For a Season
Ao didn't like what he heard in the north. Of course information had a way of getting around in Water Country especially whenever another village was concerned, but he didn't like overhearing individuals of questionable character and integrity talk about the Leaf-nin he had left behind the safety of Mist's stone walls. He didn't like it that anyone knew they were medics or that their mission concerned the village's diplomatic relations with Leaf as much as it did its health.
However, it was a good thing too. As much as they were whispering about the medics running around Mist, they were talking also about the girl leading them. There were rumors about her being one of the Sannin's students, about her killing men with just one strike, rumors of poison, and of healing men just to extract information. She was ANBU, they whispered. She had killed a member of the Akatsuki, had fought in the war, and was known in all five of the Great Villages. She was dangerous.
As far as Ao was concerned it was all for the better. Let them fear the girl and her pack of children. The rumors would keep them from getting close enough to test their validity.
Finding his target proved to be more difficult than expected. However, killing him had not. The fugitive had been expecting someone as young and as green as those he had killed already and that was his downfall. Ao was neither. He couldn't be snuck up upon, couldn't be caught off-guard, and he couldn't be tricked by genjutsu, so all of the tools the bastard had used before were useless. It took a simple feint to capture the upper-hand and it was over in that same second.
Ao was loyal to Mist. Not to a person (except Mei, maybe) or an ideology, but to the village that had raised and trained him. That had never changed. Kages and teams came and went, but the village was the important constant—the only one he had ever known. However, when he caught the criminal up from behind and cut his throat, it was as much for those teams and the defenseless civilians that the bastard had killed as it was for Mist. No one had to know that, though.
Arrogance was such an ugly and useless burden, Ao thought as the rain soaked through his robe and dripped down his temples, mixing with and diluting the blood as it pooled under the body that he let crumple at his feet. He had probably killed more men with their own arrogance than with kunai. It was as great a weapon as any blade.
He looked up as the rain started to come down even harder. In the north, the weather was always more treacherous and unpredictable than in the south near Mist, so instead of dissecting the body where it lay he sealed it away in a scroll to take care of it when he returned to the village.
Ao returned to a chaos, which wasn't necessarily out of the ordinary for Mist.
After stopping to confirm his kill with Mei, he had gone to the hospital to make use of the morgue, which was for once actually properly-fucking-equipped for the job he needed to perform thanks to Haruno. Before that, he decided he would pass through the emergency ward to check on the girl and make sure that her guards were doing their jobs. He found her at the center of the chaos. There were bodies on every available bed and laid out on makeshift litters on the floor and in the aisle. The air was filled with the heavy, coppery tang of blood, so thick with it that Ao could almost taste it on his tongue.
He recognized the jounin that were assigned to protect her as two of the able-bodies hauling litters. At least they were in the same room as the girl. That was an improvement.
"Ao." Haruno's expression was grim as she hovered over one patient with her hands alight with the glow of green, healing chakra. She paused and motioned for two nearby medics to come over. "Fractured ribs, cracked sternum, and a dislocated collar bone. He can wait for treatment."
Ao approached the medic when she was on her feet again. He gestured to the room at large. "What happened?"
"A group of rogue-nin attacked a small farming village just down the mountain," she replied. "A pretty ballsy move considering how close they were to the walls."
Ao immediately tensed and his instincts went on alert. No, not ballsy. It was an old card, but still useful enough to be played every now and then. "Byakugan."
Haruno's expression brightened a bit as she leaned in with interest. "You have got to let me look at that eye before I leave," she said.
He ignored her and began to scan the bodies in the room. It was difficult to measure chakra output from civilian to ninja, even as a sensor. Over the years, he had known civilians who possessed unusually strong auras because of some very good genetics they had never put to use and he had met ninja who had learned to suppress their auras enough to pass themselves off as civilians. However, they couldn't hide from the Byakugan.
There were two—
Ao moved at the same time that one of the wounded suddenly shot to their feet. With one hand he grabbed Haruno by her arm and pulled her behind him and with his other hand he caught the kunai that would have been thrust into her side. The edge of the blade cut deeply into the flesh between his fingers and into his palm as he closed his hand around the attacker's fist, but he ignored the pain. He released Haruno and then brought his other hand forward to thrust a straight-edged kunai into the man's neck.
In seemingly the same instant that his hand left the girl's arm, another came at her from the right and a blade was thrust at her throat before Ao could even properly react. Shunshin. One so fast he hadn't seen the initial movement. It'd been years since he'd seen someone so adept at it.
Except Haruno lunged back just a half-second before her attacker flickered into sight in front of her, so his blade just glanced against the side of her neck instead of sinking into her throat point-first as intended. Even then, as it struck, it skittered and something in her aura sparked and then the kunai was deflected like it had hit stone. It was for just a second that confusion registered in the would-be assassin's movements before he collapsed like a marionette whose strings had been abruptly cut. He was dead before his head smashed into the stone of the floor at her feet.
"Senpai." It was that bespectacled kid that dogged the medic, standing behind the now dead, would-be assassin who lay sprawled on the floor between them. The boy pushed his glasses up with a single finger as his other hand fell back to his side, the glow of blue chakra fading from it. He was staring at his superior. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," Haruno replied. In that fraction of a second before her attacker collapsed, she had adjusted her scarf to cover her wound. "Is he dead?"
Quite, Ao thought as he knelt down to wrench free the kunai he had driven into the first attacker's throat. Whatever the boy had done, his target's chakra had blinked out of existence before he had even collapsed; dead before even his own body knew it had happened. "This one isn't," Ao spoke up as he nudged his own target with his foot. The man was bleeding out and drowning in his own blood at the same time—a death Ao didn't wish on anyone. As a boy, he had once held an enemy's face under water until the thrashing had stopped. It had been the last time he had ever done so. Slow deaths were for sadists. He was a professional.
Haruno's eyes met the boy's and some sort of understanding passed between them in that second because the blue chakra had again shrouded the boy's hand and he stepped forward. Ao watched him kneel beside the still-living attacker and reach his glowing palm around to cradle the base of the man's skull
Gone. His chakra and aura were extinguished in an instant like a candle being snuffed. The boy then withdrew and rose back to his feet.
"That's mine," Haruno spoke up suddenly.
Ao looked to her and then down at the bloodied kunai in his hand. He twirled it deftly between his fingers and then offered it out to her, handle first. She accepted it without a word and cleaned the blade with her apron before tucking it away in her sleeve again, into the brace he had taken it from, which she wore strapped to the inside of her forearm. He had seen it with his Byakugan and it had been closer than his own holster. She must have guessed as much or she would have asked.
"Udon, get these bodies out of here and finish triaging the rest of the injured," she ordered. "Ao, come with me."
He followed her without question into the hallway and then down the corridor to what was obviously a supply room, which looked in desperate need of restocking. "I knew they were there," she told him over her shoulder as she began sorting through a chest of drawers nearby.
Ao sat on a spare cot, where someone had recently slept. There were hairs on the pillow and it was warm from a body—maybe one of the medics sneaking a quick doze. It wasn't unusual to spot them propping themselves against walls to catch a few minutes of rest on their shift. If Haruno cared, she never gave any indication of it. "Did you?" he humored her. "How?"
"I examined them," she said. "Have you met many farmers that smell like black powder and chakra ink?"
He spared her a look. Well, he kind of had to give her that. "What were you going to do?"
"I was going to drug them. I have a few topically-applied paralytics that would have been extremely effective in subduing them," she replied. "I imagine that if you hadn't activated your Byakugan they wouldn't have acted quite so soon, but they knew that their cover was about to be blown so why not?"
She then took a seat beside him holding a cloth that smelled heavily of antiseptic and then began to clean his wounded hand. Without a word, Ao raised his free hand to pull her scarf loose so that he could see her neck. The blood had already begun to dry, leaving thick, raised layers of it on her skin like wax drippings off a burning candle. "That cut should have been deeper than this, glancing blow or not."
Though, it would have been so much worse if she hadn't managed to dodge. Clearly she hadn't been completely exaggerating when it came to her skill. She had fucking dodged someone who was mid-Shunshin. He almost couldn't wrap his head around that. Holy shit.
Haruno shrugged one shoulder. "His technique was shoddy, at best. He underestimated my ability to react and if he wanted to cut my throat, he should have come from behind." She glanced at him and then looked back down to his hand. "But I'm sure you noticed all of that."
"I did and you're avoiding my question. What happened when his blade hit your skin? I saw something strange."
She glanced up again from her work, but only briefly. "Activate your Byakugan again and tell me if you notice anything."
Ao eyed her for a moment, but she was too focused on cleaning his wounded hand to notice. Curiosity, however, was a powerful thing and even he was susceptible to it. So, very quietly, he activated his Byakugan and honed in on the girl. Between his innate gift as a sensor and those of his stolen bloodline ability, she was rather blinding to look at it at such a close proximity. Her aura was a fiery red and her chakra was dense and thick indicating that she stored massive amounts of it, which explained her long hours of tirelessly working at the hospital. Then he noticed something else that he had never looked closely enough to see before. His Byakugan faded as he tried to make sense of it.
"You have bands of chakra concentrated around your throat and torso," he said slowly. "What is that?"
"I haven't thought to name it, really. It isn't ninjutsu, but rather just a method of storing chakra," she replied. "I was inspired by an old acquaintance's use of a shield made of heavily concentrated chakra capable of blocking physical attacks. This started as a project to mimic that technique, but it evolved into something else. The bands are concentrations of dense amounts of chakra woven into the flesh surrounding my most vital areas—my neck, my heart, and my major joints—so that for the most part blades can't pierce beyond the topmost dermal layers."
"The blade hit the chakra band. That's why your aura reacted the way it did," Ao murmured, thoughtfully. "How much force can it withstand?"
"I haven't been able to test it," she replied. "I don't typically let enemies close enough to cut my throat—the one thing I will commend him for—and my friends are unwilling to try for obvious reasons." She shrugged. "It seems to have worked well for today's purposes, though."
"Is that why you keep insisting you don't need a bodyguard?"
Haruno scoffed. "Hardly," she said and he winced when she scrubbed into the wound a little harder than he thought necessary. "It's a handy trick, but it is a purely defensive one and not well-tested at that. I'd never rely on it to save me." She had the decency to look a little sheepish at this admission. "I was caught off-guard today. I didn't expect he'd be able to move that quickly and that was messy on my part. I underestimated him."
Ao hummed in agreement at this and spared a sideways glance toward the door, as if to look beyond it into the emergency ward. It had all been luck. Luck that he had arrived when he did, luck that Haruno's technique existed, that she had reacted as fast as she did, and luck that the perpetrators had not been more skilled. "What did your assistant do to those men?"
She glanced at him and then looked back to examine the wound, now that it was clean enough to inspect. "Udon has honed the chakra scalpel as a weapon. He severed their brain stems with numerous cuts that took a fraction of a second to make when he touched them. I forget what he calls the technique," she replied. "It's more effective than a broken neck and as close to an 'instant kill' as you can get."
"Why would he need that?"
"He prefers to end fights as quickly as possible, by any means necessary."
"As do we all."
Haruno shrugged and silence fell over them as she set about tending to his wound with the dense green chakra of her healing technique.
"How did your mission go?"
Ao shrugged one shoulder, indifferent. He knew that she was trying to change the subject, but it wouldn't work. "It was successful."
She nodded, but he knew she wasn't really listening. She had that look of detached, single-mindedness, the one that came over her whenever she was in the midst of a healing. It was admirable, but dangerous. That sort of intense focus was wonderfully useful, but he suspected that it also made her vulnerable. Her mind was a thousand places at once at any given time and it never seemed to be focused on her own, personal safety.
He wasn't sure that he had ever known anyone like her. Mist certainly wasn't the place to cultivate that kind of personality and while he was sure that it was something that could be blamed on Leaf's much-mocked soft-hearted approach to seemingly everything, he couldn't say it was a weakness. Not when she had lived to such an age. In Mist, she would have had every ounce of that tender heart of hers excised well before the age of sixteen.
Ao looked to his hand. The wound was closed. He flexed and curled his fingers when she pulled away, testing them. The only mark left behind was a thin, white scar. "Thanks," he grunted.
Haruno nodded, but said nothing. He looked up from his hand in time to see her pulling her scarf away from her throat. The cut was easily half the length of a kunai and it cut horizontally along the right side of her neck, near the base. The red of her blood, nearly black now that it had dried, stood out starkly against her pale skin.
He eyed her scarf next. It was an unusual accessory for a ninja. Scarves were just a way to arm a potential opponent with a garrote. Unless that unique little ability of hers protected her from that, which he supposed was possible, but he doubted that she possessed that kind of caution-snubbing confidence. He wondered then what it was. Something sentimental? The cloth looked older than the girl herself and when he looked closely enough he could see other, older blood stains standing out against the deep, scarlet red of the fabric.
Without saying anything, he reached out to turn her toward him—one hand on her shoulder and the other holding the unwounded side of her neck. Haruno tipped her head to the side obligingly, more trusting than he could ever remember being.
"How's it look? Stitches, do you think?" she wondered.
Ao shook his head. "Doesn't look quite deep enough for that," he said. "Some of that jutsu of yours should close it nicely. What would stitches do that it can't, anyway?"
Haruno shrugged and laid a hand against her throat as he pulled his away. "Stitches help prevent scarring," she explained. "Scarring is a result of the body's natural healing process and since medical-ninjutsu unnaturally speeds up that process it leads to more scar tissue than normal. Going slowly or using more chakra reduces that—can even eliminate it—but I have to get back to the ER and I need to save my chakra from anyone who might be critical." Her fingers were stroking the wound idly, almost self-consciously. "I'm really not interested in keeping this sort of trophy, though."
He wondered if that could be chalked up to feminine vanity or if it was something else all together. Trophy, she had said. Was she against the reminder? In Mist scars were more highly prized than commendations. Scars had stories. They were something to be bragged about; the more deadly the wound the better. Death was such an expected, accepted thing in Mist that snubbing it was a sort of honor. But it probably wasn't the same in Leaf. Nothing ever was.
The girl turned away to one of the other storage cabinets and began removing what he could see were supplies for suturing. "If you wouldn't mind, tell Udon I'll be back to the ER soon," she said over her shoulder. "He'll have to finish triaging the wounded without me."
He watched her begin to thread a tiny, curved needle held in the jaws of a driver and found that he had a bit of admiration in him for that. There were captains out there who wouldn't stitch their own wounds.
"Here, let me do that."
Ao wasn't sure why he had offered, except that as a captain he had refused treatment in the past to avoid appearing weak to his team. It was demoralizing to watch one's leader being pieced back together. In her case, it would be almost unavoidable. All of her potential medics were her subordinates and neither the hard-headed, fresh-faces of Mist nor her own team with their quickly dwindling morale needed to see that. Maybe she didn't need them to either. Her confidence as a leader seemed lacking to start with and this incident likely hadn't helped. He wondered if that as why she didn't want a scar. If he was honest, even he had a few reminders he wouldn't have minded losing.
"Do you stitch better than you tend burns?"
She sounded almost playful. He wasn't much used to that, except from Mei and it was hard to tell if that was character or madness. He shrugged noncommittally in response. If she wanted it stitched, he was her best choice.
Haruno nodded, whether to him or herself he couldn't be sure, and came to sit down beside him with the things she had collected from the cabinet.
"Have you at least done this before?" she asked as she wiped her neck down with an alcohol-doused swab.
Ao shrugged again and took the needle driver from her. He wasn't a medic by a long shot, but every ninja eventually picked up some degree of battlefield medicine with time. His field lent to a better adoption of it than most others given the understanding of anatomy that came with his specific trade. There were also those rare occasions when a body could be brought back for a proper honoring after their bloodline limits had been removed and it didn't do to bring someone back in ribbons. "These days it's mostly myself I stitch up, but I did enough of it when I was a captain."
He had a feeling she was talking because she was nervous and he wondered idly how long it had been since someone besides herself had treated her wounds. How long had it been since someone less competent than herself treated them? "The title doesn't mean much without a team and I don't have much use for one these days."
"Did you want to be the Mizukage's bodyguard?"
Ao reached out and tipped her chin up gently so he could examine the wound again. Now that it was clean, he could see that it was deeper than he had thought when he had first examined it. No wonder she had assumed stitches would be necessary. Asking for his opinion had clearly been perfunctory on her part. "What I wanted had nothing to do with it. I was given orders."
It wasn't really that simple, but she didn't need to be privy to the details. In truth, Mei hadn't really ordered anything. She had asked, which was unique in and of itself. She had a habit of simply taking. But she had asked him and he had complied, because he had spent so long protecting her anyway that it seemed a bit senseless to say 'no' at this point.
"Duty and honor, then?"
He wasn't sure what honor had to do with anything where it concerned ninja, but it seemed appropriate given the context so he didn't correct her. "I suppose."
Haruno hummed in response. It didn't sound like she believed him.
She was always asking questions. Ao wondered while making his first stitch, if she did it on purpose or if it was just in her nature. If the latter, as he suspected, it made her a good fit as a ninja. Even in the hospital, she grilled her staff relentlessly despite already knowing most of the answers. She hadn't been in Mist all that long and he was already accustomed to it.
"Why haven't you ever led a team before?"
He wasn't going to even pretend that he wasn't curious about that. Most ninja had headed up at least one mission by time they reached jounin. How she had gotten through her early years and a war without having done so was beyond him. Besides, fair was fair.
If Haruno disagreed, it didn't show. "My generation has a lot of natural born leaders among it," she said. "Since they're primarily the people I go on missions with, it's never really fallen upon me to take lead. Besides, a field medic has other concerns. It's best to work in conjunction with a leader rather than attempting to play both roles at once."
"This case was an exception?"
"Do you think any of my subordinates are cut out for the job?"
Ao stifled a snort so that he didn't mess up his next stitch. Taking a cotton swab from the pile of clean ones she had set on the cot earlier, he dabbed at the blood that was welling in both the wound and the fresh punctures the needle was making. "Fair enough," he conceded.
"This isn't the same as field work anyway," she murmured.
He said nothing and she took this as an example, allowing him to continue treating her in silence.
It was strange to be in this position again. Well, he had never been in this position. He never had cared if the stitches he was making were neat and clean when treating his subordinates just as long as they served their purpose and stopped the bleeding. Then again, that had always been in circumstances where they didn't have the luxury of time.
"You could be dead," he said plainly once he had finished the stitches, tied off the suture, and cut the excess thread away. They weren't pretty, but they would serve. "If not for that trick of yours, this would need more than stitching."
Haruno's eyes met his, but just briefly before she looked away again. "I know."
"Word of your presence here has already spread around the island," he went on as he dropped the tools back into the tray she had brought them over on with the cotton swabs. "There are those that want to weaken Mist in any way they can and causing political turmoil with Leaf is a good start. Do you understand me?"
She didn't look at him again, but he suspected that she got his meaning. "I don't need a lecture."
Ao grabbed her chin between his forefinger and thumb to force her to look at him. "You should have told your guards immediately when you identified those men. Next time—"
"I will," the girl cut in, an edge to her voice. Her eyes were just as sharp and the grip she suddenly had on his wrist was almost painful. Her unaltered physical strength seemed to rival Mei's. He wondered idly where it came from in such a unimposing figure. "I made a mistake. I understand all of the possible consequences if I make a similar one in the future. It won't happen again."
He eyed her for a moment longer and then dropped his hand again. "Is there space in the morgue?" he asked, watching her arrange her scarf to cover her stitches.
She looked at him willingly this time, her stare curious and lingering. "Why?"
"The weather was too unfavorable during my mission to complete the necessary procedures in the field. I thought I would finish it here."
"Can I observe?"
Ao raised an eyebrow at her. He really shouldn't have been surprised at all given her profession, but he had never heard that request before. Even the most experienced ninja flinched away from the prospect. Simply seeing a dead body was a very different thing than taking one to pieces. "I thought you were busy."
She shrugged. "It can't wait until my shift is over? This isn't your shift and you'll have to watch me then anyway. Unless you're looking forward to guarding me as I do paperwork, then I wouldn't want to rob you of that experience."
He eyed her for the sarcasm but she was unbothered. "I suppose," he yielded after a moment longer. "The body will still need to be stored there in the interim." He paused. "You won't be inviting the children along to watch, will you?"
Haruno scoffed as she rose to her feet, her hands still fiddling with her scarf. "No. A good half of them haven't even witnessed their first autopsy in a reasonably controlled environment and I can't afford to be shorthanded if one of them would faint and crack their head on the floor—it happens."
Ao smirked. "To you?"
She rolled her eyes. "The first time I ever went into the morgue I was handed a scalpel and told that I had to make the first incision. If I didn't, my training was over. Fainting wasn't exactly an option." She looked to him, her expression playful again. "What about you? Were you ever sick at the sight of your first dead body split open from throat to crotch?"
"I was eight," he answered flatly. "My teammate was gutted during our chuunin exam and I had to help remove her body from the field. I didn't have time to get sick."
Her expression softened a little. "I'm sorry."
She looked like she wanted to say something; like she wanted to argue. Instead, she changed the subject: "I need to get back to the ER. Um, thanks."
Haruno touched her neck meaningfully. Ao dismissed it with a wave of his now-healed hand.
1. An update!
2. The first part aside, that's probably the longest, continuous scene I've ever written in any of my fics. It took up the entire chapter.
3. I know that you guys were expecting something different to happen with Ao's mission, but it was mostly just to shed some more light on his character and highlight the danger to the medics.
4. I have NO idea how to feel about this chapter, because I had absolutely no plan going into it and the direction it went in totally caught me off guard.
Wish I had some funnier things to say, but it be late here. As always, reviews are much appreciated.