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Fire in the Mountains[Aug. 28th, 2017|09:57 pm]

[Begins June 28, Yondaime year 5, three days after Hard Came the Rain]

Kurenai found Yamashiro Aoba in the Fire Country division office breakroom, stirring the third sugar packet into his paper cup of coffee and looking like microwaved death. She cleared her throat. "Have you been home in the last forty-eight hours?"

He startled, saw her, and slumped against cabinets. "Don't tell me you're here with a mission."

"Not for you." She tapped the heavy file folder tucked in her arm. "We've got a briefing scheduled for an ANBU team, but no one's seen them at HQ or the barracks. Shiranui's file says he lives with you."

A little light crept back into Aoba's eyes. "As long as I'm not going with them." He discarded the stir stick and took a long swig of coffee. "Genma finally found a new place. He's probably there working on his plumbing."

"That may be the first time you've used that word without intending a euphemism," Kurenai observed. "Do you know where the new place is?"

Aoba's eyes narrowed. "Are you doing the briefing?"

"Since Riei's busy." Shirotani seemed to have fixed on Kurenai as the ANBU Team Six expert, and Tomo and Hide were glad to dodge the duty again. Kurenai hadn't protested. She didn't exactly mind being the ANBU Team Six expert, especially if it got her out of the office early on a glorious summer evening.

She said, "I can requisition you as an escort. Get you off duty before someone drops another mission on you. Unless, perhaps, you've got more paperwork waiting…?"

Aoba dropped to his knees, deftly not spilling his coffee. "You're really one of Genma's bodhisattva, aren't you? Get me out of here and I'll convert right now."

"I deal in favors, not worshippers." But she offered him a hand up. "I'll stop by the division office and let them know I'm taking you. Meet me in the lobby in five?"

It turned into nearly ten, with Tomo's last-minute additions from the maps office, but Aoba was still waiting when Kurenai made it down. He was out of uniform, looking a little less drained in jeans, a swamp-green tank, and dark sunglasses. Photosensitive eyes, Kurenai remembered. Not doujutsu-related, so far as anyone knew. Perhaps he just thought the glasses made him look suave.

"We're heading for the merchant district," he announced as they started off. Apparently Genma had wrangled a too-good-to-be-true deal on a fixer-upper loft over a warehouse. Aoba'd been by when Genma first looked at the place, and was willing to agree that it had potential. "Or at least, potential for him to sleep somewhere other than my couch." He slanted a quick, sideways glance at Kurenai behind his glasses. "He didn't bring the orgy home, did he?"

Kurenai kept her face smooth. This was the game between Intel agents, at any moment of the day: How much does he know? What can I learn from him? "You sound disappointed. Were you expecting one?"

"Hoping for. Expecting. They're not exactly the same thing." He stepped easily out of the way of a pair of charging genin, his mouth set in something too smug for a smile. "Did you like the shirt I gave him?"

Kurenai let her gaze slide slowly over him, shoulders to waist. "It fit him better."

"So you liked how it fit him," Aoba parried. The smirk widened. "What did you wear?"

"A dress made from the skins of slaughtered men," Kurenai said calmly. "I'm sure you can imagine."

Aoba's throat bobbed. He looked like he was, indeed, imagining.

The merchant district wasn't far. A light breeze came off the river, carrying the shouts of dockworkers, but Aoba veered up a side street toward a traditional two-story warehouse. Its upper windows were flung open to catch the breeze. Faint music drifted down — fast, with a heavy bass beat. Kurenai crossed the street toward it.

Aoba led the way behind the building, to a back entrance and a narrow flight of stairs. The music was louder here. One song ended and another began with a skitter of guitar notes before the drums kicked in; the volume suddenly redoubled, as if in response to a favorite, and then shut off completely. Voices raised overhead.

Aoba looked intrigued. "I guess the rookies are here." He swung open the door at the top of the stairs. Kurenai peered around his shoulder.

The loft ran the whole length of the warehouse, polished wood floors and slatted rice-paper windows. There was an enclosed bathroom at one corner, and a well-fitted kitchen nearer the center. One set of shoji screens had come up to frame out a sleeping space.

Raidou crouched inside with a measuring tape, moving swiftly, calling out numbers. Genma recorded measurements in a small black book. Both of them were shirtless, skin shining beneath old scars. Genma's hair was tied back in a short tail. Raidou's jeans sagged under the weight of a heavy tool-belt.

Conscious of Aoba beside her, Kurenai looked for Kakashi instead.

He was fully dressed at least, sprawled beneath a ceiling fan among a welter of books and flashcards. Ryouma was beside him, curled protectively over a battered stereo. They'd been arguing, but fell silent as the door opened. Kakashi hadn't moved, but Kurenai didn't doubt he could have been at the door, with a kunai in his hand, before Aoba crossed the threshold.

"I don't care which band you play," Raidou said, without looking around. "Just choose one and stick with it, or you're both going on the roof."

"Shuriken Force," Ryouma said, stubbornly. But he put the stereo down without hitting play and got to his feet in one long stretch of sun-brown skin. Without the excuse of heavy labor he'd kept his shirt on, a black tank over cut-off shorts. There was something to be said for ANBU muscle.

"Thought your guys finished the debriefing," he said to Kurenai. "Something come up?"

Kakashi sat up, slowly, his narrowed eye fixed on Aoba.

Raidou came out of the shoji room. "Make it twelve and a half," he told Genma, and grinned at Kurenai. "Come to join the housewarming?"

Genma jotted down the number, tucked the book into his back pocket, and stuck the pencil behind his ear. "Is this a briefing or an intervention?" He told Raidou, "This is my friend Yamashiro Aoba, from Intel."

"Should we be intervening?" Kurenai inquired. "I'd have brought something for housewarming if I'd known you were this far along. Aoba seemed to think you'd still be wrestling with plumbing."

"Plumbing and electrics are done, and thanks to my team, so is the roof and the floor." Genma crossed over toward them, beckoning. "Come on in, there's cold barley tea in the fridge. Aoba, did you just get home? I know you missed me, but I wouldn't have minded if you took a nap first."

Aoba dismissed the very concept of naps with a careless hand. "That's what coffee's for. Who fell through the floor? I told you this place was a death trap."

"The landlady's contractor," Ryouma said, a little too quickly. "We fixed it." He was watching Aoba now too, hackles raised.

Aoba paused, took his sunglasses off, and stared distrustfully at the dark-stained wood. "Someone really did fall through the floor?"

"And the roof," Genma said cheerfully, pulling two cans of barley tea out of the refrigerator. "Broken leg, but he'll recover, and I get the place rent-free until January for making the repairs."

Kurenai accepted the tea. "And your team?"

"We're the free labor," Kakashi said.

"You know Hatake," Genma told Aoba. "This is Namiashi Raidou-taichou, and that's Tousaki Ryouma, our other rookie. Why are you really here?"

"You already said it." Aoba popped the tab of his tea and smirked. "I missed you. Also Yuuhi-san got me out of work early to be her tour guide to the warehouse district."

They had all politely been ignoring the heavy folder tucked under Kurenai's arm, but the moment couldn't be put off much longer. She held it out to Raidou. "Next time, tell the HQ front desk where you're going. Messenger hawks can't find you indoors."

Raidou ducked his head sheepishly, rumpling a hand through his sweaty hair, and took the folder. He flipped through it quickly. Paused, frowned, and read back. Then, baffled, he said, "Someone's stealing the Daimyou's sake?"

Genma blinked, and peered over his shoulder.

Aoba laughed. "That's what was so urgent?"

Kurenai sighed. "Sometimes, Konoha accepts missions vital to the security of the village or the nation. Sometimes, we accept missions that pay really well. And sometimes those have something weird going on. You—" she pointed a polished finger at Raidou—"have a reputation for dealing with, and I quote, 'weird shit.'"

"After three missions?" Raidou protested.

"We killed a demon queen," Ryouma said.

"And infiltrated Kirigakure for the first time on record," Kakashi added judiciously. "To rescue a blue baby."

Well, the infiltration hadn't been entirely Team Six's work, but Kurenai had to grant them the blue baby.

"Wow," Aoba said, almost admiringly. "You suck at protecting classified information, Hatake."

"You don't have clearance?" Kakashi drew a kunai. "Yuuhi, bar the door."

Kurenai folded her arms.

"Down, Hatake," Genma said. "No bloodshed on my new floors. Besides, I'm sure you know he has clearance, or you wouldn't have said anything." He pushed a can of tea into Raidou's free hand and opened his own. "And Aoba, quit being an ass."

Ryouma cleared his throat. "What about the mission?"

"Was your last team prone to getting the 'weird shit' missions, too?" Genma asked Raidou. "You could have warned us this was a karmic thing for you."

Dear gods, they were distractable. Maybe it was the warm day, the hard work, companionship, young men turning playful off mission. Maybe they'd been drinking something harder than tea...

Kurenai said, "There's an expense account."

"Onsen," Ryouma said immediately, like a prayer. Kakashi glanced at him and then away, holstering his kunai; his masked face had gone impressively blank, like hope quickly hidden.

Not supposed to want things on missions, Kurenai translated.

Genma raised a brow at Aoba; Aoba shrugged and shook his head. Raidou merely looked wary. He paged through the mission brief again, reading more closely this time. "Okay, where's the catch?"

"Politics," Kurenai said, wryly. "Tanigawa village is widely known to produce the best sake in six countries; it's supplied the Fire Country Daimyou for generations. But the spring delivery went up in flames in Hikouto, and now all the casks that were supposed to be maturing over the summer in Tanigawa have gone missing."

Kakashi's brow drew down. "Demons?"

Genma winced. Aoba fluttered his hands in mock horror. "Oh no, not the sake. Genma, stay calm, I'm sure there are other breweries."

"Thieves seem more likely," Genma told Kakashi, sparing barely an eyeroll for Aoba. "Maybe some syndicate got wise about it being the Daimyou's favorite sake and are holding the autumn batch for a ransom."

"Or stole it so they could deliver a poisoned batch later," Ryouma suggested. "Though, poisoning it in the casks an' letting Tanigawa deliver it like usual would make more sense…"

"Has there been a ransom?" Kakashi asked.

Kurenai shook her head. "The theft was only discovered days ago, when the Daimyou's steward sent a message to Tanigawa requesting early delivery."

"Demons," Kakashi confirmed. "Drunk demons."

"Maybe there'll be some left for us," Ryouma told him. "Are we supposed to, what, wage war for the casks and lug 'em all back?"

"Recovery isn't expected, at this point — as you say, there's the risk of poison." Kurenai sipped her tea, soothing on her dry throat. "The primary objective is to make a point. The Daimyou is still consolidating his power, after Hikouto. Anything that undermines his position, or his prestige, must be eliminated."

Genma nodded. "Of course." He glanced sidelong at Kakashi. "Are there any theories besides Hatake's demons? Any leads at all, or other teams investigating?"

Raidou flipped to the last page of the dossier. His brows twitched. "Yuuhi's coming with us."

Kurenai nearly dropped her tea. "Let me see that, please." She managed to keep her voice level, but Aoba gave her a sharp look. Kurenai ignored him. Shirotani hadn't said—

But there it was, neat kanji on a solitary line beneath the four ANBU names: Yuuhi Kurenai, Intelligence. Shirotani must have slipped it in along with Tomo's last-minute maps. Or, more likely, he'd been planning to send her all along, to sift through the carnage after Team Six tore through. Someone needed to piece together the shape of the threat, after all, and Kurenai was the only agent with a close view of the Hikouto coup and its aftermath who'd also already survived one outing with Team Six.

Still. "I am going to give Shirotani nightmares for a month," she said, and handed the folder back.

"Way to make the team feel good about their assignment, Yuuhi," Aoba chided. "And here I thought you liked field missions."

"I like them. I also like knowing about them in advance." There was no point in concealing that failure from Team Six; Kakashi's eye was far too sharp, and Genma was watching her with something like concern. She sipped her tea and gazed at Ryouma, who just looked baffled. At least someone else was further out to sea. "Are any of you familiar with Hotsprings Country?"

Kakashi shrugged one shoulder. "It's on the way to Kumo."

Meaning: Yes, several times. Probably most of them were still classified. Kurenai wondered if her security clearance was high enough to read the un-redacted reports, and then reminded herself she wouldn't have time.

Shirotani was probably laughing himself sick.

Raidou pulled out a folded map and spread it over the butcher-block kitchen counter. "More familiar with the north-west border. How about you two?"

Genma shook his head. "I spent the war on the western front, too."

"Same here. And more missions in the south, afterwards. I didn't think many of us ran missions near Kumo." Ryouma poked Kakashi. "Did you see Yondaime-sama fight the Raikage?"

"There's a Raikage?" Kakashi's eye widened in innocent fascination.

Genma bit down a chuckle. Aoba didn't bother repressing his.

Kurenai tried to ignore them. She edged beside Raidou, pointing a red nail at the map. "Tanigawa is in Hotsprings' northern mountains, almost against the border with Frost Country. Six days' travel north-east."

The clean, faintly musky scent of Raidou's bare shoulder was beginning to grow distracting. She turned her head away. "You could shave three days if you took the civilian train from Nagiso to the border, but you'd have to swing far enough east you'd lose the time anyway."

Genma leaned in on her other side to peer at the map: equally shirtless, equally distracting. "Don't you mean 'we'? But yeah, I see what you mean about the train." He plucked the pencil from behind his ear, dislodging several loose strands of honey-colored hair, and traced the rail line to its terminus. "We'd still have to get through the mountains, and we'd be way too close to Lightning Country for comfort."

"If you go up through the Kashimori pass," Kakashi said, to no one in particular, "Tsurui Province would be starting to hold its summer festival about now."

Ryouma brightened. "Fireworks? I always miss Konoha's."

Aoba laughed. "Is this a vacation or a mission? I thought you wanted to fight demons for the Daimyou's sake."

"We can multi-task..."

"Fire festival," Kakashi said, ignoring Aoba. "There's a torch-lit parade. And they throw buns at statues."

"Buns," Ryouma said, fascinated. "Why? What statues? Do they eat them afterward?"

"The statues?" Genma murmured, temporarily diverted. "Or the buns?"

Kakashi shrugged, and asked Kurenai: "Why are you coming with us?"

She smiled at him, thin-lipped. "Because Tomo and Riei don't operate in the field, Momoe's on medical leave, Susuki and Satomi are already out, and Hide's scared of you Sharingan'ing him." Probably. "You could requisition Aoba if you'd rather."

Aoba sipped his tea, smug. "No can do. I just got home. I haven't even filed my reports yet."

"Good," Kakashi said.

Raidou straightened from the map, rolling his eyes. "What the social outcast means is that we're glad to have you, Yuuhi."

That… should not have warmed her as much as it did. She found herself smiling back at him, anyway.

Aoba grumbled to Kakashi: "You could have pretended to be a little disappointed you couldn't get me."

"And lie to Intel?" Kakashi deadpanned.

"I'm pleased to hear you recognize it as a grave offense," Kurenai said. She turned back to the map. "A few more things you should know about Tanigawa…"

She sketched them out in rapid order. A tiny mountain village, with the sake breweries its chief pride and economic center; the loss of the entire autumn sake batch was a major blow but not a devastating one.

No one needed to point out that the Fire Country Daimyou's wrath might be.

The village headman was also the owner of the largest sake brewery. His messages to the Daimyou's steward, faithfully reprinted in the dossier, were unilluminating: the sake had vanished into thin air between one day and the next. It was unclear whether the villagers had begun searching the mountains for the stolen casks or had merely dithered until the steward's order came, but Kurenai suspected the latter. With no Intel agents on the ground, she was going to be the one who pressed for rumors of bandits in the mountains, or Kumo shinobi passing through.

"So we actually don't know anything," Ryouma concluded.

Raidou arched his back, stretching out his shoulders, and sighed with contentment. "Now we know it's a mission."

Genma leaned hipshot against the counter. "When do we leave?"
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