Notes: Fifth Life of the Snakes and Ladders series. Major AU.

Story theme – Corynorhinus, Batman Begins OST

Disclaimer: Not mine.

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Subjects not of the Lower Levels must be immediately dispatched.

- Regulations of the Lower Levels, Article 1

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She knew several very obvious indicators of someone from the Upper Levels, the first being that they wore clothing that exposed too much skin. One couldn't survive in chemical vapor for long without covering up – thin mesh around the neck and abdomen, layers of cheap seda along the arms, torso, and thighs, protective pants, high boots, gloves. A few seconds without a glove – sometimes she needed to check the casing on the barrel of her gun – wouldn't kill you, but over time, exposure to the toxic air would corrode the skin.

As for the face…well, they could only slather on the chemical screen and hope it would neutralize most of the toxicity. Some of it still hit the skin, of course…it was why you only needed to look around a roomful of people to see who went out the most; which of them were veterans.

She wasn't a veteran. She still had smooth skin. Her nails hadn't rotted off yet and were sawdust grey, brittle under the chipping, protective black polish. She also had only three kills to her name – two of them from the Mist crew and one from a gang so small that it had no recognizable ensign on the armband.

The second indicator of a person's origin was his or her face. People of the Upper Levels had elegant, cold, even features that bespoke of good breeding, clean air, and sunlight. Their skin had a healthy glow. Lower-Levels people protected their faces with screen, except when they were in a sealed complex, a crew-home. She had only cheap, reproduced pictures by which to judge physical beauty, but one thing she could stake her bio-shot on: none of the people in her crew looked conventionally beautiful. She knew her own face too well – bland, thickly slathered with screen, and pale – to believe it had any redeeming feature other than the green alertness of its eyes.

But he was beautiful.

Beautiful in a way that she could barely understand, like a picture come to life (once, Tsunade said, there had existed pictures that moved) and now in reach. She could touch it but not really feel it because of the fiber gloves. His skin looked like it had once held warmth – heat lost to the hostile atmosphere and sucked into the cold, cold particles. He had fine black hair, although she could already tell that it was an unruly sort of hair, sticking up in the back, a little like someone had run a volt through it. His eyes were closed. He wore a sleek black jacket and pants and boots with open cuffs. Too much skin. How long had he lain there?

She stood behind a corner, having been trained for long enough not to feel silly for hiding from an apparently prone body on the ground. This man – this boy (he looked hardly older than her, or was that just because the golden air above kept his appearance younger than he was?) – was not of the Lower Levels. Was someone missing him? He must have lain there for a while. Since he had not been born in this ugly place, he must not have had the bio-shot which all Lower-Levels people had as babies, to protect them from the worst ambient poisons.

So he was probably dying now.

She crept closer, gun leveled at his torso. He didn't stir.

And then she lowered her gun and broke the rules that kept them all alive.

Her right hand pulled off her left glove. Her fingers touched his skin. Strange calluses on his palm, from wielding, maybe, unfamiliar weapons, nearly distracted her. She moved on, feeling higher on his wrist for a pulse. It throbbed faintly through the silken skin. Unwilling to release her gun, she hunted for the emergency syringes in her pouch one-handed. The boy continued to just lie there as she crouched by his head. The needle sank into his neck, guided by her expert fingers.

He was already in an out-of-the-way alley, and in any case, she couldn't take him back with her. So this was all she could do for him. He would probably still die in two more hours, and yet she propped him up against a cleaner wall. A rusting, exposed length of pipe threatened to crash onto both their heads, but at least it didn't drip. Having moved him, she eased off his jacket and wrapped him in it so that most of his bare skin was covered. If her naked fingers hesitated over his face, well – who cared? She'd never see him again.

Live, she thought then, and thought again that night as she returned to the Home. Outside, the toxic rain ran off the edge of the shallow dome in thin, broken sheets.

The next time she went on a reconnaissance mission, he was gone.

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Five, six, seven, eight.

"Watch out for that one," Kiba said as he reloaded. "Far right, behind Harper's Ninth."

"I see it," said Sakura. She didn't know this street like Kiba did – she patrolled the Sixth, most days – but the last one was an easy target. After the subject went down with a faint cry, Sakura and Kiba surged forward to loot, Hinata staying hidden to guard.

"Ten shots, a booster, and a spare round on this one," called Sakura. She turned the dead man's pouch inside-out but nothing else came out. Kiba whistled.

"I thought our crew was the strongest in this yard. If these guys are rich we might need to mark them…"

"I don't think so." Sakura moved on to another body as Kiba stripped off a decent coat from his. "They might have a new supplier. We should check –" She glanced at the armband – "Sand's supply lines or see if their territory shifted."

"And also if we can get some of this ammo!" Kiba studied a cartridge, turning it over in his hands before pocketing it. "Let's go."

They started down the road, trusting Hinata to follow. Sakura had to admire her – Hinata was soundless, invisible, perceptive; the perfect back-up but the worst person to play Second on any mission.

Tsunade received their report with displeasure. "You're not the first group to suspect the other crews of getting new suppliers." She sighed as she shuffled through the mess of notes and accounts on her large desk. "It's not just Sand. We're one of the few crews who haven't gotten new toys, and I'm sure we'll hear the offer soon."

"What's going on?" Kiba demanded. Sakura wished he'd been more polite; the woman who headed the Leaf had a quick temper on the best days. Luckily, Tsunade did not rise to the unintentional bait.

"Who do you think has the capital to supply all this to several crews?"

Kiba frowned.

"Cloud?" suggested Sakura. The crews to the north were uncharted, rumored to be powerful and wealthy.

"Rain?"

"Thunder?"

"No!" snapped Tsunade. "Think."

After a beat, Sakura guessed correctly: "The Upper Levels."

"Why?"

She opened her mouth and hesitated.

"When you throw a piece of meat to two starving rats in a cage, what happens?"

Kiba responded at once. "They fight each other to the death for it."

"That's right." The boss of the Leaf went around the desk and leaned against its front, crossing her strong arms. "Here, it's a little different, but the same basic concept applies. We get better weapons, but it's a foregone conclusion that we'll use it on each other before we even think of aiming at our suppliers. Doesn't it remind you of something?" When both Sakura and Kiba stared blankly, Tsunade slapped an impatient hand on the desk. "I keep forgetting. You youngsters weren't alive then. You only caught the tail-end of it and a shitload of rumors. Well, I'm telling you now. The question was never why, just why now. In the coming months we'll go off regular missions and I'll be sending more and more of you on reconnaissance. We have to find out when they first began to approach the crews with offers, or else we'll never know the answer. We cannot – "

Sakura winced as Tsunade struck the desk with her fist.

"– go into this as ignorant as we were in the first Extermination Wars."

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