Evening of May 11, Yondaime Year 5
It was dusk fading into night when Raidou and his Intel escort finished the long, weary trudge up to the peak of the Hokage’s Monument. The first glitter of cold stars laced a bruised sky, and the air had a sharp bite after an unseasonably warm day. ANBU’s HQ crouched low and threatening behind the stony spikes of Sandaime’s hair, like a waiting predator.
Raidou attempted to divert his thoughts by wondering, not for the first time, whose bright idea it had been to carve giant heads into the mountainside of a secret village. And what Konoha would do when they ran out of room.
Raise a new mountain, probably.
“You should have enough time to clean up before they want you,” said his escort, with a significant look at Raidou’s travel-stained uniform.
If they planned to throw him out, it didn’t make a damn bit of difference what he was wearing.
Take it as a positive, then, he decided. If they cared enough to have him show up presentable, maybe they intended to keep him.
He nodded shortly, and diverted to Team Six’s office. The little bathroom’s sink offered enough water for a quick, rough scrub, stripping two day’s worth of dust from his hair and dirt from his skin. He was careful of the new bandages lapping his knuckles, exercising enough caution to keep them dry. Or at least only damp. A towel and a toothbrush made him feel almost human, just for a moment.
There was a clean uniform in his locker. He skinned into it and clipped the old mask to his belt. Its face was still smoke-stained from the fire at Tsuto Masaaki’s estate, and scratched by shrapnel. He rubbed his thumb over the scarlet cut of the crescent moon. The masks weren’t supposed to be them; the designs were random, occasionally sly little jokes, but they weren’t a second identity. You weren’t supposed to see yourself in their fierce, hollow faces.
Tonight, looking down at the blank, scarred ceramic with its bleeding streak, Raidou thought, You and me both, buddy.
He bundled the old, stinking uniform into his locker, a problem to be dealt with later, and paused just before he shut the door. On the locker’s single shelf, two steel rings gleamed, one slightly smaller than the other.
He always took them off for ANBU’s uniform; they were awkward with the gloves, and an identifying marker he avoided. Now he wanted their familiar weight back, metal warming against his skin. The bandages made it impossible.
Behind him, the Intel escort coughed impatiently.
Quickly, Raidou unslung his dogtags and threaded the rings onto the chain, fumbling a little with the catch. The bundle of rings and tags tucked neatly enough down his shirt, and his chestplate hid the faint ridge.
Now he felt armored. He straightened his back and followed the escort out.
They took a winding path through HQ’s twisting hallways, past doors that followed no rational numbering sequence, until the escort stopped at one. He rapped his knuckles lightly against the grey-painted wood, and received a curt command to enter.
“Go ahead,” the escort said, stepping back.
Raidou’s mouth was too dry for speech. He nodded instead and stepped forward, watching his own hand reach out to turn the handle. The door swung aside, and more grey carpet stretched out on the other side, lining a room that was only a little bigger than Team Six’s office. It was windowless, featureless, and almost empty.
One large table occupied the space in front of the far wall, piled with half a dozen files. Seated behind it, in the room’s only chairs, were three people. Sagara-sama, ANBU’s commander, held the center, looking grim, grey-haired, and tired. At her right sat a bespectacled, bureaucratic-looking man Raidou didn’t recognize, dressed in Intel’s conservative uniform. On her left, a sleek, stony-faced woman wore the cool steel colors of T&I.
“Namiashi,” Sagara said. “Come in. Close the door behind you.”
Raidou jerked to obey. He was halfway across the floor before he remembered to stop and salute, slapping his right hand against his ANBU tattoo. Sagara returned the gesture with practiced fluidity. The Intel man simply inclined his head, adjusting his slipping glasses with one finger. The T&I woman did nothing.
“I realize you’re exhausted,” Sagara said, clear and straightforward. “We’ll keep this short. This is Shirotani Haruto, an Intel team leader.” She indicated the man. “You spoke to his subordinate earlier. And this is Matsumoto Fumio.” The T&I woman had pale green eyes, like wintery glass. “She’s been assisting with the Kirigakure captain you captured.”
Distantly, Raidou wondered how many limbs Fukuda had left now.
“Sir,” he managed. “Ma’am.”
“I’ll get right to the point,” Sagara said. “Your mission was a success only by the technical fact that you succeeded in eliminating your targets. In all other respects, the events at Tsurugahama Port were a disaster. Shirotani, what is the initial estimate of the damage?”
Shirotani slid a piece of paper out from a file. “Four foundered merchant ships, fully loaded with cargo. Considerable property destruction. Eight slain sailors, at last count, whose families are demanding blood money. Significant loss of trade. Merchants are avoiding the port; the Taira family are claiming this was an open attack on shipping lines to affect the price of silk.” He steepled his fingers together. “At this point, the political implications cannot be quantified. To put a price tag on everything— Hundreds of thousands. Potentially millions.”
Another piece of paper was removed from a folder. Raidou wasn’t sure he could breathe.
“Twenty million ryou taken from Tsuto Takayoshi’s vault, along with information that is yet to be assessed, but seems valuable,” Shirotani said. “Iebara Shigematsu’s death and captured jutsu, assuming Hatake is able to reproduce the results once he recovers. Seven other slain Kirigakure shinobi, two directly at Namiashi-san’s hands. Fukuda-san’s capture and successful transport to Konoha — though, granted, she suffered some damage in the process. Successful elimination of all targets, as you said. And the survival of Team Six.”
The lines around Sagara’s mouth deepened, and the scar that twisted from the corner of her lip to the edge of her ear flexed slightly, like a flesh-colored vine. Raidou thought again of Team Twelve. How many other dogtags had been laid at Sagara’s feet?
How much of Team Six’s survival could even be attributed to Raidou, and not just won in spite of him? Kurenai’s words bubbled up. The fact that your subordinate had to attack you to return you to your rational mind…
He bit the inside of his cheek, hard.
Sagara inclined her head to the side. “Matsumoto, how much value is there in Fukuda’s capture?”
“It’s too early to say for sure,” Matsumoto said, voice as cold as a glacier stream. “But I would suggest that she provides us a significant advantage. Iebara’s death will be a blow to Kirigakure, and Fukuda is leverage on top of that. We haven’t had direct evidence of Kirigakure moving against us in years, but they can’t hide this.”
“Shiranui Genma captured her,” a voice said. Raidou realized it was his own, rasping dry. “With Tousaki Ryouma’s assistance.”
Sagara gave him a level look. “I am aware.”
Raidou felt himself heat all over, prickles stinging his skin beneath his uniform. Only his face and hands felt cold. He gave a stiff bow of apology, and dropped his eyes to the floor.
“It seems, Namiashi, that your team has returned a collection of triumph and tragedy, and most of the tragedy can be hung directly around your neck.” Sagara tapped her fingers once on the tabletop, and sighed quietly. “I had higher hopes for you, Captain.”
The weight of her disappointment was crushing.
He didn’t have words; he didn’t think she even wanted them. What could he say in the face of eight unnecessary deaths, millions of ryou in damages? He wouldn’t make that much in his entire lifespan, and none of it would pay for those sailors. He could never apologize to their families; officially, he didn’t exist.
He locked his hands together behind his back, knuckles clenched until fresh scabs split, and waited for the axe to drop.
“That said, I recognize the presence of extenuating circumstances,” Sagara said. “We don’t have all the information, and there are significant gaps I want to address before determining a judgment. You will be suspended, Namiashi, indefinitely and without pay while we investigate further. Do you have anything you wish to say?”
For a moment, he wasn’t convinced she hadn’t said executed.
He raised his head, worked his mouth, and found two words. “My team.”
There was no softness in Sagara’s dark eyes, but there might have been an edge of understanding. “They will remain together, for the time being, under Lieutenant Shiranui’s care. My understanding is that three of them are significantly injured, including the lieutenant. For now, they can focus on healing and cooperating with Intel. We will determine permanent measures later.”
“Am I allowed to see them?”
“Absolutely not,” Shirotani said sharply. “Your story will color theirs, and we need the unvarnished truth.”
Raidou’s mouth tasted like ash. “Understood,” he rasped.
Sagara regarded him for a long moment. “I’ll permit one meeting with the lieutenant,” she said. “Briefly, under supervision. You may explain matters. Nothing more.”
If he bowed, he would stumble. Raidou kept his rigid balance and managed a grateful nod.
“You will be meeting with T&I this week,” Sagara continued. “The blackouts mentioned in Yuuhi’s report are a significant concern, and they need to be looked at. Matsumoto will be your liaison. Today is—” She paused.
“Wednesday,” Shirotani said, almost inaudibly.
“She will be in touch by Friday,” Sagara said. “In the meantime, go home and rest. I intend to have this matter wrapped up as swiftly as possible, but nothing can happen until you — and I — can see straight.”
Raidou’s mind was still caught in a red-hot tumble of horror that said: T&I, T&I, oh god, T&I. He didn’t know what expression had surfaced on his face, but it was ghastly enough to warrant a faint look of alarm from Shirotani.
Matsumoto said, quiet and clear, “Please, do not trouble your mind. You will not be harmed, Namiashi-san. We are not in the business of injuring our own. You will only be asked questions.”
Questions from T&I could be plenty harmful in their own right, but Raidou’s heart rate managed to climb down a little. He’d already laid out everything for Kurenai. He could do it again for the ghouls to pick over.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
Shirotani adjusted his glasses. “Lastly, as I’m sure you’re already aware, you won’t be permitted to leave the village during your suspension. Though you’ll have free range within the walls. Do you intend to stay at your apartment?”
Raidou hadn’t made any plans beyond the next thirty seconds, but the answer followed on the heels of the question. “No,” he said. “I’ll be at my mothers’ place. You should have the address listed under my next of kin.”
Shirotani glanced at a separate, much thicker file, and nodded.
“Matsumoto will find you there, then,” Sagara said. “You’re dismissed, Namiashi. Please leave your mask on the table.”
He should have expected that, but it still knocked the breath out of him. There was a moment, though, between a blade’s strike and the bleeding out, where you could keep your feet and act. Raidou unclipped his mask with steady fingers and stepped forward to place it down on the table. The ceramic clinked gently against the scarred wood.
It looked smaller, alone on the table.
He stepped back and saluted crisply. If there was a provision against suspended agents using the ANBU salute, Sagara made no mention of it. She returned the gesture, accompanied by a nod from Shirotani and the familiar nothing from Matsumoto.
And that seemed to be everything.
After a beat of hesitation, Raidou turned and left.
The Intel escort was still waiting outside the door, leaning against the opposite wall. He straightened abruptly, eyes flickering to the empty space on Raidou’s belt. His expression stayed smooth and blank, the way Kurenai’s had; Intel trained its agents well.
“One moment,” he said, and slipped past Raidou to duck into the room.
He was back before Raidou had the chance to think anything beyond white noise. “Do you want to see your lieutenant now?” he asked.
Raidou said, “Let me change first.”
They navigated to Team Six’s office in silence. This time, the escort stayed outside. Raidou flicked a lamp on and went to his locker, stripping slowly out of his uniform. He set every piece down with care, stacking arm-guards, shin-guards, and armor on the folded underpinnings, and stowing them back into his locker, along with his boots. The carpet was soft under his feet, and the office was quiet and warm, breathing out with emptiness. For just a moment, he thought about lying down on the old red-brown sofa and not leaving, but he couldn’t.
He pulled on jeans and a dark t-shirt, and kicked his feet into a pair of old sneakers. The hidden rings clattered on his dogtags; he pulled the chain free, letting them rest openly on his chest. There was an emergency kit tucked away in the back of the back of his locker. Wash-kit included and a few extra supplies, no need to go back to his apartment for anything else. He shoved his stinking uniform in, too, so it wouldn’t cloud up the office before the rest of the team got back.
Then he stood for a moment, and breathed.
The last time they’d been in here was for the mission briefing, when the kids had been eager and Genma had been worried, and none of them had any idea what was coming.
He remembered Ryouma: We’ll make you proud, Taichou.
Kakashi: We’ll be fine.
Katsuko, so ready to storm the fields and deliver Konoha’s justice: ANBU takes care of their own.
And Genma, quiet and thoughtful and ready, always bridged between guarding the team and watching Raidou’s back. If you call for a tiger, you will likely get eaten.
He missed them, fiercely. They’d all taken such damage, body, mind, and soul, and he couldn’t protect them like a captain should. He’d only let them down, and there was no leverage out from under the weight of guilt. His whole chest ached.
He rubbed a rough hand over his face and slung his bag onto his shoulder, closed his locker. Katsuko’s desk was closest to the door. Raidou touched the edge with his fingertips, and let himself out. He locked the door behind him.
The escort took his key.
They made it back up to the upper levels, tracing the convoluted route towards the exit, when the sound of running feet brought Raidou’s head up. Shinobi masked their steps, but someone in a true hurry might let a little noise slip through, to warn people ahead. It was a courtesy in a building populated entirely by twitchy ninja.
A woman came flying around the corner, dark hair streaming behind her like a banner. With a blink, Raidou recognized Kurenai. She spotted him in the same instant and skidded to a halt, breathing hard. Her face was white and harried, though her make up was still perfect. She was a far cry from the composed Intel debriefer he’d seen only a few hours ago, and his heart clenched with abrupt terror.
“What happened?” he demanded. Genma and Kakashi were the worst hurt, but—
Kurenai looked blank for a split second, then shook her head and steadied a hand against the wall. “It’s not that.” Her breath still came raggedly, and some distant, unconnected part of Raidou thought she needed to spend more time on the training fields. It was a stiff run from the hospital to ANBU HQ, but nothing murderous. “Your team’s fine. Shiranui’s resting. Tousaki and Katsuko went home to sleep. Didn’t see Kakashi but they’d have told me if something was wrong.” She dragged a raking breath and clutched her clipboard to her chest. Her voice dipped quieter. “I’m so sorry. How bad—?”
She’d run here to see him?
He let out a breath of scalped relief, and glanced at his escort, unsure what he was allowed to say. The escort shrugged. Kurenai was on Shirotani’s team and she’d taken the initial report; presumably she had clearance to hear the results.
“Suspension,” Raidou said numbly. “Pending further investigation.”
“That’s not so bad, then,” Kurenai said, tense shoulders relaxing a trace. He wondered if she’d considered an execution, too, and had just been too kind to tell him. She dropped her hand from the wall and added, almost to herself, “Maybe I’m not too late.” Then she lifted her crimson eyes to Raidou’s and said, very clearly, “I should tell you, Namiashi-taichou, that the members of your team I interviewed have full confidence in you.”
It had the same breath-stopping effect as getting stabbed again, and for a hot, terrible moment he felt his eyes burn. He took a breath and mastered himself.
He almost said, Three-quarters of them are on strong narcotics right now, but that did a disservice to them all, and it wasn’t what he really meant. He dipped his chin instead, and said quietly, “Thank you. But if your saving grace is my team’s opinion of me, I doubt it’ll hold much weight against the rest.”
Even though it helped, in so many other ways.
Stubbornly, she said, “It will help. Konoha doesn’t have so many good leaders that it can easily sacrifice a promising one.”
He stared at her for a second. Before he could make his mind up whether to keep arguing (against his own case? shut up and listen to the Intelligence Agent, Namiashi) or take her hand and kiss it, she tossed her head back and brushed past him, clicking off down the hallway in her sharp heels, like she intended to bear down on the entirety of ANBU and bend them to her will.
The escort watched her go. “Nice to have friends in smart places,” he said.
“I don’t actually know her,” Raidou said, blank and baffled and a little hopeful, all the same.
But she knew Katsuko, and Katsuko would cheerfully bash whole institutions together for Raidou, until the new pieces landed in shapes she approved of. Maybe that was why.
The escort hitched an eyebrow, then shrugged and resumed his pace. He wanted to take the underground tunnels that led to the village proper by route of the Hokage’s palace — a warmer and easier journey than aboveground — but Raidou craved real air and a sky above him, the carpet of village lights laid out below. Even if his world had gone sideways, Konoha was still standing. It was something to hold onto.
With bad grace, the escort relented, and they walked the winding, wind-swept trail down. It was colder without armor.
Visiting hours at the hospital had ended, but the escort had a quiet word with a medic, and Raidou was allowed through without question. Teammates were always allowed a little grace, and captains more so. Though Raidou didn’t doubt his name was going to be added to a list after tonight, and all further access restricted.
He found Genma in a private room on the hospital’s north side, asleep behind the thin protection of a sliding door. Raidou looked through the door’s glass panel for a moment, wondering whether he should just let Genma sleep. The lieutenant looked pale and shadowed beneath dull blue lights, hair scraped back into a messy ponytail. His injured leg was propped up, wrapped in bulky post-surgery bandaging. An IV stand held a unit of blood, almost drained, and a bigger bag of something else — ringers, antibiotics, Raidou couldn’t guess.
He was exhausted, and run out, and wholly undeserving of the burden Raidou was about to drop on him. But it couldn’t be helped.
Raidou knocked, and slid the door back. Genma didn’t even twitch; deeply asleep, probably with the assistance of more than a little pain medication. The man had just had surgery. He needed to rest. But Raidou only had one chance, and Genma was soldier enough to stand it.
“Shiranui,” he said quietly. And then, louder, “Lieutenant, wake up.”
Genma’s slender eyebrows creased, but he still didn’t stir.
Raidou glanced at the escort. “I’m going to touch him,” he said, in case the man had a problem with it.
The escort shrugged. He’d maintained the air of someone waiting to finish an unpleasant task so he could finally get home and have his dinner. Raidou wondered, distantly, if he’d offended a superior officer to earn this duty.
Genma’s shoulder was warm and muscled beneath the blue-checkered hospital gown, bright with sleepy chakra. Raidou squeezed gently and gave him a careful shake. “Shiranui,” he said. “You need to wake up.”
The effect was like touching a live wire. Genma’s eyes startled open and he took a sharp breath, muscles tensing as he shot an anxious look around the room. In the brief handful of seconds before clarity returned the capable, steady lieutenant to himself, he looked young and unguarded. Then his attention locked on Raidou, and a surprisingly strong hand reached out to grip Raidou’s wrist. “Taichou? What happened? Are you okay?”
“I don’t have much time,” Raidou said. “I need you to listen. I’ve been suspended.”
Genma went cold as frosted steel, and his grip tightened. There was anger in his face, sharp behind his eyes, but it was the wintery edge that lined a blade, not the explosive rage that walked young men into disaster. “That’s horseshit. I told that debriefer—” He stopped, leashed himself. “What do you need me to do?”
“Take care of the team,” Raidou said immediately. “There’s going to be an investigation. Comply with everything they want. Don’t lie on my behalf, and don’t let the kids do anything harebrained. Katsuko the most. She was there, she might blame herself.”
Genma nodded, unsurprised. “I’ll make sure Katsuko’s backstopped. I told them the truth already, and I’ll keep telling it.” He dropped his hand from Raidou’s wrist and clenched it on the sheets, making them wrinkle. “I told the debriefer she could send Ryouma and Katsuko to me when she was finished with them, but I haven’t seen either one of them.”
“I just spoke to her. She said they’d gone home to sleep,” Raidou said. “I don’t know if that was her influence—” Genma scowled bitterly. “Or a medic’s, or theirs, but it works in their favor. There might not be much good sleep coming up.”
“I’ll keep a close eye on all three of them.” There was concern, now, breaking through Genma’s anger. “You think you can actually trust that Intel agent? I thought she was at least a neutral party, but I’m getting the impression I misjudged that.”
Raidou raked a hand through his hair, trying to keep his thoughts on track. The Intel escort’s eyes were heavy on the back of his neck. “She just sprinted up to HQ in heels to tell me that my team had perfect faith in me, and then she marched off like she planned to staple that thought to Sagara-sama’s forehead. Katsuko knows her; maybe that buys me a little grace. But opinions don’t hold water against facts, and facts is what they’ll be looking at.”
“Okay,” Genma said, faintly mollified. He twisted in the bed, body curving towards Raidou, eyes tracking the escort. “If they don’t show back up by tomorrow, I’ll go find them, or send a runner to find them if I’m not mobile. I was already worrying about them before this—” He groped, and settled on, “Complication. And you. But we’ll handle this. I’ll handle it, Namiashi-taichou. I’m on your six.”
“Handle them. That’s all I want,” Raidou said firmly. “Ryouma’s a concern. He was unsteady before, and I don’t know that he’s re-balanced since. Keep him busy; set him tasks if you have to. Something for his mind to work on, so he doesn’t fixate.” He waited for Genma’s nod, then plowed on, anxious to get everything said before the clock ran out. “Yuuhi couldn’t give me an update on Kakashi, and I don’t know what he’ll do, either, but he’s got more people than the rest. If he struggles — and he gets well enough to cause a problem — pitch the word up the ladder. Yondaime-sama will step in, I’m sure.”
Though, with luck, Kakashi would sleep through the worst. There wasn’t much useful information Intel could glean from him anyway.
Genma nodded again. “What about Ueno? Any suggestions?”
“She may already know what’s coming,” Raidou said. “And she’s strong. She might— I hope she’ll weather it. Keep her attention on the boys. She’s their senpai; they’ll need her.” And the more she helped, the less Genma would have to shoulder alone.
Genma looked up at him, brown eyes slivered blue by the hospital lights. “I know Tousaki’s levers, and I can figure out Hatake’s, but if she starts to go sideways— If Ueno’s decompensating— You know her better than I do. What’s the best way to get through to her?”
“Trust her,” Raidou said at last. “She’s always pulled it back before, and I’ve never had a trick to make her do it. She knows her own safety valves.” He rubbed his face, eyes aching. “And if something really goes bad, tell her she’s making her captain cry.”
Genma reached up again, gently, and curled his fingers around Raidou’s bandaged hand. “That’s a powerful motivator. I’d say I’d just send her to you directly, even if you’re on administrative leave, but…” He glanced at the escort, then back to Raidou. “This is one of those limited contract situations, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Raidou said, and swallowed. “This is all we get.”
The escort cleared his throat pointedly.
Genma gave the man a faintly poisonous look, and tightened his grip on Raidou’s hand, careful of bandaged knuckles and the traces of red bleeding through the white. “Sagara-sama and Yondaime-sama are smart. We’ll get through this, Taichou.” His voice lightened deliberately, bolstering Raidou from his goddamned hospital bed. “Maybe this is a good thing. We’ll have time to actually heal from our injuries before we get another mission. And I know they have to let me at least talk to you, if they want all our mission reports filed.”
Lieutenants and captains were supposed to collaborate.
Raidou tried to smile, but his mouth felt like it was the wrong shape. “Yeah,” he said again, and squeezed Genma’s hand back. “Focus on healing. I’ll be fine, whatever happens. I’m going—”
The escort stepped forward.
“Home,” Raidou said, and knew Genma heard what he meant.
“Time’s up,” the escort said. He dropped a hand on Raidou’s shoulder.
Genma sat up with a swift jerk powered by stomach muscles and subarctic wrath, and delivered a look that stopped short of leaking killing intent only by the virtue of him having no actual chakra to spare. The escort stiffened. Genma cut his eyes away, effectively disregarding the man from the universe, and focused on Raidou. “Get some sleep yourself, Taichou, you need to heal, too. And don’t forget to take your meds. Yuuhi-san told me they gave you antibiotics.”
In the midst of burning ashes, Raidou found the edge of a real smile after all. “Yes, mother-medic,” he rasped. “Same for you.”
He pulled his hand free, and Genma let him go. The escort tugged. Raidou slipped the man’s grip and walked away under his own power, pausing only to slide the door closed behind them. He let his palm rest against the wood for just a moment. Then he squared his shoulders, turned, and left Genma to the cold comfort of a darkened room and the wavering beep of unsettled machines.
The escort followed on his heels, silent and irritated.
The final trek to his mothers’ house was an exhausted blur, broken by landmarks Raidou’s feet managed to guide him past with barely conscious input. The corner shop on Silver Street, shutters pulled down for the night. The tall oak at the west corner of the park, ladder-stepped with kunai holes from generations of practicing genin. The gentle bend of the river, leading him past a collection of apartment blocks built primarily for ninja, towards the smaller neighborhoods, where civilian and shinobi homes shared fences. The streetlamps glowed warm orange, casting pools of light onto the well-swept sidewalks.
There was the right street, and then an oiled gate swinging freely under his touch. A paved garden path leading up a gentle slope. A front door, surrounded by boxed flowers. The presence at his back vanished, slipping away into the night. There would be another guard posted.
A light was on, spilling yellow from around the edges of the kitchen blinds.
Raidou leaned his forehead against the door, next to the brass number-plate, and lifted a hand to jostle a hanging wind chime. It pealed a tinkling bell sound, and the distant murmur of conversation paused. Footsteps moved quickly, civilian and unhidden.
The door opened, and Raidou stumbled.
“Baby?” Uncalloused hands caught him by the shoulders, and he looked down into warm, worried eyes the same color as his own. “What’s wrong?”
Raidou’s breath hitched and caught.
“Oh my god, come in. Shun. It’s freezing. Why are you just wearing a t-shirt? Shun, come here.” Ume pulled him across the doormat, closed the door, tugged the bag from his shoulder, and cupped his cheek with her hand. She was a short, plump woman, with dark auburn hair coiled back and speared into place with a pair of plain hair-sticks. There was a smudge of blue ink on her nose; she must have been in the middle of grading homework. “Baby, what happened?”
From the kitchen door, a flicker of chakra uncurled in subtle announcement. Shun moved silent as any trained chuunin, but her steel-hewn left leg made a quiet step-drag sound when she was distracted. It made that sound now, as she crossed the carpeted hallway floor. She was counterpoint to Ume in most ways, taller and paler, angular where Ume was soft, with ink-black hair shorn to her earlobes. Her eyes were dark and focused, and equally worried.
“Raidou?” she said, low.
Raidou shook his head mutely, trying and failing to find words or control. His throat was a raw ache. His eyes burned. There was a pen tucked behind Ume’s right ear, waiting to get back to work on her student’s small disasters, and Raidou thought, I killed a baby.
It was the last thought on a tower of others, and it broke them all down. He pressed his hands over his face and came apart, choking on tears that boiled up and wouldn’t stop.
Ume grabbed him first, wrapping her arms around him. The top of her head barely came up to his collarbones. Shun reached him next, and curled a hand over his shoulder, like she could bleed strength right through his skin.
“It’ll be okay, baby,” Ume said, and pulled his head down to her shoulder. “Whatever it is, it’ll be okay. You’re home, it’s all over now.”
Shun said nothing, but her grip tightened. She didn’t ask. She never did.
Raidou couldn’t speak. He just cried into Ume’s knit sweater until they dragged him bodily into the living-room, pressed him down onto the sofa, and shoved tissues and a mug of hot, sweet tea into his hands. The sofa sank under him, old and overstuffed. Ume and Shun sat down either side of him, bracketed like bookends, and waited for him to cry himself back to sense.
It took an embarrassingly long time, and a lot of tissues. Ume rubbed his back like he was still five, and the worst thing in the world was the thwarted desire for a small toy.
When he was reduced to hiccoughing, she gripped his arm urgently and said, “Is it Katsuko-chan?”
They’d met her half a dozen times, and reverse-imprinted on her as someone who needed to be mothered, fed, and chased around like a particularly explosive duckling. Well, Ume had. Shun usually invited her to sit at the kitchen table and have grave conversations about detonation inks, and what latest misadventures Katsuko had gotten up to.
Raidou shook his head. “S-she’s fine. She’s injured, but she’ll be fine.”
Ume let out a deep breath of relief. “Oh, thank God. But then what—”
Shun made a short gesture, quelling her into silence, and reached out to rest a light hand on Raidou’s bandaged knuckles, framing the red stains that were already drying to brown. Not worrisome enough to bother re-bandaging. “A mission,” Shun said, less question and more statement of fact. “Classified?”
Raidou gave a mute nod.
“Are we at war?” Shun said quietly.
He rubbed his hot, aching face, and thought of Kirigakure. But relationships had always been strained there, and Matsumoto had seemed pleased, as far as Raidou could read her, not worried. “I don’t think so.”
She nodded once, and searched his expression with dark eyes. “Did you kill a teammate?”
His chest lurched. “No—” he began, but couldn’t help remembering the red fist-print painted on Katsuko’s chestplate.
“Lose a subordinate?”
“Shun,” Ume said sharply, but she gave Raidou an anxious look, waiting for the answer.
“No,” he said.
“Fail the mission?”
“Are you even allowed to ask that?” Ume hissed.
“We didn’t fail,” Raidou said.
“Then nothing else matters,” Shun said, and lifted a cool hand to cup his cheek, thumbing away a tear track. “I’m glad you made it home.”
Raidou’s eyes burned again. He ducked his head, trying not to go to pieces a second time, and managed, “Me, too.”
Silence drifted through the room for a moment after that, filtering through the warm lamplight, and settling over a messy heap of abandoned workbooks from Ume’s schoolchildren, and a pile of dulled, half-oiled kunai from Shun’s academy class. He’d interrupted them both at their evening work.
Ume pulled his attention back with a brisk, “Have you eaten tonight?”
“I—” he said, and then couldn’t remember if he’d eaten since this morning. Of all the day’s concerns, food had not been high on the list. “No.”
“Right, then,” she said, determined, and bustled up to address a task she could grab by the horns. Clattering resounded in the kitchen.
“Drink your tea,” Shun told Raidou.
The mug had gone lukewarm in his hands, but he took a swallow and felt a little steadier. It gave him enough bolstering to tell her the next thing. “I’ve been suspended.”
Shun’s expression flickered only a little, tightening at the corners of her eyes and mouth. He looked for disappointment, but saw only worry, and willingness to listen, in the shape of her silence.
“There’s going to be an investigation,” he said at last, and looked down at the mug cradled between his hands. It was blue-painted ceramic, with an old chip taken out of the handle. He didn’t even remember when they’d gotten it. “I don’t think I’m allowed to say anything else.”
“You can stay here as long as you need to,” Shun said, preempting the question before he could even find the words for it.
He pressed his lips together, hard, as the view hazed again, and the surface of his tea rippled in an unsteady hold. Shun rubbed his shoulder once, and said quietly, “I’ll explain things.”
She got up and went to the kitchen, where a low murmur of voices ended in a sharp, “What?” and a loud crash that startled a grizzled ginger tomcat out of his basket. He gave Raidou a yellow-eyed look, and stalked out of the room to find quieter refuge upstairs. There was a scraping sound from the kitchen as the fallen item was retrieved, and the low undertones of a fast conversation. “The hell, you say—”
Raidou clenched his hands around the mug, and wondered if Genma had managed to get back to sleep yet. If Ryouma and Katsuko had made it home safe, and were managing by themselves. Whether Kakashi had offended a nurse and gotten himself sedated. By tomorrow, they’d all know the new score. What would they think about it?
That they were owed a more experienced captain.
Or perhaps they’d rabble-rouse at the coming days of long, wearisome Intel questions, and get themselves suspended right alongside him. Somehow, that seemed more likely.
I should tell you, Namiashi-taichou, that the members of your team I interviewed have full confidence in you.
Except for Katsuko, they’d barely been together a month. He didn’t know that he’d earned that amount of trust yet, or even deserved it, but he’d take it and be grateful for it, and do his best to live up to it if he ever got back to them. Please let me get back to them.
Movement brought his head up. Ume marched out of the kitchen with a bowl of steaming, reheated noodles in one hand, and a leggy white kitten tucked under the opposite arm. Raidou leaned backwards, wide-eyed, as she shoved the bowl into his hand and dumped the kitten on his lap. It yowled and sank needle-like claws into his thigh. Ume snapped, “Suki missed you.”
“Ume,” Shun murmured.
“And I don’t care what anyone says, you’re a damn fine ninja and they can all go hang.” She stood upright, mouth trembling, and dashed a hand over her eyes. “And just— just— Dammit. Eat your noodles.”
She turned on her heel and walked out of the room. A door slammed, making the wall rattle.
“Sorry,” Raidou muttered thickly, and tried to juggle mug and bowl well enough to prize the kitten off his leg.
Shun leaned down to rescue Suki, smoothing the kitten’s ruffled fur with a practiced hand. “Not your fault,” she said, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. “She just needs a little time.”
Raidou looked down at the floor, stomach twisting.
After a moment, Shun touched his head. “I need to finish getting these kunai into shape for tomorrow. I have a class with a particular talent for injuring themselves even on blunted weapons. Do you think you can help me make sure all the edges are off?”
He was achingly tired, but sleep was a distant and unlikely prospect. “Yeah,” he said, hauling himself to his feet. “I think I can manage that.”
Shun’s mouth tucked at the corner, almost a smile. “Bring the noodles.”
He brought the noodles and the tea, and cleared a station at the kitchen table to allow room for the careful blunting and sanding of half the kunai, which were only a fraction undersized. Suki wound up back on his lap, after she’d given him a dubious sniff and determined he was familiar and acceptable. The warm, purring weight of her curled up on his thigh unknotted something in his chest, as did having a familiar task to hand. Though, granted, a bit of an awkward one with his bandaged knuckles, but he was careful and managed to avoid doing himself further injury.
When the clock had ticked half an hour away, Ume re-emerged with bloodshot eyes and crept over to hug Raidou from behind, dropping her chin on top of his head. He let out a shuddery sigh, and leaned back against her.
“Sorry, baby,” she whispered.
He shook his head, and found himself saying, “I think Shun should try toast kunai with her class. What do you reckon, Mom?”
“I reckon that little pack of lunatics could cut themselves on soap,” Ume said, and leaned down to test his current kunai with her thumb. “Still too much edge there.”
Wordlessly, he handed her the kunai and the file he’d been working with. She took both, refreshed the kettle to brew another round of tea, and settled down at the third chair. Raidou picked up another kunai, and a file Shun had abandoned. The quiet rasp of metal filled the kitchen, blending with Suki’s purring and the low hiss of steam.
“I could send Yondaime-sama a note,” Ume said, suddenly.
“No, dear,” said Shun.
“A polite note,” Ume said.
“ ‘Dear sir, I respectfully request that you go hang?’ ” Shun said.
“Please don’t send my commanding officer and the leader of our village a note like he’s my principal,” Raidou said, with faint horror.
“Fine,” Ume sighed. “But if he doesn’t reinstate you, I’m not going to stop at a note.”
Shun said, very dryly, “Illustrated letter?”
Raidou put his face in his hands, managing to avoid cutting his nose off with a half-blunted kunai, and laughed weakly. It was hoarse and horrible sounding, and it cracked halfway through, but it loosened some of the pressure, just like the tears had. Or maybe it was because they’d named his biggest fear, and nothing had ended. “If I don’t get reinstated, we should send you in instead,” he said. “You’re scarier anyway.”
Ume waited until he looked up before she smiled at him, brown eyes twinkling. “That’s why I stay on this side of the wall. Keeps the monsters out.”
“Yes, dear,” Shun said, and caught the pen Ume tossed gently at her head, mouth tucking again at the corner.
They bantered a little more—partially for Raidou’s sake, he thought, but also because that was just how they talked to each other when the ground was unsteady—and between the concerted work of three pairs of hands, all the kunai were blunted and tidied away into a basket. Ume returned to her grading, and Shun collected the empty mugs and Raidou’s bowl, and dealt with the washing up with the sink.
Raidou leaned on the kitchen table, watching them both until his eyes blurred and his elbow slipped, and Ume told him to go to bed. “There’re already fresh sheets laid out.”
“M’okay,” he said.
She gave him a look, then patted his arm and suggested he try a book on the sofa. As befitted a household of two teachers, there were always books around, including most of the ones Raidou had grown up with. He found the one she suggested, which was a series of short stories about a boy growing up next to a river and having sailing adventures, and—after very belatedly remembering to take his shoes off—folded up with it. A little later, Shun clicked the TV quietly on and joined him in the armchair. Ume sat down by his feet with a basket of mad knitting she’d been trying (and failing) to acquire as her latest hobby, and alternatively commented on Shun’s show or asked Raidou to read small passages aloud.
He drifted in there somewhere, exhaustion finally curling up and overtaking him, and the book slipped out of his fingers.
When he woke again, it was with a blanket folded over him, the room darkened, and the TV off. Shun’s chair was empty. Ume was leaning over him, and the faint press of a warm kiss was already fading against his temple.
She pushed his hair back as he blinked up at her, and murmured, “Sleep, baby. Things will look brighter in the morning.”
He wanted to reach out and grab hold of her, make her promise, like she had when he was small and his fears were smaller, but she didn’t know for this, she couldn’t. So he just touched her hand, and said, “Good night, Mom. Thank you, for everything.”
“Of course,” she said, and tousled his hair back one more time. “Love you.”
At least he wasn’t too old to hear that, or say it. “Love you, too.”
She rose to leave, and then paused, looking at the glint of metal resting against his chest. The tumble of dogtags and rings lying together, scratched with age and wear. Her expression wavered, sliced for a moment by an old hurt, and she reached down to touch the bigger of the two rings. “I used to wear it like that, on a chain,” she said softly. “Before I gave them to you.”
“I remember,” he said.
“I’m glad you still wear them,” she said, and tucked the blanket more firmly in around him. She dimmed the last lamp as she left, but didn’t quite turn it all the way out. He heard her quiet tread up the stairs, creaking and familiar, and then the soft click of the bedroom door.
Something squirrelled about on the sofa, making him look down. Suki, curling up against his stomach and nudging her tiny, triangular-shaped head against his hand. He stroked his fingertips gently over her soft white fur, until she purred, making a sound like the rising surf of the smallest wave.
It lulled him back to sleep, which was weary, and dreamless, and black.