June 25, Yondaime Year 5
Genma woke naked in Aoba’s empty bed when his alarm chimed at 0630. Untangling his bare legs from the bedsheets and staggering to the bathroom took a few hazy moments. He squinted at his reflection in the mirror over the sink: tangled hair, red-rimmed, heavy-lidded eyes, a dusty smattering of beard stubble, and a vaguely amused expression greeted him. “You’re still a little drunk,” he told Genma-in-the-mirror. “Better do something about that.”
A fiercely hot shower was the first order of business. Strong coffee, and a little bit of chakra to goose his liver into metabolizing the lingering alcohol faster, came next. Then an egg over hot rice. Aoba, bless him a thousand times, had made rice and left it hot in the cooker before he’d headed off for his mission the night before. He’d left a note for Genma, too.
Hope the orgy night out with your team was fun. You have three days to clean up the evidence before I get home. It was signed with a self-portrait doodle of Aoba blowing a kiss.
It was going to be nice to have his own place again, but he was going to miss living with Aoba.
Getting rid of “the evidence” was a matter of washing the dishes, picking up the trail of clothes he’d left from the front door through to Aoba’s bedroom, and tossing the sheets over the bed. He yawned and sighed. There could have been more evidence. Kurenai’s red dress could have lain in a heap next to his discarded shirt. Raidou’s hip-skimming jeans could have been on the sofa next to his own peeled-off pair. There could have been three sets of underwear strewn like trail signs leading to Aoba’s bed.
Or at least two. Raidou had (wisely, frustratingly but wisely) backed out before he and Genma had done something they might regret. But Kurenai hadn’t said no. In fact, all signs had pointed to an enthusiastic yes just a few hours ago.
Genma tugged on training clothes, and yanked his hair back into a damp ponytail. Sobriety started to gain an edge over the lingering buzz. Sweet gods, had he actually come that close to kissing Raidou? Had Raidou actually come that close to kissing him?
Yes, his memory whispered. That had been a mutual impulse. Kurenai’s hot hands and supple waist between them. Raidou’s parted lips and intense, wanting, gaze.
He buckled on weapons and utility belts, and tied his hitai-ate over his hair, banishing the vision. He was Team Six’s lieutenant, Raidou’s right-hand-man. And Raidou was his captain — a man Genma had spent the last eleven weeks scrupulously avoiding thinking of as attractive and desirable.
He could keep thinking that way.
He stopped in the bathroom one more time to liberate a handful of paper-wrapped hangover powders — one for himself, and one for each of his teammates.
0655. He had five minutes to get to the training field. He should have set his alarm for earlier. Or taken a shorter shower. Or not gotten lost in wishing he’d gone through with that potentially regrettable opportunity. He grabbed his water bottle, jammed his feet into his boots, and translocated in three jumps: to the base of the monument; to the roof of ANBU’s main building at the top of the cliff; and finally to training field three.
Unsurprisingly, the rookies weren’t there yet. Or… no, Ryouma was there, sitting cross legged and slumped, head-down, in some tall grass at the base of a rough-barked tree. Sick? Asleep? It was hard to tell.
Raidou, of course, was there, hands on hips, surveying the field like a commander planning troop movements. From a distance, he looked as fresh as he did on any other training day. Genma ambled over to his team and greeted Raidou with a wave and a quiet, “Hi.”
Please don’t let this be awkward.
Raidou tipped him a smile. His eyes were a little tired-looking, but there was no hint of anything out of the ordinary in the way he greeted Genma.
Genma let go of his remaining tension and smiled back. Raidou was carrying on as if nothing had happened; Genma would, too.
“Since last night was his idea,” Raidou said, gesturing with an elbow at Ryouma, “I’m deciding whether to let him suffer or throw him on your mercy.”
Genma studied Ryouma, who hadn’t shown any sign of awareness that Genma had arrived. “I was still a little buzzed this morning. Is he, too?”
“Good question,” Raidou said. He raised his voice. “Tousaki, you sober?”
Ryouma lifted his chin from his chest with obvious effort, as if his skull had doubled in weight, and let it loll back against the tree. His eyes stayed shut, but after two or three eyebrow twitches, he managed to crack them open to a narrow slit. Black irises were lost in shadow. A hoarse, hollow shadow of Ryouma’s voice answered, “K’suko warned me. Shoulda listened.”
“That sounds like a ‘no’,” Genma told Raidou. He raised his voice, too. “Katsuko warned you about what? Not to drink too much? That doesn’t sound like her.”
“That T’chou was like this.” His eyes closed again, and his shoulders slumped. “An’ now you are, too.” He sounded utterly betrayed.
Genma glanced at Raidou. “Well? I have hangover powders — one for you, too, if you want it — should I give him one, or have you decided against mercy?”
Raidou gave Ryouma a long, considering look, then shrugged. “Good practice to train under rough conditions. Up and at ‘em, Tousaki. If you actually die, the lieutenant can patch you up.”
Somehow, that answer didn’t surprise Genma. Raidou was a compassionate man, even a kind one, when the situation called for it. But he was also a hardass of a commander.
“You know I can’t actually resurrect the dead, right?” Genma asked.
Raidou grinned. “Good practice for you, too.”
“Where the hell is Hatake?” Raidou asked, squinting towards HQ.
Ryouma collapsed onto his side. “He’s not a masochist,” he said. After a moment, he flopped over onto his stomach, stretched, and began the weariest, most pathetic set of pushups Genma had ever seen.
It was actually kind of impressive how much emotion — betrayal, despair, accusation, misery — Ryouma could pack into so simple an activity.
“I’m pretty sure we have enough evidence to prove he is,” Genma said. “Taichou makes him suffer when he’s late. Don’t see why today would be any different.” He dropped into a squat and started stretching his hamstrings. The chakra he’d set to work on speeding sobriety had done its job; he was definitely sober. And starting to regret his life choices just a little.
He glanced up at Raidou. “How are you, actually? Are you one of those people who just doesn’t get hangovers?”
“Not without drinking a lot more, first.” Raidou said, amused. “And I have fifteen kilos on you, at least.”
Genma considered it. They’d started dancing almost the minute they arrived, but they’d both had several of those lethal blue shots of Kurenai’s, followed by Kakashi’s gift drinks. Genma’s lighter frame undoubtedly accounted for his being more tipsy than Raidou when they’d arrived at the izakaya. But while Raidou had switched to water and beer, Genma had delightedly helped consume Ginta’s very expensive, very good sake. And then there were Kakashi’s flaming lemon boats, and Kurenai’s shouchuu at the end…
“You have a point,” Genma said. His head and shoulders were starting to throb, and his stomach churned on his breakfast rice like it was considering rebellion. He aborted his stretch and pulled one of the medicine packets out of his pocket. “Lucky bastard. I’m taking some medicine before I end up looking like Tousaki does.” He tipped the grainy powder into his mouth and swished it down with a sip of water. It made his tongue go numb for a moment, but the fire in his gut died almost as soon as he’d finished swallowing.
“Thank the gods for the brilliant people in Grass Country who came up with this stuff,” Genma said with a relieved sigh. He resumed his stretches, focusing on his shoulders. “Whoever invented it ought to get a pass straight to the Pure Land when they die.”
From a point about half a meter behind Genma, Kakashi said, “Morning, Lieutenant.” Genma spun so fast he almost overbalanced himself, lashing out with a reflexive kick that whished harmlessly past Kakashi’s head when Kakashi dodged.
Kakashi was about Genma’s size, and if anything, lighter. He’d definitely had more alcohol than Genma, yet there he was, looking as fresh as an April morning.
The hangover remedy hadn’t had quite enough time to work yet. Genma swallowed hard, took a careful breath through the nose, and growled, “You’re late, Hatake.”
Kakashi smiled brightly, eye curving into a slim crescent. “You don’t look well, Lieutenant.”
“Your compassion is astounding,” Genma told him. Nausea ebbed, and he resumed stretching. “Unless Taichou has something better for you to do, you can do push ups with Tousaki.” Who wasn’t doing push ups anymore, it turned out. He was watching his teammates with a baffled look on his face.
“Laps. Both of you,” Raidou said. There wasn’t even a trace of good humor in his voice. “Start slow and build up. I want you sprinting in ten minutes. You can stop when Tousaki’s no longer green.”
Kakashi tapped out a non-standard salute, fingertips to temple, and loped off obediently.
Ryouma was on his feet with outrage-fueled speed. “I wasn’t late!”
“You didn’t drag him to training with you, either,” Raidou said, unmoved. “Feel free to let him know he’s inconvenienced you.”
Ryouma looked at Kakashi’s retreating back, and then stared at Raidou with a gratifying combination of confusion and injustice. “Why would I wake him up? We didn’t—” There was almost an audible click when Ryouma’s brain caught up with his mouth. He turned a dull sunset red, mumbled, “Taichou,” and took off after Kakashi.
Well, that hinted at a tangle Raidou didn’t intend to touch unless the alternative was a smoking blast radius. He had enough problems policing his own damn issues.
Speaking of which…
Genma had flipped himself gracefully up on his palms, body arching backwards in a long stretch. As Raidou watched, he bent his knees until the soles of his feet hovered a scant inch away from the back of his own head.
Raidou dragged his gaze up to study a cloud formation.
“Well,” Genma said, sounding relaxed despite his full-body fold, “that was interesting.”
“Hatake being rude or Tousaki being awkward?” Raidou asked. “Because I’d say that was status normal.”
Genma straightened his legs and eased himself down onto his forearms, holding himself in a single taut line. “You think it’s just Tousaki having sex on the brain like always, or is there something there?”
“Friendship, I hope,” Raidou said. “Since Hatake’s romantic interests apparently start and end at literature, and I’m sure as hell not giving him The Talk.” He dropped into his own round of push ups, which put his eyeline safely on the grass. “Tousaki’s not suicidal enough to poke that bear trap, either.”
At least, Raidou hoped.
There was a brief moment of silence, a rustle of clothing. He felt the little prickle of Genma watching him.
“At least not until checking if the trap was armed, we can hope,” Genma said.
“It’s Hatake,” Raidou said, resolutely continuing his push ups. “When is he not armed?”
“Right. Well…” Did Genma sound distracted? Raidou flicked a glance sideways, but Genma was tucking himself into a new pose, up on his hands with his knees braced down on his elbows. “At least so far they haven’t killed each other. Even without Ueno to buffer them. It’s a shame she wasn’t here last night, though, since I gather she instigated the whole ‘let’s go to a club’ thing anyway.”
Of course she had.
Raidou had missed her last night. He missed her this morning. Her humor, her irreverence, her paradoxically stabilizing chaos.
But she wasn’t here, and Raidou really needed to get over himself and say some kind of words to Genma like a decent human being, starting with an alphabetized list of why we are a bad idea…
He shoved himself back upright, and said, “Genma.”
Genma looked up, eyes catching the early morning light.
On the other side of the training field, Ryouma was noisily sick.
Genma gave the smallest eyeroll and swung out of his pose to kneel on the grass. “Guess it was inevitable. Want me to do something for him, or are we still teaching him to overcome hardship?”
“Depends whether he splashed Hatake or not,” Raidou muttered, and got to his feet.
Ryouma was hanging over the opposite fence, managing to look miserable and hard-done-by even at this distance, while Kakashi awkwardly patted his back. They really had gotten closer in Katsuko’s absence, in their own way.
Raidou sighed. “Go fix him. And check Hatake’s not actually still drunk, would you?”
“He is being uncharacteristically compassionate.” Genma set out across the field, but Ryouma was already pushing back from the fence and waving Kakashi off. When Genma arrived, Ryouma shook his head stubbornly and took up running again.
There was the grit kicking in. Raidou watched, pleased, as Ryouma picked up the pace, finally catching his stride. Kakashi, meanwhile, was trying to slide away from Genma’s attention and having less success. Their conversation ended with Genma shoving a bottle of water into Kakashi’s hands, and performing some kind of small medical jutsu that required a hand on the back of Kakashi’s neck. Raidou took it as a sign of progress that Kakashi actually stood still long enough to allow that — that, or further evidence there was still some of last night’s flaming lemon-thing working its way out of Kakashi’s system.
When the little medical moment ended, Kakashi looked decidedly less chipper. He endured a few more minutes of lecturing — do not show up to training late, altered, and expecting to get away with it, Raidou guessed — until Ryouma’s next return provided enough distraction for him to get away.
They ran for the next hour. Genma and Raidou split their time between a set of taijutsu exercises that gave Genma trouble, and a branch of new earth ninjutsu that nearly ended with Raidou buried up to his neck.
There was color back in Ryouma’s face and the sober light of irritation in Kakashi’s eye when Raidou signalled for them to stop. Ryouma grabbed a bottle of water. Kakashi kept a wary watch on Genma.
“Okay,” Raidou said. “New game. Hunter-tag; Hatake’s it.”
Kakashi brightened up.
“No crippling injuries,” Raidou added.
Ryouma cast a longing look at the shady trees ringing the north side of the field. The sun was starting to beat down; all of them were sweat-damp. But he only asked, “Time limit?”
Raidou glanced up at the deep blue sky. “Noon. If Hatake hasn’t caught everyone by then, he can buy lunch.”
Genma vanished in a crack of chakra, gone so fast the air snapped back cold where he’d been.
Ryouma told Kakashi, “Have fun,” and bolted. He was loosened up and fast, a dark cut of movement that split abruptly into five clones. They scattered in different directions, vaulting fences.
Kakashi glanced at Raidou. The mask hid his smile, but his expression still looked wolfish. For all his slouch and sarcasm, his lateness and his insolence, there was something fundamentally predatory welded into Kakashi’s core. It raised the hair on the back of Raidou’s neck.
He stole a leaf from Genma’s playbook, and translocated too.
Ryouma had played Hunter-tag before. Everyone did, in training as a genin or with comrades as a jounin. It was harder as ANBU—the need to clamp down chakra, to conceal the ANBU spark, meant forgoing even the most minor jutsu until the last moment before the hunter struck. Katsuko hadn’t been much good as a hider, but she was very good as a hunter.
Kakashi would be better. Sharper, faster, hunting by scent and sight and chakra senses. Invisible himself, until the moment he tried to take your head off.
Standard rules kept them restricted to the plateau above the Hokage Monument. But the forest was thick here, beyond the cleared land around ANBU HQ, and Ryouma could lose his scent in the river above the falls.
Or earlier, if he dared translocating, but a sour tang still lurked in the back of his throat. Better not to risk it.
Kakashi knew about the river, of course. He’d head there, or send a clone, to head Ryouma off or track him down. But he also knew Ryouma felt like crap this morning, so he might assume Ryouma’d aim for the lazier bend upstream, where the sun warmed the shallows and the current was gentle.
Ryouma plunged into white-water rapids instead.
The cold and the current nearly smashed the breath out of his lungs. He bounced off a rock and tucked his limbs in tight, clenching his chakra down beneath his skin. Water dashed into foam around him. Nidaime had redirected the channel for this stretch of the river fifty years ago, away from the old bed over the Monument and the risk of spring flooding; now it raged between steep stone banks, lunging for the falls, and perhaps he could have thought a little more about this before he jumped.
His lungs ached. Sparks danced in front of his eyes. The thunder of the falls vibrated through his bones. He gave himself just a moment longer—two—
Water became air became water again, with punishing force. Ryouma opened his chakra for one brief skin-surface flare, and shoved himself out of the falls. He hit rock and clung, shivering, with water smashing down behind his back.
He looked up.
Kakashi wasn’t waiting there, silhouetted against the sky. So far, at least, his plan had worked.
Ryouma grinned to himself, coughed up water, and started to climb.
A small, sandy-brown dog met him at the top of the cliff.
Ryouma hauled himself up over the crumbling edge and stared at it. It tipped its head, folded ears flopping, and stared inquiringly back. It had huge brown eyes and a wrinkled, appealingly ugly face, and it was wearing a Konoha hitai’ate.
“I thought the Inuzuka bred their dogs for war,” Ryouma said, squatting down next to it. He could use a breather, anyway. He’d come up in the forest on the far western edge of the escarpment, more than a kilometer from the waterfall; his arms ached from the sideways, spidering climb. But he was at least three kilometers from the training field, with no scent trail in between, so he’d earned a rest and maybe a moment to scratch soft ears.
He offered the dog his hand.
It sniffed, appraisingly, and said, “You don’t smell like rotten fruit.”
“Fucking hell,” Ryouma said, and sat down in the dirt.
“Pakkun, actually,” the dog said. It was moving its jaws and everything, though it seemed to have a little trouble on some of the trickier consonants; the voice sounded like a gruff old man who’d smoked three packs a day for the last forty years. It sat down beside him, small stocky body leaning against his leg, and scratched its ear thoroughly. “You’ve got about ten seconds.”
“Ten seconds,” Ryouma said, numbly. “Before…”
The dog spread its tiny toes and began to nibble between them. Faintly muffled, it said, “He did say you seemed pretty bright. Mighta been wrong about that too…”
“He?” Ryouma looked up.
Dimly, through the mist of memory, he heard a small boy say brightly, “Dad’s got toads and Kakashi’s got dogs…”
He looked down sharply at the dog—Pakkun—again. Its curling tail thumped. It offered, “Three seconds.”
Ryouma shoved himself off the ground and bolted for the trees.
Behind him, he heard the pug’s voice lift in a warbling high-pitched howl. Another dog answered, lower-pitched, resonant. That one sounded big.
Of course the moment he met Kakashi’s summons would be when they were hunting him.
They had his trail, now; there was no point in hiding his chakra. He split off another three shadow clones, substantial enough to carry his scent, and took to the trees. They were massive oaks here, Shodai’s jutsu-grown guardians: broad limbs, concealing leaves, and enough chakra in their sap to mask his own.
A clone died. It wasn’t the first. The five he’d split off at the training field were almost all gone by now, tracked down and dispatched while he was in the river or on the cliff. Their memories had come with brief flashes of pain, a kunai to the arm or a shuriken to the back. This one died with the memory of dogs’ teeth in its hamstrings, pulling it down like a deer.
“No crippling injuries,” Ryouma muttered. “Thanks a lot, Kakashi.”
“You’re welcome,” Kakashi said, behind him, low and amused. Not quite breath on the back of his neck, but too damn close for any type of comfort.
But Ryouma’d been expecting that since he felt dogs’ teeth in his clone’s death-memory. He spun, bare hands lit red, and Kakashi flinched half a step back.
The explosive tag sparked beneath Kakashi’s heel, and the branch erupted into flame.
Ryouma dropped the genjutsu and dropped out of the tree. He rolled off the ground and into a weaving sprint. A pillar of earth struck up out of the leaf-mould at him; he hit it with one hand and used the momentum to vault over it. The earth reformed, trying to shackle his wrist. He hardened his chakra, punched through, and hurtled through falling dust.
Fire raced through the trees ahead of him, roaring loud as the waterfall. Saplings crisped and blackened. His damp shirt steamed in the heat. It might be genjutsu, but he didn’t have a Sharingan or a Yuuhi’s eyes to tell. He veered, running parallel to the flames, and pulled on his Water chakra.
Bird, Dog, Monkey, Hare—
The sweat in his shirt, the moisture in the leaves, the clammy underside of a rotten log. He shaped a disk of water that sliced through the fireline and left a narrow gap for him to follow. A dog howled behind him. Another clone died.
Smoke stung his eyes. He swapped directions again, heading back toward the cliff. The ground shivered, nearly throwing him off his feet. A young tree, two meters in diameter, crashed down to block his path. He leapt up over it, and a massive dog hit him square in the chest and smashed him back down.
The world was snapping teeth and saliva and snarls. Ryouma jammed his forearm between its jaws and barely kept his hands from seals. Kakashi didn’t mind hamstringing him but he wouldn’t thank Ryouma for rotting one of his summons. “Your breath stinks,” he panted, and kicked the dog in the belly. Then he punched it in the side of the head, for good measure.
He might’ve punched the tree for all the good it did. The dog shook its head, nearly ripping his arm out of its socket. This one was an immense brindled mastiff with drooping jowls and a studded collar, and it had to outweigh Ryouma by fifty kilos or more. It forestalled another attempt at a kick simply by folding up its legs and dropping on him. His ribs bowed.
Fuck, if this dog thought he was a clone and chewed his arm off— If Kakashi came along and found him trapped beneath a dog—
He laced his fingers together for the kawarimi no jutsu, and left the dog chewing on half a tree branch.
His arm was scratched and sticky with dog-spit, but not actually bleeding. Maybe the dog had more sense than its master. It realized the substitution quickly enough, and crunched down. The tree branch splintered. The dog got to its feet and lifted baleful eyes to the tree where Ryouma crouched, catching his breath. It tipped its head back and howled.
Ryouma cursed, and darted for the next tree.
His last clone died and left him memories of flames streaking like javelins through the forest. Another dog bayed somewhere to his left, uncomfortably close. Ryouma veered right. He knew they were herding him like prey, knew somewhere ahead of him Kakashi lurked with some trap, but—
Teeth snapped at his ankles. The fucking things could chakra-climb. Of course they could, they were summons, at least one of them could talk, this had to be his punishment for looking at Kakashi last night and wanting him—
The trees ended abruptly. He dropped out of the branches and into a clearing at the base of a steep semicircle cliff, with a thin waterfall glinting down the rock to form a shallow pool. The water ran off again to his left, cutting through the forest to join the river.
A dog waited at the top of the cliff, tawny-grey and wolfish and almost as big as the mastiff. It grinned at him, tongue lolling scarlet between very long teeth.
His clone’s death-memory knew the sharpness of those teeth.
Ryouma turned, warily, and saw two more dogs coming out of the trees. One was the mastiff; the other was a lean yellow shepherd type, smaller, and probably much quicker.
He bared his teeth back at them. “One of you screwed up. You gave me water.”
The stream rose with his chakra. He’d never much seen the point of the showy water-dragons with their glinting fangs and spiky crests; they took too much control to shape, and too much time. Thick ropes would serve just as well, to smash a leaping dog from the air and then bind it down. He could manage three, and hope there wasn’t another one lurking…
The shepherd crouched lower, growling. Ryouma tensed. His chakra flexed, and the water-ropes waved and dripped over his head.
And something struck him from the side, blazing-fast. He lost his feet and his control. The water-ropes lashed out and then splashed down, and Ryouma hit the ground on his back, soaked to the skin, with a kunai at his throat.
Kakashi gave him an eye-curving smile. “Hi.”
Ryouma tried to punch him in the side of the head.
Kakashi caught his hand effortlessly. A dog’s jaws closed around Ryouma’s other wrist. Kakashi knelt astride him, controlling his hips in the approved taijutsu manner, and nothing about this morning was fair.
“One point to you,” Ryouma said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Let me up.”
“This is why you’re not allowed to be arbitrator of the points system,” Kakashi said, cheerfully not moving. “Running an elite ANBU to ground is worth at least two.”
Or twelve, but who was counting?
Ryouma was a soaked, furious live-wire between Kakashi’s knees, arms hiked up, hips locked down, an arch of tight muscle, humming chakra, and victory. Kakashi would let him up — in a minute.
Ryouma’s wrist flexed in Kakashi’s grip. “You had help.”
Kin’s tail wagged. Her teeth gleamed against Ryouma’s skin, holding him with utmost delicacy. Kakashi grinned at her.
“I did,” he said, and looked back at Ryouma. “You should join us.”
Ryouma snarled, hips bridging violently. “Let me up.”
Kakashi locked his heels under Ryouma’s thighs, thwarting any leverage Ryouma could gain. The kunai was still whisper-close to Ryouma’s skin. Since Ryouma seemed more inclined to slit his throat on it than actually notice the threat, Kakashi flipped the blade back into his thigh-holster and replaced it with his hand. Ryouma’s pulse hammered against his fingers.
“Last chance,” Kakashi said. “Admit defeat and go sulk under a tree. Or come over to my side and help me hunt down the captain and the lieutenant. Which would be a lot more fun.”
Ryouma relaxed his hips. Then, after a scowling moment, turned his head aside to glare at Kin. “Tell it to let go of me, if we’re on the same side.”
“Her,” Kakashi said. But he was amused, despite himself, that Ryouma would try bargaining flat on his back, weaponless, as if he occupied a position of strength.
Kin glanced between them, ears pricked attentively. Kakashi made a wordless noise in the back of his throat. She opened her jaws, licked the soft inside of Ryouma’s wrist, and sat back on her haunches, tail sweeping the ground behind her.
Ryouma’s glare cracked on bewilderment, staring at the golden shepherd, before he pulled the armored shards of his anger back together, and pried at Kakashi’s hand on his throat. “Now you.”
“You first,” Kakashi said.
If Ryouma didn’t defect, Kakashi would have to tie him to that tree anyway, to keep him from bolting off to warn their commanding officers — or hitting Kakashi in the back.
A muscle rippled at the hinge of Ryouma’s jaw. For a moment, his nails pressed against the back of Kakashi’s hand, tiny little sparks of pain. Ryouma made a deep, aggravated sound and dropped his hand, turned his head, and let his gaze slide away. The tension didn’t ease out of his body, but he stopped fighting. “All right, I’ll back you.”
Something about the line of Ryouma’s throat, where the tendon sliced under skin, made Kakashi want to set his teeth there. Or maybe it was the scent coiling off Ryouma’s skin, anger paramount, adrenaline underneath. Fear, too, fading now that the hounds weren’t snapping at his heels. And one more thing, scorched and faint, half-familiar…
To the west, a howl went up.
Some day, Kakashi wanted to fight Ryouma without limits. Lightning and Sharingan against necrotic death, just to see who would win. Today, though, he’d settle for Ryouma on his side.
Kin sprang to her feet, returning the howl with a long, clear note. We’re coming! Kakashi released Ryouma’s throat, untangled himself, and hauled Ryouma upright by the wrist. “Lieutenant’s found the captain.”
“Shit,” Ryouma said, rolling his shoulders. “This could get ugly. The lieutenant’s gonna have traps laid. And even that one’s gonna notice if the captain punches it.” He nodded at Baiji, the big mastiff, who scratched his ear unconcernedly.
“He,” Kakashi corrected. “That’s Baiji. This is Kin. She—” he pointed to the grey dog still watching them from the top of the waterfall, who was built more closely on wolf lines, “is Tsuyoshi. And the captain would have to catch them first.”
Kin circled Ryouma curiously, nosed his hand, then took off into the treeline at a speed most two-legged creatures couldn’t match. Baiji followed her, graceful despite his size. Tsuyoshi slipped away between blinks, vanishing like a shadow.
“Try not to throw up,” Kakashi told Ryouma, grabbed his shoulder, and translocated them both to the original howl’s source.
They landed on a moss-covered branch the width of a table, deep enough in Konoha’s forest that the light was deep green and the air smelled like warm mulch. Ryouma staggered, but didn’t fall, throw up, or punch Kakashi. He wiped a thin nosebleed away and crouched, squinting down at the forest floor below.
Pakkun landed at Kakashi’s side and said, “We’re recruiting now?”
“You prefer less help?” Kakashi shot back.
The vicious hiss of a wire and a distant, cut-off yelp snapped their attention sideways.
“Nao,” Pakkun said. “Idiot.” He leapt out of the tree, sprinting down the thick trunk.
Kakashi spared three heartbeats to put senses and scent together — all six dogs; Genma’s recent presence, hidden again; Raidou’s chakra, also hidden, but dense enough to bend the universe just a little, to the north — and dropped down after Pakkun. Ryouma followed, regaining balance and equilibrium as he fell. By the time he hit the ground, he was steady again.
Pakkun had vanished into the undergrowth.
There was another distant twang, followed by a furious yowl. Sho’s chakra dimmed.
Genma wouldn’t kill a summons, but Kakashi still ran. Ryouma followed.
He found Nao first, dangling from a gnarled, thorny tree by a wire caught around one hock. Another wire wrapped around his muzzle. The lanky mountain dog was holding very still, nervously watching the lethal thorns that drifted by his eyes with every gentle swing. Pakkun, delicately picking his way up through the branches, muttered a number of choice phrases about Nao’s competence.
Even if they cut Nao down, he’d be limping and slow. Kakashi broke the connection; the mountain dog vanished like a dispelled clone, leaving an empty noose. Pakkun paused, gave Kakashi a disgruntled look, and stretched up to sniff the loop of wire.
“Shiranui,” he confirmed. “Smells like chakra.”
“Don’t touch it,” Kakashi said, and kept moving.
He avoided a half-dozen snares on his way to Sho, warned by scent, luck, and little glimmers of chakra coiled through the wires. You could almost admire Genma’s time-management — and Kakashi might have, if it weren’t messing with his pack. Sho was a younger dog, relatively inexperienced. Not one Kakashi would have summoned for a real hunt, but perfect for a practice run.
And currently suspended in a chakra-binding net.
Kakashi paused in the hidden arch of a nearby tree, eying the nasty iron points scattered over the ground and the highly embarrassed dog above them, and wagered odds on what kind of poison Genma had used.
Well, this problem had the same cure. Kakashi broke the connection with Sho, who vanished (with relief), leaving an empty net.
Which burst into flame.
Kakashi blinked. Then the scent hit him. Sickly-sweet and overpowering, like the worst of Ryouma’s soaps wrapped in burning candy and blighted roses. It obliterated everything else. He clapped a hand over his face, lurching back. Pakkun, just reaching the clearing, stopped like he’d slammed into a glass door and sneezed explosively, until his legs wobbled and he sat down hard.
Kakashi… was starting to not feel quite right.
Of course Genma had poisoned his nose-blinding smoke. Of course he knew what Kakashi wasn’t immune to.
The edges of the world greyed. Kakashi’s legs were starting to go out. He grabbed for the tree-trunk — Genma had probably planned for him to be in the net, or under it, not sixty feet up — and felt himself lose control of his hands.
Ryouma wrapped an arm around his waist.
There was a dizzying drop to the forest floor. Ryouma snatched Pakkun up by the scruff with his free hand, and leapt again. Another ruthless gravity flip, with speed that had to be chakra-aided. Another tree, less thorny. Another jump.
A much taller tree, with branches too thin to be worth trapping, and blessed, breathable air. Pakkun retched noisily. Kakashi slithered out of Ryouma’s hold, crouching down to put his head between his knees. A hand caught him by the back of the shirt, keeping him in the tree.
“Two points,” Kakashi told Ryouma shakily. “But I get two f’recruiting you.”
Ryouma crouched next to him, draping Pakkun over one knee — the little pug groaned — and anchoring them all with his free hand on the tree trunk. “You need back-patting too?”
He actually sounded sincere.
Before Kakashi could decide one way or another, Tsuyoshi howled close by. This time, she was answered by Raidou’s yell.
At the sound, Genma froze flat against the trunk of a tree, pulling his chakra in to as tight a radius as it was physically possible to inhabit. Raidou’s chakra signature flared briefly, alongside what had to be one of Kakashi’s hells-damned hounds. The summoned dog’s chakra had a prickly impermanence to it, an artifact of its link to the Summoning Dimension. Raidou’s was all too real. It vanished as quickly as it had flared, but damn, Raidou. That was a surprising mistake. The dog must have really caught him off guard.
Another dog’s voice joined the first, baying high and eerie on the muggy air. Genma threaded a final paper bladder of finely ground pepper onto the line he’d rigged. The packets clung like beads of dew on a spider’s silk. He pulled the triggering wire taut, secured it to a knee-high knot of bark on the tree, and fed chakra into the trap in a thin trickle.
It was maddening how slow he had to go, to keep his chakra undetectable. The hunting game was a standard exercise for every ANBU team, but there was something especially exhausting about the tight chakra control you needed to hide from another sensor.
And now Genma was running low on traps. He’d parted with half his precious stash of trap-making material when he’d crossed paths with Raidou not half an hour ago. If Raidou had been caught already, and wasted them, Genma was going to be really irritated.
The trap set with a distinctive curling snap when it was fully primed. Genma leaned back on his heels and swept out a risky feeler for Raidou, Ryouma, or Kakashi. He’d thought he’d felt Ryouma right before the dog and Raidou had taken over his awareness. Now there was nothing but the low steady thrum of forest life, and way out at the edge of training field nine, a cluster of undisguised ANBU sparks belonging to another team.
Kakashi could be anywhere. At least it seemed like Raidou had managed to get away. For the moment.
A bird startled out of a branch overhead with a flurry of wings. Genma translocated without waiting to see whether it was his pursuer or just a rival sparrow that had set the bird to flight.
The dogs were to the northwest. Genma went south. He snapped back out of the spacetime ripple his translocation jutsu created, and dropped to a spongy, leaf-littered floor in the middle of a bamboo thicket. His head throbbed — he really should have drunk more water to counter his hangover — but it was a little late to be worrying about that now.
He slunk through the slender bamboo poles, timing his movements with the faint rustle of a June breeze that disturbed their feathery tops. If Kakashi pursued him here, he’d probably try to get downwind and catch Genma’s scent.
There was a shallow basin where the ground dipped to allow rainwater to run free, next to a low, flat rock. That’s where Genma would go if he were trying to find a target in this grove. He took a square of inked mulberry paper out and folded it several times, then puffed into it to inflate it. It looked innocuous — a child’s plaything. He smiled at it in grim satisfaction, tucked a glass vial of stinkweed oil into the opening he’d use to inflate it, and attached a hair-thin wire to the cork. Then he carefully threaded the wire through the leaf litter to the rock. It would take just a single, unsuspecting footfall to trigger the trap, uncork the oil, and detonate the seal painted on the paper.
He started to rig a snare net to a willow near the water path, but a lower, deeper-voiced dog thundered out a volley of barks not far off. Raidou’s chakra blazed like a wind-whipped bonfire, and this time it stayed a fixed point, moving towards him at high speed.
Genma swung up into the willow and headed towards the commotion. It was a questionable move, since it put him at risk of capture with his less-stealthy captain. But Kakashi had recruited an entire household of dog summons to help with the hunt. It seemed only fair for at least two of the pursued to gang up on trying to evade.
As Genma spun through the hanging foliage, Raidou’s chakra storm became sharper and brighter, almost like a beacon—
Genma swerved abruptly away, taking a perpendicular track to the one he’d been on. The dogs — at least two of them now, with distinct voices and chakra signatures — were chasing a clone. Genma took back all the uncharitable things he’d just thought about Raidou’s stealth and applied them to himself and his failure to trust his captain.
The clone must be a good one, if it even had scent for the dogs to chase. And Genma was an idiot. He’d fallen for it just as much as they had. He headed uphill, towards a lush growth of rhododendrons. Their fragrance might be enough to hide him from the dogs’ noses, and they were dense enough to give him cover.
He dove for the broad leaves and bright pink petals of the closest plant, and a huge golden shape burst out of the bamboo to his right. Genma didn’t wait for the jaws to close around his arm — he used a substitution jutsu, reckless with his chakra in his haste to evade. The points of the dog’s teeth raked his skin, then closed around a heavy, flowered branch. Genma burrowed into the ground with an earth jutsu, creating a tiny cavity beneath the tangled roots of the bushes where he could hide and regroup. The honey-colored dog barked sharply, and the deeper-voiced dogs that had been chasing Raidou’s clone answered.
This was really not going well.
He couldn’t stay under the earth forever, he’d run out of air, and the dogs would just sit and wait for him to emerge, probably with Kakashi right beside them, looking smug behind his mask.
No, he had to fight, and then get as quickly far away as possible. He waited until the golden dog sounded close, shaped his chakra, and when the soil shifted overhead with dog’s weight, he released the jutsu, trapping the dog in an earthen dome. It wouldn’t last long, but it was enough to buy him a little time.
He surfaced, planning to translocate again, and was immediately bowled over by the damn golden shepherd. It stood on him, one back paw digging dangerously into his groin, and smiled at him, wagging its tail.
The earth dome was right where he’d put it. With a gap under one broken edge.
“Bastard,” Genma said, without much malice. The dog shook a few dry clumps of dirt from its fur, and gave a decidedly smug-sounding bark.
Then Raidou, the real Raidou, thundered out of nowhere, and tackled the dog.
Genma rolled one way, Raidou and the dog tumbled the other, and after a brief but vicious wrestling match, it was the dog that was pinned, with Raidou looking breathless and victorious.
The dog gave the most pitiful little whine, squirming under Raidou’s elbow to no avail. Its brown eyes rolled towards Genma, showing a little white around one edge, as if it were appealing to Genma for help.
“You’re a fool if you think I’m getting you out of this, mutt,” Genma said. He got to his feet and went to give the captive dog’s head a rough pat. Then smiled at Raidou. “Thanks, Taichou. I’ve got some rope left. Shall we tie this one up and get out of here?”
“You don’t want to make yourself a rug?” Raidou’s eye glinted; the dog’s pointed ears clamped flat back. “Kidding. I’m kidding,” he told the dog.
The dog didn’t seem entirely appeased.
“Don’t worry, he’s really a very nice guy,” Genma said. He liberated the last of his rope, and while Raidou continued to restrain the dog, Genma tied her front and back paws together, making a tight, secure bundle, then laced the rope between her hind legs and up over her back to knot it to itself around the dog’s neck.
“That won’t choke you unless you struggle,” he told the dog. “So just relax. We’ll leave you in a sunny spot, and Kakashi can untie you when he gets here.”
The dog just whined again.
Raidou twitched, and glanced back towards the woods. “Clone just died. We should move.”
They translocated by mutual agreement to the remains of a quarry that now served as ‘training field five’. It was dusty and rock-strewn, scarred from countless exploding tags and practice earth jutsu over the years. Perfect for two ninja with earth in their chakra natures.
“I set up seven traps before I heard your clone getting chased and made an idiot of myself trying to get there to rescue you.” Genma said. “No idea where that other dog came from, but thanks for getting me out of there.”
Raidou gave him a charming, crooked smile. “If my clone was good enough to fool a chakra-sensor, I’m doing something right. Did you see anything of Hatake?”
“Until that dog got to me, nothing. No Tousaki, either. You?”
“Not a peep,” Raidou said. “Tousaki ran instead of translocating, though. Hatake might have gotten him already.” He looked thoughtfully back in the direction of the training field where they’d started. “Or they both killed each other.”
Genma chuckled. “Poor Tousaki. I thought they were actually starting to get along. Maybe they’ll only maim each other.”
“So long as it’s not permanent,” Raidou said.
In the distance, a dog howled. A second one answered it, much closer. Raidou crouched low, flattening his chakra down to the faintest glimmer. Genma did the same, tamping his chakra so tight his hands and feet went cold.
A third howl joined the other two, laced with a menacing snarl.
“Think Hatake’s annoyed we tied up his dog?” Raidou murmured.
“A little.” Kakashi’s voice was flat and angry. He stood barely six meters behind them, pallid and scowling.
Evidently hangovers didn’t improve his disposition: he wasn’t smug, he was murderous.
A small tan dog at Kakashi’s ankle said, “Poison is not nice.”
“Who told you combat was supposed to be nice?” Genma studied the summoned dog — talkers were rare. Most summons were monosyllabic or mute. “Hunting people down with dogs isn’t nice, either.”
“Effective, though.” Kakashi still sounded wrathful. The dog gave a disgusted snort.
Ryouma dropped down from the quarry ledge to stand, hands on hips, opposite Kakashi. He didn’t look as threatening, but he didn’t look exactly friendly, either.
“Turncoat,” Genma said.
“Prisoner of war,” Ryouma said with a shrug.
“Who was suborned. Next training exercise will be resistance to coercion. Maybe we can get someone from T&I in.”
“Nobody’s gonna be that coercive,” muttered Ryouma. A little louder, he said, “Just surrender and everyone pays for their own lunch, okay?”
No one seemed ready to make a move. Two enormous dogs and the golden shepherd appeared at the top of the quarry, cutting off that escape route.
Genma met Raidou’s eyes. “Meet you at the place Omashi ate it in that event last year?” Raidou would get the reference; the rookies would definitely not.
Raidou’s eyebrow twitched, a silent agreement. His hands were already moving into the hare seal.
Genma copied him. This cat-and-mouse translocation game just had to go on until noon. He flipped through the remaining seals and moved, dicing time and space to get away one more time.
And hit a wall.
Moving at the speed he’d been made for an impressive impact. A jutsu-birthed wall of earth was an excellent way to stop a translocation, if you knew your target’s trajectory, Genma had to give Kakashi that. And he had to give Kakashi credit for sticking to Raidou’s ‘no lethal force’ rule and making the wall out of a loose conglomerate of soft soil. Mostly he wanted to give Kakashi a concussion, though.
He crumpled to the ground, half buried in the remains of the wall, and clapped a hand over his bleeding nose.
“You’re not supposed to hurt them, asshole!” Ryouma bolted for the lieutenant, and reached him just as Genma tried to roll over and spit blood. A collapsing heap of soft earth sifted down around him.
Raidou was gone. So were the three biggest dogs, their howls receding again into the forest. A thick stream of blood reddened Genma’s mouth and chin. Ryouma dropped to one knee beside him. “Neck okay, lieutenant?”
Genma winced, touched his chin to each shoulder, and heaved an annoyed sigh. “Neck’s okay. Where’s Hatake, so I can break his?”
Ryouma glanced back, but Kakashi must have translocated on Raidou’s trail. Only Pakkun was left, trotting cheerfully through the dust. He reached Genma’s side and thumped down, scratching vigorously. “Now we’re even.”
“You caught two of the other dogs,” Ryouma explained, and flicked Genma a fast hand-sign: Well done. “The poison net in the last trap nearly knocked Kakashi out of a tree. Can I check your nose?”
Genma smirked, stretching a split lip that spilled a new trickle down his chin. “I didn’t know there were going to be dogs. The traps were designed for Hatake.” He dabbed at his upper lip with the back of his wrist and sighed again. Leaning back into an armchair of earth, he waved his bloody hand at Ryouma. “Go ahead. I don’t think it’s broken this time.”
Not broken, maybe, but beginning to swell all the same. Ryouma dumped half the water in his canteen over a wad of bandage and cleaned the blood off Genma’s face, then dampened another pad to plaster over the bruise. “I don’t have any of that bruise-balm you gave me, sorry. Do you—”
Kakashi was back, empty-handed, dust swirling around him. Ryouma rocked back on his heels and scowled. “You know how fast a translocation moves? You could’ve killed him!”
“Not without a harder wall.” Kakashi crouched down next to Genma and tapped him lightly on the top of the head. A thin halo of dust rose from Genma’s hair. Kakashi said, “Tag. Want to join us?”
Genma’s gaze traveled from Ryouma to Kakashi, and then back. He said, still considering Ryouma, “And do what?”
“Not get chased by dogs,” Ryouma muttered. Pakkun snickered. Ryouma didn’t actually know much about dogs, but he was pretty sure they shouldn’t be able to do that.
Even with only one eye visible, Kakashi could still manage an effective eyeroll. “Help us take down the captain,” he told Genma. “Or we can tie you to a tree. Your choice.”
Genma touched his forehead lightly and winced. “All right. But I need to take a break for a minute. I’m a little dizzy from that impact.”
“This is your fault,” Ryouma told Kakashi angrily. “He hasn’t even taught me that concussion-mending jutsu. What if you broke his brain?”
“Would you have preferred me to chase him with dogs?” Kakashi inquired, but he leaned back to give them space. Ryouma turned his back pointedly, shouldering Kakashi out, and started checking Genma’s symptoms.
The lieutenant’s coordination and reaction times seemed normal, and he didn’t appear abnormally sensitive to light. He reported, smiling faintly, that he wasn’t experiencing confusion or blurred vision or inability to concentrate. “I do have a headache, though.” His gaze dropped to Pakkun, who had pillowed his muzzle on his paws and appeared to be taking a nap. His voice sank to a thread of a whisper. “The dogs were a really asshole move, huh?”
Ryouma knew better than to look back, but he darted a glance over his shoulder anyway. Kakashi was up on the lip of the quarry, apparently talking to the three dogs there, though Ryouma couldn’t actually hear anything. A moment later Kin and the wolf-dog Tsuyoshi broke off for the trees, leaving hulking Baiji to guard. Kakashi sat down on the edge of the quarry beside him and devoted himself to scratching Baiji’s ears.
Pakkun, at least, understood human speech. Ryouma was willing to bet Baiji did too. And Kakashi’s hearing was insane. He kept his voice low but steady, assuming they’d catch it anyway. “They killed two of my clones.”
And Kakashi’d pinned him down and controlled him effortlessly, and had seen it as nothing more than a game.
Genma said quietly, “Clones don’t die from minor strikes. If I were you, I’d be really pissed.” His fingers curled in his lap, in a handsign Ryouma took a moment to recognize. Regroup and fresh assault. And then work together, with the twist that made it a question.
He’d given Kakashi his word. And Kakashi had trusted him, immediately and without question. But Kakashi had also hunted him with dogs, and Ryouma’d saved him from poison anyway. That probably fulfilled his obligations. Mostly.
He signed back, quickly: Hurt and turned it into a negative command. Don’t.
Agree, Genma signed, and help captain. He said aloud, “I think I’ll be alright. I’ll take some painkillers when we have lunch. Just wasn’t braced for that impact at all, so it rattled me a little. Has my nose stopped bleeding yet?”
Ryouma checked the bandage. “You’re good, I think.” He pushed to his feet and offered Genma a hand up. He hoped Genma’s heavy lean was just for appearance’s sake. Pakkun sat up, shook himself mightily, and yawned.
At the top of the quarry, Baiji gave a deep, sonorous bark that vibrated in Ryouma’s bones. Kakashi stretched. His shirt hitched up, baring a pale slice of side.
Ryouma looked away.
“I have a headache, too,” he announced. “Since you’ve got both of us now, can you send the dogs back?”
“Can either one of you track by scent?” Kakashi inquired.
“No,” Genma said. “But I know where he went.”
The pause drew itself out. Ryouma snuck a glance up at Kakashi and saw him standing with one hand on Baiji’s head, a brow raised, waiting.
Genma met his gaze. “Follow me.”
He headed for the other side of the quarry, where an overgrown trail led back into the forest. Kakashi inclined his head and dropped down off the quarry ledge.
His dogs split off without any obvious signal, surging past Genma to spread out among the trees. Ryouma was probably only imagining the ground shaking at Baiji’s footfalls.
Kakashi ran behind them, light-footed and easy, every step sure. Genma kept pace.
Ryouma followed up as rearguard, and tried not to look guilty.
Genma headed for ANBU Restricted Training Area One. It wasn’t easy terrain — swampy, overgrown, pitted with hidden sinkholes, and home to sucking, tarry mud buried under leaf litter, that acted as a natural trap for animals that blundered into it. Venomous snakes and nasty stinging insects lurked in the shadows. As did more than a few unsprung traps set by ANBU teams over the years.
Because it was restricted to ANBU use only, it was unfamiliar ground for the vast majority of Konoha’s ninja population; that made it perfect for use during ANBU trials. The spring trials that had given Kakashi and Ryouma their rookie places on Team Six had been held farther from Konoha’s center. Autumn trials the previous year, though, had been held in RTA One. Raidou had been there as one of the lieutenants responsible for actually vetting the candidates. Genma’s role as Hajime’s trusted veteran had been simpler: set traps, free the candidates who got caught in them, and provide first aid for any participant who needed it.
What that meant, in practical terms, was that Genma and Raidou both knew where the pitfalls and traps lay, while Kakashi and his dogs did not. It was an excellent place to evade Kakashi’s pursuit. That was why he’d told Raidou to meet him there.
Now it was going to be an excellent place to confound Kakashi instead.
He held up a hand to catch Kakashi’s attention as they neared the fenced border. “This area’s restricted. Our ANBU sparks will let us through. Your dogs might have a problem.”
As if to prove his point, the golden shepherd and the wolfish dog both came circling towards them from opposite directions. The shepherd’s tail was low, her posture dejected; the wolfish dog looked just as unhappy, but its ears were back and its lips pulled up in a snarl. It was hard to tell for certain, but if Genma had to guess, the wolf’s shaggy fur was singed.
Genma came to a halt at the fence and waited.
The big dog at Kakashi’s shoulder stopped, too, while the talkative little one, who’d been riding the big dog, scrambled up the big dog’s shoulders to get a better look at the obstacle.
Ryouma came to stand at Genma’s left. “Seals,” he said, pointing down the line of the fence to one of the many posts. “Like the Forest of Death.”
Kakashi crouched down to examine the fence, studying the wire where it met the ground. He shoved his hitai-ate up, exposing the red Sharingan, drinking in whatever information that gave him about the chakra construction of the barrier. After a moment he sighed, covered his eye, stood, and patted the big dog on the shoulder. He made a low, throaty noise, and all four dogs turned their attention on him. The little one sighed, too, sounding more like a tired, middle-aged man than the lap dog he resembled.
Kakashi flicked three quick seals, and all four dogs vanished, unsummoned with little ceremony. “Should we expect giant centipedes, too?” Kakashi asked.
Genma shrugged. “It’s a restricted training site in Konoha. Centipedes are the least of your worries. It’s the little red spiders that are the real bastards. They’re chakra-sensitive. Probably related to summoned spiders somehow. If you get one on you and it bites— Actually, just don’t get one on you.”
Ryouma shuddered, clapping a hand to the back of his neck as if he’d felt the brush of eight legs on his bared skin.
“Helpful,” Kakashi said, giving Genma a flat, unimpressed look. He vaulted over the fence, with Genma at his heels.
Ryouma gave the trees overhead an apprehensive look before he followed.
Well, damn, Genma’d scared the wrong rookie. Of course.
Those spiders really were little bastards, though.
Kakashi had crouched on one knee, with a scroll case and kunai in his right hand. He nicked the pad of his right thumb on the blade, and pulled the scroll wide, dragging a blood mark across the inked paper.
Three of the dogs reappeared at his feet. The big one seemed to be missing. It took an order of magnitude more chakra to summon a larger creature; Kakashi must not have had it to spare.
Good. That was two problems solved already. One less dog — arguably the most dangerous one based on its size — to worry about, and an extra allotment of Kakashi’s chakra spent on something other than apprehending Raidou.
Genma checked his watch — a little under two hours until noon. That was a lot of time to fill. He scanned the area carefully, then pointed. “We should cut through that break in the bushes. Watch out for puddles that look shimmery and shallow. If you have to step in one, chakra walk over it.”
Ryouma shared a wary glance with Kakashi. “An’ the water’s not gonna reach up and grab us if we do, right?”
Reach up and grab? Genma shook his head. “It’s just nature, not a jutsu. Stay on top of it, and you’ll be fine.”
“So what are they? Sinkholes?” Ryouma asked. He looked more intrigued than concerned.
“Anytime someone says it’s ‘just’ something, you better look at him sideways.” The little dog stared at Genma with a surprising amount of suspicion conveyed in his bulging brown eyes.
Genma knelt down to be closer to eye-level with the three dogs. Little Old Man continued to radiate skepticism, and the wolf looked frankly intimidating, but the golden shepherd cocked her head to one side and fanned the air with her brushy tail.
“Are you the only one who can talk?” Genma asked. “I imagine Hatake’s already told you who I am. What are your names?”
“Pakkun. Kin. Tsuyoshi,” Kakashi said, pointing in turn to Old Man, Sunny Girl, and the Wolf. He aimed his finger at Genma. “Time-Waster. Do you really know where the captain is, or are you just stalling?”
“I know where the place I told him to meet me is,” Genma said, getting to his feet again. He gave Kin’s soft ears a friendly pat. “I’m not sensing him, but he’s smarter than to let his chakra be a beacon with you hunting him. Like I said, it’s this way.” He started towards the gap between the bushes that led through a low bog. “And the puddles are sinkholes,” he added for Ryouma. “So either avoid them or chakra walk on top of them.”
Behind Genma, Kakashi made a soft, thoughtful noise. When Genma looked back, Kakashi was gone, and so was Tsuyoshi. Pakkun scaled Genma like a small tree, leaving a trail of muddy paw prints up his sweatpants and t-shirt. He settled himself on Genma’s shoulder. “He gets bored. Better hurry up before he beats you to the finish line.”
There was maybe a ten-percent chance Kakashi would actually make it all the way across the training area to Raidou and capture him before Genma could intervene. Ninety-percent said otherwise. As Ginta would say, those were favorable odds.
“You should ask him to trim your nails,” Genma said. He shrugged his shoulder to shift Pakkun into a more comfortable, less clawing position. “I think we’ll catch up to him. Did he go the way I said?”
“Who knows?” Pakkun flopped more heavily over Genma’s shoulder and yawned expressively, wafting a blast of doggy breath into Genma’s face. Genma turned his head away, and tried to keep the lingering edge of hangover from reasserting itself.
“Then maybe we’ll find the captain first.”
Genma continued to pick his way through the bog. He glanced back to be sure Ryouma was negotiating the trail successfully, and found Kin trotting at Ryouma’s side, tail still wagging hopefully. Ryouma seemed unmoved. He didn’t even glance in her direction. “You think Taichou’s holed up somewhere, or more likely on the move?”
“I didn’t show up when he expected me. If it was me in that situation, I’d make a few clones to serve as distractions and lookouts, and go from there,” Genma said.
They left the bog, climbing the rise on the other side, following an animal path that led away from the water. If Kakashi had gone the way Genma’d said — which was probable, given that it offered the most direct route to a high point for scenting and surveying — then he ought to encounter one of a half dozen traps Genma hadn’t warned him about fairly soon.
They made it almost all the way up the rise before a single, sharp yelp came from the other side. The frogs that had been chirping in the bog went briefly silent, then resumed their chorus.
Kin snapped to attention, ears pricked forward. Then she whined and streaked off towards the sound, bulldozing past Genma. Pakkun heaved a world-weary sigh. Ryouma picked his pace up to a jog, edging past Genma as well.
“He’s probably fine,” Genma said, breaking into a jog, too. “It’d be safer if you let me lead.”
Ryouma allowed Genma to overtake him, but he didn’t look happy about it. “Were you telling the truth about those spiders?”
“I was,” Genma said. “They’re mostly on the other side of the training area, though. You might see one or two on this side, but they’re cedar dwellers, and we’re still pretty close to the bogs.”
It didn’t seem to reassure Ryouma, but he didn’t have long to fret, anyway. They came down the crest of the rise and Genma stopped. Kin was standing on a small patch of grass, with all four paws crammed as close together as possible. A sprung snare swung empty from one of the few willow trees nearby. “Follow my footsteps exactly,” Genma told her and Ryouma both. “They should be just ahead.”
He danced a careful line through the triggers and snares, until he came to a dark spot where lush marsh grass disappeared into a pit. Kin crouched beside him, poked her head over the edge, and whined.
“Everything all right down there?” Genma called, leaning over to peer down the shaft. “Did you find the captain?”
Tsuyoshi’s snarl echoed up from the darkness, deep and threatening in a way that made the hair all over Genma’s body stand on end.
Sounding rather suffocated, Kakashi said, “Yes, he’s at the bottom of this hole. Pull us up so he can buy lunch.”
Genma would happily have bet his last ryou that Raidou was nowhere near that hole. At least not now. He lay flat on his belly and reached a cautious hand down to where one of the ropes was fastened to a bolt embedded in the wall.
“I remember these traps,” Genma said conversationally. “There’s limestone here, so we could screw anchor bolts right into it.” He felt along the taut rope; sharp hooks pricked his finger tips. “You know what’s funny? I think this might actually be one of Namiashi’s. Hold still and don’t struggle, I just need to find the release wire.”
“That’s hilarious.” Kakashi wheezed like his ribcage was being crushed. The trap had undoubtedly not been designed to hold a man and a very large dog at the same time.
“Wouldn’t the release wire drop them down the hole?” Pakkun asked.
Kin fretted at the edge, ears flat back, eyes rolling anxiously wide.
Ryouma crouched next to Kin and peered over the edge, too. “Can’t we just pull him up?”
“The release wire withdraws the barbs,” Genma said. He found the loop of wire and tugged, but it didn’t budge. Nine months undiscovered hadn’t done this trap many favors. “We can pull him up once I—” He tugged again, harder, and this time the mechanism shuddered in the rope. “—fix it. Like that.”
He double checked that the hooks had retracted on the length of rope he could feel.
“We did rig these so we could get candidates back out. You take that side, Tousaki, I’ll take this. Reach down and feel for a pulley, it should be on the right.”
Ryouma thrust his hand down, fumbled briefly, and then the rope in Genma’s hand nearly jerked free. Genma pitched forward, and for one brief, terrible moment, he contemplated the ignominy of falling. A fast hand on the bolt, and a layer of chakra spread out like sticky tape under his body kept him in place.
“The pulley, Tousaki! Are you trying to trap me in there with them?”
The hanging rope cocoon thrashed violently as Tsuyoshi snarled and struggled. Kakashi snarled right back, even more menacing than the dog, and she fell still again. Next to Ryouma, Kin gave a mournful little whine.
“Don’t think there’s room in there for you,” Ryouma said. But he seemed to find the actual mechanism. He hauled on the rope, Genma worked his end, and slowly and evenly the whole knotted jumble of rope, dog, man, and more rope rose out of the gloom.
There was a layer of crumbled dirt spread over them, and Kakashi had definitely taken the worst of the fall. He was on the bottom, with Tsuyoshi twisted awkwardly over him. One of her paws had raked his hitai-ate all the way down over both eyes.
What Genma wouldn’t have given for a camera.
“Tie it off so it won’t slip back down when you let go, and I’ll free them,” Genma said. He knotted the lift rope while Ryouma mirrored him, then reached for the red-tagged bit of elastic cord that bound top net to bottom. “Don’t bite me when I let you out. I tried to warn you to let me lead.”
Kakashi didn’t wait for the elastic to snap free; he had a kunai out as soon as he could move his hand, cutting the ropes apart. Tsuyoshi leapt clear, taking the upper half of the trap with her. Kakashi lay on the lower layer, spread-eagled, like he trying to relax on an uncomfortably taut hammock.
Except he didn’t look even a little relaxed. He sat up, shoving his hitai-ate clear of his eye, and glared at Genma.
Genma decided to let Ryouma be the one to give Kakashi a hand up.
Tsuyoshi gave several violent shakes to get the netting off of her, then stalked indignantly away to sit with her back to them all, licking at a torn paw where the barbed rope had bitten through.
Kin scrambled frantically into Kakashi’s lap the moment he was back on solid ground. She sniffed anxiously at his scrapes, swiping her tongue over a collection of scratches on Kakashi’s arm. He didn’t suffer her nursing care long. “I’m fine,” he said, swatting her away lightly. Then he turned a murderous look on Genma. “Exactly how much of this training ground is trapped?”
“Most of it,” Genma said. He might have been trying to spook Kakashi about the spiders, but there was no need to exaggerate this answer. “We held the September Trials here last year, and a lot of teams use it as a traps avoidance course. Taichou and I were probably going to bring you here sooner or later anyway.”
“Because Kiri wasn’t bad enough?” Ryouma crouched and reached a hand out to try to brush the dirt out of Kakashi’s hair. Kakashi’s visible sliver of skin and the tops of his ears turned a dull red, and he ducked out of Ryouma’s way.
Pakkun, meanwhile had gone from tense with worry to silent shaking to outright guffaws, rolling on Genma’s shoulder. “Did you forget how to genius?” he asked brightly. “You fell down a hole.” That set him off into helpless, wheezing laughter all over again.
Genma was starting to like the little dog.
Ryouma rocked back on his heels and rested his forearms on his thighs, with his hands hanging loosely between his knees. His fingers fidgeted through practice seals — a habit that he often seemed to turn to when he was trying to puzzle something out. “Captain wouldn’t have time or equipment to rig new traps like this. So he’s gotta be relying on the ones that’re already here. You know ‘em all, Lieutenant?”
“Not all,” Genma said. “A lot of teams use this training ground. I know where we rigged the traps for the September Trials, and where some other places people like to set traps up are. That’s why I was trying to go slowly.” That and to run the clock out for Raidou. They’d eaten a good forty minutes by now. He just had to keep Kakashi on the hook.
“I thought we should go this way because I figured Taichou would have gone this way. He doesn’t want to fall in any traps, either, and he knew how to avoid these.” He pointed up a drier hill going west. “If we go left from here, there’s another section from last year’s Trials where he might try to lose you. I know where the triggers are for those, too.”
He waited a moment to see if Kakashi was going to dash off unsupervised again, but it seemed the lesson of the pit-trap had been effective.
“I’ll take point,” he said, just to be sure there was no argument. “Since Pakkun’s decided to make me his horse, he can act as my scent-reader.”
“Since when do horses get a vote?” Pakkun inquired. He pushed himself back into something like an alert posture all the same, and dug his claws painfully into Genma’s shoulder in the process. When he was settled, he lifted his face and turned his nose to the breeze.
“You’re a lot heavier than you look,” Genma told him. “And you need a nail trim as badly as Kin does.”
Pakkun rolled Genma a deeply unimpressed look, then turned his head back towards Ryouma. “This one’s single, isn’t he?”
Ryouma grinned, evidently over his grudge against the dog for hunting him. “He only nags people he likes. Guess it’s not very successful flirting strategy so far…”
“No offense meant,” Genma told Pakkun, “but you’re really not my type.” He caught the edge of a glare from Kakashi and started picking a careful route up the hill. “I just think Hatake ought to treat you and Kin and the other dogs to a pedicure sometime.”
Pakkun snorted. “Too late, horse. I’ve seen your true colors.”
Genma shrugged. “I’m just not into grumpy old men. Sorry, boss.”
Pakkun dug one of those clawed paws unnecessarily hard into Genma’s shoulder blade, and pricked his ears forward, inhaling deeply with his eyes half-closed. “Got him.”
“Which way?” Genma asked.
North was good. The easiest way north from here was through a minefield of traps to the northwest, the direction they were already headed. Or through a sinkhole pitted, overgrown woods that filled a steep valley to the northeast. Either option would take precious time.
“Good, he’s where I thought he’d be. Or he’s on his way there.” Genma turned to give Kakashi the options, and the illusion of command. “We can keep heading uphill and over the ridge, or we can go through that ravine and up the other side.” He pointed to the woods. “This is your hunt. What’s your preference?”
“High ground,” Kakashi said without hesitation.
“All right.” Genma studied the ridge. “When we get to that rocky area, watch your step. There are chakra triggers all over it.”
Of everyone on the team, Raidou had not expected to be last man standing. Ryouma was fast. Genma was sneaky. Raidou was… lucky, apparently.
Then again, he also hadn’t expected Kakashi to convert everyone to his cause. Getting chased by Kakashi and his hellbeasts was one thing. Getting chased by all of Team Six and hellbeasts…
Maybe lucky was overstating it.
Then again-again, all did not seem to be well in the ranks. Kakashi looked bloodied and grouchy, Ryouma kept edging away from the tall golden shepherd trotting along at his side, and Genma was not exactly practicing his best stealth.
From his perch inside a tall, lightning-blasted tree trunk at the top of Toukunomiru Ridge, Raidou had a pretty good view of the group making their way carefully up the slope, and that was telling. He shouldn’t have been able to see any of them. Or hear them. A civilian wouldn’t have spotted them. A chuunin might have had trouble. But an enemy hunter of equal skill would have been long gone by now. Which begged the question — incompetence or sabotage?
They weren’t that hungover.
So, next question: were Genma and Ryouma both in on it? And did Raidou risk signalling them?
Or was this an elaborate double bluff to draw him out of hiding?
This was why solo-mission operatives had the highest break average. Way too much time talking to themselves.
Well, in another twenty minutes they’d be exactly on the spot Genma had designated as a meeting place (a large and lustrous poison-lacquer bush Omashi had fallen spectacularly into last year), and Genma would have a next move planned, or Kakashi would inspire one.
Raidou had taken the precaution of leaving two blind scent-trails, rolling himself in mud and strong-smelling leaves, and substitution-swapping to his current hiding place. He was reasonably confident in his ability to remain undetected for at least another twenty-three minutes. Maybe twenty-four if Kakashi was especially distracted.
He settled back to watch with interest.
Genma led the little party confidently through the maze of old traps. At the top of the ridge, the brown pug leapt from his shoulder and put his muzzle to the ground, following one of Raidou’s trails. The golden shepherd peeled away from Ryouma’s side and found the second trail almost immediately. The wolf-dog vanished entirely into the undergrowth, gone like a shadow.
Kakashi crouched, frowning, by the scene of Omashi’s misfortune and stirred a patch of half-dried mud flakes with his fingertips.
“Dead end,” the little pug called, with its odd raspy voice.
The shepherd gave a low yip. Raidou guessed it meant something similar.
Kakashi picked up a leaf and held it to his nose. Then, eerily, his head swung around and he looked right at Raidou’s tree.
Raidou held his breath, and his chakra.
“Your Trials were an anomaly,” Genma said suddenly, catching Kakashi and Ryouma’s attention. “Usually they’re fun. I was support staff last year, so I really got to enjoy watching the candidates try to avoid traps.” His mouth curled. “Like this one.”
Genma’s fingers flicked. A buried glass vessel burst by Kakashi’s knee, releasing a sulphurous, blinding cloud of yellow smoke. Kakashi flung himself back, sneezing violently, and Ryouma tackled him to the ground with the kind of furious joy that suggested payback.
The dogs lunged around like a wave breaking inland. Genma snatched the pug out of the air, holding him by the scruff, and activated a second trap that brought the shepherd down in a welter of grappling vines. Raidou was starting to think his own presence was entirely unnecessary, when the wolf-dog reappeared.
Furious yellow eyes went from the dangling, swearing pug to Kakashi fighting on the ground. A growl started low and gathered violence. Teeth gleamed, fur ridged. Genma put an empty hand up, unwilling to draw steel on one of Kakashi’s summons, and the wolf-dog leapt for his throat.
Kakashi rapped out half a strangled command. The wolf-dog’s entire body cringed mid-leap, and Raidou hit it in the ribs, bringing it down at Genma’s feet.
Up close, the wolf-dog was furnace heat and wild fur. Long claws tore the ground up and heavy muscles tensed like iron under Raidou’s hold, but no teeth found his skin. He planted a knee on the creature’s straining neck and pressed down until it subsided with a bubbling growl.
When he looked up, Genma smiled at him through a collection of new bruises. “Hi, Taichou.”
Behind Genma, a flurry of leaves and mud ended with Kakashi on his stomach, both arms wrenched up between his shoulderblades and his face jammed in the dirt, while Ryouma triumphantly straddled the small of his back.
“Technically, this would be cheating,” Raidou said.
“No such thing as cheating at being a ninja,” Genma said, eyes glittering almost the same color as the wolf-dog’s. But where it had raged, Genma glowed with delight. He licked a droplet of blood away from a split on his lower lip, and strolled over to sit on Kakashi’s legs.
Kakashi growled something indistinct but clearly threatening.
“You said, ‘Help me hunt down the captain and the lieutenant’. And we found ‘em!” Ryouma said, riding high on victory and adrenaline and Kakashi’s spine.
Kakashi did not seem appeased by this little bit of legalese, if the rising barometer of killing intent was anything to judge by. The air was starting to have a distinctly red feel.
Pakkun, still dangling from Genma’s hand, swung gently around on his scruff to give Genma a flat, unimpressed look. “Now what, geniuses?”
“Now we wait out the clock, and then we get yakiniku for lunch,” Genma said.
Raidou discreetly checked his watch. There was still more than an hour left until noon. Three capable ANBU agents could keep Sharingan no Kakashi pinned that long, especially if someone had been smart enough to bring rope. Or they could negotiate an early truce.
“I’ll even put you down if you want,” Genma added.
The pug’s goggly eyes went to his master, paused on Ryouma, then back to Genma. “I give you six minutes.”
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to spend the last hour on some deep stretches, Raidou thought. They were all still recovering from the mission.
“We could call it early?” Ryouma suggested, without loosening his grip in the slightest. “I’m hungry.”
Behind Raidou, vines parted softly.
In the fraction of a second before nearly seventy kilos of golden shepherd hit him in the back of the head, it occurred to Raidou that Kakashi really had done quite a good job of keeping their attention focused in the wrong place.
Then there was dirt, mulch, a couple of unfortunate tree roots, and a rock that tried admirably hard to take part of Raidou’s cheek off. He flipped over to grapple the shepherd, and the wolf-dog landed on him like a mountain.
On the other side of rib-bruising air loss, Kakashi said distinctly, “Tag.”
“Sonuvabitch,” Raidou gasped. Genma scrambled up to wrestle the wolf-dog — carefully — off Raidou. The shepherd lay down on Raidou’s chest in its place, tail fanning, and licked his face.
“Or two minutes,” Pakkun said, from next to Kakashi’s knee. “Now we can get lunch.”
Kakashi had stopped struggling. He lay with his face turned and his cheek pressed into the dirt, a smear of mud across his mask and a distinct smirk curving his eye.
The breath-stealing edge of his killing intent had died from the air, too. Ryouma’d never known anyone to actually radiate smugness before.
“You didn’t touch Taichou,” he pointed out, leaning into Kakashi’s pinned arms. At this angle it would still be pressure, not yet pain. “Doesn’t count.”
“I would have, if a double agent hadn’t hit me in the back.” But there was no bite to his voice; he sounded almost proud, as if a successful double cross was something worthy of praise. “Kin is a proxy,” he added. “Still counts.” His wrists flexed testingly in Ryouma’s grip. Ryouma squeezed back.
Kin-the-proxy seemed mostly occupied with trying to wash streaky mud off Raidou’s face. He had one arm pinned beneath her body and was trying to defend himself with the other. They seemed about equally matched.
“Hatake, call your dog off,” he ordered.
Kin yipped happily and licked his mouth.
“Call yours off first,” Kakashi said, dryly.
“I’m a Ram, not a dog,” Ryouma informed him. “We only sometimes do what we’re told.”
“He’s got you there,” Genma laughed. “Pretty sure you’re the hound.” He’d come out of his brief tussle with Tsuyoshi with nothing more than a tear in his shirt and a few leaves in his tousled hair. The wolf-dog was sitting seven or eight meters away, further up the ridge and well out of the sulfur stench, pretending to ignore them all.
Genma pulled a leaf from behind his ear and teased it in front of Kin’s nose. She snapped and missed. Her tail thwacked Raidou’s knees.
“I’ll take over for you, Taichou,” Genma said. “You can handle the hostage negotiations.” He tossed the leaf up, then tackled Kin in her moment of distraction. She rolled off Raidou, barking in delight.
Raidou sat up, pulled the hem of his shirt up to wipe his face, and raked a handful of muddy leaves out of his hair. He looked over at Kakashi and Ryouma. “I’m starting to think the blood-thirsty pack is an elaborate sham.”
“You got me,” Kakashi drawled. “We’re secretly warm and fluffy.” His hips shifted. He’d managed to find purchase for his knees in the wet leaves, and he bucked sharply upward and then twisted, trying to roll into the mount position.
Dammit, he should’ve gone for hooks from the start. Or an actual armbar, instead of just a pin. Ryouma flattened his chest to Kakashi’s back and rolled with him, seizing the moment to hook his legs inside Kakashi’s thighs. He lost his grip on Kakashi’s left arm, but that hadn’t been a hold with any leverage, anyway.
Before Kakashi could free his other arm for a jutsu, Ryouma snaked his own left arm around Kakashi’s neck. Kakashi drove his pinned fist viciously into Ryouma’s ribs. He was sweat-slick and slippery, writhing muscle and chakra-fueled strength. His left hand grappled at Ryouma’s wrist, almost breaking the chokehold.
Ryouma took a risk, and let him break it.
Momentum carried Kakashi’s elbow outside the line of his body. Ryouma forced it further, past his hooked knee, and swung over into a joint-locking armbar. Leaves squelched and slithered under his back.
Kakashi wasn’t tapping out.
“If either of you dislocates anything,” Genma said very loudly, “You’re both paying for the next two months of Taichou’s and my lunches. And I’m watching while you personally add your names to the top of Toshirou-sensei’s list of stupid.”
So far, Ryouma had avoided actually tangling with the ANBU medic, but he’d heard Katsuko’s dire warnings. He hesitated, easing his grip.
Kakashi grabbed Ryouma’s ankle with his free right hand, and lightning seared up to Ryouma’s knee.
He nearly dislocated Kakashi’s shoulder with that first shocked convulsion. He did yell. Then somehow Kakashi was free, and Ryouma was still on his back in the mud, panting hard and staring up at him.
Kakashi massaged his elbow. His hitai’ate was pulled half askew, his hair a wild thatch of twigs and leaves, his shirt rucked out of his pants and shredded with dozens of tiny holes from the well-trap. He had mud down his chest and thighs and caked over one cheek of his mask, and the crinkle of his eye said he was still, faintly, smiling.
Kin bolted away from Genma, sprang over Raidou, and landed foursquare in front of Ryouma. She sat, tail blurring, and panted happily in his face. Her teeth were half the length of his thumb, her breath metallic and sharp.
“She’s a good girl,” Kakashi told Ryouma. “Make friends.”
Kin cocked her head, whined, and offered her ears for scratching.
Something pressed softly on Ryouma’s knee. He looked down. Pakkun stood there, propped up on one front paw. He held the other paw up for Ryouma’s inspection. “You can touch my pads.”
They were pink, soft, and faintly squishy. “Ah,” Ryouma said, intelligently. “Very nice.” He added after a moment, “Thank you.”
Pakkun took his paw back, looking satisfied. Kin whined and shoved her head under Ryouma’s hand. He gave up and scratched her ears.
Half a second later she was in his lap, tail wagging so furiously her hindquarters shook with it, one massive paw hooked over his shoulder and a warm wet tongue lovingly washing any trace of mud off his face. Pakkun snickered, and plopped down comfortably by Ryouma’s knee.
The crinkling smile of Kakashi’s eye curved into something a little softer, a little warmer. He brushed a hand over Kin’s head, tugged his shirt down, and trudged up the slope to crouch down silently in front of Tsuyoshi. He cocked his head. The dog laid her ears back and looked away.
Kakashi wasn’t talking, and maybe the dog couldn’t, but Ryouma could still imagine the conversation. C’mon baby, don’t be mad. And the dog, ruffled: You got pinned, and I got yelled at for trying to rescue you. Kakashi’d probably have to buy her a cow or something to make up for it.
“You probably don’t hold grudges, though,” he told Kin, and scratched under her jaw. She closed her eyes and tipped her head back in ecstasy.
Raidou’d made it off the ground, though he was nearly as muddy as Kakashi. His cheek was bleeding from a nasty three-cornered gouge; he prodded its edges gently, smearing his fingers. “That was a nice piece of strategy,” he said. “Almost worked for a moment there.”
Genma lifted his hands, palms up, in silent offering. Raidou glanced at the blood on his fingers, grimaced, and tipped his cheek down.
“It helps when you have surprise numbers on your side,” Genma said, as his hands lit green. “I don’t think I’ve seen you summon dogs before, Hatake.”
Kakashi offered an open hand to Tsuyoshi. She ignored that, too. But when he delicately carded his fingers through her fur, she leaned into his hand. He looked back at Genma. “It’s a high chakra cost, lieutenant.”
“Good to know,” Genma said, tracing chakra-bright fingers over Raidou’s cheekbone. He tipped his chin at Kin and Pakkun. “Are these your regular crew? How many are verbal?”
Kakashi broke the summoning on Tsuyoshi with the barest of chakra ripples: a flare of smoke, the scent of ozone, and a sudden absence in the air. He stood up, planted his hands on his hips, and stretched his back. “Tsuyoshi’s been out with me on a few hunts. Baiji—the big mastiff—is a regular. Kin’s still too young.”
Kin’s tail beat cheerfully at Ryouma’s thighs. She’d somehow managed to crowd her hindquarters into his lap, too, which resulted in Ryouma flattening onto his back again, and Kin oozing up even further to sprawl over him. Maybe she’d always dreamed of a human mattress.
At least she’d stopped washing his face. And her fur was very soft.
“Is special,” Pakkun said smugly. He added to Kin, “Would you have some dignity?”
Kin tucked her head under Ryouma’s chin and sighed in contentment. Her tail still thumped against his leg.
Resigned, Ryouma threw an arm over her shoulders and craned his neck to see his teammates. “Neither of you have secret summons waitin’ somewhere to bite our asses, right?”
Kin’s skull bumped his chin. For a moment, her tail stopped wagging.
Pakkun huffed. “She wants you to know she didn’t bite your ass.”
No, that was Tsuyoshi, who’d efficiently hamstrung one clone before finishing it off. Ryouma scrubbed a hand down Kin’s spine. “Yeah, and I appreciate you not chewin’ my hand off, either.”
She licked his chin.
Raidou chuckled, deep in his throat. “She tackled me just fine.” He touched his cheek, where Genma’s healing had reduced the bloody gouge to a dark scab, and nodded his thanks. “We’ve got an hour left for Hatake to convince me that counted as his win. The lieutenant can heal his own face.” His eyes lingered for a moment on Genma’s split lip and bruises, then veered away.
“And I want some deep stretches out of everyone. Then we’ll do lunch.”
“You promised yakiniku,” Ryouma told Genma, and set about coaxing Kin to let him go free.
“I suggested yakiniku,” Genma corrected. He rolled a kink out of his shoulders and shook the lingering tingle of channeled chakra from his hands. “Especially if Hatake’s paying for it.”
“Captain just said I had to catch everyone before noon, and not cripple anyone,” Kakashi said. He dropped into a crouch with one leg outstretched, leaning away from it to maximize the groin stretch. “No one’s crippled. It’s before noon. I win.”
“A false surrender isn’t the same as a capture,” Genma said. “But I’ll grant that you knocked me on my ass.” He put a hand to his face, feeling the swelling and convincing himself he really hadn’t broken anything. “Hatake threw up an earth wall in my path when I tried to translocate out of there with you,” he told Raidou. “It was a smart play, with a lucky guess about which direction at least one of us would go.”
Raidou’s eyes widened in alarm, “He what?” He darted a glare at Kakashi, then gave Genma’s bruises a closer look. “You’re lucky you didn’t break your neck.”
“That’s what I said,” Ryouma put in. His voice was muffled by upwards of seventy kilos of oversized shepherd puppy, who still sprawled happily on his chest despite his efforts to dislodge her.
Kakashi rolled his eye and switched to stretching the other leg. “Not without a harder wall.”
“Technically, they’re right,” Genma said. “If I’d hit it at a bad angle, or you’d miscalculated the density, you and Taichou would be having a very different conversation.” He shrugged. “But you calculated right and I didn’t snap my neck, so luck was on our side. It’s not much different than training with live blades.”
“Eventually someone from another village is going to figure out how translocation works,” Kakashi pointed out.
“As long as they don’t figure out how to know which direction we’re translocating to, it probably won’t help them much.” Genma licked the split in his lip. “You didn’t really know which way I was going to go, did you? It was a guess?”
Kakashi stopped mid-stretch to give Genma a quizzical look. “Between Tousaki, the dogs, the landscape, and me, there were three clear routes. The captain tends to favor right. You’re ambidextrous, but the far left path gave you a better defensive field of vision.”
Genma could probably count on one hand the number of days he hadn’t wondered where Kakashi was hiding his genius. But there it was. Tactical brilliance was at least half made up of rapid analysis. Kakashi couldn’t have had more than a quarter of a second to come to that decision, prepare, and cast his jutsu, when Genma and Raidou had split.
“Guess we’re too predictable,” he told Raidou. “Anyway, it was smart thinking, even if it rattled my brains a little.” He pressed the pads of his fingers against his bruised cheekbone and swollen nose, trying to decide whether it was worth self-healing. “We just have to hope none of our enemies are ever as on-the-ball as Hatake.”
“If we ever run into a second Hatake,” Raidou said, “I’m retiring on the spot.”
“If we ever run into a second Hatake who’s not on our side, I’m pretty sure they’ll be ‘retiring’ us on the spot.” Genma chuckled. “Tousaki, Hatake, you’d avenge us, wouldn’t you?”
Ryouma finally managed to wriggle out from under Kin. He sat up, brushed a few blades of grass from his hair, and vowed, “I’d fight Kakashi’s long-lost second cousin once removed for your sake, Lieutenant.”
“Yes,” Kakashi said, with finality.
Genma smiled. “You’re good teammates.” He turned to face Raidou. “I think Hatake’s still arguing for it being his win, even if he didn’t technically capture us all directly. What’s your ruling, Captain?” His stomach growled to punctuate the question. “I wouldn’t mind an early lunch.”
Raidou rubbed at the blood smeared on his cheek, flaking it off. “He caught Tousaki and you fairly — or fair enough, for ninja. But he gave you too much leeway as prisoners.” Did he sound a little proud? It had been a good double cross.
“Happy girl there took me down,” Raidou went on, gesturing at Kin. Her tail fanned enthusiastically back and forth at the attention. “But Tousaki wouldn’t have stopped at tackling. I’d say Hatake is dead. Lunch is on you, zombie.”
Ryouma looked delighted.
Pakkun snickered. “I want steak.”
“I was using teamwork” Kakashi protested. He looked genuinely hurt by the betrayal.
“And your reward is to feed your team.” Raidou grinned cheerfully.
Kakashi looked even more betrayed.
“Cheer up,” Genma told him. “If it’s any consolation, under Taichou’s rules, you killed me, too. Or maybe that’s not very cheering, seeing as you were outfoxed by a dead prisoner of war.”
“Next time,” Kakashi informed him, “it will be a harder wall.” He slouched down the hill with Kin bounding after him.
Pakkun held his mirth for almost a second, before he exploded with loud guffaws. When Kakashi was out of earshot, Pakkun looked up at the rest of them. “I like this team.”
“Should we warn him about Omashi’s trap?” Genma asked, eyeballing Kakashi’s trajectory. “He did just threaten a superior officer.”
“He’s smart,” Raidou said. “He can dodge.”
“What’s Omashi’s trap?” asked Ryouma. He pushed himself to his feet and watched Kakashi, too.
“See that little grove of trees?” Genma pointed at the dangerous thicket. “That’s a poison lacquer bush. And right about—”
Kakashi went down hard, as if the ground had liquified under him.
“There. There’s a mechanical trap than will send you straight into the bush. Unless—”
Kin yelped. Kakashi grabbed her by the collar and vanished from the path, to reappear a dozen meters away from the treacherous ground.
“He dodges.” Genma said. “Watch out,” he called down the slope. “There’s a trap there.”
Kakashi made a distant, rude gesture and kept walking.
“I really like this team,” Pakkun said. His stubby tail thumped against the ground.
“We like him, too,” Genma said. “Most of the time.” He crouched down for the little dog’s benefit. “Are you riding again? Hop on. We probably ought to go catch up to him before he hits any more traps.”
They got to Kakashi before he managed to get himself snared, singed, or otherwise stuck in any of the remaining traps in RTA One. By the time they’d reached Konoha’s restaurant district, Kakashi even seemed to have recovered some of his good humor, thoughtfully analyzing the design of the pit trap he’d been caught in.
After a brief debate over cuisine that was reminiscent of their quest for food after the club the night before, they settled on yakiniku anyway. It was close enough to steak to satisfy Pakkun, exactly what Ryouma and Genma both wanted, and acceptable for Raidou and, reluctantly, Kakashi.
Raidou and Ryouma manned the tongs, setting thin strips of meat sizzling on the grill. A few raw pieces found their way to Kin and Pakkun — delighting one, and unsatisfactorily ‘not really steak’ for the other.
Genma leaned back and held an ice bag he’d procured from the waitress to his nose and eye. “That was fun,” he said, pleased with the world. “We should do a joint hunter tag exercise with Thirteen sometime.”
Ryouma paused in his mission to slip meat to Kin. “We’d cream them,” he said with a broad grin.
“Usagi’s mean and Ginta’s crafty,” Genma said. “We’d have to work at it.” Which was no bad thing. “But we’d definitely have fun. Or we could go with some other team, maybe the one your friend Hakone is on, since Thirteen is going to be out with injuries for a while.”
“Usagi’s not mean,” protested Raidou. He looked entertained.
“And Hakone’s lieutenant isn’t crafty,” Ryouma put in. He got a thoughtful look on his face, “Sakamoto, though…”
“Would cheat more than the rest of you,” Kakashi said. It wasn’t clear whether he thought that was a character flaw or a mark of skill. He snagged one of the cooked pieces from the grill and made it disappear.
“And have a ball doing it,” Genma agreed.
“At least Sakamoto pays,” Ryouma pointed out, tilting a significant look Kakashi’s way.
Apparently the expensive red drinks of last night had not been forgotten.
“His family is made of money,” Kakashi said. “That’s not a character strength. That’s… breeding.”
Genma made an amused sound. Raidou muffled a cough behind the back of his hand.
Ryouma snickered. “I don’t think they pay for that.”
Given some of the clan views on strict bloodline purity — with the carefully negotiated marriages and dowries that went along with them — Kakashi was reasonably sure they did, but he wasn’t privy to the Sakamoto clan’s personal finances.
Now that he thought about it, it was actually a little strange for a Sakamoto heir to be in Konoha’s most dangerous profession. Maybe Ginta had a cousin the family liked better stored away for marriageable purposes somewhere. Or he’d just scared away all the likely prospects with the force of his personality.
Kakashi liberated another strip of pork belly and enjoyed the superior freedom of not having to deal with these issues himself for a few minutes, before he realized he was spending far too much time thinking about Ginta.
“Well, to be fair,” Genma said, “Hatake is paying for lunch.”
“When do you learn how to heal bruises?” Kakashi asked Ryouma, before Genma got traction.
Ryouma straightened in his seat. The sun — they’d been made to sit outside because of the dogs — caught his eyes, turning the black to deep, rich brown. “Once the lieutenant’s satisfied with my work on wound-sealing. I haven’t graduated from fish yet. Though at least they don’t usually explode anymore.” He tilted a wry smile at Genma.
“The fish explode?” Raidou asked.
“They do. At first, when you’re learning,” Genma said. “It’s like Ueno having an easier time making a hundred clones than a single one.” There was the beat of silence that always followed Katsuko’s name, getting shorter now as they got used to the sting. “I probably exploded my first fifty fish before I figured out how to regulate the chakra flow for healing. Tousaki’s making good progress. You wouldn’t think it, but bruises are a lot harder to heal than cuts. You can fuse tissues together and stop someone from bleeding to death with a fairly simple jutsu. It’s not pretty; you get scarring like this—” He slid his t-shirt sleeve up, showing them the step-ladder scar left from Iebara’s blood jutsu. “Or worse. Maybe even do additional damage, like I did to my leg, but at least your patient doesn’t bleed to death before they can get treatment at a hospital. Healing a bruise is an order of magnitude more delicate.”
That made sense. The finer jutsu were almost always harder to control.
“The fish explode?” Raidou said.
“Well, not like a thermal detonation,” Genma said. “It’s more like they burst. Explosively.”
“Mine rot, too,” Ryouma offered. “At least, the first one did.”
Kakashi propped his chin on his hand and watched, entertained, as they ganged up on the captain.
“Are the fish alive to start with?” Raidou asked, like he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know.
“No live fish until you can consistently heal a cut in a dead one without exploding it,” Genma said. “And we do eat the ones that aren’t in too small pieces to be worth the effort.” He glanced at Ryouma. “Or in Tousaki’s case, aren’t too decomposed.”
“We ate a lot more fish, the week before you came back,” Ryouma told Raidou. “Then Kakashi started exploding pigs, but we didn’t get to eat those.”
Raidou blinked twice.
“Practicing Iebara’s jutsu,” Kakashi said.
“Oh,” Raidou said. “Successfully?”
Kakashi see-sawed his free hand. “The last one didn’t explode. I think I’ve used up my pig allotment for the quarter, though. I’ll have to go after some wild boar for the next test.”
“We better get to eat those,” said Pakkun, under the table.
“I’ll let you do that test with me upwind, this time,” Genma said.
Raidou’s brow crinkled. Ryouma mimed a localized explosion with one hand. “Ah,” Raidou said.
“What about burns?” Kakashi asked Genma.
Genma grimaced. “Healing burns is even harder than healing bruises. Little ones aren’t bad, like a cigarette burn maybe, but anything bigger is advanced medicine. Field medic can only try to keep the patient from tanking until a full team can treat them.”
An old scar twinged on Kakashi’s hip, the memory of long-ago fire curling around the bone. Burns had always made Rin swear.
“How advanced are you planning to get?” Raidou asked curiously.
“Me or Tousaki?” Genma asked.
“Both, I guess.”
Genma shrugged. “I might go for my Grade Four certificate. I like what I do now, though. I’m not looking for a career change.”
Ryouma glanced at Genma, then looked down at his hand. His knuckles were pale around his chopsticks. “I just don’t want to watch someone bleed out on me again.”
Genma put his hand on Ryouma’s bare forearm, fingers light and careful. Beneath the table, Kin caught the change in scent and laid her head on Ryouma’s feet.
Fukuda was another sting in the world, sharper for being fresh. It was a strange thing to mourn her, but three men at this table had been there when she’d died. One had eased the road.
And Ryouma had a wish that gods would laugh at, if they existed.
Pakkun leapt onto Raidou’s lap, balanced his front paws delicately on the table, and stole every scrap of meat off Raidou’s plate in one slobbery mouthful.
“Hey,” Raidou said, startled.
Pakkun licked his chops. “You know what this needs? Beer.”
Genma stared for a silent, incredulous moment, and then fell into laughter that seemed to surprise him just as much as the rest of them. “Hair of the dog—” he managed, before he became too breathless to speak.
Ryouma, never one to miss an opportunity even in the midst of a grey moment, said, “I’ll get it!” He jumped up to find a server before Raidou could rein him in.
Kakashi snorted softly. Pakkun dug his hind paws into Raidou’s thigh and commanded the grilling of more meat, which dissolved Genma all over again. Raidou, to Kakashi’s surprise, did not punt Pakkun over the table; he pulled a clean plate over for himself, abandoning the slobbered one for Pakkun, and laid more beef on the grill. Pakkun’s curly tail wagged.
Ryouma returned a minute later with six frosted bottles and two bowls. He popped the caps with the edge of a kunai, poured a bowl of beer for Pakkun, and dangled the other bottle questioningly in front of Kin. She wrinkled her nose.
“Water?” Ryouma guessed.
Kin’s long, fringed tail swept the ground. Ryouma set a bowl of cold water in front of her, and thumped the other bottles cheerfully down around the table.
Raidou raised both eyebrows.
“We finished training and nobody’s got classes today,” Ryouma said.
Kakashi didn’t point out that they’d started late and finished early.
“Oh fine,” Raidou said.
Ryouma gave a little victorious fist-pump, sat down, and clinked his bottle against Kakashi’s. On the other side of the round wooden table, Genma sat back in his chair, pink in the cheeks and looking pleased with everything, and took a bottle to knock against Raidou’s. “To successful team-bonding exercises.”
“Cheers,” said Pakkun, and jammed his entire face in his bowl.
Ryouma and Raidou threw back their beers, both of them tanned and sweat-soaked, streaked with dried mud. They wouldn’t have looked out of place hammering shingles onto roofs, or doing anything else that brought them early summer sun and hard work. Genma, a leaner, finer creature between them, sipped his beer and sat at ease, fondness glinting in the gold of his eyes.
Pakkun glanced up with froth dripping from his jowls, and tipped Kakashi a subtle wink.
Well, he’d gotten plenty of practice derailing Kakashi’s darker moods over the last ten years. A handful of older, bloodier boys was hardly more of a challenge.
Kakashi quietly set his beer aside in favor of water, and stretched a hand under the table. Kin’s head pressed immediately into his palm, short golden fur like warm velvet. She’d done well today, and he was proud of her. He needed to carve out more training time for his younger dogs, maybe when Ryouma was exploding fish…
Pakkun’s ears slicked back. A coiled chakra signature rippled over the edge of Kakashi’s senses.
A woman in ANBU armor dropped down from the roof, landing just outside of arm’s reach. Her mask suggested a predatory bird, with the eyes ringed in black.
“Shiranui-san,” she said. “Sagara-sama requests your immediate presence.”
Genma slowly set his beer down. “Acknowledged. Thank you.” He met Raidou’s eyes briefly, then added, “This is my captain. If you’re looking for him, too, you’ve found him.”
“The message just specified you,” the woman said, and vanished with a snap of chakra.
Raidou put his beer down a lot harder. “I’ll go with you.”
“We’ll all go,” Ryouma said.
Pakkun’s beer was almost gone. He stuck his head into the dregs of the bowl and made a sound like a vacuum cleaner in the shower. When he emerged, suds dripped from his ears. “Okay, ready.”
Genma stood. Everything languid about him had vanished, compacted back under the calm, professional mask of rank. It was something like an ANBU uniform, but more skillful for being skin-deep. “You should finish lunch. Maybe this won’t take long.”
Were they all that painfully transparent when they tried to be reassuring?
“I’m starting to sunburn,” Kakashi said. He pushed out of his chair.
Pakkun shook his head, spraying Raidou, and leapt nimbly up onto Genma’s shoulder. Kin slipped out from under the table and pointed her nose towards ANBU HQ.
“Wait,” Raidou said, holding up a hand. The group paused. A crack of concern shivered through Genma’s expression. Raidou pointed at Kakashi. “You still need to pay for lunch.”
“Oh for—” Kakashi dug out his wallet and dropped a handful of bills on the table.
“You really don’t have to do this,” Genma said softly, looking around the group.
“He just said I did.” Kakashi shoved his wallet back into his pocket and took point with Kin at his heels.
Behind him, Ryouma and Raidou fell into step on Genma’s flanks, making a wall around the lieutenant. Pakkun perched high on Genma’s shoulder, a tiny watchdog, and kept up a distracting running commentary all the way to Sagara’s door.
The secretary, after a pause, let them all in.