May 20, Yondaime Year 5

ryouma 7For the first fifty kilometers of the run to Shirakawa, Kakashi and Ryouma didn’t talk.

It wasn’t exactly a race, like the first few times they’d competed on mission marches. They knew each other’s paces by now: Kakashi’s eye-blurring turn of speed, Ryouma’s staying power. Kakashi set a pace at the very edge of Ryouma’s limits, and didn’t push it. Ryouma focused on the burn in his lungs, the dull ache in his knee, the perfection of his body moving exactly as he meant it to, and refused to let himself think: This might be the last time I run.

Three kilometers outside Shirakawa, with the thickly wooded hills giving way to gentle meadows and farmers’ hamlets, and the town’s smoke smudging the horizon, Kakashi said, “Niimi-sensei does good work.”

Kakashi was looking at the dusty snake of a road curving up southwest from Tanazaku to Shirakawa, not at Ryouma. He said, “I asked Rin.”

“I wasn’t thinking about it,” Ryouma lied.

Kakashi let the silence wash back. Perhaps, for once, he didn’t feel the need to point out that Ryouma wasn’t fooling anyone.

They came out of the last straggling woods, skirting a farmer’s buckwheat field, and joined the road. Shirakawa’s gates crept up at them. A few other travelers, trudging in the dust, heard the swift beat of their steps and automatically veered to the side. Two small boys eating rice balls in the back of an ox-cart watched wide-eyed as the shinobi flashed by.

Kakashi said, “I bet there are one-legged ninja.”

“I could still kick your ass with a wooden leg,” Ryouma agreed. “But you can’t run without a knee-joint.”

“You could hop,” Kakashi suggested, with a glint of amusement.

Ryouma entertained, for a brief moment, the mental image of a squad of one-legged shinobi, hopping like children in a chicken fight. It was not particularly inspiring.

“If I ever hop,” he said, “it’ll be when I die and come back as a hopping corpse. I’ll haunt you and drink all your chakra and you’ll pass out in the middle of the street every day.”

“If I remember my lore right, you can ward off kyonshī with glutinous rice and a wooden sword,” Kakashi said lazily. “But I can try to look terrified if it’ll make you feel better.”

“Well, there’s probably not much point in both of us being terrified together.” They were coming within the shadow of Shirakawa’s walls, less than a third the height of Konoha’s; civilian villages didn’t have the advantage of Earth-jutsu masonry in building their defenses. Ryouma slowed to a trot, and then a walk. “You can be brave today, and I’ll take over again tomorrow. Keep your eye out for a kakigōri stand.”

They passed through the open gates—unguarded, even, on this warm spring day—and onto a broad thoroughfare lined with merchants’ shops and stalls. Kakashi made the beginnings of a gesture, caught it, and shoved his hand into his pocket. His wrist stayed loose, deliberately relaxed. He pointed his chin in the other direction, down a narrower street toward an awning and a thin crowd. “Over there.”

The patrons of the shave ice shop were inclined to gawk at shinobi, which meant that Kakashi stayed very still, Ryouma summoned up his brightest smiles, and all conversation ground to a halt until the shopkeeper issued them with two bowls of fluffy shaved ice, drizzled with condensed milk and azuki bean paste. Ryouma paid; Kakashi collected napkins and plastic spoons. Stares followed them to a bench on the other side of the street. A couple of young women nudged each other and giggled.

“I miss Konoha civilians,” Ryouma said.

Kakashi’s brow pinched in exaggerated concern. His mask was still firmly in place, but two large spoonfuls were already missing from his bowl of kakigōri. “You don’t want free attention? Are you ill?”

“I’m being not-brave,” Ryouma said. “Also, Konoha girls know what they’re getting into. They don’t look at you like— like a tiger that’ll probably kill you but you might like to hook up with it first.” Which was possibly the worst metaphor he’d ever stumbled over. He filled his mouth with sweet red beans and fresh snow before he could make it worse.

Kakashi said, “Hmm.” His shave ice was half gone. He turned and gazed unblinkingly at the two giggling young women, a long, flat stare that seemed to catalogue every breakable joint and vulnerable vein.

The girls looked away first, uncomfortably, whispering to each other. One of them tossed her head; the other gathered an armful of shopping bags. They took their kakigōri with them, half-eaten.

Kakashi leaned back on the bench with a faint hum of satisfaction. “Try looking creepy next time, not biteable.”

Biteable was a much better mental image than hopping. Ryouma refrained, with effort, from the instinctive follow up. Kakashi’s camaraderie was still too new, too fragile, to test.

He said instead, “I’ve been thinking. Taichou said he couldn’t promise coming back by the time I’m mission-fit, and you and Katsuko’ll both be back on your feet by then. You think they’re gonna send us on a mission with Kuroda? ‘Cause I know Katsu says he’s an evil genius of management but I dunno how he ever managed to make it through his first ANBU career without somebody stabbing him.”

It wasn’t, precisely, a reward to look forward to. Survive this surgery you’ve been avoiding for ten years, and you can take a mission with a captain who hates you!

“Makes you wonder,” Kakashi said, “just how good he really is.”

Ryouma stabbed morosely at the bottom of his bowl. Simple fact of shinobi life: there was always someone better out there. Only usually you could soothe yourself with the reminder that it was someone like the Hokage, a shining god, an ideal to strive for and never, ever reach. Or someone in the Bingo Book, an opponent to pursue and someday beat, or at least a worthy killer.

Not an asshole bureaucrat with a petty vendetta and a penchant for bootlicking. There was no justice in the world.

“I get that he’s probably pushing our buttons to see if Taichou—corrupted us, or something. Katsuko ‘cause she’s closest to Taichou, and me ‘cause— Well, anyway. But they put Taichou in genjutsu training with Yuuhi-sama, so it’s not like they still think he’s a double agent or a second Orochimaru or something. At this point, Kuroda being an asshole is just— a weasel with power and nobody stopping him from using it.”

Kakashi set his empty bowl aside and tipped his head back to the sky. “It’s almost like we’re in the military,” he drawled.

He sounded as if he’d long ago recognized the injustice in the world, and made his peace with it.

Ryouma should have. He did, some of the time. He knew the world wasn’t fair; he just couldn’t help wanting it to be.

kakashi 2As the silence continued, Kakashi glanced sidelong at Ryouma, realized he’d accidentally inflicted his personal brand of Everything Is Crap So We Might As Well Be Ironic About It on the conversation — which was the exact opposite of what he was supposed to be doing — and made a hasty effort to unkick the puppy.

“Then again,” he said, “picture this: bureaucrat attempting to captain for the first time in years vs. melty boy-wonder, exploding girl, and asshole with connections. Place your bets.”

Ryouma snorted. “We’ve made such a good showing so far,” he said moodily, but some of Kakashi’s tone shift had landed, because Ryouma straightened his shoulders and sat up. “Guess that means it’s time for our triumphant comeback. You gonna start pulling strings, or is it up to me to start stashing rotting mice in the bottom of Kuroda’s locker?”

“I don’t want to know where you’d get the mice,” Kakashi said. It was a dodge, not a response, but it was easier then untangling his strings.

He had resources. Minato’s favor, skills he could trade on, people he could leverage, if he had to. But those were costly, risky, or in Minato’s case, a well Kakashi only wanted to draw on when all other options were exhausted. It was too dangerous for them both.

His ice was gone. Ryouma’s was mostly melted. Kakashi glanced at the sun’s arc and judged they’d spent enough time avoiding the real issue. “We should head back.”

“Triumphant comeback, here we go.” Ryouma shoved up, collecting both bowls to return to the stall. “Keep an eye out for mice in that buckwheat field. I’ve got space in my pockets.”

“You’re a bad man,” Kakashi said.

Ryouma flashed him a grin like a lightning strike, and took the bowls back.

The run home went quicker, in the way that returning always did. Ryouma’s pace stayed steady up to and beyond Konoha’s walls, only hitching when the hospital rose into view. Kakashi didn’t pause. Ryouma caught himself and kept moving.

The hospital was its usual mix of blood and boredom and chaos. The mid-afternoon crowd was mostly civilians who’d experienced homegrown accidents, genin that had landed on the wrong side of a D-mission, and visitors. Kakashi and Ryouma weaved past an exasperated woman holding a red towel to a scowling teenager’s forehead, and escaped into an elevator.

The orthopedics department was more peaceful. The same shiny-haired, suspiciously happy receptionist was flipping through a magazine behind his desk. A lone elderly man with one arm in a sling sat in the waiting room, looking bored. There were plants nestled in the corners, sunshine drifting through the windows, and pastel art on the walls. It was about the most innocuous medical facility Kakashi could imagine. Ryouma looked like he wanted to dig his heels into the floor.

The receptionist glanced up and flipped his magazine closed. “Tousaki Ryouma!” he chirped. “You’re right on time. I have some paperwork for your friend to do. Are you almost ready? Would you like some water?”

Ryouma cleared his throat. “Water would be good.”

He’d stopped almost in the center of the room, hands locked behind his back, knuckles blanching. Parade rest, without any actual rest.

The receptionist dropped a folder on the desk for Kakashi and hurried into a back room where, presumably, a kitchenette lurked. Kakashi opened the folder, found a pen already inside, and scratched his way through Ryouma’s basic information. There was a signature spot for Ryouma. Kakashi glanced back, studied Ryouma’s tight expression, and forged the blocky dragon-horse kanji he’d seen Ryouma use to sign out equipment from the Quartermaster. When the receptionist returned, Kakashi traded paperwork for two glasses of ice water, and sat down in one of the waiting room chairs.

“I’m keeping these,” he told Ryouma, holding up both glasses.

A muscle twitched near the corner of Ryouma’s jaw. He dragged his attention back long enough for a distracted glance at Kakashi. “People who steal from the hospital end up with scalpels in their spines.”

“Good thing I’m just stealing from you, then,” Kakashi said comfortably.

That got a better reaction. Ryouma’s head turned. “I could put a dead mouse in your locker.”

“Good luck getting past my seals,” Kakashi said, vanishing the contents of a glass. The water was cold and crisp after their run, drawn from one of Konoha’s good wells. He sighed contentedly and stretched out his legs, slouching against the chair’s padded back. “The chairs are comfy. You could try sitting in one.”

“I’m standing while I can,” Ryouma muttered. Despite that, he drifted a casual step closer, and then another, clearly not angling for the second glass, nope.

Kakashi smiled behind his mask and turned his attention to the window, watching clouds and the baffled little man across the room while Ryouma allowed himself to be baited into an obvious trap. The grab, when it came, was slickly done. Kakashi grabbed back, securing Ryouma’s wrist, and hauled him down into the neighboring chair. It cost him the glass, but Ryouma looked at least partly distracted from his impending doom, so Kakashi counted that as a win.

And a second win when Ryouma stayed sitting and drank his water.

A nurse stuck her head into the room, which made Ryouma stiffen all over again, but she only called the old man in. He shuffled gratefully away.

“Probably a few more minutes,” the receptionist said helpfully.

Ryouma hunched and began drumming his fingers on his good knee. After a moment, he asked, “Got a kunai?”

Kakashi recalled the Five-Finger Fillet game Ryouma had played with the other ANBU hopefuls, what felt like half a lifetime ago. “It concerns me that your go-to solution for boredom is to risk cutting your fingers off,” he said, but he flipped Ryouma a kunai.

“Your concern is noted and duly ignored,” Ryouma said, pitching his voice to a near perfect mimicry of Genma’s unruffled calm. But he didn’t begin his finger stab game; instead he set his glass aside and flicked the kunai around and through his hands, making a tight pattern of flashing steel. It was like watching nerves in motion, turned into skill.

“I remember being scared,” Kakashi said, without quite meaning to. He rubbed the back of his head and kept talking. “I was eight, and I got sick on a mission. We were out past the trenches, clearing traps; they had to send me back with a messenger team. I threw up most of the way, which I don’t recommend with a mask, by the way.”

The spin of steel hadn’t slowed, but Ryouma was listening. “Poison?” he asked.

“Appendicitis,” Kakashi said. “They got me back to Konoha in time. I had surgery, recovered fine. Wasn’t a big deal, objectively. But I was more scared before that surgery than—” His mouth quirked. “A lot of things. It’s worse when you have time to think.”

ryouma 3“Battlefield’s always easier,” Ryouma said, watching the blur of kunai blade whip around his thumb. “You got the adrenaline kick, and so many other things to be scared of that you just stop being scared at all.” He tried a doubled figure eight between his fingers, then reversed the pattern. “Did you know it was your appendix?”

“Medic figured it was, once I started throwing up,” Kakashi said. “Before that, they thought it was gas.”

Ryouma looked up. The dryness in Kakashi’s voice mirrored in his face: the sidelong eye, the wry skew of his mouth under the mask, inviting Ryouma to share in the indignity of it all.

Small, sick, hurting, terrified of both the present pain and the promised surgery… Ryouma remembered that.

“I was ten,” he said. “Coming back to Konoha.” He grazed the kunai across the backs of his knuckles, so lightly that the thin white line bloomed only one drop of blood. Kakashi kept his kunai sharp. “I had my mom’s dogtags, so I figured the Academy’d let me in again, but— I knew they wouldn’t want a kid with a fucked-up knee. So I had to get it fixed, but I couldn’t let on how bad it was, or how it still hurt after I saw the medic, or they’d figure I wasn’t worth it.”

His thumb had a ragged cuticle, peeling up. He caught it with the edge of the kunai and pared it away. The faintest tug of pain, another bead of blood. “I guess that’s still at the back of my head. Alongside the risk this’ll screw it up more, or—”

A third drop of blood, enough to smear the blade. He was getting sloppy. He closed his hand on the kunai hilt and wiped the blade on his thigh. “I know it’s stupid. Niimi-sensei’s good. She said it’ll work. Still. You probably knew you weren’t going to die of appendicitis in Konoha hospital, but you were scared anyway.”

“Yes,” Kakashi agreed.

A moment passed.

“Tousaki, what happened to your knee?”

He should have expected that. Kakashi never had met a hornet’s nest he wouldn’t poke. And Ryouma… had said too much already, dropped too many details, invited too many questions.

Had he wanted Kakashi to ask? He’d already told Kakashi the beginning of the story, after all. My mom died and my granddad took me away…

He knew Kakashi was smart, curious, stubborn, that he wouldn’t leave a trail once he’d found it. And yet Kakashi had asked other questions, had prodded other sore spots, but he hadn’t pushed at this one. Until now.

Kakashi had listened before. Was listening now.

“My granddad was a drunk,” Ryouma said. “A mean drunk, except that’d imply he was any better without the shouchuu. I didn’t get out of the way fast enough, once.”

More than once, but those cuts and bruises had healed years ago. They weren’t worth bringing up now.

“He died a month or two later. I walked from Shitara to Konoha. It took four weeks.” It might be two days now, running. He’d measured it once on a map. Food and chakra and a working knee all made a difference.

“You didn’t kill him,” Kakashi said.

Startled, Ryouma looked up. All the dry humor had dropped from Kakashi’s face, leaving his mouth rigid beneath the mask, his eye sharp and glittering cold. That was the look of the killer behind the ANBU mask.

It hadn’t been a question.

Would Kakashi have killed Tousaki Yousuke, in Ryouma’s place? Did he think less of Ryouma for failing to try?

“I wanted to, sometimes. Stole a knife and told myself I’d use it. I never did. The shouchuu got to him, first.” Ryouma scrabbled for the edges of a black grin. “Alcohol poisoning’s probably worse than a clean kunai, anyway.”

“Good,” Kakashi said. It wasn’t the killer’s voice. The low intensity was still there, but not the razor bite, and not a hint of acid mockery. “Some lives aren’t worth burdening yourself with.”

He reached over to tap Ryouma’s bad knee, fingertips gentle, and didn’t pull his hand away. “He didn’t break this badly enough to end your career. A surgery won’t, either. It’ll get the damage out, so you don’t have to carry it anymore.”

Words scoured away. Ryouma opened his mouth, found nothing on his tongue, and closed it again. He looked down at Kakashi’s hand on his knee, striped with scars: the dark sear of a bad burn, the toughened knuckles of a lifetime punching wood and bone, a faded white line long ago laid bare by a blade. He looked up again, searching Kakashi’s hidden face.

The nurse called his name.

Ryouma flinched out from under Kakashi’s hand and stumbled to his feet. “Here!”

The nurse didn’t laugh at him, which was more than he deserved. She did make him step into a tiny locker room to shed his clothes in exchange for another flimsy hospital gown, but this time he got a much-laundered robe to wear over it, and slippers for the cold trek down a short maze of hallways. Kakashi padded behind, a silent shadow at Ryouma’s heels.

They stopped outside a door with a blinking green light over the lintel. The nurse wrote a few swift lines on her clipboard, dropped it into a plastic box on the wall, and opened the door. She looked back at Kakashi. “You’re welcome to observe, but you’ll need to stay outside the red circle. Or there’s a waiting room down the hall, if you prefer.”

Kakashi glanced at Ryouma, brow raised. “Gonna deny me the chance to watch experts play with seals?”

“Only if you promise to stop ‘em if they try to have their wicked way with me,” Ryouma said. There was a windowed panel set high in the door; he could see through into a small room, with blank white walls and a varnished wood floor. There was a blue plastic mat laid out in the center of the floor, like the world’s most hygienic futon. A painted line the color of fresh blood marked a wide perimeter around the mat.

“There’s a reason we give you easy-access gowns,” the nurse said cheerfully. Ryouma choked on a startled laugh.

“I think I’ve read that story,” Kakashi said thoughtfully. “It ended well.” He thumped Ryouma’s shoulder and slipped past them to open the door, staking out a corner spot on the outside of the circle with a view of the exit and a convenient wall to lean against.

Ryouma followed more slowly. From the inside, he could see an array of machinery tucked neatly against the near wall. He recognized chakra and blood pressure monitors, as well as the ubiquitous IV stand, but couldn’t even guess at most of the others.

The nurse took his robe and directed him to sit on the blue mat. She wheeled over monitors, careful to position them outside the red perimeter circle, and attached an array of long-lined leads to his chest under the gown. Her fingers were cool and efficient as she swabbed the back of his hand, found the vein, and inserted an IV needle. A blood pressure cuff squeezed his other biceps; he flexed back, experimentally, until he heard Kakashi’s quiet scoff.

The door opened again. Niimi-sensei ducked her head, barely clearing the lintel. She wore the regulation beige scrubs today, her hair tucked beneath a close-fitting cap, as did the two medics who followed her. One was a young man barely older than Ryouma; the other was a Hyuuga woman in her mid thirties, white-eyed and elegant.

“Hitomi-sensei?” Ryouma blurted.

Sense caught up, a moment too late. Of course it wasn’t her. Hitomi had another pack of genin brats by now, and no time to come looking after one wayward former student. More importantly, this woman wore her cap pushed back on her forehead, baring smooth unmarked skin, not a Branch House seal. Her cheeks were a little fuller, her chin less stern. She looked like Hitomi’s sister, and was probably a cousin seventeen times removed.

“Sorry.” Ryouma tried to shove up, to greet them properly. The nurse’s hand on his shoulder pressed him back down. He compromised with a seated bow. “You look like—like someone I used to know…”

“You wouldn’t believe how often I hear that,” the Hyuuga woman said dryly. “I’m Hyuuga Mitsu. This is Morioka Goro.” She tipped her chin at the young man, who bobbed his head. The Hyuuga strolled forward, hands in her scrubs pockets. “Left lateral meniscus tear, is it?”

“So it seemed,” Niimi-sensei said, watching her. “Tell me if I’m right.”

Hyuuga-sensei blinked hard. Veins sprang out around her eyes, bulging on her temples and cheekbones. She crossed the perimeter line and crouched down, focusing on Ryouma’s folded knee. “Spot on. That’s 37-3 in your favor.” She reached out to trace one finger over the shape of Ryouma’s kneecap beneath the skin, then popped a pen out of her pocket and inked a quick series of marks. “Adhesions here and here—and the tear itself abrading here… Two sessions might do it, if we push. Three if we take it easy on him.”

“Well, no time like the present,” Niimi-sensei said cheerfully. “Go ahead and lay down, Tousaki. Goro?”

The young man darted forward to assist the nurse with positioning Ryouma: flat on his back, with his right knee bent to the side, out of the way, and his left leg straight. Small pillows cushioned his knee, head, and spine. They folded the hospital gown up over his thighs, leaving his leg bare, and hooked a saline drip up to his IV line. The IV stand itself waited outside the circle along with the other machines, leaving nothing metallic within the painted border. Out of the corner of his eye, Ryouma saw Goro drawing clear fluid into a needle and injecting it into the line.

“This is just to keep you relaxed,” Niimi-sensei explained. “You’ll feel sleepy, maybe a little floaty. We’ll also numb your knee so you won’t feel any pain. If it hurts, you let me know. Okay?”

Warmth began to seep into his veins. Ryouma blinked and looked for Kakashi. “Don’t let him mess with my hair while I’m high.”

Goro frowned at him in confusion, and then at Kakashi. Kakashi rolled his eye. “Please. It’s not a challenge unless you’re sober.”

Ryouma’s hair wasn’t long enough for braids, anyway. And Kakashi probably wasn’t the type to pet his teammates, even if he was surprisingly cuddly when he was high. Even if he’d touched Ryouma three times today, of his own free will.

“This will sting,” Niimi-sensei warned, from somewhere down near Ryouma’s knee. Ryouma didn’t look down. He didn’t want to see the needle; he tried not to flinch at the bite. He kept his gaze on Kakashi.

Kakashi’d come with him to Shirakawa, when he could have eaten shaved ice at half a dozen stands in Konoha and spent his time far more pleasantly, lounging with his book. He’d pulled Ryouma down to sit with him in the waiting room, and talked him through the nerves and into memories Ryouma hadn’t told anyone.

Hitomi-sensei had never asked. I’m your teacher, she’d said, not your friend. She’d taught them to kill and to survive, and two out of the three of them had managed it. She’d taught them to shield their hearts, not open them.

And now Kakashi was asking him to open his heart? Ryouma snickered.

Niimi-sensei’s voice came from very far off. “I always like it when the jounin get giggly. Can you feel this, Tousaki?”

“Nope!” Ryouma said, or tried to; his tongue felt thick and the word slurred. “If you’re feelin’ me up, you should wait till I can return the favor…”

He heard the very distant slap of someone putting their face in their hand. Kakashi’s voice came muffled: “Oh my god.”

“Sadly a breach of the doctor-patient relationship,” Niimi-sensei said breezily, “but I appreciate the sentiment. You’re going to feel some pressure in a second. I need you to stay completely still.”

“I’m good at stayin’ still,” Ryouma assured her. “Did I ever tell you about the time I hadta stake out this guy for like—hours—”

He blinked. His eyelids didn’t seem to want to come back up. He could feel the pressure Niimi-sensei had promised him, on his lower thigh above his knee, but not what she was doing. From this angle, with his knee and his head level, he couldn’t see, either.

“Goro,” Niimi-sensei said, “you can start the seals on the north point. Finish that pot of ink off before you open a fresh one. I don’t think you’ve told me that story, Tousaki. How long was your stake-out?”

“I forget how many hours,” Ryouma said, disgruntled. “But I killed him afterward.”

“Exciting story,” Hyuuga-sensei said.

“I’ve got lots,” Ryouma said. “Are you painting me?”

“Seals,” Niimi-sensei said. “They’ll help us align your chakra with ours and control the precise movements during the surgery. They’ll provide additional chakra as well, so we’re not draining you or ourselves.”

“It’s the same kind of chakra-imbued ink you use in scrolls,” Goro said, somewhere over Ryouma’s head. He seemed to be painting the floor, while Niimi-sensei worked on Ryouma’s leg and Hyuuga-sensei guided her brush with murmured directives.

Kakashi liked seals, Ryouma thought happily. Maybe he liked this too.

kakashi 11Kakashi hadn’t lied, exactly; the march of complicated symbols spreading from Ryouma’s knee to the expanding circle on the floor was interesting, but they were medic-designed. They had a small, specific range of efficacy, not for combat. Ryouma might have found them more useful, if he was able to read them and sober enough to try.

There was a second layer of seals around the edges of the room, colorless and dormant until a medic needed them to restrain a violent patient. They were more applicable to Kakashi’s skillset, but he’d seen them before.

Since he was here for Ryouma, it was inconsequential.

“Done,” Goro said.

It took Niimi-sensei another minute to finish her seals. She inspected Goro’s work, pronounced it good, and politely waved the nurse out of the circle. “We’re about ready to begin, Tousaki. How’re you feeling?”

Ryouma considered for a moment. “Drunk.”

Niimi-sensei chuckled, Goro smiled, and even Hyuuga Mitsu’s lips twitched. Niimi-sensei said, “Enjoy it. Mitsu, ready?”

“Whenever you are.”

Niimi-sensei settled herself comfortably and placed her hands over Ryouma’s knee. A faint green glow shimmered between her fingers. “Let’s get this show on the road. Goro, watch closely. I want you to tackle the smallest adhesion.”

The young man grinned, but it faded when Kakashi gave him a long, slow look. He ducked his head and assumed an attitude of intense focus.

The light strengthened around Niimi-sensei’s hands, spilling across Ryouma’s skin and into the seals, which lit up in turn. The glow spread out through the circle, filling the room with sharp, dark shadows. Hyuuga Mitsu’s eyes narrowed — a reflex, Kakashi assumed, since she could see through her own eyelids — and she said, “Start a centimeter more proximal.”

Niimi-sensei’s hands adjusted.

“There,” Hyuuga Mitsu said.

“Deep breath,” Niimi-sensei told Ryouma, and she began.

Even outside the limits of the containment circle, Kakashi felt the chakra shift. Ryouma made a sleepy, questioning sound, but there was no pain in it. He looked the most relaxed since…

Since Kakashi had known him, actually. Which was a strange thought, because Ryouma carried himself with a confident ease that tried to seem effortless, but there was always a ripple of tension. Fidgeting hands, a jogging leg, movement barely suspended. Even when he slept, Ryouma frowned and rolled away from them.

None of which was unusual, just revealing, but it was odd to look at Ryouma under surgical lights and find him peaceful.

Niimi-sensei made a satisfied noise, and Hyuuga Mitsu said, “That’s the first one.”

“Find me the distal end of the tear,” Niimi-sensei instructed. “Goro, why do I want to work on that before the next adhesion?”

“Because it’ll take the most time,” Goro said immediately. “And because adhesions are how the joint is trying to stabilize itself, so treating them is more like symptom-relief than fixing the actual cause.”

“Very good,” Niimi-sensei said.

“That and it will take at least two sessions to address that tear,” Hyuuga Mitsu added. “Cartilage has poor blood supply. It’ll need all the work we can give it.”

Goro nodded. Kakashi wondered if that last part was for the apprentice’s benefit, or for his. Perhaps both. Ryouma was too busy blinking slowly at the light show on the ceiling to pay much attention.

A faint crunch brought him back down in a hurry. “Ow,” he said, head jerking off the pillow.

Kakashi stiffened.

“Sorry,” Niimi-sensei said, changing the angle of her hands. “That had a little more snap than I expected. It should be easing down again.”

Ryouma kept his head up, trying to see what she was doing, but the tension slipped away and his head thumped back down as if it was too heavy to hold up. He said accusingly, “I can’t feel my toes.”

Kakashi snorted softly and relaxed back against the wall. “They’re still there.”

It was a mark of pharmacological achievement — and only slightly disturbing — that Ryouma accepted that trustingly. He hummed something vague to himself, half contented, half a slowed down rock song, then the noise cut off and he looked anxiously at Kakashi. “Are you having fun?”

Even by Ryouma standards, that was random. Kakashi stared at him blankly, marked the rising distress, and tried, “Yes?”

“That’s good. Thought you’d like the seals.” Ryouma settled again, for about a second, and then sounded worried. “But you don’t needta stay if you’re not having fun…”

It’s fine, Kakashi, I’m just having a decade of trauma corrected, you don’t need to stay if the lights aren’t shiny enough.

Kakashi considered and discarded several snappish responses, took a breath, and said, “Tousaki, tell us another story.”

Ryouma’s expression brightened. He lay back thoughtfully, stayed quiet long enough that Kakashi thought he’d actually fallen asleep, then finally said, “One time I got paid in soap.”

Kakashi blinked. Ryouma gave him a tipsy smile and launched into a long, involved story about mountain bandits. He forgot to introduce half the characters, mixed up the rest, and spent most of his time detailing the kinds of soap that the grateful shopkeeper had shoved into his arms, without actually explaining what he’d done to earn them. Fascinated, Kakashi propped his chin on his hand and made encouraging sounds.

A diatribe on orange-blossom carried them through the last minutes of cartilage repair, and Ryouma needed the barest prompting to keep comparing fruit scents. Niimi-sensei addressed the next adhesion, then called Goro over to tackle the smaller one she’d assigned him. Kakashi watched them narrowly, but was satisfied by Niimi-sensei’s close attention and guidance. Goro finished the brief procedure smiling.

Ryouma’s voice had wound down to a sleepy mumble. Kakashi watched him drift, ready to divert him again, but he barely twitched when Niimi-sensei said, “That’ll do it for today. We’ll put a brace on him, let him have an hour or two in recovery, and he can go home with crutches and painkillers. I assume you’re staying to keep an eye on him?”

Kakashi glanced aside to find her looking at him. He shrugged wordless assent.

“Excellent. He can schedule the next appointment with the nurse when he’s more awake.” She shook her hands out and the green glow faded, draining out of the circle and sinking underneath Ryouma’s skin. The inked seals remained, dark against tanned skin and old scars.

The room felt suddenly empty, like it might echo. Kakashi resisted the urge to rub his arms.

Hyuuga Mitsu stretched and released her Byakugan. She pressed her fingertips to the corners of her eyes, and nodded down at Ryouma, who managed a puzzled but willing smile. For a Hyuuga, she had remarkable bedside manner.

Goro staggered to his feet. Niimi-sensei clapped a hand on his shoulder and steered him out, pausing to give the waiting nurse instructions. Hyuuga Mitsu followed them, and there was a brief moment of stillness.

Kakashi let out a slow, soft breath of relief. No complications so far.

“Half done,” he told Ryouma.

Ryouma blinked hazily at him, struggling with eyes that didn’t quite want to open. “Wasn’t so bad.”

“Told you,” Kakashi said.

Nurses descended before Ryouma could answer, armed with a knee brace, a gurney, and a plan. Kakashi stayed to one side as they loaded Ryouma up, and followed when they carried him out.

ryouma 11Floaty was a good word, Ryouma decided. He floated down a maze of corridors again, blinking up at ceiling tiles. The wheeled hospital stretcher didn’t dip or sway — much better than the litters they cobbled together in the field out of branches and oilcloth cloaks. He drifted along like a cloud, and almost protested when they tried to maneuver him off the gurney and into a bed.

His toes bumped the end of the bed, though, and Kakashi was right: they were still there. That distracted him long enough to be installed with clean sheets, an enormous ice pack for his knee, and reattached heart rate and chakra monitors. The IV tube had been disconnected in the surgery room, but the needle stayed in, taped down against his hand.

Kakashi stayed, too. The nurses gave him a chair, pulled a curtain closed around the little cubicle, and told Ryouma to stay put until someone came back to get him.

“We’re supposed to sneak out of hospitals,” he told them. “It’s tradition.

The nurse laughed, patted his hand, and told Kakashi, “Keep an eye on him.”

Kakashi waited till she was gone, then shifted to raise an eyebrow at Ryouma. “Why is that people think you’re charming when you’re insane, but I’m dangerous?”

“’Cause I’m hot and you wear a scary mask,” Ryouma told him. “Should try taking the mask off if you wanna be charming. An’ nobody would recognize you so you’d still be secret.”

“And lose my air of mystery?” Kakashi said, but he still sounded amused. He leaned back in his chair, propping his feet up on the edge of Ryouma’s bed. “I’ll consider your advice when you’re less stoned. And also when it makes human logic sense.”

“I guess people would still recognize your hair,” Ryouma agreed sadly. He tried to scratch his nose, almost missed, and squinted cross-eyed at his hand. “Were you this fuzzy in the head? Hah. Fuzzy.” Too bad Katsuko wasn’t here to high-five him.

“Ha ha,” Kakashi drawled. “You mean, was I out of it when I let you braid my hair and play Twenty Questions? Drugs were a definite factor, yes.”

Katsuko braided your hair,” Ryouma clarified, just in case vengeance was forthcoming. He thought for a moment. “And it was pigtails.”

“Because that’s the part to focus on,” Kakashi said. He folded his arms across his chest. “We could play Twenty Questions now, except that I actually have morals.”

Ryouma frowned at him. “That some kinda mushroom?”

“Ueno is the worst influence,” Kakashi said dryly. “Tell me another story.”

“You won’t even laugh,” Ryouma complained. He sank down a little deeper into the papery-cased hospital pillows. “No good usin’ up a story on someone who won’t laugh…”

And he wasn’t going to tell the other kind of story. Not with his eyelids weighted heavy and his brain misty as a cloud, words stumbling freely over his tongue. He blinked. “Dunno how you make it easy to talk to. ‘Cause you’re not. You shove me off balance an’ then you just listen, an’ I end up telling things I never told anybody. Like— like conservation judo. Conversation.” He said that twice more, just to make sure he got it right.

Kakashi was still listening, damn him.

“An’ you never tell anything back! Except the appendicitis. I guess that counts. Unless that was like the startin’ feint — pretendin’ to leave an opening…”

Kakashi was still silent. Maybe he’d stopped listening. Maybe he’d fallen asleep. He’d angled his chair so that he could see the gap in the curtains that closed off the rest of the ward, which left Ryouma on his blind side unless Kakashi turned his head. Ryouma blinked hard, but the dark mask and the slanting hitai-ate revealed no more than they ever had.

Then Kakashi said, “What do you want to know?”

Ryouma tried to push up. He managed head and shoulders off the pillow, but he still couldn’t see Kakashi’s good eye. Probably there wasn’t anything to see anyway, because Kakashi could manage expressionlessness with the best of them, at least when he only had one eyebrow and a slice of cheekbone to worry about. Still, he wouldn’t say something like that unless he meant it…

“Why do you wear a mask?” Ryouma asked.

That got Kakashi to look at him, at least. He must’ve been used to the question, because he seemed more thoughtful than surprised. Not quite expressionless: his brow crinkled down a little, etching a faint wrinkle in pale skin. His jaw skewed sideways, as if he was chewing over how — or whether — to answer.

Then he sighed and said simply, “I don’t like my face.”

“It seems all right to me,” Ryouma ventured. “You got a good profile. Straight nose, clean jaw, nice angles. Mask’s tight enough we’d know if you had a frog-mouth, anyway…”

Kakashi’s eye curved into a smile. “You are so stoned, Tousaki.”

“Drugs don’t make me blind,” Ryouma said stubbornly. His head was growing too heavy to hold up again; he thumped back down into the pillows. “What don’t you like?”

“I’ll give you three guesses,” Kakashi said, drought-dry. “First two don’t count.”

Ryouma squinted at him. Clearly Kakashi thought the answer was glaringly obvious, even to a man with fuzzy clouds for brains, but Ryouma’d seen the edge of Kakashi’s mouth when that lightning strike he’d called down on Iebara burned his mask off, and it hadn’t looked froggy then. A little thin-lipped, maybe, but still as finely carved as the razorblade cheekbones and fine-bladed nose promised.

Scars, maybe. But the rest of Kakashi’s body was latticed with old silver and newer ridges; he wouldn’t be ashamed of a scored cheek or that sliced lip.

Which left…

“Acne? Everybody’s had it. Bet the lieutenant could get you a cream if you asked him.”

Kakashi stared at him. A shadow dimpled the mask over parted lips. Then he laughed, helpless, absurd, a rough, unpracticed sound that shook his shoulders and dropped his head. “I knew you’d get it.”

Obviously, Ryouma hadn’t. But he hadn’t seen Kakashi laugh like that before, either. He wriggled his shoulders down into the pillows and let himself enjoy brief victory unsought.

Kakashi caught his breath at last, shook his head, rubbed a thumb over his mouth. “How’s the knee feeling?”

Ryouma tried flexing the knee in question. The joint refused to bend; pain stabbed back at him, spiking down to his toes. “Shit,” he hissed, and lay still.

“I didn’t say move it,” Kakashi said sharply, dropping his feet off the edge of the bed.

“Smart,” Ryouma managed. The knife in his knee settled into a duller throb, like a new sprain. He lifted the sheet off his lap to peek.

The giant ice pack obscured his kneecap itself, but the massive black brace extended halfway up his thigh and down past his calf, far bulkier than the slim, wrap-around brace he sometimes wore on missions. This one had straps and buckles and padding and gears.

“I’m never gonna wear pants again,” Ryouma said, staring down at it.

“We’ll get you some booty shorts,” Kakashi assured him, flipping the sheet back down over Ryouma’s new mecha-leg. “In the meantime, why don’t you try and get some sleep until you’re sane again?”

Ryouma settled obediently. He could still feel the cold ache, now that he knew it was there, but he’d staggered through far worse. It was luxury, now, to lie in a clean bed in a quiet ward, with the curtains pulled close and Kakashi sitting guard between Ryouma and the door. He practiced a yawn, and felt it turn real halfway through.

“Do I get a story?” he asked, hopefully.

Kakashi squinted at him, as if he smelled a trap. He said, after a moment, “Repeat this and die.”

Then he settled back, propping his feet up on the edge of the bed again, hooking his shoulder more comfortably against the back of the chair. His voice took on a storyteller’s rolling cadence. “There was once a pirate called Captain Seaweed, who sailed the wildest seas of the world. She was brave and true, and had dreams of becoming the Pirate Queen. One night, the First Mate spotted a glittering light off the port bow…”

The First Mate was a seagull, it turned out. He could fly to investigate the glittering light, which Ryouma felt gave him an unfair advantage.

Kakashi said, “Shut up,” and went on with his tale.

The light glittered brighter, but the First Mate did not return. Captain Seaweed, who had earned her crew’s respect and loyalty by her fierce loyalty in return, trimmed sail to investigate. They found a mountainous island in the sea, where no island was marked on any of Captain Seaweed’s charts. Somewhere on the highest peak, the strange light shone…

“It’s haunted,” Ryouma said. “Or it’s a demon. It’s eaten First Mate and now it’s luring the whole ship in!”

Kakashi’s brow lifted. “Do you want to know what happens next, or do you want to keep guessing?”

“I bet you don’t let people talk in movies, either,” Ryouma muttered. He plucked at the sheet, smoothing it over his chest. “I’m listening.”

Captain Seaweed was bold, but she was no fool. Her ship anchored leeward of the isle, and the Captain and four of her bravest crew lowered themselves in a boat and rowed for shore. The waves rocked their boat, gently, and the night air was calm and cool. A breeze brushed the Captain’s face with the scents of the shore…

Ryouma could see the sheltered, moonlit cove, almost, when his eyes drifted closed. Kakashi’s voice slowed and softened, describing the sandy shore on which Captain Seaweed beached her boat, the little crabs scuttling beneath the overhanging trees. A path led up from the shore under the trees, where the perfume of night-blooming flowers floated thick and heavy on the air.

Captain Seaweed left one pirate to guard the boat and led the remaining three up the path, into the depths of the jungle. Slipping into dreams, Ryouma followed them.



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