The blue-chakra warning of changing fate lines still didn’t give Kakashi quite enough time to dodge. One of the scrolls stored in his flak-jacket crunched under the man’s knuckles. His ribs flexed inward; his breath thumped out.
He'd known ANBU would be violent, but he'd assumed enemy ninja would be a feature first.
He righted himself and glanced sideways. "Problem?”
The Sharingan caught every detail of the man’s dark scowl and flagged a memory. “‘Problem?’’ Tousaki Ryouma, the face-melter, mimicked back. “You asshole, she’s Konoha. She probably invented that jutsu herself. You don’t just steal it!”
Oh, he was one of those.
Kakashi considered it. “Says who?” he asked, after a moment.
Tousaki’s mouth dropped open. “You serious?” he demanded. “You’re serious. Look—”
“Tousaki!” Across the field, the vice-commander gave a sharp gesture.
The dark, angry head jerked around. “Shit,” Ryouma said, and scrambled up — and up, and up. The man had about twelve foot in legs alone. He looked down at Kakashi from all of his height and visibly sought for a threat dire enough. “If I catch you watching, Hatake, I will liquify your lungs.”
“Noted,” said Kakashi.
Even the sharp lines of Ryouma’s shoulders looked angry. Kakashi leaned back on his hand, feeling the morning dampness soak into his glove, and watched. The vice commander had already sealed the gaping trenches cut into the earth. Just beyond that spot, two heavy wooden poles had been driven deep into the ground, with a crossbar nailed across the top. Hanging from the bar, a pig carcass swung gently from a rope.
Just before he reached the target, Ryouma turned on his heel and yelled, “SHUT IT, HATAKE.”
A confused murmur went through the other candidates.
Try to make friends, Rin had said. Just try.
Kakashi waved one hand and pulled his hitai-ate down, stripping the chakra-meaning out of the world. He blinked once, adjusting. Full color, no depth perception. He tried not to use the Sharingan on teammates who were—loudly—against it, even with the temptation to ruffle Ryouma’s tall feathers.
He regretted the courtesy, just a little, when Ryouma’s infamous rot jutsu melted the pig to black slag, leaving only bones behind.
There was a gratifying little ripple of noise from the spectators when what was left of the pig carcass dripped off the rope, half-decayed bones splattering in the blackened ooze beneath. Ryouma cut the chakra flow; the reddish-black light haloing his hands flickered out, leaving his palm slick with rotting sludge. He shook a few drops off and stooped to wipe his hand in the rain-wet grass. The commander was conferring with the proctors at the edge of the field; no one had new orders for him yet. He cast a quick glance back, over his shoulder.
Most of the other candidates were staring. A few—probably the more imaginative ones—looked a little pale.
Kakashi was reading his book, with the slanted hitai-ate anchored firmly over the Sharingan eye.
Well, Ryouma had deliberately turned his back when he started the hand-seals for the Nikutai Hakai no Jutsu. Maybe Kakashi’d gotten bored. Or maybe he wasn’t, actually, anxious to get his lungs liquified.
Shinobi told stories, in bars, around campfires. Senju Hashirama, the Shodai Hokage, defeating Uchiha Madara at the Valley of the End; the legendary Sannin, including Shodai’s granddaughter Tsunade-hime, holding Traitor’s Gap alone against an army. The Yellow Flash, Yondaime himself, who was barely twenty-two when he came closer than anyone ever had to killing the Raikage. And Yondaime’s silver-haired student, Sharingan no Kakashi, who’d inherited an eye from an Uchiha and split a lightning bolt.
People said he was kind of weird, mostly rude, and scary as hell on the battlefield. No one actually said he was a bastard, though, and they didn’t hesitate to apply that label to Uchiha who earned it.
Still—who got to say they’d punched Sharingan no Kakashi and lived?
“Tousaki!” the ANBU commander called, beckoning from the sidelines.
Ryouma jogged over obediently, as a proctor came out to bury the former pig with an earth jutsu and set up the field for the next candidate. The commander handed her clipboard to an assistant and clasped her hands at the small of her back, muscled shoulders set straight as an iron bar. Her mask was a hawk, white and red; her dark eyes glittered dangerously up at him from the shadowed eye-holes. “You’d registered the Internal Organs Melt Technique on your application form. A-ranked, mid-range. What was that?”
“Human Body Destruction Technique, ma’am,” Ryouma said promptly. “B-rank, close range.”
Great explanation there, Tousaki. Let’s tell her exactly what she already knows. She’d seen him step up and slap a hand glowing with putrid chakra to the hanging carcass; she’d read probably every detail of every original combat jutsu in his file. The hawk mask hid all expressions, but the tilt of her head said impatience.
He bit his tongue, took a precious few second to think. “The Naizou Tokasu requires a lot of chakra. Ten times as much as the Nikutai Hakai. I didn’t know if it was chakra I’d need, later. I thought it’d be better to show a lower-ranked jutsu—even if it’s just a variant of one anybody who’s worked with me has already seen—than wipe myself out halfway through the trial.” He couldn’t resist adding helpfully, “Strategic thinking, ma’am.”
“Just so,” the commander said, dry as bone. “Your strategic thinking didn’t have anything to do with Hatake Kakashi watching with his Sharingan open, did it?”
Ryouma opened his mouth, closed it, and stood silent, hands curled at his sides.
“I thought as much,” the commander said.
She reached out a hand; her assistant slapped the clipboard into it. “Nakashima’s up next,” he said.
The commander flipped a page and said, without glancing up, “You’re dismissed, Tousaki. Wash your hands.” She turned away.
On the field, Nakashima Hideo was gathering water from the misty air for his ice arrow technique. Ryouma trudged around the sidelines instead and found a proctor willing to share a thin stream of water from his canteen. Soap would have to wait. He went back beneath the trees, where Fukui Ayane raised her eyebrows at him and indicated the dry spot on a bed of pine needles beside her.
The last time he’d seen her they’d both been very drunk, and mostly naked.
He shook his head, and dropped down by Hatake instead. “You can keep breathing,” he said.
“Generous of you,” Kakashi said, turning a page. The sshh-thunk of arrows cut the air over the training fields, shattering the still-standing wooden posts. He didn’t look up; he knew that Hyouton already.
Ryouma’s voice bled self-satisfaction. “I’m a generous man.”
The wind changed; a northerly slip of air twisted around Ryouma, blowing rain and rot-scent directly into Kakashi’s face.
He’d fallen onto a sun-bloated corpse before, when the Third Great Ninja War was at its height and bodies had dropped faster than they could clear them. When he’d been too tired to keep standing. His hands had broken into the swollen belly cavity and splashed, if he remembered rightly.
This smelled worse.
Not much worse, but the fresh edge of putrid death had something a little extra when you set it to the background of April rain and spring flowers.
Kakashi closed his book with a snap. “Excuse me,” he said, and got to his feet.
“Sensitive nose?” Ryouma said, mouth twisting wry. He leaned back, casually flattening his hand palm-down to the wet grass. “Guess you wouldn’t’ve wanted it anyway.”
Kakashi paused. “Is it that you don’t like to share?” he asked. “Or are you afraid someone might do it better?”
Ryouma’s smile thinned, but didn’t slip. “I’m sure you could. How long can you hold your breath?”
“Hatake!” shouted the vice-commander. “Front and center.”
Kakashi tucked Icha Icha away. “I guess you’ll have to test me sometime,” he said, and left Ryouma in the grass.
The rain had picked up, growing from a light shower to an actual downpour: the short, hard kind that spring enjoyed so much. Despite the wet, it still felt warm. Earth churned to gritty mud on the field. The proctors had left it swept clean after the last demonstration; the wooden posts were splintered toothpicks.
The vice-commander, a hard-muscled man in an abstract owl mask, nodded once and stepped back. “In your own time, Hatake.”
Kakashi offered him a shallow bow and faced the watchful audience. He thought, perhaps, there was a renewed edge of interest in the candidates, and even in the masked ANBU. Eagerness for a lightning show.
He didn’t call lightning.
Very precisely, he ran through six seals, flung the threads of chakra out into the rain, bowed again, and returned to his seat—slightly more upwind of Ryouma.
“Were there supposed to be explosions?” Ryouma inquired. “I was looking forward to explosions.”
Kakashi looked back at him, six feet away. Beneath the water-logged curtain of rain-grey hair his single visible eye curved in a less than believable smile.
And he shredded apart, dust on the wind.
Beyond him, half-shrouded in rain, Hideo and Ayane crumbled like so much dried sand. Across the field, the ANBU commander and vice-commander and the proctors were already gone.
Ryouma scowled. “I expected more,” he said, and gathered his chakra. “Kai!”
Fire exploded in the center of the field, leaping skyward into the rain, blasting out over the field of mud. Heat hit him like a slap in the face, and was gone.
The ground was faintly steaming. And Kakashi stood quietly at the vice-commander’s shoulder, hands in his pockets, close enough to kill.
The owl mask turned belatedly. One hand twitched for the ninjato slung from the back of his belt, before he caught himself.
No one laughed. Kakashi stood still, waiting.
"Thank you, Hatake," the vice-commander said coldly. "Dismissed."
Kakashi came slogging back through mud and rain, hands still crammed in his pockets, shoulders slouched. A thin buzz of conversation sprang up in his wake, and refused to die even when the vice-commander shouted another name.
Ryouma waited until Kakashi had settled down again, still upwind. "Ninjutsu?"
It could be a genjutsu. It looked like a genjutsu. But the wider an area-effect genjutsu was, the more people it covered, the weaker it had to be, the less it could change in the minds of everyone it touched. Kakashi had covered an open training field and the trees around it, had affected upwards of sixty shinobi. And he hadn’t just convinced them he’d vanished in mist and rain; he’d made everyone vanish, followed it up with a fireball that boiled water out of mud, and used it all to make the ANBU vice-commander look foolish.
Kinda weird, people said. Mostly rude.
Scary as hell.
Interesting, Ryouma thought.
Kakashi raked dripping hair out of his face, and studied Ryouma afresh. “Yeah,” he said, after a moment. “I manipulated the rain drops.”
It was a clever little jutsu—a ninjutsu that mimicked genjutsu, but didn’t break under kai. The illusion was all in the way you twisted the water, shaping it to create a chosen image from a thousand reflections. Unlike genjutsu, it didn’t touch the victim’s chakra coils.
The trick was to put in enough chakra that the heat felt real.
Ryouma’s dark eyebrows pulled together. “Not water clones,” he said thoughtfully. “Mirrors? But you had to create the image on the other side..." He glanced sideways. “So did kai actually trigger the next stage, or were you just being an asshole and waiting for one of us to try it before you got your explosion on?”
Kakashi’s mouth quirked. “I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “That would be mean.”
“‘Cause clearly you’re so worried about making enemies,” Ryouma said. He eased back on his elbows, uncaring of the wet, but stopped with a hiss and sat up again. A slow-spreading red patch at his shoulder suggested why. He nodded at the vice-commander. “Not worried that stunt’ll damage your chances?”
Kakashi shrugged. “Should it?”
“Hell no,” Ryouma said instantly. “You made him look like a fool, sure, and he won't like you for it—but that jutsu was good." He tugged absently at his sleeve, peeling scarlet-drenched threads out of the edge of the open cut. “Did you really need the explosion as a cover, or did you just throw it in for show?”
Well, someone had warmed up.
“I was going to do a water dragon, but someone wanted fireworks,” Kakashi said, glancing sideways before he looked at the field again. A gossamer thread of a girl was breaking shed-sized boulders apart with her firsts. “Any distraction would have worked.”
At least on a captive audience that wasn’t expecting it. On the field, in a real fight, it would have been harder, but you only needed a split-second to get the final blow.
“You should put something on your shoulder,” he added.
“Dirty hands,” Ryouma said, then appeared to realize he already had a hand on his shoulder, and dropped it. “Bleeding'll keep it clean, anyway. I'll wrap it up later.” A sudden white grin split his mud-streaked face. “Nice to know you care.”
“I what?” said Kakashi.
“It’s all right,” Ryouma assured him. “I won’t tell.”
A shockwave of fire brought their attention back to the center field. An Uchiha candidate stood with her head tipped back, blowing a thirty-foot column of flame into the air. On the final exhale, the fire twisted into a phoenix, spread its wings, and blew apart with a ringing scream. The rain hissed into giant clouds of steam.
That one, he would have wanted.
“Pretty,” Ryouma allowed, watching the Uchiha brush heat-dried hair back from her face and walk back to her place under the trees. “Little too flashy, though. What’s the point of the phoenix at the end? Anybody who dodged the first flame is gonna be gutting her while she’s still breathing smoke.”
Kakashi tapped his fingers thoughtfully against his knee. “Drop that attack low and put it through a crowd—anyone who thinks they'd dodged the first part would get fried by the wings. But you'd need someone to guard her back."
He had a point about the wings. Still... “How much crowd-massacring are we planning to do? Battlefield I could see, but the war’s over.” Ryouma glanced quickly sideways. Hokage’s former student: how much did he still hear? The thin blue mask clung wetly to the angled planes of cheek and nose and mouth, but the stark profile gave nothing away. “Unless we’re planning to start it again.”
One shoulder came up in a loose, wordless shrug. Kakashi’s gaze didn’t come off the field, where the proctors were setting up four straw dummies. Ayane answered the vice-commander’s call; he handed her his own short sword. She took it, tested the balance, and then spun into a chakra-edged whirlwind.
“Not with Earth Country,” Ryouma said, watching her. “Yondaime-sama crushed them too finally at the Battle of Takagawa. I was in Shintama last spring; it’s been six years and they’re still rebuilding.” He glanced briefly sideways; Kakashi’s face hadn’t changed.
“Lightning, maybe,” Ryouma tried. “That treaty’s only two years old. Ayane was up in Frost Country for a mission a couple of weeks ago. She said you couldn’t turn the corner without running into a Cloud shinobi.”
Ayane landed on one knee in the mud, head down, long ponytail falling past her face, with the sword sheathed at her side. A few bits of straw drifted down around her. The rest lay scattered in mud and rain.
Kakashi blinked, tugged his rapt attention off the woman with the sword, and glanced over at Ryouma. “Sorry. I wasn’t listening.”
And clearly wasn’t talking, either. Ryouma shrugged, winced, and just stopped himself from reaching for his shoulder again. “Ayane’s hard to ignore,” he agreed.
The woman herself was coming back across the field, after returning the vice-commander’s sword with a careful bow. Her dark brows quirked. “You seem to be managing,” she said.
“I wasn’t ignoring you!” he protested, scrambling to his feet. “You were magnificent. You’ll make it in.”
Her lips thinned, but she said only, “I’ve heard there’s another kenjutsu-using kunoichi in the ranks. She uses wind chakra, too. They may not be looking for a second."
“They’d be idiots not to,” Ryouma said. He glanced up the field, narrowing his eyes against the steady rain. “I’ve seen—seven, maybe, I’d take for sure. Another twenty who won’t make the cut. Eight or nine on the edge. They usually accept eight or ten, don’t they?”
“Twelve in September, my brother said.” Ayane plucked a bit of straw out of her hair, combed her fingers through the long dripping ponytail to find more. “They may not need as many this time.”
“Older brother?” Ryouma asked cautiously.
She flashed a sudden grin. “Three years, kenjutsu and ninjutsu user. He’s better than me. Don’t worry, Tousaki. I won’t tell on you.” She clapped him on the shoulder and swung past him, squelching in the mud, to take better shelter under the tree near Nakamura Hideo.
Ryouma watched her go. Then he looked down, to find Kakashi gazing up at him. A steel-silver eyebrow spiked beneath the wet fall of hair.
“Judging my choices?” Ryouma asked mildly. “Or her taste?”
“I have to choose?” Kakashi said.
His entire knowledge of Tousaki Ryouma was, so far, a half-remembered war record and two pieces of new information: the stories of his jutsu weren’t exaggerated, and he was a flirt.
A prickly flirt.
But Ayane had taken her irritation and her sword skills and her hipswing over there, and Ryouma was still here, wanting something.
“Not if it'd make you unhappy,” Ryouma said. “I told you, I'm a generous man.” He settled down next to Kakashi in an easy, hunkering crouch, arms balanced across his knees. Rain dripped from the ruffled tips of his short, dark hair. “You're one of the seven, in case you're curious.”
Kakashi had been curious, but he didn’t intend to admit it.
“I know,” he said instead. He was obviously one of the best candidates here. The sky was also blue.
Well, it was actually overcast and grey. But certain things were facts, was the point.
"Ayane, too, like I said,” Ryouma carried on. “And Takeshi, and Hakone, and Himura Tadao, and that blue-haired guy I don't know. And me, obviously.” He looked critically down the line of trees. “The Uchiha's one of the fence-sitters. Her taijutsu was kinda sloppy.”
The Uchiha in question was not actually outside of earshot. Kakashi felt the hot steel of her glare press against his mask.
Ryouma raised one long-fingered hand and gave her a little wave.
“Is there something I can help you with?” Kakashi asked, after a beat. Like a survival guide?
Ryouma blinked and looked at him. “Pissing off Uchiha? I think I can handle it, thanks.”
Well, yes, as challenges went, that wasn’t one.
“That’s not—” Kakashi said, then cut himself off. You might as well use resources while you had them, and this one didn’t seem eager to leave. There were two more ninja still waiting to demonstrate their skills; he had at least five minutes.
He turned to face Ryouma, rearranging himself to sit loosely cross-legged, and asked, “Your affinities—fire and water, right?”
Ryouma’s attention fixed on him, bright and sharp. He nodded, eyebrows lifted curiously.
Most healers were water-aligned, paired with wind or earth, but some of the strongest medics had fire in their blood. Rin did. Ryouma wasn’t a healer, clearly, but perhaps his jutsu came from the same source.
Which would be a shame—it was the one chakra talent Kakashi had no skill with. His lightning got in the way.
He leaned forward, letting his interest show. “Why rot?”
No one had ever, actually, asked that question before. His sensei had frequently demanded What is wrong with you? but that wasn’t exactly the same. Ryouma eyed him sidelong, thinking through answers.
He settled on one that was close to the truth. “I was fourteen, and it was gross. It made people pay attention.” He nodded to the field, where proctors’ earth jutsu had buried the residue of pig carcass. “Doesn’t need to be that fast. That was the Nikutai Hakai; I mostly use it for corpse disposal. The Nikutai Tokasu no Jutsu, the Human Flesh Melt technique, is better for combat. One touch—a glancing blow—and I can incapacitate a man. Kill him, if he can’t amputate in time. It spreads.” He splayed the fingers of his right hand up the outside of his left arm, miming the creep of necrosis and blood poisoning.
Kakashi’s mouth tilted. “That would definitely get you five minutes of attention. Can you direct it, or does it grab flesh indiscriminately?”
“Whatever I touch.” Ryouma clamped down on his forearm, lifted his hand, leaving a crumpled handprint in the loose wet sleeve. “And that’s whatever I touch—I mean, it doesn’t affect me, ‘cause it’s my own chakra, but I’ve got to stay clear of my teammates when it’s activated.” He grinned crookedly. “They stay clear of me afterward.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Kakashi murmured.
“I carry soap on missions,” Ryouma assured him. “So then you get rot and night-blooming jasmine, or whatever. I’m told it’s a winning combo.”
“You were lied to.” Kakashi glanced at the field as a brown-haired man called up an explosion of lethal glass butterflies and flung them slicing into the targets, then looked back to Ryouma. “Do you do anything besides rot?”
“Plenty,” Ryouma said, a little stung. “Uchiha aren’t the only ones who can breathe fire. Those jutsu just eat a lot of chakra, and they’re not as effective. You hit somebody with that phoenix fire-wing jutsu, and if he’s got fire chakra himself, he’ll walk out of it barely smoking. Mine aren’t as flashy, but they work.”
Well, the Naizou Tokasu was pretty flashy. For a given level of flash. He scowled at the flurry of butterflies glittering through the rain. “My A-rank technique liquefies your inner organs. From a distance. It’s not rot, it’s...”
Bloody vomit, was what it was. Deadly, sure, but not exactly impressive.
“It’s a work in progress.”
“To what?” Kakashi asked.
Ryouma blinked at him. For a man that defensive about his jutsu, he seemed pretty surprised any time Kakashi expressed an actual interest.
“To, uh, well,” Ryouma started, stumbled, and visibly regrouped. “To something I can use more'n twice a day. And less messy, hopefully. It was supposed to just wreck the heart, 'cause one of my old captains kept complaining about the mess and the smell. But so far it pretty much just melts everything inside the ribcage.” He gestured with both hands, as if holding the disintegrating lobes of someone’s lungs. “I'm still working it out. You get less chance to practice when you only use it on the battlefield.”
“Have you tried the morgue?”
“Y’know, I never have,” Ryouma said, after a long, thoughtful stare that left Kakashi feeling oddly measured. “I took care of bodies sometimes, in the war, when we didn't have the time for cremations and burials, but— I always kind of figured that was different. People wouldn't want me messing with their relatives back here.” His mouth twitched; he jerked his chin at the field. “First time I've ever done a pig, either. ANBU has a bigger budget than I do. I used to sneak into the Forest of Death when I was younger, though. Nobody'd mind an exploded giant centipede or ten.”
War orphans used to hunt in the Forest. They didn’t now. The Fourth had started programs.
“The med students get most of the donated bodies,” Kakashi said. “But you could request one after they’re done. Intel use them, and T&I.”
And ANBU, he’d heard. Practice for dismembering fallen comrades on the field. Ryouma might be a shoe-in just for that.
“Huh.” The barest edge of Ryouma’s mouth curled up, like a hook. “Guess I could put my masculine wiles to good use. Do some persuading. Jutsu research is a good cause, isn’t it?”
“You have wiles?” Kakashi said.
“When I don't look like a drowned rat and smell like a battlefield— Why, yes, Hatake, thanks for noticing,” Ryouma drawled. He dragged a hand through his hair, raking it into black-glass spikes, and flashed a grin. “Generally I like to start things with a striptease. Improvise from there.”
Kakashi was pretty sure he’d read a scene like this about five minutes ago, except Ikeda Terumasa-sama had been much more naked, and also a tragic samurai. “Are you hitting on me?”
Well, he hadn’t been. There was never any harm in seeing where things went, though. “Is it working?” Ryouma inquired.
Kakashi cast an assessing gaze around them, studying dripping trees and soggy grass and sodden shinobi. “It’s wet,” he said, flatly. “There’s an audience, and we’re auditioning. But sure, let’s sneak behind those bushes. You can talk more decomp to me.”
That was a fairly good one, as Nos went.
Ryouma dug up his best expression of caring concern. “Hatake,” he said, very gently. “I’m sorry to break this to you. But I think you need to seriously reconsider your standards in seduction.”
“Hmm,” Kakashi said. “You’re right. I should go for someone more classy.” He tipped his head, single eye narrowing against the rain. “You think Owl-mask would still give me a chance?”
“He’s ANBU vice-commander,” Ryouma said. “I’m sure he likes assassination attempts in bed.”
“I’m contemplating a certain kind of little death right now, Tousaki.”
Ryouma was on his feet and reaching for a kunai he wasn’t carrying before he’d even fully registered the words. The low, gravelling voice was the same one that had been shouting candidates’ names for the last hour; the empty-eyed owl mask gleamed cold in the grey rain. The ANBU vice commander stood with one hand on his hip and the other resting very casually on the hilt of his ninjato.
How the hell had he gotten behind them?
Ryouma forced himself out of battle-stance and into parade rest. His mouth kept moving, without thought—or sense—to guide it. “Glad to hear it, sir. It’s been a long day. You look like you could use—”
His tongue thickened. The short hairs rose on the back of his neck. Muscles shuddered and twitched. The vice-commander hadn’t moved, but killing intent seeped through the air like poison.
“Two words, Tousaki,” the vice-commander said very quietly. “Yessir. Nossir. I hear more than those from you, and you lose your tongue. Do you understand?”
His killing intent didn’t fade. Challenge, from one jounin to another.
And weakness in his stance, unbalance, that fisted hand too hard on the hip, the booted feet planted too firmly in the wet grass. He’d slip if he stepped too fast. If Ryouma went left, shouldered into the blow, caught him off-guard with a surge of his own killing intent—
Ryouma set his jaw. “Yessir,” he said.
For a moment, Kakashi really thought Ryouma was going to take the vice-commander’s subtle opening, and get his neck broken for it.
The vice-commander thought so, too. When Ryouma stayed at rest, it took the older man three full heartbeats to twitch his fingers away from his ninjato.
The red thrum in the air faded a little.
Kakashi unfolded from his half-crouch, letting gathered chakra ease back from his fingertips, and cleared his throat. “Was there something you wanted, sir?”
The vice-commander gave him a narrow look through the eyeholes of the mask. “If your conversation hadn’t kept you so distracted, Hatake, you might have noticed the demonstrations are winding up. Report to the center of the field with the other candidates. And you, Tousaki.”
The final candidate was still braiding earth and water, creating living ropes of black mud that swallowed and drowned his straw targets. Tarry pools littered the ground, dusted with grass stems. Kakashi looked back at the vice-commander.
“Did I stutter, Hatake?”
Kakashi was fond of his tongue. “Nossir.”
“Tousaki, did you hear me stutter?”
The faint flex of tendons in Ryouma’s neck suggested murder, but he said, “Nossir.”
“Well, then,” the vice-commander said.
The candidate—Hanzo, Kakashi thought—gave them a black glare when they infringed on his splattered bubble of personal space, but the vice-commander was right, the pattern-dance ended barely a few moments later, leaving Kakashi and Ryouma liberally sprinkled in another layer of sticky mud. The rest of the candidates were ordered to join them, arrayed in a ragged cluster of weary shinobi.
In perfect silence, the watchful ANBU circled them.
Kakashi recognized a few masks. That blue boar with stylized tusks had guarded Minato-sensei last month. That wildcat with the shrapnel marks scattered over her bare shoulder had been on wall duty a year ago; Maito Gai had tried to challenge her to a one-lap race. He’d lost. Most of the Hokage’s soldiers looked younger. That red-and-white panda looked almost the same height and weight as Kakashi, cut lean, barely done filling out, with his hair in a high blond-streaked horsetail.
Of course, that guy on the right, with the single crescent moon cutting down through the blank ceramic face, looked like someone had carved him out of solid, scarred maple.
The commander stepped forward.
“Your village thanks you for your service,” she said. “Some of you have performed adequately today. Some of you need to reevaluate your career aims. You—”
She pointed at the glass-butterfly ninja, who straightened sharply.
When the man stepped, a strange ripple went through the ANBU. A flash of handsigns almost too quick to see—code Kakashi didn’t know. The commander didn’t move, but he had the impression that she’d caught every flicker.
“Step to the right,” she said, and called another candidate forward. This one went left. The next went right, and the one after. None of them got names, but every one got a different ripple from the ANBU.
Votes, Kakashi realized. Did they affect the commander’s judgement, or had she already made up her own mind?
Ayane stepped forward, chin lifted. She went right.
The phoenix Uchiha went left.
When Ryouma was called, he walked forward straight-backed and met the commander’s eyes. Kakashi looked at the vice-commander, and saw him make a two-fingered V. There were a few of those among the ANBU, but more four-fingered signs, and Kakashi got it. The number four. Shi.
Ryouma went right.
Kakashi was second-last. When he stepped forward, the commander twitched her hand and the ANBU held theirs. He frowned.
“Minato-san’s student,” she said. “Which side do you think you should be?”
“I get a choice?” he asked, thrown.
“No,” she said. “There are no favorites here. Get used to it.”
There were unfavorites, he suspected, and very carefully didn’t touch the empty tanto sheath strapped in the small of his back; the blade had been confiscated earlier. “Yes, ma’am.”
Her hand moved slightly and the ANBU voted. Mostly fours, but he saw some twos. Ni. Burden.
At the commander’s order, he stepped right.
The last candidate went left. The commander gestured curtly at the disappointed knot of shinobi. “You’re dismissed,” she said, flat. “You can reapply in September if you have a taste for masochism, or you can choose to grow in new ways.”
She waited until they had left, drenched and unhappy, then rounded on the remaining ninja—a group cut down to less than half of the original candidate pool, perhaps twenty-two total.
“Return here tomorrow at 0400 hours. Jounin uniforms, weapons required, no supplies beyond what your belt-pouches can carry. I suggest you sleep between now and then.” She regarded them all with one sweeping look, eyes dark behind her mask. “You have been given a tenuous chance. Do not waste it. Dismissed.”
She vanished in a swirl of leaves, taking every ANBU soldier with her.
The confiscated weapons clattered out of thin air.
Ayane moved first, scooping up her sheathed katana with the face of a woman who’d just found her lost child. Kakashi was behind her, there and then back again, settling a straight-bladed tanto into the sheath at the small of his back. The light steel was wet, like everything else. He’d have to clean and oil it later, but if he was unhappy about it, the mask gave nothing away.
Ryouma moved slower, finding his kunai holster, the shuriken pouch. They’d landed in one of Hanzo’s puddles; the waterproof pouch had opened, spilling shuriken into the mud. He scrabbled them up and stuffed them back in, mud and all, and straightened just in time to avert an attempted headlock.
“Punk,” said Norita Takeshi, who was five foot three and would’ve had to climb a tree to get a lock on Ryouma at any other time. He was bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, nearly vibrating with energy. “Suicidal punk, maybe. I saw you mouthing off to the vice-commander.”
“So’d everyone else,” Ryouma said. “Think you’re special?”
“Poor, maybe,” Ayane said, behind him. “He bet me fifty ryou you’d take a swing. I’m calling in that debt now,” she told Takeshi. “I’m thirsty.” She eyed Ryouma appraisingly. “I’ll stand you one, if you like.”
"I might like," he allowed. "Mouthing off is thirsty work." He hooked the filthy shuriken pouch on the back of his belt and looked around. “Hatake! You coming?”
Kakashi was on the very edge of the group, watching. His brow came up. “To drink?”
“Liquid late lunch,” Ryouma said, shrugging. “Or actual food lunch, if you’re as hungry as I am.”
“Liquid,” Ayane said, decisively. “And snacks. And then a bath, and then bed.” She glanced at Kakashi, her mobile mouth pursing a little, and surprised Ryouma again.
“You should come,” she said. “First round’s on Takeshi.”
Kakashi hesitated. They saw it, the slight tension in his shoulders, as if he were about to turn toward them; the squelch of mud, as he shifted his weight. But he shook his head, wet hair falling over his eye again, and didn’t push it back. “I can’t. Another time.”
“Sure,” Ayane said easily, and hooked an arm through Takeshi’s. “Come on,” she said. “There’s rain in my blood. I need it to be beer.”
A few of the others moved with them, already talking, analyzing each others’ techniques, the earlier sparring, the commander’s ominous plans for the morning. Ryouma hung back, just for a moment. “Another time,” he said.
Kakashi’s eye curved, under the curtain of wet hair. “You can show me your jutsu,” he said.
“Screw you,” Ryouma said. Kakashi’s eye-smile deepened. He lifted two fingers and was gone in leaves and smoke, rain filling in the mud-tracks he’d left behind.
“I mean it,” Ryouma said. He scrubbed a hand through his hair, hissed at the sting of the forgotten cut on his shoulder, and turned to trudge through the rain after the others, towards beer, and food, and bed—maybe not even his own.
At some point he really ought to take his shirt off, anyway. Take a look at that cut, see if it needed stitches. Get the shoulder healed and clean, ready for an ANBU tattoo.