April 29, Yondaime Year 5
Nine unbroken hours of sleep wasn’t enough to make Ryouma feel anything near human when he woke, but the press of warm fingers against his forehead and the slow trickle of chakra into parched coils went a little way towards helping him feel less murderous. He slit boulder-weighted eyelids open and squinted hazily at the broad palm masking most of his vision. “R’dou?”
“Rise and shine, kiddo,” Raidou rasped. He sounded almost as tired as Ryouma felt. His chakra was sluggish, clogged with earth affinity that refused to settle into the low ebb of Ryouma’s water and fire.
Not solely Raidou’s fault. But even molding borrowed chakra until it melted into his own felt like an insurmountable task now, with the warm bed dragging him down and darkness beckoning behind the backs of his drifting eyelids. “Said I could sleep,” he mumbled.
“I did,” Raidou agreed. “Now I’m saying you need to wake up.”
He cut the chakra flow with a flick of his fingers against Ryouma’s forehead, and his hand fell away. Ryouma groaned, rubbed his face against his shoulder, and finally dragged his eyes open again to see Raidou crouching at the side of the bed and reaching for Kakashi’s ANBU mask.
Kakashi’s head had tipped back against the mattress, and for some reason Ryouma’s fingers were laced through his wild grey hair. He stared blankly at them until the edge of Kakashi’s ceramic mask nudged his thumb. Raidou was shoving Kakashi’s mask back to clear his forehead, but he’d paused to give Ryouma a weighted look from behind the eyeholes of his own henged mask.
“He’s soft,” Ryouma said, and patted Kakashi’s hair to prove it.
That didn’t seem like it could possibly be the reason he’d fallen asleep half-sitting up, with his hand in Kakashi’s hair—and that Kakashi hadn’t pulled away—but Raidou just snorted and set his fingertips between Kakashi’s brows.
Kakashi’s hair was weirdly soft, for all that it tried to defy gravity and good taste. Maybe the floral shampoo had helped. Ryouma tried experimentally to part the thick springing strands with his fingers, to see if he could get down to the scalp, but Kakashi made a low noise in the back of his throat and turned his head into Ryouma’s hand.
Raidou’s empty hand hovered in the air an inch away from Kakashi’s forehead, his fingers chakra-bright. “Well,” he said quietly, amusement tugging at the edges of his voice. “I guess someone made a friend.”
“Someone’s takin’ his mask name a little too seriously,” Ryouma said. “What, am I supposed to pet him? What if he bites my fingers off?” He flexed his hand gently anyway, carding his fingers through Kakashi’s hair.
Kakashi didn’t snap. But his eyelashes did flutter against a spectacular bruise blooming high on his cheek. Somehow Ryouma’d thought he’d be the type to spring to instant alertness, or at least instant grumpiness like yesterday morning, but it took him a few blinks to properly get his eye open, and then a slow scan of the room to orient himself. He glanced up at Ryouma, and then sideways at Raidou, and asked warily, “What’s going on?”
Ryouma tried to sneak his hand back very carefully and hide it under the blankets. “I had a dream,” he said. “You bullied me awake twice and once I got naked and once you fed me. I’m hoping there’s coffee involved this time.”
Kakashi stared at him. “Were you petting me?”
“Your dreams are weirder than mine,” Ryouma informed him.
Raidou, wisely deciding to stay clear of this altogether, straightened and cleared his throat. “We’re moving out once the lieutenant has Rat and Fujiyama-san sorted,” he said briskly. “Ram, I need you to figure out if you can stay upright. Ditto for you, Hound.”
Ryouma had been doing all right at upright so far, though admittedly this was mostly only because he was slouched against pillows and the wall. He tried, cautiously, to shift. A weight on his thigh pinned him down.
He lifted the blankets and looked beneath. Katsuko lay curled against his leg, head pillowed on his thigh. One arm was bound tight to her chest; the other tucked protectively over it. The henge’d mask she’d worn was long faded. Ryouma’s probably was, too. He touched his cheek, and felt only the faintest kiss of mist.
The doctor and her assistant were nowhere in sight; a folding screen hid the two beds where he vaguely remembered the civilians being laid. Genma’s bed was empty, too, sheets neatly folded down to the foot. There was a spare cot beside it, with a single blanket folded beneath a very flat pillow. Hopefully that had been Raidou’s.
Kakashi was already on his feet, sword sheathed, wincing and leaning against the wall to shake out legs that had to be tingling painfully back to life after a night cross-legged on the floor. He stretched elaborately, joints cracking like dry twigs in the forest. Then he glanced back at Ryouma and lifted one challenging eyebrow. “Well?”
“I’d be more impressed if you weren’t still holding onto the wall,” Ryouma said. He eased Katsuko off his leg very carefully. She slitted an eye open like a cat for an evil glare, then grabbed a pillow in his stead and tugged the blankets back over her. He sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, catching his breath, and then tried pushing off.
His weak left knee buckled. Kakashi caught his arm; Raidou’s hand closed on his shoulder. Ryouma locked his right knee and managed, just barely, not to lean on them.
“Why,” he asked after a second, “is there a hand towel stuffed down my pants?”
There was a muffled burst of laughter beneath the blankets. Kakashi said, “Bath sheet was too big.”
“Okay,” Raidou said, releasing Ryouma’s shoulder. “One more chance to stay upright, Ram, then you’re getting carried. Rat, if you’re healthy enough to laugh, you’re healthy enough to get up and help.”
“What’s so urgent?” Ryouma grabbed for the wall when Kakashi dropped his arm, and stayed on his feet. His knee ached, but it would keep for the moment; he had wraps in his gear, wherever that had landed. He could probably stagger wherever they pointed him, as long as it was towards coffee. He fished out the hand towel and dropped it discreetly under the bed. “We got incoming? They need the beds?”
Genma limped around the folding screen that hid the civilians’ beds. He was damp-haired and clean in new uniform and mask, but his bare arms were spattered with dried blood. He tossed a sealed black plastic bag to Raidou and headed for the sink. “Taichou got a message from home,” he said hoarsely, as water splashed. “They miss us.”
Ryouma and Kakashi glanced at each other. Katsuko threw back the blankets and sat up, rubbing the heel of her hand in one eye. “That bad, huh,” she croaked. “Let’s go. Can’t keep our adoring public waiting.” She slid off the bed and looked around. “Where’s my gear?”
Kakashi stooped, less smoothly than usual, and scooped up two battered utility belts from the floor. He tossed one to Katsuko and draped the other over Ryouma’s shoulders, then flicked through rapid seals. Mist cooled Ryouma’s face again, the phantom jutsu mask. Katsuko’s face blurred and became her red and white painted Rat mask. Kakashi began, slowly and painfully, to buckle on his own armor. “Are we running home?”
“River-boating.” Raidou had emptied out a tin bandage container and locked the plastic bag and its fist-sized lump away. “We’re taking Hisa-san and her parents with us.”
The water shut off. Genma turned away from the sink, drying his hands. “I’ll work on everyone’s injuries on the boat, as long as you’re all stable for now.” He flipped the towel onto a counter and pushed his mask back to look at Raidou. There were deep shadows of exhaustion under his eyes, and his lips were cracked and pale. He moved stiffly, as if regained feeling had brought pain in its wake. “I’m about finished here. I got it out intact. Fujiyama-san’s out of the woods.”
Ryouma tried not to think about whatever gory mess lay inside plastic and tin at Raidou’s hip. He fumbled through his own belt-pouches, searching for the scroll with his clean uniform. Too bad the Quartermaster hadn’t issued a spare mask along with the second set of boots and armor. He wasn’t looking forward to begging Kakashi for a henge for the next day or two, until his own chakra recovered enough for use. “Have you seen Miki-chan yet?”
“No,” Raidou said, without even glancing over. “Rat’s collarbone first,” he told Genma. “Then we’ll get out of here. I want both her hands functional.”
Genma nodded. Katsuko dropped her scroll on the bed and herself after it. “Fujiyama,” she said, and then stopped and stared at the ceiling. “He knows about his daughters?”
“He knows his family is dead,” Kakashi said, flat and hard. He fixed his sheathed sword in the straps between his shoulders and fastened the last catch under his right arm, then stooped to lace up his boots. Katsuko sat very, very still beneath Genma’s hands.
There was an open space on the floor beyond Genma’s bed, just in front of the bathroom door. Ryouma laid out his scroll there and spared the tiny spark of chakra it took to break the seal. Smoke bloomed; neatly packed gear spilled down the long stretch of the unrolled scroll. His hands throbbed even with that dribble of chakra passing through his pathways. Was this what arthritis would feel like, if he ever lived to be old?
Katsuko’s sling was off and Genma’s hands were flickering with green chakra by the time Ryouma buckled his belt on over his spare set of armor and blacks. He wrapped up the emptied scroll and shoved it back in his hip-pouch, then dumped his borrowed pants and shirt on the end of the bed. “Mind if I duck out briefly, taichou? Got a report to make.”
“If you’re looking for a latrine, there’s one here,” Genma said absently, frowning at Katsuko’s shoulder. Katsuko sniggered.
Raidou said, “You have ten minutes. Take Hound.” He added, a little softer, “Give my condolences to Miki-chan and Fumio-san.”
Ryouma nodded, and limped for the door.
Ten minutes after Ryouma and Kakashi left the infirmary, Genma lifted green-glowing hands from Katsuko’s collarbone. She could still feel the throb of the break, but the bite of pain had dulled to a low-grade ache. It felt like Genma had packed a couple weeks of natural healing into the space of minutes. She grunted thanks and tried to sit up, only for Genma to pin her in place with a narrow look.
“I’m not done with you yet,” he said, and pointed. “Lie back down.”
Katsuko slumped back onto the sheets. “Can’t you take care of the rest on the boat, lieutenant?” She glanced over at the screen that separated Fujiyama from the rest of the room.
“I just want to make sure I’m not missing anything serious.”
Katsuko made a vague sound of acquiescence and dragged her gaze back up to the ceiling. The fingers of her good hand drummed restlessly on the blankets.
What did you say to a man whose daughters you’d picked up piece-by-piece from underneath the tatami? ‘I’m sorry’ didn’t change the fact that all Fujiyama had left of his old life were three bodies and a cold, empty little house only fit for ghosts. If Team Six had gotten there sooner—
But there was no use thinking about if. If Katsuko hadn’t been late coming home on that dark night six years ago, she’d still have a normal chakra system and ordinary, boring, run-of-the-mill nightmares. If she’d gone with her genin team on the day of the Fox, she’d be one of the names on the Stone. Thinking about if drove you insane.
“Maybe the Quartermaster will finally give us armored shoulderpads,” she mused. “I want mine in orange.”
“Subtle,” Genma said dryly, poking at the bandage on her forehead.
Katsuko lifted her good hand and twiddled her fingers at him in a wave. “Orange shoulderpads. With the Konoha symbol on them done in rhinestones.”
“Because the thing you need most in life is to be more visible on the battlefield,” Raidou said, coming back from his conversation with the civilian doctor. “Almost done here?”
Genma nodded. “I’ll do some more work once we’re on the boat. How are your shoulders doing?”
“They’ll keep,” Raidou said dismissively. He offered Katsuko his hand. “Come on, rhinestones.”
Katsuko let him haul her to her feet. “Ram and our little snow blossom should be back by now, right?”
As if in answer, two familiar chakra signatures flared an instant before the door to the infirmary swung open. Ryouma stepped through first. “The mayor says the boatmen are ready, taichou.”
Genma straightened slowly, like an old man, and pulled his mask back into place. “I’ll make sure Hisa-san is ready to be moved.”
The rushing swoop of chakra returning to Katsuko’s system interrupted what she’d been about to say next. The bunshin’s memories flooded her own, settling in as Katsuko automatically analyzed and catalogued the necessary information. What she saw in her mind’s eye made the corner of her mouth hitch up. “Taichou? My clones have the queen’s head. They’re waiting by the village gate.”
Raidou nodded. “Okay, good. I want that head on the boat. Ram, Hound, Rat, go get loaded up. Our agreement with the Traders is that we’ll help if they need it, and stay out of the way otherwise. Hound, do your best to be polite.” After a beat, Raidou added, “Same for the rest of you. The lieutenant and I will follow up with Hisa-san.”
Katsuko considered the logistics of getting a giant demon insect queen’s head onto a merchant boat without anyone having the vapors or falling into the river. Maybe it would have been easier just to take a picture of the queen’s corpse. “I’m gonna go find some tarp. I’ll meet you at the boat.”
Kakashi went to join her. Katsuko nodded at him and glanced over at Ryouma, who’d decided to prop up the doorframe like it was his job. “Coming with?”
Ryouma pushed away from the door, with some effort. “Lead on, senpai. I hope your clones are planning on carrying the head.”
Footsteps scuffed the floor. Genma leaned out from behind the screen that hid Hisa from view. “Ready to go.”
Katsuko waved an airy hand as Raidou headed over to help Genma. “My clones can handle the head. You and Hound are just coming along for decoration.”
Ryouma fell into step with her as they left the infirmary. “Always hoped I’d find someone who’d appreciate me just for my pretty face. Or fake mask. Whatever.”
Kakashi hovered a pace behind, probably ready to catch whichever one of them decided to collapse first. Katsuko concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and stared straight ahead, ignoring the way faces kept on popping up in windows or peering out from around doorways as they passed.
The clones were waiting for Katsuko a short distance from the village gates, hidden by a thick copse of trees. They perched on top of and around the demon queen’s head like a flock of silent magpies.
Katsuko propped Ryouma up against the nearest tree and sent a small group of bunshin back to the village for tarp and rope. The bunshin returned shortly after, laden down with enough tarp and rope to wrap a herd of cattle like a birthday present, and started to swathe the giant insect head. The end result looked a giant, mummified boulder, but at least there weren’t any visible glowering dead eyes or jagged mandibles poking out.
Leaves crunched deliberately underfoot behind her: Kakashi. “Three days on a boat, that thing is going to stink.” He contemplated this. “It stinks now.”
“We could drag it in the water,” Ryouma suggested, from his leaning tree.
“That could work.” Katsuko frowned up at the mummified head. “We have enough rope, and it doesn’t matter if the tarp stays on after we get out of sight of the village.”
“Keep the tarp, or you’ll lose bits,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma’s voice was honey-thick with exhaustion. “That shell was thick. It’ll last.”
“We can talk about it on the way to the boat,” Katsuko said. Food. Food was better to think about than bugs, or demon bugs, or demon bug queens and their skulls. “I’m hungry.”
“I’m out of rat bars,” Ryouma said mournfully.
Plastic crinkled. Kakashi tossed both of them a rat bar and informed them, “There’s something wrong with you.”
“Chakra exhaustion’s what’s wrong,” Ryouma retorted. “Also, we grew up on a battlefield. Where were you?”
Kakashi shrugged, as if to say I’d respond to you if your opinion had any weight, and headed for the river.
The merchant boat waiting for them at the dock was large enough to fit several families, but the only people Katsuko could see up top were the navigator and several deckhands. Raidou had his head bent to confer with an elderly woman leaning on a cane on the gangplank. There was no sign of Genma or Hisa; probably they’d gone below deck.
Katsuko lifted her hand to rub her eyes and stopped herself at the last moment, remembering the henge mask. “I’ll talk to taichou about hitching this thing to the back of the boat,” she said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder at the queen’s head. A cadre of clones had it hoisted above their shoulders. “You guys get some sleep.”
In his five minutes of talking to Granny Kawase, Raidou had learned three things about the Blue Field Traders: 1) they were one huge family with several unfortunate, beleaguered in-laws, 2) they were fond of Konoha the way shepherds were fond of sheep-dogs, and 3) Granny Kawase was absolute overlord of all.
Raidou kind of liked her.
“So,” she said. “Was it tengu or kappa?”
“Eh?” said Raidou, distracted by the sight of Katsuko’s miniature legion of clones with their gift-wrapped trophy. A heavy, steel-shod cane thumped him on the shoulder, jolting a starburst of pain up the side of his neck. “Ow. Sorry, what?”
Four things: Granny Kawase didn’t like to be ignored.
“Tengu or kappa?” she said, waving at his bandages. “Because if it’s kappa, I have a powder that’ll burn the little bastards until they—”
“That’s not necessary,” Raidou said. “We’ve resolved the issue.”
“Mm,” she said doubtfully. “Looks like it nearly resolved you first. That one’s barely standing.” She pointed her stick at Ryouma, who was being herded up the gangplank towards them by Kakashi. Katsuko trailed behind, shouting at her clones.
Ryouma nodded to Raidou. “Taichou.” And then sketched a mostly-steady bow at Granny Kawase, wobbling only very slightly on the return back to vertical. “Ma’am, I’ve seldom been more grateful for a rescue. My last rescuer wasn’t nearly so…”
He paused, fumbling, and Granny Kawase tipped her greying head. “Old? Mean-looking? Spit it out, youngster.”
“In the way,” Kakashi said, from behind Ryouma. “Do you mind letting us through?”
Half a nanosecond of politeness was probably all they could expect, Raidou thought, around his rising desire to kick Kakashi into the river.
“Oh, he was plenty mean-looking,” Ryouma said, recovering smoothly. “I meant to say considerate. He forgot to bring a boat. Excuse me, I nearly died of exhaustion yesterday. Can you point me to a place where I can fall down?”
Granny Kawase lifted her stick again, pointing to a shady spot against the rear bulwark, where a stack of tanned sheepskins shared space with coils of heavy rope and three sleepy cats. “Make yourself at home.”
“You are a goddess on earth,” Ryouma said fervently, and reeled away.
“Who was his last rescuer?” Granny Kawase asked.
“Me, I think,” Raidou said. Unless Kakashi had upstaged him with a shower and a snack. “That was Ram. This is Hound, who you can ignore. The woman over there is Rat, and you’ve already met Tanuki.”
Granny Kawase fixed Kakashi with a gimlet look. “Aren’t you a little old to be a ninja?”
Behind the scratched lion-dog mask, one grey eye blinked. “No?”
“In my world, we treat our silver-haired with respect and don’t make them jump around like lunatics,” she said, eyeing Raidou like he’d personally dragged Kakashi out of a retirement home and forced him into a uniform.
“Hound is actually the youngest member of the team,” Raidou said. “His hair is deceptive.”
“Excuse me,” Kakashi said, slipping around Granny Kawase with the careful air of someone avoiding a blast radius. He went to the back of the boat, where Ryouma had collapsed face-down with a long, elegant sweep that involved no knee-bending. One of the cats had been disturbed, and was sniffing Ryouma’s hair. Kakashi picked it up, underhanded it gently out of the way, and sat down cross-legged next to Ryouma’s head.
“Aww,” said Katsuko, appearing at Raidou’s elbow. “Look. Male bonding time.”
Raidou gave it four seconds, maybe less, before Katsuko inserted herself in the middle.
Granny Kawase sniffed. “What is that?”
“Um,” Katsuko said, and then did not follow up with a ridiculous bullshit explanation about the less-than-fragrant demon head, which made Raidou stare at her. Was there, buried deeply, a kernel of respect for grandmotherly old ladies somewhere in there, or was Katsuko—like Ryouma—just so tired she’d run out of clever lies?
“It’s part of a monster we killed,” Raidou said. “We’re taking it home. Can we strap it onto the back without upsetting the balance?”
Granny Kawase judged the bundled head. “Should be fine if it’s right in the center. If it leaks on my boat, one of your people better be prepared to scrub.”
“I’m sure I can think of someone,” Raidou said, glancing narrowly at Kakashi’s grey head. “Rat, have your clones got things handled?”
Katsuko gave half a reflexive salute with her sling-bound hand and then froze, whole body carved into a statue of argh fuck ow. She shook it off a second later, but Raidou wasn’t blind. “They’ve got it handled, taichou,” she said. “If that’s all…?”
“Go rest,” Raidou said. “Take some painkillers.”
Katsuko threw a second, more careful salute, and staggered up the gangplank. She made a beeline directly for Kakashi and Ryouma, surveying them. When she’d found her angle, she folded down next to Ryouma, draping her legs across him, and attempted to prop her head on Kakashi’s thigh. Kakashi moved with his usual flick of speed; Katsuko’s head landed on a sheepskin. She grabbed for him, protesting, and wound up with an armful of confused cat.
Disturbed by the shenanigans, Ryouma rolled halfway over and tossed a sheepskin onto Katsuko, muffling her and the cat.
“Konoha’s elite is really a thing to behold,” Granny Kawase said. “I can see why you’re a world power.”
Raidou looked up at the bright morning sky, studying the fleet of scudding fluffy clouds—all that remained of yesterday’s rain—and decided that, yes, being sassed by an elderly boat matriarch was exactly the cap this mission deserved.
“We try,” he said.
Katsuko settled herself down, back-to-back with Ryouma under the haphazard tangle of sheepskins and felines. Kakashi sat at their feet with his sword in his lap again, leaning against a wooden storage crate. He wasn’t unlike a cat himself; close enough to watch them, but outside of grabbing range.
“Any sleep for you, captain?” Granny Kawase asked.
Raidou smiled wryly behind his mask. “I’m not sure I remember how it works anymore. I should catch up with the lieutenant. Make sure Hisa-san and her parents are settled. Find me if you need me?”
She waved him off with her stick, then stumped down the gangplank and around to the clones, re-organizing them like a tiny drill sergeant as they lashed the head to the boat deck.
Raidou headed into the tall, two-story cabin that had built directly onto the deck, stretching most of the boat’s length. Knots of the Kawase family clustered at every turn. He wasn’t sure how they felt about having ninja aboard. Granny Kawase had been welcoming. Her daughters—she had nothing but daughters and big, healthy, obedient sons-in-law—seemed mostly wary. The dozen children spanned an age range from sun-browned teenagers down to small babies, and were everything from indifferent to delighted. One of them tried to sneak a kunai from Raidou’s holster, but found herself holding empty air.
Hisa and her family had been installed in a small lower cabin, which was mostly used for storage. Three hammocks swung gently over boxes and crates, and the tiny room smelled of spices. Hisa was the only one in a hammock, bundled down beneath knitted blankets. Her parents, Masunosuke and Chiyo, hovered over her. As Raidou walked in, Genma took a green-glowing hand away from her forehead.
Raidou jerked his head. Genma bowed to the parents and left her.
“How’s she doing?” Raidou murmured.
“She’s stable for now. I was about to set up an IV to try to get some fluids and glucose into her,” Genma said. There hadn’t been much success getting real food into the girl, even with Masunosuke’s patient efforts. “I was trying to figure out if I could do a chakra suppression jutsu on the demon larva without it affecting her chakra, too.”
Raidou frowned. “Not sure how much I like the idea of you playing chakra-tag with an unknown demon spawn. How’s your chakra doing?”
“It’s been stronger,” Genma said, with a one-shouldered shrug. “But I’m okay. I’m being careful with it.” He glanced at the family, and then drew quietly outside the door. Raidou followed him. “I was hoping to limit that thing’s growth until we could get her to Konoha. I’m worried about how active it seems to be, and we have no idea how long these things gestate.”
This part of the hallway was narrow and empty. Raidou rumpled a hand through his hair, wishing for coffee and the ability to think without brain-fog crowding in. His whole body felt like a collection of hot nerve-endings.
“You and Hound were both down in the caves,” he said. “I know there were still-breathing people you couldn’t bring back. You have the list; Hound has the memory. Figure out who was there, when they were taken, how far gone they were, and you’ll know how long these things take to pop.”
“I can try, but I’m not sure how easy it will be to match faces to names. The ones we found still breathing couldn’t speak, and we didn’t get great looks at their faces since it was dark.” Genma fumbled for a belt-pouch, unearthing his coded notepad with fingers that were still a little stiff and awkward. “I suppose I could ask the parents for descriptions of the missing from their village.”
Raidou nodded. “Better than nothing. I’ll send Hound in. If he used his Sharingan at all, he might have gotten a better look.”
Well, in theory. Raidou wasn’t exactly flush with knowledge on how the mirror-wheel eye actually worked.
“Alright.” Behind the tanuki mask, yellow-brown eyes gave Raidou an assessing look. “First I want to get a look at your injuries. You’re the only one I haven’t been able to get sitting still. How are you doing?”
The hallway was still empty, and a lieutenant couldn’t do his job without good information.
“I’m tired,” Raidou said. “Finish up with Hisa-san, and I’ll let you do all the medic-ing you want.” He turned, planning to get Kakashi, then paused and turned back. “Don’t put your chakra in that thing. I don’t want to find out it can swap to a stronger body, or something worse. We only just got you moving again.”
“No risk, got it,” Genma said, with a flickering salute. “Although it didn’t seem to react strongly to the healing chakra I used on Hisa-san. I wasn’t doing anything more than pain management for her, though.”
Raidou nodded, and left him to it.
Back on deck, Ryouma was asleep, mask wisping slowly away against the press of soft sheepskin. Katsuko was a mostly-hidden curl of limbs and chakra against his back, wrapped around a purring orange tabby. Kakashi was upright, alert, and engaged in a stare-down with a rangy black tom.
Raidou gave up on understanding his team, and sent Kakashi to Genma.
The clones were done lashing the queen’s head to the deck. They were perched around the ship now, like a flock of strange nesting birds.
“Casting off!” Granny Kawase ordered.
There was a rapid-fire chaos of movement. Family members appeared, did complex things with ropes and equipment, and vanished again. Beneath Raidou’s feet, the deck shivered with the deep thrum of a working engine. Someone stoked the boiler and the noise grew louder. Smoke rose thicker from a set of double-stacks; the big paddle-wheel began to turn.
Along the riverside, half a dozen silent villagers watched the boat pull away.
Mayor Kudo, front and center, raised a silent hand.
Raidou bowed, lower and longer than he strictly needed to for the mayor of a tiny village, and tried not to feel like he was abandoning people who still needed them. They’d come to help, and they had, but they’d also wrecked a mountainside, killed more than half a dozen civilians, and done the bare minimum of support for shattered families in the aftermath. The story Raidou had left them with wasn’t exactly a comfort, either.
There are monsters in the hills, stay away.
But he had to look to his own first.
Afterwards, when the dust had settled and whatever new crisis Konoha was dealing with had passed, they’d come back.
Raidou sat slowly, stiffly down by the tumble of rookies and cats, bracing his back against the sun-worn wooden bulwark, and let out a long breath. Immediately, Katsuko inserted herself into his personal space, shifting up to prop her head on his leg. Her movement made Ryouma stir; he groaned, stretched, and settled again, one hand resting next to Raidou’s shin.
Despite himself, Raidou smiled wearily. “This clinginess thing you two have is ridiculous.”
“Shh,” Ryouma mumbled, hiding his face against his own arm. “G’sleep.”
“Team bonding,” Katsuko said. “Everyone is my pillow.”
Including the orange cat, apparently. There was another cat curled up in the lee of Ryouma’s knees, purring quietly. Kakashi’s black tom had skulked away.
“Did you take painkillers?” Raidou asked.
“Nnngh,” Katsuko said.
Well, whatever. If she hurt enough, she’d take them. Raidou dropped a hand down, ruffling her wild tangle of hair, and tipped his head back to watch the trees drift by, waiting for Genma.
In the narrow passage outside Hisa’s makeshift cabin, Genma frowned at his list. Of the thirty-three people the demons had taken, nine had come from Hayama village. And of those, they’d found just two who were saveable. The most recently taken from Hayama—four rice-field workers, Fujiyama-san, and Hisa-san—had all been in the chamber Kakashi found, and none of the paddy-workers had survived.
The hallway was still deserted, but to be safe, Genma cast a sound-deadening jutsu around them. “I don’t quite see the pattern,” he said, pointing at names on the list. “We know the victims we found in the outer chamber were taken before the ones you found with Hisa-san and Fujiyama-san, and five of them were still alive. The farm workers were taken eight days before we arrived, and you said one of them was already dead when you got there. You think they gestate faster in men, maybe?”
“Maybe,” said Kakashi said, sounding doubtful. “Or the more chakra you have, the faster they drain you. Unless it’s all about the blood supply—more blood, faster growth.”
“Which would explain why it was smaller, older people we found still clinging to life, and the big, young, and presumably healthy were gone or close to gone by the time we got there,” Genma said. “She’s young, but she’s small. Based on the size her belly is now, and the size of the ones we saw in there, I’d guess she has maybe five days until the thing is too big to remove without killing her. What do you think?”
“I think you should kill it now, if you can. Why wait until it gets bigger?”
Genma nodded. “I considered that, but it’s plugged into her chakra system and blood supply. I’m worried about what it would do to her if I managed to kill it and it started to decompose inside her. This isn’t exactly a sterile environment for surgically removing it.”
“Point,” Kakashi said, tipping his head in acknowledgment. “So now what? If chakra speeds it up, you can’t keep dosing her on soldier pills.”
“I’m not,” Genma said. “I’ve got her on a dextrose drip now, and I actually was trying some chakra calming on her, to try to slow the thing’s growth.” It hadn’t reacted to the pain control jutsu, but he’d felt its chakra waver in reaction to the dampening jutsu. He reached into one of the pouches on his beltpack and pulled out a small leather case. “Might try using senbon to keep her chakra flow slowed, since I can’t maintain the jutsu for five days without wearing myself out.”
Kakashi nodded and flicked two fingers at his left eye. The lion-dog mask’s eyehole was covered over with a dark patch—presumably a replacement, since Kakashi had used his Sharingan in the caves. “Need an extra eye on that?” he asked. “Or do you want me out of the way?”
“If you can spare the chakra for it, I could use your help,” Genma said. “Can you see chakra paths like a Hyuuga can, or just get a sense of overall flow?”
Kakashi’s masked face tilted down a fraction in hesitation, then flicked back. “Nothing so detailed as a Hyuuga,” he said, “but I can see chakra flow.”
“That will help,” Genma said, “I can sense her chakra, and the demon’s, but that’s nothing like actually seeing it. You can tell me if anything I do makes the thing react.” He slid the senbon case into a pocket and flexed his fingers. Feeling had come back as the demon’s venom had dissipated, but his hands still felt clumsy and stiff. Placing the therapeutic needles would be a challenge. “The jutsu I just cast should hold her for now,” he said. “We can try the senbon in a couple hours, if you’re up for it.”
“Sure,” Kakashi said. He took a step away from the wall. “In that case, I better get back to the other two before Rat sets the deck on fire, or something. Unless you need anything else?”
“Tell me how you’re doing,” said Genma. “Your chakra feels pretty low. How much pain are you having? Have you eaten yet?”
“Uh,” Kakashi answered, with the drawn out hesitation of the guilty caught red-handed. “Any minute now. I’m okay; took some aspirin earlier.”
“Have some protein.” Genma reached for his belt pack again and hooked out a packet of dried salmon. His fingers cramped and twitched, and the packet fell. “Dammit.” He bent to retrieve it, groaning at the pull on his stitched belly, but Kakashi had already caught it. The look Kakashi gave him as Genma straightened spoke volumes, but neither one of them was moving easily.
“I’m fine,” Genma said. “It’s just taking a little while for the last of the venom to wear off. And I did eat. Also I’m the lieutenant; I get to do the judging.”
“I feel judged,” Kakashi agreed dryly. But he peeled the salmon out of its packaging and quickly made it disappear without ever seeming to lift his mask. Only the bobbing of his Adam’s apple gave any sign he was chewing and swallowing.
Genma’s lips twitched towards a smile behind his mask. He was starting to like oddball-Hatake.
When the salmon was gone, Kakashi turned as if to go, hesitated, turned back. “Lieutenant? Did something happen in Konoha?”
Genma glanced around the empty hallway to be sure none of the civilians was nearby. Footsteps creaked overhead, and a child in one of the larger cabins shrieked happily. The thrum of the riverboat’s engines was loud enough to drown out their conversation at any distance, and Genma’s sound-damper jutsu was still active, but this wasn’t information to risk any civilian overhearing.
“Something happened, but we don’t have any details,” Genma said quietly. “We got a Code Broken Link. Instructions were to handle the situation here as best we could. No reinforcements available.” He leaned against the wall and wished he had a cigarette to smoke—or a senbon to chew—but with his mask on he could do neither. He blew through pursed lips, feeling the breath curl back over his face. “Taichou and I haven’t talked it over much yet, but I figure it probably didn’t happen in Konoha, or we’d have gotten instructions either to abort and return at once, or stay away and regroup with others who were in the field.”
Kakashi’s head ducked down, and Genma could almost see the wheels turning as Kakashi ran through every possible threat Konoha could be facing, and probably every person in Konoha he cared about. With the Hokage at the top of the list, likely, and undoubtedly in the thick of whatever the crisis was. After a moment, he straightened, shoulders squaring. “Do the job we have in front of us, right?”
“Yeah,” Genma said. “If anyone can deal with the threat, whatever it is, it’s Yondaime-sama. We just have to trust our comrades to handle things until we can get there, and make sure we’re in fighting form when we arrive.” Which, given the state they were in now, was going to be a challenge. He hesitated a moment, then reached out and laid a hand on Kakashi’s shoulder. “Rest, eat, and try not to worry.”
Kakashi twitched out from under Genma’s hand, as clamped down and tense as Genma had ever seen him. Clearly the touch had been a step too far. Genma grimaced, annoyed with himself.
“Lieutenant,” Kakashi said, tapping his shoulder in a salute. He turned crisply away.
Genma waited until Kakashi was out of sight to follow him. Kakashi would probably do better being left to settle himself alone for a moment, away from too-perceptive lieutenants and their meddling. It gave Genma a chance to check one last time on Hisa-san and her parents—she was unmoving and unchanged; they were desperate with worry, but hiding it behind stoic efficiency as they cared for her. Taking his leave of them with a promise to come back the instant there was any change, Genma went out on the deck to find Raidou.
He squinted as his eyes adjusted to the sudden sun, scanning up and down the narrow strip of deck that skirted the cabins and connected prow to stern. Granny Kawase was up near the front of the boat, gesturing animatedly as she discussed some matter or other with two of her hulking sons-in-law. She turned and gave Genma a long, appraising look, then lifted her metal-shod walking stick—more a weapon than a mobility aid, Genma guessed—and pointed behind him towards the paddle wheel. He nodded his thanks and turned towards the back.
At the stern, near carefully stacked cargo that included the canvas-wrapped demon head, Genma found a tangle of black and white clad bodies: the rest of ANBU Team Six. Ryouma was sprawled long-limbed on a stack of wooly sheep hides, sheltered in a patch of shade beneath a canvas flap. Katsuko was tucked right against him, back to his side, curled protectively around her sling-bound arm and… a cat? Her head was pillowed on Raidou’s thigh. The captain was sitting up against the bulwark, with one arm stretched out along the railing, and one knee (the one Katsuko wasn’t sleeping on) raised casually in front of him. His head was thrown back as if he were studying the sky. Nearby, one of Katsuko’s clones lay lazily in a large coil of rope, cuddling another cat to its armored chest.
Kakashi was seated a little ways away from them, farther from the canvas-wrapped demon head and its unpleasant stench, but close enough to keep an eye on all his teammates. A lanky black cat wandered over and sniffed at his booted foot, then hopped up into Kakashi’s lap as if it had been invited. Kakashi flinched, stilled, and after a moment, raised a hand to nudge the cat off. The cat shifted grudgingly, planting itself mere inches from Kakashi’s ankle where it began to groom itself.
When Genma got to Raidou, he thought about how much standing up again from a crouch was likely to hurt, and decided to stay on his feet. “Captain. You awake?”
Raidou’s head jerked and dropped, then jerked up again. “What? Yes!” he said reflexively. Then, as actual awareness returned, “What?”
“Hi,” Genma said. He glanced at his sleeping teammates, then over at the clone, who waved, and Kakashi, who ignored him. “Think I can get a minute with you now?”
“Sure,” Raidou said through a jaw-cracking yawn. The mist-conjured mask was thinning enough at the edges that Genma could see the movement. “Many minutes as you want,” Raidou said. He gently dislodged Katsuko, who made a brief, protesting sound before she burrowed under the edge of one of the sheepskins.
Genma put out a hand to help Raidou to his feet.
“Where?” Raidou asked.
“Up there?” Genma suggested, pointing to the roof of the cabin. “Don’t think anyone will bother us much, and we won’t be seen if we tuck up between the smokestacks.”
“Figures you’d make me climb,” said Raidou as he chakra-walked his way up the side of the cabins.
“Says the man who routinely makes his entire team run until they drop at five in the morning,” Genma said. “We need the privacy, and I could use the fresh air.”
Raidou reached the roof’s edge first, reaching up to vault over the edge. He leaned down and offered Genma a hand up.
Between Genma’s shoulders and his stomach, even with Raidou’s help, the last bit of acrobatics were minor torture. Maybe he shouldn’t have made them climb—Raidou’s shoulders weren’t in any better shape than his own, really, and it was taking all Genma’s training not to walk with a stoop and his arms wrapped around his belly. Too late now, though. The superiority of hindsight seemed to be the theme of this entire mission.
Raidou found a spot between the smokestacks and sat carefully down. When Genma’d joined him, he gave Genma a searching look. “You sure you have enough chakra for this?”
“For healing my captain up so the team has functional leadership? Yes. I have enough chakra for that.” Genma gave Raidou a wry smile, then realized it was completely invisible behind his mask. “That wasn’t me being an insubordinate dick,” he said, and pushed his mask off. There were no prying eyes up here, and the fresh air was a relief on his face. “I really do have enough chakra for this, unless you need a lot more healing than I think you do. What hurts?”
“So just being a subordinate dick?” Raidou asked. He sounded more amused than annoyed. Scruffing a hand over his face, he dissolved his jutsu-created mask into mist. “Can you start with my eyes?”
Genma sucked in slow breath. The skin around Raidou’s eyes was damaged in a pattern that mapped almost perfectly to the eyeholes of the crescent moon mask he’d lost. “Wow. That’s from something the demon spit at you?”
Genma pushed up to his knees, leaning in to get a better look. Raidou’s eyelids were so swollen that his irises were barely visible, and his eyelashes were altogether swallowed. The chemical burns were red and raw, crusted over with scabs in some places, and blistered yellow in others. It looked exquisitely painful. “Good thing you washed it off so quickly. Did you get any in your eyes?” Genma asked. “Is your vision cloudy at all?”
“Little blurry,” Raidou said. “Which I figured was because of the panda face. I managed to blink right before she hit me. Can you fix it?” The undercurrent of tension in his voice could have been fear he’d damaged his eyesight, but more likely it was pain.
“Have you taken anything for pain today?” Genma asked. “I’d like to get some meds in you before I start trying to take down the inflammation.”
“No,” said Raidou. “I’m not going to, either. Someone needs to stay clear-headed, and I’ve got the most chakra left.”
“You also need to sleep,” Genma pointed out. “And it doesn’t have to be a narcotic. Here, take aspirin at least.” He produced a flip-top metal canister from his med kit and shook out a pair of tablets. “I’ll do a pain block before I start the actual healing, too.”
Raidou gave him a look that was somewhere between exasperated and annoyed, but he dry-swallowed the pills.
Genma didn’t worry about it; Raidou was hardly the first ninja he’d had to bully into taking pain medicine. He twisted his hands through a half dozen seals and set green-lit fingertips to Raidou’s temples, pulsing waves of pain-slowing chakra through the nerves in Raidou’s upper face. It would probably leave his unburned cheeks a little numb, but it would knock the pain from the burns down by an order of magnitude, at least for a little while.
“Feel better?” Genma asked.
Raidou closed his eyes and let out a slow, quiet breath, dropping his shoulders and generally looking much less tense.
“Good,” Genma said. That was what he liked about being a field medic—providing instant relief for a comrade’s suffering. “This might feel a little weird, but it shouldn’t hurt; tell me if it does or if you see any bright flashes of light.” The last thing he wanted was to detach Raidou’s retina with a healing jutsu—working on eyes was tricky. He activated a second jutsu, and held his palms directly over Raidou’s closed eyes, first the left, then the right, pushing leaking serum out of blisters and swollen flesh, back into Raidou’s bloodstream. The puffiness melted back until the Raidou’s closed eyes almost looked normal, although still scabbed and raw. Throughout the process Raidou held perfectly still, breathing slowly and almost meditatively.
“I’ve got one more thing to do to heal the skin,” Genma said, dropping the jutsu, “but first I need to see your pupils. Open your eyes as wide as you can without pain.”
Raidou cracked one eye cautiously open, then the other, blinked once, and then widened his eyes as instructed. “How’s this?” he asked.
“Perfect,” Genma said. He studied the dark centers of Raidou’s eyes, searching for any hint of cloudiness, but it looked like his captain really had escaped the worst. “They look great,” Genma told him. “No traumatic cataracts or corneal burns that I can see. You’re a lucky man. You can close ‘em again.”
“I feel lucky,” Raidou murmured with absolutely no conviction. He shut his eyes.
Closing the skin lesions was an easier jutsu than either of the other two, and didn’t take as long. When Genma was finished, Raidou looked more like someone with a bad case of hay fever than a victim of an acid attack. He sat back, pleased with himself. “You need to keep using that burn ointment Namura-san gave you. Every four hours would be ideal, but at least twice a day.” He yawned and flexed his fingers. “What else needs fixing?”
Raidou raised careful fingertips to touch the freshly healed burns, and half-smiled at the improvement. “Shoulders could use a look,” he said, “if you’ve got it in you.”
“I do,” Genma said. “Can you get your vest and shirt of yourself, or need help? I can undo the bandages.”
“Anyone ever tell you that you’re kind of a mother-hen?” Raidou asked as he stripped.
“Nope,” Genma said. “You’re the first.”
“Huh,” Raidou said. “You’re kind of a mother-hen.”
“Cluck cluck,” Genma said without inflection.
Raidou’s bandaged shoulder shook in a silent chuckle.
Under the bandages Raidou’s wounds were myriad: a mix of acid spatters everywhere his uniform had left skin exposed, shallow cuts, deep gouges, re-opened wounds from their first fight with the demons that Genma had already healed once, and angry-looking bruises everywhere. Genma frowned. “This is going to take more than one session, I think,” he said. “I’ll make sure everything’s closed so there’s no infection risk, clean up the burns, and take care of the deep bruising first, so your movement is less restricted, but you’re going to have to let me work on you again tonight or tomorrow.”
Raidou looked over his shoulder with a half-grin. “Yes, Ma.”
“I could punch you,” Genma said mildly. “There’s an excellent bruise I could use as a target right… Here.” He brushed a thumb ever so lightly against the injury.
“Not actually any less parental sounding,” Raidou informed him.
“Wasn’t it you who started calling our other teammates ‘the kids’?” Genma asked. He cast the first jutsu and settled into the slow pulse of chakra flowing between himself and Raidou, his own bright and activated; Raidou’s receptive, reaching up to connect. When the skin was repaired, he moved on to the deeper tissue healing. He drifted mentally, letting the unique structures and shapes of Raidou’s anatomy guide the energy flow as he coaxed bruises to heal. When his own coils started to ache and burn, he stopped, sitting back and catching a few quick breaths.
“That’s it for me for now,” he said. “Better?”
While Genma’d worked, Raidou had dropped into meditation, a trick many experienced ninja utilized—it made the medic’s work easier, facilitated the chakra connection, and helped deal with the discomfort that went hand-in-hand with having your flesh pieced back together. Somewhere along the way, as the healing had progressed, Raidou had crossed the line from zoned-out to drowsing. He jerked back to the waking world now with a startled “Eh?” then sat up, rolling his shoulders carefully. “Hey, they work again.”
“They’re not a hundred percent. You need to be careful still,” Genma said, but he smiled slightly, pleased he’d gotten as much healed as he had. “Glad you’re feeling better.” He pulled out a pair of ration bars and offered one to Raidou. “Hound asked me what was up in Konoha. I told him about the code, and that we didn’t know more. He seemed a little shaken up. I tried to reassure him, but I think I just pissed him off by noticing he was unsettled at all.”
“Sounds about right,” Raidou said. He inspected the wrapper on the rat bar before he peeled it, but he didn’t take a bite. He stared out at the river spooling out ahead of them, leading the slowly south. “You can’t blame him for being worried. I am, too.”
“Yeah,” Genma said. “Me, too. I told him I figured it wasn’t an attack on Konoha itself, or we’d have gotten told to either abort the mission and return at once, or regroup with other ninja in the field. I figure it’s probably either a border skirmish, or one of the bigger cities had an attack.” He traced the edge of the wrapper on his unopened rat bar with his thumbnail. “I keep thinking about that time during the war when Iwa set off that bomb in Chiyoyama.”
“And now I am, too.” Raidou stared past Genma’s shoulder as he spoke in the distant voice of a man remembering blood-soaked rubble and unidentifiable remains. “Thanks for sharing that.”
“You weren’t already thinking about it?” Genma said. “After the Fox, that’s the one I get the most nightmares about.” He worried the seam of the rat bar wrapper until it yielded, peeling the foil back from the nut and fruit-studded bar. “You have any theories about what’s up?”
“Something big enough overshadow a demon attack,” Raidou said. “Since Konoha’d usually be all over that.”
“Yeah.” Genma shifted, trying to find a comfortable position that didn’t involve leaning against the hot smokestack. “Maybe they finally tracked down Orochimaru. Or maybe Kumo? They’re always threatening to start shit up. They could have attacked one of the border towns.” Moving wasn’t helping at all. He sighed and gave up on comfort, opting instead for fuel. The raspberry-oat bar was ordinarily one of his favorites, but it might as well have been cardboard for all he tasted it. “What do we want to tell the rookies? And will Rat be okay? She’s… a little easy to trigger,” he said, choosing his words carefully.
“She’ll be fine,” Raidou said firmly. No room for discussion there. “If they ask, we’ll tell them the truth. If they don’t, I’d rather they focus on healing, anyway.”
“Well, given I already discussed it with Hound, they may end up talking to each other about it even if we don’t,” Genma said. “Though if I had to pick one of the three most likely to keep his own council, it’d be him.”
“You’re not wrong,” Raidou said. He rubbed a hand over his face, looking altogether haggard. “I should check on them. Did you heal yourself, yet?”
“I’ve done what I can for myself,” Genma said. Which was a lot less than he could do for someone else, but it would do, for now. “It takes a lot of chakra to work on yourself. Tsunade-sama can do it, and they say Shodai-sama could completely heal himself, but…” He shrugged. “They also say he was a kami of ninjutsu who took corporeal form to create Konoha.”
“If you start pulling villages out of the air, I’ll assume you’re feeling better,” Raidou said.
“Or you’re hallucinating from low blood sugar. Are you hoping airing out that rat bar will make it taste better?” Genma asked. “Or have you got some new jutsu that lets you take calories in from things you just hold?” He looked at his own half-eaten bar. “Actually, that’d be a seriously cool jutsu. If you do have one, you have to teach it to me.”
“What?” Raidou said, blinking. He looked down at his hand like he was surprised to find the bar he was holding had just materialized there. “Oh. Right.” Two bites later it was gone.
“Tell you what,” Genma said, “Why don’t you get some sleep? I’ll handle the watch for now. There’s a few extra hammocks, you could nap in the cabin where Hisa-san is, and if anything happens, you can come get me. I’ll go keep an eye on the…” He gestured at the rear deck where Katsuko and Ryouma were still snuggling with the cargo. “Whatever that is, with the cats and the sheepskins. I’ll tell Hound to get some rest, too.”
Raidou looked pointedly at Genma’s bandaged abdomen, expressing a world of skepticism with a single eyebrow flick.
“You didn’t sleep last night,” Genma said. “And once Rat and Hound have rested a bit, they should be semi-functional. I’m not in great shape, but I at least have a clear head. If anything goes down, I’ve still got some chakra reserves, and Rat’s clones are in good shape.”
“Guess nagging the captain is your job,” Raidou muttered reluctantly, but he tipped his head in acquiescence. “Anything happens, you wake me up. We clear?”
“Crystal,” said Genma, tapping a salute. “Besides, I’m not the kind of guy to let my captain sleep through all the fun if there’s fun to be had.” He polished off the last of his own rat bar, groaned and stretched, and pushed himself to his feet. “And now I’m gonna make you walk back down again, unless you want to just sleep up here.”
Raidou glanced down at the roof, then out across the river. It churned a muddy and glittering ribbon through lush green farmland, with hills in the near distance a pink haze of early foliage and blossoming cherries. “Actually,” he said, “I might. Less kids underfoot.”
“Sounds good,” Genma said. He flipped his mask into place. “Rest well. If you’re not back down by supper time, I’ll send a clone to wake you.”
Getting back to the deck, he realized when he got to the roof’s edge, was going to be quick, but far from painless. Steeling himself, he jumped down, landing mostly gracefully, and swearing mostly inaudibly. He braced his belly with one arm as he made his way back over to the rest of Team Six. At least this time Kakashi was the only one watching him move and passing judgment—Granny Kawase was nowhere to be seen.
Two of Katsuko’s clones were sitting in the rigging playing cards. Katsuko had turned in her sleep, scissoring her legs out across the rope coils. Ryouma didn’t look like he’d moved at all, but his chakra, still worryingly low, felt steady. Genma left them where they were and carefully sat against the bulwark, close enough to Kakashi for quiet conversation. “Taichou’s sleeping, I’m taking the watch. You gonna get some rest?”
“Slept nine hours last night,” Kakashi said shortly.
Incredulity wove through Genma’s voice like red thread. “Nine hours? That’s more than I got. Well done.”
“Helped not having a hole in my stomach,” Kakashi said. “Also, not being poisoned.”
Water slapped gently against the side of the boat. The engine’s steady pulse shivered through the deck, like a metal heartbeat. A cool breeze brushed his shoulders between the crisscross of bandages.
“You make very good points,” Genma said finally. He drew one knee up and stretched the other leg out, moving with the slow fluidity of deep hurts. “I think I’ll try not to do that on our next mission.”
“Good plan,” Kakashi said.
The silence crept back, busy with the sounds of other people. Deckhands shouted to each other. Children squabbled inside the big cabin. Katsuko’s clones cat-called quiet insults among themselves, because even her mirror images couldn’t stop talking.
And two-hundred miles south-east, down the winding curves of the river, Konoha was in trouble.
If he left the team behind and pushed himself hard, he could be there in a day. Day and a half, if he wanted to arrive on his feet and actually be effective. Team Six still had Raidou to watch them, and Genma wasn’t useless now that he could move and heal. Katsuko would be fine once she’d slept more. She was probably fine now, except for a collarbone tweak and a few scrapes. Any decent ninja could cope with that. Ryouma was the only one in trouble.
But they had three ANBU to protect them. Against the dangers of a gentle river cruise. They’d be fine.
And Kakashi would be the man who’d abandoned his teammates again. Not even for a mission this time, which was sanctioned, but for the threat of—something. Broken Link. Political attack. A strike against the Hokage, or the Hokage’s only son. Or the tactical execution of a foreign policy ambassador, like his mo—
“Thank you,” Genma said quietly, slicing through his thoughts.
Kakashi looked sideways.
“For getting me out of there yesterday,” Genma explained. He added wryly, “I was pretty sure my dad was going to get one of those ‘your son served with honor’ letters before you showed up.”
“More like, ‘surprise, you’re a granddad, send child support’,” Kakashi said. “‘Sorry about the six legs.’”
Genma laughed hoarsely, then pressed a flat palm to his stomach. His breath hissed between his teeth. “That’s not funny. Owww.” He straightened up carefully. “My dad would probably go daily to my grave site to remind me he’d told me not to join ANBU.”
“Not a ninja, then,” Kakashi said.
The laugh was shallower this time, like scraped sand. “He’s a baker. You never heard of Shiranui Bakery?”
He had, he just hadn’t made the link. That’d make Genma civilian-born. Or at least half-blooded. Weaker, according to some schools of thought.
“I like Yamasaki’s better,” Kakashi said, and pushed himself to his feet. “I should walk the ship.”
“Yamasaki-san’s mochi is too stiff. When we get back, I’ll bring you some of my dad’s yatsuhashi.” Genma said quietly behind him. “Can you check in on Hisa-san for me?”
Kakashi tilted one shoulder in acknowledgement, and left Genma’s thanks and bakery overtures behind.
The rhythm of the boat didn’t seem to be greatly disturbed by the addition of sleeping killers and a reeking demon head. Though the weight of the head was making the deck list to the rear, and lifting the nose—prow? fore-piece? He didn’t know boat terms—slightly out of the water. The sailors didn’t seem much bothered by that, either. Granny Kawase manned the wheel with a steady hand and shouted casual abuse at her family. Two tall boat-hands stood at the front of the deck armed with long poles, which they used to shove branches and other floating debris aside. Above, Raidou’s ANBU spark glimmered faintly, wrapped in the shuttered glow of his chakra.
It was peaceful. Kakashi really didn’t need to stay.
He checked on Hisa, because that had almost been an order. She was asleep and quiet, chakra interlaced with the gangrenous hooks of the last demon hatchling. It had felt bad enough down in the mines, surrounded by the husks of other people. Here, in the warmth and light and regular mundanity of storage boxes, that crouching presence felt like a loose tooth in the universe. Something wrong that needed ripping free.
He’d killed enough civilians this week.
Hisa’s parents were coping better than he’d expected, dry-eyed and collected. But they still smelled like salt-stress and sour grief, and they peppered him with questions about Konoha. As soon as he could, Kakashi pled shinobi duties and slipped away.
On the deck, it was still quiet.
There was no reason to stay.
He flicked an all clear hand-sign at Genma, remembering to use the ANBU-specific version at the last second. Genma’s mask tilted in a slight nod; he signed back the quick gesture that meant something in between acknowledged and thank you, and Kakashi hated him a little. Why was Genma so calm?
How could Raidou sleep?
Kakashi moved around to the unwatched side of the boat before he gave into the urge to kick one of them. Seconds later, one of Katsuko’s clones dropped down behind him.
“You seem tense,” it said. “What happened at the village?”
That was—observant for a clone.
“Maybe nothing,” Kakashi said.
“But probably something?”
He yanked a hand through his hair, giving it a hard tug. “Broken Link,” he said at last. “And no reinforcements available.” Which meant it was bad enough to take Konoha’s full forces while Team Six was floating in a tub.
The clone moved around where he could see it and stood ramrod straight, hands locked behind its back, looking out at the river. Katsuko’s secret professionalism showing its colors. “If you’re needed back home,” it said. “Then go. The rest of us—” six more clones dropped down, chakra glinting against his senses like the gleam on a weapon, “can keep the team safe.”
They probably could.
Kakashi looked over the railing. He could make it to the opposite bank in one leap, then run straight overland—
And say what when he got there? I forgot all my training, lost my cool, abandoned my team, and bolted home like a child. Sorry, Minato-sensei. Guess I wasn’t ready for ANBU after all.
If Rin was still alive when he got home, she’d punch him in the face. And he’d deserve it. He’d told her he’d try to be smarter this time.
“I can’t,” he told the clones, and straightened his shoulders. “I should stay. Besides, what are you going to do if you run into missing-nin on the way home, or sanctioned ninja? Bamph at them?”
“Heh,” said the speaker-clone. “You have a good point.” It turned away from the railing and—bowed to him. The exact quarter-dip inclination that shinobi didn’t use, because it exposed the back of the neck. This was a samurai’s gesture, to a colleague that had earned admiration. The clone straightened. “You’re okay, sparklefingers.”
Had he just passed a test?
More concerning. Did Katsuko actually have layers?
Kakashi pulled himself together and dipped his chin fractionally, which prompted a general vanishing of clones as they faded back to their posts. The speaker-clone tugged its mask up, revealing a grinning mirror of Katsuko’s face. It winked at him, then vanished out of existence in a plume of smoke.
At the back of the ship, a sudden loud rustle turned into a bang as Katsuko, presumably, got a rude update.
“Goddammit,” Kakashi muttered, and went to repair the damage.
First he had to repair her mask, which had entirely vanished except for a few clinging wisps of ice-mist. Except—no, this was a flawed long-term solution, since every fix drained chakra, and one swipe would remove the mask anyway. They could do better.
He pulled a spare cloth mask out of his belt-pouch before Katsuko had finished flailing her way to the surface of the sheep-skins, and shoved it at her. “Here.”
Katsuko stared at it, then at him. Taped across her forehead, the square of gauze was slowly coming unpeeled, revealing the edge of a half-healed gash. Her entire expression said, Uh?
“It’s a mask. For your face,” Kakashi said slowly. “Put it on.”
Katsuko managed to blink. “I only have one working hand.”
“And no working brain,” Kakashi said, and sighed. He reached across and stretched the mask over her head, pulling it down into place. Katsuko made a strange muffled sound, the bastard child of a squeak and a sneeze, then her hair fountained up like a palm tree made excited by static cling. The mask clung to the bridge of her nose, but fell a shade too loosely to outline her mouth, and bunched down around her ANBU turtleneck.
At least it made her look like a ninja again. Albeit a very tired one.
“Pretty cool,” she decided, giving the mask a tug. “You got anything to eat?”
Either she was too exhausted to put much focus into dissecting what her clone had just dropped into her head, or she needed food to function first. Or both.
Movement flickered out of the corner of his eye. Kakashi put a hand up and caught the ration bar Genma had just thrown. “Sesame seed,” he read, turning it label-side up.
Katsuko made impatient hand gestures until he passed it over, then paused before she ripped into it, eyes flicking up. “You good?”
There it was.
He found and discarded words, and finally settled on, “Yeah.”
“Hm,” Katsuko said, with visible doubt. “Alright. You want any?” She offered him part of the bar for approximately a nanosecond, before stuffing it wholesale into her mouth.
Naruto had that same trick. It still counted as sharing if you offered, never mind if you actually shared.
Kakashi really, really hoped Naruto was okay.
“Thanks,” he said dryly, wrenching himself back to current events. “You can go back to sleep.”
She nodded once, then chewed and swallowed the rest of the bar. She didn’t lie back down. “Hound,” she said, after a second. “You’re not the only one. We all have people back in Konoha.”
Stung, Kakashi sat back on his heels. She might have people back in Konoha, but his people ran Konoha—and, dammit, he’d stayed. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Might want to stop thinking so loudly, then,” Katsuko said, bland as skim milk. She tilted her head. “You have people here, too.”
Kakashi looked at Ryouma, who was sprawled face-down on his stomach between them, destroying his conjured mask against the sheepskin. He still had one arm curled around his head, hiding his face. He’d called Kakashi a hero yesterday, even if he’d been joking. And this morning Kakashi had woken up with Ryouma’s hand in his hair—which he was still wondering about, actually. Raidou had stayed awake all night, managing civilians and pouring his own chakra into other people. Genma had navigated an entire team’s worth of healthcare from his own bed, flat on his back—and he’d thanked Kakashi, even if he’d been a pain around it.
Then there was Katsuko, with her scars and her jokes and her army of clones. And her perception like a cat’s claw, unsheathing when she needed it, and invisible the rest of the time. She’d passed out half-naked in his care yesterday, and just now she would have let him leave.
Would she have trusted him again, afterwards?
Kakashi pushed his ANBU mask to the side. “I liked you better when you didn’t have layers,” he griped.
“Who, me?” Katsuko said, eyes glittering. “Don’t be silly. I’m an open book.”
“You’re an open bear trap,” Kakashi said, and finally dropped down and turned, putting his back against the bulwark by Ryouma’s head. He brought a knee up and braced his elbow on it, stretching his shoulders against the aches crawling up his spine. That was the problem with staying still; when you stopped, you felt everything that hurt.
Ryouma drew a deep, raspy breath, and turned his head slightly. “Wanna sheepskin?”
Kakashi blinked down at him. “How long have you been awake?”
“S’this awake?” Ryouma said, with the bludgeoned groan of the barely conscious. “Thought it was hell.” He levered himself up onto both elbows, fished a sheepskin out from underneath himself, tossed it onto Kakashi, and collapsed again. His head barely missed Kakashi’s knee. “G’sleep. It’ll be better in the morning.”
Kakashi pulled the sheepskin off. “It is morning,” he said dryly.
“Next morning,” Ryouma muttered.
“Ah.” Kakashi extracted another cloth mask from his belt—only one spare left now—and leaned over Ryouma. “Hold still.”
“Wha—?” Ryouma managed, before Kakashi wrestled the mask down over his head. Ryouma squawked, spluttered, and clawed the mask down below his chin, glaring up at Kakashi. “I don’t smother you in my fashion choices.”
“It’s not fashion, it’s a mask you can sleep in,” Kakashi said, and pulled it back up to the bridge of Ryouma’s nose.
“I can’t breathe,” Ryouma said, muffled—but there was an edge in his voice, real panic welling up. Katsuko stiffened.
Ryouma had punched through a demon yesterday, and nearly drowned on the inside. He’d also just had his face smashed down between his arm and a sheep hide, but recall wasn’t logical, and now wasn’t the time to deal with it. Kakashi tugged the mask back down just under Ryouma’s mouth.
“Keep your head down,” he said. “You can pull it up when you’re actually awake.”
Ryouma’s ragged breathing smoothed and settled. He curled his fingers around the edge of the mask, exactly the same way he’d curled his fingers in Kakashi’s hair, and closed his eyes. After a second, he opened them again. “Thanks. I’ll do a henge myself tomorrow.”
With what chakra?
Katsuko tossed her legs over Ryouma’s, settling her back against the bulwark. “Sleep now,” she advised. “Plan later. Or never.”
Kakashi tipped his head back and pushed his ANBU mask aside, closing his eye against the wash of warm April sun. “That’s actually good advice.”
“Sleepin’s always good advice,” Ryouma mumbled, settling down again. He turned his head so that his cheek pillowed against the fleece, and threw an arm over his face again. The dappled grey cat resting between his knees yawned and stretched, arching its back against Katsuko’s shin. Katsuko’s orange tom was still buried beneath the sheepskins, unbothered by the movement around him. Katsuko reached over to scritch it behind one flicking ear.
After a moment, drowsily teasing, Ryouma said, “Bedtime story?”
“There was once a ninja who bothered his teammates,” Kakashi said, watching a solitary white cloud track across the blue sky. “So they killed him and buried him at sea and lived happily ever after.”
“And then the dead ninja’s teammates got his stuff,” Katsuko said.
“Good problem solving,” Ryouma said, with the slur of impending sleep blurring his words. “Just gotta lie on t’mission reports…”
“There’s no paperwork in fairy tales,” Kakashi said. “That’s why they’re happy.”
“I like your stories,” Ryouma said, and passed out.
Katsuko patted him fondly on the hip, which was the closest part of him she could reach, and looked up at Kakashi. She waggled her eyebrows. “Join us in the cuddle pile.”
“The way you say that makes it sound like a gateway drug,” Kakashi said.
“Who needs drugs when you have friendship?” she asked, deadpan.
“People who want to get out of friendships?” Kakashi suggested, over his initial response of you sound like a TV special, because that was a line of thought he didn’t want to dwell on. At this point, he probably owed Naruto about a six weeks backlog of Captain Seaweed episodes. Maybe Minato had been able to spare a minute. Or this month’s housekeeper, if she wasn’t vehemently anti-TV. The last two had been.
And maybe he should just focus on the present.
Three days from here to Konoha, with nothing but conversation and sleep to keep them busy.
He scraped a line of red out from underneath one thumbnail, and looked at Katsuko. “Know any card games?”