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Down to the Bone[Mar. 24th, 2016|07:09 pm]

tousaki_ryouma
[Begins the morning of May 18, Yondaime Year 5, two days after A Loser's Just a Learner on His Way to Better Things and one day after What You Don't Know (Will Kill You)]

Ryouma woke in the last hour before dawn, with the waxing moon painting a thin pale stripe over the foot of the bed and Ayane shuddering in a nightmare's grip beside him. His hand slipped on her bare shoulder when he tried to wake her. She was slick with sweat, and her breath came ragged as if she'd been fighting or running.

He could guess the dream that'd caught her. He shifted his grip to her elbow and shook her harder. "Ayane. Wake up."

She twitched, gasped, and lashed out with a blow that would have collapsed his windpipe if he hadn't shoved her elbow down. She wrenched away. Ryouma grabbed the kunai under his pillow before Ayane's flailing hand found it, and rolled off the bed.

He hit the threadbare rug with a hard thump. Something metallic dug cruelly into his hip—hopefully the belt-buckle on the jeans he'd discarded a few hours ago, and not one of the numerous knives Ayane kept tucked into her clothing. He struggled to his feet and found her sitting up with her back to the wall, sheets kicked free from her legs.

She said hoarsely, "Didn't anyone ever tell you not to wake a nightmare?"

"More dangerous than waking a ninja?" Ryouma dropped his kunai in the corner, where no one was likely to step on it. "You okay?"

Ayane shook her head. She reached, after a moment, for the sheet, and pulled it up over her lap. "I'd like a shirt. And a glass of water."

The dresser was near enough to the kitchenette to make one trip. Ryouma paused to skin into boxers, then brought water and a clean tee-shirt back to her. "Painkillers?"

She shook her head again, without lowering the mug he'd brought. One long smooth shot, pale throat working as she swallowed, and then she wiped water from her lips and passed the mug back to him. "Thanks."

"Sure." He set the mug on the windowsill. "You...wanna talk about it?"

"Gods, no." She raked tangled hair back with both hands. "I don't need to relive it. And you don't want to hear it, anyway."

Ryouma perched, carefully, on the edge of the bed. "I'd listen if it'd help. You can't say I don't owe you."

"For listening to you all afternoon?" she asked, dryly. "You didn't whine all that much."

He hitched a shoulder in half a shrug, and watched her run her fingers through her hair, combing the snarls out before she twisted it up again into a low knot at the nape of her neck. She was still graceful, but the unforgiving moonlight caught the tremor in her hands.

He reached out. His fingers touched her ankle, skimming over the strong bone, closing gently over the curve. Her hands stilled. She looked back at him.

"If you don't want me to listen," he said, "I could help distract."

She watched him for a moment in silence. Then she laughed softly. "If that's all you can do, at least you do it well." She pushed him back onto the bed, and he pulled her down with him.



When he woke again, in daylight, Ayane was gone. His clothes made a tidy pile by the foot of the bed, where she'd swept them as she picked up her own. On the weapons chest beneath the window, Genma's scrolls rested on top of the rumpled stack of papers from yesterday's hours of work. Lists of all the medication names he knew, in kana and then, laboriously and much corrected, in kanji; sheets of practice kanji, with Ayane's writing swift and sure at the top and then his own, ruinously ragged, below.

Ayane had transcribed six pages of field first-aid before he exhausted the limits of his knowledge. He wondered, uneasily, whether his cobbled-together description of treatment for a sucking chest wound or an amputated limb had been the one to feed her nightmares.

There was a note on the very top of the stack. It was written all in kana, the characters large and clear enough that even he could decipher them.

Training with Hakone in the Forest. Thanks for the night.

Ryouma thought of Hakone, dragged out of bed at the crack of dawn to kill giant centipedes and spiders the size of a horse, and felt a moment's pity. As far as distractions went, he'd gotten the better end of the deal.

He opened the window. The air was brilliantly clear, warm already with the strong spring sunlight, and the leaves were darkening towards summer green. Below, foreshortened by distance and angle, he spotted a slim figure in black and shining silver hair crossing the training fields towards the barracks.

Ryouma leaned out the window. "Kakashi!"

Even from here, he could see Kakashi twitch: the shoulders springing back, the slouched spine straightening. The masked face lifted, and Kakashi paused.

Then he corrected course, angling towards the side of the barracks instead of the door. He stopped under Ryouma's window. "Fun night?"

Ryouma scratched the side of his neck, and found the bruise Ayane had left there. He grinned. "Mostly. Once the studying was over."

From the third story he couldn't see much of Kakashi's face under the mask, but the edge of a dry smile still crept into Kakashi's voice. "Ready for more anatomy, or have you had your fill?"

"I'm insatiable," Ryouma informed him. "Also, the lieutenant gave me a scroll I think you'll like. I haven't read it yet, but I looked at the pictures."

That got an intrigued head tilt. "Only if you put a shirt on," Kakashi said, and headed back towards the door.

His chakra sense must still be recovering, or he'd have chakra-walked straight up the wall. Or maybe he was just giving Ryouma time for that shirt. Ryouma scrambled to find it.

Out of the goodness of his heart, he added trunks and pants, too.



Kakashi pounced on Genma's Chakra Basics scroll like a starving man on a bowl of rice, and proceeded to completely ignore Ryouma for the twenty minutes it took him to read it. Three times.

"Katsuko would've read it to me," Ryouma told him.

"Shh," Kakashi said, still enrapt, and rolled back to an earlier section.



Eventually, Kakashi dragged himself down from the lofty heights of solitary learning and descended into the quagmire of explanations. Each chakra point and pathway had a name, apparently, and there were more than ten thousand of them. No one but a Hyuuga could possibly know or care about all of them, but there were more than a hundred that every decent field-medic ought to know, along with all the corresponding bones and muscles.

"I've got some of the body parts down," Ryouma said, pulling out yesterday's sheaf of papers. "Ayane helped me with the standard kanji."

Kakashi flipped through the pages. His brow rose. He read, "Head. Arm. Leg. Torso. Bone. Skin. Heart. Blood. Ear. Eye."

"I knew some of them already," Ryouma said, defensively.

Scanning down the last page of Ryouma's uneven little practice characters, Kakashi mused, "Do you know the kanji for 'dick'?"

Ryouma choked on air.

"I'll take that as a no," Kakashi decided. He sat down on the floor, leaning his back against Ryouma's bed, and extracted a brush pen and a fresh, shiny pack of flashcards from his pocket. He bent over for a moment, frowning in concentrating. Then he reached up to hand Ryouma a flashcard with an exactingly clear set of two characters on one side: 肉棒.

Ryouma flipped the card over and stared down at an anatomically accurate doodle of a penis.

After a long moment, he found his voice. "So...every ten standard characters I learn, I get a dirty one?"

"Education is all about incentive," Kakashi said wisely. "Make breakfast while I write up the next ten."



Kakashi wrote each kanji with excruciatingly precise strokes, dark and bold on the face of each card. He made Ryouma write the kana pronunciation on the back. They traded off on the doodling.

With Chakra Basics as the guide, they ranged far beyond Ayane's basic anatomy terms and the seven primary chakra centers Ryouma already knew. There were three different major nodes for the heart, stacked from top to bottom, plus nodes for the aorta and the brachial, radial, carotid, and femoral arteries.

"I don't even know what the radial artery is," he complained.

Kakashi finished the last stroke on his current kanji, reached out without looking, and snagged Ryouma's left wrist. He drew a small black circle under the thumb, two finger-widths down from the wristbone. "You can draw the femoral one yourself," he said.

"You could've just said the pulse-point," Ryouma said, reclaiming his wrist. He studied the circle, then shifted his brush to his left hand and drew its match, very carefully, on his right wrist.

The brachial nodes, somewhere behind his biceps muscles, were harder to pinpoint from the diagram. They found them eventually by dint of chakra-focusing exercises, with Ryouma gritting his teeth and forcing his chakra to concentrate and pool, while Kakashi grazed his fingers along the swell of muscle and muttered dire imprecations at his stunted chakra-sense.

When Kakashi defined the perineal node, Ryouma burst out laughing.

"I'll keep my pants on, okay," he gasped. "You don't have to mark that one. You can just doodle it on the flashcard. And that's a major node, so it doesn't count as my dirty word, right?"

Kakashi snorted, but he leaned back against the side of the bed, thinking. After a moment he picked up another card. This sketch took far longer than any of the others. When he passed it over, the front side of the card was emblazoned with two complicated kanji and one kana character: 潮吹き. "If you don't already know this one, you should."

Ryouma turned the card around, curiously. There were two doodles, this time. In the center of the card, a cartoonish woman looked as if she had reached the climax of an extremely good time. In the bottom right corner, a tiny whale spouted.

It took Ryouma a moment to piece the puzzle together. "Whale blowing water...whale blowhole…"

He stopped.

"Where did you learn this one?"

Kakashi's eye curved, insufferably smug. "Popliteal nodes are next."



They ended the day at thirty-three flashcards, ink-stained fingers, and a growing collection of tiny black dots marching up Ryouma's arms and beneath his shirt collar. Kakashi had condescended to help again with the three cardiac and the aortic and carotid nodes— "You'll get them all wrong in a mirror" — but the rest were mostly clear enough on the scroll diagrams.

Especially the perineal node. Ryouma was never going to stop cracking up at that one.

(And where had Kakashi learned the characters for 'squirting'? Raidou'd said that book Kakashi was always carrying around was actually porn, but… Really?)

Kakashi rolled the Chakra Basics scroll up with careful hands and tied its cord. "You should try copying out the diagrams," he said. "Labeling them, once you get the characters down." He gazed thoughtfully at the scroll for a moment, and then looked up. "You're not actually terrible at this."

Ryouma didn't, quite, fumble the cards he was sorting. He scowled down at his hands. "The cards help. Seeing 'em one at a time, instead of all squashed together and blurry."

Kakashi's head tilted. "The kanji blur?"

"Not like you-need-spectacles blur. More— they kind of swim around and mix up, and I get headaches after a while. Had a killer one yesterday, after working with Ayane, but it's not so bad now." He squinted at the top card on his stack. "This one's Heart...-something." He flipped it over. "Hah!"

"Carotid node," Kakashi said reflexively. He wasn't looking at the card. Ryouma stared back, uneasily.

Kakashi's brow pinched, like a man trying to puzzle out a particularly complex problem. "What do you think causes it?"

Ryouma shrugged. "Too many blows to the head?" He'd wondered, sometimes, if that might actually be it. But his vision didn't seem otherwise affected, and he remembered having the same problems when he was first learning the kana, before his mother died and he left Konoha with the old man.

He didn't want it to be the old man's fault, anyway. Too many other things were.

Kakashi looked unconvinced. "Did you ever ask a medic?"

"Hey, messing around with my knee is one thing. Messing around in my head…" Ryouma jerked his thumb at the Chakra Basics scroll in Kakashi's hands. "That stuff's complicated as hell. I don't want anybody opening it up to screw around inside."

"Even if they could fix it?"

"You ever met a hornets' nest you wouldn't poke?" Ryouma asked, exasperated.

"Ever met a question you wouldn't avoid?" Kakashi retorted.

Ryouma grinned, reluctantly. "Once in a while, but not often. I've poked my share of hornet nests, too." He set the flashcards aside. "Thing is, if it's just something wrong with how my brain is wired, no medic's gonna fix that. They'd probably fuck things up worse trying. It's not like a battlefield injury, or—or a broken knee—where you can see where things went wrong and how to put them back together. It's…"

Stupid, lazy, lying—

He shied away from the old echo. "The knee's enough for now, anyway. Take your victory and be happy with it. Wanna get dinner?"

Kakashi didn't get up. He looked at Ryouma, long and steady, until Ryouma nearly twisted away from the weight of that cool, penetrating grey gaze. Then he said softly, "It's what?"

"Oh, hell no, Hatake. You don't get to do that. You can't push and push and then just—invite." He shoved himself up roughly, automatically compensating for the stiffness in his knee. Kakashi stayed on the floor, leaning cross-legged against the bed, looking up at him.

Kakashi, Ryouma remembered dimly, had family the village was ashamed of, too.

But he wore a mask no one was ever invited to look behind. It wasn't fair for him to ask Ryouma to strip all his shields down instead.

(And since when had Ryouma's life ever been fair?)

Kakashi set the scroll aside and dropped his hands back into his lap, curled loosely around nothing. And waited, as if time meant nothing to him, as if he actually— wanted to know. Wanted to listen.

Ryouma shoved his hands in his pockets and turned away to the window. Dusk was falling; they'd worked through the day, and he could tell himself the painful knot in the pit of his stomach was only hunger. He could look at Kakashi's reflection in the lighted glass, and speak to that.

"My granddad took me, after my mom died. I dropped out of the Academy and we left Konoha. He had me for three years. When he— When I got back, they took me in again at the Academy, but I'd fallen behind. Way behind. And I couldn't catch up in some things, like reading. So we just focused on what I could do, because Konoha needed soldiers. Even stupid ones."

Kakashi's reflection blinked once. "You think you're stupid?"

Ryouma resisted the urge to kick the wall like a sulky child. He hitched one shoulder instead. "Well, objectively, y'know, I'm pretty good with figuring out jutsu. Idiot savant, maybe." With years of trial and error, practicing seals until his hands cramped too badly to even hold chopsticks, wasting hours experimenting with the slightest variation in chakra flow or seal position, catching rats and roaches for test subjects. Kakashi'd probably read three books and then invented his Chidori on the spot.

In the mirrored window, Kakashi pushed off the ground. For a moment Ryouma's own reflection blocked him; Ryouma nearly turned, but in two steps Kakashi had crossed over the paper-strewn floor to lean his shoulder against the window-frame. He crossed his arms, studying Ryouma's face.

"Idiot something, I'm starting to think," he said, without any sting. "Look at yourself, Tousaki. We're six years past the war. You're alive, promoted, hand-picked for ANBU, and you're on a team with a fresh captain, a smart medic, a war machine, and a literal genius. You think they'd waste our time with a meat shield?"

Kakashi's head tipped up, grey eye glittering. "You think the Hokage would put me next to someone who might get me killed?"

"He might trust you to take care of yourself," Ryouma suggested.

A corner of Kakashi's mouth visibly quirked, under the mask. "Would you?"

"Hell no," Ryouma said, grinning. "You flatlined yourself so hard you couldn't even defend from someone trying to take your head off." He turned to sling his shoulder against the other side of the window. "You know, we've never actually fought together? It was me and Katsuko the first time, and then me and the lieutenant, and you off on your own both times. Unless you count Tsuto, I guess. We synced up pretty good then."

"There was Akiyama in the Second Trial," Kakashi said thoughtfully. "But you were down before I got there."

"So you took care of me." Ryouma looked down at his wrist, the pale pink line raised against darker tanned skin. "I still owe you dinner for that. And daffodils."

"You kept my head attached on the last mission. We're square," Kakashi said. "Unless you have a burning need to do me a favor…?" He left it dangling, tantalizing.

"I owe you for lugging me around Hayama after the demon, too," Ryouma said. "We could get daffodils on the way to dinner."

"You carried me back to the bunker," Kakashi shot back.

"And you spent the day helping me study. Dinner it is." Ryouma paused. "What's the favor?"

"Talk to a medic," Kakashi said.

He'd always been good at sucker-punches.

Ryouma grunted. "Talking to you isn't enough?"

"You tell me," Kakashi said, but his voice was steady, his gaze serious.

Ryouma looked away. Out the window again, where dusk had darkened to night. Windows and lamps cast pools of light onto the ground; above, the first stars gleamed. A couple of uniformed ANBU walked from HQ to barracks, their armor muted in the shadows. They passed into a window-square of light, and he could make out the painted details on their masks, badger and rabbit.

His vision wasn't the problem.

He swallowed. "I'm seeing Niimi-sensei day after tomorrow. I'll maybe mention it to her then."

In the window's reflection, something indefinable about Kakashi's expression lightened just a fraction. A whisper of tension eased out of his shoulders. He followed Ryouma's gaze out the window. "I trust one doctor in the village, and I guess I can tolerate the lieutenant. But I wouldn't mind bringing the number up to three."

He looked back at Ryouma, the faint line of his lips curling under the mask. "Have you ever seen a stupid medic?"

"I've met some who asked some pretty dumb questions, but… Guess not." Ryouma tipped his forehead against the cool glass and closed his eyes.

Thought, for a moment, about what Kakashi was really saying, what he'd said once before, the day they took their masks: What I’m trying to say, is that’s smart. I didn’t know you had that in you.

Kakashi had come a long way in the Art of Not Insulting People, in the last few weeks.

He'd seemed to mean it then, though. And he meant it now, Ryouma thought. Stupid people didn't make it into ANBU. The odds were still long on whether Ryouma'd make it as a field medic, but Genma didn't seem like the kind of man who'd head somewhere knowing he was wasting his time.

Neither did Kakashi, and he'd just spent the last ten hours drilling Ryouma with flashcards.

Ryouma opened his eyes again and looked sideways. "Can I tell the lieutenant you tolerate him?"

Kakashi's eye crinkled. "I'm pretty sure it's mutual."

"He said working with me would count toward your performance goals," Ryouma said, remembering. "If the flashcards were clean and easy to read. Did you get writing goals?"

"Nothing specific," Kakashi said, studying the window frame with sudden interest. "I thought you wanted to get dinner?"

"Yes," Ryouma said, and pushed away from the window.

Dinner meant at least another thirty minutes to talk. He was going to get that story out of Kakashi somehow.



Next morning all of them were early to Team Six's office. Ryouma came down at 0800, armed with scrolls, Ayane's sheaf of notes, and the thirty non-pornographic flash cards. He found Genma already at his desk, in a sleeveless workout tank and dampened hair. He had a senbon tucked behind his ear like a pencil, and the actual pencil in his hand.

"Which gym?" Ryouma asked, dropping his armful on his own desk. "How's your leg?"

"ANBU Gym. I met my friend Sakamoto from Team Thirteen for some upper body work." Genma pushed a stray lock out of his eyes. "Leg's better than yesterday, but a little tight. It'll probably take another session or two to correct the intramuscular scarring." His hand dropped, massaging his leg absently. "You're early."

"Got tired of running laps around the village and figured I'd try studying." Ryouma looked around as the sound of a distant scuffle in the hall escalated to a yelp.

The door opened. Kakashi came in, looking aggrieved and rubbing the small of his back. Katsuko tumbled in after him, tousle-headed and harassed. Both of them were in training clothes, mud-stained and sweaty; Kakashi had two swords under his arm, while Katsuko wore hers belted at her hip. Her sling looked suspiciously clean.

"Guess I'm not the only one hoping to start out on Kuroda-taichou's good side," Ryouma said, amused. "Who won?"

"In a lesson, the only loser is the student who refuses to listen to his teacher," Katsuko huffed.

"In my defense, it was hard to hear you yelling through a mouthful of grass," Kakashi said sweetly.

Katsuko flopped dramatically onto the sofa, sweeping her swords out of the way with an instinctive grace. She only remembered her sling at the last second, and winced as her shoulder jarred the sofa arm. "So there I was," she told the ceiling in an aggrieved voice. "Passing on my knowledge and wisdom."

Genma gave her a hard, meaningful look, ending on her sling, but he didn't interrupt.

"When Chuckles here," Katsuko continued, jabbing a finger up at Kakashi, "interrupts my lessoning to ask me—"

She imitated a small boy's snide voice, with the faintest malicious mimicry of Kakashi's tones. "'—Sensei, I don't understand why there has to be a crescent moon sweep at the end of this, it's unnecessary'."

Ryouma sat on the edge of his desk, enrapt. Kakashi rolled his eye and slouched into his own chair.

"So then I have to stop the lesson to show him why there's a crescent moon sweep. The reason being that that crescent moon sweep forces the opponent back and out of grabbing range, since they don't want their wrists sliced off. And Giggles here says 'it'd be quicker just to do an viper strike at their wrists' which would make sense if Hyoho Niten wasn't a samurai sword style and samurai didn't wear HEAD TO TOE PLATE ARMOR ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THEIR FINGERS."

She snorted disdain. "The crescent moon sweep is the ONLY move with enough force at that angle and distance to cut through plate armor, even powered by chakra. WHICH I HAVE TESTED, BECAUSE I AM, BELIEVE IT OR NOT, VERY GOOD AT THIS WHOLE SWORD THING."

"But you're not fighting samurai, usually," Ryouma said. On the other side of the room, Genma's lips quivered as he fought valiantly to keep a straight face.

Katsuko's accusing finger swung around to Ryouma. She jabbed angrily at the air. "I WAS GETTING TO THAT. Regardless of whether we're fighting samurai or not, Hyoho Niten is a style that requires a sword in each hand. Which means twice as much offensive opportunity but the power you have by using two hands for one sword is sacrificed. Building up wrist strength is imperative. GUESS WHICH MOVE BUILDS UP WRIST STRENGTH THE FASTEST."

"I've been training since I was three," Kakashi said. "I already have strong wrists."

"But they can be stronger," Katsuko countered, glaring holes into his face.

"You haven't told them the best part," he reminded her.

"Right," Katsuko agreed, switching back to the outrage at hand. "So then as I am yet again demonstrating the crescent moon sweep to him, he makes the stubborn face at me and says, 'Fine, no viper strike, but if I do a—' and then he says some Earth Country move nonsense and grabs my wrist to show me. And I, foolish Sensei that I am, I stand there and wait patiently for him to show me what he's talking about."

Genma and Ryouma exchanged silent, speaking glances.

"And THE NEXT THING I KNOW," Katsuko said, slowly moving more upright with each angry, louder word, "I AM FLYING THROUGH THE AIR LIKE A BIRD SUMMONS, WATCHING THE CLOUDS FLASH GENTLY BY. Which in this case is very distressing, BECAUSE I AM A ONE-ARMED BIRD SUMMONS."

She was off the couch, rigid with indignation. "AND IT WAS ONLY MY NATURAL GRACE AND ATHLETICISM THAT KEPT ME FROM DECORATING THE KONOHA LANDSCAPE WITH MY LIMBS." She drew a deep breath, and said in a calmer voice, "I did, however, land in a mud puddle."

"If your other shoulder is dislocated, fractured, strained, or even bruised," Genma said with a commendable attempt at severity, "I am not fixing it. And I am writing you up for carelessness."

Katsuko shot him a filthy glance. Kakashi said peaceably, "For the record, I didn't call her sensei."

Katsuko's brows twitched up. "What was that?" she asked, with the forced brightness of a first-year Academy instructor. "More practice strikes? Why, my fluffy-headed smart-mouthed student, all you had to do was ask."

"I would say yes, but…" Kakashi's gaze slid toward Genma. "I think the lieutenant has opinions about you doing any more flying today."

"Is anyone in this room cleared for full activity besides Tousaki?" Genma demanded. "Because unless the medical office is shockingly tardy in delivering reports, I'm fairly certain the answer is no."

"It's light exercise, lieutenant," Katsuko said, gleaming with innocence. She lounged back onto the couch with something close to her normal carelessness. "With a focus on form over power. Nothing too strenuous."

Ryouma eyed her sweat-straggled hair, and the dark V at the neck of Kakashi's shirt, and decided not to insert himself into the argument.

"I find myself doubting those were just kata that got you those bruises," Genma said dryly. He paused, with a quick, wary look at the open door, then lowered his voice. "Whether you are focusing on form or power, I'd like to remind you how well you work together has a direct bearing on the current team's evaluation."

The faintest hint of guilt skated across Kakashi's face. He nodded and straightened up in his chair, a serious soldier again. "Sorry, lieutenant."

"This counts as a report on their progress, doesn't it?" Ryouma suggested. "All official, just like you asked. They got up early and trained together, and Kakashi spent most of yesterday studying with me. That's team unity anybody'd be proud of."

"I suppose so." Genma's brows pulled up in surprise. "How'd the studying go?"

Kakashi leaned back toward his desk, snagged a pad of paper and pen, and sketched carefully for a moment. Then he spun the pad into Ryouma's lap. "What does that mean?"

Ryouma could feel Genma and Katsuko's eyes on him. He bent his head and tried not to think of them watching, wondering, passing glances like gossip between them.

The kanji strokes were large and clear and entirely isolated in a sea of white paper, with nowhere to squirm away to. He could pin them down one by one, counting the strokes and comparing them to the flashcards he'd spent hours last night drilling. 大動脈.

大 he knew, that was easy. Big. And 脈 had appeared on half a dozen different flashcards—mashed together, Kakashi'd said with a kind of macabre interest, from the ancient character for flesh, ⺼, and...something else Ryouma didn't remember, but together they added up to vein.

Which made the middle one, 動, movement. And together they added up to—

"Aorta!" he said triumphantly. "Main artery supplying the heart. No—carrying blood away from the heart." It'd never mattered before, when all he needed to know about a blood vessel was its location and how quickly it could bleed a body out.

Kakashi grinned at him, mask stretched tight over the wide-curved mouth, pride like a flame in his eye, and turned back to Genma. "I think it's going well."

Genma's brows climbed back up toward the damp fringes of his hair, but his smile took away the sting. "I'm impressed. If you keep that up, we should have no problem with Kuroda-taichou."

Kuroda seemed like the type who'd find a problem no matter how hard Ryouma studied or how well he memorized—but a bad first impression and thirty minutes' further acquaintance wasn't much for going on. Genma knew the man better. Maybe his optimism was justified.

Katsuko's eloquent stink-face said she doubted it.



The Kuroda-free minutes slipped away. Katsuko and Kakashi took turns in the office bathroom, reemerging in clean uniforms and a heady floral scent of the freesia soap Ryouma had thoughtfully left by the sink. Genma collected Ryouma's study materials for review and correction. He asked who'd helped with the flashcard kanji, and looked baffled but pleased all over again when Ryouma told him they were Kakashi's.

"Kakashi can write clean," Ryouma reported. "He just usually doesn't bother."

"I need some flaws, or I'd be too perfect to live with," Kakashi said, shutting his locker door. He dropped onto the sofa, opened his orange-backed book at random, and disappeared between the pages.

"'Perfect'?" Katsuko echoed, in flat disbelief. "You're already perfectly unbearable just the way you are, Cuddles. Never change."

Kakashi turned a page.

Genma's cough sounded just a little too much like a laugh. He levered himself up from his desk, stopped by his own locker for a clean, folded uniform, and flashed Katsuko a discreet thumbs up on his way to the bathroom. Katsuko perched on the edge of her desk, swinging her legs, and whistled in tuneless cheer.

The office door opened. Katsuko's whistle broke off.

Vice-Commander Kuroda stepped inside, sleek and polished in full uniform, eleven minutes early. He took in the office-scene in one brief eye-flicker: Katsuko on the desk, Kakashi with his porn, Ryouma with his flashcards, Genma gone. He sighed. "Tousaki, what are you forgetting?"

In the bathroom, something thumped to the floor. There was an abrupt rustle of cloth, the sound of a man dressing as fast as humanly possible.

Ryouma'd come to HQ in uniform. He had his newly reissued mask hanging on the wall, his belt-pouches fully stocked, his steel sharpened. His desk was a mess of scrolls and paper and flashcards, but he'd brought (almost) everything down, even the mistakes. He'd already worked out. He'd eaten breakfast.

He bolted to his feet. "Coffee, sir. Black?"

Another eye-flicker, not quite a blink. "Perhaps there is hope for you yet," Kuroda conceded. He stepped aside, clearing the path to the door.

"Sir," Ryouma said. He didn't trust himself to say anything else.

He didn't dare make eye contact with his teammates, either, as he left the office. Down the hall to the break room, where the industrial-sized coffee pot was still half-full. There was a sturdy plastic tray, too, which someone had left tipped up against the cabinets.

Ryouma filled one paper cup, and paused, looking at the tray.

There was green tea in the cupboard, and hot water in the kettle. Both Genma and Kakashi preferred tea to coffee. Neither of them added any sweeteners, but Katsuko took her coffee with even more sugar and cream than Ryouma did.

Raidou took his black, with one sugar.

He's coming back, Ryouma told himself fiercely, and piled napkins on the tray.

Back in Team Six's office, Katsuko was sitting properly in her chair, instead of on her desk. Kakashi's book had disappeared. Genma was dressed in uniform, standing straight-backed and uncomfortable beside Ryouma's desk, with the senbon still tucked behind his ear. Kuroda stirred a finger through Ryouma's scattered flashcards with an expression that suggested he'd rather have been picking through a midden.

Ryouma gritted his teeth. "Coffee, sir." He set the cup down by Kuroda's hand and passed Genma his tea.

Kuroda regarded him from under lowered brows, without tipping his head. It left him glowering somewhere at the vicinity of Ryouma's chin. "Take a seat." He turned away, dismissing Ryouma entirely, and added cuttingly to Genma, "I've yet to hear a progress report, Shiranui."

Genma's eyes flicked up, and his hand closed a little tighter around his paper cup. "Tousaki has made excellent progress," he said briskly. "I provided study materials, which he studied on his own and with Hatake. He was just demonstrating his work to me when you arrived, sir."

Ryouma passed cups to Katsuko and Kakashi, and sat on the edge of the couch. His own cup was too hot, but it kept his fingers warm.

Excellent, Genma'd said.

Kuroda clearly didn't believe it. He leaned back against the desk, sipping his coffee, and said with blatant skepticism, "Very well. Let's see the remarkable progress you've managed to foster in three days."

Kakashi's visible eye narrowed. Katsuko's face was blank, wiped clean as the masks that hung on the wall.

Ryouma's stomach knotted. He set his untouched coffee on the floor by his feet. "Lieutenant? If you could — hold up a flashcard, sir. Not too far." The strokes were so small. They'd swim away if he couldn't pin them down…

Genma reached for a card. He might have picked it at random, but there was the barest moment of hesitation before his fingers closed. He held it up: 目.

Four vertical lines, two horizontal. They wavered but didn't separate, and the bottom line held parallel to the top. Ryouma wet his lips. "Eye."

Kuroda took another sip of coffee. "Is that it?"

Another card: 顔. Genma's face stayed calm, his eyes warm on Ryouma's. He trusted Ryouma not to get this wrong, not to screw this up, even if there were too many stupid little lines and they wouldn't stay still

But he knew this one. It had the kanji for eye inside it, and Kakashi'd congratulated him when he recognized that yesterday.

"Face," he said.

The next card was similar enough that for a moment he doubted—but no, it had all the spiky bits in front, like weaponry, and you wore a hitai'ate to protect your—"Forehead," he said, and corrected himself, because it had the third character trailing after, signaling chakra: "Forehead node."

Heart nodes, next, all three in order, because he'd had no hope of remembering them unless he pinned the cards together. Brachial node. Carotid node. Kuroda's face grew increasingly expressionless, but Katsuko's bloodless mask warmed on a fierce smile.

A dozen cards, and Genma finally stopped. Ryouma's palms were slick, but he hadn't stumbled, or hesitated too long, and Genma hadn't corrected him once. Genma smiled at him instead, confident and proud, as if he'd known all along that Ryouma could do it, as if there'd never been a moment of doubt.

Kuroda said coldly, "Congratulations, Shiranui, you've taught the boy to parrot." He fished two slim glass vials out of a pocket and tossed them to Ryouma.

Ryouma almost fumbled the catch. His ears burned; his face was dull fire. He dropped his head and stared down at the sloshing clear liquid in the vials, the paper labels written in messy handwriting and smudged ink. They might as well have been written in Earth Country code.

"One of those is medicine," Kuroda said. "The other is poison. Pick one to give to a teammate."

"In three days Tousaki's learned what most entering field medics learn in two weeks," Genma said sharply. "We start with chakra nodes for a reason, not medications and poisons. Sir."

"Your objection is noted," Kuroda said. "Continue, Tousaki."

Clear liquid. Unreadable labels. No answers, and no help.

Ryouma rolled the vials across his palms, closed his hands over them, and looked up. "I wouldn't give my teammates a medicine I didn't know. Particularly since they aren't sick."

Kuroda's eyes hooded. "Very diplomatic," he observed. It sounded like coward. "Indulge me in a scenario. Your teammate—"

He swept an icicle glance over the office: Kakashi on the other end of the sofa, Katsuko at her desk, Genma rigid beside him. His lip curled. "Ueno seems most likely. She is poisoned by an Iwa shinobi. You are alone with her, as is often the case on splinter missions. You slay the enemy ninja and take his med-kit, which includes vials of antidotes. Labeled, like the ones in your hand. Now what do you do?"

Panic was not a viable answer. Ryouma stared helplessly at Katsuko. She met his eyes, and then she leaned her good elbow on her desk and gave Kuroda a smile like a dead-eyed shark.

"But Vice-Commander," she said, light and teasing as a knife kissing the skin just behind the ear. "There's a whole file on how my chakra reacts abnormally with poisons. Several files. Should Tousaki take that into account when he's considering my predicament?"

Kuroda paused to regard her. His face did not move, expressionless as a diplomat, but naked dislike glimmered in his eyes. After a long, delicate silence, he murmured, "Perhaps Tousaki is the perfect medic for you after all."

Genma's paper tea cup smacked down onto the desk, sloshing liquid over the brim. He stepped away from the wall. "Tousaki isn't anyone's medic yet, but Namiashi-taichou and I would like him to be. You asked us to prove to you he could master enough kanji to begin training. By my estimation, he's done so."

All the warmth in his hazel eyes had simmered into anger. "I assure you, no one wants an unprepared medic in the field. I wouldn't have recommended him for training if I had any doubts about his ability to complete it."

"A recommendation that leads me to question your judgement, and the future of your ranked career," Kuroda said, with a voice like oiled silk. "I'm sure I'll watch it with interest. Very closely."

If he was going to take this out on Genma— Ryouma bit his tongue, and kept his white-knuckle grip on the vials. By his side, Kakashi stayed blank as a cliff face, but the thinnest sliver of killing intent sharpened the edges of his tamped-down chakra.

"But by all means," Kuroda continued, "you've managed to fulfill the basic task of hammering a few dozen words into place. However else you wish to waste your time is your own business. And since you clearly have an abundance of resources to spare, I think the records office will also benefit from your attention. There's a backlog of declassified mission files that need to be reassigned to the appropriate village offices. You may take Tousaki, if you wish."

Genma's lips thinned. His nostrils flared, white at the edges, but he nodded a shallow bow. "Acknowledged."

Kuroda's professional mask never cracked; maybe the smug satisfaction just oozed out the way snails oozed slime. He turned his shoulder, visibly dismissing Genma, and looked down at Katsuko. "Ueno, as much as I enjoy the level of basic competence you almost manage to attain, I find that you're not a good fit for my personal office. I'm turning the rest of your recovery time over to T&I. You may report to their headquarters tomorrow to assist as they see fit."

"Of course, Vice-Commander," Katsuko said, sounding almost bored. If Kuroda'd scored a hit, not even a flicker of her expression gave it away. "The edited notes from your latest meeting are on your desk. I took the liberty of re-organizing some of them for you. I hope you don't mind."

Ryouma might have imagined that tiny jolt of alarm in Kuroda's eyes, but he hoped not. At least one of Katsuko's ripostes ought to hit home.

If Kuroda's worry for his notes was real, though, he recovered instantly. "Wonderful. I'm sure T&I will welcome your work ethic. Particularly since you've struggled so hard to acquire it, given your... upbringing."

"We do the best we can with what we have, Vice-Commander," Katsuko said modestly. "However little that may be."

Kuroda's eyes narrowed, as if he suspected the mockery behind her humility, but after a moment he turned away. "Hatake, report on your healing progress."

"It's satisfactory," Kakashi said, in a strapped-down voice.

"Very well. Proceed as you have been." Kuroda swept the office with another icy glance. "We'll reconvene in three days. I expect—"

"Vice-Commander?" Kakashi interrupted, softly.

Kuroda paused, looking down at him. Something in the set of his shoulders suggested dislike warring with attentiveness. He said, "You have something to add?"

"I would like to volunteer for a job." Kakashi's voice twisted, just slightly, into something with an edge. "I'm having a dinner with Minato-sensei tomorrow. I'd hate for him to think I'm lazy, while the rest of my team works so hard."

Katsuko's carefully smooth mask slipped; her brows surged up in surprise, before she caught herself back into modest boredom again. Kuroda's brows flicked too, and his mouth flattened. He said shortly, "You may accompany your lieutenant or Ueno as you wish. If you delay your recovery, however, I will be forced to suspend you from the next mission."

"Vice-Commander," Kakashi acknowledged. It sounded perfectly respectful, but Ryouma could think of at least three swear words Kakashi could fit into the same number of syllables. He suspected the rest of the team was thinking of them, too.

Kuroda gazed at Kakashi for a long, still moment. Then he said, "Three days." He set his coffee on Ryouma's desk and walked out. The door thumped hollowly behind him.

Silence stretched out, marked by the softly receding sound of Kuroda's footsteps in the hall. The elevator chimed. Opened, and closed.

Genma snatched up Kuroda's paper cup and hurled it against the wall. Coffee sprayed the dull paint and dingy carpet. The cup fell crumpled, and rolled under a desk. Genma stood, breathing hard, staring at the stain.

Ryouma unlocked his jaw. "I was going to pour the poison in there."

A finger tapped against his knuckles. He glanced sideways, saw Kakashi's intent frown, and opened his hands.

Kakashi took the two vials, scowled at the labels, and unstoppered both to sniff them very carefully. The line between his brows carved itself deeper. "These smell like water."

Katsuko barked a harsh laugh, with nothing like amusement. "That man." She considered the vials with that cold, shark-eyed deliberation. "One day, I'm going to hurt him."

"That's treason," Kakashi said softly.

"Yes," Katsuko said. "It is."

Genma drew one last deep breath, turned, and slumped into the nearest desk chair. "Only if you get there first. I'm certain the Vice-Commander has a long waiting list of people who'd like to hurt him. It'd probably be best if it wasn't one of us."

Ryouma'd heard rumors, in the war, about jounin captains who were taken out by their own men, after one failure or abuse too many. He suspected the rest of the team had, too. No one mentioned them.

He said instead, "Pretty clear why he's got his knives out for me. And why he can't touch Kakashi, I guess. But what's he got against you, Katsu? Did you pee on his lawn as a kid or something?"

I expect better timekeeping from the daughter of a diplomat, Kuroda'd said, three days ago, but Katsuko's family was hers to bring up, or not. Kuroda might try to take that choice from her, but her team wouldn't.

Katsuko slid out of her chair, wandered over toward the couch, and flopped down into the middle of it, tucking her feet up against Kakashi's thigh. "I didn't. My dad might have, though." She scratched her nose with her good hand. Her glower could have frightened badgers from their dens, but the killing coldness was gone. "Figures," she said grumpily. "Even from all the way over in Wind Country he still leaves messes I've gotta deal with."

Well, if the gate was open… "Your dad's an ambassador? Shouldn't that mean he outranks Kuroda?"

"Yeah, you'd think, huh?" Katsuko agreed sourly. "Kuroda's exactly the sort of person my dad loves to mess with. They'd run in the same circles, too. Kuroda keeps tabs on all the political players in Konoha. He made me file those tabs." She shuddered. "All of those tabs."

Kakashi's gaze sharpened. "Did you read any?"

She cast him a look brimming with disappointment. "Who do you think I am? Of course I read them."

She had his entire attention, now. "Was there a Sadayo mentioned anywhere?"

"Hatake Sadayo?" Katsuko's expression sobered. "There were, but they were hidden behind even more encryptions than Kuroda's regular notes. Took me ages to crack it, and I still only got about seventy-five percent of it."

Genma's hand flipped up in the ANBU sign for halt. "Until you tell us, you won't be in breach of your duty to maintain the security of classified information."

Katsuko shrugged.

Kakashi glanced from Genma to Katsuko, and then dropped his gaze down to study the vials in his hands. "How about just alive and well at last known whereabouts? You don't need to say where."

Was that his mother?

He'd never mentioned her. He'd never mentioned family at all, aside from the Hokage and the Hokage's son; Ryouma'd always sort of figured him for an orphan.

In the space of two minutes, he and Katsuko had both armed themselves with families. Maybe the kind that would gut you.

Katsuko nudged her foot gently against Kakashi's thigh. "She's alive and she's well," she said quietly. "Her whereabouts were part of what I couldn't decrypt, anyway."

The tension didn't leave Kakashi's shoulders, but he nodded. "If it was her coding, you wouldn't break it without a key." He drew a breath and set it aside, vanishing the restoppered vials into a pocket and shifting against the arm of the couch to look at Katsuko properly. "Do you want us to call a hit on your father? We could make it look like Kuroda's fault."

"Not worth it," Katsuko said. "He never comes back to Konoha if he can help it, anyway. His current record is two years away and counting. Hopefully it stays that way."

She sounded resigned, as if her father were an old wound that scarred over a long time ago. Ryouma wanted to hit something. Someone. Kuroda, for preference, but asshole dads or vanished mothers or a wooden training dummy would do.

Raidou would've taken them all out for a spar, but Raidou wasn't here.

Kakashi moved instead, curling in his seat, drawing his legs up to drape over Katsuko's. Like the dog-pack tangle in the safehouse at Arechi Hill, only Kakashi was sober this time, and meant it.

"When was the last time you saw him?"

Her gaze skittered away, but after a moment her good hand dropped down to rest lightly on Kakashi's ankle. She cleared her throat. Her voice still came a little raspy. "More than two years."

"Ah," Kakashi said quietly. His gaze flicked up to Ryouma, for some reason, and then back down to Katsuko. "He's an idiot."

"Complete idiot," Genma agreed. "If you change your mind about that hit, just say the word."

Katsuko's mouth hitched at the corners, as if she'd tried to put that smiling mask on but found it fraying at the edges. Ryouma looked away.

And then looked back, deliberately. Katsuko hadn't hidden her pain. He didn't have to pretend not to see. He didn't have to share his own, but he could acknowledge hers.

He leaned a little sideways, very carefully, and braced his shoulder behind hers. She sighed and leaned back into him, like a woman finally finding rest.

Genma cleared his throat. "I guess we'd better get to work on those fresh assignments before the vice-commander comes back and decides to bust us all back to genin." He pulled the senbon out from behind his ear. A flick of his fingers, and it stood, quivering, in the wall, dead center in the coffee stain.

"Tousaki, you're with me. Ueno—" Genma hesitated for a moment. "Do you want to mind Hatake, or should we take him off your hands?"

Katsuko's fingers curled around Kakashi's ankle, anchoring. "Hatake can go wherever he wants." She tipped her head back against Ryouma's shoulder and told the ceiling grandly, "I set him free and send him off into the wide green world to roam where he pleases."

"I've never been to T&I," Kakashi said, with an ironic brow tilt. "I'm sure the sociopaths are charming."

"They've gotta be more fun than declassified files. If you ask nicely, maybe they'll show you the fingernail collection." Ryouma looked up at Genma, mouth twisting. "Guess I'll be about as much help to you as a chuunin runner, Lieutenant, but I can probably carry more."

"Bring your flash cards, a brush pen, and paper," Genma advised. "You can study while I sort, and I'll drill you while you carry." He added dryly to Katsuko, "Try not to reorganize anyone's nail collections or notes, unless they ask you to."

"I'll do my best, lieutenant," Katsuko said, sugar-sweet and completely unrepentant. She released Kakashi's ankle with a gentle pat, and sat up. "Alright. We're in this together, guys. I believe in you. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

Ryouma shoved off the couch, rescuing his abandoned cup of coffee just before he kicked it over. "That doesn't narrow it down much, senpai."

She chuckled. He crossed the office to dump his cold coffee in the bathroom sink and toss his cup in the trash, and turned to look back.

Kakashi, disentangling his legs gingerly from Katsuko's, fishing his beloved orange book out from between the cushions of the sofa. Genma, tapping Ryouma's flashcards together into a tidy stack, with a wry over-the-shoulder comment about Kakashi's handwriting. Katsuko, sliding off the couch and into a full-body stretch, crinkling her nose in disdain at her sling-hampered arm.

Raidou's absence ached, like a missing tooth. Like missing family.

But this wasn't the months-long vigil at the Eastern Gate for a father who never returned, or the shorter, colder wait for dogtags scrubbed free of stains. They didn't have to break encryptions to know Raidou's whereabouts, and it hadn't been his choice to leave.

He was coming back.

And they'd be ready for him, when he came.
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