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The Last of the Wine [Dec. 16th, 2017|07:50 pm]

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[Begins the evening of July 6, Yondaime Year 5, immediately after the end of Lost in the Dark and Trapped in Wonderland]

The tanuki refused to let Ryouma up. They crouched on his shoulders and weighed down his thighs, claws biting into his arms, tangling in his hair. He couldn't see; he could barely breathe. The wild, foxy musk of tanuki burned in his sinuses.

They were going through the packs.

One of them had opened Kakashi's trap-keyed scrolls with no more reaction than a cough at the released smoke. They bickered in low voices over the contents, shaking out pouches of shuriken, sniffing suspiciously at rat bars. "Poison," one decided. "Here, Daichi, you try—"

Daichi snapped. The first tanuki squealed. "Settle down," the biggest tanuki rumbled. "What have you found?"

The furry tide shifted. )
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Trapped in Wonderland [Nov. 11th, 2017|05:23 pm]

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[Begins July 6, Yondaime Year 5, immediately after the end of Blood in the Shadows, in parallel with Lost in the Dark]

There was a split second, right before Raidou’s blow connected, in which Genma got a solid picture of everything he’d just done wrong. His shoulder was a centimeter too low, his chin angled infinitesimally too high, his pivot milliseconds too late…

And then there was the fact that he’d predicted Raidou would lunge right rather than left. That was the big mistake. The one that bashed his mask from his face, ground his molars against each other with a crack, made him see stars, and sent him flying.

He didn’t feel himself hit the ground )
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Blood in the Shadows [Sep. 4th, 2017|04:07 pm]

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[Begins July 4, Yondaime Year 5, immediately after the end of Fire in the Mountains]

They left Hiraizumi before the festival ended. Kurenai spun a little bit of her magic with the innkeeper, allying any suspicion. (“We’ll be gone before dawn, to make good time on the road. Don’t trouble yourself with breakfast on our account.”) The kindly innkeeper had filled her hands with wrapped onigiri for the journey.

Ka-chan led them to the cut-short trail, but it was Kakashi, pinch-eyed and frustrated in the moonlight, who showed them the lack of footprints, or disturbed foliage, or any other trail sign.

Except for the scent Raidou couldn’t detect, and the collective cold prickle on their skin, there was nothing to say anything had been here. The forest was alive with night-song: the chirping insects and whooping snow-monkeys were downright raucous. Hayama, infested with scorpion-dog demons, had been deadly silent.

Genma crouched and swept his chakra out like a scythe. Kurenai, more delicately, did the same. Ryouma bent his dark head over the exact point the scent-trail ended, having Kakashi repeat a blow-by-blow account of what he’d sensed and when he’d sensed it.

Emphatically not a chakra-sensor, Raidou hung back and kept an eye on the surroundings, guarding his people while they sank through the world’s skin.

No one turned up anything new.

The next step was to run an organized grid-search around the village. Twice, Genma, Kurenai, and Kakashi swore they felt something, and Ryouma rousted what turned out to be a very surprised — and very annoyed — badger, but there were no more scent-trails.

More disturbingly, when they returned to the original spot, Kakashi reported the scent was gone. )
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Fire in the Mountains [Aug. 28th, 2017|09:57 pm]

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[Begins June 28, Yondaime year 5, three days after Hard Came the Rain]

Kurenai found Yamashiro Aoba in the Fire Country division office breakroom, stirring the third sugar packet into his paper cup of coffee and looking like microwaved death. She cleared her throat. "Have you been home in the last forty-eight hours?"

He startled, saw her, and slumped against cabinets. "Don't tell me you're here with a mission."

"Not for you." She tapped the heavy file folder tucked in her arm. "We've got a briefing scheduled for an ANBU team, but no one's seen them at HQ or the barracks. Shiranui's file says he lives with you."

A little light crept back into Aoba's eyes. "As long as I'm not going with them." He discarded the stir stick and took a long swig of coffee. "Genma finally found a new place. He's probably there working on his plumbing."

"That may be the first time you've used that word without intending a euphemism," Kurenai observed. "Do you know where the new place is?"

Aoba's eyes narrowed. "Are you doing the briefing?"

"Since Riei's busy." Shirotani seemed to have fixed on Kurenai as the ANBU Team Six expert, and Tomo and Hide were glad to dodge the duty again. Kurenai hadn't protested. She didn't exactly mind being the ANBU Team Six expert, especially if it got her out of the office early on a glorious summer evening. )
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Soldiers Don't Mourn [Feb. 26th, 2017|12:09 pm]

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[June 16, Yondaime Year 5, following Red Seas at Dawn]

Team Six picked their way down the densely vegetated slope, halting at the treeline on Raidou’s signal. At the surf’s edge, a knot of figures clustered around the husk-like bowls of a pair of ship’s boats. One or two cigarette tips flared in the darkness. Genma threaded a slip of chakra out, then nodded. “They’re civilians. Feels like the same crew who got us out here, but it’s harder to identify individuals with such low chakra reserves.”

Kakashi lifted his head and inhaled audibly. “They smell the same,” he pronounced. “More stressed than last time.”

The tone in Raidou’s voice shaded from skepticism to alarm. “You can smell stress?”

“From here?” demanded Ryouma.

“It’s a very distinctive smell,” Kakashi said with a shrug.

Of course it was. )
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Red Seas at Dawn [Feb. 7th, 2017|09:27 pm]

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[June 15, Yondaime Year 5, following Soldiers Take Flight]

A knife-chill breeze whistled off the sea as Raidou helped Kimiko down from her harness. She stumbled a little in the dry sand, stiff-legged, but veered away from Genma's supportive hand. Genma stood still for a moment, and then dropped it.

Ryouma's help wouldn't be welcome there, either. He followed Genma to the water's edge. "More swimming?"

Genma's gaze sought the distance. "You can't see our landing point because of the fog, but it's about as far as we swam to get on this island." He pointed to a thick bank of golden haze, and yawned.

The contagion spread; Ryouma's own jaw cracked. Soldier-pill energy still hummed in his veins, quickening his heartbeat like the fourth cup of coffee, but it was a poor substitute for sleep. He crouched on his heels to splash his wrists in the uprush of a broken wave. Cold water, gritty with sand, swirled over his skin.

He looked up at Genma. "How're you doing, lieutenant?"

For a moment he wasn't sure Genma would answer. )
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Soldiers Take Flight [Jan. 15th, 2017|03:56 pm]

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[Early morning hours of June 15, Yondaime Year 5, following Red Sky at Night]

Before the sound of the first explosion had died, a second shook the air, raining dust down on them from the tenement’s swaying beams. The baby’s sudden cries were muffled against Kakashi’s chest. Kimiko jerked against the straps of her sling.

“Go!” Raidou hissed.

“With me,” Genma told Fukuda. “Tousaki, you take our six.”

They emerged from the door to the wail of sirens, but a surprisingly empty street. Lights shone behind previously dark windows, but their doors were still firmly shut. A civilian populace in fear for their lives, Genma guessed.

They ran east, sticking to the darkest corners and crevices, emerging into a dank court of even more ramshackle tenements than the one where they’d found Kimiko. Sirens continued to wail, and searchlights flared to life, playing over the faces of the steep ring of mountains surrounding Kirigakure. Clouds of dust and smoke rose where the blasts had shattered whole sections of stone and set trees ablaze.

Genma gestured to the others to stay hidden )
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Red Sky at Night [Dec. 31st, 2016|06:41 pm]

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[Afternoon of June 14, Yondaime Year 5, following Soldiers Take Warning]

The rest of the morning passed uneventfully, except for Kasumi kicking Usagi in her sleep, and Kuroda scaring them all — by looking dead — until Genma pointed out that the Vice-commander was known for sleeping with his eyes open.

As planned, they struck out for the surface just before midday. Raidou kept an eye on Genma, who kept an eye on Kuroda. Sleep had done them both good: there was color in Genma’s face again, and Kuroda moved with reasonable ease despite his sling.

As before, Fukuda took point. This time flanked by Kakashi and Satomi, with Kurenai close behind to buffer the three razor personalities as needed. It didn’t escape Raidou that Team Thirteen’s commanding officers were sticking a lot closer to their rookies. Or that Ryouma was shadowing Genma’s footsteps and carefully giving Kakashi space.

Raidou trusted that time and distraction would settle them all back down.

The first breath of outside air was sticky, humid, and smelled like wet dirt. )
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Soldiers Take Warning [Nov. 29th, 2016|06:05 pm]

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[Takes place June 12–14, Yondaime Year 5, two days following Red Sky at Morning]

The morning—if you could call breaking camp at 0300 morning—had been a hectic rush of getting two ANBU teams, two Intel agents, a one-armed prisoner, and an unsatisfiable and ill-tempered commander moving in time to make port by their departure window. The ship awaiting them had looked like any of a dozen others in the dark: a long, looming hulk riding high in the water, with a pair of masts jutting up into the dark sky like two lightning-struck pines. Viney ropes had draped from mast spars, but the dragon-wing sails had still been furled.

Now, though, the sails were open and straining with the brisk breeze blowing from the west. The water was mercifully calm, an artifact of an unexpectedly late start to the June rains, according to their captain. Despite their speed, the junk cut through the sparkling waves almost without a ripple.

Genma lounged back in a coil of rope near the ship’s prow, shielding his eyes as he squinted up at his counterpart lieutenant from Team Thirteen. Sakamoto Ginta had his knees hooked through the rungs of a rope ladder and was contentedly hanging upside down, with his blond hair, for once, obeying gravity.

“He’s not much for conversation, is he?” Ginta asked, pointing a bare toe at Kakashi, who was perched above them both on the topmost spar on the forward sail.

“He grows on you,” Genma said. )
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Red Sky at Morning [Nov. 16th, 2016|05:34 pm]

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[Takes place the morning of June 10, Yondaime Year 5, three weeks following Laws of Gravity and just over a month after Salt the Earth]
WARNING FOR ANIMAL DEATH in the first two tags]

Training field three looked, and smelled, like a battlefield. Genma nudged Ryouma with his shoulder, nodding at the blood-spattered grass. “So far it’s messier than your jutsu, but at least it reeks less.”

“I’m pretty sure I can do explosive rot if you want it, Lieutenant,” Ryouma offered mildly.

“I know. That’s why we started with sardines when you and I worked on wound sealing.”

Kakashi, dripping in blood from head to toe, took a few steps out of the blast radius while a pair of chuunin brought a fresh victim to the field and secured its lead to a stout iron post. The pig, staked well upwind of the carnage, didn’t seem to be bothered by the gory remains of its predecessor. It looked around with mild interest as one of the chuunin put a bucket of feed in front of it, then began contentedly munching away.

Otani Yaeko, an observer from the Jutsu Records Office, tapped her clipboard. “How close was that attempt to Iebara’s jutsu?”

“It looks a lot like what was left of Iebara after Hatake was finished with him,” Genma said, “but nothing like the stuff Iebara himself did.”

Otani nodded and jotted down a note before she called, “Hatake-san, are you ready to try it again?”

Kakashi flicked an acknowledging salute, then turned to focus intently on the pig with both eyes. At the distance from which they were observing it was impossible to make out the pinwheels in Kakashi’s transplanted Sharingan, but they were doubtless spinning fast. He nodded at one of the chuunin; black steel flashed in her hand. )
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One of Those Lives (Get Used to It) [Sep. 6th, 2014|12:37 am]

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[Takes place May 9, Yondaime Year 5, some hours following Rest for the Wicked]

Kakashi woke up again because the world smelled different.

Now it was full of medics.

Groggily, he counted four white hats and five new ANBU masks, and then there was a penlight in his face and he went blind.

Katsuko yanked the medic’s hand away before Kakashi snapped it off.

“Don’t do that,” she told the room, quiet and cold, kneeling at his side like a guardian lion.

Kakashi blinked shadowy after-images away, and registered Ryouma crouching on his other side, watching the room with a mix of wariness and relief. Genma was sitting on the edge of the bed-platform, legs dangling, while a different medic bent over his wounded thigh. Raidou was talking to a tall, light-haired woman in a crane mask.

“Another captain,” Ryouma said, tracking Kakashi’s gaze.

Kakashi tried to put two and two together. “Are we getting rescued?”

“Yep,” Katsuko said.

“Oh good,” Kakashi said, and pulled the blankets back up over his face. He was asleep again in seconds, bracketed between his teammates. )
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Rest for the Wicked [Aug. 22nd, 2014|09:30 pm]

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[Takes place in the early hours of May 9, Yondaime Year 5, some hours following The High Road]

The third time Ryouma twitched himself awake from nightmares, there was someone leaning over him.

For a moment it was the nightmare again, reversed: himself on his back in a tangle of blankets, the hand coming down, the iron band crushing his windpipe. Fear gripped him like shackles. He had no air to cry out.

But the hand settled on his shoulder, not his throat. Katsuko's shadow clone shook him once, urgently. "Tousaki," it whispered. "We need you at the cells."

He dragged in a desperate breath. The clone leaned back warily, but Ryouma's body seemed to be as sleep-stifled as his brain. It took him a moment to push onto his elbow, pulling his hand free of Kakashi's sleep-loosened grasp, and claw his mind back together. "The cells. Fukuda?"

The clone nodded, short and unhappy, and stepped away.

None of the others had stirred. Genma was still snoring softly through his swollen nose, Raidou a rougher counterpoint beyond him. Kakashi's shallow breathing hitched when Ryouma eased himself away, and the tousled head turned restlessly from its pillow on Katsuko's shoulder. But he settled his cheek on the pile of blankets Ryouma had left behind, and his breathing evened again.

Ryouma left them all dreaming and followed the clone out into the hall. )
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Guilty Filthy Souls [May. 21st, 2014|08:44 pm]

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[Takes place May 8, Yondaime Year 5, following No Quiet Man's Descent and Salt the Earth.]

Arechi Hill Safehouse was dust-choked and hollow, entranceway swept with old leaves. It had been carved right into the base of a hill; a quick wartime job someone had done in the heat of necessity, and smoothed out by more careful hands later. Unoccupied now, but the seals still worked. They came down in a shiver of chakra when Raidou keyed through the correct sequence of hand-signs.

He shouldered the heavy door aside, letting his blunt, tired chakra sense extend.


He’d expected that, but worry still tasted like lead. Katsuko slipped in ahead of him, shedding rain off her armor. She cracked a neon green lightstick and set off down the long, dark hallway, chasing shadows around the bend. The walls had subtle curves instead of rigid straight lines, which made it feel a lot like a burrow.

A deep burrow, at that.

Raidou heaved the door closed and followed her. There was an automatic illusion built into the safehouse’s defenses; as soon as the locks tumbled back into place, the outer view of the door vanished, replaced by an anonymous scrubby patch of hillside. You had to know exactly where you were going to find it. Even then, they’d almost missed the tiny marker stone in the dark and rain.

“Found the pantry,” Katsuko called, voice rasping with tiredness. “And the cells.”

“Is there food?”

“Looks fully stocked.”

There was one blessing. Konoha did its best to maintain safehouses, but you never knew until you landed in one. And there was nothing quite as crushing as finding your bolt hole ripped open and laid bare, with the long journey to the next one ahead of you.

A pump creaked, followed by splashing.

“Running water, too,” Katsuko said, from the tiny cubbyhole that served as a kitchen. “Must be hooked into an underground stream.”

“Gives us good odds for a generator,” Raidou said, and cracked his own lightstick.

He found the generator after a little searching. )
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Salt the Earth [May. 7th, 2014|07:49 pm]

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[Takes place May 7 and 8, Yondaime Year 5, following Grow Teeth and Pursue, contemporaneous with No Quiet Man's Descent. Warnings: contains graphic violence and potentially triggering content. Please read with an awareness of your own comfort level.]

Genma’s team arrived in Ibaragashi City with hours to kill before the strike. They used the time to explore the city itself, and verify the maps Intel had given them. The Tsuto estate was nestled in the wealthiest, most exclusive part of Ibaragashi City. It occupied half a block at the pinnacle of one of the city’s many hills, built in an era when a lack of indoor plumbing had made it de rigueur for the wealthy to live uphill of the common riffraff. Modernization had come to Ibaragashi, as it had to the rest of Fire Country, but neighborhoods long established had little incentive to change. Electric lights twinkled in Tsuto’s gardens, and clay pipes under the street carried waste water away, but the compound still reeked of pomp and privilege.

The temperature had been rising steadily since noon, and even sunset didn’t seem likely to cool things off. Muggy haloes ringed early-lit lamps, and sweat trickled down the side of Genma’s face under his mask.

Intel’s reports said Tsuto Takayoshi took dinner with his family every night at 19:00 and retired shortly afterwards. The servants ate when the family was settled for the night, often as late as 21:00. That didn’t leave a lot of time to take the staff down before a 22:00 strike time. Under cover of genjutsu, Genma and his rookies studied their options from the rooftops of Tsuto’s neighbors’ homes, then reconvened in the narrow alley between the walled plots.

There were guards patrolling the compound, unsurprisingly. Tsuto Takayoshi might have made his name importing and exporting luxury goods, but he made the bulk of his money these days lending it out at exorbitant rates of interest. His home in Ibaragashi City was also, for all intents and purposes, a private bank with enough gold inside to tempt even the most cautious thief.

And the man had just funded a failed coup. )
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No Quiet Man's Descent [Apr. 30th, 2014|12:50 am]

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[Takes place May 7 and 8, Yondaime Year 5, following Grow Teeth and Pursue. Warnings: contains graphic violence and potentially triggering content. Please read with an awareness of your own comfort level.]

Day faded into night as Katsuko and Raidou closed in on Tsurugahama Port. The red-tinged sunset cast a bloody light over Raidou’s mask and gave his hair a fiery glow; he looked like a revenant from old legends, a battlefield spirit summoned to mete out retribution.

Katsuko folded the image into the back of her mind, fitting it in with all the other things that weren’t the mission, and reached for the quiet clarity of purpose.

The moon crawled up into the sky and rolled out a ceiling of stars for them to navigate by. Katsuko tracked time until they crested a hill and saw Tsurugahama sprawled out along the ocean in a cavalcade of small lights. They stopped long enough to test that their radio collars were working, hydrate, and choke down a ration bar each; then it was back to running, down from the hills into the winding maze of Tsurugahama streets.

Tsuto Masaaki and his family lived in a gated estate close to the water’s edge, near the shipping warehouses. The house itself was separated from the main gate by a carefully cultivated garden and a koi pond; round lanterns lit the yard like miniature stars. Armored guards patrolled the gate and the perimeter of the garden at regular intervals.

This place looked quiet. Peaceful, even.

Katsuko wanted to burn it all down. )
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Grow Teeth and Pursue [Apr. 23rd, 2014|01:05 pm]

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[Takes place May 5 through 7, Yondaime Year 5, following Diversionary Tactics and Reunions and Ruminations.]

At 1900 exactly, Team Six set out into the gathering blue twilight.

The mission split point was Kaede Ridge, an old strategic hold-over from the last war (and the war before that). It took them just under two days to reach it, moving at a steady wolf-pack pace. The healings had done good work. Raidou felt loose and easy, stiffness erased by a medic’s clever hands. Genma was back to his usual fluidity, loping along with the watermark smoothness of a shinobi in glowing health.

The kids were feeling their oats. Raidou could barely keep track of the rapid-shifting alliances between Kakashi, Katsuko, and Ryouma as they squabbled, challenged, teased, and whetstoned each other’s edges. He only interfered once, when Kakashi looked tempted to commit actual homicide.

They camped twice, cooking, storytelling, and sleeping under starlight, while Katsuko’s clones kept guard.

In the late afternoon of the target day, the ridge came into view. It was dotted with May wildflowers and long grass. At the highest edge, a giant tree had fallen sideways and bleached in the sunlight, broad roots making a pale lattice of dessicated wood. That was the marker.

Raidou called a halt in the sheltered lee of the tree, and Genma broke out a cold late lunch.

Half an hour, maybe, and they’d splinter out towards their separate missions, running to keep pace with the five other ANBU teams arrowing towards their own goals. Raidou should probably say something.

Nothing profound presented itself. )
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The Way Home [Sep. 27th, 2013|07:52 pm]

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[Takes place Yondaime Year 5, April 29, the morning after Suffering Fools]

Nine unbroken hours of sleep wasn't enough to make Ryouma feel anything near human when he woke, but the press of warm fingers against his forehead and the slow trickle of chakra into parched coils went a little way towards helping him feel less murderous. He slit boulder-weighted eyelids open and squinted hazily at the broad palm masking most of his vision. "R'dou?"

"Rise and shine, kiddo," Raidou rasped. He sounded almost as tired as Ryouma felt. His chakra was sluggish, clogged with earth affinity that refused to settle into the low ebb of Ryouma's water and fire.

Not solely Raidou's fault. But even molding borrowed chakra until it melted into his own felt like an insurmountable task now, with the warm bed dragging him down and darkness beckoning behind the backs of his drifting eyelids. "Said I could sleep," he mumbled.

"I did," Raidou agreed. "Now I'm saying you need to wake up."

He cut the chakra flow with a flick of his fingers against Ryouma's forehead, and his hand fell away. Ryouma groaned, rubbed his face against his shoulder, and finally dragged his eyes open again to see Raidou crouching at the side of the bed and reaching for Kakashi's ANBU mask.

Kakashi's head had tipped back against the mattress, and for some reason Ryouma's fingers were laced through his wild grey hair. He stared blankly at them until the edge of Kakashi's ceramic mask nudged his thumb. Raidou was shoving Kakashi's mask back to clear his forehead, but he'd paused to give Ryouma a weighted look from behind the eyeholes of his own henged mask.

'He's soft,' Ryouma said, and patted Kakashi's hair to prove it. )
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Suffering Fools [Sep. 24th, 2013|07:43 pm]

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[Takes place Yondaime Year 5, April 28, immediately following When the Reckoning Arrives]

Miles bled by in a waking dream. The litter-carrying clones' gait wasn't smooth enough to sleep, even if Ryouma'd dared. His head ached, a low fuzz of tension under the haze of morphine, and he kept hearing Genma's raw voice rasping, B-brain bleed?

The pain became something to hold on to, jostled back with each long running step, sinking away again in the space between strides. Rain spattered against his face, faded to drizzle, and then pounded down with renewed fury. Someone tried, briefly, to hold an oiled cloak over them, and then gave it up.

"Betcha I can boil the rain to steam," Genma offered.

"Don't," Raidou growled, somewhere behind them. Ryouma snickered, coughed, and curled painfully against Genma's bandaged side. There seemed to be waves of heat rolling off the lieutenant, pulsing with his heart; if Ryouma squinted he thought he could almost see the visible haze of fire chakra burning through veins. It looked like it hurt. His own chakra-charred pathways ached in sympathy.

But the heat was beginning to sink into his shiver-knotted muscles, like sunlight on frosted ground. He tucked his chin down very carefully on Genma's shoulder and tried to press a little closer.

Genma twitched as if he meant to turn his head, but nothing moved. He took a deeper breath instead. "Doing okay, Tousaki? Don't think I can turn the heat up any higher. I'm kinda over the line already."

"I'm fine!" Ryouma tried shifting back against the sloping side of the stretcher. Cold air clawed between them. "Just takin' my chance to cuddle up to the hottest lieutenant in the corps. Sorry, you can turn it down—"

"Don't be an idiot," Genma said, but there was no bite to his voice. "Stay close. You need the heat, and so do I."

That sounded reasonable. )
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Interlude [Sep. 20th, 2013|11:25 pm]

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[Takes place during When the Reckoning Arrives, while Raidou goes to look for Kakashi and Genma]

“Hey,” Katsuko said, after Raidou vanished up the mountain.

Ryouma was a warm presence at her side. The oilcloth tent wrapped around them rustled as he shifted. “Mm?”

Katsuko wiped rain out of her eyes and tugged their pseudo-blanket over her feet. Her toes felt like little, individual blocks of ice. “It’d probably really suck if the demon-queen had a demon-king, wouldn’t it?”

Ryouma considered this for a moment. “Yeah,” he decided. “We’d be dead. Good thing she was a single mom.”

Even Katsuko’s bones ached. Her collarbone flared up again, a high note of pain amidst the low-grade roar of all her other hurts. She gave up digging in her medkit for a moment and leaned her head against Ryouma’s arm, wadding up the oilcloth to serve as a makeshift barrier between them. He still smelled like all the corpses in the world, but the rain washed some of the stink away.

'I'm glad you're not dead', she said. )
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When the Reckoning Arrives [Sep. 20th, 2013|06:25 pm]

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[Takes place Yondaime Year 5, April 28, immediately following Teeth in the Dark]

Genma and Kakashi took up positions on the craggy wall above the auxiliary mine shaft, clinging to slippery rock in the driving rain with the barest threads of chakra. They flattened into crevices, black and gray shadows nearly invisible against the rough limestone. From their vantage point, they saw every feint and strike as Katsuko’s two dozen clones dodged and weaved amongst the roused demons, slapping smoldering chakra tags to glistening, black, armored bodies.

Tags detonated, staggering the demons. Clones slashed apart by flailing demon limbs and tails erupted in a frightening illusion of spurting blood, before they collapsed into vapor. And one by one, Ryouma’s jutsu struck home. Katsuko or her clones would disable a demon, and Ryouma would surge forward, hands glowing with putrid light to liquify it through whatever cracks the discharging tag had left in its shell.

Each time he ran in close it looked like certain death, but Katsuko and her clones were everywhere, providing enough distraction for Ryouma to get in and lay hands directly on the injured demons. Genma counted only three uses of Ryouma’s chakra-heavy version of the rot jutsu that could strike from a distance. Each one of those hits, though, was a spectacular victory, sending one of the larger soldier beasts careening to the ground with a sick slosh of decay.

The stench rising from the battlefield was overwhelming—acrid and acidic, sulfurous, bloody, and under it all, the reek of rotting flesh. Genma fought back a surge of bile in his throat, and at his side, Kakashi’s shoulders shuddered.

Eight of the demons lay dead near the mine shaft entrance. )
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