May 8, Yondaime Year 5

raidou 7Arechi Hill Safehouse was dust-choked and hollow, its entranceway swept with old leaves. It had been carved right into the base of a hill; a quick wartime job someone had done in the heat of necessity, and smoothed out by more careful hands later. Unoccupied now, but the seals still worked. They came down in a shiver of chakra when Raidou keyed through the correct sequence of hand-signs.

He shouldered the heavy door aside, letting his blunt, tired chakra sense extend.


He’d expected that, but worry still tasted like lead. Katsuko slipped in ahead of him, shedding rain off her armor. She cracked a neon green lightstick and set off down the long, dark hallway, chasing shadows around the bend. The walls had subtle curves instead of rigid straight lines, which made it feel a lot like a burrow.

A deep burrow, at that.

Raidou heaved the door closed and followed her. There was an automatic illusion built into the safehouse’s defenses; as soon as the locks tumbled back into place, the outer view of the door vanished, replaced by an anonymous scrubby patch of hillside. You had to know exactly where you were going to find it. Even then, they’d almost missed the tiny marker stone in the dark and rain.

“Found the pantry,” Katsuko called, voice rasping with tiredness. “And the cells.”

“Is there food?”

“Looks fully stocked.”

There was one blessing. Konoha did its best to maintain safehouses, but you never knew until you landed in one. And there was nothing quite as crushing as finding your bolt hole ripped open and laid bare, with the long journey to the next one ahead of you.

A pump creaked, followed by splashing.

“Running water, too,” Katsuko said, from the tiny cubbyhole that served as a kitchen. “Must be hooked into an underground stream.”

“Gives us good odds for a generator,” Raidou said, and cracked his own lightstick.

He found the generator after a little searching. It was wired up in a back room which served double-duty as linen storage and a ventilation hub, judging by stacked towels and a steel shaft vanishing up into the ceiling. For a bunker this deep, they had to get the air in somewhere. Raidou put his face next to the grate and smelled rain. A faint, cold breeze stroked his bare face. Still in working order, then.

The generator took a bit of cajoling, but some helpful soul had left a wrench and hastily chalked instructions on the wall: bang until working. There was oil, too. Raidou applied both and a sturdy kick for good measure, and the machine grumbled to life.

Electric lights flickered, died twice, and finally brightened to a low yellow glow.

Back in the kitchen, Katsuko gave a croaky cheer.

Raidou stuck his glowstick into an armor-strap and headed back, learning the layout as he went. A bathroom with a toilet, sink, and a shower, glory be, though Raidou doubted the generator had enough juice in it to make the water any better than ‘not quite icy’. A low-roofed bunkroom, stacked with six individual narrow cots. Most importantly, a neatly stocked medic’s closet spilled treasures when Raidou cracked the door open in a cloud of dust. Bandages, sterile equipment, painkillers, even Ringer’s lactate in carefully labeled IV-bags. Most things were actually in date.

There were also the two cells Katsuko had found, made up of narrow little slots carved into the hill near the kitchen. They weren’t fancy. Hard-packed dirt walls and barred doors, with a bucket shoved into the corner and a blanket apiece for a bedroll. A place to hold someone briefly, not keep them indefinitely. Though a lick of glimmering energy in the bars suggested someone had actually spent the time and effort to set some chakra-limiters in place.

Somewhere to bed the rookies down, if they got cranky.

The thought made a faint smile rise up before it died. The rookies weren’t here, and neither was the lieutenant. In twenty minutes, they’d be officially late.

They were the faster team. They should have been early.

He had to shove the worry aside. His half of the team was here, and she had broken bones. He grabbed medical supplies, stopped in the bathroom long enough to soap the remains of Aoisuke’s shattered face carefully off his hands, and went back to her.

Katsuko had put her time to good use. She’d wrangled up a tiny kerosene camp-stove from who-knew-where, and a pot to go with it, and already had a block of dried noodles on the boil. The bubbling broth swam with seasonings from what looked like… four different packets? Katsuko’s approach to cooking was to start with a mallet and build from there.

“Smells good,” Raidou said, because it could always be worse.

“I don’t know what flavor packets I put in,” Katsuko informed him. “But I think one of them is chicken.” She crouched intently over the flickering blue flame, stirring one-handed with a metal spoon. Her mask was up on top of her head, pushing dripping hair back. Steam wreathed up around her face.

Raidou eyed her and thought about landmines, snares, and other things that coiled up tight before they unwound all over the landscape. But he felt a lot like a wolf-trap himself, and of the two of them, he was the only one who’d snapped today.

Stiffly, he hunkered down next to Katsuko. “Let’s multi-task. You cook, I’ll take a better look at your shoulder, and then we’ll swap.”

“Sure,” she said, and flicked a glance at the watch tucked beneath his arm-guard. It had survived the Kiri-kunoichi’s exploding tag, and everything that followed after. The tick was a faint metronome beneath the sound of bubbling water.

Late, late, late.

One thing at a time. Raidou eased Katsuko out of her sodden sling, her armor, and with permission, out of her shirt. He had to cut through the shoulder; her arm couldn’t bend enough to go through the hole. Black cloth peeled away, revealing a deep blue sports bra underneath, which matched the color of the ugly, mottled bruising surrounding the obvious notch of a broken bone. The little red silk-screened bunnies did not, though; one of them was frozen in the act of kicking another clear across her chest.

“Where do you even find these?” Raidou asked.

“I know people,” Katsuko said, as if she had a lingerie black market source tucked into her back pocket.

Raidou decided not to touch that one. He lifted her bad hand gently, and pinched her fingertips one by one. “Still feel that?”

Katsuko made a sound approximately like “Gnaargh,” which Raidou took as an affirmative.

“That’s good. No obvious nerve damage,” he said, trying for brisk and efficient. Her hand was cold, but so was the rest of her. The collarbone was bridged up under the skin, which wasn’t ideal. Raidou had done his time in the medic-tents during the war. He knew basic field medicine, at least along the lines of stitch it, staple it, chop it off, drug ‘em up, cross your fingers (if you still had them). When pressed, he could set a bone, but he’d rather let Genma get eyes on it first.


Coin-sized burns flecked Katsuko’s bare skin wherever the armor hadn’t protected her. One edge of the bruise was blue-black, drawn like a ruler line just below the break and flecked about with more burns, as if something very hard and very hot had cracked into Katsuko’s shoulder at high speed.

“What did this?” he asked.

Katsuko gave him an exceptionally neutral look, which was a red flag all by itself. “Support beam,” she said, after a moment. “You were still caught in the genjutsu, and it was coming right down on you.”

“Oh,” said Raidou. He backed away from the yawning edge of guilt. “You mean you got an actual hero moment, and I didn’t get to see it?”

“That was extremely rude of you,” Katsuko agreed. “And now nobody will believe you if you tell them I saved the day.” She sniffed. “I am unappreciated in my time.”

Raidou knocked her mask off and dropped a towel on her head. The terry-cloth was cold and badly in need of airing, and it smelled faintly of oil from being stored next to the generator, but it was dry. He rumpled it over her wet hair.

“You’re appreciated,” he said.

Katsuko was silent for a beat that edged them too near to actual emotions, then she let out a belated squawk and snatched the towel from him. She wrapped it loosely around herself, grumbling, and poked the noodles like they’d offended her.

Raidou smiled unevenly, and got back to work.

They each had a clean change of uniform sealed into scrolls. Katsuko put up with Raidou’s attack of cleaning, ointmenting, and bandaging on her burns and scrapes, and then vanished down the hall to re-dress herself in the bathroom. When she came back, her face was clean, new armor gleamed under the yellow lights, and she’d twisted her hair up into the towel with the particular magic trick that most women just seemed to know.

It probably took extra magic to manage one-handed, but Raidou wasn’t going to ask.

She accepted a new sling for her right arm without protest, which told him how much it hurt, and a handful of non-narcotic painkillers. He didn’t push her on heavier drugs; until the rest of the team showed up, or Katsuko and Raidou went out after them, no one got morphine.

Which was a shame, because Raidou was pretty sure his headache would have killed a bear.

“Your turn,” Katsuko said, turning on him with dark, vengeful glee and a handful of unused medical supplies. “Sit still, captain, or I’ll tape your eyelids together.”

“Oh god,” Raidou said involuntarily.

But sitting still was the least he owed her. He shucked his armor and peeled his shirt off, wincing when aching ribs protested. Katsuko’s gaze flicked over him, narrowing as she catalogued injuries, and then landed on his watch. And stayed there.

Two minutes after 0300.

Late. Officially.

Raidou unbuckled the band and set the watch down between them, where they could both see the face. The team had agreed on an hour grace period, but Raidou knew he couldn’t wait that long. Even this short break was itching at him, as necessary as it was.

“If they’re not here in thirty minutes, we’ll go after them,” he said.

katsuko 2“We need to go now,” Katsuko burst out, before she could stop herself. “Masaaki had four Kiri-nin, Takayoshi would have hired more—”

She couldn’t lose Team Six now, not when she’d only just started to think of them as hers

Her fingers twitched. Katsuko yanked the towel off her head and braced her good hand on her knee. “—and god knows the Tsuto family is rich enough to buy as many Kiri freaks as they want—”

Raidou snapped his fingers in front of her face. No aggression in the gesture, just a sudden sound to interrupt her rising panic. “They might be hurt, but we are hurt, and I’ve already maxed out my quota of dumbass decisions today. First aid, food. Then we’ll go. If you want to go faster, help me deal with this mess first.” He gestured curtly at himself.

Katsuko blinked and shook her head to silence the fear clanging around inside her skull. “Right,” she said, taking a deep breath. Then she ripped open the first alcohol wipe and went at him.

His hands were her major concern. She picked out as many bone fragments as she could from the bloody mess of his knuckles, went through three more alcohol wipes sterilizing the torn skin, and bandaged the hell out of everything. The burns and singing on his palms and the back of his neck she treated with burn cream and more bandages. There wasn’t much she could do about his mild concussion, besides apologize for punching him in the head and then retract her apology immediately afterward.

“I don’t feel even a little bit sorry,” Katsuko informed Raidou, peering at the senbon stab in his right thigh. “I hope I left a permanent knuckle imprint on your skull, you jerk.”

A shadow of a smile crossed his tired face. “Worried you that much, huh?”

She scowled and finished bandaging the senbon wound. “No. You can pull your pants back up, now.”

He did so and then shucked himself into a new shirt and armor, tossing back a handful of painkillers after he was fully dressed. “Your noodles are boiling over,” he said.

Katsuko scrambled to switch the flame off and managed to rescue the pot before the noodles dissolved into mush. Her appetite had vanished when 0300 came and went with no sign of Genma, Kakashi, or Ryouma, but she portioned the noodles out into two bowls anyways. She’d be useless on an empty stomach.

Raidou tossed his bowl back in a couple mouthfuls and then wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, rubbing the old blood off. Katsuko downed her own bowl, ignoring the boiling broth in favor of slurping the noodles, and caught the two rat bars Raidou tossed at her with a casual flick of his wrist. He took his own rat bar and glanced at the watch. Katsuko followed his gaze, watching the seconds tick by. Not quite half an hour yet, but she didn’t care about the difference a few minutes would make, and she doubted Raidou did, either.

He flickered through hand seals lightning-fast, pulling a henge mask over his face. “Let’s go.”


Katsuko picked up her mask and slid it on. She resettled her katana and kodachi on her belt and rolled her good shoulder, savoring the fresh rush of adrenaline. “Ready, taichou.”

Raidou took the lead. He moved easier now for having taken a brief break; they both did. Katsuko adjusted her sling against her side and followed him out the door.

The storm hit them like a slap in the face. Katsuko squeezed her eyes shut against the battering rain and sealed the safehouse closed behind her. She fell in at Raidou’s side as they darted through the howling wind towards Ibaragashi City, reaching her chakra out in an automatic sweep of the area.

They made it five meters when the faint glimmers of six chakra signatures brushed against her senses. Katsuko stopped dead, heart hammering, and flung her arm out in the sign for hold. She reached out again, drawing on the ANBU tattoo, and grinned when three sparks shone in the distance. She tapped on her throat-mic.

“Tanuki, Hound, and Ram are headed straight towards us,” she told Raidou over the comm. “Two clones with ‘em.” Her grin faded. “I don’t recognize one of the signatures traveling with them. And Hound’s signature is low.”

“How low?” Raidou asked, sharply.

Katsuko narrowed her focus down to Kakashi’s flickering chakra. “I doubt he’s conscious.”

Raidou swore and broke into a run, activating his throat mic. “Tanuki, status?”

Static crackled. Hssssssss.

His voice sharpened. “Ram, report.”


Katsuko put on an extra burst of speed to draw level with him. Proper squad formation—her staying a half-step behind her captain at all times, waiting for a hand signal—could wait until she had her squad back.

She could sense their signatures racing closer, feel the variances unique to each of the three men: Genma’s opaque glow, dimmed with fatigue; Ryouma’s mix of fire and water, chilled in the way she’d come to associate with recent use of his rot jutsu; and Kakashi’s spiky, lightning-flavored energy, drained to a dull murmur.

Raidou’s and Katsuko’s distance-eating sprint lasted only a few minutes, but it felt like hours before they burst through a clearing and spotted a group of lean, dark figures loping down a hill towards them. Ryouma’s bunshin, identifiable as a clone because of its lack of an ANBU tattoo spark, was on point, carrying a blindfolded prisoner. Genma and Ryouma followed behind in a triad formation, Ryouma carrying Kakashi and Genma leaning against one of his own clones. Genma and his bunshin lagged behind; the clone looked only slightly less bedraggled than its creator.

Katsuko’s heart leapt; she surged ahead of Raidou, ignoring the sharp protest of her broken collarbone, and shot past Ryouma’s clone. She stopped in time to avoid bowling Ryouma over, panting like a civilian runner.

You,” she managed, and pointed accusingly.

The painted ram mask hid Ryouma’s expression, but the smile was easy to read in his straightening spine and loosening shoulders. “You came for me,” he said, voice cracking in tiredness and relief.

When she’d offered to be the prince to Ryouma’s damsel-in-distress, she hadn’t expected him to take the distress part seriously. His chestplate was battered, muddy, and bloodstained; the shoulder strap had taken a hit from the sharp end of a sword. Even with the rain, blood still caked his hair and skin. He smelled like a week-old battlefield.

And he was making jokes.

Katsuko inflated like an angry pufferfish, gathering breath to tell Ryouma how worried she’d been and where exactly he could stuff his damsel.

Kakashi interrupted by lifting his head from Ryouma’s shoulder and revealing that he looked even worse than Ryouma did. His grey hair clung like soaked fur to his skull; his mask, armor, and weapons had disappeared, replaced by bandages covering the lower half of his face, baggy jounin blues, and a foil emergency blanket wrapped around his shoulders like an ineffective cloak. Pain and exhaustion had drained the color out of his already-pale skin, making the quasi-healed needle cuts on every uncovered part of his body stand out in stark contrast. Katsuko gaped.

Kakashi had the gall to smile at her, both eyes curving. His voice creaked like a rusty door hinge. “‘lo, Ueno.”

She made an infuriated, unintelligible sound and crowded in close, jabbing a finger into Ryouma’s chest. “You can rot demons the size of a mountain!” Then she jabbed her finger at Kakashi’s face. “And you can cut lightning in half! Why the festering hell do you both look like chuunin who got dragged ass-backward through an A-rank?”

Ryouma didn’t retreat a step, but he did lean back from her accusing finger. “Hey,” he said, looking plaintively down at her through the eyeholes in his mask. “I’m doing better than last time.”

Last time he’d almost drowned in a rot lake of his own making. Katsuko snarled, “Not good enough.”

Kakashi unlocked an arm from around Ryouma’s neck, slipping a little, and wrapped ice-cold fingers around Katsuko’s hand. “‘s your arm broken again?”

“Are you broken again?” Katsuko demanded, covering her surprise with more anger.

He dropped his head back down on Ryouma shoulder, good eye sliding shut. He mumbled, “Little bit. Won, though.”

Katsuko only needed to look at the shape Genma, Kakashi and Ryouma were in to see how narrow of a victory it had been. She swallowed another surge of relief and glared at Ryouma. “Stay still,” she ordered. “Don’t move. Don’t even think about moving. The two of you aren’t leaving my sight for the next twenty-four hours.” She didn’t wait to see if Ryouma would obey, just turned and stalked away like an offended cat.

“Lieutenant,” Katsuko said, stopping in front of Genma. She took in the hastily healed cut on his arm and the still-bleeding lacerations on his face, his broken nose, and his two black eyes, and struggled to say something that wouldn’t shoot straight over the line and land somewhere deep in insubordination territory. “You are late.”

Genma was the same color as his breastplate, but the unflappable, sardonic eyebrow lift was as strong as ever. He glanced at his watch, and then at her. “We’re not really late until 0400. But we are tired. Let’s get inside and you can finish yelling at us there.”

“Right,” Katsuko said, after biting her tongue on the first three things she wanted to say. I’m glad you’re not dead was one of them, but she was still angry and everyone on her team needed to know that, superior officer or not. She glanced at Raidou, who’d been watching in skeptical silence while she upbraided the others, and then over at Ryouma’s clone, which still had a blindfolded person slung over its shoulder. “Who’s the prisoner?”

raidou 7Raidou had already put together ‘Kiri-ninja’ from the general odds, but he still raised an eyebrow when Genma said, “Captain of the Mist unit we ran into on our way back. She’s the only survivor.”

The woman looked like she’d been through a bladed tornado. She twitched faintly when he pulled the foil blanket aside enough to find the slim silver chain of her dogtags. He flipped a tag over and squinted at the lettering under the greenish light of his glow-stick.


REG: 0075393-B

DOB: 12/15/D-45


Captain, clearly a jounin, and twenty-seven, based on the Mist Country calendar that anchored itself on their Daimyou’s assumption of power.

“You’re a universal donor, Fukuda-san,” Raidou said, and let the tags fall back. “That’s handy.”

Her lip curled, showing the gleam of sharp teeth.

“Relax, we’re not draining anyone yet.” Though Genma and Kakashi both had the sour milk coloring of blood loss, and Ryouma looked bruised and exhausted. In fairness, so did the woman, but Raidou was markedly less inclined to sympathy for Kirigakure right now. He jerked his head right and raised his voice. “Safehouse is close. Rat, you can lead the way.”

Katsuko nodded crisply and turned on her heel, swinging up to take point with Ryouma’s prisoner-carrying clone. Ryouma fell back into the trudging run of a man who’d been going at the same aching pace for miles, and expected to go for miles more. On his back, Kakashi didn’t move.

Raidou fell into step next to Genma, who cast him a critical eye.

“What’s wrong with your comms?” Raidou asked, before he could comment.

“Lightning blew them out,” Genma said. “Hound might have helped that along. I take it you ran into company, too?”

“A little,” Raidou said.

“Well, our part of the mission was a complete success. We didn’t hit any snags until we were on our way back to you.”

“Looks like a pretty hefty snag,” Raidou said. “We got Kiri-ninja from the start. Killed the targets, though.”

It wasn’t quite complete success, but it was as much detail as he wanted to go into now.

“We got a Bingo Book kill,” Genma said. “Iebara. Hound did the heavy lifting.”

Raidou managed not to fall over his own feet. “Iebara?

“Yeah,” Genma said, with a kind of weariness that suggested he’d had a good long while to wrap his brain around the idea. Or perhaps he was just that tired. “There’s pretty much nothing left of him. Hound copied his jutsu and used it on him—some kind of medical jutsu, I think. Takes fresh blood from a handy source and works it like a water jutsu. Hurt like hell to get hit with it.”

Iebara was one of Kirikagure’s monsters, known for leaving blood-wrecked disaster wherever he landed and not much in the way of identifiable bodies. If he’d been using actual blood, that probably explained a thing or two.

He was also rumored to be unkillable.

Raidou stared at the back of Kakashi’s silver head and thought, Okay, then.

On the balance, bringing that little piece of good news home might weigh up against, Oh, by the way, Hokage-sama, I smashed one of your major trading hubs. Just a little.

“You said unit. What about the rest of them?” he asked. “You and Ram took them down?”

“All but her. Two other jounin. I don’t know if Ram got their tags before he slagged the bodies.”

So, a legend, two high level fighters, one captive, and if Raidou remembered Genma’s half of the mission correctly, six slaughtered civilians. Plus whatever regular guards they’d run into; Intel had suggested at least twelve.

Not bad for three Konoha boys.

“Good work,” Raidou said, and wondered if he’d remember how to breathe relief by the time they got back to the safehouse.

It took longer than the short run out: Genma was limping heavily on a wounded leg, and while Ryouma was going steadily, he wasn’t going fast. But the hillside came into view, and they found the stone marker after a brief search in rain-swept darkness. The team staggered underground and Raidou sealed the door.

The lights were still on; they glowed sickly yellow on blood-stained armor.

Raidou dispelled his mask-henge, and looked over his shivering, panting ninja and the unmoved clones. Steam curled up from Ryouma’s skin, and blood dripped down the edge of Genma’s unmasked jaw. Kakashi was silent, face mostly hidden against Ryouma’s shoulder. And the enemy captain—

Was missing an arm beneath that foil blanket.

Probably not a good donor after all, then.

“Cells,” Raidou told the clone carrying her, and dropped her to the bottom of his priority list. If she hadn’t bled out before now, she’d keep. “Ueno, show the boys the barracks. Hatake needs a bedroll—” to start with, “—and Tousaki gets whatever hot drink you can make in short order. Shiranui, if you can stay on your feet for another minute, I’ll show you what medical supplies we’ve got, and you can give me a grocery list.”

Katsuko hustled Ryouma and Kakashi off like she half-intended to carry them both herself. Her good hand wrapped briefly around Ryouma’s arm, then switched to Kakashi, landing on his shoulder, then his back, then back to Ryouma. She did that with Raidou sometimes—touched constantly, like she had to check he was really still breathing.

There was probably going to be a lot more yelling before the night was done, Raidou thought. At least she hadn’t punched them yet.

Ryouma’s clone bundled Fukuda Takedo into a cell, slammed the door, and crouched down outside it, staring at her. There was an intensity about its unbreathing focus that caught Raidou’s attention, a knife just waiting for a target.

Genma raked dripping hair out of his face and leaned against his own clone. “You’ve triaged yourselves already?” he asked Raidou. “Give me the rundown. And I need Tousaki and Hatake stripped down so I can check them out in the light.”

Raidou eyed Genma’s obviously broken nose. “Might want to think about putting yourself on that list somewhere, doc.” He set off down the hallway, ducking a metal-caged light fixture, and said over his shoulder, “Ueno’s re-broken her collarbone; took a burning beam to the shoulder. We had a house fire… issue. Minor burns for both of us; I’ve dressed those already. Probably some smoke inhalation, but nothing that’s knocked us over yet. Her collarbone looks displaced. I wanted you to check it out before I tried setting anything. She’s doing okay with the sling for now.”

“Thanks,” Genma said behind him, breath rasping as he and his clone kept up. It had a nasal whistle to it; not much air getting through his nose. “What meds have you had? Any soldier pills?”

“No soldier pills. Handful of painkillers each, nothing narcotic.” Raidou took a sharp right turn into the medic’s tiny supply room and opened the closet. A stethoscope tried to slither out, along with a miniature landslide of dressings; he caught them hastily. “We’re both stable. I’d keep your focus on yourself and the boys first; you all seem like you’re in worse shape.”

Which was worrying in a medic.

Raidou hadn’t seen a radio in the safehouse, but he damn sure planned to look again. Otherwise they’d have to send one of Katsuko’s clones to the nearest occupied post for help, and that was hours away.

Genma braced himself between the doorframe and his clone, casting a practiced eye over the supplies when Raidou stood aside. “Grab out the Ringer’s and some IV tubing. I’ll take another soldier pill—” (which made how many, Raidou wondered) “—and get my clone to hook me up while I work on everyone. Tousaki shouldn’t need an IV, but Hatake does. We’ve all taken blood pills.”

“I can do that for him,” Raidou said, hauling out IV bags and tubing.

Genma nodded gratefully, and rubbed his forehead. “I want to do something to regulate Hatake’s chakra flow. Tousaki gave him two field transfusions and we got two soldier pills into him, but his coils are roached.”

Anchored worry, already well-entrenched, settled heavier in Raidou’s chest. “Is he gonna last, or do we need to evac him out ASAP?”

“I’m not making promises,” Genma said, after a beat. “But as long as he doesn’t end up with an infection or other serious issue, I think I can keep him stable. We’ll need to radio for a team anyway. He’s not walking home any time soon, and I’m probably not either.”

That was a hefty ‘if’, but Raidou would take it.

“Okay,” he said. He grabbed another bundle of supplies and stuck his head out into the hallway, raising his voice to a bellow. “UENO, CLONES. WE’RE GONNA NEED EXTRA HANDS.”

There was a distant crack of chakra, sharp enough that even Raidou felt it, and a flood of bodies poured down the hallway. At least fifteen clones standing in a line; the last one gave Raidou an expectant look. He shoved supplies at it.

“Pass those up. Lieutenant wants the boys stripped down; help them.” He didn’t bother adding be gentle. Katsuko knew where the line was when it counted, and her clones would, too. “There’re blankets and towels in the generator room. Grab ‘em all. You two, add yourselves as guards on that prisoner; I don’t know how much juice Tousaki’s clone has left in it. And you, hunt up a radio. If there isn’t one, I want to know—we’ll have to send a message on foot.”

About seven voices said, “Roger,” in unison, and clones scattered. Raidou picked out one without a task and pointed at it. “You, has Ueno made any start on food yet?”

“Curry,” it said.

“Take over for her,” Raidou ordered. “I want her back with the boys. Grab another helper if you need it. See if you can scrounge up hot tea, too.”

Two more clones vanished.

Raidou glanced sideways at Genma, taking in the white skin, the dull shivering, and the glaze of exhaustion. There was blood grimed under his nails, and blackened gore splattered over most of his uniform. Rain hadn’t done much to sluice him off, but it had soaked him enough to set in a chill.

Not good in a man about to attend wounded. And there was a battlefield lesson for you: triage first, but none of it was any use if your medic fell over.

“Shower,” Raidou said decisively. “One of Ueno’s clones has enough chakra in it to heat the water. Take five minutes to get yourself warm and clean. I’ll get Hatake’s IV laid in.”

genma ouchGenma followed Raidou’s gaze down over himself and had to agree. “Yeah. This isn’t exactly sterile.” Rivulets of rain water oozed down his gore-spattered armor, littering the ground around him with bloodstained droplets. “Can’t believe how cold it got. We were bitching about the heat all the way to Ibaragashi City.”

The Katsuko clone Raidou’d designated as Genma’s bath attendant looked up at him expectantly, nudging Genma’s own clone to get a move on.

“Your hands,” Genma said, eying Raidou. Every finger was wrapped in bandages. “Are those burns? How bad?”

Katsuko’s clone swiveled its gaze to Raidou, keeping mute.

“Cuts,” Raidou said dismissively. “Minimal. You can check ’em out later, if you’ve got the energy left. Katsuko already cleaned the hell out of ’em.”

Was there an edge to Raidou’s voice, or was it just too much worry making him sound tense? He looked… functional and his wounds were all bandaged. Genma could see the fatigue in the captain’s eyes, and creases in the sooty grime on his face that said he’d been squinting or scowling, but he seemed alert. And he had a good point—Genma’d be useless as a medic if he was falling over himself.

“Alright,” he said. He could worry about Raidou later. “Shower. I gave Hatake my spare blues, but I’ve got another set of blacks I can change into.”

“Good plan,” said Raidou. He pulled a box of non-stick burn dressings and a pair of bandage scissors out of the closet to add to the armload of medical supplies Katsuko’s other clones had already marched off with, and turned to follow them to the barracks room. “See you in five.”

Genma didn’t even get a chance to acknowledge that before the clone assigned to him tsked impatiently and made an urgent, ‘follow me’ gesture.

His own clone, nearing the end of its lifespan, tugged at him, too.

“Don’t you start,” he told it. “One clone nagging me is enough.”

Katsuko’s clone, complete with sling-bound right arm, darted into a supply room and came back with a washcloth and a thin, greyish towel. The bathroom it led them to was tiny but functional, with a shower stall just barely large enough to hold two bodies. Katsuko’s clone handed his clone the towels, and crowded past them to put its good hand on the tiny cistern that fed the shower head, dumping in chakra to heat the water.

Evidently her clone was staying—not much room for modesty in a foxhole. He got his own clone to help him unbuckle his weapons and belts, setting medkits and utility pouches carefully in the narrow metal sink. Black fabric stuck wetly to his skin, leaving a reddish layer of filth on him when he peeled them away. He had to lean heavily on the wall and let his clone do the work of getting him out of his torn up pants. The contours of his right thigh were lost under red-black swelling, the fresh healed wound strained and badly puckered—he’d sealed the skin, but left something bleeding inside. Damnit.

When he was down to nothing but underwear, he looked over at Katsuko’s clone. “Last chance to get out of here before you see more than you want to.”

The clone kept its back pointedly turned. “Would if I could,” it said. “But unless you like your showers arctic cold, I gotta stay here.”

“Definitely stay.” Genma hesitated for a second, then discarded his cup and jock, and limped past his own clone to share the stall with Katsuko’s. It did him the courtesy of closing its eyes and flattening itself against the tiles.

He let the blissfully warm water sheet over him for a moment before he held a hand out to his clone for a washcloth and soap.

“How badly were Ueno and the captain hurt?” he asked. “Any injuries they didn’t tell me about?”

The clone was trying to blend into the shower wall so thoroughly it would have turned itself the color of the tiles if it could have. “All their injuries are treated,” it said without turning its head. “Wouldn’t hurt to double check the bandaging jobs, though. They were in a hurry to find you guys.”

“I plan to,” Genma told it. He got his upper body as clean as a two-minute wash would allow, and found every cut and bruise he’d earned in the fight with Iebara and company in the process. Scrubbing his scalp pulled on his broken nose enough he didn’t even want to try to wash his face. When it came time to do his legs, he gave his own clone the washcloth back. It squatted just outside the shower stall, reaching into the spray to do what it could.

Katsuko’s clone remained mute throughout, ignoring him as he contorted himself trying to get clean without brushing against it.

“Alright,” he said, when his mental clock said his time was up. “Go ahead and go. I’ll get dried and dressed.” The clone obeyed instantly, shutting off the water and shimmying out past Genma.

It was almost at the door when he stopped it. “Wait.”

It glanced up, saw he was still dripping and towelless, and ducked its head so fast it probably gave itself whiplash. After the last mission, Katsuko’d made a beeline for the door when she’d come in on Genma changing. For a woman who made every effort to get a good look at her other teammates unclothed, she was remarkably shy around Genma. He was starting to wonder if it was personal.

Focus, Shiranui. Maybe he should take that third soldier pill sooner rather than later.

He grabbed the towel from his clone and wrapped it around his hips. “Is there anything else I need to know?”

“Ask the captain,” it said cryptically.

So there was something.

“Also, um,” it said. “Katsuko’s happy you’re okay.”

Before he could respond to that, it made its escape, leaving him with his clone and a muddle of complicated feelings in the dull yellow light.

“I’m glad you’re okay, too, Ueno,” he told the closed door. How bad had Raidou and Katsuko’s side of the mission been? They’d headed out in the storm to look for their team well before the 0400 drop dead mark, too. Something had spooked them.

Not without reason, given what Genma and his team had run into.

He turned to stare at his painfully distorted reflection in the steamed up mirror. Really should fix that nose, but two seconds’ prodding convinced him he didn’t want to touch it again until he was high on painkillers. And that wasn’t going to happen until he’d finished treating the rest of the team.

While Genma dressed, his clone rinsed the gore and grime from his armor in the shower. He didn’t bother putting it back on. It could use the time to dry, and he needed the freedom of movement for now. His medkit was still in good order when he checked it over. He grabbed the vial of soldier pills and shook one out, crunching it down dry. As he chewed, his nose throbbed, and a trickle of blood ran down over his lip like a warning. Three soldier pills in twenty-four hours was already pushing past what was safe, and his leg…

Was still bleeding inside from some vein or lesser artery he hadn’t managed to seal.

He spat the remains of the pill into the sink and rinsed his mouth. The tingle of artificial chakra burned in his pathways, but it felt feeble compared to the usual buzz a soldier pill gave him.

The clone looked at him with an arched-eyebrow expression Genma recognized too well.

“Nobody asked you,” he told it.

It kept the rest of its opinions to itself as it helped him limp back to the others.

He found them in a disheveled bunk room. It might once have held orderly rows of cots, but the bare metal frames were stacked in one corner now. What was probably a freshly created earthen platform big enough to hold all six mattresses dominated the room. Kakashi was nearly invisible under piles of blankets, with an IV line snaking down towards him from a bag of Ringer’s hung from a kunai someone had driven into the wall above him. A second IV bag and line led to Katsuko, free of her mask and armor now, who snuggled next to Kakashi, presumably keeping him warm with her unquenchable chakra.

Ryouma sat hunched over a steaming cup of tea at the edge of the bed, stripped to his underwear as Genma had requested and huddled under a scratchy-looking wool blanket. A well-used articulated brace wrapped around his left knee. Raidou sat next to him, looking just as weary and not a little worried, gaze darting from Katsuko to Kakashi to Ryouma like he was just waiting for the next crisis to hit.

Three sets of eyes riveted onto Genma when he entered. Katsuko’s good arm lifted from the blankets to wave a greeting, wagging trailing IV tubing like a tail.

“Your limp’s got worse,” Ryouma said sharply.

Raidou dropped a towel over Ryouma’s head. “Dry off,” he said, and pushed stiffly to his feet, one final IV set in hand. Critical brown eyes were fixed on the swollen leg between Genma and his clone. “You need to fix that first?” he asked in a low voice.

“I don’t know if I can fix it quickly without making a bigger mess,” Genma told him. “But I need to seal off a bleeder in there.” His nose trickled ominously again. “I’m maxed out on soldier pills, and I’m still low. What’s your chakra level like?”

“About thirty percent,” Raidou said. “But I can boost that with pills, and it doesn’t cost me much to peel off a transfusion.” He tipped his head at the ummoving form on the makeshift bed. “Figure you and the kid both need one. Maybe more than one.” He turned again to look behind him. “Tousaki, you got anything more to spare? I know you’ve done a few already.”

“Got a little more than a quarter left, after that run,” Ryouma said. “Only took one soldier pill, though, so I’ve got some leeway.” He stood and clutched his blanket around him while he went to root through a pile of his gear next to the stacked up cot bases.

“That works,” Genma said. He had to lean on his clone and catch his breath for a moment, letting his racing heart slow down. Blood pills could only do so much when you’d lost enough volume to drop your pressure. “Go ahead and set me up with those fluids, taichou? Then I’ll seal the bleeder, you and Tousaki can give me and Hatake a boost, and I’ll see where we are. Probably Hatake first.”

Katsuko stirred next to Kakashi, looking at Genma with evident frustration. “Sorry, lieutenant, I’m useless for chakra transfers.”

“You’re good, Ueno,” Genma told her. “Keep Hatake warm. He needs that as much as he needs chakra right now.”

She nodded and burrowed carefully back under the covers, pulling them even higher with her one working hand.

Raidou had pulled out his own vial of soldier pills. “Tousaki, take Hatake,” he said. He tossed a soldier pill into his mouth with an absent gesture, and crunched it while he leaned over Genma, slipping the IV catheter into a vein like butter, fast and smooth. Yet another shinobi who’d gained basic medical skills in the harrowing war years. He spiked another kunai into the wall and looped the bag’s hanger over the jutting handle. “Any objection with forehead-to-forehead?” he asked, leaning in again.

Genma glanced over his shoulder to see Ryouma kneeling carefully next to Kakashi, ready to start his own transfusion.“Forehead-to-forehead’s good,” Genma said, turning back towards Raidou. He tipped his head back so Raidou could access it more easily, but blood from his nose immediately ran down the back of his throat, and he waved Raidou off. “Ugh, no. Wait.”

Raidou gave him a wary look.

“Can we do this if I keep my head upright?” Genma asked, swallowing at the thick sensation in his throat. “That really didn’t feel good.”

Raidou’s wry smile was a weird hybrid of reassuring and concerned. “You’re not that short. Just stay where you are.” Cupping Genma’s head carefully between his hands, he pressed his forehead against Genma’s, aligning their pineal chakra points. Genma shut his eyes and felt the warm wash of breath as Raidou exhaled and initiated the transfer.

Heavy pressure thudded against Genma’s coils as Raidou’s chakra surged down receptive channels. Water and earth, wet and weighty. It gave Genma a strange chill, and he had to remind himself to keep breathing. The fire in his own nature fought against Raidou’s water, but earth sought like with earth—Raidou’s granite to Genma’s quicksilver—and slowly, relentlessly, Genma’s chakra level rose. He found himself breathing in sync with the captain. His pulse still raced, but he could feel the tug of Raidou’s slower biorhythm like a metronome.

For a moment, Genma drifted, letting Raidou’s strength take the place of his own. He leaned into it, and didn’t snap back until his legs buckled. Raidou caught him by the shoulders, and his clone grabbed an arm.

“Steady, Shiranui,” Raidou said.

Genma caught a breath. “Sorry. I’m good.”

Raidou didn’t let go right away, locking eyes with Genma like he was trying to see the lie hidden there.

“Really,” Genma said. He pulled back, testing the weight on his uninjured leg, and the uneasy slurry of foreign chakra mixing with his own low reserves. “That was a good transfusion. You’re not drained from it, are you? That felt like a lot.”

“Wasn’t planning to use it for anything else today. You need it more,” Raidou told him. He gave Genma an almost affectionate pat on the shoulder.

Dealing with his leg couldn’t wait any longer. He undid his belt and pushed his tight-fitting trousers down. Raidou gave a low whistle when he caught sight of the vivid bruise dominating Genma’s thigh.

“Yeah. It’s not great,” Genma said. He sat on the edge of the platform and tried to figure out the best approach. The swelling was even more pronounced, straining the red edges of the closed wound. Iebara’s blade must have nicked the branching lateral artery, and solder-pill toxicity was killing his clotting. He flipped through seals for a cauterizing jutsu and tried to visualize the twisting course of the artery. It would be so much easier if he had the bleeder exposed. Or had a Hyuuga’s eyes. He pushed chakra into the depths of the wound, gritting his teeth as it burned its way through muscle and blood vessels alike. When they got home, he’d get a lecture and probably a round of corrective surgery to deal with the damage his emergency treatment had piled on top of the original injury, but field medicine was almost never pretty.

Raidou waited until he’d finished, then produced a sterile gauze square and some tape from the small arsenal of medical supplies he’d assembled, folded the gauze, and taped it carefully under Genma’s nose to catch the still-oozing bleeding. “That should hold you until you get the chance to do something better.”

“Thanks,” Genma told him. “Might get your help with that later. How are you at setting fractures? I just want to tape it in place, chakra healing can wait.”

“I’ve set bones,” Raidou said. “You might do better with a more delicate touch, though.” He raised heavy-boned, bandaged hands by way of explanation.

From his position at Kakashi’s side, Ryouma looked up. “My hands are still steady. And I’ve dealt with a broken nose before.” He ran a finger down the bridge of his own nose and back up, stopping at a nearly imperceptible divot.

“You set that yourself? Good, you can do mine after I’m finished with everyone and can take some painkillers.” Genma probed his leg gingerly, but it was impossible to feel the anatomy through the massive hematoma—he just had to hope that as broadly and deeply as he’d applied the jutsu, he’d managed to cap the bleeders.

“How’s Hatake? And how are you? If you’re finished transfusing him, let me give you a quick look, and then I want you to go get clean.” He looked around for the Katsuko clone that had accompanied him for that awkward shower, but it seemed to have absented itself.

“He’s a chakra drain,” Ryouma said, sounding equal parts fond and annoyed. “Neither of us should be keeling over any time soon, though.” He ruffled Kakashi’s filthy wet hair and stood up, a little stiff on his braced knee.

“That’s the coil damage,” Genma said. “As long as he’s stable for the moment, let’s make sure you’re safe to send off to the showers.”

When Genma started to stand, Ryouma waved him down and came around to Genma’s side of the platform. An assortment of shallow cuts and bruises littered Ryouma’s skin, but the only serious injury was the shoulder laceration that Genma’d healed hastily in the middle of the fight. It was red and raised, with striated lines radiating away from the wound—a hallmark of forced rapid healing.

“How’s your shoulder motion?” Genma asked. “Can you lift your arm over your head without any issue?”

Ryouma obliged him by raising his left arm. “Pulls a little.” He reached up to grab his elbow with his other hand and tug the arm further into a stretch. “But it’s not painful. Stiffness might just be from backpacking Hound. He’s heavier than he looks.”

Genma didn’t doubt that. By the time everyone had cooled down and rested for a while, and exhausted muscles had gotten a chance to stiffen up, all of Team Six would probably be hobbling around like grey-haired grandparents.

Grandparents. Tsuto’s elderly parents asleep on twinned futon. The grandmother’s blood staining yellow silk. The old man’s eyes snapping wide as Genma’s blade touched his throat, and gnarled hands, stiff with arthritis, scrabbling at Genma’s arm in a desperate, futile gesture. He blinked the image away.


“Your breathing,” Genma said, ignoring the question. “How’s your chest? I’m not hearing any wheeze and you seem to be breathing okay, but I know I wasn’t gentle pulling the blood out of your lungs.”

Raidou’s head snapped around.

Ryouma pressed the heel of his hand against his sternum, focus turning inward. “Lungs seem clear,” he reported. “Didn’t have any problems on the run, and I wasn’t coughing like with the demon-rot. My throat’s still a little sore.”

“That’ll wear off,” Genma told him, relieved. With Ryouma in good shape, he could send him to shower and stop worrying about at least one of the ninja in his care. “Go take a shower. A long one.” He couldn’t smell much of anything through his damaged nose, but he didn’t doubt the reek of putrefaction still clung to Ryouma’s skin and hair. “Get one of Ueno’s clones to heat the water for you.”

Ryouma gave him a wry look. “Guess it’s a good idea to wait until my hands are clean before we try to get your nose working again.” He glanced around at the handful of idle clones who hovered at the edge of the room. “Volunteer?”

All three of them immediately leapt up, scrabbling at each other in a vicious elbow fight. The chaos ended abruptly when two of them bamphed out of existence, leaving the victor smiling broadly at Ryouma.

Ryouma knelt to grab his utility belt from a small pile of his discarded gear. He tossed a cheeky, pleased look at the rest of the room before he left to follow the winning clone to the bathroom.

Genma stared after them and sighed. Maybe it was personal.

Katsuko lifted her head from the blanket nest. “It’s not that you don’t have a nice butt, lieutenant,” she said drowsily. “It’s just that Ryouma’s butt can’t make me run laps if it catches me looking at it.” There was a long pause. “I didn’t say that.”

It was probably a measure of how tired Genma was that it took him as long as it did to chuckle. “I can accept that,” he told her. He twisted around on the communal bed and tried to kneel next to Kakashi, but his leg was having none of that. It took some awkward shifting, but he eventually found a position that let him keep his leg extended and still gave him the proximity and leverage he needed to work on Kakashi.

“Get my med kit,” he told his clone. While it turned to do as he asked, he laid three careful fingers at the angle of Kakashi’s bruised and bandaged throat. Pulse was slow and even, breathing regular, and chakra… Chakra was still a mess, but the fresh transfusion from Ryouma was palpable and strong. “Alright, Hatake. You in there? This will be easier if you wake up a little and can talk to me.”

kakashi distressedIt was an effort to crack one eye open. When Kakashi did, the world was filled with ice and agony and Genma’s new white mustache. Kakashi stared at that, confused, until he realized Genma had a bloody bandage taped beneath his nose.

Okay, Kakashi thought blurrily, and tried to achieve actual thought.

“S’ c-cold,” he managed.

“I know. You’re low on chakra,” Genma said gently, and glanced over to Katsuko. “Can you add any more heat?”

Katsuko shifted, tucking herself closer against Kakashi’s side. The blanket of her chakra rolled out across his bare, bandaged skin, wind and fire combining in a delicate balance that probably cost her significant effort. Slowly, carefully, the temperature ticked up by degrees. It just didn’t seem to sink in. Kakashi shivered, feeling iced to the bones, and made a low sound of complaint.

Genma glanced back over his shoulder. “Taichou, you didn’t find a stove we could set up in here anywhere, did you?”

“Tiny camping stove in the kitchen,” Raidou said. “Clone’s using it right now. I’ll see if there’s another.” He left, dogged by one of Katsuko’s copies. There… seemed to be a lot of them around.

“Wish I had your chakra,” Kakashi muttered to Katsuko. “d’never fall down.”

“No, you don’t,” she said, low and tired. He tipped his chin down to look at her, but could only see the wild, half-dried flurry of her hair and a slice of pale cheek. Then she lifted her face and smiled. “Besides, if you stopped falling down, we’d think you were an imposter.”

Kakashi knew that smile. On him, it came with curving, insincere eyes.

“C-could insult you more,” he said. “T-then you’d know it was me.”

“What a relief,” Katsuko said dryly, and then sobered up. “You warming up at all, or am I just throwing chakra into the void?”

“Void,” Kakashi said, after a moment of shivery self-reflection. “S-sorry.”

“Don’t stop,” Genma told Katsuko. “It’s helping even if he can’t feel it. His coils were damaged by that lightning strike, I think. Damaged coils can get leaky.” Light brown eyes landed on Kakashi again, framed by tiny creases as Genma smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, it’s reversible.”

“I k-know,” Kakashi said. Bodies weren’t smart; just because it felt like hypothermia, didn’t mean it was.

“Just because you’re half-dead doesn’t mean you’re off the hook,” Katsuko muttered vengefully in his ear. “We’re going to have words when you’re coherent again.”

“You an’ Rin,” Kakashi mumbled, resigned. “An’ sensei. Everyone always yells…” He opened his eye again, not quite sure when he’d closed it, and gave them a hazy, hidden smile. “But T-Tousaki’s alive, and so’s Shiranui, an’ now I can make people explode. So it’s worth it.”

Genma glanced at Katsuko. “Morphine’s working,” he drawled.

Katsuko didn’t answer him; she was staring at Kakashi, slender eyebrows drawn down into a frown. “Explain,” she said.

“Explain later,” Genma said, before Kakashi could respond. “I need to work on you now.” He accepted his med-kit from an increasingly insubstantial-looking clone, and withdrew a syrette of morphine. The drug went straight into a vein, and Kakashi exhaled slowly at the fading burn. Genma added the spent syrette to Kakashi’s dog-tag collection and opened up a slim packet of hair-thin medical senbon.

“Haven’t had enough needles today, ‘tenant?” Kakashi said.

“Guess not,” Genma said. “I have to take the covers off you for a minute. I’m going to gate your chakra a little, try to slow the flow down. It’ll make you feel weak, but it might help with the cold, and it will give me more to work with for healing you.”

“Okay,” Kakashi said warily.

Katsuko jerked her chin at a clone, which vanished and reappeared a half-second later, helping Raidou lug in three gas-powered burners. They were talking softly, but Kakashi definitely caught the word ‘Iebara’, then ‘blood jutsu’.

Genma peeled the covers back. Cold air spilled across Kakashi’s skin, because he was down to a bandage-mask and underwear and the lieutenant was trying to kill him. He yelped rasping protest, hurting his own throat; Katsuko rolled against his side and threw an IV-strung arm across his bare chest, radiating concentrated heat.

Maybe he could wear her like a blanket.

Genma worked fast, swiping a stinging alcohol wipe across key points of Kakashi’s meridian lines, and setting needles into place. They were painless, at least, but slab-heaviness followed in their wake, like Genma was nailing what remained of Kakashi’s chakra down. Katsuko tucked her face against the side of Kakashi’s throat, looking away.

Not a needle fan, right.

After the tenth senbon went in, a glimmer of heat pulled through Kakashi’s veins. Ryouma’s fire-chakra had finally found something to catch against. Kakashi forced weighted hands up, feeling vaguely like they’d been detached at the wrist, and curled his fingers beneath Katsuko’s arm, trying to catch more warmth.

“Stay still, you big baby,” she said, exhaling a stream of raw heat against his bandaged neck as she spoke. The temperature ticked up another notch.

Kakashi shivered all over. “Do that ‘gain,” he slurred.

“Demanding,” Katsuko grumbled, and spread further across him like a cat seeking a sunbeam, managing to avoid every one of Genma’s needles. Her weight pressed against his welter of cuts, sparking a constellation of dull, distant pains beneath the morphine, but Kakashi didn’t care. Especially when she did that dragon breath trick again.

Genma smiled faintly. “Thanks, Ueno.” He continued setting needles, stopping when he had a miniature forest of twenty or so. They were short, t-bar shaped needles, inserted deeply enough that only a faint gleam marked their placement. Genma shifted position uncomfortably, re-balancing on his bad leg, and settled one warm hand against Kakashi’s ribs, trickling chakra carefully under the skin. “Better,” he pronounced. “How’s it feel?”

“Mmnrgh,” Kakashi said, afloat on a sea of narcotics and foreign, humming energy.

“You are so high right now,” Katsuko told him gleefully. “Ryouma better finish his shower quick. He needs to see this.”

“Mmm,” Kakashi agreed, because Ryouma did need to come back. He got into trouble unattended.

Genma touched Katsuko’s arm for a moment. “Ueno, try not to push your own temperature up. You don’t need to fry your kidneys like I did on the last mission.”

“No fried kidneys, yessir,” Katsuko said. The heat dropped a fraction, but there was still sweat shining on her skin. Effort or normal reaction, Kakashi couldn’t tell. He wasn’t sweating, but his hair was steaming gently.

It made pretty swirling patterns against the yellow lights, like Katsuko really was breathing smoke.

Genma peeled away Kakashi’s hasty field-applied bandages, reassessing the motley collection of scabbed needle slices Iebara had left. He laid better healing into the deeper ones, focusing on Kakashi’s scalp, hands, joints, and after some negotiation, face.

Kakashi made that easier by going somewhere else in his head for a while.

When he drifted back, the bandage-mask was firmly re-wrapped, Katsuko hadn’t raised her head from his neck, and Genma was finishing up with ointment and new bandages on the shallower cuts. They weren’t worth wasting chakra on, and judging by how Katsuko and Raidou looked, Genma needed to save as much energy as he could.

Kakashi sighed softly, breath curling back against his face. “Need ‘nother medic.”

“Yeah,” Genma said, sounding weary. “We do. I’ll work on that.” He stuck tape over the sunken needles, pinning the little cross-bars down against Kakashi’s skin, and marked each piece with a timestamp in medic’s purple pen. Then he tapped Katsuko’s outflung hand. “Your turn, Ueno.”

She made a grumbling sound against the side of Kakashi’s neck, and Kakashi realized she was more than half-asleep.

Genma’s mouth twitched. “Okay,” he said, and gestured at his clone. It hauled him up, helped him around to Katsuko’s side. Genma’s bad leg folded when he was halfway seated; he lurched, swearing, but managed to right himself before he fell off the edge of the platform.

When he settled into a comfortable position, his clone shivered once with a ripple of collapsing chakra, and vanished. Finally used up.

“Turn towards me, Ueno,” Genma said quietly.

She made various sounds of protest, but pulled away from Kakashi when Genma insisted. Genma leaned over her and tugged the blankets back into place, trapping the remaining chakra-heat before it dissipated. The cold wasn’t quite so bad now. Kakashi burrowed himself down until musty-smelling blankets covered the bandaged half of his face, and watched sleepily as Genma did medical things to his unwilling patient.

Morphine, bandages, chakra-healing, what looked like the beginnings of a splint…

A twilight drowse pulled Kakashi under, spiralling everything distant and shadowy. People moved around him. Voices murmured. Ryouma still wasn’t back, but the captain was close, and the air was warmer.

Bone snapped.

Katsuko yelled.

Kakashi jerked awake in a shattering of dream fragments, tight panic, and enough adrenaline for one violent movement. Everything blurred. Then it stopped, crystallizing around a picture that slowly made sense.

His hand, a half-inch away from Genma’s breakable fingers. And Raidou’s hand, broad and bandaged, wrapped around Kakashi’s wrist.

“Easy, Hatake,” Raidou murmured. “He’s supposed to do that.”

Kakashi swallowed his hammering heartbeat down. “Don’ make her scream,” he managed, as the world folded in on itself.

Raidou caught him before he hit the mattress.

katsuko 2Her collarbone reset with an audible snap. Katsuko, understandably, was vocal about it. Then: a flash of grey out of the corner of her eye; Raidou’s lunge; the jarring halt as the chaos resolved into the single point of Raidou’s hand wrapped around Kakashi’s wrist. Kakashi croaked something, voice rasping low enough that Katsuko couldn’t hear. Then he crumpled.

Nobody moved in the silence that followed. The haze of pain and fatigue muffling Katsuko’s brain added an extra layer of confusion to the whole mess.

In the absence of anything resembling normal in this situation, Katsuko fell back on the one familiar thing she could count on.

“Did Kakashi just faint again?” she demanded.

Raidou lowered Kakashi carefully down and pressed two fingers against the younger man’s pulse. “Looks like it.”

Genma leaned over to check Kakashi’s chakra. “Yeah. Honestly, I’m surprised he stayed awake as long as he did.” He looked up at Raidou. “Thanks for intervening. That was about to go badly wrong.”

Katsuko stared at Kakashi’s unconscious face and, in a spectacularly delayed reaction, realized that the shaky feeling in her chest was shock. “Shit,” she breathed. “He almost mangled you.”

Genma looked down at his hands and let out a low breath, giving himself a quick shake. His expression was as phlegmatic as ever, but adrenaline had leached some of the color from his skin. “Maybe that’s how we should try to recruit new field medics. ‘Do it for the rush.’”

“Hah,” Katsuko said, faintly, and considered lying down.

“I think he’s okay,” Raidou said, and pulled the rumpled blankets over Kakashi again. He moved himself around to settle behind Katsuko, offering his steady presence as support. Genma braced Katsuko’s good arm and searched her face with a medic’s concerned, clinical gaze.

“You alright?” Genma asked. “Want me to do a nerve block on that shoulder before the next part?”

Katsuko really, really did not need a repeat of the last few minutes. Kakashi might be unconscious, but the man had the hearing of a cat and the same predilection for doing the opposite of what she expected him to. She eyed the motionless, blanket-covered lump and leaned back, propping herself up on Raidou. “That’d be great, lieutenant.”

“Sorry I didn’t do it first, but I wanted to be sure you still had feeling in your fingers when I finished setting the bone back into place.” Genma took her right hand and squeezed her fingertips one at a time, watching for the color to return to each blanched nail. There were the usual kind of questions checking for nerve damage: do you have feeling in this finger? What about this one? Is it the same amount of feeling, or do you think your thumbs are going to fall off?

Raidou kept quiet while Katsuko answered Genma; her captain’s chakra was a compass pointing her towards solid ground, steady and calming as always.

No. Not always. Tsurugahama Port had proven that. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that Raidou was as human as the rest of Team Six. She was used to thinking of him as bedrock, constant and unfaltering. She’d forgotten that Raidou wasn’t much older than she was; that for all his authority, he wasn’t infallible. He’d pulled Katsuko back from the edge after the demon queen mission, but Katsuko hadn’t even thought to ask Raidou how he was handling his own personal fallout. Katsuko closed her eyes.

I’m an idiot.

Friendships were supposed to be about trust, an understanding that you gave as much as you took from the relationship—that you met the other person halfway. All Katsuko had done so far was take, and take, and take, without even considering what support she could give in return.

Katsuko had killed Tomoko and the Tsuto parents in cold blood today. She could still see Tomoko’s small body crumpled like a doll on the edge of the wharf. Raidou had executed Tsuto Sorai and beaten a Kiri-nin until the man’s skull shattered like porcelain. She couldn’t give back the lives she’d stolen, but she could be there for Raidou when the weight of this mission threatened to pull them both under.

“Taichou,” Katsuko said, opening her eyes. Something in her voice made Genma glance up at her in concern.

Raidou tipped his head down to look at her. “Yeah?”

She shouldn’t have taken her mask off. Her face felt naked. Genma was watching her like he half-expected her to have a seizure. It was hard enough dealing with feelings; she didn’t need to worry their overworked medic, too.

It was possible that she could have picked a better time for this. “Uh,” she got out. “I’m—I’m really glad you’re okay. So when we get home, can I treat you to lunch? All of you.”

She’d never offered to buy food for someone of her own free will before, let alone her whole team. Raidou was silent for a surprised moment. Then something in his expression eased, and he put his hand on Katsuko’s good shoulder, bandaged fingers resting gently against her unbroken collarbone. His voice was low and warm. “I’d like that.”

Katsuko contorted her face in an effort to disguise her expression and redirected her gaze at something safe and unable to make eye contact. She settled for the opposite wall of the bunker and said, “Good, cause I won’t do this for you guys again. This is a special occasion.”

She was so determined not to look at either man that she jumped in surprise when Genma moved into her line of vision. He tried to catch her eyes; she scowled and tipped her chin down to stare at his collarbones instead. She heard the smile in his voice when he said, “That’s reassuring. I was about to ask if you’d gotten a ding in the head when you took this injury.”

Head injuries. She knew she’d forgotten to tell the lieutenant something. In an effort to stave off the inevitable, Katsuko said abruptly, “What did Kakashi say? Before he fainted, I mean.”

“‘Don’t make her scream’,” Raidou said.

Katsuko stared at Kakashi, who was motionless beneath his nest of blankets. After a moment, she asked in a quiet voice, “How bad was the fight with Iebara?”

The clone she’d sent to interrogate Raidou had dispelled itself once it had learned the bare details of Genma’s, Kakashi’s and Ryouma’s side of the mission. Katsuko had the Bingo Book memorized; Iebara’s name had sent chills down her spine.

Genma’s eyes went flat with exhaustion. One hand lifted towards his bruised throat for a second, then dropped. “Bad. It was bad. I was doing my damnedest to avoid it—we almost had an agreement brokered with their captain.” He glanced at the door, in the direction of the bunker’s prison cells. “And then Iebara recognized Hatake and broke ranks.”

“And Kakashi killed Iebara with Iebara’s own jutsu, while you and Ryouma took out the rest of the squad.” Katsuko catalogued Genma’s visible injuries, feeling her mouth thin. “Iebara used his blood jutsu on all of you?”

“He took Tousaki’s and my blood and used it against Hatake.”

Katsuko hissed through her teeth. She studied Genma’s bruised throat and glanced over at Kakashi again. “I get it now.” She’d be pretty damn protective of the others, too, if she’d been in Kakashi’s place. Though she doubted she would have fared as well against Iebara as Kakashi had.

Sometimes she forgot Hatake Kakashi was a legend in the making. She had a hard enough time remembering he was supposed to be a genius. Every so often, though, things like this drove it home.

Grudgingly, Katsuko said, “I guess I should stop bullying him.”

When Ryouma got back from the shower, she was going to install him next to Kakashi in the blanket nest and never let them leave. Her rookies had gone above and beyond the call of duty for Team Six’s second mission, and they deserved rest.

“That might be a start,” Raidou murmured. His hand brushed against the back of her head. She could almost feel him frowning. “Also might want to explain this knot to the lieutenant.”

Taichou,” Katsuko said, appalled at his betrayal. Then she switched over to Genma, trying to mitigate the damage. “I got tackled through a wall, lieutenant, but it was a very thin wall and I feel a lot better now.”

Genma had his ’I am concerned about your health and your intelligence’ look on. He reached up and cupped the back of her head, probing the wound. “Any loss of consciousness or memory?”

Katsuko squawked. “Ow! No! Stop poking it!”

He dropped his hand. “I’ll deal with that in a minute, then. Keep your arm folded across your chest, I’m going to do that nerve block now. It’ll hurt for a second, but then everything from your shoulder down should go numb.”

No wait,” Katsuko blurted, and, when Genma paused, said in a voice full of spite, “Taichou has a head injury, too. A massive one. Someone punched him into a building and he left a dent.”

Genma paused, hands poised, and looked at Raidou with the calm expression of a man who’d accepted his team was full of idiots. Dryly and deliberately, he said, “Any loss of memory or consciousness?”

The sour note in Raidou’s voice made Katsuko smile beatifically. “It was a very thin building. I promise I’d tell you if I was dying; you can focus on her collarbone first.”

Genma visibly made the decision to proceed as if two senior members of his squad hadn’t just told on each other like Academy students. He looked at Raidou. “Got her steady?” When Raidou nodded, Genma asked Katsuko, “Ready?”

“Hit me,” Katsuko said.

The green glow of the medical jutsu flared. Katsuko’s shoulder went numb. She breathed out as she leaned against Raidou, who’d made himself into a wall behind her, and thought about other things. Hopefully Ryouma would be done with his shower by now. She was looking forward to the influx of his helper clone’s memories.

ryouma 5The water pressure in the safehouse shower was nothing to boast about, but Katsuko’s clone managed steaming heat for as long as the water in the tiny cistern lasted. Which wasn’t as long as Ryouma would have liked, either, but it was better than hosing off with rainwater and a jutsu, and at least he had his own rich-lathering soap from his kit.

Probably he should leave the bar in the shower for the next person who needed to clean off. Kakashi’d mocked Ryouma’s choice in soap scents before, but even he might not turn up his nose at blackberry vanilla. Katsuko would probably enjoy it.

She was still alive to enjoy things.

He took a deep breath, steam thick in his sore throat, water hot on his shoulders. He’d never really let himself contemplate the possibility that she might not be, that one month of wicked jokes and careless closeness might be all he’d get. That he never would get a second chance with Raidou, or even a chance to get over him.

He’d told himself, that whole agonizing slog, that they’d be there at the safehouse, waiting with hot drinks and cheerful criticism. That Fukuda’s threat was sheer bravado, the last poisonous strike of a woman who’d already lost everything. And he’d believed it, or thought he did. There was nothing to be worried about. Katsuko and Raidou could handle anything Kiri threw at them. They had to.

That was the really awful thing about having a team, the thing he’d forgotten: how much it hurt when you knew you might lose them.

Well, they weren’t lost. He’d been right. Katsuko couldn’t lift her arm and Raidou looked like he’d punched his way through a stone wall, but they’d made it back from Tsurugahama. Katsuko’d supplied the hot tea and the criticism all by herself. Raidou hadn’t said much, but he’d given Ryouma a hand with his cut armor-strap, in between getting Kakashi and Katsuko settled and rigged up with IVs. The whole team was back, they were safe, Katsuko had a sling and Kakashi had a warm bed and medical attention. Genma’d fixed the bleeding in his leg, and the mission was over.

So why the hell did he still feel like the walls were just waiting to cave in on him?

If it were just mission nerves, he should already have come down. That long miserable trek in the rain, Kakashi half-conscious on his back and the lieutenant limping ahead of him, should have drained him to the bone. And he was tired, chakra low, muscles aching, he just—

The mission was over. He was supposed to be able to relax.

“You’re doing the handsome brooding thing again,” Katsuko’s shadow clone commented, glancing over its shoulder. It kept its good hand on the cistern, high above its head, although the water pressure was already beginning to slacken. “Are you having a heart-to-heart with the showerhead?”

“It doesn’t have a heart,” Ryouma said. “It can’t understand.”

“That was deep,” the clone said. “Soap-opera levels of deep. It makes me want to give you a hug, but I have to stay over here to heat your shower water.”

“Plus, boundaries,” Ryouma murmured. It didn’t seem as funny as usual.

He ducked his head beneath the thin spray one last time and then stepped back, shaking wet hair out of his eyes. His hands didn’t smell anymore, and the squelching memory of rot beneath his fingers wasn’t something you could wash away. “That’s enough. I’m good.”

The clone dropped its hand from the cistern to the rusty tap and screwed the water off. It stayed politely pressed against the tiled wall while Ryouma edged out of the cramped stall and wrapped his narrow, threadbare towel around his hips. The concrete floor was cold and slick under his wet feet. He thought fleetingly of the bathroom in Tsuto’s house, with its warm wood floor and huge soaking tub.

The water turning red, as Kakashi scrubbed his hands, and then black, when Ryouma took his place.

He’d left his soap in the shower. The clone was just coming out, shaking water out of its hair. It pulled back in surprise when he brushed past it. He grabbed the soap and went to the sink. The water here was icy, no visible cistern to warm, but the soap still lathered. He scraped at the beds of his nails, at the creases of his palms. The scabs where Tsuto Sakako’s nails had torn the backs of his fingers broke open and began to ooze again.

Katsuko’s clone stepped up beside him, and touched his wrist.

He stopped. The thin bar of soap slid between his fingers and fell sideways, blocking the drain. The scent of blackberries and vanilla rose, cloyingly sweet.

“Sorry,” he said. He turned off the tap, fished the soap out and left it on the side of the sink, wiped his stinging hands on his towel-clad thighs and turned to find his utility belt. He didn’t look at the clone. “I know it’s stupid. I just had to be sure.”

Callused fingertips brushed the back of his shoulder. “It’s okay.”

It wasn’t, but he appreciated the effort. “Thanks,” he said. He crouched down, shivering a little in the cold, and pulled out the scroll containing clean clothes. His raw fingers left pink streaks on the paper. He tried to ignore that. “You did a good job with the water, by the way. Hot all the way through, but it never burned.” He broke the seal on the scroll, waved away smoke, and pulled out clean trunks and his second set of ANBU blacks. “You should go into business, when you’re ready to retire. Best bathhouses in Konoha. Wouldn’t even need a hot spring.”

“Only if you’re the half-naked model for the bathhouse ads,” the clone said, cheering up.

Ryouma smiled down at his neatly rolled clothes. “You don’t think the tattoos’d scare all the old aunties off?”

“Tattoos are actually old aunties’ greatest weakness,” the clone said loftily. “You heartbreaker, you.”

“Well, then we’ve both got our post-retirement careers planned out.” Ryouma dropped the towel and pulled his trunks on. “You can hire the rest of the team to scrub the baths. Kakashi seems like he’d be a hard worker.”

“We can assign everyone special uniforms,” the clone said, rubbing its chin. “Yours will be a steam cloud and a smile.”

Hah,” Ryouma said, and pulled on his actual uniform, ignoring his discarded kneebrace. The tight, stretchy black fabric tended to cling to damp skin, despite his rough toweling, but he managed to wrestle the trousers up to his hips and do up the buttons. The shirt was more daunting, involving some wriggling to unroll it past his ribs, but if the clone enjoyed the show, at least it didn’t comment. Maybe Katsuko’d done her own absurd tight-clothes-dance, when there wasn’t time to airdry.

“Thanks for your help,” he said finally, tucking his shirt into his trousers. He crouched down again to seal up his old trunks and knee brace in the scroll. The scroll slotted into its waterproof pouch, and Ryouma straightened, slinging the soggy belt over his shoulder. “Was there food happening somewhere? We should bring it to ’em.”

Definitely food happening,” the clone said. It pushed away from the sink, skirting the toilet, and patted his biceps as it drew even with him. “And you can help carry it all.”

“It can’t be heavier than Kakashi.” He hitched his slippery belt up his shoulder again and followed the clone out into the hall.

The kitchen was the opposite direction from the bunkroom, easily identified by the rich, oily scent of rehydrated beef curry. They’d eaten that by the gallon during the war, when they could get it. Ryouma ducked into the tiny kitchen alcove to find another of Katsuko’s clones crouched over a tiny campstove and a bubbling pot, while a third swore at a foil bag of instant rice.

The rice was crunchy, but not inedible. Ryouma found tin bowls, and the clones poured rice in and spooned curry on top. “Maybe the curry will soften it,” one of the clones said hopefully.

The clone from the shower looked doubtful, but it let itself be laden down with a third bowl. The remaining bowl, out of a set of four, had an old hole burned through the bottom. They gathered around to stare at it in dismay.

“We can eat in shifts,” Ryouma decided, finally. “There’s not all that much left anyway. Might as well scrape the rest of this in Katsuko’s bowl and make a second batch later.” He looked around. “Spoons?”

A scrambling search produced the large metal spoon the clones had been using to stir the curry, several teaspoons, and a cardboard box of disposable chopsticks in paper packets. It was the shower clone, flushed and triumphant, who found another unlabeled box with a treasure trove of cutlery, including a set of six matching flat-bowled curry spoons. The clone wiped one off carefully on its pant leg, stuck it into a bowl of curry, and smiled proudly over the result.

Back in the bunkroom, Kakashi was asleep again under his pile of blankets. Katsuko sat beside him, with Raidou settled behind her, holding her between his bent knees. Genma had taken a weird sort of sideways seat at the edge of the platform in front of them, with his bad leg stretched out and his good leg tucked under him. He was just lowering his hands, no longer lit with green healer’s chakra, from Katsuko’s shoulder to his kit.

Ryouma leaned against the doorframe and watched as Genma eased Katsuko’s bad arm back into the sling and strapped it down to her ribcage. “That’s just barely knit together, so don’t move it,” he warned her. “When the nerve block wears off, stay on top of your painkillers. Take them on the clock, don’t wait for it to start hurting.”

“You have to take painkillers with food, right?” Katsuko asked craftily.

That seemed as good an introduction as any. Ryouma cleared his throat. “I come bearing calories.”

Katsuko straightened as if she’d been shocked. Her face was pale and damp with sweat, and she swayed a little before Raidou steadied her, but her smile bloomed for Ryouma alone. “You are my favorite,” she told Ryouma, and held out her good hand for the bowls he carried. “I love curry. I love you. I love you and curry. Get over here, curry minion.”

“Is that a promotion?” Ryouma handed her the biggest bowl, but waited to make sure her grip was good before he held the other one out to Genma. “You and I get second shift, taichou. We ran out of bowls. Figured I’d see what Kakashi can get down him, first. Payback for Hayama.”

Raidou gave him an approving nod, touched with the edge of an eye-crinkling smile. “You can try with Hatake. He just wiped out, but if you can wake him up and get food into him, that’d probably help.”

Ryouma ducked his head. Maybe he should be used to that smile by now, but it always seemed to strike him at unexpected moments, like a knifeblade twisting up through a weakness in the armor and sliding between his ribs.

He really needed to get out, when he got back to Konoha. Find someone whose smile he liked better, or at least almost as well. Work out some of that post-battle adrenaline, shake off the mission-nerves. Find a little time, and space, to forget.

It’d worked before, after other missions.

He took the last bowl from Katsuko’s shadow clone, tossed his utility belt towards the pile of wet gear stacked against the wall, and climbed up the platform to Kakashi’s side. Staring down at the scrap of Kakashi’s face visible between blanket and hair—barely a sliver of closed eye and bruised socket—he wondered if Sharingan no Kakashi, with his razorblade cheekbones and his desperate discomfort with anything that verged beyond a joke, had ever even wanted the comfort of someone else’s body.

Probably not. He was ice on the mission, ruin on the battlefield. He wouldn’t reach for people, and he didn’t need them.

Ryouma wished, desperately, for some of that cool detachment.

Well, distraction would do instead. For a while.

He set the steaming curry bowl down on the earthen platform beside him and peeled the blankets back from Kakashi’s shoulder. Kakashi was still in bandage mask, black trunks, and bandages, but there were new little dots of tape scattered across his torso and arms, some overlapping bandages and some cluttering up the only bare skin that wasn’t white-swathed after Iebara’s attack. The new bits of tape all had numbers written on them in a tiny, careful hand.

Shaking him awake was likely to be a bad idea, even if there was an undamaged spot to grab. Kakashi’s chakra-spark and ice-freeze in Hayama deserved retaliation, but he’d probably electrocute before he punched. Anyway, even if Kakashi had no compunctions against straining someone with stressed chakra coils, Ryouma could be a slightly better person.

Or, at least, less of a bastard.

He dipped the spoon in curry, scraped the drips off on the rim of the bowl, and twitched aside the line of bandage that wrapped under Kakashi’s nose. Strong scent was usually a decent way to wake even a deep sleeper up, and curry was nearly as good as coffee, but Kakashi didn’t twitch. Snapping fingers next to his ear produced no effect, either.

“He woke up when I screamed,” Katsuko put in helpfully. She had nearly finished her bowl of curry, and was eyeing Genma’s.

“Or you could try something that doesn’t put the lieutenant’s fingers at risk again,” Raidou said dryly.

“Let him sleep,” Genma said. “If he’s that out, he’ll recover chakra faster sleeping than he would trying to digest a belly full of food, if you could even get it into him.”

“Bet that’s not what you said when he froze me,” Ryouma muttered. He pulled the blankets up to Kakashi’s chin again and rocked back on his heels. “Guess we can keep something by for when he wakes up.”

He contemplated the bowl of curry, the half-cooked rice and the sheen of grease on top. His stomach turned. Maybe in the war he’d have gulped it down, but it wasn’t wartime anymore, and he didn’t need a full belly just so he could fight in the morning. There were still energy bars in his belt pouch. He’d pull one out later, when he was hungry again.

“Taichou, you want this?”

Raidou glanced down at Katsuko, who twisted around to gaze pleadingly up at him. Wordlessly, he reached across Kakashi’s body for the bowl and handed it to her. She settled it into the empty shell of her first bowl and dug gleefully in.

“You should eat something too, Tousaki,” Genma said quietly. “Or at least drink some more.”

Raidou peeled himself back from Katsuko and swung his legs over the side of the platform. “Everyone should. I know there was more tea in the kitchen; the clones might even’ve managed to not set it on fire. Can you stay upright for another five minutes, Lieutenant? I’d like your eyes on that Kiri-nin.” His voice shaded wry. “And also on me, if you have it in you.”

Genma swallowed a last bite and set his curry down, half-finished, at Katsuko’s feet. He pushed himself stiffly up.

“Tousaki, Ueno, reckon you can keep Hatake warm between you?” Raidou picked up the med-kit, stepped off the platform, and presented his broad shoulder to Genma just before the lieutenant’s bad leg tried to buckle. Genma grabbed his armor shoulder-strap. They paced a careful doubled stride out of the room. Raidou paused just before they reached the door. “Try not to induce him to bite anyone, for preference.”

“Wow,” Ryouma said, in the silence of their passing. “Now I really want to snuggle Kakashi even more. Way to be motivating, taichou.”

Katsuko took a fantastically large bite of beef and potato, chewed briefly, and then came to a decision. She set her doubled bowls down, rolled up to her knees, and crawled around Kakashi and his blanket nest to tug at Ryouma’s arm. “It’s okay,” she said gravely. “I’ll protect you.” She lifted the nearest edge of blanket and tried to shove him under it.

“My hero,” Ryouma said, mostly to see her smile, and let her pull him down.

Kakashi was still shivering. At least he could think of this as one more job to do.

genma 14The IV, however necessary, was proving to be enough trouble Genma wasn’t sure it was worth it. He looped the hanger over the belt hook that usually held his mask when it wasn’t on his face. Quartermaster Morita would be unimpressed with the smashed remains of Genma’s custom-painted tanuki mask, but the empty hook was convenient. Of course the IV wouldn’t work hung from his waist, but he should have had Raidou hold off placing it until he was ready to lie down and call this day over.

Treading the fine line of being the medic and being a patient was always a challenge. ‘Treat the medic first’ was sacrosanct, especially in a unit with only one, but—

Raidou interrupted his train of thought with a pointed look at the blood flowing backwards in the IV tubing from Genma’s arm, now that gravity was working against him.

“I know,” Genma said. “We’ll hang it up when I sit down again. If Iebara hadn’t managed to bleed me quite so much, this wouldn’t even be necessary. Not that we knew he could do that, but still.”

“Now might be a good time for the full story on that,” Raidou said. “You mentioned it was a medical jutsu? I’m guessing that accounts for your leg. And Kakashi copied it—which, I didn’t think he could do medical jutsu?”

“He can’t, as far as I know,” Genma said. “He might have copied that jutsu, but his execution got radically different results from Iebara.”


“Tousaki and I are still mostly in one piece: I think the biggest piece of Iebara left would have fit in one hand.”

Raidou paused for the edge of a second, taking in Genma’s words. “That’d do it.”

Genma snorted, but a misstep and an abrupt jolt of pain killed his laugh. Raidou steadied him with a quick grab and a tighter hold on Genma’s waist, making Genma acutely conscious of the bandages and abrasions covering the captain’s shoulders.

They passed the cells, one occupied, one empty. The Mist captain was huddled on the floor, wrapped in a blanket. She needed medical treatment, but Raidou came first. And Genma himself. If he’d been her prisoner, he had no doubt her priorities would have put him last, too.

Raidou helped Genma limp into the tiny kitchen, where Katsuko’s clones were making merry havoc with tea. Two clones were encouraging a third, who was spooning sugar into a pot steaming over a kerosene burner. The contents were a murky green—an open canister of powdered matcha suggested the reason. They snapped to attention when Genma and Raidou entered. One of them grabbed a wooden crate and shoved it at them while another produced a folding chair with a triumphant look.

Raidou thanked them both and helped Genma sit, but it still took a moment for Genma’s heart rate to slow and his visual field to widen back to normal. Which was why he needed that IV. Dammit.

While he caught his breath, Raidou reached across, gently freed the IV bag from Genma’s belt, and stood up to tack it into the wall with a kunai, where gravity would actually help it work. The thin swirl of crimson flushed out of the line, washed back into Genma’s veins. Ringer’s wasn’t a substitute for real blood, but it was a good bandaid.

When Raidou sat back down, Katsuko’s third clone offered Genma a battered mug of swampy-looking tea.

“Why would a safehouse bunker have matcha?” Genma asked, staring at it. “No, never mind, It’s good. Tea is tea, and caffeine is caffeine.” He took a cautious sip. Sweet enough to make his teeth ache. “That’s probably enough sugar,” he told the cooking clone.

Raidou leaned past the clones to give the ‘tea’ a dubious look. His eyes lifted to a cluster of mismatched cups and mugs stacked upside down on top of another crate, and visibly made the decision to inflict the concoction on other people. “Take a mug each through for Tousaki and Ueno—she’s probably not asleep yet.”

Two clones immediately started ladling tea.

“Fukuda can have one, too,” Raidou added.

All three clones turned puzzled faces towards him.

“Kiri-nin,” explained Raidou.

One of the clones offered a mug of tea to Raidou, but he shook his head at it, earning a glowering look of reproach from the rejected clone. He shooed it away with the other clone that had gone to deliver Katsuko and Ryouma’s tea.

“It’s not as bad as it looks, taichou,” Genma said, sipping the syrupy tea. The clones had put in at least as much of the matcha powder as they had sugar. “It’s sweet, but good and strong. Bunker tea. They made it like they were making coffee.”

Raidou grimaced. “Kind of… bit my tongue earlier. I was thinking I’d stick to cold. Water’s good enough.”

That explained the thick edge to Raidou’s voice—Genma’d thought it was just fatigue, not a clumsy, swollen tongue. “Open your mouth and let me see?” he said. “You can sit on the crate.”

The lone remaining clone leaned in, evidently just as interested in Raidou’s medical treatment as Genma was.

“Didn’t one of you go to find a radio?” Genma asked it. “Go find them. And the radio. Taichou and I don’t need an audience.”

The clone heaved a deep sigh and made a face so distraught Genma had to laugh. It hauled itself upright and shuffled slowly out of the room, lasering injured looks over its shoulder.

“If I wasn’t so tired, and that wasn’t a clone, I’d make it run laps for insubordination,” Genma said.

“Ueno will be so pleased she was right,” Raidou observed.

“Giving me grief about obeying an order isn’t the same as sneaking a peek while I’m in the shower,” Genma said. “But yeah.” He peered into Raidou’s mouth and found a double set of clotted lacerations on either side of Raidou’s tongue. The tissue was swollen and red around the teeth marks.

“Did this on purpose, or did you get hit with an uppercut?”

Raidou’s eyes flicked down and away for an instant. “Genjutsu,” he said in a low voice.

’Crap at genjutsu,’ was how Raidou had described himself to Genma back when they’d first met about Team Six. Judging by the wounds, Raidou had to have bitten down at least twice…

“Did it work?” Genma asked.

“Well, I’m not dead,” Raidou told him. Which wasn’t exactly a yes. “Did have to sacrifice your senbon for a self-stab, though. Ueno already looked at it.”

Genma sucked his lips in. “Good thing I didn’t give you a poisoned one.”

Raidou’s watered-down smirk of agreement was cut with something darker.

It begged a question: if Raidou had used the senbon to break a genjutsu on himself, how had he killed the infant target Genma’d given it to him for? Had he even made that kill, or had it fallen on Katsuko?

“Stick it out again, I’ll take the swelling down,” Genma said. “This isn’t terrible, and tongues generally heal well on their own, but no sense you being in pain.”

When he’d finished Raidou’s tongue, he moved on to inspect the knot at Raidou’s temple. There was some bruising and swelling above the ear, and a second tender spot on the opposite side of Raidou’s head.

“This the head injury Ueno mentioned?”

“Feels like it,” Raidou said, wincing away from Genma’s touch. “If you can do anything about the headache, you’ll be my new favorite person.”

“I can do that,” Genma told him. “And not just because I want to be your favorite, either.” He closed his hands carefully over the two bruises and pulsed chakra in, feeling for the clean echo that meant no fractures. “Ueno said you dented a building, and you didn’t really answer before, so I have to ask: any loss of consciousness or memory? Even just getting a little zoned out counts. And any head injury symptoms now besides headache?”

Raidou was quiet for a moment, inwardly focused. “No symptoms right now,” he said carefully. “Nothing at the time that read as dangerous, except maybe a little dizziness.” Before Genma could follow up on that evasive eddy, Raidou quirked a smile. “If you want to quiz me on everything, would it be easier just to take my shirt off now?”

“Actually, yes,” Genma said. “I should probably check under your bandages, too. Not that I don’t trust you and Ueno.”

Raidou snorted and sat back to peel himself out of arm-guards, gloves, armor, and shirt. He folded them up fairly neatly and set them aside, moving with the slow care of a man whose bruises were starting to assert their dominance.

There was a spectacular one wrapping the left half of Raidou’s ribcage.

“Wow,” Genma said. “Good thing I didn’t put all my chakra into fixing your headache yet. Those feel broken to you? How’s your breathing?” If there were significant lung contusions, Raidou’d probably be coughing and breathless, but with minor damage, the adrenaline focus of managing a mission might have kept the impairment beneath his notice.

Raidou glanced down and raised a hand to give his ribs a thorough, professional mashing. “Just bruised, I think,” he said, pushing hard enough that if there weren’t fractures grating under the skin yet, there would be soon.

Genma cringed. “Try not to make it wor—”

“Maybe a crack?” Raidou said, ignoring Genma. He dropped his bandaged hands from the spreading bruise and held them out. “But I’d rather you look at my hands first.” There was a subtle tension in his voice, with good reason, Genma guessed. A ninja with crippled hands was looking at the end of his career.

He leaned forward, ignoring the throb in his thigh when he put even a little weight on the outstretched leg, and cast a first-level concussion-mending jutsu. When Raidou’s eyelids flickered and he took a slightly deeper breath, Genma let the jutsu drop.

Raidou yawned almost immediately. That was a good sign. As a field medic, Genma’d seen it often enough he’d learned to rely on it—when pain was relieved, the patient relaxed and often yawned without even realizing they’d done so.

“Feel better?” Genma asked, knowing the answer was yes.

“Mm,” Raidou said. “Thanks.”

“Good,” Genma said, pleased. “Hands?” He found his bandage scissors and started snipping the gauze and tape from Raidou’s left hand, finger by finger. When he got everything unwrapped, he took a minute to study the damage. Despite the thick scars from years of taijutsu toughening, every knuckle was flayed raw, and there were dark swellings over the heads of the metacarpals.

Genma raised his eyebrows. “Minimal cuts?”

“Minimal-ish?” Raidou offered guiltily.

“Let’s have the other one.” When Genma’d repeated the de-bandaging, he found Raidou’s right hand even worse than the left. “Ueno did a good job bandaging these,” he said. There was something whitish gleaming in one of the deeper lacerations. Genma frowned. “This looks like it’s down to bone.”

Raidou squinted at the injury in the dim light from the overhead bulb. “I don’t think that’s mine,” he admitted.

“Ah,” Genma said, nodding with a medic’s practiced reserve. “Well. That’s potentially both better and worse.” Better if it wasn’t Raidou’s own bones denuded of flesh. Worse if there were shards of infective material lodged deep in the wounds. “I need to irrigate and flush the wounds, debride them, get all the foreign matter out—it’s going to hurt. Do you want me to do a nerve block, or should I just give you something for pain before I start?”

Raidou shook his head with an irritated scowl. “Don’t waste the chakra. I’ve taken painkillers. Just do whatever you need to.”

’Ask the captain,’ Ueno’s clone had said, when he’d asked if there was more to the story.

“Namiashi-taichou—” Genma started, and hesitated. It was hard to know your place on a new team. If it had been Hajime, Genma would have asked straight out. And he’d have known exactly what that grim, inward-focused expression on his captain’s face meant.

Katsuko’s clone came back at last, with its twin. “No radio,” one reported. The second craned its neck to look at the gory desecration of Raidou’s knuckles.

Genma swallowed a curse. “Go get me another IV setup,” he told the gawking one. Maybe it was his tone of voice, or maybe it was something in Raidou’s face, but this time it obeyed without hesitation.

“Figures,” Raidou muttered. He addressed the remaining clone. “Pick two more of your friends; I want three messages run out on foot. Uotani Temple, Akasugi Ridge, and Porei Cove are the closest safehouses, and I know the first two are definitely staffed. Porei was having turnover, but it’s worth trying.”

Those were the three Genma would have named, too. Everything else was too far to be worth the run.

“Tell ’em—” Raidou started.

The clone rattled off the distress code immediately, sharp edged with Katsuko’s professional focus: Code Smoldering Branch. ANBU Team Six. All injured, three seriously. Enemy ninja engaged; no escapees. One prisoner. Evac needed. Mission successful.

“Might want to lead with that last bit,” Raidou advised. “Perfect otherwise. Kill yourselves if you hit trouble or deliver the message, so Ueno knows.”

The clone saluted and turned just as its twin arrived with the IV bag. Genma took the bag, and the first clone took its clone twin. “Code Smouldering Branch,” it said, and the second clone nodded and swung into step with it.

When they had the kitchen to themselves again, Genma picked up where he’d left off. Clear-headed, or bull-headed, he wasn’t sure which, but right now he was Raidou’s medic more than his lieutenant. “No one gets in a fight so bad they end up with the other guy’s bones embedded in the wounds without a really good reason. Let me at least numb them up with a local.”

“I don’t want it,” Raidou said flatly.

Genma didn’t say anything, but he didn’t move to start cleaning the wounds, either.

“I earned ’em,” Raidou gritted out at last. “And I was stupid about doing it. Next time, I want a good reason to think twice.”

There it was. The edge of whatever had gone so wrong on Raidou and Katsuko’s half of the mission. Or maybe the edge of the things that had gone right.

“Alright,” Genma said gently. “But if you’re in a lot of pain when I finish, you won’t be focused. And I think you’re going to want some focus, taichou.”

“If I couldn’t focus around a little pain, I wouldn’t be doing this job,” Raidou said. Still flat, like he meant what he said and he was done arguing. He held his hands up for Genma.

Trying one more time would be pushing it too far. But not trying felt like a betrayal of Genma’s responsibility as a medic. “I could giv—”

“Just get on with it, Shiranui,” Raidou snapped.

“Captain,” Genma said. Over the line, Shiranui. You should listen to your instincts sometime.

He sterilized a pair of tweezers with a swipe of an alcohol pad, opened the valve on the IV tubing, and let the Ringer’s solution sluice the wounds. Raidou held his hands under the flow with an iron will and not even a flinch. Not until Genma started digging out the deeply embedded debris. Then Raidou’s breath hitched a little.

Genma glanced up to find Raidou’s face tense and pale, eyes fixed in grim determination.

So much for being the captain’s favorite person.

raidou 9Genma wasn’t wrong: it hurt.

It wasn’t the good kind of pain either, like sunburn and healing bones and anything you took in the middle of a fight that didn’t kill you. This was cold and sharp, with no adrenaline to blunt the edge. But that was sort of the point. Raidou had lost himself tonight, drowned control in rage and wrath and a lot of blood; he should feel the aftermath now.

He’d call it masochism, if he was actually enjoying it.

Penance was closer.

Genma finished picking the few missed bone chips and blackened specks of who-knew-what, and moved on to debridement. That definitely hurt. Hands had a lot of nerves, and no system built in to gate pain; the body liked to know exactly what was going on with its most important tools. Raidou let out a slow breath.

Genma paused. Then, silently, continued.

Raidou watched the sun-streaked head bent low, the bottom lip caught between white teeth in lieu of a senbon, the tired eyes still managing to focus, and thought, I’m being an asshole. Penance was something you did yourself; not something you dragged an exhausted, injured medic into against his better judgement. But the anger was still there, flickering around the edges, and Raidou couldn’t make himself apologize.

Debridement gave way to a second round of Ringer’s-flushing, which stained the dirt floor faintly red around their feet. Genma wrapped glowing fingers around Raidou’s hands, and healing flooded in. Oozing blood sucked back, replaced by knitting pink flesh and black scabs, and the odd tingle of infection cleansing. About a week’s worth of healing, if Raidou was any judge. Genma let go before the wounds were closed, but what he left behind looked significantly better. He packed ointment and clean gauze over Raidou’s knuckles, and bandaged everything tightly.

Then there was the rest.

Raidou sat still while Genma went over Katsuko’s handiwork, peeling back bandages to look underneath. Most of it passed muster; it wasn’t Katsuko’s first rodeo, either. A few long wooden splinters got yanked—remainder of being blown through a wall, Raidou guessed—and Genma spared a handful of green sparks to stitch healing into the nastier burns and whatever damage was lurking in Raidou’s ribs.

“Cracked,” Genma muttered, pressing on his side.

There was a faint shift under skin, like bone bending backwards. It stung viciously, then settled. Genma gave a grunt of satisfaction.

“Anything I missed?” he asked.

“Senbon,” Raidou said.

“Show me.”

The puncture was tiny but it went deep into the side of Raidou’s thigh, more like a syringe mark than anything weapons-related. Genma gave it a narrow look, and Raidou could guess what he was thinking: infection was a risk, especially if the stabbing item wasn’t clean. Raidou didn’t object when Genma splayed a hand over his leg and shoved healing in. When the lieutenant pulled back, only a sealed pinkish dot remained.

After everything else, that seemed a little anticlimactic.

But the healing had done its job. Raidou felt scoured, stripped-clean—and steadier inside his own skin. His hands were a solid, red-edged ache from wrists to fingertips, throbbing like a migraine beneath the bandages, but that was good: real, real, real, no genjutsu here. His hair was plastered down with sweat and his shirt stuck to him when he pulled it back on. He badly needed a shower.

But he felt better.

And Genma looked worse. The lieutenant swayed once on his folding chair, grey-faced, nearly pitching off. Raidou snapped out a hand and steadied him, jaw clenching when he found Genma’s chakra burned down to a simmer. Not dangerously low, not yet, but getting close.

“Hang on,” Raidou said, as Genma blinked hazily through blackening eyes. He’d healed Raidou’s damn tongue, but he hadn’t bothered with his own broken nose yet.

“Mm-hm,” Genma managed, faintly breathless.

Raidou cracked a second soldier pill between his teeth. Salt-and-steel flooded his mouth, followed closely by the hot chakra slap. He waited just long enough for the energy to hit his coils, then laid a hand over Genma’s cold forehead. A forehead-to-forehead transfer was useful for exchanging chakra fast, but Genma was on the edge of his reserves and Raidou’s chakra control wasn’t exactly subtle; letting it trickle through a palm was better.

He pulled the energy up, focused it, and poured it carefully, carefully into the access point between Genma’s eyebrows, where Buddhists believed the third eye lived. Genma sighed softly, shoulders slumping. His eyes fluttered closed, dark lashes making an inky sweep against bruised, pale skin.

As Raidou kept the channel open, funneling chakra through as slowly as he could, Genma’s cheeks gained color. The paper-white lips pinked up, and his nail-beds lost a little of their faint bluish edge, fingertips warming. Chakra helped blood move, and Genma had given up too much of both.

A blood transfusion would help, but they weren’t exactly flush with sources. Raidou was AB-positive, Ryouma was B-positive: both poison to Genma’s A-positive. Kakashi and Katsuko were O-negative, universal donors, but Kakashi wasn’t in shape to donate anything, and Katsuko had broken bones and a chakra system that would gladly knock her flat if she used too many reserves—she was already struggling to eat enough.

Which left the Kiri-ninja.

If Genma got worse, Raidou would tap her for everything she had and lose no sleep over it.

But he didn’t think they were quite there yet. Genma had blood pills, food in his stomach, fresh chakra in his coils, and an IV spilling fluids into his veins. If he could hold on, it was safer than filling him up with unknown, risky blood. For now.

Genma opened his eyes; they were tired, but less dizzy. “Thanks, taichou,” he mumbled. “Didn’t mean to drop myself so low. I misjudged that.”

“You wouldn’t be the first,” Raidou said. As far as he knew, even Konoha’s medical elite had a rich history of falling face-down on battlefields and in hospitals, and Genma wasn’t in their shiny echelons. It was just a hazard of the job.

“Yeah,” Genma said. “And I was just lecturing Tousaki about conserving his chakra—” He stopped mid-sentence. Then, with the particular skill that came from battle-experience and a lot of practice operating on vapors, snapped himself back together, eyes going sharp. “We need to talk about Tousaki.”

Raidou blinked. Ryouma was the least injured of anyone. “Why?”

“He wasn’t okay when we finished our mission,” Genma said. “I took the grandparents and the teens, but the teenage girl got away from me. Tousaki and Hatake had to deal with her.”

Ah, Raidou thought.

“Hatake handled it well enough, but Tousaki’s never had a mission like this,” Genma continued, clearly determined to get his full report out before he fell over. “I was going to talk to him on the run back here, but we picked up the Kiri ninja’s signatures before we’d even left city limits. I never got the chance.”

That was ANBU missions for you—always ready to deal more harm before you’d recovered from the last piece.

“Not okay how?” Raidou asked.

“Unsettled? Unhappy?” Genma said, with the grimace of a man who wanted better words. He straightened his face out immediately; that’d probably jarred his nose. “He barely spoke in complete sentences in the immediate aftermath, and his energy was off. If I had to guess, it didn’t sit well with him having to kill two—no, three—defenseless civilians, no matter how corrupt they were. Especially the daughter. She was just collateral.” His eyes dropped to the ground. “I’m sorry I let her get past me. She had a tanto we didn’t know about; she got my clone with it.”

“So long as she didn’t get you with it,” Raidou said, dismissing guilt they didn’t need. “Can’t be helped; I wouldn’t linger on it. You said everything else was a success?”

“Complete success.” Genma looked up again. “All family members in the house are dead, and the corpses identifiable. Tsuto went last—the rookies both hit him with their special jutsu. We emptied his treasury and found documents that look like financial records of the coup plot. Intel should be delighted.” He took a breath and picked up his abandoned cup of massacred matcha, cradling it between long-fingered hands. “Killed twelve guards, left the rest of the house staff alive, torched the interior but made sure the structure stayed upright and the bodies weren’t touched. And I burned Konoha’s mark into the front door.”

“Good,” Raidou said, and meant it.

It wasn’t hard to picture what the aftermath looked like. He’d seen Kakashi’s jutsu in action; Ryouma’s, too. Lightning and rot targeted at one body, with slaughtered teenagers stacked into the equation—that was a rough day for a veteran, let alone a rookie on his second mission out.

Kakashi, at least, was too unconscious to care. It was even odds whether he did anyway.

Raidou rubbed a hand over his mouth and tried to bludgeon his brain into better working order. “You think he’s a break risk, or just struggling a little? He seemed together enough with Hatake and Ueno.”

Though Ryouma’s clone had certainly been intent on staring Fukuda down, and clones were always a good mirror for the mind that had created them.

Genma’s eyes closed briefly. “I don’t know. I don’t know him well enough to know. He sharpened up and dealt with the fight with the Kiri ninja well, but he also almost got killed during it.” He paused again. “I should probably tell you that part, too, huh?”


“Iebara took blood from me and Tousaki to attack Hatake.” Genma touched a ragged red scar on his right shoulder, which bore all the rough hallmarks of a field-healing. “Tousaki and I regrouped while Hatake kept Iebara engaged. We managed a coordinated attack on Iebara, but he was just a better fighter. He almost snapped my neck, and he tried to drown Tousaki with blood he’d stolen from me. Nearly succeeded. I had to use a medical jutsu to pull the blood back out of his lungs.”

By the end of that little speech, Genma was breathing hard. Since he hadn’t mentioned pulling blood out of his own lungs, that was probably normal blood-loss working against him—it was hard to get enough oxygen when you were low on the red cells needed to carry it.

Raidou took a slow, deliberate breath, feeling healed ribs flex with a lingering ache, and then another. Genma’s eyes flickered, something wry lighting up the odd gold of his irises, but he copied Raidou without needing a more obvious nudge, slowing and settling his breathing.

“This’ll be the second mission Tousaki’s lungs have taken a knock,” Raidou said. “We need to watch him for infection again?”

Genma tipped his head neutrally, neither a yes or a no. “I got the blood out less than five minutes after he inhaled it, and it wasn’t putrid like the slime from his jutsu, but there’s always some risk. When I checked him, he sounded clear. He’ll probably be alright, but I’ll keep a close eye on him.”

When they were done here, Raidou suspected Genma had about enough energy left to get back to the bunkroom and collapse, but he admired the man’s dedication. And at least pneumonia wasn’t something Ryouma could hide.

“Tell me how you won,” Raidou said.

“With effort,” Genma said, dry. “It took a couple of high level jutsu from Tousaki and me just to give Hatake an opening with Iebera, but the rest of the Kiri team got involved when it looked like we were actually getting the upper hand. If they’d stayed out of it, I’m pretty sure Hatake’d be in better shape.”

“Since he’s got a Bingo Book kill under his belt, I doubt he’ll care.” Assuming he wakes back up. “Did Iebara bleed him, too?”

“I don’t think so, but I didn’t see the end of the fight,” Genma said, sounding frustrated. “He certainly had a lot of cuts—looked like senbon—but his vitals didn’t reflect a significant blood loss. When Iebara yanked blood, he yanked a lot.”

“That’s something.” Raidou managed a faint, dark smile. “And Hatake yanked him back, even if he flatlined himself to do it. He’s going to be insufferable about that when he’s up again.”

Genma snorted quietly. “Probably.” His eyes darkened. “But Tousaki—”

“Had a bastard mission and a bastard fight on top of it, and a teammate that dropped himself. If that’s making you feel guilty, it’s probably making him feel worse,” Raidou braced his elbows on his knees. “He did okay after the last mission, but he was also unconscious for most of it—which is a habit I’m really thinking we want to break in our rookies.”

“That’d be a good place to start,” Genma said.

Raidou rubbed gritty eyes and blinked hard. “Later, then. For now—you need to sleep. I’m going to be wired for a bit. If Tousaki stays up, and I’m guessing he will since he just mainlined the same amount of caffeine as I did—” one of the secondary benefits of soldier pills, “—I’ll see if he wants to talk. Or we can be soldierly and silent at each other. So long as he’s keeping most of it together, he’s in better shape than the rest of us anyway.”

Genma gave him the sharp, light-eyed look Raidou was starting to recognize as the immediate precursor for a health check question. “Are you—”

“I need to tell you about my side of the mission,” Raidou interrupted.

Genma settled back in his dusty chair, bracing his shoulders against the wall and stretching his bad leg carefully out in front of him. He folded his arms loosely and nodded. “I’m listening.”

“Thirty second version,” Raidou said. “We hit Kiri-ninja from the start. They’d had time to set up. You already know about the genjutsu. They… got under my skin. The upshot is that I killed two, Ueno got the rest, and we took care of the mission objective. Downside: the house burned down to the studs, Ueno took unnecessary injuries, and I might’ve… broken part of the port.”

Genma blinked. “Broken the port?”

“Just the shipping docks,” Raidou said, studying the wall. “Only half of it. And a couple of piers.” He scratched the back of his neck. “And three or four ships.”

Genma digested that for a silent moment. “Masaaki’s house was near the docks. Was it… Did they take the fight outside?”

Sometimes Raidou could wish for a less intuitive lieutenant.

“One of them did,” he said. “We— They took us for a pretty dance with illusions. Made Ueno think she was chasing the parents when she was really going after a clone. Made me think—” He stopped. Restarted with the important details, and only those. “I killed the baby in the house. The last Kiri-ninja knocked me back under genjutsu before I could get the little girl, and evacuated the family down to the port. Ueno got me out, but took her collarbone injury doing it. I caught the Kiri-ninja before he could get the family on a ship, but—”

He could still feel the anger. Cold and tired now, like a fist of lead in his stomach, but he remembered how it had burned. How the whole world had gone red and black before it had just gone away.

He’d done that in the war, when there’d been nothing but blood and fumes and corpses where his friends used to be, and no end in sight. It’d been easier to fall deep down inside himself, to the place where wrath and fuck you lived, and let it loose on people he didn’t care about killing.

He’d gotten very good about not caring, near the end.

But that was then, when control barely mattered. This was now, when it did. And this time, he hadn’t meant to do it.

“I got a little irrational,” he finished, looking up at Genma.

“That can happen,” Genma said calmly, eyes level and steady. “Especially if it was a well-crafted genjutsu.” He unfolded and twisted around to reach for a mug, ladling some of the clones’ tea experiment into it. He handed it to Raidou and sat back. “Wonder what the other teams ran into, seeing as we wrecked a port and took down an unkillable Bingo Book monster.”

Raidou choked on a mouthful of lukewarm green tea syrup. He coughed, whacked himself in the center of the chest—which, ow, Namiashi, don’t do that again—and managed not to sneeze matcha. “If they went bigger than us, they deserve a medal.” He peered down into the mug. “This is gruesome.”

Genma gave a sympathetic wince—and then a second one, when that visibly hurt his nose. They really needed to fix that. “It helps if you pretend it’s shave ice syrup, but yeah. Might be the worst matcha in the history of tea.”

“I think my teeth are buzzing,” Raidou said.

Genma chuckled quietly, and Raidou realized that was it: the lieutenant wasn’t going to push, he was just going to give Raidou terrible hot beverages and silent support. Verbal support even, if you counted that crack about other teams.

Some of whom were probably going home in body bags.

It occurred to Raidou that Yondaime-sama probably wasn’t going to give a good goddamn about the state of anything, so long as Team Six came home breathing.

That was a thought to hang onto.

He slugged the rest of the tea back, because it was sugar and calories and he needed both, and set the mug down. “Bed for you, doc, soon as we get Tousaki to reset your nose. Fukuda can wait until morning.” Or afternoon. Dawn would be creeping up on them soon. “I’ll give her a look-in to make sure she hasn’t tried to drown herself in her bucket.”

“You should give her another hit of morphine,” Genma said, withdrawing a syrette from his med-kit. He hesitated, then pulled out another. “And you’d better give me one, too.”

The subtext of that was pretty clear: I’m in significant pain and I’d like it to stop now, please.

Wordlessly, Raidou took both syrettes, flipped one around, and punched the needle neatly into the broad muscle of Genma’s good leg. Genma paused, eyebrow lifting, and gave him a mild look that, on another man, would have been aggrieved. “I didn’t mean right this second. You could have at least let me finish my tea.”

“Thought I was saving you from it,” Raidou said. He pulled the spent syrette back and clipped the red-flagged empty vial to Genma’s shirt. Visible reminder that he’d taken a dose, since none of them were liable to keep all the facts straight.

Genma threw back the rest of his tea, gave a delicate shudder, and placed his mug carefully on the stamped dirt floor. “I’m starting to see why Ueno doesn’t get the cooking detail.”

“She has other skills.” Raidou pushed himself up, and stooped to haul Genma out of the chair, which folded up with a vicious snap as soon as the lieutenant’s weight lifted free. Genma staggered once, reaching to unhook his IV bag; Raidou steadied him, drawing one of Genma’s lean-muscled arms over his own shoulders. They set off at a slow, hobbled pace back to the bunk-room, where the kids waited.

“Thanks,” Raidou said quietly, halfway there.

Genma’s mouth tilted in a tired, good-natured curve. “Any time.”

ryouma 6Katsuko and Kakashi were both breathing slow and even when the captain and the lieutenant came limping back into the bunk room, but Ryouma pushed himself up on his elbow and craned to see over Kakashi’s blanket-shrouded shoulder. Genma looked a bit better, not quite so pale, though the bruises under his eyes were darkening spectacularly. Raidou had clean bandages on his hands and a questioning lift to his brow.

“Kakashi’s okay,” Ryouma said. A bit too loud; Katsuko stirred and mumbled something, but didn’t rouse.

It was probably safe to move, finally. He slid out from under the blankets, tucked them in against Kakashi’s side, and eased painfully off the ledge. Over-strained muscles had begun to stiffen while he lay still and sleepless under the blankets. He should probably stretch, at some point, but just now the ache felt warranted.

Nothing else hurt, very much. He might have felt better if it did.

He stepped aside for Raidou to ease Genma down into the nest of mattresses and blankets on the ledge. A tin mug was still there, with its coating of green syrup at the bottom. He snatched it hastily out of the way and reported, “Katsuko had her tea and went mostly to sleep. Kakashi hasn’t roused, but he’s getting warmer. Finally stopped shivering about ten minutes ago.”

Katsuko made a thin, fretful sound from her side of the pile of blankets, and pulled them over her head. Apparently mostly was still the operative word.

Genma allowed himself to be lowered into the space Ryouma had vacated, and his IV drip spiked to the wall next to Kakashi’s, but he refused to lie down until he’d checked Kakashi’s vitals. Assuring himself that Ryouma could actually tell sleep from death, apparently, or that Ryouma hadn’t decided to kill Kakashi and then lie about it. “Did you give him another chakra burst, or is he holding his own?”

“We’ve just been cuddling, since you left,” Ryouma said, a little too waspishly.

Raidou gave him a quizzical look. Genma dragged up an eyebrow.

Ryouma looked away, and tried to drain the irritation back out of his voice. Genma hadn’t really done anything to earn it. “No, I haven’t transfused him again. He seemed steady. And I don’t want to overload his system, anyway, with his coils all burned like that.”

“Good,” Genma said, sounding pleased enough to forgive Ryouma’s rudeness. “Your chakra must be a good fit for him, if it’s holding steady.” He was wavering with exhaustion, but he still pulled himself together enough to give Ryouma a sharp once-over. “Doing okay yourself?”

“Not sleepy,” Ryouma said. It wasn’t anywhere near answering what Genma’d asked, but it was the best he could manage.

The soldier pills were a valid excuse, anyway. He could blame the jitters and the crankiness on caffeine and chakra-surge, or even on the oversweetened tea Katsuko’s clones had brought. No one’d think it strange if he didn’t sleep for what remained of the night. They’d probably just be grateful there was someone awake to stand watch with the shadow clones.

He should make an effort, even so.

He jerked a thumb at Genma’s bruised face. “You still want that nose set, or wait till we get real medics in?”

Genma winced. “Soonest we could get someone in here is probably six hours, and that’s assuming there’s a medic at one of the other safehouses who could come straight here. More likely they’ll have to send someone from Konoha, and that’s a day and a half…”

He sighed, swallowed, and braced himself, hands splayed over his knees. “You’d better do it. We’ve already waited a little too long as it is. I need to get some of the blood out and take the swelling down first, though. Taichou, you mind bracing me up while we do this? And Tousaki, get some gauze ready. I’m not clotting great. This could be messy.”

It was. There was blood all over Ryouma’s hands by the time they finished, and dripped and spotted over Genma’s shirt and pants. At least it didn’t show on the ANBU blacks. Genma’s nose was straight again, taped down and packed with gauze in place of the ridiculous bandage mustache. His eyes watered from the pain, but he’d refused more meds. He had morphine in him already.

Between the morphine and the exhaustion—compounded by the jutsu he’d used to drain blood from his nose and reduce the swelling—Genma was clearly clinging to consciousness only by the ragged ends. When Raidou eased out from behind him, he slumped down onto his elbows as if his strings had been cut.

“Sleep, lieutenant,” Raidou said, gently. He liberated a couple of blankets from the pile to drape over Genma, giving him a space a little separate from Katsuko and Kakashi. “You’ve done the lion’s share. We’ll take it from here.”

“Thanks, taichou,” Genma mumbled. He managed to get one hand on the edge of the blanket and pull it up to his chin. His eyes focused, bleary, on Ryouma. “Make a medic of you soon enough.”

Ryouma’s chest tightened. Still?

“Don’t tease me,” Raidou said, before Ryouma could speak. “After today, I’d pay solid gold for a second medic.” He gave Genma’s blanket-swaddled foot a rough parting pat, before he shifted around to the other side of the platform to check on Katsuko.

“Gonna get rich,” Genma mumbled, and went out like a burnt-out light.

Katsuko was nearly there, too. She huddled down further into the blankets when Raidou tried to ease them back, and then kicked at him. “Taiiiichouuu.

“Sorry,” he said softly, smoothing her hair. “Just had to check. Go to sleep.”

Katsuko huffed and pushed her head against his hand, like a sleepily offended cat. Then she burrowed back underneath the covers, wrapping herself around Kakashi. Two thin fingers crept up to the edge of the blankets to pull the pile over her head again.

Raidou smiled fondly down at the moth-bitten mound, and reached across her to give Kakashi’s spiky head a careful ruffle, too. Then he pushed himself stiffly off the edge of the platform, glanced at Ryouma, and tipped his head toward the door.

Out, at last.

Ryouma wiped the blood off on his pant legs and followed Raidou out into the passageway. Steel-caged lightbulbs flickered with an ugly yellow glow, catching on the armor of the two kage bunshin on guard outside the cell and glinting in the eyes of the woman who huddled wrapped in her emergency blanket, watching her watchers.

Too many deaths already tonight. Why was she still alive?

Raidou stopped in front of the bars. Katsuko’s clone glanced up at him and then shifted away, clearing the door. Ryouma’s shadow clone kept its tense crouch. The chakra he’d poured into it was barely an ember by now. It wouldn’t last much longer.

“Get me an IV,” Raidou said to the clones. “And the spare mattress, and some clean clothes— there was a stack with the towels. Bring one of those, too.”

Katsuko’s clone nodded and ducked away down the hall. Ryouma’s took a moment longer, and a long cold stare at the Kiri nin, before it unfolded. It went back into the bunk room and returned a moment later lugging a rolled blanket and the sole cot mattress they hadn’t been able to fit on the sleeping ledge. Raidou put a hand on the trigger to the cell door’s automatic lock.

“Why?” Ryouma demanded. The first word was the fissure in the dam; the rest came tumbling after it, like uprooted trees in the flood. “She’d have killed us. She was about to slice Kakashi’s head off when I stopped her. The lieutenant should have let her die. Why the hell are you helping her now?”

Raidou paused, with his hand still on the lock. “How many of her team did you kill today?”

“One. The lieutenant got another. And Kakashi got Iebara.” Ryouma gritted his teeth. “It could have been none, if she’d kept a leash on her damn team. Or if she hadn’t sicced the rest of them on us when she realized we could take down Iebara.”

“I got two,” Raidou said. There was a dangerous glint in his dark eyes, but his voice was cold and perfectly level. “Ueno took down another two. Don’t you think someone should carry the news back to Kiri, what happens when they try to cut us down in our own land?”

He had a point. Ryouma kicked the dirt floor at the base of the bars. “You should’ve taken the lieutenant’s deal,” he told the Kiri nin.

Her mouth tightened, but she kept silent.

Katsuko’s kage bunshin came back. Raidou opened the door and stood aside for the clones to lug the supplies inside. Ryouma’s clone kicked the mattress into the corner. Katsuko’s rigged up an IV in the woman’s good arm with ungentle hands, then helped her strip out of her damp, bloody uniform and into clean—and weapon-free—clothes. Oversized Konoha blues were apparently all the safehouse had to offer. Katsuko’s clone hacked the sleeve off the shirt with a kunai, and left the bandaged stump of the severed arm poking through. The bandage was spotted with blood, but not badly enough to be worth changing yet.

Ryouma’s clone gathered up the woman’s gear in the towel—damp and bloody from toweling her down—and hauled it out. Raidou cast a swift glance over the jumble and ordered another of Katsuko’s clones out of the bunkroom to search through it, piece by piece. The clone hunkered down in the hallway. Ryouma’s bunshin crouched down in its old spot just outside the bars, while Katsuko’s first clone tugged the woman over onto the mattress, dropped the new blanket over her, and then slipped out.

Raidou went in, instead, ducking his head to clear the low iron frame of the door. He had a morphine syrette in his hand. He crouched down by the mattress, every move slow and clear, and injected the syrette through her pants into the meat of her thigh. Eye to eye with her, he asked, “Anything you want to tell me?”

“Fukuda Takedo,” she said. Her voice still rasped with pain. “Kirigakure jounin, registration 0075393-Bravo.” She met Raidou’s gaze, steely-eyed. “Still planning on stealing my blood, Konoha?”

“Your teammate took ours,” Ryouma said.

She swung a narrow look at him. “And yours killed him for it.”

“And you’d have killed him, and I should have killed you. Cut the shit, Kiri.” His voice, and his hands, shook with fury. He gripped the cell bars. The chakra limiters stung his hands like ragged little thorns. “Or I can finish what I started.”

Fukuda smiled at Raidou, thinly, a gleam of sharp teeth. “Looks like you don’t have much control of your team either, captain.”

Raidou put out a hand behind him, flat-palmed, lowering: Calm down. His cold, steady expression didn’t flicker. He didn’t look around.

“Maybe I’ll have the time to learn,” he said, very quietly, “since mine are still alive.”

Fukuda’s lips thinned. She said nothing.

“You won’t be harmed while you’re here,” Raidou said more briskly, “unless you try to escape. But I don’t think you’re that stupid. When this is all over, Konoha is going to want a word with you, but they’ll probably send you home alive. Until then, try not to goad anyone into killing you.”

“Doesn’t seem like I’d have to try very hard with this one,” she murmured.

Ryouma bit down on the inside of his cheek.

And Raidou still didn’t look around, as though he trusted Ryouma to obey, as though there were never any possibility that Ryouma might not listen. “He’s had a long day,” he said, and stood, straightening in a long dangerous line of muscle and power. “But he already got your arm, so that’ll probably hold him for a while.”

He left the cell, kicking the door shut behind him. The automatic lock whirred, and the chakra wards brightened. Raidou clapped Ryouma once on the shoulder and headed across the hall into the kitchen.

There was a folding chair there now, fallen on the floor in a patch of reddish mud, and a creaky-looking wooden crate. The battered pot the clones had left on the extinguished burner now contained a boiled-thick sludge of the oversweetened green tea. Ryouma looked for a drain to tip it out.

The modernized plumbing in the bathroom hadn’t extended to the kitchen alcove. There was no sink, but there was a pump over a small concrete drain in the very back corner, and a large flat-bottomed plastic basin with a small tray of yellow bar-soap beside.

His hands were almost steady again, though they’d begun to blister across the palms where the chakra limiters had bitten him. He squeezed his fingers into fists, and the pain helped, a little.

“She knows our faces now,” he said, finally. “She already knew Kakashi’s name. Probably from his stupid hair.”

“Maybe we’ll stuff him into a hood for the next mission,” Raidou said. He crouched by the wooden crate, fitting together the remnants of a well-plundered med kit. It took Ryouma a moment to identify it as Genma’s. “Though his jutsu aren’t exactly subtle. Sometimes I wonder why they bother trying to make us anonymous.”

“I got the impression it was so we wouldn’t go glory-hounding.” Ryouma leaned on the pump to get water flowing. “Also that whoever put the bathroom in this place didn’t bother retrofitting the kitchen. How hard can it be to put in a tap? When they put me in charge of designing safehouses, mine are gonna be a lot better…”

“Stock ’em with doctors, for a start.” Raidou dropped the restored kit on a ramshackle steel-sheet counter and leaned against it.

He was near enough to touch, if both of them reached out. Ryouma could hear him breathing.

The air smelled of blood and sweat and antiseptic, lingering curry, grassy tea. Too familiar, from too many days and nights spent crammed in a bunker like this, binding up injuries and waiting for new orders that would send them out to kill or die.

They hadn’t always waited alone. There were always dark corners, narrow closets, space enough for a frantic tumble, vicious with adrenaline and relief. We’re alive, we made it through. And then, later, bar bathrooms and hotels and bedrooms after other missions, the bad ones, the ones where not everyone came back, or came back whole.

Some of those missions had been worse than this one, but not many.

He bent over the pump and tried to force his mind away. Maybe he could make an excuse for ten minutes alone in the bathroom, later. Or maybe he could just have some damn self-control for once in his life, hole up and hold out until he could get home and find someone with warm hands and an eye-crinkling smile. It wasn’t like his own blistered right hand and the cold air against his skin would do much good for him right now—

“Are you okay?” Raidou asked, quite near.

Ryouma stopped pumping.

His blisters burned. One of them had burst. He closed his hand tighter on the long handle of the pump, but the pain had stopped helping. He couldn’t think of anything flippant, or angry, or strong to say. Only: “What would you do if I weren’t?”

“Ask what you need,” Raidou said.

As if it were just that simple. Ryouma closed his eyes. “What if I told you that I strangled a woman in front of her husband, and I did it slow? And when her daughter saw what I’d done, I cut her throat. And we made the man listen to his son being murdered, and then I rotted his belly open and Kakashi tore out his heart. And then we robbed him, and set his house on fire.”

His voice was shaking. He stopped. Opened his eyes, crouched, and scooped a handful of water from the basin. He drank, and splashed his face. Staring at the packed-dirt wall, he said, “When I came back from a bad mission, in the war or after, first thing I used to do was go looking for sex. Rough or gentle or anything, I didn’t care. So long’s I wasn’t alone. So long’s I could forget what I’d done and just remember—” He broke off. Water dripped from his hands.

Cloth rustled behind him. The shift of weight, long limbs folding up. Raidou, sitting down. Saying, very steadily: “Would that help you now?”

Ryouma watched another droplet of water hit the basin, and the concentric rings spreading out. “I wish it could.”

Raidou waited.

“But I don’t want to get kicked off the team. Or for you to leave. I don’t want to mess things up any more than I already have. We’ve got this one thing, it’s going to be good, and if I screwed it up by screwing around—”

He thought of Genma. Make a medic of you soon enough.

Katsuko, laughing. I love you, and I’ll protect you.

Kakashi. That was perfect.

He closed his eyes again. “So. I’m not getting it. So let’s pretend I’m okay for a little while longer.”

raidou 3Raidou looked at the tight, miserable line of Ryouma’s broad shoulders and thought, That’s not gonna cut it.

They’d already bypassed soldierly and silent by a long stretch.

“C’mere,” he said.

Ryouma’s dark head came up, like a sudden reprieve, but he stopped without turning. “You sure that’s a good idea, taichou?”

“I really do,” Raidou said firmly. “Come over here, Ryouma.”

Ryouma hesitated for a fractional moment, barely a beat for a civilian, but enough time for a shinobi to decide whether to fight, flee, or truce. Then he rocked back on his heels and straightened up. The distance between them was only a pace; Ryouma covered it in a quick stride, hesitated again, and folded down into a wary tailor’s seat when Raidou waved him to the floor.

Face-to-face, with less than an arm’s length between them, it felt like the start of a negotiation, or the beginning of circle story time. Raidou had to lift his chin very slightly, accounting for Ryouma’s greater height.

It had been a while since he’d noticed that.

“The first time we met,” he said, which was a better sidestep then: so, the last time we had sex. “You remember what my face looked like?”

Ryouma’s expression turned puzzled. “Beat up, a little,” he said. “Split lip. Black eye. Strong.”

Raidou hadn’t been angling for that last one but it was nice to hear, even if it was a reminder that the ground was laced with landmines. “I was fresh off a mission. Weapons developer in Kumo was getting just a little too dangerous, I guess, since someone paid to wipe his lab, his business partners, and both his sons off the map. Big fire, lots of bodies.”

“I remember that,” Ryouma said slowly. “It was on the news. Enshou factory.”

“That’s the one. I think they had some kind of exploding powder in the works.” Raidou shrugged. “Took the place up like a bonfire, anyway. And after that I came home, showered the blood off, went out again, and found you. I know what wanting to forget looks like.”

Ryouma was silent for a moment. “I thought it was probably something like that.”

There was something faintly brittle in his voice, behind the careful construction of a still face, and Raidou thought, I hope I didn’t just screw that up. He didn’t want to drag up all the emotions of that one good night and spread them around now, when Ryouma was rocky and clinging to old habits, and Raidou wasn’t exactly steady either. But he didn’t want Ryouma to walk away with the idea that it had been nothing, just a roll with a forgettable stranger. Ryouma had left an impression. He was built to leave impressions.

And neither of those were helpful avenues of thought.

“Point is,” Raidou said, trying to find it again. “I’ve been there, most of us have, and there’s no shame in it. And if you tell me right now that sex is the only way to get you through this mission and home, I’ll listen, because shutting you down is probably going to end up with your kunai through that woman’s head. And I’d like to avoid more bodies today. I’ve met my quota.” He looked at the hard-cut lines of Ryouma’s face, still edged with old flecks of blood the shower had missed. The dark, strained eyes, and the mouth with its bitten edges. “But first I want you to take a moment and think, really think, about what you need, and what’s just a bandaid.”

Ryouma shook his head, slow, and then harder, until his hair flew out in wild spikes, like black glass. “I don’t. I told you. I want it—” He broke off, stumbling. “But want’s different from need. I’ll make it home. I won’t kill her and I won’t crack up and kill anyone else, either. I—”

He stopped again, blistered hands splayed helplessly across his knees.

I don’t know what I need, Raidou filled in.

But Ryouma had already said part of it. So long’s I wasn’t alone. So long’s I could forget what I’d done.

Company was easy; Raidou was a long way from sleep. But forgetting… No matter how good the sex was, it was still just a distraction, and the memory was right there waiting for you afterwards. With teeth, usually, to make up for lost time.

“We’ll figure it out,” he said at last, pulling up all the certainty he had left. He reached out and tapped two fingers to the back of Ryouma’s burned hand. “Starting with this, since you’ve broken a record by getting injured inside a safehouse.”

Ryouma blinked and looked down. “It’s just blisters. Those chakra limiters bite.”

“That’s sort of why they’re there,” Raidou said, dry. “And since the lieutenant isn’t here to nag, it’s my duty to do it in his place. And then I’m going to make you cook something, because I haven’t eaten and you ditched your curry, and the clones can’t be trusted.”

“I was going to have a rat bar,” Ryouma said vaguely, as if he was still struggling to catch up with the topic change. He closed and opened his hand, staring down at it, then gathered long legs beneath himself and scrambled up. “I can make you something.”

“Something hot,” Raidou said, hoisting himself up more slowly. Every muscle and joint twanged complaint. Honestly, it was flattering that Ryouma thought he was capable of sex. Or another strike against Ryouma’s current footing in reality. “And edible, for preference. And wash your hands first, my god.”

“I was going to,” Ryouma said stiffly. He returned to the basin and crouched down, picking up the little yellow bar of soap with a judgemental grimace. The pump creaked and water splashed. When Ryouma spoke again, his voice was almost lost under the sound. “You’re not going to kick me off the team, are you?”

Raidou looked blindly at the ceiling.

He was going to add the person who’d kicked all the cracks in Ryouma to his list, where it could share space with the person who’d ripped Katsuko’s coils into bloody pieces, and one or two other names. And when he found them, no power in the world was going to make him stop hitting.

He wouldn’t even feel guilty afterwards. It’d be a good day.

“No, I’m not going to kick you off the team,” he said. “I asked, you told me, and I’m glad you did. If I started punting people for thinking about sex, Katsuko wouldn’t last eight seconds.” He stepped forward, standing a half-pace to the left of Ryouma’s hunched back, and tried to find the right words. Then he gave up and said the honest ones. “You’re a member of my team, Ryouma. That means something. All the good bits, all the ugly sides, whatever’s in your head—that’s just part of it. And unless you break one of the real laws, the only way you’re getting out is if someone takes you.”

He crouched down, and after a second’s debate, settled his hand on the back of Ryouma’s neck.

“And they’ll have to drag hard, because I’ll be hanging onto your feet.”

Ryouma shivered, a fine running tremor, and his head dropped low. He let out an unsteady breath and sounded more than a little wrecked when he said, “You’re making it really hard not to have a crush on you, taichou.”

You’re making this no-fraternization thing really hard, Ryouma had complained once, at that very first team meeting. He’d been talking about Raidou’s solution to his paperwork problem and followed it up with a crack about trading love-declarations for coffee, which Raidou had written off as a joke. And they’d talked later, admittedly briefly. But Ryouma’d sounded like it meant it when he said, We’re good. I really don’t do relationships, anyway.

Which, Raidou reflected, wasn’t the same as saying, I don’t feel anything.

He’d felt Ryouma looking at him during training and on wall duty, a quick flick of dark eyes. But Ryouma looked at everyone, and most of the time it wasn’t a precursor to getting in their pants. Ryouma watched people, carefully, warily, like he was waiting to see what they thought of him. And then he smiled like he didn’t care.

Not for the first time, Raidou thought, I wish I’d never walked into that bar.

It had been easy, and it had been fun, and the only thoughts he’d really had afterwards had been—well, hot and happy. He’d even gone back to The Green Pig once or twice, with half an eye out for tall-dark-and-ninja. Ryouma had never been there and Raidou had wondered, a little regretfully, if his morning-after mission really had killed him.

And now they were here.

Maybe the priests had a point when they told you to abstain.

Raidou dropped his hand to an iron-tense shoulder, squeezing just once, and pulled back. Ryouma looked up, eyes red-rimmed and too bright. He’d killed half a family today. Raidou had bled a baby out on a burning floor and beaten a man to death. There were bigger issues at stake than what they thought of each other, but dammit, Raidou was tired, and it was too hard.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last, helplessly. For everything.

Ryouma’s cheek dented; he was biting it again. “S’okay,” he said. “It’s not your fault. You’re just… being who you are.” He looked down at the basin again, where the remains of soap bubbles drifted, and scrubbed the back of his arm quickly across his eyes. Then he rinsed his hands, still raw-looking, and tipped the basin into the drain. “Anyway, I actually get rejected more’n you’d think. I’m getting better at dealing with it. Surviving inappropriate crushes on my team captain is pretty much my hobby at this point.”

There was probably a story in that, but Raidou didn’t have the will to chase it.

Ryouma stood, cast about for a towel, found none, and dried his hands on the seat of his pants. The yellow lights picked out a sulphurous gleam in his dark, still-damp hair. He turned and flashed Raidou a faintly watery grin. “If you’re not kicking me off the team, I’m already doing better.”

Maybe that was how the other story had ended.

Raidou pushed himself back to his feet, pressing a hand to his side when his ribs twinged. “No kicking,” he said seriously. He’d keep saying it, until Ryouma heard it. “You’re in ANBU now; we look after our own.”

Ryouma was silent for a moment, eyes searching Raidou’s face. No dark-eyed flick of look and look away; this time he stayed, looking for the crack. Finally he swallowed roughly, and nodded. “Okay.”

A little relief lightened Raidou’s chest.

Ryouma turned away, to the staggered wooden shelves lining the back and side walls. “If there was dehydrated curry and rice, there ought to be something else edible in here.” He rummaged and came up with a dusty box. “How’s soybean stew sound?”

“Like heaven,” Raidou said, eying the evil snap-chair with faint longing. “Also like it needs beef, but I’m about one step away from finding stink-badger tasty, so my judgement is questionable. Don’t eat that, by the way. It’s never worth it.”

He reached for Genma’s medkit and pulled out a half-used tube of ointment and a roll of bandages, tossing both to Ryouma, who caught them with one-handed ease and a nod. Ryouma set them both down on the counter.

“There’s a can of stewed beef here. We could try dumping that in,” Ryouma said dubiously. He poured the stew out of its foil packaging into a clean pot, ripped the pull-top off the beef can, and dumped a pile of glistening brown chunks on top of the stew. It looked a lot like dogfood and it might taste about the same, but beggers and choosers, etc, and at least it was meat. When he had the pot balanced on the kerosene burner, Ryouma returned to the counter to smear ointment on his blisters.

Abruptly, he asked, “How d’you deal with nightmares?”

Screw it, Raidou was sitting down.

The folding chair creaked as he forced it open and dropped into it, but it didn’t cost him a finger. “On missions or in general?”

Ryouma shrugged one forced-casual shoulder, focusing on his hands. “Both, I guess. Though missions are more to the point. Sounds like it’ll be a couple of days before we get back home. I’ll have to sleep sometime.”

It was the second night you had to worry about, after the brain had come down from adrenaline and exhaustion long enough to start sorting things out. If you were nightmare-prone, that’s when it would hit you. Third night, maybe, if you were lucky.

And Ryouma was right. It wasn’t going to be a quick evac from here. Especially if other teams had gone down.

Raidou shrugged. “Honestly? Try not to worry about it. If it happens, we’ll deal with it. Just don’t stab someone in your sleep, or you’ll make the lieutenant cry.”

“Good thing we disarmed Kakashi,” Ryouma murmured. He stared down at his hands blankly, as if he’d forgotten what to do with them, then finished wrapping the bandages and stuffed the ointment back into Genma’s kit. He was silent a beat longer, leaning against the metal counter, before lifting his chin. “Thanks.”

Raidou thought of the lieutenant’s weary but willing smile, and how Genma had taken Raidou’s issues and flipped them around, yanking some of the barbs out. The way Katsuko had offered to buy them all dinner afterwards, which probably meant he’d scared her hollow. But she was still reaching out. Maybe if they kept passing it on between them, the whole team would manage to level out.

He smiled, crooked. “Any time.”

ryouma 2Raidou sounded as if he actually meant it.

Probably not the part that involved the worst-judged confession in history, but Ryouma’d rather avoid ever doing that again, too. At least he hadn’t cried.

Well—not much.

Raidou wasn’t offering his broad shoulder to weep on again, at any rate, so Ryouma pushed himself off the counter and got back to work searching through the dusty shelves. He found more instant rice, this time of the heat-and-serve variety; several packets of dried mushrooms; an entire box of canned fish. Mackerel, judging by the cartoonish label. More dehydrated curry, canned pickles, a haphazard collection of silver foil packets of mystery meals. He set those aside for Katsuko’s breakfast; she’d probably appreciate the surprise.

Dried sweet potato, canned satsumas, canned sausages, a tin of miso, a large jar of shoyu, umeboshi. Sake, hah. He shoved that box of bottles to the back of the shelf again. Maybe by evening Fukuda would die and Kakashi would wake up, and they could celebrate.

He took one of the packets of heat-and-serve rice, a can of sausages, and a tin of pickled burdock root, and retreated. Raidou had tipped his head back to rest against the wall, and the stew simmered peacefully in its pot on the little gas burner at his feet.

Ryouma set his rice down where the burner might radiate a little heat. He found a clean wooden spoon and sank down into a peasant’s squat to stir the stew. The burner sputtered fitfully underneath, probably low on fuel. He glanced up, about to ask if Raidou knew where the spare fuel canisters were, and caught sight of Raidou’s face.

Raidou’s eyes were open, watching: not with any purpose or pleasure, just the idle surveillance of a shinobi aware of his space. All the same, his gaze seemed to have settled somewhere over Ryouma’s left shoulder. The straight-carved line of his mouth pulled down at the edge, and the hollows under his eyes were dark with shadows like bruises. The faint, early creases bracketing his mouth had somehow begun to cut deeper.

He’d gone to a bar and taken Ryouma home after a hard mission, once. And this one must have been harder.

Ryouma’d killed a teenager, but Raidou and Katsuko had been sent for children.

He dropped the spoon back in the pot and folded his arms over his knees. “Are you okay?”

Raidou blinked, shook himself, and glanced down. “What?”

Ryouma said, stubbornly, “We talked about me. What about you?”

“Me?” Raidou sounded almost bewildered. He hadn’t expected turnabout, obviously, or at least not from Ryouma. Maybe he’d already confessed his sins to the lieutenant and they’d cried in a very manly fashion on each others’ shoulders. He scrubbed a broad, bandaged hand over his face and pulled a sideways, sardonic smile that didn’t touch the crinkles at the corners of his eyes. “It’s been a long day.”

That wasn’t, quite, a Keep out. Ryouma said, “I can listen.”

Raidou dropped his hand, and the smile. His eyes were still tired, beaten-hollow, but they’d warmed a little. “I know you can,” he said. “And I appreciate the offer. But you shouldn’t have to. It’s my job to look out for you. You’ve already got enough to deal with.”

“I don’t mind,” Ryouma said.

He wasn’t quite sure that was true. Whatever had happened in Tsurugahama Port to break Katsuko’s collarbone and shadow Raidou’s eyes, it’d been clearly been bad. Raidou’d be willing to talk about it, otherwise. And Ryouma didn’t need more fuel for his nightmares, but—

Sometimes it helped, to know you weren’t the only one.

It’d helped him to talk, a little. Maybe it’d help Raidou, too.

He tried again. “What if you just tell me one thing? Whatever you want. I dropped everything on you. I can take a little back.”

Raidou sighed very softly, and looked up at the packed earth ceiling. “I killed a baby tonight, about yea big.” His hands sketched a shape not quite the length of his forearm. “With a kunai.”

Twelve hours ago, sketching blueprints in the dirt on Kaede Ridge, Ryouma’d listened without much interest to Kakashi’s plan for Raidou to kill an infant. It hadn’t been more than words, then. Namiashi-taichou enters through the window into the small storage room, checks on the servants, then enters the nursery. The nurse will most likely be asleep already. He immobilizes her, then eliminates his targets…

Nobody said, going in, We’re going to kill a baby. You couldn’t. The horror came after.

His crossed arms slipped down to hug his knees. “First time?”

“No,” Raidou said. His gaze dropped from the ceiling to his own hands, lumpy with bandages. Weariness lined his face and dragged at his shoulders. “That’s probably something I should have told you and Hatake on the first day. Those rumors about ANBU? True.”

In the village, in civilian neighborhoods where nobody’s sons ever grew up to be ninja, in the chuunin lounge where the worst duty you ever pulled was bodyguard for a scumbag industrialist, they called ANBU babykillers.

He’d known that, and he’d joined anyway.

“You don’t get used to it,” Ryouma said.

“No.” Raidou paused. “But you get better at it.”

He didn’t look better.

But he’d held up all the way back to the safehouse, presumably, and then he’d come out to guide the rest of his team home and see to their needs. He’d offered Ryouma help and he’d talked him down from the edge, and he was only now letting his shoulders sag, now that his team was safe and tended and didn’t need him quite as much anymore.

Maybe that was all the better you got.

“Why did you join?”

Raidou’s eyes flicked up, surprised. But he said, after only a moment’s hesitation, “Because I could. The Kyuubi attack gutted ANBU hollow. Once the rebuilding was underway they needed warm bodies, and I didn’t have much else to do.” He picked at a loose thread in the bandages over his knuckles. “Why did you join?”

Ryouma shrugged one shoulder. “I turned twenty, and I was still alive.”

He realized, belatedly, how that sounded. “Not that I’ve got a death wish! Just, I made jounin a year ago and I never actually expected to live this long. So I realized I’d actually made it to be an adult—d’you know the civilian drinking age is twenty?—and I figured I should do something to mark it. And the ANBU Trials were the next week. So I signed up.”

Raidou laughed, short and hoarse. “Of course you wandered in. You know other people train for years and don’t make it?”

Some of them had been his friends. At least Takeshi hadn’t been too awkward about it, when Ryouma and Hakone ran into him at The Green Pig a few days ago. Hakone and Ryouma had both stood him drinks, and tried not to talk too much about anything that involved their new tattoos.

Ryouma stretched out a hand to stir the stew. “Maybe Kakashi’s not the only genius on the team. Tell me something else, taichou.”

The corner of Raidou’s mouth quirked briefly up, softening the sharp edges. “One thing, you said. Dead baby wasn’t enough to carry?”

A tiny bubble boiled its way to the murky surface of the stew and popped. Ryouma bit the inside of his cheek. “Just seemed like you’re still carrying more.”

Raidou teased the loose thread out of the bandage at last and started on another. Halfway out, it snapped.

“Maybe,” he said, staring down at the ragged end. Then he dropped it, and brushed his hand against his pants. “But I’ve got more practice. If you really want to help, you could feed your poor starving captain who had to watch everyone else eat first and didn’t complain.”

“I offered,” Ryouma said. “You chose to feed it to Katsuko.” He gave the stew a rough stir, and let the spoon drip on the back of his wrist, below the bandages. Not quite hot enough yet. He licked the brown splatter from his skin. It tasted salty and earthy, and faintly metallic.

Because it came from a tin, not because it was blood. He got up anyway, pumped water into a battered tin cup, rinsed his mouth. Then he found another cup and brought it back for Raidou. “There were two kids, weren’t there? Did you— I mean, did Katsuko take the other one?”

“And both parents.” Raidou took the cup but didn’t drink. “If you’re still looking for a way to carry someone else, you might think about sparing a shoulder for her. Especially since she broke hers.”

And the shadow clone in the shower had tried to comfort him, anyway.

Ryouma swallowed against an ache, sharp as fish scales in his throat. “I promised her clone I’d model for the ads for her bathhouse when she retires.”

Raidou barked a startled, rusty laugh. “That’s another way to make her feel better.”

“Won’t get through to her til the clone pops, though.” Ryouma scuffed a foot on the dirt floor. “Hopefully she’ll get a laugh out of it.” He scuffed again, knocking up a clod from the hard-packed floor, then quickly tamped it down. “I can tell she means a lot to you.”

raidou 8Raidou felt his mouth pull sideways. “She’s the little sister I never, ever wanted.”

And more than that.

He didn’t have good words for Katsuko. She was a puzzle and a problem, and occasionally a ferocious pain in the ass, but she was also a kindred spirit. The first time he’d seen her fight— the first real time, with blazing swords and howling chakra and gleeful, joyous violence, he’d thought, I know you.

She’d looked back at him through the eyeholes of her rat mask, still shiny and new, and winked, and killed a man.

No one had come through the war intact, but Katsuko had taken all her sharp, broken places and turned them into weapons. And underneath that, she’d still managed to keep a little softness. She ate terrible foods and said idiot things, but she cared so deeply about her teammates—even the new ones—that it nearly made her vibrate. As much as she bullied them, she’d still die for them.

Probably exactly like he’d seen, six hours ago.

He rumpled a hand through his hair, shaking away blades and blood and the dull sound Katsuko’s knees had made, hitting the hardwood floor. It wasn’t real; it hadn’t happened. Genjutsu just had a vicious way of sticking around afterwards, like acid reflux for the brain.

When he looked up again, Ryouma’s face was still pale and pinched; if he had edges, they were all turned inwards. He looked a little worried at the stretch of silence.

“Sorry,” Raidou said. “I think this day is starting to melt my brain. Food?”

Ryouma gave a guilty jolt and went for the stew pot. “It’s boiling,” he said. “I don’t think there’re bowls, but there should be more spoons…”

He liberated the pot from the burner, hissing quietly at the hot metal edges, and set it down on the dirt floor. The burner flicked off with the faint plink of cooling metal. Ryouma scrambled up to find the spoons, and came back to juggle the sausages, pickled burdock root, and the rice, which had managed to warm next to the burner.

The stew was—well, ‘brown’ was probably the best you could say about it.

Ah, shit, hot,” Raidou said, burning his tongue on the first mouthful. He was more careful for the second bite, and discovered actual flavor: salt and savory, meat gravy, an extremely weird cross-over between the soy, beef, and burdock. But he was starving and it was food. “This is—ow, damn—perfect. You should run cooking detail for breakfast, too.”

Ryouma was trying to wrangle a cold sausage from the can; he glanced up sideways, skeptical. “Remind me never to ask your opinion on restaurants.”

“Breakfast and lunch,” Raidou said, finding a thread of cheer. He pushed the pot across. “Better dig in before I eat the whole thing. I’ll trade you a sausage.”

Ryouma handed the can over and tried a proper taste of his creation. He paused, spoon still in his mouth, and made an extremely complicated expression. “I’ve had worse, I guess.” He risked another bite. “It’s better than the curry.”

“Not a high hurdle to jump,” Raidou said dryly.

“The curry wasn’t my fault. You didn’t even have any.” Ryouma tried the rice, which was lukewarm at best.

Raidou finished half the can, traded them back for another third of the stew, and forced himself upright to get them both another metal cup of water from the pump. That, at least, was cold and clear, drawn up from an underground stream. They had another two drinks apiece, making up for water they’d bled and sweated out. Raidou settled down again, feeling the leaden buzz that came from caffeine layered over exhaustion.

Another hour, he judged. Maybe two. Then he could sleep.

Ryouma’s spoon dropped into the pot. He stretched his back, jaw cracking on a yawn. Raidou glanced at the door and whistled, short and sharp. A moment later, a clone stepped through.


Raidou scooped the pot off the ground and held it out. “Prisoner can have the rest. Take her some water, too.”

There was a grate in the cell door. The clone could probably figure out how to work it without killing itself against the chakra-cancelling seals.

It saluted, gathered a cup, and stepped back out.

Ryouma’s jaw tightened. Still no fan of Fukuda, and Raidou couldn’t blame him for it. Aoisuke had only faked Katsuko’s death, and Raidou had ripped a waterfront apart to put him in the ground. Fukuda’s team nearly had killed Kakashi and Genma.

It made him wonder, distantly, what would’ve happened if they’d swapped missions.

Kakashi’s Sharingan could cut a genjutsu apart; Ryouma and Genma had no trouble with illusions, either. The children would’ve been the sucker-punch.

And for Iebara—Katsuko’s chakra-storm made her a target for any ninja who wanted to add salt to his Bingo Book entry. She could go toe-to-toe with legends and come up swinging, but not if that first hit bled her dry. Raidou could handle a team well enough, but a team with a monster at their back?

Maybe it was a good thing they hadn’t gotten the chance to find out.

“You ever been taken prisoner, taichou?” Ryouma asked, breaking him out of his thoughts.

He had an amazing talent for tossing out questions Raidou didn’t expect.

“Not so far,” Raidou said, and reached back one-handed to brush his fingers against the crate’s splintery wooden side. Touch wood. “Had a couple friends who did, though, back in the war. One of ‘em made it home.” He paused. “Most of him.”

Ryouma chewed that over for a minute, thoughtful. “Body or mind?”

“Minus three fingers and half a leg,” Raidou said. “He was still sane after, much as you can be. He’s a gardener now, grows medical plants. Likes to stay under open skies.”

Ryouma nodded, eyes distant. “Guess that might not be so bad.” He glanced back towards the closed door, a brief flicker of indecision darkening his face. Wondering what Fukuda’s future would be without that arm? He shook his head abruptly and lurched up to his feet, gathering the meal detritus. “So long’s she doesn’t get a chakra-prosthetic arm and come after us again, I don’t care what happens to her.”

Raidou thought, You’re a bad liar.

“Don’t think they make prosthetics that good,” he said.

Ryouma’s voice ground dark, like glass. “It’s Mist. Who knows what they do? They have puppets in Suna.” He circled back to the shelves and poked half-heartedly through supplies. “D’you want more tea? They don’t have coffee.”

“Y’know what I really want? Fresh air.” Raidou creaked back to his feet. “Want to see if the rain’s stopped?”

ryouma 2“Bet it has. We ran back into the storm, coming here.” Ryouma dropped the tin of matcha back on its shelf. He followed Raidou up the long earth-walled passageway and around a bend where the electric lights gave out. It was only a short climb to the top of the tunnel, though, and the faint glow from beyond the bend cast just enough light in the darkness that Raidou could find the door and heave it open.

The new day was beginning to break, leaden grey and chill, despite yesterday’s heat. Moisture beaded the leaves of the tall grass and scrub covering the hillside. They faced east, but the young sun still lurked behind clouds. Its diffused light gave the damp air a heavy, unearthly quality, like the pearly mist lurking in the hollows at the foot of the hill.

Ryouma squatted down on his heels again, peasant-style. “Mornings are better in Konoha.”

Raidou drew a deep, chest-expanding breath, one hand bracing his left side. Cracked ribs? He let the breath out slowly, his face tilted up to the sky. His voice sounded warmer, calmer somehow. “This isn’t too bad.”

Ryouma looked away. He ripped up a handful of wet grass and drew the cold blades between his fingers. “I bet you like bathing under waterfalls and wrestling bears in the wilderness, too.”

That earned him a chuckle. Raidou squatted down, too, and elbowed Ryouma companionably in the ribs. “Don’t you?”

“I like three cups of coffee and a sharp razor in the morning.” Ryouma scraped the grass-blades along his jaw, where a light stubble was just beginning to rasp. Raidou had the makings of a healthier scruff shadowing the strong planes of his cheeks and chin. Direct sunlight might catch the reddish tones, but in this watery grey dawn his stubble and hair were only a murky brown.

There was a rising bruise on his temple, well-faded as if it had already met Genma’s healing hands. Smaller cuts and scrapes hadn’t been worth the same treatment. He still smelled of smoke and sweat and antiseptic, and—

And Ryouma wasn’t meant to be looking at him. Not out here, alone in the cold, foggy dawn. Not when they had nothing to talk about but themselves. He dropped his head again, and ripped savagely at the grass.

Raidou shifted. For a moment Ryouma thought he was getting up, but instead he dropped down to sit cross-legged, heedless of the wet grass beneath. He tossed an arm around Ryouma’s shoulders and pulled him off-balance, against his side.

“Taichou,” Ryouma said, desperately.

“I’m tired,” Raidou said. His arm didn’t loosen from Ryouma’s shoulders. His side was furnace-warm. “It’s been a shitty night. When we get home, we’ll look at boundaries again. For now, Ryouma, if you want a hug, take the damned hug.”

Somewhere in the world there were scattered shards of self-control. Ryouma gathered them with gritted teeth, and didn’t move.

But it was uncomfortably awkward to lean, still squatting, against Raidou’s side; their shoulders didn’t fit together, and Ryouma’s ankles hurt. After a moment he let himself slither down to sit beside Raidou. The grass immediately soaked the seat of his trousers through, but if he slouched a little his shoulder fit better under Raidou’s. He could feel Raidou’s warmth the whole length of his side, where they pressed together.

He thought of falling asleep in Raidou’s arms, that one night they’d spent together. For the first time in a month he didn’t immediately shove the thought away, or crush it down with distractions. He let its memory warm him, and then he thought, deliberately, of the cold in his bed when he woke, the dawn light revealing an empty apartment, only the rice cooker left on, no dishes in the sink.

This way was better. Watching the dawn together, and knowing that for eleven months, at least, neither of them would leave.

The light strengthened. A breeze picked up and began to blow shreds of mist through the hollow. Ryouma shivered. “My butt’s getting cold, taichou.”

“Oh god, mine too,” Raidou said immediately, with such relief that Ryouma suspected he’d only been waiting for Ryouma to cave first. Raidou loosened his arm, paused, and then lifted his hand to the top of Ryouma’s head. He rumpled the thick, dry hair with a careful hand. “Think you could sleep?”

“Still don’t want to,” Ryouma said. He let himself sit a moment longer, then ducked out from under Raidou’s hand and levered himself to his feet. “I could try, though. Might be able to, now that I’ve seen the day.” He held out a hand.

Raidou curled loose fingers around Ryouma’s wrist, letting Ryouma grip and haul. The blisters on Ryouma’s palms protested a little, but once Raidou got his feet under him he immediately pulled back, and Ryouma had to let go.

“C’mon, then,” Raidou said. He started back for the hidden door.

They went down again, into the dark and then the familiar sickly flicker of electric lights. The Kiri nin was still in her cell, curled on the mattress with her blanket tugged over her and the empty stew pot discarded by the bars. Ryouma’s shadow clone straightened with a weary sway. “Hit my limit,” it said, and popped into smoke and emptiness.

Its memories poured in, the tedious watch, the anger. Ryouma rocked back on his heels and caught himself with a hand against the wall. “Should I set another?”

“Ueno’s clones can handle it,” Raidou said. There was one of them there already. Another, perhaps the one who’d dragged Fukuda’s belongings into the passageway to catalogue, came up to take up the abandoned place. Ryouma left them to it.

In the bunkroom, the rest of Team Six slept. Genma was snoring slightly. Ryouma hoped that was normal, and not a sign they’d set the nose wrong after all.

Raidou looked at them for a moment, blinking blurrily. “You want to take Ueno’s other side? I can bookend the lieutenant.”

Katsuko would probably be warm, and she wouldn’t mind the cuddling. But…

“Think I’d rather take the floor,” Ryouma said quietly. He bit his wrist on a yawn. “Just in case.”

Raidou’s weary gaze dragged back. He studied Ryouma for a moment, then nodded. “If that’s what you want.”

It wasn’t, really. But it was better than waking from nightmares to find he’d strangled someone in his sleep, or pressing too close in a half-conscious drowse and wrecking everything he’d fought so hard to win. He nodded back, and Raidou let him be.

They turned the gas burners off, conserving what little fuel remained, and kicked their boots to the wall. Raidou peeled a couple of blankets off Katsuko and tossed them Ryouma’s way. He took one more for himself, and then crawled up onto the platform at the lieutenant’s back.

Ryouma sorted through the scrolls in his belt-pouch until he found the one that sealed his bedroll inside. The blankets, folded in half along their length, made a better pad than bare dirt, though less than a mattress. He wriggled in with his back to the door and the Kiri-nin’s imprisoned threat, curled an arm under his head, and waited for the nightmares to come.

Raidou’s voice came instead, soft around the edges of sleep. “Tomorrow will be better.”

“You saw the sunrise, taichou,” Ryouma reminded him. “It’s already today.”

Silence, for a moment. “Maybe next week, then.”

Ryouma closed his eyes. “I’ll hope.”

Raidou said, very softly, “Sleep, Ryouma.”

When they woke, and the others were around, it would be Tousaki again. But there was still a little warmth in the gentleness of his voice around the personal name, the lingering trace of good memories. An order, but one he believed Ryouma could follow.

Ryouma turned his face against his arm, and tried.



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