Afternoon of May 16, Yondaime Year 5
Chakra healing was only a spectator sport for a specific kind of person.
Watching the slow, bloodless process of excising scar tissue, closing knotted voids, and encouraging healthy muscle and tissue to grow back together was not Kakashi’s idea of a good time. It was beneficial for the lieutenant, of course, since a shinobi with a thigh carved out of fascial catastrophe was a shinobi with an expiration date. But Kakashi was never going to be a medic-nin; he couldn’t learn anything of value, and his presence was more of a challenge than a comfort to Genma, who had opinions about things like ‘not judging medical staff.’
Ryouma seemed fascinated, dark eyes darting between soft-voiced medics and their flickering chakra seals. With Genma’s encouragement, he even plucked up the confidence to ask a few questions, and looked thrilled when the head surgeon answered him like a colleague.
Katsuko was more grimly traumatized by the sights and sounds of an active medical procedure. She stuck close to Ryouma’s side on the pretense of playing supportive senpai, but Kakashi didn’t miss the way her mouth tightened and her eyes kept marking the exits. When a nurse adjusted the calibration of Genma’s pain medication — a light dose, just enough to take the edge off having his inner thigh manipulated like a tapestry on a loom — and the IV machine beeped, Katsuko visibly twitched.
Even slightly stoned, Genma was a perceptive man. He glanced at her and Kakashi, and said lightly, “I admire your dedication to the mission, but I think Tousaki has the bodyguarding thing down. Can you two go scout a suitable location for lunch, assuming anyone has an appetite after this?”
“I should stay,” Katsuko said, like every word was being pulled from her with hooks.
Ryouma looked down at her, fledgling medical glee replaced by instant guilt, and Kakashi restrained the urge to thump someone’s head against the wall. His own, maybe.
“I’m bored,” he announced. “I may collapse at any moment. Ueno, give me your arm.”
Katsuko stared at him, blankly stupefied, as if Kakashi had just declared his intention to go naked fishing. Then, mutely, she offered him an arm. It was a mark of her distress that she didn’t question his need for it, or even amend the gesture with a pointed comment. She simply escorted him courteously from the room, on guard against attacks of vapors.
Kakashi glanced back to catch Genma mouthing thank you at him, and the concerned tilt of Ryouma’s dark eyebrows. He waved a dismissive hand at both of them, adding a twist of trail sign for Ryouma: stay.
Ryouma stayed, and Kakashi awarded himself three points for successful interpretation of social cues.
It wasn’t much of a performance to lean against Katsuko. He was still tired and cold, and she was a short, solid furnace, radiating heat and concerned sounds as she guided him through the labyrinth of corridors to the waiting room, and then into the general walkways of the hospital. The smell of antiseptic faded, swallowed by a bloom of warm food scents from the cafeteria.
“Thanks,” Katsuko said, looking straight ahead.
Kakashi’s mouth twitched behind his mask — busted — but he said, “I have no idea what you mean.”
A bony finger poked him in the side. “I wanted to stay to look after the lieutenant, but I was just getting in the way. So… thanks. I guess.”
Kakashi dipped his chin in faint acknowledgement and thought back to his first team. He didn’t remember ‘looking after people’ being such a critical part of the Team Minato experience, but maybe that was because he’d been so very bad at it.
Or maybe because they’d done all the looking after, while he’d been a pissy, judgmental, oblivious little shit.
He carried the old guilt for a moment, nipping at the corners of his mind like a shadow with sharp, sharp teeth, then Katsuko jostled against his side and the bite faded down, replaced by more current concerns.
“Ramen for lunch?” he suggested. “There’s the stall outside the hospital.”
“Are you trying to distract me with food?” Katsuko demanded. “Because it will work, but only if you promise not to fall over.”
“Food is our mission,” Kakashi reminded her, meaning yes. “And I haven’t fallen over in at least a week, and that, by the way, was a tactical collapse, so shut up.”
“I didn’t say anything, Great Tactician-san,” Katsuko said sweetly.
Kakashi opened his mouth to respond — and was interrupted by an incredulous voice behind him.
He turned to find Rin staring at him. Or, more specifically, staring at his arm linked through Katsuko’s. Her expression was unreadable.
Kakashi yanked his arm free like Katsuko’s skin had just turned molten, and then wondered why.
Rin looked from Katsuko, who stood like a woman shipwrecked on the shores of confusion, to Kakashi, who could feel himself turning a deep, mortified red behind his mask even though he’d done nothing wrong. Rin’s cool professionalism took the wheel. She nodded at Katsuko, “Ueno-san. Thank you for looking after Kakashi. Do you mind if I borrow him for a moment?”
Katsuko nodded with utmost respect. “Of course not, Nohara-sensei. Please give him back in one piece.”
She gave Kakashi a cheerful little wave, a promise to meet up later, and then abandoned him. It wasn’t even subtle. Landspeed records could have been made by clocking her turn of speed around the corner. Betrayed, Kakashi glared wordlessly after her vanishing dust cloud, then turned back to Rin.
Her professional face was still in place, one mask against another.
He said carefully, “You needed something?”
Rin blinked, regrouped, and finally smiled. “Yes. It’s good news, but it’s better if I told you somewhere other than the hallway.”
Classified, Kakashi translated.
He followed Rin back to her office. The side Katsuko had leaned against felt cool and hypersensitive to the hospital chill. He wondered where she’d gone, and if she’d be okay there without anyone to bully or baffle or prop up. He wasn’t supposed to have left her. The lieutenant was going to have opinions—
Rin closed the door and said, “I just finished the third operation on the girl from Hayama. Hisa. She’s in stable condition right now. Resting.”
Kakashi blinked twice and readjusted his entire frame of reference. Hisa, the little girl he’d dragged out from under a mountain, filthy and stick-thin, carrying a demon’s spawn. The last news he’d heard about her had been from Genma, before the most recent mission had torn the team apart. Something about a chakra-induced coma and poor chances for survival. She was too small, had too little chakra.
He blinked again, disbelieving. “She’s going to live?”
Rin’s smile grew, pride shining through her near-constant exhaustion. “Yes. The demon’s chakra ran deeper than we realized; it took two additional surgeries to excise it fully from her, and then figure out a way to support her chakra system while it healed. It wasn’t easy, considering the amount of damage, but, well…” Her smile sharpened. “In the end it came down to a battle of wills. Mine versus the demon’s.”
This was, Kakashi realized, something they could be happy about. There were no deeper levels. There was no underneath.
This was a little girl they’d saved, who got to live.
It was the captain’s credit. Raidou was the one who’d driven them so hard, determined to make a rescue. Katsuko had burned for the bodies under the floor. Ryouma had reassured the living. Genma had done what healing he could. Kakashi had killed things underground.
He would have cut down Hisa and Fujiyama in the dark, called it a mercy, if Raidou hadn’t made that a non-option. If the rest of the team hadn’t backed that choice like it was obvious, instead of a waste of resources.
People kept saying they were good for him. This was the first time he’d seen it for himself.
He thought about sitting down, but that veered too close to his earlier promise of collapsing, and Rin would have definite opinions about that. Instead he took her face between his hands and pressed a mask-mouthed kiss to her forehead. She made a choked, startled sound and turned pink.
Kakashi said, “I need to tell my team. When is she getting discharged?”
Rin stared at him for a blank second, then rallied, still pink-cheeked. She was startled, but she was still a rising genius and Minato’s former student. “A few days, dependent on how she does during the next twenty-four hours. Her parents want the chance to thank your team in person, if possible.”
Kakashi’s joy faded a little. “I can get everyone except the captain. Can you tell them he’s, uh, occupied?” Genma could think of a better lie later.
Rin’s eyes sharpened. “Of course. I’ll think of something.” She hesitated, then said, “Kakashi, your team—”
He pulled back and smiled at her, eye curving over his mask. “We’re okay,” he said, because of course Minato had told her. But it was also true, mostly. “I need to go, but I’ll bring them back. And — thank you, Rin.”
She made an acknowledging sound, and said, “I’m glad you’re alright.” Her expression burned with unasked questions, fearsome curiosity making her awake and young.
Kakashi went for the door handle before she could assemble the first one. He ducked out, then stuck his head back in. “Also, stop scaring my team. That’s my job.”
Rin’s brown eyes narrowed, weaponized curves above purple tattoos. “We’ll talk later,” she promised.
Kakashi cut and ran.
It took him half an hour to track Katsuko down, following her scent because his chakra-senses were still criminally underpowered. She was lying on the hospital rooftop, studying the trails of clouds overhead.
When he told her about Hisa, she stared at him, then dropped her head back, spread her good arm wide, and laughed like relief was a physical thing. Like the universe had given her a beautiful present, and it was a girl who got to go home with her family, instead of being buried or burned.
He remembered how gentle she’d been with the two girls under the floor. Her voice had gone as cold and hard as shattered steel, chakra surging against the leash of her control, but her hands had stayed steady when she’d folded the tiny, torn bodies into hand-stitched blankets.
There was no trace of that now. Katsuko was laughing green eyes and a smile like distilled sunlight, like she’d never worn a scar in her life.
He reached down to offer her a hand up, and only staggered a little when she let him take her weight.
“Can I tell the others?” she asked. “Pretend it’s my birthday.”
He snorted laughter, but said, “Happy birthday.”
Katsuko whooped and ran back into the hospital like she’d forgotten it had ever made her afraid.
Thirty seconds later, she returned to collect Kakashi and drag him along with her.
It took another hour for the unit to discharge Genma. When they finally let him go, it was with new, sleek bandages around his injured leg, and a cane to replace his crutches. He leaned heavily on the polished stick, which bore the chips and dents of prior use, but his foot was actually on the ground, fully weight-bearing.
He seemed tired and still a little altered. His pupils were pin-prick points in acres of amber iris. At his shoulder, Ryouma grinned with success.
They both seemed relieved to find Kakashi and Katsuko hadn’t massacred each other or an innocent bystander, which Kakashi thought was a little insulting. He forgot his offence when Katsuko bounded up to them, and yelled, “Hisa’s alive!”
She made to hug them both, then remembered herself and just as quickly backed off, doing a kind of excited arm wave instead. Behind her, Kakashi swallowed a laugh.
Ryouma’s eyes had widened with surprise. “Hisa? That little girl from the demon-mine? She pulled through okay?”
“Yes!” Katsuko nearly glowed with delight. “Nohara-sensei said she can go home in a few days, depending on how well her initial recovery goes.”
Genma’s smile was broad and unguarded, shields lowered just enough to show the delighted young man living behind the command rank. Lately, everyone seemed young. “That’s fantastic! Did Nohara-sensei say if she could have visitors? I mean, if her parents would be okay with that.”
Kakashi said, “Her parents want to thank us.” He hesitated briefly, then added, “Rin said she could make an excuse for the captain, but…”
“I can explain about the captain,” Genma said without hesitation. “If we go see them now then it’s just luck we all had appointments here at around the same time, and Taichou didn’t.”
“Oh,” said Katsuko. “I was just going to tell them that Taichou was in the hospital with two broken legs.”
That was exactly why Genma was in charge of the lying, even stoned.
Ryouma scratched the back of his head. “Never actually had anyone thank us before. You two did all the saving, though — you can stand up front and take the credit.”
“You say that like any of us would have made it back if you hadn’t killed the demon queen,” Genma said. He considered this for a beat longer than it should have taken him. “Though perhaps better not to alarm Hisa’s parents further with that.”
“We can skip the reenactment,” Ryouma agreed. “Especially the part where all of us nearly died.”
Katsuko added companionably, “None of us are qualified to socialize with civilians. Let’s go do that anyways.”
“I didn’t nearly die,” Kakashi said, three hallways later.
“That was the only mission where you didn’t faint, either,” Katsuko said.
“You hero, you,” Ryouma said. “You get to talk with the civilians.”
“Please don’t faint,” said Genma.
Rin was startled to see the team appear so quickly — and more startled to see Kakashi in the middle of the group, trading only quasi-lethal barbs with people who weren’t emotionally crippled by the experience — but she recovered almost immediately. She nodded an amicable greeting and motioned down the hall. “Hisa-san’s room is just this way.”
Long-term wards were not much different from short-term wards, except that the rooms tended to be better decorated. People liked to bring comfort items from home. Even Kakashi had installed his shuriken-pattern blanket, half a shelf’s worth of books, and two or three (secret) dogs on the few occasions he’d needed to stay more than a week. The rooms around Hisa’s had pictures, flowers, family members, toys and shrines and hand-sewn wall-hangings with the kanji for health repeated like a prayer.
Hisa’s room contained a single bed, two cots, two hospital chairs, and blankets that looked borrowed. Everything had Konoha’s hospital stamp on it.
This was not a home away from home. This was a refugee waiting room.
Kakashi hesitated on the threshold, took an encouraging elbow in the back from Ryouma, a second in the ribs from Katsuko, and just managed to avoid stumbling over his own feet. He wasn’t silent. A small figure flailed upright in the bed, startling two dozing adults awake from their chairs.
“Wha—?” said the man, grey and haggardly confused.
“Oh!” said the woman, hands flying to her mouth.
Hisa’s parents. The automatic filing cabinet of Kakashi’s brain flagged their names up as Ehime Chiyo (the mother), and Ehime Masunosuke (the father), but they only held a fraction of his attention.
He remembered exactly what Hisa had looked like. He’d seen her with his Sharingan; she’d be in his head forever. Farmer girl kimono, ragged pigtails, the barest curve of that vile demon larva already starting to grow. One living spark in a hole of rotting dead.
Now, there was life in her face. Color in her cheeks. Someone had brushed her hair until it shined, and braided it back. Little flyaway wisps made a crown around her head. She stared intently at him — her eyes were brown; he hadn’t known that — and then, more specifically, at his hair. She smiled a wide, shining, crooked-toothed grin. “Ninja-san!”
Kakashi gave her a little wave. “Hi.”
And then there was an explosion of confusion when Ryouma and Katsuko piled in behind him, and Hisa tried to scramble off the bed, and both her parents rushed forward to catch her and make alarmed noises about pulled stitches, and Genma leaned on his cane, looking at them all with eyes that were just a little too bright.
Kakashi stepped to one side, clearing the way for Rin to step through and introduce them all by name, since the last time the little family had seen them, Team Six had been masked and armored. That done, she excused herself and left at a brisk pace to answer the clarion cry of an emergency further down the ward. Hisa insisted on being allowed to stand on her own two feet — though her mother insisted, equally loudly, that she needed to hold on to her father’s arm — and walked carefully forward, flanked by her parents.
In the middle of the room she stopped, pressed her free hand to her stomach, and bowed formally. Her parents bowed deeply with her, unrestricted by healing surgeries.
“Thank you, ninja-san,” she said, like she’d practiced it. Then she straightened up and pointed at Katsuko with delight. “I told you one of them was a girl.”
“You remembered me, Hisa-san?” Katsuko said, equally delighted.
Hisa made a very eleven-year-old sound that, loosely translated, Kakashi thought might mean obviously. Suddenly she was a real person. An almost-teenage real person. Not just the second-last survivor of a tragedy.
He was sharply, profoundly relieved that he hadn’t killed her.
Katsuko laughed and bowed to Hisa, holding it for a dignified beat before she straightened. “You were very brave, Hisa-san. I’m so glad you’re alright.”
Hisa’s cheeks dimpled.
Genma stepped quietly around Ryouma and offered his own bow to the girl and her family. “Ehime-san, Hisa-san. We’re all really glad you’re recovering.” He looked like he wanted to add more, but stopped himself. Highly aware, Kakashi guessed, that he wasn’t completely sober.
Chiyo and Masunosuke bowed, straightened, and bowed again. They both had the slightly wild-eyed look civilians often got around shinobi, like deer meeting wolves they wanted to thank. Masunosuke’s hand was tight but careful on his daughter’s arm. Chiyo’s dark eyes — the same color as her Hisa’s — flicked from face to face, never quite settling, as if she wanted to commit them all to memory, but didn’t dare look too long.
She said quietly, “We can’t ever thank you for all you’ve done. Shiranui-san, without your healing—” Her voice wavered. She wiped a quick, weathered hand over her face.
Masunosuke reached around and curled his free hand over his wife’s shoulder, bracing her. “Who killed the demon?”
Well, that answered one question. They’d been given some clearance to understand the circumstances that had almost taken their daughter.
Katsuko hooked a thumb at Ryouma.
Kakashi said, “Tousaki rotted her from the inside out.”
“What happened to not scaring the civilians?” Ryouma hissed.
Kakashi shrugged one shoulder. “I’d want to know.”
Chiyo wiped her face again, slipped out from under her husband’s hand, and came forward. She was pale beneath her summer tan, but she walked right up to Ryouma and lifted her chin to study his face. To the average observer, Ryouma would have seemed relaxed. To the shinobi eyes in the room, he looked one step away from bolting.
Genma set a steadying hand on his shoulder. Katsuko came to subtle attention. Kakashi watched thoughtfully.
Chiyo reached out, slowly and carefully, and took Ryouma’s hands in hers. He stiffened, but she insisted. She barely came up to his collarbones and his fingers could have overlapped hers twice over, but she held him like something precious.
“Thank you, Tousaki-san.” Her eyes welled and overflowed, spilling down her cheeks. She pulled his hands to her face, bowing her head over them, and cried onto his fingers. “Th-thank you so much.”
Ryouma looked stricken. “Ehime-san, you don’t need to— Anybody else would’ve— It was our job.”
This did nothing to stem the flood. Chiyo gripped him harder, shoulders shaking. Behind her, Hisa clung to her father, looking upset and confused by her mother’s distress. Masunosuke cupped a comforting hand over Hisa’s head, but his expression ached.
“My cousin vanished in the caves,” he said. “Our neighbor lost a child. When we thought we’d lost Hisa—”
Kakashi couldn’t help remembering faces, wrenched open ribcages. There’d been a young man near Hisa, too far gone to save. A younger girl in a different hatchery. He’d killed them both. Genma had killed others.
The lieutenant’s face was a white mask.
“Without you, they couldn’t r-rest,” Chiyo said. Her head was still bowed, tears falling like a blessing.
Ryouma swallowed hard, but didn’t pull his hands away. His eyes were wet, too.
Genma spoke first, soft and rough. “I said the nembutsu for each name on the list of the missing. And prayers for Hisa-san. For her recovery.” His hand was still on Ryouma’s shoulder, bracing.
Kakashi hadn’t known that, but he recalled Genma making a fleeting religious handsign in the burning wake of Tsuto’s home, and the lieutenant’s subtle discomfort at destroying the family shrine. Kakashi had no belief in a greater anything, but it struck him as fitting, somehow, that the most opaque member of their team would try to intercede on behalf of civilians he couldn’t save. A wolf in many respects, but there were elements of a guardian hound in Genma.
Ryouma said, faltering. “I know what it’s like to— to wait. Not knowing. I’m glad we could bring Hisa-chan home.”
Katsuko moved. She’d gone quiet and still in the face of sudden emotion, expression unreadable, but now she stepped closer to Ryouma and reached up to clasp his other shoulder. “We all know loss,” she said quietly to Chiyo’s lowered head. “And knowing Hisa-san is safe, we all share your joy.”
Chiyo gave a low, heaving sob. Twin tears slipped down Ryouma’s cheeks, cutting silver lines to his jaw. He didn’t wipe them away; he still hadn’t pulled his hands back.
The room smelled of salt and grief and soul-hurting relief, like the aftermath of every funeral Kakashi had ever attended. He took a slow breath. Hisa looked frantically at her father, clearly not understanding why the fearless shinobi and her parents were dissolving.
It reminded him acutely of Naruto.
He smiled, eye curving, and murmured, “Tousaki, you’re scaring the tiniest civilian.”
Ryouma looked up, startled, then over at Hisa. He took a deep breath and visibly pulled himself back together, though his mouth remained slanted down at the corners. “Here, Ehime-san. Have a seat.” He stepped away from Katsuko and Genma, guiding Chiyo to a chair. She still refused to relinquish his hands, so he crouched down at her feet, and jerked his head at Kakashi to fetch tissues.
There was a box on the bedside. Kakashi scooped them up and handed them to Masunosuke, while Hisa scrambled up onto the chair next to her mother. People reshuffled, highly motivated by weeping women and distressed children, and settled again. Genma sat on the corner of the hospital bed, resting his leg. Katsuko leaned against the wall at Ryouma’s back. Hisa pressed in close against her mother’s side, while Masunosuke gently dried Chiyo’s face.
Hisa whispered in her mother’s ear, “Mama, we’re not supposed to touch ninja.”
“If it helps, Tousaki’s more of a lapdog ninja,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma scowled at him.
“See?” Kakashi said. “Doesn’t bite at all.”
Hisa giggled, uncertain at first, and then more confidently when no one criticized this breach of protocol. Chiyo gave her a watery smile, and finally released Ryouma in order to pull her daughter close, burying her face in Hisa’s hair. Hisa rubbed her mother’s arm. Then, cautiously curious, she reached out to pet Ryouma lightly on the head.
He smiled up at her. It was his classic, clean-cut hero’s smile, slightly toned down to befit her younger age. His eyes still shined too brightly, but he managed to sound almost like his normal self when he said, “Kakashi’s the one with a hound on his mask. The ANBU mask, not the one he’s wearing right now.”
“That’s because I do bite,” Kakashi said. When all three members of the Ehime family looked alarmed, he added, “Just not civilians.”
“Hound isn’t biting anyone,” Genma said, with a comforting smile for Hisa. “Do you remember any of us? I was wearing the Tanuki mask.”
Rin’s introduction had included names and Genma’s rank, but not mask designations. Kakashi wasn’t actually sure if Rin even knew their masks, besides his.
Being directly addressed by the lieutenant made Hisa duck her head, both pleased and shy. “You were on the boat,” she said. “You did magic on me.”
Genma visibly melted, a wide smile blossoming over his face. “I was. I did ninjutsu to try and help you while we took you to the hospital. I’m really glad you’re feeling better now.”
Hisa turned pink, and smiled back. Then she pointed at Katsuko. “And you brought my parents soup.”
She said this like Katsuko had personally hand-delivered the sun.
“Your parents were so worried about you they were barely eating,” Katsuko said. “I wanted to help them keep their strength up.”
Hisa beamed at her. Katsuko had reverted to expressionless again, trapped in a small room with a lot of emotions and no mask to hide behind, but the full focus of Hisa’s obvious adoration pulled a slow, sincere smile from her.
“And you looked at me funny,” Hisa added to Kakashi, less excitedly. The Sharingan often had that effect. He was surprised she even remembered. She looked at Ryouma and said, “And I don’t really remember you, but I like you.”
She petted the top of his head again, more firmly.
Ryouma’s smile turned rueful. “I fell over and spent most of the time sleeping.”
“But you were very good at it,” Katsuko told him. “You made an excellent pillow.”
“And sometimes a doorstop,” Kakashi said.
Chiyo took the cue from them. She sniffed, still a little watery, wiped her face, and gave her husband a determined smile. Masunosuke reached over to lightly touch her cheek, pride and love naked on his face.
Kakashi looked away.
“Where is the other one?” Chiyo asked. “The… captain? Is that the right term?”
“The captain had a meeting he couldn’t avoid,” Genma said smoothly. “But he asked me to tell you he’s delighted that Hisa-san is recovering so well.” He smiled, a warm, inclusive smile that welcomed the Ehime family into the fold. “It’s rare for us to see the people we interact with after our mission is over.”
Because we kill most of them, he did not say, but the subtle stillness that ran through every shinobi in the room acknowledged it.
“Would you give him our sincere thanks?” Masunosuke said. “I would prefer to say it myself, but I know he is probably a very busy man.”
Raidou would have given a hand to see this, Kakashi thought. The captain was actually good at civilians. He would have hugged Chiyo by now, and teased Hisa, and apologized for Masunosuke’s cousin.
“I’m sure if there’s any chance he can visit before you leave, he will. But he may be called away for a mission.” Genma’s voice slipped lower with genuine regret. “I know he’s deeply sorry he wasn’t able to be here with us today.”
Masunosuke dipped his head in thanks.
“At least we got to thank some of you,” Chiyo said, unexpectedly reaching out to touch Ryouma’s cheek, where a tear track had faded. Ryouma went still. Chiyo’s thumb brushed his skin gently, and there was something very tender in the gesture. Just for a moment, they didn’t look like a civilian and a killer. Just for a moment, Ryouma closed his eyes.
Chiyo smiled sadly and took her hand back.
Hisa slipped away from her mother’s side and went to Katsuko. She said, forthright, “Do you have to go already?”
Katsuko smiled down at the younger girl, soft and a little unsure. “Sorry, Hisa-san. If we stay too long the medics will come in to yell. And you need to rest, even though I know hospital beds are boring.”
Knew in detail, Kakashi bet.
Hisa bit her lower lip, shifted uncertainly, then threw her arms around Katsuko — which was not actually an intelligent thing to do to a shinobi strung wire-tense, but Katsuko coped admirably, only tensing for a violent split-second, before she just looked startled. The top of Hisa’s head came up to her collarbones. Hisa pressed her face into Katsuko’s shirt and whispered something.
Katsuko’s expression tore in half. She stitched the edges back together, wrapped her good hand around Hisa’s thin back, and lowered her head to murmur in the girl’s ear. Hisa’s shoulders trembled for a moment, then firmed. She took a deep breath and let Katsuko go, stepping back. The two shared a look, mutual recognition, and Katsuko touched a little salute to her temple.
Hisa smiled, and it held resolve. She went back to her parents, slotting between them like a puzzle piece that knew exactly where it fit.
And that seemed to be that.
Kakashi glanced at Genma, puzzled. The lieutenant gave a single head shake and pushed himself stiffly back to his feet, catching his balance with a hand on Ryouma’s shoulder — a hand that, to Kakashi’s eye, he didn’t really need, but it made Ryouma catch a breath and straighten back to his feet, turning to support the lieutenant.
“We should let Hisa-san rest,” Genma told the team. “She has a big journey home soon.” He bowed again to the little family, as low and respectful as he might offer to a visiting dignitary. Kakashi, Katsuko, and Ryouma echoed him, with varying degrees of grace.
Hisa’s parents bowed in return, and Hisa waved shyly, cheeks turning pink again. Ryouma smiled at her. Katsuko nodded. Genma turned to lead the way out.
When Kakashi made it to the door, Chiyo’s voice made him pause. “Just a moment, Hatake-san—”
He turned to find her closer than he’d expected — he needed his chakra sense back — and twitched. “Uh,” he began.
“Nohara-san said you’d hate this, but I can’t just let you go.” She reached out and, to Kakashi’s great astonishment, touched him on the back of the hand, saying softly, “Thank you for bringing her out of the mountain.”
Kakashi blinked twice, stranded in terra incognita without a map, and found himself staring down at the slim, brown hand resting on his. He looked up. Chiyo smiled tentatively. Behind her, Hisa stood tucked against her father’s side, healthy and healing, cheeks dimpled. Masunosuke had the same dimple, a fleeting curve in his narrow face.
Carefully, Kakashi curled his fingers and pulled his hand free. “If you have problems, send for us again,” he said.
Chiyo nodded with clear relief that her gesture hadn’t caused offense, and bowed one last time as Kakashi slipped away, back to the safety of his team.
Out in the hallway, Genma smiled at him. “Well done.”
They made it outside of the hospital, where the trees and sidewalks were drenched in midday sun, heading for the ramen stand to forestall Genma’s post-healing shakes, when Ryouma asked the quiet question. “What did Hisa say to you?”
Katsuko tipped her head back, looking at the open blue sky. “She asked what kunoichi do with their scars.”
Kakashi looked at her. “What did you say?”
She dropped her chin and smiled wearily at him, showing the edges of old fault lines. “Wear them with pride.”
A warm spring wind curled around them, chasing early fallen blossoms. Katsuko’s hair fell across her eyes. Ryouma reached out like he intended to brush it back, but fisted his hand and dropped it into his pocket instead.
Genma said softly, “I’ll buy lunch.”
Kakashi put a hand up to his hidden left eye, which had been stinging since he’d first tripped over the threshold to Hisa’s room, and realized his cheek was damp under the mask. He lowered his hand. “That sounds good.”