Well. Hello again. The past three months have felt a whole lot longer than they ought. But what you have here is the first chapter of . . . the revised version! Hurrah. Two chapters of this are complete, and scattered scenes from the rest. For now, this will stay posted at the back of the original version, but it is meant to be read as an alternative, not as a continuation or perspective. This is partially up as motivation for me to keep writing it...we'll see if it works.
Homura placed the sheaf of documents down on the polished table with the barest whisper of paper and sat back. Koharu, leaning on the cushions beside him, sniffed and adjusted her robes. "Not surprising, considering."
Sarutobi, hands clasped behind him as he faced the curtained window, sighed. "No." He waited, unwilling to turn to face his two friends, and the damning intelligence written up in perfect calligraphy on the pages between them.
"We ought," Koharu continued in her raspy voice, "to deal with them promptly and completely. Before," and she leaned forward to tap emphatically on the report, "it becomes any more of an issue."
"The agent is trustworthy?" Homura broke in. "You are sure?"
Sarutobi favored him with a reproachful glance. "Of course." He would trust this agent with his life. He was trusting this agent with the lives of everyone in his village. But of course, "And I have two shadows checking everything he submits."
"Then we must act," Koharu reiterated. "Now." She flipped a few pages in the file and stabbed a manicured nail at one line.
Homura pulled his glasses down to read around her arm. "Koharu, you may be being a little hasty. This is nothing more than suspicion."
She raised plucked, grizzled eyebrows at him. "And where did waiting get us during the war? We made difficult decisions on suspicions then, and we saved lives."
"Enough." Sarutobi cut her off. "This is not wartime. We worked hard for peace, remember." He strode to the table, bent down, and closed the file firmly. When he frowned at both of them, Koharu met his gaze challengingly. Homura stretched.
"It is your choice, Hokage-sama," he acquiesced. "But do not wait too long. We may not be at war, but peace is not so different."
The conference room had no windows. In general, such rooms lacked windows. The intelligence agent presiding—the handler for this squad since his predecessor had retired a year ago with flair and invective—massaged his forehead with long fingers. "Look. I know how much he meant to you all. He was my friend, too."
Three eyes regarded him flatly. The other two pairs were focused varyingly on fingernails and the ceiling. None of the owners of the eyes, sitting in straight-backed chairs around the long table, pointed out the obvious fact that Masaru had hated the Intel man's guts.
He sighed. "Nevertheless, you need to accept a temporary replacement. I've pulled several names of agents who would fit well in your squad. The floater pool has excellent shinobi." He pushed the pile of files towards the captain. "Take a look."
The captain poked the stacked folders deliberately with one scarred fingertip. "Raidou. Do you think we need to accept a temporary replacement?" he asked, leaving his challenging gaze on the Intel agent.
His squadmate pretended to consider. "Well, Kakashi-taichou, if I remember right, the last time we were assigned a floater, he died, failed the mission, and our handler said we ought never be given anyone like that again." He crossed his arms on the table. "Before your time, Niigata-san. So, I'd say, no we don't."
Kakashi's stone grey eye shut in a smug smile. "See, sir? Raidou has a very good memory."
"Aw, fuck off, Daichi," the shinobi with his chair tipped back to view the ceiling added. "You know you can't make us."
Niigata Daichi favored the man with a withering glance—completely wasted, as Genma was still counting bumps in the plaster. "I am well aware of your situation." If they weren't going to be cooperative, he wasn't going to waste the effort to be nice. "But without a fifth member, you will be off squad rotation. I have the authority to assign whomever I see fit."
A harsh cough interrupted his snapped words. For the first time, all attention was focused exclusively on one person. The only one present who had yet failed to speak drew a shaky breath. "Sorry, captain," he rasped. Kakashi frowned, visible only in the barest drawing down of an eyebrow and the narrowing of his eye.
Niigata waited for Hayate to catch his breath. "Or, I can put a provisional hold on assignments for the squad, treating you all as individual agents." He gave them a strained smile. "But sliding that past the Head is going to take a hell of an incentive, and it isn't going to be pretty."
The remnants, the four out of five who'd managed to come back, exchanged looks. Niigata watched the conversation pass between them in a few silent seconds. But he'd known the answer even before he posed the question.
"Split the squad, sir," Kakashi answered for all of them. "And get us a permanent member." Kakashi's tone said fast. The set of Raidou's jaw, the slack around Genma's eyes, the way Hayate couldn't meet anyone's gaze, said now.
Niigata watched them file from the room with an almost parental mixture of pride and frustration. Damn idiots. Squad Fourteen was too stubborn and too close-knit for its own good. But then again, whose fault was that? He gathered up his stack of files, and leaned against the wall until he was sure the four would be out of the hall.
He didn't know whose bright idea it had been, originally, to concentrate so many of ANBU's worst fuck-ups in one squad. And even after a year of working with them, he still wasn't sure if it had been a stroke of brilliance or a complete folly. He shut the door behind himself, and headed off in the opposite direction from the four shinobi, deeper into the maze of offices and hallways dedicated to ANBU's Intelligence Branch.
No, their stubbornness was not a blessing at the moment. None of them was going to like the next few months. He hadn't been lying when he said it would take a hell of a reason to convince the Head to wait for a stable replacement before redeploying Squad 14. Well, not stable in that sense.
He stopped, before he reached his own office, at the filing room devoted to unresolved requests. It took a key, a chakra test, and the approval of the guards to get in there. Niigata passed through easily. The closest shelves, marked "Urgent," were mostly empty. Against the back wall, a row of "Outstanding" was separated by type, and coded by requester, mission rank, and date. He took the entire top left section. "Sorry, Kakashi," he muttered, and tucked the sealed folders beneath his free arm.
This would be enough for the Head to agree to a few months. Months that, perhaps, would be enough time that they would be able to let someone take Masaru's place.
Outside in the sunlight, Hayate leaned against the rough wall of the building and hacked painfully into his elbow. The three others stood in a loose semicircle around him, feeling inadequate. After a minute the shallow, ragged breaths he managed between coughs began to smooth out.
"Someone should go see his family," Raidou said reluctantly. "Right?"
Kakashi scratched the back of his neck, and Genma fiddled with the senbon between his teeth. "Um."
"I already did," Hayate murmured. He pushed away from the wall and shoved his hands in the pockets of his pants. He was past caring about the extra seconds the position added to his reaction time. "Yesterday." Kakashi-taichou had been at the monument, and Hayate hadn't wanted to be in the room when Genma woke up from the drugs the nurses had administered the night before. That was Raidou's job.
"Oh." Raidou tried not to feel resentful. It shouldn't have taken him this long to think of Masaru's family, not since Hayate already had. "How are they taking it?"
"As well as can be expected." Hayate cleared his throat, and rubbed at his chest. "They weren't thrilled to see me."
Kakashi moved first. "Unsurprising," he drawled without really thinking. But his hand hesitated in its automatic reach for his orange paperback. They looked lost, gathered on the sickly grass outside the Intelligence offices. If Masaru were here, he'd be snapping Genma out of his lingering dream haze with some ridiculous accusation, dragging Raidou off by the arm to lose at poker, setting himself and his latest girlfriend up with Hayate and Yuugao on a double date. If Masaru were here, they'd all be going their separate ways into the maze of buildings that formed the ANBU compound, confident in themselves and each other.
Without him, they stood confused, aimless. Four out of five. Kakashi felt like he should say something. Something inspiring, reassuring, consoling. Something to bring them back together. "Be at the field tomorrow."
They nodded. "Yes, captain."
He turned away.
Niigata found them at the training field. They were sparring, Kakashi with Raidou, Hayate with Genma, hitting a little harder than was quite necessary. He watched for a minute, leaning casually against a tree trunk, until someone's exploding doton jutsu shattered the branches above him. He leapt out of the way, shoulders dusted in only a few splinters of wood, and yelled at the squad. "Hey! Hold it up!"
Hayate and Genma pulled apart immediately. Raidou ducked under one of Kakashi's arms and planted a fist in his chest. The younger ninja grabbed Raidou's forearm in two hands. "Hey!" Niigata roared.
Kakashi squeezed, and for the briefest moment Daichi feared he would break his teammate's arm. Then the intensity faded, he let go, and both jumped backwards.
Kakashi slouched over to the Intel man, hooking his thumbs over the rolled seam at the bottom of his armored vest. Raidou followed, shaking genjutsu from his hands. "What do you want?" Kakashi asked for them all, favoring the handler with an unenthusiastic eye.
"You, I need to see in my office," he ordered Kakashi. He tossed a scroll at Genma, "Mission. The medics won't clear you for duty until next week," he informed Hayate. "And this is for you," Daichi finished, handing the second scroll to Raidou. He recoiled sharply when his fingers accidentally brushed Raidou's, the skin of his torso and face stinging. Raidou twitched as well at the unexpected discharge of chakra. Then one side of his mouth twisted up in a smirk at Niigata's reaction.
The analyst recovered quickly. He clasped his hands in a discreet release, banishing the echoes of genjutsu. "The next examination period for recruits is in forty days. I suggest you all be back by then." They would just have to hope that someone suitable passed in this cohort.
Genma snapped open his scroll with an elegant flick of his wrist. "Recon? This is a fucking recon mission!" He scanned the rest of the assignment. "Shit," he moaned.
Hayate stood on tiptoes to read over his shoulder. "Heh. A month in northern Wind Country. It's all mud up there, Genma."
"I know," the older shinobi retorted snippily.
Raidou worked his way through his scroll silently. The blue tag tied to one end indicated an in-village mission; at least he wouldn't be slogging through a meter of mud for the next month. Surveillance, protection detail. Not too bad of a duty, especially considering the squad's current position at the utter lowest level of the mission pecking order. He even had the daytime shift. Then he found the name of the target.