If Asuma's rambling chatter wasn't the first clue, the way he trailed off into panting silence should have been. Distracted by the burn in her lungs, the slow shredding of her foot-wrappings, the increasing pain in her chest and her desperate longing for a bra, Natsumi barely noticed. He was keeping up; that was all that really mattered.
And then he wasn't.
He'd stumbled before; they both had. They rolled back to their feet and pushed on with a breathless joke, a forced laugh. But this time Asuma hit hard, grunting in pain as he caught himself a second too late. He'd barely made it up to his knees by the time Natsumi turned back for him. He was gasping for breath, and sweat dampened his hair and glimmered on his bruise-darkened chest.
Natsumi was only a few degrees above frozen.
She hesitated just within reach, hoping against hope. "Do you need to rest? Water?" Her cold fingers scrabbled for the canteen. "This isn't a good place to stop." The wind funneled through the trees to snarl in her tangled hair and claw at her bare shoulders, and the trees were sparse here, with no shelter in sight. "Can I give you a hand up?"
Air rasped in Asuma's throat; he forced it into a laugh.
"Don't go getting all polite, darlin'. You'll scare me. I'm--" not remotely okay. He braced his hands against his knees, fighting for breath. Sachiko's head had landed by his side; the blue t-shirt he'd wrapped it in was almost entirely black, soaked through with coagulating blood and stained by dirt and mulch. Asuma swallowed hard and shoved it away.
He could feel Natsumi's concern spiralling into something else. He could feel his own panic welling up, twining around scorching heat and gut-level nausea, taking advantage of snarled thoughts he couldn't straighten out. His side blazed; sweat burned in a multitude of small cuts and grazes.
He lifted his head and focused on Natsumi's worried face. Cut out in a shard of moonlight, she was as black and white as their lost armour. Bone-pale skin, ebony-dark hair. Wide eyes and pain-tensed lips. Her broken hand was still held close to her chest, the ancient sword pinned in the crook of her elbow; the other was clenched around their dented canteen, holding it out.
Asuma smiled and felt his lips crack. "Anyone ever tell you you're very pretty? Because they should. Often." He grabbed his balance, grabbed his common sense, and hauled himself back up to his feet. Everything lurched sideways; he steadied himself with a hand on Natsumi's ice-cold shoulder. "I would, if you were mine. Every day, I think."
Water, demanded his body. Finish the job, ordered his mission sense. He reached for the canteen and Sachiko's head at the same time, and almost pitched back to his knees.
His skin burned, when she dropped the canteen to catch his shoulder. The sheathed sword and her battered vest cut into her ribs as his weight pinned her arm against her chest. He was breathing like a runner after the race, harsh and heavy; when she braced her shoulder against his and fumbled for his wrist, she found his pulse pounding hot.
"You're delirious," she whispered. "Gods, I'm sorry. I should have known. I should have--"
Should-haves would get them nowhere. She strangled fear and regret together and shoved them back down into her nightmares. Focus on what you can do now. Deal with everything else later.
They had precious few options. Stopping here was out of the question; if the wound-fever didn't kill Asuma, the cold would. The last time she'd asked, he'd said the monastery should be within ten miles, running due south-east. He was still on his feet; maybe he could make it.
Her lips thinned. He'd have to make it. After all they'd come through, nothing else was acceptable.
"All right," she said, steadying him carefully as she pulled away. He swayed on his feet, but didn't fall as she stooped to recover her canteen and then the messy bundle of tee-shirt and head. It was sticky with blood; a few matted locks of filthy red hair trailed free, brushing over Natsumi's fingers. She shivered, and knotted the terrible thing one-handed at her belt. "If she haunts me now, it's all your fault. Can you walk, if you lean on me?"
"I'm delirious," Asuma echoed, finally saying it out loud. "I'm not... balance-impaired. I can walk fine, gorgeous." If the landscape stayed still. "And I can't lean on you; I'd crush you flat." Even so, he let his hand rest briefly on the cool wing of her shoulder, long fingers leaving crusted red-black marks over skin and shirt and collarbone. Natsumi was tall for a woman--the top of her head almost level with his mid-throat--but he still outweighed her by a good fifty pounds. She'd collapse before they ever made it to the monastery.
Tall woman, fifty pounds, ten miles to go--he grabbed hold of facts like a lifeline and hung onto them, even as his hand dropped away.
The forest did a slow-spinning dance, wheeling around like a carnival ride. Natsumi reached for him, unbroken hand darting out; Asuma staggered a step back and caught hold of the nearest tree trunk.
"I'm supposed to be looking out for you," he rasped, dragging the protest from a semi-coherent place. Sweat stung his eyes; he closed them, trying to wrap words around a thought that made sense. "This isn't how it works."
"This is exactly how it works," Natsumi said sharply. "You've got no better reason to look out for me than I do for you. And anyway, if I'd done my job right the first time you wouldn't be burning up now." She'd smeared the wound as best she could with antiseptic cream, but that was a pitiful defense against the sort of infection that took hold far too easily in an open wound cleaned with river-water and stitched with dirty hands. Guilt gnawed at her. She pushed past it. Later.
"If you can make it ten meters without stumbling, I'll believe you. Otherwise, I'm taking my chances with flattening." She raised her left arm and flexed, trying her best to smile at him. "I'm stronger than I look."
A bead of sweat cut across one black eyebrow as it arched up. Braced against his tree, Asuma watched the swell of well-trained muscle ripple beneath skin as Natsumi moved. She had archer's shoulders; every inch of them defined and solid. And the sleeveless ANBU turtleneck did nothing to hide how the movement translated through her lean, well-curved body. Her ribcage lifted with each breath, shivers chased through shapely limbs, unsupported breasts begged for the attention of hands or tongue...
Asuma wrenched his thoughts back into line. He hurt. Natsumi hurt. Now was not the time to tumble into fever-drenched fantasy, even if it made the world a much more pleasant place to be.
He licked split lips, tasting blood.
"If I make it twenty, you owe me a reward, princess." He released the tree, finding his balance; one hand braced against his side, flattening over stained bandages and the raw-feeling mess beneath. He swallowed down a hiss, straightening his shoulders. Steadying himself with pride when willpower wouldn't do it. "Something naughty'd be favourite."
He managed a wink, followed it with a step, and didn't let it matter when his voice cracked.
"You already saw me shirtless," Natsumi pointed out, trailing behind him; she could at least keep her voice steady, so long as he couldn't see her blushing. "And you passed out. I'm not sure a reward would be such a good idea."
Asuma caught his breath on a painful laugh; his step hitched, and his hand pressed harder to his side. Natsumi reached out anxiously, but he shook his head and kept going. "Repeated exposure," he panted, "can only help. Maybe I'll get used to your blinding magnificence, O Goddess."
Natsumi's own laugh surprised her. She hefted her awkward armful a little higher and lengthened her stride to catch up again. "All the same, I'm not sure it'd be worth it. But--" She hesitated, biting the inside of her lip, and then said quickly, "You got better when I--when I kissed you. So if--when--we make it to the monastery..."
Asuma paused mid-step, free hand catching the nearest tree to steady himself. A hasty stride brought Natsumi to his side, her pretty face carved into worried lines. Unbroken fingers skated over his arm, hesitating somewhere between touching and catching hold.
Smiling, Asuma ducked down and pressed a surprise kiss to the side of her face, just next to her ear. Her skin was icy; his words were slurred. "If I remember right, you just gave me CPR. I think I kissed you."
Natsumi's cheek flamed red. Asuma laughed softly in her ear, sick and dizzy but entirely pleased with himself--entirely pleased with her--and lifted his hand from his side to tease a tangled strand of hair back from her fine-boned face. Natsumi twitched away, shying from his touch like a wild mare, but just for a second, she might have leaned in...
Whichever it was, at least she didn't look quite so worried, now. Asuma let go of his tree, and resolved to keep it that way; Natsumi had her own pains to worry about, without stacking his issues on top.
And it was just fun to tease her, even now.
He caught his balance in a world that insisted on skidding sideways, and kept going. "So are we talking about a proper kiss? Because I'm not sure it'll be worth it for anything less. Unless you want to make it one kiss for every mile. That might be worth it..."
Remembering the frozen, awkward, breathless kiss on the gravel riverbank, Natsumi was seriously tempted. Her skin still tingled from the brush of his lips; she was fairly sure all the blood not pooling in bruises had flooded to her cheeks. He was feverish, she reminded herself firmly, and she--
And she had a dead woman's head bumping against her thigh with every step, reminding her not to waste time.
"A proper one," she agreed. "When we get to the monastery, and my teeth stop chattering. Besides, I'm not terribly experienced. You'd probably be bored by the fifth mile."
She'd bet he was a good teacher, though...
"Anyway," she added hastily, "anticipation is usually better than the real thing. You'll just have to make it there."
They both would. They both could. Natsumi kept a close half-step behind Asuma, and tried not to think about how far they had left to go.
"Tease," Asuma accused with a breathless laugh. "Shameless, man-baiting kunoichi with no idea how hot she is..." He stumbled over a bare root and almost crashed down a steep verge. Natsumi caught him by the elbow, jarring him to a side-wrenching halt. For a long, painful moment, he stopped breathing.
When he opened his eyes again, the world slunk cautiously back, and they kept moving. Natsumi's hand stayed on his elbow until he recovered himself enough to shrug it off, determined to keep moving under his own power. Her promise rattled around in his head, bolstering him when even pride faltered, when pain blossomed into agony. It was just a kiss, not even close to a sweaty, horizontal tangle, but--
He didn't care. It was a goal. And all he had to do was glance back at her, see her determined dark eyes and remember the way she'd stood on that falling cliff edge, refusing to run even when the rock shattered around her, coolly firing two shots that had saved his life, to think he was getting pretty damn lucky.
You'll probably be bored by the fifth mile.
Yeah, and the sky would catch fire.
He spent another half mile seeing flames licking around the corner of his vision before Natsumi asked if he needed to rest. Asuma rasped something that might have been: And lose out on my reward? Are you kidding? before dodging the hand that tried to press against his sash-covered forehead. Natsumi let him go, staying just behind his left shoulder, matching her pace to his staggering one. At some point he wound up with the canteen pressed into his hand; half the water was already gone before he really started paying attention to it, then he rationed every mouthful, drinking only when his mouth grew painfully dry. They were heading away from the river; water was a precious resource.
He forgot to ask if Natsumi had drank. When he remembered, she waved away the canteen with a weary patience, as if he'd already offered twice and forgotten.
And they kept moving.
Asuma lost track of distance and direction roughly around the same time, when the map became a complex series of unintelligible squiggles and the stars blurred together. The moon drifted high overhead, cut like a silvery coin. Natsumi's hand found its way to his elbow more and more, pulling him back every time he veered off-course. She seemed to get colder as time passed; he couldn't tell if hypothermia was sinking its claws in, or if he was just getting hotter.
It was amazing, he thought dizzily, that someone could be this hot. The thought made him laugh, made him bend over his knees and gasp through shuddery, half-hysterical breaths. When Natsumi asked why, alarm sharpening her voice, he spun out half a bad joke (I'm smokin', babe), flattened both hands over the supernova burning his ribcage up from the inside out, and landed on his knees. His vision tunnelled, catching fire at the edges; his wounded leg screamed. He drew a racked breath and threw up nothing but bile.
"D-damn." It was a raw gasp. "Think--that's only--half a kiss."
"You're not getting one at all, now, until you brush your teeth," Natsumi said. Her own voice rang like a stranger's in her ears, tight and high and thinner than a razor blade. Terror, she thought, could do that. When the enemy was one you couldn't fight against, when all your weapons were broken and blunted anyway, when the world narrowed down to one man on his knees in the cold moonlight--it was hard to feel anything else. Except cold, and tired. Too tired even for tears.
She sank heavily to her knees beside him, dropping the sword across her lap, the wreckage of her armor into the dark leaf-mould. The head jarred oozily against her thigh; she ignored it. Her right arm slipped across Asuma's broad back, bandaged fingers skidding a little in his sweat; his skin was fire-hot. She gripped his left wrist in her left hand, ducked under his arm, and drew his weight against her shoulders. Her useless right hand screamed as she pressed it against his ribcage; his left side had to be shrieking even worse. But there was nothing else she could do.
"You've managed six miles already," she said. Her voice cracked; she cleared her throat. At least she didn't sound quite so ready to break anymore. "Lean on me for the rest. Come on. You're not going to let her drag you down after all this, are you?"
Asuma shot her a disgusted look. Natsumi grinned wildly back. "It's either this, or I carry you over my shoulders. Pick your poison." Gods, there were enough toxins surging through his blood already... "Or don't."
It wasn't quite desperation that tipped her head up towards his, leaning in close enough that her lips brushed the stubble-roughened edge of his jaw. Or at least, not just desperation. "There's your half. You'll get the rest at the monastery. Now stand up!"
It wasn't even close to a request. Her voice cracked down his spine, arced through his nerves, and yanked him to his feet without ever engaging his brain. Natsumi followed him up, bracing up against his side before he got the chance to fall over. Something automatic made him grab for the sword and canteen, latching onto the blood-stained scabbard and hand-warmed metal before they clattered to the dirt. Natsumi's shoulder dug into his wounded side; her broken fingers clenched behind his back. He cried out; she gasped quietly. His hands tightened around two different pieces of forged steel.
And Natsumi took a step. Then another. Asuma lurched with her, never quite catching his balance. His stomach roiled; the world spiralled. He set his teeth, bracing himself with her determination.
It was like a fall, indefinitely postponed. Every time he faltered, she dragged him forwards. Every time he stumbled, she hauled him up. When he faded out, her shoulder pressed against his side and wrenched him back. It was miserable, but it was movement.
The brush of her lips stayed like an ice-brand against his jaw, unfading.
He swore at her in every language he could think of. She answered him in kind, albeit with slightly tamer words; the touch of leashed hysteria lent all the bladed edge her voice needed. When he retched again, she turned her face away and forced him onwards. When he lapsed into ragged, broken-breathed silence, staggering with every step, she cajoled, ordered, demanded, wheedled, begged, and made him keep going.
Slowly, the forest began to thin out. Trees gave way to widening clearings. Mountains broke up the horizon, blocking out the sinking moon. A path wound like a pebbled snake, leading them out of the vanishing trees. In the distance, the faintest glimmer of man-made lights twinkled, nestled in the deeper shadows of the foothills.
Asuma rasped something--he didn't even know what--and finally stopped. Natsumi tugged at him, but he couldn't manage another step. His bones felt like fractured glass. The wind had dried the last of the sweat from his skin; his body had no more water to offer. The canteen was long empty.
Metal clattered twice against stone as his grip loosened. Natsumi gasped as the rest of his weight hit her shoulders. He tried to yank away, but her arm tightened around his back.
"Le' go, love." It was a distant, croaking slur. She felt like melting ice, like snow trying to hold back a dying inferno. And he didn't want to drag her down. "M' gonna fall."
No tangled on Natsumi's tongue and caught somewhere in her teeth, betrayed by breathlessness. She wasn't sure what it was supposed to mean, anyway. You won't fall. I won't let you. They were almost there. He couldn't give up now, not within sight of salvation. She wouldn't care even if the lights weren't the monastery they'd prayed for, even if it were an encampment of rapist and murderer missing-nin. This was still Fire Country, and civilization meant safety. Survival.
The canteen she could abandon, as she'd left her armor behind where Asuma had fallen, as they'd left their scattered gear behind with the kunoichi's corpse. The sword mattered. She stooped painfully, without loosening her grip on Asuma's side or wrist, and found the scabbard. Shoved it through her belt, opposite the hip where the bedraggled head still hung, and wasted a moment fighting for air before she could move again. Asuma was nearly limp, his breath fast and shallow, his heart hammering against her shoulderblade. His skin was so dry she thought it might crack. He needed help now.
And no one else could get it for him.
Leaving him wasn't an option. Translocating wasn't any better; she hadn't even the chakra for a bare clone, and pulling chakra out of him might weaken him too much to fight. Sheer muscle strength, built by years of too-heavy bows and too-harsh training, was all that remained.
"Just--hold on," she whispered to him. "Don't give up on me."
He cried out again when she pulled him across her shoulders; his side was sticky against her back, and his weight drove her down, cracking her sternum into her knee. She couldn't stop, or she might never finish. She reached right-handed through his legs, locking her elbow around his knee, and gripped the tattered fabric of his jeans with broken fingers that had gone beyond the point of pain.
He wasn't fighting her anymore, and that frightened her more than anything else.
When she lurched to her feet, his weight nearly dropped her again. The scab on her lip ripped beneath her teeth; the length of her hair, caught beneath his body, tugged her head painfully back. She couldn't free it. She closed her eyes, breathed a brief and bloody prayer, and stumbled on.
If there'd been any justice in the world, he would have passed out the moment the point of her shoulderblade cut up into his side. But he didn't. Solid muscles strained beneath him, shifting and locking into place, then Natsumi stood up. For the first time in a very long time, Asuma found himself being lifted. His boots swung clear of the ground; his knee was trapped by the grip of her elbow. One arm hung down her back, uncurled fingers level with her thigh; the other fell against her side, held at the wrist and jarred with each step.
Everything jarred with each step. Five scrolls dug into his lower back, still trapped by his waistband. His trench-knives sliced through denim and skin with equal efficiency, blades biting into a part of his anatomy that was definitely south of the border. He didn't have the breath--or the willpower--to yelp. Natsumi's shoulderblade dug into his ribcage, bringing agony and crushing it out with each lurching stride.
Hold on, she'd said. Don't give up on me.
There was a limit, he thought with savage exhaustion. But she was still walking, carrying him, bracing his weight up with shaking legs, holding him together with shattered fingers, bleeding cold from her skin into the stretched furnace that made up his, and all he had to do was breathe. Refuse to give in.
Delirium ate the journey away. Asuma found the last scrap of flickering resolve still smouldering near his core, grabbed it with both hands, and threw it against the towering walls of nothingness. It was enough--just enough--to let him see the vague impression of opening gates through greying vision. To hear distant voices lifting with alarm. Beneath him, Natsumi shuddered, staggered, and collapsed to her knees. Asuma slewed off her shoulders, legs hitting hard stone, weight dragging her sideways--
Cool hands caught his back, steadying them both. He used his last reserves to grab for her wrist, felt the briefest connection of a fast-flickering pulse, and drowned in crashing darkness before he ever got a word out.
"Please," Natsumi gasped to the flurry of orange robes and rosaries. Shaven heads turned; she choked on a drought-dry throat. "He's--dying. Fever." She dredged up more words. "Infected wound. If he dies--"
"We will do our best, shinobi-san," a low, gentle voice promised. The monks eddied again, like autumn leaves in the wind, and reformed around a very tall old man with stooped shoulders and a kind, ironic smile. He, too, carried a heavy string of wooden prayer beads. She must have interrupted them at their pre-dawn meditation. But, gods--merciful Buddha!--she was here; she could give up now...
Several burly monks were already hefting Asuma's limp body, chattering cheerfully to each other as they carried him away. Natsumi tried pushing herself to her feet to stagger after him, but her legs gave out before she'd made it more than a few inches off the paving-stones. The old abbot pressed a long, papery hand to her shoulder. "We will care for him," he promised. "And for you, as well. Were you followed here?"
Natsumi's eyes burned. She shook her head sharply. "No. They're all dead. Except--" She fumbled vaguely at the bundle tied to her belt. Gentle hands pushed hers away again, and untied it. Someone gasped.
"That goes to the daimyo of Heijo province," Natsumi said. "And the sword, too. He expects it three days from yesterday. If you look after Asuma, I could--"
This time she got one foot under her before the pain took her breath away. Another burly monk caught her before she fell, sweeping her up into arms nearly as strong as Asuma's. Someone else murmured disapproval, but the old abbot touched her feet, stripping away the tattered cloth bindings. They came away bloody.
"I will send a messenger to Heijo to complete your mission," the abbot said quietly. "And another to Konoha, to report on your arrival. Rest, shinobi-san. You are safe here."
At last, Natsumi believed it.
Asuma woke up for eight horrible seconds in water that felt sub-arctic before gnarled fingers grabbed the back of his neck and blurred the world away. There was just time to catch the barest glimpse of candlelight and glowing seals, to feel a flickering edge of gentle green chakra and moving energy; he smelled antiseptic and incense on the one frantic breath he managed to draw, then there was nothing but black.
The second time he woke up, he was flat on his back in a brilliant matrix of interlocking chakra webs, and staring straight up into the nostrils of a chanting monk. After a surreal moment of confusion, he managed to tip his chin down long enough to cast a fuzzy glance over the room. Red stone walls, flagstone floor; ink seals rippling over every very naked inch of himself, clustered heavily towards the left side of his ribcage--
He saw raw flesh, draining pus, streaking crimson lines networking over his chest, and opened his mouth to scream. Hands flashed in his peripheral vision, calloused fingers touched his throat, and roaring darkness crashed over his head before he finished inhaling.
The third time he woke up, he stayed completely still until he was absolutely sure no one was about to get handsy. When nothing touched him but the weight of what felt like bed linen, he risked cautiously cracking open one eyelid. Blinding sun greeted him like a cheerful pickaxe to the retina, yanking a whispery curse through dry lips. He winced and dragged a hand up to shield his eyes.
Then he realized he was alive.
Not only alive, but warm--not scorching--and dry and blood-free, dressed in a comfortable yukata and lying on a futon that had been carefully arranged to take full advantage of the glorious sunbeam slicing across an airy room. Nothing hurt; he couldn't even feel a twinge from his side.
After a long, long minute, Asuma licked his lips and revised his first impression.
"Crap," he mumbled softly, and covered his face with one hand. "I'm dead."
Good ninja were supposed to waken instantly at the slightest disturbance in their room. Good ninja probably weren't even supposed to sleep in a strange place. But when an elderly monk had led Natsumi from her bath-and-bandages session to a quiet tatami room where Asuma lay cool and peaceful, fever broken and wounds tended, the Hokage himself couldn't have kept her from the futon laid out at Asuma's side.
The whispered curse dragged her out of darkness. She yawned, squished her cheek comfortably against her pillow, and slitted her eyes open.
The monks had shaved Asuma. She'd missed that somehow, before, and she lost a dangerous moment admiring the clean line of his angular jaw. Then he mumbled his dire guess, and she laughed out loud.
His head jerked on his pillow. He stared at her for a moment in bewilderment; it was a good look on him, she decided. Almost as good as that brilliant grin. And she was probably the delirious one, now, except that the monks had been careful to burn out the first traces of fever they'd found simmering in her system. Hysteria again, then. Relief. She didn't quite care.
"After all the work I put into saving you, I'm sad to hear it," she told him gravely, propping herself up on one elbow to gaze at him fully. Clean face, clean but sleep-tousled hair, no visible bruises at all. A set of parallel scratches darkened the skin above his collarbones where his yukata gaped open, but they were already scabbing over. She almost reached out to touch him--real, alive, safe--before she caught herself. After the first twitch, though, she didn't even try suppressing her smile. "How do you feel?"
Natsumi might have had a no-touching rule, but Asuma had no such qualms. The second he managed to wrap his slowly waking brain around the idea that she was actually there, he was up and moving, shoving himself onto his elbows and half-tumbling, half-falling across the futon. Natsumi startled upright; Asuma reached the edge of his futon before she made it, stretched across the tiny gap to hers, and grabbed the first part of her he could reach. Long, calloused, only partially shaking fingers locked around her wrist and tightened.
Warmth, solid muscle and bone, a slow, sleepy pulse that was fast speeding up. Asuma tugged her hand to his face--it was her left, all five fingers still graceful and unbroken--and crushed it against his mouth, seeking to do nothing but establish purely physical contact. Real contact. He inhaled across skin, eyes squeezing closed, and smelled clean, fresh linen. The faintest trace of blossoms and incense. The barest edge of her, like salt and citrus.
A shuddery breath worked its way out of his lungs, tangling up in his throat. The first moment of real relief he'd had since she'd fallen from the cliff.
"I'm fantastic," he rasped, without sparing it a second thought. His fingers stayed tight around her wrist; his words broke against her lifeline. "Confused as hell, but fantastic. I'm pretty sure you owe me a kiss."
Words dissolved, somewhere under the warm breath licking against her palm. Natsumi tried twice to drag a coherent sentence together, and finally managed it. "We're in a Buddhist temple, you know. I'm fairly sure that anything profane--"
His eyes opened, clear and dark and amused; she could feel his smile curling against her skin.
"We're only in here together because some of the monks are retired ninja," she added hastily. "The ones who healed you were medics during the Second Great Ninja War. There was a fuss about separating us; apparently I shouldn't even be in the monastery at all. I'm not sure some of the monks should be, either, if they can't control their lustful thoughts, but--"
She was babbling, and he knew it. His thumb swept gently over her pounding pulse; he let her hand drop at last from his mouth, though he didn't release her wrist. His split lips had scabbed. She licked her own, and steadied herself on the heel of her right hand.
"You kept your word. I'll keep mine."
He was still lying on his stomach, sprawling in a tangle of comforter and yukata, smiling sunnily up at her. It wasn't quite the old cocky smirk, yet; he looked startlingly young, perhaps even no older than her. She thought abruptly of how much she didn't know about him, and then of how none of it mattered.
She bent down, lifted her bandaged hand to steady the side of his face, and kissed him.
Warm, slightly chapped lips pressed against his, and Asuma relaxed. Every tensed muscle began to unwind, spilling something very much like release from the back of his neck all the way down to the base of his spine. His shoulders loosened; his stomach calmed. He tipped his head slightly against Natsumi's palm, eyes sliding closed, and leaned up into the kiss.
She welcomed him, lips parting with the barest hesitation. He caught the faintest edge of spearmint--she'd brushed her teeth?--before his attention focused entirely on sweeping his tongue over her lower lip and then teasing it gently past her teeth, working out her personal comfort level. She pressed closer, surprising him, her bandaged hand sliding over a jaw he'd just realized seemed to be lacking the better part of a week's worth of growth. Her tongue flicked the edge of his.
Asuma grinned against her lips, an entirely new kind of fire lighting in the wake of his calm, and reached up to cup his free hand around the back of her skull, fingers sliding through clean, neatly brushed black hair. It slid over his skin like a river of gleaming silk.
He rolled off his side and onto his back, pulling Natsumi down with him, releasing her wrist to steady her with his arm wrapped around her shoulders. Relishing the warm solid press of her very alive body against his; the dull, very distant ache of half-healed bruises that completely failed to build into something worse.
Natsumi stiffened, ready to pull free, when he tugged her down onto him. But he didn't roll to pin her, or paw at the sleep-loosened collar of her yukata, or try--anything at all. One hand spread over her shoulderblade, while the other wound in her hair, silky strands slipping through his fingers. The kiss eased; he opened his eyes again, watching her steadily.
I don't, Natsumi tried to say, only it never came out and there was nothing to follow it. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't do this normally. I don't even know your family name. I don't think this means nothing.
None of it was good enough, not with the smile in his eyes crinkling up at her, not with his broad chest sun-warmed beneath her, his heart beating in slow and steady harmony to hers. And if, as she was beginning to fear, it did mean something--anything!--wasn't that a reason to go on?
"Just," she whispered against his mouth, "just a kiss."
Because I'm not sure I'll want to stop you if you do any more.
It helped that Asuma hadn't been awake more than five minutes. A slow deep breath through his nose was all he needed to calm down, tempering the rush of low-belly heat into something cooler. His hand slid through her hair, coiling long strands through his fingers.
"Tease," he accused, laughter threading through his voice, and kissed her gently. He had entirely good intentions--for all of three seconds, and then the urge to deepen the kiss, to get closer and hotter and really show his gratitude, swept him away. His arm tightened across her shoulders; his mouth lifted urgently to hers. She responded with more fervor than he expected, meeting him with eagerly parted lips and just the faintest touch of uncertainty, as if she wasn't quite sure what she was supposed to do.
Showing her was the most fun he'd had since he'd first offered her that damn mission scroll.
Breath control was second nature to any decent ninja, but they were both panting when Natsumi finally drew back the barest fraction--both still recovering reserves they didn't really have. The neck of her yukata gaped open, twisted slightly to the side; it was a temptation that undid him. He leaned up to kiss the corner of her mouth, the edge of her jaw, the fast beating pulse that rushed blood beneath milky skin, and ducked his head to follow the soft shadows only barely revealed by cloth that was so easily brushed aside...
Natsumi's bandaged fingers swept over to splay against his lips, stopping him cold. Asuma let out a long breath, twisted a crooked grin, and dropped his head back against the rumpled blankets, reigning himself in all over again.
Just a kiss.
"It figures," he said wryly, "that I'd end up on a mission with the only nice girl in ANBU. You have rarity value, darlin'. I hope you know that." He freed his hand from her hair, bringing it around to brush his thumb over the heated arch of one high-cut cheekbone. A blush suited her, he decided. Against the backdrop of flushed skin, her dark eyes glittered. "Suppose I should be a sensible shinobi and ask what happened--" he hesitated, glanced at the window with its high sunbeams, and guessed, "--last night. You're okay, right?"
She looked okay. And compared to how he'd felt before, he could've balanced on his hands and danced a jig.
Was that comment on her rarity value supposed to be praise or censure? She couldn't read anything but disappointment into his sigh or twisted grin, and yet there was nothing but warmth in the gentle caress of his thumb over her cheek. Any of the other girls he mentioned probably wouldn't have stopped him. Natsumi almost wished she hadn't.
Moving on to sensible shinobi was probably a far better idea. So was moving, period. Natsumi slithered awkwardly sideways, but Asuma caught her wrist again before she was quite clear. The grin had faded, a little; his eyes were just a shade too bright. Natsumi reached defensively for the collar of her yukata and tugged it closed. His braceleting fingers loosened, but he didn't let go.
It was--almost reassuring, in a way that it really shouldn't have been. He wasn't trying to tug her close again; she could break his grip just by twisting her wrist. He'd stopped when she told him to, even without words. And now he asked for nothing but her silent promise not to pull away.
She smoothed the crumpled skirts of her yukata one-handed, and took refuge in formality. "We arrived at the monastery just before dawn. The monks took you to their infirmary immediately. I delivered the sword and the target's head to the abbot, who promised to send them to the client in Heijo, along with a messenger to Konoha." Sudden doubt shook her. "I--thought that would be all right. I wasn't sure when we would be able to travel; I would have gone myself, but I...couldn't walk very well, at that point. I thought if we could trust the monks with our lives, we could probably trust them with our mission. And some of them were Konoha ninja, though I didn't know it then." She looked anxiously at Asuma. "They have treated us well."
Better than well, really. Konoha's hospital staff would have half-healed the major gashes, set the ninja on IVs, and scurried off to tend the next set of incoming mortal injuries. The monks who'd tended Natsumi had worked with an almost religious devotion, rubbing balm into her bruises, cleaning and bandaging her gashed thigh, resetting her jostled fingers. They'd even pulled in their retired medic-nin, a pair of saintly old men already tired from working on Asuma, to sear out her incipient fever and heal her feet enough to let her limp down the hall to her new room.
"And they gave me a bath," she added, remembering. That alone was better than all the rest.
Asuma's mouth quirked. "I'm going to assume that roughly translates to 'yes, Asuma, I'm completely fine. Thanks for asking'."
Natsumi's face flushed a little more, even as her eyebrows drew down; her hand twitched beneath his loose grip, halfway to pulling away. Too soon for teasing, he realized, and sobered his expression. Her pulse stuttered slightly when he rubbed his thumb across the inside of her wrist; he couldn't tell if that was desire, or a rising urge to whack him upside the head.
For a woman so transparent, she was damn difficult to read.
"If the abbot's the same man I remember--tall guy, probably older than this building, bit of a wicked sense of humour under all that piousness..." He grinned when Natsumi nodded. "Abbot Shiga. Don't worry, if he said he'd deliver the sword for you, then that's exactly what he did."
Some of the tension eased out of Natsumi's shoulders. Asuma lifted himself up on one elbow and looked her over properly. Everything about her said she'd been through a bad run--sharper cheekbones, chapped lips, bruised shadows beneath her eyes--but her neatly brushed hair was now finger-combed and beautifully disarrayed, and the rosy glow to her skin just made her look young and healthy. The yukata covered almost everything, but he could see the professionally bandaged look of her broken fingers (healed broken fingers, if the monks had done their job right), and the faded yellowish bruise over one slim collarbone which had been black the last time he'd seen it. Even her feet looked better: every cut was well-scabbed, every bruise was a healing yellow-green.
I... couldn't walk very well, at that point.
Because she'd carried him.
For a three-week rookie, it was probably too soon to have debts, but he was damn sure going to find a way to pay that one back.
Finding out if he could actually stand up was probably a good place to start--or even if he was still in one piece.
The last of Natsumi's tension vanished under shock when he released her wrist--only a little reluctantly--and loosened the cloth belt that was the only thing keeping his yukata closed. He sat up, and the robe slipped off his shoulders with naked ease, as if it had only been waiting for the right moment. When it slid off his wrists, he realized what was missing.
"Did you see where they put my bracelets?" he asked, running careful fingers down the neat bandages that stretched the length of his ribcage; pain flared in a muted way, but not nearly enough to care about. "And my sash. Well, headband. I know I had it when we got here."
"Mm," Natsumi said, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth. After the first moment of shock she'd hastily averted her eyes, but surely if it was just medical exploration it was fine to look, to evaluate. She'd seen him naked before; she'd stripped him herself! And, gods, if she remembered any of that outside its desperate and life-saving context, she would never stop blushing...
She couldn't force down the traitorous blush, but she could corral her thoughts. At least he'd given her another avenue to pursue. "The monks cleaned what they could while they were tending our wounds." She nodded to the pathetically small stacks of gear set beside the sliding paper doors. Her bird-faced mask lay on top of her utility belt; Asuma's heavy blue bracelets and that odd headband joined socks, jockstrap, scrolls, and trench knives in an even smaller pile. "I imagine our clothes are drying. Your boots are probably outside." She'd have to beg sandals from one of the smaller monks. And more bandages.
Bandages. She tried to look properly at him, this time, ignoring the swell of muscle under tanned skin, the broad stretch of shoulder and the dusting of black hair. His ribs and belly were carefully wrapped, without even a spot of staining over the long cut. The heavy bruising was almost gone, faded to dull yellow over his pectorals. The scabs from the sword-cuts across his collarbones looked several days old, instead of only several hours. And he clearly wasn't accustomed to sitting politely in a yukata; the thin robe gaped open over his legs, revealing a broad slice of bandaged thigh. Natsumi bit her knuckles again.
"I'm sorry about your leg. I couldn't get to you with a chakra-disruption fast enough, and I couldn't think of anything else to do in time. It should have been shallower, but I was--a little desperate."
Startled, Asuma followed her gaze down to his leg. Patterned cloth had parted to expose a long strip of thigh and a swathe of white bandage; he poked the latter carefully, testing the injury with a small wince, and shrugged.
"Darlin', I'd rather have a hole in my thigh than a kunai through my head, which is what would have happened if you hadn't saved my life for the, what, third time? And seeing as you lugged my useless hide around half the freakin' countryside, I reckon you're exempt from apologies." He caught her hand, tugging it free of her teeth; bitten-white marks flushed pink as the blood rushed back. He rubbed his thumb over her knuckles. "If you're hungry enough to eat yourself, now is probably a good time to track down the nearest orange robe and see what they do for food around here."
His stomach clenched suddenly, echoing the sentiment. The last time either one of them had even thought about food was hours ago--probably the better part of two days, before they'd laid eyes on the redhead and gone swimming down the river. Unless you counted Natsumi's tea in the shelter of their knot of trees, but he was pretty sure she hadn't managed more than a sip before they'd been attacked.
Well, before he'd blown a chunk of the forest up.
The memory should have brought guilt, but all he found was a smile etching over his lips. They'd completed a mission, killed everyone who'd deserved it, survived, and he'd woken up to find himself healed, kissed, and within ten feet of every personal bit of precious he cared about. It was hard to think of a better day.
Smile widening, he tugged Natsumi's unbroken fingers to his mouth and kissed the back of her hand. "Cheer up, gorgeous. We just beat all the odds; that's got to be worth a smile."
Without the press of his lips against her knuckles, she could have managed a dutiful smile. But she could feel him smiling as his breath warmed her skin, feel her own breath quickening in response. She tugged her hand away before he could find her fluttering pulse. "I am cheerful," she said sharply. "I just don't show it by grinning like an idiot. If you can move, I'll make the beds."
Asuma laughed, dipped his head in an ironic little bow, and clambered stiffly to his feet. Natsumi tried not to watch him wavering, or hear the muffled ow as he discovered what 'half-healed' meant; she was already far too aware of him for her peace of mind. She took it out on the futons with a vengeance, shaking out and folding the comforters and the under-mattresses, beating the chaff-filled pillows into shape, and stacking it all behind the carved wooden screen in the corner. Her feet ached, but she refused to let herself limp.
When she turned at last, Asuma had managed to slip his bracelets and his headband on and had paused to mull over one of his scrolls. He was still naked to the waist. A dark, fuzzy scrawl marred the burnished skin between his shoulderblades: tattoo, Natsumi realized after a breathless moment, not another injury. Fading bruises blossomed liberally over his back, green and yellow down his spine, edging to purple in the heavy muscle of his right shoulder. The monks' bruise-balm must not have worked quite so well there. Natsumi shook off more absurd questions--Does it hurt? Can I help?--and tightened her own yukata belt reflexively.
"After spending most of last night under-dressed," she said, shuffling very carefully across the tatami floor to join him, "I should think you'd want more clothes on." She crouched to sort through her hip-pouches and retrieve a small wooden comb. "Or are you planning to show off to the monks, too? I hear their vows of celibacy don't always extend to men."
Bitter was even worse than sharp. She tugged at her hair, and winced.
Asuma glanced at her over his shoulder, grin sharpening, and deliberately twitched his hips. The yukata slid down another inch, catching at his bare hipbone. "Got to pay them back somehow. They'd be pretty insulted if we tried to give them money."
Natsumi's cheeks flamed. Quickly, she combed her long hair forwards, concealing herself behind a shimmering waterfall of black silk. Asuma awarded himself a mental point.
She was right about the monks, though; he remembered a few sideways glances the last time he'd walked through the monastery's ancient stone hallways. But he'd been a lot younger, then, and the closest he'd ever been to pretty. Natsumi was far more likely to draw looks, now.
Not that the monks would ever do anything about it. They were honorable men.
His yukata had no pockets. After a moment's awkward juggling, Asuma managed to hang his trench-knives on the thin cloth belt, gave up on keeping his scrolls anywhere but in his hands, and contemplated his jockstrap.
Well, it wasn't like Natsumi could get any redder.
He managed to work up a faint flush, though, when he stooped to yank his underwear on, misjudged his level of balance, and almost crashed straight through the delicate screen door. Natsumi stifled a sound that was suspiciously like a giggle; grudgingly, Asuma gave her a point. Then he sorted his clothes out, shrugged his yukata back into its proper place, and tugged his socks on. They were a lot cleaner than he remembered. He was half-wondering what the appropriate kind of thank you was to a religious man who'd actually done your laundry , when Sachiko's scratched dogtags slipped out of Natsumi's meagre pile of things and clinked to the floor.
Slowly, Asuma picked them up and turned them over, winding the chain between his fingers. They didn't really need them anymore--her head had already gone back to the client--unless Intel had any kind of interest in the name of a dead thief.
He couldn't quite bring himself to discard them.
It was his weakness, he decided, to be swayed by impressive woman, no matter which side of the line they fell on. He strung the tags around his wrist--they clinked against his bracelet--and slid back the screen door to find his boots. The monks had kindly laid out a pairs of tabi socks next to them, small enough to fit Natsumi's feet. He scooped them up and offered them to his companion.
"If you're done grooming yourself, love, there's a dining room calling my name. And I'm pretty sure I remember how to find it."
Natsumi tossed her hair over her shoulder, slipped the comb into her sleeve, and refused to dignify that comment with a response. She took the tabi, though, pulling the socks on carefully over her abused feet. The blue-painted bird mask clipped onto the side of her belt; she buckled the belt itself and slung it over her arm. When she stood up again, she barely wavered at all.
Her chakra was still a low flicker, only partially restored by rest. Food would help. Her stomach growled; she flattened a hand over her belly in a vain attempt to quiet it. Food would really help.
Asuma, grinning again, bowed her out of their little tatami room and into the corridor. The floor here was ancient wood, polished to a high sheen by years of socks and scrubbing; the inner walls were wood and paper, filtering sunlight through to warm the corridor with a dull glow. Asuma led the way down two cramped flights of stairs and through another corridor, hesitated at a junction, backtracked, and found their way again. A young saffron-robed acolyte paused in his floor-scrubbing to stare after them. Probably it was the first time in years he'd seen a woman invading the monastery's sacred confines. Natsumi yielded to impulse, just a little, and smiled at him.
The boy blushed furiously and bent to his scrubbing again. Natsumi grinned and limped after Asuma. At least she wasn't the only one embarrassed this afternoon.
She was limping a little more heavily, and wondering if the monks got all their exercise simply from pacing solemnly through their monastery's halls and up and down its staircases, when the floors turned to stone and the walls to solid wood paneling. Gorgeous carvings of the Lord Buddha decorated most of the panels; flower arrangements and gold or bronze statues filled scattered niches. Asuma's stride lengthened with confidence. Natsumi resisted, just barely, the urge to kick him in the back of the knee.
A monk darted out of a side passage, narrowly missed colliding with Asuma, and bent himself into a bow. "Shinobi-san! Please, not that way. The Lord Abbot is conducting the afternoon service in the main hall. If you are looking for the dining hall, I can lead you there."
"Still pretty sure you remember how to find it?" Natsumi murmured in Asuma's ear.
Warm air washed down the side of his neck, sliding a shiver down his spine; Asuma twitched a glance left. "Pretty sure you're not too old to avoid getting a swat, smartass. They've changed things since I was last here."
This time, it was the monk who flushed crimson. Asuma kept his face straight and bowed back before the little man could dissolve into a puddle of mortification. Then he cast a thoughtful look towards the high double-doors, eyes drifting over the darkly stained wood and gleaming brass handles. It was just possible to hear the sound of low chanting on the other side, the faint chime of bells. Rustling robes as monks knelt and paid supplication.
He pressed his lips together. At belt level, his stomach growled and and clawed at his spleen; a multitude of flowering aches and the slight shake in limbs not quite ready to be moving this soon demanded he sit the hell down. But...
He owed a thank you to someone. And some things always--always--came before bodily needs.
When he glanced back at the monk he found a look that was entirely knowing, and quirked a wry smile. "My partner could do with a guide," he murmured, with a more respectful bow. "I'd be obliged if you showed her where to go." The monk bowed back; Asuma flicked a quick salute at Natsumi, fist over heart, and headed for the double doors. "I'll catch up in a bit, love. Try not to get in trouble."
"I don't get--" Natsumi began indignantly, starting after him, but the little monk caught her sleeve. Asuma glanced back, grinned, and slipped into the hall. A curl of incense and a monotone chant escaped after him, but the great door closing cut them off.
"Shinobi-san," the monk said quietly, "he is going to pray."
"Oh." Natsumi stared at the heavy carved doors for a moment more. She hadn't thought... Well, it made sense, if he knew this temple well, that he was religious. She had almost thought she'd caught a whispered prayer when he beheaded the kunoichi, but she'd immediately assumed she'd misheard; she'd seldom met anyone who seemed less devout. And yet there he was, heading off to join the monks in their worship, and here she was, standing lost on the other side...
"I'll burn incense at the shrine when I get home," she murmured, and turned back to the monk. He smiled at her as if he understood, and padded off up the corridor.
The walk wasn't long. A short trip down two more passages brought them to a long, high-ceilinged room with walls all hung with depictions of the Buddha and quotations from the sutra. The hall was empty. The monks would eat later, her guide explained; the afternoon service would be ending soon, but the monks all had their own chores and study to do before they assembled again for the evening meal.
"I'm not keeping you from your devotions, am I?" Natsumi asked, a little alarmed.
He smiled at her. "For this week, service is my devotion. Please excuse me, shinobi-san. I will return with your meal." He bowed, backed away, and disappeared through one of the sliding doors.
Left alone in the great room, Natsumi turned in a slow circle, studying the simple ink paintings and calligraphy scrolls on the walls. If she were truly devout, she supposed, one would have caught her eye; she could have knelt and meditated before it for hours. But even the simple task of clearing her mind enough to focus on one symbol seemed impossible, as she was. Could Asuma do it? He was probably just that infuriating. And if she started thinking of him that would only make things worse...
One of the scrolls hung just a little crooked. Natsumi sighed softly in relief, and headed over to straighten it.
That, at least, was something to focus on.
The smile slipped off Asuma's lips a beat after the door latch clicked back into place, leaving his expression slightly tense. He took a slow breath and turned to face the high-ceilinged room, weaponless hands hanging loose at his sides
For a moment, there was nothing but colour and movement and noise. Long rows of burnt-orange backs rising and dipping as the monks bowed out the response to a finishing mantra, voices lifting like a wave, blending together into something that was almost a song and nothing like it. Incense drifted through the air, creating purple-grey eddies of sweet-smelling smoke. Flickering candles and gently burning braziers cast a warm glow over the three golden statues arranged at the back of the shrine: Amitabha Buddha at the centre, and the bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi on his right and left. For a moment, Asuma's eyes met their serene gazes, then he looked down and away.
Bells chimed softly. The abbot's ringing voice rose in the next mantra, alone for the first refrain and then joined by the entire room in perfect harmony.
Om mani padme hum...
Kannon's mantra, the bodhisattva of compassion. It'd been months since he'd heard it from anywhere but his own lips, whispered in private and solitude. Now he found himself mouthing the words, not quite daring to add his voice to the mass prayer. Standing at the back of the room, dressed in blue and the lingering memory of blood, he felt like a subtle insult to the whole ritual.
It was a familiar feeling.
He wet cracked lips, looked up long enough to catch the abbot's dark, understanding eyes on him, and bowed low, then stepped forward just enough to clear the door, and sank to his knees. Still far behind the first row of kneeling, saffron-robed monks, but down on their level. His side flared painfully; in the lonely noise, every nerve-ending complaint seemed to stand out and sing. He took another slow breath and emptied his mind, setting hurt aside.
Om mani padme hum...
The dead kunoichi's dogtags clinked gently at his wrist; his own were long absent from his throat, still held hostage by a sister who hadn't forgiven him for leaving home. Knotted around his forehead, the Guardian Twelve sash seemed suddenly heavy for a single piece of cloth. Heavier still when he remembered there was only one other person in the world still wearing one. At his side, both trench knives swung and clacked together when he bent forward in the first low bow, touching his forehead to the flagstones. Heavy blue bracelets, engraved with their own mantras on each inner side, slid down and caught at the widest part of his hands.
Om mani padme hum...
Asuma closed his eyes and found his voice. There was a lifetime's worth to pray for, and no forgiveness he felt worthy of seeking. He focused on peace, instead, and tried to touch the kind of emptiness and wholeness that only came from warm, tangled bodies or living faith.
The wait must have been meant to encourage meditation. Natsumi straightened all the hanging scrolls, re-arranged the very simple flower arrangement on the low table at the front of the room, re-packed her belt pouches, and finally sat seiza in front of the most interesting-looking painting and tried to think.
Usually it was almost easy--or at least, not altogether difficult--to empty herself, to let ice fill her soul and still her face to sculpted marble. Her thoughts should slow, crystalline in their clearness, until she could pluck each one from the surface of her mind to examine and tease apart. One logical link in the chain leading to the others...
Except this didn't make sense. Of course it was natural for her to find Asuma attractive. He was a very handsome young man, and he knew it. And he was kind, under the cockiness, and careful; he might hurt through sheer carelessness, but never deliberately. He could make her laugh. He kissed like--like--
Comparisons failed her. She clenched her good hand in her lap, stared down at the still, white-bandaged fingers he'd set and she'd sacrificed again in carrying him, and started from the opposite side.
He was, obviously, a flirt to rival Takeo, and probably just as carefree in his flings. Girls fell into his lap; why would he worry about what happened to them afterwards? He smoked and he snored, and his unshaven scruff and uncombed hair made her fingers itch. He kept too many secrets. His brutal violence in ripping that kunoichi apart still turned her stomach. No, that one's my flaw, not his. Is a clean kill really any better? She's still dead...
And he wore the dead woman's dogtags looped around his wrist, like a silent penance for his sin.
Somehow she'd come round again to the beginning of the circle. Perhaps the zen circle symbol on the scroll hanging at the head of the room would have been a good one to meditate on, after all.
The door slid open to rescue her at last. She scrambled to her feet as the little monk came in again, followed by three shaven-head acolytes carrying lacquered tray tables already set with dishes of food. They glanced shyly at Natsumi as they placed the tables side by side, with a cushion before each one. She bowed and forced a smile for them. They looked quickly away, and whispered to each other.
"Forgive their rudeness, shinobi-san," the older monk said heavily. "They are assigned to kitchen duty because their minds are still too fixed upon things of this world. Services have just ended; your companion will join you soon. Is there anything else you require?"
"Nothing," Natsumi said. "Unless you can bring me peace of mind." She smiled again, edged with self-mockery. "Isn't that what temples are for?"
The monk smiled sadly back. "I am still looking for it, shinobi-san. I hope you will share it with me when you find it." He bowed. "Please, enjoy your meal."
"Thank you," Natsumi said. "I will."
She watched him go, herding the acolytes like reluctant geese before him, and then knelt on her cushion to wait.
This time, she watched the zen circle.
It was probably the recent drowning and fever and blood loss that helped Asuma cast off reality so easily, but he wasn't really in the mind-frame to care. Movement carried him, steady and precise; painless, when conscious thought slipped away. The mantra flowed like a gently winding river, the sole focus of breath and voice and thought for a sea of burnt-saffron robes and one blue one. Bells chimed softly, marking out time without intruding real world concerns.
When the ceremony ended, it was in collective silence.
Asuma came back to himself with a feeling of calm like a solid glass shield, and a serious amount of pain. He winced, breath catching between his teeth, and pressed his forehead against the floor in a final bow while he tried to work through it. Continuous motion had done nothing good for a ribcage only recently put back together.
Robes rustled around him as the monks stood. Asuma was willing himself to a vertical place when a hand like fragile twigs wrapped in soft, supple leather clasped carefully over his shoulder.
"Are you quite alright, ninja-san?"
Ordinarily, that would have been grounds for a smart-ass comment, but now, with incense in his blood and a touch of redemption lightening his soul, he just muttered quietly, "Fine. Just give me a minute."
There was a pause, then the hand left his shoulder and found his right elbow. Before Asuma realized his helper's intentions, a surprising rush of strength boosted him to his feet. He staggered sideways, crushing the instinctive impulse--far too slow--to lash out--
And found himself up close and personal with the abbot. An arm like roped steel caught briefly around his shoulders, steadying him. Asuma blinked. "Um."
"You remind me of someone I met several years ago," the abbot informed him gravely, as monks broke around them like an orange tide. "An angry young teenager who visited us with his father. If I remember correctly, he decided to educate several of our newer acolytes in the arts of brawling and swearing."
Asuma licked his lips. "In my defense," he said, after a long moment, "temples are really boring when you're fifteen."
The abbot's eyes crinkled at the corners. "I'm glad to see that you have since revised your opinion, Sarutobi-sama."
Asuma winced again. "Just Asuma. I never wanted to be anyone's sir."
"Or your father's son, as I recall. I see some things remain the same." The abbot's fingers tightened a little as he turned Asuma towards the doors, ushering him forwards with a careful kind of pressure that brooked no argument. "Come. I believe your companion is waiting."
"Natsumi," Asuma muttered through gritted teeth; after sitting seiza for several long minutes, his wounded thigh had several choice complaints to make. "Her name's Natsumi."
"And her presence is creating quite a stir amongst our less enlightened members," the abbot agreed, with something like wicked humour. "I was delighted to make her acquaintance when she dropped you at my feet. A remarkable woman, I think."
Asuma sacrificed another smart-ass answer for the continued ability to breathe as he kept pace with the abbot's decidedly unforgiving stride. Enlightenment through suffering, he thought grimly, and resolved to indulge in something sinful when he made it back to Konoha. Possibly several somethings. All at the same time.
He hadn't quite managed to piece himself back together before the abbot guided him into the airy, well-lit refectory, where Natsumi knelt surrounded by elegant little tables and several plates of untouched food. She made a graceful picture, lit by a pool of sunlight that gilded her hair and touched a glow to pale skin. Her yukata was gathered neatly beneath her; her broken-healed hands were folded in her lap. Her expression fell somewhere between surprised and quizzical.
The abbot affected a low, stately bow. Asuma just tried not to fall over.
"Miss me?" he managed, forgetting to smile.
Yes was damning. No was a lie. And Asuma's pain-tightened face was too hollow to meet with anything but the most gentle of ripostes-- especially with the elderly monk there, supporting the young man's heft with an arm that looked far too frail. Natsumi summoned up half a weak smile. "I thought maybe you'd fallen asleep," she said. She bowed to the monk. "Thank y--"
The gentle, ironic smile snared her slow memory. This wasn't just an elderly monk. He was the abbot.
After ten minutes of seiza, Natsumi's bruised knees and healing thigh were already protesting. Stiffening muscles woke up and protested even more as she slipped off her cushion and shuffled around to face the two men. You'd feel a lot worse if not for him, Natsumi reminded herself savagely, and bent over her knees in the most formal of bows. If she concentrated on forming a perfect triangle with her fingers on the tatami mat, on keeping her back straight and her forehead only a few centimeters off the ground, she couldn't pay quite so much attention to how much it hurt.
"Thank you, kanchou-sama," she murmured. "We are most deeply in your debt."
The abbot bowed again. Asuma made a noise like a small animal caught underfoot and reached for his side.
Natsumi surged up off her knees. Her good hand flattened against Asuma's chest, bracing him upright, before she realized he hadn't ever been in danger of falling. He was almost steady on his feet, even without the abbot's supportive arm. Natsumi flushed, and dropped her hand. "Forgive me, kanchou-sama."
The abbot's serene smile had a certain knowing quality to it, if you looked closely. "Nothing to forgive, shinobi-san," he said, eyes crinkling at the corners. "It is always a pleasure to see concern for one's comrades, especially in a... profession such as yours."
"Natsumi-san," Asuma reminded him, reaching out to tweak a few shining strands of Natsumi's hair. Her handprint left a spot of fading warmth on his chest. "And don't go passing judgement, Shiga-sama. Your immortal soul isn't that immune."
For an interesting little moment, he thought Natsumi might have leaned into his hand. Then she pulled back and stepped away, expression smoothing out into something that was almost cool and calm and collected, if she hadn't been faintly flushed and slightly wide-eyed. The abbot chuckled, rippling a low snatch of sound into the unwounded side of Asuma's ribcage.
"An excellent point," he said lightly. "Perhaps I am the one who should be apologizing."
"Or we could sit down and eat," Asuma said, a clenching growl from his stomach backing up the point. He took more of his own weight, pulling away from the abbot. "Look, actual edible food."
As much as he respected religious theory, it was a little harder to be entirely decorous to religious people. They were just folk, the same as anyone else. Admittedly with a little less hair and a lot more orange.
Though, granted, he owed this particular religious man a much bigger debt.
The abbot chuckled again and set a papery hand against Asuma's back, pushing him forwards. Asuma gave the world in general a dry look and moved quicker, stepping away from the abbot. He kept his balance long enough to reach the constellation of small, shin-high tables, and sat down on the first cushion that presented itself, legs crossed loosely. His spine stayed straight in an effort to ease the pressure on his side.
The abbot gestured politely at Natsumi. "After you, Natsumi-san."
"You don't need to bow again," Asuma told her, with a good attempt at cheer. "Unless you're feeling especially masochistic." Not that the first one hadn't been a picture of elegance and grace. But there was something about Natsumi folding willingly to her knees, face empty of pain he knew she was feeling, that set his teeth on edge.
"I'm making up for your lack of manners," Natsumi said frigidly. "I take it you've met before?"
"We are old friends," the abbot said comfortably. His wrinkles creased in silent amusement. "Have you known each other long, Natsumi-san?"
It felt like forever. Only three days, she realized with sudden shock. How could half a week feel like a lifetime? Well, she was sore enough to have a good guess at what arthritis would feel like, in fifty years...
Asuma had given her a chance to see the next fifty years. They'd traded futures back and forth like children with a handful of bright copper coins, and she still wasn't sure she'd ever felt more alive than that moment on the pebbled riverbank when he'd caught her arm and stole her breath.
"We met three days ago," she said. She knelt very carefully on the cushion next to Asuma, without looking at him. It was more than enough to feel his solid warmth against her shoulder, almost close enough to touch. Too close, perhaps. She didn't move. "It's been a very long three days."
The abbot laughed softly as he settled down at his own place. "I hope your return journey will be less eventful. You are welcome, of course, to stay here as long as you need. Young Hideyoshi tells me you will need at least another night's rest before you set off again. I defer to him in all matters of health; I would suggest you do the same."
'Young Hideyoshi,' Natsumi remembered, was a portly retired medic-nin already edging out of middle age. Tired as he was when he'd come to see her, he'd sealed the cuts in her feet with only a brief touch of chakra-warmed hands. Medical advice like that was hard to reject. "We'd be grateful for your hospitality, kanchou-sama." And very grateful for another chance at hot baths and warm beds.
Warm beds set a little too close together. Natsumi caught herself chewing on her scabbed lip, and hurriedly reached for her chopsticks instead.
Young, male, healing, and starving--food caught and held Asuma's attention like nothing else. The fare was typically Buddhist, with not a speck of meat in sight, but that suited him. Miso soup cast a gentle mist of steam into the air; unspiced soba and mountain greens wafted a clean, tempting scent that made his mouth water; pickles promised a zesty crunch to cleanse the palate.
And it was all within arm's reach.
Asuma had chopsticks in hand and the first bite of sansai in his mouth before he realized the abbot's head was dipped, and his weathered hands were folded into a silent prayer. Guiltily, he swallowed his mouthful, and wavered somewhere between putting his chopsticks down or digging eagerly into his remaining brothy noodles.
Natsumi's hand had likewise stilled in mid-air.
Fortunately, the abbot was a quick worshiper. "Eat," he encouraged, gaze lifting to fix good-humouredly on their hanging chopsticks.
Asuma needed no further urging. He delved in, only a quarter of his attention focused on his dining companions--then a half, when the initial rush for food had eased slightly. Natsumi's graceful silhouette filled the right side of his peripheral vision; she ate more delicately than he did, speaking to a childhood that had encouraged her to actually hang onto her manners. Her calm, contented chakra rippled against the edge of his recovering senses. Still weary, very low, but definitely there. Three days, she'd said, with well-concealed surprise in her voice. It's been a very long three days.
Surrounded by solid stone walls, clean and warm and almost forgiven, mind full of memories that were going to make damn good stories, Asuma concluded it had been very worth it.
A yawn caught him before he got to the pickles. He smiled around it, nudged Natsumi's side gently with one elbow, and said, "Y'know, I think I remember a trading village pretty near here. We should stop there on the way home. Buy some shiny things."
Natsumi nearly dropped a noodle in her lap. "You want to go shopping?" she demanded in disbelief. "With what money? I've only got a few ryou in my emergency fund, and I don't think either of us are in any shape to pick up another mission on the side." The village didn't look very kindly on that sort of initiative, anyway. And her emergency fund wouldn't go very far...
She caught herself calculating exactly how far it would go--a tee-shirt, certainly, and bandages to bind her breasts, and a pair of second-hand sandals. Maybe even a few meals. But lodging was out of the question, if night caught them still on the road. Technically, shinobi in distress could requisition supplies and shelter from any merchant or inn-keeper in Fire Country, but few civilians were willing to help bloody-handed killers. In Natsumi's slim experience, reminding them of the law only made things worse. And while she had once managed to win her chuunin team shelter on a rainy night by beating the bartender at darts, the bedbugs really hadn't been worth it.
Surely the monks wouldn't sent Asuma off without a shirt, even if he ended up returning to Konoha yukata-clad. Natsumi could beg more bandages off Hideyoshi, and probably they'd be willing to give her sandals as well. She still wouldn't be able to afford a hotel room for the two of them, but they might be able to spend the night in some farmer's hayloft with no questions asked. Even if she limped the whole way, turning one day's journey into two or three, they could make it back.
But shiny things?
"You can buy souvenirs next time." She stirred her noodles and took another bite of bitter greens. "You'll have a beautiful new scar to remember this mission by, anyway. Isn't that more than enough?"
"Sorry, Ma," Asuma said dryly. "Wasn't aware we had to put a limit on fun." His fingers ghosted briefly down his left side, touching the outline of a long gauze pad through bandages and yakuta. Beautiful new scar was one way to think about it. Kickass babe magnet was another. He smiled to himself, perfectly aware that most kids grew out of the scars are cool stage, and entirely comfortable with the fact that he hadn't.
Besides, scars were cool. Especially ones that kick-started off a conversation with the sentence 'oh yeah, I got this when I leapt off a bridge to rescue a pretty lady' in it.
Natsumi was giving him one of her lifted-eyebrow looks, as if she could read his thoughts. Quietly, the abbot chuckled. Asuma grinned at them both, covering another yawn, and flicked his chopsticks in a neat circle over the back of his wrist.
"Besides," he added, "who said anything about dipping into any emergency funds? You can't tell me you've never tried to barter? We're ninja, love. We've got a whole skill set that most civilians would give their firstborn's teeth to catch a look at."
It was how he'd survived, after all, those first two years out of Konoha. Well, that and a reasonable talent for creating genjutsu'd money--but he was pretty sure Natsumi wouldn't go for that.
"And I'd like to see you get something pretty," he said, a little more seriously, putting his chopsticks down and propping his chin carefully on his fist. The little table creaked beneath his elbow. His side ached, but didn't burn. "Unless you want all your memories to be about broken fingers and running like hell."
"They aren't," Natsumi said.
Asuma tipped his head, inviting explanation. At her other side, the abbot crunched his pickled daikon as if nothing in the world could interest him more. He wouldn't judge her, Natsumi thought; his ironic eyes were far too kind. But Asuma was the one whose opinion mattered. And Asuma's eyes, caught between justified sleepiness and unusual solemnity, were still too close to laughter.
"I can add falling to my nightmares now," she said lightly, angling her chopsticks across her tray and rising to her feet. "Drowning. Exploding trees. I think your jutsu triggered the traps you set, by the way; it's a good thing neither of us ran into them later. Dripping heads is a good one..."
"Natsumi-san," the abbot said gently, "you sound as if you need rest. Would you like an escort to your room? Or to the baths, perhaps?"
All right, so he wouldn't judge her. He would assume she was treading the exhausted edge of hysterical. Natsumi clenched her good hand around the hard leather edges of her utility belt, and bent her stiff back in a bow. "I would be grateful, kanchou-sama."
The abbot clapped. A paper door slid open immediately on a young, anxious-looking acolyte. He hurried to the abbot's side and bent his head for whispered instructions. Natsumi smiled wryly at Asuma.
"I'll try not to nag so much tomorrow. I do have other skills; if we find a bar I can clean up in arm-wrestling or darts..."
The acolyte hovered at her side. "Shinobi-san?"
"I'd like something pretty," Natsumi said quietly, and turned to leave.
For the first time, Asuma watched her go in silence. There was a catch in her step, something that should have been a limp if she weren't so stubborn, but there was lingering grace, too. A ripple of lean muscle across archer's shoulders. She'd carried him. That arm-wrestling promise was no idle boast.
Even if the rest had made his heart lurch.
Chopsticks clicked quietly when he picked them back up, turning them over in his hands. He could feel the abbot's gaze on him, waiting quietly for him to say the first word. Only monks--and Hokages--had that kind of determined, silent patience.
Asuma looked at his hands.
"Guess I should remember not everyone bounces back so quick," he said finally, and lifted his head. The abbot gave him another one of those understanding looks, emanating a serene kind of calm. Asuma wondered how far he'd go, if his monks were in danger. If he'd ever even thought about taking a life. "Reckon I probably owe her an apology."
"Perhaps not while she's bathing," the abbot said, one corner of his mouth quirking.
Asuma laughed on a short breath. "Guess not. That'd definitely give her nightmares. And I'd wake up with an arrow in my skull." He put his chopsticks down, edging his mostly empty plates away with calloused, unshaking fingers. Another yawn itched at his throat. He let it crack his jaw, acknowledging a body that was only recently awake and probably still not recovered from a fever that had almost cooked his brain. "You sure you don't mind us staying another night? I think we're making your flock a bit nervous."
"It is character building," said the abbot contentedly. "Encourages inner strength, which is no small thing. And I believe you would fall over before you made it past our front gates."
"You may have a point," Asuma muttered, dragging a hand over his face. He sliced half a smile through his fingers. "Reckon I owe you a thank you, too."
The abbot waved a dismissive hand. "Just pass on my regards to your father. It has been far too long since I have had the pleasure of his company."
Asuma snorted softly, and staggered to his feet. "Don't push it, Shiga-sama."
The abbot beamed at him, teeth startlingly white in his weathered face. Then he clapped his hands again. Another acolyte appeared and took Asuma by the elbow.
"Don't suppose you could recommend a decent trader?" Asuma asked, as the little monk led him back to their room. "Weapon's smith, maybe. Or a fletcher... I bet you could get some great designs carved into arrows..."
Because pretty didn't necessarily mean tame.
And he owed that Intel-kunoichi a present, too, come to think of it. Along with keeping his promise to come home alive.