Morning of May 16, Yondaime Year 5

ryouma 11The wonderful thing about team practice at 0500, Ryouma decided, was that you didn’t have to wait. You rolled out of bed and into clothes, and maybe you had time to burn your tongue on coffee and gnaw a protein bar on your way down to the training field. By the time you got there, shivering in the dark, Raidou was already warmed up and entirely likely to greet you with a Doton jutsu to the face.

Meeting the interim team captain at 0900, on the other hand, meant a solid three hours of anxiety between waking and showing up at Team Six’s office. Katsuko’s intervention at the bar last night meant he hadn’t drunk nearly enough to either oversleep or wake with a hangover. She wasn’t in the ANBU gym to share his morning workout, either.

Ayane, who had no team to train with, was. They exchanged tight smiles, and helped each other with the weights without speaking a word.

0830 came eventually. Ryouma showered, shaved, dressed in uniform, and re-styled his hair twice before he settled on something that looked appropriately serious. He forced himself through most of a rat bar and crammed the rest in his belt-pouch. Genma would be proud.

At 0855 exactly, he opened the office door.

Genma was already there.

So was the ANBU Vice-Commander.

Ryouma stopped in the doorway. The Vice-Commander stood by Genma’s desk in polished armor, abstract Owl mask clipped to his hip and narrow brows drawn together as he frowned down at a clipboard in one hand. Kuroda Ushio was a hard-muscled man in his middle years, a little shorter than Genma but built more like Raidou. The hilt of the ninjato protruding over his shoulder was shiny and dark with use. Ryouma had seen him around HQ a few times in passing—the first time pointed out by Katsuko as someone to avoid if possible, which had of course necessitated the story of Ryouma’s first encounter with the Vice-Commander and Kakashi at the ANBU trials. In most of those distant sightings Kuroda had looked preoccupied, perhaps annoyed, as he strode at Sagara-sama’s heels or shuffled stacks of papers from one meeting to another.

Now, standing in Team Six’s office, studying what had to be Team Six’s paperwork, he looked as coldly unreadable as his painted mask. Even the flick of dark eyes up and back again, as Ryouma entered the room, gave nothing away.

Genma stood behind his desk, stiff and formal even with his crutches — no sitting allowed when a superior officer stood, of course, even for an injured man. He was in uniform as well, with his wheat-brown hair tied back in a neat tail and only a thickness around his right thigh betraying the hidden bandages. Apprehension or pain, or both, tightened the fading bruises around his eyes.

“Vice-Commander,” Ryouma said, and saluted as crisply as he could. “Fukuchou.” He tried to form the hand-signs discreetly with his other hand, against the side of his leg. Danger?

If there was a signal sequence for What the hell is wrong?, Katsuko hadn’t taught it to him yet. That was starting to seem like a severe oversight on their part.

Genma’s mouth tightened. That was all the warning Ryouma had before Kuroda flipped a page on the clipboard and looked up at him. “Tousaki. Have you heard the expression: ‘If you’re not ten minutes early, you’re five minutes late’? This is not a promising start. You may fetch me some coffee, black.”

“A promising what?

He hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Genma’s eyes closed briefly in that Buddha help us all expression Team Six had learned to fear even more than the lieutenantly eyebrow, and opened again on a forbidding glare.

Vice-Commander Kuroda lowered his clipboard and regarded Ryouma with flat contempt. “I was told you would be quick on the uptake. Coffee, black, and then stand against the wall and be quiet.”

Either everything had gone terribly, unspeakably wrong, and they were all under official review before Raidou would be sentenced for immediate execution, or—

Dimly, Ryouma recalled his own voice saying, If this captain’s a hardass, they’re gonna want someone able-bodied for an errand boy.

“Vice-Commander,” he rasped. He dragged together another salute and reeled out of the office.

There was a tiny break room at the end of the hall, with an electric kettle for tea and an industrial-sized coffee pot. Ryouma found a clean paper cup in a cupboard and poured without the slightest attention to what his hands were doing.

He’d cracked a joke at the end of the first Trial, and the Vice-Commander had nearly killed him for it. Or, really, had tried to goad him into losing his temper, possibly his head, and certainly any hopes of acceptance into ANBU. The man might just have been looking to get a little of his own back after his humiliation during Kakashi’s ninjutsu demonstration, but Ryouma didn’t find that explanation any more comforting.

Granted, this was ANBU, with all its paperwork and psych reviews and emphasis on tight-knit and healthy teams. The sort of petty miseries that chuunin or jounin captains could inflict on their temporary teams wouldn’t survive long here. And Kuroda was Vice-Commander, not an aging special jounin with a particular grudge against mouthy young hotshots. He would run a tight ship, and he might keep an eye out for any slackness or cracks in Raidou’s team, but he wouldn’t deliberately set out to break a man.

He damn sure wouldn’t tolerate tardy coffee, either.

Ryouma filled another cup for Genma, crammed sugar and dry creamer packets into his pocket, just in case, and headed down the hall.

An incoming flare of firestorm chakra warned him well before the door to the staircase banged open. Katsuko barreled through, spotted him, and drew up sharply enough that her loose hair fluttered like a banner. Smooth and shining, it hung past her jaw, not quite to her shoulders.

“You brushed your hair,” Ryouma said, idiotically.

Katsuko blinked at him. “I did,” she agreed slowly. She reached up with her good hand to pat his cheek. “And you look like someone set all your favorite shirts on fire. Hangover?”

“Worse,” Ryouma said. “I think our interim captain is Vice-Commander Kuroda.”

katsuko 2Katsuko gave Ryouma’s face a slightly harder pat than necessary. “Hangovers don’t excuse horrible jokes.”

“You didn’t let me drink enough for a hangover,” he reminded her. “I didn’t even get a beer with dinner. And Vice-Commander Kuroda’s in our office with our lieutenant and I’m late with his coffee.”

If she kept patting Ryouma’s face, he would definitely get over the hangover he was lying about not having and admit that this was an elaborate plot to fool her. “Stop saying that. Comparing our real interim captain to the Vice-Commander isn’t nice. What if they overheard you? It would hurt their feelings.”

My feelings are gonna be hurt when he eviscerates me for showing up with cold coffee.” Ryouma backed up, out of range. “He already hates me. Come on and open the door for me. If I’m lying, you can have the other cup.”

Shinobi adapted quickly, but were more graceful about it in some circumstances than others. Katsuko closed her eyes and accepted that her reality now had Kuroda Ushio on her team roster. Then she opened them again.

“Fuck,” she said.

She’d even brushed her hair. Twenty minutes of tearing pain and leave-in conditioner all gone to waste, now. Trying to make a good impression on Kuroda was like trying to make an impression of your face on a rock. It wouldn’t happen.

Ryouma was glancing meaningfully between her and the office door. She let out an explosive breath, lifted her chin, and smoothed the horrified angles of her face into something resembling a professional expression.

“I’ve got you,” she said. The words put steel into her spine and buried the last of her shock underneath an ocean of calm resolve. Ryouma was one of hers, and not even the Vice-Commander could stop her from looking after her own. “Just follow my lead.”

The look Ryouma gave her was not particularly reassured, but he fell into step beside her.

The door handle didn’t creak ominously when Katsuko turned it. But it would have been appropriate, because the glare Kuroda leveled at her when she stepped into the office nearly burned her eyebrows off.

“Ueno, at last you’ve managed to grace us with your presence. In the future, I expect better time-keeping from the daughter of a diplomat,” he said. His glare swung over to Ryouma. “Did you get lost, Tousaki?”

“I waylaid him, sir,” Katsuko said, moving aside to let Ryouma pass before saluting with her good hand. Ryouma handed the coffee over in silence, first to Kuroda and then to Genma — with a crumpled fistful of creamer and sugar packets from his pocket for the lieutenant — before taking up a post at the wall. His posture was textbook-perfect, but the glances he kept sneaking at Katsuko out of the corner of his eye, like he was trying to figure something out, told her that Kuroda’s ‘daughter of a diplomat’ comment hadn’t gone unnoticed. Dread trailed spidery fingers down her spine.

Kuroda gave her a cold look. “I did not ask your opinion.” His attention cut over to Ryouma like a knife. “Your failure to respond promptly to a direct order is your senpai’s fault, is that correct?”

Behind Kuroda, Genma stood ramrod straight. There was an expression on his face like he was attempting to project caution and calm into her and Ryouma’s brains through willpower alone.

“Not Ueno-senpai’s fault, sir,” Ryouma said, with the proper amount of respect. “I met her on my way back from the break room and paused to, uh, update her on the situation. Sharing necessary intelligence, sir.”

“Warn her, you mean,” Kuroda said. “Now you’ve both lied to me. Perhaps silence will be a wiser choice in the future.”

I am a lake, Katsuko thought. A still lake. Lakes do not stab a man twenty-five times in the chest.

When she didn’t speak, Kuroda smiled without any humor and turned to Genma. “Now, where is—”

The door opened soundlessly. Kakashi slipped in, rumpled with bedhead (which was distinguishable from his normal hair in that it was smashed slightly more sideways) but dressed in his ANBU blacks, and blinked once at Kuroda. “Vice-Commander?”

“Captain will suffice,” Kuroda said, strict but without any of the vitriol he’d shown Katsuko and Ryouma. “Fall in with your teammates, Hatake.”

Katsuko felt her gaze go hooded, like a snake’s. Kuroda was a political animal through and through. He gave respect only to those he thought he could gain from. Ryouma, who had no powerful relatives or connections, would be his scapegoat, then. Kakashi would be safe from Kuroda’s bullying, but the thought of letting Kuroda close enough to Kakashi to try and curry favor made her hackles raise.

Behind Kuroda, Genma’s eyebrows were rising at an alarming rate. Katsuko caught his eye and quickly schooled her expression into something less murderous.

Kakashi, finally cluing in to the tension surrounding him, glanced at Ryouma and Katsuko. Then he slid in between both of them and straightened into an actual approximation of attention.

Kuroda looked at Genma.

Genma nodded, thin-lipped with tension. His usual senbon was absent. His face looked strangely naked without it. “I’m sure you all know Vice-Commander Kuroda. He will be serving as interim captain for Team Six while Namiashi-taichou is away. It’s an unexpected honor for us. Kuroda-taichou was a highly respected and decorated ANBU captain before he took the position of Vice-Commander. We’re grateful he’s able to take time from his work to focus on Team Six.”

The bald audacity of Genma’s lie filled Katsuko with a level of admiration she thought she hadn’t been capable of, but today was a day full of surprises.

Kuroda was too smart to be flattered by Genma’s introduction. “My philosophy is simple. Strength, discipline, service. ANBU is the foundation of Konoha’s defense; without us, the village falls.” He looked at each of them. “There is no room for weakness. If I find it, I will cut it out. You may not like my leadership, but you will improve under it. Any questions?”

There wasn’t any way to respond to that without actually having to interact with Kuroda, so Katsuko kept her mouth shut and her professionalism firmly on. Ryouma and Genma also decided that silence was the wisest course.

Then Kakashi raised his hand. “Uh, since three of us are injured, what are we supposed to do besides heal?”

To be fair, Kakashi hadn’t received the same warning that Katsuko and Ryouma had about Kuroda. To also be fair, a ninja at his level should have been able to read the room as soon as he slipped through the door. This led to the conclusion that Kakashi either didn’t care, or he was having an off morning.

“For the next week, you will focus on healing,” Kuroda said. He looked at Katsuko. “Since Ueno has an interest in expanding into the command track, I intend to find her some headquarter tasks that can be performed one-handed.” For Ryouma, he said, “It’s idiocy to believe an illiterate man can become a healer without being able to read medication labels or take notes. Therefore, the lieutenant and Tousaki will either prove to me that Tousaki can read and write an acceptable number of medical terms, or we can find them a project that makes better use of their time.”

Ryouma’s shoulders stiffened and the normally tanned color of his face drained, but he bit his tongue on his response. Genma locked eyes with him and gave him a reassuring nod.

“Tousaki and I can begin work this afternoon,” Genma said.

“Don’t waste too much time,” Kuroda told them. Genma’s eyebrows looked like they were considering insubordination, but he acknowledged Kuroda with another nod and otherwise impassive expression. Ryouma set his jaw, mouth tight, and ducked his head.

Katsuko thought about calm, still lakes and how long you’d have to hold a man underneath the water’s surface to drown him.

“I can transcribe for Tousaki, since I don’t have anything better to do,” Kakashi said. Ryouma gave him a startled look. Katsuko did as well.

Irritation flashed briefly across Kuroda’s face. Genma looked from Kakashi to Ryouma and back, assessing, and said, “We’ll discuss the details after this meeting, but I don’t have any objections.”

Ryouma regained a little of his normal color. He gave Kakashi a tight but grateful smile. Katsuko remembered what Kakashi’s handwriting looked like and blanched.

Kuroda nodded. “That aside, I anticipate this team being mission-ready within the next month. We will meet here every three days at 0900 so I can continue to evaluate you. I will also assign individual tasks as I see fit. Ueno, I want you to report to my office at noon tomorrow.”

Katsuko had the sinking suspicion that ‘headquarter tasks’ meant she’d just become Kuroda’s glorified personal assistant. She gave him a crisp salute. “Sir.”

Kakashi copied her with the expression of a man who’d accidentally wandered onto a scuttled ship and had just now realized the water was up to his knees.

“I’ll be monitoring everyone’s medical progress in conjunction with Toshiro-sensei and communicating that to Kuroda-taichou,” Genma said. “With the exception of Tousaki, we will need to pass a fitness for active duty test before we can return to the field.”

Very carefully, Ryouma said, “Do you recommend I postpone my knee evaluation, Shiranui-fukuchou?”

“Proceed with that as planned. Today or tomorrow for preference. Our window of opportunity for you to have that evaluated and treated while the rest of the team is on leave hasn’t changed.”

She didn’t glance down at Ryouma’s knees because she’d been trained better than that, but the automatic urge to was still there. Kakashi, who had no such compunctions, turned his head and gave Ryouma’s bad knee a blatant stare, brow creased.

“Yes sir,” Ryouma said, and saluted. He kept eye contact with Genma as he did so, subtly excluding Kuroda from his respect.

Kakashi, meanwhile, switched his bemused stare from Ryouma’s knee to Ryouma’s face. After a few seconds he turned his attention back to Kuroda, but not before his unspoken Why hadn’t you gotten your knee checked before? broadcasted to everyone in the room.

Kuroda waved a brisk hand. “It’s a weakness, Tousaki. Take care of it before it gets someone else killed.”

He swept out in clear dismissal before anyone could do more than blink. The door shut behind him with a final click.

genma 8It took a moment, and then every single one of them let out a held breath. Genma sagged his weight onto his crutches, Katsuko’s shoulders dropped, Ryouma gained color and lost the iron-corset posture, and Kakashi… Actually Kakashi didn’t look much different. But then he hadn’t seemed to fully grasp what having Kuroda as an interim captain meant for Team Six.

“Let’s sit down.” Genma liberated a senbon from the pencil cup on his desk and stuck it between his teeth before he crutched around his desk and claimed a spot he usually ceded to the other three on the couch. “Ueno, lock the door, please?”

Katsuko wasted no time flicking the lock.

Kakashi looked a little lost for a moment, then perched on the nearest desk — his own, as it turned out — and watched the rest of them.

There was a faint whump as Katsuko took a seat at the opposite end of the couch. She stared at her own feet for a moment before asking, hollow-voiced, “What the hell?”

“Guess HQ didn’t believe the lieutenant’s reports about us doing good,” Ryouma said, still staring at the door. “Or is this supposed to be a punishment for the vice-commander, instead of us? He didn’t look any too happy either.”

“This is my third year in ANBU and I have never once seen the vice-commander look happy,” Genma said. “But if I had to guess, this is further evaluation to see if Namiashi-taichou is a good captain. To see if he’s crafted a good team.” He sighed and rubbed at an itch he couldn’t reach through the bandages on his thigh. “Kuroda-sa— Kuroda-taichou gets to throw his weight around and we have to toe the line; he’s probably as happy as a pig in mud.”

“And I get to be his one-armed personal assistant,” Katsuko said, sounding even more leaden.

“You’re still on medical leave,” Genma said. “I’m sure we could talk Toshiro-sensei or your doctor at the chakra clinic into giving you restrictions from any work or training for at least another week.” Which would be gaming the system, but it wasn’t like Kuroda was going to play fair. “And then you can think of it as a deep-cover espionage situation. If you’re with him as an assistant, you’ll have advance warning for the rest of us.”

Kakashi offered a helpful, “If you’re looking to go command, you’ll have to deal with him eventually.”

Katsuko made a noncommittal noise, still staring into the middle distance, evidently contemplating a bleak and joyless future.

Kakashi wasn’t wrong. But as a lieutenant Genma didn’t have that much contact with the vice-commander. Although he also hadn’t been a lieutenant for long, even including that four month stint as lieutenant under Hajime.

Genma opened his mouth to offer some kind of encouragement to Katsuko, but Ryouma spoke first.

“If we mess up, will he take it out on Namiashi-taichou? Or just out of our hides?”

That was a smart question. Too bad Kuroda wasn’t there to see he’d underestimated Ryouma’s intelligence. Although thank all the gods he wasn’t there, because the insubordinate attitude in the room — Genma’s included — was probably enough to get them all up on charges.

“Both, probably,” Genma said. “It depends on how badly we mess up. And I don’t think we’re going to. He’ll probably bust our balls—” He glanced at Katsuko and amended, “Our gonads as hard as he can. We can’t be perfect. We just have to make sure we don’t screw up in any significant ways.”

Katsuko nodded, still too horrified by visions of herself as Kuroda’s secretary to engage further.

“I trust us,” Genma said. He even believed it, mostly.

After a moment, she visibly shook off her fugue and looked around the room. “Yes, Lieutenant. How are all of you holding up?” Her eyes lingered just a little longer on Ryouma, who was still standing, half-turned towards the door.

Ryouma scrubbed his hands through his hair and finally dropped into one of the office chairs. He swiveled back and forth a couple of times, then settled with one leg stretched out in front of the other in an artful imitation of casual. “He’s not the first commanding officer to think I’m stupid,” he said. “Or even the first one to think I can’t read ‘cause I don’t try. At least I got practice biting my tongue.”

Kakashi shrugged. “He’s underestimating an ANBU agent chosen by Konoha’s top shinobi. Either he’s an idiot, or he’s trying to get a rise out of you, which makes him an asshole.” He plucked a pencil from his desk and bounced it accurately off Ryouma’s forehead, making Ryouma twitch.

“Ueno and I have much better insults for you in any case,” Kakashi continued. “You should listen to us instead.”

“I only insult you, you lopsided dust bunny,” Katsuko said mildly.

“Can’t I have compliments instead?” Ryouma said. “I respond much better to positive affirmation.”

“You’re in the wrong line of work,” Genma told him. “It’s not too late for a career change.” At least the team’s good humor was back. “But Hatake’s right. One way or the other, we have the advantage. Either our enemy is underestimating us, or we know his tactics. Not that Kuroda-taichou is our enemy,” he added with a glance at the door.

Kakashi slid back on the desk to lean against the wall and smirk at Ryouma. “Hey, look. I got a compliment.”

“It’s not too late for a career change for you either, Hatake,” Genma warned.

“Underwear models,” Ryouma announced, as if he’d been preparing it as a fallback career for years. “I’d beat out Kakashi there.”

Kakashi looked like he’d rather swallow a shotglass full of strychnine than consider modeling.

“The only other viable career for Hatake might be as a household cleaning object,” Katsuko said, after a long, thoughtful stare at Kakashi’s unkempt hair.

Ryouma spun on his wheeled chair and propelled himself backwards to fetch up next to Katsuko and give her a high five. “Katsu’s on my team.”

“And I’ll be well qualified to teach nursery school,” Genma said. “Assuming a resume full of assassinations doesn’t exempt me.” He stretched, taking a deeper breath and twitching his senbon to the other side of his mouth. It was a huge relief to see the team in good spirits despite the morning’s shock. And Kakashi seemed to have taken his performance evaluation to heart: he was, as far as Genma could tell, making a genuine effort to connect with his teammates. If trying to get a rise out of Ryouma counted.

He picked up the grey and red bordered folder Kuroda had delivered before the rest of the team arrived. “Providing we all keep our day jobs, I have some updates about the situation in the capital and the outcome of our mission that you might like to hear.”

Ryouma and Katsuko broke off their celebration of victory in the alternative careers game. Ryouma sat up straighter, leaning in, and Katsuko’s expression sobered quickly, while Kakashi cocked his head in interest without otherwise disturbing his slouch against the wall.

“Operation Swift Blade — our mission was part of it — was highly successful. Of the six teams that took part, only two suffered serious casualties: ours and Team Twelve.” Genma opened the folder and flipped the cover page back. “Teams Eight, Ten, Sixteen, and Twenty-three accomplished their objectives with minimal opposition. Eight and Ten were in western Fire Country, Sixteen was south, and Twenty-three was north-east. There was some evidence that Amegakure and Kumogakure were potential players, but nothing as definitive as the Kirigakure involvement we and Team Twelve uncovered.

“Twelve was one of the splinter teams, like ours, operating fairly close to us. They ran into another group of A- or S-class Mist ninja around the same time we did. Twelve’s captain and lieutenant made it back, badly injured, but Hasebe Goutoku and Yamanaka Michiyo both lost their lives. There will be a service on Friday at 1100.”

Katsuko closed her eyes and nodded once, face still and unreadable. Both of the deceased were veterans, but Genma hadn’t known either of them more than in passing. Maybe Katsuko had been better acquainted with one of them. Or maybe it was just somber respect for comrades who’d given their lives for the village.

Kakashi’s expression didn’t change, but Ryouma’s mouth thinned and he asked, “Is it a closed service? ANBU only? Or do we show up in standard funeral blacks?”

“Standard blacks,” Genma answered. “It’s a regular military funeral. It will be mostly their family and friends. You’re not expected to attend unless you knew them, but you’re certainly welcome to.”

Katsuko’s eyes flicked up in acknowledgment.

“What about their captain and lieutenant?” asked Ryouma.

Genma glanced at his brief. “Endou Tatsuya-taichou has a cervical fracture, but it didn’t displace — he’s not paralyzed. He had a head injury, too, but it looks like he’ll recover. And Domen Saburo-fukuchou may regain the use of his right leg.” He glanced down at his own bandaged thigh. “I guess you can tell Iebara and the Mist ninja who got Saburo trained in the same style.”

“Ayane’s captain nearly lost his leg, too. Hajime.” Ryouma offered. He glanced at Genma. “You knew him, right?””

“Hajime was my last captain, actually,” Genma said. “I’ve been to visit him a couple of times. He thinks he’ll be back captaining a squad in three or four months.” Optimistic, given how much of Hajime’s leg had been damaged, but Genma had seen ninja recover from even more horrific injuries. And Hajime was nothing if not motivated. “He told me he thought they were fighting ninja from Ame, though. The shinobi who almost took his leg off used a jutsu, not a sword.”

“Iebara used jutsu,” Kakashi said, sounding a little bored.

“Iebara used a jutsu to make swords out of blood,” Genma said. “But he still used them like regular blades. Hajime’s hip looked like someone attached a dozen exploding tags to it.” He grimaced, remembering the ugly wound Hajime had shown him and the notes he’d read in Hajime’s chart. The medics were building Hajime a quarter of a new pelvis. He was lucky the jutsu hadn’t penetrated to his viscera, or he probably wouldn’t have survived no matter how good his physicians were.

kakashi 2Kakashi made a soft sound of interest. “Do you know if he caught the jutsu?”

Genma gave him a surprised look. “There were no Uchiha with them, if that’s what you mean. I don’t think they took any prisoners, either.”

Which made this conversation fascinating, but ultimately useless in terms of fixing Team Six’s immediate problems. Dead would stay dead. Hajime wasn’t their captain. Neither addressed Ryouma’s knee, Katsuko’s faintly murderous aura, the challenge to Genma’s teaching credentials, or the three weeks of solid boredom Kakashi had to look forward to.

He said, “So are we going to the hospital?”

Genma’s surprise morphed to confusion. “You want to visit Hajime?”

“What?” Kakashi said. “No, Tousaki needs to get his knee unbroken.”

Katsuko put a hand over her face.

Ryouma said indignantly, “It’s not actually broken!”

Genma was still confused. “You want to go with us while Tousaki has his knee examined and I have my appointment for my leg?”

“If the choice is between going home to stare at my ceiling, and watching Tousaki yelp at medics?” Kakashi said. “Besides, you said you needed a note-taker for your medical thing.”

“But your handwriting looks like someone gave a drunk ferret a pen,” Katsuko said blankly.

Kakashi ignored that. “If you don’t want us to come, I guess Ueno and I can go off alone. Unsupervised. To find whatever diversions appeal.”

Katsuko caught on. “Dangerous diversions,” she supplied gleefully. “Deadly diversions. Pointy diversions.”

Ryouma sighed loudly. “Yeah, you’re giving him personal sword training, you don’t have to rub it in.”

Genma stared at Katsuko. “You’re giving Hatake sword lessons?” Then at Kakashi. “You’re accepting sword lessons?” Before either one of them could answer, his composure snapped back together and became smooth lieutenant judgment. “And it didn’t occur to either of you to run this plan by Taichou or me?”

As someone who’d been in primary control of his interests for most of his life, Kakashi blinked once. “No?”

“Not really,” Katsuko said, equally puzzled but more worried about it.

Genma’s expression softened a little. “There’s no problem with you two training together, but in light of—” he made a small hand gesture that was half a warding sign, “—developments, I think it would be best to avoid surprises. I’d like to be able to at least pretend like I’m aware of what’s going on in the team if Kuroda-san— Kuroda-taichou asks.”

When he put it like that, Kakashi could see the logic.

Katsuko shrugged her good shoulder. “Sorry, Lieutenant,” she said. “There wasn’t really a good time to bring it up, between all the hospitalizations and stuff.”

Genma nodded, but didn’t let them slip the hook that easily. “I’m not entirely sure you never had a chance — we’ve had a couple of status meetings — but I can accept it slipped your mind with everything else going on. Since this ties into both of your performance plans, if you want, we could look at making it creditable coursework.”

Kakashi felt his eyebrows crease. “ ‘Improve your basics’ includes coursework? You didn’t mention that, Lieutenant.”

“You’re expected to do sixty continuing education hours every year just like any other jounin. And working with your senpai to foster better communication and polish your basic skills fits with your ANBU-specific performance goals.” He shrugged. “Why not kill two birds with one stone?”

Katsuko had bridled slightly at Genma’s earlier rebuke, but she hadn’t argued against it. She said now, “How can it count as coursework? I’m not a continuing education teacher.”

“We can get you registered as one,” Genma said. “That’s what I’m doing to teach Tousaki medical jutsu.”

“I’ll think about it, Lieutenant,” Katsuko said politely.

Which meant, no.

Registered teachers had a duty to accept qualified students. They could — theoretically — refuse, but there was a pressure to the position nonetheless. Kakashi smirked behind his mask, and cradled the pleased little feeling of winning a teacher who rejected everyone else. Even if it meant he’d have to make up more hours.

Genma made an open-handed gesture of acceptance: As you like. “Keep me updated on your progress, even if it’s just a report on hours spent working together? It’s team training hours even if it isn’t official continuing ed.”

Katsuko nodded.

In the brief silence that followed, Kakashi looked pointedly at Ryouma’s knee and said, “Now can we get Tousaki unbroken?”

Ryouma’s head jerked up. “You’re all talking like I’m barely keeping my feet. I haven’t held anyone up so far, have I?”

Kakashi opened his mouth to say, Well…, but Katsuko’s quiet voice got there first.

“It hurts, though, doesn’t it?” she said, soft. “When the weather’s bad, or after a hard fight.” Her hand settled on her stomach, where deep scars lived under her shirt. “Nobody should have to go through unnecessary pain. Especially not when we’re already putting our bodies on the line for the village.”

Sometimes she was a knife who could make her edges gentle.

Ryouma’s palm covered his left knee, fingertips pressing into the tendons around the joint. Low, he said, “Yeah, but it works now. What if surgery makes it worse?” His shoulders hiked up defensively, as if he expected one of them to hit him for this relatively typical concern. He shot a look at Genma. “I’ll go. I already said I would.”

“It isn’t necessarily surgery,” Genma said. “You’re just getting it evaluated today. Maybe it’s something that can be treated with chakra-based PT.” His face remained calm, but his eyes were sympathetic when he added, “If they do recommend surgery, you’d be in good hands. ANBU are scarce resources; no one’s going to risk disabling you.”

Kakashi traded a glance with Katsuko, measuring his good eye against the hand she still held over her patchwork stomach. You could go a long way, even after a surgeon’s knife.

They held their silence, letting Ryouma have the space to think.

Ryouma’s fingers flexed against the joint, making his kneecap slide and pop. He relaxed and turned his hand over to reveal the livid pink scar on the inside of his wrist, where Akiyama had tried to end his career and Konoha medics had restored it. “Well, they did okay before.” He straightened his shoulders. “If we’re all going, we should get breakfast on the way.”

Katsuko brightened up. “Are you buying?”

ryouma 1“I bought you dinner last night,” Ryouma pointed out. “Both of you.”

He owed Genma too, though. The tally kept getting longer.

“I’ll buy if we go somewhere with good coffee,” he said. “We should probably get changed, though.” Except he was pretty sure he hadn’t replaced the clean tee-shirt and jeans he’d pulled out of his locker yesterday, when he’d gotten dressed up in uniform for no good reason at all.

He eyed Kakashi, who was nondescript in blacks but probably only kept a second set of uniforms in his locker, and Genma, who would almost certainly want any clean civvies for himself. “Do either of you have a spare shirt?”

“I have the shirt you’re currently wearing, two sizes smaller,” Kakashi offered. “Is this going to be a topless breakfast?”

Genma gazed levelly at them both. “We’re at HQ. The dorms are five minutes away. Or are you out of laundry?”

Ryouma had spent a good chunk of the last three days in laundry hell, but that was mostly team uniforms. He pushed out of his chair reluctantly. The knee didn’t buckle, barely ached, but that was normal. Not even worth noticing, except he did keep noticing it now.

Unnecessary pain, Katsuko said. Was it?

“I can meet you in the lobby,” he said. “Or in the village. Maybe Higher Grounds. You know it?”

“Yeah, that place’s coffee is strong enough to make my teeth vibrate.” Katsuko sounded immensely cheered by the prospect. “Can you start a tab at a coffee shop? Because I’m going to start a tab for you while we wait.”

“I’ll hurry.” Ryouma sketched the vaguest of salutes and let himself out of the office.

The heavy door didn’t quite latch shut behind him. He turned, surprised, to see Kakashi slipping through.

“Decided you wanted something better than blacks?” Ryouma asked.

Kakashi shrugged one shoulder and fell into step beside him. He didn’t seem inclined to conversation. Maybe he’d used up all his emotional energy actually giving a damn about Ryouma’s knee, and now had to regroup to gather more. Maybe he was just trying to decide what shade of black to change into for breakfast.

The stairs up to the ground floor didn’t seem to wind him; he was recovering, too, even though he still looked as if a strongish breeze might knock him down. He had to grip the hand-rail by the end, but he managed to make it look as if he were just glancing up the narrow staircase to the flight above them, where someone was hurrying toward the upper floors in what sounded like wooden-soled festival geta. The clacking echoed through the stairwell until a door banged shut, high above.

Kakashi reached the last stair, pushed himself off the rail, and stopped to hold the lobby door open. Another few seconds’ rest, Ryouma thought, and dawdled his way through the door. He shortened his stride to an easier pace as they crossed the lobby and broke out into sunlight.

Kakashi said, “How many medical words do you know?”

Ryouma broke stride, caught himself, and deliberately pushed on. “After five minutes’ thinking, I expected a more impressive opening line.”

“I’ll take that as ‘less than ten,’“ Kakashi said.

“You can take it any way you want it.” Ryouma tilted his face up to the clear spring sky. He was doing a remarkable job of not phrasing that sentence in any of three significantly more offensive ways, he thought. Genma would be proud of him. “Are you offering to teach me?”

“The one subject I really fail at?” Irony curled through Kakashi’s voice. “Only if you want to make dead fish blow up. But I could help with the words, if the lieutenant provides them.”

Ryouma stopped walking.

“Or not, if it’s interfering,” Kakashi said warily. He stood just out of arm’s reach, watching.

“It’s not,” Ryouma said. He tucked his thumbs behind his belt and gripped tight, hard leather biting into his palms. “It’s— That’d help. Having someone to drill with, like we did with the hand signals. I’d appreciate it. Thanks.”

Kakashi’s mouth quirked. “I didn’t say you’d like it.”

“I didn’t like it when you threw hand-code flash-cards at my head, either,” Ryouma said, and started off toward the barracks again. “I learned ‘em, though.”

He still couldn’t quite believe any of this was real—at least the medical training part of it; Kuroda was all too believable. Genma might mean it, and Raidou might support it, but Kuroda could put a stop to anything he deemed a waste of time or energy. And as lieutenant, at least until Raidou got back, Genma would have to obey.

But Kuroda hadn’t shut Kakashi down when he’d offered to transcribe. And Kakashi’d meant that offer, Ryouma was starting to realize. Had meant it last night, when he’d said Ryouma’d be good at medic training.

Team Six believed in him. Who cared if Kuroda didn’t?

Katsuko and Genma beat them to the coffee shop, but not by much. When Ryouma and Kakashi slipped inside, nondescript in civvies, Katsuko was leaning up against the cash register with a tall coffee in one hand and a sparkling smile for the woman behind the counter. The bartender, a slim redhead with a pierced eyebrow and tattooed wrists, was smiling back.

Well, that explained why that particular bartender never seemed to remember Ryouma’s name.

Genma had achieved a booth with a good view of all the exits and was still occupied in trying to stow his crutches without tripping passers-by. Kakashi took over wordlessly, balancing the crutches atop the long back of the booth before he slid in opposite Genma. Ryouma lingered in the aisle. “You ordered already, Lieutenant?”

“I asked Ueno to get me a large coffee with soy, but she might have been distracted enough to forget.” He flicked an amused smile back to the counter, where Katsuko had succeeded in winning a laugh.

Kakashi folded his arms on the table and rested his chin on his stacked fists. “Do they do tea here, or just coffee and first dates?”

I’ve never gotten a date here,” Ryouma said. It was one reason he kept coming back; there was no awkwardness to avoid. “What kind of tea? Do either of you want food?”

“Green.” Kakashi slid a glance across the table at Genma and conceded, “And anything savory.”

Genma smiled in lieutenantly satisfaction, and nodded toward the bakery case. “How about a few of those salted yolk steamed buns? Enough for all of us. We need to get the taste of the meeting this morning out of our mouths.”

“If enough for all of us includes Katsuko, we’re gonna wipe them out. Green tea, soy coffee, every pastry they’ve got. Got it.” Ryouma nodded briskly and struck off before Genma could make good on the beginnings of a wallet-grab.

The bakery case had suffered from the ravages of an early morning clientele, but there were still plenty of savory buns mixed in with sweet bread and cream cakes. Ryouma lounged up beside Katsuko and smiled sunnily at her new conquest. “Do we get a discount?”

katsuko 12Katsuko blinked and looked at Ryouma, then back at their booth, where the lieutenant was waiting patiently for his—

“Large coffee with soy, right,” she remembered guiltily. “I was supposed to order more than one thing. Sorry, Emi-san.”

The coffee shop girl, Emi, dimpled at her, and Katsuko almost immediately forgot what she was going to say next. Ryouma just looked extremely entertained and offered no assistance whatsoever.

“Take your time, Katsuko-san,” Emi said. “Your friend mentioned discounts. I think I could wrangle one up for you, if you tell me whether you’re free later tonight.”

Katsuko grinned and leaned in. “Well, actually…”

Ryouma stage-whispered, “Green tea. Salted yolk steamed buns. Large coffee with caramel and cream. You’re free tonight. Stay safe.”

“Ah,” Katsuko said. Ryouma dropped money on the counter and made his escape while Emi continued to dimple at her. “Yeah. What he said.”

Several minutes later, Katsuko had won a twenty percent discount, a laugh from Emi, and a promise to go dancing later that night that was accompanied by a roguish wink that did things to her toes. She sauntered back to Team Six’s booth laden with food and a general feeling of self-satisfaction.

Kakashi looked up, still resting his chin on his hands, and informed her, “We starved to death while you seduced the locals. What happened to team solidarity?”

“There, there,” Katsuko said, and comfortingly placed a wrapped bun on his folded elbow as a form of apology. “Here you go. I hope you feel better.”

Kakashi considered the bun. Genma, looking amused, offered his own elbow for bun placement. Katsuko obliged him and then turned to bestow the biggest bun upon Ryouma.

“You,” she declared. “Are the best wingman.”

Ryouma gravely accepted the bun with both hands like a samurai receiving a katana from his liege lord. “We can do lessons on conversational skills for next time.”

Katsuko very briefly considered taking the bun back, but conceded that her flirting this time had perhaps not been up to her usual standards. It was pure luck that Emi had found it charming instead of off-putting. “As long as you don’t grade me.”

“He’d have to register as an instructor with the Continuing Ed office if he wanted to grade you,” Genma said. “Probably not worth the hassle.” He put his bun down and reached for his coffee, swirling the cup a few times. “Besides, our new ‘captain’ would probably interfere if you did.”

Ryouma looked a little dreamy. “Yeah, but imagine getting continuing ed credits for a class on flirting. It might be worth it.”

Katsuko contemplated being graded on some of the truly horrible lines she’d used to pick up her last few one-night stands and took a huge gulp from the coffee cup in her hand to hide her shudder. “No, thanks. My natural charisma doesn’t sound as good on a report card as it does in real life.”

“As fascinating as this is, can we return to Planet Sanity?” Kakashi drawled. His egg bun was still resting on his elbow. Katsuko kept an opportunistic eye on it in case he forgot it was there.

“I was unaware we were ever on that planet to begin with,” Genma said.

Ryouma started peeling the rice paper wrapper off the bottom off his egg bun. “It’s been that kinda morning. Maybe we’ll all wake up and it’ll be one of the lieutenant’s nightmares.” He downed half the bun in one bite and added indistinctly, “Pretty sure Kakashi’s nightmares’d have more naked people throwing themselves at him.”

Genma sputtered his coffee. Katsuko silently handed him a napkin from the dispenser on the table.

“True,” Kakashi said without even trying to sound offended. He slid the bun off his elbow and started to peel it, not bothering to lift his head.

“And Katsuko’s nightmares’d be… a day-long meeting with no snacks and no napping.” Ryouma considered her. “So the first part of the morning could’ve been your nightmare after all.”

“What’s yours, Tousaki? A dystopian future with no coffee and no hair products?” Genma asked.

Ryouma tousled his admittedly attractive hair and looked gravely off into the distance. “And no reflective surfaces.”

Genma’s professional veneer cracked enough for him to let out an appreciative laugh. It was a little startling still whenever the lieutenant did something to remind Katsuko that he wasn’t all that much older than she was, but she didn’t dislike it.

Katsuko sipped her coffee and slid her gaze over to Kakashi, who was unwrapping his bun slowly enough that she suspected he was asleep. “Are you gonna eat that?” she asked. “Or are you just gonna hold it gently, like it’s a baby?”

“I’ll give it to you if you say one sentence like a normal human being,” Kakashi told his folded arms.

“I’d appreciate it if you gave me your bun, since you seem to be having difficulty with it,” Katsuko said, sweetly.

“Close,” Kakashi said. “But normal humans let sleeping ninja lie.” The bun vanished underneath his arms, presumably into his face.

“How do you know how normal humans are supposed to act? Did you read it in a book somewhere, or did you Sharingan some poor random civilian?” Katsuko shook her head and put her coffee down to steal part of Ryouma’s bun. Ryouma looked at her in hurt betrayal; Kakashi took advantage of the opportunity to steal Ryouma’s coffee.

Genma, who was leaning back and enjoying the show, pulled his own coffee protectively closer to himself when Ryouma attempted revenge by stealing Katsuko’s coffee in turn. Genma’s coffee remained unharmed, but Ryouma’s vengeance backfired when Katsuko took the rest of his bun and bit into it with wrath and relish.

There was a quiet little hrk of disgust from Kakashi. Ryouma’s drink reappeared next to Ryouma’s elbow, wreathed in a cloud of disapproval. “What is wrong with your tastebuds?” Kakashi demanded.

“Says the man who doesn’t even chew his food before stuffing it in his mask,” Katsuko muttered. Genma waved his hand at Katsuko like a referee at a sumo match, awarding her the takedown.

Normal humans like sugar in coffee,” Ryouma informed Kakashi. Katsuko’s coffee cup was still captive in one of Ryouma’s thieving hands. He used his other hand to reclaim the coffee Kakashi had returned and held both drinks close to himself like a dragon gloating over its hoard.

Kakashi snorted softly and resettled his head on his arms again. “Like any of you know what normal is.”

“My dad’s a civilian,” Genma pointed out. “I’ve got twenty-one years of observational data.”

Shiranui Yuuichi, during the brief times Katsuko had interacted with him, was sweet and caring and obviously a loving father. One thing he was not, however, was normal, and she had an awkward ten minutes spent devouring matcha buns while Yuuichi watched her like a nature documentary over the unconscious body of his son to prove it.

“Uh,” Katsuko said. Then she went for the noble route and finished with, “I like your dad. He’s nice.”

“He always asks me about you.” Genma grinned at her, pleased. “He baked these buns, actually.” He pointed at the little card in the display case of baked goods; when Katsuko squinted, she could make out the Shiranui bakery logo on the crisp paper.

Ryouma glanced down at the crumbled remains of his bun wrapper, which was all the bun Katsuko had left him with. “Really? He’s good.”

The last time Katsuko had talked with Yuuichi, she’d accidentally made him think her parents were dead and then accidentally revealed that her parents probably wouldn’t visit her in the hospital even though they were, in fact, alive. It hadn’t been her most shining moment. Still, Yuuichi’s thoughtfulness made her chest feel warm and her mouth lift in a smile.

“Do you think he’ll give me free buns?” Katsuko said, refusing to give in to sentiment when the possibility of food she didn’t have to pay for hovered on the horizon.

“The day olds, if they don’t sell by the end of the second day, definitely. I can show you how to revive them in a steamer.”

Katsuko’s standards when it came to food weren’t high; how could they be, when she needed to fuel the hungry engine of her chakra almost constantly, or else risk being eaten in turn by her own ravenous energy coils? Day-old buns were perfect as long as there were a lot of them, with or without revival in a steamer.

Still, there was eating simply to survive and actually enjoying what she ate. Katsuko gave Genma a grateful nod and a smile. “Thanks, Lieutenant.”

genma 10The remainder of the hour sped by. Everyone regained possession of their personal beverages, and the buns disappeared, mostly into Katsuko. For a morning that had begun with the soul-crushing realization that Kuroda was their interim captain, the day was shaping up remarkably well. Even with Asuma’s grief, his and Genma’s housing situation to worry over, and the unresolved question of Raidou’s return — he would return; the alternative was best not speculated about — Genma was lighthearted. As were the rest of Team Six, judging by the banter. Genma was convinced he’d even seen Kakashi smile. He allowed himself a moment of pride; few of the other new teams were gelling as well, and none of them had run two harrowing missions that landed half the team in the hospital and gotten their captains suspended as their Welcome-to-ANBU package.

“It’s quarter to eleven,” he said, finally, nudging Ryouma’s leg with his knee. “Tousaki and I need to head over to the hospital now if I’m going to have time to get him set up with the right people before my appointment.”

Ryouma groaned like a sulky teenager, but he shoved over so Genma could get out of the booth, and by the time Genma was ready to stand, Ryouma had his crutches ready and waiting for him.

Katsuko made an aggrieved sound into her empty coffee cup.

“You two really don’t have to come with us,” Genma said. He let Ryouma help him stand. “It’s just going to be boring medical stuff.”

“It’s just a cave,” Kakashi deadpanned. “Couldn’t possibly be full of demons. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“You might get lost, Lieutenant,” Katsuko added brightly. “Or kidnapped. We should be there to help.”

Kakashi may have had a fair point buried under the sarcasm. Or not. “We knew there were demons going in, just not how many, or how big,” Genma countered. “The hospital is more likely to have unpalatable food and merciless physical therapists, but who am I to turn down a free ANBU escort? Our clients pay top dollar for that kind of bodyguarding.”

“Top tier bodyguarding,” Katsuko agreed, peering into her coffee cup in vain hopes of discovering more. “Yup.”

“We’ll expect a tip,” said Kakashi. He got to his feet as soon as Katsuko had vacated their side of the table.

“Twenty percent of nothing…” Ryouma mused. “Wait, I know that. That’s nothing, right?”

“Bodyguarding isn’t a service industry,” Katsuko informed Kakashi. “If you want a tip, you mug them for it after the bodyguarding is done.”

“This is why neither of you get bodyguarding jobs.” Kakashi went ahead of them to hold the door open for Genma.

“Ueno, you’ve got that inverted,” Genma told her. “We don’t rob our clients; we want them to hire us again. We rob our client’s enemies.”

“What if you genjutsu the client to think you’re the enemy and then you rob them?” Katsuko asked. Most of the late morning traffic in the street paid them no attention, but a couple of adolescent genin did a poor job of pretending they weren’t eavesdropping.

“Well,” Genma said as if he were considering it, “assuming you don’t get court-martialed and executed, and assuming Taichou hasn’t caught you first, skinned you alive, and nailed your hide to the office door as a warning to everyone else…” He cocked his head at Katsuko. “How are they going to pay for the mission if you’ve robbed them? Or pay for another mission? Repeat business is really important to Konoha’s revenue stream.”

“And that’s why you should study basic economics, children,” Katsuko told the genin, who turned maple-leaf red at having been caught. While they beat a hasty retreat into the nearest shop, she watched Genma, eyes tracking his bandaged leg as it pendulumed forward on his crutches.

Had she been stalling for time to disguise the fact they were slowing their pace to match Genma’s? The more time Genma spent with her, the more layers he discovered. He was beginning to understand what made Raidou so fond of her.

Fortunately the coffee shop was reasonably close to the hospital. Even with their considerate pace, Genma’s shoulders and arms were sore by the time they got there. Crutches were a surprisingly good triceps workout.

Ryouma got the door this time, beating Kakashi to it by a few precious seconds. Kakashi gave Ryouma a cold side-eye, and Genma had to stifle a laugh. The rivalry between Team Six’s rookies extended even to courtesy. In Kakashi, at least, competing to show consideration for an injured comrade was probably a sign of genuine personal development. Ryouma smiled smugly and held the door even wider, with a little sweep of his free hand to usher Kakashi through.

Katsuko sauntered through the held door with her head high as if it were entirely her due. Which, as Ryouma’s senpai, it was, of course. Kakashi was close on her heels, doing his best to project an aura of supreme unconcern.

Genma nodded his head at Ryouma as he crutched through after his team, still buttoning his lips around a smile. “Thank you.”

“Always a pleasure,” Ryouma replied, with another little hand flourish.

“It’s like you’re practicing for an undercover mission as a house servant for nobility,” Genma said. “I hate to disappoint, but that kind of mission isn’t something we’re likely to get assigned.”

“I’m holding out hope for an undercovers mission,” Ryouma said, totally straight faced.

Kakashi groaned. Katsuko rolled her eyes. Genma just sighed.

“We’ve avoided kidnapping and demons so far, thanks to your excellent bodyguarding,” he told Katsuko and Kakashi, letting Ryouma’s terrible pun die the ignoble death it deserved. “Orthopedics is upstairs. That’s where my appointment is, and where Tousaki can get his knee assessed.”

On the ride up, Ryouma slouched against the elevator wall, deliberately casual in a way that suggested he wasn’t feeling casual at all.

“Ready for this?” Genma asked him.

Ryouma shrugged. Probably not, then, but since it was a direct order that he get the knee taken care of, he didn’t have a choice.

Genma was torn between sympathy and duty. “The ortho docs are all pretty nice,” he said, groping for something reassuring that wasn’t patronizing. “If we tell them you’re about to take the intro field-medic course, they’ll probably adopt you on the spot. We can ask if you could come observe my treatment session as soon as they’re done with you.”

Ryouma’s smile looked as if it cost him some effort. “Like I needed another reason to hope it’s over quickly.” He shoved off the wall as the elevator doors opened on their floor. “Thanks, Lieutenant. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“I’m not worried,” Genma said. He smiled back to show he meant it, and led the way towards the orthopedics department.

kakashi boredFor trained shinobi, they were both terrible liars.

Kakashi traded a glance with Katsuko, who offered an unrevealing look in return. By mutual accord they trailed after their teammates.

The orthopedics receptionist was short and perky, with a slicked back hairstyle that shined like black glass. He smiled the entire way through Genma’s introduction, and continued to smile through the explanation of Ryouma’s problem. Kakashi mistrusted him on principle.

“You’re in luck!” the receptionist chirped. “Niimi-sensei had a cancellation this morning. She could see you in ten minutes.”

“Oh,” Ryouma said, flat as slate. “Good.”

“He’ll take it,” Genma said firmly.

“Okay! Then I just need you to fill in these forms detailing the issue, and sign here, and— oh, is this right?” The receptionist flipped around the file Genma had given him, indicating the line that said ‘functionally illiterate’.

Ryouma gave the file a blank look. Because he couldn’t read it.

Kakashi’s estimation of the receptionist took another dive.

“That’s correct,” Genma said, with calm professionalism and only a flicker of hidden annoyance.

Katsuko reached across and took the paperwork. “I’ve got it.”

The broad muscles in Ryouma’s shoulders bunched under his t-shirt, then deliberately relaxed. “Thanks,” he told Katsuko. “What kind of details does it need?”

She scanned down the form. “Cause, location, duration.”

It occurred to Kakashi that Ryouma had never, actually, said how he’d hurt his knee.

There was a telling hesitation, then Ryouma said, “Got my knee kicked in about ten years ago. Walked on it a couple months before I saw a medic. Stiffens up now after too much strain or in bad weather sometimes, but it never buckled under me in a fight.”

Ten years ago would’ve put Ryouma at genin-team age, maybe even chuunin, if he’d advanced early. A decent jounin-sensei would’ve dragged him to see a medic at the moment of injury, but the war had changed a lot of priorities.

Kakashi tilted his head, trying to square that perfectly reasonable explanation with the ashamed tilt of Ryouma’s mouth.

Katsuko took dutiful notes, asked a few more questions (assisted by Genma’s prompting), added the answers, and handed the forms back to the receptionist. They all took a seat on one of the benches lining the room, and sat in awkward silence while the clock ticked the morning away.

“Soooo…” Katsuko began, with the thoughtful lilt that always spelled trouble.

A door opened on the other side of the room before she could finish. “Shiranui?” a nurse called.

Genma let out a relieved breath. “I’m here,” he said, grabbing for his crutches and levering to his feet. He gave them a last collective look — warning to Katsuko and Kakashi, warmer to Ryouma. “I’ll tell the doctors to let you observe my session when your appointment’s done.”

Ryouma nodded stiffly.

To Kakashi and Katsuko, Genma added, “If you want to continue the mission, I should be done in ninety minutes or less.”

Kakashi flicked a two-fingered salute of acknowledgement. Katsuko smiled, small but amused, and gave the lieutenant a little farewell wave as he crutched through the door.

Ryouma’s foot bounced on the tile floor, jogging his good knee. He slid a sidelong look at them. “You sure you two don’t want to distract the receptionist while I ghost out the door?”

“And watch the embarrassment of your knee buckling while you run away?” Kakashi said.

A pointy elbow drove into his side, briefly making a rib flex inwards. He coughed and gave Katsuko a sour look. “What?”

She returned him a thoroughly unimpressed look. “Nothing. There was a fly on your shirt. I got it for you, though.”

“So helpful,” Ryouma told both of them. His eyes were fixed on the door.

It opened, eventually, ending the agony of waiting and removing the possibility of a last-minute escape. The nurse who’d summoned Genma away smiled kindly at them and said, “Tousaki? The doctor will see you now.”

Ryouma shoved himself upright with the air of a man facing the gallows. Katsuko followed closely on his heels, serene as a bodhisattva and clearly prepared to shiv anyone who looked at him sideways. Kakashi trailed after them both.

Niimi-sensei’s office was small, neatly appointed, and plastered with medical posters of joints and ligaments. The nurse took Ryouma’s height, weight, and blood pressure, tsking quietly at the last one, and cheerfully bullied him into a hospital gown that barely came down to his knees. (“The doctor will want to see your whole leg!”) She installed him on a padded table, offered Kakashi a stool, and whisked away to fetch the doctor. Katsuko stalked around the room, suspiciously poking small models of knee-joints and sniffing at a jar of sterile swabs. Ryouma fisted his hands in his lap. Kakashi muffled a yawn.

The door swept open. “Tousaki-san, thanks for waiting! It’s been a madhouse today.”

Kakashi looked up — and further up. Niimi-sensei was a tall, rake-thin woman with short white hair, a friendly smile, and legs even longer than Ryouma’s. She had to duck her head to make it through the door. Flowery green scrubs peeked out from beneath a white coat. A stethoscope hung haphazardly around her neck. Fine lines framed dark eyes. She could have been a worn thirty or a well-preserved sixty, it was impossible to tell.

Ryouma offered a tense attempt at a smile.

“So,” she said, flipping open a chart to show the paperwork Katsuko had filled in. “I understand you’re here about a trick knee. Let me guess — ‘please, sensei, anything but surgery!’ Am I right?”

“Can’t really afford the downtime,” Ryouma said, watching her warily. He did not seem overwhelmed with confidence by her sunny demeanor. “It’s not that bad, but my lieutenant wanted me to get it looked at.”

“Sounds like a lieutenant,” she said, and crossed the room to crouch down in front of Ryouma. It put her head about level with his sternum. “Let’s get it looked at, then.”

The following twenty minutes were about as anticlimactic as Kakashi had expected. The doctor felt up and down Ryouma’s entire leg, testing the range and flexibility of his hip, knee, and ankle. She watched him walk around the room. Examined the knee joint with delicate, careful fingers. Asked him to explain the exact sequence of events that had caused the original injury; Ryouma described a heavy kick against the side of his knee that had twisted his leg, buckled the joint, and dropped him down hard on his kneecap. He didn’t go into further details.

Lastly, Niimi-sensei settled down into a lotus seat, cupped her hands around Ryouma’s knee, and closed her eyes. There was a soft frisson of energy as her chakra expanded, soaking into the joint. Ryouma’s fingers whitened on the edge of the table. The doctor hummed softly, like a woman might soothe a spooked horse, and brushed her fingers around the back of his knee, tracing the lines of the ligaments. Her eyes moved from side to side behind closed lids. Kakashi leaned forward, interested. Katsuko had been within neck-breaking distance for the entire exam; she leaned forward too, peering over the doctor’s shoulder.

The whisper of energy faded. Niimi-sensei dropped her hands into her lap and let out a breath. She opened her eyes.

“I’ll want a Hyuuga to confirm, but I’d put money on a lateral meniscus tear.” She tapped the outside edge of Ryouma’s kneecap gently. “Right here. If that is the case, it’s good news.”

Ryouma’s hand stole down to touch the edge of his kneecap, exactly as she had, but his eyes stayed fixed on the doctor. Kakashi wasn’t sure if he was even aware of the gesture. “How’s that?” Ryouma asked.

Niimi-sensei sat back up on her heels and grabbed a model of a kneecap off a nearby cabinet. “Okay, here’s your knee,” she said. She pointed at two grey discs surrounding the joint. “These are your menisci. You’ve studied this in basic anatomy, right?”

Ryouma nodded vaguely. Kakashi’s memory of basic anatomy — taught in the harried moments between battles, missions, and funerals — recalled exhausted medics and an annotated scroll with X’s slashed across the best places to disable an enemy. Knees had been included. He’d learned much more from Rin.

Niimi-sensei visibly recalibrated. “Your menisci act as shock absorbers. Walking puts up to two times your body weight on the joint. Running puts about eight times your body weight on the joint. So when your knee bends, like this,” she demonstrated with the model, “the back part of the menisci take most of the pressure. Without them—” she removed the two discs, and re-bent the knee, making a nasty scraping sound. Ryouma winced. “You get too much pressure on a narrow area, which damages the cartilage that caps your bones. Following me so far?”

Ryouma nodded much more certainly. “That medic who healed it first said I’d messed it up more by walking on it. She didn’t really explain things, though. Just did a chakra-healing — one of those really intense sessions with the seals and everything — and then sent me out. I could run again, afterwards.”

Niimi-sensei sighed. “That’s about standard for the war. Things are better now, but—” She waved a hand dismissively. “Anyway, back to you. When you took a twisting impact and fell on the kneecap, you tore the inner edge of the lateral meniscus. A pretty good tear, I’m guessing. That initial healing fixed the worst of it, but there’s still some instability in there. And probably some scar tissue or adhesions from your body’s own attempt to heal, which is gunking up the joint. The good news is that your knee isn’t locking up on you, which means I can recommend a conservative approach. No open surgery.”

Ryouma drew a deep, relieved breath and let it out. Some of the tension rolled away from his shoulders. “That is good news.”

“Now here’s the stern doctorly warning,” Niimi-sensei said, but her voice stayed warm. “Since you’ve had this for ten years and it’s not improving, we need to do something, otherwise the joint will continue to degenerate and you’re going to end up with arthritis in your thirties. Which’d give you this knee joint.” She leaned back and captured another model. This one had ragged, deflated discs and rough, red edges where the bones touched. She handed it to Ryouma. “If you go down that route, the joint will get more unstable, more painful, and you’ll be at a higher risk for a more drastic tear.”

Ryouma turned the model between long, brown fingers, studying its broken shape. Behind the doctor, Katsuko’s meaningful look could have heated steel.

Very quietly, Ryouma spat, “Damn him.”

Kakashi didn’t think he meant Genma.

Ryouma jerked his chin up, looking at Niimi-sensei with an angry, resigned twist pulling his mouth sideways. “So what you really mean is, it’d end my career anyway, if I live that long. Guess it’s a good thing the lieutenant sent me in.”

“Yep,” Niimi-sensei said, with cheerful sympathy. “Ready to hear your options?”

Ryouma handed the model back. “Lay ‘em out, sensei.”

Kakashi glanced at the ceiling and sent up a brief, silent whisper of gratitude for common sense finally prevailing. Katsuko leaned across the doctor to give Ryouma’s shoulder a quick squeeze.

“One, intensive rehabilitation. In my opinion that’s the next step up from doing nothing, and it’s not my favorite. It’s the least invasive, but it’d be time-consuming and, most likely, a stop-gap. But if you want to get back out in the field immediately, you could consider it. I’d recommend a supportive brace to tide you over, too.”

“I have one already,” Ryouma said. “Helps a little.”

Niimi-sensei nodded. “Option two is chakra surgery. I’d go in with two specialists and work inside the joint to repair the remaining tear, debride the scar tissue, and free up any adhesions. We’d have to do it over three or four sessions to allow for inflammation and the body’s natural healing processes, but it’d be minimally invasive — no scalpels — and the downtime is significantly shorter than open surgery. I’ve had very good results in the past with that approach. You’d likely get a return to full function, with little or no pain. You’d have to wear an orthopedic brace for a few months, and you’d be off missions for at least two weeks, but I think that’d be the best option for your long-term prospects.”

Ryouma leaned forward, elbows braced on his thighs. “And with that one — the chakra surgery option — it wouldn’t develop into arthritis? I mean, I know you can’t make promises, sensei, but — it wouldn’t cripple me out.”

Niimi-sensei smiled and patted an open palm on his knee. “For an itty-bitty wrinkle like this? I’ve had people bounce back from full avulsions — tendons torn right off the bone. This little guy should’ve been fixed years ago, and I can’t give you a full estimate until I really get in there and look around, but at first blush, I’d say you have a long and healthy career of shinobi-thumping ahead of you.”

Ryouma stared down at her for a moment, balanced on a perfect moment of blankness, then the corner of his mouth curled into the first shadow of an incredulous smile. “Sensei, you can’t give me that kinda news when you’re in kissing range.”

Niimi-sensei rocked back on her heels and laughed, loud and full of snorting. Behind her, Katsuko mouthed oh my god.

On principle, Kakashi picked up one of the abandoned meniscus discs from the first model and flipped it at Ryouma’s head. Ryouma dodged without looking, and Kakashi felt his mouth curve behind his mask. That was the Ryouma he remembered from Trials.

“Before you get carried away, I need to tell you the third and final option,” Niimi-sensei said. “That’d be the scorched earth tactic, where we go in the old-fashioned way. It’d give me the best look at your actual joint, and I’d be able to manually fix the problem, but your recovery time would be a lot longer, and you’d face all the usual issues of open surgery — bleeding, scarring, risk of infection. There’s also a possibility of further adhesions.” Her eyes twinkled at him. “Choose carefully, youngster.”

“You’re making this awfully hard, sensei.” Ryouma was grinning now, pure relief pouring off him like steam. “Turns out my teammates’ve guaranteed me two weeks off missions, anyway.” He jerked a head at Katsuko’s sling-bound arm and Kakashi’s… everything. “How soon can I schedule a chakra-healing session?”

Niimi-sensei grabbed a thick, leather-bound scheduler off her desk and thumbed through its dog-eared pages. “I have a free slot this Friday at 0600.”

Ryouma hesitated. “I’ve got a funeral service to attend at 1100.”

Niimi-sensei flipped a page. “How about that afternoon at 1400? I have a cancellation in my last slot, and I’d rather not have you doing anything but lying down afterwards.”

Ryouma’s mouth tugged. With apparent supreme force of will, he swallowed the joke he clearly wanted to make and just said, “That’d work. Thanks, sensei.”

Katsuko gave him a suspicious, dark-eyed stare, but didn’t otherwise comment.

The doctor penciled a note into her scheduler. “Excellent. It was a pleasure to meet you, Tousaki.” She glanced back and tipped a wink at Katsuko. “And your entourage.”

Katsuko flipped her most charming smile on like a lightbulb, as if she hadn’t been alternatively plotting death or pulling faces at the doctor’s back for the last ten minutes. “I’m always happy to meet people who are taller than Tousaki, Niimi-sensei.”

“You and my tailor both,” Niimi-sensei said. “Us lengthy people are single-handedly keeping the clothing industry of Konoha employed.” She stood up again, achieving a height that made Kakashi physically tilt his head back, and stretched her back, popping several vertebrae. “I need to get on with my next victim. I understand you have a visitor’s pass to see the chakra healing down the hallway?”

“Our lieutenant,” Kakashi said.

“Ah, that explains it,” Niimi-sensei said dryly. “Good luck to the man, then. Third door on the left. I trust you can find your way?”

Ryouma hopped cheerfully off the table. The top of his head came up to the doctor’s chin. “We’ll start leaving trail-sign if we get too lost.”

Kakashi cleared his throat and, when the entire room looked at him, tipped an ironic look at the back of Ryouma’s hospital gown, which had flapped open enough to reveal a pair of dark red trunks. “Pants first.”

He expected Katsuko to say Or not, but the presence of the doctor seemed to quell something in her. Instead, she picked up Ryouma’s pants and tossed them helpfully at his face.

Ryouma caught and skinned into them easily enough, since they were looser jounin blues, and zipped up the fly. “I’ll see you Friday, sensei. Thanks.”

Niimi-sensei gave him a cheery wave and departed.

In the silence that followed, Ryouma stripped off the flapping gown and pulled his shirt on, transforming from beleaguered hospital patient to only-somewhat-rumpled shinobi. There was an ease to him now, increasing every second as the news sank in and grounded in his bones, becoming fact. Kakashi could almost hear the beat of it: My career isn’t over.

“Ten years is a long time to be in pain,” Katsuko said quietly. Her hands hung loose and open, nowhere near her stomach. “I’m glad you saw Niimi-sensei.”

Ryouma looked at her with a quick, flashing smile. Relief and gratitude made his face open and young. “Thanks for holding my hand and punting my ass all the way in here. Both of you.”

Kakashi snorted. “The lieutenant made you. I just came to make sure you didn’t jump out of a window.”

“Yeah, well, the lieutenant’s going to be pretty smug when he hears about this. He’ll deserve it.” Ryouma bent his knee a little, bringing his foot off the floor. For just a moment his eyes went unfocused and his mouth tightened.

Pain, Kakashi recognized. Not much, not crippling, but acknowledged. A decade was plenty of time to practice ignoring something — half of Ryouma’s life, in fact.

Ryouma shook his head and came back to himself, grinning. “D’you think he’d take a grateful kiss?”

Katsuko’s bodhisattva expression had returned. “We could still probably fit him through the window,” she told Kakashi. “If we threw him hard enough.”

Kakashi looked consideringly at Ryouma.

Injured knee aside, Ryouma still had an excellent turn of speed when he scrambled out of the room and fled back to the safety of Genma’s common sense.

(The lieutenant was smug, but he had the decency to hide it. Mostly.)



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