July 24, Yondaime Year 5
The afternoon had started out hot and sunny, and then gone straight to hell.
Mosquitos whined, rising on the evening breeze, as Ryouma jogged back through deepening forest shadows toward his team. They’d taken a switchback path down the mountain, sweating over rutted roads. The shinobi’s route straight down forested slopes was a lot faster, but this wasn’t exactly a meeting he was excited to start; maybe he should take the switchback trail instead…
But Team Nineteen was on his heels, and he didn’t have time to burn.
He plunged out of the trees onto the rocky road, cut out of the mountain slope on one side and falling steeply away to a twilight-lost valley below. “Team Nineteen’s come up from…somewhere, to look for us,” he said rapidly. “Taichou, Fukuchou, can I talk to you quick?”
Kurenai turned back from contemplating the view, her brows rising. He ignored her. Intel was a problem he could solve later. Genma and Raidou mattered now.
Raidou lowered the hand-bar of the cart he’d been pulling. “Sure. Here?”
“Over there?” Genma suggested, tilting his head toward a massive boulder the road-builders had skirted rather than uproot. A tiny roadside shrine huddled at its base, Jizos or tanuki or who the hell knows. At least it looked out of earshot. And the kids were napping with Kin in one of the carts anyway, while Harubi sat gratefully at the back of the other and pulled off one of her sandals. Kurenai moved back to help her, still with one eye on the ANBU. Ryouma wished he knew the trick of her silencing genjutsu. He’d just have to be quick.
“So I didn’t tell you before and I’m sorry about that,” he said, “but I went back to Tanigawa last night and, uh, Nomiya’s dead.”
Genma’s alert, concerned gaze turned knife-sharp. Raidou folded his arms over his armored chest. Giving Ryouma enough rope to hang himself, in turn…?
“I know you and Yuuhi visited him,” he said. “She probably did something horrible to him, he’d been drinking when w— when I found him. But it wasn’t enough. Not for what he did. Not for a man who makes his family have to rip up their entire lives and run because they’ll never be safe near him. So the village thinks he suicided but Nineteen knows he didn’t, they’ve got a freaky-ass Aburame and she knows I was there. So I wanted to tell you. First. Before they did.”
Genma’s brow rose, slow and lethal. “You were there…”
“Yeah,” Ryouma said, refusing to look away.
“And Hatake was where?”
Not here to defend himself, that was for sure. Or to make his own choices about who to tell, and when.
“I’m reporting on myself, Fukuchou,” he said, steadily as he could. It wasn’t very.
“And when Nineteen gets here,” Genma asked, “what will they be reporting?”
If Nineteen weren’t here yet, they were only moments away. Ryouma kept his back straight. “I don’t know, Fukuchou. Hakone congratulated me, he thought it was a sanctioned hit. Maybe their officers do too.”
Except he’d fucking told Hakone it wasn’t, he’d told Hakone practically everything, why the hell couldn’t he keep his fool mouth shut when it mattered? Hakone was close-mouthed enough to keep Sen’s involvement secret, but if his officers asked…
Raidou unfolded one arm to pinch the bridge of his nose, as if staving off a migraine creeping up his skull. “For fuck’s sake, Tousaki.” He dropped his hand. “We’ll deal with Nineteen. You stay within eyeshot of me or the lieutenant until we get home, or I’ll strangle you myself. Same for Hatake, when he gets back. Understood?”
“Taichou!” Ryouma managed. His knees didn’t, quite, buckle, with relief or anticipated fear or…anything else. He saluted with a tap to his tattoo. “I’ll take the handcart.”
Raidou jerked his chin in curt acknowledgment, and pushed past Ryouma. His voice raised. “Sumeragi, who’d you piss off to get this C-rank?”
Genma gave Ryouma one last cold stare, and followed Raidou. He leaned in, murmuring; Raidou’s head cocked toward him. Neither of them looked back, as they headed toward the officers of Team Nineteen coming into view around the switchback.
Ryouma released a deep, shaky breath and trudged after them to the carts. He avoided Kurenai’s eyes, but he could feel their thoughtful crimson burn on his shoulders.
Genma stuck a senbon between his teeth and clamped down hard, feeling metal grit over molars. Ryouma might as well have just said flat that Hatake was there, too. Carrying out an uncontracted, unsanctioned assassination. In a civilian context it would be called murder. There was no time to confer with Raidou, though, and get their own story straight, because Sumeragi-taichou and her team were already there, in blues and flak vests, with at least a dozen questions.
Sumeragi had her hands on her hips, looking up at Raidou with a lopsided grin that creased her eyes into dark crescents. “Don’t know who we pissed off, but you’ve probably pissed the bigshots off even more. It’s not like you to miss a check-in.”
Raidou smiled back, crooked and charming, cut from the same cloth Sumeragi was. “We heard Nineteen was getting lazy. Figured you’d want the excuse for a run.”
“So the reason Six was AWOL is going in your mission reports but not ours? Is that what I’m hearing?”
Before Raidou could agree that yes, Six’s situation was classified and not something Nineteen needed to know more about, Ushio jutted his chin out. “Aburame told us you were with tanuki. Which is hard to swallow, but her bugs have the last word. What kind of horse-shit have you been playing in this time?”
Because Ushio had all the tact of a rotten egg.
Raidou’s smile warmed even more. “That’s a good question.”
And that was a fantastic tactical response. It was easy to forget how subtle Raidou could be when he needed to. He might be a magnificent hitter, but he wouldn’t have missed his calling if he’d ended up in Intel or the diplomatic corps.
Ushio’s heavy brows drew down in a consternated scowl.
Raidou continued to Sumeragi, “We’re all safe. If you need to get eyes on Hatake to complete your headcount, he’ll be back shortly.”
“Your rookie told ours Hatake was on his way to the Saroma waystation to check in?”
“We’re moving slowly thanks to the carts and civilians,” Genma explained.
“We can lend a hand until he gets back,” Sumeragi offered, “since I don’t think you’re going to want to camp here. We saw rockslides a little higher up, and the wind’s got a storm in it.”
“Appreciate it,” Raidou told her.
Sumeragi whistled a sharp note. “Nakamura, Hakone, help pull the carts. Aburame, you scout ahead.” She added in a much quieter voice, “Mayumi’s fantastic, but I think she might frighten your civilians.”
“They’re a tough bunch,” Raidou told her. “Harubi-san’s little boy probably collects stag beetles.”
“Want me to assign Mayumi to carts, then, so she can impress him?”
Stag beetles were a long way off from the swarms of kikaichu the Aburame lived in symbiosis with. Tadaichi might love Mayumi’s bugs but Genma wasn’t so sure Harubi would.
Raidou didn’t seem concerned. “Tadaichi-kun,” he called over the carts. “Want to meet a bug-ninja?”
Two black-haired heads popped up from the side of the cart with the family’s belongings. “Bug ninja!” Tadaichi shrilled, clambering to his feet. His sister was only a fraction slower in jumping down and racing over, with Kin a shaggy blur at her heels.
“Belay that,” Sumeragi shouted. “Aburame, front and center.”
Ushio, who up until now Genma had thought of as basic brown rice — functional, humorless, and bland — cracked a smile when Mayumi dropped down from the trees and held out a handful of glittering beetles for the kids to inspect.
“I’ll scout,” Ushio volunteered. “But we’d better get moving.” A low rumble of far-away thunder lent urgency to his advice. “And for the record, I’d still like an answer to my good question.”
“Noted,” Raidou said, sounding amused. When Ushio had taken to the trees, he said to Sumeragi, “He’s fun.”
“Bless him, yes,” Sumeragi agreed. “He’s a good lieutenant, though, and a hell of a tracker. Found you even when you went wandering in fairytale land.”
“After, maybe.” Raidou’s lips quirked.
Sumeragi shrugged. “If it gets declassified, you’re telling me the entire story over drinks when I see you next.”
That was a big if.
“Tousaki, up and at ‘em,” Genma called. Ryouma, who had been skulking just out of hearing range, probably trying to lip-read, lifted his head. He still looked hangdog, but damnit, he should.
Kurenai and Harubi materialized from between the carts. “We’re going to get off this mountain before the rain comes. Nineteen’s giving us some muscle,” Genma told them. “Tousaki, you’re with me and Taichou pulling the sake cart. We’ll let Nineteen take the lighter cart. Harubi-san, you and the children can ride.” He looked up at Kurenai. “Up to you which cart you want to take, but I’m sure Tousaki can handle the extra weight if you want to ride with the sake casks.”
“I’ll walk,” Kurenai said drily. She didn’t seem particularly happy that she’d been left out of the planning for the first time on this mission. Maybe they should have roped her in for the conference with Nineteen’s officers.
There was only one way down the mountain that the carts could navigate: the washboarded trail they were already on. Raidou and Sumeragi came to an agreement that the family cart would lead, with the heavier sake cart at the back. Genma ducked under the yoke at the front of the cart and stood shoulder to tense shoulder with Ryouma, while Raidou went to the back of the cart to serve as both push and brakeman. With the silver-sides of the leaves starting to show in the rising wind, and the holiday mood completely spoiled, at least for Team Six, they set out.
Saroma might have been kindly described as a one-goat-village, except it was really too small for that. Six houses clung to the mountainside like stubborn mushrooms, sheltering the precious radio tower between them. There was a goat. It watched Kakashi suspiciously through the window while he used the antique dispatch.
The Konoha relay officer was professional, despite the terrible static, and took Kakashi’s confirmation that Team Six were alive and inbound with minimal commentary. In return, she reported one team had been sent to look for them, and as far as she was aware, no one had tried to stage a political coup in their absence.
On Kakashi’s way out, the goat tried to eat Pakkun’s vest.
“Herbivores,” the little pug muttered, from his hasty retreat to Kakashi’s shoulder.
“Mighty hunter,” Kakashi said dryly.
“Shut your face.”
The journey back was a quick downhill run, complicated by cracking shale that peeled away in sheets and made the footing treacherous. Kakashi enjoyed the excuse to flex his chakra, shunting it from foot to foot with delicacy or force, depending on whether he needed to stick or leap.
Heat had been building like a promise all day. Halfway down, the storm finally broke, dumping water by the bucket. Kakashi’s clothes were immediately plastered to his skin. His hair flattened over his eye. Pakkun said, “Oh, that is it,” and jumped down. He vanished before he hit the ground, joining Yori and Saishou back in their own dimension. Which was probably dry.
Kakashi raked his hair off his forehead, rolled his eye, and kept going. There was lightning in the distant thunderheads, tumbling around the horizon. It pulled on his blood, warm and a little tingly, a better thing to focus on than damp socks.
He was muddy, chilled, and half scent-blind by the time he made it back, chakra pulled in close for heat and balance. He spotted the heavy sake cart first, with two figures between the traces in front, a third pushing from behind, and dropped down to make his report.
“Message is in. They’ve sent another team after—”
Genma looked up with a glare like a thermal torch. Kakashi faltered. It was Ryouma next to Genma, shoulders hunched in the rain, not Raidou. A quick chakra sweep revealed the message was belated. He recognized Hakone’s signature, like cool water. That slightly unnatural tangle was an Aburame underneath the umbrella with Harubi and her children, not Kurenai. Two other signatures were unfamiliar, but they both had ANBU sparks.
Kakashi scratched the back of his head. “Which you already know, so I’ll just… help?”
Ryouma kept his head down. Genma gestured curtly. “Tousaki, help Taichou at the back. Hatake, take his place.”
Ryouma stepped away without a word, vanishing into the curtain of rain. Kakashi stepped in and shouldered the abandoned hauling pole. It put Genma on his right, in Kakashi’s narrow field of vision. The lieutenant’s back was rigid.
Kakashi opened his mouth, closed it. Focused on guiding the cart down the flooding pathway.
“What’s your explanation for the events in Tanigawa last night?” Genma said abruptly. “I already heard Tousaki’s.”
Kakashi was going to kick Ryouma in the head.
“Fulfilling a contract to a client,” he said. “Per standard protocol.”
“Explain,” Genma said. “What client?”
Apparently Ryouma’s version had been light on details. Kakashi’s thoughts picked up speed. Sen hadn’t been the weak link, or Genma would already know about her. Ryouma… might have confessed from pure guilt, but he’d been fine a few hours ago.
Which made Team Nineteen the extra variable. They’d been hunting for Team Six.
They had an Aburame.
“A young one,” Kakashi said, quiet even under the rain. “Who wanted her father gone.”
Genma’s expression, already blank, went colorless. In the rain and churned mud, Kakashi couldn’t get a scent-read on him. The cart lurched over a rutted gulley. Behind them, Raidou swore.
“And you didn’t think to run this at-minimum B-rank unauthorized ‘mission’ by either officer?” Genma said, voice flat.
“Would you have said yes?”
“No,” Genma said. “With good reason.”
Kakashi tilted his head, feeling cold inside. “His charming personality?”
Genma turned to look at Kakashi. His expression was still smooth as wax, but his eyes were the scorched yellow of a furious hawk. “None of us wanted to see him happy, but Harubi-san made her wishes very clear.”
“So did Sen,” Kakashi said. “Harubi-san didn’t want to be a murderer. She isn’t. Sen wanted them all to be safe. They are. Win-win.”
“Sen is a civilian child who isn’t of age to enter a contract with the village. And you didn’t even try to follow the chain of command. There are reasons you clear taking lethal action with your superiors if you aren’t in an immediately threatened situation.” Genma ground his teeth and faced forward. “There will be consequences, maybe for the whole team. Did you bother to consider that?”
Well, that was a little dramatic.
“Over one dead civilian who isn’t even a Fire Country citizen?” Kakashi said, puzzled. “Why would Konoha care? Tanigawa thinks it’s a suicide. Even if they did have suspicions, what are they going to do? Hire a strike force to attack us over one child-beating asshole? We just took their major source of revenue.”
And, yes, technically Sen was a child, and a civilian, but she’d seen enough to sharpen her edges. Konoha children learned to kill younger than that.
Genma shook his head. “It’s not about Tanigawa. If you’d come to us first, we’d have said no because we made an agreement with the tanuki lord to keep Harubi-san and her children out of anything further to do with Nomiya.”
“Plus,” Genma continued, “Team Six is still under scrutiny. How do you think it will look for Taichou that he has so little control over his subordinates? Even if we covered this up to protect Taichou, which we won’t, it could come back to bite Konoha.”
That… was a problem.
Well, a potential problem. Three potential problems. One: the tanuki had enough raw firepower to raze Konoha to the ground if they felt like it. Himself and his clan were limited to Tsurui Province, but Himself had said they weren’t the only clan.
Two: Tanuki healing was better than anything Konoha could do by a landslide. Medics at home would want that. Rin would want that. The chances the tanuki would share that knowledge was… slim, at best. With pissed off, betrayed tanuki, it was probably none.
Maybe Kakashi would kick himself in the head.
“Why, exactly, did you make a deal with a clan of tricksters?” he asked.
Genma gave him an irritated look. “It wasn’t a situation where we could reasonably refuse. The agreement earned us goodwill with the tanuki. And it should have been an easy promise to keep.”
Kakashi returned the look, but couldn’t bring himself to say: maybe if you’d told us.
The thing was, Kakashi had known something was going on between the officers and Himself. He’d asked Raidou about it, after Himself had made his snarky little sake label: ‘A promise between friends spans worlds and eons.’ Raidou had brushed it off. Kakashi hadn’t followed up.
In retrospect, a slight error.
Kakashi scowled. “Sen came to us. If Himself has an issue with that, he can explain to her why Nomiya deserved to keep breathing.”
“Civilian child,” Genma snapped. “And do I really need to explain why you always clear side missions, especially side murders, with your superiors?”
Kakashi flexed his jaw. Tension pulled his shoulder blades together like a zipper, his chest was a slurry of ice and glass, and Genma had a point, technically. Sen had said murder, and Kakashi had said okay. He hadn’t explained why she’d be safe in Fire Country, or what Genma, Raidou, and Kurenai had done to discredit the man. He hadn’t said, think about it. He hadn’t said, you’re missing information. He’d seen the simplest solution, which had happened to align exactly with what Ryouma wanted, and he’d done it.
He’d gotten emotional. He still was. He was angry. Given the chance, he’d hang Nomiya all over again. As a substitute for Ryouma’s grandfather. Because Kakashi had a blind spot for damaged children. Because Nomiya had goddamn earned it.
But Konoha hadn’t asked for it, and Kakashi wasn’t a solo jounin anymore, allowed to make unilateral decisions.
Especially if his commanding officers were going to go around making ill-considered bargains without consulting him first, or telling him after.
Kakashi sighed, and felt tired. “No, lieutenant.”
Genma took a breath. “Good.”
He lapsed into silence. The rain grew heavier, hammering down like punishing needles. Genma’s hair hung in plastered tendrils around his face. Kakashi’s vision was framed in wet silver. Damp wood and repeated strain conspired to rub blisters into unwary skin. The cart bounced and shuddered down the trail, hitching when Raidou and Ryouma worked to brake it, and Kakashi had to wonder if their conversation was worse.
Darkness fell long before the rain stopped. The road refused to level. Mud pulled at wheels and shinobi boots and civilian sandals, until Sumeragi Shizuka ordered Harubi back up into the handcart with her children. She offered Kurenai a ride, too — “One more won’t make a difference.” Kurenai was beginning to regret declining when Ushio Keiichi, Team Nineteen’s lieutenant, swung out of the trees.
“Decent camping spot about 400 meters southwest,” he reported. “Hatake made it back, too?” He sounded disappointed.
“About time!” Nakamura Mitsuko threw her weight into veering the handcart towards the sodden verge. “Hakone’s got strong fire jutsu, he could start drying it out for us.” It was a more pointed suggestion than Kurenai’d expected from a non-officer, but Nakamura seemed the kind of veteran who was as confident in her experience as in her own skin — all two meters of it.
Shibata Hakone looked almost slight beside her. He sighed, looked back for his captain’s nod, and helped Nakamura muscle the handcart out of the last muddy ruts before he ducked into the trees after Ushio.
Kurenai considered offering a hand, but Nakamura and Sumeragi didn’t seem to have any difficulty handling the cart on their own. Sumeragi still had enough breath to fill her lungs and bellow, “NAMIASHI! Camping ahead!”
Chakra flickered behind them in the storm, a weary acknowledgment. They’d separated the carts for safety’s sake on the steep downhill grades, but Kurenai couldn’t help wishing she’d hung back with Team Six. Whatever Ryouma had told them, Genma’s chakra still clenched like a fist, unsettlingly tense. Ryouma’s was even worse.
Tents, fire, food. They’d get Harubi and her children settled, and then she’d get answers.
As poor going as the roads had been, the forest was worse. Sumeragi left the handcart in the shelter of a massive rhododendron thicket and hefted an exhausted Tadaichi on her hip. Sen allowed herself to accept Nakamura’s offer of a piggyback ride. Aburame Mayumi, almost faceless beneath the giant hood of her waterproof coat, offered her arm to Harubi.
There was something to be said for ANBU as rescuers, Kurenai decided, following the women to their new camp.
Kin’s solid, sodden shoulders insinuated themselves under her hand. She leaned, gratefully.
Ushio and Hakone had a fire blazing already, smokey beneath a suspended tarpaulin. They’d pitched one tent on a rocky spur uphill. Uncomfortable, but well-drained. Neither of the children protested as the ANBU bundled them inside and their weary mother coaxed them out of their wet clothes. Hakone appeared with tin bowls of a thick, rehydrated seafood stew; Nakamura dug through an unsealed scroll for long-sleeved uniform shirts that swamped all three of them. Kin shook herself vigorously, slipped into the tent, and settled just in time for Tadaichi to fall asleep on her flank.
Sen and Harubi looked like they wouldn’t be far behind. Kurenai left Nineteen’s rookie to collect their empty bowls. If he was anything like his father, he’d be the patient type.
She was not, at the moment, feeling very patient herself.
She ducked beneath the tarpaulin that shielded the fire, and saw Team Six coming through the trees. They’d left their handcart, too. They were lean, drenched, as grim-faced as she’d ever seen them, and they paused just outside the tarpaulin.
“Hah!” Ushio said tones of in deep satisfaction. “Even Team Six can look like drowned rats sometimes.”
Kakashi squinted at him. “Who are you?”
“Lieutenant Ushio, Hatake,” Genma said repressively. He nodded to Ushio. “Got everyone settled?”
Ushio jerked his chin at the tent. “Civilians should be tucked in. Rookie’s pitching ours now. You answering questions yet?”
Rain dripped off Raidou’s brows. “No, lieutenant.” He lowered his head and stepped under the tarpaulin. “Hatake, break out that little water jutsu and get us dry.”
The rest of them crowded under, careful around the fire. Kakashi’s chakra spun up from its tight shield. Water poured from under his armor and flowed out into the rain.
Nakamura squeezed in beside Kurenai, watching with interest. “Wouldn’t that be faster if you all stripped down and he just did the jutsu on the clothes?”
Ryouma reached for his armor buckles.
“Probably,” Genma admitted, loosening the buckles at his own side. “But Hatake manages it pretty well.” He didn’t follow Ryouma’s lead in peeling his chestplate off — or the shirt that followed swiftly after it — but he did breathe a little easier as the armor bindings slackened. He shaped a couple of handseals, and his underpinnings began to steam.
Nakamura cupped her chin in her hands and sighed happily as Ryouma’s belt loosened.
Kurenai shaped her voice for Genma’s ears alone. “What happened?”
He didn’t look back at her. His own voice was barely a breath. “Not yet.”
On his other side, Kakashi twisted a new handseal. Rapid clouds of veiling steam boiled up from Ryouma’s discarded chestplate and shirt. Another handseal converted the jutsu back to an efficient yank that pulled water out of clothes, skin, and hair for everyone under the tarpaulin. When Kurenai could see again, Ryouma was rebuckling his belt.
“We’re just gonna get wet again,” he pointed out. “Somebody’s gotta set up our tents…” He stopped, halfway into a reach for his dry shirt, and looked at his officers. “I guess that should be me.”
Ryouma ducked back into the rain shirtless, without even a rookie’s traditional put-upon sigh. Nakamura, disappointed by the steam, watched until the rain swallowed the last flicker of firelight on tattooed skin.
Raidou glanced at Kakashi. “I don’t suppose you’re a good enough hunter to bring down something in this weather?”
Kakashi’s brow drew down faintly under fluffy-dried hair. He turned wordlessly and followed Ryouma back into the storm.
Something was seriously wrong. Kurenai pressed her lips thin. If Genma wouldn’t speak to her yet, it was something they couldn’t risk in Team Nineteen’s presence. Something Ryouma had been desperate to tell his officers, before Nineteen arrived.
Something that had to involve Kakashi, too, who obeyed Raidou wordlessly, but blocked Nakamura from even watching Ryouma strip…
No. He couldn’t have.
They’d drunk the tanuki sake, too…
And after Raidou’s refusal in the tanuki onsen, he surely wouldn’t take lightly any confession of a similar lapse among his rookies. If it even was a lapse. Possessiveness wasn’t one of Kakashi’s flaws, as far as she knew, although he had warned Ginta away that night in the club…
Surely this was extrapolating too far. No opinion. No judgment. An Intel agent’s cardinal sin was to analyze before gathering sufficient data.
Even if it did explain what had gone so badly wrong with Rin, three years ago.
And now she was stretching for facts to bolster a mere guess. Kurenai cleared her throat. “Well, we’ve got plenty of water. What else do we have to rehydrate?”
Several assorted kits produced ration bars, freeze-dried eggplant and miso soup, and vegetable and chicken curry. Sumeragi, Hakone, and Aburame Mayumi reappeared, wearing voluminous rain cloaks over dry clothes. They’d set their own tents further up the hill and reinforced the slope against mudslides.
That led to an argument over the worst mudslides Team Nineteen had experienced or heard of on missions. Raidou glanced at Genma and steered the conversation into mission stories generally — which quickly descended into mission bragging. Team Nineteen had completed seven missions with a 100 percent success rate and no injuries requiring hospitalization.
“Eight if we count tracking down you,” Ushio said smugly.
“You always say it’s not over until we turn in our mission reports, Fukuchou,” Hakone put in. “So we’re still technically at six, and six is a manifestly unlucky number around these guys. Maybe you should hold off on counting seven and eight until we’re far away from them and their bad fortune can’t rub off on us.”
Genma and Raidou shared a speaking glance, and refused to give statistics on their own hospitalization rate.
Kakashi returned with four rabbits and a faint smell of ozone. Ryouma dragged back under the tarp shortly after, muddy to the knees, to report he’d set up tents and dug a latrine pit. Only Ushio pointed out that it looked like he’d also fallen in.
The rain slackened. Downpour became drizzle, and then merely steam rising from wet vegetation and overheated bodies. A few venturesome mosquitos buzzed. Ryouma pulled his shirt back on.
Sumeragi yawned. “It’s been fun, but we’ve got a long road tomorrow. Nineteen’ll take watch, Namiashi. Looks like your boys need it.”
Raidou tossed a rabbit bone into the fire. “Better mean that, because I won’t turn you down.”
“We established a perimeter when the rain stopped,” Mayumi assured him.
Ryouma glanced back at her, looking puzzled, and mouthed “We?” at Hakone. Hakone whispered back. Kurenai caught a shard: “because she’s got a hive…”
Mayumi gave Ryouma a friendly little wave. A bug crawled out of her sleeve. He swallowed, waved two fingers back, and scrambled up gratefully as his officers moved.
Kurenai left Nineteen to sort out their watch schedule and followed Team Six toward their tents. The rookies walked shoulder-to-shoulder, but that wasn’t new.
Ryouma’s hesitation outside the small tent he shared with Kakashi was. “Taichou…”
Raidou cut him off with a sharp gesture. “I don’t want to hear it. Just go sit in the goddamned tent and do nothing until we’re ready to leave.”
Ryouma dropped his chin, exhaled, and crouched to crawl into his tent. Kakashi flicked a cool, silent look at Raidou, and followed.
No judgment in advance of facts.
Kurenai kept her voice low. “If you’re not answering Ushio’s questions, what about mine?”
Raidou gestured toward the officers’ larger tent: after you.
Kurenai kicked off her sandals, opened the flap, and ducked inside. It was dark and close, with bedrolls piled against one wall and a set of intact glowsticks hanging overhead. Kurenai reached up and snapped them, illuminating the tent with a soft yellow glow. Then she folded down cross-legged against the bedrolls, set her hands into the seals of her silencing jutsu, and waited.
The ANBU stripped off their armor and sat down across from her, not quite at the points of an equilateral triangle. Closer to each other, as if she sat on the other side of a desk, waiting for their reports. She couldn’t shake the feeling she should have been holding a clipboard. She didn’t like it.
Raidou rubbed his eyes. “The idiots went back and killed Nomiya after we left.”
That— was not what she’d expected.
“Made it look like he hung himself,” Raidou continued. “Mayumi’s bugs smelled them on the rope.” He looked at Genma. “What did Hatake have to say for himself?”
“He confirmed it.” Genma’s hands folded tightly over his knees, as if they’d rather have closed around some rookie’s neck. “He claims Sen contracted them to do it. Nineteen thinks it was a sanctioned hit. Hatake’s explanation for their failure to clear it with us is that we would have said no.”
That last bit sounded like Kakashi, certainly, but the rest of it—
Assemble the facts.
“Sen went off alone while we were packing,” she murmured. “After I told her our suspicions about the time-slip. She also asked if her father thought they were dead.”
“You think that’s when she talked to Hatake?” Genma asked. “Or both of them? Hatake was careful to avoid implicating Tousaki, and Tousaki was definitely trying to pretend Hatake wasn’t involved.”
“It would have been the only opportunity. She never left her mother’s sight, afterwards.” Kurenai frowned, thinking back. “She talked to Tousaki while we were washing up at the river that night, but only a few words.” And that was after Kurenai and the officers had returned from their visit to Tanigawa.
So, had Tousaki and Kakashi acted on a moment of reckless impulse, or had they spent those long hours of morning-turned-evening plotting murder?
Tousaki hadn’t struck her as much of a plotter.
Kurenai tapped her fingers on her thigh.
“You were worried about Tousaki’s stability after we first met Nomiya, when we only suspected what he’d done to his family. We even discussed the possibility that Tousaki might kill Nomiya. You asked Kakashi to backstop him. It seems to have had the opposite result.”
Genma’s eyes dropped. His knuckles whitened on his knee before he dragged his gaze back up to meet hers. “It does. I miscalculated where Hatake’s loyalties lay.”
Raidou chopped his hand down, dismissing the question of culpability. “Before this, I would have put Hatake’s loyalties on the mission first. When did that change?”
Before the tanuki sake, or afterward…?
Memory plucked up plenty of corroborating instances, now that she was looking for them: Tousaki’s faulty attempt to defend Kakashi from Satomi’s grudge in Water Country’s lava caves; Kakashi’s possessiveness that night at Embers; the rookies’ moonlit stroll around the tanuki pond. At what point did reluctance to reason in advance of facts become willful blindness?
On the other hand, she’d already witnessed Team Six’s tendency to magnify team loyalty into suicidal devotion, mission be damned. And none of them had had the excuse of sleeping with Genma to justify it.
It brought something else to mind, though.
“Loyalties aside, for the moment,” she said carefully, “there’s the question of whether we can afford to stay the night in these mountains, with Nomiya’s corpse in Tanigawa and our promise broken. The tanuki seemed to appreciate weasel-wording, but I doubt we could successfully argue our word didn’t bind your rookies. And if they took Sen’s commission, they certainly involved her.”
All excellent points.
“If the tanuki were gonna pop up and protest, I’d expect them to have done it already,” Raidou said. But the memory of his ribs caving in under an immovable stone slab was still fresh, and that had just been the kits. He grimaced. “Still, I’d feel better getting off the mountain.”
Genma flicked his senbon from one side of his mouth to the other. “If we uproot and go right now, we’ll have to explain the urgency to Harubi-san, and to Nineteen. And those trails were getting worse and worse. I’d hate to run into a slide with the carts in the dark. We may be better off making a sincere offering of apology, at a shrine if we can find one, and staying put until daylight.”
Raidou tipped his head towards Kurenai, inviting her opinion.
She sat back, one hand opening expressively in acquiescence. “Keeping Harubi uninvolved might be our best defense, at this point. Though I could wish for a word with Sen…” Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully, glimmers of crimson. “I don’t doubt she did commission them. Did Kakashi say with what?”
Genma shook his head. “No, but he described it as a contract with a client.”
“Of course he did,” Raidou said wearily. “Traumatized civilian kid. No reason to think she’d make a questionable choice.” He carved off a slice of chakra, spinning it into a clone that crouched attentively. “Tell Hatake to get his ass out here.”
The clone slipped out of their tent and stalked off with rigid shoulders. Moments later, Raidou felt it exit the world, leaving a fleeting memory of Ryouma’s alarmed face and Kakashi’s resigned sigh behind.
A hand slapped the tent cloth. Kakashi stuck his damp grey head in. “Taichou?”
“Yuuhi has questions for you,” Raidou said.
Kakashi eased reluctantly inside, and slouched his way into a crouch. He eyed Kurenai with the wiped-clean expression Raidou had started to interpret as wary.
Kurenai leaned forward, hands laced neatly in her lap, and asked without inflection, “Tell me about your conversation with Sen.”
Kakashi glanced once at Genma, then Raidou, then back to Kurenai. “Is this an official Intel debrief, or are you just curious?”
Kurenai’s mouth tightened, just a little. Her lipstick had worn off in the rain. “How deep does Intel need to look?”
Kakashi nodded, as if that answered his question, and launched into a monotone account that, as far as Raidou could tell, spared most of the details. Sen had approached them. Kakashi had agreed. Ryouma, in this version, had only been involved to the extent that he’d happened to be standing there.
“Kakashi,” Kurenai interrupted. “Do you want to tell us the truth, here and now? Or would you prefer my colleagues question Tousaki at home?”
Kakashi’s eye narrowed dangerously.
The air in the tent went a little icy. Before Raidou could threaten to throttle him — or make good on his previous threat to throttle him — Kakashi took a shallow breath, broke eye contact, and fixed his glare on a tent pole. More slowly, with occasional back tracks and self-corrections, he laid out a story that felt real.
Sen approaching Pakkun, of all goddamn people, to ask if his idle comment had been true. Half a ryou, and we’ll take an IOU. Ryouma questioning her: Fire Country isn’t far enough? And Sen’s answer, which made Raidou’s heart hurt. He knows people. He’ll find us and kill us.
The plan, to make it look like a suicide. The agreement, written on a scrap of paper, signed with Kakashi and Ryouma’s actual signatures, and a code word for Sen. The promise to bring back proof of death.
And at the end, Pakkun escorting the girl away for breakfast.
“Why didn’t you just tell us?” Raidou demanded, before Kurenai could probe more delicately.
Kakashi’s eye flicked up. “We didn’t want to get you involved,” he said, which, as an answer, might have inspired Raidou’s blood pressure to hit the ceiling if he hadn’t followed it with one more thing, slightly softer: “She came to us.”
Raidou ground the heel of his palm into one eyesocket, and got it. One damaged kid appealing to two others, with their three combined histories of blood and bad parenting. Ryouma’s kneejerk instinct to protect, Kakashi’s cold talent for the quickest strike. It was no excuse, but he could see the thread.
Genma was less swayed. “She specifically told you to keep us out of it?”
“No,” Kakashi said.
“You hid your plan from us because you knew it was wrong, and abandoned your watch to carry it out,” Genma said, with icicle calm. “What am I missing?”
The quarter slice of Kakashi’s expression went blank. And then he decided to self-destruct. “We didn’t collect payment immediately after the hit,” he said acidly. “But we did leave clones to guard the camp.”
Genma’s voice, if anything, went colder. “If you want to go that route, you contracted the hit for a unit of currency that’s no longer in circulation, on credit, without a specified date for repayment. But economics aren’t the issue here, and you know it.”
Kurenai interjected, gentle as a razor: “I think we have a fair idea now of what the issue is.”
“Agreed,” Raidou said. “Get out, Hatake. And send Tousaki in after you.”
“Taichou,” Kakashi said tightly. He left the tent with stiff shoulders.
In the brief interval before Ryouma arrived, Genma braced his head in his hands and vented a frustrated sigh.
“Remember when this was supposed to be an easy mission?” Raidou asked no one in particular.
Genma gave a hollow little laugh.
“Apparently weird wasn’t enough,” Kurenai said.
The tent flap pulled back and Ryouma ducked in, braced like a man going to the scaffold. He folded down into a seat in front of them, and said with exacting formality, “Taichou. Fukuchou. Yuuhi-san.”
Raidou borrowed Kurenai’s opening line. “Tell us about your conversation with Sen.”
Ryouma took a shallow breath, and started further back than Raidou expected. “Harubi-san said she didn’t want to be a murderer. But Sen’s the one who’s going to wear that scar on her face, the rest of her life. Maybe the tanuki didn’t offer to heal it, or maybe she didn’t let them. Either way, it’s not just Harubi’s story to end.” He looked at Kurenai, a lick of fire underscoring the words. “It’s Sen’s, too. And she wanted her father dead and her family safe, and I— wanted that too. So I agreed.”
“And then you decided not to tell us,” Raidou said. “Why?”
Ryouma’s eyes flicked to Genma, then dropped. He said, very quietly, “Because I said I’d keep my cool. And I didn’t. Because I made it personal.”
The way Ryouma’s voice faded to a near whisper, and the kicked-dog look in his eye, was probably a reflection of exactly why he’d identified with Sen so much. He’d screwed up, he knew he’d screwed up, and now he was expecting unbearable punishment. Genma’s head hurt. How could he respond in a professional way, when he was angry and disappointed, and at the same time found himself feeling sorry for Ryouma?
“We told you — I told you— we’d keep them safe, and we’d make sure Nomiya knew he was being watched.” Genma clenched his fingers in impotent fists. “You didn’t trust us. Do you really think if you’d come to us with your argument that it was Sen’s right to ask for an assassination, we wouldn’t even have listened?”
Kurenai tapped her fingers against her knees; Raidou had a thoughtful look in his eyes. Neither spoke.
Ryouma’s head stayed bowed, staring at his own white-knuckled hands in his lap. “I didn’t think. I took Kakashi and made him help me stage a suicide, and I didn’t think. I wanted to kill him. I used Sen as an excuse to do it.”
There was the crux of it. The difference between an assassination and a murder was intent, and Ryouma’s intent had been murderous. There was no way around that. But that wasn’t all of it, either.
“That’s a very different version of events than Hatake gave us,” Genma said. “He didn’t mention your kunai at his throat forcing him into helping.”
Ryouma’s gaze flicked up, and he opened his mouth to speak, but shut it just as quickly, dropping his head even lower. Almost inaudibly, he said, “He knows about— when I was Sen’s age. I—” His throat worked. “I lived with my granddad. That’s what happened to my knee. I didn’t kill him. I couldn’t.” A decade and more of latent fury lent venom to his words. “Sometimes I wanted to, but he was all I had. But Sen—” Ryouma’s shoulders rose on a breath he seemed to fight to take. “She wanted to. She knew she had to. And I wanted to do it for her. For both of us.” His voice turned rough. His eyes closed; his throat worked again. “And Kakashi knew, so he helped.”
Everything they’d surmised in talking with Kurenai was true, then. The alcoholic and abusive grandfather. The way Ryouma saw himself in Sen, like a soldier having war flashbacks on a mission. Speaking the words aloud had been a heavy price. Ryouma’s shoulders sagged. Sweat ran down the side of his face.
You’re his officers, Kurenai had said. Will you pull him off the mission?
They should have, and they hadn’t. And now it was too late. Although what could they have done to pull him once they were in the field? Send him back to Konoha alone? That was how missing-nin were made. And suicides.
Raidou sighed. “Tousaki, look at me.”
Reluctantly, Ryouma raised his head and met Raidou’s gaze.
“Would you do it again?”
Kurenai’s crimson eyes were hooded and watchful, intent on Ryouma.
Ryouma wet his lips. “Yes. He needed to die. But I should have done it differently.” Guilt edged the fierceness out of his voice.
They were still on dangerous ground — that answer still much closer to ‘murder’ than ‘mission’ — but it sounded honest. The real question wasn’t what should you have done, though, it was what happens next time.
“If you were in a situation like this again, what would you do?” Genma asked.
“I should tell you.” Ryouma’s voice came thick and reluctant, halting around each word like a stumbling block.
Genma looked up at Raidou, hoping he’d caught the same meaning. Now what?
“Convincing,” Raidou said, dry as a funeral urn. He looked at Ryouma for a long moment, chewing his thoughts. “Here’s the thing: Nomiya isn’t going to be the last abusive asshole you run into on this job, and Sen won’t be the last civilian who begs you for help. If we can’t trust you, we can’t take you on missions. If you can’t trust us, is this team really the right place for you?”
Quiet panic flashed over Ryouma’s face. He folded over as if he’d been gut-punched, and stayed there, in a nearly prostrate bow. In a broken voice, he said, “I’ll follow orders. I swear, Taichou.”
Raidou’s stern expression softened. “That wasn’t supposed to be a threat, Ryouma. I blew up a port and I’m still here. I want you on this team. I meant—” He sighed. “Rookies aren’t supposed to get everything right. That’s why you have teams to support you. If we still had Katsuko, you’d have a veteran to keep you on track. I—” He glanced at Genma. “We thought Hatake might fulfill that role, but that was clearly asking too much.”
Ryouma unfolded a fraction. “Kakashi stopped me when I needed it.” An ember of defiance glinting in the ashes. “Maybe not when you’d have wanted him to. But when I did.”
Rookies closing ranks around each other? Raidou was right, what this team lacked was a veteran. Someone to be the go-between with the officers and the rookies. ANBU was different from regular service; team hierarchy and unity was more important than individual action. With Katsuko gone, the only person left to fill that role was Genma.
Setting anger aside, Genma shifted closer and put a hand on Ryouma’s tense shoulder. “Ryouma,” he said, echoing Raidou’s use of personal name. “We’re a team. All of us. We shouldn’t have asked so much of Hatake. And we should have been there for you. We can all do better. Just promise you’ll come to one of us next time, instead of acting rashly.”
Ryouma looked away. He said roughly, “I will. Next time I’ll tell you.” His posture wasn’t any less tense, as if Genma hadn’t spoken at all.
Kurenai was watching and might report all of them for the failings piled on failings of this successful mission. Maybe she was right, and Ryouma was too emotionally unsteady for ANBU. Maybe they should have furloughed Ryouma as soon as he’d shown those first fractures, on the Tsuto mission.
But they were here, now.
Genma squeezed Ryouma’s iron-knotted shoulder hard, trying to push meaning into his words. “You are part of this team, Ryouma. We’re not letting you off, but we’re not letting you go, either.”
Ryouma pulled his back up straight, with his hands fisted on his knees. His face was pale and the set of his lips strained. His eyes were red-edged but dry. He stared straight on, at a point somewhere in the middle of the air. “I’ll do better, Fukuchou.”
Ryouma shivered once, and his eyes refocused on Genma.
“I know you will,” Genma said. “I will, too.”
Ryouma turned to Raidou next, managing to ignore Kurenai almost as effectively as he was pretending he hadn’t been on the verge of a breakdown moments ago. “Do you want anything else, Taichou?”
“An uneventful trip home,” Raidou said. One corner of his mouth tilted up slightly. I’m not mad anymore, but for all that’s holy can we please have no more surprises?
“Go get some sleep,” Genma added.
Ryouma ducked his head in a swift bow, and left them.
Genma eased back to make a rough triangle with Raidou and Kurenai. He pushed his hair out of his face, tipped his head backward, and blew out a long, frustrated breath. “That was… something.”
Raidou rubbed his face. “I’m pretty sure Hatake still thinks he’s done nothing wrong, and Tousaki may try to drown himself in a river on our way back.”
“No,” Kurenai said thoughtfully, “You asked for an uneventful trip home. He won’t let you down again. At least not for a while.”
“Hatake is our immediate problem, then,” Genma said. “He let his emotions get the better of him as much as Tousaki did. He was all for burning down the entire village, back when we thought we might still find corpses. And I can’t think of a single punishment that would get through his crystalline wall of disdain and actually register with him.”
Kurenai nibbled at her thumbnail, an uncharacteristically revealing gesture. “Dealing with Tousaki tonight might do the trick.”
“How do you mean?” Genma asked.
She caught herself and dropped her hand. “Kakashi doesn’t care about his own feelings. Or perhaps, more accurately, he’s used to ignoring his own pain. Someone else hurting, though? And deservedly so, because of something he did? He can’t rip you apart, so he’ll rip at himself.”
“You think he’ll take the right message home, though? That they need to follow procedure and Rule 25. Keep their emotions out of decision making on a mission?” Genma stretched his spine, suddenly aware of how tensely he was holding himself. “Or are we just the assholes who made Tousaki cry?”
Raidou snorted softly. “Cry over killing a man, don’t forget. Not that Nomiya deserves the tears.” He turned to study the tent flap, as if he could see through it and the gloom outside to whatever trouble Kakashi was stirring up next. “If Hatake doesn’t take the lesson home, I’ll be happy to make him run laps until he throws up. Maybe I’ll do that anyway.” He looked grimly amused at the thought. “Or practice handwriting drills. ‘I must not murder on my own time.’”
In a carefully neutral voice, Kurenai said, “You don’t intend to report them?”
“For failing to follow protocol?” Genma sharpened up. This wasn’t their friend and maybe-someday-lover Kurenai. This was Agent Yuuhi. “What they did potentially causes an issue for Konoha, so yes, we’ll have to report it. But if we hadn’t made the agreement with Himself, the only real problem here would be an internal one: their failing to follow the chain of command. And since we didn’t tell them about the agreement with the tanuki, even though we knew they had expressed murderous intent, we’re just as guilty of communications failure.”
Kurenai’s manicured fingers tapped lightly on her knee. After a moment’s thought, in that same very even voice, she said, “You might consider two versions of your report. One for the official file, and one for… higher, more exclusive channels.”
“Given that our mission involved mythical wolf and tanuki gods, and interdimensional travel, I expect one hundred percent of our mission reports will be for higher, more exclusive channels only, don’t you?” Genma said.
Her mouth tightened. “I would, at the moment, be wary of entrusting to paper anything that undermines the teams Hokage-sama selected. Not if you don’t intend to follow it through.”
Genma hesitated. Was Kurenai suggesting what it seemed she was suggesting? “I don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize this team, or Yondaime-sama’s leadership.” He picked his words carefully, trying to match her even tone. “Nineteen is likely to report Nomiya’s death. They believe it was sanctioned by the mission. I don’t see any reason they need to think otherwise. It’s an internal discipline issue. It doesn’t warrant higher scrutiny.”
Raidou looked from Kurenai to Genma and back again, eyebrows climbing towards his hairline. “We can request an initial debrief with Sagara-sama and go from there.”
Kurenai nodded. “Given the dimensional discoveries, all reports from this mission will be Eyes Only. I already intended to ask Oita-sama for an exclusive briefing regarding our conversations with Himself, before anything’s further declassified.”
“We should probably talk with Sumeragi about what Aburame Mayumi’s insects reported to them,” Genma said. “We’ll need to let her know that any details about Six’s mission that might go in Nineteen’s mission report are Eyes Only. Or are better left out of their report altogether.”
“That’s not going to make them curious,” Raidou said, but he nodded agreement.
“I’ll speak to her,” Kurenai said. She pushed up to her knees and angled towards the tent flap. “I can make it an Intel matter, best taken out of her hands.”
“Thank you,” Genma told her. She gave him a brief smile and brushed her hand over his shoulder and through his hair as she passed. He reached up to let his own fingers brushing hers, and then she was gone.
He studied Raidou’s tired, worried face for a moment. Scooting closer he said, “I have a flask of emergency shouchu in my med kit. Do you need a cup or are you happy to just share?”
Raidou blinked, then chuckled. “I’m not even surprised you have emergency shouchu. But better not.”
“You’re probably right.” Genma unfurled his bedroll and lay down, staring up at the dangling snaplights glowing like tiny party lanterns from the middle of the canvas. “I have an idea for Hatake. Five-thousand word essay on the differences between assassination and murder. Legibly written.”
Raidou snorted a laugh. “In proper kanji.” He stretched out as well, with his hands laced across his rib cage, and asked the lights, “Are we fucking these kids up?”
“To quote my wise captain, ‘I think Tousaki’s been carrying those problems a lot longer than he’s been with us. Hatake, too.’” Genma twisted his neck to see Raidou better. “All we can do is try to keep them going despite it, get the missions done, and I don’t know, not lose our own minds in the process.”
Raidou tipped his head to meet Genma’s eyes. “You’re right. I should remember you’re always right.” Smile lines creased the corners of his eyes. “Do you remember everything I say? Because that could become downright burdensome on a captain.”
“Only the important things,” Genma said, smiling back. Even now, after the fraught, exhausting day they’d had, Raidou had a way of putting him at ease. “And the praise. I’ve kept a precise record of every time you’ve told me I’m right.” He laughed when Raidou pulled a wry face at that, then turned fully onto his side. “Kurenai knows something about the situation in Konoha she’s not telling us, I think. Some reason we want to keep extraneous eyes out of Team Six’s missions.”
“Genuine threat, you think, or occupational habit from being in Intel?” Raidou asked. “Doubt it’s Kuroda. Sagara-sama already squashed him once, and he’s not dumb enough to cross the Hokage.” He grimaced. “I think.”
“Maybe not Kuroda, but I think whatever she’s worried about, she believes it’s a threat.” Genma massaged one forearm with the opposite hand, working out tired muscles. “I’ve known Aoba long enough to know professional Intel paranoia when I see it. Kurenai seemed to have something specific in mind. It’s the way she said we shouldn’t do anything to undermine the teams that the Yondaime-sama put together. Like if we fuck up we’re calling his judgment into question.”
Raidou tilted his head in thought. “Doesn’t that technically apply to all of ANBU? Hokage’s personal soldiers and all.” His eyes strayed to the tent flap. “Granted, Hatake makes it a bit more personal. Maybe that’s another essay for him: I will not screw up and make my adoptive dad cry.”
Genma genuinely laughed at that. “You have a point. But we should still be careful. We know someone in Fire Country wanted the Daimyou to replace Minato-sama enough to stage a coup. You have to wonder who they wanted him replaced with.” He closed his eyes and made a warding gesture. “Please, merciful Amida, don’t let it be Kuroda.”
For the first time that Genma could remember, Raidou copied the gesture and said fervently, “I’d rather deal with a thousand bad rookie decisions.” His voice drifted more thoughtful. “If Yuuhi’s aware of something, then her superiors are, too. Oita-sama is loyal to Yondaime-sensei, so they must be keeping tabs on things.” He tipped his head back and sighed out a shiver of tension.
“Oita and Sagara-sama are friends, so I have to trust Sagara’s safe, too. But maybe there’s a mole somewhere in the hierarchy that Intel is trying to oust. They still haven’t proven who was behind the attack on the ANBU trials, or found any sign of the snake, at least as far as they’re telling us.” Genma hugged a knee to his chest in a stretch. “But also, we don’t have to solve this right now. Right now we have to think of a punishment that will get through to Hatake, one that works for Tousaki that won’t break him, and figure out what we’re going to say about Nomiya to Sagara.” He switched to his other leg. “So far we have essays and running until they puke. And for what it’s worth, I think we should tell Sagara exactly what happened. She’s terrifying but she’s smart. She’ll have a better idea how to handle things than we ever will.”
“Agreed,” Raidou said. “Contrary to popular ninja opinion, I’m actually in favor of sticking to the truth.”
“Especially in mission reporting,” Genma said. “And talking to medics. My sensei always liked to say, ‘I don’t care how you got that vegetable peeler up there, I only care about getting it back out.’”
“Nishi-sensei was colorful.” Genma shrugged.
“How about making Tousaki study his basic kanji?” Raidou suggested. “He’ll hate it, but it’ll be good for him.”
“He’s got to do that anyway, if he’s going to survive the field medic coursework. So I”m not sure it counts as a punishment.”
Raidou smiled his charming, crooked smile. The one that made Genma really regret they were on the same team. “Bet you a half-ryou?”
Genma kicked Raidou’s ankle. “You better not give me an IOU for it.”
“Hey!” Raidou said, feigning offense. “I’m good for it.” He kicked back, and laughed when Genma didn’t dodge.
“I know, I know, my taijutsu still sucks,” Genma said. “When we get back, and we’re nowhere near these mountains, we can spar until I get better at protecting my left.”
“It’s a da— deal,” Raidou said, catching himself halfway through the word.
Maybe someday, when they weren’t juggling insubordination, psychologically scarred rookies, mythical monsters, and ethical boundaries, it would even be a date.
While Ryouma was being interrogated, Kakashi paced around in the fading rain and replayed the conversation over. Because that was useful. Perhaps if he’d been less acerbic, explained a little more— but the end result would be the same. Nomiya: dead. Officers: pissed. And Kakashi still couldn’t bring himself to regret it. Even if Raidou got into trouble. Even if the tanuki had issues. Even if Sen woke up tomorrow and changed her mind—
—it still felt worth it. Besides, he’d taken more lives for less, at Konoha’s request. Konoha could credit him this one.
Ryouma probably wouldn’t feel the same. Even when he was right, he defaulted to guilt. If the captain just looked at him disapprovingly—
The tent flap pulled back. Kakashi spun around. Ryouma ducked out, stone-faced, swept a blind look over the clearing, and stalked off — not towards their tent, but towards the forest. He didn’t seem to notice Kakashi.
Kakashi thought of a handful of vicious swear words, and went after him.
Ryouma cut a straight line through the dripping undergrowth. He strode through pines and thorns and ferns with sharp-edged leaves, until he reached an ancient tree that, as far as Kakashi could tell, was no different from its neighboring trees, and punched it.
There was no warning, just Ryouma’s fist making a crater. Splinters of pale heartwood flew everywhere. The tree shuddered, dropping its burden of collected rainwater. Ryouma ground his fist against the wood, then pulled his hand back. Blood ran down his knuckles; he hadn’t shielded them with chakra. He studied them expressionlessly, and said: “You should go back. You’re getting wet.”
Yes. That was the important concern.
There was a fallen tree next to Ryouma’s chosen target, slewed at a steep angle. Kakashi hitched himself up onto the trunk and sat, because the set of Ryouma’s shoulders made him think of a bear trap, ready to bite off an unwary hand. Don’t touch. Not yet, at least.
“I’m comfortable here,” he said.
Ryouma’s hand flexed, tightening back into a fist. “You shouldn’t follow me when I go wrong. You can’t always pull me back. I’ll drag you over.”
Kakashi snorted. “You could try.”
Ryouma turned abruptly, face white and set. “I already did. I didn’t kill Nomiya for Sen, I did it for myself. And you did it for me.”
Kakashi considered this. “So?”
“So—” Ryouma’s jaw worked for a frustrated moment. “So I’ve ripped Rule 25 right down the middle and dragged you in after me, and don’t say you don’t care, you should. The officers think maybe I don’t belong on the team, and that you can’t keep me on track, so I’m wrecking your career now as well as my own.”
Kakashi considered this, too, and concluded: “Bullshit.”
Ryouma’s head jerked back, like a horse hitting a wall mid-run.
“One,” Kakashi said, “I wanted to kill Nomiya before Sen ever came to us. Two, if she hadn’t come to us, were you making murder plans on your own? And three, since I haven’t managed to destroy my own career yet, I’m not letting you do it first, you ass.”
Ryouma’s breach punched out, as if Kakashi had stabbed him. Then his eyes hardened. “I used Sen as an excuse. A way to lie to myself that it wasn’t personal. And I didn’t even think about what staging a suicide’d do to you. Or whether you’d want me afterwards— I was only thinking about myself. So maybe Taichou’s right and I’m no good for Team Six. Or for you.”
Kakashi was starting to wish the tree had hit Ryouma back. “Or,” he snapped, “you’re telling yourself that now because Namiashi’s mad, and Shiranui’s disappointed, and it’s easier to agree with them than fight back. You’re so ready to punish yourself for every goddamned little thing—” Kakashi shoved himself off the tree trunk and strode forward to jab Ryouma in his stupid broad chest. “I’ve staged suicides for Konoha before. I’m not going to crumple because it bears a passing resemblance to my— Sakumo. I didn’t make him kill himself.”
He drew a sharp breath through his nose, trying to rein himself back in. Yelling wasn’t actually conducive to Ryouma’s mental well-being, even if Kakashi wanted to do it to everything right now. He spread his hand over Ryouma’s chest, and tried to be a person instead of a knife. “You didn’t make me do anything. If I had the chance, knowing what I know now, I’d kill Nomiya again tomorrow. And I wouldn’t feel bad about it.”
Ryouma’s mouth opened, closed, opened again, as if he was finding and losing words. Finally, he said: “Would you tell the officers first?”
Right now, Kakashi was inclined to tell the officers to stick their collective heads in a bucket, along with Kurenai. Especially if they’d said Ryouma was no good for Team Six. But a cooler thought prevailed.
“Probably,” he said, through clamped teeth. “Especially since they made some kind of deal with the tanuki, which we may technically have violated, so now we need to check their work on everything.”
Ryouma stared at him. “What? What deal?”
“Something about not involving Harubi or her children in any kind of retribution on Nomiya.”
“But—” Ryouma floundered briefly. “They said I should’ve trusted them to deal with it. That I should’ve come to them and said it was Sen’s right to ask for an assassination. But if they’d already promised the tanuki they wouldn’t do anything about it, what would they have done differently?”
“Told us no,” Kakashi said. “And sat on us until we stopped yelling.” His lip curled. “Sen’s too young to make informed choices, according to the lieutenant. Mom’s opinion takes precedence. And the tanuki deal is more important.”
“We were making informed choices when we were Sen’s age. Or choices, anyway,” Ryouma said, suggesting he didn’t agree with the lieutenant’s point about civilians any more than Kakashi did. His shoulders slumped. “Tanuki deal, though. That could be bad. No wonder they were mad about us acting out on our own. Did they say anything more about it?”
Kakashi grimaced, and dropped his hand. “Lieutenant made a point about Six being under scrutiny, and it’s not a good look if the captain can’t keep us to heel.”
“Yeah,” Ryouma said, low. He looked at his hand, blood settling dark and tacky between stark knuckle bones. “He said he wasn’t actually kicking me off the team. ‘Cause he blew up a port and he’s still here. Or— something. I maybe wasn’t listening that well right then. But I guess he knows about fucking up.”
So — they hadn’t said Ryouma didn’t belong on the team? A knot of tension unwound below Kakashi’s ribcage.
“He got his ribs broken by baby fuzzballs,” he pointed out. “And his lieutenant kidnapped by same. They need more watching than we do.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like we did anything useful then. I don’t think you can count that against ‘em.”
Kakashi snorted, because of course he could, did Ryouma not know him at all. He tapped his own sternum. “Figured out dimension-hopping jutsu on the fly.” He pointed at Ryouma. “Bargained with wolf demons. We were not useless.”
“Bet the lieutenant’d call that ‘acting rashly’,” Ryouma muttered. “But it worked.” He lifted his head. “Yuuhi did some kind of genjutsu on Nomiya, didn’t she? We didn’t ask the officers about it when they got back. Maybe we should’ve. Maybe it actually would’ve done something, except we killed him first. I was scared they’d stop us. And I didn’t— I didn’t think I could walk away and let him live. Not with Sen still scared of him. I still have nightmares, and at least I know my granddad’s not still out there looking for me…”
“I know,” Kakashi said, because he did. Ryouma had had them on this mission, twisting himself up in blankets and misery, keeping Kakashi awake, until Kakashi had tucked up against his ribs.
That wasn’t a cure — neither was Nomiya’s death — but it had won a reprieve, at least for one night.
Kakashi reached up and touched his fingertips to Ryouma’s face, where cheekbone and jaw-hinge met like a fist of tension. Ryouma watched him, eyes tired and wary.
Kakashi said, “If Sen hadn’t asked, what would you have done, really?”
Ryouma closed his eyes, letting a breath trickle out slowly. Then opened them. “I’d have walked away, like we were meant to. And had more nightmares. But that’s why it was wrong, isn’t it? We don’t kill people so we can sleep well at night.”
“I do, when I’m lucky,” Kakashi said. “I slept like a brick after Tsuto. Just because we got paid and the village wanted him dead, doesn’t mean we can’t feel good about taking out a traitor.” Or bad about his kids, who’d been fundamentally innocent and wound up just as dead. “We kill plenty of people who don’t deserve it. Don’t waste your time ripping yourself apart for one asshole who actually did.”
“You were drugged off your head after Tsuto,” Ryouma pointed out. “And yeah, I know that’s not the point. I’m… not even really sure what the point is, anymore.” He sighed. “I’m just tired.”
Kakashi rubbed his thumb over Ryouma’s cheekbone, then dropped his hand, catching Ryouma’s bloody fingers in a careful grip. He tugged. “Come back to the tent with me.”
Following was easier than fighting. Kakashi was right about that. It didn’t sound good when he said it — Ryouma would’ve fought back if the officers were wrong, maybe — but each step in Kakashi’s wake settled something deep-buried. The iron bands around his lungs loosened. He drew one deep steadying breath, and then another.
Wet ferns slapped at his shins. Overhanging trees dripped down his neck. Kakashi’s fingers curled warm and protective around his, and slowly Ryouma began to feel the sting of his split knuckles, and the chill of the midnight mountain breeze.
“Hope nobody gets sick after this,” he muttered. “Last thing the lieutenant needs.”
“It’d give him something to focus on besides yelling at us,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma slapped an over-bold mosquito. “He can multi-task.” Kakashi lifted a shadowy branch for him, and Ryouma ducked beneath. “Did he say… D’you know what happens when we get back?”
Kakashi shrugged, half-seen in darkness. The movement traveled through his shoulder and lifted their linked hands. “Depends if they make it a team disciplinary issue or bounce it up the chain of command. I don’t think Konoha will care, except if the tanuki kick up a fuss, and even then a sharp diplomacy team could wrap Himself up in loopholes forever.” His voice dropped to a mutter. “It’s not like we knew about the agreement.”
Maybe they should’ve guessed. Maybe Raidou should’ve told them. Ryouma caught himself on the brink of that maelstrom of maybes. He clung a little tighter to Kakashi’s hand.
“If they decide to just punish us themselves… Running to all the way to Sumoto and a stack of the lieutenant’s paperwork still seems worth it,” Kakashi decided.
“Stack of his paperwork with our handwriting seems more like a punishment for somebody else.” Though it did sound like a punishment Genma had given before, when Kakashi sat on a river instead of jumping into it. Maybe it wasn’t a joke. “You don’t think they’ll suspend us? Two men isn’t much of a team. But they could take floaters.”
Kakashi’s next step struck and stayed, just for a moment. Then he squeezed Ryouma’s hand, gentle over the split knuckles, and kept going. “I don’t. But if they do, we’ll train for a month and not get injured. The horror.”
“Like you wouldn’t go out of your mind with stir-crazy,” Ryouma muttered. “Taichou’s suspension was bad enough.” Although they’d had those three weeks for surgery, recovery, study; flashcards and anatomy charts, shared meals in Ryouma’s room, jutsu theory, even jokes. They still had work to do, refining Kakashi’s stolen blood-blade jutsu.
He said, “If we do get suspended. I’ll show you the Nikutai Hakai. I still owe you. Maybe it’ll help with the chakra hook for Iebara’s blades.”
Kakashi veered sharply right, yanking Ryouma after him. “I’m going to swear at the captain. That should be enough for a month.”
“Hey!” Ryouma almost laughed. He planted his feet and tugged Kakashi back from the headlong charge toward camp. “I promised you already. Back in Hayama. You could just show me your face, and skip the suspension.”
It would’ve taken just the twist of a wrist to break their grip, but Kakashi let Ryouma’s resistance pull him back. His shoulder bumped Ryouma’s chest. He made a grumpy little sound like a disgruntled cat. “But riling the captain is so much easier.”
So nothing had changed. “Yeah,” Ryouma said. “Okay.” He lifted his other hand, and touched Kakashi’s shoulder. “Thank you. For coming after me.”
Kakashi ducked his head. Wet hair and darkness hid the last unmasked slice of his face. His shoulder rounded with tension, but he didn’t drop Ryouma’s hand. “Thank me in the tent,” he murmured, and pulled Ryouma on again.
It was a tent. Ryouma didn’t think he could keep that quiet, not unless he learned Kurenai’s silencing jutsu. He followed Kakashi anyway.
They dropped hands under the shadow of the last trees, before the damp little clearing of camp. Team Nineteen’s massive veteran, Nakamura, paced a watchful circuit on the far side of the tent where Harubi’s family slept. Sumeragi, the captain, crouched beneath the tarp next to the banked fire. Kurenai sat cross-legged beside to her. Ryouma faltered.
Kakashi ignored them both. He crossed to their small tent, shed his boots, unzipped the flap, and crawled inside. Ryouma ducked a wary glance back at the fire.
Kurenai lifted a steaming mug and sipped. Sumeragi said something. Kurenai’s eyes met Ryouma’s, over her mug. Her face did not change. She lowered the mug, turned to Sumeragi, and responded.
Ryouma unlaced his boots and ducked into the tent as quickly as he could, before she changed her mind.
Inside was dark and airless, the coated canvas roof brushing his hair. Kakashi was a shadow bent over black lumps of gear, until a lightstick cracked and glowed eerie blue-green. Kakashi’s grey hair turned turquoise at the edges. His eye looked almost black.
Ryouma whispered, hoarsely, “Thank you.”
Kakashi hooked the lightstick into the strap dangling from the low ceiling. He twisted through a few familiar seals and stripped the water from their clothes and hair, sending it spinning out in a narrow ribbon through the open tent flap. The clotted blood over Ryouma’s knuckles cracked and pulled.
Dry and fluffy-haired, Kakashi sat down cross-legged on his bedroll and beckoned Ryouma. “Come here.”
Ryouma zipped the tent behind him and crawled over his own bedroll. “Y’know, maybe we’re going the wrong way about Iebara’s blood blades. Maybe you should just try yanking all the blood out at once. It works for the water jutsu, right? So if you could just bleed someone straight out, you don’t need to bother with the blades at all…”
“That’d make it a different jutsu. Instant death, no finesse.”
“Yeah, I guess. Exploding pigs, right. So you’d have to—”
He lost the rest in a startled squawk, as Kakashi caught his collar and tugged. A seam protested in his shirt. Ryouma let himself topple before the fabric ripped entirely. His head hit Kakashi’s thigh, and the grip in his collar shifted to hold him down.
“Hand,” Kakashi said.
Dazed, Ryouma lifted his split knuckles. Sterile packaging ripped. An antiseptic swab stung the raw flesh.
This was probably actually happening. He was lying half-curled, on his side in a narrow two-man tent, with his head in Kakashi’s lap, with Kakashi cleaning Ryouma’s own stupidity-induced wound. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing he’d imagine, even after that night by the tanuki pond.
Why is your life worth less?
Maybe it wasn’t just his life Kakashi worried about.
Another antiseptic swab, tweezers to remove a splinter he’d barely noticed, antibiotic cream, a swath of bandaging from first joint to wrist. Kakashi tied the last neat knot and lowered Ryouma’s hand to the blankets.
“I guess,” Ryouma said, a little shakily, “thank you for that too.”
Foil and paper crinkled above him. A plastic snap closed. Then Kakashi’s hand curved over Ryouma’s head, fingers sliding into his hair. Carefully, intently, he carded Ryouma’s hair back over his ear, returned to his temple, repeated. It was the same precise focus that shaped his jutsu, every movement meant. The edge of his palm dragged over Ryouma’s cheek and cupped his ear.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said, and the gentleness softened his voice, too.
Ryouma closed his eyes, and remembered Genma saying almost the same thing.
We can all do better. We’re not letting you go.
He’d heard it in the officers’ tent. He’d even tried to listen. But the panic had swept up too fast and too black and dragged him under, closing over his head before he could breathe steady again. The panic seized on half the words, the ones that said can’t trust you and can’t take you and not letting you off, and drowned out the ones that said you’re part of this team.
In the still of this tent, with Kakashi’s hand in his hair, with his own pulse beating in his ear against Kakashi’s thigh, he could hear the words that mattered more.
“I’ll do better,” he whispered.
Kakashi’s hand paused midstroke, resting on Ryouma’s head. “Me too.” He tugged lightly on a lock of hair. “But for the record, you’re not doing that bad.”
Ripples spread where the words fell, like stones in a quiet pond.
He opened his eyes. “Neither are you.”
Kakashi’s face looked new-made from this unfamiliar angle; the shadowed underside of his jaw, the mask pulling tight and then loosening over his nostrils as he breathed, the grey eye unguarded by its heavy lid. Surprised, maybe.
Ryouma said, “You’ve kept me on track. Taichou was right: you shouldn’t have to. But you’ve done it anyway. You followed me down, and you helped me back up. And you’ve never left me alone.”
The fringe of Kakashi’s lashes swept down, up again, in a slow bewildered blink. His skin darkened over the edge of the mask, faintly purple in the blue-shaded light. After a long moment his hand resumed its stroking path through Ryouma’s hair. It lifted and returned and fell again, before finally trailing down to settle around the back of Ryouma’s neck. His thumb rubbed through the short hairs and down to bare skin there, following the path of a tense muscle.
“I—” he started, and stopped. Then, with a kind of relieved annoyance: “Taichou said what?”
Ryouma thought back. Sorting through all the words this time, not just the ones that panic had snared. “He said we have teams to support each other, because they don’t expect rookies to get everything right. That Katsuko was supposed to be the veteran who’d keep us on track, but we lost her. And they asked you to look after me, but that was asking too much. Which is true enough.” He tried to sit up, to look Kakashi squarely in the eye, but Kakashi’s hand on his neck pressed him back down. He subsided uneasily. “You shouldn’t have to look after me all the time. You’ve got enough of your own shit to tackle, without taking mine too.”
Kakashi frowned down at him. “What if I want to tackle your shit?”
“You ever heard that saying about picking your battles? Maybe not. You pick all of them.”
The frown eased into a smirk. “And win.” His hand moved again, combing through the short hairs on the back of Ryouma’s neck. “Do you want me to stop?”
He should. Jounin fought on their own, or commanded squads. They shouldn’t need someone to shield them.
But teams were structured so they could watch each others’ backs.
“No,” he said softly. “But I don’t want you to hate me, either. And you would, eventually. If I don’t pull my own weight.”
Silence for a moment, as Kakashi turned that over. His fingers kept up their gentle stroking. “No,” he echoed at last. “I’d cut you out first, before it ever got that far. But if you plan to let yourself be deadweight, you’re not the person I think you are.”
If Ryouma were deadweight, he’d never have gotten this far. It was the terror of knowing that someday he might: that with someone to lean on, he might let himself go. That if he trusted Kakashi to stop him, he’d give up trying to stop himself.
Except— With Kakashi watching, how could he dare give less than everything?
Competitiveness might’ve fueled him a few months ago. He wasn’t sure he could put a name to it now. But he said, “I’m not planning on it.”
Kakashi’s eye creased into a smile. “Good.” He shifted his hand to support Ryouma’s head and then eased his leg out from beneath. Blinking, Ryouma tried to push up.
A pointed nudge got him to roll instead, settling properly lengthwise along Kakashi’s bedroll. Kakashi stretched out behind him on Ryouma’s own blankets, pressing up against Ryouma’s back. His chin hooked over Ryouma’s shoulder, and his arm wrapped snugly around Ryouma’s ribs. His fingers continued their slow flex-and-curl against Ryouma’s belly.
Ryouma closed his eyes. He felt for Kakashi’s arm, and found it. The stroking didn’t still. Ryouma wrapped his hand below the sharp ridge of the wristbone, breathed in warmth and comfort, and finally breathed out fear.