Author's Note: For the "archaic medical treatment" space on my HC Bingo card on LJ. Please note that the illness described within is completely fictional. Enjoy!
It was hot, almost stifling in the village hospital. The evening wind barely stirred the air through the open windows, thin curtains ruffling half-heartedly. Oil lamps burned hazy smoke strings in the air as they cast dim light over sleeping patients. Every bed in the hospital was full, most of the patients quiet in sleep though a few tossed and turned, gripped with fevers.
Sitting at the bedside of a ten-year-old boy, Tenten waved a fan slowly in front of her in an attempt to dry the sweat she could feel gathering at her hairline. For being early autumn, the village was gripped in an unnatural heat wave that seemed almost to bolster the epidemic that was running freely through the small, neat houses on the cliffs.
The Village of Ghosts, it was called, for the echoes the ocean made as it beat against the rocky shore. An apt name, she thought, for a village that was slowly filling with corpses. Just outside a window to her right, she could see the orange glow of the bonfire against the darkening sky. She had lost track of how many bodies she'd seen carried out to it in the last twenty-four hours but it was a great deal too many.
"How is he?"
Tenten shifted in the hard, wooden chair, drawing her attention back to Sakura who stood at the end of the boy's bed. The medic had an arm full of freshly cleaned sheets and though her spine was straight, there were dark circles under eyes and a haggard look about her.
Tenten glanced briefly at the child in the bed. "He is in the beginning stages," she answered. "A couple of days yet."
Sakura's shoulders dropped and Tenten wondered for the hundredth time why they were still there. Tenten and Hyuuga Neji had been sent to bring Sakura to the village a week ago and they had been dutiful in assisting the medic with that they could. They were ill-equipped, however, to handle what was surely an outbreak. Sakura had not encountered anything like it before and yet none of them had been able to leave in order to ask for reinforcements. The first thing Sakura had done after she'd seen the first case was to close the village gates, ordering all residents to stay within the walls.
Sakura watched her, eyebrows drawn together. "You and Neji have to go." It was an old argument and Tenten shook her head, as she always did.
"You know we can't," she replied, a quick shift of her gaze towards the doorway. Sakura's expression tightened.
Not all of the villagers were sick and those who were not did not appreciate being held prisoner in their own homes. Only Tenten and Neji's presence kept order in the streets, most people being too fearful to oppose an armed shinobi. If they were to go, Tenten was sure Sakura would have a riot on her hands.
"I was supposed to report back three days ago," the medic said quietly. A determined look flashed across her face. "Tsunade-sama will send someone. I know it."
Tenten nodded. It was the plan they had settled on, to wait for Konoha to send aid when Sakura didn't report in but it was still a good seven day journey from Konoha to the village – giving them at least four more days of living in a diseased powder keg, and that only if Konoha had sent someone immediately. Which Tenten doubted.
Either way, she thought, it would be too late for the boy.
When they'd first arrived, they'd been given use of a small cottage next to the hospital where they could sleep, eat and keep their things. After the barring of the village gates, however, Neji had moved them into the loft above the hospital. It was basically little more than an attic but it kept them together and kept Sakura close to her patients in case of an emergency.
Having arrived there first after her latest shift, Tenten unrolled their futons and opened the two tiny windows set into the eaves to clear out the smell of smoke and medicine. She had just sat down to clean her katana, the blade across her knees, when Neji came up the stairs smelling of fire and ash. His clothes were marked with soot but his eyes were sharp, cataloguing everything about her and the room in a second.
She paused, trying to read him. "Are you alright?"
It was a question always asked if they had been apart for several hours. Tenten wasn't sure what would happen if one of them were to fall ill. The disease was not necessarily a death sentence - a few had survived it and were shakily recovering - but none of them could afford to get sick. Sakura most of all.
"I'm fine," he replied, still eyeing her. "You?"
"Well enough," she answered. "Sakura is relieving me for a few hours and then I'll take her place."
At least one of them had to be present in the hospital at all times. They currently had ten people with the full-fledged disease, and two more who were in the beginning stages. Tenten thought probably only one or two would actually survive it. The young boy she had been watching over would not. None of the children who had contracted the illness had lived.
Neji stepped past her to his own futon, shedding smoky clothes as we went. She kept her back to him, her attention on the weapon in her lap until she heard him lie down, a quiet huff of hair leaving him after another long day. Quietly she sheathed her sword and set it aside, leaning over to blow out the candle next to her futon.
The room plunged into humid darkness.
She stretched out on her futon, not bothering to change clothes since she would be up in a few hours again anyway. Every muscle in her body ached from exhaustion and too little sleep but she found she could not close her eyes, her gaze fixed on the shadowy ceiling as if trying to pull shapes from darkness. Four days. Four days until help might come. How many of the villagers would still be alive by then? Sakura was doing her best but she needed a full medical team. Instead, Sakura had Neji and herself, two companions better suited to a different sort of combat. What little Tenten knew of medicine was limited to poisons for weapons and their antidotes, basic field first aid. She did not know how to fight a faceless enemy.
"I wonder what Lee and Gai-sensei are doing now," she murmured, resting the back of her arm across her forehead. It helped a little to think of home, of somewhere people weren't dying, their corpses carried out to the huge bonfire at the edge of the village to be burned.
"Something ridiculous, no doubt," Neji answered, his voice quiet and heavy in the dark. She heard the tiredness in it, the heart-breaking weariness in his words. His expression never gave it away, but in the night with no one to see, his voice could betray him. Blindly, she reached out her left hand until her fingers found his and threaded the two of them together. She didn't say anything, just laid there wordlessly until her eyelids grew heavy and she finally slipped into sleep, holding hands there in the dark.
It had rained a bit the night before, turning the dirt paths into small rivers of mud that clung to her ankles as she slowly made her rounds. With the sun just coming up, the village was mostly quiet, only a few early-risers out doing chores. Some noticed her, eyeing her with blank and empty stares until she passed. She knew to them - those who weren't sick - she was something of a jailer, forcing them to remain in a place where people were dying by slow inches. It was not that they didn't understand the necessity of it, but it was not something easy to swallow either. Facing death each day was wearing and tempers were thin enough as it were.
As she drew closer to the perimeter fence, she heard the booming of the waves against the shoreline, the ghost echoes for which the village was named. It was a fresh sound, invigorating, and totally out of place. Tiredly, she reached up and laid down a fresh paper seal on one of the huge logs that made up the fencing, watching it sear itself into the wood. This was the third time she'd had to reset the wards on the perimeter. No matter how well they knew they should not leave, it didn't always stop the people from trying. And to be honest, Tenten could not bring herself to blame them.
She made a circuit of the wall, re-warding as she went, until she came to the front gates. The perimeter fence had been made long ago of huge logs pulled from the surrounding swampland. The gates had been made of the same large trees but reinforced with steel beams that turned on hinges the length of her arm. It took two people to open the gates once closed. Not that that really mattered at the moment, since Sakura had closed them when they'd realized the sickness was spreading. Paper seals had been plastered all over it and she had chained the two gates together, making it extremely unlikely that anyone but herself, Neji or Sakura would be able to open them. Most of the wards seemed to be holding, however. She did not check the one on the outside of the gate, the one that read in thick black symbols "stay away". She'd let Neji do that with the Byakugan later.
She turned to find one of the village girls standing behind her, watching her with soulful, hopeless eyes. She was bedraggled and dirty, only a few years younger than Tenten herself but she looked older, as if the epidemic had aged her even though she hadn't been ill.
"Hamina," she replied calmly. The girl fidgeted, wringing her hands together.
"Tenten, can you come? Roku, he's... I think... Can you come?" she asked, a bit breathless, her forehead furrowed with worry. Tenten nodded immediately, already taking half a step towards the girl.
"Of course, let's go."
Hamina gave her a tight smile and quickly turned, half sliding down the sticky, mud-filled streets toward her house. Tenten followed, feeling her gut contract into a hard ball of nerves. Roku was Hamina's thirteen year old brother. If he had fallen sick... Not another child. Please, not another child.
Hamina's house was small and dark but Tenten barely noticed as she entered, her entire attention riveted on Roku, his small form lying prone on a pallet in the main room. His dark hair was matted with sweat and she could see the sheen of it on his skin. Already the fever burned in him. For a moment, she closed her eyes against the sight of him.
"Tenten?" Hamina's voice was tiny, small with fear.
Opening her eyes, Tenten glanced at the other girl before stepping past her into Roku's actual bedroom. His futon lay unmade and rumpled, a few old books scattered about. An tattered mosquito net hung from the ceiling, the mesh closed and pulled to one side. Tenten bit her lip, wondering what she wasn't seeing.
"Have you and Roku been out of the house the last few days? Have you gone anywhere, stayed with anyone?" she asked, still surveying the room. Hamina moved up closer to her.
"I went to the well a few times but Roku has been inside. Sakura said it was best if we didn't go out much so we wouldn't catch sick. She said to stay away from the hospital."
Tenten nodded, frowning. The well had been deemed clean by Sakura when they'd arrived to rule out a contaminated water supply, and if Roku had been inside since the gates had been barred, how could he have contracted the disease?
Her eyes caught on the mosquito net.
"Did Roku sleep in here last night?"
Hamina was watching her with big eyes. "No, he said he was too hot last night. He slept on the floor in the main room. I haven't moved him."
"But he usually sleeps in here, right? With the net covering the futon?" Tenten pressed, searching the girl's face.
"Yes. The mosquitoes can be bad here during the summer. Now that the season is changing it's been better, but Roku feels safer if he sleeps with it up."
Tenten breathed out. "Okay."
She turned on her heel and went back into the main room, kneeling down by Roku's side. She tried to be careful but the boy still groaned as she got her arms under him and lifted him up, blanket and all. His head rolled back over her arm, glassy eyes half open but unseeing, breathing labored. Hamina made a sound in her throat.
"He's got it, doesn't he? The sickness?"
Tenten looked over at her. "I think so," she answered gravely. "I need to get him to Sakura. Can you get the netting from his bedroom and bring it to the hospital? Don't go in, just give it to Neji, he'll be nearby, down by bonfire. Can you do that?"
Hamina nodded, still staring at her brother's fever-flushed face, but a moment later she whirled away and Tenten heard her clattering around in the next room. Hefting the weight in her arms, Tenten covered Roku the best she could and darted out in the street, almost losing her balance a few times as mud slipped beneath her shoes. There were more people in the streets now and when they saw her and what she carried they backed away, fear stark in their faces. Tenten ignored them, intent on reaching the hospital without falling.
By the time she pushed through the front door of their makeshift medical ward her arms ached and she had mud up to her calves.
The pink-haired med-nin hurried down the row of beds towards her, pale face drawn and worried when she saw what it was Tenten carried.
"Oh no," she murmured. She reached out a hand, her palm covering Roku's forehead. "He's in the first stage. You found him like this?"
"His sister came to get me," Tenten replied, following Sakura to an empty bed where she could lay Roku down gently. Sakura brought over a bowl of water and some fresh cloths, wetting one to dab at his face. While she was doing that, Tenten ran her hands down the boys arms and legs, letting her fingers glide down his skin. Sakura blinked at her, startled.
Tenten ignored her for the moment, moving up to the boy's neck. Carefully, she turned his head and pulled down the back of his shirt.
There. A small red bump on his shoulder. Hardly noticeable.
Next to her, Sakura had gone completely still.
"I think it's spread by mosquito bite," Tenten told her, her voice low and intent. "Hamina told me they are bad here during the summer. They usually sleep with nets over the futons, but Roku didn't last night. It's the only thing I can think of that changed for him. They'd been staying away from anyone who was sick..." She swallowed. "With autumn coming they might have put the nets away, but it's been so unnaturally hot lately..."
The two women exchanged glances and then Sakura got up and moved hurriedly over to the next patient. Tenten came around to join her and... there, near the ankle...
Sakura's voice was low when she spoke. "We need everyone sleeping under a net." She lifted her eyes to meet Tenten's. "Quickly."
By the time Tenten returned to the hospital that evening she felt like she had done one of Gai's famous 100-laps-around-the-village workouts, blindfolded, with weights around her waist. She'd been to every house in the village, spreading the word about the mosquito nets and helping hang them if they'd already been taken down for the season. Her back and shoulders ached but she felt like she had actually done something, that she had fought back, somehow.
The hospital was quiet as she made her way through. Sakura gave her a weary smile, giving a nod to the mosquito nets that now hung over every bed. Tenten smiled back, breathing a sigh of relief. It was likely they would still lose most of those who were already sick, she knew that, but if they could at least keep anyone else from taking ill, it would be worth it.
She climbed the steps up to the attic slowly, feeling the muscles in her legs protest. Neji was not upstairs as she had thought, so she pulled over a chair to use a stool so she could hang the nets she'd brought up earlier. She found them in the cottage they'd stayed in when they'd first gotten there and they were in good shape.
Breathing out a sigh, she pulled up one and climbed up on the chair, leaning over to slip it into the hook on the ceiling.
Startled, she wobbled on the chair and almost lost her footing. Strong hands settled on her waist, steadying her, and she looked down into pearl-white eyes.
"Hey," she murmured. Her hands came to rest on his shoulders. "You heard?"
"Hamina brought me the net for Roku earlier. Sakura told me when I took it in to her."
"I could be wrong," she admitted, "but I couldn't think of what else it might be. At least it's something we can try."
He nodded and then surprised her by lifting her up and off the stool by her waist, setting her on her feet in front of him. She looked up at him, reaching out to trace the side of his face briefly. "Are you alright?"
For a moment, they were both absolutely still. Tenten was sure she had stopped breathing. And then Neji carefully leaned down a little and she lifted up on her tiptoes and their lips met in a gentle kiss. She smelled firesmoke and ash but her fingers felt the silk of Neji's hair, the slide of his lips as he tilted her head with the palm of his hand on her neck. She felt it then, like the click of a key when it turns a lock and somewhere a door opens. A fragile warmth pooled in her chest, a curl of hope.
Maybe things would turn out right after all.
She knew immediately that something was wrong.
One moment she'd been checking the perimeter with Hamina trailing after her, the next she was on the ground and the girl was calling her name repeatedly. Tenten's body was shaking as if she were cold but she felt afire, sweat beading up on her skin as if she were in a sauna.
"No, no," she stuttered, unable to believe what was happening. Hamina was hovering over her, looking worried. Tenten shakily grabbed the girl's hand, feeling the air in her lungs shudder as she tried to speak. "You've got to... take me to... Sakura. Please." She huffed against the trembling of her body. "Please, Hamina."
The girl nodded quickly. "I will. I'll take you, Tenten."
After that, things got a bit fuzzy. She felt Hamina half-pulling, half-carrying her and Tenten tried to help, but her legs didn't seem to want to cooperate and she couldn't see very well, the world slipping in and out of focus. She slipped into a sort of waking dream, the flare of fever sending her mind into half-remembered dreams. It was only when she started to hear voices that she drifted back into herself, strange lights and shadows flickering in front of her eyes.
"...we take her to the gates. They'll have to open them when they see..."
"...here long enough. All we'll have left is dust and ashes if we don't..."
"...hospital? She's sick and I promised her I'd..."
The last voice, Hamina's, drew her closer to the surface and she blinked, trying to figure out where she was. The ceiling over her head was not the hospitals. Panic threaded it's way into her burning chest and she tried to move, inexplicably frightened. Her body bucked against the floor and suddenly people were touching her, holding her down. Voices and hands were everywhere, all jumbling together and making her head hurt.
"Please," she whispered. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth. "Please."
She wasn't sure what she was asking for. She only knew she wasn't where she should have been. Hamina. Where was Hamina?
"...gets those weapons away from her before she hurts..."
"...think we should take her to the hospital. What if she..."
"...just bleed her here, then we'll take her to the gates..."
Tenten's fear turned into full-blown panic and she groaned aloud as she struggled against the people holding her. She couldn't really see them, couldn't really even properly hear them, but she knew something was wrong. She remembered what some of the older village women had been doing to the ill when they'd arrived - bleeding them of their "bad blood". Those first, tragic few even Sakura had been unable to save.
"Please, no," she gasped, thrashing against her captors. "Please."
"No need to fret," an old, haggard voice said near her ear. "A little bleeding never killed anyone."
Sakura felt the moment when Neji's gaze swung from her to the door of the hospital. It was like a heavy weight being suddenly lifted and she gave an involuntary sigh of relief as she felt it go. He'd been watching her tend to Roku for awhile and she knew he couldn't help the power of his gaze but it had still rubbed at her raw nerves until she'd almost snapped at him to find someone else to stare at.
She was so distracted by her welcome reprieve that it took her a few minutes to wonder what else had drawn his attention.
By then it was too late.
The doors to the hospital banged open, hitting the walls hard and disturbing some the patients. Sakura got her feet quickly, struggling to call up her sluggish chakra reserves. After so many days of pinpoint chakra control, she was run down and exhausted, as she knew even Neji must be. She pressed her lips together grimly and eyed the group of villagers standing in the doorway.
"What is the meaning of this? None of you should be in here.
"It's safe enough now, what with the nets and all," a young man responded. There was a chorus of agreement at his words. "Besides, we are done following orders. We've come to tell you to open the gates. We're leaving this ghost town."
Sakura felt her mouth drop open. "This town is still under quarantine. We can't let anyone out without risk of infecting another population. We can't be sure it's only spread by the mosquitoes." Her temper flared. She thought she'd dealt with the last of this nonsense days ago. "Do you really want to spread death and disease wherever you go? Do you really want to see more children die?"
She made a move to stomp over to the doors and close them in their faces, but Neji's arm lifted to stop her, halting her in her tracks. She frowned up at him, feeling her anger sputter at the still expression on her face.
Something whispered across her senses, tickling the little hairs on the back of her neck and raising goosebumps on her arms. She felt something press against her, press outward, unseen, and she took a physical step back when she realized what it was.
It was like...raw chakra, all power and strength without any of the direction, expanding outwards from Neji like an actual presence. It was an aura, the feeling that at any moment lightning might strike, that mountains would fall. She had never felt anything like it, nor the feeling of foreboding that came with it. All Neji's energy was pooling into some great attack that would probably destroy the entire building they were standing in and not a flicker of it showed on his face.
"Neji," she said again, carefully, as if she were speaking to one of her patients. He didn't look at her.
"Bring her forward," he said quietly.
Sakura swung her head around towards the villagers, his words dropping like a stone in her belly as there was some shuffling and then...
"Oh no," she breathed, her throat tightening.
A middle-aged man held Tenten's slack body in his arms, the kunoichi's face as pale as snow. There was the shine of sweat on her skin, though, and even from a distance Sakura could see she was having trouble breathing. And there was a bandage wrapped around her elbow, spotted with blood.
"You bled her?" Sakura choked. "Why?"
Next to her, Neji's suffocating intent pulsed as if barely held in check.
"They thought it would help, until they got here," a trembling voice answered. Hamina appeared, slipping to the front of the group. "I told them not to, but they-"
The man holding Tenten cut her off roughly. "We just want to go free. Open the gates and you can have her back."
Sakura opened her mouth, ready to give them a tongue-lashing they'd never forget - how dare they hold a ninja hostage, one who had been trying to help them! - when Neji took a step forward.
It was only a single step, but the entire group leaned back as if he'd lunged across the room at them. Another step, and another. The villagers were not looking so certain now, their eyes wide in their faces as they watched Neji approach slowly. The man holding Tenten looked as if he were a lamb facing an approaching lion, his face draining of any color as Neji stopped in front of him.
"Give her to me," the Hyuuga commanded.
For a second, one second, Sakura thought the man would refuse, that they were all about to die when Neji released the molten energy surrounding him in cold, righteous fury. But the villager lifted their would-be leverage, a shamed look on his face, and deposited Tenten's unconscious body into Neji's waiting arms.
A minute later, the entire group had vanished, shuffling back to their homes for the night.
And Neji's vengeful aura had completely disappeared.
He turned towards her, something etched into his features that made her heart tug painfully in her chest. "Sakura," he said, and it was almost a plea.
She got to work.
Tenten opened her eyes and almost wished she hadn't. The light in the room was dim but it seemed bright and she had to blink back tears and she took in her surroundings. She was in a bed in the hospital and she felt weak, perhaps a little clammy as well, as if she had just broken a a fever.
She stilled, a small sound escaping her.
She'd fallen prey to the epidemic then. Sweating and fever with limb weakness was the first stage. The second was dehydration followed by seizures-
"Hey, you're awake!"
Sakura's happy voice bubbled into being and Tenten turned her head as the medic came to her bedside, a smile on her face. "We've been worried. How are you feeling?"
Tenten's mouth felt dry. She couldn't understand what Sakura was smiling about. "What stage am I in?" she rasped, watching Sakura with worried eyes. Sakura's smile immediately turned sympathetic and she sat on the edge of Tenten's bed, reaching out to put one hand over hers.
"You don't have the mosquito sickness, Tenten," she said firmly, squeezing her hand. "You are sick, yes, but it's only from exhaustion. You weren't eating or drinking enough and that, coupled with a lack of sleep and high stress, you were simply run down. Your body had had enough. With some fluids and some rest, you should be fine."
"I don't understand," she croaked, and Sakura leaned over to fill a cup of water for her. "You and Neji have worked just as hard..."
"But with me trapped here and Neji managing the bonfire, you were doing most of the physical work. It took its toll, and everyone deals with stress differently." Sakura squeezed her hand again. "I'm just glad you'll be all right."
Tenten felt her lips curve in a weak smile. "Thank you." Sakura grinned and leaned back, giving Tenten a good view of the rest of the large room. Her eyebrows drew together. "Where are the other patients?"
Sakura's expression turned what could only be described as "crafty".
"TENTEN. MY BEAUTIFUL SPRING FLOWER OF LOOOOOOVE. YOUR AMAZINGLY ROBUST TEACHER HAS BEEN WAITING FOR YOUR SUNBEAM SMILE~! "
And suddenly she was surrounded by green spandex and gleaming teeth and Gai and Lee were hugging her and hugging each other and mauling Sakura and-
Tenten blinked back tears and smiled. "You came."
"Of course we came!" Lee crowed. "When Sakura did not check in, we were very worried. We could not let you and Neji face this mission alone!"
"Neji," Tenten murmured. Her gaze found Sakura's. "Is he...?"
"I'm here." And the sea of green parted to reveal Neji standing at the end of her bed, watching her calmly. She relaxed at the sight of him.
"Hey," she said softly, thinking back to all the nights they'd checked on each other. The night he'd kissed her. "You okay?"
"Yes." His head tilted slightly. "Are you?"
Her smile encompassed Sakura and the two lovable green beasts at her side.
"I think I will be," she answered.
The Village of Ghosts, it was called, for the echoes the ocean made as it beat against the rocky shore. An apt name, she thought, for in the end they were all just passing through.