May 11, Yondaime Year 5

kurenai 6Yuuhi Kurenai was stealing fifteen minutes’ shut-eye at her desk when the folder slapped down on top of three other files. She woke instantly, but it took a few seconds of blinking at the thick manila envelope before the bold red stamp’s meaning sank in. She groaned. “Another?”

“Director Oita and Manager Yamanaka are still in briefings.” Hiyashi Riei leaned hipshot against Kurenai’s desk, shifting her weight in a way that meant she was probably sliding her feet out of her shoes. She looked like she could use a nap, too. Like the rest of the Intel staff, she’d been pulling double- and triple-shifts since Hikouto, and her concealer couldn’t entirely mask the dark circles beneath her eyes. She said, “It sounds like Team Twelve’s captain is waking up, so Momoe’s back at the hospital. Susuki’s off to T&I. And I’ve got a date transcribing for Team Six’s cute rookie, so you get the captain and lieutenant.”

“I didn’t know Team Six was back in,” Kurenai said, rubbing her face with one hand and flipping the folder open with the other. Blank paperwork greeted her. “They haven’t submitted their reports yet?”

“They just got in,” Riei said. “Should still be at the hospital. Team Lead Shirotani says the word from HQ is for immediate debriefings.” She grinned, a spark of life flitting back into her soft brown eyes. “Someday I’m going to conduct a full debriefing, in all senses of the word. Maybe Team Six’s rookie will be the one.”

Kurenai thumbed through the file. “They have two rookies, don’t they?”

One of whom was Hatake Kakashi, apparently.

She tried to remember if Rin had mentioned that Kakashi’d made it into ANBU. Had she even seen Rin since the ANBU trials? No, she’d been in Midoriyama for most of April, and then Hikouto had erupted in fire and blood. Kurenai had returned to Konoha only four days ago, and since then she’d spent every waking moment in Intel’s windowless offices. Rin was probably pulling triple-shifts at the hospital, too. And Kakashi’d spent the last week out in the field, hunting traitors…

With Ueno Katsuko. Kurenai blinked at the sober, unsmiling face that greeted her from Katsuko’s personnel page. The picture hadn’t been updated recently; Katsuko hadn’t worn her hair that long in almost a year. She must have been a rookie herself when she’d sat for this photo.

Riei was extolling the rumored aesthetic virtues of Team Six’s first rookie, Tousaki Ryouma, who was reportedly illiterate but would occasionally and helpfully bend over to pick up dropped pencils. Kurenai interrupted. “You said Team Six was in the hospital? All of them?”

“You know any of them?” Riei sobered.

“Two, but—” Kurenai shrugged. “I haven’t really been close to Kakashi since we were kids. His genin teammate is one of my best friends, so we see each other occasionally. But he practically makes a career out of recovering from serious injuries. No, it’s the veteran—Ueno Katsuko. She helped me out of a tight spot in Tea Country a couple of years ago, before she joined ANBU. Was she hurt?”

“I don’t know.” Riei looked uncomfortable, the way she always did when she had to deliver bad news. She slipped off the edge of Kurenai’s desk, toeing her shoes back on. “I’m sorry. I do have mission paperwork for her, though, so I need to track her down anyway. You want me to pass any message on?”

“No, it’s fine… Oh, damn.” If the team officers’ debriefings really were vital enough for an [URGENT] stamp across the front of the folder, Kurenai wouldn’t have time to look for Katsuko herself. “Yes, if you see her. Tell her I’m sorry I missed her birthday, and she’d better let me make it up to her.”

“Birthday, apologies, don’t die on me now,” Riei recited. “Anything else? Can I borrow your lipstick before I go?”

“Looking your best for the rookie?” Kurenai wrinkled her nose, but she dug a tube of her signature Heart’s Blood out of her desk drawer.

“Yes,” Riei said shamelessly. She filled her lips in carefully and accurately, capped the tube, and tossed it back. “Wish me luck.”

Kurenai waved her off and turned to the next personnel page behind Katsuko’s. A handsome young man with light eyes and shoulder-length light hair gazed seriously back at her. Shiranui Genma, newly promoted to lieutenant. And behind him the captain, Namiashi Raidou, looking too young for the crows’ feet crinkling at the corners of his eyes and the faint lines beginning to bracket his mouth. She’d met him a few times previously, twice in Katsuko’s company and once officially. Unsurprising that he’d been given his own team.

She hoped, devoutly, that he’d brought them home in one piece.

The mission assignment was the last page in the folder. Kurenai’s lips thinned as she read. For all the weight of blood behind the words, it didn’t take long.

She dug a clipboard out from underneath a neat stack of paperwork, added a notepad and three pens, and then slipped her uniform jacket on and buttoned it up to the throat. Curling long hair swept up in a high horsetail, a swift and expert slash of Heart’s Blood across the lips, a belated swig from the water bottle she kept on the corner of her desk. Anything else? No. She was ready.

She nodded briefly to Tomo and Hide, busy at their desks, and let herself out of the office.

A genin messenger nearly ran her over in the hall, performed an astonishing pirouette without disturbing his towering stack of paperwork, and dashed on into the Water Country division next door. Beyond him, two senior analysts had stepped outside the Wave Country office to wave stubs of cigarettes at each other as they argued. Kurenai slipped through the smoke, holding her breath, and found herself crammed into the elevator with two radio techs, a cartographer, and an unwashed analyst who clearly hadn’t left his desk in far too long. He fell asleep against the elevator wall between the third and second floors.

After Intel’s frantic scurry, the main street that curved past the Hokage’s office on its way to the hospital seemed almost sleepy in the late afternoon sunlight. It was warmer than Kurenai had expected, and there was an old grandmother with her pushcart on the street outside the hospital, selling bunches of narcissus and iris and lilies of the valley. Kurenai hesitated, then crossed the street and bought a bouquet.

She checked in at the front desk. Hatake Kakashi and Shiranui Genma were the only members of Team Six who’d actually been admitted, but the receptionist reported, checking her files, that she thought the rest of the team hadn’t left yet. She directed Kurenai to the second floor east wing, where another receptionist reported that Shiranui was in recovery after chakra surgery, but Namiashi Raidou was in a room down the hall getting his torn knuckles mended.

Kurenai left her flowers at the desk, checked the crisp lines of her grey uniform jacket for any stray petals, and rapped her knuckles on the door.

A deep baritone rasped, “Yeah?”

Kurenai slid the door open. The medic on his little rolling stool beside the bed was too focused on his healing jutsu to bother looking around, but the man sitting bare-chested on the edge of the bed, washboard abs tense and bruised under the glow of green healing chakra, looked up tiredly. His eyes clocked her grey Intel uniform, and widened. He tried to get up, already bending into a bow.

“Sit still,” the medic said, exasperated, and shoved him back down. “We’re nearly done.”

“Take your time, sensei,” Kurenai said. She slid the door closed behind her and stepped sideways to put her back against the wall.

Namiashi settled reluctantly, but he ducked his head in a respectful nod all the same. His hands settled properly on his knees. The bandages swathing his fingers and knuckles looked clean and fresh; clearly the rib-healing was an encore to the main event. “Ya— No,” he corrected himself, “it’s Yuuhi-san, isn’t it? Good to see you again.”

“One could wish for a reunion under better circumstances, Namiashi-taichou,” Kurenai said. “Is Katsuko all right?”

“Broken collarbone.” Namiashi’s own right shoulder twitched upward in unconscious mimicry. “Couple bruises and some smoke inhalation. Walking otherwise. The doc tells me they’re not admitting her.”

Kurenai hadn’t realized she was holding her breath until she let it out. A broken collarbone was nothing to sneeze at, but Katsuko’d survived far more serious injuries even in the short time Kurenai had known her. She asked, belatedly, “And you? No significant damage, I hope.”

“Nothing permanent,” Namiashi said, in blithe disregard of his bandaged hands and the medic’s chakra-bright fingers hovering over his ribs. The medic’s eyebrows rose, but he didn’t contradict. “Are you my debriefer?” Namiashi asked.

“You’ll still have to write your report,” Kurenai told him. “I’m just here for the broad strokes. And the vital details.” She frowned at the medic’s back. No discussion of classified information yet, of course, but perhaps they could cover what the hospital already knew… She opened her notepad, slipped a pen out of her breast pocket, and cradled the clipboard in her other arm. “Let’s start with the full details of your team’s injuries.”

The medic finished his work before Namiashi finished his injury report. Namiashi tugged his shirt back on, accepted a vial of antibiotics, and listened patiently enough to the medic’s final instructions (“Come back in two days for the final round on your knuckles, and for gods’ sakes don’t punch anything in the meantime”). When the man finally left to fill out his own reports, Kurenai settled down onto the seat he’d left. “You were on Hatake-san,” she prompted.

“Right. Yes.” Namiashi frowned. “Well, aside from pretty much frying his chakra system channeling lightning, he got himself strangled twice, which left some decent bruises. And he’s pretty badly cut up—something like you’d get from a Mist nin’s Water Senbon jutsu, only it wasn’t water.” He paused.

Ah. Kurenai set her pen down, shaped five hand-seals, and swept her chakra out to lay an area genjutsu. “Your voice won’t carry to any ears but mine.”

Namiashi’s gaze flicked to the door, then back. “How familiar are you with Iebara Shigematsu?”

Kurenai’s brows rose. “S-ranked Kiri jounin, Bingo Book, ninjutsu user. No Konoha nin have ever survived an encounter. We’ve been hunting for more information on him for years.” Konoha’s version of the Bingo Book didn’t have so much as a blurred photo, just a facial sketch based on a third-hand report. Isolated on their islands, Mist nin kept their secrets closer than most.

She picked up her pen again. “Your team ran across him?”

And survived?

The left edge of Namiashi’s mouth tilted up, pride battling professionalism. “Iebara’s neutralized. Kakashi killed him with his own jutsu.”

Anyone who worked Intel debriefings received thorough training in disguising their reactions to whatever they heard, and Kurenai’s field experience had made her an even better actress. She kept her face still, her pulse slow, her brows tilted in only mild inquiry. “Hatake-san was able to copy it with the Sharingan?”

Not a kekkai genkai, then, though a bloodline limit seemed unlikely in the first place; Water Country had never entertained the mainland enthusiasm for bloodlines, and its most recent civil war had purged most of those that remained. She flipped to a new page in her notepad.

“Did you observe the use of the jutsu?”

Namiashi shook his head. “No, I wish I had, though I know the jutsu involved some kind of blood-manipulation.” His faint smile had long since faded; he drummed the fingers of his left hand on his knee, one-two-three-four one-two-three-four, a marching cadence. “Our initial assignment had two target locations, so we split the team. Katsuko and I got the target in Tsurugahama Port. Lieutenant Shiranui Genma, Kakashi, and Tousaki Ryouma got the Ibaragashi City target. They ran into Iebara and his team on the way back to the rendezvous point.”

He noticed his drumming fingers, frowned down at them, and flattened his hand to his knee. “I got part of the lieutenant’s report in the aftermath. You’ll have to get the full account from them. Though my understanding is that Genma and Ryouma were both instrumental in the take-down of Iebara and the majority of his team. They also captured Iebara’s captain alive.”

“There’s an agent debriefing Tousaki-san now.” Kurenai added the final line to her swift row of shorthand symbols and looked up. “I’ll be speaking with Shiranui-fukuchou as soon as he’s out of recovery.”

And with Kakashi, too, she thought. Team Lead Shirotani had obviously figured that so long as they had one rookie’s report the rest could wait, but if Kakashi had killed a Bingo Book ninja and stolen one of Mist’s most dangerous jutsu, they needed that information sooner rather than later.

Capturing Iebara’s captain was an unlooked-for stroke of brilliance, though. Kirigakure no Sato was notoriously tough territory for spies, second only to the still-unmapped Hidden Cloud Village. Konoha’s relations with Kiri were brittle but not yet broken, and T&I wouldn’t risk a rupture by mistreating their prisoner, but there was still plenty of information they could get without violating the current treaty. Returning Iebara’s captain in relatively good shape might even earn Konoha some much-needed goodwill.

Kurenai made a note to check with T&I before she turned in her final report, and looked up again. “Did you and Katsuko-chan engage with shinobi combatants as well?”

Namiashi’s mouth quirked again. His gaze slid deliberately down to his bandaged hands, then up again. “You thinking these might be self-inflicted?”

“Your mission assignment was issued on the intelligence that the targets employed private armed guards,” Kurenai said coolly. “The hiring of shinobi guards was also contemplated as a distinct possibility, but not a known certainty.”

The wry half-smile dropped. Namiashi’s back straightened. “Right. My apologies.” He cleared his throat, voice falling back into the rigid cadences of an agent delivering his report. “There were four Kiri shinobi already established at the target property when Katsuko and I arrived. A-rank jounin, I’d estimate. They used genjutsu to conceal their presence.”

His mouth flattened out, harsh. “We knew to expect enemies, but we still walked into an ambush.”

Kurenai started a new page. “Walk me through the events as you experienced them, Namiashi-taichou.”

His voice grew hoarse as he spoke: arriving at the estate, eliminating guards, dealing non-lethally with the civilian staff, separating from Katsuko to approach their separate targets. The genjutsu, the ambush, the chaos that followed. Kurenai asked a few clarifying questions, prompted once or twice when Namiashi fell silent for too long, but he was an experienced veteran; he knew the structure of a report, the details that mattered and those that didn’t. His dark eyes stayed steady, only flicking up or sideways occasionally as he searched for words or for memory. The fire, killing the baby boy, fighting the Kiri ninja Aoisuke, the last genjutsu…

Then, finally, his gaze dropped to his hands. “I thought Katsuko died. And I kind of…broke the port.”

Kurenai kept her voice even: no opinion, no judgment. “What did you do, Namiashi-taichou?”

“Lost my mind a little?” He wasn’t joking, this time. The faint lines around his mouth etched themselves deeper as his lips thinned. His brows pulled down, harsh with worry. “Genjutsu’s my worst skill. Even when Katsuko got me out of it, I wasn’t… balanced. I don’t know if that’s because the effect lingered, or because it just messed me up, but when I saw the enemy escaping with the targets, it still felt like he’d killed her, and I just…” His mouth contorted, shaping unvoiced words. “Went after him as hard as I could.”

He paused, one bandaged thumb rubbing against the inside of his knee. Kurenai waited.

Slowly, Namiashi said, “They went down to the docks—looked like they were trying to get to a ship.” He swallowed hard. “So I destroyed the ships. And some of the waterfront. And the shinobi.”

His left hand shifted from its death-grip on his knee to rub over the bandaged knuckles of his right hand. The thin line of his lips had compressed enough that he seemed halfway to chewing on them; it was an oddly young gesture, and for the first time it made him look his real age. Not yet twenty-four, according to his personnel file. Barely four years older than Kurenai.

He said, staring down at his white-wrapped hands, “At least, that’s the rough strokes. I don’t remember the actual details. I didn’t get the targets; Katsuko had to take them down, and punch me back to my senses. That’s when I got the cracked ribs.”

Kurenai let her breath out very slowly. No judgment. No opinion. She was there to listen and learn, to gather facts and report them for analysis and action. Rule 25 was as vital in a briefing room as in the field, and just as many lives hung on it.

“Were there any survivors on the Kiri team? Or civilian casualties, beyond the targets and their guards?”

“No Kiri survivors,” Namiashi said, with a swift decisiveness that spoke of certainty. But he hesitated over her second question, rubbing his left thumb over the knuckles of his right hand again. “I don’t know about civilians. The ships went down fast. If there was anyone aboard, they didn’t make it off.” He set his thumb between the knuckles of his first and second finger and pressed down hard. Pain tightened the corners of his eyes, but he didn’t actually seem to notice. “There was a woman in the nursery, too. I don’t know if she made it out.”

She was pressing too hard with the pen, Kurenai noticed. She eased off. “Can you give me more precise details on the damage you caused at the harbor?”

His eyes lifted from his hands, finally: not to meet hers, but to track up towards the ceiling. They flickered with memory as he tallied. “Drowned four ships. Broke maybe three or four piers. I’m water-natured and it was storming, so the sea helped. Cracked a good chunk of the wharf, I think.”

His hands clenched together. His gaze finally met hers, dark with frustration. “I don’t remember as much as I should, I’m sorry. Katsuko smacked me into a building; I know that took damage. The estate probably burned down entirely. We left Konoha’s mark on the waterfront, by Masaaki’s body. And— that’s all I can think of. There was a crowd gathered, and we were both injured. We left.”

Some back part of Kurenai’s brain was trying to calculate how many millions of ryou in damages they’d caused. She shut it down. No judgment.

“Have you experienced previous…episodes, like this? Memory loss, rage?”

Raidou was silent for a long time. Then he said, very quietly, “In the war, I had blackouts sometimes. But that was the war. Everyone I knew was dying.”

No opinion. Don’t engage.

But— I’m Yuuhi, it would be so easy to say. We know genjutsu better than anyone. It’s meant to unbalance your mind. And if you were already in a precarious mental state, and thought you saw her die—

She wasn’t here as a counselor, or as a friend. She bit her tongue.

“I didn’t have any in the bunker, afterwards,” Namiashi said, more urgently. “Or on the way home. I don’t know if that helps, but—”

He cut himself short. Breathed, a quick exhale and a slower inhale, and then straightened his back. “I mean, did you have any more questions?”

She did.

He answered steadily, volunteering additional details when he thought of them, jumping back sometimes to add context to an earlier answer. No, he hadn’t experienced any flashbacks. He didn’t remember if he’d had nightmares. He didn’t have a headache, though he had sustained a concussion during the fighting that he’d forgotten to mention. That was after the genjutsu, though, when Katsuko punched him into that building. Or possibly before, when an exploding tag threw him through a wall…

When his voice grew painfully hoarse, she stepped outside to ask a passing nurse for a glass of water. She waited in the hall, pressing her fingers together to watch the blood flee from beneath her nails. It was an old habit, a bad one; she should really be wearing nail polish to keep herself from falling back on it.

The nurse returned with a plastic water cup, condensation frosting on the sides. Kurenai slid the door open again, stepped through, pulled it shut behind her. The file and notepad she’d left on her stool hadn’t been disturbed. Raidou was still sitting on the side of the bed where she’d left him, pulling at a loose thread in the bandages wrapped over his wrist.

He took the cup of water, cradling it between his hand, and didn’t drink. “Am I going to lose my team?”

Kurenai flinched.

His eyes tracked the movement, for once, and his mouth twisted. The plastic dented under his hands.

Screw professionalism.

She said, “It’s possible, especially if your commanding officers were already looking for reasons to be rid of you. Unlikely, though, I think. The blackout is concerning, but you’re hardly the only shinobi to be badly affected by genjutsu. HQ might order extra training for that, likely medical evaluation, but not disciplinary action.”

She paused. She’d gone this far already…

“Your actions while in a berserker state may be another matter. The damage to the port, and the fact that your subordinate had to attack you to return you to your rational mind…” Damning evidence, surely. She scrambled to think of rebuttals. “On the other hand, you were able to stabilize yourself enough to complete the mission and bring your team back home. That counts for a great deal, in a captain.”

His team members’ reports would count for even more. She wondered if Shiranui was out of recovery yet, if Kakashi was conscious. And where was Katsuko?

Namiashi’s clenched expression lightened a little, as if he’d seen a spark of hope in the distance. He drained half the water, set the cup down, and said formally, “Thank you, Yuuhi-san.” He rubbed his palms over his knees. “What happens now?”

She checked her watch. Nearly two hours had passed. Shiranui ought to be lucid by now, and her time was fleeting.

“We both have paperwork.” She fished the forms for a captain’s mission report out of her file and passed them over, along with a pen. “I send my initial report back to Intel HQ and move on to Shiranui-fukuchou. My team lead will analyze my reports, collate any additional information, and send a copy of the full report to ANBU HQ, along with his recommendations. You’re familiar with the process.”

His mouth tilted, shadowed wry. “Still learning it from the captain’s side, but yes.” He set the paperwork aside on the bed and stood to bow, deeper than their respective statuses warranted. “Thank you for your time, Yuuhi-san,” he said, straightening. “And for— well, everything.” He looked down at her, dark-eyed, worn and weary. “Go easy on the lieutenant for me? He’s had a rough week.”

Shiranui wasn’t the only one, Kurenai thought.

She said quietly, “I can’t afford to be kind, but I won’t be harsh.”

“With us, it comes out about the same.” Gratitude tinged his voice, though, and softened a little of the exhaustion in his eyes. “I hope they let you sleep after this,” he added. “You look almost as exhausted as I feel.”

Kurenai could be just unprofessional enough to wrinkle her nose at him. “Look after yourself, Captain,” she said. “You’ve got a few hours before my full report makes it to someone’s desk at ANBU. Get some rest.”

You’ll need it went unsaid.

He ducked his head again. She broke her area-effect genjutsu and let herself out.

She stole twenty minutes in the cafeteria with a mug of very strong tea and a plate of chocolate biscuits, transcribing her shorthand notes and filling out her report. She kept the details down to the bare essentials: the successful completion of the mission objective, the injuries, the eliminated Kiri combatants, the estimated damages. She did not soften her summary of Namiashi’s blackout and berserker rage, but she did add all the details of the genjutsu that he’d been able to recall for her, emphasizing the effects of outside influence on his compromised emotional state.

Iebara’s death and the Kiri captain’s capture should not, strictly speaking, be laid to Namiashi’s credit, but she mentioned them in a footnote anyway, for completeness’ sake.

When the initial report was complete, she folded and sealed it with a bloody thumbprint and a complex chakra twist, ensuring that it would open only to Shirotani Haruto’s hand. She finished her tea, pocketed the rest of the chocolate biscuits, and found a hospital runner to deliver the report.

Then she went upstairs again, to find Shiranui Genma.

This time the receptionist directed her to a private room on the north side of the hall. There was a glass panel set into the sliding door, offering a view of a thin young man sitting up in bed, pillows propping his injured leg up into a small mountain under the sheet. He was looking out the window beside his bed, watching dusk fall over Konoha. An IV stand near the bed held one plump bag of clear fluid and a slimmer unit of blood.

Kurenai rapped her knuckles on the door and slid it open. Shiranui’s head turned. He looked puzzled for a moment; then his eyes widened, and he beckoned her in. “Hi. Here to debrief me?”

She closed the door and took a seat in the room’s only chair. “I’m Yuuhi Kurenai, from the Fire Country Division. I’ve already spoken to your captain.” She watched his face, narrowly. He’d led the strike team to Ibaragashi City; how much did he know of what had happened at Tsurugahama Port?

The pale brown eyes narrowed slightly with concern. “How’s he doing? I haven’t been awake that long, and no one’s told me anything about my team.”

“He was having a cracked rib healed, when I came in. Torn knuckles already treated.” Kurenai tapped her pen against her lips and decided to add, “I left him in a room with a bed, but I couldn’t tell you whether he’ll use it.”

Dismay flickered in his gaze. “Because he won’t stay in it, or because the higher ups won’t let him use it? Was he getting any IV treatment?”

He knew there was reason to worry, then.

Kurenai uncapped her pen. “He didn’t have an IV, but he was given a vial of oral antibiotics.” She opened her notepad, hesitated, and then laid it down again on her lap.

“He’s concerned about his performance on the mission. I know you didn’t witness the events at Tsurugahama Port, Shiranui-fukuchou, but I’ll ask you to remember your interactions with him afterward. And before, both in and out of the field. This debriefing will be short—I know you’re still recovering—but you may be called upon to give further testimony later, in addition to your mission report.”

Shiranui’s mouth set, almost grim. He took a careful breath, searching her face, and then nodded. “Namiashi-taichou is an excellent captain. He has my full confidence.” He met her gaze, clear-eyed and serious. “What would you like to know?”

Kurenai crossed her legs and braced her notepad against her knee. “Let’s start with your own mission, Shiranui-fukuchou. Take me back to Kaede Ridge.”

His story took longer than Namiashi’s had, and wound less linearly through events. He remembered more details, dove off on tangents to track them down, but found his way back to the main thread of his narrative with only a little prompting. Kurenai filled pages with notes in her cramped shorthand.

They took a brief break when a nurse stopped by with Shiranui’s dinner on a tray. Kurenai requested and received another cup of tea. When Shiranui had eaten and the tray was cleared away, Kurenai re-engaged her silencing genjutsu and prompted him back to his report again.

Finally they came to the moment in the rainy clearing below Arechi Hill Safehouse. Shiranui paused to sip at a cup of water: putting off the inevitable, Kurenai thought. She couldn’t blame him.

She couldn’t coddle him, either.

“What was your initial impression of Namiashi-taichou, when you met at the safehouse?”

“He was appropriately focused on immediate crisis management,” Shiranui responded promptly. “We had three moderately or seriously wounded, including the prisoner. He directed the team effectively and calmly, focusing on securing the prisoner, triaging the wounded, and establishing a safe temporary base of operations.”

He hesitated, taking another sip of water, shifting the pillows under his leg. Kurenai waited.

At last Shiranui said, more quietly, “He and Ueno were both worried. We’d missed the rendezvous time target, though we weren’t past the hour mark. They came to look for us before we were officially late.”

After their experience in Tsurugahama Port, Kurenai wasn’t surprised they’d worried. She noted it down all the same, along with a brief editorial comment: Traumatic genjutsu memory? Something for future interviewers to pursue.

“Did you observe his conduct towards the prisoner?”

Shiranui thought for a moment. “He was—” He searched for a word, and finally settled on, “professional. He asked me about her, checked her dogtags, made sure she wasn’t medically unstable, and secured her in a cell until the team could be taken care of. He wasn’t expecting us to turn up with a prisoner—I made the call to capture rather than kill in the field.” His mouth twisted a little in wry chagrin. “It’s a lucky thing there were cells at the safehouse. We didn’t have working comms, so I couldn’t radio ahead. I should have given that consideration.”

One slip of foresight wasn’t likely to smudge his commendation for securing the prisoner in the first place. Kurenai didn’t say that.

“Have you, at any time, observed Namiashi-taichou operating under severe emotional distress?”

Shiranui’s brows lifted. “Other than the severe distress of an A-rank mission, an S-rank mission, and the traitor at the ANBU Trials, you mean?”

Kurenai regarded him levelly. “I haven’t been fully briefed on your team’s history, Shiranui-fukuchou. Please, enlighten me.”

New lines of tension carved between his brows and bracketed his mouth. “I would have thought you had our recent mission records. We’re a new team.” There was a flicker of fear, almost hidden, in his eyes. “Yuuhi-san, I may have spoken when I should not. What do you know about the ANBU Trials?”

She hadn’t worked that investigation; she hadn’t even been in Konoha when the Trials took place. She kept her face perfectly still. “Shiranui-fukuchou, I’m here to obtain information, not disclose it. What were your observations of Namiashi-taichou’s conduct at times of severe emotional strain?”

Shiranui’s hands clenched on each other in his lap. His voice was tight, almost brittle. “He’s extremely focused under battle conditions, keeps his priorities straight, and acts swiftly and decisively. There were a few things after our first mission that in hindsight we agreed we might have handled different—both Taichou and myself—but you can’t second-guess every decision on a mission.”

He paused. She could hear his teeth grinding.

“If you want me to tell you he’s unstable, I won’t do it. I know what happened in Tsurugahama, he told me. Genjutsu can impair anyone’s judgment. Do I think he went overboard? I do.” He flung his head up, eyes glittering. “But we completed the mission and returned with every team member alive.”

“That’s a compelling display of loyalty, for a team not yet a month old,” Kurenai said softly.

He blinked at her, and a little of the anger bled out of him, leaving wariness behind. “He’s not perfect. But he’s a good captain. He’s earned my loyalty.”

Kurenai watched him for a moment, and then turned the page. “Why, then, do you think he shattered so badly at Tsurugahama?”

His eyes flickered over her shoulder.

She turned.

There was another young man standing outside the sliding door, head-and-shoulders visible through the clear glass pane, dark eyes and a striking face under ruffled dark hair. Tousaki Ryouma, the rookie Riei had been assigned to debrief. He was shadow-eyed, tanned skin drawn tight over elegant bones, a little white around the lips.

He’d looked better in his personnel picture, Kurenai decided, and rose to draw the curtain over the window.

She regained her seat, and her notes. “Shiranui-fukuchou?”

“That was my rookie.” He looked faintly ill. “One of my rookies. Look, I’m willing to keep going, but can you at least tell me if my team are ok?”

“I don’t have any information on Hatake. Tousaki you saw. The most I know of Ueno is that she’s not being admitted.” And his recalcitrance was keeping Kurenai from wrapping this up and going to find her. She tapped her pen on the page. “Please answer the question. Why do you think his reaction at Tsurugahama was different?”

He sighed, and rubbed a hand over his bruised and beard-scruffed face. “Namiashi-taichou’s not good with genjutsu. He told me the first day we met: he’s not good at recognizing them and he’s not good at breaking them.”

Namiashi had admitted as much in his own report. Kurenai made another note: N. aware of own limitations, communicated to S.

“And there’s another thing,” Shiranui continued, more falteringly. “Ueno.”

Kurenai’s head came up.

“He’s— He was her lieutenant last year. They’re close.” Shiranui made a swift cutting-off gesture. “Not anything that would cross a line, but he’s protective of her. She’s…” He hesitated again, picking through his words. “She was injured during our first mission, and again on this one. If he was already off-kilter from getting caught in a genjutsu, and then he saw her take a bad hit, thought she was seriously threatened…” He trailed off.

That wasn’t, quite, the story Namiashi had told. So either he hadn’t filled his lieutenant in on those details, or he’d lied, to one or both of them.

Kurenai could understand, even excuse, omitting details as he briefed his lieutenant—or even lying, in some futile hope to maintain his image in the eyes of a man who clearly admired him. Lying to Intel was another matter entirely.

But he’d struck her as the kind of man who told the truth even when it was painful. Perhaps more readily when it was him it hurt. She didn’t like to think she’d misjudged him, and she didn’t think she had.

She needed to talk to Katsuko.

And she needed to get the details straight with Shiranui, first.

“Did Namiashi-taichou tell you that the reason he lost his head at Tsurugahama was because he saw Katsuko take a hit?”

Shiranui shook his head. “No, that’s just my conjecture.”

Kurenai relaxed a little.

“He told me he saw Ueno take the hit that broke her collarbone after he’d taken two separate genjutsu hits himself,” Shiranui continued. “He’s not good with genjutsu, so two in a row probably set him up to be a little—” He groped for a word. “Volatile.”

He was trying hard to paint his captain in the best possible light, but so far his statement tracked with Namiashi’s far more critical version of events. A loyal lieutenant, but an honest one.

She was beginning to approve of ANBU Team Six.

“Just a few more questions then, Shiranui-fukuchou, and I’ll let you rest. Ueno was the only eyewitness to Namiashi-taichou’s conduct in Tsurugahama. Did she express any concerns to you, or display any difference in her conduct towards the captain?”

His gaze drifted in recollection. “She was anxious. Wanted to stay in physical contact, but not just with the captain. I attributed it to the overall stress of the mission itself—it was an ugly one—and her worry over the obvious and severe injuries her teammates suffered.” He paused. “She implied there was something about their side of the mission I ought to ask the captain about, but other than that, no. And I did ask Namiashi-taichou, which is how I know as much as I’ve told you already.”

Kurenai tapped her pen against the page. Corroborate with Ueno, she wrote, and underlined it. She was starting to wish she hadn’t sent the first report already, no matter how urgently Shirotani wanted it; the full picture of the disaster at Tsurugahama wasn’t yet complete. She hoped he’d have the sense to wait until he received the rest of her reports before he relayed anything to ANBU.

She needed to move quickly.

“Is there anything else I should know, Shiranui-fukuchou?”

Shiranui’s lips thinned in thought. “Ueno told me Taichou took a head injury,” he offered. “From impact with a building. I guess she saw it happen, but I didn’t get the details. When I checked him over, I found signs of and treated a mild concussion, but not skull fracture.”

Namiashi had already reported the concussion, along with the details of who, exactly, had punched him into that building. Something else to corroborate with Katsuko. Kurenai checked her watch. Nearly 2030 hours.

Her first report had laid on Shirotani’s desk for almost an hour and a half.

Surely he’d wait until he received the rest. He’d been a team lead for three years already. He’d know that no information was ripe for action unless it had been corroborated by at least one other witness…

But Namiashi had condemned himself out of his own mouth.

Kurenai flipped her notebook closed. “Thank you for your time, Shiranui-fukuchou,” she said formally. “If you think of anything else I should know, please send a message. We’ll be sending another agent to debrief you more fully in the coming days. I wish you good fortune, and a swift recovery.”

Shiranui sat up a little straighter, and tapped out a salute on his sleeved shoulder. “Yuuhi-san. Thank you for being so thorough.” He glanced past her to the door. “If you’re debriefing the rest of my team— Can you let them know they can come to me here? I don’t care how late it is.”

His doctors undoubtedly would, but Kurenai said, “If I see them, I’ll let them know, Shiranui-san.” They exchanged nods, and she cut her genjutsu and let herself out.

At the reception desk, she paused to retrieve her flowers and write a brief note requesting Shirotani to delay processing of her first report. She sent the note by a hospital runner.

Then, standing in the quiet lobby of the second-floor trauma ward, she opened her tightly contained chakra and looked for a blazing furnace.

Katsuko’s signature was easy to spot. Kurenai tracked her up another flight of stairs and across a wing to the lobby for the intensive chakra injuries ward, where Katsuko stood in overlarge, apricot-orange scrubs and a shoulder-sling in front of the elevator bank, leaning against the muscled shoulder of the exhausted young man Kurenai had seen outside Shiranui’s door. Her eyes were closed. Both of them looked dead on their feet.

If Kurenai didn’t do this now, it would be too late.

She said softly, “Katsuko-chan.”

Katsuko’s eyes jolted open. She looked bewildered for a moment, and then, as she turned, her thin, pointed face suffused with delight. “Kurenai-chan!” She clocked Kurenai’s notepad and tailored Intel grey and belatedly straightened, pushing off Tousaki’s shoulder. “I mean, Kurenai-san.”

Tousaki’s exhaustion-bruised eyes narrowed. “You’re the agent who was with the lieutenant.”

“He said he’s ready to see you tomorrow morning, after you sleep,” Kurenai said, lying without qualm. “But I’m afraid I need to speak to you first, Ueno-san. It won’t take long.”

Tousaki looked as if he still hadn’t forgiven her for the drawn curtain. “Want me to wait?” he asked Katsuko.

She gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. “It’s all right, Tousaki. Go back to barracks and get some beauty sleep. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”

The elevator chimed, and the doors slid open. Tousaki was clearly reluctant to go, but just as clearly barely able to hold himself upright. “Don’t forget,” he told Katsuko, in some kind of last-ditch effort. “We’ll go drinking. You promised.”

All of Katsuko’s sharp edges softened when she smiled up at him. “How could I forget? You’re buying the first round.” She shoved him gently into the elevator, and flapped a hand at him. “Now shoo, rookie.”

The elevator doors closed. Katsuko turned, her smile still lingering. “Even if it’s for a mission debriefing, it’s still great to see you again, Kurenai-chan.”

“It won’t be much of a debriefing,” Kurenai said, stepping closer to pull her into an one-armed hug. “I’m on a deadline.”

Clipboard and flowers and Katsuko’s sling-bound arm made an awkward barrier between them, but Katsuko made a tired little sound and put her head down on Kurenai’s shoulder. Her hair smelled of someone else’s cheap shampoo—from the dispensers in the hospital showers, Kurenai guessed, or else a gift from whichever kind nurse had lent her the scrubs.

“Sometimes I think about quitting and running away to join the circus,” Katsuko mumbled.

“I’d come watch your first performance,” Kurenai said. She smoothed her free hand over Katsuko’s untidy hair. It was still damp at the roots, coarse where it had dried; she hadn’t used conditioner. “Flying trapeze, or fire-breathing?”

“Both,” Katsuko said, with a little surge of her old energy. “My stage name would be the Flaming Comet.”

Kurenai laughed, tugged at her hair, and released her. “I’m glad to see you on your feet, Katsuko-chan. How long will you be in the sling?”

Katsuko straightened up, rubbing her face. “Two to three weeks, they said. Even with chakra-healing.”

She looked as if she could sleep for half of that time. Kurenai steeled her heart. “I hope I get to see you, for some of that downtime. I won’t keep you long now. I just have these flowers for you, and a few questions to ask…”

Katsuko took a deep breath and dragged professionalism on like armor. “Of course. Lead the way.”

They found a small, unoccupied conference room off the lobby. Kurenai tucked the bouquet into Katsuko’s sling and guided her to the better chair, which had a higher back and supportive arm-rests. Katsuko sat stiff-backed, as if she did not dare let herself relax into comfort.

Anger flickered at the back of Kurenai’s mind. Katsuko should be in bed, resting, healing. So should Shiranui and Namiashi have been, not badgered for details of all their mistakes until their throats were raw with talking. The damage they’d done was days old, now; what difference would twelve hours’ delay in reporting make?

Rule 25, agent.

She wasn’t here as Katsuko’s friend. She was a representative of Konoha’s Intelligence service, and neither her anger nor her opinion mattered.

“I’ve spoken to Namiashi-taichou and Shiranui-fukuchou about your mission,” she said, engaging her silencing genjutsu for the third time that evening. She settled on the edge of her own chair and rested her notebook on her crossed knees. “We’ll get your detailed report later. For now, I need to know what you observed of Namiashi-taichou’s conduct in Tsurugahama. Did you witness his berserker episode?”

“Yes,” Katsuko said. Her voice flattened.

Kurenai said steadily, “Tell me what you saw.”

“When I found Taichou, he was already under a genjutsu from one of the Kiri nin.” The rigid cadences of reporting armored Katsuko’s voice. Her gaze fixed on a point a thousand yards beyond Kurenai’s left shoulder. “He was standing right underneath a burning ceiling beam. It fell.” She tapped her sling with her good hand, without looking at it. “I got this break from pushing him out of the way. Managed to dispel the genjutsu, though.”

“Do you know what the genjutsu was?” Namiashi hadn’t told his lieutenant, but she knew he was close to Katsuko. Would that mean that he’d try to shield her, or confess?

Katsuko might as well have been wearing her painted mask, for all the expression she showed. “He saw me die.”

So he had told her. Kurenai let out a slow breath. “Tell me about his behavior after you broke the genjutsu.”

“Taichou helped me outside and told me to stay put while he went after the genjutsu user.” There was a flicker of something, then, in her eyes. Her good hand curled in her lap. “I didn’t.” Her lips tightened. “I followed him down to the docks and saw him engage in combat with the genjutsu user. I took the opportunity to eliminate the Tsuto family on the wharf.”

Even Namiashi had provided more details than this.

Kurenai leaned forward and touched Katsuko’s knee. “Katsuko-chan,” she said quietly, and waited for the hazel eyes to refocus, for Katsuko to finally look up at her. “Your captain told me that he lost his head. That he had memory loss, that he was unbalanced, that you had to punch him back to his senses. That, during the course of this episode, he caused extensive damage to a Fire Country trading port. Trying to cover that up won’t help him. I need to know what you saw.”

The brittle emptiness in Katsuko’s face cracked. She closed her eyes. “He’s my captain, Kurenai-chan,” she said, like every word hurt.

What could she possibly say to that? He’s your captain, but if this goes badly, he may not be for much longer? She didn’t need Katsuko’s useless efforts to disguise what Namiashi had already confessed. She didn’t want to see Katsuko’s heart torn between loyalty to her village and her captain.

She needed the truth, and she wanted it to save both of them.

“Do you still trust him?”

Katsuko’s eyes opened. She met Kurenai’s gaze. “With my life, and the lives of my teammates.”

“That’s what HQ needs to hear.” Kurenai set her pen to paper again. “Tell me why.”

“He tells the truth, even when he suffers for it.” Katsuko’s eyes lost their focus for a moment, remembering. She drew a deep, shuddering breath, and let it out. “The team and Konoha will always come first for him. Some people join ANBU for the glory, or just because they think killing’s fun. They’d do anything to keep their positions. Taichou’s not like that.”

He’d told Kurenai the truth about his blackout rage, even knowing it might lose him his team.

She set her pen down. “You trust him because he didn’t hide it. And…” She studied Katsuko’s face. Clear eyes, level gaze, chin set with determination, fist curled but not clenched.

“You trust that he’ll fix this, and come back to you.”

“I do.” Katsuko’s voice was calmer now, steadier.

She’d served under him for more than a year, now. Fighting with him and beside him, eating and sleeping near him, interacting with him every day and on every mission. Surely that experience ought to weight her judgment.

Maybe her trust would be the scales-tip Raidou needed.

Kurenai flipped her notebook closed, and tucked her pen into its spiral binding. “Thank you, Katsuko-chan,” she said quietly. “That’s what I needed to know.”

Katsuko slumped into her chair and tipped her head back to vent a relieved sigh up at the ceiling. “Kurenai-chan… I love you, but you’re scary when you start in on Intel head-games.”

“I’m sorry.” Kurenai pressed her thumb against the side of her index finger and watched the blood recede from beneath the nail. She stopped herself before she could move down to the next finger. “Next time, I’ll take you to dinner. No head-games, I promise.”

Katsuko’s head tipped back down. She smiled, crookedly. “Hey, I’m not mad at you for being good at your job. I’m not even gonna make you pay for dinner.” She considered. “Maybe just dessert.”

“Dessert and drinks.” Kurenai gathered up her notebook and clipboard, stood, and bent over Katsuko to press a kiss to her cheek. “It’s a date. Don’t stand me up.”

She straightened, and asked in sudden suspicion, “Can you stand up?”

“Uh,” Katsuko said, and pasted on a reassuring smile. “Sure. In a minute. I just need to rest my legs.”

“Sure,” Kurenai echoed. She cancelled the genjutsu, slid open the door. “Take all the time you need. I’ll get one of those strapping young nurses to lend you an arm, when you’re ready.” She looked back, smiling. “You like the dark-haired ones, now?”

Katsuko strangled on laughter and flapped her hand at Kurenai. “Don’t you have a job, woman? Go write your report.” The faintest of blushes pinked across her sharp, high cheekbones.

Kurenai laughed, and left her.

Outside in the lobby the receptionists were changing shifts. Kurenai delivered her request, phrased as a polite command, for one of the hospital orderlies to assist Katsuko when she was ready to return home. She’d have liked to wait, to see Katsuko make it out safely, but her watch ticked relentlessly onward. If Shirotani hadn’t read that first report yet, he’d be getting to it soon…

She should head back to Intel HQ, to write her report and deliver her verbal briefing, to recommend a course of action. She headed down one flight of stairs and across to the east wing, instead. Half-formed sentences swarmed through her head. Sorry to disturb. I hope you managed to get some sleep.

I just wanted to let you know, Namiashi-taichou, that your team believes in you…

The room was empty.

She checked the number on the plaque outside the door. No mistake.

Something cold gnawed at her spine. She spun on her heel and went back to the receptionist’s desk. “What happened to Namiashi Raidou?”

The plump middle-aged receptionist looked up at her, blinking. “Who, dear?”

Kurenai repeated his name, growing colder. The woman paged through records. “Oh—oh, yes. Room 216, torn knuckles and cracked rib.” She looked up again, kind-eyed through spectacles. “He’s gone. A messenger came an hour ago, from ANBU HQ.”

Shit,” Kurenai said, and sprinted for the stairs.

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