Generally, Asuma wasn't too picky about first kisses. Just so long as they were heated, eagerly received, and led straight to second-third-fourth kisses and the nearest flat surface.
Jerking back to life halfway through and immediately coughing water into his partner's mouth was a new one, though it did involve a flat surface. Asuma arched up as Natsumi yanked away, spitting and shocked, and grabbed the first part of her he could reach while half the damn river retched out of his lungs. Her arm, as it turned out. She shoved him back down before he could double up and accidentally stab something with the sword still shoved through his armour.
It took a couple seconds to find his bearings, and longer than that to realize they were finally on dry land, but when he did--and actually stopped coughing long enough to speak--nothing in the world could have kept him from grinning. His lungs burned like fire.
"Knew you liked me," he rasped in a voice like shattered glass, and hauled himself up. He'd been stabbed, sliced, frozen, drained, drowned, tossed all about the godforsaken landscape, and he was going to have the bruises to prove it, but he really didn't care. Natsumi was right there, glaring above the smile tilting her lips, bedraggled and blue, definitely injured, completely out of breath, and one hundred per cent alive.
Asuma leaned forward, pulled her closer, and stole the coldest, most relieved second kiss he'd ever had.
He tasted of blood and ice and murky river water. His grip on her arm was hard enough to bruise, and she was off-balance and awkwardly bent, one hand braced on his chest where she'd tried to hold him down, the other curled painfully in her lap. It was still quite possibly the best kiss of her life.
Teenage infatuation didn't hold a candle to survival.
She broke away slower than she should have, sooner than she liked. At least she could blame her breathlessness on near-drowning and rescue-breathing, even if it wasn't altogether true. "I like you alive," she panted, "much more than as a frozen corpse. I'd like it if you stayed that way, too. Which isn't going to happen if we stay here. Can you move?"
She wasn't quite sure she could. If he tried first, at least he'd give her a goal to reach for.
"Picky, picky," Asuma groaned, and sat back. Belatedly, he realized he should probably check himself for broken bones. Arms, legs, neck, back--he flexed everything quickly, decided he was going to be black and blue for weeks, and dropped the issue. Everything worked. His right shoulder felt a little like he'd tried to lift a planet, but nothing crunched when he rotated it gingerly. A double set of sword-blade scratches were going to leave interesting scars over his collarbones, but at least the weapon itself had survived intact. His side...
He pressed a palm over the shredded gash in his armour, quenching the run of blood with skin too cold to feel it, and left it alone. If he hadn't bled out yet, he still had lots of time.
The cold was more of an issue. His hands looked white, the nail-beds tinged blue. Natsumi's eyes were dilated ink pools in the frozen parchment of her face; her lips dusky pale, drawn tight with pain. Both of them were starting to shake. And night was drawing in; he couldn't see the sun anymore.
"If I was a pessimist, I'd be having a field day." He found his legs, got them moving, and staggered to his feet with a thin, strangled hiss. The sword strained his armour straps; he pulled it free, careful not to add a new set of gouges, and re-sheathed it through the ninjato-straps still in place across his back. Then he offered a hand to Natsumi.
And saw her broken fingers. The index and middle of her right hand--her bow hand--were twisted right out of shape, held carefully still and shielded against her stomach. He couldn't see the shadow of distorted bones through her glove, or tell if her hand was actually intact. If he was going to find nothing but a bloody mangle of tissue when he peeled that flimsy armour away.
And not one word of complaint.
He reached down and wrapped his fingers carefully around her left, uninjured wrist. "C'mon, gorgeous. If I know my romance novels right, this is the part where we find a cave and I try to convince you about the joys of sharing body heat." He waggled his eyebrows, distracting and cheerful. "Might even be able to work in a bandage or two. Appeal to the bondage crowd."
"I think I read that one. Did they have a roaring bonfire too, or was that just the heat of their blazing passion?" Natsumi twisted her hand to grip his wrist in turn; her fingers didn't quite meet around the heavy weight of bone. She pushed up as he pulled, and they ended nearly staggering into each other, barely able to stand. Her legs were as weak as an hour-old kitten's. She resisted the urge to lean into Asuma; he didn't look much steadier.
The paling blue of his lips worried her almost more than the dark red stain under his hand. How long did it take for hypothermia to set in? They must have covered it in genin survival training, but her thoughts flitted in obstinate circles away from the memory; all she could think of now was sharing body heat.
There had to be some better method than that. Especially when both of them were slowly freezing into bloody icicles. Natsumi raked her straggling hair out of her face and glanced up into the dark woods looming beyond the riverbank. Dry wood in plenty, but shelter would be harder to find.
"A bonfire would be nice." She tottered a step sideways and bent slowly to retrieve her discarded mask, creaking like an old woman as she straightened again. "I'm not sure I can muster up passion just now."
"You sure know how to stab a guy in the ego," said Asuma, with a raw chuckle. He started to drop his free arm around Natsumi's shoulders, then caught sight of the mask dangling from her fingers and snapped a hand up to his head, instead. His own mask was long gone, stolen by the river, but his Guardian Twelve sash--
Was still there.
A breath of relief lit the air like cigarette smoke. He drew his fingertips over the soaked, much-abused cloth, feeling the neat edge of old stitches, and let his hand fall. Natsumi tilted a quizzical look at him; Asuma slung his arm over her shoulders, steadying himself with the same movement.
"Sorry. Thought I'd misplaced my eyebrows for a second there." Well-trained muscles tensed beneath his touch. He brushed his thumb over the point of Natsumi's shoulder, smiling at her so not buying it look, then forced himself to start walking. A dull, numb kind of pressure turned the left side of his ribcage into an inflexible slab of frozen meat, but at least it didn't hurt. He kept his hand pressed down firmly, and stopped thinking about it.
Natsumi kept pace, limping stiffly, but without the awkward staccato stagger of someone bleeding out on the inside. By the time they reached the low-hanging tree-line, Asuma decided she probably hadn't broken anything else, either, though a thin trickle of blood spilled from a gash on her thigh. A crooked smile twitched at his lips. Two snapped fingers and a bloody leg was easily survivable, even with the issue of being half freakin' frozen. But they had a bigger problem.
"I might have some bad news," he said, though teeth that wanted to chatter. He clenched his jaw. "Remember the redhead? I didn't exactly see her die. You got the big guy, and I took out the blond kid, but the bitch did her invisible trick before I could get her. She might have fallen when I cut the bridge; I kind of lost track about halfway down. And I definitely didn't see her hit the water."
Natsumi hadn't thought she could feel colder. She shivered, chilled by more than the twilight shadows of the pines. Asuma's arm tightened around her shoulders. She glanced up again, half-afraid of what she'd see. But his profile was sharp and stern, rough-cut out of marble. A muscle bunched in the side of his jaw, under stubble studded with water droplets.
He seemed to have mastered resolute. She could do the same.
"I guess that means no bonfire, then." And made going to ground even more urgent. It was entirely possible the woman had decided to cut her losses, of course, or that she had fallen and hadn't survived, or that she thought they hadn't. But optimism killed more ninja than caution. And when Natsumi thought of that contemptuous woman on the bridge, she couldn't think of anything but danger.
She tried quickening their stumbling pace. "I'm not sure we'll f-find you that cave. Maybe a hollow t-tree?"
Gods, she was stuttering with cold now. She gritted her teeth; they chattered anyway. The thin breeze cut through her soaked armor and tangled in her dripping hair. Asuma wasn't any warmer, but... She could still feel the faint smolder of his chakra, like a banked fire burning low.
Not quite the same as a bonfire, but good enough.
She hadn't bridled when he'd kissed her. Hadn't ducked the arm he'd dropped around her shoulders, either. Or called him an idiot for staging a river-sprint to come after her. Or bawled him out for leaving the redhead alive.
She hadn't even pitched a fit about the scarlet he was leaking all over the riverbank. Instead she'd kept a level head, tossed out a few ideas, and still hadn't complained about her ruined bow hand. Any other mission, Asuma would have suggested mailing the sword home and finding a nice hotel to waste a few days.
Actually--the hotel idea still had some merit. Especially if the room-service came with painkillers. They just had to find one.
"Hollow tree seems a little low-rent, darlin'," he mumbled, careful not to lean too much weight on Natsumi's shoulders. "What if we drive some cute woodland critters out of their home? Shame on you."
The tree canopy closed over their heads, blocking out a darkening view of the first few stars. There wasn't a path he could see, but he hadn't really expected one. Fallen pine needles carpeted the ground, just perfect for leaving a clear trail of footprints behind, if the blood drops and water scatter wasn't enough. Asuma tilted his head back to look at the trees.
They looked sturdy enough.
"If you've got any chakra pills on you, now might be the time to take them. We're leaving a beautiful trail." Natsumi's face was as white as the mask dangling from her fingertips; she still managed an impressive blank stare. Asuma nodded at the canopy. "If we jump for a few miles... at least we'll warm up?"
Neither one of them had enough left for a translocation. But tree-walking...
He didn't let himself think about how much it would hurt.
"Slave-driver," Natsumi accused, fumbling to hook her mask onto her belt. "We're b-both vertical. That's n-not enough?" Her shaking fingers skidded over the scrolls pouch on her left hip to find the med-kit in the pouch at the small of her back. It was unsurprisingly soggy, but the little plastic vial of soldier pills was still there. Natsumi popped the cap and dribbled two of the three pills into her gloved hand. They began to dissolve instantly. Wincing, she ate one and held the other up to Asuma.
Right arm still slung around her shoulders, left hand pressed to the bloody gash in his side, he raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
The crisp outer coating of the pill was already turning to sludge on her wet glove. Natsumi's lips thinned, but she lifted her hand. He lipped the pill out of her palm as delicately as a lady choosing a seasonal sweet from a tray, without even brushing her crooked fingers.
"You're g-going to have to move anyway," Natsumi pointed out, capping the vial again and tucking it into her pouch. "Unless you p-plan on three-legged j-jumping. Which will take m-more chakra than it's worth."
The chemical burn of alien chakra was already brightening her own exhausted pathways, tingling painfully under her skin. She forced a little out of her core to warm frozen fingers and toes, and gathered the rest to her legs. False strength felt nothing at all like the real thing, but it would serve.
Asuma licked the bitter edge of not-quite-medicine off his teeth. "I can't savour the moment?" he said, sharpening a grin and squeezing her shoulders before he let his arm slip away. It hung too heavily from the strained joint, but some combination of way too much icy water and a fleeting dash of heat had left him surprisingly mobile.
He inhaled as deeply as he dared, feeling fresh, false chakra burn through scraped pathways, warming blood and bone, and grinned wider. It was a rush; they hadn't used many chakra boosters in the Daimyo's service. Not with Seito around, using his powerhouse stores to replenish anyone who really needed it.
Asuma would've given his right arm to see Seito's stubborn, unsmiling face right now.
He dragged a pulse of chakra through his skin, stemming the worst of the bleeding, and squashed the thought. Might as well wish for the whole team, a fleet of medics, and a squadron of sexy kunoichi while he was at it. It was just him and Natsumi--who, admittedly, filled the quota of sexy kunoichi pretty damn well--and that wasn't likely to change.
But at least she was alive.
He gathered himself, set his jaw, and leapt for the nearest tree. Gasped, grabbed, and flung himself to the next before his legs gave out. And the one after that...
"C'mon, gorgeous! Keep up!" Under strained breath, he muttered, "It only hurts a lot."
Most ninja mastered tree-running in their first few weeks as genin, long before their lives actually depended on their ability to move swiftly and silently through the upper roads of Fire Country's forests. By the time they hit chuunin, it wasn't even something they had to think about--or shouldn't be. Natsumi felt every dribble of chemical chakra flaring away each time she hit a branch and pushed off again. She was burning far too much in a futile effort to keep warm and keep moving, but as long as Asuma's broad shoulders were ahead of her, she couldn't stop.
Then he fell out of the tree.
Natsumi nearly fell herself in the frantic scramble to get down to him. He was on his feet, at least, left hand still pressed firmly to his side with dark red welling between his fingers. Natsumi reached out before she thought. "Are you--?"
He was standing in front of a tangle of fallen trees. A massive, lightning-struck pine had fallen at a sharp angle, smashing several younger evergreens beneath it. Thick pine boughs tented together, creating a sheltered pocket just large enough for a couple of frozen ninja.
Her hammering heart slowly eased. Her hand dropped back to her side. "That's--almost perfect. Do you find hospitals, too? Or at least hot tea?"
Asuma took a break from catching his breath--his chest was on fire--to blink at his partner. Then he tracked her gaze over his shoulder, and stared at the natural cave of fallen trees. After a second, he remembered to close his mouth. "First one's a freebie, darlin'. After that I start charging."
Reflex was a beautiful thing.
He swallowed hard, forcing down a bite of over-worked nausea, and tried to bring his pulse back down. A twO mile run shouldn't have been that hard. But judging by the tremble in Natsumi's hands, the standing waver she couldn't seem to quell, he wasn't the only one having problems. He couldn't even bring himself to truly appreciate the deep, unsteady heaving behind her chestplate; she looked like it hurt too much.
He made himself focus. "Right--blankets. Clothes. You should get in there and see what you've got left. Heat up a canteen if you've got a spark to spare. I'll--" Stagger about and swear for a bit. Maybe fall over. "Set up a few traps. If you decide to be naked before I join you, I just want you to know I'm completely fine with it."
Judging by Natsumi's expression, sometimes reflex was just a get-you-in-trouble thing. Quickly, Asuma held up a red-soaked hand and tapped the sword hilt sticking over his shoulder. "Remember, you don't get to kill the hero. Especially not when he's just this handsome."
Natsumi raised an eyebrow. "You haven't seen a mirror lately, have you?" She reached back, awkwardly left-handed, to slip the soggy belt-pouch off her right hip. "The explosive tags are probably useless, but there's some wire, and plenty of shuriken and kunai. I can set up a concealing genjutsu, too, when you get back."
Maintaining it would be another issue altogether, but they didn't have many other options. Neither of them was in any condition to fight yet. False chakra and a two mile run had warmed them up a little, but their clothes were still sodden, Asuma's side was still bleeding, and night was falling fast.
"Five minutes," she said. "Then I'm coming after you." She pressed the pouch of weapons into his free hand, hesitated a moment, and then ducked to scramble inside the shelter.
Inside, she spared a moment she really didn't have to set her hands together and offer a silent prayer to the kami who had offered them shelter. The tree-cave was smaller than it looked from the outside; a thread of chakra improved her night-vision enough to make out the long, soft shadows of branches arching over her, brushing in close. Asuma would be pleased, at least. There was barely room enough for one tall man to stretch out, and he'd be lucky to sit up without hitting his head on branches.
But it was warmer out of the wind, and the carpet of pine needles was soft and prickly underneath. Natsumi fumbled her arm-guards off, stripped her left glove away, and eased the right glove off as carefully as she could. When she tried to peel the wet fabric away from her swollen, crooked fingers, her vision greyed out again; she lost another few moments in teeth-clenching terror. If she fainted now...
It passed. She cut the rest of the glove away with a kunai, fought her way out of her muddy chestplate, and stacked everything neatly, as far out of the way as she could get it. Shivering in her thin, sleeveless shirt and clinging-wet pants, she hunted through her belt pouch for the scrolls with blankets and clean clothes sealed inside. The scrolls were as wet as everything else, but the treated, water-proof paper had held up well. Her bedroll wasn't even damp; her spare uniform was still stacked as neat and dry as the day she'd packed it.
At this point, though, dry wasn't going to help much with warm. What idiot had decided to design a uniform without sleeves? And why hadn't she had the forethought to pack anything better?
Next time, she decided, she'd have a sweater. And a kerosene stove. And maybe, while she was at it, an inflatable boat...
Asuma would've traded his eye-teeth for one decent trap scroll. Hell, for enough chakra to make a decent trap, forget the scroll. But all he had was wire and weapons and a fistful of hope.
Natsumi's vote of confidence in letting the bleeding guy hang back to do his own thing was nice, though. Or a definite sign of serious injury.
The evening wind shushed through the fallen tree's branches, carrying a breath of fresh pine and the faintest female gasp of pain. One pretty girl, still breathing. Asuma corralled his bleaker thoughts, stamping them down so far he couldn't even see the edges, and got on with using the remaining four of his five minutes.
One to stand and not shake.
Two to string up four invisible tripwires and one snare.
Three to arm them with kunai and the spark of chakra he could force into a fire seal.
Four to bury Natsumi's shuriken blade-up beneath the leaves, scattered through the clearing, waiting for unwary footsteps.
Five to call for one more minute and sweep their prints away.
Six to spread out his own makibishi, lining the shadows and crags of tree branches with the tiny, razor-sharp tacks--designed to pierce soles, but he didn't care if they bit fingers.
Seven to lean against the rough bark of a weather-blasted tree, feel the sword grip pressed between the trembling angles of his shoulderblades, and buy eight seconds to breathe. Now his side hurt, drawn hot and tight down the arch of his ribcage, like someone had tried to jam a blistering butterknife in there. The slow seep of red warmth was the only thing keeping feeling in his left hand. His vision blackened at the edges.
Natsumi called a question. He roused himself, rasped something about really wanting a cigarette right about now, and ducked down to crawl into their shadowed tree shelter.
Where Natsumi was half naked.
Asuma blinked, dragged a crimson smear over his forehead with the one hand not braced on dirt, and found a slow, crooked smile. "Changed my mind. Best mission ever."
Natsumi's mouth fell open, darkly bruised hands flying up to cover herself. Slim brows snapped down, blood flushed ice-pale cheeks, staining right down to blue-black collarbones. Asuma kept his gaze at blush-level, decided that was his favourite expression so far, and didn't even feel it when his eyes started to roll up.
Or when the ground leapt up to greet him.
Shock and stiffening muscles slowed her down. She hadn't expected him to crawl into the shelter just after announcing he wanted a cigarette break, any more than she'd expected him to crack a joke and collapse. He was face-down on the end of her bedroll before she got to him, and his breathing was slow and shallow. His left hand, flung free as he fell, glistened scarlet in her sharpened sight.
She should have thought. He'd been moving all right, steadier on his feet than she was; but pride and will-power could drive any man beyond his limit, and Asuma had plenty of both. Even so, he'd managed to do his part. Now it was up to Natsumi to do hers.
Setting her teeth, she hooked a hand and a half under the ragged straps of his chestplate and dragged him onto the bedroll she'd already spread out over a pine-needle mattress. A moment's pause, then, to drag her own clean shirt on; no time or bandages to waste with binding. She dragged the ancient sword free, wrestled him out of his armor, stared in dismay at the clinging, wet shirt beneath, and reached for a kunai.
One clean cut down the center of his chest didn't even raise the thinnest of red lines on winter-tanned skin. Natsumi peeled him carefully out of the sodden shirt and lapped the edges of the blankets over his goose-pimpled shoulders. The long gash curving around his left side was easy enough to see, now, with blood still oozing dark and hot between the raw lips of the wound. Natsumi scrambled for gauze pads, antibiotic cream, a long roll of bandages to wrap tightly around his belly. Her right hand was shaking again; her left was almost unnaturally still. He was so pale, beneath the tan...
But his heartbeat was still slow and steady when she finished the bandaging and set a red-streaked hand against his throat. Her own calmed a little. She took a long, deep breath for what seemed like the first time since the river, and rocked back on her heels. Bleeding stanched. What was next?
Her own shivering reminded her. Incipient hypothermia, right. She had dry trousers; he had, well, the blankets. Changing one-handed in a narrow space was still horribly awkward, but she managed it with a minimum of wiggling. Asuma didn't move, even when she accidentally kicked him. Even when she buttoned the waistband of her own pants, and reached for his.
This was another of those stories she was never going to tell. She tried to be quick, efficient, as brusque and professional as the most experienced medics. The broken fingers hampered that effort. She bumped her knuckles against his hip-bone and lost an agonized minute curled up around her hand, biting back whimpering tears.
Praying for strength seemed a little ungrateful, at this point. How much had she been given already?
Somehow she managed to finish the job, to check his bandages again and re-wrap him in the heavy wool blanket. Curling up beside him and letting the world fade away seemed impossibly enticing. She checked his heartbeat again, instead, and scrabbled for her med-kit for blood pills.
When Asuma choked awake, it was to fingers on his lips, blood on his tongue, and panic in his gut. Lowering gloom and the sound of hoarse breathing offered nothing to fix on. He jackknifed up, crashed straight into branches and thorny pine needles, and cried out when something tried to rip him apart at the seam.
One wild hand caught around a fine-boned wrist; the other sank into cloth and dirt and long-dried forest litter, twisting and holding. The answering gasp said he'd captured someone breathing (someone hurt); the open-handed smack against his breastbone drove him back down. He yanked as he fell, hauling the wrist and everything attached to it into his narrow, dizzy field of vision.
A snarled mess of tangled dark hair, skin so pale it gleamed in the nothing-light, slim, scowling brows, frantic eyes, a mouth that should have been pressed narrow and firm--
"Tōu?" It was a brittle-glass gasp, riding on words before thought. And it was so, so wrong.
Varnish-brown eyes (not pale, not golden) widened beneath coal-black hair (not spiky, not purple-blue), and Asuma realized he'd just called a living teammate by a dead one's name. Blood curdled to ash in his mouth.
But there wasn't time to spear himself on grief (never guilt), because his grip had tightened and those were bones grating beneath his hand, and Natsumi (Natsumi) looked half a pale step from swan-diving right off the mortal coil herself.
Asuma released her so fast he risked friction burns--then grabbed again when she jerked and fell, this time catching her by the shoulders. Unbroken fingers splayed over his chest, doing nothing for balance; her other hand held and trembled in midair, twisted fingers just a shadow-shape in the dark. Pain twisted her expression raw.
"Motherfu--." A deep cough misted the air with fine red drops. Why was he spitting blood? "Sorry, darlin', I'm sorry. Just look at me. Breathe slow." Blankets shed and pooled around his hips as he struggled to sit up; it was a failed venture. He braced as best he could and supported Natsumi instead. "Eyes right here, beautiful. Keep 'em on mine. And answer me one question--the hell am I naked for?"
"You wouldn't be," Natsumi panted, "if you'd stay put." She tried clawing the blanket back over him, but her two working fingers were shaking too badly to be useful. His hands tightened on her shoulders, and she stilled.
The name he'd called out was none of her business. Somehow it hurt a little to meet his eyes anyway. She pushed it down. He recognized her now; wasn't that good enough?
His questions were easier to answer. "Your shirt's ruined. I can sew it up later, if you don't have another, but we should get to your side first, anyway. I didn't--I couldn't do it with my hand. I'm sorry. I stopped the bleeding, anyway, and you've had two blood-pills. I didn't have any spare clothes for you, and you were freezing cold." He still was, but at least a little color had returned to his ashen face. Of course, most of that was from the chemical blood he'd coughed back up. She tried wiping a thick drop away from his chin with her thumb, and only succeeded in smearing it.
"You should have told me," she said, quietly, fiercely. "I could have done it."
"Yeah, darlin', you could have." Asuma's fingers splayed wide over hard-muscled, definitely unsteady shoulders. He wasn't ready to let go yet. "But then I wouldn't have got to see you naked."
Natsumi snorted, expression crossing the line from worried intensity to you are so not funny, and Asuma relaxed. Relaxed further when he spotted the telltale creep of embarrassed red flushing over sharp cheekbones.
At least she acted nothing like Tōu. He just wished he could figure out if that helped or hurt.
"Made you blush," he teased quietly, shaking the thought, and tried to get up again. Natsumi's uninjured hand slipped beneath his elbow, offering a semi-solid brace. With her help he made it most of the way, hit a dizzy patch, and ended up with his back pressed against rough-hewn branches. Good enough.
The bandages wrapped around his torso were only dappled with blood, not soaked. Between that and the pills she'd forced down his throat--which tasted foul--he'd be good for a while. At least long enough to return the favour. He yanked the tangled blankets back into place, piling them up in his lap, dragging a rough corner over his shoulder to dangle down his chest. Not exactly warm, but it'd do.
The hand he'd left on Natsumi's right shoulder slid down, stopping just above the new bruises he'd accidentally crushed into her wrist, far above the crooked lines of broken fingers. Muscles tensed like iron cords beneath his touch.
Asuma had spent six exhausting weeks working with horses once. He recognized the breathless little moment before you got kicked in the head.
At least he could talk to this horse.
"Inhale, gorgeous. I ain't planning to touch anything without your say so." He dragged his free hand across his mouth and chin, smearing fake blood away. Clean smiles worked a whole lot better. "About time we got those fingers dealt with, though. Before you get warm enough to really feel them."
Natsumi tried to return the smile, but it was a poor effort. Her hand curled instinctively, seeking protection in the curve of her body. Asuma's gentle grip didn't loosen. His eyes were clear and steady, dark brows faintly questioning: You can do this, can't you?
She nodded jerkily. Her throat scratched when she swallowed. "I'll just need a moment. I'm...not very good with pain."
Thinking about it was far worse than just doing it, but she couldn't help the futile attempt to steel her nerves. What if something went wrong? A mangled attempt to set her fingers could leave her crippled for life; one slip in alignment could crush nerves and cut veins. Infection and amputation weren't impossible, or even unlikely. And a two-fingered archer was about as useless as a blind Hyuuga...
"On second thought," she said, raw-voiced, "maybe you'd better just do it." She fumbled left-handed for her med-kit, spilling bandages and bottled pills across the ground. "I've got tape somewhere."
Any painkiller strong enough to actually work would leave her worthless for the next twelve hours. She found a minor anti-inflammatory instead, and swallowed two dry. The rest she held out to Asuma with a strained smile. "You're a better stoic than I am; do you want these anyway?"
"I'm a badass," Asuma agreed, accepting the pills. "Arrowed a guy to death right before I fell off a cliffside and everything--oh wait, that was you." He grinned to himself as Natsumi opened her mouth to protest, and tossed the pills back. Blood-stained fingertips smeared the coating before he could get a look at what he was taking, but right now he'd happily swallow ground glass if there was the slightest chance it'd make his side stop hurting. Or his shoulder. Or his back...
"Does it count as stoic if I'm still complaining under my breath?" he asked, glancing around the cramped shelter for his kit. "Because I can do it louder if that'll make you feel better. Remember when I tried to haul you up the cliffside? That definitely left bruises. I think you owe me dinner for that one, princess..."
His belt, hip-pouches included, had been folded neatly and tucked under a natural overhang of branches, stacked on top of his armour. And pants. And jockstrap. Asuma pressed his lips together and strangled an entirely inappropriate, possibly hysterical, burst of laughter, mostly because it'd hurt like hell. She'd even folded up his fire-sash headband and piled his bracelets carefully on top. "Or maybe we should skip dinner, seeing as we've already jumped the foreplay."
Natsumi's blush was back in full force. Asuma flashed a grin at her, then stopped smiling entirely when a quick search through his things turned up only two hip-pouches out of four. He dropped his hand from Natsumi's arm to scramble through them, taking the inventory he should have done at the riverbank. Crushed scrolls, waterlogged cigarettes, one coded map that was definitely the worse for wear...
No medkit. No canteen. No ration bars.
"Shit." He dragged his ruined uniform aside and almost sliced his fingers open on the antique sword. At least that was still there. He turned back, half-losing the blanket, to find Natsumi watching him silently above a scattered mess of suddenly-precious medical supplies. Darkness (pain) had left her pupils impossibly dilated, wide and black in worried eyes. Deep lines pinched between drawn eyebrows. Her wrecked hand was still curled in close, tucked against her ribcage; her other hand was decorated with his blood, and he was really ready to stop letting her down.
He tossed his uniform back, picked up a roll of bandages and a roll of tape, put them momentarily to rest on his knee, and re-captured her right hand as gently as he knew how. Natsumi stiffened like ancient stone, but let him draw her forearm down to rest on his other knee, already raised like a blanketed brace. Her eyes followed everything he did.
Asuma reached out and lifted her chin. "Here. Watch my face, and don't forget to breathe. You can picture me naked if that'll help." The blanket slipped a little further, folding into his lap as he deliberately shrugged one shoulder. "Actually, picturing might not be necessary."
The faintest breath of a laugh twisted between Natsumi's lips. Asuma waited for the rasping inhale that followed, then grasped her index finger and pulled it straight.
Pain sparked so suddenly and sharply that Natsumi barely flinched before it was over. She didn't dare look down. Asuma's hair was beginning to dry in wild, unruly spikes; a few drops of artificial blood still caught in his dark beard stubble. He glanced up with a quick, reassuring smile, and then looked down again. Strong hands gripped her middle finger. Natsumi exhaled, set her teeth, and reached up left-handed to smooth his hair.
The second time was worse. Bone ground against itself; Natsumi caught a whimper and strangled it in her throat. Her left hand tightened blindly in his hair. He winced, but his hands didn't falter. Gentle pressure replaced pain as he taped her ring finger to the swollen middle and index, straightening them with a chiding click of his tongue when her hand tried to curl.
"You sound like my grandmother," Natsumi panted. "Are you sure you're not just going to kiss it better?" She raked her fingers through the damp tangle of his hair in a vain attempt to get it to at least spike in the same direction. Better not to think about what her own hair looked like. With a white kimono, she could probably do a frighteningly credible impression of a yūrei.
And death was really not something she needed to be thinking about right now. She shivered, and gave up straightening Asuma's hair in favor of pulling the blanket back up over his shoulder. "Dinner sounds like a reasonable payment for a life-saving. But that means you owe me at least two, doesn't it?"
Asuma chuckled roughly. "I can live with that." Natsumi's hand wasn't exactly warm against his shoulder, but he still had to catch himself from leaning too far into her touch. Even with the little signals of hair playing and suggested-kissing, now wasn't exactly the time...
Five minutes, give or take, after he finished fixing up her hand.
"Actually, I've changed my mind," he said, casting about for something to use as a splint. "I've already had a couple welcome home meals. We should do something different. I could take you dancing, or you could show me how the hell you shoot a bow like that. Just so long as we don't go near water or anything with a high drop." He was babbling, just a little, breath stuttering as it caught cold between his teeth, but that was okay as long as his hands kept moving.
He glanced down at Natsumi's fingers, lashed neatly together and forced back into straight lines. The back of her hand was one ugly bruise, the skin crushed black and purple all the way up to her wrist, where his own hand had done the crushing. He couldn't tell if any of the small bones were broken, but there wasn't much more he could do if they were.
He decided to leave her fingers unsplinted. More pressure wouldn't help, and white tape drew a lot less attention than bandages and strapped support. He'd hate to leave the redhead a clue about where to strike, if she ever caught up to them. If she'd survived.
He quashed the thought.
Natsumi's hand stayed carefully still on his knee when he released it. Asuma caught her eye, then bent down and brushed his lips gently as a breath over swollen knuckles--which worked great as a romantic gesture right up until his side pulled with a nasty stab of pain and made him straighten up fast. He leaned his shoulder back against the fallen treetrunk, and offered a tight smile. Natsumi shivered in the dim light.
"If I wasn't a sunny optimist," Asuma said, pulling his legs up to see about getting some real feeling back in his toes, "I think this'd be the moment where a little cryin' wouldn't go amiss. Don't suppose we could revisit my idea about body heat? Because I sure can't think of a better excuse to get a free hug."
And judging by the glassy shimmer in Natsumi's eyes, the white-edged press of lips that had been set ever since he'd first touched her fingers, he wasn't the only one needing an excuse.
"I'm not crying," Natsumi protested automatically, pressing the back of her left hand briefly against her eyes. She'd been trying very hard to ignore the building prickly heat; her control couldn't have slipped. "I'm channeling chakra to improve my night-vision. It's just a little irritating."
Asuma nodded. The very edges of amusement lurked at the corners of his mouth, but he didn't laugh. One arm draped casually over his blanket-clad knees; the other hand curled in the soft ground-cover of pine needles, a supportive brace. Blood spotted the bandages wrapping his bruised ribs and side, but the pain that had creased his face a moment ago now only tightened his eyes.
He'd lost the blanket over his shoulders again.
"I'm starting to believe you don't want to stay dressed," she muttered, hitching closer. There was enough blanket trailing free behind his back to pull a corner over his shoulder again, and then over her shoulder as she tucked herself carefully against his injured side. "This is solely so you don't freeze, you know. Because I don't intend to cry, and you--"
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and pulled her in.
Natsumi's throat knotted closed. This time, she couldn't even pretend it was just over-used chakra burning in her eyes. She turned her head swiftly against his chest, before the tears could spill, and fought just for silence.
Breath scorched over chilled skin, bringing the first real heat since his fire jutsu on the bridge. Asuma swallowed, hesitated, and lifted his hand to rest his palm on the crown of Natsumi's head, fingers threading gently through damp, tangled hair. Her shoulders hitched; wet heat trickled down his chest. She didn't make a sound.
For the first time since he'd woken up, Asuma was glad their hurried little shelter was so dark. It helped preserve the illusion of privacy when there really was a wall between them and the outside world, even if that wall had needles.
"You're still new to this, aren't you, darlin'?" he murmured, tilting his head down. His fingers found the fragile curves of bone that marked the edge of her skull, the coiling ripple of chakra as it passed through a pulse-point between them. "Your tattoo's kind of a clue. It's still got that brand new shine to it. What'd you do before this? Jounin archer? Chuunin messenger before that, maybe. Anything that didn't involve getting too up-close and personal, I'd bet. Bow and arrow's a good way to keep a distance. Bet you never fell off a cliff before, either..."
He really doubted Natsumi was listening to him, but that wasn't the point. Calm friendly voice, warm hands, teammate who was there for you while you rode out the shock--that was the point. He carded blood-stained fingertips through long black hair, pulling it gently away from her face, teasing out the knots. It hung down Natsumi's back like an inky waterfall--which was not necessarily an image he wanted to think about, but it was pretty, as hair went.
He shifted slightly, easing her weight off his complaining side and a little higher up, and ran his hand down her spine. Kept talking. "I spent some time down on Wind Country's southern coast a couple years back. It's all desert, but if you head inland just a little ways from this tiny fishing village--Nagoya, if I remember right--they've got this giant cluster of waterfalls just before you hit the mountains. It's pretty, lots of spray and rainbows. Every year they hold this big festival there, and all the dumb young men get the chance to prove their worthiness to prospective brides." He smiled, mouth curving higher on one side. "Lots of beer involved. Beads, too; they trade in them. I think I might still have some... Anyway, the year I was there they had this contest of bravery -- about ten nervy guys standing on the edge of the second-tallest falls, willing themselves to jump. Three of them did it. And there was this big feast at sunset when they all proposed..."
He laughed carefully, wary of scored ribs and the crying woman trying to pretend she wasn't, and inhaled on a cold shiver. "So the long and short is, I think you owe me a ring. Or a feast. Both are good."
At first his voice was a bass patter of sound without meaning, rumbling in his chest, humming through her bones. She counted a dozen breaths before she could piece words together, and then it didn't make any sense anyway. Where had beer and beads come in?
But his hand was warm and soothing on her back, and she could hear the smile lightening his voice. His skin had finally begun to lose its icy chill. Which was probably because she was crying on him, gods...
The ice-shield was almost impossible to recover once she'd broken it. She couldn't empty herself; her hand throbbed and her bruises ached and Asuma's hand petted calm into her trembling muscles while he rambled himself into silence. Even then, she could hear his heart beating against her cheek, his breath soughing softly as his chest rose and fell. Almost without trying, she matched her breath to his.
"I offered you a feast," she murmured at last. "You said you'd rather have dancing. It's your fault if I break your toes."
Salt-slick skin tingled against her lips. She turned her head abruptly and rubbed the last tears away. "I'm sorry." Her voice shook; she forced herself into silence until she could speak clearly again. "I don't usually break down." Not since she left the make-shift morgue after identifying what the Kyuubi had left of her genin sensei's body; and then it had been the touch of Ibiki's arm around her shoulders that had destroyed her control and unleashed the tears. Ibiki had held her, then, while she cried, just as Takeo had held her a year before. It was getting to be a habit. She scrubbed at her eyes again, and then rubbed futilely at Asuma's chest.
"I don't suppose you want to take your turn now?" She hoped he'd hear the laugh; it was still a little too close to a sob.
Asuma wrapped his free hand around the fingers dragging painfully over his chest, capturing them in a loose grip. His other hand ran once more down Natsumi's back, before settling up around her shoulders. "Tempting," he said dryly, "but I don't think I'd pull it off half so well as you. Besides, I'm already naked. Who wants to see more vulnerability?"
Even if showing skin didn't make him feel remotely vulnerable. Just like shedding tears wouldn't do anything to ease the pressure inside his ribcage. He hadn't cried at the ashen grave of the Twelve, three weeks ago; falling over a waterfall sure wasn't going to drag it out of him now.
It helped that Natsumi had cried, no matter how short the moment had been. Tōu had had about as many tears in her as a sponge in the desert, and she'd never played with his hair.
And she was dead, so he should focus on the damn living.
He pulled himself up higher, bracing better against the rough tree-trunk, and yanked more of the blanket over his shoulder. The rough, dark green wool spilled over Natsumi, trapping a little more heat between them. His side throbbed with the sudden warmth, dark and ugly. Some point soon he was going to have to peel away those bandages and take a proper look at the damage, seal it with stitches. Throw some clothes on, too, and work out an actual plan. Eat, drink, muster up some more chakra and get them home alive...
That was the thing about a crying woman, no matter how in-charge they seemed to be. The second they wept in your arms they became every inch your responsibility, even if you didn't do responsibility.
Natsumi's lips were set firm again, betraying no hint of a tremble. But her eyes were red-rimmed and anxious, skin still too pale. Asuma leaned down and pressed a firm, almost cheerful kiss to her temple, then drew his hands away. "Smile for me, love. Tomorrow this is going to be nothing but a great story." He leaned forwards and hooked up her half-empty medikit, plucking a spool of catgut from the blanket as he tugged the kit towards him. "Possibly with some screaming. I don't suppose you know how to make ten-second brandy..."
He dropped the spool into her uninjured hand, along with a wickedly curving needle and the roll of bandages he hadn't used, and fished out a pair of scissors. They were about as wet as everything else, the double-blades dappled still with drops of river water, but seeing as he'd gone swimming in it he'd already caught whatever infection was going free. Hopefully something his immune system could kick dead.
The first loop of bandage sliced away neatly under the scissor's touch; he unravelled the rest, undoing all of Natsumi's good work. Calloused fingers hesitated over the wound as Asuma tried to see what needed doing and not the great freakin' slice in his side. It was starting to bleed again, sluggish and dark. He squinted, then dug through his remaining kit until he found a glo-stick. The light it gave when he snapped it was weird and green, almost ghostly, but at least he could see. He reached for the needle.
"They say if you bleed on a sword, that makes it yours." His fingers trembled very slightly; cold and a total lack of nicotine, mostly. He threaded catgut, braced himself, and drew a breath. "Reckon our client'll be in a giving mood?"