August 21 – 30, Yondaime Year 5
Ryouma had never in his life been the star student in any class.
At best, in the Academy, he’d been the least-worst fuckup. He could follow directions, if they were given loudly and clearly enough to rise over the general din of 20 eight-year-olds equipped with their first set of sharpened kunai. He could punch harder than anyone and with better form than half of them. He could shape hand-seals the fastest and with the fewest mistakes, but only because he stayed up at night in the orphans’ dorms, practicing even when it was too dark to see.
He’d failed every written test, passed every jutsu exam, and graduated into his genin team with the clear understanding that he was just one more body on the battlefield.
But this time, when Kawasaki-sensei sent the baby medic class home with reading assignments, Genma was waiting at his loft or a coffee-shop to read the pages aloud and drill Ryouma on the concepts. When Kawasaki-sensei asked questions in class from the previous day’s homework, Ryouma knew the answers. He could demonstrate the basic healing jutsu as competently as the fifteen-year-olds who’d grown up in medic families, and after mastering the bruise variant on the first try he was officially ranked second in the class.
“It feels wrong,” he confessed to Genma, over Moon Country-style bubble tea in the newest trendy shop. “Like… things shouldn’t be going this well. When’s something good ever happened without disaster nipping around its heels?”
Genma gave up on his straw and speared three of his remaining tapioca pearls on a senbon. “How many times do I have to advise you to stop calling for tigers? Besides, lots of things go well all the time. This tea, for example. It’s good, and here we are, quietly enjoying it while it doesn’t catch fire.”
“Maybe we’re okay, but what about Kakashi and Taichou? They must be halfway to Grass Country by now.”
“They’re still in Fire Country.” Genma ticked points off on his fingers. “They’re with Thirteen, which is one of the only other teams with an embedded medic, and Usagi and Ginta in command. They’re with Jiraiya-sama, who — in addition to being a sage-ninja — wouldn’t let anything happen to Kakashi because he loves him, and Minato-sama would skin him alive if he did. And they’re both exceptionally skilled ninja.” He considered his extended fingers like a man taking inventory, then nodded decisively. “They’re fine.”
“Usagi-taichou blew her own team up,” Ryouma muttered. “And Abe Shintaro’s… better than me, sure, but not nearly as good as you.” Or at least didn’t inspire nearly as much confidence in either medical or combat skills.
He stirred the melting ice and tapioca pearls at the bottom of his tall cup, and sighed. “We’ve got clotting tests scheduled the day after tomorrow. How much longer do you think Naito-sensei’ll keep us grounded?”
“If our clotting times are adequate and all our blood counts are normal, she’ll probably make us wait a few days, retest to confirm, and then sign off.” Genma looked up with a hint of regret in his eyes. “You’ll probably be back on regular duty way before me. Maybe even next week. You’ve recovered a lot faster — wish I knew why. It can’t be your diet.”
“You’re the one who suggested bubble tea,” Ryouma pointed out. He took another pull at his. “Maybe it’s like my chakra. It cleared the effects of Iebara’s jutsu before Kakashi’s did. I have faster bone marrow regeneration, or something.”
Pre-cancerous accelerated cell mutation, probably. He brooded over the possibilities for a moment.
“Maybe your higher-cycle chakra is boosting all your cell regeneration,” Genma suggested. “We’ve talked a lot about the chakra-circulatory system feedback loop. It’s not unreasonable. Chakra drives cell regeneration, so if your chakra is a little stronger, maybe so is your ability to heal. Do your cuts and bruises tend to heal faster than your peers?”
“Uh…” Ryouma swallowed a mouthful of sticky tapioca pearls. “I dunno. I’ve never done a comparison. We’re all bruised all the time anyway.”
“It’s something we could test. If you and I — or you and anyone, I suppose — got nearly identical bruises at the same time, and we drew an outline around them, we could compare healing rates by seeing how quickly the bruise shrank.” Genma speared the last tapioca out of his cup and drew it delicately off the senbon with his teeth. “It’s not perfect, since everyone heals at slightly different rates, but it’d be a start.”
“We could try it once Naito-sensei clears us for training again.” Ryouma had accumulated a few more bruises before Kakashi left, but most of them were in places Genma probably wouldn’t want to see.
Or at least wouldn’t want to match, judging by his reaction to Ryouma’s hickeys last week.
“Either way, even if Naito-sensei clears me straight off, I’m still stuck here for another five weeks. I could skip a couple days of class for a short mission, if you keep me caught up, but miss too much and Kawasaki-sensei says I’ll have to repeat the course. You think they’ll keep sending Taichou and Kakashi out on combo missions?”
They’d better not get injured enough to get medically grounded. Or injured at all. Maybe just a nice quiet sprained ankle on the way back, enough to keep them both safe at home until Ryouma and Genma were ready to join them in the field again…
Genma glanced up at him, eyes thoughtfully narrowed. “Maybe. It really depends on need. Most ANBU teams get a little more downtime between missions than we’ve had so far.” He fished a melting ice cube out of his cup and crunched it down. “Fall Trials are coming up. I hope Sagara-sama’s planning to recruit a few more heavy combat types so the load doesn’t have to fall on us, Thirteen, Sixteen, and Twenty-Seven so much.”
Sixteen was Sato Ken’s team, the boar-masked lieutenant who’d tried to run Ryouma down in the spring Trials and tried to hit him up in The Green Pig’s bathroom after Raidou’s suspension. Ryouma didn’t know anything about Team Twenty-Seven.
He wondered idly if all the heavy combat teams had hot lieutenants.
Not thinking about that. Kakashi’d barely been gone two days! And they’d had sex every day — sometimes twice a day — before he left, since Raidou had shortened and pushed back their morning training sessions and left their evenings generally free. Ryouma should’ve been sated, or at least too busy thinking about vascular constriction and the potential dangers of Grass Country to also think about sex.
But his bed last night had felt too cold, and weirdly empty.
Kakashi was coming home. Kakashi was going to help Jiraiya-sama kill a mythological monster and then come straight home, and nothing was going to go wrong.
Sure, he could believe that.
“You wanna get started on my homework, Fukuchou?”
Genma gave him a dubious look, but reached for the stack of workbooks on the edge of the table. “Go get us some refills. I’ll look over your assigned reading while you’re in line.”
Maybe he recognized the value of a distraction, too.
That day passed.
So did the next.
On Saturday, the fourth day after Kakashi and Raidou’s departure, Ryouma spent the morning in classes and the early afternoon in the hematology clinic. Genma was catching up on continuing education credits; he appeared briefly for his own blood draw and apologized he couldn’t stay longer. “I’ve got a seminar on atropine overdoses at 1400 and a workshop on updating old maps starting at 1700. How much reading did Kawasaki assign today? We can meet up for an hour in between sessions, or after my workshop if you’ve got more.”
“Not that much,” Ryouma said, feeling the first stirrings of guilt. “You should take some downtime, Fukuchou. I’ll go bug Hakone. I owe him a drink, anyway.”
Genma glanced at the clock over the receptionist’s desk. “Little early for a drink. Is the new material that traumatic?”
“Once Hakone gets through ribbing me over all the words I don’t know, it will be.” Ryouma gathered his paper armload, shifting it belatedly to the elbow that hadn’t just had needles stuck in it. “I don’t have class tomorrow, so… See you Monday?”
Genma’s fingers flicked in the ANBU sign for affirmative. “Want to get lunch with me and Aoba before our appointment with Naito-sensei? I’m meeting him at noon at the new congee place that opened where the Wind Country place used to be.”
“Yes,” Ryouma said, without thinking. “Um, if I get out of class on time. Might be late.” But they weren’t scheduled for their follow up with Naito-sensei until 1400, so… “I’ll definitely be there.”
“We’ll save you a seat.” Genma smiled at him. “Good luck with the homework.”
The lab tech called Genma back for his own blood draw, at that point, and Ryouma left. He stood irresolutely in the street outside the hospital for a while. It was a hot, heavy day, sultry without a hint of breeze. Hakone probably wouldn’t be back at the barracks. He might not even be in Konoha.
The same went for Ayane, and she had… added complications.
What about Takeshi? Tadao? He hadn’t seen them in months, he realized. Maybe not since he’d argued with them about Kakashi. He tried to imagine explaining to either of them how much had changed in the last few weeks. Medic training alone would probably make them think he’d lost his mind.
He’d try Hakone first.
He trudged up the stairs behind the Hokage Monument, through the training fields, and past HQ. The first floor of the rookie dorms was quiet and cool. Hakone’s door didn’t open at a knock.
Ryouma juggled books, notebooks, paper, and pencils. He tore a page out of the back of his notebook and wrote, laboriously:
Need help to read medicine book
No good after weekend
Hakone should be able to make sense of that. Assuming he hadn’t got the kanji for ‘medicine’ or ‘book’ wrong. He’d written the rest in kana. Some of them were probably backwards too, but Hakone was a smart boy.
He folded the paper, stuck it into the doorjamb, and headed back upstairs. Past Kakashi’s silent, warded door, to the end of the hall. He’d left the window closed; his room was stuffy and airless. It probably needed cleaning. Kakashi would’ve sneered at the unwashed dishes in the sink.
Shuriken Force’s third album Underground helped energize him through a vigorous forty-five minutes of housekeeping, but eventually the floor was clear and the dishes dry. He burned ten minutes replacing a fraying buckle on his breastplate and thirty minutes sharpening kunai, and then that was done too.
With nothing else to do, he sat down on the floor against his bed with the furigana dictionary Kakashi had scrounged up for him, flipped to the first page of the weekend’s assigned reading, and spent the next hour giving himself a blinding headache.
Knuckles rapped on the door. “You dressed and alone in there?”
Ryouma leaned back against the bed, blinking hard. Fuzzy lines and dots still swam in front of his eyes. “You’re in luck. Come to put me out of my misery?”
The door unlatched. “I already stowed my weapons,” Hakone said, glancing approvingly around the tidied apartment, “and I don’t really want to kill you with jutsu in here. Too messy and I’m low on chakra. I could snap your neck if you want?”
He was shower-damp but unshaven, casually dressed in a black t-shirt and jounin uniform pants. No visible bandages; barely any bruising. He lounged into the room and sat on the end of Ryouma’s bed, looking tired, but not yet exhausted. Back from a mission, Ryouma diagnosed, but not a bad one.
Some teams had all the luck.
“I only go in for the sexy kind of throttling these days,” Ryouma said, setting his textbook aside. “If you’re not up for a badass action scene that ends with at least one of us getting kicked through the window, we should probably just call it quits. How was the mission?”
“Eh, not bad.” Hakone see-sawed his hand in the air. “It was supposed to be straight up tracking and infiltration, but we ran into some unexpected opposition. Had to get our hands a little dirty after all.”
“Everyone came home okay?” He doubted Hakone would be nearly so relaxed right now if they hadn’t, but sometimes you still needed to check.
Hakone dipped his chin. “Nakamura sprained her ankle, and Sumeragi-taichou and I got a little roughed up, but nothing too alarming.” He tugged the hem of his t-shirt up briefly to reveal a dark purple bruise over his lower rib cage, with the distinct lines of an armor-buckle driven into skin. “So we saw a little combat. No Bingo Book kills for us though, just some garden-variety Waterfall nin. Who are supposed to be our allies, I know, but our missions were at odds.”
“Allies just mean we don’t kill on sight,” Ryouma said distractedly. “Not that we can’t kick up a fuss anyway… How deep is that bruising? Any trouble with your ribs? How’s your breathing?” He pushed up off the floor, onto his knees. “Show me again.”
Hakone raised one sardonic eyebrow, but a faint smile swiftly followed. “Still enjoying those classes?” He lifted his shirt up again, baring the bruise to Ryouma’s cautious touch. “It hurts when I take a deep breath but I don’t think anything’s broken. I’m supposed to go for a med check sometime today, but I wanted a shower first. And then I figured I’d see what you were up to.”
“You saw my note? It wasn’t urgent. Just homework reading.” Ryouma couldn’t sense any deeper injury lurking beyond the contusion, and a careful chakra sweep didn’t reveal much more. Hakone’s chakra flowed sure and smooth through well-regulated channels, with no perceptible disturbances. Only the bruise site itself was a tiny knot of activity, as the body naturally gathered chakra to reinforce weakness and drive cell regeneration.
Ryouma gnawed his lip. Genma wasn’t here to supervise, and neither was Kawasaki-sensei. But Kawasaki-sensei had encouraged practice, and Ryouma’d never yet flubbed a jutsu once he’d already mastered it.
Of course, the consequences of botching a healing technique were far worse than fumbling some low-level Katon…
He cleared his throat. “I passed bruise healing level 2 yesterday. I could take the edge off this one, if you want. No worries if you’d rather wait for the med check though. I hear Toushirou-sensei’s insults are a thing of beauty.”
“You hear? You haven’t experienced?” Hakone shook his head. “Now I feel I ought to injure you just so you get the chance to be insulted by the best yourself. It’s got to be an injury you got doing something really dumb to get the full Toushirou-sensei treatment, though. Like forget you aren’t wearing arm guards and get grade one shock from blood loss when you try to block a kunai strike.”
Ryouma stared suspiciously at Hakone’s bare forearms, decorated with the usual jounin’s assortment of faded scars.
“That wasn’t me,” Hakone clarified. “Nakamura told us that story on herself.” He rolled his shirt up under his armpit and relaxed back onto his elbows on the bed. “Go on, then. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
How the hell did he trust like that?
Kakashi had. But Kakashi was crazy, sometimes. Hakone was the sanest man Ryouma knew.
He was usually right in his judgment calls, too.
Ryouma gathered his chakra. Molded it in his pathways, shaped it through handseals, released it in a muted green glow that sank into Hakone’s mottled skin. His attention sank with it, narrowing to a capillary’s width.
Hakone’s chakra meshed easily with his: no hesitation, no holding back. It flowed smoothly at his direction, mending capillary walls, repairing damaged muscle, encouraging the leaked blood to degrade until it could be absorbed into the surrounding tissue. Not as swiftly or as neatly as Genma would have done it, but—
He opened his eyes, and saw a lingering redness fading into yellowy-brown staining beneath the skin. Hemoglobin degradation into — some compound he forgot, anyway, but that was a normal part of the healing process, not a sign of uncontrolled cell mutation. He let out his breath.
“Ow,” Hakone said, mildly, and then clutched his side and fell over.
“Asshole,” Ryouma said. He pushed up to his feet. “Either pay with your body or put your clothes back on.”
“Nice. Empathy training not on the curriculum yet?” Hakone sat up fluidly. He prodded at the healed bruise and took a testing deep breath, then let his shirt fall back down. “Looks like I’ll live after all.”
“You could go see Toushirou-sensei if you want a better bedside treatment,” Ryouma said, opening his miniature fridge. It was slightly better stocked than normal, in anticipation of several weeks at home. He pulled out two cans of beer and flipped one to Hakone. “Don’t spill on my bed.”
His own hands were shaking, just a little.
He’d done it. He’d set healing hands on a friend, all on his own, and Hakone hadn’t died, or coughed up blood, or wrenched away with his skin shrivelling black and rotten. Hakone’s eyes were clear, his breathing untroubled, and Ryouma had felt the rightness in his cells and in his chakra. The jutsu had worked.
“And end up on the List of Dumb for going to a barely-trained newbie medic for care?” Hakone popped the beer tab, deftly containing the heady fizz, and raised the can toward Ryouma. His voice stayed light, but his eyes were warm. “I’ll take my chances with one of the regular hospital medics instead. Since technically I still have to do an official post-mission check-in.”
Ryouma toasted him back, across the room, and took a long cool drink. Bubbles danced on his tongue, hoppy and crisp. He had to fight back his own giddy smile. “Well, don’t let me keep you. You active-duty types have so many important things to do.”
“Are you really kicking me out already?” Mock indignation teased in Hakone’s voice. “I thought I was here to help you read your homework. Hospital can wait. Lieutenant doesn’t technically need my med report for 24 hours. Besides, I’m hydrating.” He took a long, appreciative swallow of beer.
The last of Ryouma’s tension drained away. He slouched down cross-legged next to the bed and tossed the textbook up at Hakone. “In that case, turn to Chapter Six, and let’s see how much of that first half-page I actually got on my own.”
Not much, as it turned out.
Hakone only teased a little. And he read the next ten pages in a slow, steady voice anyway.
They both drank several more beers.
On the fifth morning after Kakashi and Raidou’s departure, Ryouma went down to the barracks gym at 0500. He was tired, still vaguely hungover, but his body had adjusted to Raidou’s stupid-early practice times and he couldn’t sleep past 0445. The gym seemed an appropriate consolation. And it was cool and empty there, before dawn.
Mostly empty. Ryouma was doing upside-down hanging crunches in the power cage when the door slid open. He couldn’t see who’d come in, but he heard their quick steps hesitate, then recover. Heading toward the free weights rack.
Ninja kept their chakra clamped close to the skin, here at home. But Ryouma thought he knew those footsteps.
He crunched up one last time, grabbed the bar, and flipped himself over to land on his feet. “Ayane?”
She was standing near the weight rack, wearing shorts and a tank-top that bared the long muscles of her arms. Black hair tied up in a messy, no-nonsense bun. Bruises on her forearms, as if from blows with a training bokken, and peeling scabs on her shins.
She looked back at him, brows arched, and asked coolly, “Oh, are we talking now?”
Ryouma winced. “Yeah, I deserve that.”
“You did,” Ayane agreed, without any particular bitterness. She selected the 20-kilo weight plates and hefted them onto the bench press bar. “What are you feeling guilty about this time?”
“I don’t… only avoid you when I’m feeling guilty. I had a mission. And classes. And…” He hesitated.
“And a new fuckbuddy?” She swung a leg over the padded bench but remained upright, gazing at him steadily.
Ryouma said, a little too late: “What?”
“We live on the same floor, for gods’ sakes. You’re not always quiet. Don’t worry, I’m not going to assert prior claim. Or rat you out to anyone else — who are you worried will care, anyway?”
“People,” he said, vaguely. He was racking his brain, trying to remember: had he ever kissed Kakashi in the hallway, or anywhere but behind a locked door? Hakone had promised he wouldn’t tell, and Ryouma believed that, but he should’ve realized discretion and chakra-muffling wouldn’t be enough. Not in a barracks full of professional paranoids.
Ayane snorted. “You were certainly concerned about your public reputation when you undressed for Sakamoto Ginta in a nightclub earlier this summer.”
“When I what? Oh— That wasn’t— I didn’t undress. I was dancing, it got hot, I took my shirt off. How did you hear about that anyway?”
“Yamada Kasumi thinks you’re obnoxious.”
“She’s probably right.” Ryouma drew a deep breath. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I should have. You helped me a lot, with the studying, and… We had fun together.”
“We agreed we weren’t looking for anything more. Spot me.” Ayane rubbed her palms against her thighs, lay back, and hefted the weighted bar off its rack. Ryouma moved automatically to bracket her. She lifted steadily, with perfect form and practiced breathing. “We both needed a distraction, and a friend. Well, so: a distraction doesn’t need to last long. But I thought a friend might.”
He watched her for a moment. The smooth bunching and extension of muscles; the furrow of concentration between her brows; the shallow rise and fall of her diaphragm with each breath. She’d calibrated her weights perfectly, and she knew what she was doing. She didn’t need a spotter.
So what did it mean that she’d asked for it anyway?
“I thought I was mostly useful for decorative purposes.”
“Did I say that?” She frowned up at him over the bar, and answered her own question: “Yeah, probably. I’m sorry.”
“So am I.” For many things, and he didn’t know how to put any of them into words without sounding baldly insulting or worse, pathetic. I thought you’d be jealous, I thought you only liked me in bed, I thought I could just walk away and you’d never care. “I guess I thought—”
“Maybe you should stop thinking so much, and start talking to people.”
Laughter took him by surprise. Her mouth twitched in an echoing smile.
“That’s fair,” he admitted, and leaned against the weight rack behind him. “So. How’s your new team? Does Nara-taichou really let you feed his deer?”
“It’s not as much fun as it sounds. They’re greedy little bastards, they’ll knock you down for a cracker…” But her smile lingered, grew.
Better than he’d expected. More than he deserved.
Eventually, she spotted for him, too.
After class the next day, Ryouma met Genma and Aoba at the new congee restaurant. It was a dim, cool, low-ceilinged place that had barely bothered changing the site’s old Wind Country-inspired decor, but the food was excellent and Aoba’s easy chatter covered any gaps.
Genma wore an amused smile and a relaxed slouch that persisted through saying goodbye to Aoba and heading toward the hospital. He exchanged greetings with the receptionist, joked lightly with the nurse who checked their vitals, and then lounged back in his chair to quiz Ryouma on the day’s lessons.
They both straightened when they heard footsteps.
Naito-sensei entered, plump and grandmotherly and steel-eyed. She had the usual clipboard of papers, test results from their most recent blood draws. Genma’s gaze fastened onto the clipboard. He ducked his head in a polite bow. “Naito-sensei.”
“Shiranui-fukuchou, Tousaki-san. I have some interesting results from your last tests. How have you been feeling?”
“Pretty well. Maybe a little bored.” Genma cracked a little half-laugh, empty of any real amusement.
Naito-sensei eyed him. “Mm-hmm. And tired, I expect. Less stamina than you’d like? Easily winded?”
He hesitated. That was enough; Naito turned briskly to Ryouma. “And you?”
“Stamina’s fine,” Ryouma said, warily. “I’m working out at my normal rates. Actually bench-pressed a personal best yesterday.” Because he’d been competing with Ayane, but it still counted.
“Your color’s better, too,” Naito-sensei judged. “Hand.” She set down the clipboard and extended her own, knobby with veins, to take his pulse. Her touch was cool and soft. After a moment she stretched her other hand out to press the chakra tenketsu point at the junction of his neck and shoulder. Her chakra swept through him, delicate and precise. “Mm-hmm. This feels a lot better than the last time I saw you.”
“I haven’t used my rot jutsu in two weeks.” Or Iebara’s in ten days. “And I’ve been practicing healing jutsu. We’ve noticed those help clear my chakra.”
“Using chakra for healing is sometimes described as honing the edge of a blade. Though the writers differ, of course, on whether that’s because of the precise control necessary for healing jutsu, or the use to which it’s put.” Her fingertips moved up from the tenketsu to prod lightly at the side of his neck. “Hmm.”
“I had some, um, bruises there last week. They healed just fine though, no slower than normal.” He was certain they weren’t still visible in the mirror.
“Natural healing leaves its own traces on the chakra, too. Here… and here, yes?” She touched the other side of his throat, echoing that blood-binding Kakashi’d used on him in the Forest. Those bruises had gone deeper than the hickeys, though they’d faded equally well. She must be sensing some chakra alteration after all.
“Seems you were feeling so well you released yourself to combat training. Unless your lieutenant here countermanded my recommendation.”
Genma shook his head. “No. Tousaki made his own decision to acquire those bruises. And we let them resolve without intervention. From my perspective he’s back to his usual fast rate of healing.”
“Interesting.” Naito’s gaze narrowed thoughtfully. “I’d have estimated these at 12 to 14 days old. Were they more recent?”
“Eight days,” Ryouma said, which was mostly true. Kakashi’d been a little more careful about marking Ryouma’s throat and shoulders, in the two days before he’d left.
She sat back in her wheeled chair, picked up the clipboard again, and made a note. “Well, I’m pleased. Your lab results were excellent. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. I’m going to recommend you for light duty. You could probably go back on full duty, but I’d prefer to err on the side of caution.”
Light duty meant guard duty, on the wall or the Hokage’s palace; escorting VIPs and foreign ambassadors to and from Konoha, and watching them within its borders; monitoring chuunin and jounin exams, or any other event where a masked and ominous presence was deemed necessary. Regular D- and C-rank missions, like any other shinobi building up his strength after medical leave.
Ryouma rubbed his palms against his thighs, wiping away the nervous sweat, and just barely kept himself from jumping up into a victory dance.
“Sounds good to me. What about the lieutenant?”
Genma fidgeted at the side-seam of his pants, produced a senbon, slid it away as Naito rolled her chair closer to him. He held very still as she laid hands on him, again at his wrist and at the tenketsu at the base of his neck. Her chakra swept out, and lingered. Her eyes focused on the intricacy beneath his skin.
Ryouma caught his knee bouncing nervously. He pressed his heel flat to the floor.
“You’re getting there,” Naito said at last, with a discouraging head-shake. “But not like I’d hoped. Your chakra is in good shape for someone with your blood counts, but they still need to come up.”
“May I see the lab report?” Genma’s voice had the steadiness of perfect control.
Naito-sensei passed the clipboard over. Genma studied his own results, compared them to Ryouma’s. His lips thinned. He handed the clipboard back.
“I’ll ask our hematology specialist if he has any other ideas,” Naito said. “But for now, Shiranui-fukuchou, you stay on the sick list.” Her voice gentled a little. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”
Ryouma’s knee was jiggering again. He gave up on trying to still it, and leaned forward instead. “Sensei. I could— Would it help if I gave the lieutenant a chakra transfusion? If chakra’s linked to blood counts, and if I healed faster…”
He trailed off. Neither of them had lit with the sudden glow of investigative excitement. Genma studied his hands; Naito-sensei shook her head.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. If Shiranui-fukuchou were chakra-deficient — which he isn’t — that would help his overall healing ability, but unshaped chakra can’t do more than that. Unfortunately there aren’t any jutsu that can do the type of healing you’re suggesting.”
And it was the worst kind of childish naïveté, she didn’t say, to believe that his chakra was, after all, something special. To believe that just because he had eight years’ experience cleansing tainted chakra out of his own system, just because he’d received significantly less damage from Iebara’s jutsu and was recovering from the effects faster, that he could help.
He sat back.
Genma’s head lifted. “So the problem isn’t my chakra at all?”
“Your chakra’s on the low side of normal for you, but I’m sure you already know that. There’s nothing otherwise unusual about it that I can sense,” Naito continued. “Your tenketsu and meridians feel strong and there’s no clear damage to your coils. If there was damage, it’s healed. I wonder what I’d have felt immediately after you were hit with the blood-draining jutsu.”
“I didn’t notice anything. Did you, Tousaki?”
“I was kinda absorbed in my blood getting yanked out of my shoulder,” Ryouma muttered, then recovered himself. “There had to be something. The victim’s chakra does get tangled up in the blood-pull, the chakra-blowback we’ve been getting in practice proves that. But I wasn’t aware of that when Iebara did it. The physical effects were much more, um, prominent.”
Naito hummed thoughtfully. “Not human subjects, I trust, or I’d have more than just the two of you as patients.”
“Mostly four-legged,” Ryouma hedged. Mentioning the Hokage’s involvement in the last, successful tests would stir up questions he was certainly unqualified to answer. “The one time we did have donor blood, in a canteen, they didn’t feel anything.”
“Blood outside the body loses its connection to the bleeder’s chakra almost immediately, so that makes sense,” Naito confirmed.
Genma studied his pale nail beds and sighed. “So it’s really just a matter of waiting?”
“Maybe hematology will have some ideas,” Naito said, in a tone that implied she very much doubted they would. “In the meantime, protein, iron, and vitamin K. I could send you to Akimichi-sensei for more detailed dietary advice, but I’m afraid that’s the best I can do today.”
“Eggs, meat, and leafy greens,” Genma said. “I think I can manage.”
He sounded resigned. He looked… tired, but that was it. If disappointment gripped him, he’d managed to shove it down. He bid Naito-sensei a polite farewell, spoke with the receptionist to schedule his next visit, and led the way back to the stairs with an even stride. Their footsteps echoed loudly in the empty stairwell.
Ryouma couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Taichou and Kakashi won’t be back til the end of the week, at the earliest,” he tried at last. “And they’ll have downtime afterwards. Two weeks, easy, before they send us out again. Maybe by then…”
“Yeah,” Genma said.
They reached the landing. He drew a deep breath, held it in as they rounded the corner, let it out as he took the next step. Tension released forcibly from his shoulders. “Two weeks and a lot of kale, and I don’t know… eel? Maybe I should have let her send me to Akimichi-sensei.” He glanced back up at Ryouma, his mouth twisting wry. “I know it could be worse, but damn.”
“Eel’s a good idea in summer anyway. And it’s in season. We could start meeting in restaurants instead of coffee-shops? Work our way through all the unagi-ya in the village.” Of course, eel was supposed to boost virility as well as physical stamina and vitality, but probably that was just a historical marketing gimmick.
“I could go for that,” Genma said thoughtfully. Did he know about the aphrodisiac reputation? Surely he must. He knew everything. “It could get expensive, though. Maybe I could get Naito-sensei to make it an official recommendation so I could submit it as a medical expense.”
They came down the last flight of stairs. Ryouma lengthened his stride and pulled ahead to open the door at the bottom of the stairwell. “I bet she’d do it; she likes you.” And felt sorry for him, just now, though she’d tried not to show it. “We could go back…?”
But they’d been spotted already. “Shiranui-san!”
A pair of women crossing the hospital lobby, one in crisp Intel greys, one in pale blue scrubs: Yuuhi Kurenai and Nohara Rin, returning to the hospital from a late lunch, judging by the takeaway box in Rin’s hand. Kurenai was the one who’d hailed them. She changed her path, cutting across the lobby with a sharp click of heels.
Genma smiled, a genuine light coming into his eyes. “Yuuhi-san!” He bowed politely to her companion: “Nohara-sensei. I guess I don’t have to ask what brings you here.”
“Shiranui-san, Tousaki-san.” Rin sketched a much shallower bow in turn and straightened with a bright curiosity in her gaze. “We were just talking about you. How was your meeting with Naito-sensei?”
Ryouma would normally have been flattered to hear that two pretty women had spent their lunch-break discussing him. These two women were significantly more alarming. But they were both looking at Genma, and maybe it was just professional interest in their eyes; Rin had been there for the evaluation that first revealed the clotting disorder, after all, and Kurenai was a trained secrets-hunter.
Genma didn’t seem uneasy beneath those sharp gazes. “Tousaki got good news. Released to light duty.”
“Just Tousaki?” Kurenai glanced at him — brief, evaluating — and then back to Genma. Rin, in contrast, studied Ryouma with an altogether unnerving intensity that seemed focused mostly on his right ear.
“I’m not quite there.” Genma’s voice stayed level, reasonable, but his gaze fell away. “I guess I sort of knew it, but it wasn’t the news I wanted.”
“No,” Kurenai said. “I’m sorry.”
They stood for a moment. Then Rin hefted her takeaway parcel, looked at her watch, and said, “Turns out I have thirty minutes before my next appointment. Can we buy you a commiseration coffee? Or, no — it’s tea for you, Shiranui-san, isn’t it?”
Genma glanced, oddly, at Kurenai. “Depends on how much I need the caffeine. I didn’t realize I was that notorious a tea-drinker.”
“You’re the only man I know who brings his own blends on missions, instead of Quartermaster’s Special,” Kurenai said. She turned back towards the main doors. Rin and Genma followed her.
Ryouma hadn’t been explicitly included in the invitation, but nobody was spiriting away his lieutenant under his watch. He followed them through the lobby, out into the sweltering afternoon, and across the street to a small shop that seemed wholly occupied by hospital staff fleeing their cafeteria’s notoriously bad tea. Kurenai ordered — a pot for the table, a blend Ryouma didn’t recognize but which seemed to impress Genma — while Rin obtained a private table with one glance at a couple of intimidated chuunin medic-nin.
Resisting the urge to flee along with them, Ryouma took the seat on Genma’s side. Kurenai poured. Rin checked her watch again, propped up her chin on her fist, and said: “Have you considered whether the tanuki-god’s healing caused the variation in your recovery rates? I don’t suppose there’s any way to test that now, but it seems a significant overlooked factor in your medical history.”
Genma set down his cup with a light laugh, as if Rin had cracked a not-particularly-funny joke. “When something makes no sense, people always blame the gods.”
His fingers flicked through the wafting steam, an ANBU hand-sign: Hush.
Not, evidently, for Rin, who blinked. But Kurenai flexed her fingers and spun up a tight little jutsu that turned the cheerful voices and ambient music of the teashop into ghostly echoes, isolating their table in a little bubble of silence.
Genma nodded appreciatively to her and told Rin, “That could be a factor. I hadn’t considered it. I was healed, too, but by a child tanuki. From what Tousaki and Hatake told me, it was a radically different experience from theirs — I thought the cure was going to kill me, and they didn’t feel much at all.”
“Warmth and itchiness,” Ryouma said, remembering. He touched the smooth curve of his regrown ear. “Not anything I’d call pain.”
“So maybe Himself healed something in your blood, too,” Genma speculated, “or maybe something Kikyou-chan did is slowing my healing down.”
“He didn’t seem interested in much beyond aesthetics,” Ryouma said doubtfully. But even if the healing was only concentrated skin-deep — or into the first few layers of muscle, for some of the nastier scars — could that have penetrated deeply enough to alter something in his blood? To lessen the severity of Iebara’s jutsu’s effects, and linger long enough to improve his chakra recovery time too?
“Tell your people they’d better make contact with these master-healers soon, or I’ll go do it myself,” Rin told Kurenai.
“I believe they’re sufficiently motivated already, but I’ll pass your threat along,” Kurenai said, sounding amused. She sipped her tea. “The prevailing theory now is that the tanuki won’t make contact until the next bun-festival. Though a few who’ve read the unredacted report believe that’s overly optimistic.” Her red gaze met Ryouma’s over the rim of her cup.
He looked away.
Then steeled his jaw, and looked back. “If you want somebody to apologize—”
“I’ve no doubt you’d do it thoroughly,” Kurenai said, “probably with a side of suicidal self-sacrifice. The answer’s no. If my recommendations go through, none of you four are going north of Yosan until Nijo Kozue’s been detained or, preferably, eliminated.”
Rin looked inquisitive. Genma, alarmed. “Have you heard something more?”
“She was seen entering an izakaya in Seitetsusho. She wasn’t seen leaving.”
“So — she had a bolthole? Or somebody else got to her first.” Ryouma wasn’t sure how to feel about that. The bounty hunter surely had plenty of enemies in her past, any one of them with as valid a claim as his own. And he’d had no real plans for vengeance. He just wanted her far, far away from anyone he knew.
“How recently was she seen?” Genma put in.
“A few days after you lost her — our informants couldn’t be any more specific than that. But there were no signs of struggle in the izakaya that night; the landlady didn’t even know she’d rented her upper room to a ninja. So if someone else did get to her, Tousaki, it was likely someone she knew and trusted. Which means your greatest strategic value — your anonymity — is now for sale to the highest bidder.”
“We knew that from the minute we lost her,” Genma said tightly. “But unless there’s new intel I haven’t heard yet, Hatake’s the only one of us in any enemy Bingo Books, and he wasn’t on the mission.”
“Couldn’t they just change your masks?” Rin suggested, draining her tea. “One tall, dark-haired shinobi is much like another if he’s not wearing a uniquely identifying carnival mask.”
Was it only four months ago that Ryouma’d been joking about finally meriting an entry in some village’s Bingo Book? That was how you distinguished one brave, badass jounin from all the others, after all: How many people would pay for your head? How much?
It felt— different, from this side. Still an accolade of the type few ninja earned, but one that came with sharpened edges, seen up close.
Genma might have negotiated a bloodless retreat from Fukuda’s team, that rainy night, if Iebara hadn’t recognized Kakashi. If Iebara hadn’t hungered to burnish his own fame with Kakashi’s name.
He shifted in his chair. “I assume I’m not in any Bingo Books yet. Or I’d be getting this briefing in an actual Intel office, instead of a fancy tea shop.”
“You would,” Kurenai confirmed. “Though as you won’t be leaving the village for some weeks yet anyway, you were deemed significantly lower on my division’s list of priorities.” She tapped her fingernails on the tall side of her glazed earthenware cup. “Mask reassignments may be recommended, though. Once Namiashi and Hatake return from their mission.”
“If they get back safe, I’ll even wear that cockroach mask everybody keeps threatening. Roaches are pretty much unkillable, right? Maybe it’ll be a good omen for the team.”
“I’d kind of hate to give up Tanuki, though,” Genma mused. “Especially now. Maybe Morita-san could just give us different designs of the same animals. Or… just a different design, in Raidou’s case.”
Kurenai smiled at him. “Perhaps with a mask name that’s a little quicker to yell than ‘Crescent Moon’?”
He smiled back.
Ryouma stared at them. Then he said, loudly, “So if you don’t know what’s happened to Nijo, what about Tochigi? Any results from codebreaking that ledger we brought back? Or investigating the bounty office site?”
Kurenai swept him a swift, flat glance. “Those results are classified above your level, Agent Tousaki.” She tipped her cup back.
At least she wasn’t smiling at Genma anymore.
Rin cleared her throat, checked her watch, and said, “Time’s up for me, I’m afraid.” She scooped her takeaway box off the table and told Genma, “I wish you a speedy recovery, Shiranui-san.” As he ducked his head in a polite bow, she turned to Ryouma. “Tousaki-san, are you still taking the Field Medic course at the hospital?”
She’d seemed to approve two weeks ago. Had she changed her mind?
“Yes,” he admitted, and added quickly: “I just passed bruise healing level 2.”
“Have the surgical receptionist page me when you’re next in. If I’m not busy, I’d like to take a closer look at the healing that was done on your ear.”
He tried not to let himself visibly relax. “Yes, Nohara-sensei.”
“Congratulations on your progress,” she told him, almost kindly. “Kurenai, walk back with me?”
“A moment.” Kurenai dropped her jutsu, drained her tea, told Genma: “Look after yourself, Shiranui-san. Let me know if you’d like something more sustaining than mouse livers.”
“Thank you,” Genma said. His smile returned. “Maybe Hotaru-san would approve of yakitori as a substitute. I could get a skewer or two of chicken livers. Torisawa has good ones.”
“And excellent beer, as I recall. Put your own liver to good use.” She stood. “I’ll see you around.”
Ryouma twisted around in his seat to watch the two women leave, waited until the noren hanging in the door fell straight again and their footsteps receded, and turned back. “Lieutenant, if you’re missing risking your life on a daily basis, we can figure out something. Rock-climbing without chakra, testing all the bottles in the poisons lab… You don’t have to try flirting with Yuuhi.”
Genma snorted a laugh. “You think she’s that dangerous?”
Not a denial. Not anything close to a denial.
“I think she’s terrifying,” Ryouma said, “and I understand that’s hot, but… She’s Intel and she’s clan. Walled estate with gardens and disapproving family and a bloodline limit she’s supposed to pass on before she gets killed. I knew a Hyuuga once, they— Anyway, even if she’s just looking for some fun, you should know what you’re getting into. You think Kakashi’s a human knife? She’s a— a sharpened corkscrew.”
He wasn’t exactly expecting Genma to agree, but an unsettling amusement brightened in Genma’s smile, as if someone else had told him a joke while Ryouma was trying to warn him. It grew worse when Genma reached out and patted Ryouma’s arm. “Don’t worry, my best friend is Intel; I know what they’re like. And I’m pretty sure she isn’t looking for a sperm-donor for her clan. Or do you have specific intimate knowledge about Yuuhi that I’m missing?” Laughter edged his voice.
Ayane gave terrible advice. Sometimes, talking to people was exactly the wrong choice.
“No,” Ryouma said stiffly. “I apologize, Lieutenant. I overstepped.”
Genma sat back, blinking. “You didn’t overstep. It’s fine. I was just…” He trailed off, started over. “It’s fine, Ryouma. That’s what friends do — they look out for each other.”
“Not that you need it, clearly,” Ryouma muttered. Genma’s best friend was in Intel. And he hung out with Sakamoto Ginta all the time, too. Maybe he liked spending his time with people who were too smart to be safe.
(Of course, Ryouma himself had almost hooked up with Ginta once, but— that was different.)
He swirled the lukewarm tea remaining in his cup, gulped it down, pulled a face at the acrid aftertaste. “Well, you’ll have more time for it now, anyway. Once I’m on light duty we’ll have to cut back on study sessions.” They’d let him keep attending classes, hopefully, but that would mean evening and night shifts of guard duty instead. He’d have to trade their quiet afternoons for a few snatched hours of sleep.
He shouldn’t resent that, either. Returning to duty was what he wanted. And Genma could do whatever and whomever he wanted, in his own time.
“It’s not like we’re spending every spare moment now in study sessions,” Genma pointed out, reasonably. “We’ll work around your classes and duty assignments.” He paused, fingers light on the clay curves of his own cup. “I meant it though. You’re right, Yuuhi-san has edges. I won’t jump into anything beyond flirting without thinking long and hard about it first.”
“Yeah?” Ryouma said skeptically. “You’re as reckless as the rest of us, you just hide it better.”
Genma gave him the full Lieutenant Eyebrow treatment, for a moment — then laughed and relaxed, pushing back from the table. As they left the shop together, he murmured: “Guess I blew my cover. Keep it to yourself, okay?”
Vice-Commander Kuroda managed the duty roster for unattached ANBU agents and light-duty assignments. Ryouma’d worried, as he geared up that evening, about facing Kuroda again to ask for an assignment: was there an ANBU HQ equivalent to latrine duty?
But it turned out that he needed only to speak briefly with one of the assistants who staffed the row of desks outside Kuroda’s office, a wispy-bearded man who blinked up owlishly at Ryouma but offered him a choice of assignments anyway: night-shift wall duty; night-shift door guard at the VIP hotel for wealthy or politically sensitive clients; night-shift guard at the hospital, the Jutsu Research Archives, or the water treatment plant.
“Water treatment plant?” Ryouma said, fascinated, before he remembered how he’d entered Kirigakure, two months ago. “No, nevermind, I get why that’s important. Guess all the day shift slots get picked up first, huh? I’ll take whichever’s shortest-staffed.”
That landed him with four nights at the Archives. No one tried to break in, which would’ve been interesting; nothing tried to break out, which would’ve been significantly more worrisome. He finished his shift at 0600, returned to the barracks to shower and change into jounin blues, and jogged to the hospital in time for the 0700 start of class.
Staying awake wasn’t hard. He’d gone sleepless for days on end before, usually under mission pressure and with less access to highly sugared caffeine. Tracking the complex pattern and flow of the morning’s lecture was a little more difficult. His handwriting, never pristine, grew more erratic; kana tripped and dribbled outside the notebook lines. Kanji lost their strokes, blurred into each other, or eluded his grasp entirely. A headache marshalled forces behind his eyes.
He still managed to close an eight-centimeter belly gash on his practice trout without losing more than a few scales from the trauma site. Kawasaki-sensei, inspecting, nodded approval. “You’re ready to move on to mammals,” he said, and sent Ryouma over to the next lab bench for a plastic cage of anesthetized rats.
He’d first practiced the Nikutai Tokasu on captured rats, years ago, in the dark basement of the cheapest hostel that would rent a room to new genin. A strange way of coming full circle. His hands remained steady as he opened up a scalpel-slice down the practice rat’s side, as he sealed it up. Once more. Once again.
The headache dug in to stay.
Kawasaki-sensei dismissed class a little after noon. Ryouma headed straight for the nearest coffee shop. Halfway there, he reluctantly retraced his steps.
He told the surgical receptionist: “Nohara-sensei asked me to page her today. It’s fine if she’s busy. I’ll try another day.”
Unfortunately, Nohara-sensei was available. Ryouma’d waited a bare handful of minutes before she came out briskly between swinging doors, snapping an elastic off her long brown hair. “Tousaki-san!” She looked tired too, but still cheery. “I was just thinking about you.”
Ryouma tensed. “Oh?”
Rin appeared to be either oblivious to his anxiety or kindly ignoring it. Or, possibly, secretly enjoying it. She beckoned him to follow her back through the swinging doors. “Mm-hmm. But coffee first, before shoptalk. Hospital staff policy.” She turned down a short corridor, then opened another door onto a flight of stairs.
Ryouma would probably walk to his death someday soon, following a promise of caffeine. He trudged up the stairs after her. They went up two flights, down another corridor, and into a small, cramped office. It had a single window overlooking the street, a wheeled chair behind a heavy desk, and several ferociously well-organized piles of paperwork sprouting from wooden trays on the desk. There was also an electric kettle, a stack of paper cups, and a box crammed with tea bags and sticks of powdered instant coffee. Rin plucked a cup off the stack. “One stick or two?”
“Three, if you can spare ‘em.” If he was going to die, at least it’d be with less of a headache.
She paused for a moment, eyebrows raised, but then shrugged and dumped in the full three sticks, added hot water, and passed him the cup of resulting sludge. He clutched it gratefully as she made her own, far more sedate single-stick cup. She gestured for him to sit on the visitor’s chair in front of her desk, and settled in the wheeled chair herself. “What did your ear look like before the tanuki healed it?”
Safe ground, for now. Ryouma lowered his half-empty cup. “I lost a chunk of it in the war, dodging a sword-blade.” He pushed his hair back and sketched out an angling divot from the top curve of his right ear. Strange, still, to feel flesh and cartilage there, instead of the knotted scar. “There was a gouge out of my scalp just above it, and that’s gone now too.”
Rin’s gaze sharpened. Professional curiosity wiped away fatigue. She set her cup down and held out her hands, palms up. “May I touch? I’ll be gentle, I promise.”
“I… Sure?” He’d given himself up to far more dangerous circumstances before. He put his cup carefully down, behind two framed photos, and tilted his head as she came around the desk.
She touched his head with gentle, steady fingers. Her chakra warmed his skin and sank through, beautiful and clean, soothing as slipping into a hot spring. Even with his senses tuned by weeks of practice, he could barely track its swift and targeted flow.
“There’s no indication of tissue repair, even in the cartilage.” Her voice was crisp but abstracted; her eyes had lost their focus, as she concentrated instead on structures beneath the skin. Her chakra threaded deeper. “In fact, there’s no indication that there was ever any injury at this site.”
She released his head and drew back a little, gaze refocusing. Her hands still glowed soft green. “May I examine your other ear, for comparison?”
The gleam of scientific interest in her eyes shone only slightly less bright than the chakra wreathing her fingers. She looked like Kakashi on the hunting trail, intent, relentless.
But she’d still asked permission.
That was something else Kakashi did, sometimes, when he knew it mattered. Rin did it as a matter of course, as a professional courtesy, but she was waiting for the answer.
He pushed his hair back from his left ear. “Go ahead. He fixed the bridge of my nose, too. And a bunch of scars on my upper arms and torso, though I guess those’d be harder to find. Or compare. But he left my tattoos and my, um, piercing alone.”
It’d be stupid to flush now; she was a doctor. He just wasn’t used to mentioning it to people who hadn’t already seen him naked.
“I figured that showed a pretty unimaginable finesse at the cellular level.”
The corner of her mouth twitched, just slightly; maybe he’d flushed after all. But she said, “Just the ear will do, thank you.”
She touched his head again, hands lightly framing either side of his jaw, her graceful surgeon’s fingers tracing the matching curves of his ears. The warmth of her chakra sank into his tissue. “And yes, unimaginable is exactly the right word. You probably already know that standard chakra healing is based on accelerating cellular division.”
“Yes.” He held very still as she pinched the helix of his right ear delicately between thumb and forefinger, then repeated it on the left. What could she see, or sense, deep in that chakra-rich vision that he was only beginning to learn?
“Well, the newly regenerated cells are just that — new. For lack of a better term, they feel younger than the rest of the body’s non-dividing cells.” She paused again, thoughtfully. Then her hands fell away. The chakra glow died. She stepped back to lean hipshot against the edge of her desk, and said: “Your missing bit of ear, however, does not appear to have regenerated. Both your ears are identical in age at the cellular level.”
“So it’s… not standard healing,” Ryouma said slowly. “Or not even healing as we know it, at all.”
What had Himself said, as he explained what he’d ‘cleaned up’? “It didn’t match.”
“The tanuki who… fixed us. He was interested in symmetry, I guess. He said fixing my nose was better for breathing, but the rest was cosmetic. Restoring the way he thought things should be.” Which meant Ryouma was probably lucky he hadn’t ended up with fur all over his face, or ears on the top of his head instead of the sides. “Nothing else they did made sense with the way we know chakra works. There’s no reason their healing would either.”
“Cosmetic,” Rin muttered, shaking her head. Her mouth tightened with a kind of resentful bafflement. Was she thinking of the waste, of a power that could heal decade-old nerve damage frittered away on something as frivolous as symmetry? Or was she, too, alarmed that the Intel team sent to reestablish contact with the tanuki hadn’t found a trace?
He hadn’t known about Kurenai’s agreement with the tanuki when he broke it. He was almost certain that the tanuki god wouldn’t accept ignorance as an excuse.
“Well, Tousaki-san.” Rin gave him a smile, a little too cheerful to be true. “You’re a medical marvel. Functionally useless for research purposes, unfortunately, because we have no way of replicating what the tanuki did. Though maybe if our worlds interact again, they’ll be inclined to do a medical demonstration, give some lessons…”
So here was one more way to disappoint her. “I really don’t think they will. Maybe Yuuhi-san’s right that they only make contact at certain times, but… We — I — probably burned any goodwill we might’ve had, after we left. I’m sorry, Nohara-sensei.”
She blinked. Then shook her head again, and picked his paper coffee cup off the desk to push into his hands. “Relax, Tousaki-san. I was mostly joking about that last part. Honestly, even if their godlike method of healing is something we could learn — which I doubt — it would probably take generations. In the meantime, we’ll keep doing what we can.”
Her smile this time was sharper, somehow, and all the more real for it. “I didn’t put in years of study and training just to pray for a god’s miracle. And neither will you.”
“No,” he agreed, a little hoarse, and drank his coffee.
A few hours’ sleep, restless in the late afternoon light and heat. Dreams that he couldn’t quite recall on waking. A long night’s work patrolling the Archives, straining his ears at every mouse-scrabble sound, sweeping his chakra out in random patterns that caught nothing more menacing than an early-morning researcher yawning on her way to unlock the doors. A shower. Coffee. Class. Sleep.
Scrub, rinse, repeat.
Time dragged out in the empty hours of the night, then swallowed itself whole during the day. He missed one day’s reading assignments and barely managed to scrape through the next. Genma was distractible, too. They met in Team Six’s office, where a runner would know to find them. Genma looked up at every footstep passing in the hall, but none of them ever stopped at Team Six’s door. He sent Ryouma back to the barracks eventually, when Ryouma couldn’t hold back the yawns anymore.
Nightmares, that afternoon. He woke sweating.
One more night at the Archives. He paced, listened, silently recited parts of the body and their corresponding chakra meridians to himself. Built a mental map of the route to Grass Country and traced it through his steps. One hundred of their steps for every one of his; how many hours there, how many back? Surely it wouldn’t take them long to find the Dodomeki, or to take her down.
Nine days already.