November 4, Yondaime Year 5
In suggesting that they leave the Kazekage’s palace to forage for their own food, Raidou had forgotten one minor detail: Wind Country was experiencing its worst famine in sixty years.
There were some options. Criminally expensive imports going for quadruple their actual value — Raidou even saw a few dry goods from Konoha, and reflexively wondered what Genma’s perpetual stash of ration bars might be worth, before he squashed the uncharitable thought. The local offerings were barely less pricey: cumin lamb curry that seemed more lentil than lamb or curry; fried dough-balls with gritty, unidentifiable contents; root-vegetable skewers of dubious chewability. Genma bought a paper cone of candied crickets and ate them behind his mask with placid crunching sounds.
Raidou considered a dish of pale yellow cubes marinating in a thick, heavily spiced sauce with cautious interest, before the vendor destroyed his hopes of tofu by explaining that the main ingredient was, in fact, fermented sheep cheese.
“Travels better that way,” she said, stirring the sauce.
“Not for me,” Raidou said. “Unless you’re selling it with a side of lactase.”
One of the Suna guards made a scornful sound, as if lactose-intolerance was a personal failing. The vendor looked at Raidou with surprise. Maybe Suna rounded up the digestively troubled in infancy and fed them to the desert — fertilized more grass for sheep. It seemed like the kind of mildly genocidal policy Rasa would support.
Genma’s hand tapped his belt-pouch questioningly, where Raidou knew his mini med kit included lactase drops, but he dropped the gesture when Raidou nodded politely at the vendor and turned away.
“Not worth the risk,” Raidou murmured, behind his mask.
Genma’s head cocked towards another stall, from which the sizzle and smell of frying arose temptingly. “How about that one?”
The reward of this observation turned out to be a kind of coarse-grained fried pancake wrapped around shredded vegetables and spiced meat, drizzled with sauce. Raidou bought four. After that, they found a side-alley with a little pocket of foreign merchants selling toasted nuts, candied fruits, and fragrant cakes of tea. Genma spent a half hour perusing the entire selection and making small talk with the merchants, which had the dual advantages of making him happy and irritating the Suna guards more with each passing minute.
They bought a little of everything, which led to them being directed to yet another little alley, where the day’s strangest prize awaited them: boiled silkworms. At the back of a silk-trader’s colorful tent, behind the delicate thread skeins and packets of expensive dye, a tiny grandmother bent over a bubbling pot that smelled — bizarrely — of seafood. The result of her labor was a small cupful of dark, glossy brown pupae each about the size of Raidou’s first thumb joint. Genma leaned forward to study the insects with interest, eyes alight behind his mask, ever willing to volunteer for whatever odd delicacy the world dropped into his lap. Raidou bought four cups.
He looked forward to submitting this mission’s expense report.
Armed with more than enough food to tide them over to this evening’s questionable festivities, the next logical step was to head back. Raidou glanced at Genma, who was undoubtedly thinking something similar, and caught the quick movement of a hand-sign tucked against the curve of Genma’s inner elbow. More time?
For them, or for Ryouma?
Raidou shrugged agreeably.
Genma cast a glance around, eyes flickering over the stalls he’d already looked at, before settling on a new one. Gauzy, colorful scarves fluttered on a line strung across the front. “We should bring something back for our red-eyed friend.”
Raidou felt his mouth curve, warm with memory. “She’d like that.”
They found a scarf the color of deep arterial spray, almost as rich as Kurenai’s eyes. Held up to the sun, it cast beautiful, bloody shadows. The merchant folded it carefully and wrapped it first in delicate tissue paper, then thicker brown paper, folding the outer shell into a clever, protective origami that needed no string to hold it closed. Genma cast the bundle into a scroll for safe-keeping and rolled his shoulders back with satisfaction, pleased with himself.
The lead Suna guard, a narrow woman built like a spike of basalt, appeared at Raidou’s elbow with an irritated sound. “Are you ready to go back yet?”
Raidou regarded her through his mask. “We’re in no hurry. Do you have somewhere to be?”
There was a quiet but audible creaking sound. Raidou had mild concern for the integrity of her back teeth. “You have an appointment this evening. Kawase-sama dislikes tardiness.”
“So do I,” Raidou said. “But since it’s only mid-afternoon, I think we still have time. Tanuki?” Genma’s head snapped around. “Anything else you want to look at?”
There was the edge of a grin in Genma’s voice, because, secretly, he was as much of a petty asshole as Raidou. “Let’s go watch those acrobats who were setting up back near the fountain.”
Reluctantly, the Suna crew trailed them to the dry fountain, where a small crowd had gathered to watch the performers warm up. The acrobats were civilians, which made the whole thing more impressive to Raidou’s eyes. There was maybe a seedling of chakra-sense among the entire group, not nearly enough for anything useful. Everything they did was muscle and practice and trust.
As the performance started, Genma dropped his empty cricket cup.
Raidou glanced sideways, surprised, and saw the tiniest flash of an ANBU seal as Genma bent down to pick the cup up: Hold.
Raidou flicked his eyes forward and felt his skin contract as a genjutsu unfurled around them, ghosting over the edges of his chakra shield. It prickled his senses, the haptic warning he’d worked so hard with Kurenai and Benihime-sama to develop. A defense he could hold for days now, with just a little effort, and mostly forget was there. He stilled his reflexive kai and waited to see what Genma was up to.
Even to Raidou, it turned out to be a lovely, delicate piece of work. A gossamer overlay covering him and Genma and extending just a handbreadth beyond them. To an outsider, it would look just like them, watching the acrobats and having banal conversation. Inside, they had the freedom to move a little and actually talk to each other.
Genma straightened up, held a finger to his masked lips, and wove a second jutsu inside the first, layering it underneath the genjutsu. Raidou recognized a silencing jutsu. An extra layer of protection: even if someone did recognize and break the genjutsu, they still wouldn’t be able to hear anything.
“Nice work,” Raidou said.
“Thanks. Learned it from Ginta.”
“So,” Raidou said. “Tousaki.”
“Tousaki,” Genma echoed. “And Hatake.” He chewed his lip in lieu of a senbon. “There was the training field situation between them back—right before the Tsuto mission? I don’t think I ever told you the full story there, actually. And then there was the whole office door and table incident. And a lot of other little signs.”
“That’d be the time Hatake kicked Tousaki up and down the training field?” Raidou asked, intrigued. “What was the full story?”
“Tousaki had hit on Hatake the night before, and Hatake reacted… badly. Tousaki told me while I was healing some of the damage Hatake had done to him that morning. Said it was a joke, but given everything since then…” Genma twitched a hand. “At the time I just told him to make a genuine apology and then let the matter drop. Tousaki asked me to keep it confidential, and you know how he is. He’d proposition a street lamp if it caught his eye.”
Raidou snorted a laugh at that image. Genma grinned behind his mask.
“So I figured it didn’t bear mentioning,” Genma continued, “as long as there was no further issue.”
“And then we had door-smashing, which, yeah. We knew that was off when it happened. And even I felt Tousaki’s chakra today,” Raidou said.
“I was almost surprised our oh-so-congenial hosts didn’t jump up with blades in their hands when he did that,” Genma said. “The way he just riveted on Hatake for the rest of the meeting, too. And afterwards. I think the ache was a little lower than his stomach, when he said he’d rather stay behind.”
Raidou rubbed a hand over his jaw at the edge of his mask. “In which case, two questions: does Hatake reciprocate, and do they remember that it’s illegal here?”
“Whether or not Hatake reciprocates, they both damn well better know the law. Mission Ops briefed us on it when we got the assignment. ” Genma scraped a half moon in the dusty ground with one foot, shifting his weight. “I think inside the Embassy counts as sovereign territory; Fire Country and Konoha’s laws apply there, not Wind’s and Suna’s, so they’re probably safe if they keep it within the suite.”
The crowd around them gasped and applauded, drawing their attention to the brightly-costumed acrobats, who had maneuvered into a three-man tower. Another pair of men traded flips at either end of a peaked fulcrum, gaining height with each turn, and then someone from the tower shouted, “Hup!”. This time, when the smaller man went up, he came down on the shoulders of the man at the top of the tower. He raised both hands over his head in triumph, and flashed the crowd a dazzling smile. The crowd cheered.
“Anyway,” Genma said, as the tower of acrobats disassembled itself to move on to the next set of stunts, “the thing is, I think Hatake does reciprocate. And has for… Well, I can’t be sure. But you and I both thought something was up when they tried to murder each other and our office furniture when Hatake got suspended. Not that we ever actually did anything about it, since it seemed like they kissed and made up. Which now…. If I squint I can see it. Even— Remember the nightclub? Ginta told me Hatake all but threatened him to keep away from Tousaki.”
Raidou quietly absorbed that for a few moments, breathing in that slow, deliberate way he did when preparing for a hard spar. Then he pushed his mask to one side and rubbed his sweat-damp face. “These are the moments I really miss Ueno,” he said, “because she would die laughing over all this shit and then I wouldn’t think it’s that bad.” A look crossed his face that was some combination of haunted, amused, and fond. “Or she’d be involved with them both, too.”
Genma pushed his own mask off, confident in his genjutsu, and gave Raidou a wry smile. “She would. As long as they continued to exalt her as senpai. But listen. It’s not actually a problem, is it? I mean, we obviously need to talk to them so it’s not a thing. But it’s not like we have any kind of leg to stand on to say they shouldn’t. And they’d hardly be the first rookie teammates to hook up. Hell, I did with Asuma, when we were rookies.” He wrinkled his nose dismissively. “Don’t worry, that ship sailed long ago.”
It wasn’t that Raidou seemed like the jealous type, and it really was over. Except… for some reason it seemed important that Genma was clear about that with Raidou.
Raidou gave him an exceptionally dry look and deadpanned, “If you want to manage one more person on the side, I wish you luck, stamina, and a really good day planner.”
Genma flicked a warding gesture. “Not even if it were a mission and the Hokage himself gave it to me.”
Raidou chuckled. “Finally we see the line your loyalty won’t cross.” His eyes twinkled, creased at the corners with a warm smile. “I wasn’t worried, and we haven’t decided anything exclusive anyway, but thank you for the reassurance.”
Genma’s cheeks burned, heated by embarrassment and complex affection for Raidou as much as by Suna’s relentless sun. He took a breath and schooled his emotions before they got even more confusing. “Um. Yeah,” he said. He knocked the back of his hand against Raidou’s for a moment, and smiled. “So anyway, with the rookies…”
“You’re right about them,” Raidou said. “It’s not even really our business unless it affects the team or missions. So, maybe a word with Tousaki about keeping a lid on his chakra…”
“A word with both of them, at the same time, so there’s no miscommunication.” Genma arched his back and stretched against the rigid structure of his armor. “I bet things will be easier for all of us after this.” He thought for a second. “Unless they’re having another big fight while we’re out getting snacks and watching local entertainment. Hatake looked about ready to start a war when we left.”
”To be fair, he looks like that on a good day,” Raidou pointed out. “But we should probably head back.”
“Probably,” Genma agreed, tugging his mask back into place. “And if they haven’t had enough time to work whatever the current issue is out and get their heads in the right place by the time we get back…” He sighed. “I guess we can talk to them about that, too.”
Raidou pursed his lips in thought, then shifted his weight so it was squarely on both feet, stood up a little straighter, put his mask on, and said, with a decisive nod, “We’ll pick up more crickets on the way.”
At the next break in the performance, after a trio of slight young women contorted themselves into impossible-looking synchronized poses while balanced on balls taller than themselves, Genma broke both silencing jutsu and genjutsu while the crowd applauded. Their four guards, including the angry dark-haired woman who could probably go head to head with Kakashi on radiating displeasure, seemed to have accepted their fate. One of them even seemed to be enjoying the show. Genma turned to her and nodded. “I suppose your captain was right, we shouldn’t stay too long.”
“That’s a wise choice, Leaf,” she said. She signaled the others, who formed up around Genma and Raidou like they were escorting unpredictable wild beasts, and they made their way out of the crowd. The Suna guards pulled like oxen who knew they were almost home, hurrying towards the palace. When Raidou pleasantly explained that they needed to stop for more of the candied crickets first, the captain looked for a moment like she might actually lose her temper, but she steadied down with a low curse.
They bought their crickets. Two flavors this time, because why not get the hot and spicy ones as well as the sweet? And finally allowed their escorts to push them towards the high, golden-tan walls of the Kazekage’s Palace and Konoha’s embassy.
“Think we should have picked up one of those roasted giant centipedes for Ram?” Genma asked, as they climbed the stairs inside.
“Only if we wanted him to go screaming out a window,” Raidou said thoughtfully, adjusting a bag on his wrist. “So… maybe.”
Genma laughed. He nodded to the Konoha guard, who held the door to the embassy’s suite open for them. Behind them, the Suna escorts departed. And in front of them were none of the various permutations of ‘how things might be when we get back’ that Genma had prepared for. Kakashi was angrily holding Ryouma’s hand, and Ryouma was stiff-backed with a tense jaw, like he was looking for a fight. Ryouma’s eyes flared wide at the officers, and he flinched like he meant to pull away. Kakashi tugged Ryouma’s hand hard, grip whitening his knuckles, and jutted his masked chin at Genma and Raidou.
The poor office secretary, who was holding what looked like a pile of folded formal wear, seemed genuinely distressed as his gaze twitched from one half of Team Six to the other.
“Welcome back,” Ryouma said in a low, and not particularly welcoming tone.
“Er…” Genma said, trying to sort out everything that he’d missed in the last hour from these few cryptic clues. “So.” He glanced at Raidou, who seemed just as nonplussed. “We picked up some snacks to share,” he said at last. When in doubt, his dad always said, give people food.
It seemed they were doing this now.
Ryouma’s expression wavered first, hostility diluted by confusion as no one took up his invitation for a brawl on the embassy doorstep. His gaze flicked to Ono — the little man seemed a distraught moment away from biting down on a sleeve cuff — and resolve firmed his mouth.
“This way,” he said, sweeping a one-handed armful of neat uniform stacks off Ono’s desk, and making purposefully for a corridor, which led to a small side room. He did not drop Kakashi’s hand.
The room appeared to be Kakashi’s. Raidou deduced this by the lethal seals on the door, the few personal items scattered about (kunai, kunai, book, kunai), and the very faint smell of sex. Well, if the belligerent hand-holding hadn’t already confirmed everything…
Gently, Genma closed the door.
Ryouma set his cloth bundles down on the narrow desk, and took up a position that put his back to the only other point of egress in the room — its one small window. At his side, Kakashi’s masked face was absolutely blank, except for one narrow, ice-chip eye, which stared at Raidou’s forehead like he was measuring placement for a railroad stake.
There wasn’t exactly killing intent in the air, but its close personal friend had stopped by to give everyone a migraine.
Raidou made an educated guess. “Rough conversation with mom?”
Ryouma’s poker face, wobbly at the best of times, failed at the first hurdle. He shot a quick, flinching look at Kakashi, before catching himself and straightening back up. He caught his lower lip between his teeth, seemed to reach some kind of cliff edge, and flung out, “We’re dating.”
Raidou exchanged a look with Genma. Very kindly, neither one of them said, duh.
Ryouma squeezed Kakashi’s hand, finally dropped it, and peeled the first set of kimono-and-hakama off the desk to shove at Genma. “Kakashi needs you to get some intel at the party tonight, Fukuchou.”
“Well, hang on,” Raidou said, as Genma accepted the clothing with the delicacy of a man being gifted a handful of spikes. “Let’s not just gloss over that first thing.”
“Are you…” Genma visibly groped for the right words. “Did you want us to be angry about that?”
Kakashi’s eye narrowed further. “You don’t have the right to be,” he said softly, like a blade under light snowfall.
A very rough conversation with mom.
Raidou didn’t step into the bear trap, even though the bear trap clearly wanted him to. Moving openly, a little carelessly, antithesis to the pair of sleek, nervy predators by the window, he dropped into a seat on the rumpled bed, and unhooked the bags from his wrist. Genma, after a moment’s pause, sat down next to him.
“We’re not angry,” Raidou said. And then amended, “Well, I’m not angry. Genma?”
“Nope,” Genma said. He set aside the bundle of clothes and rummaged in a bag, withdrawing the boxes of fried pancakes with meat-stuffing — one of the less dubious looking snacks, good choice — and kept one for himself, while offering two more to the highly strung pair. “I’d like to be happy for you.”
Kakashi didn’t quite blink, but something changed in his face. A crack in the thick sheet of ice-armor, maybe. His eye pinched at the corner, as if he found it painful.
“You’d be the first,” Ryouma muttered, nearly inaudible. He darted another quick look at Kakashi — who hadn’t made a move to take the offered pancakes — and visibly decided to be their joint spokesman for reconciliation without bloodshed. He took the pancakes. “Thanks, Fukuchou. I was pretty sure you weren’t gonna kick us off the team all the way out here, but… Thanks.”
Genma’s brow creased.
“I’m trying to picture that mission report,” Raidou said to no one in particular. “‘Dear Hokage-sama, we abandoned your adopted son and his boyfriend in a homophobic desert because they did the nasty. Sorry you had to find out like this. Incidentally, the lieutenant and I are also dating, but decided to give ourselves a pass. We’ll look forward to our court martial in the morning.’”
Genma added, “Don’t forget the part where we abandoned and totally failed our mission. That’ll be important when they decide how exactly to execute us.”
“Excellent point,” Raidou said. He propped his chin in his hand and eyeballed the rookies. “I realize you’re both clearly having a very stressful day, but we are actually on your side. If you’re happy,” despite current evidence suggesting otherwise, “we’re happy for you. Just don’t fuck the team up, okay?”
Ryouma’s mouth hung slightly open. Kakashi’s expression was glacial again, implacable, a mask over a mask over a fuck you. He said, ever so lightly, “Same to you.”
“None of us are going to fuck the team up,” Ryouma said, in a ragged rush. “We’ve been fine for months. And you two — and Kurenai — you haven’t let anything affect the team either.”
Genma, wincing, said, “I don’t think Raidou meant that as harshly as it sounded.” Which was a debatable point, but also, months? “I mean, we have to be — we’ve been careful to keep our priorities mission first. Team first. And I’m sure you have, too.”
Nomiya’s unsanctioned murder aside. But Kakashi and Ryouma had both taken their lumps for that.
Raidou rubbed the back of his head. “Which brings up another point—”
Kakashi drawled, “Alternative lifestyles are not encouraged in Suna. We know, captain.”
It was like he was deliberately trying to be unlikable. Raidou breathed out through his nose and reminded himself that they’d done this dance before. Raidou got irritated, Kakashi got obnoxious, Raidou got more irritated, and Genma got a headache. Presumably, somewhere deep down under all the layers of incredibly offensive human being, there was an anxious 19-year-old who’d just had all the precious secrecy scraped off his first relationship, and his scary mother was in the next room.
Raidou said, “Hatake, when was the last time you sparred with someone?”
Kakashi blinked. “What does that have to do with anyth—”
“That’s what I thought.” Raidou stood up. “Come on, we’re gonna wrestle.”
Kakashi stared at him. “Right here?”
“Main area,” Raidou said, and rolled his neck sideways until it popped. “Bet Ono will let us move the table. Tousaki, you can call fouls.”
“It’s nothing but fouls when you two spar,” Ryouma said, but he abandoned the remaining piles of fancy clothes without a backwards glance.
Genma gave Raidou a look that balanced on the line between dubious and wondering if Raidou had lost his goddamned mind. “I’m all for a spar to, uh… work off some of the tension. Improve team cohesion. But doesn’t the embassy need to conduct business in their main area? Maybe the roof would be better.”
“What business? Everyone’s getting ready for the party. Besides,” Raidou said reassuringly, “first one to break a piece of furniture loses. It’ll be fine.”
Ono was not thrilled to let them move the table. He clutched the zabuton cushions behind his desk like they were traumatized children and wailed, “But you’re going to be so late!”
“Yeah, well,” Raidou said, and then Kakashi punched him in the face.
It seemed like a lifetime since their first muddy spar, on their very first mission, when they’d wrestled on the embankment next to a trickling spring because Kakashi couldn’t sleep, and Raidou had exactly one hammer in a world full of nails. And yet, not all that much time at all.
He caught Kakashi’s wrist before Kakashi could finish pulling it back, and wrenched him forward, interrupting the lovely, liquid slide into the Mist-style opener Kakashi had been favoring lately. Kakashi didn’t resist; he exploded forward, inside Raidou’s guard in a second, breaking the hold and slamming precise, terrible blows into the nerve branches at Raidou’s subclavian grooves. Raidou’s arms went numb for critical seconds.
He swept Kakashi’s legs out from underneath him, following him down to the floor and drove a knee into Kakashi’s solar plexus. Kakashi grunted and cracked an elbow into the hinge of Raidou’s jaw, snapping Raidou’s head to the side.
That wasn’t any particular form. It was just— an elbow in the side of Raidou’s head. Interesting.
Kakashi eeled out of Raidou’s partial hold in that moment of starburst distraction, flipping back to his feet. Raidou shook out his arms and followed.
Leaning against Ono’s desk, Genma said wearily, “Please try to avoid head injuries and facial injuries. Also no biting. No biting anywhere.”
“I’m qualified to heal it if Fukuchou doesn’t,” Ryouma said. “Small bites.”
Raidou gave this due consideration and threw Kakashi into the ceiling. The ceiling, being solid stone, tolerated this treatment without complaint. Kakashi dropped down on Raidou like a vengeful comet. Raidou caught him — Kakashi’s legs locked around Raidou’s neck — and Raidou slammed him spine-first down onto the floor. Kakashi’s breath thumped out of him in a way that was nearly musical.
Ono, frantically snatching paperwork off his desk and shoving it into filing cabinets, paused to vent a nearly silent little scream. “That tatami is sixty-eight years old.”
The outer door cracked and one of the jounin guards poked her head in. She glanced from Ono to Raidou and Kakashi, back to Ono, and then at Genma and Ryouma. Genma had pulled out another packet of crickets and was offering one to Ryouma, who shuddered.
“Right then,” she said, and closed the door.
Raidou looked at Kakashi, who looked down at the tatami. “Pause,” Raidou said, and — taking Kakashi with him — stood up. They studied the tatami. It appeared undented, except for a small scuff that would doubtlessly come out. Solid stuff. Konoha-made.
Kakashi flipped himself around, using Raidou’s neck as a fulcrum, and wrapped around Raidou’s back like a steel-banded snake. His legs clamped on Raidou’s ribs. One arm tightened around Raidou’s throat. The spare arm deflected Raidou’s first counter-strike with a very pretty economy of movement, and returned to wrench Raidou’s jaw sideways, threatening a cervical dislocation.
“Foul,” Ryouma said. “Captain didn’t tap back in.”
Kakashi sighed. Raidou felt the warmth of it on the side of his face, though the mask stopped it from quite ruffling his hair. The hand on Raidou’s jaw relaxed fractionally.
“I thought this went without saying, but no fatal or career-ending injuries,” Genma said.
“Three,” Kakashi said. “Two…”
Raidou yanked him from his perch. Kakashi slid free like he’d been oiled, cool mist between Raidou’s fingers. But the small room was to Raidou’s advantage: Kakashi had no space to work with, nowhere to gain distance. Raidou closed and Kakashi had to defend, counterattack, or give way. They traded blows until Raidou was able to force an opening, then it fell to grappling.
In a wrestling match, Kakashi was at a few more disadvantages. He was shorter, lighter, currently wearing about twelve more layers than Raidou, and — Raidou suspected — he wasn’t built for hot weather. He still fought like lightning and ice, swift and sharp, devastating when he landed a good hit. Raidou was going to be wearing bruises under his clothes tonight. But there was something unfocused about him, distracted.
He never quite fell into any full style — it was more as if he borrowed singular movements, jointing them into something that wasn’t really anything, except painful to be on the other side of. It was almost like he was only half-present, letting his body run on autopilot while his mind stayed somewhere else.
Well, they knew that about Kakashi. Under duress, under stress, he clamped tighter and tighter, compressed until his surface was glassy smooth and everything underneath was crushed down and made not to exist. Until the only things left were blades and teeth and that one unforgiving gray eye.
They had been going for maybe four minutes before Raidou finally got the opening he’d been looking for, and knocked Kakashi onto his back again. This time, Kakashi didn’t get the chance to flip back up. Raidou followed him down, catching him in Iwa’s evil version of a spinal lock. He pinned hip and legs, the right arm, and got his own arm around the neck. Kakashi made a tiny sound, something like grk! as Raidou forced his head sideways to the limit of what ligaments could tolerate.
Kakashi twisted; Raidou held him. Kakashi bucked and kicked; Raidou held him. Kakashi slammed his one free elbow into Raidou’s side, possibly doing concussive liver damage, and Raidou held him, gently applying pressure to the carotid arteries until Kakashi slowly, slowly went limp.
Genma, sounding concerned, said, “Rai, I think that’s—”
Kakashi’s hand slapped Raidou’s biceps. Immediately, Raidou broke the grip, and Kakashi rolled onto his side to cough. For a few moments, just that and ragged breathing were the only sounds.
Raidou sat up, gingerly rotating one wrist.
“Ow.” Kakashi’s voice was a peevish rasp, like a raven with attitude. “What the fuck, Taichou?”
“Concussive maintenance,” Raidou said, and patted Kakashi’s shoulder. “You looked like you needed a brawl.”
Hinges squeaked very quietly. Raidou glanced up into the cool, arctic stare of Kakashi’s mother, as she stood in the doorway to her rooms. She was dressed impeccably in a deep blue kimono that evoked the color and style of Kakashi’s, but had an overlacing pattern of delicate silver leaves, like little winter skeletons. She looked at her son, who ignored her, then at Ono, who winced like he rather wished to be reborn as a leaf skeleton.
“I see,” she said. Just that. Then she swept past them all to the door, talked briefly to one of the guards, and left with an escort.
“Yeah,” Kakashi said, sounding tired in her wake. “Fuck you, too.”
At least he was talking now, not just coughing. Ryouma crouched down, silently offering the bottle of water he’d liberated from Ono’s emptied reception desk. The little bureaucrat was at the door now, speaking in urgent low voices with the remaining guard. Probably asking why the ambassador hadn’t taken her problem with her, out of his lobby.
She’d watched. That was the thing. She’d stood in the half-opened doorway of her office for long moments, certainly from before Raidou got the pin. She’d seen Kakashi fight. She’d seen him choke out. And she’d done nothing until the fight was over and she could leave.
What did she want from him?
Kakashi hadn’t taken the water bottle. Ryouma knocked it against his knuckles. “Don’t let your throat hurt more than it has to.”
Kakashi blinked, glanced at him — he seemed to move easily, no lingering stiffness from the neckhold — and took the bottle. He ducked his head against Ryouma’s shoulder, lowered the mask for a lightning-quick swallow, and cleared his throat roughly as he straightened again with his mask in place. His gaze returned to Raidou, narrow but no longer knife-edged. “Want to punch the captain for me?”
“Only if I get a chance for a suckerpunch,” Ryouma said. “He’s on guard now.”
Raidou was watching them, mouth quirked. “You’re welcome to try.”
Genma, still munching his disgusting crickets, cleared his throat. Ono appeared to see this as a sign of weakness, or possibly good sense. He left the door and darted to Genma’s side. “ANBU-san, please, you should all be getting ready now. The ambassador is attempting to meet with some important personages here before the reception. If you arrive discourteously late, or, or visibly injured, her efforts—”
Genma dusted his fingers off and unslouched. “Oh well, sounds like playtime’s over. I’ll patch up any visible bruises or sprains. Taichou?”
“Yep.” Raidou levered himself up. “Let’s get swanky. First one dressed helps Hatake fix his hair.”
They trudged back to Kakashi’s room. Cursory medical checks established that no one had a broken neck or cracked ribs, and most of the bruises could be hidden by clothes. Raidou and Genma ducked back across the corridor to wash off the afternoon’s dust and sweat in the shared bathroom, while Ryouma ate his meat-stuffed pancake. It had probably been crispier when it was hot, but at least it didn’t have crickets in it.
Kakashi paced. And brooded.
“Did punching Taichou help?” Ryouma asked.
Kakashi paced another three steps, turned, stopped, and glared at the wall. “Maybe. It didn’t not help.”
“I don’t really think I get Taichou’s ‘concussive maintenance’ thing. But… we’ve had times when we had to fight something out before we could talk it out, and that did help. Maybe, while you’re here… Your mom’s a jounin, isn’t she?”
Kakashi peeled his glare off the wall and transferred it to Ryouma. “Ye-es,” he said, slowly, suspiciously.
“So… This probably isn’t the kind of party that ends with a hangover, so tomorrow morning, maybe, before things get busy with working on the seal… We could just be looking for a place for morning practice and invite her along. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. But it might be, I don’t know— something, at least.”
The shower shut off across the hall. Genma made a muffled complaint about towels; Raidou’s voice was a half-heard rumble in answer.
Kakashi just stood there, and stared at him.
Maybe it was a terrible idea. Maybe people didn’t invite their mothers for sparring practice. Maybe it was just a bad idea for Sadayo, specifically, and in a moment Kakashi was going to carve out another bit of bloody childhood trauma to explain why—
“Well, talking sure doesn’t work,” Kakashi said, with a wild, strangled little laugh. “I don’t know why we haven’t considered punching each other.”
“It might make things worse.” Ryouma could see at least six ways, suddenly; none of them had occurred to him thirty seconds ago.
“Only if I set her on fire,” Kakashi said bleakly. He tipped his head, as if picturing this. “And maybe not even then.”
“Well— Just think about it, then. I could ask her, if you want.” Though she might be less open to a request from her son’s new boyfriend than a former friend’s orphan, and what did that say? He shied away from the question. “Or Fukuchou could. If you want.”
The door opened. Genma came in, sleek as a seal, with an armful of dusty gear and the barest scrap of towel around his hips. “Fukuchou could what?”
“Uh— Wear the green kimono.” Ryouma jumped up and reached for the folded stacks of clothing they’d left on Kakashi’s desk. “It’d clash with Taichou’s hair. Kakashi has opinions.”
Kakashi was still staring at him, although a trace of amusement began to crinkle his eye.
Genma looked even more amused. “I could wear the green kimono if Kakashi wants?” His brow arched elaborately. He set his bundled gear down and crossed his arms, head tilted as if to study the gauzy summerweight silk of the folded kimono on top of Ryouma’s stack. “Really?”
“Yes,” Kakashi said, perfectly deadpan.
“Fashion is a weapon for diplomats,” Ryouma invented wildly. “Of course Kakashi’s been studying it since he arrived here. He can master any weapon. Look what he’s wearing now.”
Raidou leaned around the doorframe, shining clean, girded with a towel no bigger than Genma’s; it covered even less. He sounded a little bewildered. “I always thought I looked good in green.”
“You do,” Genma assured him, and flicked an amused glance back at Ryouma. “Which is where you started stretching credibility. But Kakashi studying fashion etiquette as it relates to diplomacy? While he’s been here. In jail for spying?” He unfolded his arms enough to open a hand, inviting amendments.
“He was only in jail three days,” Ryouma muttered. He shoved his armload at Raidou anyway. It would probably fit. Kimono were never tailored to measure.
And the sooner his officers got some actual clothes on, the better he’d think. Probably. Kakashi’s subdued splendor was still distracting enough to dry his mouth and redirect his blood flow, if he caught a glance unprepared.
Raidou accepted the clothes without further argument, at least, which left Genma in the indigo and Ryouma in the grey. The officers were clearly experienced with kimono and hakama, drying off before they pulled on the first underlayer, assembling themselves neatly and efficiently. Ryouma copied them, only a little clumsy. Kakashi began pacing again.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Genma said quietly to Ryouma, wrapping his hakama ties slowly enough for an inexperienced eye to follow. “But if you’re volunteering me for something, don’t forget to tell me what it is before the time comes.”
Ryouma swallowed. “I will. If— If it happens. Fukuchou…”
Genma paused halfway through the knot, his brows coming up a little. Not the excessive arch of the Lieutenant’s Eyebrow, as skeptical as it was mocking, but a real question. An openness, despite everything.
“Thank you,” Ryouma said.
Genma tipped his head, acknowledging, and mercifully let it pass.
They finished dressing in a more companionable silence. Ryouma fidgeted with the pleats of his wide-legged hakama. Genma dried his hair with a quick jutsu, took a comb and hair-ties out of his gear, and then paused with a thoughtful look at Kakashi. “Hound, do you want me to fix your topknot? It got a little…” He tilted a hand sideways.
Kakashi stopped pacing with a weary gesture that could have meant be my guest or, more likely, knock yourself out. But he sat down and suffered stoically as Genma labored to achieve something that looked slightly less like Kakashi’d just come out on the losing side of a sparring match.
And then they were done. Dressed and ready, with three men in sober semi-formal wear bracketing Kakashi in his formal clan-crested attire. Ono greeted them in the reception lobby with unconcealed relief. “Finally, finally! This way. Nobu-san and her partner will escort you…”
Nobu was the jounin guard who’d opened—and then decisively closed—the door on Kakashi and Raidou’s sparring match. She eyed them with significantly more appreciation this time. But she and her partner guard were crisply professional, leading the way to the staircase, where four new Suna shinobi joined them. Ryouma didn’t recognize any of the escort from earlier in the day; maybe they’d gone off duty.
He’d expected to stop off merely on another floor of the palace, but instead they followed the stairs down to the mosaic-tiled entrance hall and stepped out into the surprising chill of a Suna evening. The sun had sunk well below the towering rock cliffs that shaded the village. Lanterns and braziers pushed the darkness back from wide streets that seemed much busier than they’d been in the heat of the day.
Their armored escort commanded its own space in the crowd. A few parents pulled their children back. One or two hands slipped away from shopping baskets to find the comforting hilt of a kunai. And as the street opened around them, more and more dark, challenging gazes slipped past the elite guards to find the striking silver-haired man in their midst.
“The White Fang,” someone muttered, and spat in the dust.
Someone else took up the name in a voice like a snarl. “Konoha’s White Fang.”
Kakashi didn’t flinch. His steady stride didn’t falter. But the reddish light from a string of bobbing lanterns showed his eye dark and flat and hard, and Ryouma felt his clenched chakra sharpen, like a knife loosened in its sheath.
Genma and Raidou drew closer. Nobu and her partner exchanged uneasy glances and formed up as the last two points of a defensive diamond.
A rock — a shuriken? — whizzed past Nobu’s head. The Konoha shinobi pivoted as one. Ryouma’s hands shaped the Monkey and Hare seals, his gathered chakra surging, before he caught himself.
And Kakashi’s killing intent flicked out like an eviscerating claw, isolating one elderly man in the crowd and pinning him where he stood.
Another rock dropped from a suddenly nerveless hand. It shattered into a little puff of dust as it hit the ground, no more than a hardened clump of dirt. The thrower wavered on his feet. His weatherbeaten face, deeply lined, blanched bloodless.
“Old Shichirou,” one of the Suna guards said, in weary disgust. “Someone must’ve put him up to it. Stand down, Konoha. We’ll deal with this.”
She made a brief hand signal. Two of her companions split off, chivvying along the crowd: “All right, let’s get moving, clear out of here…” The crowd grumbled, unsettled and ugly, but finally fractured and began to flow again.
One of the guards remained to see them along. The other returned to old Shichirou, firmly gripping a shrunken arm. The other arm, Ryouma saw now, ended in an empty, pinned-up sleeve.
Kakashi’s killing intent thinned and dissipated. Shichirou gasped for air, knees buckling; only the guard’s grip kept him from a slump. The guard shook him a little. “Deep breaths, old man. Who’ve you been talking to?”
“The White Fang,” the old man mumbled. His cracked voice carried across the emptying street. His reddened eyes fixed on Kakashi; he gave a sudden thrash, almost pulling free. “He’s come back to finish the job. You fools, he’ll kill us all—”
“All right, that’s enough.” The guard shook him again, harder, and looked back at his comrades. “I’ll see to him, Taichou. You’d better keep them moving.”
“Come on, Konoha.” The captain started off, glancing back at them. “Not far now. Let’s not keep Kawase-sama waiting.”
Raidou grunted. Genma said tightly, “Of course.” The glimmers of silvery needles at his fingertips disappeared, but his narrowed eyes kept moving in a swift, alert scan over the remaining passersby.
Kakashi lingered a bare moment, watching Shichirou stumble and splutter in the guard’s grip. His face was frozen granite in the aftermath of killing intent.
Ryouma reached for his elbow. Kakashi glanced at him, eyes bleak, and began to walk.
They arrived at Advisor Kawase’s grand townhouse in silence.
Stone lanterns lit a set of shallow sandstone steps up to a pair of carved wooden doors not unlike the ones they’d seen in the Kazekage’s palace. If Genma had been a little less on edge, he might have appreciated the architecture. Uniformed Suna guards at the door greeted the captain still escorting the Konoha ninja, and held the doors open, revealing a broad, brightly lit entry well. Neat rows of discarded shoes edged the wooden boards. As soon as Genma slipped his off and stepped up into the house proper, a slender girl in a drab tan kimono bowed to him and tidied them away. How she’d know whose sandals were whose at the end of the night was a mystery probably known only to her and her fellow servants. She and a counterpart took care of the rest of Team Six’s shoes just as efficiently.
If Raidou’s violent ministrations had done anything to thaw the furious ice in Kakashi’s veins, their walk through Suna’s streets had reversed it and more. A little of that same icy ire tinged all of them, now. Raidou’s face was set in a flat frown, Ryouma watched Kakashi with a mixture of protective fierceness and concern, and Genma had to remind himself that they were there representing the Hokage at a diplomatic function, no matter how much he wanted to maim the next person who dared say a word to Kakashi.
Before they could get closer to the doors to the actual party, Genma closed ranks with his teammates. “It’s been a while since I had to do undercover work,” he said quietly. “I bet our Intel friends are going to laugh their asses off at our disciplinary hearings if we screw this up too much.”
Ryouma let the remainder of a breath out in a soft huff, and made a visible effort to dial his tension-level down. “Yeah. Probably.” He still sounded half-distracted, and his eyes were still on Kakashi, but then he twitched his head towards Genma with an “Oh!”
“We need to try to talk to anyone who might know how the kid’s seal works. I did tell you that, Fukuchou, right? You’re our best hope.” He shifted his weight to one hip, tipped his chin down at a saucy angle, and quirked full lips into a wry but inviting smile. “I’ll just stand in a corner and look decorative. Maybe distracting.”
“Or you should shadow me,” Genma countered. “Distract the person I’m talking to so much they forget themselves and tell me everything I want to know.”
“C’mon, Fukuchou, you’re plenty distracting on your own,” Ryouma said. He gave the interior door an apprehensive glance. “Maybe let’s see what we’re facing.”
“Whatever it is,” Raidou said, pitching his voice low, “we are not causing a diplomatic incident. I don’t care what they throw at Hatake. If you have to murder someone, take them outside first. Yes? Yes. Looking at you, Tousaki.”
“Murders outside only,” Ryouma acknowledged.
“Or maybe no murders,” Genma said.
A servant in darker, dressier robes at the inner door gave the group of Konoha ANBU an inquiring look. If she’d been eavesdropping, she didn’t let it show, but it occurred to Genma that they were undoubtedly not the only shinobi here ‘undercover.’ He patted his hakama pleats into more perfect smoothness, and turned to Raidou to brush imaginary dust from the green silk. “Are we good here?” he asked under his breath. “Hatake?”
Kakashi said quietly, “No murders.” He drew a slow, deep breath, rolled his shoulders back, and for a moment, while his breath was held, reminded Genma of a man about to dive from a cliff’s edge. Then he reached up in one swift, decisive motion and removed his mask.
Kakashi’s naked face underneath was salt-colored, cheeks bloodless, jaw set and resolute. Then a smile slid eerily into place. He lifted his chin, and transformed before their eyes into a diplomat’s son. “Let’s stop this idiot village from destroying itself,” he said, and turned towards the beckoning attendant at the door.
It took a moment for Genma’s equilibrium to return. Ryouma was already on Kakashi’s heels. Genma caught Raidou’s just-as-astonished eyes. Raidou gave him a tiny little headshake. They’d both read Kakashi’s personnel file. Med-Psych Advisory: Do not remove Hatake’s mask unless for life-saving medical treatment. And they’d seen the reasoning for that warning in blood pressure spikes and near-panic when Kakashi’s mask had been shredded. So this?
Layers under layers under layers. If Genma was ever tempted to think he was getting to understand Kakashi, he’d just have to remember this moment to humble himself.
“Maybe no one hides in the corner tonight,” Raidou murmured, still wide-eyed.
The attendant bowed to them and held the door ajar, gesturing for them to enter. Inside, an assortment of mostly older people in formal dress stood in knots at one end of a broad room—eighteen tatami mats by Genma’s count. The other end was occupied with rows of zabuton placed next to lacquer trays on legs, awaiting the guests for dinner. More servants in their soft-colored kimono moved silently at that end, adorning the trays with utensils and delicate sake sets.
If their host wanted to poison them, this would be his chance. But he probably wouldn’t want to create a diplomatic incident any more than Team Six did, given that he was the one who’d appealed for their help. Unless this was an elaborate trap, but surely Ambassador Hatake would have screened for that before sending for her son. Speaking of whom…
Genma had never seen Hatake Sakumo in person, so he had no way of knowing how close a likeness the son was to his father. But judging by the startled reactions in the room, especially from the obviously non-civilian amongst them, it was considerable. Murmuring rose as word spread to those who hadn’t yet turned to look. And then the crowd of guests split gently apart, making way for a small-framed, ancient-looking man with a bald head, a long, wispy, white beard, and a broad smile. The ‘Kawase’ mon on his haori gave him away as clearly as the crowd’s behavior.
“Hatake-san!” he greeted Kakashi with evident delight. “And our other friends from Konoha. Welcome to my home.” He bowed low, as a host should, but it gave Genma a distinctly uneasy feeling. And a strong memory of meeting Jiraiya-sama. Except this was no friend, no matter what he said. Genma and the rest of his team returned the bow, and offered appropriately polite thanks for the invitation.
Ambassador Hatake came to join Kawase, probably to forestall the diplomatic incident that seemed to be always a hair’s breadth away with them. Her elegant demeanor and implaccable expression was unchanged from the last time they’d seen her, but her coloring was at least a shade paler than it had been. Her dark eyes, for just long enough to be telling, were fixed on her son.
Kakashi skimmed past his mother as if she weren’t there, and greeted Kawase with a pleasant smile. The dark scar that rippled down from his covered eye didn’t quite match up with the thin white line at the left corner of his mouth. Or the curving, long-healed gash along the opposite side of his pale jaw. The scars gave the smile a faintly dangerous edge, at odds with his warm-sounding, “You have a lovely home, Kawase-san. And so many guests. I hope there’ll be time to meet them all.”
“I’d be happy to introduce you to my favorites amongst them,” Kawase said. He took a step closer to Kakashi’s side. “You know how it is,” he added in a conspiratorial tone. “Some people you want to invite to dinner, and some people you’re merely obligated to.”
Kakashi remained at ease, as if having Kawase in close striking range wasn’t in the least unsettling. “Are any of your favorites versed in seals?” he asked. “Otherwise I doubt I’ll find them interesting.”
Kawase laughed delightedly. “You’re as witty as your dear mother, my boy. And as reluctant to take an evening off.”
It was like watching a bladeless battle, which the older man, at least, seemed to be genuinely enjoying. And which almost held the same threat of bloodshed as drawn katana.
None of the remaining three of team Six had the training or the standing for a situation like this. Fortunately the ambassador did.
“When you obtain pleasure from the work itself, then an evening of both is an indulgence,” she said, light and cool. “And Suna knows how Konoha likes to indulge.”
“Indeed,” Kawase said, nodding genially. “Konoha in particular and Fire Country in general are known for their many pleasures of the mind and flesh. Ah to be unconstrained by laws and strictures.” He tipped his head to one side. “If only you’d known me in my youth.”
Tension ratcheted a notch tighter under Genma’s diaphragm. Was this a veiled warning? Admission of actual fellow feeling? Nostalgia? A trap? The Hokage really ought to have given this assignment to Intel, or at least sent Intel along with them.
The ambassador forged past it, introducing the members of Team Six by rank and surname, as Kakashi’s teammates. Genma managed to get through that with minimal awkwardness, but he cast Raidou and Ryouma a helpless look. They expected him to charm information out of this man? He’d have better luck getting a goat to compose poetry.
Kawase, continuing to play the affable host, led them over to one of the groups of attendees, who immediately pretended not to have been staring at Kakashi. Singling out a tall, round-bellied older man in rich brown, Kawase said, “Yutani-san, may I present our esteemed visitors from the Land of Fire? Ambassador Hatake-san you know, but I’m certain you won’t have met her son before. And his companions Namiashi-san, Shiranui-san, and Tousaki-san.”
“A golden opportunity,” Yutani said, inclining an exactingly correct bow. “How delightful you could come visit your mother, Hatake-san. And in the company of friends.”
“Yutani-san is one of my dearest comrades,” Kawase said. “We ourselves made many fun-filled excursions together like yours, in our youth.”
Yutani was at least two decades younger than Kawase, by Genma’s estimation, which still put him in the grandfatherly age category. By his build and posture, he was a high-ranking ninja, now in retirement, perhaps. He introduced the others in his conversational sphere: his wife, her widowed sister Ojima-san, and a man closer to Genma’s father’s age, who Kawase introduced as Funaki-san, an ink-maker.
Was that a hint that Funaki might know something about seals? Before Genma could even try to engage him in conversation, Kawase shepherded them onward. They toured the room, meeting one well-dressed Suna dignitary after another, all of whom were introduced as dear friends of their host’s, regardless of age or occupation. The ambassador seemed to know most of them at least by name. She even greeted one or two with uncharacteristic warmth, as if she, too, had friends here.
It probably ought not to have struck Genma as odd to think of her having friendships.
With Kakashi’s face exposed, his micro-expressions seemed broad, given how accustomed Genma was to interpreting Kakashi’s emotions and meaning from a single exposed eye and a clinging mask. The resemblance between mother and son was uncanny. Startling even. He was just as smooth and gracious as she, warmer with those who Kawase seemed to hint might be helpful—a book-binder, a pediatrician, another advisor to the Kazekage—cooler to those with whom Kawase himself was cool. With the few guests, mostly older, who allowed naked loathing for the decade-dead Sakumo to tinge their interactions, Kakashi and Sadayo were both as icily distant as an offended Hyuuga.
For his part, Genma tried to play the role the team had assigned him, charmingly relatable—someone to whom all sorts of secrets could be safely revealed—but Kawase never gave them a chance to engage in more than a few words of conversation before he moved them along. In short order, they had covered the whole room, ending with a dark-skinned elderly person with a thin haze of white hair, who hailed Kakashi as they approached. They wore a subtly decorated, dark plum-colored kimono without hakama or haori, and without elaborate obi, giving no clue to their gender that Genma could discern.
“My fellow counselor, Minpei-san,” Kawase said. “Praise the sake sets at dinner and you will have won an everlasting friend.”
The elderly counselor gave Kawase an unimpressed look. “After working through the room like that with you, old friend, I suspect they’re hoping for something stronger than sake.” To Kakashi, directly, they added, “Have you identified anyone you’d like to speak with again?”
Kakashi’s expression turned thoughtful. “Funaki-san,” he said, naming the ink-maker. “And Edogawa-sensei, the pediatrician. The doctor first, for preference.”
“Some of the best conversationalists at this party,” Kawase said, smiling in approval. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy Ojima-san’s company, too. You’ll be seated next to her at dinner,” he added. “Her stories are fascinating. You might ask her about her late husband.”
Kakashi’s lip curled for a bare fraction of a second before he smoothed it back to pure neutral. “Noted.” To Genma’s eye, disdain writ large, but Kawase didn’t seem to take offense.
Minpei rolled their eyes. “You might have arranged for those introductions without all this rigamarole,” they told Kawase.
“Ah, but my dear,” Kawase said. “Where would be the fun in that? Plus we wouldn’t want word to get back to Rasa-sama that we’d been discourteous in introducing our distinguished visitors to our other guests.”
Can’t prove the counselors were arranging to get sensitive information into the hands of the Konoha ninja if they’d publicly made a show of everyone having a chance to talk to the foreigners, Genma translated. Kurenai would probably love the intricacies of this whole political charade. Ginta, too. Gods help them all.
Minpei made a doubt-filled “Hm,” glancing from the set dinner places back to Kakashi. “You won’t have long. Might delegate a few questions to one of these tall fellows, if you can spare them.” They inclined their head towards Genma and the other members of Team Six. “For tonight, at least, I believe we can assure your security.”
Kakashi’s security? Genma rapidly reassessed every threat he’d identified at the party before he remembered that they were officially here as Kakashi’s bodyguards.
“Madam Ambassador,” Minpei said, turning to Sadayo, “we are prepared to revisit the matter on which we spoke earlier. If you’ll join me.” Nodding a brief farewell to the rest, they escorted Sadayo to a small door off the main hall.
Moments later, one of the servants approached Kawase, who nodded to her. “It seems our feast is ready at last,” he told Team Six, with a broad smile. “I had them prepare a menu of Wind Country specialties for you, of course. If you’re troubled by spicy dishes,” he added to Ryouma, “I advise not eating the red vegetable threads in the pickles. That’s garyuu.”
So he’d heard about Ryouma’s excuse for not joining Genma and Raidou on their tour of Suna’s street vendors. Interesting. Unsurprising, but interesting.
More of the tan-clad servants materialized to escort the assembled guests to their assigned places. The dark-kimono’d servant from the door conferred briefly with Kawase, then guided Genma, Raidou, and Ryouma to places near the front of the room. Kawase escorted Kakashi to a dinner tray across from his teammates, quite near his own seat at the host’s place. When the guests were seated, he announced, “My friends and esteemed visitors, may we all find great joy in this meal and each others’ company.”
On Genma’s right, Edogawa-sensei, the doctor Kakashi’d wanted to speak to, leaned over to pour sake into Genma’s cup. “I’m so pleased we will get a longer chance to make one another’s acquaintance,” she said.
Whether the seating arrangement was an accident or, probably, cleverly guided, this was the opportunity Genma’d been waiting for. What would Kurenai advise? Start with common ground?
“The pleasure is all mine, Sensei,” he said, filling her cup in turn. “As it happens, I’m quite interested in medicine… ”
Ryouma sat next to the ink-maker and swiftly drew the older man into conversation. Kakashi wasn’t sure what the two could possibly have in common, until he heard Ryouma mention Shisei Takumi, the artist responsible for the dragon emblazoned over his chest. That was a perfect gateway for talking about chakra-infused ink.
Genma had also hooked his pediatrician with relative ease. A middle-aged woman with soft eyes and a quick smile, who had put down her chopsticks in favor of devoting her full attention to him. Kakashi would have laid even odds on his success being due to his sparkling wit versus how well he filled out a kimono.
On Genma’s other side, Raidou wasn’t attempting to Intel anyone. He was sitting straight-backed and stern, radiating a general don’t-fuck-with-me air that suggested he planned to focus on the bodyguard elements of this evening and was going to leave the schmoozing to everyone else.
Which left Kakashi with Ojima.
She was an angular, dark-skinned woman with a bent nose and deep wrinkles. Her hands were gnarled and crooked, and shook slightly when she picked up her chopsticks. A yellow, tobacco tinge spilled through the whites of her eyes. She could have been anywhere from forty to sixty, but she turned towards him readily when he said her name.
“Who was your late husband?” he asked, without preamble.
“You don’t waste time, do you.” There was an edge of a rueful smile on her lips, and the scent of sulfur and garlic on her breath. The smell of a dying liver. “His name was Ojima Emon. He studied fuuinjutsu, though he would never call himself a master; that word was saved for his own sensei, who came to us after Uzushiogakure fell.” Very carefully, with shaking chopsticks, she picked up a slice of pickled burdock root. She did not look at him. “I lost him four years ago.”
Uzushiogakure seals. The most sophisticated and complex fuuinjutsu from an extinct village with a notorious allergy to writing anything down. Kushina was laughing at him. Kushina and her whole stupid dead family.
“Sensei’s also dead?” Kakashi guessed.
“Assassinated. Five years ago.” Her voice had been a murmur before, but now it dropped to a breath. Her lifted, shaking cup obscured her mouth from anyone who might be lip-reading across the room. “Shortly after it became known that Kazekage-sama was—”
Kakashi put his hand on her wrist for the briefest of moments. She stopped talking.
This was Kawase’s party, but in the Kazekage’s village. Rasa had almost dared Kakashi to find out what information he could, but Rasa had also thrown Kakashi in jail for looking at Suna’s most obvious, well-known secret. And as Ojima had just said, people got assassinated here.
He glanced up at Raidou, who was watching him, and made a tiny, subtle gesture.
Raidou looked pained. But he dutifully selected a morsel from his tray, swallowed it without chewing, and very dramatically choked. There was immediate consternation around him, as Genma and the pediatrician both lunged to their feet, while the guests on Raidou’s other side looked extremely alarmed, and Ryouma said earnest, helpful things like, “Thump him harder, lieutenant!” and “Trach? I’ve got my kit.”
While this piece of dinner theater played out, Kakashi swiftly cloaked himself and Ojima in subtle, gossamer layers of genjutsu and silencing jutsu. From the outside, they would continue to look exactly the same. From the inside, they could talk freely. It still carried an element of risk — there were shinobi around them, after all, and one or two might be sensors — but Kakashi trusted his abilities.
“Please continue,” he told Ojima. “No one else can hear you now.”
She had been watching the commotion around Raidou — now recovering from Genma’s medical thumping and trying to restore some order to his clothes, while apologizing profusely to everyone around him — but she returned her attention to Kakashi. Paper-thin whispers of chakra teased out to test the edges of his jutsu. She had a chuunin’s skill, but less than a genin’s strength — vitality decaying alongside her body.
Whatever stunted sense she had left was enough to believe him. She said, flatly, “My husband’s sensei was assassinated after whispers rose that the Kazekage-sama was seeking to create a jinchuuriki again. That left Emon alone with his own partial notes of the seal structure his sensei was planning to create, and no time at all to seek guidance from anyone who might know more. Kazekage-sama… had a deadline that could not be postponed.”
Gaara’s birth. That certainly would put a clock on things.
“Did any of your husband’s notes survive?” Kakashi asked eagerly.
A bitter little smile edged Ojima’s mouth. “That would have been Emon’s first question. And… yes. Kawase-sama described to me what you’re trying to do. I brought everything I could.”
From the inner fold of her kimono, she withdrew a sealed scroll. Her fingers tightened on it, bloodless and claw-like, and when he held out a hand for it, she caught his wrist in an iron grip. He could have dodged her, or broken the hold, but to his own surprise, he let her grab him. Her skin was cold and dry, like parchment in winter. Her voice was old grief and burned ashes. “Emon only wanted to protect his village, and instead he gave it a horror. You’ve come to put things right. To redeem his mistake.”
He’d come because Minato had asked. But he only nodded once, and gently took the scroll from her. She let it, and him, go. He sealed it immediately into another scroll, one that would require a blood-key to undo, and vanished it into his clothes.
“A last question,” he said. “Do you know who assassinated your husband’s teacher?”
She hesitated, then shook her head very slightly, lips thinning. “That business is already buried.”
Kakashi felt his expression turn ironic. “Because the assassin was, or because you don’t know?”
“Is the assassin the man who wields the knife, or the man who aims him?” she said sharply. “It’s five years gone. And our politics are none of your concern. Fix the seal. Leave the rest to us.”
Kakashi was starting to wonder if there was a Suna by-law somewhere that required anyone asking for a favor to be incredibly snotty about it.
Oh, hey Konoha, we accidentally created a toddler of mass destruction. Really good of you to come by and fix it for us. But first we’re gonna put you in jail for a few days, no biggie. And then the Kazekage is going to insult you and make you jump through hoops and not give you any of the basic information. But that’s okay, because you get to go on a treasure hunt for clues at a formal party in the most uncomfortable clothing, and beg an angry dying lady for scraps of information. AND she’s not even going to tell you everything. Oh, oh, and we’re gonna steal your stuff and judge your personal relationships. Cool? Cool.
Big picture, was it that much of a problem if Suna got wiped off the map?
“Right,” he said to Ojima. “Okay.”
And broke the genjutsu.
He entertained a brief fantasy of yelling several devastating, pithy remarks at the room entire before stalking out, only pausing to grab Ryouma’s ass on the way. But that would only make him feel better for a moment, and the problem would still be there.
He exhaled through his nose, kicked his irritation into a trunk, and focused on the mission.
The rest of the meal was uneventful. No one else choked. Servants rematerialized to replace the meal dishes with fragrant tea and delicate fruits, before carrying out a large, 17-string koto to place in the center of the room. A young woman in very traditional Suna garb settled down next to the instrument, bowed to the assembled guests, and began a performance.
It was… musical, certainly. Kakashi could say that with complete confidence. The older attendees — which was most of them — seemed to be enjoying it. As did Genma, if his half-lidded eyes were any indication. Ryouma looked baffled but interested. Raidou was politely attentive.
When the performance completed, the servants returned to clear away meal trays and floor cushions, and a new three-person band set up at the back of the room to provide ambiance. Once again, Kakashi was able to positively ID their contribution as music, albeit the gentle, floaty kind that didn’t stir the emotions so much as sedate them. The guests were invited to mingle again, and in the shifting constellations of people, Kakashi noticed Sadayo and Minpei return. Kakashi drifted over to her elbow.
“What was that about?” he murmured.
“Arranging a meeting,” she said, without looking at him. She barely moved her lips when she spoke. “You wanted to meet the child, yes?”
Kakashi felt himself come alert. “Yes. When?”
Sadayo’s eyes flickered over the room. “Now. Collect your team. I’ll make your excuses.”
Kakashi didn’t even need to move from the spot to accomplish that. The others were hyper-alert. He just had to glance at them and tip his head, and they broke away from their respective conversation partners to circle up. Minpei was already speaking to Kawase; Sadayo stepped away to join them.
“What is it?” Raidou asked quietly.
“Access to the jinchuuriki,” Kakashi said, rubbing a hand over his mouth to thwart any attempt at lip-reading. He missed his mask. He was not thinking about that.
“Right now?” Raidou hissed.
Kakashi considered sarcasm. He said, simply, “Yes.”
Sadayo returned before Genma or Ryouma could weigh in. She caught Kakashi’s eye, read whatever she wanted from his face, and made for the door, clearly expecting to be followed.
Kakashi lifted an eyebrow at Raidou. Technically, this wasn’t a Team Six mission. Kakashi was a solo agent here, with unexpected, last-minute support. He didn’t have to clear anything with Raidou, or Genma, or respect if they dug their heels in. They were out of their depth here, and they knew it. But he had to work with them on the next mission, so he paused.
Kakashi didn’t smack Ryouma’s ass on the way out, even though he really, really wanted to. Politics.