The last couple of days had been like balancing on a knife edge, waiting for an attack that never materialized. It was almost a disappointment. Katsuko never wanted to be within striking distance of Orochimaru again, but if he had assaulted Konoha at least she would know where he was, instead of relying on vague reports about his appearances in Grass or Wave or Earth. She was tired of jumping at shadows.
Now, though, she was just bored. There were only so many times you could punch your teammates during training before it started getting old—
No, she needed a better example. Punching her teammates never got old.
“I generally find if I have to kill someone, it’s better not to think of them as a ‘who’,” Genma said mildly. “Go get cleaned up; we’ll meet in the office in fifteen minutes and go over the mission brief.” He flicked a glance at Raidou, who nodded.
Cleaning up meant changing meant more waiting before something interesting could happen, but it also wasn’t standard operating procedure to discuss classified missions out in an open field. Katsuko sighed.
Raidou gave her a look like he knew exactly what she was thinking. “The faster you go, the faster we leave.”
“We could clean up after the mission briefing,” Katsuko suggested hopefully.
Genma rolled his eyes. “Go.”
“You’re not my real mom,” she muttered.
He didn’t even blink. “Thank the merciful heavens.”
Ryouma swept in before Katsuko could open her mouth and commit further verbal insubordination. “C’mon, last one to the locker room digs the latrines!”
Kakashi, standing silently aloof as usual, blurred in place and vanished. Katsuko and Ryouma were a half-heartbeat behind.
The women’s locker rooms were almost empty this time of day, save for a few kunoichi coming in from training sessions. Katsuko stripped, showered, and changed in record time, grabbing her mask after she buckled into her armor. She slid her swords into their usual place on her belt as she shouldered out the locker room door.
She beat Ryouma to Team Six’s office by two seconds. As was her right as the victor, Katsuko paused with one hand on the doorknob to admire the way his still-wet hair shone under the hallway lights. “What, no hair-dryer?” she asked.
He ruffled his hands through his hair and raised his eyebrows at hers. “What, no brush?”
“Stylishly messy’s in this season,” she told him with a wink, opening the office door.
Ryouma followed her in. “I think stylishly’s the operative word there. You mind?” Before she could reply, he gave her hair a rough finger-combing.
“Hey,” Katsuko said, highly entertained, but didn’t bat his hands away. “I could like my hair the way it is, ever thought of that?”
Kakashi, of course, was already there, judging them both as he leaned against the wall in his ANBU uniform. His lion-dog mask dangled from his hand. “Thinking isn’t his strong suit.”
“Hatake, my rose petal!” Katsuko threw her arms up in delight and sauntered over to him. “Pearl of my heart, biscuit of my eye. You should let me put ribbons in your hair someday. That way if we tied you to the top of a pole, you could double as a flag and a lookout.”
“Did you drug up in the showers, too?” Ryouma asked, fascinated.
Kakashi’s visible eye widened in an extremely amusing way the closer she got. Katsuko stopped an inch before she breached his personal bubble and glanced over her shoulder at Ryouma, grinning. “We have a mission,” she said. “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting to get into the field again? Years. Centuries. Eons.”
When she looked back again, Kakashi had mysteriously managed to teleport to the other side of the room. Katsuko cackled.
“Very sorry for holding up your party, I’m sure,” Ryouma said. He flung himself onto the couch, stretching one muscled arm out along the back of it. “You’ve worked with the captain before, right? How about the lieutenant?”
“Namiashi was my lieutenant for a year under Ozawa-taichou,” Katsuko said. She ambled her way to the couch and poked at Ryouma’s legs until he shifted to make room for her. She dropped onto the cushions with a sigh. “I met Shiranui once before the teams were announced. Cherry-blossom viewing party. Never worked with him in-field before, though.”
Ryouma said judiciously, “He’s better at ninjutsu than taijutsu, from what I’ve seen in practice. Guess he and the captain’ll balance each other out.” He tipped his head against the back of the couch and stared up at the ceiling. “How’s Raidou in the field? As a leader, I mean.”
Katsuko’s eyebrows rose at the use of Raidou’s personal name. She tucked it away in the growing mental file of things she’d wanted to ask Raidou since the first team meeting. “Namiashi,” she started, and paused to reorganize her thoughts. “Namiashi’s fair. He takes his responsibility to his team seriously. He never dismisses you out-of-hand, and he pays attention to everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. If he wants you to do something, it’s because he knows you’re the best for the job. He puts the team above himself.” She shrugged. “He’s got integrity. I trust him.”
Kakashi in his corner was conspicuously silent in that way that meant he was listening to you rather than pretending you didn’t exist.
Ryouma was watching her attentively, dark eyes thoughtful. He nodded. “That’s about what I’d been thinking. Glad to hear it confirmed.” He switched subjects with a complete lack of subtlety. “So what’s the worst captain you ever had? I had one, back in the war, looted a sake shop and spent the next week drunk off his feet and tryin’ to get into some chuunin kunoichi’s pants. Still don’t know if Stone got him or if she did.”
Katsuko snorted. “I’d put my bet on the kunoichi. I had a Hyuuga captain during a mission in Wind Country who sent me out in the middle of a sandstorm. Tried to leave me and another chuunin behind when the mission went south.”
“My jounin-sensei was a Hyuuga,” Ryouma said. “Wouldn’t put it past some of her family members. What’d you do?”
She smirked. “The other chuunin was an Inuzuka. We waited for the storm to die down, then he and his dog tracked the rest of the team to a border town. Should have seen the look on that Hyuuga’s face when we walked in with the target trussed up between us like a present.”
Ryouma was grinning appreciatively. “Oh, I can imagine. ‘Forget something, taichou?’”
Katsuko gave a happy sigh. “It got even better when he tried to ream us out for ‘disobeying orders’ and the Inuzuka’s dog bit him.” She craned her head around until she caught Kakashi’s eye and grinned. “What about you, Hatake? Got any stories to share?”
“Of terrible leaders?” Kakashi asked, expressionless.
“No,” Katsuko said, still grinning. “Of Inuzuka biting you on the ass.”
Raidou paused at the door, sharply enough that Genma almost walked into his back. “Do I want to know?”
All three of his baby minions were too well-practiced in deceit to look guilty, but Katsuko’s expression of crafted innocence wouldn’t have fooled an infant. “Team bonding, taichou,” she said.
“Uh huh,” said Raidou.
Ryouma’s head tipped back on the couch. Dark, dancing eyes flickered over Raidou, and a smile slanted up the corner of Ryouma’s mouth—which was pretty much Ryouma’s normal expression, if you didn’t count the faintest edge of red cresting on his cheekbones. “Come to rescue us?” he drawled.
Raidou had bitten him on the ass once.
More than once, actually, if he remembered right. Maybe Ryouma was thinking of teeth.
“Considering it,” Raidou said dryly.
Katsuko glanced from Ryouma’s maybe-a-blush to Raidou’s probably-too-thoughtful expression, arching her eyebrows, and sweet baby Buddha, he didn’t want to have this same conversation three times in one week. Yondaime-sama and Genma had been bad enough.
“Excuse me,” Genma said, ducking under Raidou’s arm and past the duo on the couch, to tack a map up on the blackboard by Kakashi’s elbow.
“Isagewa Province?” Kakashi said, frowning. “Our first mission is in Fire Country?”
“Last I looked, that was the country under the protection of our Daimyou,” Genma said.
“That’d be our employer on this particular mission,” Raidou said, crossing the room to drop a file on his desk. He and Genma had taken ten minutes to get a quick briefing, thumb through the file, and sketch a game plan together before coming down—apparently at the cost of ‘team bonding’. “One of the lesser lords, actually. Villages in his region are reporting disappearances.”
Ryouma lounged up and paced over to study the map. Katsuko stretched out like an armored queen on the abandoned couch, propping an elbow on the arm and resting her chin in her cupped hand.
“Go on,” she said grandly.
Raidou crossed back and whacked her booted feet. “Move,” he said, and sat down on the arm of the couch when she did, ignoring her heavy sigh. “The villages think it’s bandits, but it doesn’t look like any bandit attack we’ve seen before—no deaths, no raids, and it’s not just young women going missing.”
“Over the last three weeks, there have been thirty-two disappearances from this cluster of five villages,” Genma said, drawing a broad circle in red pen on the map, which he began to fill in with small red X’s. He picked up the file once for reference, but Raidou was impressed by how many he pulled from memory. “It’s a whole range of ages, though none younger than ten. At least three were older than sixty, both men and women.”
“So,” Raidou said, throwing it to the rookies. “Thoughts?”
Ryouma pulled back from his intense study of the X-clusters, and looked at Kakashi. “We do know one missing-nin who’s been collecting people,” he said quietly. “Or trying to.”
It was hard to tell, but Raidou thought Kakashi turned a little paler behind his mask.
“What about the first group taken?” Katsuko demanded. “Were they the type of people who slipped through the cracks? The ones who had no one to miss them. That would suggest premeditation.”
“No, they were missed right from the start,” Genma said, studying Intel’s detailed synopsis in the file. “The first one to disappear was a sixty-three-year-old grandmother who vanished from a vegetable garden where she was planting potatoes. The next three were also farmers, and the fifth was a silk-trader who failed to come home from a walk to a shrine in the woods.”
“When Orochimaru started taking people, he went for the ones on society's fringes," Katsuko said, analytical and distant. “He wanted as much time as possible to perfect his research, so he chose victims no one would search for. Now that Konoha's looking for him, he'd want to lay low, probably as far away from Fire Country as possible. Whoever these kidnappers are, they're much more reckless than he ever was.”
Raidou stared at her. He wasn’t the only one.
“That’s exactly what Intel thought,” Genma said, after a beat.
Katsuko rolled her eyes. “What, I can't read up on that snake freak after the latest scare we had?”
She never had before.
“Those villages are right on our borders with Rain and Grass,” Kakashi said, redirecting Raidou’s attention. “We have treaties with both. Even if they wanted to break them, stealing civilians would be a strange way to start.” He glanced at Genma. “They are civilians, right? We’re not looking at a latent bloodline worth taking?”
“All civilians,” Genma said, with certainty. “And only a handful were related to one another. It doesn't look like a bloodline.”
“Were all of them alone when they disappeared?” Ryouma asked.
“At least two groups were taken together,” Raidou said, after a moment to search his memory. “One couple in the woods, and a group of three—”
“Four,” Genma said, tapping a page in the file.
“Four field labourers from a rice-paddy,” Raidou corrected.
Kakashi frowned. “Pattern break. When was that one?”
“Six days ago,” Genma said. “And a teenage girl went missing just two days ago in the middle of the day.”
“So they’re getting bolder,” Kakashi said.
“Or desperate,” Katsuko said. “They're escalating.”
Ryouma leaned back against the wall, one foot kicked back to brace himself, and ran a thoughtful thumb over his mouth. “Any signs of struggle? Objects left behind?”
"That's the weird thing,” Genma said. “They dropped their tools and things they were carrying. In one case they found a picnic lunch laid out like the guy had disappeared mid-meal. But beyond a few scuff marks, it doesn't look like anybody put up any kind of a fight.”
“Basically,” Raidou summed up, “it’s weird as hell and Intel has no idea. You guys up for it?”
Kakashi and Ryouma traded a glance. Ryouma smiled, slow and wicked. After a moment’s hesitation, Kakashi’s visible eye curved.
“Let’s kick some ass,” Katsuko said, with a bloodthirsty grin.
That was his girl.
They covered a little more than half the distance to Isegawa in eight hours, alternating between a walk and a jog most of the way, except when Raidou got antsy and pushed them to run flat out for a few miles. Genma supposed the sprints weren’t a terrible idea. Kept the rookies in line and focused, anyway, since Ryouma and Kakashi took them as opportunities to try to outdo one another. And it seemed to take the edge off Katsuko’s high-fire chakra and running litany of ‘interesting facts’ and random observations if she ran herself breathless for a few miles.
By the time Raidou called a halt for the day, the sun had sunk below the western horizon leaving a dull mauve tint on scattered clouds, and the air had turned chilly and damp. Here in northwestern Fire country the landscape was starting to change, with rolling hills rising steadily, and the thick forests that filled the central part of the country giving way to sparser growth. Ryouma pointed towards a cluster of intermingled maples and oaks that occupied a dip in the terrain. Raidou nodded, and started heading towards them.
“Look like a decent campsite?” Genma said, catching up to the two of them. Katsuko and Kakashi followed. “We should be pretty close to the Kiriniji springs here.”
Katsuko muttered something that sounded like, “Naked bathing.”
“Not that kind of springs,” Genma told her. “But if you like ice baths, I won’t stand in your way.”
“Freezing cold is good for the circulation,” Katsuko informed him. He doubted she could cite anything like a reputable source on that opinion.
Ryouma slowed from his long-legged lope to an easy walk. “There's a spring in the trees here, if I'm remembering right. Feeds a stream—not big enough for bathing, sorry, Katsuko; you'll have to put up with our stink another day or two—and what’s left of a shrine. We had a supply base here seven or eight years ago. Looks like the saplings are filling in again.”
He tipped his ram mask up, not enough to remove it or reveal his face, but sufficient to direct a little cooler air inside it. Genma had sympathy—it wasn’t easy to get used to ANBU’s masks.
Raidou studied the grove as they drew closer. “Site looks pretty good,” he said. “Hatake, Shiranui, you're both sensors—run a scout for leftover traps before we set up. Ueno, wood gathering. Don't strip a whole tree this time.”
“It wasn't the whole tree, captain,” Katsuko protested.
Raidou ignored her. “Tousaki, latrine trench, since you lost.”
“How'd you know I wasn't first to the locker room, taichou?” Ryouma said mildly. “Keeping an eye on us?”
“Educated guess,” Raidou said, dry as volcanic ash.
“It does take effort to look this good,” Ryouma agreed.
Genma turned to find Kakashi had already rabbited away to search for traps. “Right, let’s not waste any time on discussing who takes which direction or anything,” Genma said to no one in particular.
He stepped away from his teammates and extended his chakra sense, turning in a slow circle. There were the bright pinpricks of all four of his teammate’s ANBU tattoos—Kakashi’s was a few hundred meters to the north and moving laterally—and there were the background signatures of each ninja: Kakashi’s cool bluish white, Raidou’s much warmer and heavier feeling golden-green, Ryouma’s rusty-sunset glow, and the solar flare that marked Katsuko. Genma’d spent much of their first week as teammates learning how to dampen his own reaction to her chakra intensity; it was that or blinding headaches. One of her former teammates was also a sensor—he’d been invaluable as a resource in figuring out a workaround.
There were no other obvious human presences nearby, and no detectable sources of chakra like a sealed trap might leave. “Nothing obvious from here, captain,” he said. “Hound’s gone north and is circling east. I’ll take south and west.”
“Hound?” Ryouma said. “I thought he looked more like one of those lady’s lap-dogs. You know, the lion-dogs.”
“Or that,” Genma agreed, amused. “But lion-dog is kind of a mouthful.” He flicked a wave at his comrades. “Have fun with that latrine, Lambchop.”
He didn’t wait to hear Ryouma’s reaction to the epithet.
The ground was moist from recent rain, but the only prints Genma found were those of animals—the sharp points of deer hooves, mismatched ovals where rabbits had grazed through, and tiny, clawed tracks from a hunting weasel or stoat. Finding something for dinner besides field rations shouldn’t be too challenging, anyway.
A few heavily-weathered statues to Jizo marked what might have once been a shrine path, and a section of younger trees and dense ground cover was vigorously filling in what had probably been a clearing seven years ago; there was precious little to say anyone had been here in the interim.
That was a good thing.
Genma continued his sweep, keeping himself an even distance from the chakra points at the center of their staked-out area, and Kakashi’s more distant glow. He wondered how his chakra looked to Kakashi. Eventually he reached the point where he’d first detected Kakashi, and started making his way back to center. Across the distance, he could feel Kakashi doing the same. On a hunch, he took a lateral path, aiming to intercept his counterpart.
Kakashi reacted when Genma veered, changing course as well. They met near one of the more sparsely wooded sections.
“I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. You?” Genma asked.
“Dinner,” Kakashi said, holding up four dead rabbits. “There was an old trap on the southeast side, but it’s been deactivated for years.”
“Nice work,” said Genma. He admired the rabbits with a nod. “I found some edible mushrooms we can add to the pot, and there ought to be fiddleheads by the spring.”
Kakashi tipped his head, preparing to return to the others.
“I get the impression ANBU’s not exactly what you were expecting,” Genma said. “How are you holding up?”
Kakashi check-stepped—not quite a stumble, but clearly surprised. “I’m fine,” he said after a beat. His masked face turned to meet Genma’s. “Unless you have a problem with my performance?”
“No,” Genma answered. “You could possibly give your partner a heads up before you disappear when given an assignment to split the labor on something with a teammate, but it’s not like I couldn’t sense where you were.” He shrugged. “But really, I just know it’s hard, at first. Especially to transition from taking a lot of solo missions to working with a five-man team. And Ueno’s chakra...” He made a gesture like an explosion had gone off between his gloved hands. “Takes some effort to be around her chakra if your sensitivity is high. Takahashi Isamu-san from her last team was a sensor. He suggested using the shimizu technique. It’s been helping me.”
The wind stirred gently through the trees, bringing the smell of distant rain from the north.
“I prefer the kumorasu technique,” Kakashi said at last.
Minato’s supernova signature was plenty of practice for the sensor-inclined, although the Hokage’s blazing furnace was several degrees more comfortable to be around than Katsuko’s grinding open wound. After two days with a subtle migraine, Kakashi had gotten serious about shielding himself.
He didn’t know how she could stand to live inside her own skin.
Genma’s masked face tilted right. “Really? I’ve never been that great with it. Are you a fire type?”
“Lightning and water,” Kakashi said. “And earth.”
There was a beat of silence. “Wow,” said Genma lightly. “That explains a few things about you. I'm fire and earth. I figure it's the fire element that makes kumorasu harder for me. I get… cramps, if you can call them that, in my thoracic channels when I do it. You know what I'm talking about?”
“Fasciculations,” Kakashi said. It was a word Rin liked, mostly for the sound of it. Tiny muscle tremors. “I get them with air-jutsu sometimes.”
Warmth tinged Genma’s voice. “Yeah, exactly.”
Kakashi shifted his grip on the rabbit corpses, blood droplets sliding down his fingers to scatter on the grass. It was a trail, but not much of one, and no real concern this close to home. “I’m going to go back to camp,” he said.
“Sounds good,” Genma said easily, and fell into step at Kakashi’s side, demonstrating the exact reason why announcing your intentions was a trap.
The expected conversation didn’t come, though. Genma walked in silence, only veering off once with a pleased “ah!” to yank a fresh handful of edible fernheads from a tiny grove. Closer to base, Kakashi found lemongrass to add to the collection, and, as Genma had hoped, there were fiddleheads clustered by the narrow stream. Add the dry rice from any one of their packs, and it would make a full meal.
“Any issues?” Raidou asked, when they arrived back.
“All clear,” Genma reported.
“No problems,” Kakashi said slowly, eyeing Katsuko.
A stack of fresh firewood stood almost thigh-high, piled like a tower. Next to it, Katsuko sat seiza, palms resting flat on her thighs, mask pushed to one side of her face. Her eyes were closed; her chakra pulsed like a slow tide, jagged threads slowly spinning back into a neater whole. Kumorasu drew a muted veil over her; she was still fully visible, her whole chakra signature available to his senses, but filtered. Bright, not blinding. Worth the price for a spent seedling of chakra.
Despite the meditation, Katsuko’s situational focus was still good enough to know when she was being watched. She cracked one eye open, spotted him, and massacred the illusion of serenity by giving him a double thumbs up.
Genma glanced at him, and shoved his own mask aside, revealing an amused smirk.
“Ueno,” Raidou said, with his standard dry undercut that was basically punctuation. Katsuko grinned, shameless, and settled back into her trance, expression smoothing over.
A distant flicker-spark announced Ryouma’s return a moment before he loped into camp, maskless and freshly washed, with a missed streak of trench-digging dirt still smudging his cheek. A bucket of clean water dangled from one hand, and two dead fireback pheasants hung from the other. He looked thoroughly pleased with himself. “Found some— Oh. Hah,” he said, spotting Kakashi’s rabbits. “Wildlife stew?”
“Can you cook?” Kakashi asked.
“Well enough,” Ryouma said, which probably translated to I only burn half the things. He set the water down carefully down by a swept-clear circle in the center of their tentative campground, and hunkered down with his pheasants, laying them over a flat rock for plucking. “Unless anyone else is up for the job. What happened to that roaring fire you promised me, Ueno?”
“Thought about it,” Katsuko said serenely. “Decided I wanted to find my inner peace instead.”
And they were going to banter again. After a week of their constant back-and-forth, Kakashi still hadn’t figured out if the stream of words was a bonding ritual, an aid to general functioning, or a symptom of a larger problem. Either way, there didn’t seem to be a place for him between them.
He tuned them out and turned to Raidou. “Do you need me for anything?”
“Can you cook?” Raidou asked.
“I can gut, skin, and roast,” Kakashi said. “If there’s a fire.”
“Better make a fire, then,” Raidou said, sliding his mask off and clipping it to his belt. He raised his voice over Ryouma and Katsuko (“—could’ve gotten in touch with your inner self and burned things.” “I could touch your inner self.”). “It’s early yet, kids. I don’t care how you break down the jobs, but food better be ready in an hour. Otherwise, your time is your own. Try not to wander off and get lost.”
Genma leaned over Raidou’s shoulder. “Do I count as a kid in this equation?” he murmured.
“Only if you really want to babysit cooking hour,” Raidou said.
“Not particularly,” Genma said.
“Feel free to join me at the adult table with the maps, then,” Raidou said, tilting his head towards a fallen, moss-strewn log. “I was going to read up a little more.”
Katsuko unfolded from her seat. “Relax,” she told Ryouma. “Your sad face is giving me hives. I’ll make the fire.”
“You could set the forest on fire,” Ryouma told her breezily. “Taichou didn’t say we couldn’t do that.”
“I'm under standing orders not to set any more forests on fire,” Katsuko said, laying an armful of firewood down in the center of the swept circle, and setting kindling to her liking. “It doesn't tend to make very good first impressions.”
Kakashi didn’t want to know.
There was another flat rock nearby, a little distant from the arsonist twins—though not so far he couldn’t hear them. He laid his rabbits across it, settled down, and put a blade to work.
Katsuko laid a good fire: Ryouma had to give her points for that. She had a steady blaze going before he'd finished plucking the first pheasant, and after a moment of building the wood up around it to her satisfaction she gave a pleased grunt and settled back on her heels. The young fire beat a welcome warmth against Ryouma's side, burning off the chill of his spring-fed scrubbing.
He held up the half-plucked pheasant. "Find me a couple of green sticks, will you? About as long as my arm. Figure we might as well stew the rabbits, and save these for roasting." Cold pheasant wouldn't be a bad breakfast, and it would save them time in the morning.
"Rabbits and pheasants," Katsuko said, leaning back on her hands like an acrobat. "You guys are spoiling me." She pushed herself upright, glanced dismissively at the pile of dry branches she'd collected for firewood, and strode over to the nearest tree and straight up into its branches.
Her chakra-bright steps left cracked prints in the rugged bark.
Ryouma glanced toward Kakashi, but he was intent on stripping the skin off a rabbit. One skinny, naked carcass already lay on the rock, with a neat pile of entrails stacked beside the severed head. Well, rabbits skinned easier than pheasants plucked. Ryouma bent his head again, and concentrated on not tearing the thin, loose skin over the breast.
Leaves rustled. Katsuko swung out of the tree, somersaulted in the air, and landed in a crouch beside the fire with a handful of straight, whippy branches clutched like a sheaf of spears in her hand.
Kakashi's head tilted, but he didn't look around. "While you're running errands, can you get the mushrooms and ferns from Shiranui?"
"Since you asked so nicely," Katsuko said cheerfully, and laid the sticks on the edge of Ryouma's rock. She hunkered down again, fingers slipping together in the seals for the kage bunshin no jutsu. Ozone tickled Ryouma's sinuses. He sneezed into his shoulder. When he looked up again, there were four slim, wild-haired women in ANBU armor heading towards the rock where Raidou and Genma had laid out their maps. A fifth settled into a crouch on the other side of the fire, slipping a kunai out of her thigh-holster. The original Katsuko cracked her knuckles, picked up the green sticks, and tossed them over for her clone to trim and sharpen.
"Huh," Ryouma said. He tried, experimentally, to reach out with his chakra-sense. His range and sensitivity weren't anything to boast of, but he should have felt some diminution of her chakra from splitting it into so many shadow clones. If the forest-fire inside her had dimmed at all, though, he couldn't tell. "How many mushrooms did Shiranui collect?"
"I'm delegating," Katsuko said brightly. She thumped down from her crouch and stretched out on the wiry grass, pillowing her head on her hands. Across the clearing, her clones seemed to be negotiating with Genma, while Raidou's head tipped into his palm.
Kakashi glanced over his shoulder. "You can't do less than five, can you?"
"Not even on a good day, babe." Katsuko winked. "How're those rabbits coming along?"
Ryouma would have given his second-best kunai to see Kakashi's face. The mask didn't so much as tilt. Kakashi gazed at her for a long moment, and then his hands twisted and the last rabbit peeled bloodlessly out of its skin. "Done, darling."
Katsuko cackled. Kakashi's knife flicked, making swift work of the rabbit's head and viscera. He bundled the four cleaned carcasses into a skin, scooped the scraps into another skin, and straightened. "Where did you dig the latrine trench?"
Ryouma twitched a thumb north-east. "About twenty meters from the stream, behind a white oak and a bunch of rhododendron. There's a good deep spot downstream a ways for washing your hands. I left some soap on a rock." He couldn't resist adding, "It's the night-blooming jasmine one, but I got lemon verbena if you'd prefer."
"That explains why you smell like a noblewoman's bedroom," Kakashi said, which was at least better than his reaction to Ryouma's chakra-rotted corpse scent when they'd first met. The edge that had sharpened every misered word since the formation of Team Six was finally beginning to dull from his voice. He sounded almost like the sardonic young man in the Hokage's waiting room again as he added to Katsuko, "Nothing explains you."
She propped herself up on her elbows, smirking. "I was made in a lab. Only science could explain me."
The mask hid everything but the twist of amusement in Kakashi's voice. "I guess we'll blame your test-tube, then." He dropped the bundle of cleaned carcasses on Ryouma's rock and headed off, bloody-handed, into the trees.
Ryouma's first pheasant was almost done. He shoved the rabbits and the unplucked bird aside for a little more room, then drew a kunai. "He's doing better," he said, leaning a little more weight on the haft of the kunai to force the blade through bone. "I think he's getting used to disappointment." He held the beheaded bird upside down to drain for a moment. He'd bled them already, but there was still a sluggish trickle left. "D'you know he actually struck up a conversation, during the Trials? More than once?"
"Voluntarily?" Katsuko's eyebrows shot up. "Like, it wasn't required for him to pass the Trials?"
"Like he was bored," Ryouma said, lowering the bird back to the rock again and hacking off the wings and feet. "Or curious, maybe, which is better than bored. I mean, not friendly." He hadn't seemed inclined to seek out Ryouma's company when there were better options available, but he'd been at least willing to talk. Or insult, at any rate. Maybe that was the best they could hope for.
Katsuko sat up, drawing her legs up to her chest and resting her chin on her knees. "Give it time," she said. "With both of us working on him, Hatake will crack sooner or later."
"In the head, maybe," Ryouma said, and tossed her the other pheasant. "Work on that, will you?"
Katsuko caught the bird automatically, fingers closing around its skinny neck. She peered into its dead, beady eyes with a mild sense of alarm. Her clones returned before she could decide what to do about it; three were laden down with herbs and vegetables, but the fourth was empty-handed. She threw the pheasant to that one. “How come you didn’t get anything?”
Her bunshin gave her a bland look. “The lieutenant said I was making too many faces, and then the captain told me to go away.”
“Stop bullying my bunshin, taichou!” Katsuko hollered across the clearing.
“You’re lucky I didn’t stab it!” Raidou shouted back, and then turned back to conferring with Genma over the maps. The beginnings of a diagram was forming between them, angles marked with pins and string.
She left them to it and waved a hand at her clones. “Carry on.”
The one with the pheasant gave her a dirty look, but sprang into action with the rest. She watched as they unearthed the collapsable cookware and started setting up a spit. The clone she’d set to peeling sticks stood up, its task done, and went to walk the perimeter.
Ryouma had moved on to the rabbits, cutting them into pieces to toss into the stewpot. Katsuko studied him for a moment.
“What’s up with you and Hatake?” she asked. “I know you met during the Trials, but that’s about it.”
Ryouma’s muscled shoulders lifted in a shrug. He snapped a rabbit’s joint between his long fingers. “We pestered each other in the first trial. He saved my life in the second, when one of the other candidates turned on us. You’d heard about that, didn’t you? They were saying most of ANBU was turned out to guard.”
Raidou had told her about it, that day on the wall. One of the candidates went rogue. Nearly took one guy’s hands off, and stabbed another.
Katsuko’s gaze flickered down to Ryouma’s right hand, which until this morning had been swathed in bandages. He’d taken his gloves off sometime after they’d made camp; it made him seem a little more vulnerable, now, especially with the newly healed scar standing out pale pink against tanned skin.
“Sounds like he has a soft spot for you,” Katsuko said, waggling her eyebrows. “You probably swept him off his feet during the first Trial and didn’t realize. He saved you from certain death so you’d notice him. ‘Oh, senpai’.” She fluttered her lashes at him. “‘Will Ryouma-senpai notice me today? Maybe I should be extra silent and judgemental’.”
Ryouma put his kunai down, bowed his head, and started shaking with laughter. He looked up after a second, still grinning. “I’ll be thinking of that from now on every time he glowers. But no— I don’t think he likes men. He turned me down, actually, in the first Trial. Not that I was really trying.”
Of course Ryouma would hit on Kakashi in the middle of tryouts for the village’s most lethal organization. “Maybe he was distracted,” Katsuko suggested diplomatically. “Or maybe he didn’t think you were being serious. Or maybe he thought you were crazy.”
“Probably the crazy,” Ryouma agreed. “Also I stank of corpse-rot at the time.” He tipped the rabbit chunks into the pot to sear and poured some water from the bucket to clean his hands. “What about you? Men, women, either, strange desert beasts from Western Wind Country? I’m not hitting on you now, by the way. I heard the captain’s warning.”
Katsuko chortled. “Either,” she said. “Both. I like ‘em smart and feisty, and I make no promises not to hit on you. But the team comes first.”
He looked up, quickly. “Glad to hear that. Both parts of it. Flirting’s fun, but this is my first time with a team like this. Rather not screw it up.”
“ANBU doesn’t make mistakes when they recruit,” Katsuko informed him. “You deserve to be here. Training this week proved that.” She grinned. “I’m looking forward to our first mission.”
“Hell yeah,” Ryouma said, and smiled back at her.
Dinner turned out surprisingly well, when all was said and done. Kakashi’d returned from the spring with a bundle of wild onions to add to the pot: combined with Genma’s fiddleheads and mushrooms, and a packet of seasoning mix liberated from one of the standard-issue ramen blocks, the “kids” as Raidou called them, had done an admirable job with the rabbit stew.
The unholy alliance Raidou had predicted was well underway by the time it came to put out bedrolls, with Katsuko and Ryouma breaking into silent laughter when Kakashi raised a judgmental eyebrow over some comment one of them made, but it didn’t seem mean spirited.
The real joy of having Ueno on the team became apparent when she called up a half dozen clones to clean up their dinner making effort, then turned to Raidou and declared them ready for the night’s watch.
The whole night’s watch.
She’d created six kage bunshin so loaded with chakra they almost felt human, and Katsuko’s ever-burning torch was almost undimmed. Whatever that enemy medic had done to her, it seemed beyond the bounds of human capacity. Genma found himself thinking of the Yondaime’s late wife—was Katsuko some kind of vessel for a demon’s chakra? But that, surely, would have made her too valuable to the village to be an ANBU agent.
“Should we set secondaries?” Genma asked, eying the tiny army of kunoichi.
They shook their heads in unison with Katsuko herself.
“This is why I wanted to keep her when I got promoted to captain,” Raidou said, “Everyone gets to sleep.”
“We’re going to get spoiled,” Genma said. “But you won’t catch me saying no to a night’s sleep on the trail.” He glanced over the rest of his team. “Speaking of which...” He yawned and stretched. “Unless any of you need me for anything else?”
Kakashi said nothing.
Ryouma looked idly down at his boots.
New armor could chafe. New boots could raise blisters.
And the rookies were in a cutthroat competition of manliness and stoicism.
“Show me,” Genma said. “I’d rather chakra-heal your strains and blisters before we sleep so natural healing can supplement it, than end up with either of you limping halfway to our objective tomorrow.”
There was another silent moment as the rookies waited each other out. Ryouma broke first, reaching down to unfasten his right boot. “It’s just rubbing a bit. Haven’t broken them in quite yet.”
“Easy fix,” Genma said. “Left boot off, too, please.” While Ryouma unlaced his second boot, Genma looked expectantly at Kakashi.
Very reluctantly, Kakashi started unfastening his vest. After he removed it, he pulled the black underpinnings of his uniform aside to reveal raw, moist-looking red patches where the armor had been rubbing under his arms. “I have a med-kit,” he said, sounding defensive. “I wasn’t going to let it fester.”
“I know it was almost a week ago,” said Genma, “but I’m sure I remember Namiashi-taichou laying out some rules, including one about not concealing an injury, no matter how minor.”
The rookies’ silence on the matter was probably as much of an admission as it was reasonable to expect. “Tousaki, let your feet air out for a sec while I see about Hatake.” Medics had strong stomachs, but there was no need for self-torture, after all.
“Are you sure you can see well enough, lieutenant?” Katsuko asked. “Maybe Hatake ought to take his shirt all the way off.”
Kakashi went still.
“Boun-” Raidou started.
“-daries,” Katsuko said, sounding sad.
“Actually, I was going to ask you to go ahead and remove it so I can check your shoulders, too,” Genma said. “Can I get one of the clones to come hold a light for me?”
Kakashi heaved an immense, put-upon sigh as he stripped out of his shirt, leaving the cloth mask in place. The Sharingan stayed closed, but his open eye glared a challenge at Katsuko, daring her to comment.
She gave him a slow, deliberate once over, then said somberly, “Eight out of ten.”
Ryouma snorted with laughter.
“Eight?” Kakashi said icily.
“Almost a nine,” Katsuko said. “If it wasn’t for, well...” Her hands waved vaguely in the air in a gesture that could have meant anything from the wildness of Kakashi’s hair to the leanness of his physique to the color and cut of his scars.
There were a lot of scars, on a body that was almost a mirror to Genma’s own in size and shape, though a little less filled out—still rangey with the end of his teenage growth.
“Ueno,” Genma said when Raidou didn’t immediately intervene. A glance showed the captain looking more amused than anything else.
Katsuko shrugged and wandered over to the other side of the fire, satisfied with her handiwork, no doubt.
“Light,” Genma said. One of the clones came and cast a small cold-fire jutsu, casting a soft oval of light over Kakashi’s pale skin. “Don’t let her get to you,” Genma said quietly. He studied the space between scars for more signs of chafing. “Does it hurt anywhere besides under your arms?”
“No,” Kakashi said curtly. He twisted to show Genma an irritated scowl. “She’s not getting to me.”
“Good,” Genma said. Could have fooled me. “Raise your left arm. Sorry, this is going to sting.” A cotton pad saturated with alcohol served to wipe away any grime; Kakashi hissed a breath, but didn’t flinch. Genma cast a shallow-depth healing jutsu to regrow skin that had been abraded away by the armor, then smeared some anti-chafe cream over the place the wound had been before he did the other side.
“That’s that,” he said when he was done. “Put some more of this cream on before you get dressed in the morning. How are your feet?”
Kakashi gave him the same silent look of judgment he met every order with, then bent down and started undoing his boots.
“Sit. Let them air while I see about Tousaki’s,” Genma told him, not wanting to bathe in scorn and stink at the same time.
Ryouma’s feet looked like agony. The tops of his small toes were blistered, the balls of his feet swollen and red, and the backs of his heels were raw and bleeding—the right far worse than the left. “How have you not been limping? You’re not ticklish, are you?” Genma asked. “I don’t want to get kicked in the face when I start working on these.”
“Not much of a ninja if I can't hide pain,” Ryouma said, prodding gingerly at one of the blisters. “An' I didn't want to hold us up. They’ll toughen up.” His gaze slid towards Raidou, and his cheeks colored faintly—guilt over the rule-breaking, or some remnant of whatever connection they had once had? Which Genma was honor bound to have forgotten.
“Or you could wear your socks inside out so the toe seams don’t rub. And rub a little chafe stick on your heels after I fix the skin.” He gave Ryouma the same warning about the sting of the alcohol before he applied it.
“Chafe stick?” Ryouma asked through gritted teeth. He hissed a few quick breaths as the sting of the alcohol subsided.
“It’s like the anti-chafing cream I gave Hatake, but in a stick form. Looks like a deodorant, kind of. I’ve got some in my field kit I’ll give you for now. You can req it from the quartermaster when we get back.” He set to work applying healing chakra to Ryouma’s left foot first, then went to work on the more abraded right one. “You have any scoliosis or anything?” he asked. “It looks like you’re coming down harder on your right foot.”
Ryouma hesitated, looking at Genma with sharp, unreadable eyes. “Bad left knee. Broke it when I was a kid. It doesn't hold me back in a fight, but it stiffens up sometimes.”
“Good to know,” Genma said, gently inspecting Ryouma’s knee. “How is it today? Want me to see if I can loosen up the joint a little? I don’t really feel any obvious swelling here, but I could try.”
Ryouma shook his head. “It’s fine. Today wasn’t too hard. Morning after a fight or bad weather, though, I won’t say no.”
Genma shrugged. “Just let me know.” He turned his attention back to smearing anti-chafe cream over the freshly healed blisters. “Here’s the chafe-stick,” he said, handing a slim cylinder to Ryouma. “Re-apply every time we take a break. Is your armor causing you any issues, or you good now?”
“Are we angling for more shirtlessness?” he asked, slanting a look full of mischief at Katsuko. “Because I’m pretty sure I’d outscore Kakashi.”
“Now, now, you’re both very pretty, boys,” Katsuko said, coming back around the fire with her hands held up in a placating gesture. A couple of her clones nodded agreement, and at least one chimed in with an “Mmm-hmm.”
“Do I have to drop a river on all of you?” Raidou inquired mildly. “Because I will.”
“No worries, taichou,” Ryouma said. “You can save the cold shower. My vest fits better, I think. Not much chafing so far.” Genma could hear the smugness in Ryouma’s voice.
After a long day of travel, and a lot of listening to the comedy hour that was his new team, Genma was starting to get just a little tired. He sighed, heaved himself to his feet, and went to see about Kakashi’s blisters. “Save the river drop until I’m out of range, please?” he said. “Okay, Hatake, how bad are your feet?”
Kakashi frowned slightly at Genma, offering a look that seemed a lot more ‘concerned teammate’ that ‘judgmental underling.’ “Survivable,” he said. “Do you need to conserve your chakra?”
That was uncharacteristically thoughtful.
No, wait. Genma’d known Hatake Kakashi little more than a week, and under trying circumstances for anyone. It was unfair to decide what was characteristic for him yet.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Thanks. If we were outside Fire Country or expecting a fight tonight, I might be more concerned, but these aren’t high-level healing jutsu, and I’m going to sleep as soon as I’m done, so... Show them here.”
He waved the light-bearing clone over and inspected Kakashi’s narrow, bony feet. Like Ryouma’s, they were blistered, but it was the pads of Kakashi’s smallest toes and the balls of his feet where the worst damage lay. The striking edges of his heels looked a little swollen, too, like there might be deep blisters under the callouses, but there were no open wounds, and the damage seemed to be evenly distributed.
“Not too bad,” Genma pronounced. “Chafe stick for you, too. Or you can use that cream I gave you on your feet, every time we stop for a break.” He called up chakra, applying it to Kakashi’s heels first, then toes, pushing spilled fluid back into capillaries, sweeping damaged cells away, and encouraging healthy skin growth to reseal the layers of dermis that had separated from friction.
When he was finished, he sat back in the grass. “How’s that feel now? Better?”
Kakashi rested one foot on the opposite knee, rubbing his thumb testingly over one of the places Genma had healed. “Not bad,” he said, looking up.
“You’re welcome,” Genma told him. He pushed himself to his feet. “Now. Anyone else need first aid before I go find a soft clump of grass for my bedroll?”
“I’m good,” Raidou said, shaking his head.
“Nothing to worry about here,” Katsuko said. One of her clones came up and tugged Genma’s elbow, pointing to a grassy patch away from both rocks and tree roots.
“Excellent. Thanks.” Genma yawned and stretched, arching his back. “Wake me up if someone is dying or needs killing.” He tossed his blanket down on the grass, stripped off his armour, belt packs and arm guards, and sat down to pull off his boots. The rookies might be suffering from new footwear, but even veterans needed a little sole care at the end of a long day. When he’d massaged the soreness out as best he could, he put on fresh socks, redonned his boots, and lay down on his back.
Above him, misty clouds were starting to shred, revealing diamond-studded blackness. One thing a ninja learned early was how to sleep. In five minutes, Genma was dreaming.
At least there was one standard model shinobi on the team.
Katsuko was the next to settle down. Her night ritual was a little longer: she checked her weapons, honed the wicked edges on her swords, tended her feet and her armor, and curled up in her bedroll on the softest patch of grass, having graciously allowed Genma the second-softest patch. Her chakra banked down like a dragon coiling around itself, ready to take a brief hiatus from decimating villages. “Night, taichou,” she mumbled.
“Sleep hard,” said Raidou.
The fire crackled softly.
Ryouma stood, stretched, and walked carefully on his newly repaired feet down to the stream to brush his teeth. Leaf shadows hung over his armored shoulders like dappled scale-mail, rendering him nearly invisible. His light skin and dark hair suited ANBU’s colors. When he returned, he sat cross-legged by the fire, peeled out of his armor until he was just in his black underpinnings, and began to run through empty seals. It looked like a routine night time exercise; something to keep a ninjutsu user’s fingers limber.
Kakashi was a silent wraith at the edge of the fire’s light, making no move to settle or engage.
No surprises there.
Raidou drew his black-blade sword and laid it across his lap, inspecting the edge. “Planning to sleep, you two?”
“Eventually,” Ryouma said. “When I fall over.” His hands slipped neatly through a complicated Reverse Half-Dragon into Snake, shaping who-knew-what jutsu, and he glanced over his shoulder. “I was going to hope you'd both be impressed by my stoicism on the trail, but turns out Kakashi was doing the same thing and we both forgot Rule 4. So I'm just going to have to be extra good tomorrow.”
His dark eyes glittered in the firelight.
Ryouma, Raidou suspected, flirted like he breathed and didn’t even realize he was doing it. Half a coping mechanism, half a way of life, definitely a trap Raidou didn’t need to get caught in.
“I’d settle for you not hurting yourself,” Raidou said, without humor. “Same for you, Hatake. You’ll pick up injuries without trying here. Don’t add more.”
Kakashi looked over. “We weren’t being gutted,” he said. “Don’t you want self-sufficiency on your team?”
“I’d prefer common sense,” Raidou said.
“I thought we joined ANBU because we had no common sense,” Ryouma said thoughtfully. He laced his fingers together, palms outward, and cracked his knuckles with a yawn. “Though I hear the death rate's actually higher in the chuunin corps. Must have better captains looking after us here.”
“Hah,” said Raidou.
More likely, the chuunin who weren’t quite good enough to make jounin found it out the hard way.
“Taichou,” Ryouma said in lieu of ‘goodnight’, shoving himself up. The quasi-neat scatter of his armor glistened like a heap of bones in the firelight. He unrolled his blanket, tossed it down, kicked his pack over to make a pillow, and flopped down with a quiet sigh, still barefoot.
And that made three.
Raidou glanced at his last errant duckling. Kakashi had braced one elbow on his knee, cupped his chin in his palm, and was staring slightly to one side of the fire with a frown that suggested unhappy thoughts. If he’d had a happy thought since he’d joined Team Six, Raidou had yet to see it.
Raidou tightened the bindings on his sword hilt, and re-sheathed the blade. Insomniac tendencies, Kakashi’s file had said, which put him about on par with half the battlefield-raised kids. Even Raidou had his bad nights, every now and then. Despite the darkening night, it wasn’t exactly late—they’d just been moving all day.
“Want to spar?” Raidou said.
Kakashi glanced up with a blink. “Now?”
“Why not?” Raidou stood, shed his armor in a tidy, economical pile, until he was down to his underpinnings and boots, and tipped his head towards a clearing across the stream. “No jutsu, no blood-drawing. Whoever wakes a teammate loses.”
A faint spark of challenge lit in Kakashi’s grey eye. “All right,” he said, and followed suit, laying his armor down by his pack.
The clearing was grassy, dotted with moonlit wildflowers, and broad enough to throw someone across. Training field luxury. Two of Katsuko’s clones followed them to it, quietly trading bets between them. Kakashi stayed three steps behind Raidou, because lurking like a creeper seemed to be his comfort zone.
Raidou picked his spot, rolled his shoulders—and ducked a punch that would have broken his C-3 vertebrae like rock-candy.
“Cheat,” he said, tumbling out of the way and flipping back to his feet.
Kakashi shrugged one shoulder and attacked like a bare-handed whirlwind.
In the ten days Raidou had been training with Team Six, he thought he’d gotten a pretty good handle on their abilities. Genma was a distance-killer, quick with blades and poisons, clever with ninjutsu, shakier on taijutsu. Katsuko was a force of nature, lethal as a landslide but easily unfocused. Ryouma was fast on his feet, well-balanced between the three disciplines, but reckless and wasteful with his chakra.
Kakashi was a different animal.
Raidou blocked a flash-fire of hammering, testing blows, realized they were the seventh pattern-set of the Tonbo clan's dragonfly style, and responded accordingly with the sweeping tiger counter—just as Kakashi switched flawlessly to an entirely new style. Their first spar had run the same way, one school of strategy blending seamlessly into the next while Raidou played catch up and tried not to get curb-stomped in front of his own team. By his own team.
This time, Raidou followed through three change-ups, playing defense, and waited for Kakashi to break out northern Wind’s armor-shattering Kanashiki style—
And there was the hole.
Cracking the Yondaime’s golden boy in the jaw shouldn’t have, in good conscience, been a thrill, but it was a goddamn good feeling to watch Kakashi hit the ground so hard he dented it. One of the clones snickered. Raidou went for the choke-hold, but Kakashi twisted and flipped out of the way, scrambling back up. He shook his head once, like there might be stars dancing in front of his eye, and went on the immediate counter-offensive.
Mist-style this time, with their weird blend of fluid hyper-aggression. Raidou’s jounin-sensei had once called it tai-chi that went for the throat, except a thousand times faster. You could block it, if you wanted, but you’d probably break something—diverting was better. Raidou made himself bamboo, bending out of the way, and caught a lucky hit against Kakashi’s right inner-wrist, hard enough to numb the hand.
Kakashi hissed quietly.
“Tired yet?” Raidou said, grinning.
Kakashi’s answer was to kick him hard enough that Raidou felt his ribs bend. He narrowly avoided crashing through a grove of saplings, which would have woken the group, instead grabbing a last-minute chakra hold against a mossy boulder and using it as a springboard to vault back to his feet. Kakashi was there to press the advantage before Raidou fully caught his balance, anvil-blows bruising Raidou’s forearms to the bone. Kakashi wasn’t built like Raidou, but precisely wielded chakra made every hit count, and his form was close to perfect.
But then, so was Raidou’s.
Kakashi left an opening that Raidou didn’t take, because he knew the kid was just laying rabbit trails for him. But Kakashi figured everyone wasn’t as smart as he was, and that Raidou definitely wasn’t as smart as he was, so when Raidou left an opening, twenty seconds later, Kakashi went for it like a falcon stooping down on something small and crunchy.
Raidou was delighted to meet him with an unexpected cliff-face.
The tussle that followed was silent, vicious, and Raidou was pretty sure Kakashi yanked some of his hair out, but it ended with Kakashi face-down in the grass, Raidou’s knee planted solidly in the small of his back, and both of Kakashi’s hands crossed behind his shoulderblades and pinned.
“Surrender?” Raidou panted.
The lean muscles of Kakashi’s back stood out in sharp relief. His shoulders tensed, testing the hold, but that numb hand couldn’t break it. Raidou waited him out.
Kakashi sighed. “Best two out of three?”
“How many bruises d’you reckon we can pick up before Shiranui gives us the judgemental eyebrows?”
“Less than one,” Kakashi said, dry. He worked his jaw beneath the mask, as if it ached. “So we’re already in trouble.”
“My fault. I’ll take responsibility,” Raidou said. “If I let you go, are you going to get devious?”
Kakashi turned his head slightly, until Raidou could see a sliver of grey eye beneath the tangle of sweaty hair. “Do you have another option?”
“Pop your shoulders out of joint. Except, again, medic. We could sit here until your arms are good and numb,” Raidou said cheerfully. “Or we could make an adult agreement with words where I promise to let you go, and you promise not to try and yank my throat out.”
Kakashi was silent for a moment. “Third option.”
“Excellent choice,” Raidou said, and let go.
He was entirely unsurprised when Kakashi kicked his thigh nearly hard enough to crater it. The second fight was shorter, nastier, and ended in something like a mutual headlock that rolled them almost into the spring. They wrestled to a halt on the sloping bank, where the ground was softer and wetter. The clones walked down to stare at them thoughtfully.
“Wish I had popcorn,” one of them commented.
“Wish we had the ability to eat,” said the other one.
Kakashi’s breath rasped in Raidou’s ear. “I can break your neck from this angle.”
“I can drown you in mud,” Raidou said. “Draw.”
He was pretty sure they’d woken at least Genma up, judging by the dull flicker of one sleepy chakra signature, but the wrath of disturbed lieutenants had yet to descend on them, so perhaps Raidou’s credit was still good. Or Genma was planning to get pointed with him in the morning.
“You let go, I let go,” Kakashi said.
“We let go together,” Raidou said. “On three. No, screw it, on one. Okay? One.”
No one let go.
“I’m detecting a dearth of trust in this working relationship,” Raidou said, after a second. “It concerns me.”
“You didn’t let go either.”
“I had concern for my neck.”
“Do you need a crowbar?” asked the first clone brightly.
“We don’t have one, or the ability to get one, but it would totally be helpful right now,” the second clone said. “Just a thought.”
“Stop helping,” Raidou said.
Kakashi’s grip changed, moving up the sliding scale from painful to mildly agonizing when he found a pressure point on the back of Raidou’s neck and applied his thumb to it, because he was an evil, surly little shit. Raidou gave serious thought to drowning him in mud.
Yes, Yondaime-sama, I had your student for a week, and then I floated his body down a creek because he annoyed me.
He moved one hand enough to give Kakashi’s unruly hair a yank. “Suggest a solution, Hatake.”
“You’re the captain,” Kakashi said, sounding muffled and annoyed. Raidou hoped his face hurt. “Lead by example.”
“Fine,” Raidou said, and released his hold.
This close, he could feel every flicker of concealed surprise in Kakashi’s tense, untrusting muscles, backed by the ice-burn of cold blue chakra. Kakashi didn’t immediately let go, checking, presumably, for the hidden catch. Raidou held one hand up, fingers spread; the other arm was mostly pinned beneath their bodies.
And still, Kakashi waited.
“Kid, if you don’t let me go, this is going to turn into the world’s most awkward hug, and I don’t actually have a backup plan for that,” Raidou said.
Kakashi let go so fast he might have burned himself with air friction. Raidou pushed himself up and cracked his own neck, working the nerve-pinch pain out. Figured Kakashi was a no-hugging-zone; Raidou wondered if Hatake Sakumo had been that touch phobic, too, or were Kakashi’s issues all his own?
“Aww,” said the first clone. “No kiss?”
“I will murder you with a branch for my own amusement,” Raidou said levelly. “Just try me.”
“As long as you don’t give me a hug,” said the clone.
Unexpectedly, Kakashi hadn’t bolted back to camp, or to a distant vanishing dot on the horizon. He was ten feet away, rumpled and muddy and slightly breathless, eyeing the clone like it was a foreign concept.
Raidou shoved himself to his feet, feeling his aches. Bruises definitely, but nothing broken and nothing important torn. Kakashi seemed to be in similar shape, though Raidou was fairly certain you could whack him with an iron bar and he’d just look sarcastic about it.
Well, no, maybe he’d faint.
“One win, one draw,” Raidou said. “Raincheck on round three? I’m going to stretch the kinks out. You should join me.”
“You surrendered round two,” Kakashi said, drifting ever so slightly closer. “One each.”
“I negotiated a mutually beneficial cessation of hostilities because someone never learned good sportsmanship. So, actually, moral victory for me, which makes it two-nothing.” Raidou spread his arms in a broad crucifix, getting his blood flow going again. “We can go five out of seven.”
Kakashi stretched his arms out. “Next time, ninjutsu.”
“Hell no,” Raidou said. “Not until you beat me square, then we can play in your candyland.”
Kakashi snorted. “Fine.”
Silence drifted back, and the clones wandered away, trading commentary on their favorite moments. Katsuko was in for a morning treat when they disintegrated and dropped their memories back into her head. Raidou took himself and Kakashi through a full set of stretches, working from aching fingertips down to punished feet—his booted, Kakashi’s bare. There was a deep ache in his right thigh, and his forearms were going to be interesting colors in the morning, but otherwise the damage was pretty minimal. No worse than any other spar.
And he felt tired.
He thought, maybe, that Kakashi did too.
“C’mon,” Raidou said, and took them back to camp.
The fire had burned down lower, bunkered to a steady set of glowing coals. He bolstered it with a few more heavy hunks of wood from Katsuko’s hoard. Next to it, closest to the warmth, Ryouma was a loose sprawl on his back, one arm tucked beneath his head, the other flung out on the grass. His face was oddly still in sleep, mouth firmly closed, a faint line drawn between his eyebrows. As Raidou looked, Ryouma rolled away from them, turning his back.
Katsuko was a tightly curled ball beneath her blanket, tucked comfortably into her bedroll. Her face was barely visible; only the rumpled spikes of her hair stuck out of the blankets, stirred by the night breeze. She murmured a quiet piece of nonsense. Don’t take the orange shoes, sensei...
Genma was a mix of both. He’d wrapped himself in a blanket and not bothered with a bedroll, like Ryouma, but he slept much neater, resting easily on his side in an approximation of the recovery position, with his face turned towards the fire. His expression was relaxed, and—
Not actually asleep.
“I am not getting up to heal you,” he said, without opening his eyes. “I hope you both sleep on poison ivy.”
Kakashi glanced at Raidou, and Raidou just knew he was going to say something like ‘but that would need more healing’. Raidou sliced a hand across his own throat in the ‘don’t you dare’ gesture. Kakashi rolled his open eye. The other, scar-crossed one was closed and hidden behind a fall of silvery hair; Kakashi seemed to have the ability to keep it shut without obvious effort.
Raidou had yet to see the Sharingan.
“We’re fine, Shiranui,” he murmured. “Go back to sleep.”
Genma made a quietly disgruntled noise of doubt, and tucked his face against his arm. Raidou and Kakashi washed up in the stream, or at least made an effort to get less muddy, and settled down. Kakashi picked a spot on the other side of the fire, opposite from Ryouma, quasi-near Katsuko, surprisingly central to the group. He lay on his back, threw his arm over his face, and from what Raidou could tell, passed out in seconds.
Which made four.
Raidou settled on the opposite side of the group from Genma, making them both outer-point sentinels guarding the three younger squadmates. Katsuko’s clones patrolled in long, steady sweeps, little sunspots of chakra on the edges of Raidou’s senses. The four sparks of ANBU-tattoo chakra glinted in his inner vision, faint beacons of reassurance. All accounted for.
The wind stirred, cooling his skin where he’d missed droplets of stream-water.
He bundled down into his bedroll, sword close to hand, and let it all go until the morning.