The glass-trapped light on Sarutobi Hiruzen’s desk cast soft, flickering shadows on the walls of his office. Paperwork flanked his elbows, waiting to be done—but there was always paperwork waiting to be done. He tapped the haft of an ink brush gently against the scarred surface of the desk, thinking.
There was no knock at the door. Arakaki stepped inside, walking soundlessly across the nightingale floor. He hadn’t brought a bottle of wine with him this time, and Hiruzen didn’t have their customary Go game set up and waiting. There was no room for either, tonight.
“Hisoka,” Hiruzen said, with a nod. “Take a seat.”
Arakaki dropped a stack of folders carefully on the desk, and fell into the empty, leather-bound chair with an unusual lack of grace.
“You know why I’m here,” he said, with a weary sigh. “Have you gotten any updates from the hospital?”
Hiruzen glanced at a half-open file he’d had cause to memorize over the last few hours. Blood transfusions, chakra healings, battled infections, lapses in and out of consciousness. It would take intensive rehabilitation before Sakamoto Ginta’s twice-repaired leg was able to withstand the rigours of missions again. Hatake Kakashi still wasn’t staying awake long enough for a full debrief.
“Nothing that you are not already aware of,” he said. “You interviewed them this afternoon?”
“What were your impressions?”
Arakaki was silent for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “Both men are aware of the severity of their situation,” he said at last. “Neither agent is reconciled to Tousaki's disappearance. I couldn't asses how much of Kakashi's reactions came from his physical state and how much from his emotional one. He was withdrawn and difficult to engage with, but the doctor I spoke to said there was still a significant amount of head injury being treated.”
Hiruzen nodded, noting the way Arakaki referred to the living veteran by his first name, but kept Tousaki Ryouma at a family name distance.
“Ginta was much more alert,” Arakaki continued. “He apologized for his actions, but said he felt he had no choice, and he did not regret them.”
Hiruzen sighed. “That sounds like him.”
“I don’t even know where to begin with him.” Arakaki rubbed his temples as if they ached.
“He acted with compassion and courage—and utterly failed to think through the consequences of his actions,” Hiruzen said, tapping the pen again. “Worse than that, he disobeyed direct orders and involved another agent, not to mention leaving the village while injured.” Which in and of itself was forbidden. Konoha had enough issues with enemies, without feeding injured shinobi directly into their teeth.
"I have no idea what will get through to him,” Arakaki said, and for a brief moment Hiruzen could hear the frustrated harmonics of a father in his voice, except that Arakaki’s recent marriage was still a childless one. “Confine him to the village? Dock his pay? Neither one seems likely to have a lasting effect, and he's a valuable agent. He and Kakashi both. We can't go easy on them just because we need them, but the truth is we do need them, and they know it."
“But we do not need this example to breed like wildfire through the rest of ANBU,” Hiruzen said heavily. “Even with the mitigating circumstances, Kakashi still abandoned a mission. Ginta stole information and passed it on to an agent without clearance. Both of them put their own safety and that of Konoha’s at risk for a single teammate, and while I understand the reasons, I cannot condone the actions.”
Asuma’s words came back to him, angry but truthful. Even your own analysts think Kakashi and Ryouma were a couple—what's wrong with letting the guy look for his boyfriend?"
Everything, when it destroyed three lives instead of just one.
Usually Arakaki was the hard-edged enforcer of rules, and Hiruzen was the one to soften the blow. The one to counsel leniency when there were mitigating circumstances. The one who made it possible for Arakaki to mete out harsh judgment, because he knew there was a backstop.
Not this time.
There was good reason, of course. Several very good reasons, which Hiruzen had just articulated.
“I don’t think a single punishment will fit both men,” Arakaki said. He leaned forward in his chair, stretching knotted back muscles, scowling at the stack of folders he’d brought in. “Ginta’s shown an insubordinate streak for years. It’s no surprise, and I’m sure we can come up with an appropriate response. But Kakashi’s...” He paused, choosing his words carefully. “...Fragile. In all the time he’s served under me, I’ve never known him to take a lover. And we know he has some serious issues about losing teammates. For his first lover in... Ever? Has he ever had a lover who wasn’t a one-night-stand before? To disappear within months of that relationship commencing—disappear, presumed killed—I’m honestly afraid he’ll never recover psychologically.”
A weariness settled over Hiruzen’s features. Weariness and regret. He looked suddenly much older, haunted and worn, and his voice, when it came was slow and rough, as if each word he spoke pained him. "I often think I failed Minato-kun by allowing Kakashi into ANBU so soon after his death,” he said, “but we needed Kakashi’s talent." He set his pen aside, balancing it on the edge of his inkstone, and steepled his fingers, touching them lightly to his mouth. His eyes met Arakaki’s. "I have to trust Kakashi is strong enough to survive this, in the same way he has survived everything else."
Arakaki nodded, gaze straying to the framed portrait of Konoha’s vibrant fourth Hokage. Minato, if he had an opinion on the matter, kept it to himself, looking out from the black-bordered photograph with fierce blue eyes.
“Assuming he recovers from his injuries, I don’t think we can put him back on active service without some kind of assurance from the Psych department that he’s not about to break,” Arakaki said. The words sounded cold to his own ears, but it was the truth. Any breaking jounin was dangerous. The number of ANBU missions that involved chasing Konoha’s own was already unacceptably high. If Hatake Kakashi became one of the hunted, there was no telling how much damage he could do, not only because he was a strong ninja, but because it would send a message to the rest of the troops.
It would be bad for morale.
Hiruzen’s mouth twisted into a wry grimace. “The Psych department does not have the best track record at catching problems before they occur, but I agree. At least it cannot hurt.”
“At least,” Arakaki agreed. He took a deep breath, tipping his head back and hearing his neck crack. He straightened. “We should enforce the same penalty we would for any ANBU who abandoned a mission without cause. He did give the mission desk notice so it could be reassigned. That’s in his favor.”
“Half an hour of warning barely deserves the name,” Hiruzen said. He still sounded tired. Disappointed, perhaps, in Kakashi, and in himself. “But I take your point. I believe the current penalty stands at a fine of a month's wages.”
“Yes.” A month’s wages to a man who spent less than half his pay each month, and had inherited the not inconsiderable Hatake estate, though with all the baggage attached. It wouldn’t hurt Kakashi—he’d barely notice it—but it would send the right message to the rest of ANBU. “So we’ll impose the fine and refer him to Psych for further evaluation. I’ll make the arrangements. He’ll have to pass a psychological as well as a physical fitness exam before he returns to duty when he recovers.”
If he recovers. Which the medics had said was assured. Kakashi’s skull fracture and concussion had been treated in the field within the critical first twenty-four hours. He’d be fine.
Hiruzen nodded and picked up his pen again, tapping it idly on the stack of folders.
“As for Ginta,” said Arakaki. He hissed a long breath through pursed lips. “A months’ pay and house arrest until he is fully recovered. He stays confined to the Sakamoto estate when he is not receiving medical treatment or rehabilitation. With a guard.”
That would get his attention.
Hiruzen paused. After a long moment, he snorted.
“I believe your vindictive streak is showing, Hisoka,” he said, amused. “Are you really that annoyed at the boy?”
Arakaki’s lips twitched, but his answer was purely serious. "If we don't make the point with him now, what will it be next time? Assigning himself his own missions? Endangering not just himself and a comrade, but a whole division? He has potential, Hiruzen, and I'm not entirely sure whether that's a good thing."
Hiruzen looked down at his own ink-splattered fingers, thinking of young men with sharp minds leading sharper lives, where the difference between potential and success was often just surviving.
Surviving and not being a damn fool.
“Time will tell,” he said at last. “But Ginta has already served three years in the mask. He’s running out of time to demonstrate himself as a mature soldier.”
"I'm not ready to give up on him yet,” Arakaki said, surprising him. “Remember Jiraiya at twenty-three? Or yourself?" He chuckled a little, deep in his throat. "Or me."
Hiruzen contemplated that particular memory, now two decades old and a little sepia-toned at the edges, and felt weeks’ worth of tension crack away as he leaned back in his chair and laughed. Arakaki smiled at him, shadow-eyed, but now he was looking for it, Hiruzen could see the younger man still handsome behind silvering hair and deepening lines.
“I recall you being very mature,” Hiruzen said, wiping his eyes. “Particularly when you took it upon yourself to blow up the Hoi An bridge in order to impress that girl—what was her name?”
“Yukomi,” Arakaki murmured.
“I believe that was supposed to be a four-man mission,” Hiruzen said.
“Five, technically,” Arakaki said. “If you count the Intel agent.” He looked a little smug. “She was impressed.”
Hiruzen laughed again. “I don’t doubt. Whatever happened to her?”
“She married Tatami Isamu,” Arakaki said, with a regretful sigh. “They have a son, Iwashi. He's a chuunin already.”
“And how is your lovely wife?” Hiruzen enquired. “Other than missing your presence at home.”
In another man, Arakaki’s look might have been called sheepish. “Yayoi’s fine. Although I’m sure she’s deducting points for every hour past midnight I’m not there. I’ll tell her it was your fault.”
That was not a threat to be taken lightly. Touji Yayoi was a spirited, deadly jounin, twelve years Arakaki’s junior but just as fiercely intelligent as her husband, carving a fine career as a ninjutsu teacher for advanced chuunin classes. The first time she’d been introduced to Hiruzen, she’d manacled a rambunctious student in water chains, and then bowed.
He’d really been quite impressed.
“Then let us keep you no longer than necessary,” he said. “What word of Tousaki Ryouma?”
The vacant side of Arakaki’s shared bed paled in comparison to the empty bed in the empty apartment Tousaki should be occupying. Arakaki leaned closer to Hiruzen’s desk and pushed the blue folder forward. “The latest reports are all in here; there’s no sign of him. The most recent search team turned up absolutely nothing, and from Ginta and Kakashi’s foolhardy excursion we only confirmed what we already knew: he never made it as far as Yukihana and he certainly never set foot in the Dainichi Nyourai Temple bunker. Not since he and his team booby-trapped and abandoned it last August.”
Hiruzen exhaled sharply, irritation showing plainly in his scowl. “It's a shame Ginta didn't steal that piece of Intel before he led them both into a trap.”
When Arakaki ground his teeth, nodding in agreement, the headache that he’d come in with flared back to life despite his painkillers. He shrugged tense shoulders, sighing heavily and rubbing his brow. “Maybe we’re being too lenient. What Ginta did was reckless and inexcusable. He’s lucky we’re not looking at three funerals here, instead of one.”
The bitter words hung in silence.
“Possibly one,” he amended, meeting Hiruzen’s eyes. “Possibly. It’s too early to give up on Tousaki yet. He’s a resourceful man and a skilled ninja...”
Who was in all likelihood never going to be found. Whose funeral in a few months would be held without ashes to bury.
“He is ANBU,” Hiruzen said, in a voice fiercely proud and profoundly sad at the same time. Every one of the three-hundred sworn ANBU agents had taken an oath directly to the Hokage—Hiruzen, or, in a few cases, Minato. The weight of all those lives was a heavy burden, one Arakaki could only partly share. Of course it wasn’t just ANBU lives that rested on the Hokage’s slim shoulders. But still, to be ANBU meant something. They were the sharpest and most lethal weapons in Konoha’s arsenal. Only a fool would count one of them dead without proof...
“But a very young ANBU. It’s a great shame he had no opportunity to pass his jutsu along to another ninja,” Hiruzen said, breaking Arakaki’s train of thought with painful irony. Hiruzen was no fool.
“We should have asked him to allow Kakashi or one of our Uchiha agents to copy them,” Arakaki agreed. “Maybe one of them already did. When Kakashi is recovered enough to be properly debriefed, I’ll make sure he’s asked.”
Hiruzen nodded. “Do so.”
Outside the office, a floorboard squeaked as someone walked by. Arakaki leaned back in his chair and glanced again at the portraits on the wall—Konoha’s founders and leaders, all with the same steel-backed fire in their faces. Was it the same in other ninja villages, with other Kage? Other men or women missing, maybe fallen to Konoha’s blades?
He shook the thought away, there were still things they needed to discuss.
“Kakashi’s summons—Pakkun and Baiji—they more than anyone saved Kakashi and Ginta’s lives. I feel we should find some way to commend them. Also, will you be talking to Sakamoto Chihiro-sama about the house arrest? It is her home we are proposing turning into a prison, after all.”
Hiruzen nodded. “In the morning. She would not thank me for disturbing her at this hour.” He suspected she would not thank him anyway, given that he was returning her grandson to her in shards again. But Sakamoto Chihiro was the widow to one shinobi and the matriarch of more, and she knew the cost of service.
"No, she wouldn’t,” Arakaki said. “The last time we had to send an agent to her house in the small hours, I'm afraid we frightened her half to death. Although it was justified, given Ginta's condition." He glanced at the stack of folders, a handful of young lives tacked down in kanji and mission reports. "At least this time we're not waiting to hear whether either of them will survive."
“This time,” Hiruzen agreed quietly.
"And the next time?” Arakaki said. “I don't doubt Ginta intends to come back from every mission he takes, even when he assigns himself his own, but…" He sucked his lips against his teeth and exhaled sharply, making punctuation out of breath. "But I suppose that's why we are putting Kakashi through mandatory psych evaluation."
“Yes,” Hiruzen said. “And I wish them the best of luck with it.”
Kakashi was difficult to speak to on a normal day, favouring silence and noncommittal yes, Hokage-samas over anything more revealing, as a dutiful shinobi should. And even though Hiruzen had known his parents, taught his sensei's sensei, and watched him grow from a knee-high assassin into a masked and cloaked ANBU veteran, he knew very little of what went on inside the head of the White Fang's only son.
Arakaki snorted wryly, then changed posture, back straightening as he sat up. “Speaking of our illustrious psychiatric department, I received their fitness report for Morioka Kaito. I can't say I'm surprised, but I am disappointed.”
“Oh, that boy,” Hiruzen said, and shook his head. He held up a hand. “That can wait for the morning, Hisoka. You should go home before your wife sends out a hunting party for us.”
Arakaki yawned, which stood alone as an indictment against how tired he was. “I’m sure she’s been asleep for hours.”
Despite his many years as a ninja, Arakaki was very much a novice when it came to married life, Hiruzen reflected.
“As you should have been,” he said firmly. “As I should have been. I’m not as young as I used to be, you know.”
Arakaki eyed him. “If you’re fishing for compliments, Hiruzen, it won’t work.”
“I feel older by the minute,” Hiruzen complained, allowing a little creak to enter his voice. “Very soon I will crumble to dust. In this chair. Wearing this hat. It will be extremely upsetting for the cleaners.”
"Will that be your legacy to your successor? 'This stain on the floor is what remains of our illustrious Third.'" Arakaki chuckled. "Perhaps you should get some sleep, then, since I don't believe there is anyone the Council would agree upon to appoint as Godaime."
Hiruzen hooked a half-smile at the man who lead two-thirds of his ANBU. “I believe that is putting it mildly.” He put his arms up and stretched, voluminous sleeves pouring down to float around his elbows. “Though I seem to have become quite cunning in my later years, as that sounded like agreement. Off with you, Hisoka. And I will expect to hear that you have taken a late morning.”
"Meaning you'll be checking in with Yayoi?" Arakaki smiled and mirrored Hiruzen’s stretch, another yawn breaking through. "Who am I to ignore a direct order backed up with a credible threat?" He reached a hand for the files. "Shall I be disciplinarian once you've spoken to Chihiro-sama, or would you prefer to mete out the punishments yourself?"
Hiruzen placed his hand over Arakaki’s, capturing the files before they could be removed. “It should come from me,” he said. “I owe them that much.”
Arakaki nodded and withdrew his hand. “I understand.”
“You always do,” Hiruzen said, with a faint smile. He flapped his sleeve. “Off, off. To bed with you, before I chase you from the building.
If Arakaki had any objection to being shooed away like a genin, the spark of amusement in his dark eyes gave no sign of it. "I hope you get some rest, too, Hiruzen,” he said quietly, rising. He tapped his shoulder in the ANBU salute, like any one of the two hundred hunters who served beneath him, and walked to the door. He paused with his hand on doorknob. "Thank you."
“Goodnight, Hisoka,” Hiruzen said.
Arakaki nodded and slipped silently away.
In the lamp-lit shadows, the quiet wrapped around Hiruzen’s shoulders like a cloak. He pulled the uppermost file closer and flipped it open, looking down into the striking smile of the young man in the ID photo. Tousaki Ryouma, twenty-three years old and unlikely to get any older, ANBU hunter for six months.
He’d stood in this same room, tall and straight-backed, and taken his mask and his oath with ringing pride, believing every word. Promising to be the soul and sword of Konoha. The mask had been a ram, Hiruzen remembered, with stylized red horns curling at the temples.
Lost, now, just as much as the boy who’d worn it.
Hiruzen picked up his ink-brush, set the hilt gently between his teeth, and read until the dawn stretched pale fingers through his window.