Raidou was not Sakamoto Ginta's friend. He knew the kid, sure, in a nod-amicable-greetings-in-the-hallway kind of way, but not much beyond that. They'd never run a mission together, or done more than acknowledge that they had Genma in common -- and really not even that.
Manipulative little shit.
Who dropped off an important-looking scroll with a buddy and told them not to open it because they were such good friends? Seriously. Bastard.
"He is aware that you're a ninja, right?" Raidou asked, deadpan. "Trained to lie, steal, cheat, and generally be a moral cul-de-sac? Because clandestine messages from injured shinobi in mission gear does not inspire mutual trust in me." Off Genma's slightly frazzled look, he added, "I'm just saying."
"Yeah," Genma agreed reluctantly. "I know. So maybe he wants me to open it. He's obviously about to do something stupid."
He looked down at the scroll in his hand, fingers hesitating on the heavy paper.
Raidou raked a hand through his own hair. "Look at it this way: if it's a laundry list of Arakaki's personal faults, you can reseal it and no harm done. But if it's... I don't know, a hit-list of Suna council members he's about to knock off, at least we'll have some warning."
"You think he's breaking?" Genma said, brow furrowed, which told Raidou exactly how worried he was; Genma only got hyper-literal when his thoughts were gyroscoping around potential catastrophe. "Ginta's not the kind of guy to go mission suicide or anything, especially after what he just came back from. But… I guess if he were gonna break, he'd go supernova. And he's squirrelly enough he might actually send Arakaki a note explaining it all… "
He hesitated. Raidou stayed silent.
"Fuck," Genma finished. "Yeah. I better open it." He wedged the scroll between his splinted arm and his ribcage, using his unbound hand to poke the seal with a senbon. "I don't think it's trapped or anything, but you should probably stand back."
Under pretense of moving to one side, Raidou stepped in close and popped the scroll out of Genma's hold. Before Genma had the chance to jab him with the senbon, he flicked the seal open and offered the scroll back.
"What?" he said. "It's not like I can get any more scarred. You could've blown a thumb off."
Genma gave him a narrow-eyed look of mingled irritation, annoyance, and something almost like affection. "Or next time we could make a clone to do it."
"Clones are less romantic." Raidou twitched the scroll. "Seriously, read the thing. I'm dying to know what it says."
Genma gave Raidou another hooded, slightly fond look. "Idiot. Here, hold the end, then," he instructed, and shook the scroll open. Raidou reached over and took the free flap, pulling it so the creamy paper spooled out from the winding cylinder in Genma's right hand.
Genma read the short note quickly, scowled, and read it over once more, then looked up to find Raidou studying him.
"Well?" Raidou said.
"The rookie's missing. Ryouma. And Ginta and that Hatake bastard are going AWOL together to track him. At least that's what it looks like." He gnawed on his senbon. "Fuck."
Raidou took a step to Genma's side, and read the note over Genma's shoulder. "Guess that explains why it's been so quiet next door," he said. He dragged a hand along his jaw, rubbing the edge of the tape securing the bandages to his cheek, and blew out a long breath. "Goddammit. Exactly how injured was Sakamoto?"
"Bad," Genma answered. He flicked a look at Raidou. "Last time I saw him he was still in a cast and on crutches, but he didn't have either just now. For all I know that idiot cut the cast off himself." He shook his head and glared at the note. "Hatake probably talked him into it."
"Hatake?" Raidou asked with a pursed-lip scowl of doubt. "The loner extraordinaire?"
"Yeah. The situation with them was... I told you about that, right? Maybe I didn't. Ginta only sorta hinted at it, but from what I gathered from scuttlebutt, it was a sort of messy love-triangle. Ginta was friends with Ryouma from way back, or something like that, then Ginta and Kakashi had a mission or two and there was some chemistry, and then our straight-boy rookie turned out not to be that straight after all..." He caught Raidou's eye with a dry chuckle. "Guess that's going around?"
Raidou threw him a lopsided grin. "Must be something in the water."
"Must be," Genma agreed, and leaned into Raidou's shoulder. "Anyway, so Ryouma seduced Kakashi, because I'm about certain it didn't go the other way. Hatake doesn't have a seductive bone in his body. And then the rookie had that mission with Tsume that went to such complete hell. And Kakashi was on the rescue team for that, and then he was on the retrieval team for Ginta on his mission that went bad at the same time as ours..." He paused, stared past the scroll, past Raidou. "Kage's balls, it sounds like a fucking soap opera plot or something. Or karma. Really intense karma."
One day, when he had much more time on his hands, Raidou was going to find out why his partner hated Kakashi so much.
"Okay, immortal-soul issues aside, we've got three guys with twisty loyalties and a buttload of injuries out in the woods together, looking to get killed." Well, two guys. By the look of things, Tousaki was already dead, and that was a clusterfuck of karmic crap right there.
Raidou sighed. He'd liked Tousaki.
"You have to hand that scroll in," he said. "Even if Sakamoto and Hatake stand a chance of surviving, this whole thing's got political stamped all over it."
Genma nodded, but made no move to get going. "Political because it's them, or do you know something about the rookie's mission I don't?"
"Political because it's a dead ANBU kid and when's that not political?" Raidou said, mouth flat. "But mostly because I'm just weighing the odds."
Genma's wince suggested agreement, but he said, "We don't know for sure he's dead. When's the last time we saw him? Right when we got home from the hospital?"
"Yeah, about that. Which was what, three weeks ago?"
"Yeah. Shit." Genma vented a heavy sigh, eyes darting towards the wall, as if he could see Ryouma's room through Raidou's. "Stupid rookies. If he's missing three weeks…" He sighed again. "I don't want to get Ginta hunted for this, though. He's being stupid, not disloyal."
"He's being both. Him and Hatake. If they're bulling straight into a trap, they'll be in a damn sight more trouble than just pissing off Arakaki." Raidou bumped Genma's shoulder. "I know he's your friend, but he's your teammate first and we've--"
"Got a duty," Genma finished, sounding tired. "I know."
"C'mon." Raidou re-furled the scroll, stowed it in his back pocket, and slid his fingers gently around Genma's uninjured wrist. Like a hand-hold, except not at all. "I'll go down with you."
Two hours later, Morino Ibiki was in a one-on-one briefing with ANBU Director Arakaki. He had a stack of folders and scrolls in front of him: personnel files for Tousaki Ryouma, Hatake Kakashi, and Sakamoto Ginta; copies of the briefing materials Tousaki had received for the mission he'd not returned from; a trio of reports from the search teams that had gone out looking for Tousaki; maps of Fire Country, Coal Country, and Snow Country; and a contact dossier for a Konoha-friendly fisherman in the Coal Country port town of Kuroihama.
"You understand the reason you were selected for this mission?" Arakaki asked.
"Yes, sir." Ibiki sat at something like attention, meeting the director's gaze.
Arakaki looked steadily at Ibiki with an air of expectancy. When Ibiki didn't elaborate, the director raised an eyebrow. "I see Shida's got you well-trained in the art of keeping your cards to yourself. Restate for me, Agent Morino, your understanding of your mission."
"This case is being handled as a joint operation between Intel and Hunters due to the high-profile of the principles. Agents Sakamoto and Hatake are not suspected of treason, but are nonetheless to be taken into custody and returned to Konoha. Agent Tousaki is..." Ibiki hesitated.
"You may speak freely," Arakaki said.
"Most likely deceased," Ibiki continued, choosing his words carefully. "But if any information to confirm or refute that assumption can be gained, that is a secondary objective. Primary, however, is the safe return of Hatake-san and Sakamoto-san."
Arakaki nodded. "And we know where they're headed. You don't get seasick, do you, Morino?"
"Not to my knowledge, sir," Ibiki said. "I tend to have a strong stomach."
"Good. You'll travel overland to Kuroihama, and from there by boat to Hima on Snow Country's coast, then inland to Himawara Pass and the village of Yukihana. Presuming Hatake and Sakamoto are following Tousaki's trail through the mountains, you should be able to intercept them in Yukihana."
"If we find evidence they've crossed into Lightning Country?" Ibiki asked.
The look on Arakaki's face suggested just how much of a mess that might be. "Send word back here, and pursue. But let's hope it doesn't come to that," the director said.
Ibiki nodded. "When will my mission partner be ready?"
"He should be here now," Arakaki said, glancing at his watch. "He was briefed separately."
"Do I have any information that he should not?" Ibiki asked carefully. He folded the maps and put them into a pocket, but left the dossiers on the desk.
Arakaki gave him another one of those penetrating stares before he answered. "You're definitely Shida's man. And no, there is nothing material. You and he were briefed separately for expedience."
'Expedience' wasn't the watchword in the Third Hokage's office chambers. Currently, it was 'shouting'.
"This isn't an organization, it's a parade of fucking madness!" Asuma yelled, waving the third dossier he'd snatched from his father's desk. "Look at this! Capture, torture, dead teammates, more torture, bloody rapists running around attacking people in the showers--"
"You are blowing things out of proportion," Sarutobi Hiruzen said calmly. "Again."
Asuma yanked a second folder from under his arm, flipped to a page at random, and read, "August 19th, Agent Sakamoto found it necessary to remove the eyelids of Tochigi Ayaka in order to facilitate her husband's cooperation..."
The hokage tapped his lips and regarded the ceiling. "Ah, yes. I remember that. Her husband had planted a bomb in a civilian school--"
"Eyelids, dad! Ginta cut some lady's eyelids off because you don't have the funding spare for a team of negotiators!"
"We have many diplomatic envoys on stand-by." There was a certain quality of weariness to the Hokage's voice.
"January 2nd," Asuma read, returning to first dossier. "Agent Hatake suffered severe blood loss during the retrieval of Agent Fukai, who abandoned Konoha after learning of his eldest son's death in the field. Agent Hatake was required to remove Agent Fukai's right arm--"
Asuma tossed the dossier back onto the desk. "'Agent Hatake' was seventeen, Dad. Ginta was nineteen when he was slicing that lady's face apart. You have kids doing your dirty work, and now you want me to go out there and drag these poor bastards home because their friend vanished? Even your own analysts think Kakashi and Ryouma were a couple -- what's wrong with letting the guy look for his boyfriend?"
The Hokage slammed both hands down on his desk. "Because they are putting Konoha at risk!"
"They're trained agents!" Asuma shot back. "Since before puberty, apparently."
The Hokage's eyes narrowed, creased with lines at the corners. He looked tired -- but he always looked tired, and Asuma wasn't planning to care about it today. After six months in ANBU's sweatbox, Asuma mostly wanted to know what drugs his father was on.
"Will you do your duty as an on-call agent and run this mission?" the Hokage asked, voice scraping soft. "Or will I have to turn it over to someone less sympathetic?"
"Oh, you bastard," Asuma said, just as softly. "You know Ginta's my buddy. Twisty as a broken corkscrew, but still a good guy. I'm not letting you send some-- shower rapist out on his trail."
There was the faintest suggestion of a wince in the shadows of the old man's face.
"Go meet your mission partner," the Hokage instructed. "We'll discuss the rest of this when you return."
"You're damn right we will. I'll try my best not to slice off any eyelids in the meantime." Asuma turned on his heel, ANBU-issue sword thumping between his shoulderblades, and stomped out of the room. The guards gave him the strapped-down looks that passed for the ninja version of startled, but saluted as he went past.
"Oh, don't even," Asuma snarled at them, going for a cigarette as he headed for the stairs.
When the door to Arakaki's office slammed open, both occupants' heads snapped up. The director's hand held a black-bladed tanto that Ibiki hadn't seen him draw, and Ibiki's own hands were crooked into the first sign for a defensive jutsu. The agent that came through the door, red-faced and scruffy, paused to give the director a cool look.
"Overdramatic much?" he asked.
Arakaki put his weapon down. "Incautious much, Agent Sarutobi? And please do not smoke in my office."
Ibiki gave the new man a quiet, appraising look. Sarutobi Asuma didn't really look all that much like his father, but the voice.... If you stripped out the eerily calm strength that usually underlay the Hokage's speech and traded it for this raw-but-controlled aggression...
It looked like Asuma had just come from a week in the field if you judged by the state of his beard, but his armour was, on closer inspection, clean and relatively new.
Asuma blew a long stream of smoke through his nose. "What, like you have cancer to worry about?" His eyes ticked from Arakaki's face to Ibiki's. "You must be my T&I guy. Let's go, creepazoid."
Ibiki raised one eyebrow at the greeting, and smiled serenely when Arakaki sent a thin stream of water jetting across the room to douse Asuma's cigarette.
"Morino Ibiki," he said, offering no bow. "And it's Intel, actually. T&I is a subspecialty. Would you like to stop in the men's room and dry your face before we go?"
Asuma snorted, swiped a hand across his face, and flicked his cigarette butt onto Arakaki's desk. "Sure you don't want to wipe the brown off your nose first?"
Ibiki's expression didn't waver. Inwardly, though, he rolled his eyes. Really? Did his mission partner for this highly complex, delicate, politically-sensitive mission have to be a blue-blood with a chip on his shoulder?
"Get the hell out of my office, Agents," Arakaki said tightly. He used a pair of pencils like chopsticks to pluck the offending cigarette from his desk. "You've got your instructions."
Ibiki saluted, figertips to bare shoulder, touching the ANBU mark. "Assuming you got the same briefing I did, " he said to Asuma, "we should leave by the east gate." He didn't wait for an answer before he translocated away.
Asuma barked a laugh that made Arakaki's eyebrows arch. "Oh, he's just a peach. What rock did you find him under?"
"Sub-basement one," Arakaki said, with a slight edge. "I'm sure he likes you already, too."
"Sub-base--" Asuma broke off. "One of Shida's clowns? On a retrieval? Buddha's flaming crotch, Arakaki, you're getting as cracked as my old man. D'you just not like your agents?"
Arakaki's stare was flat and dead, lizard-like. "Use your head, Asuma, and try to think of some reason other than torture that I might have selected that particular agent for this particular mission."
"I'm gonna to start with 'covering your ass' and work my way from there," Asuma drawled, before his brain could intervene. "You really wanna try getting yourself laid, boss-man. Then maybe you'd see it coming when your agents go AWOL for each other."
He yanked his chakra close, twisted the seals, and translocated out of there. He'd pay for it later, probably with a month's worth of missions in Swamp Country, but hell, it was worth it. No one else would say it.
Ibiki wasn't at the east gate, but there were fresh footprints leading towards the forest, obvious as an insult. Asuma rolled his eyes and followed, sparking up a fresh cigarette.
He'd barely gotten two drags when Morino 'I'm such a perfect agent' Ibiki's broad back hove into view. The man shouldn't have been subtle, what with the ridiculous height, shiny-slick ponytail, and magpie armour -- but he blended somehow. Melted into shadows, even in the daylight. Even at a dead-run.
Asuma wolf-whistled at him. "Wait up, fancypants. I've got some questions with your name on 'em."
Ibiki slowed, suppressing the shudder that Asuma's whistle sent up his spine. His lips parted in disgust, hidden behind his mask. Was the Hokage's son another faggot? It was bad enough that the three men they were chasing — two, and a corpse, logic told him — were queers. This was exactly why it was a bad idea not to screen for that sort of thing.
"It's Ibiki," he said, when Asuma had caught up level with him.
Asuma was maskless, smoking as he jogged, with something other than a Konoha hitai-ate knotted bandana-style around his head, and wearing a dark blue steel bracelet on each long-gloved wrist. The bracelets looked like they might actually be functional as shields or weapons, given their weight, but they didn't do much to convince Ibiki of Asuma's manliness, especially when they clacked against his wrist guards.
Ibiki pushed his own mask off and gave Asuma a flat look. "Questions?"
Asuma grinned through his smoke, toothy and bright, like he was enjoying himself. "Yeah, Shida's boy," he said. "You prefer sunsets or long walks on the beach?"
This Ibiki knew what to do with. This was more of the same old shit from an agent who'd never set foot in the sub-basement or considered how the information gained in interrogation might have saved his damn life a time or two.
It was the same old shit he got from subjects trying to ruffle him.
"Questions that are relevant to the mission at hand?" he clarified.
Asuma's smile didn't falter, but his face from the mouth up took on a much more sober expression. "Fair play," he said in a lower voice. "How about this — you know either one of our boys, or is this just a day in the life for you?"
"I've met Sakamoto — he lives near me — his apartment at HQ," Ibiki answered. "Not his family home. And I've been in a few classes he was in, but no, I don't actually know him or Hatake personally. You?"
"Ginta's a buddy. I met Kakashi once or twice as a kid, but he probably won't remember much." Asuma looked sidelong at Ibiki with a slight scowl, and suddenly Ibiki saw the resemblance — this was the Hokage's son. And given Sakamoto's lineage — of course they knew each other. That certainly explained why Asuma was on this mission.
"You live where, exactly?" Asuma said with an edge of a challenge. "'Cos I'm Ginta's neighbour, and I've never seen you skulking about."
"Apartment 327, next to the elevators. If you live near there I'm surprised I haven't seen you before, either. But I'm surprised to see you at all, frankly. Rumor had you out of the country."
"I'm surprised you listen to rumour," Asuma tossed back. "I thought you ghouls liked your facts straight."
Ibiki liked everything straight, if his flinchiness was any clue.
"Rumour is a fertile hunting ground for facts," Ibiki said serenely, with the faintest hint of a lethal smile edging his mouth.
"The last three rumours I listened to about me said I was a traitor, a deserter, or dead," Asuma pointed out. "I was very upset to find out I was dead. You think someone would've mentioned it sooner."
Ibiki's gaunt, scarred face looked slightly cheered by the idea. Or perhaps that was just the shadows from the trees. "That's an excellent rumour to have circulating," he said, sliding his lizard-mask back into place. "Gives you the element of surprise."
Asuma snorted a stream of smoke. "Ever run into an angle you couldn't play?"
"I try to avoid them," Ibiki said, shrugging; Asuma raised his eyebrows. "I take it playing angles is one of your hobbies?" the interrogator went on.
"Avoiding psych-reviews is one of my hobbies," Asuma returned. "Keep your sticky little fingers out of my brain, chuckles."
"It's not your brain I'm interested in. It's Hatake's and Sakamoto's. They probably took the straight path to the pass." Ibiki's head cocked, dark eyes almost invisible in the slits of his masks. "How fast can you run?"
"Fast enough," said Asuma, flicking his cigarette away. The trail ahead of them was sun-dappled and dusty, flanked by Konoha's massive trees. "But we'll never catch them in a straight run; not with their head start."
"I know. That's why we're going to Kuroihama, instead."
"We're taking a boat? Nice."
"When we get to Kuroihama, yes," Ibiki confirmed. There was just the faintest edge of scorn in his voice, as if he didn't think Asuma was taking this all that seriously. "I take it you didn't actually read your briefing notes?"
"I skimmed." He'd read enough to provoke a shouting match with the Hokage. That had to count for something. "The footnotes were interesting."
"There weren't any footnotes."
"Well, the pictures then."
"There weren't any--" Ibiki cut himself off, drew a long breath, and trebled his pace from a jog to a run.
Asuma tipped his head, watching the flex of the man's ass beneath white armour and black underpinnings. It was a good ass: flat and muscled and attached to some very nice legs, but it still did exactly nothing for Asuma. Which was a shame, really, because he suspected he could make the next several hours very uncomfortable for Ibiki if it did.
Well, there was still hope.
Grinning, Asuma sped up.
Four hours into their run, they stopped to drink a full canteen of water each, and to gulp down ration bars as if they actually enjoyed them. Ibiki was mildly surprised to see Asuma had chosen the same cinnamon-apple bars as himself. And then, of course, while Ibiki checked the compass and a map, Asuma smoked.
They pressed on.
As long as they were running flat out, Asuma was actually a fairly decent traveling companion. He was good at picking level terrain when he was in the lead, and a champion trail eraser when he was bringing up the rear. He had good instincts about when to switch rolls, and he kept up well, despite what had to be seriously compromised lungs from all those cigarettes.
He was also still an ass whenever he opened his mouth, but thankfully there wasn't much time for talking.
They crossed into Coal Country at the narrowest point of the slender country, in a terrain of rolling limestone hills overlying the mines the country was named for. The soil was a clay-like yellow-tan, muddy from recent rains, and the deciduous woods covering the countryside were in full riotous young leaf, just a week or so behind Konoha's foliage. Then it was a steady down-slope run, avoiding villages and towns as they got closer and closer to the coast.
The sun was down by the time they reached the seaport village of Kuroihama, famous for its black sand beaches and giant clams, giving the Konoha shinobi shadows to hide in. They stopped by mutual agreement at a terraced graveyard at the southern edge of the town. Asuma picked the lock on a gardener's shed while Ibiki kept watch, then they slipped inside to regroup.
"Our rendezvous is with a fisherman named Asano," Ibiki said. "But not until 2200." He checked his watch. "So we have almost an hour. We're meeting him in a dockside pub called Maitake. He'll know us by our blue hats." A flicker of chakra and the simplest of genin-level illusions had Ibiki looking like a bearded, pony-tailed crab fisher in a heavy sweater and a blue knit cap. "But obviously you already knew that, since you read the dossiers."
"Obviously," Asuma said with a grin. He cast his own henge, clothing himself in an identical navy cap, a red plaid shirt, and grubby jeans with heavy work boots. The bracelets, Ibiki noticed, stayed. Asuma's grin broadened into something midway between friendly and predatory, and he touched the edge of his illusory hat. "Hello, sailor. Shall we hit the bar?"
Ibiki's instinctive recoil sublimated into a faint stilling of the face, a narrowing of the eyes. And even that was too much. He could see Asuma had read him like a book, by the laughter in the other man's eyes.
Shida would call Ibiki ten kinds of a fool for that transparency.
"We can get dinner down there, while we wait for Asano," said Ibiki, following the ages-old recovery plan of pretending the lapse had never happened. Without another word, he led the way down to the docks, and the rough-hewn little pub full of sailors and dock workers where they were to meet their transport.