Dango-ya had become their go-to place when the team wanted a treat. Yakiniku Q was always delicious, but it was more of a full meal restaurant than a spot for a quick snack. There was Ichiraku Ramen, but Kotetsu wasn’t too fond of ramen, and Shushu-ya was more of an adult-oriented pub than a place for genin. So Dango-ya it was.
The three genin squished on one side of the wooden bench, sitting opposite their jounin sensei. Summer was quickly passing by once more as July bled into the heat waves of August. Their team opted for mostly bagging muscle shirts and spandex shorts over top of their mesh armours outside of missions. It was just too hot for much more.
Izumo’s leg brushed against Iruka’s as the two older boys flanked him on the bench. He always ended up in the middle, that’s how it had been since they first became a team over two years ago. Sometimes it was hard to think so much time had passed already. His team was as much a part of who he was as his relationship with Kakashi or his family -both birth and adoptive.
“Are you going to order something other than chadango this time, Zumo?” Kotetsu leaned one elbow on the table and wiggled his eyebrows playfully at his best friend.
Blushing hard, Izumo crossed his arms over his chest. “I like tea flavours, what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, you just order it all the time. There’s never any variety to your tastes.” Kotetsu retorted as Inoichi fought to hold back a chuckle.
Izumo puffed his cheeks out. “I know what I like, why change it?”
“I think what Kotetsu’s trying to say is that you’re very set in your ways,” Iruka added gently in an attempt to head off another squabble. Izumo hadn’t been taking Kotetsu’s teasing as good-naturedly lately as he used to. Iruka wasn’t quite sure why. “It’s predictable, but there’s nothing wrong with that when it comes to food.”
“I’m not predictable,” Izumo protested without any real fire behind his words. He’d developed a rather fixed routine that he barely deviated from outside of his duties as a shinobi. Genma called it a coping strategy, though Iruka didn't know for certain what his friend was coping with, his gut told him it had to do with the Kyuubi's attack. All of them had scars from that night, so he never pressed. Izumo would tell him in due time.
“Don’t worry about it,” Iruka waved off the conversation as their usual waitress made her way over to their table.
“If it isn’t Team Inoichi, my favourite customers~” Shinko Inari had graduated from the Academy a year behind them. After the tragic death of her teammate Tenma, she’d retired from being a shinobi. That was fine. None of them judge her for her choice. The shinobi lifestyle wasn’t for everyone and she seemed happier now. “What can I get you cuties today?”
Inoichi chuckled softly, his blue eyes gentle with the same warmth that filled them whenever Ino-chan was around -a paternal affection. “Some kusa dango for me today, please Shinko-chan.”
Kotetsu poked his chest with a grin. “Kibi dango for me Shinko!”
The former genin jotted the orders down on her notepad before turning to Iruka and Izumo. “Let me guess, chadango for Izumo-kun and,” she paused in thought, “maybe hanami dango for Iruka-kun? We still have a bit of the sauce left in the back from cherry blossom season.”
Iruka bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. "That sounds perfect."
Ignorning the shit eating grin on Kotetsu’s face, Izumo smiled sweetly at Shinko. “You know my preferences so well.”
“Great, I’ll bring the order out once it’s ready.”
“Thank you, Shinko-chan.”
Waiting until Shinko was out of earshot, Izumo reached around Iruka and smacked his best friend on the back of the head. “If you don’t stop it, Ko, I’ll turn you into a senbon pin cushion,” he threatened in a low hiss.
"Hey!" Kotetsu whined and clutched his head.
Iruka snorted, unable to hold back his mirth any longer. Inoichi’s soft chuckle joined his much more bombastic laughter. “You’ve all grown into your own these last two years. As your jounin sensei, I couldn’t be prouder.”
Iruka’s face flushed so suddenly, he turned red right up to his ears. A quick glance to either side showed his teammates were every bit as flustered by the sudden praise as he was. “Ah, thank you, sensei.”
“And that’s why,” Inoichi withdrew three application forms from his breast pocket and laid them on the table, “I've nominated all three of you to participate in the upcoming chunin exams.”
The world seemed to stutter to a stop and zero in completely on those three papers. Iruka’s breath caught in his throat, excitement and disbelief warring with the giddy feeling rising in his chest. The genin couldn’t believe his own ears. This couldn't really be happening! Inoichi-sensei had nominated their team for the chunin exams?! He-He really did that?
“Aw yeah!!” Kotetsu threw his hands up in the air with an excited whoop. “Sensei is the best!”
The genin moved together, half vaulting over the table to tackle Inoichi in a messy hug. “Ack, boys!” Inoichi’s arms closed around the three of them, his half-hearted attempts at admonishment lost in a fond chuckle. “Not so loud, we’re in public.”
“We’ll do our best, Inoichi-sensei!” Iruka pushed his face into the jounin's flak jacket, letting his teammates squish him in the middle of the bear hug. He didn’t mind. Being surrounded by his precious people was a wonderful thing.
Ruffling each head of dark hair, Inoichi hugged them tightly but made sure everyone was back in their seats before Shinko brought their dango over. They thanked her politely before digging into their respective orders while Inoichi went over the details of the upcoming exam.
“The chunin exams are being held in Kumogakure this round.” Opening up a small map of the Elemental Nations, Inoichi-sensei pointed out their destination. “We’ll have about a week to make any final preparations before departure. Travel will be with two other nominated genin teams and their sensei. The first leg will be on foot, then by ship the rest of the way.” He traced their course with his finger. “The journey takes several days between The Land of Fire and the Land of Lightning.”
His teammates nodded, all sense of horseplay pushed to the side. Iruka reached for their hands beneath the table. Kotetsu and Izumo automatically laced their fingers together. It would be their first time outside the Land of Fire. As nerve wracking as it was, Iruka couldn’t help the anxious excitement slowly building up inside him. The chunin exams! Their team was trying for chunin rank! Inoichi-sensei clearly thought they were ready or they wouldn’t be taking them.
“Konoha currently has a peace treaty with Kumogakure, but there have been a few skermishes between our shinobi lately. Things are tense. Everyone is expected to be on their best behaviour. You’re representing Konohagakure and Hokage-sama during the exams, always keep this at the forefront of your minds.” Inoichi bit into one of his dango before continuing. “I’ve taken the team off active duty until we return. I want you to use the rest of the week to prepare and rest for the challenges ahead. Are there any questions?”
After a moment of deliberation, all three genin shook their heads.
“Very well, let’s enjoy the rest of our snack, shall we?”
Team Ro slipped into the Hokage’s office via the second-story window to find the ANBU operative Chital had already arrived. The two other members of Kakashi’s new team flanked him on either side as they knelt before the Sandaime Hokage. The promotion to ANBU Captain was still a fresh shock, but he accepted to keep the three of them together -Genma, Tenzo and himself.
The summer, so far, had been… surreal, almost impossibly so. To say he wasn’t the most social of people was a grievous understatement. But that’s exactly what the last two months entailed -interacting with a lot of people. Navigating worried friends, a worried family and whatever this thing between him and Iruka was developing into wasn’t easy.
He was at a loss more than he’d like to admit. Having Gai, Tenzo, Yoshino and Shikamaru crying over him in the hospital made his stomach do weird flips Kakashi hadn’t even begun to analyze yet. Maybe he never would. Some things were best left untouched.
Like the way Iruka looked at him lately.
Kakashi didn't know what to do with how those soft brown eyes made his heart pound.
Recovery fared relatively well with Kito overseeing his healing sessions. Kito Fuma was a medic-nin that specialized in treating ANBU operatives -both physically and mentally. Kakashi had been under Kito’s medical care since shortly after becoming Genma’s ANBU partner. Over the years, Kito built strong rapports with several ANBU operatives, himself included.
Despite his precious people fretting over his fingers, the head injury was what gave Kakashi the most trouble. It took multiple healing sessions over a two week period before he was finally well enough to be discharged into the Naras’ care. It wasn’t ideal but it got him out of the hospital. The lesser of two evils in a vague sense.
Adapting to his new handicap was an ongoing process. Several hand seals proved ineffective with two missing fingers. Shikaku offered invaluable assistance in adapting the Dragon, Ox and Bird hand seals so he could still utilize ninjutsu without much difficulty. For that, he was grateful. Without those three seals, he lost over a third of his arsenal. Once they found something that worked for him, training progressed swiftly. Iruka and Yoshino both helped him practice the altered seals until he could manage on his own.
He wasn’t okay with the loss of his fingers, far from it actually. Kakashi was angry with himself for his own lack of power. When shit hit the proverbial fan, he wasn't strong enough and this was the result. Another constant reminder of his failures as a shinobi. He’d at least done one thing right, he protected his precious people. They came out badly injured, but alive, which was leagues above the alternative-
-Better two fingers gone than two friends dead.
“It seems everyone has arrived, good.” Hiruzen folded his hands atop his desk, which for once was clear of paperwork. “At ease, gentlemen.”
The four ANBU stood, awaiting further instructions. Kakashi’s attention flickered briefly to the oldest operative assembled before their Hokage. Chital was the first ANBU captain he’d ever been placed under. He showed Hound the ropes as a rookie, took him on several missions, and saved his life half a dozen times. If not for this man, hidden so professionally behind his elaborate deer mask, Kakashi would be a dismembered corpse littered across Grass Country.
“I have a mission of the utmost importance for you all.” Taking a deep puff from his pipe, Hiruzen let the smoke billow around him. “In one week’s time, three of our genin teams willl be travelling to Kumogakure to take part in the chunin exams. You are to accompany them. Chital will be commander for this assignment.”
Both his and Genma’s shoulders tensed. It was the only physical indication of the red flags waving in his head. The Sandaime had agreed to let genin participate in the upcoming chunin exams?! In Kumogakure of all places? What was he thinking?
“Hokage-sama, may I speak?” Genma interjected as respectfully as he could. Kakashi could hear the strain in his voice. Still, he was glad his teammate spoke up so he wouldn't have to. Genma was much more tactful than he was.
“What’s on your mind, Kitsune?”
“The peace treaty between Konoha and Kumo is still in place, that true,” Genma began slowly. “However, the relations between our villages are… less than favourable right now. Is sending genin into such a hostile situation a wise decision? The next chunin exams are in Suna six months from now. Surely the teams could use that time to better prepare.”
“Your concerns are valid, Kitsune.” Hiruzen’s dark eyes studied Genma’s porcelian mask with a calm, commanding intent. Beneath that grandfatherly facade was a powerful shinobi who made difficult decisions on a regular basis. “It’s for those very reasons I have not made this decision lightly. Sending genin to participate in the Kumogakure’s chunin exams is a show of good faith from one kage to another. My hope by doing so is that peace can be salvaged.”
Hiruzen raised a hand, cutting off Genma’s protest before it could be voiced. “With that said, I am not so naive as to send Konoha’s children on blind faith alone. Please remove your masks.”
Team Ro completely froze at the request. Chital’s mask turned heavenward with a heavy sigh. For the Hokage to ask an ANBU to remove their mask was almost certainly a one-way trip back to the regular forces. ANBU operatives were anonymous. Their identities remained carefully guarded secrets, even amongst their closest friends. Kakashi could count on one hand those who knew he was the ANBU called Hound.
“No point in dragging out the process, I suppose.” Chital drawled in a resigned manner. Without any fanfare, he pulled the deer-themed mask off and clipped it to his belt. For the first time in four years, Kakashi found himself looking at the bare face of his first ANBU mentour. Ensui Nara managed to look both disgruntled and bored without offending the Sandaime. “Off with the masks, boys.”
Tenzo’s lynx mask shifted ever so slightly in his direction. Seems his adorable kohai was seeking reassurance this was really okay. The kid was still phasing ROOT ideologies from his brain, so Kakashi really couldn’t blame him for the uncertainty. Having Tenzo defer to him or Genma was working out better than his blind assumptions had.
Without a word, he and Genma pulled off their masks with Tenzo quickly following suit.
Seemingly pleased, Hiruzen pulled three folders from the top drawer and slid them across the desk. “These are the nominated teams. I am sending you as a protection detail under the guise of assistant sensei and,” his eyes flickered to Ensui, “familial support.”
"I don't know how much the boy will consider me support." Ensui handed the folders out amongst the other ANBU. “I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting either of my nephews yet.”
The Hokage bowed his head in remourse. “An unfortunate consequence of long-term missions. Please accept my apologies, Ensui.”
“My brother and sister-in-law understand duty, Hokage-sama. No apologies necessary, I was simply doing my job. Are there any more directives for this mission?”
It was only the years of training that let Kakashi keep a neutral expression when he opened the file he was handed. A picture of Iruka’s genin team stared up at him from the information packet. The pieces clicked into place like a carefully laid out puzzle. Iruka, they were talking about Iruka. Which meant the brother Ensui referred to was Shikaku.
“Ah yes, please excuse this sentimental old man.” The Sandaime cleared his throat. “One week from today, you will travel with the genin teams to Bamboo Village in the Land of Steam. From there, a ship will take you to Kumogakure’s exportation port. Once you arrive, join participating teams from other villages and travel the last leg of the journey together. Protect our genin, bring them home safely.”
With an exhasperated sigh, Ensui flipped through one of the folders. “As you wish, Hokage-sama, but I have a request before my team proceeds.”
“What’s that, my boy?”
“Form 36B-AZ, appeal for a non-ANBU special consultant.” Ensui fished a crumpled paper from his pocket. He smoothed it flat before sliding it across the desk to Hiruzen. “I, Ensui Nara, ANBU Captain codename Chital, formally request the addition of tokubetsu jounin Kito Fuma as consulting medical specialist to our team.”
Kakashi caught Genma grinning out of the corner of his eye. Some of the tension in his shoulders loosened at the request. They both knew the addition of Kito to their squad would greatly increase their possibility of survival should the mission go south. Requesting a specialized medical-nin was a smart move on Ensui’s behalf. Kakashi expected nothing less from an experienced ANBU Captain.
Whether Kito would accept the request was another matter.
With his work at the hospital, Kito didn’t take field missions often, even if specifically requested. Genma tilted the genin file he was skimming just enough for Kakashi to snatch a look at the kunoichi’s name. Ah, so Kito’s younger sister, Yurika, was one of the participants. He’d most definitely agree to accompany them if she was at risk.
“Request granted.” Hiruzen inhaled another drag off his pipe. “Now if there’s nothing futher, I want you to take the rest of the week off to prepare. You’ll be gone for roughly three months in total.”