April 19, Yondaime Year 5
The night before oath-day, Kakashi didn’t sleep.
He hadn’t had mission-related butterflies for years, and he didn’t now. These were tigers chewing on his spine. Excitement with teeth. And tense, over-thought—
Not fear, exactly.
He wasn’t afraid.
Maybe, for once in his life, he was actually ready for something.
He left the skeleton-crew boxes of his packed apartment when the moon was still setting, and went to the Hokage’s Monument, picking out a seat on stone spikes of the Sandaime’s hair. When dawn came, he had a perfect view.
Tuesday was fire-day, the namesake day of Fire Country, and someone had given nature the message. The sun rose in a blaze of orange and gold, draping Konoha in molten light. The river glittered. The forest swayed in a warm eastern breeze. Even the heavy crags of the carved Hokage faces looked less severe.
And Kakashi was late.
“Shit,” he said, and ran for it.
He was the last candidate to arrive outside the Hokage’s office, and the only one not dressed in ANBU armor. The quartermaster was waiting for him.
“Finally,” said Morita, and yanked Kakashi into a side-room. “After all this work, if you’d stood me up, Hatake, I don’t even know.”
“Don’t care! Strip down!”
Nakedness and the Quartermaster seemed to be a theme. This time, Kakashi didn’t argue. He yanked hastily out of his jounin blues, dropping them onto an indicated chair, and accepted the sleek black underpinnings. They felt like cool silk against his skin when he pulled them on, but with the deceptive strength of woven steel. The shirt was reinforced at front and back, making him stand straighter. The pants came with black leg-bindings that went from the knee down to a pair of dark, reinforced boots. Long, fingerless gloves were last, cinching securely at his biceps, with a metal plate curving over the backs of both hands.
It was the most well-fitted thing he’d ever worn.
“Armor now. Put your arms out.”
Kakashi did as ordered, standing like his own namesake. Morita strapped the ANBU vest on first; it almost felt like a jounin vest, but heavier, sturdier, with flexibility built in via articulated plates hidden beneath tough cloth. Stretching panels down the side allowed for breathing and easy movement. Arm-guards went on next, laid along his forearms from wrist to elbow. Then knee-guards made in the same tough-but-flexible style as the vest. A thigh-holster. A sturdy utility belt with more pouches than a typical jounin’s belt, to replace the pockets an ANBU chest-plate lacked. A standard-issue kodachi went at his back, hung at a cross-angle from the belt.
Morita tugged a loop hard, making Kakashi take a steadying step backwards. “You can put a tanto here,” he said. “In the small of your back. Or I can alter it, if you want to have it between your shoulder blades.”
Kakashi blinked. “Thank you,” he said.
“Yes, whatever,” said Morita brusquely, and slapped him on the butt. “You’re done. Get out there.”
Kakashi jolted like a startled horse, but went when Morita flapped at him. The armor felt strange, but comfortable, like something he could get used to.
When he walked back into the waiting room outside the office, there were less people. Only Fukui Ayane, stern and pale-faced; Shibata Hakone, the son of the T&I commander, Kakashi had learned; and Ryouma, who managed to look both leaner and taller, somehow, in the white and black lines of ANBU armor.
No one had a mask. That must come later.
“Fukui, Shibata,” Kakashi murmured, with a nod. Then, to Ryouma, “Idiot.”
Ryouma grinned, or at least bared his teeth. “We’re at nicknames already?”
“Not today,” Ayane said sharply, glaring at both of them.
Hakone’s face didn’t change. If he noticed them, he was doing an excellent job of not caring.
“Right, sorry, I forgot,” said Ryouma, unrepentant. “Today is a day for solemn ceremony.” He crossed his arms, tucking his bandaged hand underneath, and tapped his good fingers restlessly against his bare biceps. The bandage was smaller today, less of a club, more of a glove. He must have had another healing session.
The cut at his temple where Akiyama’s scalpel had sliced was already half-faded to a scar. Medics didn’t usually bother with the small stuff, but someone had made an effort for that one. Kakashi couldn’t blame Ryouma for wanting it off his face.
Behind Ayane, the Hokage’s doors opened. Sagara stepped through, fully armored and masked, and looked at Kakashi.
“You’re late,” she said, with death-knell judgment.
“I didn’t ask,” she said. “Follow me.”
Good luck! Ryouma mouthed, abandoning solemn ceremony to be a ridiculous human being.
If she’d been here, Rin would have done the same.
Kakashi folded that thought up, put it away, and followed on Sagara’s heels. The door slid closed behind him with a final click.
Standing in front of the desk, backed by the rising dawn light shining through the bank of windows, Minato was every inch Konohagakure’s fourth Hokage. The man dressed in unburning flames. He ducked his head slightly, a shadow falling across his face, and then Kakashi could see the teacher he knew—proud, excited, and a little sad.
“You grew up,” Minato said quietly.
Kakashi felt his mouth tug. “You made me.”
“Well, you were kind of a brat when you were ten,” Minato said reflectively, which couldn’t be part of the standard ANBU oath. He reached behind him without looking, and picked a white, curved mask off the desk, holding it so that Kakashi couldn’t see the face. “Kneel, candidate.”
Slowly, Kakashi settled onto one knee, planting his right fist on the sun-slanted wooden floor.
“The Special Assassination and Tactical Squad is neither Konoha’s oldest division nor its noblest,” Minato said, with a conversational air, and Kakashi realized this wasn’t a prepared speech. This was just Minato laying out the facts like he always did, grounding the extraordinary in regular context. “Even inside the village, ANBU are feared more than they’re respected. Citizens of our own village still call them baby-killers. Some ANBU have earned that title, under my command. You may.” He paused. “I have given those orders personally. Every order the ANBU receive comes through me. Sometimes the command is to protect the village, or to conduct a high-risk mission into enemy territory, or to assassinate an exceptionally strong ninja. Sometimes it’s to sustain the village’s lifeblood—to accept a mission so foul I can’t offer it to the regular forces, to work for a client whose motives and methods are reprehensible but whose coin will feed and protect our children. You’ve accepted that first kind of mission, and excelled. Can you accept the second?”
“Yes,” said Kakashi, without hesitation.
“You’ve made a name for yourself, Sharingan no Kakashi.” Minato’s voice warmed with a smile Kakashi couldn’t see. “And for Obito. I don’t think you’ll have any objections to an additional mask, and you’ve never been a glory hound—but once you swear the ANBU oath, there’s no glory to be had at all. You’ll work as a member of a team, and the barest rookie at that. You’ll obey your captain’s orders, you’ll support your teammates, and you’ll damn well get along with them on-mission and off. There are no lone wolves in ANBU.”
So be warned.
Kakashi nodded, silver hair falling into his eyes without the hitai-ate to hold it back.
Minato sighed, very softly, and the mask turned over in his careful, clever fingers. “Take the face you will present to the world, and swear your allegiance.”
It was a lion-dog.
The flat-muzzled face was painted in black and scarlet lines, with a curling mouth and slanted eyes. Two streaks made whisker-like marks at the cheeks, and sharp little ears lifted up at the temples. The eyes were cut wider than other masks Kakashi had seen—to accommodate the Sharingan, he realized. The left eyehole had thin black mesh stretched over it, completely opaque, but he could feel the subtle hint of chakra in it.
That last thing was the only thing about it that made sense. Why red? Why not just a wolf?
At least it wasn’t a cockroach.
He took it carefully from Minato, cradling the light ceramic-polymer weight, and felt Sagara step up at his back. She leaned over him, put her hand over his hand, and brought the mask to his face. “The mesh will burn away with a thread of lightning chakra and the Bird seal,” she said quietly. “There should be self-adhesive replacement patches in your gear. See the Quartermaster when you need more.” There were black straps fixed to both sides of the mask; he held still as she tied them firmly behind his head. The world narrowed slightly. His breath curled back against his face.
“Repeat after me,” she said, letting go. “I am Hatake Kakashi, ANBU. I have no face but this face.”
More face than he’d ever shown before. He repeated it, steady-voice.
“I have no heart, but the heart of Konohagakure.”
That had always been true. Kakashi repeated it.
“I have no will, but the will of my Hokage.”
Softly, Kakashi said it.
Konoha had forged him, Minato had sharpened him, ANBU would use him. Kakashi just had to get out of his own way and let them.
Minato laid a hand on his head, one thumb resting against the edge of a ceramic ear—this wasn’t the familiar hair-ruffle Kakashi had learned to tolerate, then secretly appreciate. This was the weight of a leader accepting a new fealty, and the warmth of it twined around Kakashi’s bones.
The hand fell away. “Rise, Agent Hatake.”
Kakashi drew in a breath, lifted himself off his knee—and had every last scrap of air driven out of him when Minato yanked him into a crushing hug. For a moment, Kakashi froze. They didn’t do this unless there was blood on the ground and a rent where something whole had been taken. But Minato didn’t let go, only gripped tighter, and Kakashi—
Was not his student anymore.
And never really would be again.
He wrapped his arms around Minato’s shoulders and ducked his head, pressing the side of his masked face against the wild golden hair. Minato was shorter than him, narrower across the shoulders, but his chakra was immense. An inferno wrapped around Kakashi’s pale blue flame. And yet, for the first time, Kakashi actually felt stronger.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“You say that now,” Minato said, but there was a catch in his voice. “I’m not doing you any favors, you know.” He leaned his head against Kakashi’s, just a little. “Wait until you meet your team.”
Whoever they were, they couldn’t touch his former team.
And Kakashi might never get this chance again. He tightened his grip, until Minato made a laughing, gasping sound as the breath accordioned out of him, and whacked Kakashi between the armored shoulder blades.
Kakashi released him, and stepped back. “Hokage-sama.”
The blue eyes were just a little too bright. “Go out and come back safely. I’ve got too much paperwork to go chasing after you these days.”
Behind the mask-over-mask, Kakashi smiled. Then bowed.
“Agent Hatake,” Sagara said, and led him to the door that led to the antechamber. “You’ll wait here to meet your team.”
The room was empty, but it smelled like stress and fresh armor. They’d been doing this since the first oath, he guessed.
“Sagara-sama,” he said, with another bow.
She closed the door.
The mask was actually a little warm. Kakashi gave it a careful tug, resettling it better, and sat down in one of the empty chairs to wait.
“Come on, taichou,” Katsuko wheedled, following Raidou and Genma up the stairs. “Not even a hint?”
Raidou sounded like he was rolling his eyes behind his mask. “If that didn’t work the last thirty times, why would it work now?”
“Hope springs eternal,” Katsuko said. “Like my curiosity.”
“I think I remember some kind of cautionary tale about curiosity and cats,” Genma said helpfully. “Or is that rats?” They pushed through the door and started down the hall towards the Hokage’s office and antechamber.
“I’ll cat your rat,” Katsuko muttered underneath her breath, readjusting her mask. Then, louder, she added, “I’m starting to think our rookies are either really weird or really special, taichou, if you’re going this far not to tell me. Does one of them have a tail?”
“If he does, you’re not allowed to chase it.”
“So one of them’s a guy?” Katsuko sighed. “Well, maybe the other one can be a girl. It’s lonely, being the only paragon of femininity on this team.”
Genma looked at her, then at Raidou. “Paragon? Really?”
“Femininity’s a complex concept,” Raidou said calmly. His crescent-moon mask, like the rest of him, offered no further clues. He was infuriating.
“Mrrgh,” Katsuko said, which at least was better than ‘Sometimes I want to set your hair on fire’.
Fortunately for Katsuko’s rather tenuous grasp on her patience, they reached the antechamber thirty seconds later. She refrained from trying to crane around Genma’s shoulders to catch a glimpse as Raidou opened the door; she wasn’t actually twelve anymore, no matter what Raidou might say. Still, she couldn’t help hoping. Raidou hadn’t outright said the second candidate wasn’t a girl. It’d be too much to expect the new kenjutsu user, Fukui, but she’d heard about the kunoichi whose genjutsu nearly fooled Raidou.
When she filed into the room after Raidou and Genma and saw who was waiting for them, though, she understood immediately why Raidou had been so closemouthed. The new recruit getting to his feet was wearing his mask—a lion-dog, done in streaks of black and scarlet—but nobody else in Konoha had hair that white and gravity-defying.
Katsuko studied Hatake Kakashi, hands propped on her hips, and grinned in delight. It wasn’t every day a girl got a living legend on her squad. “Pretty cool,” she decided. “I love presents. Don’t you, taichou?”
The Copy-nin had been staring at Raidou and Genma, but now the lion-dog mask turned to take her in, too. If she had to hazard a guess, she’d say the expression under that painted face would be stark disbelief. Unless he was wearing his normal cloth mask underneath the ANBU one, in which case it’d be a covered mouth and skeptical brows.
After a moment’s silence, Raidou said, “Less than two seconds to cross a boundary, Ueno. New record.”
“I do my best to surpass expectations, captain,” Katsuko said gravely.
“And you’re done talking,” Raidou said, stepping in front of her. “Hatake, welcome to Team Six. I’m Namiashi Raidou, captain. That’s Shiranui Genma, lieutenant. And Ueno Katsuko, problem.”
Kakashi looked at each of them in turn, nodding slightly at Genma and Raidou before turning his focus on Katsuko. “What’s going on with your chakra?”
She’d been asked that before, frequently, but never in the first five minutes of meeting someone. Katsuko blinked. “Enemy medic-nin with way too much time and creativity on his hands. What’s going on with your hair?”
“Neat,” Katsuko said. “Welcome to the team.”
Kakashi didn’t seem very impressed. “Don’t ANBU teams usually have five members?”
“I was wondering that, myself,” Katsuko said. Whichever rookie it was must have made an impression during the Trials, to be assigned alongside Hatake.
Genma glanced over at the door that led into the Hokage’s office. “I guess we got here a little early.”
That got Kakashi’s attention. Sharp eyes behind the mask followed Genma’s gaze to the door. The slightest edge of suspicion entered his voice. “It’s another candidate?”
“A shinobi is in all things patient, waiting for the moment when the truth reveals itself,” Genma said, voice desert-dry.
“It’s another candidate,” Raidou confirmed.
Whoever their second rookie was, Kakashi already had an idea. That was enough for Katsuko to guess that things were going to become wildly entertaining in the next ten minutes. It was shaping up to be an excellent day.
Kakashi’s head turned and she found herself the center of his knife-like focus again. “Is your chakra always this loud?”
Sensors always did like to complain about her chakra presence. Katsuko returned Kakashi’s stare. “I’ll tell you on one condition.”
He tipped his head slightly.
“Address me for the next three hours as ‘Your Luminescence’, and we’ve got a deal.”
Kakashi looked at her for a long moment. Then he said, “I’m going to assume that means ‘yes’.”
“Snarky,” Katsuko said, cheerfully. She couldn’t wait to spar against him. “I like that.”
Genma gave Raidou a speaking look.
“Down,” Raidou told her mildly.
“Sorry, taichou.” Katsuko straightened and saluted. “How long until our second rookie joins us?”
The door opened before Raidou could reply. The man who stepped through was all lean muscle and broad shoulders, wearing a stylized red ram mask. He was tall, too, with a couple of inches on Raidou. Katsuko eyed his dark, spiky hair and the way the ANBU armor molded to his body and felt her mouth quirk up in a grin.
And it wasn’t even her birthday.
Four masked faces turned to study Ryouma like a wolf-pack scenting prey as he stepped over the threshold and shut the door behind him. For a moment, he thought of backing through the door again.
Two of those masks he already knew. The sturdy man in the red crescent moon mask who’d steadied him as Yondaime yanked them through worlds, and the long-haired field medic with the grinning tanuki who’d first treated his wrist and countered Akiyama’s poison. Between them stood a wiry, boyish woman with a wild tumbleweed of dark hair and a sharp-faced mask like a rodent with a red spiral on its forehead.
Facing them, staring at him, Hatake Kakashi wore a mask like the cheerful lovechild of a lion and a housedog, and a shoulder-slumping cloak of despair. “Of course,” he said.
Apparently Akiyama wasn’t the only one who’d observed them talking throughout the Trials. Was Ryouma supposed to be some sort of Growth Experience for Kakashi? He’d be the world’s worst Good Conduct prize.
“Oh, lovely,” the woman said. She had a low, pleasant alto voice, and she sounded fiendishly entertained. “It looks like you two are friends already.”
Kakashi tipped his masked forehead into his gloved palm. “I’m going to file a complaint.”
“There’s paperwork for that,” the veteran in the crescent moon mask said cheerfully. “Tousaki, welcome to Team Six. I’m Namiashi Raidou, Captain. This is Shiranui Genma, lieutenant.” He tipped his head to the left. The tanuki-masked medic nodded briefly.
“Ueno Katsuko, continued problem.” The woman waggled her fingers.
“And you already know Hatake Kakashi,” Raidou concluded. “We need to get out of here before the next team comes in.”
“Sure,” Ryouma said, and stepped away from the door.
He was three inches taller than Raidou. The spiky brush of hair revealed itself as reddish-brown, in this light. Solidly muscled arms and shoulders, broad and capable hands. And that deep, smoky baritone, easy on the syllables of a family name Ryouma had never known, and a personal name that couldn’t be that common…
“Good to meet you,” Ryouma said. “Again.”
Raidou pushed his mask aside and grinned, dark eyes dancing. He’d lost the black eye somewhere in the last six months; the split lip had healed without a scar. “Glad you made it in,” he said. Then he pulled his mask back down and headed for the door that led to the hall. “Follow me.”
Raidou’d been good at giving orders the last time they met without masks, too—but Ryouma shut down that line of thought quickly. There’d be time enough later to overthink things, and likely there was nothing to overthink at all. Katsuko was already heading out the door on Raidou’s heels. Ryouma fell in behind her.
The medic, Genma, followed at Ryouma’s back. Kakashi trailed behind him, radiating disgruntlement. Possibly, Ryouma charitably assumed, because he kept trying to put his hands in the pockets he didn’t have.
“How’s the hand?” Genma asked, as the antechamber door swung shut behind them. Katsuko, just ahead of Ryouma, looked back curiously.
Ryouma raised his hand. Asuka-sensei had taken the bandage-club off last night, after another intensive healing session and repeated promises of good behavior. It was gloved in tightly wrapped bandages now, still a little too stiff and bulky for the sleek black ANBU gloves, but his fingers curled nearly to his palm. “Improving. I should have full function by the end of the week. Back up to seal speed in a week after that, if I do my exercises right.” Which he would, possibly in place of sleep.
“I can help you with the exercises,” Genma offered. “And you’ll want to ice it after workouts.” Ryouma ducked a grateful nod.
“How d’you know the captain?” Katsuko demanded. She was walking nearly backward now. Over her shoulders, Raidou’s spine was stiff and straight.
Ryouma chewed the inside of his cheek. “Shared a drink a few months back,” he said at last. “Then he and Shiranui and Kakashi all saved my life—and my hand—a couple days ago. Sorry I bled on you,” he added cordially.
A little of the tension leaked out of Raidou’s spine. He lifted one shoulder in an easy shrug. “‘Doubt it’ll be the last time.”
“If I had a hundred ryou for every ninja who’s bled on me, I could live like a daimyou,” Genma said wryly.
Katsuko’s masked face tipped from Ryouma to Raidou. She shrugged, and about-faced again just in time to avoid a potted plant on a plinth. “Bleeding on each other is a team bonding activity,” she said.
“Guess I’m making a good head start, then,” Ryouma said.
“Keep it up and you get a sticker,” Raidou said, wry.
“By stickers he means bandages,” Katsuko said.
“Making a start on that, too,” Ryouma said, quick on his feet, making Katsuko chuckle. Raidou grinned behind his mask. Looks aside—which wasn’t easy; Ryouma had a lot of looks—he’d known she’d like rookie number two.
Rookie number one was still a silent question mark.
They reached the stairs. Raidou led them down into the labyrinth of hallways, moving at a brisk pace until they found ANBU’s hidden door.
“Sagara-sama showed you the seal, right?” he asked.
“Horse-dragon-horse,” Ryouma said, and twitched his bandaged fingers. “But don’t look at me.”
“How often does it change?” Kakashi asked.
“At random,” Raidou said, flicking through the correct seals. The door slid seamlessly open. “Usually every ten days to two weeks. Captains get the word and pass it down.”
Which was a very minor thing to add to his growing list of things to remember, but still, one more change. They kept cropping up in odd places.
The run-order changed as they went through the tunnels. Raidou kept point, with Katsuko dog-tagging like a bright shadow at his heels. Ryouma loped along just behind her, footsteps scuffing slightly as he shortened his stride to avoid overrunning them. Kakashi clearly wanted to be last, but Genma slipped back behind him, taking the lieutenant’s customary rearguard position.
It wasn’t actually a bad line-up, Raidou thought. They’d front-loaded their heavy-hitters, but Genma was a strike-from-the-distance kinda guy and a medic they wanted protected, and everything Raidou knew about Kakashi’s lightning attacks said they required a run up. This would be a good field order.
He was viciously tempted by the training field, when they crossed it. But they had a prior engagement, and Ryouma’s hand really needed to finish healing before Raidou let someone whale on him. In theory, Kakashi was also getting over a recent poisoning, even if he didn’t much show it.
ANBU’s HQ was bustling.
Raidou wove his team (his team!) through the scattered crowd of curious onlookers, a mix of veterans and rookies who clearly had too much time on their hands if they could stand around and stare at newbies, and took them down to the third level sub-basement, where the hallways got distinctly colder. It had been a while since he’d crossed this particular patch of ANBU, but the electric lights still flickered above the right door.
“Front and center, new guys,” he said, and rapped the door just above the brass spiral symbol.
Ryouma came first, standing just to the right of Raidou’s shoulder. Under his breath, he muttered, “I thought we were done with T&I…”
The door opened before Kakashi moved, or Raidou responded.
“Perfect timing. I was just running out of victims,” said Sakai Nanami, one of ANBU’s two tattoo artists, brandishing a long silver needle. “Who’s ready to scream?”
“ANBU’s combining Torture and Interrogation with tattoo artistry these days?” said Ryouma, after a beat. “Efficient.”
Nanami looked at him, thoughtful. “You’ve had work done before,” she said, which Raidou knew to be true, but couldn’t tell how she knew. Ryouma was covered solidly from head to foot, with the exception of bare, unmarked shoulders. “Couple pieces, right? Probably at least one big one.”
“Three,” Ryouma said. “All done by Shisei Takumi, down on Water Street. He studied under Horimasa Rei.” Ryouma’s expression wasn’t visible, but the tilt of his head and the tone of his voice suggested he was watching Nanami keenly.
“I know Takumi,” she said calmly. “Does good work. You can go second, then. Now you—” She pointed the needle at Kakashi, who twitched. “You look like a virgin. Step up, kiddo.”
How did she—?
Tattoo virgin, right. A disadvantage of the ANBU uniform, Kakashi had discovered, was its complete lack of places to put Icha Icha, or his hands. He could only slouch and hope it looked casual.
“All right,” he said, not to be outdone in the company of three people with one visible tattoo apiece, and one man with three hidden designs.
The woman grinned. “That’s what I like to hear. Grab a seat,” she said, indicating a black, leather-bound chair behind her that looked like it belonged in a dentist’s office. Or a torturer’s dungeon. “I’m Sakai Nanami, student of Akoya Nobutake. You can call me Nanami or ‘you bitch’, depending how you feel in five minutes. Just be aware I might bite you for it.”
She had exceptionally white teeth, Kakashi noted. Though not as sharp as his.
He stepped past her, carefully, and settled into the chair. The room was small, but highly personalized. A green and orange beaded rug lay over dark wooden floorboards, counter-contrast to the grey carpet in the hall. Hand-inked prints lined the cream walls, depicting scenes of—Konoha, mostly. The Hokage’s Monument dressed in shadows. The wind-blown forest in autumn. A deep blue section of the river, with bright fish flitting below the surface. The Hero’s Stone covered in snow. And a neon-lit grocery store, which Kakashi raised an eyebrow at.
“I like slices of life,” Nanami said, even though he hadn’t asked.
“That’s nice,” Kakashi said.
Set against one wall, a long table was covered in a mixture of art supplies, medical bric a brac, and what looked like half a dozen toolboxes that had been cannibalized to make storage shelves. Three different lamps cast good light. Nanami reached into a drawer and withdrew a pair of black rubber gloves, putting them on with a cheerful snap.
This was not shaping up to be the shadow-drenched, esoteric ceremony Kakashi had pictured.
Nanami herself was not the tattooist he’d expected, either. She was, maybe, in her mid-thirties, built short and exceptionally curvy, with solid muscles in her shoulders. Her face was round, with high cheekbones and a wide, careless mouth. Her hair was mostly black, twisted into a hundred complicated braids with bright colors woven through to make a peacock rainbow. Her skin was the color of dark sandalwood. She wasn’t wearing ANBU armor. She wasn’t even wearing a jounin uniform. She was dressed in a pink tee shirt and blue jeans.
She picked up a cotton swatch soaked in alcohol, and advanced on him. “You identify as male, right?” she asked.
Not actually a stupid question in a village where people could, technically, craft themselves into any shape they wanted. “Yes,” he said.
“Left shoulder, then,” she said, and vigorously rubbed the bare stretch of his left upper arm with the alcohol swatch. The Trials must have left a scratch or two, because it burned. “Anything medical I need to know about?”
“Oomukade poisoning two days ago,” Genma said, from where he was leaning against the doorframe.
“That thin the blood?”
“Not noticeably,” Genma said.
“Anything else?” Nanami asked.
“Okay, then. Here’s how it works—I cut, I ink, I do a little jutsu work. Don’t fight me. Tell me if you feel weird. Definitely tell me if you think you’re about to faint. I had one guy chip a tooth today, and I don’t want to make it two for two. You haven’t had any alcohol in the last day, have you?”
“I don’t drink,” Kakashi said.
Light brown eyes regarded him skeptically. “You must be a barrel of fun on weekends.”
“Weekdays, too,” Ryouma said. He’d slipped inside the room to study the art on the walls, mask tipped curiously to one side. Katsuko had followed him, but only far enough to find a wall to lean against; she lounged casually beneath a picture of civilians surrounding a camping fire.
The captain in the red crescent moon mask, Namiashi Raidou, stood away from the walls, watching Kakashi.
Nanami plucked a scalpel from an autoclave on the table. “Ready for this?”
“You don’t use the needle?” Kakashi said, startled.
“What, this?” she said, turning to show the silver needle jammed through her braids, which had been gathered into a loose knot. “It’s a hair-stick.”
Nanami turned back, hooked a rolling stool over with one foot, and sat on it by his shoulder. “In case you were wondering, this is really going to hurt,” she said, comfortingly. “Most rookies like to reflect on their oath while we do this.”
“Or you could curse,” Katsuko said, equally helpful. “Bonus points if you’re extra creative.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Kakashi said.
Nanami smiled and, without any ceremony, laid his skin open. The sharp-metal sting dulled in a wash of warmth down Kakashi’s arm, as blood flowed—which did not seem conducive to applying ink, but perhaps that was where the jutsu came in. Lots of rituals required blood. His muscles twitched. He breathed out silently, holding himself still as Nanami carved the outline of the distinctive spiral free-hand into his arm. The pain wasn’t bad, but the sitting was difficult.
The scalpel was set aside, and a green-glowing hand swept down Kakashi’s arm, staunching the blood. A wet cloth followed, bathing the open cuts in something astringent-smelling. Nanami rolled her stool down towards the end of the table, collected a bowl of dark crimson ink, and rolled back to Kakashi.
“Holding up?” she asked.
“I get stabbed for a living,” he said dryly.
“Still nice to ask,” she said. “That’s the easy bit over with.”
She dipped her gloved fingertips into the ink, lifted a red-dripping hand, and retraced the scalpel’s path, pressing the ink hard into the wounds. It burned like red ants crawling beneath his skin, and he realized there was chakra already embedded in the ink, unshaped and formless, ready to soak up a jutsu.
“Take a deep breath,” Nanami said, stripping the gloves off and lacing her fingers together.
The Sharingan was already open behind the mask. Kakashi flicked Sagara’s seal and was gratified when the protective mesh instantly crumbled to nearly invisible dust, freeing his vision. The world tilted sideways into a field of shifting blue fatelines. Nanami’s hands moved blurringly fast as they went through sixteen separate seals, but he caught the pattern. She set her left hand to his shoulder and her right to his elbow, and released the jutsu.
Really hurt was a slight understatement.
The ink blazed white-hot beneath his skin and spilled through the design, filling in the blank stretches of skin between the carved lines. The open wounds healed, sealing smooth like melting plastic. Only a faint ridge remained, slightly darker red than the rest. The chakra arced deep into his arm, connecting to the branching pathways of his own energy lines, twining around meridian points. It blistered like fire the whole way, and the chair creaked as Kakashi’s fingers dug deeply into the leather-padded arms. A dull crack sounded as he broke something doubtlessly important.
Oaths and swearing—now he understood why people reached for both. But he’d wanted this for years, and he refused to do anything but stand it.
He felt the moment when the jutsu closed and connected, completing a full circuit. Three new awarenesses blossomed in the back of his mind, faint but persistent—Genma, Raidou, and Katsuko. Or, more specifically, their tattoos. He could feel them.
“Gotcha,” said Raidou, sounding pleased.
ANBU was the one organization in Konoha that had never been infiltrated by outside agents. Now Kakashi knew why.
The shivering agony faded slowly, replaced by a widening expansion of this new sense. Beyond the room, he could feel the faint firefly lights of other ANBU, and even get a rough idea of where they were in space, if he really focused. It wasn’t nearly as acute as the three here, within reach—well, two. Katsuko’s was a barely-felt glimmer in the storm of her overwhelming chakra. He couldn’t tell if the difference between them and the outside ANBU was the distance, or if Nanami had somehow calibrated him to his new team.
When he looked down at the tattoo, a gleaming scarlet double-curve draped down his arm, fully healed. His own ANBU mark, with unexpected bonuses.
Nanami thumped him on the shoulder in a friendly way. “Well done,” she said, turning away to wash her hands at a small sink in the corner. “Get up when you’re ready. It doesn’t need any aftercare, but keep it out of the sun if you can, or the ink’ll fade. Bring it back whenever you like for touch ups.”
Kakashi unpeeled his fingers from the chair and stood, shedding the last nerve-twitches of lingering pain. It hadn’t been that bad. He didn’t see why people—why people—
“Hatake?” Raidou demanded.
Metal flooded Kakashi’s mouth, and a high buzzing drowned whatever Raidou said next. Kakashi put a hand out to grab the chair, missed, and fell.
Later, Katsuko wouldn’t be able to say who leapt to catch Kakashi first. She pushed off the wall, instinct overcoming startlement. She and Ryouma were the only teammates close enough to make a grab for Kakashi in time, but Nanami got there first. The tattoo artist caught Kakashi in her arms, letting out a small grunt at his weight, and eased him down onto the floor next to the chair.
Genma was there a second later, checking Kakashi’s pulse. “Should have warned you he’s a fainter,” he said to Nanami, hooking a finger underneath the edge of Kakashi’s ANBU mask and sliding it off. He bent his head to listen to Kakashi’s breathing and nodded. “His respiration’s okay. I’m gonna try to rouse him.” At Nanami’s nod, he flew through a quick set of seals. The green glow of a medical jutsu settled over Kakashi’s upper chest, sinking underneath his skin at the heart chakra node.
Kakashi’s mismatched eyes snapped open. The wheel of the Sharingan spun as his hand shot up, closing around Genma’s throat like a vise. Raidou was already moving, seizing Kakashi’s wrist to hit the pressure points there. Kakashi’s fingers loosened, but didn’t release; Raidou didn’t let go.
“We’re your team,” Raidou said tersely. “You fainted. Let go of Shiranui.”
Kakashi blinked. “Oh.”
In the moment of silence that followed, Katsuko fought the unbalanced urge to snicker. Raidou was an impassive, unyielding statue, and Genma’s only reaction to Kakashi had been to go as still as a man facing down a feral animal. The medic stared down at Kakashi patiently, like he was waiting for him to stop being foolish.
Ryouma, on the other hand, had stepped back once it was clear that Kakashi wasn’t in any danger. He stood with one hip propped against the counter and his arms crossed over his chest, radiating nearly palpable amusement at the situation.
“Welcome back, petal,” Katsuko told Kakashi, relief making her cheerful. “Do you always choke people out when you wake up?”
The strip of pale skin above Kakashi’s mask tinged red. He released Genma, lowering his hand when Raidou let go of his wrist, and looked at her. “I’m considering it.”
Genma eased back, rubbing his throat before he cleared it. “Did you eat this morning?” he asked Kakashi.
Kakashi hesitated. “No.”
Ryouma snorted softly, turning his attention to the mess on the counter. He fished a needle from the pile and started to poke at the fingertips of his bandaged hand, testing his nerve reactions while the rest of the team stared at the legendary fainting Copy-nin.
“Oath-day nerves?” Katsuko said. She gave Kakashi a sympathetic look. “I didn’t eat at all before they swore me in. Walked into the walls a few times right after I got my tattoo.”
“Are you sure they were related?” Kakashi asked, rather more dryly. He ignored the hand Genma offered him and pushed himself to his feet, deliberately steady.
“Not even two hours since we met, and already you judge me,” Katsuko sighed. “I would cry, but I sold my tear ducts to science.”
“Hope science pays well,” Ryouma murmured. At least one person here appreciated her humor.
Genma produced a small squeeze packet of glucose gel from his belt pouch and handed it to Kakashi with a tilt of his head that promised dire consequences if Kakashi didn’t eat it. He unearthed a meal bar as well, and gave that to Ryouma with a brisk, “You eat, too. This floor is small.”
Ryouma’s shoulders set as he put down his needle and accepted the bar from Genma. “I’m pretty good at standing,” he said, and put the bar down on the counter. Katsuko didn’t blame him. Those things were nasty.
Katsuko used her best deadpan voice. “Maybe Hatake could take pointers from you.”
“Did you eat this morning?” Raidou asked Ryouma.
“Leftover curry rice and three cups of coffee, sir,” Ryouma said seriously.
Katsuko had vague memories of scarfing down a custard bun and a glass of water sometime between rolling out of bed and reporting to the Hokage’s Palace, but she decided not to volunteer the information. Raidou would only lecture her about protein intake again.
“We should make the rookies take us out to lunch after this,” she suggested instead. “As part of our super-secret hazing ritual.”
Ryouma’s painted ram mask tilted towards her. “I was just starting to look up to you, senpai,” he said, voice heavy with disappointment. “Don’t break my heart already.”
Katsuko cackled. “I’m not looking to break your heart, Tousaki. Just your wallet.”
“Not to interrupt this lovely banter,” Nanami said. “But I have a quota to hit and other things to do before lunchtime, so can the next victim get in the chair?”
Ryouma ducked his head deferentially and took the few steps from the counter to the tattoo chair. “Left shoulder,” he told Nanami, sliding into the seat. “No alcohol in the last day. No medical issues above the wrist.”
Nanami’s smile was a little alarming. “Good. You heard the spiel earlier—cut, ink, jutsu. Don’t fight me. Tell me if you feel faint, for the love of god. And don’t expect this to be like a regular tattoo, because it isn’t. Any questions?”
“Not like a regular stabbing, either, I take it.” Ryouma craned his neck to look down at his shoulder, tipping his head a bit further to compensate for his mask. “Takumi does some jutsu with his ink, but that’s mostly for the color. What’s this one do? Location tracker? Instant death for oath-breakers?”
“Wait and see,” Nanami said, mysteriously.
“Maybe if you ask nicely, Nanami-san will let you customize your tattoo,” Katsuko suggested. “I asked her for sparkles and ink blood streaks before I got mine.”
Ryouma cocked his head to get a look at Katsuko’s right shoulder. Dark eyes glittered with faint amusement behind his mask. “I’m guessing you didn’t ask nicely.”
“I’m always nice,” Katsuko said, quite seriously. “But my old captain told me sparkles would ruin ANBU’s image. What do you think?”
“I dunno.” He relaxed against the headrest. “The more I see of ANBU’s image from the inside, the more I think sparkles might be appropriate.” His attention flicked over to Nanami. “Though not for me. I’m more of a flames-and-daggers type of guy.”
“Original,” Nanami said, a little teasingly. The flash of metal snagged Katsuko’s gaze right before Nanami laid Ryouma’s skin open, flesh parting beneath shining steel in precise lines.
Ryouma set his jaw as the scalpel sliced its curving lines, but he didn’t twitch. It was at least quicker than the standard tattoo, though he missed the adrenaline buzz bleeding into the endorphin high. He’d stick with Takumi for his next tattoo, he decided. Maybe on his hip. Nanami was probably right about the advisability of a flaming dagger but a bloody knife wouldn’t be bad…
The tattooist traded her scalpel out for the blood-staunching jutsu, then for astringent and ink. It was the dark red color of venous blood, and it stung like salt in raw flesh. Kakashi hadn’t flinched; he didn’t, either. He nodded short and sharp when Nanami glanced up at him, and then he clenched his hands on the armrests and gritted his teeth tight.
Kakashi hadn’t cried out. He clung to that, as fire lit up his arm and his chakra system. Kakashi’d fainted but he hadn’t made a sound, and this was one challenge Ryouma wasn’t going to lose.
He nearly yelped, all the same, when his chakra sense rerouted. There were live embers smoldering around the edges of the tiny room, within the normal clouds of their chakra-presences: two behind his left shoulder, one nearly within reach by his side, another lurking near the table. Nanami was chakra without an ember, smaller, softer—chuunin level maybe, he thought, though it was clear she’d chosen in-house work instead of a career in the field. Tiny, muted flickers like star-glimmers wandered somewhere above his head. Other ANBU, in the upper storeys?
His head felt damp, when he rocked it against the leather headrest. Sweat stuck his shirt to his back and shone on his arm, around the dark red ink of the new tattoo. He said hoarsely, “Guess that’s the end of lying about getting a quickie in the bathroom. Can you turn it off?”
Two of the chakra presences instantly winked out, dampening the smoldering new embers down to the barest glow. Ryouma had to look over his shoulder to be sure they were still there. Genma was slouching against the wall near the door, just within reach of Kakashi, who was leaning against the doorframe itself. Kakashi’s chakra-ember—ANBU-ember?—was still alight, though flickering, as if he were trying to copy Genma’s trick. Nearer, by the table against the wall, Katsuko in her chakra storm wasn’t even trying.
Raidou stood in the center of the room, almost close enough to reach out and touch. “Takes a little practice,” he said. “But it’s not impossible.” His ember compressed further, down to a hard nugget of ash, and then was gone.
Looking at him was like staring at Ryouma’s own hand, and not being able to feel it. Ryouma swallowed, queasy, and thumped his head back against the back of the chair. “Useful in a fight,” he said, half at random. “No more getting distracted looking for each other.”
Genma’s tattoo-ember flared hot again, though his chakra aura stayed clamped down. “You can do this, too,” he said. “So another ANBU can ‘see’ you, without giving your presence away to the enemy.”
“Makes it a pain when you’re trying to sneak up on another ANBU, though,” Katsuko said cheerfully.
“Boundaries, Ueno,” Raidou said. “Remember boundaries?” His chakra was still dampened out, but the spark of his tattoo blazed up. Ryouma could almost fix it in space now, without looking, and he was beginning to sense the subtle differences between the four of them, like pinewood burning beside oak, or the unique read of their chakra signatures. Genma’s was a little cooler, Kakashi’s less controlled, though he had it nearly three-quarters clamped down by now. Raidou’s had jagged edges around a steady core, and Katsuko’s—
Well, it was there, beneath her chakra. That was about all he could tell.
“Right,” she drawled, leaning back, arms crossed over her chest. “Boundaries.” Dry skepticism saturated her voice.
Nanami scooted her stool back and stood, clapping Ryouma gently on his good shoulder. “I’m going to wash up. Take all the time you need before you stand up. You did well.”
“You too,” Ryouma said, which was probably in the running for one of his lamest rejoinders ever, but at least he hadn’t passed out yet. He took a moment more to breathe, as water ran in the sink at the corner. Then he swung his legs over the side of the chair and stood up, with a hand on the armrest.
His knees stayed steady beneath him. “Hah!” he said, inordinately pleased. “It’s a triumph for coffee and curry rice.” He took a step, leaving the chair behind, and decided, “And me.”
“Congratulations,” Kakashi said sourly from the door.
Grinning at him didn’t do much good when there was a ceramic mask in the way. Ryouma flipped him a cheerful thumbs-up instead.
It would not be good teamwork to stab Ryouma in the brain, even if his giant air-bubble head made a tempting target. Kakashi settled for looking as disinterested as possible. Ryouma didn’t seem to care.
“One out of two,” Nanami said cheerfully, toweling her hands off. “I’ll take it.” She smiled at Kakashi. “And I can say that I dropped Sharingan Kakashi with one jutsu. That’s gotta be some kind of record, right?”
Tomorrow, he was dyeing his hair.
“There’s a club,” he said. “I’ll add you to the membership list.”
Her grin widened, flashing white teeth against dark skin. “Enjoy that ink,” she said. “And thanks for letting me be your first artist—I love popping cherries.”
Kakashi lifted a hand and slid out of the door before the conversation reached a higher plateau of excruciating. He lost his grip on the half-smothered spark in the process, and felt it flare to life again, marking him like a tiny beacon. That was—not something he liked.
A low alto chuckle followed him: Katsuko.
Genma followed him in person, while Ryouma stayed behind to thank Nanami. The hallway wasn’t empty: two masked, unmarked teams watched proceedings curiously, waiting to be attended. Kakashi recognized Ayane in one group, wearing a dark ferret mask, and the torturer’s son in the other group, wearing a mask of abstract blue and green slashes. Genma stepped close, broaching Kakashi’s personal bubble, and murmured, “Feeling steadier?”
“If I start to succumb to the vapors, you’ll be the first to know,” Kakashi said, rather than a more truthful no. He wasn’t about to pitch over again, but steady wasn’t today’s operable word. This was—ANBU was—
He’d expected something different.
Genma shrugged and moved back, ignoring the other teams to watch the door. After a moment, Ryouma stepped through, rubbing his shoulder thoughtfully. He spotted Ayane and Hakone, and nodded, but didn’t engage them. Hakone nodded back. Ayane just tilted her head slightly. Raidou and Katsuko came out a second later, with Katsuko calling back a cheerful farewell to Nanami and—asking her out for drinks?
“I’m married, Ueno,” Nanami said, laughing.
Katsuko’s voice warmed with a hidden grin. “Your husband can come, too.”
“Not an open relationship!”
Katsuko shrugged cheerfully, and found her place back in the team.
“Fall in, Hatake,” Raidou said, and set off down the hallway, with Ryouma and Katsuko on his heels.
Kakashi sighed. “Yes, captain.”
Genma fell into step behind him.
It was a short, twisting journey up two flights of stairs to Raidou’s undisclosed destination—a plain door with an uninformative ‘37-B4’ stamped into the wood. The door to the left said ‘14’. The door to the right said ‘WAQ-2’. Apparently you just had to know. Raidou tossed a key to Ryouma, who caught it reflexively with his good hand, and a second to Kakashi. The door had chakra seals embedded into it; Raidou released them with two quick hand-seals that Kakashi memorized, and unlocked the door.
“Welcome to Team Six’s home base,” Raidou said, pushing the door open.
It was an office.
One large desk took up a corner, complete with a comfortable office chair and a locked cabinet. A second, slightly smaller desk rested up against the wall, placed kitty-corner, also with a chair and cabinet. Captain and lieutenant, clearly. Three smaller desks—not even desks, more like worktables—made a loose L in the opposite corner. Their rolling chairs were wooden, and unpadded. There were no cabinets there, though someone had conscientiously placed three small trash cans down. A clean blackboard took up most of one wall. There were maps pinned to another. A battered reddish-brown leather couch looked like it had already done duty as a nap station; it was long enough that even Ryouma could probably lie down without his feet hanging off the end. In the final corner, a tall green plant bore one defiant white flower.
They were still on the first sub-basement level, so there were no windows. But if Kakashi had to guess, he would bet that second door led to a bathroom.
“No TV?” Ryouma said, disappointed.
Raidou shed his crescent moon mask, revealing evenly handsome features and a wry smile. “If you find yourself with time to watch movies, I better be in the hospital.”
“That’s not an invitation to mutiny, in case you were wondering,” Genma added, removing his tanuki—red panda? Tanuki—mask and hanging it on a peg by the door. His face was more delicate than Raidou’s, a touch younger, animated by light eyes and lazy amusement.
“I’ll do my best to remember,” Ryouma said, with mock gravity. He stepped further into the room, running curious fingers over the polished wood of one desk, then dropped carelessly down onto the couch. He pushed his mask up to one side, further disheveling his hair, and looked like he wished there was a coffee table he could put his feet up on. His face was paler than Kakashi had expected, sweat-streaked. Not completely unaffected by Nanami after all, then. “Guess we’ll just have to amuse ourselves in the meantime. With pushups, I assume.”
Genma gave him a sidelong look. “One-handed pushups for you.”
Ryouma waved the fingers of his good hand. “I like showing off.”
No news there.
Katsuko sprawled down on the three-quarters of the sofa not taken up by Ryouma, tipping her head back against squashy couch cushions, and slid her mask off like an afterthought. Her face was sharper than Kakashi had expected, with an angular jawline cutting down to a pointed chin. Her nose was long and narrow, unbroken, and her mouth was thin. At a glance, he would have judged her as a delicate boy, rather than a handsome woman.
Trouble, Raidou had called her.
She caught Kakashi’s eye, and winked.
Kakashi took himself to the other side of the room and leaned against the wall, which had so far expressed no desire to get into his pants or under his skin.
Raidou raised an eyebrow at him. “Prefer to stay hidden?”
Hidden? He was completely visib— ANBU mask, right. Kakashi was almost tempted to say yes, just to see if Raidou would let him keep it on, but that wasn’t actually a fight he wanted to get into. He undid the strap and lifted the mask free; it was body-warm now, light in his hand. He clipped it to the special notch on his belt.
“Better?” he said.
Genma glanced over from where he was sit-leaning on the edge of his desk, and nodded once.
“Nine out of ten,” Katsuko said, sprawling further out on the couch. It edged her feet into Ryouma’s territory, but he didn’t seem to care. They both had the aura of touchy-feely people.
“I think I’ve just figured out why they assigned us together,” Ryouma said contemplatively, dark eyes glancing from face to face. “We’re the Hot Team now.”
Katsuko laughed. “I’m not complaining.”
They were going to high-five in a moment, and Kakashi was going to have to kill himself with that potted plant. This wasn’t what he’d pictured at all. Minato had said there was no glory in ANBU, but there was still supposed to be nobility, or dignity, or something. The Hokage’s most feared soldiers. This was the whetstone to sharpen himself against, but they were clowns.
Wait until you meet your team.
Why would Minato put him here?
Raidou wasn’t an expert in Kakashi-speak yet, but the restless look in that one visible grey eye said it was time to intervene.
“Sit up, Ueno,” he said. “You haven’t earned a nap yet.”
Katsuko shrugged and levered herself up, curling her legs up and wedging herself comfortably into the far corner of the couch, which left a tidy acreage of space between her and Ryouma’s spread knees. Raidou was half-tempted to ask Kakashi to sit with them, but that was a hornet’s nest of issues that didn’t need kicking quite yet.
“Ground rules,” Raidou said instead, and knew he’d picked right by the way Katsuko groaned, Ryouma frowned, and Kakashi’s shoulders relaxed the barest inch. Raidou grinned and glanced at Genma.
“This is our office,” Genma began dryly. “There are many like it, but this one is ours. You’re welcome to come here at any time.” His eyes flicked to Katsuko. “Even if you just want to sleep.”
“Assuming we can find it again,” Ryouma muttered, mostly under his breath.
“We needed permission to sleep here?” Katsuko said, hurdling over the point like usual.
“You’ll learn,” Raidou said to Ryouma. He ignored Katsuko; if you paid attention to everything that came out of her mouth, you’d be chasing fictional butterflies for days. Better to rap her knuckles when you caught her in the act of an actual wrongdoing, which was less often than people thought.
Ryouma gave a dubious nod.
“Desks are personal and private,” Genma continued. “Lock something inside and it won’t be touched. Leave it out in the open and it’s fair game.”
“That said, if I catch someone deliberately thieving on this team, I will dislocate the first joint that presents itself,” Raidou said mildly.
Genma gestured to the filing cabinet sat beside his own desk. “Maps, scrolls, and forms are in here. Disorganize them at your own peril.”
Raidou could see the question forming in Ryouma’s eyes, edged in subtle worry, but let it wait for the moment.
“Pegs on the wall for anything you don’t want to wear while you’re in the office. Masks, too.” Genma nodded to where his mask hung on the wall, sharing space with a short sword. “You’re responsible for your own day-to-day weapon and armor maintenance, but major sharpening, serious damage, and replacements for expended kunai, shuriken, senbon and so forth, you requisition from the quartermaster. Req forms are in the cabinet I mentioned before.”
Katsuko had started her inevitable slide down into the sofa cushions, as if she hoped they might swallow her. Ryouma, at least, was raptly attentive. Kakashi was watchful and silent.
Genma toed a cardboard box out from under his desk, and lifted the flap to reveal rows of bars wrapped in muted brown paper. “This is a case of field rations. Tell me your preferred flavors and I’ll try to keep them in stock. The cafeteria is 24/7. And I keep a full medical kit in the bottom drawer of this cabinet. If you use something from it, replace it.”
It would be unprofessional to draw little hearts around his lieutenant, but Raidou still wanted to.
“Chocolate,” Katsuko said instantly. “No, vanilla. Caffeine. Do they have that?”
“Peanut butter,” Ryouma said.
“Anything’s fine for me,” Raidou said. “Sesame-ginger, if you can get it.”
The room looked at Kakashi. After a long beat of silence, he conceded, “Jerky.”
“You like dried fish?” Genma asked.
Kakashi looked faintly surprised. “Yes.”
Genma leaned down and unearthed a vacuum-sealed packet of dried herring, which he held up by way of demonstration. “Me, too. But you have to balance them with some carbs. I recommend the millet-konbu bar if you don’t like the nut-flavor ones.”
A thoughtful flicker crossed the visible quarter of Kakashi’s face.
“Seriously, are there caffeine ones or not?” Katsuko said. “This is information I need to know.”
“You’ve never needed caffeine,” Raidou said.
“I’d like caffeine,” Ryouma said. “Or just soldier pills. Can you get those in flavors other than gross?”
Genma looked sharply at Ryouma. “Soldier pills are controlled access for a reason. If you just need a buzz to stay awake, caffeine tabs are available from the QM. Or you can do what I do and chow down on a couple of coffee beans if you’re in a bind.” He glanced at Raidou, eyebrows lifted—asking permission? Raidou shrugged one shoulder, and Genma kept going. “I know you got a safety lecture on them already, but soldier pills are dangerous. Too many will damage your blood’s ability to clot, and if you can’t clot, no medical jutsu in the world will stop you bleeding to death from one well-placed kunai strike.”
Well, now was as good a time as any to re-visit that little safety talk. Soldier pills were relatively new technology, only recently developed from the few recipes the Akimichi clan had been willing to hand over from their family’s personal archives. They weren’t fine-tuned, and they were definitely dangerous. Most jounin didn’t use them, except for rare cases—clearly Ryouma had. ANBU did use them, but ANBU had a habit of diving headlong into risky-but-useful and reevaluating later.
The set of Ryouma’s broad shoulders shifted very slightly, from relaxed to bulldog. “My best combat jutsu is pretty chakra intensive. I can only do it three times before I wipe myself out, if I’m not using soldier pills.”
“Then you know to be careful,” Raidou said.
Ryouma looked at him, dark eyes narrowing. He nodded once.
“You’ll get an allotted dose from the in-house medic,” Genma said. “If you need more—”
“We’ll discuss it,” said Raidou.
Ryouma’s jaw worked stubbornly sideways, but he nodded again, and settled back against the couch. “I can work with that. I don’t always need ‘em, anyway.”
For obvious reason, Katsuko never needed them, and her expression of patient suffering said she was only putting up with this conversation because she was a good person, and also too lazy to get up. Raidou glanced at Kakashi, who just shrugged noncommittally. No surprises there.
“Back to ground rules,” Raidou said. “Practice is every morning at five a.m., except for Sunday, which you get free. Don’t be late. Acceptable excuses for missing practice are a) you’re dead, or b) you’re actively on fire. Nothing else counts.”
“Except if we’re on mission,” Katsuko said.
“Or in a mission-briefing.”
“Or in hospital.”
“Stop helping,” Raidou said.
She waved encouraging keep going hands at him. Raidou flattened the urge to roll his eyes. “In theory, you covered ANBU’s general rules when you signed your initiation paperwork, but we’ll hit the important points again. Ueno, what am I about to say?”
“Respect your teammates’ boundaries,” Katsuko recited, in a voice like withered leaves.
“Gold star,” Raidou said. “ANBU is not like the standard rank and file. We’re an insular group and it’s easy to cross a line here, whether you mean to or not. No ANBU agent is permitted to fraternize with a senior officer. Same-rank liaisons are allowed but not encouraged, particularly within your own team. Harassment is not tolerated. We’re home to morally grey whackjobs, but whatever we’re asked to do in the field, consent is required here. If I hear of any one of you flouting that, I will personally drop you off the wall myself.” He looked at each one of them in turn, landing on Ryouma at the end. “That said, if any one of you ever has an issue, come to me, or to Shiranui. We will take it seriously.”
“Agreed,” said Genma.
Katsuko nodded, all traces of impish delight buried for a moment of actual respect. He’d have to mark that on his calendar. Kakashi dipped his chin in masked acknowledgement.
Ryouma’s mouth curved in a faint, crooked smile. He met Raidou’s eyes and nodded, too. “Understood.”
Relief made Raidou smile back.
“Likewise, if you have a general concern, raise it,” he said. “If you can’t talk to Shiranui or me, then your next highest authority is the vice-commander, Kuroda Ushio.” And good luck catching his attention. “If you’re injured, no matter how minor, we need to know. I won’t have martyrs on this team.”
“Especially head or neck injuries,” Genma said. “If you get your bell rung even a little in a combat or a spar, tell someone.”
“If you have concerns about a teammate’s fitness for duty, we need to know that, too,” Raidou went on. “You are responsible for your mental and physical fitness, but Shiranui and I are responsible for you. If you’re having problems eating or sleeping, if you’re sick, if you’re getting nightmares that won’t go away—come to us. We’ve seen most of it before, and we will do our best to help. Nothing is an automatic strike. You won’t get kicked out of ANBU for having a bad week.”
“Understood,” Katsuko said quietly.
If he’d been sitting next to her, that would have been the moment to toss an arm around her shoulders.
Ryouma’s cheek dented; he was chewing his mouth on the inside. After a moment’s thought, he shook his head and looked up, smiling. “Team Dad and Mom. Got it. Which one of you do we report to when Kakashi wets the bed?”
“I’m not into watersports,” Kakashi said calmly.
Katsuko choked. Ryouma’s smile broke into a full grin. Genma let out a crack of startled laughter, then sobered up immediately, leaning against the desk like nothing had happened when Raidou turned to stare at him.
“Moving on,” Raidou said, after a beat.
A faint gleam of amusement lingered in Genma’s eyes. “Paperwork?” he said.
Katsuko made a throttled-cat sound of distress.
“Paperwork is to be done on time,” Raidou said ruthlessly. “And legibly. You do not want to test what kinds of creative punishments I will come up with for tardiness.”
Katsuko muttered something that sounded a lot like “—hair on fire—” before subsiding back into a glower.
Ryouma’s grin had faded while Raidou spoke, replaced by the slow creep of returning worry, though it twitched back for a moment at Katsuko’s antics. “Does paperwork have to be done by me?” he asked. “Or can I dictate and get someone else to write it out?”
“I’ve arranged for an Intel debriefer to take dictated reports from you at the end of every mission,” Raidou said, thankful he’d done his homework on that particular issue. “You don’t have to write anything.”
Ryouma let out a long, slow breath and leaned back against the couch. “You’re making this no-fraternization thing really hard,” he complained. “If I can’t pledge you my undying love, can I bring you coffee in the morning?”
Well, that solved the question of whether he was going to be awkward about things.
“Perhaps bring the whole team some,” Raidou said, amused. “Everyone needs a little extra love at 5am.”
“You can’t write?” Kakashi asked, from behind Raidou’s shoulder. He sounded more puzzled than accusatory.
Ryouma found a middle-point of nothing to look at, meeting no one’s eyes. “My name. Simple sentences in kana. Couple handfuls of kanji, maybe, though I usually miss some of the strokes.”
Kakashi stepped away from the wall, engaging for the first time. “But you can read,” he said. It was almost, but not quite, a question.
Dark eyes flicked to Kakashi, then to Raidou. “I couldn’t read the mission scroll in the second trial,” Ryouma admitted.
“Then how—” Kakashi began, then realized: “You got someone to read it for you.”
Ryouma shrugged one shoulder. “Lost a few hours and nearly got my head taken off, too. Turns out even hardened killers’ll pause for breakfast, though.” To the rest of the team, he said: “I’m really good at roast rabbit.”
Katsuko’s hazel gaze flicked over to Ryouma, weighing him. “Smart,” she judged with a grin, sounding genuinely impressed.
Ryouma hesitated, searching her face for a darker motive, and smiled when he didn’t find it.
Copy-ninja Kakashi, ruiner of moments, crossed by Raidou’s shoulder and stood in front of the pair on the sofa, looking down at Ryouma. He made the blank gesture of a man with too many questions to juggle and not enough time to ask them all, and settled on, “But how?”
Ryouma shrugged again, this time with both shoulders. “The guy who found me, Abe Shintaro—he’s not a bad guy. Most people aren’t. Give ‘em a smile, they’ll go out of their way to help.” His expressive mouth twisted. “Good thing I didn’t run into Akiyama first, I guess.” He glanced at Genma and Raidou. “Or either of you.”
Raidou exchanged a glance with Genma, who smirked.
Kakashi shook his head and settled into a crouch, surprising Raidou. On anyone else, it would have put him at head-height, but Ryouma was ridiculously tall, so it actually dropped Kakashi’s eyeline to about chin-level. “That’s not what I meant,” Kakashi said. “If you can’t read— I mean, scrolls. And signs, and maps. Menus. Money. How?”
Raidou suspected Kakashi had not had many friends in childhood, because seriously, social skills. There were none here.
Genma caught Raidou’s eye, light brown eyebrows lifting in a clear question: Are you going to let this play out?
Raidou dropped a hand: Wait.
Any other issue, he’d step in. But this one would affect missions. In some places, they couldn’t afford to protect sore spots. Ryouma had raised the subject in-group. In theory, he had a game plan to deal with the fallout.
“Ask a teammate to read the scroll,” Ryouma said. “Ask the waiter for the special. Puzzle it out myself, if I really have to and I want a headache.” He settled further back into the couch, making a show of unconcern, but he looked more like a man who wanted to step outside of the conversation he was having. “You can do all the reading, since you’re curious. We can start with that book you’ve been hauling around.”
That better not be the book Raidou was thinking of.
“So you can read, just not well,” Kakashi pressed.
A thin line drew down between Ryouma’s eyebrows. “If it’s all written in kana, but I’ll be slow and I’ll make mistakes. They tend to move. Kanji, I know maybe one in fifty. Trust me, we’re better off if you do the reading.”
“No, I get that,” Kakashi said, and made that same open-handed gesture again—too many questions, not enough words to shape them. What understanding was he trying to reach? “You created jutsu. You created a whole new class of jutsu. That doesn’t just fall out of the air. It takes research.”
Ryouma’s expression darkened.
At that extremely obvious clue, Kakashi finally seemed to realize that his captive audience wasn’t a happy one. He sat back on his heels, and—smiled, visible eye curving in a friendly arc. “What I’m trying to say, is that’s smart,” he said. “I didn’t know you had that in you.”
Raidou resisted the urge to put his hand over his eyes. Genma cleared his throat pointedly.
The little moment of silence stretched—Genma cleared his throat again—as Ryouma gave Kakashi a long, flat look, and finally drawled, “I’m more than just a pretty face.”
“Are you guys going to start beating your chests next?” Katsuko asked, fascinated. “Or is this a verbal contest only?”
Ryouma thumped his ANBU chestplate with his good hand. “It loses something without the shirtlessness,” he said sadly, and cocked his head at Raidou. “What’s next, taichou?”
Katsuko leapt on that with the light of mad glee in her eyes, opening her mouth—
Genma got there first. “No,” he said, quietly firm.
The change from firecracker joker to professional shinobi was smooth as silk. “Training,” Katsuko said, as if that had been her intention all along. “What are we going to do while Tousaki’s hand heals?”
Raidou swallowed an odd bite of disappointment. It was good that Genma was learning her cues, and that she was letting him. It couldn’t always be Raidou’s job.
“We’ll train like normal,” he said. “Fighting with your off-hand is good practice. In fact, we should do a bit of cripple’s run this week—come with a handicap in mind, and we’ll train around it.”
Kakashi rose to his feet. “You mean, other than my blind side, Ueno’s chakra, and Tousaki’s personality?”
“Screw you,” said Ryouma amiably. “Katsuko’s chakra is awesome.”
“Enough,” said Raidou. “Hatake, consider blindness for your disadvantage. You can practice relying on your teammates. Tousaki, you can show me how you’d work supply lines without being able to read the logs. Ueno—”
“Small jutsu?” Katsuko said, with a sigh.
“Small jutsu,” Raidou said. “Henge, maybe.”
“Also, you need to learn these,” Genma said, and opened his filing cabinet of paperwork and mysteries, extracting two photocopied booklets that had been neatly bound in tough, weatherproof canvas. The field guide to ANBU’s specific hand-signs and trail-codes. He handed one each to Ryouma and Kakashi, then seemed realized at the same time Raidou did that the reading required was going to be a problem. “Ueno will drill you both. It’ll be good review for her.”
Katsuko’s yelp of outrage died, half-throttled, under the combined weight of Genma’s level look and Raidou’s raised eyebrows.
“Oh yay,” she said bleakly.
“You get the rookies to yourself,” Genma pointed out.
Katsuko brightened up.
“Hazing is still a no,” Genma added.
Katsuko’s brightness did not temper any. Kakashi gave her a look that, on any other man, would have been apprehensive. Ryouma just grinned, careless.
“If the Quartermaster gave you any weapons, feel free to bring them to tomorrow’s session,” Raidou said. “In the meantime, you’re free. Tousaki, Hatake, you should get yourselves settled in at the rookie dorms—the rooms are assigned, so they should be ready.”
Genma tossed two keys across with a faint smile. “You’ve got a corner room, Tousaki. Congrats.”
Ryouma’s grin broadened.
“We’ll meet tomorrow on Training Field 15,” Raidou said. “You know what time; don’t be late. Assuming Tousaki’s hand heals on schedule, we’ll be expecting our first mission in ten days, which is enough time to get into sync with each other—don’t say it, Ueno.”
Katsuko closed her mouth with a click.
“If you need me, I’m housed in the veteran’s wing. Shiranui rooms in the village—I think your housing situation is still in flux, right?”
Genma nodded once. “If you need either one of us and can’t find us, the administration office can summon us, but only in a genuine emergency.”
“Realizing it’s three a.m. and you don’t know how glitter is made does not count,” Raidou said, looking at Katsuko. “Or deciding you need to hunt stoats for unknown purposes. Or because you can feel your hair growing and it worries you.”
“In fairness, I was drugged that time,” Katsuko said.
“Right,” Raidou said, remembering. “I take it back. That one counted.”
“If you can feel your hair growing and it worries you, the medic office is staffed around the clock,” Genma said, sounding faintly alarmed. “Go there.”
Kakashi raised a hand. “What’s the resource for someone wishing to switch teams?”
Raidou was honestly surprised it had taken him this long to ask. “There’s no switching. If you have a problem with your teammates, you come to me. If you have a problem with me, there are higher channels you can go through. I’d suggest making sure it’s an actual problem first, though.”
Katsuko chuckled, soft and just faintly evil. Kakashi stepped away from her.
“I think that’s it,” Raidou said. “Any questions? Comments?”
Blank silence greeted him. Despite the mid-morning hour, both Ryouma and Kakashi were starting to look a little weary around the edges. Katsuko looked like she wanted to say something, but held her tongue.
“Then welcome to Team Six, and consider yourselves initiated.”
Genma straightened out of his slouch and tapped his hand to his shoulder, over the crimson tattoo. “Captain,” he said.
Surprised but grateful, Raidou nodded at him.
Katsuko unfolded next, pulling herself out of the depths of the couch, and smiled when she saluted. She was his one familiar anchor in this sea of change, lean and loyal in her magpie uniform. “Taichou,” she said, like she was proud of him.
Ryouma hesitated, then stood in an easy stretch of tall muscle, looking every inch the bright young soldier. He saluted with his bandaged hand. “Sir.”
Kakashi weighed Raidou for a silent moment, grey eye level and implacable, then he dropped his gaze and tapped his shoulder, and said nothing.
Well, it was a start.
“This is a beautiful moment,” Raidou said, with a crooked grin. “Now clear out before I give you tasks.”