Under the pretense of searching for a missing-nin from Kirigakure, the three-member team sent by Chōjūrō arrive in the Land of Waves. There, Wakasa Momochi confronts the ghost of his father's memory and visits his grave. Learning of a trade between Harōgakure and the Taunagi Gang, the Kiri-nin decide to investigate, hoping to find a chakra signature that will confirm Harō's involvement in the raid against the three tails. In the meantime, Kokutō encounters a young girl named Nori, who is searching for her brother, Mikiya. Assuming the Taunagi have something to do with his disappearance, they go to the port later that night, where they accidentally encounter the Kiri-nin at the docks.
The Shadow of Smoke
The three-man team sent from Kirigakure had arrived in the Land of Waves a few days earlier. After docking at the island’s eastern port, Wakasa had divided his team to search for Takanami Senka—a missing-nin from Kiri and their so-called objective. In reality, each of the team members, including Ryōhei, had been equipped with a chakra register gun set to detect the signature of the Harō-nin who had attacked and possessed Kagura. They had kept a close watch over the shipping port, especially the incoming and outgoing ships from Harōgakure, but had met with little success. So, realizing that he wasn’t going to get anywhere by questioning the crusty fishermen and hardened sailors on the island’s east side, Wakasa decided to focus his efforts on the warehouse districts. He had heard that Inari was working out of Sector D, and if his reputation was still the same as Wakasa remembered, then he was one of the few men of influence on the island who hadn’t been bought out by the Taunagi Gang—In other words, an unbiased source of intel.
The sharp peaks of the Great Naruto Bridge’s suspension cables cut across the harbor, cleanly bisecting the industrial and residential sectors on either side of the bay. Wakasa made his way towards it, stopping to question various shopkeepers and passerby as he worked his way towards the ocean. The quality of the housing began to deteriorate around him as Wakasa continued west. While the skyscrapers that now rose from the Land of Waves’ horizon stood as a testament to its relatively recent prosperity, here he at last encountered the tell-tale signs of its minor-nation status. When he wasn’t walking past condemned buildings sinking into their own slip-shod foundations, he was crossing in front of seedy apartment complexes with vacant windows that stared at him like empty eye sockets. The warm stench of dog shit permeated the air, and Wakasa avoided the overflowing gutters that dug trenches on either side of the dirt road. This was the Land of Waves he remembered from his past, and the fact that conditions had arguably worsened since the last time he had been here twisted uneasily in the back of his mind.
The children and elderly who saw him shrank back to glare at him with cool hostility. Wakasa decided to take it in stride, making it a point to ignore their blatantly hidden sneers of disdain as he prowled the streets. It had only been ten years since the Middle Sea Security Issue, and it seemed that the Land of Wave residents still deeply distrusted anyone from Kiri—especially the hunter-nin. Well, in that case, he’d just have to find someone who didn’t harbor such unmasked suspicion towards him.
Finally, he identified a target.
Wakasa approached a grease-stained boy who was crouching outside a corner convenience store. His shadow fell across the boy’s cardboard sign, but Wakasa didn’t read what it said. It almost seemed as though he had purposefully made his appearance as shabby as possible—or perhaps been forced to. There was no way to tell if the kid could keep what he earned begging or if it all went to whichever street gang was using him to fleece tourists. Wakasa tried not to think about it.
“Hey kid, I’m looking for a guy named Inari, have you heard of him?”
The boy took one look at Wakasa’s mask and shook his head.
“Here,” Wakasa pulled out a few coins to entice him. The boy stared at the sum and chewed his lip, weighing the options. “I just want to ask Inari a couple of questions, nothing serious. And if you help me,” he added, nodding towards the convenience store. “I’ll buy you something to eat from in there. Deal?”
That at last seemed to make up the boy’s mind. He nodded, his eyes wide and serious. Wakasa paid for the sandwich and a few snacks the boy picked out, then grabbed a pack of cigarettes for himself. The kid clutched the sack of food to his chest, but didn’t eat any of it despite nearly salivating over the sandwich. Wakasa wondered who he was saving it for, but didn’t ask.
As soon as they left the store, the boy led him through Sector D. As they headed south, towards the mangrove forests on the outskirts of town, the streets began to dip in elevation. Soon, Wakasa could hear the sharp echoes of hammers, and men carrying stacks of boards on their shoulders or pushing wheelbarrows full of bricks passed them by. At last, the boy pointed towards the open garage door of a joinery. Wakasa thanked him, handing him a few extra coins. He wanted to make sure the boy could keep the food, at least.
Inari was sitting with some of the other factory workers just inside the entrance to the garage. They were taking a lunch break, apparently deaf to the incessant pounding of hammers that echoed from inside the joinery, laughing easily as cigarette smoked circled around them. But the workers’ jovial conversation came to an abrupt halt when Wakasa approached. His gray shadow fell across the concrete, and Inari squinted up at the silhouette standing against the bright light of midday.
“Are you Inari?” An instant, palpable tension sharpened in the air when he spoke. The workers all looked towards him, their expressions grim when they saw the insignia on his uniform and Anbu mask. Inari, however, didn’t seem to be intimidated by the appearance of a Kiri-nin at his door. He exhaled a steady stream of smoke before responding.
“I am. What of it?”
Wakasa removed his authorization pass from his flak jacket and showed it to him before replacing it, careful to keep his movements slow so the workers wouldn’t think he was reaching for a weapon. “I’m looking for someone, and heard that you might be able to tell me something about him. If you don’t mind, I have a couple of questions for you.”
“And I’m guessing they’re the private kind?”
Inari sighed, but gestured for the workmen around him to leave the two of them alone. The man closest to Inari gripped him by the arm. “Inari, this guy’s probably an Undertaker,” he hissed into his ear, but just loud enough so Wakasa could hear the derogatory term he had used for hunter-nin.
“Well then, be grateful he’s not hunting us.”
As soon as the other workers had backed off, Inari turned his full attention to Wakasa, gesturing towards the overturned metal buckets they had been using for chairs. Wakasa took a seat, and Inari offered him a cigarette. He shook his head before pulling out one of his own. Inari at least seemed to relax after he removed his mask. He set it down on the makeshift table between them.
“You know I’ve heard about you. You’re Tazuna’s grandson, right? The master architect.” Wakasa began. “I’d say your capabilities as a carpenter are much higher than whatever’s required for throwing together prefabricated houses. Although I don’t mean that as an offense—I admire the work you’re doing here.”
Inari tapped the ash from his cigarette into an empty can. “Did you seriously come all this way to ask me why I’m working in the Projects?”
Wakasa chuckled. “I wish.” He handed Takanami’s photograph to Inari. “I’m looking for a missing-nin. Takanami Senka. This guy look familiar to you at all?” Inari glanced at the picture, but didn’t seem to recognize it. “It’s an old photo, probably taken ten years ago,” Wakasa prompted.
Inari handed it back. “I can’t say for sure, but he looks like one of Hidetsugu’s men.”
“The president of the shipping company?”
“More like the smuggling syndicate,” Inari scoffed. “And don’t pretend like you haven’t heard about the Taunagi.”
“You got me there,” Wakasa said with a grin. “So he’s swimming with the big fish now, huh?”
“I suppose. The Taunagi haven’t operated out of Sector D for a long time now. They migrated east to the harbor when the industry moved.”
“And is that a good or a bad thing?”
“Depends on how you look at it.”
“Not that I was asking, but I’m guessing that's the answer to why you’re ‘working in the Projects,’ then.”
Inari narrowed his eyes, gauging Wakasa through a veil of smoke. “The men I’ve got working for me now are among the few who weren’t bought out by the Taunagi, and we struggle to stay afloat because of it. But, at the very least, they leave us alone. They only come here for one thing now.”
Inari stared at his feet. So it was the other industry. The realization sent a chill down Wakasa’s spine as an image of the boy from the convenience store flashed into his mind.
“I’m sure you’ve already figured it out by now, but I’m not really here to ask about the missing-nin,” Wakasa said at last. Inari gave him a silent stare, so he continued. “I’ll cut straight to the point: Do you know why Harōgakure is here in the Land of Waves? And I don’t mean the trade federation agreement.”
Inari drew on the cigarette pensively. “I don’t know what I could tell you that you already seem to know.”
“It might come as a shock, but the Anbu aren’t informed of everything that goes on in the underworld of another country,” Wakasa said with a wry grin. “Anything helps. It doesn’t matter if it seems minor or not.”
“This better not come back around to bite me in the ass.” Inari fixed an intimidating glare on Wakasa, who wanted to assure him that he would never do something so dishonorable as betray his trust, but the hollow eye slits of his hunter-nin mask stared back at him from the table. “Discretion is my last name,” he said instead. Inari nodded, more understanding than satisfied.
“There’s been an influx of shipments from Harō lately,” he began. “Which isn’t that unusual on account of the trade agreement, but they’ve all been occurring at night.”
“So it’s contraband?”
“I wish that was all it was,” Inari continued. “But ever since the shipments started coming in, people have started to disappear: And not just the usual targets, shinobi have gone missing too. Anyone with a detectable chakra level, is what they say.”
Wakasa frowned, wondering if Hidetsugu was trading test subjects to Harō. For a brief moment, he thought of Kagura. “Do you know the nature of the contraband?” he asked.
“It’s not your typical drug,” Inari told him. “It’s a bit too soon to tell what the full-blown effects on an addict will be, but some of the alleged users have turned... violent.” Inari trailed off, staring into the embers at the end of his cigarette.
“These shipments, is that also why there are so many foreign shinobi wandering around lately?”
Inari fixed his gaze squarely on Wakasa. “You mean like you?”
“Sure. Foreign shinobi like me.”
Inari ground out the cigarette stub on the bottom of his shoe. “Listen, you seem to have the wrong idea here. We’re not friendly. The more I talk, the farther I stick my own neck out, and I’m under no obligation to help out an outsider.”
“Still, you answered some of my questions,” Wakasa pointed out.
Inari shrugged. “I want you gone as soon as possible,” he said.
“But there was a chance that I could’ve been working for Hidetsugu,” he pointed out. “Yet you took the gamble anyway. Why is that?”
Inari gave him a strange look. “Because you Kiri-nin and Hidetsugu must be getting testy with each other. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.”
“I’m talking about whatever little agreement you made with him. Obviously, he’s keeping the info about his late-night habits to himself.”
Wakasa was still dumbfounded. What agreement? There was no way that Inari could have known that Chōjūrō had instructed the team to contact the crime lord in order to get intel about Harō and their chakra signatures. So what was he referring to? “We’re not working with Hidetsugu,” he asserted.
Inari raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. “By the way, that sword on your back—that's the Kubikiribōchō, isn’t it?”
Wakasa looked up, swallowing his growing alarm. “So you’ve heard of it huh? Guess it might be well-known around these parts.”
“You look like him,” Inari stated bluntly. “Zabuza.”
Wakasa did his best to hide his shock, but his hesitation gave him away. “Zabuza Momochi,” he mused. “Did you know him?”
“I was a kid when he died,” Inari said. “But I remember that sword very well. He showed up here on the island one day, with a hunter-nin kid in tow, called himself the ‘Demon of the Hidden Mist.’” Inari scoffed. “Said he was gonna change Kirigakure one day, lead a revolution. But his violence spoke for itself. They buried him along with his misplaced dream, and his grave’s still here, forgotten by his Kiri brethren.” Wakasa nearly squirmed from discomfort. Out of all the places he had expected to find his father’s shadow, it hadn’t been here.
“I wonder what they call you,” Inari said then, as if testing him.
At first, Wakasa didn’t reply as his cold blue stare met Inari’s gaze evenly. “Nigauri,” he finally said. He flicked his own cigarette into the dust and stood. “Anyway, you and I have already taken up enough of each other’s time. It wasn’t helpful, but thanks anyway.”
“Didn’t think you were naive enough to think it was going to be.”
Wakasa grinned. “I like chatting with the locals,” he said. He replaced his mask and turned to leave, but then paused. “Although, maybe this won’t be a total waste,” he said. “That grave... Where is it?”
New Arrival, Strange Friendship
Near the border of the Land Rivers to cross to the Land of Fire, a large temperate forest that overlapped the borders between the two nations. Forcing the wanders to detour without risking themselves lost in the depth of nature and the predators hiding within the shadows of the oak trees. But it doesn’t seem to frighten the young foreigner that’s meditating in the middle of it. The low rising sun highlighted his natural tanned features. As expected from someone that trained under the harsh sun since what he can recall. And while to the untrained eyes of men, it seemed the meditation was ordinary like no other. In reality, Kokutō was receiving the touch of pure nature around him—and the most favourable location would be a rich forest. While nature can be anywhere in the world, it can be corrupted. In his case, he needed to feel the energy around him, seize control of it, to ease the disturbances that ached at the inconsistent balance of energies. The very essence that made up his sense of reality: a burden of being a brood from that line.
Kokutō withdrew from his concentrated state, and sighed. His eyes landed on the small rabbit, his lifelong friend and companion for this adventure, who looked at him with those tiny bead eyes full of curiosity.
“I know, I know,” he started rattling. “I promised I’ll visit Konoha! You know I’ll keep my word. It’s just the ol’ man wants us to go to the… errr.”
There was indistinguishable noise from the small rabbit.
“Ah! Right, the Land of Waves.”
He began to open the small sack he carried everywhere, next to it the sealed katana that never left his immediate person. It contained all the basic necessities that he needed to travel around and about. And it wasn’t much. Just a map given to him by his former boss, the blacksmith from Tanigakure, it had a path drawn towards the circle south of the Land of Fire: the area the Land of Waves. But that’s not what Kokutō sought. The wife of the blacksmith had been so kind to prepare him a pack of food that should’ve lasted him a week--it had been nearly two now.
“There’s only enough for a small bite…” He stared at the leftover bundle packed by leaves. Placing it on the ground in front of his little companion, he started to unwrap it. Kokutō gave him a cheerful grin, “It’s yours, Tomo!”
The rabbit’s small beads peered up at him. It wasn’t the biggest surprise that the young man would gladly give up his portion for another. It wasn’t a human that needed much, but so didn’t Kokutō. “Take it, please.” He repeated softly, his point- and middle finger massaging the top of its head for a bit, urging it on. And so it did, hesitantly nibbling away on the leftover of the rice cake.
And as it ate, Kokutō shifted to lay on his side with the small poach acting as his pillow. “I’mma take a short nap, Tomo. We’ll leave after!”
The pair, Kokutō and Tomo, had travelled several days on foot to make it to the Great Naruto Bridge, which should lead them to their stopover. Quite a detour for a wanderer who intended to go to Konoha that lies north from where he is now. But here he is... in front of the bridge named after someone important to his dear friend, so, perhaps it wasn't a mistake to come here.
It's nothing like the pictures that were shown to him by the blacksmith. Guess the ol' man had very outdated souvenirs of what it used to look like. There was nothing like this at home.
"G-gigantic!" Kokutō exclaimed. He thought about the idea to have to cross this bridge on a daily basis. Even as much of wandering he does, it would not sit well with him to do this much back-and-forth. But bickering about it now, and here, it wouldn't bring him closer to discover the Land of Waves.
The closer he got towards the small town of the Land of Waves, the sweetest smell of baked satsumaimo wifted stronger through the air, leading Kokutō to gain a mouth full of water. He was hungry, there's no doubt there. But when he checked his pockets and counted the coins, he relieved a deliberate sigh. "No way that's gonna pay for a meal here." It made him wander away from the main streets, a tip from his former boss: check the shops in the alleys.
And that's what he did.
Unfortunately none of the stalls he walked by were affordable for him. Leading him to go even deeper in the darkness of the city's "hidden" poverty in the hopes of finding one. It became odd. The people quickly closed their doors and windows when they saw him coming their way—did he look that scary!?
Kokutō's pacing slowed enough to capture everything that happened around him. He hadn't expected a poverty-stricken district in a thriving city. Perhaps it was his naivety talking that blinded him to the cruelty of the wealthy in places as this. That's when Kokutō became startled when he could hear a second set of very light footsteps closely behind him. His mentation must have interfered with his heightened senses. Heightened, yeah right. But he didn't take the chance of finding out if he's a target of this ballerina. He waved to a cheap merchant selling food, stopping at that tent specifically, inquiring about what's sold.
He bought himself some time, hoping that whoever had been behind him kept going forward. Kokutō couldn't resist taking a risky glance towards the person of interest. It was a woman clad in shinobi-wear and a mask hiding her features, except for that fiery red hair. That's what the people here call a shinobi, right? Given the reaction of the people here… perhaps the woman was something more than your mercenary for hire.
"OUTTA MY WAY JACKASS!!" A young girl's voice reached his ears, too late.
She bumped into him, but considering he had been in a [×] position, she managed to topple him over. The girl? She kept on running, a bit slower than before due to the catch she was carrying close to her chest.
Kokutō's eyes widened when he realised what it was! "MY KATANA!!" If it had been anything else, he wouldn't have cared as much, but this was the only possession he treasured with his life.
He chased after her. "Hey! Stop!" But the girl kept running towards the east of the place, towards one of the disclosed docking areas. Despite his high endurance, with all the wandering on the few nutrients, Kokutō started to feel a bit weary with this chase. "Come on, get yourself together!"
Finally the girl started to stagger, and as she looked behind her, Kokutō wasn't too far off. Her eyes went wide in surprise, fear quickly taking over as well. She tripped. Still the girl clutched as if her life depended on it to the katana close to her And she needed it to pay for information.
"No please! Don't take it from me, I need it nii-san."
Kokutō's also taken by surprise, carefully getting closer to the girl. "I-I won't hurt you, missy." He began, softly, lowering himself to his knees to reach her level. "But that weapon you have there, it's very important to me. Could you hand it over to me?" His hand reached out to it, hoping she would give it back.
"I-I need it." She raised her coal eyes up to look at him, but finding nothing but a soft gaze in return. Her eyes flickered up to the small animal that was gazing at her from the nest of Kokutō's hair.
Noticing this, Kokutō lifted his hand to have Tomo hop onto it, bringing it down to her level. "This is Tomo, my travel companion, and I'm Kokutō!" He gave her a cheeky smile, and Tomo bit softly in his hand to remind him of something. "Ouch! I was going to ask her name, you goof. Well," he scratched the back of his hand, "What's your name? You don't need to say it if you don't want to."
"It's Nori," she replied shyly.
"Well Nori-chan, if that's okay!" Kokutō flustered when he habitually added the honorific to hers. "I don't mind helping you out."
"Are you sure, Kokutō-nii?" Nori wasn't sure if she could trust him, but there was an aura of comfort radiating from the wanderer.
"Yep! Please tell me, anything, even if it's money though! I'm kinda broke too…" He mumbled the latter, and at that exact point his stomach growled. "But, but, don't worry, if need to I'll find a way to make it work!!"
She let go of the weapon she had stolen, carefully placing it on the ground of space between Kokutō and her. "Can I hold Tomo?" Nori's question was answered by the rabbit jumping on her lower arm. She had a weak smile from its gesture, bringing it close to her cheek and hugging it softly. And that's when Nori felt safe to share her worries. "It's about my brother, Mikiya."
"What's with him?"
"I guess big brother doesn't know the Land of Waves," Nori continued from that question. "My brother…he went missing a few days ago. I fear he's mixed up with bad business!"
"Can you tell me about that?" Kokutō genuinely asked with curiosity, he wanted to understand her situation better.
Nori shook her head. "I only know it's with very bad people that run this place." There was plenty of corruption, but as much as Nori wanted to understand, she was only a little girl. Old enough to know to steer clear from them, because the deeper you get in their business, the more intertwined you get in the network.
That smile of his disappeared, and in return took a deep frown. He never thought it would've gone this way, and yet, he was glad to have come here. "Then do you've a name we could ask some questions to?" The playful tone had become abstract to favour the seriousness that came with the topic.
She then stopped hugging Tomo, lowering her hand to her lap, her eyes returning to look into his browns. And then she nodded, "Kanta-san."
“Me and Miki… Miki used to work for Kanta-san. Kanta-san gave us a place to stay,” she stroked the fur on Tomo’s head. “Sort of. We don’t have parents. But that’s ok, cause Miki took care of us…” she trailed off. “Last week, Miki and Kanta-san got into a fight. And then he—” tears were welling up in her eyes, but she scrubbed them away angrily with the back of her hand. “Then he didn’t come home. I’ve been looking for him everywhere, but Kanta-san said he won’t tell me where he is unless I give Kanta-san the money Miki took from him. But Miki didn’t take any money!” she exclaimed, then added, more quietly, “That’s why I took your sword, Koko-nii. I’m sorry.”
Kokutō tapped his chin with his left hand. He never had to deal with a problem like this before, but that didn’t stop the tanned young man. Kokutō wanted to help this poor girl. “No worries, Nori-chan! Where can we find this man?!” He once more gave her that reassuring cheeky smile.
“Kanta-san works at the dock. But I’m—I’m scared,” she admitted. “Kanta-san said he has a big job tonight, and told me that I can’t bother him. But I need to! I need to know where Miki is!”
“Don’t be afraid, Nori-chan! I’m here, and together, we will find your brother!” He raised up, leaning slightly forward as he offered her a hand. “Let’s go!”
A Cross to Bear
Wakasa wasn’t entirely sure what he had been expecting to find at Zabuza’s grave. Then again, why had he been expecting to find anything at all? It had been 30 years since his father’s death, and the small copse at the base of the hill had crept right up to the edge of the gravesite. The crosses—there were two of them—overlooked the Great Naruto Bridge that stretched across the harbor to the north. The cool salt breeze brushed against his mask, reminding him of home as the sun sank towards the horizon in a brilliant crimson glow.
As he stood in front of the crude wooden cross, which was covered with moss and drooping to one side, he was struck by the irony of the situation. The Land of Waves had seen Zabuza as a dangerous mercenary-nin, a renegade and murderer. Yet, in the end they had acknowledged his sacrifice in bringing down Gatō and had given him a “proper” burial. Meanwhile, his own family had left his body to rot on the shores of a foreign land. Wakasa supposed the Momochi could be excused, since funerals had still been a foreign concept to Kirigakure at that time. But somewhere deep within him, he felt a pang of guilt, or pity, or both. He too had done his best to forget Zabuza’s very existence, fleeing from his father’s shadow which, no matter what he did, clung to him like the permanent stains of blood on the Kubikiribōchō.
With a heavy sigh, Wakasa removed the heavy blade from the strap across his back and stabbed it into the earth so it stood upright. He then found four pieces of wood and smoothed them with his kunai before fashioning them into new crosses. It was impossible to tell which of the old, rotted markers belonged to Zabuza and which was Haku’s, so he decided to replace them both, driving the stakes deep into the ground. He finished pulling the weeds from around the graves and chopped away the encroaching undergrowth. Then, since he didn’t have incense, he lit a cigarette and leaned against the flat of the Kubikiribōchō’s blade.
He heard a low whistle. “I didn’t know you were the sentimental type,” Ryōhei’s voice reached him. Wakasa had been expecting him, since he had told him and Misuno to meet him there. And while he had braced himself for his brother’s grating tone, he still shut his eyes in consternation. “Who’s old bones are these?” Ryōhei asked.
“Zabuza’s,” Wakasa replied darkly. For once, Ryōhei’s mouth clamped shut. He looked between Wakasa and the newly renovated gravesite, and while he raised an eyebrow, he refrained from commenting on it.
After a moment of silence, Ryōhei cleared his throat. “Didn’t Ayume ever tell you to quit those things?” he asked, making an awkward attempt to break the ice. Wakasa smiled.
“Plenty of times, it gives us something to fight about.” He tossed the cigarette into the dirt and ground it out. Ryōhei seemed as though he were trying to think of something else to say.
“I thought I hated him,” Wakasa suddenly said. “And maybe part of me still does... but I’ve started to realize that I was so focused on running from his life, that I wasn’t living my own.” He frowned as he considered Zabuza’s own peculiar kind of loyalty. The lingering taste of the cigarette turned to sharp ash in his mouth.
Ryōhei seemed at a loss for how to respond. “Do you think dad ever came here?” he asked lamely.
Wakasa smiled again. He reached out and placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder, but he didn’t respond. It didn’t matter, and they both knew the answer anyway. “Ryō,” he said, and there was genuine remorse in his voice. “I—”
The third member of their team, Misuno, appeared at the edge of the clearing, cutting him off. Wakasa allowed his hand to drop to his side. It was barely audible, but Ryōhei clicked his tongue in annoyance.
Misuno glanced between the two brothers, apparently unaware that she had just intruded on their conversation. “Do you want me to give my report first, sir?” She asked Wakasa.
“Did you find something out?” he asked.
“Surprising,” Ryōhei muttered, and Wakasa was forced to bite back a grin. Both he and Ryōhei were aware of how pointless their objective had been in tracking down the missing-nin. It was merely a cover to investigate Harōgakure’s involvement in the Land of Waves, but Misuno had taken her duty seriously nonetheless, which made the pretense more amusing to the two ex-hunter-nin.
The redhead bristled beneath her mask. “Honestly,” she huffed. “Look, I’m trying to show the proper respect here, sir, but you don’t seem to be taking it seriously.”
Ah, there it was, the famed temper of Chōjūrō’s ex-assistant. Normally a quiet, serious type, Misuno's sudden flashes of rage were legendary among the Kiri shinobi forces. Wakasa suspected it was also one of the contributing causes to her break-up with the Mizukage. To tell the truth, however, he found it a relief to finally have someone more uptight than he was on a mission.
Wakasa nodded. “I sincerely apologize that you feel that way,” he offered.
She froze, detecting his sarcasm. “I don’t know how you managed to become Jōnin Commander, honestly,” she nearly growled.
“Hey now,” Wakasa chided half-heartedly.
“Just be glad that he is,” Ryōhei told her. “Ten years ago, that fault of respect would have—”
“Anyway,” Wakasa cut him off before he could conclude his threat. “Go ahead and give your report. I’m all ears, Misuno-kun.” He was careful to use the reassuring tone he had practiced as an instructor, and Misuno relaxed.
“Well, I didn’t find anything out about Takanami Senka,” she began.
“You shouldn’t have expected to,” Ryōhei said. She glared at him, preparing a counterattack, but Ryōhei raised his hands to placate her. “What I’m saying is,” he clarified. “If there’s little to know info on this guy on the street, that means he’s one of Hidetsugu’s top brass. Common rabble aren’t gonna know about him, so asking them was—er, is a waste of time.”
Wakasa nodded. “Exactly,” he said.
“Oh,” Misuno said, a bit deflated. Wakasa was beginning to question how she had managed to become Chōjūrō’s aide. Perhaps her red hair indicated a familial connection to the īFifth. He had never looked into it, because of the more likely reason that...
He curbed his thoughts before they could head any farther down that trail, and instead wished that he had Kagura’s calm competence to rely on. But then, they wouldn’t have even been in the Land of Waves if Kagura were there, he reflected bitterly.
“So, what did you find out?” he asked her, skirting around Ryōhei’s interruption to get to the point.
“Apparently, there was some kind of major meeting here last week.” She said. “It brought in a lot of international shinobi. The meeting was held on a smaller island, but no one knows where it’s located, exactly. Honestly, I don’t know what it was about, but Harōgakure was there. At least, two people from Harōgakure were there. But not, they say, Harō’s main leader.”
Wakasa cupped his chin in his fingers, pondering the new information. “I wonder if it had something to do with their trade agreement, or...” he trailed off.
“How do you want to investigate this?” Ryōhei asked, finally becoming serious.
“We won’t, not immediately anyway.” He looked at Misuno and nodded. “Thank you for the information, Misuno-kun, we’ll keep that on the table. But for now, we have work to do.”
Wakasa briefly summarized what he had learned from Inari about the secretive shipments of contraband and the disappearing citizens—careful to omit what Inari had said about Zabuza. “We’ll be watching the docks—tonight,” he said before giving them a rundown of where they would be stationed. They would use the trackers and Ryōhei’s sensor capabilities to pinpoint where the shipment would be coming in, and from there— “The most important thing is to find out what it is they’re transporting,” he said. “It’s highly probable that the Taunagi are trading in human lives for it, but we can’t blow our cover by interfering on that end. Focus on our mission objective. We’re here to observe, understood?”
In reality, Wakasa had an ulterior motive for investigating the shipments. Chōjūrō had instructed them to contact Hidetsugu, who would have had the intel they needed about Harō. But Wakasa wasn’t about to walk into the den of a notorious crime lord empty handed. He needed leverage, and if they could root out what was going on between the Land of Waves and Harōgakure, they would have something to bargain with, at least. He had also wondered what made the Mizukage think they would be able to speak on equal terms with Hidetsugu. Chōjūrō would have never relied on Kiri’s reputation as one of the Five Great Nations alone to make an impression with the Taunagi. It was so completely contrary to his nature that Wakasa couldn’t begin to fathom it. No; there was, rather obviously, some other arrangement that had been made between the two leaders. And while it was just an inkling, Wakasa had the uncanny sense that whatever it was was had something to do with the deal between Hidetsugu and Harō.
An uneasy sense of deja vu settled into the pit of his stomach. But he refused to acknowledge it.
“For now, spread out. We don’t want to be seen together when we approach the docks.”
“Understood!” Ryōhei and Misuno replied in unison. They disappeared sharply a moment later, and Wakasa was the last to leave after a final look at the crosses on the hill.
He knew he would never see them again.
Nori led Kokutō to the docks. She weaved between massive towers of industrial shipping crates, her movements almost mouse-like as she peeked her head around corners, clung to the shadows, and kept her nose pointed to the air for any whiff of danger. “Kanta-san” worked at one of the import offices, supposedly. But after peering through the salt and grease-streaked windows of several tiny shacks along the port, Kokutō was beginning to wonder if the subtle scent of ammonia was coming from a decomposing sea, or chemicals dumped into the water. It burned his nose, and he shuddered.
The sun had set hours ago, and there was no moon. The only light came from the bleach-white beams of the cranes that towered above them. Their shadows traveled beside them, cut starkly against the faded paint of the steel crates—the only detectable movement in the deep canyons they traversed. Even the ocean was still and black, like a mirror which broke into a thousand silent shards as ships slid into harbor. It gave Kokutō a deep sense of unease. Things in the natural world were never this still. There was always, at the very least, the quiet pulse of life as plants breathed and creatures scurried under leaves. But here it was bare, and empty, and cold.
Nori was becoming increasingly frustrated. “Where is he?” she pouted, more to herself than Kokutō. She felt like they had looked everywhere already, and more importantly anywhere Kanta could have been.
“Should we ask someone?” Kokutō suggested. Nori looked up at him in horror, her dark ochre eyes wide. Wisps of her taupe-colored hair framed her narrow face, and for a moment she seemed much younger then when she had confidently snatched his katana from him, or guided him through the maze of the shipping port. He wondered how old she was really: Nine? Eight? Six? Kokutō noticed the change within her immediately, his own eyes softened. “Maybe we should get closer to the docks?”
Nori chewed her lip. “This is where Mikki used to work,” she explained. “And it’s where he disappeared too. We can’t trust anyone here.” She added firmly, masking her pain. “There are–bad men here. The eel men.”
At that moment, they heard the low murmur of voices approaching them. Kokutō and Nori darted into a narrow crevice between two crates, safely hiding from the light. The footsteps grew closer, then continued past them.
“I can’t come,” the dockworker said into his phone. “We gotta late-night shipment. Yeah, again. Uh-huh.” There was a pause, then as his voice began to fade into the distance they heard him say: “Look, I’d be there, but Kanta has been on my ass about it all day...”
Kokutō and Nori traded knowing glances. Then, Kokutō motioned for them to follow him. Nori nodded, her expression resolute.
The man led them to a section of the harbor they had never seen before, which was hidden on a peninsula and only accessible from a single point. This also made it more difficult to find places to hide the farther they went, and soon they were forced to sprint across open stretches of concrete to avoid being seen. Kokutō wasn’t exactly sure who might spot them, but he deferred to Nori’s cryptic statement about the “eel men” and kept his ears perked.
At last they encountered signs of life at the dock, as the platform was swarming with activity. They soon lost sight of the man they had been following in the chaos, as dock workers rushed back and forth, clearly preparing for an incoming shipment. Observing the entire operation was an imposing figure who stood with his arms crossed, the skin on his bare chest gleaming under the floodlights. His shock of blue hair made him stand out, but even without that the Ōdachi slung casually across his back and circular blue tattoos, which almost looked tribal, painted a bold picture.
Suddenly, Nori gripped Kokutō by the arm very hard. She pulled him behind an oil drum and gestured towards a man who was approaching the tattooed supervisor. “That’s him,” she whispered excitedly. “Kanta-san!”
Kanta walked with a permanent stoop. He was probably only in his 50s, but he looked older, with his greasy hair plastered down from his receding hairline and strange lump just beneath his neck. His long, spindly limbs reminded Kokutō of a spider. Kanta wrung his hands together nervously as he addressed the swordsman.
“You’ll be pleased to know that we’re on schedule, Senka-san.” Senka turned and gave Kanta an incredibly bright, lopsided grin. He reached out and slapped the man on the back, hard enough to cause Kanta to stumble forwards.
“Excellent!” he said, his voice echoing across the platform. “How much longer do we have to wait?” Kanta winced at the volume. “Thirty minutes now.”
Senka nodded. “Keep up the good work!” He strode away, clearly uninterested in whatever it was Kanta had to say. To make his point even clearer, he threw his hands behind his head and began to whistle. Kanta grumbled curses at the swordsman before he turned to scuttle off to the controller’s office. He didn’t notice the two shadows that stole along to trail behind him.
Kokutō and Nori watched as Kanta went inside his office. “Let’s wait a few more minutes,” Kokutō began. He wanted to be sure that the swordsman was out of range. “Then, if you want, we can confront him, Nori-chan?”
“Ok,” she said with a nod.
“Hoh? What are you confronting him about?” Another voice asked.
Almost instinctively, Kokutō pushed Nori behind him and faced the threat. “Crap,” he thought when he took in the appearance of the man with the tribal tattoo. If he wasn’t mistaken, Kanta-san had called him Senka, and from their exchange Kokutō recognized that Senka wasn’t someone to be trifled with. Kokutō scratched the back of his neck, laughing as if a bit dumbfounded to ease himself. “Ah. It’s nothing important sir!”
Senka rocked back on his heels, shoving his left hand into his pockets. “Glad to hear it,” he said with a disconcerting grin. He waved his other hand in the air. “And no need to call me “sir” or anything like that. That kind of stuffy formality doesn’t agree with me. But I gotta ask... who the hell are you?” There was the slightest edge under his tone: a threat.
“No one sir! Just your friendly neighborhood tourist, Kokutō, sir!” Kokutō answered half-truthfully to Senka, unable to stop the nervous tic of calling him sir. And even as disconnected as nature had become around here, there was still plenty to ease his fright, calming him.
Senka tilted his head to one side, but his grin faded into a smirk. “That’s good to hear,” he said. Then he pointed at Nori. “So who’s the kid?”
Unlike Kokutō, Nori was obviously intimidated by Senka, and didn’t have the natural energy flowing around her to tap into for calming strength. She clasped her hands together in front of her chest to keep them from trembling, but she was unable to respond to his question out of fear. “I—”
“She’s my niece,” Kokutō intervened. He reached out his hand behind him, and Nori grasped it firmly. He squeezed her hand, reassuring her. “Her name is N-Noi! Noi-chan. I came to the Land of Waves to visit my Auntie and her! She’s just a little shy.” He hoped Senka wouldn’t see past his lie.
The swordsman nodded, seriously. “That’s nice,” he said. “But this isn’t a good place for tourists, kids, or... rabbits,” he paused, “That’s a rabbit right?” He muttered to himself, staring at the white ball of fur that had emerged in Kokutō’s hair. He shook his head, then jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “So move along, I don’t wanna see your bright smiling faces around here again, deal?”
“Yessir, this cute furball is Tomo!” He wasn’t sure if Tomo would give him a talk later about introducing himself so easily to strangers, especially to dangerous people. “Well then, sir, we’ll be on our way! And sorry about that mix-up.” Keeping a firm hold on Nori’s hand, Kokutō slid past Senka and started to make his way in the opposite direction. As they walked past Senka, he gave Nori a cheeky smile.
They had nearly made their escape when Senka smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand, as if suddenly realizing something. “Oh,” he exclaimed. “You were spying on old Kanta, weren’t you? I almost forgot.” Kokutō and Nori froze as their hopes of a painless escape shattered. “I’m afraid I can’t let you go after all,” Senka said. “Sorry about that.”
Then, he began to draw his Ōdachi.
The abnormally long blade whined as he pulled it from the saya, painfully slow. White light glinted dangerously off its cutting edge, and Senka levelled the blade in Kokutō’s direction. “The name’s Takanami Senka,” he introduced himself formally. “I’m gonna ask you a couple of questions, and if you cooperate, Kouji-kun, Nari-chan, we can settle this whole thing without someone losing a head.” Apparently, Takanami was completely oblivious to the fact that he had gotten their names wrong, and Kokutō wondered why he had even bothered trying to come up with an alias for Nori.
There were whispers that the wind carried, screaming of the threat looming behind him. He knew that Takanami wasn’t a man to think lightly of, even if he very, very much butchered both of their names. But whether he felt the weight of the threat or not, Kokutō didn't express any hint of conflicted emotions that would worry Nori, who had tightened her grasp on his hand at the new turn of events. He simply gave her his trademark, cheeky closed-eyed smile. He hoped that after witnessing what was to follow—even if his actions weren’t barbaric, the sheer presence he could take could be considered as such—she wouldn’t think less of him. Then, Kokutō slipped his hand from Nori’s tugging grasp. He placed his hand on top of Nori's head, hoping to give her a semblance of comfort. Then, he turned towards Takanami.
"Nice to meet ya, Senka-san!” That stupid, though now more apologetic grin was still plastered on his face. “Unfortunately..." Kokutō's joyful tone didn’t change, but there was a difference that even those who were unaware of the touch of nature could detect—like a presence that began to envelop his body. "We don't have that much time to spare." It wasn't a lie or a joke. Nori's older brother was yet to be found, and time was running out.
Even back at his home, Kokutō's nindō had turned into a liability for him. His master had told him that it's a brave and a stupid ideal to uphold to in the world now. A place where someone like himself would easily be cornered, unless… Sometimes even if the weapon one wields is lethal, it has not to be. He remembered the words that a certain close friend of his taught him, to tell him that there's other reasons to fight for and that killing is optional. That still didn't sit well with him to inflict pain to someone else, but he's right. While he knew his natural speed isn't as common, in the trained eyes of these shinobi, there's no way that'd be enough. Drawing out a fight? Well, that wasn't an option either. It's why Kokutō closed his eyes once more, tapping deeper to his connection to the environment around him, which was always by his side.
While Takanami couldn’t detect the natural energy that Kokutō was tapping into, he noticed the shift in the position of Kokutō's feet. He wasn't all that subtle about his intentions. Call it a lack of experience in battle, or perhaps a direct challenge. Either way, the swordsman responded by making a minute adjustment to his own stance, grounding his center of mass low as he raised the Ōdachi above his shoulder.
“I admire your guts, boy,” Takanami called out to him, “It’s pretty rare that I get to face a fellow swordsman face to face.” His smirk intensified. He had noticed the katana at Kokutō’s side, but despite his years of expertise, the thrill of battle had blinded him to the fact that Kokutō was not using a swordsman’s stance, and in fact he had no intention of drawing his katana at all. Nonetheless, Kokutō’s body language didn’t lie, and while he wasn’t the brightest former member of the Senka Triplets, Takanami could read Kokutō’s position, and knew he was going for a frontal attack—and that he would attack first.
But what Takanami hadn't anticipated was the absurd swiftness that allowed Kokutō to disappear completely from sight. For a moment, he was reminded of the dirtiness performed by Kiri-nin, and the thought of his former village disgusted him. But no time for that now. Takanami swung the Ōdachi, instinctively reacting to Kokutō’s line of motion. Kokutō reappeared in front of him, much too close; the length of Takanami’s blade placed him at a distinct disadvantage. But somehow, he had been expecting that. "Hah!" Like a madman, Takanami switched the grip on his hilt, reversing the blade’s direction to strike downwards, towards Kokutō’s exposed neck.
At that moment, a small, white ball of fur blurred through the air, and Takanami received a facefull of furious claws.
Takanami stumbled back reflexively, caught off guard, and Kokutō slipped past the Ōdachi, driving a straight punch into the exposed center of Takanami’s solar plexus. There was a sharp hiss as the breath went out of the swordsman’s lungs, and he flew back across the alleyway. He slammed into the wall of crates behind them, forming an instant Senka-shaped dent in the metal. Then, his body slowly peeled out of the crater like a sad bandaid and plopped onto the concrete, where he lay motionless.
Tomo had avoided Takanami’s faceplant, and hopped back over to Kokutō, who picked him up and placed him on his shoulder. “That sounded painful,” Kokutō told the rabbit with a grimace. He felt bad for Takanami, but knew that now was their only chance to escape before the swordsman regained consciousness. He just hoped the concussion that had knocked him out wasn’t too severe.
Kokutō found Nori’s gaze, who was staring up at him, her mouth still open in shock by the impressive display of speed. Her eyes almost glittered with admiration. “Come on Nori-chan,” he said with a sigh, unsure if her reaction was worse than the one he had been expecting. “Let’s get out of here.”
Nori nodded her head enthusiastically. “So cool,” she whispered as she ran after him.
Within the span of thirty minutes, a fog had crept up from the open sea. It swept across the narrow stretch between the Land of Waves and the mainland, settling heavily over the shipping port on the island’s western side. “Fuck,” Ryōhei muttered under his breath. The bleach-white spotlights bounced off the mist, amplifying the glow that stretched over the harbor. All visibility had been lost, and Ryōhei dreaded the prospect of getting any closer to the shipyard. He was hidden behind a pier on the far side of the peninsula, almost completely submerged in the water as he watched the ship from Harōgakure come into port. Even though he knew he should have already headed towards it, he waited for Wakasa’s command to move.
“What’s your status, Kurotoge?” his older brother’s voice crackled over the static in his earpiece, as if he had detected his hesitation.
“I’ve lost visibility on my end,” Ryōhei responded. “I can’t see anything above the wall.”
“Are you connected yet, Hiari?” He was using their code names for the mission, but in Ryōhei’s opinion, “fire ant” hadn’t been a particularly subtle choice for Misuno.
“A few of my angles are useless because of the fog, but I’m in.” Misuno was at the controller’s office. She had hardwired into the cables to the port’s security cameras, and was now viewing the harbor from several points through her portable screen. Aside from a minor glitch when she had first connected, there was no way anyone inside the office would have realized they had been hacked, and the five-second lag would allow Misuno to shut off the video feed on a moment’s notice if necessary.
“Is he clear to approach?” Wakasa asked. There was a slight pause before Misuno answered.
“Yes, all clear sir.”
“Kurotoge, make contact with the ship,” he commanded. “I’m heading closer to the main platform, so I’m going silent.”
“Roger,” ‘Kurotoge’ and ‘Hiari’ responded in unison. The audio feed cut out, and Ryōhei clicked under his breath in irritation.
He was always given the worst jobs.
Ryōhei submerged and swam towards the ship. He was using a technique that suppressed his chakra signature, keeping it close to his body and imperceptible, at least while he was underwater. It also made sensing difficult, but that by itself didn’t explain why, upon latching onto the underside of the ship, he couldn’t perceive anything inside the hull. He frowned. It was almost as if the ship itself presented a mass in front of him that was blocking his senses. Perhaps a barrier or some other device was keeping the contents of the ship safe from probing. Undeterred, Ryōhei took the chakra register device that had been given to him by the Mizukage and placed it against the metal hull before pressing the trigger. The register blinked, but the light was red: a negative reading.
Piece of shit, he thought to himself before he swam towards the ship’s propellers. They weren’t in operation since the ship had docked, and he wedged himself between the massive blades and the casing of the turbine. Technically, Wakasa had said to make contact with the ship, not infiltrate it. But curiosity had gotten the better of him, and he wanted to see for himself what Harō had stored on board. Plus, he was tired of waiting on Wakasa. He crawled along the propeller shaft until he reached the bearings, then started to cut through the wall of the tunnel above him to reach the distilling tank when he felt a strange pulse of energy somewhere above him. He paused, but realized it wasn’t coming from the ship—it came from the dock, where Wakasa was.
Ryōhei weighed his options, then continued to drill through the metal tube. Whatever was going on up there, he would be of much better use to his team once inside the enemy’s ship, and that wasn’t even taking into account his incredibly vulnerable position behind the ship’s propellers, trapped in darkness. Come on, he mentally coaxed the blade of water at his fingertips to work faster.
Masking his presence, Wakasa stole along the tops of the crates as he approached the platform. He kept his profile low, careful to avoid the location of the security cameras that he had identified earlier. Once he found a good vantage point, he settled back into the shadows, and waited.
The fog-diffused lights of the harbor shone on his hunter-nin mask, reflecting in his ice-blue eyes. For a moment, Wakasa considered the absurdity of his situation. If he, the Jōnin Commander of Kirigakure, were discovered spying on one of the Shinobi Union’s trade partners, all of Chōjūrō’s careful attempts to deflect suspicion for the three tails incident would be undone. And he would probably be demoted as well, Wakasa reflected grimly. He knew that the Mizukage had no qualms in cutting off a limb to save face, despite his—or perhaps especially because of—his involvement with the Jinchūriki. That uneasy sense of guilt returned, growing alongside the worm of doubt that crept at the back of his mind. Damn it all, Wakasa tried to shove those thoughts aside, but for some reason imagined a disappointed expression on Ayume’s face.
There was some kind of a commotion on the platform below him. Wakasa’s eyes narrowed as he observed the somewhat frantic movements of the dockworkers. One of the men ran towards the controller’s office, and Wakasa frowned. Was something amiss? He listened to the low murmur of their voices, but couldn’t make out what was being said due to the density of the fog.
At last, a gangplank extended from the side of Harō’s industrial cargo ship. A figure appeared, framed by the black walls of the ship on either side of him. He was alone.
As the young man marched stately along the gangplank, the dockworker returned from the controller’s office with a hunched-over, spindly figure trailing behind him. While his stature was less than inspiring, he was immediately recognizable as someone in authority—or rather, someone who thought of himself as being in authority. He approached the Harō-nin, and with an oozing voice said: “Lord Tsuki, welcome.”
“Who are you?” Tsuki asked, bluntly.
“They call me Kanta. I oversee this dock’s operations, and manage several... other affairs here in the Land of Waves,” he said.
“Are you one of Hidetsugu’s men?” Tsuki asked, skeptical.
“Ah, well, about that..." Kanta tried to give some sort of explanation, but Wakasa couldn’t hear what he said. Tsuki seemed unimpressed.
“That seems an unfortunate oversight on your part, Kanta-san, but I refuse to negotiate with a third party. I’ll wait until you find him.”
“Well, at the very least, we could start unloading some of the cargo. You know how these things are, it’s going to take a while and—”
Tsuki fixed him with a firm stare, and Kanta trailed off into silence. “Very well,” he grumbled in resignation. Then, he began to wring his hands together. “At the very least, how about some tea while you wait?” he wheedled. Tsuki did not respond, ignoring him as his attention became fixed on the other end of the platform. Kanta noticed the group of dockworkers, who had huddled together to confer about something, as well. His false smile faltered. “Ah, excuse me for a moment.” He scuttled off towards them, like a crab, and Tsuki was left alone. Even from where he hid, Wakasa could detect his growing unease.
With a barely perceptible movement, Wakasa switched on his audio link. “Hiari,” he whispered. “What’s going on?”
Tsuki’s gaze snapped in his direction, and Wakasa mentally swore at his own carelessness. Had he been noticed? Wakasa began to weigh the pros and cons of making a run for it, but then Tsuki was distracted by a shrill exclamation.
“What?” Kanta nearly screamed. Suddenly aware that everyone had heard him, he glanced nervously in Tsuki’s direction before lowering his voice. Fortunately, Wakasa’s position allowed him to hear what was being said. “Find whoever attacked him immediately. Scour the port, and report back to me.” He told the other men, who nodded before disappearing to search for the attackers.
“Hiari,” Wakasa cupped his hand over his mouth to whisper again, careful to muffle the sound so Tsuki wouldn’t hear. “Come in.” There was no response, and Wakasa began to fear that something had gone completely, horribly wrong.
Kanta sulked back to where Tsuki was standing, arms crossed over his chest, motionless. “Is something the matter?” the Harō-nin asked coolly.
“On the contrary,” Kanta said, as smooth as oil. “We’ve found your man. He’ll be here shortly.”
“Don’t bother. I’ve changed my mind,” Tsuki said. “I won’t be dropping the shipment tonight.”
Kanta was alarmed. His livelihood depended on operating as a middleman between the Taunagi and whoever they had made arrangements with. If the smugglers chose another port, he would lose most of his disposable income and, quite possibly, his security in the Land of Waves. “Now, let’s not be hasty,” he began.
“My cargo is incredibly delicate. I can’t risk leaving it in the hands of someone who can’t keep their own port secure.” Tsuki said with a note of finality.
“Lord Tsuki, I assure you, this isn’t just the most secure port, this is the only port the Taunagi trust,” Kanta explained. “I can understand your... concerns, but isn’t it riskier to make another ocean crossing than to leave the cargo here? Not to mention, but I’ve heard...” and Kanta’s tone became surreptitious. “That your little Hidden Village isn’t on the best of terms with Kirigakure at the moment. You never know just who might be prowling international waters.”
Tsuki glared at Kanta. “Are you threatening me?” Then said, “The deal is off.”
“Isn’t that a decision your superior needs to make?” Kanta was clawing desperately now.
Wakasa tried to contact Misuno again, still with no response. He then switched to Ryōhei, but the feedback over the earpiece told him he was out of range. Out of range? What the hell was going on? With growing concern, Wakasa shifted his weight, preparing to leave his position above the dock’s main platform to search for his teammates.
“Yeah, sorry, but that’s not your call, Tsuki-kun,” someone said, and a newcomer emerged from the mist. He was holding the side of his head, and seemed to be walking gingerly. The shock of blue hair and distinctive tattoos made it obvious that he hadn’t even tried to hide his identity over the last few years. Wakasa’s eyes widened in shock, as he had almost completely forgotten the missing-nin he was supposed to be looking for.
“Not that way!” Nori exclaimed. They could see the shadows of the group of dockworkers coming around the corner of the alley, and they skidded to a halt.
"This way it is then!" Kokutō pulled Nori with him as he headed back in the opposite direction.
Since leaving the swordsman, they had tried to circle back around to where they had last seen Kanta without being noticed. Unfortunately, Senka’s unconscious form had been found sooner than expected, and the docks were now crawling with members of an angry and very frustrated search party.
“There they are!” The worst occurred as someone spotted them. Somewhere, a whistle blew, summoning the rest of the dockworkers to their location.
“Shit,” Nori swore, “They’ll catch us!”
Kokutō glanced back at Nori with surprise at her use of vocabulary. He shook his head however, there were more thrivel matters at hand. One of them being to find Kanta-san and extract information about Mikki's whereabouts. While Kokutō didn't like the idea of it, he also knew that a life was at stake, besides who said anything about torture. "I've an idea, Nori-chan," He whispered loud enough for her to hear, accompanied with that goofy grin of his. Not wanting the risk of their intentions being overheard, Kokutō hoped for Nori to trust in him to get them there. Which, of course, is to hide out in Kanta-san's office and wait for him to return. Nori listened to his proposal, her eyes wide and serious. She nodded, and they took off again, this time with purpose to their steps.
“Where did they go?”
Finally out of view of the search party, they sprinted down a straight corridor towards the controller’s office just up ahead. They only had to cross under the forest of support beams beneath the operation tower, and they would be there. Nori trailed slightly behind Kokutō. Without warning, she yelped, and he felt her hand jerk out of his grasp. He spun around instantly. A hunter-nin held Nori, pulling her back into the shadows. Her only distinctive feature was the red hair pulled back from her nearly featureless mask, and she clamped a hand firmly over Nori’s mouth.
“Shh,” the kunoichi hissed.
"It's you!!" Kokutō whispered loudly as he narrowed his eyes on the woman 'restricting' Nori. She was the one he had seen earlier that day: the reason the people from the slums had shut their doors before he could talk to them. A chill ran down his spine, but when the hunter-nin spoke, there was fear in her voice too.
“I’m not going to hurt the kid, honestly,” she promised. “But you two are causing a racket, so pipe the hell down.” Briefly, she heard static in her ear as Wakasa tried to contact her over the earpiece, but she silenced it. Kokutō and Nori had, without realizing it, jeopardized their entire mission. She had seen the altercation between Senka and Kokutō, and knew that the Harō-nin was now suspicious on account of the attack. If he pulled out of the harbor, they would lose the chance to see exactly what was going on between the minor Hidden Village and the Taunagi. Thus, ignoring Wakasa’s command, she had taken initiative on her own. A part of her wanted to prove herself to him as well, as she was still sore that he thought of her as the least competent member of their team. So, this was the compromise she had made with herself, leaving her post to intervene.
She wasn’t there to monitor the security cams, and hadn’t seen the gray shadow that flitted across the screen, scaled one of the crane towers, and disappeared from sight.
“You both need to get out of here,” she told them. She released Nori, warily. Nori stumbled forwards, then ducked behind Kokutō to glare at the kunoichi.
“Undertaker!” Nori spat the demeaning term in Misuno’s direction, still shaken. “That’s what we were trying to do.”
“You’re going the wrong way,” the hunter-nin replied, flatly. Caught red-handed in her lie, Nori’s face flushed, and she fell silent.
Kokutō held his chin like an idiot at the use of the term by Nori, thinking thoughtfully. He didn’t understand it. Even so, he interrupted the exchange between Nori and the kunoichi, “Well, the girl and I can't leave the area yet.”
“Why the hell not?”
He glanced at Nori searching for her approval. Can I? He asked silently.
“We’re not telling,” Nori said, sticking her chin out petulantly.
It was almost as if they could see the cross-shaped veins in the kunoichi’s head throb with irritation. “Listen here, you little brat—”
Fortunately, the dockworkers locked on to their location before the situation could escalate further. “Honestly,” Misuno muttered. She then formed a few hand signals, and from the puddles of oily water beneath the observation tower, two shapes rose and shimmered into clones. With another hand symbol, they morphed into mirror images of Kokutō and Nori. “These should keep them occupied for a bit. You two, follow me.”
Kokutō nodded, holding his hand out for Nori to take, then followed after the kunoichi. “Neh, miss,” he paused, contemplating on his next words, “Do you know a Kanta-san?”
“What?” she asked, clearly irritated. “Now’s honestly not the time kid.”
The hunter-nin seemed to do a much better job of weaving through the canyons of shipping crates than Kokutō and Nori had, demonstrating her skill in evasive maneuvers. They had nearly made it to what Kokutō assumed was the other side of the port when Nori pulled at Kokutō’s hand, refusing to take another step.
“We can’t leave!” she protested. “We have to find out where my brother is!” Tears began welling up in her eyes. “We have to go back. Now’s our only chance!”
The kunoichi halted, then jogged back towards them with a sigh. She knelt at Nori’s eye-level. “You’re looking for your brother?” she asked. Nori nodded. “Look, I admire your sentiment, but this is a dangerous place.” She shook her head. “And honestly, if those guys find you, they won’t be as nice to you as I was.” She drew a finger across her throat to make her point clear. “Understand?”
“That’s why he’s with me,” Nori retorted.
Kokutō laughed a bit nervously at Nori’s comment. He affectionately ruffled Nori’s hair. “I keep my promises, miss. I might not be at the same level as you, but I’ll keep her safe.”
The hunter-nin didn’t seem convinced. “Is that right? So what were you gonna do if I had decided back there to jab a kunai into her neck?”
“It didn’t happen. Besides, I wouldn’t have allowed it,” Kokutō replied to the kunoichi as casually as always with that carefree smile.
“That’s a good attitude to have—if you wanna get yourself killed.”
They were interrupted by a heavy mechanic whirr, and all at once found themselves drowned by the bright glare of a floodlight. They looked up, shielding their eyes in alarm.
“My my, what is this,” a voice that oozed putrid honey called down from above them. Kanta leaned over the metal railing of the concrete platform outside the controller’s office. For all her effort and apparent skill in navigating the maze of shipping crate corridors, the hunter-nin had led them in a giant circle right back to where they had started. Misuno suddenly remembered how terrible she was with directions. Shit. She raised her hand to switch on her earpiece.
“Not so fast,” Kanta told her. “No sudden movements please.”
They were surrounded on all sides by the dockworkers, most of whom visibly sported tattoos of eels somewhere on their body. They hedged the three of them in around the circle of light, keeping harpoon guns trained on them steadily, primed to fire at a moment’s notice. Misuno knew she could slip past them if she had to: she doubted the unwieldy harpoons were very accurate above water... and was that guy wielding a crowbar? But she shook her head. She wasn’t sure if the two kids would escape unscathed if she tried it. Misuno lowered her hand.
“Kanta-san!” Nori exclaimed.
Kanta seemed momentarily shocked. “Nori? What on earth are you doing here, child.” Then he looked between her and her two companions, and a peculiar expression crossed his face. He seemed tremendously, sinisterly pleased, as if he were a cat that had just managed to trap a caged bird.
“I see you’ve made new friends. I wonder, what did you tell the Kiri-nin in exchange for her help?”
Nori seemed confused. “I didn’t ask her for help,” she said.
“I see,” he said. “Well, no matter. Tell me why you’re with those two, and I’ll let you go home.” His voice rang false: an obvious lie.
None of them said a word, so Kanta continued on his own. “Allow me to hazard a guess,” he said, “You want to know where your brother is, don’t you? I can tell you where he is, but only if you tell your two friends to surrender first.”
Nori’s eyebrows scrunched into a frown. “I... can’t do that.” Her desire to save her brother was now in conflict with the need to protect her newfound companions, and the moral struggle was almost too much for the young street urchin to bear. She seemed unsure of her decision.
“You sleazy old man!” Kokutō intervened, his usual sweet demeanor replaced with anger. He didn’t seem to keep in mind that they were surrounded by Kanta’s men. “How dare you put Nori-chan in that position. Tell us where her brother is--or else!!” He was giving Kanta a foolish, empty threat.
“Or else what, boy?” Kanta’s amusement seemed to slip, and he raised his hand. The men holding the harpoon guns shifted their weight, preparing to fire at his signal.
It was cowardly to allow children to do all the talking for them, Misuno thought, and she interrupted. “You’re in no position to be making demands,” she told him, proud that her voice didn’t shake. “You’re currently in violation of international shipping regulations, Jūrō Kanta. If you refuse to let us go, I’ll be reporting you for arrest.”
Kanta threw back his head and laughed. It was a wheezing, unpleasant laugh. “Don’t be naive,” he told her after composing himself. He turned his attention back to Nori. “Listen to me, child. I’ll offer you a trade,” he said. “If you want to see your brother, then come with me. You don’t want your friends to get hurt now, do you?” Nori nodded, slowly. The bright lights were hurting her head, and she found it difficult to concentrate.
Unsure how to respond to Kanta, Kokutō merely let out a low growl. His eyes turned to Nori, hoping for her to stay by his side. But for some reason none of these thoughts left his mouth.
“You’ll really take me to see Mikki?” Nori asked.
Kanta nodded. “He wants to see you,” he coaxed.
Misuno caught on. Realizing that Kanta was trying to separate Nori from them, the pieces at last clicked into place as she remembered her hostage-situation Anbu training. So, he was trying to take Nori alive? In that case...
Misuno moved in a flash, pulling Nori close. A kunai had appeared in her hand, and she pressed it to her throat.
“Lower your... harpoons,” she shouted at the men surrounding them. Everyone froze, and the dockworkers looked towards Kanta, waiting to see how he would react. Kanta scowled, then nodded his head. “Do as she says,” he snarled.
“Now... let us through.” Misuno spoke through clenched teeth, pronouncing each word carefully as she moved towards the edge of the light, her gaze locked steadily on Kanta.
Kokutō felt conflicted with the action by Misuno. She had threatened him before about his inability to protect Nori, if she indeed had decided to cut the girl’s throat instead, then he would’ve failed. Not this time. His fists clenched tightly in anger as a surge of betrayal went through him. If Misuno had witnessed the fight between Takanami and him, then the next wasn’t as surprising. That ability to tap into his connection with nature once again happened, but he wouldn’t hold back. In his eyes, Nori’s life was in danger.
In a flash he disappeared from his position, and then he was next to Misuno. Unlike the previous engagement against Senka, Kokutō didn’t intend to restrict his strength that came with the punch directed at the kunoichi... until he noticed Nori’s presence. He pulled back sharply, and even though limited, the hit still had some harsh wind effect on it that would graze Misuno’s face even if she managed to dodge.
“Let her go!”
Misuno did, in fact, let Nori go—she was forced to in order to avoid getting her teeth knocked out. She raised the kunai to block Kokutō’s unexpected attack, and his fist crashed into the flat of the blade, then her hunter-nin’s mask. It shattered, and Misuno was hurled to the other side of the circle.
“Run Nori-chan!” Kokutō pulled Tomo out and hurled him towards Nori, who caught the rabbit and cradled him gently in her hands. “I’ll find you later!” Nori darted off, slipping away from them before anyone could react.
Misuno flipped backwards in mid air to land on her feet, but when she looked up at Kokutō, blood was dripping from her nose. Unfortunately, she was wearing a cloth mask under her other mask, and it was soon soaked through. She pulled it off to yell at him.
“Shoot them!” cried Kanta, having become livid the moment Nori escaped. The harpoon guns made dull explosions as sharp hooks shot towards them from all sides. Kokutō could have easily evaded most of them, but Misuno stumbled as she rose to block the harpoons, and he knew he wouldn’t have enough time to protect both of them.
The spiked tips of the harpoons ricocheted off a steel surface, bouncing back as they were deflected in a wide circle around them. Something had impacted the ground, and as the dust settled, Kokutō and Misuno saw that they had been joined by a third figure. An immense blade rested across the hunter-nin’s shoulders, and he rose to his feet slowly.
“Aren’t harpoon guns a little tacky this day and age?” he asked, a touch of sarcasm to his tone. The light glinted off the Kubikiribōchō, blinding Kanta. He blinked and peered in confusion at the newcomer.
“Who—” he shook his head. “Well don’t just stand there,” he snapped to his lackeys. They rushed to attack, but Wakasa paused to address Misuno and Kokutō.
“I’ll handle these guys. Hiari, you and the kid follow the girl.”
“But sir—” ‘Hiari’ began to protest.
“That’s a direct order,” he told her. “I don’t care who she is—protect her.”
In the next moment, the hunter-nin captain vanished. The massive blade shrieked as he dragged it across the concrete, unnerving the dockworkers. A second later they were thrown into the air as he swung the flat of the Kubikiribōchō like a paddle, knocking them back like flies. He had the advantage, as harpoon guns could only be fired once, and was making quick work of Kanta’s men. Clearly, he didn’t need their help.
Kokutō watched in amazement as the hunter-nin captain arrived. He didn’t need to be told twice when ordered to go after Nori. Nori. He thought in worry as he jogged up to the kunoichi. “Sorry Hiari-san,” there was a sincere tone as he apologised to her. The boy offered her a hand and a shoulder for them to go after Nori. “And, uhm, I can help with that,” Kokutō nods to the injury he inflicted. She shrugged both of his offers aside.
“Never mind that,” she snapped, obviously peeved at her superior rather than him. “Honestly.”
He laughed in return, that boyish side of him returning. “Well,” Kokutō extended his hand towards her anyway, but she brushed it aside. Nonetheless, there was a gentle source of energy that radiated from Kokutō’s palm, transferring some of his chakra to her. Her speed increased as he healed her nose, and Kokutō matched her new pace.
She glanced at him. “Thanks, I guess,” she said, brusquely.
They turned a corner and emerged onto an open section of the dock. The sea lapped at the edge of the platform to their left, and in the distance they could see the end of the peninsula jutting out into the open harbor, barely visible as a lurking silhouette as the fog began to clear.
“I think this might be the wrong way,” Kokutō pointed out, and Hiari opened her mouth to say something.
A glowing red dot had appeared in the center of her forehead.
For a fraction of a moment, it felt as though the natural energy of the world around him had suddenly become unbalanced. A line of energy cut across the harbor, splitting the air like a current of lightning. And then, the immense force swung forwards like a pendulum, hammering into them.
Hiari disintegrated in front of him.
Her skull caved in first, crumbling around the perfect circle formed by the laser beam of energy. But as flesh was ripped from her face it disappeared, burned away instantaneously. The rest of her was destroyed in the same way by the explosion, which flashed across the dock in an intense wave of heat that melted the steel crates that faced the sea. The shockwave thundered into Kokutō, the impact crushing the concrete where they had been standing a split-second before.
Then, a column of fire shot into the sky, roaring across the harbor like thunder.
His eyes widened, but he was too late. Because not a second later after Hiari began to disintegrate, the explosion, accompanied by its shockwave, blasted him abruptly away from the centre. The flames began to lick at his skin, the scent of burning flesh would have overwhelmed him, if not for the immediate shock of the event. The desire to live. His survival instincts kicked in, and with a deep breath he managed to find inner strength to steel himself, managing to dig his feet into the ground, but the shockwave was relentless. The flames from the explosion continued to tear at his skin, the pain from it numbed by a new-form of adrenaline. His arms propelled forward as his hands positioned themselves to shield against the fire, whilst the force of nature greedily absorbed into his body. Ignoring the balance of nature, his mind, and everything else.
None of it mattered. The primitive instinct of survival assured of that.
The energy turned into a shield around him, blocking off the fire from the explosion with ease. His hands weren't as lucky, however. They continued to suffer as the rest of his body slowly began to heal with the excessive amount of natural energy flowing within him.
It felt like hours ticked by, that's how powerful the initial blast had been. Immediately he collapsed through his knees when the fire finally died down, and all around him, the buildings and whoever had been nearby... gone as well.
His first thought went out to the kunoichi. His eyes searched wildly for the red-haired woman, but there was nothing. Her scent, gone. Her presence, nihil. And from his sensing he couldn't trace her chakra either. Not even from the fact he had connected through her when he shared his chakra...
But he did feel the culprit of this, in the distance, the pull of the wind made him turn his head to narrowly stare at the figure that turned foggy as he concentrated on them. It hurt his mind, the sharp pain there intensifying, as did he feel his own heartbeat rising tremendously. The puncture of canines bit through his bruised lip. And a snarl escaped him as he dug his claws into the dirt below him, clutching to it as if his life depended on it.
And then—his mind went blank.
In the mind of Kokutō, where there was a special place for his closest to reside, the once beautiful paradise had reflected the vision of reality. It was all burnt. And a young boy, younger than the one in reality, knelt in front of where the flames halted. He just watched it.
It reminded him of something. A turmoil? But the boy didn't know.
Neither did he acknowledge the looming presence that had appeared along with him shortly after. "What are you doing, foolish brat." It growled low and deeply as it took in the appearance of Kokutō.
As a child, Kokutō seemed extremely tender and small for his age, a lightly tanned skin, with longer ears than that of a human and very long unkempt brown hair that reached his waist. Gold eyes looked back at the red slits of the demon fox. It admired the eye colour that Kokutō rarely displayed nowadays, but it also meant something else, something dangerous. That didn't sit well with the fox, who loomed over the child-figure of Kokutō.
Despite how much the 'demon' teased Kokutō with many nicknames, never had it expected for the rabbit boy to revert to his child-self. "Throwing a pity party?" It continued, its gruff, unpleased snarl coming closer to Kokutō. Its snout pressed against the back of him, an odd attempt of affection, to push Kokutō back to reality. "Now isn't the time, you brat!!"
The shove from the great beast pushed Kokutō into the fire he had watched with admiration, along with the most sliver amount of chakra to regain his senses in reality. But would it be enough?
Kanta watched the scene unfold before him in horror. Why were the hunter-nin here? Two meddlesome kids were bad enough without Kiri’s involvement. How would he explain this to Lord Tsuki now, or worse, he shuddered when he thought of Hidetsugu.
The hunter-nin looked up at him then, and the two eye-slits of his mask seemed to narrow in on him, as if locking onto a target. Kanta’s hands began to tremble. He acted as though he were going to try and bargain with the Kiri-nin... but the wave-shaped black stripes that curved cruelly over the blank white mask seemed impervious to any form of negotiation or pleading: like the stripes of a silent, predatory beast. For a moment, Kanta thought of his late father, Gatō. Hadn’t he met his end at the edge of a hunter-nin’s blade as well?
Kanta turned and fled for his life.
Wakasa clicked his tongue, unconsciously copying one of his brother’s signature tics. “I am not ready for this kind of cardio,” he complained to himself. He glided up the steel ladder that led to the controller’s office. Kanta had taken off across the network of catwalks suspended between the platform and the observation tower, his limbs flailing like a spider grasping at steel cable threads. Wakasa leapt onto the rail, balancing effortlessly as he followed him. He ducked low as he ran to bear the weight of the sword on his back and, despite his earlier complaint, soon began to gain on his quarry.
The explosion caught him completely off guard.
It came from the southern part of the shipping bay, and a second after the bright tower of light and smoke erupted, a wave of pressure slammed into him. Wakasa tried to maintain his balance, but the frail metal suspension cable buckled beneath him, pitching wildly to one side. He plummeted down, turning in mid-air to land on his feet. He started running as soon as he hit the ground. Wakasa switched on his earpiece, once more attempting to contact his brother as he sprinted against the wind and momentum pushing against him.
“Kurotoge, what’s your status?”
There was a pause, then at last, crackling through heavy static, he heard his brother’s voice. “I’m on the ship’s deck.”
Wakasa paused for a beat. “Harō’s?” he asked in alarm.
“I could see the explosion from here,” Ryōhei continued, his voice even. “Misuno is dead.”
The news hit Wakasa like a slap across his face, and he nearly reeled back. The Jōnin Commander’s mouth went completely dry as dead weight dropped onto his shoulders. He had been in charge of the mission. Which meant that he had made some mistake, had failed to notice an obvious threat—whatever it was, he was at fault. There was no one else to blame.
He was the one responsible for Misuno’s death.
The churning guilt turned to anger. His hands clenched into fists at his sides, but he swallowed his rage, turning it into a cold fire to fuel him onwards. “Kurotoge,” he said, his voice devoid of emotion. “I want you to pinpoint her attacker’s location.”
“Already ahead of you, brother,” Ryōhei responded. “Not sure what happened, but there’s a chakra signature at 50 degrees north: the top of that big crane to the east with the flashing red light.”
Wakasa glanced up to confirm the location as he blurred along the corridors of crates towards the sea.
“I see it,” he confirmed. “Keep me informed if you spot any movement.”
Ryōhei, however, was distracted by a pulse of strange energy that came from the direction of the explosion. He stared at the plume of ash green and orange smoke from his carefully concealed position on the ledge of the observation deck. The presence, as he had no other word for it, felt like a knot of twisted energy, as if someone had taken a tsunami and crumpled it into the size of a fist. Ryōhei felt a lump in his throat as instinctual fear welled up within him, and a cold sweat broke out at his temples. Then, a moment later, the presence vanished entirely. Had it been his imagination, or had he seen a giant, shadowy figure moving against the hellish glow of the fire? He shook his head. What the hell was that thing?
Wakasa’s eyes narrowed as he approached the explosion’s epicenter. Fire was still smoldering across the concrete, and he could feel the radiant heat beneath his mask.
“Misuno!” he yelled, knowing it was futile. Ryōhei, while cruel, wasn’t entirely pitiless: he wouldn’t have lied to him about her death.
Wakasa scanned the dock anyway, taking in the damage all at once. Steam hissed from the surface of the ocean, and the air was thick with smoke and the acrid scent of burnt metal. Wakasa realized why the explosion had been so forceful: one of the steel crates had been almost completely dissolved, and from its gutted insides he could see some kind of molten chemical material still glowing, almost as if it were alive.
A patch of flames still burned near the blackened crater in the dock’s center, and as Wakasa moved closer he saw that it was roughly the shape of a human body. There was a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as Wakasa steeled himself, trying to recall how many years it had been since the last time he had seen a scorched corpse.
But then, to his shock, the flaming mass stirred. A long-haired silhouette lifted itself from the ground, its eyes white, crouching like a beast. The cloak of fire swirled around its shoulders, dissipating around it, and Wakasa took a step back from the force of the heat. A face emerged from the twisted mass of charred flesh and fire, almost familiar. It looked like the face of the boy who had been with Misuno, now contorted with pain and animalistic rage.
The creature locked its golden irises onto him, but Wakasa felt as though it weren’t truly looking at him. Then, without warning, the beast charged. Wakasa braced himself, his grip tightening on the Kubikiribōchō to defend himself and, if necessary, remove its head. But just as it cut towards him with jagged, smoldering claws, it stopped. The ash that coated its fingers peeled away, cracking like dry earth along its arm... and it collapsed face-first onto the ground. Wakasa peered closer. He saw human flesh and a matt of brown hair within the mass of embers and frowned, wondering what exactly he had just witnessed. Crouching at the boy’s side, he checked for a pulse, and was amazed to find a steady beat. While still hot to the touch, the boy’s skin was whole and smooth, as if untouched by the flames.
“Hey, can you hear me?” He shook him by the shoulder.
His entire body felt like it was on fire. The touch of whoever it was hurt him more than he could imagine. He may be healed, but the pain lasted a while longer. Perhaps, instead, it was the overexertion and exhaustion telling him to give into that sweet darkness. Kokutō didn't manage to move an inch, nor utter a word, but he hoped the painful groan was a giveaway to the hunter-nin captain.
“Come on,” Wakasa told him, “It’s not safe here.” Adjusting the strap of his sword, he lifted Kokutō with both arms, grunting as he draped him over his shoulder. Kokutō moaned, feeling like he was going to wretch. His vision blurred in and out of focus with each brisk step as Wakasa carried him away from what would have been his grave, had he been anyone else. But then, his eyes widened with horror.
A red dot had appeared in the center of Wakasa’s back, reflecting off the blade of the Kubikiribōchō.
Kokutō tried desperately to get the hunter-nin’s attention. Feebly, he reached his hand for the exposed part of Wakasa’s flak jacket, digging his fingernails into Wakasa’s ribs.
“What the hell kid?” Wakasa twisted to try and get away from Kokutō’s reach.
“M-move.” It was all he could manage, his voice torn and hoarse, the words burning like hell as they came. But it was enough to alert Wakasa that something was wrong. He turned and immediately spotted the glowing dot on his stomach.
There was an electric scent in the air, and the surface of the steel crates surrounding them started to hum. The hair on the back of Wakasa’s neck stood on end. It felt as though lightning were about to strike.
A line of energy split the air, and Wakasa reacted before he could think, expelling a stream of Instant Water from his palm into the ground. The water snapped up, splashing against the sides of the crates to form a wall as Wakasa ducked to the side, throwing himself and Kokutō out of harm’s way.
The beam of red light pierced through the wall of water, which was completely ineffective at blocking the attack. However, the water had distorted the light, throwing it off at a slight angle so that it just barely missed Wakasa’s ribs. He disappeared just as the explosion cratered into the steel containers behind him. There was another shockwave, another torrent of flame and smoke that shot up into the sky like a homing beacon. But somehow, miraculously, Wakasa had escaped.
Well, mostly escaped.
He emerged at a distance behind a concrete wall that shielded him from view of the crane tower and stumbled as he came to a stop, his ears ringing as if someone had taken a hammer to them. His breath was coming in gasps, and he set Kokutō down for a moment to recover his strength.
“Kurotoge, come in,” he said over his earpiece. There was more static than usual, but somehow the device still worked. He patted the side of Kokutō’s face as he waited for a response, trying to bring him fully into consciousness.
“Hey, can you hear me kid?”
Instead of being greeted like before with a golden gaze, Kokutō's light browns looked back at Wakasa. Only for a moment, a confirmation to him, alas they shut once more.
“Kurotoge, are you there?”
“I’m here,” Ryōhei at last responded, and Wakasa almost sighed with relief.
“I couldn’t tell which direction that last explosion came from,” Wakasa told him.
“Seemed like it came from the same place,” Ryōhei offered, unhelpfully.
“Can you tell me anything about our adversary? From what I can tell, he’s blowing stuff up with tracer lights, but I can’t tell how he’s projecting them.”
“Sounds about right,” Ryōhei said.
“Damn it,” Wakasa muttered.
“Try to stay out of his line of sight,” Ryōhei suggested.
“Yeah, well the thing is, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of that.”
There was a pause, as if Ryōhei didn’t know how to respond. “Kurotoge,” Wakasa continued, “I want you to get to that tower, and take out their sniper. That’s the only way we can make it out of here in one piece.”
“You realize I’ve got no cover between here and there, he’ll blow me out of the water before I can spell ANBU.”
“Well if you have any better suggestions,” Wakasa said, his voice now strained. “I’m all ears, but for right now I’ve got an injured kid to carry.”
“Just take out the sniper, I can’t move until you do.”
Ryōhei cut out into static without another word, and Wakasa turned his attention to the kid. Even though externally he appeared to be unscatheed, he wasn’t sure if he had sustained any internal injuries. Either way, he was barely responsive. “Listen,” Wakasa explained, and while he kept his voice even, he spoke urgently. “We need to get out of here, but I can’t carry you the whole way. You’ll have to walk on your own, if you can...” Wakasa paused, gritting his teeth against the pain in his side. He didn’t let it show, but he was starting to grow a little desperate. He had no idea of his unseen adversary’s abilities, had only a vague location to go off of, and had only barely escaped the last explosion from sheer luck. If his reaction time had been a millisecond slower, he would have had a hole in the center of his abdomen. Think, he told himself, still fighting to steady his breathing.
The boy shook his head from side to side as he leaned against the wall, his eyelids flickering frantically, his mind no doubt still caught in the trauma he had survived. Wakasa could still hardly believe his eyes that the kid was in as good of condition as he was. “Hey, listen to me, you’re going to be ok,” Wakasa said, cupping his hand on the side of the miracle boy’s face to steady him. He pulled out his water flask and tilted it gently, hoping it wouldn’t accidentally drown him. “Here,” he coaxed. “Drink some of this, come on. Hang in there kid.”
It helped, soothing the searing throat of Kokutō, but the thirst for more agitated him. He felt weak physically as well as mentally, but the link to his close friend and guardian was stronger than before. "I won't make it like this," Kokutō whispered to his mind, into the bond. There were plenty of risks involved in taking the great beast's chakra, something Kokutō barely wanted to tap into. Not that he was afraid of it: he simply preferred to be the beast's friend. Without a reply from it, Kokutō felt a comfortable and warm sensation beginning to course throughout his body. It wasn't much, but just enough to charge him to get back on his feet.
Then the growling voice entered his mind, "Escape, no fighting." Both were aware that he wasn't in the state for that anyway.
Once again, Kokutō's eyes flickered open, but this time his vision was clear, able to see the hunter-nin captain in full-detail. "I-I'm okay," he managed to breathe out.
Wakasa exhaled as well. He didn’t realize that he had been holding his breath. He winced, then clutched at his side. “Listen, I’m going to get you out of here,” he promised. While he spoke through his mask, the look in his eyes was sincere. “But we need to move fast.” He helped Kokutō onto his feet, and they edged to the end of the wall.
For a moment, Wakasa stalled. He knew it would take Ryōhei some time to reach the tower, and wished that the crane didn’t overlook the sea. It would have been much easier to slip beneath the surface of the water and vanish from sight. But as it was, they would be forced to weave their way through crate alleys and concrete walls until they made it to the other side of the port. Wakasa pulled his hand away from his side. It was sticky with blood, and he frowned. He didn’t think he could afford to wait any longer for his brother.
“We’ll cross over to there,” he said, motioning to a gap between the crates on the other side of a wide street. “I don’t think he can see us, but I’ll go first just in case. Follow when I give you the signal.”
Kokutō nodded cautiously at the plan. He had no interest to relive that moment, and he pondered if he would be able to survive through it a second time.
Checking the angle one last time, Wakasa darted out into the open. Despite being completely exposed, he seemed to meld with the long shadows cast across the concrete, his movements almost imperceptible except for his own shadow, which flickered across the ground until it merged with the darkness on the other side. He could have used an invisibility technique, but he wasn’t sure if Kokutō could, and he wanted to make sure they were hidden from actual sight. There was a pause as Wakasa crouched low, then he gestured for Kokutō to follow him.
There was a hesitation for Kokutō to follow the hunter-nin captain's orders. The acute trauma is to blame. But he knew if he wanted to get to safety, Kokutō needed to trust him. And so, he took a step forward.
A horrendous shriek stopped him dead in his tracks, and far above Wakasa’s head, the top layer of steel crates crumpled in around a perfectly incised hole as a red beam of light passed through the entire row of perpendicular crate towers. Disks of light followed, cracking along the beam with a rippling series of explosions. Shrapnel flew in every direction, and specks of molten steel hissed as they plopped into the pavement in front of Kokutō’s feet. As the shockwaves subsided, the towers of crates groaned and teetered, one toppling into the other like a row of dominos. They crashed into the ground, the noise almost deafening. Wakasa sprinted back towards him, somehow having escaped the debris.
“Run,” he said as he reached him, panting. “I don’t think this guy needs to see us. Either that, or he doesn’t care what he hits.” Wakasa glanced behind him. When Kokutō didn’t immediately respond, Wakasa turned his shoulders in the opposite direction and gave him a shove. “Go, now!” He yelled. But the hunter-nin captain did not follow him. Instead, he waited until he was sure Kokutō was on his way, then he turned and headed in the opposite direction... towards the crane tower that loomed above the port.
The foreign chakra bestowed upon him began to wear down, slowing his pace as Kokutō went down the path to escape the sniper. There was this excruciating, burning pain resurfacing below his skin, itching to breakthrough, while the numbness in his fingers returned. But Kokutō knew that giving up here would lead to his death. The killer of the kunoichi had it out for them, and he didn't want to relive a third attack from them. So he bit his lip, hard enough to draw out blood, which caused him to snap him out of his daze. The exhaustion slowly dissipated, albeit temporarily. After all, Kokutō had a promise to uphold to Nori... And speaking of the young girl, the determination returned in his eyes to find her and her brother. “Wait for me, Nori-chan,” Kokutō croaked out under his breath, heading into a direction as the breeze guided him to her.
A Clash from the Past
Golden light flickered across the sea from the tower of flames that blossomed from somewhere amongst the maze of containers. The cargo ship rocked back and forth, the waves pushing back from the breaker wall as vibrations from the explosions cut against the tide. Ryōhei willed his brother to hold out under the harrowing prospect of being disintegrated by a long-ranged metaphorical hell blast. He didn’t know what he would have done if he had been in Wakasa’s situation, but it was now up to him to act.
Ryōhei twirled a small, metal vial in his hand before stashing it safely away under the fold of his flak jacket. He had retrieved it from deep within the cargo hold of the ship, careful to re-seal the crate it was in so that no one would notice that a sample was missing. The vial itself felt heavier than its small size should have warranted, but Ryōhei had yet to analyze its composition further. Right now, it was more important that he reach the crane tower—and get off the ship before Harō pulled out of the port.
“Lord Tsuki, what’s going on?” one of the sailors asked.
“I don’t know, and we’re not about to stick around and find out. Pull out.”
A swarm of chaos ensued as the sailors rushed to secure the deck. The throb of the ships’ motors drowned out all other sound, and the gangplank began to retract. Like a massive block of stone, the freight ship edged out from the dock, foot by foot.
Now was his chance.
Phasing into his surroundings, Ryōhei suppressed his chakra and darted across the upper deck of the ship. As he sprinted past Tsuki, the young man turned his head in his direction, as if detecting the wind of Ryōhei’s movement. However, the Kiri-nin remained completely invisible, despite blatantly crossing the bright lights of the pilot house. He reached the bulwark and sprang from the railing onto the dock, barreling over the constantly growing gap between the side of the ship and the shore.
Gravel scattered across the concrete when he landed, but Ryōhei kept his focus fixed on the crane. He assumed that his adversary was a sensor-nin as well. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to notice him as he sprinted along the dock, as Wakasa was drawing his fire to the east. Good.
But then, there was a sudden whistle through the air, like an angry hornet diving to attack along with a spike of Killing Intent behind him. Ryōhei ducked on instinct, and an abnormally long blade cut through the air where his head had been a second before. He turned, tracing its arc to the Ōdachi wielded by a blue-haired, tattoo-covered swordsman. Ryōhei’s eyes widened in recognition.
Takanami Senka’s eyes were closed, but he tilted his head to the side, listening intently. “I can taste it you know: your bloodlust,” he said. Ryōhei remained utterly still to see what Takanami would do. He wasn’t alarmed—he was curious.
“Might as well give up on using that invisibility technique, it’s not doing you any good.” Takanami said. Then, with both hands, he raised the longsword above his head and swung it like a whip down towards Ryōhei, forcing him to leap backwards. The Nuibari was in his hand in an instant, and he thrust the tip of the sword towards Takanami’s chest, allowing the wire attached to its hilt to slide through his hand. Takanami switched his grip on the hilt and, with a bright spark of steel clashing on steel, blocked the needle-like blade with the spine of his own sword. The Nuibari bounced off harmlessly, serpentining in midair. Then, to Ryōhei’s amazement, Takanami charged, sweeping the Ōdachi to the side and snapping through the wire as he ran. Ryōhei side-stepped him easily, and Takanami slid to a halt before turning to face him again.
“I’m impressed,” admitted Ryōhei. And even though he knew Takanami had been baiting him, he allowed the cloaking technique to dissipate, although he continued to suppress his chakra. “What gave me away?”
Takanami grinned, and at last opened his eyes. “Your scent, your killing intent, and the impact you made when you first jumped off the ship,” he marked each by counting from his thumb to his middle finger. “It was a piece of cake to follow you. Plus I’m familiar with you Kiri-nin and your tactics.” He glanced at the Nuibari lying helplessly to one side, then raised the Ōdachi to rest it across his shoulders. “Hoh? You’re one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist?”
“It’s been ages since I’ve fought one of my own kind.”
The grin faded from Takanami’s face. He peered more closely at Ryōhei, and frowned. “Wait... Do I know you?”
“I guess ten years can be a long time, and you never were too good at names,” Ryōhei told him. “Senka.”
“I’ll be damned,” Takanami muttered, then shook his head. “Ryō-chan?”
Three pinpricks of light shot towards Takanami’s eye, and he barely managed to block the senbon with his Ōdachi. “Oi!” He sounded offended.
“I told you,” Ryōhei warned. “Don’t call me that.”
Takanami shrugged. “I see you haven’t changed,” he said. “I thought you were in prison.”
“Yeah, most of us were,” Ryōhei’s tone was cutting. “Aside from the one guy who turned and ran at the first sign of blood.” Takanami grimaced. “I heard he’s one of Hidetsugu’s bitches now. How’s job security as a glorified bodyguard?”
For the first time, Takanami’s expression soured. He glared at Ryōhei. “At least I’m not working for that four-eyed, two-faced bastard you call a Kage,” he shot back.
“Who says I’m working for him?” Ryōhei asked. Of course, the question was rhetorical, but it was enough to give Takanami pause—to throw him off guard.
“Fine, I get it,” he said, slowly. “So you’re here for revenge?”
Ryōhei sighed. “Not exactly. And as much as I’d like to fit it into my schedule, I don’t exactly have the time to deal with you right now,” he said. “You’re in my way, Senka.”
Takanami’s characteristic, idiotic grin returned. “Ha!” he barked a laugh, “I was just gonna say that you’re in my way!”
Ryōhei gave him an expression as blank as his hunter-nin’s mask. “That doesn’t make any sense you moron.”
But the conversation, in Takanami’s mind anyway, was already over. He ignored him and spat to the side, then steadied the impossibly long blade with both hands and sank into a wide crouch as he assumed his stance. Then, he charged again, swinging the Ōdachi in a small circular cut towards Ryōhei’s left shoulder.
While he had yet to reach for the Nuibari, Ryōhei wasn’t about to be pressured by Takanami’s forward attack. He angled himself so the blade missed his chest, spreading his hands to the sides as dozens of wires, moving far too quickly to be seen, shot out and encircled Takanami. Ryōhei somersaulted towards the Nuibari, and as he did so, he pulled the strings of the razor wire net tight behind him. Still driving forwards, Takanami would soon be ensnared within the deadly net, which glinted like an unravelled cocoon beneath the harbor lights. But suddenly there were three swordsmen as opposed to just one, and in a storm of minute strikes, they freed themselves from Ryōhei’s trap, snapping through the wire as if it were spider’s silk. Takanami and his two duplicates didn’t pause as they rushed towards him, dragging the Ōdachi behind them to hide its length. Ryōhei wrapped his fingers around the Nuibari, rethreading it with a line of razor wire as he sprang up out of harm’s way. A three-directional attack converged on the spot he had just been a moment before, and he launched the needle down from midair, towards the real Takanami. In response, Takanami planted his palm on the ground, flipped upside down, and gracefully kicked the blade off its course. The Nuibari pierced the side of a metal container with a loud ping. Ryōhei tugged at it as he descended, but was unable to pull it free. Fuck, he thought as Takanami Two and Three cut towards him, one from the left and the other from the right. Time seemed to slow as Ryōhei executed his own acrobatic maneuver, flattening out horizontally in midair and sandwiching himself between the two arcing swords. Then, he pushed down on the flat of the lower blade and threw himself back, at last sliding to a halt on the other end of the alley.
As he stood, a hairline crack spread along his mask where one of the clones’ blades had brushed across it, and it split in two, clattering with a hollow echo on the ground. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he kept the wire of the Nuibari taut, motionless and gleaming in the cloud of dust as the three figures stalked towards him. Blood squeezed out between his fingers: he assumed he had cut them in his haste to pull the Nuibari free of the container.
“Sorry Ryō, seems I’ve got a bit of an edge against you. That little needle you call a sword can’t do much against heavy-duty steel like this baby,” Takanami called out with a chuckle, patting the flat of the Ōdachi’s blade fondly.
Ryōhei risked a glance over his shoulder. The tower crane’s jib loomed above him. It was just across the narrow inlet between the peninsula and the dock, but so-far, their unseen enemy hadn’t tried to blow him up yet. Perhaps as long as he kept Takanami engaged, the sniper wouldn’t have a clear shot, and he could still reach the crane. If he could just...
Takanami now appeared behind him. “What do you think you’re staring at?” He swung towards him, and Ryōhei lunged forwards, keeping low to the ground. He formed a loop in the razor wire that caught both the charging shadow clones across the stomach, cutting all the way through them as he sprinted back towards the Nuibari. They vanished in two clouds of smoke, and Ryōhei leaped up, planting his feet on the side of the crate. With a grunt he at last freed the blade from the container, pushing off in the same motion and flipping back over Takanami, who had been following close behind him. The Nuibari bit down, cruelly, and slashed across Takanami’s bare shoulder. A line of red followed his sword as gravity pulled Ryōhei back down to land on his feet, but it had been a feint—Takanami was already turning, the momentum of his blade inevitable. There was another gash of red. Ryōhei stumbled back. The cut wasn’t serious: the blade having just grazed his skin, but his pride had been wounded.
“Hah! Now I’ll be able to track you no matter where you try to hide!” Takanami gloated. He sank into another wide-stance, extending his left hand and holding the blade up gently, parallel to the ground and the line of his shoulders. Ryōhei clicked his tongue in annoyance.
“Hey, Senka, I have a question for you,” he said.
Ryōhei jerked his thumb over his shoulder, gesturing towards the crane tower. “Is that one of your buddies?”
But he was interrupted by Wakasa’s voice on the earpiece. “Why aren’t you at the tower yet?” he asked. Sensing his distraction, Takanami ignored his question and attacked.
“I’m a little busy here,” Ryōhei said as he parried.
“I’m trying to draw his fire,” Wakasa explained, “I sent the kid off towards the south, and I want you to escort the bystanders to safety. Forget about the sniper, let me handle him.”
“Bystanders?” Every time he blocked one of Takanami’s strikes, needles of numbing shock ran up the length of the Nuibari and into his arm, and he was grateful that he wasn’t facing the incomparable weight of the Kubikiribōchō. Still, Takanami was beginning to irritate him, as he continued to pressure him back towards the wall of crates. “What bystanders?”
Ryōhei noticed that there hadn’t been an explosion for quite some time. He noticed this because, at that moment, there was a sharp crack in the atmosphere and the roar of flames. The ground buckled beneath the two swordsmen, the shockwave throwing them both to their hands and knees. He had been much closer to that detonation than any of the others, and was suddenly aware of the impossibility of the angle: there should have been no way for the sniper to have made that shot. Ryōhei scrambled to his feet just as the Ōdachi crashed down towards his head, barely managing to block it in time with the thin blade of the Nuibari.
“Hey, Nigauri,” he said over the radio. “You there?”
There was no response.
“Quit the chatter already,” Takanami demanded. “Or you might lose your tongue.”
“Oh please,” he scoffed at the empty threat, his back now pressed against the container behind him. Takanami swung down, he ducked to the side, and the Ōdachi lodged itself into the steel up to the hilt. Ryōhei ran up the side of the stacked containers, a bit surprised that Takanami had fallen for such an obvious ruse.
“Hey, get back here!” he heard Takanami’s voice below him.
Ryōhei crouched on the surface of the crate. He was in full, unobstructed view of the crane tower, and saw a glint of metal in the flash of the red signal light. There you are, he told them. Come at me, you bastard.
Ryōhei could no longer sense his brother’s chakra signature, but he knew that it would have been overly optimistic to expect an explosion to have done him in. Knowing Wakasa, he had probably used it as cover to get closer to the tower, hiding his presence to throw off the sniper.
A red dot appeared in the center of Ryōhei’s chest, and he stood with a smile, hoping that he was making eye-contact with his unseen adversary. Then, he turned and sprinted away, weaving from side to side to draw their attention.
But the explosion never came. Instead, Takanami shimmered into view in front of him.
“Trying to get yourself killed?” he asked, with a nod in the tower’s direction.
“Damn it Senka, out of my way!”
Biting Back Breath
Wakasa had vanished in the wake of the explosion. Just as Ryōhei had surmised, he had used the smoke from the blast to disperse his chakra signature, weaving his presence within the cloud of dust. He hadn’t been sure if the tactic would be effective or not, but he managed to reach the base of the crane tower without another explosion, apparently unnoticed. Silent and invisible, he scaled the tower and swung up onto the counter jib of the crane, balancing on the lattice. Then, he froze.
His adversary was a dark shape that crouched about twenty meters out from the operator’s cab. Fifty meters below, the ocean crashed against the concrete slabs that marked the outline of the peninsula; its roar nothing but a distant murmur. Wakasa now understood why the sniper had only fired sporadically: while a cutting wind threatened to throw him off the tower, it did not penetrate the container alleys of the shipping port, and patches of fog drifted between them, preventing a clear shot.
Wakasa crept along the top rung of the jib, slowly edging closer until he was looking over the hooded figure’s shoulder. He followed the sniper’s line of sight, who was observing distant flashes of glinting steel. Two shadowy figures darted across the top of the crate towers, and a thin red line of light glinted in the sky, connecting the sniper to his target. With a shock, Wakasa realized he was aiming at Ryōhei. Not the hell on my watch, he told him as he folded his hands to form a seal.
Perhaps the sniper sensed a change as Wakasa knit his chakra together; or maybe something else had tipped him off to the hunter-nin’s presence. Either way, he whirled around, fixing Wakasa with a glowing red gaze. Somehow, he knew that despite his cover, the sniper was staring right at him.
Everything happened at light speed after that.
The sniper extended a hand towards him, almost mechanically, and a glowing circle of energy appeared in the center of his palm. The orb of light turned crimson orange, spiralling into a large mass between them.
Wakasa released the jutsu, and a concentrated torrent of water stabbed through the rotating sphere of flames. It blasted into the sniper before the heat could vaporize it, redirecting the force of the explosion into a vertical ring around them. Yet its concussive force knocked him backwards. He lost his breath and his footing at the same time, falling from the jib.
Plummeting towards the concrete-lined peninsula below, Wakasa formed a strand of water and latched onto the tower of the crane. The sudden change in direction nearly jerked his shoulder from its socket, and it tugged at the wound in his lower ribs. He gasped, then grit his teeth against the pain and fixed his feet to the side of the tower. Something shrieked above him, and the jib of the crane, now blackened and dented after bearing the full brunt of the explosion, folded over with a groan. Pulled down by gravity, it swung towards the center tower, and him.
Wakasa slipped between the trusses and let go. The broken section of the jib crashed into the side of the tower, metal grating against metal. Sparks showered down on top of him as he allowed himself to fall, and the entire crane shuddered under the impact. Wakasa zig-zagged within the tower shaft to slow his descent.
Nothing, however, could have prepared him for the sniper’s sudden appearance, who swung between the rungs and planted both steel-soled shoes in the center of his chest.
The Kubikiribōchō on his back slammed into the iron bars on the other side of the tower cage with a clang, leaving a dent in the trusses. Then the sniper was on him, long limbs blurring as he snapped his fists towards his face. Wakasa blocked the first strike, then ducked under the second swing. Gripping the rungs behind him, he returned the sniper’s own double-barrelled kick, which sent his attacker flying towards the opposite side of the tower. Wakasa’s forearm stung where he had blocked the punch, and his kick hadn’t done much damage, having thudded into a dense, unyielding center of mass.
“Are you made of metal?” he asked wryly. His adversary perched easily between the trusses and peered down at him, silently. His eyes—which Wakasa realized were actually lenses—dilated with a whirr, and Wakasa saw himself reflected in the blood-red tinted glass.
He launched two kunai towards them, aiming for what he assumed was a weak point before dropping to the platform below them. Like a vulture, the sniper swooped down, the kunai glancing harmlessly off his gleaming metal skull. He extended the palm of his hand, once more intending to obliterate him with a beam of red, explosive light.
But Wakasa, having expected this, raised his clasped hands, pointing his index fingers up towards his adversary. This was not the infamous One Thousand Years of Death technique, but rather a high-powered bead of water which Wakasa released from his fingertips. It shot up, piercing the orb of light in the palm of the sniper’s hand and neutralizing the detonation before it could occur. Seemingly impervious to the wound, the sniper blurred down, catching Wakasa’s mask by the face. The sudden weight crashed down like a meteor, throwing Wakasa to his stomach. He caught himself on the palms of his hands and spun to sweep the sniper’s legs out from under him, using the momentum to throw himself back onto his feet.
The sniper took a few steps back, but didn’t fall, and Wakasa drove a kunai towards his throat. But the sniper had turned his fumble into a feint. He threw an undercut which rocketed into Wakasa’s stomach, pushing him back. Wakasa buckled over, but then twisted abruptly and caught the sniper under the jaw with the heel of his left hand. The hit contacted, solidly. The sniper didn’t budge.
“Damn it,” Wakasa muttered, panting.
The blow he had taken to his stomach wasn’t exactly helping the puncture wound beneath his ribs, and he wondered if it had pushed the shrapnel in deeper. He knew he had to incapacitate the sniper quickly, but there was no way he could draw the Kubikiribōchō in such a tight space. He began to strategize, glancing in Ryōhei’s direction to see if he was still there.
The skull-faced man rushed him, arms behind his back, and Wakasa kneaded his hands together, unwilling to engage him with taijutsu again. But then, the sniper disappeared—and unlike the Body Flicker Technique, Wakasa couldn’t follow his movement.
The sniper twisted the arm holding the kunai, pinning it behind him. With his other hand he buried his fingers deep into Wakasa’s injured side. Wakasa cried out, involuntarily. The grip tightened. He struggled to break free, pounding the sniper’s face with his elbow. Once, twice... Leaning forwards against the blinding pain, Wakasa kicked out, hard enough to knock the sniper’s shin back, who finally released him.
As Wakasa stumbled forwards, he swung the Kubikiribōchō behind him, turning in a full circle. The blade cut across the trusses, but the sniper bent backwards, allowing it to whistle harmlessly above his chest. Wakasa fell back against the side of the tower’s shaft, holding the Kubikiribōchō steady with one hand and pressing the other to his side. He narrowed his eyes.
“I suppose I should have expected you to fight dirty,” he said. “Sniper-san.”
The sniper tilted his head to one side, almost amused. He raised his hand to examine his disabled palm, flexing his fingers, calculating his options.
“You’re saying I fight dirty too?” Wakasa asked, speaking for his silent opponent. “I suppose you’d be right. Force of habit,” he admitted, stalling. Below them, the massive cargo ship from Harō slipped out of port, moving at a glacial pace. Wakasa monitored it from the corner of his eye, but kept his attention fixed on his adversary. “If I could take a stab at why you’re here,” he continued, “It was to monitor whatever little deal Harōgakure and your boss have struck up.” He was probing now, testing for weak points in the sniper’s wordless armor. “But why did they need someone of your caliber, I wonder?” The sniper said nothing, but he flicked his wrist out to the side. A black rod appeared in his hand. Wakasa readied himself, drawing on his deepest reserve of strength.
“There’s one thing you should know,” he said off-handedly, as if it were an aside. But then he became deadly serious, his voice low with cold anger. “I’m not going to hold back. You killed my comrade, and I won’t forgive you.”
It wasn’t a bluff, it was a threat.
Wakasa lunged with the Kubikiribōchō, criss-crossing a series of restrained slashes, which the sniper was forced to block with the metal rod. However, it had been a diversion, as Wakasa was unable to utilize the full length of the massive blade within the narrow crane shaft. The real attack came when he reversed his grip on the handle, then swept the Kubikiribōchō up to bifurcate the sniper along his median line. The sniper somersaulted, pushing off from the platform with his hands and throwing himself back through the trusses to escape. Wakasa followed, driving the tip of the sword forward, relentlessly. Now sideways on the exterior of the crane tower, he unleashed the Kubikiribōchō in a wide arc above him. A crimson blade of chakra shadowed the blade, bearing down on the sniper who, caught in midair, was unable to avoid the inevitable strike.
But the Kubikiribōchō phased through the air where the sniper had been a fraction of a second earlier—he had disappeared.
Wakasa froze, listening intently as he waited for the sniper to reemerge. But as the seconds slipped past, his opponent failed to make an appearance. Wakasa frowned as sudden realization dawned on him.
He sprinted down along the crane tower to reach the ground. “Kurotoge, what’s your position,” he said over the radio as he ran, hard, towards the last place he had seen the boy.
“Don’t worry, I see him,” Ryōhei responded.
In one smooth motion, Wakasa leaped from the ground to the top of the steel crate towers. He wasn’t a Sensor like his brother, and needed the vantage point to locate the others. He spotted movement along one of the corridors, but saw that it was his brother and Takanami, who was hard on Ryōhei’s tail. Wakasa ran beside them, a dark shadow that followed above them, unnoticed. He edged in front of Takanami, just slightly, then dropped down just as the tattooed swordsman swung his Ōdachi towards the back of Ryōhei’s neck. The katana clashed against the side of the Kubikiribōchō, and Takanami jumped back in surprise.
“Go!” Wakasa shouted at Ryōhei, who hesitated before continuing on his headlong dash towards the other side of the harbor. Wakasa knew his brother had a better chance at locating the boy than he did, but his unease grew at the back of his mind. Please reach him in time, he willed silently.
“I’ll be your opponent,” he said as he faced Takanami, straightening to his full height.
Takanami’s eyes widened as he quickly realized that the advantage he had had against the Nuibari had been reversed: his Ōdachi wasn’t a good match against the wide cleaver sword, and he knew it. “Well shit,” he muttered.
When the hunter-nin captain had told Kokutō to run, he had hesitated after the second impact of the explosion, the fear had settled in. But then, regaining his composure, with the waning energy from his bond with the beast, Kokutō pushed forward. He couldn’t abandon Nori, and doubted that she had left the port. She had been too determined for that. So, tapping into the natural currents of energy, he managed to isolate each signature across the port, narrowing down to the familiarity of Tomo’s and a second presence: Nori. At last, he locked onto her exact location.
He found her wedged between a narrow sliver between a line of metal drums and a brick wall, her arms wrapped around her knees as she hid. She trembled with fright—the noise and shockwaves of the explosions having paralyzed her. But when she looked up at him, her face lit up. “Nii-san!” she exclaimed, and she jumped to wrap her arms around him. Tomo emerged from the collar of Nori’s jacket and jumped onto his shoulder, wiggling his nose. He was happy that Kokutō had returned, although he didn’t show it.
“Nori-chan!” Kokutō lowered himself to return her embrace. Then, he gently created distance between them, his hands holding her face between them. He eyed for any sort of bruises or injuries, but found none there. He gave her his cheeky smile, the usual warmth not there. “Are you okay... Nori-chan!? Any injuries?”
She shook her head. “Just s-scared,” she told him.
“W-We’re going,” he said hesitantly.
“But what about my brother?” she asked, innocently. Yet there was doubt in her voice, as even she was starting to grasp the impossibility of their situation. Kokutō shook his head. “We’ll find him, I promise, but right now we need to go.” He pulled her along, reluctantly.
But as they turned to leave, a dark shape emerged in front of them, crouching low to the ground. The wind pulled at the corners of his ragged cloak, and red eyes blazed as he moved, swiftly. Before Kokutō could react he darted towards them...
And suddenly Nori’s hand was wrenched from his grasp.
It was the second time it had happened that night, but this time, the kidnapper didn’t hesitate to attack, hurling a metal rod towards Kokutō’s chest to impale him.
The sniper vanished like a wisp of smoke, taking Nori with him.
Kokutō was still processing what had just happened as he blocked the projectile. The metal rod clanged onto the concrete, but there was no sign of Nori or the attacker. It had all happened so fast...
The shock hit him harder than the blast from the explosion, his eyes widened in horror. Nori’s hand that had reached out to him had slipped through his fingers, yet, again. And Kokutō let out a silent cry, wanting to scream out Nori’s name, futilely hoping that it had just been his imagination, and she was there hiding behind the metal drums, laughing at him. It wasn’t.
All at once, the last of his strength was sapped from his body, and he crumbled to the ground. “N-Nori-chan!” He managed to mumble under his breath. White light was swimming around his head as someone trained the harbor floodlights on his location. The shrill sound of distant search whistles grew closer as the dockworkers began to converge on him from all sides. Almost delirious, he tried to push himself back on his feet with his hands, failing, every attempt making his limbs feel heavier. He stumbled in circles, like a bird with a torn wing.
Two dark figures ran towards him. Hunter-nin. The first, who had lost his mask, reached his side and helped him to his feet. He was saying something, practically yelling in his ear. Kokutō shook his head. Then, the captain from earlier joined them, the familiar patterns of his mask filling Kokutō’s vision. “Hang in there kid,” his voice echoed, much too far away.
Kokutō slipped into darkness.