June 24, Yondaime Year 5
On Ryouma’s third day back in Konoha, the Water Country Intel division finally let him go.
They’d released him at intervals before, to shower and sleep, or to cram down a hasty meal in Intel HQ’s cafeteria, which had better food but much more dour company than ANBU’s. Everyone seemed short on sleep and on temper, and as soon as he finished a six-hour stint answering one analyst’s questions, another with a grey uniform and a clipboard took her place.
He saw Kurenai a few times, across the cafeteria. Satomi slipped into his cramped little briefing room once to hand the debriefing officer a stack of folders three inches tall. The rest of Teams Six and Thirteen were conducting their own debriefings somewhere, or more likely ensconced in their offices or hospital rooms creating those mountains of paperwork, but he never saw them.
There were disadvantages after all, he decided, to only being able to give his mission reports by dictation.
Eventually, though, someone decided that his seventh account of the Water Country landscape and the Kirigakure sewer system filled the holes in the first six. They released him into a clear summer evening, the sun sinking towards the Monument, the dusty streets golden in its light.
He stood outside the doorway, watching people hurrying home: a trio of genin fresh off their first mission-debriefing, with their sensei lounging behind; a pair of tired analysts, deciding on a restaurant; a tall young man in T&I’s long black coat. No one he recognized.
The inside of his skin itched. He was hungry, and his throat was sore from talking, but after three days of nothing but debriefing and sleeping he wanted to move, to run or fight or dance. He wanted to find his team, to learn whether Kuroda’d filed a complaint, how Abe’s wrist was healing, where Intel had taken Kimiko.
And after that—
“Tousaki?” someone said.
He turned. The double doors were just swinging shut; Kurenai and Satomi stood outside, with another woman he recognized from his debriefing after Ibaragashi. They all wore wrinkled Intel greys, though Satomi had swapped the uniform skirt for trousers. Satomi looked annoyed, Kurenai inquisitive. The third woman, Riei, looked delighted.
Ryouma said, “I just got out. Waiting for my team.”
“You’ll be waiting a long time,” Satomi said dryly. “Shiranui and Namiashi went back to ANBU yesterday.”
“What about Kakashi?”
Satomi looked at Kurenai, who said, “He had a session with Ariwara-kakarichou this morning, but assuming the paperwork checked out, he’s probably off collecting blackmail material by now.” She paused, studying him. Then she said, “Riei’s got plans, but Satomi and I were going for a drink. If your team’s up to it, you’d be welcome to join us.”
Alcohol wasn’t going to scratch the itch, but it might help. Ryouma said, “I’ll ask ’em.”
“Ask who what?” Ginta inquired brightly, behind them. “Riei-chan, you’re blocking the door.”
“Sorry, Sakamoto-kun!” She stepped close to Kurenai, and Ginta edged around her.
His burns had healed to lotion-shiny skin and old scabbing near his ear. He was in jounin blues without a vest, tailored so well they fit his slim body almost like ANBU blacks. His hitai’ate tilted at a rakish angle under straight blond hair, and he slid Ryouma a distinctly flirtatious smile. “Hey, Tousaki, did they debrief you all the way?”
Riei went pink. Satomi rolled her eyes. Ryouma said, despairingly, “No one even offered.”
“That’s a travesty. Who debriefed you? Fish-face?” Ginta shook his head ruefully. “What a waste. Maybe an officer who was on the mission should debrief you further.”
That was one solution for the restlessness burning beneath his skin. Ryouma was willing to bet they’d both enjoy the hell out of it, too.
But his team was still out there, and he hadn’t seen any of them in three days…
Inspiration burst like an explosion tag. “You got a favorite club around here? My team promised me they’d go sometime, an’ I bet yours could use it too.” He’d actually made the bargain with Katsuko, and he still couldn’t quite believe Kakashi’d agreed. But without Katsuko’s energy driving them, maybe Ginta could help drag the officers out as well. “You could get that drink too, Yuuhi-san…”
Kurenai said blandly, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Ginta gave her a sharp glance. She raised her brows. He shrugged, and turned back to Ryouma. “I’ll tell you my club, but only if you promise me a dance.” He added, to Kurenai, “We’ll make sure it’s somewhere you can watch.”
“Well,” Ryouma said, “maybe not all of it.”
Satomi made a muffled gagging noise.
Ginta’s gaze swept from Ryouma’s shoulders to his belt, and he grinned. “I like how you think, Tousaki. I’ve got the perfect place, too. We should go to Embers. Genma knows where it is.”
“I know it, too,” Kurenai said firmly. “We’ll meet you there. Ginta, make sure Usagi comes.”
“She’ll come if Satomi does,” Ginta said, and grinned even wider.
Satomi stared at him, and then at Kurenai. She said dangerously, “Yuuhi, we need to talk.” She tugged Kurenai away, Riei trailing worriedly at their heels.
“Meet us at 2100!” Ginta called after them. He turned to Ryouma, a brow cocked. “I know I can convince Genma to come. What about the rest of your team? Need help?”
That had to be a pun, too. Ryouma eyed him sidelong. “You don’t think I could do it on my own?”
Ginta laughed. “From what I’ve heard, you’re very persuasive when you want to be. But Namiashi can be a little hidebound, and Hatake is, well, Hatake.” An eloquent twist of his shoulder said exactly what he thought of Hatake-ness.
“Kakashi’s actually the one who agreed.” On condition he got to stay sober and judgmental, but… Maybe he’d feel safer with them, now, even without Katsuko there to brace him up. “Taichou’s probably the one to worry about. He might think it crosses boundaries.”
They’d grabbed breakfast or lunch a few times as a team, mostly after training or between hospital stints. Ryouma and Kakashi’d eaten together on several occasions, and once Raidou’d bought Ryouma a bowl of noodles — and then made him run a circuit to the east and west border houses before he finished. But there was a difference between sharing a meal as comrades and visiting even the most restrained nightclub.
And from what Ryouma’d heard of Embers, he suspected Ginta’s pick wasn’t likely to be the most restrained.
“Y’know, this may be a bad idea. If it doesn’t work—”
Ginta scoffed. “It’s a great idea. And anyway you already said your team promised. If Namiashi thought it transgressed boundaries he wouldn’t have signed on. If he balks now, just remind him he promised. He’s definitely the kind of man who won’t break a promise.”
“Well,” Ryouma temporized, “when I said my team promised… We didn’t actually ask the officers. Yet.”
“Hah!” Ginta said gleefully. “So you do need my help!” He set off briskly up the street, heading toward the Monument and HQ. Even with Ryouma’s longer stride, he had to stretch to keep up.
On the mission, Ginta’d been the consummate officer: sharp, focused, with a sly wit that only occasionally honed into a razor tongue. Off-duty, Ryouma discovered, he was a chatterbox. He asked about Ryouma’s debriefings, his opinions on the Intel cafeteria, and his opinions on the Intel debriefers, with double entendres even Kakashi wouldn’t have missed. They were halfway up the Monument before Ryouma realized that, despite all the chatter, Ginta’d still divulged almost nothing about himself.
At the next pause for breath, Ryouma asked, “How long’ve you known Genma?”
“Well, let’s see,” Ginta considered. “I think this is his third year in ANBU… But there’s a lot of things I don’t know about him yet. Like, what kind of chocolate does he prefer?”
“Dark,” Ryouma said, and then second-guessed: “I mean, he likes green tea and he takes his coffee dark brown, one sugar— Why didn’t you go into Intel?”
“The uniforms aren’t flattering,” Ginta said lightly. “All that grey, and no shape.”
“You got your blues tailored,” Ryouma said. “Or else Supply loves you more’n anyone else in this village.”
“Supply does love me,” Ginta agreed. “But I still don’t look good in grey.”
Ryouma gave up.
They’d reached the top of the Monument anyway. Training fields and trees lay spread out before them, two teams in a joint sparring session, a young woman in an ankle-cast walking laps on her hands. The sinking sun turned the air the color of honey, and spun Ginta’s fine blond hair into gold.
“So why’d you decide to join ANBU?” Ginta asked. “I mean, besides for the sexy uniform, which you definitely look good in. The way the stuff we had to wear on that mission fit was a crime.”
“Blame Kuroda,” Ryouma said, darkly. “We had enough notice for the mission to shop for unmarked weapons or civvies, but not both.” He’d had to scavenge in a hurry through a second-hand shop’s discards pile, and they didn’t do tailoring.
He plucked at the long sleeve of his summer-weight jounin shirt. “I don’t mind the blues, anyway. Joining ANBU was more about…”
Ginta’s light eyes lifted to his face, brows raised encouragingly. Ryouma wasn’t sure whether it was flattering or unnerving, to have all that scattershot attention focused on him. Off-guard, he fumbled for honesty.
“I never expected to survive this long. There was the war, and— everything else. But I turned twenty, and my friends took me out drinking for my birthday. Somebody mentioned he’d been training for the ANBU Trials coming up next week, and I figured, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot.”
Ginta nodded approvingly. “Impulsive type. Made it on your first try without any prep, too. I like it.”
Ryouma’s cheeks warmed. “Well, I hadn’t seen the uniform up close at that point. But I already knew about the hot tattoo.”
“Saw someone dancing shirtless at a club?” Ginta inquired. “Or were you a little more intimate with that hot tattoo?”
Someday, Ryouma would learn to keep his fool mouth shut.
Or just use it for a different purpose, maybe.
“Wasn’t fraternization then,” he said. “Now… How strict is that seniority rule my officers told us about?”
“Depends,” Ginta said, thoughtfully. His blue gaze was far too penetrating. “Are we talking about one of your superior officers? Or just any officer? Because as long as he’s not in your direct chain of command, no one would say anything unless it was causing trouble.”
They’d reached the main door of ANBU HQ. Ginta hauled it open, and looked expectantly up. “So are you still sleeping with this mystery officer? Who’s my competition?”
“Who said it’s a competition?” Ryouma asked, and darted inside before he could add anything worse.
Ginta was never more delighted than when he had a new plaything, and Ryouma was interesting. Sexy, too, and it didn’t hurt anything that as a flirt he gave as good as he got. But there was a lot there, under the surface. Genma’d described his rookie as complex and unstable, and said Ryouma had a lot of potential. So far the instability wasn’t too manifest — if you didn’t count that dark reference to expecting to have died by twenty for reasons other than the war — but the complexity and potential were right out in the open.
He trailed happily down the hall at Ryouma’s side. “Team events are more your taste? I can support that,” Ginta said. “Depending on who my other teammates are. Not Usagi, though. That’d just be weird.”
Ryouma scowled quizzically. “Team—?” But a stride later the innuendo clicked like a key in a lock, and the edges of his ears colored a delightful red. “Oh. No, I didn’t— There’s nothing going on with my team.”
“Pity,” Ginta said. “But there’s always next month.” If Ryouma’s mystery officer wasn’t on Team Six, that eliminated Raidou. Genma was already off Ginta’s list of suspects, although on second thought, there was no reason that had to be true. He’d have to probe that avenue more thoroughly, but in the meantime…
“If it were to come up in the future,” Ginta said, “for instance, if you and I were to fraternize, I promise no one will go tattling to command. We police our own. If everyone’s consenting and happy, it won’t even really last as gossip fodder for long. Now if someone wasn’t consenting, or there was a power discrepancy that caused an issue, the transgressor could expect to get a few pointed suggestions that he end the relationship immediately.” He tapped his throat, just to the side of his Adam’s apple, where a kunai would open an artery.
Ryouma contemplated that for a second before he asked, “What kind of issue?”
“Any kind of issue.” Ginta said. He hugged the wall to let a clerk pushing a wheeled file cart get by. “Physical, mental, emotional… Like, if someone in a relationship can never say no, that’s a problem.” He looked up at Ryouma’s serious expression. The conversation had certainly taken an interesting, if somewhat dark, turn. “Is there something going on that my fellow officers and I should know about?”
Ryouma darted a skeptical glance at Ginta. “You’d take a rookie’s word over a fellow officer’s?”
“I’d take a rookie’s word that there was something that needed looking into,” said Ginta. “And I’d look into it. You may not have noticed, distracted as you are by the sexy tattoos and uniforms around here, but all the officers are ninja. We’re pretty good at ferreting out hidden information.”
“Pretty good at hiding it, too,” Ryouma said, unimpressed. “Or have you dug up any dirt on Kuroda yet?”
Ginta twitched, and grabbed Ryouma’s arm, dragging him into an empty conference room. Ryouma’s face darkened, but Ginta held a hand to his lips, then quickly cast one of Intel’s favorite privacy jutsu.
“That’s not a name to just throw around,” he said. “You think we’re hiding something from you?” That conversation about Kuroda with Kurenai and Kakashi, on the windswept bow of the ship the morning after the storm, must have gotten to Ryouma’s ears somehow, and Ginta doubted Kurenai was the leak. “It sounds to me like you’ve gotten a full report from Hatake already.”
“He told me nobody had any blackmail on Kuroda. And he said you and Yuuhi knew all about Kuroda working for some old geezer on the Council to undermine the Hokage.” Ryouma paced away, then whirled around to face Ginta head on. Dangerous challenge flashed in his dark eyes. “How come the officers haven’t done anything about that?”
Well well well. That instability Genma’d mentioned was plausible after all. There seemed to be a vast reservoir of rage lurking just below Ryouma’s pretty surface.
“You mean, ‘why haven’t the officers of ANBU collectively staged a coup to depose an asshole who for the most part doesn’t do real harm to the organization’?” Ginta cocked his head to one side, amused. “I’m really not sure, now that you put it that way. What ever were we thinking?”
Ryouma’s jaws flexed as he ground his teeth together. “Seems to me Kuroda’s caused plenty of issues already on our team. Or do the officers only care about abuse of power when sex is involved?”
Awww, damn. It was almost too easy, and that made it a lot less fun. “You can’t compare a despotic senior officer throwing his weight around to a coercive sexual relationship. It’s a false equivalence.” Ginta smoothed a hand over his hair, acknowledging Ryouma with a sigh. “Look, Tousaki, it’s not that anyone around here likes the vice commander. We know he’s been an ass to Team Six — he’s been an ass to a lot of teams. We all have friends Kuroda has personally tried to fuck over.”
Ryouma was still glowering, but he didn’t interrupt.
“I think Hatake didn’t convey the whole story of our conversation, if what you got out of it was that some ‘geezer on the Council’ is attempting to undermine the Hokage’s authority, and Kuroda is his tool. Kuroda’s fundamentally a powerless toadie, and he knows it. He might make our lives a little more miserable, like wet sand in your shorts on a long march, but he isn’t steering the ship.”
The conference table was surrounded by wheeled chairs. Ginta dropped into one and kicked himself off, letting momentum carry him backwards towards the wall. When he landed, he looked up at Ryouma, level and serious.
“ANBU are the Hokage’s personal guards and agents,” he said. “It’d take a lot more than some nasty-tempered bureaucrat being a dick to turn the loyalty of ANBU away from Minato-sama. For one thing, Sagara is on our side, and she’s no fool. And as for that geezer on the Council, he’d like to think he has the power to steal ANBU from Sagara’s control; he’d be dead wrong about that.”
“So there’s nothing we can do but bend over and take it?” Ryouma’s bitterness was as raw as burnt flesh. “And then cuss him out later, when no one’s listening?” Impotent rage sprang the last safety latch holding him back. “He made my lieutenant cry.”
Ginta hadn’t been able to pry that exact confession out of Genma or Kurenai, but it wasn’t a hard thing to imagine. Genma’d been exhausted and heartsick for the rest of their trip home. He’d kept his head down, done what was necessary to care for Team Thirteen’s injuries, and made himself scarce the rest of the time. Whenever Ginta’d gone to look for him, he’d been holed up in his team’s cabin with at least one other member of Team Six barring the door like it was a protection detail, insisting Genma was asleep.
He’d gathered Kuroda had tried to break Genma for the sadistic joy of it. If the worst that came of it was a few tears, that would actually be a relief.
According to a well-placed friend in ANBU’s support staff, Kuroda had filed a formal complaint with Sagara as soon as they’d returned to Konoha. Whether it was about Genma specifically, Team Six altogether, or both Six and Thirteen was unclear. Sagara hadn’t taken any action yet — probably waiting until she had all the reports in, with Tousaki’s being the last. And Tousaki definitely didn’t need to know there was a legitimate threat hanging over any of their heads.
Ginta thought for a moment, before he asked, “Have you asked Genma what he thinks should be done?”
Ryouma’s mouth twitched in reluctant amusement. “He said I could piss in Kuroda’s coffee.”
Ginta laughed. “That sounds like him. Poisoners always go straight to adulterating their enemies’ food and beverages.” He kicked off the wall, spinning the chair in a slow pirouette. “This isn’t a problem you have to solve by yourself, rookie. People like Kuroda… well, let’s just say they end up drinking a lot of piss. You know what you can do though? Help me make sure Genma has a good time tonight. Let’s go find Usagi. She’ll be delighted with any excuse to drag your officers out for dancing.”
Ryouma offered a hand and pulled Ginta to his feet. “What?” he said. “Worried you won’t be lure enough?”
“Like I said before, I know I can get Genma to come, but Raidou might need a little extra persuasion. He probably owes Usagi something she can hold over his head if she has to.” It was delightful watching the wheels spin rapidly behind Ryouma’s eyes, as he tried to decide whether there was meaning underneath Ginta’s meaning. Which of course there was. Speculation, anyway. He wouldn’t blame Usagi if she’d sampled those waters.
Before it could turn into a renewed discussion about fraternization and boundaries, Ginta broke the sound block jutsu and swung out into the hall again, leading Ryouma through ANBU’s confusing corridors until they got to Team Thirteen’s office. Abe and Kasumi weren’t around, but Usagi was squinting at a requisition report for the quartermaster, eyeballing it like it had done something suspicious. Her hair was pulled back, with a mist of red strands backlit by her desk lamp.
“Tell the QM we need six dozen kunai, a cask of Tohouku sake, and a mochi pounding machine, Hokage’s orders.” Ginta said. He lounged against the doorframe and grinned at Usagi. “Look who I found wandering around outside Intel. Poor thing’s been being debriefed for days.”
Usagi greeted Ryouma with delight. “Tall guy! What, they couldn’t find your belt buckle?”
“They didn’t even look,” Ryouma complained.
“Injustice on injustice,” Ginta said. “And wasting opportunities. Someone should really talk to them. Guess we’ll have to pick up Intel’s slack.” He waltzed into the office, slowing to trail his hand over the bare wood of Eizo’s empty desk, before he plonked himself down on his own.
It was going to take more than a week to stop hoping to see the musclebound backbone of Team Thirteen sitting at that desk.
Usagi caught his eye and very gently spun the dark steel pen she’d been writing with over her knuckles. She’d taken it from Eizo’s desk their first day back in the office. He’d held strong opinions about the correct way to fill out forms, and that pen had been part of it.
“I got you a date,” Ginta said, letting Eizo’s ghost go for the moment. “Kurenai and Uchiha Satomi will go dancing with us, but only if you promise to come.”
Usagi’s eyebrows arched sardonically. “The day I need matchmaking help from you, Sakamoto…” She finished processing what Ginta’d said, and her expression turned thoughtful. “Kurenai and Satomi?”
“And,” Ginta confirmed. “And Tousaki here was right there. He said Team Six promised to go out clubbing, so we agreed we’d all go. But then it turns out he actually only got Hatake to agree. Want to come help us convince Raidou and Genma to come, too?”
Usagi’s brown eyes lit with amusement. “I see. Bait me with beautiful women so I’ll help blackmail my friend and his poor lieutenant into gratuitous entertainment, you squirrelly little bastard.”
Ginta grinned, acknowledging the compliment.
She dropped the pen on her desk, arched her back over her chair in a glorious stretch, and grinned back. “Deal, but you’re both buying me drinks.”
Paperwork was a commander’s lot in life, but Raidou was starting to think ANBU had a special vendetta against trees. His desk had been organized once. He remembered making neat piles. There’d been an in-tray somewhere. Now there was a deep strata of shifting layers that might have interested a geologist, but it had eaten his sketch of Kiri’s sewer system.
He sighed. “Shiranui—”
“Third drawer down,” Genma said, without looking up from his own desk. He had a senbon clenched between his teeth, another skewered through a messy topknot, and the thousand-yard stare of a man who’d been wrestling with medical supplies accounting for the last hour. Crumpled balls of paper surrounded his overflowing trash can.
Raidou yanked the drawer out and unearthed a battered folder he didn’t remember hiding from himself. The sewer sketch was the third page in, behind two much less successful attempts. He muttered a prayer of gratitude, stapled the sketch to his report, sealed the report into a folder, and skimmed the entire package over to Kakashi, who was pretending to be asleep on the couch.
One pale hand snaked up and caught the report out of the air.
“Deliver that to Intel, would you?” Raidou said, already reaching for his next task.
The little orange book was tented over Kakashi’s face. He yawned reproachfully, sloughed off the sofa, and wandered out the door with the folder under one arm and Icha Icha in the other hand, apparently intending to read as he went.
“Faster would be better,” Raidou called after him.
In the hallway, Kakashi made a startled sound.
Genma’s head lifted. Raidou swivelled in his chair, expecting to find Kuroda’s smug face, and instead turned right into Usagi’s headlock. The next few seconds were a stretched heart attack, a brief and vicious tussle that broke a corner off the desk and landed him facedown on the carpet, and a goddamned redhead laughing in his ear.
“Getting slow,” she said, pressing her knee into his back.
“What,” Raidou strangled out, “the hell?”
“Jailbreak,” she said cheerfully. “We’re taking your rookies dancing. You’re invited, by which I mean required. There will be alcohol and fun. Wear a nice shirt.”
“What?” said Raidou.
“What?” said Kakashi, from the door.
“I cannot deal with requisitioning you a new desk,” Genma said, voice muffled by the hand over his face.
In the hallway, someone who sounded very much like Ginta was having a breathless attack of laughter. “Or no shirt,” he managed, sticking his head around the doorframe. “You could also go with no shirt, if you don’t have a nice clean one.”
Raidou got a knee underneath himself and shoved up, taking Usagi with him. She laughed and adjusted her grip, nearly pulling his ear off. He jammed an elbow backwards into her ribs. She released him and danced backwards, eyes glinting.
Genma warned, dangerously, “If you get even one paper out of order on my desk or Taichou’s, there will be blood, Thirteen.”
Usagi held her hands up. Raidou rubbed his throat.
Kakashi said, again, “What?”
Behind Kakashi’s shoulder, Ryouma’s dark head loomed up. He said, very quickly, as if he expected someone to cut him off: “Intel finally let me out and we’re going clubbing to celebrate. Kakashi promised me, weeks ago. Kurenai and Satomi are meeting us there.”
Raidou wasn’t sure which part of that suggestion was more insane, but Kakashi promising to do anything social seemed like a pretty solid forerunner.
Except that Kakashi wasn’t arguing. He gave Ginta a look of deep suspicion, then studied Ryouma’s anxiously hopeful face, sighed, and tilted his head inquiringly at Raidou.
Usagi grinned. “Please, dad. The kids have earned some fun.”
“You are the worst captain,” Raidou told her, and appealed to sanity. “Lieutenant, what do you think?”
Before Genma could respond, Ginta slipped neatly into place behind him, and draped himself over Genma’s shoulders in a way that gave Raidou a brief, intense desire to punt him through a window. You are not the lieutenant I meant.
“I have never met a man more in need of a night off than you, Gen,” Ginta wheedled. “I’m pretty sure I could convince Toshirou-sensei to prescribe recreation as medically necessary.”
Genma sat entirely still until Ginta chuckled and released him. Then, as if Ginta hadn’t spoken, Genma turned to Raidou. “I think,” he said calmly, “that Ginta is an ass.” He swept a brief, appraising look over Kakashi and Ryouma, then Usagi, ignored Ginta, and came back around to Raidou. A tiny smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Sure. Let’s go. We could use the break. Might even be fun.”
Usagi whooped. Ryouma’s expression lit.
Raidou dragged a hand over his eyes. “If this ends in more paperwork, I will murder you all,” he muttered. “Fine, Hatake, make that delivery and then you’re free to go. Tousaki — I have no words. Usagi, I have even less words. Sakamoto, a moment of your time. Outside.”
“Ooh,” Usagi said. “Busted.”
For the first time since the mission had ended, Genma looked downright amused. And not, apparently, concerned about his friend being called to the mat.
Ginta grinned. “Sure we won’t need a referee?”
“You’ll survive,” Raidou said darkly, and knocked Usagi on the shoulder in passing. I’ll get you later.
She just laughed. You can try.
Ryouma, by contrast, looked worried that Raidou was actually mad at him. Raidou dropped a lighter hand on his shoulder, until he felt the muscles relax a fraction, and then sent Ryouma after Kakashi, who was already vanishing down the hallway.
Raidou turned the other way, trusting Ginta to follow. Behind them, he heard Usagi drop into his abandoned chair and ask Genma brightly whether he thought her burn scars would look cool.
The next hallway led onto a storage area. At this time of day, it was abandoned.
When he judged they were out of earshot, Raidou turned, folded his arms, and said, “Shiranui likes you. Usagi does, too. You seem like a decent lieutenant. I’m trusting, for now, that you have good motives around my rookies. If I’m wrong, we’re going to have a problem.”
Ginta lounged back against the wall, hands loosely tucked in his pocket, and met Raidou’s gaze. “Is there a reason you think I might do something inappropriate with them?”
“Maybe,” Raidou said. “Are you planning to?”
For a moment, Ginta said nothing. He stretched his shoulders, spreading his arms along the walls, a study of unconcern. “Tousaki was asking me about the rules on fraternization on the way over from Intel. Said he’d hooked up with an officer some time in the past, but I gather he’s a free agent.” Blue eyes narrowed, searching and intelligent.
Raidou didn’t react.
Ginta shrugged, wriggling and resettling like he was stacking his vertebrae back into alignment, and continued. “Then he asked me why we officers hadn’t made the Vice disappear already. I told him ANBU policed ourselves internally for any abuses of power amongst us, but we weren’t going to commit treason for that little pissant at the top. Was that appropriate?”
That last sentence flicked like a knife, barely slicing before it was sheathed again.
Ginta, Raidou realized, was built somewhere on the model between Kakashi and Katsuko. Intensely private, a little bit random, and equally inclined to attack or distract. He’d offered some information, but he hadn’t answered an actual question. He’d just swerved the conversation.
On the other hand, if Ryouma was asking an officer he barely knew about fraternization rules (worrying) and fragging a superior officer (stupid) in public, he was next on Raidou’s list for a Conversation. Granted, Kakashi had also approached Kurenai and Ginta on the Look Far, which was its whole own concern. But speculating on a ship, drunk-tired and far away from Konoha, was one thing. Crowdsourcing opinions next to ANBU—
This was exactly how distraction worked.
Raidou grunted. “Tousaki’s impolitic. That’s not news. My concern right now is you, Sakamoto, and why you’re hanging around my rookies instead of tending your own.”
Ginta shook his head, amused. “I ran into your rookie outside Intel. Kurenai and Satomi invited us out for a drink. Tousaki was the one who suggested we get everyone from our teams and go dancing. Said Hatake had already signed on, but you and Genma might need persuading. So I offered to help persuade. Other than that, I don’t think I’ve spoken three words to either of them since the end of the mission.”
Raidou looked at him for a long moment, and didn’t say anything.
Slowly, the amusement filtered out of Ginta’s startlingly blue eyes. One foot twitched, a tiny fidget. He said, “What’s this really about?”
Did there need to be a reason beyond: You make the hair stand up on the back of my neck? Raidou wasn’t a genius, but he had instincts. Ginta was a smart man, a ferociously brilliant ninja, and exactly the kind of person who snapped people in half for fun.
At least, Raidou was reasonably sure.
(Why, exactly, did Genma like him?)
“An abundance of caution,” Raidou said finally, and let his arms relax. He hooked his thumbs into his belt. “Both of them nearly got killed in Trials, and the last three months have been worse. I’m inclined to look twice. But if I’m wrong, I apologize.”
If he wasn’t wrong, he’d apologize to Usagi and get her a new lieutenant.
Ginta’s expression sharpened, but it wasn’t a knife this time. It was distractions shearing away, to show a glimmer of something real underneath. “I remember,” he said, and tilted his head to study Raidou’s face. “Team Six has had the shit beat out of it. You’re a strike squad, so it’s expected, but even so…” Two fingertips ghosted over the battered metal hitai-ate plate at his forehead. “We’re on the same team. I want the same thing for your rookies that I want for mine.”
Raidou felt his mouth tilt fractionally. “A basic survival instinct?”
Humor sparked back in Ginta’s eyes. “That’d be a good start.”
This was almost becoming a reasonable conversation.
Raidou nodded and made to head back to the office before his day got stranger — or before Usagi tried to wrestle Genma on the carpet. He got three steps past Ginta and paused. “Just so we’re clear, I’m not chaperoning their love lives. I don’t think it’s right for officers to pursue rookies, but for someone not on their team… They can make their own bad choices.” He glanced back at Ginta. “That said, neither one of them is over twenty, and they don’t have the sense god gave a duckling. If I thought someone were trying to take advantage, in any sense, that person and I would disagree.”
“Noted,” Ginta said coolly. “Just so we’re clear, that’s exactly what I told Tousaki. In ANBU we govern ourselves, and we don’t tolerate coercion. I don’t know where you got the idea I was planning to pressure either of your rookies into something they didn’t want, but it’s unkind of you to think that.” The way he stressed unkind made Raidou think there had been a much nastier word there, before the diplomatic filter had kicked in. “I have plenty of opportunities for consensual recreation. I don’t want or need to resort to duress.”
There was the outrage that had been missing earlier.
And there, perhaps, was the man Genma liked. For the briefest of moments, Raidou saw his own protectiveness mirrored back: the complete certainty that Ginta wouldn’t hesitate to provide a short, fatal solution for anyone who wronged Team Thirteen.
It was definitely the soldier Usagi liked. She was a woman who appreciated leashed chaos.
Raidou nodded again, acknowledging, and continued back to the office. He was just in time to witness Genma dodging out of the room, with an armful of paperwork and Usagi on his heels.
“Just one match, lieutenant. I’ll be gentle!”
Her back was turned. Raidou grinned and went to get his payback.
Genma felt Raidou’s approach before Usagi did. He didn’t warn her. If she wanted to spar that badly, the captain was a much better match for her, and Raidou deserved his revenge for that office attack. Plus there weren’t any tables or chairs to break in the hallway.
Raidou barreled into Usagi like a tsunami, hauling her into a vicious headlock. Genma took a few nimble sidesteps, clutching his sheaf of reports close to his chest, but he still had to jump out of the way when Usagi wrenched around and hooked Raidou’s knee with her own, crashing them both to the ground. There followed a brief, violent scuffle that bounced off one wall and then the other.
On the other side of the tussle, Ginta kept out of the way, calling out helpful suggestions to his captain. “Guard your left, Usa— Nevermind. That’s gonna bruise.” He cackled, looking just as delighted with his own captain’s takedown as he had been with Raidou’s.
A couple of doors popped open along the hallway, but none of the observers seemed inclined to intervene. The struggle turned into a breathless wrestling match that ended with Usagi pinned and Raidou gloating.
“Well?” Raidou said.
Usagi gave him a rueful look. “Concede.”
Raidou released her, still smug, and offered her a hand up.
“Bastard,” Usagi said cheerfully.
Ginta laughed. “Guess he showed you, Taichou.”
“Guess he did.” Usagi gave him an evil grin, full of intent. “And Shiranui turned me down. But you’re here, and we have time before tonight. Let’s hit the gym.”
“Okay,” Ginta said readily. “But no facial bruises. I need to look good at the club.” He tucked in next to Usagi, then turned. “Embers at 2100. If you’re late you have to buy all the rounds for the rookies.” He gave Raidou a pointed look. “I’ll make sure ours are there, too.”
There was some subtext about the rookies that Genma was missing, but he didn’t get to ask. Usagi tugged Ginta into motion, practically jogging with eagerness to get to their spar.
When they’d gone, Raidou fell in next to Genma. “I can’t believe you agreed to this.”
“I can’t believe Hatake agreed to this,” Genma said. “Didn’t seem like an opportunity we should waste.” He shrugged. “Besides, it can’t hurt to blow off a little steam. If you don’t like dancing, you can always sit at the bar and nurse your drink. Or the table. Embers has booths.”
Raidou gave him a sidelong glance. “I like dancing.”
Genma’s thoughts wrecked hard on the shoals of ‘wait, is he saying he’d like to dance with me?’
“I do, too,” he said. “So… Good.”
And wow, not smooth, Shiranui. Also this is your captain and what the hell are you even thinking?
Raidou’s mouth quirked with amusement, but he didn’t comment. After several turns down one corridor and another, Raidou asked, “How long have you and Sakamoto known each other?”
Genma thought about that for a moment. “About three years. He was a veteran on a different team when I was a rookie. Our teams had a joint mission. And then I ran into him at a club one night, almost a year later, and we hooked up. It was just a casual thing,” he added quickly. “He’s fun in small doses.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Raidou muttered. Genma was about to ask what it was about Ginta that had gotten under Raidou’s skin, when Raidou abruptly grinned and said, “You didn’t strike me as the clubbing type. Is there a whole other side of you with a secret social life?”
“Well… yeah.” Genma allowed. “I have friends. I go to the clubs with Aoba sometimes, or on my own. Actually I met Katsuko before Trials at a cherry blossom viewing party. I would have thought she’d told you all about it.”
“Nope. That’s one named friend and two entire activities,” Raidou teased. “I barely recognize you.”
“What can I say?” Genma said, “Some people are just born to be wild.” He laughed, then added, “I also like movies. If you wanted, we could hang out sometime. Then it’d be two named friends and three activities.” He would have brushed a hand over his face to hide the faint twinge of color that came with that suggestion, but he’d have dropped the files he was carrying.
It had been easier to transition from teammates to friends with Hajime. Maybe because Hajime had been the one to extend the invitation. Genma hoped he hadn’t just run headlong into Raidou’s boundaries issue. That afternoon drinking sake in Raidou’s backyard, before the Mist mission, had felt like the beginnings of a friendship…
“Yeah. “Raidou smiled, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “That could be fun. So long as it’s not a horror movie, otherwise you’re going to spend an afternoon dragging me out from under a chair.”
Genma felt a slipknot of tension work loose. Raidou almost looked shy.
“Between mine-demons, Bingo Book legends, and enemy villages that wholesale exterminate their bloodline clans, I think we get enough horror in our lives,” Genma agreed. He hefted his armload of files as evidence. “It’s a deal: no scary movies.”
“Alright, then.” Raidou said. They walked in companionable silence for a moment, and then, as the mission office door came into view, he said, “Clubbing. I’ll bet money Hatake cuts and runs in ten minutes.”
Genma chuckled. “I’d take that bet, but then I’d be poor.” He paused at the door. “So see you at Embers at 2100? You know where it is?”
“I’ll find it,” Raidou promised. He glanced at his watch and swore under his breath.
“Go, go,” Genma said. “You can still get those logs filed before the payroll office closes if you hurry. I’ll get the rest of this turned in.”
Raidou offered a small, grateful nod, and disappeared back towards Team Six’s office, while Genma went to do battle with half a dozen different departments inside the mission office.
Getting ready to go out, when the day was finally done, meant a trip down the Hokage Monument’s face into town, and then up the north hills to get to Aoba’s place. Genma’d signed a lease on a loft apartment near the riverside in Konoha before their last mission, but the place wasn’t even remotely habitable yet. After a quick bowl of leftover rice and curry, Genma showered, and emerged from the steam to find his host unexpectedly home.
“I thought you were going out with Yuko tonight.”
“I was,” Aoba lamented. “And then I got this.” He held up a mission summons with a forlorn expression.
“Night missions are rude,” Genma commiserated. “When do you leave?”
“2130, and I have a briefing beforehand.” Aoba flopped down on the sofa and watched Genma dry his hair. “Yuko said I could make it up to her when I got back, at least.”
“She’s a good sport.”
“I know,” Aoba said, unappeased. “But we had our last date killed because she got a mission summons. It’s like someone in the mission office is trying to come between us.”
“One of her exes?” Genma suggested. “Or yours?”
“Don’t say that, Genma.” Aoba grimaced. “My social life would come to a dead stop if my exes decided to gang up on me like that.”
Genma shrugged, conceding the point. He sorted through the box holding his pants and pulled out a pair of slim-cut dark jeans, tossing it on the arm of the couch. Shirts next. Embers had a dress code, and he wanted to look good. But maybe not too good, since it was his team he’d be going out with. He held up a dark red t-shirt and eyed it critically.
“Going on a date?” Aoba said, deciding to meddle in Genma’s social life since his own was on hold. “Who with? And where? You’re not wearing that, are you?”
“My team, Thirteen, and the women from Intel who were on my last mission.” Genma tossed the red shirt aside and kept looking.
“An orgy? I knew you had it in you, Gen!”
“It’s not an orgy. It’s drinks with my team and a few others.”
“Mmmhmm,” Aoba said. “Orgy. I’m proud of you, Genma.”
Genma threw the shirt he’d just pulled out at Aoba’s face.
“Who from Intel?” Aoba asked, extracting himself from the fabric.
“Yuuhi Kurenai and Uchiha Satomi.”
If Aoba had been drinking, he’d have choked on his beer. “You’re kidding.”
“I’m not kidding,” Genma told him. “I have no idea how it happened, but something involving both women, Tousaki, and Ginta outside the Intel office this afternoon turned into all of us going out to Embers.”
“Embers?” Aoba’s eyebrows climbed past his glasses frames. “Wow, okay… Okay… And your whole team agreed to this? Hatake agreed to this?”
“I watched him do it,” Genma said. He held up a brown shirt with a shimmer woven into the cloth.
Aoba shook his head. “That one’s too big on you. I keep telling you to get rid of it.”
“I like it. It’s comfortable,” Genma defended.
“You’re not going to Embers in your pajamas, Genma.”
Genma sighed and kept looking.
“Wait, I have one you can borrow.” Aoba levered himself up and disappeared into his room for a moment. When he came back, he held a slippery-looking piece of dark green fabric in his hands. “Put this on.”
Genma caught the shirt from Aoba and held it by the shoulders. It was sleeveless and a little iridescent. When he hesitated, Aoba gave him a reproving look. “Have I ever steered you wrong?”
“Dozens of times,” Genma said. But he pulled the shirt on. It skimmed his body as closely as his ANBU blacks. The collar was high, but there was a deep vee of mesh that cut down the chest from the neck.
“Hot,” Aoba pronounced. “Maybe not with the towel around your waist, but that’s the one. In fact, I’ll trade you for the brown one.”
“It’s too small for me,” Aoba said, “and the brown one is too big for you. It’s a perfect exchange.”
“You’re just trying to take away my favorite shirt.”
“OK, then I’ll just give you that one, if you promise to wear it tonight.”
“It’s not too sexy?”
“Shiranui Genma, did I actually just hear those words come out of your mouth?”
Genma pulled on a pair of briefs and dropped the towel. “I told you, this is drinks with my team, not a date.”
“At Embers,” Aoba deadpanned.
“I don’t know why Yuko puts up with you.” Genma shimmied into the jeans. They were almost as tight as the shirt, but they were fresh out of the wash; they’d relax.
“You mean, ‘I don’t know why I put up with you.’” Aoba laughed. “It’s because I’m a delightful friend who always has your best interests at heart. Wear your hair up. You look hot with your hair up.”
“Are you sure you’re not gay?”
“Positive. Doesn’t mean I can’t know hot when I see it.”
Genma sighed and headed back into the bathroom to put his hair up in a bun. It couldn’t be that sexy, given he wore it that way to keep it out of his eyes when he worked on paperwork in team Six’s office. If he’d actually been going out on a date, he’d probably have worn it loose.
Aoba trailed after him. “If you bring the orgy back here, you can use my bed. I’ll be gone at least three days. Just make sure you change the sheets.”
“You’re a generous friend,” Genma said. Because there was really no point in arguing with Aoba. And besides, it was true.
“I know.” Aoba leaned smugly against the doorframe. When Genma was finished, he nodded and grinned. “They’re going to have a hard time keeping their hands off you.”
“You’re really not helping, you know that right?”
“Have fun, Gen. Think of me, toiling away on my mission, while you dance with the hottest team in ANBU. I want all the details when I get back.”
Aoba pulled his hitai-ate on and headed back for the front room to retrieve his weapons and vest.
“Have a good mission, Aoba,” Genma told him. “Don’t forget to bring me a nice souvenir.” It was what they always said to each other, and had since they’d been chuunin back in the war. If your friend had promised to bring back a present, he couldn’t very well go MIA on his mission. It’d be rude.
When Aoba’d gone, Genma washed his dinner dishes and gave himself one more once over in front of the mirror. Aoba was right about the green shirt — it was hot. It’d only be a problem if it was too hot. But just before he’d decided to change it after all, Genma remembered that Ginta would be there. Whatever Ginta would be wearing would undoubtedly make the green shirt seem positively sedate.
Before he could second guess himself again, he slipped on his shoes, locked the door behind him, and headed for the clubs.
Kakashi’d spent most of the evening alternately throwing flashcards at Ryouma — they’d fallen behind — and arguing over whether an agreement to go clubbing with Ryouma and Katsuko could justifiably be stretched into going clubbing with Ryouma and half of ANBU.
“We should’ve gone with Katsuko,” Ryouma said, stubbornly. “But we put it off too long, and lost our chance. We’re not losing this one.” He pulled another shirt out of Kakashi’s closet, squinted at it in the lamplight, and put it back. “Don’t you have anything that’s not black?”
“I have jounin blues,” Kakashi said.
“They probably have a dress code,” Ryouma said. “No uniforms allowed.” He pushed deeper into the closet and found a long-sleeved, v-neck red shirt he remembered from one of the few times he’d seen Kakashi in civvies. It was soft and comfortable, perfect for dinner and a quiet evening with a toddler. Well, maybe the doormen wouldn’t look too close…
He backed out of the closet. “We could borrow something from Hakone. He’s near your size.”
“You want to involve more people?” Kakashi demanded.
Ryouma picked up a lightweight mesh shirt, standard issue underarmor for jounin blues, and held it out. “Or you could wear this.”
Kakashi was already at the door. “Which one’s Hakone’s?”
Hakone lived one floor and six doors down, on the opposite side of the hall. He answered the door in slippers and a dark blue, fan-patterned yukata. One brow arched eloquently as he took them in. “I’m sure there’s a good reason Hatake looks like he’s going on a mission and you look like you’re going on a date. I look forward to hearing it.”
“I need a shirt,” Kakashi said. He looked at Ryouma. “The pants are fine, right?”
“The pants aren’t fine,” Ryouma said, “but we can work on that.”
Hakone’s other brow lifted. He stepped back, holding the door open, and made an expansive gesture to welcome them into his home.
He wasn’t laughing, yet. Ryouma whispered as he passed: “I’ll owe you one.”
“At least one,” Hakone murmured, and shut the door.
His room was a mirror image of Ryouma’s, but closer to Kakashi’s in style: spartan furnishings, a crammed bookshelf, a single framed photograph of cherry blossoms over a stone lantern at night. There was a low table, a floor-chair with a curved wooden back and a separate armrest, a bottle of expensive small-batch beer, and a book. Hakone sank down on the chair, stretched his legs out, and looked up at Ryouma expectantly. “I’m still waiting for that explanation.”
“Our team’s going clubbing, with Thirteen from our last mission.” Ryouma filtered through shirts, found two that might work, and tossed them to Kakashi. “I’d invite you, if we didn’t need your shirt.”
“I’d accept the invitation you’re not offering,” Hakone said courteously, “if I didn’t plan to spend the night shunning social interaction.” He sipped his beer.
Kakashi looked envious. He was investigating the seams of the shirts Ryouma had tossed him, probably looking for whether he could move and conceal weapons in them; he seemed dubious about both. “What was wrong with black, again?”
“You’d look like a ninja or a bartender’s assistant,” Hakone said. “Also, bloodstains will show up under black lights.”
“You’re thinking of something else,” Kakashi grumbled, but he took the shirts and disappeared into the tiny bathroom.
“Try the black jeans,” Hakone told Ryouma. “Thirteen… That’s Abe and Kasumi’s team. I take it you all came back alive.”
“Not all.” Ryouma turned, leaning against the edge of the closet wall. “They lost their veteran, Eizo.” He hesitated.
In the war there’d been no time and too many to mourn. He’d lost Kenji from his genin team, and a week later he’d had his field promotion to chuunin and an assignment to the front lines. He’d gotten drunk for the first time, somewhere in there.
Things were different now. “You think it’s too soon?”
“Maybe,” Hakone said, imperturbably. “They’ll decide.” He took another drink of his beer. “Are you planning to hook up with any of them?”
“Um,” Ryouma said, and turned in relief as Kakashi came out of the bathroom. “Hey, that looks good.”
Kakashi’d chosen the looser of the two shirts, which was dark blue and faintly silky. His hair gleamed silver again, after almost a week of washing, and the exposed skin at his wrists shone clean and pearl-pale against the navy cuffs.
Hakone made a sound suspiciously like a smothered laugh. “You’re not supposed to button it up that high.”
Well, the mask meant they’d be missing out on the sight of Kakashi’s collarbones anyway. Ryouma suggested, “Let me?”
Kakashi heaved an aggravated sigh, but lifted his chin obligingly, opening his throat. Ryouma flicked the top two buttons open, exposing nothing but skin-sleek black mask over the sharp jugular notch. The buttons on the wrist-cuffs were stiffer, less frequently used. He rolled the sleeves up to Kakashi’s elbows and then stepped back, head tilted, to judge the effect.
Maybe he shouldn’t have bared Kakashi’s forearms.
He swallowed, and scooped up the jeans. “Try these.”
Kakashi looked even more skeptical, but he took the jeans and retreated to the bathroom again.
Hakone looked at Ryouma, his brows raised. Ryouma looked at the wall.
“You realize these are exactly the same as ANBU pants,” Kakashi said accusingly, coming out of the bathroom. “Except less sturdy. And riveted.”
“I didn’t realize the dancing was going to be a ranked mission,” Hakone said, sounding amused. He saluted Ryouma with the beer bottle. “Are all your missions with him this hard?”
Ryouma gritted his teeth. Hakone’s humor was often edged, but this time even Kakashi might catch the double entendre. And Ryouma’d scared Kakashi off once already. He didn’t need to do it again.
He needed to show Kakashi how to have a good time with a drink and a dance floor and other people, and then he needed to find Ginta or someone else wicked and willing, and stop thinking about what he couldn’t have.
He stared Hakone down, and said pointedly, “Thanks for the clothes. We’ll try not to get blood on them.”
Hakone smiled. “I trust you to clean them before you bring them back, if you do. The shirt needs hand-washing though. Don’t throw it in the machine or I’ll make you replace it.”
Kakashi’s gaze slid from Hakone to Ryouma. A faint furrow drew between his brows, under the plain black band of his eyepatch. The mask dimpled over a slow inhale, as if he were tasting the air, and the frown deepened. He said to Hakone, “If your shirts dissolve in the wash, I’m doing you a favor getting rid of one.” To Ryouma, he added, “So this works?”
“It works,” Ryouma said. “See you around, Hakone. Don’t wait up.”
Hakone snickered, and Ryouma herded Kakashi out before anything got worse.
They stopped at Kakashi’s apartment to drop off his clothes and acquire his wallet, boots, and at least three knives. Ryouma stole another glance in the bathroom mirror, raked his hand through his hair, and decided he’d do. Ginta’d seemed to enjoy looking at him anyway, even in blues, and the dark jeans and slim-cut red shirt over a black mesh tank certainly fit him better.
Kakashi didn’t look at him any differently. Ryouma reminded himself he didn’t want him to.
They took the shortcut down to the village, straight off Nidaime’s head. The sun was a distant memory below the horizon, but the night air was still warm, and the lights and laughter of Konoha’s streets reached out to draw them in. Ryouma bought sticks of yakitori off a street vendor and handed one to Kakashi. “You’ll want something in your stomach.”
Kakashi did the food-vanishing trick. Ryouma was still trying to figure out how he’d managed it when they arrived at Embers.
The entrance was a small door tucked away up an alley in Konoha’s entertainment district, between an all-night eatery and a massage parlor. The bouncer stared hard at Kakashi’s mask and eye-band, but must’ve seen odder sights in a ninja village. He charged them the same cover as the curvy woman in stilettos in front of them.
Inside, a long, mirrored hallway opened onto a cavernous multilevel room. Strobe lights painted the place pink and green and blue, slicing over crowded knots of writhing men and women on the dance floor. Three-sided booths lined the walls, leading up to the long bar opposite the DJ’s raised platform. A slim boy in a gold lamé shirt was dancing on a pole at another circular platform. Smoke blued the air, but Ryouma spotted a staircase across the dance floor, and another bar on the upper level.
He touched Kakashi’s shoulder and pointed at the staircase. He had to shout to be heard over the pulsing music. “Drinks’ll be better up there!”
Kakashi nodded and followed Ryouma upstairs.
He’d been in clubs outside the village before. They were an easy place to assassinate someone. Until now, though, he’d managed to avoid Konoha’s late night scene.
It was everything he’d expected. A bassline like a sledgehammer, a tangle of scents half-choked by cigarettes, a lot of people. The only difference was that civilians were clumsy when they danced; shinobi moved with violent grace.
Ryouma slipped easily through the crowd, wearing the atmosphere like a second skin. The bar was three-deep in people. Ryouma solved that problem by being a head taller than everyone else; he signalled the grinning, glitter-covered woman behind the bar, handed cash over the crowd, and turned back around with three glasses in his hands.
“Winter Dogs. Alcoholic,” he yelled over the music, hefting the two pale green drinks in his right hand. Then the clear, bubbling glass in his left. “Soda water and yuzu. Up to you.”
Kakashi took the soda water. After a beat, he took one of the Winter Dogs too, and held it curiously under his nose. Sharp mint nipped at his sinuses. Ryouma grinned at him, teeth very white under the strobe lights. “Good choice.”
“You’re a bad influence,” Kakashi said, which just made Ryouma grin wider.
They staked out a spot at the balcony that overlooked the dance floor. Ryouma braced his elbows on the railing, drink held loosely in one hand. Condensation dripped over his fingers. The floor shivered beneath Kakashi’s feet in time to the music. It was made of interlocked metal grates; he could see down right through it. Underneath them, an even busier bar struggled to keep up with its patrons.
The soda water and yuzu tasted like carbonation and citrus. The Winter Dog was mint, herbs, and an alcoholic burn over ice. Kakashi limited himself to a few sips, just enough to chase a little warmth through his blood. Ryouma threw his back in two long gulps, collected Kakashi’s empty soda glass, and waded back to the bar. He returned with single short glass full of orange and red layers.
“Next round’s on you,” he said.
Kakashi tilted his head towards the entrance. “Lieutenant’s here.”
Ryouma looked down and nearly lost his grip on his drink. Genma stood next to the hallway of mirrors, surveying the club. Light glimmered on his bare shoulders and struck green glints off his semi-translucent shirt. He’d pulled his hair back into a twist that even Kakashi recognized as elegant. Behind him, ever punctual, Raidou turned the corner, caught sight of Genma, and tripped on thin air.
Kakashi propped his chin on his hand and watched, amused, as their captain recovered himself, gave Genma a second, disbelieving look, and then moved forward to tap him on the shoulder. Genma turned, smiling, and leaned back to admire Raidou’s version of civilian wear — broken-in jeans, boots, and a dark grey t-shirt that clung to his shoulders and fell loosely at his waist. Genma stepped close, Raidou bent his head to listen, and for a moment both of them just looked like young men.
It was an odd thought to have about his commanding officers.
Then Raidou’s head lifted dangerously. Ginta came strolling down the mirrored hallway arm-in-arm with Usagi, whose lips pursed in an obvious wolf-whistle as soon as she spotted Genma. They were followed by Abe, one arm still in a sling, and Kasumi, who had a tall, black-haired man Kakashi didn’t recognize hovering at her elbow.
Usagi was dressed even more casually than Raidou: faded, loose jeans and a dark tank-top cut low on the sides to show a red sports bra. Ginta, by contrast, had made an effort, though Kakashi wasn’t exactly sure what his intended look was supposed to be. Shiny black leather pants skimmed down his legs; his shirt was rich blue, collared and buttoned, rolled up at the elbows, but someone had taken a scalpel and delicately sliced a pattern of flowers and leaves out over the entire torso, replacing the cloth with sheer mesh. He raised an arm and saluted the balcony. The others looked up.
Kakashi waved reluctantly back. At his side, Ryouma looked pole-axed.
Usagi gestured at them and mouthed, Dancing!
Kakashi held his glass up and signed back, Drinking.
Usagi rolled her eyes, chose Genma as her next sacrificial victim, and dragged him by the wrist out onto the dance floor. Ginta followed them, laughing. Kasumi led her male friend — boyfriend? husband? — to the lower bar, making an expansive gesture with her hands that looked a lot like: See what I have to deal with? Abe trailed after her, shielding his injured arm from accidental knocks. Raidou looked up at the balcony again, hands propped on his hips, and gave a decisive chin jerk. Get down here.
“I need to be drunker than this,” Ryouma muttered, and threw back his entire rainbow drink.
“This was your idea,” Kakashi told him.
“Yeah, well, sometimes I have terrible ideas.” Ryouma tore his gaze off the dance floor and looked at Kakashi. For the briefest of moments, his expression did something complicated and inexplicable. His eyes were so dark, Kakashi couldn’t tell where the pupils ended and the irises began. Ryouma dropped his empty glass on the nearest table, and said with fatalistic cheer, “At least you can always kick my head in if I make a mistake.”
He headed down the stairs.
Kakashi stared at his back, puzzled. The last time he’d really kicked Ryouma’s head in—
Would have been the morning before they’d left on their second mission, two days after Ryouma had crowded Kakashi against his kitchen counter and obliterated Kakashi’s calm. He’d apologized later. I was a dick. And it wasn’t like Kakashi had made a particular habit of being kind to Ryouma in those first few weeks, or after.
He hadn’t really thought about it since Ibaragashi. There’d been more important things than Kakashi being bad at people, and Ryouma being bad at Kakashi.
What, exactly, was Ryouma thinking about now?
Kakashi braced his elbows on the railing again, watching the tall, dark-haired shadow cut through the throng below, arrow-swift, to reach Raidou. They exchanged a few words, then Usagi whirled out of the crowd, grabbed Ryouma by the back of his shirt, and hauled him onto the dance floor. Raidou flung his hands up in the air and strode grouchily after them.
Ginta had commandeered Genma, along with a few unfamiliar ninja, into a loose circle in the middle of the floor. None of them had partnered up; they were dancing as a group, trading their best moves back and forth. A vicious hip roll, killing hands in the air, loose shoulders and flexible spines. The music stutter-stepped and Genma echoed it, fractal pauses translated into a pulsing heartbeat. A lethal-looking kunoichi spun to press back against him; Genma’s hands curved over her hips. She gave him a sly smile over her shoulder, and twisted away. A man stepped into her place. Genma smiled and didn’t miss a beat.
Usagi pulled Ryouma’s arms around her shoulders and tipped her head back against his chest, body moving with muscular grace. Ryouma didn’t seem to mind the kidnapping; he fell effortlessly into time with her, a slice of darkness against her red flame.
Abe, Kasumi, and her — boyfriend? probably boyfriend — returned with drinks, settling into a booth on the quieter side of the club.
Kakashi finished his Winter Dog and set the glass down.
Genma’s partner got more handsy, one palm sliding down to the small of Genma’s back. Genma bent his head, said something in the man’s ear. The man gave him a rueful smile and stepped away, disappearing back into the crowd. Genma glanced around, visibly marking where his people were — Usagi and Ryouma, the group at the booth, Ginta in the middle of another circle, Kakashi — and Raidou, who looked like he didn’t know whether to rescue Ryouma, join the booth, or get himself a drink. Genma’s expression softened. He caught Raidou’s eye and tipped his head invitingly.
Kakashi expected Raidou to refuse. Boundaries. To his surprise, Raidou looked relieved; he stepped over to Genma, shoulders loosening, and proved himself actually capable of dancing — and dancing well. Genma’s face lit, startled then pleased. They didn’t get close, like the rejected man had tried, but they moved together better than the group of strangers had. Familiarity lending itself to skill.
Kakashi propped his chin on his hand, fingers curling over a small, hidden smile.
“Antisocial, Hatake,” said a warm alto on his blind side.
“You’re late, Yuuhi,” he said.
“I’m sure you’ve been waiting for us,” Kurenai said, sounding amused. “I admit, I didn’t expect Tousaki and Team Thirteen.”
Kakashi turned, bringing her into his field of vision. She held a pale drink in one hand, and her hair curled loose on her shoulders. Her dress was the dark scarlet of a dying sunset and had more in common with bondage than coverage; it looked like it had been constructed from skin-tight satin ribbons, which criss-crossed over every dangerous curve. The hem skimmed high on her thighs, and two straps barely held up the plunging neckline.
To Kakashi, it said: Beware.
“Wow,” he said, at length. And then frowned. “You didn’t expect Tousaki? It was his idea.”
“You’re not—?” Kurenai laughed, soft and rueful. “Gods, no, of course you’re not. Do you want another drink?”
Kakashi gave her a baffled look. “What context did I just miss?”
Kurenai studied him for a moment, thoughtfully, running a finger around the rim of her glass. Her eyes were the same red as her lips. “Why’d you agree to come?”
“Because I said I would,” Kakashi said. “Why do you answer every question with a question?”
“I’m naturally curious,” Kurenai said. “And in five minutes, I expect Satomi to cut Tousaki out with Usagi. Who do you think he’ll choose next?” There was just the faintest hint of a bite in her words.
“Usagi choose him,” Kakashi said slowly. He replayed the conversation, starting at I didn’t expect Tousaki and Team Thirteen, and ending with, You’re not—
“Are you worried for me?” Kakashi asked at last.
She took a sip of her drink. “I can see I needn’t have been.”
That wasn’t precisely a no. Kakashi scratched the back of his head and looked down at the dance floor. Satomi had appeared in the far corner, lurking like a tiny bald wraith in black clothes and silver piercings, watching Usagi and Ryouma. They had yet to notice her. Usagi was laughing as Ryouma twirled her. Ryouma was loose-handed and smiling, sweat darkening his shirt between his shoulderblades.
He looked like he was having fun, after weeks of none.
Raidou and Genma had moved closer together, heads bent like they were talking. Ginta had lost his shirt and somehow gained body-paint: blue handprints glowed on his ribcage.
And Kurenai, who’d hated Kakashi — well, at least frostily disliked him — up until the last few weeks, had come up to stand next to him.
“Let’s get that drink,” Kakashi said.
Kurenai’s red mouth curved, wry. She tossed back her drink and set the glass down on the rail. “You’re buying.”
There was a soulful expression Naruto trotted out when he wanted something — usually dessert — that was especially hard to say no to. Kakashi reset his face and let his head wilt sadly to one side. “But I’m heartbroken and alone, Yuuhi.”
Kurenai, consummate heartless Intel agent, said cruelly, “I’m sure that face would work if I could actually see it. You’re still buying.”
Kakashi straightened up. “Worth a shot.”
He set out for the bar. Behind him, there were two beats of silence, then Kurenai said darkly, “Was that a pun?”
“Was it?” Kakashi said, and ducked between dancers and drunks to reach the bartender.
Embers was a good club for this kind of thing. Ginta dodged around an elbow that came at him at head height, and maneuvered himself until he could see all the people he was most interested in. Usagi was having fun with Tousaki — no surprise there. She was underdressed, but the bouncers hadn’t turned her away, probably because Ginta’d claimed to be her date. Which made Bunpei, who was manning the door, crack up and waive the cover for both of them.
Usagi danced like she sparred, with one-hundred percent commitment to every move. Tousaki was a little more nuanced, if no less committed. And he looked like a wet dream, with sweat slicking his shirt to his skin at the back, and mesh highlighting every muscle from chest to navel. Since Usagi had done half his work for him already, unbuttoning Ryouma almost to the beltline, Ginta decided he’d make it his goal for the next half hour to get that overshirt off of Ryouma altogether.
Getting the mesh tank, and those almost-painted-on slim denims off would be a matter for a later hour. If Raidou didn’t decide to get territorial again. But Genma, bless him, was keeping Raidou distracted.
When there was a shift in the music, he shimmied past an enthusiastic and tipsy group of dancers, and sidled up to Usagi. “At least one rookie knows how to have fun.”
She gave him a wolfish grin, dark-lined eyes glittering black when the strobes flashed green. “It’s still early.”
“Yuuhi’s working on Six’s other one.” He gestured with a flung hand. “Ours might take some coaxing.” Not a lot of coaxing, if Kasumi’s outfit was anything to judge by. She, at least, knew how to dress for a club. Her gravity-defying outfit had already earned her a few hungry looks, even holed up in that booth with her boyfriend and Abe. Another round of drinks, Ginta guessed, and she’d be dragging her boys out onto the dance floor.
Ryouma frowned up at the empty spot on the balcony rail where Kakashi and Kurenai had just been, but he didn’t say anything.
The DJ started up a fresh beat. Usagi reached up with two fingers to turn Ryouma’s face back to hers. With her fingers still on his chin, she rose up on her toes, leaned in, and just when it looked like she was going in for a kiss, said, “Water break, kid. Go get something to drink.”
Ryouma blinked, and looked down. “I owe you a round.”
“Beer!” Usagi said immediately. She grinned. “And something in a ridiculous glass for him.”
“The more ridiculous the better,” Ginta agreed. “Tell Mitsumi you want a Three Way Climax with a twist.”
Ryouma did a slow turn, making a show of scanning the dance floor, then asked, “Where’s the twist?”
“I’ve been called twisty,” Ginta said. “Pretty sure it was a compliment.”
“Twisted,” Usagi clarified.
Ryouma grinned. “So long as they meant flexible.” He swiveled off towards the bar.
“Now that’s a man I don’t mind seeing go,” Usagi said.
“As long as he comes back.” Ginta stepped into Ryouma’s place to dance with Usagi. “Don’t look now, but you have a stalker.”
She craned her head instantly. “Where?”
“My eight-o-clock. Short, dark, and murderous.” Satomi was almost invisible in her black mesh and leather, and she hadn’t budged from her carefully selected corner. “You should ask her to dance before she detonates.”
“Squirrelly little bastard,” Usagi said. She rumpled Ginta’s hair with affection before heading off to tame the wild Uchiha beast.
“Tousaki and I will drink your beer for you,” he called after her.
“You’ll owe me two more,” she shot back.
Ginta shrugged and grinned. “Worth it.”
The strobes changed again, pink and blue arcs sweeping the smoky air. Black light made Ginta’s body paint glow, and caught streaks and glitters on painted skin all over the dance floor. While he waited for Ryouma to come back, he danced with a couple of half-dressed shinobi in tight pants. One wore something that looked like a too-small t-shirt that had had its front, back, and sides cut away, leaving only a strip of fabric over his shoulders connecting the sleeves. The other wore a striped hachimaki over sweeping hakama. “You’d better have a proper fundoshi on under there, if you’re playing samurai dressup,” Ginta shouted over the pounding music.
“Want to find out?” Samurai boy rolled his hips in time to the beat.
“Of course I do,” Ginta mirrored his dance moves. “Maybe later.”
The dancer leaned close enough Ginta could feel the heat coming off his skin. “Come find me when you’re ready.”
If things didn’t work out with Ryouma tonight, and Genma had his own plans, Ginta had a backup in place.
Genma was still dancing with Raidou. And laughing. They were both laughing, dancing in tight sync despite the cushion of air between them. Genma was another wet dream tonight, in that slinky top and those tight jeans, and by the looks of it, Raidou was aware of it. Although maybe not aware that he was aware of it. Honestly, it was kind of sweet.
Ryouma reappeared while Ginta was still watching Team Six’s officers. “Saw Usagi with Satomi.” He handed over Ginta’s beverage — a three-layered frivolity in a champagne glass — and took a swig of his own drink. “I don’t think they’re coming back.”
“Well, we did promise Usagi to Satomi when we made this date.” Ginta toasted the air in the direction of the two women. “It’s only fair. I guess we’ll just have to dance with each other.”
“You say that like it’s a punishment,” Ryouma teased.
“Maybe I like punishment.” A flicker of something in Ryouma’s eyes said that was a topic worth pursuing further.
“What else d’you like?” Ryouma had to lean down to be heard.
“Lots of things,” Ginta said. “Silk. Dancing. Tall men. Bare shoulders. You should take that shirt off.” He reached up to tug the hem free from Ryouma’s waistband.
Ryouma went with it easily, shrugging his shoulders free. “I liked yours,” he said.
“My shirt? Thanks. It’s over there.” Ginta pointed to a row of pegs on the wall close to the bar that held a number of similarly discarded garments. “Want to hang yours up with mine?”
That mesh tank was doing Ryouma manyfavors. Ginta kept a hand on Ryouma’s hip, and smiled at him open-mouthed.
“Probably won’t remember it later,” Ryouma said, but he worked his wrist free of the last cuff, balled the shirt up, and lobbed it in the right direction with the pinpoint accuracy of a man accustomed to throwing kunai and shuriken. He took a long drink, then gave Ginta a smoldering look. “Where’s the silk come in? Rope or bedsheets?”
Oh yes, that was definitely an avenue worth pursuing.
“Rope. I’m interested in traditional knot-work,” Ginta said. The music slowed to a more languid tempo. He closed a little more of the distance between them, and leaned in. “Of course learning shibari takes practice. Lots of practice.”
Ryouma rolled his hips with sensuous intent, brushing against Ginta’s waist. Delicious. “Heard of it, but never tried. You got your own—” He looked uncertain for a moment. “Rig?”
“I’ve got everything we’d need.” Ginta rolled back, pressing against Ryouma’s thigh for half a heartbeat, before the music carried him back. “My apartment isn’t far from here. Maybe when this social gathering is over…”
Ginta didn’t get an answer to his invitation. One minute he was getting increasingly confident this was going somewhere, and the next Kakashi was just there, standing at Ryouma’s elbow and looking fixedly at Ginta with a sharp, distrustful eye. Ginta raised his eyebrows, Ryouma turned to look, and Kakashi said “Head kicking,” in a low growl.
Well damn. It probably wasn’t that surprising that Kakashi was the jealous type.
“Is that your safeword?” Ginta asked. “Or a threat?”
“Threat,” Ryouma answered distantly, still looking at Kakashi. “But I didn’t— Weren’t you with Yuuhi?”
“We migrated,” Kakashi said. He tilted his head in Genma and Raidou’s direction, but his gaze never left Ginta’s face, and his scowl didn’t relax in the slightest.
That made two members of Team Six who seemed to think Ginta was secretly planning to do something dire to Ryouma. Debauchery had been on his list, but not actual harm. What in the world had Genma said about him?
“You could have just asked to cut in and have the next dance,” Ginta said, smiling blandly at Kakashi. “I’m a gentleman; I’d have acquiesced.” He winked at Ryouma. “I’ll ‘migrate’, too. Come find me for another dance any time.”
“Don’t go far,” Ryouma said urgently. He turned on Kakashi with a low hiss. “What?”
Ohoho, so Hatake ‘cock-block’ Kakashi wasn’t going to get out of that unscathed. Ginta smirked and let the crowd swallow him. Kasumi and her entourage had come onto the dance floor. And Usagi was wrapped up with Satomi, dancing hands-on. Astonishingly, the angry little Uchiha was actually smiling.
Kurenai was indeed dancing with Genma and Raidou; her scarlet dress made an easy-to-follow beacon. A few strands of Genma’s hair had worked loose, and his bare shoulders were shiny with sweat. Raidou’s blue-grey t-shirt showed damp patches at chest and shoulders, and his jeans might have been too loose in the legs, but they fit his hips like a dream. Ginta grinned, tossed back the last of his drink, and went to join them.
Kakashi wasn’t dancing. He stood dark and uncompromising in a sea of moving bodies, hands in his pockets, strobes catching pink and green in his hair as he stared after Ginta.
Ryouma warred, for a moment, with the desire to kick his head in.
“You got something to say?”
“You said to stop you if you made a mistake.” Kakashi’s eye narrowed, tracking Ginta through the crowd. “That is a mistake.”
“I didn’t mean Ginta!” Ryouma had to yell over the throbbing music; he might have been yelling anyway. “He’s hot, he likes me, he’s not pretending t’be anything he isn’t, what’s wrong?”
He’d gotten Kakashi’s attention, at least. Blue light cut over the mask on a sharp inhale. “He’s a man who collects blackmail for fun. He has council connections; he’d end your career in a second if it suited him. You don’t want him under your skin.”
“You don’t know what I want,” Ryouma snapped. “What, you think I’ll screw up so bad he’d throw me to Kuroda?” Ginta was the one who’d said ANBU officers policed their own—
But promises were easy, and all shinobi were liars.
Kakashi’s brows pinched. “No. I think you have better options.”
Ryouma stared at him. Kakashi frowned back, blue and silver and the worst option on the floor. Ryouma could have laughed, if he hadn’t wanted so badly to hit something.
“It’s a good thing you don’t run my sex life, Hatake. You’d fuck it up worse’n I do.” He drained the rest of the beer he’d bought for Usagi. “C’mon. Let’s check on the officers.”
For the briefest moment, the lights caught something in Kakashi’s eye that might have been surprise, or even pain. He reached out, caught Ryouma’s shoulder with his fingertips before Ryouma could turn away, and said, “I’m sorry.”
Ryouma stood still.
Kakashi said, “I— did that wrong. You can do what you want.” His hand fell away. His voice was almost inaudible under the music. “I just… thought we would hang out tonight. You made me get a shirt.”
And jeans. And Kakashi’d tried them both, even though it meant involving more people, changing in Hakone’s bathroom, wearing another man’s scent against his skin. He was standing here in a packed club with dancepop thumping in their bones and strangers grinding perilously close, and he’d come because Ryouma asked him.
Ryouma’s chest clenched. His voice came hoarse, maybe from the yelling, or the smoke. “You should’ve kicked me in the head.”
Kakashi blinked once. Then his eye curved. “I keep hearing we should use words.”
Maybe. There were some Kakashi definitely didn’t want to hear. Ryouma searched for others. “I’ve never done this before. Gone with someone who — wasn’t lookin’ out for himself. Sorry I left you.”
The smile faded from Kakashi’s eye. He looked up at Ryouma for a moment, while the lights played in his hair and the crowd surged around them. Then he turned towards the bar. “Next round’s back on you,” he said. “Also, I’m starting to think you’re actually worse at people than I am.”
He cut his way through dancers like soldiers on a battlefield. Ryouma nearly knocked someone over, trying to keep up. “Nobody’s worse at people than you are.”
Kakashi glanced back over his shoulder, a glint of amusement in the strobing lights, then ducked under someone’s flailing arm and fought his way through to ask the harried bartender, “What’s the most expensive drink you have?”
“What?” the man shouted back.
Kakashi held up two fingers and jerked his chin back at Ryouma. “He’s buying two of them.”
“Hey,” Ryouma said, but the bartender had already turned away.
“This isn’t using words!” Ryouma said.
“I said that it was on you.” Kakashi leaned one elbow on the bar and angled to face Ryouma. His brow lifted quizzically. “You don’t want to get something good?”
“Most expensive doesn’t always equal good,” Ryouma said. “How often do you drink?”
Kakashi’s shoulder hitched. “Not so much since Jiraiya-sensei nearly gave me alcohol poisoning.”
Ryouma’s brain tripped over Legendary Sannin and took a moment to recover. Someone shoved past him, waving bills at the next bartender; he edged forward automatically, against Kakashi, and then wished he hadn’t. “Sorry.” He tried to pull back, and received a vicious elbow jab to the kidneys.
Kakashi was warm and taut against his chest, and he didn’t try to knife Ryouma for crowding. He didn’t translocate across the room this time, either. He reached past Ryouma, instead. The slippery brush of a silky sleeve, a momentary press of muscle against Ryouma’s side, and someone yelped and opened a sudden space behind Ryouma’s back.
He could hear his heart pounding. Or maybe that was the music, pulsing in his blood. He stepped back, and the bartender flourished two glasses down on the bar and said, “Six thousand.”
That was more than half what Ryouma had left in his wallet. The drinks looked nice but not that nice, garnet-red liquor in tall frosted glasses, without even a citrus twist or a fruity parasol. Kakashi leaned in to inspect them curiously. “Aren’t you supposed to light them on fire?”
The bartender paused, disgruntled. He had a matchbox in his hand.
Ryouma slapped down three bills and a spark of chakra.
The resulting billow of flame was impressive, he had to admit. It cleared another little hollow around them, civvies chattering excitedly, shinobi side-eyeing in disapproval. Ryouma ignored them, and pushed one of the glasses toward Kakashi as the flames burnt away.
Kakashi took the drink, but his gaze slipped sideways, shoulders tensing beneath the weight of stares. His fingers tapped once against the sharply angled bowl. Then he reached out, curled his fingers around Ryouma’s wrist, and tugged him away from the bar.
Ryouma kept his glass somehow, and his feet.
They skirted the dance floor and took the stairs, then ducked into a dark, narrow hallway behind the balcony bar. A bathroom door loomed, the private kind that locked.
Kakashi passed it, and took a second set of stairs to the roof.
“You scouted exits,” Ryouma said, as Kakashi muscled the door open. “Of course you did. Are we making an escape? Did you actually kill that guy at the bar? Did you bring me up here to murder me?”
“Yes,” Kakashi drawled. “The last three months have been an elaborate deception leading up to this moment, where I shank you on a club roof.”
He released Ryouma’s wrist at last and wandered toward the waist-high wall rimming the roof edge. A single yellow bulb over the door shed a harsh glow that gilded his hair and shadowed his eye. He perched on the wall, one leg dangling free, the cocktail glass caught between two fingers. His voice came softer from the shadows. “Why don’t you have better friends?”
He’d dragged Ryouma up to this empty rooftop to ask that?
“Hakone lent you his shirt,” Ryouma said. There were still white marks on his wrist, the ghost of Kakashi’s fingers. He stepped away from the light, and they faded. “You don’t even know the rest of my friends.”
“You said you’d never been out with anyone who wasn’t looking out for themselves,” Kakashi said.
“Well, yeah. You go out in a group after a mission, nobody’s looking to go home alone. Unless you’re showing up and leaving with the same person, and everyone knows it, but I’ve never really dat—”
He cut himself off. Sweat cooled on his skin, in the night breeze.
“Haven’t really done this team thing before,” he said, carefully. “Still learning. I’ll do better.”
Kakashi hadn’t actually meant that as a criticism.
Well, he hadn’t meant it as a criticism of Ryouma. It was a judgement on the kind of friends that would take someone out, hollow-eyed after a bad mission, and abandon them to whatever pretty stranger grabbed first. But since that was apparently the point, Kakashi was left to question Ryouma’s post-mission coping strategies and his choice in friends.
And to wonder why dating had entered the conversation.
“I meant,” Kakashi said finally, “that people should do better by you.”
The grimy sodium-light turned Ryouma’s look of blank confusion orange-gold. “How drunk are you?”
“I’m not,” Kakashi said. He was warm from his first drink, and the second Kurenai had added, but clear-headed. “I’m making a point.”
Ryouma’s gaze dropped. He stood in the doorway, cut from shade and shadow, staring at the red drink in his hand. “Maybe I’m drunk, then.” He swallowed half the glass with a careless gesture, as if to prove it, and looked up with challenge in his eyes. “So what’s your point? I don’t always make mistakes.”
Kakashi wasn’t doing this right, again.
He set his glass carefully down on the wall and got to his feet, walking back until he stood in front of Ryouma, just outside of arm’s length. Ryouma tracked him warily, defensive, like he expected Kakashi to bite. If he’d been a dog, his fur would have been ridged all the way down his spine.
But not, Kakashi thought, with anger. Ryouma wasn’t angry. He’d lost his closest teammate, watched his teacher fall apart, couldn’t turn to his captain because everything between them was fraught with sex. He’d dragged them all out for fun, and he’d even managed to find some of it, but he’d also spent half the evening looking stabbed.
“You’re my teammate,” Kakashi said. “And I don’t think you’re okay. If you want to go back in there and chase Sakamoto, or someone else, and that will make you happy, then you should do it. But—” He made an awkward gesture and tried, hard, to be an actual human being. “If it won’t, I want to… help?”
Ryouma stared at him.
There was a moment where Kakashi thought he’d managed to say the right thing. Ryouma swallowed hard and said, “Fuck, Kakashi. You—”
Then he broke off.
Music thumped distantly beneath their feet. Ryouma drew a breath and threw back the rest of his drink, let his arm drop with the empty glass. The sharp, elegant lines of his face hardened, guarded. He said, “It’s not Sakamoto. But he wanted me and he was willing and we’d have fun together, and it wouldn’t be more than that. Not like it would if— Can you stop looking at me like that?”
Kakashi flinched back a step, caught himself. Ryouma’s dragon tattoo was a jeweled streak of color beneath the translucent mesh shirt, coiled under Ryouma’s collarbone. Kakashi looked at the arch of its neck, and said, “Okay.”
There was a long silence.
Ryouma’s voice, when he finally spoke, was softer. “Sorry. That’s not fair. You don’t want any of this crap and I keep bleeding it on you anyway.” He raked a hand through his hair. “I just— get restless sometimes, after missions. I thought tonight’d help.”
“Until I chased your distraction off,” Kakashi said, trying for ironic. It came out quiet.
Ryouma shrugged one bare shoulder.
Why’d you agree to come? Because Ryouma had asked. Because sometimes, very occasionally, Kakashi wanted to do something that wasn’t training, or missions, or murder. Because he’d been curious. Because Ryouma had made it sound fun, and the lieutenant had shown up in a slinky shirt, and Raidou hadn’t yelled at anyone yet. Because, leaning on that balcony with a drink in his hand, watching Ryouma spin Usagi around the dancefloor, Kakashi hadn’t felt jealous — he’d felt warm, because Ryouma was laughing.
And then Ginta.
Who, really, hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d even retired graciously in the face of Kakashi’s teeth. It was just—
It was just.
He tripped Kakashi’s danger sense, the way any exceptionally lethal ninja did. But so did Ryouma. That wasn’t a good reason. He was slick and manipulative — he’d enjoyed riling Satomi and Kakashi up against each other for no real reason — but he’d also been professional and competent, and he’d watched out for his team. Kakashi had arguably revealed far more to him on the ship, sharing talk that was traitorous even in the abstract, than Ryouma would by taking his clothes off.
Kakashi had stepped between them because… he hadn’t liked watching them together.
So, he was an asshole.
He lifted his gaze carefully to Ryouma’s throat. There was a slim white scar in the shadow of Ryouma’s jaw, cutting just above his adam’s apple. Someone, a long time ago, had gotten very close to a fatal strike.
“Tonight’s not over,” Kakashi said. “It could still help.”
Ryouma let out a breath. “How’d you like to dance?”
There was not an audible noise when Kakashi’s brain stalled entirely, but if there had been, it would have sounded like shearing metal. Despite every intention, he looked up.
Ryouma’s head was tilted hopefully to one side, a half-hint of a rueful smile curling his mouth. He looked like he expected a no.
Kakashi heard himself say, “Okay.”
Ryouma blinked, expression wiped clean by surprise. His smile glimmered back, small at first, then broadening to something wide and real, lighting up his whole face, and Kakashi thought, Oh.
“You need to try your drink first,” Ryouma said. “Promise I won’t look.”
And now he was being considerate.
Kakashi collected his glass, catching his balance along with it, and started to employ his usual sleight-of-hand, but Ryouma had turned to lean against the doorframe, head tilted back to study the star-stitched sky. He wasn’t watching.
Slowly, Kakashi touched the edge of his mask. Ryouma didn’t move. Kakashi tugged the cloth down to his lower lip. Inhaled the sharper, brighter scents of the unfiltered night, and drank his expensive drink. It didn’t taste like alcohol; it was rich and dark, the heart of some red fruit with a spicy afterburn. Something dangerously easy to get drunk on. He licked the last traces off his teeth and pulled his mask back up. Ryouma still wasn’t looking.
“I like it,” Kakashi told him, and slipped through the gap Ryouma had left, to head back down the stairs.
The crowd had thickened around the bars and on the dance floor. Ryouma saw faces he knew, ducked greetings, dodged one particularly persistent grope. Kakashi knifed through the press, and Ryouma followed him, dropping their glasses off at the bar and moving onto the fringe of the floor.
It was less thumpingly crowded here, further from the DJ and the gyrating boy-on-a-pole, who’d either lost his gold lamé shirt or been replaced by his slightly more exhibitionist twin. They had a clear line of sight to the exits, front and back and rooftop, and a somewhat more obscured view of their officers.
Genma and Raidou still had their shirts on. But Genma’s hair was coming down in sweaty tendrils against the back of his neck, and Raidou was grinning fiercely at him, with glitter splashed across one side of his face like a blue bloodstain. The surging crowd hid them again before Ryouma saw if Ginta was still with them.
He turned back to Kakashi. The music hit a pounding bass line and he rolled his hips to meet it. “D’you get to dance much?”
As an opening line, it wasn’t nearly his best. Better than Are you sure you’re okay with doing this with me, though, or You look like you’d rather be stabbing someone. Kakashi didn’t, in fact, look any more murderous than usual.
He looked… intent. His eye glittered under the strobe-lights, focused on Ryouma’s shoulders, then his hips. Half-inaudible under the music, he said, “No.”
But his shoulders found the beat, and he copied Ryouma’s hip roll with a shinobi’s lethal, perfect grace.
Maybe three thousand ryou bought you something more potent than the ordinary shot of shouchuu. Only Kakashi’d agreed to dance before he tried the drink, and Ryouma wasn’t feeling much drunker than usual. A little loose in the spine, maybe, a little warm in the chest…
Not dangerously so, not yet. He could still keep his eyes chastely on Kakashi’s masked face or feet, and tell himself he wouldn’t try that hip roll again.
“Think of it like taijutsu. The really basic kata you do at first to warm up, and then y’can add the more exciting stuff in.” He tried a more complicated cross-step, and Kakashi mirrored him. Slowly at first, then with growing confidence.
Nothing terrible happened. Dancers ebbed and flowed around them, trickling off the dance floor to the booths, tugging each other out as a new song played or a new partner offered. Stiffness gradually eased out of Kakashi’s spine. He pulled his hands out of his pockets and tried a chest pop that surprised Ryouma, until he realized he’d half-seen it on a man beside them five seconds ago. Kakashi was copying the moves around them, blending them with Ryouma’s, and finding something new.
The DJ called out and met a roar of approval that almost drowned his words. One song scratched into another, and Ryouma knew this one. He laughed, and raised his voice. “You ever tried to choreo a fight to music?”
Kakashi shook his head, but there was a light of challenge in his eye.
“We used to try stylized sparring. When I was a special jounin, after the war. Watch too many bad action movies and you know you can do better.” A fist pump straightened easily into a right cross, pulled well short. “Gives you a chance to show off, here. Pull some moves the civvies can’t…”
Kakashi’s gaze hooded. He was still bouncing slightly to the music, finding the rhythm in his shoulders and hips. His head tilted, and then he rocked back on one foot and lashed out with the other in a kick that never hit.
Ryouma laughed again, in sheer delight, and countered.
It was a style he knew, one Kakashi’d pulled out in training before: kamakiri, with its short power focus and low kicks. But the moves were syncopated, to match the beat, and when the throng around them pulled back to watch, Kakashi switched without hesitation into an Eastern Stone-style jumping reverse hook kick.
He landed on a down-beat, and danced back from Ryouma’s ridge hand strike. He was still moving with the beat, adding a shoulder-roll and a mocking, beckoning hand. It worked for him in a way strictly dancing hadn’t, as if he’d finally found the key to unlock the gates of tension and restraint. The lights struck like sparks in his eye and hair, and Ryouma imagined he was laughing, too.
The floor was clearing, opening space. Ryouma tucked into a front flip, far too showy for actual combat, and Kakashi outdid him with a spinning side kick combo that took him fully off the ground two times within three beats. Someone shouted in admiration. Ryouma took two dipping steps back, gauging the distance for a cartwheel flip, and Raidou’s hand closed on his shoulder.
For just a moment, his heart stopped. He looked up into Raidou’s glitter-stained, sweat-streaked face, and he thought, I fucked up again.
Raidou said, “Are you both drunk?” His voice was raw, rasping, out of breath. “You should be doing kazaguruma.”
Silver and blue blurred, and Kakashi nearly swept Raidou’s leg out from under him.
Raidou side-stepped and dropped back, catching himself on one hand and the balls of his feet. It might have been the precursor to another low ground-kick, but instead he flipped off his feet entirely, rotating on his hand and then his shoulders, legs wide as a windmill. A woman cheered. Raidou popped off his shoulder and spun seamlessly into an air flare with his body almost inverted and his hips sky-high. His loose t-shirt slid down to his armpits, revealing glistening abs and pectoral muscles cut out of stone.
Ryouma backed up quickly, to avoid accidental kicks to the head, and found Genma with Ginta and Kurenai on the edge of what had become a clearly defined circle. Ginta was cheering: “Take it off!” Someone wolf-whistled. Genma was laughing, still swaying to the music, shaking his head with transparently false modesty when Ginta thumped him on the shoulder and urged him out.
The DJ shouted, “Let’s hear it for Konoha ninja!” and the crowd howled lust and pride and wild glee.
Raidou kipped up to his feet again, and Kakashi slid back in to copy him. He didn’t have Raidou’s upper-body strength but he had even greater flexibility, and he punctuated the flare with an airborne whole-body spin.
Then Genma was there, with a backflip that landed him on one hand for a strobe-lit freeze. Sweat and exertion etched the muscles in his arms, the tattoo on his bared shoulder. His loose hair fell away from his face, with a few wet strands glued to cheekbone and temple. He shook it back with an impatient jerk and spun into a one-and-a-half air flare that went from hand to shoulder and back up again.
Ginta bounced and called out gleefully, “Yeah, that’s how you do sexy!” He added to Ryouma, only half as loud, “Can’t decide which one to watch, can you?”
Or maybe he’d said want.
Ryouma swallowed, shook his head, and took a running start and an aerial cartwheel back onto the floor.
Others joined them: Ginta, Usagi, even Satomi, and then a whole flood of ninja Ryouma barely recognized or didn’t know. Civilians and the saner shinobi cheered and danced and beckoned the show-off ninja off the floor. Usagi and Satomi disappeared together again. Ryouma tried Genma’s one-and-a-half air flare, bruised his shoulder, and tried once more.
When he came off the floor for the last time he found Genma, Raidou, and Kakashi all on the same side of the circle, sweat-soaked and breathless. Kakashi’s shirt had lost another two buttons and come halfway off his shoulder, baring a slice of pale skin between the crumpled placket and the deep cut-out of his sleeveless black undershirt-and-mask combo. Raidou’d shucked his shirt altogether, and was wiping the sweat off his face.
Kurenai was with them, sensuously swaying, her skin dewy and her black hair tangled loose around her shoulders. She offered Ryouma a genuine smile, and a shot glass of something electric blue. “You’ve certainly livened this place up.”
“Life of the party, that’s me.” He tossed the drink back and gasped at the burn. Pure alcohol. She laughed at him, caught Raidou with one hand and Genma with the other, and tugged them back with her into the crowd.
Kakashi reached out and brushed two fingers over Ryouma’s cheekbone. A fleeting touch, barely a skim, gone before Ryouma could lean in. He showed the glitter-dusted tips to Ryouma. “You’re shiny.”
“An’ you’re undressed.” Ryouma tugged the collar of Kakashi’s shirt back up his shoulder. “You’re having fun, right?”
Kakashi’s eye crinkled, pupil dilated into the grey in a way that could be drinks or could be the strobe-lit dark. “Yes,” he said. “Are you?”
“Yeah.” Ryouma was still holding Kakashi’s shirt-front, he realized, and Kakashi hadn’t yet pulled away. That was definitely the drinks. He forced himself to drop his hand. “You were good out there.”
“I’m always good,” Kakashi informed him, a man reporting on the basic facts of the universe. A smile stole into his voice. “You, however, fell over.”
“Hey, I got back up.” Ryouma lifted the tiny shot-glass in his other hand, realized it was empty, and shoved it in his pocket. That left both hands nothing to do. He shoved them in his pockets, after the glass.
“We’re friends, right?” he asked. “Even if we weren’t teammates — even if the team got reorganized — you’d still talk to me, we’d still hang out.”
Kakashi stared up at him for a second, brows pinching, as if he were slotting puzzle pieces together and coming up with a different picture than he expected. Then, slow enough to signal the movement, he reached up and gently ruffled a hand through Ryouma’s wet hair. “Yes,” he said.
Ryouma drew a deep breath.
Kakashi’s friendship wasn’t something he’d ever dreamed of having, either. It was a precious gift in its own right, worth fighting for, worth keeping.
It could be enough.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get another drink.”
Kurenai was as expert a dancer as she was at everything else. When she laughed with alcohol-fueled delight, her teeth flashed white against her scarlet lipstick. There was something just a little wicked behind her smile when she danced. Genma was more than willing to follow her onto the floor again. Especially with Raidou in tow at Kurenai’s other hand.
Shirtless and beglittered, with his jeans riding low enough that the wide elastic band of his underwear showed, clinging suggestively to slim hips, Raidou would have tested anyone’s resolve about boundaries. Was that how he’d looked the night he’d met Ryouma in a club, before Team Six had ever formed?
The little blue shots of Lightning Country liquor that Kurenai had urged on them weren’t making it any easier to avoid the suggestive places Genma’s mind wanted to take him. Because damn, Kurenai looked good in that body-skimming dress, and Raidou looked even better in bare skin.
Currents in the crowd pushed them farther from the rookies and closer to the bar, where there were more shadows and fewer people to crash into. From somewhere behind them, a hand skimmed the small of Genma’s back.
“I know what you want to do tonight,” Ginta said, when Genma jumped. Ginta had spun into orbit around the platform dancer, who was now on the dance floor and wearing even fewer clothes. Somehow they’d ended up in the same eddy at the edge of the crowd.
“Dance,” Genma said firmly.
“And drink,” added Kurenai, raising an empty shot glass in a toast.
“Both are good,” Raidou said with a grin. He twirled Kurenai, spinning her with artful precision into Genma’s hands. She rested effortlessly against his chest, head thrown back so the creamy arch of her throat caught reflected flashes of pink and blue lights.
“I’m going to have to recalculate all the odds on the pool, Kurenai-chan,” Ginta said. “You’re an unexpected complication.”
“I thought you were already betting on outside interference,” Kurenai said lazily. She waved her empty drink at Ginta and raised her eyebrows.
“What pool?” Genma asked. He narrowed his eyes at Ginta — there’d been a bet on the table about Usagi and Satomi, but if there was another pool…
Ginta took Kurenai’s empty. “I’ll get refills,” he said brightly, and slipped off towards the bar.
“What pool?” Genma asked again. He propelled Kurenai upright and danced them both closer to Raidou.
“Do you really want to know?” asked Raidou. He tugged Genma into a twirl this time, one hand on Genma’s wrist, the other warm and firm on Genma’s hip.
Genma leaned into the spin and let Raidou’s counterbalancing weight keep him on his feet. “Probably not,” he said. “Do I?” he asked Kurenai, when she shimmied between them.
“You’ll sleep easier without it.” She laughed up at him.
“Okay,” Genma said. Some things — especially things related to Ginta’s odds-making — were mysteries better left in the great unknown unless you actually wanted a piece of the action.
The music slowed to a syrupy tempo and the beat took a decidedly erotic turn. Kurenai put both her hands on Genma’s hips, matching his sway to her own, and tugged him closer. He was inches away from grinding on her, and she on Raidou behind her. He looked down at her and laughed. “Are you trying to get us in trouble with our rookies?”
“Why?” she asked. “Would they care?”
“Mmm. Not sure,” Genma said. “Probably not about what you’d think they’d care about.” Kakashi might care about knowing exactly where to find them, and Ryouma might care about being left out, but realistically… Would anyone really care? “Maybe not.” He grinned back at her, then over her shoulder at Raidou, and wasn’t sure which of them was more attractive.
Raidou’s gaze was hot and full of desire. He glanced down at Kurenai, then back at Genma, locking eyes with him.
Genma felt his lips part on a heated breath. He leaned closer…
And Raidou pulled away. He squeezed his eyes shut briefly, let out a slow, regretful breath, and took a step back, leaving Kurenai in Genma’s arms. “I need to get some water.”
It broke the spell enough for Genma’s rational brain to send up several flares labeled did you just try to kiss your captain? The rest of him would happily have followed through on that kiss.
Kurenai said, “Are you all right?” Her head was tipped back, eyes full of concern, and Genma realized he’d abruptly stopped dancing when Raidou stepped away.
“I… uh… Yeah. Fine.” He caught the rhythm of the music in his shoulders and hips again, and pulled a grin together for her. His hands found the curve of her waist, the swell of her hips, and if he couldn’t have both, one was still completely fine, in all the senses of the word.
That was when Ginta appeared, an unwelcome chaperone with drinks in hand. “Where’d the other third of this ménage go? What did you do now, Kurenai-chan?”
“You didn’t pass him?” Kurenai turned to give the bar a narrow eyed look.
“Of course I passed him,” Ginta said. “But I wasn’t going to ask him. He was on his way to the men’s room.”
“I’d like to have a few words with you in the men’s room,” Genma muttered.
“Oh, is that what we’re calling it now?” Ginta laughed and slugged back one of the shots before he offered the tray to Kurenai. “Are you sure it’s me you want to have ‘words’ with, Gen-kun?”
For the love of everything that was holy… Genma took one of the shots for himself and gulped it back before he strangled the little runt.
Kurenai raised a wry eyebrow. “As if you’d turn him down.”
“Me? Turn Genma down?” Ginta laughed. “I’ve never turned down an opportunity to have words with Gen-kun. We had words just a few weeks ago, in fact, before the mission.”
“Have you ever heard of discretion?” Genma sighed.
“Nope,” Ginta said cheerily. “What’s discretion?”
Kurenai downed one of the drinks from Ginta’s tray. “What happened to your dancing boy?”
“Ikemoto? He’s over there.” Ginta pointed in the direction of a densely packed crowd of revellers closer to the DJ. There were so many writhing bodies it was impossible to tell which one Ginta meant.
Kurenai’s lips tilted up in a knowing smile. “Holding out hope for Tousaki, are you?”
Ginta smirked and shrugged one shoulder. “The night is young.”
There was something unsettling about that idea, but it was hard to pin down exactly what. Maybe just the familiarity he had with Ryouma. There wasn’t a person alive that Ryouma wouldn’t flirt with if given the chance, after all.
Genma stopped himself from reaching for another one of the lethal blue shots on Ginta’s tray. His head was swimming enough as it was. It would probably be a good idea to follow Raidou’s example and go get some water. But Kurenai was still swaying attractively to the beat right there, with flushed cheeks and that clinging dress… Maybe Ginta could be persuaded to get back to pursuing his dancer—
Ryouma’s familiar voice cut above the music. “Lieutenant!” He sounded pleased and relieved to have found Genma. His tall figure cut the crowd, but when he got closer and saw Ginta and Kurenai, he pulled up short, with a complicated look on his face.
Kakashi leaned around Ryouma, looking dishevelled and sweaty, and surprisingly relaxed. His shirt hung open, and his hair fell damply over his covered eye. “We brought more drinks.”
“How many have you already had??” The thought flew straight from brain to lips before Genma could stop it. What was in that blue drink?
“Four,” Kakashi said readily. “Tousaki’s had six. You don’t want one? Yuuhi can have it, I guess.” Kakashi held two stemmed glasses in each hand. Brightly colored liquor formed strata in one glass, while another held a milky light green drink garnished with a melon ball.
“Oooh, is that a Midori Sky?” Ginta reached for the green drink, and Kakashi smoothly pulled it out of his reach.
Ginta looked genuinely surprised, then a little put out. “Still not friends, Hatake?”
Kakashi hesitated, glancing at Ryouma first, then Genma. What was he looking for? He huffed an aggrieved sigh and pressed the Midori Sky and the stratified drink into Genma’s and Kurenai’s hands, then snapped his fingers over the remaining, shimmery violet drink. A tiny spark of chakra lept from Kakashi’s hands to the glass. Indigo flames flared and danced. He sighed again, and handed the drink to Ginta.
Ginta’s eyes brightened. “Apology accepted,” he said. He waited for the flames to die down before he took a sip, but if it was any reminder of his recent burns, he didn’t show it. “I didn’t realize the Midori Sky was for Genma.”
Genma looked down at the glass in his hand, then back at Kakashi, unexpectedly touched. “Thanks, Hatake. I’ve never actually tried one of these.” He’d decided to stop drinking and let the alcohol already in his system metabolize a little, but the drink looked interesting, and if Kakashi had brought it especially for him…
It was fruity and complex, and mild in a way that promised it had a hidden kick. One of those drinks you could down four or five of without feeling a thing, but on the sixth, you were on your face. He grinned and clinked his glass against Kurenai’s stripey drink, then turned to share the toast with his teammates. Ryouma had another of the layered drinks in one hand, and something ruby red in the other, while Kakashi held a pale pink, effervescent drink with little golden flakes swirling in its depths.
“Taichou ought to be back soon, if one of those is for him,” Genma said. He hoped.
Ryouma scanned the crowd. With ill-concealed relief, he said, “He’s comin’ this way.” He raised his voice, “Taichou!”
Genma smiled when he caught sight of Raidou, pushing away thoughts about that almost-kiss. “Look,” he said, raising his glass, “Hatake and Tousaki bought us drinks.”
“That’s not concerning,” Raidou said dryly.
A cold head-dunk in the bathroom sink hadn’t done nearly enough to extinguish the flames licking up his spine, but at least it had slapped some sense back into his head. He could look at Genma in that slim-cut, high-collared shirt with its slide of mesh down the throat and still think: Off limits.
Kurenai, stunning in scarlet, wasn’t the same kind of risk, but Raidou had to work with her too. And now there was Ryouma in a clinging, translucent tank-top, Kakashi sweat-soaked and actually happy, and Ginta side-eyeing them all like a damn buffet.
Raidou took the drink. It tasted like licorice and burning.
“Where’s the rest of your team?” he asked Ginta, once he was done coughing.
Ginta hooked a casual thumb over his shoulder, indicating a shadowed alcove. “Kasumi and boyfriend are back there, with Abe and a girl they just met. Usagi’s with Satomi… Somewhere. Maybe a love hotel.” He grinned like a flick-knife. “And I’m all, all alone.”
Well, at least he was keeping tabs like a responsible lieutenant.
“It takes real dedication to be lonely in this crowd,” Kurenai observed silkily, cementing herself a spot on Raidou’s short list of favorite people.
Ginta sipped his cocktail, and smiled at Ryouma over the rim. “I can be very dedicated when the situation calls for it.”
Ryouma’s sudden flush was visible even under the strobing club lights. He glanced, bizarrely, at Kakashi, then looked away and buried his face in his drink. Kakashi gave Ginta a pleasant, eye-curving smile that made Raidou think of murder.
And Raidou had been worried the evening might be awkward.
“I’m hungry,” he announced. “Who wants food? My treat.”
“I do,” Genma said. He added, unexpected and suddenly fond: “Good thing Ueno took that new post, or she’d bankrupt you.”
Laughter rumbled low in Raidou’s chest. “She’d have danced us off our feet first.”
“She’d’ve tried,” Ryouma said, slinging an arm over Kakashi’s shoulders. “Turns out we’re pretty good.”
Kakashi, to Raidou’s surprise, didn’t translocate across the club, or out of the building. He shifted his weight on one hip, leaning fractionally back against Ryouma, and now Raidou was definitely getting everyone food, because the last time Kakashi had been willingly cuddly, it’d involved a pint of blood loss and a lot of morphine.
It didn’t take much effort to steer everyone back out onto the street. Ginta tagged along, to Raidou’s complete lack of surprise. Kurenai also accompanied them, linking arms companionably with Genma. Her dagger-spike heels put them at the same height, and their heads tilted together like a secret, her curls a glossy shadow against Genma’s lighter up-do. The sight of them together made Raidou’s stomach tighten with sharp, hot want.
He breathed it out.
It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten hard for a colleague, but it was the first time he’d nearly acted on the impulse, in public, after lecturing on the goddamn issue for three months. He hadn’t even drunk that much.
Ryouma and Kakashi were also walking together. Ryouma’s hands sketched expressive shapes in the air while he elaborated on a personal theory — something about using breakdancing in combat — and Kakashi listened with mild skepticism, but made occasional encouraging sounds.
Ginta caught Raidou’s eye, and gave him a look that was all-too-knowing. Raidou, politely, elected not to punt Ginta over a rooftop.
“So what are we getting?” Kurenai asked, lifting her head. “Sukiyaki? Ramen?”
“Sushi,” Kakashi said, interrupting Ryouma mid-sentence.
Ryouma blinked and suggested, “Tempura?”
“Curry,” Genma said enthusiastically. He leaned back, angling his body to include Raidou in the conversation. “And takoyaki.”
“How about curry omurice? Or crepes?” Ginta said. “They’re great drunk foods, and you’re great drunks.” He grinned and hopped up on a railing topped with lethal spikes, padding over them like a cat. He’d retrieved his shirt and was wearing it unbuttoned; streetlights struck sparks off the glitter on his chest. You almost couldn’t tell he’d been recently burned.
Raidou had put his t-shirt back on. Ryouma was still just in his mesh tank-top; he’d shoved his overshirt into his back pocket, so that it hung like a flag. Kakashi was rumpled but presentable. Genma and Kurenai were sex on legs.
They’d probably be allowed into a restaurant.
“Izakaya,” Raidou decided. A gastropub would check most of that wishlist, and he was feeling the strong desire for another beer. “There’s a good one around the corner.”
Izakaya Mai was an older building off the main strip, preferred by shinobi and a collection of older civilians who’d probably been frequenting the place since the village had been founded. There were a half-dozen seated at the bar now, dressed in field-dusty clothes, sharing sake and edamame and occasionally cackling when a ninja edged by them to collect a drink.
The busy but cheerful host took one look at Team Six and and their companions, and led them all to a low table at the very back, surrounded by overstuffed floor cushions. Kakashi immediately settled in the corner with his back to the wall. Ryouma dropped down next to him, taking the middle seat, with Ginta on his other side. Raidou somehow ended up between Genma and Kurenai, all three of them kitty-corner to Kakashi. That left two sides of the table free, and an unobstructed view of the entire floor for everyone.
“Can I get anyone started with drinks?” the host asked.
“Hatsuhana,” Ginta said brightly, naming a sake that would blow Raidou’s grocery budget for an entire month. “For everyone. My treat.”
“And water,” Genma added. “For everyone.”
“Do you have anything that catches fire?” Kakashi asked.
The host looked thoughtful. “We do a floating lemon shell. You take a hollow lemon, add a sugar cube and something overproof — wind-country rum, I think — float it in a dish of mixed liquors and fruit juice, and add a match. If you’re lucky, the sugar caramelizes.”
“Six of those,” Kakashi said.
“After food,” Raidou said.
The host chuckled and stepped away, returning shortly with a large sake bottle and a stack of blue and white glazed sake cups. Kurenai immediately took possession of the bottle, while the rest put their food orders in. The host didn’t write anything down; he just nodded, suggested a few specials, and promised everything would be out shortly.
When he’d left again, Kurenai fanned the tiny sake cups out across the table and knelt up on her cushion to pour elegant, measured amounts like she was serving the Daimyou and his chief advisors. Every movement was perfectly coordinated and kunoichi-trained. Raidou had to make himself look away from her wrists.
Ryouma stared with open fascination. Genma was watching, too, leaning around Raidou to see. When he straightened back up with a cup in hand, he caught Raidou’s eye and smiled, careless and sweet, cheeks flushed with a sweep of red that made his eyes shine. He had the loose-shouldered unguardedness of someone who’d had just enough alcohol to take his walls down.
Raidou smiled back, waited until Genma turned to examine his cup, and let out another slow breath. And one more, for good measure.
“This is why you always want someone who’s worked undercover with you when you go out drinking,” Ginta said, inclining a nod at Kurenai. He’d settled contentedly back on his cushions like a young lord, leaning against Ryouma’s side.
Kurenai retook her seat and lifted the tiny sake cup to her red, red mouth to take a reverent sip. “And this is why you always go out drinking when Ginta’s paying.”
Raidou turned his own cup between his fingers and decided, last one tonight. He raised it and said, “To making it home, and those who didn’t.”
Heartsickness darkened Genma’s eyes. He sat up, lifting his cup silently.
“To Eizo,” Ginta said softly. “And to Takedo.”
That— Raidou had not expected. But Fukuda had given more to the mission than anyone: her career, her loyalty, her life. Eizo would get his name on the Stone. Fukuda would get this toast, Genma’s guilt, and a file buried somewhere in ANBU HQ.
Ryouma, Kakashi, and Kurenai raised their cups. The group toasted. They drank.
Ryouma asked, “What’s gonna happen to Kimiko? And the baby.”
“They’re safe, for now,” Kurenai said. “Kimiko may eventually follow through on Takedo’s plans for relocation, but she’s… accepted Konoha’s hospitality, for the next few weeks. After that, the choice is still hers.” She sighed and collected the cups to refill. Raidou covered his with one hand; Kurenai left it. “I’ve spoken to her, but I still don’t know what she’ll choose. I suspect she doesn’t, either.”
Genma accepted his cup back. “We’re still sure the people from her home country don’t know where she is, right?”
Intel’s most repeated post-mission instruction had been: Do not talk about about Kirigakure. This was cutting it fine, but they were still on the safe side of rumor.
“I saw a couple of their newspapers,” Ginta said. “They’re blaming it on in-country extremists.”
Raidou didn’t even want to know how he’d gotten those papers. Best case scenario: he had a friend in Intel’s Water Country Division.
Kurenai looked sleekly self-satisfied.
The next toast went to Kimiko and Sango. Raidou raised a water glass. After the third toast (“to certain commanders falling down a flight of stairs”), Kakashi leaned across the table, liberated the bottle from Kurenai, and made a reasonable attempt at emulating her pouring ritual. Kurenai corrected the angle of his hands, looking highly amused once Kakashi proved he wasn’t so altered that he risked spilling any of the expensive sake.
After the fourth toast, the food arrived.
Genma got his curry. Ryouma crowed happily over several dishes of fried things. Kakashi stole an entire plate of sashimi and hoarded it in his corner. Ginta devoted himself to omurice, while Kurenai selected a dish of sunomono. Raidou slid the platter of takoyaki closer to Genma, and took a plate of steaming okonomiyaki for himself. Ginta could keep his omurice; Raidou’s version of drunk food was fried pancakes covered in mayonnaise and sauce, with hidden vegetables to appease his moms.
He snapped his disposable chopsticks apart, and tried to ignore the solid press of Genma’s thigh on his left side, and the warm curve of Kurenai’s hip on his right.
Maybe he’d get that beer after all.
The sake level declined precipitously. Kurenai wasn’t keeping track of refills; it was far more entertaining to watch Kakashi struggle to keep his wrist angled for the pour.
He was holding his alcohol well, all things considered; a slight flush above the mask, an intense focus as he recaptured a sliver of mackerel that had slipped from his chopsticks. He flicked a triumphant glance up at Ryouma, as if hoping he’d seen.
Ryouma grinned headily back. But he didn’t, Kurenai noticed, lean away from Ginta’s easy slouch against his side.
She met Ginta’s eyes across the table, and raised her brows. You’re still going for it?
Ginta cut his eyes toward Raidou and Genma, and grinned at her. Aren’t you?
Well, so they were both capable of reckless decisions. Or reckless keeping-one’s-options-open, Kurenai supposed. She certainly hadn’t made anything like a decision yet.
It was easy to be tempted, though. There on the dance floor, pressed between suppleness and strength; here under the izakaya’s hazy lights, with Raidou relaxing slowly at her side, and Genma leaning generously around him to offer Kurenai the last of the takoyaki— “Since you seem to like octopus,” he said.
“I’d have ordered takowasa, if it weren’t a bit slimy for this company,” she said, smiling back at him. “I remembered Tousaki’s reaction to sea-snot.”
Ryouma shuddered theatrically. “It tasted like snot too.”
“More for us!” Genma said cheerfully. He told Kurenai, “You should get some if you want it. I like takowasa. It’s more crunchy than slimy, anyway.”
“Octopus always makes me think of this art print I saw one time,” Ryouma confided to Kakashi. His voice was probably a little louder than he meant. “Y’know, the Fisherwoman or something—”
Kakashi looked blank. Ginta looked like his birthday had come. “The Fisherman’s Wife!” He pushed his cup out for a refill. Kakashi scowled, and sat back; Ryouma obliged instead.
“That octopus put her husband out of a job,” Ginta continued, fondly reminiscing. “Where’d you see it? On a mission? Or in one of Genma’s books?”
Genma said repressively, “How much have you had to drink, Ginta?”
Kakashi asked, “Are you talking about a sexy octopus while we’re eating octopus?” Kurenai wasn’t sure if he was scandalized, or just mystified.
“I’m not eating it,” Ryouma pointed out.
“We’re talking about art,” Ginta explained. “It’s a famous work of art, Hatake.”
“It’s this octopus gettin’ it on with a woman and she’s really into it,” Ryouma said, unnecessarily. “I saw it in Tea Country, we were guarding this rich merchant during contract negotiations, but nothing happened. I’d been spending my off hours goin’ out restaurant hunting with my team captain—he was an Akimichi writing like a Bingo Book for food, so we ate everywhere—but then the client’s hot son came home, an’ I started—”
He stopped, his cheekbones tinting delicate pink. “Um,” he said. “Anyway. He took me to a museum, once. We saw that print, an’ a bunch of others.”
“Any other memorable ones?” Ginta asked immediately.
The flush spread. “Couple,” Ryouma said.
“I need a beer,” Raidou said, loudly, before Ryouma could get descriptive. “Anyone else want something?”
Kakashi cupped his chin in his hand, ignoring Raidou with single-minded focus. “Were they all seafood? Because that seems like a very specific fetish.”
“Some of ’em,” Ryouma said. “It was a seaside town. There was this one with a guy an’ a sea-slug, but it didn’t look at all like the snot one—”
“Maybe you should have this art history lesson some other time.” Genma leaned pointedly across the table, snagged the sake bottle by the neck, and refilled Raidou and Kurenai’s cups. “Here,” he told Raidou. “To tide you over until your beer gets here.”
Raidou tossed back the sake gratefully. Ginta stole a tempura shrimp from Ryouma’s plate, and smiled at him. “You know I have a pretty good art collection,” he said. “I should invite you over to see it some time.”
His optimism was impressive, undaunted by Kakashi’s knife-blade scowl. Raidou looked, briefly, as if he were considering cracking the emptying sake bottle over Ginta’s skull. Ryouma merely looked pleased. “I really dunno art all that much, but yeah, sure. I like the ones you can imagine the stories behind the pictures.”
Genma said smoothly, “Ginta’s favorite thing is making up stories. Tell the one about the time you almost died fighting a tengu.”
And that was an even more impressive bit of verbal judo. Kurenai poured him the last of the sake in tribute. She had to press against Raidou’s side to reach. Raidou breathed in, slowly, but didn’t shift away.
“It wasn’t a tengu, it was a kappa.” Ginta mimed carrying a bowl of water on his head, and launched into an elaborate story involving at least three levels of genjutsu, several more of straight up mind-fuckery, and a last-minute electricity jutsu to save the day. Kakashi’s attention sharpened when the jutsu came in; he sat up, and started asking questions. Ginta cleared plates off the table and stole more pieces of Ryouma’s tempura to use as action figures.
The server came back with Kakashi’s floating lemon shells, which cheered Kakashi up even more. Kurenai ordered a bottle of plum shouchuu. Raidou got his beer, and sipped it while Kakashi lit lemon shells on fire and shared them around, one by one, with the intent focus of the very drunk. His hands were still steady; he probably wouldn’t feel the alcohol until he tried to get up and his knees went out from under him.
Kurenai tasted her lemon shell, and found it bright and sweet and sharply alcoholic. She’d always had a high tolerance, and Intel field-agent training had fireproofed it; even now, she felt only a slight, warm buzz. But it was enough to shade the world a little softer, a little easier.
Enough to make any decision feel possible.
She knelt up to pour a new round of shouchuu, and caught sight of Genma leaning companionably against Raidou’s side. Loose strands of hair caught the dim lamplight and glowed soft gold around his face. High cheekbones burned with a warm flush; his mouth was wet, a bead of fruit juice caught at the corner of his lip.
Raidou saw it too, and gestured. Genma blinked at him. Raidou made a low, inarticulate noise and reached out to smear the juice away with his thumb.
Genma blinked again, taken aback, but he didn’t lean away. He lifted a hand to touch the corner of his mouth, where Raidou’s thumb had pressed, and then flicked his tongue out to catch the edge of juice that Raidou hadn’t smeared away. He laughed softly, a little embarrassed. “Sorry.”
Maybe, Kurenai thought, the choice wasn’t between.
Or perhaps between was exactly where she’d like to be, on this night when they were all young and healthy and safe in their village, with only a memory of shadows to darken their eyes.
Raidou dropped his hand, a touch too fast, and reached for his beer. Genma hesitated a moment, then glanced away, and found the shouchuu Kurenai’d poured for him.
Kurenai glanced across the table, met Ginta’s clear gaze, and lifted her chin. Clear out?
He hitched a shoulder. I’ve been trying…
Of course he was no help. She sighed. Then she shifted her free hand, below the table, and grazed her fingertips across the top of Raidou’s thigh. A light touch, easy to ignore if he chose. But his breath caught, and he looked down at her.
For a moment, it still felt possible.
Then Raidou caught her hand, and moved it gently back. He glanced at Genma, then toward Kakashi and Ryouma. Ginta had snared the rookies in another round of his stories, but they were still alert, asking questions. Raidou shook his head slightly, his mouth pressed thin with regret.
Bad timing, Yuuhi. She smiled back at him, and pulled her hand free. Her fingers flattened in her own lap, where the top of her skirt skimmed her thighs.
Maybe she was drunker than she thought, too. She reached for her neglected water.
Ginta was still spinning his story; she listened for a moment, and found the thread. “Why didn’t you just retreat?”
“You don’t retreat when you’re that close to completing your mission objective,” Ginta said. “Well, unless they’re going to definitely capture or kill you, then you retreat. But I wasn’t captured or killed, so I obviously made the right call.” Ginta grinned, pleased with himself and the world. It was a shame Team Six’s rookies were so bonded at the hip; there was no way he was getting Ryouma home with him until Kakashi was ready to call it quits for the night. He was prepared to wait it out, though.
Kurenai ought to wait it out a little longer, too. Especially if he could engineer some privacy for her and her targets.
He picked up the empty sake cup in front of him and turned it upside down. The sake bottle was drained, Raidou’s beer was three-quarters gone, and the shouchuu was an unknown quality, served in an opaque ceramic bottle, but he was willing to abandon it.
“You know what we need? Crêpes. With peaches. Peaches are in season. I know a place in the park that’s open late.” If Genma and Raidou were sensible, they’d turn down the crêpe option, wait for Ginta to get their rookies out of the way, and give Kurenai a chance to make her own proposition about desserts.
“Are they doing anything questionable to seafood?” Kakashi asked, eye glittering with suspicion.
Ryouma sat up and looked a little more interested at the thought.
“It’s a sweet crêpe place,” Ginta said. “If you want suspicious seafood vendors, we’ll have to find a takoyaki stand.”
“I love crêpes,” Genma said, bright eyed and so very, very tipsy. Not that Ginta’d been counting drinks, of course, but Genma’d had several at the club before the izakaya, and he hadn’t been shy about helping drink that 1.8 litre bottle of sake dry here. Plus there was Kakashi’s flaming lemon thing, and the shouchuu Kurenai had poured when they’d run out of sake. He was going to make a bad decision here, attach himself to Ginta and the rookies, and screw himself out of that threesome before it even got started.
And Kurenai would blame Ginta. He was sure of it. She was already giving him a narrow look.
“I’m thinking water instead of sugar.” Raidou pushed Kakashi’s glass closer to him, refilled Genma’s from the table pitcher, and set it in front of his lieutenant with a pointed thunk. It was true, too much alcohol could interfere with anyone’s plans for the later evening. Ginta was about to acknowledge Raidou’s shrewdness, when Raidou added, “And calling it a night soon, since we have morning training.”
Ryouma’s face melted into a mask of aggrieved betrayal. “Don’t we get time off?”
As if he hadn’t just made a thoroughly self-defeating move, Raidou smiled, eyes alight with wicked glee. “Why would you think that?”
Genma, ever the loyal lieutenant, backed Raidou up. “Exercise is the fastest cure for a hangover.” Because of course he did. This team was hopeless.
Ginta gave Kurenai a sympathetic wince. What could a person do? Although the rookies were still right here watching, so maybe Genma and Raidou were both playing it cagey? Probably not, though.
“Crêpes, and then water and bed?” Ginta suggested. “I mean, everyone who’s tired should feel free to go ahead and turn in, of course, but you’ll come with me for a nightcap, right?” He grinned at Ryouma. “They’re big crêpes, I could use some help.”
Kakashi leaned around Ryouma, elbow on the table and heedless of the ring left by Ryouma’s water glass. “Crêpes are a terrible euphemism,” he informed Ginta, with all the gravitas of a man imparting ancient wisdom. “You could have at least gone for something the right shape.”
Ryouma stared hard at him for a moment, then a snigger tugged at the corner of his mouth. “If they’re rolled….”
Ginta giggled, alcohol-fueled effervescence tickling up the back of his throat. “They are creamy inside.”
Genma, who’d obediently started sipping his water after Raidou took the extra step to put it in his hands, snorted into it and nearly dropped his glass.
Raidou gave Kurenai a speaking look, you see?, and she returned it with raised eyebrows that suggested she didn’t see the problem at all. Team Six, or at least most of Team Six, was laughing and happy, and whether anyone was getting laid tonight or no-one at all, that had been the real goal, after all.
Of course he was still holding out hope for the getting laid part of the plan, too.
Ryouma turned to Kakashi to ask, “What d’you wanna do?”
Kakashi leaned against Ryouma’s shoulder, head tipped back in a boneless way that only someone drunk could find comfortable, and smiled up at the taller man. “This is good.”
Ryouma gazed down at Kakashi for a long moment, probably processing a fleet of conflicting emotions, then turned to meet Ginta’s eyes. “Maybe another time?”
Well, that wasn’t the same as never. Ginta nodded. “Another time, definitely.” Unless Ryouma fell so hard for Kakashi before the next opportunity that he’d taken himself off the market altogether. But from everything Ginta’d heard about Ryouma, that was unlikely.
They finished Kurenai’s shouchuu, and between them devoured two bowls of pickles and the last of a plate of fried oysters that no one could remember ordering. In the end it was Genma who broke the spell. All those drinks finally made it through his kidneys, and he rocked to his feet. “I’ll be back,” he said. He kept his feet, edging past the farmer-patrons to sway towards the toilets on the other side of the bar.
Kakashi listed heavily against Ryouma, with his eyes half closed. Kurenai reapplied a coat of ‘Death to Cheaters’ or whatever shade of red lipstick she’d chosen for the evening. Raidou emptied his glass of water, refilled it, and emptied that one, too.
When Genma came back, he dropped a hand on Raidou’s shoulder, but didn’t sit down. “What time are we meeting tomorrow? 0500?” he asked through a yawn.
Ryouma looked faintly green at the concept, with an anticipatory hangover.
Raidou studied his inebriated rookies floating on their ocean of alcohol, then turned his face up at his well-oiled lieutenant. “Just this once, we’ll do 0700.”
Genma smiled hazily down at him. “That’s why you’re the best captain.”
“You’re still going to be hating it at 0700,” Ginta observed.
“We are.” Genma patted Raidou’s shoulders with both hands. “But not as much as we’d hate 0500.” He stretched his arms over his head, overbalanced himself, caught Raidou’s shoulder again to steady himself, and laughed. “I’ll drink some water when I get home. You should, too.”
“I’ll do that,” Raidou promised. Wry amusement colored his voice. He got to his feet with a steadier lurch, and cupped a hand under Genma’s elbow in case Genma decided to wobble again. Either Raidou’d drunk less before they got to the izakaya, or his greater body mass just gave him an edge in metabolizing it, but he didn’t seem nearly as tipsy as Genma. He offered Kurenai a hand up. “Staying here, or turning in?”
If Kurenai played her cards just right, and waited for the rookies to head out…
She took Raidou’s hand and let herself be helped up, but let go and stepped away as soon as she was on her feet. “Still up for crêpes, Ginta?”
Well that wasn’t what Ginta’d been expecting. He shrugged and eased himself out of the booth. “Why not? If I can’t have metaphorical crêpes tonight, I’ll take real ones.” He pulled his wallet out. “Let me settle up.”
Genma and Raidou both made grabs for their wallets, too, but Ginta waved them off. “I told you the sake was on me.”
“We had a lot more than just sake,” Genma said.
“Next time Team Six goes out drinking, invite me, and I’ll let you pay for food afterwards.”
Raidou gave Ginta a considering look, then nodded and put his wallet away. “Deal.”
“It’s nice to have rich friends,” Ryouma told Kakashi, in what he probably thought was a whisper, but could be heard by half the bar. A few of the old civilians at the bar sniggered.
Genma put his wallet away, too, and turned to lead the way out of the bar. Once they were all outside under the street lamps and open air, he seemed a little more sober. Only a little, but enough Ginta wasn’t worried about him getting himself home safely by any stretch.
Ginta gave him a friendly pat between the shoulder blades. “Try not to get lost on your way home.”
“Try not to be inappropriate with any pastries,” Genma replied, laughing at his own joke.
“I’ll chaperone,” said Kurenai. Kakashi and Ryouma broke into fresh giggles, riffing on the sex-with-foodstuffs idea between themselves. She eyed Raidou and the not-so-subtle rookies with a smile that wasn’t really rueful, but wasn’t entirely satisfied, either. “You’re still doing the same?”
Raidou glanced at the rookies, then echoed her smile. “For tonight.”
Well there you go. He still had a hand on Genma’s elbow, Ginta noted. Those odds were all going to need recalculating.
“I’m staying at my friend’s,” Genma said. “We can walk as far as the plaza outside the Hokage’s palace together.”
“I thought you were getting a new place,” Ginta said.
“I am. Next week.” Genma grinned.
“Our crêpes are in the opposite direction,” Ginta said. He linked an arm through Kurenai’s. “Be safe, have fun, and don’t blame it on me when you’re all miserable at your practice tomorrow.”
“What’s your team doing?” Genma asked.
“Training.” Ginta grinned with devious delight. “At 0900. That’ll give Usagi plenty of time to get home and change clothes. If she shows at all.”
Genma threw his head back and laughed. His hair finally slipped the rest of the way out of its twist and cascaded around his shoulders. The light of the izakaya’s lantern reflected red on the unbound strands.
Kurenai looked at Genma — sex on a stick in that tight shirt — and Namiashi ‘Beefcake’ Raidou. Then she sighed lightly, shook her head, and tugged Ginta away from temptation. When they were well out of earshot, she asked, “Is that noble idiocy, or just idiocy?”
“Raidou turning you down, or you not waiting until the rookies were gone to try again for that three-way?” Ginta asked cheerfully. “They were both into you, you know. And definitely into each other.”
Kurenai snorted inelegantly. “Not enough to actually make a move. Did you notice they kept pulling back from each other? They did that when they were dancing, too.” She considered it, drumming manicured nails against her thigh as they walked. “It might be noble if they were trying to set a good example for the rookies, but— What happened with you and Tousaki and Kakashi?”
“Tousaki and I were having a very enjoyable time dancing together. Your boy Kakashi has some real jealousy issues. He came over and glared at me like I was trying to take Tousaki’s virtue. Which I was but not without enthusiastic consent.” Ginta slowed down to check out his reflection in a shop window and smooth down his hair. “So I think it was a ‘stop making moves on my man’ kind of situation.”
Fascinated, Kurenai said, “But he wasn’t bothered at all when Tousaki was dancing with Usagi. You must exude some special aura of danger. Maybe it’s pheromones.”
“Probably,” Ginta agreed. He let them down an angled alley towards the park by the river. “Namiashi was worried about me for some reason, too. He all but accused me of interfering with his rookies. You were there, Tousaki was the one who suggested going out. And he was the one who said Hatake was on board with it. I don’t really seem creepy and predatory, do I?”
Kurenai cocked her head. “You’re an ANBU lieutenant, a blackmailer, a thief, and a killer. Who in their right mind would trust you with an adult ANBU agent who rots faces?”
“Well when you put it like that…” Ginta laughed. “Anyway, there’s always next time. We just need a distraction for Kakashi. Then I’ll keep Tousaki occupied.” Very occupied. “And you can have your wicked way with Team Six’s officers.”
Kurenai smirked. “And of course we’re waiting until after you recalibrate the betting pool. Tell me before you do,” she added. “I may want to change my bets.”
“You know that’s probably unethical. You’re materially affecting the possible outcomes now, and you have insider information.” Ginta tapped the side of his nose. “Smart woman. That’s why we’re friends.”
Kurenai sighed. “You should have been in Intel. Though with colleagues like those and the ANBU uniform, I suppose I really can’t blame you.”
“The next Trials are in October.” Ginta skipped a few steps ahead of her so he could walk backwards, facing her. “You’d look good in our uniform. Much better than that shapeless Intel thing.”
“And show up for physical training at 0500?” Kurenai wrinkled her nose and delicately shuddered. “I’ll stick to custom-tailored greys, thanks all the same.”
“That’s just Team Six. Namiashi’s one of those people who likes to exercise the second he wakes up, and Genma’s spent his entire life getting up at 0400 with his dad to bake the morning bread.” Ginta turned to check his heading, then flipped back around to face Kurenai again. “Some of us have more civilized leadership. When I’m a captain, I’ll never make my team get up before 0630 unless we have a mission.”
“I thought you intended to never be a captain. ‘Power behind the throne,’ wasn’t it?” Kurenai said.
“I said I’d never be Hokage,” Ginta corrected. “I’ll have to spend some time as a captain before I can become ANBU commander. When Sagara retires, of course,” he added. “She’ll definitely outlast Kuroda, by the way. I’m not even taking bets on that one anymore.”
Amusement lit Kurenai’s eyes.
“The only reason I’m not captain already,” Ginta continued, “is because I was asked to stay a lieutenant this year, to help break in a new captain. Usagi and I are a good team, and I’m getting good experience.”
“To be applied at some future date, when you need to manage a new Hokage?” Kurenai teased. Perfectly red lips parted in an easy smile. “Well, if you’re planning to be promoted to captain next year, I assume you’d get a couple of experienced veterans under you. There’s your chance to nab Tousaki, perhaps…”
“I intend to ‘nab’ him a lot sooner than that.” Ginta swung around again, and hooked his arm companionably through Kurenai’s. “Just for a good time, though. I’d love to have him on my team as a veteran, but Namiashi would probably have kittens about it.” He shrugged. “Team makeup isn’t up to the ANBU officers anyway. Minato-sama makes the assignments himself, with input from Sagara and the other commanders. Your boss gets a say, did you know that?”
“Oita Gennosuke has a say in everything that happens in Konoha.” Kurenai tilted her chin up at the pink and white glow of the crêpe vendor’s paper lanterns ahead of them. “Except whether we head back to the club after crêpes. I don’t have training in the morning.”
“Club,” Ginta said instantly. “We’re both looking much too fabulous to go home alone. There were plenty of hot guys in there to choose from.” He tilted his head against Kurenai’s shoulder and smiled at her. “Want to make a bet on who gets picked up first?”
Kakashi was drunker than he’d meant to get — that red drink was lethal — but it was okay. The night was summer-warm and he had his team. Everyone but Katsuko, and she’d volunteered to leave, so she didn’t get night club fun. Served her right.
Also, Ginta had left. That improved things.
He was a little sad Kurenai had gone too, but it was probably better that she’d left while they were still on good terms.
They seemed to be in an alleyway.
Kakashi blinked and took stock. It was the back end of Willow Street, where Konoha’s slender nightlife gave way to the first residential neighborhoods. Weeping white bellflowers trailed over someone’s garden wall; they smelled like the end of spring.
“The lieutenant lives near here,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma interrupted the soft rock-song he’d been humming to inform Kakashi, in a voice that was probably meant to be quiet, “We’re taking him home. You can tell the bedtime story.”
Genma, walking ahead of them with Raidou, glanced back with a smile. “I get a story?”
“Only if you’re three,” Kakashi said, elbowing Ryouma in the ribs. He’d told Ryouma a story once, under special post-surgery circumstances.
“I’m three times seven,” Genma said. “Can I get seven stories?”
“No,” Kakashi said. He thought a moment. “If you need seven stories to get to sleep, someone’s telling them wrong.”
Ryouma laughed, a fond, rasping sound, and dropped an arm around Kakashi’s shoulders, like he’d done in the club. “So judgey,” he said.
Genma shook his head. “You’re not supposed to fall asleep during the stories.”
Kakashi glanced at Ryouma. The overshirt still hung from Ryouma’s back pocket; he was a sleek weight of muscle and mesh against Kakashi’s side, alcohol-warm and relaxed. It struck a sense-memory: falling asleep in Arachi Hill Safehouse, Ryouma like a shield on one side, Katsuko like a blade on the other. Safety, despite the danger.
Carefully, Kakashi lifted his hand and let it rest against the small of Ryouma’s back. Ryouma didn’t startle; he made a soft, contented sound and leaned on Kakashi. That felt right.
Kakashi awarded himself five points for successful… something.
“You’re wrong,” he told Genma. “And you don’t even know you’re wrong, which makes you more wrong. No stories for you.”
There were a couple ticks of silence. Genma sighed heavily and leaned against Raidou. “Sometimes I almost think I understand him, but then I don’t.”
Raidou chuckled. “That’s how he gets you.”
Poor officers. Even when Kakashi explained it all in short words, they couldn’t keep up. But that was okay, too. They made up for it in other ways.
The apartment complex Genma lived in (with Aoba) was at the top of a long hill, surrounded by other cheap, rebuilt complexes. As a group, most young, non-clan ninja were too busy to be house proud, but a few had made an effort. There were windows with flower boxes. Quasi-tasteful curtains. And Genma’s next door neighbor had a dog.
There was a conversation happening in the background. A key turning a lock. The click of a hallway light. Kakashi stopped paying attention somewhere around Raidou’s awkward silence, because he was busy hanging through an open window to commune with the sweet, fat golden Akita who wanted her ears scratched.
Laughter caught Kakashi’s ear: Genma’s, unselfconscious. “This was fun, Raidou. Next time you can pick the club.”
Ryouma said hopefully, “Are we using personal names now?”
“Nice try,” Raidou said. “It’s 3AM and everyone’s drunk. I’m not setting policy.”
The Akita rolled onto her back, baring a soft white belly. Kakashi hinged his hips over the window frame and stretched down to rub his hands through velvety fur. Her fringed tail thumped the floor.
A light flicked abruptly on.
“What,” said a startled voice, “the hell?”
The Akita flipped over and bounded to her feet. Kakashi looked up to a soft face, unguarded hands, and a blurred chakra signature. Civilian.
“I like your dog,” Kakashi said. “You should take her for longer walks.”
Broad hands grabbed him by the hips and yanked him backwards out of the window. Kakashi made an outraged sound. Raidou said, “Sorry, he’s— bad-mannered. Maybe think about locking your window, though.”
“Taichou,” Kakashi said.
“Zip it,” Raidou said, and tossed Kakashi over one shoulder like a flour sack. The world flipped upside down. Kakashi made a second outraged sound, somewhat drowned by Ryouma’s laughter and Genma’s disappointed groan. Raidou said, “Drink a lot of water, lieutenant. We’ll see you in the morning.”
“You too, captain. And rookies,” Genma said, with just the faintest twist in his voice. Something almost wistful. He cleared his throat and added, “Don’t assault any more stranger’s dogs.”
“She asked for pettings,” Kakashi said, ratcheted to a new platform of outrage.
Raidou swung down the staircase before Genma — or the neighbor — could respond. Since it was more trouble than it was worth to kick his captain in the face, Kakashi tolerated the ride with as much dignity as he could manage. At least Raidou’s shoulder was padded with muscle. Ryouma loped after them, head tilted sideways as he tried to see Kakashi’s face.
“You look like an owl,” Kakashi informed him.
“A handsome owl,” Ryouma said. He turned his head the other way. “When you look like this your hair almost makes sense.”
“I’m starting to think you’re jealous of my hair,” Kakashi said. “You talk about it so much. Do you like it better than your hair?”
Ryouma folded his arms thoughtfully. “It’s more fun to pet.”
The blood was starting to go to Kakashi’s head. He was strongly considering revisiting that don’t-kick-the-captain policy, when Raidou stopped, hauled Kakashi off his shoulder and set him back on his feet. Kakashi blinked. His hair, for once obeying the call of gravity, drifted down over his eye. Kakashi raked it back.
“You do like my hair,” he decided, pleased. “You’re just undersocialized and mean.”
Raidou rubbed a hand over his face. “Children,” he said, “your captain has had a long day and would like to sleep. Preferably before he loses the will to live. Can we direct this conversation towards home?”
Ryouma bounced from foot to foot, grinned with bright, intoxicated happiness, said, “Race you.”
And took off.
“CHEAT!” Kakashi yelled, and bolted after him.
Behind them, Raidou’s “oh my god” was lost on the wind.
The rush up to the rookie barracks was a blur of motion, chakra-running, and the Sandaime’s giant stone face. Kakashi overtook Ryouma at the cliff edge. Ryouma caught up again at the training fields. Kakashi tripped Ryouma, because Kakashi was a masterful tactician, and Ryouma shoved Kakashi into a bush because Ryouma was a dirty sneak. They made it to the barracks neck-and-neck — to find Raidou already there, pristine and sardonic, because he’d translocated.
He eyed them both. Ryouma was still grinning. Kakashi shook leaves out of his hair.
Raidou snorted, but the corner of his mouth lifted. “Have fun tonight?”
Ryouma took a breath like it was his first, ribs expanding, and let it out. “Yeah.”
Kakashi looked at Raidou. “Did you?”
For the briefest of moments, so fast Kakashi almost missed it, Raidou’s eyes flickered towards the village, and something went over his face, complex and inscrutable. And then it was just Raidou again, their straightforward captain, looking exasperated and maybe a little fond. “Of course I did. Now go to bed already. If either one of you is late tomorrow, I’ll make you both run laps until you throw up.”
Ryouma said to Kakashi, “That’ll be two laps.”
“In four hours,” Kakashi said. “Have you considered you’re just punishing yourself, captain?”
“It’s how I build character,” Raidou said. He tucked his hands into his pockets and headed towards the veteran barracks, throwing over his shoulder, “Make sure you drink water.”
“Thanks for the night, Taichou,” Ryouma said, like he meant it. He waited until Raidou was out of sight, then confided, “I feel kinda like a waterskin already. A really full one.”
“Did I need to know that?” Kakashi asked.
Ryouma grinned, loopy-warm. “Aren’t we the sharing kind of friends?”
Are we? Kakashi thought.
Maybe they were.
He snickered a little. “Waterskin. You are drunk.”
“Who nearly fell through a window tryin’ to pet somebody else’s dog?” Ryouma pointed at Kakashi, walking backwards. “Anyway, I’ve been drunker than this. Loads drunker. This is like… just a little tipsy…” He hit the edge of one of the large, u-shaped concrete planter boxes in the barracks courtyard and stumbled.
Kakashi snickered again, louder. “‘I’ve done this but worse’ is— actually, for you, a pretty good excuse.” He caught Ryouma by the shoulder, aimed him at the barracks door, and shoved helpfully until Ryouma got moving. “Also, she was a nice dog and she deserved to have her ears scratched.”
“Must be nice to be a dog,” Ryouma said dreamily. “All the ear scratches. None of the headkicking.”
Did he want his ears scratched?
That was a thought strange enough to occupy Kakashi’s attention all the way to Ryouma’s door. Especially since the conclusion was obviously: yes. Even though Ryouma had ears entirely unsuited for scratching. But he soaked up praise and affection like a sponge.
And people thought Kakashi had canine tendencies.
Ryouma lingered at his door, not turning the handle. “You had fun too, tonight, right?”
“I got to set things on fire,” Kakashi said. “And eat sushi. And be mean to people.”
Ryouma frowned at him. “When were you mean?”
He was drunk.
Kakashi leaned sideways against the doorframe and ticked off on his fingers. “Broke up your dance, insulted your friends, and like five other things with Sakamoto. Also didn’t share the sushi, which I don’t regret.”
“I didn’t want the sushi,” Ryouma said, bewildered.
Kakashi laughed quietly, wrapped up in a glow that filed the sharp edges off the world.
Ryouma asked, “Do you regret the rest of it?”
It was a lifelong habit to twist away from a straight answer, but Kakashi had been answering honestly since the rooftop. Maybe even before. Making an effort, like Rin had begged him to, back before they’d all gotten bloody at the ANBU Trials. Just try. It was easier with a blur in his veins; he didn’t have to pry his teeth open. He just said words, and they were truthful.
“A little.” He tipped his head against the doorframe, looking at the fluorescent light gleam reflected in Ryouma’s sweat-damp hair. “But I’m glad you stayed with us.”
Ryouma was silent for a moment, eyes thoughtful, which made Kakashi wonder what he was seeing. A shinobi, a mask, someone else’s clothes.
“I’m glad you’re glad,” Ryouma said. “An’ that you liked the drink.”
In a lesser moment, Kakashi would have pointed out, vindicated, that see? Sometimes expensive was better. But tonight he just smiled, warm all the way down, and said, “Are we having a Moment?”
“Not unless you want one.” A crooked smile tilted Ryouma’s mouth, shading his expression to ironic. “You already passed up the option for Mortal Enemies, but I guess we could pull back to Reluctant Comrades in Arms instead…”
“Or friends,” Kakashi said carefully. “I hear that’s a thing some people do.”
Ryouma’s smile changed, broken by surprise into something real and relieved. He put his hand on the doorknob. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Today. Soon.”
Kakashi pushed himself off the doorframe. “Three hours and counting.” He dropped his voice to something approximating Raidou’s baritone, “Drink water.”
“You had to say it,” Ryouma complained, and vanished inside his room.
“You said it first,” Kakashi told Ryouma’s door, fuzzily amused — and maybe just a little disappointed that he hadn’t been invited in. Not to pull Ryouma’s clothes off, just to… be.
Ryouma flirted like a reflex, because sex was easy for him and everything else was hard. He’d meant it, whether he knew it or not, when he’d said he didn’t know how to be on a team any more than Kakashi did.
The last time Ryouma had offered (pinned Kakashi to a counter), Kakashi had taken him seriously and it had ended in blood on the training field.
Kakashi knew better now.
Maybe Ryouma would follow through again if Kakashi said something stupid, but if Kakashi said the right things, did the right things, maybe they could know each other without anyone getting their hearts or heads broken. Be teammates who survived. Or friends.
Kakashi laughed very softly to himself. “I’m five,” he said, except that he hadn’t managed to make friends then, either.
He rested a hand against Ryouma’s door, petted the brass number, then weaved his way gently back to his own apartment.