August 15, Yondaime Year 5
The wall towers were more than just lookout points. They held weapons caches, communications equipment, and tiny break rooms with hot coffee, tea, and stockpiles of instant ramen, fruit, and other comestibles for hungry wall-watchers and returning teams.
Team Six and friends limped into one of the larger ones, where Akimichi Yuuma polished off three bananas, a bag of shrimp chips, and a liter of orange juice while Genma handed Taiyou and Ashi off to the Inuzuka medical specialists.
Genma gave them a rundown of injuries and treatments. He endured some close questioning about what he’d done to stabilize Taiyou’s and Ashi’s burns and whether he’d manipulated their shared chakra connection — he hadn’t, which was the right answer — before the medics loaded a protesting Ashi onto a second stretcher next to Taiyou’s, and jogged them both up the hill to the hospital.
They handed Yuuma off to a chuunin in hospital white and another in Intel grey, with a promise they’d look for him later. A second Intel agent was there for them. Or more specifically for the ledger they’d taken from the bounty office.
“We’ve got a field team in Tochigi, and have a general idea what you found,” he told Raidou. “If you’ll give me the ledger and any other documents or items you secured, you can file your reports through usual channels after the hospital clears you.”
Raidou nodded at Genma, who handed over a sealed scroll containing the ledger and the items they’d liberated from Nijo. “It’s secured with a standard double-monkey release,” Genma told him. “Yuuma-san has his teammates’ dog tags.” And the heavy responsibility of reporting on his teammates’ deaths.
The agent took the scroll with both hands and a small bow. “If we have questions, we’ll be in touch.”
And then it was their turn for medics.
But first, Kakashi, who had Ryouma under interrogation.
Genma slugged back half a cup of too-hot tea and leaned against the wall. “It was ordinary lightning,” he said, interrupting Ryouma’s attempt to explain. “She didn’t make the storm, she just took advantage of it.”
“Why was she in the storm?” Kakashi demanded, peering at them with baffled disbelief.
“Because we made bad choices,” Raidou said. He made a brusque, dismissive gesture. “You can judge us on it after medics have looked at people.”
“Preferably in a quieter voice,” Genma added. He lifted his hair to show Kakashi the bruise behind his ear and left Kakashi to work out the implication of concussion and headache that went with it.
Kakashi opened his mouth to make some further insinuation about their gross incompetence, but Raidou shoved past him to open the door for Genma and Ryouma.
Genma hung back a moment to sign them out with the tower guard. He stamped his seal on a ledger line marking ANBU Team Six back in Konoha, with immediate destination as the hospital for medical evaluation. Intel and anyone else from command would know where to find them.
Domen Saburo, lieutenant of the reconstituted ANBU Team Twelve, the day’s official wall watch, gave Genma a sympathetic head shake, gesturing at Kakashi’s retreating back. Pain in the ass.
My pain in the ass, Genma signed back. Saburo laughed and waved Genma on.
The walk up the hill to the hospital was blissfully uneventful, since no degree of curiosity could induce Kakashi to ask about mission details when they were in the middle of Konoha’s midday bustle.
The hospital lobby was another round of checking in and inking ledgers, before they were shuffled into a private triage room. After ID and vitals checks, they were left alone to strip out of armor and uniform, and slip into loose hospital garb while they awaited a medical officer.
The questions started again immediately.
Kakashi got out a “Why did—” before Ryouma cut him off with a cranky, “I fucked up and we all know it, and if you’d been there things would’ve gone just perfect or we’d all have woken up dead and she’d’ve dragged you off for the bounty, so…” He cupped his hands over a tired yawn, then dragged them up over his face and through his hair, and pre-empted Kakashi’s next objection with, “And I know nobody wakes up dead.”
“You still don’t get to take all the blame, Rookie.” Genma paused with his shirt in one hand, trying not to let the contagion of Ryouma’s yawn get to him. They’d had a night at an inn and they were still all exhausted, thanks to concussions, lingering muscle aches from the tetany the lightning had caused, and lingering paranoia that the lightning wielder had caused.
And for Genma, pouring chakra into healing jutsu without benefit of soldier pills to make up the expenditure.
“Ashi and Taiyou were the ones—” The yawn caught him anyway. “—ones who took her outside.” He wiped watering eyes with his discarded shirt and reached for a clean hospital top. “And we were all close to tapped out. No one makes good decisions when they haven’t slept in 48 hours.”
Ryouma’s emotions were even closer to the skin when he was tired. He glanced over hunched shoulders with a guilty, grateful expression on his scruff-shadowed face. “That’s most of our missions, Fukuchou.”
“Doesn’t make it less true,” Genma countered. “If your mission report says it was all your fault she took us down and got away, I’m making you do it over.” He looked up at Raidou. “Remind me to tell Tousaki’s debriefer that before he goes to dictate his report. Save us all some trouble.”
“Agreed,” Raidou said.
Kakashi made what might have been a concurring, “Hm,” but didn’t elaborate. In fact, he tucked himself up into a corner and projected an Air of Pointed Silence at them in some misbegotten attempt to punish them for not being more immediately forthcoming with mission details. He maintained his silent withdrawal while the next evaluating medic came in to administer neurological exams, test reflexes, ask about urine output and demand samples, shine lights into headachy eyes, press on burns and bruises, thump hollowly on ribcages, draw blood, and otherwise gently torture them with medical care.
Genma, as team medic, gave mini histories for all three of them, complete with his log notes of treatments and medications given. He was just about to raise the issue of his slow clotting when Raidou jumped in with, “Someone needs to check Shiranui’s platelets, too.”
The medic looked up with a patient ‘I’m prepared to wait until you explain this’ expression. Kakashi’s expression was somewhat less forbearing.
“I was getting to that,” Genma said, with a sigh. “I discovered on the mission that I was having prolonged bleeding after minor injuries.”
“Soldier pills?” the medic asked.
“I’d have thought so, too, but I’d only taken one. And I haven’t had a problem with them in the past.”
The medic made a note on Genma’s chart. “We’ll run some tests.”
While she drew two additional vials of his blood, Genma said, “You should probably get someone from the chakra ward to consult.”
“You think this is a chakra injury?” Interest replaced dispassion on the medic’s face.
“More like the result of a unique jutsu I encountered on a previous mission.”
The medic’s eyelids flicked up in surprise, but she only said, “Noted.” She handed out three empty containers and pointed to a cabinet built into the wall. “You can put your urine specimens over there as soon as you produce them.”
When she’d gone, Genma leaned back in his chair and waited for Kakashi to detonate.
Kakashi did not detonate. He looked at Ryouma and said, very calmly, “Say more words.”
Genma caught Raidou’s eye. No sympathy there. And Ryouma’d done nothing but worry since Genma’d explained his suspicions about the cause. “It’s not as bad as you’re probably thinking—” he started.
Kakashi flapped a hand at him and continued to bore a hole in Ryouma with a look.
Genma sighed, slumped a little lower in his chair, and let Ryouma and Raidou do the talking.
“It’s that damned blood-ripping jutsu,” Ryouma said, which was considerably less swearing than he’d used when Genma first told him about it, in the endless hours of a night when none of them could sleep and none of them wanted to let the others stand watch alone. He licked dry, cracked lips and added bitterly, “None of us’ve figured out yet why it’s only affecting the lieutenant and not me. We’ve sure talked in circles, though.”
A sudden worry seized. “You haven’t been bleeding more than you should, have you?”
“No,” Kakashi said, with the certainty of a man who accounted for every bruise. His narrowed eye moved on to Genma. “How bad is that headache?”
“Four out of ten,” Genma said. He was still holding a gauze swab to the inside of his elbow, where the medic had drawn blood. He checked its red-tinged edges, sighed, and closed his eyes. Resignation dulled his voice. “And no increasing somnolence, loss of balance, memory issues, or seizures.”
Kakashi squinted at Genma for a moment longer, then stood, dusted his hands off against his pants, and stepped out of the triage room. The door slid shut behind him.
Ryouma said, “Seizures?”
Genma didn’t open his eyes. “Not having them.”
That wasn’t reassuring. Ryouma hadn’t even considered seizures as a possibility. What else had Genma not told him? He tried to catch Raidou’s eye, but Raidou was studying the back of Genma’s head with his taijutsu-practice stare: scrutinizing for weaknesses, sure he’d find them. After a moment Raidou got up, refilled his canteen from the sink in the corner, and placed it in Genma’s hand.
Genma drank without looking. “Thanks,” he said, a little less hoarse.
“Finish it,” Raidou said. He returned to the sink and drank from his cupped hand. Ryouma pushed up, after a while, and joined him. The mineral-rich tap water tasted like home.
Ten minutes passed. Genma drained his canteen once more before pronouncing himself sufficiently well-hydrated to visit the adjoining bathroom and attempt to produce a urine sample. Raidou and Ryouma followed suit. They all stared glumly at the little row of dark orange-filled containers in the cupboard, then returned to the sink to refill canteens anew.
Footsteps rushed by. A woman laughed. Two nurses passed, gossiping over weekend plans. Distantly, down the hall, a man wept.
Ryouma was starting to wonder if he could nap in a corner when Kakashi returned. He wasn’t alone. Two slightly traumatized-looking medics and one very efficient nurse piled in after him and descended on Genma. A slim young woman in surgeon’s scrubs leaned against the door frame, her brown hair braided up out of her way, two rectangular purple tattoos angling down her cheeks.
Ryouma scrambled to his feet. “Nohara-sensei. He needs surgery?”
Nohara Rin, Konoha’s other young genius, gave Ryouma an assessing look that opened him like a scalpel. She pursed her lips. “I’m just here to observe. Your lieutenant’s case sounds interesting, and my next surgery isn’t for another half hour.”
Genma lurched upright in his chair, peering past the lead medic’s green-glowing diagnostic jutsu. Manhandling by medics was an everyday occurrence, apparently, but a visit from Nohara-sensei wasn’t the kind you could sleep through. “Nohara-sensei!” he said, voice almost cracking on the title. “This isn’t— I’m fine. Mostly.” He glared at Kakashi. “What did you do?”
Kakashi leaned against the other side of the doorframe, brushing elbows with his old genin teammate. “Same thing you would do, if I came home with a bleeding disorder and a concussion.”
Behind his cage of medics, Genma groaned, very quietly. Then he rubbed his face, fingers rasping over stubble, and looked again at Kakashi. “Thank you, Hatake.” The words sounded grudging, but real.
Kakashi dipped his chin in a brief nod, his gaze already returning to the lead medic. Beside him, Rin tilted her head thoughtfully, as if the haze of glowing chakra made some kind of sense to her.
“Grade Zero concussion,” the lead medic reported, for the rest of them. “Surface and deep-muscle bruising, along with some muscle tearing and inflammation. Elevated heartbeat — mild anemia, I’d think? Low chakra levels, but no worse than I’d expect at the end of a mission.” He frowned at the dark bruise on the side of Genma’s face. “I can ease the headache and some of the bruising, but I’d prefer to let the rest heal naturally.”
Kakashi raised a brow. “Including the anemia?”
The medic switched his frown to Kakashi. Rin cast a brief glance at the ceiling, then unfolded her arms and smacked Kakashi’s shoulder. “Just because you’ve been a patient seven million times doesn’t mean you can medic.”
Genma said firmly, “I will take anything you can do for this headache. And the bruising.”
One hand-seal cut the diagnostic jutsu; eight more replaced it with the deeper green glow of a healing jutsu. The medic reached up to hover his hands delicately over Genma’s temples, fingers just brushing over loose hair. Genma’s expression pinched, then slowly eased. The purpling bruise on his cheek and jaw faded greenish, then yellow, then absorbed into the wheaten tone of Genma’s skin.
“Hit by a lightning strike jutsu, you said?” the other medic asked abruptly. She was looking into the urine-sample cabinet, frowning at the vials. “Potential myoglobinuria, compounded by dehydration. Kimura-san, I’d like all three of them set up with IV hydration. I’ll run some further tests.” She swept out with the samples in hand. The nurse leapt into action with needles, tubing, and heavy bags of saline solution, which she hung on conveniently located wall-hooks. Ryouma sat on the counter by the sink, feeling ridiculously like a dog tethered by its leash.
Genma gazed up at the fat plastic bag hanging over his head, then heaved a sigh, rolled his shoulders, and blinked back to a semblance of alertness. “Tousaki, do you know why we’re all getting saline?”
“Myoglobby something,” Ryouma said, stifling a yawn. “Which is…not just dehydration?” He’d been pissing brown since meeting Hiroko-san’s oxcart, but he’d chalked that down to their shortage of clean water, ongoing exertion, and general exhaustion.
“Myoglobinuria,” Genma repeated, more clearly. “You know the ‘uria’ part — it means ‘in the urine.’ Myoglobin is a muscle protein that can get released into the bloodstream when muscles break down.” He yawned, looking for the first time like it didn’t hurt. “Rhabdomyolysis is the word for rapid muscle breakdown. You can actually get it from serious over-exertion, but in this case it’d be due to the lightning. Honestly, I should have thought of it, but I wasn’t paying that close attention to the color of our urine.” He waved his untethered hand at the IV bags. “The danger is kidney injury from the protein accumulating as it’s filtered, so this is to flush it through. You wouldn’t see kidney damage until 24–48 hours after the initial injury, so we’re in the window, but probably fine.”
“Nicely explained,” the lead medic said, approvingly. Genma’s bruise-free cheeks stained faintly pink.
Rin turned her head, glancing between Genma and Ryouma. “Are you training Tousaki-san to be a second medic?” The tilt of her mouth said she didn’t exactly disapprove. Ryouma straightened his back and tried to look intelligent and deserving, or at least a little less like crumpled laundry.
Genma nodded. “I am. We’re only a few months into his training, but he’s picking it up fast. He’s got an aptitude.”
Glowing crumpled laundry. Ryouma twisted his hands together in his lap so he wouldn’t do anything idiotic like push his hair back and preen. He could feel Rin’s cool brown gaze on him still, evaluating him like a bloodstain on a microscope slide. Had she been this unsettling when he’d run into her last week, looking for Kakashi? He’d been half-frantic with guilt and worry; maybe he just hadn’t noticed.
Rin’s expression warmed a little more, like a scalpel that was really quite pleased with you. “Good. We can always use more medics. The hospital holds regular demonstration classes for our trainees and students; you’re welcome to attend.”
“Um,” Ryouma said. “I think I was the demonstration at one of those, already. I mean, yes! Thank you, Nohara-sensei.” He tried to bow, almost unbalanced himself from the counter, and straightened so hastily that his head swam.
“Please try not to concuss yourself again before I finish your captain’s evaluation,” the lead medic said distractedly. He was over on Raidou’s side of the room now, glowing hands cradling Raidou’s head. Raidou looked ironic, or perhaps just sleepy.
“Yes, sensei,” Ryouma said, and scooted back further on the counter.
The nurse checked everyone’s IV lines again and then went out, nodding at Rin. The lead medic finished Raidou’s evaluation — more bruises, another Grade Zero concussion, still more muscle tearing and inflammation — and eased his headache. Rin checked her watch.
“Miyano-sensei, the lab sent— Oh, Nohara-sensei! Excuse me!” A harried-looking hospital runner dithered in the doorway with a clipboard, caught between two potential authority figures. Apparently Rin’s seniority decided her; she handed over the clipboard and rattled off, “Shiranui-san’s platelet results from the lab. Pardon me, sensei!” She rushed off again.
The other medic — Miyano, apparently — abandoned Raidou with his visible bruises mostly-faded, and went to join Rin with the report. Kakashi peered inquisitively over their shoulders. Genma, tethered in his chair, looked up at them like a dog watching someone else eat ribs.
Pages turned. Rin’s brows drew slightly down. Miyano tapped at something on the second page and looked at her; she nodded. Genma folded his hands precisely over his knee-caps and waited. A muscle jumped in the side of his jaw.
Rin looked up at him. “Shiranui-san, your blood count came back, and they pulled your records from this past April. Your white blood cell count is lower than we’d expect after a lightning strike, and your red blood cells and platelets are well below your normal. Your platelets are also showing reduced activation.”
Ryouma bit his tongue on a How are you going to fix it? Genma wasn’t fidgeting, wasn’t pacing or knee-tapping; he could do the same.
“Are the values all still within normal range?” Genma asked.
“Low-normal range. I’m more concerned about the reduced activation.” Rin held the report out to Genma, pointing at the same spot Miyano had indicated. “This test isolates platelets and then adds an agonist to activate them. If your platelets work, there’s a 90 percent or more activation; if not, the activation percentage decreases. We’d consider 80-85 percent abnormally low.”
“85 percent is about the same percentage you’d get for a chronic alcoholic,” Miyano chipped in. “Liver cirrhosis.”
Ryouma’s skin chilled. “He’s not— That jutsu couldn’t cause liver failure, could it?” Genma wasn’t jaundiced, wasn’t swollen, hadn’t complained of abdominal pain— But he’d been bruised up enough that he might not have noticed, and the discoloration from myoglobinuria could have masked the signs of blood in the urine—
It had taken his grandfather months to die.
Raidou said, harshly, “What’s Shiranui’s percentage?”
Genma shook his head, looking down at the complex maze of numbers on the report. Miyano said, “53 percent.”
Ryouma’s stomach turned over. The laminate edge of the counter creaked under his grip.
“We know almost nothing about Iebara’s jutsu,” Rin said, with a hooded glance back at Kakashi, “but we would have seen other symptoms by now if it caused liver failure.”
“Bruising, fatigue, nausea, dark urine,” Ryouma said, staring intently at Genma. “Yellowish skin and eyes, bloody shit, swelling in the legs and the gut—” The shapeless hospital scrubs did their best to disguise, but Ryouma’d seen Genma shirtless thirty minutes ago. He was bruised and tired, but as lean as ever, and the whites of his eyes were clear.
The counter creaked again. Ryouma forced himself to let go. “You’re going to test it, though. Right?”
They were all staring back at him now: the medics a little taken aback, Raidou frowning, Kakashi as unreadable as ever. But Genma turned and reached out, touching Ryouma’s knee. “I’m not in liver failure,” he said. “Slow down and breathe.”
Ryouma tried. After a moment he steadied, but Genma kept his hand where it was, warm and gentle over the knee that had been broken.
Miyano said in a hearty sort of voice, “Of course we’ll do further testing. As well as a bone marrow aspiration, to check for other related anomalies.” Rin looked briefly grim, before her expression cleared to medic-calm.
Genma’s eyes widened. “Bone marrow?” His hand tightened just a little on Ryouma’s knee, as if bracing against anticipated pain. Then his eyes darkened, and his lips thinned. “You’ll need to test Tousaki’s platelets. He’s asymptomatic, but he got hit with the same jutsu.”
“I’m fine,” Ryouma said, reflexively. “You got an iron transfusion after the Iebara fight. And another one just last week.”
Rin’s eyes narrowed. Kakashi took a subtle step away from her.
Genma said, “That doesn’t change the fact that you got hit with the same jutsu. And the first part is running the same blood test on you that they did on me. Nothing invasive.”
“But—” Ryouma started, and Raidou just knew he was going to argue some point about the medics needing to focus on Genma over himself.
Raidou really needed to put together some remedial training about actually useful times for self-sacrifice. This being Example A of not one of them.
“If you aren’t affected, that’s information we need,” he said, cutting Ryouma off. “If you are affected, it’s working slower on you than the lieutenant, which is also information we need.” He reached over to rap his knuckles on the side of Ryouma’s skull. “Shut up and let them take the blood.”
Ryouma gave him a dark look from under rumpled hair, but held his untethered arm out to the medics. “I tolerate soldier pills better. Don’t hit the threshold for impaired clotting factor as fast. Could that be why?”
Miyano looked thoughtful. He was young for an advanced medic, though clearly older than Rin. There were a few threads of premature silver in his dark beard. “It’s possible that you simply have more robust chakra. When soldier pills were first developed, only the Akimichi could use them safely.” He shrugged. “In any case, we’ll know more once your results come back.”
Blood was taken and dispatched to the lab. Miyano stepped out to arrange Genma’s date with a bone marrow skewer.
Raidou said, “Hatake wasn’t hit with the jutsu, right? Just stole it?”
“I dodged,” Kakashi agreed.
“He was toying with you,” Genma said shortly. “He had plenty of opportunity to hit you with the jutsu if he’d wanted to.”
“Probably wanted to test himself against Sharingan no Kakashi,” Ryouma said. “Also, by the time we found you, you’d dodged yourself right into a blender.”
Kakashi shrugged. “Still killed him.”
“You did,” Genma relented. “Even though he nearly killed you. I enjoyed moving his page in my Bingo Book to the deceased section.”
Ryouma’s head lifted. “Did you get the pay-out yet? We were just at one of the bounty offices—” He snapped his mouth shut, darting a guilty look at Rin.
Raidou added ‘proper handling classified information’ to his mental list of remedial classes.
Rin ducked her head. From his angle, Raidou could just make out her teeth catching her lower lip, and a crease to the corner of her mouth that betrayed a smile. “Unfortunately, duty calls,” she said, after a moment to compose herself. She lifted her head to look at Genma. “Shiranui-san, I wish you a speedy recovery.” And then to Kakashi, “I’ll see you later?”
Her eyes flickered meaningfully to Ryouma, and she tugged an absent hand on her earlobe. Not trail-sign that Raidou recognized, but it clearly meant something to Kakashi, since he dipped his chin in a fractional nod.
Raidou decided he didn’t want to know.
Rin stepped out, closing the door behind her. In the silence that she left, IV bags dripped quietly.
Kakashi said, “I haven’t checked with accounting.” He shrugged a shoulder. “It usually takes a while.”
Another thing Raidou didn’t need to know, he decided, was exactly how many bounties Kakashi had brought down. He’d just feel bad about himself. He leaned back while Kakashi, Ryouma, and Genma got into a lively debate about how bounty percentages were divvied up, and whether assistive hits counted as much as the killing blow, and watched Genma’s face.
He looked a little better now the medics had healed the ugly bruise down his cheek, but the shadows under his eyes were still dark. His hair was scraped back into an unforgiving ponytail, matted with road-dust and sweat. It made his neck seem fragile.
That would be fear talking. Genma had always been a slender man. Blood counts just weren’t something Raidou could punch.
Voices in the hallway. The same runner again, young and breathless. Miyano’s deeper murmur. Footsteps receded.
The door slid back open. Miyano stepped back in, holding a clipboard. He looked at Ryouma. “Your activation is 86 percent,” he said, without preamble. “There’s nothing in your medical history to account for that. We need to do further testing, but I’m concerned about this enemy jutsu. I have a consult call out to a chakra injury specialist.” He flipped a page on his clipboard. “Shiranui-san, we’re almost ready to begin your bone marrow aspirate. Tousaki-san, I would strongly advise you to consider undergoing the same procedure — for diagnostic comparison, at least.”
It… probably wasn’t a good sign that the hospital was being that efficient.
The last remaining bit of color in Ryouma’s cheeks drained away. He looked down at the gauze square taped over his inner elbow, covering the blood draw site, and swallowed. “But I clotted normally,” he said, voice low. He looked up at the medic, then Genma. “Yes, sir. Sensei. Diagnostic comparison. Of course.” He slid off the counter.
“Now?” Genma asked. His mouth was tight, but it didn’t show in his voice. He gestured to his dusty, sweaty self. “Do I have time to shower? This isn’t exactly a sterile field.”
Miyano glanced at his watch, mouth pursed. “I think that can be arranged. If you’ll both follow me?”
Raidou was starting to wonder if Rin had called in some kind of favor, for all this haste.
“Namiashi-san, Hatake-san, there’s a waiting room down the hallway,” Miyano added.
“That’s nice,” Kakashi said, peeling himself away from the doorframe to stand between Genma and Ryouma.
Raidou felt his mouth hitch. Miyano glanced at him, looked very briefly like he was considering rolling his eyes, but only said, “Very well.”
Showering happened. Hospital locker rooms were, if anything, even less cheerful than the ones in ANBU’s barracks. The soap smelled of iodine. Raidou took the chance to scrub and change into a clean pair of civvies. Genma and Ryouma were both issued thin hospital gowns and socks with little rubber anti-slip dots on the soles. Genma’s gown had pale green leaves. Ryouma’s had orange squares.
“You look like a post-it note exploded on you,” Kakashi told him.
“If you don’t think we’re decorative enough, you don’t have to stay,” Ryouma snapped.
“Would you both shut up?” Raidou said, before Kakashi could double down on being helpful. He knew it was how they both showed worry, Kakashi trying to needle and distract, Ryouma losing his temper over stupid shit, but Raidou was actually trying to worry like an adult.
Kakashi’s eyebrow arched. Ryouma’s mouth opened.
“Or keep arguing if it makes you feel better,” Genma said. He gripped Raidou’s elbow. “Captain and I will be right back.”
“Wha—” Raidou got out, before Genma towed him into the hallway. Behind them, rookie voices raised again, but were cut off by the door clicking shut. “Genma, what—?”
“I’m sure this is all going to blow over,” Genma said rapidly. “But if it doesn’t—” He took a quick inhale, steadying his voice. “We should make a plan, in case I end up getting put on leave. I can probably keep teaching Tousaki, and—”
He stopped talking, because Raidou had put a hand over his mouth.
“You are not dying,” Raidou said.
Genma made a muffled sound beneath his palm.
“No,” Raidou said. “This is not the time for lieutenant planning. Stop thinking about other people. We are thinking about you and maybe eight percent about Tousaki, and I’m not making any plans until we have more information.”
There was a yelping noise inside the shower room. Raidou spared a half-second to smack the door with his free hand.
Genma locked a hand around Raidou’s wrist, eyes fierce until Raidou released him. “I know I’m not dying,” he said. “Not today, anyway. And it’s encouraging that Tousaki has an anomalous reading, too. That makes it less likely I just spontaneously got cancer or something.” He took another breath, shallow this time. His eyes flickered away, back. “If it’s a jutsu effect, then it can probably be treated.”
“If it’s a jutsu effect, it hasn’t killed you after three months,” Raidou said firmly. “So it’s weakass and you’d probably have shaken it off already if—if—you hadn’t needed to cook your system underwater, or gotten dimension kidnapped, or had your brain scrambled by baby tanuki, or gods know what else.” He raked a hand through his wet hair, rumpling it into stupid spikes and showering droplets of water. “You probably just need rest and—” he groped for a moment, “soup.”
Genma blinked a few times. “Yeah,” he said. Then, more certainly, “Yeah. Or curry. Or maybe a really spicy omelet.”
Raidou snorted. “Because choking in my kitchen is the road to optimal health.”
At the end of the hall, a nurse tapped her watch and beckoned. Raidou nodded, holding up a wait just a sec hand. Genma curtailed whatever he’d been about to say and shoved the locker room door open.
Inside, a blur of motion resolved itself into Kakashi and Ryouma springing apart from an awkward sort of headlock. Ryouma’s hair was rumpled. Kakashi’s was inexplicable. Raidou gave them both a very narrow look, but neither one of them seemed to have fresh bruises or obviously broken bones.
Ryouma opened his mouth.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Raidou said. “Medics are waiting. C’mon.”
Genma squinted at the rookies, bothered by something he couldn’t quite name. They fought all the time; it was how they bonded. And it didn’t look like any furniture or doors were about to be splintered this time. He shook his head and decided to let it go for now. He was fatigued, thrown off balance by the unexpected and disturbing test results, and the pending unexpected and invasive medical procedure.
Raidou was right: if it hadn’t killed him in three months, then it probably wasn’t going to, even if the numbers he’d seen on that report were hardly reassuring. He knew better than to jump to conclusions before the data was all in, but his mind raced through possibilities anyway. Maybe Iebara’s jutsu had fundamentally altered his ability to form clotting factors, and he’d been quietly losing blood internally for weeks, and it was just finally catching up to him. It would explain all that iron deficiency and anemia business.
Maybe it was unrelated to the jutsu at all. There were snake venoms that could damage blood clotting, and some of the poisons Genma handled were derived from them. He didn’t think he’d had any accidental exposure, but maybe something had leaked and gotten on his skin without him knowing.
Or maybe this bone marrow biopsy would reveal he did have some kind of cancer. It wasn’t unheard of. Improperly performed healing jutsu could create tumors instead of healthy new tissue. Iebara’s jutsu was a close cousin to medical jutsu. If it had done something to Genma’s bone marrow….
Raidou’s shoulder knocked against his, pulling him out of the whirlpool of negative outcomes.
“Right,” Genma said, meeting his eyes. “Soup.”
Raidou gave him a quick, warm smile. Early sun creases framed the corners of his eyes. Underneath the tiredness of the mission, the tension of command not yet set aside, and a palpable measure of worry, there was fondness. Genma smiled back, inexplicably calmer.
“It’s not a long procedure, Shiranui-san,” the nurse who’d come to fetch them said. “If you’re hungry, you should be able to have more than just soup within an hour, if you can wait.”
“What?” Genma said reflexively, then, “No. I mean yes. I— Yes. Dinner. After this, Taichou? Unless Intel changes their minds and comes and takes you away for debriefing while Tousaki and I are getting poked.”
“They better not,” Raidou snarled. Genma pitied any Intel agent who decided to test that particular boundary.
“They did debriefings in the hospital, after Ibaragashi,” Ryouma said. Genma turned to look over his shoulder at the rookies, and found Ryouma tugging at the collar of his hospital gown as if he’d tied it a little too tight. “Just hope they let us get dressed first.”
“I don’t think this will have quite the same urgency,” Genma started, and then remembered that while Ibaragashi had a destroyed port and a dead S-class bingo-book target, this mission had a dead Konoha jounin-sensei and genin, and a destroyed bounty office. “Well, no. It probably does. But they said normal channels for our reports. Or maybe Hatake’s friends are keeping them off our backs for the moment.”
Kakashi didn’t confirm or deny Genma’s hypothesis, but his studied silence suggested Genma wasn’t wrong. As soon as they turned the corner to the pre-surgical waiting area, he said cheerfully, “Hey, look, it’s your medic.”
Miyano-sensei was waiting for them, along with a woman Genma didn’t recognize. He’d traded his exam coat for surgical scrubs, complete with full hood. An untied mask hung around his neck. “This is Sato-sensei, she’ll be doing the actual procedure.”
She looked older than Miyano, so probably not an intern. A specialist, then?
She smiled up at her pair of patients. “This isn’t a long procedure—maybe 15 minutes for the biopsy, and a half hour for recovery—but it can be a little painful,” she said. “I’ll use a local anesthetic, but some patients prefer a light sedation. Would either of you—?”
“No.” Genma took a breath, and started again. “Thank you, sensei. I’ll be—” He broke off, startled, when Raidou elbowed him in the ribs. “Uh…” He caught Raidou’s meaningful eye roll.
If Genma refused sedation, Ryouma would definitely refuse sedation. And Ryouma had been riding the edge of a panic-wave since the night they’d first realized Genma wasn’t clotting properly. He could probably do with some sedation. Maybe even a lot of sedation.
“Actually, you know what?” Genma said. “I’ll take the sedative. It’s been a long mission, and Miyano-sensei didn’t want to heal more than the concussion, so I’m still pretty achy. If this is going to hurt, I’d rather doze through it.”
“Smart,” Raidou said, as if it hadn’t been his idea in the first place. Maybe taking the hint had been the smart thing.
Kakashi tilted his head inquiringly at Ryouma, who stammered, “How much is it going to—? No, it’s okay. I’ll, uh, I’ll do the sedation, too.”
“Good. I’ll go get that set up, and then we’ll take you back. Did they leave your IV catheters in?”
Genma rolled his arm to show her the taped and covered catheter and connector on his inner forearm. Ryouma did the same.
“Good, good,” Sato-sensei repeated. “Have a seat, I’ll be right back.” She and Miyano disappeared between a set of swinging doors marked, Surgery. Authorized personnel only.
Raidou set the example by plopping himself down on one of the waiting room’s low yellow benches. Genma followed suit, glad they’d let him keep his underwear beneath the loose-swinging hospital gown. He still felt entirely too naked.
“I should have just said yes right away,” he told Ryouma. “When a hospital medic says something might be ‘a little painful’, what they mean is ‘excruciating’. Otherwise they just call it discomfort or unpleasant. In which case it will still hurt, but probably not enough to make you tear up.”
Ryouma gave him a wry, sideways look. “So like, getting stabbed, or like getting stabbed lots?”
“I’ve never had this test,” Genma said, “or seen it done. But I imagine it involves stabbing at least once, since they’ll have to get into a marrow cavity. Maybe the pelvis or femur.”
Ryouma’s ironic look of worry shaded towards genuine. Genma reconsidered. Ryouma needed reassuring, not teaching right now.
Actually, Genma could use some reassuring, too.
“Anyway,” he said, smiling brightly, “We’ll be asleep. By the time we wake up the stabbing will be over and they’ll already have laid in some healing and slapped on some bandages. And it can’t be too bad, if that nurse thought I’d be well enough to eat within an hour of the procedure.”
Kakashi settled on a bench opposite, one knee folded under himself, other leg dangling with his foot dragging sideways on the dull ivory tiles. “It’s just a needle in the hip,” he said. “You’ve both had worse and walked on it.” His head tipped in thought a moment, then he pointed at Genma. “Demon scorpion stinger in the shoulder.” And at Ryouma. “Demon wolf teeth in the wrist.”
He had a point.
After an additional moment of consideration, Kakashi declared, “We need less missions with demons.”
Genma snorted. “Before this team, I never had missions with demons, unless you count the Fox. Some fairly demonic humans, though.”
“Same,” Raidou said.
“Iebara wasn’t a demon,” Ryouma said. “Mostly. But he did almost stab you down to the bone.” He twisted around to look past Raidou at Genma. “Maybe that’s why your blood’s more messed up than mine. Your femur wasn’t actually scraped, was it?”
“Huh. That’s a really good question,” Genma said. “It could have been. There was so much muscle damage, and the femur wasn’t broken, but if the bone’d been slightly chipped, I could have missed it. By the time we got back to full medical care, it would have been starting to heal, so it might not even be in my chart.”
Raidou made a thoughtful sound. “You had difficulty with that leg in the safehouse. Had to reopen it to close off extra bleeders, remember?”
“And my nose kept bleeding,” Genma agreed. “I thought it was soldier pill toxicity. I had to get transfused when we got back.” He looked at Ryouma. “You didn’t need blood, or even more blood pills in the bunker. Now I don’t know whether you’re extra robust or I’m extra delicate.” Assuming it was the jutsu, and not just a weird series of coincidences. But if it wasn’t the jutsu, then why would Ryouma have any derangement of his clotting ability at all?
Miyano-sensei reappeared to interrupt their speculation. “We’re all ready for you,” he said. “Who wants to go first?”
“I’ll go.” Genma stood up. “You owe me soup as soon as I’m over the anesthesia, Taichou. Don’t let Intel get in the way.”
“Promise,” Raidou said, with that crooked smile that Genma had decided he was going to just accept was charming as hell and he liked a lot.
“We’ll be back for you in about fifteen minutes, Tousaki-san.” Miyano held the door open for Genma.
It was a little weird to just walk into a surgical suite as the patient. Genma hopped up on the table.
“Face down, please,” a nurse told him. Someone else connected a fresh saline bag to his dangling IV catheter. And then Sato-sensei stepped up, masked and gowned. “I understand you’re a field medic, Shiranui-san?”
Genma nodded. “Grade Three.”
“We’re going in on the posterior iliac crest. And we know you have a clotting problem, so don’t worry. That’s what Miyano is here to handle. As soon as I have my sample, he’ll close you up. Ready for la-la land?”
“Hit me,” Genma said. And that was the last he remembered.
Except for Kakashi, Raidou, and Ryouma, the waiting room was empty. And silent.
Raidou planted his elbows on his knees and stared at the door they’d taken Genma through. Ryouma bounced his heel against the floor, tense and pale.
Kakashi considered and discarded attempts at reassurance. Everything will be fine. It’s probably not fatal. Shiranui’s always been that slightly green color.
After a minute and a decade, a young nurse poked his head around the doors. “Tousaki-san, we’re ready for you.”
Ryouma straightened up. “Is my lieutenant done?”
“He’s in recovery,” the nurse said. “Everything went fine.”
“Okay. Good.” Ryouma stood, balanced like he was wrestling with the urge to bolt. He managed to turn a lopsided smile towards Raidou and Kakashi. “Don’t get debriefed before I get back.”
“Don’t stab anyone,” Kakashi said.
“You’ll be fine,” Raidou said, with a look that promised something unpleasant in Kakashi’s future. “We’ll be here when you wake up.”
“I’ll leave the stabbing to you, if I don’t.” Ryouma smiled at Kakashi, a quick, unguarded thing that sliced Kakashi under the ribcage, and followed the nurse through the doors.
More silence followed.
Raidou glowered at the doors, at a plant, at Kakashi.
“I said don’t stab anyone,” Kakashi said.
“Button it, Hatake.”
The thing Kakashi liked most about Raidou, he decided, was the captain’s calm, measured, and not-at-all-grouchy approach to minor team crises.
He sat back on his bench. A clock on the opposite wall counted enough seconds to make a minute, two, four… There was probably a needle coring a piece out of Ryouma’s hip right now. Genma would be recovering, and bruising, unless they had a medic taking care of it. Raidou’s fingers drummed on a kneecap.
“We needed you on this mission,” Raidou said abruptly.
Kakashi didn’t wince. His face was a sheet of ice. He squashed his first five responses, which might have induced Raidou to actually punch him, and said, “Sagara-sama didn’t think so.”
For a good, loyal commanding officer who trusted his superiors, that didn’t leave Raidou much room to argue.
At least, Kakashi thought so.
Raidou made a noise. It sounded like a frog being stepped on. “Sagara-sama trusted us to cope, because that’s what ANBU do. And maybe she wanted to punish us for not stopping you—”
“Is that why you let a captive electrocute you all and escape?” Kakashi said.
Raidou’s jaw flexed.
Kakashi lifted his chin and waited.
Raidou said, “Is that what you really think?”
“I think you should have been smart enough to keep a lightning-user away from a storm,” Kakashi said. “You know that’s how I took out Iebara. Shiranui was there.”
“Her hands were tied,” Raidou snapped. “She shouldn’t have been able to make seals at all.”
“And yet!” Kakashi snapped back.
“Fine, it was stupid! Almost as stupid as murdering an unsanctioned target.”
Kakashi’s eye narrowed. “I apologized for that.”
“And maybe some day you’ll even mean it,” Raidou said. “I can’t control the weather. You can control your ability not to sneak around your team, break into someone’s house, and hang them.”
“He beat his children,” Kakashi said icily.
“We kill children,” Raidou said.
“Not the same.”
“Worth considering before you elect yourself judge and executioner,” Raidou said.
“We literally do that all the time,” Kakashi said.
“So it would have been fine if you’d ordered it,” Kakashi said. “Or if I’d been on a solo mission and decided it benefitted Konoha. But because I’m on your team, it’s wrong because I didn’t run it by you first.”
Raidou opened his mouth, closed it. Visibly groped for a moment, then asked: “How exactly did it benefit Konoha?”
“Raised the moral caliber of the world,” Kakashi said immediately. “By the amount of one asshole.”
Raidou stared at him. Then he sat back and rubbed his face. “It’s shit like this that makes me not want you on this team.”
There was a flicker of shock, like a bite. Like taking a step and finding the ground gone. Kakashi stumbled, caught himself, recovered. “So you didn’t need me on this mission.”
“I don’t need this,” Raidou said. “This smartass, argumentative horseshit. I need you supporting the team, not cutting it up from the inside, or putting yourself above it.”
Stung, Kakashi said, “I support—”
“When you got suspended.”
For the deaths of eight sailors, if they wanted to talk about unsanctioned murder.
“Or how about when I figured out how to cross dimensions so we could rescue the lieutenant?” Kakashi added, acidly. “Or when I help Tousaki with his medical training? Or an hour ago, when I got Rin for the lieutenant?”
He took a mean second of pleasure in seeing Raidou’s cheeks flush red. It turned a little hollow when Raidou rubbed his face again, and looked exhausted.
“Right,” Raidou said.
Kakashi sat back in uncertain victory.
There was quiet again, more awkward. The clock ticked away a little more time.
“You don’t support me,” Kakashi said.
Raidou’s head came up. “Excuse me?”
“Me,” Kakashi said. “Supporting. You don’t.”
“Yes, I do—” Raidou started, but there wasn’t the usual cast iron certainty in his voice.
“Not really,” Kakashi said. “You support the lieutenant. And Tousaki. You mostly ignore me, unless you need something.” He considered. “Or you’re yelling at me.”
“Do you even know why I joined ANBU?”
Raidou hesitated. “No,” he said finally. “Why?”
“Because I thought it would make me better,” Kakashi said. “Because I was getting stagnant and crazy doing solo missions. Because Minato-sensei never did it, and I want to kick his ass at one thing.” He stared hard at Raidou. “Do you think I’m getting better?”
Raidou’s hesitation was longer this time. “I think it’s only been five months.”
“I don’t think so, either,” Kakashi said. “My last performance evaluation told me to focus on the basics.”
Raidou pinched a spot between his eyebrows. “What’s your point, Hatake?”
“I still want to be in ANBU,” Kakashi said. “On this team. And when we’re not worried about the lieutenant and Tousaki being killed by their own blood, I want more out of it.”
“Then stop fucking up,” Raidou said.
Kakashi smiled at him, with hidden teeth. “You, too.”
He thought, for a moment, that Raidou was going to yell some more. But Raidou looked at him with sharp, dissecting eyes, like Rin at her most bladed, and saw something that made him pause. Slowly, Raidou nodded.
“Deal,” he said.
Kakashi leaned back and let out a breath, only aware now as he unwound just how tense he’d been.
The door opened. The young nurse poked his head back out. “Namiashi-san, Hatake-san? The procedures are done. Would you like to come in?”
Raidou was up and moving before the man had finished asking. Kakashi was right on his heels.
“Four, two, uh, three,” Ryouma said. He blinked woozily at the ceiling. “When’s it kick in?”
“About twenty minutes ago,” a familiar voice said, amused.
Ryouma blinked again. After a moment he realized that he could move his head. It took him a little longer to figure out how, but eventually the view of ceiling tiles turned into a view of railed hospital bed, with Genma sleeping in it.
Still pale, closed eyes shadow-bruised, hair drying loose around his face. He needed a shave; they all did. He probably needed the sleep even more.
“But if you’re sleeping,” Ryouma told him, slowly, “who’s talking?”
“Try looking down,” the voice said.
That took a while, too. When he succeeded, he found Kakashi sitting at the foot of his bed, just where Ryouma was slowly starting to feel his feet again.
“You got the good drugs,” Kakashi said.
Raidou came up the gap between the beds, pulling a chair. It was hard to keep track of him while he was moving, but he settled the chair close to Genma’s bed and sat down, and that was better. Ryouma let his eyes drift back to Kakashi, as they seemed to want to do.
“Guess you didn’t stab anyone,” he said. He thought about this. “I missed you.”
Kakashi brushed a finger against his masked lips and darted a glance at Genma and Raidou. They weren’t paying attention. Genma was sleeping and Raidou was watching Genma sleep. But Kakashi dropped his hand down onto Ryouma’s blanketed foot, and his fingers tapped out a slow and clear code: missed you.
Just in case Raidou started paying attention now, Ryouma said loudly, “You could’ve stabbed someone for us. But she might’ve stabbed you back. She wanted to take me.” He considered this, too. “Good thing I’m too tall.”
Kakashi cocked his head to the side. He was moving slowly, which was nice; it made him easy to watch, and Ryouma liked looking at him. “Who wanted to take you?”
“Nijo,” Ryouma said. “She took off my mask. She said I was decorative.” It occurred to him that he didn’t like lying down while people looked at him. He struggled to sit up. His arms were wobbly, but getting better. “She’s a bounty hunter. She saw all our faces. So it’s good you weren’t there.”
The hand tightened on Ryouma’s foot. Kakashi said, in a very cold quiet voice, “That’s a problem.”
On the other bed, Genma stirred and mumbled something. As if he’d heard; as if he agreed.
The cotton-wool fog swaddling Ryouma’s thoughts began to clear. That’s adrenaline, he thought, distantly. His right hip was sore. He could feel it, now.
“We couldn’t follow,” he said. “We had Yuuma — the genin, the one we rescued — and the Inuzuka were hurt. She was hurt, too. She didn’t kill us, she didn’t try to track us, she just ran. But if you were there, if she’d recognized you, she might’ve tried what Iebara did.”
“Would have tried,” Raidou corrected, looking over at Kakashi with hard, dark eyes.
Kakashi glanced at him, then back at Ryouma. His jaw moved sideways beneath the mask, as if he was sorting through words and rejecting them. “We got Iebara,” he said. “This Nijo isn’t even in the Bingo Book.”
“Sh’will be now,” Genma muttered, his eyes still closed. His voice slid lower. “Should’ve dislocated her kneecaps.”
They’d come up with a lot of should haves, on the way home.
“She’s gone now, anyway,” Ryouma said. “We got our people back — or away, at least — an’ we got that ledger from the bounty office about who might be buying them.” He tried to remember if they’d told Kakashi about that already, in the wall tower or the triage room. Oh, they’d turned it over to the Intel officer, hadn’t they? Kakashi was smart, anyway, he’d catch up. “If we run into her again, we’ll be ready.”
Genma’d said that, too, somewhere between Nagiso and home.
Kakashi patted Ryouma’s shin. He left his hand there, afterwards. “Maybe once you all stop having weird blood issues.”
“We’re trying,” Ryouma said. “Did they say anything on how long the test takes?”
Longer than any of them would have liked, apparently. The bone marrow test took more time than platelet activation, and needed a specialist’s review. Genma drifted to sleep again halfway through explaining why.
A recovery nurse came in, poked him awake, and pronounced both of them stable. She also brought the news that they’d been scheduled for consults on the following day with Naito Rumi, the chakra injury specialist. “And if Intel’s going to lock you up in debriefing rooms for a week, tell them to wait until after Naito-sensei’s seen you. Her schedule’s as bad as Hokage-sama’s.”
“We’ll pass that along,” Raidou said, gravely.
With that, it seemed, they were free to go. No one else needed blood or urine or bits of bone marrow; Miyano and the other medics had vanished to look after somebody else. Ryouma’s hip was stiff, and Genma wasn’t quite steady on his feet, but they made it back to the locker room to change and collect their gear.
And then they were on the dusty street in front of the glass hospital doors, and the sun was setting.
“Intel hasn’t come swooping down on us yet,” Ryouma pointed out. “Does that mean we really can just do the normal reports? Or are we supposed to go to them?” He wasn’t looking forward to another three-day stint in a debriefing room. And he was pretty sure Genma needed sleep more than Intel needed…intelligence.
Maybe he could do with a few hours’ sleep, too.
“Re— regular reports until we’re told otherwise,” Genma said, through a yawn. “If they haven’t come looking for you, you definitely don’t go looking for them.”
Raidou’s eyes crinkled. “I’ll drop off a preliminary report after I get the lieutenant home.”
“Oh. Okay. Good.” Ryouma hesitated. “We’ll just…see you tomorrow, then?”
“0900 at the lieutenant’s place,” Raidou said. “We’ll get breakfast before we have to deal with Intel and Naito-sensei.”
On the verge of a joke about breakfast at the lieutenant’s place, Ryouma looked at Genma’s pale, drawn face, and stepped back.
They were all tired. Genma could probably use a friendly shoulder, getting home.
And Ryouma— had spent the last week missing Kakashi, thinking of him, wishing for his presence, grateful for his absence. He had ten seconds in the locker room, and a careful hand tapping out code against his ankle, that suggested maybe Kakashi felt the same way.
He said, “0900. I’ll be there. You heading back to HQ, Kakashi?”
“Someone’s got to make sure you don’t faceplant on the way,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma wasn’t quite there, yet; but he didn’t protest. The officers waved them off, already turning. The sun hung low in a red-gold sky, and the streets were full. Genin raced past; chuunin ducked in and out of shops. A few lanterns had been lit in the more shaded streets, and the smell of cooking food drifted enticingly out.
They passed a young couple, a man and woman, holding hands.
Ryouma shoved his own hands in his pockets, out of danger. “You hungry?”
Kakashi’s eye curved. “You want to buy me dinner?”
“I owe you,” Ryouma said, remembering. He looked around. Blue fabric noren in a door caught his eye. “Sushi?”
They ate. They talked of inconsequential things: the weather in north-east Fire Country, the likelihood of a good harvest, the news of drought in Wind Country. Ryouma told him about the ox-cart driver teaching Ashi to weave hats. Kakashi talked about seeing Harubi, well and happy. Beneath the table, his foot rested gently against Ryouma’s.
When they left the restaurant true darkness had fallen. The streets were emptier, the shops and bars more full; paper lanterns cast bright coins of light onto the dusty ground. They were still near enough to the hospital for flower-carts on the street, and beneath one lantern Ryouma saw the last cart packing up.
“Hang on a minute,” he said. He crossed the street.
The day’s heat had wilted the remaining flowers. It was past the season for daffodils. A few clumps of blue hydrangea drooped in their water bucket, alongside a handful of iris, sunflowers, lavender.
The sunflowers were yellow, at least, and the lavender still smelled lovely. Ryouma bought a cluster of both.
He turned and saw Kakashi standing in the shadows across the street, watching him.
The first footstep felt like pushing through quicksand. Kakashi might laugh. Well, so what if he did? Ryouma liked hearing him laugh. If he was offended, or angry, that’d be harder—they should have talked, the way Hakone’d advised, but somehow there’d never been time, or the right moment, and then the mission summons came—
The street wasn’t wide enough. He’d crossed it already, and he was standing there, in front of Kakashi, with flowers in his hand.
He held them out.
“They’re both edible, I think. But we could get dessert instead.”
He took the flowers.
Sunflowers were heavier than they looked. A few of them turned deep orange near their centers. The lavender was inky-purple between the shadows and lamplight. It curved over the back of his hand.
Ryouma had given him flowers.
“You gave me flowers,” Kakashi said.
“They’re not daffodils,” Ryouma said nervously, on the flawed assumption that Kakashi cared. “If you’d rather have shaved ice—”
“If you take my flowers back, I’ll break your fingers,” Kakashi said.
Now Ryouma blinked. Then, slow and lopsided under the red paper lanterns, he smiled. “You like them?”
“More than I like most people,” Kakashi said. “How long do flowers live out of water? We should go home.”
Ryouma broke into his long-legged stride. “They’re probably not gonna live long, but— I can get you more tomorrow.” He glanced sideways. “Or sometime when the officers aren’t around, anyway.”
It was possible Kakashi hadn’t gotten enough sleep on the wall, or over the past week, because his first impulse was to shield his new flowers and tell Ryouma to shut up, they might hear him. He set this thought aside, in its appropriate box of crazy, and shook his head. “I don’t need more,” he said, matching Ryouma’s pace. “I like these.”
“The lavender should keep. It dries well, I think.” Ryouma grinned, teasing. “Or you can make it into soap.”
Kakashi held his flowers to his chest. “Support your fetish with your own unfortunate plants.”
Ryouma laughed, which was cute, and spent the rest of the walk back to the barracks explaining why scented soaps were a crucial part of a well-rounded grooming regime, which was alarming.
The flowers survived the trip. Ryouma diverted briefly to his own apartment for a change of clothes, and probably something grooming-related, while Kakashi unlocked defensive seals. His apartment smelled like musty dog and stress. He wrinkled his nose and opened the window.
Then there was the problem of vases: he didn’t have any.
Well, a shinobi was nothing if not resourceful.
It took all three water glasses, the toothbrush holder, a spare canteen, and a bit of creative stacking on the windowsill, but he was able to achieve an acceptable ratio of plant stem to water container. The effect was a little oasis of color in an otherwise beige apartment. Kakashi rubbed a thumb on the back of his neck and tried to squash the guilty little twinge that said everything should be useful.
It was pretty. Ukki-kun was surrounded by purple.
Ryouma returned, shaved and minty-fresh, wearing his softest red shirt and a pair of comfortable sweatpants, before Kakashi could spiral too hard. His hair was wet, dark and glossy. He leaned his unstabbed hip against the doorframe, and smiled. “I should’ve just bought the cart.”
“I would also have accepted the sushi bar,” Kakashi said. “Are you coming in?”
“Maybe I’ll be able to afford sushi bars when I make my own Bingo Book kill.” Ryouma padded in, closing the door behind him and glancing around curiously, as if Kakashi’s room were strange and uncharted. The shinobi sweep first — exits (window), sight lines (clear), threats (everything) — and then slower, lingering on the crammed bookshelves, the weapons rack, the cutting board and cooking chopsticks left on the counter, the unmade bed, the stack of new books piled on the side table. His eyebrows lifted. “Caught up on your reading, after all?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Kakashi pulled out the third book in the stack and skimmed it into Ryouma’s hands. His face felt a little warm, but the lamp light was dim.
Ryouma looked ironic at first, as if he thought Kakashi had forgotten about the illiteracy thing, then he turned the book over and blinked at the cover. He flipped it open and rifled through a few pages, eyebrows climbing higher. Unlike the other reading Kakashi had purchased, which was word-heavy, Drawn to Sex was mostly illustrated. And not subtle.
After another minute of study, Ryouma cleared his throat. “I haven’t done some of this. Do you… Were you thinking… Is there something you wanted to try?”
“Page thirty-seven,” Kakashi said. “First.”
Ryouma hastily flipped pages, paused, blinked again, and turned a shade that almost matched his shirt. “Which side?”
“Both of them,” Kakashi said.
“We can do that,” Ryouma said, still looking down at page thirty-seven. He turned the book sideways and made a soft noise in the back of his throat, a little like huh. Then he lifted his eyes. “Are you going to keep your mask on? It’s okay if you do.”
Kakashi leaned his hip back against the kitchen counter and touched his mouth with his fingertips. Soft cloth, the blunted suggestion of a face underneath. He’d taken his mask down for Rin just a few days ago. It’d felt like ninety seconds of heart attack, but he’d managed it.
He wanted, badly, to be okay for Ryouma. But he wasn’t, and it wasn’t, and his hands were cold.
He wished he’d never put the damn thing on.
“I don’t know,” he said at last, and dropped his hand. “I wasn’t thinking tonight, anyway. You look like you’re about to fall over.”
He hadn’t meant it as a rejection, just a postponement, but Ryouma nearly dropped the book in his haste to put it down. “It’s okay,” he said again, and shook his head. Damp hair spiked over his crown, and fell into his eyes. He raked it back. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m tired. I wasn’t— I probably wouldn’t be much good tonight. Can I…” He hesitated, swallowed. “Can I stay, anyway? Just to sleep?”
Kakashi looked at him, standing lean and exhausted in the doorway, with his bare feet and worried eyes, and felt his own stupid heart twang. He covered it by scooping a pillow off his bed and pointing it threateningly at Ryouma. “If you leave, I’m going to lock you out of your own room and let all my dogs sleep in there. They’ll cover everything in hair and eat your CDs and laugh at you.”
Ryouma laughed, surprising himself and reassuring Kakashi, sort of, and took a breath. Then a step forward. “Can I hold you? Just that. It’s— I mean it. I missed you, on the mission. Even before things went wrong.”
This time, Kakashi actually did throw the pillow. It hit Ryouma in the center of the chest, and he caught it. “Oh my gods, Tousaki, get on the bed,” Kakashi told him. “I’m going to hug you and you’re going to feel better and stop making that face at me. And you’re going to take some painkillers, because the lieutenant would want you to.”
“I’m not making any face,” Ryouma argued, continuing to make a face that would cause little old ladies of civilian and ninja inheritance to adopt him and force sweaters on him until he stopped.
“Uh huh,” Kakashi said, and sat on the bed.
Ryouma came over, still arguing, and attempted to throw the pillow on the bed and hug Kakashi before Kakashi could hug him, which devolved into a wrestling match that ended with tangled blankets and all the pillows on the floor.
“You’re really good at romance,” Kakashi said, somewhat muffled from the region of Ryouma’s armpit.
Ryouma tensed. Kakashi thought, damn. Very, very casually, Ryouma asked, “Is that what we’re doing?”
Kakashi extracted his head from under Ryouma’s arm, considered his choices, and lay down on Ryouma’s chest. Ryouma’s breath hitched. Kakashi draped an arm over his ribcage and rested his cheek on Ryouma’s collarbone. The red shirt smelled like detergent. The skin underneath smelled like iodine soap and shaving cream.
Kakashi said, “If I say yes, are you going to bolt?”
“No,” Ryouma said. And then, more honestly, “I don’t think so.” A hand brushed over Kakashi’s back, followed by the weight of an arm settling down — tentative at first, then comfortable as they fit together. “I’ve… been thinking about it for a while. Since the day after you got suspended. Why you’re different. Why it’s not just sex.”
Kakashi tipped his head up, studying the underside of Ryouma’s chin. Strong jaw, but narrow, just a little bit delicate. With a nick under the edge, where he’d cut himself shaving. “If the answer is I’m bad at sex, I’m going to throw more pillows.”
Long fingers dug into his ribs, making him flinch-yelp and slap Ryouma’s hand. Ryouma chuckled. A broad palm smoothed out and rubbed the tickle away, while Kakashi grumbled.
“You’re good at everything you do,” Ryouma said. “But I’ve had good sex before. You’re…” He paused, sucked briefly on his lower lip, and continued. “You trust me, and listen to me, and you’ve seen what I am but you’ve come closer, anyway. And I’m not sure if you’ve even noticed I’m good-looking.”
Kakashi rolled until he was more on his stomach, and lifted up to look Ryouma in the face. “You’re good-looking?”
Ryouma scowled at him. Kakashi laughed, just a little, relieved with the world and his living team and his place in the crook of Ryouma’s arm, and said more gently, “I’ve noticed.”
When Ryouma still looked unconvinced, Kakashi pushed himself up a little more and touched his fingertips to the corner of Ryouma’s eye. “Pretty eyes.” To the dragon below his collarbone. “Pretty art.” He brushed a hand over Ryouma’s chest. “Pretty is the wrong word here. So, sexy.” He touched Ryouma’s shoulder, ran a hand down his biceps. “Especially here.” Curved his fingers around Ryouma’s hip. “And here.” He lay back down, tucked against the warmth of Ryouma’s body, and captured a hand, holding it up against the light. Long fingers, blunt nails. Skilled, deadly, violent. Kakashi tugged it to his mouth, pressing a scarred knuckle briefly to his masked lips, then tangled their fingers and pulled Ryouma’s hand down to his chest. “I like your hands best.”
“Oh,” Ryouma said. Just that, on an exhaled breath. His eyes were bright.
Kakashi was about to deduct himself a hundred points for making Ryouma cry, when Ryouma said shakily, “I like your voice. Just listening to you talk.” He took a steadying breath. “Like when you told me a story, that time after my knee surgery. Or on the cliff-island in Kiri, when you told me about… yourself.”
Bonding through trauma. Also the shinobi way.
“And you came closer anyway,” Kakashi said.
“Well,” Ryouma said, “you let me in.”
That wasn’t quite right. Too flippant, or too accusatory: placing all the blame at Kakashi’s feet instead of owning any of those choices himself. You opened the door, and I walked through it…
He’d done just that for most of his life. It was safer than asking for anything he might be allowed to have. It wasn’t like he ever had to wait long anyway, in a bar or a club or anywhere else. People liked him. Some of them wanted him. And he wanted to be wanted. That was simple enough, or had been.
“Before this,” he said, “I’ve mostly let people just happen to me. That’s — safer. For me, not for them. It means I know what they want, and I’m not going to ask for anything they don’t want to give. I couldn’t understand you, though. I thought maybe at Trials you liked me, and then we got put on Team Six together, and I thought maybe you didn’t— And there was Taichou, and everything— And then that moment in my kitchen when I fucked up and scared you. That’s why I shouldn’t ask. I even thought maybe you were straight, after that. There was Katsuko…”
“There was Katsuko what?” Kakashi asked warily.
“The two of you got along. Katsuko’d get along with anyone, of course, but you— I just wondered, sometimes.” He exhaled. Kakashi’s hair stirred softly against his mouth. “I mean, I know she was teaching you her sword style. And she was our teammate, and we trusted her. I was pissed, too, when she left.”
“I’m still pissed. Her father had no right—” Kakashi cut himself short. He turned his head, the sharp point of his chin digging briefly into Ryouma’s sternum, before he laid his cheek there again instead. “We were never anything. I thought you and she might be, at first.”
“No. I might not’ve turned her down if she’d ever asked me, instead of just joking around, but… She took Taichou seriously when he talked about boundaries.” As Ryouma had never quite managed to. He hesitated. “I told you about me and him last year, right?”
“No,” Kakashi said. “I figured it out. Then you tried to proposition me because that’s your answer to everything.” His fingers, still tangled between Ryouma’s, tapped thoughtfully at the back of Ryouma’s hand. “If Shiranui starts asking awkward questions, you could make it three for three.”
“Fuck,” Ryouma said, involuntarily. “You already guessed that, too?”
Too late, he realized how that sounded. Kakashi’s head lifted sharply. “You slept with the lieutenant?”
“No!” He should’ve taken Hakone’s advice, should’ve kept his bedroom fantasies to himself. Only Kakashi made it so easy to talk, with the way he listened like he actually cared. The way he sometimes opened up in turn, like it was safe to be vulnerable here.
He didn’t look safe, now. The warm lamplight caught glittering in his eye, and the rest of his face was pure shadow: black mask, black eyepatch, silver hair falling down over a face already concealed. He might have been stabbed, or be intending to stab someone else, and you’d never be able to tell.
Ryouma couldn’t tell which way to draw the knife, whether he’d only twist it deeper.
“I wanted,” he said. “That’s all. It wasn’t, it’s just— I’m used to wanting what I can’t have, it’s why I don’t ask, and it’s only moments anyway, like— like admiring someone, or envying them, and then moving on. I’m sorry.” Kakashi still hadn’t moved. Ryouma still couldn’t read his face. “I can go.”
Kakashi sat up. His knees settled down into the bed on either side of Ryouma’s hips, pinning him down. He said bluntly, “Would you rather sleep with the lieutenant, or with me?”
The lieutenant wasn’t actually an option. Genma had never given any indication of interest, would probably have squashed it as conduct unbecoming an officer if he had, but that wasn’t what Kakashi had asked. This wasn’t about people happening to Ryouma. It was about Ryouma, himself, choosing.
“If I slept with the lieutenant,” he said, “he wouldn’t respect himself in the morning. And I’d never, ever get him to respect me, either. He’s kind to me because he’s kind to everyone. And I think he pities me, and maybe he’s a little scared of me—what I can do, what I might do—so I have to prove to him I can be as good as he wants me to be. As good as he hopes I can be.” He drew a shallow, shaky breath. “But you don’t look for me to be anything other than what I am. Even if we don’t always agree what that is.”
The steely blankness in Kakashi’s eye had begun to pinch slowly into a frown. “But what do you want?”
Everything Ryouma said was going wrong. He could try without words, but Kakashi might bite him, or stab him. He’d probably deserve it.
“I want you.” He tried to keep the words slow, and small, so he wouldn’t trip over them. So maybe Kakashi could believe them. “I want the way you fight with me. And the way you back me up.” A breath. He could do that, still. He could still speak. “I want the way I can make you laugh. The way you kiss me. And bite me. And pin me. The way you listen to me. The growl in your voice and the feel of your skin and the taste of your cock. That when I need you, you’re always there.”
He knew that wasn’t fair as he said it. He pushed up on his elbows. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean you have to stay.”
“I know.” Kakashi’s voice had gone softer again. It was the same tone he’d used to tell Ryouma he had pretty eyes. He leaned down, bracing one hand on the mattress. It brought the lamplight onto the planes of his face again, carving highlighted features out of solid black mask. “I don’t care if you look at other people, Ryouma. I don’t need a declaration, either — though I liked everything you just said.” The glimmer of a smile lurked at the back of his voice, for a moment. “I just— wanted to know that you still want to be here.”
He caught a strand of hair at Ryouma’s temple, and tugged it gently. “You don’t have to be. You’re allowed to change your mind.”
He’d said that once before. At the tanuki pond, just after saying that he wanted a next time.
“I know I can,” Ryouma said. “I change my mind all the time. And I’m not really all that tired anymore. Do you want to fuck me?”
Kakashi laughed. It sounded real, that rich rumble deep in his chest. “Yes,” he said. “I really do. I’ve done research.” He settled down prone again, leaving an arm wrapped around Ryouma’s ribs and a leg still slung over his thighs, and rested his head on Ryouma’s shoulder. “But not tonight. You need to sleep, and I do too.”
“Soon,” Ryouma said, testingly. “Before someone tries to kill us again.”
“If someone breaks in, you melt them and I’ll electrocute them, and we’ll do it on the floor stain,” Kakashi assured him.
“Speaking of romance,” Ryouma said. That got him another laugh, almost silent this time, but he could feel Kakashi’s ribs shake against his.
There was one thing more he had to say. “Hakone knows. I met up with him after the hospital, that day, and— I sort of told him but he mostly guessed. He won’t tell anyone else, though. So long as I break things off with Ayane.”
The silence drew out for a moment. Then Kakashi said, “You’re still seeing Ayane?”
“No. Shit, I’m saying everything wrong tonight— I haven’t seen Ayane since—”
Kakashi was laughing again. “Before Tanigawa, I know.”
“Asshole.” Ryouma thumped his shoulder. “We haven’t slept together since before Kiri. There’s not actually anything between us, I’m just stress relief, and she has a new team now, but— I should just let her know I’m not available anymore. That’s all.”
“Just give me a heads up before you do, so I can take a mission someplace safer.” Kakashi snuggled down against his chest, the soft thistledown fluff of his hair tucked under Ryouma’s chin. “Like a volcano.”
“She won’t get angry. Or not at you. I don’t have to tell her it’s you, anyway. She’s not half-interrogator like Hakone, she won’t guess.”
“Hmm,” Kakashi said. “What else did Hakone say?”
Ryouma hesitated. Then he said slowly, “He knew I was hiding someone in the bathroom that morning. He thought I was ashamed. Which I’m not, and I told him that, but I also said I couldn’t tell him who it was. This was before he guessed, though maybe… Anyway. He said we should think about whether we want to tell anyone else about— us. And if not, why not.”
“He’s a little single to be a relationship counsellor,” Kakashi muttered.
“Yeah. I guess.” Ryouma hesitated again. “I mean, I don’t think we should tell the officers, obviously. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”
Kakashi’s head tilted up. “Do you want to tell someone?”
“I don’t have anyone else to tell. Except the officers.” And friends in the jounin corps he hadn’t seen for months, anyway. None of whom would be surprised to hear that he was fucking Sharingan no Kakashi after all, and none of whom would expect it to last. “And I’m certainly not expecting you to… to bring me home to meet the Hokage, or something. That was terrifying enough the first time.”
“Technically,” Kakashi said, “if I brought you home it would be to meet my mother.”
“Is she…also terrifying?” He tried to remember what little Kakashi had previously mentioned about a mother. Living, possibly political, whereabouts classified.
“Yes,” Kakashi said.
“Okay.” Ryouma let his breath out. He tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling. “Well, it doesn’t make much sense to tell anyone when— When either of us could change our minds. Untelling everyone would be even worse.”
“Yeah.” Kakashi’s fingers tapped absently against Ryouma’s chest. “I might have told Yuuhi.”
“Intel Yuuhi? Doesn’t-actually-like-you-Yuuhi?” He craned his neck to catch a glimpse of Kakashi’s face again. “That seems…risky.”
“Yep.” Which might’ve been acknowledging the question, or the risk, or all of it. “She guessed, like Hakone. I don’t think she’ll tell anyone. She wished us luck.” He paused. “Sort of.”
“Well,” Ryouma said, and reached out to switch off the lamp. “We might need it.”