The last person Hakone expected to run into in the laundry was Ryouma. Although he hadn’t exactly figured Ryouma and Ayane would have spent the morning cuddling and brunching, either, and what better to do with down time between missions than laundry? But those were a lot of soiled uniforms for one man to generate, even with a week-long mission under his belt. He leaned on the running washer next to the one Ryouma was loading and eyed his friend’s efforts. “You think that’s enough detergent?” he asked, as Ryouma poured a long stream on top of the pile of clothes. “If you’re looking to kill whatever’s still alive on those, you might be better off with a fire jutsu.”
Ryouma eyed the pile with a critical head tilt, and poured in one last glug of detergent. “QM will skin me alive if I come in asking for new underpinnings for my whole team ’cause I burnt all the old ones.” He twisted the cap back onto the detergent bottle and dropped the machine door shut. “Do washing machines ever really explode in soap bubbles, or is that just on TV?”
“Pretty sure that really happens,” Hakone said. He pointed to a curling and water-spotted sign taped up on the wall near the door that read ‘No more than “three” units of liquid detergent per load!!!’
Which, he realized belatedly, Ryouma couldn’t have read.
“That sign says no more than three capfuls per load. Although there are quote marks around the three that make it seem like there’s some wiggle room, like maybe three is an ironic measurement.” He frowned and looked at the bottle still in Ryouma’s hand. “How much did you put in?”
Ryouma hefted the bottle, sloshing the remaining liquid back and forth a little. “About three capfuls. More or less.” He squinted at the shadowed level of liquid in the bottle. “Maybe a little more. They were pretty filthy.” He shrugged, set the bottle down, and started the machine. “If it explodes in bubbles, we can have fun with water jutsu.”
“You ever try a water jutsu on soapy water?” Hakone asked, chasing the new idea. “I wonder if it’d lift out the water and leave the soap behind, or whatever part of the soap isn’t water. Like when you get clean water out of a muddy stream, right?”
“Yeah, but that's a special filtering jutsu,” Ryouma said. “You could work a jutsu to play with bubbles if you wanted.” He placed the detergent bottle — one designed for ‘organic stain removal and rapid sanitizing’ according its label — back in its cubby on the shelf above the washers. “Guess you would need to alter it to catch whatever's in the soap too, though,” he said, staring up at the flourescent fixtures in thought. "So's you didn't pop the bubbles.” His fingers flexed in half-formed seals. “Maybe add a Rabbit-Ox-Snake combo to pull in some Wind chakra?”
“Wind, definitely,” Hakone agreed. “Smart. And maybe you need an inverted Monkey seal combo to accommodate whatever Earth nature is in the soap itself? Soap’s complex.” He turned back to his own interrupted laundry task, applying a few spritzes of stain lifter to each darker-than-black spot on his uniform blacks. “Maybe we could invent a laundry jutsu. You’d need Earth to get dust out, and Water, obviously.” He added his own three measured capfuls of detergent and slammed his machine shut. “What do you think? You’re the ninjutsu creator.”
“Water'll get dust out, if you've got enough of it,” Ryouma said. “I'd think blood stains'd be a bigger problem.” He frowned at the washing machine, drumming his fingers against his thigh in an unconsciously syncopated beat. “Maybe if I could figure out how Iebara worked his jutsu. Kakashi copied it, so it's not a bloodline limit. Water-based, clearly, but I've got enough of that…”
And that was one of the many reasons Hakone included Ryouma in the very exclusive set of people he called friend. Ryouma was smart and inventive, and always willing to consider even an impossible problem.
“My friend,” Hakone said solemnly, “if you and Kakashi figure out Iebara’s jutsu and turn it into a laundry jutsu, you will assure yourselves a place in ninja history. Who needs to be the legendary Copy Ninja and the Man Who Rots Faces, when you can be the Suds Brothers of Konoha?”
Ryouma tossed Hakone a quick, flashing grin. “We make a good matched pair, don't we? Or… complementary? They'd go for you and me if they were looking for a matched set.”
“Maybe complementary, if you’re talking about coloring,” Hakone said. “Am I getting in on this jutsu invention company, too? I’m down to be president. You and Kakashi can do the actual labor, and your senpai can handle public relations.”
"Presidents are the ones who get assassinated the most, right?” Ryouma punched Hakone's shoulder lightly. “Katsuko as public relations, though. I can't tell if that's a genius idea or if I should start running now.” His gaze flicked to the clock on the wall. “I'm supposed to meet her for lunch, actually. Wanna come? You didn't really get a chance to meet, last night.”
“Genius,” Hakone assured him. He tucked his empty laundry bag into one of the many small shelves allotted for that purpose, and swung into step beside Ryouma. “We’ve got a half hour or so while the wash runs, unless you did the sanitize cycle for yours. Which you should have,” he added.
Ryouma’s lip curled down. “I've been washing blood out of uniforms for eight years. Give me some credit for competency.”
Hakone shrugged. “Wiser men have made dumber mistakes. So an hour and a half. Is Ueno going to mind if you spring a surprise lunch guest on her?” She and Ryouma were just back from what had clearly been a rough mission, after all, and Ueno might not appreciate an interloper while she was still recovering.
“Only if you eat her share. She's getting takeout.” Ryouma hesitated with his hand on the laundry room door, reconsidering. “I mean— I don't think she'd object. She seems to get along pretty well with people. But I haven't really seen her interacting much outside the team, now I think of it.”
“I could pick up a bento at the cafeteria for myself,” Hakone offered. “Since she was just planning on feeding the two of you.” He stepped aside to let a determined-looking woman carrying a basket piled high with mud-spattered uniforms past him. “You think she’ll make the bird noises for me this time?”
“She only did that the once,” Ryouma said. He headed down the corridor towards the barracks exit to the courtyard. “Guess we'll see how lucky you are. Speaking of which...” A smirk played over his lips. “Did you get lucky last night? Or get rational trend analyzed, or whatever.”
“Do you mean, ‘did Miyo-san get over her disappointment that it was me and not you who bought her a drink?’” Hakone gave Ryouma a self-satisfied grin. “I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from the fact that she and I are now on a first-name basis.”
“So she was disappointed?”
“Not for long,” Hakone said. “I’d say she was pleased with the outcome. Several times.”
Ryouma pushed the door open and held it for Hakone. “Gonna see her again?”
“Maybe.” Hakone stretched his shoulders back and tugged the hem of his t-shirt straight, squinting at the bright sunlight in the courtyard. “She didn’t mind the tattoo, so that’s a point in her favor.” She’d been a lot of fun, actually. Another hookup was almost certainly in the cards, but anything longer term was probably not. She hadn’t struck him as a particularly scintillating conversationalist.
He didn’t ask about Ryouma’s tryst with Ayane. That seemed like a fragile little connection —one both Ryouma and Ayane really needed right now — that was best nurtured by letting it stay in the dark.
Ueno was sitting on the inner edge of the big U-shaped planter box in the courtyard, radiating chakra like a neutron star, and surrounded by paper sacks of takeout. She stood up and waved with her good hand when she saw Ryouma. Her right arm was still in a sling, but she’d changed out of the ridiculously cute bear-eared hoodie from the night before into an equally cute grey sweatshirt sporting a cartoon elephant with its trunk running down one sleeve. Slim-cut black jeans led to sturdy combat boots.
“Your senpai has that ‘I’m adorable and also well-armed’ look again. It’s working for her.”
Ryouma shot Hakone an alarmed look. “You can’t hit on my senpai!” he hissed.
Hakone raised his eyebrows in innocent surprise. “Who said anything about hitting on? I haven’t even had a proper conversation with her yet.” He smiled and waved as they drew within earshot.
She was cute, though.
“Hi again. I’m Hakone. Team Nineteen. I ran into your kohai doing laundry and thought I’d bring him back.”
Ueno raised one eyebrow over an amused smile. “He does tend to wander off on his own,” she said. “Thanks for returning him.”
“My pleasure,” Hakone said with a bow. “He and I’ve run a few missions together over the last few years, so I’ve gotten pretty good at wrangling him. Feel free to call on my assistance any time you need it.”
“I'm still here,” Ryouma said pointedly. He hitched a seat on the planter next to Ueno. “And it was my orienteering got you un-lost in Mangrove Country.”
“Details, details,” said Hakone. “You don’t mention Mangrove Country again, and I’ll keep the story of Bungobashi Province to myself.”
“Well, you're gonna have to figure out some way of making yourself entertaining if you expect Katsuko to invite you to lunch,” Ryouma told him. He picked up one of the bags and peered at the paperboard containers inside. “What'd you get?”
“Yakitori, egg rolls, and katsudon,” Ueno said. “I got three bowls of katsudon, but two are for me.”
With chakra that burned as hot as hers did, she probably needed a to eat a lot. Hakone guessed it was the size of her stomach that limited her to just two katsudon bowls in one sitting.
“I was going to grab a bento in the mess hall,” he said. “So no one has to go hungry. Should I come find you after I get it?”
Ryouma glanced at Ueno, gauging her reaction before he said, “Sure, I’ll be here.”
“Sounds good,” Katsuko said, friendlier now that her food was in no danger. “As long as you share more embarrassing stories when you come back.”
“I’ll think of some good ones while I contemplate the mystery curry of the day,” Hakone said. “See you in a few.” He headed for the cafeteria, pleased with how his day was turning out. Laundry was washing. Ryouma’s mood seemed much improved since last night. And he was finally going to experience the famous Ueno-senpai. Now he just had to work on not reacting to her chakra while they ate. And come up with a few good stories about his and Ryouma’s missions.
“Hakone seems nice,” Katsuko remarked neutrally, when the man was out of earshot. “How long have you known him?”
"Two years, thereabouts. We've run a handful of team missions together, plus two partnered ones. He's an all-rounder, like me. Good man on-mission and off." Ryouma hesitated. "But I saw him last night, already, so if you want—"
On a normal day Katsuko could have put on a face for a stranger. People sensed her wildfire chakra and assumed she had the personality to go with it. Usually she enjoyed living up to her reputation; showing people what they expected meant they didn’t look too closely, didn’t ask too many questions.
Hakone seemed like a man who liked asking questions and not resting until he got the answers—the truthful answers, not the ones buried under layers of misdirection and masks. His eyes were shrewd and his gaze perceptive, for all that his greeting had seemed genuine.
But Ryouma trusted him, and Ryouma wasn’t the type of person to make close friends easily. And… she didn’t like worrying him, not over something as petty as her inability to deal with an unexpected lunch guest.
“Hey, everything’s good.” She grinned and reached up to pat him on the cheek. “As long as Hakone’s not expecting comedy hour from me, we’re all set.”
His dark eyes clouded a little; before she could draw her hand back, he caught it in his own. "You sure? I mean, he is a good guy. If you don't want comedy hour he can read the mood, but I can also kick him off to eat on his own. He won't mind much. Or he can tell you the story of Bungobashi Province and you can see how red my ears get."
“You know, I actually do want to hear about Bungobashi,” Katsuko said, gleeful. She let Ryouma keep her hand for now; his grip was warm, and it felt nice. “Did you embarrass yourself in front of a superior officer? Did your shirt come off? Inquiring minds want to know.”
"There was shirtlessness involved,” Ryouma evaded. “Hakone tells the story better, though." He released her hand to dig a packet of warm egg rolls out of the bag in his lap. "You waited for me?"
“Yes.” Katsuko imbued every ounce of the agony she’d suffered into her voice. “You took forever and my stomach started digesting itself. You owe me one of your egg rolls.”
"Konoha is grateful for your service," he said gravely, and stuck an egg roll in her mouth.
Katsuko squawked, bit the egg roll in half, and chewed vengefully. “Insubordination,” she muttered.
He blinked innocently at her. "Just following orders, senpai."
She pulled a hideous face at him and rummaged in the takeout bag for her first bowl of katsudon. “‘Following orders’, my foot. The only time you follow orders is to undermine my authority.”
"Sometimes I try to undermine other peoples'." He handed her a paper packet of chopsticks. "I'm being good today, though. I ran the lieutenant's errands and took Kakashi his paperwork and picked up both their gear. And started their laundry." He took a bite of his own egg roll. "Figured I'd start inventorying damaged gear this afternoon. You up for note-taking, when you're done with your paperwork?"
“Sure,” Katsuko said, through a mouthful of rice. “If you give me a bite from your katsudon bowl.”
He stared at her. "You bought yourself two."
Instead of protesting, Ryouma rested an elbow on his knee and gazed at her thoughtfully. "You've out-eaten me every meal we've had together. Out-eaten Kakashi and me and the lieutenant put together, half the time. Can't just be metabolism—you don't have enough muscle to burn it. Is it your chakra?"
She’d have to remember that Ryouma liked to lead with disarming banter before going in for the verbal kill. Well, she could, too. Katsuko chewed, swallowed, and winked at him. “Course it is. How else d’you think I keep my girlish figure? I’ll tell you a secret: if we’re captured, the enemy doesn’t need any fancy tricks. Just starve me for more than a few days and my chakra eats me alive from the inside out.”
Ryouma’s face lost some of its color beneath his tan. "I'm sorry. I didn't— He broke off and stared down at the half-eaten eggroll in his hands. After a moment he stuffed it in his mouth and handed her a fresh one. He swallowed. "Always wondered why the lieutenant was so insistent on juice boxes and snacks at practice. So he's not just playing Team Mom?"
“Oh no, he’s definitely Team Mom.” Katsuko poked glumly at her new eggroll. “It’s a medic thing. Always convinced their patients can’t take care of themselves. Always taking notes in their heads. But he does bring food, yeah.”
"I was pretty pissed the first time he tried to feed me, that first day. Like he didn't believe I'd made it this far without someone handing me rat bars and telling me when to eat." Ryouma’s mouth quirked up. "Juice boxes at practice are winning me over, though."
Katsuko hadn’t forgotten that her first official meeting with Genma had involved her almost fracturing at the mention of Orochimaru’s name. She’d watched him since then, looking for signs he thought she was ‘unstable’ or ‘fragile’—words medics liked to toss around before subjecting her to the condescending gentleness they gave all irrational patients.
She hadn’t observed anything so far that couldn’t be blamed on her own paranoia, but she did know the lieutenant was making his own observations—and judgments—beneath that frustrating, unreadable mask.
“Yours is a generous heart,” she said, and changed the subject. “What’s taking Hakone so long? Maybe you should go find him. Don’t worry, I’ll guard your food.”
Ryouma raised extremely skeptical eyebrows and opened his mouth. She never heard what he was going to say, because Hakone appeared at the far end of the courtyard with a lunch tray. Katsuko zeroed in on the steaming contents. “Is that curry?” she demanded.
Katsuko's abrupt about-faces often left Ryouma blinking in her dust, but he was finally beginning to catch the tells: the slight shift of muscles during team practices, the flicker of her eyes in conversations. He suspected it would take him much longer to learn to keep up.
Hakone, unburdened by prior context, answered easily enough. "Prawn curry, extra basil." He was balancing several opaque plastic cups on the lid of one of the deep-bowled cafeteria take-out dishes, with several disposable spoons caught like throwing senbon between his fingers. "I picked up some almond puddings, too."
He paused beside the planter, hands full, and lifted an eyebrow. Ryouma hastily reached up to help unload. Hakone sank down on the near leg of the U-shaped planter and accepted his curry back in exchange for two spoons. "Sorry that took so long," he added, peeling the lid off and dropping it on the ground. "There was an argument between one of the Akimichi agents and the head chef about something involving soy protein flour."
Ryouma handed an almond pudding off to Katsuko. "Allergies?" Genma'd mentioned being allergic to spinach, but he couldn't imagine being allergic to soy. How did you eat?
"Nah, it was much more technical than that." Hakone bit off the head of a prawn and flicked the tail onto the upturned plastic lid by his foot. "Something about the variety of beans the protein had been harvested from, and whether the carbs-to-protein ratio was adequate."
On Ryouma's other side, Katsuko peeled back the lid of her almond pudding with her teeth, squeezed the bottom of the plastic cup, and devoured half of the protruding pudding in one bite.
And people looked askance at Ryouma's table manners. He was beginning to think he needed a chicken foot to gnaw on, just to fit in. He dug out his bowl of katsudon, instead.
They ate in companionable silence for a while. The sunlight fell warm and heavy on Ryouma's shoulders, soothing out the ache of strain that had wound his muscles wire-taut for days. The marks of Ayane's nails still burned, pleasantly, down his spine. He took a deep breath of the clean spring air, scented with curry and fried things, and felt a little more of the tension seep away.
Katsuko finished her first bowl of katsudon and started in on the second. She stole most of Ryouma's pudding, too, when he left it unattended for too long.
He couldn't feel any difference in the cheerful firestorm of her chakra—but then, he'd never felt any difference. Even after the demon mission, when he'd drained himself down to a candleflame flicker and Katsuko had created a score of shadow clones and wreaked devastation in wind and fire, he hadn't been able to sense a dimming of her blaze. Kakashi complained she was so bright it hurt, but Ryouma's chakra-sense wasn't that keen. She was a wildfire, but when she burped with content and leaned against him she warmed his whole side.
"Feeling any better?" he asked her.
"I feel great," she said easily, resting her head against his shoulder. Her eyes lidded in the sunlight. "Stolen food is the best food."
"Hey, I paid for everything else you ate." He poked her ribs. "Unless you just pocketed the cash and stiffed the food stalls, too."
She swatted his hand away indignantly. "You're supposed to be my pillow. Pillows don't poke."
"Pillows get poked," Ryouma agreed, and tipped his head back to smile into the sunshine.
Ueno sighed the sigh of the long-suffering and let her eyes fall closed, evidently unwilling to even try to puzzle out Ryouma’s attempt at humor. The inappropriate boundary crossing was in evidence, finally, and her chakra and appetite were definitely as advertised, but no bird noises yet. Not that now would be the time to comment on any of that.
Hakone raised one eyebrow at Ryouma instead. “I’ll just add ‘enjoys pegging’ to my list of ‘things I didn’t really need to know about Ayane’ then, shall I?”
Ueno sighed even more deeply, and leaned against Ryouma a little more determinedly, while Ryouma himself went a solid crimson to the tips of his ears.
“I didn't mean— Ayane didn’t—” he sputtered.
One of the empty pudding cups, jostled when Ryouma waved a defending hand, rolled towards Hakone’s feet. He flattened it to stop it rolling further, and snorted a laugh. “So she didn’t enjoy it? That’s not the way to get a third date, my friend.”
Ryouma’s cheekbones and ears were still furiously red. “She enjoyed herself just fine. And I'm not feeding you details, so you can stop fishing.”
“I would never fish,” Hakone said. “I know you’re not a kiss-and-tell type. But I couldn’t just let such a perfect opening go by, and Ayane is—”
“Boys,” Ueno commented in disgust. She reluctantly opened her eyes and asked, “Fukui Ayane? I met her in the elevator last night, right?”
Hakone switched off the banter like a tap, shifting his focus to Ryouma’s senpai. “You did. She’s on Team Three, but that’s probably—undoubtedly—changing. She and I were genin teammates.” He cocked his head. “Good memory. You looked tired enough last night I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d forgotten we were even in that elevator with you.”
“I always remember cute girls,” Ueno said. She patted Ryouma's shoulder approvingly. “Ayane looked tough. Hope she went easy on you. But if she didn't, don't tell me.”
Hakone laughed. “Ayane doesn’t go easy on anyone. I’m sure Ryouma-kun suffered appropriately.”
Ryouma managed to look just a little bit smug.
Yet another entry for the list of things Hakone didn’t really need to know about Ayane. Although given what he knew about Ryouma, it wasn’t any great surprise, he supposed.
While Hakone was trying to clear his mind of that mental image, Ryouma fished around in the take-out bag and came up with two cans of oolong tea. He handed one to Hakone, popped the tab on the other, took a swig, and passed it to Ueno, who downed half the contents in a single gulp.
“Ryouma’s told me a little about your team,” Hakone said, focusing on Ueno again. “Sounds like you guys get a lot of striking edge missions. Is that pretty typical for ANBU teams to be specialized like that? My team’s been doing almost exclusively defensive missions, but Sumeragi-taichou says that’s just because of the security situation with the trials and Hikouto.”
Ryouma turned to look curiously at Ueno, evidently as interested in the answer as Hakone was.
Ueno shrugged her uninjured shoulder. “Most ANBU teams are designed to be all-rounders, but there's always a few squads meant for heavy offense.” She pierced Hakone with an evaluating look. “Your captain should have told you this by now.”
“He did,” Hakone said simply. “But no information is definite without multiple sources confirming it. And what officers say isn’t always the same thing as what the rank-and-file say.” He smiled to show there was no challenge intended. “Just thought I’d get an opinion from a veteran outside my own team.”
Ueno’s shrewd expression didn’t change as she turned to Ryouma. “Your friend's a smooth talker,” she said. Hakone was fairly certain that wasn’t a compliment.
“Tell you what,” she offered, focusing her attention back on Hakone. “I'll give you as many opinions as you want if you tell me what went down in Bungobashi Province.”
Was it being asked her opinions on ANBU that was setting Ueno on edge, or something else? Whatever the cause, it was clear her hackles were up. Best to let her redirect. Hakone’s father had taught him at least that much.
“I’d be delighted to, as long as Ryouma gives me the go ahead,” he said with an apologetic smile. “Some stories you only tell with full consent.”
Ryouma snorted. “I already told her you tell the story better. You had the best view of everything, after all.”
“And what a view,” Hakone agreed. He glanced around the mostly empty courtyard, wadded his napkin up and stuffed it into the empty curry bowl, and satisfied with his clean up, repositioned himself more comfortably on his angle of the U-shaped planter they were using as a bench. “Am I starting, or are you?”
Ryouma leaned back on his hands, trying his best to look casual and cool, though there was a fresh tint of pink gilding the apples of his cheeks. “You start,” he said. “I’ll correct you.”
Ueno’s eyes lost a little of their wariness as she leaned in to hear the story.
“You know where Bungobashi is, right?” Hakone asked. “Borders with River Country?”
Ueno nodded. Ryouma, who had participated in the telling of this story a time or two before—usually after a beer or seven—was playing it cool, leaning back on his hands, but his half-lidded eyes were slanted towards Ueno, gauging her reactions.
“Okay. So we're up there—this is about two years ago,” Hakone said. “Second mission Ryouma and I have ever run together. We’re up there—"
“Down there,” Ryouma corrected.
Hakone rolled his eyes. “It’s in the foothills. But fine, yes, it’s southwest of here, so down there undercover, posing as civilian traders in the big market in Asahimachi. It’s a typical four-person team. Ryouma and our second-in-command are the insert team, mission captain is coordinating from our base at the Lucky Hare Casino hotel, and I’m the man in the shadows.”
“Admit it,” Ryouma cut in. “You like lurking.”
Hakone shrugged. “It’s one of the more enjoyable parts of the profession.”
“He joined ANBU for the uniform,” Ryouma told Ueno conspiratorially. “And the fifty-percent higher likelihood of lurking ominously at people.”
“Not incorrect,” Hakone agreed. “Anyway…”
Ueno snorted in amusement, unthawing a little bit more, mouth curling up at the corners.
“Anyway. It’s the third night of our mission, and Ryouma misses his check-in.”
“I wasn't on duty! You're making it sound like dereliction," Ryouma interjected. “We'd done all the recon,” he told Ueno, “and the target wasn't expected to show for another eighteen hours, so captain gave us the night free. We were just supposed to check back in so's he'd know we weren't dead in a gutter somewhere.”
“Not an unreasonable request, given your tendency to fall into gutters,” Hakone said.
Ryouma curled his lip like he’d taken a drink of sour milk, but he didn’t contradict.
“So Yoshinoya-taichou wakes me up at the crack of dawn, after I’ve only been in bed a couple hours, to go look for him.” Hakone caught Ueno’s eye—she looked like someone who could appreciate the seriousness of Ryouma’s offense here. “This was on a day I should have gotten to sleep in until at least noon.”
“How dare he,” Katsuko agreed, straight-faced.
“I was the only chakra sensor on the mission, so of course I get to track Ryouma down,” Hakone continued. “So I start the last place I’d seen him the night before, right? Which was the restaurant where we had dinner. It’s closed, obviously, because sensible people are all still in bed.”
Ryouma smirked ever so faintly.
“I tried a bunch of bars and some of the smaller casinos and tea houses in the pleasure district, and finally I find someone there cleaning up the mess from the night before, who thinks they saw my tall friend go back to an inn with a visiting scholar from Wind Country.” He stretched and resettled, giving the tension in his story a moment to ripen. “That’s my first clue that this is going to be complicated.”
“Let me guess,” Ueno said, as her eyebrows slowly climbed up her forehead. “The scholar wasn’t a scholar.”
“He might have been,” Hakone said. “I didn’t really get a chance to ask.”
“He’d certainly studied something,” Ryouma murmured around a self-satisfied little smile.
“Well, he wasn’t just a scholar,” Hakone continued. “I go to the inn and do a chakra sweep, and yep, there’s Ryouma’s signature, bright as day, with probably thirty civilian signatures as background noise. And another chakra presence that’s either a really zen monk or a ninja. With Ryouma.” He raised an eyebrow for effect. “Smart man that I am, I’m guessing Ryouma’s not there for a few hours of serene meditation with an octogenarian.”
“You wound me,” Ryouma said gravely. “I've meditated.” He paused. “Once. For about ten minutes.”
“Did it hurt?” Ueno asked, obviously amused.
“My foot fell asleep,” Ryouma said. “Then I fell asleep. Then Hitomi-sensei hit me over the head, and we stopped.”
“So basically, yes,” Hakone interpreted.
“He did have amazingly smooth chakra though, didn't he?” Ryouma said, sounding just a little proud. He picked up one hand to rub his fingers together, like he was stroking a delicately textured fabric. “I think I've only met medics with chakra that well-ordered. Haven't run into any monks yet.”
“Yes, he had chakra like the first cream skimmed from a purebred Stone Country yak’s milk,” Hakone said. “I’m a hundred percent sure it’s his chakra you were so taken with.”
Ryouma’s reminiscent smile warmed. “Well. And other things.”
“Were his other things smooth, too?” Ueno asked, in purely academic tones.
“Hakone’s telling the story,” Ryouma said primly.
“Thank you,” Hakone told him. Ueno’s boundaries seemed as permeable as rice paper, but Hakone was getting the idea they were more of a one-way mirror. An effective defense mechanism, although a fairly high energy one.
“Anyway, I’m outside the inn, they’re inside, and I’ve got a mission which doesn’t involve me explaining to our captain that Ryouma missed his check-in because he was playing blanket bamboo shoots with an unknown shinobi. I’ve got to go in and extract him. I’m hoping he’s with another Konoha ninja — we were still in Fire Country, so statistically that’s most likely — but I’m not a gambler.”
“Awkward,” Ueno said, with obvious delight.
Ryouma was still playing it cool; sitting with a deliberate slouch to his spine, and his legs slung out in front of him, but there was a telltale anticipatory flush at the edges of his ears. “Aren't you glad we've got the ANBU spark signalling, now?” he murmured.
“It would have saved us some stress, but think of the heroics we’d have missed out on.” Hakone grinned. The best part of the story was still on the horizon, and Ueno was completely engaged. If he won a genuine laugh from her, he’d count it a success. Given what Ryouma had told him about Team Six’s mission and its fallout, Ueno and Ryouma could both benefit from a little levity.
“I go in. Hotel is quiet, since it’s early morning, but I get up to the room Ryouma’s in, and I’m pretty sure no one inside is asleep. I do one more longer range sweep for chakra, because— Well, I’d like to say I had some kind of intuition, but really I was just being extra cautious.”
He could tell by the look on Ueno’s face that the hook was firmly set. She bobbed her head in an unconscious little gesture of impatience.
“There’s three strong signatures closing on our location. And I’m not getting a friendly intent.”
Now was usually the point, when he and Ryouma told this story to a group of off-duty shinobi over a pitcher of beers, that the questions and speculations started. But Ueno just looked at him, waiting for him to continue.
“Well, I’m out of time for subtle and sensitive. I banged on the door and shouted Ryouma’s cover name and the distress phrase, which was some kind of bullshit about his mother being sick.”
“It wasn’t the distress phrase,” Ryouma said. “It was the attack phrase.”
“Well yeah,” Hakone agreed. “But it was an attack. What else do you call it when your cover’s about to be blown and there are three high-level ninja closing in with hostile intent?”
Ryouma wrinkled his nose. “You could've said, ‘You probably have time for clothes,’ first.”
“Hindsight, hindsight,” Hakone told him. “I didn’t know you had time for clothes. I didn’t even know if you had a friendly or a hostile with you. You think I wanted to see your naked asses?”
Ueno positively cackled, brown eyes alight with undiluted enjoyment.
Victory! Hakone set bird noises as his next goal. He grinned at Ueno.
“So Ryouma jerks the door open. He’s got a kunai in his hand, epic bed hair, and not a single stitch of clothes on. And there’s a pale-skinned guy in the bed behind him — obviously from western Wind Country, judging by his tattoos — just as naked, trying to disentangle himself from the bed sheets.”
“Bed hair? For a guy who didn't want to see our naked asses, you sure did a lot of staring,” Ryouma teased.
“Rule 63,” Hakone said evenly. “A shinobi never wastes an opportunity to gather intelligence. I figured I was going to have to write a report later. Intel loves details.”
"And that's why Intel loves you,” Ryouma said. “I'm still kinda surprised they didn't get their claws in you first.”
That second remark was a deviation from their usual tag-team telling of the story. A subtle one, but enough to give Hakone pause. His well-hidden surname, Shibata, and the proud gleam in Shibata Tomohiro’s eye, had been obvious at their ANBU induction. Ryouma hadn’t said a word about it since, but he must have put two-and-two together.
Something to ponder at a later date.
“Guess Intel was just too slow,” Hakone said. “Anyway, I look at the Wind guy and ask him, ‘Who’d you piss off recently? There’s three ninja headed this way, and I really don’t think they're here for my buddy.' Guy goes the color of sour milk.”
“I'm assuming he was Suna.” Ueno’s mouth thinned, in what Hakone guessed was stern disapproval of Wind Country’s prejudices against same-sex relations. “Did his teammates see him?”
“I wondered that, too,” Hakone said. “But then I figured they’d have interrupted before anyone got naked if they’d known. So probably they just tracked their guy, same as I did, and got alarmed when they realized he was with another ninja. Which meant they had a sensor, which also meant they’d sensed me.”
“At least I'm not the only one who forgot to veil his chakra,” Ryouma chipped in with a wry smirk.
“I didn’t think I was walking into a trap you’d accidentally baited and set,” Hakone retorted.
Ryouma lifted a hand, acknowledging the hit. “It was accidental, at any rate. I forgot the check-in, I'll admit that, but he and I both cleared we weren't on opposing missions. And Suna's technically an ally.”
“Sure,” Hakone agreed. “And I’ll even give you not knowing that Wind Country natives tend to castrate men they catch in bed together. But he should have warned you.”
“It’s not right,” Ueno said, grim-faced. “Ruining people’s lives just because of what they like in bed. Even worse when they’re soldiers sworn to fight and die for you. It’s just—” She cut herself off with an abrupt gesture, and ran her hand through her hair. “Sorry. Go on.”
Hakone nodded, impressed by Ueno’s fervor. And rationality. For a person prone to bird-noises (where were they?) she was quite the pragmatist, it seemed. “I try not to judge other cultures too harshly for their traditions, but that one is remarkably stupid.”
Hakone judged other cultures all the damn time, but for once Ryouma didn't feel much like calling him out for it.
He rubbed his bad knee, and tried not to wonder what'd happened to that green-eyed shinobi, with his silken chakra and his smile. Chuunin-level at most, despite his control and his age—he must have been six or seven years older than Ryouma's eighteen, too old for teenage recklessness. Nowhere near valuable enough to escape censure, or worse.
Ryouma hadn't known about the threat of castration until afterwards, when Yoshinoya-taichou was reaming him out. He still felt a little sick at the risk he'd run.
Hakone was continuing the story. Ryouma pulled himself together, and listened.
"I can feel the other ninja getting closer. Suna guy is still kind of paralyzed, and Ryouma looks clueless. So I'm like, 'Now would be a good time to get dressed, and pretend you weren't just boning this dude, before his buddies get here.'"
"Took a while for the light to dawn," Ryouma admitted. "I'd never been to Wind Country, at that point. But I looked around, and all that well-ordered chakra was going fireworks with panic. So I figured his teammates finding him with another man was maybe the problem, and that was one thing I could solve without throwing anybody out the window."
"And suddenly," Hakone finished, "there's a super hot chick standing in front of me."
Katsuko's good elbow dug into Ryouma's side. "You did not."
"I didn't know how soon his teammates were coming!" Ryouma protested. "We didn't have time for clothes. And anyway, two completely dressed men in a hotel room with a rumpled bed would've been just as bad. Hakone'll vouch for me: I'm pretty good at henge."
Hakone chuckled. "He is. I know I stared. And I think I blushed."
Which was still more dignified than Ryouma's erstwhile bed-partner, who'd made a noise like a squashed frog. At least he'd stopped trying to scramble under the bed and started making a determined effort to find his clothes.
Katsuko cackled quietly.
Hakone grinned at her. "The other ninja are in the hall now, almost at the door, and I'm thinking, 'How do I want to play this?' But there's really only one way that works. I grab Ryouma's arm and just start reaming him — her — out for missing the check-in."
"So when these three burly Suna nin loom up over his shoulder," Ryouma cut in, "Hakone makes like he doesn't notice them for a second, he's too busy giving me the tongue-lashing of a lifetime. I'm doing my best meek-meets-defiant, and my scholar's got his pants on and his brains mostly together. His teammates aren't paying much attention to him, anyway, once they get an eyeful of me."
"As distractions go," Hakone allowed, "it was a damn good one." He mimed his reaction, glancing over his shoulder and tipping his head up slowly as if just noticing the three other ninja towering over him. "If you'd seen these guys, you'd have thought the Akimichi had a branch clan in Wind Country. They were huge. And I'm thinking, 'If this doesn't work, this is going to get messy.'"
The Suna nin hadn't been that big, objectively speaking. No taller than Ryouma, though the lightest of them probably outweighed him by fifty kilos. But he'd been smaller himself, then. He'd pegged his height to Hakone's, in that hasty henge, which meant he was nearly fifteen centimeters shorter than usual.
Fifteen centimeters, he'd discovered, made for a lot of looming.
And a lot of ogling.
"As it turns out," he told Katsuko, "Fire Country women have a reputation in Suna. Though I guess you probably already knew that."
She laughed, a little dryly. "Fire Country women are a lot for anybody to handle." She slid a quick glance up at him, sly and smug as a vixen.
He reached around her to poke her gently in the ribs, behind the sling-bound barrier of her elbow. The move opened up his own side to retaliation from her good arm, and she didn't hesitate to jab back. Her elbow was almost as sharp as her swords. He grabbed for her biceps with his free hand, and she smirked and twisted her hand, turning her nails into the soft underside of his wrist.
Hakone cleared his throat. "Should I give you two a moment?"
"We're good," Ryouma said quickly. He dropped his hand.
Katsuko's elbow dug, lightning-quick, just underneath his ribs. Ryouma yelped in outrage. She folded her hand in her lap, prim as any young maiden. "Nah," she told Hakone. "I already won. So what happened to the Suna guy?"
Hakone was watching them a little doubtfully. Ryouma met his gaze, daring him to comment. Hakone hitched up one shoulder, and let it go.
"So I figure out which one I think is their squad leader," he said. "I tell Ryouma, 'At least have a little shame,' and drag the blanket off the bed and kind of drape it over her, and then I look the Suna commander right in his piggy little eyes and say, 'I assume your man here missed his check-in, too?'"
It was the kind of quick thinking Ryouma hadn't yet learned to expect from teammates. He remembered standing there barefoot on the carpet, clutching the heavy blanket over unfamiliar new skin, and watching with an awed kind of pride as Hakone bluffed their way out. It was one thing to run a mission beside a shinobi who could improvise a swift response to a jutsu attack. It was something else to watch Hakone glibly assure the Suna nin that Ryouma was a nymphomaniac eros-nin who'd slipped her handlers on their way back from a mission in Shimokita, that their teammate probably wouldn't catch anything from her but it wouldn't hurt to stop by a medical clinic to be sure, and that if she'd caught a child from him Konoha would follow the proper diplomatic channels.
"I sort of dipped my blanket and did a hip-waggle for them," Ryouma added. "It seemed appropriate."
"I figure we gave Ryouma's friend at least a fighting chance," Hakone concluded. "Hard to call a man gay when he may have just gotten a one night stand pregnant."
Katsuko had cupped her hand over her mouth, stifling her laughter, but her hazel eyes were bright with glee over the edge of her thumb. "Catching a child," she said, almost hiccuping. "Like the measles."
"What, aren't they both contagious?" Ryouma blinked innocently at her. "Anyway, they took him off, and we took ourselves off. And I got dressed down something fierce by the captain, but not until after I'd gotten dressed. And that's the story of Bungobashi Province, shirtlessness and all."
Katsuko jostled her shoulder against Ryouma’s arm, still laughing. “I’d clap, but I’ve only got one working hand.”
Ryouma solemnly held his own hand up for her. Katsuko chortled and gave him an enthusiastic high-five.
Hakone smiled wryly. "Think that will be worth trading for an answer or two about ANBU, Ueno-senpai?"
“Maybe,” Katsuko said, and grinned wide and toothy. It was easier to set defensive suspicion aside after hearing about how Hakone had helped Ryouma. That didn’t mean she couldn’t be difficult just for the hell of it. “Depends on what you ask, newbie.”
Hakone grinned back at her. "Have you ever seen someone get assigned to a different team for personality problems?"
Beside her, Ryouma shifted. Katsuko glanced up in time to see him shoot a sharp look at Hakone. She remembered Kakashi on the first day Team 6 met, his discontent and his immediate request to be transferred.
“Nah.” Katsuko shrugged, unrepentant. “Usually if there’s a personality conflict we just kill them and bury the body under the barracks.” She waggled her eyebrows at Hakone. “If you want, I can show you where the best spots are.”
Ryouma looked between the two of them, eyes widening with the alarm of someone whose professional and personal lives had dramatically intersected. Katsuko considered what it would be like if one of her outside friends started flirting with her senpai, and came up short.
She didn’t have many friends outside the team except for Kurenai. Isamu and Mitarou, from her previous ANBU squad, also counted, but they’d always been closer with each other than with her. Looking at the camaraderie Hakone and Ryouma shared, the comfortable way they’d traded off telling the story of Bungobashi Province, made something unnervingly like jealousy curl in her stomach.
She missed Kurenai suddenly, with a fierceness that made her chest ache. Kurenai almost always knew what to say to make things better, and even when she didn’t she’d still let Katsuko lean against her for strength. Katsuko needed strength, right now. She needed the calm that Kurenai carried herself with, like she was the eye of a storm. Kurenai would know how to deal with Hakone and his watchful eyes.
"I might just take you up on that," Hakone said, smile softening. "Although people would probably notice if Ushiro-fukuchou just stopped showing up to meetings."
Katsuko suggested, “You can start small and work up.” She propped herself up on Ryouma again, slitting her eyes closed against the sun’s glare. The wiry muscles of his arm slowly relaxed underneath her cheek.
“You can’t switch onto our team,” Ryouma told Hakone. “We don’t have any openings.”
That was enough to make Katsuko’s chest go warm. Her mouth tugged up at the corners despite herself. Damn right we don’t. Raidou was coming back, the lieutenant was going to get better, and Kakashi had finally gotten with the program and accepted the rest of the squad.
Team Six wasn’t going anywhere.
Thinking about her team sparked the memory of that first night in the bunker, reaching out to Raidou with her fumbling attempts at friendship.
“I’m—I’m really glad you’re okay. So when we get home, can I treat you to lunch? All of you.”
Raidou’s hand had been gentle on her shoulder, his voice low and warm. “I’d like that.”
She’d do better, she promised Raidou silently. She’d help keep this team together until he came back.
“Stop bullying your friend,” she said out loud, flicking Ryouma's arm. “Only I’m allowed to bully people.”
He squinted down at her. "I'm not sure Hakone's bully-able."
“How about it?” Katsuko turned to Hakone. “Are you bully-able?”
Hakone gave her a sly smile, dark eyes lingering on her face. "Depends on the circumstances, senpai."
“Oho,” she said, mostly to make Ryouma twitch like a cat that had stepped on a live wire. She hid a grin and gave Hakone an obvious once-over. He was lean and sharp, with dark hair that stood in contrast to his pale skin. He reminded her of a dagger in its sheath, killing edges hidden beneath an urbane surface. ANBU was just full of pretty boys this year; maybe she could start a collection.
Pretty didn’t make up for the fact that Hakone was too observant for his own good. Katsuko liked her secrets; they kept her warm on cold nights. She didn’t need a near-stranger deciding her dashing good looks and enigmatic allure were just the sort of mystery he’d love to unravel.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Katsuko said, polite and firm. Fun as it might have been to torture Ryouma with a few more minutes of flirtatious repartee, she needed to nip this in the bud. “I’m busy enough bullying my team as it is.” She nudged Ryouma’s side as an afterthought.
Ryouma looked down at her in blatant confusion, but there was a startling amount of relief in his expression, too. Had he really been that disturbed by the flirting? Even without her more personal reasons for turning Hakone down, it wasn’t like Katsuko would have pursued anything more serious than some verbal back-and-forth. She wouldn’t do anything when the team hung on the edge like this.
Team Six was what was important right now. Everything else was a distraction.
Hakone was taking his rejection in stride. He gave Katsuko a good-natured shrug, only a hint of wistful regret lingering at the corners of his mouth. "Chalk up another one for Ryouma-kun. I should be used to it after two years." He finished off his tea and added, "But I’d still be down with hearing about where to dispose of bodies. Just in case."
“Oh, I can definitely do that,” Katsuko said, and almost rubbed her hands together in glee before she remembered she couldn’t move one of them without excruciating pain. She leaned in instead, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “But first: the trick to carrying a body bag you shouldn’t be carrying is to act like—”
Someone politely flared their chakra. Katsuko blinked and straightened up just as a man in an Intel uniform stepped into the courtyard.
“Agent Ueno?” the man asked in a pleasant, deep voice. The Intel jacket molded to his broad shoulders when he tucked the clipboard he was carrying under one arm.
Katsuko gave him the same suspicious look she reserved for all unexpected presents. “That’d be me.”
“We have you scheduled for a debriefing,” the Intel agent said. He had ink-black hair and pale eyes that revealed nothing. “I’ll need you to accompany me.”
Ryouma stiffened. "I thought she got debriefed already." He turned to Katsuko. "That's what Yuuhi pulled you away for in the hospital, wasn't it?"
Hakone turned those sharp eyes of his on the Intel agent, a thoughtful expression on his face.
“You mean Kurenai?” Katsuko gave Ryouma’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “She interviewed me, but it wasn’t a full report. They probably want more details.” She glanced over at the agent and went on the offensive with a brazen grin. “What’s your name, handsome?”
His expression didn’t flicker. “Hide Sakai.” Then his brow arched, infinitesimally. “You can call me ‘Hide-san’, Agent. Yuuhi’s told me about you.”
“Uh-oh,” she deadpanned. Kurenai wouldn’t give away her secrets. Still, it was a decent attempt to unbalance Katsuko before the actual debriefing began. Like a polite salute at the start of a duel; every time Hide made an actual expression she’d score a point.
She couldn’t wait.
“Don’t worry about me, kids,” Katsuko said, and rose to her feet. “Senpai’s off to the trenches. Play nice til I get back.”
"I'll be around," Ryouma said, pinning on a smile. "Promised I'd keep you company with your paperwork, after all. And we're bringing the lieutenant dinner tonight, remember?"
She patted him on the cheek in acknowledgment. Then she exchanged nods with Hakone and sauntered off, head held high. Hide watched her approach with an intensely neutral expression.
“Are you ready, Agent Ueno?”
“Me? Of course.” Katsuko gave him her best battlefield grin. “The question is: are you?”
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