April 23, Yondaime Year 5
Minato was late for the briefing that morning, though it wasn’t strictly his fault. He shouldn’t have let Sagara schedule it at 0730, but with a conference with the ambassador from Rain Country set for 0900 and a shinobi’s funeral at 1400 there wasn’t much room anywhere else in the day. Unfortunately, Naruto demanded breakfast precisely at 0700, and a small child’s schedule was even less malleable than an ambassador’s. Naruto threw louder tantrums, too, when his favorite over-sugared cereal ran out.
Saya-san, the housekeeper, was mortified. Minato was impatient. Naruto was inconsolable, until a turtle-masked ANBU slipped through the kitchen window and set a bulging cloth shopping bag on the table. “It’s 0732, Hokage-sama,” she murmured.
Minato bit his tongue on one of the words he was trying very hard not to use around Naruto. “Thank you,” he said. “Give the receipt to Saya-san, please. Bottom on the chair, Naruto. Saya-san—”
“I’ll get him ready, Hokage-sama,” the housekeeper promised, wiping flustered hands on her apron. She was new, and still nervous; Naruto tended to terrorize her. She tried to coax the little devil off the table and back into his chair with murmured promises about preschool and wouldn’t he have fun with his friends today, and if he just ate his breakfast like a good little boy—
“‘m not a good little boy!” Naruto declared mutinously. “‘m a ninja!” He launched himself off the table with a ferocious howl and a butter knife. Minato snatched him out of the air just short of Turtle, smacked him on the bottom, and stuck him in the chair.
“Next time you try that on the ANBU, you might get hurt,” he said, leaning over his son. “They’re not your playmates. They are very dangerous, and they are here to protect you, not to let you climb all over them. If you try to misbehave, they have standing orders to restrain you as they think best until I return. Do you understand, Naruto-chan?”
Naruto’s bottom lip trembled. He sucked it in, and stared down at his toes.
Minato sighed. “Say thank you to Turtle-san for bringing your cereal.”
Naruto wiggled his toes, and didn’t speak. He had all of Kushina’s stubbornness and all of her fire, and if this were any other morning Minato could steal at least a few more minutes to cuddle him out of the sulk, but Minato was late already and Turtle was waiting stiff and anxious by the door.
He rested a hand on the small golden head, and then stooped swiftly down and kissed his son. “I love you, Naruto,” he said. “Be good and listen to Saya-san, and I’ll be back for dinner.” He sent Saya a quick glance of apology, ruffled Naruto’s hair once more, and headed out the door.
Turtle vanished somewhere between the kitchen and the outer door, back to her silent patrol. Lynx was waiting in the hall outside the Hokage’s apartments, with a folder under his arm and the Hokage’s hat in his hand. Minato waved off the hat, as always; Lynx sighed, as always, and handed over the folder instead.
“The captains are waiting in the large briefing room,” he said, unnecessarily. “Sagara-san, Oita-san, and Shibata-san are there as well. And—” He hesitated. “Shimura Danzou, Utatane Koharu, and Uchiha Fugaku have come as representatives of the Council.”
Outside of Naruto’s hearing Minato could swear, and did. “Didn’t Sagara tell them this is an ANBU-only event?”
Lynx lifted a shoulder. “Danzou-san seemed disinclined to wait for the Council briefing.”
Danzou was being an ass, as usual, Minato translated. Well, he could deal with the old hawk. Or—use him, perhaps. Why not?
The low murmur of voices in the large briefing room cut out instantly as Lynx opened the door, replaced by the scuff of cloth and armor against the wooden floor as more than two dozen ANBU captains, three division commanders, and three village Councilmembers sank to one knee in salute. Sagara was the first to rise, but Danzou and the Sandaime’s old teammate Koharu, in the front row, weren’t far behind. Minato nodded briefly to them as he took his place on the raised dais. “My thanks to the Council’s representatives for attending,” he said, before Danzou’s opening mouth could shape the words he’d undoubtedly practiced. “You’ll be doing me a great favor by briefing the full Council in my stead. I trust I can rely on you to take accurate notes, Danzou-san, and supply them to Koharu-san when she addresses the Council?”
Danzou’s mouth thinned into an annoyed slit. “Of course, Hokage-sama,” he said.
Which took the week’s most irritating task neatly off his schedule. Minato smiled sunnily and looked over their heads to his ANBU, who were settling down cross-legged to listen.
“First,” he said, “my thanks to you, and the village’s gratitude as well. Many of you have stood double and triple shifts with your teams this past week, guarding our village against a whispered threat. Some of you participated in the ANBU Trials and then went straight to the walls without pause for rest or food. You’ve taken on rookies, you’ve run missions, you’ve patrolled Konoha’s forests and Fire Country’s borders, and thanks to you Konoha’s walls are secure and our citizens at peace.”
Well, as much peace as they ever had in a shinobi village, but that went without saying.
“You all know that initial reports indicated the missing-nin Orochimaru might be behind the attack at the ANBU Trials,” he continued. “ We have been unable to substantiate those reports. The rogue Akiyama Jiro left no evidence behind of any connection. He did run three solo missions in the two months preceding the Trials, to northern Wind Country, Fukuoka in Tea Country, and the border of Grass, but we have no reports that he met with anyone suspect during his time out of the village. Intel will, of course, be conducting further investigation.” He shared a brief nod with Oita Gennosuke.
“Our patrols—many of which were your patrols—have uncovered no unusual activity near Konoha. We still don’t have reliable reports of Orochimaru’s whereabouts, but that’s not unusual, either.” Jiraiya’s only message—delivered in the middle of the night by an extremely cranky toad—was that he had a tip that the snake bastard had been sighted in Wave Country last month, and that he was following up.
For an accomplished novelist, Jiraiya’s communiqués from the field left much to be desired.
A squirrel-masked captain raised two fingers near his shoulder. Minato nodded.
“How far has word leaked of the…complications, at the Trials?” Squirrel asked. “If word has leaked.”
“Who have you told?” Minato inquired.
A few of the ANBU chuckled. The Councilmembers frowned. Minato said, “We can’t hide the fact of our heightened alert over the past week, and I have no intention of doing so. I have a meeting with the ambassador from Ame this morning, in fact, during which I plan to tell him that an attempt to disrupt a village training exercise was met with swift and brutal retaliation. Orochimaru’s suspected involvement has not spread beyond ANBU and it will not spread beyond the village Council.” He stared flatly down at the Councilmembers. “I trust I can rely on you for that.”
The Uchiha’s eyes dropped, then rose again. Koharu frowned deeper, but Danzou met his gaze without a flicker of heavy eyelids. “You can, Hokage-sama.”
Danzou had been another candidate for the position of Fourth Hokage, five years ago—and for Third Hokage, years before Minato was born. He was an argumentative ass on the Council and, Minato had heard, a disturbing and disturbed man in his private life, but he was loyal to Konoha, if not to its current Hokage. He wouldn’t spread sensitive information—and he wouldn’t let anyone else do so, either. Satisfied, Minato looked back to the ANBU.
“As matters now stand, we have no proof of Orochimaru’s involvement, no sign of his whereabouts, and no indication of further attacks. I am therefore scaling down the threat level from S to A as of this morning. We will maintain two extra ANBU teams on the wall and one on patrol for the rest of the week. If all remains quiet, as I expect it will, the threat level will scale down at the end of the week to the normal B and we will resume business as usual. Including all those missions that have been piling up awaiting your availability. So get your rookies whipped into shape, captains, and work out any kinks in your team structure now. Any questions?”
“Can we use actual whips?”
Sagara turned sharply to stare back into the ranks of captains, trying to identify the one who’d spoken. Minato said blandly, “I don’t interfere with captains’ training methods, Rabbit.”
Sagara, who would and did, settled slowly back, with the promise of vengeance in the stark line of her shoulders. Minato bit down a grin. “If that’s all, captains, you are dismissed. Councilmembers, you may direct any questions to Director Oita. Good day, and good luck.”
He headed for the door with Lynx a silent shadow at his heels. It was twenty minutes to nine, and if he was quick, he’d get to see Naruto again before preschool and the ambassador from Rain intervened.
At the very back of the room, seated among the newest, most junior captains, Raidou blinked. He leaned sideways and whispered to Usagi. “That’s it?”
“Guess so,” she said with a shrug. “You wanted more?”
In his heart of hearts, Raidou might have been nursing a sheltered hope that Minato would ask a question only he would be able to answer, wittily, with crucial information. But Usagi didn’t ever need to know that. Instead he said, “Seriously, whips?”
“Have you seen my rookies?” She stood, stretched in a long, muscled arch, and righted her rabbit ANBU mask from its crooked tilt.
The councilmembers were clustered around Oita like irritated hornets vying for the attention of an unflappable daisy—and Raidou possibly needed coffee, because that was the weirdest thought he’d ever had about the head of Intel. The senior captains had already filed out. Minato was, disappointingly, long gone.
“How are your minions?” Usagi asked, as they trailed out into the hall.
“One’s injured, one’s surly, and one’s Ueno,” Raidou said. “They’re my tiny parade of joy.”
Usagi laughed with the bright, brassy enjoyment of not having his issues. “Mine tried to give me flack the first day. One of ‘em had issues about having a woman in charge, but he changed his tune.”
“What’d you do?”
“Knocked three of his teeth out,” Usagi said. “Now he brings me breakfast rolls every morning.”
“That’ll do it,” Raidou said dryly.
“You should try it sometime.”
He stepped around a scurrying courier hauling an armload of black-bordered files. “I’m actually attempting this system where I use words.”
Usagi snorted. “Words don’t get you bacon.”
“I didn’t say it was a perfect system.”
She lifted her arms up, stretching again, and yawned loudly behind her mask. “So Orochimaru sounds like a bust. You reckon he really tried to infiltrate us with one dumbass recruit, or did someone get his facts wrong?”
Raidou glanced at her sidelong. “I reckon this isn’t hallway conversation.”
“Oh come on, it’s the Hokage’s palace—”
“Which is a throughway for foreign diplomats.”
Usagi made a sound like ppbbbh. “Fine,” she said. “What’s your plan?”
He’d cut training short this morning to attend the meeting, but pushed the team extra hard to make up the difference. Genma’d had his own lieutenant’s briefing to attend, something about supplies and logistics, or Raidou would have just left him in charge. There was time blocked out for wall-duty later, but perhaps that wasn’t needed any longer—though doubtless the new teams would continue to get the short end of that stick. “Figured I’d go talk to the kids,” he said. “Two of them are going to be pretty interested in the news.”
Usagi flicked two fingers across her wrist, and then mimed taking a knife to the shoulder. “Those two?”
“Yours is a subtle nature,” Raidou said.
He could hear the grin in her voice. “I blow shit up for a living. When do I ever need to be subtle?”
“Point,” said Raidou. “Speaking of which—when you have a sec, I want to get some more updated tags from you. The latest crop we’re getting is pretty weak.”
“Yeah, the rain fucked over our supply train in Kaijiyama last month. Don’t expect decent explosive ink until May. I can swing by tonight, if you like.”
“I’ll buy you dinner.”
“Screw that, you’ll make me dinner.”
“Are you sure your rookie just didn’t like you because you’re mean?” he said, amused.
She tapped her knuckles against the mouth of his mask. “I can knock your teeth out too, Moon.”
“Not disproving my point.”
She laughed, punched him hard on the arm, and vanished down into the depths of the palace, heading for the tunnels that connected through to HQ. Wanting to feel a little sunshine, Raidou made for the open roof, where he could take a dimension-step to the rookie barracks.
He was surprised to find a muted signature he recognized, wrapped around a half-smothered ANBU spark. Kakashi was lying on his back in the shadow cast by an upstanding portion of the roof, dressed in standard jounin gear; his familiar orange book was balanced on his chest. He turned a page without looking up. “Captain.”
“Hatake,” Raidou said, noting the complete lack of salute. “You come up here often?”
After four days, there was one theme with Hatake Kakashi: every conversation was like drawing blood.
Raidou cut to the chase. “There’s news on Orochimaru.”
“I know,” Kakashi said.
“You know classified information from the meeting that ended thirty seconds ago, which you weren’t a part of,” Raidou said flatly.
“I had dinner with Minato-sensei last night,” Kakashi said, because of course he had. And of course he hadn’t thought to mention anything about it during their training session this morning.
“Any other pertinent village news you’d like me to not be aware of?” Raidou asked, irritated.
Kakashi glanced up at the sky. “It’s going to rain later.”
It was a narrow struggle not to kick his skinny, obstinate teenage butt right off the ledge.
“Give me your book,” Raidou said, and when Kakashi finally looked at him, eyebrow raised, Raidou added sharply, ”Now.”
The grey eye narrowed. Kakashi sat up, closed the slender paperback, and reluctantly handed it over.
Raidou tucked it into one of his belt-pouches. “Pick an exercise.”
“Running,” Kakashi said, who’d clearly figured out where this was going.
“Fine, thirty miles. If you bring me back a stamp from the northern border house in an hour, you can have your book back.”
“This is juvenile,” Kakashi said.
“Then it’s a perfect fit,” Raidou snapped. “Don’t translocate. I want your feet on the ground for every step.”
Kakashi’s glare was like hot ice before he shuttered it. He turned away, preparing to walk down the side of the building.
“Salute your commanding officer, Agent Hatake,” Raidou said.
Kakashi turned, performed a salute so sharp it was like a razor, turned away, and vanished in the next eyeblink.
Raidou waited five seconds, until he could no longer feel that half-hidden spark, and swore quietly. Then he translocated to the rookie barracks.
The really great thing about living in the ANBU rookie barracks wasn’t the rent, which was negligible, or the access to hot ninja, who were mostly off-limits. It was, as Katsuko had explained with missionary fervor on the first day’s tour, the unlimited hot water in the communal showers. The water was hell on blisters but bliss on bruises, and after just two hours of Raidou’s harsh training regimen Ryouma had plenty of both.
He made it halfway into clothes, afterward, before the bed turned too inviting. Raidou and Genma were both in meetings, Katsuko and Kakashi were both off on their own, and he hadn’t slept more than five hours in a stretch—or had more than thirty minutes of downtime—since the ANBU Trials. Two hours, he promised himself, and sprawled onto his stomach, with his bad hand curled up against his throat. He could finish the long-delayed unpacking later…
Missions sometimes came at midnight, with a rap on the door. Ryouma lurched off the bed, found the doorknob mostly by accident, and blinked dazedly into the strong light of an interior hallway and the half-masked face of his ANBU captain.
Raidou paused, then slipped the crescent moon mask off over his brows and clipped it on his belt. He’d been wearing grubby training clothes when Ryouma’d last seen him, but he was sleek and polished now in ANBU black and bone, reddish hair clean and just touched with gel. Sun-lines crinkled the corners of his eyes. “Did I wake you?”
“Uh,” Ryouma said eloquently. He rubbed a hand over his face, raked his fingers through quite dry and appallingly rumpled hair. “Yeah, I guess.” He must have been asleep at least an hour, for his hair to dry. It felt like five minutes, or fifty years. He knuckled his eye. “We got a mission already?”
“Not until that heals,” Raidou said, glancing down at Ryouma’s bandaged hand on the doorknob. “I just have some news. I can come back?”
“Hell no,” Ryouma said. “I love news.” He stood back, holding the door open, and caught sight of his bare shoulder, the silver gleam of the ring below.
“Sorry,” he said, dropping the door, dodging back. There was a black tee shirt draped over a box on the floor, just short of the hamper; he caught it up and pulled it on. “I wasn’t—”
Wasn’t trying to seduce you, right. That sounded far worse.
“Fell asleep after the shower,” he said, instead. He was wearing pants, right? Well, loose athletic shorts. That was just as good. “What’s the news?”
Raidou was staring at his chest, looking fascinated. “Zombie dolphin. That’s new.”
Ryouma glanced quickly down. No, not a new tattoo, just a lurid graphic print on the tee shirt. “Feral Porpoises,” he translated after a moment. “It’s a band.”
“Right,” Raidou said, and dragged his eyes back up to Ryouma’s face. “Mind if I come in?”
“No,” Ryouma said. He pressed the heel of his hand between his eyes and blinked very hard. “I mean, sure. I don’t mind. Come in.”
Adrenaline was usually a much better cure for exhaustion than this. It was Raidou alone in his room clogging his thoughts, and Raidou’s shoulders in ANBU uniform, and the sharp counter-cut of No ANBU agent is permitted to fraternize with a senior officer.
He’d been relieved, when Raidou first listed that rule. It answered all the questions neither of them had to ask: no Where do we stand, no I don’t really do second nights. Ryouma didn’t typically approve of other peoples’ rules, but they were infinitely preferable to explanations.
Except apparently his libido had woken up before his brain, and his brain was having a hard time in the resulting fog.
He stepped sideways, bumping his hip against the counter of the tiny kitchenette, and groped for the first appliance he’d set up, before he even got his weapons rig unpacked or his stereo hooked in. “Coffee?”
“Please.” Raidou stepped inside and let the door swing shut as he stooped to unlace his boots. He glanced around the room, undoubtedly cataloguing the boxes still half-unpacked, the unmade bed, the training gear dumped haphazardly wherever Ryouma’d been standing when he stripped it off.
“Place looks like it’s coming together,” he said, lining up his boots neatly in front of the door. “How’re you finding it?”
The barracks, or ANBU? Maybe both. The answer was the same, in any case. “Not bad.” Ryouma dumped grounds into the filter, added water from the tap, and switched the machine on. “Bed’s too short,” he said, leaning back against the counter. His voice came out remarkably even. Even the promise of caffeine was a kick to the brain, apparently. He added more cheerfully, “Someday I’m gonna just sit in the shower and see if endless hot water really is endless. When’s our next day off?”
“Day off?” Raidou repeated, with the polite blankness of a man presented with an intriguing notion and wondering how it worked.
“It’s a thing,” Ryouma said. “Some of us use it to do laundry. Visit the Old Shinobi Home. Get blind drunk and—”
Apparently coffee fumes weren’t quite enough. He caught himself just in time. “And lose at pool. Or do science in the shower.”
Raidou waited a second, as if to make sure he was quite done. “Sounds dangerous,” he said at last. “Better not.”
“Aww,” Ryouma muttered. “You never let us have any fun.”
Raidou’s mouth quirked. “I brought news. That counts.”
News. Right. He was here as captain, not as—anything else. Ryouma kicked up a bare heel against the lower cupboard. “I did say I like news. What is it? Swords at Sunset is getting a re-release? Kakashi pulled favors and got himself transferred off our team already? Somebody found out it was Katsuko set that tree on fire and now we’re banned from the training fields forever?”
“Hokage-sama’s downgrading the threat level,” Raidou said. “Intel hasn’t found one snake hair. If it holds, we’ll be back to B in a week.”
“Oh,” Ryouma said. For a moment he could think of nothing else. “So Akiyama was working alone?”
Raidou was frowning at Ryouma’s chest again. No—at his hands, which were locked together in front of him, left thumb pressed protectively over bandaged right wrist. Ryouma pried them apart and turned to switch off the coffee maker and rinse out mugs. “How d’you take it?”
“Black, one sugar.” No rustle of movement, either of settling down on the rumpled bed or clearing off the weapons locker for a better place to sit. His gaze prickled on the back of Ryouma’s neck. “There’s no concrete proof that Akiyama was working with a partner, but the reports you and Hatake gave seemed pretty definitive. So, it’s either a rabbit hole, or his backer—Orochimaru or otherwise—got cold feet. Either way, doesn’t seem like attack is imminent.”
Mugs in hand, Ryouma turned just in time to see Raidou brush his fingertips over the cluttered wooden surface of the weapons locker. It was an unexpectedly superstitious little quirk, but he accepted the steaming coffee mug without a flicker of embarrassment.
“Maybe he only wanted Kakashi,” Ryouma said. He swept the litter of unsharpened kunai and chipped shuriken off the locker, dumped the spare jounin vest in the corner where he was even less likely to remember to take it in for repairs, and retreated two steps to the edge of his bed. “He didn’t confront anyone else at the Trials, did he? And there’s no point in his backer attacking the rest of the village if the first attempt failed and all you really want is a transplantable Sharingan eye.”
The Uchiha might want to watch their backs for a while longer, though. So would Kakashi’s new ANBU team.
Raidou settled on the locker, broad hands wrapping around the smooth white curves of the mug. “That’s one theory. But if Hatake was the end goal, why switch to you? Why not just get into ANBU and attack him on a mission, when he’s not primed to expect it?”
“See,” Ryouma said, “this is why we’ll never be evil masterminds. The ways of villains and traitors are mysteries to us. At least before caffeine.” He took a long drink, rolled the taste on his tongue, and said thoughtfully, “How’d you vote for him after the first trial? He wasn’t one of the ones I’d’ve picked.”
Raidou’s mouth tilted in amusement. “Why am I not surprised you had opinions?” He sipped his coffee, thinking it over. “Akiyama was borderline. Pretty good, not great. He would’ve done better in last year’s Trials, without you heavy-hitters skewing the curve. I didn’t vote for him.” He lowered his mug between his knees and ran a thumb over the rim. “Which might be a reason he didn’t wait. If he knew his chances of making it through weren’t high, then knocking you out of the way could only help. Or, if he couldn’t get Hatake, at least he could bring something back to his string-puller before he got knocked out of the running.”
Ryouma stared down at his coffee. “I was thinking I was just bait for Kakashi. Cutting my hands off wouldn’t tell him anything, beyond maybe the patterns of chakra-scarring in my channels. He was totally willing to kill me, anyway.” He swallowed against a sudden harshness in his throat, remembered the coffee, and took another gulp. Distantly, he thought of another drink, stale water from a steel canteen, a strong hand and shoulder steadying him.
“I didn’t realize that was you, there in the canyon,” he told his mug. “Thanks for holding me together.”
“Didn’t take much,” Raidou said, remembering the way Ryouma had looked at his wrist and said I’m a ninjutsu man. But that was the only thing he’d done. No crying, no raging, no panic. Just the one quiet acknowledgement: Oh, my career might be over.
Shock could level a man with calm, but so could a life on the guillotine edge.
Still, Ryouma had been flat on his back, drugged half-comatose while a lunatic (comrade) wielded a blade over him, and rescued only by a slice of good fortune. His wrist was mending, but who knew where his head was at? Raidou should’ve come to talk to him sooner.
In all their copious free time, with all his copious psychological training.
“I’ll bet you one thing,” he said. “If there’s a guy out there who could wring jutsu out of someone’s hands, it’d be Orochimaru. Even if you were a second choice, you were still a valuable target.”
Ryouma’s head pulled up, startled. His mouth twisted. “Thank you. That’s very comforting.”
“Score one for team self-esteem,” Raidou said, and tried a new tack. “How is your hand doing?”
Coffee steam coiled up gently as Ryouma took his hand away from the curve of the chipped blue mug and held it out, palm up and open. Flesh-colored flexible bandages covered most of his palm and wrapped a few inches up his wrist, most likely to keep him from bending the joint too much. He curled his fingers inwards, tapping the pad of his thumb to each one. The middle two fingers were a hair clumsier, but not much.
“Still hurts a little,” he said. “But it works. I’m doing seal exercises. Going slow, but I can make the shapes.”
Not bad for only four days’ healing.
“And how’re you doing?” Raidou said.
Ryouma’s eyes flicked away, dropping to the floor. He laced his fingers around the mug again, took a sip, and kept the mug pressed against his mouth, shoring up whatever words he didn’t want to spill. “All right,” he said finally, lowering it to his chest. “Had a few nights of bad dreams once the drugs wore off, but 0400 wake-up calls don’t give you much time for cold sweats. I’ll be fine by the time we’re heading out.”
That was more than Raidou had ever thought he’d reveal.
“Vindication for the training schedule,” Raidou said, stepping carefully over raw ground. He’d seen Ryouma stripped down before, but that had involved fun, and consent, and nothing that bled. This was different territory. “You want to talk about it?”
Ryouma’s thumbnail scraped his mug. He shook his head. “Nah. I cried on you once already. That’s my quota for the next ten years. I’ll get over it.”
“Fair enough,” Raidou said, because sometimes you had to know when to not push. “That does circle us around to the other conversation we should probably have, though.”
Ryouma groaned and slumped backwards on the bed, managing not to spill a drop of coffee. “Do we have to? I thought ‘I don’t sleep with subordinates’ pretty much covered it.”
“And yet,” Raidou said, with a tilted smile, because sometimes you did have to push. “I just want to make sure we’re okay.”
“Yeah,” Ryouma said, staring up at the ceiling. There was a yellowed water splotch on the dingy tiles, pockmarked around the edges where some previous occupant had amused himself trying to outline it with kunai or senbon hits. Good aim, for the most part. He squinted, trying to turn the splotch into a shape. “We’re good. I don’t really do relationships, anyway.”
“You and the rest of ANBU,” Raidou said dryly. “We’re not really a relationshippy bunch. But you knew that already.” A pause, as he sipped his coffee. “I was more thinking— Look, I don’t expect to have issues. We haven’t been, and I don’t intend to make any. I just want to lay some fair groundwork. If you have a problem, I’ll listen. And if you can’t take it to me, there are other options.”
Ryouma laughed softly. “ ‘Lieutenant Shiranui, I think the captain touched my butt when he was trying to break my neck today…’ “
Raidou made a very ungentlemanly sound halfway between a laugh and a snort, and thumped the bedframe with his foot. Ryouma’s coffee sloshed; he rescued it hastily before it stained the quilt any further. “You know what I mean, jackass,” Raidou said.
“Yeah.” Ryouma sighed, and sat up. “Sure. S’what I expected, anyway.” Boundaries, like the captain and Katsuko’s mantra. Raidou was a good captain, uncompromising but fair; he wouldn’t let a six-month-old memory distract him, and he wanted to make sure Ryouma knew it.
It wasn’t his fault Ryouma kept getting distracted. Three weeks and counting of enforced abstinence, maybe—Ryouma hadn’t so much as kissed anyone since Ayane, before the Trials. He was recovering, his libido was returning, and it was only natural to shiver at a little slice of memory when he looked at Raidou’s broad, scar-knuckled hands, or when Raidou shoved sweaty hair back from his forehead and grinned like a tiger at the end of a hard training session, blood beading on his split lip, light sparking in his eyes. Ryouma’d done pretty well so far at looking away, finding something to tease Katsuko about, a question to ask Genma. This morning was the first time he’d been awkward about it, and apparently Raidou hadn’t even noticed.
He tapped his fingers against the smooth, warm curve of the coffee mug. “You— You’ll let me know if I step out of bounds, too, won’t you? I mean, I know you will.” Possibly with a boot to the head, judging by his response to a slightly-too-dangerously-clever move Kakashi had pulled in training yesterday. “I just—”
I’m not used to being told not to lust after my captain, sure, that’d go over well.
He took a fortifying gulp of coffee, and backed up. “I don’t intend to cause any issues, either.”
Raidou didn’t—quite—smile, but his eyes crinkled at the corners. “Just accidental ones. How is your leg, by the way?”
Ryouma scowled at him. “Bruised.” Most of the damage was visibly purpling on his lower calf and shin, where Raidou’s Doton jutsu had wrapped a shackle of earth around his leg before tossing him into the trees. His shoulders were probably pretty colorful by now, too. They were certainly sore. “Most normal captains just say ‘Good morning,’ y’know.”
“Normal is boring,” Raidou said with a shrug. “Ueno managed to dodge.”
Ryouma bit his tongue on two unwise comments about Ueno. “What’s it between you and her anyway?” he asked at last. “You were her captain last year, too?”
“Lieutenant,” Raidou said easily. “This’ll be my first year as a captain.”
“Huh. I thought—” Ryouma shook his head. Probably best to avoid comments on command style, and Raidou’s fluency with giving orders. “How’re you finding it?”
The crinkles at the corners of Raidou’s eyes deepened. His mouth curled, and broke into a full-fledged grin. “I got the forest fire girl, Sharingan no Kakashi, and the kid who melts faces. Not bad for a first-timer. And, in theory, one of you will eventually listen to me.”
“I’m listening,” Ryouma said, before he could stop himself.
“Yeah?” Raidou said, amused, because Ryouma would pick the moment when Raidou didn’t actually have anything else to say. “Guess there had to be a first time for everything.”
Ryouma’s mouth twitched. “There’s a joke in there about first times. Notice how I’m not making it? Boundaries.”
“I am so proud,” Raidou said dryly.
Ryouma’s coffee mug lifted in a salute before he drained the remainder. “Enjoy it while it lasts.”
Actually, of the three ducklings, Ryouma seemed the most inclined to pay attention, engage, and question, at least during training. Katsuko was an old hand at Raidou’s methods; teasing the rookies was more interesting to her. And Kakashi was still half-enigma, half-brat, all problem.
Speaking of which.
“Have you eaten?” Raidou asked, standing and collecting Ryouma’s mug.
Ryouma’s eyebrows quirked. “You’re not forgetting your promotion already, are you? I thought nagging the rookies about nutrition was the lieutenant’s job.”
“Sometimes I can multitask,” Raidou said, taking both mugs to the tiny kitchenette sink. Ryouma had only been in the room for four days, but there was already a clutter of unwashed dishes lurking at the bottom, growing fur. Cautiously, Raidou used a pair of chopsticks to turn a plate over. Dried flecks of what might have been curry rice dropped into the plughole.
He flipped the water on and unearthed Ryouma’s dish soap. “I was actually going to say, I need to hang out in a visible place fairly soon. Hatake’s supposed to find me in—” he glanced out of Ryouma’s one window, gauging the sun. “Twenty minutes or so.”
If Ryouma had opinions about other people doing his dishes, he didn’t voice them. “Is that an ‘I should head out now’ or a ‘You can come with’?” he asked.
“It’s a ‘want to come eat with me and also be a witness so I don’t give into the temptation to beat our charming teammate with his own book?’” Raidou said, stacking plates into the drying rack.
Ryouma lounged up off the bed and came over, leaning against the closest wall. He stretched his arms up, unkinking his back with a series of snapping pops, and eyed the soapy dishes like they were a shiny new concept. “I dunno,” he mused, “I might prefer seeing that. What’d he do?”
Pissed me off, Raidou thought.
“He was rude,” he said, and shut the water off. “Food?”
“I never turn down food,” Ryouma said. He thought that came out pretty casual. “A shinobi avails himself of provisions and rest when the opportunity offers, in preparation for action to come. Always liked that Rule.” He handed Raidou a mostly-clean towel. “Normal-Kakashi levels of rude, or something more?”
Raidou dried his hands and flipped the towel back. “Rude enough to warrant a long sprint. Kid needs to drag his head out of his ass.”
“No arguments there,” Ryouma said.
He bunched the towel up and tossed it on the counter. “He can be pretty decent, when he wants to be. I mean, rude’s still his default, no question about it. I’m still trying to decide if it’s a defense mechanism or if he just enjoys pissing people off. Could be both, I guess. Just…”
Raidou snorted. “He’s defending against the wrong people.”
Maybe. Ryouma thought of Kakashi at the first ANBU trial, the sardonic drawl on insults that stung without drawing blood, the hesitation just before he’d turned down Ayane’s offer to join them for a drink. Kind of weird. Mostly rude. He’d wanted to join them, or at least thought about it, before he shied away.
They’d talked at the third Trial, but not much since then. Well, there’d been that uncomfortable interlude in Team Six’s office on the first morning, when Kakashi wanted to know how someone who looked as dumb as Ryouma did could create a jutsu without stealing other people’s work from scrolls, but that just went back on the Mostly rude side of things. Kakashi’d gone back to mostly silent and stand-offish for the last four days of training and wall-duty, and Ryouma—had been distracted, really, by the newness of a team and the unsettling memories of his captain.
Maybe the newness of the team was throwing Kakashi, too. Everyone and their grandmother in Konoha knew what’d happened to his last team, and that he’d worked mostly solo since then, or with Yondaime-sama or a few other high-level jounin on one-off assignments. He hadn’t been forced into close company with strangers for an extended, indefinite period of time since—well, probably since he’d left the Academy. And if you weren’t very good with people to begin with, and the fierce and bloody-handed team you’d been psyching yourself up for turned out to be mostly too-early training sessions and boxes of ration bars under the lieutenant’s desk, wrapped up in awkward banter and (hilarious) jokes…
Ryouma scratched uncomfortably at the side of his jaw. “He started off with Yondaime-sama and an Uchiha and a medical genius, and it still ended badly. Can’t really blame him for thinking we won’t measure up.”
Though you could resent the hell out of it anyway.
“I can and do,” Raidou said, draining the last of the water from the sink. “It’s a dumb-ass ninja who doesn’t see the talent in front of him because he’s too busy looking at someone else’s. This is a good team. Might even be a great one when Hatake realizes we’re worth working with.”
He turned to see Ryouma rubbing the back of his neck, dark eyes glittering with badly concealed delight.
Did no one ever compliment him? That hadn’t even been a good one.
“Y’think so?” Ryouma said. “I figured Kakashi and me could be great all on our own, and Katsuko’s been pretty impressive so far in training, but s’good to hear you think you and the lieutenant will keep up.”
Then again, he did sort of inspire the desire to smack him upside the head.
“Y’know, you’re right,” Raidou said. “I guess we’ll just have to push ourselves harder. Maybe double the training sessions.”
Ryouma just looked thoughtful. “Longer training sessions wouldn’t be a bad idea if they’re scaling us back on guard rotations. I think most of us are spending the afternoon in individual training, anyway. Well,” he corrected, “I know Katsuko and I are. Maybe Kakashi’s just reading.”
Raidou felt his mouth quirk. Not right now, he isn’t.
“I should go change,” he said, running a thumb under one armored shoulder-strap. “Alarms the civilians when they see spooks doing regular things, like eating. I’ll meet you at—” He paused, searching for a decent place.
“There’s a good noodle house by the main gate,” Ryouma offered. “I think I’ve just about filled up my Buy Ten Get One Free card. If we eat at the tables outdoors, Kakashi should spot you on his way back in.”
“Soba Yatai? That works. Tackle Hatake for me if you see him first?”
“Sure,” Ryouma said easily, like that was a perfectly normal request. “Meet you in ten?”
Raidou nodded, picked his way through the minor maze of boxes, and let himself out. It was barely a two-minute jog to get down the hall, across the courtyard, up the veteran’s hall, and into his own apartment, where he leaned against the wall and let out a long breath.
“That actually went better than I pictured,” he told the spider-fern on the window ledge.
If it had an opinion on the matter, it kept quiet.
No time to dance about it. He hung up his sword, shucked his armor, and tossed the black underpinnings into the laundry basket. Took the necessary four seconds to wash his face and drag a palmful of water through his hair. His hair stood up in wet, offended spikes; he needed to get it cut.
Going for the emphatically-not-a-date route, he left it to its own devices and found his most battered pair of jeans, with the hole split across one knee. A black tee shirt and a regular pair of boots was about as non-suggestive as he could get without resorting to a uniform or a burlap sack. He grabbed wallet, keys, weapons, and left.
Almost immediately, he returned for Kakashi’s book.
And, because he couldn’t quite help himself, flipped it open to scan a page.
“Wow,” he said distantly, eight pages later. “That is not safe sex.”
Or sane sex.
Maybe that explained something about Kakashi. It was certainly more information about Jiraiya-sama’s inner landscape than Raidou had ever, ever wanted to know. He shoved the book into his back pocket and—running late now, dammit—dashed for the main gate.
He slowed down at the corner, strolling to the restaurant Ryouma had picked like a captain with a grasp of time, rather than a captain with a grasp of someone else’s porn.
Ryouma was already there, sitting easily at one of Soba Yatai’s sidewalk tables, shaded by the broad striped awning and chatting to the skinny teenage waiter. He glanced up with a broad, relieved smile when Raidou got near, as if he’d thought Raidou might flake on him. White teeth flashed against sun-browned skin, and Raidou thought, oh.
Boundaries, idiot captain.
He settled across from Ryouma, to the visible disappointment of the waiter, and sent the kid off with an order of green tea. “Already made your pick?” he asked Ryouma.
“Tempura soba,” Ryouma said, running a finger absently around the rim of what looked like a glass of barley tea. “Haven’t seen Kakashi yet.”
Raidou glanced at the sun. “He’s still got twenty minutes.”
“Before what?” Ryouma asked.
Raidou freed Icha Icha from his back pocket and laid it on the table. “Before I get to keep this for another day,” he said. “You’re not the only person I bully.”
“Lucky him,” Ryouma said dryly. He glanced at the shabby orange cover, with its distinctive red stop-circle and the frolicking figures behind it. “That’s the one he was reading at the Trials. Isn’t he done by now?”
Ryouma couldn’t read. Of course he didn’t know what Icha Icha was.
Well good, they could cap the last conversation by starting this one with, if Raidou was feeling charitable about it, erotica.
“I think it’s a personal favorite,” he said, deliberately vague, and thanked the waiter when the kid resurfaced with green tea. “I’ll take whatever the special is.”
The waiter bowed and zipped away.
Raidou turned his attention back to Ryouma, who was nearing a sprawl in the slotted sunlight. Short, dark hair was mattress-tousled, but he’d taken a minute to swap the zombie dolphins for a tamer shirt; this one had a Shuriken Force band logo silk-screened across the chest. There were faint shadows etched beneath his eyes, legacy of four days short sleep and hard training on the back of Trials. His mouth was still wide and reckless, slightly shiny from drinking his tea, and the cheekbones would still make an angel cry.
And for four days, Raidou had done really well at not noticing that.
He cradled his tea and inhaled the warm, slightly grassy scent, letting the thought wash away. Ryouma was off-limits, beyond off-limits, and Raidou genuinely wanted to do right by him, for the sake of both their careers and the village, not to mention Team Six’s mental health.
Maybe in a year, if they were both still breathing, he’d think again.
“Guess it’s like listening to the same record over again,” Ryouma said musingly, looking at the book. “Though at least I listen to different records in between. He said there’s a movie coming out soon. Maybe we should all go as a team. Show him we support his interests.”
Raidou choked on his tea.
“What, it’s not a terrible idea,” Ryouma said, grabbing napkins to mop up the spray of tea. “He thinks we’re morons, we demonstrate that we appreciate his taste, he thinks we’re less of morons, he stops being such a gloomy pain in the ass at 5 a.m. He’s not a bad guy when he’s not fed up with the world. Besides, he spends all his downtime reading that, it’s got to be good—”
Raidou was coughing, red-faced, pounding his chest with his fist. “Oh my god,” he strangled out, and coughed harder. “It’s porn, Tousaki,” he croaked, when he finally had enough breath back to approximate human sounds. “He’s reading porn.”
Ryouma stared at the flat orange cover, the laughing woman running a little ahead of a disheveled-looking man. “It comes in books?”
Maybe he’d been missing out on that whole reading thing.
Raidou blinked once and then slouched back, wry mouth twisting sideways. He took a throat-soothing sip of tea and wiped his lip with the side of his thumb. “Pretty sure porn comes in every human medium available. There are probably dirty cave etchings somewhere.”
“Yeah, but that’s pictures. Just words don’t —”
“Kitsune soba,” the waiter, Jin, announced, settling a steaming bowl lavishly decorated with golden slices of fried tofu on the table in front of Raidou. “And your tensoba.” He gave Ryouma a shy smile along with an extra plate of tempura. Ryouma smiled back automatically. The boy darted a glance at Raidou, hesitated for half a second, then bobbed an awkward bow and fled back into the shop.
“You’re cramping my style, taichou,” Ryouma said, and took a very petty pleasure in Raidou’s fleeting frown. He shoved the plate of crispy-fried vegetables into the center of the table in recompense. “Tempura?”
Hopefully the extra plate hadn’t come out of Jin’s wages. Ryouma’d have to overpay to make up for it.
“This is bad for your heart,” Raidou said, mouth crooking sideways again. He took two slices of sweet potato anyway.
“Not plannin’ on living long enough to worry about it,” Ryouma said, sliding his disposable wooden chopsticks out of their paper packet and splitting them apart. His right middle finger didn’t quite have all its dexterity back, but it worked well enough for chopsticks. He ate a battered prawn in two bites. “So, okay, maybe not a porn movie with the team. We don’t want to shock the lieutenant too early. An’ Katsuko’s still young and impressionable, we can’t go giving her vulgar ideas.”
Still. Kakashi. Porn. And he thought they weren’t quite the exemplary ANBU he’d idealized?
“If you can find something to shock Ueno, you’d be the first,” Raidou said dryly. He stirred his noodles, and shook his head. “We should change the subject.”
Because boundaries, right. Ryouma scowled at his prawns. Were all jokes off-limits, then, not just references to that night in Ryouma’s apartment? Maybe just sex jokes, in which case long stakeouts were going to be eternally longer.
Maybe they could get Kakashi to read aloud.
He ate another prawn, and chased it with a broth-dripping bundle of noodles. “So. Threat level’s back to B at the end of the week, if nobody tries to level the village in the meantime. Does that mean we’ll be getting missions? My bandages should be off by then.”
“If the medics sign you off, no reason we wouldn’t.” Raidou sliced a piece of fried tofu in half with his chopsticks and looked up with a faint smile. “Getting antsy?”
“Nossir,” Ryouma said, wide-eyed. “What would make you think that, sir? I love standing on the wall for eight-hour shifts.” Granted they’d only done that twice, but it had been acutely miserable both times. Especially when it rained.
“That’s good to know,” Raidou said calmly. “I’ll make a note in your file.”
“I love sailboats, too,” Ryouma told him earnestly. “And Shuriken Force concert tickets, they’ll be in Tanzaku no Gai next month.”
“Such a shame you’ll probably be standing on the wall, then.” Raidou slurped his noodles.
Well, it was worth a try. Raidou still hadn’t laughed, but he’d done that eye-crinkling smile more than twice, and that was—
Not something Ryouma should be angling for, from his captain.
Ryouma stirred his noodles again. “When did you say Kakashi was supposed to show up?”
The lines at the corners of Raidou’s dark eyes fanned a little deeper as he squinted up at the sun. “Should be soon, unless he’s run into idiocy.”
Or danger. Had Intel missed something, in their exhaustive search? Kakashi could almost certainly take care of himself, but—
It was easy, suddenly, to remember the gleam of a scalpel in cold light.
The chopsticks cracked. Ryouma flinched back to himself. He exhaled slowly, deliberately relaxing muscles, and got to his feet. “Gonna grab another pair. You want anything?”
Raidou had set his own chopsticks down on the edge of his bowl; his hand was lightly curled on the table, ready for action. A faint line etched itself between his brows. “You okay?”
“Sure,” Ryouma said. He drew another deep breath and looked around for someplace to drop the splinters of broken wood in his hand.
And spotted, from this new vantage-point, an untidy mop of silver hair and a jounin uniform slicing across the street. Kakashi’d identified them already; he reached the sidewalk and its shaded tables in just a moment more, and leveled an icy glare at Raidou and the book by his bowl. “Captain,” he said.
“Rookie,” Raidou said, with half an eye on Ryouma.
That had been something there, and not just a muscle spasm. But without the ability to peel into Ryouma’s skull and take a look, Raidou couldn’t fathom what.
And there was Kakashi to handle, with his continued streak of perfect timing.
One of Kakashi’s favorite tactics up until now, besides radiating his particular combination of surly and judgmental, was misering out words like they cost him money. This time, working with leverage and an abundance of time, Raidou was prepared to wait him out.
Several silent heartbeats stretched. Ryouma hesitated, left, and returned with new chopsticks. He sat down, watching the tableau curiously.
Kakashi cracked. “Can I have my book?”
“Did you get the stamp?” Raidou asked.
Kakashi offered an arm, turned over to show the inside left bare by the three-quarter jounin sleeve. Green ink had smudged with sweat, but the unmistakable fire-leaf stamp of the northern border house was clearly visible on pale skin. Apparently they hadn’t had paper.
Raidou felt his mouth twitch. “How do I know you didn’t forge that?”
Kakashi’s control was a thing to watch. Despite his clear desire to eviscerate Raidou, take the paperback, and run for it, he slouched backwards and dropped his hands into his pockets, a study in casual disinterest. “Easier to run.”
“But not timely,” Raidou said. “You’re late.”
“You said an hour,” Kakashi said.
“I did. You took an hour and two.”
The clocks had chimed. But more importantly, unless Kakashi had blistered the roads, there was physically no way to get from Konoha to the northern village border house and back in an hour without a translocation to cut the distance. The terrain was too difficult, and the border patrol would talk the ear off anyone who wasn’t a cow, rock, or tree. Raidou knew, because his first ANBU captain had set him the same challenge, and it had taken him thirty minutes longer.
Kakashi shifted once. “I hit delays.”
“Making excuses?” Raidou said ruthlessly.
Lean shoulders tightened, then dropped, defeated, because shinobi did not make excuses, and Raidou was prepared to bet Minato never suffered them. Kakashi glanced away. “No, sir.”
Across the table, Ryouma’s dark eyebrows had risen incredulously, but he wisely said nothing.
“All right then,” Raidou said, prepared to take that little gift horse and run with it. “What do you suggest we do?”
“What do you want?” Kakashi asked.
“Sixty miles,” Raidou said. “I’ll give you three hours. You can hit the east and west border houses, and—” He paused, then nodded. “Take Tousaki with you.”
Chopsticks clattered against porcelain. Ryouma made a sound of startled outrage. “What did I do?”
Nearly killed me with a beverage.
“You agreed that longer training sessions would suit the team, you’re getting restless without anything to do, and you need to improve your conditioning if you want to start taking missions next week,” Raidou listed off. “Plus, the more you two practice getting in sync, the better you’ll work together in the field.”
And it wouldn’t hurt Ryouma to get out of his own head for a few hours. It probably would hurt Kakashi to leg-lock a training partner to him, but it’d be a growing pain.
Ryouma’s long, aggravated aaaaargh took a little translating, but Raidou suspected it meant: Everything you say is right but why. “That’ll teach me to talk to a guy who actually listens,” Ryouma muttered, taking a last bite of noodles and standing. He pulled his wallet out and shucked a handful of bills onto the table. “You owe us lunch if we get back in time. Both of us.”
“I’ll consider it,” Raidou said.
Ryouma pocketed his wallet, took a final persecuted prawn, handed the plate of tempura to Kakashi, and swept off into the crowd. After three steps, he broke into his familiar ground-eating lope.
Kakashi looked down at the plate of fried vegetables in his hand. “What just happened?”
Street theater, Raidou thought, vastly amused. Perhaps that had even taken the shine off any lingering affection. It was hard to lust after a captain who made you work.
“Better catch him if you want to save your literature,” he said. “You need to come back together.”
“Couldn’t I just run ninety miles?” Kakashi said, sounding plagued.
“Nope. Go make nice with your teammate.”
Judging by Kakashi’s expression of growing alarm, Raidou might as well have asked a fish to bicycle.
He lowered the bar. “Don’t actively traumatize him.”
“I make no promises,” Kakashi said, setting the tempura down on the table. He raked sweat-soaked hair back from his face and glanced down the street, eye narrowing thoughtfully at Ryouma’s back. “Three hours?”
“Three hours,” Raidou confirmed. “If you’re late, I’ll hold your book for ransom until you demonstrate you can be a pleasant human being.”
“I’ll be back in two,” Kakashi said, and darted off.
“With Tousaki,” Raidou yelled after him.
One hand flicked up in wordless acknowledgement, then the lean, fast-moving figure vanished into the crowd.
If Raidou didn’t know better, he’d’ve said Kakashi liked being given tasks. That had barely been an argument.
“Um,” said the skinny waiter, tentatively reappearing. He cast sad doe eyes over Ryouma’s abandoned seat. “Was it not… good?”
“It was fine,” Raidou said, more than a little sorry for him. Being sixteen, awkward, and built entirely out of rubber-bands and pointy joints was hard on anyone. But growing up civilian in a shinobi village where everyone was strong and talented and, for the most part, spectacular looking, never did much good for a guy’s self-esteem. Still, the kid had the bone structure. He’d be handsome when he was done, and another pretty face could come along and rip his heart out.
Raidou sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Can I get another tea?”
The waiter gave a bobbing head nod and hustled back into the restaurant.
Raidou looked back down the street. He could see the upper arch of the gate and the broad sweep of Konoha’s wall stretching out beyond it. Doubtless, Kakashi and Ryouma had already passed through.
One rookie who maybe liked him a little too much, and another who hated him.
Maybe they’d rub off on each other.
More likely they’d come up with new problems to vex him with.
He put the thought aside, willing to let it rest for three hours, and tugged Icha Icha over the table. Despite himself, he opened the cover again—and paused. There was an inscription inside, dated three years ago.
Don’t get dead, kid.
Jiraiya-sama’s signature was a broad flourish underneath.
Maybe it wasn’t just about the porn. Carefully, Raidou closed the book and laid it facedown. He’d give it back in three hours, when Kakashi was good and tired and maybe even remorseful. And he’d keep a closer eye on Ryouma, in case that chopstick-snap turned out to be anything deeper.
In the meantime, he’d eat noodles and drink tea, and maybe go find Katsuko for a piece of sane company.
First time for everything.