May 9, Yondaime Year 9

ryouma 6The third time Ryouma twitched himself awake from nightmares, there was someone leaning over him.

For a moment it was the nightmare again, reversed: himself on his back in a tangle of blankets, the hand coming down, the iron band crushing his windpipe. Fear gripped him like shackles. He had no air to cry out.

But the hand settled on his shoulder, not his throat. Katsuko’s shadow clone shook him once, urgently. “Tousaki,” it whispered. “We need you at the cells.”

He dragged in a desperate breath. The clone leaned back warily, but Ryouma’s body seemed to be as sleep-stifled as his brain. It took him a moment to push onto his elbow, pulling his hand free of Kakashi’s sleep-loosened grasp, and claw his mind back together. “The cells. Fukuda?”

The clone nodded, short and unhappy, and stepped away.

None of the others had stirred. Genma was still snoring softly through his swollen nose, Raidou a rougher counterpoint beyond him. Kakashi’s shallow breathing hitched when Ryouma eased himself away, and the tousled head turned restlessly from its pillow on Katsuko’s shoulder. But he settled his cheek on the pile of blankets Ryouma had left behind, and his breathing evened again.

Ryouma left them all dreaming and followed the clone out into the hall. The air was cooler, easier to breathe. A generator hummed in the storage room, and shadows swung crazily against the packed earth walls as the second shadow clone posted outside Fukuda’s cell clambered to its feet.

There was no sign of a break-out yet, no surge of vicious foreign chakra. He couldn’t see any movement beyond the bars, and he didn’t want to go any closer. If she was dying, damnit, she could just get on with it.

The clone who’d come to wake him said, “She drank the water. Hasn’t touched the food.” It jerked its chin at the faintly glimmering iron bars of the cell, and the shadowed woman beyond them. “She’s been tossing for the last two hours.”

Ryouma drifted two steps closer, despite himself. The metal pot with its congealed lump of stew sat just inside the low grate at the bottom of the door. The tin cup lay on its side, a little closer to the mattress and the woman huddled on it. She’d kicked the blanket halfway off, and the dim light from the caged bulbs in the hallway caught at the sheen of sweat on her temples.

He looked back at the clone. It stared up at him, quiet-eyed. The other clone kept its unwearied crouch at his feet.

If he walked away, he thought, they might keep quiet, too.

But Katsuko would know, when the clones dispersed. She might not say anything either—but she’d know.

He sighed. “The lieutenant’s sound asleep, and he’s spent too much chakra today already. One of you see if there’s any fever meds in that closet. And clean bandages.”

The first clone nodded and brushed past him, loping down the hall for the medic’s closet. The other stayed in its flat-footed peasant’s crouch, but it took its eyes off the prisoner to regard him instead, its head cocked to the side like an inquisitive bird.

They didn’t talk as much as Katsuko did. Clones never really did; he shouldn’t find it unnerving. He looked away, all the same.

“Here.” The first clone was back with an sling tucked full of medical supplies and the same thoughtful stare. He sent it for water and triggered the automatic door lock. The second clone edged back, away from the swing of the chakra-cancelling bars, and then wedged a rock in the gap to prevent the door from closing.

Fukuda didn’t stir as Ryouma approached. Her yellow hair was damp, matted to the sides of her head, and her breath was shallow and fast. The IV bag Raidou had rigged for her was flat and dry. He replaced it with a new bag, opened the drip a little wider, and then crouched to sort through the rest of the medicines.

Most of them were labeled, uselessly.

“Can you—”

“Here,” the clone said again, stooping back into the cell. It set down a cup of clean water and took the plastic bottle out of his hand. “Not this one, probably. Acetaminophen for fevers, right?”

“Think so.” Ryouma followed the clone’s directions as it read from the label on a different bottle, crushing four small tabs into the water cup and then swirling until they’d mostly dissolved. He had to steel himself to touch the Kiri nin, to lift her head enough to drink.

Her lips were cracked and dry, her eyes deep-shadowed like bruises. The pale lashes fluttered at the first touch of water to her mouth; she drank, deeply, before her eyes slitted open, vague and unfocused. “Moto? Wha—”

“Moto’s dead,” Ryouma said.

Her eyes flared wide with shock. She jerked back against his grip, and the stump of her arm twitched as if she were reaching for a weapon she didn’t have. The pain of movement ripped a gasp out of her throat, and she lay still again, shaking.

“Finish this,” Ryouma said, pressing the cup against her teeth again. “It’ll cut the fever.”

She clamped her lips shut. Her eyes burned.

Ryouma glared back. “My captain said you won’t be harmed. I can obey orders. Besides,” he added, sliding a knife-edge of contempt into his voice, “I got a lot easier ways to kill you than poison.”

Katsuko’s clone shifted its balance, brushing its shoulder against his. Supportive, maybe, or adding an extra edge of threat. He didn’t look back at it, but the warm burn of its borrowed chakra sank into his skin all the same.

Fukuda licked cracked lips. After a moment her stump twitched again, as if she were trying to reach for the cup with her missing dominant arm. She flinched, and bit down. A dribble of blood blotted the corner of her mouth. She rasped, “Where’s your captain, Leaf ANBU?”

“Busy,” Ryouma said.

He tipped the cup, until she had to drink or spill. She drank, reluctantly and then thirstily, but her eyes never faltered.

He curled his lip. “Memorizing my face, Kiri? Good luck. By the time you’re back up to my level, somebody else will have beaten you to it.”

“Wondering why you didn’t kill me,” she said. “Back when you actually had the chance.”

He handed the cup back to Katsuko’s clone. “I thought I did. You’d’ve had maybe half an hour, if the lieutenant hadn’t come.”

Half an hour of unrelenting, unbearable agony, before the rot reached her heart.

He’d have said she deserved it, if he’d been thinking about it. But he hadn’t been; he hadn’t been thinking of anyone but Kakashi, just then. He’d left her to die because he’d been too busy making sure Kakashi wouldn’t. Was he supposed to feel guilty about that?

Even if he should, he wasn’t going to.

She didn’t say anything more as he unwrapped the bandages to check her arm, just bit her lips and hissed quietly at his touch. Most of the cauterized wound was clean, but one edge was beginning to suppurate. He lanced it to drain the pus, smeared it with antibiotic ointment, rewrapped the stump in clean bandages. “Medic’ll have a look later,” he said, tying the last knot. “You’re kinda low on our list of priorities.”

Fukuda looked up, her pale eyes glittering huge in her hollow-cheeked face. “You can blame me for Iebara,” she said. “But my team didn’t murder their own countrymen.”

He pushed to his feet. “You should sleep well at night, then.”

She laughed, hoarse and ragged, and turned her head away.

He left Katsuko’s clone to clean up the medical detritus and ducked out of the cell to peel off the grimy blister-bandages and wash his hands. The small bar of soap he’d left in the bathroom wore down to half its previous size by the time he finished, but its sweet, rich scent was as strong as ever. It wafted with him when he came back out into the hall.

The cell door was shut; the clones must have kicked the rock away. One of them kept its eternal watch crouched just outside the cell. The other was coming back from its medical waste disposal. It peeked in the bunkroom door as it passed, creaking the ancient hinges.

Katsuko’s chakra rippled in the room beyond, the barely controlled flare of waking from sleep. The clone said, in a tone of deep satisfaction, “Finally.

It glanced down the hall at Ryouma. “I’ve been waiting for this all night,” it said, and popped into smoke and nothingness.

katsuko 1Time and practice had taught Katsuko how to process the mental onslaught of a bunshin’s lifespan in seconds. By the time she sat up, rubbing the grit from her eyes, she’d already stored away the image of Ryouma’s bare back glistening in the shower. She’d examine it in detail later, when the memory of Ryouma’s venomous exchange with the Kiri-nin wasn’t clanging around inside her skull, demanding precedence.

She disentangled herself from Kakashi, who’d attached himself to her like a sloth in search of the warmest tree branch, and wobbled to her feet, ignoring the paper-dryness of her throat. Kakashi didn’t stir at her careful movements; Katsuko suspected nothing short of a cave-in would wake him at this point. She drew the blankets back up over his shoulders, detached her IV, and went looking for Ryouma.

He hadn’t moved far from the Kiri kunoichi’s cell. Katsuko found him in the spartan kitchen, watching as a fresh pot of tea came to boil. She hesitated in the hallway while she regarded Ryouma’s dark, bent head and the tense line of his back.

“Figured you’d be out soon,” Ryouma said. He didn’t turn around. “Sorry, you’ve probably got a headache now.”

Are you okay? Katsuko didn’t ask. She cut across the room on silent feet, stopping next to Ryouma. When he continued to stare at the pot like it held unfathomable secrets, she nudged his arm. He was tall enough that her good shoulder only came up to his bicep.

“Hey,” she said. “I’m a lot prettier than the tea. And I even talk back.”

He let out a soft huff and gave her a sideways glance. “Sounds like you come pretty highly recommended.”

“Boiled leaf water has nothing on me,” Katsuko said in magnanimous acknowledgment.

Ryouma made an expression like he was considering smiling. Katsuko propped herself up on him with a comfortable sigh, resting her good shoulder against his arm. If she leaned a little more weight against him than necessary… well, acting as a standing post was part of his duties as her teammate. And she didn’t want him going anywhere while that restlessness still lurked in the back of his eyes.

Everyone on Team Six hid some sort of darkness—it was impossible not to—but Ryouma was the only one who masked his with flash and flair and determined, brilliant light. The rage he’d shown towards the Kiri nin hadn’t startled Katsuko; he hadn’t made any effort to hide it before. It was the haunted look on his face as he’d retreated to scour his hands raw that made worry curl tight and sharp in Katsuko’s throat.

She knew what it was like, feeling like you’d never be clean again; the horror of learning what you were capable of doing under orders. Obedience was bred into a shinobi’s bones, the legacy of generations of ninja pledging themselves to their Villages as warriors, weapons, soldiers.


But a ninja was not wholly a weapon, no matter what the rules liked to preach. The first time Katsuko had killed a civilian in cold blood, she’d scraped her knuckles bloody trying to clean the gore out from the grooves and whorls of her skin. Even with more than a year of ANBU experience to inure her, it was only willpower that kept the memory of Tsuto Tomoko’s terrified eyes locked away in a dark corner of her mind Katsuko refused to acknowledge until the mission was over and she had permission to feel again.

Asking Ryouma to break his silence while keeping her own guilt and grief buried deep was impossible. She wouldn’t be able to free Ryouma from the nightmare place in his head without cracking herself open and spilling out all the ugliness she’d rather keep hidden. The weight of all the death she’d dealt would swallow her whole.

But tonight had been Ryouma’s first mission with a civilian family on the sharp edges of his blade. She would have felt for any rookie in this situation, but this was Ryouma. In the short time she’d had with him, she’d learned she wanted to see him hurting about as much as she wanted to cut her own arm off.

Even if it meant she’d have to dredge up some of the barbed-wire memories that kept her up at night, she wanted that hollow look gone from his eyes.

“You can talk to me,” Katsuko said at last, quiet. “I might be your senpai, but I was still a rookie not even two months ago.”

Ryouma looked down at the tea again, but his silence didn’t feel like one of rejection. Katsuko waited as the seconds stretched out. Finally, he said, “I never killed anyone who wasn’t trying to kill me back, before this.” He paused. “You wouldn’t think it’d make that much difference. The girl even had a knife— she stabbed the lieutenant’s kage bunshin. It was one of those ornamental tanto they give rich ladies to protect their virtue. A kaiken. She couldn’t’ve even scratched me…”

There were red lines gouged across the backs of the fingers of his right hand. He rubbed at them absently. Katsuko studied his expression and asked, “Did she try to run?”

“She didn’t get a chance. Nobody did.” A muscle jumped in the side of Ryouma’s jaw. “Except Kiri. The lieutenant meant to let ’em walk, until that blood-bastard broke ranks.”

Katsuko nodded. The Kiri kunoichi hadn’t given the impression of a captain who tolerated disobedience from her subordinates. What kind of mad dog had Iebara been, that even his squad leader had been afraid to bring him to heel?

“Tea’s done,” Ryouma said irrelevantly. He dislodged Katsuko and crouched down to turn the burner off. He didn’t pull the pot off; just stayed there, flat on his heels, watching the bubbles break and die. Slowly, he said, “We had to kill them. Tsuto and his wife. They were traitors. They deserved to die. But the girl didn’t know that. She just saw ANBU killing her parents. And—” He cut himself short, biting down on his lips, and shook his head.

She settled her hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. “Your first civilian kill stays with you,” she said, quiet. “The guilt never really goes away. And you’re never the same after it.”

Ryouma laughed, short, sharp, and without an ounce of humor. “’We’re not the good guys anymore’, you mean? I knew that. In the war, we did things— hell, you know. You probably did them too.” He threw his head up, staring fixedly at the wall, and worked his jaw sideways. “Raidou— Taichou told me you had to take the little girl.”

Katsuko’s grip tightened despite herself; she felt the muscles in Ryouma’s shoulder shift. She forced the words out. “Yes. And the parents.”

Silence reigned for a few blessed moments. Then he said, “You’ll have nightmares about it.” It wasn’t a question.

She gazed down at Ryouma’s dark head. Honesty felt like agony, but she’d already come this far. “I told her to close her eyes and that it wouldn’t hurt. Then I killed her in front of her father. What do you think?”

He looked up, then, the skin around his lips pinched and pale. “I did the same thing. Except she was ten years older, and Kakashi’d already put a knife in her throat. But I had to cover her eyes before I ended it.”

Katsuko made a jagged sound. “Aren’t we a pair?” she said, bleakly amused. “Two grown killers who’d rather face a battlefield than look dying little girls in the eye.”

ryouma 2Ryouma’s mouth twisted. “Special kind of cowards.”

She made another rough noise in the back of her throat; it sounded like agreement.

Her skin was waxen and drawn with pain and tiredness, and dark circles puffed under her eyes. He thought of the clone in the shower, sparing its only good hand to squeeze his shoulder. Of Raidou, sitting on the folding chair just a few feet away, telling him that Katsuko’d had to kill a toddler and her parents, and that she might need a spare shoulder of her own.

He’d tried to carry Raidou’s burdens, when he had no right to. Raidou’d made it easy on him, refused to give him all of it. And here Katsuko was, trying to do the same: to be the good senpai, to let him talk out his nightmares and give him only what she thought he could bear of her own.

Heat itched behind his eyes. He wanted to cry, or to kill something.

He poured tea instead. It was overbrewed—he’d forgotten what he was making, when he first poured the powder in, like campfire coffee instead of tea—but they both took it oversugared, which helped a little with the taste. Katsuko crouched down beside him and curled slender fingers around the last of the clean mugs, breathing in the steam. For a moment her lashes lay long and dark on her cheeks, almost hiding the shadows under her eyes.

Ryouma burned his tongue on his own tea and set the mug aside. He said, “I’m not sure if I could have done it. I told myself I could, when I signed up—that I’d be fighting for the village; that I could kill babies, if it was for the village. But I was glad when taichou told me I was going for the traitor and his wife. And—glad Kakashi threw that kunai, before I had to.”

Katsuko blew the steam away and took a careful sip of her tea. She studied him for a moment over the rim of the mug. Then she lowered it to reveal a faint, crooked smile. “I was glad, too, when the plan was for taichou to take the kids. Telling yourself it’s for the village doesn’t make it any easier.”

“Taichou said you don’t get used to it, but you do get better at it.” Ryouma dropped his gaze to his hands, the dead skin over his palms where the chakra-limiters on the cell bars had bitten him. He picked at the edge of a blister. “I did it well, though. I didn’t hesitate. About the only thing I could’ve done better is the…dealing with it. And I’m not sure how you get better at that, or if I want to.”

Killing without a qualm—he had that down already. He’d killed men and women painfully and often horrifically since he was fourteen. But surely there were some lines you had to draw for yourself, some way to tread the cliff edge between forging yourself into a weapon and discarding everything that made you human.

Was guilt enough?

“I never got better at dealing with it,” Katsuko said, so bluntly that he looked up. She was gazing into her tea. “I just learned how to delay the fallout until I get back to Konoha.” Her fingers tapped a brief, broken rhythm against the side of her mug. “Some people can shut everything off during a mission and switch back to normal as soon as it’s over. Other people go cold on their first ANBU assignment and stay cold for the rest of their career.”

She lifted clear hazel eyes to him, sharded with startling green in the dull yellow light. “Those are the ones you have to look out for.”

Ice-cold Kakashi, Ryouma thought, and then cut himself off: no, that wasn’t fair. Kakashi’d offered a traitor the comfort of a rebirth Kakashi himself didn’t believe in, simply because Tsuto might.

Genma and Raidou hadn’t gone cold, either. Genma’d killed Tsuto’s parents and son and seemed unbothered by it, but he’d kept the household staff safe and tried to talk the Kiri team out of a fight. He’d saved Fukuda, when it would have been far easier to let her die. When everyone else had had to die.

Maybe that was why Genma’d done it, Ryouma realized, with a slow cold hollowing of his belly. Because everyone else had died, but there was still one person he could save…

He shook his head. “What do you do? When you get back, when the fallout hits? How d’you deal with it then?”

Katsuko set her mug down and met his eyes, steady and straight. “I find a place where I can be alone. Sometimes I cry. More often I train until I’m too tired for nightmares.” She paused, and then forged on with that same brutal, unflinching honesty. “It doesn’t always work. And when solitude starts to grate, I go find someone who can help me feel like a person again.”

“I never ran into you at the bar,” Ryouma said. “You must go to classier places than me.”

She gave him a wan smile, probably better than his feeble attempt at a joke deserved, but it didn’t last long before the lines drew down between her brows again. “I’m sorry I can’t give you any better answer to all this. I wish I could.”

Ryouma lifted one shoulder. “Didn’t really expect one. Taichou didn’t have one either.”

He’d given Ryouma at least one of the answers he needed, though—No, I’m not going to kick you off the team. And maybe Katsuko had, too. I never got better at dealing with it. I just learned how to delay.

Maybe some ANBU could hit the off-switch, but that didn’t mean they didn’t still wrestle with guilt and regret. They did what their village ordered them to, and afterwards…


“Hey,” he said, and leaned sideways just enough that his shoulder bumped hers. “We should go out, when we get back. Your favorite bar, or mine. You promised me I could be your wingman after I killed that demon, and we never went.”

She looked up at him, sideways. Her face was still tired and too pale, but a smile grew slowly at the corners of her mouth. “You remembered? I’m touched.” She patted his knee. “Let’s do it. You can dress up sexy, and I can dress up sexier, and you can buy me food while you help me pick up hot people.”

“We have to bring Kakashi,” he said, remembering. “I owe him dinner anyway. I can clear my debts with both of you. An’ then we can abandon him mercilessly—or more likely he’ll abandon us before we even get to the dance floor—and next morning we’ll high five at team training and everyone else can be jealous.”

“That is an amazing plan,” Katsuko said, with the same deadly earnestness she might have used in reviewing mission strategy. “We can corral him into a bar and watch the twitching. Then we can go pick up hot people. You’re a genius.” She paused. “When we high five, you have to remember to bend down so I can actually reach your hand.”

“I’ve seen you jump,” Ryouma scoffed.

“Friends don’t make friends jump for high fives, Ryouma,” Katsuko said, sounding deeply hurt.

“Score somebody hotter than I do, and I’ll high five you.” Ryouma tossed back the rest of his tea and pushed himself to his feet. Sore muscles protested all over again. He reached a hand down for Katsuko.

She took it and let him pull her to her feet, not without a wince at her own aches. Standing, she swayed, as if the arm bound against her side had impaired her balance. He caught her just before she faceplanted into his chest. She must have been more tired than he’d thought; she didn’t pull away, just sagged against him. She was feverishly warm, and after a moment he dropped her hand and put his arm around her to hold her up.

“You shouldn’t’ve made it a contest,” she said, slightly muffled against his shoulder. She tilted her head back, sharp chin braced on his collarbones, and grinned up at him like a gremlin. “Now I’m in it to win it.”

She was irresistible. He couldn’t help it; he smiled down at her. “You’d better be. I want to see you dazzle ’em.”

“They won’t know what hit ’em,” Katsuko promised. She yawned, tongue curling like a cat’s, and then tucked her face down against his collarbones. Her good hand snaked around behind his waist, and for a brief, fierce handful of heartbeats she hugged him tight.

It wasn’t exactly the spare shoulder Raidou’d told him to offer. But for the moment, for both of them, it felt like it might be enough.

genma ouchGenma jerked awake, aware of pain and not much else. Given the crudeness of his earlier medical treatment, the caffeine in the soldier pills he’d downed, and residual mission tension, the fact he’d slept several solid hours was probably some kind of minor miracle that deserved an offering at the temple, but he wasn’t feeling particularly grateful. While he’d slept, his right thigh seemed to have taken on elephantine proportions, throbbing in time with his heartbeat and hot as new-forged steel. And his nose and upper jaw felt like he’d run face-first into a brick wall.

Or maybe the morphine had worn off and swelling was making the bandages uncomfortably tight.

He took a few slow breaths to clear his head, then sat up carefully in the dark room, trying not to disturb his teammates, who seemed much reduced in number now that he was paying attention. There was a gap at his right where Ryouma had been, then Kakashi’s unmoving bulk under a mattress-thick layer of blankets, and another conspicuously empty pillow. Katsuko’s disconnected IV set hung from a kunai next to Genma’s and Kakashi’s depleted bags, but its owner was nowhere to be seen.

A quick chakra sweep found Katsuko and Ryouma’s ANBU sparks close by—probably in the kitchen. Raidou twitched awake at Genma’s left, rolling towards him with an inelegant, “Wasgh?”

“S’okay, you can go back to sleep,” Genma said. “I’m just getting up a sec.” Though how he was going to do that without help was a problem he hadn’t thought through.

Raidou pre-empted the question by ignoring Genma’s reassurance entirely. He shucked the blankets off of both of them, and sat up wild-haired and only half awake to put a restraining hand on Genma’s elbow. “What’re you cutting open now?”

“I’m not,” Genma said. “No more self-surgery, promise. I just need to loosen my bandages a little, and hang fresh fluids. I figured I’d go see what Ueno and Tousaki are up to since I was awake, and check on our prisoner.”

“Oh,” Raidou said blankly. He let go of Genma’s arm to scrub a hand over his face and through his hair, evidently trying to push consciousness into himself by force of will, then shook his head, blinked, and frowned at the empty bed-spaces. “I’ll help,” he said through a yawn. Bandaged shoulders tightened and rolled with an abbreviated stretch. “Hatake still breathing?”

“As far as I can tell,” Genma said. He levered himself over into Ryouma’s vacated space, hissing at the hurt. Raidou braced him up when he swayed, and waited without comment for Genma to find his equilibrium.

Kakashi’s skin was cool, but not the icy chill it had been. And his breathing was slow and even. His chakra still felt staticy and rough, like the scales of a lizard rubbed against the grain, but at least the current was holding steady and level. The senbon were still in place, holding Kakashi’s chakra back like retaining walls around a leaking oil tank.

“He’s in decent shape, all things considered,” Genma said. “Chakra’s low but holding steady, and he’s warmer. The more he sleeps, the better, for now.” He tucked the blankets back around Kakashi as closely as he could, then turned towards Raidou. “How are you doing?”

“Better than him,” said Raidou. He crawled off the end of platform of bedrolls and got stiffly to his feet—it looked like his painkillers had worn off, too, judging by the way he moved—then offered his bandage-swathed hands to help Genma up. In the half-light spilling in from the hall, he looked beaten hollow and oddly frail for such a muscular man—a study in injuries and exhaustion. “You?”

“Better than him,” Genma agreed. He disconnected his empty IV bag, leaving it hanging from its kunai holder, worked his way to the foot of the communal bed, and sat for a second gathering breath and conviction before he let Raidou help him stand.

Even with the captain to hang on to, the world swirled dangerously dark and vertiginous for a moment. “Blood loss’s a bitch,” Genma said dryly. He swallowed, got a grip on himself, and opened his eyes to give Raidou a weak smile. “I’m good now.”

“Yeah, and I’m a drag queen in my spare time,” Raidou deadpanned.

“Bet you’d look good in the right dress,” Genma said.

Raidou’s eyebrows twitched towards an expression Genma had only seen him use on Katsuko.

“I didn’t say that,” Genma started. “Boundaries. Morphine. Pain. Not at my best…” He waved a hand in a vague gesture.

“You’ll never see the pictures,” Raidou said, with a bland confidence that implied there were pictures somewhere. And that he didn’t mind their existence.

There were so many directions to go with that idea, Genma’s thought process came to a confused halt.

Raidou made an amused sound and reconfigured the way he was bracing Genma up so they could shuffle down the hall side by side, and Genma wouldn’t eat dirt with a wrong step. “Where first, prisoner or kids?”

“Think they’re together. Ish.” Genma said, forcing his attention away from vague images of Raidou in red taffeta. “Toilet first, though.” He shuffled forward a step and tried not to put too much weight on Raidou’s bandaged shoulders.

When they got to the door, Raidou summoned over one of Katsuko’s clones and instructed it to keep an eye on Kakashi. He got Genma as far as the bathroom, waited just outside when Genma proved he could manage a few hobbling steps on his own, and resumed his role as human crutch to get them down to the kitchen when Genma re-emerged. They stopped again at the prisoner’s barred cell, where one of Katsuko’s clones was standing guard.

Fukuda looked ill, face drawn and sheened in sweat. She didn’t react to their arrival.

“Did Tousaki hang that new IV?” Genma asked.

“Yeah,” the clone answered, standing up from its crouch to offer a second shoulder to lean on. “Gave her water, too.”

“Any meds?” Genma asked it.

“Fever stuff,” it said. “And he rebandaged her.”

Genma nodded. “Get my med kit,” he told the clone, “and Tousaki.”

Raidou gave him a questioning look.

“She looks septic,” he said. “I don’t know how Tousaki’s jutsu works. If my amputation wasn’t clean, and she’s got rot spreading under those bandages…”

He didn’t need to finish the sentence for Raidou to get the full import. “No jutsu,” he said. “I’d rather have her dead than you drained.”

It was the obvious choice to make faced with injured teammates and a prisoner of only medium value, with help likely twenty-four hours away at best, but Genma still found it oddly warming to hear Raidou say it. “No jutsu,” he agreed. “I’ll try to keep her stable, but she’s bottom of the list.”

Ryouma ducked through the door from the kitchen with Katsuko close at his heels. He frowned, crossing tense arms over his chest and gave Genma a narrow-eyed look. “Lieutenant. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

Genma blinked, caught off guard and amused. “Yes,” he said. “My leg was killing me and I needed to use the toilet, so I thought I’d check on her while I was up. What’s your excuse?”

Ryouma hesitated for a second, then jerked his head at the cell. “Clone woke me up. She was feverish. We were going to let you sleep.”

There seemed to be something Ryouma wasn’t saying, but Genma wasn’t operating at the top of his game, and he couldn’t puzzle it out. Raidou unlocked the cell door and helped Genma get into an awkward one-legged crouch on the floor next to his patient.

A quick exam was reassuring on several counts. Her chakra was steady, her pulse strong and even, and her fever not nearly the crisis he’d feared. Ryouma passed over Genma’s med kit when he asked for it. “She’s not septic after all,” Genma judged. “Tousaki, if I missed an edge of rot from your jutsu when I did the amputation, would that account for the fever?”

“If you missed an edge of rot, she’d be missing her shoulder and half her chest by now,” Ryouma said, with dry finality. He leaned against the wall, arms still folded, keeping his distance from the cell but watching the prisoner like a viper. “I got some water and four of those pills for fever into her, maybe half an hour ago. She was lucid then.” Before Genma could respond, Ryouma’s tone sharpened into derision. “You’re not fooling anybody, Kiri.”

The woman’s eyes pressed briefly tighter, but she gave no other sign of engaging.

“That’s fine, you keep faking. If I were in your shoes, I’d pretend I was unconscious, too,” Genma told her. She maintained her façade. He looked up at Ryouma. “You give her another hit of morphine, too?”

Ryouma shook his head. “Didn’t know the dosage, or what she’d had already. Lanced some localized infection on the wound, though, and smeared some of that antibiotic ointment on.” His gaze locked onto the clean, bandaged stump. “Doesn’t look like it’s leaked through.”

Genma inspected it, too, and found the wound clean and the bandages dry. He dug a vial of strong antibiotics out of his kit and piggybacked it onto the IV keeping the prisoner hydrated. Then he counted remaining morphine syrettes, grimacing at the number they’d gone through already. But pain could kill, too. He injected her, clipped the spent syrette to her collar, and signalled Raidou to help him back up and out of the cell. “You did a good job,” he told Ryouma. “I should let you do my bandages next.”

Ryouma tugged his eyes away from Fukuda with a start, like he hadn’t quite realized Genma was speaking to him. “Wha—? Oh. Thanks.” His cheeks and the tops of his ears darkened faintly, and he glanced guiltily down at Genma’s swollen leg. “D’you need help now?”

“Yeah,” Genma said. “This one’s too tight and probably pretty bloody. Good thing the bunker had medical supplies, given the rate we’re going through gauze.”

“You mean you didn’t pack half Konoha hospital in that medkit of yours?” Ryouma said. He might have been trying for light-hearted, but it came out a little strained.

“I did, but we used it already,” Genma told him. He grimaced at his own neglect as Ryouma helped him to his feet and out of the cell; he’d meant to check in on his unsettled rookie on the way back from Ibaragashi—the mission had clearly shaken Ryouma—but the encounter with the Mist team had shattered that plan, and he’d never picked up the pieces.

Maybe there would be a moment soon, once the rest of the team was back in bed.

raidou 3Maybe Genma had been serious about making Ryouma a medic.

Raidou had exactly zero problems with that idea. They needed all the help they could get.

While Ryouma helped Genma limp painfully back to the bunkroom, shepherded by a brace of Katsuko’s clones, Raidou’s eyes fell on Fukuda’s back. The ridge of her spine pressed up against her shirt, outlined by sweat. Every hoarse breath made her ribs flex like a valley of sticks.

She’d have killed us, Ryouma had said. Why the hell are you helping her now?

And yet he’d been out here first, patching her up. Guilty conscience? Or a renewed determination to toe the line and follow orders after last night’s not-quite-breakdown.

A hot shiver of chakra made Raidou’s skin prickle. He looked sideways. Katsuko had moved to his elbow, good arm crossed over her chest and tucked into her sling as she regarded the cell. Her gaze on the prisoner held no particular emotion—no anger for an enemy or sympathy for a wounded combatant. It was just steady: one professional sizing up another.

“She’s a resource drain,” Katsuko said at last.

Time, chakra, meds, and bandages so far. Plus some frayed tempers.

“Yep,” Raidou agreed.

“And a danger,” Katsuko said.

“She is,” Raidou said.

Katsuko flicked a sideways glance at him, partly shrouded by the hair spilling across her face. For a moment, he thought she might say the unspoken thought: You’re crazy for adding enemy bullshit to an injured, unsteady team. We’re too fried to deal with this.

Her chin dipped once. “I can put a bow on her if you like. Y’know, for Intel.”

Raidou swallowed the punch-drunk urge to laugh. Or perhaps it was relief. Even with his knuckle-print bruising her breastbone, she still trusted him. “The last treaty had specific rules about the treatment of prisoners. Pretty sure cruel and unusual methods got a mention in there somewhere.”

“I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“Noted,” he said, and leaned against her, very carefully, just for a moment. She leaned back, warm against his side.

From the bunkroom, Genma said distinctly, “Buddha’s motherfu— Ow.”

“Sorry!” Ryouma said, sounding stressed, and there was the metallic clatter of some doubtlessly important piece of medical equipment hitting the ground. Bandage shears, if Raidou had to guess.

Not quite a medic yet.

“Better rescue them,” he said, and glanced quickly at his hands, which were still flecked with Genma’s dried blood from last night’s exploding leg drama. “I need to scrub up. Can you lend Ram a hand?”

Katsuko lifted her right hand, still injury-free, and wriggled her fingers. “Still got one spare,” she said, and went to Ryouma’s—or, more accurately, Genma’s—aid.

Raidou glanced one last time at Fukuda’s back and thought, But for the grace of God. One moment of slipped control, one teammate gone rogue, and she was every captain’s worst nightmare. Captured, crippled, team slaughtered. You couldn’t fail worse.

If she hadn’t tried to massacre half of his team, he’d almost feel bad for her.

He left her under the watchful eye of one of Katsuko’s remaining clones—they were down to less than seven now—and made tracks for the bathroom. The soap smelled oddly sweet, but it got the blood off. He splashed cold water over his face, clearing mental cobwebs, and eyed the cracked mirror. The ragged bastard staring back looked like he badly needed a shave and a nap, but at least he was clear-eyed.

If he made it to the end of the mission without another blackout, maybe he’d stop worrying.

Okay, no, but maybe he’d worry less.

When he returned to the bunkroom, Genma was sitting with his back braced against the bed-platform, surrounded by a tiny hurricane of old, bloodied bandages. It looked like he’d taken a moment to give himself a fresh IV. Up on the platform, Kakashi had one, too. Ryouma was kneeling at Genma’s side, holding antiseptic, gauze, and an expression of faint trauma. Katsuko was on the other side, bending over to study Genma’s injured thigh curiously. The wound was ugly—curving and ragged where the original blade had laid the flesh open, neater where Genma had taken a scalpel to himself. Half the thigh was bruised black and purple, but the stretched, shiny look of intense swelling was gone. Clotted scabs intermingled with black stitches, and a few disturbed spots bled sluggishly. Overall, it was an improvement on last night.

Katsuko had a pair of bandage shears tucked behind one ear.

Quietly, Raidou leaned against the doorframe and watched as, under Genma’s instruction, Ryouma finished cleaning the injury and moved on to re-bandaging. Katsuko handed across supplies when asked, and kept up a patter of cheerful, random commentary that alternately baffled the lieutenant and seemed to help keep Ryouma grounded.

When the leg was bound up in clean, white bandages and the last knot tied, Genma sighed relief. “Good job.”

“We try our best,” Katsuko said, sweeping unused supplies back together.

Ryouma sat back on his heels, bracing his hands on his knees. “If you sit still now and stop walking on it, maybe someday you’ll be able to brag to everyone that you got Tousaki Ryouma’s first bandage-job.”

The look Genma gave him was impressively bland. “Snarky, dictatorial, and insubordinate: you’re a natural medic.” He patted Ryouma once on the shoulder tiredly, but also, if Raidou was any judge, with legitimate pride. “I knew you had it in you.”

Ryouma’s face brightened, like it always did when someone complimented him, and the tips of his ears went faintly pink. “Quick learner,” he said, trying for casual. “Anything else before we pull your pants back up?”

Katsuko snickered quietly.

Genma glanced at her, eyebrows creased, and then back at Ryouma. He actually seemed a little embarrassed. “Boundaries still apply, Tousaki.”

That was as good a cue as any. Raidou cleared his throat.

Katsuko and Ryouma twitched like a live current had been applied. Ryouma glanced guiltily over his shoulder, and Katsuko busied herself more intensely with tidying.

Terror in the ranks. That was gratifying.

“Perhaps bedside manners can be the next lesson,” Raidou said. “All done?”

Ryouma visibly swallowed his first answer, ducking his head instead. “Yes, taichou.”

“All set, taichou,” Katsuko said, more breezily, and patted Ryouma on the shoulder. “We have an excellent new bandage minion.”

“I see that,” Raidou said. “Seems like you make a decent scrub-nurse, too.”

She grinned at him, reboundable as always. “The scrubbiest.”

“We’re finished except for the clean up,” Genma said, meeting Raidou’s eyes over Ryouma’s head. “Please tell me we’re done with medical emergencies for the moment.”

“I know I’ve met my quota,” Raidou said. “You guys want breakfast?”

Yes, breakfast,” Katsuko said.

Genma glanced at the empty space on his wrist where his watch would have been, if he hadn’t spent half the last day wrist-deep in bleeding people. He pulled a face. “My sense of time is off. Is it breakfast time? Food’d be good.”

“It’s about three A.M.,” Raidou said. He still had a watch. “We’ve been here just shy of a day.”

Genma blinked. “Really?”

Raidou smiled, wry. “Guess we needed the sleep.”

And then some.

Ryouma gathered the used bandages and stood, glancing sidelong at Raidou. “You cooking?”

Raidou had threatened to make Ryouma run cooking detail for breakfast and lunch, but looking at the slight shake in Ryouma’s hands, and the tension underlining that angular face, Raidou was more inclined to make him sit still and quiet until he got the ground back under his feet.

“Might as well, since I’m up,” Raidou said. “Any requests?”

“I’ll eat whatever,” Katsuko said, to the surprise of no one.

“I suppose it’s too much to ask for eggs and good coffee,” Genma said, with a wistful sigh. “What have we got besides rice and war rations?”

“There was a lot of stuff in cans,” Ryouma said, closing his eyes as he listed off: “Mackerel, sausages, pickled vegetables, satsumas. Foil mystery meal packets. Miso and umeboshi, dried sweet potato.” He opened his eyes and looked hopeful. “Sake.”

Katsuko’s head came up.

“Nice try,” Raidou said. “Sake’s for cooking and emergency antiseptic. Fledgling alcoholism can wait for the next mission.”

Genma’s second sigh was even more wistful. “It’s probably not the good stuff, anyway.”

“It’s okay, lieutenant,” Katsuko said reassuringly. “He promised next mission.”

Raidou gave up, amused despite himself, and said, “You’re all getting mystery foil breakfast.” He took the bandages from Ryouma, and the remaining medical supplies from Katsuko. “Help the lieutenant back into bed, since you’re so dead-set against him walking. And someone see if Hatake can wake up for food.”

By Raidou’s count, it’d been about ten hours since that protein shake, and that was the only thing Kakashi had managed to eat.

Ryouma began stiffly, “I’m not just—” Then clearly realized Raidou had been teasing. His shoulders came down a little, and he said, “Read the labels on the packets before you dump ‘em together, taichou.” With that last word, he leaned down to help Genma stand up.

Clearly the better choice to keep him around people, instead of segregated alone in the kitchen.

On Genma’s other side, Katsuko hovered close, hand extended and steadying. When they’d gotten the lieutenant back on the platform and installed back under the covers, she cast a thoughtful eye Kakashi’s way.

Raidou privately wished the unconscious man luck, and left to attend to food.

ryouma 1Kakashi wasn’t easy to rouse. Katsuko tried shaking his shoulder gently, poked him a few times, and then evidently gave up and settled down cross-legged next to his head to tie his hair into little tiny one-handed pigtails. Genma made a few noises about how he ought to object, as a conscientious lieutenant, but then he remembered there were rubber bands in his med-kit. Katsuko scrambled gleefully to acquire them.

Ryouma leaned against the wall and wished for a camera.

The fitful sodium light felt warmer, somehow. It still cast the wrong shadows, caught out the wrong colors; everything looked yellow-washed, Kakashi’s hair as bright as gilt. Katsuko had begun to hum as she wrapped rubber bands around the little tufts at the crown of his skull. Ryouma didn’t recognize the song. He wondered if she’d sing it, if he asked.

Then Katsuko snapped a rubber band on her thumb and broke off humming to swear loudly and indignantly, and Kakashi woke up.

He blinked, once. Then he put a hand up, tethered by the IV line, and felt at his skull. Sleep slurred his voice. “What… is happening to my head?”

“Art,” Katsuko said soothingly, patting her little row of spiky pigtails. “Art is happening. Sssh. Go back to sleep, my little umeboshi.”

“Actually, don’t go back to sleep.” Genma reached over to touch Kakashi’s arm. “You need to eat before you sleep again.” He gave Katsuko a wry smile. “We were waking him up on purpose, remember?”

“He could have waited a little longer,” Katsuko said, eyeing Kakashi’s hair in judgmental disappointment. “I was nearly done with this section. Now he’ll be lopsided.”

Kakashi said blankly, “Everyone is touching me.”

“Says the guy who snuggles in his sleep,” Ryouma said, and was briefly rewarded with Genma’s bemused brow-lift and Katsuko’s fierce grin of delight. He pushed away from the wall and added, “Taichou’s making breakfast. He says it’s been almost a day. D’you need anything first?”

Kakashi dropped his hand and stared at the ceiling. He blinked again. Then he announced, “I need to pee,” and tried to get up.

He made it almost halfway vertical before he pitched sideways, nearly into Katsuko’s lap. She caught him with her good arm. Her mouth tightened into a thin white line as the movement jarred her collarbone, and her eyes pinched at the corners, but she made no sound.

Genma grabbed for Kakashi’s arm again. He didn’t quite have the leverage to pull him off, but Ryouma was only two strides away. Genma reached for Katsuko, instead, when Ryouma detached Kakashi’s IV and hauled him out from between them.

“…Ow,” Katsuko said, after a considering silence.

Ryouma could have shaken Kakashi, but Kakashi was grey around the eyes, too, slumped heavily against him and breathing hard. Genma shot them a quick, hard look, and then hitched himself up to put a steadying arm around Katsuko. “You’re probably about due for new painkillers. Is it just the shoulder?”

“Yeah,” Katsuko said. She was holding very still, breathing slow and shallow. “He just jarred it. I’ll be fine.”

“You lie down, too,” Ryouma told her. “Both of you. I’ll get you painkillers in a minute.” He waited, bracing Kakashi, until she eased carefully down onto her back.

Kakashi rasped, “Sorry.”

Katsuko tipped her chin up onto her chest, and gave him a crafty look. “Make it up to me by keeping the pigtails in.”

Kakashi tried lifting his hand to his head again.

“C’mon,” Ryouma said, mercilessly. “You can look at yourself in the mirror.” He hauled Kakashi off, out of the bunkroom and down the hall to the toilet.

It was slower and harder than when Raidou’d been there to help, and his shoulders burned by the time they reached the bathroom, ugly reminder that he’d hauled a much less conscious Kakashi much further only twenty-four hours ago. He steadied Kakashi through the indignities of relief, and then propped Kakashi up against the narrow metal sink and waited for the reflection in the cracked mirror to register.

Kakashi stared at himself for a long moment, eye slitting narrow and then slowly widening. He turned his head, brows drawing down again, and poked at one of the pigtails. “It is uneven.”

“She only had one hand to work with,” Ryouma said. “It was slow going.” Probably better not to mention that Genma had lent a hand once or twice, too. He scraped the thin bar of lavender-gray soap off the edge of the sink and held it out. “Want to wash up?”

Kakashi took the soap, leaned his hips into the sink, and began slowly and meticulously to wash his hands. A distant, unreadable look darkened his eye as he scrubbed out the half-moons of reddish grime under his nails, and he lathered the soap up three times for his right hand alone. His skin was pink with scrubbing and beginning to wrinkle when he finally rinsed off the sliver of soap that was left. He set it down on the sink edge again, careful not to let it slip, and said thoughtfully, “It’s nice. Still smells like a lady’s bedroom, though.”

Ryouma lifted his brows. “Which you know, because you’ve been invited into so many ladies’ bedrooms.”

“Kushina liked perfume,” Kakashi said, and then shut his teeth with a click, as if he’d just realized he’d said that aloud.

“Kushina?” Ryouma said, blankly. “D’you mean—”

He stopped. There was only one Kushina the village knew well enough to call by name. Uzumaki Kushina-sama, the last jinchuuriki, the woman who’d hosted the Nine-tailed Fox and then died sealing it to save them all.

She’d been the Hokage’s wife, too. And the Hokage had been Kakashi’s sensei. No wonder Kakashi’d known her.

Mockery shriveled away. Ryouma cleared his throat and grabbed a towel. “Here. Dry off.”

They hobbled back to the bunkroom in silence.

Genma and Katsuko were still immobile under the covers, though Genma’s blankets looked messier than they had been, and the medkit lay suspiciously open again at the foot of the platform bed. He’d gone for the painkillers after all, and probably strained his leg again doing it. Maybe they should try shackles next.

At least Katsuko was breathing easier, though. She propped herself up on her good elbow and demanded, “What’d he say? What was his face like?” She eyed Kakashi’s bandage-mask and amended, “What was his eye like?”

“You’re going to fix this,” Kakashi informed her. “If you start something, you have to do it right.”

“Pretty much like that,” Ryouma said. “His head’s lopsided and his feelings are hurt. Here, you can have him.”

He helped ease Kakashi down onto the platform again. Katsuko scootched very carefully over, cradling her sling-bound elbow against her chest. She still had the tiny plastic baggie of rubber bands. “No take-backs,” she told Kakashi. “Next time I’ll give you braids.”

“He’d have to grow it longer, first,” Genma said, struggling stiffly up to help reinstall Kakashi between them. “Right now you’d only be able to make tufts.”

“But they’re going to be the cutest tufts in the world,” Katsuko said serenely, and attacked Kakashi’s hair with her good hand and her rubber bands. Kakashi lay still, curled a little on his side, breathing between his teeth.

Painkillers, right.

There were less than half a dozen morphine syrettes left in Genma’s medkit. Ryouma hesitated over them. “Should we be rationing?”

“We’ll have to,” Genma said, quietly.

Ryouma looked up. Genma was still sitting up, braced against the packed dirt wall, plucking lint off the thick woolen blankets. He met Ryouma’s eyes. “Priority is keeping Hatake and Ueno as comfortable as possible, since he’s in the worst shape and she’s closest to functional after you and taichou. Give him a 5 mg dose for now. It takes less drug to keep pain at a low level than to manage it if it gets high.”

“Better to stay high than get high,” Kakashi said, and laughed softly at himself.

“We’re never taking you to Grass Country,” Ryouma told him.

Genma huffed. Katsuko said soothingly, “Don’t listen to Ryouma. You can go anywhere you want, as long as you keep your pigtails in.” She tugged one, gently. Kakashi tipped his head back against her hand and closed his eye.

Ryouma thought, uneasily, of the last time Kakashi’d woken; the warm weight of his head on Ryouma’s shoulder, the roughness of his hair under Ryouma’s hand. The way he’d melted, boneless and trusting, when they stroked his hair.

It’d felt—right, then, when Ryouma was half-asleep himself, when it was just the three of them and Kakashi wouldn’t remember it anyway in the morning. They’d been looking after him, keeping him still and safe. It was only for a little while.

They’d made it through the dark hours, the hurting hours, when even a sober man could reach out for comfort without shame. There was no reason for it to be like that now.

And nothing for him to do but get on with things.

He held the syrette up to the light, judging half a dose. Like squeezing a tube of toothpaste, only there was very little difference between half the tube and the full 10 ml. How the hell were you supposed to get an accurate dose with this?

Maybe you learned that it in medic training. Or maybe everyone else just guessed, too.

Ryouma pinched the cap off, drew back the blanket to expose Kakashi’s bare, bandaged thigh, and slid the needle in. He squeezed the tube carefully, until it seemed about half-full, then pulled the syrette out and tugged the blanket down again. “What should I do with the rest?” The needle was still exposed; he couldn’t clip it to Kakashi’s dogtag chain.

“Label it for Hatake,” Genma said, and yawned. “He can have the rest at his next dose.”

Ryouma waited. Genma yawned again and tilted his head back against the wall, eyes sliding briefly closed.

“I’ll find a pen,” Ryouma said, finally. He headed for the door.

Genma’s head jerked up, guiltily. “Wait, I can do it. Sorry, there’s a pen in my kit.” He shifted, as if he meant to get up, and hissed in pain.

“Don’t move,” Ryouma snapped. “I know the kana.”

He could feel their eyes on him, and his ears burned.

He found Genma’s armor and gear in a tidy heap next to Katsuko’s, found the pen—no longer than his index finger, and paired with an equally tiny writing brush, a vial of ink, and three blank scrolls—and then hunched down against the wall, squinting in the dim yellow light.

Ka, ka. That was easy enough. One vertical line, another crossing it at right angles, then hooking sharply down. Shi was two horizontal lines and then a third, swooping below. The crinkled tube of the syrette didn’t take the ink well, but the markings were at least visible.

Probably he could just have scribbled a black mark, and it would’ve done as well.

He stuffed the pen and the syrette back in their respective kits. “Three cheers for literacy,” he muttered, and cleared his throat. “Anything else?”

Kakashi lifted his head up. He had two new pigtails over his left ear. “Wind Country veil dance,” he said, almost cheerfully. “You never did one yesterday.”

That morphine must have kicked in quick.

Ryouma considered him, and Katsuko, and the lieutenant’s faint, lingering flush. Maybe Ryouma wasn’t the only one embarrassed. Maybe they were all looking forward to pretending the last two minutes hadn’t happened.

“Sure,” he said, and reached for the hem of his shirt.

raidou 9A half-second later, Raidou paused in the doorway.

He’d been gone ten minutes. And returned, breakfast in hand, to raise his eyebrows at the rapidly-getting-naked expanse of brown, muscled back as, once again, Ryouma’s shirt vanished. A dark, complicated tattoo rippled between his shoulderblades; two lancing tribal wings surrounding a black flame. Raidou had forgotten that.

On the bed-platform, Katsuko and Kakashi stared at the show, enraptured. Only Genma’s eyes flickered, clocking Raidou.

Ryouma went very still, shirt dripping from his hand. “Taichou’s right behind me, isn’t he?”

“With so many questions,” Raidou said.

“It’s boosting morale, taichou,” Ryouma said, still not moving. The backs of his ears were starting to redden.

“Oh, I see,” Raidou said, and considered exactly how much he was supposed to yell. A lot, under other circumstances. But today there was mostly terrible amusement bubbling up, and perhaps a twist of relief that Ryouma was feeling better enough to decide a strip-tease was the way to go for team bonding.

Of course, that didn’t explain why Genma had let him.

“Is it working?” Raidou asked, looking at the lieutenant.

Genma sounded like his usual implacable self, except for a faint, telltale crack in his voice. “For a given value of working.”

Ryouma’s naked chest did tend to have that effect.

But since the lieutenant had only revealed the disinterested, professional libido of a brick up until now, Raidou still marked that down as an interesting factoid. Genma liked men, at least a little.

Genma cleared his throat. “I’m sure the captain’s thinking what I was just about to say. Time and a place, Tousaki.”

Wrestling back into his shirt, Ryouma muttered something that sounded a lot like, You weren’t about to say it until taichou showed up…, just loud enough for Raidou to hear. Raidou freed a hand from the breakfast stewpot and smacked Ryouma upside the head, not too hard.

“Less backtalk, more dishes fetching,” he said. “Since you’re in a serving mood.”

Ryouma rubbed the back of his head and said, very stiffly, “Taichou.” But he obeyed and left.

On the bed-platform, Genma looked sheepish, concerned, and tired. “Sorry about that, taichou.”

“No harm done,” Raidou said. He lugged the steaming stewpot over to the platform and set it down on a bare patch of earth, where it wouldn’t burn anyone or catch the bedcovers on fire. “Did I miss anything else exciting?”

Like, for example, the stylistic tornado that had happened to Kakashi’s hair. Raidou blinked at him.

“Hatake managed a walk to the bathroom with Tousaki’s help. And we topped off his meds.” Genma said. “The hair was Ueno’s contribution.”

“It’s art,” Katsuko said. She ran her good hand lightly over the banded tufts that covered three-quarters of Kakashi’s head.

“It’s something,” Raidou agreed. “Doing okay, Hatake?”

Kakashi regarded him with a distinctly anesthetized look. The pupil of his visible eye was tiny. “Heeey, captain,” he said. “You hit Tousaki.”

“I did,” Raidou said.

“I don’t have a shirt on, either,” Kakashi said.

It was hard to tell whether that was commentary or actual concern, but what Raidou could see of Kakashi beneath rumpled blankets was still just bandages and underwear. They really did need to get the kid back into actual clothes.

“You have a doctor’s note,” Raidou said, more gently. “Gets you a free pass. Think you can manage breakfast?”

“Smells like miso fish,” Kakashi said, which wasn’t exactly an answer. He swung his head around to look at Katsuko. “Y’should eat,” he told her seriously. “You smell hollow.”

“I smell what?” Katsuko said blankly.

“Hollow,” Kakashi said. “Too much chakra, not enough fuel. S’making you thin inside.”

“That’s how it is all the time, though,” Katsuko said, still moving her hand carefully over Kakashi’s ridiculous hair. She gave him a closer look. “Are you worried about me?”

Unconvincingly, Kakashi said, “No.”

“Uh huh,” Katsuko said. “Of course you aren’t, petal. Will you eat if I eat?”

Kakashi sighed. “Okay.”

Katsuko had apparently picked up Hatake-handling as a skill when Raidou wasn’t looking, which made one of them. Maybe two, if you counted Ryouma, though Raidou was less sure about that. It was a general trend he approved of, though the true test would probably come when Kakashi was sober again.

Ryouma returned with a ragged collection of tin bowls and spoons, and a touch more flex in his mood. The kitchen break had given his ears a chance to cool down. He helped dish out five bowls of the stew, which contained Raidou’s best dawn effort at something tasty and quasi-healthy, and handed them out. Rice, mackerel, miso, and mushrooms were prominent features. A little shuffling on the bed-platform allowed Raidou and Ryouma to retake their places, though they changed the seating order to more of a rough, communal circle. Kakashi remained bracketed between Katsuko and Ryouma, who helped brace him up; Raidou sat between Katsuko and Genma, and Ryouma staked himself a safe place on Genma’s other side, protected from any more captainly head-slapping.

Raidou, Katsuko, and Ryouma managed to sit cross-legged, with varying degrees of stiffness. Genma leaned his back against the wall, beneath the shadow of his hanging IV line, with his bad leg still extended. Kakashi slouched in a manner that suggested his skeleton might actually be hinged, but his stew vanished slowly and steadily, and his face never quite revealed itself, so he was feeling at least a little better.

Katsuko ate four bowls.

Partway through his second, Raidou checked his watch. “If luck holds, we’ve probably got another day before a team shows up. More likely two.”

genma 5Genma glanced at his med-kit, counting stocks in his head. If he could keep Kakashi and Katsuko on five cc doses of morphine every four hours—and the prisoner, damn her—and he he kept himself together with NSAIDs and willpower, and Raidou and Ryouma didn’t suddenly develop late-blooming crippling pain… He had enough doses for about twelve hours.


He held his empty bowl out and let Raidou ladle more stew in. “Do you remember if the med stocks here included any morphine?” he asked, keeping his voice casual. “And did any of you happen to sign any out for your med kits for this mission?” A non-medic ANBU could carry a single syrette on a mission as long as they returned it either unused or with a documented injury that had required it. Captains could carry up to three, with the same sign-out-and-document rules.

“Kakashi prepped our kits,” Ryouma said, waving his empty spoon in the direction of their stockpiled gear in the far corner of the room. “I can check—”

“S’got morphine,” Kakashi said. “Everyone’s got morphine. Who forgets morphine on a mission?” In any other circumstances, the judgmental superiority in Kakashi’s voice would have grated, but just now Genma found it encouraging: Kakashi sounded almostnormal.

Katsuko was too busy scouring the bottom of her bowl like a starving wolverine to look up, but she made an agreeing noise.

“Did you sign out one unit or three for taichou?” Genma asked.

“Three,” Kakashi said. He leaned the un-tufted side of his head against Ryouma’s shoulder in a gesture that was probably nine-tenths weariness, but at least a little bit fond. Before Genma could get over his shock, Kakashi added, “But I stole an extra, because the captain likes to block things with his face.”

Raidou choked on his stew. “You stole—

“It was poorly guarded,” Kakashi said, as if that were unimpeachable justification.

Genma winced. “Who was on duty when you signed out meds?” he asked. “Do you have any idea how much trouble they’re probably in for their counts being off?” He put his own stew bowl down and went to rub his face, but broken nose and bandages and pain and dammit…

Kakashi raised his head from Ryouma’s shoulder. “But we need it,” he said simply.

“I know,” Genma said, groaning. “I could kiss you. Or kill you. I don’t know which.” He looked up at Raidou and found the same mix of horror and relief on his captain’s face. Seventy more ccs of morphine would get them all the way to rescue. Probably.

And Kakashi, and by extension Team Six, were going to be in so much trouble over that missing syrette, once they’d gotten the clerk in the medic’s office who’d ‘lost’ the syrette off the hook.

But still, with the 120 ccs of morphine for three patients, and a medical jutsu or two to keep everyone’s pain at bay and speed healing, they were probably safe. That was, all things considered, a profound relief,

“Does this mean I’m off medkit-stocking duty?” Kakashi asked.

Raidou sank his face into his hands, muttering something that sounded like make him run laps for years.

“We could put him in a drug rehab program when we get home,” Ryouma offered. “Like the ones they have for soldier pill addicts. He stole morphine, he’s spent half this mission high…” He offered his shoulder to Kakashi, who leaned against it again.

“Do they let you bring books?” Kakashi asked interestedly.

“Only books on how to properly stock med kits, observe protocol, and follow orders,” Genma said. “And no, you’re not off med-kit stocking duty. You’re on it forever.” He picked up his bowl and made an attempt at his second helping of stew. “You didn’t really think that was going to work, did you?”

“I just thought we’d need it,” Kakashi said, sounding less snarky and a good deal more genuine than he’d probably intended to let on.

He worries about us, Genma thought. And wasn’t that surprising, in the rookie who’d done his best since day one to convey how little he wanted to be a part of Team Six. And then hauled Genma’s poisoned ass out of a mountain, wracked himself with guilt over failing to kill the demon queen, and sat up all night at Ryouma’s side. And tried to take on Iebara by himself, to keep his teammates out of harm’s way.

It made it damn hard to stay pissed off at the guy.

“Actually, what I meant was, doing it wrong to get out of a chore never works,” Genma said, bluffing his way out of too many thoughts. “When I was nine I tried to get out of making icing roses for my dad’s shop by doing some really shitty ones on a wedding cake order. Guess who makes the best icing roses in Konoha now?”

I see what you’re doing, the grey ice in Kakashi’s visible eye said, and I am playing along. “Is it you?”

Genma waited just long enough for Ryouma and Katsuko to look up. “Actually, it’s still my dad. But I’m second best.”

Amusement flickered briefly in Katsuko’s eyes, before she returned to demolishing her—fifth? sixth?—bowl of stew with the single-minded intensity usually reserved for surgery or licensing exams.

Ryouma’s eyes narrowed. “I expect cake,” he said, with an inflection usually reserved for much direr demands, “when we get back to Konoha.”

“I want an icing rose,” Kakashi said. His eye had gone unfocused and his expression relaxed as he rested against Ryouma’s side. ‘Meds, fed, bed’—the wounded soldier’s triple cure was starting to work.

“I want the last ten minutes of conversation to have been a fever dream,” Raidou said, almost as wistfully.

Katsuko punctuated the moment with a loud belch. She looked at her bowl with a contemplative expression, probably trying to decide whether she desperately needed another bowl of stew, or if eating more would in fact make her stomach explode and kill her.

“Can you take a deep breath, Ueno?” Genma asked her.

“Maybe,” Katsuko said, after a moment of thought and a couple of abortive experiments. “But that would make my lungs expand and leave less room for food.”

“Then you should probably digest what you’ve eaten already, before you eat more,” Genma said. “You’ll be sad if you make yourself vomit with your shoulder broken.”

Katsuko nodded. “Good idea,” she said, and set her bowl down. She regarded the others with an evaluating expression, eyes ticking over bed-hair, bandages, and bruises. “So. Besides discussing drug theft, how are all of us going to last two days underground without killing each other?”

“The thieved drugs will probably help,” Genma said. “Much as I hate to admit it. But I’m sure we’ve all spent time in foxholes, right? I’ve got cards. And there’s the sake someone stocked this place with. We could play drinking games.”

Raidou gave him a sharp look.

“Or not. Since sake’s for cooking and antiseptic use only.” Genma thought for a moment. “We could play drinking games without the alcohol.”

Ryouma brightened up. “Like Thumper? Or Never Have I Ever?” He wrinkled his nose. “Most of the others aren’t much fun without the drinks.”

“Or Two Truths and a Lie, yeah,” Genma agreed. “We just have to come up with a penalty besides drinking for getting it wrong. When I was at the Yowaru Dam station we played for the good flavors of rat bars.”

Kakashi blinked one slow, baffled eye. “What language are you speaking?” he demanded.

“Foot-soldier-ese,” Genma said. “You probably never learned it, being the Yellow Flash’s student and all when the war was on.”

Kakashi shrugged one loose-jointed shoulder. “He thought I was too young to drink. Jiraiya-san didn’t, though.”

“Jiraiya-sama took you drinking,” Genma said. “Of course he did.” He couldn’t quite figure out why he’d begun to think of Kakashi as being only a little different from the rest of the team. Kakashi was the Hokage’s student and in many ways a member of Yondaime’s family. Of course he’d learned to drink from the legendary Toad Sage. He carried a personally inscribed copy of one of Jiraiya-sama’s first editions, after all.

Genma’d caught a glimpse of the signature on the inside cover of Kakashi’s favorite book one day during training. He supposed it could have been a forgery, or some other note scrawled inside the book for some other reason, but he didn’t think so.

Raidou broke in, rescuing Genma from his own thoughts. “We can play Two Truths and a Lie. The penalty is chores. If you win, choose a victim to hand them off to. No truths that make anyone cry.”

“That works for me,” Genma said, seizing on the line gratefully. “Hatake, you need us to explain it to you?”

The deadpan look Kakashi gave him was almost entirely at odds with the drugged thickness in Kakashi’s voice. “Do you have to tell two truths and a lie?”

katsuko 4“Even morphine can’t stop your crippling sarcasm,” Katsuko said, giving one of Kakashi’s pigtails an idle flick. “Truly, you are one of Konoha’s finest.”

“That’s one truth,” Kakashi said. “What’s your next one?”

Genma sounded amused. “I sincerely doubt Ueno believes what she just said; that actually could be her lie.”

“We haven’t started playing yet and already people question my integrity,” Katsuko lamented. “At least Tousaki’s on my side. He doesn’t impugn my character.”

Ryouma said cheerfully, “That’s because neither of us have any character to impugn. We are roguish allies. Are you starting us off, then?”

Katsuko would have preferred the sake. Telling the truth made her itch. She shrugged her good shoulder and tried on a grin. “Sure. Whoever guesses right gets to help me finish Hatake’s hair makeover. Losers have to give me one of their rat bars.”

“Only one rat bar from the losers?” Genma asked. “You’re going easy on us, Ueno.”

“I am, occasionally, very nice,” she informed him.

“You just bartered my hair as a prize,” Kakashi observed with mild interest.

Katsuko beamed at him. “Yes.”

Raidou jostled her knee with his. “Play the game first before you start auctioning off your tranquilized teammates.”

“Yes, taichou,” she sighed, and tapped a finger against her lips in thought. “Okay. One: I’ve been drawing since I was five. Two: I know how to negotiate trade treaties. Three: I once dyed my jounin-sensei’s hair pink and convinced him that my teammates had done it.”

Ryouma squinted at her. “I saw your drawing of the demon queen. I’d believe the first one.”

“I think I know the answer, so I’ll sit this round out,” Raidou said. Katsuko pulled a face at him.

Genma looked at her thoughtfully. “I’m pretty sure this is one of those situations where the truth sounds like a lie and the lie sounds true.” Katsuko gave him a face, too. That was the beauty of faces. They could mean anything.

“Who was your sensei?” Kakashi asked. The look in his eye was a bit too alert for a man on that much morphine.

“Miyamoto Hideki. He was a ninjutsu specialist.” She felt the smile tug at her mouth. “He used to string my genin team up in a net and leave when we annoyed him.”

Raidou murmured, “Smart man.”

“Did it work?” Genma asked, with genuine curiosity.

“Maybe,” Katsuko said. Hideki-sensei had been an inscrutable bastard. “I think he was trying to teach us a lesson about teamwork. Or he thought it was funny.”

“It’s good to enjoy your job,” Genma said, sage as a mountain hermit.

Ryouma had been listening with a slight frown. He finally decided, “So the one about dyeing his hair pink is a lie. No way you’d convince him you hadn’t done it.”

“But she can negotiate trade treaties instead?” Kakashi said.

Katsuko batted her lashes at Ryouma. “I might be a better liar than you think,” she said sweetly.

“Skilled lying is probably essential to trade treaties,” Genma allowed.

“Drawing and dyeing are the truth,” Kakashi insisted. “Treaties is the lie.”

“I’ll take that bet,” Ryouma said. “I say the treaties are true, and your sensei was smarter than merchants.”

“What about you, lieutenant?” Katsuko asked.

Genma mulled it over before saying, “Hair is plausible, and you might know how to negotiate a treaty the same way I know howto build a bridge. So I think it’s the drawing. I’ve seen your art. I think you’ve been drawing since before you were five.”

She grinned at him and surveyed the rest of her team, letting the silence draw out before doing a little fistpump of victory with her good hand. “Two rat bars for me! Tousaki, you’re my new hair assistant. Lieutenant, Hatake, pay your dues.”

Argh,” Kakashi said, and actually fell over backwards, landing on the blankets with an annoyed flomph. Ryouma cheered and reached over his prone body to give Katsuko a high-five.

Genma’s eyebrow ticked a bare centimeter upwards. “Apricot-oat or ginger sesame?”

“Both,” Katsuko said. This game wasn’t so bad when other people gave her their food. “Because I am a winner, and winners deserve two flavors of rat bars.”

“You’re getting the second flavor from Hatake.”

She looked at Kakashi. Kakashi glared up at the ceiling. “I don’t know where my pants are,” he said.

“It’s okay,” Katsuko assured him. “I can take imaginary rat bars for now. Imaginary rat bars of victory.”

“Ever the gracious winner,” Raidou said, laughter in his voice. “Tousaki, your turn, since you won.”

Katsuko and Ryouma hauled Kakashi upright as gently as possible under Genma’s watchful gaze, ignoring Kakashi’s disgruntled noises. Once Kakashi was settled and dusted off, Ryouma sat back and looked at the rest of them, straight-faced.

“Okay, here goes. One: I lost my virginity two years after I graduated from the Academy. Two: I can recite Abbot Ryougen’s entire speech from the second Five Rings movie. Three…” Ryouma paused. The edges of his mouth tugged, dark eyes dancing. “Before I hit my growth spurt, I crossdressed as a geisha three times, and nobody but my sensei and the target ever found me out.”

“But those all sound plausible,” Katsuko complained. “What was your favorite shade of lipstick for your geisha get-up?”

“It was the same each time. Some kind of purply red?” Even more cheerfully, he added, “I got plum-blossom perfume, though.”

If she narrowed her eyes and squinted sideways, Katsuko could imagine a younger Ryouma in an entertainer’s kimono and decorative hair ornaments. She pursed her lips contemplatively.

“When did you graduate?” Kakashi asked, with faint horror. She remembered, belatedly, that Kakashi had passed the Academy exams when he was seven.

Ryouma grinned at him. “October, Sandaime year 27. I was thirteen and a half. Were you worried, Kakashi?”

Kakashi bristled. “Who wouldn’t be?”

“Awww,” Katsuko cooed, and patted Kakashi’s shoulder. “It’s okay, sugar-puff. Tousaki mocks because he cares.”

The annoyed growl that rumbled out of Kakashi’s throat was surprisingly canine. Katsuko resisted the urge to scratch behind his ears. He pointed at Ryouma like he had him on the stand and ordered, “Recite the last line of Ryougen’s speech.”

Genma intervened before Ryouma could reply. “That’d be cheating, Hatake. You can’t make him prove the truth of one of his assertions before you make your guess.”

“But that’s how you win,” Kakashi protested.

“Where’s the fun in winning a game you cheated at?” Genma countered, the lone voice of reason in a room full of drugged ninja. “Cheating’s for missions.”

“Cheating is for everything. That’s why it’s cheating.”

Katsuko reached behind Kakashi to tap Ryouma’s shoulder. When Ryouma glanced at her, she said, “If I ask really nice, will you do a geisha fan dance for me?”

“Taichou put the kibosh on dancing.” Ryouma was still grinning. “So, guesses?”

“Virginity as the lie,” Katsuko said promptly. “Because I know how good your aural recall is, and I really want the geisha thing to be true.”

Genma drawled, “I have to agree with that logic.” Katsuko bestowed an approving nod upon him.

“Geisha is the lie. You look too happy and Ueno isn’t that lucky,” Kakashi said.

Raidou had been quiet up until now, but he interrupted Katsuko’s outraged squawk with an amused, “Since Ryougen dies in the first movie, I’m going to call that one the lie. But his speech was very moving.”

Ryouma’s grin faltered. He stared at Raidou for a moment in mild shock. Then he folded over and dropped his head onto his knees. “You’ve seen it. Of course you’ve seen it,” he told the fabric of his trousers.

Katsuko and Kakashi groaned. Genma gave Raidou a look of ironclad disappointment and turned to Katsuko. “Do you feel betrayed, Ueno? I feel betrayed.”

“So betrayed,” she mourned, clutching at Kakashi’s pigtails to demonstrate the depth of her outrage.

Ryouma straightened up determinedly. “Okay. Your turn, taichou.”

“The geisha thing was true?” Kakashi burst out.

Katsuko blinked and turned to smile at Ryouma. “The geisha thing was true!”

Ryouma was still regarding Raidou with a complicated expression, but he yanked his gaze away with a kind of relief. “There might be pictures, even, if my sensei kept ’em. Which I kind of doubt. I never did learn the fan dance, though. Barely mastered how to walk without tripping.”

Hers was a life fraught with disappointment and continued betrayal. Katsuko drooped a bit before pulling herself back up. Never let it be said that she couldn’t make the best of a bad situation. “It’s okay,” she sighed. “We can’t all be perfect. I forgive you anyways.”

Ryouma reached over behind Kakashi and ruffled her hair. She grumbled but didn’t bat his hand away.

“So what’s the penalty?” Genma asked. “Rat bars again?”

Raidou nodded. “Or chores. Dealer’s choice.”

“Three of you are out of commission for chores. I’m saving it for later,” Ryouma said.

“Good choice.” Raidou thought for a moment, tapping his fingers on one kneecap. “Okay, one: when I was little, I had a stuffed tiger called Stripey-san, but I lost him when we moved house. Two: the first girl I ever liked pushed me into a river. Three: I’ve been playing the guitar since I was twelve, and I once managed to write a song that didn’t suck.”

“Aw, man,” Katsuko realized glumly. “I’m gonna have to sit out for this one. I already know the answer.”

Genma eyeballed Raidou. “That’s four.”

Raidou looked unrepentant. “That last one was a two-parter? Okay, cut the song, I just wanted to boast.”

“I’m voting for the guitar as the lie,” Ryouma said, like he’d have a personal grudge against the universe if it wasn’t.

“I’ve seen the guitar,” Genma said. “Don’t know when you started playing or if you’re any good, but there definitely is one. I’ll go with Stripey-san as the lie.”

Raidou had his blandest face on. Kakashi asked suspiciously, “Why did the girl push you in the river?”

“I gave her a flower.”

Kakashi blinked.

“We were six,” Raidou explained. Katsuko giggled and tried her best to turn it into a cough.

“Was she an Inuzuka?” Genma asked.

“Inuzuka tend to bite when they’re displeased with you,” Katsuko chimed in, then remembered she wasn’t supposed to be participating and busied herself with staring at the ceiling.

blue kakashi“A gentleman doesn’t fall in a river and tell,” Raidou said serenely. He added, “She might have been an Aburame.”

That won him a collective blank look.

“Was it… the faint humming sound that caught your attention?” Ryouma asked at length. “Or did she have particularly pretty bugs?”

“I liked her laugh,” Raidou said.

Kakashi connected two and two, and snapped his fingers. “Your flower offended her insects.”

“I was six. I wasn’t born smooth,” Raidou said. “Or horticulturally trained. When did this become twenty questions?”

Katsuko was almost quivering with suppressed laughter against Kakashi’s side. Even the lieutenant looked like he was having a hard time maintaining a straight face.

Ryouma said stubbornly, “I’m still voting for the guitar. Life’s unfair enough as it is.”

“I’m sticking with Stripey-san,” Genma said. He looked at Kakashi. “You’ve narrowed it down to two, Hatake. Gonna go with the guitar or the cuddly toy?”

Both seemed equally plausible. Raidou looked exactly the type to drag a battered guitar down to some dive bar and strum it soulfully while people fell over at his manly-yet-sensitive feet. But he could have owned a stuffed tiger. It was a rite of childhood passage, Kakashi had learned, to bond furiously with scraps of fluff and descend into traumatized madness if anything ever happened to them. Like the time Naruto had accidentally lost Fukkura-san in the laundry hamper and cried for hours, until Minato had pulled an extremely clean rabbit from the washing machine.

Kakashi had spent his childhood bonding with puppies, but the principle was basically the same.

He rubbed bandaged hands over his face and said, “I hate this game.”

“Think of it as a training exercise in reading people,” Genma said.

“While stoned,” Katsuko chipped in helpfully.

Kakashi gave up. On a normal day he might have been able to scent the truth, but only because lying caused stress, and stress had a very distinctive smell. Right now the entire bunker smelled of pain and old blood, and too many people crammed into too small a space, and Kakashi was just barely capable of smelling his way out of a paper bag.

“I’ll side with Tousaki,” he said. “Guitar’s a lie. Drowning and stuffed tiger are true.”

“Wrong three for three, Hatake,” Raidou said cheerfully. “I never lost Stripey-san; he’s still on the dresser at my moms’ place.” He grinned at the chorus of groans and cries of cheating! that earned him. “Hey, no one said it had to be a blatant lie.”

Ryouma glanced sideways at Katsuko. “You said you knew the answer already. Did he used to bring his guitar along on missions and serenade the team?”

“Maybe their last team got a tiny little tiger mask from the quartermaster for Stripey-san and made him a mascot,” Genma said.

“Taichou’s got a guitar in his room,” Katsuko said. “He told me about the Aburame when we were both in the hospital once.”

“Oh,” Ryouma said.

“Can we go back to the part where the captain still owns a cuddly tiger?” Kakashi said.

“Abandoning him would’ve given me guilt,” Raidou said, mouth quirking, but his eyes were soft and fond, caught by some old memory. “Didn’t you hold onto any childhood relics?”

Nothing that wasn’t useful, Kakashi thought. Because that was the rule. No deadweight.

He sat up abruptly, almost tipping sideways. “Where’s my tanto?”

Raidou blinked, non-plussed, but Ryouma steadied Kakashi and said, “It’s with my gear.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, towards one of the ragged piles of gear stacked up against the opposite wall. “I think the sheath got wrecked with the rest of your armor, though.”

Kakashi’s chest clenched. “What about the blade?”

“It’s whole. Didn’t see any major nicks, but I wasn’t exactly looking closely.” Ryouma paused. “How come it didn’t melt? Your kunai did.”

“It’s made with a special alloy,” Kakashi said distractedly, craning his neck to try and see. There was a dark, muddy hilt jutting out from beneath a chestplate’s torn shoulder strap. The bindings didn’t look damaged, but it was hard to make out details under the bunker’s bad lighting. A second, equally terrible thought occurred, “Did you clean it?”

“No,” said Ryouma, exasperated. “And I’m not going to now, and neither are you. You’re high and we’re all sharing a bed and I’m not arming you. The mud’s dried, anyway. Another day won’t hurt it.” He glanced at the weapon’s dark outline. “Much.”

There were moments when Ryouma was kind, and moments when he emphatically wasn’t, and you never knew which one was going to take you out at the knees.

Stung, Kakashi pulled away from Ryouma’s hands. For a second he thought about damning them all and getting up by himself, but he’d tried that once already and nearly snapped Katsuko’s shoulder in half. It was just a tanto—

He couldn’t finish the thought. A shinobi cared for his weapons, always.

Especially that one.

The image of the bare, blood-caked blade abandoned under sodden armor to rust actually made him feel ill.

“It’s important,” he said, and looked at Katsuko. She understood swords.

“Ah,” Katsuko said. Her eyes flicked to another stack of armor, where her katana and kodachi were dry and safely sheathed, leaning against the wall. “I get it.” She squeezed his shoulder with her good hand and whistled one of her nearby clones into action. It extracted Kakashi’s tanto from the armor, collected a cleaning kit from one of Katsuko’s belt-pouches, and brought both over to the bed-platform.

Wordlessly, Genma and Raidou shifted to make room. The clone settled down cross-legged in Kakashi’s direct eyeline, laid the tanto respectfully across its lap, and began to sort out cleaning cloths. It was also operating one-handed—Katsuko must have been distracted when she’d summoned them, to program her injury into her doppelgangers—but that wasn’t any particular challenge.

Despite himself, Kakashi made a slightly throttled sound when it began to tend to the blade.

“You’re not allowed to clean weapons when you’re high,” Katsuko and her clone said, in precise stereo echo. Katsuko glared at the clone, which didn’t appear to notice. “But if the clone cleans the blade where you can see, can you keep on playing? No cheating with your lie like taichou did.”

“But I lost the last round,” Kakashi said, watching the clone fixedly. “It’s the lieutenant’s turn.”

“Taichou hasn’t set your penalty for losing yet, or my prize for winning,” Genma said, giving Raidou a meaningful look. “Maybe the penalty is you have to take the next turn, Hatake.”

Or maybe the lieutenant just wanted to slither out of his turn and continue being a weird implacable force of nature.

Kakashi opened his mouth to express that opinion in detail, but Raidou cut him off. “I like that idea, since he can’t exactly do chores right now. Think you’re up to the challenge, Hatake?”

Kakashi glanced up and found himself on the business end of two weighing but not unkind stares. He snorted. Both the captain and the lieutenant were about as subtle as a brick—join in, Hatake. Have fun, Hatake. Play nice with the other kids, Hatake—but they were also trying to accommodate him, and offering a distraction from the faintly agonizing process of watching the clone. At his side, Katsuko smiled sunnily, as if everything were a great game, but her hand was still warm on his shoulder. Only Ryouma was looking away.

Gigantic black-headed sulker.

“Anything you can do, I can do right,” Kakashi declared, and leaned himself against Katsuko’s good side. “Fix the rest of my hair while I think, Ueno.”

“Anything to help inspire your creativity, my cranky dandelion fluff,” Katsuko said, once again raising the question of whether morphine was assisting her mood, or if she was just… being herself. She reached around Kakashi’s back and touched Ryouma’s shoulder. “Tousaki, I already told you you’re my hair assistant. No getting out of it now.”

Definitely morphine.

Ryouma snuck a quick, wary glance at Kakashi, and shook his head. “I’ll pass this time. You didn’t say when.”

Did he expect Kakashi to bite?

Actually, that wasn’t a thought without appeal, but the whole point of this stupid exercise was fostering team morale (and killing time), and kicking Ryouma in the head would make the captain pull terrible faces. Plus, Ryouma had offered a striptease only ten minutes ago, which had been one of the most entertaining bunker events so far.

And he’d technically saved Kakashi’s life.

He deserved points for that, Kakashi realized. When Kakashi was sober enough to do math again. That might even put Ryouma ahead.

Kakashi scowled, shifted sideways, and interrupted whatever unimportant thing Katsuko was saying by dropping his legs across Ryouma’s lap.

“I’m declaring you a footstool,” he announced.

Ryouma gave him an incredulous look.

“We’re building team spirit,” Kakashi said. “You’re helping. Stay still.”

Ryouma strained a long, slow breath through his teeth. “You are so incredibly high.”

“And you’re an unpredictable jerk,” Kakashi said. “I’m giving you the chance to make up for it, and I’m also being nice and not pointing out your hypocritical lapses, Mr punches-people-who-mess-with-his-important-things. Ueno, you’re not braiding my hair.”

Ryouma stared at him for a very long moment. Then he shrugged one broad shoulder, gave a short oh, what the hell bark of laughter, and pulled Kakashi’s feet more comfortably into his lap. Katsuko buried her face into the unbraided quarter of Kakashi’s hair and had quiet hysterics.

“I have absolutely nothing to say,” Raidou said, sounding like a man very far away.

Genma was doing the lieutenant face again, but none of them appeared to have crossed the line enough to warrant chastising. When Katsuko wound down and began to breathe like a normal person again, he leaned across the gap and gravely offered her a rubber band.

Well, that explained where they’d been coming from.

Kakashi pulled a set of blankets across himself, bundling into their warm (if dusty) layers. Katsuko’s hand snuck back into his hair. Kakashi tipped his head against her palm and tried to think of good lies.

“Do they all have to be about me?” he asked.

Ryouma said, “You don’t— Huh.” He frowned, dark eyebrows pulling together. “I think it has to be something you know about personally. Like you were there when your genin teammate got his head stuck in a beehive, or something.”

Katsuko snickered.

“You can’t just use random facts,” Genma said. “Like ‘the capital of Clay Country used to be called Owl City in their local language’, or whatever.”

And nothing that made anyone cry, Raidou had said.

Katsuko created three more pigtails while Kakashi mulled things over, and was starting on a fourth, fingers sliding gently through Kakashi’s hair, when he said, “Okay. One, I learned to swim by doggy-paddling in the river with real dogs. Two, Minato-sensei once forgot it was Valentine’s day until just before he was supposed to meet Kushina-san, and tried to steal my personal plant as a present for her. Three, last year I got offered the elderly discount for a spa in Tea Country.”

Ryouma asked, with intense interest, “Did you take it?”

“Yep,” Kakashi said smugly. “Got me fifteen percent off.”

Katsuko snickered again. “Did you successfully defend your personal plant?”

No,” Kakashi said. “I had to steal Ukki-kun back later.”

Ryouma forget himself enough to grip Kakashi’s feet in horror. “From Kushina-sama?” he said, like Kakashi had stolen kibble from blind orphaned kittens.

You named your plant Ukki-kun?” Katsuko demanded in the same breath.

“Is a personal plant different from a regular houseplant?” Raidou asked.

“None of you are ever allowed to own plantlife,” Kakashi said. “Ukki-kun is mine. Of course I stole him back. Ueno, you’re not allowed to criticize anyone’s naming conventions ever. Taichou, shame on you.”

Raidou scratched the bridge of his nose, hand hiding his mouth. “I feel the shame.”

“Succulent or fern?” Genma inquired, the only sane man in the room.

“Ficus,” Kakashi said with dignity.

Genma’s eyes brightened. “That’s a good one. You can make a pretty decent contact irritant from Ficus sap.”

“Ficus Microcarpa,” Kakashi said.

“Oh,” Genma said. “Not from that one.” After a beat, he allowed, “They’re pretty, though.”

“It’s one of the best plants for improving air quality,” Kakashi informed them, only slightly defensive. “It has one of the highest rates of removing formaldehyde, benzene, and—” he had to think for a second, “trichloroethylene from tainted air.”

“I’m learning so much right now,” Raidou said.

Genma’s eyebrows climbed. “Is there a reason you’re generating formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene in your personal living quarters?”

“I didn’t say I was—” Kakashi began, and stopped. “You’re asking too many questions. Make guesses already.”

“Calm down, bossyboots,” Katsuko said, snapping her fourth band into place.

“He doesn’t have any boots. Call him bossytoes,” Ryouma said, and tweaked Kakashi’s toes. Kakashi yelped and nearly fell over, caught by Katsuko at the last second. “I’m guessing the plant,” Ryouma continued, blithely blocking Kakashi’s revenge kick. “Because you said he tried to steal, and then you said you had to steal it back. Which means he didn’t just try, he succeeded.”

“Oh, smart,” Katsuko said.

“Stop trying to injure each other,” Raidou warned.

Genma said, “Tousaki, if you make Hatake pop a needle…”

“Sorry,” Ryouma said guiltily, and settled back, one hand wrapping around Kakashi’s anklebone, fingers warm. Kakashi watched him suspiciously, but Ryouma stayed still.

“We can’t take you anywhere,” Katsuko said, flicking one of Kakashi’s hair-knots. “I vote that old people discount, by the way. Tousaki, do you know how to tie hair ribbons?”

“No,” Ryouma said firmly.

“You are this close to having your hairdressing privileges revoked,” Raidou said, eyeing Katsuko.

“I can tie hair ribbons,” Kakashi said, since no one had seen fit to ask him. “I can do braids, too.”

There was a delicate fall of silence.

“See, now I have no idea which is the lie,” Raidou said finally.

Genma touched his own hair, which had turned dark gold under the lights. Kakashi had a faint memory of reaching for it, and couldn’t remember why.

“You’ll have to demonstrate when you’re feeling better,” Genma said.

Katsuko made an airless sound.

“What, lieutenant, you wouldn’t trust him with your hair when he’s high?” Ryouma said, voice lilting as he teased.

“Have you ever seen the webs spiders weave with different toxins in their systems?” Genma said. “Morphine webs aren’t tidy.”

Raidou pulled Kakashi from the fascinating thought of wondering who drugged spiders in their free time, by asking, “Who taught you to braid hair?”

“Hm? My mother,” Kakashi said. He raised a hand and flexed his fingers. “It’s good for dexterity.”

Raidou’s expression did the same unreadable, complicated thing Katsuko’s had done when Kakashi told her that Obito cried, then he switched topics. “Valentine’s day plant-theft was the lie. I’ll take Tousaki’s logic.”

She’s not dead, Kakashi thought, but explaining required effort. He rolled his head back to look at Katsuko, and just about managed to avoid toppling into her lap. “What’s your guess?”

“I told you already, clouds-for-brains,” she said, bracing him up. “The old people discount. You don’t look that old. Maybe sixty, or a very spry seventy.”

Kakashi laughed at clouds-for-brains. He felt cloudy, a half-step divorced from his body. Everything was glossy and warm, glimmering slightly around the edges, like someone had laminated the world in mirror-world plastic.

And that had to be the fifteenth pet name Katsuko had called him.

Kakashi blinked up at her. “Do you just not like my name?”

She blinked back at him. “I, uh,” she floundered. “No, your name’s your name. I just…”

He’d never seen her at a loss for words before. Kakashi watched, surprised and delighted, as Katsuko tripped over a direct question. He should have asked her weeks ago.

“Did you forget it?” he suggested.

“No…” Katsuko said, stretching the word out. Noooooo.

“You call everyone else by their name,” Kakashi said.

“Well, yeah, but—” She gave a flailing gesture that explained nothing. “It’s not like I don’t like your name or anything.”

Kakashi waited. “But…”

Katsuko made a cryptic squawking sound of frustration.

Kakashi let the moment drag out just enough to pay back a month’s worth of increasingly bizarre pet names, and then relented. “It’s okay,” he said, reaching up to pet her wild hair. “Words are hard.”

You’re har—” Katsuko began. She paused and switched to, “Your face is—”

That insult failed her, too. She ran aground to a sputtering halt, and snapped her teeth at Kakashi like an irritated turtle.

Kakashi looked at the rest of the team. “Did I just win?”

Ryouma patted his ankle. “Two points.”

Katsuko made another outraged sound and Raidou laughed. “Congratulations, Hatake,” he said. “This’ll be a meaningful moment if you ever remember it.”

“I won,” Kakashi blissfully. “Now she can only call me nice things.”

“I always call you nice things,” Katsuko said, disgruntled.

Ryouma jostled Kakashi’s foot gently. “And you’ve got to admit it. You are kind of a delicate snowblossom.”

S-ranked delicate snowblossom,” Kakashi said, because he’d run out of energy to get offended. And he’d probably collapsed one too many times to convince them he was made of iron at this point. But he’d killed everyone he needed to first, so he was still in the black.

“Wonder if that’s your Bingo Book description anywhere,” Genma said, looking faintly amused. “Hatake Kakashi: Fainting Snowdrop of Konoha. S-rank. Has Sharingan.”

“And Iebara’s head,” Kakashi said, with a quick, wolfish smile.

Genma’s mouth curled. “Damn right,” he said.

Ryouma went suddenly still. “Shit. Were we supposed to bring that back?”

There was a beat of silence.

“Was his head intact?” Raidou asked.

Kakashi thought of warm, meaty rain exploding behind his back. Bones ripped apart by weaponized blood. There’d been an arm left. The lightning strike had probably fused Iebara’s dogtags into unreadable slag.

“Probably not,” he said.

Raidou shrugged. “A clean up team can sponge up whatever the storm didn’t wash away, but if he’s in shreds Intel won’t get much from him anyway. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

But Raidou looked a little worried, all the same. Probably because a team would take the better part of a week to get there, and animals and decay would take what the storm hadn’t. Whatever secrets Iebara’s remains carried were long gone and lost.

Kakashi said, “Next time I’ll take a bucket.”

Ryouma snorted. Katsuko laughed in Kakashi’s ear. Raidou cracked a smile, and even the lieutenant chuckled.

“Collecting the remains was on me,” Genma said. “We have Iebara’s commanding officer. That’s gotta be better than a bucket of slime as far as Intel’s concerned.”

“Point,” Raidou said. He leaned over and tapped Genma’s elbow. “Y’know, we’re still waiting on your guess, Shiranui.”

“Swimming with dogs is the lie,” Genma said decisively. “There might have been dogs around, but ninja parents make sure their kids know how to swim properly.” After a fractional beat, he added, “Except maybe in Suna.”

“Accurate,” Raidou said. “On both counts.”

Kakashi thought about it while Katsuko’s fingers slid through his hair, putting the final elastic band into place. She brushed her palm over the sticky-up tufts, making his head rock gently from side to side. It made the room waver, full of black and gold shadows.

At last he said, “I don’t remember what I said.”

“Oh my god,” Katsuko said.

Raidou propped his chin on his hand. “I’m seeing the flaw in making it Hatake’s go now.”

Calmly, Ryouma tapped warm fingers against the top of Kakashi’s foot. “One, you learned to swim by doggy-paddling in the river with real dogs.” Another tap checked off each line. “Second, Minato-sensei—it feels really weird to call him that—once forgot it was Valentine’s until just before he was supposed to meet Kushina-sama, and tried to steal your personal plant as a present for her. Which I still think means he didn’t succeed, and you caught yourself up in a lie,” he said, like arguing semantics with a drugged man was a winning strategy. “Third, last year you got offered the elderly discount for a spa in Tea Country, which is also pretty ridiculous now that I think about it. Spas involve getting naked in front of other people.”

Maybe the advantage of not knowing how to read was perfect aural recall.

“Wow,” said Kakashi, fascinated. “You should do that at parties.”

Ryouma smiled crookedly. “Does this count? We’re playing party games.”

“I guess so,” Kakashi said, and finally managed to re-achieve his point. “Lieutenant’s right. I learned to swim in our pond with my dad. Dogs weren’t allowed to join in until I could keep my head above water.”

He hadn’t thought about that in years.

Light on water and big, careful hands, and the feeling of absolute safety, back when that was a thing which existed.

He let it slip away. Right now there were laughing teammates and ties in his hair, and he only hurt a little. Ryouma was making a face of betrayal and demanding to know what kind of spas catered to elderly people with six packs, while Katsuko hooted and mocked his deductive skills. Genma was smiling the small, pleased smile of victory, and Raidou leaned against his own fist, looking tired and fond.

Kakashi slouched down lower in his warm, borrowed blankets and smiled at them, half-lidded. “I like this game,” he decided.

genma 10“I knew you would,” Genma said. “Everyone likes this game.”

There was an adage about friendships forged in foxholes that Genma couldn’t remember the exact wording to, but by the looks of it, the magic was at work for Team Six. In the time it had taken for Kakashi to play his turn, he’d changed his tune from “I hate this game” to “I like this game”, and more importantly, he looked almost happy. Comfortable, out of pain, and relaxed—all of which could be attributed to morphine and medical senbon, but Genma didn’t think that was the only factor. For the first time since the team had formed, it seemed like Kakashi trusted his teammates enough to let his guard down.

Katsuko was grinning to herself as she continued to tweak the pigtails she’d created in Kakashi’s hair, adjusting them towards some vision of symmetry only she could see. The nervous anxiety she’d greeted them with when they’d arrived at the bunker was all but gone—unsurprising in a veteran that she’d found her equilibrium fairly quickly, but still very welcome. Ryouma, who’d worried Genma the most, seemed mellower and more relaxed. He was leaning back braced on straight arms, with Kakashi’s feet casually resting across his folded thighs, and there was only a hint of tension at the corners of his eyes.

Only Raidou still looked strained and tired. The weight of command combined with a post-concussion headache was probably more than enough to account for that. Genma made a mental note to remember to check Raidou’s head injury again as soon as the game was done. And make sure the prisoner was stable. And inventory his medical supplies to be sure he hadn’t missed anything. And…

They were all looking at him.

“It’s my turn?”

Kakashi plucked a bit of blanket lint and tossed it at Genma. “Yes,” he said. “You have to do good lies, too. No cop-out little ones that just change a date or something. And nothing about the bakery. We know about the bakery.” His preemptive scorn was almost endearing.

“You don’t know everything about—” Genma started.

“Or about Aoba,” Kakashi continued, imperious as a daimyou. “I don’t care about him.”

Genma choked.

“Aoba?” Raidou asked, genuinely puzzled.

“He polices the lieutenant’s mail,” Kakashi said, like he was pronouncing judgment on high treason.

“Hatake met my temporary roommate the other night,” Genma explained. “Yamashiro Aoba. He’s a good guy, but he can be kind of an ass if he thinks he’s protecting me.”

“Protecting you from Kakashi?” Ryouma asked skeptically. “What, did he think Kakashi was hunting for revenge after one too many laps around the training field? Or was it more like Genma-kun is too young and innocent for your scandalous love letters, begone you ruffian?

Raidou snorted a laugh, Katsuko cackled, Genma choked a little more, and Ryouma looked like the cat who licked the cream.

Kakashi was evidently still playing catch up; once he’d processed through everything he scowled quizzically at Ryouma. “Love letters?”

“Aoba was just messing with you,” Genma said, waving away Ryouma’s suggestion. “And trying to make sure my rookies weren’t bringing me unnecessary problems when I was just out of the hospital.” He shrugged. “You weren’t, so don’t worry, he forgave you.”

Kakashi looked slightly mollified—Genma’d have to tell Aoba about this when he got back—and Ryouma heaved a theatrical sigh, evidently disappointed at the lack of juicy backstory.

“You watch a lot of romances, Tousaki?” Genma asked.

Ryouma shrugged. “All the best historical dramas have a romance or three at the core. C’mon, lieutenant, tell us yours.”

“My romances?”

“Your lie— truth— things,” Kakashi said from his muffler of blankets.

There was only so much stalling a man could do. Genma shifted and stretched his spine, and leaned back against the wall, shoulder to shoulder with the captain. “Okay,” he said. “Romances it is. One, my spinach allergy ruined a date with someone I really liked. Two, I turned down a marriage proposal last year. Three…” He hesitated a moment, deciding on one last plausible statement. Katsuko and Ryouma leaned in. “Three, my favorite romantic movie is The Maiden and the Mechanical Bird Soldier.”

“Proposal’s false,” Katsuko declared instantly. “No one in their right mind would want to get hitched with active ANBU.” She hesitated. “Unless it was another ANBU.”

Genma nodded. “Sticking with that guess, Ueno, or changing your vote now that you’ve realized there’s a loophole in your logic?”

“I don’t back down, lieutenant,” Katsuko said, meeting his eyes. “Ever.”

“One of the things I like about you,” Genma told her. “That’s a truth, by the way.”

Katsuko blinked in surprise, and then, hesitantly, offered Genma a small, genuine smile.

Genma smiled back, surprised in turn at the warmth her smile kindled. Foxhole magic was working on him, too, it seemed.

Raidou glanced between Genma and Katsuko, expression lightening at the exchange between them. “I’ve seen The Maiden and the Mechanical Bird Soldier,” he said. “It’s a good one. Little sad at the end, but some people like that. I could see that being a favorite.” He looked up thoughtfully, scratching the back of one bandaged hand where adhesive tape was pulling hair. “The marriage proposal could’ve been an after-mission adrenaline thing, or too many on a night out, or a friend’s kid being cute. Too many variables to guess,” he decided. “I’m calling the spinach allergy as fake.” A teasing smile tipped the edges of his mouth up. “Real ninja don’t have allergies, no matter what it says in their files.”

Genma chuckled. Was Raidou was trying to throw the game on purpose? “The allergy’s genuine,” he said. “If you don’t believe me, you can ask my dad or my jounin sensei. They both ended up dealing with the consequences at one time or another.”

“Ah well, too late to change my vote now,” Raidou said.

Ryouma lasered a narrow-eyed look at Genma. “Allergy being genuine doesn’t mean the date was, though. And you’re smart enough not to eat something you know you’re allergic to, especially on a date. So that one’s my vote.” He lifted his chin to punctuate his statement, then let a sly grin steel across his face. “But I want to hear the story behind the marriage proposal.”

“If you’re right, maybe the story can be your reward,” Genma said. Although being right for the wrong reason didn’t seem like it really deserved as good a reward as being right for the right reason. “Hatake, your guess.”

“You’re allergic to spinach?” Kakashi demanded.

“I am. And if you try to test it by sneaking spinach into my food, we’re all going to be sorry, but you’ll be sorriest when I recover.”

Kakashi slunk further under his blankets until he was almost completely prone, with his head at the edge of Katsuko’s lap. An indistinct grumbly protest about not poisoning his teammates, who would do that? filtered through the layers of cloth in a drug-laced slur. Genma caught something that sounded a lot like, Poor lieutenant with his last team of sociopaths. Which was almost sort of sweet.

For a moment it seemed medication and fatigue had gotten the best of Kakashi, but then he resurfaced, shoving the blankets away from his face to say, “The film is fake. It’s the only definitive fact that reveals anything. Ergo, not true.”

Ryouma’s mouth twisted around the word ‘ergo’, like he was trying to puzzle out a mysterious flavor of jam.

“It’s a thing they say in court,” Genma said. “It means he thinks he’s proven his point.”

“I always prove my point,” Kakashi declared.

“When were the two of you ever in court?” Ryouma asked, nonplussed. “Did you get court-martialed?”

Genma shrugged, amused at the suggestion. “I can’t tell you about Hatake’s checkered past, but I’ve been in court a couple of times. Never because I was on trial. I don’t think they’d promote you to lieutenant if you’d been court martialed.”

“Hmm,” Ryouma said, digesting the idea.

“Not more than once, anyway,” Raidou said, with enough ironic inflection to imply he’d heard stories.

Genma reached up to scratch an itch on his nose, and shuddered when his fingers encountered bandages and the whole front of his face throbbed.

Right. Broken.

He dropped his hand carefully, and took a slow breath through his mouth. “Promoted to lieutenant more than once, or court-martialed more than once?” he asked.

“Both,” Raidou said. He dropped his hand casually on Genma’s unbandaged leg, tapping out two words in code: hurt and kill—in ANBU parlance, ‘kill the hurt’ or, more specifically, ‘you need drugs, man?’

Technically, the answer was ‘yes.’ Genma’d shorted himself on painkillers back when he’d dosed Katsuko and Kakashi, because at the time he thought they had barely enough to make it through twelve hours just treating the two of them and the prisoner. Knowing they had breathing room thanks to Kakashi’s creative med-kit stocking helped, but it only got them to twenty-four hours.

He found Raidou’s arm and tapped back an all clear.

Raidou gave him a dark-eyed, assessing look, then turned toward the clone still working on Kakashi’s tanto. Evidently it operated on the same silent telepathy that Katsuko seemed to sometimes share with Raidou: it met Raidou’s eyes, then glanced over its shoulder and whistled sharply. A second clone vanished from the doorway, reappearing a moment later with a glass bottle of non-opiates pilfered from the bunker’s medical supplies. It held them out silently, waiting for Genma to take them.

He dry-swallowed a pair of tablets and gave the bottle back. Kakashi was too out of it to notice anything amiss, and Katsuko seemed deeply engaged in petting Kakashi’s pigtails, but Ryouma was studiously looking away, pretending not to mark the exchange of codes and medications.

Katsuko was probably only pretending not to notice, too.

Genma wasn’t sure what to make of that, but it seemed considerate. He shifted into a fresh not-quite-comfortable position next to Raidou, and tried to pretend he hadn’t noticed their pretending.

“Tousaki and Taichou get it,” he said, to break the spell of awkward silence that had descended over them. “But they’re wrong about why.”

Ryouma’s smug cheerfulness at having guessed right faded into narrowed eyes. “You didn’t actually like your date?”

“Nope, I liked my date,” Genma said.

Kakashi groaned in mock despair.

Ryouma’s eyes narrowed still more. “So you were dumb enough to eat the spinach, and you got hives and stopped breathing or whatever allergies do, but it didn’t ruin the date? Because your date secretly had a thing for hives.”

“Something like that,” Genma allowed. “It wasn’t me being dumb, though. I asked if there was spinach in the dish, and the waitress checked with the chef and they swore to me there wasn’t any. Turned out there was dried spinach in a seasoning packet that a new apprentice brought in and added to the soup without telling the chef.”

“Should have smelled it,” Kakashi said, like smelling a few milligrams of dried spinach in a bowl of soup was as easy as walking into a brick wall.

“Not an Inuzuka relative,” Genma told him. Maybe there was something to the rumors about Hatake clan genetics. “Could you really have smelled it? You’re official taster for me from now on.”

“I can eat your food,” Kakashi said, half-lidded and magnanimous.

“You just wouldn’t get any back,” added Raidou.

Kakashi smiled sleepily in affirmation.

“Well, you could get your food back,” Katsuko offered, propping her chin up on Kakashi’s head. “It just wouldn’t be in a form you’d want.”

Genma grinned at her (and regretted it, because ow, nose.) “That’s another thing I like about you, Ueno. Classy and clever.”

“That’s me,” Katsuko agreed, nodding smugly. “A noble lady of refinement.”

A soft, delighted laugh came from the pile of blankets that had started swallowing Kakashi again.

No one was pressing Genma on the penalty or prize phase of the game, which was just dandy as far as he was concerned.

Katsuko’s clone finished the tanto in the same moment, displaying its handiwork with evident pride. “Look good?” it asked, holding the blade so it gleamed in the yellow light.

Kakashi shed blankets and sat halfway up to take the tanto, then dropped back with liquid ease, all rubber-band muscle control with no real awareness, like a skilled drunken brawler. He hugged the weapon close against his chest, fingers curled loosely around the naked blade. “Thanks, Kats’ko,” he mumbled, eyes closed.

The looks on Raidou’s and Ryouma’s faces had to be mirrors of the one on Genma’s own, as sharp eyes darted to that lethally-edged steel. Drugged, unpredictable when half-conscious, and armed was not the most reassuring combination of traits Genma could have picked for Kakashi.

“Last time I had to do medical work on Hatake when he was out of it,” Genma said, “was when he passed out after getting his tattoo. Taichou saved me from a crushed larynx. And a few hours ago taichou saved me from Hatake breaking all twenty-seven bones in my hand when I was working on Ueno’s shoulder and she yelped.” He looked at his patient, laid out on his back and clutching a blade like a warrior corpse ready for the pyre. “Anyone else think arming him was a bad idea, and this looks creepy?”

Katsuko and her clone shared the panicked, guilty expressions of a babysitter who’d just watched her charge run out into a crowded road with an ox-cart bearing down.

Ryouma shot her an exasperated look. What did I tell you? he mouthed.

Without missing a beat, Raidou eyed Kakashi strategically, then pointed at Katsuko and flicked trail signs at her. Five minutes. Sleep. Disarm.

She nodded in acknowledgment, holding herself with a careful lack of tension so as not to alarm the ninja she’d just supplied with a freshly sharpened blade.

Genma allowed himself a soft sigh. “So. Taichou’s cuddly toy for bedtime was a stuffed tiger, and Hatake’s is a thousand-fold alloy blade. What about the rest of you?”

For an instant Ryouma looked blank, then hurt, before he turned his gaze away. “You’re not distracting us that easily, lieutenant,” he said, sounding suspiciously light, and just a little forced. “You promised the story behind the marriage proposal, if I got it right.”

All Genma’s concerns about Ryouma’s emotional resilience came crowding back, adding to the litany of other worries this mission had generated. Was it Ryouma’s own troubled childhood that made him flinch, or was it the teenage girl he’d had a hand in killing on the mission? The babies Katsuko and Raidou had had to kill? Or the deaths of the young girls on the previous mission?

He glanced at Raidou—had the captain picked up on the same thing?—and tapped code against Raidou’s knee: Safe?

Unknown, Raidou signed against the back of Genma’s hand. Aloud, he said, “You did promise the story, lieutenant.”

Watchful worrying it would have to be, then.

“I said I might tell you—” Genma started.

“You’re gonna leave us to start asking around when we get back to Konoha, lieutenant?” Ryouma asked. He seemed to have bounced back enough to engage again. “Who knows what damage we’ll do to your reputation?”

“I see you passed your coercive methods classes in Academy,” Genma said with a small laugh. “Alright, here’s the story. We’d been dating for five months. I got a little banged up on a mission, and when I got home, got a proposal I wasn’t expecting. I turned it down because I’m too young to get married, and my commitment to ANBU comes first.”

Ryouma was quiet for a long moment before he said, “And then you broke up?”

Genma nodded. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “A couple weeks later.” A couple of tense, argument-filled, miserable weeks.

“They should put that in the recruitment posters,” Katsuko said with a wry twist. “‘Joining ANBU gets you a mask, a reputation, and an inability to keep relationships alive’.” Her expression turned softer and more sincere. “Shouldn’t keep us from trying, though.”

“Speak for yourself,” Ryouma said. “I intend to blow through as many one-night-stands as we have time for.” He tossed Katsuko a wicked grin. “I already bet the lieutenant I could sleep with all the lower ranking ANBU in a year.”

Genma rested his forehead very, very gently in his hand.

“How about you try making some friends instead,” Raidou said softly. Dark, shadowed eyes locked onto Ryouma.

Ryouma dropped his gaze and the grin. After a moment he shrugged one shoulder and patted half-heartedly at Kakashi’s ankle. “Lieutenant never did actually take the bet,” he said.

Thank you for not throwing me into that fire, Genma thought. He reached over and gave Ryouma’s elbow a light touch. “They say the strongest friendships are forged in foxholes, right?”

katsuko 3Katsuko had never taken shelter in a foxhole during the war. She’d never fought in the war; she’d been relegated to running messages and guarding supply points as far from the front lines as possible, like all the other genin. Then had come that late March evening when she’d turned right instead of left on her way home, and the next time she’d woken up she’d been in a living nightmare. Her teammates had passed the chuunin exams and shipped out to the front while she’d been trapped underground. The war had raged on without her.

She forgot, occasionally, that she was the only member of Team 6 who’d never seen a battlefield. Konoha had rescued her and stitched her back together too late for her to be of any use near the war’s end. If they’d found her even a month earlier…

No. Her new chakra levels had been too unstable to risk sending her out, even as a last resort. Guilt and the insistent whisper that she should have been out there with the others, fighting to defend her home alongside them—none of that made a difference. She would have been useless in the war effort. She had been useless, all those months spent in the hospital while her year-mates paid their dues to Konoha in sweat and blood.

Kakashi shifted underneath her chin. Katsuko blinked when his pigtails brushed against her nose, startled back into the present by the urge to sneeze. She fought it down with a disgruntled noise and buried her face in Kakashi’s scruffy hair. Kakashi made a mumbling sound and freed one hand from his tanto to reach back like he was going to pat her face. He lost drive halfway through and ended up just resting his palm against her cheek, calluses rough against her skin as his breathing started to slow and deepen.

“Anyway,” Ryouma was telling Genma and Raidou, “I bet if we walked down Canal Street in Konoha, I’d know more names than you would.”

Katsuko scrunched her nose as she tried to catch up with the conversation. “Are we still talking about friends?” she asked.

Genma looked over at her. “Tousaki’s claiming he’s some kind of social epicenter of Konoha.”

Kakashi’s grip on his tanto was starting to loosen. Katsuko reached over and very gently wrapped some of the blanket around the exposed blade. His fingers twitched. She pulled her hand back and glanced up at the others. “Tousaki doesn’t need to be an epicenter of anything,” she said, annoyed and feeling blurry around the edges. “He’s already got us.”

“But I do have other friends though,” Ryouma said, to Genma and Raidou. “Friends I haven’t slept with, even.” He looked at Katsuko, then, and some of the irritated stubbornness faded from his dark eyes. “And yeah, you’re one of ‘em.”

“Good,” Katsuko said, pleased with herself and the world in general. The warm feeling in her chest made her add, “Don’t tell Kakashi, but you’re the prettier one of my rookies.”

Ryouma straightened, smug delight and real happiness transforming his face as he took the compliment as his due. “You’re my prettiest senpai, too.”

“I’d better be,” Katsuko warned, narrowing her eyes. “I’m your only senpai.”

Raidou shifted, drawing her attention, and leaned sideways to stage-whisper to Genma, “I was wondering when she’d realize that.”

“Aren’t we technically senpai, too?” Genma asked. “Or does being officers cancel that out? Not that I want to compete for ‘prettiest’.”

“No, you’re not senpai,” Katsuko said flatly. “I am their only senpai. You’re just commanding officers.”

Raidou reached over to grab himself a pillow, propped it up against Genma’s hip, and lay down, popping a couple joints as he stretched stiff muscles out. “In that case, we’ll take a break, and you can take charge for a bit. Keep the rookies in line, commander-senpai.”

Katsuko brightened. “No take-backs,” she said, and barreled on before Raidou could rescind her new position of higher authority. “Tousaki, steal taichou’s blankets and then come back over here and make me a fort. Hatake, you can keep sleeping.”

Ryouma gave her an utterly betrayed look. “Your first command, and you’re sending me to my death already?”

“Tousaki,” Katsuko said earnestly, and reached over to grip his wrist for emphasis. “Tousaki. This is an S-ranked mission. Others have tried and failed. But as your new commander, I believe in you. I believe in your success. I believe in you totally and utterly. Now go get me my fort, soldier.”

Ryouma’s mouth was quivering. “Senpai,” he said. There was a quaver in his voice, too, badly controlled laughter lurking at the corners of his lips. He shifted up onto his knees and whispered loudly, “I’m casting a genjutsu now. Sleep deeply, taichou, and dream of— fluffy puppies.” He tugged very cautiously at the corner of one of the blankets underneath Raidou.

Out of the corner of her eye, Katsuko saw Genma tense up at the word genjutsu and dart a sharp glance at Raidou. Defensive irritation flared—Raidou wasn’t made of glass, and treating him like he was about to break wouldn’t do anyone any favors—before amusement at Ryouma’s over-exaggerated gestures wiped it away.

“You’re one of Konoha’s finest, Tousaki,” Katsuko said, also in a loud whisper. “If anyone can steal a blanket out from underneath the slumbering beast, it’s an ANBU.”

“You could also try asking the beast,” Raidou said, tired and amused. He gave them a fond smile that crinkled his eyes at the corners, and lifted himself up enough for Ryouma to retrieve the blanket. Then he added more softly, “Though puppies are nice, too.”

Ryouma paused with the blanket crumpled in his hands, gazing down at Raidou with a troubled expression. After a moment he said, “I can’t just leave him to shiver, senpai. Let’s give him Kakashi. That’s almost as good as puppies.”

Before Katsuko could explain that Kakashi was going to be the central support pillar for the impending fort, Genma intervened with a firm, “We’re still trying to keep Hatake warm. How about you make your blanket fort generous enough keep him under there with you?” Light amber eyes flicked to the tanto still in Kakashi’s hand. Genma glanced at Katsuko and signed disarm.

Kakashi’s non-weapon-wielding hand still rested against Katsuko’s face. His breathing was deep and even, tension unwinding slowly from his muscles as he sank further into sleep. Katsuko did her best to keep her head and upper body still as she reached out to carefully start coaxing Kakashi’s fingers loose of the tanto hilt. His grip relaxed, opening just enough for her to start to tug the tanto free—and then he shifted with an unconscious noise of discontent, hand curling around Katsuko’s fingers instead.

Katsuko stopped. Then, slowly, she curled her index and middle finger, gaining just enough space to tap out safe in ANBU code against Kakashi’s palm. There was a long beat—just long enough for Katsuko to remember exactly how painful broken metacarpals were—before Kakashi let out a soft breath, body going even heavier as his hand finally relaxed again, letting Katsuko go. She lifted the tanto free and started to hand it off to Ryouma before she realized he was still holding Raidou’s blanket. A clone came over to take the tanto instead and darted away, presumably to find some sort of cloth to wrap the blade in.

Genma breathed out a relieved sigh. “Good job. Thank you, Ueno.”

“Mm.” Katsuko peered down at Kakashi’s peaceful, trusting face. “Does anyone have a marker?”

Ryouma tossed his newly acquired blanket over her head. “Pretty sure we can come up with a less dangerous way to give you an adrenaline rush, if you want. There’s got to be a farm around here with an angry bull.”

The world was dark and musty. Katsuko tugged the blanket off and gave Ryouma a look of injured outrage. “Are you questioning my authority, Tousaki?”

Ryouma rocked back off his knees onto his heels, balancing easily. “Mostly just your judgment, senpai.”

Raidou, who’d been watching the scene unfold with a thoroughly entertained expression, let out a muffled snort. Genma just smiled like a bodhisattva and bestowed his approval upon Ryouma with a nod. Katsuko stabbed them with her eyes and turned to Ryouma with an imperious sniff.

“Fine,” she conceded, glaring up at Ryouma’s amused face. She jabbed her finger at a spot right next to her and Kakashi. “Get over here so I can administer your punishment, mutineer.”

He shrugged one muscled shoulder and flashed her a crooked grin, charming even in the midst of his treachery. Katsuko watched, narrow-eyed, as Ryouma thumped back down beside her, relaxing only when he crossed his legs and settled in.

Good. He knew better than to try and run away.

“Stay still,” she ordered, and set up court with Kakashi sprawled half over Ryouma’s legs and half over hers. She tugged the blanket up over Kakashi’s shoulders, propped her good shoulder up on Ryouma’s arm, and smiled when Ryouma accepted her weight without complaint. The brittle tension that had wound him up so tight until now was almost gone. Her smile turned smug when she aimed it over at Raidou and Genma. “My rookies are the best.”

Raidou folded his arm over his eyes, mouth lifting up at the corner. “If you start scent-marking them, we’re going to have words.”

Katsuko stroked an imaginary beard in contemplation. “Interesting suggestion, taichou.”

“Outside words,” Raidou added. “In the rain. Or a river. Whatever body of water is closest.”

“Hmm.” Her shoulder was starting to feel squashed. Katsuko turned just enough to rest her back against Ryouma instead, reclining like he was a favored chair. “On second thought, the scent-marking will have to wait until I can swim with both arms again.”

Ryouma’s weight shifted just before his chin settled on top of Katsuko’s head. Katsuko did her best not to look as pleased with herself as she actually was. He said lazily, “C’mon, taichou. I’ve smelled worse.”

Genma had a resigned look on his face. “What you do in your own time is your business, but there better be no-one scent marking anyone until all your wounds are closed, or I’m in line behind taichou for serious words.”

Katsuko sighed and sadly stroked her imaginary beard again. “Oh, well. I’ll just have to make do with marker labels and ‘property of’ stamps.”

“Mm,” Raidou murmured drowsily, which Katsuko took as permission for the implementation of her stamp plan. Genma went into medic-mode and moved over to start checking Raidou’s head and hand injuries one last time before Raidou could start falling asleep.

Ryouma rubbed his chin into Katsuko’s hair, mussing it up even further and sending fizzy little bubbles of happiness up in Katsuko’s chest. “Surprised you haven’t looked into tattoos yet. Guess we still need to prove ourselves as good kouhai first.”

“It’s okay,” Katsuko assured him, reaching up to pat his cheek like Kakashi had done to her. “Like I said before, I believe in you. You’ll pass the kouhai test eventually. Just stop mutineering first.”

Ryouma’s laugh rumbled in his chest and vibrated down Katsuko’s spine. “You’ve got a very long and respectable line of Academy teachers and genin sensei and team captains ahead of you who’ve failed to cure me of mutineering. I wish us both luck, though.” He resettled his chin. “Heading for sleep, taichou?”

“‘f anyone needs me to do anything, they better ask me right now,” Raidou said, which translated to ‘yes’. Katsuko only realized her eyes had drifted shut when she had to peel them open to see again.

“We’re good, I’ve got it,” she mumbled, and put her hands together to form the seals for her clones. She remembered why that was a bad idea a second too late, and by then her first set of bunshin had already dispelled themselves to make way for the fresh wave of clones. Her bad shoulder twinged as secondhand memories piled in; Katsuko breathed through her nose and relaxed deliberately, processing the images. By the time the new kage bunshin flitted off to take up their guard stations, the pain had started to dissipate and drowsiness was already threatening to overtake her again. She grunted. “These clones should last until the cavalry arrives. M’going to bed now.”

Genma eyed her. “Get some rest,” he ordered, after he decided Katsuko probably wasn’t going to keel over. “I need to dose everyone who needs dosing and check our prisoner. Tousaki, you still awake enough to give me a hand?”

Ryouma’s entire body winced, but he disentangled himself from Katsuko very carefully and eased her down. Katsuko grumbled at the loss of warmth, but smiled sleepily when he pulled the blankets up over her and slid a pillow underneath her bad shoulder. Her eyes fell closed; the next thing she felt was Ryouma’s callused hand sliding gently over her hair and his soft, “Rest well, senpai. And thank you.”

Katsuko made a quiet, warm sound of acknowledgment as Ryouma stood. Footsteps; then Ryouma’s voice, further away: “What d’you need, lieutenant?”

Kakashi was a solid presence at her side. Katsuko reached out until she could rest her hand in his hair, anchoring herself. Then, as the sound of Ryouma and Genma’s conversation faded out of the room, she slept.

worried ryoumaThe swelling had gone down in Genma’s leg, but the pain evidently hadn’t. He threaded his IV needle out by himself, but he needed a hand up from the platform, and a strong arm and a steady shoulder as they made their way out of the bunkroom. First to the bathroom, to deal with certain consequences of a round-the-clock IV; then, even less pleasantly, to the prisoner’s cell.

Fukuda’s fever had broken. She’d drunk water, Katsuko’s new clones reported, diligently mining through the memories of the previous watch. Still hadn’t eaten, hadn’t even tried to speak. The metal pot with its congealed lump of stew lay by the cell door, untouched. Ryouma left Genma and three clones with the prisoner and took the pot to the kitchen to wash.

He finished before Genma did, and went back into the bunkroom to scrounge for more dishes to clean.

When he came out of the kitchen the next time, Genma was outside the cell, leaning heavily against the packed earth wall and giving quiet instructions to the new clones. Fukuda lay blanket-covered in the shadows beyond him, breathing quietly. Her eyes were open.

“She’ll live?” Ryouma wasn’t sure why he was asking or whether he wanted to know the answer. Maybe it was something about watching the way Genma had worked tonight, steady despite his own hurts. A medic was supposed to look after himself first, and care about himself last. Had Genma said that, or had he heard it somewhere else?

Half of being a good medic is wanting the other guy to stop hurting. He remembered Genma saying that, at least.

He looked at Fukuda, and then away.

Still not there yet.

“As long as nothing changes, she’s improving.” Genma braced a hand on the wall and tested his weight on his right thigh. He grimaced, teeth clenched, and leaned back again. “Your bandage change earlier helped.”

Ryouma started to shove his hands in his pockets, remembered his spare ANBU blacks didn’t have them, and tucked his thumbs into his waistband instead. “Bet you won’t catch her being grateful.”

Genma gazed at him for a moment, light eyes caught a vivid gold in the flickering overhead glow. He seemed to be considering his words, and discarding them. At last he said, “Shibata-san’s department will be glad we saved her.”

Even less reason for Fukuda to be grateful, then.

Ryouma stole one more glance at her. She hadn’t moved, but she was watching him. He wondered if she knew, or guessed, who Shibata was. Raidou’d said Konoha wanted a word with her, hadn’t he? She had to know they were only saving her for interrogation.

He’d handed prisoners over to T&I two or three times before, but they’d been missing-nin, traitors to Konoha or to other villages; he hadn’t felt guilty. He didn’t have any reason to feel guilty now. He’d have been happy to kill her. He’d already crippled her. T&I couldn’t do much worse.

He dropped his eyes, all the same. “We done here, lieutenant?”

“We’re done,” Genma confirmed, but the careful, evaluating look still simmered behind his eyes. He pushed off from the wall, limping heavily. His shoulder brushed Ryouma’s in the narrow hall. “Hatake will keep for a while longer. I could really use a cup of coffee. Come sit in the kitchen with me a minute, and I’ll share my stash of instant.”

“Thought you were a tea man,” Ryouma said.

Genma shrugged. “I am. But instant coffee’s easy to carry, and I usually have teammates like you who’d rather drink it than tea. We can make a cup of each.”

Ryouma hadn’t had a decent caffeine hit since they left Konoha. He could guess at Genma’s motives for the offer, but he couldn’t drag up the energy to care.

He followed Genma to the kitchen, dragged over the folding chair for the lieutenant to collapse into, and busied himself pumping water and lighting the tiny stove. The fuel canister was full again; Raidou must have replaced it for his breakfast stew. He crouched over it, waiting for the water to boil. The back of his neck prickled with Genma’s gaze.

When Genma finally spoke, his voice ground low with tiredness and pain. “That’s the hardest part of the job. When everything in you is telling you that the person you’re trying to save deserves to die.” He drew a slow breath, let it out. “When you have a teammate badly injured, or dead, and it’s your prisoner’s fault. And when you’re off on a mission like ours, where you had to… Where some of your targets deserved Konoha’s wrath, but some were just…”

“In the way?” Ryouma asked the water bubbling in the pot.

“Collateral,” Genma said.

Ryouma remembered the wet thunk of kunai into flesh, the Tsuto boy’s last gurgling breath nearly inaudible under his father’s screams. And then Genma’s voice, calm and collected over the radio: Primary objective here complete. Moving on…

He shuddered, straightened, reached for clean mugs. “You got that coffee, lieutenant?”

Genma leaned precipitously out of his chair, hanging on to the edge of the doorway, and called for one of Katsuko’s clones to bring his medkit. When the clone arrived, Genma dug through the kit to an interior compartment and unearthed a slim metal cannister. He unscrewed the lid and pulled out a slender foil tube printed with a brightly colored image of a girl in traditional southern Water Country garb. “One packet makes two cups.”

Ryouma poured half the crystals carefully into a mug, and paused. “You wanted tea.”

“I could do either, I guess.” Genma tilted his head back against the wall, heavy-lidded eyes barely slitted open. “That’s how you know I’m tired. Can’t make a simple decision easily.” He dragged his gaze up again, with obvious effort. “You think you can drink two cups of coffee? I’ve got tea in here, just need to dig it back out.”

“Those mornings you see me looking only slightly zombified on the training field at 5 a.m.? Those are two-cup mornings. I need at least three cups if you want me chipper.” Ryouma added hot water, stirred, and set the mug aside to accept the folded tea packet Genma’d produced instead.

It looked fancy, too. Probably needed some delicate brewing temperature six degrees below the boiling point of water, or something. He dropped it in the mug, poured water in, and held the cup out. “Thanks for sharing.”

Genma’s eyes were slipping down to half-mast again. He made an mhm noise at the back of his throat and curled his fingers around the mug.

Ryouma dredged his brain for something else to say. “Smells like good stuff.”

The corners of Genma’s mouth tipped up. “Enjoy. Mount Akan coffee is amazing.” He opened his eyes, took a deep breath of the scented steam from his tea cup, and struggled a little more upright. “When we get back to Konoha, I’ll buy you a cup of the real stuff.”

Ryouma’s fancy-coffee-buying habits usually involved more whipped cream and hazelnut syrup and espresso shots, but he said, “Sure,” and tried a cautious sip. He’d burned his tongue once already today, making tea with Katsuko.

The flavor was as good as the scent, mild-roasted and smooth, with hints of complexity. Ryouma looked up, startled. “You weren’t kidding about the good stuff. Why—?”

He bit the question down. The answer was patently obvious. Genma hadn’t opened his secret stash on the journey to Ibaragashi, or during the previous day in the bunker, because it was meant for more than just a morning wake-up. It was a peace-offering, or at the least a conversational lubricant, because Ryouma wasn’t exactly handling this mission well and everyone on the team knew it.

Well, maybe not Kakashi. All his filters had crumpled beneath the battering-ram of morphine; if he’d noticed something, he’d have said it.

But Genma had noticed. Genma’d watched him all the way through. And Genma was sitting there now, hands laced around his tea mug, watching him with honey-amber eyes, and waiting for him to crack.

Ryouma licked the taste of coffee off his lip. “It hasn’t been my best mission, has it?”

Genma’s mouth quirked. “You gave yourself a hard act to follow, what with dealing the death blow to a giant demon scorpion-dog on the first one and all.” He fished the floating tea bag out of his cup, tossed it into the bucket where they’d been scraping food scraps, and took a slow sip. When he lowered the mug, his eyes were serious again. “This was Team Six’s first mission where we didn’t get to be unambiguously the good guys. There’s no easy way to prepare for the reality of ANBU. You think you know what you’re agreeing to when you take the mask, but until you have to hold the knife to some innocent kid’s throat, you don’t know.”

“You wouldn’t think a jounin’d have all that many illusions left to lose,” Ryouma said.

“And yet,” Genma said gently.

“And yet.” Ryouma sighed. He tried another taste of his coffee. “I thought, maybe… I thought you’d saved Fukuda because we couldn’t save anybody else.”

Genma blew out his breath through pursed lips. His gaze fell away for a moment, seeking something in the shadows. “I… don’t know if I was thinking that. Maybe part of me was. I saw her there, and she was clearly going to die horribly if I didn’t do something. But this was an S-class mission, and she was the only surviving enemy—and Iebara’s commander. She’s at least a moderately high value target for interrogation.”

His gaze wandered again, this time to his mug, as if there was something in green tea with brown rice that could help him marshal his thoughts. He said slowly, without looking up, “The effects of your jutsu are gruesome, and the medic in me recognized her suffering. But I’m a field operative first. I saved her because I thought Konoha would need her.”

At least she’d be able to confirm Kakashi’s Bingo Book kill, since they hadn’t salvaged Iebara’s dogtags or his head. Ryouma wrapped an arm around his legs and decided he didn’t, actually, want to think about her destined meeting with Shibata.

“You thought about a lot of things I didn’t,” he said. “I just wanted to stop her from killing Kakashi. And then I didn’t care how long it took her to die.”

Genma lifted one shoulder, silent acknowledgment: He was the lieutenant. It was his job to think about those things.

“I get that,” he said quietly. He looked up at last, and his eyes met Ryouma’s. His sandstone gaze was unflinchingly direct, but there was anger lurking in the depths. “When I saw you bending over Hatake, holding him, I thought I was too late. And when I got to Fukuda, what I wanted to do—what I almost did—was cut off her head.”

And yet he hadn’t.

Because he was the lieutenant, and thought about his duty before himself? Or was it sheer iron self-control, that kept him from giving way to either blood-thirst or compassion?

Ryouma took another sip. “You ever done anything you really regret?”

A crease drew down between Genma’s brows. He reached up to rub it, winced as he brushed the bandage over his nose, and dropped his hand again. “On a mission, or ever? Because the answer is yes, to both.” He turned the tea mug in his hands. “The worst one was giving up on a guy I maybe could have saved. He was gasping and blue with a lung injury, and I was barely trained. I was scared to try to heal him, because if you do it wrong in the chest, you can kill your patient.”

His fingers tapped a rough, broken tattoo against the tin curve of the mug. He sighed. “In the end he died because I didn’t try. I bandaged him and ran him back to an aid station, and it was too late. He died on my back.”

“So your worst regret is not that you did something wrong, but that you didn’t do enough right.” Ryouma chewed the inside of his cheek. “And you deal with that by being kind of scarily conscientious now.”

Genma chuckled tiredly. “Is that how you see me? I guess maybe.” He grew somber, spinning the mug between his palms so that liquid swirled and sloshed up the sides. “I’ve done things wrong that I regretted, too, though. I’ve screwed up in the field, misread a trail, missed a trap I should have seen. Had to kill a witness to an assassination who I never should have let get that close in the first place.”

He looked up from the tea. “Practically every mission in ANBU, we have almost no margin. That’s why we get the missions, and not the regular service. We all have things that eat at us. From what I’ve seen, you’re not making mistakes. Unless I missed something?”

Ryouma shook his head. His throat was tight and raw. A mouthful of coffee helped, a little.

“I did it right,” he said. “The mission, at least. The fight with the Kiri team, I could’ve done better—if I’d reacted faster in the first place, Iebara never would’ve cut me, and maybe I should’ve gone for Fukuda’s throat and not her arm—but a fight’s always like that. You can’t second-guess yourself there. But the mission, I hit every mark spot on, I followed orders exactly, I didn’t hesitate when it counted.”

He looked down at his hand, the raw red scratches across the back of his fingers, and said softly, “I watched the mother’s face while she died. I thought I owed her that. But the girl—”

Grown killers who’d rather face a battlefield than look dying little girls in the eye, Katsuko had said.

And Genma had killed that girl’s brother.

He rubbed his hand over his face, and tossed the rest of the coffee back. “It was the mission. And we did it. So. We pull ourselves together, and we go on, and Katsu takes me out to get drunk and laid when we get back home. That’s the ANBU way, right?”

“It’s not the only way,” Genma said gently. He leaned in, resting an elbow on his good thigh, dangling the tea mug between his knees. “You can reach out—talk to people. Talk to your teammates, like you’re already doing. Talk to friends on different teams. You’re buddies with Shibata’s son and that swordswoman Ayane on Hajime’s team, right? It helps to realize it’s not just you. My rookie year, after the first few missions, there was a lot of cross-talk between teams. It helped.”

Ryouma probably didn’t need friends to talk to nearly as much as Ayane did. He’d meant to see her before he left Konoha. There just hadn’t been a chance, between his appointment with the chakra specialist and packing his gear for the mission. He hoped Hakone had looked for her.

She’d lost her entire team, on her first mission. How could talking to anyone possibly help her deal with that?

At least he hadn’t lost anyone, despite Kakashi’s most suicidal heroics. That probably wasn’t the sort of comfort he should be looking for, but at the moment he wasn’t ready to feel guilty for it.

Maybe by the time he got back to Konoha, slept a full night in his own bed, took Katsuko and Kakashi out drinking—because he still thought that was a damn good idea, no matter what Genma said—maybe then he’d be steady enough to look for Ayane and Hakone and his old friends.

Maybe he’d have a strong shoulder of his own to offer, by then.

He reached for the remaining half-tube of coffee crystals. “I think mostly my talking to teammates has been less reaching out and more— Hell. I don’t know.” Last-ditch efforts not to fall apart? Maybe that was only true of that thorny tangle with Raidou, yesterday. He had been doing better since then, and since talking with Katsuko today. He’d been pretty proud of himself during their game, actually, until he’d seen Fukuda and all the bottled-up anger broke out again.

Genma said, “You’re doing fine.” There was a new, forceful note in his voice, compelling Ryouma’s attention up. He caught Ryouma’s eyes, held them. “You’ve kept Hatake distracted and Ueno focused, and you’ve been helping me with medical care, and all of us with basic needs like food and hygiene. It’s hard enough to keep it together in a bunker safehouse with injured teammates when you aren’t freaked out by what you just had to do on your mission.” He glanced through the open doorway, toward the cells. “Or what you’re bringing back with you.”

The whiskey-amber gaze fixed back on Ryouma. “Don’t let the prisoner get to you. Leave her to me and the captain. You’re doing fine, Tousaki.”

Ryouma’s throat hurt again. He ducked his head. “Thanks, lieutenant.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then the gentle brush of a hand over the top of his head. Chakra-warm, lingering, fingers sinking into his hair.

Then a quick ruffle, and a yawn, and the warmth and pressure were gone. Ryouma glanced up to see Genma rubbing his bandaged leg. “I should probably get back to bed before my leg starts swelling up again,” Genma said. “Your throat and chest feeling okay? I can lay a little healing chakra in if you need it.”

Ryouma shook his head. “Save it,” he said. “I’ll finish the coffee.”

Genma yawned again, careful not to scrunch his bandaged nose, and set his empty tea-mug down. “Don’t stay up too long,” he said. “You need rest, too.” He paused, halfway up from his chair, with a hand on the wall. One of Katsuko’s clones hovered helpfully around the doorway. “And Hatake and Ueno need you in sightlines,” Genma added. “It’s been a rough mission for all of us.”

Ryouma could probably stand to do a better job of remembering that.

“I’ll be there, lieutenant,” he said.



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