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Worth the Pain[Jul. 8th, 2016|07:54 pm]

[Takes place the morning of May 20, Yondaime Year 5, an hour or so after When the Last Roll Is Called]

For the first fifty kilometers of the run to Shirakawa, Kakashi and Ryouma didn't talk.

It wasn't exactly a race, like the first few times they'd competed on mission marches. They knew each other's paces by now: Kakashi's eye-blurring turn of speed, Ryouma's staying power. Kakashi set a pace at the very edge of Ryouma's limits, and didn't push it. Ryouma focused on the burn in his lungs, the dull ache in his knee, the perfection of his body moving exactly as he meant it to, and refused to let himself think: This might be the last time I run.

Three kilometers outside Shirakawa, with the thickly wooded hills giving way to gentle meadows and farmers' hamlets, and the town's smoke smudging the horizon, Kakashi said, "Niimi-sensei does good work."

Kakashi was looking at the dusty snake of a road curving up southwest from Tanazaku to Shirakawa, not at Ryouma. He said, "I asked Rin."

"I wasn't thinking about it," Ryouma lied.

Kakashi let the silence wash back. Perhaps, for once, he didn't feel the need to point out that Ryouma wasn't fooling anyone.

They came out of the last straggling woods, skirting a farmer's buckwheat field, and joined the road. Shirakawa's gates crept up at them. A few other travelers, trudging in the dust, heard the swift beat of their steps and automatically veered to the side. Two small boys eating rice balls in the back of an ox-cart watched wide-eyed as the shinobi flashed by.

Kakashi said, "I bet there are one-legged ninja."

"I could still kick your ass with a wooden leg," Ryouma agreed. "But you can't run without a knee-joint."

"You could hop," Kakashi suggested, with a glint of amusement.

Ryouma entertained, for a brief moment, the mental image of a squad of one-legged shinobi, hopping like children in a chicken fight. It was not particularly inspiring.

"If I ever hop," he said, "it'll be when I die and come back as a hopping corpse. I'll haunt you and drink all your chakra and you'll pass out in the middle of the street every day."

"If I remember my lore right, you can ward off kyonshī with glutinous rice and a wooden sword," Kakashi said lazily. "But I can try to look terrified if it'll make you feel better."

"Well, there's probably not much point in both of us being terrified together." They were coming within the shadow of Shirakawa's walls, less than a third the height of Konoha's; civilian villages didn't have the advantage of Earth-jutsu masonry in building their defenses. Ryouma slowed to a trot, and then a walk. "You can be brave today, and I'll take over again tomorrow. Keep your eye out for a kakigōri stand."

They passed through the open gates—unguarded, even, on this warm spring day—and onto a broad thoroughfare lined with merchants' shops and stalls. Kakashi made the beginnings of a gesture, caught it, and shoved his hand into his pocket. His wrist stayed loose, deliberately relaxed. He pointed his chin in the other direction, down a narrower street toward an awning and a thin crowd. "Over there."

The patrons of the shave ice shop were inclined to gawk at shinobi, which meant that Kakashi stayed very still, Ryouma summoned up his brightest smiles, and all conversation ground to a halt until the shopkeeper issued them with two bowls of fluffy shaved ice, drizzled with condensed milk and adzuki bean paste. Ryouma paid; Kakashi collected napkins and plastic spoons. Stares followed them to a bench on the other side of the street. A couple of young women nudged each other and giggled.

"I miss Konoha civilians," Ryouma said.

Kakashi's brow pinched in exaggerated concern. His mask was still firmly in place, but two large spoonfuls were already missing from his bowl of kakigōri. "You don't want free attention? Are you ill?"

"I'm being not-brave," Ryouma said. "Also, Konoha girls know what they're getting into. They don't look at you like— like a tiger that'll probably kill you but you might like to hook up with it first." Which was possibly the worst metaphor he'd ever stumbled over. He filled his mouth with sweet red beans and fresh snow before he could make it worse.

Kakashi said, "Hmm." His shave ice was half gone. He turned and gazed unblinkingly at the two giggling young women, a long, flat stare that seemed to catalogue every breakable joint and vulnerable vein.

The girls looked away first, uncomfortably, whispering to each other. One of them tossed her head; the other gathered an armful of shopping bags. They took their kakigōri with them, half-eaten.

Kakashi leaned back on the bench with a faint hum of satisfaction. "Try looking creepy next time, not biteable."

Biteable was a much better mental image than hopping.. Ryouma refrained, with effort, from the instinctive follow up. Kakashi's camaraderie was still too new, too fragile, to test.

He said instead, "I've been thinking. Taichou said he couldn't promise coming back by the time I'm mission-fit, and you and Katsuko'll both be back on your feet by then. You think they're gonna send us on a mission with Kuroda? 'Cause I know Katsu says he's an evil genius of management but I dunno how he ever managed to make it through his first ANBU career without somebody stabbing him."

It wasn't, precisely, a reward to look forward to. Survive this surgery you've been avoiding for ten years, and you can take a mission with a captain who hates you!

"Makes you wonder," Kakashi said, "just how good he really is."

Ryouma stabbed morosely at the bottom of his bowl. Simple fact of shinobi life: there was always someone better out there. Only usually you could soothe yourself with the reminder that it was someone like the Hokage, a shining god, an ideal to strive for and never, ever reach. Or someone in the Bingo Book, an opponent to pursue and someday beat, or at least a worthy killer.

Not an asshole bureaucrat with a petty vendetta and a penchant for bootlicking. There was no justice in the world.

"I get that he's probably pushing our buttons to see if Taichou—corrupted us, or something. Katsuko 'cause she's closest to Taichou, and me 'cause— Well, anyway. But they put Taichou in genjutsu training with Yuuhi-sama, so it's not like they still think he's a double agent or a second Orochimaru or something. At this point, Kuroda being an asshole is just— a weasel with power and nobody stopping him from using it."

Kakashi set his empty bowl aside and tipped his head back to the sky. "It's almost like we're in the military," he drawled.

He sounded as if he'd long ago recognized the injustice in the world, and made his peace with it.

Ryouma should have. He did, some of the time. He knew the world wasn't fair; he just couldn't help wanting it to be.
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