April 15, Yondaime Year 5
Raidou wished ANBU’s commitment to drama involved less translocation. Space-time jutsu tended to give him a nosebleed.
It took a moment for the candidates to finish filtering away; a few hung back, lingering on the scorched training field. Raidou could understand that impulse. His Trials had been three years ago, but he still remembered the vibrating impatience to get to the second stage—and the tiny bit of terror that said, oh god don’t fuck up.
He was pretty sure he’d never looked that baby-faced, though.
When the last candidate left, he stepped down from the ridgeline of ANBU’s HQ’s roof, crouching on the edge. Rain dripped from the bottom of his mask.
The HQ was built behind the Hokage’s monument, surrounded by the ANBU-only training fields. They shared space with T&I and the barracks, plus a few other buildings. From here, he had a prime view of the whole village, framed through the spikes of Yondaime’s stony hair. A prime view of the other ANBU, too; most of them were clustered below, scattered around the buildings and in the woods.
Booted feet stepped forward on his left.
“Care to join us on the ground, Namiashi?” said the commander.
Raidou was easily half a foot taller than Sagara-sama and twice as broad, but every single cell in his body went eep.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and gripped the edge of the eaves, dropping an easy twelve feet to the ground. He unfolded and stood to attention, drawing the focus of his fellow ANBU, who slipped from the shadows and did the same.
Sagara landed lightly in the middle of the circle. Instantly, the vice-commander appeared at her side, because he was a boot-licking, career-advancing little—
Raidou yanked his attention back to the commander, who was removing her hawk mask.
The revealed face was sun-weathered and strong-jawed, with a silvering of steel at the temples. Sagara had been a handsome woman in her younger years. Now, at the respectable age of forty-something, she was still handsome, but the knotted white scar stretching from the corner of her mouth to her ear leveled her up to scary.
Not that she needed it.
“Ono,” she said, addressing the man wearing a frog mask. “How’s your knee?”
A whispering laugh went up from the clustered ANBU. Ono gave an unhappy grunt. “Bent backwards, ma’am,” he said. “It’ll mend.”
“See to it afterwards,” she said.
She surveyed the group with pale blue eyes. “Well,” she said at last. “I believe that went acceptably. You have two hours to eat, rest, and pack your things before we begin set up for the second stage. New captains—” her gaze found Raidou, Usagi, and Shinji. “I suggest you liaise with your new lieutenants, if you haven’t already. Any questions?”
Usagi raised a hand. She was a stocky, muscular redhead with a rabbit mask, because the Quartermaster thought visual name puns were hilarious. “Bombs,” she said. “Encouraged or not?”
Something flickered behind Sagara’s eyes. An unwise man might have called it amusement. “Whatever you need to make a point,” she said. “Anyone else?”
Silence made the rain seem louder.
“Very well,” she said. “Kuroda, a word?”
The vice-commander’s masked face turned sharply. Before he could say anything, Sagara translocated away. After a half-beat, Kuroda followed.
Nara Shikaku whistled softly. “He’s in the shit.”
A ripple of laughter and muttered confirmations of Shikaku’s prediction went around the circle now that the birds of prey had gone. Genma wondered if that was deliberate or just a happenstance that commander and vice commander wore hawk and owl masks. Captains and lieutenants were drifting away now, talking about the candidates they’d just evaluated, the two-day hunt to come, and just exactly how much shit the vice was likely in.
Genma pushed his mask off, hooked it to the holder on his belt, and turned his face up to catch a few cooling spatters of rain. Scrubbing a damp-gloved hand over his face, he pushed unruly hair into place, then went to greet his new captain who was, sensibly, staying dry under the eaves.
Namiashi Raidou was a citadel in human form: the kind of taijutsu specialist whose body was an advertisement offering perfectly executed ass-kickings. He was a couple centimeters taller than Genma, and several kilos heavier. A reddish mop of hair that even the rain couldn’t quite make lie flat flared around the top of his mask. Where most of the ANBU got animal masks of some type or other, Raidou had a spare abstraction: a slender red crescent moon slicing through the left eye on an otherwise blank white face.
It was, Genma had to admit, surprisingly intimidating. He touched his shoulder in salute and waited for instruction.
Raidou returned the salute, then seemed to hesitate before he took off his mask and clipped it to his belt. He threw Genma a crooked smile. “Hi.”
Genma’s new captain, it turned out, was a hottie. Not that looks counted for a lot when you spent most of your time in a mask, but this guy had them.
That was a bonus.
“Hi,” Genma said. “Shiranui Genma. I guess we’re the new team six for now?”
‘Ninjutsu guy’ was the full brief Raidou had gotten about Shiranui Genma, which, yeah, he looked like a ninjutsu guy. Lighter build, long fingers, unreadable face. Taijutsu specialists made for heavier, sturdier ninja—like Raidou—and genjutsu mostly lent itself to highly focused weirdness. Ninjutsu was the midway between, where muscle and mind met.
“Us and Ueno,” Raidou said. “You’ll meet her later.”
“Oh?” said Genma. His hair was bound back into a damp ponytail; when he tilted his head, little strands escaped, standing out at strange angles.
“Yeah. Big chakra, big attitude. She was part of my last team.”
“Anything else I need to know?” asked Genma dryly.
Ueno Katsuko actually came with a laundry list of standard warnings for the newly introduced, but in the interest of not striking fear into his shiny lieutenant, Raidou stuck to the basics. “She’ll grope you to say hello. We’ve been working on boundaries.”
Hidden amusement flickered in Genma’s light brown eyes. “Are you using the nose-thumping technique, or a spray-bottle?”
“Mostly we just toss something shiny on the ground and run while she’s distracted,” said Raidou. “Silver coins work.”
Genma didn’t rise to the bait. “Good to know,” he said, like he’d actually filed a mental note away somewhere. He pulled a senbon from a holster, twirled it absently along his fingers, and stuck it in his mouth, where it underlined the thoughtful quirk of his lips. “I assume I won’t be meeting her before we head out. Do you know if we’re working adjacent sectors out there?”
Raidou shrugged. “We did last year, when I was lieutenant. I don’t know if we’re doing the same this time around.”
His memory of last year involved mostly explosions, and a few second-degree burns.
Katsuko again. That had been her Trials.
“Want to get food?” Raidou asked.
“Sure,” said Genma, looking at the HQ. “Here?”
“Sure,” Raidou echoed. “Hardly anyone gets food poisoning anymore.”
Genma snorted quietly and looked at him, waiting, Raidou realized, for Raidou to lead. Because captain, right. After a year of dog-tagging behind his own captain, all his muscle-memory was backwards.
He managed to navigate them successfully to ANBU’s small cafeteria without anyone falling over or having a fatal accident, and snagged two trays from the stack. The hot line was free; they’d fallen behind hungrier, less social ninja. Genma chose healthsome vegetarian options: bok choy and mushrooms with rice and tofu, and a bowl of miso. Raidou grabbed the first thing that contained meat and complemented it with a side of spare ribs, and another of vegetables because he could feel his parents frowning at him.
He got water, Genma chose green tea, and they settled at a window table by wordless mutual agreement.
“So,” said Raidou, cracking his chopsticks apart. “What’d you think of the candidates?”
“Where should I start?” Genma asked. He stirred his soup with his chopsticks, bringing tiny cubes of tofu and dark green flags of seaweed floating up out of the murky broth. “I can tell you who I think we definitely don’t need. That guy with the boiling wind technique? He barely kept it together. Hajime and I were both ducking for cover halfway through that one.”
“The sixth kid?” Raidou asked.
“Yeah,” Raidou said. “Sloppy chakra control. I was surprised he made it through.”
“I was counting votes; Sato and Munenori both gave him a four, and so did Kuroda. Maybe they saw something we didn’t.”
Raidou paused with a morsel of food halfway to his mouth. “Like talent?”
“Yeah, that,” Genma agreed, amused. “Or maybe T&I wants him. I know at my Trials there were at least two candidates who were on the fast track to a career in the windowless wing.”
Raidou looked past Genma, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Toriyama—the pretty guy with the butterflies,” he said. “If it’s anyone this year, I’d bet on him.”
Pretty? That said something about how Raidou viewed the world. Or men, anyway. Genma filed that for future reference.
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Genma said. “He had that feel in sparring, too. Mean as a stepped-on viper. I was glad they weren’t using their personal weapons. His jutsu was cool, though.”
“Shiny,” Raidou agreed with a flick of amusement. “And sharp. What’d you think of Hatake?”
“That jutsu was one of the finest, most subtle pieces of insubordination I have ever seen,” Genma said evenly. “I would have given a week’s salary to see Kuroda’s face under that owl mask when Kakashi was standing right behind him, all hands in his pockets like it was no big thing.”
Raidou’s satisfied smile wasn’t exactly a nice one. “That made my week.”
Seemed like his new captain was one of the many in ANBU who had a private opinion or two about the vice commander. Genma tipped his head to one side in acknowledgement. “I guess that level of skill is what you’d expect from the Hokage’s personal student, but that was still a risky tactic. Not so sure if he has no sense of self-preservation or he’s just that confident.”
Raidou had managed to clear two-thirds of his plate already. He paused in eating now, resting his chin in his hand and giving Genma a thoughtful look. “Are they mutually exclusive?”
“Point. I guess they’re not,” Genma said. He was enjoying this conversation. “What’d you think of him? He got me good with that not-really-a-genjutsu thing. I’ve been trying to figure out how he did that. Maybe some kind of light refraction thing with the rain?”
Raidou gave an uneven shrug. “Not really my specialty,” he said, rather than his first, less tactful response of genjutsu sucks ass. Beneath the tabletop, he rubbed his index finger and thumb together, feeling flakes of dried blood crumble away from a deep, narrow puncture in the pad of his thumb.
Bad enough to stab himself when kai had failed. Worse to stab himself, have that also fail, and think he’d finally lost all ability to deal with illusion.
Of course, so had everyone else.
Hatake Kakashi—coward’s son, hero’s student, Sharingan-bearer. Raidou had privately marked him down as cunning little shit.
But he had voted yes.
“That doesn’t really answer my question,” Genma said dryly.
Raidou ate a broccoli stem. “I think he’s going to cause problems. He’s a smart, high profile kid, and his judgment’s obviously not as good as he thinks it is. But if he’s half as talented, he’s gonna be show-stopper.”
“I did a couple missions with a guy who worked with him before,” Genma said. “Said he’s absolutely as talented as everyone says, and twice the pain in the ass.”
“Did the guy have any specifics?” Raidou asked. Second-party information was still rumor lite, but it ranked higher than general village gossip.
Genma had tucked his senbon behind one ear while he ate; he freed it now, spinning it absently around the fingers of his off-hand. “According to Seiji,” he said slowly, “Hatake Kakashi pretty much knows he’s better than everyone else, isn’t afraid to let you know he knows it, and isn’t real big on the ‘working as a team’ thing. Doesn’t bother explaining or getting consensus on a plan. He just does shit and expects everyone else to fall in line.”
Raidou filed that away. “How much do you trust Seiji?”
Genma shrugged. “He’s usually a decent judge of character, but he’s also the kind of guy who will hold a grudge, so if Kakashi pissed him off…”
“Character assassination abounds,” Raidou finished. He finished the last bite of ribs and drained his water, sitting back to stretch out the Trial aches. His spine popped like old knuckle bones. “I might be inclined to believe him, though. Did you spot Hatake stealing everyone’s jutsu?”
“He had both eyes open and wasn’t making any effort to hide it,” Genma said dryly, which sounded like his thirteen-word way of saying duh. “But I don’t know, is it really stealing? I mean, we’re all Konoha ninja. If I had a Sharingan, I’d probably be collecting jutsu, too. Most of the Uchiha do; it’s not like it’s giving aid to the enemy.”
“Most of the Uchiha are dicks,” Raidou said. He pointed two fingers at Genma’s senbon. “Poison guy?”
“There are other reasons to use senbon,” Genma said, which, yeah, fair enough. Medics used them for nerve-cluster work, and some hunters liked them for a subtle stab. “But you’re right. Never use one of the senbon from my blue pouch to stir your coffee.”
He smiled slightly, which, given the topic of conversation, was a little frightening. But it also did nice things to shape of his mouth, Raidou couldn’t help noticing.
“Noted,” he said. “Make your own poisons?”
Genma arched an eyebrow. “Some of them.”
“Bet that takes some sweat,” Raidou said. “So if I helped myself to a couple vials on the field without asking you first, that’d be a fair share?”
Understanding flickered behind light eyes. Genma tilted his head to the side, a subtle tension vanishing from his shoulders. “If I copied your jutsu, you could still use it. If you took my poison, I couldn’t.”
“Fair point. But, okay, take Tousaki, for example.” And hadn’t he just. But that wasn’t a memory to air here. “No-clan kid with a set of unique, lethal-as-hell jutsu. That’s half his value to the village right there. What happens to him when Hatake bolts off with all his hard work?”
“He keeps being incredibly valuable to the village, but now his scary-as-fuck jutsu doesn’t get lost forever if someone takes him down?” Genma said, without missing a step. He drained his soup and set to spearing the remaining cubes of tofu with his senbon, eating them one by one, like marshmallows. “Unless someone takes Kakashi down, too,” he added.
That was a fight Raidou didn’t want to see.
“I do see your point,” Genma said. “But I think the needs of the village outweigh the needs of the individual. I mean, the Records Department must have made him archive that jutsu on a scroll, right? I know I had to file details on the jutsu I’ve come up with, and they aren’t nearly that impressive.”
“Yeah, I never had to do that,” Raidou said, with a crooked grin. “There’s no trademark on ass-kicking. Still, you can’t tell me if Hatake—or any Uchiha—ran off with one of your personal jutsu, you wouldn’t be a little bit murderous?”
Genma tapped the point of his senbon against his lower lip, thoughtful. “I’d be pretty surprised if someone busted one of my jutsu out on the field. As long as they saved my ass with it, or my teammates’ asses, I think that’d be okay.”
Raidou snorted a laugh. “You’re a nicer guy than me.”
“Now if an enemy did it,” Genma said. “Then yeah, extreme murder.”
“Well, as long as someone’s getting murdered,” Raidou said, tickled. He was getting good feelings about his first ever lieutenant. “What did you think of Tousaki, by the way?”
“More temper than judgment,” Genma said. “Seeing as he was trying to start something up with Kakashi. But that jutsu of his looks useful as hell, and I guess he’s got a tactical one he didn’t show off, too.” He turned to the remnants of bok choy and mushrooms on his plate, herding them into a pile and skewering several into a sort of kebab on his senbon. “Other than that, I was glad Ono drew him for hand-to-hand, and not me. He spars like a back-alley brawler. Ono’s gonna need some serious work on that knee. Although Tousaki did catch a blade in the shoulder, I noticed, so maybe he’s not as quick as he should be.”
“He’s tall. Makes a big target,” Raidou said with the authority of a man who spoke from experience. “Should be done growing, but if he got it late, he might still be figuring out where his reach actually ends.”
“True enough,” Genma said. “Although it’s not his reach that worries me, it’s his peripheral awareness. But Ono’s no pushover. I have a souvenir from a sparring match with him a few weeks ago myself.” He turned his head and brushed his hair back to show Raidou the fresh scar behind his left ear where Ono’s kunai had nicked him, and shrugged.
“What did you think of him? He had chakra like a geyser, and I didn’t see a lot of votes against him. Seems like he’s kind of a natural as long as he doesn’t wash out in phase two or three.”
Raidou hesitated, his expression going carefully neutral. “I think he’ll do great, but I’m a little biased in his favor. Ran into him last year—though I didn’t realize he was the face-melting guy then.”
Genma nodded. “On a mission, or just out and about?”
“Just in the village. Seemed like a decent guy.”
Well that could cover just about anything from someone giving up the last dryer at the laundry for you, to having your back in a bar brawl, to a casual hookup between missions… Not that it mattered. Favorable was favorable. If Raidou was feeling cagy about why, maybe it was just because he didn’t want his personal opinion coloring Genma’s judgment.
“Cool.” Genma sucked a mushroom from his senbon. “So who else is worth talking about? Butterfly boy we discussed. There was that sword woman, Ayane— she’ll be worth watching in the next phase. And on the ‘no’ side, there’s the Uchiha girl. No surprise she washed out already. With a dramatic flair like that, she ought to be doing pyrotechnics for a rock band, not trying for ANBU.”
Raidou snorted. “Because most ninja are so subtle with their jutsu. Remind me what our Hokage is famous for again?”
“Not leaving himself open like an idiot while he’s pulling off his shock and awe maneuvers?” Genma suggested with a chuckle. “But yeah, you have a point. Hajime and I ran into a chick from Suna last year that hauled out this freakin’ ten meter tall sand dragon. Lots of flair. Also about flayed the skin right off us. And talk about having sand where you don’t want it after a fight.”
Raidou gave him a long, level look. “Thank you for that mental image,” he said, dry as the desert that had spawned that Suna ninja.
Genma just nodded. “Anyway. What else? You’ve proctored before. Hajime told me we’ll get our sector assignments when we get to base. And we’re scrolling it out there. We spend the rest of today setting up and we get the candidates sometime after 0400.” He looked up at Raidou. “Any advice or orders for me?”
“Don’t fuck up,” Raidou suggested.
Genma gave him a flat, level look. “Really? That’s it?”
“You wanted a road map?” Raidou said, then relented. “It’s pretty much what you’d expect. Lot of running, lots of fighting. The only wrinkle is that we try hard to freak the candidates, and there’s always that one idiot who gets rattled and tries for a kill-shot on an ANBU. So, dodge.”
Genma sketched an ironic salute, touching two fingers to his temple. “Dodge, got it,” he said, with an actual smile. “As far as freaking the candidates, the idea is to stress them and observe, right? Not actually take them down?”
“Depends on the higher-ups. We did some weeding last year—makes the threat more believable if people actually go down, but we’re not allowed to kill anyone.” Raidou tapped his fingertips against his empty cup. “Or permanently cripple anyone. They frown on that.”
Genma nodded seriously. “Plus, there’d undoubtedly be paperwork. And who needs that?”
“My point exactly,” Raidou said, entertained. He looked up when a pair of shinobi rose and left, followed by three more, and sighed. “Time’s up, lieutenant. You have your kit ready to go?”
Genma drained the last of his tea and set the cup aside. “Pretty much. I was going to stop by the Quartermaster’s and pick up a few more senbon and a couple of things, but other than that I’m ready to go.”
Reasonably organized. Good sign.
“Here’s a piece of real advice, then,” Raidou said, getting to his feet. “Take a shower before you go. You’ll thank yourself.”
Genma took him at face value on that, presumably having done more than his fair share of back-to-back missions. “Excellent point. Thanks.” One hand went to the end of his ponytail, tugging it absently in a thinking-tic Raidou made note of. “Guess I’ll head to the showers in the barracks before I hit up the QM. When and where do you want me to meet you, or am I just aiming for the 1400 muster out with everyone?”
“Muster’s fine,” Raidou said.
“Great.” Genma nodded and stood, swiping Raidou’s tray before Raidou could pick it up—because, right, lieutenant, which Raidou wasn’t anymore. It was going to take some getting used to.
“Thank you,” he said.
“I’ll see you at 1400 at the flagpole,” Genma confirmed, then hesitated. “What do you want me to call you? Captain, Raidou-taichou, or just Raidou? Obviously in the field you’re… Moon-man?”
Raidou didn’t twitch. “Crescent Moon,” he said neutrally. “Captain’s fine, Raidou’s fine. Namiashi’s fine if you want to play it up for the rookies. Tanuki for you, or is it a panda?”
“Tanuki. It’s got a kind of pointy nose; I think a panda would be more flat.” Genma hooked the mask off his belt, turning it so Raidou could see the sharp lines of its face. “Also, I’d rather be a clever trickster with tremendous balls than a cute bear with fertility issues.”
Not a sentence you heard very often.
“You know they’re not actually supposed to be a reflection of your personality, right?” Raidou said.
“I’d hope not,” Genma said, with a twinkle. “Otherwise I’d have to guess you were a lunatic.”
“You punned,” said Raidou, with a groan. “You punned badly. You’re banned from the team. Get out.”
Genma hung his mask back on his belt and saluted with his free hand, humor glinting in his light eyes. “See you at 1400,” he said, and left with the trays.
Shiranui Genma was, Raidou suspected, a little bit of a smartass.
Well, Raidou would take that over a dumbass any day.
He stood, stretched, and stole a final fortifying rib from the hot counter before he left to pack for the challenge ahead.
Burn cream this time. Lots of burn cream.