When all was said and done, at least Hisae could say this about herself: her nickname wasn’t “Snap Crackle Pop”-sensei.
This was the third student Issei-sensei had sent to her this quarter over the nickname. It took every ounce of her willpower not to burst into laughter right in front of the pouty ten-year-old.
She sent Issei-sensei’s student to sit in the back of her class. Sending older students to sit in with her seven-year-olds was an unorthodox but popular punishment. It saved the teachers time having to supervise the usual physical punishments, and the Council liked hearing things about ‘psychological fortifications.’ After all, ten-year-olds were mortified to be stuck in a lower class, and. Well.
Hisae was mean .
“And if you have any questions,” she said, handing out boxes of plant samples to be sorted, “I’m sure Jin-kun will be happy to help.”
Issei-sensei’s student glared at her. Two seven year old girls were already asking him if their pressed flowers had medicinal qualities. They couldn’t pronounce “medicinal.” Hisae smiled benignly back at him.
Issei-sensei had the loudest joints she’d ever heard on a man in his thirties, an occupational hazard born from landing too many high falls from trees. It was a common problem among ninja posted on the Water-Fire border, where the trees were taller than anywhere else in Water Country. She wondered if Leaf ninja were all like this, loud enough to be heard all the way down the hall from a room of screaming children.
When she heard Issei-sensei approaching, Hisae called Jin to the front of the class.
“Have you been helping your underclassmen?” she asked sweetly. Jin grunted. “Good,” she said, “because you’re going to try all the edible samples.”
She picked the first sample off the pile of ‘edible’ plants her students had organized. There was also a ‘poison’ category, a ‘medical’ category, and an ‘other’ category. Next quarter they’d work on individual parts of plants and exact uses, but for now they’d just been identifying them by leaf or flower structure.
She picked the sample in question out of its plastic sleeve– a student’s name and a guess at the plant’s name were messily written across the plastic in marker– and offered it to Jin. Jin gawked at it.
“Well,” she said, pressing it towards his face, “eat it.”
Jin visibly paled. She didn’t blame him. The plant she held was indeed edible, but she’d purposefully chosen one that was visually similar to a poisonous one. Water Country had the largest number of poisonous plants on the whole continent, and she wouldn’t eat any wild vegetation picked out by a second year academy student either.
Issei-sensei timed his entrance to see his student’s horrified face as Hisae brandished a plant in it.
“I see you’re terrorizing my student,” Issei-sensei observed. “Good.”
“Did we like having Jin-kun in class?” Hisae asked her students.
“Yes!” they all chorused, and Hisae turned back to Issei-sensei.
“Jin-kun is welcome back any time,” she said. Jin bolted from the room.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Hitomi-sensei muttered when yelling broke out outside the window of the teacher’s lounge. Hitomi-sensei was nicknamed Rattlesnake-sensei because an incident with aerosolized poison had ruined her voice. It had also damaged peripheral nerves and had taken her off the mission rotation forever.
Unlike Issei-sensei, Hitomi did not mind her nickname. It made her laugh deep, broken laughs that made the children shriek with terror and delight.
“Are we taking bets?” Hisae asked, squinting out the window. Two of her own students were squaring off in the schoolyard as their peers jeered encouragement.
The teachers were actively discouraged from breaking up fights between students. In Mist, they were taught to solve problems with violence, and that might made right. It was how Hisae had been raised, along with every single shinobi in her generation. The Village no longer included a tournament-style murder of their peers as part of their graduation, at least.
“How old?” Issei-sensei grunted, placing his lunch in the microwave.
“They’re Sweetbread-sensei’s,” Hitomi-sensei said.
Sweetbread was Hisae’s nickname. She doubted any of her actual students understood what it meant.
“So not much of a fight,” Issei-sensei said, starting the microwave. Hisae eyed him.
As he was taking his now warmed lunch out, she said, “Someone contaminated my food yesterday.”
Issei-sensei practically dropped his lunch box.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asked. Other teachers were groaning and tossing out their own food. “Why do you always do this?”
“If you don’t clean off surfaces after you use them,” Hisae said, holding eye contact, “then I won’t either.”
She had no proof Issei-sensei was the root of the problem, but the man did leave crumbs over every inch of the teacher’s lounge. Bits and pieces of bread and cake and cookies, splashes of sauces made with a wheat thickener– all things that would make Hisae violently ill.
“You can’t just poison other people because you can’t eat like a normal person–” someone was ranting at her.
“At least she has the decency to warn you,” Hitomi-sensei laughed her terrible laugh.
Hisae liked Hitomi-sensei. The Rattlesnake would watch her classes when she was sick, and in return Hisae wrote out Hitomi-sensei’s lessons on the board for her when her fingers ached too much to hold the chalk.
Hisae turned back to the window. The smaller student had gotten on top of the other and was pounding away with tiny fists. One would think with the Village on the verge of a civil war, leaking more shinobi everyday to join Terumi Mei’s rogue army, the Academy teachers would be given more power to foster harmony.
They didn’t, though, and none of the teachers would know how anyway.
Hisae ate her lunch– carefully prepared in carefully measured proportions, at exactly noon– and went outside to carry her bloody-faced student to the Academy’s clinic.
When she walked outside, several former students stopped playing to run up and greet her. Three of them followed her inside to the clinic, chattering along the way.
“Popular as always, Sweetbread-sensei,” the medic said. She was ancient and missing three fingers but could still heal like a champion.
Hisae smiled politely and went back to her classroom, shooing her tiny entourage away. Someone had left one of the bread rolls the cafeteria sold on her desk, and then written “CHOKE ON IT” across the chalkboard. Hisae rolled her eyes, erased the message, and tossed the bread.
Hisae was popular with students because she was young and children misinterpreted youth as beauty and beauty as kindness. She was unpopular with her colleagues for much the same reason.
In Mist, you fought until you couldn’t, and then you got a desk job. Hisae’s career as a kunoichi had ended at age sixteen, and that was shameful.
She was, for all her smiles and polite platitudes, furious about her disappointing shinobi career and its pathetic end. The four years she’d spent as an active kunoichi were littered with outbursts against her teammates. She’d once nearly killed a teammate who’d dumped soy sauce all over all the food they’d had and not warned her.
“Now you know,” she’d purred, leaning over his form as he vomited rice and poison, her own intestines cramping and twisting, “ how it feels .”
It had ruined the mission and she’d been punished by being sent to one of Mist’s penal colonies for a month. She didn’t mind so much– there was no gluten in plain rice and fish, the only food available.
Besides, it was worth it. People paid attention to your needs when you poisoned those who ignored them.
Three of her students used their new fire-building skills to set a fire in one of the unused classrooms. The classroom was used for storage, and lot of materials had been lost.
Violence was encouraged, but village property was valued over the health of its children. Her students had to be punished.
“They say trouble comes in threes,” Hisae said, standing in front of them with hands on hips. “But you really took the cake.”
They twitched nervously in front of her, while she paced, pretending to consider their punishment. The principal had already decided they were doing detention, running laps and doing physical labor around the school until they dropped.
“Should you go without lunch for the rest of the year?” she pondered outloud. The children look horrified. “No, no, you’re right. Who can think on an empty stomach?”
Trouble comes in threes , the doctor had warned her when her immune system first started rebelling on her. She’d been falling asleep in class and couldn’t complete the physical work she’d gotten as punishment, crying all the way. It turned out her thyroid had stopped working.
That hadn’t been bad. She took one pill every morning, and that was deemed an acceptable accomodation for a ninja. They’d just exterminated all the families with bloodline limits, after all, and they needed all the children they could get. It would be bad for her if she got captured or her mission ran long and she ran out of medication, but she wouldn’t immediately drop dead.
“Turn you over to Torture and Interrogation to me skinned alive?” Hisae pondered, and was greeted by a chorus of No! No! No!
Trouble comes in threes, the doctor had warned again when her digestive track failed. They had just been dietary restrictions–no wheat, barley or rye– and she was only four months from graduation. She’d been deemed fit to become a genin.
That had been bad, and frustrating, and she’d taken out a lot of anger on her genin team. She was still angry and frustrated and her own work wouldn’t accommodate her.
“Ah, I know!” she said, looming over her students. They cowered. “De-ten-tion,” she hissed out.
Their shoulders sagged with relief. She’d scared them so much the brutal detentions of the Academy didn’t seem so bad.
She got home late, which was annoying because she tried very hard to eat around the same time everyday.
Trouble comes in threes , the Leaf medic had said to her when she’d passed out on a mission and been captured.
She’d lost a lot of weight around her sixteenth birthday, which she’d blamed on her training for infiltration missions. She’d thought she’d be like one of the mysterious ninja she’d seen hanging around the intelligence offices. She was wrong. They wanted her to do seduction missions.
She hadn’t been feeling good. Her body ached all the time and she was getting steadily more sluggish. She was always dehydrated and couldn’t figure out why. She blamed the stress of her new missions. She passed out in-transit on one of them.
She had woken up with her hands and feet bound in an abandoned temple. It was overgrown with vines and mosses and cobwebs, and her body had left an imprint in the dust coating the floors. The carved face of a terrifying deity for which she had no name glared down at her.
Later, she would recall no details of the god’s face, only that the polished wood had frightened her to the core.
“Ah, you’re up,” the medic had said, appearing over her. He had a Leaf headband.
“Eat this,” he said, offering her a piece of blackened meat.
“You didn’t bread that or anything, did you?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “We want to trade you back to Mist. We need you in good health.”
Hisae glared at him, suspicious. “How did you know?” she asked.
He blinked at her. “That you’re a diabetic traveling without insulin? It was a bit obvious.”
She’d cried. A lot. The medic had tried to comfort her with that stupid saying about trouble coming in threes, and she’d sworn at him.
They’d forced her to pretend to be healthy and traded her back to Mist for a Leaf genin they’d captured some weeks earlier. It was all for ceremony, really– the start of peace talks at the end of a war Mist had removed itself from by slaughtering its own kind. Hisae doubted her village would have traded if they’d realized she was now incapable of digesting and metabolizing food on three different levels.
They’d stripped her of her Chuunin status and sent her back to the penal colony. She developed retinopathy from lack of care.
When she came back and they offered her a job at the Academy, she took it gladly.
You need to get out of here, the note from Hitomi-sensei read. You’re on the list.
Hisae’s blood ran cold. They’d been cracking down on supporters of Terumi Mei’s rebellion. A Jounin cell had been ambushed and completely destroyed, their skin melted away by Terumi’s terrifying ability. Now the Mizukage had ordered any potential supporters detained and interrogated.
Issei-sensei had gone in and come back two weeks later with empty eyes and new set of nervous ticks.
Hisae wasn’t even sure why she was on the list. She’d held herself back every time she’d thought about how disgusting her graduation under the Bloody Mist had been. She bit her tongue when the principal and council doled out harsh punishments to children. Everytime she thought about raising her voice, she remembered waking up on that floor in her own filth with the face of that god glaring down at her. She still had nightmares about it.
She didn’t doubt the Rattlesnake’s intel, though. She also didn’t doubt that if she was taken in for interrogation, with her relatively weak constitution, she would die.
She walked home lightheaded. She went to the grocery store and barely registered picking out items for dinner. She felt…
She felt freed .
Medical care was the only thing keeping her in this village. If she was going to die either way, she was going to do it outside Mist.
At home, she ate quickly and did her evening insulin injection. It was earlier that she usually did it, so it might set her blood sugar off kilter, but so would fleeing for her life. When she finished, she laid out all her poisons.
Hisae was not technically a poisons master, but her file definitely had a note about her being “sufficiently above proficient.” It was one of the reasons she’d been picked as an infiltration kunoichi.
Looking at them all lined up filled her with a strange sort of guilt. It wasn’t a usual poisons repertoire– they were all very clearly designed to match her own disorders. There were quite a few that induced stomach cramps and diarrhea that she frequently used on her coworkers. She had one that made the pancreas secrete extra insulin and trigger hypoglycemia, and one that caused something similar to the full-body ache of hyperglycemia.
(That last one had actually won her a research stipend– it was usefully subtle in that most victims blamed it on a particularly bad hangover and never realized they’d been poisoned.)
All of her poisons were packed in used insulin vials. The Mist pharmacy system had changed their labels years ago so that patients could clearly see the insides of the vial and confirm the insulin hadn’t gone cloudy with age. The old labels, however, had covered the whole vial and made an excellent way to hide all sorts of compounds. The caps were color-coded.
Hisae dumped them all into her bag.
She also had a decent supply of medicinal compounds on hand, for digestive problems and cramps and nightmares about wooden faces glaring down at her as she laid dying. She’d take a few of those, along with her regular medications: thyroid pills, insulin, syringes, her glucometer to test her blood glucose levels and its corresponding test strips.
Her weapon supply was… less good. She was technically required to maintain her form, since she might be deployed in the case of an unexpected attack on the village, which was seeming more and more imminent as more people defected to Terumi. Still, she was just a teacher, and she only actually owned the bare minimum.
It didn’t matter, she supposed. The medicines took up too much room in her pack anyway.
Ironically, Mist had trained her in how to escape from a shinobi village.
She’d only done infiltration missions in civilian towns, but she’d ideally been working up to ninja villages. Infiltration always required an escape plan.
That training had always been there, in the back of her mind, along with the timer for when to eat and how much and when to take insulin and how much and a long list of food to avoid. She hadn’t been actively thinking about it, but she’d catalogued the guard movements and the best routes out of the village.
She’d also catalogued the guard’s faces.
“Sweetbread-sensei!” a guard cried when she approached. He was one of her first students. She hadn’t cared much for children back then, but the teachers had been stricter and her eighteen year old face had made her seem kinder and softer than she was.
“Hiroto-kun,” she greeted. “I heard you made Chuunin. Congratulations.”
Hiroto puffed up in front of her, and they chit-chatted for a while.
“You’re not going outside, are you?” he asked, brows furrowed.
She raised an eyebrow, teasing. “You know lots of plants only bloom at night.”
She indicated her reed-woven backpack. It was a common tool for collecting plants.
“Nocturnal pollinators,” Hiroto said automatically, and she giggled. “You always did more with plants than the other teachers.”
“We’re in Water Country,” she said. “We have the highest biodiversity on the continent. Don’t you want to know about it?”
“I mean,” Hiroto said, scratching at his Chuunin vest. “I liked your class and all, but I don’t really care.”
Hisae let out an exaggerated sigh and excused herself. Hiroto laughed, apologized, and let her through without asking for her authorization papers.
He had never been very quick on the uptake.
Getting out of the village without alerting anyone was, theoretically, the hardest part, but she’d only made it halfway. There were external sentries too.
She waited outside the door for a bit, pretending to readjust her sandal and take a sip of water. When she was sure she had the timing right to slip between the patrols, she dashed off into the night.
She cleared the perimeter without incident. They would realize she was gone in the morning when she didn’t show up for work, but they wouldn’t waste too many resources trying to find a simple teacher when the village was on the brink of a civil war.
Poor Hiroto. She hoped they didn’t break him too much when they interrogated him.
Hisae decided to head to Hot Water Country. They were in the process of demilitarizing, and what was left of their ninja village was basically a joke after some lunatic missing-nin had decimated them.
Lunatic missing-nin. That was her now, too.
She hadn’t even thought about scratching out the Mist symbol on her headband. She was an infiltration ninja; she didn’t bring her headband on missions.
A kilometer from shore, she got a few hours of sleeps, curled in the bows of a tree and covered in moss. When she woke, she took her thyroid medication; she only had a week’s worth, and she’d either need to ration it and risk turning into a lethargic zombie, or steal some more.
She pricked her finger and checked her blood glucose. It was a bit on the low side, probably from her sprint through the jungle. Usually, Hisae took three injections of insulin a day: one short-term insulin and one long-term insulin in the morning, and a second short-term insulin in the evening. Then, she ate certain amounts of food at exactly the same time everyday.
Routine was very important; diabetes was a delicate balancing act. Any type of imbalance in her life, from stress to illness to extreme temperatures, could tip her blood glucose too far in either direction.
She’d just shattered her routine, though, and decided to forego the short-term insulin for the morning. She would be running a lot, which lowered blood sugar, and would probably skip dinner.
She ran to the shore. Mangrove roots replaced the muddy ground, twisting and matting themselves out into the sea. She picked her way over them as fluidly as the cat snake that lived among them. Mist clung to the surface of the open water, and she disappeared into it.
Water was an island nation, which made fleeing it a tad more difficult than simply hiding in forests. She was going to have to hop between several islands before hitting mainland in Hot Water country. But Hisae was a Water native, and the idea of spending hours blindly travelling through morning fog did not intimidate her.
Of course, if her blood sugar went too low, she’s lose her ability to regulate chakra and drown. Because she very much didn’t want this, Hisae waited the thirty minutes she had to between taking her thyroid medication and eating, she jammed half a ration bar into her mouth. Mist-issue ration bars were made from figs and dates and nuts and rice starch, and yet somehow tasted like nothing.
By the time the mist was fading, she could already see the shoreline of Konbu-jima, the nearest island. She paused there to rub mud over her face and arms– the sun was hot, and it would have looked strange to leave the village at night wearing a hat. She also checked her blood sugar again, pricking her finger and milking blood out into a perfect droplet. She inserted a test strip into her glucometer, applied the droplet of blood to the strip, and waited. Her blood sugar was high, but not so high it would slow her down.
She kept running.
Konbu-jima was small, and also the most obvious landing point after leaving the main island. She couldn’t stay here; she was out on the open sea again in an hour.
It was harder now, with no sea mist to cool her down. She started to feel shaky, and she was unsure if it was hypoglycemia or just the sun. Going low was more dangerous in the short-term than going high, so she ate the other half of her ration bar to be on the safe side.
She had to stop to rest at a buoy, letting her feet drag in the water. She still couldn’t see Wakame-jima, but the buoy meant she had to be close. There were smaller buoys scattered around her, the size of toys and arranged in neat lines like trees in an orchard. Crab traps.
Her blood sugar was even higher now, despite her shaky hands, and she sighed deeply and pressed her face against the the buoy. Maybe she should have taken her short-term insulin that morning after all.
There wasn’t much point rationing the insulin, like she planned to do with the thyroid pills. Insulin had to be refrigerated or else it went bad, and she was going to be living in the wild for the foreseeable future. She might as well use it all while it was still good.
She drank the rest of her water and walked between the crab-trap buoys to the shore of Wakame-jima. There was a tiny boat moored among the mangroves– probably belonging to whomever owned the crab traps– and she was careful not to be seen as she slunk into the shade of the forest.
She curled up at the base of a huge banyan tree to sleep. She woke with a start in the middle of the night.
Eyes bored into her form the canopy above. She couldn’t see them, but she was sure they were there, watching her, seeing every inch of her, unblinking and unyielding.
She couldn’t breathe. She’d forgotten the prayer. That was a superstition in these parts– you had to pray to the spirits that lived in the banyan trees, or risk their wrath. She’d forgotten. She hadn’t thought they were real.
She focused internally. Disrupt the foreign disturbance, breathe. Just like breaking a genjutsu. Breathe.
She left the tree. There was one major city the island; she might as well see if it had a pharmacy that sold thyroid medication. She wasn’t going to sleep anymore.
The first pharmacy she broke into didn’t keep the medication she wanted on hand, but it did have records of clients who ordered them. If she was really desperate, she could steal from Mizuno Nori, who was due to pick up another ninety day supply in forty-one days.
The pharmacy had Mizuno Nori’s address on record. It would be easy. Except the girl was also nine.
Hisae would steal from a nine-year-old if she had to. This did not mean she wanted to. She memorized the pertinent information, then moved on to the only other pharmacy.
Dawn was breaking, and an old man was already shuffling around inside the shop. She sent a clone to talk to him while she riffled through the back. She did find the medicine– at half the potency she needed, but a ninety-day supply cut in half was still better than the thirty-day supply Mist’s disability office allowed.
She took it and ran.
She found a beach and rinsed the rest of the mud off her skin. It had mostly flaked off, but she wouldn’t need it in the forest, and it would be best to present herself as in good hygiene when she went back into town for supplies. At the very least, she’d need more water from a public fountain.
She perched herself among the mangrove roots and dry swallowed her thyroid medication. Then she produced two vials of insulin and a syringe. Insulin was injected into fat, and she rolled up a sleeve and used her knee to roll the fat at the back of her arm into a more accessible position. Insulin needles were small and could barely be felt, but the actual injection itself burned. When the pulled the needle out, dark blood spilled out with it.
“Shit,” she hissed, rubbing it away with a thumb. Blood pooled back up. She’d hit a capillary.
She pressed to fingers over the bleeding site and glared at it, willing it to stop bleeding. After she counted to thirty and pulled her fingers away, it had.
She walked back onto the water and into the morning mist, aiming for the crab traps she’d found before. When she found the array of tiny buoys, she pulled one up at random. A rope came with it, and she kept pulling until a wire basket revealed itself from the depths. Two crabs were in it, picking at the remains of rotting fish the trap had been baited with.
The crabs were too small to eat. She dropped it and moved on to another trap.
Her insulin regimen was designed so that she had to eat a certain amount of carbohydrates at certain times of the day. Meat like crab or fish had negligible carbohydrates, as did most vegetable matter she could find in the wild. She’d have to supplement her breakfast with a ration bar or find some type of fruit.
The second crab trap she pulled up was empty, but the third produced four fat crabs. She was figuring out the opening mechanism when another ninja materialized of the mist.
She froze. The other ninja was probably a few years older than her, a man with his Mist headband worn inverted, the backside facing outward. It was the uniform of Terumi supporters who had left the village– not a total abandonment of Mist, but a disapproval of the current politics.
“Good morning,” she greeted.
She couldn’t fight him. She hadn’t fought anyone seriously in years.
“Sweetbread-sensei,” he replied. He was very tall, and broad, and his long hair was tied back in a high ponytail. “What brings you all the way out here?”
She nodded at the trap in her hands. “Crabbing,” she said.
He laughed. Then he hit her so hard she blacked out.
“Awful sloppy of you,” the man said when she woke. “This is the most traveled escape route. What were you doing stopping for crabs?”
She barely heard him. Last time she’d been captured it had not gone well. She was tense, and her mind was going in circles as she tried to catalogue where she was. It was a camp, obviously– how settled in were they? How many people were using it?
She didn’t know. Her eyes were stuck scanning the tree line of the clearing. She vaguely registered one woman tending a fire, and then the man who’d caught her looming over her. She was tied to a banyan tree. There were tons of them in this area. Did these people pray to them? Was she going to see more eyes in their boughs?
“Is this the famous Sweetbread-sensei?” a man’s voice asked. She needed to pay attention to him. She was shaking. Her eyes were still stuck on the trees. “She’s not the beauty my little nephew made her out to be. Kinda plain.”
“Have you seen the other Academy teachers?” the woman scoffed.
“Why’d you bring her back, anyway?” the man’s voice said. “She’s just a teacher. We should kill her.”
Kill her. She didn’t want that. She had to focus. The things in the trees wouldn’t matter if she was dead.
“Lots of young people like her,” the man who’d caught her said. He was eyeing her like she was threatening, which she wasn’t. “She might be useful for gaining supporters.”
The man’s two companions were quiet, and Hisae missed their physical reactions in favor of trying a controlled breathing exercise. It helped only a bit.
The man was right, though. Someone like her would be useful to their cause. The younger generation was a blank slate; an adult they trusted could twist them any which way.
Her three captors discussed what to do with her, and she got the impression they either recruited runaways or killed them.
Her vision was slightly blurred from the retinopathy, so she couldn’t see the details of their camp. They had constructed a lean-to, though, and a large fire pit, so they had probably been here for a while. Based on the size of their shelter, there might be a fourth shinobi somewhere.
There were no eyes in the banyan trees.
“Sweetbread-sensei, you have a lot of problems,” the female ninja said after she’d gone through all of Hisae’s possessions. Hisae did not answer.
The man who captured her disappeared and returned with a package of frozen dumplings which he fried over the fire.
“So,” he said as the three of them ate in front of her. “What’s your pitch?”
Hisae’s pitch was, obviously, the one that didn’t get her killed.
“I fled because I was accused of ideologies that support Terumi-san,” she said. This was true. “I am happy to serve her if it means protection.”
This was also true. Hisae did not care who ran her village as long as she could live her life peacefully. However, joining a war was not protection and did not guarantee her access to the things she needed. She’d rather be a missing-nin than sign up for a fight that was a hair away from a death sentence.
The female ninja stayed while the other two left, presumably to decide what to do with Hisae.
“Hey,” the ninja said. Up close, Hisae could see the thin scar that ran from the woman’s temple all the way down to her jaw. It looked recent. “You need to eat, right?”
She held up the insulin vile.
“Yes,” Hisae answered cautiously.
The woman picked a leftover dumpling out of the pan with her bare hand and held it up to Hisae’s lips. Hisae flinched back.
“What’s your problem?” The woman snapped, pressing the dumpling at her. “I’m being generous.”
“I can’t eat that,” Hisae said, turning her head to avoid the dumpling. It smelled delicious, and it would poison her.
The woman withdrew the dumpling and dropped it back in the pan with a shrug. “Suit yourself.”
Hisae felt like her limbs were floating away from her body. This was almost definitely hypoglycemia.
“Could you,” she started, her words catching on her dry throat. She swallowed. “Could you give me one of my ration bars?”
The woman and the man with the ponytail exchanged glances. The third one had gone off to get dinner.
“It could be a trick,” the woman said.
They opened all her ration bars, which was standard procedure. Hisae could have hidden all sorts of things in the bars.
They opened the bars, then dumped them into the pan on the now cool fire.
“No, don’t—“ Hisae yelped once she recognized what was about to happen. “You can’t— I’m—“
They ignored her, cutting up her ration bars in the pan. They hadn’t cleaned it. There were two dumplings still in there, bumping shoulders with her food and poisoning everything.
She refused to eat it again.
“I can’t eat wheat ,” she growled. “I can’t even eat things that have touched wheat—“
“You could have said something,” the woman said snootily.
“I did ,” Hisae snarled. She fought against her restraints for the first time. Hypoglycemia was making her head spin. She needed to eat.
“Do you have any other food?” She asked desperately. “I feel— I feel—“
“You know,” said the woman, dumping Hisae’s food to the ground. “I don’t really care how you feel.”
When the other man came back, he had a basket of shellfish they boiled in a pot for dinner. The man with the ponytail untied Hisae and handed her a crab.
“Since you like them so much,” he teased.
Hisae was sweaty and shaky from hypoglycemia. Her hands trembled too much to crack the crab’s carapace and she cut her fingers on it. It occurred to her that she could die like this, from her captors’ incompetence, and her chest welled with irrational anger.
“Meat won’t help,” she screamed, throwing the crab back at the man. “Do you even think?”
He stared back her in disgust, and Hisae’s vision swam. She wondered if she would cry; she’d already been humiliated enough. She knew what she looked like on the outside: hysteric, pathetic, crazy.
She took a deep breath. “Sugar,” she said. “I need sugar, or else I’m going to pass out and die , because you idiots can’t figure out how food works.”
Someone produced a mango. They made Hisae apologize and beg for it.
“ Generous, ” the woman hissed as Hisae shoved the fruit in her mouth.
Hisae felt like an animal. She’d rather see the entire country burn than feel like this again.
There were other people frequenting the campsite. In the morning, two new ninja came. The man with the ponytail and the woman volunteered to escort Hisae back to their central command.
It occurred to Hisae that if she found their central command and escaped, she could bargain her way back into Mist. Her escorts also realized this; she was blindfolded. They removed all weapons from her bag and gave it back to her to carry through the jungle. Occasionally the man grunted out, “root” or “rock” and she had to do her best not to trip.
At one point the woman announced “sea” and they walked across water through the day. At some point Hisae was passed a package of senbei. She had not taken any insulin that day, but she was not going to let herself beg them anymore. She ate enough of the rice crackers to not feel hunger pangs and hoped for the best.
At some point the man asked her about his little sister. He did it grudgingly, like it was Hisae’s fault he’d left her in the village and hadn’t heard news from her in a year.
“Ah, Naoko-chan,” Hisae said. She let herself smile. She liked Naoko. “She graduated this past cycle. I heard her genin team is doing well.”
She paused. Then said, “Does that make Ami-chan your cousin? She’s in my class.”
She chatted with the man about his family for an hour before he seemed to realize what was happening and told her to shut up.
At dusk they stopped on a tiny island, so tiny it was free of human homes. The man removed her blindfold without comment.
“So what can you eat?” The woman asked. Hisae had them spread their provisions out in front of her. There wasn’t anything there that looked dangerous to her: a few portions of rice, tinned fish, some edible roots someone must have dug up on the previous island, a sheet of nori. As long as they hadn’t stored their food so poorly it got cross-contaminated, she could eat it all.
“Hmm,” she said. “Maybe it’s better if you let me prepare my food.”
She said it sweetly, the same way she’d talked about the man’s family.
“Fine,” the woman spat. “But I’m watching you.”
“She might as well make it for all of us,” the man droned.
Hisae carefully measured out water for the rice, and the man went off to get more water from the bamboo that grew on the island and naturally filtered it. The woman hovered over Hisae as she cooked.
“May I have my insulin, please?” Hisae asked. The woman grunted and kicked Hisae’s bag over. “And a syringe, please.”
They’d confiscated everything with a needle along with her weapons, and the woman turned to fetch the requested syringe. Hisae selected a vial from her bag. She hated asking for her things like a child. She hated needing permission to take care of herself. She hated every second being with these people.
She popped the top off the vial and poured a quarter of it into the stew she’d made. The vial of poison was switched out in her hand for an actual vial of insulin before the woman had turned around with a syringe in hand.
“That’s so creepy,” the woman said as she watched Hisae draw up her insulin and inject it into her belly. “How can you be a ninja, always worrying about that?”
“I can’t,” Hisae answered flatly, reaching over to stir the poisoned stew one final time. “I’m just a teacher.”
Banyan trees weren’t really trees, but strangler figs. They grew around trees like vines, slowly spreading over them and encasing them until the tree inside died, leaving the banyan standing like the exoskeleton of a dead beetle whose insides had rotted away.
That’s what Hisae’s anger felt like as she lay on the ground, pretending to sleep. Her fury didn’t so much consume her as suffocate her, pressing all the niceness out of her body like air from the lungs.
The woman was keeping watch, but she had nodded off. Hisae rose and silently started rearranging their things. She shoved things into her own bag, and poked through all the food she wasn’t taking for herself.
“Hey,” the man said blearily, half asleep. “What are you… what are you…”
He tried to sit up and fumbled.
“Are you okay?” Hisae asked innocently. “I’m just checking my blood sugar.”
The woman moved jerkily. “Shit,” she said, “I feel asleep– oh .”
The woman buried her head in her hands, moaning.
“You don’t look so good,” Hisae said, shouldering her bag and standing. “How are you feeling? Dizzy? Confused? Weak-limbed?”
The man glared at her and got to his feet shakily. He nearly fell over.
“I think you might be experiencing severe hypoglycemia,” Hisae said, eyeing him. If he grabbed her, she would be in trouble– but in this state, he wouldn’t be hard to outrun. “You should eat something. Low blood sugar can lead to comas and death.”
“What did you do ?” the woman wailed.
“Be careful what you eat, though,” Hisae continued, sounding as helpful as she could. “You never know what might be contaminated with things that could make you sick.”
“You–” the man said. His speech aborted, and he lunged for her. Hisae dodged, rolled away from a sloppy kick he aimed at her, and ran.
Neither of the shinobi tried to follow. The woman screamed something about all their food being poisoned.
“But we need to eat !” the man yelled back.
Hisae hit the water and kept running.
Her additive to the dinner made the pancreas over-produce insulin– which she was immune to, since she couldn’t produce insulin– but it didn’t stop the liver from breaking down glycogen and correcting the problem. They would likely be fine even if they didn’t eat, although she hoped they did try to consume any of the food she’d left behind. It would give them all diarrhea.
She didn’t know where she was, but she knew if she headed west she’d eventually hit land. She zigzagged a bit, heading north and then due west and then north again in turns. It was almost impossible to track someone over water, but varying her course made where she’d make landfall less predictable.
Twice she nearly caved to exhaustion. Her limbs were sore and her jaw hurt from where the man had hit her; she hadn’t slept or eaten enough; she had the extreme thirst and cottonmouth feel of hyperglycemia.
She only made it a few kilometers across whatever land she’d found before she collapsed.
Hisae woke with a headache and an ache that penetrated through her muscles into her bones. Her saliva was as thick and tacky as glue and she gagged and downed her entire canteen of water.
Her blood sugar was too high for her glucometer to register it. Great.
She’d collapsed in front of a dilapidated building, and she sat on its steps while she drew up insulin and injected herself. If she were home, she could medicate herself with fluids, but in the wild she’d have to find water, and she felt too sick to do much of anything productive right now. All she could do was wait.
She did start to feel better, but she was unsure if it was actually her blood sugar lowering or her just getting used to the horrible feeling. She only had so many test strips– she didn’t want to waste one every time she was unsure.
She stood and stretched. The building was obviously abandoned, and had been for years, but she decided to explore it on the off-chance someone had left behind supplies she could use.
The architecture was common to Water Country: wooden walls with a steep, thatched roof that now bore several holes. The whole thing was up on stilts, hence the stairs.
The inside was one larger room, dark from a lack of windows. The only light came from the holes in the roof, letting in beams of light to illuminate the dust moats slowly swirling in the stale air. When Hisae’s eyes finally adjusted, she could make out bare walls, a handful of rusted torch stands, and a large shape mounted on the back wall.
Hisae had to bite her fist to prevent any sound from coming out. It was a face, carved from black, polished wood, hideous and huge and looming. It’s mouth curled into a cruel smile, revealing sharp, sharp teeth. It had no eyes, and yet Hisae felt it was looking right through her.
It was the same feeling as being watched by the banyan trees. It was the same feeling as her nightmares. It made her laugh.
Her fist muffled her hysterics. Was this the same temple she’d nearly died in? Who was this god, who called her back to them?
There was nothing left in the temple that could tell her who the god was, or anything useful she could use besides a form of shelter. Still, she lit a tiny fire in the temple and let a rabbit she caught bleed into it.
She’d already made a mistake with the banyan trees. She’d pray to the god whose temple she borrowed for the night.
If she was correct and this was the same temple, she was somewhere along the border between the Land of Fire and Hot Water Country. That was more or less exactly where she wanted to be.
Her blood sugar was back to normal. She slept peacefully on the floor of the temple, the god’s statue feeling more like a guardian than an omen. She tidied her mess in the morning and left.
If Hisae didn’t need daily medication, she thought she’d be able to survive in the wild indefinitely. This part of the world was rich with flora and fauna that would provide a person with whatever they needed.
But she needed regular access to medication, and safe ways to store the medication, and a doctor to check her regularly to make sure the medication regimen was working, and living in the woods was not sustainable.
She moved to the northern part of Hot Water Country, close to the shore. The sea was different here, gray with cliff-lined beaches. She saw snow for the first time.
She found a town to settle in, at least temporarily. It was big enough to have a pharmacy that could cater to her needs, and she found a room in a shared flat that didn’t require a deposit. She found work as a waitress.
She wasn’t very fond of her flatmates, or her job, but she was surviving, and there was a bakery run by a Water Country woman who made gluten-free cassava cakes.
(Hisae would kill anyone who threatened that woman.)
She saw other shinobi once in the first sixth months she was there. She waited on them. They were talking about the latest in politics: Yagura had been murdered under mysterious circumstances, and Terumi Mei had finally taken up the hat of Mizukage.
“Is it really that bad?” Hisae asked, wide-eyed. Her civilian voice was higher than her normal speaking voice. “There’s never been a woman Kage before, has there?”
The two ninja exchanged tired looks. They wore Cloud headbands and their clothes were dusty with travel, but not with any obvious signs of combat.
“Any sudden change in leadership is bad,” one said eventually. “Are you from Water Country? Your accent sounds like it.”
“I’m from southern Fire Country,” Hisae corrected with an innocent blink. It was the easiest accent for her to mimic, and the only one she could do all day every day. It seemed pointless, though, since most people assumed it was Water Country anyway.
“I’ll have the curry,” the other shinobi said, and that was the end of the conversation about village politics.
Hisae could not actually afford to visit a doctor. She could barely afford her own medicine.
“You can’t be serious,” she said, drumming her fingers on the pharmacy counter. The pharmacist’s daughter sighed.
“I don’t control the prices,” she said with an eyeroll. “If you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else.”
There was nowhere else. Hisae bought her things– syringes and test strips today– and went home to rearrange her budget. No more cake for a while.
She could always steal, if things got hairy. But she couldn’t stay here if she did that; even if she was never caught, causing any type of disruption risked attention, and she was close enough to Mist she didn’t want any sort of attention on her.
At home, she discovered one of her four flatmates had eaten some of her food. She dumped some of everyone’s food out.
“Why are you like this ?” one of them whined to her.
Hisae rolled her eyes.
She convinced her manager to give her a handful of extra shifts, and it was on one of those shifts that Momochi Zabuza walked into her restaurant.
“Good morning,” she greeted with her usual politeness. “We haven’t finished with the lunch menu yet, but if you’re hungry we have plenty of…”
Zabuza stared at her. He had brought a child in with him, and his stare was obvious enough the kid was looking back and forth between the two of them with interest. Hisae ploughed on with her spiel.
“...fresh pastries and milk tea,” she said, not letting her smile falter for a second. “Lunch should be ready in about half an hour. If you don’t mind waiting, we have a delicious–”
“Right,” Zabuza interrupted. “I’d like a different waiter.”
This was not the response Hisae was expecting. “Um,” she said. “I’m the only–”
“Nevermind,” Zabuza said, standing. He was taller than she remembered, and broader. “Let’s go, Haku.”
They left. Hisae was not sure if Zabuza recognized her or not. He’d been in the class below her at the Academy, but she hadn’t actually interacted with him since graduation.
She didn’t have much in the way of defining features. No obvious scars or moles. It was one reason she’d been tapped for infiltration.
She continued with her shift, deciding to assume he didn’t recognize her for the sake of her sanity.
She helped close the restaurant, and when she left it was dark and starting to drizzle. She nabbed an umbrella that had been sitting in the stand by the door for weeks and headed home.
Zabuza materialized in front of her.
Hisae did the only thing she could think to do. She reacted like a civilian waitress, squeaking and stumbling backwards onto her butt. She brandished the umbrella at him.
“B-back off!” she cried.
Zabuza looked unimpressed.
“I remember you,” he said. His huge, stolen sword was across his back, and the kid hovered behind him. “You’re…” He paused and crossed his arms. “Well, you’re a ninja.”
Hisae dropped her act and got to her feet, closing the umbrella. “I haven’t been a ninja in years, Zabuza-san.”
“No one just stops being a ninja,” Zabuza said bluntly. “What are you doing here?”
Hisae’s first instinct was to lie. Zabuza wasn’t a friend and therefore should be considered an enemy. On the other hand, he wasn’t showing signs of attacking her, just asking questions to surmise if she was a threat or not.
“I had to leave Mist,” she said slowly. The kid shifted but Zabuza’s stance stayed impassive. She wished she could see his face better.
“So shinobi don’t come through here often?” he asked.
Hisae shook her head. “I’ve seen two in eight months. Cloud, travelling together.”
“Good,” Zabuza said. He left, the kid following him like a shadow.
Zabuza showed up in her flat one day, which caused one of her flatmates to lock himself in the bathroom and cry. She found Zabuza sitting at their table and eating her crying flatmate’s lunch.
“This is Haku,” Zabuza said, waving at the kid. “Haku, this is Bread-sensei.”
“Sweetbread,” Hisae corrected. Then she added, “My real name is Izumi.”
It wasn’t. It was the name she’d been giving everyone here. Zabuza didn’t call her on it.
“She’s a teacher,” Zabuza said to the boy. “She’s going to make sure you’re educated.”
Hisae raised her eyebrows. “I am?”
Haku was, at the very least, extremely polite. He was older than she’d assumed; years of malnourishment had stunted his growth.
“Oh,” said Hisae. “You can look into growth hormones, if you want.”
Her doctors had considered them for her, since her body had spent years failing to absorb nutrients. But smallness and cuteness were great disarming factors when you were a young kunoichi, and the village had rejected her request for treatment.
She told Haku this, since it was only fair he knew. He looked thoughtful for a while.
“Zabuza wants me to be a strong weapon,” he said.
“There’s more to strength than being big,” she said. He nodded.
Hisae did not actually know a thing about raising children, and she wasn’t sure what Zabuza was doing with this kid. She had been trained on how to teach ninja children, however, and turning children into tools didn’t seem at all odd to her. Treating children like children was a luxury for rich civilians.
Still, her heart felt heavy for Haku. She saw a younger, more naive piece of herself in him.
Hisae stole materials from the town school and quizzed Haku on basic knowledge. He could read as fluently as any adult with a formal education, and he admitted to dedicating a lot of his spare time to silly drugstore novels. He could also do arithmetic perfectly well, and he could write, though his handwriting was sloppy. Hisae reported as much back to Zabuza.
Zabuza just grunted. “I know,” he said.
Zabuza and Haku were squatting in a home at the edge of town, its owners out of the country for a two month to visit relatives. Hisae had not helped him find it, but she had confirmed that the family that lived there wasn’t showing up anytime soon.
“Then I don’t know what you want from me,” Hisae finished.
“Haku is a strong fighter,” Zabuza said. “I can teach him that. But he’s been asking questions about kunoichi stuff.”
Hisae narrowed her eyes. “What type of kunoichi stuff?”
Zabuza shrugged. “You do poisons, right?”
“I do?” Hisae asked. Zabuza glared at her.
“I remember your graduation,” he said. “I remember because it was the most boring fight I’d ever seen. Morino kicked the shit out of you and then just dropped dead.”
Hisae had been friends with Morino. He had been very popular in school, charismatic and clever and strong. When they’d been paired to fight to the death, he’d apologized to her. She’d blushed and offered him a cookie laced with tetradotoxin from a pufferfish.
Hisae simply nodded. She was very practiced at keeping her face straight when her graduation was brought up.
“So,” Zabuza concluded, “Poison.”
It was the correct conclusion. Hisae asked, “This will take a lot of my time. Will I be compensated?”
Zabuza shrugged again. “Your life is compensation enough.”
Zabuza instructed Haku not to eat or drink anything Hisae offered, which was very overcautious and a little bit adorable.
Haku had a horrible faded scar ringing his neck, and the first thing Hisae taught him was how to cover it up with make-up.
“Are the people who did this to you still alive?” she asked quietly, dabbing corner store concealer over his pale neck.
I’ll strange them for you, she thought, and her vision was suddenly filled with purple-red bruises blooming under rope as she a twisted a garrote around a neck, the person finally and intimately understanding what they had done to—
She blinked. The vision was gone.
“No,” Haku said. He was very matter-of-fact about it.
“Good,” Hisae said.
Haku was very interested in a series of senbon tricks he’d seen an ANBU do before Zabuza had slaughtered him. Hisae was not cut out to teach ANBU-level senbon usage, and Haku was already better than her with senbon by trial and tribulation. She taught him to coat them in poison.
She also showed him the basics of acupuncture, which had both medical and combat purposes.
“Well,” she said, tapping her finger over a pressure on Haku’s arm. “Aim is hard in combat. This is more for infiltration.”
“I think I could aim well enough,” Haku said, watching her hands carefully.
Hisae pursed her lips. She’d heard tens of children overestimate their abilities and fail. She’d had reports of her former students overestimating their abilities in the field and dying. She couldn’t gauge if Haku would be one of them or not.
Her flatmates talked about her in hushed voices, convinced she was being strong-armed into… whatever scary missing-nin did with civilian women. The one that had met Zabuza moved out. The man that replaced him didn’t clean the pans correctly after using them, and Hisae ended up missing a shift to suffer in the bathroom.
She poisoned her flatmate back. He didn’t understand what had happened and blamed it on bad meat.
She taught Haku about plants and fungi for medicine and poison alike. Zabuza made Haku cross-reference everything she told him before ingesting it. Zabuza, at least, understood.
There was another woman at the pharmacy when Hisae went, begging for a discount. “But we can’t afford more,” the woman wailed. “My daughter, she’s only seven, she needs…”
Hisae left. She could wait a day to buy insulin.
“I’m going to the city for the weekend,” she told Haku. “I’ll try to find you an actual medical text.”
“Can I come?” Haku asked immediately.
“I don’t see why you’d want to,” Hisae said. “I’m just going to be running boring errands.”
“A city would have a better bookshop,” Haku said. “This town’s only got that market stand.”
He looked appropriately adorable. He never looked like that. A smile tugged at Hisae’s lips.
“And I don’t suppose,” she teased, “this has anything to do with Zabuza being gone?”
Zabuza had been disappearing for days at a time. Haku pouted.
“I miss him,” he said.
Hisae tapped her knuckles on the top of his head. “No you don’t,” she said. “You’re afraid I’m trying to run away.”
She smiled sweetly at him and poked his shoulder. “The more you let someone get to know you,” she said, “the harder it is to lie to them.”
Haku’s lips thinned. That was a more genuine reaction.
The nearest major city was a day’s walk away, but they ran part of the way and made it by early afternoon.
“We’re only an hour away, though,” Haku said when Hisae stopped them for lunch.
“I like to eat at the same time everyday,” she said, unpacking her food. Haku had brought his own. He was very dedicated to all of Zabuza’s commands, and Zabuza had commanded him never to take food from Hisae.
She liked that. She was never one to share food.
Hisae said something vague about having an appointment and that Haku could meet her later.
“I’d rather go with you,” Haku said. “I’m lonely, after all.”
He smiled at her, an imitation of the disarming looks she was always painting her face with. She made a big show of rolling her eyes in response.
Hisae had an appointment with a specialty doctor because something was very wrong with her. She was tired all the time now and her blood glucose levels had been trending higher than they should be. The short run here had been a strain. She didn’t mention this to Haku; he had noticed her particularity about food and she’d mentioned being diabetic a couple times, but he didn’t need to know the details.
The waiting room was as awkward as any waiting room was. Haku tugged her sleeve and whispered in her ear.
“What’s wrong with that boy?” he asked. “Isn’t his family feeding him?”
Hisae knew exactly who he was talking about. There was a boy, probably about Haku’s age, sitting in a corner and leaning against his anxious mother. His father bounced his knee next to them.
The boy was emaciated and skeletal. Hisae had been ignoring him, as had the rest of patients.
“It’s called starvation therapy,” she whispered back. “It’s what families have to do when they can’t afford insulin.”
“Oh,” said Haku.
There had been a lot of children like that back in Mist. Medicine was expensive if you couldn’t show off a forehead protector, and Hisae had always received jealous looks from other patients at the doctors.
She was suddenly hit with a wave of hot anger over it. It wasn’t fair . If she’d been diagnosed before she graduated, she would have been just like them, starving herself to prolong death for a just a few more years. She imagined killing the Council on their behalf, poisoning their drinks to make them vomit up blood. It was such a vivid fantasy she dug her fingers into her thighs, bile bubbling up in her throat.
Her name was called. She went to talk to the doctor. Haku watched her with worried eyes.
“Rice has a very high glycemic index,” her doctor chided when she explained her eating habits.
“But it’s very cheap,” she said. “And filling. I don’t have a lot of money right now.”
Her medications and rent ate up most of it, and tutoring Haku had caused her to drop some of her shifts at work.
The doctor sighed. “Well,” he said, “I would encourage you to shop around a bit more, maybe buy food on sale. You need a better diet.”
They had to wait another hour for the results of her blood test, and Hisae entertained herself with fantasies of slapping the condescending doctor. Next to her, Haku read a cheesy romance novel he’d found at the house they’d been occupying.
The doctor changed her thyroid medication to a higher dose and gave her an insulting note about counting carbohydrates. When they left, the emaciated boy’s mother was crying.
They wandered the town afterwards, and Haku picked out several novels and a handful of anatomy books. They camped outside the city walls, and Haku poured over the medical texts by firelight.
“This is the pressure point the ANBU must have used,” Haku said excitedly, showing Hisae the page. “It’s supposed to cause ‘sleeping death.’”
“Ah,” said Hisae.
They were quiet after that. Since Haku wouldn’t eat what Hisae cooked, they’d bought cheap take-out and Hisae poked at her left overs.
Haku was a good student, she thought. He understood things about life without her having to explain them. When they’d been looking for food, he’d asked her if buckwheat noodles were okay to eat, or if she just didn’t eat any type of noodle. He’d also made her ice with his bloodline limit, to help her transport insulin.
She knew he’d kill her in an instant if Zabuza wanted him to. Still, though, it was nice to be understood.
She watched the fire and imagined the eyeless god watching them.
In the morning, she had an eye exam at a clinic and discovered her vision had decreased a bit more.
She hadn’t noticed. She guessed that was a good thing, because it meant she’d at least adapted to it.
She followed Haku to one more bookstore and then they bought food for the road and left. They ate lunch sitting on one of the seaside cliffs that appeared in glossy photos of every tourist pamphlet for Hot Water Country.
“I think sitting by the sea and drinking calamansi juice is probably the most Water Country thing we could do,” Haku commented.
Hisae hummed in agreement. She only drank half of her juice, because juice was all simple sugars that would cause blood glucose spikes if she drank to much.
They walked the last part of the main road back to the town. It was better to be seen traveling like normal civilians. One the horizon, a family came into view.
“Isn’t that the pharmacist?” Haku asked. “You can ask him about–”
Hisae grabbed his arm and pulled him into the trees with her. He followed her, wide-eyed but as silent and surefooted as a veteran shinobi.
“You should practice,” she whispered, hands sweaty and pupils dilated. “That ‘sleeping death’ technique.”
Her back felt hot and prickly, and she knew someone was watching them, watching her with unblinking eyes. Adrenaline flooded her system. Haku eyed her worriedly.
“If it fails,” she says, “we’re far enough from town no one will suspect us.”
It was a weak excuse. Haku produced six senbon anyway and shifted further along the tree branch.
The pharmacist came into view, arguing loudly with his wife. His daughter who worked in the pharmacy followed, along with a teenaged boy Hisae had never seen before. They led an empty cart pulled by a donkey.
Haku waited until the family was right below them before flicking the senbon at them with deft movements. He missed twice, hitting the pharmacist in the shoulder and grazing his daughter’s face, but the rest of the senbon made their mark in the neck. All four dropped.
Hisae checked their pulses. Nothing.
“Should I pull out the needles and see if they wake up?” Haku asked. Hisae shook her head.
“Put them in the cart,” she said. “We’ll cover the bodies and take them back.”
Haku seemed unsure of the entire situation but didn’t question her as he helped her move them. Zabuza had made himself a beautiful weapon.
They took them back to the house Zabuza had appropriated and Hisae tied them all down before she let Haku remove the senbon. Dark purple bruises had formed where the senbon had punctured them, which Haku thought shouldn’t happen.
They all woke, though, so the test had been a success.
They begged them to let them go. Haku gave Hisae nervous glances as she stood in the doorway, watching them with satisfied eyes.
Hisae wouldn’t let Haku feed the pharmacist and his family, instead ladling out a very strict diet herself. They had the family captive in the children’s bedroom, and she had Haku set up sound-proofing seals.
She started sleeping on the couch. At night, she’d feel the eyeless god watching her with the same satisfaction.
Zabuza returned. He was only mildly surprised to find one of the rooms of his stolen house occupied by a civilian family Hisae was very carefully starving.
“You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” he said. “Make sure you clean them. I can’t stand the smell.”
At night, she heard Haku mention something about “starvation therapy” to Zabuza with concern. Zabuza laughed.
“This is a good lesson for you,” Zabuza said, not bothering to lower his voice. “A bitch that’s lost her bark still bites.”
Hisae frowned to herself. There was a common saying in Mist: “Beware a silent dog and still water.” It meant that an attack without any warning was more than one that was announced, and that things that looked innocuous could hide dangers. She wasn’t sure she liked Zabuza’s version.
Weeks passed. People searched for the pharmacist’s family. No one thought to look towards their occupied house, or if they did they were too cowardly to cross Zabuza.
Hisae moved into the house full time. She still maintained her normal work schedule, but she was able to spend more time with Haku. Zabuza disappeared again.
She spent the rest of her time watching the pharmacist’s family. They cried a lot, but they no longer had the energy to scream or fight when she went to feed them.
“Do you understand now?” she crooned. “Do you understand what you’ve done to people’s children?”
A diabetic child could live for about a year on starvation therapy. She could keep them for a year, then, and then kill them, and then the spirit that was watching would finally be happy.
She paused in the middle of washing her hands. Where had that thought come from? She couldn’t keep them for a year.
Haku made them meals now, since no one would eat what she cooked. He was very good at following her instructions.
“Don’t you think,” he asked over dinner, “it’s better to have expensive medication than none?”
Hisae had barely thought of that. She new the pharmacy had been closed for weeks, of course, and that would hurt people. But she needed, yearned , for people to finally understand how others were suffering.
“Rich people can afford to get their medicine from somewhere else,” she said slowly. “Poor people can’t afford anything.”
This wasn’t exactly true, she thought. A rich child was still a child. Poor people could still buy medicine. She went to bed uneasy.
It didn’t matter. In the morning, shinobi showed up to investigate.
They were Cloud ANBU, since Hot Water Country no longer had its own ninja village. They were looking for Momochi Zabuza, who was accused of killing a local family.
Zabuza hadn’t actually been involved at all. They still attacked the house.
Hisae knew it was inevitable that one day one of her students would have to save her in a fight. She wasn’t made for combat, and some of her older students had already surpassed her. Still, it was almost embarrassing to have to be carried off by scrawny little Haku.
She’d known about Haku’s bloodline limit, but it was even more deadly than she’d imagined. No one expected the type of destruction such a pretty child could bring. If she was the silent dog, he was the still water.
Haku headed for the sea. It was the obvious escape route for the apprentice of the Demon of the Mist and a predictable move. However, traveling across open water was so dangerous most shinobi from other villages avoided it. Mist-nin, on the other hand, were used to it.
Haku dropped Hisae at the edge of the cliff and they both sprinted down it and across the sea.
“Do you know where Zabuza went?” Hisae called.
“No,” said Haku. “But he’ll find me. East or west?”
“West,” Hisae decided. There were a handful of small countries out that way, and it was better to go there than end up in Lightning Country.
ANBU caught up to them, because Hisae was slow and Haku wasn’t large enough to carry her the whole way. It was a stupid move on their part, though; Haku surrounded by water was unstoppable.
He was panting hard after the fight as they continued to flee. Hisae thought to offer him a soldier pill, but she didn’t have any supplies on her.
In her rush, she hadn’t been able to take anything. No food, no weapons, no medication.
She had nothing.
They ran. They crossed one border, then another.
After three days, Hisae’s joints hurt and her body was filled with a fatigue so strong she wondered how she could still walk. Haku became increasingly worried, sending her nervous glances and chewing at his lips.
He left her, curled up under a tree. The trees were coniferous here, tall and narrow and pointed in a way that make the crowded landscape feel stark and barren. The only underbrush was lichens and fallen pine needles.
Hisae hated it.
The eyes that hid in these trees were sharp as their leaves, disgusted with her impotence. She was going to die alone and pathetic from her own body not working properly.
Haku returned. He had insulin and thyroid pills– not the right types, and not very much, but something was better than nothing. Hisae felt her eyes get hot. The trees jeered down at them. She got to her feet and showed Haku how to make tea from the pine.
Zabuza found them in Mountain Country two weeks later.
“This is your fault,” Zabuza growled at her. “I’d kill you, but the job I found requires Haku to go undercover. You’re going to walk him through it.”
She did, dressing Haku up as a young girl and hissing to him to cut the hands off anyone who touched him. The job was in Waterfall Country, and when it was over, Zabuza threatened to turn her into the hidden village that was there.
“There’s no point,” Haku said dryly. “She’s sick. She’s going to die anyway.”
Zabuza laughed at her. Hisae felt the ugly thing inside her that strangled her with rage start to uncurl and tighten around her, the eyes above trembling with excitement. If she could figure out a way to poison him, to make him die slowly as his own body attacked itself…
Haku watched her with hard eyes. That wasn’t the way he normally looked at her. He was being kind.
She said nothing as they left. She felt eyes from above on her, judging her, disapproving.
“I can’t,” she said back to it. “That’s not a fight I can win.”
She had no savings and was out of most of her medication. Stealing would only get her so far. She needed to find a job that would pay her immediately.
She’d been able to establish herself in a town because she’d brought enough savings with her for a couple month’s rent. She’d been able to get a job because she’d shown up well-groomed and sweet-faced. Now, she had to fall back on plan B.
It was plan B because it was dangerous. She hadn’t taken a proper kunoichi mission in years.
Finding a shinobi job was easy; all sorts of people would pay a missing-nin to kill whomever or do whatever despicable deed, and she wasn’t picky.
Her first client she found in the backroom of a smoke-filled bar. His target was ten feet away, in the main area of the bar. She ordered him drinks, took him home, and smothered him with his own pillow.
It was an unsatisfying death and made her feel restless. There was no justice behind it, no reason or art to it.
Still, she was paid for it.
Missing-nin were easy to track by the nefarious company they kept, so she moved on. She took more odd-jobs, but it was hard to save up money as a wandering criminal. She had to replenish her poison supply, buy food and gear, and when winter came, she had to pay for shelter from the cold. She was only able to pay a medic to test her thyroxin levels; doctors were too expensive in this part of the world.
Months passed like this, and she wandered deep into Earth Country. Mist hung in the forests up here, hiding rows and rows of judging eyes.
They were restless. So was she.
Nerve pain started in her toes and moved up her feet into her calves, tingling and burning and never letting up. Her retinopathy got noticeably worse and it made her a worse hunter.
She was dying, slowly but surely.
A mob leader set her up in a rich man’s household as a maid. She was to get information on his drug-dealing side business and then, if she was ever given the cue, kill he man and his family.
The man had three children. She hoped their father wasn’t actually stealing the business of her employers. She hated killing children.
Rich people had private doctors that came to them, and the family doctor agreed to examine Hisae at a reduced fee. He clicked his tongue at her.
“You’d best be more careful,” he said. “Otherwise we’re going to have to take those toes off.”
Hisae had a vivid fantasy of holding him down and cutting off his toes while she lectured him on being more careful. The other live-in maid, an old woman she shared a room with, poked her in the back.
“Don’t tell the missus,” the woman grunted. “The last girl got kicked out because the missus thought rheumatism would make it too hard for her to clean.”
Hisae nodded and went back to her chores.
Most of her duties involved cleaning, which was tedious but doable. The master of the house was more secretive than she would have expected, and she was reprimanded twice for cleaning outside the room where he had meetings with his cohorts.
She was caught a third time, and the lady of the house screamed at her and slapped her across the face. It wasn’t the worst Hisae had suffered. Still, it stung at her pride, and she left the room filled with barely-hidden fury.
They didn’t suspect her, at least. She wrote a report back to her employers.
At night her nerve pain kept her up, and she listened to soft snores of the old woman and the scratch of a rhododendron against her window.
What do these people know of pain? The tree seemed to ask, gnarled branches tapped against the window like fingers. What do they know of suffering?
There’s nothing I can do, Hisae thought back. I’m too weak. I’m dying. I need this.
Pathetic excuses, the branches told her. Are you not a teacher?
In the early morning, with a faint chill in the air and dew clinging to the grass outside, she examined the rhododendron. It was heavy with flowers, its branches sagging under the weight. Hisae pulled them off my the handfuls.
Two days later, the lady of the house had fallen ill and the doctor was called.
“Are you sure you’re not pregnant?” the doctor asked, and the lady hissed at him. He prescribed a panel of vitamins and supplements to her.
Many of the supplements were in tea, and Hisae volunteered to watch over the lady and make sure she was getting all her vitamins. She followed bees form the rhododendron back to their hive and collected the honey to sweeten the tea.
“Local honey helps with allergies,” she said.
“This isn’t allergies,” the lady replied. “Stupid girl.”
Still, she drank it.
Not enough, the rhododendron told her at night. You’re dying, aren’t you? And he walks through his house like a king.
Hisae had been feeling better lately, since staying in one place meant she’d been able to stock up on medication and keep up a routine. That routine was measurable, though, and she worked from dawn until past sunset. She lived on scraps from the kitchen, and the only reason she was able to eat all of it was because the woman she worked with was kind enough to set uncontaminated food aside before the entire meal was put together.
She knew the drop points for the opium the master of the house was trafficking. She visited one one night.
“What an idiot,” her employer said, toeing the body of the master of the house. In another room, the lady of the house was vomiting from rhododendron poisoning. “You never dip into your own supply.”
Hisae had sent word to the mafia as soon as it had been clear the rich man was dying. He developed an addiction faster than she’d anticipated and she’d run out. He’d been suffering withdrawal and overdosed on another drug the doctor had recommended to compensate.
Hisae had mismeasured the dosage the doctor had prescribed, and he’d died an hour later at his desk. She didn’t tell her employer the first part.
The cruel force that had been watching her had shivered with delight. Its weight on her felt less like being strangled and more like an embrace.
“Well,” her employer sighed. “I guess that takes care of that problem, at least. You can get out of here.”
“You have to pay me,” Hisae said.
“The fuck I do,” her employer replied, tapping the sword at his side. The two mobsters that had come with him also reached for their weapons. “I wanted to take over his supply routes. You’ve all but destroyed them.”
“I did what you wanted,” Hisae argued. “I told you he was acting weird. It’s not my fault you couldn’t–”
He made to backhand her and she ducked. One of the other mobsters hit her back with his sheathed sword and she fell forward. The leader stomped on her head, holding her down with his boot while his comrades beat her body.
“Watch your mouth,” he growled, and Hisae’s mind bloomed with visions pressing his bloody face to the ground and making him beg her for mercy. She imagined beating his body and his comrades to a paste and then painting the whole house with them.
The faceless god would love that, love them, love her .
The wife was screaming, and then the children started too. The mobsters paused in their assault.
“For fuck’s sake,” one of them said, and then there was a lot of thudding and the screaming abruptly stopped.
“Kakuzu!” a man yelled. “I told you I wanted them! I haven’t had a sacrifice in days.”
The gangster took his foot of Hisae’s head and she rolled over enough to watch two people walk into the room. To her failing eyes, they looked like black blurs with patches of red.
“Hoo,” said the voice that had been yelling. “Looks like someone beat you to it.”
“It’s fine,” said the other, larger with a deeper voice. “I can turn in the body and still get paid.”
“Hey,” said one of the mobsters. “Who the fuck are you?”
“You can sacrifice them,” Kakuzu continued as if the man hadn’t spoken. “Just stay out of my way.”
One of the mobsters lunged at him, and Kakuzu threw him across the room as casually as throwing a pillow. He batted the leader out of the way and tossed the corpse of the master fo the house over his shoulder. He paused to glance down at Hisae’s bloody form.
“Do you work here?” he asked. “Is there a safe?”
Hisae stared at him. Her vision was going double and she saw two of his giant form looming over her. He was… not someone she wanted to piss off. Her arm shook as she pointed.
The other one– smaller with bright silver hair– crowed with excitement as he bowled over the mobsters with a giant scythe. It tore into furniture and the books stacked around the room. Kakuzu pried open the safe with his bare hands and carefully emptied its contents.
“Hidan,” Kakuzu said, standing, “I’m leaving.”
He left. Hidan didn’t acknowledge him, instead cackling with adrenaline as he effortlessly incapacitated all three of the mobsters. Then he dragged one into the center of the room, kicking rubble out of the way to clear a space, and then carefully painted a circle in blood around the man’s body.
Hisae pulled herself into a sitting position against the wall. She wasn’t injured so badly she couldn’t run. She should run.
She wanted to see this.
Hidan licked his fingers and his skin went black. The entire room vibrated with a strange energy that Hisae felt in her very core. It was a hum, it was a scream, it was a song. Hidan impaled himself with a pole, letting out a low moan, and the man in the circle screamed and bled. Hisae’s body went hot and Hidan’s eyes rolled back in his head with pleasure. Hisae pulled her knees to her pounding chest.
Hidan repeated the process with the other two men, and Hisae watched in frozen fascination. She saw it through his eyes, felt her blood boil and spill, heard the trees whispering praising and loving words to her.
Everything was hot. She couldn’t move. Hidan stalked over to her and dragged her to the center of the circle.
“Ah,” she managed to say. Her head was spinning. She almost wanted this.
He swiped a thumb across her temple where she’d been bleeding freely. It was almost a loving gesture.
When he stepped back and his skin went dark, Hidan let out a sound like a purr.
“You,” he declared, “have had one hell of a rough day.”
He sounded like he approved. She stared up at him. Should she stand? She wanted to stand. She managed to get to her knees.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Delivering you to Jashin-sama,” Hidan said. “Don’t worry. He’ll understand all your suffering.”
Hisae’s eyes narrowed. “Will he take it away?”
“Mm, no,” said Hidan. “You can’t erase suffering, only understand it.”
That was, Hisae thought, all she really wanted.
Hidan rammed the pole through his chest and she felt it too, ripping through bone and muscle and lung and heart. She collapsed and he followed, letting out cries of pleasure.
Her dying thoughts were: I’d rather be understood and alive, though.
It was too bright in the room. She’d overslept, and she’d be late to work.
She sat up in a panic, searching for the clock on her bedside table. She was on the floor, surrounded by broken pieces of furniture and torn books and stinking bodies and rotting blood.
The safe was still ripped apart, and the strange symbol in blood was still painted across the floor. She stood and patted herself down.
She was fine. Unblemished.
She smelled, though, her clothes soaked in dry blood. She went to draw herself a bath.
The lady of the house was dead, along with her children and the old woman, so Hisae dressed herself in the lady’s expensive kimono. She made herself a meal and ate outside on the veranda, looking over the garden.
The breeze was warm today, and it played with the decorative trees in the garden, their leaves casting gentle shadows on the ground. Hisae watched them thoughtfully.
They watched her back, expecting.
“Jashin-sama, huh?” she said. She chewed and swallowed. “Where to next?”