Here you go, dear readers, my first updated since the day before New Year. I'm sorry for the lateness, but I hope this chapter makes up for it. I like to think that my writing has gotten a little better for the five months that I've not written for this story. I thank everyone that still reviewed and added me to their story alert and favorites list, I really appreciate that you all took your time to indicate that you've read and enjoyed my work. It's the greatest compliment.
This chapter was partially inspired by the two stories: "Poker Face" by XxHot92xX and "Ingress" by iamzuul.
The word count for this chapter is: 2,434
And last but certainly not least, I'd like to thank my beta, The-Algebraist, for the fabulous beta work he did for me.
To fight together, ninja must be able to work together. This, at times, can be troublesome.
Ninja are, in a word, human. Too human when it comes to things such as pride and propriety. Sometimes, ninja (for all they are), are not able to put aside differences or class and fight with the fire that connects Konoha shinobi that fight together.
The best teams, or, rather, the teams that last the longest, work well together. Some teams have a connection, other teams have to work (and face death), some teams just never have it. It's not a well-known fact, but when entire teams are annihilated on a mission, it very rarely has to do with the strength of the opponents or even the physical strength of the team itself.
It's the way the fire-team had an argument before setting out and wasn't in synch. It was the way the team leader either didn't take command or took too much command. It was the way the middleman froze up and the rear stepped out of line and didn't bother to mend the missing link. It was the way that there was no trust other than the base trust that every Konoha ninja had for another. It was the way that they didn't know each other as a team should.
It is a well-known fact that the best teams (for however much it may hurt them), are friends.
Team Seven, in the beginning, was not a good team. They fought too much, bickered too much, one-upped each other too much, and left their weakest member behind too much. They were not equal and there was no respect and no trust; instead, all they had was a crybaby, a boy blinded by revenge, and a boy who tried to prove himself at all the wrong times and in all the wrong ways.
Kakashi, Team Seven's leader, guided them in a way that he only could; because Kakashi knows how to make a team work, because Kakashi knows what makes a team fail. He knows that the team leader must lead with a firm but flexible hand, that the Ready must know that he's just as good as the Fire, and that the Assist must do just that--assist--and not overstep his bounds. He knows that they've got to have a hard enough heart to know when to leave a team mate behind, but to have a soft enough heart to exhaust every single resource before placing the mission above a comrade.
The team has got to be able to laugh together and bandage each other's wounds. They've got to be able to fight and fuss and scream and place each other's lives above their own.
Kakashi knows, because he's had a team fail before, and he won't let it happen again.
Genma. Raido. Asuma. Kakashi.
They've seen each other at their worst, celebrated with each other at their best. They've laughed together and cried together. They sit on top of the Hokage Monument faithfully every other Thursday and drink themselves into oblivion. They've held each other and chased away nightmares (the type that are larger than life). They've slept together (in more ways than one) and kept each other sane when one couldn't do it for himself.
They have no propriety, they have no shame. They live and love and fight together and go back home to Kurenai, the mission room, the academy, and the Memorial Stone with the same silent acceptance that has been their norm for the many years that they've fit together.
Being a ninja is an ugly, ugly profession. Ugly and dark with hatred and greed. The best teams aren't the most pure teams, they're the teams that have persevered and have lost nothing more than vanity, pride, misconceptions, and an eye.
10 years ago.
"Read them and weep," Genma flipped over the card pile with a flourish, revealing two kings and smirking like the cat that got the cream.
"Well, damn," Raido picked up the thick pile of cards and shuffled them with the ones he already held in his bandaged hand, glancing sideways at the other man at the table and wondering when playing Bullshit started to sound like a good idea.
He was losing, Genma was smirking, Kakashi wasn't paying attention and Asuma was chain smoking on the bed. It was quiet in the room, almost overly so if it weren't for the roaring in his ears, and his eyes were burning because they were underground, and this was Asuma's fifth cigarette in twice as many minutes, there was just no place for Asuma's smoke to go. Just like them. They were holed up in an underground bunker in the middle of the Land of Wind because there was a colossal sandstorm raging outside and the trail was covered and they were lost.
"Four aces," Raido said, dropping down his cards quite ungracefully. Silence fell. Raido glanced at Kakashi out of the corner of his eye, looked at Genma and then looked back at Kakashi. Kakashi's hands were shaking; something Raido would mention except for the fact that its just one of those things that just areand something that just isn't mentioned. And even if Raido did want to mention it, he doesn't think it would do any good (he ignores the fact that his leg hasn't stopped bouncing for the two hours that they've been down here). At the moment, Kakashi is just as good as deaf, and there are flakes of blood underneath his fingernails.
"Twos, 'kashi," Genma slurs--surreptitiously knocking the crude table with his knee--, putting his senbon behind his ear as he takes a swig from the alcohol flask that he stole from the whore-house in Aichi. Raido flicks his eyes up from his hand and knows that Genma can read his mind.
Never mention, never mind.
Kakashi tears his eyes away from the spot on the wall that he had been staring at for the past five minutes and blinks owlishly. He looks down at the last two cards in his hand and flicks his wrist with a grace that even drunkenness could not take away. The cards land squarely and face down on the pile and on principle Genma scrutinizes him (for reasons both obvious and not obvious).
Genma does not call his bluff, but Raido does--because Raido never lets things go--and as he turns the cards he feels like there is something far more important and far more fragile in his hands than the stack of cards.
The game ends and Kakashi has won for the sixth time in a row.
Genma collects the cards and shuffles them, the hiss of the cards as they move too fast for Raido to keep count is all too familiar, and Raido thinks of senbon and Asuma's trench knives.
Asuma is still sitting on the bed, back resting against the head, legs crossed at the ankle and one hand loosely holding a cigarette while the other grips the sheets. His knuckles are white but his face nonchalant, Raido wonders if he should be the first one to speak.
"Asuma, you want in?" Raido speaks finally, not dropping his eyes like he was wont to do when Asuma looks up from under his eyelids, expression vacant but staring at something with an intensity that reminds Raido of laughter and flames.
Asuma doesn't answer, and Raido wasn't really expecting him to. It's not a bad sign, but it's not a good sign, because if there was anything about Asuma that could be counted on besides his skill, it was his amicability.
It had been so since the Academy days, back when Asuma had first picked up smoking from the suave and newly promoted Chuunin substitute teacher that filled in for Hotaru-sensei after she was called out to the battlefield. Raido, two years graduated from the Academy, found Asuma wheezing, coughing, and turning blue behind the comic book store one day, and carried him to the hospital. Once Asuma woke up, Raido--brash and loud Raido-- cuffed the back of his head and told him not to be such a dumbass, that smoking was bad for him anyway.
Asuma--cool and imperturbable Asuma--stared up at Raido, eyes wide, before a slow smirk emerged onto his face.
Raido can't remember what Asuma said, but he does remember thinking about how he envied his personality (and, later on, his status as the Hokage's son). This continued to be so until the third time that Raido came across Asuma wheezing and coughing behind a building. Raido slapped him on the back on the head and told him to stop being a damn idiot. Asuma (who wasn't as godly as Raido thought), with watery eyes, looked up at him and smiled, eyes twinkling as he accused Raido of having a crush on him. (They've been friends ever since.)
But now, however, Asuma doesn't have a twinkle in his eyes. Asuma doesn't have anything in his eyes at all. Asuma is definitely not laughing, definitely not joking, and Raido is starting to suspect that he's suffering from post-traumatic stress.
This thought then makes Raido look back at Kakashi, who is still staring at the wall; Genma, who is still drinking, and who does not have a senbon in his mouth; and down at himself with the leg that is still in motion. It is quite possible that if Asuma has post-traumatic stress, then the rest of them do as well, but Raido's not entirely sure because they haven't mentioned it (though Kakashi and Asuma are so very obvious), and if Genma hasn't said anything then they must all be fine. Right?
Raido looks at Genma who is dealing the cards.
One face down to Raido. One face down to Kakashi. One face down to Genma.
He looks off, Raido thinks, a little bit different. But Raido's still not entirely sure if it's because he's well on his way to becoming shit-faced, or if it's because that Raido now noticed the shallow notch in his bottom lip where he likes to keep his senbon.
One face up to Raido. One face up to Kakashi. One face up to Genma.
Genma looks gaunt, his cheek bones are pronounced and the skin underneath his eyes look abused. His top lip is raw from where he was biting it in between swigs of the cheap alcohol that Raido knows is burning down his throat, and Genma is so pale that Raido can see the scar above his eyebrow where he was hit by a rock when the two of them were playing ninja.
Playing ninja. Hah.
Raido looks at his hand. A six and a three.
It was back when Genma was six and Raido was seven, when Raido and Genma were both stupid and Kakashi hadn't surpassed them all, yet. Back when Raido's mother let them play in the backyard after they finished the academy homework, and back when she used to make them oatmeal raisin cookies and apple onigiri. Back when they didn't fully understand war and didn't know that being a ninja meant that they had to actually hurt people. (Oh, how Raido cried when he saw the blood run down into Genma's eye. The cut wasn't lethal, it wasn't even deep, but as he held his mother's skirt--like he swore he was too old to do--Raido thought it was the end of the world.)
"Hit," Kakashi mumbled, sounding detached and hollow.
Oh, yes. It was back when Raido and Genma didn't know that kids like Kakashi even existed.
"Hit,' Kakashi muttered again.
Raido nearly laughed aloud.
It was hilarious. Here they were, jounin men, playing card games in a hole in a ground in the middle of the damn desert because when they were young they thought that being a ninja was fun. They had no clue (the three of them anyway, Kakashi was too smart to ever have been that naive) that being a ninja entailed running for your life from S-class nin who want to eat your entrails for fucking breakfast,and deviating from the original trail after Raido had gotten them lost just because the enemy had used a fire jutsu (that didn't even touch him) and he couldn't feel the left side of his body. He had nearly gotten his hand taken off by a trap that he should have seen coming a mile away and the bastards took his best friend's senbon when they captured him.
Kakashi has been out in La La Land since the fifth heart that he pulled out of an enemy's body (and Raido wonders just why the hell he doesn't incinerate them inside the body) and Raido's pissed off because he still has the damn blood underneath his fingernails, and dammit how unsanitary is that! Asuma has been smoking enough cigarettes to smoke out the Hokage from his tower and he's soiling the bed with his filthy uniform, and he thinks that just because he maybe has post-traumatic stress, that it's a good enough excuse!
And Raido just can't stop shaking and he can't exactly remember what the mission was supposed to be about anyway--and what the hell was Sandaime thinking? All Raido knows is that he's just been on the most horrible mission of his life, his best friend is breaking (no matter how fucking normal he might seem), Kakashi was being an idiot (he was a genius dammit!), Asuma's smoke was fucking irritating, and he just strangled a little girl who reminded him of his sister...
Raido starts and looks up to find Genma and Kakashi (who still looks a little lost), staring at him.
Genma quirks an eyebrow, and Raido's cheeks feel wet.
"Yeah," he answers the unasked question, rubbing his cheeks with all the machismo he can muster, "fuckin' smoke, man."
"Yeah," Genma answers.
"Yeah," Kakashi echoes.
Asuma wheezes and stubs the cigarette out on the head board.
"I'm in," Asuma answers belatedly, voice quiet.