| When the Last Roll Is Called
||[May. 8th, 2016|08:09 pm]
[Takes place the morning of May 20, Yondaime Year 5, one day after the second part of Down to the Bone=]
The parade grounds were far too large for a funeral for only two. Instead, the assembled mourners — most in funeral blacks or ANBU masks and cloaks, with the few civilian loved ones of the dead in formal kimono — clustered together in knots around the Heroes’ Stone. Two easels, one on either side of the monument, held black-draped photographs of the deceased. Urns of white chrysanthemums flanked the easels.
Genma arrived before the 1100 time appointed for the ceremony, and was surprised to see a shock of familiar white hair, stark against the sea of black fabric. Kakashi was standing near the memorial, his ever-present orange book nowhere in evidence. Genma let his chakra unfurl enough to be sure Kakashi felt him coming, and went to stand with his teammate.
“Did you know them?” Genma asked, nodding at the photographs. Hasabe Goutoku’s square-jawed face stared back, serious and stern. Yamanaka Michiyo’s light eyes sparkled in her portrait, like she’d been laughing at something when the photographer interrupted.
“No.” Kakashi’s voice was flat and featureless. His mask hid his expression, as usual, but even without it, his face was probably devoid of emotion.
Genma hadn’t known either of them well himself, but they were both veterans. Looking around, he counted several he did know, including Team Twelve’s lieutenant, Doumen Saburo, who sat hunch-shouldered in a wheelchair near the front of the assembled mourners. Twelve’s captain, Endou Tatsuya, sat next to him. Tatsuya’s neck was in a brace to support a mending fracture, but his bruises, like Genma’s, were mostly healed.
A familiar chakra pressure, hot as a smith’s forge, pulled Genma’s attention away. Katsuko ghosted up to stand at his other side. Even with her chakra tightly clamped down it spilled out in radiant waves, like a tiger trying to hide under a teacup.
“Yamanaka Michiyo had one of the nastiest side kicks I'd ever experienced,” she said quietly. “I'll miss her.”
“I believe you. I watched her spar once or twice,” Genma said. “Never wanted to get my ass kicked that hard, so I never offered.”
“Smart man,” said Katsuko, in tones that implied she hadn’t been quite so smart herself.
Genma studied Gotoku’s unsmiling face, trying to pair the good-humored man he’d known with the funeral portrait, probably an enlargement of his personnel photo from the Hokage’s archives. “All I really know about Goutoku is that he could put away enough barbecue in a single sitting that he nearly bankrupted Saburo when Saburo lost a bet to him last year.”
“Michiyo and Goutoku always had each other's backs,” Katsuko said distantly. “It's not better that they're both gone, but if only one of them had died I don't think the survivor would have ever forgiven themselves.”
Genma glanced down at Katsuko, studying the monochrome layers of her slicked back hair gathered in a tiny knot at the nape of her neck; the matte-black of her funeral attire; and the black strap of her sling. He wanted to put a hand on her shoulder in solidarity for lost comrades, but didn’t trust his impulse. Every ninja here had worn their mourning uniforms before; every one of them had lost someone close. Even in a group, they grieved alone.
“I’m sorry,” he said instead. “It sounds like you were close to them.”
“I sparred with them sometimes,” Katsuko said. “I liked them.” She sounded regretful. “We weren’t friends, though. Just acquaintances.”
It felt like a betrayal of their dead comrades, but Genma was relieved. Neither of the rookies would have had any reason to know Goutoku or Michiyo. Katsuko had sparred with them, and Genma had gone out for food with them as part of a larger group, but no one on the team had lost a friend.
It was nearing time for the funeral to begin when Ryouma finally arrived. His hair looked a little windblown, and his fingertips were ink-stained. He came to stand quietly at Kakashi’s other side, breathing hard as if he’d run here. There was no time to greet him.
A quartet of masked and cloaked ANBU appeared, escorting the Hokage to stand before the monument. Under his white robes of office, he wore the same black mourning uniform as his shinobi. Five short years ago he’d been one of them — a jounin like the ninja he was here to lay to rest. Like the majority of the mourners here.
How many funerals had Minato-sama’s blacks been worn for, back then? The Heroes’ Stone held hundreds of names from the war years, still sharp-edged where they’d been etched into the basalt slab.
All around them, shoulders squared and faces lifted in respectful attention. Silence hung like dense smoke over the assembly. A light breeze rustled the black crepe bordering the photographs of the deceased. The Hokage held their attention in the silence a moment more, then pitched his voice to carry, and began to speak.
They’d all heard the words, or words too much like them, before. A recitation of the bravery of the fallen, slain in service to Konoha, to the Daimyou, and to the greater peace that the Ninja of the Leaf were sworn to bring to Fire Country. A call to remember Yamanaka Michiyo and Hasabe Goutoku not as they had died, but as they had lived.
When the Hokage knelt to lay the first stems of chrysanthemums on the ground before the photographs, Genma was far from the only one there whose eyes grew red. It didn’t matter whether they had known the deceased directly or not; these were fellow soldiers, fellow ANBU, and their deaths were echoes of dozens of deaths before them for everyone in attendance.
When Michiyo’s and Goutoku’s parents stepped forward to lay their own chrysanthemums on the ground — when Yamanaka-san’s shoulders shook, and Hasabe-san’s voice broke on a sob — Genma had to look away. His eyes landed on the captain of the ill-fated Team Twelve. Tatsuya-taichou’s posture was steel-rod-straight, his fractured neck braced by a thick cervical collar. His hand rested on Saburo’s shoulder, who wept quietly in his wheelchair.
Genma’s vision blurred.
If things had gone just a little differently, if Team Twelve had had a medic, or Team Six had been a little less lucky, it could be Genma’s father laying flowers on the ground. The Hokage’s voice could be breaking as he eulogized not just his personal soldiers, but his student — his almost-son.
Genma clenched his fists, digging his nails into his palms to force his emotions down. What might have been, especially who might have also died, were dangerous roads to travel at a funeral.
When he looked up again the bereaved parents had moved aside, while others who were close to the deceased laid their own flowers in tribute. He checked to his left and right, but Katsuko’s face was a blank mask. Kakashi’s face was just as unreadable, with his covered eye towards Genma, and the lower half of his face swathed in its customary black. Only Ryouma’s face betrayed emotion, with subtle tension creasing the corners of his mouth and eye.
When he looked back over the ranks of mourners farther to his left, Genma’s newly gained composure fled. Meeting his gaze from the opposite side of the assembly was a familiar face. Startled brown eyes locked with his own — surprise at having been seen? — and when Genma reached out with chakra sense, there was no mistaking the sunlit-mist-in-a-forest sensation of Raidou’s chakra.
Raidou grimaced, putting a hand up in an unmistakable signal to keep his presence from the rest of the team, but it was too late. Even Kakashi’s blunted and still-healing chakra sense had to have tripped when Genma’s chakra swept out.
In the instant Genma had to regret having tipped them off, Kakashi’s head jerked up. His brows creased in the middle as he followed Genma’s focus, then his visible eye flicked wide, and his mask-covered mouth rounded on a soft sound of surprise.
Ryouma was only a fraction of an instant behind Kakashi in turning to look, and his chakra had already unfurled in response to Genma’s sweep; a soft flare of indigo edged in brick. His gaze riveted onto Raidou, and he grunted like he’d been gut-punched.
If Kakashi weren’t standing between them, Genma would have put a steadying hand on Ryouma’s elbow. Kakashi seemed more surprised than shaken, but Ryouma was almost shocky pale.
Katsuko reacted just as violently, but when Genma focused on her, he was shocked to find she wasn’t looking at Raidou at all. Her gaze was riveted on a middle-aged man in formal kimono making his way towards them.
As the man drew close, she turned to bow stiffly to him, iced over with a formality that Genma had never seen from her. The man returned the bow with a shallower one, and murmured something into Katsuko’s ear too quietly for Genma to catch. Katsuko nodded, stone-faced. She turned to Genma, but before he could ask her anything, she said simply, “Sorry Lieutenant, I have to go. I’ll find you later.”
Baffled, Genma looked up at Raidou again, hoping for some sort of clue, but Raidou just raised his eyebrows and shook his head slightly, evidently equally confused.
Kakashi leaned closer to Ryouma to ask, “What was that?”
Ryouma glanced at the retreating backs of Katsuko and her mysterious escort. “You two didn’t screw up the files at T&I this morning, did you?” he asked.
“No,” Kakashi said curtly, and then, with less conviction, “I don’t think so.”
Genma didn’t think they would have, either, especially not with Kuroda breathing down Team Six’s necks. Even if she and Kakashi had made some sort of error, it would hardly warrant pulling her away from a funeral. And without Kakashi.
There had to be some other explanation, but the only one that came to mind, perhaps because of their surroundings, was the death of a family member. Genma grimaced, raised his eyes to the monument again, with its double funeral portraits and rising trails of incense, and prayed silently for the safety of every single person connected to his teammates.
The funeral continued around them, but it was drawing to a close. The Hokage paid his final respects. A priest intoned a sutra for the dead. And then it was over. Mourners who knew the family gathered close to the grieving parents. ANBU who were friends of Team Twelve’s surviving members formed up around them in a protective huddle. Those who, like Team Six, didn’t know the dead as well, clustered into small, subdued groups as they walked away.
There was no sign of Katsuko or the man who’d taken her away. Kakashi and Ryouma both turned unhappy faces to Genma, and all three of them looked over at Raidou. He didn’t appear to have any more idea about Katsuko’s disappearance than he had earlier, but at least, with the funeral over, he was crossing the emptying space between them. He looked wary, but he didn’t hesitate. If his minders had a problem with him contacting his team, they didn’t seem inclined to interfere.
“Taichou,” Genma said quietly, when Raidou was in earshot. He tapped a salute, and the rookies quickly followed suit.
Raidou touched his own shoulder in a reflexive return salute, but protocol seemed far from his mind. His eyes flicked from one of them to another as he drank in the sight of his team. He gazed openly at Genma’s cane and the faint outline of bandages under slim black trousers; at Ryouma’s white-knuckled hands clenched on nothing; at Kakashi’s shadow-haunted eye in the pale visible portion of his face.
He came back, finally, to Genma, with a lopsided but genuine smile. “You’re all a lot less bruised than I expected.” It was almost the same smile Genma’d seen five days ago, over okonomiyaki with Raidou when they’d finalized the team’s performance evaluations, but less haggard. Whatever Raidou’s training with Yuuhi Benihime was like, it didn’t seem to be hurting him.
Genma smiled back. “Considering the last time you saw all three of us was the night we got home from the mission, I’m not surprised. Nine days, especially with chakra healing, goes a long way with bruises.”
Ryouma was staring at Raidou like it had been nine months, not nine days, since they’d parted. “Are you cleared to come back yet, Taichou?”
Kakashi chimed in almost on top of Ryouma, just as eagerly. “Have you learned anything good?”
“No and yes, in that order,” Raidou said, with humor cresting over the worry still evident on his face. “I’m working on both.”
Ryouma sagged, clearly unhappy with any answer that wasn’t Raidou rejoining the team immediately. Raidou dropped a hand on his shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze. His voice dropped low. “Is Kuroda that bad?”
So Raidou knew about the interim captain. That wasn’t really a surprise; it had been the hottest gossip in ANBU for the last four days. Raidou might be forbidden to interact with his team, but he had plenty of other contacts.
Ryouma shrugged Raidou’s hand off in a masterful show of bravado. “We’ll survive. Probably.” He followed it up with a tumble of questions that made him sound more like an excited academy student than the stoic soldier he tried to pretend. “How’d you hear about Kuroda? What’ve you been doing? What’s Benihime-sama like?”
A soft breeze ruffled the black crepe decorating the funeral portraits by the monument. Genma held up a hand. “Let’s take a little walk before we interrogate our captain,” he said mildly. “This isn’t really the best time or place.”
Raidou glanced at the sun, which was nearing its zenith. His brows creased. “A short walk. I have to report back to Benihime, and it’s not a good idea for me to hang around anyway.”
“Short sounds good,” Genma agreed. “I still want to keep my eye out for Ueno.”
Ryouma, who’d sobered only a little, stuck to Raidou’s side like a chick following its mother as they angled across the grass to a shady spot under a fresh-leafed maple.
“Katsuko’ll be kicking herself for missing you,” he said.
Raidou glanced in the direction Katsuko had disappeared, but he didn’t remark on it.
“Must have been important, or she wouldn’t have left,” Kakashi offered. It didn’t really need to be said, but somehow putting words on it acknowledged the strangeness of the situation.
His grey eye narrowed, sharpening on Raidou. “Why can’t you stay?”
Genma could think of a dozen reasons, starting with ‘I have an appointment’ and ranging through to ‘I’m required to limit contact with Team Six,’ but it was Raidou’s question to answer.
When they were well out of earshot of anyone still lingering at the funeral, Raidou said, “There’s concern that I’m a bad influence. Kuroda’s nasty enough on his own merit, but if he thought I was trying to exert some kind of leverage…” He let the implication hang. There was hardly an underneath to search beneath with that scenario — the things Kuroda could do to any of them for a single misstep had been the stuff of Genma’s nightmares for the last four days.
Another possible reason for Katsuko’s abrupt vanishing act raised its ugly, Kuroda-shadowed head.
“And Benihime-sama’s kicking my ass,” Raidou said brightly, scattering Genma’s dark thoughts about the Vice Commander. “Some of us actually have to work at training, you know, with our actual time.”
Ryouma glanced down at his ink-stained fingertips before he jammed them in his pockets with an equally light, “You gonna make full jounin this year, taichou?”
That was an interesting question. If Raidou could overcome his weakness with genjutsu, he clearly had the skills for the promotion. There were plenty of high-level ninja who prefered to remain career special jounin — no obligation to teach genin being the most often cited reason — but Raidou seemed like the kind of guy who might actually enjoy teaching young ninja. If he didn’t kill them.
“Having these two and Ueno to captain certainly speaks to your qualifications to be a jounin-sensei, if you want,” Genma said.
“Hey,” Ryouma said mildly.
Kakashi offered a derisive snort.
Raidou grinned at them both. “I'd miss my rookies too much. Littler rookies are less fun and more paperwork.” To Ryouma he added, “If I get the sign off, I'll think about testing for jounin after I get reinstated. Right now I just care about getting back on the team.”
“As far as we’re concerned, you’re still on it,” Genma said. “Team Six’s captain is Namiashi-taichou. Our temporary captain is just a substitute while you’re on a brief sabbatical.”
“Very brief,” Ryouma said, with a hopeful eyebrow lift.
Kakashi nodded a silent agreement, his short-lived eagerness to hear about Raidou’s work with Benihime-sama quashed by his more customary taciturn demeanour.
There was a moment’s hesitation while Raidou’s expression flitted quickly through something that wasn’t quite surprise before it settled on warm and fond. His lips thinned like he was about to speak, but when he did, it was with a regretful glance at the sun. “I have to go. Look after each other until I get back.”
“Already? We haven’t even—” Shock and disappointment were palpable in Ryouma’s voice, but he broke off, drawing that shield of bravado around himself. “You ever need genjutsu practice buddies, let us know. You rubbed our faces in mud often enough, we oughtta return the favor.”
A week ago Genma would have dismissed Ryouma’s outburst as emotional instability. Now it seemed more that Ryouma was giving voice — albeit briefly — to a feeling the whole team shared.
“If you happened to be on the third training field at 0500,” Genma said, “and we happened to be there, too, we could work on joint exercises — genjutsu, taijutsu, whatever seems useful.” He glanced at Kakashi, then down at his cane. “Those of us still on medical leave might have to modify some activities, maybe even abstain from the more rigorous ones.”
"That'll be all three of us tomorrow, since Tousaki's getting his knee unbroken today,” Kakashi drawled. “Maybe we can do competitive sitting.”
Raidou gave Kakashi a slow blink, then turned a critical eye on Ryouma. “What's happening to your knee?”
Ryouma’s jaw clenched, steel-tense. “Chakra surgery. Doctor said the joint's unstable and getting worse, but they can go in and fix it without knives. Said I should be mission-fit again in two weeks.” The strain in his voice turned softer when he added, “You'll be back by then, Taichou?”
Genma doubted Raidou knew yet. “It’s a lateral meniscus tear,” he said, jumping in with medical details to give Raidou a way out of answering. “A fairly minor chakra surgery, and really the best case, injury-wise. Once it’s healed, Tousaki ought to be able to match Ueno kick for kick in a spar.”
“Who’s the surgeon?” Raidou asked.
“Niimi-sensei. Didn't get her personal name, but she's got white hair, about a head taller than me,” Ryouma said, his awe at the physician’s towering height plain on his face.
“Niimi Yanagi-sensei,” Genma filled in. “She’s head of the ortho department. If anyone’s going to be able to fix a broken joint, she’s the one.”
Raidou gave Ryouma a considering look, and nodded. “Good, that fix is long overdue.” His voice softened, losing a little of its customary brisk cadence. “I can't promise two weeks, but at least I'll know you're not getting into trouble before I get back. Rest that knee, you hear?”
Ryouma swallowed hard, and jerked a sharp nod. If Genma was honest, he was a little choked up too, caught up in the emotions of the funeral, he told himself. “We’ll be in good shape for you when you get back, Taichou,” he said. “Don’t worry about us at all. I’ll keep you updated on everyone as much as I can.”
Raidou gave the sun another rueful glance, and sighed. “Tell Katsuko I'm sorry I missed her. And you—” His gaze skewered Kakashi, who slouched a little more assertively. “Be nice to your teammates, and try not to implode while I'm not here. Or murder Kuroda.”
"What if that got you reassigned earlier?" Kakashi asked, completely deadpan.
Kakashi’s eye twitched up but stopped short of an insubordinate roll. “Yes, Captain.”
Genma chuckled. “I know it’s hard with such a tempting target, but we’ll have bigger problems than waiting for Namiashi-taichou to come back if you go that route.”
“We're professionals,” Ryouma said with confidence. Whether he meant they were too professional to engage in mutiny, or so good they’d get away with the crime without being caught, was unclear. He slung an arm around Kakashi's neck.
Kakashi froze — his customary I-am-startled-but-violence-is-not-appropriate reaction to unexpected touch. Ryouma went on, unfazed. “C'mon. If I'm gonna spend the next two weeks with a limp, I need one good run in first. Buy you a shave ice in Shirakawa.”
After half a second, Kakashi relaxed enough to say, “Shirakawa's an hour’s run away.” He seemed to consider it for a moment longer, then acquiesced. “Okay."
Genma glanced at his watch. “You’d better go if you want to be back in time for your procedure at 14:00.” He gave Kakashi the same stern look Raidou had moments before. “Don’t make him late.”
Kakashi muttered an irritated, “He can tell time himself!” He scowled for a moment longer, then turned to Ryouma and asked in a tone that sounded purely curious, “Can you?”
Ryouma bared his teeth in a snarl. “With your face, if necessary.” Genma waited for the blows to start, but instead Ryouma saluted his officers, said softly, “See you soon, Taichou,” tugged Kakashi’s hair, and sprinted off in the direction of Konoha’s main gate.
Kakashi made a strangely dog-like sound halfway between a yelp and a snarl, and raced after Ryouma.
Genma and Raidou stood side by side, watched the rookies’ retreating, funeral-clad backs for a moment more. As the dust settled, Raidou rubbed the back of his head. “They seem to be holding up.”
“I think so,” Genma agreed. “Ueno’s been stepping up as senpai, too.” He looked back towards the memorial stone, but there was no sign of Katsuko. “I’m going to wait for her a little longer. Don’t let me hold you up, though. I’m glad we got a chance to see you, but I don’t want to get you in hot water with Benihime-sama.”
Raidou smiled. “What's Tousaki's line? ‘I don't mind hot water. It keeps me clean.’”
Genma chuckled. “As long as it’s not so hot it scalds.”
Raidou quirked half a grin, then sobered up, “You're doing great with them. I’m— I wish I could be here, and it’s my own damn fault I'm not, but you're holding the line. I'll get back as soon as I can.”
“Thanks, Captain,” Genma said. He nudged Raidou’s elbow with his own. “Go learn enough genjutsu to make Kuroda’s head spin. I’ll get you an update on the team after Tousaki’s surgery.”
“Deal,” Raidou said. He clapped a hand on Genma’s shoulder, then took off at a run in the opposite direction the rookies had taken.
Genma watched him go before he headed back to the memorial stone. There were still a few people gathered around it, but most had gone, leaving the funeral’s black bunting and white flowers behind. Incense smoke still drifted up from the braziers; Genma allowed himself to get lost in meditation, watching it curl and climb to drift away on the breeze.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d stood there when he felt Katsuko’s approach. He turned to greet her, ready to relay Raidou’s regrets at having to leave, but his voice died in his throat when he saw her face.
She stood uncharacteristically still, almost at attention. The man who’d called her away was gone, but she was as sober-faced as she’d been when he appeared.
“Lieutenant,” she said quietly, “we need to talk.”