Ozawa regarded Katsuko for a long, long moment, before lifting one black eyebrow. “Is it?” she said.
Raidou swallowed blood from a bitten tongue and flipped Katsuko over again, mashing her face into the damp, loamy earth before she decided to try more words. His right arm twanged and burned, nerves fizzing from her evil-fingered strike. “Help you, captain?”
There was nothing on the books today. Team 18 wasn’t supposed to run another mission until next week, when Isamu’s wrenched ankle had finished healing and Mitarou’s stitches had come out.
“Mmrph!” said Katsuko.
“I need a word,” said Ozawa. Her eyes left Katsuko’s flailing arms and sought out the injured pair. “With all of you.”
“Are we in trouble?” asked Isamu.
“Are they in trouble?” said Mitarou.
Katsuko wrenched her face up from the dirt, spitting grass seeds. “It’s not my fault,” she said.
Ozawa raised her eyes to the heavens. “It’s like herding meerkats,” she said. “Namiashi, if you please?”
Raidou extricated himself from Katsuko, grabbed her by the heel, and dragged her laughing and cursing over to Isamu and Mitarou, who chorused “No, no, no—umph!” when he tossed her onto them. None of them dodged when they easily could have; it was a familiar routine.
“Oh god, my spleen,” said Isamu.
There was a scrambled moment of untangling, then Katsuko sandwiched herself pleased and grinning between her fellow rookies, who leaned theatrically away from her.
Raidou fixed them all with a look.
“Is anyone else suddenly aware of their jugular?” Mitarou whispered, after a moment. “I feel like my neck is exposed.”
Ozawa cleared her throat pointedly, and everyone shut up.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” she said. “Trials are coming up in two weeks and we’re one of the teams slated for a re-shuffle. Namiashi, you’re tapped for captain. Ueno, I’ve made arrangements; you’ll be sticking with him. Takahashi, Momoi, I’m afraid you’re getting split up.”
A landslide could have happened in the following silence, and none of them would have noticed.
“I realize this isn’t the outcome we would have hoped for,” Ozawa said. “But we’ve had a good year, so let’s not ruin it by getting emotional. I’ll have your new postings when Trials are done. Any questions?”
Katsuko let out a silent breath through her nose and didn’t let herself slump. “Where will you be going, captain?” she asked.
Ozawa looked at her. “Back to jounin blues. Sagara-sama has graciously declined my request to renew my commission.” The slight, bitter twist on ‘graciously’ told Katsuko exactly what Ozawa’s opinion on that was.
“Why us?” Mitarou demanded. “Isamu and I are injured, but our team has a damn better record than some of the others. Sumeragi’s squad should be—”
“Sumeragi’s team is also being reassigned,” Ozawa interrupted. “But this isn’t a reflection of how well HQ thinks we worked as a unit. There were empty spaces that needed filling.”
Raidou, who’d been listening the entire time with a faintly poleaxed expression, finally cracked. “Captain?”
“Get used to it, Namiashi.” Ozawa’s eyes creased at the corners, the only sign of her amusement at Raidou’s expense. “I recommended you personally. Don’t screw it up.”
“But—” Raidou started, scrambling for coherence and coming up empty-handed. “I. What.”
Despite everything, Katsuko couldn’t resist. “Now you’ll have to do even more paperwork.”
He covered his face with both hands, voice coming out muffled. “Tell me Katsuko isn’t my lieutenant.”
“Ueno hasn’t expressed any desire for promotion,” Ozawa said, deliberately vague. Then, relenting, she added, “No, you’ll be getting someone else. Don’t know who it is, yet, but it won’t be Ueno.”
“Small mercies, right?” Isamu joked, trying for a smile. “It’s been a good run, guys.”
“Yeah.” Mitarou rubbed the back of his neck, the corners of his mouth pinched and unhappy. “Too short of a run. I’d gotten used to having Ueno and Namiashi as meat shields.”
Katsuko elbowed him in the side, more gently than she usually would have. Mitarou was the one who’d given her the most encouragement during their first mission as a team. “You’re gonna have to learn how to pull your own weight again, buddy. Sad, I know.”
Isamu gave a watery little chuckle.
Raidou finally pulled himself together. “You guys need to get good fast,” he said. “Or me an’ Ueno are gonna smoke you dead.” He held his hand out for a fist tap; Katsuko obliged with a crooked smile.
“Impossible,” Mitarou said, dry as dust. “We have a basic sense of self-preservation holding us back. We’ll never reach your level.”
Raidou didn’t miss a beat. “Not with that attitude.”
“Don’t encourage them,” Katsuko said. “Not everyone can pull off flawless as well as we can.”
Mitarou made an appalled choking noise.
The gentle sound of tapping drew Raidou’s attention back to Ozawa, who skewered him with a raised eyebrow. “If you’re all quite done,” she said, in a way that made it clear they’d better be, or she’d finish it for them.
Raidou cleared his throat and straightened his back. “Sorry, captain.”
A shuffle from the lesser minions suggested they were doing a same. When Raidou glanced sideways, Katsuko was sitting with her back ramrod straight, and her best attentive I’m-being-a-good-shinobi face plastered on. Mitarou still looked affronted. Isamu had re-achieved his serenity.
Ozawa regarded them with dark skepticism.
“Any further questions?” she said at last, with the air of someone balancing above a shark tank.
“Will we be seeing you again, captain?” Katsuko said, sounding ever so faintly wistful. “Outside of ANBU, I mean.”
“Ueno, I can say with absolute certainly that if I ever see you outside of ANBU, I will shoot to kill,” Ozawa said, fingertips tapping the hilts of kunai strapped to her thigh. “You are definitely not welcome on Wednesday afternoons, around four, when my grandmother likes to visit. I don’t need anyone’s help distracting her.”
Katsuko blinked innocently. “Duly noted, captain.”
“Anyone else?” Ozawa said.
Isamu lifted a hand. “Are we still scheduled for next week’s mission?”
Mitarou lowered his hand. “Does this mean we’re allowed to move out of the barracks now?”
“Yes,” said Ozawa. “You’ve done your first year stint; you’re free to find your own lodging. And you knew that. This is not pre-school hour for the emotionally disturbed, stop raising your hands.”
“Raidou still lives in the barracks,” Katsuko pointed out. “I can see why people would want to move out. I'm moving out.”
“Thank you, Buddha,” Raidou said fervently.
“Fine, then, topic closed,” Ozawa said, ignoring them both. “I’ll leave you to your sparring. Takahashi, Momoi, if you’re well enough to sit on a log, you’re well enough to exercise. Break a sweat before sundown or I’ll want to know why.”
She pointed two fingers at both of them, then flicked a blurringly fast seal and vanished in a spiral of dust and blown grass.
“So,” Katsuko said, as pieces of slaughtered grass fluttered to the ground. “Who’s up for one last group spar as a team?”
Mitarou and Isamu made twin sounds of extreme distress. Raidou got one hand on Isamu’s arm and the other on the back of Mitarou’s shirt, hauling them up to their feet. “Come on,” he ordered, no sympathy in his voice at all.
Katsuko stood, rolling her shoulders. “We should probably dial it back a little. Want to set a time limit?”
“Four seconds,” Isamu said, instantly.
Mitarou gave him a judgemental look. “Wuss. Eight, at least.”
Katsuko rolled her eyes at them and turned to Raidou, smirking. “Your decision, captain.”
Startlement flickered behind Raidou’s eyes, there and gone again. He looked up at the sun, judging its position on the horizon. “We’ve got about an hour of light left. We’ll go until the sun’s down, then call it quits.”
“Excellent.” Katsuko rubbed her hands together. “Two against two? Free-for-all? I vote free-for-all.”
Isamu hugged Mitarou hard enough Katsuko was surprised she didn’t hear ribs creak. “Plant roses on my grave, okay?”
Mitarou elbowed him in the face.
“Free-for-all,” Raidou decided, grinning. “You’ve got four seconds to run. One...”
Mitarou blurred away in one direction. Isamu retreated in the other. Katsuko, impatient to get to the fun part of things, leapt off the ground and kicked Raidou in the face. His head snapped back as he staggered, but his hands shot out and caught her leg. He twisted at the waist, throwing Katsuko into the air like a discus.
She tucked her head in, hit the ground in a roll and sprang back up to her feet. Her katana and kodachi hissed out from their sheaths in one smooth motion; she started towards Raidou, but another chakra signature made her pivot on her heel and scythe out with her blades.
Isamu’s tanto clashed against her katana, drawing sparks. He grinned at her and disengaged, leaping back as he threw a kunai at her throat. She knocked it out of the air and gave chase.
Watching Katsuko and Isamu fight was like watching two skinny, furious alleycats going at it with knives. Neither one of them seemed to have joints; they rubber-banded up into the trees, barely stirring the leaves as they hit, ricocheted, rebounded, and struck again, blades ringing.
Isamu’s left ankle gave him a little trouble—which Katsuko cheerfully took advantage of—but it was slight and well-defended. With limited jutsu, Katsuko had to work hard to keep the upper hand.
And Mitarou had been gone too long.
The slight ground rumble was the only warning Raidou got. Beneath his feet, a wide trench ripped open and a seam of Konoha’s underground river lunged up to meet him. He vaulted out of the way, but the ground turned slippery and treacherous where he landed, and the river followed. Watery tendrils snatched at him. He slammed chakra into his feet, dropping into a long skid, and—
Surfed, kind of.
Jutsu for Mitarou, then. Raidou could do that. His own affinities were earth and water, same as Mitarou’s, but he wasn’t bad at fire, either. His hands blurred, hammering chakra into a workable shape. Horse seal, rooster, dragon—he called up heat, a lot of heat, and let it go.
The river exploded into steam.
“Holy mother of—” Mitarou yelled, bursting out of a shimmering water illusion. His skin was livid pink, scalded across his face and bare shoulders. “Son of a bitch.”
Raidou dropped safely onto steaming mud. “Should’ve dodged faster.”
“I’ll dodge your face,” Mitarou shot back, which, yeah, they really needed to work on witty repartee, but then there were stone spears in his hands, yanked from the ground, and Raidou was fully prepared to take those seriously.
“Easy now,” he said, sliding into a crouch.
Mitarou bared his teeth. “Catch.” He spun, whipping around at high speed, and flung the spears a half-second apart — one at Raidou’s face, and one where he would have dodged.
Raidou clapped his hands together, wrenched the ground apart, and dropped straight down. He barely made it; a sharp stone edge scored a hot line across his scalp, giving him a brand new hair-parting. He snapped the ground closed after him.
His old jounin-sensei had liked to call this one groundhog no jutsu, but Raidou always thought of it as pop goes the target. You held your breath, moved fast, and if you were lucky, came up right under Mitarou’s feet—
Or where Mitarou would have been, if Katsuko hadn’t nearly skewered him to a tree.
The bloodless length of the folded steel katana was stuck quivering through Mitarou’s shirt, just beneath his left arm. Its razor edge barely kissed his skin. As Raidou watched, a bead of red gathered at the line of a tiny cut, swelled, and dropped, splashing on the ground.
On the other side of the field, Isamu had been dropped in a crumple of limbs, his clothes nailed down with shuriken.
Katsuko herself was standing in front of Mitarou, with a kunai drawn across his throat.
“Ueno,” Raidou said, lifting a hand. “Hey, Ueno. Not actually dead over here. Let the poor bastard breathe.”
The buzzing in her ears died down. Katsuko slowly lowered her arm, blinking. Mitarou stared down at her; his expression was carefully still. After a moment, she tucked her kunai into her thigh holster and stepped back three paces.
“You back with us, Ueno?” Mitarou asked.
She reached out and tugged her katana free from the tree trunk and Mitarou’s shirt, sheathing it at her waist. “Yeah,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck. “Sorry about that. It— seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
Fighting Isamu took enough of her focus that she’d only been able to catch glimpses of Raidou’s and Mitarou’s battle. What she’d seen— the rock spears, red blossoming on Raidou’s scalp— had been alarming. The next time she’d looked, Mitarou stood alone and the only sign of Raidou had been a splash of blood on the ground.
Her reaction had probably been more vicious than necessary.
“Don’t mind me,” Isamu called, from where she’d pinned him down with shuriken. “I’ll just take a nap. Maybe cloud-watch.”
“If you can’t get yourself out of some minor shuriken, you don’t deserve a mask,” Raidou told him absently. He crossed over to her, one hand clapped over the slice on his scalp, and gave her a searching look. “All good?”
“You’re asking her if she’s okay?” Mitarou demanded, incredulous. “She gave me a heart attack and ruined my shirt.”
“It’s a lucky thing you can sew, then, isn’t it?” Katsuko rolled her shoulders again, settling back into her skin, and nodded at Raidou. She couldn’t dredge up a grin just yet. “We’re good.”
Raidou dropped a hand carefully on the back of her neck, warm and steadying, and looked at Mitarou. Very gravely, he said, “Are you okay, or do you need a cuddle?”
Mitarou opened his mouth, but Isamu beat him to it. “I think I need a cuddle. Do you know how close some of these shuriken are to my dick?”
“Yes,” Katsuko said. “My aim is very, very good.”
“And that’s why we wear cups,” Raidou said. He released Katsuko and went to peel Mitarou off the tree, leaving a bloody handprint on Mitarou’s bare shoulder. “Go help Isamu with his dick issues.”
“Nobody can help him with those,” Mitarou complained, but started off towards Isamu anyways. Mitarou had never been one to hold grudges; he gave Katsuko a friendly punch on the shoulder as he passed, grinning.
She let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding and smiled back. “Learn to dodge, fatass.”
“Bite me,” Mitarou retorted, and sauntered away.
“Don’t tempt her,” Raidou warned.
Katsuko snorted, one hand playing absently over her sword hilt, fingers brushing the red leather tsuka wrapping against the grain. He knew that tic; she did it when there was something eating at her, and she wanted to know her weapon was in reach.
“Ueno, tell me the truth,” he said. He waited until she looked at him. “Is my brain sticking out?”
She blinked and gave him a dubious eyebrow. “No, why?”
“Just feels like it, then,” he said, gingerly touching the furrow Mitarou’s stone spear had gouged. His hair was already crunchy with drying blood, but more welled up underneath his fingers. Head wounds were a faucet.
“We can get Isamu to put a band-aid on it and kiss it better,” Katsuko suggested.
“Maybe I’ll just use your shirt for a bandage,” Raidou said, making a show of going for her hem.
“Maybe I’ll give you another head wound,” she said, whacking his hand away. She caught a pressure point at his wrist; nerve pain zinged up his arm.
Something about his expression must have amused her, because she snickered.
“C’mon, sadist,” Raidou said, grinning at her. “Let’s sort the children out, then you can walk me to a medic.”
“Hey,” said Isamu. “I’m older than Ueno.”
“And I’m wiser,” said Mitarou, yanking a final shuriken free from the turf.
Katsuko appeared to consider this. “But I’m the handsomest,” she decided.
The pair exchanged a look.
“True,” they agreed together.
“You’re creepy when you do that,” Raidou told them, crossing to crouch by Isamu’s collapsing starfish shape. He grabbed the younger man’s previously injured ankle, checking for heat and swelling under the bandages. Still tender, judging by the way Isamu hissed, but no worse. The exercise had probably done it good.
Despite Katsuko’s stellar finishing blow, Mitarou’s sutured shoulder didn’t seem any the worse for wear, either. Raidou let him go with a jostling clap on his good side.
“That was a balls-up mess, guys,” he said. “Good job.”
“Does that mean we can go home?” Mitarou asked hopefully.
“I broke a sweat!” Isamu put in. “And, like, most of my pride.”
Raidou looked over his shoulder at Katsuko, who was hovering a little awkwardly, hands jammed in her pockets. He didn’t want her out of his eyeline yet, but the guys were their usual reboundable selves; he didn’t think they’d have any issues.
“You’re free,” he said, winning a round of raspy cheers. “Ueno, want to help this old man totter to a doctor?”
Katsuko gave him a sidelong look, eyes narrowed, but her mouth finally lifted in its familiar smirk. “Sure thing, gramps. Need me to carry you there?”
He lifted his arms, stretching his back with an ancient-sounding hnnnngh and a lot of spine pops. “That’d be fantastic, actually. Let’s do that.”
Mitarou got to his feet, hauling Isamu with him. “Can we watch—” Mitarou began.
Isamu cut him off with a hand over his mouth. “Thank you, lieutenant,” he said, with a formal bow. “Pleasure working with you. I look forward to being pummelled again sometime. Come on,” he added in a rush, yanking Mitarou.
Mitarou made a muffled noise like werk and freed his mouth. “Thanks, Namiashi,” he said, a little more sincerely.
Raidou sensed the beginnings of an Impending Moment.
“I’m seeing you both tomorrow,” he informed them tartly. “Clear out before I make you run laps.”
“Going!” said Isamu.
“Gone!” said Mitarou.
Two mirrored Ram seals flashed, and the pair vanished in twin clouds of dirt and leaves, speeding away with two nicely performed shunshin no jutsu.
“Smartasses,” Raidou said, amused, and cocked his head at Katsuko. “Well, milady, where’s my palanquin?”
“Fresh out of palanquins today,” Katsuko said. “All the pole-bearers came down with the flu. Terrible, really.”
“Guess you’ll have to piggy-back me, then,” Raidou said, swaying closer like he really was going to collapse onto her. Katsuko skipped back a few steps in alarm; he caught himself without missing a beat.
She rolled her eyes at him. “Funny. Remind me to bring a wheelbarrow next time you start bleeding. It’ll make dragging you to the medics much faster.”
“Probably this time tomorrow,” Raidou told her dryly. He went to go grab his training kit— an old, battered gym bag— and pulled out a towel. Clamping it down over his head wound, he shouldered the bag and started off towards HQ.
When he glanced over his shoulder at her, she sped up to keep pace with him. “You didn’t really need me to walk you to the medic,” she said, wry.
Raidou’s mouth lifted on one side. “You asking me or telling me?”
“Observing. The sky is up, Yondaime’s hot, you’re a big fat liar. The usual.”
"Who says I don't just enjoy your company?"
Katsuko felt her smile go crooked. “Raidou.”
He sighed but met her eyes. “You nearly took Mitarou’s head off. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Well, she’d been the one to press the issue. Katsuko shrugged uncomfortably; it was difficult to keep herself from looking away, but she held Raidou’s gaze. “I’m getting there,” she said, honestly. “It shouldn’t have happened. Losing control like that, I nearly— to my own teammate.” She rubbed her forehead.
He dropped a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. “Hey, it happens, especially to high-rankers. You know the trigger now; just don’t let it trip again.”
Repress and compartmentalize: the time-honored coping technique of trained killers everywhere. “Your faith in me is disturbing sometimes,” she told him.
“Hasn’t let me down yet,” he said, jostling her companionably before letting his hand fall away.
Despite herself, a little of the heavy weight in her chest lightened. Katsuko jabbed Raidou in the side to show her gratitude. “I’m hungry,” she said, and grinned up at him. “Hurry up and get yourself fixed so we can eat.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, is my bleeding head wound slowing your dinner plans down? I’ll attend to that right now.” Raidou pulled his towel off and dropped it on her head, bloody side down. Then he ran for it.
The noise Katsuko made was a combination of ‘augh’ and ‘I’m going to fucking kill you.’ It echoed off the trees as she yanked the towel away, throwing it as far as she could. Raidou had gotten a head start, but agility and sheer rage could make up for Katsuko’s disadvantage.
She gave chase.
There was a slight lack of gravitas in a lieutenant bolting from his own rookie, but jounin-sensei had been hiding from their genin for years, and genin couldn’t do the kind of damage Katsuko was capable of. Raidou gave thanks for long legs and fled for safety.
He made it to the ANBU HQ just before Katsuko caught up him, slammed through the doors, nearly plowed another lieutenant down—“Sorry, Kazuki!”—and skidded down the slick tiled hallway. He caught himself at the open elevator and crowded in with a startled field-analyst clutching a stack of papers, and two weary looking ANBU.
“Sorry,” he said, and hammered on the button until the door closed. The elevator started down.
A distant screech of rage echoed around the tight metal box.
“Girlfriend?” asked one of the ANBU, after a beat.
“Teammate,” Raidou said.
The field analyst took a careful step back and stared fixedly into the middle distance.
“You know your head’s bleeding, right?” said the second ANBU, a tall woman with thin black braids twisted up in an intricate knot.
Raidou eyed the red fingerprints he’d left on the elevator’s control pad. “Is it?”
“Unhygienic, man,” said the first ANBU.
“My bad,” said Raidou, and reached over to wipe them off. They smeared. The field analyst made a tutting sound and appeared at his elbow armed with—an alcohol wipe, seriously?
The next floor dinged and the ANBU agents stepped out, clearly heading for a debriefing. The field analyst disembarked on the floor after that, taking his alcohol wipe and his judgement with him. Raidou travelled alone to the third floor, which was the medic’s level, listening to the crank and rattle of the ancient elevator. When was the last time they’d even had this thing serviced?
The door dinged, opened, and Katsuko punched him in the face.
“Goat-rotted bastard,” she panted.
“Ow,” Raidou said, re-adjusting his jaw. A hot trickle ran down his chin. “Did you just split my— I’m not bleeding enough already?”
“No,” Katsuko said. “Let me get the other side of your face, too.”
She cocked a fist back.
Raidou ducked hastily, slipping out between her and the door, and caught her wrist before she could hammer him on the backswing. Tendons flexed beneath his grip; Katsuko was slight, but Konohagakure had built her out of steel and muscle control and sharp edges, and she could easily clean his clock if he let her get the angle.
“Hey now,” he said. “Indoor-appropriate violence only.”
“Sure. I’ll only go for nerve clusters, then,” she said, with clanging sarcasm, but the wrist in his hold relaxed a little, and she didn’t try anything when he let her go.
He touched the spark of pain where his lip had split open against his teeth, and rolled his eyes at her, resigned to a day of general blood loss. “Seriously?”
“You look good with bruises,” she told him.
“You are creepsome and damaged,” he said.
Katsuko shrugged zen-like acceptance.
Down the hallway, a pointed cough made them both turn. Leaning out of a doorway, a red-headed man in a terrible knitted sweater gave them a severe look over thin silver spectacles. “Can I help you?”
Raidou lifted a filthy hand. “Hey, Toushiro-sensei. Need a patch job. You got the time?”
“Dear god,” said Toushiro, and vanished back into his office.
Katsuko raised her eyebrows. “I haven’t needed stitches in a while. Don’t see why he’s so irritated. You been in here recently?”
“Not for stitches.”
She gave him an inquiring look.
“Might have popped a shoulder last week,” Raidou said, in the same way a person might say, ‘I lost an eyelash’.
“Oh.” Katsuko scratched the side of her nose in thought. “Well, you popped it back in, right? Nothing to get pissed about. Maybe Toushiro-sensei’s face just looks like that.”
“Right?” Raidou said, completely in agreement, and headed down the hallway. Katsuko kept pace with him, curious whether Toushiro had actually fled or just hidden in a supply closet.
The medic was filling out a small pile of forms at his desk. “Stop right there,” he said, pointing his pen at Katsuko and Raidou without looking up from his task. They paused in the doorway of his office. “If you get one drop of blood on my floor, I’ll haul Namiashi out for a prostate exam.”
“What about me?” Katsuko asked, morbidly curious.
“Urine and fecal samples.”
She shuddered and took a step back.
“If this isn’t a good time, I can go back and bleed in the hallway,” Raidou said.
“And faint from blood loss again, I’m sure.” Toushiro stood from his desk, taking the forms with him, and shooed them out of his way as he closed the door to his office behind him. He led them imperiously to the nearest empty exam room, depositing the forms on a table and snapping on a pair of medical gloves. “Namiashi, sit. Ueno, don’t touch anything.”
Katsuko kept her mouth shut and leaned against the wall, watching Toushirou break out the disinfectant and medical glue.
“Honestly,” the medic muttered, dabbing at Raidou’s head wound with an alcohol wipe. "Did you do this with a tree branch? You have leaf parts in this."
“Stone spear,” Katsuko said, helpfully. “He’s working on this new technique where he blocks things with his head.”
“Roaring success so far,” Raidou deadpanned.
Toushirou was probably more vengeful applying the skin glue than he had to be. Raidou winced as the medic held the edges of the cut together until it bonded. “There,” Toushirou said, sitting back. “You know the standard care for scalp wounds. Let it heal and don’t wash your hair for a week.”
Raidou raised a hand to where his hair had dried rust-brown, old blood spiking it up. “Well, that’ll be gross.”
Toushirou’s eyes narrowed. “Remember that the next time you get yourself wounded for recreation.” After a moment, he sighed and added grudgingly, “Sponge baths are acceptable. Try not to aggravate the cut any more than you have to. Ice that lip, too.”
“Yes, mom.” Raidou grinned crookedly. “Do I get a sucker?”
“You’re a sucker,” Katsuko said.
He snorted, unimpressed. “You can do better than that, Ueno.”
Toushirou threw his hands up. “Out! Go be twelve-year-olds somewhere else.” He made impatient shooing motions at them. Katsuko sighed and let herself be herded outside.
If Raidou had stepped any slower, the closing door would have taken his nose off.
“I don’t think he even filed an injury form,” he said, after a beat.
Katsuko gave him a look of dry judgement. “Of course that’s what you’d be worried about.”
Raidou scowled. “It’s important,” he said. Not for this minor scratch, maybe, but you never knew what subtle stab or innocuous injury could turn out to be serious problem—or who’d treated it with what, if there wasn’t a paper trail.
“You’ve got that face again,” Katsuko said.
“There’s no face.” He rapped his knuckles on the door.
It jerked open, and Toushiro advanced with a form thrust out at Raidou’s eye level. “I’m working on it,” he said, with far more vibrating stress than any man in a knitted sweater should rightfully have. Behind him, a slow sliding noise ended in a scattered thump as a stack of paperwork landslided off the desk. Papers drifted past the doorway.
Toushiro’s eye twitched.
Very carefully, Raidou stepped out of blast radius. “That’s great. Good job, sensei.”
Katsuko grabbed Raidou by the elbow, making him twitch in surprise. “Can’t talk gotta go now bye sensei!” she said in a rush, and hauled Raidou up the hallway.
They passed a kunoichi bracing what looked like a very broken arm. Raidou wished her luck.
The elevator was empty on the ride back up. Raidou leaned against the wall and got in touch with his headache, which was starting to make itself known in the aftermath of adrenaline. Katsuko occupied herself pressing every single button. She was eying the emergency stop when their floor dinged and the doors opened.
“Don’t,” said Raidou.
“Well, now I have to,” she said.
He narrowed his eyes at her.
She gave him a sunny smile, smacked the door close button, and bolted out just before the doors sealed shut. Because she’d pressed every single button, the elevator jolted serenely up to the next floor.
When he walked back down the stairs to the main floor, Katsuko was leaning by the entranceway and laughing. He smacked her upside the head as he passed. “Obviously you’re feeling better.”
She stopped laughing, but a twinkle lingered. “All fuzzy puppies and unicorn sparkles up here, captain,” she said, tapping her temple—and, yep, cracked up again. Katsuko provided more amusement for herself than the rest of the village combined.
Raidou’s mouth twitched. “Then I guess you don’t need a head watch. Want to call it quits for tonight?”
Katsuko’s laughter wound down eventually. She recovered enough to look up at Raidou, trying her best charming smile. “Actually, I was wondering if you’d help me pack up my stuff. I need you to carry heavy shit for me.”
He made dubious eyebrows at her. “Since when have you ever needed anyone to carry heavy shit for you?”
“Never, really,” Katsuko admitted. She batted her lashes flirtatiously at him and echoed his words from earlier. “Maybe I just enjoy your company.”
Raidou’s horrified expression made her snort so loudly she almost hurt her sinuses. He turned around and made as if he was going to escape outside. “Yeah, okay, leaving.”
She was probably going to have to use actual sincere words to get her point across. Katsuko sighed in frustration. “I meant I wouldn’t mind if you’d help me pack. It would be a lot more entertaining than doing it myself.”
He turned back, lifting an eyebrow. “You already have a new place in mind?”
“Hell yes,” Katsuko said fervently. “I’ve been looking at apartments since I moved into the barracks and saw the bloodstain on my ceiling.” At night, when she was tired, the bloodstain looked like a snake. She’d papered it over, but it still showed through. “There’s a fifth floor walk-up near the monument that’s open. Has its own shower and everything.”
“Sounds fancy,” Raidou said, amused. He’d stopped walking away, though.
“Very shiny,” Katsuko agreed. “So shiny you should come help me pack, so I can move into it faster. Please?”
He eyeballed her. "What do I get out of it?"
“More time spent in my luminous presence?” Katsuko tried. Raidou’s expression didn’t change. She sighed. “I’ll help you get the blood out of your hair. And I won’t even poke your scalp wound or anything.”
Katsuko’s room in the barracks was second-to-the-last near the end of the hall, sandwiched in between Arai, who made too much noise, and Gondou, whose room always smelled like sake. She unlocked her door and shouldered it open, holding it for Raidou to come in. “Home, sweet home.”
Her spare swords were still where she’d left them on their stands, her extra uniform hung on the wall for quick access. She’d pack those last. Everything else— the sheets lying crumpled on the bed, her dresser full of clothes, the picture frames on her nightstand— would be easy to store away. She spent most of her money on weapons and food, anyways.
“Let’s get all of that shit out of your hair, first,” Katsuko said. “I don’t want you shedding blood crumbs all over my stuff.”
Raidou looked pointedly up at the ceiling, where the cloying brown bloodstain showed through thin paper. “Would it make a difference?”
Katsuko opened one of the cupboards in her kitchenette, taking out a clean plastic bowl. “Yes. I’m moving to get away from that.” She pointed at the bloodstain. “I don’t want to bring it with me.”
“Fair point,” he said, and spread his hands. He took up a lot more space in her room than she did. “Where do you want me?”
She waved in the general direction of the kitchenette’s two tiny chairs and stuck the bowl in the sink, turning the water on warm. “Grab a couple towels, too. Bottom dresser drawer.”
Footsteps, then a wooden scrape as Raidou opened the dresser. Katsuko turned the faucet off well before the bowl could overflow and turned around just as he settled on one of the chairs. He looked at her curiously, draping a towel around his shoulders. “I didn’t know you could do domestic, Ueno.”
Katsuko’s mouth tilted up. “The things you don’t know about me could fill a whole lot of books, Namiashi.”
“The kind of books civilians like to burn, I’d imagine.”
“How’d you know?” She retrieved a new sponge from a drawer, ripping off the plastic covering, and dropped it into the bowl; then she slid the whole thing down the counter to where Raidou sat. “I’m banned in several countries for having extremely sexy illustrations.”
“I could have lived without picturing that,” Raidou said distantly. “I think I would have been happy.”
“People are boring when they’re happy,” Katsuko said, and squeezed the sponge over his head.
“Whoa, hey!” Raidou yelped, jerking his head to the side. “Get the hair, not the glue.”
“That’s what I’m doing,” Katsuko said patiently, following him with the sponge. Lukewarm water washed down the back of his neck, soaking into the towel. “Ruining the glue would make you bleed all over my stuff.”
“Can’t have that,” Raidou muttered.
“Priorities,” she said, radiating the serenity of someone with a quasi-willing victim under their hands. The blood had set in his hair, drying to a disgusting gummy crust. She went at it like a woman determined to lightly scalp him.
Raidou shut his eyes. As headaches went, the hot dry pounding in his temples wasn’t exactly world-ending, but it was starting to grind on his nerves. He could ask for painkillers — Katsuko undoubtedly had a medkit full of them. He had a rattling bottle in his training kit, even, but they were for private use, not public, or for when the rookies threw out a joint. He’d put too much work into cultivating the image of a juggernaut lieutenant to let it lapse for a minor dent.
The sponge scoured a tacky streak of blood from his forehead, and Katsuko’s free hand settled on the back of his neck, making him open his eyes. He winced when her fingers dug in.
“What are you—”
She found a tense knot, pressed her thumb against it hard, and released it all at once. His muscles unlocked, shivering. She found another one, working her way down from the base of his skull to the top of his back. It was about as relaxing as being gently mauled with tiny hammers, but the headache lessened.
“Are you trying to cripple me?” he demanded, by way of saying thank you.
“I wouldn't have to try," Katsuko said cheerfully. “Since you still have feeling below the neck, shut up and take it like a ninja.”
“As your future captain, I want you to know that you’re going to be on my shitlist for the rest of eternity,” he told her, leaning back against her hand. “Toilet brushes will be ranked higher than you. Ouch, goddammit, get that one again.”
“You're sending me very mixed messages, here.” She hit the same spot again, sparking an arc of nerve pain that faded to a tingle. “I'd ask if your mom ever taught you manners, but you can't blame the parent for the failings of the child.”
“S’that what your parents told you?”
Katsuko’s hands paused for a brief, telling moment, then resumed. “Yours didn’t?”
“Mine are both teachers,” Raidou said. “We did a lot of emotional processing, less blame. One’s a civilian,” he added, to explain.
“Huh. My dad's a jounin,” Katsuko offered, with the slightest edge to her voice that made him think there was a lot of history there. “My mom... is not a shinobi. I've got a little brother, too. He complains almost as much as you do.”
“Do you torture him, too?”
“He's a civilian,” she said. “His head isn't as hard as yours. I have to be nice.”
“You torture him,” Raidou translated.
“Your lack of faith wounds me.” She gave him one last vision-destroying massage, which popped his neck bones like broken nut shells, and let the sponge fall back into the basin. A quick flip dropped the towel edge over his head. “As if I’d do that to someone who looks up to me as a role model.”
“You torture him a lot,” Raidou said, towelling his head carefully dry. The white terry-cloth came away brownish-red, but the glue was still a rough ridge when he touched it, and there was no fresh blood. He actually felt marginally cleaner.
Katsuko left to toss the bloody water down the shared bathroom drain while he peeled himself back upright, surveying the uncluttered terrain of her room. Most rookies liked to live light, but even by spartan standards Katsuko was pretty lacking in creature comforts. Even Raidou had a rug.
“So,” he said, when she returned. “Where do you want to start?”
Katsuko deposited the bowl in her sink and turned around, studying the place that had been her home for the past year. “I’ve still got the boxes I used to move in,” she said. “We can pack the stuff in the kitchenette up first. There’s not a lot.”
‘Not a lot’, in this case, meant several cups, two sets of utensils, and barely enough plates and bowls to fill one cardboard packing box. Katsuko put it to the side as Raidou brought out the rest of the empty boxes from her closet, setting them on her floor. Besides her weapons, she didn’t have many things she was attached to; her brother’s paintings that she kept hung on the wall, yes, definitely, and her sketchbooks, maybe. Everything else was replaceable.
“Can you check if my alarm clock’s broken?” she asked, unpinning one painting from the wall. “I think maybe I punched it this morning. Might have been a wishful dream, though.”
Raidou picked the clock up from her bedside table, turning it over in his hands. “Casing’s cracked,” he diagnosed. “The tick still works. Want to keep it?”
“Might as well,” Katsuko sighed, disappointed. “Until the next time I punch it, anyways.”
He put it back down and moved over to her shelves, bringing an empty box with him. He spent a few minutes filling the box with her books before asking, with his back to her, “How do you feel about the changeover?”
She paused in the middle of storing her ink brush set. “Ruffled,” she said at last, checking the fine hairs on her thickest brush. “We’d just hit our stride as a team. A year wasn’t nearly enough time.”
The last book went into the box with a gentle rustle of paper. Raidou looked at her, sympathetic. “That’s how it goes in ANBU, mostly. You get a year, then it all shuffles. Six months for teams that’re really killing each other. It’s rare for people to stick together— you’ll be my first.”
Katsuko glanced at him. “I remembered your mask,” she said, abruptly. He raised an eyebrow, and she clarified. “From my Trials. The first day I met the team, I saw your mask and remembered it from when... I tried to blow you up. It was awkward.”
Raidou blinked at her, once. “You little shit,” he said, after a moment. “I didn’t think you’d realized.”
“You punched me in the face during the second Trial,” Katsuko said. “It would have been hard for me not to remember your mask. Dick.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Anyways, what I wanted to say was— we came a long way from that. You were a good lieutenant. You’re going to be a good captain. I’m glad they stuck us together.” She paused and added, “And I’m really glad I’m not your lieutenant.”
He looked like he was fighting not to smile. “Are we having a moment?”
“Ugh, no,” Katsuko said. “What does this look like? A kids’ movie?”
Now he was outright grinning. “Is this whole thing your way of angling for a hug, Ueno? Because I can do that. We can have emotions— we can process emotions, even. I bet you have ice cream.” He started towards her, spreading his arms. “Bring it in, rookie.”
Katsuko— squawked was the term for it, really, but she’d deny it to her dying day. “What? No!” She bolted up to her feet and wavered on the edge of retreat, unwilling to run away from him in her own room. “You’re going to try and crack my ribs. Is this revenge for the neck massage?”
He dropped his arms, still grinning. "Little bit. I wouldn't, really."
“Uh huh,” Katsuko said, doubtfully. “Very convincing, captain.”
"Well, unless you asked, but that's different." He picked up an empty box while Katsuko sputtered. "What's next?"
She made a face at him and waved a hand towards her dresser. “Clothes, then my weapons.” A splash of color on the far wall caught her eye: a painting of Makoto’s that she’d missed before, distracted as she’d been with the sudden talk of emotions. “Can you get that for me?” she asked, pointing. A few of her brush pens had fallen to the floor when she’d surged to her feet. She knelt to pick them up again. “It goes in the box with the rest of my art stuff.”
Raidou lifted the painting carefully down.
It wasn’t something he’s expected to find in Katsuko’s room — a scroll with slightly ragged edges, hanging by a ribbon from a kunai she’d driven deeply into the wall. The art was sketchy, almost calligraphy-like, with thick black lines and only occasional splashes of color. People climbing a path alongside a mountain river, surrounded by trees losing their leaves in a haze of orange.
Not a professional piece, but eye-catching all the same.
“Did you do this?” he asked, tucking it safely into the box.
She glanced up. “My little brother,” she said, with a fleeting smile. “Makoto. That’s one of his earlier ones.”
That’d be the unfortunate civilian brother.
“Pretty work,” Raidou said. He cast about for another task, but Katsuko had taken over emptying her bookshelf and—there just wasn’t anything else.
A whole life in less than five boxes, minus armor and clothes.
Well, weapons, she’d said. She’d need some for the next week, but he could pack the spares—and he much preferred that over going anywhere near her underwear drawer.
“Weapons chest?” he asked, eyeing the single sword rack on the wall. “Or do you just scatter?”
Katsuko jerked her chin. “Under the bed.”
A weapon’s chest was as individual as the ninja who owned it. Raidou had seen converted footlockers, inherited antiques, specially commissioned wooden trunks with hidden compartments, and once, a laundry sack. His was a steel-banded oak chest with inlaid protective seals, because he had standards.
Katsuko’s was a suitcase.
Raidou pulled it out by the handle, brushing dust-bunnies away, and gave it a dubious look. “Any traps?”
There was silence.
“No,” Katsuko said eventually, and offered him a dazzling smile. “Trust me.”
He might have, before she’d done that.
Suspecting a poor attempt at head-fuckery, he ignored her and tapped the suitcase’s soft lid, listening for the gloing of a tripped spring. A few heavy objects clinked gently together. He unzipped the bag.
And sat back on his heels.
He’d expected some variety, but this was a catalogue. Fire Country-made steel katana shared space with Iwa chokutō, lethal-looking Kirigakure hachiwara crossed their hooked blades over black-steel uchigatana. An ancient, pitted broadsword had been so thoroughly blooded that the blade carried a red shimmer. Someone had hand-stitched pockets into the suitcase’s lid, and every one of them contained a dagger—short-bladed, long-bladed, curved, river-edged. One was so wickedly thin, Raidou didn’t dare test his thumb against it.
Not one item matched. Different maker-marks, different binding-styles. Some had family names etched into the sheaths, others were blankly anonymous. All of them were meticulously cleaned and cared for, and every one had marks of use on the blade.
Every one of them, Raidou suspected, was a trophy.
“I think I get it,” he said, after a moment of silent study. “You don’t keep anything else, because all your treasure’s here.”
For all her flash and flame, Katsuko could move like a ghost when she wanted to. The barest hint of warmth at his back was all the warning he got before she reached past his shoulder, silent, and picked out one of the daggers.
“This one’s my favorite,” she said, unsheathing it and turning it to let him see.
It wasn’t a design he was familiar with. The scabbard was just two loose pieces of wood held together by loops of brass. The blade curved in angular waves, wide at the base and narrowing to a stabbing-tip. Double-edged and keen, but oddly weighted, with a clunky hilt wrapped in some kind of lacquered fiber. The whole thing was dark and plain, and, if Raidou had to judge, older than both of them.
“Why?” he asked.
“My first kill,” Katsuko said simply. She smiled; it wasn’t nice. “Bastard went for me because I was the smallest on my genin team.”
Raidou suspected that was a short-lived regret. “Well, aren’t we learning so much about each other,” he said, because good for you was obviously redundant.
She laughed and resheathed the dagger, sliding it back into its place. “Are we? Mostly it seems like we're reaffirming my weirdness.”
“Also that,” Raidou said, and rezipped the case. “I might be going out on a limb here, but I think your weapons are pre-packed. In fact, I think you’re ready to go, barring whatever you need to drag out of your closet.” He tipped his head up, quirking a smile at her. “And your stalling is getting less subtle, so why don’t I just make it clear that I’m going to stick around tonight until you feel good to be on your lonesome, and we can get noodles or something?”
Katsuko visibly decided whether or not to bullshit him.
He lifted his eyebrows at her.
“I was wondering when you’d notice,” she said at last, with an uneven grin.
He rose to his feet. “About four seconds in, but I was waiting to see if you’d come clean.” He took the risk on ruffling her wild hair. “And you didn’t, so you get to pay for noodles.”
“Why don’t we play janken for the bill instead?” Katsuko tried, slipping out from under his hand after a brief hesitation.
“Yeah, no,” said Raidou. “These captain hands just packed your house. You can buy me dinner.”
“Noooooo,” Katsuko whined, in a little waterfall of complaint. She sighed. “Fine. You take advantage of my generous heart.”
“With pleasure,” Raidou said cheerfully.
Katsuko tossed her hands up, broke a piece of her dense chakra into five argumentative clones, and sent them off with her wallet and orders for increasingly disturbing sounding noodle-dishes. Her apartment was lacking in anything like seating, barring one three-legged stool with a drunken list. Raidou glanced at the bed, at Katsuko, and bit the corner of his lip.
“I can sit on the floor,” he said.
She rolled her eyes, dragged the covers and pillows off the bed, and scattered them in a chaotic bird’s nest on the carpet. “We’re watching Kamiyama-sama and the Eight Ronin,” she said, with a tone that suggested he could eat alone in the hallway if he disagreed.
“We saw it nine times,” he said. “You took Isamu and Mitarou to see it four more times after that!”
“Because it’s awesome,” she said, with rapture that concerned him on a basic level. “The fight scenes are so bad.”
“Every time I watch it, I can feel pieces of my soul dying.”
“I know,” she said, flopping down on the softest part of the nest and sprawling. “It makes me happy.”
He snorted a laugh and sat down at arm’s reach, bracing his back against the bedframe. Unsurprisingly, Katsuko already had the movie cued. She probably fell asleep to it, warm in the glow of terrible cinematic murder.
The title card splashed across the screen, blood red, set to a background of screaming.
“I hate you so much,” said Raidou.
Katsuko propped her bare feet on his shin, slouching down against a cluster of pillows. She laced long, scarred fingers together over her flat stomach, and let out a long, slow sigh—tension release. Some of the edge, visible only in its sudden absence, went out of her. “You love me,” she said comfortably.
“I tolerate you,” he said.
His mouth hooked up against his will. “Sometimes.”
The first six people died on-screen; one of them literally exploded.
“Hey, Rai,” she said, after a moment. “This new team—can I be responsible for torturing the new rookies?”
She smiled, eyes half-lidding. Her legs were suddenly heavier, resting actual weight on him. “Okay,” she said.
He rubbed her knee, gentle-handed, and then pointed at the screen when someone’s jaw went flying. “Oh, come on.”