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One Step. [Closed to Asuma][Jan. 26th, 2009|01:53 am]

[Takes place after Playing Hero]

Finding a hairdresser willing to cater to ninja was always a tricky proposition; most of them had long been put off by the typical shinobi reflex to any kind of bladed anything. And they seemed to have a freakin' sixth sense for who was and who wasn't a ninja.

Asuma got himself turned out of four places before he found a little backstreet barbershop off Silverbark Square that rated coin higher than personal safety and didn't care about the dirt on his clothes. Ten minutes and one very small flinch later, he lost two month's worth of beard growth and gained a haircut that didn't fall constantly in his eyes. Short in the back, longer on top.

It was a little weird to feel cool air washing over the nape of his neck, and even weirder to find gel-stiffened spikes whenever he dragged a hand over his head, but it looked a damn sight better. Almost neat, in fact. And just for tonight, when he took his oath, he thought he might care about that.

Which was why buying new shirts came next on the list. He'd be wearing armour later, obviously, but having one other shirt that wasn't a Guardian Twelve standard-issue was still a good idea. And he had three years of Daimyo-given back-pay to burn.

Clothes merchants turned out to be a little more accommodating. Asuma managed to achieve shirts, pants, socks (it was amazing how people always forgot about socks), a comfy looking hoodie that was at least three sizes too big, and a suit he managed to rumple just by trying on.

Well, you never knew when a date might be around the corner.

He sealed everything inside a scroll, shoved it into his rucksack, and killed the rest of the day just wandering around, ducking in and out of shops and cramped boutiques, talking to anyone who would spare the time. A decent-looking public bathhouse offered the opportunity for a proper shower and scrub, which he delved into with great enthusiasm, thouroughly amusing the other bathers.

When the sun began to sink down towards the horizon, backlighting the distant forests, he headed back to ANBU's HQ. Shadows slipped across the village, darkening alleyways, deepening the blue of Konoha's river, and cutting harsh lines into the stern faces lining the Hokage Monument.

Asuma paused to look at them rearing high in the distance, then shook his head and carried on to meet the Quartermaster. There was a schedule for ANBU rookies, apparently, and armour came before oath.

The Quartermaster wasn't pleased to see him.

"Fresh meat, eh?" he barked, spearing Asuma with a grizzled look that raked him from head to foot and made him feel disturbingly naked. "Lookit you! Too sodding tall to start with. And broad. What d'you think I am, a miracle worker?"

Slowly, Asuma leaned back and looked at the sign on the door he'd just walked through. "Says 'quartermaster'," he pointed out. "Not 'ass'."

"I multitask," snapped the Quartermaster. "Now spread 'em."

Asuma blinked. "Come again?"

"Your legs. What, am I talking code?" A tape-measure uncoiled from one beefy hand.

Asuma backed up a step. "Dude, I've seen the skin-tight leggings before. You don't need my inseam for that." He hoped the man was after his inseam. "Just throw some armour at me and I'll be out of your hair."

"Nice try. Stop pussyfooting about and get your ass over here."

"Dude, seriously--"

"Now, Agent."

Maybe this was ANBU's way of weeding out the kids most likely to crack. But Asuma was made of sterner stuff.

"I get that you have a thing about your job," he said, hands up. "I'm not judging. But you put that thing anywhere near my crotch and I'll snap you like a popsicle stick."

The Quartermaster paused on the other side of his counter, tape-measure dangling from one loose fist, and snorted.

Then, before Asuma could blink, he found himself rammed up against the wall with an arm jammed tight against his throat. Somewhere around collarbone level, two dark eyes glittered at him.

"What'd you think, boy? They'd hire civilians to staff the place?" The Quartermaster lifted his chin, sharp smile twisting the corner of his mouth. "I was breaking ninja before you were even born. Now spread your damn legs before I decide to bend you over and measure the length of your colon."

The arm released him. Asuma coughed. "You only had to ask," he muttered, and reluctantly set his feet square. The tape-measure flickered around his legs, dangerously close to his zipper, then leapt up to his shoulders. Chest, throat, arms, dropping back down to his hips--


"Sorry, hand slipped."

"Sure it did."

The Quartermaster pulled away and disappeared behind the counter again; Asuma considered putting his back to the wall.

Then a ballistic chestpiece almost took his head clean off.

"Catch, boy! Buddha's balls, I hope I never meet your old teacher. I'd have to snap his head off for doing such a lousy job."

"Her head," Asuma shot back. "And you'd have to dig her up first." He snatched the follow-up backplate out of the air, then paused thoughtfully. "And she'd still tear off your giblets and feed 'em to you."

Say what you like about meek and mild kunoichi, Akiko-sensei had been scarier than any man he'd ever met on the battlefield. She'd even gone out with a blast, long before he'd ever left home.

He should visit her marker sometime. Maybe say a prayer over it. Wherever she was now, she'd doubtlessly get a kick out of her wayward former student finding religion.

"Eyes on me, idiot," the Quartermaster yelled at him, flinging another piece of equipment. "Skin out of your gear and see if those fit. And this."

An athletic cup did its best to ensure Asuma went through life with a squint.

"Would you quit chucking shit about?" he demanded grouchily, tossing the thing onto the counter and shrugging his jacket off. "It's not like you can't just hand it to me..."

"You said you wanted it thrown. Now move, boy. I haven't got all day."

"Yeah, right," Asuma muttered, but yanked his shirt over his head. It went on the counter with his jacket and boots, piled in a messy heap as he stepped out of his jeans and tried to decide whether you were supposed to wear underwear with ANBU gear or not. Probably a jock-strap, just to hold that cup in place.

Well, not that cup. He'd go out and get his own crotch-armour, thank you very much. And his own jockstrap.

Under the Quartermaster's disturbingly watchful eye, he struggled into the black underclothes, tugged the high shirt neck up to the base of his throat, and tried to get the pants to sit comfortably. They clung. How did people fight in this mess? It felt like wearing air!

"The cloth's woven as strong as we can make it," the Quartermaster said, setting a clanking parcel of leather down by Asuma's discarded clothes. "Got a couple jutsu laced in there, too. Won't turn aside a sword strike, but you might get lucky with kunai or senbon. The armour's made likewise and designed to protect your vitals, obviously. Make sure you bring it back in one piece, because you sure ain't getting another set." He slapped down yet more stuff on the counter. "Gloves for your arms--fix 'em in place with bandages. Guards for your arms and shins. Sandals for your giant sasquatch feet--"

"I have boots."

"Sandals for your feet. Holsters for your weapons. Cloak for cold nights--we use the same cloth as the rest; different colour, obviously." Something that looked a little like a dead animal dyed cinderblock grey draped over the counter. "A sword you can get from the armory--"

"I already have weap--"

"You'll get your mask at your oath. And if you try to interrupt me one more time, I swear I'll make sure yours comes in neon."

Asuma leaned his elbows on the counter. "You're just not a people person, are you?"

A glove slapped him in the face. "Suit up, shut up, and get lost."

"Love you, too, sweetheart." He ducked a second glove, dragged the first one up past his elbow, fiddled with bandages (what was wrong with these people? Everything was complicated!), then wriggled into the second one.

For some reason, the uniform-makers had decided to create armour that covered everything except the upper arms. Asuma took one look at the Quartermaster's reddening face, and decided not to ask why. He even kept his lips mostly buttoned as he pulled on the rest of the gear, pausing every so often to swear at a rebellious buckle, and took the weapons the Quartermaster handed to him, wrapped up in well-oiled leather.

"Kunai and shuriken. Don't waste them."

"Sir, yes, sir."

"Shuddup, kid."

"Sir, yes--"

A kunai ricocheted off his chestplate and skittered across the stone floor. Asuma lifted an eyebrow. "Touchy."


"Going, going. Jeez, old man." He gathered his stuff and headed for the door--only to pause on the threshold. "One last question."

"Oh sweet gods above..."

"Why's it white?"

The Quartermaster stared at him. "What?"

"The armour," said Asuma patiently. "It's white. Not traditionally the colour of stealth."

A ghoul's grin flickered over the old man's weathered face. "Teaches you to dodge fast. Now get lost and keep your ass alive."

Asuma snorted. "Just my ass?"

"It's the only bit of you with any sense. Out." A sudden lift of chakra sparked through the air; Asuma blinked as the door slammed shut in his face. Seals glimmered through the old, well-polished wood, promising a nasty shock to anyone who touched them.

"Nice," he said dryly. The carpeted hallway stretched out around him, completely devoid of anyone who could offer directions to the armoury. He crouched and shoved his Guardian Twelve gear into his rucksack, tossed his maligned boots in on top, then struck out to look for a signpost.

He found a clock instead, fixed high on the wall. Slender ticking hands spelled out a time that was far too close to midnight for comfort: 2249.

"Well damn," he said quietly, and touched a hand to his waist. For the first time in three years, the fire-kanji sash didn't meet his fingertips.

It was a little funny how a narrow, paisley-carpeted hallway could suddenly feel lonely.

Asuma leaned his armoured shoulders against the closest wall, swung his rucksack back around to dig out a battered carton of cigarettes and his lighter--and then put them back. He was clean; shaved and showered and trimmed and dressed, kitted up in brand new gear with a brand new leader on the horizon. Even if it was the old one. For once--just this once--he didn't want to show up wreathed in smoke.

Just this once.

He braced a sandaled foot flat against the wall, readjusting his balance, and dug around in his rucksack again. This time his hand touched well-worn cloth. Carefully, he pulled it out, studied the red symbol dyed onto grimy-looking white, and folded the Guardian sash up. Then he knotted it around his head.

The mask would cover it anyway, but hanging onto that old loyalty--that was important.

Slightly more at ease, he kicked away from the wall and set off to hunt down that damn armoury. One sword left to get, one oath to take, one tattoo to sit through, then he could go find a bed and fall on it.

Maybe someone else's bed.

Cheered, he smiled to himself and rounded the corner, taking the next dozen steps towards a whole new life.

Piece of cake, really.
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