Something rumbled against her, deep and soothing. It didn't quite pull her from the drifting state she'd slipped into. She was vaguely aware that she'd finally stopped shivering. That warmth had moved up her leg, adding to the body heat she'd wrapped around herself.
Someone had spoken. She ought to respond.
Her body demanded more rest, chakra pathways strained and providing no support. She shivered once, as if the cold was working its way out of her bones.
Someone had spoken. Someone she should talk to.
Tsume moved, face sliding up against more warm skin. Her body won out, and she slipped under again.
She dreamed about running through sleet, casting tracking jutsu, spilling her own blood, biting at fur-covered arms. Finding a cave with a fire and companions. Her skin burning from the inside out as they struggled to warm her. Shadows flickering.
The corner of her waking mind laughed. She wasn't that cold. This wasn't then.
Someone had spoken. She needed to respond. Her mouth opened, and her body demanded more rest, weary from fighting off cold and fear and pain and exhaustion.
The dream continued. Caves and fire, teammates and warm skin. The panting of arousal. The knowledge that they didn't want her. She was too weak. She'd already lost. Hands touching, stone around her wrists--
Someone had spoken. She had to answer. Tsume jerked awake, and pain washed the rest of the dream away. For a moment she lay perfectly still against a breathing man, trying to get her bearings. It didn't take long for memory to surface.
"Asuma," she croaked. Moving as little as possible, afraid the delicious warmth might vanish, she slid an arm up his chest and laid it against his neck.
If there were fever from the lashes, she wasn't sure she'd feel it yet. But it was still worth checking.
Asuma's breath hissed between his teeth. "Don't move, love," he said, hand groping to find her arm. "Hurts."
It was amazing how much understatement you could get into one word. His fingers wrapped around her forearm, capturing lean muscle and fragile-feeling bone, trapping her hand against his throat. Callouses scraped against stubble, but nothing sharper touched his skin.
He couldn't see much of her face, but her body still seemed to be carved into a shape that meshed wolf with human. Angular, sleeker, feral.
He worked a little saliva into his mouth. "You okay? They didn't touch you, right?" He'd kill them if they had. Hell, he'd kill them anyway. But for that he'd do it slow.
Slender fingers twitched against his jugular. A thought worked its way through the bloody mist filling his head.
"Darlin', I'm not feeling claws."
She started to pull her hand away, to protect it, and remembered his pain-filled, Don't move. She still couldn't keep from curling her fingers, as if hiding the lack of claws would mean it hadn't happened. "They, ah..." Somehow, being stripped of her most personal weapon was worse than being stripped naked.
She was suddenly very aware that Asuma was very large. Annoyed with herself, she shook the thought away. "They didn't pull them out." As of yet she hadn't looked, but she was sure of that. There was an ache, there, and the occasional sting, but not the agony that would come from having her nails ripped out of their beds. Cut short, probably. A few knicked quicks. The easy pain that came when a nail was stripped thin.
Carefully, Tsume pulled at her wrist. Asuma let go slowly, and she tucked her hand safely back between them. "Guess they didn't want me scratching up more seals. I'll live." A breath, and then she continued. "If you think you can manage it, we should probably get you out of the middle of the cell." Before the ninja came back and poured more salt water on them.
"Sure," Asuma croaked. "Let's set me on fire while we're at it."
He would have sold his soul for an aspirin. Just moving his arm had been a struggle. Everything was connected to his back, and right now his back seemed to be connected to a live volcano. He was half convinced that if he tried to move, he'd melt a hole through the ship's hull and drown.
But Tsume had been lashed--not as much, but definitely enough--and she wasn't whining. She was just a tracker; he was supposed to be the freakin' muscle.
"Don't suppose you could chew through seals?" he suggested dryly, as he steeled himself. The wall was maybe three feet away. He just had to get up, crawl, and lie down again. It'd take eight seconds. He was a ninja.
It would have been a lot easier to remember that if he'd had his head-band. Or his bracelets. Or his trench knives.
Hell, a cigarette.
Out of the corner of his eye, ANBU's scarlet mark swirled its way through deep bruises, standing out livid against his biceps. He could see the same mark on Tsume's arm, older and faded and scarred through.
"When we get out of here," he muttered, lifting his arm from her back and setting his palm against the floor, "I'm going to throttle both of those bastards with that whip. Then you can rip them apart. Then we're going for dinner, you and I. Somewhere--" a hiss slid between gritted teeth as he pulled his other arm free, bracing that hand flat on the floor, "--fancy."
He pushed himself up.
Tsume winced in pain of her own as he started to shift. She'd been cradled against him, and at his motion every lash across her back tried to open, and every muscle that had frozen into place was forced to move.
She didn't make a noise. How many times had they whipped him? She'd lost count, could only remember a hazy sort of cracking. Rolling away to give him space, she stared up at the grate for a moment. Then she brought her knees to her chest and rocked upward.
It broke every scab that had formed, leaving smears of blood on the floor and trickling down her back, leaving her in momentary agony. The scabs would have to be broken sooner or later; she'd rather it happen when she was expecting it. It took two long breaths before she was sure she could speak.
"Fancy, huh?" She sat carefully with her legs crossed, her back to Asuma. If she didn't move, there wouldn't be another wave of fire. If she didn't look at him, he didn't have to try and act like he wasn't hurting. "That mean I have to wear a dress?" She tipped her head just a little, keeping him in her peripheral vision in case he needed help. Most likely, the only help she could give was distraction, but if there was anything else she could do...
"Oh yeah," Asuma gritted out. "Dress. Heels. Tiara. The whole works."
He grabbed onto that image, shoving it squarely to the front of his mind. Tsume's lean body clad in sheer crimson silk; one of those tight-fitting dresses with slits all the way up to her hips. Lethally spiked heels. Soft lights sliding over entirely unbruised skin, picking out gleaming highlights in dark hair. A smile on her lips, sparks in her eyes.
His own hands peeling her out of that dress...
Lines of raw flesh cracked open down the entire length of his back--and lower. Blood ran over chilled flesh, mixing with sweat. His arms trembled, sliced palms leaving scarlet streaks on metal.
He found the wall when his shoulder hit it, and collapsed on his belly.
"Might even wear a suit, 'f y'get lucky," he managed, eyes squeezing closed against a world that insisted on blurring. His head pounded, stomach rolled. "Getcher flowers... I thin' I might be concussed..."
Tsume shoved up to her feet, catching her balance only after a heart stopping minute. She didn't kneel in front of him so much as drop to her knees, hissing when they hit the hard metal floor.
"Hold still. Blood-ticked behemoth... did you just eat the entire Forest of Death when you were a child? I've seen your father, and he's a tiny man. Couldn't you have taken after him? I'm not carrying you out of here." She sprawled out beside him, peering into his face. "C'mon, Asuma. Open your eyes," she said quietly. Briefly, he did. Pupils were still the same size. Good thing, because there wasn't much she could do if they weren't.
"Stay awake. Tell me about these flowers you're gonna get me."
Wincing, she pushed to her feet and stared up at the grate. "Hey!" No response. "HEY! Someone get over here before I--" she looked around, searching for an appropriate threat. There wasn't one. She went with an inappropriate threat. "Start throwing scat at the grate!"
A head popped into view. It wasn't one of the ninja. "That's disgusting."
"It'll be worse when you have to clean it up. My partner needs a medic."
The head vanished.
"Oi!" Tsume bellowed. "Don't make me follow through on that threat!"
Was she trying to kill him?
"Holy Buddha, woman," he groaned, clamping his hands over his ears, trying to squeeze the noise out of his skull. "Indoor voice."
Even worse, she was attracting attention. If the ninja dumped more sea water on them--
He wrenched his mind away from the thought, replaced it with the image of Tsume in a dress. Thought desperately of going home--no, not home, Konoha. Which was home, now. Konoha with its river and monument and heroes' stone; its leafy trees and back-ally nightclubs that he was actually old enough to get into now. With his new room and teammates on either side that he wanted to get to know, new ones and old not-quite-friends both.
Tsume bellowed again, crashing sound around inside his brain. Footsteps echoed above--the heavy tread of a man not bothering to be soundless, and the awkward gait of someone with a recent foot injury.
The whip-ninja. And Hibiki.
They were going to throw water--they were going to throw water--
"Bleeding hell, mutt, are you looking for another lashing?" The voice was muffled, just a little slurred, filled with sneering.
Asuma tried to push himself up. "No."
"Stay down," Tsume growled at him, then twisted to look back up. Her neck was starting to hurt. It was easier to focus on that than anything else. "He needs help. You've kept us alive this long--be a shame to let him die because you hit him too hard."
"You willing to be held on his good behavior?" Whip asked, looking slightly amused.
Behind her, Asuma snarled well enough to be an Inuzuka himself. They all ignored him.
Tsume hesitated. "Yes."
One of Whip's eyebrows arched.
She watched him steadily, to the background noise of Asuma's rapidly growing protests.
"If we tied you to the mast, bare-assed naked, in the middle of all these sailors, and turned that weapon on you...?"
A muscle jumped in her jaw. It wasn't the thought of being naked or all those men--it was being without sight or hearing. Having nothing to hang onto--no Asuma, no ocean, nothing at all. If her hands were tied she couldn't even grip anything.
Tsume unlocked her jaw with an effort. "Then I'd probably lose my mind if you didn't heal him real quick."
Asuma moved, as if he'd finally gained the strength to stand up. Tsume nudged his shoulder and sent him back down with a flash of pain-scent. She winced and muttered, "Stay down, you bee-stung nit."
"You know, just because he hates it so much, I think we should," Hibiki said, laughing. "I'll get the sealed rope."
He disappeared from view, and Tsume crouched next to Asuma. "Knock it off," she growled. "If you blow this after I got them to listen, I'll kill you myself. Besides, if we're up there, maybe we can take a piss without fouling the place, huh?"
It was certainly easier to focus on that than on anything else in this bear-stung plan.
It took everything he had to lever himself up onto his forearms. Even more to speak--to snarl--but he did it. "This is a stupid plan. I don't need a healer that badly, you--tracker." Tsume's snapped disagreement barely made it through the white noise in his head. She was right and he knew it, but--
"If anyone gets near you, bite their fucking face off." They was all the last words he had time for before the grate swung open with a creak, and then the world drowned in darkness and silence.
He tried not to move, even when hands wrenched his arms behind his back and roped them there--Tsume's good behaviour wasn't the only thing protecting her. He was hauled up, catching his balance only by accident, and thrown over something that felt like a shoulder. The whip-nin--it had to be; no one else was big enough. Heavy muscle and bone pressed against his gut. His hand hung down, blood rushing to pound through his brain. He might have yelled, he couldn't tell.
He definitely threw up, when the whip-ninja leapt back up to the deck and everything lurched. But it splattered all down the man's back--at least, if felt like it did--and that was the closest thing he'd had to a decent victory since killing their kunoichi.
Air rushed over his skin, stinging with salt. His lash marks had already cracked wide open; moving just made them bleed more. His bound hands rested in the small of his back, scraping red-raw flesh. Movement happened quickly. Quicker when he retched again--
Light snapped back, bringing sound with it. Hands grabbed at him, tossing him belly-down onto a rough cot. He blacked out for a moment, head jarred too much to bear. When he opened his eyes again, his hands had been retied to the cot-rails, one either side of his body, his ankles lashed tightly to the base-rail, and his mouth tasted foul. His inner elbow stung with something that felt like... a... needle....
A hand turned his face to the side, sliced cheek uppermost, and pried his eyelid open. He got a dizzy view of a weathered face and a gloved hand holding a syringe.
"Chill out, bucko. This won't take long."
He faded out long before the first suture ran through skin.
They grabbed him before they grabbed her. She knew it, if only by smell. Didn't even have time to find him, after everything went silent and dark, before their scents were all over and his was gone.
And still nothing happened.
She backed up. There had to be a wall here, somewhere. Even if Asuma was gone, there were still walls.
It seemed she'd taken a million steps before she found one.
They were supposed to take her out of here. That was part of it, right? They were supposed to take her out. So how long had it been? Ten seconds? Ten minutes? She pressed back against the wall, trying to bury panic in pain. The whip marks across her back flared, and she focused on that.
The void stole her breath. She reached a hand out, as if maybe she'd feel something, even knowing she wouldn't. Had they forgotten her? Maybe they planned on leaving her down there forever. They could toss Asuma overboard and leave the weapon on. She'd told them she'd probably go insane. Maybe they wanted to see how long it would take.
She spoke. She didn't hear it. She screamed, and didn't hear that, either.
They were going to leave her here. Panic ramped up--
And then she smelled one of the ninja. The same one who'd taken Asuma. Bile, stomach acid--She'd ripped the toes off the other. She was sure her breath was coming too fast. She couldn't tell where he was, just that he was there.
And then he touched her. She stepped into it, reaching out to grab his arm with a shaking hand. He couldn't leave. He couldn't leave.
She felt air, smelled his breath, and thought maybe he was laughing. She growled.
There was no wall--she'd walked away from it, to get to the ninja. It had to be here--right here. She reached, felt nothing, took a step, felt nothing more. What if she was turned around? The ninja could be anywhere. She could be nowhere. She was swimming in tar all over again--
A hand on her shoulder. She flinched and grabbed it. This time, it pushed her forward. Three, four steps. He took her fingers in his hand, brought her arm behind her back, and when she protested--she was sure she said don't--, though she couldn't hear it--he petted her hair.
Rope looped around one wrist. Then the other. He stepped up behind her, and she leaned back into him, away from the nothingness in front. She could smell him. She could feel him, rough cloth against her spine, angering the wounds. He moved, and she yelped--she thought--as her legs were swept out from under her, and she was held cradle-style. Her whole body tensed as they leaped straight up.
Fresh air, salt air, and she felt him walking. He dropped her.
She crashed on the deck, scrambling upright and standing, unsure. Wood beneath her feet. Nothing else at all. She didn't even know where on the deck she was. It lasted a breath, two, long enough for her heartbeat to pick up again--
There was motion. A touch here, cloth brushing there. Never enough for her to define. Fingers on her wrists. And the world came back.
Tsume inhaled, heard it ragged and torn in her throat, and stared at the man with the whip. She was on deck, near the mast. True to his word, most of the sailors were watching. Tsume didn't care over the thundering of her heart. Her body was slick with sweat.
"We were going to leave you blind and deaf, but I think you were serious when you said you'd lose it."
She didn't answer. Her mouth was cottony.
"You get cuddly when you can't see and hear. No wonder your partner likes you."
She swallowed, trying to work up spit, and muttered, "I hate you."
"Ah. But at least you feel something toward me. There's nothing worse than not caring at all." He smiled and gestured behind her. Reluctantly, she turned to look.
One rope hung from the main mast, slack as it looped down around her hands, still tied behind her back.
"If you're naughty, we'll tighten it, and let you hang until your friend is back. Understand?"
She nodded wordlessly. It would dislocate her shoulders, tear the tendons and ligaments. She had no intention of misbehaving anyway.
Whip turned and began to walk away.
"I could use a bathroom," she called, forcing the words past a throat that wanted to close.
"We'll think about it," he called back, and kept walking.
Asuma didn't so much wake up as spiral gently down from the fluffy clouds his mind had been wallowing in. Not a lot had changed. He was still belly-down on the bed, head still resting on a complete lack of pillow, wrists and ankles still tied to the rails, body still entirely absent of clothes.
But there was no pain.
For several frozen minutes, he stayed very, very still. When he finally risked moving his head--there was no change. His brain stayed inside his skull, his back didn't catch fire. Heavily stitched cloth scratched his cheek.
"Okaaaay," he mumbled. The words slipped and slid, tumbling out between numb lips.
He blinked heavily, trying to piece things together. All he could see was a blank wall, which wasn't greatly helpful. When he focused, he noticed the light wasn't as bright as it had been. How long had he been out?
Clothes rustled behind him.
"Some'ne there?" he tried to say. His tongue moved like a slab of lead.
"You back with us already?" A shadow moved on the wall. Fingers pressed against his throat. "Hmm. Yes, very good. Strong buck, aren't you?"
"--?" Asuma said, struggling to twist his head.
"Your girl's still okay, by the way. Looks a bit terrified, mind you. And a bit sunburned. But I reckon I would be, too, in her position." The fingers withdrew. "No, don't move yet, you great lummox. I've just spent the last hour putting you back together. If you rip one stitch I'll suture your eyelids to your ears."
"Gnh?" Asuma managed, after a long pause to reflect. "...'sume?"
"Your friend? She's tied to the mast. I just said--" There was a long sigh. "Listen carefully. You're concussed, you're doused with a decent dose of painkillers--and a paralytic, I might add--and you're dehydrated. I'm not even going to talk about the wounds. What a damn mess. Now, I'm going to get some water into you, you're going to drink it, and then we might see about getting you back to your girl."
The ropes loosened around his wrists, then his ankles. Asuma tried to move and found he couldn't, beyond a weak sort of twitch. A hand grabbed his shoulder and rolled him over. He stiffened, waiting for agony, but there was nothing. The same hand found the back of his head and lifted it; a cup was set to his lips.
It was just water, but it was sweeter than nectar. He drank greedily, feeling it wash something like sense through his head. The man holding him was small, somewhere between thirty and fifty, and apparently constructed entirely out of sun-beaten skin knotted together by stringy-looking joints. Level grey eyes found Asuma's unfocused ones.
With herculean effort, Asuma managed to salute him with one finger. The man merely snorted.
"Pick your battles, junior." He looked away, towards the door, and bellowed. "Oi, Gorou! Your patient's still breathing! Come and scrape him up before I toss his ungrateful ass overboard!"
A hulking shape blocked out the light from the door. "Patience, old man."
"Patience, my arse. How much longer until the damn drop? I've got half a dozen wounded men trying to stay alive and half a dozen more to hand back to their families."
"Soon," Gorou--the whip-ninja--said simply. "Before midnight, if the weather holds."
"Good. Get your playtoy out of my infirmary."
Asuma tried to struggle, before he remembered Tsume's promise and stopped dead. Gorou simply gave him a look, then hauled him up. There was still no pain. Asuma endured being tossed back over the man's shoulder with a dull, deep-throated grunt. It was humiliating, but at least it didn't hurt.
It got a lot more humiliating when he landed at Tsume's feet, amid a chorus of catcalls.
Tsume stared down at him, weaving unsteadily, and tried to ignore the calls. "You look better." She dragged her head back up to look for the ninja who'd dropped him. "You gonna toss us below again?"
He smiled cheerily at her and headed toward the mast, where the other end of the rope attached to her wrists was tied. "Nope. The men have been in a much better mood since you came on deck. I figure being a pretty little package for them to gape at can go toward paying back -- well, you didn't kill anyone."
She glared at him.
"But your friend did. Consider it a down payment on his debt."
"I hate you, too," she muttered to Asuma.
The whip-ninja laughed and pulled more slack for the rope around her hands. "Sit before you pass out. I'll come by later and you can stand and show off for the sailors, again. If you're really good, we'll even get you some water."
Tsume dropped even before he finished speaking. She'd gone from nearly frozen to entirely too hot, and if she hadn't been exhausted before--
But she had been exhausted before. The whip-ninja had given her water earlier, one hand cradling the back of her neck, the other lifting it carefully. He'd taken her to the bathroom, too, and turned his back for privacy. He'd laughingly told her that Hibiki refused to go near her now. He was nice, and she hated him more.
The deck scraped her knees, right by Asuma's head. The rope tying her to the mast tightened -- he hadn't given her quite enough slack -- as her hands were yanked up. Not too far, though. She'd live. Her breasts were right above Asuma's face. She glared at him and willed his eyes to stay on hers. "We haven't been moving." Her lips tightened, and she resisted the urge to glance around. "Just sitting here." And all the men were bored.
Not that any of them had touched her. But some of them had language even she thought was creative.
They hadn't even tied him. They'd dropped him, but they hadn't tied him. If Asuma had been able to move, he would've made them pay six times over for the insult. Seven times over...
But he couldn't move, and that was probably the point.
"Sonuvabitch," he mangled out, words twisting together, and tried to focus on Tsume. She was kneeling over him, hands yanked uncomfortably behind her back, looking for all the world like she was crouching down to pray--if she hadn't been naked. Her pale blue eyes glittered fiercely in a face burnished by the sun. Her dogtags still swung freely between small breasts.
It was amazing how quickly he'd gotten used to looking at her and seeing every naked inch. Old scars, older stretchmarks--he'd lay a decent wager she'd had kids--bruises dappled like leaf patterns, hitting every colour imaginable. Raw lash marks curled around her ribcage, only just visible.
"They're... waiting f'r'e drop," he mumbled, eyes sliding closed. He yanked them open again, struggling to stay awake. The landscape rolled; ocean swells or drugs in his blood, he couldn't tell. Might've been the concussion. "Before... midn'ght..."
Tsume responded, asking a question, but he drifted out. Tightness constricted his chest with each slow breath, placed dull pressure on his hips and backs. Probably bandages, but he didn't have the will to look.
He came back to himself when the world jarred and Tsume snarled. Dull sensation swept through his lower back, whistles split the air.
"Kick him again!"
Payment, he thought blearily. Even the dregs of the ocean had friends who mourned them.
A sharp order cracked across the deck. There were disappointed mumbles, then the movement behind him was gone. Asuma tried to drag his arms beneath him, but his muscles didn't respond. Nothing responded. It was an effort to even make his fingers twitch.
"Drugs," he muttered, disgusted, in case Tsume hadn't already figured it out. "Hate drugs..."
The sun was warm on his shoulders. The deck rocked gently, like a hammock lifted by the breeze. If he closed his eyes, he was back in Suna, idling away a week by the coast, enjoying the company of tropical girls and their amazing penchant for incredibly alcoholic drinks...
He faded out again.
Tsume kneeled--and later stood--over Asuma, glaring impotently at the men who came near. She accepted more water from Whip--Gorou--tolerating his hand on the back of her skull if only because she didn't have a choice in the matter.
She tolerated another bout of silent blindness for the same reason, trying to pay attention afterward as they discussed why it affected her so strongly, and how they could do that
Hibiki informed her, smilingly, that Asuma hadn't screamed when they'd done it to him. Tsume just kept glaring, and kept the knowledge that when the weapon wasn't on, she could hear every word they said, no matter where they were on deck, to herself. The longer they left her up here, the more information she'd have.
As the sun set, Asuma's drugs began to wear off. They dumped him back in the cell, sending her down on top. She untangled herself from his limbs, cursing under her breath.
They closed and locked the grate.
Her skin felt tender. Her arms were all right, but the rest of her was hot to the touch. Not red--she tanned pretty well--but definitely a dusky pink.
"Moon-faced snot grubbers," she muttered, pressing white fingerprints into her shins. Asuma had only turned a lovely golden color. She glowered at him for good measure.
It took another twenty minutes before he was fully coherent, leaning against a corner of the cell. They both stared up toward the grate, as if something new might happen.
"Their buyers aren't ninja," Tsume said, keeping her voice soft. "They've been careful about names, though--I'm not sure the civilian crew knows who they're meeting. If we don't stop them before they make the switch, I think we're dog-chewed." She pulled her legs up, propping her elbows on them and rubbing her face with both hands. Her lips were rough, chapped. She winced and licked them. "Sometime before midnight--you got that right--but they've got a two-hour window as to when before midnight. Which doesn't give us much time." The moon was starting to rise.
If any time. She was out of ideas.
"Look on the bright side," Asuma muttered, cradling his aching skull, "if we die, no one will ever know what happened. We'll go down in history as a cautionary tale for little ninja."
Tsume snorted quietly, the sound escaping between her unguarded fingers. A thin streak of dried blood still rimmed her brutalized nails. Asuma couldn't stop himself looking; it was like seeing a drawn sword with every edge blunted. Tsume noticed his regard and curled her fingers, hiding the tips from view.
That eliminated one plan in a quiverful of none. They had no way to damage the seals unless he ripped a bone out and sharpened it, which was definitely option Z.
Carefully, he tipped his head back to rest it against cool iron. It was nice to be able to think again, and even nicer to be able to move, but goddamn he missed the painkillers. It felt like someone had filled the space behind his eyeballs with hot lava--
He dropped his hands, paused momentary to pick at the bandage coming slightly unstuck over his cheekbone, and debated their options. The ninja didn't care about them as bargaining chips--didn't seem to care about them at all, beyond using them for occasional test subjects.
If he told them he was the Hokage's son...
No. He wouldn't let them use him against Konoha, even for Tsume's life.
Moonlight picked out the seals scratched into the iron bars. Asuma's gaze drifted over them, unfocused and distant, as he tried to weave a plan from the threads of nothing. Tsume's breathing evened out, easing into the slower cadence of sleep. She'd gotten none on the deck, standing guard at his back while he'd drifted in and out and drooled on the planks; even in their current situation, her body was taking any chance it could get.
Which was entirely sensible and he approved, even if it left him no one to talk to.
He let her have his closest approximation to twenty minutes, then moved to sit cross-legged in front of her, back held carefully straight, and woke her with a press of fingers against her kneecap.
"I have an idea." He held his hands out, yanking up a smile through blackened skin and split lips. Radiating confidence. "Ninja 101. And no arguments this time. I'm a very good teacher."
It had been one long blink, she realized as she looked at him. Long enough for him to move from beside her to in front of her. She hadn't dreamed. Now she looked at him and tried to figure out what he was saying.
Ninja 101. Lock picking jutsu. Right. She blinked again, trying to make her brain work. "You'd better be a very good teacher," she muttered, mimicking his pose until she realized how very open that left her, without clothes. Frowning, she shifted her legs around, curling them and sitting on one hip. "We've got, what? One shot at this?"
Her heart sank. She wasn't a star pupil. This wasn't going to be fun.
"Maybe two," Asuma said. "If I can get enough chakra into you and we don't attract too much attention."
Plans were all about assumptions. Assume it'll be hard. Assume your enemies are as smart as you. Assume something will go wrong. Assume you'll keep your head well enough to deal with it. Assume you won't get caught--but damn well have a contingency plan.
"If this works, we need to get out fast, and stick together this time." Tsume's eyebrows lifted as she gave him a dry look. Asuma carried on before she could interrupt. "Running's useless--there's nowhere to go, and they'll just catch us. We need to get that weapon."
Assume it wasn't locked up. Assume Gorou hadn't strung it on a chain around his thick neck. Assume they'd even recognize the damn thing if they saw it.
Assume one of them could use it.
"This isn't a hard jutsu--we're talking genin level, here. I used to use this to get out of my room before my dad started sealing the door." The corner of his mouth twitched in remembered frustration. He shaped his hands together. "Start with Serpent, and make sure to focus. It's all about finesse."
Bird followed next. Then Horse, Dragon, Dog, and one final Serpent to close the loop. A sweet little whisper of a jutsu.
"You won't need much chakra, just enough to follow the seals. Try to keep it in your index and middle fingers, and focus it into the centre of the lock." He glanced up, meeting narrowed blue eyes. "Your turn, darlin'."
"Sure thing, sweetcheeks," she muttered under her breath. The seals were simple enough. She knew them backwards and in her sleep. It was finding the balance of chakra, the exact placement of which tiny pathways to use, exactly how much energy to add to each slip of her fingers. That was the real art of creating jutsu--and she'd never been much of an artist.
She moved through the seals twice under his watchful eye. The second time was just to stall. The third time she tightened her lips, pausing to ease chakra from her pathways before threading it through the jutsu.
Just a little, he'd said. Enough to follow the seals. In the index and middle fingers.
She didn't release it; the room would only eat the jutsu. Instead, she let her chakra slide back into her pathways unused, shaking her hands out when they tingled. At least it wasn't a high powered jutsu; re-funneling a large amount of gathered chakra could be a trick in itself.
She could see from the look on Asuma's face that it wasn't quite right. "More or less chakra?" she asked, already resigned.
"More. Here, like this." He caught her hands and wrapped her fingers around his wrists, close enough to feel the movement of chakra. He hadn't used it in his earlier demonstration--there was no point in a room designed to chew on it--but just letting it ripple under his skin didn't seem to set anything off.
Which might make things easier, he thought, as he ran through the jutsu again. If the movement of chakra through skin was what set the seals off, all he had to do to get it into Tsume was pass it through blood to blood contact, bypassing skin entirely. And they both had plenty of open wounds available.
"You better not have anything catching," he murmured absently, feeling her callouses scratch at his pulsepoints. Chakra pooled briefly in his hands, coiling through the shapes he wanted. More than he expected to have after a day's hard running, two nasty fights, and a damn flogging. His drugs-coma had given him a chance to replenish a little, even without food. "Okay, try again, darlin'."
One of her eyebrows twitched. "Sure thing, honeylamb." She focused on the energy moving under her fingertips, trying to divine every little twitch it made.
Which, of course, wasn't really possible. Even if it were possible, it wasn't completely useful; chakra he pulled from his main pathways she had to gather from elsewhere, changing the way it would feel in her own body. What he could get from one main point she had to shuttle around for, and on top of that, her pathways were stretched thin. At least she was used to translating how normal people worked with chakra into how it would look in an Inuzuka. That, she did without conscious thought.
When he wrapped his hands around her wrists, his thumbs overlapping his fingers, she hesitated. He'd been kind enough to keep his grip well beneath the faint chafing from the ropes, but it was still unnerving to have anyone holding onto her.
It tingled when he extended his chakra to feel hers. Half a beat later, the blood drained from his face, and he swallowed several times.
Concussions, Tsume remembered, made people nauseous. Like biting into aluminum foil Raidou had said about her coils. They were better now, with significantly less scarring, but by no means healed.
"Medical leave," she reminded him dryly. "Don't vomit on me." And she kept going.
She practiced until there was a dull throbbing behind her eyes. They stopped to rest, and Asuma sat watch while she slept for another twenty minutes, letting her chakra replenish as much as she could. When she woke, they did it again.
It was black out by that time. The moon turned even Asuma's tan a pale cream, the bruising looking like something from a horror story. Every line of bandaging was a white gleam in the shadows.
He still looked like a force to be reckoned with. More so, with his broad shoulders and heavily muscled torso. It made her feel a little bit better about this whole blood-ticked plan.
"Game time," Asuma said softly, looking up at the grating. They'd been left almost entirely alone, other than the occasional curious head popping up to stare at them. Which was a good thing, mostly, but he would have killed for sandwich right about now. Neither one of them had eaten since those pies on the beach and, even with nausea still dancing in his stomach, he could have happily brought down a wildebeest.
Except not, because he had a code to stick to. But still, food.
"When we get home," he muttered, staggering up and listening to the faint gurgle from Tsume's concave belly, "I'm eating until my eyeballs fall out."
The medic hadn't bothered to bandage the sword cuts on his palms; they were thin and scabbed, barely deep enough to be worth paying attention to. He caught the corner of a scab and ripped it off. A thin trickle of blood slid down his wrist.
Tsume's eyebrows climbed up to her hairline.
"I'm a masochist," Asuma explained soberly, straight-faced. "Thought I'd get a moment in. And I think it'll make it easier to get chakra into your system. Pick your favourite leg injury, and let's go."
He crouched and offered both hands, fingers linked together to form a stirrup for her foot.
"I'm eating until your eyeballs fall out, too," Tsume murmured with a faint smile, reaching down to scratch a line where Gorou had lashed her across her calves.
No blood materialized. She paused, staring for a moment at a jagged, short nail. Then, flush of excitement suddenly dulled, she rubbed the scab off her calf with several quick movements. Beads of red welled, and she stepped into Asuma's hand.
Once they were out, any jutsu she could do would be helpful. Not that she knew what she might be able to do, but she started gathering chakra just in case. It was strung out along her lines, hesitant to come to her call. She kept pulling, bit by bit, rehearsing the seals she'd need first.
Assuming no one saw them.
Assuming it worked.
Assuming they got out, and she had a chance do other jutsu.
The grate was in reach. She started to slide her hands through, and paused. Tipped her head. Glanced down at Asuma. "Someone new is here." She couldn't smell them; the wind was up, blowing most of the ship's scents away from her.
She didn't pause to wonder, too busy stepping onto Asuma's broad shoulders. He steadied her, palms gentle against each calf. She slipped her hands between the holes in the grate, breath held that the shadows would hide them. Alien chakra slid in from Asuma's callused hands, warming her skin and making it tighten uncomfortably. She used it, pulling on it quickly, adding it to her own.
Serpent, channeling chakra up into her wrists. Bird, with a flutter of power like the beat of sparrow's wings. Horse--
A hand closed around her wrist. Tsume choked off a startled yelp and hauled back. The hand didn't release her. She smelled him suddenly as he leaned close.
"You fucking little bitch." Yellow eyes, peering from beneath bandages, shifted to look past her. "This isn't playing nice." He hauled upward on the last word, yanking Tsume off balance and slamming her into the grate.
She expected him to let go, then. He didn't. With one arm caught, she lashed up with the other, claws extending to rake across his skin--
The tips of her fingers left tiny smears of blood as the scabs broke. Hibiki started to laugh. "Been declawed, pussy?"
Tsume's feet jerked off his shoulders. Asuma grabbed her calves as hard as he could, grip tightening enough to bruise flesh against bone, and caught a heel against his sliced-and-stitched cheekbone. His skull jarred; little red lights cracked off inside his head. His hands loosened--
The grate wrenched open with a crash. Tsume yowled as her arm got crushed and pinned, lashing out with her other hand, clawless fingers splayed. Her feet kicked in the air. Hibiki caught her by the scruff of her neck, hauling her up.
Staggered, Asuma missed the grab that could have saved her.
"No, no, no, no--" The words snapped in half between clenched teeth. They'd been so close. He snatched at his flickering chakra--most of it was in Tsume--and lunged after her, throwing himself up to catch her disappearing feet. She vanished before he could get there. His hands latched onto the open edge of the grate-hole, his chakra stuck. He pulled himself up, muscles straining, stitches popping with dull flashes of pain; he barely noticed them.
The deck was in turmoil when he made it out of the hole, but this time the chaos had a kind of order to it. New sails caught his attention for a flickering second. New people on the deck, ranked casually by the sides. They watched with interest.
Tsume was a snarling, spitting, thrashing whirl of fury in Hibiki's arms. Her bare heels struggled to come down on his injured foot. Her clawless fingers slashed for his face. Chakra, low and wrong, swirled under her skin as she called it, scraping the edge of Asuma's raw senses.
Hibiki ducked and blocked each attack easily. His left hand twisted into her hair, yanking her head back. His right hand--
Held a trench knife.
Asuma's trench knife.
He'd been furious before. That was nothing to how he felt now. Pure rage tore through his chest, igniting something that went beyond adrenaline. He surged to his feet, throwing off the sailors that tried to catch his arms and shoulders, and lunged at Hibiki.
Darkness and silence snapped the vice back on before he got there, but Asuma felt a bone crack when his shoulder drove into the ninja's side. His hands found a throat, his knee slammed into a heavy thigh muscle. They went down in a tangle of limbs--Tsume's legs came down on his back--but Asuma got in three more solid blows before Gurou's lash snapped around his neck and yanked him away.
When the world came back, Tsume was pinned against the deck, a knee in the small of her back, one arm wrenched up.
"I swear to the fucking Buddha, bitch, if you so much as blink--"
"This won't do." The new voice cut across Hibiki as if he weren't even speaking. "There can't be witnesses to who has this weapon. We want a refund."
Gurou spoke, his voice still carefully modulated, still pleasant. "These aren't witnesses. They're practice. We delivered the weapon as you paid for, and two ninja to try it on. We couldn't use our own ninja, of course, and we didn't think you'd want to practice on your people."
Tsume growled and shifted. A knife--undoubtedly Asuma's trench knife--drew a line of blood at the nape of her neck. She stilled.
"Now," Gurou continued, "if you just place your fingertips on those seals--exactly--and think of this one here--"
There was a quickly indrawn breath. Tsume flinched, straining to see what was happening. The clawless fingers of her free hand scraped at the deck. She couldn't twist far enough to see Asuma. She began to gather chakra again, pooling it in her torso. She'd do something with it, even if that was only feed it into her muscles to give her the strength she needed.
"Good!" Gurou was saying. "You see, he can't see or hear a thing."
She could hear Asuma's breath. The wind was bringing his scent to her, going sweet and acidic with panic.
"Now let the seals go--perfect. If you like, we can put these two back in the hold and you can stand above and practice on them for a few hours."
"And when we're done?"
Tsume could almost hear the smile in Gurou's voice. "We'll kill them, don't worry."
"Play nice," Hibiki hissed in her ear, and hauled Tsume to her feet. His knife moved, licking around the front of her neck.
The evening breeze whisked across her body, chilling skin hot from the day's burn. She stared flatly at the small row of spectators. All men. From them, she could smell nothing, but several pairs of eyes lingered as they looked at her.
One of them spoke. From the sound of his voice, the same who'd spoken earlier. He held a scroll in his hands, a single rolled piece of parchment. "They been giving you trouble?"
"Mostly this one," Gurou laughed, shoving Asuma toward the grate again. Asuma threw his weight back, and Gurou, still smiling, smashed him sideways into the mast. Asuma staggered and went still, and Tsume--tensed to move--relaxed. She couldn't very well make a bid while Asuma was half unconscious. She glanced over him, relieved to see what held him still was an arm-lock and the whip wrapped around his throat, and not a debilitating injury. If his brains weren't scrambled...
She shifted her weight, preparing to stomp back on the toes she'd ripped off Hibiki. The knife tightened against her throat.
"Ah ah. Don't."
She smiled at him, all teeth.
Behind his bandages, his eyes narrowed.
"I don't really think we need both of them," the new man said.
Tsume's attention shifted. There was a tone she didn't like. He walked toward her, handing the weapon off to one of the two men who followed him. Her lip lifted, a growl sliding past the knife at her throat. When he got close enough she swiped with her free arm--
Only to have it caught by the man behind him.
Asuma's blade bit into her jaw, cutting past skin to press against the bone, tipping her chin up and baring her throat.
The buyer smelled like arousal. She scrambled, feet kicking back against Hibiki, only to have the knife dig deeper and her arm twist farther along her spine. Tendons strained. Blood slid down her neck. She went still.
"Could we use the weapon on just her?"
"No," Tsume whispered.
Gurou laughed. "Sure. Just touch the seal and think about--"
The world went dark. Tsume froze, feeling Hibiki, the other man's grip on her arm, the knife biting into her jaw.
Soft fingers trailed along her waist. The smell of lust grew. She thought she yelled, but couldn't tell.
She twisted. A hand buried in her hair, wrenching her head back. There wasn't enough room to kick. She might have said, No-- No--, but no sound reached her. Only the scent of too many bodies, the smell of arousal, and the touch of skin and cloth against her flesh.