May 15, Yondaime Year 5
The door slid shut behind Ryouma and left silence in his wake. Katsuko flicked her kunai back into its holster, eying the tension in Kakashi’s stance. She knew by now that the shuttered opacity of his gaze meant something was troubling him.
Katsuko hadn’t told Ryouma about the officer prep courses. She wanted to hold the knowledge close for now, to take out and examine later when she was alone. She’d felt guilty, then. Now she was just glad; if she’d told Ryouma, she’d have had to tell Kakashi, too, and even she knew it was tactless to answer someone’s bad news with news of your own personal fortune. But could it really be counted as fortune if she had to do homework?
Leaving Kakashi alone with his cloud of dark thoughts to go back to her apartment felt… wrong. Besides, she’d missed him and Ryouma. She was already used to seeing them several hours a day for training. Two days on her own felt odd.
“Hey,” she said at last. Kakashi’s eye flicked towards her; one grey eyebrow raised in silent inquiry. “I’m going to go do stuff before we meet for food. You should come with.”
That, quite rightly, earned her a look of pure suspicion. “What kind of stuff?”
“Things,” Katsuko temporized, and then hit upon inspiration. “I have to get my kodachi repaired. The ANBU-issue one isn’t cutting it.” She winced at her accidental pun and forged on. “And we need to buy you practice swords for your first lesson.”
That got Kakashi’s attention. Sharpening interest overtook impending brooding; he leaned toward her slightly and said, “My tanto needs a new sheath, too. Do you have a sword-smith?”
“One of the best. She specializes in chakra blades, like you and I have. Come along and I’ll introduce you to her.”
He flicked a last glance at the door and nodded. “I need to get my tanto.”
They spared a minute for a quick side-trip to the Hokage’s quarters. Katsuko stayed respectfully outside the threshold until Kakashi appeared again, holding his wrapped tanto. He was also in a sensible jacket that confused her for a moment, before she remembered that chakra shortage meant it was harder for the body to retain heat on its own. It had been a long time since she’d had to worry about that.
As they left the palace and headed towards her apartment to pick up her kodachi, Kakashi said, “So, the lieutenant suggested I work on chakra drills with you.”
His casual tone wouldn’t have fooled an infant.
“Oh?” Katsuko asked, curiously. She kept her eyes on the road ahead. “Why’s that?”
Kakashi made an admirable attempt to sound neutral, but the bitterness leaking from his aura was still almost palpable. “Apparently my control could use a little polishing.”
“Ah.” If she turned her head to look at him, would he dissolve into a dark cloud of annoyance and self-recrimination? Best to keep her eyes forward, just in case. “Our chakra… situations… are a little different, but the drills are the same no matter your levels. Buy me lunch and I’ll show you a few new chakra exercises a Hyuuga taught me.”
Even though her gaze was on Konoha’s busy streets, she still felt the supremely irritated look Kakashi shot at her. “I’m not paying for everything in food. I’ll trade you the exercises I know.”
“Deal,” Katsuko agreed happily.
She managed to draw him into further conversation during the trek toward her apartment. He’d never studied a structured form of kenjutsu before; his fighting style was a mix of moves and jutsu chosen for their efficient brutality. Even without the Sharingan she knew he was a quick study, but the sheer amount of martial disciplines he’d learned and copied from was impressive.
“We’ll incorporate chakra drills into lessons, too,” she decided, as her apartment building loomed overhead. “You already know how to channel chakra through your tanto, but it will be different with two longer blades. Good for practicing control.”
The prickly spikes of Kakashi’s irritation had faded as they’d talked details. He reminded Katsuko of a hedgehog uncurling from its angry ball. “Possibly not,” he admitted dryly. “I have a cheat — my channeling comes from a bloodline. It’s easier for me.” There was a pause. “Though harder on blades, unless I get them special-made.”
There was something she’d meant to tell Kakashi when they started to make the five-flight climb up to her room, but she immediately forgot it in the face of this new discovery. “Does that mean you can channel energy through any blade, not just the chakra ones?”
“Exactly. But regular steel melts after a few minutes, or weakens too much to be useful.” Thoughtfully, he added, “I lost a few kunai against Iebara that way.”
Not for the first time, Katsuko wished she’d been present at that fight.
“I’ll want a demonstration soon,” she said, as they climbed up the last steps. “Preferably when your life isn’t being threatened by one of the Bingo Book’s most wanted.”
Kakashi’s voice was as dry as the desert. “I’ll try to make room in my schedule.”
“And that—” Katsuko began, but was interrupted by an offended yowl just as they turned into her hallway. A ball of fur and anger bristled at them from her doorstep. Beside her, Kakashi paused mid step to stare.
Right. The cat. That was what she’d forgotten to tell him about.
He should have smelled it a block away, but Konoha was always a busy mélange of social odors. He could smell it now, a powerful combination of rotten brine and oily fur, with a distressing edge of toilet scrub brush.
The shape suggested cat, but the evil yellow eyes had a gleam of intelligence that made him think, Summons.
Or the bastard offspring of one.
“Friend of yours?” he asked warily.
Katsuko sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. “That thing’s been camped in front of my door since this morning. Forgot to warn you, sorry.” When he looked at her doubtfully, her mouth was twitching in humor. “I don’t know why it’s acting like this with you. All it did with the messenger from HQ was sit on their boots.”
That seemed like threat enough.
“Probably smells dog on me,” Kakashi said.
Katsuko made a considering sound. “Ninken?”
His pack were less well known than his stolen eye and lightning hands, but not by much. Maybe Katsuko just didn’t pay attention to rumor. Of everyone in Team Six, she’d been the most unimpressed with his history, on the rare occasions she’d bothered to acknowledge its existence.
“Wild social life,” he said. “Inuzuka are fun.”
Katsuko gave him a long, silent look that nevertheless managed to speak volumes. At last, entirely deadpan, she said, “Hah.”
Kakashi smiled, eye curving, and Katsuko’s mouth twitched at the corners. She stepped over the cat, pulling out a set of keys.
He’d seen the outside of her apartment a few times, on secretive tracking jaunts that balanced the line between reconnaissance and stalking (same as he’d done for Raidou’s apartment and Genma’s sad rental of Aoba’s sofa, so at least it was equal opportunity invasiveness), but he’d never gone inside. The exterior step was swept clean and unremarkable, ignoring the presence of homicidal cats.
When Katsuko unlocked the door, the civilian facade vanished. There were layers of protective seals embedded into the building, so many that even Kakashi felt the sheen of paranoia. Katsuko disengaged most of them with a focused chakra flicker, but several stayed active. The frisson of their attention was a lot like getting a faceful of spider webs. Like guard-dogs, they were complex enough to stay passive unless Katsuko signaled otherwise.
If he’d ever given into the passing impulse to break through a window, Kakashi suspected they’d have been sponging his remains off nearby rooftops.
Katsuko stepped inside, toeing her shoes off in the narrow hallway. Kakashi regarded the fluffy guardian at the gate.
“Going to let me pass?” he asked.
The cat arched its back and said, Mmmmmrrrrrrawr.
“I’m in four Bingo Books,” he said. “Consider yourself warned.”
He walked forward. The cat swelled like the first microseconds of an explosion, fur puffing out in a greasy threat display. Undeterred, Kakashi stepped past it — and snapped a hand out to catch the feline detonation before it clawed his face off. The cat managed to get impressive air. Kakashi snatched it by the scruff and lugged it, screaming and flailing, into Katsuko’s apartment.
It was a surprisingly peaceful space. A simple and sunny one-bedroom affair, lit by large windows. The polished wooden floors were clean and swept. The kitchen was immaculate. A pale purple folding couch dominated the living room, set up in front of the TV, which was balanced on three stacked fruit crates. Two sliding screen doors stood half-open, showing part of a bedroom and a surprisingly large bathroom with a soaking tub.
It had the feeling of someone who lived a spartan lifestyle, but allowed themselves to indulge in a few things they really cared about. The kitchen appliances were shiny and new, but the TV and couch were clearly second-hand, though well cared for. Half a dozen paintings hung on the walls, carefully framed, and one picture scroll that looked like it must have been a gift. The bedsheets were plain and dark, but Kakashi would have bet money that the threadcount would’ve pleased a minor daimyou.
Not a single thing in the place was neon orange, painted with exploding rabbits, or made out of bubble wrap and harvested enemy skins.
There was fresh fruit on the kitchen counter.
“Nice place,” Kakashi said, as the cat folded up around his wrist and tried to eviscerate the underside. “I think you should keep him, by the way.”
Katsuko was in the bedroom, retrieving her broken kodachi from a special rack above the bed. She paused on her way back, looked at the cat, and then at Kakashi. “Why?”
“He tried to take on a jounin for you.” Kakashi dropped the cat, which fluffed at him, still hissing, and scrambled across the room to glare at him from behind Katsuko’s ankles. “Assuming that’s not an elaborate plan for someone’s summons to get inside your shields, it’s worth a second look.” He considered that, and added, “Unless he was just defending his sunning-spot, in which case kick him out and let’s go.”
“You’re a fluffy dumbass, you know that?” Katsuko said. Stung, Kakashi opened his mouth to snipe back before he realized she was talking to the cat, which meowed at her. “You could’ve been made into feline sushi.”
She stood for a moment, clearly thinking, while the cat leaned its matted side against her ankles and made threat-noises at Kakashi. Then she went into the kitchen, dumped a tin of white fish into a bowl, and set it down on the floor.
“There,” she said. “For your bravery.”
The cat slunk over, keeping one yellow eye on Kakashi, but the scent of fish was too much temptation. It jammed its face into the bowl, inhaling noisily.
“See? The two of you are meant to be,” Kakashi said dryly.
For once, she didn’t throw a comeback at him. She leaned on one hip, broken sword cradled against her side, and looked down at the ugly, battered animal eating so quickly it was almost wheezing.
Kakashi said, “He needs a bath.”
“Are you volunteering to help?” Katsuko asked, without looking up. The cat sneezed, spraying white flakes across the floor.
Kakashi wrinkled his nose. “I’d start by shaving him, and getting his teeth checked.”
“You hear that, stinky?” Katsuko asked the cat softly. “Pretty soon you’re going to be stinky and bald.”
“And giving him a better name,” Kakashi said.
Katsuko sighed, and finally raised her eyes. “I can get rid of the smell, but I can’t keep him as a pet. Not when I could get called away on an emergency at any moment.”
That was one advantage of a summoning contract; you gained allies along with the responsibilities, and you didn’t have to worry about housing. This cat might have a contract somewhere in its ancestry, but it clearly wasn’t trained, or cared for. It was just a street survivor, big-bellied and scarred, one ear shredded to a stump, mangy tail reduced to a threadbare rope.
There were fish pieces nearly up its ears now. It was making a creaky sound that had more in common with an ungreased hinge than a purr.
“Add a cat door,” Kakashi suggested. “And make sure your seals won’t kill him. If you die in the field, he can let himself out.” He considered this, found it lacking in tact, and added, “Or you could survive and come home to something small and violent.”
Katsuko thumbed the hilt of her sword, looking down again. “You’re pushing pretty hard for me to keep this guy,” she said, but there was a thread of something in her voice. Wistfulness, perhaps. “Did you make an emotional connection when he tried to maul your face?”
It hadn’t even taken that long. Kakashi didn’t allow himself free reign in many things, but cranky, evil-minded animals were an exception. He liked survivors.
Besides, Minato had made a point about taking the homeless, abandoned, or forgotten kids off Konoha’s streets. There weren’t enough resources available to offer the same protection to Konoha’s four-legged, furry destitutes but that didn’t mean the will wasn’t there. The older ones had been through the same wars. The same Kyuubi fires.
“Isn’t that how you make your emotional connections?” he said, mouth quirking. Katsuko snorted and he shrugged. “Things should have homes. Shinobi are more likely to make it back if they have something waiting — Intel did a study. But if you don’t want him, I’m sure someone else will take him.”
He left that hook dangling.
Katsuko gave the cat a supremely doubtful look. It had finished its fish and was eyeing Kakashi’s ankles in a meaningful way.
The leap was not surprising to either ninja. Kakashi stepped sharply aside, Katsuko chuckled, and the cat skidded to a baffled stop three feet past its intended target. It made a show of licking one paw, then casually strolled into Katsuko’s bedroom and jumped up onto her expensive sheets.
Kakashi said, “You could call him Katsudon.”
Katsuko’s amusement had been abruptly replaced with a complex mix of outrage and… yes, resignation. “I’m making no promises,” she said, watching the cat roll luxuriously across the bed. She raised her voice. “I’m leaving you here, stinky, and I’d better find my apartment the way it was when I left it.”
The cat burrowed into her pillows and kicked half of them playfully off the bed, settling down in a nest made from the rest like he’d found his own personal fiefdom.
Laughing softly, Kakashi headed for the door. “They say pets take after their owners.”
The last time Katsuko had heard Kakashi laugh like that, he’d been drugged to the gills. She’d thought only divine intervention could make him laugh again; apparently, all it took was one fat feline with a deplorable personality.
Katsuko gave the cat one last sour look. It gleamed delighted smugness at her from its mountain of pillows. She rolled her eyes and shut the door behind her, leaving it to celebrate its victory in peace.
Out in the hall, she adjusted the wrapped hilt of her kodachi and glanced over at Kakashi’s own blade, which was stuck through his belt. “Was your tanto made by a Fire Country swordsmith?”
“No, but it was reforged by one,” he said. “Kanashige.”
Kanashige: Konoha’s legendary blade-maker, and one of the first killed during the Fox. Konoha had outlawed selling his blades outside of Fire Country. The lucky few who owned his blades guarded them jealously.
She let out a low whistle. “Fancy. You’re in luck, because Megumi-sensei is Kanashige’s niece. She’s as good as her uncle.”
Kakashi’s eyebrow creased in a frown. “I thought Kanashige’s sister took over the shop after he died? I didn’t know he had a niece.”
“Most of the older crowd go to Kanashige’s sister. Megumi-sensei is just as skilled, but she’s not as well-known. Trust me.”
He flicked a sideways glance at her, weighing for just a moment. Then his eye crinkled. “Alright.”
Katsuko blinked at his easy agreement and looked away with a cough. “Anyway. My kodachi and katana were forged in Wind Country by Amakura. They use a different technique to fold steel over there, so a lot of the swordsmiths in Konoha weren’t trained to reforge them. Kokobushi-sensei’s one of about five smiths here who knows how.”
Kakashi nodded, interested. “Did you inherit them, or were they made for you?”
They’d left her apartment building a short while ago, but she hadn’t realized how close the turn onto Craftsmen’s Street was until she nearly missed it. She pivoted on her heel, sidestepping a merchant’s cart, and used the brief pause to collect herself. Hopefully Kakashi would think it was Konoha’s busy traffic that had rattled her, and not his question.
“I inherited my swords,” she said, when Kakashi caught up a second later. “From my mother.”
Beside her, Kakashi was silent. Then, carefully, he asked, “When did she die?”
“She’s alive,” Katsuko said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause any misunderstandings. She’s, ah. She’s a samurai. From Wind Country. Part of the agreement she signed when she immigrated to Konoha was that she put down her swords and live as a civilian. She’s a master calligrapher now.”
It was a good thing Katsuko didn’t blush easily, because otherwise her face would have melted off in mortification at how much she was babbling. She rubbed her mouth to keep any more words from coming out and quickened her pace.
Probably the only thing worse than Kakashi’s judgmental quiet was his thinking quiet. There were distinct differences between the two: the judgmental quiet felt like a concentrated beam of scorn aimed directly between her shoulderblades, while the thoughtful quiet was the slowly percolating mystery of Kakashi coming to Conclusions. Conclusions were yet another weapon in his arsenal, to be remembered and stored for later occasions.
Behind her, Kakashi exhaled. Then he said, “Must be rare for a samurai to willingly give up her swords.”
There was a loose pebble lying on the street. She kicked it away. “There was a really big bounty on Mother’s head in Wind Country,” she admitted. “Konoha offered amnesty. Also I guess she thought Dad was cute or something. Maybe.”
“Since you exist, chances are high,” Kakashi agreed, like that wasn’t a horrifying thing to speculate about someone’s parents. He drew even with Katsuko just in time for her to see him put the pieces together out of the corner of her eye. “Are we talking about Aomine Hisae, who took out the head of the Steel Brotherhood during their own assassination attempt on the Red-Hand Clan, and made an enemy of every crime family on the west coast? Because…” He gave her a pointed look. “That would explain a lot, actually.”
“She’s Ueno Hisae now,” Katsuko said. “And I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“That’s one option,” Kakashi sniped back, but his voice didn’t hold any real bite. A little more quietly, he asked, “What happened to the rest of your family on that side?”
There wasn’t really any reason to tell Kakashi about her family, but there also wasn’t really any reason not to. She’d never known her mother’s parents, so she could talk about them objectively. “Grandfather Aomine was a samurai exiled from the Land of Iron a few decades ago. He met a Suna missing-nin, married her, and raised Mother alone after the missing-nin disappeared. Then he got himself killed when Mother was seventeen.” Katsuko scratched her cheek. “The Aomine clan is still in the Land of Iron, but we’ve never tried to contact them.”
It was a lot of old history to dump on a person. Kakashi mulled it over while Katsuko slowed to a halt. She nudged him, pointed to a building across the street, and said, “There’s the place. Kanashige Forge.”
“I’m familiar,” Kakashi said, dust-dry.
Katsuko dug her elbow into his side with the special attention of someone who was slightly embarrassed about everything she’d just shared. In a village that put a lot of stock in bloodlines and family histories, that wasn’t an unfounded concern.
Given his own family’s lapses, Kakashi wasn’t inclined to pass judgment.
He pushed the door open, making a bell jangle. The shop looked the same as he remembered — wooden floors, velvet darkness, weapons displayed neatly on the walls, the living quarters tucked privately away upstairs. A forge glowed in the back room.
It had been five years since Kakashi had crossed the threshold with a new eye and a broken blade. Kanashige-sensei hadn’t blinked at the barely used jounin vest, or the short teenager in it. He’d only cared about the tanto.
His portrait hung on the back wall, now, draped with a red ribbon. Standing beneath it, a tall, grey-haired woman had to be his sister. She bowed respectfully to them.
“Ueno-san, welcome,” she said, softly gracious. “Are you here to see my daughter?”
“Yes, Yoko-sensei,” Katsuko said, bowing in return. “I need my kodachi reforged, and Hatake-san needs a new sheath for his tanto. I hope Megumi-sensei is free.”
Kokobushi Yoko — her full name was stamped on many of the beautiful hilts — didn’t bat an eye at Kakashi’s name, or more tellingly, his hair. She simply bowed again and said, “I recall that tanto. I’m sure Megumi would be pleased to work on it. And on your kodachi, Ueno-san. If you will both wait here, I’ll fetch her.”
In the silence that followed Yoko’s exit, Katsuko stood quietly at her ease in the heartland of bladed weapons. Kakashi waited for commentary. When it didn’t arrive, he drifted away to examine a seven-pointed throwing star. A talented hand had carved poison channels into the steel.
Several minutes passed unacknowledged. Katsuko took out a pen and a battered book, and began to sketch designs from the hanging sword sheaths. She let Kakashi sneak a glance — or at least didn’t take his face off when he leaned over her shoulder to look — and he was surprised to find she was quite talented. There was a delicacy in the lines he wouldn’t have associated with Katsuko.
Footsteps scuffed on wood. Katsuko snapped her book closed and put it away. Kakashi straightened up.
Yoko stepped through the door first. A shorter woman followed her, dressed in sturdy canvas and a leather apron. Kokobushi Megumi didn’t have her uncle’s heavy eyebrows, or his hawking nose, but there was something reminiscent of the late master in her serious face. Her dark hair was cropped short. Soot streaked like a calligraphy stroke across her forehead. There were tiny rubies in both of her ears, and an old, healed burn mark on one cheek.
Her eyes went immediately to Katsuko’s sheathed kodachi, and Kakashi’s wrapped tanto.
“My apologies for the delay, I was attending to a tricky project.” She tilted her head inquiringly at Katsuko. “What have you broken now, Katsuko-san?”
“I’m hurt, Megumi-sensei,” Katsuko said, sounding anything but. She handed her kodachi over for inspection. “The break is jagged, but I have all the blade pieces. Also, I brought you a present.” She made a grand gesture in Kakashi’s direction. “This is Hatake-san.”
Kakashi said out of the corner of his mouth, “You can’t give me to people, Ueno.”
“If you can stoke a furnace, I’d be inclined to keep you,” Megumi said, apparently oblivious to the small, pained noises her mother was making. “I understand that you need a sheath?”
“I— lost the original,” Kakashi said. “Ueno tells me you’re the person to see for a replacement.”
“She flatters me,” Megumi said. “Any sword-smith in Konoha could make what you need, but I’d be honored to continue my uncle’s work. Please accompany me.”
She turned, taking Katsuko’s kodachi with her. Kakashi tucked his hands into his pockets and followed her through the sliding wooden door, Katsuko walking silently at his heels.
The back room was paved with stone slabs — unusual for a Konoha building, which were almost always built with wood and paper harvested from the great forests, but necessary for someone whose living revolved around fire. An iron forge dominated the center, belching charcoal and hot metal fumes. Next to it was a blackened anvil and two large water barrels, one of which held half a dozen discarded blades. A multitude of tools hung from the walls. Kakashi could pick out the obvious hammers and pliers, but the rest were a daunting eye-puzzle of inexplicable functions.
The air shivered with heat. Megumi didn’t seem to notice, but Katsuko’s skin already had a sheen, and Kakashi’s mask was beginning to stick.
The rear wall was entirely taken up by shutters, which were flung open to let the breeze in. Beyond them was an ornamental courtyard with a quietly gurgling water feature and a raked sand garden. Megumi led Kakashi and Katsuko outside, where a low table stood in the shade of a flowering tree.
Megumi sat down and invited them to do the same, gesturing at comfortable pillows laid out for the purpose. She set Katsuko’s kodachi on the table and carefully unwound the wire that kept the hilt fixed into the scabbard. When she unsheathed the weapon, only a few inches of jagged steel remained attached to the hilt. Megumi upended the scabbard, extracting four long shards and the remainder of the blade.
“Oh dear,” she said.
“On the bright side,” Katsuko said, “I didn’t die.”
Holding the sword fragments like someone else would hold the broken body of something precious, Megumi said, “Are you sure?”
There was a samurai convention about a sword being the soul of a warrior, Kakashi recalled. Ninja tended to be more practical. Swords were just one sharp, lethal option among an arsenal of others.
Nevertheless, he found his fingertips resting on his tanto hilt when Katsuko said quietly, “Blades can be reforged. People can, too.”
Megumi glanced from Katsuko’s still face to Kakashi’s hidden one, and nodded once. “In most cases,” she agreed. “Though sometimes it takes a miracle worker.” She tapped the shattered blade and smiled, suddenly seeming younger — closer to their own age. “Fortunately, you’ve come to one. I can repair this.”
“Though it will take some time,” Megumi added.
Katsuko didn’t droop, but she considered it. Instead she sighed and propped her good elbow up forlornly on Kakashi’s shoulder. He gave her a look, but apparently her hangdog expression was too pathetic for even him to ignore, because he didn’t shrug her off.
“It’s alright, Megumi-sensei,” Katsuko said, trying her best to sound positive. The ANBU kodachi was an acceptable substitute for now; besides, she’d known even Megumi-sensei couldn’t instantly repair a blade shattered into as many pieces as Katsuko’s was. At least now Katsuko had confirmation it would be reforged.
Megumi’s expression was at once sympathetic and amused. “Luckily, I just finished a large commission this morning. I can start on your kodachi immediately.”
That was considerably more heartening. Katsuko removed herself from Kakashi’s shoulder before his patience ran out. “Thank you, sensei.”
Megumi nodded in acknowledgement and turned her attention to Kakashi. “May I see your tanto?”
He pulled it from his belt and slid it across the table, still in its wrapping. His focus, already sharp, narrowed down to the deft grace of Megumi’s hands while the swordsmith unwound strips of cloth and leather to expose the keen blade edge.
“Ah,” Megumi murmured, running her thumb down the flat of the blade. “My uncle wasn’t easily impressed, but he often spoke of the Hatake heirloom sword and its original makers— a husband and wife partnership, I believe. He regarded their craftsmanship as equal to his own master’s. It is a pity they and the rest of their blades were lost long ago.” She contemplated Kakashi’s tanto for another few moments before looking up. “My uncle recorded every detail of your blade while he was reforging the pieces, Hatake-san. I will use his notes to recreate the sheath as its original smiths crafted it.”
Katsuko watched out of the corner of her eye as Kakashi’s shoulders stiffened. His surprise only lasted for a flicker of a moment before he hid it, but he made no effort to conceal the sincerity in his voice when he said, “I appreciate your uncle’s dedication. And yours. Thank you, Kokobushi-sensei.”
Megumi’s mouth curved in a smile. “Thank you, Hatake-san, for bringing back some of my uncle’s work. I recognize the reforging technique he used. It reminds me of my apprentice days, learning at his side.” She rewrapped Kakashi’s tanto and set it beside Katsuko’s kodachi, studying the paired blades. “Katsuko-san, meanwhile, continues to test my skill. I do enjoy a good challenge.”
“I’m always happy to help, Megumi-sensei,” Katsuko said, and bowed from the waist. “Hatake-san and I still have to pick up practice blades, so we won’t take anymore of your time. We’ll leave our information at the front desk.”
Megumi was still examining the pieces of Katsuko’s kodachi, but she glanced up at that. “Practice blades? I thought you used live steel for training.”
Katsuko refrained from beaming. “Not for teaching. Hatake-san is my student.”
“You’ve taken a disciple?” The swordsmith’s brows rose before she nodded in approval. “I’m glad you’re not letting Hyoho Niten die out. Aida Tsuji’s shop closed down several months ago, but there are a few new stores on Craftsmen’s Street with practice swords that are almost as good.”
A few minutes later, after the customary round of farewells, Katsuko closed the door to Kanashige Forge behind her and squinted down at the handwritten list Megumi had pressed into her hand.
“First stop’s a couple blocks down,” she said, as Kakashi leaned over her shoulder to look. “Students have to carry all their teacher’s purchases.”
He gave her a significant side-eye. “The student might start to doubt his teacher’s prowess.”
“The teacher’s buying everything, so the student will have to deal.”
“Is the teacher aware that the student isn’t destitute and can afford his own swords?”
“Oh, really?” Katsuko tapped the paper against her mouth in mock thought. “I remember you saying before the latest mission that it’s the teacher’s duty to provide for the student. Are you disagreeing with me just to be contrary? You should respect your elders, young man.”
He looked down at her from all his additional four inches of height. “Exactly how much older are you? A week?”
“I can’t hear you over the amount of respect you owe me,” Katsuko singsonged, and started off down the street. Behind her, Kakashi snorted.
Craftsmen’s Street sold every type of weapon imaginable, from basic shuriken to deadly, intricate war fans. There were blades in abundance; some swordsmithing families had owned stores on Craftsmen’s Street for generations, and the katana displayed in their shop windows were always thronged by a small crowd of admirers. Up-and-coming smiths and less prosperous weapons merchants had to make do with small stalls marching in a line down the street.
The shop Katsuko ducked into was a comfortable middle ground between the two. She didn’t recognize the maker’s mark stamped on the weapons display, but she nodded approvingly at the ebony naginata standing in pride of place. One half of the store was devoted entirely to martial staples: shuriken and kunai, blank seal tags, blunted practice weapons and basic training armor. Something to lure in customers unwilling to take the chance on an unknown weaponsmith’s personal wares.
The shop counter was empty, but animated voices came from the storage room in the back. She ignored them and headed straight over to the practice swords.
“You’re right-handed, yeah?” she asked Kakashi, who ambled along behind her with the air of a man who was only heading in the same general direction and was definitely not tagging after her.
“Most of the time.”
“Cool. Hold out your arm. I promise I won’t chop it off.”
His eye roll was such a familiar sight by now that Katsuko felt an actual surge of fondness. He straightened up from his slouch and begrudgingly extended his arm like he was doing her an enormous favor. She beamed, as much from genuine delight as to see his face change from exasperation to faint apprehension, and carefully measured the length of his reach. Then she handed him the first of the practice swords.
Her glee quickly morphed to disappointment as they started to filter through the selection. Several swords she rejected outright as too short for his reach; others were either too heavy or too light. Kakashi bore it all with surprising patience, moving as she directed him and offering his own input on the balance and weight he felt most comfortable with.
Finally, she sighed and motioned for Kakashi to put the last practice sword away. “Too much to hope we’d find what we’re looking for in the first shop, anyways. Come on, there’s a few more places we can check out.”
The second shop was no better. The third had some particularly creative shuriken, but no swords that reached Katsuko’s stringent standards.
By the seventh shop, Kakashi was starting to get tired.
He stood obediently in front of a broad mirror while Katsuko handed him swords, tutted, and took them away again. Too short, too long, wrong curve, bad balance. Now he remembered why he’d stuck to the same four weapons since the war. You couldn’t go wrong with kunai, shuriken, wire, and an inherited tanto.
ANBU’s standard-issue ninjato was new, but it was a basic blade — more forgiving than Katsuko’s Hyoho Niten style allowed for, apparently.
“What exactly are we looking for?” he asked, as she chivvied him out onto the street again.
“I’ll know it when I see it,” she said.
He sighed, but tagged along when she struck away from the permanent stores and went poking through the colorful collection of stalls in the street. Most of the owners were younger here, newly graduated apprentices trying to make a name for themselves, or creative types who thought the answer to shinobi issues was fitting the most amount of sharp edges into the smallest space possible.
Kakashi picked up a spiky lead-ball and turned it over curiously.
“The center’s packed with an exploding tag,” said an enthusiastic young woman with blue hair. “You light it, toss it, and boom — they’re picking spikes out of their eyeballs.”
“What about my eyeballs?” Kakashi asked.
The woman grinned. “Throw it hard.”
Kakashi put the ball carefully down. Katsuko caught him by the wrist and tugged him away, past the stalls and down a narrow back alley.
“What—?” he began.
She shushed him and kept dragging until they reached a dark, stained door set back into a little alcove. A slender plaque said: Tamahagane.
Jewel steel, Kakashi translated. The kind used for katana.
“I got a tip,” Katsuko said, dropping his wrist to rap her knuckles on the door.
“For a shady back-alley shop?” Kakashi said.
She smiled at him. “Trust me.”
“You already said that today. You’re not allowed to use that more than twice a year,” he said grouchily.
The door creaked open, releasing a strong smell of pickled vegetables. A dark eye regarded them from waist-level. “If you’re here for the umeboshi, you’re two weeks early,” said a girl who couldn’t have been more than seven.
Kakashi looked sideways at Katsuko. “Umeboshi,” he said.
“Is Nobuhira-san in?” Katsuko asked, unfazed.
The girl leaned back and bellowed, “DAD, NINJA HERE TO SEE YOU.”
Footsteps sounded inside the— house? shop? — and then the door tugged wider, revealing a youngish man in a soot-stained kimono. His dark hair was twisted back and up into a traditional topknot, but sweaty tendrils had escaped to straggle over his forehead. He stared blankly at them. “Can I help you?”
“Nobuhira-san, hello.” Katsuko bowed respectfully. “Rui-san over at Imahara Blades said you moved here from Wind Country. I’m looking for practice swords appropriate for Hyoho Niten.”
Nobuhira’s eyes lit up. “You are? That’s wonderful. I’d heard the style was still practiced here, but no one could tell me by who. Come in, come in. Amaya-chan, move that box.” He hauled the door the rest of the way open, while the girl shoved a stack of boxes and canning jars aside. “I’m sorry about the mess, we’re in the middle of pickling.”
Katsuko stepped forward, taking off her shoes. Kakashi followed dubiously.
The shop was a chaotic puzzle of swordsmithing equipment, moving boxes, and half a dozen barrels of something that smelled heavily fermented. In the corner, a curtain had been strung across a little reading nook, which held four books, a three-legged stuffed toy dog, and a small plate of half-eaten tamagoyaki.
The girl — Amaya-chan, presumably — gave Kakashi and Katsuko a look of dark suspicion, and retreated back to the corner, where she drew the curtain pointedly.
Nobuhira rubbed the back of his neck and gave them an embarrassed smile. “Let me show you what I have.”
Unsurprisingly, it involved more boxes. Kakashi sat down on one while Katsuko helped the swordsmith shift and sort, until they uncovered a collection of cloth-wrapped blades. Nobuhira cleared the top of a scarred wooden table and began laying bundles out, organizing the swords into two camps — longer katana and shorter kodachi.
“Are you the teacher?” Nobuhira asked Katsuko, to her obvious delight.
“Yes,” she said, and pointed proudly at Kakashi with her good arm. “He’s my first student.”
Kakashi waved tiredly.
“Already put him through the wringer, I see,” Nobuhira said, with great approval. “Okay, student, let’s get you up so we can see you. Uh — normally I have a platform, but I think it’s still packed — here, you can use this box.”
He kicked a fruit crate into the center of the room.
Reluctantly, Kakashi hauled himself up and stepped onto the crate. “Is this really necessary?”
“Of course,” Katsuko said, surveying the array of blades laid out before her with triumphant glee. “It builds character. Also, your right arm is a tinier bit longer than your left, so we need to pick the swords to compensate.”
“It doesn’t make that much difference,” he muttered, rubbing at his left forearm. He didn’t step off the fruit crate, though, which was the important part. Katsuko wanted to take advantage of his unexpected reserves of patience as much as she could; it was for a worthy cause.
“Not usually,” she agreed. She picked up a likely looking katana and pressed it into his hands before turning back to look for a suitable kodachi. “It wouldn’t matter at all if you studied a style that only used one blade. But Hyoho Niten requires a sword in each hand, so that means you get to stand on the crate and hold things that I tell you to hold.”
There was a subtle difference between Fire Country and Wind Country blades. Not enough to make them incompatible, just noticeable. Wind Country steel-folding combined with the fuel they used for their forges gave their swords a faint blue sheen; Fire Country favored a rounder grip design and an earthier tint to their blades. It was part of the reason Katsuko had rejected everything in the previous shops.
The main part, of course, was that none of the katana they’d tried before had been crafted with a paired kodachi in mind. Beginners needed to start with proportionate blades; Kakashi was far more advanced, but it was only fair that he learn what a perfectly matched set of swords handled like in a kata before she threw anything else at him.
“Not that katana,” Nobuhira said, watching Kakashi take a few testing swings. “Although the length on that is good. I know I have a similar blade somewhere…” He nudged aside a stack of boxes to reveal another, smaller stack of boxes and opened the top one, sticking his head inside and muttering to himself.
When it became clear that Nobuhira wasn’t going to resurface anytime soon, Katsuko took the rejected katana from Kakashi. “Try this one out,” she said, and handed him a sleek kodachi with a red-wrapped hilt. “I’ve got a good feeling about it.”
Silence, broken only by Nobuhira’s low muttering, filled the room as Kakashi slid the kodachi out of its sheath. The long-suffering slope of his shoulders disappeared as he tipped his head and turned the blade over, weighing it.
He flipped the kodachi once, catching it easily, and nodded. “This one.”
Katsuko smiled in delight.
Amaya had poked her head out from behind the curtain to spectate a while ago, natural curiosity winning over the aversion to strangers in her family space. “Ninja-san, I know where the katana for that is,” she piped up.
The girl’s round face and hopeful expression seemed to unthaw something in Kakashi. “Would you get it?” he asked her, with a grain of actual warmth.
In response, Amaya hopped out from behind the curtain. Her little feet pattered across the floor as she made her way over to Nobuhira, who pulled his head out of his box with a frustrated expression. She ignored him and went for the box at the bottom of his stack instead, tugging at her father until he lifted the rest of the boxes away. She popped open the lid and rummaged through with an air of purpose, finally resurfacing holding a deadly-looking katana with a red-wrapped hilt that matched the kodachi’s, and trotted back over to Kakashi with it held triumphantly over her head.
Kakashi accepted it from her gravely, returning the sheath for her to hold, and settled into an unfamiliar dual-wielding stance. The set of his spine was a little stiff, his still-healing body most likely protesting anything more intense than a light jog, but his weight was centered firmly. He held there for a moment, feeling out the balance. Then he spun around like a thrown shuriken, whipping both blades around and down, stopping where metal would slice into an imaginary opponent’s collarbone.
He nodded, satisfied, and glanced over at Katsuko.
“Perfect,” she said. Amaya, who had been waiting with bated breath, cheered. Behind her, Nobuhira smiled. Katsuko pulled out her wallet and nodded at the swordsmith. “How much?”
Nobuhira considered them both. “Well,” he said, and named a sum a fair bit lower than most quality weapons went for in Konoha.
Amaya blinked, scandalized. “Dad!”
Nobuhira shook his head. “I’m more interested in seeing Wind Country styles practiced with Wind Country steel.” He smiled, a little wolfish. “And I’m building a reputable customer base, right, ninja-san?”
The side of Katsuko’s face was roasting under the heat of Kakashi’s glare. “I insist on paying full price,” he said.
Katsuko looked away from Nobuhira to give Kakashi a grin as full of good humor as it was full of teeth. “My darling student,” she said. “Please let your wise teacher provide all the tools you will need in order to learn.”
He stared back at her, stubborn as a cliff face. Maybe she could push him off a cliff and pretend it was training.
After a few moments of this silent battle of wills, Nobuhira coughed delicately. “Amaya-chan, who would you take money from?”
Amaya considered this with all the ferocious intelligence of a girl who was going to run either a country or a very successful business one day. “The teacher,” she said at last. “And I’d make the student do a chore for being rude.” She went up on her tiptoes to whisper loudly at Kakashi, “If’n you’re rude to your teachers, they only teach the boring stuff, y’know.”
Kakashi transferred his stare from Katsuko to Amaya. Amaya countered with an unimpressed look. Katsuko was honestly unsure which one would win.
Nobuhira used the distraction to draw Katsuko aside to wrangle out details. She made small talk with him while they scribbled out a quick promissory note and learned that he’d moved to Konoha after his wife’s death recently; before that, he’d made his living as a smith in one of the major trade cities in Wind Country.
“Konoha is very different from living in the desert,” he said. In the background, Amaya had broken her staring contest with Kakashi in order show him the right way to wrap a Wind Country katana. She was also attempting to sell him sword oil at the same time. “But it’s a good change. There’s much more green everywhere, for one.”
“A lot less sand in your underwear, too,” Katsuko agreed. She finished writing her signature on the promissory note and handed it to Nobuhira with a smile. They shook hands and went to rescue Kakashi from Amaya.
“—and then you tie the bow like this,” Amaya finished.
“What if I don’t want a bow?” Kakashi said.
“Everyone wants a bow,” Amaya said firmly, with the rock-solid confidence of a child who’d grown up loved.
Kakashi considered the paired swords in their beautiful wrapping. Amaya had used a dark blue cotton furoshiki to bind the swords together, then added the red ribbon. The bow was a cheerful adornment.
“It is pretty,” he allowed.
“And you can use the furoshiki as a cleaning cloth with the oil,” Amaya said, tucking a bottle into the crook of Kakashi’s elbow.
“Did you add that to Ueno’s tab?” he said.
“Of course,” Amaya said, and turned to smile at her father. “Ueno-san owes us another 2,000 ryou.”
Katsuko looked honestly impressed. “You’re going places, kid,” she said, and took back her promissory note to include the addition. She returned the note to Nobuhira — who smiled as if his daughter extorting strangers was a perfectly normal event — and then turned to raise an eyebrow at Kakashi. “I thought they trained you to resist torture and interrogation.”
“Nobody warned me about civilians under ten,” he said. “I’m going to file a complaint with Intel.”
Amaya grinned. “Come back and see us when you’re good enough to use something with a proper edge, ninja-san.”
Kakashi glanced at Katsuko. “I’m sure my sensei will see fit to provide me with additional supplies,” he said mildly. “When they’re warranted.”
Katsuko’s face was as solemn as a bodhisattva statue. “You haven’t reached that step in your journey towards true mastery yet,” she said. “But if it helps, you are my favorite student.”
“I’m your only student.”
She beamed. “Yes.”
Well, he’d walked right into that. Today was just a day of Katsuko getting one up on him.
For two fine swords and the promise of a future where he could learn something worthwhile with time, room for error, and the assistance of a master, he’d take a little humbling.
A very little.
He collected his new blades and bowed to Nobuhira — and then, after a fractional hesitation, to Amaya, who blinked, but recovered quickly enough to bow deeply back.
“If you need any help getting settled, the mission office is always looking for D-ranks to give to genin,” he said, tipping a glance at Amaya. “And they’re never too young to steer towards a good weapon.”
Nobuhira considered that, thoughtful. Amaya looked predatory.
“Thank you both for your help,” Katsuko said, and led the way out of the shop. Kakashi fell into step at her heels, slinging his swords over one shoulder. The weight of them was satisfying. They smelled like clean steel and fresh lacquer, eager to be broken in.
His fingers itched to wield them, but that one earlier swing had made every muscle twang. If he pushed it today, he’d regret it tomorrow — and for the rest of the week, if the lieutenant heard about it.
That didn’t mean he should do nothing, though.
(Ideally, something beyond polishing his handwriting, learning how to be a social dilettante, and whatever else Genma had suggested.)
“Is there reading I can do?” he asked Katsuko, who gave him a look like he’d stepped off the nearest sanity curve. He clarified, “About your Hyoho Niten, or your family’s history?”
Her expression turned thoughtful. “The Scroll of Five Rings is Hyoho Niten’s manifesto. It’s a book that isn’t distributed much outside of Wind Country or the Land of Iron. I’ll see if I can dig up a copy.”
He hadn’t, actually, expected a yes.
“Really?” he said, inordinately pleased.
Katsuko nodded. “The founder of Hyoho Niten was a master swordsman who was so paranoid he never took baths. He used all the time he could have been bathing to write the Scroll. I think you’ll like it.”
“I bathe,” Kakashi drawled, hooking his free hand into his pocket. He looked up at the sky, where wisps of cloud made isometric shapes, and added, “But I can appreciate someone who’s honed their craft to a single point.”
“A single point. Like a sword point. Heh.” She grinned to herself for a moment, then asked unexpectedly, “How are you feeling? This is the longest you’ve been outside since we got back to Konoha, right?”
That was never an innocent question. Kakashi glanced at her sidelong, but trying to tease a motivation out of Katsuko was about as productive as interrogating a campfire: you’d just get burned.
“I haven’t fallen over yet,” he temporized.
“You never give a straight answer when you can come at it sideways, do you?” Katsuko said, with blind disregard for the irony of that particular criticism coming out of her mouth.
Kakashi felt his mouth quirk. “How’s your collarbone?”
“Eh.” She made a seesawing motion with her good hand. “Could be worse. I could be on fire.”
“The evening is still young,” he said.
“And that’s why you’re my favorite crotchety fluffball,” she said. “You’re never too happy to indirectly threaten bodily harm.”
“Seemed more polite than direct bodily harm,” he said. “Though that’s always a possibility.”
Just— not any time this week. Katsuko was one limb down, but entirely lethal otherwise, whereas Kakashi was starting to feel aching little shivers run up and down his legs. He took a deeper breath — oxygen helped pain — and glanced down the busy, sun-soaked street, looking for a bench. The ones in view were occupied by tired shoppers, parents with small children, and a young couple sharing an ice-cream.
Katsuko took a sharp right turn off the main road, cutting down another narrow alleyway towards one of the parks that bordered the river. When Kakashi made a complaining noise, she said, “Indulge your old decrepit sensei, I want to put my feet in the water.”
He gave her a suspicious look, suspecting her of some kind of oblique mockery, but Katsuko simply marched out across the grass, side-stepping past a group of academy students on some kind of a field trip with their exasperated sensei, and made for a secluded spot on the river bank. A weeping cutleaf maple offered shade beneath a profusion of deep red leaves. It was a little like sitting under a blood-slick, but cheerfully so.
Katsuko yanked off her boots and socks, and dropped down to stick her feet in the water, yelping theatrically. Kakashi set his bundled swords down carefully first before he joined her. The water was cold, but also clear and refreshing, and it was a relief just to sit down.
He sighed softly and lay backwards on the embankment, folding his arms beneath his head.
“Did I thank you for the swords?” he asked.
“Nope,” said Katsuko, snapping a stick in half to fling the pieces into the rushing water.
Kakashi nodded and let the silence drift back, broken only by the distant sound of the beleaguered teacher shouting at his students.
The current tugged at Katsuko’s feet with gentle insistence. She could hear what he said with the absence of words almost as well as if he’d actually spoken. For form’s sake, though, she still considered rolling him into the river.
Unfortunately, his present wilted state meant he’d probably drown. Bone-deep fatigue was hard to miss, even when hidden behind studied laziness—and she didn’t think Kakashi was trying that hard to keep an act up with her in the first place. She sighed and, minding her sling, slowly tipped backward until her back hit grass. Red leaves rustled overhead.
“Hey,” she said, over the burbling merriment of the river.
Very slowly, he tilted his head toward her. “Hm?”
She paused, struggled to find a diplomatic way to phrase it, and finally just gave up and forged ahead. “What did you think about the team meeting? About Taichou, I mean.”
Kakashi looked back up at the sky again. She raised both eyebrows, trying to decide whether she’d been ignored, but then he let out a very short sigh.
“He’s getting private genjutsu training with Yuuhi Benihime-sama,” he said. “So, I’d start with jealousy.”
“Oh?” Katsuko asked, which at least was better than wide-eyed shock that he’d admitted to emotions in the first place. Granted, this entire day had consisted of Kakashi being oddly tolerant and mellow.
“Less jealous of everything preceding it, though. Can you talk about that yet?”
Now it was her turn to stare contemplatively up at the scraps of pale blue showing through the crimson curtain of leaves. “The lieutenant covered the basics of what happened,” she said at last. “But I made a promise to Taichou not to tell anyone the details until he said it was alright, and I keep my promises. If you wanted to ask me anything now, I’ll try to answer as best I can. I don’t know how much I can tell you, though, until Taichou gets back.”
Promises were important. This promise, particularly so. It was why she tried so hard to avoid commitment; she didn’t have it in her to go back on her word, not when she knew what it was like to be on the other end of failed hopes. Responsibility to anything but the village weighed you down. Better to avoid the yoke of expectations, even if it got her labeled lazy and feckless.
Team Six was different. She’d known it since the first week. New ANBU teams didn’t click together like this, as easily as the missing pieces from a puzzle. it wasn’t perfect yet, but she could already see the shape of what they could become.
For Team Six, she’d shoulder whatever promises she needed to and carry their weight as far as she could.
“Do you trust him to lead again?” Kakashi asked, startling her out of her reverie. The question was deceptively simple; she could see the tension hiding behind his controlled mask like a knife balancing on the precipice.
She looked him dead in the eye, holding his gaze. “Yes.”
“Because I trust him,” she said, calm and steady as her heartbeat.
“Why?” Kakashi asked again. Frustration lent an edge to his voice that would have raised her hackles if he hadn’t been so clearly confused. Instead she held his gaze and thought about Hatake Sakumo and the dangerous burden of command.
“Taichou made a mistake,” she said. “It cost innocent lives. He knows that, and he’s going to face it. And then he’s going to do whatever it takes to make sure that it never happens again. His first priority is leading the team, not protecting his pride.”
There was no room to lie to yourself when you were a leader; you needed to know your own flaws as well as you knew your subordinates’. It was, Katsuko realized, something that she would have to do if she decided to follow the officer training course to its intended conclusion. She folded the thought away for later. Kakashi was still watching her, waiting for her to continue.
“Genjutsu is Taichou’s weakness.” Katsuko shrugged her good shoulder, matter-of-fact. “So he’s going to train with Benihime-sama until it isn’t.”
She made it sound so simple.
That was a talent of Katsuko’s, though — taking complicated knots and cutting through them.
How do we solve this?
Have you considered explosives?
Or in this case, when asked why? she’d returned an answer that was, basically, ‘because’. Because mistakes could be learned from, leaders could improve, and Konoha could bury bodies deep enough to protect the ANBU who’d dropped them.
Because she’d bled alongside Raidou for a year, and considered that long enough to know him. Maybe she did. But Kakashi wondered what she’d really thought, in those first moments, standing in the wreckage of their mission. He doubted it was: I expected this.
But here she was now, a professionally paranoid killer, saying trust.
“A week ago, I would have said the captain was the most stable among us,” Kakashi said. “You’re unpredictable, Tousaki’s unsteady, the lieutenant’s implacable. I’m…” he made curt, expressive gesture that won a snort from Katsuko. “The captain’s like clockwork. Train at 5am, laugh at rookies, paperwork, boundaries, use your words. He handled the first mission, and the aftermath. He got us back alive from the second, and that enemy captain, too. But we’re only a month in with this team, and he cracked without warning. People died. We’re lucky you didn’t.”
Katsuko opened her mouth, but shut it again when he said, “I know you think I’m biased because of Sakumo.”
“Is that not the case?” she asked, bluntly curious.
“It’s a factor.” He pushed himself upright and braced his elbows on his knees, watching the river swirl. “But suspicion has saved my life a lot more than blind trust.”
“You’re talking as if I give my trust easily,” she said.
“You sat on Tousaki on the first day,” Kakashi said.
“And you wear a mask,” she said. “We all have ways of presenting ourselves to the world.”
Kakashi felt his mouth curve. Not quite a smile, but an acknowledgement of the hit. “We do,” he said quietly, and turned to look down at her. “Do you remember the girls under the floor?”
Katsuko went still.
“I do,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“It was the first time you showed me something you didn’t mean to,” he said. Two little bodies ripped apart by demons, stuffed under tatami mats like pickle jars. “They shook you. You didn’t know them, but you pulled them up, wrapped them in blankets, and took them to the family altar. You’re not religious.”
Katsuko shook her head silently.
“We didn’t have time, but you took it anyway — and then you went back to the mission and never mentioned it again.” He looked back at the river. “And later, at the end of it, when we got word about that Broken Arrow code, you knew I wanted to leave. You didn’t try to stop me, and you didn’t mention that again, either.”
Her eyes hooded, deceptively sleepy. “It would have been different if you’d actually left.”
“I know,” he said. “It was a mistake. I wouldn’t make it again.”
“I know.” Her voice glimmered with approval.
Kakashi drew a shallow breath through his nose, and pushed his train of thought to its conclusion. “After Iebara, Tousaki got me back to the bunker, but he wasn’t okay. You watched over both of us. He found my tanto; you gave it back to me. The lieutenant thought you’d take the captain’s suspension hardest; that we’d have to support you. But he gave you good news in that meeting — you came out happy — and you haven’t said why. You haven’t asked for anything. You took me out to play sensei, and buy swords, and make sure I wasn’t about to snap over inherited issues.”
Silence settled between them, filled with the dull edges of distant guilt. It had been ten years. Anger had had plenty of time to paper over shock and loss, and mostly that was the emotion that stayed, but sometimes he still heard Obito. The White Fang was a hero! And he knew that he should remember the man as dad, not Sakumo — someone who’d tried, instead of a legend who’d failed.
Katsuko sat upright, echoing his posture by bracing her good elbow on one knee.
“You’re one of mine,” she said quietly. “My team.”
There it was again. A complexity cut down to something so simple, like it was easy.
“My last team ended poorly,” he said.
“My genin team died.” She paused reflectively. “My last team was better.”
Kakashi laughed, surprising himself. It was a short bark of not-really-humor, and Katsuko’s mouth curled up in a sardonic echo. There was nothing funny about her loss, and only bitterness in his, but the laughter was there all the same.
He’d never thought he’d look at Katsuko and find common ground, but the things that shook her — bloodied girls, badly buried bodies — had only made her focus clearer, like the hot edge of a butane torch. Ryouma was still raw in places, fresh to trauma. Raidou was steady right up until he wasn’t. Genma worried for teammates before he worried about the mission.
Katsuko had looked at her darkness and weaponized it, like Kakashi.
He said, “I’ll be glad when the captain comes back, if he does. But I don’t know that I’d trust him like you do.” He glanced at her, weighed the risk, and added, “I don’t distrust you.”
Irreverence had served Katsuko well for years, but only because she never admitted she used it to deflect scrutiny. It was such an ingrained habit that even after acknowledging it was a mask she still had to stop herself from making a joke to paper over the quiet stillness that followed Kakashi’s declaration.
“I don’t distrust you either,” she said at last, gazing out at the river.
Emotions made her teeth itch. They made everything itch. She wanted to go back to sword shopping and dragging Kakashi around while he made complaining noises. It was so much easier to show friendship rather than talk about it. Maybe she could actually push Kakashi in the river and pretend they’d never had this conversation about teammates and the cost of command and why he trusted her more than he trusted Raidou.
Instead, she let out a short breath and reached over with her good arm to give Kakashi a companionable punch to the shoulder. It was light enough he didn’t even rock with the force of the blow.
He still flicked her a dry sideways glance and drawled, “Ow.”
“You,” she declared, with enormous effort. “You are an acceptable teammate. I’m… glad you’re on the team.”
He was looking at her properly now, amusement rising to the surface. “And you’re a slightly-above-mediocre senpai.”
That gave her warm, pleased glow that cut through the embarrassment. She laughed, feeling some of the tension that had knotted between her shoulderblades dissipate, and started to clamber up to her feet. “It’s nice to know we’re both above-average. Come on, let’s go find Ryouma for food before you melt into the grass.”
Kakashi sighed and flopped back down. “Do we need to compliment him too? I think I’ve met my quota for the day.”
“ANBU is about pushing your limits,” Katsuko informed him, and held her good hand out for him to take. “Get up, lazybones, if you put down roots here I’m calling a gardener.”
“Slavedriver,” he muttered, but grabbed his swords and let her haul him up.
The walk to the Akimichi barbeque was considerably slower than the pace they’d set while sword shopping, but Katsuko was happy to amble along at Kakashi’s speed. There was no pressing urge to fill the companionable silence between them. Instead she enjoyed the sights and smells of Konoha around her and thought about all the yakitori she was going to order.
They were only a few blocks away from the restaurant when Kakashi turned to look at her and said, “What was your good news?”
Had it really been several hours since the team meeting? It felt shorter. They were, Katsuko realized guiltily, so late for dinner with Ryouma. “Officer prep course,” Katsuko said, putting a little speed into her walk. “Taichou and Fukuchou recommended I audit it to see if I wanted to go command track.”
After a small pause, Kakashi nodded and said, simply, “Good.”
She eyed him. “No sarcasm? No disbelief?”
“I hear responsibility can help people grow,” he said.
“That’s more like it,” she said, happily, and kicked him (very gently and affectionately) in the ankle.
He drawled, “Of course, some people start shorter than others.”
An indirect insult and a dig about her height. Kakashi was in fine form. She whistled a cheerful little tune and led them onwards.
The Akimichi barbeque hosted a large bar that was as popular with the restaurant patrons as the yakitori special. Ryouma was waiting there for them with one elbow propped on the marble counter. He raised a hand in acknowledgment when Kakashi and Katsuko started picking their way through the dinner crowd toward him, but his dark head remained bent in conversation with the bartender, who (judging by the twinkle in the woman’s eye) was in the process of being completely charmed.
Kakashi rolled his eye. “I’ll find a table. If you can extract him from his conquests, tell him to bring food.” He made a beeline for the back of the restaurant, where it was darker and quieter, before Katsuko could reply.
“Get us a booth!” she called after his retreating back, and set her course for the bar.
Akimichi Honoka was an ex-jounin in her early thirties who had retired to bartend at her family’s restaurant after an accident had taken her left hand and the hearing in her right ear. She wore a cunning, intricate prosthetic with jointed fingers that had blades hidden underneath the porcelain nails. She also kept trying to set Katsuko up with her twin brother, Daichi, but since she slipped Katsuko extra meat skewers from the kitchen whenever the head chef wasn’t paying attention, she was still in the top ten list of Katsuko’s favorite people.
“Honoka-san!” Katsuko said happily, coming up beside Ryouma to bump her good shoulder companionably against his arm. “It’s been a while. Mind if I steal my teammate from you? He’s so tall he needs to be fed well, or he’ll die.”
“You abandoned me,” Ryouma complained. His arm was warm against her shoulder. “I’ve been waiting nearly an hour. You’ve only got Honoka-san’s beauty — and her cocktails — to thank that I haven’t succumbed already.”
“I’m always happy to save a gentleman in distress,” Honoka said, smiling. Her voice was warm and raspy, welcoming like the burn of hot sake during winter. Akimichi always had hair that tended towards bright orange and spiky; she’d kept the spikes, but added streaks of red that made it look like she had a mane of fire spilling down her back. She had a towel in her flesh hand and a glass in the metal one that she was wiping down. “Especially this particular gentleman. It’s not often I meet men taller than me. Or men so charming, for that matter.”
Ryouma beamed at Honoka. There was a looseness in his spine when he leaned over the counter that spoke of slightly too much to drink and not enough to eat beforehand. “Would it damage the charm if I ask when your shift ends?”
Katsuko made an exasperated noise and looped her arm through his. “Flirt later. Food now. Thanks, Honoka-san. We’ll stop by before we leave.”
She tugged Ryouma gently away from the bar while Honoka chuckled. Ryouma acquiesced with bad grace.
“I thought you were going to be my wingwoman,” he told Katsuko severely, as they made their way to the back of the restaurant. Kakashi, who had claimed a booth with the best vantage points, watched their approach with an unimpressed expression.
“I would be a bad wingwoman if I let you drink on an empty stomach,” Katsuko said. “Honoka works all night. I’ll give you back to her after you’re fed.”
He looked a little abashed. “I only meant to have one drink, while I waited. She mixes ‘em strong, though. And you two took forever. What were you doing?”
“Kakashi is a delicate peony bud,” she informed Ryouma as they reached their booth. She stood aside to let Ryouma slide onto the bench first. “We went sword shopping, but we needed to stop to let him rest on the fainting couch.”
“Sword shopping?” Puzzlement clouded his brow before he made the connection. “Oh. To replace the one the demon broke?”
“There were no fainting couches,” Kakashi said, glowering across the table at Katsuko as she slid in next to Ryouma.
“Whatever you say, my little ice cream spoon.” She hadn’t told Ryouma about teaching Kakashi Hyoho Niten, she realized, with a touch of worry. Teammates were supposed to talk about these kinds of things; the last thing she wanted was for Ryouma to feel excluded because of her lack of communication. He’d given her nothing but warmth and camaraderie since their first day as Team Six. The thought of alienating him, even by accident, made anxiety stir in her chest.
She shook her head. No need to borrow trouble. She’d get her boys fed, first, and then lay everything out on the table with the food when it arrived.
“Their beef short rib skewers are good,” she said, flipping through the menu even though she knew it by heart. “The chicken’s my favorite, though. You want anything besides meat on a stick, Tousaki?”
He didn’t even pretend to look at the menu. “Do they do enoki maki?”
Katsuko’s stomach growled. “Yes,” she said emphatically, and flagged down a waiter. “Get two orders. No, three.”
The waiter — a short, cheerful man with a purple mohawk — lit their table grill, basted it with oil, and brought a selection of meat cuts for them to cook themselves. Ryouma got his enoki mushrooms wrapped in thin slices of pork. Katsuko got a menagerie of dead things. And Kakashi got fresh-caught fish hooked from Konoha’s own river.
The sizzle and pop of grilled barbecue filled the air with rich savoriness, and brought a kind of group camaraderie to the table. For most ninja, campfire cooking held good memories.
Ryouma was bright-eyed and flushed, but not sloppy-drunk. He laughed when Katsuko speared two shrimp on her chopsticks and made them act as a pair of dancing shoes. Kakashi leaned against the wall, propped his chin on his hand, and watched them tiredly. He’d missed this, he realized.
“Tousaki,” he said, interrupting Katsuko’s impromptu sacrifice of the dancing shrimp to the grill. “Were you drinking to celebrate?”
Ryouma glanced over, startled, and then looked away. “Not really, no. I just got one to— steady the nerves, y’know, and then it turned into three.” He busied his hands sliding three enoki maki off the grill and onto Katsuko’s plate, and added diffidently, “The lieutenant’s taking me on for field medic training.”
Which… was a bad thing?
“Really? That’s fantastic!” Katsuko grabbed Ryouma in a tight hug, and like a proud general bestowing a hard-won medal, transferred one of the enoki-maki from her plate to his.
(She kept the other two.)
Ryouma, already warm, turned pink with pleasure and— something that smelled like anxiety, sharp and rank under the cooking meat and spilled beer. “He brought it up a couple weeks ago, but I still wasn’t sure— He got Taichou’s permissions and everything, and told me to sign up for a medical basics class. So I think it’s really going to happen.”
“Do you want it to?” Kakashi asked.
Katsuko sat back just enough to look at Ryouma’s face, but left her good hand resting on his arm.
Ryouma drew a deep breath. “Yes,” he said, like he’d just realized that was true. “I hadn’t really let myself believe it would. I mean, who’d let me—? But Taichou said he’d pay gold for another medic, so I guess they don’t mind. Assuming it works, I mean.” He looked down at his hands, clenched one, relaxed it, looked up again. “Hell, it’s just first aid and ninjutsu, right? I can do that. And next time we run into trouble, I can help.”
Kakashi traded a glance with Katsuko. She frowned.
“Did the lieutenant say you weren’t helping?” Kakashi asked.
Ryouma’s head came up, startled. “No! No, he said… Being a medic helps him deal with being a ninja. Because the same hands that kill your target can save your comrades.” He smiled at Kakashi, crooked and a little hesitant, across the table. “And hey, the whole time I was looking after you on the field and in the bunker, I wasn’t killing that Kiri captain, right?”
Kakashi and Katsuko both relaxed, and Kakashi snorted softly, “So long as you don’t start fussing after us like the lieutenant…”
He could see the logic, though. He remembered Ryouma in Tsuto’s bedroom, silent and methodical as he snapped the wife’s neck, finished the daughter before she drowned in her own blood, rotted Tsuto alive. There was no doubt Ryouma could kill for Konoha without hesitating, but it took something from him.
Here, in giving, was a chance to take something back.
It wouldn’t hurt to have another medic around they could trust, either. Kakashi would never be one. Katsuko couldn’t. Raidou had enough to manage, and Kakashi doubted he had the aptitude anyway.
Kakashi nodded. “You’ll be good at it.”
Katsuko leaned against Ryouma’s side. “Agreed.”
The crooked edges of Ryouma’s smile softened, and some of the anxiety slipped away. “Thanks.”
Kakashi waved a hand and leaned back against his wall again, finding a comfortable slouch. “Ueno’s agreed to teach me her family’s kenjutsu style, so you’ll have plenty of bruises and severed limbs to practice on.”
“Severed limbs go to your friend Nohara-sensei,” Ryouma said hurriedly, and then a lightbulb flicked on. “Oh, was that what you were buying swords for? You’re gonna teach him, Katsu, really? I mean—” He frowned. “Doesn’t it usually take years? Though I guess you can just Sharingan it up…”
“No Sharingan,” Kakashi said. “Sensei’s orders.”
“He learns Hyoho Niten without the Sharingan, or he doesn’t learn Hyoho Niten at all,” Katsuko said cheerfully.
Kakashi gave Ryouma a dry look, then folded his arms and put his head down on the table, which was warm and solid and — most importantly — horizontal. The new swords were a pleasant weight against his hip, and Ryouma was laughing again, low and rumbling against the background of restaurant noise.
“I hope you’ll let me come watch,” Ryouma said. “I promise I won’t try to steal your super secret moves, either. But I really want to kick back under a tree and watch you two beat each other up.”
“Since I’m the teacher, I’m the one who’s going to beat him up,” Katsuko informed them. “Bring snacks. Passing on my wisdom and knowledge will make me hungry.”
Kakashi made a disbelieving sound into his crossed arms.
“I will want snacks. Watching other people exercise makes me hungry.” Ryouma took a bite of something that thickened his voice. “And since it’s training on your own time, I could bring beer instead of juiceboxes, and the lieutenant can’t disapprove.”
“Because alcohol and swords is always a good mix,” Kakashi muttered.
“I’ll drink your share,” Ryouma promised generously. “You can have a juicebox. I’ll wheedle one out of the lieutenant for you.”
“It’ll be fine! The practice swords are blunted,” Katsuko said, with the cheer of someone who now had a valid reason to abuse one of her subordinates.
Kakashi turned his head just enough to raise his uncovered eye above the level of his arm, and squinted vengefully at them. “Some day you’re both going to need something from me, and I’ll remember this.”
Ryouma blinked in wounded innocence. “All I did was offer you snacks and a juicebox.”
Katsuko just cackled loudly and propped her chin on her hand, looking pleased and fond and satisfied with life. It was the first time she’d been relaxed since…
He couldn’t remember when. Too long.
Kakashi tucked his head back down, and said, “Tell Tousaki your good news.”
After food and conversation with her boys, some indefinable tension Katsuko hadn’t realized she’d been carrying had dissipated. Ryouma was happy and safe beside her, and Kakashi trusted them enough (or was tired enough) to let them keep watch while he rested his head in his arms. She leaned back against her seat and said, “I’m starting officer prep courses.”
Ryouma’s head turned sharply and he gave her a searching look. Then he smiled, slow and proud. “Good for you, senpai. Remember me when you need a lieutenant.”
She grinned back. “I’m just auditing it to start out, see if I like it. But if I do decide to stick with it, you’ll be my first choice for lieutenant-medic.”
He did a triumphant little fist-pump. “Kakashi can come with us, as lieutenant’s official scribe.”
“Only if you want your reports to be illegible,” Kakashi muttered.
She peered down at his shock of grey hair and exchanged a glance with Ryouma. “We never asked about how your review went, did we?” She shifted and reached her good hand across the table to give the top of his grumpy spikes a comforting flick. “What did the lieutenant have to say?”
He sighed and dragged his head up enough to prop his chin on his crossed arms. With the air of someone who’d run the words over repeatedly in his mind, he quoted, “ ‘No further professional development plans are indicated at the moment.’” Bitterness crept into his voice. “I’m supposed to work on mastering ANBU fundamentals, and integrating with the team.”
There was a considering silence on both sides of the table. Finally, Ryouma reached over and placed an enoki maki squarely in the middle of Kakashi’s plate. “You’re not integrating too badly.”
It had to be difficult for a prodigy used to ambitious leaps in rank and skill to be given an assessment suited more for the average ANBU rookie. Katsuko’s own first month evaluation had been more blistering, with Raidou and Captain Ozawa confronting her on the disparity between her professionalism on the field and her irreverence off of it. The phrases “dangerously close to insubordination” and “immaturity” had featured prominently. She recalled the burn of shame at the disappointment on their faces with vivid detail.
“Then it’s up to you to show them what you can do, isn’t it?” she said, calmly. “This is a test, same as the Trials. They’re tripping you up because they know you’ve been walking when you’re capable of running.”
Kakashi’s fatigue vanished between one breath and the next. Gone was the slouchy young man who’d spent the entire day with her; in his place was a blooded shinobi who’d just had the keenness of his edge called into question. He sat up fully and aimed a hard, considering look at her. “I always run.”
Continuing the metaphor any further would tip the conversation towards the ridiculous. Her good hand was curled in a loose fist on the table. She turned it over, palm up, and opened her fingers in wordless question: do you really?
He looked at her hand and then back at her face, eye narrowed. “I could — maybe — work on integrating more.”
Being a ninja demanded excellence, dedication, and defiance of impossible odds. To adapt was to survive. But for those who based their self-worth on their career as a shinobi, it was galling to admit the need for improvement after constant success on the field. The feeling stung worse the higher up the ranks you were. For most, jounin was the vaunted peak of ability. To reach the summit only to find yet another mountain to climb in ANBU was the reason behind most dropouts. Katsuko wasn’t religious, but she uttered a silent prayer of thanks that neither of her rookies were the type to back down from unforeseen challenges.
“Hm,” she said at last, in tacit acknowledgment, and withdrew her hand before Kakashi was tempted to bite it off. He reminded her of nothing so much right now as an offended cat grudgingly admitting it might be the culprit behind an upended flower pot. “The day before my first month review I replaced all of Taichou’s — well, he was the lieutenant back then — pen ink with ramen broth. You can imagine what he wrote about me in the Needs Improvement section of his report.”
“It’s a regular Tuesday and I don’t know why I do this job?” Kakashi suggested cynically, but he relaxed back into his usual slouch by degrees. He leaned one elbow on the table and regarded them with renewed interest. After a moment, he added more sincerely, “Congratulations to you both, though. You’ve earned it.”
Ryouma, who had been tending the grill with one ear bent toward their conversation, laid a large, perfectly cooked strip of chicken on her plate. “I think you just proved his point, senpai.”
Katsuko couldn’t think of a witty retort — she was too busy controlling a pleased flush at the praise.
Ryouma grinned at her.
Kakashi ignored them both, and vanished the enoki maki behind his mask.