“Aww,” Katsuko said.
“You’re authorized to use moderately lethal force,” Raidou said, very dry. “But not to pull their shirts off.”
Katsuko tapped out a lazy salute and shoved off the railing, jogging towards the field. Kakashi and Ryouma didn’t acknowledge her approach, too busy rolling around in the dirt like highly-trained professional killers. She surged into a flat-out sprint for the last hundred feet and leapt, turning a somersault in midair before dropping down on Kakashi and Ryouma feet-first.
The reaction was instantaneous: they disengaged, moving in tandem to cut her landing short. Kakashi whipped up, grabbing Katsuko’s ankles before she could face-stomp him, and Ryouma’s hands closed around her wrists.
“Morning!” Katsuko said cheerfully, strung up like a clothesline between them, and jackknifed. Her heel caught Kakashi on the shoulder, loosening his grip the fraction she needed to yanked one leg free and kick it over her head. The reinforced sole of her boot slammed down on Ryouma’s fingers, making him curse; she broke one hand loose and twisted, grabbing the collar of Ryouma’s shirt for leverage as she scythed her free leg back to kick Kakashi in the face. He leaned back at the last second, letting her foot whip harmlessly by, but the distraction let her yank her trapped ankle free. She kicked off Kakashi’s chest, using it as a springboard, and flipped over Ryouma’s shoulders. Ryouma still had a grip on one of her wrists— she couldn’t leap away. She swung down like a pendulum instead, folding in half to drive her knees into his back.
Ryouma yelped and staggered, grip loosening. Katsuko yanked her hand free and leapt back. A glint of silver warned her a split second before Kakashi slammed his fist in her sternum, punching the breath out of her lungs, and then tackled her. Her healing collarbone protested, but the pain wasn’t bad enough to call a time-out. Katsuko tucked her knees into her chest as her back hit the ground, planting her feet in Kakashi’s stomach, and let their combined momentum send him sailing over her head.
She didn’t have time to celebrate. Ryouma swept in out of nowhere to grab her feet, dodging her nerve strike and flipping her over before she could free her legs. Her collarbone twinged; she hissed, distracted enough that she reacted too late when he pinned her to the ground. “Ow,” she complained.
Two feet stepped into her line of vision. Kakashi crouched down by her head and pressed two fingers to her throat, against a nerve cluster. He sounded ever so slightly breathless. “Ueno.”
Ryouma’s grip didn’t relax at all. “I hope you weren’t expecting hugs and happiness when you jumped in.”
“Thought we were having a party, actually,” Katsuko said.
“You didn’t bring cake or beer,” Ryouma said. “You’re not invited to my parties again.”
Kakashi thumbed a thin line of blood away from a split in his eyebrow and looked down at them both. Then he took his fingers away from her neck. “Up,” he said. “Let’s go again.”
“You’re enthusiastic today, my delicate snowblossom,” Katsuko said, propping her chin in the grass. “Are you okay? Are you sick? Did someone kill you and replace you with a genetically modified clone?”
"Collarbone, chakra loss," Kakashi said, and then flicked two fingers at himself. "Uninjured. Get up. We have work to do."
“Oh, good,” Katsuko said. “It’s you, after all.”
Ryouma snickered and drew back, releasing her, wary in case of a counter attack. Katsuko looked back at him over her uninjured shoulder and narrowed her eyes. I’m going to get you, she mouthed, and then pushed up to her feet. “Next time don’t team up to bully me,” she said, fixing her hair. “It hurts my feelings.”
“Next time don’t interrupt,” Ryouma said silkily.
“Captain’s orders,” Katsuko said, jerking her thumb back at the fence. “He thought there was too much happy hug fun time going on.”
“He’s right,” Kakashi said, and attacked them both.
Ten minutes ago that spinning kick might have connected solidly with Ryouma's jaw. Meeting Takeshi and Hakone for drinks on his last night of freedom had clearly been a bad idea, not to be repeated. He and Hakone had both paced themselves, and he hadn't even truly been drunk when he'd gone to bed, just before eleven; he'd woken six hours later without a hangover. He'd have been fine at any ordinary training session, after a few laps and a few hundred pushups to sweat the last of the alcohol out. But ordinary training sessions didn't generally start with Kakashi's most determined attempts at grinding Ryouma's face into the dirt, and it'd taken him a while to catch up.
He was awake now, though. He leaned back, letting Kakashi's heel whistle just under his chin, and saw out of the corner of his eye a blur of motion as Katsuko backflipped. Three kunai embedded themselves in the dirt where she'd stood.
"Cheater!" Katsuko crowed in delight.
They were both insane. Ryouma deflected Kakashi's next blow hard enough to set him back a pace, and Katsuko slid in at his side as smoothly as a blade coming out of a well-oiled sheath, following up before Kakashi could recover.
Or she would have, if Kakashi weren't so damned fast. He caught her kick on his crossed wrists, grabbed her ankle, and twisted, wrenching her off-balance. She threw out a hand; it barely glanced off Ryouma's shoulder, but it gave her the momentum she needed to turn Kakashi's twist into her own spin, locking her other leg around his neck and buckling him toward the ground.
Ryouma had one moment to make the pin, before Kakashi wrapped his hand around Katsuko's knee and forced the joint out of alignment. He didn't manage the takedown quite as cleanly as he'd wanted, because Katsuko was crushed between them and he couldn't get a lock on one of Kakashi's arms. Katsuko was laughing. Kakashi made a thin, snarly sound, and his free hand came up glinting with steel.
Ryouma couldn't disarm him, from this angle. But he could lock his knee over Kakashi's hips and roll, bringing Katsuko on top and within reach of the kunai-hand. She pried the knife out of his hand, and he seized the opportunity, as if he'd been waiting for it all along, to grab her wrists and yank her down. Their tangled center of balance shifted. Kakashi's hips bridged up, and Ryouma surged to block him before he could roll again and top them both—
A hawk cried, overhead.
They were all jounin. Messenger-hawks' screams regularly shredded their days, and their nightmares. Ryouma leaned back; Kakashi shoved Katsuko off his chest and shook sweat-damp hair out of his eye. He was breathing hard, though he wasn't the only one, and somehow he still managed to give them both an extremely dry look. "Get off?"
Ryouma tipped his head, trying to track the hawk against the leaden dawn sky. "Maybe," he said. "Don't forget. You started this." He leaned a little harder on Kakashi's legs, just in case Kakashi tried to take advantage of the distraction. The hawk was circling overhead. It could be looking for any of a number of teams in this sector of training fields, even at this obscene hour, but—
It folded its wings, and dropped.
Raidou threw his arm up to the stooping hawk. He must have pulled a towel out of his kit bag, because his bare arm was swathed white and bulky, but he still winced when the hawk hit and its talons flexed into the makeshift wrapping. The hawk cocked its head to eye Raidou more carefully, then folded its wings placidly and held up one scroll-encumbered foot.
"Mission!" Katsuko yelped. She seized the top of Kakashi's dust-ruffled head, planted a kiss on the ridiculous spikes of his hair, and then wriggled free and ran for the edge of the field.
"You deserved that, too," Ryouma said.
Kakashi'd been staring after Katsuko, a little wild-eyed, but his gaze flickered back at that. He dropped a pointed look at their tangled legs, before the grey gaze lifted to Ryouma's face. There was the edge of a drawl in his voice. "This is getting to be a habit."
"What, sitting on you? You're the one who kept trying to get me on my back this morning." Or, more frequently, on his face. Ryouma wiped the back of his wrist across his sweaty brow, which probably only distributed the mud more evenly. At least his nose had stopped bleeding. "You're not still pissed about the other night, are you? 'Cause that was—"
An ill-advised joke pushed too far, that was all. Things were complicated enough with Raidou already; they really didn't need to get any more complicated with Kakashi. He'd gotten points out of it, anyway, in Kakashi's bizarre scoring system, though after this morning he was probably back down to negative fifty. Plus bruises.
He pulled himself free, and stooped with an ache of bruised back muscles to offer Kakashi a hand. "Let's go see what the captain's got for us."
“If it’s another demon queen, he can keep it,” Kakashi said.
He looked at Ryouma’s hand.
After a moment, Ryouma’s fingers twitched, curling into his palm. He began to pull away. Kakashi reached out and grabbed his wrist. Ryouma’s hand closed reflexively around Kakashi’s wrist, lock-grip, and he hauled Kakashi to his feet in a casual shift of muscle. And then winced, letting go.
Kakashi’s mouth curled behind his mask. “You deserve that,” he echoed.
“Ten points for you, minus ten for me, and we’re even?” Ryouma’s voice was light, but there was something just faintly hopeful under the mud and bruises.
Ryouma hadn’t even remembered the other night until just now, or at least thought it anything important. But Kakashi had seen that little oh of realization—backed, presumably, by the understanding that Ryouma was bleeding for a reason, not just Kakashi’s random whim.
What had he thought Kakashi was hitting him for?
“We’re not even,” Kakashi said. Ryouma’s mouth tilted down, and Kakashi added, “You needed Ueno’s help to pin me. You still have work to do.”
He stepped around Ryouma, shoving his hands into his pockets, and made for the fence.
“Next time,” Ryouma said cheerfully, stretching his long-legged stride to catch up. He absently scrubbed the back of his hand across his bloody upper lip.
At the fence, the captain was reading an unfurled message while Katsuko jigged from foot to foot and Genma watched. The hawk still balanced on Raidou’s arm, preening gleaming brown feathers with a killer’s beak. Raidou frowned.
“Mission?” Genma prompted quietly, when Raidou didn’t say anything.
“Meeting,” Raidou said. A small flame burst across his palm, incinerating the message. He tossed the hawk back into the air—apparently a return message wasn’t needed—and stuffed the ripped, arm-protecting towel back into his kit bag. “Can you take over?”
Genma barely blinked. He nodded once, light brown eyes lifting to track the soaring flight of the vanishing hawk—already nearly invisible in the hazy dawn light. “Assessments and some light training?”
“You could do something moderate to Hatake, since he’s so raring to go,” Raidou said, tossing a brief, sharp look in Kakashi’s direction. Kakashi met it blandly. “Focus on assessments—I want to know what’s still healing, what needs work. Tousaki, no jutsu yet, I know the medics haven’t signed you off. Ueno, baby that collarbone. Hatake…”
Kakashi lifted an eyebrow.
“Be pleasant,” Raidou said at last. “And no one break the lieutenant.”
He clapped Genma once on the shoulder and vanished in a swirl of morning dew and rippling chakra. Translocation.
Urgent meeting, then.
Minato’s list of traitors must have come through, which meant there were S-ranks on the horizon. Katsuko would get her wish; Team Six would see blood soon.
Kakashi rolled his shoulders, controlling the shiver of eagerness. This first.
“Lieutenant?” he said.
Genma surveyed his team, mentally ticking over the injuries they’d come limping home with. Katsuko’s major issue was her demon-bitten shoulder and snapped right clavicle, so range of motion, strength, and flexibility in her shoulders would be a good place to start.
Ryouma’s big ticket injury had been chakra drain. When Genma’d seen him two days ago Ryouma’d estimated he was back to 75%, so he was probably close to fully recovered today, but he’d need a sign-off from the ANBU medic before he could return to full duty. For now, Genma decided, they could work Ryouma’s legs—his right thigh had taken a deepish wound from one of the demon’s claws, and his left knee was unstable from an old injury. So some quads work and maybe balance assessment for him.
For Kakashi—there wasn’t a lot. He’d mostly come home with bruises and scrapes, a thin-stretched chakra reserve, and the one bite to his right arm. With his arms bare and gloveless in basic ANBU blacks, there was barely any sign of the healing bite wound—it was already a pink memory well hidden under this morning's scuffs and fresh bruises.
Katsuko looked up expectantly, vibrating a little like she was just waiting for Genma to unclip the leash. Ryouma stretched out his shoulders, flexing and cracking his knuckles as if he hadn’t just spent the last fifteen minutes working his limbs loose against Kakashi’s aggression. Even Kakashi looked impatient instead of bored.
“Assessments first,” Genma said. “Before we start, anyone having headaches, balance issues, or other fallout from head injury?” He wasn’t expecting any yesses, since they’d all seen the medics at least once since their return, but at least two of them had taken black-out blows on the mission. He had to ask.
Kakashi shook his head once, dismissing the very idea he could have any post-concussion issues, while Katsuko gave Genma a cheerful double thumbs up.
“No headaches for the last couple days,” said Ryouma, rubbing absently at the back of his head. “And I haven't had balance problems since the second day on the boat."
“Good,” Genma said. “In that case, Tousaki, squats. Stop if it’s painful and let me know. Ueno, I want to check your shoulder range of motion and strength.” He spread his own arms wide in imitation of the exercise he wanted from her. “Hatake, since you’re so full of energy, sprints while I work with these two.”
“Sprints are too easy,” Katsuko complained. “Make him run on his hands instead.”
“Wouldn’t that be better training for your shoulder?” Kakashi asked her.
Genma looked at him mildly. “That’s right, you had shoulder injuries, too. You can do some hand laps if the sprints are too dull.”
“If you make her think she’s right, lieutenant, she’s never going to stop,” Kakashi muttered as he moved off. “Enjoy your squats,” he added as he passed Ryouma.
Ryouma rewarded him with a sour nose-crinkle as he got into position to start his squats. His eyes followed Kakashi, who was already speeding a blurry line between the fences at either end of the training field.
“I’m pretty sure you’ll keep it up whether I encourage you or discourage you,” Genma told Katsuko. “But he did kind of have that coming.”
“You are my favorite lieutenant,” Katsuko said, dead serious. “Also, why is Kakashi actually talking to us instead of silently judging our life choices?”
“I’m just a lieutenant, it’s probably above my pay grade,” Genma told her.
She gave him a suspicious look, but let the subject drop.
He took the senbon out of his mouth and used it to pin the ends of his ponytail up in a loose knot at the back of his head, then held his palms up flat towards her at her shoulder height. “Hands against mine, arms straight, push as hard and as evenly as you can.”
He spared a glance at Ryouma while she got in position. He was alternating regular squats with far more energetic squat-thrusts and jump-squats.
“Squats means squats, Tousaki,” Genma called. “I’m trying to not blow out your bad knee, and I know you have some scarring on that right thigh that needs limbering up.”
Ryouma heaved an adolescent sigh. ”Boring.” But he obeyed, dropping into a rhythm of deep-kneed squats, slow and steady like he was performing katas.
And that was just a little new. It might have been a complaining obedience, but it hadn’t been a questioned one. Up until now, every order Genma’d given Ryouma had been obeyed with a flicker of hesitation, a confirming glance at Raidou, or a good deal of attitude.
He should take the rookies out for one-on-ones more often. Katsuko, too, probably. She’d centered herself and was pushing against him with perfect form, almost equally strong on both sides, but he could feel a subtle tremor on his left—her right. “You’re doing great. Any pain?” he asked her.
“A little twinging in my right shoulder,” she answered. “Less than yesterday, though.”
He nodded. “Okay, you can drop it. Turn with your back to me, arms above your head?” She complied, letting him test her for power and range of motion on first one side, then the other. “I can still feel a little clicking on the right,” he said. “You’re a righty for your long blade?”
“No, my kodachi,” she corrected.
“You probably could do with another session with the medic on that side, and maybe some physio. I think there’s a little fluid in the joint.”
She grunted an acknowledgment and stepped away, pirouetting to face him.
“Any other issues you notice?” Genma asked her. “You know your body best. If your stamina’s good and you’re not having any particular pain anywhere, I’d say you can resume whatever training feels good.”
“Oh, good,” Katsuko said, brightening visibly. “I was getting bored doing things the easy way.”
Undoubtedly, Genma thought. How big a mistake had he just made? “That doesn’t mean you have license to injure yourself. Or your teammates,” he added, when she glanced Kakashi’s way.
Kakashi was still lapping between the fence posts, and looking like he’d never tire. “You can go race him if you want, though. He looks like he could use some motivation.”
“You're not trying to get me out of the way so you can torture Ryouma, are you?” Katsuko asked. “I take protecting my teammates very seriously.”
“I know you do,” Genma told her quietly. “Limber up, get the kinks out, and you might try some targeted fire jutsu, since I know your rehab is supposed to include small jutsu practice.”
Katsuko nodded, expression a steely mix of mission-readiness and calculating subterfuge, and jogged out towards the center of the field. A pair of blue-edged balls of flame leapt up from her palms, floating like were-lights in the mist. At the last minute, she veered towards Kakashi.
His only defensive reaction was to flip into a handstand and resume his laps—on his hands.
Well. They were sorted for the moment.
Genma turned his attention to Ryouma, whose squats had turned into a kind of moving meditation. Ryouma’s eyes were closed, his breathing steady, and his rhythm impeccable as he dipped and rose, dipped and rose.
“How’s the knee?” Genma asked.
“Steady enough,” Ryouma said without opening his eyes. He went smoothly into another dip. “It was stiff this morning, but it's limbered up.” As he completed the last rise, he opened his eyes and looked up at Genma. “Thigh aches a little, but it won't be a problem.” He was wearing a sweat- and grass-stained t-shirt, and his bare arms were littered with fresh bruises already darkening. His split lip was swelling, too.
“I’m guessing this morning’s spar hasn’t done you any favors,” Genma said. “Hang on, I’ll make a bench.” He worked a simple earth jutsu, forming a two meter long segment of clay-rich orange soil into a low, hip-height ridge. A twist of shaped chakra sheared the top of the ridge flat. “Hop up,” he said. “What hurts besides your thigh, that shiner, and your pride?”
There was a hint of stiffness marring Ryouma’s grace as he hoisted himself onto the bench with a stifled grunt. “You want more specific than 'everything,' I'm guessing,” he said. He reached up to prod gingerly at his blackened eye, feeling for the margin of the bruise. “Katsuko stamped on my fingers, but they're not broken. And I'm pretty sure I've got prints from her knees on my back and Kakashi's hands on my throat.”
Genma nodded, peering at Ryouma’s faintly bruised throat, then reaching for Ryouma’s hand to inspect the stomped-upon fingers. “Did you do something special to earn his wrath, or was he just feeling surly this morning?”
Ryouma’s gaze slid sideways, coming to rest at Genma’s left shoulder. “Made a pass at him,” he said, voice so low Genma had to lean in to hear it. “I was joking, but I don't think he realized it.” He paused. “Mostly joking.”
That sounded like a genuine confession, which meant this morning was just blooming with unusual developments. Ryouma flirted the way Katsuko teased and Raidou was punctual, but Kakashi’d been used to that within three days of Team Six’s forming. This was definitely something else.
“So you were a little more—” Genma groped for the right word. “—direct than your usual sort of teasing?”
“That's a good way of putting it,” Ryouma said vaguely. He gave himself a rough shake, then lifted his chin to meet Genma's eyes. “I didn't assault him or anything,” he said, suddenly intense. “I— I mean, I touched him, but it wasn't—” His voice faltered. “I wouldn't. I just offered.”
“I assume he said no,” Genma said. Coercion between ninja of equal skill—which for all intents and purposes Kakashi and Ryouma were—was a tricky thing, and usually ended up with broken bones at best, if someone’s ‘no’ wasn’t respected. “I don’t think you’d overstep a clear boundary.” And there was Raidou’s favorite word.
Raidou, who had some fairly complicated boundaries, where Ryouma was concerned.
And there was Ryouma looking like he was afraid of what Genma was thinking.
“I know you’re no rapist,” Genma said. And hoped it was true. Was pretty sure it was true. “But all kidding about attempting to bed every eligible person in ANBU aside—”
Fuck. What was he supposed to say? He had joked with Ryouma about Ryouma’s goal of sleeping with every non-officer in ANBU, hadn’t he? Boundaries boundaries boundaries. He was getting it tattooed.
“What happened after he said no?”
Ryouma’s gaze drifted back to Genma’s shoulder, like there was some kind of refuge there. His shoulders and the back of his neck were a mass of fresh tension. “He translocated to the other side of the room,” he said slowly, “and told me he didn't sleep with teammates.”
“I— didn't quite laugh at him,” Ryouma went on. “It was a joke, we'd been joking.” His voice rose, pleading with Genma to understand. “I didn't even think about it until this morning. I didn't know he was that pissed off. He didn't seem that mad when he left my room.”
That seemed clear enough. “Alright.” Genma braced Ryouma’s shoulders with his hands, stooping slightly to put his face level with the other man’s. “I think I’ve got the picture.” Ryouma met his eyes, brows knitted in distress.
“You made him an offer,” Genma said. “He said no. You thought nothing more about it because you’re— you’re comfortable with that kind of interaction. He’s not, and he wanted to make sure you understood exactly how definite his ‘no’ was, so he beat you into the ground this morning.”
And someone else the night before last. Genma wondered if whomever Kakashi’d sparred with had had even an inkling about what was really going on. It certainly put that previous evening’s whole conversation with Kakashi about his teammates in a different light.
“When did you— When did this happen?”
“The day we got back from the mission. Day before yesterday.” Ryouma took a deep breath and sighed it out, leaning back. “There was a whole tangle with the Hokage's son—” He broke off as Genma’s eyebrows flicked up, evidently unwilling to go into the details. “We were just talking in my room,” he said, sounding just a little defensive. “The kid was there asleep. I wouldn't have seduced him anyway...” A doubtful lift crept into his voice.
Best to just ignore the doubt, Genma decided. And pray that if it ever did come to it, Kakashi and Ryouma would both have better judgment than to go at it with the Yondaime’s three-year-old as an audience.
From across the field there was a ‘whumph!’ as Katsuko ignited a hackberry bush and Kakashi extinguished the blaze with a localized deluge in the shape of a dragon.
“So from what I can see, Hatake’s moving past it,” Genma said, turning his attention back to Ryouma. “Can you?”
Ryouma pulled his legs up on the ledge and wrapped his arms around them. His words were stiff and muffled by his knees. “I did already. I mean, I didn't think anything about it until I— had to think about it.” Dark eyes glanced up at Genma from under a sweat-damp fall of hair. "You get it, though, right? I wasn't— It's only 'cause it was him.” He lifted one hand in a frustrated gesture, then he tucked back down into his knees, cheeks and ears tinged an embarrassed pink. “And he beat me up, so it's fine."
Genma wasn’t sure he totally got it, but he got enough, he guessed. He sat down on the earthen bench and nudged Ryouma over with his thigh. “You remember the other day when I was saying I thought dating from Intel was a better plan than going for other ANBU? And really, we’re talking about a guy who’s practically the Hokage’s kid. Or foster kid. And also probably the most repressed guy in Konoha outside of the monks at the temple. Who aren’t actually all that repressed once you get to know them.” He slung an arm around Ryouma’s shoulder and gave it a pat. “You don’t have to make everything so hard for yourself all the time.” Like setting your sights on the hardest target in the village outside of Minato-sama himself.
Ryouma groaned quietly, and didn’t lift his head. “I wasn't really trying to go for him. I don't think. I don't even remember.” He stayed folded up for another moment, then sighed and stretched, straightening his legs as his mood lifted. “I don't think I could be a monk. My vows of celibacy'd last about two weeks.”
“Two whole weeks?” Genma asked. “You have more willpower than I was giving you credit for. You know they’re not supposed to jerk it either, right?” He faked a dodge and got to his feet. “OK, shall we do what I promised the Captain and evaluate your healing? Lie on your back with your left knee bent, and your right leg straight, then raise your right leg off the table a little and don’t let me push down.”
He waited until Ryouma was in position, actively resisting Genma’s push. “Here’s what you need to do,” he said, looking Ryouma in the eye. “When we’re done here, find a moment and apologize to Hatake. Just a simple, ‘sorry for being a dick’ and nothing more. Then drop it. And never cross that line again. Can you make that work?”
"But he—" Ryouma began, and then clamped his jaw tight on it. Genma's hazel eyes were steady beneath their heavy lids, his brows a little raised, and Ryouma—
Wanted to be able to meet that level gaze, without flinching or glancing away.
"I can do it," he said quietly. "Even the apology." His pride was already bruised; another laceration wouldn't make much difference.
Never crossing the line again would be far harder. But Genma was right about Kakashi's comfort level, though Ryouma hadn't seen it till now. Maybe Kakashi'd hidden it too well, beneath jibes and mask. Maybe Ryouma just hadn't bothered to look. But Kakashi'd given him a No that first time they'd met, on the rainy sidelines of the first ANBU Trial, and Ryouma should've remembered.
"Good," Genma said, with a rare, warming smile. He tapped Ryouma's bent left knee. Ryouma straightened that leg obediently, bending the right up to his chest instead. The healing muscle in his thigh ached in mild protest, no worse than any of his newer bruises. Genma's long, raw-jointed fingers palpated carefully around Ryouma's kneecap. "How's this doing? Any swelling?"
And just like that, they'd moved on.
"Not this morning," Ryouma said. "Just stiff, but not enough to limp on." He tipped his head back against the chakra-dried clay of Genma's bench. The mist had begun to clear, but the sky was still ominously grey. "It'll rain later."
Genma grimaced faintly in sympathy. His hands warmed, even through the worn-thin fabric of Ryouma's training pants; chakra tingled through the joint. "I'm no Hyuuga," he said, head tilted as if he was listening for an echo, "but have you thought about getting this worked on? Predicting the weather in your joints is something you're not supposed to be doing until you're at least thirty."
"It's never really been that bad," Ryouma said, watching tree branches toss against the clouds in a rising breeze. "Medic looked at me once, but it'd halfway healed on its own by then, and it was wartime, y'know. One kid with a bum knee wasn't much..."
He'd been lucky to get any medical attention at all, then. His first time in Konoha's hospital, and there'd been patients in beds in the halls, women missing limbs, men with their faces burned off. Iwa was on the offensive, and Konoha had suffered a devastating blow at Seirin Bridge. Ten minutes of a harried medic's time was all they could spare for him, and if he could walk without limping afterward, that was good enough, wasn't it? A little weakness or swelling on a rainy morning or after a bad mission wasn't incapacitating. He still had the knee, after all.
"I've got a brace to use on missions," he volunteered. "I could, y'know, actually start wearing it."
Genma's brows lifted again, drier than summer in Suna. "That could, y'know, actually be smart." He flexed Ryouma's knee back, then torqued it gently left and right. "I'm guessing the captain will be coming back with a mission for us, but if there's time you should get this evaluated and treated. You might have been an unimpressive kid back then, but you're part of Konoha's elite defense now."
ANBU probably did rank higher on the medical priority lists than barefoot, orphaned refugees. On the other hand, surgery was always a threat, and it wasn't truly bad now… "Hm," Ryouma said. "I'll look into it."
Genma shrugged. "I'll be making a note in my evaluation for Toushirou-sensei."
Ryouma hadn't yet had the misfortune of tangling with ANBU's resident medic, but he'd heard enough stories to be wary. "I'll look into it hard," he said.
"Smart man," Genma murmured. He pulled a slender steel senbon out of his low ponytail and bit down on the sharpened tip. He'd somehow mastered the art of talking around it, in the same way a smoker might carry on his conversation without ever losing the cigarette dangling from his lip. Ryouma watched in covert fascination. "You know you have to get a sign-off from Toushirou-sensei or one of the hospital docs before you're back on active status, right? As a field medic I can sign a shinobi off as unfit for duty, but it takes a full medic to reverse that." Genma's mouth tilted around the senbon in wry apology. "In case you're wondering, we're all currently unfit except for Hatake. Standard practice following a mission with serious injuries."
Kakashi had come off that mission in better shape than the rest of them, hadn't he? Almost uninjured, apart from his raw shoulders and a few shallow cuts; chakra-thin and tired, but not scraped empty like Ryouma. He'd certainly been more energetic this morning. Was that the difference between a genius prodigy, Hokage-trained, and the mere elite? Plus social weirdness, of course...
One fit, out of five. Ryouma grunted. "So say taichou comes back with a mission, and we've got two hours before we leave. How do we go about getting recertified in a hurry? I don't even have my new gear yet."
Genma beckoned for him to sit up. "The mission office knows our current status," he said. "If we're getting assigned out, we'll get top priority with Toushirou-sensei or another medic. And the QM's office will get the note we're being sent out. They'll rush order any equipment, or in worst case, give you a loaner." He cast a critical eye over Ryouma's visible bruises. "Shirt off."
Ryouma hauled the tee-shirt over his head and tried not to shiver in the thin wind. Genma's senbon clicked against his teeth as he chewed it absently. He circled the earthen bench, until his gaze prickled on Ryouma's spine. Then his fingers, gentle, skimmed over the margins of the aching muscles where Katsuko's knees had driven into his back, just below his shoulder blades and the blackwork tattoo. "This is why I won't spar with her out of armor."
"I think she wears spikes on her kneecaps," Ryouma said. He tried to twist his neck to glance back, but he could see only the curve of his shoulder and a lick of black ink. Genma's searching fingers found a more sensitive spot further from his spine; Ryouma hissed, and faced forward again, shoulders bowed. "That's what hurt when I pulled Kakashi up."
"I'm almost entirely sure I said I wasn't going to fix it if you broke each other," Genma said. But his chakra was sinking in, soft and warm as deerskin tanned buttery smooth, and the ache from the pressure of his fingers began to smear away.
Ryouma bent his neck and let his shoulders loosen. "You're my favorite lieutenant, too," he said.
"I'm your only lieutenant," Genma said evenly. If he was pleased, Ryouma couldn't hear it.
"Good thing you're a good one then, right?" Ryouma arched his back into the warm, chakra-tingling touch. He said half at random, "Hakone—that's Shibata Hakone, Team Nineteen's rookie—isn't very fond of his yet. I don't think he thinks his lieutenant's very bright." Of course, by Hakone's standards, you probably didn't qualify for 'bright' unless you did math in your head for fun. Fortunately he was less critical of his friends. Kakashi could stand to learn from him about being the smartest person in the room without insulting everyone else about it…
Genma's hands eased slowly down Ryouma's back, following the contour of the aching muscle. Pain soothed away at his touch. "Nineteen… That's Ushio. He's alright. Not a big reader, but if you want a building cased for an infiltration or a target staked out or tailed, he's your man. He's very… focused."
And Team Six's lieutenant, Ryouma suspected, was very diplomatic. "If 'focused' is the best you can come up with, no wonder it only took Hakone two beers to start complaining."
A soft huff of breath betrayed Genma's stifled laugh. "Oh? Is Hakone usually more reserved than that? I guess he gets that from his father."
Of course all of ANBU knew that Team Nineteen's rookie was the T&I commander's son. It was only Hakone's friends who hadn't known, for the two years they'd been drinking buddies and occasional mission partners. Ryouma scrunched his tee-shirt in his hands. "I don't know his dad so well. Met him once when I turned a prisoner over and then failed to impress him at the Trials. Hakone never talked about his family." It was one of the few things they had in common.
"Like father, like son," Genma said wryly. "There were more than a few people who had no idea Shibata-san even had an ANBU-age son when this year's candidates were announced." The chakra warmth seeped out of Ryouma's flesh, and Genma's callused fingers drew away. "Okay, that's it. I should have just made you go to Toushirou-sensei like I said I would, but it turns out I'm a soft touch."
Ryouma bit his tongue on a very unwise comment about touching. If he wasn't going to cross the line with Kakashi again, even verbally, he definitely wasn't going to cross it with the lieutenant. He wasn't going to lean back into Genma's hands, either, no matter how good he suspected an actual backrub would be.
Too many uncrossable boundaries on this team. Dammit, why had he wasted last night drinking with two straight guys instead of getting laid?
He wrestled into his shirt, which helped a little. "Doesn't hurt to lift my arm anymore. Thanks."
"Good." Genma did sound pleased this time, almost smug. "I'll teach you that jutsu when we start working on stuff. It's great for strains and tightness."
He still meant it. For real, even now. Even after—
Ryouma had to press his hands to his thighs to stop them shaking. "When are we going to start? Have you asked taichou yet?"
Genma moved around to the front of the bench, propped a heel on it, and bent over his leg, stretching out his hamstring. At the full fold of his stretch he grimaced and pressed a hand to his belly, but he held for the count. "Haven't had a chance to talk to him about it yet," he said, the sandy voice only a little strained. "But I'm sure he'll be fine with it as long as it doesn't interfere with training or missions. I figure we can have practice sessions whenever we have downtime, but I can show you stuff on missions, too." He paused, as he switched legs and bent over again. "I guess I should have been talking you through what I was doing while I was working on you."
"Next time," Ryouma said. "There'll probably be one soon." He curled his fingertips in toward his palms. "Guess I'll have to survive this mission in better shape than the last, though, if I'm gonna be fit to practice."
To learn to heal. To save his teammates' lives, instead of just avenging them. Genma hadn't forgotten, and he hadn't been joking.
"Eh." Genma shrugged one shoulder up, then dropped his heel from the bench and straightened, with his hand still pressed to his belly. "It was a rough mission. But I'm not going to complain if you can keep yourself from getting quite so messed up next time we go out."
"I'll try to keep at least ten percent of my chakra in reserve," Ryouma said. "And avoid drowning."
Shit, he really had made a mess of himself on their last mission, hadn't he? While Genma fought demons in the forest and in the mountain, and healed himself and the poor rescued villagers and every damn member of the team...
And sure, Ryouma'd killed the queen, but he'd nearly flatlined himself doing it. Fat lot of good he'd been to his teammates for three days after that, too.
Genma's native chakra capacity wasn't any greater than Ryouma's. Was his control that much finer?
"Forty percent," Genma countered. "And definitely no drowning. No bleeding out either, while we're at it." He rubbed his new scar once more, with feeling, then dropped his hand and met Ryouma's eyes with that level, penetrating gaze. "You're not really dropping yourself to less than ten percent reserves on normal missions, are you?"
Ryouma shook his head. "My jutsu are chakra-intensive, but not that much. I've never had to be carried off the field before. Well— Not when I wasn't critically injured. I wiped myself out killing the queen 'cause I didn't see any other way. Thought I was dead anyway. Hell of a shock when the taichou pulled me out." He pushed himself off the bench, jittery, and paced a few steps. "How much d'you have to save to be worth anything as a medic, afterwards? Will forty percent really do it?"
Genma was silent for a moment. "Forty percent is optimal," he said at last. "More if your comrades are badly hurt." He looked out onto the field, where Katsuko was still apparently trying to burn down every shrub or bush before Kakashi could move enough water to put the fire out. They were both streaked with soot and smoke, and patches of mud were steaming. Katsuko yelled something and threw herself into a series of three backflips, apparently just for the hell of it.
Genma said, watching them, "I thought I was a dead man on that mission, too. In her lair." His shoulders were tight; Ryouma couldn't see his face. "I get it. I didn't exactly play it safe running that fever jutsu so high, trying to burn out the poison."
Ryouma remembered that raging fever, the shimmering heat-haze rolling off the lieutenant. Hot enough to warm even Ryouma's chakra-starved muscles. Hot enough to damage Genma's kidneys and liver as it burned the demons' poison out of them.
He cleared his throat roughly, then spun around and kicked the clay bench. Dried dirt showered down. "Well, fuck her. She's dead and it hurt like hell. And we won. So there." He shoved his hands in his pockets and lifted his head defiantly. "Want to go throw Kakashi in a mud puddle? I'll apologize afterward."
Kakashi was starting to think Katsuko had a vendetta against plantlife.
Or she just liked setting things on fire.
A boxwood shrub incinerated with a whumph of blue-licked flame. Katsuko laughed and somersaulted down the length of the field with easy handsprings, as if there wasn’t a recent crack in her collarbone. When she reached the fence, she vaulted with gymnastic ease, spinning twice in the air, and came down on her hands.
Upside down, she grinned like a carved pumpkin. “Beat that!”
Kakashi sighed. “Seriously?”
“Hey, if you can’t do it…”
The boxwood was almost burned out. Kakashi stamped on the last sparks, dropped onto his hands, and flipped himself backwards down the field. There wasn’t anything complicated in a series of rhythmic handsprings, even across uneven ground. When he reached Katsuko, he launched up into a double layout, twisted, and came down on one hand.
“Happy?” he asked, but the space where Katsuko had been was empty.
She landed on his upturned feet a half-second later, perching like a bird. “Y’know, it’s really easy to get you to do stuff.”
“And it’s impossible to make you stop,” he said, vaguely ruffled. Did it count as being manipulated if you knew the other person was doing it, and you made a conscious decision to comply anyway in the hopes of shutting them up?
“Don’t be like that, sugarplum,” Katsuko said, wheedling. Then, like a switch, she flicked to serious. “After this mission, we’re gonna have our first lesson. We need to get you some practice swords.”
“It’s the master’s job to make sure the student is properly outfitted,” Kakashi said, ignoring sugarplum. It had been more than three weeks, but eventually she was going to get bored of pet names. At least she’d remembered her promise to teach him the Hyoho Niten. He’d worried that their agreement might have melted in the morning sunlight, forgotten in all the shades of Katsuko’s distractions, but apparently not. She’d even brought it up before he could. He bent his supporting elbow, dipping down into a one-handed push-up. Katsuko balanced easily, barely swaying—and yelped when Kakashi twisted, lashing up to grab her ankle, and hurled her.
She hit the ground twenty feet away, rebounding with rubber ball ease, and handsprung down to the opposite fence, casually setting three shrubs on fire as she went.
This time when she landed on her hands, Kakashi landed on her feet. Fire hissed as he doused it with an absent-minded jutsu, leaving charred plantlife to steam.
“Copy-cat,” Katsuko said, and laughed at her own joke.
Kakashi shrugged, settling down into a comfortable crouch. He outweighed Katsuko by at least twenty pounds, but she was rock-steady beneath him. “It’s a theme.”
Katsuko snorted and folded one arm behind her back, balancing on her other hand. The uninjured one, Kakashi noted. “Have you and Ryouma made up?” she asked. “Or is tree-flinging a male bonding ritual?”
“I’d be perfectly happy to fling you into a tree,” Kakashi said.
“Whoa there, buddy,” Katsuko said. “That’s a level of commitment this relationship isn’t ready for yet.”
Buddy was a lot better than sugarplum. Apparently the trick was to threaten bodily harm.
Why hadn’t he done that weeks ago?
“I think we’re ready for violent shrubbery,” Kakashi said, and surveyed the smoking ground. “Not that there’s much left.”
Dirt rose in a cloud to the right as Ryouma kicked the bench Genma had made for him. Kakashi arched an eyebrow, but returned his attention to Katsuko when she shifted beneath him.
“It’ll grow back,” she said comfortably, still on the shrubbery—and then tangled their feet together with an ankle-lock and a swift lick of chakra, tucking into a somersault that yanked Kakashi with it.
They rolled across the ground in a semi-graceful tangle of limbs and thwarted gymnastics, Kakashi fighting to get free and Katsuko just fighting for the hell of it. Genma’s chakra glimmered close by, sudden and distracting. Katsuko pulled back, reflexively responding to the lieutenant.
Which was when Ryouma tackled Kakashi from behind, driving all three of them—but mostly Kakashi—into a churned up channel of soggy mud.
“Whoa,” Katsuko said dizzily, after they’d skidded to a halt. “Did the earth move for you, too?”
Kakashi lifted his face out of a puddle, coughing water and shaking mud out of his hair. Ryouma was sprawled across his back, laughing. Katsuko was tangled with both of them, one sharp elbow firmly planted in Kakashi’s ribs. At a safe distance, the lieutenant watched them blandly, like he hadn’t provided a distraction and set Ryouma on them like a wrecking ball.
“I hate you all,” Kakashi croaked, winded. He twisted free of Katsuko and kicked Ryouma off. “Also, that was not what I meant when I said you needed work, Tousaki. You weren’t supposed to recruit more people.”
Ryouma rolled to his feet, moving a little more fluidly than he had before. “Yeah, but the lieutenant didn’t help. He just distracted. That’s progress, right?” He offered Kakashi his hand again. “That was some pretty impressive water jutsu. Pulling it out of the mist?”
Be pleasant, the captain had said.
Kakashi’s eye narrowed, chakra shivering down through his arms. Katsuko made a faint noise and began to scramble. Ryouma’s hand froze mid-air. Kakashi twitched his shoulders.
The puddle exploded, unformed chakra flinging mud and water out in a brown kaleidoscope of vengeance. It caught Ryouma directly in the face and splattered Katsuko all over, laying new strata over her already battered jounin blues. The deluge stopped about six inches away from Genma’s feet. Ryouma blinked, eyes wide and startled behind a mud-mask. Dirty water dripped off his still-extended hand.
Kakashi got to his feet and brushed himself down. “It’s mostly ground-water,” he said. “Glad you like.”
Katsuko spluttered and collapsed onto her back, raising her hands in defeat. Ryouma finally unfroze, pulling his rejected hand back to wipe the mud out of his eyes. Since his hand was as filthy as the rest of him, he mostly succeeded in smearing things around. “Yeah,” he said. “I can taste the ground now.”
Kakashi snorted, but awarded Ryouma a grudging mental point for composure.
“I am the ground,” Katsuko said, staring up at the sky like it might hold the answers for her pain. Muddy water dripped out of her hair. “I liked this uniform.”
“Then stop antagonizing people while you wear it,” Kakashi said, and offered a hand down to her at the exact same time Ryouma did.
Ryouma blinked, Kakashi paused, and Katsuko grabbed both of them, letting them haul her up. “Then I’d never be able to wear it,” she complained.
“Then you—” Ryouma said, and clamped his mouth shut.
“Naked is not an option,” Kakashi said, finishing Ryouma’s patently obvious train of thought.
“I didn’t say it,” Ryouma said, quietly victorious.
Katsuko gave Kakashi a swift glare, patted Ryouma once on the arm, and then paused. “I was going to say that at least you don’t throw mud typhoons at me,” she told Ryouma. “But you were the one who tackled us in the first place.”
Ryouma shrugged cheerfully, as if that could happen to anyone.
Genma cleared his throat quietly, making all three of them head-snap around to look at him. His light brown eyes weighed them, taking in the drenched clothes, mud-streaked faces, and working looseness of exercised muscles.
“Taichou will be so pleased you’re all starting to learn,” he said.
There was mud underneath her tongue. Katsuko grimaced and scrubbed her sleeve over her mouth, accomplishing absolutely nothing in the way of cleanliness. “Learn what?” she asked. “How to run up a laundry bill?”
Genma fixed her with the blandest of looks. “Restraint.”
Kakashi shook his head violently, like a dog coming in from a rainstorm. Mud splattered the side of Katsuko’s face. She didn’t bother moving out of the way. It wasn’t like her jounin blues could get any dirtier. Ryouma didn’t dodge the mud assault either, just peeled off his shirt, turned it inside out, and starting wiping off his face with it.
“There’s a silver lining to every cloud,” Katsuko mused absently, tilting her head.
Kakashi cut a sideways glance at Ryouma. “Really?”
“Or maybe not so much learning,” Genma muttered, and raised his voice a little. “We’re going for a run and a swim. Last one of you three in the river at Sarusawa Point gets to log all the training reports this week.”
Ryouma had been making a face at Kakashi around the shirt-scrubbing, but he lowered the shirt at that. “It’s May.”
Kakashi had already disappeared. Katsuko cursed and started to sprint.
Towering trees lined the river at Sarusawa Point, tangled roots forming a lattice that broke through the earthen bank and plunged into the river bed. Kakashi was waiting for them on the river’s surface, sitting cross-legged serenely atop the water. Mud still caked his hair and clothes, making him look like some sort of mystical unbathed vagrant.
Genma and Ryouma caught up with Katsuko just as she reached the broad circle of shade cast by low-hanging branches. Ryouma had dispensed with his shirt entirely somewhere along the way.
“Cheating!” Katsuko hollered at him. “No distracting the competition!”
“Just being a silver lining!” Ryouma yelled back.
The lieutenant’s chakra blinked an instant before he translocated, flickering to the river’s opposite bank. Genma stood there, absently holding his injured side as he watched Katsuko and Ryouma pelt towards the water.
Ryouma’s legs were longer, but Katsuko put on an extra burst of speed. They reached the bank’s edge at the same time and dove, plunging beneath the river’s surface with twin splashes.
Katsuko immediately regretted it. Cold hit her in the face like the broad side of a cutlass, shocking her into an underwater yelp. Bubbles streamed out of her mouth in a series of rounded exclamation points that accompanied her on her scramble back up towards air and sunlight.
Kakashi greeted her with a raised, muddy eyebrow when she finally surfaced. Katsuko spat out river water and let out an inelegant spluttering noise. Ryouma was making angry seal sounds a few feet away, shivering and scrubbing mud out of his dark hair as he treaded water with his legs.
“Eight out of ten,” Kakashi told Katsuko. “You bent a knee on the entry.” He glanced at Ryouma. “Six out of ten, mostly for sounding like you’re dying.”
Ryouma said bitterly, “It’s snowmelt. I might be.” He yelled to Genma, “You’ve got coffee and blankets waiting for when we get hypothermia, right?”
The lieutenant was already water-walking his way towards them. He looked Ryouma over with a medic’s critical gaze, ascertaining whether Ryouma was having a seizure or just extremely cold. After a moment, Genma nodded and said, “Well run. Hatake, you’re on logs for a week.”
Kakashi blinked. “What?”
Ryouma grinned, hypothermia forgotten for the moment. He shared a delighted glance with Katsuko.
“Logs,” Genma said, enunciating as he looked at Kakashi. “For a week.” He transferred his gaze over to Ryouma. “I’ve heard exercise can help keep you warm. Swimming is a good exercise.”
Katsuko let herself sink a little, so that her mouth was barely underwater, and snickered. It came out as a watery burble.
Ryouma glowered and ducked under. He surfaced a few seconds later, hair streaming water. “Better watch out, lieutenant. I hear there are kappa in this river. Grab you by the ankles and drag you down...”
Kakashi had spent this entire time frozen in outraged surprise, but now he finally snapped out of speechlessness. “Why?” he demanded.
Genma gave Ryouma an eyebrow flick of I’m sure you didn’t just actually threaten me and stepped out of range. “I said last one of you three in the river, not on it, Hatake.”
Kakashi looked down pointedly at his right hand, which had his fingertips trailing in the water, and back up at Genma.
Genma’s eyebrow inched higher in unimpressed skepticism. “Damp fingertips is not ‘in the river’ anymore than the scent of a bottle of shochu is a hangover. Swimming, kids. Bank to bank, across the current. Don’t let it push you off course, and let me know if anything hurts.”
Katsuko rolled onto her back, floating on the river’s surface like an otter, and started for the far bank at a leisurely backstroke. After the initial shock of hitting the water, her chakra had kicked in to keep her insulated from the freezing bite of the river. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Kakashi’s staredown with the lieutenant. She saw Kakashi’s jaw move, like he’d snapped his mouth shut behind his mask. He dropped into the river like it was an open trapdoor, uncoiling into a clean, economical, crisply annoyed swimming stroke.
“I need more body fat for this,” Ryouma muttered, and surged after Kakashi. His form was more powerful and rather less graceful. Katsuko spared a moment of regret that she wouldn’t be able to see his back muscles from her position, but then the rest of her attention was taken up by fighting against the current. She sped up, putting a little more force behind her kicks, and watched the sky float peacefully by.
Kakashi lapped her about a minute later. She made like a dolphin and spit a stream of water at him as he went by. Kakashi deflected with a brief whirlpool jutsu that almost drowned her. She spluttered in indignation and kicked free before it could pull her under.
“Try to take your aggression out on the water, not each other,” Genma called helpfully. “And angle up. Don’t let the river take you downstream.”
Ryouma was further upstream, ignoring them in favor of doing his laps. Katsuko reached the far bank and somersaulted in the water, kicking off of a broad tree root to arrow back into the rushing current. She broke the surface with a short gasp and struck out for the opposite shore, humming in contentment. When she passed by Genma she grinned and pursed her lips, sending a whale-fountain of water straight up into the air to show off.
Genma’s mouth twitched around his senbon as he stifled a smile. Light-brown eyes danced. “How’s the shoulder? Moving freely? Any pain?”
“Nah,” Katsuko said, and flipped onto her front to swim a slow circle around him. “Still a little twinging, but less than the beginning of practice. Shoulder injuries are the worst. You’re getting us hot tea after this as a reward for the surprise river-swimming, right?”
Genma lifted his chin to indicate the opposite bank. One of his bunshin was jogging back from the direction of town, two plastic bags in hand.
“You’re the best, lieutenant,” Katsuko said. “I like you more than taichou right now. Don’t tell him I said that.”
Genma let his smile show this time. “You’re just saying that because I feed you.” He stripped off his sweatshirt and t-shirt and tossed them across the water onto the bank. “Hatake, Tousaki, any issues with your injuries?”
Ryouma’s dark head crested the surface a few feet away. “Nope.” A few more strokes propelled him to the river bank he and Katsuko had first dove off of. He linked one muscled arm through a tangle of roots to avoid getting dragged downstream. “Back’s feeling good. Thanks, lieutenant.” He paused. “But I can’t feel my toes.”
Genma paused in the middle of pulling off a shoe and gave him a sharp, assessing look. “Try using a little chakra to increase blood flow to your feet.”
Ryouma rolled his eyes and huffed. Katsuko paddled over and propped herself up on a tree root beside him as Genma pulled his other shoe off, threw both shoes over onto the bank, and slipped into the water. “Want to try and drown Kakashi?” she asked. “That’ll warm your toes right up.”
Ryouma gave her a fierce, toothy grin. “Kappa in the water?” he asked, and then faltered. “Actually, I’m supposed to apologize to him.”
“So that was what this morning was about,” Katsuko said, and hooked her arm around a root. “It’s like you guys think you’re subtle, or something. So, what happened? Did you fight? Did he die? Did you die?”
Ryouma wrinkled his nose at her. “Are people generally immortal in the world you come from?”
“Now you’re just trying to distract me,” Katsuko said, letting her feet float. “What happened that’s so bad you two can’t even talk about it?”
Ryouma heaved a gusty sigh and tipped his head back against a root. “I did something stupid the other night and didn’t realize it bothered him. So he beat me up this morning for it.” He frowned across the river at the shock of white hair still swimming laps. “But the lieutenant thinks we need to talk our feelings out, so I have to tell him sorry I was a dick.”
There was a delicate pause. Katsuko raised both eyebrows and considered Kakashi and Ryouma’s exchange from that morning. “Did this ‘something’,” she asked, “involve personal space?”
Dark eyes cut towards her, startled. “How’d you—? Well, yeah.” Ryouma shrugged uncomfortably, the corner of his cheek tucking in as he bit on it. “I was joking and he didn’t realize it. You’d better not tell him you think his butt’s cute. He might break something getting away.”
The bride price tradition still applied in some parts of the world. How many goats would Ryouma have to offer to soothe Kakashi’s wounded honor? Katsuko idly kicked her feet and regarded Ryouma.
“Well,” she said. “You’ve already beaten yourself up plenty for this. I’m not gonna judge. Better get that apology over with quick, though. You don’t have enough livestock to pay for Kakashi’s hand in marriage.”
Ryouma stared at her for a very long time. Then he shook his head, scattering droplets. “You are the weirdest person I’ve ever liked.” Katsuko enjoyed the warm glow that gave her while he hoisted himself out of the river, channeling chakra until he could stand on the surface. He shivered, streaming water, while Katsuko floated peacefully on her back and grinned up at him. “Lieutenant! Are we done swimming? I need to talk to Kakashi.”
“Lieutenant!” Katsuko called. “How many goats can you buy on an ANBU’s budget?”
Across the river, Kakashi stopped dead to stare at them. Katsuko waved.
Genma popped out of the water like a judgmental seal and gave Ryouma and Katsuko a look. “Were you hoping to join Hatake in that filing? I’m sure he’d be glad of the company.” He glanced up at the sky, assessing the sun’s position. “Three more laps, then we can dry off and warm up, Tousaki can have his conversation, and Ueno can start her farm.”
“Ask Kakashi if he likes summer or winter weddings better,” Katsuko told Ryouma, and struck out for the opposite shore. She went freestyle this time, taking the opportunity to duck her face underwater while she contemplated Ryouma, Kakashi, personal space, and the vaguely unsettled feelings thinking about all three combined gave her.
"I'm never telling you anything again!" Ryouma yelled after her.
Her head was under water; she didn't hear. Genma's brows were rising, though, under his dripping hair. Ryouma gritted his teeth, reversed the chakra flow at the soles of his feet, and dropped into the water.
It was still bitterly cold, and his muscles had chilled while he talked with Katsuko. There'd better be hot coffee in those bags the lieutenant's bunshin was holding. Better yet, hot coffee and towels. He'd dry off, get a drink, get the apology over with, and…
Hope no one told the captain.
Damnit, why couldn't he keep his mouth shut around any of his team?
The opposite bank loomed up ahead of him, slippery mud rising up to rough grass and a few thirsty wildflowers. He tucked into the turn and angled back upstream. Seventy meters to the opposite bank, though it felt like more against the current. Two and a half laps to go…
A lean body flickered past, only half-seen in the murky brown water. It could be any of the other three, but Katsuko'd be heading east, the same way he was, and even underwater Kakashi's hair was startlingly light. Genma, then, who was either crazy enough to enjoy swimming in snowmelt, or just wanted to show his troops that he wouldn't order them to do anything he wouldn't do himself.
Probably both, Ryouma decided, and kicked off a root to launch himself back across the river again.
Two laps later, he pulled himself up onto the grass on the far back and lay there panting. The sun was still hiding behind clouds, and there was a cold wind coming off the river, but at least the grass wasn't as cold as the water. Kakashi was there already, sitting up with his back to a tree and a small sports towel draped over his wet head. Genma's bunshin bent to offer Ryouma another towel and a faintly sympathetic smile.
"Thanks," he croaked. He pushed himself up, scrubbed the towel over his hair, and then rubbed his torso down briskly enough to bring the blood to the skin. By the time he was half-dry and beginning to remember warmth, Katsuko had made her lazy way to the bank and pulled herself up. Genma was still making his way back across the river with a slow, labored stroke. The healing wound in his belly must be pulling at him.
Katsuko had immediately begun pestering the bunshin for cans of hot tea, in total disregard of the towel it was attempting to give her. Kakashi pushed his own towel off his head, down to his shoulders, and asked Ryouma, "What did you want to say?"
It'd be stupid to haul him off in private for an apology that would probably just be greeted with a flat stare. Katsuko knew the broad strokes, anyway, and Genma — and by extension, Genma's clone — knew the details. Ryouma chewed the inside of his cheek anyway.
Genma was approaching the bank, almost within earshot. Katsuko had her tea and was attempting to pry it open with her short fingernails, while the bunshin watched in amusement. They were both distracted for the moment, or at least pretending to be. And the fastest blow always hurt the least.
He said, "I'm sorry about the other night. I didn't think you'd be upset, but you were, and I shouldn't've even joked about it after you turned me down at the Trials anyway. I was a dick." Was that enough? Genma'd reached the bank, a little downstream, and Katsuko had her tea open. It'd have to be. He dropped the towel over his damp hair again and started rubbing.
Kakashi said nothing.
Well, Ryouma hadn't expected him to accept the apology with a weepy poem of gratitude, but — still. He glanced under the edge of his towel. Kakashi was staring at him after all, but it wasn't the flat, unfriendly glare Ryouma'd half-expected. The grey eye was wide with surprise, and the wet mask clung to the dimple of a half-open mouth. The biting tongue seemed, for once, to have lost its words.
Ryouma dropped his towel around his neck. "I—"
Chakra sizzled on the damp grass, and Raidou was there, sleek and dangerous in the black-and-bone, with the mask on the side of his head and his hair wildly ruffled from the translocation. Kakashi twitched violently sideways. Katsuko laughed, accidentally inhaled hot tea, and spluttered all over the clone.
"Here you are," Raidou said, dropping his hand from the translocation seal. "I thought I was going to need sign-posts to find you again."
Genma slithered up onto the bank and knelt on the muddy grass with a hand pressed to his belly and his chest heaving. "I left a clone for you," he said, between breaths. The long scar across his belly was just visible under his hand, bright red and still a little raised, though it looked better than when Ryouma'd last seen it in the Quartermaster's office. He must have been to the hospital for another healing session.
"Yes, 'We're at the river.' Very helpful," Raidou said dryly. "Do you know how long this river is?"
Genma ran a hand through his wet-sand hair, slicking it back. "It was supposed to tell you Sarusawa Point. Didn't it?"
"Not so much." Raidou stole the remaining towel from Genma's clone to drop on the actual Genma. He ran a sharp glance over the rest of them, taking in Katsuko's coughing recovery from her tea-fit, Kakashi's intent crouch, and Ryouma's...half-nakedness, Ryouma supposed. Well, the lieutenant was shirtless too, so it wasn't as if he was the only one. Raidou's mouth twitched. "Dry up fast. I've got news, but I want to break it on ANBU turf."
Kakashi straightened like a blade coming out of its sheath. Katsuko pounded a fist on her breastbone and caught her breath at last. No one needed to ask if it was a mission: the possibility of action thrummed in the air between them. Genma's clone dropped its plastic bag of canned tea on the ground and darted off to collect Genma's shirt and shoes.
Genma released his hair from its ponytail, gently squeezed most of the water out with the towel, and then draped the towel over his shoulders and flicked through a quick seal sequence. Steam boiled off his hair and trousers and left him barely damp. Ryouma squelched a foot in a clammy shoe and calculated his chances of getting off without a scolding if he tried the same jutsu. Not good. Genma hadn't objected to his water-walking earlier, but both captain and lieutenant had warned him against trying jutsu before he was medically cleared. As if he didn't know his own limits better than any medic…
Katsuko was steaming too, more gently, though he hadn't seen her perform any handseals. Kakashi'd simply yanked the water out of his hair and clothes and dumped it on the grass around him. Ryouma was still trying to figure out how he'd done that when he realized Genma was standing at his elbow, one chakra-shimmering hand ready to close on Ryouma's upper arm. "You want warming up?"
Ryouma twitched reflexively away. "No," he said shortly, and almost immediately regretted it. The lieutenant's eyebrows had come up again. He could feel the other three staring at him.
"I'm fine. It's not that cold." He still wasn't quite managing to keep the bite of resentment out of his voice. No wonder Genma felt comfortable treating him like a kid, if he was going to act like one. It was just —
The hand at his arm, so ready to grab without warning or permission. The needling reminder that he couldn't manage a simple drying jutsu by himself, wasn't allowed to do it.
But Genma'd warned, instead of just touching; hadn't grabbed, when Ryouma pulled away. He hadn't pushed the jutsu on Ryouma, either; he'd only offered. Ryouma exhaled slowly, through his nose, and stooped to retie his wet, straggling shoelaces. "Thanks anyway." He straightened, and tried to meet the lieutenant's eyes.
Genma shrugged and stepped back. His clone had returned, obediently bearing a slightly muddy sweatshirt and shoes. Genma slipped into the shoes and paused with the sweatshirt in his hands. "Time to get changed? Or shall we just come as we are?"
"As you are," Raidou said. "I want everyone in the office in two minutes or less. We're on the clock." His narrowed gaze prickled for an instant longer on Ryouma's face, and then he was gone in a swirl of leaves and chakra.
It'd taken them ten minutes to sprint from the training field to the river. Two minutes wasn't time enough for anything but a translocation to ANBU's front door and a mad rush through the halls. And even if Ryouma'd been cleared for jutsu use, he was shit at translocation, and Raidou knew it.
He bit his tongue on three separate swear words and looked up, finally, to find the one person he hadn't insulted today. "Katsuko, can you give me a ride-along?"
"Yeah, no problem," she said, gratifyingly quickly. She stepped up to loop her arm through his and set her hands together for the seals. "See you there, lieutenant," she said, and then winked at Kakashi. "And you, loverboy."
Chakra rose like a firestorm around them, and yanked them somewhere else.
Team Six showed up to the office in staggered intervals. Ryouma first, bloody-nosed and pale-faced, leaning on Katsuko’s narrow shoulder. Translocation still clearly didn’t agree with him. That was something to look into later, Raidou thought, when they had a scrap of spare time. Ryouma didn't need more reasons to face-plant on a battlefield, and losing his lunch from a sideways step through the universe wouldn't help him behind an ANBU mask, either.
Genma arrived next, panting lightly with one hand pressed to his bad side; a bag of steaming tea-cans swung from his other wrist. He was still faintly river-damp and rumpled, moving with a catch in his step. He sank down gratefully onto his usual chair. A moment later, the unhelpful training-field clone walked in and deposited the team’s various kit bags on the floor. It vanished with the quiet sound of disintegrating chakra.
Katsuko and Ryouma collapsed on the sofa, making the leather creak. Genma low-balled them a hot tea can each, and a handkerchief for Ryouma to staunch his nosebleed in.
Raidou stood in the center of the room. “The hell is Hatake—?” he began.
Chakra shivered faintly against the wall beside the door, the shinobi equivalent of quietly clearing your throat. A fourth ANBU-spark unfolded itself on his mental map.
Raidou glanced over and found the lean silver stretch of Kakashi propped against the wall like he’d always been there. “Stop hiding that, Hatake, it’s tattooed on you for a reason.”
“Captain,” Kakashi said, which Raidou noted wasn’t exactly a yes or no.
A third hot tea can skimmed over Raidou’s head. Kakashi caught it with a sleek wrist-flick and leaned back against the wall, steam pluming gently up between his hands. Raidou turned back and caught the last thrown can, nodding his thanks at Genma.
“Who are we killing?” Katsuko demanded, eagerness slicing like a scalpel through her voice. She had already stretched herself across the couch, maneuvering to take up as much real estate as possible without kicking Ryouma off.
“Traitors,” said Raidou.
Villages ran on loyalty. There was something about dropping that word down in front of blooded ninja that made even the level-headed ones, like Genma, sit up like hunting hounds.
“We have two broad targets,” Raidou continued. “Intel found solid proof of the major financial backers behind the Guardian coup. We’ve been given the Tsuto family.”
“I know that name,” Genma said, frowning.
“Me, too,” Ryouma said, muffled behind bloody cloth.
“You should,” Raidou said. “Heavy-hitting merchant importers and money lenders on the east coast. You’ve both done missions that way.”
Genma snapped his fingers. “Ibaragashi city.”
“And Tsurugahama Port,” Raidou said. “It’s a father and son affair. Father heads up the central business in Ibaragashi. Son handles the shipping and distribution out of Tsurugahama. Konoha wants them both.”
“You said ‘broad targets’,” Katsuko said.
“We’re sending a message,” Raidou said. “Both men and their families. We’re burning it all down.”
“Literally?” Genma said, senbon flicking a thoughtful curve from one side of his mouth to the other. “Is this a demolitions job, as well as assassination?”
Ryouma’s eyes narrowed, dark. He set the handkerchief down, listening. A rusty smear still marred his upper lip, but the nosebleed seemed to have ceased.
“The goal is shock and awe,” Raidou said. “Enough devastation to make the point clear, not so much damage there aren’t still bodies to find.”
Katsuko nodded once, short and sharp. Raidou could already see fuses burning behind her focused attention. “Simultaneous hits, or consecutive?”
That was his blood-thirsty demolitions girl. Usagi was the true explosives expert in ANBU, but Katsuko came a close second for anything needing a blast radius.
He hadn’t been able to schedule a one-on-one meeting with the Yondaime. Right now, Raidou was pretty sure nothing short of actual political power would win anyone a crack in the Hokage’s frantic schedule, but it was at the top of Raidou’s priorities list. He wanted answers to Katsuko’s blacked-out file and blanked-out horrors.
In the meantime, she looked sane, grounded, and ready to crack skulls together.
“Simultaneous,” Raidou said. “We’re splitting this mission down the middle. Two teams, hitting each target at the same time.”
Ryouma nodded, unconcerned, exactly as expected from a recent jounin used to working solo or small-group missions. Katsuko knew how ANBU usually operated; her eyebrow twitched minutely upwards. Against the wall, Kakashi continued to stand still and say nothing, but there was a definite sense of deliberately not moving now.
Genma was too controlled to let his chakra flicker, but the back of Raidou’s neck felt the sudden press of a weighted glance. He was fairly certain he could guess the lieutenant's expression. It was probably identical to what his had been, standing to attention with five other captains in front of the Hokage’s desk: Are you crazy?
Brand new teams didn’t split. But most teams didn’t have the vicious, destructive power Team Six was capable of.
Genma took a restrained breath. “Is the split assigned, or is that up to our discretion?”
“Well, that depends,” Raidou said, reflecting on the pointed recommendations of Yondaime-sama and his advisors. He looked hard at Ryouma, who sat up straighter, and across at Kakashi, who met his eyes with unreadable blankness. “It’s been suggested that Tsuto Takayoshi, the father, has earned an immediate future filled with lightning and rot, but that depends upon your ability to work together like quasi-reasonable adults, and also to pay mind to the lieutenant. Because I’ll be backing Ueno.”
Tsuto Masaaki, the son, had small children.
Ryouma glanced apprehensively at Kakashi. Long, weapons-calloused fingers drummed against one knee, but stopped immediately when Ryouma realized he was doing it. Raidou glanced backwards; Genma looked very, very faintly pained for the skin of a second, then masked it over with professional blankness.
Raidou looked at Kakashi.
After a still, silent moment, Kakashi peeled himself away from the wall, crossed the room, and sat down on the armrest next to Ryouma’s shoulder. “If that coup had succeeded, they would have attacked Konoha next,” he said. He tipped his chin up a fraction, glancing at Genma, then met Raidou’s eyes levelly. “We’ll be fine.”
Raidou was starting to suspect he’d missed some context, but that was about standard. “Tousaki?”
Ryouma dragged his startled gaze away from the side of Kakashi’s face, and looked up. “We’ll make you proud, taichou.”
“Alright, then,” Raidou said.
When he looked at Genma again, the blankness was still there, like clean white wallpaper behind amber eyes—but unfurling beneath it was the slow-rising sharpness of a man with murder on the horizon. This one cut close for all of them, but Genma was the one who’d nearly lost a friend in the breach. In Raidou’s mind, that alone was reason enough to set him in charge of slicing through the purse strings responsible.
And reason to keep him away from the little ones. Let him have a clean revenge, instead of one he needed to twist over.
Genma gave him a shallow nod. “No one but Hatake is mission-fit at the moment. How long do we have with the medics to get buffed?”
“We’re leaving at 1900 tonight. This is a coordinated strike—there are five other teams going out, and two of those are carving down to splinter-cells like us. The aim is to hit all targets at approximately the same time, the night after tomorrow. The Hokage has already bitten a chunk out of the network; his team assassinated the lord of Taishin province a few days ago, and they took casualties. One Intel agent killed, and Team Three is out of commission, two dead.”
Genma twitched. “Hajime?”
In the same breath, Ryouma leaned forward, fingers denting the metal of his tea can. “Team Three—that’s Ayane’s. Fukui Ayane. Was she—?”
The mission files were on Raidou’s desk. He’d been working the details from memory, but he grabbed it now, eyes skipping down to his handwritten notes in the margin. He knew Hajime personally, though not like Genma did, and had that answer ready to go. “Hajime’s injured, took a bad hit to the hip. Yondaime-sama was confident he’d be able to run again, but not for a while—Yondaime-sama’s student is overseeing his recovery personally.”
“Rin,” Kakashi said quietly.
Genma let out a breath.
“Munenori Rokurou and Akamichi Yuudai were the team casualties,” Raidou read, and closed the file. “Miyake Kei was the Intel agent. Nothing about Ayane, so I assume she’s fine.”
Well, probably not fine.
Ryouma gave a cracked laugh, overshadowing Genma’s quiet curse—Raidou hadn’t known the names, but Genma apparently did. “She would be,” Ryouma said. “Dammit… What happens to her now? If her team is dead?”
“Reassignment, probably,” Raidou said. “Hajime isn’t going to be mission-fit for a while. They’ll either fold Ayane into another team—filling in for someone injured or dead, if there’s a spot—or expand a team by another member. We don’t usually run teams bigger than five, but it’s not unheard of. She’s a rookie?”
Ryouma nodded once.
“Then she won’t be a floater, rookies always have a team.” Unusual to send a team with a rookie on it to back up the Hokage, but Konoha was stretched. And Ayane had come out breathing, so she clearly had the steel.
Or one of her dead teammates had covered for her.
“ANBU takes care of their own,” Katsuko told Ryouma quietly, eerie echo to Raidou’s thoughts.
Ryouma glanced again at Kakashi, and then away. His fingers tightened on the can, then he leaned down and set it carefully on the floor. “We’ll try not to open a space for her on this team, taichou.”
“You better not,” Raidou said briskly, “or I’ll paste you all over the afterlife. That goes for the rest of you.”
“Noted,” Kakashi said, dry as dust. Of everyone in the room he seemed the most unmoved by the fate of Team Three, but since he’d already played news-hound for Genma once, Raidou was pretty sure he’d already known. Perk of being the Yondaime’s former student.
“We’ll look after you, lieutenant,” Ryouma told Genma, making an obvious effort to sound light and teasing. “You don’t need to worry when you’re with us.”
Genma gave Ryouma a slow, measured look. “Well, that’s a relief.”
Raidou cleared his throat. “Moving on. Tousaki, you’re booked in with Hyuuga Noriko in the chakra ward. She’s expecting you as soon as we’re done here, since you’re going to take the most time. Ueno, you’re back with Ryouri-sensei, usual drill.” Katsuko made a pained face, but said nothing. “Shiranui, someone pulled a string in your favor because you’re getting time with Nohara Rin. She’s expecting you in an hour. Yondaime-sama advised that you should take her breakfast. Hatake, since the lieutenant's busy and I need to get polished up, too, you’re gonna run supply. Armor, masks, med-kits, soldier-pills—whatever anyone needs, you get it.”
Katsuko opened her mouth.
“That pertains to the mission,” Raidou said, before she could speak.
She cut him a dry look, which folded into serious thought. “I’m good,” she said at last. Sotto-voice, she added something aside about goats that Raidou chose to ignore.
Oddly, that made the tips of Ryouma’s ears turn pink.
Kakashi cleared his throat. “I need your sign-off for the quartermaster. Or the lieutenant's.”
“Already in the file.” Raidou skimmed the dark folder into Kakashi’s lap. “You can review the rest of that for me, too. I want two summarized plans of attack for each target by the time we leave tonight.”
The light of intellectual challenge flared in Kakashi’s grey eye, and Raidou tucked away a smile. That should be enough to keep Kakashi out of trouble while his teammates were occupied.
“Questions?” Raidou asked the room at large. “Comments? Not you, Ueno.”
Katsuko flopped full-length on the couch, head pillowed on Ryouma’s hip. “So long as I get to blow something up,” she said, with a knife-like smile. “Lots of things.”
Teeth clacked against metal as Genma chewed his senbon. “What intel do we already have? Are there blueprints for the buildings we need to infiltrate? Do we know what kind of resistance we’re expecting?”
Raidou dropped comfortably into his wheely desk chair, and finally took a sip of his tea. “Hatake?”
Kakashi had already cracked into the file like a kid ripping the ribbon from his—papery, murderous—birthday present. His eye tracked over the documents almost faster than Raidou could follow. “Basic intel, but recent. Family members, staff—do they want us to hit the staff?”
“Staff get a free pass, guards don’t,” Raidou said, hooking an arm across his chest to stretch his shoulder. The demon gouges still ached, even half-healed. If nothing else, the mission-nudge up the medic’s ladder would take care of that. In theory, natural healing was better for you long-term, but Raidou wasn’t putting much stock in worrying about arthritis. If it came to it, he’d do yoga.
Kakashi nodded once, and there was a quiet ripple of approval through the team. No one liked to murder a maid. “Target numbers, recently observed patterns—two day’s worth, but better than nothing. Blueprints…” Papers rustled. “Yes, for both homes.”
“Good,” said Genma. “Threats?”
“Team Three got hit by hired Iwa shinobi,” Kakashi said absently, which Raidou knew for a fact wasn’t in the file. Apparently the trick to unclamping Kakashi was to put information and a puzzle in front of him. Raidou made a note. “Iwa, Kumo, and Kiri are all potential issues for us. Mist most likely, since we’ll be on the coast…”
“They’ve had time to hire shinobi, if they sent a message to Kiri as soon as the coup failed,” Ryouma said, fingers tapping against his knee again. In thought this time, not stress. “No point in hiring from Iwa, they’d have to go all across Fire Country, and they’d never make it in time.” He frowned and looked up at the maps pinned on the far wall, dark eyes tracing the dotted trails between Cloud and Fire Country. “Just barely enough time to bring in shinobi from Kumo, if they came by ship from Nosappu Point. But there’s bad blood between Kumo and eastern Fire Country, since the war. Kiri’s more likely.”
That was almost word for word what Yondaime-sama’s advisors had said.
Kakashi glanced sideways, eyebrows raised in faint approval. “Exactly.”
Katsuko unstretched from the couch, crossed the room to Raidou’s desk, and picked up the slim, black copy of Raidou’s battered Bingo Book. It was more of a ring-binder than an actual book, with new pages added every time Intel released them. His version was a forest of bookmarks, dog-eared pages, and annotations. Katsuko brought it back, flopped out onto the couch again, and began to flip through to the Kiri section.
“How big was the force Team Three encountered?” Genma asked. “They’re hardly lightweights on that team.”
“Three jounin, five chuunin, plus the household guards—couple dozen of those,” Kakashi said, still studying the file. Raidou watched for it, and saw the fractional pause of Kakashi’s hand when he finally realized he was revealing more information than he was supposed to have. It had come up in the meeting, but Intel didn’t like to cross streams with their files. If something was pertinent, you cross-referenced and hoped you had the clearance to see it. Kakashi’s fingertips rested against the edge of a page, then he flipped it and continued, “Kubota Bakusen was one of the jounin.”
Katsuko flipped backwards several pages. “Bingo,” she said.
“You can cross him out,” Raidou said, and quirked an eyebrow at Kakashi. “Isn’t that right?”
Beneath the mask, it was just possible to see the shadow of a curving mouth. “Yondaime-sama took his head off,” Kakashi said, and there was pride you could bend iron around in that low, cool voice.
Katsuko caught the pen Raidou tossed her, and drew a broad X across the page. “Bye bye, Bakusen.”
Genma pushed himself to his own desk, dug his—much neater—copy of the Bingo Book out of a drawer, and quietly moved a single page to a tabbed section marked ‘dead’.
Ryouma glanced sideways at Kakashi. “We’d better hope Tsuto’s hired someone famous, too. Give you a story of your own to bring back.”
Kakashi looked at Ryouma. Even with the height of the arm-rest lifting Kakashi up, Ryouma’s spine was long enough that they were still almost eye-to-eye. Kakashi barely had to dip his chin down. “Let’s hope.”
It had been too long since he’d had the chance to go steel-to-steel against a real challenge, scorpion-dog demons aside. Natural disasters didn’t have the vicious cunning of a real shinobi; they were just dangerous and tiring.
At his desk, Genma twitched and made a religious-looking warding sign. “If you call for a tiger, you will likely get eaten,” he quoted.
Kakashi touched the tip of his tongue to the edge of sharp teeth, and smiled. “Superstitious, lieutenant?”
That won him a brief, narrow look before Genma returned to his Bingo Book. “No. Experienced.”
If they racked their lives up side by side, Kakashi was pretty sure he knew who had more hours in the field. But Genma had been in ANBU longer, and there was doubtless something in that.
Kakashi stretched his back and glanced aside at Ryouma and Katsuko, flicking hidden hand-signs against his left thigh, out of the lieutenant's eyeline. ANBU-sign didn’t have the words he needed; he had to fingerspell out the individual kana. Let’s be tigers.
Ryouma snarled softly, deep in his throat, and looked pleased. “Just decided what I’m gonna get for my next tattoo.”
Katsuko smiled thinly, like a slow-burning threat.
This was his team.
One in five didn’t survive the first year intact, Minato had said. Right now, the odds were probably a little worse. Ayane’s hadn’t made it a month.
Don’t let yours be one of them.
That was going to be a little trickier with a split-mission, but on the balance between Katsuko and Raidou, and Genma and Ryouma, Kakashi had been given the puzzle piece more prone to trouble anyway. As long as the lieutenant didn’t get stabbed again, and Ryouma managed to avoid complete collapse…
This was actually a mission that suited them. Ryouma’s whole skillset was geared towards messy slaughter, and from what Kakashi had seen of Genma, infiltration and tactical support fell neatly into the lieutenant's wheelhouse. Both of them had an affinity for fire.
Kakashi could handle any surprises Kirigakure wanted to spit at them.
And the captain had given him licence to plot out a road-map for both sides of equation. There was enough Intel to build in a solid contingency plan or two—though in Katsuko and Raidou’s case, it would mostly be ‘detonate everything and run’.
When he looked up, Raidou was watching him with a thoughtful smile. Kakashi ignored that. “Any requests for supplies? I know you all need new armor.”
“The QM should have all my gear ready,” Ryouma said. “I was going to pick it up today, anyway. Extra ration bars? And soldier pills, if you can get ‘em.”
“I picked up my new armor yesterday, but I could use a box of number twenty senbon,” Genma said. “Get the ones with grooved tips if they have them. If they're out of 20's, get 24's.” He opened a desk drawer and pulled out his medkit, perused it briefly, then got up to hand it over. “Tell Morita-san to replace everything I’m low on. He knows what I like to stock. And I’ll need a roll of level three exploding tags.”
Grooved senbon were almost exclusively used by poison-artists.
Kakashi nodded once and raised an eyebrow at Raidou.
“Got my armor, but Morita-san still owes me a replacement mask,” Raidou said. “Standard set of kunai and shuriken wouldn’t go amiss, and see if he has an updated copy of the area map—I know some of the old war bunkers were pulled out recently.”
“Two copies,” said Genma.
Raidou tossed across his med-kit. It was smaller than Genma’s, but just as well-worn. “Standard restock for that, too.”
“Tell Morita-san I said hi,” Katsuko said, with a lazy wave.
“Explosive tags?” Kakashi asked her. She’d used most of hers on the last mission.
“I make my own.”
Unusual, but not unheard of. Maybe measuring tiny sections of her chakra out into charged paper was part of her small jutsu practice.
She and Ryouma both kept their mission med-kits in the lockers. Kakashi could steal them out and check them later. He’d already restocked his own.
He couldn’t think of anything else immediate.
“1900 at the gate?” he asked Raidou.
“You stole my line,” Raidou said, sounding amused. “Everyone clear on what they’re doing?”
Genma nodded. “Crystal. Hatake, any advice for me for talking to Rin-sensei? What does she like for breakfast?”
“Fruit,” Kakashi said. “And anything high-energy she can eat one-handed. Just do everything she says and don’t tell her she looks young for a medic.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Genma said. “Shall I tell her hello for you?”
It wasn’t an invasive request, but it still felt too… personal to say yes. Kakashi coughed and closed the file, stacking the med-kits on top of it. “I’ll make a start on this. Send a clone to me if you think of something else you need.”
“You know where you can find me,” Genma said. “If I finish with the medic with time to spare, I'll come back here to prep.”
“Ditto,” said Raidou.
“I’ll be off doing—” Katsuko made a vague hand gesture. “Things. Somewhere.”
“Ryouri-sensei,” Raidou said pointedly.
“Also that,” Katsuko said.
Ryouma scratched dried blood off his lip and pushed himself up from the couch, carefully dislodging Katsuko. He was still half-naked; the silver ring through his right nipple glinted under the office lights, in slightly strange contrast to the paperwork. Though it went just fine with the intricate, jewel-toned dragon tattooed across his left pectoral and collarbone. If they ever had to go undercover as Yakuza, Ryouma was going to fit in just fine.
“Thanks for running our errands,” he said, crossing the room to ferret in his locker for a clean shirt. “Wasn’t looking forward to getting yelled at by the QM again.”
“Have you tried flirting?” Kakashi suggested.
Something clanged inside Ryouma’s locker.
“Do you want to say it,” Genma said wearily to Raidou, “or shall I?”
“Boundaries,” Ryouma said promptly. “And Sagara-sama said ‘extreme respect’.” He stepped back and pulled a plain black tee-shirt over his head, popping back up with ruffled hair, and added, “I could try flirting respectfully…”
“Don’t try to flirt with him it doesn’t work,” Katsuko said, without pausing to breathe.
“He did like my tattoos.” Ryouma shut his locker. “And my hair.”
“He also offered you some rice sacks to make a dress from,” Genma said.
“Sounds like progress to me,” Kakashi said.
“Don’t do it,” Katsuko said, still stuck on some internal plane of horror.
Raidou cleared his throat with the effect of a lead slap. “Medics,” he said. “Right now. Hatake, attempt not to offend the man responsible for our life-saving armor, if you can help yourself.”
“Taichou,” Kakashi said, and tossed the file onto his desk. Supplies first, then he could devote the rest of his time to its contents.
Groaning, Katsuko hauled herself off the sofa, picked up her kit, and slouched out the door. She stuck her head back around the frame a second later and pointed at Kakashi. “Don’t you flirt with the QM, either. If he gives you goats, give them back.” She vanished again, but her voice still floated back through the open door. “You won’t be able to handle his goats.”
“I don’t want to know,” Raidou said. “Tousaki, get moving. You’re going to be late.”
Ryouma was pink to the tips of his ears, Kakashi noted with interest. “Taichou,” Ryouma said, and darted for the door, snatching up his kit along the way.
Kakashi nodded once at Raidou and Genma. Raidou returned it. Genma looked immeasurably tired for a man who’d only taken over a shortened training session and swum a handful of laps. Kakashi grabbed his own kit and slipped out, cataloguing his mental list of things to do.
Before the door closed behind him, he heard Raidou say, “How’d it go?”
“Great,” Genma said. “Just don’t ask about goats.”
Kakashi snorted and ran.
He caught up with Ryouma just before the main entrance. Katsuko was already out of sight—despite the slouch, she could move like light when she wanted to.
Ryouma startled and looked over his shoulder. “Kakashi.” His ears were still pink.
What was it with them and names? Katsuko had her inexplicable endearments, and Ryouma had gone right for Kakashi’s first name without even bothering to stick a ‘-san’ on the end of it. At least Genma and Raidou called him ‘Hatake’.
The river had washed the worst off, but there were still traces of dirt in Ryouma’s hair, and a fresh split in his lower lip. More than a few bruises elsewhere. Kakashi eyed them with, maybe, the faintest twinge of regret as he organized his thoughts.
“I appreciate the apology,” he said, and because he knew it would make the difference between formality and sincerity to Ryouma, offered his hand. “I look forward to running this mission together.”
Dark eyes studied him for a moment. Then Ryouma smiled, broad and even, bright with relief, and accepted Kakashi’s hand with a quick, firm grip. “Thanks,” he said. “Me, too. We’re gonna run this one right.”
“Tigers,” Kakashi agreed, with his own fleeting smile.
Ryouma laughed, letting him go. “We should do warpaint. No—we’ve got the masks. Well, we can practice tiger growls on the way there. Ten points to whoever can scare the lieutenant.”
Ryouma had a regular human throat; Kakashi had a little more canine flex in his vocal cords. He drew a breath, twitched his shoulders back, and let a low, deep snarl spill between his teeth.
Ryouma’s eyes widened. His dominant hand made a brief, aborted move towards the kunai holster he didn’t actually have, before he caught himself. He swallowed once and laughed again, just a little strangled. “Okay. That just—did really weird things to the animal part of my brain. Wow.”
Kakashi smiled smugly.
Ryouma shook his head once, and pinched the lobe of his right ear between thumb and forefinger, in a tic Kakashi didn’t recognize. Self-calming? “How do you even do that?”
“Family secret,” Kakashi said, and made a point of glancing up at the clock above the not-really-a-receptionist’s desk. “Aren’t you going to be late?”
Ryouma’s lip curled, a little wolf-like in its own right. He dropped his hand. “Probably. Another three points to you,” he said, deeply dry. “Make sure to tell the QM how much you love your kusarigama.” He shouldered through the door and was gone.
What had he done with the quartermaster’s kusarigama?
“Crap,” he muttered, and re-routed all of his plans to involve two new steps: 1) find borrowed weapon, and 2) get yelled at for not using it.
He pushed through the door and headed for his room at a run.