May 2, Yondaime Year 5
The ANBU were talking.
Naruto heard them when they thought he wasn’t listening. They had soft voices and quick gestures but he had good ears, and Turtle-san had taught him some of the hand-signs once. She thought he would forget but he didn’t. He didn’t forget what the ANBU said now, either, when new masks slipped through the windows at shift-changes or caught up in the hallway on the way to preschool.
They talked about his dad, except they called him Yondaime-sama, and about Sagara-san, who was sometimes Hawk and sometimes Sagara-sama. Sagara-san was in Dad’s office today and she’d been there yesterday and the day before, and she’d only come once to Naruto’s room, on the first day, to tell him that Dad was gone for a little while and he needed to be good.
No one but Dad and Kakashi-niisan and Rin-neesan could expect Naruto to be good just because they said so, and Kakashi-niisan was gone right now, too. Rin-neesan came by for dinner once and she didn’t know where they were, either. Sometimes Rin-neesan lied, though, like when she said this wouldn’t hurt a bit and she made you count to three but she stuck the needle in when you were still on two. So he didn’t know.
Sagara-san knew where Dad and Kakashi-niisan were, but she wouldn’t tell. Turtle-san wouldn’t either. Wolf-san got stiff and uncomfortable and told Naruto not to ask questions that they weren’t supposed to answer. But Wolf told Turtle, when they thought Naruto was throwing a fit over the bones in his grilled mackerel, that Yondaime-sama was hunting down traitors and they needed every mask they had right now, so it was a good thing that Crescent Moon’s squad was coming home.
Crescent Moon was Kakashi-niisan’s captain. Kakashi-niisan had drawn all the masks for him in crayon last week so he would know. Naruto took the drawing out that afternoon and looked at it, and they were all there: Crescent Moon, Tanuki, Rat, Hound, Ram. Kakashi was Hound, because he had dog summons. He let Naruto play with them sometimes, although the fat little pug said bad words when Naruto pulled his ears.
Maybe Kakashi-niisan would summon his dogs and they would go find Dad and help him hunt the traitors, whoever they were. Naruto drew a picture of that, although his white crayon didn’t do a very good job on Kakashi’s white armor or Dad’s white coat. Then he remembered that you were never supposed to leave the battle-plans where the enemy might find them, so he tried to burn the drawing in the gas on the stove.
Saya-san found him, and it got very noisy and very smoky. When the ANBU arrived and Saya started to cry, Naruto went away. He didn’t like it the way Saya-san’s face went blotchy and her voice got shrill when she cried, and besides she was too busy sobbing at Wolf to notice when Naruto left. She called Naruto a little devil, too, which only Dad was allowed to say, and only when he was fond.
At first Naruto went up to the roof. You could see a long way from there, all the way to the walls, so he would see if Kakashi-niisan was coming back. But he could still hear Saya-san crying from here: Wolf had come in through the window, and left it open. Naruto began looking for some place where it would be quiet.
He saw the Hokage monument, and the stairs marching in their precise zig-zag up behind the heads. His preschool class had gone up there last week to learn about the Three Dead Hokages and the One Live One, who was Naruto’s dad. ANBU Headquarters were on the plateau behind the Hokages’ heads, but no one was allowed there except the ANBU, and Naruto’s Dad, and Naruto himself once or twice when he was very small. None of the other children in his preschool had even seen an ANBU close up. Their eyes got very big when he bragged.
If no one was allowed in ANBU HQ, it would be quiet there. Saya-san could not come crying after him, and he could find Kakashi-niisan first thing when he got back and explain the battle-plan. It was a good plan, too. Kakashi-niisan would summon his dogs and they would go out to find Dad again, as soon as Kakashi ate dinner. Maybe Naruto would get to ride one of the dogs. They had let him do that before.
He went down the fire-ladder on the back side of the Hokage’s Palace and trotted to the stairs at the base of the shadowing cliff. Saya-san had ceased sobbing, high above, but there was still smoke coming out of the window. That was good, he thought, very pleased with himself. Wolf and Saya would both be busy putting the smoke out, and by the time they found that he was not coloring in his room, he would be riding Kakashi-niisan’s dogs toward glory.
As a general rule, Kakashi didn’t take home trophies from missions. The line between sanctioned assassin and serial killer was already thin and blurred; he didn’t need to dance on it. But he’d also never helped bring down a demon queen before.
Intel was getting the whole head. They wouldn’t miss one tooth.
The slim, cold line of it sat in his pocket for the entire debriefing, pressing subtle guilt against his thigh. He gave his report to a soft-spoken Intel kunoichi with clean hands and clever eyes, who told him exactly nothing about why Konoha had triple the number of guards on the walls, and no Hokage around. Nothing seemed to be on fire, but the village was wire-tense with unexplained stress.
When he’d finished the debrief, he was sent back to Team Six’s office to write it down in triplicate. Raidou still was absent—his time with Intel’s personnel would doubtlessly be much, much longer—but Genma was bent over his desk, and Katsuko was dozing on hers. Likely in pacifist protest against paperwork. Ryouma was a long, dark stretch on the leather sofa, one arm flung over his face. Even after three days of sleeping and boat-riding, he was still shadow-eyed and exhausted. The four hour sprint back to Konoha from the trader-point drop off hadn’t helped him much, either.
Genma glanced up at Kakashi. “Done? How was it?”
“Detailed,” Kakashi rasped, and cleared his dry throat when it clicked. “Did they tell you anything?”
“Nothing. The captain might get an update. There’s water on your desk,” Genma said, flicking a pen towards the corner desk that had, somehow, been designated as Kakashi’s. A bottle of water and a ration bar sat neatly in the middle, the latest addition in Genma’s crusade to stay on top of Kakashi’s blood sugar.
There was an empty wrapper crumpled in Katsuko’s hand, and crumbs scattered across her desk. Next to the couch, two empty soda cans had tipped into their sides, resting next to Ryouma’s abandoned boots.
At least it wasn’t just Kakashi.
He sat, drank, and wrote. Time slipped away like water droplets sliding down a blade, caught up in the details of body count and tactics, and the decisions he’d made in the dark. He put everything on paper, right down to the exact number of executed civilians (eight; five by his hands), because you never knew what Intel would find crucial, and if you couldn’t report it then you shouldn’t have done it.
When he resurfaced, Raidou was back and the clock had jumped two hours. Katsuko was curled up beneath her desk with her head resting on a folded cloak—but someone must have nudged her, because there was a stack of completed paperwork on the crumbs. Genma was still writing. Ryouma had rolled over and buried himself in the couch, face hidden among the cushions.
For a man as attention-demanding as Ryouma, he really didn’t seem to like people watching him sleep.
Kakashi stretched, wincing as his back cracked and every ache and injury stacked up to complain at him. His mouth tasted like candied death; somewhere along the way he’d eaten Genma’s ration bar.
“Captain,” he said.
Raidou glanced around, weariness carved in every line of his face. “Welcome back,” he said, like Kakashi was the one who’d been absent. “Finished?”
“I think so,” Kakashi said.
“Medic checked you out?”
“While I was debriefed.” Which had involved some less than delightful shirtlessness, but at least his shoulders weren’t raw anymore. “Did you get any news?”
Katsuko’s eyes opened, and Genma turned in his chair. Raidou rubbed a hand over his mouth. After an entire mission of masks, it was almost strange to see the team bare-faced again. “A little,” said Raidou. “Someone want to give Tousaki a nudge?”
“Mine,” said Katsuko, scrambling up into her chair. She pushed away from the desk, rolled gently across the floor in a smooth, wheel-squeaking curve, and came to a rest against the couch, where Ryouma was blissfully unaware of his impending trauma. Katsuko studied the peaceful rise and fall of his shoulders. “Aww,” she said. Then she leaned over, poked him hard in the back of the head, and yelled, “WAKE UP PLEASE.”
Ryouma didn’t hit the ceiling, but it was a near thing. He did bolt up on his elbows, displaying more reflexes and coordination than he’d managed since the demon queen had dropped him, and gave the room a wild look.
Katsuko beamed at him.
“Oh,” Ryouma said, and sagged back down. He rubbed his face against the pillows, like a dog trying to groom itself back to wakefulness, and, groaning, hauled himself upright. A bright red mark etched across one cheekbone, and sleep-lines creased his face. He rumpled a hand through his hair. “Everybody finished their paperwork finally?”
Said the man who had no paperwork.
Genma selected a folder from the semi-organized stack on his desk, and held it out with a narrow smile. “I’ve still got plenty left, if you want some.”
Ryouma gave him a sleepy smile. “I can draw stick-figure illustrations for you.”
Genma’s eyebrows pulled together in the first display of visible irritation Kakashi had seen from him, other than the poisoning thing, and he opened his mouth.
“Tousaki,” Raidou said impatiently.
The effect was like a splash of cold water. Ryouma sat up straight, shoulders square, and gave the captain his full attention. Mollified, Genma leaned back in his chair and looked at Raidou. Katsuko, seizing her opportunity, abandoned her chair for a pre-warmed section of sofa and made herself comfortable next to Ryouma.
Kakashi resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “News, taichou?”
“There was an attack,” Raidou said, which effectively knocked any lingering humor out of the room. “Four days ago—the same morning we arrived in Hayama village—there was an attempt on the Daimyou’s life.”
“Which daimyou?” Katsuko demanded. “A lesser lord, or—?”
“The Daimyou,” Raidou said. “At the capital.”
That was—better and worse than Kakashi had been imagining, since he’d first heard Broken Link. His people were safe, but Fire Country clearly wasn’t.
“Why’s Konoha involved?” Ryouma asked. “Was it too big for the Guardian Twelve to handle on their own?”
“I didn’t get the full story. Intel’s keeping a lot under wraps,” Raidou said, sounding just slightly irritated. “But the Guardian Twelve are dead. They might have been involved. On the wrong side.”
“Shit,” Genma said, turning pale. “All of them?”
“Sounds like,” Raidou said. “Did you know someone?”
“The Sandaime’s son was a Guardian,” Kakashi said quietly.
Genma looked steely. “And my friend. We were rookies together. He’s no traitor.”
Katsuko had been listening with blank-faced thoughtfulness, any reaction concealed and contained. “Sarutobi Asuma?” she asked.
Genma nodded. “Asuma’s loyal to Konoha. I’d trust him with my life. Have trusted him, many times.” He looked at Raidou, grim. “You’re sure they all turned traitor?”
“I’m not sure of anything,” Raidou said. “All I got was a two minute update and tossed out the door. I know Yondaime-sama’s at ground zero, the Daimyou and his family are safe, and there’s a crapload of civil unrest that Konoha’s dealing with. Which is why we couldn’t get reinforcements—they’ve all been posted at the worst borders, in case someone gets the bright idea to attack when they think we’re weak.”
Kakashi hadn’t seen Sarutobi Asuma in years, since they’d spent about five minutes in the same academy class and decided mutual dislike was the best solution for everyone. He’d once used an entire afternoon’s genjutsu practice convincing Asuma that every door was about two feet further left than it actually was. Asuma had gotten revenge with some truly hideous stink bombs.
That teacher had been fully justified in hating them, in retrospect.
He couldn’t picture that kid growing up to be a traitor, but that was the thing with traitors: they weren’t obvious. Orochimaru had been the Sandaime’s student, and he’d turned out… less than ideal. But so had the White Fang. Treachery was subjective.
Ryouma leaned forward, elbows braced on his knees. “Civil unrest means they’re gonna be sending the ANBU out, doesn’t it? Gotta crack down on anybody else who thinks now’d be a good time to revolt. Do we still get post-mission leave, or are we back on duty?”
“We’ve got two days free,” Raidou said, with just enough of an edge in his voice to make Kakashi think he’d fought for them. “Should be enough time to rest up and heal, before we get back into training. But consider yourself on-call. Don’t leave the village.”
“I’m not sure I’m going to leave my bed. Well, maybe for coffee.” Ryouma’s cheek dented as he bit the inside, hesitating. “You think it’s going to be a war, again?”
“No,” said Raidou immediately. “You know why? Because screw that. The last one was too hard, and too long, and no one has the resources to do it again. At least not now. Yondaime-sama will hold it together.” He sat up. “In the meantime, the lieutenant and I have paperwork to finish, and then we’re going to the hospital. You too, Ueno; I want that collarbone looked at.”
“Hisa-san,” Katsuko said.
“We’ll check on her, too,” Genma said, with the dead-level calm of the not okay. “Though I doubt she’ll be out of surgery for a while.”
Which would keep Rin and any available medic busy, since Hisa was a medical novelty and everyone would want a slice, Kakashi thought wearily. And Minato was out of the village and gone, dealing with political chaos—and probably some infrastructure damage, if the attack had been as bad as it sounded.
If he’d been gone four days, Kakashi really needed to check on Naruto.
“Permission to be dismissed, captain?” he said.
Raidou was looking at Genma, but his eyes flicked over briefly. “Sure. Go sleep in an actual bed. Take Tousaki with you.”
“If it’s a barracks bed, I doubt we’ll both fit,” Ryouma said, dry.
“My bed’s big enough for three,” Katsuko said, with an unsubtle wink.
Ryouma opened his mouth.
“No,” Raidou said flatly. He pointed at Katsuko. “No. Hatake, get moving before I give you chores.”
“But I didn’t—” Kakashi began, stung.
“Don’t care,” Raidou said. “Tousaki, out. Uneo, since you’re clearly functional again, you can help the lieutenant file his paperwork. That only needs one hand.”
Kakashi expected her to make a wounded sound, but instead she just looked between Raidou and Genma, cleared her throat quietly, and got up. Genma had already turned back to his desk, shoulders tight and pulled together. Katsuko went over to him and stood quietly to one side, shoulders straight, respectful as any soldier waiting for an order.
Layers, Kakashi thought again, and tipped his head at Ryouma.
Silently, Ryouma pulled himself off the sofa, pitched his soda cans in the trash with one hand, and met Kakashi at the door. “Taichou,” he said, saluting. “Lieutenant.”
Raidou nodded. “You did good work this week—both of you.”
Kakashi saluted and slipped out, with Ryouma glowing at his side. When they were halfway down the hall, Ryouma said, “Probably better to get out of here before the Quartermaster shows up to kneecap us, anyway.”
“To kneecap you, maybe,” Kakashi said, secure in the knowledge that he’d managed to keep both his armor and mask intact. “But who hasn’t had that urge?”
“Everybody just wants to bring me down on their level…” Ryouma trailed off into a blissful yawn.
They got lost on the way out of ANBU, which was completely Ryouma’s fault for being distracting. Two wrong turns took them into a maze that ended up deep in the eerie skulks of T&I offices, and another fifteen minutes of back-tracking just trying to find their way out.
When they finally made it outside, it was almost a surprise to find it wasn’t the middle of the night. Instead the sun was high and golden, drifting through a warm afternoon. Down below the stony faces of the Hokage’s Monument, Konoha was bustling.
Kakashi was nearly tempted to lie down on the training field, where the grass was tall, and just soak it up for a while. Home and warmth, where nothing smelled like death.
Well, except for Ryouma.
Showers would probably serve them better, and a bed for Ryouma. Then Kakashi could head down to the Hokage’s palace.
“Which one’s your room?” he asked Ryouma.
“218. Second floor, south-west corner.” He gave Kakashi a sidelong look. “We use the same bathroom.”
“I borrowed your shaving cream last week—Wait.” Ryouma pinched the bridge of his nose with long, calloused fingers, blinking hard, then pulled his hand away and grinned. “You found your sense of humor.”
Kakashi felt his mouth tug sideways. “You can’t prove a thing.” He shoved his hands into his pockets, fingers curling around the demon tooth, and struck out towards the barracks at a pace Ryouma could limp along to. “You do owe me shaving cream, though.”
“Still don’t believe you actually need to shave,” Ryouma said, around a yawn that cracked his jaw. “Bet that’s why you wear the mask. S’okay, I don’t judge you for only having peach-fuzz at eighteen. There’s products for that…”
“You’re right,” Kakashi said, in a voice so dry it could’ve leeched the humidity from the air. “That’s exactly why I wear it.”
Ryouma grinned, satisfied. “Thought so.”
The horseshoe-shaped barracks block loomed over them, three storeys of weathered concrete and windows. Rookies were housed in the north wing, while those veterans who chose to stay at HQ found rooms on the sunnier south. A paved courtyard with benches and new-leafed trees separated the two barracks wings, while gyms, a recreation room, and laundry facilities filled the connecting east wing. Ryouma wondered if they’d let him launder any of his filthy uniform in the communal machines, or if they’d make him burn it far, far away.
“Hey,” he said, “Kakashi. Kinda fell asleep before I got to say it, but—”
“Rasengan no Jutsu!” a high-pitched voice howled, and a tiny yellow-haired child launched itself out of the nearest tree with a flutter of shredded leaves.
Kakashi’s Sharingan eye snapped open. He darted forward, snagging the child out of the air. It resolved into a small boy, getting leggy as he grew out of toddlerhood, with bright blue eyes, scraped knees, and an enormous grin. “Naruto-kun,” Kakashi said blankly. “What are you doing?”
“Ambushing you,” the boy said in delight. He grabbed onto Kakashi’s shoulder-straps and wrapped his legs around Kakashi’s waist. “You were surprised, right? What if I’d been a bad guy, huh?” He tried prying at the buckle of a strap with his fingernail. “What happened to your face? Can I wear this?”
Kakashi freed a hand to close over the boy’s, stopping him from prying the buckle up. “Naruto-kun, where’s your guard? Why are you alone?” Alarm edged his voice.
The boy gave up on the buckle and draped himself over Kakashi’s shoulder. “Dad’s gone,” he said. “He’s been gone four days. And nobody’ll tell me where he is. So you’n me are going to find him, okay? But you can eat dinner first,” he added generously. His nose crinkled; he lifted his head off Kakashi’s shoulder, leaning away from the wild hair that hadn’t seen more than a rough scrub in river-water in three days. “An’ maybe shower. Can I ride Baiji?” Blue eyes found Ryouma, over Kakashi’s shoulder. “You wanna come? Who’re you?”
“Uh,” Ryouma said. “I’m a friend of Kakashi’s. Are you—Kakashi, is this the Hokage’s son?”
“Naruto-kun,” Kakashi said doggedly, as if by clinging to this one point he could tread water in a sea of madness, “did you run away from your guard?”
“Um,” the boy said evasively. “No? I sneaked. Like a ninja!”
Kakashi’s head tilted briefly upwards, as if he were appealing for strength from the cloud-speckled sky. Then he shifted Naruto to one hip, freeing his hands enough to skim through a few seals. A bunshin popped out of a burst of smoke and stood silently waiting, on the verge of flight. Kakashi said, “Where did you get loose? From the palace?”
“There was a fire in the kitchen,” Naruto said, patting vaguely at Kakashi’s hair. “Saya-san yelled a lot and then she cried and Wolf wasn’t paying attention to me, so I went away…”
Ryouma winced in reflexive sympathy. Wolf, he suspected, would not be getting commendations when the Hokage returned home.
Kakashi’s arm curled a little tighter around Naruto, as if he didn’t like the shape of that story. He nodded at the clone. “Saya-san and the Wolf-moron, then. Tell them both he’s safe.”
The clone vanished in a blur of speed, heading around HQ for the edge of the cliff and the Hokage’s palace. Kakashi shifted Naruto up more comfortably on his hip and turned back to Ryouma. His Sharingan eye was closed again, but the grey right eye looked resigned. “Naruto-kun, this is Tousaki-san, the rot ninja I told you about. Tousaki, meet crowbait.”
He’d told the Hokage’s son about Ryouma?
Well, possibly in the sense of I just met the world’s biggest idiot today, but— Still. Ryouma pulled himself together and bent a shallow bow. Naruto ducked his head back, staring wide-eyed. “Can you melt somebody?”
“Now?” Ryouma said, taken aback.
“Kakashi-niisan said you made people-puddles.”
Niisan, Ryouma noted. Older brother. And Kakashi was holding the kid with the ease of long familiarity, lean hip cocked out a little to give the boy a perch, one strong arm bracing the kid’s back. He looked a little wary, the black cloth mask dimpling over his mouth as if he were biting the corner of his lip, but he explained, “From enemies, Naruto-kun. Also sometimes dead pigs. But not random people in the street.”
“Awww,” Naruto said, disappointed, and drooped over Kakashi’s shoulder again. Then he straightened suddenly, and wriggled. “Put me down, niisan!”
Kakashi dropped him. Naruto hit the ground in a childish approximation of a ninja crouch, slapping his palm on the pavement, and yelped. But he gathered himself up in one piece, no blood, and hopped on one foot for a moment to adjust a sandal that had nearly come off while his legs dangled. Then he marched up to Ryouma, kicked him squarely in the shin, spun, and scrambled up Kakashi like a squirrel.
Ryouma’s uniform leg-bindings absorbed most of the blow, but the kid had promise. “Ouch,” he said mildly. “What was that for?”
Naruto bared his teeth like a wild thing. “For punchin’ Kakashi-niisan.”
“I thought we’d decided that you don’t kick people who can melt you into slush,” Kakashi said, tipping his head to look at the boy with his good eye. “Now I really am going to have to dress you in a bucket.”
Naruto squeaked and clung closer. Kakashi’s eye crinkled. “That was a good shot, though. We should work on your follow-through.”
“I thought I recognized your subtle influence,” Ryouma said. “You didn’t commission that act of vengeance? ‘Cause I think you need to pay him if you did. That was at least an A-rank.”
The little boy’s eyes brightened. He swelled up, looking to Kakashi, but Kakashi said only, “It was a kick, and it needs work.” The wild grey head tipped towards the barracks. “Come on, Tousaki. Before a strong breeze blows you down.”
Naruto squirmed around to look over Kakashi’s shoulder as they passed through the locked, reinforced door and into the stairwell. “D’you like frogs?”
“Don’t mind ’em,” Ryouma said. He grinned at the boy. “Good eating on frogs.”
“No,” Naruto said. “You can’t eat them! Gamabunta will be mad. Bunta says— No, wait.” The tiny brow furrowed. “That’s toads. Maybe you can eat frogs. Niisan,” he demanded, twisting around again, “are frogs toads?”
“They’re different,” Kakashi said, opening the door to the second floor. “You can eat frogs that aren’t bright colors. Most toads are poisonous.”
“Right,” Naruto said wisely. He wriggled to look back at Ryouma. “D’you have a summons?”
“Nope,” Ryouma said. “Do you?”
“I will,” Naruto said, puffing up. “Dad’s got toads and Kakashi’s got dogs. I’m going to be the Toad-Dog King.”
“Not if you keep pulling their ears,” Kakashi said, giving Naruto’s own ear a tug. He stopped at the end of the hall, in front of Ryouma’s door, and glanced over. “Got it from here?”
“Yeah,” Ryouma said, digging his key out. He hesitated with his hand on the knob. “Hey—thanks.”
“For what?” Naruto demanded, looking between the two of them. A thread of awe entered his voice. “Did you kill all the bad guys, niisan?”
“We won,” Kakashi said simply. He dropped a hand on Naruto’s head, smoothed the blond spikes down. “Tousaki-san finished the fight, actually. He did well.” He nodded once at Ryouma, as if the praise were nothing at all, and turned to go.
Naruto slid right out of his arms and through the narrow gap of Ryouma’s partly opened door. “Hey!” he said brightly, toeing off his sandals and looking around. “Kakashi-niisan, he’s got a TV!”
Kakashi turned back and leaned one shoulder against Ryouma’s doorjamb, since smacking a hand over his face would take effort and also hurt. “Do you ever get the feeling the universe is just punishing you?”
“Frequently, this week,” Ryouma said. He pushed the door open and leaned against the other side, watching Naruto ping-pong around the tiny apartment in frantic haste to examine everything. “He’s kinda adorable, though. Guess I didn’t expect the Hokage’s son to be this bouncy. You look after him often?”
“Since he was born,” Kakashi said softly.
Or near enough. Nothing but a direct act of god would have separated Minato from his son in those first few desperate days after the Kyuubi, when Konoha smoldered and Kushina’s body was laid to rest. But the war had been less than a year over then; Minato had needed to reforge his village, and drive away the circling wolves. The first time he’d handed his son over, it had been to Kakashi.
Nothing had ever been quite as terrifying as those eight pounds of milk bubbles, blue veins, and unholy screaming.
Ryouma was looking at Kakashi now, instead of the three-and-a-half-year-old pulling out the contents of his bookshelf and scattering them across the floor—lots of movies, no books. “He sure loves you,” Ryouma said, and Kakashi couldn’t quite read the inflection in his voice. Disbelief?
No, something closer cut.
Ryouma hadn’t mentioned family. For the first time, Kakashi wondered if he had any.
“Well, he has poor taste,” Kakashi said. Inside the room, something shattered.
“Oops,” said a tiny voice.
Kakashi closed his eye. “Tell me that wasn’t something expensive.”
“I don’t think I have anything expensive,” Ryouma said, voice fading slightly as he stepped into the apartment. “Nope, not the TV, we’re good. Just a mug. You okay, Naruto-kun? Sorry, must’ve forgot to clean that up when I headed out.”
“S’rry,” Naruto mumbled, sounding—unusually upset.
Saya-san yelled a lot, then she cried.
Kakashi was going to kill that woman. He pushed away from the door and found Naruto staring down at a sea of blue shards, biting his bottom lip. Ryouma had dropped into an unsteady crouch, sweeping fragments into his bare hands, which was just going to get him—
Ryouma shook his hand, droplets of blood beading up along the edge of his thumb. Naruto bolted up like he’d been kicked, yelling, “Bandages!” and ran to a med-kit he’d apparently unearthed in his earlier explorations. He lugged it over, with a roll of bandage bumping and unrolling behind him. Ryouma caught the box with a hasty grab before Naruto accidentally whacked him in the face with it.
Puppies in a basket, Kakashi thought, and went to see if Ryouma had a dustpan and brush.
Surprisingly, he did. Given the film of dust, a previous occupant had probably left it behind. Kakashi liberated it and took care of the murdered crockery while Naruto swathed Ryouma’s entire hand in a roll of bandage, mummifying each finger in its own careful cocoon. He had a little trouble with the final knot, and ordered Ryouma—who seemed mystified but willing—to help.
The final result was a bandage bow, a clean floor, and the return of Naruto’s grin.
“Whew, Naruto-kun,” Ryouma said. “Studying to be a medic-nin already?”
Naruto made a scrunchface of scorn. “Nooo. I’m gonna be Hokage. But Rin-neesan says a Hokage’s gotta know everything.” He surveyed his work and nodded proudly. “Good job, me.”
In his next life, Kakashi thought, maybe he’d herd cats for a living. It would probably be easier. “Will you survive?” he asked Ryouma dryly.
“From now on, I’m comin’ to Naruto-kun for all my medical needs,” Ryouma said, because he was a gigantic, shameless suck-up. He unfolded his legs and scrambled up, heading into the tiny kitchen area to forage through his two cabinets. “I’m afraid I can’t pay you till I get paid, but how’s snacks and juice instead?”
Naruto catapulted into the kitchen like a tiny, sweet-seeking missile, and clambered up onto the counter-top. “Prawn crisps? Ooh, pocky.”
There was limited furniture in Ryouma’s room, just a half-made bed and a weapons chest. If Kakashi sat on either, he probably wasn’t going to get up again any time soon. Even though they’d had the chance to sleep on the boat, constantly waking up to the sound of civilians hadn’t exactly been restful.
“Naruto-kun,” he said. “Tousaki-san has just had a long, hard mission and probably wants to sleep. Why don’t we leave him in peace?”
Naruto’s face fell.
“You weren’t saying that all the times you were kicking me awake,” Ryouma said, and handed Naruto a melon juicebox with a straw already stuck in. “Here, Naruto-kun.”
Naruto accepted the juice mournfully, and looked up at Ryouma with huge blue eyes, practically radiating please don’t kick me out, which, yeah, Kakashi should’ve expected that. Naruto would bond with a fence-post if it looked friendly enough.
Ryouma snorted a half-laugh and leaned hip-shot against the sink, a second box of lychee-flavored juice in hand. A quick flicker of eyes glanced Kakashi’s way.
“If you wanna go get cleaned up, I can look after him a little,” Ryouma said. “We’ll watch a movie or somethin’.”
“Ah—” Kakashi began, which was as far as he got before Naruto exploded into spasms of delight and grabbed Ryouma’s arm, demanding to know what movies he had. Kakashi frowned uncomfortably. “Are you sure? He can be kind of a handful.”
“I can always sit on him,” Ryouma said serenely. He swung Naruto off the counter, using his unbandaged arm; Naruto giggled and clung upside down, using the ANBU arm-guard for a handhold. Ryouma nodded at the pile of videocassettes scattered across the floor. “Go pick one out.”
The juice was already kicking in. Naruto gave a warrior-yell and dropped, flying across the room to grab the first tape that looked shiny. And then a second tape, when it looked shinier. Just deciding would probably keep him distracted for ten minutes.
Ryouma met Kakashi’s eye. “I can look after him for an hour, at least,” he said quietly. “Go take care of yourself.”
Kakashi hesitated, reluctant, but he didn’t really want to take Naruto into the ANBU showers with him, and Naruto left alone in Kakashi’s room was always an adventure that ended in disaster. And, often, explosions.
“I’ll be quick,” he said at last. “Find me if you need anything. Naruto-kun, Tousaki-san is your captain for a bit. Listen to him, okay? I’ll be right back.”
Naruto barely looked up.
Shinobi didn’t dither; they made choices and carried them through. Kakashi nodded at Ryouma, crushed the urge to hover on his doorstep, and left.
Naruto’s final choice for a movie was Revenge of the Blind Swordswoman, which had lots of blood on the cover and no fewer than three people with swords. “I like swords,” he confided as he clambered onto the half-made bed, while Ryouma crouched to turn the TV on. “Kakashi’s got one. It came with his uniform. He showed me.” His stare itched on Ryouma’s spine. “How come you don’t have one?”
“Left it inside a giant bug,” Ryouma said. “I’ve gotta ask the Quartermaster for a new one.” He slid the tape inside the machine and straightened again, wincing at the healing pull in his thigh. “What d’you think my odds are?”
“How much giant?” Naruto asked skeptically.
“Sixty meters long, maybe?” It’d seemed mountain-sized itself, rearing up, but it couldn’t have been more than ten meters tall at its spine; Katsuko had leapt onto its back without assistance, and he’d only needed a boost. The oozing black head they’d brought back was bigger than his room, at any rate.
And very, very classified. Ryouma jerked a guilty glance at the boy sitting on his bed. “And that’s why you don’t go in the Forest of Death until you’re old enough not to get eaten,” he said. “Which snacks did you want?”
“All of them,” Naruto said rapturously. He bounced while the title cards played and Ryouma fetched an armload of the over-sugared, less-perishable packaged snacks he generally kept on hand for those days when his blood sugar was too low for cooking. By the time he’d laid out a generous selection, and fetched Naruto another juice-box, Yukiko was selecting the pattern for her wedding-day kimono, and Naruto was glued to the screen.
He wasn’t a bad movie-watching companion. Asked a lot of questions, sure, but not too many, and he’d accept a mysterious “Wait and see” and hunker down scowling at the screen, as if by sheer force of will he could move the blood-drenched plot along. He tended to yell commands at the characters, but Ryouma did that too. Together they shouted for Yukiko not to trust her fiancé, didn’t she know he was plotting to kill her entire family at the wedding, look out he’s got a knife!
Someone passing in the hall yelled at them to shut up. Ryouma gave the open doorway a cheerful, bandaged finger, and stole one of Naruto’s prawn crisps.
Yukiko survived the slaughter of her clan, but she was left for dead under her father’s corpse with a slash across her eyes that rendered her blind. “Like Kakashi-niisan,” Naruto whispered. “Is that what happened to him?”
Ryouma glanced warily down at the small boy huddled beside him on the bed, round chin resting on scraped knees, skinny arms wrapped around his legs. “What’s he told you?”
“Says it was a present from a friend.” Naruto pulled his gaze away from the screen and squinted up at Ryouma’s dark eyes. “Not from you.”
“Ah,” Ryouma said, “no.” He pointed at the screen. “Look, it’s Evil Bastard!”
“You said a bad word.” Naruto hugged himself in glee.
And now the Hokage would probably have Ryouma’s head for teaching his son to swear. At least he hadn’t let Naruto choose the film with the naked women on the front. Fortunately, Naruto had been rather more interested in the giant snake one of them was wearing coiled around all her strategic bits.
A wandering hermit stumbled across the deserted shambles of the wedding venue and discovered Yukiko weeping blood over her father’s corpse. “Jiraiya-ojiisan!” Naruto declared, delighted. “He’s got a wart!”
Sandals scuffed at the threshold, a moment before Kakashi inquired, “Jiraiya did what?”
Ryouma looked around. Kakashi was stepping out of his sandals in the doorway, holding several covered cafeteria take-out dishes carefully clear. He looked far more comfortable in dark pants and a soft, long-sleeved red tee-shirt. The black cloth mask vanished below the shirt collar, though the faintest ridge beneath the soft fabric over his collarbones hinted at its hem. A strip of black cloth bound around his head in place of the customized hitai’ate hid his Sharingan. His silvery-grey hair fell over his face in a damp curtain; he jerked his head up, tossing it impatiently back.
“You could cut your hair, you know,” Ryouma said mildly, but Naruto was already boiling off the bed and war-dancing around Kakashi’s knees.
“What’d you bring?” he demanded, as if he hadn’t just eaten half the contents of Ryouma’s cupboard. “Is that for me? Have you seen this movie? It’s got swords and a hermit like Jiraiya-ojiisan and everybody’s dead and the girl’s eyes got cut like yours–I’ll find chopsticks, let’s eat!” He skidded into the kitchenette and began enthusiastically banging through all three of the drawers.
Ryouma levered himself up to pause the film. “I take it his caretakers aren’t mounting an assault to recover him?”
Kakashi’s right eye curved in a way that looked just slightly like murder. “My clone dissuaded them. I’ll watch Naruto-kun until I can figure something better out.”
“Yes!” Naruto cheered. He’d found chopsticks, which he tried to twirl like a kunai and promptly dropped all over the floor.
The murder washed out of Kakashi’s eye. He crossed the floor bare-footed and crouched down by Naruto to show him the stack of sealed plastic containers. “One of these is for Tousaki-san. Which one do you think he should have?”
“Oh,” Naruto said, hopping from foot to foot in an agony of indecision. He dropped into a crouch to inspect the dishes, then bolted up again and spun around. “I don’t know,” he wailed. Kakashi put out a hand to stop him before he smacked into the cabinet. Naruto wobbled, recovered, and fixed his startlingly blue eyes on Ryouma. “You like pork,” he accused.
“Uh,” Ryouma said. “I like pretty much anything that isn’t still moving. I’ll take whatever’s left over.”
“No,” Naruto said, in tones that threatened tears or tantrums at any moment. “The guest always gets the best—”
He broke off, eyes widening. “Kakashi-niisan,” he said. “Kakashi-niisan.” He darted to Kakashi’s side, cupped his hand around Kakashi’s ear, and whispered very loudly, “This is Tousaki-san’s room. So am I the guest?”
“You’re an interloper,” Kakashi said. “We both are. And Tousaki-san is recovering, so he needs…?” He trailed off invitingly.
“Healthy food!” Naruto finished, brightening. He crouched over the dishes again, squinting to see through the fogged plastic lids, and then picked one out and came trotting over to hand it to Ryouma, along with a mismatched pair of chopsticks and a scavenged spoon. “Beef curry rice!” he said proudly. “It has vegetables. An’ it’s not fried like the katsudon. What’re you recovering from?”
“Soldier pill overdose and chakra exhaustion,” Ryouma said, with a wary glance at Kakashi. That wasn’t classified, was it? “Then I got sick from something I breathed. I’m mostly better now. I slept about three days in a row. Kakashi helped look after me,” he added, just to see the line of Kakashi’s mouth thin beneath the mask.
“Niisan’s good at looking after people,” Naruto announced. He looked around for a table, saw none, and plopped down cross-legged on the floor to pry the lid off his own bowl of katsudon. “Itadakimasu!”
Kakashi took the last container, which smelled like chicken donburi, and settled down next to the boy. “I don’t look after you,” he said, jostling an elbow into the tiny boastful ribs. “I just point you away from soft targets, like people.” He pointed a chopstick at Ryouma. “And stop making it sound like I bathed your brow under a field of moonlight.”
“You did bathe me,” Ryouma said, amused.
Too late, he remembered the small boy staring avidly up at them. He choked on a bite of potato. “I mean, in a very comradely and efficient way. No moonlight involved.”
“Sometimes niisan takes baths with me,” Naruto said, blue eyes narrowing. “He makes me water dragons.”
“Ah,” Ryouma said, intelligently. “Does he? He must like you a lot more than he likes me.”
Naruto’s ruffled hackles eased. “He does,” he said placidly, and offered Kakashi some of his katsudon.
Of all the things in Kakashi’s life worth arguing over, he’d never anticipated his bathing habits making the cut. Or that Naruto would get jealous over his new teammates.
It was—unexpectedly endearing.
And probably not something to be encouraged, but Minato was the touchstone for manners. Kakashi’s job was truth, baby’s first ninja skills, and to come down like the hammer of god on anyone who looked at Naruto sideways.
“You’re a brat,” he told Naruto, who beamed like that was highest praise. Kakashi picked out a slice of pork cutlet from Naruto’s bowl, adding it to his own, and allowed Naruto to steal some chicken in return.
Ryouma leaned back against the bed, watching them both. “Katsuko would kill to be here,” he said, humor threading his voice.
Kakashi pointed a chopstick at him. “No.”
Too late. Naruto’s tiny face was already lifting like a bloodhound catching a new and interesting smell. “Who’s Katsuko?” he demanded. “Did you moonlight with her, too?”
“I did not—there was no moonlighting,” Kakashi said.
“You did help her shower, though,” Ryouma put in helpfully.
Naruto’s eyes widened. “You showered with a girl?”
Now that he thought about it, Kakashi couldn’t remember why he’d ever been worried about Naruto. Or why he’d wanted Ryouma to survive the mission.
“With a soldier, Naruto-kun,” he said, reaching for sanity. “Kunoichi are soldiers first, women second. And only because she needed help standing up.”
“Oh.” Naruto accepted that and chewed it over, along with a bite of pork. “Did she get hurt? Did you get hurt?” he demanded, full attention focusing on Kakashi like a spotlight. He abandoned his food in a scatter of soggy rice across Ryouma’s floor and clambered into Kakashi’s lap, small hands patting over Kakashi’s chest with fierce worry.
Kakashi snorted. “Even for you, that was late on the mark. I’m fine, Naruto-kun. Hey—” He captured Naruto’s wrists before the boy could lift his shirt up. “I’m okay. Took a couple knocks, nothing serious.”
“You got hit on your face,” Naruto insisted, squirming free. He reached for Kakashi’s mask.
Kakashi caught the inquisitive hand again, harder than he meant to. Flexible bones shifted beneath his grip, and Naruto yelped. Kakashi let go like he’d grabbed a flame, but the damage was done. Naruto pulled back, hand clenched to his chest, eyes huge and—dammit—wet, and then he sucker-punched Kakashi in the chin.
Which, okay, hurt about as much as a paper slap, but Naruto followed it up by bursting into tears, and that was much worse.
Kakashi sighed. “Sorry, Naruto-kun,” he said, and, highly aware Ryouma was still watching them, tugged Naruto gently back, one hand between the narrow shoulderblades.
Naruto crumpled against his chest, dissolving into noisy sobs that couldn’t just be about aching knuckles. Helplessly, Kakashi wrapped one arm around the shaking back, and rumpled his fingers through Naruto’s bright hair.
On the bed, Ryouma picked his dinner up in one hand and raised the other, flicking a two-movement handsign that ended in a curling question: Move out?
They should never have moved in, dammit—
Ryouma caught Kakashi’s wince, and shook his head emphatically, pointing to himself. Oh. He wanted to leave. Or wanted to know if he should. Kakashi shaped a quick sign against Naruto’s back: worse.
Ryouma’s dark eyebrows furrowed. Kakashi gave up on trail-code.
“Don’t make me explain why his shiny new video-dealer cleared house,” Kakashi said, over Naruto’s loud, breathless crying. Naruto was a happy kid, generally, but when he went, he really went. If there was a good reason for the tears, Minato’s standing policy was to apply hugs, hang on for the ride, and attempt a rational discussion in the aftermath. Kakashi had tried ordering Naruto out of a crying fit once, when Naruto had trapped his fingers in a door; Rin had nearly taken his hide off.
If the capital had been hit badly, she’d probably been in the hospital since the beginning, treating whatever injured were being funnelled through Konoha. Minato had been at ground zero since day one.
And Kakashi had been gone for the better part of a week.
They were probably lucky Naruto had only set the kitchen on fire, not the whole village. Or made an escape attempt sooner.
Kakashi tightened his hold, rubbing one hand up and down Naruto’s spine. When the first hiccup broke through, choking a sob into a tight squeak, he gently loosened Naruto’s death-grip and coaxed the boy down into a more comfortable seat, tucked between the open circle of Kakashi’s legs. Naruto cuddled in, getting slime and snot all over Kakashi’s clean shirt, which was still miles better than demon rot. Kakashi leaned down, resting his masked mouth on the top of Naruto’s head.
“I’m sorry, Naruto-kun,” he said quietly.
Naruto hiccuped and sniffled. “I had nightmares,” he said, muffled against Kakashi’s shirt. “You got eaten. An’ only stupid Turtle was there when I woke up.”
“I thought Turtle was your favorite?” Kakashi said.
“Turtle says goodbye when she leaves,” Naruto said, with a kid’s easy ability to flip opinions at speed. “An’ she gets me cereal when we run out. Wolf never does.” He twisted around in Kakashi’s arms, raising a tear-streaked face. “But I’ll trade her if you come instead! You can be my guard since you’re ANBU now, right?”
Argh. He’d known that was going to be an issue.
“We’re just rookie ANBU, Naruto-kun,” Ryouma said from the bed, when Kakashi didn’t have an immediate answer. “You don’t get promoted to Hokage’s Guard until you’ve been in for a long time without messing up.”
Naruto made a sound of great offence. “Niisan doesn’t mess up.”
“But I’m still a rookie,” Kakashi said, which was a sentence that felt odd in his mouth. “And I have to pay my dues first.” He bounced Naruto a little, seeing if he could win a laugh. “Like fighting giant bugs.”
Naruto giggled and clutched at him—victory! “Giant bugs in the Forest of Death!” he said, still a little soggy-sounding. He scrubbed both hands over his face. “Tousaki-san told me. Can I come next time?”
Kakashi raised an eyebrow.
Ryouma winced. “I kinda let it slip when he asked about my sword. Kid doesn’t miss much, does he?”
“It’s like he has ears,” Kakashi said dryly, and poked Naruto in the stomach. “When you can hold a sword without falling over, Naruto-kun, you can go hunting with us.”
Naruto’s eyes narrowed. “Tanto,” he haggled.
“Longsword,” Kakashi countered.
Naruto despaired. “I’ll have to grow forever.” His eyes lit on Ryouma, who was watching proceedings with much less tension in his shoulders now the crying had stopped. “How’d you get tall?”
“I ate all my food,” Ryouma said, amused. “And other people’s.”
Given the curry in Ryouma’s bowl had almost entirely vanished, Kakashi could believe that.
“Oh,” said Naruto. He looked down at the floor, where his plastic container was half-tipped and abandoned. He bit his bottom lip. “I spilled mine.”
Kakashi’s uneaten food was set safely to one side, offering an obvious solution, but he preferred giving Naruto the tools to fix his own problems. And since Ryouma was right there, and Kakashi owed him revenge for that Katsuko-in-the-shower comment…
He tipped his head down level with Naruto’s ear, and whispered, “I’ll distract Tousaki-san, and you liberate his curry. And wipe your face on his shirt, too.”
Naruto’s face lit up with the internal glow of diabolical glee. “Okay!” he whispered back.
Ryouma gave them both a wary look. “What’s going on?”
“Naruto-kun wants me to show you his favorite trick,” Kakashi said. He twisted two quick seals, using Naruto’s body to hide them, and lifted his hand. “Take a look.”
Blinding light blazed like sun-spots between his fingers, casting hard black shadows across the walls. Ryouma flung a hand up over his eyes. “Hey—!”
Whooping like a banshee, Naruto shot across the room and tackled him.
Which, okay, had not quite been the plan, but that worked, too.
Any jounin too slow to evade a shrieking child deserved bruised ribs. Certainly didn’t deserve the rank of jounin, and probably wouldn’t keep it long.
On the other hand, a jounin who refused to play with a laughing kid was a rat bastard.
Ryouma wedged the curry-bowl under his knee and let himself be tackled. Tiny forearm to the ribcage, blond head tucked down, miniature hand grappling for a hold at his side where the front plate of his armor ridged over the connecting side panel. He tipped over obligingly.
Naruto sat on his chest and cheered. Kakashi said, “Shirt, Naruto-kun! Shirt!” Laughter lurked at the back of his voice.
“He’s all over armor,” Naruto said, disappointed. “Wait!” He fisted a hand in the high turtle-collar of the reinforced ANBU shirt, bent double, and wiped his slimy face with relish across Ryouma’s collarbones.
“Gross,” Ryouma said. “You don’t know where I’ve been!”
Naruto straightened, looking skeptical. “Kakashi says that. He says don’t lick anything you find on the street because you don’t know where it’s been. But I got you yucky this time.”
Ryouma huffed in amusement and sat up, tumbling the boy down over his knees. “Kid, you don’t know how yucky I’ve been this week. By this point a little face-slime isn’t gonna bother me.”
He should probably take the reminder to get out of his armor, though. The others had sluiced off in river-water at some point on their three days’ journey, but he’d spent most of his time too tired—or, on the second day, too weak and feverish—to move. This set of armor and underpinnings would probably escape the incinerator, but they were definitely bound for the laundry.
“Here,” he said, flipping the catch on the strap over his right shoulder. “I’ll make you a deal. You help me get out of this, you get the rest of my curry and the pocky I hid under the pillow when you weren’t looking earlier. Where’re you putting it all, anyway? The rate you eat, you ought to be as big as me already.”
“Big enough for a longsword!” Naruto said hopefully, and scrambled up to wrestle with Ryouma’s left shoulder.
“Try the strap, Naruto-kun,” Kakashi said from the floor. He had his bowl of chicken donburi in hand again; half of it was gone. “You’re not supposed to tear it off.”
Naruto’s tongue wedged between his teeth as he fiddled with the heavy, double-reinforced buckle. Ryouma loosened the flexible expanding panels at his sides and then stripped off arm-guards and bicep-length gloves. He’d drawn up a leg to begin unwrapping the complicated shin-bindings when Naruto gave a triumphant yell and the loose strap flapped against his collarbone.
There was a wriggly few moments, greatly hampered by Naruto’s enthusiastic help, but Ryouma slipped out of the armor at last. Naruto immediately tried to crawl inside. “Heavy!” he gasped, as the full weight of the armored vest dragged his shoulders down.
“The weight-training’s built right in,” Kakashi said, sounding amused. He set his empty bowl aside and tugged at the line of the mask over the bridge of his nose, smoothing out a wrinkle. He must have pulled the mask down to eat at some point, but Ryouma’d missed every time. “Do you need rescuing yet?” he offered, glancing up at Ryouma.
“And run up my tab even more?” Ryouma lifted the vest off Naruto and gave him the pouch-heavy utility belt instead, which easily lapped twice around his waist. “I’ve still got two rescues and a shower to catch up on. Plus, what, five very rude awakenings?”
“Six and a half,” Kakashi said. “Counting that time you were actually awake and faking. But you’ve punched me twice now. Actually, Naruto-kun, you owe him a second kick.”
“You can put that on my tab,” Ryouma said, shifting off the bed. He peeled out of his stiff, sweat-stinking shirt and tossed it in the vague direction of the laundry basket. “Besides, you deserved punching both times. I was sleepin’ peacefully, bothering nobody…”
Naruto was staring at him, open-mouthed.
Ryouma realized, belatedly, that decorative tattoos and nipple-piercings probably weren’t the usual accoutrements for the Hokage’s Guard. Wolf and the others likely didn’t regularly get half-naked in front of the Hokage’s son anyway. Even Kakashi had tipped his head sideways, as if he was trying to recall whether or not the glittering dragon coiling over Ryouma’s left pectoral had been there during that abrasively efficient shower in Hayama.
“Told you I was inked,” Ryouma said, scratching pointlessly at the spiky black design swirling up his right forearm. “Toss me that shirt, will you? Any of ’em.”
Kakashi’s head tipped the other way. “Maybe a shower first?”
“It’s shiny,” Naruto breathed. “Is it a dragon? Can I touch it? What’s that?” He reached for the nipple-ring.
Ryouma stepped hastily back, nearly against the TV. “That’s a grownup thing. You don’t get to touch it ’til you’re at least eye-level.” A shower was sounding like a better idea all the time. “Your niisan can explain,” he said heartlessly. “Enjoy the curry.”
He grabbed his shower-bucket from the floor by the bed and his towel from the hook on the door, and made his escape.
Watching Ryouma bolt half-naked through the door like a brand new mountain’s worth of demons had just risen up and gotten fresh with him, was almost worth the price of admission. Outside in the hallway, someone yelped, “Hey!”
“Sorry!” Ryouma called back, voice rapidly dwindling.
Kakashi snickered softly, but Naruto turned huge, slightly wounded eyes on the door. “Did I do something wrong?”
Kakashi pushed stiffly up from the floor, crossed the room, and swept Naruto off the bed, pulling him into a rough hug. “No,” he said firmly. “Tousaki’s just weird. D’you want to sneeze on more of his stuff?”
“I don’t need to sneeze,” Naruto said, disappointed, after trying an experimental sniff.
Kakashi rumpled the bright blond hair. “What do you want to do?”
Naruto thought for a minute. “I’m still hungry,” he said, to Kakashi’s complete lack of surprise. “An’ I want to finish the movie. Is Tousaki-san coming back?”
“I think he’s just gone to take a shower,” Kakashi said.
“But he didn’t take any clean clothes,” Naruto said, with one of those surprising little flashes of observation that made Kakashi wonder about him, sometimes.
“You’re right. Think we should send him some, or let him suffer the consequences of being weird?”
Naruto grinned like a fox. “Suffer,” he said, brightening up with devious glee. “How come he had a dragon on him? Did he draw it?”
“Kind of,” Kakashi said, settling Naruto more comfortably on his hip. “It’s a tattoo. Like an ANBU spiral. You’ve seen those.”
Naruto reached up to trace messy curves over Kakashi’s left arm, following the design hidden beneath the sleeve. “Tousaki-san had one, too. You said it hurt.”
“A little. ANBU tattoos aren’t like regular tattoos, though.” Kakashi bent to collect the abandoned take-out containers on the floor, and tossed them in Ryouma’s trash. The door was still open; he closed it, reflex making him flick the lock. A buried grain of common courtesy made him flick it back. It was Ryouma’s room.
Naruto sighed. “Dragon’s prettier.”
“Yeah?” said Kakashi, distracted as he surveyed the apartment, thinking. “Maybe when you’re older, you can get one on your face.”
Naruto drew a breath of startled wonderment, as if the universe had just unfolded a realm of beautiful possibility in front of him. “Whoa. I want a dragon, too! No—maybe a tiger—or a lightning—” A tiny, pointy elbow jabbed Kakashi in the ribs as Naruto flailed at his own face with both hands, sketching air designs. Then at Kakashi’s face. “You can have a butterfly!”
Kakashi blinked over the forest of excited fingers. “Why a butterfly?”
“So you can be pretty!” Naruto said, as if Kakashi was being a tiny bit dim. “I can be fierce. You can have a butterfly on this side—” one small palm pressed against Kakashi’s unbruised cheek, “an’ a flower on this side, an’ a star on your forehead, an’ then racing stripes…”
One day, Naruto was going to stop thinking that Kakashi being a pretty, pretty princess was the most hilarious thing in the world, but it was not going to be today. Or any time soon. And Kakashi owed Minato so many bruises for that.
“An’ a sparkly frog,” Naruto continued, valiantly trying not to break down into giggles. “And a bow.”
“I’m ignoring you,” Kakashi told him, and unloaded Naruto back onto the bed, bundling him up in Ryouma’s navy blue bedsheets. Naruto squawked and kicked, thrashing about on the bouncing mattress. A hasty constrictor knot fixed the sheets firmly around him and prevented immediate escape; Kakashi left Naruto to figure his way out of that, and eyed the several things in Ryouma’s apartment that offended him.
Some of it was Naruto’s fault: the spilled med-kit, the bookshelf contents still scattered on the floor. But Naruto hadn’t left the old dirty dishes in the sink, or the clothes on the floor, or the clutter of odds and ends on top of Ryouma’s weapons chest, which was not a table. What did Ryouma expect to do if he needed weapons in a hurry? Fling things everywhere?
Kakashi narrowed his eye, and waged brief, efficient war.
When Naruto finally freed himself from the sheets, five or six minutes later, Kakashi greeted him with a bowl of re-warmed curry rice, the TV remote, and a lap to take possession of, because Naruto had opinions about sitting on anything else when he could sit on Kakashi instead.
Which, frankly, Kakashi didn’t mind much.
They made a warm, comfortable tangle on Ryouma’s borrowed bed, Kakashi slouched way down against the wall, with Naruto’s little-boy-weight a solid anchor against the necessity of getting up again. The film was—well, Kakashi doubted its artistic merit, but Naruto actually wiggled in glee at the fountains of red corn syrup flying everywhere, and the slow, dramatic decapitation of one of the several lesser villains, so it had ‘appeals to three-year-olds’ among its limited successes. Kakashi sort of missed Captain Seaweed.
“Feeling better?” he asked Naruto quietly, when the movie reached a lull.
Naruto’s head lolled drowsily back against his shoulder. “We still gotta rescue Dad. I get t’ride Baiji.”
Gently, Kakashi brushed his fingertips over the curve of Naruto’s belly, which was finally starting to lose the roundness of toddlerhood; he splayed his hand flat when Naruto giggled, fingers spread over the slow rise and fall of the delicate, breakable ribcage. “I don’t think your dad needs rescuing,” he said. “Right now, he’s rescuing other people.”
Cue instant wakefulness. “You know?” Naruto demanded jealously. “How come you know? Where is he? When’s he coming back? Can we go help him?”
“The best way we can help him is by staying here and being safe,” Kakashi said, picking his words with care. “Your dad’s not in danger; he’s the strongest ninja in the world. But he’s trying to help a lot of people, which takes time, and he can do it better when he’s not worrying about us.”
Naruto curled into him, movie forgotten. “But I want him.”
“I know,” said Kakashi, pulling Naruto closer and tucking his chin down on the wayward blond hair, because he did know. At Naruto’s age, having your father gone was like having a hole punched in the world. “Me, too.”
Naruto sniffled, just once, and leaned in for a quiet moment while people died in blood-soaked, violent ways on Ryouma’s tiny screen. Kakashi closed his eyes, drifting just a little, but came abruptly back when Naruto said, “D’you think Tousaki-san drowned in the showers? Should we go rescue him?”
Kakashi considered the mental image of Ryouma drowning alone in the showers, and did not find it unlikely. But the man had survived to jounin-level in roughly one piece, which suggested he could weather indoor plumbing unmonitored.
Gently, he poked Naruto in the side. “Tousaki-san’s a decent ninja. I think he can handle it.”
Also, Naruto leaping on Ryouma’s naked back in the spirit of noble rescue was not actually a set of events Kakashi wanted to explain. Though he did wonder, briefly, what that jewel-colored dragon looked like under water. He must have seen it in Hayama when he’d tossed Ryouma into the shower, but he didn’t remember. Keeping Ryouma upright and moving had taken most of his attention.
“Only really bad ninja drown in the shower, huh,” Naruto said drowsily, catching hold of Kakashi’s hand. He made Kakashi splay his fingers wide, and traced curiously over one of the white scars that ran down Kakashi’s index finger. “Next time I wanna shower with you. You can make water dragons fight again.”
There was still water in the sink. Kakashi put his hands together, careful of the small hand between them, and spent a seedling of chakra on three slow seals. Naruto giggled sleepily as the movement of energy tickled his skin. Across the room, a little cloud of soap bubbles rose up and danced, catching glints of light through the window. A dragon at first, twining and graceful, since that was the theme of the afternoon, then a butterfly. It spread delicate bubble-wings and flew across the room to land on Naruto’s nose.
“Now who’s pretty?” Kakashi murmured.
Naruto went cross-eyed staring at the tip of his own nose. Little sun-spots glimmered across his face; refracted light through the butterfly wings. “Not a princess,” he objected. “Dad says him and Mom were both common as dirt. You’re the one with the fancy house, Kakashi-niisan…”
“My mother has the fancy house,” Kakashi corrected softly, and wondered where she was. Not in the village. “I do soldier’s work. You should be a princess, though, since you live in a palace.”
Naruto laughed, lilting and happy. “We can both be pretty princesses. Dad can be the king. An’ Rin-neesan can be the chief minister who makes everybody do what she says….” He slid down a little, pillowing himself more comfortably on Kakashi’s stomach, and poked the butterfly. It popped in a tiny cascade of blue sparks. Naruto made a sad sound.
“Not much different from now,” Kakashi said, amused, and summoned a second butterfly. It flew in slow figure-eights around the ceiling, scattering blue glints over the painted plaster. “Except I’d fall over in a dress.”
The movie was still chewing through its cast in bloody, dramatic chunks. He keyed the volume down, until the soundtrack was a faint background of stringed instruments and the occasional quiet scream.
Naruto shook his head against Kakashi’s stomach—and then kept doing it, turning over to press his face into Kakashi’s shirt, like a pup-summons finding a sensation it enjoyed. Kakashi fought not to laugh as Naruto accidentally tickled him. “No you wouldn’t,” Naruto said, muffled. “Good ninja don’t fall over.”
Tell that to the demon-queen he’d landed on.
Actually, counting the number of times he’d tumbled down inside a mountain, he’d fallen over a lot this week.
In most circumstances, Kakashi liked to be honest with Naruto, but sometimes it was nice to let the shine of hero-worship linger, just a little. “Yeah,” he said, and caught Naruto’s head between his hands, stilling the shirt-rubbing. “Come up here, Naruto-kun.”
Naruto tipped his head, then clambered in a clumsy four-legged scramble up Kakashi’s body, settling on Kakashi’s chest. “Yeah?”
Kakashi eased himself away from the wall, which was putting a crick in his neck, and pulled two of Ryouma’s pillows over, re-settling himself flat. The moment he was properly horizontal, Naruto seized his chance and flopped, draped over Kakashi like a small, tired starfish. Kakashi rubbed his hand down Naruto’s back, and, for the first time in a week, finally felt like he’d stopped running.
“We’re not gonna tell your dad this,” he said. “But I’m glad you made a jailbreak.”
Naruto gave a sleepy snicker and tucked his head against Kakashi’s shoulder, curling his fingers into Kakashi’s shirt. “Imma sneaky ninja, too.” He yawned. “‘m glad you’re back.”
“Me, too,” Kakashi said.
Minato was still mid-crisis, he hadn’t seen Rin yet, Team Six was splintered and problematic, and the second Kakashi closed his eyes, he knew he was going to see civilians dying in the dark. But Naruto was close and safe, and Kakashi mostly didn’t hurt anymore, and somewhere down the hall Ryouma’s biggest issue was pantsless regret, so it wasn’t all bleak.
Though, technically Kakashi was still in the wrong room.
But he was comfortable, and Ryouma owed him some sleep. And at this point, Kakashi didn’t intend to be moved without a crowbar. Hazily, he tipped his chin up and watched the chakra-butterfly dance around the ceiling, listening to the slow rhythm of Naruto’s breathing, and let himself drift.
Ryouma had fully intended to test his theory about the ANBU showers never running out of hot water. Kakashi and Naruto had food to eat, a movie to watch, and awkward questions to answer; they wouldn’t miss him for a half an hour. Or an hour. Two, maybe. He scrubbed until plum-scented soap foam washed away even the memory of demon slime, and then braced himself with a hand against the tiled wall and just let the scalding water pound down, coaxing the knots out of his muscles and rinsing the pain out of bruises. He even let himself doze a little, slowly melting into the steam.
The outer door banged. A man said, amused, “You’re still in here, Tousaki?”
“I’ll be in here when you’re ash on the wind, Hakone,” Ryouma said, without looking around. “Forget to wash behind your ears?”
“Left my razor,” Hakone said easily, lounging into the next stall. “What’s Hatake doing in your room?”
Ryouma sighed, hit the dial, and raked his dripping hair out of his face. “Borrowing my TV. Why, you stopped by for a visit?”
“Passed in the hall,” Hakone said. “The door was open. Was that Yondaime-sama’s kid?”
“Thus the TV,” Ryouma said. He dumped bottles and scrub-brushes into his bath bucket, toed it out of the water-slick stall, and picked up his towel from the bench outside. Hakone was waiting, razor in hand, wet-haired but fully dressed in jounin blues.
“Kakashi’s looking after the kid while Yondaime-sama’s gone,” Ryouma said, stooping to towel his head roughly dry. He slung the damp towel around his hips and met Hakone’s raised brows with his own. “If we’re trading gossip, how come nobody knew you’re the T&I Commander’s son?”
Hakone’s mouth twisted wry. He tipped his head, acknowledging the hit. “Door was closed when I came back, anyway. Your TV must have lost its charm.”
Ryouma flipped him off amiably, gathered up his discarded trousers, his bath-bucket, and the half-roll of bandage he’d peeled off his hand, and headed for the doors. The hall was unpleasantly cool after the steamy showers; the rough carpet scrubbed his feet. He passed Kakashi’s room, three down from his own closed door, and tried to decide if he was disappointed they hadn’t waited.
A little, maybe. Naruto was a cute kid. Kakashi was unexpectedly gentle with him — though, remembering Hayama, Ryouma thought perhaps he might have expected it after all. Kakashi’d been a bastard most of the time, but he’d looked after Ryouma in the clinic and on the boat, and his hands were always warmer than his voice.
Except that time he’d woken Ryouma up with ice. That canceled out at least one of the life-debts, right there.
Maybe Ryouma could get him a fruit-basket or something to pay off the rest. Or save his life a few times. Raidou was building up his own tally, too, with three chakra transfusions and rescue from drowning in demon slime. And the lieutenant had cleared Ryouma’s lungs out when inflammation grew too dangerous, the second day on the boat; that probably counted as life-saving as well. Katsuko, he thought uncomfortably, was the only one who hadn’t saved him already.
Killing the demon queen was probably enough to wipe most of those tallies clean. Except for Kakashi, who’d saved him before there was ever a Team Six to look out for each other.
“Flowers,” he decided, fetching up against his door. “And a fruit basket.” And he wanted to be there to see Kakashi’s face when they delivered it.
The door was latched, but not locked. Ryouma dropped his bucket in the entry-way and pitched his trousers at the overflowing basket by the wall. The light was dim, the TV black. It took him a moment to make sense of the long, lean shape sprawled over his bed, and the tiny yellow-haired puddle on top.
They’d waited, after all.
Fallen asleep waiting, which was bizarrely endearing.
And they’d been busy before that, apparently. Last week’s dishes were clean and out of the sink, drying on the tiny draining board. The clothes he’d left on the floor were piled in the basket, the videos back on their shelf, the armor stacked neatly beside the dusted weapons chest. Even the empty bowl was set carefully in the broad windowsill, where a stray foot couldn’t knock it over.
Kakashi had an arm curled over Naruto’s back, rising and falling lightly with the boy’s deep breaths. His masked chin had slumped to his shoulder; ruffled grey hair hid his good eye. He didn’t look much like a legend, even a teenage one.
He didn’t look much like a bastard, either. He looked mostly like a kid, worn out from looking after the world.
Ryouma could be grateful for the bare feet, now. He stole soundlessly across the carpet to the closet, eased the door open, sorted out trunks and loose knit pants. He was wrestling into a tee-shirt when the bed creaked behind him.
“Tousaki?” Kakashi murmured, blurry-voiced. “Y’smell like flowers.”
“Better than rot,” Ryouma said softly. He tugged his tee-shirt down, closed the closet door, and crossed back to the bedside. Kakashi hadn’t lifted his head; Ryouma couldn’t tell if his eye was open, or if that was merely a gleam of light from the window.
Ryouma said, “Go back to sleep. I’ll clear out for a while.”
Kakashi dragged his free hand up to rub the heel of his palm against his eye. “Mn — what?” His voice was still rough with sleep. “Don’t b’stupid. It’s your apartment.”
“It’s in place of the fruit basket,” Ryouma said. “I might still send the flowers, though. Tulips?”
“Daffodils,” Kakashi said, to Ryouma’s immense delight. Then his brain appeared to catch up with his mouth; he pulled his hand down, and blinked. “What?”
“Explanations cost extra,” Ryouma said smugly. “Daffodils. I’ll remember. Go to sleep, Kakashi. I got three days already. I’ll last a few hours more.”
Kakashi shook his head stubbornly, grey hair fanning on the navy pillow. He slid Naruto off his chest and sat carefully up, then eased the boy down into the warm little nest of blankets and pillows they’d made. “You need sleep, too,” he said. “You’re still building your reserves back up.” He rubbed his face and blinked again, lashes hazy against his pale slice of cheek, as if he were trying to grasp a thought just out of reach. “There was something I was supposed to do.”
Well, if they were going to play this game after all… Ryouma folded his arms. “You forgot to take out the trash.”
Kakashi’s jaw shifted sideways under the mask in the faintest yawn. “I’m having this sudden flashback to childhood,” he said. “Are you about to say you’re not mad, you’re just disappointed?”
Ryouma bit the inside of his cheek. “Impressed, actually,” he said after a moment. “I was pretty sure the dishes’d be growing new life forms when I got back.”
“Oh.” Kakashi rubbed an awkward hand over the back of his neck. “You’re welcome?”
Any minute now they were going to be hugging it out. Ryouma unfolded his arms, scooped the empty curry bowl off the windowsill, and headed for the tiny kitchen nook. “Coffee? Might as well make use of those mugs you cleaned.” And they could probably both use the caffeine, if they were planning to keep this no-sleeping standoff up for long.
Should he be surprised to realize that he hoped they would? Kakashi’d been easy—even fun—to talk to during the Trials, but they’d barely spoken except in verbal spars since then. This Kakashi seemed to have laid his armor down, or at least loosened the buckles. Disarmament didn’t mean much when you could kill with your hands, but—
Hell, it was something, after all.
Kakashi’s nose wrinkled beneath his mask. “Coffee tastes like death. You have tea?”
Something, Ryouma noted wryly, didn’t have to be polite.
“Maybe.” He dug through the cupboard, past canisters of expensive beans he’d been saving for so long they were probably worthless by now, through stray packets of chai blends and cocoa powder and herbal tisanes he’d picked up at one time or another. “Got a basic oolong, if you don’t mind it in a bag.”
The mattress squeaked as Kakashi swung off, but Naruto didn’t stir. Kakashi padded soundlessly across the room to join Ryouma at the counter. “That’s fine,” he said. He slouched hip-shot against the counter, hands sliding into his pockets. “Though I can also just clear out if you want. You’ve probably had your fill of tiny tots time.”
Ryouma hitched one shoulder up. “I don’t mind.” So long as no one was asking him to explain personal piercing choices to a three-year-old. “He’s a cute kid,” he added. “Smart. Stubborn. Some of that Eat this soup or I’ll pour it in your ear is starting to make more sense, now.”
The thin line of Kakashi’s mouth quirked. “Actually, Naruto eats his soup.”
“I eat my soup when I’m properly awake for it. You just kept timing it wrong.” Ryouma passed Kakashi’s mug over and leaned against the counter, waiting for his own coffee. “I’ll buy you dinner sometime, show you how it’s done.”
Add in some daffodils, and he’d have half his debt paid already. And a hell of a laugh, watching Kakashi try to make sense of it all.
Either Kakashi was much more tired than he’d thought, or Ryouma was messing with him. Which, yeah, made sense, since Ryouma was talking about flowers and food and hadn’t kicked Kakashi out, even with a golden chance in front of him.
On the other hand, free dinner.
“All right,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma’s eyes flicked wide, briefly startled—Kakashi awarded himself a point—then his mouth curved in a slow, warm smile. “You promised. You can’t back out later.”
“See, this was a nice moment, then you made it creepy,” Kakashi said.
“You’ve slithered out before,” Ryouma said mildly. “I figured I’d start with promises before we moved to chains.”
“Not any less creepy,” Kakashi said, after a moment.
Ryouma shrugged. “You can always kill me if you get too far out of your comfort zone.”
Man had a point.
“There is that,” Kakashi said, and took a hidden sip of his tea, employing the quick-handed dance of no-face-here. “The team might complain, though, since you’re our glorious bug-zapper.”
Ryouma mouthed glorious bug zapper silently, as if he needed a second go at processing that, or maybe just because Kakashi had called him glorious. Then he said, “Well, there is that. Guess I’ll have to work on refining it to get mosquitos. Make myself indispensable.” He checked on the coffee and poured himself a cup, adding enough sugar to juice a small child into an infinite hyperactive frenzy. Cradling the mug—blue, chipped—between his hands, he leaned against the kitchen wall, and said casually, “Sounds like you’re more or less resigned to Team Six, if you care about them complaining.”
Kakashi tapped ragged fingernails against his own mug—white, also chipped—and looked down at the ripples shivering through his tea. “We survived a mission with a single-handed fight against a demon mother and her literal army of children. I couldn’t kill her; you did. The lieutenant took the demon egg out of that man in a field hospital, alone, while injured.”
Katsuko had torn the demon queen’s eyes out, and turned the tide of the mission with her army of clones. And then there was Raidou, calm and sure no matter what curve came at them; he’d slept less than anyone, and he’d flattened Kakashi into the dirt with his taijutsu.
“I’d be stupid not to see the potential here,” Kakashi said at last.
Ryouma smiled crookedly. “Well, we were kind of trying to impress. I’m sorry you actually missed my fight. It was very dramatic. I made a ten-minute speech and everything.”
“Are you sure ‘dramatic’ is the word you want for that?” Kakashi said.
“You can’t criticize if you weren’t there,” Ryouma said breezily. He sipped his coffee and added, more quietly, “I know it was bad underground. Thanks for what you did. I couldn’t have made it through the queen’s armor in time if you hadn’t given me an opening already.”
Kakashi nodded once, acknowledging that. “I think it was bad everywhere.”
But they’d both seen worse. And would do worse, most likely, in the service of Konoha’s shadow soldiers. Better not to dwell.
“If we’re trading stories, you missed me goosing the demon queen,” he said. He could smile at the memory now, in vicious pride. “That’s got to be one for books, right? Making a mountain-monster run.”
“I think you have to kill somebody famous from another village to make it into the Bingo Book.” Ryouma shifted his coffee into his off-hand and braced the other at the back of his neck, tilting his head back and sideways to crack his neck with a sound like a branch snapping. “Don’t think demons count. Major oversight.”
“Poor planning,” Kakashi agreed. “You should write them a note.”
Ryouma lifted a single, ironic eyebrow.
“Or not,” Kakashi said, remembering. Ryouma was still illiterate, and Kakashi still had no idea how he functioned. “Did someone translate the Bingo Book for you, or did you just look at the pictures?”
Ryouma gave him a flat stare over the rim of his mug. “Bedtime stories. Every night.”
Still a little sensitive about the reading thing, too. Kakashi hadn’t even been trying to insult him that time. “Sorry,” he tried. “Next time we see someone famous from another village, you can get the first shot.”
“Wow,” said Ryouma, with a quick blink. “Okay, that’s better than flowers.”
Apparently ‘sorry’ was super effective with Ryouma. Kakashi would have to remember that. “Why do you keep talking about flowers?” he asked.
“Payment,” Ryouma said, as if that made complete sense. “There was going to be a fruit basket too, but I think I cancelled it out by not kicking you out. I still have to save your life a couple of times, too.” He crossed his free hand over his chest, gripping the opposite biceps, and took a casual sip of his coffee. “Though I could probably make alternate arrangements if you still want the fruit basket.”
Kakashi put his head on one side. “You’re keeping score?”
“Not score,” Ryouma said, nose wrinkling. “More like—whatever people record their debts in. Ledge?”
“Ledger,” Kakashi said.
“Ledger. Right,” Ryouma said, with just enough stress on the word that it sounded like memorization. He grinned, sudden and light, pulling focus away from the slip. “For serious accounting only.”
“I use a points system,” Kakashi admitted.
Ryouma lowered his mug slowly. “Like— You award yourself points in your head? Against other people?”
Put like that, it did sound a little strange. Kakashi shrugged awkwardly. “It’s a system.”
Ryouma’s expression sharpened in rapid suspicion. “What’s my score?”
“Minus thirty,” Kakashi said. “Give or take.”
“I melted a demon monster,” Ryouma said.
“Which got you twenty points,” Kakashi said. “It’s a fair system.”
Ryouma’s dark eyes narrowed. “So I was minus fifty before that. I wasn’t that terrible at Trials.”
“You lost points in training, and for the pre-mission,” Kakashi said, ticking items off on his fingers. “And the post-mission. And for flat-lining yourself.” He was missing something. “And for getting out of paperwork. That’s a permanent minus five.”
Because he was also five at heart, Ryouma retaliated by sticking out his tongue. “You’re just jealous,” he declared, and drained the rest of his coffee, setting the mug down. “You can take another two points off for that. I’m going to eat all the oranges in your fruit basket.”
“The fruit basket that you cancelled?”
Ryouma turned a flat, lethal stare on Kakashi, like a nettled jaguar, then pretended to inspect his fingernails. “I’ll share it with Naruto-kun. We’ll eat it in front of you.”
Kakashi gave himself a point. “Whatever makes you happy, Tousaki. You probably need the vitamins more than I do anyway.”
Ryouma was going to be minus eighty points by the end of this conversation, judging by the smug gleam in Kakashi’s eye. Kakashi probably wore the mask so he could gloat in safety, without provoking his teammates into punching the smirk off his face. Not that they’d hit him, but it’d save him dodging.
But Ryouma’d successfully punched him twice already. He let himself dwell on the warm glow of that thought for a moment, before another one struck. “What’s your score?”
“Three hundred,” Kakashi said instantly, in the most baldfaced lie since Katsuko’d tried to convince them at team practice that if they stood still and let her kick them in the face, it’d somehow make them more awesome. Ryouma raised both eyebrows.
Kakashi’s gaze flicked away. “Seven,” he said.
That— wasn’t what he’d expected. Ryouma picked up his mug again, found it empty, put it down. “Why?”
Well, he hadn’t expected a full confession of childhood inadequacies and teenage self-loathing, either. Not like Sharingan no Kakashi, the Hatake heir and the Hokage’s protégé, would stoop to being tormented by either one. He was enough of a perfectionist that he’d probably just taken off fifty points for fainting in the tattooist’s office and another twenty for letting Ryouma take the demon queen kill.
“So how do I earn points?” Ryouma asked.
Kakashi’s gaze drifted back from whatever middle distance he’d been studying. He cocked his head slightly to the side. “Wit or winning,” he said judiciously. “For you, maybe stick to winning. Demon mother was a good start.”
“I can be witty, too,” Ryouma said, offended. “I’ve made the captain laugh.”
“So does Ueno,” Kakashi pointed out.
Damn, that was true. Though — Raidou’s half-swallowed snicker at Katsuko’s antics wasn’t much like the low rumbling laugh Ryouma remembered from his bedroom six months ago, but he’d been trying to forget that, and it was true that Raidou hadn’t seemed much more than mildly amused since then.
Good lovers were easy enough to come by, even if you didn’t come by one like Raidou very often. Good captains were much rarer. Ryouma’d had one, once, and lost her too.
He poured himself the dregs of the coffeepot and added less sugar this time. “You ever like somebody you shouldn’t?”
Kakashi’s eye widened for a flicker of an instant, then narrowed warily. “You like Ueno?”
“Wha—?” Ryouma set his mug down hurriedly, before he spilled it. “No, she’s got the hots for you. She thinks you’re pretty. No, I meant— Like Hokage-sama, or somebody. He’s hot, right?”
“You like Minato-sensei?” Kakashi said blankly. It might have been blank horror.
“No,” Ryouma said. “I mean, yes, everyone in Konoha likes him, but that wasn’t— It was just a random question, okay. People have those, it’s called having a conversation.”
Kakashi put his mug down with a gentle click. “You like the captain,” he said.
This had never, ever been a good idea. Why hadn’t he remembered Kakashi’s refusal to be distracted once he’d found a scent?
Denial would only draw it out. Ryouma shrugged instead. “No ANBU agent is permitted to fraternize with a senior officer. So there’s not much point whether I like him or not.” He tried a casual sip of his coffee. Bitter.
“Or you could get promoted,” Kakashi pointed out.
Ryouma rolled his eyes. “You’re right, Kakashi. Why didn’t I think of that? Of course I can get promoted to captain in three months, before either of us gets killed or loses interest or hooks up with somebody else, and we can shack up and have cuddly ANBU babies. Look, I didn’t want to know how I can get the captain to like me, I don’t even want him to like me—”
That was half a lie, maybe. Lust was great, he’d take lust every day of the week and twice on the weekend. More than that was dangerous, and he doubted it’d be worth it.
“I just wanted to see if maybe you knew how to kill a crush,” he said, and drained his coffee. “Since you know everything else. Bad topic, obviously. Next time I’ll ask about Kuse no Kuni politics. Or tea. Not to your taste?”
Kakashi glanced down at his abandoned tea and visibly dismissed it. “Did…you and Namiashi actually have a thing?”
Ryouma should have taken that counter-interrogation continuing education course they’d been offering at the Academy last month. Who the hell was stupid enough to think they could just stick to name, rank, and ID number?
Leaving Kakashi to wonder now would only make it worse, though. Ryouma sighed, and leaned against the counter. “Met him in a bar half a year ago. We hooked up once. He was gone when I woke up, I headed out on a mission, I never saw him again. Well, ANBU. I didn’t expect to. We’ve talked about it already, it’s not a problem. Boundaries, y’know.” He scuffed his foot against the shabby floor. “He’s hot, but so’s everybody in ANBU. I should probably just get out more. Or, I dunno…” He gave Kakashi a searching, speculative look. “You’re hot, and I’m not covered in pig-rot anymore. How many points would I have to earn?”
The best defense, after all, was a good offense.
The kitchen counter dug sharply into Kakashi’s lower back.
“Uh,” he said eloquently, before sense reasserted itself. It wasn’t the first time Ryouma had made an overture; their first conversation at Trials had gone to an are you hitting on me? place, before the vice-commander had interrupted. And there’d been the hair-petting thing on the mission, though Kakashi had taken that more as an accidental gesture from a man wanting to know definitively where his teammates were, rather than anything more serious. But Ryouma was flirty in the same way Katsuko was strange; it was carved into their basic personalities, and sometimes it splashed on Kakashi.
Except Katsuko was also flirty, in a glinting-eyed, sharp kind of way, like a weapon unaware of its edges.
She’s got the hots for you. She thinks you’re pretty.
Soap bubbles had better boundaries than Team Six, and Kakashi was not awake enough to see a steady path back to solid ground. He tried, anyway.
“That’d be an unforgivable corruption of the points system,” he said. “Which figures, since you’ve known about it for five minutes. And you’re losing all the good work of your dinner-and-flowers plan.”
Which looked a lot less innocuous now.
Ryouma’s empty coffee mug dangled between long, calloused fingers, a short drop from shattering, and he raised one dark eyebrow. “What, I thought it’d be an upgrade.”
“Sex for life-saving?” Kakashi said, heartbeat tripping. “I guess that’s one way to pay. You were thinking we’d go at it right on the counter here, or head back to the showers? Since the bed is taken.”
Ryouma stared for a moment, dilated pupils blending into the coffee-black rims of his irises; it was almost impossible to tell where the border was. His eyes were just dark, unreadable. Then his mouth firmed decisively. He set his mug down, straightened up, and stepped directly into Kakashi’s personal space, crowding Kakashi against the counter. One broad hand curled around Kakashi’s hip.
“Guess that depends on you,” Ryouma said, low. “D’you top or bottom?”
Kakashi couldn’t actually remember the last time his entire body had gone eep. Probably the first time he’d set foot on an actual battlefield, when it had still been new and terrifying, but the sensation came roaring back now, like a terrible tidal wave. He was fairly certain his hair stood on end. He definitely turned scarlet behind the mask.
“I didn’t—” he said, leaning backwards. “I mean, I don’t—”
Ryouma’s head ducked; his mouth brushed warm against Kakashi’s ear. “I’m flexible.”
Kakashi broke. It was easier to bend space, chakra, and a few laws of physics to put himself on the other side of the room, where he could breathe, than find words underneath the looming press of Ryouma’s body. He wound up against the bookcase, and had to catch a sliding videocassette before it hit the floor. On the bed, Naruto grunted and rolled over, oblivious. Plastic creaked in Kakashi’s grip.
“I don’t sleep with teammates,” he said.
Ryouma’s hands were splayed over the counter, braced around the shape of an absent body. He pulled them easily back, and leaned against the narrow gap of wall next to the fridge, one leg pulled up, foot resting against the wall. A smile licked around the corners of his mouth. “Good policy,” he said, sounding deeply satisfied, like he’d won everything he’d wanted. “Guess I’ll have to go back to Plan A, assuming you ever come within ten feet of me again. I could just pay your restaurant tab.”
He’d been screwing around.
Of course he had.
Kakashi bit down on his first response, and the second, and took a slow breath through his nose. Carefully, he returned the videocassette to its abandoned slot, and pulled the tangled snarl of he-didn’t-even-know-what back underneath his skin, until he could be rational again.
Wit or winning, he’d said. It wasn’t supposed to be kind, it was supposed to sharpen you, and the target you used it against.
Well, now he felt honed.
“That gets you to minus fifteen,” he said. “Well done.”
Ryouma blinked once, eyelashes sooty against his skin, and then his smile relaxed into something more genuine. “Someday I’ll catch up.”
“That would make the captain notice you,” Kakashi said, in case Ryouma thought he’d forgotten.
“Screw you, Hatake,” Ryouma said amiably. He smirked. “Or not. Either way.”
Kakashi was done awarding points; he was still too hot behind his mask, and his pulse hadn’t finished climbing back down from a dull whine. He flipped Ryouma off one-handed and went to the bed, where Naruto had wrapped himself vine-like around one of the navy blue pillows. Kakashi untangled the collection of clinging limbs and lifted Naruto up; immediately, Naruto flung his arms around Kakashi’s neck, and settled down with the obvious intention of drooling comfortably against Kakashi’s collarbone.
That, at least, was familiar.
Kakashi glanced at Ryouma, who was still watching him. “Rest, eat,” Kakashi said. “I’m not nurse-maiding you anymore, so try not to die in your sleep.”
He expected Ryouma to snark at him, but Ryouma’s foot slipped down from the wall, and his expression softened, eyes glancing between Naruto’s rumpled head and Kakashi’s face. Long fingers flicked against the tattoo hidden beneath a t-shirt sleeve, offering back the ANBU salute. “You, too,” Ryouma said.
Some day, Kakashi was going to get used to the razor-fast flipping of emotion that Ryouma was so good at, and maybe even understand it, but today he was just ready to leave. He nodded once, reached the door, and made his escape.
Naruto stayed asleep for the entire short journey back to Kakashi’s room, and barely stirred when Kakashi tucked him back into bed, drawing the shuriken-patterned blanket all the way up under Naruto’s chin. It was still only the middle of the afternoon; the sun was bright behind the blinds, sinking golden and warm towards the evening. But Naruto had the shadow-eyed look about him that suggested he’d been running for four days on bad sleep and high worries, waiting for his people to turn up alive. He’d probably sleep until well after dark, and maybe even through to the morning, if Kakashi was lucky.
If he didn’t have more nightmares about demons.
Which, given the last mission, perhaps Kakashi really needed to pay more attention to Naruto’s dreams.
He shelved the thought and changed into sleepwear, trading the red shirt and black training pants for slouchy sweatpants and a faded, comfortable t-shirt. The black bandage strip unwound easily, freeing the Sharingan; though Kakashi still kept it closed, since he didn’t plan on collapsing at the very end of the mission, after managing to stay upright the whole way through. The mask went last, folded neatly onto the window-ledge next to his potted plant, alarm clock, the framed picture of Team Minato, and the new demon tooth, which gleamed pale in the slotted sunlight. He rubbed both hands over his bare face, feeling out the faintly sore edges of the cheekbone bruise Raidou, Ryouma, and the demon-mother’s armored back had managed to contribute to. Stubble rasped lightly beneath his fingertips; he’d shaved in the shower, but apparently not well.
Another task for tomorrow.
He slipped beneath the covers, pushing Naruto over. It took less then ten seconds for the little body to orbit back towards him, going for the grab-and-cling. Worse than a limpet, but welcome all the same. Tomorrow, he’d see about reinstalling Naruto into his own rooms at the palace. Maybe ANBU would also allow Kakashi to relocate for a day or two, since he’d still be staying within the village, and performing a duty ANBU was supposed to do anyway. He could be on-call just as well at the base of the monument as he could on top of it.
And a day out of Ryouma’s radius wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Kakashi thought once more about hot breath against his ear, a calloused thumb brushing his hipbone, d’you top or bottom?, and yanked a pillow down over his face to drown the embarrassed groan. He fell asleep with the pillow still there, and Naruto’s socked heels kicking him gently in the ribs.
He didn’t dream, about demons or otherwise.