June 16, Yondaime Year 5
Team Six picked their way down the densely vegetated slope, halting at the treeline on Raidou’s signal. At the surf’s edge, a knot of figures clustered around the husk-like bowls of a pair of ship’s boats. One or two cigarette tips flared in the darkness. Genma threaded a slip of chakra out, then nodded. “They’re civilians. Feels like the same crew who got us out here, but it’s harder to identify individuals with such low chakra reserves.”
Kakashi lifted his head and inhaled audibly. “They smell the same,” he pronounced. “More stressed than last time.”
The tone in Raidou’s voice shaded from skepticism to alarm. “You can smell stress?”
“From here?” demanded Ryouma.
“It’s a very distinctive smell,” Kakashi said with a shrug.
Of course it was. Some time when the team was home and safe and had nothing better to do than sit around and make conversation, Genma was going to ask Kakashi if the Hatake clan shared common ancestry with the Inuzuka. He wasn’t sure he’d ask what other emotional states Kakashi could smell, though — some questions you don’t ask if you don’t want to know the answer.
Kimiko was still harnessed to Raidou’s back; Ryouma had Sango cradled in her sling.
“I’ll make contact,” Genma said. “Stay here until I give the signal.” Just to be doubly safe, he cast a quick kai. No illusion dissolved, and no rippled echo of a resisted jutsu washed back over him.
He still slid a kunai into his palm, and cast a silencing jutsu on himself, before he set off across the rock-strewn beach.
At twenty paces away, even in the moonless gloom, Genma could make out features easily enough to be confident they were the sailors the team knew. He slipped back a dozen meters, dropped the jutsu, and let his feet fall heavily on the damp stones.
All five sailors whirled at the sound. The distinctive slither of steel coming free of a sheath hissed danger, and a dull flash of moonlight revealed short swords and daggers in more than one hand.
“Hold,” Genma said. “We’re here for the cruise.”
Tense shoulders relaxed, and blades returned to their sheaths. One of the figures stepped forward. “You’re the first.” Arakida-senchou, the captain of the Look Far, said. He sounded grim. “Where are the others? We’re pulling anchor early, there’s a storm brewing.”
The clouds that had drenched the final leg of their journey were wispy remnants. Stars twinkled in a velvet sky, and a quarter moon gleamed light on the waves. “I don’t see any storm clouds,” Genma said.
“You will in a few hours,” Arakida said with certainty. “I want plenty of sea between us and the islands before the waves hit.”
Some civilians, farmers and sailors especially, could sense weather the way ninja could sense chakra. Genma glanced again at the clear sky, then nodded. “How early?”
“As soon as the tide turns, if we can,” Arakida said. He peered around Genma. “Are you the only one who made it?”
Genma flared his chakra, two sharp pulses, to give the rest of his team the all-clear. “There are five with me. We’ve got two more teams coming.”
“I count three,” Arakida said.
“Five,” Genma said. “They’re carrying a civilian and a baby.” Raidou, with Kimiko on his back, and Ryouma with Sango, arrived as he said it. Kakashi hung slightly back, still taking rear guard.
Ryouma looked the sailors up and down, then turned his gaze on the shadowy sailing ship creaking gently in the harbor. He gave a deep, appreciative sigh. “If I didn’t mention it before, your ship is beautiful.”
The captain’s shoulders squared a little, and a tiny smile played at the corners of his lips. “She’s sound,” he said. “Serves her purpose.”
Genma helped Raidou unharness Kimiko, working damp-set knots free with stiff fingers. As soon as she was on her feet, Raidou gestured to Ryouma, who promptly relinquished Sango to her mother. The baby squalled briefly, then settled against her mother’s breast with Kimiko’s thin hand wrapped protectively over her head.
“She’ll be even prettier when we’re aboard,” Raidou said. He started purposefully towards the nearer scow, guiding Kimiko with him with a hand on her elbow. “Can we get moving?”
Arakida nodded, gesturing to a pair of the sailors who hung back, keeping a distance from the ninja. “Row them across. We’ll wait here for the rest of them. Tell Horikiri we’re going with the ebb.”
Genma eyed the waves lapping the shore. “How long do the others have before the tide turns?”
“Three hours,” Arakida said.
Raidou scowled menacingly. “Unless a typhoon’s coming through, we’re not leaving our people behind. Cast-off isn’t supposed to be for seven hours.”
Genma’s fingertips raked over the cold hilt of the kunai he’d pocketed. If it came to it, they could force the crew to wait.
“I won’t scuttle my ship and send my crew to their graves for your sake,” Arakida said, matching Raidou’s mettle.
Chakra pressure rose like a wave from behind him — killing intent from all three of Genma’s teammates.
“We’ll wait,” Genma said. “This isn’t your decision to make, Arakida-senchou.”
Something of their murderous intent must have gotten through to the sailors, who took several steps back, eyes showing whites. Arakida looked like he might still force the confrontation, but in the end, he backed down. “We can wait four hours. Any longer, and we risk being trapped in harbor past daylight.”
“That’s a risk we’ll take,” Genma said.
“Hound, hold a position on the coast. Signal us if you spot Thirteen, or a pursuit.” Raidou swept a long look over the forbidding cliffs. “If you engage,” he said darkly, “make sure no one leaves.”
Kakashi tapped his tattooed shoulder in wordless salute. He turned and took two steps towards the cliffs, then vanished between one blink and the next.
Ryouma’s gaze lingered on the direction Kakashi had taken a moment longer, then he turned back to the task at hand, helping Kimiko and Sango into the center of the boat. Genma climbed in after them, taking the aft seat, leaving the fore for Raidou.
The sailors held a brief, tense conference, before two of them, presumably the losers in the argument, came to man the oars.
By the time they reached the rope ladder up the side of the junk, mission tension and too little rest made every muscle stiff and every bruise acute. Kimiko insisted on carrying Sango herself, strapping the baby to herself with the dingy, salt-water stiffened sling. She scaled the swaying ladder with grim determination and just enough chakra to keep her hands and feet well anchored. Raidou climbed close behind to catch her if she slipped.
Once they were safely aboard, Genma stopped the sailor who’d been tasked with delivering the captain’s message to the ship’s first mate. “I’ll go with you.”
The sailor was young — well-muscled but with barely the beginnings of peach fuzz on his upper lip. He took a step back, wide eyed and thin lipped.
“Don’t worry,” Genma said. “I’m not going to hurt either of you. I just want to make sure she knows our plan.”
It didn’t seem to reassure the boy.
Raidou gave the frightened crewman a darkly amused look, then gestured to one of the sailors who’d helped them board. “Show me somewhere we can settle in. Tousaki, you keep watch on deck.”
Ryouma nodded and took a position at the ship’s rail, eyes sweeping the black shore for any sign of threat or their missing comrades. Genma followed the young sailor to meet the first mate.
Horikiri was a broad-shouldered woman with close cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Genma remembered seeing her on their voyage over, but they’d kept to their own spheres. She studied Genma with folded arms, but didn’t argue when he told her they’d be sailing on the ninja’s signal, not her captain’s.
The young sailor led Genma to the cabin where the others were settled, and disappeared as quickly as he could.
“The crew understands the situation,” Genma said, ducking through the low cabin door. Kimiko was tucked into a small berth with her back to the cabin, suckling Sango. Raidou sat against a wall, legs stretched out in front of him, head thrown back, in a pose of pure exhaustion. His throat was a livid red and purple mass of chain-link shaped bruises. Genma folded himself to the floor next to Raidou and said quietly, “Let me finish healing your neck, Taichou.”
Raidou lifted a hand, waving Genma off. “Looks worse than it is. Save your chakra. Thirteen might need it.”
Genma grimaced at the idea. “I hope not. But you’re probably right. I can give you some salve to take the ache out, anyway. If you start having trouble breathing or swallowing, though, tell me. Throat injuries can swell after the fact.”
Raidou dropped his head and gave Genma a crooked smile. “I promise if I start to drown on dry land, you’ll be the first to know. I’ll take that salve, though.”
For just a moment, the tight knot of worry under Genma’s sternum relented, replaced by something warm. He let out a slow breath and smiled wearily back, then dug in his med kit to hand Raidou a small round tin of bruise balm.
It was dangerous to relax now. Everything in him wanted to drop the vigilance and rest. They were, for the first time since they’d left the ship 46 hours earlier, nearly safe. But the mission was not over, their comrades were not back, and they were still very much in enemy waters with a pair of fugitives to guard. He watched Raidou apply the balm, watched Kimiko’s hunched back, watched the cabin door. Slung chakra feelers out, tracking Ryouma’s location on the ship’s deck, reaching for Kakashi on shore. Reaching for any sign of their missing comrades.
There was no sign.
In the time Raidou had known Genma — which was, granted, not long; but long enough — he’d never seen the man jitter before. It was subtle. A restless twitch in long fingers. A gaze that never quite settled. Edgy, anxious chakra.
Paranoia was a useful habit, in moderation. Too much would lead to stabbing shadows, or civilians.
“I need to stretch,” Raidou said. “Walk with me?”
Genma glanced at Kimiko, who’d curled up drowsily under a heavy blanket, Sango nestled in the circle of her arms. She tracked them without expression. Raidou peeled an insubstantial clone out of his chakra and sent it to sit next to her bunk.
“Kill it if you need something,” he told her. “I’ll get the message.”
Kimiko closed her eyes.
Genma took a deep breath, let it out, inhaled again, and got to his feet. He moved stiffly, like there was sand in his joints, but offered a hand to pull Raidou up. His fingers were cold.
The night, when they stepped back out into it, was colder. Raidou shoved his hands into his pockets. Genma crossed his arms, tucking his hands under his armpits. Muted lamps cast dim circles of orange-yellow light. The ship was a subdued hustle of activity. Sailors did mysterious but presumably important things with ropes. The First Mate stood on the rear deck with an eye-glass trained on the horizon. Ryouma had swarmed up into the rigging and found himself a perch on a cross-bar, legs swinging in the breeze. He signalled when he spotted them: No change.
Genma tucked his chin down. After a beat, Raidou signalled back: Eat something.
Ryouma saluted with a ration bar and returned to scanning the coast.
Younger sailors skittered out of the way when Genma and Raidou took a slow circle around the deck. The few older sailors, grizzled men and women with rough hands and impressive scars, looked wary but not fearful. Having spent a little time under the ocean, Raidou could see how a pair of ninja would only rank as a middleweight threat.
The deck boards carried interesting marks in more than one place. Some of them seemed claw-shaped. Raidou hadn’t paid them much attention on the way out, but he was noticing them now.
One tour didn’t do anything to unlock Genma, though it did help work some of the growing stiffness out of Raidou’s back. By the second tour, the First Mate had moved to the front deck to squint at a brass instrument and jot notes in her giant, leatherbound log-book. Raidou paused on the rear deck, where she’d been standing. Genma took another step before he realized they’d stopped moving.
Raidou braced his elbows on the wooden railing, worn smooth by skilled carpenters and years of service, and leaned forward to look down at the waves. Spilled moonlight turned the crests silver. The Look Far rocked gently on her anchor chain, riding low swells.
“It’s pretty when it’s not trying to kill us,” Raidou said.
Genma stared blankly at the water, attention obviously elsewhere. Raidou let the moment sit, waiting, until he saw Genma slip back into the present. Genma blinked, gave a little headshake, and said, “That’s what my family name means. That—” he nodded down at the waves breaking against the hull. “The way the light looks on water.”
Shiranui. Light on water.
“That’s pretty, too,” Raidou said. “Namiashi just means ‘walking pace’.”
Genma shrugged and leaned forward, shoulder barely brushing Raidou’s. “Suits you, in a way. Walking at an even pace. It’s… peaceful.”
“It gets worse. My first name is written with the characters for ‘following blindly.’” Raidou tipped a smile at Genma, inviting him to see the humor. “My full name is basically very slow loyalist.”
Genma made a quiet sound of amusement: the one-syllable laugh of a man without the energy for anything more. “At least yours makes sense. I always write mine in katakana, but the kanji for Genma means basically ‘original horse’.” He sketched a brief shape in the air. Raidou recognized one version of ‘gen’. “My dad says he talked my mom out of using the ‘phantom devil’ version of Genma.”
“It’s not too late to change it,” Raidou said. “Shiny Water Phantom Devil-san has a ring to it.”
That won him a laugh. Quiet and gone in an instant, but for the briefest of moments Genma’s face relaxed. “If I ever get in the Bingo Book, I’ll make sure they write it that way.” More quietly, he added, “Or on the Hero’s Stone.”
Like Eizo, whose name would be carved on the Stone as soon as they carried the news home. That pretty much killed any humor Raidou had.
He glanced sideways, studying the still profile of Genma’s face. Moonlight made Genma’s skin blue; lamplight turned his hair pale gold. Off-mission, this would be the moment to press. Ask, Are you okay? On-mission, they didn’t have room for the answer to be no. Genma was an officer. He could be brittle, but he couldn’t break. Whatever he was using to hold himself together, Raidou couldn’t afford to pull apart.
He hadn’t cracked on their last mission. Ryouma had struggled. Kakashi had blasted himself nearly dead. Raidou had killed half a port and seven innocent men. Genma hadn’t faltered. He wouldn’t today.
“You’re doing good work, Shiranui,” Raidou said. “We can’t afford to lose you to the Stone yet.” Genma’s mouth parted, surprise turning his face young. Raidou bumped his shoulder, breaking the moment, and added, “We should check on Tousaki before he falls asleep and bounces off the deck.”
Genma knew enough to recognize an obvious signal. He straightened up and stretched, raising his arms above his head and arching his back. His shirt slid up, baring the knotted edge of the demon-scar across his lower belly, still pink and healing. Raidou looked back out to sea. Genma yawned, slapped his own cheeks semi-gently, and said, “You’re right, punching a hole in the deck with a falling rookie would probably not improve our popularity with the crew.”
His voice was steady and alert. His shoulders, when Raidou looked back, were squared. Raidou wasn’t relieved; he’d never had cause to worry.
“Wouldn’t be that great for the rookie either,” he said dryly, and turned to lead the way back to Ryouma.
They joined Ryouma on the cross-bar, flanked either side of him, and received the updated report. (“It’s fucking cold.”) On the darkened beach, the captain’s cloaked lanterns were tiny spots of dim light. There was no sign of Kakashi, but there wouldn’t be.
Ryouma yawned. Raidou swallowed down a reflexive echo.
Genma said, “Tousaki, name the twenty-seven bones in the hand.”
“Lieutenant,” Ryouma said tragically.
“Lieutenant is not one of them,” Genma said. “Try again.”
Raidou leaned against the mast and snickered.
Ryouma groaned and began, “Five distal phalanges, four intermediate phalanges…”
Over the next two hours, Raidou listened to them explore skeletal topography. He learned that the average adult human had two hundred and six bones, but a newborn had two hundred and seventy, because humans were weird fusing creatures. The wind cut colder, and the sea grew rougher. Below them, more than one sailor spat over the railings and swore about freak June weather. Genma grew tense again, chakra flickering out every few minutes. Ryouma joined him. Their combined energy buzzed against Raidou’s senses; he didn’t waste chakra trying to match them.
As time slid away, Genma stopped correcting Ryouma’s mistakes. Then he stopped asking questions. When the silence stretched, Raidou stepped in to tell Ryouma a few of his own medical stories, learned through playing sporadic assistant in healer’s tents during the war.
Ten minutes before midnight, the captain’s lanterns gathered back into the boat at the shore. Raidou readied himself for a renewed fight.
Genma sat up rigid. A beat later, Ryouma did too. Raidou followed their gaze to a shower of blue-white sparks on the clifftop, and a slim, running figure heading down to the water. It didn’t stop at the edge of the ocean; it hit waves and kept running, bolting towards the ship.
Genma, Ryouma, and Raidou dropped down to the deck.
Kakashi’s clone leapt up onto the railing and snapped, “Thirteen’s here. Injured incoming.” It burst in a crack of smoke.
Genma let out a single tight breath and ran for his medical kit. Ryouma scrambled after him.
Raidou cut through the grouped sailors, ignoring shouted questions, and found the First Mate. “We need blankets, hot water, and somewhere our medics can work.”
Horikiri looked at him for a silent moment. “There’s a table in the upper messdeck; we can clear it.” She raised her head and rapped out orders. The deck burst into movement.
Raidou peeled off one more clone to tell Genma, and threw himself over the railing, racing towards the dying shower of sparks.
The cliffs were cold and bloody.
Kakashi felt the snapback death of his clone, saw the ship’s deck burst into movement. Then, seconds later, the falling star of Raidou’s chakra arrowing towards them.
“Namiashi’s on his way,” he said.
Usagi smiled with burned lips. “Good,” she rasped.
She was sitting on the rock she’d collapsed on, braced by Ginta’s narrow shoulders under her right arm. Her hand fell over his chest, fingers catching in bloodied bandages that wrapped up and around his neck. They both smelled like cooked flesh and, more worryingly, sweet infection. Usagi’s left eye was swollen to a narrow slit; the burns around it swept back over her ear and into her hair, raw and shiny, as well as down over her jaw. Ginta’s face wasn’t as bad, but his chest, neck, and shoulders were worse.
Abe sat at her feet, the color of sour milk. His left hand was bound up in a club of stained bandages and a makeshift sling. He’d already thrown up once.
Kasumi was the only one still on her feet, swaying with exhaustion. The hollows beneath her eyes were nearly purple.
They were all mud-covered, salt-streaked, shivering in the night air. Kurenai, Satomi, and Kuroda weren’t with them.
“You need to stand,” Kakashi told Usagi.
She squinted at him. “I’d tell you to piss off, but I’m not sure which one to tell.”
Ginta’s left eye was still bruised; both were narrowed. “Why? You said Namiashi was coming to us.”
“Because he can’t carry you both,” Kakashi said. “Can you stand?”
“I can see straight,” Ginta stonewalled.
“I can walk,” Abe said thickly. He swallowed hard. “In a minute.”
Kasumi’s legs trembled under her, but she kept her feet. Kakashi scratched chakra-walking off the list of possibilities for all four of them. They’d need to be carried down the cliffs.
Chakra flared behind him. Raidou leapt up over the cliff edge, skidded to a halt at Kakashi’s side, and demanded, “What the hell did you do to yourselves?”
Usagi gave him a hazy smile. “Did you know Kiri has acid bombs? Because that was news to me.”
Raidou winced and crouched down to look at her face. “Did they get your eyes? You’re not focusing.”
“She got hit in the head,” Abe said. He twitched his bandaged arm, and turned greener. “Broke my wrist; couldn’t do anything for her.”
Raidou’s frown deepened. “Painkillers?”
“Ran out this morning,” Usagi rasped.
Ginta’s mouth curled like a knife. “None still breathing.”
“Anything else I need to know?” Raidou said.
Abe swallowed again. “They both have low-grade fevers.”
“His wrist fracture is open,” Kasumi added.
Raidou reached over and pressed his hand to Abe’s forehead. “Make that three fevers. Did you pick the nastiest swamp to walk back through?”
“Only the best for us,” Usagi said.
Raidou snorted. “Okay, we’re gonna get you patched up. Usagi, you’re first. Abe second. Ginta third. Kasumi, sorry, you’re gonna have to hold out for a bit. Sit down before you fall over.”
Kasumi’s knees locked stubbornly. She had the look of someone who’d been burning willpower long enough that she’d forgotten how to do anything else. Kakashi briefly debated hooking a foot behind the back of her knee, but Ryouma solved the problem by arriving with a sudden snap of chakra that startled them all. Kasumi jerked back, lost her footing, and sat down hard.
Ryouma cast them all a wild-eyed look, registered the lack of dead bodies, and visibly dropped several ladder rungs of relief. “Lieutenant’s ready, Taichou.”
“Can he carry me?” Usagi inquired, studying Ryouma. “He’s so— tall.”
Raidou rapped out orders. “Tousaki, take Usagi. She’s first priority. Tell Shiranui: acid burns, head injury, fever. I’ve got Abe. Hound, follow us with Sakamoto. Can you—”
“I’ll get Kasumi,” Kakashi said.
“Fine,” Raidou said. “Tousaki, move.”
Ryouma crouched in front of Usagi, offering her his back. She gingerly freed herself from Ginta’s hold, wavered forward and wrapped her arms around Ryouma’s neck. He stood, catching her legs as he rose, and hiked her carefully into place.
“Wow,” Usagi said, craning her neck to look down. “How do you not hit your head on everything?”
Ginta peered up at her, slid a look at Kakashi, and went back to Usagi. “I think you got the better deal.”
“Be funny later,” Raidou said. “There’s a storm coming; our window’s four hours short.”
“Shit,” said Usagi. She tightened her hold on Ryouma and said. “Go, big guy.”
Ryouma went, vanishing straight down the cliff at high speed.
“C’mon, kid,” Raidou told Abe, levering him gently off the ground. “You’re having a hell of a week.”
“Kiri sucks ass,” Abe agreed miserably, and groaned when he landed on Raidou’s back. He wrapped his good arm around Raidou’s neck, catching Raidou’s shirt with a broken-nailed hand. “Don’t bounce me.”
“I’ll try,” Raidou said, and took off after Ryouma.
Ginta fixed Kakashi with an arctic-blue gaze. “Did your mission succeed?”
“We got the sister and the baby,” Kakashi said. “Fukuda’s dead.”
Ginta sharpened up, shedding the last traces of humor like unnecessary clothing. “Which side killed her, theirs or ours?”
“Theirs,” Kakashi said. “Shiranui gave her the mercy cut.”
Ginta’s voice dipped quiet. “Shame. She would have been a good asset.” He leaned forward like he was thinking of standing, but hadn’t gotten the leverage right. “What about your team? Injuries? Pursuit?”
Kakashi summoned a clone to get Kasumi upright, parceling out a big enough wedge of chakra to make it substantial. Then he crouched in front of Ginta. “Nothing significant. We hit a few complications; they’re all dead. Get on.”
Hot, damp hands curled over Kakashi’s shoulders. Ginta hauled himself up with a pained grunt and tried to settle himself on Kakashi’s back in a way that didn’t touch his burned chest. When that proved impossible, he let out a long, hissing exhale and eased himself down flat. His breath stirred Kakashi’s hair. “I’ll try not to pass out. If I do, just keep going. Genma can wake me up when there’s morphine.”
“Don’t throw up on me,” Kakashi told him.
Behind them, Kasumi made a disgusted sound as his clone pulled her up and got her settled on its back.
Ginta didn’t pass out, but he did make a variety of unpleasant sounds, and one dark, half-formed threat when sea-spray splashed his face. Kakashi leapt up onto the deck, landing as gently as he could. A wordless woman pointed him aft, to the long maindeck cabin where the passengers ate. Chairs had been cleared away. Usagi sat on the edge of a scarred oak table bolted to the floor; Raidou braced her by the shoulders while Genma flashed a penlight in her eyes. A few steps down, Abe sat with his injured arm outstretched. Ryouma was carefully unwinding the stiff bandages. Someone had put a bucket on a chair next to them.
Kakashi found a clear spot on Genma’s other side, and lowered Ginta onto the table. The tiny lieutenant slid off him with a strangled groan, managed to sit for a moment, then listed sideways. Kakashi caught him and helped him lie down on his back. Kasumi landed a few moments later, and insisted on being set down next to Ginta’s feet. She dropped a light hand on Ginta’s ankle, and kept it there.
“Lieutenant, instructions?” Kakashi asked Genma.
Genma flicked a brief glance up from Usagi. “Give him a full syrette of morphine, and be prepared in case it makes him sick. If he’s stable, start removing bandages. I need to see how bad it is under there.”
Ginta gave a rough chuckle. “Rather have you undress me, Gen.”
Kakashi rolled his eye at the ceiling. “Tousaki, can we swap?”
“Sure, nearly finished,” Ryouma said distractedly. “Pass me those swabs?”
Raidou tossed him a box. The bandage was entirely off Abe’s arm, and the wrist underneath was so swollen the bruised-black skin looked shiny. A half-scabbed puncture wound marked the place where bone had punched through and receded back. Beads of sweat rolled down Abe’s temples.
“Never mind,” Kakashi said.
He scrubbed his hands, shot a dose of morphine into Ginta’s biceps, and set about cutting and peeling the bandages off. The sickly-sweet scent rolled up as gauze came away. None of the burns were deep, but they were blistered in places, raw in others, and oozing in a way that Kakashi, in his non-medically professional opinion, judged undesirable. At Genma’s direction, he collected a bowl of water, clean cloths, a strong astringent soap, and sat down to make Ginta’s life miserable.
While they worked, the story spilled out.
In the past twenty-four hours, Team Thirteen had set traps, triggered explosions, blown their enemies up, blown themselves up… Ginta and Usagi traded off a patchwork commentary on the game of deadly tag they’d played around Kirigakure’s walls and the running firefight that had followed, almost to the coast. Ryouma cleaned Abe’s wounds carefully, doing his best not to jostle the fractured wrist, and tried to follow the leapfrogging thread. His own scattered concentration, their fevers, and Usagi’s concussion weren’t helping.
“…so then we doubled back,” Ginta was saying, “since Usagi wasn’t sure we’d been sufficiently noisy the first time—”
“Because you walk like a goddamn feather, you halfweight,” Usagi interrupted.
“Ninja, remember?” Ginta shot back. “Trained from infancy to walk silently? Fuck, Hatake—” He broke off in almost a shriek.
“Stop it, you’re butchering him!” Kasumi shouted.
Abe wrenched around. His arm slipped from Ryouma’s careful balance and banged against the edge of the propping chair. He gasped, and then retched. Ryouma lunged for the bucket and barely got it in time.
The next few moments dissolved into Ginta’s agonized whimpers, the thick choking sounds of Abe vomiting, and Kasumi’s panicked yelling. Genma cut across them all with sharp orders: “Sit down, Yamada. Hatake, give him another five of morphine and check a pulse. Tousaki, when Abe’s finished, get him lying down. I’ll come do a nerve block on his arm as soon as I can.” He glanced over his shoulder at Ryouma, his hands still glowing and cupped over Usagi’s temples. “There’s antinausea medication in my bag but it’s a suppository. Blue, foil-wrapped. Ask him if he wants it— What now?”
Ryouma hadn’t even noticed the door opening. The ship captain stood there, spray-damp.
“It’s half past midnight,” he said. “Tide’s going. We need to leave with it.”
Raidou stood. “No.” He gestured curtly. “Yamada, with me.” He strode out of the cabin, catching the captain by the shoulder on the way and dragging him out. Kasumi hesitated, then followed, steel glinting in her hand. The door banged shut behind her, cutting off raised voices.
In the abrupt silence, Abe spat into the bucket and croaked, “I’ll take the nerve block.”
Ryouma dug his canteen out and passed it over. “Just the block? You sure?”
Abe took the canteen, rinsed his mouth, and spat again. “Pretty sure I’d rather throw up on your shoes than have you shove anything up my ass, but ask me again in ten minutes.”
“I’d make it good for you,” Ryouma promised. Abe managed a ragged laugh.
Usagi dragged her gaze away from the door, and looked down at them. She mustered a hazy grin. “Can I sign up?”
“There’s a sign-up sheet?” Ginta asked, faintly.
“It’s not too late to leave you all to die,” Kakashi warned. He eased the syrette out of Ginta’s arm and shifted his grip to Ginta’s wrist, steadying the lieutenant’s shaking hands.
“Don’t worry,” Ryouma told them. “He’d leave me with you.” He helped Abe ease back to lie flat on the floor, head pillowed on the muddy lumps of someone’s utility belt. “Anyway, sounds like Taichou doesn’t want us to even leave Kuroda here to die. Or maybe he likes Intel.”
“I wouldn’t leave Yuuhi behind, either,” Usagi said sympathetically. She paused. The corner of her mouth curled. “Or that little Uchiha.”
“I called it,” Ginta said weakly. “Pay up, Genma.”
The tension carving Genma’s face almost eased, for a moment. “Morphine starting to work, Ginta?” The glow died from his hands; he pulled one back. “Usagi-taichou, can you follow my finger with your eyes?”
Usagi sighed and looked up again. Her left eye was still puffy, but the swelling had drained enough that Ryouma could see her warm brown iris roll smoothly, tracking Genma’s finger. Her burned skin peeled and flaked with healing. She was holding herself upright, fists braced on the table, elbows locked without trembling. “What’s your next trick, sensei?”
He let his breath out. “My next trick is probably convincing you to rest, and drink a liter of water with electrolyte powder. How’s your pain?”
“It’s my favorite thing ever,” she said.
Genma’s brows pinched. Usagi chuckled, roughly, and reached up to pat him on the shoulder. “Morphine’s helping. I’ll drink, I’ll rest. Do people not listen when you order ’em, sensei? You should start yelling louder.”
Genma didn’t quite manage a chuckle of his own. He moved on to Ginta, checking pulse, pupils, respiration, and finally pulled out a sealed scroll for Kakashi. “IV supplies in here. Set them both up with Ringers and tell me if there are any changes in his heart rate.”
“I’m not dying,” Ginta protested.
“Good,” Genma said. “Keep it that way.”
He crouched down by Abe, ignoring the reeking bucket. Ryouma hastily shoved it further out of the way and shifted to show Genma what he’d done: the clean wound and sterile dressing, the thick wads of gauze to pad and stabilize the wrist. Genma nodded distractedly and passed him another IV sealing scroll.
The ship rolled beneath them. Ryouma tried not to think of the oncoming storm or the ebbing tide, Raidou and Kasumi facing down the sailors, Kurenai and Satomi struggling with Kuroda through the hills. He hunted the big veins in Abe’s arm: cephalic, basilic, the one he always forgot…
“Ow,” Ginta said. “Butcher.”
Kakashi didn’t respond. Abe closed his eyes, and didn’t flinch when Ryouma finally slid the needle in. Green chakra lit around Genma’s hands. Abe’s jaw tightened, then relaxed; he breathed easier in relief.
The door banged open again. A rising wind, sailors bellowing, thumping feet on the quarterdeck overhead, and Kuroda, blown in on the first drops of rain.
He said, “Fukuda’s dead?”
The green glow flickered over Genma’s hands. His head lifted. “Yes. Do you have injuries?”
Satomi and Kurenai, drenched and white with exhaustion, stumbled past Kuroda and thumped to the floor. Kasumi came in, spared a tight glance for her team, and then went for a sealing scroll and blankets. Genma hissed between his teeth. “Tousaki, triage.”
Ryouma shoved to his knees. Kuroda snapped, “Tousaki, sit down.” His voice graveled with fury. “Shiranui, you took her into combat? You allowed her to get injured on your watch? Have you completely forgotten your duty to Konoha?”
Killing intent swelled behind him, lifting the hairs on Ryouma’s arms. Raidou shut the door and said softly, “That’s not what I said, Vice-commander.”
Genma’s face was as closed and controlled as his ANBU mask, and almost as pale. “Combat was unavoidable, Kuroda-fukushirei. Fukuda-san prioritized extraction of her sister and niece over her own safety.”
“Of course she did, you idiot,” Kuroda snarled, as if Raidou weren’t standing just behind him with a pressure of killing intent that smothered Ryouma’s breath. Abe was panting, straining for air. Kuroda bit out, “I’m not asking her motivations. I’m asking how you allowed her to throw her life away, when the rest of your team made it through uninjured.”
“Neither Abe nor Sakamoto-fukuchou are stable.” Genma’s voice was flat, uncompromising. His eyes found Raidou, narrowed; Raidou’s jaw clenched, and the killing intent clamped down. Genma said, “I’ll be happy to explain myself to your satisfaction after I’ve finished treating them.”
“I doubt it,” Kuroda said coldly. But he turned, brushing past Raidou as if he weren’t even there, and hauled the door open. A moment later, Ryouma heard him shouting at sailors.
The ship rocked, leaned; an unsecured scroll rolled across the floor before Ryouma could grab it. The bucket sloshed, its scent thick in the close air. Genma said, “Tousaki, take care of that. And check on Intel.” He bent his head again over Abe’s wrist. The green glow flared and steadied.
Ryouma cleared his throat. “Lieutenant.”
“I’ll do it,” Kasumi said roughly. She grabbed the bucket out of Ryouma’s hands and thumped outside again.
Ginta shifted, groaned, and tried to sit up. “Genma—”
“It’s fine.” Genma’s voice was still clipped, mission-focus. “Give me a few more minutes here and I’ll come take care of your burns.”
Ryouma and Kakashi traded glances. Kakashi shook his head, and handed Ryouma his canteen.
Neither of the Intel agents was injured. Both of them were exhausted, almost chakra-drained, run past the ragged ends of their stamina. Kurenai’s dark, disheveled head tipped back against the cabin wall, but her crimson eyes flickered open when Ryouma pulled back the blanket Kasumi had draped over her. She offered up her wrist, her voice a hoarse croak. “How are they?”
“Thirteen’s in bad shape, except for Kasumi. We’re all right.” Her pulse was high, but slowing. Ryouma scraped up a little of his remaining chakra and dribbled it into her, through the smaller wrist node. Her lashes fluttered sooty against her pale cheeks, and her chapped lips found a smile.
He looked at Satomi, curled bruised in seeming-sleep against Kurenai’s shoulder. “Is she—?”
“Tired,” Satomi rasped, without opening her eyes. “We went into Intel because we didn’t want to run for thirty-six hours straight. I’m a cartographer. And your Vice-commander’s an asshole.”
“Damn straight,” Ryouma muttered. Satomi coughed on a laugh, and took the canteen he gave her. He took her other wrist, and checked her pulse while she drank.
Kurenai said, “Namiashi-taichou told us what happened with Fukuda. Is her sister safe?”
“She’s asleep, in the little cabin. With the baby.” Ryouma hesitated, stemming the trickle of his chakra into Satomi. “She’s blue. The baby. She’s got gills.”
“Hoshigaki clan,” Kurenai murmured. “That’ll cheer Hirano up. He’s been insisting it’s a bloodline, not tattoos or scarification…” She took the canteen from Satomi, drank deeply, and passed it back. “Fukuda Kimiko. How’s she coping?”
He’d almost forgotten that their Fukuda, the dead woman, shared a name. “Uh— She took it pretty hard, but she held up. She’s strong. They both are. Were.”
“Takedo didn’t think she’d make it out alive,” Satomi said, abruptly, her eyes still closed. She rocked her stubbled head against Kurenai’s shoulder, burrowing down into the blanket, and said, “We both have sisters. One of us’ll be there, when Kimiko wakes.”
“Thanks.” Ryouma’s own throat was scratchy, but he capped the canteen.
Satomi tucked her chin down, almost an acknowledging nod. Kurenai tipped her dark head against the Uchiha’s, and murmured, “Just twenty minutes. We’ll be up.”
Ryouma doubted that, but he let them be.
Kakashi was still working on Ginta, cleaning and salving the least severe of the oozing burns. Kasumi had taken up the job of smearing salve over Usagi’s half-healed burns, while Usagi made pained faces and drank her liter of electrolytes. Genma had stabilized Abe’s wrist and drained the swelling, while Raidou watched, stone-faced, from the door.
“Think you can splint this?” Genma asked, looking up at Ryouma. “Cover the wound with a light dressing but don’t put any pressure directly over it. Put the splint on with his hand in a neutral position.”
“I can supervise,” Abe said, tipping his head up from the piled belts. “Go treat my lieutenant.”
Genma nodded, straightened, and moved to Ginta. There was no betrayal of human weariness in the rigid lines of his shoulders, no pause to work the stiffness from an aching back. Raidou’s mouth tightened, watching him.
The splint was a semirigid length of light metal, padded on the inside. Under Abe’s direction, Ryouma managed to measure and bend it, curving one end in to brace the hand, wrapping the edges up to cradle the arm. He lashed it with bandaging at elbow and knuckles, and wrapped a lighter layer over the broken edges of the draining wound.
Abe lay back, sweating, when it was done. “Good thing I didn’t kill you in the Trials.”
Ryouma scoffed. “You?” He rummaged for another scroll, found more blankets. “Need to throw up again before I tuck you in?”
Abe shook his head. “Not yet.” He added after a moment, “Feels like the sea’s getting rougher…”
It was. When Ryouma stood, he could see out one of the small portholes puncturing the hull. This cabin was above the waterline, but dark waves still slapped the glass as they rocked and surged. He couldn’t tell if they’d cleared the cove.
The green glow at the corners of his vision died. He turned to see Genma sitting on the edge of the table, hands fisted on thighs, gaze locked in the distance like a man defying dizziness. Beside him, Ginta seemed unconscious or asleep, the yellow blisters of his burns drained, raw skin flaking away over new pink.
Genma told Kakashi, “Get the burn cream back from Yamada when she’s done with it. Apply it to the entire area. Then bandages, but make sure they aren’t too tight. There may still be swelling.” He drew a breath, shoved off the table, and stooped to check Abe’s splint. “That looks good.” He paused, as if he’d forgotten what came next. “Thank you.”
Ryouma ducked his head. “Lieutenant—”
Genma’d already stepped away. “Where’s Kuroda? I want to get this over with.”
A muscle flexed in the side of Raidou’s jaw. Then he looked down, at Kurenai and Satomi curled against each other and the wall. “Yuuhi, would you accompany us?”
Kurenai stirred, yawned, rubbed the heel of her hand against one eye, and eased out from beneath Satomi’s weight. Satomi clutched at the blankets, grumbling, and slumped over onto the floor. Kurenai stood, blinking hard. “This might go better after he’s slept, Shiranui.”
The ship rocked over a swell; Genma lurched, but kept his feet. “I’ve just spent several weeks with Kuroda as acting captain. He’s not going to sleep until he’s done with me.”
Kurenai dipped her head, acknowledging. Genma turned for the door.
Ryouma met Kakashi’s eyes behind their lieutenant’s back. Kakashi set the jar of salve down beneath Kasumi’s hand.
She nodded, without looking up. They left her to her officers, and followed theirs.
The knot in Genma’s sternum should have dissolved by now. No one else was dead or dying. His team was safe and for the most part uninjured. Thirteen would all recover. And he’d been dressed down by Kuroda countless times in the preceding weeks. It was a matter of pride that he’d only thrown a coffee cup at a wall once. He would listen to Kuroda throw blame and threats around like blood spray from a severed artery, he’d bite his tongue, and then, gods willing, he’d sleep.
Almost as soon as they stepped onto the outer deck, they were drenched. The storm the Look Far’s captain had predicted was blowing towards them, forcing the ship to tack hard against the wind, and sending her leaping and shuddering over waves that washed the deck. Genma barely kept his feet as they lurched towards the ladder to the upper quarterdeck and Kuroda’s cabin. Every step took an aching burst of chakra he could barely afford to spend, but without it, he didn’t trust he’d stay on the ship at all. If he were swept overboard — if any of them were — there was almost no chance they’d have the strength to swim, let alone water walk, to safety.
Genma kept his head down, squinting to keep the flying salt spray out of his eyes. A wave slapped the ship broadside, and Raidou caught him when he skidded off balance. Genma caught Kurenai on the next wave, grabbing her arm before she could slip.
His companions were grim. Exhausted. And probably expecting the worst.
“If anyone’s seasick,” Genma said, “I’m not sure I have enough suppositories to go around. If Kuroda’s seasick, though, I’ll make sure he gets one.”
Kurenai slanted a skeptical look his way. “If you were looking for ways to improve his temper…”
“Throw him overboard,” Raidou finished for her.
A thick laugh clawed its way up Genma’s throat, past the knot. “It’d improve everyone else’s temper, anyway.” He tensed his shoulders hard and deliberately relaxed them. “Thank you for coming with me. Both of you. You didn’t have to, Yuuhi-san.”
“A favor for a friend,” Kurenai said simply. “Besides, I’m not in his chain of command.”
Raidou spared her a quick, grateful look. “Bastard should be yelling at me, anyway,” he added, irritated.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Genma said quietly. The ship pitched again, something heavy banged below decks, and sailors shouted to each other in incomprehensible jargon, plying ropes and swinging the sails around to meet the wind and hold the ship’s prow to the waves.
Genma grabbed for the railing; another hand landed on it from behind him. Their fingers brushed, and familiar chakra washed through Genma’s senses. “Tousaki?” He turned then. “What are you doing here? Is someone getting worse?”
Ryouma shook his head, scattering droplets from windblown hair. He jerked his chin at a waterlogged figure behind him. “We’re coming.”
Kakashi gave Genma a flat, judgmental look, daring Genma to send them back.
Genma turned to appeal to Raidou, but it was too late. The cabin door banged open in front of them, spilling yellow light that picked out every raindrop. Kuroda stepped onto the deck and gave Team Six a slow, contemptuous look. “I see you felt the need to bring a cheering squad.” His eyes skated over Kurenai as if she weren’t there, and landed on Genma again. “Get in here, Shiranui. You can leave your rookies outside.”
Pointless, impotent rage shuddered down Genma’s spine to curdle in his gut. He ducked his head in the shallowest of acknowledging bows. “Vice commander,” he said, and followed Kuroda into the cabin.
Raidou followed at his back. And Kurenai. Kuroda hadn’t asked for Raidou, but as Genma’s direct superior, protocol called for Raidou to be there regardless. Kurenai was another matter. But she was, as she’d pointed out, not under Kuroda’s command. He might ask her to leave, but she was within her rights to refuse.
Kuroda stood planted in the swaying cabin with his good arm crossed under the one in a sling. If his injured arm ached, he didn’t let it show. He didn’t waste any time, either. “Explain,” he demanded.
Genma drew a breath and tried to decide what, exactly, Kuroda wanted explained. “Our escape route out of Kirigakure was compromised,” he said. “Fukuda and her sister directed us to an alternate avenue, through the sewers. We made it out of the city but Kiri had trapped the tunnel spillway with a chakra-infused grate. A patrol of Kiri ninja approached while Hatake and I were still working to weaken the metal in the grate. Tousaki and Fukuda ran to stop them before the enemy discovered Kimiko and the baby were with us. Namiashi-taichou was carrying Kimiko-san, and Hatake had the baby. As soon as the grate was down, I ran back to the battle, while Taichou and Hatake went ahead. We eliminated all of the Kiri ninja, but in the course of battle, Fukuda took a blow to the abdomen that ruptured her spleen.”
“And as a competent medical professional, you realized that immediately?” Kuroda’s voice roiled with scorn.
“No,” Genma said. It felt a little like one of his medical class exams. And a little like sitting through one of Shibata’s Interrogation Resistance seminars. “Spleen injuries can be slow to manifest. She also took a blow to the head. That was the only obvious injury. It wasn’t severe, and we were pursued, so Tousaki helped her walk until her balance improved. We—”
“Oh excellent,” Kuroda snapped. “You knew a valuable asset had taken an injury, and instead of properly evaluating her, you handed her over to your less competent protege.”
“We were pursued,” Genma said as evenly as he could. “I evaluated her as stable to continue with Tousaki’s assistance until we were out of immediate danger. Her head injury was not severe.”
Kuroda let that point stand. “Walk me through the part where she died in your care,” he said tightly.
The ship rolled and banged. Genma pressed his feet hard against the bottoms of his boots, anchoring himself with chakra. The seasickness he’d predicted for Kuroda was starting to hit him, instead. Or maybe it was just exhaustion.
“When we emerged from the sewer, Namiashi and Hatake were both gone. When Fukuda realized her sister and niece were both missing, she immediately ran after them. We tracked Namiashi first, and found him under enemy assault with Kimiko-san. We engaged. Fukuda—” Genma swallowed, and diverted a little more of his precious chakra to his inner ear to try to quell the motion sickness. “Fukuda took another blow to the belly. I didn’t see it, I was fighting the shinobi who had Namiashi-taichou and Kimiko-san hostage. When the fighting was over, I was treating Namiashi for strangulation when Tousaki called me over. Fukuda had collapsed. That was when I discovered the splenic injury. She’d been bleeding internally, but either hadn’t noticed it herself, or had elected to keep it secret. By that point, she was in shock. I’d estimate she’d lost at least thirty percent of her blood volume, and was continuing to bleed heavily. Without a full surgical team and immediate blood transfusion, her injury was not survivable.”
“By that point,” Kuroda said. “If you’d realized sooner?”
Genma took a breath, picturing Fukuda’s blue nail beds, her bloodless lips, her racing, desperate heartbeat, and met Kuroda’s accusing gaze. “If I’d realized sooner, I still might not have been able to save her. Internal organ injuries are generally outside of the scope of a field medic’s capabilities. If her injury had been very minor, I may have been able to stop the bleeding. But given how close to death she was after the second battle, my guess is her injury was severe from the outset.”
“Did you even try to save her?” Kuroda demanded. He glared at Genma with bitter contempt, as if he already knew how inadequate Genma’s answer would be.
“I— when I assessed her, she was in severe shock, so I tried to support her blood pressure, but that just increased the rate at which she was bleeding out internally.”
“I tried to seal the bleeding vessels, but there were too many of them. Her spleen was shredded.” Genma hesitated before he admitted. “I tried to use a jutsu for knitting soft tissue, but it’s designed for skin and muscle injuries, not for something as complex as organ repair.”
“So you used a treatment unsuited to the task.” Kuroda’s dark eyes narrowed further. His lip curled in disgust. “Then what?”
There was no answer that would satisfy the vice commander, even if Genma lied outright. He could claim he’d exhausted every avenue, that he’d attempted the type of complex jutsu that a surgeon might have used. But a lie like that would never bear scrutiny — he was a Field Medic Grade Three; his scope of practice was clear, and his medical jutsu knowledge tested and certified by Nakamura-sensei, the medical supervisor for all of Konoha’s field medics.
Raidou and Ryouma had been there; he wouldn’t put them in the position of having to support a fiction.
And Fukuda deserved the truth.
“Then I gave her an additional dose of morphine, and told her that her injury was too severe for me to repair.” He swallowed, throat tight. “I told her I would make sure she wasn’t in pain, but I couldn’t save her.”
Kuroda pinched the bridge of his nose, grimacing like he had a migraine. “You useless incompetent,” he muttered. He snapped his head up. “What then?”
The ship rocked hard. Genma staggered a step, caught a precarious balance, and anchored himself hard to the creaking deck with a flash of unfocused, uncontrolled chakra. Raidou and Kurenai both grabbed handholds behind him.
Kuroda barely moved. His scowl intensified.
Genma gritted his teeth against the rising urge to vomit. “She asked me to end it quickly. She said her goodbyes to her sister. I performed the hissatsu maneuver. She died.”
For the first time, Kuroda looked surprised. And then furious. His features contorted in a menacing glower. His jaws ground. Killing intent roiled from him as his breath huffed between clenched teeth. When he finally spoke, his voice abraded the air. “Shiranui, are you telling me that not only did you fail to save her, you actually killed her?”
Genma looked down. “Yes.”
“And you think that was the right decision?”
Yes. No. “I—” Was it the right decision? What was the right answer? Of course? She was dying anyway? No, I should have saved her? He couldn’t have saved her. No field medic could have saved her. Could they?
Genma’s vision tunneled down, until all he could see was the slim patch of flooring at Kuroda’s feet. He heard himself answer, “I don’t know.”
“Of course you don’t,” Kuroda said. His voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away. “Get out of my sight, Shiranui.”
Genma saluted. He turned. Raidou said something angry, but he couldn’t hear it clearly. When the ship heaved under him, he slammed against the cabin door, fumbling at the latch. It swung open abruptly, and he stumbled onto the dark deck, eyes still dazzled from the cabin lights. Two figures moved towards him. “Lieutenant—”
He shoved past them both, reaching the ship’s rail just in time. Icy rain sheeted over him. He felt Ryouma’s hand on his shoulder, and shrugged it sharply off. When he’d finally finished vomiting, he pushed back from the rail. “Go— Go see about Thirteen,” he said thickly. He didn’t wait to see if Ryouma obeyed. He just needed to find a place to lie down, somewhere quiet and alone, to put himself back together for a few minutes. Maybe the cargo hold. He knew it was reckless, but he needed to get away from his team and their questions and accusations. Just for a little while. He wasted the chakra, and translocated.
Wind swirled in the wake of Genma’s absence, hurling raindrops against Ryouma’s eyes. He spun, searching the deck, but picking out one dark figure in the chaos of sailors and storm was impossible.
Raidou’s voice lifted over the howl of the storm, a furious shout through a closed cabin door: “—on of a bitch—”
Kakashi touched Ryouma’s arm, pointing at an open hatchway down in the maindeck. A swearing sailor hauled himself up and bent to pull the hatch-cover closed again.
“Sorry.” Ryouma dropped off the quarterdeck and pushed past the startled man, thumping down narrow steps into the darkened hold. They’d stayed abovedeck on the journey out, in open air or the relative comfort of the passengers’ cabins; belowdeck was sailors’ territory, cargo-holds, darkness and damp and the stink of bilgewater. Ryouma swept out his chakra, searching, but Genma’s was clamped down tight.
He was a better sensor than any of them. Of course he could hide better than any of them, too.
Assuming he hadn’t—
Ryouma couldn’t think it. He turned, almost knocking into Kakashi. “You’ve got better senses than me, you must’ve heard something! What did Kuroda say?”
“Blamed him for Fukuda’s death,” Kakashi said, in a colorless, strapped-down voice. He tipped his head up, inhaling deeply, chakra sweeping out. Then he pointed into the gloom. “That way.”
They threaded their way past sailors’ bedrolls, bales of cargo, through the close-fitting doors of watertight compartments. Kakashi took a glass-sheltered lantern from a hook and held it high, shedding a wan circle of light that only intensified shadows beyond. Ryouma still stumbled over a loose coil of rope and bruised his shoulder on the edge of a bulkhead. He couldn’t sense Genma, even his ANBU spark.
Then Kakashi stopped, on the edge of a lashed-down mountain of salty-smelling casks. He held the lantern high, gazing down at something on the heavy boards of the decking, then turned back to look at Ryouma. The lantern light sank into his dark mask and turned his eye into a hollow pit under the fringe of his hair.
Ryouma edged past him and looked down.
Genma sat huddled in the lee of the salt casks, knees drawn up, face hidden. His hair gleamed wetly in the flickering light. He seemed to be trying to mutter something, mantra or prayer, but his breathing rasped and broke.
He didn’t seem to have noticed them yet, and that was as terrifying as anything else.
Ryouma took one tentative step across the deck, then two. He eased down at Genma’s side. They were both sodden from rain, but only Genma seemed chilled through, little shivers chasing over his skin.
He’d always been so warm.
Ryouma touched his shoulder.
Genma’s muscles tensed like iron. “I told you to check on Thirteen.” His voice cracked like a crow’s. He didn’t lift his head.
“Kasumi’s got them,” Ryouma said, with more confidence than he felt. He rubbed Genma’s shoulder, cautiously, wishing he had dry clothes to offer, or that he knew Kakashi’s yank-the-water-out jutsu. Maybe if he asked Kakashi now—
Genma pulled away, bracing himself with a hand on the deck. “I told you to go check on them.”
“And I ignored that order. Sir.” Ryouma looked for Kakashi, found him, directed him with a jerk of the chin. Kakashi hesitated, then hooked the lantern to a beam and sank down at Genma’s other side, bracketing him between their shoulders. “There’s nothing I can do for ’em that she can’t, anyway. But you…”
Genma drew a ragged breath. “What do you want, Tousaki?”
I want us to be back in Konoha. I want Kuroda gone and Raidou here. I want you to be okay. I want—
“Fukuda wasn’t your fault, lieutenant.”
A rough, wordless sound ripped Genma’s abused throat. He shuddered against Ryouma’s side, beneath his hand. “Just— just go. Both of you. Go.”
His shoulders shook, and didn’t seem able to stop.
Ryouma met Kakashi’s eye, over Genma’s bent head. The black pupil of Kakashi’s eye seemed to have swallowed all the grey iris; he was pale, rigid, but he looked at Ryouma and he shook his head.
He wasn’t going anywhere, either.
Ryouma swallowed hard and looked down again. Then, deliberately, he wrapped his arm around Genma’s shaking shoulders, and tugged him close.
Resistance, as Genma’s shoulders tensed against the pull. He’d stopped trying to shove away, at least, but there was still no hint of uncurling in his bowed shoulders or bent head, no surrender in the hitching, broken breath. He dragged his hands up to cover his face, and muttered into them: “Sorry. I’m okay. It’s okay. I’ll be okay.”
“Liar,” Raidou said out of the darkness, hoarse but gentle with it.
He stepped around the lashed-down salt barrels, moving stiffly, careful with the ship-surge. Behind him, Kurenai pushed dripping hair back from her shoulders, her dark red gaze skipping across their huddled tableau; she let her breath out in a tired huff, and touched Raidou’s elbow. He looked back.
“Stay down here,” she said. “I’ll go back, see what I can do.”
“Start with strangling,” Raidou rasped, and caught her shoulder with a quick, grateful squeeze. She tilted a wry smile at him and turned away.
Raidou took one more step and crouched down in front of Genma. He reached out, curled careful fingers around Genma’s wrists, and pulled his hands away. “Genma, look at me.”
Genma breathed in, shaky and deep, and finally lifted his head. His face was raw, mouth struggling to form a professional line. Eyes red-rimmed, lashes clumped with the salt-tracks that glistened on his cheeks. “I’ll be— I just need a minute…”
His voice died. He dropped his gaze. Guilt mauled his face, and trembled in his shoulders.
Kakashi shifted away, pushing off the barrels and to his feet so smoothly the air barely rippled around him. Raidou dropped into the place he left. He braced his back against the barrels and wrapped his arm over Ryouma’s, circling Genma’s shoulders. His other hand dropped on Genma’s head. He was as wet as they, but heat radiated from him. Chakra-warmth, driving out the chill.
He rumbled, “You don’t need to be okay.”
Genma gave way, sudden as a wall collapsing. Dust and rubble and nearly silent sobs, muffled first against his wrist, and then in Raidou’s chest. Raidou pulled him in, as Ryouma hadn’t quite dared, and Genma let himself go. He curled into Raidou’s hold, one hand scrabbling for a grip on Raidou’s shirt, and gasped, “I tried. I wanted to save her. I tried…”
One day, if no one else had gotten there first, Raidou was going to find a find a dark, quiet corner, and break Kuroda’s neck in it.
He tightened his arm around Genma’s narrow back, and said, “I know. I was there. She was dead before you got to her.”
Genma was past the point where words could comfort. He drew a wracked breath and just— fell apart, voice shredding on heaving sobs. Audible, terrible. Raidou didn’t move. He settled like a foundation and threaded his fingers gently through Genma’s sodden hair, prepared to sit until Genma could breathe again or the ship docked, whichever came first.
On Genma’s other side, Ryouma had let go and drawn back. There was hurt in his eyes, frustration in the downward tilt of his mouth. A student who wanted, so badly, to help his teacher. Raidou had used two sentences and a hug, and that had been enough to break Genma’s fragile balance, but Ryouma had tried first.
Ryouma had been the other medic at Genma’s side when Fukuda died, begging him to save her.
Raidou couldn’t reach to catch Ryouma’s shoulder, knew Genma didn’t want to shatter in front of their rookies, but driving Ryouma away didn’t help anyone. He’d seen Genma crumble; he needed to see what came next. Raidou opened his mouth.
Kakashi sat down on Ryouma’s other side.
Sat down against Ryouma’s side, bracketing him in. A shiver of chakra rippled through the air, a curling of warmth around all four of them. The water pulled out of their clothes, off their skin. A thousand droplets hung suspended for a moment, glittering in the dim lamplight. Kakashi turned his palm up. The water formed a ribbon and splashed silently down on the far side of the compartment. Beneath Raidou’s hand, Genma’s hair was fine and dry. Raidou could feel the wet warmth of tears soaking into his shirt.
In the gloom, Ryouma’s head ducked and Raidou caught the edge of a startled look. Then, slowly, Ryouma leaned back against Kakashi. Like Raidou, Kakashi didn’t move.
Raidou set that particular anomaly aside to think about when Genma wasn’t destroying himself over too much healing, too little sleep, a death he couldn’t have prevented, and one small, shitty commanding officer who liked to punch down. This close, Genma’s chakra should have felt like a warm fountain, even to Raidou’s limited sensing abilities. It felt like wire, tangled and scraped thin.
Overspent. Raidou should have caught that before.
He spread his other hand between Genma’s shoulderblades, over Genma’s spine, finding the heart chakra point. Teased out a slender thread of his own chakra and let it slip beneath Genma’s skin, finding an easy anchor in the earth nature they shared. Genma shuddered. Raidou made a quiet, reassuring sound in his ear and opened the right channels. Energy unspooled, sinking into parched, raw pathways that drank it like a lifeline.
Very gradually, something began to ease in Genma’s shoulders. The long muscles down his back unlocked. The white-knuckled grip on Raidou’s shirt relaxed fractionally. He wasn’t done crying, but he’d finally found a rhythm that wasn’t tearing his throat out. Raidou broke the transfer and rubbed his hand over Genma’s back, encouraging him.
The mission was still ongoing, but it didn’t matter anymore. The ship had left habor. Kimiko and her daughter, gods willing, were still asleep. Team Thirteen were taken care of. Kurenai had Kuroda in hand — probably without swearing at him, which was something Raidou was going to have to deal with later — and there was nowhere anyone needed to be. Genma had cut it bone-fine, but he’d made it.
Without Kuroda, Raidou suspected he’d have made it all the way home, vanished for an evening, and shown up to the next morning’s training practice with a freshly washed face and none of them any the wiser.
On the balance, this was more painful, but it was better.
(Someone still needed to break Kuroda’s teeth.)
The lantern swung as the sea grew rougher. Thunder rolled in the distance. Kakashi tipped his head back, looking at the dark ceiling like he was watching lightning strikes. Ryouma’s hands fidgeted restlessly through dry seals, practicing a jutsu Raidou didn’t recognize. Sailors shouted and thumped above. The compartment grew a little warmer.
Genma drew a deep, shaky breath and let it out. The next was steadier.
Raidou rubbed the back of Genma’s neck, and said, “Welcome back.”
Genma pushed back enough to look up, exhaustion and embarrassment warring on his face. “I—uh—” He sighed, sniffed, lifted one hand to press under his nose, then rubbed a tear away. His eyes were red-rimmed, face pale where it wasn’t erratically flushed. His hair clung damply to his forehead. “I shouldn’t have let that happen.”
Kakashi made a sound of cutting exasperation. A part of Raidou noted the return to familiar rudeness with relief, then annoyance. Ryouma’s elbow thumped into Kakashi’s ribs.
“I cried after the last mission,” Raidou said simply. “When Sagara-sama told me I was suspended. I went home and fell on my moms. And I actually deserved that reprimand.”
Genma drew another deep breath, still grounding himself. “At least you kept it together until you were actually home.”
Raidou tilted a smile at him. “Shorter journey back.”
Genma managed a weak chuckle. “Drier, too.” He turned stiffly, as if his bones ached and his balance didn’t want to stay beneath him, and settled again with his side braced against Raidou’s, so he could see the others. “Thanks for coming to find me.” And then, to Ryouma alone: “And for disobeying orders.”
Ryouma’s head ducked, acceptance and deflection in one gesture. “You told me, after Ibaragashi… Talking helps.”
Another tear slipped down Genma’s cheek. He rubbed it away with the heel of his hand and looked down at his knees. “I… I really did try to save her. Maybe I should have tried harder.”
Kakashi dropped his gaze from the ceiling. “She wouldn’t have thanked you. I wouldn’t either, since Kiri-nin were about a half-second away from drowning me and Sango in a tree when you showed up.”
That hit home. Genma’s eyes flicked wide for a second. He rubbed savagely at another tear trying to escape, and didn’t respond.
Ryouma added, quietly: “You said something else, before we left Konoha. When we were testing Kakashi’s blood jutsu. You said a field medic had to make that call. If you couldn’t save someone, you’d have to let them go, because the rest of us need you.” His hands shifted, as if he wanted to reach out, but he stilled them in his lap. “And Fukuda agreed. She told you to kill her.”
Raidou could have hugged them.
A muscle in Genma’s jaw flickered. He shaped a few unspoken words, then said tightly, “She told me that after I told her it was hopeless.” His fingers curled, nails pressing into palms. “I didn’t lie to her. But maybe, if I’d known earlier—” He looked at Ryouma. “Did she say anything about her belly hurting, in the sewer after the fight?”
Ryouma shook his head. “Nothing. She couldn’t chakra-walk, but she’d hit her head. I thought she was concussed. Maybe a cracked rib, but I’ve broken plenty…”
“Did either of you want her dead?” Kakashi demanded.
“No,” Genma said sharply. “I wanted her alive.”
Ryouma’s answer was lower. “Not anymore. Not since… she hugged her sister.”
“Are either of you stupid?” Kakashi continued. He made it sound like an academic question.
Raidou gave him a narrow glance.
Genma’s look was more resigned. “Kuroda thinks so.” He let out a breath and slumped against Raidou. “He’s wrong about that, though.”
Kakashi leaned back against the barrels, satisfied. “He didn’t protect Eizo from the eel either, so he can stuff his judgement up his ass.”
There was the genius Raidou knew and tolerated, coldly using people he didn’t care about to prove a point to the ones he, perhaps, did. Genma, who’d known Eizo and had a fully functional set of human emotions, tucked his chin down. “Yeah,” he said, small-voiced and shaken. “Eizo.”
Ryouma made an abortive move towards him, glanced at Raidou, and broke it off. He turned to scowl at Kakashi, who held both hands up in a what? gesture.
Raidou resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. One problem at a time. He smoothed a hand down Genma’s back, chasing the renewed shivers away. With the other, he reached over Genma, grabbed Ryouma by the shoulder, and yanked. Ryouma toppled with a startled sound, landing against Genma’s other side. When he tried to scramble back upright, Raidou held him there.
“But—” Ryouma stammered.
“It’s okay, Tousaki,” Raidou said.
Before Ryouma could pull away or argue, Genma snaked a hand out and caught Ryouma by the forearm. Raidou shifted, easing some of Genma’s weight across, and after a wary, uncertain moment, Ryouma accepted it. A notch of final tension unwound in Genma. Buttressed between two taller, physically stronger shinobi both prepared to hurl Kuroda into the ocean, he could let himself be weary.
On Ryouma’s other side, Kakashi looked extremely unconvinced, but he kept a lid on further questions.
Silence drifted in, broken when Ryouma said, “Kimiko still trusted you.”
“She listened to you on the beach,” Raidou remembered. “When Hatake scared her non-verbal.”
“Hey,” Kakashi said mildly.
Genma’s head dipped in a shallow nod. “She let me take Sango,” he said, and there was a breath of hope there. “She was there when Fukuda died, and she let me take Sango.”
Raidou let out a soft breath. “Yes,” he said. “And they both survived the channel crossing because of you.”
Genma swallowed hard, voice catching on a new crack. “It was all of us. Not just me.”
“I killed sharks,” Kakashi put in.
“I swear to, like, eight gods, Hatake,” Raidou said.
Genma gave a scratchy chuckle, barely audible, and settled more heavily between Raidou and Ryouma. He looked like the aftermath of every worst mission, exhaustion so deep the shadows under his eyes were blue with it, but there was a glimmer of lightness again. A weight taken from his shoulders, if only briefly.
Silence settled around them again, a quiet shelter beneath the ocean storm. They hit harder waves, which made ropes creak alarmingly and the swearing above them get louder. Raidou had to grab the deck with chakra to stay seated. Thunder boomed. Kakashi made a contented sound. Raidou sincerely hoped Usagi and her concussion were unconscious by now, or someone was getting an earful. Maybe Satomi could genjutsu her and the rest of Team Thirteen.
On the next pitch and sway, Ryouma gave a faintly nauseated groan.
Raidou said, distractingly, “Did you know Shiranui’s personal name means ‘original horse’?”
Ryouma brightened. “Does it have the same character as mine?”
“Mm-hm,” Genma said, sounding a little sea-sick himself.
“How do you write yours, Taichou?” Ryouma asked.
“‘Following blindly’,” Raidou said dryly.
Ryouma digested that. “Maybe your parents picked it ‘cause it sounded pretty.” He tilted his head towards Kakashi. “What about you?”
“‘Scarecrow’,” said Kakashi, sounding resigned. “Hatake means ‘farmland’.”
Genma, who, like Raidou, had already seen Kakashi’s name written down and snickered in private, nevertheless laughed softly. “Yours must’ve named you for your hair.”
Ryouma reached out and touched Kakashi’s fluffy-dry hair, gently ruffling the brown-streaked spikes. “When does the dye come out?”
Kakashi, clearly expecting mockery, blinked. “The bottle said twelve washes.”
“Maybe we can stop at that onsen on the way home, hurry it up.” Ryouma turned piteous, soulful eyes on Raidou.
Raidou snorted. “Are you trying to guilt me with Hatake’s hair?”
“Is it working?” Ryouma asked.
Raidou thought of hot water, hand-delivered food, clean yukata, and a pillowy futon. “Maybe.”
Genma murmured sleepily, “It’s grilled sweetfish season. And apricots.”
Now even Kakashi looked hopeful.
With Kuroda leading, Raidou suspected the chance of a side-trip was exactly zero, but he said, “I’ll try.”
Ryouma smiled and leaned his head against Genma’s, black hair a shadowed contrast against light gold-brown, both of them half-lidded and boneless now the crisis had faded. Their cabin was upstairs, with their bedrolls and other abandoned gear, but Raidou was loathe to make anyone move. Especially not before Kurenai sounded the all-clear.
A brief disruption of air on his right revealed an empty space where, moments before, Kakashi had been. Ryouma glanced up and frowned. Raidou thumped his head back against the casks and thought several unrepeatable words, resolving to have words — again — with Kakashi about that particular trick—
Air shifted again.
Blankets dropped on Genma and Ryouma, making them both twitch. Another landed on Raidou’s head. When he yanked it off and gave the room a wild look, Kakashi had settled back at Ryouma’s side, stretched out comfortably on his own blanket, with an arm folded beneath his head. His hair just brushed Ryouma’s leg. He reminded Raidou of a self-satisfied wolf, set just enough apart to remind people he wasn’t tame.
His mind-reading habit was also getting spooky. Raidou was going to start watching himself for tells.
“Thanks, Hatake,” he said anyway, on the principle that almost-good-manners should be encouraged. Kakashi shrugged one shoulder.
Ryouma and Genma had rearranged the blankets between them, both of them slouching in a way that was probably going to end in stiff necks. An ache pinched in Raidou’s chest, fond and protective and gently aggravated all at once. He sat up, making them slide and complain, and kept them awake long enough to lie down like people who actually wanted to get more than ten minutes of sleep. Ryouma’s feet ended up jammed under Kakashi’s knee, and his head on Genma’s ribcage. Genma tucked against Raidou’s side, trapping Raidou’s right arm against the floor.
They were out in moments.
Raidou kept himself awake longer, while the lantern swung and the storm howled outside, occasionally slapping a handful of chakra down to keep them all from tumbling. Once, when he looked up, he saw Kakashi’s grey eye gleaming in the dark, and one pale hand wrapped over Ryouma’s shin, threading chakra through it.
Sometime before dawn, the storm blew itself out, and Raidou let himself relax, drift, and finally fall into sleep as the Look Far carried them home.