April 28, Yondaime Year 5
Miles bled by in a waking dream. The litter-carrying clones’ gait wasn’t smooth enough to sleep, even if Ryouma’d dared. His head ached, a low fuzz of tension under the haze of morphine, and he kept hearing Genma’s raw voice rasping, B-brain bleed?
The pain became something to hold on to, jostled back with each long running step, sinking away again in the space between strides. Rain spattered against his face, faded to drizzle, and then pounded down with renewed fury. Someone tried, briefly, to hold an oiled cloak over them, and then gave it up.
“Betcha I can boil the rain to steam,” Genma offered.
“Don’t,” Raidou growled, somewhere behind them. Ryouma snickered, coughed, and curled painfully against Genma’s bandaged side. There seemed to be waves of heat rolling off the lieutenant, pulsing with his heart; if Ryouma squinted he thought he could almost see the visible haze of fire chakra burning through veins. It looked like it hurt. His own chakra-charred pathways ached in sympathy.
But the heat was beginning to sink into his shiver-knotted muscles, like sunlight on frosted ground. He tucked his chin down very carefully on Genma’s shoulder and tried to press a little closer.
Genma twitched as if he meant to turn his head, but nothing moved. He took a deeper breath instead. “Doing okay, Tousaki? Don’t think I can turn the heat up any higher. I’m kinda over the line already.”
“I’m fine!” Ryouma tried shifting back against the sloping side of the stretcher. Cold air clawed between them. “Just takin’ my chance to cuddle up to the hottest lieutenant in the corps. Sorry, you can turn it down—”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Genma said, but there was no bite to his voice. “Stay close. You need the heat, and so do I.”
That sounded reasonable. And Raidou hadn’t yet intervened with any reminders about boundaries—Ryouma might bite him if he did, he thought darkly.
He let himself ooze down into the center of the stretcher again, against warmth and solid muscle and the painful bite of a shuriken pouch against his hip. Genma made an encouraging noise. Ryouma eased his head down, loose brown hair tickling his nose, and dared for just a moment to shut his eyes.
He woke when the bunshin halted. There was a shout, running feet, and Ryouma came up on one elbow with a kunai in his hand.
“Down, rookie,” Genma’s hoarse, amused voice said beneath him. “We’re safe.”
Ryouma blinked fog out of his eyes and looked. The evening’s rain had given way to a misty night, moon hidden by clouds, a few strung-up streetlights casting a flickering yellow glow. Boxy paper lanterns were beginning to draw closer, with tight clusters of villagers bobbing behind them. A woman called out a name, her voice raw with grief and hope, and broke down sobbing in the silence.
A slim, dark body slid in front of him, eclipsing the lights. “Lie down,” Kakashi’s voice said. “Don’t move too much. Don’t touch your face.” Shadowed fingers twisted through seals. A fine mist of chakra left his hands and settled over Ryouma’s face.
Ryouma sneezed. Kakashi made an impatient sound, pulled the kunai out of his hand, and pushed him down. Then he pulled a dark-eyed tanuki mask off his belt and leaned over to fit it carefully over Genma’s face. “Tell Ram if you can’t breathe through that.”
“Thanks,” Genma said quietly, muffled beneath the mask.
Beyond the rigid shoulders of the bunshin carrying the litter, Raidou raised his voice. “We need a doctor. Do you have one in the village?”
Voices muttered anxiously. The clone carrying the upper left pole of Ryouma’s litter shifted her weight and blew out her breath beneath her mask. But the crowd was moving, parting to create a narrow path around a greying, heavyset woman in a garish raincoat. “I run the clinic,” she said warily. She wrapped her arms around her middle and stared down at the two litters. “It’s not—we’re not a hospital, and I’m no medic-nin. We don’t work miracles.”
“I’m not asking for them,” Raidou said calmly. “We’ve got a medic-nin. He’s just dealing with a little temporary paralysis right now. If you can get everyone stable and keep ‘em that way long enough for him to shake it off, we can do the rest.”
The doctor’s mouth tightened, but she nodded. “I’ll need my assistant,” she said. “If someone could fetch Daisuke—”
“I’m here!” a young man called from the far side of the ring of villagers. He forced his way through and came by the litters, casting a curious, anxious look down as he passed. “‘Where are the others?” he demanded.
“I’ll explain after we get the injured out of the rain,” Raidou said, with an edge to his voice. “I need your mayor, or whoever’s in charge of the village. And anyone who can get a message to Mizudera.”
There was a radio installation in Mizudera, Ryouma remembered fuzzily. It had been fortified as a front-line command center during the war. The transmitter might not be strong enough to reach Konoha, but it could relay a message on.
We’ve just contaminated half a mountainside and collapsed the rest; send a cleanup crew…
People begin to move. A few thrust themselves out of the crowd to talk to Raidou; others cleared the way for the clones and their stretchers to follow the doctor and her assistant out of the square, with Katsuko and Kakashi hovering dangerously behind. They turned down a side street lighted only by paper lanterns hung up outside doors. The doctor chattered to one of Katsuko’s clones about her limited facilities, her handful of experience with shinobi injuries. She didn’t seem able to tell which was the real woman, and so just talked nervously to the nearest. “We mostly just have broken arms here, minor illnesses, a few difficult births—I try to get the high-risk ones to the hospital in Mizudera before they’re due—”
Ryouma’s head hurt. He closed his eyes again, and waited for the jostling to end.
He missed the moment of transition between street and clinic. Lights flared suddenly, blindingly bright. The stretcher thumped down onto a tiled floor, and cold hands peeled Genma away from his side. “Here, lay him down,” the doctor said, raising her voice above the powerful thrum of a nearby generator. Ryouma slitted his eyes against the piercing light and saw Katsuko’s clones easing Genma onto the first clean bed in a dormitory-style row, while the doctor shed her raincoat and washed her hands at a sink against the wall. The assistant crouched over the civilians’ stretcher to palpitate their distended stomachs.
“There’s something in them!”
“It’s a parasite,” Genma rasped. “Keep them warm and hydrated. I’ll do what I can as soon as I can move.” He jerked his chin at one of the clones. “Tell the captain we need a Hyuuga medic here, if we can get one.”
The clone saluted, fist to shoulder, and ducked out. The others busied themselves transferring the civilians to two of the remaining empty beds. There was a fourth, but Ryouma waved off the clone who tried to help him to it. “Not hurt,” he croaked. Well, not badly. The shallow, hastily bandaged gash on his thigh wasn’t much in comparison to Katsuko’s collarbone or Genma’s belly-wound, or both of their savaged shoulders. He scrubbed a hand across his face and tried to think. “Need to get clean,” he decided.
Genma made an aggrieved sound. “Get clean and then get in the damn bed, Ram.”
“You have a shower?” Kakashi asked the doctor.
She lifted her chin, indicating a closed door at the back of the clinic. Kakashi nodded. “The medic-nin there has a belly-wound that needs looking at, and his shoulders aren’t in great shape. The woman in the rat mask—that one—has a broken collarbone that probably needs setting better, and ditto on the shoulders.” He crouched to haul Ryouma up, hissing in disgust as his fingers found slime in the grooves of the shoulder-straps where rain hadn’t washed it away.
They lurched an unsteady four-step into the tiny bathroom, where a shower stocked with harsh soap and floral hair products took up most of the space not occupied by a toilet and a standing sink. Kakashi leaned Ryouma up against the wall, vanished, and returned a second later with a metal folding chair, which he set up inside the shower. He turned back. “Need help stripping?”
No matter how exhausted, Ryouma couldn’t let a line like that go. “Why, Kakashi,” he murmured, fumbling for the buckles on his right shoulder. “‘f I’d known all it’d take was burying myself in rotting demon guts to get you to ask, I’d’ve done it earlier.” The buckle popped loose. He took a moment to catch his breath. “Or maybe found an easier way.”
“Do you do anything the easy way?” Kakashi demanded. He shoved Ryouma’s hand off the left shoulder-strap and released the catch himself, then stooped to the buckles at the left side. His right arm was mostly working again, though the fingers were clumsy. He still had all three buckles open before Ryouma had managed the lowest one on the right.
After that Ryouma simply let himself be handled, stripped out of armor and underpinnings as ruthlessly and efficiently as Kakashi stripped weapons to clean them. Kakashi bundled Ryouma into the shower and onto the chair, turned the water on steaming-hot, and scrubbed his hair with floral shampoo and the rest of him with a lye-based soap that burned in his cuts. He was pink and prunish when Kakashi retreated at last for a final scrub of his own hands. Clean and flower-scented, they reeled out of the shower and into towels. Ryouma leaned shivering against the wall, one fuzzy towel girded around his hips and another draping his shoulders, while Kakashi squeezed water out of his hair, pulled dry clothes out of a scroll, and performed possibly the fastest change ever witnessed by man.
Well, he was the Yondaime Hokage’s protégé.
He’d also managed to change his mask without ever revealing his face—a slight turn of the head, a lifted shoulder, a convenient fall of wet silver hair. Ryouma watched in a pleasantly detached daze.
“Y’know,” he said, as Kakashi wrestled his new shirt down, “I made a bad offer, back in the Trials. Shouldn’t’ve asked for the Raikiri in exchange for the Nikutai Hakai. Probably couldn’t master it anyway.” He had to stop for breath. Had the shower been that hot? The tiny room was dense with fog, Kakashi a hazy ghost in black and grey.
“Not without a lightning affinity and your own Sharingan.” Kakashi sealed his wet armor and underpinnings into the recently emptied scroll, vanished all Ryouma’s ruined gear except his laden utility belt into a second, empty scroll, and tucked both scrolls away. He pulled his ANBU mask back on, and slung Ryouma’s belt over his shoulder. The painted red face leered at Ryouma out of the fog.
Ryouma blinked hard. Kakashi was there, suddenly, gripping his arm below the ANBU tattoo. “Did you have something in mind?”
“Thought maybe your face,” Ryouma said, which had made more sense in his head. He tried to explain, “Nobody I’ve talked to’s ever seen it. ‘Xcept probably the Hokage. And whatever lovers you’ve had, I guess. Wouldn’t put it past you to wear a mask to bed.”
Water dripped and puddled on the tiled floor. Ryouma shivered in the growing cool, and huddled into his towel. Kakashi said at last, “We should get you back to the others before you fall over.”
That was beginning to sound like a better plan, though curling up on the floor here wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Ryouma yawned into his towel. “Think about it,” he said, and let Kakashi reapply his misty henge mask and tug him back into the clinic.
Genma had his ruined armor and blacks off, but he’d kept the tanuki mask on. The young assistant was swabbing his torso clean with a white cloth, while the doctor sterilized instruments over a spirit-lamp. The wound on his belly gaped angry and open from his left side nearly to his navel. Without his armor, he’d have been eviscerated.
The clones had gone; only one Katsuko sat on a metal folding chair, masked head tipped back against the wall, the useless arm still bound tightly to her chest. Her head came down as they entered. “Showered already?” she asked, with an exhausted archness. “Never heard of ladies first, boys?”
“They teach that at the Academy?” Ryouma asked muzzily. “We both graduated early.” He found the edge of the single empty bed, dropped onto it, and then grappled at Kakashi’s arm with a sudden stabbing fear. “‘f my brain bleeds—”
Without medical chakra, there was nothing they could do.
“Don’t wake me up,” he said, and let himself fall.
“Don’t worry,” Genma said, still slightly slurred. “Got blood pills in you. You’ll be alright. I’ll fix you up in just a little bit.”
Ryouma’s eyes were already closed, chest rising and falling in the steady rhythm of sleep. If he heard the lieutenant, he gave no sign.
“Get some rest first, Tanuki,” Katsuko said. Exhaustion clawed at the inside of her skull, dragging down her bones like quicksand. “None of us are going anywhere.”
Genma made a little hissing noise when the assistant swabbed at his cut belly. “Yeah. You rest, too, Rat.”
Katsuko remembered she had only one working arm when she tried to tap her fingers against her tattoo in a salute. The pained grunt that escaped her was involuntary but quiet enough not to alert Genma, which was the best she could hope for at this point.
Across the room, two wet towels landed on the floor with an inelegant plop. Katsuko blinked, forcing the blurry edges of her vision away.
Kakashi had found a set of spare clothes from somewhere: generic cloth pants and shirt, one size fits all. Ryouma didn’t even twitch as Kakashi dressed him with the professional efficiency of a hospital nurse, wrestling Ryouma’s long limbs away from the edge of the mattress and pulling the blanket up over his shoulders.
With one last glance at Genma, Katsuko hauled herself upright and shambled over to the bed. After giving Kakashi a nod, she leaned in to press two fingers to the pulse in Ryouma’s throat, finding quiet reassurance in the steady rhythm of his heart. She pulled away after a second and scrubbed her good hand through her hair, yawning. Then she turned to Kakashi.
“You know what, hotpants?” she said. “You’re alright.”
He glanced at her. “You’re not. You should eat something.”
“You could get me something to eat,” Katsuko suggested.
“I could,” Kakashi said, almost agreeably.
Katsuko eyed him. “But?”
“Do I look like a vending machine?”
She considered this. “Which answer will get me food?”
He reached over, tugged an uneaten rat bar out of her belt without looking, and handed it to her.
“It’s not the same,” Katsuko said at last, mournful.
“Life is hard,” Kakashi told her, and tucked Ryouma’s blanket in a little more firmly. Then he straightened, slim and sharp-shouldered in his dark clothes, and visibly drew his thoughts together. It was fascinating to watch the wheels turning in his spiky grey head, but entertainment morphed into alarm when his one grey eye turned its razor-sharp focus on her. “You’re shaking and you stink. We should get you into the shower.”
The extreme willpower it took not to slide straight into innuendo nearly gave Katsuko a seizure. “We should,” she said, quite amiably.
Kakashi raised his voice. “Tanuki, you okay for a minute?”
“Yeah,” Genma said, voice strained. He twitched a shoulder as the doctor poked at his wound with something sharp and surgical-looking. “Don’t faint in the shower. Either of you. And someone needs to make sure Moon is okay.”
“Next on my list,” Kakashi said, and then offered Katsuko his arm. “But you first.”
Katsuko took it. “What a gentleman,” she said dryly, but leaned on him as they shuffled their way out the door. A metal chair stood inside the bathroom shower; Katsuko slid off her mask and stared blankly as Kakashi switched the water on. He turned to her as steam filled the tiled room.
After a moment, it clicked. Katsuko sighed, the itching need to get clean trumping any modesty she might have had left. “Fine. But I’m taking my own pants off.”
“So long as you don’t fall over doing it,” Kakashi said, and started to unstrap the bandage holding her sling in place. She grunted and undid the catches on the right side of her armor, wincing when the spray hit her abraded skin.
“So,” she said, struggling to slide off her chestplate. “How was your up-close-and-personal time with bug mom? Sounded like you got to at least third base.”
“She was kind of a bitey kisser,” he said, without missing a beat. “She did almost get the lieutenant in a family way, though.”
“That’s the problem with bug queens.” Katsuko tilted her head back and sighed when the chestplate hit the floor. It felt like a ten-ton anchor had been lifted from her shoulders, leaving her free to drift up towards the ceiling. “Their only settings are ‘kill’ and ‘impregnate’.”
“And ‘die’,” Kakashi said, voice rich with satisfaction. He eased Katsuko’s sling off carefully, dropping it to the floor to land in a crumpled heap on top of her chestplate. “Speaking of which—I know what I did, and what Ram did, and I have a fair idea what the captain did. Which just leaves the eyes. Was that you?”
“Hm?” Katsuko blinked, confused. After a moment, she propped her good elbow up on his shoulder and nodded. “Yeah. I was the distraction. Fire worked pretty well on her squishy bits, until she tossed me off her head.”
“And then you forgot how to land?” He braced her arm while he helped peel her black undershirt off, fumbling a bit with his right hand. Dazed as she was, Katsuko still felt him pause while she yanked the undershirt collar over her chin. Water droplets hit the bare skin of her stomach, and she abruptly remembered why she didn’t take her shirt off during one-night stands. She could feel the weight of Kakashi’s gaze on the surgical scars striping her torso, the intricate tattooed whorls of the seal underneath her navel.
“Well, it was a long way down.” Her undershirt joined the pile of dirty clothes, leaving her in her sports bra and pants. She was still using Kakashi as an elbow rest; he’d feel it if she tensed. Instead, she smirked and leaned her full weight against him, casually canting her weight on one foot like he was a convenient fence-post. “I did tell you about the enemy medic-nin, right? Don’t be surprised. The seal’s the Hokage’s work.”
His mask tilted as he looked at her face. As she’d hoped, he didn’t push. “I can tell.” After a second, he asked, “Are you going to take off your pants, or do you need me to?”
Katsuko leered, happy to take the bait. “Only if you take yours off first.”
“I’ve done mine once already,” Kakashi said. “You missed it.”
When had he— Right. Ryouma. “Doesn’t count,” she shot back. “Ram was out for the count, and therefore can’t provide me a description. It’s my duty to give him an accurate report. For team cohesion.”
“No,” Kakashi said. “Take your pants off.”
Katsuko considered this. “Why?”
Kakashi’s tone implied he had opinions about her intelligence that weren’t flattering. “Because you have demon slime everywhere.”
“That’s true,” Katsuko conceded. “But if I move, I think I’m going to fall over. Let’s just stay like this for a bit.”
In another lifetime, Kakashi might have been tempted.
In this lifetime, Katsuko smelled like demon blood, Genma was having his hide pieced back together by semi-qualified locals, Ryouma was unconscious and unprotected, and he had no idea what had happened to Raidou.
“Brace against my shoulder,” he instructed, and knelt down to strip Katsuko’s mud-encrusted belt off, followed by her equally disgusting boots, shin-guards, and, finally, pants. He had to cajole her into stepping out of the legs, but she managed not to actually collapse.
When he had her down to her sports bra (bright orange), underwear (lime green), skin (pale), and scars (many), he pushed her gently back into the shower spray. She toppled down onto the chair with an offended grunt and a tight, pained wince.
That’d be the broken collarbone.
And, well—everything else. A leaf-litter of bruises and cuts traced an afternoon’s work over Katsuko’s tired body, some already bandaged, others not. Most of the unattended ones would be too small to bother with, once they’d been properly cleaned. The collarbone was ugly, though. Three hours journey back to the village had given it time to swell and blacken, flowering a dark bruise over her right shoulder. The demon bite on her opposite shoulder had seen one healing from Genma, but it wasn’t much prettier.
And then there were the scars Kakashi was careful to avoid.
He found the soap and shampoo, and resigned himself to getting wet again in pursuit of Katsuko reaching a basic standard of livable hygiene. She wasn’t quite as mannequin-like as Ryouma had been; she squirmed, complained about soap in her eyes, hissed when he stung her cuts or jarred anything painful, then finally lapsed into tired silence and leaned against him, soaking his shirt.
He washed her wild hair twice, scrubbed her filthy hands and every mud-crusted cut, and caught her when she started to slide out of the chair.
She pushed herself back upright, and waggled her eyebrows at him. “You missed a spot.”
“You’re a little old for me to wash your mouth out,” Kakashi said.
That won him a rough chuckle, but not much else. Katsuko tipped her head against the chair-back, slouching down. Her eyes slid closed.
How much chakra had she channeled today? Her energy still burned beneath her skin, more than he’d ever have on his very best day, but it was dimmer than it had been. And it didn’t matter how much chakra you had left; the effort of using a lot still cost a person. That was one reason soldier pills were so carefully rationed.
“Don’t fall asleep on me,” Kakashi told her, tousling the last suds out of her hair and switching the water off. “We still need to get you dressed and find a bed for you.”
“There’s a chair right here,” she said, in a way that suggested she thought she was being reasonable and intelligent. “I’ll be fine.”
Kakashi considered his options. 1) argue. 2) manhandle.
He went to find a towel and clean clothes. When he came back, Katsuko was asleep. She twitched when he toweled her hair dry, but didn’t do more than murmur at him. He dried the rest of her as best he could, then paused. If he put her straight into clean clothes, her bra and underwear would soak them. If he forced her awake to change them, she’d probably bite him. If he changed them—
There was a limit to his nursing duties.
In the end, he shook his poisoned hand until the fingers worked well enough for a simple jutsu, and yanked the water right out of the cloth. Then he sealed her things into another scroll (except for her belt and belt-pouches, which were important), bundled her into the borrowed clothes—another rough set of laundered villager top-and-bottoms—and lifted her off the chair. She kicked, then clutched his shirt hard enough to half-throttle him.
“It’s me,” he said.
One green-brown eye cracked open and peered at him. “Urgh,” Katsuko said, then tucked her face down against his chest and, as far as he could tell, passed out.
Well, that worked, too.
He carried her back to the other room, where the doctor and her assistant had finished stitching and binding Genma’s belly-wound, and had moved onto his shoulders. Genma’s masked head twitched as he spotted Kakashi, and his eyes widened at Katsuko. “Is she—”
“Asleep,” Kakashi said quickly. “I think she’s just tired.”
Genma nodded once, fractional but there—maybe he was starting to get some voluntary movement at last. “You holding up?” he rasped.
“I’m holding her up,” Kakashi said, and found himself with a complete lack of spare beds to put Katsuko down on. Genma took one, the silent civilians took two, and Ryouma was flat unconscious in the last one. Though—Ryouma and Katsuko had been plenty comfy together in their shared tent-blanket-thing, and he was unlikely to kick her now.
Mutual warmth wouldn’t hurt them, either.
It took a little wrangling to kick one corner of the blanket back and lower Katsuko carefully down, laying her out next to Ryouma on the narrow bed. Despite being shorter and fine-boned, she was still a fully-grown shinobi and had all the muscle that implied. Kakashi’s arms ached, though that was possibly because he’d also used them to climb a mountain and fight a monster earlier.
He straightened her out on her back, folding her right arm across her chest, where it wouldn’t jar that collarbone. Then, as an afterthought, wedged a pillow between her and Ryouma, just in case Ryouma decided to roll over and smother her. That done, he laid a careful henge mask over her face, hiding pale, slightly pinched features behind a smooth replica of her lost rat mask, and drew the blankets back up again.
Ryouma didn’t stir. Katsuko grabbed the edge of the blanket with her good hand and pulled it higher, tucking her face down. They each had about three inches between them and the edges of the bed, but if they didn’t move much they’d be okay.
When Kakashi straightened, the room did a very gentle waltz around the corners of his vision, but settled when he blinked hard.
Katsuko, almost done.
The doctor stiffened when Kakashi moved over to her, but her hands stayed steady on Genma’s stinger-punctured shoulder. “How are your teammates?” she asked.
“One’s drained. The other still needs her collarbone fixed,” Kakashi said. “And her shoulder looked at.”
When he got home, he was having words with the Quartermaster. Almost every single member of Team Six had shoulder injuries.
“How’s Tanuki doing?” he asked.
“This one?” said the doctor. “He’ll be a lot better off once I get whatever’s in this puncture out of him.”
Demon venom, Kakashi almost said, but it was probably better she didn’t actually know. She wasn’t likely to have an anti-venom anyway. The lieutenant could tell her, if he wanted.
Genma made an irritated sound. “There’s something in there? Take a knife and dig it out.”
“Patience,” the doctor said, fishing about with what looked like a set of steel forceps. They scraped against something Kakashi sincerely hoped wasn’t bone, and a thin trickle of pinkish fluid oozed out of the hole—diluted blood. The doctor scowled and dug deeper.
The painted ANBU mask hid any expression, but there were tendons jumping in Genma’s bare arms, and his flushed skin seemed more sweat-sheened than it had been.
Kakashi frowned. “Have you given him something for pain?”
“He’s not feeling much through this paralysis,” the doctor said, distracted. “He’s already had one dose from your captain, he said.”
“Three hours ago,” Kakashi said sharply.
The assistant swallowed. “We don’t carry much heavy-duty stuff. I could measure out—”
“I’ve got it,” Kakashi said, digging into his med-kit. “Full dose, lieutenant, or half-dose?”
Genma drew a slow breath. “Five cc’s, but I’ll probably need another ten when I get more feeling back. Dose up Rat and yourself, too.”
“Unless he wakes up in pain, he’s better without it,” Genma said. “Have you eaten?”
When had they last eaten?
“Breakfast,” Kakashi said, feeling slightly foolish. But none of the rest of the team had done any better, except for Katsuko, who’d grazed on snacks the entire way to the mountain. “It’s next on my list.”
He found a pre-loaded morphine syrette and sank it into Genma’s thigh, then crossed to Katsuko and did the same for her, with a stronger dose. She swatted absently at him, but settled again when he left her alone. Ryouma still didn’t move, breathing deep and even. Which was good; he needed the sleep.
Kakashi swallowed a handful of aspirin, dug a ration bar out of his belt, and went back to Genma. “Orders, lieutenant? Or can I go check on the captain?”
“Ah hah,” the doctor said, before Genma could answer, and drew a finger-length piece of stinger tip out of his shoulder. She dropped it into a metal dish, where it clattered and oozed three beads of clear venom. She peered at it. “The hell is that?”
“The reason I can’t move,” Genma said tersely, which was much better than Kakashi’s thought about really big bees. “Show me—No wait. Hound, go find the captain and make him eat something, too. Tell him I need to talk to him about… about what we’re doing next.”
“Sir,” Kakashi said, and made a point to touch his shoulder before he left. It could only help if the doctor took Genma as seriously as possible.
Halfway out of the door, Kakashi paused.
In front of him, a sea of silent villagers shifted back, leaving a widening circle of cautious space around him. Several of them had tear-streaked faces. None of them said a word.
Slowly, Kakashi shut the door behind him. He reached for his chakra to summon an insubstantial clone—not much of a guardian, but better than nothing—then paused. They’d left clones in the village at the start of this mission, and he’d never gotten the memory-drop that followed banishment. If things had been quiet here, maybe the chakra had lasted this long.
He rippled his chakra. Two seconds later, his own mirror image and Genma’s doppelganger dropped out of the air, making the front villagers jolt back. The clones, which looked a lot cleaner and more sprightly than any original member of Team Six, took up stations either side of the door. Kakashi wove his way into the crowd.
It was a little like being a shark in a shoal of minnows; the villagers drew away from him, even though he was half-armored and dripping from Katsuko’s shower.
Well, maybe that helped.
Raidou’s spark was a nearby glimmer, surrounded by civilian signatures in one of the village’s few stone buildings. Kakashi headed towards it. A low-slung wooden sign announced ‘Town Hall’, but the building seemed to be a mix of storage house, radio hub, and record’s office. Kakashi slipped through the door, bypassed a knot of people who tried to question him, and followed the banked sunglow of Raidou’s chakra upstairs, into a small room stuffed with radio equipment.
“—that should do it,” Raidou finished saying to a radio controller, just as Kakashi stepped inside. He turned. “Hound. Everything okay?”
Kakashi tossed him a second rat-bar, which Raidou caught with automatic grace. “Tanuki says to eat that. And he wants to talk to you.”
Every time Kakashi left, he came back looking worse.
“I’ll be right there,” Raidou said, tucking the rat-bar into his belt. He dropped a hand on the radio controller’s shoulder. “Thanks for your help, Amaya-san.”
She smiled at him, and touched two fingers to her temple. “My pleasure, ANBU-san. I’ll keep an eye on the frequencies, in case you get anything back.”
Probably not for the few hours it’d take to relay and decode that message, but then, hopefully, help would come.
“Thank you,” he said again, and tipped his head at the mayor. “The two villagers we brought back are probably desperate to see their families, and vice versa.”
With only one doctor and one assistant in the clinic, it wouldn’t hurt to get a few extra pairs of hands about, either.
“I’ll identify them,” the mayor, Kudo Nobuyaki, said.
Raidou nodded at Kakashi. “Lead on.”
Outside, the press of desperate civilians was claustrophobic, and eerily silent until they saw the mayor. Then the questions started.
“Kudo-san, did they find my son?”
“My daughter was only taken a week ago! Did they bring her back?”
“Was it bandits?”
“What kind of bandits could injure shinobi like that?”
“Was it enemy ninja?”
The last question was a woman, who almost screamed it, and Raidou almost couldn’t blame her. The war was five years over, but this village was right on the border. They would have seen fighting. They’d probably been raided for supplies.
“Please!” Kudo shouted, raising his hands. “Please be calm!”
“My wife!” A man rushed forward and tried to grab Kakashi. “Tell me what happened to my wife!”
Blue-white sparks crackled over Kakashi’s skin. The man yelped and fell back, which did not help the mood of the crowd. Raidou grabbed Kakashi’s shoulder warningly, squeezing hard.
“It wasn’t enemy ninja,” he said loudly. “It was an animal threat, which has been dealt with.”
“Bullshit,” snapped a woman. “What kind of animals could do that to ninja?”
Kakashi muttered something under his breath that sounded a lot like really big bees. Raidou gave him a tiny shake.
“The captain will explain when he’s had a chance to tend to his people,” Kudo said. “There are two of our own in there. They are—the captain has told me—” His voice cracked, then strengthened. “They are the only two who could be saved. As soon as I know their names, I will come back to inform you.”
Hope or despair cracked more than one civilian; faces crumpled in the flickering lantern light. Family members clutched each other tightly, and the man who’d grabbed Kakashi broke down into hoarse, wordless sobs. A young boy crouched down next to him, eyes dry, and put a hand on his arm.
The girl they’d brought back wasn’t old enough to be anyone’s wife, or mother.
I’m sorry, Raidou wanted to say, but he’d be saying it for days, and he still had his own people to worry about.
He put a hand between Kakashi’s frozen shoulder blades and pushed him forward, through a crowd that fell back and parted. At the door of the clinic, two clones stepped aside—Kakashi and Genma’s, left over from the mission start. Raidou and Ryouma each had one somewhere in the village, and Katsuko had ten more, orbiting like satellites. They’d all vanish by the next morning, but for now they were a useful reassurance.
The clinic was in better shape than he’d expected, given Genma’s urgent-sounding message. Katsuko and Ryouma were both clean, judging by the wet hair, and bundled together into one narrow bed piled high with blankets. The civilians had a bed apiece, and were being checked by the medic’s assistant, who looked up in faint alarm at the mayor.
Genma also had his own bed, and a lot more naked skin than anyone else. He’d been stripped to the waist, though his ANBU mask was still in place. Thick, clean bandages wrapped around his stomach, strapped over a broad pad of gauze that hopefully covered sutures. His left, stinger-lacerated shoulder was also freshly bandaged. The medic was halfway through piecing together the ragged flaps of bitten skin on his right shoulder, in what looked like the world’s least fun jigsaw puzzle.
At Raidou’s back, Kudo swallowed hard.
“Mayor-san,” the medic said, without looking up. “The ANBU have brought back Fujiyama-san and the Ehime’s girl.”
“Hisa?” said Kodu.
“You should tell her family,” said the medic. “But prepare them for bad news. Both are infected with some kind of—” She hesitated, then settled on, “Creature.”
“Oh god,” said Kudo, in the voice of a man reaching his personal limit.
Genma managed to lift his head partway—which, hey, progress—before the medic pushed him back down. “I have medical jutsu. I’ll do what I can for them as soon as I’m able.”
The mayor bowed. “Thank you, ANBU-san,” he managed, and left.
Genma’s mask turned slightly towards Raidou. “Any word on getting a Hyuuga out here?”
“I sent for one. Probably won’t hear anything for a while,” Raidou said.
“Check the civilians,” Genma said. “Any changes? Maybe I can burn this out faster. Starting to get some feeling back.”
Raidou crossed to Genma’s bed and leaned over it. Quietly, he said, “If you raise your temperature one more degree, Tanuki-san, I will drop you down the village well. You’re improving. Don’t push it.”
Genma’s chin lifted slightly. “Acknowledged,” he said, after a moment. Then, “Actually, I probably need some water. Also, did you eat? You and Hound… how are you doing?”
For a man as laid back as Genma, he had an amazing ability to fuss.
On his back.
While being sutured.
“No change in the civilians,” Kakashi said from behind Raidou.
“Hound and I are both fine,” Raidou said. They were both upright, anyway, which would do for now. He pulled his canteen out and tipped the tanuki mask up enough to trickle water carefully into Genma’s mouth. Then took a long swallow himself and tossed the canteen to Kakashi, who caught it. “Working on food,” he told Genma. “Think you could eat?”
Genma’s throat clicked as he gave an experimental swallow. “I don’t know. Don’t want to risk choking, and I’m feeling a little queasy. Maybe broth.”
For a brief, tired moment, Raidou’s mind went blank. He didn’t have broth. Where could they get—
He went to the door, opened it, and picked out the first civilian face that wasn’t weeping or clustered around the harassed mayor. “Hey, excuse me, ma’am?”
The woman turned, eyebrows flicking up. “ANBU-san?”
“Any chance you cook?”
The woman gave a highly wary nod.
“I don’t suppose you have enough soup for, say, seven people? Or the ability to get it?” He fumbled into a belt pouch. “I could pay you.”
The woman went from puzzled to offended in the edge of a second, which was probably a personal best. Her back snapped straight and she said sharply, “I don’t require payment from Konoha. I’ll be back shortly.”
She grabbed a teenage boy, presumably her son, by the ear and towed him out of the crowd.
“Thank you?” said Raidou, and ducked back into the room before anyone pigeonholed him with questions. He went back to Genma. “Broth theoretically achieved. Need anything else?”
“Conference with you and Hound.” Genma’s eyes flicked to the medic, then over Raidou’s shoulder, to the assistant. “Maybe one of you could work on Moon’s and Hound’s injuries? I think they just need cleaning and fresh bandages.” He eyed Raidou skeptically. “And dry clothes.”
The medic hesitated, then said, “Moon?”
“Shark was taken,” Raidou said wearily. “Finish working on him first before you do anything else. Tanuki, quit reorganizing your own care. You were prioritized for a reason.”
“No,” Raidou said, skating the edge of his own patience. He left Genma’s bedside to do his own check on the civilians, who were cool to the touch and seemed to be asleep. The medic’s assistant—Raidou wished he could remember the boy’s name—made a helpless gesture with both hands.
“I don’t think there’s anything else I can do for them,” he said. “They need a surgeon.”
Across the room, Genma made a quietly aggravated sound of—likely self-directed—frustration.
“We’re working on that, too,” Raidou said, and tipped his head towards Kakashi. “Can you take a look at him?”
“Um,” said the assistant, with the expression of someone who’d seen Kakashi be his typical charming self.
“I’m fine,” Kakashi said.
The door opened before Raidou could think of something appropriate to threaten Kakashi with, and the mayor came back in, leading a middle-aged couple with joined, white-knuckled hands. Hisa’s parents, Raidou guessed. They were slow to approach, hesitant, but they went to Hisa. The woman smoothed back strands of filthy hair from her daughter’s forehead, and the father turned to the assistant, pressing him with questions.
There was no one for Fujiyama.
“I have to attend to the other families,” Kudo told Raidou quietly. “Are you—are you sure there was no one else?”
Raidou glanced at Kakashi, who looked away.
“No one else we could save,” Raidou said. “I’m sorry.”
Kudo’s mouth tightened, but he only said, “When you’re done taking care of your own, I would like to hear the full story.”
Raidou nodded. “I can do that.”
“Thank you,” Kudo said, and slipped out.
Across the room, the medic finished winding a last strip of bandage around Genma, and declared, “Done. Who’s next?”
Genma watched the village doctor, Namura-sensei, and her assistant as they inspected Katsuko’s broken collarbone, set it into place, and strapped her arm to her chest. With basic medical care, at least, Namura-sensei seemed comfortable. Until Katsuko could get the broken bone chakra-healed, the setting and binding was as good a job as Genma could have done himself. They cleaned and re-bandaged the bite on her shoulder that he’d partly healed for her after their first encounter with the demons. The wounds had opened again where they’d been deepest, a testament to how hard she’d pushed herself and how much punishment she’d taken in those later battles.
When Katsuko was taken care of, they turned to Raidou, whose own bandages were stained red. He waved them off in favor of Ryouma. “My team first,” he told the doctor, and shot Genma a look before Genma could even open his mouth to argue.
“If you’re in decent shape, you could give me a head start by taking a shower and cleaning yourself up a little,” Namura said. She pointed towards a sliding door across the room. “Your man in the dog mask knows the way.”
Kakashi, who had seated himself on the floor next to Ryouma and Katsuko’s bed, mirrored the doctor’s gesture, pointing out the same door.
“Thanks,” said Raidou dryly. He crossed the room, then turned back. “Shout if you need me.”
Kakashi touched his left shoulder in a lazy salute that might have been insubordination, but judging by the way his chakra signature was wavering, was probably genuine fatigue.
“You keeping alright there?” Namura asked Kakashi.
He turned his masked face up to her and nodded once.
“Alright. Going to work on your other friend here a minute.”
“He’s got a head injury,” Genma said. “Make sure he’s rousable.”
“I’ve seen a few bumps on the head in my life, ANBU-san,” she said, waving a hand at him. “Save your energy for yourself.”
“He generates energy by nagging,” Kakashi murmured, just loud enough for Genma’s fever-sharpened ears to pick up.
Namura chuckled. “Proves he’s a medic,” she said, turning her attention to Ryouma. “I need to see his eyes,” she told Kakashi. “I know you’d prefer to keep your faces hidden, but this is important.” Heavy-jointed fingers reached for Ryouma’s mask.
Kakashi’s gloved arm shot out; his hand wrapped around her wrist, drawing a startled yelp from the woman. “His pupils were even three hours ago. No change in the shower,” he told her.
She glanced at Genma, appealing for him to override, perhaps?
“He stays masked,” Genma said. “I trust Hound’s assessment.”
Namura’s lips thinned, but she nodded. “As you wish.” Her fingers combed through Ryouma’s damp hair, pausing when she presumably found the knot where he’d struck his head. “The skin’s not broken,” she said. “And I don’t feel any fractures.” She looked at Kakashi. “When you had his mask off were his eyes black and blue? And did he bleed from the ears or nose at all when he got hit?”
“I didn’t see him get hit,” Kakashi said. “But no, his eyes aren’t bruised, and he wasn’t bleeding. He didn’t seem confused.” He shrugged his shoulders stiffly, probably feeling a thousand aches and bruises now that he’d finally stopped moving. “If his skull’s fractured, he’s dealing with it better than any ninja in history.”
“What can I call him?” Namura asked.
“Ram-san,” Kakashi told her.
Genma was surprised he hadn’t said, ‘Buttercup’.
She nodded and gently shook Ryouma’s shoulder. “Ram-san, open your eyes. Wake up for me for a minute, please.”
Worryingly, Ryouma didn’t respond at all.
Katsuko did, muttering a low string of unintelligible but probably obscene suggestions about what the medic and everyone else could do with themselves, and pulling the blanket over her head.
Namura unfolded the blankets from Ryouma altogether and rubbed her knuckles against his sternum. “Shinobi-san. Ram-san. Can you hear me?”
He didn’t even twitch.
Ryouma was a heavy sleeper, and he was recovering from a near-toxic dose of soldier pills and a catastrophically low chakra level, but even knowing that, Genma’s heart felt icy in his too-hot chest. There were worse things than skull fractures for a man with a head injury, especially in a ninja whose clotting ability was impaired by soldier pills.
“Hound—” he started, but Kakashi had already moved, reaching up to plant a splay-fingered palm on Ryouma’s shoulder. Ozone-edged lightning chakra jumped from Kakashi to Ryouma in a pulse Genma could feel across the room.
Ryouma’s whole body shuddered, and his hand shot up, grabbing Kakashi’s wrist the same way Kakashi had grabbed Namura’s only moments earlier. “I will kill the next person who touches me,” he growled.
“Medic wants you,” Kakashi said calmly.
Tension dropped away from Ryouma’s shoulders, and he released Kakashi’s wrist. “Okay,” he said. “I won’t kill you.” His head twitched back against the pillow as he looked up at the medic. “What? I thought I told you to let me die.”
“I tried,” Kakashi said. “They got fussy about it.”
“Answer my questions and you can go right back to sleep,” Namura said. “Do you know where you are?”
“Hayama Medical Clinic, Isegawa province, getting tortured by my teammate,” Ryouma said. He pulled the edge of his pillow up, rubbing the corner against his face. His illusory mask started to wisp away at the touch, like ice turning to fog.
Kakashi hissed and flicked Ryouma’s wrist. “I told you not to touch your face,” he said, as he recast the water-henge mask.
Namura waited for her patient to settle. “How many fingers am I holding up?” she asked, raising two on one hand and holding it steady.
“Two,” Ryouma said, sounding bitterly vexed. “They’re foggy. It’s chakra-exhaustion. Let me sleep.”
Namura turned to look at Genma. “Satisfactory? He seems rousable, alert and oriented to me.”
“Let him sleep,” Genma agreed. “Sorry, Ram. Needed to be sure.”
“Should fix his leg before he does,” Kakashi said. “Right thigh. Ignore him if he squeaks.”
A disgruntled groan came from under the blankets covering Katsuko.
Namura just looked at Ryouma for a moment. “I’ll have to remove his pants. Daisuke, come over here and help me get his pants off. I’d rather not cut them up if I don’t have to.”
Ryouma made a low, angry noise, deep in his chest, then lifted his hips and shoved his pants down, revealing everything he had to offer, and a long, clean-looking wound on his right thigh. “Do it quick,” he said.
Katsuko uncurled herself carefully from the blankets, craning her neck to get a good eyeful.
“Daisuke,” Namura said.
Her assistant materialized and handed her a hand towel, which she draped artlessly over Ryouma’s genitals.
Katsuko sighed and ducked back under the covers.
“This could use stitching,” Namura said, inspecting the cut.
“Steri-strip it,” Genma told her. “I’ll heal it when I can move again. I’m definitely starting to feel things.”
A lot of things. Mostly burning pain in his belly and shoulders, and a steadily building ache in his chakra coils. Deep muscles shivered and twitched as they started to come back to life, but he still couldn’t lift his arms or move his legs.
Namura nodded. She cleaned the wound with antiseptic, then carefully taped the edges together. She was still bent over Ryouma’s bare legs and barely-covered crotch when Raidou came back from the shower.
“I left for five minutes,” Raidou said.
“Ram saw his chance and took it,” Kakashi said, without a hint of irony. He had one elbow on the bedframe, and his chin propped in his hand, watching the proceedings with tired interest.
“Finished,” Namura said. “You can cover yourself, Ram-san, and go back to sleep. Do you need help getting your pants back on?”
“No one’s ever offered to help me get less naked before,” Ryouma slurred. He reached for his pants and pulled them back up, ignoring the hand towel.
“There’s a first time for everything,” Namura told him. She tucked the blankets back over Ryouma, then turned to look at Raidou. “You wanted to go last, I believe. So that means you’re next, Hound-san. Do you need stitching or just some sleep?”
“No sleep,” Kakashi said. A blatant lie if Genma ever heard one, or a gross overestimation of Kakashi’s chakra reserves. “Your kid can do some bandaging if he’s brave enough, though. You should look at the captain before his burns get grosser.” He turned his masked face towards Raidou. “You know I’m right.”
“Nagging the captain’s my job,” Genma said.
“Why does it have to be anyone’s job?” Raidou asked the room at large. He pulled his shirt off over his head—a clean-looking ANBU uniform top. Did he have an unlimited supply of spares?—and sat on the edge of Genma’s bed.
Genma put everything he had into trying to sit up, and managed to arch his back and inchworm his way up slightly.
Namura made a disapproving noise, tucked an extra pillow under Genma, and peered at Raidou’s back. The massive cuts Genma’d healed before were still mostly closed, but a few had re-opened, and there was a lot of purple bruising just under Raidou’s scarred skin. Fresh cuts crossed over the slightly older ones, and acid burns spattered his forearms and shoulders.
“I’d ask what did this, but I doubt I’ll get an honest answer from you,” Namura said. “Are these chemical burns? I’ll have to get some salve for that. I saved some from the war years. Stay here.”
She crossed the room and started opening cupboards, presumably looking for her burn ointment, while Daisuke cleaned and bandaged the cuts and bites Kakashi had accumulated fighting the demons, and smeared bruise balm over Kakashi’s black-blotched ribs.
“How are your eyes, taichou?” Genma asked.
Raidou reached up as if to touch his face, got the edge of his henge’d mask, which wisped away at the edge like Ryouma’s had, and dropped his hand. “Still working. How’s your… everything?”
“I’m really starting to feel like crap, which I take as a good sign,” Genma said. “Seeing as I couldn’t feel much of anything for a while. I can shrug my shoulders now.” He did so, to demonstrate, and winced when it pulled his sutured belly. “Might have to drop this fever soon, though. Don’t want to give myself kidney failure.”
Raidou’s shoulder twitched.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t yet,” Genma said.
Namura came back over with a small glass pot of green ointment before Raidou could say anything. “I take it your face is burned, too, ANBU-san?” she said. “I’ll apply this to your shoulders and arms, and leave you to manage your face yourself. Unless you’ll allow me to evaluate it.”
“Not unless pieces start falling off,” Raidou told her pleasantly. He spread his arms wide. “Feel free to baste everything else, though.”
She nodded and began applying the salve liberally to Raidou’s burns. It smelled grassy and astringent, but not unpleasant.
“What’s in that?” Genma asked.
“I couldn’t tell you,” Namura said, “Sorry. I got it from one of your colleagues during the war, though. We had a lot of people with spatter burns from exploding flasks. She said this was good for any kind of burn, but especially chemical ones. Haven’t had to use it much since the war ended.”
“You got it from a Konoha ninja?” Genma asked.
“Wouldn’t have kept it if it came from any of those other bastards, now would I?” Namura said sharply. She finished dressing Raidou’s burns and moved on to the welter of cuts across his shoulders. “These aren’t as bad as I’d feared,” she said. “Daisuke, gauze.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Can you take a look at this?”
She put the pot of burn salve in Raidou’s hands and stood up. “Let me guess, someone dragged you over a mile of sandpaper,” she said, studying Kakashi’s scraped-raw shoulders. “Alright, you bandage the captain, Daisuke, and I’ll deal with this. How are you not in tears, Hound-san?”
“Uh,” Kakashi said, at a loss for the first time since Genma’d met him. “I’m not an infant?”
“Or your mask is hiding it,” she said. “I’m afraid there’s not much I can do except clean these up and bandage them.”
When Kakashi was bandaged and dressed again, he looked worlds better, but his chakra was wavering low. Raidou was in better shape chakra-wise, at least, though just as swathed in bandages. Ryouma and Katsuko were both sleeping peacefully.
The civilians were sleeping, too, sedated for now. The girls’ parents huddled next to her bed, the mother holding her daughter’s limp hand. Genma wondered if Fujiyama’s family’s spirits were still hovering nearby. Or maybe that was fever making his thoughts bend towards the fantastical.
“You think you can ask them for a minute to ourselves?” Genma asked Raidou quietly. “I appreciate all they’ve been through, but I think you and Hound and I need to talk freely for a minute.”
Raidou looked over at the family for a long minute, then back at Genma. “They just got their daughter back,” he said softly. “For now, you need to rest. When you can move again, we’ll plan further.”
“In that case,” Genma said, “see if you can get Hound to lie down before he falls down. And shoot me up with ten of morphine. Hound might not cry like an infant anymore, but I’m going to be pretty soon if we don’t do something. Feeling’s coming back faster than the paralysis is wearing off.”
“I can do that,” Raidou agreed. If he had any opinions about it, he kept them to himself while he injected Genma. “I gave him the full ten cc’s,” he told Namura, holding up the empty syrette when he was finished. He patted Genma’s shoulder, careful around the bandages, and got to his feet.
The drug hit dizzyingly hard. Genma shut his eyes against the whirlpool of nausea and waited for it to even out. The poison-consuming fever was making it worse. He tried to concentrate on reducing his chakra burn, but it slipped out of his conscious control and spun away from him, winding down like a child’s top. Once lost, he couldn’t get it back. His heart rate slowed, his temperature started to drop. Shivers set in, for no reason other than the sudden change in temperature.
Across the room, Kakashi said something low to Raidou, but Genma couldn’t make it out. He tried to open his eyes, but dizziness yawned like an open mine shaft. At least the pain was blunting, wrapped in layers of fog like everything else. Genma tried one last time to really move, got nowhere with the attempt, and surrendered to sleep.
Things settled down after that.
Katsuko and Ryouma stayed asleep, curling closer together by unconscious but apparently mutual agreement, his chakra signature bare embers next to her half-smothered blaze. At least Ryouma was warm now, and Katsuko seemed comfortable.
Kakashi was strangely reluctant to leave their bedside. The medic—Namura, Raidou finally learned—had an extra cot brought out from storage, but Kakashi point-blank refused to get on it.
“I’m comfortable here,” he said, cross-legged and stubborn on the bare wooden floor.
Raidou had never had to order someone into bed before. After a brief, bizarre personal debate, he decided not to start now. If Kakashi was really that fierce about guarding his teammates, Raidou didn’t actually want to discourage him. Though, why Kakashi was picking Katsuko and Ryouma, instead of the man he’d sweated blood for trying to haul out of a mountain—
Raidou did not understand geniuses.
It did leave a free bed for him, which he was happy to drag next to Genma’s and sit on, since someone needed to watch their errant medic.
Genma was less peaceful than the other two, alternatively sweating and shivering, muscles jumping in sporadic clusters. Raidou frowned and called the doctor back, bullying her and her assistant into setting up a (dusty, but usable) IV line, working to replace some of the fluids Genma had lost through his fever. After that, Genma looked a little better.
Should’ve thought of that earlier. Raidou was tired, too.
Namura had no excuse, unless lack of practice counted. But she did go on to set up an IV for each injured civilian.
The soup arrived some indeterminate amount of time later, when Raidou had lapsed into an eyes-open doze. He jerked upright at the knock, almost cracking his head against the wall. Across the room, Kakashi’s katana drew two inches out of the scabbard. Katsuko, noisy even in sleep, muttered something about green weasels.
Namura regarded them all with wryly lifted eyebrows, and answered the door.
The warm smell of cooked meat and vegetables rolled into the room. Raidou scrambled up to help, and found himself on the receiving end of a soup tureen and seven bowls. Kakashi was pressed into reluctant service and made to carry a teapot of brewed green tea, and a jug of fresh barley water.
“Thank you for your service, ANBU-san,” said the woman Raidou had offered to pay. She bowed, tendrils of hair slipping from a neat bun. At her elbow, her teenage son also bowed and offered a plate of warm buns with red bean paste.
“Um,” said Raidou, whose brain had switched off.
Smoothly, Kakashi reached past him and took the plate, managing to fake being an actual human being long enough to murmur, “Thank you,” before vanishing again.
“Yes, I—what he said,” Raidou managed, before regaining traction. “I mean, this is more than I—”
The woman’s mouth curved. “You’re quite welcome, ANBU-san. Please return the dishes when you’re done.”
She swept away with her son, back into the cluster of people who were still there, keeping silent vigil in the lantern-lit, misty alleyway. The crowd had thinned a little; the weeping man and his young boy were gone. But the mayor was seated on a set of narrow stone steps, talking quietly with a bearded man whose eyes were red-rimmed. Most weren’t crying, they were just standing, or sitting, waiting for—
Raidou didn’t even know. It couldn’t be hope.
Quietly, he closed the door, and turned to find Kakashi had forced Katsuko awake, upright, and was apparently insulting her into drinking a mug of tea.
“—still not taken your pants off,” Katsuko was grumbling, which was the point Raidou decided to stop listening.
He doled out three bowls of soup, one each for her and Kakashi, and one for himself, and settled down with his own mug of tea. The food was delicious, and he was ravenous, he discovered. Two bowls went down without even touching the sides of his stomach. And three bean buns, which Kakashi tossed over without looking.
Raidou tuned back in enough to hear Kakashi was now holding the remaining bean buns for ransom until Katsuko ate her soup first. Which seemed to be working, judging by the sad, betrayed slump of her shoulders. In another universe, one where Kakashi’s hands weren’t shaking faintly and Katsuko wasn’t the color of old snow, Raidou would have said they were almost having fun. Or at least, enjoying annoying each other.
When Katsuko had also finished two bowls, Kakashi rewarded her with three bean buns and turned his sights on Ryouma.
Figured. Kid was a glutton for punishment. Though, it would help Ryouma recover his chakra faster if he ate something.
Raidou watched with fascinated interest as Kakashi came around to Ryouma’s side of the bed, surveyed his target, and then went with the moderately friendlier approach of shaking Ryouma’s shoulder. When that, unsurprisingly, accomplished nothing, Kakashi moved his hand to the base of Ryouma’s neck and—
Didn’t electrocute him.
Instead, a slow band of ice crackled over Ryouma’s skin and crept down his shirt. Two silent seconds passed, then Ryouma jolted awake with a convulsive spasm and made a decent attempt to punch Kakashi in the mask.
Kakashi caught his fist. “Food’s here.”
“Dinner and a show,” Katsuko agreed cheerfully, through a mouthful of bean bun.
Ryouma’s masked head turned with the slow, lethal rage of a predator sighting something small, crunchy, and offensive, and then he punched Kakashi with the other hand. This one, Kakashi didn’t catch; it caught him in the side of the head, and knocked him down to one knee.
“I will rot everything you love,” Ryouma promised, sounding so bone weary he’d gone through the other side and landed in wrath.
“Hey!” Raidou said sharply. “Do not goddamn punch each other after we’ve just finished fixing you up.”
Ryouma’s head snapped up, like he planned to make a fight of it—then paused when a bean bun whacked him gently on the ear. Katsuko tossed a second one up and down in her good hand. “Play nice, boys,” she said wearily.
Kakashi shook his head once and got off the floor, pausing halfway up with one hand on the bed, as if he wasn’t quite sure of his balance. Raidou gave him a narrow look, but the hesitation vanished when Kakashi found his feet, collected another soup bowl, set it on Ryouma’s bedside table, hauled Ryouma upright by the shoulders, and put the soup bowl pointedly on Ryouma’s lap.
“Food,” Kakashi said, like he was talking to a four-year-old. “For eating.”
“I hope you roll under the bed and die,” Ryouma told him bitterly.
“Shut up and eat,” Kakashi said.
The magical moment was interrupted by Genma stirring, presumably because of all the noise. Raidou moved to him, settling him back down, then—when Genma was reluctant to sleep again immediately—getting food into him, since the soup had been for him anyway. With their dual effort, Genma managed half a bowl without choking, and a mug of green tea. Nausea threatened when he tried more.
“No bean buns for you, then,” Raidou said, gently teasing.
“My dad’s are better, anyway,” Genma mumbled, eyes slipping closed behind his restored ANBU mask. “Kids okay?”
“They’re managing,” Raidou said, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of truth. When he glanced over his shoulder, Katsuko was slumped against Ryouma’s shoulder, picking apart her final bean bun and shaping it into a deformed little creature. Ryouma’s fake-mask had faded up just enough to bare his mouth, and he and Kakashi seemed to be glaring at each other while Ryouma fumbled a spoon and Kakashi steadied him. Raidou turned back to Genma. “They’re almost using teamwork.”
“Wow,” Genma managed, fading out. “Soon they’ll be ready to get their hitai-ate and be real genin…”
“I’m not holding my breath,” Raidou muttered.
Genma was already gone, chest rising and falling in a slow rhythm. Raidou folded the sheets back over him, checked the IV, and left him to sleep.
Namura came up to his elbow. “Is this normal?” she asked, quiet.
“For them? They’re usually a little more violent,” Raidou said. “And noisy.”
“Oh,” she said.
“You get used to it,” Raidou said.
Namura glanced sideways at him. “When?”
“Hell if I know,” Raidou said, jaw cracking on a yawn. He glanced around when someone knocked at the door. “Now what?”
It was Amaya, the radio operative, breathless and clutching a sheet of paper. “ANBU-san, you have a response.”
Raidou blinked, and closed the door behind him. “Already?”
She handed it across. “It repeated twice. I made sure to copy it word for word, and sent the acknowledgement you gave me.”
Raidou flipped the sheet over, scanned the short collection of coded phrases, and felt his heart drop to his boots. “This can’t be right.”
“I copied it exactly,” Amaya said. “Is something wrong?”
In its entirety, the message said: Code Broken Link. No agents available. Handle situation as best you can.
A broken link, if Raidou remembered this month’s codes correctly, was a political attack on Fire Country soil. Most likely, an act of war.
There was no help coming.
He burned the message in his hand, flame dripping between his fingers, and scattered the ash into the wind. “I need the mayor,” he said.
He still owed the village an explanation—and the surrounding villages. They’d all lost people. But two civilians needed surgery, his team needed real medical care, and Konoha—gods even knew what Konoha needed right now, but Raidou needed to get home.
Kudo came at the run. “ANBU-san,” he said, breathless.
“There’s a problem,” Raidou said. “The evac team can’t make it. I need to transport my people home as fast as possible, and I want to take your two people with me, to real medic-nin.”
“But your medic-nin—”
“He’s a field medic. Not the same thing. He can help when he’s well enough, but I don’t know the clock on that. If we get your people to Konoha’s hospital, their chances are better.” Probably not good, especially not Hisa, with her parasite that was already growing. And who knew if Fujiyama would even want to wake up, with his wife slain and his children murdered, but Raidou had to try. “I need whatever you have. Horses, an ox cart.”
“What about a river boat?”
Raidou paused. “You have a river boat?”
“No, but the Blue Field traders do, and they’ll be passing by tomorrow morning. We could barter your passage aboard,” Kudo said. “They’ll follow the river all the way down to Sanmatsu Pass.”
That was barely hours from Konoha.
“I could hug you,” Raidou said. “That’s perfect.”
“Gives your people a little time to sleep, too,” Kudo said, with a tired smile. “And perhaps yourself. Though, ANBU-san—”
“I know,” Raidou said. “An explanation. Just—wait here a moment?”
“Of course,” Kudo said, with patience Raidou didn’t understand. If he’d been in Kudo’s shoes, he’d be clawing the walls, demanding answers.
He slipped back into the room, and paused.
Hisa’s father, whose name Raidou still didn’t know, had his daughter sitting upright and cradled in his arms. Her head lolled back against his shoulder, and her eyes were barely open. He was slowly, carefully spooning soup to her mouth in tiny amounts, and stroking her throat until she managed to swallow. On the other bed, Namura and Hisa’s mother had Fujiyama braced between them, and were attempting the same task, talking softly as they did.
A clatter made Raidou twitch. The assistant had found a folded screen, and was attempting to set it up between the civilians and the rest of the room. Presumably to give them a break from Team Six’s particular brand of healing antics.
Which, actually, seemed quieter now.
Genma was still asleep, resting peaceful, but it was the kids that really caught Raidou’s attention. Katsuko was fast asleep, slumped down against Ryouma’s chest in a sea of scattered crumbs, with her good hand curled around Ryouma’s ribcage. Ryouma was still sitting upright, but his head had fallen back against the wall, black spikes sticking up against whitewashed plaster like splayed raven feathers. An empty soup bowl was half tipped over in his lap, spoon sliding towards the floor.
At their bedside, once again seated on the wooden floor, Kakashi was finally asleep. His sword was balanced across his lap and his tanto was laid down at his side, which made him look a little like an old samurai woodcut, but his head was resting against the mattress, and Ryouma’s hand was tangled into his wild grey hair. Either to anchor him there, or to prevent him from doing any more wake up tricks, Raidou couldn’t tell.
Some distant, less-worried part of Raidou desperately, desperately wanted a camera.
But only Genma and Kakashi had gone down into the mountain’s dark, and come back with civilian blood on their blades. There were eight others, but they were too far gone, Kakashi’s clone had said. We couldn’t save them. Raidou knew what that meant, and why Kakashi couldn’t meet his eyes. Why Genma was so desperately concerned about his teammates’ health.
They had the full story, and the village deserved to hear a piece of it.
But Raidou didn’t want to wake either of them.
Moving quietly, he went back outside to Kudo and the villagers, who fixed him with exhausted, desperate eyes.
“Okay,” Raidou said quietly. “Here’s what I can tell you.”