November 8(?), Yondaime Year 5
The tunnels of Orochimaru’s lair burrowed their way through solid rock without clarity of direction, layout, or dangers. Low, dark, windowless corridors ran arrow-straight for twenty or thirty meters, then turned at abrupt angles or ended entirely. Stone-carved rooms bubbled off the corridors like beads on a string, some merely shallow niches following natural fissures, some furnished in elegant austerity: a tea room, a sitting room, a hydroponics garden beneath brilliant grow-lights. Elsewhere the corridors were lit only by widely spaced bulbs strung on loops of plex cables. Anything could be lurking behind those closed doors, those right-angle turns, those pools of shadow.
Ryouma told himself he was as dangerous as anything else he’d find here. He had free movement of his arms and legs, if not his chakra; he was armed with a steel tray and a stack of heavy earthenware bowls, one swing away from shattering into razor shards. He’d killed men with less.
He’d left Kakashi alone, vulnerable, exhausted, with an unknown control seal engraved inside his chest. Orochimaru had promised to return in a few hours, but he couldn’t leave Kakashi for that long regardless. He had to move fast.
First he tried the swinging double doors that led down to the operating room and, on its other side, to the Snake Sannin’s library. The doors were locked, as he’d expected. Nijo had used a palmprint seal to open the door on the library-side. These doors probably required something similar.
Well, Nijo and Orochimaru weren’t the only ones with access. There was the worshipful teenager who’d scrubbed the operating table, or the burly cook he’d glimpsed in the smoky kitchen. And there had to be minions to tend that underground garden, to service whatever physical plant kept this stone snakehole supplied with water and electricity and breathable air. Some of them, surely, had to be open to persuasion.
He went back to the kitchen, which took five minutes and two right-angle corridor turns. He was paying more careful attention to his steps, now, than he had with Orochimaru at his side. Shouldn’t this corridor run on the other side of the operating room? How thick were the stone walls? He wasn’t terribly strong at earth jutsu, but water could wear away stone. Eventually. If he could get his chakra back…
If he could get his chakra back, he’d have a much more direct route out of here, and no one would stand in his way.
He shouldered into the kitchen. It was a long, poorly lit chamber, with a scattering of low tables and seating mats near another door at the far end, and the cook’s basins and work surfaces arranged around an odd assortment of cooking equipment closer to this door. A large electric rice-cooker plugged into a thick power strip; an open charcoal grill; an array of hammered-steel woks and clay pots set over ceramic braziers. A refrigerator niche, rimmed with paper seals, breathed out icy fog. Woodsmoke, steam, and fog swirled hazily in the air before a humming fan set into a pipe in the ceiling sucked it out.
Ryouma eyed the pipe—too small for even Kakashi’s lean shoulders—and then the cook. A big man, bearded, barrel-chested, and muscled like a wrestler, wearing drab summer-weight jinbei with the sleeves cut off. His sunbrowned arms were laced with intricate blackwork tattoos. He sat cross-legged behind a table, gutting fish.
Fresh fish meant water somewhere nearby. A stream, a river, the sea—
Either way, they weren’t in Suna anymore.
Ryouma cleared his throat. “Where can I put these dishes?”
The cook stripped a tangle of pale guts out of the slit belly, tossed the entrails into a bucket, and dumped the cleaned fish into another basin of clear water. “Dishtub’s over by the faucet.” He pointed with his knife to the single faucet that rose out of a narrow steel pipe, above a grated drain in the floor. “Unless you’re Orochimaru-sama, you do your own scrubbing.” He reached for another fish.
That suited Ryouma just fine. He set his tray down on the floor by the drain, tugged the plastic dishtub closer—it was half-full of dishes from people who hadn’t done their own scrubbing—found a rinse bucket, soap, and scrubber, and finally hunkered down into a comfortable squat. “Looks like you’re cooking for a decent crowd. I haven’t seen that many people around.” Pain flared in his torn shoulder as he reached out to turn the tap. He suppressed the wince and added, casually, “I’m new here.”
The cook had seen Ryouma earlier, in Orochimaru’s company, unshackled and obedient. He grunted. “Obviously. There’s only half a dozen of you anyway.” Scales flew, glittering, under his knife-blade. “What’d you do to get kicked out of your old village? Kill someone you shouldn’t?” He flipped the fish over, lifted his head with a scowl that turned speculative as he looked Ryouma over. “Sleep with someone you shouldn’t?”
Did people go missing-nin for that? In Suna, yes, Ryouma remembered. So maybe they were still within Wind Country, or close to the border. But if the cook thought Ryouma was a missing-nin who’d joined Orochimaru willingly, that meant he didn’t know Ryouma was a prisoner who shouldn’t be wandering freely.
“Murder,” Ryouma said, turning off the tap as the dishtub filled. He made his voice light, mocking. “That’s what they call it when you kill someone they’re not paying you for. Even when he deserves it.”
Fish entrails splashed into the bucket. “They all deserve it,” the cook said, losing interest.
Murderers must be as common here as scales on fish. Orochimaru had spoken of other residents who could be ‘impolite,’ which probably meant they crept around the halls looking for people’s livers to eat.
But the cook said half a dozen of you as if he didn’t count himself among them. He might be a liver-eater, too, but at the moment he was still Ryouma’s best opportunity.
And he wasn’t interested in murderers.
Ryouma set his bowls in the dishtub to soak and splashed icy water on a wide, dangling shirt-sleeve. He hissed in frustration. Then he shrugged to himself. “Warm enough in here.” He unknotted the tie at his side, stripped out of the loosely wrapped linen shirt, and set it carefully out of the splash radius. Then he filled the rinse bucket, added soap to the dishtub, and started scrubbing.
Across the kitchen, the scrape of the knife blade against scales slowed. The cook said casually, “Nice tats.”
Ryouma looked up with a quick smile. “Yeah? I was admiring yours. You sure didn’t get those here.”
“Nah.” The cook thawed a little more, looking down proudly at his own massive, intricately tattooed biceps. “Worked a riverboat down the Abashirigawa for thirteen years. Built up my collection one little riverside artist’s shack at a time.”
“You ever seen the sea?” Ryouma asked enviously.
“Plenty of times.” The cook swelled with the pleasure of delivering self-aggrandizing tales to an appreciative audience.
He might not even be exaggerating that much, Ryouma judged, scrubbing and listening. Granny Kawase and the Blue Field Traders, who’d taken Team Six in their paddleboat down from Hayama in the spring, had told stories about the dangers of the riverboat trade; sometimes Ryouma had even been awake enough to hear them. Floods, fog, rapids, snags, boiler explosions, bandits… It was a wonder that anyone survived a single voyage, or made a profit at the end of it.
He made impressed noises at the right moments, and the cook’s tongue loosened further. His name was Toshio, he was thirty-eight years old, and he’d left the river six years ago to help out at the family restaurant when his father got sick.
“And then the old bastard up and died and left me stuck here supporting my little sisters,” Toshio said with disgust. “Four of them! And then half the cliff sheared off and the temple closed, and that’s most of our business dried up. I thought for certain it was back to the river for me. But Orochimaru-sama moved in not a week later, and he needed a cook and I needed a job. So.” He shrugged powerful shoulders and flipped his neglected fish to descale its other side. “Been here about two years now. Not the friendliest place I’ve worked, but it pays.”
Ryouma had some suspicions about the cause of that disaster, if Orochimaru had moved in within the week. And did that mean Orochimaru had built his lair within the temple itself, or underneath? Where the hell were they?
He shook the suds off the last bowl and dunked it into the rinse bucket. “Bet you miss the fresh air on the river.”
“On a steamboat? Hah! Smoke’s all you’re smelling. Well, it’s plenty smoky in here too, but if I want a fresh breeze I can step outside.” Toshio nodded at the door on the far side of the dining area, past the low tables and seating mats. “Just gotta be careful not to step too far.” He laughed hoarsely, as if that was a joke.
Ryouma flicked a careless glance at the door. Would Orochimaru bother with a lock here? He’d have to check.
He began pulling dishes out of the rinse bucket and stacking them on the nearest bit of dry floor. “You ever get pilgrims stopping by who haven’t heard the monastery’s closed? What did they call it, anyway?”
“Hanging Clouds Temple,” Toshio said, looking curiously at him. “Orochimaru-sama didn’t show you around when you came? He’s quite proud of it.”
“No— I, uh, came at night. With Nijo Kozue.” He was thinking furiously, trying to recall if he’d ever heard of a place called Hanging Clouds. Not on the map he’d seen when Raidou and Genma were plotting their course into Wind Country, but that meant only that the temple wasn’t on the direct route between Konoha and Suna. Raidou hadn’t pointed out any location that wasn’t a useful stopping point on their way, and Ryouma wouldn’t have been able to read the complex kanji of the label for anything else.
He was less certain whether they’d crossed any river called the Abashirigawa. River names changed, between countries and after confluences. And there had been so many broad tributaries lacing through River Country, a network of streams and rivers and chained lakes, that he’d barely paid attention to the squiggling lines on the map or the gleaming water they ran over.
It didn’t matter. So long as he could get Kakashi outside, they’d find their way.
Toshio was speaking again, or had been—he was looking at Ryouma oddly again, waiting for a reply. Was that suspicion in his eyes? Had Ryouma misstepped in mentioning Nijo?
No point in guessing what he’d missed. It was time to cut this conversation short.
“Not that I’m, uh, with Nijo. Just. In case you wondered.” He scrambled awkwardly to his feet and struggled into his shirt. “I should get back. Work to do.” A moment’s hesitation before he knotted the shirt-tie. “I’ll see you again sometime.”
White teeth flashed in Toshio’s broad smile. “Come back for dinner. I’ll set aside a few of these for you. You look like you could use feeding up.”
Ryouma longed to escape before dinner-time, and was bitterly certain he wouldn’t. “Thanks,” he said, returning Toshio’s smile. “I’ll be here.”
He went out across the dining area, through the unlocked door on the far side. It opened onto another corridor, running right and left. The left-hand corridor vanished around a blind corner. On the right, light leaked around the edges of another door.
Ryouma crossed the distance in two steps. This door, too, was unlocked. It opened under his hand onto a high-ceilinged room of carved and painted wood, wooden floorboards underfoot, wooden beams socketed into the stony back wall. Enormous pillars held up the complex puzzle of painted rafters.
Directly in front of him, facing away, the wooden statue of a massive white tiger lounged enthroned on a carved and painted pedestal. The statue had once been painted and scented and wreathed in flowers by its worshippers, but the polish had worn and the paint begun to peel away from cracking wood. The flower petals lay in little dried heaps behind the pedestal where the mountain winds had tossed them.
Because the whole outside face of the hall had peeled away, in jagged beams and broken rafters, to open onto nothing but cold wind and empty sky.
Ryouma edged forward, wary of every creaking floorboard. The damage began just a few meters beyond the tiger’s statue, and the floor groaned and swayed ominously underfoot, as if the destruction of the outer wall extended down to the foundations below. He skipped backward quickly and began working sideways instead, aiming for a doorway piercing the hall to the tiger statue’s left.
The destruction here was even worse. A bare meter of intact floor remained against the rear stone wall, before the rest of the room became an impassable chaos of broken pillars and collapsed roof. At least, in this narrow path, the floor didn’t creak so ominously. There had to be some way for Orochimaru to bring in supplies, some way for Toshio to obtain those fresh fish. Sooner or later he’d reach the end of this destroyed temple complex, to survey whatever rockfall lay beyond…
But it wasn’t a rockfall. It was a cliff.
The pathway from the destroyed room opened onto a wooden platform, fenced with painted rails against the empty air. Two years ago, the platform must have led to bridges and walkways climbing up to other parts of the temple complex. Now it overlooked a sheer cliff face from which only sticks and spars protruded. A few decaying scraps of cloth flew like banners in the icy wind.
Ryouma took a step out onto the platform, turned, and saw the disaster he’d come from.
The Hanging Clouds Temple had once huddled against the cliff, built on terraces and tiers, with a broad canyon overhang above protecting the temple from the eroding effects of rain and wind. Then most of that rocky overhang had sheared away and brought the temple with it. Above Ryouma’s head, the cliffside climbed for three hundred, perhaps four hundred meters, in a raw unweathered scar. Below, it fell away for two hundred meters more, to a tumble of fallen rock and the thin glint of a silvery river at the bottom of a narrow black gorge.
There was no climbing that cliff. Not without chakra, without rope. Not with Kakashi’s injuries.
He drew a long, shaking breath that hurt his throat. “Damnit,” he said, quietly. “Fuck you, Orochimaru, you shit-eating bastard murdering traitor—”
“My word,” a woman’s voice said behind him. “He certainly went fishing in the gutters for you. Or did Konoha finally realize how little you’re worth?”
Ryouma spun at the first syllable, his back to the stone. He saw the genjutsu drop like a shimmering veil and leave a black-haired woman standing against the railing, with a winch and pulley system and a supply cart protruding from the edge of the platform where there’d been only empty air before.
She was short, compactly built, with icily pale skin and cat-winged eyes as black as her ponytail. She wore a dark, high-necked shirt and loose pants, like Konoha jounin blues without the shoulder insignia. The strip of her forehead just beneath her hairline was even paler than the rest of her skin, as if she’d recently shed a hitai-ate after years of wear.
He’d seen her face before. Or at least a near-echo of her face, with the hair buzzed short and the ears studded with piercing holes. But Uchiha Satomi was a loyal Konoha nin, and this woman stood between Ryouma and the freedom of the open air, Orochimaru’s guard dog.
“Uchiha,” he said, and she smiled. Her eyes gleamed red.
“You’ve looked your fill, Tousaki. Back to your cage.”
In Ryouma’s absence, Kakashi managed a kind of reluctant, narcotic nap. His dreams were shallow and bloody, and featured far too much lung tissue. He jerked awake more than once for no obvious reason, but with the unsettling sense that someone was trying to talk to him. The room was empty each time, all its shadows in the right places.
The fourth time it happened, he threw the lamp at the wall. This was a mistake, partly because it was stupid and it hurt, but mostly because the lamp was the main source of light in the room. When it hit the stone, the lampshade flew off and the lightbulb smashed. The room dropped into darkness.
Wonderful. Now the things in the ceiling were going to eat him.
Kakashi considered the lamp’s carcass for a little while. In the pale glow of the heart rate monitor, slender glass shards gleamed like tiny bioluminescent ribs on the floor, too small to do anything useful with. They wouldn’t serve as caltrops against anyone but himself and Ryouma, barefoot as they were, but the lamp cord…
Laboriously and painfully, he reached over the side of the bed, found the outlet where the lamp had been plugged in, identified the correct cord, disconnected it from the wall, and began to inch the lamp up into the bed. It took a stupid amount of time, especially because he kept drifting, but eventually he had it in hand.
The stem of the lamp was short and brittle, made from old, dark wood. There was some sort of creature carved into one side, but the details had been smoothed away by years of hands and polish. Kakashi weighed it, judged it more useful for termite fodder than a weapon, and set about detaching the cord from the base. Once he got it freed, he used his teeth to split the plastic sheathing and peel it back.
When he was done, he had about 50 centimeters of wire in his hands. He tidied this little treasure into a neat coil and hid it beneath his pillow. The lamp stem went under the quilt, in case he came up with a better idea for it later. He tried to lift a corner of the mattress to hide the stripped plastic casing, found the task beyond him, and stuffed it under the sheet instead.
That still left the shards on the floor, and the discarded lampshade in the corner, but falling on his face in an attempt to tidy them would be counterproductive. The low visibility would just have to cover him until Ryouma could.
He might have dozed after that, or briefly passed out, it was hard to judge.
He twitched awake when something slammed against the wall outside his room. There were voices: Ryouma, sharp, combative, upset and loud about it, and a woman Kakashi didn’t recognize. Not Nijo.
The door was only a meter away.
Somehow, in a wrench of adrenaline, Kakashi managed to get upright, unassisted, and out of bed. Cables trailed after him, still tethered to monitors and the IV stand. He was barefoot and naked except for a mask and thin, hospital-style pants, which wasn’t ideal, but all that mattered was moving. On his way to the door, he grabbed the water jug off the side table.
He kind of fell into the wall as he avoided the glass, but he had weapons, and he had darkness, and when the door opened, he had the element of surprise.
Ryouma came through first, backlit by the brighter hallway. Fresh blood smeared over his mouth from an oozing nose. One arm was viciously twisted up behind his back. He halted a step past the doorway, staring at the empty bed, then stumbled forward when the person behind him shoved. Glass crunched underfoot. He pulled sideways with a yelp, hauling his captor forward, and the woman came through the door.
Kakashi smashed the jug against her temple. He didn’t have enough force to crack her skull, but pottery and water exploded everywhere. She lost her grip on Ryouma and crashed into the doorframe. Kakashi fell on her with the wire, lashing it around her neck. He twisted the loop closed and hauled with all his strength.
Unfortunately, his strength wasn’t much, even with his body weight thrown behind it. The wire bit into skin, but the woman was already moving like a wet viper, twisting to counter him. Ryouma lunged at her, catching the hand that lashed towards Kakashi’s eye before it could connect, bending her wrist back to an unnatural angle.
The woman snarled and punched him in the throat. He fell back with the rattling choke of a shocked larynx. She rounded on Kakashi, grabbing his forearm with an iron grip, and he got his first real look at her in the fractured light.
Obito’s kin stared back at him, black hair plastered to pale, wet skin. A ragged cut crawled down the left side of her face, bleeding freely. Her mouth was tight and furious, but it was her eyes that froze him — two blood-red Sharingan spinning like a heart attack.
“Orochimaru said you weren’t to be touched,” she spat.
She twisted his arm sideways and her free hand came down on his mid-forearm like a club. There was chakra in the blow; he couldn’t feel it, but bone gave way with a dull snap.
Her mouth curled nastily. “Oops.”
For an airless moment, it didn’t hurt. His grip failed and the garotte slithered loose, but there was just a sour lurch in the back of his throat. She kept hold of his arm and shoved him until his spine hit the wall — and then it hurt. A flooding tide of sharp red pain, like she’d torn a tooth out by the root, except it was his arm, his Raikiri hand, and something was badly broken. It took a grinding moment to get a grip on it, but he managed, because she was still holding him, still a threat, and she had those eyes.
She had Obito’s blunt cheekbones. Satomi’s dissatisfied mouth. The same delicate chin every Uchiha had inherited all the way back to Madara. As a group personality, Uchiha were some of the worst humans he’d ever met, but they were a founding clan. They weren’t, ever, traitors.
He’d never hated anyone so fast in his life.
“Missing-nin,” he grated.
She just smiled, flat and thin, and shoved him harder against the wall. He kept his balance, just about, but his chest flared a painful, aching warning: don’t do that again. “I’m not missing much,” she said. “Orochimaru’s given me far more than Konoha ever could.”
Behind her, Ryouma lurched up onto his hands. His breath still rattled, but his eyes were clear and furious, and when they landed on Kakashi’s arm, they turned murderous. There was nothing within his reach that could make a weapon, so he just lunged at the Uchiha. Where she had chakra, he had simple brute strength, and he focused it all on the back of her left knee, hitting the side of the joint with the heel of one bloody, glassed foot. Bone didn’t crack, but her knee buckled.
She yelped and went sideways, taking Kakashi with her. They fell into the bedside table, sending it to the floor with a crash, and Ryouma threw himself at the Uchiha, body-slamming her away from Kakashi.
It was a welter of broken furniture and screaming machines, as most of Kakashi’s leads tore loose and alarmed the monitors. He landed wedged between the wall and the bedside table, in a consciousness-shredding vise of pain. Ryouma and the Uchiha rolled across the glass-strewn floor, fighting to throttle each other, and Kakashi thought: She’ll kill him.
Orochimaru had left a red paper seal on the bedside table. Touch this if you need emergency assistance.
Kakashi dragged himself up. The dark room blurred, but there was enough light to scrabble in the wreckage around him. A red sliver caught his eye beneath the broken shards of a mug and he grabbed for it with his good hand. The moment his fingers brushed paper, light and heat flared like a bastard, noisy version of Minato’s Hiraishin kunai.
Unlike the Hiraishin, Orochimaru didn’t step through a hole in the universe. After two frantic heartbeats, where nothing happened except Ryouma punching the Uchiha in the eye, and the Uchiha cracking Ryouma’s head against the ground, Kakashi abandoned that rescue plan and lunged for his next best weapon: the IV pole.
It was awkward, too long and flimsy for any real damage, badly weighted with IV bags, but it was a decent distraction when he brought it down across the Uchiha’s back. Sutures in his chest snapped during the swing. His broken arm failed entirely, and he dropped the pole. She stopped trying to strangle Ryouma and whipped around with bared, bloody teeth, faster than Kakashi could track. Grabbed the pole and surged up to her feet as Kakashi fell back—
A pale, long-fingered hand closed around her wrist.
“I believe I left clear instructions regarding the treatment of my other guests, Masuyo-kun,” Orochimaru said evenly.
The Uchiha glared at Orochimaru and tried to yank her arm out of his grip. She failed. Orochimaru’s slender arm showed no apparent effort as he held her, as if he were carved of something light but unbreakable. Slowly, her fingers blanched until she was forced to drop the IV pole. It hit the floor with a clang, tugging Kakashi’s IV line.
Orochimaru held her eyes as calmly as he held her wrist. If the Sharingan affected him at all, it wasn’t apparent. “I know it’s been a… difficult week for you, but that’s no reason to be impolite.”
A flicker of something crossed Masuyo’s face. Alarm—fear? But it was swallowed by a scowl of throttled rage.
Orochimaru waited, like someone rather bored but too polite to show it, until she ducked her head and looked away. Then he dropped her wrist. He turned to look at Kakashi, who was managing to stay upright by holding onto the headboard with his good arm. Orochimaru heaved a long-suffering sigh. “And you have torn your stitches. I should have known you’d be a terrible patient.”
Relief was starting to put a weird blue haze on things. Or maybe that was tunnel vision. Or self-disgust. Possibly all three.
“If your Suna traitor hadn’t stabbed me,” Kakashi said.
On the floor, Ryouma groaned, coughed, rolled over, pushed himself up, and spat out a bloody premolar. He looked at it with dizzy annoyance.
“Not my Suna traitor,” Orochimaru corrected, picking his way delicately through the glass shards towards Kakashi. “This was all part of Suna’s poorly executed attempt at overthrowing their kage. But nevermind that, please lie down, Kakashi-kun. Let’s not add concussion to your list of injuries.”
On the one hand, doing anything Orochimaru said rankled Kakashi on a cellular level. On the other hand, he was reasonably sure he was going to pass out if he didn’t get horizontal soon. Down on the floor, the IV pump beeped a forlorn little alarm as lack of gravity-assistance prevented fluids from flowing.
On the third hand, that was an interesting tidbit about Suna, if it was true.
“Hatake,” said Kakashi, easing himself onto the bed. “I never gave you permission to use my personal name.”
“A privilege reserved for a select few, I’m sure,” Orochimaru said, sounding amused. He looked meaningfully at Ryouma, who’d just made it to his knees. “Though he could do a better job keeping you out of trouble.”
In a moment that Kakashi was going to treasure for the rest of his natural life, Ryouma didn’t take the bait. He wiped his mouth, pushed stiffly up to his feet, and gave Masuyo a derisive look. “Your taijutsu’s still sloppy. Pretty fucking weak for an Uchiha.”
Masuyo, by contrast, took the bait like a starving catfish. She lunged at Ryouma—but only made it a single step before she froze, eyes wide and shocked.
Seal, Kakashi recognized.
Orochimaru made a quiet little tch sound, like a fussy grandmother, and left her suspended in mid-step while he put the room back to rights. First, he activated a half-dozen seals embedded in the ceiling, which lit up with a gentle yellow glow. Then he righted the IV pole, shooing Ryouma out of the way, and returned it to the bedside. He checked Kakashi’s IV catheter to make sure it was still patent, and restarted the mix of IV fluids and pain medication. The monitors were still shrilling about their torn leads; he shut them off.
At that point, Kakashi’s ability to remain upright succumbed to the inevitable, and he slithered down flat on the bed. Everything hurt.
Orochimaru looked at the scattered glass, the broken bedside table, the single tooth in its comet splatter of blood, the shattered pottery, and sighed again. He touched his fingertips together, flicked a few rapid seals, and half of the stone floor rolled up and over itself, like liquid, and swallowed the offending detritus. When Orochimaru let the jutsu go, the floor settled back into clean, unremarkable flagstones.
Orochimaru flicked invisible dust off his sleeves, before finally returning to the frozen Uchiha. “Your eyes are still recovering, Masuyo-kun. Try not to overuse them.”
Her jaw ground so hard Kakashi almost expected to hear teeth crack. Slowly, the red faded out of her eyes, replaced by normal pupils and irises the color of the bottom of a well. Orochimaru released the seal, though Kakashi didn’t see how he did it. She stumbled, caught herself, and stood ramrod straight.
“You should go back to your room and rest,” Orochimaru told her, with the tiniest fleck of disapproval in his voice.
Masuyo leveled a glare like a blowtorch at all three of them and stalked out of the door, slamming it behind her.
She left a strange, uncomfortable silence in her wake. In it, Kakashi took his first opportunity to look at Ryouma closely, now that there was light to see by. Ryouma’s nose was bleeding again, smearing his upper lip, but didn’t look broken. There was a broad, fist-sized circle of red on the left side of his jaw, which would be a spectacular bruise tomorrow, and a ragged gash over his right temple, where she’d cracked his head into the floor. His knuckles were red, though, Kakashi noted with satisfaction: Masuyo hadn’t gotten away clean. If he’d had his chakra, his normal strength, even just a weapon, he would have killed her.
He limped over to the bed, leaving red, tacky footprints in his wake, and gave Kakashi a tight, worried look. “She broke his right arm,” he told Orochimaru bluntly.
And you have glass in your feet.
Kakashi narrowed a one-eyed look at Orochimaru. “What did you do to her eyes?”
“That would be breaking doctor-patient confidentiality, I’m afraid,” Orochimaru said, smooth as oil. He bent over the bed, touching a delicate fingernail to the bright drops of blood seeping through Kakashi’s bandages. A glowing edge of chakra sharpened the nail and slit the bandages open. “Suffice it to say, she came to me with a problem and I solved it.”
The bandages peeled back to reveal the thick puffy line of the incision, beaded with blood where sutures had split. It cut just under Kakashi’s left nipple, carving from his side almost to his sternum. More black sutures closed the kunai wound above, between the second and third ribs. The skin around both incision sites was still shocked, swollen and pink. A little serum leaked from the stitches, and a thin plastic tube drained more foamy fluid into a thick plastic bag taped against his lower side. Glowing seals on the bag pulsed slowly, suctioning air and fluid out of Kakashi’s chest cavity.
Orochimaru prodded lightly at the incisions, clicked his tongue disapprovingly, and splintered off a shadow clone to go fetch medical supplies.
Ryouma stood on throbbing feet at the side of the bed, uselessly protective. He should never have allowed the Uchiha to escort him back to this room. He should have fought harder to keep her from entering. He should have dodged that throat punch, stopped her before she’d broken Kakashi’s arm, before those sutures burst.
He should have recognized her on the platform outside Hanging Clouds Temple.
“She didn’t have the Sharingan before,” he said hoarsely.
Talking hurt. His jaw ached, his bruised larynx felt like a knot of razors in his throat, and his tongue kept finding the raw socket on the left side of his jaw where his tooth had been. But it could have been worse, should have been worse, if Uchiha Masuyo’s taijutsu hadn’t been as sloppy as her loyalties.
“She was at the ANBU Trials,” he said. “Flashy phoenix Katon jutsu. Messy taijutsu.” It was the taijutsu he’d recognized, when she was strangling him. Himura Tadao had pointed her out on the first day of Trials, assuring Ryouma that he wouldn’t have to worry about jutsu theft from that side: the only Uchiha candidate this year was one without the Sharingan.
She had it now. Three jagged black tomoe in each blood-red eye, spinning like a pinwheel in the wind. Not that they’d helped her taijutsu, much.
Recognition sparked in Kakashi’s eye. His head lifted off the pillow. “You activated her Sharingan.” Fascination, horror, outrage all churned beneath the flat accusation in his voice. “How? Why?”
Orochimaru smiled, just a little too wide, a little too pleased. He leaned in, hair falling like a curtain around them. “You’re asking the wrong questions, Kakashi-kun— Oh, my apologies, force of habit. The right question here is: what else can I do?”
Corpses pinned to the walls, hanging like coats in some horrible closet.
Hadn’t he done that in Konoha, too? Ninja and civilians gone missing; bodies in the walls, in tubes, on tables… Rumors of vivisections, experimental seals, jutsu so forbidden the Records Office wouldn’t even record them. The lucky ones died straight away, Ryouma’s chuunin friends had told each other, whispering on double-shift guard duty during those endless nights afterwards. The unlucky survivors were twisted into monsters their own mothers wouldn’t recognize…
Uchiha Masuyo didn’t look like a monster. She carried that horror beneath her skin.
“But that can be a discussion for after you’ve recovered,” Orochimaru concluded, straightening up. “Right now, I need to redo some of your stitches.” He looked towards the door, where the rattle of wheels on stone announced the return of his shadow clone, pushing a laden cart.
The clone unloaded a new standing lamp, which it plugged in and pointed at the bed; a surgical tray with gauze, bandages, ointment, and suture kit; another basic medkit, presumably for backup; splints and padding; a large jug of steaming water, a cake of soap, and an empty basin. Orochimaru scrubbed his hands briskly as the clone poured. His yellow, slit-pupiled eyes found Ryouma across the basin.
“My memory of Konoha’s medic training is probably outdated. Have you learned to suture yet?”
Ryouma licked blood off his teeth again. “We learn basic stitches in chuunin field med. I can close wounds with jutsu, now. If I had my chakra back.”
“I always appreciate enthusiasm in a student.” Orochimaru smiled. “All right.” He shook water off his hands and reached up to slide long, sharp-nailed fingers across the back of Ryouma’s neck. His touch was cool as a corpse’s, despite the steaming water. His greasy chakra pulsed into the seal he’d left.
And Ryouma’s chakra came flooding back.
The first, overwhelming impulse was to kill. He shoved his tongue into the ragged hole in his jaw and let that pain master him instead. Orochimaru could send a jolt of chakra through his brainstem far faster than Ryouma could finish the seals for the Nikutai Tokasu, and who would stop Orochimaru and that Uchiha from doing anything they wanted to Kakashi then?
Ryouma could wait. He could wait, and help Kakashi now, and seize the right moment later. Rule 49. A shinobi is in all things patient.
Patience tasted like cowardice, and both of them tasted like blood. He swallowed them all, and stood still.
“Don’t worry,” Orochimaru said, encouragingly. The cold hand squeezed Ryouma’s neck once and slithered free. “If you make a mistake, I’ll fix it.”
Kakashi’s brow creased, between the pinched-closed Sharingan eye and the dilated grey one. He lay slack on the bed, his right arm braced painfully still against his side, but the rumpled surgical mask couldn’t hide a jaw tight with tension.
He didn’t trust Orochimaru’s teacherly demeanor any more than Ryouma did, but every other option was worse.
Ryouma washed his hands. He formed the seals for the diagnostic jutsu carefully and precisely, and his chakra followed smoothly through the channeled paths. Orochimaru stood back, smiling faintly, as Ryouma laid green-glowing hands over Kakashi’s chest.
The scalpel cuts were sharp and clean, and Orochimaru had already laid deep healing into them, closing the chest wall and the lacerated lung beneath it. Bruising lingered, but already the injuries felt weeks old, not mere hours. Only the shallower muscles and skin were held closed by sutures instead of new scar tissue or granulation.
But the greasy, tainted film of Orochimaru’s chakra coated every rib and blood vessel and muscle fiber, floating like an oil slick on the low ebb of Kakashi’s own chakra. And it wasn’t just healing residue. There was something else, something etched into bone on the underside of the sternum. The seal.
Ryouma’s breath caught. He steadied it.
Orochimaru was leaning against the side of the bed, just outside arm’s reach. The clone had taken up a position on the other side of the bed. They were both watching him, lazy-hipped, keen-eyed.
He didn’t dare try anything more now. Even if they hadn’t been watching, he couldn’t have risked it—what did he know of seals? He hadn’t recognized a single element of the one carved into the back of his neck. Kakashi was the one who knew, who needed to know.
And Kakashi couldn’t see inside his own ribcage.
Ryouma ended the jutsu and set his fingers back into the modified Ox seal. “His lung feels like it’s healing cleanly,” he said, or someone said; the voice sounded distant, calm, professional. Not connected at all to his racing pulse and curdling stomach. “I couldn’t do much that deep anyway. But I can finish closing the incisions so there’s no risk of infection. And coax some of the fluid to drain.”
Two sets of snake-pupiled eyes gazed unblinkingly at him for a long moment. Ryouma breathed in, out, in. His heart hammered.
Orochimaru and his clone turned to each other. “That’s one point to me,” the original said, as if continuing a conversation he’d had inside his own head.
“For now,” the clone replied, and dissipated into smoke.
Orochimaru turned back to Ryouma. “Please,” he said courteously. “Go on.”
Ryouma drew one last steadying breath, and shaped the Boar seal. Then the rest.
He set green-glowing hands to Kakashi’s chest. His chakra sank down, meeting Kakashi’s parched flow and meshing with it, like two hands joining in a seal and turning inward together. Easier now than it had been in Genma’s loft, that first time, even if the injuries were far more extensive. But the practice was the same: threading a web of chakra into muscle fibers and vessels and nerves along the edges of the incision, knitting and binding, encouraging the body’s natural healing processes into a delicate acceleration.
Inflammation developed into granulation tissue. Collagen built a basketweave to close the wound, chakra-guided into the complex architecture of healthy tissue rather than the weaker alignment of scars. New tissue needed hydration; he coaxed the draining fluid through the wound, and discouraged further collagen production before it could produce hypertrophic scarring.
Getting close. He sank his chakra, and his consciousness, deeper.
Heat began to build. Sweat beaded his temples and dampened his shirt to his back. Kakashi’s skin flushed. Behind the mask, a groan caught between gritted teeth.
Ryouma folded over, left hand still pressed glowing to Kakashi’s chest, right dropping to brace against his own thigh. He panted open-mouthed, eyes squeezing closed, fingers closing tight over trembling muscle. “Almost…there. Just. A little more…”
A moment’s pause, measured in heartbeats. Three. Four. Five. His leg throbbed.
Then Orochimaru stepped closer. His long, icy hand settled on Ryouma’s back. “You have good control,” he said, pleasantly surprised. “But you’re trying to do too much too quickly. That’s why you’re both overheating.”
Oily chakra oozed through Ryouma’s coils, clammy and cooling, easing the strain. “Give his cells time to respond. Let him contribute his own chakra to the healing.”
Kakashi wheezed a painful little sound that might, once, have been a laugh.
Ryouma opened his eyes. “He… doesn’t have enough. Used himself up. Resealing the bijuu. And your surgery.”
Orochimaru’s tainted chakra seeped through his pathways, melding into Ryouma’s own chakra like oil suspended in water. Was he enough of an oyster, Ryouma wondered frantically, to clean this too? Would Orochimaru notice if he did? He hadn’t seemed to notice, yet, the white-knuckled hand still gripping Ryouma’s leg above the knee. He hadn’t noticed the rest.
“I see Konoha still hasn’t taught its medics to maintain emotional distance.” Orochimaru sounded amused. “The human body is more resilient than you know, Ryouma-kun.”
The flow of his chakra began to fade. Ryouma’s sense of his own chakra went with it, gently, like a tap turning off. The light blinked out from his hands. Kakashi drew a ragged breath.
“You’ve done enough,” Orochimaru said kindly. “Kakashi’s body will take care of the rest.”
Ryouma pried his fingers off his thigh and straightened. His leg and jaw ached. His glass-cut feet seared. He looked down at Kakashi’s chest and saw a lurid pink line of scar, sutures already beginning to dissolve. The knife-wound, above, was darker purple but still flat. The leakage into the chest tube had stopped.
Orochimaru moved about almost cheerfully, removing the chest tube and the remaining sutures, applying ointment and bandages. He attended, finally, to the broken arm: a careful palpation paired with his own diagnostic jutsu to ensure the fractured ulna had not badly misaligned, then a briskly competent setting and splinting. Kakashi gritted his teeth and made no sound.
“This may be foolish optimism on my part,” Orochimaru said, as he finished with the splint, “but I do hope you won’t incur any more injuries.” His dry voice indicated how low he thought those chances were.
Kakashi blinked, one-eyed.
“I haven’t forgotten you, of course,” Orochimaru told Ryouma. “Repairing the tooth is beyond my abilities, but I can close the wound. We wouldn’t want you to get an infection.” His gaze dropped thoughtfully to the drying red footprints on the floor. “And perhaps a pair of tweezers for those feet.”
If he went looking for things to heal on Ryouma, he’d find too much. Ryouma shook his head. “Just leave me the medkit. I could use the practice.”
Orochimaru sighed. “Your choice. Perhaps when you’re in too much pain to eat, you’ll realize the difference between noble suffering and stupidity.”
He would probably enjoy saying I told you so.
But with the decision made, he was all business again, pruning scalpel and scissors out of a medkit and adding an extra roll of bandage before dropping the kit on the bed. He split off another shadow clone to push the cart. “I’ll send someone by with more food,” he decided, halfway to the door. “You both need to keep up your strength.”
The door closed. The waning lights in the ceiling faded out. Kakashi and Ryouma stared at each other in the remaining pool of yellow lamplight.
“You should’ve taken the healing,” Kakashi rasped. “What was he going to do, add another seal?”
“No,” Ryouma said.
He was trembling now, in the aftermath of adrenaline. His fingers fumbled on his drawstring waistband. He tore the knot loose, at last, and shoved the pants impatiently down.
Lamplight gleamed on the pink, lumpy new scar just above his right knee. A twisted shape of spiraling thorns around a central node, its fine details blurred by scattered clusters of red, over-granulated proud flesh, but the basic elements still clear.
Kakashi’s control seal, copied into Ryouma’s skin in the bare moments when he’d still had one hand on Kakashi’s chest and a healing jutsu sunk rib-deep. He’d done it. And it was starting to hurt like hell.
It took a solid three seconds for Kakashi to understand what he was looking at, scarred into Ryouma’s thigh. Another three to realize how Ryouma had done it, healing Kakashi and studying the original seal and transcribing a copy into his own flesh, all right under Orochimaru’s nose. There wasn’t a single betraying drop of blood on Ryouma’s pants.
Holy shit, my boyfriend’s a genius.
Kakashi cupped his good left hand around Ryouma’s leg, over the firm swell of the vastus lateralis muscle, and brushed his thumb against the inflamed edge of one raised line. It was hot to the touch. Ryouma flinched, shivering, but held in place.
“This,” Kakashi croaked, “is brilliant.”
Ryouma’s blood-chapped mouth split into a wide, relieved grin. “I couldn’t tell if it was exactly the same as the one you saw on my neck—knew I’d never remember it to draw it out for you later— and I don’t think he noticed. He’d’ve been more smug about it.”
“He must have expected you to look, though,” Kakashi said, puzzled.
To Kakashi’s eye, Orochimaru was a permanent blend of smug and indulgent when he wasn’t mildly annoyed, like an academy teacher with a class of gifted students who still occasionally tried to lick the outlets.
It was an unsettling quality in a captor.
Kakashi had been on both sides of jail cells, hostage situations, prisoner exchanges, and torture. They had a known, if unpleasant, quality. He’d never been trapped by a man who seemed willfully oblivious to the fact that his guests weren’t actually enjoying their stay, or who cared so little about keeping them locked in.
Orochimaru’s associates had been violent, aggressive, predictable in their nastiness. Orochimaru himself had been—
Acting something like a twisted jounin-sensei, now that Kakashi thought about it. Learning opportunities abounded (“Want to see your own lung?” “Want to practice your healing?”), and the unpleasant consequences of misdeeds were painful but not fatal. So far.
What did Orochimaru want?
That single unanswered question was going to make Kakashi actually crazy.
He pulled his sliding thoughts back to the hard-earned brand under his fingers. At first glance, the seal looked similar to the one on the back of Ryouma’s neck, slanted exterior, delicate inner workings, but there were details lost in swelling and scarring. Kakashi touched a section on the upper right, where a gnarled line might have been a character, or might have been connective scaffolding. “What was this piece?”
Ryouma squinted, tilting his head. “I think… I couldn’t get it exactly right, but I’m pretty sure that was a little hook, like in the center of the hiragana ‘fu’. Unless that was more on the center left… No. It’s this one.” A glimmer of tired humor livened his eyes. “Your flashcards paid off.”
“Obviously,” said Kakashi, who considered bullet points one of life’s superior communication methods. He tapped a livid whorl of flesh near the center. “How about this?”
“More like ‘su’, except backwards and doubled. Sorry.” Ryouma grimaced. “Scar tissue’s not all that good for writing, even if my chakra control were better. We could try writing it out clean, compare it to the one on my neck. I haven’t got library access yet, but I can keep trying. Maybe when Nijo gets back…”
Maybe she could electrocute Ryouma again. Kakashi’s lip curled, irritated with bounty hunters and kunoichi whose default setting was asshole.
“I can work with this,” he said firmly. “Grab that med-kit and take your pants off.”
Ryouma kicked out of his pants, leaving bloody footprints on the cloth. He abandoned them in a crumpled heap and turned, dressed only in shirt and underwear and glass shards. “Med-kit, med-kit…” He spotted his prize at the foot of the bed, limped two steps to scoop it up, and decided abruptly, “I’m going to sit down.”
He landed on the bed just shy of Kakashi’s knees, making ancient springs and Kakashi’s bones judder in protest.
Kakashi reorganized his priorities. “Show me your feet.”
Ryouma hiked his right foot over his left knee and squinted at the gory, clotted underside. Blood had collected in the creases of his sole and started to dry, spider-webbing a rusted map. A single glimmer near the base of his big toe hinted at a sliver of glass. He sighed, dug a stack of alcohol wipes and a pair of tweezers out of the med-kit, and then had to fend Kakashi off. “You’ve only got one hand. I know how to use tweezers, I swear.”
“Oh fine,” said Kakashi. “He does one healing and he gets all uppity.”
Ryouma made a ragged sound in the back of his throat that might have been the drowned cousin of a laugh. The edges of his teeth were stained pink. He hadn’t opened his mouth wide enough for Kakashi to see a gap, but the empty tooth socket was probably still bleeding. Kakashi picked up a piece of gauze, folded it over on itself, and tapped the fat little square against Ryouma’s mouth.
Ryouma blinked, then took the square, tucked it into his bottom jaw, and bit down. With a grunt, he extracted a red splinter from his foot, glanced around, and flicked it accurately into the furthest corner.
“So you didn’t find a library,” Kakashi prompted, “but you did find an Uchiha. Anything else?”
“A door outside.” Ryouma paused in the process of wiggling another sliver loose and flicked his eyes up without lifting his head, meeting Kakashi’s eye. “We’re tunneled into a cliffside behind a hanging temple. Maybe three-hundred meters below the canyon rim, two-hundred meters off the ground. Sheer rock. The temple’s been destroyed—there’s no walkway down, just a winch and pulley elevator. The Uchiha was guarding it.”
A dozen questions flooded forward, roadblocking behind Kakashi’s back teeth. “Did you get a good look at the landscape? Altitude? What time of day? What direction does the temple face — East? What kind of temple? What did the canyon rock look like? What—”
“Take a breath before you deflate your lung again,” Ryouma said, caught between alarm and laughter. “There was a statue to a god I don’t know— a white tiger lying down on a flowery pedestal. The temple faced… not east… southwest. It’s late afternoon now. The canyon cuts north-south here, but it must snake downstream, because the gorge wall came up and I couldn’t see far. Mountain peaks in the distance. Black and grey rock. There’d been a rockslide here in the canyon; the overhang came down and brought most of the temple with it. The cook, Toshio, said Orochimaru moved in a week later, so one guess who was behind the landslide. He called it the Hanging Clouds Temple. Mentioned working a riverboat down the Abashirigawa river too, but I don’t know if that’s the river through this canyon, or somewhere else.”
Kakashi knew that name. He’d never been to the river, but he’d seen it on a map. He could almost picture it… He flipped it over in his head, adding and subtracting facts. Mountains. Black and grey rock. A southwest temple. A white tiger shrined like a god…
“Sunny but cold outside?” he asked.
Maybe his lingering breathlessness wasn’t just from lung trauma.
Ryouma thought about it, then nodded. “We must be pretty high up. Clear blue sky, but the wind felt like snow coming.”
“We’re in Sky Country,” Kakashi said, baffled.
“Sky Country?” Ryouma said, even more baffled. “That’s… I mean, I knew we weren’t in Suna anymore, but that’s hundreds of kilometers west. Northwest. Halfway to Iwagakure! Though…” Dark eyebrows creased. “That snake in the cavern was a summons, right. Orochimaru must’ve delegated it to Nijo— she had a scroll and a vial of blood. So it must’ve swallowed us, un-summoned itself, then reappeared here, at Orochimaru’s command.”
Kakashi’s lips parted. “That’s how he’s doing it.”
“Evading Jiraiya,” Kakashi said. “Most contract-holders can’t summon a creature big enough to swallow them — the chakra cost is too great. But Orochimaru’s been summoning Manda since the Second War. If he can delegate a trusted subordinate as a temporary summoner, he could move himself or his people around at will.” Kakashi considered this. “He might even make it work with clones. Bastard.”
Ryouma pulled another bloody sliver from his foot and threw it at the wall. “So he can teleport through summoning a giant-ass snake. He’s bought off a bounty hunter and suborned an Uchiha. Who now has a Sharingan and a grudge against you.” Another shard of glass hit the wall, leaving a single red droplet smudged against the stone. Ryouma switched feet and, contemplating the drying blood-sleeve Kakashi’s glass trap had made of his sole, said, “I’ll kill her for you.”
Theirs was a strange romance, Kakashi reflected, but it still made him feel warm.
He smiled, a little crooked, and said, “Try to save her eyes.”
Ryouma looked at him sidelong. “Are we back to eyeballs as romantic gifts? Or as a peace-offering to get the rest of the Uchiha off your back? They can’t be happy about losing a traitor.”
Kakashi had gifted him one of the dodomeki’s eyes as a token of affection. Last seen, it was bobbing in a jar at the back of Ryouma’s medicine cabinet, glaring at the dental floss.
He twisted away from this memory of home before it started to hurt.
“It’s not for the Uchiha,” he said. With his luck, they’d just assume he’d murdered another clan scion for fun and profit. “But her eyes need to be studied, if we can take them, or destroyed if we can’t. Another village cannot get ahold of them.”
“And Orochimaru definitely shouldn’t,” Ryouma muttered, then perked up. “Well, I’m Konoha’s best body disposal expert, when I get my chakra back. And if I don’t, there’s always a hard stomp. But I’ll try to find a jar first.” He fiddled briefly with his foot, hissed, and extracted a long, curving splinter. Fresh blood welled up and began to drip from his heel. Ryouma made an exasperated sound, grabbed a piece of gauze and wadded it over the puncture, then went after another splinter. There were fewer in this foot, but they each seemed to be bigger and bloodier. “How d’you think he activated her Sharingan?”
“Torture, probably,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma blinked, lifted his head, and squinted at Kakashi. It was relatively easy to read his train of thought: Because that’s Orochimaru’s default — even though he hasn’t really tried it on us yet — or because Uchiha are just the worst?
Kakashi gathered his scraped-out embers for an emotional effort. “After Obito gave me his eye, the Sandaime tried to get the Uchiha to teach me how to use it. I’d figured out the main points, obviously, but early on, we still thought I might be able to activate it and deactivate it.” His memory of those six months was fractured and moth-eaten: perfect snapshots of Sharingan recall, and a lot of black unconsciousness. He’d spent more time in the hospital than out of it. “The clan heads refused, of course, and the Hyuuga backed them, but Minato was able to glean a little information, here and there, very carefully, in the trenches.”
Even the glittering Uchiha hadn’t wanted to risk turning the Yellow Flash against them, not when he was turning the tide of the war.
“Strong emotion is the first switch,” Kakashi said. “Usually around puberty, but sometimes before, if the chakra system is strong enough. There was a kid two years ago who managed at eight. Uchiha Fugaku tried to recommend him for ANBU last year.”
Ryouma stared at him. “At ten?”
“I know,” said Kakashi, who had been trying to persuade Minato to let him join ANBU at fourteen. “Fugaku took it to the Council, trying to force his hand. It was the only unanimous vote that year. Minato had a field day.”
Ryouma snorted violently, which made his nosebleed start up again. He swore and went for more gauze.
“But the flipside,” Kakashi continued, “is that if the Sharingan hasn’t activated by fifteen, it probably won’t. So— torture, and something to strengthen her chakra system, if I had to guess.”
“No wonder she didn’t seem all that grateful. But she must’ve asked for it— She didn’t deny it when you called her a missing-nin.” Ryouma wiped blood off his foot with an alcohol swab, wincing at the sting, and prodded to check for any last pieces of glass. Apparently satisfied, he dug bandages out of the med-kit and began to bind both feet. “We haven’t heard of any Uchiha gone missing-nin before we left Konoha. But they’d probably try to keep that quiet, even in ANBU.”
Kakashi’s mouth twisted. “Even so, Minato would have been told. And he would have told me.”
“Unless she ran after you left,” Ryouma pointed out. “You’ve been gone for almost a month.”
Now it was Kakashi’s turn to blink. A month? It hadn’t been a—
“And Orochimaru’s said she’s been here for, what, a week?” Ryouma continued, while Kakashi had a minor temporal crisis. His mouth thinned. “How she got here is another question. Jiraiya couldn’t find Orochimaru, but some kid who couldn’t even make it past the first ANBU Trial does? He must’ve recruited her in the village. Like Akiyama.”
What even was the point in having village walls if snakes could apparently ghost right through them? He vented a growling sound that made the corner of Ryouma’s mouth tick up, and set the entire problem aside to focus on the next one, starting by stealing the rest of the med-kit from Ryouma.
The remaining contents were mostly standard fare, though the scissors and scalpel had been removed. It was the button-flap side pocket that held the medic’s best friend and real treasure: a permanent marker and a slender, waterproof notebook.
While Ryouma finished bandaging his feet and gingerly extracting the blood-soaked gauze from his mouth, Kakashi flipped open the notebook, and gestured Ryouma to extend his leg so that Kakashi could copy the seal down. It was slow, painstaking, awkward work, done with his less dextrous hand. (When they got home, he was going to drill on left-handed tasks.) Eventually, he spun the notebook around, offering its new illustration for inspection. “Look right?”
Ryouma took the notebook and studied it, tracing one forefinger over the inked lines, and a bloody finger over the scar on his thigh. “It looks right. Maybe a whisper more space between these two lines here—” He tapped a spot near the edge, where corresponding scar tissue had knotted too thickly to show this detail. “How similar is it to the one you saw on my neck?”
“Pretty close,” Kakashi said. He flipped up the corner of the sheet, where the tea-drawing of Ryouma’s seal had dried to near invisibility in the yellow lamplight. Ryouma tossed the notebook back and Kakashi laid it next to its predecessor, comparing the two.
The design was still unfamiliar to him. Each seal was caged in the same unbalanced, fang-like shape, blunt at one end, narrowing to a curving taper at the other. Both interiors were filled with a congested, thorny spiral surrounding a central node. It was a strange layout. Most fuuinjutsu, especially ones intended for people, contained some element of symmetry—a reflection of the body’s desire for homeostasis. This… thorn? Seemed incomplete.
If the whole doesn’t make sense, study the pieces.
The center of each seal was slightly different. Both were clearly symbols, but not from any system Kakashi recognized. Certainly not Fire Country’s, which modeled its designs after kanji. Not one of Wind Country’s rounded scripts, each symbol lashing itself to the next on a connected line. It wasn’t Water Country’s spiked, simplistic lettering either, which hadn’t yet managed to discover a curve.
He flipped a page and slowly drew the two centerpieces side by side, muttering when his left hand couldn’t perform as fluidly as he wanted. Ryouma craned his head to watch, but kept quiet. Kakashi made him hop up from time to time, needing a closer look at the back of his neck.
The final results were accurate representations, but didn’t lead to any particular inspiration.
Kakashi chewed his lip and flipped to the next page, but paused before he put pen to paper. It wasn’t a very big notebook. “Can I borrow your leg?”
Wordlessly, Ryouma stretched his right leg and bandaged foot over Kakashi’s lap, settling the seal-scar right under Kakashi’s hands. Kakashi used the marker to draw overtop the scars, filling in details where hypertrophic tissue swallowed them. When he was done, he began to draw a new seal next to it — one of Konoha’s clear, sensible, circular designs. Ryouma squinted down at the emerging seal. “Chakra suppression seal? You want to flatten me twice?”
“Not like I can put chakra into it,” Kakashi said, tapping the heel of his pen against Ryouma’s skin.
He began to draw again, layering a medical paralysis seal overtop of the Konoha suppression seal, something Rin might use to still a limb or spine for surgery. The result elongated the original seal, turning it into an ellipse, but muddled the center with overlapping lines that changed each other’s meanings into nonsense. That wouldn’t work. And you couldn’t just enlarge the seal to fit the lines in between each other — the overall web of effect would still get in its own way.
So, a spiral, to contain and guide the effects of multiple combined seals. He’d done something similar with the Ichibi’s intended seal, using interconnected chains.
That still didn’t translate the symbols, though.
And, despite their pleasing symmetry, Konoha’s chakra suppression seals weren’t designed to go on a person. They were applied to objects — cell bars, manacles, the back of an unwary teammate’s hitai-ate. Suna’s cells had operated with the same principle. The result was an extremely unsubtle area effect that disrupted the victim’s chakra system, like an electric current applied to the nerves. It usually made Kakashi queasy.
This felt more like the Tanuki’s magical suppression, which blunted a shinobi down to a civilian. A physical disconnect between the victim and their own chakra sense. Not painful, but deeply disturbing.
Kakashi spent an arrested moment wondering if Orochimaru had somehow had dealings with Tanuki and managed to pry loose one of their secrets. This naturally led to the mental image of Orochimaru and his snakes being bounced out of the universe by a pair of giant balls, and Kakashi had to take a personal minute.
Okay, so, Konoha’s version of the seal wasn’t a useful starting point. Orochimaru had probably distanced himself from as much of Konoha’s anything as he could. Kakashi struck a line through his mangled seal and turned Ryouma’s leg to its unmarked side.
“I could’ve just taken that off with an alcohol wipe,” Ryouma said.
Kakashi waved the pen at him. “Shh.”
Another angle, then. Think about the intended victims.
Ryouma first. Primary chakra nature: fire. Secondary nature: water. Stronger chakra, easily replenished, with a unique filtering characteristic that Orochimaru might or might not have understood.
Kakashi. Primary nature: lightning. Secondary: water. Tertiary: earth. Still working on fire. Weaker chakra, with a significant diversion to the left eye, requiring a seal that didn’t suppress his chakra so completely that it killed the transplant. Assuming Orochimaru wanted a living Sharingan in his plaything…
Kakashi made a thoughtful sound that pulled Ryouma’s attention from repacking the medical kit. “When Orochimaru gave you your chakra back, what did it feel like? Diminished? Distressed? Any change to your coils?”
“No damage or change,” Ryouma said slowly. “Not even pins and needles, like after your leg falls asleep. Just an overwhelming awareness—but that was my chakra-sense overwhelmed, I think, not my chakra system.” Dark eyebrows pinched together. “It molded smoothly. I’d drained pretty low setting the Ichibi’s gates, but it seemed mostly recovered.”
A well-operating system, not one shivery from prolonged suppression. Kakashi’s brain was starting to itch.
“What about my chakra?”
Ryouma’s frown deepened. “Your chakra was low, but you’d pretty much drained yourself with the Ichibi. I tried to use more of my energy in the healing—but you had it, it was there, we meshed as smoothly as we ever have. Just… with Orochimaru’s grease over everything. He feels like an oil slick.” A tight little smile played over Ryouma’s mouth. “I filtered some of that out, at least.”
So… not suppressed. Working normally, in fact.
Kakashi chewed on his lip, catching a dry crack that broke open and spread copper on his tongue. The sting pulled his attention back to his own body, and for once, he didn’t immediately skitter away. He let himself feel for a moment — his weakness, his exhaustion. A body that had been operating on fumes before someone had stabbed it in the chest. Before… everything else. A body that was on the thin, ragged edge and desperately trying to heal. One that needed its chakra circulating smoothly, bathing its cells in energy and life, not cut off and strangulating.
Orochimaru wanted to keep them alive, but defanged. Smooth like poisoned silk, Kakashi felt the answer slot into place.
Kakashi turned Ryouma’s leg gently and began to sketch. His left hand moved better now. He framed the bare side of Ryouma’s knee with a graceful elliptical shape, Suda’s Adamantine Eye of the Buddha. In the center of the eye he drew a transposed unalome, the third eye taken from the middle of the forehead and meshed with the coil, line, and point of Om to make a tight spiral that wove out to the lateral canthus of the eye.
The Buddha’s eye, blinded by its own path to Nirvana. A suitably perverse framework on which to build a fuuinjutsu that blinded the mind to its body’s own chakra.
“Orochimaru’s spent some time in the West,” Kakashi said, and watched thoughtfully as the pen slipped out of his fingers. “I think I need to pass out for a bit.”
He was already lying down, which was convenient. He let his head thump back and watched the yellow light fade gently grey. Ryouma said something. Kakashi didn’t catch what, but the sound of his voice was nice as it unwove into static and white noise and nothing.
Abrupt collapse wasn’t exactly surprising, given the last two hours—and the last two days. It still felt profoundly wrong to watch Kakashi sink into stillness, breath slowing, the furrow fading between his brows. All the fierce intelligence gone out of him, leaving only a profound vulnerability in its wake.
Ryouma pulled the quilt up over him. He rearranged the pillows, straightened the splinted arm, and tucked the pen and notebook under the mattress. Kakashi didn’t stir. His pulse and respiration were both steady, and his skin didn’t feel fevered—maybe a little warmer than usual, but that would be the residue of healing. Ryouma hadn’t managed heat dissipation very well. At least it would’ve burned out any early infection, and the IV would keep him hydrated.
And now Ryouma needed a drink. The raw socket of his missing premolar had finally clotted, but his mouth still tasted like sweet iron. His bruised throat ached.
There was no water in the room. There was no rescue coming. Regardless of what happened in Suna with the Ichibi (and it would end in the Hokage’s swift and complete victory, of course, there was no other option), no one would be able to track Orochimaru’s snake through the Summoning Dimension, across hundreds of kilometers of desert and mountains, and into Sky Country.
So they were on their own. And if Kakashi had reached any conclusion from his scribbles on Ryouma’s leg, he’d fallen asleep before sharing it.
The last design, on the outer thigh close to Ryouma’s right hip, seemed like the useful one. Ryouma scrubbed away the other scribbles with the last alcohol wipes and pulled his pants back on.
He was still thirsty.
He could go back to the kitchen, where he might even see a friendly face; Toshio the cook had promised to set aside a few fish for him. But Orochimaru had also promised—threatened?—to send someone with food, and now that he knew Uchiha Masuyo was skulking around, Ryouma couldn’t just leave Kakashi sleeping. He’d have to wait here.
…He wasn’t very good at waiting.
Bandaged feet hurt too much to pace. There was a folded futon and another quilt tucked against the wall, but he probably shouldn’t risk sleep. Not without someone here to guard his back. To guard Kakashi’s.
Raidou and Genma would have survived the fight with the Ichibi. They’d be fine. Genma was probably making diplomatic conversation with Sadayo right now, while Raidou rearranged all the furniture in the embassy’s lobby and the Hokage chatted cheerfully with the little boy who’d been a jinchuuriki yesterday. Except that someone in the Kazekage’s guard had stabbed Kakashi in the chest to sabotage the sealing, and the Kazekage was dead because of it, and that meant—
He slammed those thoughts shut. Genma and Raidou were alive. The Hokage would take command of the situation in Suna. Nothing else mattered.
And here in Sky Country, all Ryouma could do was stay awake.
He settled cross-legged in the middle of the room, facing the door. Not the easiest position to defend from, but it kept the pressure off his feet. He stretched his fingers through practice seals—rot jutsu, healing jutsu, liquify-your-lungs jutsu, and back to healing. Strange to run them dry, without sensing even the peaceful flow of unmolded chakra in his pathways. Like being a kid again, or a civilian play-acting at shinobi.
He stopped, and let his hands fall to his knees.
The scarred seal was tender and lumpy under even light pressure. Would Orochimaru see it, beneath thin undyed linen? What if he did? He’d seemed… tolerant, so far. Even encouraging, during the healing. He’d claimed a benefactor’s interest in Kakashi’s well-being, but how far would that tolerance extend?
Could he be reasoned with?
No, that was the Third Hokage’s mistake. And he’d had far more leverage than Ryouma did; hadn’t he been Orochimaru’s own jounin-sensei? Orochimaru hadn’t just betrayed Konoha, as a village, when he’d fled.
I was Sakumo’s friend, he’d said.
Footsteps, outside, in the passageway.
Ryouma burst to his feet. He’d controlled the reflexive wince and was standing straight, his weight evenly balanced, by the time the door opened.
Light spilled around two shapes this time. Big, tattooed Toshio, carrying a furoshiki-wrapped box in one hand and a clay pitcher with two mugs in the other. And Nijo Kozue, slim and smiling, leaning against the door-frame as she looked Ryouma over.
Her smile faded. She clicked her tongue. “You have not been looking after yourself.”
Toshio was staring at Ryouma’s bandaged feet. “You didn’t have those ribbons two hours ago,” he rumbled. “You the reason that Masuyo girl came in looking for my high-proof shouchuu?”
A mean little satisfaction loosened the knot in Ryouma’s stomach. “Maybe,” he said, carelessly. “Next time I see her, I’ll kill her.” He looked back at Nijo. “Orochimaru said you went to Suna.”
“Did he?” She gazed beyond him for a moment, to Kakashi’s sleeping, quilt-shrouded figure. “How careless of him.”
Ryouma wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of asking what that meant. He dredged up a smile for Toshio instead. “Was hoping to see you again. Not just for dinner. I could use a drink.”
“Masuyo went off with my last bottle of shouchuu. Hope water’s all right.” Toshio came into the room, looking around curiously: at Kakashi’s masked face and splinted arm; at the disconnected monitors; at the medkit Ryouma had left lying at the foot of the bed. He was looking for a table, Ryouma realized, but the fight had broken it and the floor had eaten it. Toshio rumbled disapproval and finally set the furoshiki-wrapped box down on the empty floor. He poured water into a mug and passed it across.
The first welcome mouthful of icy water hit Ryouma’s raw tooth socket like a pickaxe. He jolted, spilling as much as he swallowed. Nijo’s eyes narrowed. Ryouma forced himself to take another drink, smooth and slow. Cold water dripped off his chin.
Toshio, crouching to untie the furoshiki, hadn’t noticed. “Orochimaru-sama told me your friend there won’t need much more than okayu for the next day or two. I’ve thickened it with egg and a few slivers of fish—it’ll keep warm in here till he wakes up.” He removed the lidded top tier of a lacquered bento box and laid it to the side. “Here’s soup for you, and rice and grilled fish and pickled vegetables. You know where to find me when you’ve finished this lot.”
“We all know,” Nijo said, with the slightest edge of impatience. “Don’t you have some pots to scrub?” She pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and crossed the floor, reaching up to dab the water from Ryouma’s chin.
He jerked his head away. She clicked her tongue and grabbed his jaw, fingers biting into the bruise Masuyo had left.
The handle of the clay mug creaked in his grip. He could crack her skull with it.
She could fry his nervous system.
And whatever her reasons, she was still interested in keeping him alive. He might convince her to strike a deal. To get access to the library, if not to the outside; to protect Kakashi from Masuyo, if the Uchiha came skulking back again. Whatever leverage Orochimaru had on her, it couldn’t outweigh her motivation to act in her own interests—and as long as those interests included Ryouma, he had a fraction of leverage too.
He stood still. Smiling, she wiped his mouth.
Toshio planted his hands on his thighs and stood with an uneasy rumble. “Kid, if you—”
“Those pots are waiting,” Nijo said.
Big as he was, Toshio clearly knew he was outmatched. He wadded up his furoshiki between his hands, glanced guiltily at Ryouma, and hurried out. The door closed behind him.
“Doesn’t look like you’re making friends here,” Ryouma said.
Nijo laughed, and released him. “Meanwhile, you’ve been hard at work making both allies and enemies, but I’m afraid I can’t see much utility in your picks. An extra fish at dinner, against an Uchiha with a grudge?”
Ryouma’s bruised jaw throbbed. He resisted rubbing it. “She’s a traitor. We wouldn’t get along anyway.”
“Still blinkered by village loyalties, I see. Well, you haven’t been here long. You’ve got time.” She brushed past him, flipped the quilt down to bare Kakashi’s torso, and gazed at the livid scars. Ryouma’s broken fingernails bit into his palms.
“Orochimaru said you showed some aptitude,” Nijo said thoughtfully. She pulled the quilt up again, before Ryouma had to kill her, and turned back to him. “You may have impressed him enough to buy yourself that time.”
“What does he want from us.” His voice came out flat with the effort of control.
“Nothing yet, as far as I can tell.” She shrugged, and laughed again at his disbelief. “Sorry if you thought you were special. He’s got his hands full with another project at the moment, and now that your boy is stable, you’ve slipped back down the priority list. I’m sure when he’s done with that Uchiha, he’ll have time for you.”
If she was in the mood to answer questions…
“How did Masuyo come here? Did he recruit her with the promise of activating her Sharingan? Was he in Konoha?”
She held up a quelling hand. “Tell you what: I’ll answer your questions if you eat your food. An answer for every item you finish.”
Ryouma folded ungraciously to the floor. Soup, rice, fish, pickles: four questions. And why was she so invested in watching him eat, anyway? Was she just bored here? Lonely? Or actively interested in him, at least as a new plaything?
She’d settled down opposite him, comfortably cross-legged. Her smooth hair swung against her jaw as she leaned forward to steal a slice of pickled radish. She didn’t look ready to ravish him on the floor.
At least, not yet.
“Under what circumstances was Uchiha Masuyo persuaded to betray her village?” Ryouma asked, carefully, and picked up his lacquerware bowl of soup. It was clear broth with mushrooms and tofu, undoubtedly meant to be sipped slowly alongside the other components of the meal. Ryouma drank it all down.
Lukewarm soup hurt much less than cold water, at least.
“Circumstances of her own making,” Nijo said promptly, as he set down the bowl. She was smiling again. “She created a problem for herself that she couldn’t resolve on her own. Orochimaru provided a solution.”
“That’s not an answer,” Ryouma growled. “If Orochimaru recruited her after she’d already gone missing-nin, just say that.”
But if that were true, why would Masuyo have defected at all? She must be a jounin or special jounin, skilled enough to make it into the first round of ANBU Trials; even for an Uchiha, that was an excellent career. It couldn’t be just petulant anger over washing out of the Trials, or she wouldn’t have waited almost seven months to run.
Had she stood next to Akiyama at any point in that first Trial? He couldn’t recall noticing either of them. He’d been distracted by someone else.
He needed Kakashi awake and thinking here, dammit. But Kakashi needed sleep—and to not jolt out of bed and rip open all his half-healed scars the next time Nijo got handsy.
“Ask a more specific question next time,” Nijo said carelessly. She crunched down on another pickle and conceded, “But you’re right, she had already defected when Orochimaru recruited her. Not that much recruitment was needed. She’d killed one of her own; she had nowhere else she could go, where she wouldn’t be hunted.”
“One of her own? Another Konoha nin? Another Uchiha?”
“Is that your question?” Nijo inquired. “Eat your fish.”
“No,” Ryouma said quickly, picking the plate up. The salt-grilled filets looked like they’d been mostly deboned already, but he still had to eat carefully, wary of the small sharp ribs, chewing only on the right side of his jaw. They hadn’t given him chopsticks, probably because they knew he’d go for someone’s eyes. He used his fingers. “I have two filets here, so that’s two questions. My first question is: How did Orochimaru know Masuyo had murdered someone and was on the run, open to recruitment?”
“Changing the rules mid-game,” she observed, but the glint in her eye and the curve of her mouth said she was still amused, maybe even impressed. “Now you’re thinking like a free agent. All right. Orochimaru knew because he keeps tabs on things that are of interest to him. People, of course.” She tipped her head, meaningfully, at Kakashi’s bed. “But also places: for instance, the Uchiha Clan’s sacred shrine, which supposedly contains all sorts of secrets. Masuyo came looking for a particular secret. Orochimaru watched, waited for her to fail, and offered her another option.”
Ryouma had never heard of an Uchiha sacred shrine—which of course he wouldn’t, if it was a clan secret. What kind of mysteries would Masuyo have been looking for there?
Unlocking the Sharingan, obviously. She must have killed the shrine guardian or someone when they’d refused to give her what she wanted. People in Konoha had undoubtedly found the body by now, which was why Masuyo had to run; the victim wasn’t Ryouma’s concern.
The idea of Orochimaru watching over the village was. He’d had enough warning of the bijuu-sealing operation in Suna to position Nijo in that secret cave with orders to obtain Kakashi and the Ichibi. That meant he had eyes—or ears, or observation seals, or something—in the highest ranks in both Suna and Konoha.
And he was using them to collect people, bijuu, jutsu… for what?
Ryouma dropped the last sharp bone on his plate and chewed his final bite of salt-grilled fish. He’d rather have alternated bites with rice and pickle; eaten by itself the pleasant oiliness turned overpowering, coating his tongue. He reached for more water and sipped it slowly. “Second fish question: why is Orochimaru so interested in people with Sharingan that he’ll send you into danger to capture Kakashi even after he’s helped Masuyo activate hers?”
“That I don’t know, I’m afraid,” Nijo said, not sounding afraid or apologetic at all. She tapped a contemplative finger against her mouth. “If I had to guess, it’s always good for an experimenter to have a backup subject, in case something happens to the first one.”
Soup and fish lurched in Ryouma’s stomach. He set his cup down carefully. “That would explain why he’s put the control seal on Masuyo, too. Do you know what he intends to experiment on them? Even a guess?”
“You’ve already asked your two fish questions,” she said serenely, and nudged the rice towards him.
He’d seldom felt less like eating. Doggedly, he scooped out a clump of rice and dropped a pickle on top. “Guess. Please.”
“You beg very prettily,” Nijo acknowledged. “But this isn’t exactly my area of expertise. I just bring in the bounties. I don’t know what happens to them afterwards.”
The rice stuck in his throat. Ryouma forced a swallow. “Would you be willing to try finding out? At least— to warn me?”
She smiled. “What do you have to make it worth my while?”
Well, he’d known this bargain was coming eventually. He met her eyes. “I’m good with my mouth.”
Her gaze dropped to his mouth and lingered there. “I have no doubt.” Then she sighed, regretfully, and shook her head. “But I’m not in the business of making deals I can’t keep. Orochimaru doesn’t share his plans with me unless he has a use for me. And I have no intention of jeopardizing my position here by spying on him. Ask me for something I can do, pretty boy, and I’ll be happy to take you up on that offer.”
So there were lines even she wouldn’t cross.
Ryouma sat back, deflated. It was good business sense for a bounty hunter, but he hadn’t exactly expected her to preemptively refuse to cheat him. Or to offer even a limited form of help, in any other way.
But that still left Orochimaru, at best guess, planning to experiment on Kakashi with no defense or even warning. Unless Ryouma postponed killing Masuyo and somehow convinced her to band together against Orochimaru with them…
Better hope that Yondaime-sama tracked them down and rescued them all, first.
“I still have one more question.” He dumped the rest of the pickles on top of the rice and spoke with his mouth full, vinegar stinging in his missing tooth. “Do you know what happened in Suna, after we left?”
“Nothing I heard first-hand.” She leaned back, casually unconcerned again. “News out of Suna is that the village is destroyed, but the Ichibi is gone. They’ve got a new Kazekage now—one of the old kage’s advisors, I think.”
Was she deliberately avoiding any information about Konoha’s involvement, or didn’t she know? If the Ichibi was gone, that had to be Minato’s doing. But she really couldn’t have first-hand knowledge, even if Ryouma’s traveling-by-summons theory was correct, because there was no one left in Suna to anchor the initial summoning.
Which meant a closer outpost. Most likely intercepting and decoding shinobi radio relays, since civilian radio or broadcast news wouldn’t receive information about Hidden Village happenings for weeks, if at all. With Ryouma’s luck the nearest radio tower would probably be an Iwa installation, but there might still be a chance to send an emergency signal…
They’d have to break the control seals and escape the Hanging Clouds Temple, first. And Ryouma still didn’t see a plan for either.
He ran his finger around the bottom of the rice bowl, wiping up the last few grains. Nijo showed no sign of getting up to leave, leaning back braced on her hands, her dark gaze resting easy on him. She certainly seemed to enjoy looking at him, even if she wasn’t willing to cross Orochimaru for a taste.
“How did you even end up here?” he blurted. “Back in Tochigi, you kept talking about how grand it is being a ‘free agent’—then you electrocuted us all and took off in the storm, and next thing you’re running errands for Orochimaru?”
“Orochimaru was in Tochigi, collecting bodies.” Her mouth lost its deliberate smile, twisting for a moment of frustrated resignation that was probably the first honest expression he’d seen her show. “He found me afterwards. Offered me a job, and convinced me that it’d be in my best interest to accept.”
“That was Orochimaru, in Tochigi? Slaughtering everyone in the bounty office, stealing the bodies, leaving gloating messages on the walls?” Raidou hadn’t even needed to read out the blood-written message for Ryouma; it was scrawled large and crudely enough that even he could decipher it. Too slow, Konoha. “Stealing the bodies, sure, but the rest of it doesn’t much seem like his style.”
“And after a day in his bunker, you know his style so well…” Nijo murmured, amusement glinting in her eyes again. “Though as a matter of fact, you’re right. Corpse-collecting is a cutthroat industry, you know. As far as I understand, a team wearing Iwa uniforms visited Tochigi Bounty Office that day to purchase a package intended for a regular buyer—you remember those ledger entries, for the whole-body bounties. The bounty office wouldn’t risk their relationship with their buyer, so they must’ve refused the deal. Predictable results ensued.” She shrugged.
Predictable results meant slaughtering an entire family?
“Orochimaru arrived to pick up his package and found only cooling corpses—not the ones he’d agreed to purchase. I imagine that message was actually intended for him, not you. His competitors’ little joke. He followed them before you showed up. They’re out of business now, of course.”
Ryouma stared at her. “So then he hired you to, what? Make sure he’s never late to pick up a ‘package’ again?”
“Among other things.” Her mouth quirked, wry. “But he pays quite well. And regularly, too. The food’s good, the bunker secure, the conversation stimulating—I would say Orochimaru’s forgotten more jutsu than most ninja ever learn, but in fact he’s never forgotten anything. And of course, occasionally I can divert from running his errands to pick up a package of my own.” Her brows lifted delicately, as blatant as if she’d patted his ass.
“You should’ve struck a better deal,” Ryouma said, “if he’s making you share your toys.”
Nijo tossed her head back and laughed. “As long as I get my chance to play, I don’t mind being generous.”
But she’d rejected his offer, so—
Someone knocked on the door.
Ryouma sprang upright again. Nijo stayed where she was, as the door creaked open and a skinny, pale teenager poked her head in. When last seen, she’d been wearing a bloody apron and an expression of worshipful regard as she scrubbed up after Orochimaru in the surgery. Now she looked at Nijo with a jealous contempt. “He wants you in his study.”
Nijo sighed. “And heaven forbid we keep him waiting.” She pushed to her feet, stretched elaborately, and told Ryouma: “I told you I’m generous. We’ll say you’ve gone into debt for only three extra questions. I’ll be back to collect.” She reached up, smiling again, to tap her fingers against his cheek.
Then she was heading for the door, with a casual command for the teenager: “Clean up the dishes, Mai.” She brushed past, and her footsteps retreated down the hall.
Mai pushed the door wider and came in, with a sullen stare that wrapped Ryouma into her resentment. How the hell did Orochimaru earn that kind of possessive loyalty? It couldn’t just be fear. It wasn’t even fear that kept Nijo working for him—she had too much freedom, too much influence, to stay here just to save her own skin.
She must have bargained with Orochimaru before accepting his offer. Were there limits to that loyalty? She’d refused to spy, but she was still open to another deal…
“You stink,” Mai said, straightening with her nose theatrically wrinkled and the bento tier full of empty dishes in her hands. “Doesn’t Konoha know how to bathe?”
Ryouma was far too tired to spar with this child. “No,” he said, and sat down on the cold stone with his back against Kakashi’s bed. Her hard stare turned slowly baffled, and she went away again.
Possibly his best hope of escape went with her. She probably knew some secret sewer-drainage tunnel down which Orochimaru disposed of all his least-usable corpses, and if he’d just figured out the right thing to say to her, she would have told him… Immediately after he’d converted her from the worship of the One True Orochimaru, of course. Hah.
Was it the superficial courtesy? The teacherly demeanor? The pay? Mai didn’t look like she could’ve made much of a decent living before coming here, but Nijo had boasted about her earnings as a ‘free agent’ bounty hunter— maybe she just liked a steady paycheck, with nowhere to spend it…
And there was Masuyo, who’d murdered and still failed to unlock her clan’s secrets, who’d come to Orochimaru seeking solutions and who was still bitterly angry after she’d gotten them. Who knew Orochimaru didn’t want his other ‘guests’ touched, and broke Kakashi’s arm anyway.
Well, her motives didn’t matter. Ryouma was going to kill her. And Kakashi would figure out the seal, and Nijo would get bored and stay out of the way, and they’d take Orochimaru’s head and hands and then ride flying tigers back to Konoha.
Ryouma tilted his head back against the cold steel of the raised bedframe, and waited for Kakashi to wake up.
There was sleep, or at least unconsciousness, which was almost as good. He didn’t dream, not really. There was a voice but no words, a mental taste like fur and blood and thwarted murder. Like something trying to reach him.
Kakashi blinked awake to a dark ceiling. He was aware of a thumping headache and Ryouma’s hand on his shoulder.
“You were talking in your sleep,” Ryouma said quietly. He looked like Kakashi felt: ill-rested and cranky about it, haggard at the edges.
“I was not,” Kakashi croaked, offended.
Ryouma made a crunching sand kind of noise in the back of his throat, which was probably meant to be amused, or worried, or breathing. “You said ‘Get out’. Or something like that.”
It was theoretically possible, but since Kakashi was much too high caliber a ninja to do something so civilian in his sleep, and Ryouma was exhausted and perhaps hallucinating, Kakashi decided to just breeze past it. “Did I miss anything?”
Ryouma squinted at him, dark eyes surrounded by darker shadows, but relented. “Nijo was here,” he said. “There’s food when you’re ready for it. Are you actually awake now, or going back to sleep?”
Kakashi did not have sufficient waking-data to answer that last question, but food seemed like a place to start. He struggled upright, accepted a bowl of lukewarm okayu with decorative fish slices floating on top, and pressed Ryouma for more details on Nijo.
Ryouma filled him in on a conversation that was equal parts stressful, irritating, and opaque. He also made a valiant effort to gloss over the part where he offered himself as a sexual aperitif to the amoral bounty hunter, for which Kakashi threw outraged fish slices at him.
Ryouma wiped congealed rice porridge unrepentantly out of his eyebrows. “Don’t waste food. I might have to prostitute myself to the cook for more.”
“Veto,” Kakashi said. “The rice isn’t that good.”
He kept a firm lock and chain wrapped around the little knot of terror at Ryouma going off and doing anything with these people. If sex was what got them out of here, it was a valid tactic. It was just the last one Kakashi ever wanted to use. Too many variables, too little control, and it wasn’t like either one of them was exactly trained for it, no matter what Ryouma thought of his skills.
In return, Kakashi filled Ryouma in on his updated seal theories.
“An una-what?” Ryouma asked.
“Unalome,” Kakashi said, baring Ryouma’s leg once more to squint at his smeared drawing. “It’s a Buddhist principle, representing the path to enlightenment. I’ve seen it drawn with the eye in religious iconography, but never in the eye, and never used for seals before.”
“So it means we’ve still got our chakra, we just can’t perceive it, in ourselves or each other.” Ryouma thought this over, chewing the corner of his lip. “Which makes sense with the way he can turn it off and on, like a lightswitch. Taking off the blindfold. Or, uh, straightening out the path.”
“Exactly. I just haven’t figured out how he’s also added in partial paralysis and the ability to activate both effects independently, or whether there are other effects, or why the placement doesn’t seem to matter, since mine is on my ribs and yours is on the back of your neck, when really they should both be on the forehead—”
Ryouma didn’t get the chance to cut this ramble off, because a creak of the door did it for him.
Kakashi’s head snapped around, which did unkind things to his aching brain. Ryouma yanked his pants back up and jerked to his feet. A sour waft of alcohol and unwashed body hit Kakashi’s nose— not Orochimaru—not Nijo—
Uchiha Masuyo pushed the door open and stood in the frame, a mostly empty bottle dangling from loose fingers.
Ryouma stepped immediately between her and Kakashi, knotting the drawstring of his pants. His voice hit its lowest register, the rumble before the avalanche: “Kind of you to handicap yourself.”
Kakashi’s hand closed around the tweezers Ryouma had left balanced on the med-kit: a slender, flimsy weapon, but still sharp.
Masuyo sneered, giving Ryouma an unimpressed — and slightly wobbly — once-over, before pointedly ignoring him. “Call off your dog, Hatake. I’m not here to fight.”
How trustworthy of her.
Kakashi gave this the consideration it deserved, which was none, and said, “Drop dead.”
“You first,” she shot back, and stalked in, kicking the door shut behind her. There was a sway in her step, but anyone could pour a bottle over themselves and fake drunk. Kakashi just couldn’t see a good angle for why, unless she wanted a thin excuse to present to Orochumaru along with their bodies. I was drunk and they were mean, sorry. Except that an Uchiha would never apologize.
Ryouma’s back had gone rigid, muscles shifting into the precursor of an attack. Kakashi reached out, catching the back of Ryouma’s shirt with his good hand. Ryouma tensed even more, almost twitching, then felt the line of metal against his skin as Kakashi tucked the tweezers into his waistband.
“What do you want, Uchiha?” Kakashi said. “Or do you go by something else now?”
Her expression went tight. Red swirled briefly in her eyes, but faded before becoming a true threat. More control than she’d displayed while sober, Kakashi noted, and confirmation that she could access her chakra.
“To make a deal,” she said. “What do you know of the Mangekyou Sharingan?”
Ryouma lunged at her.
He was lethally fast, even sleep-deprived and injured, but Masuyo’s dodge was a hair faster. The tweezers missed her left eye by a centimeter, instead puncturing the soft skin of her cheek and ripping sideways. The points skittered across the curve of cheekbone and terminated at the outer corner of her eye, where Ryouma yanked them free and stabbed again, aiming for her throat. Masuyo blocked with a strangled yowl and a forearm, eyes flaring crimson.
She didn’t attack back like a Sharingan-user, with finesse and surgical precision — she just brought her shouchuu bottle around and clubbed Ryouma in the side of the head.
Ryouma staggered to one knee, dazed, but surged up again. Masuyo hit him a second time, shattering the bottle over his head, and he fell, catching himself with both hands. Blood welled from a cut over his right eyebrow, splattering the floor.
“Stay the fuck down, you shithead,” Masuyo snarled, flinging the broken neck of the bottle to the floor in an explosion of spite. The left side of her face was a sheet of crimson, dripping strings sliding off her jaw to stain her shirt. “I am trying to have a conversation with you.”
Kakashi made it off the bed in a distant, floating cloud of rage, one that was far too high to notice such earthly concerns as pain or vertigo, and crouched down to make sure Ryouma’s skull wasn’t shattered. Ryouma wasn’t leaking spinal fluid out of his nose, but he also wasn’t getting up for a minute. Kakashi looked at Masuyo, at the flutter of the carotid artery in her neck, and forced himself to convert killing intent into human speech. “Sit. Down.”
Masuyo glanced at Ryouma one more time, weighing the chances of him launching another attack, then rolled her eyes and dropped into a cross-legged seat on the floor, well away from broken glass and the dregs of her spilled shouchuu. “There,” she said. “Happy now? Want anything else, a little song maybe?”
Kakashi ignored her. It took another minute to reorient Ryouma and persuade him to stagger back up. Masuyo sneered and dabbed at her mangled cheek, Sharingan fading in and out. Kakashi got Ryouma back over to the bed, made him sit down, and dug a handful of gauze out of the deflating med-kit. Ryouma grimaced, but obediently smashed it against his bleeding forehead.
Kakashi lowered himself stiffly and slowly to the floor, where he could brace his back against the bed, and did not offer Masuyo gauze. Her Sharingan had faded away entirely, leaving bloodshot sclera behind. With the better light, he could see the skin around her eyes was swollen and discolored, almost bruised at the corners. There was an odd twitchiness to her pupils, as if they were vibrating faintly.
He said, “Why are you asking about Mangekyou?”
“Because that’s why you’re here,” she said, in tones of talking-to-a-toddler. “Why we’re both here. Or did you think Orochimaru was healing you out of the goodness of his heart?”
Kakashi was too high up the frozen slopes of wrath to react to this, beyond a mild, “I think there’s a lot Orochimaru might hope I could offer him. From you, apparently just one thing.” He squinted at her. “Except you don’t have a Mangekyou. You barely have a Sharingan. He thinks he can force it out of you?”
Her expression darkened. “Yes. Or at least, he told me he could. But then he brought you. And him.” Her gaze flicked to Ryouma and back, mocking and accusatory. “Does your friend know why he’s here?”
A sliver of ice needled into Kakashi’s chest. Ryouma lifted his head, blood-soaked gauze leaking down his wrist, and frowned, confused. “I’m here because Nijo likes to look at me.”
Except that Nijo wasn’t someone who’d take an extra risk, like snatching an unnecessary jounin, unless she had to.
“It won’t work, anyway,” Masuyo said, ignoring Ryouma. Her eyes were fixed on Kakashi. “You’ve known him, what, half a year? There’s no way you’d care enough. If Orochimaru really thought you could do it, he’d have brought your doctor friend instead.” She chuckled. It was an empty, cruel sound. “Have you complete the set.”
She thought they’d brought Ryouma here for Kakashi to kill. She thought they should have brought Rin.
Kakashi didn’t know much about Mangekyou Sharingan. The Uchiha hadn’t been willing to share their basic knowledge of Sharingan with him, let alone the world-killing weapon a Sharingan could become. He knew only what was common village knowledge about Madara’s miracles, and a few extra pieces he’d been able to glean from Minato and Jiraiya, which was mostly conjecture, theory, and tales from their sensei.
But if deep emotion released a Sharingan, it followed that something uglier unlocked the Mangekyou.
“You’ve already killed someone you loved,” Kakashi said, watching her closely. “And it didn’t work.”
She smiled — it was a joyless, dead thing, a curl of lip under a shark’s lightless eyes. “Interested in my deal yet?”