A/N: So I've learnt that this fic has an entry on TV Tropes now! http:/ /tvtropes. org/pmwiki/pmwiki. php/FanFic/TheGirlFromWhirlpool (Maybe I should have put this at the end of the chapter. Anyone who viewed that link is going to be gone for hours, if not days) XD.
The Girl From Whirlpool
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Hospital Days
Waking up in the hospital was a long process. He'd been unconscious for several days as his body battled a deadly poison and medics carried out one surgery after another on his leg and arm. Consciousness returned to him in bits and pieces. His earliest recollection was of a couple of nurses, giggling by his bedside and arguing which one had the honour of giving a sponge bath. In all honesty he counted himself as pretty lucky he didn't recall much after that, until one afternoon he opened his eyes to take a look around him. He saw mounds of flowers piled up on the window ledge and overflowing from his bedside table, as well as an intriguing contraption holding his right knee together. Interesting, he thought, before he passed out again.
The next time he woke up was because an unimaginable pain gripped his body. He knew his leg was in pieces because it felt exactly like that, and a fire burned through his veins so ferociously he found it difficult to breathe. He probably cried out. Medical staff came hurrying into the room and began arguing over his shuddering body. One medic said to the other it was his fault for administering the wrong dosage of painkiller. The other medic protested he'd never seen a poison like this so it wasn't his fault. Eventually, a nurse quietly hooked something to the needle in Minato's arm, and he rapidly fell back into unconsciousness where pain couldn't reach him.
The first time he truly woke up was almost a week later. Though he had lost all sense of time, he had a rough idea of how many days had passed based on his itchy beard growth. The first thing he did was scratch his cheek, and his first coherent thought was that now was an opportune time to try out a goatee.
Kushina might not take kindly to bristly kisses, however.
Triggered memories poured back into his mind. His hand dropped slowly to his side as he suddenly remembered that kisses, bristly or otherwise, were the least of his worries right now.
The small voice startled Minato. He blinked and rolled his head on the pillow to look at the small boy sitting in the visitor's chair, feet kicking gently against its legs. Kakashi looked well, considering, but the last time Minato had seen him was at Sakumo's memorial service.
"Hey," Minato responded, voice rough and dry. "Alright there, Kakashi?"
Kakashi's legs stopped moving and he gave Minato a surprisingly stern look for an eight year old, one which questioned how appropriate it was for a man strung up in a hospital bed with steel pins sticking out of his leg to ask his visitor if he was alright. "I'm fine," he said flatly after a while. "Your leg is kind of shattered though."
"Oh." Minato looked down at the cage around his knee. It looked incredibly painful, which made Minato very appreciative of whatever drugs were plugged into him.
"And your arm is, like, black," Kakashi added, pointing to his right arm that had been so thoroughly bandaged from fingertip to shoulder that it was impossible to tell what colour it was. Minato couldn't move it either way.
"Makes a change," Minato said, a little relieved that he could still wiggle his fingers.
"And you were poisoned pretty bad," Kakashi went on. "The doctor says your heart stopped a couple of times."
His thoughts rattled around, trying to remember how he had come to be poisoned. "I like to keep people on their toes," he said.
"But you're ok now, right?" Kakashi asked, a faintly anxious note in his voice that Minato almost missed.
"Yeah, I'm ok," Minato said, smiling at him. "It's nice you came to visit."
"Jiraiya-sama said you should always have at least one person with you at all times," Kakashi said sagely. "He says the nurses can't be trusted with you. I don't know why. I've never seen them steal anything."
Minato had a few snatches of memory that made him wonder if Kakashi had instead been charged to protect Minato's virtue rather than his valuables. "Thanks, I guess," he said to his young chaperone. "Where is Jiraiya?"
"He came with me a while ago, but he had to leave. I think he's with the Hokage." Kakashi cocked his head. "That snake guy got away. He must be really strong... he beat the Hokage and Jiraiya-sama and you too. They don't look as bad as you, though."
Minato lifted an eyebrow – just about the only part of him that didn't ache to move. "Orochimaru didn't do this to me."
"Yeah. I know." Kakashi filled his cheeks with air slowly blew it out as his gaze wandered around the room. Every time he looked at the fountain of flowers that surrounded his bed, the boy's nose twitched. Kushina had once mentioned his allergies.
"Where's Kushina?" Minato asked him steadily, holding on tight to the ball of anxiety inside him that threatened to unravel just speaking her name.
"Has she been by?"
Kakashi awkwardly looked away and shrugged again. "Not really."
"She's ok? Her leg, I mean..."
"Her leg?" Kakashi shot him a puzzled look. "Is there something wrong with it? She's not said anything about it."
Well, considering Minato had hamstringed her and by all rights she shouldn't have been able to walk, Kakashi couldn't have missed it. Unless she was in fact... just fine. "Has she been released from the hospital?"
"Was never in it," said Kakashi.
Minato suddenly felt very tired. He stared up at the ceiling, noticing an old water stain in the shape of a banana that almost every single patient in this bed before him must have seen too. Never gets sick, he thought to himself. Never needs time off to heal.
After a while he cleared his rasping throat. "You're my student now," he said to Kakashi. "How about you do your Sensei a favour and get me a can of mintpop from the vending machine? We'll call it your first D-class mission."
Kakashi held out his hand. "Money."
Minato must have left his change in his other scanty hospital gown. "I'll pay you back later. This can be your first lesson – a ninja must always carry money or be prepared to procure it on short notice."
With a faint roll of his eyes, Kakashi slipped off the chair and headed for the door.
"Diet, please," Minato called after him.
"Yes, Sensei." Kakashi closed the door after him, leaving Minato alone in his quiet little hospital room.
By the time he came back, Minato was fast asleep again.
His next visitor didn't arrive till the following day, and in the interim Minato put up with the poking and prodding of various doctors and medics. Several appeared to have been assigned to him, and they routinely came in one after another, asking the same questions and messing with the same sore spots as the ones before. He had a feeling many more who weren't assigned to him dropped by purely to eyeball his injuries. Doctors were weird like that. A beautiful artwork wouldn't turn their heads, but if they heard some guy had come in with a leg so badly broken it was shaped like an S, they all came running to take pictures for their scrapbook.
By evening, he was glad to be left alone to sleep. But without sedation his dreams came too close to the surface and became nightmare. They took him back to unwelcome memories and unwanted feelings where he was trapped in a dark place, his own body, looking down at himself but unable to move. Just one among many bodies in an abattoir, praying for release even if that meant death. His own helplessness surrounded him like a cage, pressing in around him and crushing him until he could hardly breathe.
The sound of a chair leg scraping against the floor broke him free, and he snapped awake, heart thundering in his chest.
Before he could face the person sitting beside his bed, he had to take a deep breath and remind himself of reality. He was free. He was in the hospital. The smell of Orochimaru's lab still hung in his nose, but it was a phantom and nothing more. Sliding a finger across the perspiration on his brow, Minato sighed and looked at his visitor.
"Good evening," said the Hokage, tipping his hat.
Minato nearly broke his other leg in his rush to sit up – bow – salute – whatever. "Sir!" he gasped.
The Hokage reclined comfortably in his chair. "Please relax. There are many doctors here who would be very unhappy with me if I were to cause any sort of relapse... you've been distracting nurses all week."
"Sorry," said Minato humbly.
"Well, of course." Sarutobi removed his hat slowly and placed it on his lap, which seemed a rather informal thing for him to do. "I heard you were up and talking so I thought I'd come see you. How are you feeling?"
"Not bad, but I think that's mostly because of this stuff," he said, hooking a finger around his IV tube. "The leg looks worse than it feels."
"Metal plates?" inquired the Hokage.
"Snap," he said, tapping his own arm. "When the drugs wear off it'll really start hurting, I promise."
"Thank you, sir," said Minato uneasily, having trouble imagining a worse pain than when he'd broken it.
With a wan smile, the Hokage looked down at the hat in his lap. One finger tapped the rim speculatively. "I'm afraid what's happened to you is mostly my fault, Minato. My conscience has been weighing heavily on me."
"No, Hokage-sama," he said quickly. "I was injured because I..."
"Because?" Sarutobi tilted an ear towards him.
But Minato couldn't think why he'd been injured. His memory of events was perfect, but jumbled, like a complete jigsaw puzzle that had been dropped and was waiting to be put back in order. He knew what had happened to him... but he was not picking those pieces up yet. He didn't want to. "You're not responsible, sir. I made an error."
"I think you should know that Orochimaru has evaded us. I've sent all the people I can spare to track him down, but even with a full division I fear it would be useless. I taught him a little too well. But I never considered he could become so... twisted."
Minato looked down at his hands. The medics had removed some of his bandages earlier, and now his bruised, mottled flesh was bared for all to see. White fingers touched black fingers... and he still had trouble acknowledging they were his own. "None of us knew, Hokage-sama. We all share the blame."
"His 'laboratory' is being dismantled as we speak," the Hokage continued. "There were some survivors. A few small children. A couple of adults. They're here in the hospital too, but I've been told not to expect them to last much longer. Orochimaru's experiments have been protracted. Evil. I always knew he had an unhealthy fixation on chasing immortality, but I never expected him to go this far."
"How many has he killed?" Minato asked.
"We've found the remains of more than sixty children and over three hundred adults. There were undoubtedly more, but it'll be a while before the rest of his journals are properly explored. However, I'm already told that you were mentioned in his notes dating back many years."
"Probably. He said he wanted to possess me," Minato said, hunching his shoulders. "I thought he was just mad."
"Maybe. He used a blood contract on you, didn't he?"
"I don't know what it was," Minato said more tersely than was allowed when speaking to the Hokage. However, thinking about what Orochimaru had done to him and made him do were just more pieces that Minato wanted to leave on the ground where he didn't have to look at them.
"It's a forbidden jutsu I once told him about. The preparation is painstaking; he must have planned to take you many years in advance. Although I don't understand how he would have gotten his hands on enough of your blood..."
Minato's jaw locked. "A couple of years ago I gave some to him."
The Hokage blinked. "Why would you do that?"
"He asked for it," Minato replied plainly, and when realising that answered nothing, he shrugged helplessly. "He said... he said it would help me find my father. I didn't think there was any reason not to believe him. And yes, I feel really stupid now."
The Hokage levelled him a look of deep appraisal. "Orochimaru took hundreds of people through all kinds of means. But to use this jutsu on you? I think more than anyone, more than even me or Jiraiya, Orochimaru might have feared you the most if he went to such lengths to subdue you."
"Yeah, I'm real dynamo," said Minato flatly, moving his right leg just enough for the hinges of his caged knee to squeak pathetically. "Tremble before me and my catheter."
"We both know Orochimaru didn't do this to you," said the Hokage quietly. "His mistake was in thinking there was no one else more powerful than you in the village who would oppose him."
It was like feeling a great hand reach inside him to prise the puzzle piece out of his clenched fist to show him what he dared not look at. Minato cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Hokage-sama, but I'm very tired," he said pointedly. He hoped the old man would get the hint.
The Hokage sighed. Once more he donned his hat and stood up. "Minato, you're the only one who remembers what happened in that valley. Kushina may have walked out in one piece, but she didn't escape unharmed. If either of you are going to heal, you need to do it together."
The Hokage left him to his rest, though truthfully Minato did not sleep for most of that night.
"Call two, raise six."
"Ugh, he's bluffing. That's such a bluff."
"I think what Inoichi means is that he's folding," Shikaku said, reaching out to take his teammate's hand of cards.
Inoichi yanked them out of reach. "I'm calling it," he said adamantly. "All in!"
"You'll regret it," Chouza said as he himself folded. His pile of 'winnings' had been growing smaller for some time now, not necessarily because he was losing but because they were edible. None of them had much money to begin with so all they had to play for was a bag of jellybeans that some well-wisher had left by the bed.
It took a moment for Minato to realise the reason why everyone had gone quiet was because they were waiting for him. Shikaku nudged his leg pointedly – the healthy one, fortunately. Minato blinked absently at his cards. He'd long since forgotten what form they had decided to play.
"I fold," he said.
They all turned to the last player, who easily held the largest pile of jelly beans on the table. Because of his allergies the nurses had taken pity on him and given him one of their hygiene face masks to protect him from the flowers that had begun to dominate Minato's hospital room, turning it into a botanical wonder. On the plus side, Kakashi was no longer wheezing. The downside was that he had one hell of a poker face already and the mask just made it worse.
"Well?" Inoichi demanded.
Kakashi calmly laid his hand down.
"Royal flush," Minato commented, amused.
"Dammit!" Inoichi watched in despair as the eight year old dragged the last of his beans towards him. "That kid has to be cheating."
"Well, duh," said Chouza.
"We're ninja, Inoichi, that's the point," Shikaku said. "We're all cheating. Even Minato."
"Sorry," said Minato, peeling back his blanket to reveal the hidden stash of cards lying on his stomach.
"That's a pretty lousy hand for a cheat," Inoichi told him. "Do you even know how to play poker?"
"Poker? I thought we were playing twist."
"That would be 'whist'," corrected Shikaku.
Inoichi was disgusted nevertheless. Not only was being whipped by an eight year old taking its toll, but losing to someone who didn't even know what game they were playing had to be pretty demoralising. "I swear, if whatever knocked his leg off knocked something loose in his head, we wouldnt be able to tell. You're such a flake, Minato."
The great thing about opiates was that Minato was not inclined to care. "I think it's my turn to deal," he said. And though he may not have known the rules that well and the other players watched him like hawks, he still managed to slip most of the aces into Kakashi's hand.
"So when do the docs say you can go back to work?" Chouza asked him.
"The same day they figure out he's faking," said Inoichi.
Minato ignored him. "Could be a couple of months, but they're always overly cautious. The next surgery is the last one, then they'll decide whether to take the leg off or let me walk home."
In the grim silence, Kakashi pushed two beans forward.
"Called," Minato met the bet.
"You seem pretty calm about this," Shikaku said. "You could really lose your leg?"
Minato shrugged. "If I do, I can always run away and join an order of monks. I know this Fire Temple guy who-"
"If I were you, I'd be pissing with rage at Orochimaru. All of us want to see that guy hanged, but you probably have more reason than us, yet you seem pretty chill about the whole thing," Inoichi said. "I mean the dude busted your leg and took your girlfriend hostage."
"I thought he took Minato hostage and Kushina saved him," Chouza interrupted.
Shikaku shook his head, "You guys are all wrong. Kushina and Minato were fighting him when he summoned some weird monster thing that did in Minato and he got away. Isn't that right, Minato?"
"I don't really remember," he said. There were so many stories of what had happened that night floating about that Minato didn't need to add his own version, especially when he himself wasn't sure if it was any more or less true than the rest.
Inoichi sighed melodramatically, "I don't think I like living in a world where the godly Yellow Flash can be reduced to this cripple we see before us who sucks at poker. I'd say we better catch that bastard soon, but he took down the Hokage and Jiraiya-sama as well on the same night. I don't think even a hundred men would be enough."
"Don't worry about Orochimaru," Minato said with serene assuredness. "He had the element of surprise this time and he got the jump on me. But next time we cross paths I'll kill him. Check."
"Check," Kakashi agreed.
Shikaku tapped his cards. "I'm checking too," he said dully, more affected by Minato's words than his bad hand. He sounded downright prophetic.
Chouza cleared his throat and changed the heavy conversation. "So what does Kushina think of your new beard?"
"Oh, so that's what it is," Shikaku remarked. "I thought the nurses were playing some kind of prank on you."
"I don't know what she thinks," said Minato. "I haven't seen her."
"What, at all?" Shikaku shared a significant look with his teammates. "She hasn't come to see you?"
"Not yet. How many points do I get for a joker?"
"You don't get points in poker – and you shouldn't even have the joker!" Inoichi's head slammed into his hands in despair.
"Maybe she's squeamish about the sight of blood," Chouza suggested, "and that's why she hasn't visited yet."
"Odd, since she doesn't hesitate to spill it," Shikaku murmured.
"I'm sure she's just busy," Minato said.
"Of course," said Chouza.
"There's a war on, so everyone's busy." Minato cast an eye around the other players. "Well, almost everyone."
"We'll have you know that we're actually very busy. We're on a mission right now, in fact," said Inoichi.
"The other jonin wanted an assessment of your fitness," Shikaku added.
"And you volunteered?" Minato cocked an eyebrow. "Or did you draw the short straw?"
Shikaku shrugged. "Something like that."
"And your verdict?"
"You're a lost cause obviously, especially against this hand." Shikaku threw down his cards with a flourish. "Full house, ladies. You're all bust."
Chouza slumped back as Inoichi bitterly saw his last jellybeans departing. But just as Shikaku began pulling the pile towards him, a small hand reached out and stopped him. They all looked at Kakashi.
"Four of a kind," said the boy.
To see the smirk slide off Shikaku's face with a hurriedly averted "fuuuu– udge", made Inoichi much happier.
With all the jellybeans in Kakashi's possession, and reasonably satisfied that they could report back to their superiors about Minato's fitness – whether it was physical or mental they were concerned about – the Ino-Shika-Chou triad soon departed. Minato was tired enough to be relieved. "We make a pretty good hustling team, Kakashi," he said. "We should do that more often."
"Sure, Sensei," said Kakashi, pushing the bag of sweets back towards Minato. "You can have my share."
"You don't want it? You won it."
"I don't like sweets."
"All eight year old boys like sweets, Kakashi," Minato told him. "Take off that mask and help yourself."
"Sweets are for children, Sensei." Nevertheless, he unhooked his mask. At least four cards fell out.
"And you're not a child, I suppose?" wondered Minato.
"No. I'm emancipated."
It was probably the biggest word he knew too. Minato sighed inwardly. "You know, you don't have to live at the centre. Me and Kushina have plenty of room."
"I just sleep at the centre. I don't live there."
"Even so... Kushina hated it there. If she'd had an alternative-"
"I don't mind it." Kakashi said impassively.
But he couldn't have been happy there. Minato remembered the centre well, although he considered that it might have changed since the days it was overcrowded with an influx of Whirlpool orphans. It had to be hard to come down from living in a large home filled with love and privilege, to living in a centre where a shoebox was all you had to call your own. Why do it? Unless that was the point.
Maybe Kakashi didn't want to be happy.
"Why didn't you tell your friends that Kushina was the one who hurt you?" Kakashi asked suddenly.
"Why would you think that?" Minato asked, collecting the cards diligently to pack away.
The boy shrugged. He kept looking at a bunch of lush tiger lilies on the nightstand and their dangling pods of pollen. His nose was twitching.
"I won't keep you here all day," Minato told him. "You can go if you like. I need a rest anyway."
"Yes, Sensei." Kakashi headed for the door.
"If you see Kushina-"
Kakashi paused and looked back at him, but Minato couldn't think what to say next. His hand had paused on a queen, noticing that while the woman's image on the top was a flawless, gently smiling lady, her reverse image was crumpled and creased almost beyond recognition by an overzealous hand; no doubt Inoichi's.
"Sensei?" Kakashi prompted him again.
"Never mind," he said, swiftly disappearing the ruined queen into the rest of the deck. "It's not important."
The crutches were a blessing when he received them, though the medical staff came to rue it rather quickly. Just days after his last surgery, when the ghoulish cage was removed and the interesting pattern of claw-shaped scars disappeared beneath the final cast, Minato was frequently seen hopping around the hospital despite being ordered to strict bed rest. The head nurse of his ward despaired every time she saw him.
"You're supposed to be resting!" she cried whenever she saw him hobbling about.
"I'm exercising," he retorted cheerfully.
"You'll do yourself another injury like that – go back to bed this instant!" She was the kind of nurse who approached all her naughty patients as she did her half-dozen naughty teenage sons.
"Just going down to the canteen, I'll be back in a minute."
"Don't make me pull rank on you!"
"Can't pull what you can't catch." He was as remarkably fast on two crutches as he was on two legs, but not so fast he couldn't pull to an awkward stop. "That may have come out wrong."
"When you fall and break that pretty neck of yours, don't expect me to come running!"
In truth, while hobbling around on crutches gave him a much needed sense of freedom, it was also incredibly tiring with a leg that either felt like it was on fire or like a deadened lead weight, depending on how much painkiller he had been given. Still, anything to keep him from being confined to a bed was welcome, for when he was confined on his back it was too easy to remember other ways he'd been confined recently. It was not what the doctor had ordered, but Minato preferred to stay active, poking his nose into various corners of the hospital.
Here he got a good idea of how the war was developing. Fewer nin were appearing in the emergency unit with injuries less severe than they'd been before, and their news was a lot more optimistic too. The push against Iwa had been relatively successful, or at least they'd been fought to a standstill in the borderlands. Konoha was still disadvantaged, and still they awaited Kumo's move with great apprehension, but even if this was just the short minute when the sun broke through the clouds on a long, stormy day, people's spirits were higher.
Minato dropped by on Anko a few times before she was released. She would always be cursed it seemed, but she was easily the happiest child in the hospital. No matter what Minato said, all she knew was that Orochimaru had been driven off the night Minato had gone after him, and that made him a big damn hero.
"I wish you'd kinda killed him though," she said frankly, on the day she was discharged. For someone so small and innocent looking, she had quite a bloodthirsty streak.
"I'm getting round to it," he promised.
Of the people transferred out of Orochimaru's labs, only one survived. A small boy around the same age as Anko, dangerously underfed and neglected. It was difficult visiting him. The boy wouldn't or couldn't talk and didn't appear to have been taught how to read or write. He could at least comprehend what was said to him, and although his cheeks were gaunt and he must have been subjected to horrors that plenty of adults would have trouble coping with, he was able to smile. Given a set of coloured crayons, he wasn't that much different from any other child... as long as one did not look too closely at the drawings his imagination produced.
"Gene-spliced," said the geneticist who had been called in after the notes Orochimaru had made on his child subjects had surfaced. "We think this one was spliced with DNA from the first Hokage. He would have been taken as a baby, so it's amazing he's survived this long. All the others like him died... it could be a while before we find out his real name, if ever."
It was when Minato was relaxing one day in the hospital's foyer, having just charmed a can of soda out of the vending machine (what the nurses called it when a penniless Minato stared forlornly at the machine long enough until someone took pity on him) that Ren appeared. At first he hoped the other jonin would simply walk right by without noticing. It wasn't that Minato hated him, or that Ren was in any way a bad person – quite the opposite – only every time Minato saw him he was nagged by guilt. He was always convinced that this time would be the time Ren finally socked him.
Any hope of avoiding a confrontation was dashed the moment he went to the front desk and the treacherous receptionist pointed Minato out.
"You look well," Ren greeted him politely.
"Thank you," said Minato, equally as polite.
Scratching his eyebrow awkwardly, Ren said, "Last time I saw you, I think you tried to kill me."
Minato took a calm sip of his soda. "No hard feelings?"
"So you were aware of your actions."
He said that like he might be planning to arrest Minato depending on his answer.
"A little. Not that I was in control. I'd never really try to kill you, Ren."
Ren frowned, perhaps wondering about the odd emphasis placed on 'really'. As if Minato would or had tried to kill him before in less serious ways that he might not have noticed. "That's comforting."
"Was there something you needed?" Minato asked him.
"Actually, I thought maybe there was something you needed," Ren said, reaching for the pocket of his vest. "I'm being dispatched tomorrow, so I thought I should give you these now."
A small sheaf of paper squares was pressed into Minato's open palm. The seal stencilled onto each reminded him of ofuda charms. "Well... thank you," he said uncertainly. "Most people just got me flowers though."
"They're not for you," said Ren quickly. "They're really for Kushina, but it's best if the person closest to her has them on hand. My aunt used to give them to Hatake Sakumo, but since he's passed I guess the responsibility now falls to you."
"And what are they?" Minato asked bluntly.
"They're chakra nullification tags. They'll stop a jinchuuriki's transformation dead if used in time, or else we get a situation like before where it took twenty people to subdue her, and she wasn't even fully transformed yet."
Minato regarded them blankly. "And what does this have to do with Kushina?"
"I... was told you knew," Ren said slowly, his expression turning confused.
"Knew what?" Minato asked, a subtle bite to the edge of his words. "I can't tell the difference between memory and imagination. You'll have to enlighten me."
Ren glanced at his leg. "I don't think your injuries look very imaginary to me."
Minato stared at him for a beat before he mustered all the limited grace he possessed and pushed himself to his feet. "You know what? This isn't my problem," he said, tossing the tags back at Ren who unsuccessfully tried to catch them as they fluttered away in multiple directions. "I bet you've all had a good time laughing behind my back, and it sure was fun having my leg nearly ripped off in order to be let into your little need-to-know club, but this isn't my responsibility. If you want someone to trail around after Kushina with a leash so she won't dismember any more people, go elsewhere. I am not going to be her keeper."
He gathered his crutches and resolutely began limping away.
"Minato, don't be like this," Ren beseeched, giving up on collecting all the fallen tags. "I've been where you are now; I know it isn't easy. When I found out I could barely believe it either and it messes with your head. You think you know her better than anyone else, then suddenly you find out this huge secret, and you realise what you fell in love with wasn't the whole picture... and you wonder if she's really the same girl-"
"Please don't tell me how I'm supposed to feel," Minato tossed over his shoulder.
"You can't run away from this," Ren warned him.
"I can run away from you. Good enough."
He'd never been good at confrontations. But Ren was right. He couldn't avoid the biggest one that was yet to come.
Mikoto announced herself with a shy knock on his open door. "I'm not disturbing you, am I?"
Until that point, Minato had only been staring out of his window, trying hard not to think too much about the itch beneath his cast that he couldn't scratch, or much about anything else for that matter. "Mikoto," he greeted, tired, but not too tired to smile.
"I thought I'd stop by... see how you were," she said, coming into the room.
"I'm fine, I'm just sticking around for the food in this place," he said, pushing himself upright. "I'm not going to be here much longer."
"They're discharging you?" Mikoto asked, surprised.
Well, technically no. But Minato was determined to be discharged, even if it meant discharging himself out the window while the head nurse's back was turned. "They think I'm making a great recovery," he said instead, which was essentially true. "To be honest, I thought you were deployed with everyone else. I wasn't expecting to see you."
Mikoto smiled thinly. "Deployed? No... not me."
There was something strange about that smile. She'd suddenly gone so quiet that he wondered if she had really meant to come to see him. A piece of pink, folded paper lay in her hand, and Minato had been here long enough to recognise a hospital document. "Is everything ok, Mikoto? Were you here to see someone else?"
For a second, she lifted her hand as if to brush off the question with a denial. Then she went quiet again, looking down at her lap. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have come... the last thing you need is to be burdened with my problems so-"
"Is this about Kushina?" he asked, interrupting her lurch for the door. She looked back at him, blinking in surprise.
"Kushina? What? No!" Her eyes fell again. "Well... yes, I suppose."
Minato sighed. Ultimately everything seemed to come down to that girl. Picking up the crutched stretched out beside him, he used it to knock the chair back invitingly. "Have a seat. I'm not going anywhere."
After a brief hesitation, Mikoto deposited herself in the chair and sat twisting her fingers over her knees. When she met his eyes, she flushed with embarrassment. "You probably think I'm being silly."
"I guess that depends on what the problem is," he said.
"If I tell you... can you promise not to tell Kushina?"
This was something she couldn't tell her best friend? Minato was not feeling too hot about secrets these days, but he nodded for the sake of hearing her out.
Taking a deep breath, she looked up at the ceiling. "I came to see you because I already had an appointment here-"
"You're sick?" Minato blurted, feeling a cold creep of dread.
"No... no. Not sick. I'm, uh..." Her fingers were twisting quit violently now. "I mean, me and Fugaku are going to have a baby."
It took Minato several moments to get over his astonishment. "Congratulations!" he cried. But when Mikoto only gave a watery smile in response, he wondered if that was a bit too much of a hasty assumption. "This is... good, right?"
"Oh, yes," she agreed. "Very good. I'm very happy. Terrified, and I'm not sure I'm ready for this, and I'm bound to mess up, but it's a good kind of fear, you know? Like jumping off the high dive. I feel like I want to tell everyone I meet, but the first person I want to tell... I'm not sure she'll take it well."
"You don't think Kushina will be happy for you?"
"I'm not sure. I know she hates Fugaku... she's offered to neuter him more than once to his face to stop exactly this from happening. But more than that, I think it would hurt her even if she approved of my husband. You know how she is about children."
Minato stared at her. He had to shrug and shake his head. "I thought she liked children."
"She does. She loves them. That's the problem though, isn't it?" Mikoto looked at him expectantly. They were the two people closest to Kushina, so why did it feel like they were on a completely different page?
"I don't understand... what's the problem?" he asked.
Mikoto's face clouded over with confusion. "You've... discussed children with Kushina before?" she said slowly. "I mean, if she was going to tell anyone, I would have thought she would tell you."
"I'm beginning to realise I shouldn't be surprised about what kind of things Kushina hasn't told me," he said stiffly. Mikoto didn't deserve his anger so he fought hard to push those thoughts aside. "Why exactly would Kushina be bothered by your being pregnant?"
Mikoto gave him a steely look. "I'm only telling you this because I know how serious you are about her and you have a right to know. I could slap that girl for keeping it to herself... though I can't say that it's not understandable." She drew in a sigh and placed a hand against her gently curving stomach almost unconsciously. Now that he knew she was pregnant, it was obvious. But Minato had never been particularly observant of the changes in other women's figures.
"Kushina can't have children, Minato."
He blinked once. Twice. "What?"
"She told me a long time ago. We were talking about the future and when we started talking about family she got upset." Mikoto shook her head sadly. "She said she has a condition that makes it too dangerous to bear children. She wouldn't say what exactly, but I know she meant it. If she gets pregnant, she'll die."
Of course she had a condition. A monstrous, lethal, terrorising condition. How could someone like that have a child? It only made sense but...
Minato was too stunned to speak. It was rapidly becoming clear that everything he had known about Kushina – and everything he had expected of their future together... that wasn't going to happen.
"I'm sorry," Mikoto said quietly. "But you need to know that. Maybe Kushina kept quiet because she knows it's a deal-breaker for a lot of guys, but... I have a good feeling about you, Minato. If anyone could accept her as she is, it's you."
He let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. There was no way she could understand just exactly how much he was expected to accept about Kushina... and yet her words didn't ring any less true.
Who else loved her more than he did? Who else did he love more than her?
"If you want me to keep your baby a secret from Kushina," he said after a while, "I will... but that's a pretty big secret and you can't hide it forever."
"I know, I feel terrible," she said miserably, "but I just need time, and the right moment-"
"She should understand. She's bound to be keeping a few secrets of her own from you too, right?"
"A secret bigger than another life inside you? I doubt that," she laughed.
Now it was Minato's turn to smile painfully. "I'm sure that as long as you are happy, Kushina would be happy for you too."
"Thank you, Minato." She smile gratefully. "I wasn't sure, but actually I do feel better now... I'll let you get your rest."
Minato was a long way off that. As Mikoto rose and started for the door, he stopped her again. "Do you have any idea where Kushina is now?" he asked.
She pursed her lips. "I guess... last I saw her, she was heading to the cemetery. That was about two hours ago, but she may still be there. That's where his grave is, you know... Sakumo-sensei's."
He nodded. "Thank you."
"And what exactly do you need to know this for? I doubt they'll discharge you today."
Minato just smiled.
Sneaking out of a hospital shouldn't have been that hard – not for a guy who had escaped at least two enemy bases in his time. The problem lay in how that guy had two working legs; Minato only had one. Bribing one of the nurses with a bag of chocolates someone had left him was easy; a few more charming compliments about her hair and she was more than happy to fetch his clothes out of storage. Getting into them was a little trickier. He ended up having to slice off most of the right leg of his pants in order to fit them over his cast; it was either that or walk out the hospital in a dress.
But with his clothes on, moving through the hospital was not so easy anymore. If the head nurse saw him heading down the elevator with his jacket on, she would know he wasn't just popping down for the vending machines. With that in mind he applied a simple henge. Namikaze Minato might be buried beneath a dogpile of medics and nurses before he got to the entrance, but no one would think twice about a brunette limping out on crutches.
As he limped through the streets, it occurred to him that the doctors weren't just trying to keep him in bed to inconvenience him. Sadists they may have been, but they also had a point. Minato's leg hurt like hell and the half-mile trip to the cemetery felt not unlike a transcontinental trek.
By the time he reached the iron gates marking the entrance, he had convinced himself that she wouldn't be there and that he was torturing himself needlessly. Yet he wasn't all that surprised when, between the tall tombs and grave makers, he saw a glimpse of red hair.
He found her sitting on the sparse grass before a modest tombstone. Two names were engraved: a married couple, although until recently one of names would have been marked in red to show he still lived. But now the paint had been washed away and they finally rested together in peace, Hatake Sakumo and his wife.
A bouquet of white flowers rested at the base of the stone, probably placed there by Kushina, who was too lost in her own thoughts to hear or recognise Minato approaching from behind. He stopped a few feet away, shifting his weight onto his good leg. Fortunately it wasn't a windy day; one stout breeze might just knock him off his pegs.
"So you're a jinchuuriki."
Kushina didn't turn around, but he saw her stiffen as if he'd crashed a pair of symbols behind her head.
"And you're not just any jinchuuriki, are you?" he went on. "You're the Kyuubi. I don't really know how it happened, but I guess it was when your village was attacked. Your dad didn't seal his techniques into you – that was just some crap you fed me to shut me up. No, your dad actually sealed the nine-tailed bijuu into you, and that's why you never get sick. That's why you can break your nose one day and the next day barely have a bruise. That's why the Hokage declared a state of emergency when you went missing. That's why Orochimaru didn't want to face you. He was scared of you."
Rising slowly, Kushina wiped something from her face that might have been tears. When she turned, he expected to see her usual steely defiance, but what he saw was just a shattered remnant of it. One gust of wind could knock him down. One cruel word would destroy her completely.
"Yeah, I'm a freak. I lied to you, and I nearly got you killed," she said, voice more broken and husky than he'd ever heard it. She wiped her pink nose with the back of her hand as water stood out in her eyes. "What do you want me to say?"
"Say sorry," he said.
"Then I'm sorry!" she cried out. "I'm sorry about what I am! Sensei said I had to tell you the truth or leave you, but I was too selfish, even though I knew you see people like me as monsters! Now I've ruined everything and I'm sorry!"
"I've been in the hospital for two weeks," Minato said unsympathetically. "You didn't visit once."
She blanched. "Would you even have wanted that?"
"You were the only one I wanted there, Kushina! I saw more of your ex than I saw of you."
"And you're not the only one who has to apologise," he said. "I know I've said some things... in hindsight I guess they must have been pretty insensitive. I always thought jinchuuriki would be like the one I saw in Suna. So I'm sorry. I'm sorry I ever gave you reason to think you couldn't trust me with the truth."
She stared at him, eyebrows tilting up in something resembling hope. "You're not mad at me?"
"How could I be?"
"But your leg-"
"-is healing, and it wasn't your fault. We both did a pretty big number on each other... although fortunately you seem to have some enhanced supernatural healing ability. That's pretty cool."
"Cool?" she echoed, bewildered. "Minato, are you really ok with this? With what I am?"
"You're Kushina," he said simply. "Nothing's changed."
She shifted uneasily. "That's what Ren said, but he still ended up treating me like I was a burden, like he couldn't let me go to crowded places in case I snapped and killed everyone."
"Is that likely to happen?" he wondered.
"Only if my idiot boyfriend tries to kill me again," she told him.
He smiled, because he deserved that, and if Kushina was able to joke then things couldn't be so terrible after all. "I could get used to the idea of my girlfriend being stronger than me."
She rubbed her eyes dry. "Your leg is nothing compared to the damage your ego took, right?"
He snorted. "You know me too well."
She smiled at last, weakly, but it was the greatest thing Minato had seen since he'd woken up in hospital. Transferring one crutch to his other hand, he held out his arm to her, and she gratefully stepped into his embrace without hesitation. It was a little wobbly, but no less heartfelt, and Minato buried his face in her hair and breathed in its earthy, chilled scent that told him she had been in this graveyard for far too long. She felt so small in his arms... and it was so hard to believe that she held power enough to destroy whole nations.
It really would take some getting used to, that was for sure.
He pressed his mouth to her ear and kissed it. "I love you," he swore, and felt her squeeze him back a little tighter. "Now can we go home? My leg is killing me..."
"Yes, let's go home," she agreed with a deep sigh of relief that shed two weeks' worth of pain and uncertainty. They were both too tired to say any more. To worry any more.
One of them may have been the host of the most fearsome bijuu in existence, and the other was destined to become the greatest living kage, but with his arm draped around her shoulders for support, they tottered home with no greater concern on their minds than what they would have for dinner. Except one.
"What's that stuff on your face?"
"It's my new beard, Kushina."
"It's not staying is it?"