May 20, Yondaime Year 5
Talking with Katsuko took half an hour, but the aftermath involved the head of ANBU herself, followed by paperwork and a meeting with Kuroda. And that took until nearly 1500.
As soon as he was alone in Team Six’s office, Genma took a sealed equipment scroll from his locker and keyed in the simple chakra sequence to release it. A tightly rolled t-shirt and faded pair of jeans appeared in a puff of orangish smoke, and dropped to his desk. The socks and underwear furled inside weren’t really necessary, but spare civvies were spare civvies, and he was eager to be out of his funeral uniform.
After he’d changed, Genma locked the new paperwork away and took out the folder with his copy of Team Six’s personnel files. He’d just opened Raidou’s profile to look for a home address when there was a polite knock on the office door.
“Enter,” Genma said, expecting a runner with some additional form that needed his signature. He was surprised when he looked up to find Katsuko there. “I thought you were—” he started, and cut himself off. There was no blast-furnace of chakra radiating from the woman in the doorway — it was a clone.
“Katsuko told me to give you this to open later,” the clone said. It handed over a document scroll with a label inked in Katsuko’s distinctive calligraphy, addressed simply to ‘ANBU Team Six.’
“Later when?” Genma asked, but the clone, with its sole task accomplished, had already formed the seals to dismiss itself from existence.
Whenever ‘later’ was, it wasn’t now. He pocketed the scroll and turned back to Raidou’s file to get that address.
Raidou’d said he was meeting with Benihime-sama after the funeral, but with three hours past, the lesson was probably over. The Yuuhi matriarch had more than just Raidou to attend to in her life, after all, and even the strictest sensei wouldn’t expect more than three hours of intensive genjutsu practice at a stretch from someone who wasn’t a specialist in the field.
It wasn’t hard to map out the least hilly route between ANBU HQ and Raidou’s family home in a tree-lined, residential corner of Konoha. The house itself was a tidy two-story with a blue tile roof, not much different in shape than the ones around it, but there was a comforting settledness in the different paint schemes and garden designs from house to house. This whole neighborhood had escaped the Fox’s destruction, and bore the signs of long use — the large gardens and wide spacing between houses harkened back to Konoha’s rural roots.
Genma pushed open a well-oiled cypress-wood gate marked with two names, Namiashi and Yonai, to a paved pathway that meandered through a small flower garden to the front door. Genma flared his chakra for Raidou’s benefit and brushed the backs of his fingers through the dangling tubes of a wind chime hanging under the eaves to announce himself.
After a moment, a window to Genma’s left slid open, and a woman who could only be Raidou’s mother, Namiashi Ume, leaned out. She had his exact coloring from the warm tan skin to the reddish hue of her dark hair, with the same bright brown eyes that crinkled at the corners like her son’s. She blinked at Genma, nonplussed, and brushed a flyaway strand of hair absently back to join its fellows, twisted up and skewered with a pencil. “Can I help you, dear?” she asked.
It didn’t take a shinobi to know she was a grade school teacher.
Genma ducked his head in a bow. “Namiashi-sensei, I’m Shiranui Genma. Is Namiashi-taichou available?”
Alarm replaced the puzzlement on her face. “He’s still out. Is something wrong?”
“No, ma’am,” Genma said quickly. “It’s nothing like that.” He could kick himself for frightening her. “He’s my captain. Er, I’m his lieutenant. I was just hoping to catch up with him for a little and pass on some news about the team.”
Her face flashed over into delight. “You’re Shiranui-kun! Or— not ‘-kun’ probably, sorry. Shiranui-san? Shiranui-fukuchou? Shun would be so much better at this. Anyway, Raidou probably won’t be back for a while longer. Would you like to come in?”
Her torrent of words paused just long enough for Genma to open his mouth, and then she gave a rueful little “oh!” and disappeared back into the house. The window slid shut. Moments later footsteps scuffed on the entryway, and the door swung open.
She smiled up at Genma, her eyes all but disappearing behind round, red cheeks. “Now would you like to come in,” she said. “I’ve got tea.”
Genma had to laugh. “Don’t worry, Namiashi-sensei, I have a civilian father; I know better than to crawl in through windows on a social visit.” He bowed again, now that they were face to face. “Pleasure to meet you. ‘San’ is fine,” he told her, straightening. “I’m not your lieutenant, after all.”
“Count yourself lucky,” she said cheerfully, “I’d make a terrible soldier.” She gestured for him to enter, bowing in what Genma could already tell would be an infinitely repeating cycle if he didn’t break it. He stepped into the cool foyer and quickly slipped off his shoes.
“What tea would you like?” Ume asked, leading the way to a cozy, lived-in kitchen. “I’ve got black, jasmine, sencha, genmaicha, kukicha…”
“Genmaicha, please.” Green tea with toasted rice was a soothing, mellow tea, and after the way Genma’s day had gone so far, soothing sounded perfect.
Ume busied herself with loose tea and a small teapot, leaving Genma to study the room. On the surface, it looked like a civilian home. There was a comfortable kitchen table strewn with half-graded student papers. A lightweight cardigan casually slung over one of the chairs. A stack of magazines and newspapers awaiting recycling. The refrigerator had the usual assortment of calendars and coupons magneted to it, along with a charming crayon drawing of a group of small figures and one larger, long haired one, helpfully labeled ‘Namiashi-sensei.’ A caged tiger filled the space above the people, and a childish scrawl at the bottom of the page read, ‘Thank you for taking us to see the animals.’
But the imprint of the ninja who lived here was just as apparent to knowing eyes. A pair of swords on a stand could have been decorative heirlooms if not for their battered scabbards and worn hilts. A simple wooden box near the door was the exact size and shape to hold a set of bug-out-bags for two. A bottle of honing oil and a slightly worn whetstone sat on the low table in the main living area. That would be Raidou’s Academy-sensei mother Shun’s, undoubtedly. And of course Raidou himself had been raised here. Genma couldn’t help smirking at the patched over divots where senbon or shuriken had been pitched at the ceiling by a bored adolescent ninja some time in the past.
When the tea was brewed, Ume put the pot and a pair of artfully rustic tea cups on a chipped lacquer tray and nodded at the sliding door to the back. Genma opened it for her and followed her to a small table and trio of folding chairs in a yard that was more cultivated garden than open space. While he selected a seat, she poured out the tea and handed Genma a steaming cup.
“Is it good news?” she asked, pouring herself a cup and sitting to his right. “About your team?” She must have read the hesitation on Genma’s face as he prepared to politely decline to answer, because she waved a hastily dismissive hand. “If it’s classified, you can pretend I never asked.”
“That’s probably the best choice,” Genma said, relieved. “Thanks for giving me an easy out.” He scanned the garden while he cradled his tea. Raised beds planted in neat rows took up one side of the garden, while flowers lined another. At the back, a tiny fluffball of a white kitten was trying to catch a pair of black-spotted orange butterflies that flitted just out of its reach above a tree stump.
It was a peaceful garden. Katsuko would undoubtedly have run to play with the kitten if she were here. The scroll in his right pocket pressed against his leg and spoiled his peace. He had a good guess as to its contents, but until Raidou was here, there was nothing he could do with the scroll or his news.
And if Ume caught him fretting, she’d worry whether or not he reassured her the news wasn’t dire. He took a deliberately slow sip of tea, tipped back in the chair, and refocused on his hostess.
“Are you the gardener, Namiashi-sensei?”
“Hm? Oh, no. I’m a renowned plant-killer.” Ume crinkled her nose above a wry smile. “My wife does all the gardening, except when we rope Raidou in for free labor.” She gestured at a pair of planters near the back door made from two halves of a water barrel. Tiny, bright green seedlings dotted the densely black soil. “He made those for us last week.”
“Nice, I love strawberries,” Genma said. The leaves were ridged and saw-toothed in clusters of three, so they could hardly be anything else unless Raidou’s moms were cultivating poison ivy, but it didn’t seem likely. “I didn’t know Raidou liked to do carpentry. I guess he learned it when Konoha was rebuilding?”
Ume grinned, delighted to talk about her son. Indeed Raidou had learned carpentry repairing the damage the Fox had wrought, and he was a natural talent. She expounded at length about the potting bench Raidou had built for Shun (with seed compartments and shelves!); a set of rough but tuneful wooden wind chimes he’d made piecemeal over the course of several missions, bringing one new pipe after every sortie; the freshly repaired garden fence with only the newness of the boards to show it wasn’t original… She would probably have taken him on a tour of the fence, pointing out every board Raidou had ever replaced, complete with timeline and precipitating event, if not for Genma’s cane and obvious limp.
While she was enthusing about the joinery on the window boxes that Raidou had given her for her birthday one year, the kitten, bored with butterflies, wandered over to sniff inquisitively at Genma’s toes. He reached a hand down to pat it, which it took as an invitation to scale his leg and settle in his lap, purring loudly.
It was edging past 1600 and they’d gone through a pot of tea, a plate of senbei, and enough stories about Raidou’s handiwork that Genma was starting to wonder when his captain had time to be a ninja before there was any sign of Raidou.
“Mom?” he bellowed from somewhere inside the house. “Is it my turn to cook dinner toni— Shiranui?” He stood at the open kitchen door, toweling freshly showered hair with one hand and tugging the hem of a dark tank top down over loose-fitting jeans. His broad, bare shoulders were tanner than Genma remembered — all those hours working in the garden while on enforced sabbatical, Genma guessed.
Genma scrambled to stand, scooping the kitten up with one hand and reaching for his cane with the other. “Taichou. I have some information to go over with you. Your mother was kind enough to give me some tea… I hope you don’t mind.”
In his next life, Raidou was going to be the kind of ninja paranoid enough to sweep the house and check his relatives before he hopped in the shower. (Well, no, in his next life he was going to be an exorbitantly paid bare-knuckle boxer with a record deal on the side.) But either way, he wasn’t going to be barefoot and wet when his coworkers popped out of the woodwork for tea.
“Uh,” he said, as too many questions bottle-necked his brain.
Ume stood, collecting her mug, and paused to kiss his cheek before she went into the kitchen. “Your mouth’s open, honey.”
Raidou closed his mouth, then opened it to ask, “Who’s dead?” Except Genma didn’t look that pale, so he amended to, “Who’s hospitalized?”
Genma hiked Suki up against his hip, steadying the kitten as she tried to climb up his shirt. “No one. Well, maybe Tousaki, but I can’t think of any reason he wouldn’t be allowed to go home after his procedure. It’s something else.”
He cast a significant look at Ume’s retreating back. Raidou recalibrated his alarm level down a notch to ‘classified’ or at least ‘not for civilians’, and led Genma away from the house. A grassy sweep beneath a low plum tree wasn’t the most secret conference space, but it was out of the kitchen window’s eyeline and away from the neighbors.
“This do?” Raidou asked. “Or do we need to go to HQ?”
“This is good.” Genma set Suki down, started to lower himself to the grass, stopped to pull a scroll from his pocket, and took a seat. Suki immediately reclaimed a spot on his lap. Raidou would have smiled, but something in the set of Genma’s mouth dragged tension right up his spine.
Genma waited until Raidou sat, then said, “There’s no way to soften this. Ueno’s being reassigned, deployed outside Konoha with a diplomatic mission. The order comes from the very top.”
Raidou sat very still.
After a moment, he put his hands together, focused his chakra, and murmured kai. Genma did not dissolve into one of Benihime’s tests. Raidou hadn’t really expected him to, but for half a second he’d hoped.
He laid his hands down. “Why?”
“It’s a family matter.” A slice of lowering afternoon sunlight slipped through the plum tree branches to cut over Genma’s face. It made his skin gold, and the shadows harsher. “You knew her dad was in the diplomatic corps? He requested her specifically as his head of security. Fire Country is reopening diplomatic relations with—” Earth Country, his hand sign finished.
Raidou stared at him. Half a lifetime’s worth of war demanded what?, but he set it aside for Katsuko. “That makes no sense. She hates her father. Her father hates her.”
“I don’t pretend to understand the diplomacy part. That’s above my paygrade.” Genma’s fingers carded gently through Suki’s fur, scattering white hairs across his jeans and dark brown t-shirt. “The rest of the team and I only just found out about her dad last week. Kakashi offered to call in a hit on him, actually. I’d call that growth.” Raidou frowned. Genma refocused. “The whole Ueno family is moving to the embassy together, but she’s only going for the sake of her little brother. He’s losing his sight.”
That, finally, was the missing piece. Raidou groaned and rubbed a hand over his face. Katsuko loved her little brother with equal parts loyalty and guilt. If Makoto asked she’d come running, no matter what she had to give up. Going blind was a strong reason for an artist to ask.
“When do they leave?” Raidou asked.
“They’re already gone.” Genma’s mouth thinned unhappily around his senbon. “I don’t understand why they sprang it on her at the last minute like this, either. It’s not like Yondaime-sama could have been in the dark about this being on the horizon. Not even a twelve-hour notice to say her goodbyes?”
Raidou’s face was numb, but he thought his mouth had just found a particularly grim smile. His hands said, Earth Country. “No warning, no good choices. It’s like we never got out of the trenches.”
Genma’s head came up sharply. “That’s exactly what it is. Exactly. It’s the kind of thing they used to do when they were afraid of an information leak. No one got their orders until the last minute so no one could go telling tales.” Incredulous anger darkened his eyes until they were almost copper. “It can’t possibly be any of us, though. Or anyone in ANBU. Can it?”
Raidou sighed. “If you were management, and you didn’t know her, would you trust Katsuko to keep her mouth shut?”
“I would if I was any good at my job,” Genma muttered darkly, and Raidou could almost hear bastard Kuroda thrumming under his voice. Then Genma let out a breath, and his narrow shoulders dropped. “But I guess, if I really didn’t know her… I can’t claim I trusted her the first time I met her.”
“I didn’t either,” Raidou said. “Granted, I met her at Trials and she tried to burn my face off.”
Genma chuckled weakly. “That would endear her to anyone.”
“Yeah.” Raidou tried for a smile, but it didn’t fit right. He looked down at Genma’s restless hands. “Are they splitting the rest of the team up?”
“No. They’re not.” There was no breaking room in Genma’s voice, just hammered fact. “I have Sagara-sama’s word on that personally. She met with me right after Ueno gave me the news, and she showed me the memo she had from the Hokage himself. The rest of Team Six stays together. Including you.”
It was something. It sounded like a guarantee from the Hokage himself that Raidou’s suspension days were numbered, but it was hard to leap at that when one-fifth of the heart of their team had just been ripped out. There were words he owed Katsuko, a lot he owed Katsuko after Tsurugahama, and—and—
“What’s the scroll?” Raidou asked, before his thoughts ate themselves.
Genma glanced down, as if he’d forgotten about the scroll he’d laid on his thigh. He picked it up to hand over. “Ueno’s clone came to give it to me, and told me to open it ‘later’. I’m guessing it’s something along the lines of, ‘Taichou gets all my stuff; Rookies, you’d better behave even without the best senpai in the world to watch over you. And Lieutenant, tell the QM I’m keeping my mask.’”
That sounded about right.
Raidou turned the scroll over and slit the cover open with a thumbnail. Four folded pages tumbled out, each marked with a name. Goodbye letters. It had been real since the moment Genma had said it, but now the frozen clench in Raidou’s chest actually started to hurt. He slid his own letter free, passed Genma’s back, and folded Ryouma and Kakashi’s away without opening them.
“You haven’t told the boys yet,” he said, not really a question.
Genma shook his head. “I came straight here as soon as I was finished meeting with Sagara and Kuroda. Hatake’s with Tousaki at the hospital right now to give Tousaki moral support for his knee surgery.”
Seriously? perhaps wasn’t the right answer to that. Raidou trusted, somewhere, that Kakashi had achieved the fractional amount of personal growth necessary not to traumatize his teammate.
He turned the letter over, and, like setting a broken bone, opened it to read.
This isn’t goodbye forever. Just for now. When someone like Ueno Kasa says he wants a specific ANBU agent to serve as his head of security, ANBU listens to him. Even if that ANBU agent would have liked at least the semblance of a say in her enforced retirement.
The reason why my father removed me from ANBU, however, I can’t argue with. My little brother, Makoto, he… well, I’ve already told the lieutenant all the details. It’s not something I really want written down on paper. Suffice to say what’s happening to him is enough to make my parents and I get off our dysfunctional asses and try to reconcile after years of silence.
I’ve been appointed to guard my father during his assignment in Earth Country as he negotiates new treaties in the wake of recent political upheaval. My mother, who was supposed to be a retired samurai, has apparently been keeping her skills in shape enough to be counted as another (unofficial) bodyguard. It’s amazing how many swords that woman can conceal in her fancy kimono.
Makoto… what he’s going through would turn anyone bitter. But he’s still the same sweet kid as always; all he wants is for his family to be together and happy again. I’ve failed him so often. Swallowing my pride and making amends with my parents is the least I can do. Especially when I look into my mother’s and father’s eyes and see the same regrets mirrored back at me.
We never got the chance to talk after the last mission we had together, Rai. But know this: my faith in you as my captain has never wavered. Ever. This is neither blind optimism nor naïveté. So pick yourself back up, Taichou, because the team needs you to lead them.
I’m sorry for not saying farewell in person. I’m sorry for a lot of things, but I’m running out of paper and I’m running out of time. So, for now, I’ll leave you with this:
Thank you. Thank you for being there for me when I had no one else, and thank you for being the big brother I so desperately needed. I made the decision to go command track in part because I want to inspire and lead people like you do. I want to have a team at my back that trusts me to make the hard decisions. And hey, there’s nothing saying I can’t rejoin ANBU once this thing in Earth Country wraps up. I’ve been placed in charge of a platoon of jounin for this mission; I’ll start practicing this whole leadership thing on them. From the files they’ve given me on these guys, every single one of them is used to giving orders and not taking them.
Guess I’ll have to fix that.
Take care of yourself, Rai. I’d say take care of the team, but I know you’ve already got that covered.
Love you, big bro.
Let’s go out for a drink when I come back,
Raidou had burned his tears out a week ago on regret and guilt. He’d thought he was done, but Katsuko’s scrawling signature blurred before he re-folded the letter. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, inhaled, and steadied. His fingertips were wet, but his face stayed dry.
He’d never lost his family. He couldn’t begrudge Katsuko trying to reforge hers.
And she was right, about so many things but especially one in particular: there was nothing to stop her coming back.
He pocketed the letter and glanced up at Genma, digging up a smile that felt real. “They’re giving her a jounin team to command. She’s going to have so much fun.”
“Good for her,” Genma said. “I’m sorry she didn’t get a chance to do that course audit, but I’m sure she’ll figure it all out.”
Genma’d been expecting the huskiness in Raidou’s voice. He hadn’t expected it to be mirrored in his own. He glanced up at Raidou, catching reddened eyes for just a moment, before he found himself drawn back to his own letter.
He couldn’t have predicted a single sentence of it.
I haven’t been fair to you in the past. Call it an inborn wariness towards medics, but I know you know I act differently towards you than the others. There are reasons for it, but it still doesn’t excuse alienating you. I think, given a little more time, I would have been able to connect with you like I do the others.
You’re a good man, Lieutenant. You’re serious and kind and capable, and I wouldn’t trust my team with anyone else. Both of us were working towards a friendship before this summons from my father arrived, and I can genuinely say I regret the interruption in our progress. I’ve been wary and suspicious, and you have been nothing but gentle and patient. Thank you. A lot of officers wouldn’t have bothered.
You probably know this about Taichou already, but he does this thing where he thinks he has to set a good leadership example and bottles things up. Don’t be afraid to check on him in private. Remind him he’s human, and humans make mistakes. He doesn’t have to be perfect.
And you don’t have to be perfect either, Lieutenant. You already do twice the work of a normal medic, given how this team likes to attack giant monsters with their faces. All of us would have died without you here. Don’t be so hard on yourself; you belong on this team as surely as Sharingan Crankypants Kakashi does.
Thank you for everything, Shiranui-fukuchou. I’ll miss you.
“She’s… She deserves this chance,” Genma said at last, still staring at the paper in his hands. “She could absolutely make her career with an assignment like this. Security at an embassy— that’s a good fit for her. No more mutilated little girls or civilian hits. Every fight she gets in, she’ll know for certain she’s protecting Konoha.”
His voice cracked, and his eyes felt hot and swollen, but he didn’t try to hide it from Raidou. Remind him he’s human… And you don’t have to be perfect, either. When he looked up at Raidou again, he knew his face gave him away. “When it matters, she really steps up.”
He held his letter out for Raidou to read. There wasn’t anything in it that was too personal to share, and Raidou was Katsuko’s friend as well as her captain. Former captain. It wasn’t much, but there was nothing else Genma could offer, and Raidou was hurting.
Raidou was clearly surprised by the gesture, but he took the letter with a nod of thanks. It was easy to see which parts Raidou was reading by the expression on his face. Exasperated and fond when he’d hit the instructions to Genma to remind Raidou he was human; a snort of pure amusement at ‘Sharingan Crankypants.’ He scanned through the letter a second time, like he wanted to refresh his thoughts before he spoke, then he folded it carefully and handed it back.
His eyes were still bright with shock and pain, but there was pride there, too. It was a good move for Katsuko, even if it was sooner than he or Genma would have liked. And she had stepped up, on the team in general, and in this farewell letter to her lieutenant.
“She’s right, you know,” Raidou said, with the kind of raw sincerity that only came in the aftermath of a major upheaval. “We would be dead without you.”
It was too much for Genma to keep looking at Raidou’s face. He dropped his gaze to the kitten in his lap, stroking between the triangular ears. They twitched every time Genma’s hand brushed too close to one, but the purring never ceased.
“It’s my job, Taichou,” he said. “I just hope I don’t have to do that part of it too often. Without Ueno’s clones I’ll be at a disadvantage. Even if I don’t have to keep setting her collarbones.”
Raidou made a sound of regretful agreement. “We’ll have to go back to regular watches on missions, and have someone else handle explosive supplies.”
Genma nodded. “I can do that.”
A darker look crossed Raidou’s face. “And buffer the rookies,” he continued as if Genma hadn’t interrupted. “They’re going to take this hard.”
Genma considered that. “Not necessarily. It’s a blow and they’re going to be upset, but how much really depends on how we frame it for them. They’re rookies with barely six weeks of experience in ANBU under their belts, and we’ve told them before that teams can get broken up and people can get moved based on need. Asuma left before his rookie year was out when he got a similar assignment — I could tell them about that. And it is a good move for Ueno. We just have to make sure they see that way.”
Raidou looked at him thoughtfully, then the corners of his mouth tipped up, lopsided in a way Genma had come to associate with genuine good humor on Raidou’s face. “They are adults, theoretically.”
“Even ‘Sharingan Crankypants Kakashi.’” Genma chuckled. “Although in his case there’s still a fair amount of teenager. But not about military protocol. I expect he’ll take it reasonably well, actually. Tousaki’s the one who will take some work.”
“You’re probably right. I’d say have him run his issues off, but knee surgery.” Raidou glanced at the two unopened envelopes addressed to the rookies. “Maybe Katsuko’s note will have some don’t-be-stupid advice for him.” He looked up, tracking the sun through the dark leaves and clumps of unripe fruit on the plum tree. “What time is his surgery done?”
“Surgery was scheduled for 1400. Assuming they started on time—” No guarantee, both of them knew — “I’d expect the procedure itself to take 45 to 60 minutes, and then another couple of hours in recovery. So maybe 1800 or a little before? I’d prefer if you came with me to break the news.”
Genma doubted wild horses could have kept Raidou away, but since Genma’d asked for Raidou’s help, if Kuroda or anyone else up the chain had a problem with it, they could pin the blame on Genma. He’d take a formal reprimand, or another sixty hours of scut work, or whatever petty punishment the Vice meted out over the infraction, for the sake of the team.
“Of course,” Raidou said instantly. “Gives us about ninety minutes to kill, then. You want a drink?”
“I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve wanted a drink more than I do right now,” Genma said. “Thanks.” He waved his fingers over the kitten, who batted at them with evident delight. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a big orange tomcat stalking him from under the broad leaves of a staked bean plant. He pretended to ignore it as it crept closer. “If I’d been planning ahead, I’d have just brought a bottle of sake with me.”
“I’d demerit you, but technically I’m still suspended,” Raidou said. He shoved to his feet and headed back to the kitchen. Ume and Shun weren’t heavy drinkers, but they usually kept a bottle or two around the place, just in case.
Ume greeted him at the kitchen door with a plate of onigiri and an inquiring look. “Is everything okay?”
“Do you have anything stronger?” Raidou answered.
She searched his face and sighed. “There’s a bottle of Nanatsuboshi in the cupboard.”
He dug the dusty bottle out, liberated two cups to go with it, and accepted the plate of onigiri Ume pressed into his hands. She didn’t ask any more questions. He’d tell her later, when he knew what the official party line was, and when Shun was around to weather the inevitable storm. Ume loved Katsuko the same way she loved their evil tomcat and her classful of messy, civilian schoolchildren — fiercely, devotedly, and as if the alternative just didn’t make sense. She’d be proud of the promotion, and heartbroken at the aftermath.
When he returned to the plum tree, it was to discover the scene of a small, surprising coup. The kitten had been turfed from Genma’s lap and her place stolen by the large, yellow-eyed tomcat, who was making broken vacuum cleaner noises under Genma’s ministrations. The kitten, meanwhile, was taking leaps to bat at Genma’s swinging ponytail.
“I don’t know how you managed that,” Raidou said, setting the food and drink down before he took a seat. “But you should know he hates all living creatures.”
Genma glanced up with the innocent surprise of a man who didn’t know he’d allowed twelve pounds of concentrated homicide to curl up on his crotch. “Last I checked I was still alive, but maybe you’d better take my pulse?”
Genma twitched his head to avoid losing a chunk of hair to a kitten attack, and looked back down at the purring monster. “Cat-san took some time evaluating the best approach, but the little fluffball vacated as soon as it was clear this one wanted a seat.” He scratched under the tomcat’s chin, winning a noise like the mangled cousin of a dying lawnmower. “What’s his name? And the little one’s name?”
Raidou poured two cups of sake, handing one over and nudging the plate of onigiri between them. “She’s Suki. He probably has a name, but since he just invited himself in and mostly took over the place, Shun and I have been calling him Bastard.”
“What does Namiashi-sensei call him?”
“Handsome,” Raidou said dryly.
“Poor handsome bastard,” Genma said, but he sounded amused in an exhausted kind of way. “At least one third of your family appreciates your rugged good looks.”
The tomcat closed his eyes in apparent agreement, settling his chin on Genma’s good knee. He was languid and relaxed, gently shedding on Genma’s shirt, and something in Genma’s face said he really needed to be someone’s chosen person right now, even if that someone was just a cat. Raidou shut up and ate an onigiri.
Genma drank his sake in a long swallow, clearly more interested in getting alcohol into his bloodstream than savoring the taste. It was a lower priced brand, with an earthy dryness and clean aftertaste. Raidou downed his own cup and tossed Genma an onigiri. “Have you eaten today?”
He was pretty certain of the answer even before Genma gave the onigiri — reflexively caught — a blank look, and said slowly, “I had some senbei with the tea, but nothing else solid since 0500.” He held out his cup for a refill. “Don’t tell the rookies.”
“And give them an excuse to skip meals? Hatake would vanish in a week.” Raidou refilled their cups and ate a second onigiri as a good example. Ume had filled them with tuna; good bland food for unhappy stomachs. Raidou had given up years ago explaining that ninja could survive on skunk if they had to.
Between them, they put away the entire plate and half the bottle. Genma’s cheekbones picked up the faintest pink tinge, but he remained otherwise unaffected. Raidou — who’d actually eaten lunch before the funeral, and would need a lot more alcohol to dent his system anyway — had some pleasant warmth to set against the ice in his stomach.
Replete, Genma stretched out comfortably on his side, propped on one elbow. The tomcat curled up against his stomach, ears flicking with cat dreams, and Suki took the opportunity to gleefully scramble up on Genma’s neck and bite at his hair, which he tolerated with calm grace.
“When I told you about Ueno, you tried a kai,” he said. Raidou wondered how long he’d been chewing on that. “You thought I might be part of your special training?”
Raidou flopped down on his back, digging his shoulderblades into the grass. The sky was broad and blue, shadowed by spreading plum tree branches. It was almost possible to imagine the world was peaceful, at least this little corner of it.
“Thinking Katsuko had died was one of the things that set me off in Tsurugahama, among others,” he said. “Benihime-sama is knocking the triggers out of me, which is working, pretty much. Ninety percent of it is her throwing something nasty at me, while I stay thinking long enough to make a reality check.” He folded his arms underneath his head and propped one knee up, frowning. “Which would make today a success, I guess.”
Genma winced. “Harsh. Sounds a little like an interrogation resistance course I took. I’m glad you’re getting what you need out of it, Taichou. Although I hope no enemy ever uses me or the rest of the team against you like that.” He paused for a second, and added, “Again.”
Raidou tilted half a smile at him. “Me too. But either way, you need a captain, not a landmine, so I’m working on it.”
Genma pushed himself up, catching Suki as she tumbled off, and gave Raidou long, steady look that brooked no backtalk. “You’re not a landmine. You have some triggers and you took out some collateral, but it could have been any of us with the right cues.”
Raidou opened his mouth, determined — stupidly — to argue against his own defense, but Genma didn’t pause to let him.
“For you it was Ueno and genjutsu. For Hatake, I’d guess either his father or the Hokage’s family, and stamina. Ueno is a walking catalog of triggers and leverage points. Tousaki’s got a chip on his shoulder about respect, which Kuroda has been hammering since he took over, by the way.” A bitter edge laced Genma’s voice there. “And for me it’s team or friends or family. And I’m pretty sure you’re the one who said my taijutsu sucked donkey balls.”
“That… is not untrue,” Raidou said, after he got his feet back under himself. He debated adding something like ‘thanks’ or ‘do you want to think about extra lessons when I get back?’ but what actually came out was, “Tell me what else Kuroda’s been doing.”
Genma checked his watch. “How long do we have? I’ll see if I can compress it into an hour.” He batted away another assault by the kitten, who decided to scale his back as retribution. “I’m pretty sure you can guess most of it. Tried to divide the team, antagonized Ueno and Tousaki, insinuated about a hundred times that the team’s leadership was a travesty, I was incompetent, and you were never coming back, and kissed up to Hatake.”
Raidou didn’t say anything, but he did refill Genma’s cup in a clear gesture of solidarity and a silent encouragement to keep talking.
“He showed up an hour before he’d said he would, I presume to try to catch me out, maybe go through the team’s lockers and desks. Fortunately I was there, although I wouldn’t put it past him to stage a raid on the office in the middle of the night. Since he couldn’t snoop that first day, he made me sit through an audit of every single one of the team’s documents — our mission reports, my medical reports, requisition requests, expense reports, map updates, personnel evaluations… He even raised a stink about Team Six’s ‘excessive consumption of toilet paper.’”
Raidou snorted, but Genma wasn’t finished. Not by half. He’d tried to complain to Asuma, but Asuma was too wrapped up in his own, much heavier grief, to listen. Aoba was conveniently away on a mission, the bastard. Talking to Raidou had been out of the question before today, and of course he couldn’t put any of it back on the team. And his dad, while supportive, just didn’t have the framework to understand. Or the clearance to hear almost any of the details.
He snatched the senbon from between his teeth and took a long swallow of his sake, holding the slender metal needle as if it were a cigarette.
“And then there’s the team. He appropriated Ueno as his personal aide, buried her under a mountain of office work, and harassed her until she was as close to breaking as I’ve ever seen. Which, you’d be proud of her — she never once let him see it. I heard from a friend in the mission office that Kuroda’s office staff were planning to buy her a thank-you gift for the way she dealt with him.” He stabbed the senbon at nothing. “If she never got it from them, someone ought to at least let her know they’d thought of it.”
“Also I’m pretty sure Kuroda has something on Ueno’s father. That was how we found out she even had family issues — Kuroda dropped some snide remarks about her being the daughter of a diplomat in front of the team, made it clear he expected her to be as worthless as he thought her father was. That was the one time he almost got to her. Her eyes right then — I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of her with that look in her eyes and a weapon in her hand. But she held it together even under that.”
Raidou’s expression darkened like a thunderhead, eyes going as dangerous as Katsuko’s had. His lips thinned and he took a slow breath, visibly settling himself before he said, “The team’s at stake. She wouldn’t let herself be the weak link.”
“No,” Genma agreed. “She wouldn’t. She didn’t.” He reached for the sake bottle and refilled both their cups, abandoning etiquette for expediency. “But that man tried hard to get her to crack. He went right for her weakest skillset. If there was ever a ninja unsuited to office work, it’s Ueno.” He stopped himself. “No, that’s a lie. It’s Tousaki, and Kuroda made sure to go right after that weakness, too. He tried to put an end to Tousaki’s medical training, insinuated Tousaki was too stupid to get anywhere with it because he can’t read, and he set him a fucking literacy test.”
The rage Genma had been sitting on seemed unstoppable now that he’d broken the seal. It was a relief to see it reflected in Raidou’s eyes, to see the set of Raidou’s mouth draw down, and the flash of bright fury under lowered brows.
“And Tousaki, you should have seen him,” Genma continued. “He didn’t just step it up, he went for broke. Hatake worked with him on flash cards I don’t even know how many hours. And Hatake’s still recovering, so Tousaki must have put in at least as many more hours by himself. He came back ready to prove to Kuroda he could hack it as a medic, read off a bunch of complex medical terms — way more than I’d told him he needed to memorize to start. And that still wasn’t enough. Kuroda tosses him this identical pair of vials, says one’s a medicine, one’s a poison, pick one to give a teammate. The labels are illegible. I couldn’t have read them, either. Plus Tousaki hasn’t even started learning about pharmacology. I objected, Kuroda told me to shut up, and put Tousaki back on the spot, with Ueno as the patient.”
He stared past Raidou, remembering the moment. “So I did something that was probably dumb, definitely insubordinate, but I didn’t care. I told Kuroda to stuff it, I stood by my recommendation that Tousaki study field medicine, and I wasn’t going to sit there and let Kuroda bully him with impossible tasks.” He slugged back another cup of the sake without tasting it at all. “Weird thing is, Kuroda did back off then. He gave me a week’s worth of scut to do in a day, which wasn’t that bad. But he also assigned Ueno to work in T&I. I know her history’s classified, but I’ve seen those scars and read the report on how her chakra got scrambled. It was… I could have killed him right then. I really could.”
He fell quiet at last, spent but still ice cold with fury. “Considering all of that, it’s probably a good thing she got reassigned. Maybe that’s even part of it. Maybe Sagara-sama or even Yondaime-sama intervened before he pushed her so far she could detonate.”
Raidou didn’t say anything for a moment. Genma could hear his own breath in his ears, feel the heat in his cheeks. Maybe he’d gone too far, let the alcohol loosen him a little too much.
Then Raidou broke the silence and put Genma’s doubts to rest. “Sagara’s the one who assigned him in the first place, though.” He rolled onto his side, propped up on one elbow in a perfect mirror of Genma. “You said Hatake and Tousaki studied together. What else has the team been doing since Kuroda took over?”
Genma let a relieved breath out through pursed lips. “Not much, actually. It hasn’t really been all that long. I gave Tousaki a bunch of medical charts. We’ve all done some training, very low key given everyone’s injuries. Except Ueno and Hatake; both of them ignored medical advice, as usual. Ueno started teaching Hatake her sword style, but I gather they only got a couple of lessons in. That morning when Kuroda really skewered us — shit, that was yesterday. How is that even possible? — Yesterday morning, Ueno and Hatake showed up for roll call with mud on their clothes and leaves in their hair, and swore up and down they hadn’t been sparring that hard. Ueno told us all about how Hatake had been fighting unfairly.”
Raidou barked a short laugh, startling the kitten. Handsome Bastard’s ears flicked, but he showed no inclination to move. “I’ll bet he wasn’t the only one,” Raidou said. He rolled onto his back, lifting Suki into the air and settling her on his chest. She immediately started biting at the strap of Raidou’s navy tank-top, while he rumpled her ears and raked his fingers through her white fur. “So here’s what I’m hearing: since I’ve been out, our catastrophe of rookies have actually figured out their shit enough to train together, teach each other, and present a united front. And none of them have tried to stab Kuroda in the neck.”
“When you put it like that, it sounds a lot better than how I told it,” Genma admitted. “Although I don’t know how much longer Kuroda’s neck is going to be safe. I don’t think any of us are stupid enough to cross that line, but that man is probably a demon from one of the five hundred hells just passing time here before he goes back to tormenting the damned.” He thought about it for a moment. “Unless this is one of the hells. But I’m pretty sure if it were there would be a lot more Kurodas around.”
An old saying tickled the back of Raidou’s mind. Maybe because there was alcohol in his blood, or Iwa on his brain, or maybe just because Genma looked so goddamned tired under his anger, and Raidou couldn’t think of a single comforting thing to say to him. Welcome to your first real lieutenant posting, kid, it’s all gone to shit.
But there was that old saw, distilled from trench-fighting, tired soldiers, and pure stubbornness.
“When you’re going through hell…” he said, and looked at Genma.
Genma glanced back, fine brows arching. A faint smile ghosted over his mouth, and he finished, “Keep going.”
“And fuck the rest,” Raidou agreed. “Kuroda specifically.”
“Kuroda can fuck himself,” Genma said, eyes glittering like dark metal. “I’m not doing it, and neither should anyone else. It’d be inhumane to ask them.”
Raidou snorted grim agreement.
The first time Genma and Raidou had ever spoken, Kuroda had come up as a topic of dislike, but in ANBU that was like commenting on the weather. Wow it’s hot today, the Vice is an asshole, how are you? Now, looking at Genma’s face, it cut personal. ANBU was supposed to take care of their own, not torture them.
Well, not much. No more than necessary.
Raidou had been prepared to accept his licks, well-deserved as they were, but he’d trusted that he was leaving his team in good hands, Genma included. Was Sagara so strapped for personnel that Kuroda had been the only option? Or had Kuroda pulled strings just to take his punches at Katsuko, and cozy up to Kakashi? And crush Ryouma, apparently just for fun.
Not for the first time, Raidou wondered just what kind of political connections or blackmail material Kuroda had, to climb his way so far up the ladder. It wasn’t a thought that put Sagara or Minato in a good light, but it was a hell of a lot better than believing they’d actually chosen him.
“A few more weeks,” he said decisively.
“Hm?” Genma said.
Raidou sat up again, dislodging Suki. “The boys both need to heal — and you too, Lieutenant. A few more weeks, I’ll get this genjutsu thing figured out, and all you have to do is make sure no one else gets suspended or reassigned, or punches a hole in Kuroda, and we can pull the team back together and get on with being goddamned ANBU.”
The tension in Genma didn’t leave, precisely, but it changed. He pushed himself upright and sat straight-backed, shoulders set firm as if prepared to brace the world again. “You’re right,” he said. “It’ll be hard for Kuroda to come down on either of the rookies given he was avoiding offending Hatake like his life depended on it already, and Tousaki is on a clear-cut and Kuroda-approved medical leave now.” He dropped a hand to his injured leg and rubbed it a little ruefully. “I could probably take my own leave a little more seriously. I’m sure Toshirou-sensei would put me on the sick list if I asked for it.”
Raidou directed a dry glance at Genma’s cane. “It’s a thought, Lieutenant.”
Metal flashed as Genma’s mouth curved, a small smile undercut by edged steel. “I’ve been meaning to tell you, and now’s as good a time as any. If you wanted to call me Genma, you could. Team’s not here to impress, and I don’t really need the formality. Unless you do.”
Surprised, Raidou sat back. It took him a second to pull a decent answer together. “I wasn’t thinking about formal, so much. More like—”
“Boundaries,” Genma said, with a wry lilt.
Raidou made a rueful sound. “That. You give this team an inch, they’ll take five miles and the neighbor’s village, and you’re up to your ass in complaints before you can say whoa. And there was the thing with me and Tousaki.” He made a non-expressive gesture that, in a universe of extremely astute beings, might have translated to ‘one night stand.’ “Put me in the habit of sticking to rank.”
Genma opened his mouth, probably to politely retract his offer. Before he could, Raidou added, quieter, warmer: “Well, that and I’ve never had a lieutenant before.” He glanced up and smiled. “But outside the team you can call me Raidou, if you want, Genma.”
That must have been exactly what Genma had been angling for, if he gave it any thought, but it still blindsided him when Raidou offered his personal name right back. Somehow he’d never gotten all the way through the implications. He’d been motivated by his memory of how comfortable things had been with Hajime as his captain, and by the fact that he’d come to genuinely like Raidou not just as his captain, but as a comrade. It was a gesture of respect and trust.
That the respect and trust might flow both ways was an honor he hadn’t expected.
In the end he settled on, “Thanks, Raidou.” He laughed almost immediately. “Wow, I didn’t think that would feel so weird. Good-weird, but weird.”
Raidou tipped a fond look at him, lips thinned in amusement. “Y’know, I think I’m finally starting to figure you out. All that professional composure is just a slick cover for a total dork, isn’t it?”
“You got me,” Genma said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to fool you forever.” He stretched and considered his empty cup. “This is why I’m not drinking around the rookies for at least another month. You’ll keep my secret, right?”
“Sure, until someone bribes me.” Raidou grinned and hooked the half-empty bottle away to stopper it before either of them were tempted to drink more. He stood and stretched, back arching over slim hips. His shirt rode up and the loose jeans slipped down, exposing a tan sliver of skin and the wide elastic waist of his briefs for a moment, before he straightened, tugging his clothes back into place.
“Ready to go?” he asked. He folded his letter from Katsuko and slipped it into his back pocket.
“I guess so,” Genma handed the letters to Kakashi and Ryouma up to Raidou, who tucked them into a pocket as well. “I feel better now. I can sell it as a good thing to them. Not for us, obviously, but for Ueno.” He shifted onto one knee, preparing to rise. Raidou extended a hand to help him up before he could reach for his cane.
Raidou hauled him up with a firm grip, then bent over retrieve Genma’s cane. “Maybe they’ll surprise us and handle it well.”
“Maybe,” Genma agreed. “They’ve surprised us before. As long as we frame it right, there’s no reason they shouldn’t, right?”
“Right.” Raidou hesitated for a moment to make sure that Genma was steady on his feet before he gathered up the sake bottle and the empty plate and cups, and set off for the house. They had to pass through the kitchen, where Raidou deposited the dishes and the bottle. Ume was there, chopping vegetables with a well-honed kitchen knife.
“You’re not staying for dinner,” she said, looking at them both with an expression that spoke volumes about her experience with ninja.
“I’m sorry, Namiashi-sensei,” Genma said. “We have to take care of something this evening.”
Raidou dropped a kiss on the top of his mother’s head. “I’ll be back later,” he promised.
They found their shoes in the entryway where Genma had left his, and headed back towards the center of town. The early summer sun was just starting to head towards evening, casting long shadows. As they walked, Genma worked over in his mind how he’d approach the coming conversation. I have good news and bad news was cliché, but not that far from the truth.
It was good for Katsuko. That was what really mattered.