April 13, Yondaime Year 5
For the glory that was supposed to be springtime, April had stayed colder, rained longer, and made everyone grumpier than the happiest month had any right to. But the cherry trees, in despite of it all, had bloomed at last, and there were more than a few blossom viewing parties going on under canopies of pink and white petals on the banks of Konoha’s river.
Genma was heading towards one of them himself, glad for a day off before proctoring the ANBU trials, when he heard raised voices coming from a darkened glen off the main path. There was plenty of noise coming from revelers—the laughter and chatter of civilians and shinobi drinking and picnicking in groups under the trees filled the park—but this was different.
Someone called someone else a tightwad bastard. Drunken voices escalated.
“You owe me five thousand fucking ryou!”
“Go fuck yourself, cock-breath!”
“What did you call me?”
“You heard me.”
The sound of a fist connecting with flesh was unmistakable.
Genma hesitated. The chakra signatures coming from the other side of those trees felt civilian, and the Uchiha would undoubtedly be here any minute to take care of the problem anyway, but just in case things got out of hand, he probably ought to go make sure no one brought a blade into this fight.
The only way this fight could get any funnier was if one of these drunk bastards brought out a knife. Watching civilians try to beat each other up was hilarious, in the same way that watching uncoordinated puppies maul each other was hilarious. Add in a blade or two and it was like giving inebriated children scissors.
“Go for his nuts!” Katsuko hollered, and cackled when the shorter civilian man took her advice and drove his knee up between his opponent’s legs.
A red-haired woman wearing a hitai-ate turned around to give her a worried look. “Shouldn’t we stop them?”
“Nah,” Katsuko said, because seriously. Civilians. “Let ‘em go at it. Isn’t it adorable? They’re trying so hard.”
The woman’s expression turned dubious. “If you say so.”
The tall civilian man spat out a tooth and punched the other man in the face. Katsuko snickered and dug into her plastic bag for one of the iced teas she’d bought during her grocery run. “You’ll learn.” She smirked at the woman as she twisted open the cap and took a swig. “Gotta get your fun while you still can, right?”
Besides, these men had obviously never thrown a punch in their lives. The tall one kept on bending his wrist when he connected; the short one blocked hits with his face. The worst they’d probably end up with was a broken bone or two. This was better than her daytime soap operas, except with more loose teeth and incompetence.
Except then a man in very, very tight-fitting jeans and a black leather jacket materialized between the two combatants, catching both of their punches—one in each hand. “Hi. You need to stop now.”
Katsuko sighed and put her tea away. Some shinobi didn’t know how not to meddle and let a perfectly safe, entertaining event run its course. At least the man was nice to look at; shoulder-length brown hair, a sharp jaw and high cheekbones, hazel eyes. He had a dango skewer stuck between his lips like a cigarette.
He also looked vaguely familiar. Katsuko remembered seeing him in ANBU headquarters, dressed in the uniform bone and black. She slid through the crowd to get a better view. “Oi,” she said. “At least wait until one of them punches the other out.”
The sudden appearance of a kunoichi with a chakra presence like a small blast furnace standing just out of striking range wasn’t a surprise, although really, where were the Uchiha? This ninja—undoubtedly a jounin with chakra that intense—was in civvies: loose-fitting, grass-stained jeans, and a hoodie so much too large it hid her hands and swallowed any hint of curves she might have had. Her hair was a raven’s nest pulled back at the nape into a parody of a ponytail, and her eyes glittered with a mix of amusement and disappointment.
Genma was pretty sure he remembered her from somewhere.
He didn’t have time to pursue the memory, though, because the shorter of his two combatants showed surprising skill for an untrained civilian (and surprising stupidity), twisting in Genma’s grasp and making every effort to knee Genma in the same anatomy where he’d kneed his former opponent.
Genma swiveled his hips out of the way and kicked the man’s footing out from under him, knocking him prone. He sat on the man’s back, dragging the other man down with him.
“So here’s the thing,” he said to neither one of them in particular. “I’m planning to do quite a lot of eating and drinking and enjoying the blossom-viewing tonight. If you two idiots kill each other, or even if you just hurt each other enough, the cops are going to come and keep a close eye on everyone else, and then everybody suffers. That’s hardly fair, is it?”
The kunoichi’s face lit up with frank glee. “You could dump them both in the river,” she suggested. “They both smell like they need a bath anyways.”
The man Genma was sitting on made some choice (and muffled) suggestions about things the ninja could do with themselves, the river, and the cherry blossoms. The one Genma had in an arm lock looked a little terrified. And quite pained. Genma raised an eyebrow at him.
“I’m sorry, man,” he stammered. “He owes me five thousand ryou. I need to make rent.”
That was a reason Genma could respect for breaking the peace. “Do you?” he asked the man on the ground.
Genma looked the tall man in the eye. “I’m going to let go of your arm. Don’t run, or rent will be the least of your worries.” He felt a little bad when he saw the finger-shaped bruise he’d left on the man’s forearm. It didn’t hold a candle to the shiner and split lip the other civilian had left behind, though.
Turning his attention back to his captive, he leaned down until he was lying atop the drunk’s back with his mouth right by the man’s ear. “Actually that’s, ‘Fuck you, shinobi-san,’” he said mildly. “Do you owe this guy five thousand ryou?”
“Fuck him,” the drunk said. He bucked under Genma, and tried one more time with the knee trick. A murmur from the onlookers suggested that perhaps the military police were on their way at last.
Genma channeled a little chakra into his right hand and slapped it against the drunk’s ass. The man bellowed in surprise. Genma got up, dusted himself off, and left the drunk struggling to stagger to his feet with both legs half-asleep.
A glance at the kunoichi told him she’d seen exactly what he’d done, and from the look on her face, she wholeheartedly approved. The murmur of voices grew louder, accompanying a telltale surge of movement that heralded the imminent arrival of the Authorities.
“Here,” Genma said. He tossed the drunk’s wallet to the tall man. “If you want to play fair, take what he owes you and give the rest back. And if I were you, I’d get the hell out of here before the cops get here.”
He nodded at the reckless kunoichi. “You coming?”
Well, it wasn’t like she had anything better to do. Katsuko slung her grocery bag over her shoulder. “Where to?”
“I was gonna join some friends for blossom viewing,” her new acquaintance said. “You could come.”
Katsuko raised an eyebrow. “I don’t even know your name, buddy. You always move this fast, or is today a special day?”
“I don’t know yours, either, I just figured you didn’t want to be here when the Uchiha showed up.” He quirked his lips around the dango skewer and took off down the street, cutting through the crowd. Katsuko shrugged and fell into step with him. He glanced over at her. “Shiranui Genma. Same as the bakery.”
The name ‘Genma’ rang a bell, vaguely. And the Shiranui bakery made amazing buns. “Katsuko. I think I’ve seen you around before.” She deliberately flicked her gaze to his left arm, where the ANBU tattoo would be.
He looked down at his shoulder and then back at her. “I thought you seemed familiar. Were you at Shiratori-san’s exploding tag talk last month?”
“The one about the new designs they’re coming up with?” Katsuko perked up. “Yeah. Exploding tags are my favorite.”
Genma’s lips twitched up. “You were the one sitting third from the back who asked about using a bird seal sequence, right?”
“Bird seal sequence shaves off a quarter of a second. Sloppier than Tiger, but do you really need to care about precision with explosion tags?” Katsuko made an expansive gesture. Then a thought occurred to her, as she finally remembered where she’d heard Genma’s name before. “Hey, scuttlebutt says you’re tapped for lieutenant. That true?”
He made a noncommittal noise. “I’ve been provisional lieutenant on my team since Gojo broke her leg, but my whole team is getting reassigned now. What about yours? You staying together or getting newbies?”
“Eh,” Katsuko said. “Last week they said we were sticking together, this week they said we’re being sent to new teams. Maybe tomorrow they’ll give us all puppies.”
“Don’t tell the Inuzuka, or they’ll all want one.”
“Hah!” The crowd was thinning out a little. Katsuko dug into her bag for her iced tea again and uncapped it. “The trials are about to start. We have any promising fresh meat this year?”
Genma looked around reflexively, assuming someone was not only listening, but perhaps even setting him up. The crowd seemed to be paying them no mind, however. And if the Uchiha had arrived back where they’d left the dueling civilians, there didn’t seem to be any fallout yet. “Can’t really tell you specifics,” he said. “But there’s definitely some talent out there. I bet we pick up at least six rookies.”
Katsuko inclined her head briefly in a hint of an approving nod. “That’s good to hear.”
Maybe she had been setting him up, though it was a bit of a stretch to assume she’d staged the civilian fight as a pretense for drawing Genma into an unwise conversation. Probably she was just another slightly-paranoid ANBU, like he was.
She dug in the bag she was carrying and extracted a bottle, tossing it to Genma like a reward for his discretion. He caught it: a sweat-beaded bottle of Gold Leaf brand green tea. Then she stared at him so hard he could practically feel the pressure of her gaze.
She nodded at him.
The seal was unbroken. And she’d confirmed she’d been in Shiratori’s lecture. He remembered seeing her at HQ. If he thought a little harder…
“Rat mask!” He snapped his fingers and uncapped the tea. She was one of last year’s rookies, so probably not a plant from Intel. “Thanks.”
She blinked, then studied Genma’s face like she could picture the mask there if she concentrated. “And you have the dog-cat… thing.”
“I did,” Genma agreed. “I just got a new one, actually. Quartermaster decided he didn’t like the way the old one was fitting my face.”
“As long as it’s not a squirrel,” Katsuko said with a sage nod. “Rats are cunning little bastards, but I couldn’t respect anyone wearing a squirrel mask.”
“My last captain was Squirrel. He’s pretty kick-ass, actually,” Genma said.
“Then I’m sorry for him,” said Katsuko, with a sympathetic head bow. “I truly am.”
Genma chuckled. “It could be worse. And I lucked out—my new mask’s a tanuki. Got the raccoon eyes and everything. Or I suppose it could be a panda, but I’m gonna go with tanuki.”
Katsuko snorted back a rough, entirely unladylike laugh. “If there is a panda mask,” she said, “it’s probably reserved as punishment.”
“Probably.” Genma took a long swig of the tea. “There’s that spider-masked guy, too. Wonder who he pissed off. I know he’s not an Aburame; they’d think it was a compliment.”
“Maybe it’s meant to reflect his personality,” Katsuko offered.
Genma stepped deftly over the corner of someone’s unattended blossom-viewing picnic, angling across a patch of new grass towards a cluster of stone lanterns. “If masks reflect personality, you’re a crafty schemer, and I’m a ballsy shape changer?”
“I could be crafty,” Katsuko said, looking thoughtful. “Scheming sounds like too much work, though. Give me a bar brawl anytime.”
“I guess that doesn’t surprise me much,” Genma said. “Seeing as you were advocating throwing those idiots in the river. What were you doing tonight anyway? Meeting someone?”
“Got bored,” Katsuko said, scratching the bridge of her nose. “Didn’t feel like being productive, so I went and got tea instead. And what’s so bad about throwing people in the river? My jounin-sensei used to do that to me and my teammates. Good times.” Hideki-sensei always did prefer actions over words. Katsuko brushed away the twinge of nostalgia and glanced over at Genma. “Where’s the blossom party at, anyways?”
“Over by the half-moon bridge. My buddy Yamashiro Aoba’s holding down the spot. Do you know him?”
There was a Yamashiro in Intel, wasn’t there? “I’ve heard of him before. Anyone else with you guys that I’d know?”
“He was bringing some girls from Intel, I think,” Genma said. “Not sure if it’s anyone I even know. He’s one of those guys who always has a date or three.” The dango skewer in his mouth twitched as he smirked in amusement.
Oh. Well, maybe some of the girls would be cute. Katsuko quirked a grin. “Sounds fun. Lead on.”
The cherry trees surrounding the high, arched pedestrian bridge were in full bloom, small petals floating loose in the wind like a veil of pink. A tall man with sleek sunglasses on stood chatting with three kunoichi, leaning against a tree trunk with his hands tucked casually into his pockets.
Genma made a ‘quiet, wait here’ gesture at Katsuko; she watched in silent curiosity as he ghosted up behind Yamashiro Aoba. The kunoichi saw Genma before Aoba did, but none of them gave any sign. There was a lightning-quick blur of movement and a yelp from Aoba, and then he and Genma fell to the ground as they tussled. Katsuko and the other kunoichi looked on in skeptical amusement.
A moment later, Genma lifted his head and beckoned to her. “Dude, this is Katsuko. I found her on my way over. If I buy her takoyaki, can we keep her?”
Katsuko gave Genma her most unimpressed expression and stayed where she was. “‘Sup,” she said, and lifted a hand in greeting.
Aoba lit up, getting to his feet and giving her a courtly bow. “Hey, I know you! You’re on Isamu’s team. Come on over and join us. We’ve got beer, lychee flavor chu-hai, and fancy-ass sake for Gen, ‘cause he’s a snob. Shut up, Genma, you are. This is Hyuuga Momoe, Yamanaka Susuki, and Hiyashi Riei.” He sat down and patted the ground next to him.
Genma sat up, looking sheepish. His shirt had hiked up during his and Aoba’s impromptu tussle; he pulled the hem back down. “We do have room for one more, if you want to stay.”
The Hyuuga looked like the rest of her relatives: regal, pale-eyed, and completely uninterested in Katsuko’s existence. Excellent. Nothing good came from associating with Konoha’s old clans— too much inbreeding and ruthlessness. The Yamanaka was blonde and had legs that went on for miles, and she gave Katsuko a welcoming smile when Katsuko glanced her way. Her eyes were sharp and intelligent, cataloguing every detail of Katsuko’s appearance.
The third kunoichi, Hiyashi Riei, had mousy brown hair and was forgettably unassuming in a way that could only be deliberately cultivated. Katsuko gave all three kunoichi a friendly nod and settled down beside Genma, resting her arms on her knees. “There’s food,” she said. “I’m definitely staying.”
“Cool.” Genma stretched his legs out in front of him and nodded a greeting to Aoba’s Intel friends. “Hi. I’m Genma. Thanks for not spoiling my surprise.”
“Wait, you saw him?” Aoba said. “Riei, Susuki, Momoe, how could you do this to me? I’m hurt, deeply hurt.”
“Of course we saw him,” the Hyuuga said with a dry smile. “But why deprive ourselves of entertainment?” She turned her milky gaze on Genma with an approving nod. “It was a good takedown. Riei, I believe you owe me three hundred ryou.”
“Aoba can pay it,” Riei said.
“Me? Why?” Aoba asked. “I was the victim here.”
“You were the one who was bragging about his excellent chakra sense. I’m sure Genma-san is skilled, but really, Aoba, you should have noticed him. He wasn’t exactly masking his presence with a jutsu.”
“She has a point,” the Yamanaka said. She swished her long hair back over one shoulder and tucked one leg up under herself.
“Now you’re just ganging up on me,” Aoba said. He turned to appeal to Genma and Katsuko. “Back me up here, Gen.”
“I didn’t do anything a genin couldn’t do,” Genma said. “You failed stealth in your first year at the Academy, didn’t you?”
“Maybe it’s the sunglasses,” Katsuko suggested. “They do tend to block peripheral vision.”
Aoba shrugged. “Not these.” He tapped the curved glass at one temple. “They wrap, see?” He uncapped a beer and took a swig. “I still think you’re all terrible people, especially after I camped out all day so we could have this perfect spot for our party.”
“You camped out?” Genma said.
“I hired a genin to camp out,” Aoba admitted. “It was a good D-rank. She picked up a little extra money, and we got our excellent position under the weeping cherries.”
“That sounds more like you.”
The kunoichi from Intel chuckled. Aoba rustled in a bag for a moment, pulling out a slender-necked blue bottle of cloudy sake. “Here, Gen. Don’t ever say I never gave you anything.”
“You’re a good man, Aoba.” Genma uncapped the sake and took an appreciative swig, then tipped his head back, peering at the canopy of baby pink above them. The sun was all the way down, now, leaving just a hint of orange in the western sky. Paper lanterns danced on strings between the trees, bathing revelers and blossoms alike in a warm glow.
At his side, Katsuko opened one of the chu-hai cocktails and turned to the Yamanaka. “You want to share?” she asked, leaning in with a smile.
“Sure,” Susuki said. She scooted over, hip to hip with the wild-haired stray Genma had picked up. Aoba nudged Genma in the side, and got a kick in the ankle from one of the other girls.
Genma sighed happily, taking another long drink of sake, and feeling every tension just melt away. No more missions for a week was something to look forward to—Trials started day after tomorrow, and that was going to be fun. Of course he’d also be meeting his new captain. It’d be hard to get someone as awesome as Hajime, but there were some excellent leaders in ANBU. Maybe he’d luck out and get assigned to Nara Shikaku’s team. Or get someone good looking. Either way, it could wait. Tonight he was just a guy with a bottle of sake in his hand and friends at his side, under a ceiling of stars and sakura blossoms.