April 18, Yondaime Year 5
Ryouma woke in the dark hours after midnight to a blue and white mask bending over him and a hand on his throat.
“I moved the kunai under your pillow,” a low alto voice said, very quietly.
His good hand was under his pillow already, long fingers flattening. No cold brush of steel, just a tiny slit in the bottom sheet where the blade must have snagged as she’d drawn it out. He drew a slow breath.
“You didn’t trigger my wards,” he said.
“I had a key.” The hand left his throat. She straightened, slim and straight in ANBU black and bone. The mask caught the yellow spill of light from the streetlamp below the window; better lit, its fragmented blue accents still didn’t resolve into any recognizable animal. Maybe the ANBU quartermaster wasn’t much of a naturalist.
She said, “Tousaki Ryouma, the Hokage requires your presence.”
He cast a fleeting glance at the red numbers of the alarm clock glowing on his bedside table. 0145, only seven hours after he’d finally been released from the hospital and returned to his apartment to collapse. Well, they did say Yondaime never slept. Presumably his ANBU would learn to do without, too.
Maybe they got extra issues of soldier pills.
He sat up, scrubbed his good hand through his hair, and rubbed crusted sleep from the inner corner of one eye. “Can I get dressed?”
“Uniform,” the ANBU said. She didn’t step back from the side of the bed. “You have ten minutes.”
Clearly, she was planning to wait.
He rubbed his face again, then dropped the sheet defiantly and scrambled over the foot of the bed, dogtags chiming against his sternum. Trunks from a drawer, his last clean pair of uniform blues; he’d need to do laundry soon, if they weren’t going to be issuing him ANBU blacks today. He stepped into the bathroom, holding the bundled clothes in front of his hip, and looked back.
The blue and white mask met his gaze, unreadable.
“You might as well come in, if you’re gonna watch,” he said. “Make it easier on both of us.”
Was that the slightest stiffness in her stance? “You can close the door,” she said.
He snickered, and slid it shut.
Pissing, brushing his teeth, splashing water on his face and running a comb through his hair took three minutes of his allotted ten. Dressing went quicker, though he’d forgotten to pick up the bandage-bindings for his shins and kunai-holster. He slid the door back in time to catch the ANBU turning quickly from her inspection of his video tapes.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “I was already pretty sure you were human.” He dug out a roll of bandage and put his foot up on the edge of the bed. Binding was a little awkward, with his right hand still swathed and stiff in bandages, but he managed at last with something like his usual precision. He tucked and tied the ends, switched legs, and said idly, “You wouldn’t’ve given me ten minutes if I were under arrest. Or if this were an invasion. So I must’ve made it to the third stage after all.”
“One minute,” she said.
Well, he hadn’t really expected her to spill details anyway. He tied off the second binding, found his kunai holster and bound it quickly on, and shrugged into his spare flak vest. It still had a finger-long gash beneath the arm, baring the steel mesh beneath the stiff oiled canvas; he’d meant to repair before his next mission, but there was no time now. He belted on his equipment pouch, ran a hand through his hair, and, at the last moment, dived for his hitai-ate. Then he had to ruffle his hand through his hair again, raking his forelock down properly over the steel plate.
“Shinobi,” the ANBU said, “the Hokage truly does not care what you look like.”
“I care,” Ryouma said, finding his boots by the door. He stamped into them, flicked the catches, and straightened.
His bandaged right hand felt even more awkward now, a useless lump of white that wouldn’t even fit easily in a pocket. The hand specialist, Asuka-sensei, had explained that the bandage job was big so that Ryouma wouldn’t bump or jar his fingers and strain the healing tendons. He was starting to think maybe it was revenge for a few too many bad jokes cracked under the influence of a heady cocktail of morphine and stress.
Painkillers, right! The bottle was on the table by his bed, and the ANBU stood between them. Her painted, pitiless face met his gaze.
He reached for the door. “I’m ready.”
The Hokage’s Palace always looked different at night.
Red and sprawling in the daylight, fringed with trees, it loomed dark and forbidding in the cool moonlight, dwarfed only by the Hokage’s monument which backed it. The repairs were holding up well, Kakashi judged, because he couldn’t help looking. Minato had only had the building three months before the Kyuubi attack. Half the right wing had been ripped away, and the remainder left smoke-blackened. Two-thirds of the offices had belonged to ninja who hadn’t survived.
Sandaime’s body had been recovered less than a hundred feet from the western wall.
There was a fountain built on the spot now, topped by a laughing monkey. Children liked to throw coins into the water.
“Shinobi,” said his ANBU escort.
Kakashi bestirred himself. “Sorry.”
He was taken to a side-room he recognized, set just off from the Hokage’s main office. Usually filled with comfortable chairs and tastefully arranged plants, now it stood empty except for a dark red rug and sleep-ruffled candidates. He recognized faces—the man with blue hair, Ayane the sword-dancer, a redheaded woman who looked like she’d run afoul of a barbed wire net.
Sixteen had finished out the second Trial, including Kakashi. There were ten here. Ryouma wasn’t one of them.
Had they failed him?
“Please wait a moment,” said the ANBU, and stepped out, closing the door behind him.
Ayane stepped forward. Her lower lip had a scabbed split running through it, and her right eye was blackened. She looked unhurt otherwise. “What happened in the second Trial?” she demanded.
Kakashi blinked. “Running, mostly.”
“We heard you and Ryouma ran into trouble,” she said, with a flat, unfriendly stare.
She wasn’t the only one who looked less than pleased to see him. The tired expressions covered the spectrum from bored disinterest to active dislike, and Kakashi was acutely grateful he’d been allowed time to change into fresh clothes, mask included.
“We did,” he said. “We ran out of it again.”
Ayane made a sound like a threatened viper, drawing air sharply between her teeth. “How badly was he hurt?”
If Ryouma hadn’t gone to tell her himself, presumably there was a good reason. Or this was an extremely strange slant on a final test that was about to turn violent on him. She certainly looked like she wanted to wrap her hands around his throat.
Kakashi edged back a step, holding his hands up. “I’m sorry, I really don’t know.”
“Hatake—” Ayane began dangerously.
Behind Kakashi, the door clicked open and a bloom of orange-scented soap colored the air.
“Perfect timing,” Kakashi said with relief. He ducked behind Ryouma, shoving him forward. “Save me.”
“Not that I generally object to rescuing dudes in distress,” Ryouma said slowly, “but I haven’t had coffee yet and the adrenaline hit from ANBU in my bedroom is starting to wear off. Morning, Ayane. It’s no good trying to molest Hatake, he doesn’t put out on the first date.”
“You would know,” Ayane said, but her stiff shoulders eased a little. Her dark gaze drank Ryouma in between one blink and the next, and fixed on his bandaged hand. She folded her arms. “All that fuss for a few broken fingers?”
“They really hurt,” Ryouma said plaintively. He glanced behind him, where Kakashi was wedged in the narrow gap between Ryouma and the doorframe, peering warily over Ryouma’s shoulder.
Kakashi didn’t look poisoned anymore, though he’d hid it well yesterday, too. His eye curved in that patently false smile when he noticed Ryouma’s gaze. “Hi.”
It didn’t look like there was a story forthcoming. Ryouma stepped away from the door. “Heard they had the village on Code Red lockdown yesterday. I slept through most of it.” The medics had released him at 1800, with dire warnings about calories and further rest to replenish the chakra drained from him by successive healings. He’d fallen asleep twice in the cafeteria before he made it home, and he’d barely managed to stagger across his threshold and strip down before he hit the bed.
If the village had been invaded, he’d have missed it.
“Observant as always,” Ayane said drily. “But I’m glad you’re less hurt than rumor made it sound.” She flicked a glance like a knife over his shoulder at Kakashi, and turned away.
“Wow,” Ryouma said, not quite under his breath. “I think she cares.”
Ayane tossed her hair, and flipped him off.
“About you, maybe,” Kakashi said. He was staying firmly near the doorjamb, and he’d dug in his belt pouch for the orange-backed book he’d been reading on the day of the first trial. It had a picture of a man chasing a laughing woman on the front, which possibly accounted for why Kakashi was so interested in it. He was only about halfway through.
Ryouma leaned against the wall next to Kakashi, and stole a glance over his shoulder. No pictures. Boring. He asked, “What were you talking about? She didn’t really try to molest you, did she? Because you probably should’ve let her.”
“I’m still waiting for the date you owe me,” Kakashi said, and turned a page. “Ayane-san was a little concerned about your wellbeing, and under the impression I had the answers. Next time you fail to die, you should consider a press release.”
Across the room, Ayane was talking quietly with Takeshi and Hakone, her head bent and her long ponytail falling like water over her shoulder. She didn’t look back.
He needed a lot more caffeine in his blood before he could start figuring out what that meant. A friend’s concern, maybe; they’d been friends before she invited him home after a mission two weeks ago, and things had seemed easy enough at the bar the night after the first trial. Hell, he’d have asked, if it was her. Curiosity didn’t have to mean anything.
Kakashi turned another page.
“Any good?” Ryouma asked him.
That got Kakashi’s attention, at least. He looked up, blinking. “You don’t know this one?”
“I don’t read much,” Ryouma said. “Is there a movie?”
Enthusiasm kindled like a flame in Kakashi’s eye. He slid a finger between pages and flipped the book shut, cradling it against his side. “They’re talking about it. There’s an actress interested in one of the main roles.”
“You’ll have to let me know when it comes out. Assuming we’re both alive.” Ryouma kicked up a heel against the wall. “So…was Akiyama working for the snake?”
Kakashi’s jaw shifted sideways under the mask. His eye shuttered again. But whatever evasion he meant to slither away with died on his tongue as another door at the head of the room opened, and the owl-masked vice commander stood framed against a blaze of lamplight within.
“Norita,” he said.
Across the room, Norita Takeshi stiffened, exchanged glances with Ayane, and then struck off stolidly for the door. Ryouma flashed him a discreet thumbs-up as he passed. Takeshi’s eyes flickered, but his face didn’t twitch. The door closed behind him.
He left silence behind. Blue-haired Abe, who hadn’t killed Ryouma yesterday, was pacing near the window. Ayane folded her arms and leaned against the wall, but her manicured fingernails beat a steady tattoo on her biceps. Kakashi opened his book again. Ryouma tipped his head back against the wall and tried not to think about the steady ache building in his wrist. Maybe, if they were going one at a time, he could snatch a few minutes’ sleep before they called his name…
“Himura,” the vice-commander said.
Ryouma twitched. His eyes felt crusted again, though the black sky outside the windows was no lighter. Takeshi hadn’t come back, and Himura Tadao was heading stone-faced for the door.
The wait stretched out. A red-haired woman Ryouma didn’t know pulled out a pack of cards and struck up a game with the brown-haired man who’d used the butterfly jutsu in the first trial. Two or three of the remaining candidates trickled over to watch. Ayane wasn’t one of them. Ryouma thought about wandering over to talk to her, and shook the idea off again.
Minutes dragged by.
The door opened. “Hatake.”
Kakashi put his book away.
The room was watching him again, though with markedly less hostility since Ryouma had decided to play a one-man bookend. Kakashi glanced sideways, meeting friendly dark eyes under a neat thatch of ink-black hair.
Ryouma gave him a thumbs up with his unbandaged hand. “Go get ‘em, Tiger.”
Sometimes, Kakashi did not understand his life.
Scratch that. Quite often Kakashi did not understand his life.
“Try not to injure yourself in my absence,” he said, and peeled himself away from the door, following the vice-commander into the Hokage’s office.
The bodies of rejected candidates failed to greet him, which was mildly encouraging.
In fact, the office looked exactly as it always did, if slightly more crowded. Minato sat in pride of place behind his broad, beautifully carved desk, which had been cleared of teetering paperwork stacks for the special occasion. Despite the late hour, he looked daisy-fresh and alert, one hand wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee. He was wearing his flame-coat of office, but the official hat was tossed over the back of his chair. In four years, Kakashi had never seen him wear it.
On Minato’s right, the ANBU commander, Sagara-sama, sat in full magpie-colored armor. Lamplight gilded the steel-grey hair at her temples and made the fierce black lines of her hawk mask seem, if anything, even more forbidding. The vice-commander moved to stand at her back.
To Minato’s left, Kakashi recognized the head of Intel. Oita Gennosuke was a short, round, dark-haired man with an unfortunate bald spot and shrewd eyes. He had one of the most contained chakra patterns Kakashi had ever come across; even this close, Kakashi could barely feel a shimmer.
The last man had to be the head of T&I. Kakashi had seen worse acid scars, but they’d belonged to corpses.
He dropped to one knee, pressing his fist against the floor, and ducked his head, waiting for instructions.
“At ease, shinobi,” Minato said.
There was no trace of humor lurking in bright blue eyes. Kakashi straightened up, and quite carefully didn’t think irritated thoughts about why 3:00 am and ’Sagara and her captains are the ones who make the real decisions, anyway; I just sign off on ‘em’. Minato might be a lying, bastard-shaped idiot who couldn’t take the favor of a six-hour nap when it was dropped in his lap without whining, but he was still the Hokage, and Kakashi would never disrespect him.
At least, in public.
“Hokage-sama,” he murmured. “Commanders.”
“Justify your use of lethal force in subduing Akiyama,” Sagara-sama said, without preamble.
The third Trial was an interview?
“I thought it was necessary at the time,” Kakashi said. He’d discussed this once with Minato already, though justify hadn’t been the word on the table. “I still think that. Akiyama had a scalpel pressed to Tousaki Ryouma’s temple, and the intent to use it.”
“You left nothing to question,” she said.
The T&I commander leaned forward. “Did you consider the possibility of disabling and disarming?” he asked, with a soft lisp. Kakashi wondered if he’d always had that, or if the partial removal of his lips had caused it.
“I did,” said Kakashi. “I doubted my ability to achieve it.”
“How long would it take you to run from Funahashi to Chibu in the rainy season, carrying a 190 pound injured comrade?” Oita asked him.
“Do you always prioritize saving a comrade over gaining tactical information?” the T&I commander said.
Are you your father’s son, Kakashi translated.
“Six hours, if my comrade could stand the journey and didn’t fight me, but the connecting train line would be an easier ride for both of us,” Kakashi said. He looked at the T&I commander. “In Tousaki’s case, his worth to the village outweighed the information I thought Akiyama could provide at the moment of attack.”
“And in hindsight?” The T&I commander pressed. “Given the considerable value an interrogation with Akiyama may have had.”
Kakashi hesitated. “In my experience, commander,” he said slowly, “obsessing over your mistakes in the field does more harm than good. I regret losing Akiyama, but I have faith in Intel’s abilities to cope without him.”
The flicker of Minato’s hand covered what might have been a smile. The T&I commander gave an eerie, hissing laugh that ran cold fingers down the back of Kakashi’s neck.
“Touching,” Oita murmured. “How long can you maintain in the field while using your Sharingan?”
“How many A-rank jutsu can you cast in an hour without face-planting?” the T&I commander translated, with a helpful air.
Kakashi scratched the back of his neck. “Depends on the jutsu,” he said at last. “I can use the Raikiri four times in a day, which requires the Sharingan. For the Sharingan alone—I’ve gone a few days at my best, but the consequences were unpleasant.”
“Your team captain gives you an order which will ensure successful completion of the mission but may lead to loss of innocent life,” Oita said. “What is your course of action?”
Define innocent, was Kakashi’s first thought, but he didn’t want them to say ‘orphanage’. Accurate or not, ANBU were still known as Konoha’s black ops baby-killers.
“Who’s my team captain?” he asked.
“Why is that relevant?” Oita said.
“I’d like to have all the facts,” Kakashi said. “Sir.”
“Your captain is a veteran ANBU officer,” Oita said, with as much warmth as an arctic wasteland.
Kakashi glanced at Minato, then at the blank-masked ANBU commander. Softly, he said, “If Konoha ordered me to, I would kill every innocent between here and Iwagakure.”
Behind the T&I commander’s ruined face, something flickered, quickly sheathed behind unfathomable eyes, but Kakashi caught the bloom of warmth in the man’s scent.
Oita’s next question distracted him before he could make anything of it. “Under what circumstances would you disobey a direct order?” the Intel commander demanded.
Well, that wasn’t vague at all.
“I wouldn’t,” Kakashi said at last.
A second flicker passed across the T&I commander’s face, only just disturbing the warped surface, but there was no warmth this time. It was echoed in the other commanders—a sharpening of intent.
“Even if the order directly countermanded your understanding of the mission objective?” Oita said.
“If my captain is a veteran ANBU officer,” Kakashi said steadily, “my assumption would be that he, or she, would have a better understanding of the mission than I would.”
“Your captain has ordered you to carry out an action that will result in the deaths of non-ANBU Konoha ninja, who happen to be in the area on an unrelated mission,” Sagara-sama said. “Your response?”
“I would question the validity of that order,” Kakashi said. “Is this a likely scenario?”
“I certainly hope not,” Oita said.
“No,” said the T&I commander, sounding almost cheerful. “But we were just discussing your spectacular takedown of a man who might or might not have been connected to Konoha’s most famous traitor—at least most recent famous traitor.”
If there were ever a set of circumstances that landed him in T&I’s extended care, Kakashi thought, he’d make absolutely sure to stab himself in the brain first.
“Returning to that incident,” Sagara said, slightly icy. “There were two ANBU agents directly in your line of fire. Not Hyuuga and unable to detect your position clearly through the wall.”
Kakashi answered the unsaid question. “I could feel them.”
“Well enough to be sure you wouldn’t hit them?” Oita asked.
“I didn’t hit them,” Kakashi said. “So—yes.”
“I think what you mean, shinobi, is ‘It’s a good thing they dodged’,” the T&I commander said.
Kakashi met the man’s eyes. “I could feel them,” he repeated.
The T&I commander made a short, gravelling sound in his throat: hm. But he dropped the point.
The vice-commander leaned over Sagara-sama’s shoulder. “Konoha has a mission to copy an S-rank enemy jutsu,” he said, derailing Kakashi slightly. “There’s a four-agent team including an Uchiha with a fully mastered Sharingan. You are on a five-agent team. Who should get the assignment and why?”
“My team,” Kakashi said, after a moment.
“Why?” said the vice-commander.
Kakashi shrugged. “Based on that information, I trust myself more.”
Lamplight gleamed on Sagara-sama’s mask, lightening the bone and darkening the black. Her voice, when she spoke, was soft as an extended claw. “And when it’s your commanding officer who is not as clever, or as skilled, or as trustworthy as you?”
Minato’s smile had vanished.
What answer did they want?
The scenario was a possibility—he’d never worked directly under any commanding officer after Minato, who was demonstrably smarter, more skilled, and better trusted. He’d worked with other field-commanders, but he’d made jounin at thirteen. None of them outranked him. There’d always been an avenue for disagreement.
What would he do?
Get promoted fast was not, he suspected, an acceptable answer.
“ANBU is Konoha’s elite,” Kakashi said at last. “I cannot believe any shinobi hand-picked by the Hokage, and by yourselves, would put their subordinates in a position so dangerous, or so questionable, that I would consider breaking rank.” He straightened his shoulders. “That said, Akiyama was able to make it all the way to the second Trial without being discovered, and we’ve discussed how I handled that. If I truly believed my commander was wrong, I’d hope they would listen to me.”
The T&I commander glanced at Oita, and smirked. Oita didn’t react.
Halfway through Kakashi’s little speech, Minato’s hands had steepled in front of his mouth. He gave a slow, unrevealing blink, and said, “Thank you, shinobi. You may go.”
Kakashi bowed stiffly, turned to the door he’d come in through, and hesitated. No one else had come back through it.
“That one,” said the T&I commander, hooking a battle-scarred thumb at a door on the opposite side of the room.
Kakashi bowed again, crossed the room, and let himself out. The door opened into a quiet, dimly lit anteroom—and here were the previous candidates, sitting side by side on a padded wooden bench, looking entirely drained.
They barely glanced up when Kakashi walked in.
The room had a tall, elegant window against the rear wall. When he went to it, he found a sprawling, star-lit view of Konoha laid out like jewels on a map. Kakashi leaned his forehead against the cool windowpane, metal hitai-ate plate clinking once against glass, and crushed his frustration.
The T&I commander had liked him.
He was fairly certain no one else had.
If he failed at the last hurdle— He could try again in six month’s time, without killing a teammate, and fall short in some other way.
Minato was always going to outshine him.
“Goddammit,” Kakashi muttered, almost soundlessly, and didn’t punch the window through.
Kakashi didn’t come back.
They were expecting that, by now. The door opened again and the vice-commander called for Abe Shintaro, then, twenty minutes later, for Matsumoto Haruka. When the door opened again and the vice-commander summoned Yamada Kasumi, only Ryouma craned his neck in a vain attempt to peer inside.
There was an advantage to staring down a menacing masked man, he discovered: you could blithely pretend you didn’t know he was scowling daggers at you. The vice-commander seemed to realize it about the same time Ryouma did. The hard-muscled shoulders stiffened even more, and the vice-commander whirled and shut the door.
“Satisfy my curiosity,” Ayane said, drifting up to Ryouma’s elbow. “Are you really trying to be the first candidate rejected from ANBU for reasons of being a pain in the ass?”
“It’d be a good line for my entry in the Bingo Book,” Ryouma said.
“Something tells me that’s the reason behind sixty percent of what you do. The other forty percent is probably What would sound good on my epitaph?”
“Your math’s off,” he said. “There’s at least twenty percent devoted to How can I get him/her/them to sleep with me?”
“Like I said,” she retorted. “What would sound good on your epitaph?”
He surprised himself into a laugh. Her mouth twitched, and for a moment she looked as if she were about to say something else.
Hakone lounged over her shoulder like saturnine salvation. “Toriyama thinks we have to fight the Hokage next,” he said. “He thinks there are corpses piling up like cordwood behind the door.”
Toriyama had to be the brown-haired man with the glass butterflies, who was accumulating scraps of IOUs at his knee while the red-haired woman who’d brought the card-deck scowled. The only other candidate left was Kurosagi Kaito, who was doing a decent job of pretending to watch the game. Ryouma raised his voice.
“I think it’s a strip-tease,” he said. “Points for grace and rhythm and looking really good in a skin-tight outfit. Yondaime-sama’s the hottest Kage in the Five Countries. He can’t have his ANBU letting Konoha’s image down.”
Ayane smirked. “Guess that’s about the only way you’d get in, Tousaki. Sew your mouth shut and stick you in a corner when the dignitaries come visiting. You missed out on tact and sense, but we’ve got to admit you’re decorative.”
“H’st!” Hakone’s head was up, like a watchful hound. Ayane slid out from under his arm, stood ready.
The door opened. The vice-commander said, “Tousaki.”
He didn’t look back.
The Hokage’s head was turned when Ryouma came in; he was speaking quietly to the pudgy, balding man on his left, Oita Gennosuke, while the hawk-masked ANBU commander listened with her chin on her fist. Sagara, Ryouma remembered hazily, from a very long twenty-four hours ago. A third man was just turning away from the dark window: Shibata Tomohiro, the commander of Torture & Interrogation. They’d met briefly a year ago, when Ryouma’s team had brought a prisoner in. Even in a shinobi village, that scarring was impossible to forget.
Ryouma knelt in the shinobi’s bow, and waited for them to acknowledge him.
They didn’t seem to be in any hurry. The Hokage finished whatever he was saying; Oita barked a short laugh. Shibata’s soft, husky lisp contributed a suggestion. Footsteps on the floor; a chair scraped. Yondaime said, finally, “At ease, shinobi.”
He straightened, setting his feet a careful shoulder-width apart, tucking the bandaged hand and the good one at the small of his back. Shibata had taken a seat beside Oita; the owl-masked ANBU vice-commander was on Sagara’s far side. Their eyes itched on his skin.
The ANBU commander demanded, “Explain your failure at the second trial.”
Ryouma’s fingernails bit into his palm.
“I trusted,” he said. “Too much and too little. I believed Akiyama when he said Hatake was hurt and holed up; it tracked with what I knew of him, that if he was hurt he’d go to ground. And I didn’t just toss Akiyama my med-kit and go on my way, ‘cause I didn’t know him, and I wanted to be sure Kaka— Hatake was all right. I could’ve sent a clone in. I didn’t think of that.”
What was left of Shibata’s face wasn’t easy to read, but he didn’t look impressed. “So he used what he knew of your personal feelings for Kakashi, and played on them?”
“He saw us talking at the first stage,” Ryouma said. His right hand flexed, impotently, in its puffy prison of bandages. Still only halfway there, but at least it moved. He swallowed. “I wasn’t particularly discreet. I’m guessing he picked up on my, uh, overly emotional reaction to Hatake’s use of the Sharingan, and figured I’d be easy prey. And decent bait.”
Which he had been, until Kakashi refused to play by Akiyama’s rules. Shinobi Rule of Conduct 48: A shinobi chooses his own battlefields. Ryouma’d just blundered into someone else’s.
Oita Gennosuke said dispassionately, “Quote me Endo Tsuyoshi’s third theorem on the transference of matter in an unequal henge.”
Shit, Ryouma nearly said. He bit his tongue. “I don’t know Endo Tsuyoshi, sir. But when you’re henge’ing into something smaller—or larger—than you really are, the extra mass has to go to somewhere, or come from somewhere. Getting bigger’s easy; you use compressed chakra to fill out the bulk. Getting smaller, you can compress yourself—which is what kids at the Academy do, until they realize any idiot can tell a fifty-kilo shuriken apart from the real deal. If you really want to make an unequal henge that nobody can tell, you’ve got to find somewhere else to put the mass. Best option’d probably be sticking part of yourself in the Summoning Dimension, but I’m not that good at space-time ninjutsu.”
As Sagara and the Hokage had surely already noticed. He managed not to wince.
Shibata’s ruined mouth pulled sideways, baring missing teeth, as he jotted something down on the scroll in front of him. He looked up. “Is that why you so jealously protect the jutsu that you are good at?”
Firmer ground. Ryouma scrambled for it gratefully. “Any shinobi has a right to protect the jutsu he’s created,” he said. “The clans have their kinjutsu. The sensei of my genin team had a seal branded on her forehead when she turned three years old, meant to slag her eyes the moment she died. If the Hyuuga can guard their doujutsu with their daughters’ lives, I don’t see why I should share my work with anyone with a Sharingan eye.”
“The Sharingan can’t copy a bloodline limit,” the T&I commander observed. “Your jutsu are merely applied elemental chakra and seals, aren’t they? Is there some reason you couldn’t teach them to, say…” He glanced casually around the room. “Yondaime-sama?”
Yondaime was sitting back in his chair, elbow on the armrest, curled hand braced under his chin. He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
He’d complimented Ryouma on the jutsu, once, before he was Hokage, back when he was only a legend. Konoha’s Yellow Flash pausing with a shoulder-pat for a fifteen-year-old chuunin on a shattered battlefield under a sodden sky—did he still remember it?
Probably not the way Ryouma did. The warmth of that brief clasp had lingered for weeks, until they pushed far north enough that the rain turned to snow and frostbite, and shivering ninja swore they’d never be warm again.
Ryouma said carefully, “I’ve already described the basics of the techniques and their effects for the Records Department, as the law requires. If Yondaime-sama requested it, I’d willingly teach him. I don’t see why he’d want to, though. He said it reeked.”
The Hokage smiled slightly. “It did,” he said.
“It’s certainly a useful jutsu,” Shibata pressed. “Suppose your captain ordered you to teach your teammates?”
Well, Ryouma thought, there were worse hills to die on.
He said, “I’d refuse. My captain directs me in combat. That doesn’t give him a right to my jutsu, any more than it gives him a right to my body. I’d hope ANBU doesn’t overlook theft or rape from its officers. Sir.”
Silence. It stretched out far longer than any ordinary pause should have, while three men and two masks stared at him without a flicker of expression between them. His palms were beginning to sweat. He curled his left hand around the bandaged right, and lifted his chin.
Shibata said at last, very softly, “I keep our rapists out of the general flock.”
“Identify your three worst flaws,” Oita said, “and your methods of rectifying them.”
That wasn’t, actually, much of a save.
“I can’t read well,” he said, reluctantly. “I nearly got myself killed in the second trial because I couldn’t read the mission scroll.” He fixed his gaze on the red and white hat hanging off the high back of Yondaime’s chair. “Usually I get my teammates, or someone at the mission desk, to read the briefing. And write the report. It’s worked so far but not always. And sometimes I act without thinking things through enough—or at all. Moving on impulse’s saved my life, more’n a few times, but it got me and Kakashi hurt this time. I did think, but I should’ve thought more.”
Third thing. They wouldn’t care that sometimes he hooked up with the wrong people, or that he always messed things up afterwards. They were probably looking for him to admit he was too stubborn, but he still didn’t see how that was a flaw. His grandfather’d called him a stupid bastard, and Hitomi-sensei’d called him an idiot brat, but he’d created a brand new class of jutsu without help from anyone; wasn’t that enough to prove them wrong?
“I’ve been told I have an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation,” he said at last. “So I’m joining ANBU.”
Someone snorted. The Hokage’s mouth tugged in a crooked little curve. “And why should we take you?”
“I am smart,” Ryouma said. “I’ve got two B-rank and one A-rank jutsu no one else in the world has, and they’re all deadly. I’m a good strategist and a dirty fighter and I’ve got a really good memory. I work well on a team.” Mostly. There were a couple of team captains from his chuunin and special jounin days who might dispute that, but they’d been bastards anyway.
He said, “I’m loyal to Konoha. And I don’t give up.”
“Multiply four hundred and thirty by twenty-seven,” Oita said.
All right, maybe not that smart. But the T&I commander spoke up while Ryouma was still wrestling with numbers. “If you died tomorrow, what would you regret?”
The extra zeroes fell away and were lost forever. Ryouma opened his mouth, and nothing came.
Shibata’s scar-skewed grin could make children cry. “Haven’t thought about it? Well, that does make it easier to romanticize a deathwish.” He leaned back in his chair, and glanced at the others. “I’m done. Anyone else?”
Oita shook his head. The ANBU commander sat still and silent, with the vice-commander just as unreadable at her shoulder. The Hokage dropped his hand, fingers curling lightly over the carved armrest of his chair. “Thank you, shinobi. You may go.”
Ryouma bowed, backed up two steps, and turned for the door he’d seen reflected in the wide bank of windows behind the Hokage’s desk, the one he hadn’t come through.
His hands were shaking.
There wasn’t a clock in the room and Kakashi didn’t wear a watch, but every shinobi knew how to measure time. Moonfall, heartbeats—the interviews lasted twenty minutes a candidate, give or take. Which meant four hours for twelve candidates.
Or, translated, it’d take until the thin edge of eternity to find out what happened next.
The door clicked gently against the jamb. Ryouma’s reflected window-image slipped out, caught sight of an empty chair, and made a beeline for it. He dropped down into it and stared at his hands. Like every other candidate in the room, he looked not unlike a person who’d been schooled with metal rebars for a few hours, minus the actual bleeding.
Most of them would have preferred the rebars, probably.
Kakashi pulled himself away from the window.
“Questioning your life choices yet?” he asked, settling into the empty seat on Ryouma’s left.
Ryouma’s eyes stayed fixed on his hands. “I’m reconsidering taking a vow of silence and running off into the mountains to become a monk,” he said, and dragged his gaze up to view a middle-distance of invisible horrors. “They wanted me to do math.”
They wanted me to carried a suggestion of I couldn’t do with it.
“Not your strong suit?” Kakashi asked.
Ryouma’s glare would have atomized a more flammable man. “Do you always ask questions you already know the answer to?”
Obito had asked him that once.
Against his will, Kakashi felt himself grin. “I like to confirm things.” He held up one hand. “Can you count how many fingers?”
“Three, after I bite two off,” Ryouma said darkly. “You probably sat down and did crossword puzzles with the commanders, didn’t you?”
“We had a group hug first,” Kakashi said, settling back in his chair. “But then crosswords, and drinks after, because I am special enough to warrant it. Have you noticed how ANBU is just really nice to the people it likes?”
Ryouma slouched backwards, long legs stretching out like a land-bridge. “They’ll be sending you fruit baskets next. And slipping roofies in your drink.”
Unbidden, Kakashi’s thoughts circled back around to that blossoming warmth in the T&I commander’s scent. But you couldn’t blame a professional sadist for reacting to a subordinate saying under orders, I’d commit genocide for you. Perfect obedience gave everyone a thrill.
He reeled himself back to solid ground. “I doubt it,” he said.
A quick glance flicked his way, then resettled on the opposite wall. “Well, maybe not,” said Ryouma. “Yondaime-sama’d probably make them compete for your hand instead. Slay monsters and bring back three perfect fruit from a tree in the garden of the gods, that sort of thing. Plus a dowry.” He folded his arms behind his head and slouched down even more, crossing his legs at the ankles. His voice was lighter now. “I bet you’re worth at least eight cows.”
“You’ve put a disturbing amount of thought into this,” Kakashi said at length.
“Don’t worry, I’m fresh out of cows,” Ryouma said.
Why did people always say don’t worry before they said entirely worrisome things? Like medics who said this won’t hurt a bit.
He wondered what Rin would make of Ryouma.
A purse, probably, if Ryouma annoyed her enough.
“How’s your hand?” Kakashi asked.
The awkward club of bandaging made a reappearance, pulled down from behind Ryouma’s head. “I’ll keep it. Probably.” He made a visible effort to curl his fingers, which only curved a slight dent into the fluffy white block. “Feeling’s back, at least.”
And full recovery expected, otherwise they wouldn’t bother letting him stand the third Trial. So, no harm, no foul, no reason to feel guilty—and yet. He could still see the glisten of tendons paring open under the scalpel blade.
He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sorry about that. I should’ve—well, I probably could’ve handled it better.”
By not saying handled to the one-handed man for starters.
Ryouma’s head jerked up, like a horse hitting an unexpected jump. “You should’ve? How about I shouldn’t’ve gotten caught in the first place? You had no reason to get involved, and you did anyway.” He rubbed his left thumb across his wrist, tracing the bandaged path of the blade. “I owe you a lot more than just a ‘thanks.’ Let me know when your movie comes out. I’ll take you to it.”
Kakashi couldn’t actually think of a more potentially awkward experience than going to an Icha Icha movie (Icha Icha movie!) with company. What if he combusted in his seat? What if he made a noise?
There would be twelve-foot naked people on the screen. Who could watch that in touching distance of someone else?
Though, maybe if he watched it six times first, he’d be desensitized enough…
“Or you could show me your jutsu,” he suggested instead.
Ryouma’s mouth shaped an automatic word, and closed on it. He rubbed his aching wrist again, thought of the cold sting of the scalpel at his temple, Kakashi’s calm voice, the electric screaming of a thousand birds. The hot spray of blood on his face, Akiyama’s death in trade for his own.
He was grateful. He hadn’t wanted to die blind and paralyzed in that stinking cave, had wanted even less to live on as a handless, useless cripple. He hadn’t gone out courting death, no matter what the soft-voice T&I commander implied, but…
If he’d died there, his jutsu would have died with him.
He tipped his head against the wall. “Teach me the Raikiri, and I’ll show you the Nikutai Hakai.”
Kakashi tilted him a wry look. “The melting pig one? Doesn’t sound like a fair trade.”
“Nice try, but you’re not going to insult me into offering you something better.” Ryouma folded his arms across his chest. “You probably couldn’t even use it right anyway. You’d electrocute instead of melting. And then you’d throw up on top of it.” He was beginning to cheer up again. “Is your sense of smell really almost as good as an Inuzuka’s?”
Copy-nin Kakashi folded his arms over his chest, crossed his legs at the ankle, and slouched down lower in an exact mirror image. “Nice try,” he mimicked, voice dipping a shade lower into Ryouma’s baritone. “But you’re not going to insult me into giving you information.”
“My god,” Yamada Kasumi said, from the bench across the room. “Do you have to flirt in front of everyone?”
“Shut up!” Norita Takeshi hissed. “They were just getting to the good part!”
“Watch and learn, children,” Ryouma advised kindly, but Kakashi closed up like a trap snapping, straightening in his chair, hands falling loosely to his lap. He looked away, toward the window, and the thin grey light beginning to relieve the darkness.
Ryouma stared at her until she looked away. Kakashi’s shoulders didn’t loosen even then, but after a few more minutes he pulled the orange book out of his hip-pouch and began to read.
A few of the others were napping. Takeshi had a magazine scrounged up from somewhere; Kasumi settled back on her bench and half-lidded her eyes, apparently trying to meditate. Ryouma considered pacing, just to annoy her, but the door opened while he was still plotting out the most advantageous route. Kurosagi Kaito came in, grey-faced, and fell into a chair.
Eight here, four left. Another hour at least, maybe two. Ryouma was starting to envy the readers. He was still too keyed up to nap, and Kaito’s legs were in the way of his pacing path.
Well, there were other ways for a tense, nervy ninja to amuse himself. Ryouma slipped a kunai out of his holster, and kicked Kaito’s chair. “Five Finger Fillet. Your hands shaky?”
Kaito blinked, roused, and scowled. “Your hand’s bandaged.”
“So we’ll trade off.” Ryouma bared his teeth. “Think you can’t?”
“I’m in,” Takeshi said, tossing his magazine aside and sliding down cross-legged onto the floor. Kaito bristled, flexed his broad, scarred hands, and joined in.
Blue-haired Abe Shintaro came too, crowding a chair aside to give them room. They paired off, placed bets, inspected each other’s kunai—no one wanted to trust his fingers to someone else’s badly balanced blade. Ryouma volunteered his left hand first. He placed it palm-down on the scuffed wooden floorboards, and looked up into Takeshi’s muddy hazel eyes.
“Hatake Kakashi killed the last man who injured my hand,” he said. “Just so’s you know.”
Behind Icha Icha, Kakashi went carefully still. Muted flares of surprise rippled through half a dozen chakra signatures, but whether that was because the information was new or just because Ryouma had said it—
“I felt the chakra surge at the valley,” Takeshi said slowly. “I knew Akiyama.”
Not all jounin ninja were chakra sensors, but most of them had at least an edge. Raikari wasn’t a subtle jutsu. Most likely, every person in this room had felt Akiyama die.
Kakashi lowered his book and gave Ryouma a look that, hopefully, conveyed his willingness to go two for two if Ryouma didn’t shut up.
Ryouma didn’t glance over. “You know me, too,” he said to Takeshi, eye to eye with the other man. “If you figure that what happened in the valley was anything other than Akiyama gone bad, and Kakashi intervening before it got worse, here’s your chance.”
Takeshi snorted. “Yeah, right. Akiyama was a jerk. Calm your feathers, hardass.”
The kunai flicked like a snake, and hit the floorboard between Ryouma’s first finger and thumb.
Ryouma grinned. “Aww, I knew you liked me better,” he said, without glancing down at the steel shivering against his hand.
“Oh my god,” Kasumi muttered. “He’s worse than an alley cat.”
Kakashi was starting to not like her.
Takeshi leaned forward, pulled the kunai out of the wood, and began to gently tap the point between Ryouma’s fingers. Thumb, index, middle, ring, pinky—then back again. Genin liked to play this game. The point was to build up speed and complexity without removing a finger and prematurely ending your career. Not much of a challenge for a jounin.
Which was, presumably, why Takeshi wasn’t actually looking down.
The kunai picked up speed and broke pattern, weaving a river of constantly moving silver over Ryouma’s hand. The point bit into wood faster and faster, digging out chips. Thunkthunkthunk. There was barely an audible pause between hits.
Ryouma snatched his hand back. A bright droplet of blood fell onto the massacred wood.
“You moved,” Takeshi accused.
“You cut me,” Ryouma threw back. He curled his index finger and licked the thin cut, hissed, and sucked it to stem the bleeding. Then held out his hand. “Your turn.”
Reluctantly, Takeshi handed over the kunai and spread his hand on the floor. Abe and the other one, Kaito, held their game to watch, fascinated.
Ryouma weighed the kunai judgingly—it looked well balanced to Kakashi, except for maybe a slight tilt towards the hilt—and flicked it hard between Takeshi’s index and middle fingers. It slammed into the wood, quivering, the razor edge barely kissing skin.
“You do know I’m not left-handed, right?” Ryouma said, like an afterthought.
“Honestly? More concerned about you being an asshole,” Takeshi said. “If you chop anything off, I’m going to use your testicles for a skin hat.”
“Small hat,” Kaito observed, with a grin.
“Didn’t think you’d been lookin’,” Ryouma said sweetly. “Bet there’s a bathroom around here somewhere if you want a closer acquaintance.”
“Suck it, Tousaki,” said Kaito, unruffled.
A grin slashed across Ryouma’s mouth. “I can do that, too—” he began.
“Oh my god,” Takeshi broke in. “I’m sorry I mentioned the parts you think with. Just stab me before I die of boredom already.”
“Since you ask so nicely.” Ryouma yanked the kunai from the floor and drove it back down, a sharp steel lick between Takeshi’s fingers, then up again. There was no slow start here; Ryouma set at a blistering pace and got faster, blurring a web of liquid light between Takeshi’s frozen fingers.
Idly, Kakashi wondered how old that oak hardwood was. Probably antique.
If Ryouma was right-handed, he was nearly ambidextrous with a blade. The pattern changed once, then again, moving so fast Kakashi could almost see images in the steely blur. Like Takeshi, Ryouma wasn’t looking at his hand; his steady gaze was fixed on his volunteer-victim.
After a minute, Takeshi said, “Um.”
Ryouma’s teeth flashed. He flicked the kunai up and let it go. It spun six times in tight, blurring turns and slammed down between Takeshi’s middle and ring finger, like a bannerless flagpole.
“Sorry about the hat,” he said.
Kaito whistled between his teeth. “Shit, Tousaki.”
Takeshi pulled the kunai free and inspected his fingers—looking for a painless papercut, Kakashi suspected. When he found nothing, he tossed the kunai back to Ryouma like a prize. “Not bad,” he said.
The kunai twirled a silver pinwheel before Ryouma shoved it into his holster, ducking his head with modesty that even Kakashi recognized as fake. “I’ll collect from you later,” he said. He sucked his bleeding finger again, and scrambled back into his abandoned chair.
Kakashi regarded him curiously. “You’re like a giant, weird labrador,” he decided.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Ryouma said. “What’s a labrador?”
“Breed of dog in Water Country. Overly friendly, not much between the ears,” Kakashi said. “Why risk your fingers?”
One broad shoulder shrugged. “Ever do something you probably shouldn’t just ‘cause you can?”
“No,” said Kakashi.
On his blind side, the door clicked. He turned to see a white-faced redhead stumble through. She caught sight of the beginning game between Abe and Kaito, and dropped down next to them like her knees didn’t quite want to hold her. “My turn next,” she said.
Three candidates left.
The morning dragged on, as the sky outside the window lightened from slate to ash grey. Toriyama came in, placid-faced but sheened with sweat. Then Hakone, just as Ryouma was beginning to nod off against Kakashi’s shoulder. Finally, as the birds were beginning to raise their raucous dawn chorus, Ayane came in. She held her head very high and proud, but there was a tightness to her mouth and exhaustion in her eyes.
Ryouma stood to give her his chair. She nodded at him, unsmiling, and sank down to tilt her head against the wall and close her eyes.
Ash turned to pearl in the sky. The village would be waking by now, bakeries opening their doors, guards trading shifts on the walls. Ryouma traded off with Matsumoto Haruka at the window to watch for a little while. Two children raced past the closed doors of the Academy; an old street sweeper bent over his broom, resting at the end of his route. A limping chuunin in a bloodied uniform detoured into a coffee shop. And behind Ryouma, the door opened.
He turned. The other candidates were all at attention, on their feet or straight-backed in their seats. Kaito shifted a casual foot to cover the scarred floorboards.
“The Hokage is ready for you,” the owl-masked vice commander said.
They filed back in, trying not to shuffle, and ranged out in front of the desk. Ryouma found himself between Kasumi and Hakone; Kakashi was near the end of the line, with his blind side facing the wall. His masked face gave away nothing at all.
Neither did the Hokage’s, or his commanders’. They were all standing, even the Yondaime, with his flame-hemmed coat hanging in crisp white lines from his shoulders and his hands clasped behind his back. He said gravely, “I thank you for your service, and for your desire to serve. Norita, Himura, Kurosagi, and Toriyama, please follow the vice-commander to the west antechamber.”
No one spoke. Ryouma saw Himura Tadao’s face briefly as he bowed and stepped back from the line, shuttered, showing nothing of disappointment. The door back to the room where they’d first waited closed without a creak.
“Hatake Kakashi,” the Yondaime said. “Will you serve as ANBU of your own free will, knowing its dangers and the sacrifices you will be called to make?”
A heartbeat’s pause. Then Kakashi said firmly, “Yes, Hokage-sama.”
“Matsumoto Haruka,” the Hokage said, and moved down the line, calling them each by name: Abe Shintaro, Yamada Kasumi, Tousaki Ryouma, Shibata Hakone—
Ryouma startled. He’d never made the connection with Hakone’s seldom-used family name. He stole a glance sideways, saw Hakone’s lean, moody face carved from stone as he gave his response: “Yes, Hokage-sama.”
At the front of the room, the T&I commander’s scar-wrecked mouth pulled in the slightest of smiles.
“Tottori Tsubame,” the Hokage said, and the red-haired woman with the bandaged hands bowed her head.
Ayane was last, and her voice rang like steel. The Hokage’s stern expression bloomed into a broad smile. “Thank you,” he said. The bright blue gaze swept over them. His voice softened. “I hoped you all would.” He sounded as if he meant it for each of them, individually. Ryouma found himself smiling back.
“Sagara-san will lead you to ANBU HQ,” Yondaime said. “The Quartermaster needs your measurements, and you all need to fill out your paperwork. So much paperwork. You’ll take your oaths, and receive your masks, at sunrise tomorrow, after which you’ll be given the tattoo and your new teams will take you in hand. If at any time in the next 24 hours you change your mind and wish to remain in regular service, no one will think the less of you. Though it may be wise to avoid ANBU’s quartermaster for the next fortnight or so, till he forgets about the all-nighter he and his assistants pulled getting your uniforms ready. Whatever decision you make, Konoha is grateful for your service.”
Startled, the candidates bowed lower. When Ryouma straightened again, the Hokage was smiling at them.
“Take ‘em away, Sagara,” he said.
ANBU’s commander—Kakashi’s new commander—stepped forward.
“Follow me,” she said, and took them through the main doors.
On the way out, Kakashi saw the T&I commander heading purposefully towards the antechamber, where the four rejected candidates waited. Oita was hot on his heels. Not all the candidates were being returned to regular jounin or special-jounin status, Kakashi suspected.
As useful as Intel and, arguably, T&I was to Konoha, he was profoundly glad he wasn’t one of them.
Sagara took them down a complicated back-way of stairs Kakashi recognized from an adolescence partially spent rattling around the Hokage’s oversized palace, chasing Naruto out of dangerous crannies. Behind them, Minato’s sun-flare of chakra faded down to a distant glimmer.
“If you are called to deliver a report to the Hokage in uniform, or to perform guard duty, this is the way you will exit,” Sagara said. “Remember it.”
She stopped at a blank wall, formed a seal, and touched the plaster.
A door opened seamlessly.
More than one of the candidates blinked. Kakashi’s eyebrows lifted. Well, that answered a few long-standing questions.
The door led into a downwards-sloping tunnel, which, if Kakashi had his bearings correctly, took them into the connecting network of emergency tunnels carved into the Hokage’s monument. He didn’t recognize this tunnel, but that just meant Minato had done his work well.
Without warning, Sagara broke into a fast run. The candidates leapt after her.
The tunnel cut a razor-straight line until it hit three narrow switchbacks, places a single ninja could hold off an invading force by bottlenecking them, then another straight line right up to a vertical shaft.
“Lift for injured,” Sagara said, pointing at a slender crack carved into the base of the rock face. They had those in the regular tunnels, too, discretely hidden unless you knew where to look. A seal would open doors in the rock, and a wooden platform could be raised or lowered by a pulley operation.
As they were demonstrably uninjured, Sagara did not invite them to use it. Instead, she ran directly up the shaft wall, fleet on chakra-lined feet. Her chakra control was perfect. Flocking at her heels, the candidates were just as good.
Kakashi hung a little to the back, watching his new teammates with interest. He wasn’t the only one—to his right, Ayane briefly met his eye, then looked away. Ryouma was ahead of them both, moving with a loping, long-legged stride that cost him very little effort. He was a head taller than most of the candidates, but he didn’t jostle anyone for a better position.
The wall was at least the height of the whole monument, but easier to run up without anyone’s giant stone nostrils getting in the way. They reached a flat ledge, Sagara opened a new door with a different seal, and the candidates filed out of a bush-shrouded rocky outcrop onto the training field from the first Trial.
The door sealed smoothly behind them, and even with his acute chakra-senses, Kakashi couldn’t tell it was there.
Across the village, the sun was rising over the main gate, which made it nearly 7am. Any other non-mission day, he’d be making tracks to the Hero’s Stone about now.
Without any disrespect to Obito, Kakashi had to admit this was more interesting.
Sagara took them across the training field, through a grove of trees, to the first of a set of imposing buildings nestled behind the Hokages’ stony heads.
“HQ, barracks, medical office, cafeteria,” Sagara said rapidly, pointing out landmarks. “T&I building. Stay out of there unless directly invited.”
Eyeing the squat, grey-stone building, Kakashi didn’t need telling twice.
“The QM lives at the back of the HQ building,” Sagara went on. “He is one man with a heavy workload, and very few assistants. You will treat him with extreme respect, or you will find yourself in a cockroach mask. He has full control over the designs. You have none. Do not argue with him.”
Ryouma crossed his arms over his chest, flattening his unbandaged hand over a finger-length gash in the side of his jounin-vest. “Do we repair our own gear?” he asked.
The hawk-mask regarded him. “No,” she said. “You maintain it. The QM will repair any damage, or provide replacements. He does not attend to regular jounin wear, or personalized weapons. Those remain your responsibility.”
Kakashi was starting to suspect the QM was a touchy man.
Ryouma nodded, and didn’t risk another question.
“I expect rookies to remain silent in the HQ,” Sagara said, and led them through the front doors.
For a building with a rich history of bloodshed behind it, the ANBU HQ was surprisingly office-like. Instead of the usual hardwood flooring, bland grey carpeting stretched from wall to wall. A pale wooden desk stood to the left side of the door, manned by a grizzled older shinobi—a veteran, Kakashi judged, by the tight chakra signature and missing hand. The walls were taupe.
“Commander,” said the desk-ninja, tapping his stump to his left shoulder.
There were more elevators. Sagara led them down the stairs. A winding, intricate set of hallways itched Kakashi’s senses with the metal-taste of latent chakra. They passed multiple closed doors with, as far as he could tell, no coherent numbering system. None of them were paper-screen; everything here was solid wood or stone. The walls and carpet remained the same grey and taupe combination.
Curiously, there were no scuffs or scratch marks anywhere.
Any invading ninja would have a bastard of a time navigating without a detailed map to guide him. Kakashi’s respect crept up a notch.
Sagara halted at an entirely unremarkable door and rapped twice, then three more times. After a moment, the door opened and a thin, grey-haired man peered at them over half-moon spectacles.
“Sagara-sama,” he said, with a deep, respectful bow. “The new candidates?”
“Eight of them this time, Wada-san,” Sagara said. “Is Morita-san available?”
“One moment, please,” said the assistant, with another bow. He withdrew, leaving the door partially open.
How special were the ANBU uniforms, that this much respect went to the man who made them?
The door pulled back. Sagara bowed slightly, and Kakashi blinked. The Quartermaster was young. A middling-height, sturdily built man with the distinctive darker skin and lighter hair of Lightning, but without the typical beard—and then, because he couldn’t help himself, Kakashi saw the other details. Smaller hands, a throat unbroken by the profile of an Adam’s apple, the lines of flattening bandages beneath the shirt. And when Morita spoke, a voice that held more sand than gravel.
“Sagara-sama.” A broad smile showed very white teeth. “You’ve brought me fresh meat.”
Sagara said he, which meant it was he, no matter the original landscape. Some villages were more strict about maintaining binary lines, but Konoha had always leaned towards accepting the shades of grey.
“Don’t feel you need to be nice to them,” Sagara said. “Send them over to Briefing Room 37-A when you’re done with them.”
“Of course,” said Morita. His eyes swept over the eight candidates, and landed on Ryouma. “You, tall guy, let’s have you first.”
Ryouma was at the back of the cluster, as usual for any crowd in which he stood more than a head taller than the shortest, which meant an awkward sidle between Haruka and Kasumi and then trying not to bang into the doorframe. The rest of the candidates trooped after him, which rather defeated the point.
The Quartermaster’s office looked like a demented tailor’s warehouse. Rows of shelving stretched nearly to the reinforced beams of the ten-foot ceilings, with every space crammed full and not a one labeled. Wada, the spectacled assistant, and a plump woman with a grandmother’s smile looked up from the tables where they sat at chattering sewing machines surrounded by mounds of black fabric. There were bins of kunai, trays of bandage rolls, a table heaped with shattered and bloodied armor. Painted masks glared down from the supports between the shelves: foxes, insects, rats, boars, birds, shapes that refused to assemble into a face. Ryouma rather liked the look of an open-mouthed roaring dragon near the ceiling, but they probably saved that for the fire-breathers.
“Stand here,” Morita said, indicating a low, broad wooden box on the floor. Ryouma approached cautiously, and stopped beside the box.
“Hmm,” the Quartermaster said, drawing a flexible tape thoughtfully between his slender hands. “Yes, perhaps you’d better stay down here.” He circled Ryouma once, head tilted like a curious bird, and stopped just behind him. Ryouma’s shoulder blades itched; he forced himself not to turn.
“Vest, shirt, and hitai-ate off,” Morita announced. “Keep the pants.”
Takeshi would have catcalled, but Takeshi wasn’t here. Ryouma unzipped his vest and dropped it on the floor, peeled his shirt over his head and wrestled the sleeve off over his bandaged hand. He placed his hitai-ate more carefully on top of the pile, then straightened. His skin prickled with cold, and everyone was staring at his tattoos. He braced his hands on his hips, and let them look their fill.
Morita circled again, stopped in front of Ryouma, and reached out to tap the bright, glittering eye of the coiled dragon tattooed over his shoulder and heart, just above the silver nipple-ring. “Lovely design. Personal meaning?”
“Yeah,” Ryouma said.
Morita waited a polite moment for him to elaborate. Ryouma rode it out.
“Very personal, I see,” the Quartermaster concluded, unruffled. He took Ryouma’s left hand and turned it thoughtfully, splaying the long fingers out. “Ninjutsu user. You’ll want fingerless gloves.” He tapped Ryouma’s forearm, where a livid red scar cut through an older line faded to white. “Block with your forearms a lot? Reinforced guards. What’s your weapon of choice?”
“Bare hands, for preference,” he said finally. “Basic kunai and shuriken otherwise. I’m not bad with a ninjato.”
“Ever try a naginata?”
Ryouma shook his head. “That’s more a samurai weapon, isn’t it?”
“For the unimaginative,” Morita sniffed. “I have one. You should take it with you. Aiko, grab me the one, you know which.”
The plump woman eased her foot off the treadle of the sewing machine and hoisted herself to her feet, limping back into the rows of shelves. Ryouma tried to imagine himself swinging a six-foot spear around and then…what, dropping it in the mud while he performed the seals for the Nikutai Tokasu? The whole point of his fighting style was to get close enough to land even a glancing hit. Maybe he could use it to spear fish.
“We’ll proceed,” Morita announced, and whipped the end of his tape measure around Ryouma’s neck. He was moving on before the lizard part of Ryouma’s brain had even begun to panic, measuring shoulders, chest, waist, hips, inseam, and a series of increasingly bizarre items, like the circumference of Ryouma’s thigh and the distance from the hinge of his jaw to his lips. He paused, curiously, to brush the hair back from Ryouma’s right ear, exposing the angling scar that had sliced off the tip and furrowed the scalp. “Forget to duck?”
Ryouma grinned. “You shoulda seen the sword. You’d be asking how I’ve still got the top of my skull.”
Morita tugged cheerfully at his hair. “Good job keeping it. It’d be a shame to lose this nice hair.” He’d climbed up onto the box at some point in his frenzy of measurement; he hopped off now, and took another critical pacing turn around Ryouma. “That’ll do you,” he decided at last. “Ah, Aiko, thank you.” He accepted the polished two-meter shaft, ran a hand over the sheath capping the long, curved blade, and held it out to Ryouma. “Play with it for a week. If you don’t like it by then, bring it back. If the blade is even scratched, I’ll have your scalp.”
Maybe Ryouma wouldn’t take up spearfishing after all.
The Quartermaster was looking over his shoulder already. “You, with the hair,” he said, pointing.
Ryouma had crouched to scoop up his shirt and vest. He stopped, looking up. The candidates were staring at each other—or, more accurately, at each other’s hair. Abe ruffled a hand through his blue spikes, looking unsure. Tottori tugged her red braid.
Kakashi sighed through his mask, tucked his book away, and pushed himself off the wall, unzipping his flak vest as he came. “Do you actually need my shirt off?”
Morita’s eyes narrowed. “Do you want a shirt three sizes too big under the arms and armor two inches loose in the gut? Those jounin uniforms are barely tailored at all. Shirt comes off. You can keep the mask.”
The vest dropped on the floor by Ryouma’s feet. Ryouma shrugged his own vest on, not bothering to force his shirt over the bandage, and tucked his hitai-ate in his pocket. He straightened, just as Kakashi set his back firmly to the other candidates and pulled his shirt over his head, taking the hitai-ate with it. The mask stayed put, a thin, stretchy tube of blue material that just skirted his scarred collarbones.
There wasn’t, actually, much skin that wasn’t scarred, from the purple-seamed closed left eye to the shiny burn ripple stretching over the sharp curve of his hip bone to burrow beneath his waistband. Most of them were healed and old, faded silver by time or medical jutsu, but some were still raised and red. Slicing and raking blade marks, acid dimples, crescent-moon animal bites on his forearms and wrists, shrapnel gouges in his shoulders, a barbed wire tear wrapping up his left forearm to the elbow, debris-peppered blast burns on his stomach and chest. The line on his shoulder where Akiyama’s scalpel had hit was knitted closed, but still pink.
Beneath the scars, Kakashi was muscled lean and spare, all glass-cut planes and angles. Veins knotted under the thin skin up his forearms. The hard lines of his stomach muscles were interrupted by one small, unexpected surgical scar. If Ryouma had to guess, Kakashi’d had his appendix out.
Morita was looking at Kakashi’s hands, not his abs. “Reinforced gloves,” he concluded. He skimmed a professional eye from hips to hair, and frowned. “What, you block with your everything a lot? I’m not sure we’ve got armor tough enough for you. You may have to take lessons from the tall one here on how to dodge.”
“Especially if you insist on leaving my shoulders bare,” Kakashi said coolly.
Ryouma snickered. The Quartermaster flicked him an irritated glance. “You got an opinion, you can air it outside.” He turned back to Kakashi. “How do you feel about cockroaches?”
Ryouma laughed all the way back to the door.
Apparently constructive criticism counted as less than extreme respect. Kakashi considered a future filled with bugs.
“I think if I saw a man-sized cockroach face coming at me, I’d run the other way,” he said, after a moment.
Morita gave a soundless laugh, shoulders shaking. “You’ve got guts,” he said. “Ever try a kusarigama?”
A sickle on a weighted chain, good for middle-range and close-range, depending on whether you swung or stabbed. “I prefer a tanto for a short-blade,” Kakashi said. “Chains are useful, but I like a longer length than a kusarigama provides.”
Eyes the color of light whiskey gave Kakashi a weighing look and apparently judged him lacking in weapons, because Morita said, “Kyoketsu-shoge. There’s one around here somewhere.”
The female assistant hefted herself up again, limping into the stacks without complaint. Morita’s measuring tape snapped around Kakashi’s neck.
Kakashi managed not to twitch.
“Do you need to keep that eye closed?” Morita asked, flicking two fingers towards the shuttered Sharingan.
“Most of the time,” Kakashi said.
“A hitai-ate won’t fit beneath an ANBU mask,” Morita said briskly. “Can’t give you an eye-patch, either. Mask’d get in your way if you needed to yank it off. Does it hurt to hold it closed for long?”
“It’s not comfortable,” Kakashi admitted.
“Hm,” said Morita. “I could rig a screen over the eye-hole, with a thread to yank it off—but you don’t want trailing ribbons flapping about. Something chakra would burn away? A mesh, maybe. You’d need to replace it every time, though.” He slapped Kakashi on the bare biceps. “You’re a challenge!”
Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry?”
“Just stop blocking with your chest, and we’re in business,” Morita said, and returned to his increasingly invasive measurements, humming a cheerful warbling tune. His hands were warm and professional, like the better class of medics, but Kakashi couldn’t help tensing when the tape measure laid along the flat of his jaw and touched his masked mouth.
Morita pulled it away, coiling it around his wrist. “That should do it. Ah, thank you, Aiko.”
A wickedly sharp blade was pressed into Kakashi’s hands.
He’d studied kyoketsu-shoge back in the academy, but he’d never worked with one. They were the precursor to kusarigama—a peasant weapon, from the pre-ninja days when farmers had defended their own lands and used the tools that came readily to hand. This one seemed… slightly updated. The main blade was about the length of Kakashi’s forearm from elbow to fingertips, forged from folded steel and backed by a shorter blade curving like a sickle from the black, leather-wrapped hilt. A slender eighteen-foot chain was fixed to the base of the hilt, and neatly looped into a ribbon-tied coil.
The weight was beautiful.
Kakashi tested the edge with his thumb, and cut himself. “Do you give weapons to everyone?”
“Not everyone,” Morita said. “Just the ones who look like they’ve got something to learn.”
“The smart ones, then,” Kakashi said, dryly amused. He tilted his head towards the door. “Except that doesn’t explain Tousaki.”
“Hey!” Ryouma yelled from the hallway. “I don’t insult your face!”
“You can’t see my face,” Kakashi said.
“You wouldn’t hide it if you were hot,” Ryouma shot back, sticking his head around the doorjamb.
Kakashi rounded on him, irritated—and was interrupted by his own shirt being shoved in his face.
“Out,” ordered the Quartermaster. “Foreplay and fighting are both off-limits here.”
“It’s not flirting,” Kakashi said, yanking the shirt down.
Morita bundled the abandoned jounin vest into Kakashi’s arms, narrowly missing the kyoketsu-shoge, and pointed firmly at the door. “I don’t care. Get out. Go punch him until you feel better, or whatever coping mechanism validates your issues more.”
Maiming might, Kakashi thought darkly, and stepped down from the measuring box. He slipped through the crowd of conspicuously silent candidates and through the door, which was suddenly absent of mocking heads.
Ryouma was leaning against the opposite hallway wall, grinning. “It’s a little like flirting,” he said. “And you’re welcome for the rescue.”
“I will kill you and everything you hold dear,” Kakashi said.
“Hope you’re up for a long, boring afternoon,” Ryouma said, with the lazy unconcern of a man who doubted the threat, or didn’t have many people to care about.
Kakashi pulled his shirt back on, layered the jounin vest back over it, and calmed his ruffled feathers. Clothes improved matters. Fewer eyes on his bare skin definitely improved matters. He’d thrown the first barb; he couldn’t bite at Ryouma for throwing one back.
The cool weight of his reinstated hitai-ate anchored him down. “Actually,” he said stiffly. “I’ll be using my afternoon to pack.”
Because he’d made it into ANBU.
At some point, that was actually going to sink in.
“Pack for what?” Ryouma asked, interested, just before understanding rose up and smacked him in the face: “Right, they have dorms, don’t they? Or we do, now. Will.”
“Barracks,” Kakashi corrected. “For you, maybe a kennel.”
“Hot times with the Inuzuka ahead, I see.” Ryouma nodded sagely. “I hear they’re wildcats in bed.” Which was a comparison that probably didn’t make much sense for a clan rumored to be descended from mountain wolves, but no one’d ever said innuendo had to be logical as well as hot. Descending from wolves wasn’t all that logical anyway.
Kakashi was raking his hair flat with his fingers—unsuccessfully, from Ryouma’s point of view, but maybe he found the action calming. He stopped to shoot Ryouma a half-suspicious, half-fascinated glance, as if he were wondering what color the sky was on Ryouma’s home planet. “Maybe a pen outside,” he judged at last.
Ryouma grinned at him. “Aww, you’ll come visit me, right?”
“No,” Kakashi said, very firmly. He looked down the hallway, frowning. “We were supposed to do paperwork, I thought.”
“Briefing room 37-A, she said.” Ryouma shoved off the wall, and leaned instead on his unwieldy new naginata. At least it was tall enough to be a useful prop, even if carrying it wholly occupied his only good hand. His long-sleeved shirt, with its narrow wrist-cuffs, dangled from the crook of his elbow. Next time he got dressed, he was choosing short sleeves.
Next time he got dressed would be in sleeveless ANBU blacks. He hugged that thought to himself for a moment. Twenty-four hours ago he’d been sitting shirtless on a hospital table, gritting his teeth at the ice-and-fire needles of healing chakra in his nerves, dreading the possibility that his fingers would never twitch more than halfway to his palm. Asuka-sensei had never been more than noncommittal about his prognosis—but if they were admitting him and outfitting him, that meant the hand specialist’s report to the Hokage had to have been good, didn’t it?
He looked up the hall. “You didn’t happen to see it when we passed, did you? ‘Cause the last room I remember was 16, and the one before that just had a squiggle.”
Kakashi’s eyelid dropped briefly, as if he was reading a script off the back of it. Then he took off, heading purposefully toward the stairs. “It’s back up a floor.”
Up a floor and down three halls, as it turned out. Ryouma was fairly sure they should be ending up close to the stairwell where they’d begun, but with no windows and no markings other than the bizarrely labeled and staggered doors it was hard to tell. What would they do to a rookie who wandered in with a stick of charcoal and a fondness for maps? Would it be worth it?
Some rookies, apparently, didn’t need maps. Kakashi halted in front of a door that looked identical to a dozen others they’d passed, down to the dull brass plaque screwed at eye-level. “Check for traps,” Ryouma advised. Kakashi gave him an evil glare, shifted the shoge to his other hand, and tried the doorknob.
It swung open without any accompanying explosions, revealing a room that could have been any nondescript classroom in the Academy: three rows of wooden desks, a blackboard at the front, a bespectacled older man in a blue and white happi coat over a green uwagi shirt belted with a hitai’ate. There was a neat stack of paper and a sharpened pencil on every desk.
“Is this another test?” Kakashi demanded.
The man looked up from his book, blinked, and said mildly, “Of manners, perhaps.”
“Please excuse him,” Ryouma said. “He was half-naked just now, and he took it badly. Are you the God of Paperwork?”
The man’s mouth quirked. “God-king, in fact.”
“It’s like you infect people,” Kakashi hissed under his breath.
“Kindred spirits will always find each other,” Ryouma informed him, and abandoned him in the doorway. He leaned the naginata against a wall, slipped a stack of paper off the nearest desk, and approached the God-King of Paperwork with his most charming smile. “I’m Ryouma. I injured my writing hand in the trials, which might be a good thing; my spelling’s terrible anyway. I don’t suppose you could lend me your hand?”
He could hear Kakashi’s snort all the way from the back of the room.