"Glfgh?" said Asuma, lifting his head off the squashed pillow. His eyes uncrossed and focused on the stuffed toy someone had left in front of his nose. Behind that was a much bigger stuffed toy, tall and black and furry and...
He blinked once, slow, and waited for his brain to catch up. Then he looked at the smaller stuffed toy again. It had a certain mangled quality you didn't normally get in the cute-and-fuzzy range of the toystore, like someone had been chewing on it.
And it was oozing.
"Gah," Asuma yelped, and backhanded the dead squirrel off his bed. It left a red smear on his sheets, and made a sad squelching sound when it hit the wall and slid down. Asuma shoved himself upright and stared at Kuromaru, who had danced back a step and was busy looking offended. "Dude," he managed. "What the hell?"
"It's meat!" Kuromaru protested. "You can't expect to go on a date without eating, first!" With a disdainful sniff, he walked over and picked the squirrel up gingerly, dropping it next to the bed. "I thought maybe you wouldn't be allergic to squirrel. I don't know anyone who's allergic to squirrels. And everyone knows you need to eat to keep your strength up. I bet Tsume ate something today, too." His ear wilted slightly, tail drooping. "Though they didn't let me give her a squirrel, either. I thought that would probably be safer, so you didn't get allergic from her mouth if you two did anything, but Tori said I couldn't stay. You make one little comment about someone's hair looking funny..."
With a heavy sigh, he looked back down at the squirrel. It looked quite appetizing, if he did say so himself, even if squirrels weren't fat at this time of year. He nudged it closer with his muzzle.
"Date?" Asuma said, bewildered, having managed to pick one word of sense out of Kuromaru's torrent. "What dat--dude, don't bring it back!" He scrambled up, heavy boots hitting the floor, and grabbed the former-squirrel around its former-middle. Old blood squished beneath his fingers, matted into soggy fur. He pulled a face and headed for the window, yanking it open to fling the tiny corpse outside.
Kuromaru made a dismayed half-howl noise. Asuma wheeled on him.
"Why are you bringing me rodents?" He looked at his red-stained palm, pulled a worse face, and scrubbed it against the leg of his jeans. "And why would Tsume... why Tsume in general?"
"I can't believe you threw a perfectly good squirrel out the window," Kuromaru said in stunned disbelief. Then he shook his head slowly. "I suppose you're allergic to those too, huh?" He gave Asuma a critical look. "Are you sure you're virile?"
"Real men do not need meat to be virile," Asuma told him. He even sounded confident of that fact.
Kuromaru gave him a narrow, single-eyed stare. "Okaaaay," he said at last, still doubtful. "I guess this is a human thing. But anyway, you should eat something. Tori says you're supposed to pick Tsume up at the Inuzuka compound, and also you should bring flowers but I don't know why, and Tsume said don't bother with either 'cause she'll meet you here, but Tori told me that if you don't, she'll be very annoyed because Tsume hasn't had a proper date in ages, and Tsume told me not to tell you that, but I just thought maybe you should go there because Tsume took another shower after I said her hair looked funny, so she might be late if you meet her here, and they put this stuff on her face that smells funny, too, and makes her look strange, so I thought I'd warn you before you laughed at her. I don't think they'd like that." He took a breath and pondered everything he'd said, wondering if he'd left anything out. "Oh, and she can't run very well in her dress. So she really will be late if you meet here, and you're not supposed to be late to meetings with the Hokage."
Messages all delivered, he plopped down on the floor and dog-grinned cheerfully. "Are you going to go dressed like that? You smell pretty strong."
Significantly more awake now, Asuma managed to catch most of that. He didn't understand it, necessarily, but he caught it. And the bits he had understood, he mostly wished he hadn't.
He tugged his shirt up over his nose and inhaled, then pulled a face. 'Strong' might have been an understatement. But hell, he'd been training--
"Did you say Tsume was wearing a dress?"
Kuromaru's lips pulled up higher at the corners. "Yep."
"And make up?"
"That's the funny stuff on her face."
"Oh, crap." Date. Dinner. Hokage-thing. He'd forgotten. The Hokage he wasn't too worried about, but if he stood up Tsume he was pretty sure she'd tear his balls off and give them back in a basket. With a bow on.
Or her family would.
He vaulted over the bed, yanking his tee-shirt off as he went, and dropped onto his knees to scramble through the pile of clothes heaped on the floor. Tee-shirt, tee-shirt, blood-stained tee-shirt--
Dress shirt. He could have kissed himself. He threw it on, grabbed the tie and jacket that went with it, eyed the jeans he was in and decided they were fine, and bolted out of the door. Three seconds later he lunged back inside, grabbed his headband, his cigarettes, his trench-knives, raked a handful of gel through his hair, and splashed himself with aftershave. Then he ran.
If the flowershop lady had anything to say about half-dressed men trying to garrotte themselves with a tie while they studied bouquets, she kept it to herself.
Tsume glared at her reflection in the mirror, swatting at Tori's hand when her sister tried to apply more lipstick. "It's fine. I look like a made-up monkey."
"Trust me, you don't look anything like that," Tori said firmly, while in the background Kiba started making monkey noises.
"Mom! He's here!" Hana bellowed from the front. "And he's got a cactus!"
Tsume glanced at Tori. Tori shrugged, mouth drawn down. That alone was worth a grin. Tsume tossed one off, grabbing her ANBU cloak as she headed out of the room.
"Shoes!" Tori snatched up a pair of strappy black heels, dangling them from one finger.
Tsume barked a disbelieving laugh and sat down to pull on black boots.
"You can't wear those!"
She zipped them up and flashed another grin. "I'm wearing a dress, make-up, and watching a partner's back at something he doesn't want to go to. I'm gonna wear my boots."
"It's a date," Tori said.
"It's not a date!" At the knock on the door, Tsume hopped up and grabbed her cloak. "Someone get the--"
Taro stood in the doorway, sizing up Asuma. Her nephew turned and smirked at Tsume. "This is gonna be hilarious."
"Someone hit him," she muttered.
His father grabbed the teenager by the scruff of his neck and pulled him away. "Good to meet you, Asuma-san."
Tsume started to swirl her cloak on over her ridiculous red dress, only to have Tori grab it away and shove a nice black coat at her. "For just one night," Tori hissed, "stop being a ninja!"
"When women piss standing up," Tsume shot back, and glared Taro far enough away that she could get to the door unmolested.
When she got her first look at Asuma, her stomach dropped. Wolf's teeth, why did he have to look good? Everything was rumpled, sure, but he carried it off. All black and white formal wear with blue jeans and heavy boots, short hair and facial scruff defining a strong jaw. He was holding a potted cactus in one hand, lips twisted into a smug smile, broad shoulders relaxed and seemingly broader when framed by a black suit jacket. There were muscles hidden under his dress shirt, pressing against cloth here and there when he shifted his weight. Somehow it made him seem both more powerful and more attractive. She'd gotten used to the revealing ANBU gear, but this hide and seek was temptation itself.
And he smelled spectacular, under the aftershave. It made heat curl in her gut, and spread rapidly through her entire body. He'd been working out, nicotine and smoke mingling with his base scent. She still couldn't catch any whiff of emotion -- the nicotine was too strong -- but she could catch hints of just him, woodsy and leather and--
Tsume turned away from the door and headed back down the hall. "I'm not going."
Tori stopped her, laughing. "Of course you're going. He's all dressed up! It'll be fun." Resolutely, Tori dragged her back to the entry way.
Asuma leaned one shoulder against the rustic doorjamb. "Y'know," he said conversationally, "women can totally pee standing up. I used to know this jounin... What?"
In the background, the strutting teenager stuffed his wrist into his mouth. The boy's father snorted like a woken wolf. Kiba cackled. Hana made the strangled sound of a young girl trying very hard to be mature. Tori rolled her eyes.
Asuma congratulated himself on keeping all the names straight, and focused on Tsume. Only years of practice kept his jaw from dropping down to his knees, just about.
The dress was the attention grabber -- mostly because it was a dress. On Tsume. And a hell of a dress, at that. Scarlet as flame and slit up to the thighs on both sides, the only thing that kept it from being completely indecent was that well-cut black coat and the fact that it drew only very subtle attention to her cleavage. Instead he found his eyes at her throat, unadorned by any kind of necklace, but lean and bare and begging to be bitten...
Of course, she'd probably bite him back.
Grinning, Asuma took in the rest of the picture. No earrings and serious ass-kicker boots, because some things never changed, but they'd done something to make her tattoos stand out: two long dagger-streaks of bloody red down the arches of her cheekbones. There was make-up, too. Dark shadows swept skillfully across her eyelids, turning the shape a little feline, and darker lipstick painted over the cut of her mouth. It wasn't pretty -- it was dangerous. Deadly and gorgeous and only half a step away from warrior-paint.
With great effort, Asuma forced himself not to wolf-whistle. Instead, her presented the potted, be-ribboned cactus to Tori with great aplomb and a little bow, and dug into his pocket for Tsume's gift.
"I thought you'd understand the bristles," he told her sister with a quick grin. Tsume's present attempted to stab him under the thumbnail; he winced and yanked it out, flipping it over the back of his wrist before tossing it to her.
"Here, darlin'. It won't match your outfit, but it's almost as pretty as you are."
Steel flashed, jewel-bright, and Tsume stepped to one side and snagged it out of the air, a finger through the hole in the handle. It spun once and settled, dangling from her hand.
Tori made a sound of exasperation as Tsume lifted it, watching the way light slid down the blade like liquid. Not the normal matte steel, this, but a kunai polished until it sang, a waterfall of scrollwork etched down the side in flowing, graceful lines and loops.
Tsume hefted it, checking the weight and balance. It was just a hair smaller than average; for show, she guessed, more than use. But it fit her hand, with good proportions and the proper feel for a bladed weapon. She grinned, quirking one eyebrow up at Asuma. "You planning on needing this? Cub, grab me a holster."
Kiba scampered gleefully toward the back rooms, while Tori gave Asuma a dark look. "Tsume," she said in the voice of the carefully calm, "you aren't really going to take a weapon to a political function, are you?"
"It's ornamental! Look. Scrollwork." She pointed it out almost gleefully, then took the holster Kiba brought out.
"I got the one Dad used to use," he chirped.
"Perfect." It was more for show than anything; flat leather between blade and skin to protect the wearer, with the bare minimum of straps needed to keep the weapon and holster in place while showing off steel. She adjusted it and strapped it on around her thigh, while Tori squawked about her putting her foot on the chair and bemoaned her ever being a proper girl.
She didn't care. She felt significantly more confident. This was the Asuma she knew. She straightened, brushing her skirt down as if it might help make it pants, and looked up. "I suppose we should head out?" At least he didn't smell horny. Actually, he just still smelled like nicotine.
He should have bought her two kunai, one for each leg. Or a shuriken. Or something. Maybe they'd get attacked and she'd do that bending-down thing again, with her dress sliding open just enough to bare that swathe of thigh...
"Hm?" Asuma said, realizing Tsume was talking to him. "Go? Right. Yep, good idea."
Behind Tsume's lean shoulder, Tori gave him a knowing look, full of sharp edges. Asuma grinned at her.
"Don't worry, grandma, I'll have her back for ten. Well, maybe midnight. Or thre--umph." Tsume's elbow whacked into his ribcage and cut off the next words. Asuma leaned back, rubbing his side. "Or whenever. That was lady-like, princess."
"Was it?" said Tsume dryly. "I'll try harder to be less lady-like, stud."
Asuma blinked at her--along with the rest of her family--then split a broad, dazzling grin. Megawatt level. A self-contained supernova of lips and teeth. He stepped back to let her out of the door, opening his mouth to say something charming...
And the distant world exploded.
Tsume hit the wall; Asuma grabbed onto the doorframe. The older male Inuzuka lunged for Kiba and Hana. The teenager and Tori snarled in surprise, steadying each other.
Asuma jerked out of the doorway. Far too close, on the edges of the Inuzuka compound, a black pall of smoke was rising.
"What the hell?"
Tsume didn't pause to respond. She bolted toward the smell of burning timber, able to hear the crackle of flames and -- faintly -- screaming. Asuma ran on her heels, Inuzuka came out of houses hidden under trees, the ninja among them reacting faster, joining her. She and Asuma were fastest; they outpaced everyone, whipping beneath the overhead canopy of branches and leaves.
"That sounded like a gas tank," she snapped out, vaulting over a fallen log and flinging herself forward.
Kuromaru melted out of the shadows, streaking along beside her.
"Go!" She shouted at him, and he raced onward with a lunge of sleek muscle.
The Inuzuka grounds weren't built like any other clan compound. They'd cleared some of the ground, sure, in the middle where the bigger houses and mess-tents and meeting places were. But there wasn't a perimeter fence; the outer houses just faded back into the forest. Some of them were even built into the trees -- cross-beams made from branches, walls given support by Konoha's massive oaks.
Almost a dozen were on fire.
Tsume had been right about that gas tank -- except that it wasn't just one. The hulking wrecks of two rusty metal tanks had almost been obliterated by belching smoke, surrounded by the distinctive splatter pattern of fuel and flame. Branches were on fire; buildings were catching alight. Far too close, a third intact fuel tank crouched low to the ground.
Next to the tanks, a half dozen burning children screamed. They must have been playing with jutsu--
Asuma lunged ahead, putting his longer legs to good use, and wrenched his fingers through seals. Water wouldn't work on boiling, blazing gas, it'd just make things worse. He slammed chakra into the jutsu and ripped a cloud of black earth from the ground, dumping it straight on the gas-tanks and the writhing knot of kids next to them.
The stench of crisping skin overwhelmed almost everything else. Tsume couldn't get close enough to the tanks to save those nearest it. Most had fallen; some were staggering. Even from here, she knew they wouldn't make it out on their own.
For a moment, though, while the fire centered there sputtered under Asuma's jutsu, she had a chance.
But there were others, and the fire was spreading too fast. Others trapped in houses, under rubble, trying to evacuate. She skidded to a stop within the heat of the flames, her skin tightening up. She caught the nearest Inuzuka, pointing at the closest burning house. "Three cubs! Four adults! Make sure they're clear!"
He nodded and took off, wrapping his arm across his face as he rushed into the house. She swept her jacket over half her face, trying to cover as much flesh as possible as she ran into flame already kindling back into life despite Asuma's jutsu. She grabbed one living cub, pumping chakra into her muscles and grabbing another, hauling them away from the broken tanks, ignoring their screams of pain. Already the flames were licking upward, heat sizzling against the chakra she laid across her skin like a shield. Despite the chakra, she couldn't breathe, she couldn't see. But she knew where 'back' was.
There were more Inuzuka gathering around the edges of the explosion as she ran clear and dropped the two cubs. Eyes watering, she bellowed for a medic. Behind her, fire broke free of the jutsu and roared up the side of a house, catching on three more.
"Yasuo!" He was there; she'd known he would be. "Get rescue crews going! Everyone evacuated. Now!" He'd already begun to move, ordering pairs of Inuzuka into houses. Tsume twisted to find Asuma, spotted him setting the last three surviving cubs down far more gently than she had.
She ran for him, stripping out of the confining coat, her fingers slapping around his bicep to get his attention. The crack and boom of superheated flame nearly hammered out all other noise. The fire was spreading. Fast, relentlessly, powered by the oil and fueled by wood houses, close quarters, ancient trees.
When he turned to her, she pointed to the still-whole gas tank. "Can you bury it without moving it?" Because if it went, too...
There were a wealth of houses, filled with people, that would be wiped out with the explosion.
Asuma shook blood and blistering flesh off his hands--kids' flesh, oh Kanon--and narrowed his eyes at the heart of the disaster. The burst tanks were a welter of exploded metal, skewed out like a red-raw, burning roses. The whole one...
Was starting to smoke.
Chakra, seals, hands moving fast enough to burn themselves, and the soupy earth lunged up like a fist and swallowed the thing whole. He tempered the jutsu quickly, trying to cradle without crushing. To wrap the tank up in mud and dirt, and sever the gas lines before any flame found its way down -- half of them had already ruptured, goddammit -- but without making the earth around it into a leaking, waiting hazard for the future.
It held. Asuma blew out a breath, ripped more earth up onto the burst tank to quench some of the flames, and refocused on the screaming. Other Inuzuka were taking the five badly burned children away -- he could hear some kind of warning klaxon in the distance, closer to Konoha. Rescue crews on their way.
But there were houses on fire here, and people trapped inside.
He shot a look at Tsume. Her dress was already scorched, snarling around her like a scarlet banner; her arms were blood-streaked to the elbows. Kuromaru lunged out of the smoke and leg-locked himself to a halt at her side, back end skewing around. His fur was smoking.
"Water's not going to work," Asuma snapped. "We need to get the people out, then crush the buildings flat. Take down the trees, if we have to." She knew the grounds and her people better than he did. "Where first?"
Sharp eyes scanned the houses, the fireline, the forest. She twisted and looked back the way they'd come, at an entire clan ground, houses with families and children, wrapped up in flammable wood. Try to save those that were already burning, stop the screams she could hear shadowing flame, or save everyone else?
The houses on the edges were beginning to smoulder, but people were still able to come pouring out of them. The official clan head, Kanaye, was nowhere to be seen. Probably already at the dinner they were late to. It made her job easier, at least; there wouldn't be a power struggle.
He looked up at her, half blind and all fighter.
"Take Asuma. You know which houses have cubs?"
He nodded once.
"Get them out." She turned to Asuma, looking at up him where he was silhouetted by firelight. "Yasuo took rescue teams west. Go east, start at the houses you can get into and pull out any of the kids trapped. Kuromaru will show you where. I'm going to evacuate here and make a firebreak. You're physically the strongest person around, and the most likely to free the cubs. Go quickly." It was, at the moment, all she could do. The rest of the clan had to be saved first. No matter how badly it tore at her to leave the people screaming.
It was impossible not to feel a touch of pride at being called the strongest, but now was no kind of time to celebrate. He nodded curtly. "Okay."
Kuromaru was already streaking away, a black shadow low to the ground, almost lost in smoke. Asuma cast a last glance at Tsume; the burning breeze whipped around, flattening her dress against that slender body. Small and whipcord-lean, dolled up in paints and pretty finery, ready to fling herself alone into the flames. He'd been right to call her a warrior, even if she was a chuunin.
He bolted after Kuromaru, fingers flying through seals. Three clones exploded to life and sprinted back to Tsume -- brave as she was, she needed some kind of back up -- then Kuromaru's coughing howl brought Asuma straight to the first house. The roof was on fire, two of the walls already engulfed. Frantic, unformed chakra patterns flickered inside. Kuromaru had already vanished through the door.
Asuma found him on the second floor, yanking two terrified children out of a closet by their clothes. He grabbed both kids, slinging them under one arm, and tried not to inhale as Kuromaru burst into the next room. Thin screaming caught his attention.
An elderly grandmother, trapped in bed. Flames crawled up the walls.
Asuma tossed one kid back to Kuromaru, who caught the boy in his teeth and crashed through window. Hot air rushed in, feeding the fire. Asuma forced it back with his own hasty wind-jutsu, yanked the terrified woman out of bed by her nightdress, threw her over his shoulder, and leapt after Kuromaru.
He landed next to the dog and his boy; Kuromaru hacked around a mouthful of child, smoke rolling away from black fur. Asuma gasped and grinned at him. "Nicely done."
One yellow eye glinted. Then the grandmother clubbed Asuma solidly over the back of the head. "Put me down!"
"Ouch! Jeez, lady!"
Rescuers were already running forward. Gratefully, Asuma handed both kids and their kicking relative over, and turned around to find Kuromaru already dashing for the next house. He swore, grabbed the first ninja-like rescuer he could find by the collar, and pointed at the house he'd just escaped from.
"That one's empty. Flatten it and get the fire out."
The rescuer leapt into action. Asuma shook his head and took off after Kuromaru.
Along the edge of the fireline, Asuma's clones and the Inuzuka had cleared the first four houses, and were rapidly working on the rest. Tsume had sent other peoples' familiars off to find more special jounin and high level chuunin, giving them orders. As the last familiar dashed off, pumping chakra into his legs to race faster, Tsume began to form seals.
She didn't know any earth jutsu. The fastest way she could think of to bring down an entire house was the Tsuuga. Her claws were broken, but she'd taken half a dozen kunai from nearby ninja and held them now, three in each hand. It would be enough, with chakra behind it.
As the last seal fell, the world seemed to slow. For a moment, everything was clear. She had a snapshot of chuunin working earth jutsu on one of the burning houses. Of an Asuma-clone smashing through a door. Of Kuromaru streaking toward another cabin.
And then the world twisted and became a blur, as the jutsu took her into a spin. She closed her eyes and smashed into the first house, blades and chakra slamming her straight through the wall as she boosted the jutsu as fast and deadly as she could. She could feel wherever she struck, tearing down the foundations, ripping through sturdy beams and flimsy walls. One house, and another, and onward through the next four. She dropped the jutsu as she cleared the last one, skidding to halt, digging tracks in the dirt as her spin brought her around to face the row of buildings. They were still standing.
She nodded to Taro, who, grim-faced, formed seals and whipped up a wind. The houses came crashing down, nothing more now than piles of rubble. She twisted, looking around, and saw more Inuzuka doing the same. Clearing a ring around the fire with Tsuuga and teamwork, or earth jutsu, or smashing houses down by sheer force and blades.
They were working. Carrying out her orders. She could leave them.
Tsume twisted to look into the fire, trying to spot the buildings that still had people in them. The ones that weren't going to last much longer. Under the crackle and snap of the blaze, she could faintly hear a cry. She ran that way, sprinting past burning houses, trying to keep her head down and ignore the heat. Into the center of the inferno, where Kuromaru had led Asuma. Into the houses most people couldn't get to. Her Pack, and she would get into them.
Nine children (still breathing), six adults (mostly okay), and eight houses flattened. A few places they just couldn't get into; Kuromaru would pause in the entrance-way, firelight dancing on his fur, then snarl and dart for the next house. Asuma would take a second longer, feeling for living chakra, then flatten the building as fast as he could. Faster, if there were dying people inside.
There were no more Inuzuka accompanying them, now. If he and Kuromaru rescued a family, found a kid, yanked an aging ninja out of the attic, Asuma would send them back to safety with a clone. Most of them made it.
The ninth house was built directly into a carved out tree-trunk, supported on two sides by still-living wood. The roof was a giant leafy branch, wide as a barn. Kuromaru hit the door at a dead run, bursting through with a flash of chakra, and careened up the stairs, Asuma close on his heels. The air was black with smoke. Asuma had lost his jacket somewhere along the way, wrapped around two twin girls with blistered faces, but his shirt-sleeve gave some protection when he pressed it against his mouth.
In retrospect, it was probably a good thing he smoked so much. Anyone else's lungs would've packed in four houses ago.
Kuromaru found a creche of children in the back bedroom, and the body of a woman crushed beneath a fallen beam. Asuma almost tripped straight over three familiars and twelve puppies when he shouldered his way into the bathroom, chasing chakra signatures.
"Shit," he rasped, and yanked the shower curtain off its railing.
Kuromaru bullied the terrified dogs until they grabbed a screaming child each, then drove them out of the window, onto the roof, and down to the burning forest floor. He was back in less than thirty seconds. Asuma spent the time corralling the remaining five children, and stuffing squalling puppies into the make-shift bag he'd fashioned from the shower curtain and his tie.
At Kuromaru's return, he handed two children to a new clone (they were getting weaker each time; he was running out of chakra), watched Kuromaru grab a third by the shirt with his teeth, and picked up the remaining two under one arm each.
They almost made it back to the window.
It was the leaves that did it. They burned like kindling, setting the bigger, gasoline-splattered branches on fire. And when the branches made up the damn ceiling, that was a problem.
It came down like a flaming wave, almost cutting Kuromaru in half. Asuma yanked him back by the tail and nearly got knocked off his feet by his own clone. The construct backed off, swearing, and Asuma spun on one heel, looking for another window. In the pitch black, smoke-dense room, there was no light.
"Oh shit," he said again -- or tried to say. It came out in raw coughing while the children screamed.
Tsume twisted, ears catching the faintest of sounds under the crack and rush of a collapsing roof. A sound she knew in her sleep. She bolted, stopped, wrenched back to dive through the house she'd been searching. Faster now, and faster still. She found the unconscious body she'd been looking for, flung the teenager over a shoulder, and leaped out the window. A spiral of wind followed her, a jutsu someone had flung toward her bringing oxygen, letting her take one deep breath before the fire consumed it, roaring higher.
The ground around her wasn't any less hot than within the house. She ran, each foot scattering leaves and flames, using more chakra to smother flames as her dress tried to catch fire, more still to give her skin some meager protection.
When she was close enough for someone else to come in, she nearly tossed the body at him and grabbed his ninja pouch, ransacking it as she flew back into the inferno. Another jutsu followed her, air whipping around her face, letting her breathe that much longer.
Chakra pills. She downed one and pumped it into her coils, downed another -- one each, for Kuromaru and herself. She whipped through seals until there were three more of herself, though creating that many shadow clones nearly wiped out the chakra she'd just swallowed.
There -- there -- Haru's house, the tree it was built from was on fire, and beneath the flames Kuromaru's howl had choked out, gone. But not dead. She could feel him.
Fifty feet away from the house, the heat made her cringe and duck her head, protecting her face. Twenty feet from it, one of her clones vanished. She couldn't get close enough.
Her mind raced, and she swallowed another pill, crunching it and flinging the power into another clone. She didn't know a jutsu that would put out the fire without killing the people inside. But she didn't need to put the fire out. She might not even need to get close. She just needed to improvise.
False chakra burned through her pathways, down to Kuromaru and back. They should have been near each other for this. They should have been touching.
This was going to hurt.
Her air ran out, smoke filling her lungs on the next inhalation. Her lungs seized even as she focused, slamming more chakra into the jutsu, praying Haruichi's work would hold and their pathways could take this, and twisted her hands into seals.
Chakra whipped between them, regardless of fire or trees or burning walls. It hardened and solidified, shoving everything out of the way as her bones shattered and reformed, merging and melding with chakra, which in turn merged into Kuromaru and twisted him.
They were still too far away. The sharp pain of broken, re-formed bones was overwhelmed as chakra dragged her into the fire, skin and flesh bursting outward and surging up.
The house exploded around the large and growing form, flame clinging to timbers as, for just an instant, the fire lost its thrust, the fuel falling away as the giant two-headed canine rose from the flame. A child dangled from the massive teeth of one of the heads, screaming. In the minutes between the fire weakening around them and surging upward with new life, Tsume's clones ran in, scooping up children and leading the way back out.
One of them popped into nonexistence before it made it.
Flame licked up the canine legs, catching on long, black fur and roaring up the giant body as if it had found new fuel. One head snatched Asuma from the ground as the monster leaped free of the house before dissolving to keep from burning alive.
Bones snapped again, chakra hissing away, and Tsume found herself hacking with Kuromaru nearby, a child still gripped in his teeth, and everyone out of the house. Air swirled around them, displaced from the two-headed giant they'd become, giving them something to breathe in the instant before it fueled the flames.
They were still within the firestorm.
"Out," she gasped, pointing to the nearest edge. "That way." If they could make it.
"Fucking hell," Asuma gasped, in what he thought was a reasonable, only slightly-hysterical tone of voice. He retched on his next breath, spitting black, and staggered back onto his feet. Both children were still under his arms, the bag of puppies dangling across his back (he had to get them out of that shower curtain soon, it was starting to melt); his clone had its own share of screaming-crying kids over there with Tsume's clones, and--
Since when could she turn into a giant, two-headed dog?
And make it back with most of her clothes intact? The boots were almost gone, scorched away from her feet, but the dress was practically decent. Ripped, singed, and ragged at the edges -- but decent.
Kuromaru was a hacking bundle of smoking fur, trying to breathe around the child still locked in his teeth.
One of Tsume's clones grabbed Asuma by the elbow before he could demand what the hell was going on. He whirled on it; it shoved him and snapped something about getting out now, for the love of the Wolf!
Right. Right. Gathering forest fire. Two-headed dogs were a detail, really.
He thrust a child into the clone's arms, saw Tsume snatch the one from Kuromaru's jaws, and then everyone was running. Flinging themselves towards the closest break in the rising wall of flames, skidding through burning leaves and baking mud. Asuma could feel his raw skin tightening in the heat, sweat blistering dry before it had any chance to cool. The kids had gone chokingly, breathlessly silent; the little girl still in his arms was jammed up beneath his chin, clinging loosely to his throat.
They weren't going to make it to the break.
He had time to think that much and reach for his chakra without any idea of what jutsu could actually help, when energy like a sunblast roared over the Inuzuka compound. Every scrap of fire went out with a dull whumph.
Asuma blinked, skidding to a halt. Kuromaru slammed into Tsume's back as she stopped dead, clones piling up behind her. The kids shrieked anew.
Sarutobi Hizuren appeared in front of them, dusting the chakra sparks off his hands.
"Dinner was at seven," he said calmly. "You're late. Is everyone okay?"
In the silence that followed, Kuromaru dropped his child, turned aside, and vomited ebony bile. "Boy," he croaked hoarsely, "am I glad you're here." He wilted to the still-smoking earth.
Next to him, Tsume flicked a shaky ANBU salute at the Hokage, one red-raw hand touching an equally scorched shoulder, then her eyes rolled up and she went down without a word. The child in her arms didn't try to struggle free.
Asuma dropped down to his knees next to them. "Hospital," he croaked, smearing a bracelet of soot around Tsume's wrist as he scrabbled for her pulse. "Now, dad!"
Chakra crackled, enfolding around the kids, Kuromaru, Asuma and Tsume, and even the bag of puppies still dangling from Asuma's shoulder. It closed like a fist and dragged them right out of the world.
It was the lack of scent that woke her. It niggled at her annoyingly, insisting something was off in a way the quiet voices didn't.
"--fine, just used up her chakra and wasn't breathing well with all that smoke, so between the two--"
"I'm fine," she growled, or tried to growl, but there was a mask in her way. She opened bleary eyes, sharpening with rapidly growing annoyance, and raised one numb-feeling hand to yank the face mask off. The lack of scent vanished, but somehow she couldn't pinpoint any particular smells, either. Not over the smoke still pervading her sinuses.
"Oh, don't--or, yes, that's fine, do that. It really would be better to keep breathing the lung support solution, though."
She managed to focus one eyeball on the medic standing beside Asuma and glared at him.
The medic threw up his hands. "I have some children and those puppies to look after. I'll leave you two to it." He turned to Asuma and said dubiously, "If you can get her to breathe through the mask, it'll help." Then he thunked a jar of salve down on a table and walked out of the room.
This was definitely not the ANBU wing. Tsume sat up with a wince, though the worst of the burns only tingled -- someone had been at work on her while she was out. Noises filtered through, the quick whap of footsteps, the squeak of gurneys, the murmur of voices, people crying and sneezing and snuffling. Definitely too much noise for the ANBU wing; she'd guess that with all the other burn victims coming in, they'd only rated one of the small rooms that ringed the emergency entrance.
That was fine with her.
"Okay," she wheezed, gripping the edge of the bed while the room swirled lazily around. "Save my pride and tell me you passed out, too."
"Nope," rasped Asuma, with a soot-grey grin. "I had a dizzy moment, if that helps."
Tsume snorted and coughed. "Asuma, you're always dizzy."
"Nah, darlin', that's just the rest of the world going weak-kneed over my good looks." He dropped stiffly back into the plastic chair by Tsume's gurney, picking up the mask she'd abandoned. "I can see how you'd get confused, though. Want to put the mask back on? The medics were pretty insistant about the whole breathing thing."
Tsume accepted the mask for about half a millesecond, taking one breath before she shoved it off and made to stand, grabbing the rails of her bed. "Where's Kuromaru?" she demanded sharply, hauling herself up.
Asuma grabbed her bare shoulders. "He's fine. Burned his paws up, but the medics are taking care of it. He's guarding the kids."
Tsume sat back slowly, wincing as Asuma's fingers left pale prints in her red-raw skin, then almost immediately got up again. "I should get back, then," she muttered.
"Hey, whoa," Asuma said. "Can we focus on you a minute, Ms. Two-headed Dog-lady? You just woke up. You're not gonna help anyone by keeling over on 'em."
"I'm not going to help them by being here, either," Tsume said instantly, sitting with great reluctance on the edge of her bed. "And Kanaye doesn't have the experience to deal with something like--" she waved a vague hand "--this."
Asuma raised an eyebrow. But before he could add anything, Tsume coughed out a black-lung laugh, croaky and thin, and eased back a little more. "I don't know if anyone has the experience to deal with this. This might be a first."
Her eyes wouldn't quite meet his.
"Yeah," Asuma agreed quietly. "Well, no. You guys made it through the Fox, right? This isn't nearly as bad as that."
Less of a body count, way less destruction, no beloved leaders signing up to make deals with death-gods.
"The Hokage's still helping out down there," Asuma said, and added reluctantly: "He knows what he's doing."
Apparently, those were the magic words. Tsume relaxed completely, boneless and relieved, and Asuma had to wonder if she didn't trust her own clan leaders or if she just liked his dad a whole lot more. After a minute, she said, "Thanks."
"Welcome," Asuma said with a shrug, watching as Tsume picked up the jar of salve in clawless hands and looked at it vaguely. "Want me to?" he asked, holding out a hand.
Wordlessly, Tsume passed it over.
"So, tell me something," he said, unscrewing the lid. "When did you get all kick-ass with jutsu? The last time I saw you, you could barely untangle your pathways." And he'd thought she was a chuunin, but those damn sure hadn't been chuunin-level jutsu today.
Tsume blinked, frowned, and looked at Asuma like he made no sense at all. "Well... they healed." She shrugged one shoulder, muscle flexing under the scorched dress strap. "That was just... upper chuunin level."
Asuma stared back. "You turned into a giant two-headed dog," he said slowly, in case Tsume had missed that key point. "With two heads."
"Well... yes," said Tsume, still looking at Asuma like he'd fallen off the edge of sanity and forgotten his parachute. "Kuromaru has a head and I have a head. Granted, we should have been closer together -- hurt like the Wolf's bite itself -- but..." Tsume's eyes focused suddenly, diamond-blue and sharp, coming back from whatever disconnected cloud she'd been floating in. "Pup, exactly who do you think I am?"
Someone who's about to laugh at me a lot, Asuma guessed.
"A chuunin?" he said. "Well, I did. But I'm thinking that's wrong."
"A chuu--" She stopped, her quick breath triggering a cough, and shook her head in bewilderment while her eyes watered and she waited for her lungs to settle down again. "That's my clan," she said finally, hooking a thumb over her shoulder toward the distant clan grounds.
Asuma didn't look like he quite understood what she was saying.
"My clan. I mean -- mine. Until I re-joined ANBU and Kanaye took my place."
She waited for Asuma to get it, and didn't have to wait long. His dark eyes cleared, the frown that furrowed his brow lifting suddenly. "Oh." Then he blinked. "Seriously?"
For the first time in what felt like hours, a smile tugged at Tsume's mouth.
"Tsume-san?" A head poked around the corner, tattoos claiming clan membership. "We're glad you're okay." He looked from Asuma to Tsume and back again, coming no farther into the room. "Should I deliver a message to Kanaye-san? Do you need to stay? He wanted to know if you were all right, when you were coming home, and said he expected it would be soon."
It brought everything back, all the smells, the images. Reminded her why she was here, even as her mind kept shying away from the reality. Easier to remain in mild shock. She took a deep breath, instead. "How bad is the damage?" Her heart thumped, a boulder in her chest that pushed against her ribs. She still couldn't quite wrap her mind around what had happened. Not here, in the sterility of the hospital.
The boy didn't look at her. "Five dead so far. Three of them are the kids who... were by the tanks. Lots more in critical condition."
She nodded wordlessly. "Let me find Kuromaru, and I'll be there." She waited for him to leave, watching the doorway until he'd cleared it because it was easier to watch than Asuma. "Clan heads can't be ANBU, too," she said with a shrug. Then she did look up at him, offering him all the smile she could under the circumstances. "So, I'm just a special jounin who helps out the clan alpha when he needs it." She stood again, and this time he didn't put his hands on her shoulders. He still held the jar of salve, open now, dwarfed between callused fingers.
Tsume tested out her feet, waited to make sure her body would bear her weight, and headed for the door and her devastated clan. "Thanks for the kunai," she said, pausing. "It was... nice." There weren't words to convey thanks for rescuing people, being burned, pulling cubs out of fire. Tsume thought up and discarded phrases, reaching to scratch behind one ear. Ash drifted to the floor. "Yeah," she said finally, a little more brusque, and didn't look at him. "Thanks."
Asuma's mouth twitched, finding a wry curve. "Anytime," he said, meaning it, and didn't bother to throw her the jar of salve before she ducked out the door. She didn't want it, and she wouldn't use it.
He got up, unfolding himself from the uncomfortable plastic chair, now smeared with soot, and went to lean against the doorframe. In the controlled chaos of the hospital, Tsume was easy to pick out; still dressed in scarlet, skin made shiny with burns, feet bandaged from toes to mid-calf. She was collecting people as she moved: Kuromaru, hip-height and streaked with soot, all four paws bandaged; two more Inuzuka clan-members carrying children, obviously ready to be discharged; another messenger to go along with the first...
Well, hot damn.
At a loose end, Asuma watched them until they vanished out the main doors, and didn't quite know what to do with himself. His own injuries were just a collection of scattered burns, some badly singed hair, and irreparable damage to his only dress-shirt; nothing that needed a hospital stay. He'd already had an oxygen mask thrown at him by an overly-anxious medic.
Probably, if it was still going, he should go to that council dinner.
There'd be a burial party at the Inuzuka compound tonight. Asuma couldn't remember if they kept their dead within the clan grounds, like the Uchiha and Hyuuga did, or if they brought Konoha's morticians in and used the village graveyards.
Clan grounds, probably. He'd bet the relatives did the digging.
There'd be houses to rebuild, wounded to care for, homeless to provide for, patrols to catch any sparks of fire still burning. The gas lines would need to be re-laid, along with two new gas tanks, and fenced back to stop more kids from practicing jutsu around them.
Ninja in the field would need to be contacted, if any of their family had died.
Asuma thought about Tsume, with her burned feet and her pretty dress and her bizarre chakra; her dog with one eye and a habit of bringing Asuma bleeding meaty treats; her clan, which obviously hadn't quite gotten the hang of functioning without her...
"Hell with it," he muttered, tossing the salve onto the abandoned bed, and went to help.