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Two Step. [Closed to Asuma][Jan. 26th, 2009|02:12 am]

[Takes place directly after One Step]

Even deep inside the Hokage's palace, midnight brought a kind of atmosphere with it. Shadows lengthened, silences deepened; even the empty hallways looked menacing, as if a hundred assassins' footprints had bled a watermark through the carpet weave.

And that didn't begin to cover the candles.

Brand new sword strapped across his shoulders, Asuma stood in the doorway to the main upstairs office, flanked by two stiff-backed chuunin, and studied the face of the future.

It had liverspots.

"Hi, Dad." He leaned his weight on one hip, hand lifting to twitch out a little wave. "How've you been?"

The spiderweb of lines around Sarutobi Hiruzen's eyes deepened. Behind him, seated up on a dais at his right shoulder, Homura and Koharu, Konoha's two most senior council members and the Hokage's former genin teammates, shook their heads slightly. On the left--

"Arakaki!" said Asuma, surprised. "You got promoted."

Fully armoured but unmasked, the older ANBU went suddenly stone-faced.

The Hokage sighed. "Asuma, if you could remember some of the manners we tried to instill in you--"

"Along with an appreciation for tradition and ritual," Asuma finished. He gestured at the ranks of tall candles lining the room. "Overdid it a bit, don't you think? New guys must think they're joining a cult."

"You haven't changed much, I see," said Homura, in the reedy voice Asuma remembered from childhood. "Still arrogant."

"And vocal," Koharu put in, folding her hands in her lap. "Though the armour does suit you."

"The attitude does not," Arakaki said abruptly. He glanced sideways, sharp eyes on the Hokage. "Is ANBU really the best place for him, Hokage-sama? Perhaps somewhere else--"

"I want to be here." Asuma strode forward, lifting his chin to stand tall beneath the weight of four assessing gazes. The smile vanished from his lips. "I've earned my place."

"That remains to be seen," Arakaki said.

The Hokage held up a hand.

"Asuma," he said, in the silence that fell. "Five years is a long time. You've barely been home two days. Why throw yourself straight back into the field?"

Asuma met his father's eyes and kept his hands still. "You've got maybe two-hundred agents," he said. "On a good week. Do you really ask everyone why they're signing up?"

Something almost like pain flickered in that level dark gaze; personal grief for every agent lost, no doubt. "Humour me."

"You want a demonstration?" Asuma reached back and unsheathed his sword, drawing the steel over his shoulder with a quiet whispering sound. Candle flames glimmered a liquid reflection in the blade. He held it loose in one hand, then snapped it up into the air. All eyes followed the weapon as it arced high above his head, spinning a tight circle, before he caught it neatly on the downswing with his other hand. By the door, the two chuunins startled forward--and were immediately waved back by the Sandaime. Asuma ignored them. "I'm smart, I'm fast, and I served my last master for three years. You won't find anyone more loyal."

Homura's eyebrows lifted. "Six of your team were traitors. Ten died."

"I didn't." Asuma sheathed the sword with a snap. "And four of them gave their lives protecting Konoha, under my orders."

Koharu nodded curtly. "The bounty on your head is thirty-five million ryou."

Asuma threw a smile at her. "And how much would Iwagakure pay to see you dead, sweetheart?"

"You're still a chuunin," Arakaki said, cutting off Koharu's biting laugh. "You'd be limited to B-ranked missions in the company of other agents."

"So make me a jounin. I'm as good as one anyway, even if I never took the exam." He traded steady looks with the older agent, then turned back to his father. "Better than most. How many've you got with real-world experience?"

"Enough." The Sandaime's quiet command brought instant silence. High on the dais, cloaked in his robes of office and that broad-brimmed hat, flanked by advisers and ANBU's own war chief, he seemed suddenly weary. Smaller than Asuma had ever remembered seeing him.

"Son," he said quietly, "why are you doing this?"

Answers rose in Asuma's throat and stopped at his teeth. Because I'd be good at it. Because I can't just sit on my ass and do nothing. Because I buried ten people for this damn village and why should I stop now?

Because I don't want to be you.

He looked past his father, at the flickering candles and the rich tapestries hanging on the walls, and thought about a sash and a hat both bearing the kanji for fire.

"What else is there?"

The Hokage closed his eyes. Then he rose to his feet, stepped down from the dias, and crossed the polished wooden floor as silently as a breath. His eyeline barely reached the middle of Asuma's chest, but chakra like a leashed avalanche coiled on the edge of awareness, prickling every sense in the room.

He remembered that chakra.

Sarutobi Hiruzen looked up at him and held out both hands. "Kneel, ANBU."

The formal crouch was down on one knee; a salute in its own right. Asuma sank down on both, straight-backed and silent, and lifted his hands to place them in his father's. His were bigger; the Sandaime's felt stronger.

"Do you, Sarutobi Asuma, son of Sarutobi Hiruzen and Nakamura Tokiwa, voluntarily present yourself for induction into Konohagakure's most sacred and noble service?" Ritual and rite spilled into the words, measured out in the cadence of one oath repeated a hundred times. Of the thousands of men and women who'd taken it before him. "Do you pledge to renounce all ties but this, to your village and her leader, even unto death?"

Asuma licked his lips. "Yes."

"All of Konoha's ninja are my soldiers, but ANBU are my elite." His father's gaze was direct, filled with a strange mix of hurt and pride, but his voice was nothing but the ringing tones of a Hokage. "You are my eyes and ears, my hands and feet. Every mission you take, you will take from me."

Behind the Sandaime, Asuma thought he saw Arakaki's head dip slightly.

"Your work will be the hardest, the ugliest, the most repugnant--and the most noble. You will operate on missions of village security, and missions that will bring Konoha prestige. But your name will not be known. From this day, you will be to the world, nameless. Faceless. When you are in uniform, carrying out my orders, you are Konohagakure's most precious and specialized weapon."

"I was right," said Asuma softly. "It is a cult."

If there was any mirth in the Sandaime's weathered face, it was quickly hidden. His fingers tightened around Asuma's, then released him. "Take this, the face you will present to the world, and swear your allegiance, Agent Sarutobi Asuma."

Arakaki stepped forward, silent as a wraith, and presented the Hogake with something white that gleamed, ever so slightly, under the flickering lights. The Hokage laid it in Asuma's hands.

Painted onto the blank mask was a surrealist rendering of a goat face, sketched in violent black streaks. Despite the Quartermaster's threat, it was anything but neon.

He slipped it over his face and felt his breath curl back from the ceramic.

"Repeat after me," said Arakaki, standing tall at the Hokage's right shoulder. "I am Sarutobi Asuma, ANBU. I have no face but this face."

Voice steady, Asuma echoed him.

"I have no heart, but the heart of Konohagakure."

Despite everything he'd said and done, that had always been true. Asuma repeated it.

"I have no will, but the will of my Hokage."


Arakaki paused. "What?"

Still up on the dias, Homura leaned sideways and nudged Koharu. "Told you," he said. "Hasn't changed a bit."

Asuma slid back to his feet. "I grew up," he said, narrowing a glare at the elders through his mask. "I didn't get stupid. I'll pledge my loyalty and my life, but I won't follow blind. If I did that, I'd be with the rest of the Guardian Twelve right now, waging war on your village." He threw his shoulders back and looked at his father, remembering every fight they'd ever had--and every lesson he'd learned since. "Swear to me that you'll be a true leader, a good one, and I'll take your mask and mark. But I'll still use my damn brain."

Arakaki's expression could have been carved from steel. Asuma clenched his fists, stood his ground, and waited for the knife to slice his throat.

But the Hokage only inclined his head the barest fraction. "The last Inuzuka I swore in said something very similar," he murmured, and lifted his hand to trace the outline of a spiral on Asuma's bare shoulder. "I promised to serve Konoha as best I knew how when I re-assumed this position, and I should hope that your oath long outlives mine. Go take your tattoo, ANBU Sarutobi, the mark is already on you."

Very carefully, Asuma breathed out. Under Arakaki's hawk-eyed gaze and the watchful silence of the village elders, he bowed and touched his closed fist to his heart. It was the Daimyo's salute, but the gesture meant more to him than touching an invisible crimson spiral.

The Hokage nodded again, and Asuma turned to leave before the urge to open his mouth caught up and tackled him.

He almost reached the door, but his father got in the last parting shot.

"You should visit your sister again. I believe she'd like to throw another bouquet at your head."

One of the masked chuunin closed the double doors before Asuma could recover enough to respond.

"Son of a bitch," he muttered finally, half amused, half frustrated, mostly relieved he'd managed to get out alive. He pulled a face at the doors behind his mask, then set out to track down ANBU's version of tattooist. It was probably about time he got a well done one, anyway.
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