Fukuda didn’t like the Mizukage’s office.
There wasn’t any particular reason for this, and Fukuda had stood in this exact spot many times since she was promoted to jounin captain, accepting missions on behalf of her village. The room itself was barely extravagant due to the Village’s struggling economy; it’s only luxuries were the finely polished water crystals gleaming from every visible surface that sent glimmers of light dancing through the otherwise cloudy and dim room. Yagura himself, though always hidden behind the dark leather back of his chair, never raised his voice or threatened his ninja. He had only made the village stronger in his short reign. Less ninja died on missions, and less ninja gave in to the emotions that made them fail.
No, Fukuda had no reason to dislike the Mizukage’s office, but she did nevertheless.
His sweet, high tenor sounded now.
“Fukuda Takeda, your team has been assigned a mission to Fire Country,” he said. “You, along with another jounin squad, are to guard the merchant Tsuto Takayoshi and his household from any threats that they may encounter.” Yagura-sama’s voice dropped incrementally. “Even from internal sources.”
Well. That was a surprise.
“Pardon me, Mizukage-sama,” Fukuda said. “But if Tsuto is worried about being attacked by his own household, wouldn’t he be better served by hiring Leaf-nin to guard him? It seems…” she paused and delicately searched for a word. “… imprudent to search for aid so far from home.
Yagura didn’t respond for a long moment, and Fukuda was about to apologize for speaking out of turn when he responded, a dark edge of amusement slicing through each word.
“You assume that his internal problems are limited to his own household only, and not to his entire country.”
Fukuda froze. “Then that means-”
“Tsuto Takayoshi and his son, Tsuto Masaaki, have been accused of a rather heinous crime, as our Intel agents gather. They are suspected of funding a failed coup against the Daimyo of the Fire Country, so you can see why they're rather worried about any possible acts of retribution that might occur.”
The Mizukage’s chair creaked, slowly turning until Fukuda could see Yagura’s scarred face peeking out from the high desk he sat behind. With the appearance of a child, he didn’t look like one of the strongest ninja in the Hidden Continents, but Fukuda knew without a doubt that this was a man who could kill her before she even had time to draw another breath. She knew without a doubt that this was a man who deserved her complete and utter loyalty.
When Yagura spoke again, his voice was laced with a different kind of darkness.
“This is a high risks mission, captain,” he said softly. “It is not as simple as it appears. Tsuto has offered a large amount of money to Kiri for this service, enough for us to send our very best. It is money that will go toward sustaining the village’s lifeblood and protecting our own. Our economy, as you know, is currently weak. We are not as rich as our neighbors, but we are just as strong. Still, it is entirely possible that you will encounter high level enemy-nin on this mission. Do you understand?”
Do you understand that you and your team might die?
Swallowing, Fukuda answered the only way she knew how. “I do, Mizukage-sama.”
Someone in Yagura’s eyes seemed to soften, and he turned his chair so that it was again facing the expansive view overlooking Kirigakure. “Then go. I pray that the currents will flow in your favor.”
Fukuda snapped out the traditional Mist salute, dipped her head in a formal bow, and left her leader to his own devices. She had a team to gather.
“Moto, Nakeda, to me,” Fukuda snapped, briskly making her way across her team’s training ground.
Moto and Nakeda paused in their furious sparring, springing away from one another and panting lightly as they waited for her to draw near. Moto’s orange hair was wet with clinging condensation from the mist he had presumably called up at the beginning of their spar, and Nakeda’s bandage mask lay discarded to one side along with her sword sheath.
“Got us a mission, boss?” Moto called. He bared his teeth and snapped them playfully, a mocking impression of a shark closing his jaws around prey. “Good thing too. It was getting boring just waiting around.”
Nakeda grunted and folded her arms across her chest. Probably her way of agreeing, Fukuda thought amusedly, though the taciturn kunoichi would never willingly show agreement with Moto if she could.
“We’ve got a mission alright. Hell of a mission this time too.” Fukuda tossed the mission scroll to Nakeda who caught it with a lazy hand and began examining its contents curiously with Moto standing on his tiptoes to see over her shoulder. “Where’s Iebara?”
Moto jerked a thumb to a rock outcrop a little ways out, not taking his eyes off the mission scroll for a second. “Last I saw, he was brooding like a madman over there. Hey – we have to travel to Fire Country for this? Goddamn it, I hate that goddamned place and all its goddamned trees! Always smells like dirt and rot!”
“That’s just because you’re short and close to the ground,” Nakeda rumbled. Clearly already finished reading, she bundled the scroll up, ignoring Moto’s indignant yelp, and looked patiently in Fukuda’s direction. “Are we sure bringing Iebara is a good idea?”
Moto sobered immediately, and Fukuda ran her tongue across her teeth contemplatively, taking solace in the familiar pricks of sharpened bone against delicate flesh.
“We have no choice,” she said at last. “This client has enough money to buy the Mizukage’s palace, probably, and he asked for the best our village can offer.” Her eyes skated across Moto’s tense frame and Nakeda’s carefully relaxed posture. “If we want someone who can handle Konoha-nin, it’s Iebara.”
“Okay, yeah, handle those Konoha rats is one thing, but staying focused enough to do it without getting the rest of us killed? That’s a whole ‘nother shark fight,” Moto said. His hands twitched, probably searching for a kunai, before he visibly forced them still. Fukuda made a mental note to work with him on his tells when they got back. “He hasn’t worked with a team since that mission five months back, and we all know how that went.”
“We all also know that Iebara would never draw blood from a teammate,” Fukuda said mildly. She clamped down on her annoyance and glanced over her shoulder at the familiar black waves of chakra were fast rising in irritation. “Right, Iebara?”
The behemoth of a man grunted, eyes darkening behind the distinctive tattoo that adorned more than half of his face. Iebara Shigemetsu was a name whispered in the darkest corners of jounin gatherings and ANBU headquarters of other villages, one so feared that his name was listed in the Bingo Book of every other Hidden Village, though his bounty was highest in Konoha’s. The Phantom Terror of Mist, he was called, and Fukuda swelled with pride to think that such a powerful man was one of hers.
Few got close enough to see the distinctive tattoo. Even fewer got close enough to see the ugly scar that it covered, courtesy of one of the many cold-hearted bastards that Leaf was hiding in that thrice damned foliage of theirs.
If she ran into any of those aforementioned bastards, Fukuda would rip them apart if Iebara didn’t do it first.
“Right.” She cleared her throat, shaking herself out of her thoughts and beckoned the squad around her. “Intel gave us some maps of the general area. We’re covering Ibaragashi City, and another team is taking Tsurugahama Port. We’ll travel together for the first leg of the journey through Water territory then split once we hit Fire. After that, it’s guarding some rich merchants for a couple of days, then heading back with significantly more gold than we started out with. Simple.”
“Do we know who we’re working with yet?” Nakeda inquired.
Moto groaned, throwing his head so far back it looked like he was trying to do a backflip and waved his arms wildly in the air for no apparent reason. “That genjutsu bastard? I hate him!”
“No, you don’t,” Fukuda said, her pool of patience rapidly diminishing. “Because they’re your comrades, and they’re here to help you complete the mission. Besides, we won’t be interacting with them that much, just for most of the journey there.”
“But he’s such a jerk!” Moto complained. “Don’t you remember how mean to me he was? He kept me in that fucking genjutsu for hours! Hours! I spent hours thinking I was being reamed out by Yagura-sama telling me I was the shame of our village, and that bastard was laughing the entire time!”
“Aoisuke’s strong,” Iebara said. “So shut up.”
Moto shut up.
Fukuda squeezed her eyes shut and briefly massaged her brow, silently thanking Iebara for that one moment of peace.
“Exactly,” she said at last. “It doesn’t matter what petty differences or arguments you’ve had with them in the past. You know that this village is held together by the strength of the ocean and the blood of our comrades. Completing this mission is all that matters. Are we clear?” Fukuda stared at her team, one by one. Moto was still sulking quietly, averting his eyes, but Nakeda stepped on his foot and forced a quiet flinch out of him. Sullenly, he looked at Fukuda. “Are we clear?” she asked again.
“Clear,” Moto muttered.
“Clear,” Nakeda agreed.
Iebara bared his teeth in a bloodthirsty snarl. He was starting to get excited at the prospect of Konoha blood, and it showed on his battle-scarred face. Suddenly, Fukuda was incredibly grateful that Iebara was on their side. She almost pitied any Konoha ninja that they might run across. Almost. After all, not a single one had survived to carry back any tales of Iebara’s fearsome strength with them; their drained and lifeless bodies did instead. “Clear.”
Fukuda matched his grin with one of her own, savoring the sharp pricks that graced her bottom lip. “Then what more do we need? Let’s move out.”
Travel through Water Country was safe, if tedious and boring. Most of the nation’s residents knew better than to interfere with the loping gait of ninja running across the various rivers and streams that dominated most of the landscape. Mist had developed a reputation in the past few years, one that said it churned out ninja strong enough to stop any threat to the large island, but also strong enough to kill you if you messed with them.
The curved kunai that Mist metal smiths had developed only furthered that perception. Designed to sink into flesh and not let go, the kunai would leave rip out gouges of flesh, leaving them exposed, and any enemies on the wrong end of the blade would either die of blood loss or infection more times than not. It was a brutally efficient and fantastically bloody way to make a point.
Moto was rather fond of them and was fingering them at this very moment.
“- and the great thing about this genjutsu is,” Aoisuke said as he cheerily danced over ripples of water. “That it isn’t actually a genjutsu at all. Well, it sort of it, but it really isn’t. It incorporates elements of ninjutsu into it, so just when you think you’ve figured it out and try a kai, bam! Guess what? You’re still stuck in the illusion, but now you think you’ve lost your mind. So you’re super confused and doubting yourself ‘cause what is going on? And while you’re standing there all like, “Wha-?” I swoop in and kill you!” He bared sharpened teeth. “Want me to demonstrate? You’re probably stupid enough for it to work.”
Moto snarled, and Nakeda lunged forward to draw him back before the orange-haired ninja could do anything reckless.
“We’ll take your word for it,” she said. “As long as you use it on our enemies.”
Aoisuke looked offended, green eyes narrowing for a split second before returning to their neutral expression. “Of course. What do you take me for, some kind of forest barbarian?”
“That’s enough talking,” Fukuda cut them off. Though she and Aoisuke were technically the same rank, Fukuda was both older and more experienced. She had seniority on her side, no matter how skilled Aoisuke was, and on a mission that required the barest minimum of cooperation between jounin teams, she was the final authority. “We’re nearing the edge of Water Country now, so concentrate, all of you.”
Aoisuke and Moto shut up.
Both teams fell into their standard formations, Aoisuke’s team preferring a more abstract design that featured Aoisuke in the back where he could subtly ensnare opponents in genjutsu while being covered by the rest of his team. Fukuda’s team used the traditional diamond formation, Fukuda in the lead Moto and Nakeda flanking her on both sides, and Iebara in the back. His looming presence was enough to make anyone foolish enough to get in their way stop and consider it twice.
They reached a public ferry only minutes before it cast off, and a few surreptitious glances at Mist’s iconic uniform and four wavy slashes was enough for the passengers to scramble for a hasty retreat, clearing more than enough room for all members of the party to rest on board the ship.
Aoisuke stretched languidly and tilted his head back to stare at the gray sky.
“This is the life,” he said lazily. “Saving chakra by traveling on a ship, civilians afraid of us, on our way to a foreign country to bring gold home… What more could a man want?”
“Not you,” Moto muttered angrily. He was sulking, again, and Fukuda let a soundless sigh escape her lips. The younger jounin was still immature and overly fond of expressing his emotions. Another thing they would work on when they got back.
Just as the team finished settling in on the ship’s deck, a scrawny man sidled up to Fukuda, rubbing his hands together anxiously. “Excuse me, esteemed shinobi,” he said quietly. “But you’re causing some of our other passengers quite a bit of distress. Is it possible…” He eyed Nakeda’s sword, gleaming as she took it out to polish, Moto’s kunai swinging between his fingers, and Aoisuke’s hands casually forming seals. “Is it possible to, er, put away some of your weapons? I’m sure that would go a long way in convincing the others that, er, ah-”
“That we’re not planning on murdering them?” Fukuda said flatly. “No need to mince words with us. We’ll put the weapons away, but you can let your people know that Mist-nin protect, not harm.” She smiled, letting several pointed teeth peek out. “Your paranoia serves your country ill.”
The man flinched and bowed, squeaking out something that vaguely sounded like an apology, and scurried off. Scoffing, Fukuda settled back once again.
“Civilians,” Moto said scornfully. Aoisuke murmured a quiet agreement and seemed to be falling asleep, and Nakeda dipped her head in his direction. Iebara said nothing.
He hadn’t sat down since they first boarded the ship, and his face was turned towards the ship’s bow, towards Fire Country. Iebara’s tattoo was twisted by the grimace that currently sat on his face, and there was something in the expression that hinted at darker thoughts lurking beneath the surface. Fukuda studied her teammate wordlessly. Iebara wasn’t an original part of their team. Jounin teams were traditionally three-man cells for simpler missions, occasionally adding in a fourth when more firepower was deemed necessary or a specific skillset was needed. Otherwise, three jounin-level ninja could handle just about anything a B-rank could throw at them.
Iebara was a late addition, one that wasn’t particularly welcomed at the time. He had just been promoted to jounin, and the break room was already swelling with gossip about a young ninja groomed by his mother War and as thirsty for blood as a shark scenting in the water. He was easy to spot, the whispers said, because half of his face was destroyed by a white blur on the battlefield. They said that he was uncontrollable.
Fukuda didn’t put much stock into those rumors herself, trusting that the Mizukage wouldn’t appoint anyone dangerously unstable. Jounin were revered in Mist as the toughest, loyalist ninja around, and there was no way that anyone had enough firepower to be promoted with a lack of stable facilities. Still, she had hoped that the rotting chakra she’d sensed flaring up on occasion would stay far away.
“Why me, Mizukage-sama?” she’d asked, standing in that strangely uncomfortable office. “My team is already full, and there are so many other jounin more qualified than myself.”
The diminutive man hadn’t hesitated to answer. “You’re the only one I can trust to kill whoever finally manages to get Iebara,” he’d said. “All legends die, and one day, Iebara will too. But I know you’ll bring me the head of whoever does it.”
Fukuda shook herself out of the memories and looked at Iebara. He was staring at her, something unreadable in his glinting eyes. “What’s the matter?”
He looked uncomfortable for the briefest second, but his visage hardened along with his voice. “When we run into Leaf-nin, I’m going to kill them. Promise you won’t stop me.”
“It’s not guaranteed that we’ll run into any Leaf-nin at all,” Fukuda pointed out. “We’re not hunting them down, we’re just guarding a merchant who messed up.”
“I don’t think that Yellow Flash of theirs has the balls to kill his own guys anyways,” Moto threw in languidly.
“Don’t say that name so lightly,” Nakeda chided from her seat. She finished polishing her sword and held it up, it’s deadly edge shimmering like a mirage. “Names have power, and I’d rather not invoke that particular one.”
Moto scoffed, but he didn’t bring it up again.
“It’s not our job to think, Moto,” Fukuda said. “It’s our job to do.” She turned back to Iebara with her arms crossed over her chest, the reassuring coolness of armor pressing through the uniform’s pinstriped cloth. “But, Iebara, I can’t make you any promises like that.”
He snarled at her, hands clenching into fists at his side. “Why not?”
She met his gaze unflinchingly.“Because you’re a legend who’s never left a Leaf-nin alive to tell the tale before,” she said calmly. “But Leaf has legends too. You might be in their Bingo Book, but our Bingo Book has a thick section dedicated to Leaf too.”
Iebara growled, the tightly bound bandages across his face shivering. “I’m the man who tears legends apart and leave them bleeding on the ground,” he declared. “I turn their life force against them and I rip them apart. You can’t stop me.”
“I can’t,” Fukuda agreed. “And if you decide to go after them, I won’t. But,” she added as Iebara grinned his victory. “I expect you to trust my judgment as much as I trust you.” She glanced around her. “That goes for all of you.”
Moto was nodding enthusiastically, and Nakeda looked at her with warmly approving eyes. Looking back at Iebara, Fukuda arched a single blonde eyebrow, waiting. Iebara stubbornly held out for several moments, but he caved and gave a single tight nod.
Fukuda relaxed incrementally. “Good.”
“Ahhhh, so sappy!” Aoisuke stretched, popping several joints as he did so. He cracked open one eye to glance in Fukuda’s direction, curling his lip playfully. “This is why I can’t stand you guys. You’re so sentimental.”
“Please, captain,” said one of the woman on his team. “You’re the one who insists on buying us rice ball soup after every mission. You have no room to complain about sap, hypocrite.”
Aoisuke spluttered in the face of this sudden betrayal. “You- how could you say that! I certainly do not! Well, I do, but I make you all pay!”
“That was once,” the woman drawled. “Once out of uncountable times. Face it, captain, you’re a softy.”
“I am not!”
“You definitely are.”
“Am not! This is insubordination! I’m reporting you to the Mizukage when we get back.”
“Try it. Yagura-sama will feed you to his turtle before you’re even done talking.”
“Why don’t I feed you to a turtle-”
“Captain, you have no turtle.”
Fukuda tuned out their bickering and closed her eyes. A salty breeze ruffled her blonde bangs, and she slumped across the railing. The weather was changing, turning from just dismal gray clouds to dismal gray clouds that rumbled their displeasure.
“A storm’s coming,” she said absently. “I can feel it.”
“Sure is,” Moto said, coming up beside her. His hair burned like embers against the gloomy backdrop. “But we’re Mist-nin. That storm belongs to us.”
Fukuda grinned, and Iebara barked out a pleased laugh from her side. She felt Nakeda’s chakra flicked at her back, felt the pleased edge of it brushing against her own. Fukuda let her own flare briefly in response, delighting in the shiver that ran through her team.
“Born of the storm, borne by the currents,” she recited, closing her eyes. “May the Great Ocean bless us on our journey.”
As Moto, Nakeda, and, after some hesitation, Iebara, bowed their heads, the storm rolled and crackled above them.
Aoisuke’s team split off as soon as Tsurugahama Port came into view, darting through the trees like gray shadows.
They ran through thick underbrush for several hours when Fukuda caught the faintest glimmers of chakra. She skidded to a halt, her team stopping with her, and sharpened her senses. Ibaragashi City loomed like monster out of the ocean depths only a few miles away, and there were three faint signatures blinking from the city’s outskirts opposite of them.
“How many?” Nakeda asked.
“Three,” Fukuda said, not blinking. “They must be pretty high level if I can sense them from here. They’re leaving the city, I think.”
“Should we even bother chasing them?” Nakeda asked. “If they’re leaving, it might be better not to cause any trouble.”
“What are the chances that there are three high level Leaf-nin leaving a city we know holds targets of interest?” Fukuda asked rhetorically. “Chances are that our mission’s already null.”
Moto whined, exaggeratedly high and shrill with tension. “We came all this way for nothing? It’s not cheap, you know! We don’t have trees to grow money on like those spoiled Leaf bastards!”
“Shut up, Moto, I’m concentrating,” Fukuda said. A sudden chakra flare in the distance caught her attention, and she growled in response. Taking a deep breath, Fukuda considered her options, carefully ignoring Iebara’s vibrating form. They could pretend they’d never noticed the sparks and continue with their mission, deciding what to do when they arrived. They could chase the sparks and lose time on their mission. Or-
Her hands snapped out and formed several quick seals. “The clones will chase the signatures,” Fukuda said clearly. “We’ll continue on toward the mansion as planned and see what the clones scout out.” She didn’t give anyone time to disagree. “Move out.”
Two copies of herself sprang away in pursuit, and Fukuda took off toward the glimmering lights. As they drew closer, she could hear the faint sounds of screams and sirens. The chances of receiving their payment went down yet again.
She’d just leapt onto a roof when her clones’ memories came flooding back. Fukuda paused, holding up a hand to stall the rest of her team, and sorted through the cluttered memories. There wasn’t much, just lots of blurriness and chasing a constantly disappearing signature that reappeared further each time.
Translocation, she thought in disgust. Mist had received reports that the Yellow Flash had begun to teach his troops his famed space-time jutsu, but for ninja to be using it in the field already was information that Intel would want to know.
“Translocation,” Fukuda reported back. “My bunshin can’t track them closely enough. What do you think; stay or go?”
“Go,” Iebara burst out, Moto nodding vigorously besides him. In a moment of surprising verbosity, Iebara gestured at the chaos on the streets below him. “Does this look like a place that’s undisturbed? There’s smoke in the distance. Our clients are already dead.”
“Agreed,” Nakeda said. “We came here for a reason. If we pursue, we might have a chance of returning with some gold.”
“Go it is.” Fukuda started sprinting across the rooftops, arms outstretched behind her as she ran. “We’ve wasted enough time as it is. We’re going to have to play catch up.”
As they ran, Fukuda’s mind ran through several scenarios. The chakra signatures were strong, at least jounin level if not higher. Her team outnumbered them, and Iebara’s sheer firepower wasn’t an advantage that could easily be overlooked. If it came down to it, they could fight. They could fight, and they could win. Reassured, Fukuda poured extra chakra to the soles of her feet and sprang forward faster.
At the pace they were setting, her group hit the outskirts of the city in no time at all and continued pressing into the forests. Dodging the branches and leaves that occasionally drifted in front of their faces slowed them down some, but not much. Fukuda’s stomach tightened the deeper they got, tall canopies covering the sky as the storm prepared to break. It wasn’t right to live without seeing the sky and whatever omens the gods had prepared for that day.
Suddenly, chakra swelled. Fukuda felt Moto jerk at her side and started flicking handsigns quickly. Keep guard, she conveyed. Watch sides.
They turned toward the edge of the clearing where the chakra felt strongest, and Fukuda’s stomach bottomed out when she saw the figure that stepped out. Bone white and gleaming back armor. A white mask painted with red stripes.
Fukuda grabbed a kunai and held it in front of her. It wasn’t an attacking position, but she could quickly switch into one if need be. She felt tendrils of Moto’s chakra snake out as reassuring mist gathered around them, partially obscuring their view of the ANBU.
“Kirigakure, this is Fire Country. State your business,” a faceless voice ordered.
Fukuda carefully kept her face expressionless as she ordered her team to hold, sensing that nerves were about to be stretched to their limit. Moto’s mist drifted to knee height, and now that she was looking closely, what appeared to be either a panda or a tanuki of some sort peered back at her.
The mask’s wearer wasn’t nearly as muscular as Iebara, or even Moto. He resembled Nakeda more in body type, though he was shorted than her as well. Several pouches hung from a belt cinched around his waist, and his hands were held out of sight behind his back, likely signaling to the other two chakra signatures Fukuda had sensed earlier.
“Leaf ANBU-san,” she said simply. “Our mission doesn’t concern you.” There was no need to deliver more details than necessary, especially not to an enemy.
Furiously, Fukuda cast her senses about, searching for the two lurking ninja she knew were there but couldn’t sense. Tamping down her frustration, she snarled inwardly. It was just like Leaf-nin to know how to hide like cowards.
“If you’re here at the employ of Tsuto Takayoshi,” the tanuki said, “You have no mission here at all. We’ve taken care of it for you.”
They’d killed their own countrymen. Fukuda felt her face freeze, her fury probably showing. “Is that so, ANBU-san?”
The ANBU was unmoved, not flinching at the distance lightning strike that lit up the sky. “We’ll be happy to escort you back to the coast,” he said flatly, offering no other choice to her team.
Fukuda sneered. “We? I don’t see a ‘we,’ ANBU-san. I see a you.” She placed unnecessary emphasis on the honorific, just enough to show what she thought of his status. “Unless you mean the two lurkers too scared to come out. You can show yourselves, Leaf ninja. We won't bite.”
It was a bad joke based off the stereotypes that Mist-nin often found themselves pinned with, popular enough with the younger ninja, and Moto laughed accordingly. The sharpened teeth that represented status and strength in their community were often the target of mockery from other villages who underestimated the damage a mouth full of razorblades could do. Oh, Mist-nin bit alright, and they bit hard. Fukuda had seen comrades rip their own tongues out to evade capture, but she’d also seen just as many rip out enemy throats when pressed.
Never underestimate a cornered shark.
A sudden flicker caught her attention, and Fukuda stared at the masked ninja in front of her. Something had disturbed him, threw him enough for his chakra to flicker just the tiniest bit. She studied him, searching for any kind of tell, but he was eerily still. The only thing that had changed was- ah. Fukuda smiled secretly. The angle of his neck was turned away from her and toward the back of their formation. He had recognized Iebara.
“My team and I will escort you to the coast,” the tanuki repeated. He was definitely shaken, and Fukuda felt scorn rising inside of her. She couldn’t be scared of this frightened forest creature. She had a leviathan at her back. “Your mission here is over. Tsuto is no longer in need of your protection.”
“You'll understand if I don't take your word for it,” Fukuda replied, knowing full well that Tsuto was dead. “Even if Tsuto is dead—which, if he is, nice job killing one of your own—he still owes us travel expenses. It's not cheap to reach the mainland, you know.” Especially not with Mist’s struggling economy, though the ANBU wouldn’t know that. Yagura had undergone great pains to mask their village’s internal struggle.
“Tsuto is dead, and the Tsuto estate no longer has the funds to pay for your services,” the ANBU said. “But as the Hokage’s representative, I’ll front you the fare back to Water Country.”
Fukuda frowned for a split second. The ANBU were the Hokage’s personal soldiers, and they operated under orders from him and him only. Still-
“Moto, doesn't that sound like the Leaf nin stole our fee?”
“Sounds like it,” he responded. Fukuda caught glimpses of shuriken peeking out between his knuckles and grinned.
“Nakeda, what do you think of thieves who won't even show their faces?”
Nakeda deliberately ran her eyes up and down the ANBU’s relatively slim frame, drawing her sword as she did so. “That it doesn't surprise me from a Leaf. If they came to our land, I wouldn't just stand and talk about it.” She settled into the scorpion position, one that Fukuda knew, from experience, that she was deadly at.
Fukuda turned her grin back onto the painted tanuki. “Agreed. Pay us everything, ANBU-san. And we'll think about leaving.” She dared a step forward, making sure her curved kunai glittered in the dim light of the forests.
All the while, Iebara pulsed darkly threatening chakra at the enemy. It was the most reassuring feeling in the world.
Two more figures materialized out of the darkness, both adorned in the same bone-steel armor that their leader wore. The one wearing a stylized ram mask was tall, taller than Nakeda, and his chakra signature sent low, dangerous vibrations toward the entire group. This one was strong.
The other, shorter and more leanly put together, wore what looked like some kind of dog, its mouth frozen in a permanent snarl. His chakra flared in time with the lightning striking some distance away, hair flattered against his head and dripping with what Fukuda recognized to be blood. So this was the one who had done the deed. This one was also strong.
Together, all three emitted killing intent strong enough to make any lesser ninja flee.
Fukuda stood her ground, and so did her team.
“I’ll let you rethink that,” the tanuki said, voice skimming the grass beneath their feet. “Turn around, Kirigakure. You do not want to pick a fight with ANBU. The Hokage’s vengeance won’t end at Fire Country’s borders.”
The rain started coming down at that very moment. It seemed like the skies had a sense of humor today.
Fukuda hesitated. The Hokage – that was someone she wanted to avoid bringing down on Kirigakure’s head. While she doubted that the Yellow Flash would come to some obscure forest just at the behest of one of his personal soldiers, that damned translocation jutu made it entirely possible. And, she thought, grimacing, what would Yagura-sama say if I returned to tell him we started war with Konoha?
She stared at the tanuki’s golden-brown eyes through the mask’s eyeholes. “You make a good point.” She sheathed her kunai. “Allow me to discuss this with my squad, ANBU-san.”
He dipped his head slightly, and Fukuda turned her back to the rest of the team, drawing them into a close huddle. Heavy raindrops beat against their backs, roaring in their ears as they discussed the situation at hand.
“We can’t turn away now, we’ll look like cowards,” Moto hissed fiercely. “Besides, we outnumber them, and Iebara could break most of them in half.”
“Idiot, did you even try to sense their chakra?” Nakeda asked, voice raised higher than normal in order to be heard above the storm. “The tanuki one is strong, and so is the ram, but that dog-masked one felt like pure death.” She shook her head. “This is a fight we would lose.”
“This isn’t just about strength,” Fukuda added before Moto could fire a retort at Nakeda. “We have to think about this politically too. ANBU are the Hokage’s personal soldiers, and he just got done putting down a rebellion in his own country. The entire village is probably on edge, and they probably wouldn’t mind a chance to prove their strength. They just need an excuse.” She went around and met her team’s eyes. “We’re not going to give them one.”
Moto subsided with a faint whine, and for a second, Fukuda’s ears caught murmuring behind her, but ignored it. They couldn’t hear her, and she couldn’t hear them. With any luck, this mission would be over soon, and they’d return to Water Country. Empty-handed, for sure, but alive and without news of a fresh war. That had to count for something.
She shifted slightly, glancing at Iebara. “Iebara, I know you’re disappointed, but you know this is for the better. I have no doubt you could take them on, but-"
Iebara wasn’t listening. He was staring over her shoulder at the ANBU standing a ways away. Turning, Fukuda tried to get a glimpse at what had caught his attention so and hissed a curse between her teeth. That shade of silver was recognizable anywhere, and she had seen it before in her dreams.
The ghost of Konha’s White Fang stood before them.
Shock held Fukuda back, and she reacted a second too late. “Iebara!” she shouted just as his large frame rushed past her towards the Leaf-nin. Clearly taken aback, the tanuki and ram were unable to respond when Iebara suddenly appeared in their midst, opening wounds in their shoulders and drawing blood.
Then he started strangling the White Fang with it.
“What the hell, what the hell, what the hell, what the hell-” Moto chanted besides her, hopping up and down nervously. “What do we do, holy shit, this is so bad. Great Ocean, this is insane, what the hell, what the hell-”
“Captain, your orders?” Nakeda requested, deceivingly calm. Her taut muscles and tight grip on her sword’s hilt gave her away, however, and Fukuda gritted her teeth, feeling them dig into the soft inner flesh of her cheek.
“Stay back, for now,” she ordered. “Let’s see how well they hold up.We can’t stop Iebara, so in the worst case, if he gets killed, we can at least claim that he was acting against orders. We might be able to prevent a war that way.”
It was an ice-cold way of thinking, but it was survival. Fukuda watched with a critical eye as Iebara’s strings of blood slowly strangled the white-haired ninja.
It couldn’t, Fukuda realized suddenly, be the White Fang. The White Fang was long dead and buried, since the beginning of the Third Shinobi World War, and now existed only in children’s bedtime warnings. Still, the gleaming tanto blazing through the rain to cut through Iebara’s blood was definitely the white chakra blade so many reports recorded the White Fang using. This must be-
“The White Fang’s whelp,” Iebara laughed, crouching several feet away.
“Have we met?” Hatake – it had to be one, if not the most famous one, answered shakily.
Shit. This was bad, really bad. “Iebara!” Fukuda called, fear sharpening her voice. “If that’s the Hokage’s student-”
He ignored her, curling his fingers in a clear challenge towards the Hatake, and from the flickering seals that the Hatake signed in return, he was more than ready to face it.
Dread crawled up Fukuda’s throat, thick and cloying, freezing her in place under sheets of rain.
If that’s the Hokage’s student, you’ve doomed us all.
“Captain, your orders!” Nakeda almost screamed, words lost in the vicious downpour.
It was enough to snap Fukuda out of her funk, and she hesitated for only a second, eyes caught on the vicious battle taking place in front of her as Iebara took on three ANBU and held his own against them. “Move back,” she ordered. “We won’t interfere with Iebara’s fight until we see an opportunity.” Turning cold eyes to the rest of her team, Fukuda added, “We’ve come this far. Let’s see it out until the end.”
Her team relaxed marginally, even as several tanuki-masked clones popped up to surround them, a bit further than striking distance away. Nakeda sheathed her sword, and Moto continued playing with his kunain in some semblance of his normal casual behavior. Fukuda crossed her arms and stared out into the rain.
Iebara’s chakra signature had moved further into the forest along with that Hatake brat’s, but there were still two ANBU directly in front of them. Weakened, yes, but definitely not dead, and probably newly equipped with some new ideas of vengeance.
“Stay on your guard,” she murmured out of the side of her mouth. “Prepare to fight at any time.”
“Hell, captain, you don’t need to tell us that,” Moto said. His kunai spun faster. “This is a goddamn mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, eh? Bet Yagura-sama wasn’t expecting that when he sent us out for some piles of gold.”
Fukuda hm’d absently, turning her attention back to the two flickering chakra signatures. Both were still strong, though one wavered more than the other, but it was recovering rapidly. Not good.
“We’ll step in if they start to gang up on Iebara again,” Fukuda said, rubbing her hands together. “Strong or not, Iebara can’t handle three ANBU for an extended period of time. We can take them."
Hatake Kakashi. That was the younger Hatake’s name. Already gaining fame as the Yellow Flash’s student, the young man couldn’t even be twenty yet, but Fukuda already remembered seeing the warnings next to a blurry picture of his face in the Bingo Book. She couldn’t remember what had gotten him in there other than being the Hokage’s student, so she shoved it aside. Iebara was enough to handle that one. He had to be.
“I can get the tall one,” Nakeda said. “He doesn’t have any weapons on him, so his bare hands will be at a disadvantage against my sword.”
“Can you handle it by yourself?” Fukuda glanced at her.
Nakeda nodded firmly, mouth tightening beneath her bandage mask. “Yes.”
“Then Moto and I will take the skinny one. Take out the leader, throw the troops into disarray.” It was as good a plan as they were going to get, and Fukuda unexpectedly felt tired down to her bones.
“Ocean help us,” she whispered helplessly against the rain. The wind swallowed any reply the Great Ocean may have had, and Fukuda’s brief prayer was lost. They stood in silence for several moments longer, but something moved in the distance, and Fukuda’s head snapped up.
“Those two are gone!”
Moto swore and hurled his kunai at the nearest clone. It barely even reacted, its user’s chakra probably focused on fighting Iebara. The other clones followed in successive poofs of smoke as Fukuda and Nakeda quickly disposed of them, and the Mist-nin launched themselves into the open air, sprinting toward their comrade.
Fukuda let her chakra pour out in an unadulterated wave of anger and battle lust. She felt an answering tide rise to meet her, and she barely dodged as two senbon whistled through the air past her ear. Gritting her teeth, she launched herself at the lean figure and summoned up a quick gust of wind to knock him out of the sky. Moto zipped in front of her with his kunai in hand, only to be forced back as another wave of senbon headed in his direction.
Behind her, Fukuda could hear Nakeda’s sword screeching against metal, presumably the ANBU’s armor as he hadn’t had a sword on him at all. That was a fight she’d have no problem winning since the ram-masked ANBU wouldn’t even had the chance to get close to her.
But this guy was tricky. “The senbon are probably poisoned,” she called to Moto in between the vicious cycle of attack, dodge, retreat, attack, dodge, retreat. “Don’t let them touch you!”
Moto grunted something that sounded like, “What, do you think I’m stupid?” but Fukuda ignored it to flick through several familiar hand seals to pull up a dirt wall, trying to trap the tanuki into a more contained area. Annoyingly, he evaded it with a few quick steps to the side and responded with a pillar of dirt that lunged out of the ground to clip Fukuda’s side. She groaned, narrowed her eyes, and attacked again.
Time was no longer a relevant factor as the deadly dance of ninja proceeded through the minutes. Well, Fukuda thought, dodging yet another pair of senbon (would this guy ever run out?), it’s either been minutes or hours. I can’t tell anymore.
Nakeda seemed to be fine on her own, so Fukuda refocused her energy onto the damned trickster in front of her. He bent out of every attack path and kept herself and Moto at a distance by constantly flinging senbon at them. Moto was able to meet them with his kunai or shuriken some of the time, but Fukuda could sense his rising frustration. They had to end this soon so they could get to Iebara.
Then the world disappeared.
Fukuda flinched back reflexively, blinded by the sudden flash of lightning that seemed too close and too powerful to be natural. Then, remembering that she was a sensory type, Fukuda pressed forward with Moto’s familiar chakra at her side, trying to take advantage of the opportunity and close in on the tanuki.
At that moment, Nakeda screamed, and Fukuda almost let herself be distracted. Moto did no such thing and grinned viciously as he plunged in for the kill, sending a gap that the ANBU had left open at the sound of Nakeda’s scream.
Fukuda couldn’t stop herself from looking, and a horrified gasp tore its way out of her mouth before she had the cognition to stop it. Half of Nakeda’s side was gone, rotting into a pool of black slime on the muddy ground, and she writhed there, half a women, rolling in the combined filth of nature and her own body.
Fukuda suppressed the urge to throw up and forced herself to just focus on the task in front of her. The tanuki had called up fire and thrown it at Moto who countered it with a weak shield of water that quickly collapsed in on itself (just like Nakeda’s ribcage) as the storm moved relentlessly forward, taking the Mist-nin’s natural advantage away from them.
Forced back, Fukuda’s foot landed in something slippery, and she gagged as soon as she realized what it was. Nakeda’s intestines spilled onto the forest floor, the ends already eaten by whatever cursed jutsu that ANBU had set on her. She was still alive, her whimpers painting the air with pain and death, but she certainly wouldn’t be for long. When had Konoha developed something that disgusting and destructive?
Focus, Fukuda, focus!
Chakra. Fukuda jerked her head up. The shape of it felt familiar, felt like Iebara’s deadly blood jutsu, but the taste of the chakra itself was like ozone burning across the roof of her mouth. She heard the ram ANBU shout something, but everything felt distant, so distant.
Now Fukuda remembered why Hatake Kakashi was in the Bingo Book. He was the only living recipient of a bloodline transplant, the deadly Uchiha doujutsu that allowed the user to copy jutsus. Copy-nin Kakashi, Sharingan no Kakashi he was being called in some circles. Hatake Kakashi could copy jutsu with one glance.
One word forced itself out of her throat. “Iebara.”
She ran, abandoning Moto and blindly trusting that he could somehow win against the two ANBU she left him with. She ran, ignoring the twist of guilt that tightened thinking about Nakeda’s moaning half-body lying on foreign soil. She ran, Yagura-sama’s words from so long ago echoing in her mind.
All legends die…
… and one day, Iebara will too…
Not today. Not today, not today, not today, not today not today not today not todaynottodaynottodaynot today-
She burst into the clearing. Hatake was crawling out of a massive crater, bare throat exposed and breath rasping in his chest. Iebara-
Iebara was just scraps littered around the bottom of the crater, his chakra just missing missingmissingmissing from the world, and his blood was on Hatake’s throat.
...But I know you’ll bring me the head of whoever does it.
Iebara’s blood was on Hatake’s throat.Hatake’s throat was exposed. A snarl clawing itself out of her throat, Fukuda lunged forwards, opened her mouth, bared her teeth, felt the Ocean’s fury welling up deep inside of her, and-
Suddenly, her arm was gone. It fell with a splash to the ground beside her, soaking in blood and rot and Iebara and-
She was in the air, weightless and heavy and it hurt but she didn’t know why and she felt so alone where was Nakeda’s chakra where was Moto’s chakra where was Iebara’s chakra where-
There was something in her and it crawled into her and tried to bury itself into her body and she wanted to get it out but where was it what was it how could it even-
She landed in something wet. For the briefest of seconds, she thought it was the Ocean and curled her fingers around that comforting water, that comforting home where all Mist-nin were born but-
There were no oceans in the forest, and there was no water between her fingers. Only rot and death.