June 10, Yondaime Year 5
genma 5Training field three looked, and smelled, like a battlefield. Genma nudged Ryouma with his shoulder, nodding at the blood-spattered grass. “So far it’s messier than your jutsu, but at least it reeks less.”

“I’m pretty sure I can do explosive rot if you want it, Lieutenant,” Ryouma offered mildly.

“I know. That’s why we started with sardines when you and I worked on wound sealing.”

Kakashi, dripping in blood from head to toe, took a few steps out of the blast radius while a pair of chuunin brought a fresh victim to the field and secured its lead to a stout iron post. The pig, staked well upwind of the carnage, didn’t seem to be bothered by the gory remains of its predecessor. It looked around with mild interest as one of the chuunin put a bucket of feed in front of it, then began contentedly munching away.

Otani Yaeko, an observer from the Jutsu Records Office, tapped her clipboard. “How close was that attempt to Iebara’s jutsu?”

“It looks a lot like what was left of Iebara after Hatake was finished with him,” Genma said, “but nothing like the stuff Iebara himself did.”

Otani nodded and jotted down a note before she called, “Hatake-san, are you ready to try it again?”

Kakashi flicked an acknowledging salute, then turned to focus intently on the pig with both eyes. At the distance from which they were observing it was impossible to make out the pinwheels in Kakashi’s transplanted Sharingan, but they were doubtless spinning fast. He nodded at one of the chuunin; black steel flashed in her hand.

The pig squealed and jerked against its chain, then fell to the ground, silent, as blood gushed from its slit throat. Both chuunin beat a hasty retreat. Kakashi’s hands were a blur of seals, and then, slowly, long ribbons of blood rose like charmed snakes.

“That’s it,” Genma said. “That’s how Iebara started—”

The pig convulsed as if it were still conscious. Then it burst. The shower of blood was smaller this time, and it fell dismembered into recognizable body parts.

Next to him, Otani let out a little breath.

Kakashi wasn’t finished, though. His hands contorted as he drew the blood ribbons towards himself. They coalesced into a single, curving shape that might have been a blade, but it wavered and writhed, barely in his control and not at all the solid edged weapon Iebara had constructed.

Ryouma watched Kakashi with sharp-edged focus, hands twisting through un-energized seals in his lap. “Try reverse-Horse!” he shouted.

Genma raised an eyebrow. “Won’t that—” he started, but before he could finish or Kakashi could try the suggestion, the half-formed blade burst into a red mist, adding a fresh layer to the wreckage of Kakashi’s hair and uniform.

Ryouma leaned close to Genma and murmured, “Guess this is the wrong time to ask for a new juice box.”

“Blood orange is out of season,” Genma replied, voice just as low, “but I can probably get you pomegranate or red dragon fruit.”

“Dragon fruit!” Ryouma’s face lit with a beatific smile. “You do love me, Lieutenant.”

Otani turned to give them a questioning look that seemed poised on the cusp of disapproval. Genma shrugged and turned his attention back to Kakashi. “That looked better! You left big enough pieces for a barbecue this time.”

Kakashi shook his head, flinging blood droplets from his hair, then leveled a flat stare at Genma. One dripping red hand flicked a bastardized hand-signal: Funny, before he gave the chuunin the nod to bring out the third and final test subject.

“If he doesn’t get it this time,” Otani said, “We’ll have to consider bringing in an Uchiha officer to observe him work the jutsu on a smaller scale. Rabbits, perhaps.”

“He’ll get it,” Genma told her. The last thing they needed was a probably-hostile Uchiha clan member breathing down Kakashi’s neck. Uchiha allegations about Kakashi’s “stolen” Sharingan still flew five years after the incident and despite more than one edict from the Hokage’s office on the subject.

To Kakashi he said, “Hang on, we’re coming over,” and started across the blood-spattered grass. Ryouma, a quick study as always, jogged right along with him. There wasn’t a trace of a limp left from Ryouma’s recent knee surgery — if anything, he was moving better than before — and Genma’s own injured leg was back to full strength, with just a long, puckered scar to mark the path of Iebara’s blade.

Kakashi was waiting warily, evidently unwilling to trust this conference would hold more than mockery.

“Tousaki’s on to something with that reverse-Horse,” Genma said, cutting straight to the point. “It looks like you’re sacrificing control for power. Maybe because you have the whole pig’s blood volume to work with? When Iebara went after us, it was from arm and leg wounds. He was careful not to strike anywhere vital.”

“Which is kinda inefficient, really,” Ryouma put in. “He should’ve exploded us on the spot. You sure you want those fancy blood blades, Kakashi?”

“Konoha does,” Kakashi said. He stretched one hand against the other, limbering up tight joints. “Not everything can be solved with explosions, Tousaki.”

Ryouma prodded a small chunk of bloody pig-flesh with his toe, setting the exposed fat wobbling. “I guess there are times you want to bring the body back,” he allowed. “So if you do want blades — the way I see it, you’re pulling too hard, and since you’re not controlling the pull well enough, it ends up forcing the blood out everywhere, not just the path you’ve directed. Result—” He spread his hands in a rapid gesture. “Explosion.”

Kakashi’s brows creased in consternation. “But if I reverse the Horse seal, it’d cut the jutsu’s strength in half.”

“Better some control than none,” Ryouma pointed out. “Or you could add Ox and Bird instead, to add some guards and strengthen your control to compensate, but that’ll move further away from what Iebara was doing…”

“And get me closer to your Naizou Tokasu,” Kakashi finished with a sly smile. “Let’s do that next.”

“Yeah, we could always use some more exploding rotting corpses,” Ryouma said with a snort. “Maybe half-Bird, no Ox? Since you don’t want your chakra to actually feed on theirs, or you’ll just end up with little dried blood flakes everywhere.”

Or shreds of partly-rotted fish, in the case of Ryouma’s first attempt at a healing jutsu. That had only been a few days ago, after three weeks of theory and preparation, and the result not much different than most beginning medics got, if you disregarded the putrefaction element.

“You do want to call on the chakra in the blood cells, though,” Genma said. “There’s a medical technique that does that. Actually, I used it on the mission to break the blood masks Iebara tried to suffocate Tousaki and me—”

kakashi 5Kakashi cut him off with a raised hand. “I’m only trying medical jutsu if you want things exploded and lightning-fried.”

“Well, no wonder if you’re going in with that defeatist attitude,” Ryouma said, with the maliciously bright eyes of one who’d thrown himself headlong into medical everything recently and only blown up half of it.

Dangerously, Kakashi licked sharp teeth.

Okay, then.

He crouched down over the closest pig chunk that was large enough to be recognizable, and raided the Sharingan’s archives for one of Rin’s simplest wound-sealing jutsu. Three easy seals and a small blossom of green chakra— at least, that was the intent. In Kakashi’s hands the chakra started green, wavered when a streak of electricity crackled through, and burst apart with a hot flash that charred the meat black.

He sat back on his heels and raised his eyebrows at Ryouma and Genma. “Picture your legs,” he invited.

Ryouma looked briefly taken aback, fingers twitching towards his recently healed knee. Then his expression turned thoughtful. He dropped into an easy squat and poked the smoking lump with a forefinger. Little black specks crumbled away. “That’s your lightning nature interfering? But it shouldn’t twist the jutsu like that, not if you’ve moulded your chakra properly. Have you tried—”

A sharp cough from the sidelines interrupted him. Otani said with frosted politeness: “May we continue, Hatake-san?”

Kakashi interpreted that, correctly, as Experiment in your own goddamned time, I’m on the clock. He flicked her an acknowledging gesture.

Genma was more sanguine. “Team Six office as soon as we’re done here,” he told Kakashi and Ryouma. And then to Kakashi alone: “Don’t exhaust all your chakra on this.”

“I wasn’t planning to,” Kakashi said testily. The jutsu’s incompleteness itched at him, but he wasn’t that stupid.

Genma raised a sardonic eyebrow. He seemed relaxed and unhurried, if you ignored the warning glint in his eyes.

Kakashi said, “Yes, lieutenant.”

Genma smiled and inclined his head at Ryouma. “Come on, Tousaki.”

Straightening up, Ryouma dusted off his knees and looked tickled, as he always did when he got to be the favorite. They beat a languid retreat.

Grouchily, Kakashi turned his attention to the final pig. It was a lean adolescent, with a runty, undersized look about it. A local farmer’s cull, and doubtless one well paid for. It eyed him with dark, squinty eyes and gave an ominous snort.

The Sharingan was ready with Iebara’s seals, stolen in the fragmented moments when he’d ripped blood from Genma and Ryouma, and tried to throttle Kakashi with it. Boar, Dragon, Hare…

At the signal, a chuunin sliced the young pig’s throat. Blood fountained, the pig staggered. Kakashi’s hands flashed. He felt the chakra lash out, strike, catch. The pig screamed, and for six lurching heartbeats Kakashi could feel the living network of its circulatory system: the aorta’s thick pipe, pulsing arteries, thinner veins, the delicate, hair-like capillaries feeding down into multi-layered structures too small to comprehend. Countless different connections moving countless different ways, all dependent on a panicking heart.

He tried to grip it all and felt the first shuddering tremble as the system backed up on itself, thrown into chaos. It writhed, fracturing, and the pig’s falling body gave a weird ripple. Kakashi ground his back teeth, focusing. Ox—

No, not Ox. He aborted the seal, converting it to Half Bird. Chakra flexed sickly, twisting into shapes that felt deeply unnatural. He eased back, letting go of the periphery. He didn’t need those small vessels. Or these emptying ones. He just wanted the throat, where the stricken carotid still pulsed.

The pig was gasping now, trying to pull air into a system that could no longer transport it. Spiraling above its head, a crimson shape coalesced.

Reverse Horse.

It did make a difference. Half the blood immediately dropped out of the air, splattering over the ground, and Kakashi hissed, but what remained pulled densely together. Then it stretched, lengthening. The center split into a jagged web. It had none of the delicacy of Iebara’s latticing, but the structure held, sharpening, becoming blade-like. Kakashi uncurled his fingers and the weapon turned, trembled, and cut down in a lethal arc. A single mercy stroke. The pig died soundlessly.

The moment its heart failed, chakra sparking out, the blade reacted. It darkened. Fragments began to shear away. Kakashi redoubled his grip, sweat pricking at his temples. His own chakra was in revolt, desperate to pull away from this dying thing, but he had it, he had it

Lightning broke away from him.

Instinctively, Kakashi flung a hand up to cover his eyes against the flash. The blade spun away and exploded, right over the watching group. Burned blood showered down.

Kakashi dropped into a crouch, catching his breath. When he lowered his hand, Otani stood wide-eyed, clutching her clipboard with both hands. Blackened red dripped off her hair, and her paperwork. Next to her, Ryouma turned his head to the side and spat. Genma sighed and removed his ruined senbon.

Kakashi said, “Oops.”

ryouma 4Ryouma worked his tongue around his mouth and spat again. “I guess blood fireworks are a step up from exploding pigs, but you might wanna work on your aim.”

“You made the blade,” Genma countered. “And it was effective. Good work.” He wiped the blood spatters from his senbon onto his pant leg, eyed it warily for a moment, then slid the senbon back into its holster.

Outside the newly splattered zone, Kakashi planted a hand in red-mud grass and shoved himself upright. Reading his face wasn’t easy at the best of times, but the blood-masked avatar of vengeance did appear at least a little pleased. He rocked back on his heels and scratched the back of his neck, probably smearing one of his last remaining clean spots.

There was going to be a long afternoon of scrubbing in their future. First themselves, and then the showers.

Otani, whose sculpted hairstyle had almost certainly not been designed to deal with blood fireworks, maintained a rigid grip on her clipboard, and on her calm. “How close was that attempt?”

Seeing as Iebara hadn’t actually managed to decapitate any of them — and not entirely for lack of trying — Ryouma thought Kakashi was doing pretty well.

Genma launched into a repeated explanation and comparison of Iebara’s dual blades, their formation, and their durability. Kakashi wandered closer, ears pricked for praise. Ryouma decided they had it covered, and jogged back over to inspect the pig carcass.

The massive cut was entirely clean; even the spinal column had severed without crushing. The trampled grass of the training field was a marshy pool, but only a trickle of blood still ebbed from the sliced veins. They looked like little tubes, he discovered when he crouched down: like the sort of hollow rubber hose you used for watering gardens or running electrical wiring. That one was the external carotid artery, right in front of the backbone. So that was the exterior jugular, and there were the internal ones all clustered in and around the spinal column…

Much easier to spot than on fish or frogs. Maybe he should look into the price of pigs again. The Jutsu Records Office had provided these three for Kakashi’s experiments, but they were notoriously stingy about subsidizing jutsu experimentation unless you filled out acres of paperwork and had someone pulling strings for you.

Which maybe he did, now…

“Tousaki!” Genma called, across the field. “How clean is the cut?”

“He’s got a great career as a headsman, if this ninja thing doesn’t take off!” Ryouma called back. He eyed the carcass, considered the prospect of holding a conversation while also holding a severed pig’s head, and trotted back empty-handed instead.

“I’ve held katanas couldn’t make that cut,” he said, when he was close enough to speak instead of yelling. “You’ve got the edge and the weight. Or the speed, maybe.”

“Comes at a disadvantage, though.” Kakashi glanced at Genma, then carefully unfurled his chakra from its usual tight guard.

Ryouma sucked in a breath. The clean, arctic edges of Kakashi’s chakra had blurred with a muddy darkness, like fine steel gone to rust. Winter sunshine with the ugly oppressiveness of a storm, slowly fading, but leaving a nasty prickle on the spine.

Iebara’s chakra had felt wrong. Kakashi’s did, too.

Genma winced, as if it hurt to sense that blot on the cold, clear chakra they’d grown to know. Genma was a far better sensor than Ryouma; maybe it did.

“Iebara’s had the same kind of edge,” Genma said, reluctantly, “but it’s different on you. Sort of a breath-freezing in your lungs feeling. I don’t know…” He crossed his arms. “It’s not something I’d want to let leech into my chakra for long. One of those jutsu you save for real emergencies. Probably explains a thing or two about why his teammates didn’t trust him. Someone from Intel should have a run at Fukuda about it.”

“Maybe you should try the jutsu on Fukuda,” Ryouma muttered. “Since we’ve run out of pigs.”

Kakashi gave him a sharp look. “Because Mist needs more reason to torture the next Leaf-nin they catch?”

“Intel’s had her a month,” Ryouma shot back. “If Mist gave a shit for their shinobi, they’d have ransomed her before now. Hell, Himura Tadao said we’ve practically got her in a long-term apartment up at Intel HQ.”

Genma grimaced, tight-lipped. “Fukuda is not Team Six’s problem anymore,” he said. “If she’s in Intel’s care in a dungeon cell or a penthouse suite, it’s because Intel still has use for her.” His amber eyes flickered, for just a moment, toward their observer. Otani gazed blandly back.

The lieutenant shrugged and shifted his weight, arching his shoulders back in a stretch. He added quietly, “Besides, there’s no guarantee Konoha would accept a ransom if Mist offered it, given recent events.”

If Hokage-sama meant to make an example of Fukuda, they’d have executed her weeks ago, when the ashes of Hikouto and Ibaragashi Port were still warm. The only reason Ryouma could see for Konoha to reject a ransom was if Fukuda’d asked for asylum. But who the hell would reject their own village for the people who’d killed her team and took her arm?

He opened his mouth. Genma looked at Otani again, meaningfully, and Ryouma thought abruptly of the way she’d arrived at Team Six’s office after training that morning, in company with Kuroda-taichou…

His teeth clicked together. He resisted, barely, the urge to glance over his shoulder. Kuroda wasn’t lurking in the shadows at the edge of the training fields, but the paranoid prickle down his spine didn’t seem convinced.

“Kakashi,” he said desperately. “Reverse Horse. You think it helped?”

Kakashi was always willing to talk about jutsu. His hackles eased; a little more of the ugly edge faded from his chakra. “It did. I lost half the volume, but I could actually use what I had left.” He scratched at the blood clotting in his hair. “Up until it exploded.”

“I know you were working on controlling it,” Genma put in, “but it felt like your lightning nature got away from you at the end, when you were starting to fatigue. I’d guess that’s why—” His fingers flicked out, miming the explosion. “Did it feel like that to you?”

“Ye-es.” Black motes spun slowly in Kakashi’s red Sharingan eye. Ryouma looked away. He wasn’t exactly worried about the lurking hypnosis in a spinning Sharingan, but he’d courted stupidity enough already today.

“And no,” Kakashi decided. “It was more like— I could feel the moment of death, and my chakra didn’t want to get yoked to it.”

“Does that happen?” Ryouma glanced, instinctively, at Genma. “I thought Iebara’s jutsu’d be more like mine, that it’d just feed off the victim’s chakra, but if he’s still hooked in— Wait, does that happen to medics?”

genma 2In his work with Ryouma, Genma had barely begin to cover chakra interactions between medic and patient. He hadn’t intended to go into chakra death quite so soon, but it couldn’t be helped now.

“It can happen, but it’s rare,” Genma said. “When a medic is so deeply chakra-meshed with his patient that he’s taking over autonomic functions like breathing, pulse, and blood pressure, he’s at risk. But ordinarily if the patient dies, the medic’s chakra system will break free. It can injure the medic, but it isn’t fatal except in the most extreme circumstances. And it doesn’t always injure the medic. What Hatake described — his chakra not wanting to get yoked to the dying pig’s — that’s how it happens. Your body won’t let you go down with the dying patient.”

Ryouma uneasily studied his own hands, flexing his fingers experimentally. He huffed a quiet scoffing sound, expression wry. “And it takes a pretty good medic to get that far enmeshed with a patient, I bet. So I’m in no danger.” Self mockery turned to concern when he looked at Genma. “But lieutenant, you…”

“If your patient is so close to death that he needs you to sustain basic life functions, it’s touch and go anyway. You don’t go that deep unless you think you have a reasonable chance of saving them. I’d only do that if I knew I had a team of doctors available to take over for me.”

“Even if it was the captain, bleeding out? Or one of us?”

It was a question every medic had to ask himself at some point: how far would I go to save a comrade, a friend, a loved one? Genma bit his lip, tasting iron where the pig’s blood still dappled his skin. “I’d do everything I could to save you. But if it was hopeless…” He studied the faces of his rookies — both of whom had nearly died on their first two missions. Kakashi flat-mouthed behind his mask. Ryouma’s dark eyes alive with concern. “A field medic’s job is to triage, treat, and transport. If I couldn’t save someone, even someone on this team, I’d have to let them go, because I’d still have a responsibility to the rest of you.”

Ryouma’s gaze flickered, unusually unreadable. He jerked his chin at Kakashi and said lightly, “Might wanna reconsider that if it’s our white-haired boy here. Fairly sure keeping him alive is a good way to keep us alive.”

That was a dilemma Genma never wanted to face, especially because it was true. The medic’s oath was to treat all patients equally, but everyone knew that some lives were worth more than others. If it came down to it, Kakashi was more valuable to Konoha than Genma. “If it was a choice of my life or Hatake’s—”

Kakashi scowled pointedly at Genma. “If you save me at the cost of yourself, I’ll fall off the next cliff so I can stab you in the afterlife,” he said. “Can both of you shut up about dying so we can focus on the ground-breaking jutsu I’m trying to recreate?”

Genma snorted. “You’re such a natural diplomat, Hatake.” He let his hand fall heavily on Ryouma’s shoulder for a moment, in what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. “We’ll talk medical ethics on our own time.”

Otani, who had been remarkably patient all things considered, cleared her throat and tapped her clipboard. “Are you all in agreement that Hatake-san did manage a reasonably faithful execution of Iebara’s jutsu?”

“It wasn’t identical,” Genma said, “but it was definitely close.”

Ryouma shrugged and nodded agreement. “He’s got a ways before he masters it, but yeah, that was pretty close.”

Kakashi tipped his head towards Otani. In lieu of a verbal response he cast a shimmery area effect genjutsu. A few-seconds loop of Iebara with his latticed blood blades flickered indistinctly in front of them, like a shadowy projection on a paper screen. “That was the original,” Kakashi said, letting the illusion drop. He tugged his hitai-ate down over his Sharingan.

Otani nodded and made a note on her clipboard. The studied lack of reaction on her face was almost textbook perfect. “When you and your team finish your analysis, Shiranui-fukuchou, I’d appreciate a report on your conclusions to include in my file.”

“Of course,” Genma agreed. She nodded and turned to go, flicking a bloodied strand of hair back from her face with the tip of her pen.

The chuunin pig handlers were back, waiting for Team Six to clear the field and let them get on with disposal of the carcasses.

“Gentlemen,” Genma said, turning back to his team. “Showers, then meeting? I’d rather not keep smelling pig’s blood all afternoon.”

“You’re welcome to the rookie barracks with us, lieutenant, if you want better soap than HQ stocks.” Ryouma leaned over to conspicuously sniff Kakashi’s hair. “Yeah, you’re gonna need the lemon verbena.”

kakashi skepticOne stellar advantage of Ryouma’s height was that it put him at the perfect level for an elbow in the sternum.

Otani made a final note and translocated while Ryouma executed a hasty dodge. Genma sighed like the old man he secretly aspired to be, and started back towards the barracks. Ryouma followed, grinning, and Kakashi took the rearguard, using the short trip to practice his skills at walking without leaving a blood trail.

Personally, he didn’t have a problem with the smell. Blood was mineral and metal, cleaner than rot, less cloying than the lanolin-and-fruit smell of most soaps. But he knew he was in the minority, along with Inuzuka and the occasional blood-thirsty obsessive. Most shinobi preferred not to smell like work.

The rookies’ showers were empty, with the exception of a tired Aburame shaving over a sink, and a kunoichi sitting on one of the long open benches to carefully dry and tend her feet after a shower. She had no blisters, Kakashi noted, just well-filed callouses. He didn’t recognize either of them, so they were probably last year’s rookies.

Ryouma stripped first, with his usual disregard for warnings or audiences. Genma took the initial step of selecting a shower stall and turning the water on before he collected a basket for his personal possessions, but he shucked his clothes with equal indifference. “Alright, Tousaki, which of your fancy soaps am I using?”

The kunoichi cocked her head with interest.

Ryouma dug his lightweight, non-mission belt out from the tangled collection of clothes, and produced a scroll with sealed towels, a wash kit, and several small paper-wrapped packages of soap. “I’ve got plum blossom, cucumber-mint, and green tea. The lemon verbena’s in my room, if you want it after all.”

“Green tea,” Genma said immediately, and caught the bar Ryouma threw him. He unsealed his own wash-kit, selected a clean, fluffy towel from the public supply, and pulled his hair-tie free. Red-dappled hair fell loosely around his shoulders, fine and straight except for where the tie had kinked a wave into it.

Without his clothes, the lieutenant was more sturdily muscled than you might have expected for such a lean man. Long, ragged scars started at his right shoulderblade and raked down across his back, demonstrating an essential unkillability. Narrow blade scars curved around one hip; a moon-sickle slice narrowly missed his spine. When he turned, Kakashi glanced away, but not before he caught a look at the injuries he knew: belly slash from the demons, shoulder slice from Iebara, hastily healed, and the ugly, curving gash down one thigh, still livid purple.

Someone really needed to talk to the Quartermaster about more effective armor.

Genma stepped into his chosen shower stall, vanishing into a cloud of steam, and closed the door.

“Well?” Ryouma asked, waving his remaining bars of soap.

Kakashi wrinkled his nose.

“Do you make them?” the kunoichi asked curiously, leaning closer to take a look.

Ryouma blinked at her, then smiled. “No, I just spend half my pay on them. These are from Escentuals, down in the village.” He glanced at the kunoichi’s feet and added, “They do body scrubs and lotions, too.”

The kunoichi looked intrigued. Kakashi told her, “Ask him about the time he got paid in soap,” and took advantage of the following distraction to escape to an empty, far away shower stall before further proselytizing commenced.

He stripped, scrubbed, and showered in blessed and only slightly paranoid privacy, using the scentless soap he’d purchased from the grocery store like a normal ninja. There was a fogless mirror attached near the shower-head for shinobi who preferred to shave under the spray. Kakashi tilted it away and shaved by feel. When the soap was gone, he allowed himself the rare luxury of just standing under hot running water, until his chakra started to feel clean again.

He was still the first one back out. Dried and dressed, with his dirty clothes sealed away, a fresh mask, and the recent jutsu success (well, mostly success), he felt almost sprightly. The grizzled shinobi was gone. The kunoichi had also left, though not before getting several recommendations. Kakashi took advantage of the relative peace to stretch out on a bench and enjoy a moment with Icha Icha while he waited for his teammates.

He was just reaching the part where the Fujiwara and Tachibana clans declared their intent to go to war over the love affair between their oldest daughters, when someone cleared their throat above him.

Someone soundless, scentless, and without obvious chakra signature.

Kakashi lowered his book an inch, and found himself looking up the unpleasant side of Kuroda’s nose.

“I see you’ve found a useful way to spend your time, Hatake,” Kuroda said crisply.

Something hit the floor in Ryouma’s shower stall. Genma’s shower cut off.

Kakashi debated raising his book again, on the off chance it might offend Kuroda enough to make him leave, but that had yet to be a viable tactic with any commander.

“Vice-commander,” he said, as neutrally as possible.

The door to Genma’s shower stall opened and Genma stepped out, looking as serene and self-possessed as a man could with wet hair and a towel hastily knotted around his hips. He’d developed a habit, in the past few weeks, of inserting himself in between Kakashi and Kuroda whenever the latter appeared, preferably before Kakashi could say more than a sentence. It was a winning strategy, insofar as no one had been maimed or court-martialed yet.

Ryouma’s stall door remained firmly closed.

“Kuroda-taichou,” Genma said. “Were you looking for one of us, sir?”

Kuroda gave Icha Icha a final look of distaste, then turned the exact same look on Genma. “We have a mission. The team will be ready to leave tonight from the Monument at 2200. Pack for Kirigakure’s climate.”

With that, the vice-commander turned on one heel and strode toward the door.

Genma visibly processed several fierce emotions in about a quarter of a second, then asked with glassy calm: “Are mission briefing materials in the team’s office, sir, or should I get them from the mission office?”

“Do as you like,” Kuroda answered. “Just don’t be late.”

The door closed with a snap behind him.

Genma let out a quiet breath that, on another man, would have been a blistered curse. Ryouma’s shower stall banged open and he tumbled out, water-slick and grabbing his towel only as an afterthought. The shower still ran behind him. He skidded to a stop by Kakashi’s bench, and his recently healed knee stayed firm under him.

“They’re sending us to Kiri?” He turned sharp anxiety on Genma. “What about Taichou?”

Genma held up a hand. “Let’s get dressed. You two can get us something to eat from the cafeteria while I get the mission materials. We won’t know anything until we’ve read them.” He turned back to collect his things from the shower stall with a muttered, “No thanks to the vice-commander.”

Kakashi sat up, put his book away, and traded a sidelong look with Ryouma. He said, very quietly, “I think we just got ‘not now, kiddo’d.”

“You’d think we interrupted something,” Ryouma said, but his heart wasn’t in the joke. He raked a hand through his hair, scattering water. “Kiri. You think they’re ransoming Fukuda after all?”

Since he didn’t have the answer to that, Kakashi asked a better question. “Would you let her survive the trip?”

Ryouma scowled and grabbed another towel for his hair. “I didn’t kill her before, y’know.”

“She didn’t kill me.” Kakashi tipped his chin to look up at Ryouma. “You got there in time.”

“She doesn’t get points for failing to kill you just because I stopped her,” Ryouma snapped.

Behind him, Genma turned off Ryouma’s still-running shower and moved to the bench where he’d arranged clean clothes for himself. He’d already twisted his wet hair up and out of the way, stabbed into place with a senbon.

“It’s not about points.” Kakashi slid to his feet, resisting the urge to grab Ryouma’s head and shake it. “It’s about getting stuck on a grudge over a useless, crippled ninja and not looking for the next Kiri-nin who’ll try and kill us.”

Ryouma’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“She was doing her job,” Genma said, cutting the moment neatly apart before Ryouma could find a place he wanted to strike. “Just like we were doing ours. And she’s paid for it with the lives of her team, her arm, and her ability to function as a shinobi. There are plenty of shinobi who’d be thinking long and hard about how to provoke a jumpy Konoha ninja into putting them out of their misery, if they were in her position.”

“I know.” If Ryouma had fur, it would have been ridged down the back of his neck. He dragged the towel over his face and flung it down on the bench, hard. “Look, just ‘cause I’m not shrugging it off like you doesn’t mean I’m gonna break my leash and go on a Kiri-nin murder spree.” He snorted bitterly. “That’s what her team did.”

In the silence that followed, Genma gave the ceiling a brief glance, as if appealing for strength, and pulled his clothes on.

Kakashi gave up. Ryouma could collect his grudges until he dropped them or buried himself. Or until he found the one that eclipsed the rest. Kakashi had infinite room to despise Iwa.

“Okay,” he said. “Lieutenant, I don’t need team lunch. Permission to leave and get ready for the mission?”

“No,” Genma said curtly. “If you don’t want to eat, that’s up to you. Skipping a team briefing is not.”

Kakashi sighed, settled back down on his bench, and retrieved Icha Icha. The Fujiwara/Tachibana clan war didn’t hold quite the same interest, no matter how searing Kotori and Fumiko’s love was.

He wished Katsuko were here, to pull Ryouma back from his own edges. And Raidou, to brace Genma.

Instead they got Kuroda, and Kiri.

Well, maybe Ryouma would get lucky, and their mission would be a slaughter.

ryouma shoulderRyouma ended up playing errand boy for lunch, while Genma headed to the mission office and Kakashi to the Quartermaster. Their standard kits had been packed and ready since they’d come off medical leave, but Water Country meant saltwater and jungle, razor cliffs and impenetrable mist.

And blood-maddened, shark-toothed shinobi, but Ryouma doubted the QM had any special gear for them.

He picked up three packed lunch trays, two green teas, and one coffee, and threaded his way down through the maze of unmarked hallways to Team Six’s office. The door was closed, but not locked.

Hell, not Kuroda—

Dammit, he was getting jumpy. It was probably just Genma, already back from the mission office with a full file and a new quiver of disappointed glances. Food should appease him.

Ryouma opened the door. “Lieutenant—”

The lieutenant wasn’t there. Raidou, armed and armored and stooped over a spread of maps on his old desk, was.

Plastic crumpled in Ryouma’s hand. “Taichou,” he breathed. “You’re back?”

Raidou glanced up over his shoulder, and grinned. “What took you so long? I’ve been here for an hour already.”

“Kuroda didn’t tell us you were here.” Ryouma stepped into the room and set the trays down on the nearest desk. His hands still weren’t quite steady. He shoved them into his pockets, before he could do anything stupid like going for a hug. “You leading this mission?”

Raidou straightened, dropped his pen down on the map he’d been marking, and clapped Ryouma reassuringly on the shoulder. “I’ll explain when the others get here. They on their way?”

“Kakashi should be here any minute. Lieutenant went to the mission office for the brief.” The brief that probably looked something very like the papers spread out across Raidou’s desk. Genma was going to be pissed if he got to the mission office and found Kuroda’d sent him on a wild goose chase.

Pissed enough, perhaps, to be muttering as he stepped through the open door on Ryouma’s heels. “—if I ever get a chance to see that smug bastard in the— Taichou?”

Raidou’s grin widened. “Fukuchou.”

It was only a few days since they’d seen him, casual in civvies at the Akimichi barbecue. More than a month, though, since they’d seen him in uniform, well-rested and clear-eyed, with a gleaming Crescent Moon mask clipped to his belt. Even through the glove, his hand on Ryouma’s shoulder had been warm.

“So the Quartermaster says the new cloaks are fireproof and waterproof, but not to test them at the same time,” Kakashi announced from the door. “And also that he’s done giving us new masks— ”

He stopped, too, just shy of running into Genma. Genma stepped automatically to the side. Kakashi swept a sharp look over the three of them, blinked, and said with audible relief, “Taichou. Is Kuroda dead?”

“Who’s getting stuck on grudges now?” Ryouma demanded.

Kakashi’s brow ticked down. He dumped his armload of folded cloaks on the nearest desk. “Who’s getting grudges about grudges?”

Raidou smiled at them both. “I’ve missed this so much,” he said fondly. “Kuroda isn’t dead. Both of you shut up and let the lieutenant get a word in.”

Genma snorted softly. He crossed the little office, stopping beside Raidou’s desk with its scatter of maps and files. “I’m guessing that’s the briefing material for the mission.” He looked up, and a smile bloomed across his face. “It’s good to have our real captain back, Namiashi-taichou.”

“Back for good?” Ryouma pressed.

“Yes,” Raidou said. Ryouma fist-pumped; Genma’s eyes lit. Raidou said swiftly, “Conditional on my performance on this mission. So let’s brief.”

They joined him at the desk, standing shoulder to shoulder around the maps. Raidou picked up his pen again. Kakashi asked, “Revenge strike or hostage exchange?”

“Rescue mission,” Raidou said, with quiet pleasure.

Genma glanced up from the map he’d been trying to read upside down. “That feels somehow karmic, given the conversation the rookies and I were having about Fukuda earlier. Are we taking a full medical team with us?”

“No, but we’re working with another ANBU team that has a field medic, plus a pair of Intel agents.” Raidou’s mouth tilted. “And Kuroda, for mission commander.”

Mission commander? Ryouma looked up to meet Kakashi’s eye. Any trace of irritation had stripped away; Kakashi stood alert and focused, his grey gaze gleaming.

Two ANBU teams, two Intel agents, and ANBU’s second-highest ranking officer. Something significant was happening in Kirigakure.

Raidou spun the map around and pointed to a blank spot circled in pen in the left center, where the mapmaker had sketched in only the roughest suggestion of islands in the Eastern Sea. “We’re not rescuing Konoha-nin. Command brokered a deal with Fukuda. In exchange for information, including Kirigakure’s location, we’re breaking her sister and niece out of the village.”

Ryouma stared. “So Fukuda did ask for asylum? And—Hokage-sama agreed?”

“Not exactly.” Raidou’s bare shoulder lifted in half a shrug. “She doesn’t want to stay here any more than we want to keep her. If this succeeds, she’ll get free passage to Waterfall with her family. I figure the Hokage has arranged some kind of permanent watch, but that’ll be their problem.”

Genma’s eyes narrowed. “What’s so special about her sister and niece that she’s willing to turn traitor, and Konoha’s willing to send this large of a force, to get them out?”

“You’d have to ask Fukuda why she values her family,” Raidou said mildly. He stepped back from the table to pick up the forgotten packed lunches. “But I gather the niece is from an unapproved liaison, and she’s showing early signs of a bloodline.”

Bad news, in Kirigakure.

“Either way,” Raidou continued, pushing a lunch tray into Kakashi’s hands, “Kiri’s not asking for Fukuda back, and they’ll likely kill her if we return her. As for Konoha agreeing…” He handed Genma and Ryouma their bento and held up the map. “Kirigakure’s location. Plus safe avenues to get in. What’ll you bet Kuroda intends to pick up more than a few runaways?”

“Hell of a lot more, if we’re escorting Intel agents too,” Ryouma muttered. He hesitated, then peeled the plastic lid off his bento and cracked his chopsticks open. Mouth full of chicken katsu, he nudged a second map toward him. This one seemed to be a sea-chart; numbers and markings littered the wavy blue of the ocean, with reefs and rocks picked out in painstaking detail and coastlines fading into a blur of unimportant green. “Why assign Team Six to this one?”

“Fukuda requested us.”

Ryouma broke his chopsticks. “The fuck she did.”

Kakashi choked on something suspiciously like a laugh, or possibly bok choy. Genma glared them both down, then lifted his brows at Raidou.

“We’re the team that took down her unkillable teammate,” Raidou explained. “I gather it left an impression.”

“Exactly,” Ryouma hissed, setting lunch and shattered chopsticks down on the desk. “The kind of impression where she’d jump at the chance to lead us into an ambush—”

“With what resources?” Raidou pointed out. He leaned hipshot against the desk, arms folded across his armored chest. “I trust Shibata-san and Hokage-sama. If they suspect a trap, the reward still outweighs the risk.” His dark eyes rested thoughtfully on Ryouma. “And if she does betray us, you’ll get first shot at taking her head off.”

Ryouma’s clenched fist tightened, then flexed. Chakra hummed against his bones. He said reluctantly, “I can live with that.”

Genma eyed him with open skepticism. Ryouma lifted his chin. “Multi-tasking, lieutenant. I can get stuck on a grudge over a useless, crippled ninja and look for the next Kiri-nin who’ll try and kill us.”

“Good,” Genma said. “Then you can multi-task digging latrines for the entire expedition at every campsite, and take second watch every night.”

Ryouma gritted his teeth and picked up his bento again, avoiding Kakashi’s smug eye. Maybe he could eat with his fingers. “Understood, lieutenant.”

Genma nodded briskly, and passed Ryouma his unopened chopsticks. He plucked the senbon out of his hair, tumbling damp waves to his shoulders again, and speared a bite of his own lunch with the sharpened steel tip. “Do we have defined roles already? We’re pairing with Thirteen… I’d probably set it up with us on target extraction and Usagi for running interference and distraction.”

Blue-haired Abe Shintaro and cranky Yamada Kasumi had been assigned together to Team Thirteen, the only other team with two rookies from the most recent Trials. Ryouma’d only run into them a few times in the cafeteria or laundry, but from the few hints Abe had dropped about their captain and lieutenant, he could guess why Genma had slated Team Thirteen for distractions.

Rolling explosions and area-affect genjutsu tended to do that.

Raidou nodded. “Kuroda will go into greater detail on the ship, but that’ll be the likely breakdown. For our part, the sister is barely genin-level, if that, and the kid is less than a year old. Our biggest problem is going to be a fast, quiet extraction.”

Kakashi said quietly, “I can handle the baby.”

Usually, those words meant something more like blood and broken necks. But Ryouma thought of the small blond whirlwind who’d visited the barracks after the Hayama mission, the gentleness in Kakashi’s voice and hands, the softness in his eye as he watched the Hokage’s son. He’d looked after Naruto since the kid was born, he’d said.

Maybe he could look after a Water Country infant, too.

Genma licked sauce off his senbon. “Are we inserting the Intel agents as covert operatives in Kiri?”

“No, just preliminary intelligence gathering and mapping.” Raidou shuffled the sea chart back to the top of the pile. “We’re on too short a timeline for Intel to safely plant someone.”

“You said a ship?” Kakashi asked, resettling his mask over his nose. His lunch box was empty, and Ryouma still hadn’t actually seen him eat.

“We’ve got a junk departing from Ofunato Port in two days at 0400,” Raidou said. “They’re cutting close enough to Water Country’s Torishima Island for us to disembark and climb up through these cliffs.” He indicated a spot on the green coastline of a southwestern island, and added dryly, “I’ve made assurances that the ship and Ofunato Port will remain intact.”

Genma buttoned his lips down, repressing a smile. “I don’t suppose the sister is expecting us. How heavily protected do we expect her to be?”

“At least as heavily as we protect Konoha citizens,” Raidou said. “Multiplied by a factor of nasty, since it’s Kiri. The sister isn’t expecting us, which is one reason why we’re taking Fukuda.”

Ryouma fiddled with the last slice of chicken katsu in his tray. “With the ship, and getting into Kirigakure and all— Are we doing this Shadow-in-the-Night style, or just civvie undercover?” Slipping a force of twelve shinobi—not counting a one-armed hostage—into a hostile village wasn’t likely to be easy, either way.

“Undercover, possibly as a religious pilgrimage. Bring basic civvies for now, and sealed armor. You’ll get patches to cover the tattoos. Hatake, you’re gonna need to dye your hair.” Raidou cast a swift eye over Genma and Ryouma, and judged them acceptable with a brief nod. “And no kunai on this one; we’re not taking anything with an obvious Konoha shape or symbol.”

“What about Kiri-style kunai?” Genma asked. “Do civilians ever get their hands on them, or would that still be a giveaway?”

“Not worth the risk,” Raidou decided. “Stick with generic blades, wires, senbon. Whatever’s easily concealed and anonymous.”

Meaning a stop at Craftsmen’s Street lay in Ryouma’s future, crammed in with all their other preparations. All his current blades were too distinctively Konoha-issue to pass more than a cursory inspection, and pulling a jutsu on someone would give him away even faster than pulling a knife.

For the eightieth time in the last three weeks, he missed Katsuko. She’d have had something to lend him.

Raidou pushed back from the desk. “That oughta cover the basics. Further comments and concerns can go in my inbox.” He kicked the trash can by his desk cheerfully. “Now scat.”

“But be at the rendezvous at least 20 minutes before you think you need to be,” Genma warned, holding up a hand. “Maybe a half hour. I’d prefer not to give Kuroda any more excuses to be a dick than he already comes up with on his own.”

If they ran out of anything on this mission, Ryouma suspected, it was more likely to be senbon or unmarked knives than excuses for Kuroda to be a dick.

But they had Raidou back in command of Team Six. Ryouma’s knee was whole and sturdy, and Genma’s limp was gone, and Kakashi’s chakra was brimming full. Even without Katsuko, even with Kuroda, they could make this mission work.

As long as he didn’t kill Fukuda on the way.

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