November 8(?), Yondaime Year 5
Consciousness returned in fragments, like water dripping on stone. Hearing first: the rhythmic squeaking of a creaky wheel receding into the distance; the grinding scrape of iron against stone. A low-voiced muttering that came and went, just past the edge of comprehension.
A growing awareness of pain. Wrenched shoulders, aching lungs, fingers and ankles trapped in the cruel compression of a vice. It was bitterly cold. The air was dry, scented faintly with decay. He was naked—stripped down to his dogtags and his briefs—hanging from his wrists against a stone wall, with his hands and feet absorbed into an extrusion of the stone itself.
He couldn’t feel his chakra. He couldn’t even feel his ANBU spark.
He couldn’t feel Kakashi’s.
Ryouma’s eyes jolted open. He tried to draw a full breath and couldn’t; his chest muscles were too deeply engaged in supporting the weight hanging from his hands. He had to lean back against the cold wall and stiffen his legs, locking his knees when they tried to tremble.
Where was Kakashi? What had Nijo and that monstrous snake summons done to him?
It was too dark to see much. A faint line of light, perhaps two or three meters away, hinted at a door that hadn’t been quite pulled closed. Against that dim light he eventually made out black silhouettes, too regular to be hallucinations. Here was the roundness of a head, hanging low between pinned-back shoulders; there was the gleam of a belt-buckle or armor-plate. He dampened dry lips with a parched tongue and whispered, “Kakashi?”
Nothing moved. Nothing answered him.
He tried to struggle. The rock encased his hands to the wrist and his feet past the ankles, smooth as clay, unyielding as granite. He could twist or throw his chest and hips away from the wall, but without chakra or better leverage that earned him nothing more than a sharper pain in his shoulders and biceps, and an ominous twinge in his knee. He sagged back against the wall, shivering, panting for breath, so thirsty his throat hurt.
If it was going to hurt anyway—
“Hey!” he shouted. “Hey, you bastards! Nijo! I’m not dead yet! Come back and finish the job!”
He had to break off, coughing. His throat hadn’t yet recovered when he heard the crisp sound of boot heels on stone, and the scrape of the iron door opening.
Light spilled past a slender figure in the doorway. She reached out, finding a switch, and then brightness blazed from a series of fluorescent bars strung from the ceiling. Ryouma flinched back, eyes watering, slitting reflexively shut.
But he’d already seen the bodies hanging from the walls. Three men between him and the door, and none of them were breathing.
“Ssh, sweetheart, no need to wake the dead.” She was coming closer, her voice low and deliberately warm, like a caress with a knife behind it. Through blurred eyes he saw her pause and glance at the nearest corpse pinned to the wall. “I don’t think it’s working, anyway.”
“You took Kakashi.” She’d recognized him from the start; she’d come for his bounty. There was no point in trying to conceal Kakashi’s identity, not when she probably had him strung up somewhere with a hole in his chest and his lung still leaking—
Ryouma fought his voice back to steadiness. “You must be after the bounty. And you know his Bingo Book entry says he’s worth more to anyone alive than dead. I’d barely relieved the pressure from his collapsed lung, he’s not anywhere near stable— he needs medical care. If you don’t want to leave a million ryou in the grave, let me go and let me see him.”
“Oh, have you advanced that far in your medical training since the last time we met?” She touched her chin, as if in thought. “I was under the impression you were just a beginner.”
If he threw himself forward, even if he dislocated his shoulders, she’d be just out of reach. Kakashi was the one equipped to tear out someone’s throat with his teeth, anyway. Ryouma had no chakra, no weapons, nothing more than his desperation and his voice.
“I’m a trainee. He needs more than I can do, but have you got anyone else? If you can get him medical care, I’ll help, I’ll do whatever I can. Whatever you want.”
He could guess, already, at least some of what she wanted. He threw that into his voice too: the terrified quaver, the vulnerability, the potential of easy prey. “I promise. Just let me go.”
“Anything? That is a tempting offer.”
He could see her face now: the glinting dark eyes, the gleaming white smile, framed by that sharply asymmetrical hair. She’d changed out of the sandy Suna uniform into slim pants and a strappy black top under a fur-lined jacket. She winked at him, and her breath clouded in the air as she held up a hand. “Decorative, loyal, versatile…”
The third finger folded down. She shook her head in exaggerated disappointment. “But you’re not nearly as good at bargaining as that bruiser captain of yours was. Jumping straight to anything without even trying to establish a lower price.”
Ryouma’s arms trembled as he strained against the rock. “Believe me,” he breathed, “you haven’t seen what my anything can be.”
“Do you really think so little of my imagination? Even after I picked you up with a giant snake?” She shook her head, lips pursed in disappointment, and turned away. Her stride was long and easy, all the way back to the door. She reached out one hand and flicked off the lights.
Ryouma almost called out. He bit his tongue just in time.
Nijo paused with her hand still on the light switch, and looked back. Her voice was crisp and clear. “I’m more insulted you think so little of my business acumen. I would never leave a million ryou on the table. Or in a grave.”
Then Kakashi was alive. And might even remain so, until Nijo turned him over to the Bingo Book’s highest bidder. If Ryouma didn’t figure out how to get to her first.
“All right,” he said. His voice hit its lower registers and graveled there. “I remember your business acumen. You turned in one of your own countrymen for three and half million ryou. You tried striking deals and then snaking your way out of them whenever you saw a better opportunity offered. How’s this: our Kage came for Kakashi. He’s going to put that Ichibi down, and then he’s going to come after you. Don’t pretend you’re not scared of him; I saw you run. And he can chase you down, wherever you go, no matter how far you run. You’ll never be safe. Or…” He drew the word out between gritted teeth. “You can strike a better deal now, and let us go.”
She came back a few steps, smiling. The light from the hallway cast a long shadow in front of her. “I like this side of you a little more. But didn’t you get a look at that bijuu? Your Kage is going to be busy with it long after I’ve cashed in and made ransoming your boy someone else’s problem.”
Ryouma’s hands cramped in their stone shackles. His fingertips were slick with sweat or blood. If he could somehow wrench his thumbs out of joint and slip them free—Nijo was too close to dodge…
Another shadow darkened the door. A slender man with long black hair stood there, arms folded under a steaming cup of tea. The yellow light from the hallway barely brought color to his dead-white skin. “Kozue-san,” he said, in a light voice dry as crumbling leaves. “Surely we have more pressing matters than your inexplicable need to socialize.”
“Oh look,” Nijo told Ryouma brightly. “It’s Someone Else.” She looked back at the man in the doorway. “Do you have another bounty for me to chase already?”
“Should I?” the man inquired. “Your performance on this last retrieval was hardly commendable.”
“The Kazekage is the one who made it impossible for me to get the bijuu, and he’s in its belly now. But I did bring back this one.” Nijo jerked her chin casually at Ryouma, her dark veil of hair swinging. “Very bonded to Hatake, so he’ll be useful as leverage. Plus there’s his jutsu.”
Leverage? Another cold worm of fear burrowed into Ryouma’s gut. What did they want with Kakashi that Bingo Book money wouldn’t solve? Who was this man with a corpse’s skin, whom even Nijo served?
A man who wanted jutsu. Who controlled a giant snake. Who would send his servants into the heart of a Great Ninja Village to steal the Hokage’s protégé and the Kazekage’s bijuu.
“Orochimaru,” Ryouma snarled.
Neither of them even glanced at him. “Yes,” Konoha’s former hero and its greatest traitor said, dismissively, “a rather revolting little curiosity. His other uses, I’d like to determine for myself. Bring him along, Kozue. Kakashi-kun is stable enough for me to work on, now.”
Ryouma’s fingernails splintered against stone. His tendons strained; a muscle in his shoulder tore. “What are you doing to him.”
Orochimaru was already turning away. He spared Ryouma only the briefest glance over his lifted tea cup. His eyes were yellow, slit-pupiled like a snake’s. “I’m saving his life, boy.”
He was gone. His footfalls made no sound on the stone floor.
Ryouma sagged back in his shackles, panting, shivering, shaking. Nijo flicked the lights back on and sauntered towards him, her fists tucked in her jacket pockets. “You’re awfully agitated,” she remarked. A fist came out of her pocket. She opened her palm, just below his face, and blew.
He coughed, choked, inhaled.
Lassitude seeped through him like dye into water. His head fell forward again; his fingers lost their fight against the stone. His knees buckled, and the compression tightened again in his chest.
Nijo stepped back to watch. “Can you behave, or do I need to knock you all the way out?”
His tongue felt almost too heavy to lift. He managed, finally: “Won’t. Fight.”
Not if they were taking him to Kakashi. Not until he knew what was happening. Not until he had some hope of getting a rot-rich hand close to Orochimaru…
“Good boy,” Nijo said, a warm purr of satisfaction. She took her other hand out of her pocket; something glinted in her fist. “Lower your head. That’s right.”
Metal links, warm from her hand, locked around his throat. She set her fingers to the metal at the nape of his neck. For a single sharp moment he could feel her chakra sinking in, sharp and oppressive as lightning. His arms went numb from neck to nail.
“There’s a chakra limiter embedded in the collar too,” she explained, as his sense of her chakra drained away again. Her fingers trailed around his throat, over his collarbones, down his sternum.
“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “I’ll spoon feed you when the time comes.”
Ryouma shook his head, slow and heavy. That was all he could do. He carried his own prison with him.
She moved back, attending to something he couldn’t sense or see. The stone around his feet softened and stretched like dough. His arms fell uselessly at his sides. He staggered and caught himself on one knee.
Nijo helped him stand. “Got your feet under you? There’s a good boy.”
He couldn’t even feel her grip below his elbow, although the short hairs on the back of his neck prickled with danger. She tugged him past the wall-hung corpses, through the doorway and out into a long, low-ceilinged, windowless hallway. “Now remember, we’re going into a medical facility. Keep your voice low, don’t touch anything, and stay outside the yellow line.”
Ryouma didn’t waste effort replying to her mockery. Walking was hard enough. Each bare foot seemed to weigh fifty kilos. He could manage a slow shuffle at best. At least the effort helped warm him. He’d almost stopped shivering by the time they stopped outside another steel-plated door.
Nijo leaned forward, pressing her palm to a tarnished spot on the doorframe. The door swung open, and she tugged Ryouma through.
There were no corpses hanging on the walls. But there was one entire wall of broad steel drawers in a style Ryouma recognized from the Tochigi Bounty Office morgue. There were shelves of jars filled with pickled hands and eyes and organs. There were bookshelves with impeccably organized scrolls and texts. A delicately detailed drawing of a human chakra network hung on one wall over a shrouded medical bed. The figure beneath the sheet lay very still.
In the center of the room, three steps led down to a sunken medical suite. The floor was tiled and drained, with a hose coiled neatly in a corner under a big steel sink. A pair of folding screens blocked off the right side of the area. An adjustable-height operating table stood on the left, under enormous swing lights, surrounded by wheeled carts with sterilizing jars, surgical instruments, specimen trays, bandaging, fluid bags. More supplies were locked away in glass-fronted cabinets.
The air stank of formaldehyde, alcohol, cleaning solution, and blood. And underneath them all, the faint, familiar taint of decay.
“We’ll watch from here.” Nijo guided him to a pair of steel folding chairs behind the railing that overlooked the operating theater. He still couldn’t see what those folding screens concealed, but a steady drumbeat of terror had taken up behind his ribcage, pounding out the syllables of Kakashi’s name.
Orochimaru strolled out from between the bookshelves, tying his loose hair back into a long tail and then tucking it under a surgical cap. His skin was even starker white under the harsh lights here; an earring like a fang dangled from one ear. He wore a medic’s surgical gown, clean and pressed.
As he reached the steps down to the operating theater, he blurred behind a brief puff of smoke and separated into two men. One strode briskly behind the screen. The other strolled over to scrub up at the sink.
Orochimaru of the Sannin had never been noted for his medical skills, had he? That was Senju Tsunade-hime, his teammate, Konoha’s greatest medic-nin. But maybe he’d learned something from her—he must have learned something from her—he wouldn’t go this far, risk exposing himself this readily, to kill Kakashi on a surgical table…
The shadow clone emerged from behind the screens pushing a wheeled bed. Kakashi lay there, slack and unconscious, with the blood scrubbed from his unmasked face and a ventilator tube protruding between his lips. He was naked to the waist, draped with a sheet below. Medical seals in thick blank ink scrawled across his icy skin, circling the bandaged knife-wound in his chest and the needle catheter in his side. An IV drip hung from a pole socketed to the bed.
Orochimaru left the sink and crossed to the operating table. “What is his condition?”
“Stable,” the clone replied, smoothly transferring Kakashi from bed to table. “Whoever repaired him in the field had some skill. Clumsy, but effective.”
“Savor that compliment,” Nijo murmured. “You won’t get many.”
Ryouma didn’t look at her. Every straining muscle, every misfiring nerve, was bent on Kakashi. Watching him, utterly defenseless, under the hands and scalpel of his village’s worst enemy. And pleading, with everything he had:
Survive this. Whatever it takes, survive.
Kakashi’s awareness of himself flicked back on like a guttering lightbulb. He’d been nowhere for a while, he didn’t know how long, there was a missing tooth of time in his brain, and now—
He didn’t hurt.
He had no sensation below the neck.
“Heart rate’s rising,” said a light, precise voice.
There was plastic between his teeth, down his throat, scraped-raw pain. Endotracheal tube. His eyes were taped closed, but he was facing a bright light; his inner eyelids were red and threaded with capillaries. Machines beeped. There was a steady, mechanical whoosh of moving air.
Ventilator. Hospital. Suna or Konoha?
Had he broken his neck?
“Blood pressure’s elevated,” said the same voice, and it was familiar. He knew that person.
Kakashi unpeeled his right eyelid. Tape unstuck and fluttered against his cheek. He was blinded by the lights for a moment. When the dazzle cleared, he blinked rapidly and looked down.
Not in Konoha.
Konoha didn’t wake you up during your own surgery.
There was a neat square window cut into the left side of his chest. Skin and muscle had been bloodlessly incised down to the ribcage, and a rib-spreader inserted between the fourth and fifth ribs. Stainless steel gleamed against the wet, pink arches of bone. The opening was wide enough for a surgeon’s hand. Kakashi knew this, because the surgeon’s hand was in his chest, inserted almost to the wrist.
It withdrew, taking a jellied clump of dark red matter with it. Bloodclot.
Kakashi was not a person prone to hysteria, but if he had been able to draw his own breath, he would have screamed then. And probably kept screaming for a while. But he couldn’t. The ventilator breathed for him, a calm, implacable metronome. He couldn’t feel or move his torso, couldn’t even make his breath hitch.
“Suction,” said the voice. A gleaming silver tube with tiny fenestrations was introduced to Kakashi’s chest. Bloody, frothy fluid siphoned away. The tube withdrew. The hand returned. “Left superior lobar bronchus was almost transected. Missed the artery—”
One of the beeping monitors shrilled an alarm. “Tachycardia,” interrupted the same voice, apparently talking to itself.
A bitchy note of annoyance entered the—second?—speaker’s voice. “I do believe our patient has woken up.”
A lifetime of survival instincts slapped Kakashi in the hindbrain, cutting off his drowning spiral of panic like a brick wall. The only kind of messenger that could break through bad news: the kind with worse news. Pay attention, you know that voice.
He dragged his eye away from the hand within an inch of his heart, and looked up.
There were two identical people standing above him, properly scrubbed for surgery. Mask, gown, scrub cap. One had bloody gloves. The other had a clipboard. Kakashi’s eye flickered over the details like it couldn’t stand to stop on any of them. Deathly pale skin, almost lavender under the eye sockets. Slanting eyes with yellow irises and slit pupils, painted darkly purple over the lids. Thin black eyebrows.
He’d met that face young. And even if he hadn’t, it was all over Konoha’s Bingo Book.
The heart rate monitor wasn’t making individual beeps anymore. It sounded like a single note. The clone made a mark on its clipboard and said, sounding bored, “Tachycardia and hypertension.”
The real Orochimaru—Kakashi was basing this on him being the one with his hand in Kakashi’s chest—gave his clone a withering look, and then turned his full attention on Kakashi. He smiled warmly, or at least the corners of his eyes crinkled. “I regret the less than ideal circumstances, Kakashi-kun, but it is good to see you again. Blink twice if you’re in pain.”
If Kakashi’s skin had been capable, it would have bypassed crawling entirely and sprinted.
He dragged himself together by his fingernails. The math of survival was fairly simple when your only leverage was: don’t piss off the serial killer.
He blinked once. Warmth ran from the corner of his eye down his temple and dripped off his ear.
Orochimaru nodded. “Good. I’ll be another hour, so I’ll put you under again—correctly this time.” He gave the clone a cutting look. It rolled its eyes and returned to the anesthesia machine behind Kakashi’s head, doing something Kakashi couldn’t see. To Kakashi, Orochimaru added, “Your heart rate is too elevated for me to keep you awake.”
He said this with no particular inflection, just a colleague sharing a medical fact, but Kakashi thought he caught the undertone. Want to stay awake? Calm down.
Kakashi did not want to go under again.
He also very much did not want to be awake for this.
There were no good choices here, but one offered more information. If Orochimaru was about to take out a lung, or carve a seal on Kakashi’s liver, or pack his chest with explosive tags, or do anything else except inexplicably save Kakashi’s life, Kakashi wanted to know about it.
So. Calm down.
A breathing exercise might have helped, but he wasn’t in control of that. The ventilator carried on regardless of input. He tried focusing on its rhythm, the steady in and out of air, but he couldn’t feel his own chest expand. Couldn’t feel his body. There was nothing there. He was a floating head anchored on a spike of plastic.
New approach, think about anything else. Dogtags, or Konoha, or Minato-Naruto-Sadayo—don’t think about family, fuck. Not Suna. Not the captain or the lieutenant, wherever they were. His thoughts, as they always did when he couldn’t force them to anything else, handed him Ryouma. Dark eyes, an easy smile, clever hands, strength and safety and probably lying dead on a beach—
“Heart rate one-seventy,” the clone said lazily.
Kakashi snapped an entire portion of his brain closed. The monitor behind his head slowed a little.
In the end, he resorted to the stupidly simple. A little meditation focused on the only thing he could move—the tip of his tongue against the sharp edge of one canine. He pressed them together and was able to pivot on the tiny, familiar sparklet of pain. His heart rate slowed.
Orochimaru’s painted eyes crinkled again. “Well done,” he said, like Kakashi had done a moderately clever trick.
And then he winked.
Kakashi wished to stab him in the brain.
Surgery continued. Kakashi’s heart rate wavered a few times, and eventually they gave him IV medications for it, which had always been an option, of course. He got foggy in places, but never so much that he couldn’t appreciate a few of the finer points. Such as Orochimaru discussing which delicate blood vessels had been transected, and which nerve cluster had almost been obliterated.
It was sort of fascinating, in a floating, dissociative way, that suggested interesting drugs or Kakashi’s adrenals being too exhausted to keep up a decent flow of adrenaline any longer. There was only so long a body could be horrified before it adjusted its personal baseline.
That or Kakashi could look forward to a future of screaming fits every time he tried to walk into a hospital.
“Do you wish to see the stab wound?” Orochimaru inquired, and when Kakashi could only squint, Orochimaru gently lifted up the relevant lung lobe.
Kakashi’s overwhelming impression was of something pink and spongy, like a wobbly cake with blood vessels. The damaged part was obvious – dark red and purple, with a half-sutured laceration at the center. Apparently organ tissue bruised the same way everything else did, which was a strange thing to know.
This muzzy train of thought was interrupted by a commotion from a gallery that Kakashi had completely failed to notice until now. He had, he realized, not paid attention to very much of the room beyond the parts containing his open chest and Orochimaru. He looked now, eye flicking sideways.
The surgical lights made everything outside their blazing circle an uncertain, shadowy haze, or maybe that was just Kakashi’s blood pressure, which the clone had started to complain about again, but there seemed to be two bodies at a balcony’s edge, locked in a weird embrace. One was tall, broad in the shoulders. The other was shorter, lean. The tall one was half over the railing.
Orochimaru glanced up, then back at Kakashi, and said in a voice designed to carry, “Your friend could use some manners.”
That was Ryouma. Not dead. Alive and standing and—naked?
And with him, the kunoichi from the beach.
She grabbed Ryouma by the back of the neck, hauling him back over the railing. She said something—all Kakashi caught was “hush, pet”— and there was a crackle of static and a flash of light that made Ryouma give one short, strangled scream and fall to a knee, slumped against the railing.
Kakashi bit through his endotracheal tube.
He didn’t intend to. His teeth snapped together, and the stiffened rubberized plastic sheared through like a strip of old leather. The attachment fell away from his face, spilling oxygen and a faint trace of the low-level gas they’d been using to keep him compliant into the air. The other piece slipped back, down his trachea, and the clone dove after it, wrenching Kakashi’s mouth open and shoving fingers down his throat.
It was at this moment that Kakashi realized, for the first time, that he was not wearing a mask.
It was the last thing in a terrible line of other things, and Kakashi fully lost it.
He bit the clone’s hand, very hard.
On a human, it would have been hard enough for his teeth to meet through flesh. Hard enough, certainly, for some of the metacarpals to crack. On a normal clone, it would have been hard enough to destroy the construct. Orochimaru’s shadow clone, bearing half of its creator’s chakra, did not rupture, or burst, or break; it simply paused, used its other hand to pinch Kakashi’s nose shut, like an irritated parent trying to rescue an errantly swallowed marble. It began to turn its bitten hand inexorably in Kakashi’s mouth, prying his jaw open again.
It was Kakashi’s fight to lose. As his jaw came apart, and his vision began to darken from the lack of air, the real Orochimaru sighed petulantly and slapped his hand down on the side of Kakashi’s neck. A sandbag of chakra hit Kakashi in the brainstem, and he had time to register only two things.
First, Orochimaru’s chakra felt like no one else’s. It was cold, but not like winter was cold, or metal was cold. It was cold like dead flesh—something that had once been warm, and wasn’t any longer. It was wet, and slick, and it clung greedily to Kakashi’s chakra, even when Orochimaru pulled his hand away.
Second, Orochimaru’s voice, dusty and irritated, “Now I have to re-scrub. Get that tube out.”
And then there was nothing but the long dark spill down into nowhere.
The next hour dripped by, tracked only by the slow droplets of fluid in Kakashi’s IV bags, by the slow progress in closing that gaping window into Kakashi’s chest.
Ryouma couldn’t see much of it. He’d landed on his knee in the gap between railing and chair, with his head forced down by Nijo’s grip on the collar, and his muscles spasming and locking up with the effects of her lightning jutsu. His head throbbed with pain. He couldn’t turn his head; he couldn’t get to his feet. He couldn’t even fall over.
Nijo’s hand left the collar, eventually, and played idly in his hair. She seemed to have regained her good mood. She reported on the surgery’s progress, from time to time. “Is he pouring saline in the chest cavity? Checking for bubbles, it looks like. Suctioning it out again now…”
Later: “There’s another chest-tube going in. Reinflating the lung, I suppose. Time to close the chest up.”
And finally: “Orochimaru-san is being quite generous, you know. He’s putting in so many little stitches—it will hardly leave a scar, after chakra healing. Not an ugly one, at least. Strange lack of scars overall, for a man with Sharingan no Kakashi’s reputation… Not many on you either, come to think of it.”
Her fingers trailed down Ryouma’s shoulder, where the tanuki god’s healing had wiped every scar away. “I know you’re not so good you just don’t get scars. There’s a story there, hmm?” Her palm rubbed, soothing, over the knotted muscles. “You’ll just have to tell me later. I can wait.”
He couldn’t fight her. He couldn’t even turn his pounding head enough to bite her. He could spit at her feet, but what would that get him?
She didn’t seem interested in killing him. That was the only leverage he had.
And she was still chasing bounties. Perhaps that was another.
He had to wait until his jaw muscles began to relax from their agonizing lock. His tongue still felt heavy, swollen; his lips were stiff. Each shallow breath hurt. “Doing this…for bounty? Konoha…pays more.” He stopped, panting. Summoned up the strength for a few more syllables. “Can still try…bargaining.”
“Collecting bounties is my job,” Nijo agreed. “Somehow I don’t think offering you back to Konoha for redemption is in my best interest, though.”
“Indeed,” Orochimaru said softly, behind them both, “it is not.”
He’d made no sound. His chakra presence was undetectable to Ryouma’s stifled senses, but even Nijo froze very still, like a rabbit in a viper’s glare.
Orochimaru put his hand on the back of her chair. He’d shed the medic’s surgical garb and was wearing a wrapped shirt and pants in soft undyed linen. His long black hair fell loose over his shoulders. He looked like every hanging ghost in every horror film Ryouma had ever seen.
When he smiled, cold and polite, his mouth split just a little too wide to be human.
“Thinking of leaving already?” he asked Ryouma. “Surely not with Kakashi-kun in his current condition.”
Ryouma tried to look down into the operating theater. Couldn’t. Even if his pain-stiffened neck muscles would have turned, he couldn’t break Orochimaru’s flat yellow gaze.
Was this how civilians felt when a shinobi unleashed his killing intent? Frozen, fascinated, incapable of doing anything but waiting for the death blow they’d never even see coming?
But he was ANBU. He couldn’t access his chakra, but it was still there. So were his muscles. So was his mind.
“You want him…alive. Wanted him…ANBU Trials. Why? Need help with…bijuu?”
Orochimaru sighed. “Unfortunately, no bijuu.” His unblinking gaze slid towards Nijo. “Despite Kozue-san’s… best efforts.”
Her lip curled dismissively, but she didn’t protest.
Orochimaru’s gaze slid on, over Ryouma’s head, into the silent operating theater below. “Kakashi-kun has other skills to offer that are of interest to me. He’s always been wasted in Konoha.”
Wasted? He was Sharingan no Kakashi, the Hokage’s protégé, the village’s prodigy, ANBU Team Six’s blazing star. The Hokage-in-waiting, everyone knew that.
As everyone knew that Orochimaru had once been a candidate for Yondaime Hokage, and had turned against the village when Namikaze Minato was chosen instead. Was that when he’d become… this?
And what other skills was he looking for?
Six months ago Akiyama, the rogue candidate in the ANBU Trials, had insinuated with his dying breath that he was working for Orochimaru. Before that, while he had Ryouma poisoned and paralyzed, while he threatened Kakashi with a scalpel pressed to Ryouma’s wrist, he’d claimed to be grocery shopping.
We wanted your eye, but a flesh-melter’s hands are nearly as good, don’t you think?
Not words Ryouma could easily forget. Not a memory to inspire anything but terror, right now.
Ryouma forced a ragged swallow down his dry throat. “Can I see him?”
Orochimaru’s head tilted at a disconcertingly birdlike angle, as if eyeing Ryouma from another direction would reveal something new. “Of course.” His tone held only mild confusion. “Why do you think I came up here?”
He moved the empty chair aside, shaped a blindingly fast set of seals, and reached down with a green-lit, sharp-fingered hand to grip Ryouma’s arm above the elbow.
Ryouma still couldn’t feel the touch. It might have been someone else’s arm in the Snake Sannin’s hand. But he felt the strength that lifted him, cramping and shaking, to his feet. And even through the limiters, he felt the chakra that surged through his pathways.
Healing chakra. It relaxed Ryouma’s locked muscles, eased his splitting headache, and turned his stomach. It left a greasy film as it retreated, like bathing in an oil slick, like pulling his hands out of a rotting corpse.
Orochimaru frowned at him. The look lingered, unblinking. The tip of a purplish tongue touched the pale lips.
Horror cramped Ryouma’s viscera. He can’t possibly—
But the frown moved to Nijo. “Kozue-san, you couldn’t have dressed him before bringing him here?”
“I prefer him this way,” Nijo said smoothly.
Orochimaru looked bored. “Play on your own time, Kozue, not mine. I don’t want him contaminating the operating room.”
Nijo looked mulish, but she obeyed. In short order she’d found a set of undyed linen clothes, similar to Orochimaru’s. Ryouma cooperated as best he could. He stepped into the trousers when she held them out, let her thread his limp arms through the shirt’s wide sleeves. Both sleeves and trouser-legs were too short, but Nijo knotted the drawstring waistband above his hips and halfheartedly crossed the collars over his chest. The dogtags and the dragon tattoo gleamed bravely beneath the surgical lights.
Ryouma had never needed that bravery more, or felt it less.
He knew how to cope with Nijo’s undisguised, predatory interest. He’d encountered it—and survived it—before. But Orochimaru’s horrible, unblinking evaluation pinned him down and pierced him through, as if he was the one clamped down on the table, with all his insides splayed open for inspection. Anti-interrogation modules hadn’t prepared him for this. Nothing could.
He followed Orochimaru down the steps into the operating theater, with one of Nijo’s hands unfelt above his elbow, and the other splayed at the small of his back to propel him along.
Kakashi had been washed, bandaged, and transferred back into the wheeled bed. He lay slack and pale beneath the sheet, tethered with tubes and monitors. At least the endotracheal tube had finally come out; his bandage-wrapped chest rose and fell shallowly, but unaided.
On the other side of the bed, Orochimaru’s clone fussed irritably with the plump fluid and blood bags hanging from an IV pole. A sallow-skinned teenager in a beige apron scrubbed industriously at the bloody operating table. She ducked her head as the real Orochimaru approached, and gazed up at him in open-mouthed devotion.
“Thank you for your hard work, Mai-chan,” Orochimaru told her, bestowing a smile like a coin to a beggar. She blushed and bowed again, scrubbing even harder.
“Kakashi-kun’s surgery was successful,” Orochimaru continued, resting a hand on the railed edge of the bed. “Though not without difficulty.” He gazed critically down at Kakashi’s bandaged chest. “Whoever gave him emergency medical assistance should not have removed the obstruction at all.”
“My senior medic could’ve second-guessed me,” Ryouma snapped, “if your snake hadn’t swallowed us.”
Orochimaru blinked. It was almost a shock to see that he could. “It was you?” He reached up, delicately pressing a fingertip to the chakra node above Ryouma’s brows.
A single pulse this time, like cold sewage poured over his head, vanishing as it passed the limiters on his collar. The purplish tongue parted Orochimaru’s lips again, as if tasting the air. Or Ryouma’s chakra.
“Chakra this corrupted, but still a healer…” He dropped his hand. “Kozue-san, perhaps you have brought me something interesting after all.”
She smirked. “And you doubted me.”
Orochimaru rattled a dry, cold little laugh, and turned back to Ryouma. “Are you also the reason why Kakashi-kun only has scars on his face and hands?”
Given that he’d just criticized Ryouma’s field medicine, he couldn’t possibly believe that. He was looking for something. For a moment Ryouma entertained wild thoughts of telling Orochimaru about the tanuki—would Himself just squash the Snake Sannin flat?—but the moment he opened his mouth on one classified truth, he’d put all the others at risk.
He couldn’t cooperate. But Kakashi’s life still lay between those corpse-pale hands. Could he afford not to?
“I didn’t do it,” he said. “I’m not that skilled, yet. If you take the limiter off me, I’ll show you what I can do.”
That too-wide smile returned, condescending, indulgent. “It was rude of me to call your jutsu a revolting curiosity. Hopefully I have redeemed myself by saving Kakashi-kun’s life.”
“I’m used to insults,” Ryouma said, warily. Nijo had told Orochimaru that they were bonded; he must have given that much away on the beach, and when he’d first woken here. How much could he conceal now? He didn’t dare look at the still body in the bed again. He could feel that flat snake’s gaze resting on him, from two pairs of eyes; the clone had stopped fussing with the IV bags and now stood by the head of the bed, its hands resting on the pillow just above Kakashi’s wild, filthy hair.
“I would be delighted by a demonstration,” Orochimaru said. “Though perhaps in a more forgiving environment. I believe Kozue-san called it flesh-melting? Gruesome, but effective, were her words.”
Nijo had seen him destroy Sase’s body with the Nikutai Hakai. And she’d seen him use the Naizou Tokasu in their fight on the beach. She’d already learned its destructive capabilities, and its weaknesses. Of course she would have reported them.
Ryouma set his jaw. It didn’t matter what she knew, or what Orochimaru did. Once they removed the limiter, he’d find an opportunity. “You’ve got too many corpses decorating the place. I could help you get rid of some.”
“Bold.” The smile sharpened, showing a glint of edged teeth. “You remind me of someone. Two someones, in fact. I suppose it is only fitting that the son of Kondo Ryuu would join Konoha’s assassination squad.”
It wasn’t the gut-punch it might have been if Sadayo hadn’t hit him first. He could be grateful to her, distantly, for that. He could hold his head up and say, as if he’d heard it so often he’d grown bored, “The jounin commanders’ black dog. I told you, I’m used to insults.”
“Yes,” Orochimaru said. He drew the word out, like a hiss. “A most distasteful position, for a man of Kondo’s temperament. I had always wondered why he continued the work, even after he was officially deactivated. And what finally drove him to vanish.”
He reached out again, gathering up the ID tags that hung on their doubled chains around Ryouma’s neck. A gentle fingertip turned them over, against his palm. Tousaki Ryouma. Tousaki Miyako.
Orochimaru let the tags fall back against Ryouma’s chest. “A wife and child could be a compelling force, in the right hands.”
“They weren’t married,” Ryouma whispered. The thinnest denial. Was that why? Was his existence why—?
Orochimaru smiled again, almost gently, and turned back to the bed. “Kakashi-kun should be stable enough to wake.”
The clone nodded, shaped seals, and set glowing fingertips to Kakashi’s temples. Kakashi’s slow breathing quickened. His lips compressed, stifling a waking groan. Satisfied, the clone lifted its hands into a finishing seal and popped into smoke.
“See?” Nijo murmured, leaning companionably against Ryouma. “I told you your boyfriend would be fine. After all the time we’ve spent together, you still don’t trust me.”
He could step away, sharply, hooking his ankle behind hers. Driving her forward as she stumbled. Knocking her into Orochimaru, if he had enough force, and smashing them down with knee-strikes, his deadened arms as counterweight…
And then what? Orochimaru’s taijutsu was almost as legendary as Tsunade-hime’s. He’d have no difficulty in taking Ryouma down. Leaving Kakashi injured, imprisoned, and alone.
Shinobi Rule 49, he could almost hear Genma whispering. A shinobi is in all things patient. Waiting for the truth to reveal itself, or for the opportunity to strike…
Ryouma stood still, braced against Nijo’s light weight, and waited for Kakashi to wake.
Kakashi knew he’d lost time again. But this time, when he regained a sense of himself, it returned with an awareness of the rest of his body.
His fingers twitched and he could feel them. His ankles flexed and he could feel that, too. There was an incredible weight on his chest, like a slab of lead draped over his sternum, that made it hard to breathe, but he could breathe. And he was the one breathing.
His throat hurt worse than anything else, which annoyed him, until he coughed. Coughing was a terrible, terrible mistake. His mouth flooded with the sour iron taste of old blood as his nervous system came smartly online, informing him of all the places he’d recently had sharp things inserted, and he achieved his first fully conscious thought. I’m going to be sick.
Cold hands grasped his shoulder and the back of his neck, turning him efficiently onto one side. He dry-heaved once before chakra flared at the base of his skull. Rotting corpse oil-slick slid past his defenses like a knife through fat, and Orochumaru’s chakra unflipped the knotted part of Kakashi’s brain that wanted to turn him inside out. It was a disgusting feeling, but the nausea extinguished instantly.
“Welcome back, Kakashi-kun,” said a pleasant, dry-leaf voice far too close to Kakashi’s ear.
While Kakashi had been busy bracing to throw up, then not throwing up, then feeling extremely creeped out, his right hand had moved with a reflexive fraction of its old speed and wrapped around Orochimaru’s wrist. Kakashi’s nails dug into cold skin.
It was only after moving that he even realized what he’d done.
He opened his eye.
A long curtain of silky black hair spilled in front of him. Above it, Orochimaru’s pale, unmasked face hung like a sickle moon, smile in place, yellow eyes betraying nothing. Even touching him, Kakashi could only get the barest sense of the strength of Orochimaru’s chakra. It was like trying to look into a shadowed well and judge how deep the water went. Kakashi’s own chakra was thin and brittle, eaten away by the healing worked on him, and everything that had come before it.
At full strength, he might have been fast enough to snap Orochimaru’s wrist and follow it up with something deadly. Fast enough, at least, to make a good distraction while Ryouma got away. But he wasn’t at full strength, and neither was Ryouma, and they’d both just die.
Very carefully, Kakashi unpeeled his fingers and took his hand back, before it tried to do anything else stupid. Orochimaru didn’t drive a scalpel through his eye socket. Kakashi waited, very still, to see what Orochimaru did next.
Still smiling pleasantly, Orochimaru said, “Well, it would appear that you’ve regained fine motor function. Though I wouldn’t advise that again.” He eased Kakashi flat once more, releasing his neck and shoulder, and touched one long finger to the subclavian notch at the base of Kakashi’s throat.
Seals Kakashi hadn’t even felt flared to life under his skin, throwing tight bands around his body from neck to pelvis. Kakashi’s spine locked rigid. Awareness of his chakra vanished. The only movement he could manage was shallow, restricted breathing.
“I’ve taken the precaution of limiting sudden movement or chakra use,” Orochimaru said. “To ensure that you don’t accidentally re-injure yourself, of course.”
Oh good, panic was back.
Kakashi throttled it down. Returning to lying on his back had changed one very important thing about the universe: he could see the other side of the bed. Ryouma was standing there. His posture was wrong, slumped, improperly balanced. There was a thin silver chain around his throat, like some stupid collar, and Kakashi guessed it had something to do with the way Ryouma’s arms hung too heavy from his shoulders.
Ryouma looked terrible. His eyes were sunken and his lips dry-chapped, skin ashen pale under his tan. There were dusky fading bruises at his temple and jaw, and a scabbed sand-burn over one cheek, from the losing fight at the beach. He’d been dressed in odd clothes that fit him badly, and there was terror hiding in the whites of his eyes and the tight corners of his mouth. It made Kakashi physically ill to see him here, but also cravenly grateful to know Ryouma hadn’t died on that beach. The kunoichi—Nijo, Kakashi remembered—was leaning familiarly against him, and Kakashi also wished for the ability to stab her in the brain.
She looked at Kakashi with passing interest, as if he were a mildly amusing curiosity.
With the last power left to him—the ability to ignore people—Kakashi focused just on Ryouma, licked dry lips, and managed a coffin-lid croak. “Your pants are stupid. Who dressed you?”
Ryouma drew a shaky, relieved breath, and some color returned to his cheeks. “Same person who took us down. Nijo Kozue’s hunting bounties for Orochimaru now. She’s got a lot to answer for.”
A puzzle piece clicked into place. Nijo Kozue, the bounty hunter from Urakawa, the mission Team Six had gone on without Kakashi. He remembered Ryouma talking about her, in the drugged haze after his bone marrow biopsy.
She wanted to take me. She took off my mask. She said I was decorative.
If Kakashi had gone on that mission, she’d have been three months dead already.
Nijo’s lips curved. “You can’t blame me—”
“Children,” Orochimaru interrupted, with a patronizing drawl, “this bickering is unseemly. Come along, Kozue-san. Let’s allow these two some time to catch up.”
And, to Kakashi’s complete bewilderment, he turned and left. A teenager Kakashi hadn’t even seen scurried after him, toting a bucket and wet rags.
Nijo executed a mocking little bow at Kakashi, and paused by Ryouma just long enough to murmur, “I’ll see you later. Without the pants.”
Then she, too, left. Ryouma watched her go with his jaw set, breathing through his teeth.
Kakashi said, with his stupid rasping voice, “Why is evil always horny for you?”
Ryouma’s head turned back. He looked down at Kakashi, blank-faced and hollow-eyed for a second, before mustering the tiniest smile. “You make it sound like everything else isn’t.” He bent down and said, low and rapid: “They’ve sealed my chakra. Can’t feel or move my arms; the rest isn’t much better. They know about my jutsu. Orochimaru sent Nijo to Suna for the bijuu and for you; I don’t know what he wants from you.”
He did. They both did. Akiyama had told them. We wanted your eye, but a flesh-melter’s hands are nearly as good.
“The Sharingan,” Kakashi said, voice scraped to colorless bone. He didn’t feel enucleated, but he hadn’t felt Orochimaru holding his lung, either. He opened his left eyelid.
There was almost nothing.
No vision. No chakra surge. But seals flared around his neck, biting down on an attempt to draw chakra, and Kakashi could breathe again, just about. “It’s still there.”
Ryouma nodded jerkily, “The tomoe aren’t spinning. But it’s there.”
Which begged the next question—why? Orochimaru had had ample chance to take it, so why hadn’t he? Why wasn’t Ryouma already a double-amputee?
Kakashi closed his left eye again, and the stranglehold of chakra-suppressing seals eased. “How long has it been?” he asked, trying to get some kind of footing. “What happened to the Ichibi?”
“I don’t know.” Ryouma’s mouth twisted in frustration. “I woke up trapped in a— a closet full of corpses. They brought me here for your surgery. That was maybe four, five hours ago.” He hesitated, then added, “The Hokage arrived in that cave just before Orochimaru did. He would’ve stopped the Ichibi.”
Ryouma didn’t sound entirely certain, but Kakashi had no doubts. If Minato had made it, then the Ichibi was dealt with.
Four to five hours here, plus whatever time Ryouma had spent unconscious before that. Under ordinary circumstances, that’d be enough time for someone to start searching for them, but Suna in flames wasn’t ordinary. Konoha might not spare the resources, and even if it could, Orochimaru had been avoiding capture for almost a decade.
Rescue probably wasn’t coming. Better to accept that fact now.
Ryouma’s tight, drawn face said he’d already reached the same conclusion.
Kakashi croaked, “Resources?”
Ryouma’s mouth thinned. “Nijo might be… persuadable.”
Kakashi couldn’t afford to have feelings about that. He said, “She had to get the last word in before she left, even though the snake told her to stop. Seems like their relationship is transactional. Maybe Konoha could offer her more.”
“She called herself a free agent, before. Might want that freedom again.” Ryouma’s resolute expression wavered, like a ripple over water. He took a quick, hitching inhale and leaned down, touching his forehead to Kakashi’s. His breath was sour and his skin was cold. Kakashi couldn’t feel his chakra. “Thank you,” he whispered, “for fighting. For staying here.”
For the first time, it occurred to Kakashi that this could be a henge, or a genjutsu, and without access to his chakra he had no way of knowing.
His vision blurred briefly, strangely, and the bed creaked. It took Kakashi a second to realize it was because his body was shaking. He couldn’t feel that, either.
Panic was a slender unspooling thread. It caught at thoughts and frayed them: injured, unarmed, trapped-trapped-trapped—alone?
“Ryouma,” he said, thin and tight. “I need you to cover my face.”
It wouldn’t do any good to ask how. Kakashi would’ve said, if he’d known.
“Just a minute,” Ryouma said. He straightened, arms still hanging useless at his sides, and took a leaden step away.
There was the sheet, which draped Kakashi to the waist, but could be pulled up to cover his chest and face. No. Too much like a shroud, like the one that covered the waiting corpse up in the library. Kakashi wasn’t dead. He needed something else.
That worshipful teenage minion, Mai, had carried away all the bloody detritus from the surgery. Some of the tools still remained, on their wheeled carts: empty specimen trays, unused instruments, clean rolls of bandaging. The widest bandage rolls would yield a good ten centimeters of gauze.
Ryouma had no hands. He used his teeth.
It was a slow, clumsy, agonizing process. He struggled to unspool the bandage length, let alone tear it; once he dropped the roll and had to chase it on his knees. Nijo and Orochimaru were probably laughing, from wherever they watched. But no one arrived to stop him, and finally he managed to pin down one trailing length of bandage beneath his knee and rip its end free with a savage jerk of his head.
Good practice, he thought dimly, for whenever he’d get a chance at Orochimaru’s throat.
He brought the gauze back to the medical bed and did his bungling best to drape it in coils over the lower part of Kakashi’s face. Kakashi couldn’t help. He couldn’t move, except to shake. He was probably cold. Ryouma tugged the sheet up to his shoulders, over the much more neatly wrapped bandages that now concealed the stitched-shut hole in Kakashi’s chest.
Orochimaru hadn’t completed the chakra healing. Not yet. Was that because he couldn’t, or because he wouldn’t? His surgery had tethered Kakashi to this bed, and Ryouma to the bedside, as efficiently as if he’d chained them both.
But without the surgery, Kakashi would have died…
“How’re you feeling?” he asked, hoarsely.
Kakashi’s Sharingan eye was still pinched closed, the long scar livid against bloodless skin. The open right eye focused on him, pupil blown so wide the iris was barely a thin ring of grey around the black. He croaked, “You sang me something once, when we were hunting for sake. What was it?”
Of course. This whole time Ryouma could’ve been a genjutsu, or a henge’d clone. He’d said nothing that Orochimaru couldn’t have gleaned from spywork or torture or mere circumstantial knowledge. Stupid of him not to have confirmed his identity already. As Kakashi just had, because there was no possible way anyone could know about that song.
He leaned his hip against the steel bedrailing and sang just the first verse, low and rough. The only verse he could manage, before his voice gave out.
Way out here, nothing’s clear
Except the world we left behind
Nothing to fear in this hollow land
Tears won’t make you blind
Run on, run hard, you can’t look back
You’ve got something more to find.
“Not sure how well I can run, just yet,” he said, finally. “But maybe if I play my hand right, by the time you’re back on your feet…”
Kakashi released a shallow, shaky breath that fluttered the heap of bandages over his mouth. But his voice came a little more focused, a little less thin. “Lean down again. Let me see that thing around your neck.”
Ryouma obliged. “It’s got the chakra limiter. And the paralysis. She made me breathe something, too. Some kind of exhaustion dust.”
“Turn,” Kakashi said. He squinted, studying the tight loop of the chain as far as Ryouma’s loosely crossed collars would allow. “There’s no clasp or seam. It looks like one complete piece. Seals etched inside the links. Looks like— a lightning inversion? Did it shock you?”
“Not when she put it on,” Ryouma said. “Later. When she wanted me to obey.”
His jaw tightened with the phantom memory of that shock, the electrical surge that had locked every muscle in agony, leaving him helpless at her feet until Orochimaru released him. He said, reluctantly: “She might be able to control me through it. She’ll probably try.”
Kakashi looked up at him for a long, silent, weighing moment. Then he said, simply: “No. You’re stronger than that.”
Ryouma knew it was reckless. He knew they had to be watching. But he’d already given too much of himself away; he wouldn’t let that stop him now. He bent, breathing fast, and pressed his lips to Kakashi’s with a heap of thin gauze between them.
The door creaked open in the gallery above.
Ryouma straightened slowly. He looked up at Orochimaru’s indulgent, inhuman smile.
“I thought you’d like watching,” he said. “Where’s Nijo? She’s missing the show.”
“I’m afraid I’m a bit too old,” Orochimaru said lightly, “to be scandalized by something so trivial.” He came down the steps from the gallery, soundless. “As for Kozue-san, I’ve sent her to gather intel.”
Kakashi’s good eye tracked Orochimaru’s approach. Even lying flat on his back, paralyzed and pinned, he was starting to look more intent; his wide pupil had a hunter’s lethal focus now, instead of a drugged daze. “What do you want?”
“Nothing nefarious, Kakashi-kun. Merely to move you into a recovery room.” Orochimaru rested one long hand gracefully on the bedrail and transferred that too-smooth smile to Ryouma. “I’m afraid my chakra reserves are too low for a shadow clone at the moment, so I could use a second pair of hands.”
If he thought Ryouma would believe that, he must consider him almost too stupid to breathe. Even if a few hours’ chakra-assisted surgery proved that exhausting, that worshipful teenager with her scrub-brush and bucket couldn’t be the only minion around. Orochimaru was offering Ryouma’s freedom at a moment of apparent vulnerability—an incompetent chuunin could’ve seen the trap waiting.
Was it worth springing?
Ryouma hesitated. Then he bent his head. The exposed back of his neck prickled with danger.
A cold hand settled onto his nape, nails grazing the skin as the fingers flattened out, slithering beneath the chain. The thumb curled and pressed against Ryouma’s spine.
He could jerk his head up now, smashing Orochimaru’s nose. Ram forward, a shoulder into the solar plexus, pinning him backward over the rail—
Exactly as expected from a reckless, dull-witted brawler. It might succeed in making Orochimaru underestimate him. It might also get him killed. It certainly wouldn’t result in an actual opportunity for escape—not with his arms still numb, Kakashi still paralyzed, and no information on their location, Orochimaru’s motives, or the number of minions surely lurking in these tunneled halls.
This might not even be the real Orochimaru. His deadened senses certainly couldn’t distinguish a shadow clone. And shadow clone or shinobi, either one could snap his spine.
If he wanted Orochimaru to underestimate him, then, let it be for cowardice, not suicidal courage.
He held still, head and shoulders bowed, shivering beneath Orochimaru’s touch.
“Wise choice,” Orochimaru whispered, his breath cool on Ryouma’s ear. His thumbnail dug sharply sideways, splitting skin. His oily chakra pulsed.
The chain broke with a single sharp tug.
Sensation flooded back into Ryouma’s arms from the shoulders down. Deadened nerves woke and stabbed like needles. The torn muscle in his shoulder throbbed. He flexed his fingers, gasping, and caught himself against the railing of the bed.
He still couldn’t feel his chakra.
Orochimaru’s hand fell away; he stood back, faintly smiling. Had he left a seal behind? His own control mechanism, replacing Nijo’s? Probably it would do something worse than an electric shock, if Ryouma disobeyed.
But it might be leverage, too. Had Orochimaru really sent Nijo off to gather information, or because he’d grown interested in her plaything? A competing possessiveness might leave gaps to exploit, like children squabbling over the same toy.
At least Orochimaru didn’t seem inclined to take the toy apart to see how it worked, just yet.
Ryouma lifted his head. “Where’s the recovery room?”
A ramp on the far side of the sunken operating theater led up to a set of swinging double doors, set between the shelves of steel morgue drawers. Orochimaru took charge of the IV pole and a cart of tethered monitors, pacing beside the wheeled bed as Ryouma pushed it painfully up the ramp, through the doors, and into another low, windowless corridor. Bare bulbs hung from loops of plex cables, casting widely spaced pools of dim yellow light. Clearly Orochimaru didn’t see the need to waste good lighting in the transit tunnels.
The recovery room was a small, sterile space, stone-walled and chilly. A small table held a lamp. Sleeping mats, futons, and quilts were neatly folded on the floor, beside a lidded earthenware chamber pot.
Orochimaru touched his fingertips to the wall as they entered, and seals flared up scarlet in the walls and the floor, then slowly subsided. The air began to warm. He found a powerstrip and began plugging monitors in. “Kakashi-kun can rest comfortably here.”
Kakashi managed to turn his head, very slowly, to follow Orochimaru’s movements with his good eye. The precarious mess of bandaging over his face threatened to spill, revealing a jutting nose, a sliver of cheek. “For how long?” His words had begun to slur again. “What d’you want?”
Ryouma tugged one of the thick quilts over him. The monitors resumed their steady beeping. Orochimaru straightened, his hair swinging like a scythe.
“Just your successful recovery, for the moment. We can discuss the rest later.” He stood by the other side of the bed, frowning down at Kakashi’s bandage-draped face. “That can’t be comfortable.”
He reached to sweep the bandages away. Ryouma’s hand blocked him first. The heart rate monitor, a second delayed, lurched into a faster rhythm.
“I see your reflexes have recovered,” Orochimaru commented mildly. He reached into a pocket with his other hand and pulled out a spare surgical mask. “If it will reassure you of my good intentions…”
He held the mask out to Ryouma, palm open, like a man offering scraps to a feral animal.
And Ryouma had to take it. Had to brush the pathetic bandage pile off Kakashi’s face while doing his best to shield it from that indulgent, mocking view; had to hook the ear loops over Kakashi’s ears and stretch the pleats down over his chin and not quite dare meet the impotent fury in Kakashi’s eye.
Orochimaru leaned across, when he was done, and carefully pinched the nose bridge more secure. “There,” he said, smiling. “That’s better.”
Kakashi’s jaw clenched. He closed his eye and turned his head away.
Orochimaru stood back in satisfaction. “If you’ll come with me,” he told Ryouma, “I believe you’re both in need of some nourishment.” He headed for the door, as if he had no fear of turning his back on a Konoha ANBU, as if he never doubted Ryouma would follow. “Close the door on your way out. Some of the other residents here can be… impolite.”
Hesitation would serve no purpose. He’d already decided to comply, hadn’t he? To wait for the right moment, the right leverage. And to gather as much information as he could, in the meantime.
Orochimaru walked at an easy pace in the opposite direction of the operating room. He didn’t glance back as Ryouma came up behind him.
He merely said, as if continuing a conversation briefly interrupted, “In point of fact, we’ve already obtained some pertinent intelligence on the situation you left. Sunagakure lies in ruins—if wholesale property damage and mass civilian casualties are a bijuu’s idea of vengeance, it certainly achieved its aims. The survivors blame Konoha’s interference.”
Mass civilian casualties. Ryouma swallowed. Hadn’t the Yondaime come? Ryouma’d felt his arrival—one of the last chakra presences he’d sensed. He’d confronted the unleashed bijuu—
The bijuu that had already killed one kage.
Four years ago the Kyuubi, too, had killed a former kage and scores of shinobi and civilians, until Minato’s strength and Kushina’s seal and sacrifice ended its rampage. The Ichibi didn’t have a seal. And Minato, alone—
“The White Fang’s son was already an unwelcome presence in Suna,” Orochimaru said gently. “Now, they’re accusing Kakashi-kun of unleashing the bijuu on purpose, to murder their kage and destabilize their village.”
“They invited him,” Ryouma said. But he remembered the Kazekage’s cold belligerence. That snarling crowd in the marketplace, an old man throwing stones. It wouldn’t have taken much for the rest of the crowd to join in.
“It would not be the first time that an enraged populace has disregarded logic in favor of a more convenient outlet,” Orochimaru said. “Surely Kakashi-kun has told you what happened to his father?”
Sitting on the springy grass on a cliff-bound island in Water Country. The sunlight warm on their aching shoulders, the sharp scent of an herby salve in his nose. Kakashi’s voice, salt-bitten, tired. He was a hero before that mission. Afterward, he was hated.
He made a mistake and Konoha killed him for it.
Ryouma’s splintered fingernails bit into his palms in sharp little flares of grounding pain. “So what, you’re just some—some benefactor, trying to save Kakashi from the angry mob? I’m sure you’ll say you were friends with his father, too. Just looking after Sakumo’s boy.”
Orochimaru stopped. “I was Sakumo’s friend,” he said sharply. “I attended his funeral, as one of the few who were actually there to mourn him.”
There was real bitterness in his voice, real anger. It seemed to catch even Orochimaru by surprise. He took a few quick breaths, then a steadier one. His voice found its light precision again. “I am simply concerned that Kakashi-kun will follow his father in sacrificing himself at the altar of Konoha’s honor.”
Ryouma stared into the darkness beyond the next pool of light.
He thought, You don’t know anything about Kakashi if you think I’d swallow that.
He thought, If Kakashi believed it would save Konoha, or prevent a war—
And he thought of Kakashi, sitting on that sunny slope, talking about the changes Namikaze Minato had brought to Konoha. He doesn’t ask for your life. He asks that you try again, and do it better.
He said, in a voice he didn’t try to make steady, “You want me to keep this from Kakashi. To save him from himself.”
Orochimaru’s faint smile returned, rueful, understanding. “I’m not expecting miracles, boy. Even without this information, Kakashi-kun will want to run back to Konoha the moment he’s well enough to stand. I would just like your assistance in keeping him here in the meantime—safe, hidden, and away from news that might cause him to make rash decisions.”
“His mother will be looking for him,” Ryouma said. “And the Hokage.”
“Kozue-san was dispatched to Suna.” Orochimaru started walking again, at his easy swinging pace. “If they survived, we’ll know once she returns.”
So that point of leverage was gone—
If, Ryouma reminded himself, Nijo had left at all. If she wasn’t lurking behind any one of the doors they’d passed, smiling to herself at this new game.
He had no choice, for now, but to play along. But even one of the Sannin wasn’t invulnerable; Orochimaru had slipped up once before, hadn’t he? The stories said he’d fled from Konoha with the ANBU on his heels.
This time, when the right moment came, they’d be at his throat.
Orochimaru’s paralysis jutsu was a straitjacket made of his own ribs. Kakashi lay alone in the small, bare rock room, staring up at the ceiling, and explored the limits of his confinement.
Below the collarbones, his spine was not under his control. His arms were adhered to his sides, shoulder to wrist. His legs were locked together, hip to ankle. He could breathe, with some effort. Blink. Speak. Twitch his fingers and toes. Turn his head a limited amount. He couldn’t feel his chakra.
He could bite through his tongue and drown himself, he supposed. Very traditional. Strong ninja etiquette. But leaving Orochimaru his corpse still offered a multitude of Konoha secrets on a platter. If he had the opportunity for self-annihilation, it could only be after he’d torn the Sharingan out, crushed it to a pulp, and found a viable way to set himself on fire. So, back-burner that.
(Ryouma could rot you.)
And then what, brain? Rot himself? No. Orochimaru had gone to a lot of effort and expense to get them here, and Kakashi wanted to know why.
The heart monitor beeped away minutes. Kakashi wasn’t sure how many. There was no clock in the room and his efforts to count time slurred and drifted. It seemed like a while. Where had Orochimaru taken Ryouma?
need of nourishment
Right, something about food.
His chest ached, deeply. It felt like someone had wired his sternum to his vertebrae, like there wasn’t enough space to breathe. Was that seals or surgery? Or had Orochimaru resected more than he’d said? Slicing out a lung would be an excellent way to slow a ninja down…
You’re spiraling. Stop it.
Where was Ryouma?
The ceiling was natural rock, pitted and craggy. It caught shadows from the lamp, pressing them into shallow cracks. If there were spiders up there, Ryouma was going to lose it.
(If you throw up now, you’ll drown.)
Thank you for that thought.
Did Orochimaru even have medical staff, or was it just Nijo and a teenager with a bucket? Was someone going to come by and do anything post-surgical? Rin would be having kittens by now.
His chest was really starting to hurt.
He rolled his head sideways and tried to read the fluid bag hanging from the IV pole. The label was on the other side, but the fluid pump was set to a maintenance rate. He knew that from an afternoon spent calculating medical math with Ryouma. Just fluids, then, not something meant to contain painkillers.
Kakashi spared a thought for all the times in his life he’d neglected painkillers in favor of staying sharp in the field, and judged his past self for not doing something clever with the excess, like… sewing a morphine ampule into the lining of his cheek. Except then he’d have to bite through glass to activate it. Bad idea. Liquid gel capsule in a false tooth? You could hide a soldier pill that way, too. Just don’t mix those teeth up, especially if you had a suicide tooth as well. Where was Ryouma? He loved puzzles like this—
Time slithered. Pain climbed. Kakashi watched things move in the cracks in the ceiling. Slender legs and bright little eyes. There was a background noise scattered among the monitor beeps, like something rusty.
(They’re not coming back.)
Maybe Ryouma had rotted Orochimaru. It just took a touch and Orochimaru had given him back his chakra— no, he’d given Ryouma back his arms, to make him carry things. Get it together, Hatake.
The door opened, changing the shadows.
The rusted sound hitched as Kakashi’s breath cut short. Orochimaru stood in the doorway like a long-limbed wraith, a polite smile curling his lips. He held up a syringe pump and a large syringe containing clear fluid. “I’ve returned just in time, I see.”
Kakashi’s faculties rallied around a fixed point of hatred. He’d been groaning, he realized. And now, he assumed, Orochimaru would wait for him to beg.
Orochimaru stepped into the room and began neatly and economically setting up the new pump, inserting the syringe of morphine, and splicing the new connection into Kakashi’s IV line. He programmed a rate that Kakashi recognized as generous, but not excessive. A moment later, warmth bloomed behind Kakashi’s sternum and eased down his shoulders with the familiar, leaden-lovely weight of strong narcotics.
Behind Orochimaru, Ryouma awkwardly laid down a tray on the table by the bed. It was stacked with earthenware lidded bowls, a scuffed but serviceable teapot, empty mugs, and a jug of water. Kakashi caught the familiar scents of genmaicha and okayu. Simple, warming foods appropriate for the sick and recovering.
Kakashi didn’t quite know what to do with that.
Ryouma looked unharmed. His lips were even less chapped; he must have gotten a drink. Kakashi didn’t tell him about the things in the ceiling. He caught Kakashi’s eye and murmured, “‘Pull Away’ comes fourth on The Red Album.”
“‘Lighthouse’ was fifth,” Kakashi rasped.
Orochimaru could hear them, so that whole avenue of safety questions was burned, but they had others. And at least, for now, he knew that was Ryouma.
Orochimaru leaned into Kakashi’s line of sight, still smiling. “How are you feeling, Kakashi-kun?”
It was possible this might be the only time when telling Orochimaru the truth brought more benefit than risk. “S’hard to breathe,” Kakashi admitted.
Orochimaru inclined his head, causing a slide of midnight hair over one shoulder. “An unfortunate effect of the paralysis jutsu. I can remove it, if you agree to refrain from excessive movement.”
Yes! said Kakashi’s entire body.
Kakashi squinted. “What do… you consider… excessive?”
Orochimaru sighed, as if Kakashi was being tiresome. “Anything that would make your medic friend concerned for your recovery.”
Ryouma snapped, “I’m concerned for his recovery if he can’t breathe. You should know the risks of pneumonia after lung surgery.”
“Which is why you’ll be staying with Kakashi-kun, to monitor his status,” Orochimaru said smoothly. He pulled a red paper seal from one sleeve and set it on the table, next to the tray. “Touch this if you need emergency assistance. Otherwise, I’ll return in a few hours. I suggest you get some rest.”
He nodded once, decorously, like a gracious host telling them they could feel free to avail themselves of the grounds, and stepped out, closing the door gently behind him. It clicked, but did not audibly lock. A moment later, the feeling of tight, constricting bands around Kakashi’s body relaxed. He finally caught a deeper breath; it burned as it went down, like alcohol in his lungs. Nevertheless, his spine eased, finding a natural curve as he sank into the bed. He pulled his arms up, reflexive, but caught himself before he touched his chest.
Very, very carefully, he ghosted his fingertips over the bandages. There was a lumpy shape underneath—some kind of dressing over the incision. Beneath that was a blend of sharp surface pain and patchy numbness from transected, pissed off nerve endings. If he pressed even a little bit harder—
Okay, yes. Don’t do that.
A nasty little memory resurfaced. Orochimaru’s long, gloved fingers wrapped gently around Kakashi’s lung. Orochimaru’s entire hand in Kakashi’s chest. Heart, ribs, sternum, wide open everything. Plenty of places to inscribe seals.
Kakashi looked up, found Ryouma. “He didn’t lock the door, did he?”
“There isn’t any lock,” Ryouma reported tersely, after a swift inspection revealed a door that opened, and no guards posted outside. “We could move the bed to block it, but it’s not much of a barricade, and we’d just be blocking ourselves in with no exit. Looks like the only air vents are in the bottom of the door itself. We’re below-ground, as far as I can tell. Haven’t seen any signs of a way out.”
All of this was rattled off with smart professionalism, and if Kakashi hadn’t been able to smell the sour terror curdling off Ryouma, he might have believed it wasn’t just a thin veneer against panic.
Well, Kakashi probably didn’t smell that great right now, either.
“Okay,” Kakashi said. “Okay. Help me sit up.”
Ryouma made a face, which Kakashi chose not to interpret. It took a minute of fiddling to get the bed rail down—it was rusty; Ryouma had to wrench it—and then there was a dizzy three seconds of movement, but it ended with Kakashi braced against Ryouma’s side, and that wasn’t bad. Ryouma’s arm hovered around Kakashi’s ribs, as if he thought Kakashi were a butterfly that might be easily crushed instead of a slightly dented ninja, but Ryouma was warm and solid, and underneath the distress and blood, he still smelled a little bit like green tea and woodsmoke. His most recent soap.
“How’s your breathing?” Ryouma asked. “Want a drink?”
Kakashi demonstrated his facility for both. He was even able to hold the mug himself. He said, “Did Orochimaru tell you anything?”
Ryouma was silent for a long, telling moment, looking down. At the mug in Kakashi’s hands, watching a droplet of water trace down the glazed side. At his own hand, closed tight over his own knee. When he finally spoke, it was low and fast. “He says Suna is destroyed. I don’t know the bijuu’s status, if the Hokage was able to take it out—but I think the Snake would’ve boasted about it if the Ichibi were still running free, and he didn’t. He says Nijo went to find out what happened to the Hokage and your mom—which means he doesn’t know or can’t prove they’re dead, or he would’ve bragged about that too. He says Suna blames Konoha for intervening. He wanted me to keep it from you, so you don’t kill yourself.”
Kakashi digested this.
“Clumsy play,” he decided.
Ryouma frowned at him.
“I wouldn’t kill myself over Suna,” Kakashi said. “Suna screwed up. If they’re in ruins, it’s their own fault. They called us in too late. The Kazekage wouldn’t work with me. His own people betrayed them. I had a solution and it would have worked, if one of them hadn’t stabbed me. Idiots.” He snorted, acerbic. “If Orochimaru had wanted to destabilize me—or you, even—he’d’ve told us the team was dead and it was my fault. Or Minato was dead and it was my fault. Besides, even if Suna is blaming me—and they should, it’s the smart choice—what can they do about it if they’re destroyed? Complain? Admit to the other villages that Konoha freed their bijuu?”
And, Kakashi thought, irritated, Orochimaru had seen exactly how little Sakumo’s death had done to absolve his sins. Did he think Kakashi had missed that lesson?
Ryouma’s arm dropped to Kakashi’s waist and tightened. He turned his head and buried his face in Kakashi’s hair, which was doubtless filthy, and took a deep, shaky breath. Then a second, slower.
Worried Orochimaru had been right, Kakashi realized belatedly. But Ryouma had gambled and told Kakashi the truth anyway, and now it was Kakashi’s turn to be relieved— that Ryouma had, and that Kakashi had obviously answered correctly—because trust was the only resource they had.
“I didn’t tell him about the officers,” Ryouma said, still muffled in Kakashi’s hair. “He might not know about them, or he’d’ve tried to use them.”
“That’s encouraging,” Kakashi said, reaching up carefully to wrap his hand around the back of Ryouma’s neck. The muscles were rigid under cool skin. “If he still has spies in Konoha, they haven’t been able to infiltrate ANBU.”
“Akiyama must’ve been the closest he got. And Akiyama failed.” Ryouma sighed, breath warm on Kakashi’s scalp. “But Nijo didn’t. I’m sorry. I should’ve kept you safe. I wasn’t fast enough.”
If that was true, it wasn’t useful. And if it wasn’t true, it was even less useful. Either way, they didn’t have time for guilt.
Kakashi reached for a profound, reassuring argument that would drag Ryouma out of the darkness of the soul by his boot heels, couldn’t find one, and settled for shoving him. Ryouma rocked back, confused and injured, and Kakashi flicked him hard between the eyebrows. “Stop that,” he said. “I’m alive. You’re alive. We’ll assign blame later. You saw Orochimaru perform the surgery on me. Did you see him place any seals?”
“I didn’t see all of it,” Ryouma said bitterly. “Nijo electrocuted me halfway through. I don’t think there were anything beyond normal external medical seals before that, and they washed those off before you woke up again. But he could’ve done anything after Nijo knocked me down. She only narrated some of it.”
She would have enjoyed telling Ryouma about the placement of a seal he couldn’t stop, wouldn’t she? But maybe she hadn’t seen it happening either, or hadn’t recognized whatever Orochimaru did. Maybe he didn’t trust her with all of his secrets.
Kakashi whispered, “Shit.” He rubbed the heel of his hand hard against his right eye, then swiped at the closed left. “Fine. Assume the worst. His paralysis jutsu continued after he left the room and stopped without obvious hand seals. That implies a physical seal—one he can actively manipulate. You didn’t see anything unusual. I didn’t see anything for the parts I was awake, but if I were him, I’d put it somewhere hidden. So, something internal. I can’t access my chakra. Neither can you.”
He glanced up for confirmation. Ryouma shook his head. His mouth was dry again.
“No way to confirm or remove it, then,” Kakashi said bleakly. “And he can drop me at will. So… I’m compromised. Completely.”
Ryouma tried to work moisture back into his mouth. “He replaced Nijo’s collar on me with something at the top of my spine. I assume that’s a control seal, too. If they’re anything like the same, we could study mine to get clues on breaking yours. After we escape. Until then we’re both compromised anyway. He thinks I’m a coward, and he knows my weakness is you— that’s not something I could hide. But it’s maybe something we could exploit. If he believes we’ll work with him…”
Kakashi’s spine straightened. His brows pinched. “That’s another thing, why does he think we’ll work with— He’s not even treating us like real prisoners! The door’s unlocked. Neither one of us is decently manacled. Just because I’ll fall over doesn’t mean you can’t look around. Is there paper in here?”
“D’you think he’s not taking you seriously as a ninja?” There had to be something amusing in that, somewhere. “Maybe he still thinks of you as a genin kid. He claims he knew both our parents.”
Claimed that he’d mourned for Hatake Sakumo’s death; that he’d believed Kondo Ryuu vanished, not killed in action. Ryouma shoved that down. “I don’t think there’s any paper, but I can look. Can you sit up on your own?”
“Yes,” Kakashi said, recklessly. He tried to prove it by clutching the remaining bed railing while Ryouma eased away. The blue surgical mask puffed with shallow, painful breaths. His skin looked almost as grey as his hair. The monitors beeped their placid warning.
For a traitorous moment Ryouma was almost grateful for the seal. If Kakashi didn’t believe himself compromised, would he already be fighting to escape? Or was that just what Orochimaru wanted him to think—
He stopped thinking at all, and looked for paper instead.
A swift thirty-second search resulted in nothing: not even a magazine for convalescent reading, or an instruction manual for the beeping monitors. Kakashi began to tilt alarmingly. Ryouma abandoned the search in time to help him ease back down.
“No writing paper. There’s the bedsheet—” his eye roamed the stark little room again— “the lampshade, the inside of your mask. What d’you want to do? Can you eat while you tell me about it? I’m pretty sure they haven’t bothered poisoning us.”
Kakashi squinted doubtfully at the lidded bowls, as if he suspected mind-altering enforced-compliance drugs in the okayu or truth serums smeared on the spoons. “I want to make a copy of your seal,” he said. “Will this stupid bed tilt up?”
Further investigation found a clunky hand-crank. It protested almost as painfully as Ryouma’s shoulder, but eventually produced a respectable incline that allowed Kakashi to lounge, if not sit upright. He forced himself to cough three times, while they both watched the numbers on the monitors. No cause for concern just yet. And he could eat without spilling, drink without choking. They made themselves finish at least the watery okayu before doing anything more.
(Genma would’ve had a lecture about maintaining a baseline caloric intake, even when—especially when—you’d never felt less like eating. Ryouma allowed himself to think about Genma for only two spoonfuls. The officers were alive. They had to be. The Hokage had arrived; the tide in that dark, storm-lashed cavern would have turned. They were alive, and he couldn’t think about them anymore.)
With the emptied dishes stacked back on the tray, and the chamberpot used, lidded, and stuffed away again, Kakashi got down to business. A corner of sheet, pulled taut over the tray, served instead of paper. A finger dipped in tea substituted for a brush loaded with ink. Ryouma crouched on his heels by the side of the bed, head bent, staring at the floor.
“He cut my neck with his nail,” he said. “There might be a blood component. Same as…whatever he did inside you.”
A harsh breath caught for a moment in Kakashi’s throat, like a muted snarl, before he throttled it. “He’d like that personal touch.”
He fell silent again, leaning on his elbow at the edge of the bed. His fingers brushed the back of Ryouma’s neck, once, tracing a shape. Ryouma shivered. The fingers pulled away.
“Okay,” Kakashi said finally. “You can get up.”
Ryouma rocked upright and turned to find Kakashi scowling down at a pale yellow scrawl of stain on the sheet. It was an ugly thornlike shape, with a tight spiral of tangling lines around a central node. Even when Ryouma twisted his head upside down, it didn’t resolve into anything he recognized. He looked hopefully at Kakashi.
But Kakashi said, as reluctant as if each word pulled a tooth out with it, “I haven’t seen anything like this before.”
Hope died and left a clammy silence over its corpse.
They couldn’t afford to waste time mourning it. “We need to get to the library,” Ryouma said. “He had bookshelves in that surgical room…scrolls and bound books. You wouldn’t keep a library like that if you didn’t write things down, would you? You probably couldn’t see it from where you were, but he had morgue drawers and pickled body parts and a corpse on a table—he keeps everything. He’s got to have a record somewhere of what went into this seal. And once you know that, you’ll know what went into yours. And you can break them.”
Kakashi’s eye narrowed thoughtfully. “He’s paranoid—even if he keeps anything useful out in the open, I’d expect it to be coded. Especially if he uses these seals on his followers. But it’s a place to start.”
He threw an irritated glance at the closed door. “I don’t understand why he’s not keeping us locked in—unless it’s a trap I’m not seeing, but he already has us. Regardless, you need to look around. He must expect it, but there’s still a chance there’s an avenue for escape that he’s missed.”
“You can’t walk ten steps right now,” Ryouma said quietly. “And he knows I won’t leave you.”
It could terrify him, if he let it, how much Orochimaru knew: how much Ryouma’d given away within an hour of waking and without even a threat of torture. Not Konoha’s secrets, at least. Just his own. But if Orochimaru did threaten Kakashi, how long would that last?
Was there a point at which he could say this far, and no farther? Or would he bend deeper and deeper into cowardly obedience, until the final moment when he could snap back upright and strike?
Kakashi’s hand lashed up. He caught Ryouma’s chin in an icy-fingered, unyielding grip. His voice dropped to a low, deadly calm. “You will leave me.”
Startled, Ryouma’s head jerked. Kakashi’s fingers tightened, biting into his jaw, forcing his gaze down. “If you get the chance, you will not sacrifice it for me. You will escape and you will leave me behind, or I will never forgive you.”
“I could live with that,” Ryouma whispered, “as long as you’re alive to hate me.”
Kakashi’s grip was starting to hurt. Ryouma didn’t try to pull away again. He pointed out, “It’s not a risk anytime soon. Not with Nijo around to take me down without breaking a sweat. I need to take her out—or convince her to sell out on Orochimaru, or something—or we won’t have a chance at all.”
Storm-fury darkened Kakashi’s eye, but his grip loosened. His hand dropped. His voice stayed level. “Then you should start looking for angles.”
“I will if you promise to sleep,” Ryouma said recklessly. “Lying here worrying over fifty thousand possibilities doesn’t count.”
They stared at each other. Kakashi’s elbow gave way; he slithered down onto his back, propped up by the tilted bed. He said grudgingly, “Fine.” The glare turned skin-peeling. “Do not do anything stupid.”
If he could even contemplate sleeping in this snake bunker, he must be half-dead of exhaustion already. Ryouma’s skin itched just turning his back on the door. He hated the thought of leaving Kakashi unguarded, but seizing the moment made sense. Lurking in this little prison room wouldn’t get him any closer to finding a way to escape.
And if Orochimaru had lied about sending Nijo out for intel, this might be the opportunity to apply a little more leverage. If not—
Well, that would be informative, too.
Kakashi drank more water, and Ryouma helped him to the chamberpot again. He cranked the bed down a little flatter and added an extra quilt. Eventually there was nothing more to be done, no more opportunity for delay.
He said, in case it was the last time, the only time: “I love you.”
The half-lidded grey eye flashed open. The surgical mask stretched over parted lips, just for a moment.
Then Kakashi’s jaw snapped shut. His face spasmed as if with pain, and he said harshly: “No. We’re not doing this.” His voice was an ashen rasp. “After we get home, when you don’t feel like you have to say it. Then you can tell me.”
“When,” Ryouma said. “Not if.” He grinned fiercely at Kakashi, the feral unholy battle-grimace, because it kept his eyes from burning. “I’ll be back soon.”
He took the tray with him, as a thin excuse for wandering. He didn’t look back.