Generic Disclaimer: Naruto not mine. Woe.
Everything else: This is dedicated to Chevira Lowe here on ffdotnet, as she just became two-thirds legal. It's also her fault, because she dragged me into the most awesome Naruto RPG on GreatestJournal called Ima Made Nandomo, and in doing so gave me wicked inspiration for characters I'm hardly even familiar with. But I like them all the same. –hearts-
Beware the angst.
"Hit or stay?"
"Hit," Genma said.
Asuma slid him a card. It was a king. And that put him over his limit of twenty-one.
"Well, shit," he said. "I'm not letting you deal any more. You're giving me all the crappy cards."
The kid across from him shrugged and laid out his cards, showing his hand. Twenty-eight. Which was actually worse than his own hand (twenty-five). Well, his luck might be crappy, but at least it wasn't as crappy as the luck everyone else was having.
He set down his cards with a flourish.
And didn't get much of a reaction. Asuma sighed through his nose, flooding the air above the card table with pungent smoke, and pushed the deck toward Genma.
Genma didn't think much of it. Asuma had all the temper of a Nara (which was to say, none whatsoever), and getting him riled up (especially over something as simple as a card game) was like pulling chicken teeth. Kinda like he was stoned all the time. Made the genin wonder what the hell he was really smoking.
He reached out to take the cards, and stopped. Stared at the way his hand was shaking, like he had suddenly developed a case of cerebral palsy. Like he was having some kind of epileptic fit. He didn't feel weak, or cold, or any of a hundred things that might cause his hands to shake. His palms were dry. He wasn't hysterical. There was no reason for his extremities to be doing the jitterbug in midair.
Or was there? He didn't think so.
Asuma averted his eyes, finding a scratch on the tabletop very interesting. Didn't say anything, even though he saw the same thing Genma did. Didn't call attention to it, just like Genma hadn't when the other genin had lit up a second cigarette after forgetting there was already one smoldering in the ashtray. Kinda like no one said anything when the intercom buzzed to life and called away another genin or chuunin or jounin back to the front. It was just one of those… things.
He took a slow, deep breath. Flexed his hand and finished the motion of picking up the deck. His hands didn't shake as he shuffled the cards, which was good. As long as they didn't shake when he was doing something, it didn't really matter.
"So," he said. Breaking the silence was like breaking through an ice cube with just his pinky nail. He felt the bubbling, insane urge to fill the silence with chatter, even if he was just talking to himself. Just to fill up the empty places between intercom pages. "You want a hand, Kakashi?"
The kid parked over on the ratty hotel bed didn't respond. He had shown up maybe three hours previous, not long after Genma's team had arrived – just walked into the room and folded up in the corner and started pretending to be one with the wall. His face was bandaged up on one side, and there were flakes of blood in his pale hair.
Genma didn't know why Kakashi had picked this room, of all the rooms available at the hotel rendezvous point, to hole up in. There were plenty of rooms that were empty. Plenty that would remain empty. But instead of going off and being alone, the jounin (and Genma still couldn't believe he was a jounin at thirteen, when everyone else in his age group were still genin) had slipped into the room and faded off to the side like a ghost.
He didn't know why the other boy had shown up, but he had an idea. Probably the same reason why Asuma had followed him back to the hotel room from the infirmary. Because no wanted to be alone – not anymore. No one wanted to be by themselves, where they could hear the gurgling death screams of enemy and ally alike. Everyone was gravitating toward the nearest familiar face, for distraction, for that comforting feeling of home. It didn't matter if they weren't friends at the academy, if they weren't even on the same team, if they only knew each other because they had sat on opposite sides of a classroom and knew someone's name only because of the role-call. He had seen more than one genin from his graduating class walk by his door with a blank, empty look on his or her face as they looked for something they didn't know where to find.
Genma couldn't blame them. He didn't want to be alone, either.
"Suit yourself," he said after a moment, and dealt the cards. One for him, one for Asuma. One more for him, one more for Asuma. He tossed them with a flick of his wrist, and the whisper-hiss of the card sliding across the table sounded like senbon needles cutting through the air.
Asuma picked up him cards and tapped them on the table to even the edges. There was still blood dried under his fingernails, even though Genma was pretty sure he had washed his hands after coming back from the infirmary. He briefly contemplated telling the other genin to go take a shower, but decided not to. He hadn't cleaned up since getting back himself, and that had been almost five hours past. Who was he to talk?
He looked down at his cards. Twenty. "Hit or stay?" he asked.
He laid down his cards. Asuma did the same; he had twenty-two. Tie game.
Genma picked the cards back up. He shuffled them with a little more force than was necessary this time. The sound of the cards slapping against each other in his hands sounded like Raido catching a fistful of needles to the face.
He didn't want to think about that just yet.
"How about poker instead?" he asked. Maybe a little desperately. He'd suggest Go Fish if it would fill the silence up a little better, but even his pride had limits.
Asuma stubbed out his cigarette and immediately procured a new one from the mangled pack stuffed in his vest pocket. Genma couldn't remember if his old school mate had chain-smoked like this before. He could remember serving detention with him half a hundred times – himself for random terrorism or graffiti, Asuma for getting caught smoking on the academy roof – but not what his smoking habits were actually like. Couldn't even remember when Asuma started smoking, even though they were only thirteen now and the other boy had been smoking (albeit casually) as long as Genma had known him (which was what, a year now?). He should remember, but for some reason the memories wouldn't come.
He forgot if memory-loss was a symptom of shock.
Heh. Now wasn't that an irony?
Asuma shrugged as he lit the cigarette, signaling his indifference for the change in game. Genma dealt the cards accordingly.
The intercom buzzed to life.
"Ninja zero-one-zero, seven-seven-seven, please report to the infirmary. Repeat, ninja zero-one-zero, seven-seven-seven, please report to the infirmary."
He stiffened up. Saw Asuma do the same. Saw Kakashi blink his one visible eye slowly as he processed who the registration number belonged to. Not to any of them.
The intercom clicked back off.
Genma relaxed again and looked back at his cards. If it wasn't his number, well, it wasn't his problem. Holding onto that thought was difficult, but… maybe if he repeated it often enough he'd start to believe it.
They played. He won three rounds, and bombed the fourth with the worst three-of-a-kind he had ever seen in his life. (Three twos and two ones? Come on.) They didn't talk. Kakashi blinked maybe once every ten minutes, and that was about the only indication that he was still alive. The intercom buzzed again when he dealt the fifth round. He didn't recognize the registration numbers of the people called that time, either.
Asuma, he noticed, was moving oddly. Automatically, almost. Not really thinking, just reacting – probably the reason why he was playing so badly. Thinking was bad at this point. Thinking meant analyzing, meant going back through the mental snapshots of the past that were floating around in the recent memory bank. Meant going back over, step-by-step, all the things that had gone wrong. All the things that were believed to be one way, but turned out to be so completely different it made you wonder just what the truth was.
Like what it looked like when a fire jutsu was used the way it was meant to be used, only it wasn't a Hidden Mist ninja that was screaming but his own teammate - the skin charring and bubbling and peeling back in thick flakes and fat boiling and splattering on the grass and holy fuck he didn't think it'd be like this.
Never though it'd be like this. Never thought being a ninja would mean growing up like this. Never thought he'd be thirteen years old with one teammate burned to death and the other scarred for life if not brain damaged from senbon needles to the face and himself with a hole in his femoral artery and fucking bleeding to death and too deep in shock to feel it and he still didn't hurt from it five hours later. Never thought it was possible to just stop feeling and run like a rabbit that didn't know his own ass was on fire.
This was what it meant to be a ninja. I'm a big boy now, ma, Genma thought, and pressed a fist to his lips to hold back an entirely inappropriate giggle.
Asuma flashed him an unreadable look and discarded two cards. Genma composed himself and dealt two back.
He lost the next game and won the next four. After a while he found himself playing with the needle the medic-nins had jerked out of his thigh when his team had returned to the rendezvous point. He didn't know why he kept it, why he pinned it to the edge of his shirt after nicking it from the nurses. Pretty damn grisly reminder.
Genma spun it idly through his fingers during the eleventh game. He bit it between his teeth without thinking in order to collect the cards and shuffle them after losing that hand, too.
"Don't stick that in your mouth," Asuma said abruptly. It sounded strange after the prolonged silence. "You don't know where that's been."
"Of course I know where it's been," he replied. "They pulled it out of my god damn femoral artery when I got here."
"Cry me a river," the other genin muttered as he collected his cards. He hadn't mastered the art of talking with a cigarette between his lips yet, and the bouncing motion scattered ashes on the tabletop. "Bitch."
"Suck it," Genma said. "Whore."
Asuma lost the twelfth game. Genma kept chewing on the needle half to spite the other genin, and half because it kept him occupied. At least until he cut his tongue for the third time, and after that he stuck it behind his ear and forgot about it. Another intercom page went off, and another group of aimless ninja wandered by the door.
He wondered where Gai's team was at. They still hadn't shown up. Too much longer and the admin might give them up for dead. He tried not to think to hard about that.
Asuma lost the thirteenth game. It was nine to four, and Genma swore the other boy wasn't even looking at the cards any more. Actually, now that he thought about it, Asuma wasn't looking at the cards – he was staring at something just above his cards that was probably the button on Genma's vest, but his eyes were turned inward and he wasn't really seeing.
Was it just him, or had the other genin just turned a shade grayer?
"… Asuma?" he asked in concern.
Asuma exhaled a lungful of smoke and stubbed the cigarette out on the table top. It looked like he had originally been aiming for the ashtray, but missed it by about two inches. He tapped the cards on the table, face down, and rose to his feet.
"Asuma?" Genma asked again. "You okay, dude?"
"Yeah," the genin replied distractedly, and pushed his chair away so he could leave the table.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to go throw up," Asuma said calmly, and vanished into the hotel bathroom. The door clicked shut behind him.
Genma laid his cards down on the table, listening to the sound of his old school mate dry heaving into the toilet. Delayed reaction, that's what the text books said; there was shock like not feeling pain, the kind that shut the body off, and shock that was like not even being there, the kind that shut the brain off.
He wished he'd had the kind of shock that shut the brain off. He didn't care if he was in pain, but he didn't want to have these damn images playing themselves on repeat behind his eyes. Flesh on, flesh off, flesh on, flesh off.
He wondered what Asuma had seen, what had happened that shut him off like some kind of emotional faucet. Wondered what had happened that brought Asuma's team back with their jounin drapped over Asuma's shoulder and their other teammate on Kurenai's back. Kinda wished Kurenai had been lucky enough to have that emotional shut off happen, only it hadn't. He could still see the look of horror that had slipped over her face when she'd seen all the blood coating her arms, hear what she'd sounded like when she'd broken down into sobbing hysterics. He should have seen something was wrong right there when Asuma hadn't even reacted.
But of course, he hadn't. He was so fucking blind.
Over in the corner, Kakashi closed his eye and leaned his head back against the wall.