The painful red mist behind his eyes seemed to have acquired a voice.
“Think I sprained m’face,” Asuma told it, and set about scraping himself off the floor. Bits of rotten plant life stuck to his skin. The light was fractured and fluorescent-yellow, guttering in the hallway. He craned his neck. “Who’re you?”
A rusty, croaking chuckle answered him. “Ueno Katsuko, from Konoha.”
Not the answer he’d expected.
He made it to his feet, staggered once, and stayed upright. A cautious touch found the bloodied, sticky patch at the back of his head; a less tentative pat-down revealed that they’d taken all his weapons and his cigarettes.
And his boots.
The cell was long and narrow; it only took two dizzy steps to fetch him up against the wall. He leaned against damp stone and peered down through the grating. A gaunt, shaved-headed girl stared back up at him.
“You’re a long way from home, Ueno Katsuko,” he said. “Anyone looking for you?”
One skinny shoulder shrugged. “They’d have given up by now. A chuunin’s not high on anybody’s list.”
Despite all of Sarutobi Hiruzen’s speechifying about the Will Of Fire and no man left behind, that was depressingly true, even if Hiruzen was the Hokage again.
Asuma pushed all thoughts of his father aside.
“That all you are?” he said, yanking up a lopsided smile.
Katsuko’s lips were dry and cracked; still, she managed to bare her teeth in the semblance of a grin. “Six months down here tends to kill the optimism right out of girl. If it doesn’t just kill her first.”
There was a rustle of cloth behind her. “Katsuko,” Hakuin rasped. Even with his vocal chords mangled beyond repair, he still managed to convey an almost palpable air of disapproval.
She grimaced. “Sorry,” she offered. “The old man’s Hakuin. Kid across the hall’s Ichiba. You got a name?”
The man--was he, really? He couldn’t have been more than a few years older than her, at most. He had the lanky, wiry look of someone not done growing yet, with scruffy vagabond hair and a couple days’ worth of stubble. There were dirt and grass stains on his threadbare jeans, and more than a few holes in his long-sleeved shirt.
“I’m Asuma.” He peered over her shoulder, raising an eyebrow when Hakuin didn’t stir from his huddled position on his cell floor. When Ichiba made a curious sound he turned and waved. “Hey, kid. You from Konoha, too?”
“Kusa.” Ichiba stared at Asuma. “Were you trying to find us?”
Ichiba looked about twelve, and half-starved.
“Wish I had been,” Asuma said truthfully. “I just got sucker-punched when I wasn’t looking. How long’ve you guys been down here?”
“Three months,” said Ichiba, from his crouched-down huddle. His skinny legs suggested he might have some height when he unfolded, and his shaved down hair looked like it was probably dark. There was still a little baby-fat in his cheeks. “Katsuko’s been here six. We don’t know how long Hakuin’s been here.”
Asuma looked back at her. “Where is here? Last thing I remember is getting my ass handed to me in Funama. We still in Lightning?”
“Probably,” said Katsuko. “We’re somewhere near the border, I think. What were you doing in Funama?”
Getting drunk and chasing shepherdesses was probably not the most reassuring answer.
“Learnin’ to make knives,” Asuma said, which was also true -- as soon as he figured out how to bribe Onjin Michi into actually teaching him. “Lightning’s got the best steel, even if the weather wants to kill you. Who else is here?”
Katsuko shrugged one shoulder again. “A couple jounin from Mist, someone from Iwa who keeps screaming in the middle of the might. Most people only last a month before, well.”
There was no love lost between Konoha and Iwa, and Mist were an island of bloodthirsty psychopaths, but Asuma was getting the distinct impression that no one deserved to be here.
He crouched carefully and laced his fingers through the bars. In the jagged fluorescent light, fresh scars and wounds gleamed on Katsuko’s bare arms. They didn’t look like fight injuries.
“The war’s been over for three years,” Asuma said. “The hell are Lightning doing still taking prisoners?”
Katsuko made a dry sound. After a moment, she said, “There’re two scientists in charge of this. ‘Kaminari’ and ‘Inazuma’. For them, I don’t think the war ever ended.” She held up one arm, turning it so Asuma could see the fresh acid burns and weeping cigarette wounds on the sensitive skin of her wrist and the inside of her elbow.
“There’re experiments, yeah, but sometimes they just get...bored.”
Asuma grimaced. “...well, that's about the least comforting thing anyone's ever said to me. Y'ever tried escaping?"
Her laugh toed the line between ‘bitter’ and ‘three seconds away from a nervous breakdown’. “Be my guest, man. There are wards around this place three feet deep. I haven’t been able to stand since the first month, so you’d have to go solo.”
“Not that much of a bastard, sweetheart,” he said. “We’ll steal a wheelbarrow for you if we have to.” He got one hand as far through the bars as he could, almost up to the wrist, and left it there in case she felt like grabbing hold. “Want to hear some news from home? I’ve been keeping tabs on Konoha. Kusa, too.” He raised his voice loud enough for Ichiba and Hakuin to hear. “Might even know something about where you’re from, old man, if y’want to share the details.”
Hakuin’s voice was a papery rasp. “Everyone I know is dead.”
Ichiba was slightly more forthcoming. “My jounin-sensei is Seiji Takahashi. Do you know anything about him?”
The name rang a faint bingo-book bell. Asuma frowned a moment, then remembered the red X stamped across a dark-haired man’s grim face. Dead, then, and not helpful. Rat bastard.
“Sorry, kid,” he said. “Afraid I don’t.”
Ichibai’s head dropped back down to his crossed arms.
“My sensei’s dead,” Katsuko said. “My teammates were Sumiyoshi Nori and Arata Beni. D’you know if they made it home?”
If they were her age, they’d be too young to be in the Bingo Book, and too young for him know directly. Their names weren’t familiar.
“Don’t know them, either,” he said. “But that means their names aren’t on the grapevine. Could be good news.”
Katsuko’s smile was faint. “Well, it was worth a try.” One of her hands patted his, as if he was the one that needed reassuring. Her fingers were like ice. He twisted his hand to catch them, wrapping his much warmer fingers around hers.
She stiffened, but when he didn’t grab tighter, she eased down again, letting her hand stay.
“Here’s what I do know,” he said. “Konoha’s not at war, and neither is Kusa -- last I heard, Kusa were still rebuilding. Both of ‘em still have the same people in charge, an’ there haven’t been any major disasters since the Fox. Word is that Grass is planning to do their big winter festival this year. Guess they got a good harvest.”
Ichiba’s head came up. “My sister and my mom dance in the festival!” he said, sudden pride cracking his voice. “They’re the best in the village.”
Asuma grinned at him.
Katsuko just let out a quiet breath. “Thank god,” she said.
A faint wheezing snore suggested Hakuin might have actually gone to sleep.
Katsuko glanced at him. “He does that sometimes,” she said, sounding ever so slightly amused.
“Guess I’m not exciting enough,” Asuma said. He squeezed her fingers and let go. “Let’s see if escaping livens him up.”
“You’re also kind of a smart-ass,”’ Katsuko added. She rubbed her hands together, absently, trying to regain some of the warmth lost when he’d let go of her. “But I want to believe you. Gods, do I want to believe you.”
She looked out into the hall, at the rows of cells with huddled, silent shapes in them. This had been her whole world for half a year; Konoha had faded to a distant memory, more of a talisman against the worst of her nightmares than an actual place. She could remember Sensei’s face, Nori’s and Beni’s faces, if she tried hard enough. Makoto and Mother required a bit more effort. Her father--
“I’m starting to forget what Dad looks like,” she realized, looking at Asuma with a resigned expression. “He’s an ambassador to Suna, so he’s away most of the year. He came home once after the Fox, but I’d already been sent to patrol the border of Lightning.”
“Then it’s about damn time you got out of here.” Asuma stretched, reaching back to gingerly touch the back of his head. Whatever he found there didn’t seem to alarm him too much, as a second later he flexed his hands like he was calling up energy for a jutsu. Katsuko sighed and waited for him to discover that the suppressing seals laid into the very groundwork of the cells prevented chakra manipulation.
“So, kid,” Asuma called, as he pulled on his chakra. “Tell us about your family. What’re they like?”
The chakra didn’t come -- he hadn’t much expected it to, but the theory had been worth testing. He could feel the energy deep in his coils, moving like normal, supporting his body, but it wouldn’t shape when he directed it. Locked down tight.
“My dad’s a jounin,” Ichiba said a little tentatively, as if he wasn’t sure he was allowed to say so. His voice warmed. “He does amazing ninjutsu; he’s one of the best in the village. My mom’s a dancer -- she used to be a chuunin, but she retired when me ‘an my sister were born. We’re twins. My sister’s a taijutsu specialist, and she’s awesome.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Asuma agreed, letting his chakra go. “Taijutsu’s my favourite, too. What about you, Katsuko?”
In the dim light, it was just possible to see her eyes narrowing a little. "Mom's a kenshi from Wind Country,” she said slowly. “She mugged Dad on his way to Suna and decided to keep him. Got a little brother about Ichiba's age, civilian. He's apprenticed to a painter right now."
Asuma laughed hoarsely. “Your Mom sounds badass.”
“So’s mine,” Ichiba said stoutly. “She doesn’t let my dad get away with anything.”
“Damn straight,” Asuma said, grinning. “Okay, head down. This is gonna be noisy.”
He kicked the iron-grated door hard, aiming for the outer edge of the lock. It was heavy and built solid, bolted at top and bottom with a keyed lock in the middle, fixed to heavy iron hinges. A dull shimmer suggested thick layers of seals. It rattled. He kicked it again, hitting metal solidly with his bare heel. Then again.
“Hey, bastards! Let’s have some attention here!”
Down the hall, someone howled thinly. Someone else shouted at him to shut up. Ichiba sank into himself, drawing back to the darkest corner of his cell.
“What the fuck are you doing, lunatic?” Katsuko hissed. “Knock it off. The orderlies don’t like being disturbed.”
“Good,” Asuma said cheerfully, and kicked harder.
Katsuko winced and covered her ears, trying to hide her trembling. “You don’t understand--”
The basement door slammed open with a screech of rusty metal. An orderly prowled in, a tall, burly shinobi with biceps wider than Katsuko’s thighs. He was one of the ones whose hands liked to wander and prod at bruises and new stitches, to pin test subjects down when they were too disoriented to resist. Despite herself, Katsuko shrank back.
The man came to a halt in front of Asuma’s cell, beady eyes narrowed in annoyance. “What the hell is this?”
Asuma curled his lip and shoved his hands into his pockets, leaning back to give the orderly a scornful once-over. “Couldn't tell you, man, but it looks pretty unfortunate. Were your parents related?"
The orderly’s expression tightened. “Kaminari doesn’t care if her subjects are injured--she just needs them conscious for her procedures. Watch yourself.”
"Yeah? Well Kaminari sounds like she doesn't have the brains to fill an eggcup, but you're welcome to take your best shot." He smiled, spreading his hands in mocking invitation. "There're people looking for me, stupid. Run along and tell your mama-bear that she's got zero time and a bunker full of illegal prisoners, and she'd better not think of cleaning house, 'cos my friends are not forgiving people. Can you remember all that?"
“Kaoru!” the orderly yelled, voice echoing . “Get the hell in here!”
Another orderly burst in, and, after exchanging a glance with the first, took out the ring of keys to the cell doors. Katsuko watched in horror as they dragged Asuma out into the hall, ugly expressions on their faces. “He didn’t mean it!” she shouted as they hauled him towards the exit. “He cracked his head and now he doesn’t know what he’s saying!”
His hands flickered, scout signing a terse message: All okay. Got a plan.
“Asuma!” She cursed violently as the door slammed behind them, pounding her fist against the bars of her cell. What the hell was that idiot up to?
Outside the cells it was a completely different world: linoleum floors and ceiling strip-lights, walls plastered and painted in mute colours instead of raw stone, like a hospital. If this was a bunker, it was bigger than any he’d ever seen before. He was dragged down a maze of winding hallways, and through a set of white double doors.
Onto an observation deck.
It was a claustrophobic little room, painted white on three walls. The final wall had been replaced entirely by glass, and down below was a stainless steel operating room. There was a woman on the table, naked to the waist and unzipped from throat to navel, her ribcage splayed open like wings. He could see her heart shuddering in her chest. Her wrists and ankles were bound; there was an oxygen mask strapped to her face.
Her eyes were open.
There was a man leaning sideways against the glass, looking bored. Next to him, a white-haired woman was taking notes on a clipboard.
“Amazing pain control,” she murmured.
Asuma choked on his words. The orderlies kicked his legs from under him, wrenching his arms tight behind his back as they forced him to his knees.
The first orderly broke the silence. “This one says he’s got friends high up. Said he could expose the operation.”
The bored man’s eyes drifted to Asuma. “Where’s he from?”
“Around,” said Asuma, who had no intention of revealing himself as a useful bargaining chip. He re-gathered his shocked wits. “You’ve got people from at least four different villages-- five, if I’m reading her tattoos right.” The woman on the table had ink like desert sandstorms running up her arms -- Suna’s version of ANBU. He couldn’t shake the feeling she was looking right at him. “I don’t know how many treaties you’re breaking, but you’re about to get caught.”
The white-haired woman -- she had to be Kaminari -- glanced at him, lifting one snowy eyebrow. “Treaties? They won’t touch me, little boy. The only thing Kumo cares about is whether I get results, and Kami knows that I’ve delivered.”
The man chuckled.
For all that he was seventeen and had been living outside the village for over a year, Asuma suddenly felt very young, and very out of his depth.
And very pissed off.
“You’re torturing people--” he snarled, before the first orderly’s hand closed around his throat, choking him off.
The orderlies were ninja. There were no suppression seals out here, where they needed to work, and none of them had bothered to sedate him. He yanked on his chakra and managed to twist his locked hands into one rough wind seal. Knife-blades of wind spiked from his arms and shoulders, cutting into the hands holding him.
Three orderlies lurched back, yelling. The first orderly kept his composure better. An elbow clubbed the back of Asuma’s head, and his vision burst with red spots; he lunged off his knees, slamming a bare heel backwards into a thigh that felt like it was made of oak. A burst of chakra wasn’t enough to crack the bone, but he still spun the orderly off balance.
Both white-coated scientists had their attention firmly on him, now.
Asuma spat blood from a bitten tongue and went for them. The man got out of his way with surprising speed, moving with a burst of chakra that took him almost to the other side of the room. But the woman just laughed, high and unhinged, and spread her arms as Asuma hit her.
He drove her into the glass hard enough that it cracked, fissures spreading like a landmap of earthquake lines. Below them, the medical team scattered. Asuma crushed his forearm across Kaminari’s blue-veined throat; she bared her teeth at him, laughing rotten breath into his face.
“Try it,” she rasped.
There was chakra in her skin, running bright and hot, keeping her windpipe intact. He grabbed her hair and slammed her head against the glass again, sending a spray of blood into the cracks.
“I kill you, we end this right here,” he said, reaching for his chakra blades.
He wasn’t fast enough. Two orderlies crashed into his back, nearly smashing them all through the glass. He was hauled back and pried away from Kaminari, but not before he managed to get one more blow in that broke her fine-bladed nose. The orderlies pinned him to the floor, wrenching his hands far apart.
Kaminari reset her nose with a practiced hand-motion and a crunch of bone. The white-coated man tended to the wound at the back of her head. She looked down at Asuma thoughtfully. “I like this one,” she said finally. “Keep him alive for a little longer.”
Asuma wasn’t stupid enough to say you’ll regret it.
“Three days,” he promised, hoping his hunch was right. “Then you’re all dead.”
He didn’t see which one kicked him unconscious.
The orderlies came for Hakuin this time, not even bothering with restraints as they lifted his slight form onto the gurney’s stained mattress. The old monk turned his head to look at Katsuko and smiled at her pale, drawn face. “Courage,” he mouthed at her, and then they were through the door and turning the corner and Hakuin was gone. Hakuin was gone.
Time slowed down to a crawl. She made soothing noises at Ichiba, ignoring the pounding in her own heart, and tried not to think about anything at all. Hakuin had taught her the meditation exercises from his temple, but whenever she closed her eyes all she saw were the scars around the old monk’s throat, his thin wrists and the way his whole body shook with the cough that never went away. What passed for night in this place found her curled up against the far wall of her cell, eyes fixed on the door that they’d taken Hakuin through. Her lips moved silently as she tried to recite the sutras, lost her train of thought and started over again.
On the sixtieth parable of the Hundred Parables, the door opened with a rusty scream. Katsuko’s heart leapt into her throat as two burly orderlies appeared on the threshold, sinking down into her stomach when they muscled an unconscious body too tall to be Hakuin between them.
“Crazy bastard,” one of the orderlies grunted. “Kid’s got balls, though, you gotta admit.”
Katsuko lifted her head.
Kaminari’s lackeys dragged their burden down the hall, stopping at the cell on Katsuko’s right. She shifted closer, craning to catch a glimpse of the prisoner’s face, and nearly cried in relief when she recognized Asuma. Crawling over to the grate between their cells, she watched in wide-eyed silence as the orderlies tossed the young shinobi to the floor with a thud. When they’d left, closing the basement door behind them, she rose up to her knees and wrapped her arms around the bars.
“Asuma?” Her voice sounded very small. “You still with me?”
He groaned, rolling onto his side to face her. One arm wrapped around his head as he slurred, “Hey, darlin’.”
“You idiot.” To her shock and horror, Katsuko felt tears sliding down her face. “They took you and then they took Hakuin and...Kami, what did you do? It looks like you lost a fight with a bear.” Swiping at her eyes, she added thickly, “A really angry bear.”
“Katsuko?” Ichiba sat up. “Is that Asuma? Is he alright?”
"M'fine, kiddo." He pushed himself up on one arm, still holding his head, and crawled towards Katsuko. "Broke that bitch's nose and put the wind up the rest of them." He wrapped his free hand around hers, looking down at her with a lopsided smile. "Hey, hey, pretty lady, don't cry on me. You're going to make it rain."
Katsuko’s breath caught on a sob; suddenly conscious of Ichiba’s worried eyes on her, she scrubbed a hand over her face and tried to center herself. “Sorry,” she croaked. “Sorry. I just need a second.”
“Did you really break Kaminari’s nose?” Ichiba asked eagerly. “I wish I’d been there to see that.”
“You got close enough to break her nose?” Katsuko snickered. “Doesn’t her breath smell terrible?”
"Like a sewer drain. I'd hate to be her husband." He winced and settled down next to the grate, leaning stiffly against the bars. "I got close enough to smash her right up against the glass of that observation horror show. Busted her head open. Would've killed her, but I got tackled." He grimaced. "She healed herself, but I cut up a couple of the orderlies, and I don't think she's healing them."
Katsuko smiled, eyes going flat and hard. “Good.”
There was no time to enjoy that one, small victory. As Asuma grinned back at her, the basement door creaked open; an orderly wheeled a body on a gurney down the hall. Katsuko paled, lips parting as she stared at the blanket covering the subject’s face. “No,” she whispered.
The orderly stopped in front of Hakuin’s cell. Katsuko made a strangled noise and scrambled across the floor, pressing herself up against the grate in the left wall as he swung open the door. “Hakuin!”
The orderly spared her a disinterested glance as he scooped up his burden and deposited it on the matted rushes, reclaiming the blanket and folding it over his arm. Hakuin huddled on his side, away from Katsuko, shoulders trembling as he fought for breath. He stayed like that when she called his name a second time, and a third, and a fourth, voice rising with her panic.
Dimly, she was aware of Asuma shouting something hoarse and furious at the orderly, nearly drowning her out as she stared down at Hakuin.
“Enough!” the orderly snapped at last. “The old man can speak for himself. It’s not like she cut out his tongue.”
Silence fell at that announcement, and the orderly left with a satisfied expression on his face. Katsuko waited until the door had closed behind the man before she moved again, reaching her hand through the grate. “Hakuin,” she said, gently. “Hakuin-ojiisan. Please look at me.”
He sighed, a sound like wind whistling through dead branches. “Oh, my child, I’m sorry. Forgive this old man his weakness. I’d hoped to make it through this with you.” With a grunt of effort he rolled over to face her, limbs trembling with exhaustion.
“It’s alright, Ojiisan,” Katsuko whispered, looking at the pitted ruin of his face. They’d taken his eyes; blood seeped through the thick cloth tied over his empty sockets and ran in trails down his cheeks. She could see new stitches lining his chest through the holes in his tunic, blood clotting thick over his torso.
He wasn’t going to make it through the night.
Ichiba’s voice was subdued. “Do you want Katsuko and me to do the sutras, Hakuin? You always said they helped you with the pain.”
Hakuin chuckled, lifting one hand. Katsuko caught it in hers, folding his bony fingers between her own like Asuma had. “Thank you, Ichiba. I would like that very much.”
While Ichiba murmured the first rote prayer, Asuma pressed his aching forehead against the iron bars and fought the urge to kick the door to filings. He’d break his feet before he broke the metal, and it wouldn’t help Hakuin.
Nothing would help Hakuin. Even if a squad of ANBU and a fleet of medics tore the whole place apart, Kaminari had still taken his eyes, and done deeper damage to whatever lay under those hack-job stitches.
Asuma had been on battlefields; he knew what the thick rattle in Hakuin’s breathing meant.
Clenching his fists around the bars, he cursed himself for a reckless idiot and wished he’d struck faster. Ripped Kaminari apart with raw chakra and bare hands. Had they taken the old man in payment for his insults, or had it always been Hakuin’s day to bleed out blind on a rotting cell floor?
He forced himself away from the door.
Ichiba’s voice was thin but steady; it only cracked once, dropping half an octave into a teenager’s deeper tenor. He managed not to stumble, well into the seventh sutra and still going. At the end of the hallway, a woman’s ravaged voice picked up the words and echoed them back.
Katsuko wasn’t speaking; he wondered if she could.
The only useful thing he could think of to do was to strip off his blood-stained shirt, wad it up, and crouch down to shove it through the bars separating their cells.
“Katsuko,” he said. “Here. Use this to cover him.”
He had to call her name twice more before she even heard him. Her head came up. Slowly and painfully she crawled over to him, took the shirt without a word, and crawled back. It took her three tries to unwad it, feed it through the bars and lay it over Hakuin’s wasted body. Then she stretched out on the floor and pressed herself as close to the iron as she could get. Her arm was skinny enough to go through almost to her shoulder. Gently, she stroked Hakuin’s forehead.
She wasn’t crying. Her shoulders didn’t shake. Ichiba’s voice went on and on.
Asuma sat by his grating, feeling the cold sink into his bare shoulders and the headache wrap wolf’s teeth into the back of his skull, and watched the forgotten girl from his hometown try to comfort a dying man.
Hakuin’s breathing started to falter near dawn. Katsuko held his hand, grip tightening when she felt his shivers subside. Ichiba had lost his voice hours ago, curled up in an unhappy little ball near the front of his cell.
“Love you, old man,” she muttered, voice cracking.
He smiled at her, wrinkled cheeks creasing. “Be strong, my dear. “
She fell asleep sometime during her vigil and woke to find Hakuin’s hand cold in hers, ruined eyes turned towards the ceiling. Numbly, she drew the shirt over his face and crossed his arms over his chest, retreating to the far side of her cell like an animal wounded.
Asuma shifted, stretching his hand through the bars. “Sweetheart,” he murmured, voice soft and careful. “Sweetheart, come over here.”
She couldn’t hear him at first over the low buzzing in her ears. He called a second time, and then a third, until at last she stirred herself and crawled over to the grate. She took his hand and clung to it, curling over to rest her forehead against his knuckles.
She couldn’t speak. Ichiba was sobbing, quietly, sounding tired and very young. She needed to speak, muster the energy to comfort him, but right now she just felt--empty.
The orderlies came an hour later to take the body. Katsuko watched as they lifted the corpse on to the gurney and replaced the floor rushes, preparing the cell for its next occupant. “They’ll be coming for me next,” she told Asuma, meeting his eyes. “I don’t make it back, you look after Ichiba, you hear?”
Asuma gripped her hand hard, dark eyes fierce. "Make it back. We're going to kill these bastards, and you should be there to see it."
“I’d like that,” Katsuko said, managing something like a smile. Impulsively, she lifted his hand to brush a kiss against his fingertips. “Good luck, Asuma. And thanks.”
The orderlies opened her cell a few hours later and slid a syringe under her skin, lifting her onto the gurney as black started to creep in at the corners of her vision. She smiled at Ichiba and closed her eyes, listening to her heartbeat fade as Asuma tried to tear down the wall between them.
She woke up on the lab table. Inazuma had stripped her to the waist, buckling her wrists and ankles into the metal restraints with practiced efficiency. Kaminari was standing over her, frowning at her clipboard as she held a wet ink brush over Katsuko’s stomach.
The beginnings of the latest seal were already beginning to take shape below her navel. Katsuko gritted her teeth and stared up at the ceiling, nails digging into her palms.
“You’re awake,” Kaminari observed, looking up from her clipboard. Her nose was slightly swollen; faded bruises dotted her throat. Katsuko swallowed down a feeling of smug satisfaction and bared her teeth at the woman.
“None of that, now,” Inazuma admonished. He gripped her forearm and twisted, grinding the bones there together. Katsuko cried out, tears pricking the corners of her eyes, and his smile widened.
“Enough, darling. We’re running out of time as it is.” Kaminari was half-done with the seal, attention focused on a character near Katsuko’s hipbone.
“You killed Hakuin,” Katsuko hissed, voice warped into a snarl. “I hate you. I hate you both. I don’t care what you do to me, I’ll hunt you down like the animals you are--”
“Finished.” Kaminari straightened and moved away from the table, placing her brush and clipboard to the side. She smiled down at Katsuko, expression benevolent. “This one won’t be like the others, little Leaf. I’ve made a few adjustments since last time.”
Katsuko fought back a whimper and stared at her, lips white. Kaminari moved to the foot of the lab table and clasped her hands together in the first seal, eyes fixed on Katsuko’s face. “Darling, are you ready to begin?”
“Of course.” Inazuma moved to her side and mimicked his wife, attention focused on the seal painted over Katsuko’s belly. “Whenever you are, my dear.”
Kaminari’s hands flickered. The seal sank down into Katsuko’s skin and wrapped sickly tendrils around her chakra, pushing itself into her core. She screamed, arching off the table, as her coils pulsed and writhed. Fire exploded behind her eyes, spreading down to her nerve endings and scorching her bones. First light,
They didn’t bother knocking Asuma out this time, just laughed at his rage and wished him the joy of it while they wheeled Katsuko away. He tore the skin from his knuckles and bruised his heels black trying to break the door down; wrenched his shoulder halfway out of joint slamming himself against iron bars. The door shuddered, but wouldn’t give.
His chakra was sealed out of reach. His weapons were gone. His only plan was half a bluff and half a guess, and it wouldn’t help Katsuko now.
Nothing he did could help Katsuko.
He scraped his naked back sliding down the wall; braced his elbows on his bent knees, laced his fingers behind his head and chained down the desire to scream. All he could see was that unzipped woman, laid out on the table with her ribcage cracked open and her eyes fixed on his. Had she even survived?
Was that what they were doing to Katsuko?
She’d smiled as they’d taken her. He could still feel the cold press of her mouth against his hand, her tears on his skin.
A shift of movement across the hall brought his head up. Ichiba was barely a shadow in his cell; he’d wedged himself into the corner by his door, one skinny arm wrapped through the bars. His eyes were hollow and red-rimmed, fixed on Asuma but occasionally flicking towards the door at the end of the hallway.
Look after Ichiba, you hear?
Asuma wet his lips. “Hey, kiddo,” he said, and cleared his throat when the words came out croaky. “You doing okay?”
Ichiba gave him a long look. “You’re not very good at this.”
Asuma snorted a rough laugh. “It was that or I-Spy, and there ain’t exactly much to look at down here.”
Ichiba didn’t laugh back. He fidgeted, picking at his ragged sleeveless tunic, and then said abruptly: “She looks like Kaminari’s daughter. Katsuko, I mean. I don’t—they’ve been saving her for the special projects, but they’ve been trying to keep her alive. So she’ll probably come back.”
Ichiba was trying to comfort him, Asuma realized; it made something twist in his chest.
“She’s coming back,” he said, with all the conviction he could find. “And we’re getting out of here. I wasn’t kidding about people looking for me. We’ll burn this whole damn place to the ground, and you can see your sister dance for Autumn again, ‘cos I ain’t leaving you behind, either.”
He’d get out every last person in the cells, if he could.
If his guess was right.
Ichiba’s eyes were like cuts of shadow. “Are you sure? You promise?”
Asuma would have knelt under Kaminari’s knife for the chance to throw his arms around Ichiba’s shoulders right then. “I promise,” he said, and hoped he wasn’t lying. “Now howsabout we annoy the guards until Katsuko gets back? Do you know Vertical Limit?”
Ichiba gave him a puzzled look.
“Coldforged?” Asuma tried. “Strands of Life? What about Shuriken Force?”
“Are they films?” Ichiba asked.
“Oh man, kid, you make me sad. They’re bands. D’you at least know Shutdown Assassin?” Asuma’d had their name tattooed between his shoulderblades for two years, admittedly in slightly blurry ink.
Ichiba shrugged one shoulder, eerily like Katsuko. Asuma cast about for something everyone knew, no matter the village.
“How about ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’?”
White teeth flashed suddenly in the dark. “My dad sings that one.”
Asuma grinned back. “Bet I’m louder.”
He had to sing alone at first; Ichiba was too afraid to lift his voice. Asuma wasn’t exactly tuneful, but he made up for it with volume, and by the third line the woman who’d chanted sutras with Ichiba had started to laugh, rough and grating, before she joined in.
I don’t want to be a soldier,
I don’t want to go to war,
I’d rather stay at home,
Around the streets to roam,
And live on the earnings of a lady dancer.
Ichiba managed one line, uncertain but trying, before falling silent again when his eyes flicked to the door. Asuma straightened his back, achieving something that was almost a harmony with the nameless kunoichi.
I don’t want a knife in my belly,
I don’t want my jewels blown away,
I’d rather stay at home
Around the streets to roam,
Three more voices joined in for the last line, reminding Asuma of trenches and campfires and howling music at the night sky, because singing was better than mourning the ones who wouldn’t come home. Ichiba’s was one of them.
And fornicate my bleeding life away!
A man’s cracked-glass laugh bounced off metal and stone. “Do you know ‘Devil’s Run’?” he called, half a dozen cells down. The slur of his voice made it sound as if his jaw didn’t work quite right.
In answer, Asuma winked at Ichiba and tipped his head back.
I'm broke and I'm hungry.
I'm hard up and lonely,
I've been dancing on this killing floor for years.
And of the few things that I’m certain,
I'm the captain of my burden.
I'm sorry doll, I could never stop the rain.
Katsuko’s tunic had been ruined when Kaminari cut her out of it, so they strapped her to the gurney naked as the day she was born. Cold air ghosted over her skin, but she didn’t shiver; she lay there with her eyes closed, feeling heat rise from her body in waves. Eventually, in slow increments, the world beyond the backs of her eyelids began to register.
Someone was singing.
No, a lot of someones were singing. The thought was ludicrous enough for Katsuko to open her eyes, staring at the ceiling as it rolled past. Her chakra roiled, tearing at her pathways as it fought to settle. The seal on her stomach pulsed, pressing at her insides like a thousand needles. She whimpered.
“The hell is going on?” the orderly pushing the gurney growled. The voices were getting louder as they got closer to the cells. Katsuko twitched, hands opening and closing in their metal restraints. The gurney jerked to a stop underneath a large, black water-stain she’d seen a thousand times before; one of the orderlies ripped open the door to the cells and stood still on the threshold.
The prisoners were singing. Katsuko lifted her head, heart pounding, and stared into the darkness of the cells. The gurney lurched, rolling forward, and the voices echoing in the cold stone hall broke and scattered like leaves on the wind. A few brave souls continued, even as a group of orderlies started down the hallway with murder in their eyes.
“Katsuko! What’ve you done to her, you bastards?” Asuma’s shout cut through the fog in her head; she blinked in surprise and looked over to find him pressed up against the bars of his cell, face pinched and white.
The orderly ignored him, opening the door to her cell and wrapping meaty hands around her bare shoulders and under her knees to lift her from the gurney. Katsuko braced herself as his muscles bunched and he tossed her inside with a heave; she hit the ground with a short yelp and curled into a ball on the sticky rushes, keening.
There was a short scuffle in the hall; Katsuko looked up in time to see Asuma reeling the orderly in against the bars of his cell, face twisted in a snarl as he choked the man. There was a sharp crack and the orderly reared away, gurgling and clutching at a broken jaw.
“Ha,” Katsuko croaked.
Then she passed out.
In retrospect, it was not the smartest idea he’d ever had.
It wasn’t even an idea now. The orderly had flung Katsuko onto the floor of her cell, distracted enough by her cut-off cry and naked, suture-crossed body to step close to Asuma’s cell for one shining moment; Asuma had driven both arms through the bars and just grabbed.
The snap of bone under his hands was the best thing he’d heard in two days.
Things happened fast after that. He lost his grip on the orderly when the man wrenched himself away. The second orderly flashed through a blur of hand-seals and slammed both palms against the bars, lighting up the entire row of cells with scorching, burning lightning. A half-dozen screams ripped from ragged throats. Asuma was thrown against the back wall of his cell, hitting the stone hard and the floor harder.
Some kind of alarm must have been tripped, because four more men came crashing through the doors. The injured orderly was grabbed and yanked to one side, his jaw roughly examined by a red-headed man with thin scabbing cuts criss-crossing his arms and hands; one of the orderlies Asuma had injured on the observation deck.
“Grab him,” snapped the red-head, glaring at Asuma, and Asuma reflected that this was probably going to hurt.
He fought to make it back on his feet as the cell door clanged open. A short, thick billy-club cracked him across the cheek, knocking him back to one knee; agony shredded through his already aching head. He surged up, trying to slam at least one of them in the gut. He got at least one blow in before he was smashed down again and kicked hard in the ribs.
“You again,” grunted a man’s voice. “You’re going to regret that.”
Asuma bared his teeth, panting blood where the inside of his cheek had split open on the edges of his molars. “I regret not breaking your neck.”
Katsuko wasn’t moving. She’d stopped making that thin, high, hurting sound. Distantly, he could hear Ichiba crying her name.
Hands grabbed his arms, dragging him out of the cell. He was thrown down in front of the man with red hair, who kicked him onto his back and pressed a booted foot on his throat. More feet stamped down on his hands, pinning him spreadeagled. The red-head leaned his weight on Asuma’s throat.
“Kaminari said to keep you alive,” he said conversationally, “but that’s a very loose concept around here. Your girlfriend is alive; I suggest you keep your mouth shut and enjoy that while it lasts.”
Fear curled coldly down Asuma’s spine, but it was buried under the avalanche of blind fury. He kicked out, desperate to at least break one enemy kneecap, and choked out the best approximation of a threat he could.
The red-head sighed and leaned harder. “Yotan, Kazu, explain how things work around here. I don’t think our guest is listening to me.”
An ugly laugh rippled around the little circle of men.
The first kick came hard and well-aimed, cracking something in Asuma's chest. He grunted, but didn't have the air to yell. The second kick caught him lower, in the unguarded curve of his side where there was no shielding bone. Then they just hammered him. He rode it out; he'd been trained. He'd been beaten before. He'd been in a war. A circle of blood-hungry Lightning-thumpers wasn't the worst thing that'd ever happened to him.
It was a little harder to hang onto that thought when they dislocated his shoulder.
Ichiba had quieted. The hoarse-voiced woman -- Shiga, she’d said her name was -- was groaning something, but it drowned in a scream when the orderlies lit the cell bars up again.
Darkness had begun to crowd the corners of Asuma’s vision before the red-head called a halt. They hauled him up, dragging a strangled cry from him when they wrenched on his arm, and threw him back into his cell. The red-head followed, crouching down next to him. Asuma tried to breathe and choked on blood.
The red-head fisted a hand in his hair, yanking him onto his side, and smashed his face into the floor, breaking his nose with precision.
“Reckon Kaminari would thank me for that,” he murmured in Asuma’s ear. He patted the back of Asuma’s neck. “Now keep quiet, or I’ll let Yotan drag you out and fuck you until you cry.”
He stood before Asuma could gather his wits or a response, and strode out of the cell. The gated door clanged shut.
“Someone get the girl a blanket. Obuyon, take Totsu to get his jaw fixed.” The man’s voice lifted, echoing through the silent cell block. “If I hear one musical note from any of you, I’ll cut off your right hands. All of you. Now keep it the hell down.”
The outer door slammed behind him as he left.
Another nasty little laugh went through the remaining knot of men. Katsuko’s cell door was opened and a soft thump sounded before the door closed again. Footsteps filed out. The outer door slammed again.
“Asuma?” Ichiba whispered. He sounded thick and half-muzzled, as if he had his hands over his mouth. As if he’d been crying again.
Slowly, Asuma tried to push himself up. He made it to one elbow. Katsuko was a boneless, shadowed shape in the wavering dark, a thin blanket tossed carelessly across her bare legs. He spat blood, inhaled agony, and forced himself to get over to the grating. Whatever they’d broken in his chest shifted slightly, making his vision grey. His dislocated arm wouldn’t work at all.
He couldn’t get his functioning arm through the bars enough to reach Katsuko.
“Asuma?” said Ichiba again.
“Sssorry, kid,” Asuma managed, slurred and half-drowned in the red pouring from his nose. He let his head drop down onto the dirt-packed, reed-strewn floor. At least now he couldn’t smell the rot.
Katsuko still wasn’t moving. He passed out against the bars, unable to tell if she was breathing.
Katsuko clawed her way out of sleep, fingers scrabbling at the seal burned onto her stomach. She rolled to her knees, panting, crouched in the darkening gloom as she wrapped her arms around her middle. Her chakra throbbed, swelling up like a bruise as her coils fought to contain the influx of energy. “Oh gods, oh gods...”
The wards and dampening seals inlaid in the floor and walls dulled the roar of her chakra to something manageable, if painful. If they’d left her in the operating room for observation, she’d probably already have burnt to a crisp.
There was a shuffle of movement from Ichiba’s cell. “Katsuko? Katsuko! You’re alive!”
She lifted her head, meeting Ichiba’s teary gaze with a watery grin. “Looks that way, kid.”
He sobbed, reaching for her in a futile gesture. “Katsuko, oh gods, Asuma--after they threw you, he got so angry that he--and then they--”
Asuma was slumped against the grating between their cells, one arm dangling through the bars. Katsuko scrambled over to him, grabbing at his wrist to check for a pulse. The weak, steady beat of the big vein against the pads of her fingers made her sway in relief. “He’s alive.”
Ichiba let out a long breath.
“Asuma,” she whispered, cupping his cheek in one hand. “Asuma, I made it back. Please, wake up.”
He breathed, slow and halting, and didn’t wake up. The orderlies had broken his nose and bruised his face and chest, deep painful welts that made her wince just looking at them. His shoulder was swollen, probably dislocated. Katsuko looked around, saw the blanket and crawled back to retrieve it. Asuma stirred a little as she draped it over his shoulders, but he didn’t wake up to protest and he needed the warmth more than she did. The seal had burned all the cold out of her, maybe for good.
She clasped his hand and curled up against the grate to wait.
Several hours later, she was woken from a light doze by a bone-rattling groan. Asuma shifted, trying to pull his arm back, and paused as Katsuko tightened her grip. Very slowly, he blinked and stared at her through two black eyes. “Hey, swee’heart,” he slurred, teeth bloody. “Y’look beautiful.”
“You look like shit,” she told him bluntly, vision blurring a bit. She wrapped her free arm over his uninjured shoulder and pressed her forehead against his, lightly. “But thanks for breaking that bastard’s jaw.”
He leaned in and gave her a bloody-mouthed kiss, sharp with relief and the tang of copper. “Any time.”
She blinked, lips parting in surprise. “I think,” she told him, dazedly. “I think that was my first kiss.”
He brushed the backs of his fingers against her cheek, smiling. Somehow, even with the bloody teeth, he managed to make it look charming. “Want to make it two?” A frown creased his brow, briefly. “You’re hot, sweetheart.”
She rolled her eyes. “They shaved my head. I’m bald. You’re obviously just deranged.”
After a moment, though, she tilted her head and leaned back in, pressing her lips against his curiously. He kissed her back, making an irritated noise when the grating between their cells blocked him from reaching any further. Then he pulled back, catching an unsteady breath. "No, I mean literally hot. You're fevered."
Well, that made more sense.
Katsuko scooted back, motioning at her stomach where the seal was branded. “Kaminari put this on me. Screwed with my chakra big-time. I’m guessing the heat’s just a side effect.”
As Asuma stared down at her naked torso, Ichiba made a scandalized noise. “What are you guys doing?”
He’d seen a glimpse of it before, when they’d wheeled her past and flung her into her cell, but she hadn’t been glowing then. Her belly had already had a scar stretching from hip to hip, cut low and healed knotted, like barbed wire. Now a handspan width of it had been sliced into again and sutured closed with ugly black stitches, square under her navel.
Her navel which was glowing.
A complex, blurred design stretched over the majority of the lower half of her hollow stomach, cradled between knife-edge hipbones. It looked like they’d shoved a seal inside her, right into the root-structure of her chakra.
For the first time in his life, Asuma wished he knew a damn thing about fuuinjutsu.
Very carefully, he forced himself onto his knees. His dislocated arm dragged, pulling brutally on the popped socket. He’d need to do something about that soon, but Katsuko first.
“You’re a firefly, beautiful,” he told her raspily. “Does it hurt?”
Katsuko paused, as if she didn’t have an answer immediately to hand and hadn’t thought to look for one. She glanced down and poked gently at the seal, which made every hair on the back of Asuma’s neck rise. “It’s kind of numb, actually.”
“I didn’t say poke it,” he said. “Don’t antagonize it!”
She laughed -- then realized he was serious, and ducked her head sheepishly. “Sorry,” she said. “Guess this is new for you.”
Asuma’s stomach dropped into his stolen boots. New for you. As if being dragged away at any hour to be sliced open, stitched back together, and thrown down here to rot was perfectly normal. As if there was no point of thinking about pain, or what any of it was actually for, because tomorrow it would probably happen again and first kisses were more interesting.
He shifted, and her blanket slipped from his back.
“Sweetheart, you’re breaking my heart,” he said softly, and reached through the bars for her with his working hand.
Her brow creased non-understanding, but she came to him, taking his hand with her fever-warm fingers and curling up against the grate, as if she could bleed through the bars. He squeezed her hand, bowing his head to rest his forehead against metal, mouth brushing the rabbit-fur softness of her shorn hair.
The fingers of his right hand bumped the floor. He caught his breath on a groan as pain shattered through his shoulder.
“Need t’ ask you a favour,” he managed. “Think you could hold my hand while I put my shoulder back?”
She twisted to give him a worried look, eyebrows pinched together, but nodded. “Wondered when you were going to get around to that.”
“Still working my way up to it,” he muttered, freeing his hand from her grip. He took hold of his hanging right wrist and managed to bring the arm up, gritting his teeth. “Help me get my fingers around the bar? Just need you t’ hold the hand there while I pull.”
She did exactly as he asked, gaze steady and calm, and locked both hands around his wrist when he managed to get a weak grip. He could still feel his fingers, at least.
From across the hall, a slightly plaintive voice asked: “What are you doing now?”
Katsuko’s mouth shaped a fleeting smile. Asuma pulled up a grin that was mostly a grimace, took a deep breath, and nodded.
She pulled his arm up the bar, raising it level to his shoulder. He turned away and leaned his full weight on the arm, stretching it out. He felt the colour drain from his face. Sweat burned down his naked back. Bone grated on bone as the head of humerus dragged across the edge of the socket, fighting hours of stiff swelling. Asuma dragged on smoke and fumes and empty reserves and pulled. Katsuko tightened her hands around his wrist and yanked the other way.
With a dull, popping crack the joint twisted back into place.
“Son of a bitch,” Asuma hissed, while little lights went off behind his eyes. Katsuko loosened her grip. He pulled the arm carefully back, feeling bone slide in the way it was supposed to, and breathed through the rush of shocky -- but fading -- agony. Rested his forehead against the bars. “That tickled my funny bone.”
Katsuko exhaled and gave him an extremely dry look. “Your sense of humour’s still there, so I guess you’re fine.”
Asuma looked at her from under his eyebrows. “Yours seems to be sticking, too, but you’re lit up like a birthday cake.”
Katsuko gave an expansive shrug. “I am my very own night-light,” she announced with mock solemnity.
"You are your very own touched-in-the-head," Asuma told her, in some cross-hatch between fondness and worry. His eyes flicked down again, but this time didn’t linger on the seal. He lifted an eyebrow at her. “Want the blanket back, pretty girl, or are you happy hanging out in the breeze?”
She blinked in confusion before remembering she was naked. “I am fifteen,” she told him, desert-dry. “I can also count all my ribs. There is nothing to hang out. You are ridiculous.” After a moment, she added, “You need it more than I do. I’m not cold.”
“Cold wasn’t my worry,” he said, an edge entering his voice. “I'm seventeen. Technically that makes me your senpai, and as your glorious leader I'm instigating a basic clothes-wearing policy." He leaned over, carefully, picking up the blanket and passing it through the bars.
Katsuko accepted it with a reluctant smile, wrapping it around her shoulders. “As long you don’t expect me to call you ‘senpai’ and flutter my eyelashes.”
Whatever reply Asuma was going to make was cut off by the basement door slamming open. Katsuko froze, eyes going toward the empty gurney an orderly pushed into the hall. The restless muttering of the prisoners faded into silence, drowned out by the squeak of rusty wheels.
The gurney stopped in front of Ichiba’s cell. The boy whimpered, scrambling back as the orderly unlocked the door.
“No!” Katsuko flung herself against the bars of her cell, heedless of the pain in her abdomen roaring back to life. All she could think of was the new depth of madness in Kaminari’s eyes, the careless cruelty that had drowned out even the trained precision of a scientist. “Ichiba!”
“Katsuko!” Ichiba sobbed as the orderly picked him up with one arm, flinging him onto the gurney mattress and buckling his wrists into the leather restraints.
Asuma stumbled to the bars of his own cell. "It'll be okay, kiddo. You're going to come back. You're tough as nails." He looked over at the orderly and snapped, “Gentle, you bastard. He's just a kid!"
The orderly grunted, ignoring them as he finished with the ties at Ichiba’s ankles. Katsuko swore, fury and blind panic blurring her vision. “Take me instead,” she pleaded. “The seal’s acting up again--Kaminari would want to see that. Please, don’t take him.”
The orderly grunted. “Don’t worry, kid. You’re next on the list.” He looked down at Ichiba, snapping, “Stop crying!”
Ichiba craned his head to look at Katsuko, eyes huge and dark in his face. Katsuko sobbed, reaching for him even as the gurney lurched into motion again and the orderly pulled the basement door shut behind them.
Asuma breathed out hopeless rage against the iron bars, and closed his eyes. The cell block clanged with empty silence; the only sound was Katsuko’s raspy, breathless crying, somehow worse than the dying-dog keening she’d done before.
They’d cut Ichiba open, rip him apart, stitch him back together. Kill him by inches, and the last thing Asuma and Katsuko had done was ignore him.
He’d lost track of time between the stretches of unconsciousness and the light never changing, but it felt like days had passed since they’d first dragged him down here. The dry-mouthed, aching-headed, hollow-stomached feeling backed that up. Did people never get fed here?
No, people just died here.
Children died here.
What had happened to that unzipped woman?
You can see your sister dance for autumn again, ‘cos I ain’t leaving you behind, either.
Are you sure? You promise?
He’d lied, and if he screamed about it they’d come back and a cut a hand off everyone still breathing. Fuck you until you cry. More likely they’d drag Katsuko out and rape her in front of him, unless their tastes really ran towards tall, hairy teenagers with broken noses.
Had they already touched her?
He turned away from the outer door, shoving his right, re-located arm painfully through the bars of his cell bars, reaching for Katsuko. These bars were wider than the grating; he could get his arm through almost to the shoulder. He couldn’t see Katsuko -- the wall was in the way -- but he could feel her shaking, sharp-carved shoulder pressed against the bars of her cell. Feel the splash as hot tears hit his hand. She’d already lost one friend today.
“Sweetheart,” he tried, but it came out raw. He stretched and managed to get his arm partway around her, hugging her against metal and stone. “He’ll come back. You did.”
For a long moment, she said nothing at all, just leaned against his arm and shook, frightening-warm. Then she choked her tears down, locking them back into whatever place she kept them to stay sane. Her voice was shredded whisper. “I’m tired.”
His eyes burned.
“I know,” he said, and wished he could just hug her. Wrap her up against his chest and take her home. Six months. “Don’t give up on me, beautiful.”
A raspy chuckle barely stirred the air. Her fingers wrapped around his hand and squeezed tight. “Never.”
Brave, fierce warrior-woman. He caught his breath, something like love and fear and rage making a wordless tangle in his broken chest, and held her tighter.
Which was when the door slammed open and orderlies poured in.
There were no gurneys this time, just a flood of six men running down the cell block. One of them checked at Asuma’s cell and smashed his billy-club across the bars, catching Asuma on his re-set shoulder.
“You stupid son of a bitch,” he snapped, while Asuma staggered back, retching on pain. “This is all your fault.”
“Obuyon!” shouted one of the orderlies. “There’s no time, move your ass!”
The man snarled and vanished. Down the hallway a bright, crackling whoosh of chakra blazed into smoke and heat and the sound of Shiga screaming.
They were setting the cells on fire.
Katsuko stared at the smoke rising from two cells down and realized, distantly, that she was going to die. The stench of burning meat filled her nose and she gagged, covering her mouth as more orderlies rushed by.
Asuma shook himself out of a daze and hammered at the bars of his cell, yelling, “You can’t do this! Those are people! You can’t burn people.”
A man screamed as he burned, a high, thin, animal sound. The flames were spreading to their part of the hall now, bright and ugly. Katsuko hunkered down on the floor, trying to breathe through the smoke. The same dried rushes she’d slept on for six months would serve as the kindling for the flames that would burn her alive. Maybe it was better this way; maybe she’d be able to rest at last.
Like hell. She wanted to live.
Asuma flinched and crouched down again, curling an arm over his head. Katsuko reached for him, taking his hand in hers. Part of the ceiling collapsed; vague shapes moved through the screen of smoke. Katsuko gasped for air, throat seared raw as black crept in the corners of her vision. Her fingers tightened around Asuma’s, once, in farewell.
Then she let go, and put her head down, and waited for the flames. The last thing she saw before closing her eyes was the basement door crashing open and a group of masked figures charging into the cells.
He couldn’t reach Katsuko.
There was chakra in the flames, making them roar like dragon’s breath as they tore through seals and cells and people. There was still screaming, but it was breaking apart as throats and lungs burned black. Asuma retched again, tasting cooked flesh and old blood, eyes streaming tears. All the oxygen was boiling out of the room, sucked into fire.
He barely heard the door crash, or the swearing, order-barking thunder of Konoha shinobi breaking in. He stripped skin from his arm trying to get to Katsuko, but she was out of reach.
There were still orderlies controlling the jutsu. They met the masked ANBU head on, flinging flame and steel at them.
Fire twisted across the ceiling, close enough that the heat of it tightened Asuma’s skin. The seals surrounding Katsuko’s cell lit up and blistered away, and her chakra raged. The weight of it hit him like a hammer, throwing him clear into the opposite wall. He hit stone and then the floor, fireworks cracking off inside his skull. The fire in her cell flashed white and blue, blazing like a gaslight.
Distantly, he thought he heard her scream.
A single suicidal ANBU broke away from the pack and blasted through Katsuko’s cell door, throwing himself into the heart of that flame. There was a thump of strange chakra, a blur of two bodies and a pair of gloved hands shaping seals, another scream, deeper and rougher--
Flame flashed, blinding and burning.
Then they were gone.
Asuma didn’t have the breath to scream. The fight between the pack of ANBU and the remaining orderlies was short and bloody, ending when a freezing water jutsu flooded the cell block. The fire went out like it had never existed, leaving blackened stone and charred bodies, and a thin film of heat in the air. Asuma lay half-conscious in a hand-deep lake of brackish grey water, trying to breathe through the aching crack in his chest and the agony in his head.
“One of ‘em’s alive!”
His cell door broke open. Quick hands checked his pulse, lifted him upright. An ox-masked face wavered in front of his eyes. “Sarutobi Asuma?”
Smoke-choked vocal chords wouldn’t let him get an answer out. He wrapped his hand around a gauntleted arm and took three tries to scout-sign Yes.
“We’ve been looking for you,” said the Ox. “You scared the hell out of Nozao when you vanished. Took him a day and a half to track you. You’re lucky we were nearby.”
A sharp voice came from the hall. “The scientists are gone. Masa found a kid in the operating room, says he’s okay. Sarutobi alive?”
“Just about,” said the Ox.
“Get him out of there.”
Asuma’s fingers slipped and skidded on the bone-white gauntlet, but he managed to get out: Girl?
Behind the mask, brown eyes darkened. The Ox turned towards the hall. “Any word on Hiku?”
“Found him outside. He’s blasted to hell, but Kiyoko reckons he’ll keep his arm. Don’t think the girl made it, though. Kiyoko said she wasn’t breathing.”
There was a noise in the cell, like someone groaning through glass, and Asuma realized it had come from his own throat. His fingers clenched hard around the ANBU’s wrist and his eyes blurred; warmth and wet spilled down his cheeks, worse than blood.
The ANBU gripped his arm. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ll take you home.”
“No.” He forced the words out, more shape than sound. “The kid’s--Kusa. Ichiba. Take--him home.”
The ANBU blinked once. In the slatted, smoky light, the scars on his bare shoulder looked like roots writhing under skin. “We won’t leave you,” he said quietly.
“Can’t take me,” Asuma groaned. “Free agent. Signed the--paperwork.”
The agent in the hallway made an impatient sound. “We’ll debrief him in a civilian hospital if we have to, just get him off the floor, Namiashi. Kiyomayu’s got field-medic training, and Tadayu used to be Intel. Take them with you. This mess’ll take weeks to clear up.” He strode away, yelling something about trackers.
Namiashi pushed his mask to one side, revealing that the scars ran all the way up to the bridge of his nose. He didn’t look much older than Asuma. “I really don’t like that guy,” he muttered, then nodded when another agent appeared in the door. “Kiyomayu, help me out here.”
She was an Uchiha. Asuma looked up into a pair of blood-red, flickering eyes, and the whole world slipped away.
Chakra slammed into her chest, a spike of pure energy that dragged her back from a world of hazy grey. Katsuko sucked in a copper-tinged breath, cracking swollen eyes open as far as they could go.
The air smelled wet, like earth and trees and the open sky. The damp bank of a burbling stream greeted her, choked with ferns and moss-grown stones. A rabbit startled at her gaze, leaping into the undergrowth with a rustle of leaves. Something called overhead; it took Katsuko a moment to recognize it as a crow, winging its way south.
She was outside, in the light of day, while somewhere below Asuma and Ichiba burned alive. Freedom turned to ashes in her mouth, twisting her voice into a low groan. The seal on her stomach throbbed, trying to tear her coils apart with single-minded purpose. She had half a mind to let it.
Foreign chakra wrapped around hers, soft and kind. A gloved hand smoothed over her forehead as a woman’s voice ordered, “Stay still. I’ve dampened your chakra, but it’s only temporary.”
A tiger mask swam into her line of sight, blue eyes tinged with pity in the dark hollows of reinforced porcelain.
“ANBU,” Katsuko spat, head pounding. “Why didn’t you come sooner?”
Tiger didn’t react, simply pressed two glowing fingers to Katsuko’s temple.
Things faded out, for a while.
The next time she came to someone had laid her out on a bedroll, cocooning her up to the neck in a clean field blanket. Tiger and a male ANBU with his arm in a sling were conferring nearby, voices drifting in and out of hearing range. Katsuko kept her breathing steady and listened with all she had.
“...need a fuuinjutsu expert. My dampening jutsu’s barely holding on her as it is...”
“...destroyed that hell-pit. No survivors except for...”
“...leader and her husband escaped. Taichou says--”
No survivors. No one except for her. No one else had been dragged out of that blaze, because no else’s chakra had threatened to bring the very foundations of the facility down on their heads. Katsuko remembered the seal twisting as the dampening wards went down, her coils bleeding light as they tried to consume her as surely as the flames would have.
Be strong, my child.
Don’t give up on me, sweetheart.
Grief slid its blade between her ribs, making each breath sharp and painful, but she had nothing left for tears. Katsuko stared up at the sky, eyes dry, chest hollowed-out and empty. Under the blanket, one hand crept up to splay over the dried ink on her stomach.
Anger. Anger was better. It was easy to recall the amusement in Kaminari’s green eyes, the cold malice in Inazuma’s. Easier still to relive each minute cut of the scalpel, the grate of bone under Inazuma’s hard hands, every time Kaminari called her ‘Yoshiko’ before tearing her apart.
Hakuin’s hand cold in hers, Ichiba screaming her name as they wheeled him away, Asuma’s red-stained smile--she carved a special place in her memory for those, a box she could take out and go through when she was in the mood for a little self-loathing.
Something dark and ugly pooled in the hollow of her stomach. Katsuko wrapped herself around it like a lifeline, pushing herself up from the bedroll with one shaking arm.
The ANBU stilled and turned, painted faces tilted in her direction. Tiger moved to Katsuko’s side, hands glowing green. “How are you feeling?”
“Functional,” Katsuko answered, shortly. “How soon can we get back to Konoha?”
Tiger’s companion had blond, spiky hair sticking up from behind his eagle mask. It swayed a little as he crouched down beside the bedroll, one hand hovering over Katsuko’s shoulder. “Depends on what Kiyoko’s exam turns up, kid. We’re not gonna risk moving you with internal injuries. Why, you in a hurry?”
This close, Katsuko could see the wide, friendly set of his brown eyes. She looked at him, and whatever he saw reflected in her own made him draw back. She cracked a smile. “You could say I’ve got things to do.”
Kaminari and Inazuma were still alive, and there was nothing left in her to mourn for what she’d lost. Revenge would have to do.