Evening of May 12, Yondaime Year 5

ryouma 2Ryouma left Kakashi’s room with a steady stride and hands clenched so hard they hurt. One foot after another, following Katsuko’s sword-straight back down the hall. At the nurses’ station, Genma’s pretty attendant threw them a smile. Ryouma’s cheek muscles felt rusty in return.

He overtook Katsuko in the lobby, by the elevator bank. A distressed older man leaned on the receptionist’s desk nearby, while a young mother kept a harried eye on three small children clambering over the sofa. Katsuko leaned on the button for the elevator and didn’t look at any of them.

When the elevator came down from an upper floor, it was half-full already, too. A woman in a wheelchair, accompanied by a grandmotherly nurse; a man coughing into a paper mask; and, pressed against the back wall, two shinobi Ryouma recognized. Fukui Ayane, pale and shadow-eyed, with her long black hair pulled up in her customary high horsetail. And beside her, Shibata Hakone, lounging lean and moody against the back rail with his shaggy hair falling over his brow. He was saying something to her, as the man with the paper mask got off. She shook her head, looked over the wheelchair-bound woman, and saw Ryouma.

Something cracked behind her dark eyes. “Your team, too?”

Ayane’s captain wasn’t suspended, but he might be crippled. The rest of her team was dead.

Ryouma swallowed down the knot in his throat and shook his head. “No major injuries.” He edged carefully around the wheelchair and joined Hakone against the back wall of the elevator. Katsuko followed him, and a greying medic crowded in on her heels. The doors slid closed, locking them in the beige-walled box. The floor lurched and sank.

Hakone said, “We’ve just come from seeing Ayane’s captain, Fukeda Hajime. I was going to take Ayane for a drink.”

“Not a drink,” Ayane said. She tipped her head against the wall and closed her eyes. “More than one. A bottle. A pitcher. The whole damn bar…”

“We could use always use another good liver,” Hakone said. “You want to come?”

Ryouma hesitated. At his side, Katsuko stirred.

He said hastily, recalled to manners, “This’s Ueno Katsuko, my senpai. Katsuko, Fukui Ayane and—”

Was Hakone still not using his family name? The sharp, watchful eyes gave Ryouma no clue. The corners of Hakone’s mouth tilted up unevenly at rest, giving him the hint of a permanent smirk. Not a malicious one, though. He stepped into the silence, rescuing Ryouma. “Hakone. Team Nineteen’s rookie.”

The elevator juddered to a halt. Katsuko stood aside to let the wheelchair-bound woman exit first. “Fukui-san,” she said, with a beautifully polite shallow bow, dignified as if she were in full uniform and not a hoodie with bear ears and a sling. “Hakone-san.” She glanced thoughtfully between them, then reached up with her good hand to pat Ryouma’s shoulder. “Go decimate a bar with your friends. You all look like you need it.”

“Katsu—” He swallowed down the protest. What was he arguing against? She probably didn’t want to hang around moping with him anyway. He said instead, “I’ll see you tomorrow. And we’ll go out when Kakashi’s released. All of us together.”

She smiled gently at him over her shoulder. “Good. I’ll hold you to that.” And then she was gone, heading out across the lobby with her good hand in her pocket and a quick, loping stride.

Hakone reached out to hold the elevator door. “You weren’t kidding about Ueno’s chakra,” he observed, as Ayane slipped past him and Ryouma brought up the rear. His gaze followed Katsuko toward the broad glass doors that slid open onto Konoha’s twilight streets. “She was a lot more linear than I was expecting.”

“She’s not crazy,” Ryouma said defensively. He tried to remember what he’d told Hakone, the last time they met up at The Green Pig — was it only two weeks ago? Less than that, even. The night before they’d left to hunt traitors, when he’d still been riding high on the heady flush of victory from killing a demon. He and Hakone had traded notes on their teams and training regimens. Hakone’d complained about his lieutenant, and Ryouma had boasted about his.

Neither of them had known, then, that Ayane’s lieutenant was dead.

“I wasn’t expecting crazy,” Hakone said mildly. “Well, no more crazy than any of us poor bastards who signed on for this service. But I was kind of hoping for the random bird noises and maybe a personal space violation.”

“She did touch him,” Ayane pointed out, as the doors slid open again for them. Their hair rippled briefly in the cold blast of air. Ayane ducked her head and hugged her arms. She was wearing civvies, ivory trousers and a sheer silk top in deep blue. Clothes for a warm spring day, but the evening had grown cool. Ryouma wondered if he should offer her his hoodie, but she stepped out with a brisk pace, no malingering here.

She tossed back over her shoulder, “Thought it’d be Hatake you were hooking up with on that team. Or did you already, and then move on?”

Ryouma bristled. Hakone reached up to sling a comradely arm over his shoulders and said easily, “He can’t. Their captain has some kind of thing about wrapping everyone in a personal cocoon of propriety.” His voice shaded wry. How much had Ryouma complained about Raidou’s oft-repeated Boundaries speech?

Ayane glanced back, dark brows raised. “Huh.” She added thoughtfully, “Some kind of karmic justice in that…”

She wasn’t exactly wrong. Ryouma cracked a laugh. “Guess you could call it that.”

She slowed. Ryouma’d already shortened his stride, to match Hakone’s; Ayane fell into step beside them. She and Hakone were both a little taller than Katsuko, a little shorter than Kakashi. Katsuko walked faster, though, even though her legs were shorter. It already felt strange to walk with someone else.

“What happened to your team?” Ayane asked abruptly. “Ueno didn’t look too badly hurt. And you don’t look like you even took a scratch.”

Ryouma rubbed his thumb down a scabbed finger, and shoved his hand in his pocket. “Katsuko broke her collarbone. The lieutenant — Shiranui Genma — took a broken nose and a bad stab wound to the thigh. And lost a lot of blood.” Come to think of it, so had he. With everyone else so much worse off, he’d mostly forgotten that hastily-healed cut on his shoulder.

He added, “We ran into Mist nin. Kakashi took down an S-ranked Bingo Book nin from Kiri, Iebara Shigematsu, but he pretty well flattened himself doing it. He’s still hospitalized.”

Against his side, Hakone almost broke stride. He glanced quickly up the dusky street and back, but the evening traffic was light, here; only a couple of genin loitered within hearing distance, intent on something in the gutter. Hakone let out a low whistle. “You realize no Konoha team has ever survived an encounter to so much as breathe Iebara’s name before this, right?”

“Intel agent who debriefed me yesterday might’ve mentioned something along those lines,” Ryouma admitted. He thought back to the faint widening of Hiyashi Riei’s soft brown eyes, the questions that had rushed to her lips. Pity he hadn’t had the energy or the will to take advantage of his brief moment in the hero-light.

Well, maybe there was a little energy for boasting now. He said casually, “I nicked him with my Internal Organs Melt technique. Didn’t get a killing blow — he was blazing fast — but it slowed him down some. At least enough for Kakashi to steal his jutsu and explode him.”

Explode?” Ayane repeated, in a voice of mingled disgust and fascination.

“I think stealing jutsu takes some practice,” Ryouma explained.

Hakone withdrew his arm from Ryouma’s shoulders — he must have been getting a serious crick in his own shoulder by now — and walked on for a moment in silence. His uneven mouth had flattened, eyes going unfocused, as they always did when he was absorbing new information. At last he nodded. “Sharingan no Kakashi stole the jutsu, you half-rotted Iebara, the Phantom Terror of Mist, and then Kakashi exploded him.” His brows lifted, impressed. “So what’d the rest of your team do? I’m thinking maybe solved the crisis in the capital and restored order to Fire Country?”

Katsuko’d stood there in the dank little kitchen of the safehouse bunker and said, I told her to close her eyes and that it wouldn’t hurt. Then I killed her in front of her father. And Raidou—

“No,” Ryouma said shortly, and lengthened his stride. “Where’re we heading? The Pig?”

“Where else?” Ayane stretched to keep pace. “It’s half-price pitcher night at the Pig. You and I can get the two-for-one, and Hakone can sip some fancy craft beer with his nose in the air.”

“Or we could get a pitcher for each of us and one for the table,” Hakone countered.

“Four-for-two?” Ryouma’s grasp of mathematics was at least decent enough for drink specials. “If you’re sure you’re okay slumming with us…”

“Have I ever actually refused to slum with you?” Hakone demanded. He added after a moment, “The sketchy eel stand where you got food poisoning and I didn’t doesn’t count.”

Ryouma shrugged. “I’d eaten worse.” He angled across the street, neatly sidestepping a couple of middle-aged chuunin, and turned down a narrower alley. Red lanterns bobbed in the breeze, strung in a zigzag just above his head. Down the alley, The Green Pig’s painted sign glowed from its own inner light.

The main floor was beginning to fill up, though most of the buzz seemed to be drifting up into the pool loft, where Minami Izumi defended the table against all comers on her nights off from Academy grading. Ryouma didn’t recognize the challenger, a tall man with bronze hair and a mocking grin. He was half-inclined to join the spectators, but Ayane found a booth on the main floor, not too near the jukebox. She claimed the side with the best view of the door. Shoulders itching, Ryouma slid in across from her.

Hakone gazed at them for one unblinking moment, and lifted his brows. “I guess I’ll go place our order, then.”

“Make sure you get some edamame,” Ayane said. “And chicken karaage.”

He tipped her a casually ironic salute, and tilted his chin at Ryouma. “What about you? Tempura?”

“Mixed,” Ryouma said. “Thanks.”

Hakone headed off toward the bar. Ayane’s manicured nails drummed a thoughtful tattoo on the table, once, twice. Then she flattened her hand and frowned down at it.

He’d meant to be steadier, when he saw her again. Better rested, calmer, less likely to split at the seams. He’d meant to console her for the loss of her own team, offer her what support he could. He hadn’t meant to come to this moment still reeling from his own disasters, still with that panicky flutter in the back of his throat— They never come back, once they leave…

And yet the moment lay between them, all the same.

He swallowed, hard. “We heard about your team, just before we left. I’m sorry.”

Her lips tightened over her teeth. “We had the funerals yesterday. Hajime got himself released from the hospital long enough to attend. And then stood to speak, the damn fool. The doctors say he’s set his recovery back by a week.”

“I heard he’d be able to run again,” Ryouma offered.

“Yeah, well…” Her nails drummed the scarred wooden table once more. “His girlfriend’s a jounin. She got back three days ago — maybe four, now. They’ve been joking, how if he’d taken that hit a few inches to the left she’d never have to worry about birth control again. How she’ll finally be faster than him, now. She took me to the bathroom afterward and cried on my shoulder. And then she went back and played Go with him.”

Ryouma wasn’t sure he understood, but maybe understanding wasn’t the point. He said carefully, “What about you?”

“I don’t play Go.”

He waited. Katsuko’d done that, and Genma, letting silence work on him until the words came easier. Ayane was stubborner, maybe — or had had more time to piece her cracks together — but she hitched her elbows up onto the table finally, and drew a long breath.

“I’ve been thinking it over. Again and again, every angle, every possibility… And it wasn’t my fault. They’d have kept any rookie to the back. Nothing I did or didn’t do would have changed that first moment, that first strike. But as soon as I tell myself that, I go back to the start…”

What could you say to that? You did everything you could? She knew that. It didn’t help. It was like saying I did my duty to Tsuto Sakako’s swollen face in his nightmares, or You’re dying anyway to her daughter’s tear-filled eyes. All of it was true, and none of it mattered.

Two pitchers of beer plunked down between them, sudden enough that Ryouma flinched. Hakone pulled a stack of tall glasses out of the crook of his elbow and finished off with a little cardboard number in a metal stand. He slid into the booth beside Ayane and began passing out glasses. “Next round is on whoever gets flirted with by a random stranger first.”

“You couldn’t just say, Next round’s on Ryouma?” Ayane straightened, cleared her throat, reached for a glass and the nearest pitcher.

“Where’s the mystery in that?” Hakone retorted. “You’ve been known to catch the occasional stranger’s eye, after all.”

Ayane snorted and tipped her glass back. Her long, slim throat worked effortlessly, draining half the glass in one smooth swallow. She set the glass down, brushed her thumb to the corner of her lip to catch a stray amber drop. “What makes you so sure it won’t be you?”

Hakone filled Ryouma’s glass. “If it looks like it’s going to be me, I’ll make ugly faces until they go away. No way I’m buying two rounds in a row.”

Ryouma took a drink. The beer was cold, only a little bitter; it was almost the color of Genma’s eyes. He set the glass down in its condensation ring on the table and stared into it. He tried to think of what Genma would say.

A server came by with Ayane’s edamame. She shoved the dish to the center of the table to share. Hakone stripped a pod with his teeth, absent-mindedly, and dropped the empty pod into the other side of the divided bowl. Ayane drained the rest of her beer and refilled her glass.

If she meant to get drunk, they should be doing shots instead.

“Glad to see I can still kill a conversation with my mere presence,” Hakone said wryly, discarding another edamame pod. He nudged his shoulder against Ayane’s. “Still worrying about Hajime-taichou? Or were you two moving on to worrying about Ryouma’s problems when I interrupted with untimely beer?”

“Beer’s never untimely,” Ayane said. She reached across the table to push Ryouma’s glass against his knuckles.

He took an obedient drink. “We were talking about her team. And the way you second-guess, afterwards.”

Tsuto Sakako’s blood-darkened face rose up behind his eyes. He drained his glass and held it out to Ayane for a refill.

“Ah yeah,” Hakone said softly, “that’s a familiar one.” He tipped his glass on the table, until the thin white froth kissed the very brim of the lip, and held it balanced. Not a drop spilled. “Sensei’d say Rule 87 applies here, I think, Aya-chan.”

Eighty-seven. A shinobi’s heart remains true against self-doubt.

Hakone tipped his glass back the other way. “Whoever invents a jutsu that lets you go back in time and do things a different way is either going to rule the world, or die in agony.”

“Multiple times.” Ayane shuddered. “Can you imagine going back and trying to set things right, only they go wrong that way too? So you try again, and again, and go mad doing it…”

Snapping Sakako’s neck to begin with, instead of strangling her, might not’ve changed anything. Or maybe he would have moved afterward, been nearer the door, been an unwary target for that girl with her ornamental knife. She’d stabbed Genma’s kage bunshin, after all. And if he’d already been bleeding when they met Iebara — or if they’d delayed for medical care, if they’d met the Kiri nin in a populated area instead of an empty grove — if their fight, like Raidou’s, had taken place with innocent civilians nearby, not just collateral damage but ready fodder for Iebara’s blood-ripping…

He took another drink. “You wouldn’t even have to use the jutsu. You’d go mad just trying to plan how to do it.”

“It’d have to be like mission-planning,” Ayane said, finally taking an edamame pod. “You’ll never cover all the contingencies. There’s a certain point where you have to stop planning, accept the risks, and just do.” She licked salt off her lips. “And not kill yourself over-analyzing it afterward. All right, Hakone, I get it, I do, it’s just…”

She sighed, and leaned into his shoulder. “It’s just,” she said very quietly, “I liked them. Rokurou-fukuchou used to make up dumb songs during training, and he was going to teach me his trick with genjutsu traps. And Yuudai kept a picture of his niece on his desk and had us over for breakfast after training every day, and I saw his niece at the funeral yesterday, she’s three years old and she didn’t even know to cry…”

Her own breath was shuddering hard and harsh. She wrenched it back. After a moment she drank and set an empty glass down. “After all,” she said, levelly, “Who hasn’t lost teammates before?”

Ryouma reached for the pitcher. “You wouldn’t refuse to grieve for your mom just because your dad died first.”

Her dark eyes flicked up to his, then down. She watched him empty the pitcher into her glass. “No,” she said. “You wouldn’t.”

The server returned with chicken and tempura, and took the empty pitcher away. The second pitcher was perilously low. Ready for the next round.

“The redhead in the pool loft’s been eyeing Ryouma,” Ayane suggested, eating chicken with her fingers. “Does that count?”

“Hakone said flirted with,” Ryouma objected. “Doesn’t count unless he chats me up.”

He glanced over, anyway. The bronze-haired man had finished his game with Minami-sensei and was lounging hip-shot against the railing while another challenger racked up. A bottle of dark craft brew dangled lazily between his fingers. He caught Ryouma’s eye, and his mocking grin slowly widened.

“That counts,” Ayane said. “Your round.”

“Sure, whatever.” Ryouma snagged a slice of tempura sweet potato and slid out of the booth. He wasn’t nearly drunk yet, but he could feel the promise of it in his blood. The man up in the pool loft was still watching him, when he turned back from the bar; Ryouma saluted him with a pitcher and made his way back to his friends.

Their low conversation broke off as he approached. Ayane stole a tempura prawn. “I wasn’t sure you’d come back to us.”

“I think he’s playing the long game,” Ryouma said, settling in. “Were you talking about me?”

“Nope. Talking about the price of wheat in Wind Country.” Hakone took a piece of mushroom tempura and blew to cool it. “You should see if you can get any competition interested. You have bad luck with redheads.”

Ayane’s brows rose. “Recently? Do tell.”

Ryouma briefly considered kicking Hakone under the table.

“I met a guy last autumn,” he said, reluctantly. “Didn’t see him again until this spring. He turned out to be my captain.” He shot Hakone a venomous glare. “He’s not red-haired, anyway.”

“Who, your captain or the pool player?” Hakone asked innocently. “I’d definitely call them both reddish. Maybe you need your color vision checked, Ryouma. Didn’t you say your lieutenant’s a medic?”

Ryouma threw a prawn tail at him. Hakone leaned easily aside.

“This spring,” Ayane said, drawing her finger through circles of condensation on the table. “Would that be before or after the Trials?”

“After,” Ryouma said quickly. “I didn’t recognize him until he unmasked in the Hokage’s antechamber.”

“And suddenly the reason for Team Six’s no-sleeping-with-teammates rule becomes crystal clear,” Hakone murmured.

“Next time it’s the pitcher,” Ryouma told him.

Hakone smirked and drank his beer.

Ayane was still drawing thoughtful circles on the table. He realized, abruptly, why she’d asked about the timing. Two weeks before the Trials it’d been her eye he caught, in this very bar.

They’d known each other before that; she was Hakone’s genin teammate, and he’d run half a dozen missions and shared half a hundred beers with Hakone in the past two years. He couldn’t remember who’d made the first move. He did remember that night in her apartment, her silken skin and her long black hair, the way she moved beneath him. The way she lay curled on her side, graceful even in sleep, as he dressed and left in the grey twilight before dawn.

He hadn’t seen her for two weeks afterwards. Not intentional avoidance: he’d had a mission, and then training for the Trials, and then when they’d seen each other on the first day of the Trials he’d already been talking with Kakashi. Sort of. Maybe he hadn’t behaved well, but Hakone should have warned her he wasn’t the relationship type.

Hakone had warned her, Ryouma’d realized too late. Or maybe she hadn’t needed the warning in the first place. She’d made it quite clear, that evening after the first Trial, that she hadn’t expected anything more from that hook-up than he had. It was equally clear that she’d been wondering, just now, whether there was another reason he hadn’t looked her up again afterwards.

“I’m not pining for him,” he said, exasperated. It was mostly true. “Anyway he’s made it damned clear there’s nothing happening there again while he’s my captain, and—”

But Raidou was suspended from Team Six, and he might not be coming back.

Ryouma’s stomach clenched tight and cold. He wasn’t thinking that. He didn’t want that. Not this way. Not at all, if it meant Raidou’s career in shambles, Raidou’s name blackened, Raidou’s spirit broken.

Something must have shown in his face. Hakone exchanged a quick glance with Ayane, then shoved the plate of chicken towards Ryouma. “And you have bad luck with redheads,” he said. “And you’re a smart man who doesn’t make the same mistakes twice.”

“No, I just make new ones.” Ryouma sighed, scrubbed a hand over his face, and took a piece of karaage. “What’s with you and luck, anyway? You’re usually a skeptical ass, not a superstitious one.”

“It’s not superstition when it’s rational trend analysis,” Hakone said coolly, selecting another mushroom. “I was just putting it in simple terms for you, since your less intelligent head is doing all the thinking about this issue.”

“Rational trend—?” Ryouma blinked at him, then twisted around to gaze up at the pool loft. The bronze-haired man had set his beer aside; money was changing hands around the table while he chalked up his cue again. “I don’t know him. And I kind of doubt you’re speaking from personal experience…”

“Actually, I am.”

Ryouma stared. Ayane’s brows climbed towards each other. “Well,” she murmured, “first time for everything.” She propped her chin up on her hands. “But if you were disappointed, it’s probably not entirely his fault.”

Hakone shook his head, somehow squelching his smirk down into the sort of fond, long-suffering expression that teachers probably wore when exasperated by a slow but beloved student. “There’s more than one kind of experience, Aya-chan. I know him from HQ. He’s lieutenant on Team Sixteen, and he’s a total ass.”

You’re an ass,” she retorted, batting his hand away from her edamame. “You might’ve gotten Ryouma’s hopes up.”

Hakone snorted. “Yeah, right. I’m not his type even a little.”

“Ryouma has a type?”

“Hey,” Ryouma said mildly. “I’m still sitting here.” He pushed his glass out for another refill. “As it happens, I do have a type. It’s called Hot and into me.

Which Team Sixteen’s lieutenant did seem to be. Ryouma sneaked another glance over his shoulder. The man was leaning over the table to take a shot, stretched out in lean and muscular grace. He wore civvies, a crisp buttoned shirt and jeans, nothing that would have given away his service or rank.

No ANBU agent is permitted to fraternize with a senior officer, Raidou’s voice whispered in memory.

Bad luck indeed. Ryouma groaned. “Okay, how much of an ass is this guy?”

“Huge.” Hakone’s eyes lit with a gleeful glint. Delivering his opinions about idiots was his favorite hobby. “I’ve seen him take someone’s damp laundry out of the dryers and just wad it up on the folding table so he could use the machines. He creeps on people in the gym. And he told my captain getting blueprints of the Daimyou’s residence was a mute point, since the place had burned down and was being rebuilt.”

“Okay, the gym-creeping is a valid reason,” Ayane allowed, “but—seriously, Hakone, how petty can you get? He used the wrong word?”

“What’s the right word?” Ryouma asked blankly.

Hakone winced. “Moot. A moot point. Something not worth pursuing. Like your appalling lack of vocabulary skills.”

“Glad to hear you realize it’s not worth pursuing.” Ryouma took another piece of karaage. Silently, he repeated the word to himself. Moot. He’d recognize it next time.

“Speaking of which—” Hakone helped himself to the last tempura mushroom— “Cut that bait and run. Guy outranks you and he’s a snake in the grass. There are at least half a dozen better candidates for your evening’s affection in this bar.”

“I’m not looking yet, anyway.” Ryouma tossed back the last of his beer. “Except maybe for the toilet.” He shoved out of the booth, steadying himself for a moment with a hand on the table. “Go ahead and pick someone out for me while I’m gone. I want to be sure they meet your approval, oyaji.”

Ayane snickered. Hakone raised his glass in ironic salute. “Hakone’s Expert Matchmaking Service is here to serve you. For a modest twenty-five percent cut of the dowry, of course.”

“Twenty-five percent of nothing. It’s a deal.” Ryouma nodded briskly and headed off, threading his way through the tables toward the dark corridor behind the bar. It hadn’t been cleaned recently; he could have found the toilets by smell alone.

He was washing his hands when the door swung open again behind him. He glanced up into the cracked, grimy mirror. Behind him, Team Sixteen’s bronze-haired lieutenant stood watching.

“You don’t play pool?” He had a low, pleasant voice, nigglingly familiar; had Ryouma heard him speaking in the gym, or the mess hall? Seen this close he was a little taller than Raidou, near to Ryouma’s own height, and his face was lean, almost triangular, with winged brows over blue eyes. The mocking smile lurked around the edges of his mouth.

Ryouma shut the tap off with the side of his wrist. “I can beat Minami two times out of five, but I came with friends.”

The man came a step closer. “Planning on leaving with them?”

No paper towels in the dispenser. Ryouma turned, wiping his hands on his jeans. “Not unless I’m cruelly disappointed here.”

He had heard that voice before: quiet, edged with mocking laughter. The face still wasn’t familiar; had he been masked?

The bathroom was small, just one stall and three urinals. Another step brought the lieutenant close enough for Ryouma to see the reddish shade of stubble on his jaw and the pale scar slicing through one eyebrow. “Like a preview?” he asked.

Like the bunshin? the boar-masked ANBU had whispered against Ryouma’s neck, ghosting up behind him during the second ANBU Trial. Hesitate, and you’re dead.

He’d seen reddish hair, ruffled in the breeze. And the height was right, too, for the man who’d murmured in his ear, taunting: Easy, boy, and, You like to watch?

“Boar,” Ryouma said, flatly. “That genjutsu wasn’t enough?”

Surprise flickered for a moment in the lieutenant’s foxglove-blue eyes. Then his mouth curled up again. “I’m not in uniform right now, am I? Why don’t you call me Ken.” He stepped closer, just inside Ryouma’s reach. “I was thinking something a little more engaging than genjutsu would be fun.”

The edge of the sink bumped Ryouma’s hip. There was no room in here to step away, no way out but through.

How bad an idea would it be…?

He didn’t like that smirk, too close to Hakone’s. But Hakone’s teasing, edged as it was, always invited you to share in the joke. Boar’s smile mocked with no intent at relief.

“Sorry,” he said, borrowing a hint of Kakashi’s drawl to turn the word back on itself: No I’m not. “I’m not that hard up.”

Boar looked amused. His blue gaze skimmed appraisingly down the length of Ryouma’s body, then drifted past him: checking out his ass in the mirror, Ryouma realized. He quelled the urge to step back into the sink, but he could feel his cheeks heat.

Boar noticed. He smiled condescendingly, like a man indulging some brat’s spat of temper. “I didn’t realize hard-to-get was part of your play.” He stepped back, turned. “You know where to find me if you change your mind. For now,” he added lightly, hand on the door. “You never know when I might change mine.”

The door swung shut behind him.

“Son of a bitch.” Ryouma turned the tap on again, splashed cold water on his face. He was breathing hard. He wondered distantly if Hakone and Ayane had seen Boar go into the bathroom after him; he hoped they saw him leave.

He gave himself a little time, until the angry flush was gone from his cheeks and ears, along with the disturbing arousal. His hair was a little damp, but there was nothing he could do about that. He opened the bathroom door with the side of his hand and went out into the dark corridor again, onto the brighter bar floor.

There were fresh pitchers on the table, and new plates of karaage and pickled daikon. Hakone and Ayane were engaging in some sort of game involving sugar packets; they broke off as he slid into his side of the booth. Hakone jerked his chin up towards the pool loft. “Is Sato a jackrabbit, or did you turn him down?”

Ryouma refused to look around. “Turns out I knew him after all. He hunted me in the second Trial.” He took the refilled glass Ayane pushed at him, and drank deeply.

Her gaze narrowed, dropping to his right hand. “Was he there when you were hurt?”

“Before that,” Ryouma said, curling his hand around the glass. The scar was livid-pink along the inside of his wrist, across the tendons and the blue blood vessels. He wasn’t waking up at two a.m. anymore terrified that his hand was crippled or gone, but he’d had other fodder for his nightmares, lately.

Ayane braced her chin on her doubled fists again, eyeing him speculatively. “Did you talk to him? My hunters set traps and harried me pretty closely, but they never spoke.”

“The woman who was chasing me right before they shut the whole thing down tried to goad me into revealing my position by insulting my parentage,” Hakone put in. He snorted dismissively, as if that was a poor joke. “But other than that it was never personal.”

“My hunter — Sato, you said? — treated it like a game. Like…” Ryouma trailed off, fingers slipping on the glass. He couldn’t put it into words, couldn’t make them understand the wrongness of it: the shiver of breath over the back of his neck, the low voice taunting in his ear, there-and-gone-again as he spun and struck. “Like he was toying with me, and was getting off on it.”

And Sato’d played the same game tonight, all superiority and scorn. He’d come onto Ryouma knowing that Ryouma wouldn’t recognize him in return. If there was desire there, it was for the abuse of Ryouma’s ignorance, not his willing consent. Sato wouldn’t have told Ryouma he was an officer, and he’d have laughed about it afterward.

Hakone’s nostrils flared. His brows twitched in distaste. “And you doubted me when I said he was creepy.”

“Most of the time you’re quite good at avoiding I told you so’s,” Ayane told him. “Now should have been one of those times.”

“It keeps you underestimating me if I’m not perfect all the time.” Hakone stole an edamame pod from her dish, but didn’t eat it. His dark eyes rested on Ryouma, growing troubled. “He didn’t actually do anything just now, right? He might outrank us, but I’m pretty sure I can outthink him. And there are three of us.”

“Hell, I outthought him. Back in the Trials.” Ryouma straightened. “In that river-valley where you were fighting the taijutsu man, Ayane. He came up on my back again, and I hit him with a genjutsu. Made him think I had my Human Flesh Melt Technique activated.”

Ayane winced reflexively. Hakone grinned like a polecat and stripped the beans out of his edamame pod with his teeth. “Genius.”

Hakone was almost as sparing with compliments as Kakashi, but he always meant them. Ryouma’s shoulders eased a little more. “He stumbled back, and I came up over his guard and concussed him on a rock.” He shaped the scene with his hands: Sato’s horrified lurch, his own instant lunge, the sharp rap of Sato’s skull against a rock slab. And then…

“And then I walked straight into Akiyama’s trap. But at least he had nothing to do with that.”

Hakone’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You’re certain of that?”

He wasn’t. He’d never thought of it before. But…

“Ayane was in that valley too. And a couple other ANBU.” Maybe even Raidou and Genma; they’d certainly been on the scene quickly enough. “Just being nearby doesn’t mean you’re involved. So far’s my captain told me, Akiyama was working alone.”

Hakone frowned, unconvinced. Ayane pulled her hair over her shoulder, winding her fingers thoughtfully through the long silky strands.

“That’s what Hajime-taichou told us, after the Hokage’s briefing,” she said. “That the attack during the Trials was launched by a rogue ninja, that there was no evidence of connection with any partner or backer, and that the rumors of the Snake Sannin’s involvement were just that.” Her gaze touched Ryouma’s wrist again, and her lips thinned.

He remembered, abruptly, her concern at the Third Trial, however abrasively conveyed. She’d worried enough to collar Kakashi for answers. And when Ryouma’d arrived, exhausted and hurting and still a little unstable, he’d fixated almost entirely on Kakashi instead.

Kakashi had just saved his life. That was a pretty good reason to keep talking to the guy, but it didn’t entirely excuse ignoring older friends.

He pushed the half-empty plate of tempura closer to her. “How’s your captain doing?”

She took the last prawn. “They’ve rebuilt his hip joint — that was chakra-healing, all of it, but it stripped him down pretty bad. He’s doing okay in PT, even with yesterday’s set-back. Skin and bones, though.” She shook her head. “The hospital’s amped up his supplemental nutrition to compensate for everything he burned in the healing. He’s supposed to be eating practically every moment he’s awake.”

“He’s not exactly a big guy to begin with, but honestly, I’ve seen guys look worse than him after less intensive healing.” Hakone actually looked impressed. “I can see why everyone in ANBU likes him.”

Genma’d been disturbed to hear about Hajime’s injury, too, Ryouma remembered. He wondered if they’d been friends.

“Do you think he’ll come back, if he recovers?”

“He’s already planning on it.” Ayane’s gaze dropped; she seemed to be studying her manicure, but her knuckles were white. “But he’s got at least six months of rehab first.”

Half of her rookie year. And the rest of her team was gone, anyway, nothing left but ash and their names on the Heroes’ Stone.

Hakone said, “I know Teams Seven and Twelve both had losses, too. There’s probably several agents needing reassignment.” He reached for a pitcher to top off his glass, and then Ryouma’s. “Your whole team’s just got short-term rehab, or are you down members, too?”

Ryouma flinched, and tried to cover it in a long drink. “They’ll come back,” he said.

Ayane toasted him, silently, and drained her beer. Hakone sipped at his, quiet-eyed, thoughtful. “You said your lieutenant and Hatake are both in bad shape. Which one are you worried about?”

“They’ll be out in a couple of days. Kakashi’s funny when he’s drugged, anyway.” Ryouma tapped his fingertips uneasily on the side of his glass. Genma hadn’t exactly said Raidou’s suspension was classified, but maybe he’d figured he didn’t need to. If they weren’t allowed to talk to Raidou, they probably shouldn’t be talking about him, either.

But Raidou’s suspension would be public news soon enough, as the HQ rumor mill ground on. And Genma’d said it wasn’t that bad…

He tossed back the rest of his beer and reached for the pitcher again. “Our mission’s getting audited. Not the Iebara half, the other part. We got split targets. My captain’s out doing debriefings for a while.”

“Audited?” Ayane refilled her own glass, emptying the pitcher. “Who screwed up?”

Hakone blinked, slow as a cat, and tapped his chin. “Which half were you on again?”

“Kakashi and I were under the lieutenant’s command. We got Iebara.” He eyed Ayane’s empty pitcher, and his full glass, warily. Was this his fifth beer, or his sixth? He should probably stop. He wasn’t babbling yet, and he’d need to be far drunker than this before he slurred, but there were things it was better not to say.

The chicken plate bumped against the side of his hand. Hakone probably thought he was being subtle. Ryouma took a piece anyway.

“You took down Iebara Shigematsu with just half your team,” Hakone repeated, as if he was just making sure. “I know what you’re like in the field, and Hatake’s a legend, but… Damn. Your lieutenant must not suck too hard, either.”

“He doesn’t,” Ryouma said. He wasn’t sure if Hakone was deliberately steering the conversation away from Raidou, or whether he was just curious, but Genma was easy to talk about. “He’s a ninjutsu specialist. Special jounin, a little weak on taijutsu, not bad at genjutsu, but he’s a field medic and Kakashi and I’d both be dead — twice, three times over — without him.” He shoved his glass aside, clearing a space of battered table in front of him. “See, Iebara earned his S-rank. He had this jutsu where he’d yank your own blood out of you and use it as a weapon against you…”

He sketched out the fight for them, employing stripped edamame pods for the Mist nin and the last pieces of karaage for the ANBU team. Somewhere along the way the rest of his beer disappeared. Ayane slid out of the booth for her own trip to the toilets, but made him promise not to speak a word until she got back. Hakone nursed his third beer and studied the edamame pods with narrowed eyes.

“Girl in the bathroom wanted to know if you were my brothers,” Ayane announced, coming back. “Then she wanted to know if I was going home with either or both of you. Scoot in, Hakone, I’m not climbing over you again.”

“Was she hot?” Hakone inquired.

“Twenty-five, chuunin, brunette, curvy, you’re an ass,” Ayane recited rapidly, and pointed at a table behind Ryouma’s shoulder. “Over there.”

Hakone craned his neck to see. He settled back down looking smugly pleased. “If you love me, you told her Ryouma’s gay and I’m available. Right?”

Ayane hesitated. Then she said, “I told her I’m going home with Ryouma.”

Ryouma’s head jerked up. He said blankly, “Why?”

“Because you’re not letting that creepy asshole lieutenant pick you up, I’m too tired and a little too drunk to find someone new, and we’ve already had the talk about how neither of us are looking for anything more, so we don’t need to have it again.” Her fingernails drummed the table. “Also, Hakone already approves of me.”

Hakone glanced from her to Ryouma and back again, and smiled slow and sappy. “You tell him, Aya-chan.”

“I’m not—” He broke off, helplessly.

She said, “I’m not either.” The firm line of her mouth softened, almost wavering. She said more quietly, “But I think we could both use someone to hold.”

Maybe so.

She knew what he could give, and what he couldn’t. And he had a better idea, now, what she wanted: no promises he couldn’t keep, just a night with someone else to chase away the dark.

He’d been looking for the same thing.

He scraped the scattered, shredded edamame pods back together, and dumped them into the bowl. “Turns out,” he said, “you’re my type after all.”

Hakone slanted him a wryly amused look. “Of course she’s your type. I’m the one who’s not. Though I’m sure we can all agree I am hot.”

“Hakone,” Ayane said, “shut up.”

“Or go try your luck with that chuunin,” Ryouma suggested. “Roll up your sleeve and see whether she’s turned on or jumps out the window.”

Hakone glanced over across the bar again. He tested the stretchy wrist of his loose, charcoal grey shirt, and then casually shoved the sleeve up over his biceps. The curve and tail of his crimson ANBU tattoo caught the light for just a moment before he pulled his sleeve back down.

A passing server looked startled, but no one yelped or bolted. Hakone downed the last of his beer. “We’ll see. First I have to make sure she’s not disappointed about which one of us Ayane’s going home with.”

“Or that Ayane’s going home with someone at all,” Ryouma pointed out. He slid out from the booth. “Good luck. Or good rational trend analysis, or whatever.”

Hakone shrugged. “Gotta live in hope, right?” He shoved his shoulder lightly against Ayane’s, until she let him out of the booth. “You two have fun tonight,” he added, stretching. His gaze drifted back towards the chuunin’s table. “And no redheads.”

“Don’t come crying after us if she shoots you down,” Ayane told him coolly. She curled a hand around Ryouma’s elbow. “You’re on your own.”

He tossed her a middle-finger salute, and headed off.

Ayane’s fingers pressed light and warm against the inside of Ryouma’s arm. She said very quietly, “We can split up outside the door, if you’d rather.”

He looked down at her, a little startled, and caught her looking back up: straight brows over shadowed eyes, dark hair wisping loose around her face, the clean line of cheek and jaw leading down to a strong mouth set a little askew with uncertainty. Her fingers slipped on his sleeve, ready to withdraw.

He reached over to catch her hand before it fell away. “You’re right,” he said, just as quietly. “About needing someone to hold. I came out looking for someone to help me forget—”

The mission. Raidou. Tsuto Sakako’s swollen face, and her daughter’s begging eyes, and Genma’s level voice saying If the team loses its captain…

He shoved them all away. “Everything. Just for an hour or two. Might’ve made some choices I’d regret, after, and not cared about it at the time. But— I think we can do better than just a distraction.”

Her mouth crooked. “We did all right once, before.”

“We did,” he agreed, and he bent his head and kissed her.

She made a small, surprised sound. Then her free hand came up to curl over his shoulder, pulling him down and in. Her lips parted beneath his.

When he pulled back at last, they were both breathing hard, and her mouth was red and swollen. Ryouma’s pulse pounded in his ears. “Your place or mine?”

She rubbed her palm over his shoulderblade, and dropped her hand. “I could do with something wider than an ANBU cot,” she said, digging a slim wallet out of her back pocket. She counted out a generous tip and dropped it on the table. “What about a hotel? Split the bill?”

He made a rapid mental review of his own billfold. “I could do that. Saves us some HQ rumor-mongering, too.” He hesitated. “I have to be back at HQ by 0700 tomorrow, though.”

“Giving me fair warning you’ll leave before breakfast this time, too?” She tucked her wallet away, and caught his hand again. Her eyes were dark and hot. “Hope you’re not planning on getting much sleep before then.”

“No,” he said. “But, y’know, elite ninja. We still perform pretty well without sleep.”

She laughed, and tugged him out of the bar after her.



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