August 9 – 15, Yondaime Year 5
Team Six left. Kakashi didn’t.
He watched them go, vanishing into the deep blue shadows under Shodai’s trees, and thought about following them. Just to the edge of the forest.
Even in the privacy of his own head, that sounded pathetic.
He turned around and slipped back into the village.
Catch up on your reading, Ryouma had suggested. Train for a couple days. Have dinner with your sensei.
It was 0330. Minato was asleep. There was nothing he wanted to read.
Actually, no, there was one thing. But Sagara would have opinions about him breaking into ANBU HQ and stealing mission briefs.
So Kakashi did what he always did when he wasn’t sure what to do: went to the Stone.
Training Field Three was dark and empty. He focused chakra into his eye, making the contrast sharper. The little memorial crouched at one end, just shy of a grove of trees, and Kakashi had the same thought he always did: the Stone was too small for what it was. It came up to his waist, just about, and the names were starting to get crowded. They’d need to add a second slab soon. Or maybe they’d just get a bigger rock and transcribe everything.
Kakashi said, “Hi, Deadlast.”
Obito said nothing back, because he was dead. He was also fourteen and easily embarrassed, so Kakashi couldn’t tell him about Ryouma. Or about Nomiya, because it would make Obito cry.
There wasn’t much Kakashi could tell Obito about lately.
It was strange, in his brain, how Obito was more fragile than Naruto. Kakashi could tell Naruto about death, so long as he edited a little. But Obito was a boy frozen in glass, never getting older. Naruto, one third Obito’s age, was so much more somehow. And Kakashi needed to set this train of thought aside, before he made himself hollow.
“My last mission had tanuki,” he said.
There was no one around for a kilometer. Kakashi settled down in the grass and told Obito the funny bits, which mostly involved testicles.
Dawn brought Rin.
“I thought I’d find you here,” she said, behind him.
Kakashi tilted his head, looking at her upside down. Firm chin, tip of a nose, thick brown braid curled over her collarbone. She was wearing civilian clothes instead of her medical uniform. Her shirt was dark purple and soft, cut high on her throat.
“Day off?” he asked.
Her smile was wistful. “No, but my first surgery isn’t until 0600, so I came to see a friend.”
About an hour window, then. If he leaned back, he could rest against her legs. He considered the impulse, her reaction. Ryouma was making him clingy.
“I was telling Obito about my last mission,” he said. “The good bits.”
She sat down next to him. Not quite touching, but he could feel the warmth of her shoulder. Sunrise filtered soft watercolors over her face, gold and pink.
“I got suspended.” He looked down at his fingertips. He’d ripped up a grass stem at some point. The bruised blade dyed his skin green. “That wasn’t one of the good bits.”
Silence. Rin’s gaze was a weight on the side of his face. He thought she might be surprised, but it was hard to tell if it was because he’d done something suspension-worthy in his first four months of ANBU, or that he’d volunteered the information without pulled fingernails.
“I heard,” she said, which answered that question. “Nakamura-sensei has a niece in ANBU, you know.“
Had he known that? His brain felt cluttered. The name twanged a string he could chase, but it didn’t seem all that important.
“Is that why your teammate was running around looking for you the other day?” Rin asked.
That was important.
Kakashi looked at her, weighing different futures. He could tell her about Ryouma, everything about Ryouma, it would help to talk to someone, but she was Rin. And they were them. And he’d already done too much damage. Her friendship was a fragile gift, one he didn’t want to break twice.
He looked down again, drew a shallow breath, and chose a middle road. “We had a fight. About the suspension. I was a smartass to Sagara. Tousaki thought I should have apologized sooner, and then I was a smartass to him.”
He reached up and pulled his mask down.
The air around Rin went icy.
His jaw looked as bruised as it felt, then.
“I hit him back,” he said, before she could threaten murder. “Harder. And went to sulk in the woods. Which is why he found you.”
A flicker passed over Rin’s face, a shadow underwater. It had been more than a year—more than two?—since he’d taken his mask down around her, and he was determinedly not thinking about it. The wind was hot-cold-naked against his mouth. Her eyes swept down, quick, cataloguing, professional. A green-glowing hand lifted, settled against his skin. He barely felt the warmth of a healing; her chakra control was too precise.
“He said he wanted to find you to apologize,” she said. “Did he?”
“He did.” Kakashi studied the distant tree line and thought not-face things. Chasing down that stag with three wolves and instincts where a mind should have been. Ryouma’s pulse beating fast-fast-faster in his throat, against Kakashi’s skin. “Came with me when I went back and apologized to Sagara, too.”
Rin’s approving smile was a little dangerous, as if she’d only just decided to let Ryouma live. The light faded out of her palm. She gave his healed jaw a final, fond pat, sharp without cloth to mute it, and pulled back. Her voice was laconic. “I’m glad you’re learning to use your words.”
He pulled his mask back up and breathed, rawness blunted, edges smoothed back down. His mouth was warm again. His pulse didn’t feel like it might peel out of his chest.
He gave Rin an irritated look. “I use words.”
She laughed at him, like he’d known she would. “I’m glad you like your team. And if they’ve put up with you for this long, they must like you too.” Because she knew him back, she added, “And if you’ve put up with them for this long, they must be good. So you don’t need to worry.”
Flippant came to mind. I’m not worried. Or cruel. Sakumo was good. Kushina was good. Or silence, one of his best weapons, to let her know that her insight wasn’t welcome.
He found himself saying, “How do you stop?”
It wasn’t a fair question, but just for a moment he thought she might know anyway. Her laughter faded. “I haven’t,” she said, with something that might have been wistful, might have been sad, but was mostly resigned. Practical, in its heart, like she was. “You haven’t helped, what with always collapsing after missions.”
Kakashi opened his mouth to protest, but couldn’t find an argument fast enough.
“But I can’t be there with you, so all I can do is have faith that you’ll come back home,” she said, more quietly. “And be ready to put you back together when you do.”
He closed his mouth.
Silence settled between them. He looked down at his hands again, smudgy-green, scarred, electric in the bones. At Rin’s, meticulously clean, knuckles reddened from preoperative scrubbing, cradling more sleeping chakra than Kakashi could ever hold. Killer, healer, neither one of them quite in balance.
He said, “Do you miss leaving the village?”
Her gaze turned inward. “Sometimes,” she said, after a moment. “I was useful in the field.”
He couldn’t count how many lives she’d saved during the war. He doubted she could, either. There were ninja walking around today with hands and faces and spines because of Rin. The Uchiha still refused to let her leave.
It was part of the deal they’d all struck, after the war ended, to keep the Uchiha from taking Obito’s eye back. Rin and her abilities stayed home, in Konoha’s heartland, where defenses were strongest. Where no other village could steal her. Once the Hyuuga had gotten on board, even Minato couldn’t win that fight.
Rin gave herself a little shake, rallying. Her eyes brightened. “But here, I have surgical equipment and sterile facilities. And minions. Did Minato-sensei tell you that my team and I worked on Hajime-taichou’s hip, after Hikouto?” Her smile was genuine, excited. “I couldn’t have done anything like that in the field.”
Kakashi couldn’t help the corner of his mouth ticking up. “He told me. I saw Hajime back on duty yesterday. He looks good.”
Rin glowed. “My minions do good work. One of them, Kiyose Kanako, is only a chuunin, but she makes the best heat-stabilization seals I’ve ever seen. And I haven’t made any of them cry with the amount of reading I’ve given.”
“Of course you give your minions homework,” Kakashi said.
“Homework weeds out the weak,” she said sagely.
Kakashi made a sound of dry amusement that curled Rin’s mouth. “You haven’t asked me about tanuki healing yet.”
She stared at him. He fought the urge to shift under her attention. It wasn’t like he never shared information. He was just… often busy. Elsewhere.
“Well, since you’re offering,” she said at last. With increasing speed and excitement, she began to throw questions at him. “What can you tell me? I know you didn’t have your chakra, but did the tanuki use seals? Or specific techniques? He healed the nerve damage from the burn wound on your hip.”
Kakashi volleyed answers back with all the details he could recall. Himself’s tail-brush trick, sweeping damage away without heat or pain. The almost insulting ease with which he’d rewritten Kakashi and Ryouma’s war records in whole, healed flesh. Not only erasing scars, but restoring the missing chunk of Ryouma’s ear from nothing. The precise control. The lack of exhaustion afterwards, as if Himself had never even needed to touch their chakra.
He rolled up his sleeve, showing the demarcation at his elbow between scarred and not-scarred. The line could have been drawn by a ruler. One scar was half obliterated, starting in a deep silver valley and ending in nothing.
He did not tell her about the incriminating marks that had prompted the healing in the first place. It was not relevant to her interests.
Small, strong hands circled his arm, one above the elbow and one below it. He felt her chakra wash over his skin and sink in. At first a clear, separate presence. Then filtering deeper, winnowing down to an interior level too small and complex for him to follow. It just felt like his arm again, a little warmer. He knew if he looked with Obito’s eye, he’d see himself glowing like an activated seal, but his senses were fooled. Rin knew how to slip past a body’s defenses.
“It’s almost as though the damage has been reversed, not healed,” she said slowly. “There’s no sign of remodelling.” From recent study with Ryouma, Kakashi knew that was an actual medical term for the last stage of bone-healing, rather than, say, a suggestion that she was looking for a modern extension grafted onto his skeleton. Her fingers moved, light on his arm. Her eyes were dark and awed. “I don’t think even Tsunade-sama could achieve something like this.”
Little hairs prickled on the back of Kakashi’s neck.
Rin released his arm, as if suddenly aware she’d been touching him more than their usual, and sat back. She vented a sigh of thwarted academic longing. “Now I regret letting your friend go so quickly. I should have bartered information on your location for a chance to examine his ear.”
Kakashi caught a twitch before it betrayed him. It was… strange to hear Ryouma described as ‘your friend’. He wasn’t sure if that was because he didn’t have friends, outside of Rin. Or because the description wasn’t quite right.
He didn’t have a better word in its place.
He said, “When—” if, “Tousaki gets home, I’ll drag him over. You can poke both his ears.”
Rin’s laugh was startling, and in hearing it now, bright and warm, he realized how long it had been since he’d last heard it. The night Naruto had summoned his first chakra, and… he couldn’t remember when, before that.
“Sure,” she said, pulling him back. Amusement still strung through her voice. “You can stand guard in case he tries to run.”
“Tousaki? He won’t run,” Kakashi said. “Praise him and bring a coffee. You’ll have to kick him out.”
“Apply compliments and caffeine until docile,” Rin said, like she was taking notes for a study. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
They sat together after that, watching the sunrise colors slip out of the sky until it was nothing but blue. Kakashi didn’t lean. Rin didn’t touch him again. Her chakra was a mellow warmth against his senses, lapping calm like an ocean, never betraying how deep its currents ran.
Eventually, her watch chimed. She sighed, stood with a stretch that cracked at least three vertebrae, and laid one hand on the weathered stone. “Thanks for spending the morning with me,” she said, and Kakashi knew she was talking to both of them.
He lifted his hitai-ate, even knowing the scar still sometimes made her sad, and smiled with both eyes. As always, Obito cried, hot and undignified down Kakashi’s cheek until the mask wicked it away. Rin’s smile wobbled, but held.
She left on silent feet, still a shinobi. Kakashi didn’t watch her go. She didn’t turn back.
Morning continued to happen.
Kakashi considered this rude, but the universe had yet to ask his opinion about the passage of time. He stretched creakily, easing the slouching ache out of his spine, and contemplated what to do with himself.
You want to be in ANBU, Sagara had said. I suggest you devote some time to figuring out why.
Kakashi thought about it. And stopped, when his thoughts skittered to uncomfortable places.
Breakfast. That was a thing to do.
He ran a hand over the top of the stone, calluses catching against weathered edges, and left.
He did not get breakfast.
He meant to, but he passed by A Likely Story and lost an hour looking at books. Four Seas still wasn’t in. Kakashi was slowly, bitterly resigning himself to the fact that he’d never know if gentleman thief Nozomi survived pitching himself overboard for love of a shapeshifting merman.
“Stopped dyeing your hair?” Tanabata-san asked him, interrupting Kakashi’s considering squint at a lurid cover garnished by limber people in various stages of undress. “I rather liked the brown. It made you look younger.”
“I’m embracing my grey,” he told her, without edge, because she was a kindly harmless civilian and he’d already offended the other two booksellers in town.
She nodded. “Sensible. Also cheaper. Were you interested in that one? Imada-san has a couple of other volumes you might like, if you’re looking for romance.”
Kakashi looked at the book in his hands, then shook his head and put it back on the shelf. “Do you have anything about sex?”
He hadn’t actually realized he was going to say that until the words were already out of his mouth, and then it was too late.
Tanabata-san, longtime purveyor of Icha Icha and all its friends, just looked thoughtful. “Fictional or instructional? Actually, never mind, must be instructional. I know you know where the fictional is.”
Kakashi opened his mouth, closed it.
She bustled off to the other side of the store, where nonfictional offerings huddled together in mutual terror of the rest of the store, and where Kakashi could have just looked if he’d had a milligram of brain cells to rub together. She waved encouragingly at him. “Come, come, it’s okay.”
He trailed after her, thankful that the store was otherwise empty, and found himself presented to a tiny section of shelves tucked between mother-and-baby and mental health. Tanabata-san made a little flourishing gesture. “Ta-dah. Let me know if you don’t find what you’re looking for. Chances are, I’ll be able to order something.”
She withdrew — with thankfully minimal eye twinkling — and left him to it.
Kakashi regarded the shelves. There were three of them. The first one seemed to be aimed at younger teenagers. He squinted at a green spine that said, in soothingly rounded kanji, Your Body and You. Morbid curiosity compelled him to pick it up. Ten absorbing minutes later, he said, “Huh” and put it back down.
He’d graduated before reaching the academy’s version of sex ed, but his mother had subjected him to an excruciatingly factual lecture around his ninth birthday, and Minato had done his laughable best to demonstrate proper shaving etiquette. There was also the time Kushina had gotten drunk and delivered an impressive and extended rant — which was where Kakashi had learned the kanji for ‘squirting’, among other things — and Rin had almost died from embarrassment.
Still, it seemed he had gaps.
He picked up It’s Perfectly Normal next, charmed by the name. The cover was eggshell blue with yellow kanji. It seemed to be aimed at an even younger audience, or at least started there, but the index included ‘Chapter Fifteen: Back and Forth, Up and Down, New and Changing Feelings’ and Kakashi found himself flipping pages.
The feelings and thoughts you may have about other people and their bodies can make you feel very excited. Some people call this ‘feeling sexy’.
Kakashi’s bark of laughter made Tanabata-san drop a pencil.
He put It’s Perfectly Normal aside on a chair, where it was quickly joined by Celebrate Your Body! and The Care and Keeping of You, and Drawn to Sex: The Basics, which included such promising chapters as, ‘Mutual Masturbation’, ‘Oral Sex for a Penis’, ‘Anal Introduction’, and ‘More Anal!’
The next two shelves were decidedly not aimed at a young audience. He added Learning the Hard Way to the stack, then Screw the Roses, Send Me Thorns, and finally, out of pure fascination, Artistic Shibari.
Tanabata-san didn’t even blink when he piled his selection in front of her, though she did look like she was trying very hard not to ask him if he was planning a busy weekend. She wrapped each book neatly with colored paper, loaded them into two sturdy bags, and rang him up. He nodded, in a polite and adult way to signify that he was grateful and also leaving, but she interrupted his exit. “Did you need me to order anything?“
“A hit on Susumu-sensei’s publisher?” Kakashi suggested.
She rolled her eyes. “As soon as Four Seas arrives, I’ll send you a personal messenger. Or should I just send up a flare?”
He considered this. “Risks setting the village on fire.”
“That wasn’t an argument against it,” he said. “Genin always need practice.”
She twinkled at him. “Enjoy your purchases, Hatake-san.”
He took the books home, cracked an egg over hot rice, and read.
Tried to read.
Stared at the wall for a while.
Put the books on the bed, the bowl in the sink, and went back out to look for distractions.
He found Hakone in the hallway, lurking.
“Are you aware you’re lurking?” Kakashi asked him.
“I’m always aware of what I’m doing,” Hakone said coolly. “Are you here to return my shirt?”
Oh. Right. The blue one he’d borrowed for Embers, at Ryouma’s insistence, along with a pair of black jeans. That felt like months ago. They’d survived the evening, pretty much. He’d dropped them off at a dry-cleaners the day after, since Hakone had been so fussily insistent about it, and forgotten about their existence.
Kakashi scratched the back of his neck. “Do you need it right this minute?”
“Not right this very minute. In a day or two would be nice, though.” Hakone’s eyes drifted down and back up, pausing at Kakashi’s boots, belt-pouches, and jounin blues. “Do you even own civvies? I know you’re not on duty at the moment.”
Because he knew Kakashi was suspended? Wonderful.
Instead of explaining that civvies took up room, wore out faster, and served very little purpose in Kakashi’s life — except for his one red shirt! Which he had, admittedly, also stolen — Kakashi lifted an eyebrow at Hakone’s faded jeans and black tank top. “Shirt looks pretty ANBU.”
Hakone smiled, a faint little gotcha curve, and turned around. Emblazoned on the back of his tank top was Shuriken Force’s bold logo, underlined by rows of tour dates. “I went with Ryouma,” he said, turning back. “Because I’m that good of a friend.”
“And hated it enough to buy the merchandise?” Kakashi said, ignoring an odd little pang that wasn’t quite envy.
“Something like that. Might have even picked up their album.” Hakone brushed an invisible speck of dust off his hem and shrugged. “Turns out not all of Ryouma’s bands are entirely terrible. I know, I was as shocked as you.”
Kakashi’s mouth twitched, amused despite himself. “If you’re looking for Tousaki, he’s on a mission.”
Hakone’s lips parted with surprise, a young expression that didn’t quite fit his face. “Already? Did he get subbed in somewhere, or did Six go out without you?”
There was a sting. Kakashi ignored it.
“They went,” he said, and stepped around Hakone, effectively ending the conversation.
“Hey—“ Hakone began, but Kakashi was down the stairs, out the door, and gone.
He stopped by the temporary house Intel had made available for Harubi and her family, because… that was where he stopped.
There was a chuunin guard posted across the street, lounging in the shadow of a roofline. It was unclear to Kakashi whether she was there for the family’s protection or Konoha’s, but he couldn’t imagine three civilians posing a credible threat in the middle of a well-defended village.
Well, maybe Sen.
The house had a garden. Tadaichi sat near the gate, fashioning some sort of elaborate creation out of twigs, twine, and a cardboard box. In the opposite corner, a handful of black and white chickens scratched at a bare patch of dirt, clucking contentedly.
Tadaichi looked at them out of the corner of his eye.
Intrigued, Kakashi watched as the boy put the finishing touches on his work and flipped the box rightside up to reveal a passable attempt at an ANBU vest. Tadaichi crammed the box-armor down over his own head, drew a twig-kodachi with a flourish, and charged the chickens.
Feathery chaos ensued.
As it turned out, a chicken under duress could achieve a surprising turn of speed.
“He’s been playing ANBU games for days,” Kurenai said. “Very disappointed when all the new visitors show up in regular blues.”
Kakashi didn’t actually leap sideways off the roof, but it was a near thing.
She sat down next to him, graceful in a tailored skirt and sleeveless, blood-red blouse, and smiled down at the boy. Her mouth was the same violent shade of red.
“Is that why you’re here?” Kakashi said, when he’d gotten his pulse back under control. “Sartorial advice for seven year olds?”
“For Harubi, actually,” Kurenai said, untroubled. “I took her shopping. Sen stayed home to watch her brother, but I think she mostly wanted to read her new book. She’s still inside.” Kurenai looked at him. Her eyes, like her mouth, like her shirt, were the color of a slashed artery. “Did you want to see them?”
At street-level, Harubi turned the corner. Her sunburn had evened out into a light tan. Her straight black hair was tied back in an elaborate braid. She’d shed her travel-stained clothes for slim jeans and a sleeveless shirt very like Kurenai’s, except that it was dark green. Just behind her, a genin trotted along with two armfuls of bags.
She looked comfortable, striding along. Her eyes only darted around a little, when movement caught her attention.
“Does she know about her husband yet?” Kakashi asked.
The look Kurenai gave him was unreadable. “Her friend Noriko wrote. Nomiya hung himself, the night we left Tanigawa.”
Had she? Or had some industrious Intel agent helped the process along?
Below them, Harubi leaned over the fence and yelled at Tadaichi to stop scaring the eggs out of the chickens. There was nothing about her that looked like a widow.
“Seems like she’s coping,” he said.
“She’s relieved. And also grieving for what could’ve been, and angry that he took a coward’s way out of facing up to what he did…” Kurenai’s eyes lingered on him a long moment, before she looked down at Harubi. “But she’s already had letters from Hikouto, too. She’s not going back.”
The Daimyou probably had written under his own power. If he liked Harubi’s sake as much as he claimed, he would have been an idiot not to.
Kakashi glanced sideways, taking in the subtle tightness of Kurenai’s jaw. Coward’s way out. Harubi’s words, Kurenai’s choice to repeat them. It was the standard shinobi line on suicide. A waste of resources.
He hadn’t expected gentleness. There wasn’t room for it, between them. He hadn’t realized she was that annoyed, though.
“I didn’t know there was an agreement,” Kakashi said. “Between you and Himself.”
It wasn’t quite an apology. He wasn’t sorry for Nomiya’s corpse, despite everything.
“Poor communication on all fronts.” That wasn’t an apology, either. Kurenai was never sorry. Her brows pinched, though, drawing a faint line in the center of her forehead. “I can’t claim we didn’t have the opportunity to tell you. We should have told you, in the hot springs, but I was… thinking of other things. And clearly underestimated Tousaki’s ability to lead you astray.”
Kakashi cocked his head, ignoring the attempt to bait him. “You were thinking of other things. In the hot springs, with the captain and lieutenant.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, dryly. “You didn’t interrupt anything.”
“Do you have that low an opinion of your officers’ stamina?” She was entirely unembarrassed, laughter in her voice. Easing up more than he’d expected.
The corner of Kakashi’s mouth twitched, hidden from view. “Perhaps it’s a compliment.”
“Mm,” she said, neutral as a lake. She watched Harubi usher Tadaichi into the house to wash his hands and help with dinner. Then, very delicately, she asked, “How serious are things with Tousaki?”
Kakashi froze, just for a moment, before he scrambled together a mild, “Hm?”
“I thought there might be something, after Embers. Watching you two together on the mission, I was sure of it.” Her voice softened fractionally. “And it… does explain why things went so badly between you and Rin, perhaps.”
He didn’t need to say anything. It was an interrogation technique to present conjecture as fact and hope panic confirmed it. She might have nothing. She probably had nothing.
Clever to throw Rin’s name in there. Give him an edge to defend himself with, against the mess that had destroyed whatever quasi-friendship he and Kurenai might have had.
He hadn’t told Rin.
Then again, Kurenai’s opinion of his choices mattered a lot less.
“Are you asking as Intel?”
“Intel,” she said, “has not yet opened an investigation on Tousaki Ryouma’s fitness for duty. Officially, therefore, I have no reason to care.”
He gave her the sardonic look that deserved. “How about my fitness?”
She shrugged one bare shoulder. “Still in-house within ANBU, so far as I know. Likewise for your lieutenant’s, if there was one. Namiashi’s file was closed following his performance evaluation after Water Country.”
It was probably some kind of irony that Ryouma was the only current member of Team Six who hadn’t been investigated.
Kakashi looked down at the empty garden for a long moment. The chickens, recovering from their ‘ninja’ attack, had spread out to scratch and peck at the grass again.
“I don’t know,” he said finally.
“Ah,” she said, and let the silence rest a moment. Then, carefully, with a fragment of gentleness that was both alarming and confusing, she asked, “Do you know what you want?”
The same thing he always wanted. To serve, to function, to keep Konoha’s heart beating. To stay in ANBU. To always, always get better.
And now, Ryouma.
There wasn’t a particular shape to the want. He wasn’t thinking of a future. There was no plan. There was just wanting, and the hope of not ruining.
He looked at Kurenai. “More time.”
“Ah,” she said again; this time, it came out more like a breath. She looked back at him, and there was something like understanding there. “I hope you get it. Truly.”
Kakashi smiled, a little hollow.
Below them, the beleaguered, bag-carrying genin finally managed to escape.
Kakashi said, “So, are you trying to seduce both of my commanding officers, or is it a love triangle and someone’s going to end up drunk and yelling outside your bedroom window?”
Her mouth curled, crimson as a battle flag. “Who said anything about love?”
Both officers it was. Kakashi wished them luck. “Don’t break them. Technically, I still need them for missions.“ He thought a moment, then amended, “Don’t break them badly.”
“Oh, I’m fairly sure they can do that to themselves,” she said ruefully.
“That’s why safe words are important,” Kakashi said, partly to see Kurenai choke on her next sentence, mostly because he didn’t want to think too hard about broken bits of Team Six.
It hadn’t even been a full day. They were probably still just running and bored.
Kurenai recovered with only a small hitch. “And how have you learned that already? Don’t tell me Tousaki’s authority issues extend to the bedroom.”
“Okay,” Kakashi said dryly.
She laughed. It wasn’t loud, but it was genuine, and it seemed to surprise her as much as him. “I’d forgotten how you used to make me laugh,” she said, when she’d stopped. “You were smart. No one else could keep up, until I met Rin.” She paused. “Are you going to talk to her?”
Kakashi looked down at the street. “About Tousaki? No. I’ve already hurt her enough.”
“It might help her to know why,“ she said. “Unless Tousaki’s gender isn’t the reason.”
Kakashi shrugged one awkward shoulder. “Gender doesn’t really come into it. I didn’t like anyone until I liked Tousaki.” Well, except Minato, but that was a different broken thing. “I— with Rin, she knew what she wanted, and I thought I could give it to her.” He grimaced. “Thought I should give it to her. Which was a disaster and you know this story. Telling her that it turns out I do like people, or a person, and it’s just not her — that doesn’t seem like it would help.”
“No,” Kurenai said quietly. “I suppose not.” She tapped red nails against her skirt, a gesture that seemed mostly unconscious. “Rin is important to you; if Tousaki isn’t, or doesn’t last, there’s no reason those parts of your life should cross. Gods know there are men I haven’t brought home… But on the off-chance you do get more time, and you do determine what you want — whether Tousaki or anyone else — I think Rin would be strong enough to be happy for you. You won’t be her lifetime’s only love, either, as flattering as that might seem.”
That… was a reasonable point.
Kakashi was so caught up turning this thought over, that he almost missed Kurenai’s quick intake of breath, and her next words.
“Either way, I think I owe you an apology.”
He blinked. “For telling me I was an asshole? I was an asshole.” He paused. “I’m still an asshole.”
“Mm,” she said, not disagreeing. “But I’ve spent the last three years thinking about that fifteen-year-old girl, left alone in a dark room after the first boy she truly trusted jumped out a window.” She skewered him with a brief, familiar glare, then sighed. “I didn’t much think, or care, about why he’d jump. Really, though, you couldn’t have just talked?”
“Panic attack,” Kakashi said, with a guilty shrug. “Was that the apology?”
Kurenai’s face scrunched, taking her from a poised, polished kunoichi, to someone much closer to the angry teenager he remembered. She said, very precisely, “I apologize for… approximately forty percent of the things I said about or to you. I won’t enumerate them. And I’ll stay quiet about Tousaki, until you decide what else you want. Or I need to take official notice.”
Kakashi curled a hand over his mouth and basked in the unexpected gift of this moment, until Kurenai’s face went from threatening to thunderous and he had to laugh. It took him a little while to stop.
“You are forty percent forgiven,” he said, when he could keep his voice steady again. “I’ll stay quiet about Namiashi and Shiranui until I need to blackmail you about the official notice.”
“You’ve forgotten that Intel’s reputation for sexual escapades is worse than ANBU’s,” she said, smiling back. It was mostly friendly, just a little dangerous. “The worst you’d provoke is some serious office envy.”
“I do that by breathing,” he told her. “Still, I think someone would consider it a conflict of interest to sleep with the commanding officers of the target you’re investigating.” He tapped two fingertips against his mouth. “Unless Oita has a much more exciting weekend life than I thought.”
“If it got to that point— yes, analysts are expected to keep their judgement uncompromised.” Her expression and her eyes were both steady, humor folded away like a fan. “But I’m a field agent, too, and Konoha’s trusted me to sleep with men before I ruin them.”
If Konoha needed Genma and Raidou ruined, it just had to ask. They’d do it themselves.
Kakashi nodded, and thought, not for the first time, how glad he was that he didn’t work in Intel. “I hope it never comes to that.”
“I don’t think it will. Your team’s had an… unusually eventful four months, even for ANBU. But so far, you’ve all come out stronger.” She smiled, very faintly. “Even you.”
Well, that was sweet and only a little patronizing.
“It was Shiranui’s birthday on the 17th. He missed it,” Kakashi said, and dropped down from the roof, startling the chuunin across the street. He raised his voice for Kurenai, “You should do something about that when,” if, “he gets back.”
Behind him, Kurenai’s chakra sparked. A quick breath of wind spiraled around his neck, and her voice said softly in his ear, “I’m sure you’re not at all interested in having Tousaki to yourself for a night. I’ll do what I can.”
Last word: Yuuhi.
And he’d missed copying that jutsu.
He spent the rest of the day wandering around the village, until he was hot and tired and grumpy. Then he went to a training field to hit things, which did nothing for the hot and tired, but at least took the edge off grumpy.
After that, he showered, ate something, tried to read one of his new books, stared at the wall some more, and slept. Sort of.
The next day, no one was reported dead or missing.
The weather was hotter, the air was sticky. It felt like distant thunderheads. Unruly sparks crackled between his fingers, interfering with jutsu he actually wanted to practice. Sometime around mid-afternoon, he lost his temper and obliterated one of the ancient trees that marked the border of ANBU Training Field Seven. Tiny smoking splinters rained down over the landscape.
It didn’t help much, except make him annoyed at his own lack of control.
In the next field over, lightning popped and cracked.
He paused, head tilted. Not from the sky — he would have felt that, and it would have been louder — but wreathed around a lean, distant figure on the ground.
Sakamoto Ginta, Kakashi identified, when he got closer. The smallest scion was doing something strange with a black net woven from ANBU rope. White lightning sparked along the strands. Ginta swept the net up into the air, flourishing it like a cloak, and dropped it over an azalea bush. There was a half-second beat, then a truly impressive amount of energy flashed by. The bush burst into flames.
Kakashi raised his eyebrows.
“Imagine hiding it under leaves or snow,” Ginta said, without turning around. “Until someone walks on it.”
Kakashi made a small sound in the back of his throat, acknowledging being spotted. A burning leaf dripped off the bush and crumbled into ash. “As long as it’s someone you don’t plan to question later.”
“I could put less energy into it and paralyze them. Maybe burn them a little.” Ginta glanced over his shoulder, blue eyes bright and inquisitive. “Or figure out a way to add in water jutsu that’s triggered by flames. That would be awesome as hell.”
Kakashi crouched down and studied the edge of the net without touching it. There were wire threads woven between the rope strands, now blackened and melted out of shape. A one-use wonder, then, currently. “Pocket dimensions,” he said, thoughtfully. “Anchor them in, fill them with water. You could trigger them before the electricity, make the burns worse. Or after, to extinguish.”
He hadn’t thought it was possible for Ginta to be more animated, but he was wrong. Ginta turned, bouncing on his heels, hands flying up to gesture as he talked. “I could attach two seals to the rope instead of one. Right now it’s just the lightning-release jutsu.” He extracted a sheaf of slender paper rolls from a belt pouch and offered them to Kakashi, who accepted them cautiously. “These aren’t charged yet, so don’t worry, you won’t set them off.”
Kakashi unfurled one of the rolls to find a series of chakra seals written in tiny, exquisite calligraphy. They glimmered with potential.
Ginta grinned at him, white teeth and enthusiasm. “If I added one to trigger the water summoning jutsu, the only problem would be the order they triggered in.”
“Only if you didn’t link them sequentially,” Kakashi said, drawn into the puzzle despite himself. He sat on the ground and used a kunai blade to hook over the still-smoking net. Orange sparks glowed along the lengths of rope. He flipped the kunai and split open a piece of it, dumping out an ashy core of burned paper. “Electrical seal here, as before. Add a barrier layer of seals to contain it — Serizawa’s Fortress, maybe. Weave it up again. Wrap your water seal around the outside.” He closed the rope and folded one of Ginta’s unactivated paper seals around it. “Key it so that it detonates with a specific stimulus — earth chakra, say, if you were targeting Iwa. Water seals go off, with an additional spark that opens the barrier seals. Electrical seals go off. Crispy-fried target.” He put the rope back down. “That’s a lot of chakra for a one-use trap, though.”
“It’d be worth it, if it was an S-class target you didn’t want to risk getting too close to.” Blue eyes gave Kakashi a significant look. “Like Iebara Shigematsu. Or a Konoha jounin who’d gone rogue. Or if you made the net big enough you could take down a whole unit at once, but a bigger net would take even more chakra.” Ginta’s mouth twisted in a half-frown as he looked down at the rope like it had personally offended him. “But there’s another problem. What’s to stop them bolting as soon as the water hits them? I like the water as a secondary to stop your target burning to death, but I don’t know that it’d be that helpful as a first attack.”
Kakashi shrugged. “Wet skin allows more current to dissipate over the surface of the body. Lessens the short-term lethality, makes surface burns more severe. But you could swap the order of your seals. Or add something else to keep your target in place. If the net could pull chakra to power itself, or if it wrapped whoever stepped on it…” He tipped his head up at Ginta. “Or genjutsu. Isn’t that your thing?”
Ginta did not take that as a dig. If anything, he looked pleased Kakashi had remembered. “It is. I’m still working on a remote-detonation illusion trap. As far as I know, no one’s ever created an effective genjutsu that can be triggered from a seal. You can make a genjutsu that lasts even if you aren’t actively maintaining it, if you put enough chakra into it, but initiating it still requires direct activation.”
Kakashi had just meant a scenario where Ginta lurked nearby, creepy-like, until someone got near the net-trap. Then he could activate a blanketing area genjutsu to confuse the issue. But if Ginta was working on a remote-detonation genjutsu, that was an entirely different conversation.
“How would you get sufficient detail in it to fool anyone?” he asked. “When it starts, it’d have to match the time of day, light changes, scents, sounds…” Things a human could easily hold in their head and manipulate, but a static seal wasn’t that intelligent.
Ginta didn’t seem put out by this relatively basic observation, either. He met Kakashi’s eye levelly. “Exactly. Can’t be done. Right now I’m trying to create a limited genjutsu that isn’t dependent on any external details. One that just gives the target a physical feeling, like a headache. Or a vague sense that they’ve forgotten something important. Once I figure that out, then I’ll try to embed it in a seal.”
As thought-meddling went, that sounded closer to mind control.
“Sounds like you need a Yuuhi and a Yamanaka,” Kakashi said, after a moment’s thought on what Konoha, and by extension ANBU, could do with an ability to make a target think or feel whatever they wanted, without even being present.
Minato might make it a forbidden jutsu on principle. But if he didn’t…
“And maybe one of our friends in the long black coats.” Ginta hooked a thumb over his shoulder, gesturing towards the distant lurking shapes of ANBU’s complex and associated companions. “I guess I could get my Yamanaka from T&I, too. Kurenai and I’ve kicked the idea around a bit, but so far we only have a half-baked theory and a few failed attempts.” His head jerked up, sudden enough that Kakashi had to suppress a twitch. “You want to work on it with us? You’re no slouch at genjutsu from what I’ve heard.”
If Kurenai was involved, it probably wasn’t complete madness.
Inoichi Yamanaka had also been coolly professional, the few times Kakashi had been unfortunate enough to end up in his chair.
Kakashi stood, brushing grass off the seat of his pants. “As long as no one gets touchy if I use my Sharingan.”
Ginta’s porcelain brow creased. “Why would they? That’d be the reason for you being there. Or do you mean no one gets touchy about carrying you back to barracks because you’ve flatlined your chakra using it?”
“Yes,“ Kakashi said sardonically, rather than tossing Ginta’s roasted net creation at his head. “That’s exactly what I meant. Also, you should consider an alloyed metal for your rope wires — it’ll hold up better to heat. Kanashige forge has what you’ll need. It’ll cost you, but I imagine that’s not a problem.”
“Any particular alloy you’re thinking of?” Ginta asked, cocking his head to get a look at the tanto strapped to Kakashi’s back. “I always wondered what that was forged from.”
Kakashi shrugged one shoulder. “White metal. It’s a family secret — theirs, not mine.”
“Should’ve guessed,” Ginta said, with a little laugh that might have been genuine, might have been ironic. It was hard to tell with him. He stretched, popping his narrow shoulders, and crouched to collect the remnants of his net. While he was down there, effectively shielded from nearby buildings by Kakashi, his fingers flicked through quick seals — a variant of Kurenai’s sound-dampening jutsu. He stood back up. “You remember that conversation you and Kurenai and I had on the boat?”
Kakashi didn’t let one fraction of his body language change. “Yes.”
Ginta’s height meant that his face was still obscured by Kakashi. A passable protection against lip-readers, of which Konoha had many, but only from one angle. Kakashi wasn’t surprised to feel a shiver of chakra ripple by. Ginta’s face blurred ever so slightly. “I heard some interesting information about the pullers of strings.”
Kakashi’s mouth, already pre-obscured, didn’t have to worry about observers. “Oh?”
The humor, a permanent feature until now, dropped out of Ginta’s face. It made his sharp angles stand out, much like when you ignored the shine of a diamond to focus on its cutting edge. “My grandfather is hosting a small tea ceremony on Friday. His good friend Shimura Danzou will be there. That’s not unusual. What is is that Shibata Tomohiro is invited. I’m working on whether I can safely eavesdrop. I could probably get it excused as youthful stupidity if I got caught, and they’ll probably shield the fuck out of their meeting in any event, so I might not be able to get anything even if I didn’t get caught. But I would very much like to know what the Crow and the Eagle want to discuss with the Vulture.” He folded his arms. “I imagine Minato-sama would like to know, too.”
Shibata had held his position as the Head of T&I for at least eight years, preceding Minato’s appointment as Hokage. He’d been a personal selection by the Sandaime, after a quiet scandal had required the swift and permanent removal of his predecessor. As far as Kakashi knew, he was good at his job, trusted in his role, liked by his subordinates — and Raidou, of all people. He remained in his position, which meant he had either proven his worth to Minato — or, like Kuroda, like Danzou, there was something else keeping him there.
Ginta’s grandfather, on the other hand, was a known supporter of the village’s old methods, its previous leaders, Danzou’s salt-and-burn approach to warfare. And a smart man, which presented a few immediate options to Kakashi’s mind:
- Shibata remained Minato’s supporter, in which case he’d report the contents of this meeting readily, and there was no problem.
- Shibata played a long game, and was starting to show his true alliances, in which case one of Konoha’s three main branches of special operations and a primary source of their intelligence was no longer trustworthy.
- Ginta’s grandfather and Danzou were attempting to persuade Shibata to their side, apparently via fancy tea.
Inner-Konoha politics and Kakashi were not generally on speaking terms, but even he could see that two out of those three options did not bode well for the village. Or Minato.
He said, “What help do you need?”
“You have Minato-sama’s ear, for one thing,” Ginta said immediately. “You could casually mention over dinner that you’d heard this meeting was happening. That’d be my first choice. Or you could invite me to dinner and I’ll tell him what I know.” He shoved his hair back with one hand; it flopped down over his forehead the moment he let go. “Also you’re friends—Well, friends of friends, with Shibata’s son. Not sure how that could help, but it might. What do we know about Shibata Hakone’s loyalties?”
“Nothing,” Kakashi said. “I’ve spoken to him three times. Tousaki might know, but he’d base it on a gut feeling, not any actual evidence. You’d have more success feeling out Hakone yourself, but I wouldn’t risk it. Safer to limit the number of people involved.”
Not that there was a current suspicion of actual danger, but where Danzou was involved, Kakashi preferred to hedge on the side of weaponry.
“I’ll talk to Sensei,” he said. “You’re one of his soldiers. He can summon you, or have Sagara-sama do it, without much suspicion.”
Relief flickered by on Ginta’s face, though Kakashi couldn’t have said if it was real or performative. “Good. That’s what I was thinking. Thank you. If I can’t get close to the meeting directly, I have a couple members of the house staff who don’t mind keeping me informed about what happens when I’m not home, too.”
Kakashi nodded, trusting Ginta knew enough to keep his own people safe. “I’ll be in touch.” He turned to go. Turned back. “Next time, you can just ask, you know. You don’t need to put on a jutsu show and tell to catch my attention.”
That won a crack of sharp laughter. “Oh, you noticed that?” Ginta shook his head. “I couldn’t approach you directly without tipping my hand if someone were watching. Since you are the Hokage’s protege. But if you wanted to talk to me, one lightning-jutsu user to another, that’s not particularly interesting, since there aren’t that many of us.”
Kakashi rolled his eye. “Fine. But if you’re not actually working on a lightning net, I’m stealing the idea.”
“Oh, I’m absolutely working on a lightning net. I mean it when I said I’d welcome your collaboration.” Ginta grinned again. White teeth. Enthusiasm. “There’s no reason I can’t be efficient and address two problems at once.”
“Hm,” Kakashi said, and left the conversation with a sideways step in and out of the universe.
Minato was on a diplomatic trip to the Daimyou’s palace. Because of course.
Kakashi spent a pleasant hour playing with Naruto and having green tea politely but firmly foisted on him by Ogata-san, before he took his leave.
Sagara was still in ANBU HQ — Kakashi was fairly certain she lived in her office, despite rumors of a husband and children — but Ginta had a point about watching eyes. It rang suspicious to speak with Ginta, immediately stop by Minato’s palace, then bounce straight to ANBU’s commander. He entertained a brief notion of henge-ing himself into a letter and having a disguised clone pay a chuunin to deliver him to Sagara’s desk, but there were good odds she’d identify and stab him before he had the chance to transform back. And he didn’t want to spend the rest of the day thinking papery thoughts.
Since the meeting wasn’t until Friday, there was plenty of time for him to spend a few days continuing to worry about Team Six before he devoted his full attention to worrying about the village.
Though it didn’t hurt to swing by the Sakamoto family estate and spend a concealed evening mentally mapping the building, the grounds, the exits, the visible staff, and the routines of everyone present. Or a night. Or the following morning.
It was good to stay in practice.
No one was reported dead or missing the next day, either.
Shibata’s home was a modern two-story affair with a few traditional touches, settled in one of Konoha’s more urban residential sections. More civilians than shinobi. The garden had flowers. His wife, Koemi, had kind eyes. Shibata left early in the morning and came home late in the evening.
He glanced up at Kakashi’s roof, just once, with the faintest of frowns. But his eyes never landed on a fixed spot, and Kakashi’s chakra concealment never slipped. Good shinobi senses. A tickle on the back of the neck. A little bit impressive for someone who hadn’t been in the field in years.
Kakashi stayed well away from Danzou’s home.
By the fourth morning, there was no word of Team Six. Kakashi napped, trained, relocated Hakone’s clothes and returned them to him (the twelve-second conversation did not offer a deep window into Hakone’s personal loyalties, but it did reveal that he liked sharply starched collars), and bought a poisonous cactus for Genma’s belated birthday present.
He broke into Genma’s loft and placed it carefully on the kitchen counter, with a bow, a care pamphlet, and a detailed note about how Genma could improve his security.
For no real reason, he went by Genma’s father’s bakery and spent a mutually awkward fourteen minutes discussing pastries, because Genma’s father recognized him by his… everything, and even Kakashi was not prepared to be rude to an anxious civilian with floury elbows. He left with a bag of red bean buns and a lucky charm to hang on his weapons rack.
That afternoon, news broke that the Tochigi bounty office had been razed to the ground.
That evening, Hakone dropped by Kakashi’s room and told him the news had been relayed by a cat.
That night, Minato returned to the village.
Kakashi waited until 0600 before he sat down on the end of Minato’s bed and said, “Is there any possibility Shibata would betray you?”
Minato said, “Wzfzl?”
Kakashi said, “Also, do you know if my team is alive?”
It took a credibly short time for the tuft of blond hair and one sleep-stoned blue eye to elevate into an actual person. Minato sat up, rubbing his face, and fumbled to switch on the bedside light. Warm yellow light beat back the darkness created by thick blackout curtains. “You’re payment for all the heart attacks I gave Jiraiya-sensei, aren’t you.” He dropped the hand and squinted at Kakashi. “Let’s start over. I don’t have a status update on Six yet, but I can get it. What’s this about Shibata?”
Kakashi laid out everything. The jutsu subterfuge, the bird code names, Ginta’s apparent willingness to spy on his grandfather. Minato listened silently, then rippled his chakra. Turtle stuck her head into the room, unsurprised to see Kakashi, since he’d crossed her path on the way in.
“Get me an update on Six, please.”
“Sir.” She vanished again.
Kakashi let out a quiet little breath, shards of anxiety settling in his chest as Minato took charge of the world and kicked it back into orderly shape.
Minato glanced at the time, yawned, and swung his legs out of bed. He was wearing his stuffy old man pajamas, blue-striped with a collared shirt and little antler-horn buttons down the front. His chin was gold-dappled with stubble. He smelled faintly of sake — the good stuff, if Kakashi had to judge. His time at the Daimyou’s table had been lucrative, it seemed. “Shibata told me two weeks ago that he’d agreed to a meeting with Shimura Danzou and Sakamoto Gousuke. Surprised it’s taken them this long to get something scheduled, but they’re all busy men.” He shucked his pajama top to pull on a uniform shirt. “Sakamoto Ginta, though. That’s a partisan I didn’t expect.” He cocked a glance at Kakashi. “What do you think of him?”
It was option one, with a side of option three. Kakashi’s shoulders eased down. He felt vaguely silly, but not enough to regret his caution, or turfing Minato out of bed.
“Kurenai likes him,” he said. “His captain does, too. He took a risk talking to me. Twice, now.” He gave Minato a brief summary of the Kuroda conversation on the boat, skimming a little over the more murderous elements. “He’s a wiseass, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest his loyalty isn’t sincere.”
“His clan were power-players in Niidaime and Sandaime’s day. Thinned out during the war, like most of us, but… I remember being surprised when I learned Monkey was a Sakamoto. The old clans generally prefer to make their names on their own, not behind a mask.” Minato frowned, briefly, at a pair of pants. “Good service record, though. He could’ve had his own team this year, but we had enough turnover that Sagara wanted to keep a couple seasoned lieutenants in the ranks. Sakamoto offered to train up one more new captain before his own promotion.”
It took Kakashi a moment to realize why Minato knew Ginta as ‘monkey’ before anything else. Ginta had joined ANBU under Sandaime’s rule; Minato hadn’t given him the mask.
Kakashi rubbed his mouth through his mask. “How many of the old clans are loyal to village before family?”
The smile he got back from Minato was tired and sad. “When it comes down to it? None of them really are. That’s the thing about family. Shodai’s genius was in making the village enough that it’d bind them together anyway, but if Konoha ever stops being enough — if the Uchiha or the Hyuuga or the Inuzuka ever decide they’re better off elsewhere…” He open his hands, letting the pants fall. Then stooped to pick them up, adding practically: “I don’t worry so much about the Inuzuka, though. Pretty sure they’ve just decided to extend their concept of pack to the whole village. Makes loyalties easier.”
Kakashi nodded. It was the answer he’d expected. Even Sakumo had died for his family in the end, trying to take his shame with him. Kakashi would die for Minato and Naruto first, before Konoha. He was just lucky that worked out to mean the same thing.
“You should meet with Sakamoto,“ he said. “Find out why he’s different, if he is. See if you can cement that loyalty. He’ll be the voice of his clan when his grandfather’s dead.”
“If you think he’ll be a voice of reason, that’s enough for me. I’ll see what I can manage, discreetly. Maybe Thirteen won’t mind if I join their training session…” He pulled his pants on, slipping Kakashi a grin, and Kakashi decided he could live with the notion of Ginta being a voice of reason as long as Minato bounced him around a training field at least once.
Minato straightened, going hunter-sharp as Turtle appeared back at the door. “What’s the report?”
“Six called in from Ishikawa on the 10th—or at least, one of their summons did,” Turtle reported promptly, reading from a scrap of paper. “Mission success: two Konoha dead, one Konoha hostage recovered, one hostile captured. Tochigi Bounty Station compromised, all staff slaughtered by unknowns.” She flipped the scrap of paper. “Second message sent from the relay at Nagiso about 2100 on the 12th. Hostile escaped, status unknown. Team sustained non-life-threatening injuries, one nonmobile, return delayed. Expected arrival by 1300 tomorrow.”
“Which Konoha dead?” Even to his own ears, Kakashi’s voice sounded high.
Turtle’s head tilted towards him with surprise. Her eyes were shadowed by her mask, but he saw the moment of recognition flicker into them — Kakashi wasn’t just Minato’s student, he was a member of the team she was reporting on. A touch of contrition smoothed her voice. “Sase Yutaro and Kitame Chousuke, jounin-sensei and genin. They rescued the other genin — Akimichi Yuuma. Vet care requested for Inuzuka Taiyou on return. Team Six themselves didn’t report any significant injuries.”
Relief made Kakashi’s head light. Swiftly followed by suspicion. None of them had reported significant injuries?
Minato sat down heavily on the bed and rubbed a hand over his face, shoulders weighted — not for Team Six, Kakashi knew, but for the dead student, the dead teacher. Lives Kakashi didn’t currently care about, with his team eclipsing all, but Minato had to.
Turtle folded the piece of paper and tucked it away in her arm guard. “Sir?” she said quietly.
Minato made a silent gesture. She saluted and eased out the door, closing it behind her.
I’m sorry meant very little: insincere in Kakashi’s mouth, hollow to Minato’s ears. Instead, Kakashi reached out and laid a careful, cautious hand on his teacher’s forearm, fingertips wrapped lightly around to press against bone. It was a gesture built out from Team Six, who needed touch as often as they breathed. Something Kakashi was learning to accommodate, slowly. He’d never thought of Minato as someone who might need it, but in retrospect, the delicate space between them probably came from years of Minato trying to work around Kakashi’s angry spikes.
Minato blinked at him. Then settled under Kakashi’s hand, accepting the gesture with the same simplicity he accepted all of the good things in his life, as something to be appreciated and not questioned. They sat silently for a few moments, until Kakashi began to wonder whether he should leave his hand there or take it back, and which would be eventually more awkward — then, thankfully, Naruto woke up down the hall and began to yell.
“Stay for breakfast,” Minato said. “You’ll have plenty of time on the wall tomorrow.”
Kakashi made eggs. Naruto painted lopsided starfish on them with ketchup.
Ginta, as it turned out, split his time evenly between the Sakamoto estate and his own beautifully appointed little apartment in the center of Konoha, a stone’s throw away from the palace.
He was also used to getting hand-delivered mail, because he didn’t blink when the chuunin handed him an elegantly stamped letter and a bouquet of flowers.
He did yelp a bit when Kakashi unfolded out of the letter, which was a sound Kakashi locked into the steel vault of memory as proof that a) Ginta was not an entirely unflappable human being, and b) Kakashi was a hilarious wit.
“The vulture remains in the nest,” he informed Ginta. “You should put those in water.”
“They’re lovely,” Ginta said, managing to sound fairly smooth despite the hand still white-knuckled around a kunai. “But next time you can just ask, you know. You don’t need to woo me with a bouquet.”
He carried the flowers into a neat and tasteful kitchen, extracted what was probably a three-hundred-year-old priceless vase from an antique cabinet, and watered the flowers as suggested.
“They’re a ruse,” Kakashi pointed out, awarding himself points for the idea, the execution, the rise in Ginta’s blood pressure, and for successfully not getting stabbed, which had been a minor risk. “No one would believe I’d send you flowers. Ergo, no one would believe I sent you a letter. Result: we can have a conversation that’s not in the middle of a field.”
“Yes, it’s an excellent subterfuge,” Ginta said indulgently. “But are you sure you aren’t angling for a date?” He touched one of the bright flowers with a gentle fingertip, glancing at Kakashi up through his eyelashes.
“No?” Kakashi said, but Ginta held the look, radiating a warm spark that became alarming enough for Kakashi to start thinking he needed to backpedal—
Ginta broke the moment with a sardonic little smile and moved on to preparing a tray with tea and senbei.
Tiny rat bastard, Kakashi thought, but reluctantly gave him a point.
They took tea in the sitting room, because Ginta lived in the kind of place where he could devote an entire room to fancy cakes and conversation. The tea bowls were beautiful antiques, dark brown glaze making a rich patina over cream pottery. The two Ginta selected had been broken and repaired with gold veins. He poured green tea from a slender iron kettle with a grace that almost matched Kurenai, though he didn’t quite get the same arch of wrist, and set bowl and plate in front of Kakashi.
“Tell me about the vulture,” he said.
Kakashi feathered his senses out. The surface of Ginta’s home was opulent and ridiculous, but the underlying seals were ironclad. Kakashi might be able to break through them, with a day and a chakra-booster and a sheaf of exploding tags, but only if he dodged fast and the wind was favorable. It was safe to talk here.
“Vulture got his invite two weeks ago and told upper management the same day,” Kakashi said.
Ginta settled back with his tea cradled between his hands. “Good. That’s what I’d hoped, seeing as Vulture was hand-picked by upper management for his job, but when you consider what his job is…” He sipped his tea contemplatively. “Have you ever had a conversation with him?”
“Once, at Trials,” Kakashi said, wondering why Ginta cared. “You?”
“A few times.” Ginta ran a thumb over a slim gold vein on his tea bowl. “It’s hard not to stare at his face at first, but once you get over that and really talk to him, he’s a fascinating man. He might have the twistiest mind in Konoha. Definitely someone you don’t want as an enemy.”
“Hm,” Kakashi said, reflecting on that one brief meeting, and the lingering bloom of warmth in Shibata’s scent when Kakashi had talked about sanctioned slaughter. Unpleasant, but not unpredictable. Unlike the corkscrew mind in front of him. “Are you really prepared to sell out your own family?”
Ginta raised both pale brows. “Sell out my family? Is that what you think I’m doing? I want to ensure the long-term survival of my family. If one member threatens that, and threatens the village, than no matter how much I respect and care for him, he’s expendable.”
The thin, graceful hands had gone white at the knuckles again, bracketed around what was surely an heirloom. Not blanched to the bone, but pale. Ginta’s face was calm, his voice was level, but his eyes were bright and fierce. Looking to the future he wanted, breaking from the past his Grandfather desperately clung to.
Watching him, Kakashi saw the blade hanging above Sakumoto Gousuke’s head, and wondered if the old man knew.
“What about your grandmother?” he said.
“If we play this right, then my grandfather becomes a non-issue. He keeps breeding his koi and reminiscing about his glory days, while the rest of the world moves on. And my grandmother never knows a thing.” Ginta blew gently on his tea and took a sip, level stare never leaving Kakashi’s face. “But if it comes down to it, my grandmother is the one who taught me to keep my eyes facing forward.”
The hair on the back of Kakashi’s neck prickled.
It wasn’t quite killing intent. It was slower, colder, more certain. An edge of Ginta’s real face, revealed for just a moment. Kakashi didn’t believe the gleaming smile, the glib words, the distracting gestures — they were all Ginta, but nothing you could plant a flag on. This man, right now, calculated and balanced, was someone Kakashi could see himself going to war with.
It was a thought he hadn’t expected to have about Ginta.
“I’ll help,” he said. “If I can.”
Ginta’s thin smile was grimly satisfied. “Your help will be welcome and invaluable. Right now, we’re still gathering intelligence.” He selected a senbei, broke the rice cracker delicately in half, and held both halves in the air. “Now that we know where Vulture’s loyalties lie — though I’m still going to try to eavesdrop on that meeting tomorrow — I may see about paying him a visit.”
Kakashi made a dry sound. “You get caught spying on that meeting, I’m sure he’ll pay you a visit himself.”
“I don’t doubt.” Ginta ate one half of his senbei with a chuckle. “I could always let myself get caught, as a way to be sure to get an interview with him, but that would probably be recorded, so not ideal.”
“Depends how much you enjoy being stapled to a wall.” Kakashi vanished a sip of his own green tea. It was a fancy brand, because of course it was, with comforting undertones of toasted brown rice. Ginta watched him with bright eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of his face, but Kakashi had sufficient practice obfuscating even the most curious. He set his half-empty bowl back down and said, “Minato-sensei plans to crash your next team training. Make it easier on him and have it between his meetings, and you’ll get more time.”
“Thanks for the tip.” Ginta raised his tea bowl in a small salute. “I’ll make sure Usagi kno— No, you know what? I think I’ll let it be a surprise.” He grinned, obviously pleased with himself. His teeth were very white. “I’ll drop by his office and check his schedule this afternoon.” He refilled both tea bowls, a little less elegant. There was a sharpness in his movements now. A shinobi excited to go up against the best warrior in the village, because, like the rest of them, Ginta was a crazy-stupid ANBU at heart. “I heard he kicked Six all over the training field recently. Is this a new initiative he’s taking, or did we earn his interest somehow?”
It was hard to tell when Ginta was actually being serious. “He wants to talk to you,” Kakashi said. “About your grandfather. For the same reason you and I are having this discussion. Please keep up.”
“I feel so special.” Ginta did a… movement, a preening sort of shimmy with an invisible hair flick. “He’s not going to want to talk to me about that in front of my team, but maybe he’ll whisper an invitation in my ear while he has me pinned.” His eyes went dark and lascivious. “Now that would make me special.”
It would be counterproductive to stab him with a senbei cracker. The iron kettle, on the other hand, might do some damage.
“I changed my mind,” Kakashi said, standing. “Talk to your grandfather first. Shibata can clean up the pieces later.”
Ginta rose, too, hands spread in a gesture of peace. Which looked odd on his small, sneaky frame. “Kidding. Don’t worry, I know when someone is both off-limits and out of my league. I appreciate the heads-up about scheduling our next training. And the visit. You can bring me flowers any time you want. Or let Yuuhi know you want to talk to me, and she can relay it, so no one on your team gets the wrong idea.”
Kakashi tipped his head and decided Ginta was trying to bait him. It was hard to say if it was a needle about Ryouma, who Ginta had expressed an obvious interest in, or Raidou, who had expressed an obvious interest in jumping up and down on Ginta’s face. Or Genma, who was Ginta’s friend. Maybe it was just a general dart to see if Kakashi flinched.
Kakashi did not flinch, mostly due to confusion.
“Okay,” he said, and left before Ginta said more words at him.
If anyone was watching Ginta’s apartment, they were subtle about it. Kakashi spent an interesting thirty minutes henge-ing himself through a series of traveling forms — with a sprinkling of surrounding genjutsu — until he’d created enough distance and disorder to avoid any obvious connections. Then he got lunch.
That evening, he received his own messenger. A nervous-looking genin knocked very gently on his door, squeaked when he opened it, and said something that sounded like, “Tanabatasansaidyoushouldcome.”
Kakashi squinted. “One more time?”
The genin took a deep breath and, only vibrating a little, managed, “Tanabata-san requested you come down to her shop. Your book has arriv—”
Kakashi was long gone before the sentence ended.
A conversation happened with Tanabata-san. Kakashi couldn’t have said what it contained. Isao Takahata had done the cover art for Four Seas and it was beautiful.
He spent the night on the wall, perched on the cool, comfortable tiles of one of the guard tower roofs, and read by a combination of moonlight and the passing orange glow of hand-carried lamps.
Gentleman thief Nozomi had survived. And started a war.
And adopted a pocket-sized seahorse.
It took two-thirds of the book for him to find and rescue his merman, and by then there were politics and rivals and a looming cliffhanger, and dawn was rising over Konoha.
Kakashi read it twice, and looked up when dark, unhappy, familiar chakra brushed the edges of his own, which had been extended to their furthest reaches since midmorning.
Ryouma. Alive, mostly unhurt.
A beat later, Genma. Raidou.
Kakashi was just starting to melt with relief, when he felt— oh. Ouch.
By the time Team Six made it within a kilometer of Konoha, he was ready to meet them with a medical team and an Inuzuka vet.
“What do you mean lightning?”