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Look to the Center [Satomi] [Feb. 5th, 2012|05:42 pm]
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[[Takes place on November 4]]

Uchiha Satomi argued her way into the office of ANBU’s Director of Operations ten minutes before the Konoha Military Police arrived on her trail. By the time the first of her uncles was renewing the argument with the chuunin in the lobby, she was already seated in a high-backed chair in front of the heavy wooden desk, while a silent-footed secretary served porcelain cups of tea and Arakaki Hisoka flipped through her service file. He didn’t taste the tea. Satomi rubbed her split knuckles and didn’t touch her cup either.

She could hear the muffled edges of the altercation in the lobby: that was Fugaku’s voice, short and sharp, rising above the others, with Yashiro’s a low rumble beneath it. The chuunin’s answers were inaudible. The woman had said Konoha’s Military Police had no jurisdiction in ANBU HQ; ANBU took care of its own. At least, their Sentry Division did, and the Sentries reported to Arakaki. Arakaki reported to the Hokage himself. Satomi hoped like hell that was actually true.

Voices rose. Arakaki turned a page.

“Sir,” Satomi said at last. His dark eyes flicked up to her, unreadable. She set her jaw and forged forward.

“That file’s just more of the same. You won’t find anything in there my summary page didn’t tell you. I’m a jounin, I’ve got the full Sharingan, I’ve been running field recon and combat missions for six years, the only two mission failures I’ve had have half a ream of paper backing them up. I’d be an asset to ANBU under any circumstances.”

“And yet we haven’t recruited you.” Arakaki tapped a finger idly against one close-printed page. “Not everyone has the temperament for ANBU. Talent is not the only factor we look for in an agent, Uchiha-san.” His hand flattened on the page. He looked at her levelly, unblinking.

What did ANBU look for in its agents? Satomi had run into a few of the black-and-bone spooks, out in the wilds of the mission-field, and hadn’t noticed many differences from any other young and reckless shinobi wearing Konoha’s crest. Civilians called them baby-killers or heroes, depending on who they knew or which rumors they listened to. Shinobi, who knew better, seldom talked of them at all.

She had two cousins in the ANBU, or perhaps three. No one spoke of them nearly as often as they spoke of Hatake Kakashi, who’d stolen an Uchiha eye and risen to fame because of it. He was fast and deadly and more than half-crazy, from what Satomi had heard. She debatably fit all three descriptions as well, but that probably wasn’t what Arakaki wanted to hear.

Fugaku’s voice rose in the lobby again. Satomi winced.

“Yes,” she said, as steadily as she could. “I’m running away. From an arranged marriage and a gods-awful family, which is probably the oldest story in the book. But I’m no fifteen-year-old romantic looking for something better. I’m a shinobi, and they want me to be a broodmare. I was damned good at what I did--I’ve gotten into places no one else has, and got out again to make the maps even you ANBU use. I’d have been head of my department in ten years. Maybe five.”

But her grandmother had spoken to the Clan Head, and the Clan Head had spoken to the Village Council, and the Village Council had spoken to Hidetora-san. And that morning when Satomi came into the Cartography office with her latest batch of charts, the division chief had called her into his office to tell her they’d stripped her entire life away.

She clenched her hands in her lap so tight that her split knuckles cracked and bled again. “My family doesn’t control me. Sir. When I put on the hitai’ate I swore an oath to the village and the Hokage, not to my great-uncle or the Uchiha. They’ve taken everything else away from me. But they don’t control you, either. They can’t tell you not to take me, or to keep me safe here in the village, or to send me home with some nice distantly related boy who’ll knock me up inside six months. I’m a ninja. You can let me be one.”

Arakaki’s gaze didn’t waver. It did sweep over her, slow and obvious, cataloguing every detail: the dark hair newly shaved close to her scalp, the gleaming silver bar in her left eyebrow, the rows of piercings marching up her ears. Her jounin flak vest was regulation, but the mesh shirt underneath wasn’t quite. She barely cleared 5’4” on a good day. She was slim and hard-muscled, but no one would ever mistake her for a boy. Damnit, ANBU took women, she knew they did. Maybe she should have taken the piercings out. Nothing she could do about the hair, but it would grow--

The Director’s mouth curved, faintly, just barely a smile. “Perhaps you do have the temperament, Uchiha Satomi. But why are you talking me and not Director Oita? I would have assumed Intel would be your preference.”

Did he give this interrogation to all the boys desperate to throw their lives away? Satomi smiled back. “I broke my fiance’s jaw today. I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed making maps.”

“If that’s the case,” Arakaki said coldly, “then why shouldn’t I allow your uncles to escort you to a holding cell under charges of assault on a fellow shinobi? Surely you don’t think ANBU needs agents who enjoy causing injuries. Especially to their allies.”

She’d misstepped. She didn’t care.

“Uchiha Daisuke was not my ally. He would have been my rapist.” Rape of body, certainly, and with her family’s full consent. Of mind and spirit, no less. Satomi fought to breathe, to keep her voice level and low. “Do you prefer agents who quail in horror every time they lift a kunai? I don’t get off on hurting innocents, but yes, I enjoy winning a fight. I don’t count my kills with a notch on my belt, but I don’t throw up afterwards anymore, either. I want to be a Hunter because I’m good at fighting and I’m sick of being told I can stay at home and paint my pretty pictures if that’s what I enjoy so much.”

She was failing at keeping her voice level. Well, maybe he’d accept passion instead of detachment, anyway.

“You can hand me over to my uncles, and they won’t take me to a holding cell; they’ll take me home, because Uchiha girls with activated Sharingan are too valuable not to breed. Or you can keep the Uchiha off my back, and I’ll be the best damn agent you’ve got.”

Arakaki waited, stone-faced, until she ran out of words and breath. Then he shoved back his chair and stood. “The best? I doubt that. In fact I’d prefer if you weren’t trying to be my best agent. However--”

Satomi held her breath.

“My loyal, competent agent, one who can obey an order even if she doesn’t like it? That would be acceptable. Are you ready, Uchiha Satomi, to become faceless, at times nameless, and to have no will but the will of your Hokage?”

She leapt to her feet.

“Yes, sir.”

Apparently enthusiasm was not desirable either. Arakaki shot her a stern, quelling glance and reached for the door-knob. “Come with me.”

The argument in the lobby grew immediately louder--and louder still, as their hallway intersected with the passage leading from the lobby into the depths of HQ. Fugaku’s bark rose above the fray again. Satomi kept her eyes fixed on the back of Arakaki’s neck and tried not to listen. At least they hadn’t brought her brothers along--

Hell, that was Mamoru calling. “Satomi? Look, you’re making a mistake--just come talk to me--”

The stairway door closed behind her, cutting him off. Arakaki didn’t look back. Satomi didn’t, either.

They took one full flight of stairs and exited at a lower level, beige-carpeted and brightly lit. Arakaki motioned at her, scout-sign, to stay put. He ducked into an office and came out with a mild-faced older man in ANBU blacks and armor. Satomi trailed behind them to another room, much smaller, furnished only with a cheap desk and three folding chairs. The uniformed ANBU settled comfortably behind the desk. Arakaki stayed in the doorway.

“I need to discuss this with Sandaime-sama,” he said. “You can talk to Hideki here about what your taking the oath will really mean. If you still want to join the ranks when I get back, we’ll discuss the particulars of your service then.”

He shut the door. Satomi and Hideki stared at each other.

“Is there a recruiting brochure I should have read?” she asked at last.

He laughed politely. “Not as such. Most of our recruits are contacted in person by Arakaki-san or one of his staff. Or one of the other directors, if they’re headed for Intelligence or Interrogation. There is a slightly more formal application process, but you seem to have skipped the preliminary steps.”

There was a question there, but if Arakaki hadn’t told him already she didn’t plan to.

“What’s the medical package?” she asked instead.

That earned her a sharper glance. He answered anyway, as if he thought she might be serious. “Same as in the outside ranks. Minor injuries or illnesses can be treated by the in-house medics. Konoha Hospital covers everything else. If you’re injured or killed on a mission, we’ll do everything we can to bring you home. Career-ending injuries are covered by a small stipend on top of the regular pension. There’s a bonus for death benefits, too.”

The first time she’d had this conversation, when she swore her oath as a genin and received her hitai’ate, she’d been eight years old. She hadn’t even known what death benefits were.

“What’s the mortality rate?”

For the first time he looked uneasy. “I don’t have access to those statistics.”

“You’re supposed to be persuading me not to join,” she reminded him. “Best guess.”

Something darker than unease shadowed his eyes. “Best guess? Casualties lately average about two a month, dead or permanently disabled. Maybe the same rate, or a little lower, for voluntary resignation. There’s around two hundred Hunters, any given time. Maybe a hundred of those last three to five years--not many make it longer. A third of the rookies don’t make it past six months. It wasn’t as bad when I joined, after the war; in the last few years it’s gotten much worse.”

Close to fifty percent turnover, every two years. That was insane. And unsustainable.

And it was her only chance.

She rubbed the back of her neck, fingers sliding through unfamiliar stubble; her head still felt light and a little cold, after that hatchet job with scissors and a pair of borrowed clippers this morning. Maybe she should have thought a little more about the hair.

But she’d thought about this, more and more over the past few months. It wasn’t just the Military Police. Her uncles would have been after her even if she hadn’t broken Daisuke’s too-chiseled jaw, and her aunts would be worse. The Reconnaissance Division had offered a measure of independence, but she’d still had to come home between missions, for days or sometimes weeks at a time. Still had to fight through argument after argument: female cousins telling her condescendingly that she’d feel differently after the first baby, unmarried male cousins eyeing her breasts and hips. Her grandmother had been encouraging her to retire since she was fifteen.

She looked up at Hideki.

“What are the living quarters like?”

Arakaki came back almost two hours after Satomi ran out of questions to ask. She’d given up on even polite conversation, after a while, and pulled a blank scroll and a pencil out of the buckled scroll-pouches on her vest instead. Hideki didn’t seem to mind if she sketched him, so long as she showed him the finished result. He even pulled a crumple-edged photograph out of his wallet and proudly showed off his two young daughters. Satomi drew them as well, and added a pony for the youngest.

The door opened while she was adding delicate shading to the pony’s fine-boned muzzle. She glanced up, recognized Arakaki’s stern aquiline features, and shot to her feet.

“I haven’t changed my mind,” she said, before he could ask. She shoved the scroll across the table to Hideki and dropped her pencil back in its pouch. Straightened her back, and tried to look as tall and reliable and decisive as she could.

“Good,” Arakaki said. “If you had, you wouldn’t be the kunoichi I believed you to be.”

He caught Hideki’s eye. The other man nodded silently, as he rolled up Satomi’s scroll and tucked it away. Satomi wondered, guiltily, if the pony looked like a bribe.

Presumably not. Arakaki stepped back into the hall, holding the door open. “Sandaime-sama told me he would be pleased to accept your oath--and to defend his choice to the Council, if need be. Come with me.”

She followed, down the hall and around the corner, into a cavernous room crammed with rows of cupboards and shelves and cabinets and chests. At the front, a stocky, grizzled man was bent over a long counter, tongue caught between his teeth in concentration as he painted wavy red lines onto a white porcelain mask.

“Masato,” Arakaki said.

The man glanced up, and Arakaki nodded towards Satomi. “Uchiha Satomi. She’s taking her oath as soon as you have her equipped and in uniform.” To Satomi, he added, “This is our Quartermaster. Trust me when I tell you the first thing you need to know about being an ANBU agent is how to keep on his good side.”

The Quartermaster chuckled, rumbling bass. Arakaki smiled at him. “Send her to my office when you’re done.” They exchanged brief nods, and the door swung shut behind him.

That left Satomi to stand, stiff-backed, under the Quartermaster’s appraising gaze. He eyeballed her up and down, frowning at what was left of her hair. “What’d you do, fall into a weedwhacker?”

“I needed to piss someone off,” Satomi said. “It worked.”

The Quartermaster gave a gruff, reluctant bark of laughter. “Another one with daddy issues, huh? You’re gonna fit right in.” He set the mask down and came out from behind the counter. Pulling a tape measure from his pocket, he looked at her again, narrowly. “Not into any of the armor, mind you. Don’t you eat, girl?”

“I fit better into small spaces this way.” Satomi peeled out of her jounin vest and spread her arms. “Can I paint my own mask?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snorted, whipping the tape along her outstretched arm, then around her breasts. “I ain’t having some purple unicorn running around with the lions and the birds. You’ll get your design an’ like it.”

Satomi had been thinking more along the lines of a roaring dragon in flame-red and gold, but a lion wouldn’t be too bad. She glanced over at the half-finished mask on the counter, as the Quartermaster snaked the tape measure down the inside of her leg. “Looks like you’re working on a tiger. Can I have that?”

The Quartermaster glanced up at her from beneath badger-brindled brows. “Only if you don’t plan on seein’ anything when you wear it. Masks are made to measure, an’ you’re gonna need nice wide eye-holes on yours.” He flicked the tape around her hips and mused, “Last Uchiha I had was a rabbit. Guess I could make you a panda...”

“I’m very good at painting,” Satomi said. “And sneaking in places where I shouldn’t be. I could make the rest of ANBU into purple unicorns.”

“An’ I could make your hide into boot leather,” he retorted, wrapping his tape measure around his fist again. He trotted behind the counter and vanished into the rows of shelves. Things thumped and rattled; the Quartermaster swore. Satomi edged over to glance down at the half-painted mask. The red stripes were fierce and bold on one side, but the other was blank. Her fingers itched. She blinked, spinning the world into monochrome blue, and reached for the brush.

When the Quartermaster returned, arms dripping with gear, Satomi flicked the tip of her brush in a whiskery swoop and held the completed mask up. It was perfectly mirrored, thirteen dangerous stripes on each side of the tiger’s snarling mouth and black-edged eyes. She blinked the world back to color and stillness again and held the mask up beside her face. “You’re right,” she said. “It doesn’t fit. Still certain I can’t paint my own?”

He stopped dead on the far side of the counter, mouth half-open on words that didn’t come, and then dropped the pile of armor with a resounding crash. Beefy hands snatched the mask from her grasp, placed it tenderly back on the counter, and then pitched the next-nearest object straight at her head. It happened to be an open jar of paint-thinner. Satomi dodged left and heard it shatter against the far wall.

The Quartermaster was brick-red with fury. “How dare you?” He seized the pot of red paint from the counter and threw that, too. “You arrogant-- That is my job!” A half-mended boot followed.

Satomi set her teeth and took the boot in the shoulder. “I meant to help. Since you were doing things for me.” And, yes, she’d been showing off, painting with more perfect symmetry than anyone without the Sharingan could hope to do... But it was good!

She glanced resentfully at the snarling mask. Then she stooped, stiff with pride, and picked up the spilled pot of paint.

“My apologies.”

Gods, she sounded just like her grandmother, except that her grandmother never apologized to anyone.

She set the pot down on the newsprint-spread counter. “If you have more turpentine, I’ll strip it down for you again.”

A little of the apoplectic fury drained away. The Quartermaster grunted. “Oh, Buddha’s ballsack, you’re hopeless.” He leaned over, heaved up the pile of armor and gear, and clunked into onto the counter dangerously near the paint pots. “Take your armor and get out, Hunter. If I catch your sticky fingers in my artwork again, I’ll make you eat ‘em.”

She’d apologized once; she wasn’t doing it again. Satomi ducked her head in a short nod and scooped the unwieldy pile into her own arms. A bone-colored ceramic arm-guard tried to escape; the Quartermaster snorted, caught it, and slapped it back on top. Satomi tucked her chin down on top of the wobbling mass snagged up her neglected jounin vest, and turned for the door.

Just as she shouldered it open, the Quartermaster said, “I’ll have your mask in a day.” Only a little of the edge remained in his voice. “Try not to get dead before then.”

“No sir,” Satomi said. “I’ll wait for your revenge.”

She went looking for a place to change. There was a tiny women’s bathroom, tucked away beside the laundry room; it didn’t look as if the floor had been cleaned since the last person bled on it. She ducked into the laundry room instead, which had a load of whites circling in one dryer but was otherwise empty, spread her new uniform out on a table, and began to puzzle it out.

Most of the pieces were easily identifiable. Sleeveless, high-necked shirt; narrow-cut pants, designed to be bound from knee to ankle with thick black bandaging. The shirt was skin-tight, densely woven but still surprisingly stretchy. The pants, thankfully, fit rather looser.

Tight black gloves of the same material, reaching nearly to the biceps. Spike-soled sandals. Bone-white armor, thick and stiff with padding, buckling at shoulder-straps and ribcage and waist. She tugged the straps as tight as they’d go and buckled the long ceramic arm-guards on over her forearms. The utility belt fit snugly around her hips, its three pouches riding low on her waist, while the kunai holster hung in its accustomed place on her right thigh.

And the table was empty. Satomi turned in a slow circle, just to be sure she hadn’t dropped anything. All that was left was her old jounin gear, already looking a little shabby. She transferred a few belongings to her new hip-pouches, then bundled the uniform up and dropped it in an empty dryer, where hopefully no one would bother it.

Send her to my office, Arakaki had said. She drew a deep breath and went.

Sarutobi Hiruzen, Sandaime Hokage, was a busy man. In the time that Satomi waited in a closet-sized antechamber outside the Hokage’s office, rubbing her split knuckles and cataloguing every item in her new med-kit and weapons-pouch, she heard at least three appointments enter and leave again, treading heavily on the nightingale floor. Arakaki had left her once more, with a stern warning to stay where she was. She might be in armor, but she hadn’t taken her oath. If the Military Police caught her, she was theirs.

Fortunately not even the Military Police were hunting through every closet in the Hokage’s Palace. Arakaki came to fetch her at last and lead her past the masked guards into the office she’d entered only twice in her life. Once as a genin, to swear her new oaths; once as a jounin, to receive a commendation for a mission hard-fought and well-done. She didn’t remember being this nervous then.

It was already dark. Beyond the great glass windows the village was a blur of colored lights and reflections. Candles ringed the walls and lit a pathway to the desk but failed to banish all shadows. Satomi wondered if it was intentional.

The Hokage stood alone between two massive candlesticks. Homura and Koharu, Sandaime’s senior advisors, knelt on a raised dais behind him, murmuring to each other as they watched Satomi advance. Arakaki took his place on the Hokage’s left, stone-faced. He was in uniform now, instead of the plain black suit he’d worn the rest of that day; he wore the well-used armor as if comfortable in it.

“Uchiha Satomi.” Sandaime’s voice was quiet, a little thready with creeping age, but still strong. “Or perhaps just Satomi.” He smiled, eyes crinkling along old laughter-lines. “Interesting hair-cut.”

Koharu snorted.

“Thank you, Hokage-sama,” Satomi said levelly. “It was time for a change.”

“That seems to be a theme of late,” he observed. “I’d suggest it was the weather, but we’re late in the year for spring fever.” He regarded her thoughtfully, humor fading from the lines around his mouth. “I trust Arakaki-san has already talked you through the particulars?”

Satomi bent her head. “Yes, Hokage-sama.”

“Then I will not insult you by asking if you have changed your mind. But do you have anything you wish to say or ask before we proceed?”

If she had, she’d forgotten it now. Her mind blanked of everything but trivialities: How do we keep the armor white? Is the uniform machine-washable? What about my mask?

“No, Hokage-sama.”

The silence drew itself out a moment longer, as if he was giving her one more chance. But when he spoke again, his voice was firm. “Kneel, ANBU.”

She sank to one knee, consciously graceful, and placed her hands in the Hokage’s. His palms were cool, skin softened with age but still striped with callus. Standing, she’d been only a little shorter than him--by all reports Sarutobi Hiruzen had never been a tall man, and age had shrunken him. But his hands were still larger than hers, and his thumbs curled gently over her scabbing knuckles.

“Do you, Uchiha Satomi, daughter of Uchiha Junichi and Tokugawa Nanao, voluntarily present yourself for induction into Konohagakure no Sato’s most sacred and noble service? Do you pledge to renounce all ties but this, to your village and her leader, even unto death?”

No one had told Satomi that ANBU was sacred and noble. Rumor called it bloody, dirty, soul-searing. Hideki had spoken of it as deadly. Arakaki had questioned whether she was fit for it, without ever telling her what it was.

She looked at her hands, small and slim-fingered in the Hokage’s blunter grip. They were bloody already, had been since she was ten years old. Who was she to question nobility?

She bowed her head again. “Yes, Hokage-sama.”

“All of Konoha’s ninja are my soldiers,” the Sandaime said, his voice ringing clear with the measured cadences of ritual. “But ANBU are my elite. You are my eyes and ears, my hands and feet. Every mission you take, you will take from me.”

All she wanted. She pressed her lips together and looked up again, into that stern, set face, line-carved with years and scars. The Hokage’s dark gaze snared hers and bore down as inexorably as his voice.

“Your work will be the hardest, the ugliest, the most repugnant--and the most noble. You will operate on missions of village security as well as missions that will bring Konoha prestige. But your name will not be known. From this day, you will be nameless and faceless to the world. When you are in uniform, carrying out my orders, you are Konohagakure no Sato’s most precious and specialized weapon.”

There it was. Ugly and noble, stomach-churning and spirit-soaring. When had the shinobi service ever been any different?

Arakaki stepped down from the dais with a silent, ceremonial tread. He was holding a blank white mask. The Sandaime’s lips curved faintly as he released Satomi’s hands. “Masato refused to be rushed?”

Arakaki lifted his eyes briefly towards the ceiling. “He claims it’s a custom fit. Says this will do as a proxy.” His voice was a low murmur, as though even he refused to disrupt the ceremony. “We’ll get her the official one tomorrow.”

“Very well.” The Hokage took the smooth porcelain mask from Arakaki and held it out in both hands to Satomi. “Take this, the face you will present to the world, and swear your allegiance, Agent Satomi.”

She bowed again, received the mask with both hands, and slipped it over her face. There were no ribbons to tie; the porcelain gripped her skin like a suction-cup pressed to glass, adhering without her conscious effort to the living chakra circulating beneath her skin. No wonder the Quartermaster was so protective of his work on the masks. She breathed experimentally against the cool surface, and felt the warmth of her breath deflected back at her before it dissipated around the edges of the mask. No breath-based Katon jutsu while she wore this, then.

“Repeat after me,” Arakaki said, raising his voice. “I am Uchiha Satomi, ANBU. I have no face but this face.”

She repeated his words in a clear, steady voice, and half-wished they were true. “I have no face but this face. I have no heart but the heart of Konoha. I have no will but the will of my Hokage.” Could wishing make it so? An oath didn’t strip away humanity; words wouldn’t make her into a weapon. She’d have to do that herself.

Arakaki stepped back again, raising his right hand to bared left shoulder in a crisp salute. The Hokage reached out with one finger and traced a double-ended spiral on Satomi’s right shoulder. “Go take your tattoo, ANBU,” he said quietly. “The mark is already on you.”


Satomi drew a deep, unsteady breath. The Hokage’s hand fell away. He stepped back, waiting.

She found her feet. Bowed again, low. Glanced at Arakaki, and then away, wondering if he could track the movements of her eyes within the shadowed holes of her mask.

Her face could not betray her now. She took another breath, giddy with relief, and left the Hokage’s office smiling.

One of her cousins was lurking at the foot of the stairs outside the Hokage’s Palace. He stepped aside automatically as she came down. “ANBU-san,” he said, ducking his head in a polite bow.

Satomi nodded back and passed him in silence.

By the time he remembered he was supposed to be looking for a slim girl with a shaved head, not a pretty Uchiha with shoulder-length hair dyed heart’s-blood red, she was already gone.