The next morning, Raidou woke up an hour before the training-time-that-wasn’t, this time in his own bed. His old bed. In his old room. That his mothers kept like a monument to If this ANBU thing doesn’t work out, you can always move back home. His feet stuck off the end.
He got up. Showered, shaved, shook out a pair of dusty jounin blues, made oatmeal. Did enough push ups to uncramp his muscles and his brain, and got out of the house before either parent woke up.
He was an hour early to T&I.
The grey building was a nondescript block behind ANBU HQ, like someone had started to build a grain silo and abandoned it as a bad job halfway through. Now it looked like a place where Intel left paperwork to rot.
Inside it smelled like fresh paint and fresher bleach, and not at all like blood. There was a tidy little reception desk in the lobby. Someone had put a lemon air freshener next to the bell. There was also a little bowl of mints.
“Help yourself,” said a pleasant disembodied voice, nearly giving Raidou a cardiac event. Two green eyes rose just above the level of the desk, topped by a froth of curly blonde hair. “Namiashi Raidou? You’re early.”
It wasn’t a child, Raidou realized. The voice was a woman’s mid-soprano, and the eyes were framed by perfect make up. She was just extremely diminutive.
“Uh,” he said, caught flat-footed by a lack of terrorizing ghouls. “Sorry. I can come back?”
“No, no, it actually works out, I have some forms for you to fill in. Would you like some water? Tea? Go ahead and take a seat.” A manicured hand lifted above the desk to point out a squashy sofa tucked between a house plant and a magazine rack. “I have fruit, too, if you missed breakfast. It’s better to tackle the day with energy, don’t you think?”
“I had breakfast,” Raidou said blankly.
“Oh good! Have a banana anyway.” The hair vanished. There was a rustle of paperwork, the breaking-twig sound of a banana being snapped off a stem, and the woman appeared around the edge of the desk armed with a clipboard and the apparent determination to make sure Raidou got enough potassium in his diet. “Here we go. Did you bring ID with you?”
He handed over his dogtags, and pressed an inked thumbprint against her sign-in sheet.
The woman retreated again, disappearing into a small office. She reappeared with an armful of papers, a variety of colorful pens, and a mug of steaming green tea.
“Take all the time you need. If you have any questions, I’m Kitagawa Nene — a lot of people call me Nene-neesan — and I’m happy to help.” She smiled at him, and he realized she had tiny perfect dimples framing her mouth.
“Is the tea drugged?” he asked.
The dimples deepened. “If I wanted to poison you, I would have laced the couch cushions.”
“Noted,” Raidou said, oddly reassured. He accepted the tea, the paperwork, and sat down. The sofa enveloped him in a leathery hug.
Nene — it did suit her better than ‘Kitagawa-san’ — slipped back behind the desk, humming quietly to herself. She kept up a constant low level of noise while Raidou waded through his stack of forms, as if she wanted to flag a beacon of I’m still here. That was a reassuring, too.
This was not the T&I experience he’d expected.
The forms were most of the usuals: a log of recent missions, recent injuries, general information, next of kin. Only the last one was new: T&I Entrance Checklist.
Question 1: Please state your reason for being here.
Raidou chewed the end of his pen — he’d picked a blue one — and finally wrote, Evaluation at Sagara-sama’s request.
Question 2: Do you have any concerns you’d like to discuss with the investigator assigned to your case?
What the hell was he supposed to say to that? After a lengthy debate, he wrote: Yes. They could ask him for details.
Question 3: Have you experienced any psychological symptoms that cause you concern?
The blonde curls popped up. “Yes?”
“How important is the checklist?”
“Well, the investigators really prefer if you complete it to the best of your ability.”
“Aren’t they going to ask all this anyway?”
“We find that putting things into writing really helps focus the mind before the meeting. You’d be amazed how many people show up here with no idea what to talk about.”
“No kidding,” Raidou said dryly. He wondered what they’d do if Ryouma landed on their doorstep. Have him dictate his concerns onto a tape-player?
He wrote mission blackout, scowled at the form and the stupid blue pen, and moved on. The next questions were easier: one about his diet, one about his sleep patterns, one about his parents’ ranks, jobs, and mental health, one about any current medications…
The last items were an anxiety scale and a depression scale. He scored relatively low on both and thought that must be a good sign. Unless they thought he was lying.
Really they’d be better served by a paranoia scale.
Nene collected the paperwork, encouraged him to eat his banana and drink his tea, and asked if he wanted a bathroom break before she sent a message to his investigator.
“Seriously?” he asked.
“People forget,” she said kindly. “It can be very embarrassing.”
“I think I’m good.”
“Very well.” She rapped her knuckles lightly on the wall. A seamless section folded down on hinges, revealing a pair of hissing pneumatic tubes. Nene folded a message into a plastic capsule and placed it into a tube. Air hissed louder; the capsule shot up into the wall. Nene replaced the section. “Shibata-san should be down momentarily.”
Raidou had his tea-mug halfway to his mouth. He paused. “I’m sorry, did you say Shibata?”
“As in head of T&I Shibata-san?”
“That’s correct, yes. He shouldn’t be long.”
There wasn’t enough air in the room. Raidou set his tea down before he did something unfortunate with it. “I’m supposed to be seeing Matsumoto-san.” She hadn’t been nice, but she’d given him a kernel to cling to: we’re not in the business of injuring our own. “Sagara-sama was really specific—”
“Matsumoto-san is a liaison. She facilitates your investigator.” Nene consulted a note. “Though it looks like Shibata-san requested your case personally. It’s really quite an honor.”
“Oh,” Raidou said numbly. “Good. Do you think I could have that intake form back—”
A door on the other side of the lobby opened.
“Namiashi-san,” said a light tenor marred by a rasping hiss. “Come with me.”
Even by shinobi standards, Shibata Tomohiro was a nightmare made flesh. Even by Torture and Interrogation standards, Shibata was a scary, scary man. It wasn’t just the scars — though the twisting acid-splash pattern that had eaten one ear, half the mouth, part of the nose, and sealed the right eye clouded and nearly closed definitely took Raidou back to the worst parts of the last war, when Kirigakure had weaponized gas and poured it into the trenches. It was Shibata’s presence.
He wasn’t a tall man — the top of his head barely cleared Raidou’s nose; he was probably shorter than Kakashi — and he was built compactly, a wedge-shaped chest leading down to narrow hips, muscular without being overbuilt, but he carried himself like he’d carved confidence out of the world with bleeding hands and packed it into his bones.
Most people had a little trace of doubt, an edge of uncertainty; composure papered over cracks, and the hope that no one would notice.
Shibata had half a face and he wore it like a Hokage’s honor.
He also wore T&I greys and the long, black leather coat that was apparently standard-issue. It swept out behind him like dark wings as he strode down a network of corridors, winding his way through a path as unmarked and unmemorable as ANBU HQ’s hallways. He moved fast; Raidou had to stretch his legs to keep up.
Every door they passed was closed. The air still smelled like bleach, edged with lemon. There were no windows.
Without warning, Shibata paused at a door that — to Raidou’s eyes — looked exactly like every other door. A scarred hand turned the handle, releasing a flicker of chakra; the door opened. Shibata stood back to let Raidou enter first.
Tensely, Raidou stepped through.
And found a pleasant, well-lit room with warm apricot carpeting and neutral walls. Peace lilies and succulents bloomed in decorative pots. Tasteful art hung at accent points between bookshelves; landscapes of Konoha mostly, painted when the city was new. The books were a mix of scrolls and textbooks. Raidou’s baffled gaze fell on a title: PTSD and Combat: Coping in the Aftermath.
Two comfortable armchairs sat kitty-corner to each other. A table between them housed an elegant tea set and an array of flavored teas, along with a pitcher of water containing ice cubes. Condensation beaded down the sides. Next to the interior chair, a smaller table held Raidou’s completed paperwork; apparently Nene also had the ability to walk through walls.
There was also, Raidou noted, another bowl of mints.
“If this is a really elaborate genjutsu,” he said at last, “it’s a good one.”
Shibata laughed, soft and hoarse. “Not at all. If I’m going to spend several hours in a place, I prefer the comforts to be genuine.” He shut the door with a click and moved to the interior chair, removing his leather coat and sitting down. The coat was folded over the chair arm. “My apologies for not meeting in my personal office. It’s just too cluttered; this is more pleasant.”
The head of T&I just apologized to me, Raidou thought. About an office.
He had no frame of reference for that.
“It’s not a problem, sir,” he tried. “May I, uh, sit?”
“Please make yourself comfortable, Namiashi-san.” Shibata gestured at the small table with a hand that looked like it had been dipped in melted, dappled plastic. “Would you like some tea or water before we begin?”
If I wanted to poison you, I would have laced the couch cushions.
“No, thank you, sir,” Raidou said, because when in doubt, manners, and he was in a lot of doubt right now. He sat down carefully on the remaining chair. It sank like a cloud under him. He gripped the arm to steady himself.
“I suppose it’s a little prideful of me to assume you know who I am, but you do, I’m sure,” Shibata said, as casual as if they were having a light business breakfast together.
“Shibata-sama, head of T&I,” Raidou said, dry-throated. “I appreciate you taking the time to speak to me, sir—” though I really would have been fine with Matsumoto, “—but didn’t you have, uh, anything better to do?”
And there went manners. Ume would have smacked him.
The non-scarred eyebrow arched. “Better? Hmm, no, I don’t think so. I’m fairly certain interviewing you is, in fact, the very best possible use of my morning, Namiashi-san.”
It felt like every single cell of Raidou’s body had just said ohgod to itself, very quietly.
He swallowed and said, “Exactly how much trouble am I in?”
“With me? So far very little. You arrived on time, were polite to my staff, and only vaguely insubordinate to me once.” Shibata picked up Raidou’s paperwork, along with another file stacked beneath it, and balanced them against his knee. He flipped through them, good eye scanning quickly but thoroughly over the text. For a brief moment, the folder tipped at enough of angle for Raidou to catch sight of the tabs inside it: Team Six’s names, their incident reports. Was that deliberate?
Shibata closed the files. “In general…” He shrugged and set the files aside, holding on to only one sheet of paper: the checklist. A single brown eye fixed Raidou with a clear gaze. “It takes a certain level of trouble to merit an interview with the head of department down here.”
Raidou looked down at the floor.
“Four merchant ships, plus cargo,” he said. Shiratori’s list might as well have been branded on him. “Eight dead sailors. Property damage. Loss of trade. Something about the price of silk. Political consequences. And I just about got Ueno Katsuko killed.” He looked up. “So why haven’t they hung me? I’d hang me.”
Shibata gave a rough, amused snort. “Then I’m glad you’re not wearing the Hokage’s robes.”
It was actually vaguely offensive not to have his post-mission pessimism taken seriously. Raidou squinted at Shibata, trying to figure out how to put yes, okay, I don’t want to die, but it would be nice to have the village at least consider it into words without sounding insane.
“A youthful rush to judgement is a decent quality in a field commander, when snap decisions are all you have time for,” Shibata said, which made Raidou feel approximately eight. “But a Kage’s decisions have far-reaching consequences. Should a captain’s screw up in the field earn him the ultimate price for his mistake?” He turned his head, looking at Raidou through the cloudy, scar-cut mess of his right eye. “I’d have thought your experience with the legacy of such a decision would have nuanced your understanding of the problem.”
It took Raidou a second, and then he realized: Sakumo.
The captain who'd burned a mission to save his comrades, and killed nearly two hundred shinobi as a consequence. Raidou had been twelve, a genin running messages far behind the front lines. He still remembered the news trickling through the ranks. The gut-punch shock, because the White Fang was as good as the Sannin, three-quarters of a legend and dependable as the moon, and he'd failed.
The news of his death, a few months later, surprised no one.
A lot of people had been pleased, because the village was a root network: everyone knew someone who'd lost someone, and there was satisfaction in a blood price paid. Some had been indifferent: neither glad or sad, just relieved the business was done. Raidou remembered a few, though, who'd grieved. Older jounin, dark-eyed and grim, who'd gathered around a campfire at the edge of the battlefield, where it was safe to let a flame grow. There'd been a man, a shinobi with scarred knuckles and black hair, who'd sat with his hands over his face and cried until he ran out of voice.
The legacy was Kakashi, who'd grown up in shadow and stigma, cross-balanced between Sakumo's failure and Minato's shining future. Kakashi, who was a genius and a disaster, and still served the village that had slain his father.
What would he be like today, if Sakumo had lived?
And then there was the next thought.
What would he be like tomorrow, if Raidou died?
Kakashi was only one fifth of the team. There was also Ryouma, barely rooted, showing glints of promise and seams of trauma. Genma, who deserved far better for his officer's career than two mission injuries and a captain who collapsed like a faultline. And Katsuko.
Katsuko, with her old scars and her blacked-out folder, who'd punched him sane and hugged him afterwards, like she didn't care about where he'd gone just so long as she got him back. Katsuko, who'd never been anything but one hundred percent on his side, at his back, ready to kill for him. If he ever needed blood, she'd probably offer both wrists and ask which vein.
Well, no, she'd grab one of the rookies, but only because she was smart too.
He still needed to petition Yondaime-sama to declassify her file. He couldn’t do that swinging from a tree.
And then there was his mothers—
He broke the thought before it dragged him all the way down the rabbit hole. Shibata was still waiting, patient as a glacier.
Raidou drew a short breath, and said, “What do I need to do?”
The unmangled corner of Shibata’s mouth twitched, as if he was pleased Raidou had finally caught a clue. “Have a conversation with me. Answer honestly.” He poured himself a cup of light, jasmine-scented tea, steam furling around his hand. “I take it you’re rethinking ‘suicide’ as an appropriate response to your circumstances?”
“Execution, not suicide,” Raidou said. “I don’t want to die, I just thought— thought the village might need me to. I’m guessing not, though, since I’m here instead, and you seem pretty set against it. Sir.”
Shibata picked the checklist up again, glancing over it. “I haven’t made my evaluation yet,” he said mildly. “But I’m glad to see you’re keeping a more open mind.”
Raidou swallowed. Now it felt like T&I, despite the soft carpets and houseplants. It was a ghoul's talent to remind you how much you had to lose, and then dangle that like a carrot.
“I want to live,” he said, because honesty. “And make it back to my team. I don’t want Tsurugahama Port to happen ever again. Ask me anything you need to, sir.”
“Good. Let’s talk about these blackouts you’re concerned about. Is this the first time you’ve injured a teammate during one?”
“To my knowledge,” Raidou said.
“Meaning I might get a different answer if I asked your previous mission partners?” Shibata took a slow sip of tea with the functional side of his mouth, sucking it through his teeth to compensate for missing sections of lip. “There’s no mention of blackouts in your ANBU records. How far back would you suggest I go?”
“Six years, give or take a few months,” Raidou said, and saw a quick flicker of comprehension in Shibata’s eye, immediately controlled. “The reports won’t be much good; I had a lot of commanders in the war, and most of them weren’t strong record keepers. But six years would have been the first time, I think. And I say ‘to my knowledge’ because when I came out of it on the front lines, there were a lot of bodies, and some of them were my friends, but I don’t think I killed them.” He clenched his hands together. “Someone would have said something.”
Shibata nodded. He didn’t make notes; he probably didn’t need to. “Presuming there was someone left to say anything, yes, I’d expect so.” His voice was entirely neutral. “How often did this happen, six years ago?”
“Maybe four times,” Raidou said. “And again, near the end. I don’t— there are pieces about the end I just don’t remember. I did counselling after the war; they said that was how my mind had decided to cope, and I shouldn’t poke at it.”
“Did you tell the counsellors about your combat blackouts? Or was that a memory you also repressed?”
“No.” Raidou grimaced. “I remembered it. I just thought it was a normal battlefield thing. Everyone talked about extreme reactions. We were exhausted, eating bad rations, there was always some new poison to worry about. Everyone went a little weird. One of my commanders said I was a natural berserker; she wanted three more like me.”
“So your commander nurtured this tendency of yours,” Shibata said, voice thoughtful and laced with the faintest edge of judgement. “Do you recall her name? Did she survive the war, to your knowledge?”
“Hyuuga Nozomi,” Raidou said. Lightning-fast hands, calm judgement, broken neck. “She died at Shimanto Creek.”
Disappointment sleeted over Shibata’s face, almost too fast to catch, but probably deliberate. “A pity,” Shibata said, and Raidou had no idea if it was because her death extinguished a potential corroborator to Raidou’s story, or because a Konoha shinobi had died, or if Shibata was just sad to have lost a potential plaything. “So,” Shibata continued. “Four episodes during the war. Or was that five? And then nothing until this mission.”
“Yes, sir,” Raidou agreed.
Raidou sat back in his chair. The cushions creased under him, velvety soft. “I got made captain,” he said, because it was an obvious box to check. “Higher stakes. There was a coup in Fire Country that nearly assassinated the Daimyou; everyone’s talking about war. It was a difficult mission. There was gen— There was genjutsu. I thought my teammate, Ueno, had died.”
Shibata took another sip of tea. It hissed through his teeth. “You’re not a fan of genjutsu? I suppose not. Your Academy records show you repeated your basic genjutsu course twice.” He smiled; it was like watching a corpse rictus. “Did you ever wonder if your teachers were telling the truth when they told you your grades and behavior would follow you the rest of your life? They were.”
“Maybe they should have kept us in school longer,” Raidou said, nettled, before he remembered manners.
“Your mothers are both teachers, I believe. I wonder what they’d have to say about that idea.”
Was that a threat? Or just a reminder that Raidou had family, and Shibata knew where they lived.
Raidou forced his jaw to unclench. "Depends which one you ask," he said. "Civilian kids graduate at fourteen; Ume seems pretty good with that. Shun's graduated nine-year-olds. That's harder."
“It’s an interesting problem,” Shibata said conversationally. “Supplying Konoha with enough talented shinobi during wartime. Perhaps there was a flaw in the system that allowed you to slip through the cracks with insufficient training. Or is that not what you were implying?”
It was like trying to have a conversation with a three-headed snake. You got two nailed down, and the third one struck you in the face.
“If I’m honest, will you be?” Raidou said.
“Is there something you want to ask me?” The mobile half of Shibata’s face looked amused. “I thought I was the only one with questions today. By all means, ask.”
“Traditionally, conversations are two-sided,” Raidou said, like there was any doubt Shibata’s version of a conversation wasn’t simply scaffolding for a slow-burn interrogation. “You didn’t answer my first question.”
“Conversations are definitely two-sided affairs. I hope you don’t think I’ve been monopolizing the discussion,” Shibata said sardonically. But then he shifted, mockery sharpening to razor-blade focus. “I have been thoroughly honest with you so far, Namiashi. I don’t currently foresee a need to change that tactic.”
That was probably as good as Raidou was going to get, and he knew he was running on pure luck to win that much.
"Okay," he said, and screwed his courage to the wall. "Of course I had insufficient training. I didn't fall through a crack. I was graduated early, deliberately, with the rest of my classmates because the war needed living bodies, and we were it. That's not the fault of my teachers, or even the fault of my village. We won the war. It worked. But now I'm an ANBU captain and my team has one kid who can't read, another who doesn't trust we won't stab him in his sleep, and a kunoichi with a literal bomb in her belly. The lieutenant’s decent but overstretched, and I have rage blackouts that break seafronts because genjutsu gives me hives.” He leaned forwards, bracing his elbows on his knees. "But I'm not supposed to say any of that, because a shinobi has unquestioning loyalty to his village, even though he's also supposed to see underneath the underneath, and what I'm seeing is mostly broken cogs in a machine so overtasked that it'll split ANBU teams in half to execute our own countrymen."
He sat back, breathing hard, and waited for the ax to drop.
Shibata was silent for a long moment. When he finally spoke, it was quiet. “Unquestioning loyalty is not the same thing as blindness to weakness. ‘A shinobi works at all times to expand his limitations’,” he quoted. Rule 57. “You wear body armor not because your skills are lacking, but because a gut wound would end your mission and maybe your life.”
That… was not what Raidou had expected.
He rubbed a shaky hand over his mouth, swallowed, and said, “My mother — the ninja one — used to say there is no perfect training, the thing worth learning is adaptability. When we flex, we don’t break.”
“You should listen to your mother.” Shibata topped off his tea and offered a cup again. This time, Raidou accepted; it was something steady to wrap his hands around. Shibata continued, “I’d like to know more about those times you’ve broken rather than bent. On this mission, you said it was a combination of genjutsu and seeing your subordinate Ueno injured. Is that right?”
Raidou burned his mouth on the first swallow. “Do you need details?”
“I died first,” Raidou said. “Kiri had a hidden genjutsu-user in the nursery. When I went to take care of the baby and the little girl, they vanished, and I caught a katana between the shoulderblades. Came out here.” He touched the center of his chest.
Breath on his neck. Hello, Konoha.
“So, that was rattling. Spent a couple seconds thinking I was dead, and then the sword melted into metal restraints, so I figured maybe not. The Kiri-nin didn’t kill me only because she was wrangling the kids — at least, I’m guessing, since I’m still here. We fought. She did a couple more brain-melting things; I blew her off with an explosion tag. She made me think my skin was shredding, and—” Protected screaming, traumatized children with her last breath. They haven’t done anything. “I cut her head off.”
Shibata waited, silent.
“Then the house caught fire,” Raidou said. “I don’t know who did that. Servants tried to protect the children; I knocked them out, and killed the baby.” A hot line slipped down his cheek. He rubbed it away, carried on. “Went to kill the girl, and she turned into flowers.”
Shibata’s good eyebrow lifted fractionally. “How did you break out of the genjutsu, assuming you recognized it for what it was?”
“Bit my tongue the first time. Stabbed myself with a senbon the second. Tried a kai for the flowers; that didn’t work. The last time, I didn’t break out of it.” He closed his eyes, picking slowly through concussed, fractured memories. “The second genjutsu-user, I think he mixed henge with genjutsu, maybe some kawarimi for actual flowers, I don’t know. The ceiling was on fire, the girl was gone, the shinobi vanished, and then Katsuko was there, and— Then the shinobi came out of the wall. He stabbed her in the back. She died at my feet, next to the baby.”
His voice wasn’t shaking. She hadn't really died.
His eyes were still hot, though.
Shibata gave him a minute to compose himself. “If it hadn’t been Ueno, do you think you’d have had the same reaction?”
“I might have broken less things.” Raidou ground the heels of his palms against his eyes, then dropped his hands and looked at Shibata squarely. “Ueno’s… I won’t call her a favorite, because I don’t believe in favoritism, but I’ve known her the longest. She’s special. She's been injured on my watch before — in the demon mission, most recently — but this was different. She was my direct responsibility, and I couldn't help her.”
“Your previous mission report states you thought you saw Tousaki killed fighting the largest demon. But no blackout.” Shibata’s fingers steepled. “I’m sorry, Namiashi, but I don’t believe this is simply a matter of fearing you’d lost a subordinate you were directly responsible for. You can quibble about words, but that looks like favoritism to me.”
“The demon queen didn’t scramble my brain first,” Raidou countered. “I was clear-headed in that fight.”
“A combination of weakness to genjutsu and favoritism, then,” Shibata tossed back.
“I don’t favor her,” Raidou said. “She gets the same workload as the rookies, and the same discipline if she steps out of line. I’ve just known her longer than the rest of the team.”
Shibata gave him an ironic look. “Understood. She’s your favorite subordinate, but you don’t treat her any differently than the less favored. Until you do. By destroying a wharf and sinking four merchant ships in retaliation for her apparent death. Which—” This time, he actually did pause to consult his notes, and quoted, “‘Namiashi states that he ordered Ueno to stay behind after making sure she was not critically injured, then went in pursuit of the Kiri-ninja escorting Tsuto’s family.”
“Technically, that last part was mission-sanctioned, except for the destruction,” Raidou said, aware he was standing on landsliding ground. “There was also some head trauma involved.”
“You’re disappointing me, Raidou,” Shibata said, taking casual possession of Raidou’s given name. “Your previous superiors praised your directness and honesty.”
It was a lot like getting hit, except right in the integrity, not a fleshy part that bruised and healed. Raidou wasn't a man who weaseled. And yet here he was, weaseling. Making excuses. Because he was afraid.
He drew a breath, released it. Straightened his spine.
"You're right, sir," he said. “I apologize.” He wet his lips and said the rest. "There is no excuse for my actions. I lost control in a moment that required leadership, and I allowed my baser emotions to take over, because of favoritism. And because of weakness. And I'm doing it again now because I want my team back, and I'm afraid that admitting weakness, and favoritism, and poor judgement will make me lose them."
Shibata nodded once. “Better.” He studied Raidou for a moment. “Why do you want your team back?”
“Because they’re mine,” Raidou said. He flushed, felt the heat rising up the back of his neck, but Shibata wanted unvarnished honesty and that was it. “Because they’re amazing. Hatake’s a vicious asshole, but he’s nearly turned himself inside out for this team. Twice. I think he has the capacity to be a human being as well as a ninja, and I want to see that happen. Tousaki’s smart and no one’s bothered to tell him. He’s shaky now, but all he needs is a stable foundation and he’s going to blossom. A year from now? He’ll be a force to reckon with. Ueno already has three times the firepower of most ninja, but none of the support. She’s got me, a few friends, and about a hundred scars she can’t talk about. She needs someone in her corner. Someone who trusts her, not just someone willing to point and fire her. And Shiranui—” He paused, then finished, “Is a damn good lieutenant. His last team fractured; he deserves one that stays together. And he needs someone to notice how good he is against the backdrop of crazy talent, otherwise he’ll be invisible, doing all of the work and getting none of the credit. If Yondaime-sama has someone who can do that—”
He couldn’t make himself say, I’ll step aside. They could order him. He wasn’t going to volunteer.
“Then there’d be two of you in Konoha?” Shibata concluded. “I’m beginning to form a better understanding of the reports I read from the interviews with your team.” He changed positions, uncrossing and then recrossing his legs in the opposite direction, like a full body subject change. “Let’s assume favoritism was a minor factor here. Shiranui’s report mentions that you had apprised him of your vulnerability to genjutsu. What else have you done to address that weakness?”
“Everything I could think of,” Raidou said wearily. “Solo training, further education classes. I tried working with an Uchiha for a while; that was a disaster. I have enough of a handle on it to cope in the average fight, and I compensate with taijutsu and ninjutsu. In a team-setting, I make my teammates aware it might be a problem and hope I won’t need their help.”
“Given the severity of the consequences of failure, that’s a significant thing to trust to hope,” Shibata said mildly. “When is the last time you worked intensively with a genjutsu specialist?”
“Eighteen months, give or take. I gave up finding a new one after I made Omashi Mito start throwing things.” Bruises were conducive to a lot of training, but there was a limit.
“And the last class you took?”
“Ten months. At this point, I’m just repeating them.”
Shibata fixed him with weighing look. “You strike me as a man who likes his world very ordered. Very controlled. Your reports are meticulous. You’re more than punctual — I note you arrived nearly an hour early to this appointment. But when that order is unobtainable — when genjutsu destroys it, or the battlefield is too chaotic, or your fear overwhelms you…” He made an exploding tag gesture with one hand, a fast detonation turning into a slow-motion expansion, and hissed a bursting sound through his half-lips.
Raidou sat with that for a moment. “You think I’m a control freak.”
Shibata chuckled, a light rumbling sound. “I didn’t say freak. But I think a loss of control is at the heart of this problem, yes.”
There’d been no control in the trenches. There’d just been survival, and those who didn’t. Bone-grinding exhaustion and bloody calculations: how many bodies dropped for every mile of regained ground. Chemical gas — the kind that burned half a face off — and bloodlines so extreme that the wielders died as often as the victims.
And some days, when too many people died, Raidou had stopped thinking about tactics, or strategies, or how much he wanted to make it home. He'd just wanted to rip into something until it hurt as badly as he did.
So he'd taken his filters off, and gone somewhere else for a while.
The demon mission had been intense, but he’d always had a plan. Even when Ryouma had fallen and Raidou’s heart had dropped to his boots, there’d been four other people to worry about, and a civilian village to protect. But when steel had punched Katsuko’s chest out, there’d been nothing.
I made a choice.
He’d made a choice in the screaming void of that moment, because seeing her fall had torn something loose. He’d forgotten about the rest of the team, about his duties to home and hearth, about the one-hundred rules of shinobi conduct. He’d iced over, cold-shocked, and then he’d let himself burn.
And he’d beaten a man to death.
Just for a second, the crunch-crack of breaking bone echoed under his hands. He flattened his palms against his knees. I made a choice.
Which meant, perhaps, that he could unchoose it.
“How do you manage chaos, sir?” he asked. Besides torturing other people.
“Me personally? Seeing as I head a department and raised a child, I’d say by turning chaos to my own ends. Or were you asking for advice?”
“Both, I guess,” Raidou said, but he was already reconsidering. Shibata ran in entirely different circles, and he was never without control. The entire point of his career was to strip control from others — like this meeting, for example.
Then again, Shibata had clearly worked on battlefields once, and kept enough sanity to survive from then until now.
The head of T&I picked up his sheaf of papers, and for the first time made a note. From Raidou’s upside-down view, it looked like a checkmark and a clock face, and… a smile? Shibata’s eye flicked up, catching Raidou short. “You’re a brave man, Namiashi Raidou. I can see why they made you captain.”
“Can you see them keeping me as one?” Raidou asked.
Shibata regarded him for a long moment, and Raidou offered a brief, distracted sliver of gratitude that Kakashi had taught him how to cope with a one-eyed gaze like an iron spike. Then Shibata said, “It’s within the realm of possibility,” and Raidou almost doesn’t hear the rest because the air had drained out of the room. “The decision isn’t mine to make, but my recommendation will certainly carry some weight.”
Raidou didn’t bother playing coy. Shibata didn’t seem like a man who’d appreciate it. “You’ll advocate for my case?” he said.
“If it were my decision, before you could be reinstated I’d insist on several weeks of intensive genjutsu work with a specialist in my department, and at least a few sessions with a trauma management counsellor. I suspect you could benefit from learning trauma management techniques for your own symptoms, and your subordinates.”
Raidou glanced at PTSD and Combat: Coping in the Aftermath, and felt his mouth tighten.
“I’ve done genjutsu work, sir,” he said. We just talked about this. “It doesn’t stick.”
“Then clearly, you haven’t worked with the right teacher,” Shibata said calmly.
Raidou clamped his teeth on a reply. If Shibata wanted to take his corner, Raidou didn’t intend to talk the man out of it.
“Yes, sir.” He picked up his tea and drank it; it had grown cool.
Shibata gave him a look that actually made Raidou believe the man was a parent, as well as a professional sociopath. It said, Your shields are made of glass, kid, and I see right through them.
“You do know what department you came to today, don't you?” Shibata said. “I'm fairly certain the genjutsu specialists we have here could make your friend Omashi-taichou weep for his mother.”
Raidou had met Omashi's mother once and was pretty sure even Omashi wouldn't dare weep for her, unless he wanted to get smacked with the hickory stick she carried to beat her way through crowds and educate children. He was also sure that wasn't the point.
Maybe Shibata’s people were that good. Maybe in three weeks he’d be walking, eating, and breathing genjutsu, and he wouldn’t have to stab himself in the leg just to break one.
Maybe Shibata nursed orphaned baby birds on weekends.
“I’ll take whatever talent you can throw at me, sir,” Raidou said. And try not to make them cry.
“Good,” Shibata said. He held his silence for a moment, and then the mostly intact side of his mouth lifted at the corner. “Don’t look so discouraged. I’ve yet to find a well-forged weapon so dull it couldn’t be sharpened.”
The head of T&I just gave me a pep-talk.
That was so outside the realm of common sense it was actually a little warming. Sagara-sama was disappointed in him, but Shibata thought he could mend. A well-forged blade. Something salvageable.
Cautiously, Raidou said, “Thank you, sir.” He cleared his throat and reached for a safe subject. “Can I ask — is there any news about Fukuda?”
Shibata looked approving. “She’s been a valuable asset. When you see your lieutenant, please pass along my gratitude.”
“Yes, sir.” There must be another set of rooms in T&I, where concrete floors and shiny steel instruments replaced the squashy chairs, unless Shibata used the same conversational gambit on every target he faced. Somehow, Raidou doubted it.
He wondered how many pieces Fukuda had left.
She’d nearly taken Kakashi’s head off. Ryouma loathed her. Katsuko had ignored her with the deliberate care of someone who’d stab if provoked. Genma had saved her life, if not her arm, and fought to keep her breathing for Konoha’s sake.
She was the captain of a dead team and a monster, and Raidou still felt the faintest flick of sympathy for her.
“Will she be sent home?” he asked carefully.
“That depends on a number of factors.” Shibata looked at his empty teacup, then reached over and selected a mint from the bowl, popping it into his mouth. He must get dry-mouth, Raidou realized suddenly: that was why there were mints everywhere. Shibata continued, “Diplomatic relations being what they are, I believe we’re waiting to hear how much Kirigakure actually values her life.”
Kirigakure weren’t known for valuing anything, except a fast, brutal kill. A crippled shinobi was worse than useless to them; she was a liability.
“If they don’t?” Raidou said.
Shibata gave him a long, inscrutable look. “Yondaime-sama will make a determination.”
Sometimes shinobi from enemy villages traded up for Konoha. It was rare, but it did happen, especially if they brought useful secrets with them. ANBU’s own quartermaster had escaped Lightning; Morita Rei was one of the few who’d managed to gain acceptance and respect in Konoha. Raidou had never heard of anyone defecting from Mist.
Ryouma will be pleased, he thought. He wanted her dead from the start.
There was another reason to make it back to the team: so Raidou could tell him. And deal with the fallout afterwards, since Ryouma seemed like the type to hold a hot, hard grudge and kick himself later, when bodies were cold and dead.
He raised his head and looked at Shibata. “Do you need anything else, sir?”
“You haven’t asked me how your team is doing. Is that because you don’t want to know, or because you’re afraid to ask and have me refuse to answer?”
Raidou drew a sharp breath. Just when he thought Shibata might be halfway decent, he was reminded that the man was built out of ulterior motives, and all of them were hinged for Konoha’s benefit, not Raidou’s.
“If you have information about my team, I want it,” he said roughly.
Shibata didn’t hesitate; he didn’t even have to check his notes. “All of your subordinates have been cooperative with their debriefers, although some more than others.” No surprise there. “Tousaki is in good health and working with Shiranui on mission paperwork. Ueno is on medically restricted duty for two weeks, but is expected to recover uneventfully. Shiranui and Hatake are still hospitalized.” Now Shibata consulted his notes, picking up a folder and flicking a few pages. “Shiranui is scheduled for a procedure this morning, and Hatake is still in the chakra injuries ward.” He pinned Raidou with a look. “And every single one of them made it a point, during their debriefings, to mention that they felt your suspension was everything from ‘an unnecessary procedural call’ to ‘a bunch of bullshit.”
“Oh,” Raidou said, quiet.
Kurenai had said roughly the same thing — I should tell you, Namiashi-taichou, that the members of your team I interviewed have full confidence in you. — and it had felt like getting stabbed with warm ice. But coming from a standard-level Intel agent, no matter how talented or sympathetic she might have been, it hadn’t held much weight against the mountain of his sins.
Repeated by Shibata, it almost felt like something he could believe.
“That surprises you?” Shibata asked him.
“From Hatake it does,” Raidou said. “From the others, it helps.”
“Hatake’s loyalty — and Shiranui’s, Tousaki’s, and Ueno’s — isn’t lightly earned, captain. Let that rest in your mind. It certainly made an impression in mine.”
The head of T&I just gave me another pep-talk.
He’d also said ‘captain’.
Shibata was like an entire fleet of Uchiha police compressed into one man: there was enough room for good cops, bad cops, and all the grubby shades in between. Plus a clan's worth of sly manipulation.
“A good impression,” Shibata continued, delicately refilling Raidou’s teacup and offering it back to him. “Try to remember that in the coming days. Both my impression, and your team’s faith in you.”
Because the coming days were going to be trench warfare.
Raidou wrapped his hands around the cup, cradling the tiny pilot light of warmth between scarred palms, and felt his mouth pull sideways. Something like a smile, if you traded sickle edges for humor.
He'd done real trenches. If they weren't going to hang him, weren't even going to skin the tattoo off him, then a bloodless, bureaucratic fight didn't hold much terror.
"Yes, sir," he said, and met Shibata's gaze. "Thank you, sir."
Shibata’s good eye turned hooded and pleased. He settled back in his chair, sipping his tea. “I think I’ve gotten everything I needed from you. I have a little more time blocked off. Is there anything you want to ask me, before I dismiss you?”
“When can I talk to my team again?” Raidou said.
“When there’s been a determination in your case,” Shibata said opaquely. “Anything else?”
What am I supposed to do in the meantime?
That wasn’t a question for Shibata — if only because he’d answer it and the results would sting. Raidou set his cup carefully aside. “No, sir,” he said. “I appreciate your time. I’ll wait to hear from your genjutsu instructor, and the trauma counsellor.”
“In that case…” Shibata put down his tea and stood. He still moved with the fluid grace of a shinobi in peak fitness. “I’ll hand you back over to Nene-san. She’ll help you find your way back to the lobby. It was a pleasure to meet you, Namiashi Raidou.”
Raidou hastened to his feet and bowed.
“It was—” Honesty. “Mostly terrifying, sir.”
Shibata’s ruined mouth curved, and he tilted his head. At Raidou’s back, the door opened soundlessly and Nene’s smart little heels clicked on the floor.
“Namiashi-san,” she said expectantly.
How had she—? Of course the room was monitored. It was T&I.
Raidou bowed again, feeling the back of his neck heat with acute embarrassment, and turned to follow Nene out of the room. The door clicked shut behind him.
The journey back up to the reception was a temporal blur of disbelief and occasional cringing, as he remembered saying things like There was also some head trauma involved. Nene turned around when they reached the main desk and said cheerfully, “You survived! Well done. Would you like another banana?”
Raidou blinked down at her. “I — think I’m set for fruit.”
“Your choice,” she said. “I have an outtake sheet for you to sign — thumbprint is fine, thank you — and an aftercare pamphlet.” She handed him a slim booklet. “I’ll be in touch regarding your follow up appointment. Feel free to sit if you’d like to take a moment before you leave.”
Raidou shook his head firmly. “I need to get going, but thanks,” he said, and made his escape before additional tea, mints, or a fruit bowl could be thrown at him. He passed an exceptionally pale young woman in a chuunin vest on his way out, and offered her an encouraging smile. She stared right through him. Her lips were chapped and bitten raw.
It wasn’t just his bad day, then.
The rookie dorms had lights glowing at the windows. Raidou walked past without letting his head turn. Ryouma was the only one who might be there. Kakashi and Genma were still at the hospital. Katsuko could be anywhere.
Though if he had to guess, he’d bet she was at someone’s bedside.
Ryouma, too, for that matter. They wouldn’t just sit idle. Hell, if Kakashi could walk yet, he was probably making himself a nuisance in Genma’s room. Or crafting plans to break out of the hospital.
You haven’t asked me how your team is doing.
Shibata had flicked that out like a scalpel, but he’d missed the artery. Raidou was worried about his team. About Genma’s leg, Kakashi’s chakra, Ryouma’s spirit, Katsuko’s heart — but he wasn’t worried about them falling apart. After two missions, the bones were built; they’d stick together.
He’d be just as worried if he was right there, standing next to them. Perhaps that was a captain thing.
He changed gears from a walk to a jog, letting his muscles stretch on the uneven path down the Hokage’s mountain. The journey back from the safehouse had nearly run all of them into the ground, but he’d done nothing that qualified as real exercise since then. If he didn’t get back to it soon, he’d lose condition, and it'd be a damn sight harder to train the rookies if he couldn't even keep up with them.
Tomorrow, he decided, he’d get back to the training field. He'd slept through too many 5ams.
Today, a run through the village would do. He picked up the pace until the wind tugged at his shirt and ruffled his hair, and turned his mind to where it was supposed to be. Genma's leg was going to need rehab, and the man needed to work on his taijutsu anyway. Kakashi and Ryouma both needed to buff their chakra stamina; this falling-over-at-the-end-of-missions habit was already old. And Katsuko—
Needed to take them out to dinner, actually. Since she’d promised.
And maybe Raidou would get Shun to let him look over her textbooks again. She had a copy of Invisible Prisons: Inside the Art of Genjutsu that she’d stopped leaving in strategically obvious places around the house. He just needed to ask.
He sighed. Ask and pretend it wasn’t excrutiating. But if the only thing standing between him and his team was genjutsu training and some armchair time in a therapist’s office, he’d kick both in the ass and get it done.
“It’s on the bookshelf in the bedroom. Help yourself.”
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