August 4, Yondaime Year 5
Mid-afternoon on Team Six’s third day back saw the last reports filed, the interrogators satisfied, the trash can overflowing with crumpled coffee cups.
Kurenai had disappeared thirty-six hours ago, summoned by her own superiors after finishing her sessions with Yamanaka Inoichi and Hyuuga Mitsu. She’d gotten off light, or maybe just headed to another endless series of small windowless briefing rooms. Ryouma’d drunk three cups of coffee before his headache eased after his own session with Yamanaka, and he still couldn’t remember exactly what had happened.
The sleeplessness didn’t help. They traded off shifts on the battered office sofa, nodded off over their desks, guzzled coffee or Genma’s second-night concoction of soldier-pill-dissolved-in-tea. Kakashi spent a full six hours locked in a room with Sakurai Michiko, chief of Fuuinjutsu Research at the Jutsu Records Office, and reeled out with his eye bloodshot and his hands white with chalk dust. Even Shibata Tomohiro had dropped by, pleasantly soft-spoken with his lipless smile and careless questions, and left Ryouma in a cold sweat that took another hour to dry.
He’d tried to answer all their questions honestly. And if nobody’d asked what happened after he and Kakashi wandered off for a moonlit stroll by the pond… that wasn’t his obligation to volunteer, right?
(Hell, what if Yamanaka’d seen something in his brain-rummaging? He’d have said, right? Someone would have asked.)
But none of the interrogators appeared especially interested in the small moments that happened when nobody was talking to tanuki or pleading with wolf gods or murdering bastard brewers. Strung out on caffeine and chemical adrenaline, Ryouma answered their queries, dictated three increasingly rambling reports, stripped down for yet another full-body physical-and-chakra inspection, and finally fell asleep on the sofa with his shirt still off.
He woke to someone prodding his shoulder. “Up and at ‘em, Tousaki,” Raidou said. He must’ve been trying for some semblance of his old disgusting cheer; he sounded mostly like he’d been gargling rocks. “Sagara wants to see us.”
Ryouma groaned. “Is she going to execute us?”
Genma yawned, finger-combing his hair out of its stress-tousled tangles. “Not if she wants to see us all together. If it were going to be an execution, she’d do it one at a time.”
“Maybe she’ll order you to execute me. Good for discipline.” Ryouma sat up, blinking hard against the sand in his eyes, and looked around for his shirt. “You get to sleep when you’re dead, right?”
Genma shuffled over, sock-footed, and patted Ryouma’s head. “I’d refuse.”
“Knew you loved me,” Ryouma mumbled, lifting his head up into the lieutenant’s hand.
“Mmhmm.” Genma’s long fingers stroked gently through his hair. Then Genma drew a deep breath, dropped his hand, and said in a clearer voice, “Where’s Hatake?”
“Shower,” Raidou said. He raised his voice. “Hurry it up, Hatake!”
Water hissed a moment longer, then cut off. Ryouma rolled off the couch and started hunting for his shirt in earnest.
He found a shirt, in the end, which fit well enough and didn’t smell too dire. Genma fished under a desk for his boots. Raidou was in full uniform already, which just made the rest of them look worse. He tugged Genma’s collar straight, and helped Ryouma with his armor.
Kakashi came out of the tiny office bathroom dressed and armored, with his jutsu-dried hair a thistledown fluff. He dropped a roll of sweat-stained gear into his locker and turned to readjust the set of Ryouma’s wrinkled shirt under his armor. Ryouma couldn’t quite help sniffing his hair. He did try to keep his voice low. “You smell really good.”
“Only because you smell terrible,” Kakashi muttered. His visible skin was maybe a little pink, but it might have been from the shower.
“Should’ve taken a shower when they let me go,” Ryouma agreed. “But it was my turn for the couch.” He tugged at definitely-not-his-shirt again. It itched.
The sooner they got this over with, the sooner he could go home and take a shower. And go to bed.
Or get executed, in which case his borrowed shirt wouldn’t itch anymore, either.
Genma cast around the office again, checking the desks for any last unfiled reports. He came up empty-handed. He blinked blankly down at his own neat pencil-cup for a moment, plucked out a senbon, and then dropped it back down. He crossed back to join Raidou at the door.
Raidou didn’t bother with any last-minute pep talk. He just led them out, Genma at his shoulder and Ryouma at their backs, with Kakashi trailing watchfully behind. Their bootsteps scuffed on the muffling carpet. They took the lift, instead of the stairs. Ryouma almost fell asleep between the first subbasement and the fifth floor.
Sagara-sama’s assistant said, “She’s waiting for you.”
Raidou nodded without looking away from the heavy wooden panel. He squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and opened the door.
This time, Sagara-sama wasn’t barricaded behind the desk. She stood at one of the tall windows, leaning her hip against the sill as she paged through a report. She lifted a hand as the door opened, acknowledging their presence without looking up.
In her timeline, Ryouma thought fuzzily, it’d been more than a month since Team Six had last stood contrite in front of her desk. For them, it’d been just past two weeks. She’d had the carpets cleaned.
Sagara flipped the folder closed and tossed it onto her desk. Silhouetted against the window, her face shadowed and the summer sunlight slicing past her into their eyes, she folded her arms and appraised them. “Team Six. I see you managed to leave the mud behind this time.” Her dark eyes skimmed over Ryouma. “Mostly.”
He resisted the urge to tug at his collar again, and bent his head.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Genma straighten from his bow into straight-backed attention. On Genma’s other side, Raidou said formally, “Commander, you requested to see us?”
Sagara’s gaze flicked to him, and then traveled slowly back to Ryouma and on to Kakashi. “Yes. I understand there’s been some difficulty keeping discipline in the ranks.”
Raidou said nothing.
“Hatake and Tousaki, front and center.” Sagara’s words snapped like a lash, curling around Ryouma’s spine, jerking him forward. He couldn’t see the officers anymore; he couldn’t see Kakashi at his side. He couldn’t look away from the commander’s dark eyes, her scarred cheek, the slow pleasant knife of her voice.
“Do you believe your commanding officers are incompetent?”
Ryouma wet his lips. “No, ma’am.”
Kakashi’s voice echoed his, softer. “No, ma’am.”
Sagara’s gaze bored into Ryouma. “Do you believe you are too important to follow the chain of command?”
“No, ma’am.” His voice came out hoarse. He tried swallowing. His wrinkled shirt itched, maddeningly. He was abruptly sure she knew it wasn’t his, that he’d stolen one of his captain’s shirts off the floor, and that would be the last insubordination that got him kicked out of ANBU, no matter what Raidou said…
He blinked hard. The blazing halo of light around Sagara’s dark shoulders faded as his eyes refocused. He’d nearly faded out on his feet in front of ANBU’s commander, and wouldn’t that be a fine display of discipline.
Maybe there was a reason they hadn’t let Team Six go home to sleep between debriefing sessions, this time. He bit his cheek, dug his nails into his palms, and clung to the final ragged spurt of adrenaline.
Sagara glanced at Kakashi briefly. “I already know your answer.” Her gaze dismissed him and fixed back on Ryouma, piercing, demanding. “Tousaki, where do you see yourself in five years?”
He tasted copper. He thought, distantly, of the third ANBU Trial, and Shibata Tomohiro’s ruined voice: that does make it easier to romanticize a deathwish. Sagara had been there. She’d heard him. If she thought Ryouma still didn’t believe in a future, she could arrange it.
But he’d told Kakashi he wouldn’t sell his death cheap.
He found his voice, somewhere. “On a mission. With a home to come back to.”
Sagara pushed away from the window, circled around to the near side of the desk, and leaned against it. Her eyes were still a hawk’s, sweeping, searching. “No aspirations of command?”
“I couldn’t do the paperwork.” Instinctive babble, but true. “I want to take medic classes. Shiranui-fukuchou has started to teach me.” Was there anything else he could offer? Anything else he was worth?
His nails bit into his palms. “Maybe in five years I’ll be able to catch some stupid kid before he falls. Like my team did for me.”
Sagara’s gaze weighted on him. Sweat trickled down his spine.
“I see.” The commander tapped blunt fingers on her arm. Then she said brusquely, “Indulge me in a thought exercise. If this stupid kid were standing before you, guilty of the same choices you and Hatake made on this mission, what would you do?”
Would the stupid kid have the same reasons? No, that didn’t matter. His own reasons had led him badly astray, dragged Kakashi after him. Reasons didn’t excuse and they didn’t justify. Only results mattered.
And yet— He hadn’t, actually, endangered the mission. He’d broken a promise he hadn’t known about, he’d misled his officers, he’d killed a man with the thin veneer of a commission to cover personal hatred. But Konoha had sent Team Six out to find the Daimyou’s missing sake and reinforce the strength of Fire Country’s long arm, and he’d damn well done that.
He bent his head. “I wouldn’t court martial. The mission was a success. And I wouldn’t suspend the kid from the team. He won’t learn from his officers unless he’s with them.” His mouth was dry; he had stop to work up moisture. “But if he made the same mistakes I did, it’s a failure of trust as well as discipline. So I’d… figure out some punishment that’d teach him both.”
He’d had a jounin captain who’d beat his subordinates bloody, during the War. It hadn’t endeared the captain to his men, or made their obedience any more willing. If Raidou chose to beat him down now, though, he’d take it. He knew he deserved it. But was that trust, or masochism?
He was too tired to think this through. He had to try.
“Discipline’s easier. Deny the self. Physical punishments. Training through the night, cold showers, restricted meals. Take away personal time, or make him ask for orders for it. Maybe that’s the punishment for trust, too. If I have to follow my captain’s orders in — everything, I’ll learn to follow them on the mission too. That’d crush creativity and independent thinking, though…”
“Agreed,” Sagara said.
Surprise beat exhaustion, pulling Ryouma’s head up.
“I’m sure your captain would prefer to spend his free time elsewhere, too,” Sagara continued. Her gaze rested briefly on Raidou, then traveled back. “I think, Tousaki, that your time would be best served by doing something more productive. You said you’re interested in pursuing medical studies? The hospital is always in need of volunteer bodies for healing practice. You’ll donate your time, and your skin, and use the opportunity to observe how the chain of command works in a more… rigorous setting.”
That was supposed to be a punishment?
Healing practice, maybe. But as long as they weren’t vivisecting him, he’d be able to watch, in better conditions than Genma’s hasty battlefield healings. The tanuki had healed most of his scars. He could bear a few more.
He bowed again, low. “Commander.”
Oh good. Another opportunity for Ryouma to torture himself and call it character growth.
Kakashi couldn’t even argue with Sagara’s logic, because it was a better option than the alternative. If the higher ups had actually decided to make Nomiya’s death a punishable offence, he’d rather see Ryouma lightly scarred than… anything else.
He couldn’t believe they were making Nomiya a punishable offense.
Except they weren’t, technically. No one cared about Nomiya. No one had even mentioned his name. It was the circumstances around his death. The risk to the nebulous tanuki deal. The broken rules.
There was a headache above Kakashi’s left eye, like a hot little spear through his skull.
And now Sagara was looking at him.
“Hatake,” she said. “I’ve reviewed your reports. I failed to note any remorse.”
“Commander,” he said. Rank was a useful thing. It didn’t mean yes or no.
“Faced with similar circumstances, am I correct in saying you would take the same actions again?”
Kakashi slow-blinked once. It took a second for him to shape a thought out of exhaustion. “I’d check my commanding officers hadn’t made a clandestine deal first.”
Sagara’s eyes narrowed. “Explain to me why I shouldn’t kick you out of ANBU right now.”
Well. He hadn’t expected this conversation today, but he’d expected it eventually.
“You’d be wasting resources,” he said. “My skills and Team Six’s. We’re already down one member. If you take me out, you’d have to reassign everyone else. ANBU loses a team. If you don’t have immediate placements available for Namiashi, Shiranui, and Tousaki — and I’m doubtful you have a spare captaincy and lieutenancy in your back pocket — then they’re wasted as floaters. You derail Namiashi and Shiranui’s careers, disrupt Tousaki’s training.”
“I could assign a replacement for you,” Sagara said levelly.
“You don’t have one,” Kakashi said. “Or you would have used them to replace Ueno already.”
There was a faint, subtle shift behind Kakashi, as Raidou rebalanced his weight on his heels. Suppressing the desire to wrap his hands around Kakashi’s throat, probably. Genma’s chakra was locked down to a pale, unreadable glimmer. Ryouma’s scent, previously calmer, had taken on a panicky edge again.
“ANBU gets the hardest missions,” Kakashi said. “Half of your agents don’t last beyond a year, two at most. I haven’t refused a mission for Konoha yet.”
Sagara looked at him without expression. “Anything else?”
Kakashi weighed his choices, and elected truth. “Minato-sensei probably wouldn’t let you. For a real reason, yes. Not for this.”
Sagara’s expression still didn’t change. The fingers of her right hand curled gently around the lip of the desk, and for a moment Kakashi wondered if she was going to hit him. If he’d dodge. But she only pushed herself away from the desk, straightening up.
“Actually,” she said, “one of the conditions of your acceptance into ANBU was that Yondaime-sama allow me to treat you exactly the same as any other soldier. You have no protection from your teacher here.”
Minato hadn’t mentioned that, but he wouldn’t have.
Kakashi shrugged. “First two reasons stand.”
“As does your insubordination,” Sagara said. She stepped back behind her desk and sat down, folding her hands on the polished wood surface. “You’re suspended from Team Six’s next mission.”
Kakashi’s head jerked back. The hot spear of pain above his eye flared into a brief, vicious nova that made his Sharingan burn. “What?”
“And prohibited from taking any other missions in the meantime,” Sagara added serenely.
Kakashi was still stuck on the first point. “What?”
Ryouma took a jerky step forward. “Commander, it was my fault—”
Raidou’s hand came down heavily on Ryouma’s shoulder. Ryouma started, half-turning. Raidou’s grip tightened, forestalling movement and words.
Sagara looked past Ryouma as if she hadn’t heard him, to Raidou and Genma. “I trust there are no objections?”
Kakashi turned desperately, and found Raidou glaring at him, hot and furious. Behind him, Genma’s face was a blank mask, lips pressed to a thin white line.
“None, Commander,” Raidou said, through gritted teeth.
Genma made a sound, almost a groan, and Kakashi thought he had an ally, an angle he could work, then Genma said: “I… No, Commander.”
Kakashi jerked back around to face Sagara, scrambling for some kind of argument, and her look of flat disinterest slapped him like an open palm.
“Very good. Tousaki, report to the hospital tomorrow at 0700,” she said. “Dismissed.”
Kakashi made it out of the Commander’s office under his own power. Raidou had to tow Ryouma.
“It’s not fair,” he tried to tell the officers, as the Commander’s secretary closed the office door behind them. “We did the same thing, we should’ve been punished together—” He broke off, rounded on Kakashi. “You asshole, you said you weren’t destroying your own career, you apologized to Taichou, why the hell couldn’t you just bow your head here?”
“Shut the hell up,” Kakashi said, dully.
Ryouma punched him.
Kakashi didn’t even dodge. Ryouma’s fist connected solidly with the point of Kakashi’s jaw, snapping Kakashi’s head back. He staggered against the wall, rebounded, and launched himself at Ryouma with a snarl.
Raidou’s heavy grip wrenched Ryouma’s arm up and behind his back, hauling him out of the way. Genma darted in for a similar armlock on Kakashi. There was a brief moment of twisting, swearing, and eye-blurring pain before Raidou leaned into the pressure and Genma said forcefully, “Stop.”
Doors were opening down the hall. The Commander’s secretary poked his head out, narrow-eyed.
“You weren’t even trying,” Ryouma said.
Kakashi wrenched back from Genma. He touched his jaw with one hand and said viciously, “What about you? Asking for every punishment going, never standing up for yourself. In five years you want a home?”
“Both of you, shut up until we get to our office,” Genma snapped.
They had a full audience now, peering out of offices, gathering around the corner. Ryouma recognized one wispy-bearded man as Kuroda’s assistant, clutching a clipboard.
Raidou shoved Ryouma toward the stairs. Ryouma clamped his jaw and went.
Six flights of stairs was enough to stew anger, but not to cool. Raidou dropped Ryouma’s arm somewhere after the third landing. At the first subbasement, Genma lost a critical distracted moment digging his key out of his pocket. Neither of the officers stood between them.
This time, when Ryouma threw a punch, Kakashi was ready for him. He threw Ryouma through the office door.
They reeled to their feet in the wreckage. Kakashi was fast and savage, but Ryouma knew his reach, his grappling style; Kakashi went for an uki goshi throw and Ryouma countered with tani otoshi. Kakashi diverted from the uchi mata counter straight into a high hip-kick that crashed Ryouma back into the coffee table. Ryouma rolled low instead of launching up, splinters digging into his skin, blood pounding through his skull. He went for Kakashi’s knees, made the takedown, and lifted his head directly into Kakashi’s fist.
Colored lights exploded behind his eyes. He lost the hold. Kakashi rolled, pinned him in the wreckage of the coffee table, and punched him again. The snarl ground down to bone. “Stay down.”
“All you fucking had to do was say you’re fucking sorry!” Ryouma raged at him.
“I’m not sorry!” Kakashi yelled back.
“So now you’re fucking suspended, so what good is that to me?”
He hadn’t meant to say the last two words. They slipped out anyway.
Kakashi fisted his hand in the front of Ryouma’s shirt, yanked his shoulders up from the floor, and slammed him back down. “Fuck you. You wanted me to help. She asked me to help. There are consequences and I’ll take them, I won’t scrape and crawl and beg people to like me afterwards.” His eye glimmered, wet. “Where were you for me, asshole?”
Ryouma opened his mouth and found no words.
Kakashi shoved him down and lurched up, crunching over shards toward the ruined door. Ryouma rolled to his knees. He saw the officers standing there, well back from the blast radius; Raidou looked like a man lightning-struck, while Genma warned back onlookers. Kakashi pushed through them without pausing.
Splinters bit into Ryouma’s knees. He forced himself up. “Kakashi. Kakashi, I’m sorry.”
The crowd in the hall parted and closed again, staring.
I’m not begging, I’m just—
He was on his feet, heading after Kakashi. Shouldering past his officers, past a curious Team Seventeen. “Kakashi, wait for me.”
Kakashi was already gone.
There wasn’t a plan. There was movement, translocation, landing. Feet on a broad branch. A slithering below, something long and chitinous-black, too many legs.
Kakashi flipped a kunai into his hand and dropped.
Centipedes bled purple; it stank like meat and metal.
When he scrubbed a hand over his face, it came away with colors. His head hurt. His jaw hurt, thank you, Ryouma. He pulled his mask down and spat red; he’d bitten the inside of his cheek.
At least that made one thing easy. He spat on his hand, more red, and pulled a scroll out of his belt-pouch. Swiped blood across the old writing, let his chakra unroll, and peeled back the skin of the world, just a little.
Wolf-dogs landed around his feet. Tsuyoshi, grey fur bristled like jagged iron. Hagane, lean and dangerous, with ice-blue eyes. Koseki, pure black from nose to tail. Shinchou, tall and copper, with a bite that could punch through metal. They looked at him, alert and ready.
They didn’t care what he was feeling. They weren’t Kin, with her tender heart, or Pakkun, with his sarcastic intuition. They were weapons, and they wanted targets.
Kakashi spread his senses out like a net, and obliged them.
He lost time for a while.
Air scraped through his throat, raw fumes. The giant stag’s ribcage shuddered and stilled under his knees. Blood soaked into his pants. He wrenched his kodachi back with a slick sound. Hagane scrambled over the stag’s hindquarters, leaving long scratches in its hide, and crouched to tear at its underbelly. Tsuyoshi muscled in next to him. Shinchou released the stag’s throat and shook herself victoriously, spraying blood. Her tongue lolled between red teeth. Koseki limped over to lick at her muzzle.
Kakashi rolled off the deer, slumping down to sit with his back pressed against its heavy spine. It was hot deadweight, sweat-soaked from its desperate flight. It had put up a good fight.
He unwrapped his fingers from the kodachi hilt, only now realizing they were cramping. The blade was… gory. So were his hands. His arms ached; his legs burned. But his mind was quiet.
Behind him, bone crunched.
He was, he noticed distantly, exhausted.
He tipped his head back against the deer’s flank, and wondered how far they’d run from home.
Chakra bumped his.
Kakashi blinked his eye open. Blood cracked on his face. The body against his back was still warm. Koseki was curled up against his thigh like a dark, full-bellied shadow. Shinchou was pressed against his opposite hip, tail tucked up neatly over her nose. Tsuyoshi and Hagane, more aloof, were near his feet. Both of their heads came up, ears pricked.
Not Kakashi’s smartest move, to zone out next to freshly-killed prey. But the predator padding towards them didn’t have theft on its mind.
Late-afternoon light trickled down between the trees, painting Ryouma’s armor green and gold. His face was pale, strained. His eyes were very dark.
“If you’re here to punch me again,” Kakashi said wearily, “be warned, they’ll rip your face off.”
Ryouma stopped a spear-length away. He took in the dogs with a cautious glance. Matted fur, red muzzles, Tsuyoshi’s slicked back ears, but then his eyes found Kakashi and stayed there. “I’m sorry.” His voice was hoarse. “You were right. I should’ve fought for you, not with you.”
Not here for round two, then.
Kakashi was too scraped out for an immediate emotional response. He tipped his chin up, dispassionately studying the tight lines around Ryouma’s eyes. “Why didn’t you?”
“I was scared,” Ryouma said. “I wanted to prove I could be a good subordinate. Especially since the whole issue is whether we can be good subordinates. You were right, about all the reasons you need to stay on the team. But those weren’t the reasons she wanted to hear. And it wouldn’t’ve done any good for me to say ‘em, because she wanted to hear them from you. But I should’ve tried.”
Now he was standing up for himself.
Of course he was.
He was right.
Kakashi thumped his aching head back against the stag’s side, and let his chakra go. The four wolfhounds slipped out of the world, vanishing with a twist of dust. “I didn’t think she’d go that far,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t have pushed her.”
Ryouma hesitated, then walked closer, footsteps soundless on the leaf-litter. He settled on Kakashi’s right side, taking Koseki’s place. Not quite touching. His left eye was reddened, swollen. It’d be blue tomorrow. His cheek had a clotted split over the arch. “I know you’re not sorry,” he said. “You don’t have to be. But you told me already you’d tell the officers next time. You could’ve just said that to Sagara. You still could. We could go back and apologize, and maybe she’d change her mind.”
Kakashi doubted it. You didn’t let up on a pressure point when it finally yielded results.
On the other hand, the thought of Team Six going out without him made him feel physically sick.
Ah. There was the emotion.
He curled forwards, elbows on his knees, face in his hands. “Okay,” he told his fingers. “Just… give me a minute.”
He didn’t look like a minute would be enough.
He didn’t look like anything Ryouma could offer would be enough, but Ryouma had to try.
At the first touch of Ryouma’s fingers on his shoulders, Kakashi shuddered. But he didn’t pull away, and he didn’t summon back the wolves to eat Ryouma’s face. His fingers flattened against his eyesockets. His breath came fast and shallow.
Ryouma wrapped his arms around Kakashi’s bowed torso, put his head down on Kakashi’s shoulder, and held on.
The tense muscles stayed iron-hard. A thin shiver chased through, but it was the flex of a blade pushed to breaking. Kakashi’s shoulders curled tighter in.
He had blood in his hair. He smelled of sweat and iron and the rank musk of the enormous dead stag lying half-eaten behind them. He didn’t fit into Ryouma’s arms, too rigid with armor and bone.
He still belonged there.
“I wasn’t begging,” Ryouma told him. His throat hurt. He tried to swallow past the tightness. “I’ve done that, you’re right about that too. But I don’t need Sagara-sama to like me, I just need her to let me stay.”
Kakashi stirred. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Yeah, well.” It only hurt because it was true. Half-true. “I punched you first.”
Kakashi’s shoulder-blade tilted up against his arm, the faintest shrug. “Even so.”
“Rather have you say it than— than think it and not say it.” Deadweight. Worthless.
I’d cut you out first, before it ever got that far…
He cleared his throat, roughly. “I’ll pull my weight. If I have to bow for it, I will. If I have to go to the hospital and let them cut me open and heal me, I’ll do that, and I’ll learn something from it. But if you get yourself kicked off, there’s no point in it.”
Kakashi pushed back, lifting his head. “She said one mission, not more.”
One mission was bad enough.
If she’d pulled Ryouma off, alone, like that—
“One mission,” he said. He kept his voice almost even. “You could train for a couple days and not get injured. Catch up on your reading. Have dinner with your sensei. Or if you want to go back to Sagara-sama, I’ll go with you.”
Kakashi stared at him. “I said I’d go back. Are you… worried I’m going to do something to myself?”
It would’ve been easy to panic, in those hours he’d spent looking. Ryouma hadn’t let himself. There’d only been the one moment, when he stepped out of the trees and saw the blood—
“I should’ve been more worried about the population of the Forest of Death,” he said. “This is probably the only stag that survived the giant centipedes, and now you’ve eaten it.”
Kakashi blinked, then snorted. The wire-tight muscles eased against Ryouma’s arm. “I didn’t eat it. I just helped… facilitate the eating. Of it.”
Ryouma rubbed his palm down Kakashi’s biceps, smearing clotted gore. “Was that before or after you showered in it?”
“I’d like to see you take down a giant ungulate by hand and still remain daisy-fresh,” Kakashi said.
That was a joke, almost. And he was leaning in to Ryouma’s hand, his biceps hard but not tense beneath the skin. Ryouma trailed his fingertips back up to Kakashi’s shoulder. “Are you gonna be okay?”
“Ask me again, after I talk to Sagara.” Kakashi grimaced. “I should take a shower first.”
“We can go back to barracks.” Ryouma didn’t move. Kakashi wasn’t pulling away, yet. “I should get a uniform that fits.”
Kakashi sighed. He planted his hand on the ground and clambered stiffly to his feet. Ryouma’s arm dropped, reluctantly. Kakashi stood looking down for a moment. Then he extended a gloved hand.
His grip was bloody, shaky, but strong. Muscle flexed across his back and shoulders as he pulled Ryouma up. He didn’t step back, or drop Ryouma’s hand.
Blood dried in a reddish-brown spray across the side of his face, nearly black on the mask. If he was bruising from Ryouma’s fist, the mask concealed it. His eye was heavy-lidded and shadow-girded, a thousand years old.
Ryouma reached up slowly with his free hand, brushing the sweat-stiff hair away from Kakashi’s brow. Kakashi’s eye tracked the move; he didn’t pull away. Ryouma tilted his chin up and pressed his lips to Kakashi’s forehead, to the only patch of skin the mask and eyepatch left bare.
Kakashi’s stillness turned frozen.
Ryouma pulled back. “I’m—”
He stopped. Kakashi was still there, just as close, leaning in. Armor bumped armor with a muffled chink. Kakashi dropped Ryouma’s hand and slid his arms around Ryouma’s back, locking them together. His forehead tipped down. He tucked his cold, bloody, masked face against the base of Ryouma’s throat.
Ryouma drew a slow, unsteady breath.
Kakashi’s masked lips brushed his skin. “Want to take a shower with me?”
He lost the breath. “Yes.”
They didn’t have sex. They were both too tired. And the ANBU shower-room, even though it was empty, and even though it had private stalls with doors that locked, wasn’t a smart place to risk it.
Kakashi stripped methodically, including his mask, but they left the lights off, and he ducked his face down and away. Ryouma didn’t try to look at him. The glimmer of early evening light through the high slit-windows was just enough to make the shadows soft and blue, and smudge the details.
He didn’t feel entirely tethered to his own body. He focused on little things. The chipped edge of a white tile. Dingey grout. Hot water sluicing down on his head, turning everything steel and red for a while. Blood swirled down the drain.
Broad, cautious hands worked soap through his hair and smoothed down the nape of his neck, lingering on skin that had recently carried scars. It unwound something in him, that careful touch. It shouldn’t have, killer hands right next to his vertebrae. He leaned back, and his shoulderblades met Ryouma’s chest.
“How’d you find me?” Kakashi asked.
“I ran for a while. Trying everywhere I thought you might be. Barracks, training field, Palace roof…” Ryouma cleared his throat. “I met your friend Rin outside the Palace. She said you used to go to Training Field 44 sometimes. Killing giant centipedes did sound like something you’d do, so I headed over. I heard the dogs after a while, and then I found your chakra.”
Kakashi winced. “Rin?”
“I didn’t tell her what happened,” Ryouma said quickly. “Just that I screwed up and said something that upset you, and I needed to apologize.”
Kakashi resigned himself to answering for another item on the list of Things Rin Would Want To Discuss in the next few days. It was becoming lengthy.
Hopefully no one would tell her about the broken door.
Ryouma’s nails scraped apologetically over his scalp. Kakashi set the problem aside, something to fix tomorrow, and focused on the important thing: Ryouma, as tired and mad and burned out as he’d been, had spent the afternoon searching for Kakashi, to apologize.
More than anything else, that soothed the betrayed little sting of getting sucker-punched in the hallway.
“Turn around,” he said.
He washed Ryouma’s hair, careful and only a little awkward. They both scrubbed up properly after that, Ryouma getting rid of sweat and grime, Kakashi shedding worse. It was still strange to touch his body and find it smooth. Ryouma seemed to be having the same realization, judging by the way he kept stopping to poke his own skin.
Clean clothes made the world a more settled place. Kakashi put a fresh mask on. Only then did Ryouma look at his face, and, very carefully, touch the bruised edge of Kakashi’s jaw. Kakashi brushed his thumb over the swollen corner of Ryouma’s eye. The skin was hot.
“Sure you want to come with me for this?” Kakashi asked.
“Yes,” Ryouma said firmly. He dropped his hand, fingers curling warm and brief around Kakashi’s wrist, before he let go and went to the door.
Kakashi blinked, rubbed his wrist with his other hand, and followed.
Sagara’s secretary was not pleased to see them. “She’s busy.”
“We’ll wait,” Kakashi said.
The secretary rolled his eyes and resumed frowning at a closely-scripted scroll. Reading upside-down, Kakashi thought he made out the kanji for desert, before the man caught him looking. The secretary glared and hiked the scroll upright, presenting Kakashi with its blank back.
Kakashi settled into parade rest against the opposite wall. Ryouma stood at his side, tall and good-smelling, still slightly damp from the shower. His hair gleamed like black glass. Kakashi focused his attention on Sagara’s door, studying the woodgrain.
The evening rolled in, and the sun finished going down. Stark fluorescent lights made the low-pile carpet exceptionally grey. The secretary’s pen scratched. Ryouma’s eyelids drooped. Kakashi’s headache, slightly abated by the hot shower, returned with teeth.
They waited some more.
The secretary cracked his knuckles one by one, then stretched his arms above his head, popping his vertebrae. Kakashi wondered how he’d gotten this job. Transfer from Intel? He seemed to have all his limbs. Ryouma’s head dipped; he jerked back upright with a surprised snort, and yawned. The secretary raised an eyebrow.
Didn’t Sagara go home at some point?
The door clicked. “Naofumi, I need the—” Sagara paused, one hand on the door handle, and regarded the pair on her doorstep. She did not seem especially surprised to see them.
“Agents Hatake and Tousaki would like to bother you,” the secretary said. “I explained you were busy.”
“I see,” Sagara said. “I need the topographical maps for Nagaiakai Valley. Hatake, can this wait until morning?”
“It can,” Kakashi said reluctantly.
She looked at him again, like a scalpel. Then sighed. “Five minutes. Naofumi, I’d like a tea as well, please. Something warm.”
“Of course,” he said, standing to lock everything securely in his desk. His brow was wrinkled. Looking at the tired lines pinching Sagara’s eyes, Kakashi thought it might be concern. The secretary hurried away.
“In,” Sagara said, with a brusque jerk of her chin.
They followed her back into the office. The overhead lights were turned off. Instead, a lamp cast a warm pool of light over her desk, illuminating the scattered sea of paperwork. A plate of half-eaten senbei had been shoved to one side and forgotten.
Sagara sat down and made a go ahead gesture.
Kakashi had not expected to get the floor so quickly. He’d not expected to get in the door. He fumbled, unprepared.
“Hatake, if you don’t have anything to say, I have work to do—”
“I apologize.” He bowed, straight-backed. “I was insolent. My behaviour was insubordinate and unacceptable.”
Silence filtered through the room.
When Sagara finally spoke, her voice was measured — but in a careful way that suggested it might be papering over surprise. “Your apology is accepted. Is there anything else?”
Kakashi closed his eye. He’d known coming back wouldn’t make a difference, but he’d hoped—
“No, ma’am.” He straightened up. “Thank you for your time.”
Sagara had her chin cupped in her hand, fingers fanned over her hard jawline. The lamplight picked out the silver in her hair, and the jagged scar down her cheek. “You have nothing else to say?”
He bit the inside of his lip. “Would it make a difference?”
“No.” Her eyes weren’t cold, but they weren’t forgiving either. “You need to learn humility. Better to do it now, while you’re still young enough for it to stick.”
Kakashi felt himself flush, sick-hot. He dropped his gaze to her desk. Piles of reports were stacked like monoliths, waiting for attention. Lives, deaths, missions — two-hundred soldiers, funneled through this one woman. Minato had hand-picked her, and Kakashi had sworn himself to him. And to her.
You’ll obey your captain’s orders, you’ll support your teammates, and you’ll damn well get along with them on-mission and off. There are no lone wolves in ANBU.
He felt Sagara’s eyes on him, like a hand pressing down on his head. He nodded, mute.
“Commander. Respectfully,” Ryouma said. “Ka— Agent Hatake did apologize to Namiashi-taichou and Shiranui-fukuchou, in the field, for breaking the chain of command. He followed orders exactingly, all the way home. And he’s a vital part of Team Six. We wouldn’t have recovered the lieutenant without him. We wouldn’t have come home from Ibaragashi, or maybe even Kiri. We need him on the team.”
Kakashi was tired. That’s why the carpet was blurring.
“I’m aware,” Sagara said. “Your commanding officers were extremely detailed in their reports. We might be having a different conversation tonight, if they weren’t.”
Ryouma swallowed, but tried again. “Isn’t there something— more productive, like you ordered for me? Instead of pulling him.”
Kakashi looked up.
“I’m sure there is,” Sagara said. “But I’ll be frank with you, Tousaki. I don’t have the time or the energy to spend thinking it up. And more to the point — Hatake, when was the last time you didn’t have something to do? Excluding time off for injuries.”
Kakashi stared at her. “Uh.”
Sagara waited a beat, then one more, and looked satisfied. “Exactly. You want to be in ANBU, I suggest you devote some time into thinking about why. Humbly. Now both of you get out of my office. You look like death.”
Somehow, Kakashi managed a salute. Before he had quite turned, Sagara said, “Tousaki, one more thing.”
“You were well-spoken tonight. Keep it up.” She made a flicking gesture with her fingers. Now shoo.
Ryouma’s ears turned pink. “Commander,” he said, voice gone raspy. He didn’t quite trip on his way out the door.
Naofumi was waiting impatiently in the hallway, a steaming cup in one hand, a sheaf of papers in the other. “Finally,” he snapped, and elbowed past them, shutting the door with a sharp click.
Back in the hallway, fluorescent lights stabbed Kakashi in the eye. He rubbed his face, making red dots crowd his vision, and had nothing. Thoughts, energy, plans. He was out. He wanted—
He just wanted.
Ryouma smelled like warm leaves and old storms, happiness and disappointment. Kakashi tilted his chin, looking up at Ryouma’s face. Sagara was right, he did look like death. Purple hollows under his eyes, worse on the left, with its rising bruise; lips bitten and chapped; cheekbones standing out too sharp, crosshatched on one side with that scabbed cut. None of them had eaten enough, these past few days.
He could have gone home hours ago.
Kakashi said, “Thank you. For trying.”
“I’m sorry it didn’t work.” Ryouma scrubbed a hand through his hair. His fingers curled in overlong strands, tugging hard. “Well-spoken. What does that even mean? If she didn’t agree— Should we have come with ideas? She didn’t like mine before.”
“She likes loyalty,” Kakashi said.
“You’re loyal,” Ryouma said. He paused. “Are you going to… talk to Hokage-sama?”
“And say what, my commander was mean to me, make it better?” Kakashi sighed. “She’s right.”
“Maybe about resting, at least.” Ryouma stretched a careful arm around Kakashi’s shoulders. There was no one in the hall to see, this time. He wondered what the officers had done about the shattered office door, decided he’d wait till tomorrow to pay the price for that, too. “Let’s get back to barracks.”
Kakashi leaned into him for a moment. He slotted comfortably against Ryouma’s side, his shoulder fitting snugly under Ryouma’s, his hair brushing Ryouma’s chin, fluffy-soft. Armor creaked. A door opened and closed again, in the Commander’s inner office.
“Okay,” Kakashi said, finally. He eased free and headed for the stairs.
They emerged from HQ under a soft purple sky. Stars glinted to the north, where the reflected glow of villages lights couldn’t drown them. There were a few uniformed or civvie-clad agents drifting between cafeteria and barracks, playing knife-toss in the barracks courtyard, bickering over a chou-han dice game. Kakashi cut past them all.
The echoing stairwell. The long hall. Ryouma’s door, at the south-west corner. Kakashi had left him here, after that night at Embers.
Ryouma said, “Do you want to come in?”
Kakashi’s head tilted up. His skin was translucent-pale, his lashes heavy over his grey eye. “How do you have the energy?”
“I didn’t mean sex.” Ryouma’s ears heated again. “I just— You can go if you want. It’s okay. But we fit all right in the tent together. If you don’t want to be alone…”
That sounded even worse.
Kakashi stepped close. His forehead thumped gently against the base of Ryouma’s throat, above the armor plating, and rested there. “I was joking,” he mumbled. “I want to stay.”
“Oh.” He should probably think of something more encouraging than that. “Good.”
Kakashi laughed, softly, into Ryouma’s throat.
Somehow Ryouma unlocked the door. They took their boots off, and no one fell down. They unbuckled armor, shed belts, unwrapped leg bindings and kunai holsters. Ryouma tossed the chestplates onto his weapons chest. Kakashi collected the discarded belt-pouches and piled them by the door. He wavered, straightening.
Ryouma caught his elbow. “Do you want anything to eat? Water?”
Kakashi’s brow scrunched. “Painkillers.”
He wasn’t injured; Ryouma would have seen that. “Headache?”
Kakashi nodded, and winced.
Ryouma got the med-kit from the lowest level of the video-shelf, and juice boxes from the cabinet over the kitchen sink. “Electrolytes,” he explained, when Kakashi slung him a side-eye. “Two pills or three?”
Kakashi squinted at the bottle, reading the label. “Three.”
Ryouma shook them out and passed them over. Kakashi’s hand was cold. Ryouma stumbled over a brief urge to chafe it, warm it up. He gave Kakashi the juice box instead, and took refuge in his own.
Genma said this brand was the best for nutrients and electrolytes, more than just fake fruit flavoring and sugar. It tasted salty to Ryouma, with a faint iron tang. Better than soldier pills. He gulped it down, tossed the crumpled box in the trash, and went over to triage the disaster of his bed.
He’d left the sheets pulled up, at least, but they were musty after more than a month away. He stripped them down, bundled them into the laundry hamper, and rummaged out the only other set. Kakashi had finished his juice box and pills and now leaned hipshot against the sink, mask pulled back up to the bridge of his nose, watching him.
“I’m about to demonstrate my most recently acquired jutsu,” Ryouma told him. “Dangerous technique. Not to be tried by amateurs.”
Interest sharpened in Kakashi’s eye. “Go on.”
“A-rank at least,” Ryouma warned him, and made the bed.
He changed the pillowcases, even, and tucked in the sheets against the wall. It was a warm night; he swapped the duvet out for his lighter blanket, and folded the duvet at the foot. It tried to draw him in. He wrestled his way free of temptation and into the bathroom. “I’ve got a spare toothbrush. Do you need anything else?”
Barefoot, Kakashi moved without sound. He squeezed into the tiny bathroom and leaned into Ryoma’s back, one hand snagging loosely on the belt loop at Ryouma’s hip. His voice came muffled. “What else is there?”
“Um.” Ryouma stared at his bruises in the mirror and tried to think. It was harder than it should have been, with exhaustion clogging his brain and Kakashi’s narrow, solid weight against his back. “Pajamas?” He hated sleeping clothed at home, safe in his own bed, but one night wouldn’t kill him. “I have clean tee-shirts. Probably.” He stuck his toothbrush in his mouth before it could lead him any further astray.
Kakashi made an inquisitive sound, like a curious cat, and padded back into the room. A drawer opened, then another. Cloth rustled. Kakashi returned, visible past Ryouma’s shoulder in the bathroom mirror. He was wearing an age-softened Shuriken Force tee-shirt and a pair of clean dark boxers. The mask disappeared beneath the ragged collar of the shirt, which hung a little loose on the shoulders and long in the waist.
Ryouma put his hand down on the bathroom sink, steadying.
Kakashi’s head bumped against his nape again. A yawn lengthened his words. “Are you minty-fresh yet?”
“A’mst.” Ryouma ducked his head, spat, rinsed. Splashed his face with cold water, which didn’t really help. The cut over his cheekbone stung.
He tried to turn. There wasn’t much room in the narrow closet. “Toothbrush’s here. Toothpaste. Floss, if you’ve got the energy.” He was all right as long as he kept his gaze above Kakashi’s collarbones, he decided. The mask was familiar, safe. Kakashi looked half-asleep anyway. “I’ll, uh, I’ll take the wall.”
Kakashi eased around him, fluid as water, and gently hip-checked Ryouma away from the sink. Ryouma went to find clothes he wouldn’t strangle himself in.
The ANBU uniform was endurable, in the field; high-collared but close-fitting, with enough rigidity in the fabric that the shirt wouldn’t roll up or the arm-holes constrict. At home, in blankets and without a breeze, it would suffocate. Ryouma peeled out of shirt and pants; reconsidered the pants; found a pair of loose knits that at least weren’t reinforced over knee and thigh. He was still debating the relative drawbacks of tank versus tee-shirt when Kakashi came out of the bathroom, sprawled entirely across the bed, and stole both pillows.
His back made a long sinuous line across the dull blue blanket. Porcelain-pale legs, an artist’s glory in muscle and tendon. The overhead light caught harshly in his hair, on the crimson tail of his tattoo. Ryouma reached out sideways, didn’t immediately find the light switch, and didn’t dare move.
A vague groan rose from the nest of pillows. The grey head flopped sideways. Kakashi peeled his eye open. “Are you voluntarily putting on extra clothes?”
Ryouma swallowed. “Would you be okay if I didn’t?”
Who would say no?
Well, lesbians probably. Straight men. Asexuals, unless they had an aesthetic appreciation… Kakashi pulled his slipping attention back. The sweatpants were well-loved; the frayed waistband just about clung to Ryouma’s hips. His upper body was long and lean, solid in the shoulders, narrow at the waist. The dragon tattoo was a curling splash of color, inked jaws open threateningly around the silver nipple ring.
If Kakashi hadn’t been quite so bludgeoned, he might have been inspired to try… something he’d probably feel nervous about later, curious about now. Exhaustion was good for some things.
“I’d be shocked down to my boots,” he said, flexing his bare feet. “Come over here and comfort me before I expire.”
Relief, and the smile that came with it, made Ryouma’s face young. He stepped away from the dresser, took a brief detour to turn off the light, and came over to sit on the bed. The springs went glink. Kakashi rolled slightly, as gravity pulled him downhill, and landed against Ryouma’s hip.
“Do you want to get in bed?” Ryouma asked.
“Ngh, effort.” Kakashi wrapped an arm around Ryouma’s waist and pressed his face against a warm, solid swell of thigh muscle. “This’s good.”
Ryouma’s hand settled on his head, broad palm fitting easily over the curve of bone. His fingers slid through Kakashi’s hair. “I dunno know why I thought you were standoffish.”
“S’very good facade,” Kakashi murmured, eye closing. His head still ached, but it was less now. “Practiced.”
“Glad you’re not practicing anymore with me,” Ryouma said, low. He tugged at Kakashi’s shoulder. “Come on, up. Just once more.”
Kakashi whined — effectively, he’d practiced that too — but Ryouma bullied him unmercifully, until Kakashi scraped himself up, the blanket and sheet were flipped down, and he could fall over again. Despite Ryouma’s intentions, Kakashi stole the side closest to the wall. And the pillows. Out of a lifetime of habit, he palmed the kunai he’d slipped into his waistband and tucked it between the mattress and frame.
Ryouma slid in carefully, stretched out on his side, and drew the blanket up. He propped his head on his arm, studying Kakashi with half-closed eyes. The bed wasn’t wide (or designed for two people), but Ryouma kept a careful strip of space between them, as if he were trying to toe some invisible line.
It was a concerning universe when Kakashi was more comfortable with physical intimacy.
Though, thinking about it, Ryouma was generally pretty hesitant about initiating touch with Kakashi. (Instances of face-punching aside.) Except for a few moments, some of them today, Ryouma never reached out without an explicit invitation first.
Kakashi reached down, groping in the dark, found Ryouma’s free hand, and pulled it up, putting it meaningfully in his hair.
Ryouma blinked at him.
“Petting,” Kakashi said. “Thing you should do.”
Ryouma laughed helplessly. His fingers tucked a strand of Kakashi’s hair back, then another. He nestled down in the blankets, retrieving one of the pillows for himself, which Kakashi grumpily allowed. He kept stroking, a steady, soothing rhythm; his aim was a little off, finding Kakashi’s ear, cheek, or forehead half the time, but always gentle. Kakashi sank into the mattress, muscles unwinding, thoughts drifting. There was tension in his belly because there always was, pressed up tight under his lungs, but it was distant. Something that could wait until morning.
“You knew Sagara wouldn’t change her mind, didn’t you?” Ryouma said softly.
“Mm?” Kakashi rubbed his face into the pillow. It smelled like laundry soap and Ryouma, clean and masculine. “Yeah.”
Strong fingers curled into his hair, holding his head still a moment, then released. Kakashi shivered a little, in a sleepy, pleasant way. Ryouma resumed petting. “And you went anyway.” His voice faded even softer. “Why?”
“There was a chance,” Kakashi said, tucking his head down. “An’ you asked me to.”
Ryouma was silent. His hand kept stroking Kakashi’s hair. Kakashi’s eye slid closed.
“It’ll be okay,” Ryouma murmured. “You’ll be okay. One mission. You can read. I’ll bring the officers home. We’ll be okay.”
He wasn’t asking this time. Just telling, and hoping.
Kakashi made a vague sound of agreement, and curled closer. Ryouma didn’t back up. Kakashi tucked his face against Ryouma’s bare chest, slipped one arm around Ryouma’s waist, palm flattened over the slope of spine, and tangled their legs together. He knew he was being clingy, and he didn’t care. Ryouma’s breath hitched. Kakashi exhaled slowly, warm between mask and skin.
“M’sorry,” he said, quiet in the dark.
Ryouma’s hand stilled again, cupped over the crown of Kakashi’s head. He pressed his mouth to Kakashi’s hair. “Me, too.”
Tomorrow would be awful. The next few weeks would be awful.
But right now wasn’t so bad.
“G’to sleep,” he mumbled.
For once, he listened to his own advice.