For a moment, neither of the officers answered. Genma stepped closer to the bed, his quick glance summing up Ryouma's brace and crutches before returning to Raidou, weighted with something Ryouma couldn't read.
Raidou let the curtain fall closed behind him. "She's fine, Tousaki, don't look like that."
What was Ryouma supposed to be looking like? Katsuko'd been pulled away at the funeral, and Raidou'd hinted he wouldn't see them again for two weeks or more. Now he was back, and she wasn't.
"Her father requested her skills for a special mission," Raidou said. His voice was gentle, all the rough edges sanded off. "She'll be in charge of the protection detail on a political envoy into Iwa, for the foreseeable future."
"Iwa," Kakashi said, flatly.
"Iwa," Genma confirmed. "So you can understand why the Hokage would want someone of Ueno's talent as head of security for the detail."
"No, I don't," Kakashi snapped. "Ueno's explosive, not political. This is a stupid decision. Who really made it?"
The lieutenant didn't flinch. He reached out, instead, closing his hand on Ryouma's shoulder, pressing him back and down. The edge of the bed rose up behind Ryouma's legs. He sat.
Genma settled into the empty chair by the bed and set his cane aside. "When Sagara-sama briefed me about the situation, she said that Ueno Kasa requested his daughter for the mission, Yondaime-sama approved the request, and our Ueno was offered the slot. So as far as I know, Ueno made the final decision herself."
Kakashi drew a thin breath. His voice came quieter, but the edges were just as jagged. "Why isn't she here to tell us herself?"
She was supposed to be teaching Kakashi, Ryouma remembered dimly. The same way Genma had offered the shining promise of medic training, Katsuko had held out the offer of her family's sword style, a legacy shared with no one else in Konoha. Kakashi thirsted for knowledge like a dying man in a desert, but there'd seemed to be more between them than just a demonstration of kata and a few sparring sessions. There'd been real — if injured — pride and pleasure in Katsuko's voice when she told the story of their interrupted Crescent Moon Sweep.
Why would she leave that — leave them — to do a job she was bad at, with a family she hated, in a country that wanted her and every other Konoha shinobi dead?
Raidou sighed. "Maybe these will help." He dug two folded sheets of paper out of his pocket, checked the characters inked on the backs, and passed them over. One to Kakashi, one to Ryouma.
Ryouma's fingers didn't fumble, opening the paper. It felt like they should have. He spread it out on his thighs and gazed blankly down.
It was an ink-wash drawing, all simple lines and delicate shading. A wild ram with curling horns stood on the shore of a marshy lake, fringed with the brush-stroke suggestion of rushes and iris. A tiny rat sat on his head. Both of them gazed, heads lifted, at the full moon above.
Something tickled at the back of Ryouma's throat. He opened his mouth, and found it was anger.
"What the hell sort of goodbye is this?" Was he supposed to pin it on his wall, or above his desk, and stare at it every time he turned around to make a joke and found her gone? They'd barely lasted through one turn of the moon: was that single-stroke circle supposed to mean something?
"A rushed one," Raidou said. "She barely got the chance to see the lieutenant before she left; I didn't get to see her at all. I think this was the best she could manage."
If she'd seen Genma, it must have been after the funeral. Which meant that if Ryouma hadn't dragged Kakashi out fifty kilometers away from Konoha in a bullshit attempt to outrun his fears, they'd have been here when she came to say goodbye…
He dug his fingers into his thigh, instead of the paper. "Sorry we missed her."
"She was sorry not to get to say goodbye, too," Genma said. "I only got a little time with her, to take care of administrative details, but I know she wasn't any happier about her short turn-out time than the rest of us are."
How long had she had? If that was her father, at the funeral — if she was already gone —
Five hours, maybe. Plenty of time to kit up for a three-day or weeklong mission. Not quite such a generous turn-out time for a relocation halfway across the continent, with an apartment to pack, a security detail to arrange, and an estranged family to face.
But she'd sat down, somewhere in there, to draw him a farewell.
He cleared his throat. "What'd she leave you, Kakashi?"
For a horrible second it had looked like Ryouma was going to cry.
Kakashi regarded his own letter warily. He didn't want to read it, especially with an audience. Whatever it contained, Katsuko wouldn't be any less gone. And if it held a good reason, she would have stolen his right to be angry, too.
Then again, there was an equal chance it was just a string of weird pet names and a doodle.
Or, as a very slim outlier, a coded message for help.
“Excuse me,” he said, and turned around on the bed to read.
To my dear, darling, fluffy-headed, cranky, first-and-only disciple,
I’m sorry. I left a lot of things unfinished, and I never intended to leave so soon. If I had a choice, I never would have left at all. But my orders came in straight from the top, so it’s off to Earth Country. A forcible retirement under orders from my father isn’t exactly how I thought I would be leaving ANBU, and I intend to have a word with him about it.
My kodachi is still with Megumi-sensei. I’ve left instructions for her to send it to you when the repairs are finished. Keep it safe for me, alright? Think of it as a promise. I’ll be coming back, and, if you’ll still have me as a teacher, our lessons will begin again. This isn’t an ending, just a necessary delay.
Besides, it's not every day that a samurai and a shinobi get the chance to work on their versions of the same sword style together. My mother can still show me a few new tricks. When I come back my Hyoho Niten will be stronger, and I will be a better teacher. I promise.
Bento (formerly known as the stinky cat) has informed me that he's tagging along with our official convoy to Earth Country. So far he's set off my father’s allergies and horked a hairball up on my mother’s shoes. He misses you.
I'm leaving my copy of the Scroll of Five Rings, Hyoho Niten’s manifesto, in my desk. It's got my old notes and diagrams in the margins. I hope you'll find them useful. Read them carefully; there will be a quiz when I get back.
I'm sorry I could only be your senpai for a short while. For what it’s worth, I've never felt as close to a team as I have with this one. There's something special about all of you. Something important. Keep the others safe for me, alright, Kakashi?
Farewell for now,
Your loving senpai, Katsuko
There wasn’t any code. A glance with the Sharingan showed no unusual chakra.
Kakashi folded the letter carefully and touched it to his nose. It smelled like Katsuko, overlaid by Genma and Raidou. No one else.
Two days ago, she’d told them her father never came to Konoha unless he could help it; that he’d been gone more than two years and she prefered it that way. Now the man had called and she’d packed up her whole life to answer.
Five days ago, she’d told Kakashi she was thinking about taking command track. She’d bought him swords, vouched for Raidou, they’d talked about trust. She’d said, You’re one of mine. My team. She’d meant it.
Nothing was permanent, especially in ANBU, but they were in pieces and she’d left.
Like a good soldier, under orders. Exactly like he would have.
And this was exactly why he hadn’t wanted to read the damn letter. He didn’t want to understand.
Paper crunched. He opened his fist, but only to set the spark. The letter burned away in seconds, with a flame too small to set off the hospital’s fire-warning seals. He shook the ash off his palm and turned back to the remainder of Team Six.
“She says she’s sorry,” he said. “Are we getting a new teammate, or is it just us from now on?”
Raidou’s face darkened. “What?”
In Kakashi’s peripheral vision, Ryouma’s knuckles whitened. Genma leaned forward on his chair, angling his shoulder just in front of Raidou. A subtle but precisely placed barrier.
“ANBU teams change to suit the needs of the missions the village is taking — this is no different.” Genma’s voice was as calm as the slow currents of Konoha’s river. “Until we hear otherwise, we’ll be a team of four, with three on medical leave, and one on training leave for the next two weeks. We could be assigned a new member after that, or we could be given missions as we are.” He settled back in his chair, relaxed. “This isn’t a punishment for Team Six, no matter how it feels. This is a promotion for Ueno. Taichou and I are proud of her. She’s earned it.”
A tight muscle flickered in Raidou’s jaw, but he settled back.
I thought she’d earned command track. The words were there, right behind Kakashi’s teeth. He swallowed them. Genma could have his spin. Maybe he was proud. Maybe it was a step up for Katsuko, instead of a sidestep into the heartland of Konoha’s enemy. Maybe Raidou didn’t look like he wanted to bust heads together.
Kakashi glanced sideways. Ryouma still had Katsuko’s drawing spread over his thighs, the one wordless goodbye everyone had gotten to see. After Raidou, Ryouma had bonded with Katsuko the fastest. They’d nearly had their own language, half of it devoted to goading Kakashi.
The hell sort of goodbye is this?
Ryouma didn’t understand, either. He just looked gutted.
Kakashi sighed, suddenly tired of this day and everything in it. “I knew we should have taken that hit out on her dad.”
Of all the ways Genma was preparing for this discussion to turn, Kakashi going for dark humor was low on the list. He snorted, relaxing now that it appeared Raidou and Kakashi weren’t going to come to immediate blows. “It might have saved us this grief,” he agreed.
Ryouma’s expression was still caught somewhere between shock, fury, and abject hurt. And Kakashi, for all his wry joking, seemed dangerously on edge. They really had to sell this right, and sell it now, or the team would incorporate a fracture into its foundation.
“Sarutobi Asuma and I were rookies on Team 14 under Hyuuga Seijin-taichou. He’s retired from ANBU now, but he was a good captain. We were a good team. Ten months into our rookie year, Asuma comes to me and tells me he’s gotten an offer he can’t refuse—palace guard for the Daimyou as one of the Guardian Twelve.” The name brought a collective wince — the Guardian Twelve’s betrayal was fresh. He’d have to thread this needle carefully.
“He got 24 hours to think it over, but I knew from the minute he told me about it, and I think he knew from the minute the Hokage asked him, that he was going to do it. He put his ANBU membership on hiatus when he wasn’t even through his rookie year, and he left a well-established team that was functioning like clockwork to do it. It gutted our team, at first, but Hyuuga-taichou and Ishida-fukuchou kept us focused and we made the team work without him.”
He glanced up, trying to catch Raidou’s eye to be sure they were on the same page before he continued. “It’s going to suck adjusting to the team without Ueno at first, but this is an opportunity she’s not likely to get again soon. She’ll be with her little brother, she’ll have a chance to train with her mother, maybe build some bridges with her father, and she’ll be developing her command skills in a setting that will look a lot more like long-term jounin-level work than ANBU missions do.”
“In Iwa,” Kakashi repeated, subtly stressing his words like maybe Genma had missed that salient point. “And I'm sorry, lieutenant, but Sarutobi's career is shafted after the Guardian Twelve. He's not back in ANBU. And who's going to hire a jounin that couldn't spot a traitor standing right next to him?”
Raidou’s weight shifted behind him, a reassuring bulwark, and Genma bit back two sharp retorts before settling on, “The Hokage.” Kakashi was trying to bait him out of hurt, just like he’d tried to bait Raidou by implying Katsuko was easily replaced. It was an immature tactic, albeit an effective one. Using the unimpeachable decisions of Kakashi’s mentor was perhaps a little underhanded, but warranted, in Genma’s opinion. “Minato-sama interviewed Asuma and is satisfied with his skills and loyalty. I don’t know if the coup attempt was preventable, but I know Asuma and the others who remained loyal saved the lives of the Daimyou and his family. When Asuma wants back into ANBU, there will be a spot for him.”
“Asuma's not the point,” Ryouma burst in. Storm clouds roiled dangerously in dark eyes. “We're talking about Katsuko. And lieutenant, you're making it sound like she's going on jounin leadership track instead. If you're heading toward a spot as a jounin commander, you're not gonna detour back to an ANBU mask.”
Raidou's hand dropped heavily on Genma's shoulder, forestalling anything Genma might have wanted to throw back. To the rookies, with a voice like steel cleaving stone, he barked, "Enough.”
Both rookies flinched to attention, spines snapping straight. The sudden movement made Ryouma wince in pain, but he didn’t make a sound. As the initial shock of command wore off, Kakashi started to rise, scowling like he wanted to respond. Raidou pointed at him, “No. You're done. Sit down and shut up.” If there’d been cold steel in Raidou’s tone before, there was hot forged iron now; Kakashi obeyed with rewarding speed.
“Both of you are acting like this is genin playtime,” Raidou growled. “You're ANBU. Nothing is goddamn fair. Command made their choice, Katsuko agreed to it, and we're supporting her. That's it. I don't care if you don't like it.” I don’t like it either, but if I have to accept it, so do you. “Hatake, I especially don't care if you have more opinions; keep them to yourself.”
Kakashi’s visible eye was wide, but he didn’t move a muscle. Ryouma, too, was sitting stock still, with the same expressionless face he’d presented when Kuroda had berated him. He was actually less readable than Kakashi for once.
Raidou fixed both rookies with a forbidding look. “We have a job to do. Focus on that. And remember the lieutenant is your goddamn commanding officer, so you'll respect him or I'll bust you both down to the worst jobs I can think of until you're back on active duty.”
The rookies looked like they were free falling, but Genma felt, for the first time since they’d gotten home from the mission, like he had solid ground under his feet. He leaned briefly back against Raidou’s hand by way of thanks.
“Yessir,” Ryouma said hoarsely. He still looked blank, but it seemed more like contrition than seething resentment.
When Kakashi said, “Yes, Captain,” there was not even a whiff of sarcasm.
“Good,” said Raidou. “Then let’s talk about our next move. Tousaki, you said two weeks until your knee heals?”
Ryouma licked his lips, a nervy gesture cracking through blank mask. “I can push it…”
“You won’t,” Raidou said. “Hatake, how long until your chakra is back to normal?”
“I’m good to go,” Kakashi said, like Raidou and Genma couldn’t tell an obvious lie if he said it in a flat enough monotone. Genma’s shoulder stiffened angrily under Raidou’s hand.
“Try again,” Raidou said.
Kakashi glanced between them, then at Ryouma, who was studying his hands with intense focus. No help there. Kakashi sighed. “Couple more days, maybe a week, depending on the mission.”
That sounded closer. And Genma needed a similar stretch for his bad leg to recover.
“Fine,” Raidou said, letting his hand drop. “What does Kuroda have you all doing?”
“So far nothing but paper pushing,” Genma said. “He had Ueno doing grunt work in his office until he got annoyed with her efficiency and shoved her off on T&I.” If Raidou wasn’t mistaken, there was a tinge of pride in Genma’s efficient report. “He’s taken me through a review of every single piece of paper that’s passed through our office since Team Six formed, and now he has me sorting declassified files with Tousaki. Hatake’s been left alone.”
“Well, that’s useless,” Raidou said. “What about Tousaki’s medic training?”
“I’m doing flashcards,” Ryouma said apprehensively, as if he thought Raidou might take them away.
Raidou nodded and dropped down into one of the abandoned chairs; he didn’t need to keep looming now the rookies were behaving.
“That’s good,” he said. To Genma: “Is that all you need? Aren’t there… classes, or something?”
“Kuroda demanded proof of Tousaki’s ability to handle written medical terminology, so now we’re working on that. I’m drilling him while I do file-sorting for now.” A senbon appeared neatly in the corner of Genma’s mouth; he flicked it to the other side with a little silver glint. “I’m still hoping he’ll be able to enroll in the next open class.”
Raidou frowned. “That’ll be designed for genin and chuunin, right? Tricky on an ANBU schedule.”
“Tricky, but not impossible. I’ll get the schedule from the instructor so I can fill in if he misses lessons.”
“We thought maybe the lieutenant could coach me through,” Ryouma said.
He’d be twice the age of his trainee peers, and far more field-experienced, but basics were basics. He had to start somewhere.
“All right,” Raidou said. “Survive Kuroda’s paperwork gauntlet, and we’ll make it work when I get back.” He glanced sidelong at Genma’s walking stick, then Ryouma’s knee-brace, and Kakashi’s… everything. “If you’ve got medical aptitude, Tousaki, I want it on this team. Gods know we’ll need it.”
Ryouma looked down at the picture still spread open on his thigh. “Maybe more, now,” he said quietly. He folded the picture and tucked it away.
The cold, sharp splinter in Raidou’s chest couldn’t hurt any more than it already did. He moved on to the next problem.
“Hatake, what about you?”
Kakashi brushed his thumb over his palm. A few flakes of ash drifted away.
(sorry I could only be your senpai for a short while)
“Helping Tousaki study, I guess,” he said. “If he needs more flashcards.”
Ryouma gave him a tight, grateful look. “I will.”
Genma nodded approval. “Good. I think our best strategy will be to continue as ordered until we hear otherwise. I met with Kuroda about Ueno’s departure today, and he didn’t give me any change in plan. Tousaki studies with me and Hatake, I do the damned filing, and Hatake can report to T&I if he feels fit.”
Genma looked over at Raidou. “When we meet with Kuroda day after tomorrow, I want him to have to try hard to find fault.”
Raidou didn’t smile, or even look like he wanted to, but there was satisfaction curled around his mouth. “Worthy goal. I’ll get through Benihime’s training as fast as I can. With any luck, we can survive our second month without injuries, suspensions, or losing any more teammates. Agreed?”
As a team, they managed a collective weary nod.
“We beat demons in unmapped mining tunnels,” Genma said. “And we took down an S-class bounty and his team. We can survive a couple of weeks of recuperation, training, and bad management.”
Kakashi traded a glance with Ryouma, then raised a fist. “Rah.”
Ryouma, however, frowned. “Did you ever apply for the bounty, Kakashi?”
“Yuuhi brought me the paperwork,” Kakashi said. “Intel’s Bounty Office liaison said it could take six months. Some of it belongs to you and the lieutenant, probably.” He held his thumb and forefinger a fractional distance apart. “About this much.”
Ryouma squinted. “I liquified his liver. Or at least some of it.”
“I pulled down actual lightning,” Kakashi said. “You made soup.”
“Everyone will get their share,” Genma said quellingly. “I already turned in the mission report detailing exactly what each of us did to bring down Iebara and his team, and sent a copy to the Bounty Office.” He gave Kakashi a significant look. “The hero who gets the biggest share gets to treat the rest of the team to dinner.”
There was an empty space there, where Katsuko would have said something.
With effort, Kakashi leveled a smug smile at Ryouma. “So long as we’re acknowledging I’m the hero.”
Ryouma waved a hand in weary surrender. “It’s your day to be brave, remember. I guess you can be a hero too.”
It wasn’t quite the comeback he’d wanted, but it did remind him that Ryouma had just been through a day of old terrors and surgery before Katsuko had even delivered her landmine. Kakashi dropped the smile and straightened up, turning back to Genma and Raidou (who both looked baffled). “If there’s nothing else we need to go over, I should probably take Tousaki home. The doctor wants him to rest.”
Raidou blinked. Genma’s eyebrows flicked up to his hairline; he gave Raidou a mystified look, and then said in a slow, careful voice: “Good plan. Thanks, Hatake.”
Did they think he was incapable of being helpful?
Kakashi decided not to examine that thought closely.
Ryouma, at least, looked relieved, but he put in: “We should still do dinner, though. Soon.” He fixed a hard stare on Raidou. “Not in another two weeks.”
Raidou winced faintly. “I’ll stay closer.”
“Even though you’re a bad influence?” Kakashi said, since no one else was asking.
“Maybe a bad influence,” Raidou said. “And I’m not sure it matters anymore. They’ll assign me back or they won’t, and I don’t want to miss any more.”
Like he’d missed Katsuko.
“Well, if any of us snaps and stabs Kuroda, we’ll let you know,” Ryouma said.
Kakashi stilled, waiting to see which way the mood tipped. Genma and Raidou were both still prickly, ready to hammer stability out of any flippant moment, and neither Kakashi or Ryouma had Katsuko's talent at defusing via the absurd.
But Genma’s senbon shivered with suppressed laughter. “Or we could just concentrate on our filing and flashcards, Tousaki, and forgo any treasonous offenses. No matter how tempting they might be.”
“You already told us to make sure suspicion doesn’t fall on us when the Vice-Commander turns up murdered.” Ryouma considered. “Or something like that.”
“And on that note,” Raidou said, dropping a hand back onto Genma’s shoulder, “Hatake, you watch out for that treasonous half. I’ll escort this one.”
Kakashi saluted. “Yes, sir.”
Genma allowed Raidou to haul him back to his feet. He still moved stiffly, but his bad leg was weight-bearing. “Tousaki, take the morning off tomorrow. I’ll come find you after lunch. If you’re bored tonight, have Hatake run you through your notes on the circulatory system.”
Ryouma slid a thoughtful look Kakashi’s way. “I’ve only got seven more flashcards to go.”
Since Genma seemed pleased by this studious verve, Kakashi neglected to inform him that Ryouma was earning one dirty word for every ten standard characters, and they were currently on number thirty-three.
In another month, Kakashi suspected he’d need to buy a thesaurus.
Genma limped out with Raidou at his elbow, not quite hovering but close enough to offer easy assistance. The curtain fell closed behind them, and Kakashi silently counted the five seconds it took Genma to find a nurse he could politely interrogate about Ryouma’s knee surgery.
Ryouma rolled his eyes, but there was something a little pleased about it. That glimmer of warmth remained when Kakashi bullied him to his feet, critiqued his crutch-handling technique (mostly on principle), and escorted him to a different nurse for the promised painkillers and appointment-making.
Genma and Raidou were gone by the time Kakashi finished the last of Ryouma’s paperwork. Ryouma pocketed his new bottle of pills, and Kakashi shouldered the door open, holding it for him.
“C’mon,” Kakashi said. “You need to eat something.”
Given that Ryouma's new painkillers came with strict instructions to be taken with food, he was on board with this plan. He expected a stop at the hospital cafeteria, but Kakashi led the way down to the lobby and outside instead. The sun hung low over the Hokage Monument, casting a hazy golden light down the long, broad road to the Palace.
Kakashi squinted up the street, nodded to himself, and set off.
It wasn't difficult keeping up; Ryouma'd used crutches before, and he'd had Genma's recently example to copy, if nothing else. Kakashi's stride seemed a little shorter than usual, anyway, as if he preferred to saunter through Konoha at this time of day. The street vendors were still doing a brisk trade, and the izakaya outside Intel's windowless building had opened its doors, but Kakashi didn't turn aside.
The doors of the Hokage's Palace stood open on this balmy spring day, guarded by a pair of chuunin doing a keen impression of the ANBU guards further in. A brief check of dogtag IDs, a wide-eyed glance at Ryouma's half-a-pant, and they were through.
Ryouma was beginning to sweat. The brace dragged at his leg; he banged his toes on the stairs and bit down on a swear. The bottle of painkillers rattled in his pocket. Once they made it up to the top of the Monument, he promised himself, he was never coming back down.
At least for another week, until he had to do this all over again.
They reached the blank wall in a deserted back corridor at last: the ANBU exit, which Commander Sagara had shown them on the day of the Third Trial and which Ryouma hadn't used since. He leaned on his crutches and tried to catch his breath.
"You got the chakra for this?"
Kakashi favored him with a sardonic look under lowered lashes, and formed the Tiger seal. A tiny spark of white-bright chakra leapt from his fingers to the plaster. The door melted out of the wall, opening onto a downward sloping tunnel lit by one flickering bulb.
"Good memory," Ryouma said, eyeing the slope warily.
Kakashi hung back to seal the door again. Ryouma gritted his teeth and started down the tunnel, placing his crutches carefully in the dim light and uncertain footing. The stone was worn smooth by time and tread. He spared a little chakra for stability, threading it through the wooden crutches to catch and release at each step. It was easier than water-walking, at least, and it gave him something to focus on besides the painkillers in his pocket.
Three switchbacks, then the vertical shaft and the seal-hidden doors to the lift. Kakashi managed that seal, too. Maybe his recovery-time estimate to Raidou wasn't that far off, after all.
There was no place to sit on the lift, but the wooden platform was girded with a waist-high railing. Ryouma leaned gratefully against it. Kakashi flipped an iron handle; machinery creaked overhead. The platform jolted and slowly began to rise.
"Must've put this in a couple decades before they built the hospital," Ryouma observed, wiping his forehead. "Or maybe you can't get modern elevator technology in a secret cliff-tunnel."
"Mm," Kakashi agreed. His eye narrowed. "Are you going to throw up?"
"I only throw up from space-time jutsu," Ryouma said with dignity. "And small boats on rough seas." He looked up, following the path of the elevator chains until they vanished into dimness overhead. There were light bulbs set into the sides of the shaft, but they cast only shallow pools, with long stretches of darkness in between. "At least we're not stuck in a little box. We'll know if the chain snaps."
Kakashi's nose crinkled under the mask: Really? He stepped lightly up onto the railing, balancing as easily as a bird, and reached up to tap his fingers against the wrist-thick chains. "I think we're safe."
"That's the sort of thing people say in movies right before they get beheaded by a monster," Ryouma informed him. He had to tilt his head back to see Kakashi's face — what little there was of it — and he wasn't sure he liked the feeling. From this angle, Kakashi's hair looked less ridiculous, his jaw more defined. The shadows swallowed up his eye and left only the mask.
He looked more like Sharingan no Kakashi than teammate and friend. And with their team already splintered…
Ryouma reached out. His fingertips found the top of Kakashi's foot, the laces of his boot. "You'll unbalance us up there."
Kakashi looked down. He said nothing, but after a moment he dropped from the railing. He fiddled with the lift handle, testing speeds, until they jolted to a halt at the top of the shaft.
After so long in tunnels, the deep-honey sunlight hit like a blow. Ryouma winced, watching through lowered lashes as Kakashi re-sealed the final door. Each barrier used a different handseal. Kakashi's memory must be better than Ryouma's, or perhaps he'd used the passageway since Sagara's initial introduction a month ago.
Only a month. Hell. Ryouma felt like he'd aged three years.
They struck out more slowly towards the barracks, skirting Training Field 2 and the ANBU team sparring there. Ryouma's brief rest on the lift had cooled the sweat, but his brace seemed to have filled with lead. He banged his foot again, tripping on a rock, and this time he didn't quite manage to bite back the grunt.
Kakashi didn't comment, but he kicked the next rock out of Ryouma's path.
They passed through the grove of trees, following a meandering little path that offered better footing than the straight line cutting across churned training grounds. The HQ and T&I buildings loomed up, but Kakashi didn't detour for the cafeteria, either.
"Are you planning to drop me in bed with a rat bar?" Ryouma asked as they neared the north wing of the barracks.
"You say that like it's a bad thing," Kakashi said witheringly. He unlocked the door to the stairwell and held it open.
The only elevator was located in the veterans' wing, on the south. Ryouma steeled himself for the slow, awkward hop up two flights of stairs. Kakashi followed behind him, holding back, as if he thought any moment Ryouma might slip and come tumbling down. Which was — not unlikely, Ryouma had to admit.
But they reached the second floor without misadventure, and Ryouma didn't drop his crutch when he dug out his key. He even made it across the threshold without falling over, and leaned against the wall to take off his shoes.
"Don't kill yourself getting changed," Kakashi advised, and vanished back into the hall.
Ryouma hadn't actually been considering changing clothes. The shirt would have to come off, or else he'd inevitably end up strangling in his sleep, but he had no desire to sacrifice another pair of pants to the kunai just yet.
Kuroda would probably object if he spent the next two weeks in briefs and a brace. Ryouma gave himself a single blissful moment to savor the mental image. Then he dropped his shoes in the entryway, his crutches by the window, Katsuko's folded drawing on the windowsill, and himself — carefully — on the bed.
There were juice boxes and snacks in the kitchenette. He'd get up for them again in a second.
He'd been staring at the ceiling long enough to slip toward drowsiness when the door swung open. Kakashi kicked off his shoes and came in, arms laden with a large grilling pan, mixing bowl, half a cabbage, several lidded bowls, a small carton of eggs, and a bottle of sauce. He unloaded everything onto the tiny counter, regarded Ryouma's coffeepot and collection of mugs disapprovingly, and left again.
Ryouma struggled to sit up. He made it to the edge of the bed, one foot on the floor and his bad leg balanced precariously on blankets, before Kakashi came back with a long, sharp-gleaming kitchen knife, a metal whisk, and a spatula.
"You're cooking?" Ryouma said, in disbelief.
Kakashi placed the grill pan on the two-burner stove and flicked the burner on. "Is there anything poisonous or otherwise deadly in your fridge?"
"Uh… no poisons. Possible mold in the back. The tofu's suspect." It'd been pink the last time Ryouma looked. He blinked, trying to scramble his brain together. "Since when do you cook?"
Kakashi crouched down to examine the contents of Ryouma's fridge. "Since I got tall enough to reach the stove," he said absently. A strong left-handed snap sent the offending tofu packet spinning into the trash. "You realize I eat food too, right?"
"Food tends to vanish around you, I didn't realize you ate it," Ryouma said.
Kakashi's breath huffed out, a soft almost-laugh. He straightened up with a packet of liberated bacon and a squeeze bottle of mayonnaise. "I like to cultivate a sense of mystery. Impresses clients." He considered Ryouma's chopping board, judged it adequate, and set to obliterating cabbage.
Impresses me, Ryouma almost said, but caught himself in time. Kakashi'd made his boundaries clear two weeks ago. He wouldn't welcome a violation of them now, on a day when he'd already given up so much of himself. Time, compassion, vulnerability.
Outside of a mission, Ryouma couldn't remember the last time someone had cooked for him.
For a long moment he could think of nothing to say. Kakashi set the shredded cabbage aside, tipped flour into the mixing bowl, poured water, and whisked. A thin, smooth batter dripped off the whisk when he held it up; he nodded briskly to himself and dumped the cabbage in, cracked eggs, added the contents of two of his lidded bowls.
Ryouma cleared his throat. "You're not doing this because you feel bad about Katsuko leaving, are you?"
One day Kakashi was going to peel open Ryouma’s head and figure out how he tied ideas together, because it was not obvious from the outside.
“No,” Kakashi said.
The grill pan was ready. He turned out four hand-sized pancakes, topped them with sliced bacon, and set the bowl aside. The young-man-and-hair-products smell of Ryouma’s apartment was gratifyingly improved by the scent of cooking okonomiyaki.
Kakashi turned and leaned against the counter. Unbidden, Katsuko’s final request came back to him: Keep the others safe for me, alright, Kakashi?
As if he wasn’t already. He’d watched Ryouma all day. Where was she?
He clawed a hand through his hair, shaking the thought loose, and looked at Ryouma’s stiff-legged, uncomfortable seat on the bed.
“I’m trying to be a good teammate,” Kakashi told him. “Ueno leaving is…” He groped for words and settled on: “Bullshit, but unrelated.”
Ryouma fidgeted, long fingers picking at the rumpled blue blanket. “D’you believe Taichou and the lieutenant? About this being her choice and the best path for her and everything.”
Something about the way Ryouma asked that put Kakashi forcibly in mind of Naruto. Which was laughable: Ryouma was at least four times Naruto’s height and five times his age, but maybe it was the restless air, or the plaintive edge, or the fact that he so clearly wanted a kind answer, but he was asking Kakashi.
Kakashi’s operating policy for Naruto was honesty, always. An adult, fully-trained ANBU should be able to handle the same.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “I think, best case, her father pulled some strings because he could, and Ueno’s obeying orders. She was good here. We’re worse without her. She knew that.” He turned back to viciously flip okonomiyaki. They were browning well. He put the spatula down again. “The lieutenant can call it a choice, but when was the last time you turned down a direct order?”
Or a family member.
Ryouma shook his head. “I’ve disagreed with commanding officers. Argued with ‘em. But an order…” He found a loose thread in the blanket, and snapped it. “That’s the thing, though. If it’s an order, and she had to obey, we can be pissed off, but there’s nothing we can do.”
If I had a choice, I never would have left at all, she’d said. But he’d seen her lie, and he’d seen her enjoy it.
“If it wasn’t an order, then she wanted to go,” Kakashi said, managing, just about, not to snarl. “So pick your poison: she had no choice, or she prefered Iwa over us.”
“I’d prefer the one that isn’t poison. But — she didn’t throw us away,” Ryouma said, with sudden certainty Kakashi didn’t follow. “You’re right: she was good here, and she knew it. She liked us.” Another thread snapped, but the anger was righteous now: aimed at circumstance and higher command, not Katsuko.
Kakashi didn’t want to switch targets. He could hold his anger like a coal, flaring only when he thought about Katsuko. If he laid it at Sagara’s feet, or worse, Minato’s, he’d have to confront more than just one absent teammate.
If he started examining his problems with Konoha, there was no good stopping place.
He flipped the okonomiyaki again, judged them done, and slid them onto two plates. Mayonnaise, okonomi sauce, and bonito flakes finished the meal. He filled two of Ryouma’s mugs with water, collected chopsticks, and carried the lot over to Ryouma.
“Here,” he said, handing Ryouma a plate. “Take your painkillers.”
No arguing with that order. "Thanks," Ryouma said, balancing the warm plate on his lap long enough to extract the bottle from his pocket.
Kakashi folded up on the floor with his own plate, leaning back against the bed. Ryouma could see only the crown of his head, with its thick thatch of springing silver hair, and the tense set of his shoulders. A movement of the left hand near his face; he picked up the chopsticks with his right and began to eat.
Ryouma chased two horse-sized pills with a gulp of water and a bite of okonomiyaki. Then another. "This is good."
That earned him an indignant huff, but Kakashi's shoulders eased a little. "I'm choosing to ignore your surprise."
"Well, we did pretty well with rabbit stew, our first time out," Ryouma allowed. "But that was a team effort." He took another bite. "It's gonna be you and me on kitchen prep duty all the time, now. Which may be a step up. I dunno if you remember anything we ate in the safehouse bunker…"
Kakashi shuddered. "Matcha sugar sludge is not food."
"Hot and caloric's the best you could say about it," Ryouma agreed, finishing off the first okonomiyaki. "I'll play kitchen helper forever, if this is what we get going forward."
"So long as you don't mind eating the same thing," Kakashi informed him. "Outside of campfire cooking, I know six good recipes." He set his chopsticks and empty plate down, pulled his mask into place, and turned to look up at Ryouma. "Are you going to be all right?"
He wasn't asking about cookery.
Ryouma focused on picking up a lone bonito flake with the tips of his chopsticks. "This's happened before. Losing a teammate, or having one reassigned… I just wasn't expecting it this soon, with this team. ANBU teams usually last at least a year, right? Unless someone gets killed or injured, but— You always know that's a possibility, but you do your damndest to see it doesn't happen. Which we've done."
Genma could've died beneath the mountain, paralysed by demon venom, but Kakashi'd saved him. Raidou'd dragged Ryouma out of rotted demon guts. Ryouma'd stopped that Kiri captain from killing Kakashi.
Death hounded their steps every time they left the village, but they knew it. They could fight it. That was what they were for.
Watching someone walk away…
Well, he was experienced at that too.
"Maybe they'll reassign Ayane," he said, pulling a slice of bacon off of the second okonomiyaki. "She's a kenjutsu specialist too. But she says her captain's doing better, so they might get Team Three reformed. We can handle the kenjutsu element okay ourselves."
"There are other sharp edges," Kakashi said, and managed to sound almost not bitter. His nose wrinkled. "Also, I think Ayane hates me."
Ryouma blinked. "Why would— Oh, you mean from the Trials? No, I told her and Hakone all about you exploding Iebara. They were very impressed."
Kakashi's brow arched curiously. "Oh?"
"Hakone'd heard of him. The Phantom Terror of Mist. Is that in the Bingo Book?"
"Was," Kakashi corrected, his voice rich with satisfaction. Then he frowned. "I've asked this before, but you didn't answer. Do you not know the Bingo Book?"
Ryouma hitched a shoulder. "I know the pictures. And the village symbols, where they're from. I didn't recognize Iebara the way you and Genma did—" He broke off at the dawning horror in Kakashi's eye. "It's not like there was details on his jutsu in the Bingo Book anyway!" he said defensively. "All the information we've got is from Kiri's version of the Book. Hakone told me, no Konoha team has ever survived an encounter against Iebara before."
Kakashi's lips parted, beneath the mask. Closed. Opened again.
Without a word, he stood and left the apartment.
Ryouma fiddled apprehensively with the second okonomiyaki. He'd only managed two more bites when Kakashi returned with a ragged, much annotated binder.
Kakashi shoved a pillow away and sat beside Ryouma on the bed. He flipped open to the first page and yanked out a stapled photo to hand to Ryouma. "Repeat after me: Abukara Chinatsu, Iwa-nin, female, twenty-seven. Rank: jounin. Speciality—"
Ryouma reached behind him, snagged the pillow, and thwacked him over the head with it.
Kakashi jolted back. His hair, always irascible, achieved new vertical lift born of outrage and static cling. “What?” he demanded.
Ryouma smacked him again, making a tiny drift of goose down explode from the pillow seams. Kakashi caught the pillow on the third attack and wrestled it away. “This is not conducive to learning,” he said. “I’m helping.”
“You’re trying, is what you are,” Ryouma shot back. “I know enough of ‘em. The ones I’m likely to run into, at least.” He stabbed a finger at the picture. “Stone Needle jutsu, right?”
Maybe he wasn’t completely hopeless. The man had made jounin, somehow.
Kakashi stole the picture back, flipped to a new page, and pointed at a Suna kunoichi with grey dreadlocks and a lantern jaw. “What about this one?”
Ryouma squinted. “Dual wield war fans. They’re in the picture.”
“And?” Kakashi demanded.
Ryouma vented an exasperated sigh and flopped onto his back. “Poison on the fan blades. Turns into mist. Norita Takeshi ran into her in Kiyomizu. People talk, y’know, even if the Bingo Book doesn’t.”
“That’s a terrible system to rely on.” Kakashi flipped towards the back of the book, where Kiri’s section lurked. There were no pictures here, just a few hazy sketches. Kakashi picked one without even that and leaned forward to hold the book open above Ryouma’s face. “This one.”
Ryouma cracked a grudging eye open, studied the page, and groaned. “All right. Let me brush my teeth, and you can do bedtime stories.”
“We’re adding these to your flashcards,” Kakashi said, sitting back in pyrrhic victory. “This is information that can save your life. Your genin-sensei should be exiled.”
Halfway off the bed, Ryouma paused to give Kakashi a dark look. “She did what she could.” He grabbed one of the crutches, dropped his plate on the weapons chest, and hop-shuffled into the bathroom, shutting the door with a very final click.
Possibly Kakashi had gone too far.
He shut the Bingo Book, sat for a second, then bent forward to whack himself on the forehead with the book. Gesture uselessly achieved, he got up to wash the dishes and put the leftovers away.
Ryouma stayed in the bathroom long enough that Kakashi started to wonder if he was waiting for Kakashi to leave, but then the lock shunted back. A cloud of steamy air escaped, and Ryouma stepped out smelling of mint and soap, and — Kakashi blinked once — shirtless.
Casual nudity was a feature of locker-rooms and missions, unless you valued your privacy, like Kakashi, or had scars to hide, like Katsuko. Ryouma, Genma, and Raidou would cheerfully shuck clothes and change in full view of anyone nearby for the sake of expediency. Ryouma’s bare chest was nothing new. And yet, for a very brief moment, Kakashi stared at the amalgamation of scars, skin, jewelry, and tattoos, and saw something beyond a lineup of target points.
Then he looked at Ryouma’s face and saw someone he’d just offended. Or hurt.
“Sorry,” he said, before Ryouma could open his mouth. “I shouldn’t have said that about your teacher.”
Ryouma hesitated for a fractional moment, then hitched one shoulder again. “Well, you’ve got a point about the Bingo Book. And I guess maybe I should’ve learned more of — everything — as a genin, but we kinda had other things to focus on.” He limped back to the bed, stowed his crutch against the wall, and flipped back the blankets to sit down on the mattress, breathing harder than a simple walk across the room warranted.
Possibly Kakashi could have also waited until after Ryouma had slept to disparage his education (again).
“She did teach me the Hyuuga jyuuken, though,” Ryouma added.
Kakashi stared at open air for three full seconds before he managed to say, “What?”
“You’ve sparred with me,” Ryouma said, surprised. “Didn’t you recognize the forms? We modified it some, ‘cause I can’t see the chakra flow and I’m just looking to get a touch in, not disrupt organ function…”
‘Modified’, by Ryouma’s standards, obviously translated to something like ‘radically bastardized’ by Kakashi’s, but with the correct lens in place he could see the connection, now, between Ryouma’s flowing strikes and the circular devastation of the Hyuugas’ Gentle Fist.
How had he missed that?
Other than it being basically unheard of for Hyuuga to share their style with anyone outside the clan. The jyuuken wasn’t forbidden, technically, not like the coveted Hakkesohou Kaiten, which obliterated opponents while looking fantastically stupid. Sharing that would get a Branch member executed and a Main House member… Actually, Kakashi wasn’t sure what the punishment for a Main House member was. A frosty reception over the dinner table, perhaps.
But the point was, Ryouma had been holding out on him.
Kakashi dropped back down into his seat by the bed, deliberately below Ryouma’s eyeline like a properly contrite human being, and said eagerly, “Do you remember the original forms? Did she teach you their chakra injection technique?”
Ryouma tipped his chin down, amused but not mocking. “Dunno if I could replicate ‘em now—it’s been six years. I was working on the Naizou Tokasu then, though, and she gave me some tips on injecting the chakra. It’s the Ox and Bird seal combo that really does it. Kind of builds hooks in your chakra to sink it into your opponent’s system.” He gestured with both hands, long fingers curling over each other. “I guess the Hyuuga don’t actually use handseals to refine their chakra when they’re using the jyuuken, but… my way’s more effective than theirs.”
He grinned, broad and cocky, and Kakashi’s first thought was, asshole — but fondly. His second thought was that he hadn’t seen that grin in too long.
Kakashi let a smile hook the corner of his mouth. “That must be why I keep creaming you in spars. Your effectiveness.”
Ryouma laughed aloud, a little hoarse but bright and real. “C’mon, lieutenant’d have my head if I actually melted you in practice.” He reached out unexpectedly and dragged a hand through Kakashi’s hair, mussing it into Kakashi’s eye. “Besides, it’s good for you to think you’d have a fighting chance.”
Kakashi ducked and caught Ryouma’s wrist. Ryouma tugged back. Kakashi tightened his grip, shook hair out of his face, and sat up. He turned Ryouma’s captured hand over, studying the graceful killing span between thumb and fingertips, envisioning the chakra flow. Ox and Bird, forming hooks.
Ryouma’s fingers twitched. “We objected to people cutting off my hands to study them, remember?”
Kakashi blinked up, then down at the half-moon scar marking Ryouma’s wrist, just visible beneath Kakashi’s grip. Fading memory of Akiyama’s scalpel. He let go immediately.
“Sorry,” he said again. “I was trying to picture how it would look.”
“You could ask,” Ryouma said mildly.
Kakashi looked up at the tired hollows under Ryouma’s eyes. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said, and knew that was the right answer when Ryouma yawned widely and couldn’t quite smother it.
It didn’t take a lot of encouragement to make him lie down and prop his leg up, per doctor’s orders. While Ryouma got settled, Kakashi liberated the pillow Ryouma had tried to pulverize him with, and stretched out on the floor, tucking it comfortably under his head.
There was an unsurprising number of kunai holes in Ryouma’s ceiling.
Ryouma rolled over enough to hang over the edge of the bed and raise his eyebrows at Kakashi. “Planning on staying there?”
Comparative to any number of missions, Ryouma’s floor was warm, carpeted, and reasonably clean. Kakashi said, “Unless you want me to leave, but then I would not be here to make breakfast. Also I’m comfortable, so you’d have to drag me back to my room and that would make the lieutenant and Niimi-sensei shout at you.”
“I’m not going to roll off and break my knee again. Your bed is fifteen feet away,” Ryouma said, amused. He hesitated, then said, “Or you could come up here, if you want. There’s room.”
Kakashi tilted his head, searching for an ulterior motive, but Ryouma just sounded tired and a trace wary, like he wasn’t sure about the offer or its reception. They’d certainly slept closer in the bunker, bolstered by Katsuko. But that had been mission fall out, foxhole comfort. And at least in Kakashi’s case, a lot of drugs.
“No,” he said, but carefully. “I just want to stay here and have the same team in the morning.” An additional thought occurred: Ryouma, for all his casual ease with other people, might actually want some space. Kakashi pushed himself up on one elbow, and said, “I can clear out if you want your room back, though.”
Ryouma shook his head, settling back with a creak of springs. “Got used to your snoring in the safehouse. You’d probably sleep better without a mask, y’know.”
“I do not snore,” Kakashi said.
“Could’ve been the lieutenant.”
“Shut up and go to sleep.”
Ryouma laughed again, softer this time, and a moment later the blue blanket slid down to smother the rest of Kakashi’s outrage.