| Aren't Any Heroes Here [1/2] [Katsuko]
||[Jan. 31st, 2012|03:40 pm]
[[Backstory: Takes place during the 6-month timeskip, in early July]]
They’d told her to report at 0600. At 0610 Katsuko slammed open the door to briefing room three, her mission scroll in one hand and a sandwich in the other. “Ueno Katsuko,” she panted into the sudden silence. “Reporting for duty.”
The Intel agent standing at the head of the table glared at her. “You’re late, Ueno,” he said.
“Sorry, sorry,” Katsuko said, pulling out the closest chair and sinking into it with a relieved sigh. An amused snort made her start and turn, blinking at the room’s two other occupants.
Akimichi Daichi was leaning against the far wall, arms folded over his barrel-like chest. He lifted a large hand in greeting, a smirk crossing his usually placid features. “Slept in again, I see. How you doing, Ueno?”
Katsuko grinned, taking a bite out of her sandwich as she slipped the mission scroll into her belt pouch. "Pre’ee goo,” she said, through a mouthful of ham and cheese. “Coul’ be be’er, but y’know.”
The woman sitting cross-legged on the floor next to Daichi chuckled. "That’s disgusting, Ueno. My five-year-old cousin has better manners than you.”
Katsuko made an obscene gesture in reply and the woman laughed, slapping her thighs before getting to her feet. Standing, Akimichi Honoka towered a good three inches over her twin brother— and that was before you added in the spiked red mohawk that rose like a parrot’s crest feathers from her scalp. Katsuko wrinkled her nose as the older woman rapped her on the forehead with scarred knuckles, knowing that Honoka could crush her skull with a single unrestrained punch.
The Intel agent cleared his throat, drawing their attention back to the front of the room. “If we could begin? I’m Takeshi, and the man you’re going to retrieve is my direct subordinate.”
He slid three slim files across the table to each of them. Katsuko flipped hers open, thumbing through the thin sheaf of papers. Takeshi had flagged a photo of a young, unsmiling man with dark green eyes; tilting the photo at an angle revealed a red tint to the his shoulder-length hair.
“Suguro Mitsuno,” Takeshi said. “He infiltrated the missing-nin group 'Kuroshi', led by Higekuro Isamu. Members are identified by a tattoo on their hands, like so.” He held up a drawing of a stylized scythe, done in swirling black ink.
“'Kuroshi'? Black Death? Aw hells, these guys have no creativity,” Daichi said.
Honoka snorted. “What were the last two called? The Mountain Demons and… the Doombringers. Harbingers. Whatever. Missing-nin have an obsession with death, doom, and blood. Not necessarily in that order.”
“And there’re only so many sinister names to go around. More than enough horrible fashion sense to share, though.”
“Do you remember that Iwa-nin with the fishnet veil? What was the point of—"
Takeshi cleared his throat again. “Yesterday, Suguro sent word that his cover was compromised. He’s hiding in the town of Taizan, three miles from the border of Fire Country. You have forty-eight hours before Kuroshi discovers he’s gone. You leave… you should have left five minutes ago, but as we were unexpectedly delayed, you leave now.”
"What, now?” Daichi groaned. “I haven’t even eaten yet. I need my fuel.”
Honoka dug a ration bar out of her belt pouch and threw it at him. Katsuko chuckled as she stood and pushed her chair back, pulling her mask over her face.
Mid-morning found them well on the way to Taizan, Honoka leading them in a tight wedge formation as they followed a winding path through the trees. The new radio headsets that HQ had gifted them with were an interesting novelty; the neckstrap to Katsuko’s sat awkwardly around her throat, chafing at her skin. She adjusted the earpiece and tugged at the wires, grumbling.
“Oi, Ueno.” Daichi leapt down beside her from the branches above, matching his stride to hers. “I’m gonna need Kaguhiro’s help for this. Just a warning.”
Katsuko gave him a plaintive look. “Do you really have to call him?”
Daichi had already unfurled his summoning scroll, surrounding himself—and her—in a cloud of foul-smelling smoke. There was a burst of foreign chakra, the clatter of hooves on tree branches, and then an annoyed foghorn of a voice rumbled, “Oh, damn it, you know I hate tree-running. What the hell is Ueno doing here? We do just fine with you and me and Honoka, we don’t need some butter-fingered rookie. I still got scars from the last time she ran with us.”
Katsuko’s smile was all teeth. “Maybe my katana slipped on purpose last time, Kaguhiro.”
“That’s Kaguhiro the Boar Lord to you, brat.”
“Pretty high and mighty for someone with no opposable thumbs.”
The smoke dissipated to reveal a wild boar the size of a small horse, leaping through the trees beside Daichi with the ease of a squirrel. It swiveled its head around to glare at Katsuko, curved tusks glinting. “Bringing the thumbs thing up again, rookie? I’ll tell you what—"
Honoka glanced back over her shoulder. “Children,” she said. “If we could stop our squabbling and concentrate on the mission, it would be much appreciated.”
Daichi snickered. “Right. Kaguhiro, check with the boar clan near Taizan to see if there's anything goin’ on."
With a last dirty look at Katsuko, the boar disappeared in a burst of sulfuric smoke.
"He doesn't like me," Katsuko said as soon as the stink had cleared from the air. "Next time you sign a summoning contract, Daichi, make sure it's for a rabbit or something. I heard they're nicer."
"Of course, Ueno-kun,” Daichi said. “Anything to spare your feelings."
Taizan should have been bustling with activity this late in the afternoon. The eerie silence of the town and Kaguhiro’s expression as he ran up to meet them were the first clues that the mission wasn’t going to go as planned.
"Something’s wrong," Kaguhiro rumbled, pawing the ground. "Everyone’s scuttling around like they’re afraid the Daimyo’s going to drop an army on their heads. The Taizan boars are frightened out of their wits—they were all set to leave clan territory when I got there."
"Any sickness or recent bandit raids?" Honoka asked. The three ANBU stood in a clearing several miles from the rendezvous point. The rooftops and outer wall of Taizan were visible from above the trees. No smoke curled above Taizan’s skyline; the town and the forest surrounding it were eerily quiet.
"None, but everything’s off." The boar glanced around, searching for unseen enemies. "Our boy knows something’s up, too. He’s been holed up in that inn for two days now, barely a peep outta him.”
Daichi gripped Honoka’s shoulder. She glanced back at him. Katsuko inspected her nails as the twins held a conversation in meaningful looks and head tilts. After a minute, Daichi nodded and stepped back.
Honoka sighed and turned to Katsuko and Kaguhiro. “We’ll wait. Our mission was to get Suguro home safe, so we’ll wait. We’ll go back if it looks like an ambush.”
Kaguhiro disappeared with a puff of smoke and a snort of disapproval.
“The rendezvous point is a stream just ahead.” Honoka waved away the lingering traces of sulfur. “Suguro should meet us there in fifteen minutes.”
Fifteen minutes came and went with no sign of Suguro Mitsuno.
The silence was deafening around the little stream, with not even birdsong to break the tension. Katsuko crouched on a low-hanging tree branch, nearly shaking with adrenaline. Daichi perched high above her in the branches, clenching his summoning scroll in one fist hard enough to make it creak.
Katsuko exhaled and curled her fingers around the hilt of her kodachi, palms slippery inside her gloves. A bead of sweat slithered down her spine, adding to the creeping feeling of wrongness that had dogged her all day.
Across the stream, Honoka’s stiff red hair waved in the breeze as she started to scout sign. Five more minutes, then we head back—
She froze, head whipping around. Daichi stiffened moments before Honoka leapt off into the branches. He jumped after his sister, a blur of black and red against the trees.
Katsuko swore and sprinted after the Akimichi twins, drawing her blades as she darted through the forest canopy. Her radio headset crackled with static before Honoka’s voice came on, firm and authoritative.
“Daichi, three hostiles up ahead. Suguro’s fighting them.”
“I see them. Kuroshi?”
“They’ve got the tattoos. Third one ran, looks like he’s headed in Ueno’s direction. The other two…”
A loud battle-cry over the commlink cut her off. Katsuko winced and tapped the button on the radio neckstrap. “It’s Ueno. I’m on my—"
Enemy killing intent flared, close enough to make her skin prickle. Katsuko flinched and dove off of the branch a second before the whole tree exploded, sending charred splinters of wood into the air. Her bones jarred from the impact as she hit the ground; Katsuko ignored the pain and rolled to her feet, coughing. Smoke wreathed her in a dark cloud, obscuring her vision.
Movement out of the corner of Katsuko’s eye and instinct took over, slamming her into motion as the ground underneath her blasted into stone spikes. She sprinted up a tree trunk, swords in her hands, and reached out with her chakra. Her energy brushed against foreign coils thirty feet above her in the branches, the enemy’s chakra drawn tight with anger. A barrage of kunai whistled down to meet her; batting them aside, Katsuko put on a burst of speed and charged into the shadows, striking out with her katana. Feint left, dodge a katon from the right, and she had him. The shinobi’s eyes were just widening in surprise when she cut him in half lengthways, blood spraying in a crimson arc.
Shoving his body aside, she leapt out of the tree and tapped her radio headset. “Got the third one. Where the hell are you two?”
“Follow the path half a mile east. It’s a clearing,” Honoka instructed. “We’re trying to get to Suguro now.”
The clash of steel on steel rang loud as she neared; she landed in the clearing just in time to catch see Honoka kick a burly shinobi through a tree. She winced in sympathy.
“There you are.” Daichi popped up beside her, laughing, his mask dripping red. “Took your sweet time about it. No sleeping on the job, rookie!”
Katsuko told him where he could shove his summoning scroll, but then a whole lot more than three Kuroshi ninja leapt out from the trees and she had to fight for her life.
Minutes or hours later, in the midst of slashing and stabbing and blocking, Katsuko came face-to-face with a green-eyed man wielding a bloody garrote. He grabbed her arm.
“I’m Suguro,” he panted, shoving a scroll into her hands. “Listen, you’ve got to get your team out of here and get that back to Konoha. Higekuro’s coming with more men. It’s a godsdamned slaughter!”
She tucked the scroll into her belt and whirled, going back-to-back with Suguro as Kuroshi formed a ring around them. “Higekuro got any weaknesses we can exploit?”
“The man’s damn near indestructible,” Suguro said. “A real monster. We’d need to overwhelm him with brute force.”
Katsuko looked at him, then at the Akimichi twins tearing a bloody swathe through the enemy. Suguro laughed, a bit hysterically. “You three are good, but you can’t handle all these ninja and Isamu. He’s furious with me. He’ll tear us all—"
The panic and guilt in Suguro’s expression told her all she needed to know. “You’ve been sleeping with him, haven’t you,” Katsuko said. She decapitated one man and kicked his headless body into a group of his friends, knocking them back and buying herself some breathing room.
Suguro was silent. “He’ll go for me first,” he said. “I’ll distract him long enough for you to move in, finish him off.”
Every Kuroshi ninja in the clearing was dead or dying, but Katsuko could feel the pressure of the reinforcements’ chakra coming from the east. She sheathed her kodachi and thumped Suguro on the shoulder. “Hey,” she said, when he flinched and turned to look at her. “You’ve done more than enough, Suguro. Let us do some hero-ing, yeah?”
He clasped her hand, gripping it hard enough that she could feel her bones creak. “Yukimura. My real name is Yukimura. I just— needed someone to know that."
“Yukimura,” she said. “Yukimura, I need you to hold it together until we get out of here. More of them are coming, and we need you as back-up. Please.”
With a deep breath and a shudder that seemed to shake his very bones, Suguro—Yukimura—visibly collected himself. He met her eyes, new determination in his gaze. “I’m ready. Thank you, agent.”
She nodded and flew through the seals for her bunshin. “Stick with me. Things are about to get confusing.”
Twenty clones formed at the same time that twenty Kuroshi ninja burst into the clearing. Katsuko drew her kodachi, hefted her katana, and plunged into the fray. The next few minutes were a blur of blood and violence. She gutted one man and sliced another from collarbone to groin. Dimly, she was aware of Daichi summoning Kaguhiro and Honoka staggering back from a katon jutsu. There was the charred scent of burning meat and then Yukimura screamed, "He's here!"
A hurricane’s worth of skin-blistering chakra rose up and engulfed them all. Katsuko flinched and threw her hands up to shield her face, feeling the newcomer's energy popping her clones like balloons.
A man dropped down from the trees, landing in a crouch. A simple cloth mask was drawn up over his mouth and nose, leaving the top half of his face bare. Katsuko saw a flash of long blond hair before he straightened, a whipcord-lean, smaller-than-average shinobi with crackling daggers in each hand. He looked at Yukimura, gray eyes dark and narrowed.
Yukimura paled. "Isamu," he said. “I’m sorry.”
Another ring of ninja leapt up and surrounded them, chaos overtaking the clearing once more. Katsuko tried drag Yukimura away from the gray-eyed man—Higekuro Isamu—but the Intel agent slipped through her fingers like water and darted into the fray.
Her comm crackled to life. “Ueno!” Honoka barked in her ear. “On your six!”
Katsuko spun around and almost slammed straight into another Kuroshi shinobi. He locked gazes with her and smirked, hands twisting into the finishing Horse seal of an unknown jutsu.
A sharp lurch as the world turned sideways, and Katsuko fell.
Dark night low light pinned like a bug to a card, ribs spread open like the pages of a paperback as her heart beats a filmy red—
Someone was shaking her hard enough to rattle her teeth. "Ueno? Ueno! It was a genjutsu, snap out of it!"
Katsuko shuddered and opened her eyes, wrenched back into the present. Leaves overhead, the scrape of bark on her bare skin. She was in one of the giant trees surrounding Taizan. Daichi cradled her in his arms, brow furrowed and mouth drawn tight.
"You still with us, Ueno?"
"M'good," Katsuko lied, voice rasping. Her tongue felt swollen to twice its size, making her throat constrict as she fought for air. Nausea turned her vision an interesting green. "Where are... what happened?"
"Honoka got the genjutsu user. Mitsuno and Higekuro disappeared. Honoka went after them." The muscles in Daichi’s arms tightened, jumped. "Stupid idiot going off by herself, telling us to catch up later—"
"Blarrrrrgh." Katsuko leaned away, pulled up her mask, and emptied the contents of her stomach onto the ground below.
"...Warn me the next time you do that."
"Won't do it again," Katsuko lied again, pushing away from Daichi and lurching to her feet. "Let's go. Gotta find Honoka. Have you tried the commlinks?"
Daichi held up a tangle of wires that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be both his and Honoka's mangled headsets. "Higekuro’s second-in-command’s a kunoichi. Likes using poisoned sai. Nearly cut us both to ribbons before we got away. Fucked up our headsets good."
Katsuko peered at the burly Akimichi and saw that he was bleeding from the head from a series of shallow cuts. It looked like he'd been attacked by some wild animal.
"Let's go,” she said, fear for Honoka and Yukimura thrilling in her veins. "Which way were they headed?"
Daichi laughed grimly. "Don't know. But it'll be easy to find them. Just follow the screaming."
They were too late.
Yukimura was dead, pinned to a tree by a dagger through his heart. Honoka was flagging fast, dripping blood from every bare patch of skin Katsuko could see. A kunoichi wielding a pair of blood-stained sai longer than Katsuko’s forearm was fighting the Akimichi woman, shrieking blistering obscenities.
Daichi bellowed, dropping down on the kunoichi—Higekuro’s lieutenant—from the trees above. Katsuko made it about three steps and barely registered the flicker of chakra before Higekuro had her down with a dagger at her throat. She looked into his eyes, saw nothing sane there, and almost sighed in resignation. I’m going to die, she realized. I’m going to have my throat cut by a man who barely comes up to my shoulder.
Then Honoka slammed into Higekuro like a...like a really angry Akimichi, a wall of muscle and scars that sent him flying. Katsuko gasped and rolled away, scrabbling for her fallen swords.
Daichi let out a guttural scream, writhing as Higekuro’s lieutenant cast a jutsu that sank sickly green tendrils into his skin. Katsuko cursed and called up more clones, sending them to his defense as she struggled to her feet. She barely managed to get her blades up in time before the kunoichi was upon her, sai clashing against her katana.
Katsuko parried, stumbling back as the kunoichi scored a glancing blow against her ribs. Sharpened steel scraped against the chestplate an instant before Katsuko lunged, sinking her katana into the kunoichi’s belly. The woman collapsed against her, scarred hands clawing at Katsuko’s throat, and in that moment of distraction Higekuro struck.
“Ueno!” Honoka roared, and Katsuko had just enough time to turn around before the Akimichi woman threw herself in Higekuro’s path.
Time slowed down.
Honoka was a tall woman; all Katsuko could see of Higekuro was the tip of the crackling dagger that burst through the back of Honoka’s neck, meat and gristle and bone parting in a burst of red.
Daichi screamed again, an animal sound of pain and fury; Kaguhiro appeared in a cloud of smoke beside him, and both charged Higekuro with murder in their eyes. Katsuko broke the sai-wielding kunoichi’s neck, acting on reflex, and shoved the body out of the way just in time to catch Honoka as she fell.
A real monster, Yukimura had called him, and Katsuko could only watch in numb comprehension as Higekuro proved him right. The man slammed into Daichi like a battering ram, chakra howling up around him, and lashed out with bloody daggers. Daichi blocked two strikes, parried a third, and took the fourth right in the arm; Higekuro’s daggers flared, sparking bright, and the scent of burning meat filled the air again.
It was over before Daichi could even make a counter-attack; Higekuro twisted, inhumanly fast and savage, and sliced off Daichi’s leg at the knee. Katsuko was up and running before she registered anything else, throwing herself on Kaguhiro’s back before he could charge at Higekuro.
“Get out of here!” she yelled. “Get help!”
Kaguhiro tried to shake her off, sides heaving. “Daichi. Daichi—"
“Go!” Katsuko screamed, and Kaguhiro let out one last panicked snort before yanking himself into a translocation.
Daichi was on the ground, guttural sounds escaping his throat as he writhed. Higekuro crouched on the other side of the clearing, daggers held at the ready. Katsuko met his eyes a split second before they both lunged— Higekuro at her, Katsuko at Daichi’s prone form. Panic and adrenaline saved the day; Katsuko reached the Akimichi man a split second before Higekuro’s daggers kissed her neck, wrenching her chakra into a translocation that yanked her and Daichi out of that blood-stained clearing and into grey space.
They crash-landed in the dark, somewhere wet and earthy that smelled like mud and decay. Katsuko clung to the comforting solidity of Daichi's arm, feeling him tremble in exhaustion.
"Can't— can't breathe." Daichi fumbled at his mask, ripped it off and flung it aside like so much trash. He gasped for air, clutching at Katsuko like a drowning man. "Light. Where's the damn light?"
They were lying on a bed of something— it felt like dead leaves and twigs. She let go of him long enough to grope around for a dry branch and activate one of her pet fire jutsu, making a crude torch.
The light revealed that they'd landed in an underground hollow of sorts, damp and overgrown with creeping vines.
"Kaguhiro's gone for help," Daichi said, teeth chattering. "I don't know if I can maintain the chakra connection with him over that long of a distance."
The ceiling of the hollow shook with the strength of Higekuro’s fury. Dirt clods and pebbles rained down on them with each tremor, raising a cloud of dust that nearly obscured Daichi’s pale, drawn face. He startled like a person coming out of a bad dream. “Honoka,” he rasped, struggling to rise. “Honoka’s still out there— have to…”
Flailing to find his balance with a left foot that was no longer there, he dragged himself halfway to standing before collapsing like a broken marionette. Katsuko caught him on the way down, spreading her chakra through her limbs to soften his landing. The faint scent of charred meat reached her nose, and she tamped down the urge to vomit again when she saw the neatly cauterized stump of her partner’s left leg. The stump itself still steamed faintly from Higekuro’s chakra daggers, the frayed fabric of Daichi’s pants glowing ember bright. No blood, no fluids. As neat of an amputation as a planned surgery.
Thank the Kami she still had her mask on. Katsuko eased Daichi to the floor, breathing deep. His hair, torn free from the headcloth during their frantic dash through the trees, hung lank and sweaty in his eyes. She smoothed the stray red locks away with steady hands.
“Everything’s okay,” she lied through her teeth, the horrible image of Honoka’s fall burning in her mind's eye. “I’m going out to help Honoka right now.” She kept her voice soft and even, coaxing her partner down from the edge. Slipping a soldier pill and a painkiller out of Daichi’s belt pouch, she pressed them to the tip of his tongue and held her hand over his mouth until he swallowed. “Are you still holding on to the connection with Kaguhiro?”
She nearly cried in relief when Daichi nodded. They still had a chance. "Keep it going until he's reached Konoha. I'll keep them off you."
Daichi opened his mouth to protest, reaching out to snatch at her arm, but Katsuko was already gone.
”You’re the last of them, kunoichi?” Higekuro didn’t turn around, still staring at Yukimura’s corpse. He reached out one gloved finger to trace the contour of his lover’s cheekbone. “You’re going to pay for this.”
“Last I saw, it was you who skewered him,” Katsuko drawled, fury making her head pound in time with her heartbeat. Her eyes flickered around the clearing, taking in the charred bodies and errant gusts of smoke. She and Higekuro were the only ones alive on the battlefield. “Don’t know how you do it in Kuroshi, but running someone through isn’t exactly the way you show eternal love where I come from.”
The cloth mask over Higekuro’s face hid most of his expression, but his gray eyes narrowed as the daggers in his hands flared dark red. “Kunoichi, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Your people— you monsters made Mitsuno into this, turned him into a killer, twisted him—"
Honoka was lying where Katsuko had left her on the grass, limbs sprawled out like a rag-doll. The hole in her throat gaped red; her eyes were open behind the mask, glassy and dull.
“Suguro Mitsuno,” Katsuko said, “was a lie. I’d suggest you get over it, but it’s too late for that.” She gestured at Yukimura’s pale face, at the dull unseeing eyes still wide in surprise. "His real name was Yukimura. You were his mission. He did his duty, serving his village and friends— and for all your pretty words, you shoved that blade into his heart. Way I see it, there’s only one monster here.” She shrugged and spread her hands out wide. “And it’s my job to take care of monsters."
Underneath black cloth, Higekuro’s mouth twisted into a snarl. That tidal wave of chakra rose again, threatening to swamp her with the weight of fear. “You dare—"
Katsuko drew her swords, the blades still stained dark with blood, and made herself laugh. It came out raw, twisted and on the wrong end of sane, but Higekuro’s chakra fractured at the sound. “I dare,” she said.
He lunged for her.
Higekuro was fast, almost too fast, but fighting Honoka had tired him. Katsuko forced chakra into her aching muscles and made herself match his pace, baring her teeth as raw energy flooded her pathways. He knocked aside her katana and struck at her throat; she brought her kodachi up just in time to block and drove her heel into his knee.
Higekuro staggered, cursing, and kicked her in the stomach hard enough to knock the wind out of her; Katsuko fell, twisting into a backwards roll as she hit the ground, and came up with bloody swords held in a guard.
“Skilled,” Higekuro said, wiping one of his daggers on his sleeve. He’d cut her, Katsuko realized, just a long thin line of fire from the exposed hinge of her jaw down to the edge of her collarbone. A killing blow, if he’d pressed harder.
He was playing with her.
“My people are on their way,” Higekuro said. “End of the line, kunoichi.”
“You’re like a bad B-movie villain,” Katsuko said. “So cliche. No wonder Yukimura wanted out.”
Higekuro’s chakra raged; Katsuko braced herself an instant before he was upon her, daggers slicing a long line down her arm. He drove her back towards the edge of the clearing, blades seeking out the weak spots in her armor, and Katsuko was helpless to stop him. She lashed out wildly with her katana, sending one of his daggers spinning into the air and leaving herself wide open for when he slid in underneath her guard and struck.
“Your friend died like a dog, kunoichi.” Higekuro knocked the blades out of her hands, pinning her up against a tree with his remaining dagger at her throat. Katsuko spat at him and started the seals for a katon— only to be brought up short as he slammed a knee into her gut. She doubled over, gasping, and snarled as he tangled his hand in her hair to yank her head back in a long arch. He leaned in and whispered in her ear, “When I’m done with you, I’ll find that boy and take my time—"
Katsuko howled, an animal sound with no thought or reason behind it. Instinct moved her fingers into the correct seals; rage did the rest. The iron-clad control she kept on her chakra buckled and broke, opening the floodgates and letting raw fire pour through her veins.
Higekuro’s eyes widened in shock, and Katsuko laughed in his face before wrapping her hands around his throat, and-- let go. Her chakra roared, engulfing them both, and Katsuko closed her eyes as her world became searing white heat, a man’s shrill scream, and then—