Early morning of April 17, Yondaime Year 5
Genma was glad he’d taken that soldier pill the night before. The intensive debriefing they’d just concluded was easily as exhausting as the originally planned night of chasing ANBU candidates would have been. And in many ways a good deal more harrowing, given the stakes involved.
He and Raidou had gone over the incident—every step they’d taken, every interaction they’d had with the dead traitor Akiyama and the two injured candidates—while the Hokage listened grave-faced. Yondaime-sama and Commander Sagara didn’t stay in the debriefing long; they had defenses to muster and an investigation in the field to conduct before the snake sannin’s trail went cold, if there really even was a connection to Orochimaru. But if there was, it was a threat no one dared take lightly.
Vice-commander Kuroda and a pair of calm debriefer-interrogators from Intel had taken over when the commander and Hokage left. Hajime had joined them to give his report, and gone again to muster his team into the field. In the halls, the sounds of booted feet not attempting any degree of stealth made plain the state of high alert the village was on.
When Kuroda finally dismissed them, the eastern sky was a fiery apricot glow, and ANBU headquarters’ halls were alive with masked and armored agents, grey-uniformed internal operatives, and men and women in regular jounin blues.
Genma moved to the window to peer out at the distant village wall. Without binoculars, it was too far to see the ranks of additional guards that would be manning it, but they were there; he and Raidou would be joining them.
They stopped by unspoken mutual consent in the men’s room—it had been a long interrogation with no breaks, and it was going to be an even longer day. Genma splashed water on his face after he washed his hands, and tried to ignore the cooled-sweat stink of his uniform. “I’m glad I took your advice on that shower,” he told Raidou, as they headed back into the hall.
“Me, too,” Raidou said with dry irony.
“Do you need anything before we head out there? Besides a rat bar and a cup of coffee, I mean.” Genma ticked his fingers over kunai handles and shuriken in their neat bundles in his holster. They were a reassuring weight: cold, heavy steel clanking softly as he jostled them. And he still had plenty of senbon.
Raidou slanted a look at him. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that?”
“I… guess so,” Genma said. He tugged his hair tie tighter, then pulled the hand portion of his modified gloves back on, fastening them at the wrist to their long black sleeves. “I’m good. I was geared up for the Trials already, and I only took one soldier pill last night. They’ll have extra throwing weapons at the wall already.”
“Then let’s go,” Raidou said. “If we’re lucky, they’ll have coffee up there.” He unclipped the crescent moon mask from his belt and put it on.
Genma followed suit. They’d spent hours together in the debriefing, and a day and night working the trials, but for the first time it started to sink in: Raidou was his new captain, and he wasn’t Hajime.
The rooftop run to the east side of Konoha’s great circular wall was fast and silent, and Raidou felt a little bad about it, but there’d be time to get friendly later, when Konoha wasn’t under direct threat.
They left the stairs to slower ninja and ran straight up the wall, vaulting over the edge with a warning chakra flare to avoid startling anyone. Edgy ninja tended to stab first and ask questions never.
“ANBU-san!” said a long-haired jounin Raidou didn’t recognize, bowing deep.
Raidou nodded. “Any news?”
“All quiet,” she said. “Yondaime-sama swept through about an hour ago.”
He looked down the wall. The usual skeleton crew had more than quadrupled, white-masked ANBU backed by uniformed jounin and chuunin. Even his senses could pick up the thrum of armed chakra.
“Runners in the field?” he asked.
“Reporting nothing,” she said. “Every checkpoint’s clear, and we’re seeing regular messenger hawks overhead—there goes one now.”
High above, a bird screamed. Raidou squinted up, barely able to see the backlit shadow against the rising morning sun.
“Hm,” he said. “Chuunin runner?”
“Gifu!” yelled the woman, making about thirteen heads snap around. Twelve turned back, and one skinny, shaved-bald boy detached himself from the crowd, trotting over.
He bowed. “Yes, Mie-san?”
“ANBU,” Mie introduced, gesturing at Raidou and Genma. “Gifu.” She gestured at the boy.
Gifu bowed again, jerky as a marionette. “How can I be of service, ANBU-san?”
“I need you to find someone for me,” said Raidou. He held a hand up at throat-level. “About yea high, short brown hair, skinny. Her mask looks like a rat, with a red spiral in the center of her forehead. She should be on the wall.” Katsuko had been on-call for the last few days, serving any ANBU role needed. She’d probably been posted for hours already.
Gifu nodded. “Any message?”
“Her captain’s home early,” said Raidou, twitching a hidden smile. “Tell her to find me.”
Gifu saluted, fingertips flicking up to his shiny head, and bolted away.
Raidou turned back to the jounin. “Mie-san, was it?”
“Mie Hikari,” she said, studying him and Genma with interest. Her eyes were pale green with a yellow ring at the center, light in a darkly tanned face. “Sensor specialist.”
“Noted. Jounin commander?”
“That’d be me, too,” she said, with a knife-like smile. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Raidou glanced sidelong at Genma, who was standing to easy attention, mask tilted towards the distant horizon. He didn’t look tired, but they’d been scheduled to run another full day of the second Trial today. Comparatively, wall duty was easy.
“Coffee?” Raidou asked.
“I thought ANBU ate living souls,” Mie said, desert-dry.
“And drink the blood of our enemies,” Raidou said. “But I’m not seeing any.”
She smirked. “Breakfast crew should be by in an hour. I’ll make sure to send them your way.”
Raidou tapped his tattoo. “Appreciate it.”
There was a thirty foot ANBU-free stretch a little further down. Raidou centered himself and Genma in the middle, and stepped up on the back edge of the wall, balancing easily on the thick stone lip. Genma stayed on the main throughway, leaning back against the wall at Raidou’s feet. In front of them, the forest stretched out for miles, gold-leafed in the morning light. Behind them, Konoha was still in sleepy shadow.
It was hard to imagine anyone laying siege to walls this thick, and a Village this defended, but the Fox had done it once.
At least they’d be better prepared this time.
Wall Duty when things were peaceful was something to look forward to, as long as your fellow guards were interesting conversationalists. When Team Nine, Hajime’s team, had drawn it, it had usually been a rest break between harder missions.
Even with four times as many eyes as usual on the horizon, Genma was tensely alert, scanning the treeline for shadows that weren’t there, and demons that might materialize out of thin air at any moment.
No one standing watch that morning did so easily. With the village on high alert, it was impossible not to think of the Fox’s attack four and a half years ago. Back then they’d been caught blindsided. The youngest chuunin on the wall now had been Academy students then, herded into bunkers with rest of Konoha’s most vulnerable citizens. They’d lost parents and siblings and teachers. The rest, who, like Genma, had faced down the demon, had lost partners, lovers, and friends. The raw ache that crept up Genma’s shoulders and neck was mostly fatigue and tension, but it reached tendrils down into the scars on his back, his own legacy from that night when so many had died.
It had never been confirmed, but there was credible speculation that Orochimaru had been behind the Fox. Genma didn’t doubt that at all.
A pair of chuunin slipped past, carrying a message to the commander at the next watchtower down the line. Mie-san was at her post again, conferring with a Hyuuga in full uniform.
There wasn’t a lot to do, standing ready for an attack that might or might not come, but just waiting was agonizing. Genma straightened up and walked to the wall’s outer lip, leaning against the shelf at chest height, and threading his chakra sense out as far as he could, into the shadows under the trees. All he found were Konoha shinobi on patrol, and the perfectly ordinary animal inhabitants of the forest.
At his back, he could feel Raidou’s chakra, dense and palpable, like the heat of glowing iron in a smith’s forge. It had texture and depth, and while it wasn’t the beacon-bright furnace of the Yondaime’s nearly inexhaustible supply, it felt steady. Earth nature, Genma guessed. With Water or maybe Wind tempering the glow and adding fluidity into the signature. He’d remember that chakra. Learn to trust it at his back, as he’d trusted Hajime’s bright greenish flicker.
Other chakras braided and flowed around him: the ANBU and jounin and special jounin ninjutsu-specialists were smoothest, the chuunin less distinct, lower powered, less organized, but all of them together made a wall of chakra noise as thick and impenetrable as the stone wall on which they patrolled.
Genma narrowed his focus and sent feelers out into the woods again. Still nothing but a deer here, a grouse there, a rabbit with babies in a hole in the ground. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, drew in the net of chakra and cast it once more.
There was nothing to do but wait.
Katsuko found Raidou on the wall five minutes later, tracking his familiar chakra signature. She eyed the ANBU in the tanuki mask leaning against the wall across the walkway, trying to remember if they’d met before, and gave a mental shrug. “Namiashi-taichou,” she said, stopping in front of him where he was standing like a statue on the back wall’s lip. She threw out a casual salute. “Demonstrating your amazing stealth skills again?”
Raidou tilted his head down, standing judgmentally in the light of the glorious morning sun, and looked at her. His crescent-moon mask gleamed unimpressed skepticism down upon her. “Are you qualified to comment on subtlety, Ueno?”
He couldn’t see her grin through her mask, but she let him hear it. “Just because I think subtlety’s boring doesn’t mean I’m not capable of it, captain. Have I told you yet that you look particularly shiny today?”
“I had two days without you,” Raidou said, an answering grin in his voice. “It refreshed my ability to sparkle.” He stepped down from the wall and gave her shoulder a friendly punch in greeting, then raised his voice. “Shiranui, come meet our third wheel.”
The ANBU in the tanuki mask—Shiranui, now she remembered the name—had turned to stare at her and Raidou, his posture guarded. “It turns out we’ve met. At a blossom viewing party before the trials.”
Raidou did the full-body version of a blink. He turned to Katsuko. “You went blossom-viewing?”
“I appreciate nature’s beauty as much as the next person, Namiashi-taichou,” Katsuko said gravely. “Besides, Shiranui invited me. It would have been rude not to.”
Raidou leaned down and said very quietly into Katsuko’s ear, “Tell me you didn’t sleep with him.”
“I didn’t,” Katsuko muttered. “Stop being creepy in front of the new guy.” She crossed the walkway and offered her hand to Genma. “Hey,” she said, smiling. “Welcome to the team.”
Shiranui hesitated, then shook her hand and gave a slight bow. “Thanks. I really didn’t think I’d be seeing you again so soon.”
“Me neither,” Katsuko said, frankly. “Can’t say I’m upset, though. Glad to have you, Shiranui.” She jerked a chin over at Raidou. “You and Namiashi are gonna be the only two vets on the team. Have fun with that. No pressure.”
“You’re not a rookie,” he pointed out.
Katsuko shrugged. “Barely. This is the first year I can haze newbies.” She grinned. “It’s gonna be fun. How are you and the captain getting along? He didn’t bully you, did he?”
Shiranui’s posture relaxed slightly. “So far Crescent Moon-taichou has been a perfect officer and gentleman. Is that something I should be on my guard against?”
She stifled a snort. “Not at all,” she said, not bothering to hide her grin, and turned to look at Raidou. “A perfect officer and gentleman, huh?”
“I’m going to ignore that skepticism,” Raidou said, and then grew abruptly serious. “How much did they fill you in before they called you up?”
“Not much,” Katsuko said. “There was a threat at the trials, and the higher-ups think it might have been a feint to draw attention away from Konoha. There’s talk about a full-scale assault against us. You?”
“Caught the pre-show,” Raidou said, with a quick glance around them. The closest shinobi were out of eavesdropping distance; Team Six had this section of wall to themselves.
Well, three-fifths of Team Six.
Captains had free license to share information with their subordinates as they deemed fit, with an understanding that complete indiscretion was frowned upon. Genma already knew. Katsuko could be scattered, but Raidou trusted her implicitly when it came to the important things.
Most of the important things.
Mission-related important things.
“Taichou?” said Katsuko, with an under-thrum of tension in her voice.
“One of the candidates went rogue,” Raidou said. “Nearly took one guy’s hands off, and stabbed another. Nothing confirmed, but he might have been an Orochimaru plant.”
Katsuko’s posture didn’t change, but her chakra was noisy enough that even Raidou felt the flicker that ran through it. Genma definitely did; his hands twitched. Medics were more sensitive—that’d probably felt like a sledgehammer.
“Understood,” she said, distantly.
Genma’s mask tilted towards her. “It’s not confirmed. For all we know, this guy just cracked.”
Katsuko’s head dipped once in acknowledgement, and her chakra muted down to a background static.
Raidou frowned at her. “Yondaime-sama seemed pretty on edge, though. But it was his student who got knifed.”
He felt the moment Katsuko snapped back into the present. “Hatake?” she demanded, because everyone knew Sharingan no Kakashi was trying out for ANBU the second he was legally old enough—and Raidou had to wonder, sometimes, how much it sucked having a whole village in your business.
“Hatake,” Genma confirmed, shifting his weight. His attention kept flicking between them and the outside of the wall. “He’s not critically injured. Neither is the other candidate. Unfortunately Hatake killed the guy who went rogue though.”
“Nearly killed us, too,” Raidou said, remembering that burst of blue-white light slamming through the wall an inch from his face. “I’ve never dodged so fast in my life.”
Genma’s bare shoulders twitched in a faint echo of that brief, mutual heart attack. “We were lucky.”
If Katsuko cared about their dice roll with death, she kept it to herself. “He used Chidori?” she asked, with ghoulish fascination. “Did his hand really go through that guy’s chest?”
There was the girl he knew and loved.
Genma’d recognized Katsuko the minute she’d appeared: her chakra, bright as burning magnesium, was unmistakable. But now he had a sudden, clear memory of the kunoichi he’d found in the park egging on a civilian fight barely a week ago. Her enthusiasm for a gory description of Kakashi’s jutsu made the hairs on the back of his neck rise. She was dangerous in a way most ninja he’d worked with weren’t. Unstable, he thought.
What had Raidou said about her? Big chakra, big attitude, and she’d grope you to say hello?
But she was also deeply rattled by the news that Orochimaru might be behind the attack. Or she had been. She seemed to have settled down now, her focus flitting onward. Maybe that’s why Raidou hadn’t reacted when her chakra flared. He knew her better, certainly.
Genma’s own focus was still fractured as he scanned the area, but Raidou seemed comfortable continuing to engage with Katsuko. “Raikiri, I think?” he said. “There was a lot of electricity and screaming. I’m not real certain on the difference.”
“Excellent,” Katsuko said. After a moment she added, “Glad to see you’re okay.”
“You had doubts?” Raidou said. He stepped forward, shoulder to shoulder with Genma, and leaned on the lip of the outer wall, surveying the horizon. There was no swell in Raidou’s chakra—he probably wasn’t much of a sensor. Why waste chakra when it wasn’t going to help? With this many chakra presences packed so tightly in, a short distance sweep was useless.
Genma turned his attention back outward, too, but once again, there was nothing out of the ordinary astir. Katsuko’s chakra nearer by still felt roughed up, like coarse fur swept the wrong way. And almost unbearably hot. She looked fine, but with the rat mask hiding her face, and her posture ninja-perfect, there was no telling what was going on inside her head.
“Have you been out here long?” he asked her. “And what do you want me to call you? Actually what’s our protocol on names, Captain? Hajime was pretty strict about using mask-names only in the field, but we’re on home turf now.”
“Mask names in the field, last names on duty,” Raidou said, after a moment’s thought. “You can call each other whatever you want in your own time.” His masked face inclined towards Katsuko. “Within reason.”
“You can call me Ueno,” said Katsuko. “Ueno-sama, that is.” There was a brightness to her voice that suggested laughter, like the dial had twitched inside her to yet another setting.
“And you can call me lieutenant, Ueno-kun,” Genma told her.
Katsuko cackled a laugh and saluted him. At his side, he felt a subtle shift in Raidou’s presence. Not disapproval.
That was something.
He made room for Katsuko to join them at the wall. “I’m not sensing anything out there.”
“How far can you reach?” Raidou asked.
“A little over three klicks, in a cone about 900 meters in diameter. More if I really try, but it tires me out faster. I could take another soldier pill and get a bump in my distance for an hour or so, if you think it’s worth it.”
“Not necessary,” Raidou told him, tipping his head towards Mei. Beyond her, another of Konoha’s sensor specialists was scanning east-southeast, her reddish hair a copper halo in the morning sun. There were more in her cadre perched at regular intervals all along the wall, scanning for foreign chakra out to at least ten kilometers. The very best could reach up to fifty. “They’ve got you beat, but you’ve got me beat,” Raidou said. “I just wanted to get an idea of how far you could reach. I don’t get anyone’s files until the teams are fully assigned.”
Genma nodded. “It doesn’t hurt to have me looking, too, but you’re right. No point wasting my chakra when it will be better spent on jutsu. If it comes to that.”
“Save it,” Raidou agreed. “If they get close enough for you to sense, we’re in for a fight anyway.”
Genma nodded and settled back into watching the sunrise with his new teammates. Golden light grew whiter, shadows shorter, and early morning bird calls gave way to the chirps and twitters of mid-day. At some point a group of chuunin came by with coffee and stacks of bonito and bamboo shoot onigiri for breakfast. Genma cast a small genjutsu over the three of them to preserve the illusion of remaining masked while they ate. Then they went back to watching.
No alarm call was raised, no enemy materialized.
As yet another messenger hawk streaked overhead towards ANBU headquarters, Genma sighed and wished he could smoke through his mask. Except he was quitting. Definitely quitting. Tomorrow.
Katsuko would have given an arm and a few toes to make something happen. A horde of giant eagles could descend on the wall, maybe, or the forest could spontaneously burst into flames.
Anything was better than the silence in her head.
“So, Shiranui,” she said.
The tanuki mask tilted in her direction. “Ueno.”
“You play poker?”
Katsuko passed on making the obvious joke about strip poker. “Me too. Are you right or left-handed?”
“Right for some things. Left for others.” He paused. “Why?”
She couldn’t tell him she was just grasping at straws. “I’m bored,” she said at last. “And I just made up a game where you play poker with your writing hand tied behind your back. Wanna try it out later?”
“We could.” Shiranui relented and turned towards her. There was a hint of a smile in his voice. “So, Yamanaka Susuki. You wouldn’t believe how badly you two broke Aoba’s heart the other night.”
“Oh, awesome,” Katsuko said. Thinking about blondes was much better than thinking about— what she wasn’t thinking about. “Susuki was lovely. I hope Aoba cried a lot.”
Raidou looked at them both. “What context did I miss?”
“I’m a grown woman, captain,” Katsuko said, deadpan. “I have needs.”
Shiranui was very carefully not laughing out loud. “I told you we met at a blossom viewing party.”
Funny was good. She was doing funny rather well. Everything was fine. Katsuko wet her lips, concentrated only on taking her next breath. “There was alcohol and beautiful women, too.”
Shiranui sniffed, as if offended. “And beautiful men. Don’t forget the beautiful men.”
“I’m going to assume that was Aoba,” Raidou said. He shifted casually, shoulder brushing against hers. His chakra nudged her, radiating calm as steady and solid as a pillar.
She couldn’t let Raidou know, not right now. She’d have to tell him about it, she’d have to— his face would be hidden behind the mask, but she—
“I’m sure everybody at that party was very pretty, lieutenant,” she told Genma placatingly. “You and Aoba included.”
“You just weren’t looking at me or Aoba, I’m guessing.” All of Shiranui’s attention was fixed on her, now. “You want some tea? It’s getting warm. I’d about kill for a smoke and a cup of tea, if the captain will give us leave to take a five.”
Katsuko let out a breath. On her other side, Raidou’s watchful presence didn’t waver. She bit her lip until she felt a sharp sting, using the pain to center herself as copper flooded her mouth. “I’m fine, lieutenant,” she said, and crushed the curl of panic in her chest down to something manageable, something small and numb she wouldn’t have to worry about. “Sorry. No more distractions, I promise.”
Shiranui glanced over at Raidou for a quick second, then back to Katsuko. “Nothing you need to be sorry about. Wall duty is boring.” Quietly, he added, “Come on, Ueno, taking you for a tea would give me the perfect excuse for a cig.”
Raidou looked at them both, clearly unhappy, but said, “Take ten, both of you. Get some better air.”
They were managing her. Katsuko nodded, not wanting to make a scene, and gave Raidou a salute. “Taichou.”
Raidou nodded at her and returned his attention out over the wall. Katsuko turned and dipped her chin at Shiranui, following a step behind when he started down the walkway.
The lunch crew was still handing out food a little ways down the wall. Katsuko received her styrofoam cup full of scalding hot tea, pushed her mask aside, and drank it in silence, uncaring that it burned on the way down.
Shiranui had performed the face-hiding genjutsu on them again and pushed his own mask up. He materialized a pack of cigarettes from one of his belt pouches and held it out. “You smoke?”
“Not regularly.” Katsuko set her tea aside and took a cigarette. “Got a light?”
Shiranui gave her a quizzical look, but Katsuko remained impassive. She didn’t have enough energy to explain that trying to light the cigarette on her own would end up with it exploding. After a moment he shrugged, lit his cigarette, and then took hers and repeated the tiny flame jutsu. He handed it back to her with its tip ember-red and glowing.
Katsuko stuck the cigarette between her lips and inhaled, closing her eyes at the first rush of nicotine. She opened them again when Shiranui spoke.
“Want me to patch that up for you?” His gaze flickered to her bitten lip. “I’m a field medic.”
“I’m fine, lieutenant.” Katsuko gave him a polite smile. “I’ll let it heal on its own. Thanks for the smoke.”
He slouched back against the wall, looking off into the distance. “Yeah. You’re not fine. You don’t have to tell me why, but you don’t need to bother pretending, either.” He took another drag and tipped his head up to blow out a thin stream of smoke. “Don’t worry, Ueno. We’re teammates. I’ve got your back.”
Katsuko looked away. “Thanks,” she said at last, surprised when it came out sincere.
Raidou drummed his fingers on the wall.
Nine and a half minutes arrived at the pace of cold syrup, infinitely more frustrating then the hours that had preceded them, and with every passing second he expected a chunk of wall to explode. In his year as Team Eighteen’s lieutenant, he’d seen Katsuko go critical three times—but each incident had been predictable. Once when Isamu had gone down with a blade in his back. Once when an enemy Iwa-nin had cornered her in a shelter of rocks and torn her armor open—that one had ended in a red mist. The last time had been the thing with the children’s hospital, and Katsuko hadn’t been the only one driven to slaughter.
People had died each time, but they’d been the right people.
He’d never seen her misstep on home ground.
He hadn’t seen her misstep now, in fairness, but he was ninja enough to recognize the breath between a lit fuse and the inevitable crater.
At ten and a half minutes, he pulled a pebble loose from the wall and tossed it over the edge, listening for the faint clink as it hit the path sixty feet down.
Eleven minutes. He unbuckled and re-buckled his armguards more tightly.
Twelve minutes. Back to drumming.
At thirteen minutes, he was ready to abandon his post and go looking for them.
Thirteen and a half—
Screw it. He turned away from the wall and almost walked straight into Genma, who’d managed to wraith right up to his back without Raidou noticing, because distraction killed.
It almost killed Genma, actually. Raidou arrested the automatic punch before it was more than a twitch, and regained his composure.
“Tea?” Genma offered, holding up a cup.
At his back, Katsuko was a casual S-curve in her ANBU armor, radiating only the barest hint of tension. “Everything okay, taichou?” she asked.
“Fine,” said Raidou, before remembering he had a general no coddling on duty policy. “No, scratch that, you’re late.”
Behind the tanuki-face, Genma didn’t even blink. “Won’t happen again,” he said steadily.
Katsuko straightened and bowed an apology, iced-over calm. “Sorry, captain.”
Yeah, Raidou thought. Blew that.
He sighed and raked a gloved hand through his hair, then rolled his shoulders back and took the tea from Genma. It smelled like something green, slightly over-stewed. “Thank you,” he said.
Genma’s mask tipped an expressionless acknowledgement. “Anything happen while we were gone?”
My blood pressure rose twelve points, Raidou didn’t say. “Whole lot of nothing,” he said. “I’m starting to think there was either a change of plans, or Hatake got it wrong.”
“He was shocky and poisoned. I’m willing to believe he was a little wrong,” Genma said.
Katsuko piped up helpfully. “Maybe they’re off on holiday.”
Well, she seemed recovered.
Raidou gave her an assessing look that, hopefully, suggested brain filter, and twitched a simple genjutsu around himself. He drained the lukewarm tea in three long swallows; it went a long way towards clearing his head. “Or the armed battlements drove them off.”
“Maybe,” Genma allowed, with cool skepticism.
Maybe Orochimaru was smart enough to let them wear themselves out with a week of high-tension guarding, and he’d mount an attack when they started to wind down.
Or maybe it was all just rumors on the wind, and they were getting sunburned for nothing.
Raidou dropped his genjutsu and centered his attention back on his most pressing concern, which was Katsuko. When she walked past him to the wall, he brushed his fingertips against her arm-guard, tapping a quick four-beat ANBU code: Okay?
The response was instant, almost a perfect mirror against his arm. Okay. She took her place at the wall again, still unusually quiet, but focused this time.
He had no idea what was going on with her.
Well, if she told him, he’d help her beat it bloody. If she didn’t tell him, he’d make sure she stayed on the rails until she’d figured out a way to solve it for herself.
He took up his place at her side and propped his elbows on the wall, staring out at an unchanging sea of wind-blown trees.
Genma’s soldier pill had finally worn off. The sky had slowly modulated from bright aqua to rich tangerine to dusty mauve, and the shadows of the guards on the walls stretched out to the east instead of the west—long black lines pointing towards the darkening forest. The craggy faces of Konoha’s leaders backing the village wore deep shades of blue, with rays of gold backlighting the spikes of Yondaime’s hair and the roofs of ANBU headquarters beyond them.
Nothing had happened.
All day long, messengers had come and gone. Personnel had arrived and departed. Ranging parties had come in the gates with nothing to report beyond the usual activity within Fire Country’s borders, and others had gone out to look for what seemed to be increasingly imaginary clues that an attack was imminent.
Genma yawned, rolling his shoulders with a creaking pop. His back ached, his feet were leaden, and his chakra, when he mustered it for a casual sense of what was in range, came sluggishly to his call.
Raidou’s chakra felt like a banked fire, too. He still stood ramrod straight, but Genma could read fatigue in the way Raidou moved—he showed the careful economy of a man who was husbanding the last of his resources.
How long had it been since they’d slept? Last night was the chase, the incident, and the endless debriefing; the night before had been set up for phase two of the Trials—it was hard to believe the first day of Trials was only two days gone. It felt like a week since Genma’s head had last seen his pillow.
Well, Aoba’s couch.
Maybe tonight, if things stayed calm, he’d sleep at his dad’s.
Katsuko’s chakra, unlike his and Raidou’s, remained a beacon. It still flared and flickered with disorder, and as the shadows grew longer, her agitation seemed to be mounting again.
He leaned back against the wall and looked at his two companions. “Our relief team ought to be here soon. Looks like they’ll probably have a boring night.”
Katsuko shrugged, distant and preoccupied with whatever internal demons she was facing down.
“I may kill Hatake,” Raidou said, in a friendly, conversational tone. “Or at least tack a notice to his big clever forehead. ‘Capture enemy spies for questioning, don’t fillet them.’”
“I’m pretty sure I remember that one from Akuma-sensei’s lectures at the Academy,” Genma agreed. “What is that, Rule 63? ‘A shinobi never wastes an opportunity to gather intelligence, no matter how much the enemy deserves to die.’ Something like that.”
“My point exactly,” Raidou said. “Genin know that one.”
Katsuko tipped her head slightly, listening despite her turmoil. The cheerful incongruity of her rat mask struck Genma as funny for no reason other than that he was tired. Funny and a little sad. Was it the spectre of the Fox that had her so worked up in knots? But the Fox was dead, and if there was another tailed demon about to be loosed on Konoha, there was no sign of it.
“Hey, listen,” he said. “When we get done here, I’m gonna swing by my dad’s. He lives above the bakery. You want to come with me and get some buns? It’ll be whatever didn’t sell today, but they’ll be good.”
Katsuko hesitated. “Are the buns free?”
“For my teammates? Always. Especially if we bring him back spices and stuff from missions in interesting places.”
“For the free buns, then,” Katsuko conceded.
Genma looked up at Raidou. “Captain?”
Raidou rubbed one sun-reddened shoulder. “You had me at ‘bakery,’ honestly.”
Genma smiled behind his mask. “Good.” He stretched again. Fast approaching and familiar chakra caught his attention. When he looked over the wall, four shinobi in bone and black were already scaling it. “Here comes Team Ten.”
Nara Shikaku’s deer-faced mask emerged first, followed by his lieutenant and two more. He surveyed the rag-tag pieces of Team Six, sketched a casual wave of greeting to them all, and looked up at Raidou. “We’re relieving you,” he said.
“We’re relieved,” Raidou returned, in what had to be the oldest and most stale joke in military history.
When they were away from the gate, heading up the street towards Konoha’s heart, Genma caught Raidou’s eye. “And you kicked me off the team for punning?”
Raidou snorted a surprised laugh. His body language was looser now that they were off the wall and actually moving again, still tired, but with more purpose and animation. “Yours was worse.”
“Only a little worse,” Genma said. “But yours certainly had antiquity on its side, I concede. Am I still off the team, then?”
“Guess that depends how good these buns are,” Raidou said. His attention was back on Katsuko, silent and intense, with her chakra flaring and frayed.
Genma reached out to tap the hard plate of Raidou’s arm guard. All OK? He nodded his head at Katsuko’s shadow.
They traveled in silence for a long moment before Raidou reluctantly flashed back the single handsign for undecided.
Genma nodded. On your six, he signed back.
As lieutenant, it was his job. As a ninja, his duty. But he was starting to actually care about his new teammates, too.
“Come on,” he said, picking up his pace a little. “If we get there looking tired and pathetic enough, maybe Dad’ll make us dinner, too.”