Her arms shut around him. Tears splashed across her cheeks, but she didn't cry.
"Do you think mom would want you to leave her little granddaughter alone?"
She held him tighter, if that were possible.
"Pantsu...you don't have to make these decisions on your own. You won't raise Hanae on your own. You have me. You have us. This is what family is supposed to be here for, to help you carry all of your burdens when you feel like you can't. You need to try, Pantsu. A girl needs her father...I know, believe me, I know. And maybe you don't know what it means to be a father yet, but Chiaki doesn't know what it means to be a mother either. I don't know what it means to be an aunt. But we can figure it out. Together. You, Chiaki, me, Mox, grandma, dad...she'll have so much love."
Kohana slackened her vice-grip on her brother, their eyes meeting.
"I know cause...when I think about Hanae, even now, I feel so happy. And I haven't even met her yet."
She smiled and sobbed at the same time.
"So try. Try your hardest. Even if you don't love Chiaki, you have to be there for Hanae. Otherwise she'll always wonder."
The ground shook. A kunai sprung into Kohana's hand, and she took off immediately.
"Get Chiaki into the sled! I'll be right back!"
- - -
Ichigo vaulted to the top of the defense wall. He couldn't see the reinforcement team just yet, but he didn't expect to. There were plenty of dunes between the signal flare and BLOSSOM, and if they were moving by protocol they'd stay in the crevices of those dunes until they arrived. Out of sight. Safe.
On the horizon, red light flashed across gathering clouds.
He turned to the west. Afternoon was rapidly turning into evening, and they'd be out of light soon. All the better, he supposed. Darkness would help both teams escape. Still, there was something unnerving about the darkness in the desert. Something he had never quite grown accustomed to.
Maybe it was the loneliness. He didn't like being alone. Never did. Always had to be around people, always had to find someone to talk to, always had trouble to find. He wasn't sure why that was. Never thought about it. Didn't like to think about it.
There were still moments when he missed Kimi and Taro.
Moments where he missed the lie, the simplicity of his life back then. It would never come back, and he supposed he was better off for it.
Didn't feel like it, at times.
He rubbed his eyes. Now wasn't the time. He had to be ready to get the pilots to the airships and get all of these people the hell out of there.
The ground shook.
He spun around. Splitting up the center of the camp was a long shaft of earth, spearing diagonally for twenty feet. Two more shot up in other portions of the camp, then simultaneously, burst at their ends. Enemies fell from the debris, moving swiftly into the camp.
Ichigo vaulted off the defense wall and onto the back of the shaft. His hands folded into signs as he approached the end of the shaft. As he expected, another enemy was emerging from the opening.
The shafts were tunnels.
Fire Release: Great Fireball
Ichigo was upside down, flipping over the edge of the shaft to point himself at the opening. He flooded the entryway with flame for a split second, halting it to right himself and land onto the ground. He snapped out a kunai and spun to face the tunnel, waiting for his flaming prey to emerge.
Ichigo spun, only to watch one of the first attackers spasm his arms and lose his footing, his own cloak yanking against him. Ichigo's kunai split open his throat before he hit the ground.
Flame-red hair swept past him, shuriken spinning from her form. Ichigo turned again, watching one of the three throwing blades impact the charred attacker in the arm. He fell to the ground, overwhelmed with the combined pain.
Kohana's back pressed to Ichigo's, forming a basic defense.
"We have to find the Commander!"
"No, the reinforcement team is almost here, we just need to hold these guys off!"
"We can't afford to do that, we need to go now! The injured, the-"
The earth shaft in front of them shifted. Not upward, not outward, but down. It churned and groaned, and after a moment, condensed into a solid spike, crushing the hollow pathway. Then it squashed itself back into the ground, as if remembering its place beneath the sand.
"They made it."
A crouched figure on the defense wall was draped in a cloak, seeming to be made of a hundred different shades of brown that melded into each other. The new camo gear Ichigo's team had been assigned. The figure motioned with one hand over his ear and five more appeared. They sprung over the wall and swept into the camp, the lead figure reaching Ichigo and Kohana within a second.
"Sorry for the delay. Got held up."
"Where's everyone else?"
"Pilots are already on their way to the airship. What you see is the rest of what you get, save for the second-in-command, she's right behind us. Captain stayed behind, trying to hold them off a little longer with Ajite and Watari. Damn suicide mission if you ask me. Better clean up the rest of these pillars, wait here her."
He rushed off as quickly as he arrived, handsigns flipping, his chakra already working on the next earth pillar. Ichigo turned to Kohana.
"We better get moving. I'll wait here, you head back to the airship. I...I'm not sure if there's space, so-"
"I'm staying with the ground force. We have a pregnant girl that needs transporting."
"Right. Good luck, then."
She smiled. It was a beautiful smile; Kohana was a beautiful girl and Ichigo hadn't missed that. He was frozen by that smile, stunned, he supposed. And he wondered if he hadn't been stunned if something would have been different.
He moved before he understood what he was doing. The attacker had burst out from the ground, the dust and sand parting for him under the influence of his earth technique. His blade was too long for a kunai, too short to be called a sword, but long and narrow and wicked nonetheless. It speared at Kohana, aiming to puncture her side.
Ichigo was faster. But not fast enough.
Kohana stumbled to the side and Ichigo's left side caught the blade instead. He swiped down with his kunai at the attacker's weapon arm, hoping to open up his wrist before he retracted it, but he was too quick. Before Ichigo's swipe was complete, the attacker had already pistoned his weapon from Ichigo's left side and plunged it back into his right.
He felt cold. The desert drank his blood, the pain overrode his control, and his fingers turned to mush, letting the kunai slip from his hands. Idly he put his hands together, trying to remember a handseal, any handseal at all.
A third strike. This one hit him in the shoulder, his flak vest cushioning him from instant death like it had the first two strikes, but not enough to prevent more blood from gushing out of him. He stumbled back. The world was closing in, darkness tunneling around him.
The damn darkness was finding a way to get him, even now, even though his last minutes were going to be lived under the cruel desert sun. He wanted to swear. Or to cry. Or yell something, say something, do anything at all to remind himself he was still alive. And surrounded by medics...this wasn't the end, this couldn't be. Everything had been so short. So quick. So sudden. So unfair.
A fourth strike. This one would hit for sure, this one aimed right at the center of his chest. But it missed. He wasn't sure why, maybe he was stumbling back and fell out of range. He was moving further away from his attacker, his feet scraping against the ground, looking for a way to remain standing.
Light poured into his vision now, fighting back the darkness. He wondered why. Was this the afterlife? A shimmering emerald world that made him feel warm and happy and alive?
He managed a smile. He shut his eyes.
An elephant trumpeted.
"God damn, Ichigo, I can't leave you alone for one second can I!"
His eyes shot open. The emerald light was brighter than ever, but he could see the source clearly now. The coldness washed away, and he could feel the pain of his wounds in increasing awareness.
Arms were wrapped around him, hands were on his body, healing chakra surrounding him.
He was released and shoved in one quick motion. He stumbled forward and bumped into an elephant made of ink, which had one foot standing firmly on the flattened chest of his murderer.
"Stop screwing up!"
- - -
"You don't have to love me."
Chiaki grit her teeth. Her weight settled into the mattress set inside the sand sled. She was exhausted. Every sensation in her body that wasn't pain was fear. Every explosion, every crash, every cry of death made Hanae kick. She was afraid. She was afraid because Chiaki was afraid, and she didn't know how to feel any different.
She only seemed to calm at all when Pantsu was around.
She held onto his arm again, clenching it greedily.
"I...I know this is a lot, and I know we're so young but you don't have to love me. If that's something that's bothering you. I...I don't know, there's no time to talk, ah-"
She seethed her way through another contraction. The shot Kohana had given her had helped, for a time, but it was already wearing off.
"...I just need you to love her. I...we can figure out the rest later. Just promise you can love her, please, promise me..."
She squeezed his arm again.
- - -
"Move, now! I don't want those airships moving in an orderly fashion in a minute, I want them moving now and as fast as possible! Don't just stare at me, cut the lines!"
Kyuuen wiped the last bit of Ichigo's blood from her hands onto the camo-cloak, glaring the whole time. The unit was at their last straw, she could tell. Exhaustion, fatigue, injuries that they weren't reporting so that they could keep fighting, keep helping the other refugees. They were good men stretched way too far.
The tethers started snapping. Her people were aboard the airships now, their rear propellers starting to turn. One lurched forward, lumbering its way with perfect grace toward Suna.
She wanted to let out a breath of relief but was too pissed off to do so.
"Hold it there! I don't care if you're part of the reinforcement team, we can't start disobeying orders! We need to secure our path out of here before we make a move with the airships! Our defense team hasn't been chosen or assembled yet." The Chuunin was older than her, and looked like he was worse than the rest of them; perhaps malnourished as well as fatigued.
"Stow it. We only left three people trying to fend off a horde of enemies, and as amazing as those three are it won't give us much time. We need to move now. Anyone at a combat readiness staus of three or above goes with the airships. The rest of us move for the irrigation canal. I have a few tricks that'll force them to split up their pursuit party, but we're going to have to rely on swiftness and darkness from this point out. And a whole hell of a lot of luck."
The Chuunin took a long, measured breath. "While you're assessments are accurate, they're sitll in violation of our Commander's orders..."
She grabbed him by the flak vest.
"Listen here, lackey! It's your Commander's dumb-ass we're out here in the first place! If he hadn't pushed his luck and stayed out here way beyond his orders, then there'd be a lot fewer people dead today. We lost a lot of people and I'm sure you did too and we can't even give them the common decency to bury them. So either shut the hell up and stay out of my way, or I'll "reclassify" you to combat readiness 2. With my fist."
She could see his eyes shift from her glaring gaze to over her shoulder. Kyuuen released him and turned, standing square in line with the Commander.
He probably heard all of that.
"We ran across a pregnant girl on our way to engage the enemy." Kyuuen stood straight and met Shota's gaze directly. "Where is she?"