Bringing Back the Living

by Nezuko, Prince of Rats

This is a work of derivative fiction based on the manga "Naruto" by Kishimoto Masashi. The characters and the world in which they live are the property of Kishimoto-sensei.

AN: Rewritten to conform to Fallen Leaves canon. Takes place in early March, one year and five months after Kyuubi's attack.

The orders were clear and unambiguous; it was a retrieval mission--three ANBU were missing on a mission in Earth Country: presumed captured, feared dead. Shiomori Hiroko, ANBU Hunter, volunteered for the retrieval squad because she'd known the the agents who were missing: Kamiyama Kobo, Hoashi Seijuro, and Shiranui Genma. She knew Kobo best, a quiet, competent leader with nearly three years' service in ANBU and uncanny skills with explosives. She and Kobo had entered ANBU in the same rookie group, and had trained together, sparred together, taken missions together. Slept together. He was her friend as well as her lover, and reason enough, all by himself, for Hiroko to have volunteered.

The other two she knew less well. Hoashi Seijuro was a rookie she'd barely interacted with. But Kobo had said good things about the kid--had hand-picked him for the mission. He was young and inexperienced, but the ANBU they served in was full of the young and inexperienced. Just sixteen months ago the Fox had claimed far too many of the few seasoned veterans that the Third War had spared. For ninja like Seijuro, the four months' experience he'd gained since joining ANBU was enough. It had to be.

Then there was Shiranui Genma: a good looking young man, who had gained a reputation in his time in ANBU for his skills as both an Eros operative and an assassin. He was likable at first blush, but there was something about him that hinted at darker, grimmer depths. She had to admit there was something compelling about him, but there was something even stronger that warned her: stay away. Kobo, though, had liked Genma. Liked him enough to request him repeatedly as a mission partner, to socialize with him outside of missions.

Now, three weeks after Kobo and his team had failed to report back from their mission, after the sabotage of an Iwagakure power plant that had been the object of that mission had failed to occur, Hiroko was setting out in the company of three other Hunters and two medics to try to find Kobo and his team. At the briefing, none of them said the one thing they all feared: three weeks missing was probably three weeks dead.

Imawara Mizuno was squad leader for this mission. He carried more years and experience in ANBU than any but the director himself, and had the scars and prematurely greying temples to prove it. Hiroko had worked with him before, and she trusted his experience, his steely command. If they were going to infiltrate an Iwagakure prison, rescue Kobo and his team, and come out of it alive, she couldn't think of a ninja she'd rather have in charge.

Rounding out their squad were Nakamura Kenji, a taijutsu expert who often partnered with Mizuno, and Tatami Issau, a younger agent with a reputation for his tracking skills. It was an experienced team. A good team. With Hiroko as genjutsu specialist, they had a solid balance of expertise. And there were two medics going with them, Nobuko and Otoya. Two medics, which implied either an optimism that there would be living agents to recover and treat, or a pessimism that this team, as well, would suffer casualties.

Intellect said there was little chance Kobo and the others were still alive, but Hiroko couldn't let go of her hope, however irrational, that they would find her lover safe. It sustained her for three days, a fragile thing nurtured more by lack of findings than any real evidence, as they crossed Fire Country and Waterfall Country, and neared the border with Earth Country.

Hope died when Mizuno found the site where Kobo's team had made their last stand. Even weeks after the battle, and despite February sleet and early March rains, the ground still smelled of blood, and the marks of jutsu and shuriken still showed: charred, raw, wounds on bark and stone. Mizuno was the one who found Kobo's dog tags, too, blood-smeared and half-buried in dried mud, along with a fragment of neck bone and clinging shreds of muscle and torn larynx. He laid a hand on Hiroko's shoulder and handed her the tags, and waited while she wept.

Kenji was the one who found the signs that at least one of the missing ANBU had been taken alive.

With their tracker Issau taking the lead, for two days they followed the barely-there trail the passing Iwa ninja had left, and found enough signs to know for certain that three weeks ago, when Seijuro and Genma had passed this way in the hands of their captors, they'd been alive. The first was a torn, water-damaged photograph, cast away among leaf-litter, of a beautiful young woman standing in front of a carved sandstone mountain with four stone faces that stared into eternity. How much must it have taken for Seijuro to part with the one memento he carried of home, of his sweetheart's smiling face?

Deeper in enemy territory, they found two tiny drops of dull grey, once-molten iron pooled in the shape of spiral-marked leaves. Genma was a known user of metal jutsu, one of only a handful in Konoha with that blend of fire and earth elements as his raw chakra nature. How much must it have cost him to surreptitiously work that jutsu, draw elemental iron out of his captors' weapons, perhaps out of his own blood, and leave that little bit of himself for his trackers to find?

How much faith must both ANBU have had, to bother leaving signs for their comrades to find at all?

By the time Hiroko and her team discovered the hidden Iwagakure prison in the rocks, nearly four weeks had passed since the day they estimated the attack must have occurred. It seemed impossible that Genma and Seijuro could still be living, but there was that chance, that tantalizing chance. The Iwa ninja had taken prisoners rather than leaving Leaf ninja corpses. And Genma and Seijuro were ANBU. They, like Mizuno and Kenji and Issau, like Hiroko herself, would not give up so easily.

Mizuno and the other Hunters planned their assault on the prison meticulously, observing the patterns of the Iwa ninja who went in and out, locating ventilation ducts and electricity feeds and hidden entrances and exits. Nobuko and Otoya, the medics, set up well-shielded camp a safe distance from the prison, and hoped, for a change, that there would be work for them to do on this mission. Not, they hoped, on their own team, but maybe, if they were very lucky, the agents they'd come for would still be alive.

After three days of observation, of planting traps and setting up contingency plans and escape routes, Mizuno made the call: it was time to move in. They slunk cautiously through the building, heavily cloaked in Hiroko's most secure genjutsu, seeking any sign of their missing comrades. Hiroko was the one who found it. She picked up a tingling sense of familiar chakra, erratic and broken, but identifiable, from deep within the building, and she followed it to what was obviously an interrogation room. To the sounds of anguished, raw-throated screaming and blows of something heavy landing on something wet coming from behind a sealed door.

Three Stone ninja lay dead outside that room before they ever knew the Konoha team had arrived.

Inside the room, for just a moment, as Hiroko's mind adjusted to the sight in front of her, she felt as if she were watching a movie, not something real. Four Iwa ninja in strange, featureless masks even eerier than the ANBU masks she and her comrades wore, stood in the small chamber. The air reeked of blood and vomit, sweat and excrement and fear. Seijuro lay twisted on the ground, blood still pouring from a gaping wound across his belly, along with his liver, rich and purple, and twisted loops of pink intestine. A boy barely in his teens was backed up against the wall, screaming in a voice that sounded like it came from the pit of hell. And Genma, gaunt and starved-looking, was slumped over with his wrists in manacles securing him to a metal desk. As Hiroko watched, one of the Stone ninja, a woman, lifted a mallet that looked more like a stage prop than an implement of torture, and brought it down in a swift arc to crush what could barely be recognized anymore as one of Genma's hands.

Genma jerked and made a sound that would never, no matter how long she lived, leave Hiroko's nightmares. Mizuno's hand blurred in motion, and the woman with the mallet looked up, gasped, and fell to the gore-covered floor with two thick, poison-coated senbon protruding from the throat. Before the other Iwa ninja could react, Hiroko and her comrades leapt in with their short swords swinging, their fingers flying. Hiroko felt her blade slide through cloth and flesh; catch on and then sever bone. The Stone ninja she'd targeted fell with a hissing sound as his last breath burbled from his cleaved chest. Kenji brought another Iwa ninja down with a chakra-charged kick that shattered the enemy's mask, crushed his larynx, and tore his jaw from his face. Issau felled the fourth from behind, wrapping invisible jutsu fingers around the man's heart. The screaming boy fell into shocked silence. Echoing in the corpse-filled space, the ragged gasping of the ANBU agent they'd come to rescue was suddenly the loudest sound Hiroko had ever heard.

She was ANBU, she told herself, taking a shallow breath. She was accustomed to sights and sounds of unimaginable horror. But this scene, these sounds, this much raw suffering... With the danger that they'd be attacked passed, at least for the moment, she shrank back against the wall, afraid to approach the broken ANBU who shouldn't be alive, or the body of his comrade she'd so hoped still would be.

Mizuno and Kenji, though, were already moving in. The teenager they'd found in the room was on the floor, bent over and shaking, striking the unmasked face of the the dead Iwa interrogator again and again. Genma groaned and struggled to sit up. He hissed something to Kenji, who turned and struck the boy sharply on the back of the neck. The boy fell, limp and senseless. Then Kenji motioned to her and Hiroko moved, as if in a trance, to take charge of the boy.

"He's Konoha," Kenji said, and when Hiroko looked at him in a daze, Genma managed to get enough of a voice together to rasp, "Dammit, he's one of ours. A genin." That sharp, commanding voice from a man who looked half-corpse made Hiroko jump; Mizuno put a hand on her shoulder. "You and Issau take the kid, Kenji and I will take Shiranui," he told her.

She nodded, still holding the boy. "Together, or in two groups?" she asked shakily, pulling herself together a little.

"Together," Mizuno said. "Wait until we have Shiranui free."

The man they were there to rescue made an unintelligible sound, and Mizuno turned back to him."Just hang in there, son," Mizuno said, in a voice as calm as the scene was chaotic. He held Genma's shoulders in something not quite an embrace, not quite a restraint, while Kenji worked to disassemble the fetters that held Genma's wrists. When the manacles popped open, jarring Genma's ruined hands, Genma's already pale face bleached white, and he shook with sounds that were far too broken to be called screams.

"How in the hell are we supposed to move him without making this worse?" Kenji asked.

Genma's voice had dropped to a stuttering whine, interspersed with breaths that clearly weren't getting him enough air, but while Hiroko watched with wide eyes, the other agent lifted his own, shattered hands and pulled them in towards his body.

"Alright, we have one objective," Mizuno said, still with his hands clasped around Genma's shoulders. "We are getting these two shinobi and ourselves out of here with no more injuries than have already been sustained." He looked at Kenji and nodded, and while the other man got in position by the door, Mizuno sent a burst of chakra through the pressure points in Genma's neck, knocking him unconscious.

"Get moving, we don't have much time," Mizuno said, and lifted Genma's unresisting body as carefully as he could. Hiroko hoisted the knocked-out genin over her shoulder, and tried not to think about how close to the surface of his skin his bones felt. How terribly light he was.

Getting out proved to be easier than getting in had been. They weren't worrying about being discovered so much as being chased, now, so Kenji and Issau used large-scale douton jutsu and exploding tags to collapse and block whole sections of the prison behind them as they fled. Hiroko didn't bother with a genjutsu to hide them, she just raced along the retreat path they'd mapped out, following Mizuno and the wreck of a man he bore on his shoulders.

It was hours later, after they were well away, and the medics had taken charge of the care of Genma and the Konoha boy, that Hiroko finally felt it all catch up to her. She fell to her knees, choking and crying until she was sick to her stomach. When she closed her eyes, all she could see were Genma's bloody, mangled hands, and Seijuro's spilled viscera, his vacant, unseeing eyes. Even in silence, she kept hearing Genma's broken screams.

What she couldn't see, even in memory, was Kobo's face. Kobo's smile. What she could barely remember, was the tenor of Kobo's rich, laughing voice. His quiet "I love you."

The mission, she knew, had been a success. A partial success. One agent retrieved, tortured but not broken. The steel in Genma's golden brown eyes had made that more than clear. And an unlooked for genin had been rescued.

But Seijuro was buried in the rubble of that Iwa prison, and all that remained of Kobo was a pair of stained dogtags and a name to be carved into the Heroes' Stone.

It wasn't enough.