Chapter Twenty-Three

Even before full consciousness, Kakashi knew where he was. The smell of blood and disinfectant permeated the air, assaulting his keen nose enough to make him want to gag. His hearing recovered next, and he picked up low groans and grunts of pain. Every once in a while, someone would scream, high pitched and agonised, unable to control their own voice until their breath ran out or someone stuffed something into their mouths.

Kakashi knew it all before he finally opened his eyes and stared up at the dark green roof of the field medical tent. Without thought, he closed the Sharingan. So he had survived – again. He wasn't disappointed at finding himself alive. It wasn't as if he had gone into battle seeking death, but he had been prepared for it, and wouldn't have thought it all too bad to die in the line of duty. But alive, he could still be of some use to the Village.

He dipped his head a little to the side. There were no beds, just sheets of plastic laid out on the dirt where ninjas lay in varying conditions of injuries. Medic-nins moved with practiced efficiency from one patient to the next, checking up and healing those they could save, and sparing a comforting word or touch to those who were beyond their help. Kakashi noticed that the medics were spending less time on bandaging and healing.

Not many would make it out of the tent alive.

It had been a horrific explosion. Kakashi didn't remember much of it. The world had simply blown up under their feet, blasting everything away. A blinding flash of white and red; scorching heat; flames; the Badger…

"Raidou!" someone called out.

Kakashi pushed down on his elbows and levered himself upright. His head throbbed sharply and the ground seemed to tilt dangerously. With a grimace, he lifted a hand and pressed it against his bandaged temple. He didn't require the assistance of memory to know that something had struck his head during the detonation – hard. Surprisingly, he was otherwise mostly unharmed: a few areas of angry burns along his arms and side, and he guessed several cuts on the back of his shoulders, most likely the result of flying debris.

So he turned his attention to the voices to his left. Two medics were leaning over a body, their hands alight with chakra and faces beaded with perspiration. The wounded shinobi was heavily burned, most of his face covered with damp bandages that were staining red. He didn't seem to be conscious, which was never a good sign, and a third ninja was kneeling by his head, chewing almost obsessively on a senbon and calling the other's name, trying to rouse him. Two masks lay on the ground: the Tiger and the Badger.

"Come on Raidou, don't make me look stupid by talking to myself," Genma was saying. Then he suddenly noticed Kakashi for the first time and a ghost of a smirk flashed across his weary face.

"Good morning, Sleeping Beauty," Genma said.

"How is he?" Kakashi asked, ignoring his comment.

"Sleeping Beauty II hasn't found the right prince yet."

Genma's newly found twisted sense of humour was not something he needed at this moment of time. He looked down at Raidou, and then flicked his hard gaze back to Genma. "How soon will he be able to return to active duty?"

Genma's expression changed within a heartbeat. His eyes narrowed in open anger and glared at Kakashi while his teeth clamped sharply on the senbon. "He just got half his body burned for fuck's sake, Kakashi, and you're worrying about when he'll be able to fight again?" he asked incredulously, his voice rising gradually until he was almost shouting. "Is that all you care about!"

"If you don't like that, you can quit," Kakashi said softly, his tone frigid. "We don't need half-witted agents who only joined to replace their dead brothers."

Genma's already frayed nerves snapped and he lunged forward before either of the medics could stop him. Kakashi raised a hand to block the straight-forward punch, but it never came. They both looked down to see Raidou clutching Genma's arm weakly. The single visible eye under the layers of bandages was half open, the pupils slightly dilated and unfocused, but awake.

"Stop it, Genma," he whispered hoarsely, his mouth pulled in a taut, thin line. "Calm down."

"Raidou," Genma muttered, his anger drained and replaced by profound relief to find his friend at least conscious.

"Hatake," Raidou continued in his strained voice. "Thanks. I owe you. I'll come back as soon as I can."

"Make it quick," Kakashi replied. Genma threw him a glare and Raidou bared his teeth in something between a grin and a grimace.

Without another word, Kakashi picked up the dog mask that lay beside him, then got gingerly to his feet. He swayed for a moment, but regained his equilibrium quick enough, before anyone reached out to support him. On his way out of the busy tent, a medic came to check on him, but he waved her help away.

Genma followed the lone ANBU with his eyes, a scowl still fixed on his face while he absently chewed on the metal in his mouth.

"Bastard," he hissed softly, for more than one reason.

Raidou's lips quirked. "Don't be so mad at him," he said quietly. His breaths were still a little shallow, and he felt like he was in a pool of flame, but the chakra flowing gently into his body was cool and soothing. "You were his friend, right?"

"A long time ago," Genma replied. "Why'd you thank him?"

"'Cause he saved my ass." He was too tired to make full sentences. "Would've been dead if he hadn't been there."

Genma considered this new piece of information, but made no response as Raidou slid his eye back closed. He glanced at the medics, and when they looked back at him, he knew Raidou would live, so he got to his feet and left the tent.

.-.-.-.-.-.

Kakashi grabbed the nearest cloak he could find and wrapped it around himself, effectively covering the ripped uniform and the bandages underneath them. When he found a hood on it, he idly wondered if it had belonged to one of the ANBU. He took the liberty to pull it up over his head and covered his face with the mask.

It wasn't difficult to recognise the location. There wasn't a camp this big within ten kilometres of the border between Fire country and the neutral strip of land where the battle had taken place. There were multiple tents set up, each for various purposes. Shinobi, ranging from Chuunin to ANBU, were scattered around the camp, mostly in small groups or circles. Hunched shoulders and bowed heads were clear indicators of the exhaustion that plagued everyone.

War did that to people.

Kakashi was used to war. He had been born during war, had grown up in war, had known nothing but war until six years ago when the Fourth Hokage had put an end to it. But the concept of peace confused him. 'Peace' only meant that the countries weren't openly fighting each other. Infiltrations and assassinations were still popular missions. The battles were simply waged – mostly by the ANBU – where the people couldn't see them.

Then the Hidden Cloud Village had declared open war against Konoha two years ago. At the time, it had been thought by more than one person, that a certain ANBU mission into the Cloud Prison had failed in concealing their identities, and the Clouds had used that to justify a war. It was later revealed by a recovered spy that the Clouds had been planning an invasion for months prior to their declaration.

As it was, it made little difference to Kakashi. Whether in the open or in the shadows, battles were battles, and wars were wars. He knew how to deal with conflict.

The only problem was, they were lacking in manpower. The Fourth Hokage had ended the last war six years ago. During those six years, much had changed in the ranks of Konoha's ninjas. Many of the shinobi in their prime had died during the last phases of the war. Experienced veterans, who had remained in active duty despite their age for the cause of the war, had finally been able to retire. Six years of retirement was too long for them to be able to return as soldiers.

Yet six years were not long enough for the Village to produce a new generation of shinobi capable of fighting in a war. Sure, they had people like Genma and Raidou and Anko, and though he hadn't seen them, he was sure Gai and his former team were involved, along with many others in their generation. But it just wasn't enough.

Kakashi stopped briefly in front of a large tent, its entrance closed and guarded by two weary Chuunin. Upon seeing his mask, they stepped aside and let him enter.

It was warmer inside, and filled with shinobi. Some were crouched or sitting on the ground, others leaning against metal poles or stacked wooden crates, while a cluster of them surrounded a large table in the centre. A buzz of talk filled the air as the Jounin and ANBU discussed strategy.

No one gave Kakashi more than a glance as he slipped inside, and he settled down on an empty box off to the side, close enough to listen to the debates going on around the table, but far enough so he wouldn't be asked to contribute. It was always the same discussion: should they advance or stay and protect the line. It would be risky to plan an attack, especially since they would be going into enemy territory – anything could await them. Staying put would assure minimal losses in force and it would give them time, no matter how short, to recuperate. But they were going to have to attack in order to win the war. Maybe the Clouds would be willing to settle to negotiations…

Kakashi tensed as someone sat down beside him, intruding his personal space without consent. It was the Owl – Hatori.

"Yo. We were wondering where you were," Hatori said, and if he noticed Kakashi's hand being lowered from where his sword was strapped, he didn't show it. "Thought you got blasted."

"I did," Kakashi replied. Only the Shunshin no jutsu at the last second had prevented both him and Raidou from joining the list of the dead. "What's the situation?"

"Positive. We managed to recall many of our shinobi before the explosion, and the Clouds mistook it for a possible victory. I'd say the average Cloud hadn't been told of their own plan. The Elites panicked and raised a premature signal. Blew up a lot of their own forces."

"So what are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking," Hatori said slowly, "that we can send a few shinobi home. There's no need to advance any further; they'll think we will and we let them get stressed trying to reorganise. If any of them have brains, they'll realise just how pitiful they are. Meanwhile, we'll get a bit of rest while they freak out, and when they look at us, it'll be like looking at the gate to hell."

Hatori paused and pulled his mask off his face. With a soft sigh, he ran a hand through his hair and retied the short ponytail at the base of his neck. Kakashi didn't move, but he saw Hatori looking at him with a wry smile.

"This war is over," Hatori said. "That's what I think."

Kakashi stared at him from the corner of his eye for a long moment. Then he nodded once and rose to his feet. Leaving the other shinobi to their repeating arguments, Kakashi left the tent as quietly as he had entered it. They could debate all they wanted.

It wasn't that he trusted Hatori with all his heart – he would never trust anyone the way he had in the past. He just knew from experience, that Hatori had an unnaturally sharp intuition when it came to wars and battles. It was a surprise that he hadn't already retired from being a field agent to joining the ranks of strategists.

Night had fallen. The temperature had dropped and many of the shinobi had retired to the tents to rest. There were no fires, lest the smoke attract the enemy, so the camp was shrouded in darkness. Kakashi didn't mind. He preferred it this way.

.-.-.-.-.-.-.

As dawn began to lighten the sky in the east, the Third Hokage of Konoha raised his eyes from the scroll in his hands and sighed heavily. The exhaled breath sounded harsh in his empty office. His aged face was strained with fatigue and stress. Raising a hand, he tried to loosen the knot of muscles in the back of his neck, knowing it was fruitless, but needing the fleeting escape it offered.

"You must rest, Hokage-sama."

Sandaime smiled at the tall shinobi who landed noiselessly in front of the large desk. His ANBU clothes were concealed by a dark robe and the mask was not in its customary place over the face. Instead, Sarutobi looked up at the face of his long time friend and trusted subordinate.

"I was indeed thinking of retiring for an hour or two," he said, "but I'm starting to think that won't happen, now that the head of the ANBU has come to see me in person."

Kouyama Shuuji bowed his head. "Forgive me for disturbing you."

"No formalities, Shuuji," Sandaime said with an idle wave of his hand. "It'll tire me even further."

"You work yourself too much. It won't do if you collapse on us, Sarutobi."

"If I do, will you take up this position?"

Kouyama snorted. "And sell my soul to democracy and politics? I don't think so, old man."

They laughed, and even for a few seconds, the heavy burdens and responsibility they each held was lifted a little from their shoulders and they shared a familiar, years-old joke.

Then the moment passed.

"So what have you got for me?" Sarutobi asked.

"News from the frontline," Kouyama replied. "A messenger brought back a report of the battle and the current list of casualties, slash MIA."

He stepped forward and placed two scrolls on the desk. Sarutobi picked up the thinner one and found it to be the report. For a few minutes, they lapsed into silence as the Hokage read, his eyes drooping sadly with every name he read in the second, thicker scroll. After the last name, there was a scribbled note: increasing numbers expected.

Sarutobi lowered the scroll and closed his eyes, pressing his hands tightly together as he weaved a careful net of control and calm. He would have time later to mourn for those he had sent to their deaths. Later.

"So Noda Akahito was successfully assassinated." It was an unnecessary repetition of what was stated so clearly in the report, but it didn't matter. He only needed to tell Kouyama he was ready to begin the discussion.

"Yes, and unless the Clouds have another strategist as cunning as Noda that we do not know of, we have them at a disadvantage."

"Do they?"

They shared a long look. "No," Kouyama replied. "Our sources are thorough."

Sarutobi nodded. "What other news from your spies?"

"Only that a lot of shinobi were sent to the frontlines for this battle. They were confident of a victory and had gathered enough forces to push us back. But it backfired."

The Third tapped his finger thoughtfully against the desk. "Maybe this is a good time to suggest a cease-fire. In their current state, they may consider it."

"I agree. In that case then, I'll be calling back a few of my men. A solid group of Jounin will be enough to hold the line."

"Yes," Sarutobi agreed, though his face was frowning lightly, "If we manage to sign a treaty, we will need the ANBU back on missions."

Kouyama noticed the displeased expression and sighed. "It cannot be helped. Someone needs to do the clean-up. Every agent under my command is ready for it."

Silhouetted by the thin strip of light on the horizon, the Hokage's face suddenly seemed decades older. He nodded at Kouyama's words, but when he spoke, his voice was thin and frail.

"I'm sorry," he said, and Kouyama knew Sarutobi was not just apologising to him, but to all the hidden members of ANBU. Because when open war ends, the real war begins for the ANBU – the assassination of any and all parties who opposed to a peace treaty, be they shinobi, daimyo, national armies or civilians. They would leave none alive who could pose as a threat to the fragile balance between the Hidden Villages.

And there were many who did.

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Well, it's better than an annual update, isn't it?

Thanks to everyone who reviewed the previous chapter! When I get enough time, I'll try to reply to them.

And to anyone who's interested, I've posted a few one-shots on my LiveJournal. The link is written on my profile, so if you're finding yourself with a bit of free time and don't mind my writing, please give them a try!

.LinSetsu.