August 29 – September 4, Yondaime Year 5
The Kusa patrol left them at the border without a word. Kakashi wasn’t sad to see them go.
“You’re welcome!” Usagi yelled after them. “Don’t mention it!”
“Let it go,” Raidou said.
“It’s not like we nearly got eaten for you, or anything!” Usagi squinted into the empty treeline and dropped her cupped hand. “Ungrateful bastards.”
“What were you expecting, a parade?”
“Well, no.” She sniffed. “A beer might’ve been nice, though.”
Jiraiya made an ehhh sound. “Pretty sure that squad captain was constitutionally incapable of enjoying beer.”
Raidou patted Usagi’s good shoulder. “Maybe Satomi will buy you one when we get home.”
Usagi brightened up. “Yeah. And coddle me. Injured in the line of duty — that’s worth coddling, right?”
“Worth a shot,” Raidou said.
In Kakashi’s experience, Uchiha as a group had all the warmth and sympathy of frostbite, and Satomi was as charming as a rock, but who was he to judge someone else’s obviously doomed romance?
Usagi elbowed Raidou in the ribs. “If you ever start dating again in this lifetime, we can go doubles.”
Raidou didn’t hesitate, stutter, or miss a beat. “In all my free time. Some of us actually train, you know.”
Usagi grinned. “Some of us don’t need to. Unless you count—”
“Don’t need to hear it, captain!” Abe interjected, hastily.
“Again,” Kasumi muttered.
“Training is training,” Ginta put in. “Excellent for cardio, strength, and flexibility.” Kakashi glanced over just in time to catch an explanatory hip swivel that severely undermined the intimidating purpose of the ANBU uniform. “If you’re really clever, you can work in ninjutsu and genjutsu, too. Have you tried—”
Abe bounced a half-used roll of bandages off the back of Ginta’s head. “Lieutenant, please.”
Ginta laughed unrepentantly. Jiraiya launched into a story that made Usagi cackle and frazzled the tips of Abe’s blue spikes. Kakashi tipped his head back, admiring the brightening sky, and thought, Genjutsu. Interesting.
Might be worth adding to his list.
It took them five long days to get home.
Kakashi had definitely done some damage to himself.
The worrying numbness in his hands and arms had passed, replaced by a grinding, maddening ache. It was like the surface of the bones were inflamed, except he was sure it was all in the chakra channels. Iebara’s jutsu, already dangerous, tangled into poisoned, unnatural chakra, and shoved back under Kakashi’s skin.
He wouldn’t make that mistake again. Humans and animals only.
The only upside, as far as he could tell — besides the Dodomeki’s very definite deadness — was that he hadn’t suffered any of the mental effects. There was no lingering bloodlust. No itching aggression. No midnight urges to run into the forest and chew on wildlife. A factor of the demon’s chakra, or the briefness of the jutsu’s use? The practice rabbits and pigs hadn’t knotted up his psyche either, but the giant deer from the Forest of Death definitely had.
It was almost enough to make him wish Iebara had survived. At least long enough for Kakashi to kick him around a clearing and ask a few pointed questions. Maybe he had surviving family…
Three nights before they reached Konoha, they camped next to the river. Ginta built a fire on the bank. Kasumi hunted wild pigs with Goya’s backup bow, while Goya and Abe gathered wild vegetables and herbs. Raidou skinned, butchered, peeled, chopped, and slid generous hunks of meat and vegetables onto peeled wooden skewers, ready to roast over the flames. Jiraiya sat on an elevated section of bank, dangling his bare feet into the cool water, and scribbled in one of his many small books as the evening rolled in.
While productive industry happened, Kakashi waded out into the river until the embankment dropped away, and stayed there until he couldn’t feel anything below his shoulders.
The sky turned soft and purple overhead, slowly filling with stars. He marked familiar constellations with unfocused attention: the hunter, the peacock, the koi and her child, the split drum.
He was comfortably numb, if somewhat cold, when Usagi padded out over the river’s surface and crouched down by his head. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re kind of antisocial?”
“Careful,” Kakashi said dryly. “All my friends will beat you up.”
“Mmhmm,” Usagi said. She crossed her legs and sat down, gently rocking with the current. “Painkillers?”
“Took them,” Kakashi said.
“Ah.” She flicked a water-skimmer, making it capsize before it bobbed back up, offended, and skated off. “Water helping?”
“Anyone ever tell you that you ask really obvious questions?” Kakashi said.
Usagi grinned, very white in the dusk. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Can I help you with something?”
“Kind of doubt it, since you keep dropping everything,” she said. “Just checking on you. Y’know, making sure you weren’t drowning yourself.”
“The urge rises with every minute of this conversation,” Kakashi said.
Usagi snorted. “Okay, asshole.” She tilted her head to watch as the moon rose above the distant hills, turning the water into a mirror.
“You realize your team is over there, right?” Kakashi said, when it became clear she planned to continue indefinitely.
“You realize we’re on the same team?” she said, and knocked him on the forehead with her knuckles. She wasn’t gentle about it. He scowled at her. “Same village, hello? Big picture? You’re Team Six now. You might be something else next April. It’s all still Konoha.”
Kakashi floated for a moment.
“That was not nearly as profound as you wanted it to be,” he said at last.
“It was a little profound,” she said, and stood up, using his head for leverage. He had to throw chakra into his feet to keep from sinking. “Don’t stay out too long; you’re making your captain worry.”
He floated a while longer, feeling ruffled and annoyed about the whole thing, then made his way back to the bank. Raidou’s worry expressed itself in the form of a towel flung at Kakashi’s face.
It was a warm towel, though. And there were two roasted skewers waiting for him after he changed.
When the river chill passed off and his arms began to ache again, making him snappy and short-tempered, he realized no one was rising to the bait. Kasumi opened her mouth once, glanced at Raidou, then Usagi, then closed it again.
The next night was a rough one. Usagi threw a fever after midnight, shoulder brewing red and hot around the Dodomeki’s bite mark. Abe infused healing into her, borrowing chakra from Raidou and Kasumi. The fever broke before dawn, but none of them slept well.
Breakfast was a short, grumpy affair. Usagi was pale and only picked at her food. Abe almost fell asleep in his coffee. Raidou looked worried, which made him quiet. Ginta looked the same as he always did, but talked twice as much.
Kakashi dropped his chopsticks, then his canteen, considered setting large swathes of the forest on fire, finally gave up and took the good painkillers. The rest of the day passed in a slippery haze.
At some point there was lunch.
Kakashi wound up next to Raidou’s elbow — on purpose, of course. Every compromised ANBU had found themselves traded between sorry-you-suck buddies on the way home. Right now it was Jiraiya for Usagi. Kasumi for Goya. And Abe for Ginta — or vice versa, since Abe kept stumbling over his own feet. Kakashi didn’t remember Rin or Genma being this tired after a handful of healings, but in fairness, Abe wasn’t as good.
“You look like shit,” Raidou said.
Some days, Kakashi wondered why he even bothered to wear a mask if everyone was just going to ignore its existence anyway.
“Your opinion is noted,” he said.
Raidou let that pass. “Need anything?”
Ryouma, Kakashi thought. He didn’t mean to, but there it was. Some gentle head-petting would go a long way right now. Or the lieutenant, with his fancy chakra-blocking senbon. Both, for preference. He’d taken the drugs, after all. He could blame a lot on drugs.
He shrugged, regretted it. “I’ll survive.”
Raidou’s mouth quirked at the corner. “I know. Wasn’t what I asked, though.”
“Asking doesn’t help,” Kakashi snapped. “I’m maxed out on meds and I don’t see a chakra specialist shoved behind your chest plate. If you’re about to offer to carry me, I will kick you in your face.”
And then the lieutenant will cry and Kurenai will hunt me down.
Raidou let that pass, too. “I could listen.”
“Whatever you wanted to say.”
Kakashi stared ahead for several minutes. A bush warbler landed nearby and sang about whatever bush warblers considered important.
“My arms hurt,” Kakashi said.
“That really sucks,” Raidou said.
The last night, they ate cold pork around the campfire and told stories. Not raucous ones — at least, not to start with. War stories. The Third Great Ninja War they’d all taken part in, to varying degrees of front line, and which made an automatic conversational bridge between generations. Where were you when X happened?
Jiraiya wrapped up a long tale about Kumo ninja who breathed their own version of acid clouds. “Kind of like my ex-wannabe-girlfriend back there. Makes you wonder if there’s some truth to the kekkei genkai coming from demonic interbreeding way back in the past.”
An old memory unfolded itself in the back of Kakashi’s head. A question at the end of a lesson. Are ninja really like demons?
And his mother’s answer. We are.
The firelight danced, orange as a fox’s tail. He wrapped his aching arms around himself.
“We took some damage,” Jiraiya said, pulling his attention back. “But we’re all still conscious and walking. You did good, kids.” He grinned at them all, but especially at Raidou and Usagi. “I told you redheads would bring me luck. With two redheaded captains, we couldn’t lose.”
“Damn right,” said Usagi, and leaned over to thump her canteen against Raidou’s. The smile he gave her in return was crooked and tired, but honest.
Jiraiya raised his canteen to Goya next. “And to the archer with the deadly aim and poison arrows.”
“Right through the eyes,” Usagi crowed.
Ginta made the sharp whistle of an arrow plummeting out of the sky, and mimed a messy explosion. Goya gave a tiny smile.
“That ball of light jutsu you did at the end didn’t hurt either,” Raidou said to Jiraiya. “Punched right through her ribs. What was that?”
“Rasengan,” Kakashi said.
Raidou’s eyebrows flew up. “The Hokage’s jutsu?”
“He shared,” Jiraiya said, all pearly teeth and smugness. “If you’re any good with wind jutsu, we could ask him to teach you when we get back.”
“Good luck,” Kakashi murmured, a veteran of that particular lesson. He’d gotten the Chidori out of it, eventually, after just about turning himself inside out.
Ginta still looked intrigued.
“I’d probably blow my own fingers off,” Raidou said.
“But impressively,” Usagi said. “You could be the No-Finger Ninja, demi-bodhisattva of dumbasses everywhere.”
Ginta laughed. Kasumi and Kakashi both snorted, then traded a horrified look. Jiraiya rolled out a full belly-laugh that resonated in their little tucked down hollow. He took a long swallow from his gourd, then offered it to Usagi like a prize. “I really like you, my rabbity friend.”
Abe made a noise in his throat, looking at the alcohol skeptically. “Uh, Captain—”
Jiraiya cut him off. “Enough for a toast won’t hurt her. In fact, pass that around. A toast for everyone.”
Most of them took a mouthful. Kasumi passed the gourd along without drinking from it, but held up her own canteen as a replacement. Kakashi took a very, very small sip in deference to common sense and painkillers. It was sake, dry and crisp, with a sharp aftertaste. The gourd wobbled in his grip, but he managed to hand it back without dropping it.
“To redheads,” Jiraiya said. “And mission success!”
“And getting another village to pay for it!” Ginta added.
“Bursting eyeballs!” Usagi said. Goya flashed a thumbs up.
“Extra practice,” Abe said wryly.
“Stealing the body right under their noses,” Kasumi said, after a little pause.
Raidou lifted his eyes from Kakashi’s hands, which he’d been watching since Kakashi had tucked them back in his lap. “To the jutsu that killed her good and dead.”
Kakashi’s mouth crooked faintly at the corner. “To going home.”
Konoha’s walls came into view just after mid-morning. The gate chuunin asked Jiraiya for an autograph.
Like most missions with soldered-together teams, the ending was an awkward fracture. Jiraiya peeled away to make his preliminary reports to ANBU and Intel and Minato. Everyone else limped to the hospital.
It wasn’t long in the waiting room. Kasumi stood at the desk and made several sharp remarks, while Raidou loomed behind her, until triage medics descended.
Goya and Ginta were packaged off for x-rays. Usagi’s shoulder was sent to spend time communing with strong disinfectants and a lot of saline flush, before a medic could go in to burn the rest of the infection out. Abe went with her, half-defensive of his captain, half-curious for the healing.
A regular medic looked at Kakashi’s arms. Then a senior medic. Then he got admitted while someone sent an urgent memo to the chakra injuries department. Raidou found a chair, sat in it, and wouldn’t be moved.
It would have been annoying, except that Kakashi’s hands felt like hot splinters and he couldn’t hold a book. Raidou kept making distracting little comments, like ‘I know that nurse; he has two kids and eight chickens’, before Kakashi could spiral too far down into his own head.
After a while, he got a friendly IV that took the remaining edges off.
Time passed as it usually did in the hospital: at a crawl, then eaten in big gulps. Raidou sent a clone for the rest of Team Six, but Ginta arrived first, breathing easier now that someone had healed his ribs. One hairline crack, he reported. And Goya had gone to surgery for her jaw.
“Usagi?” Kakashi asked.
“About to head home,” Usagi said, sounding bleary at the door. A crisp new bandage wrapped around her shoulder. She yawned. “Doing okay? Need anything?”
Raidou yawned back. “Coffee,” he said, and stood. “But I can grab it myself. You look dead on your feet.”
“I’m alive and only lightly chewed on my feet, thank you very much,” Usagi said. “An’ I’m going to bed. Good mission. Let’s do it again sometime, except much less horrifying.”
“Seconded,” Abe said, sounding exhausted behind her shoulder.
“Veto,” Kasumi said.
“Rookies don’t get a vote,” Usagi said. “Ginta gets a vote so long as it’s the same as mine.”
Ginta tipped his head, mock-thoughtful. “It could still be a little horrifying. Maybe, hm, twenty percent horrifying?”
Usagi slung her good arm around his shoulder, dropping half her weight on him and ignoring his wince. “Any mission with you is automatically twenty percent horrifying, my beloved little sociopath. Drag me home before I fall asleep on that worrying stain.”
“You know I can’t resist when you call me pet names.” Ginta hoisted Usagi’s weight more securely across his shoulders with a tolerant grunt. Then tipped a smile at Raidou. “Next time bring the rest of your team. Double the trouble, double the fun!”
“Dear gods,” said Kasumi, from the hallway.
“Extra medics,” Abe said, prayerfully.
Ginta’s smile faded a touch as he looked at Kakashi. “Get healed up so we can try that lightning thing again.”
Perhaps it was the IV, but that almost sounded like concern. “Obviously,” Kakashi said, treading water back to safety. “I want to see your hair do that thing again.”
“Your hair did a thing?” Usagi said, as Ginta steered her out of the room. “What thing?”
“I looked like a dandelion in full puff,” Ginta said, holding his free hand over his head to demonstrate height. “My whole scalp was goosebumps. It was amazing. Hatake’s probably did, too, but who can tell with his hair…”
Their voices faded down the hallway. The empty silence that followed was awkward.
“Drink?” Raidou asked Kakashi.
Raidou twitched on his way out the door. “Clone just died. They’re on their way.”
Raidou still went to get water. Downstairs, the abrupt flare of two familiar chakra signals landed in Kakashi’s foreshortened range. They felt a little… agitated, especially the one that didn’t like translocating.
Kakashi tried hurriedly to straighten himself up.
Genma’s signature swerved off as it encountered Raidou’s near the nurse’s station. Ryouma’s didn’t waver; he came straight as an arrow towards Kakashi’s door. Shoved it open. Stepped inside. His face was tight, eyes huge and dark. He swept the room once, found Kakashi, and fixed there, taking in the details: upright, conscious, not obviously harmed.
His expression cracked, relief edging out fear. “Kakashi.”
Kakashi gave a reassuring little wave — or tried to. His hand cramped. He dropped it back to the bed and said, “Hi.”
Ryouma slid the door closed and crossed the room in three sides. Grabbed the headboard as if to steady himself, touched Kakashi’s face with his other hand. The headboard plastic creaked. The fingertips on Kakashi’s cheek were so light, Kakashi almost couldn’t feel them through the mask. “Lieutenant’s checking your chart,” Ryouma said, and kissed him.
Warmth unwound through Kakashi, sun in his muscles, safety down his spine. Ryouma’s hand slid down to cradle the back of his head, gentling the snarling headache. Kakashi shivered, involuntary, and kissed him back.
Angled over him, Ryouma was solid and strong and here, and Kakashi wanted to curl up in his ribcage and hide under his heartbeat until everything felt better. Or at least make Ryouma stand in front of him and talk to people until someone showed up with a fix-Kakashi’s-hands solution.
He broke the kiss — the mask spoiled it a little, now — and tucked his head down under Ryouma’s chin, pressing his face to the solid ridge of collarbone beneath Ryouma’s t-shirt. Breathed in storms and stress and relief, relief, relief.
Ryouma released the headboard to wrap his arm around Kakashi’s shoulders, other hand still steadying Kakashi’s head. He pressed his lips to Kakashi’s rank, unwashed, probably bloody hair, and murmured, “I missed you.”
Kakashi smiled unevenly against Ryouma’s shirt. “I brought you an eyeball.”
“I said that was gross,” Ryouma said, without moving an inch. “What’m I supposed to do with it, find a way to slip it into Kuroda’s coffee?”
“I was thinking more like frame it, use it for medical study, or sell it for an unprincipled amount of money,” Kakashi said. “But choking Kuroda with it is worth considering.”
Ryouma made a noise that was too rough to be a laugh. His fingers flexed against Kakashi’s head, the gentlest petting. “How’re you feeling?”
The thought was right there, the simple splinter at the edge of something huge. My hands don’t work. But fear was the death of reason, destroyer of tactics, and Kakashi was an expert at hammering it flat and turning it into mental fretwork. He’d been holding it off for days already.
“Bored,” he said, which had the benefit of also being true. “Medics take forever.”
Alarm sharpened Ryouma’s voice. “No one’s seen you yet?” He released Kakashi, standing back, which was the exact opposite of what Kakashi wanted, but Genma and Raidou’s signatures were on the move again. “Or are you waiting for another consult? I can go kick up a fuss.”
“Chakra injuries specialist,” Kakashi said, as the door slid open again. “They work in their own time. Hi, Lieutenant.”
Genma’s eyes flickered: a medic’s quick visual scan, accompanied by the passing brush of his chakra. Whatever he sensed didn’t change his expression, which was calm and relaxed if you ignored the faintest wrinkle between his eyebrows. “Hi, Hatake. How was it tag-teaming a storybook demon? I hope more fun than the ones from Hayama.”
“Well, I didn’t get dragged off and nearly made into a queen’s consort,” Kakashi said, aiming for cheerful. “And I brought you back a fang. It’s in the green-bordered scroll wherever they put my pants.”
Raidou silently leaned over and picked up Kakashi’s uniform from a chair. Kakashi had kept his undershirt, mask, and trunks on, under the operating principle that he wasn’t on telemetry and therefore no one needed his shirt off, therefore he could keep people clothes on until someone wanted to lose blood forcing him into a hospital gown.
“That’s it,” Kakashi said, as Raidou extracted the correct scroll. “There’s a sample of poisoned river water in there, too.”
Genma accepted the scroll with surprise. “Thank you,” he said, turning it over to study the locking seal without actually trying to open it. Sensible precaution, with Kakashi’s things. “Is the poison on the fang, too? That’ll be interesting to play with. What effect did the poison have on the water?”
Kakashi shrugged. “Lot of dead fish, mostly.”
“Huh. More dead fish for my summer. I’d almost missed them.” Genma’s senbon flicked from one side of his mouth to the other. “Did you see it happen? Like how fast they died?”
“Happened before we got there,” Kakashi said.
“I’ll just have to test it,” Genma said. “Carefully.”
“Very carefully,” Raidou said. “Between acid, venom, and fire, that thing chewed up half a mountain.”
Genma whistled softly, which was an interesting trick around his senbon, and dropped into a bedside chair. He keyed the scroll release with a tiny flare of chakra and caught the objects that tumbled out. The eye and the tooth both carefully sealed in glass jars of alcohol, papered with protective marks; and the vial of grey river water.
“Ryouma gets the eye,” Kakashi said, before Genma got any ideas.
Genma regarded the little floating trophy and handed it to Ryouma, who accepted it like a man getting a bouquet of dead rats. Unromantic bastard.
Ryouma stared uneasily at the eyeball. It stared back, unblinking. “I could store it behind the mirror over my sink,” he said at last. “And scare myself awake every morning.”
Maybe Kakashi should have put a bow on it. Or stapled it to Ryouma’s big forehead with a note that said ‘PRESENT’, except that Ryouma would have to get someone else to read it to him and Kakashi couldn’t write right now anyway.
“If you don’t want it,” he said.
“You can’t take back a present,” Ryouma said, cradling the jar with a mix of protectiveness and revulsion. “It’ll be good. Might work better than coffee.” He broke eye contact (the staring contest was unwinnable by virtue of the eye being a) dead and b) lidless), stuffed the jar into a pocket, and sat down on the end of the bed. He did it casually, all long legs and easy shoulders, but his hand happened to land on Kakashi’s ankle and stay there. “How did it happen?”
“Was it really a Dodomeki?” Genma asked, turning his jar so the tooth inside caught the light.
“The genuine article,” Kakashi said, and settled back to tell them about it.
“Go back, you forgot the part where you wandered out into a thunderstorm to play with lightning.”
“How many eyes?”
“Oh damn, is Usagi all right?”
“She’ll recover. Goya, too.”
“Bet Jiraiya’s eyebrow won’t.”
“You did what?”
Naito Rumi, the chakra specialist, arrived just after he’d finished both the story and defending himself from variously heated praise and criticism, so then he had to tell the entire thing again.
“Dodomeki,” she said, when he was done.
“Yep,” said Kakashi.
“Interesting,” she said.
“Yep,” said Kakashi.
“At least you’re keeping me in business. Let’s see your hands.”
She did a number of tests, most of which involved poking his fingers with sharp things. Then, very carefully, ghosted her chakra over his arms like a cool waterfall.
“Well,” she said at last, sitting back on the edge of his bed. “That’s vile.”
“Agreed,” said Kakashi. “Fixable?”
She was quiet for entirely too long. “I have no idea.”
“You don’t know?” said Ryouma. His chakra, which had been tightly clamped until now, like most ninja in the chaotic environment of the hospital, unfurled. Kakashi felt it touch the edges of his own chakra and recoil from the damage. Ryouma’s mouth pinched white. “That didn’t happen before.”
Calm, Kakashi told himself.
“We didn’t use it on demons before,” he said. And to Naito: “What do you need to do?”
“Understand what you did first,” she said, squinting at his arms. “That blood-bending horrorshow does enough kinds of damage by itself before you start adding in demon chakra. Unhealthy demon chakra, at that.”
“I just told you what I did,” Kakashi said, with brittle patience.
“The jutsu, yes,” she said. “I’m talking on a medical level. Cellular. Chakra. It feels like you’ve laminated bits of demon into your channels, but why that’s causing partial paralysis?” She pursed her lips. “I need to look at the body you brought home. And we need to run some tests — bloodwork first. Make sure you’re not anemic like your lieutenant. I want a Hyuuga to consult on you…”
She kept saying words, but it faded off to a muffled whine. He thought she’d just— fix it. Like she had before. Like they had every time. He came home fractured, they glued him back together. He went back out. Rinse, repeat. If there was demon chakra in him, just take it out. She was a chakra specialist. He didn’t care if it hurt, they just needed to take it out.
Raidou was in front of his face. His chest hurt and his throat hurt, where was air, and Raidou was saying—
“Slower. You’re breathing too fast. Look at me — good, like that. Slow it down.”
Raidou breathed, big stupid chest expanding and shrinking. His hands were on Kakashi’s shoulders, braced there. Kakashi’s eye flicked sideways, where was Naito—
“Nope, look right here. Breathe.”
Kakashi hauled together enough of a thought to growl out something deeply unflattering. Raidou grinned at him. “There you go. Little slower you might be able to swear properly.”
Raidou breathed again, big and exaggerated, follow me, it’s not hard. And Kakashi sincerely wanted to bite him on his stupid face — again, the scars were still there, thin and silvery and fading on Raidou’s chin — but that was a better thought to clutch than— than—
“Slower. Keep going.”
Kakashi breathed, and breathed, and kept breathing until his heart managed to put a space between the beats. His skull stopped feeling like a glass bowl of panic, perched on a snappable neck, and actually managed to be capable of holding at least two thoughts.
His hands were cold.
His everything was cold, and clammy, and fucking fuck he hadn’t had a panic attack since he was fifteen, now he actually needed a hole to die in.
“Welcome back,” said Raidou, still holding onto his shoulders.
“I hate you,” Kakashi croaked.
“I figured,” Raidou said, but didn’t let go. His hands felt big wrapped over Kakashi’s collarbones, steady.
Kakashi was going to bite him in the eye.
He didn’t, though. He let Raidou talk him through another three minutes of breathing-for-adults, while Genma quietly and calmly went to get a glass of water, and Ryouma sat pale and dark-eyed at Kakashi’s feet and hung onto Kakashi’s ankle like a life-preserver.
So, everything was embarrassing and horrible.
At the door, Naito cleared her throat and said, as if the intervening few minutes hadn’t happened, “I’ll put in the orders for that bloodwork.”
It took a while, but eventually a medical technician came to draw blood. Kakashi held still, like a competent human being with actual control over himself.
A Hyuuga dropped by next, to stare at him. Kakashi held still for that, too. She left after a while, taking her conclusions with her.
And then there was more waiting.
Raidou fell asleep in a chair, head tipped back against the wall. His mouth was open. Genma perched on the arm next to him, looking fond and tired and worried, and Kakashi wondered if he knew his face was that transparent.
“You can go home, y’know,” Kakashi said. “It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”
What he meant was: I’d like you and the captain to leave now so that I can be alone with Ryouma and complain at him until something gets better. Genma, however, looked instantly guilty. He straightened up and opened his mouth: probably to say something lieutenantly about how it was his duty to stay here and something-something-something, but Kakashi beat him to the punch.
“Captain should sleep,” he said. “On a bed. And I’m not making room in this one.”
He stared at Genma, meaningfully.
To Genma’s credit, he didn’t blush, fidget, throw something at Kakashi’s head, or do anything more than lift his eyelids ever so slightly, the smallest gesture of surprise. “If you’re sure…” he said. “Okay. I’ll get the captain home. I don’t like leaving you all alone without the use of your hands.” He glanced at Ryouma, then back. “Would you mind if I asked Tousaki to stay a little longer?”
Kakashi pressed his lips carefully together behind his mask and managed his best I’m-so-put-upon-but-if-you-insist shrug. “I guess.”
Ryouma said with wholesome sincerity, “I’ll stay as long as he needs me.”
“Thank you. If you need me after all, send a runner.” Genma nudged Raidou’s shoulder — and then nudged him again, harder.
Raidou startled mid-snore and floundered upright. “Wzt?”
Genma caught his shoulder before he pitched entirely out of the chair. “Time to go home and sleep on a mattress and pillow before you give yourself a pinched nerve.”
“Pinched—wha?” Raidou blinked a few times, recalculated himself to reality, and stood up with a spine-popping series of cracks. “You sure? I thought we were waiting on Naito-sensei?”
“It’ll be hours,” Kakashi said. “Might as well sleep somewhere comfortable.”
Genma and Ryouma made agreeing sounds. Raidou rubbed his face and squinted at Kakashi.
Kakashi braced himself for an argument or at least some awkward questions, but Raidou just nodded. “Okay.” Then Raidou crossed the floor and dropped a hand on Kakashi’s shoulder — not the bone-rattling thump he liked to give Ryouma after a good sparring round, or the rap of approving knuckles he’d knock against Genma’s biceps, but a flat palm, a brief squeeze.
Kakashi blinked, too startled to move away.
“You did good on this one,” Raidou said. “Tracking, teamwork, the kill. I’ll make sure the right people know, if Jiraiya hasn’t already.”
Kakashi’s teeth parted, jaw gone slack.
Raidou let him go. “And if you’re thinking the hands were a critical mistake, think about this: the Dodomeki was centuries old. Jiraiya’s last hit might have killed her, but it might not. What you did made damn certain she wouldn’t get up again.” His mouth lifted crookedly. “We’ll get your hands fixed. Enjoy the good drugs in the meantime, okay?”
“Yessir,” Kakashi said, on pure automatic reflex.
For a half second, he thought Raidou was thinking about capping the moment with a good hair ruffling, and then there would be no choice but sarcasm and the ruination of whatever this moment was, but Raidou just rubbed his own face and said, “Right. Sleep. Is a thing. Tousaki staying?”
“He is,” Genma said, herding Raidou towards the door.
“M’kay, good,” Raidou said. “Send a clone if you need anything.”
“Or if there’s news,” Genma added.
Ryouma saluted. Kakashi had to settle for looking ironic. The door slid closed.
Kakashi’s sharp hearing picked up the expected edge of conversation when the captain and lieutenant were about halfway back to the nurse’s station.
“So, did you and Kurenai talk?”
“Well… not talk, exactly.”
“Oh you bastard.”
But there was humor in Raidou’s voice, layered underneath the raspy exhaustion, so they were probably fine.
And Ryouma was here, alone finally, so Kakashi was fine, too.
“Hi,” said Kakashi.
He didn’t have any kind of follow up. Just— hi. It’s you. I’m glad you’re here. Let’s not talk about the panic attack.
Ryouma, because he was perpetually in lock step with guilt, said quietly, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.” Which wasn’t what Kakashi wanted to hear, and probably not what Ryouma wanted to say, but Ryouma’s habit of apologizing for his existence was a larger problem. Ryouma moved up from the foot of the bed, keeping a hand on Kakashi the whole time — a moving point of contact. He sat down at Kakashi’s hip and touched Kakashi’s right hand, very gently. “I’m back on active duty now. Just a week too late.”
Kakashi considered an appropriate response. “Would you pick up that water glass?”
Ryouma collected the glass from the side-table and held it out uncertainly.
“Upend it on your head, please,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma’s hand twitched before he caught himself. He made eye contact and slowly, deliberately took a drink before he set the glass back down. “You can dump it on me yourself. When you’re better.”
“Or bribe a nurse to do it,” Kakashi said cheerfully. His hands still hurt, but the world was a better place when Ryouma was being an asshole.
“All the nurses like me better,” Ryouma shot back, which was undoubtedly true, hence bribery. But Ryouma looked like he was chewing on something else, so Kakashi didn’t point that out. “My classes are going well,” Ryouma said, unexpectedly. “I could probably have healed a paper cut, if you’d brought any back. And I’m kind of friends with Ayane again? We’re lifting buddies, at least. She guessed about—us.” He made a vague gesture between the two of them, which ended with his hand resting lightly on Kakashi’s leg. “It’s okay, though, I think.”
Bringing the sum total of People Who Knew up to three: Kurenai, Hakone, Ayane.
Kakashi tilted his head, ironic and amused. “Didn’t you tell me that Ayane wasn’t half-interrogator, like Hakone? There was no way she could guess?”
The tips of Ryouma’s ears burned pink. “Turns out the barracks needs better soundproofing, I guess. I thought we’d been quiet, but she’s just down the hall.”
“Oh wonderful,” Kakashi said, thumping his head back against the wall. “So I need to blackmail the entire floor and buy you a gag.”
The pink spread to Ryouma’s cheekbones. His pupils dilated, which was notable under the stark fluorescent hospital lights. “You could probably just do the gag,” he said, casually. “Matsumoto Haruka and some guy from Team Nine are our other closest neighbors, and they don’t care.”
Kakashi compared the confidence of this statement with Ryouma’s previous assertions about Ayane, and made a mental note to pull the files of everyone on their floor as soon as he had working hands again. Well. Re-pull. He’d screened the building once after Akiyama, but he hadn’t been looking for personal levers.
And get that gag.
“You said it’s okay. She didn’t care?”
“She was annoyed I’d been avoiding her. Which is fair, we talked about that. But the rest of it… No.” Ryouma’s mouth lifted in a small, sideways smile. “No jealous scenes from a spurned lover, not even any hairpulling. All those guys in the movies must be better in bed than me.”
Kakashi snorted. “One, no. Two, her loss. Three,” he nudged Ryouma hard in the side with his knee, “you should use a rod if you’re going to fish that hard for compliments.” But he smiled behind his mask, to show he didn’t mean it.
Ryouma snickered and hooked his hand under the back of Kakashi’s knee. Blanket between them, but still a touchpoint. The wry twist of his mouth eased into something softer, fonder, worried. “I missed you.”
Kakashi wrapped his hand around Ryouma’s wrist, forcing his clumsy, aching, stupid fingers to squeeze. Splinters of ice in his chakra, but Ryouma’s warm pulse beat like a lodestone.
I missed you, too.
Kakashi said, “Pretty sure I brought some cuts back, if you want to show me what you’re learning.”
“Fewer than usual, looks like.” Ryouma turned Kakashi’s arm over, which made a rash of pins and needles zing unpleasantly along the bones. Long fingers hovered over a set of Dodomeki claw marks. “Not bad enough for anyone else to pay attention to? These look pretty well scabbed already.”
Kakashi shrugged. “They got cleaned. Mostly they just itch.”
“Yeah.” Ryouma’s expression had gone abstract, no longer listening — concentrating instead. He released Kakashi’s arm. Flexed his fingers nervously. Shaped a set of seals Kakashi knew in his sleep, even if he couldn’t make them work himself. Simple healing lit a green glow around Ryouma’s hands, cast shadows like spring leaves on his face. Ryouma gripped Kakashi’s upper arm lightly and said, “Tell me if it hurts.”
Chakra flowed under Kakashi’s skin.
It itched. And it was warm, not the cool, precise touch of a practiced medic. Ryouma apparently hadn’t gotten to the lessons on heat dissipation yet. Gentle fire ran down the claw marks, like honey poured on Kakashi’s skin. Sweat prickled at Kakashi’s temples. It was uncomfortable, but not painful. He watched as the claw marks knitted slowly together, scabs flaking away and leaving raised purple scars in their wake.
Sweat ran down Ryouma’s cheek and dripped off the edge of his jaw. Expending too much energy. The scars flattened, thinning, turning lighter. The heat filtered deeper as Ryouma’s chakra overflowed the boundaries of his jutsu and spilled into Kakashi’s arm, leaking into muscles and tendons and down to bone…
“Ow.” Something hurt. A sharp flash of pain like a scalpel carving down a nerve. Kakashi jerked, though he managed not to yank his arm out of Ryouma’s hold.
Ryouma let go immediately, holding his hands up like he thought they contained weapons.
“Fuck. Fuck, fuck, I’ll get help—” Ryouma was half off the bed, eyes wide with horror, still fixed on Kakashi’s arm, not seeing his face. “It’s not the jutsu, it’s not rot, but I hooked your chakra—”
He sat down again, rather hard, when Kakashi’s foot smacked him in the hip.
Kakashi left a heel planted on Ryouma’s thigh, pinning him there, as he squinted down at his own arm. Pain, yes, but fading, and leaving a little center of calm behind. A spot about the size of a coin on the inside of his biceps where the chakra was trying to settle back into its natural flow, before it ran aground on the next demon piece.
“Huh,” he said. He lifted his head sharply.
Kakashi said, “Did that just stick to your chakra?”
Ryouma lowered his hands. They were no longer glowing, but they were trembling slightly. He shook his head. “I spilled too much into you, I felt it… dislodge… something. But I cut free, I didn’t rip anything out— let me get that Hyuuga back—”
The door slid open, making them both twitch. Naito-sensei stood on the other side, holding a clipboard in one hand. “I have your test resu—” She stopped, looked at them both, frowned. “What did you just do?”
‘I can explain’ went down about as well with Naito as it usually did with Rin.
Ryouma got his wish, once all the yelling was done. Well, not quite yelling. Naito wasn’t really the yelling type. But a sharp word about the foolishness of attempting healing on areas of demon chakra — with an addition of underlying disappointment — was sufficient to kneecap Ryouma and even make Kakashi feel a little uncomfortable.
After that unpleasantness was finished, Hyuuga Mitsu was summoned again. She showed up a lot more quickly this time. Maybe something in the paging nurse’s tone of voice. Like Naito, she also stopped in the door and stared for a moment. The alabaster brow creased faintly.
“Did you—?” she began, looking at Naito.
“He did.” Naito hooked a thumb towards Ryouma, who was currently too cowed to shrink further.
The opaque gaze transferred. Ryouma studied his hands.
“Interesting,” Mitsu said.
Kakashi said, “Is anyone planning to use a complete sentence in the near future?”
Mitsu’s attention switched back to him. The veins at her temples bulged. The trace outline of an almost-iris appeared as her Byakugan activated, making her eyes look moderately more eye-like. She gave Kakashi a slow, thorough once-over. The brow creased more.
At her request, a nurse fetched a writing brush and a small pot of ink, and Mitsu spent the next five minutes tracing a map of chakra branches onto Kakashi’s forearms. Heavy black where the worst infiltration was, and a small dotted outline around the section Ryouma had… exorcised?
“There’s irritation here,” Mitsu said, tapping the circle. “Looks almost like vascular trauma, except it’s in the chakra channel.” She beckoned Ryouma. “Show me your hands.”
Ryouma hastened to offer his hands, turning them palm up. He sent a worried glance at Kakashi. “I wasn’t trying to rip it out— Just close the cuts, make sure they didn’t get infected… His channels have trauma?”
“Mm-hmm.” Mitsu ran her fingers lightly over Ryouma’s palms, tracing the extensive invisible network of channels. She turned his right hand over and touched the back of his knuckles. “Does it feel strange here?”
“No.” Ryouma stared down at his hand. “Should it?”
“There’s a shadow there, very subtle.” Mitsu collected her ink brush and drew a swift outline on Ryouma’s knuckles, smaller than the circle on Kakashi’s arm. She studied the effect, tapped the handle of the brush against her lips, and slowly added a second circle inside the first. “I can actually see it getting smaller. Naito, what do you make of this?”
“I have a theory,” Naito said. She made a gesture inviting Ryouma to sit again. “But confirm two things for me first. Shortly after Kakashi used Iebara’s jutsu for the first time, you performed a chakra transfusion on him?”
“And you were fourteen when you invented your rot jutsu?”
“When I mastered it, yeah. I’d been working on it for a while…” Ryouma looked around blankly for somewhere to sit, seemed to realize the only chair was directly behind Naito, and sat back down on the side of Kakashi’s bed. “Started in the Academy, I guess. Why?”
“Young chakra is especially flexible.” Naito pulled the chair closer to the bed and settled in it. “You invented a corruption jutsu, do you understand? A weapon designed to destroy human flesh and chakra without limitations, by yourself, with no oversight or guidance. Frankly, you should be dead.”
Abruptly, Ryouma reached his limit on being criticized. “Yeah, well? No one cared at the time,” he snapped. “They made me a chuunin for it, and sent me out to make other people dead.”
That struck Kakashi as funny. He laughed, sharp and splintered in the silence. Ryouma glanced back, as if he thought Kakashi might be mocking him, and gave half a puzzled smile when Kakashi just grinned at him.
Mitsu started forward, immaculate brow creasing in irritation, but stopped when Naito waved her back.
“That’s not what I meant,” Naito said. “You should be dead. But you’re not. Why? My theory is that your chakra was young enough to adapt. Instead of becoming infected by the corruption, you’ve developed a way to filter and contain it. Rather like an… organic sieve, for lack of a better word. So, when you perform a chakra transfusion or a healing jutsu, and your chakra encounters something similar…”
Kakashi smacked Ryouma on the back of the shoulder. “Told you you were smart.”
Ryouma’s brow creased. “Not that smart. I don’t remember ever thinking about sieves when I was figuring out how to rot rats. But— Okay, let’s say I did something, instinctive or adaptive or whatever. That’s why I heal from the effects of Iebara’s jutsu faster than Kakashi’s chakra does or Genma’s blood does? And… we didn’t realize there was anything wrong with copying Iebara’s jutsu the first time Kakashi did it, because I transfused him afterwards and helped clean it out?”
“Precisely,” Naito said.
Kakashi said, “So how much not-vascular-trauma will it do if he goes through and cleans out this mess?” He lifted his arms and let them flop back on the blankets. “What did that mean, anyway?”
“Picture a blood vessel,” Mitsu said. “Now picture dragging a wire scrub brush through it.”
Kakashi reflected on this image. “Ow.”
“Indeed,” Mitsu said.
“Still, worse than demon-poison?” Kakashi said. “Long-term?”
“At this point it’s academic guesswork,” Naito said. “The Dodomeki chakra isn’t doing anything good for you. But sieving it out with Tousaki’s method could scar your chakra channels. You could be left with permanent damage or disability.”
If he thought about that too long, they were going to need to drag Raidou back to yell about breathing again. Kakashi inhaled, exhaled, kept going. “Do you have a better idea?”
“I have some colleagues I need to speak to.” Naito stood. “Tousaki, would you come with me? I’ll need to have you demonstrate.”
“I’ll be back,” Ryouma whispered, and gripped Kakashi’s ankle for a brief moment before he left.
Kakashi wasn’t physically able to send a clone with news to Genma and Raidou. Or summon a dog to drape over his legs and be a warm, comforting weight until something else happened. So he sat and felt drugged and sorry for himself for a while, until a nurse checked in and offered him a sleeping pill.
Well, why the hell not. It wasn’t like he could defend himself if something attacked him anyway.
He took the sleeping pill. He slept.
When he woke up, there was a cat curled up on his chest and Jiraiya had taken over the chair. Kakashi blinked, fuzzy-headed, and made a questioning noise that had more in common with a piece of metal getting flung into a blender. His mouth tasted horrendous.
Jiraiya put down the notebook he’d been scribbling in and smiled. “Hey, spro— Kiddo. Kakashi. Dammit. Want some OJ?” He offered a juicebox.
Kakashi did want OJ, which led to an awkward production that disturbed the cat, but ended with juice and a slightly clearer head and no one actually falling off the bed. The cat was mostly black, except for a fluffy white chest and muzzle. Its nose was heart-shaped and black. Its eyes were luminously green. It kneaded its front paws on his chest and settled back down into a loaf-position, purring like a localized earthquake.
Kakashi said, “I have some questions.”
“Her name’s Megumi,” Jiraiya said. “Shiranui summoned her for you. He had to go to a meeting.”
Kakashi worked a hand up and clumsily scratched Megumi behind the ear. Her eyes went half-lidded. The purring intensified. “A meeting?”
“He didn’t say what for, but it was that attractive Hyuuga medic with red earrings who came to fetch him. So probably something medical. Or maybe he’s having a secret tryst, but she didn’t seem like his type.” Jiraiya laughed to himself. “He said he’d be back.”
Interesting. Must be about Ryouma. The clock said it had only been a few hours, so Raidou was probably still asleep.
“Your face looks better,” Kakashi said.
Jiraiya touched his face gingerly, patting the fuzzy line where his missing eyebrow was already starting to regrow. “They got a facial reconstruction doc for me. Can you believe it? But I have to look like myself at the next book signing, and I don’t want to face any awkward questions.” He grinned, a little careful about it. “If my eyebrow isn’t back to normal by then, I’ll say I had a cooking accident trying to flame up some fancy dessert to impress the ladies.”
“I’ve seen you cook,” Kakashi said. “They should buy that.”
Jiraiya mimed taking a kunai to the heart. “You wound me.” His grin faded a trifle. “You look… like you need more juice.” He stuck a straw into another juice box and put it within Kakashi’s reach. “Minato was impressed with what I told him about the mission. He’s stuck in a meeting with some muckity-muck ambassador from Grass Country, but I’m sure he’ll come tell you himself when he’s free.”
A brief glow warmed Kakashi’s chest. Still, it seemed, he lived for Minato’s praise.
To sidestep that thought, he looked down at Genma’s summons. “Do you talk?”
Megumi blinked gently at him, made a chirping little mrrrooowp noise, and butted her head against his chin. He took the cue and resumed his attempt at scritching. She seemed to like it on the cheek best, if her blissful lean was anything to judge by. She was a warm, dense little weight on his sternum, rumbling constantly.
Not a dog, but still…
He didn’t mean to fall asleep again, but drugs — or cats — were sneaky that way.
He woke a few more times, when nurses came back to check vitals and supply meds and do other medical things, but he fell asleep easily enough each time. When he woke properly, it was dark outside, Jiraiya was gone, and Minato was standing at the foot of the bed. He looked grim.
Just behind his shoulder, there was Rin. She looked tired.
Beyond them, Naito stood closer to the wall. Ryouma leaned in the doorframe, with Genma just behind him. And behind them, Raidou.
The cat was gone. There was a fading circle of warmth where she’d been. The room smelled sour and tense, and not because of Kakashi.
Kakashi said, “Guess we’re doing Ryouma’s option.”
“For lack of any better,” Minato said. He put a hand on the plastic foot-railing of the bed, a gesture that brought him a little closer without actually touching Kakashi. They looked at each other for a moment. Minato sighed. “I’d like, someday, to receive a mission report that doesn’t include your hospitalization. But it sounds like you kept a few members of your team out of the hospital, and off the Heroes’ Stone. Well done.”
Kakashi thought about tapping his ANBU tattoo, repeating the oath, sticking a little knife in Minato’s criticism. We both knew what I was signing up for. But Minato was just worried. In his shoes, Kakashi would have been more cutting.
Instead, Kakashi said, “We protected each other.”
Golden eyebrows lifted. Minato glanced at Raidou, still lurking beyond the doorway and looking equally surprised, then back at Kakashi. “Sensei’s report mentioned some impressive teamwork in the moment. In the aftermath, too.”
Well that was as good as a parade and a pat on the head.
“Did it also mention the part where he got an eyebrow torched off?” Kakashi asked.
Naito cleared her throat. “Back to the matter at hand,” she said, which Kakashi thought was a rude dismissal of a) a nice moment, and b) a proper acknowledgment that one of the legendary Sannin had gotten his face baked. “We’ll be doing this procedure under general anesthetic. Nohara-sensei will contain and guide Tousaki-san’s chakra, making sure it stays within your coils.”
“And that he doesn’t overburden himself,” Rin said, with an inflection that made Kakashi think this had been a repeated point of contention in the last several hours.
“I’ll follow behind them to repair whatever damage I can,” Naito said. “And make sure we don’t miss anything. And… we’ll see what we see.”
Kakashi nodded. “Okay.”
A few beats of silence followed.
“Do you have any questions?” Naito asked.
Kakashi glanced at Ryouma, who looked pale and determined and terrified. At Genma and Raidou behind him, flanked like they were ready to catch him if he fell over.
“No,” Kakashi said. He’d have some later, if it didn’t work. But that was later.
“Do you need me to go over the risks?” Naito pressed.
“Death,” Kakashi listed. “Disability. It might not work. It might do something unexpected. It might work and we’ll find a whole other problem underneath. I have had medical procedures, you know.” Eye transplant in the middle of a forest, for example. At least this time he’d be in an operating room. And sedated.
A queasy thought occurred. “I better be fully unconscious before anyone tries to take my mask off.”
Minato said quietly, “We’ll take care of it.”
Rin just gave a short nod, but that was all she needed to do. Kakashi’s stomach unclenched enough for breathing, and that was as good as it was going to get.
He looked at Ryouma, who bit his lip and managed a shaky smile. Kakashi gave him one back, masked but steadier.
“Okay,” Kakashi said. “Let’s do it.”