the sharp angle of a collarbone. He wrenched, dragging the shinobi towards him even as his back howled and his wrist shrieked and a firestorm from hell poured molten lava through his skull.
Naked flesh smacked into his chest. Claws raked down his arm. He grabbed blindly with his other hand, back hitting cold metal with another nerve-ending-howl, and sought for the first hold he could get to do real damage.
Somewhere in the chaos, blackened eyes forced their way open. He caught a glimpse of wild, blood-matted hair, irises like chips of sky, and red dagger tattoos arching down angled cheekbones. Claws sank into his jaw.
"f'you're a genjutsu," he grated finally, "'m gonna kill y'slow."
Tsume stared at him a long moment. Then a laugh escaped her broken throat. She pulled her nails away from his jaws, gave his cheek a none-too-gentle pat, and slid off his lap and chest, where he'd dragged her. "You wanna play twenty questions?" Her voice still didn't sound right. She rubbed her throat again, frowning.
When he brought his hands up to form a quick kai, Tsume lifted one eyebrow, lips twitching. She'd been half joking--but then, he didn't have scent to tell him what was real.
All she could smell off him was cigarettes and blood, even without his clothes, but it was enough. He didn't smell like someone else.
When his chakra fizzled out with a tingle along her skin and he cursed quietly, Tsume flicked a glance at the seals. Their inky darkness had gone momentarily bright. "Should've known." Ninja wouldn't have kept more ninja without knowing how.
Wearily, she turned and crouched down beside him--near enough to share body heat, but not quite touching. Perched on the balls of her feet with her knees pulled up was as close as she could get to decently covered without actually sitting on metal. There were goosebumps all over her arms and legs. She ignored them. "Right. So. Twenty questions after all?" She coughed once, rubbed her throat with a cringe, and stared at the patterns of light on the floor.
Asuma looked at her profile, cut from the darkness by a thin slice of moonlight shining through a grating set too high to reach, and swallowed down nausea. Covered it with a crooked, aching smile. Blood slid down his cheek.
Thought they'd killed you, he didn't say. It probably wasn't her.
He was going to lose his mind if another pretty girl had died on his watch. Natsumi had been near-miss enough.
"What's your dog called?" he rasped, resigned to hearing the wrong answer. Desperate that it wouldn't be.
Tsume's eyebrows shot upward, and she looked at him sharply. "Kuromaru would kill you if he heard you call him a dog." No mention that he was her familiar, either--if the enemy ninja had ears in here somehow, they didn't need more hints.
As if her tattoos weren't hints enough, but--
His expression changed, shifting. Tsume pulled away slightly; relief she recognized, it was expected. But then it switched to something else, and no amount of scent-checking could get past the cigarettes and tell her what. She leaned back on one hand, frowning at him. "You okay, pup? You look--well, like last week's corpse. But aside from that..."
His head swam. That had to be relief. Or disbelief. Or something to do with the way his back felt flayed.
"You got strangled," he bit out, easing himself away from the wall; his skin stuck, tacky with something he almost hoped was blood rather than anything worse. He peeled himself away, staggered to his feet, and took stock.
Bruises everywhere, made especially visible by the fact that he was naked. Thick lines of pain throbbed across his back, left hip, right cheekbone, and the backs of his thighs. He decided to be grateful they hadn't cracked him across the ass. His right wrist felt exactly like someone had stamped on it; his head definitely felt like someone had kicked it--repeatedly. The stitched, well-scabbed sword wound down his left flank had escaped mostly unscathed.
And there was the naked thing.
He braced himself on the wall, glanced back at Tsume, and found her very determinedly staring at the ceiling. Ringed around her slim throat, bruises writhed like a black snake. Deep claw marks gouged down through pale and damaged flesh alike, making her neck look like a parody of a sutured wound.
"Thought I was heading home without a partner," he said finally. "S'the kind of thing inclined to knock a man down. But if you call me 'pup' one more time, darlin', I'm going to re-name you flower-cake."
"Us vets recover from death real quick," Tsume said wryly, keeping her hand from touching her throat again at the mention. She preferred not to think about that. "So when you can recover from death so quick, I'll stop calling you pup." Her smile was all teeth, though not quite unfriendly.
"Now, if you're done showcasing your--admittedly remarkable--bruises, you wanna see if you can reach that?" She gestured up, toward the grate high above. "I'm thinking a lot of chakra might help. Unless you see another way out of here." She was getting colder by the minute. Getting out was much preferable to snuggling up. She supposed she could always start jogging to stay warm, but it was a waste of precious resources--especially since she didn't know when, or if, they were going to be fed.
While Asuma looked up, she looked at him. He was mostly a mass of purple and black, with some vibrantly red lines across his back and legs. One of those lines was oozing a clear fluid, and she made a mental note to check it for infection later. Sometimes, it just meant it was serous fluid. Other times, it was step one toward fever and yet more difficulties on a mission.
There was a black smudge between his shoulder blades -- it took her a moment to realize it wasn't some horrific blackening of the skin, but an old, and badly done, tattoo. Words, but from this angle she couldn't see what.
There was blood scent as well--not hers--but she didn't get a chance to see where before she realized he was looking at her. She looked back guilelessly. "Born tan, were we?"
"Your powers of keen observation are earth-shattering," Asuma drawled, turning his attention to the grate over their heads. "But this tan is a labour of love. The hours I have to spend sunning myself. It's brutal."
Wincing, he stretched up. A week of dealing with one solo sword wound had ingrained a solid instinct to not pull himself out of shape; ripped stitches were no one's idea of fun. Now he would've gladly taken that lone injury and danced with it. His beaten back flared, then burned, then cracked.
"Still better'n stitches," he muttered tightly, as something hot and wet trickled down his spine. He rose up on his toes, found himself still far short of the grating, and leapt.
Old iron rasped calloused fingers as he caught a grip and swung, right wrist pitching a red hot fit. He reached for his chakra--worn down to a trickle, but still there--and shoved it into his skin, trying to stick himself to metal long enough to actually do something.
Energy gathered, rippled, and fizzled out.
"Son of a bitch," Asuma groaned. He kept himself up anyway, relying on trained muscle and sheer stubbornness, and tried to catch an outside view. There wasn't much: a sliver of deck, a flicker of shadowy movement in the distance, a damn impressive looking padlock on the grating--
If he'd had a free hand and a lockpick, he might have been able to do something about that.
--and then the world narrowed down to a shard of glass focus because someone's boot was on his hand. He clenched his teeth. The heel ground down, crushing his fingers against metal, then released abruptly.
Falling took no effort at all, but it damn sure hurt when he landed.
Over the beat of blood in his ears and the litter of curse words tripping off his tongue, he heard a slurred, slightly muffled voice.
"Escaping gets you punished, Leaf-nin."
"Bite me--" Asuma started to growl, but the world spun dark and silent, and he couldn't hear the words.
Tsume might have choked off a yelp as silence and darkness descended again. It should have been better this time. She should have known what to expect.
Her mind reeled as nothingness reigned again, as if the absence of sound and sight could suck her into a void regardless of the world around her.
She'd stood when Asuma had leaped; now only her feet were in contact with anything real, and she fought back panic.
It was just like before. It wasn't permanent. She swung an arm and felt the cold metal of the wall, falling against it as if it was the only thing keeping her alive.
This was real. This was real. She knew she was breathing, but couldn't hear it. Couldn't quite tell how fast until she put the heel of her hand against her breastbone and felt both her chest moving and her heart pounding.
She was not having a panic attack over a weapon her own blood-ticked village had created. Think. She needed to think.
Asuma was here somewhere. She could smell stale cigarettes and the sweet-spice of nicotine. She pushed away from the wall, into the void, toward his scent. One step, and two. The farthest she'd ever traveled, trying not to imagine what the ninja above could be doing.
Three steps into the void. Maybe there was no other wall. Maybe there was nothing.
Four steps. She held her arms out, searching for anything, and found only silence and blackness at her fingertips. But she could smell Asuma.
Five steps. She couldn't even hear her own voice through her bones, though she knew she was speaking. She was speaking. She was trying to speak. Nothing was coming out. Nothing was coming back.
And then she fell over Asuma.
There was movement, twisting, a hand grabbing her knee, her waist, one arm--searching, she realized. He was searching for where to catch hold. When he found her wrist he held tight, fingers almost bruisingly painful.
She couldn't tap out the code she'd meant to from here, but it didn't matter. She didn't fight, and trusted he'd stop. She could feel him, and smell him, chilled flesh warmer than their surroundings, his cigarette stench and hard muscles. In their tangle she could feel the floor, and even that contrast rooted her back in her body.
She pushed her free hand to her sternum, counting her breaths, measuring them out, trying not to hyperventilate. Her heartbeat was too fast. She swallowed and focused on touch and scent, closing her eyes. The darkness was her choice.
The darkness was her choice.
In twelve years of ninja life, Asuma had never run into anything so instantly panic-inducing. It was like having a vice clamped around his head, stealing light and noise and sense. He couldn't breathe.
Pain helped. It was hard to feel unreal when your body had an alphabetized series of complaints it wanted to discuss in detail. Anger helped a lot more. The second he got out of this cage he was going to break someone--
Then Tsume tripped over him, bringing a welter of frantic touch and sharp toenails. Half-crouched, half-fallen where he'd landed, Asuma scrambled into a position that felt upright, catching a grip on the first bit of Tsume--god, he hoped it was Tsume--that wouldn't earn a punch on a normal day. A frantic pulse hammered beneath his fingers. The body pressed against his was small and naked, curved in all the right places. It had to be Tsume.
She couldn't fight. She barely had any chakra. They were trapped at the bottom of a hole on a ship captained by vengeful ninja, crewed with men he doubted could even spell the word 'moral'.
He wrapped his arm around Tsume's narrow shoulders, hauling her closer, and pressed his free hand against the nearest wall. Swept his palm over iron, ignoring biting scratches from bared rivets, until he found the nearest corner.
It would help if he could remember more than half a dozen phrases in Konoha's basic chuunin code. The Guardian Twelve had had their own language, but that was worse to useless here.
Against her biceps, his fingers stumbled out a message. Stay--still.
Then he shoved her behind him, backing her into the corner, feeling her hands drag over lash marks until she found his shoulders. He clenched his teeth and set his own hands against both walls, forcing himself not to grab her back. If they wanted her--if they wanted either of them--they'd have to come within reach first, and he could damn well break necks blind.
He tipped his head back, hoping he looked at the grating, and snapped out an insult he couldn't hear.
Tsume felt his ribcage vibrate. He was speaking. Could he hear? She couldn't. Not a thing. She counted her breaths, counted her heartbeats, and tapped out, Can you hear? against his collarbone.
Muscles flexed and shifted, but he didn't bring a hand around to answer her. She didn't know what that meant. She did know there was metal to either side, and a wall of Asuma in front. She tried to focus on how that felt.
She couldn't breathe for all the nothingness.
And then everything was back. There was a keening whimper that stopped as soon as she heard it. The sound of the ocean hammering against the sides of the ship. Laughter, ricocheting around the cell.
Tsume clapped her hands over her ears, huddling into a ball. A growl rose in her chest.
Asuma wasn't expecting her to dodge under his arm, shooting out around him so she stood directly under the grate, glaring up. Terror whipped into anger, and she snarled furiously, fangs bared. "You crotch-infected pus farm, I'm gonna rip your throats out and feed them to you!"
"Did someone forget to housebreak you, sweetheart?" the ninja asked, crouching on top and peering down. "We could fix that."
"Why don't you come try."
His eyes flicked toward Asuma. "You might want to muzzle your mutt."
Tsume snarled wordlessly, impotent rage coiling. "If you just tossed me upward, I bet I could rip a toe off," she muttered to her teammate, hands flexing at her sides. Hooked claws gleamed a dull yellow in the faint light.
He'd been thinking about leaping himself, but that sure worked. Asuma gave the bandaged ninja a bright grin, full of teeth, and grabbed Tsume by the waist. Stepped forward and heaved.
This time, his back didn't so much crack as tear, but it was all kinds of worth it. Tsume shot up like a firework, grabbed the grating, snapped her whole arm through the gap between the bars, and sank five claws straight through an open-toed sandal. Five claws that lengthened.
The seals don't work outside the bars, Asuma realized with savage delight, as blood sprayed, the ninja howled, and something that looked very like two toes ripped away into the night. If he could hold Tsume up, she might be able to pick the lock--as soon as the damn ninja left them alone. He reached up as she swung away from a kunai trying to cleave her arm open from wrist to elbow, and released her grip--
And the vice came back.
Staggered, Asuma didn't so much catch his falling partner as provide a soft landing. They hit the floor in a tangle of limbs and still-sharp claws, losing skin to the rasp of rusted metal, and slammed painfully into a wall. White lights shattered through the black.
Not quite certain if he was unconscious or just blind--again--Asuma tried to get ahold of himself. When that didn't work, he settled for latching onto Tsume and gravity, roughly in that order. Aching arms trembled as he shoved himself up, felt something like legs kick against his side, and grabbed what he hoped was a waist, yanking the lithe, hard-muscled body beneath him to half-crouch, half-lean over.
Entirely out of next steps, he waited and tried not to panic. Which worked great as a plan until a freezing blanket of agony splashed down on his back, lighting fire in open wounds.
Hearing snapped back, bringing mostly screams.
The world was trying to deafen her. For a moment it was all noise with no meaning, slapping cold wet--water--trickling into the cuts on her neck--pain--and the smell of agony--Asuma.
Tsume writhed to get free of him, breath shuddering in her lungs as her body fought off the shock of icy liquid. Most of it had hit Asuma, covering him--and the bloody marks on his back--with salt. Shots of fiery pain twitched over her body, lodging anywhere she'd had a cut--and painting agony at her neck.
Asuma hadn't had much more than torn skin. "Breathe," she ordered, shoving at his shoulders. "Breathe! Lean back! Wolf's teeth, how much muscle does one person need, anyway?" Each of her small abrasions was a hell in itself. She couldn't imagine how much worse it had to be for Asuma.
Who had taken most of the water, anyway, sheltering her under his bulk from any attack.
At her shoving, he leaned back until he hit the metal. It wasn't much--it wasn't enough--but at least the chill of the walls ought to ease the agony away faster.
A drop rolled into one of the slices on Tsume's neck, and she hissed and slapped at it. It didn't help, but at least it distracted. Under her other hand, Asuma's muscles knotted, trembling. His ribcage heaved.
"It'll pass. It'll pass. Keep breathing," she murmured.
A draft twisted its way down from above, sliding along her flesh. She shivered and looked up. No more ninja. No more sailors. Something far more insidious: a light breeze on bare, chilled, wet skin.
She shivered again.
Breathing was not helping. Swearing helped, when he managed to drag his thoughts together long enough to string out a sentence. Asuma pressed his back against solid metal, trying to grind out the pain, and drew his legs up, bracing his forehead on white-knuckled hands that clenched around his knees.
After half a second, he straightened back up. Curling didn't help, either.
"--rutting whoreson of a bastard's mistake--"
When he ran out of words, he changed languages, hitting every curse he'd learned in two years of travelling and three years spent in the company of unorthodox teammates. Halfway through Northern Suna's politest phrase for a woman with loose morals and an inability to count, he managed to convince himself he wasn't drowning in liquid fire.
Saltwater. It was only saltwater.
He forced his eyes open, dragging his attention away from a myriad of sparking smaller injuries he hadn't noticed until now (what the hell had happened to his cheek?), and focused on Tsume. Slatted moonlight twisted blue shadows over eerily pale flesh; half her hair was plastered to her skull, the remainder spiked up in a wild tangle. Her throat looked red raw.
And there was a chunk missing from her left ear. The injury wasn't bleeding--it was old, Asuma realized. Like the silver-pink scars at her left temple. Something to do with the reason her chakra couldn't work right.
He shuddered and blew out a breath.
"Next time, get a whole foot." He didn't manage a smile, but a grimace came close. "Or a knee. I think that might have been worth a knee."
"Get me high enough," she muttered, "I'll go for his balls." Her shivering turned, momentarily, into a shudder. She rubbed her arms quickly, walking back to Asuma and kneeling. Her hair dripped more water down her back, like an icy finger following her spine. "I think it's safe to say they don't care about our health and well-being." If they did, she could sure use a blanket. "You get any idea what's out there? In reach? If you tossed me up when no one was there..." She chewed on her lip, folding her arms in between her legs and her body for extra warmth.
"Not even my claws'll do much good against metal. Not without..." Jutsu she couldn't use. Even if she'd had more than just an arm stuck outside the grate, she couldn't cast anything new. That her more feral form was holding had come as a surprise.
She glanced sidelong at Asuma, and winced. "Wolf's teeth, you look pretty." The bruises nearly matched the dark hair along his jawline. The skin stretching over one cheekbone was split and needed stitches--it was starting to sag. He smelled like all-over blood. His arms weren't too bad, but she'd seen the line that stretched from shoulder to mid-spine earlier, and smelled the smears of blood left behind when he'd grabbed her.
At least his legs were okay.
"You got any injuries I should know about, if we're gonna be here more than twelve hours?" She shuddered again, and scooted a little bit closer. The water was evaporating off her skin, but not fast enough. Or maybe too fast, since that's what was adding to the cold.
"I'm naked," Asuma pointed out. "Anything you need to know about me you can see." And a few things besides. And, okay, it wasn't like he had any body image quirks, but it would have been nice to get a damn choice in the matter.
Tsume shivered at his side, teeth chattering; Asuma reached out, wrapped an aching arm around lean shoulders, and pulled her against his side. Surprise he expected, maybe even a squawked protest, but Tsume stiffened like a girder, muscles almost snapping with tension. Asuma hesitated, eyebrows lifting, but she relaxed again before he made up his mind about releasing her. A little warmth bled through his ribcage.
Maybe she had body image quirks--which made no sense at all, given that he could see every inch of her and they all ticked a mental box somewhere around hell yeah.
It was probably a good thing he was frozen and injured, he reflected, because there was no way he was putting 'castrated by teammate for an involuntary reaction' on a mission report.
"All I saw was a deck," he said, dragging his mind back to useful answers. "Not Shin's ship, but I reckon we already knew that. Poor bastard," he added, more quietly. "I'm pretty sure I got at least one ninja before they took me down--kunoichi, I think. And I have no idea why they're keeping us alive."
Actually, he had several, but none he really wanted to think about.
"If I can hoist you up, reckon you could get your hands through the grating and cast a lockpick jutsu? Or use your claws?" He pulled gently on his chakra, feeling it spark and hiss in his veins. "If I push hard enough, I might be able to channel some chakra to you. It's not exactly a jutsu." A belated thought occurred. "And you're not injured anywhere permanent, right? It looked like just your throat..."
Tsume would have twisted to eye him, but this close it was easier not to. "I'm naked," she mimicked dryly. "Anything you need to know about you can see."
Squeezing closer to Asuma--with him on one side and his arm wrapped around her, she was feeling... well, not warmer, but less cold--she looked up at the grate. "Channeling chakra into me might work." Hadn't Raidou tried that, at some point? At the hospital, by the pond. He'd said it was like biting aluminum. She'd have to warn Asuma, if it came to that, and make sure not to let it slide down the pathways to Kuromaru.
"It's possible I could... do something. Don't know any lock picking jutsu." What did she know that might help? "Couple of fire jutsu. Earth jutsu. Tracking jutsu. Lots of Inuzuka jutsu." For all the good those would do her. She wished for a long moment that she could use any of those high-powered techniques.
Then she turned and eyed Asuma. "What do you think would happen if I did a translocation jutsu? I'd rather not lose my arms, but..." She shrugged under the weight of his biceps. "It might work."
"How can you not know a lock-picking jutsu?" Asuma demanded, twisting to study the painted seals in more detail. "That's like ninja 101." Ink-black kanji rippled over the walls and ceiling, even the grating bars, dark and quiescent now no one was trying to cast a jutsu. He reached up and scraped his nails over the nearest one, but it didn't make a mark.
"I think I recognize some of these patterns..." It was a thoughtful mutter; he glanced up, following a network of laced signals that seemed familiar. "Phoenix Trap, maybe? Or some kind of variation... That's an Ox seal, and I have no idea what it's doing here..." He glanced down at Tsume and shrugged carefully. "I think it'd rip your arms straight off."
Which would not take anyone to a happy place. He shifted, moving his arm around Tsume's shoulder until he could hold both hands in front of her face. Slowly, his fingers ran through five seals bereft of chakra.
"Right. Ninja 101. Pay attention."
Dread sat heavily in Tsume's stomach. "Can't we just try the arms ripping off one? That sounds fun."
Asuma stopped making seals. She didn't turn to look at him, pretty sure that whatever his expression, it wasn't complimentary. "Look, I have a hard enough time with new jutsu when--" She glanced upward as if someone might be listening, and lowered her voice. "When my pathways aren't all screwed up and I'm off medical leave. It's not like we have a lot of time for me to experiment, and eventually you won't be able to pump chakra into me, so I can't even practice first."
She squirmed, pressed back against his shoulder and chest, his arms around her. Her breasts were crushed by her drawn up knees so he couldn't see them, but it was still an odd sort of intimacy. She could feel his breath warming her skull and whispering along her ear and the nape of her neck. At this angle, pressed so close, she could even feel the scratch of chest hair between her shoulder blades.
She wasn't sure she'd ever felt chest hair against her shoulder blades.
"There has got to be some other way. Starting with a jutsu I know."
"Yeah," Asuma said, dry as desert sand. "Because life always gives us the easy options." He looked anyway, eyes flickering back over the seals, trying to find the key to a much harder lock. The more he stared at the coiling, elegant patterns, the more familiar they seemed, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it...
Struck by a thought, he reached down and took one of Tsume's hands. It was small--much smaller than his own--and fine-boned, but heavily calloused by weapons and hard training. He splayed her fingers out, eying the lethally sharp claws with a thoughtful glint in dark eyes.
"Feel up to having a scratchpost session?" he said, resting his chin on top of her wild hair. "I don't think those seals were designed to work with pieces missing."
Tsume looked at her claws, her fingers curling in slightly as they rested, and then at the walls. "I can't go through metal," she said slowly, thinking. "But I might be able to scratch the surface enough..."
She twisted in the loop of Asuma's arms, rising up to her knees as she faced the wall. There, she hesitated. "You might want to cover your ears." Warning given, she stretched as high as she could, placed her hands on the wall and--trying not to think about the fact that Asuma's face was almost at breast-level--dug her claws in and dragged downward with her whole body.
The shriek of nails on a chalkboard was nothing compared to this. It resonated up her arms, into her skull, shaking her entire skeleton. She wanted to fling herself away, stop the horrific noise and the trembling in her bones, rub on the ground until the vibration in her marrow went away.
She kept clawing, instead.
Through the tip of the first seals, one per hand, down the middle, unable to hear anything over the agonized screech of metal. The seals split, four parallel lines per twisting mark, and--
They all went white, flashing outward, leaving shapes on her retinas. She was staring right at them. Tsume screamed even before it started to hurt, chakra pathways hissing as if they'd been burned from the inside out.
She thought, possibly, being both deaf and blind was preferable to what she was now.
Comparatively, Asuma got lucky. The seals blazed, shattering the world with white, and painted straight over Tsume's pale skin. He got a picture-perfect memory of softly curved breasts, beautifully defined stomach muscles, and a dark triangular thatch of curling hair all emblazoned onto the backs of his eyeballs--then it hurt.
In reality, the pain probably lasted as long as it took the seals to burn out. In relative body-clock time, it was about a hundred years.
When Asuma came back to himself, sweating, shaking, feeling roughly like someone had ripped out his coils and braided them, Tsume lay half-sprawled in his lap, shuddering in the grip of her own St. Vitus dance, and there were shouts echoing above their heads.
Sparks crawled across the walls.
Now, Asuma thought dazedly, would be a very good time to not be here.
"Good job, darlin'," he croaked, and dragged her into his arms. Long, calloused fingers fumbled through seals--he held his breath--and chakra snapped to life. They vanished with a crack of smoke.
Tsume nearly retched when they reappeared, blinking against images in her mind's eye. Twists and whorls and lines and dots--complicated seals she didn't begin to fathom. They should not have been on the backs of her eyelids. Or the world around her.
Her head still ringing she could better understand. She'd expected to be deafened by nails on metal.
Fresh air. Still salt air, but fresh salt air. "I really hate ships," she muttered, trying to drag herself upright to be of some use. Asuma pulled on her arm. She went with him, hoping his sense of sight was coming back faster than hers was. Her chakra pathways felt fried, but that wasn't anything new. She tugged on them carefully anyway, drawing energy as rapidly as she could.
There were shadows. Shadows were an improvement over symbols. There was shouting, heard faintly over the ringing in her ears. Most likely someone had noticed their handiwork. Probably even noticed that they were gone. Which meant they could expect to be blind and deaf--
Somehow, knowing it was coming made it marginally better. Or perhaps that was just because she hadn't been able to see or hear exactly, anyway. It did lessen her headache.
Being free definitely helped.
Asuma's tug on her arm lessened, and then a big hand grabbed her shoulder and pushed. Coils of rope, and behind them, a rail. She wasn't jumping overboard, and the rope wouldn't do much good. Hiding would only work for so long. It wasn't like the weapon would turn off after a time period.
Unease began to crawl up her spine. The void was beginning to whisper.
It wouldn't turn off, but maybe--if they could--what? Start blowing things up? She couldn't even smell any gunpowder nearby, and--
--Wolf's teeth it was dark. How far to an enemy? One length? Two? Half the ship? She could feel rope and Asuma. Were they in the open or hidden well? She could do jutsu, but aimed where?
The silence she'd been grateful for a moment ago pressed on her now. Like swimming through tar--black and sticky, filling her ears and eyes and nose and mouth, making it impossible to know where anything was.
Swimming through tar.
She had no idea where anything was.
The weapon wouldn't stop working.
But maybe she could outdistance it.
Tsume fumbled for Asuma's shoulder, and tapped out a quick code. Can't fight. Split up. Going to try and outdistance it. She already had a pretty good idea of what he'd think of that. She didn't wait for a response.
She'd felt the railing behind them. Tsume put a hand on it, shoving herself down as far as she could and scuttling along, having no idea where she was going or who could or couldn't see her. Running through blackness was a terrifying thing, but if she got far enough away from Asuma before they noticed her, it would be worth it.
The wood trembled. The scent of unwashed humans rose. Thanking the fact that they hadn't bathed, she decided she'd gotten as far as she could--and flung herself overboard.
Hopefully, she'd remember which way was up. And if she didn't, drowning in water was no worse than drowning in tar.
Tsume was gone.
And he hadn't remembered to tell her that he didn't know half her damn codes. All he'd gotten from that rattle of fingers against skin was fight--up--outdistance, and she was gone.
If she'd done that deliberately, he was going to strangle her.
Darkness pressed in. He was naked and sightless on an open deck, deaf to everything but the vibration of heavy footprints through wooden planks. The sting of cold air and sea spray over flayed skin. Weaponless and alone.
If there was ever a time to panic--
--this was not it.
Chakra came when he called it, weak and blistered, searing along scorched pathways; he snapped it into half a dozen clones. Five spun away instantly, disappearing into chaos he couldn't see. The sixth dropped a hand on his unwounded shoulder and wrenched him around, away from the railing. He stumbled, righted himself, and ran, trusting it to lead him.
One died. He got a dizzy, disorganized snapshot of a ship in turmoil. Running men, bellowing ninja--
A second. This time all he saw was an incoming blade--
A third. He felt the sailor's neck break in its hands. Then it looked up, staring at a gleam of moonlit flesh as Tsume--
Leapt off the damn ship.
The hand on his shoulder tightened and yanked, ripping him to the right, almost pitching him off his feet. Outflung hands slammed against wood--a wall?--and scraped down in a rash of splinters. Cut my hands, he remembered abruptly, as pain seared. Fucking kunoichi with her katana.
A heavy vibration slammed down just behind his legs. Then a second, much closer as the clone shoved him aside. He felt a slash of wind twist over naked skin--the breeze from a weapon.
Fourth clone. The bandaged ninja was balanced on the rail, hands dancing through seals, blood shining on the new bandage wrapped around his foot. A giant wave arching up--
Chakra flickered behind Asuma, ordered and lethal. He grabbed for the dregs of his own, slamming it through the first seals he could think of. Tsume wasn't on the ship. If he destroyed the ship--
The lash--the damn lash--snapped around his wrist, wrapping all the way up his forearm, tightening like a leather snake. The tip laid open a red line of flesh, but his hands were already together, chakra releasing, and he felt the wind slam up and tear away, flinging itself out.
Civillian chakra patterns vanished--thrown overboard--the lash yanked him off his feet--caught the bastard--and, distantly, the organized pattern braced over the railing flared and twisted, falling--knocked him off the rail.
The ship lurched, keeling sideways. Asuma felt his clone grab him, felt the fifth one die--saw the bandaged ninja's wave slamming into the ship--but there were other hands, too. Bigger, heavier hands, swiping his clone away and grabbing him by the throat. He bucked and grabbed back, but the bullwhip tore his arm down, and something that felt a lot like a forehead slammed into his face--
White lights shattered through the black.
Sixth clone. Asuma saw himself, pinned and dazed and bleeding in the whip-weilding ninja's hold, knees buckling towards the heaving, shattered deck. Then there was only darkness.
Somehow, Tsume had forgotten that it was only just April. The water hit her with freezing intensity, nearly stopping her heart and crushing her lungs. She forced the little bit of chakra she'd gathered into her muscles and blood, making her body work. The cold overwhelmed the pain of salt water in wounds; everything hurt too much to notice it.
There was no way to tell how far from the surface she was. She held her breath and kept swimming, praying she wasn't going farther down, letting her body's natural buoyancy take her upward. Hopefully.
Tsume hadn't spent much time on boats, but she'd spent lots of it in the river near the Inuzuka compound; even when she felt the currents here start to pull on her unnaturally, she kept on.
How far was far enough? She didn't really think she'd be able to escape, but if she could shake loose the weapon, even for a moment...
Her lungs were burning. Fear clutched at her. If she didn't hit the surface--if she was driving herself deeper--
Then she broke, gasping, into open air.
The water pulled back harder. She struggled forward. Her fingers were starting to go numb despite the chakra in her system. She pulled more of it, shoving it down her extremities.
How long had she been swimming? It seemed like forever, one arm over the other, legs kicking furiously. Her body ached from the cold. Every inhalation was an effort, against the shock of icy water. She started counting breaths, fear eased somehow by the feel of the sea sluicing past, by the knowledge that in the open ocean it was a void, but this was natural. This she could do.
Then someone grabbed her leg.
Tsume didn't bother trying to kick free. She curled, using the grip on her ankle as leverage, and clawed backward.
Her nails hit resistance. The hand on her ankle let go. Fighting in water--punching, kicking--wasn't nearly as effective as on land. The sea dulled blows, made them soft. Her claws, however, were always edged. She twisted to follow her attacker, feeling the currents as he moved, and clawed again. More resistance. This time, she caught at cloth so he couldn't escape, and raked her nails above it. Maybe she'd hit his face.
The body jerked and thrashed--
And then water snatched her up, some kind of jutsu tumbling her up and around, far above the ocean but still in the water.
She struggled, thrashing, trying to find any escape. Her lungs burned with the need to breathe. She couldn't see any kind of edge to whatever she was in. It took only seconds for her mind to fuzz out, already overwhelmed by cold.
She hadn't found the edge of the weapon's influence.
Asuma woke up with the sun on his back.
There was sound again--creaking ropes, groaning timber, the slap of gentle ocean waves--and light, when he forced bruised eyes open. Stinging salt crusted his lashes. He blinked hard, reactionary tears blurring the landscape, and realized a few crucial things.
His wrists were lashed together. His arms were wrenched high above his bed, bound to a mast spur--he was hanging from the mast spur, weight not even remotely on his feet--and it felt like someone had beaten seven kinds of tar out of him.
Groaning seemed like a good plan. Maybe curling up into a ball and whimpering.
Instead, he got his feet planted firmly on splintered wood, taking his weight off numb hands--pins and needles from hell--and tried to reorientate. The ship was a mess. One quick, neck-cracking glance showed him shattered wood, scorch marks from jutsu cast by his clones, fallen bodies, broad scarlet smears of blood--
Tsume hanging by his elbow, deathly pale and covered in bruises.
Asuma almost hauled his shoulders out of joint trying to twist around and get a better look at her. The sun--it wasn't high, barely a mark past the horizon--had dried seawater on her skin, leaving a white crust of salt that cracked and flaked every time she breathed. Her head hung low, chin braced on her breastbone, matted hair obscuring her face. Rope burns scored her wrists; her hands were bright red, the nail-beds tinged blue. She was still naked.
He was still naked.
Asuma hissed the rudest word he knew and twisted his fingers together, calling up the fastest rope-breaking jutsu he could think of.
Which was when the first whip blow cracked across his back.
Tsume woke to screaming.
She tried to pick her head up. It rolled unsteadily on her neck. She struggled to find foot purchase, but her body was lethargic, so cold she hurt.
There was another crack, and this time the scream was cut short.
It was almost impossible to get her eyes open. When she did, it didn't tell her anything useful. Wood. There was wood in front of her.
Another crack. A bitten off call, forced down into a grunt.
Her hands were tied above her head. Even through the cold, they hurt.
"C'mon, kunoichi. Get your feet under you." Something prodded her in the kidneys. She scrambled to get her footing again, finding balance at last on wobbly legs and the post in front of her. More than a post. The mast.
Another crack. Another grunt, this one with a half-gasped hiss at the end.
"C'mon. You're missing the show!" Something hard and blunt prodded at her again. She tried to look back, nearly overbalanced, and felt someone grab her by the hair and haul her back up.
"Moon-faced--" Her words were slurred, her tongue thick. Whoever had her by the hair shook her before she could finish.
"Be polite. You'll never get to eros training with a mouth like that."
Another crack. Another broken breath.
"Now pay attention." He yanked her head around.
Asuma was tied up next to her. He turned, face pale under the bruises, and gasped out, "Oi--bastard--hands off the kunoichi before she bites 'em. You're already--missing--digits."
"Enough outta you," another voice, out of sight, said. Tsume saw a whip descend, lashing across Asuma's back. Asuma snarled, whole body arching, tense. Then he twisted and spat blood.
Tsume's blood quickened, and, somehow, she managed words to the enemy ninja. "You mange-bald, ball-licking--"
Her captor yanked on her hair. There was another crack, and this time Asuma bellowed.
Tsume twisted her hands, trying to get her claws into the rope. Her fingers were numb, unresponsive. Her whole body was starting to come alive again--shudders wracked her as muscles attempted to warm themselves under the rising sun. She couldn't hardly feel her fingers. She couldn't get her claws in if she couldn't feel--
She picked up a foot and jabbed it forward, glad for once of her nakedness. Toenails caught in wood and she lurched up, using it as a step.
"What the hell--?"
Another foot, up again, and her teeth sank into rope. The whip cracked twice more. Asuma yelled. Someone laughed. A hand caught her hip and yanked, but her nails were stuck fast.
"Bitch!" The arm looped around her waist and pulled sideways, wrenching her toenails out of the wood. The whip cracked, and fire blazed across her spine. She screamed and kicked out at anyone behind her--but they were already out of reach.
There weren't enough curse words in the world.
Asuma hauled himself blindly through pain--his back was a seething, twitching mess of fire--and twisted shaking fingers into seals, throwing his chakra into the jutsu.
The rope lit up, glowing white with kanji braided into the hemp itself, and ate the threads of energy he'd managed to gather. He felt his head spin, heard the lash crack and Tsume scream, and threw himself against his bindings. The rope creaked, rasping skin from his wrists; he strained back, trying to get leverage, and planted his heel against the mast. Wood groaned faintly. His hands went numb.
The lash cracked twice. Tsume cried out, choking on a snarl. Laughter broke the air.
"Sons of bitches," Asuma groaned, and pulled. The rope bunched up around his wrists, stopped dead where the bones of his hands widened out, and went no further. Down the length of his back, lash marks spilled thin trickles of blood. Older wounds cracked open, weeping clear fluid. His footing was slippery.
The lash cracked again. Tsume's lean body jerked in his peripheral vision, delicate spine arched like a bow, small breasts pushed forward in a parody of something sexual.
"I'll kill you," Asuma promised the raucous, laughing voices behind them. Blood reddened bared teeth. "I'll kill you for this."
A heavy body hit him in the back--muscle, cloth, chakra, ninja--and slammed his chest into the mast. Balance lost, his full weight dragged at his wrists. His back flamed. Bandaged hands caught his head, fingers wrapping either side of his jaw, and forced it to twist. To look at Tsume.
"I doubt it, Leaf-nin," whispered the bandaged shinobi in his ear, as a red stripe flayed across Tsume's lower back. "I really doubt it."
"Yeah?" Asuma managed, cutting a grin through his wrecked face. "Doubt this."
His heel cracked down squarely across the bloodied, bandaged foot Tsume had torn apart. Something popped, then crunched when his foot ground down; a scream shredded the air. This time, it wasn't them.
More than ten hours running on a damaged chakra system, more hours of cold, seals frying her pathways, mental strain, and freezing water had taken their toll. She didn't quite notice when they stopped flogging her. Didn't quite notice that she had to lean against the mast to stay upright, breath shuddering in her lungs. Only through a haze did she hear a scream.
It took all the energy she had to roll her head to face Asuma, but what she saw brought a smile to her lips. The ninja behind him was crying out, face twisted up into a mask of pain. Someone yanked him away, and an elbow smashed into the back of Asuma's skull.
Tsume tried to growl. It wasn't audible.
"We're gonna send you back in pieces, asshole," the ninja holding the whip said. "You can choose whether we do it now, or later. Seems to me you'd be good little ninja and encourage our keeping you alive to test our pretty new weapon on, 'cause the longer you're alive the better your chance for escaping. Not that you're going to, but hope dies last, doesn't it?" He stepped back, swinging his whip in loops around his feet. The tip licked at his boots, caressed his ankles, slid along the deck in hypnotizing patterns. "'Course, you wanna get cute, we can start chopping pieces off your friend here. Seems like she might not last so long, anyway."
Tsume propped her head against her arm, frowning. "I go'cher buddy, there." The ninja wrapped in bandages was sitting to one side, and now she could see the bandages wrapped around his chest and arm, as well. They hadn't been there before, and she'd gotten someone out at sea.
"For which, I'm sure, we'll talk." The whip twitched out, scoring across the backs of her calves with frightening grace. Tsume yelped and tried to yank her legs around, succeeding only in knocking herself off balance. The ninja with the bandages smirked.
"Now," Whip continued, "if you don't want us cutting you into pieces this instant, I suggest you play nice." He pulled his arm back. The whip slithered around. He twitched it forward and it slashed up through the air, cracking sharply against Asuma's already damaged skin. Tsume winced.
"What's traditional on a ship?" Whip called out.
"Try twenty lashes," Bandages answered, laughing.
Whip smiled. "One."
Asuma stayed silent for eight. The blow to his skull helped--by the time his head stopped ringing, four lashes had come and gone, and there was just the memory of fire blazing through his skin.
He managed to find his feet, struggling to take his own weight while the next four hammered down. Perfectly parallel lines striped his back, criss-crossing the marks already there, licking flame like a freezer-burn from his shoulders to his hips. And lower.
The ninth blow cracked him squarely across the ass, forcing a yelp between gritted teeth that was more about surprised outrage than pain. The tenth struck lower, at the crease between buttocks and thighs. He groaned softly, aching forehead resting against blood-flecked wood.
The eleventh cut him across the tops of his shoulders, quick and brutal; he jerked and cracked his head against the mast. Flashes of light danced across his vision. Laughter rippled behind them like a wave, crushing his resolve.
Play nice. Tsume's breath rasped next to him, strained between clenched teeth. He heard her struggle to stand, heard the strangled inhale that came before words. Heard her slurred words.
"You -- maggot-rotten... tooth snubbed... moon-faced cowards."
And her choked cry when the lash snapped back and laid a bleeding stroke over ghostly pale skin.
"Nice shot," crowed the bandaged ninja, still nursing his foot.
"Bastards," Asuma grated out. His eyes were closed, hands clenched. He tried to straighten up. "Leave her--'lone."
"That sounded like an order," mused the whip-bearing ninja, coiling his lash back. "Didn't it, Hibiki?"
"Reckon it did," said the bandaged ninja. "That's rude."
The whip caught against Asuma's left hipbone, laying skin open. A matching mark to the older slice on his right hip. He throttled a scream.
Tsume slurred something. The bandaged ninja--Hibiki--flickered to her side. Through half-closed eyes, Asuma saw the glint of a weapon in his hand, sliding over her bound knuckles. Hibiki twisted her head around, yanking it by the hair.
"Yeah, leaf-nin." The words moved facial bandages, revealing a slice of scarred skin. "Count 'em. Or your girl's going to be swallowing her own fingers."
Asuma struggled to think.
"I don't--" he managed, raw-throated. "I don't know--the number."
The lash cracked across his flank, curling around to score over his ribcage. He flinched.
"Thirteen, stupid ninja," said the whip-shinobi. "That was thirteen. Count or I'll double it."
"Thirteen." He forced the words out. Seven more to go and they'd stop. They had to stop.
The lash cracked.
It didn't really hurt anymore. Pressure registered as the whip came down on twitching, shaking muscles and flicked away, but no pain. He just felt cold.
Pressure. Tsume's gasping breaths.
He stopped hearing the sound. Couldn't hear the laughter. His vision tunnelled to the knot of wood level with his eyes. When it jerked, he counted.
The words became a mumble, slipping between numb lips.
His eyes closed. He felt nothing. Listened to the roaring in his ears. Guessed when the next lash fell.
When he dropped, the darkness just seemed familiar.
Tsume tried to look at him, tried to focus past pain and cold. Her head rolled back, resting on a wiry shoulder. The man behind her chuckled, shifting the trench knife still held for Asuma's good behavior. The blade skimmed along the back of her hand, as gentle as silk.
It was an effort to speak. "'suma." He didn't answer. Other people were talking around her, but she couldn't make out the words. Tsume roused herself, fighting past numbness. "Asuma." She struggled to lift her head, to stop leaning on the man behind her. Enemy ninja, but the only stability she had. "Asu--"
"You wanna take him? I've already got her." The trench knife lifted, an arm wrapping around Tsume's ribs, under her breasts. With a quick flash of metal the blade cut the bindings holding her up, and the little bit of balance she'd managed to attain was gone. She would have collapsed if the arm around her hadn't tightened. The ninja picked her up.
"He's coming, don't worry. Not dead yet. That one has reserves." The unspoken, unlike you was so loud Tsume wished she had the strength to bite him.
A moment later Whip had pulled Asuma down and was dragging him across the deck, back toward a grate that looked all too familiar. Briefly, Tsume attempted to struggle. It did little good.
Two men--obviously not ninja--opened the grate. Whip dragged Asuma over and tossed him in unceremoniously, then closed it.
Closed it, with her still trapped outside. Tsume braced her feet. Hibiki picked her up and tossed her to the deck, planting a foot on her thigh to keep her there. She couldn't have moved anyway; the world spun slowly, fading to gray. When it cleared again, he had flattened out one of her hands and held another trench knife to her fingertips. Tsume snarled and jerked, getting nowhere at all.
Whip slapped the flat of the blade against her forehead. "I said we'd have a chat. What you did to my good friend Hibiki-san wasn't nice. What you did to our seals wasn't nice, either. Did you hear us tell Asuma-chan to play nice?"
He thwacked her with the flat of the blade again. "Hold still. You don't want me to miss."
Hibiki's knee landed on her back, crushing out air and pinning her in place. Carefully, Whip lowered the blade to her index finger, and began to gently saw. Tsume yanked her hand back. He knelt on her wrist, as if it were no more than an inconvenience. She couldn't see what he was doing. She could feel it. Consciousness was still an elusive thing, but adrenaline was helping. She pulled at her arm, felt a sharper pain, smelled blood.
Trapped, panic began to set in. "Let go--let--stop--"
Hibiki cuffed her, something hard smashing into the side of her temple. By the time she was aware enough to fight again, it was over. He picked her up under one arm and tossed her into the cell.
A shape stood far above, holding the trench knife so it shone in the sunshine. "Tell your buddy I said thanks. That would've been much harder without the serrated edges." Then he stepped away and closed the grate.
Tsume didn't look. Her fingertips throbbed, but not as badly as they could have. The pain was blunted until she pressed, and then it flashed through her hands. She shoved herself toward Asuma, dragging his limbs in. There was no hope of pulling him into a corner, where the air wouldn't hit them--she didn't have the strength. Smears of her own blood blended with his. When he wasn't so stretched out, wasn't laying at such an awkward angle, she curled up as close as she could and tucked her hands protectively between them. The heat from his body was like a brand. She didn't move away, and unconsciousness slipped quietly in.