November 4, Yondaime Year 5
Ryouma kept quiet on their way out of the conference room and down the long corridor. He bit his tongue on the stairwell, when Kakashi stalked upwards without a backward glance, while Team Six’s guards led them downwards. He clenched his jaw while one guard condescendingly explained the proper use of a bath, as if the forest barbarians from Konoha had never encountered a scrub brush before.
The baths themselves — almost — deserved commentary. But not while those Suna assholes were arrayed around the walls, watching.
Scrubbed clean and dressed in a fresh uniform, he joined the officers again at the door. The leader of their escort looked them over. “Still hiding behind those masks?”
Raidou’s crimson-sliced mask gave the guard a long, blank look until the silence had gone well past awkward. Then he turned a careless shoulder on her and said to Genma, “We should get something to eat. No telling how long this dinner will take.”
“Or if they’ll feed us anything substantial,” Genma said wryly. “Rice noodles with garyuu just aren’t holding me.”
Raidou glanced back at the guard. “Can we leave the palace?”
She hesitated a moment. Then she said, grudgingly: “With an escort.”
“I’ll stay here,” Ryouma said. Too quickly? Genma’s mask tilted back at him, eyes glinting unreadably. Ryouma sacrificed dignity without hesitation. “Don’t think my stomach liked that garyuu. I’m gonna need some time on the can soon. And I can brief Hatake about Iwa, while you’re out.”
They were both looking at him, now. Maybe he should have thought of a different excuse. He’d showed symptoms of food poisoning a lot faster on that mission in Shimizu, chasing the missing nin Arai. Maybe he could claim nerves over meeting the Kazekage had just helped conceal it…?
But Raidou nodded, releasing him. “If we’re not back in two hours, let Ambassador Hatake know that our escort tried to murder us.”
Genma dug in his travel kit and passed Ryouma a pair of cellophane-wrapped pink tablets. “You know what to do with these. Full glass of water with each.” His eyes met Ryouma’s directly through the masks. “If I have to heal you of a concussion or any other injuries when we get back, you and I are having a long talk about knowing our limits.”
“Lieutenant,” Ryouma said. He stood there, clutching the antacids, while four of the six Suna guards escorted his officers out the door.
Or at least Genma knew, which meant as soon as they were off on their own Raidou would know, which meant—
They weren’t supposed to find out like this.
Not that he’d drawn up a strategy, exactly, for how he and Kakashi were going to tell the officers. Telling Minato was the first challenge: they’d agreed to that two months ago. Ryouma was going to pass his field medic assessments first. They were going to spend a month together, on-mission and off, learning how to make things work.
Well, they’d had that month. And then, four days before Ryouma’s Field Medic Grade Five qualifying exam, Minato had picked up this Suna mission and handed it to Kakashi, and all those half-formed plans had gone quietly back on the shelf.
How the fuck had he betrayed himself — betrayed Kakashi — now?
“Toilets are this way, Leaf,” one of the remaining Suna guards said.
Cellophane crackled in Ryouma’s fist. “Sure,” he said. “Great. Lead on.”
Maybe he’d even take the antacids after all.
His guards showed him to the toilets, and then to the stairs. They climbed from subbasements upwards, until daylight showed through narrow shafts of windows, and the stone-cooled air grew hot and dry. Ryouma’s hair stopped dripping.
Konoha’s embassy was on the seventh floor up from the baths, the fourth floor above ground. Hatake Sadayo was drinking tea in the elegant entrance hall.
Ryouma stopped just inside the doorway. He’d forgotten Kakashi’s mother.
The Suna guards closed the doors behind him.
He said, woodenly: “Ambassador Hatake.”
“Ram.” She lowered her cup, lifted her chin to regard him with cool dark eyes. She didn’t look at all surprised to see him. “You may take a seat.”
The second time Ryouma had met Minato, the Hokage had nearly pulverised him. Meeting Kakashi’s mother for the second time probably wouldn’t be worse. Maybe.
Had she been waiting for him?
The tatami sitting area was decorated in the most traditional of Konoha’s formal styles, with zabuton cushions scattered around a low table. Ryouma felt dusty again just looking at it. He removed his sandals, found no obvious place to put them, and ended up nudging them beside the receptionist’s paperwork-piled desk. Then he folded down awkwardly onto a cushion at the end of the table. “Ambassador. Ma’am. My officers left the palace to get dinner. I, uh…”
I don’t know what you’ve heard about me—
I imagine your son hasn’t told you about me…
But there was something that had nothing at all to do with Kakashi. And if it made his stomach hurt, too, at least that was a pain he’d long ago grown used to.
He straightened his back. Lifted his chin. Removed his mask, and laid it on the table. “I’m told you knew my mother. Tousaki Miyako. I’d be grateful for anything you remember about her.”
Her eyes sharpened. The coloring wasn’t Kakashi’s, but that gaze was: penetrating as a scalpel, laying him bare for study. Searching, perhaps, for the echoes of people she remembered?
“I knew both your parents,” she said eventually. “You look very much like them. Your father especially — the same mouth.”
Jiraiya had said Ryouma had his father’s eyes. He didn’t remember either.
Sadayo sipped her tea. “Are you sure you want to talk about them now?”
He looked reflexively at the doors that led further into the suite. All of them closed, no sign of which might conceal Kakashi, or whether he was here at all. “Is there something else we should discuss?”
“No,” she said, slowly. “Perhaps not.”
She rose and vanished into the second inner door. He stared after her. Had that been the wrong answer?
“Sit tight,” the little man behind the receptionist desk advised. He hadn’t glanced up from his reams of paperwork, his pen still busily scratching. “She’ll be back.”
Ryouma settled uneasily. After a moment he clipped his mask to his belt, and tried to finger-comb his hair.
The door opened again. Ryouma dropped his hands to his knees. Sadayo re-emerged with a teapot and an extra cup, in matching shades of delicate blue-green. She knelt on her cushion and poured tea with the same elegant movements, then slid the cup across to him and cradled her own.
“Your mother, then,” she said, as if the conversation had never paused. “We were at the Academy together. She was a year or two younger than me, but kunoichi always find their way to each other. She was… not the most gifted academic, but clever out of the classroom. Bright, fiery — she made friends easily, but only kept a very select few close. Your grandfather’s influence, I think. He was not a good man.”
“No,” Ryouma whispered, dry-mouthed.
Sadayo nodded acknowledgment. “She was an excellent chuunin — quick, ruthless. I think she would have made special jounin if she hadn’t met your father.”
“On a mission.” He remembered that. A story for when he was older, they’d teased, but he’d picked up a few fragments in those early days. More, poison-laced, from his grandfather later. “I was an accident. They kept me anyway.”
“Yes, they did.” She studied him. “Miyako never wanted to have children. I don’t imagine she told you that, of course. She said, once, that she wished to burn her family tree down, but here you are.”
He hadn’t known that, but he wasn’t surprised. He took a quick gulp of tea, burning his tongue. “Well, I’ll be the end of the line anyway. Make her proud one way or another.” He hesitated. “Did she… You didn’t keep in touch, I guess?”
Surely he’d have remembered if his mother still had friends at the end. Surely one of them would have—
Well, maybe not this cool, contained woman. Kakashi hadn’t spoken of much warmth in his childhood, either.
“No,” Sadayo said. She looked at him as if her scalpel had flayed him open, and for the first time she was unsettled by what she found. After a moment she offered: “I was pregnant at the same time as your mother. I lost that baby, and the two that followed. It was… painful to be around you.”
“Oh. I didn’t know— I’m sorry.”
She made a small, sharp gesture, cutting the memories away. “What do you know of your father?”
“His name. Kondo Ryuu. He was a jounin. His family disowned him for something he’d done. He specialized in water jutsu, he made the best fried eggs for breakfast, he could make my mother laugh. She stopped laughing when he didn’t come back. And she took more missions — she had to.” He took another bracing gulp of tea. “Jiraiya-sama said he… took difficult missions, ANBU-type.”
“He wasn’t ANBU.” Sadayo stroked a finger against the slim column of her cup, and then set it aside. “Before I tell you more about him, I’d like you to see him. Both of them.” She touched her temple, making the meaning clear: genjutsu. “Do I have your permission to do that?”
She might as well have punched him in the gut. “Yes,” Ryouma croaked. “Yes, please.”
He’d remember, this time.
He felt her chakra for the first time, as she gathered it and shaped the jutsu. Her work was refined, not a spark more than necessary, but the weight of it bent the air around him. Water element, cool and clear and delicate as glass, with all the invisible depth of an ocean.
The jutsu rolled over him like a wave. He surfaced, blinking, at another table.
It was a restaurant, small and shabby, built Konoha-style in dark wood and plaster. Broth bubbled in a pot at the center of the table, and the chattering diners were just beginning to dip thinly sliced meat and vegetables. His gaze skidded hungrily from face to face.
A curvy blonde woman: no. A strong-featured man with long silver hair tied back at the base of his neck — Hatake Sakumo? His face was so sharply drawn that the rest of the room looked misty, but it wavered even as Ryouma watched, like water running down a windowpane. He looked quickly away.
And there they were. A young woman, barely older than Ryouma was now, with long black hair and an easy smile. A tall man with a sharp jaw and scarred hands, brown skin, deep-set eyes with long dark lashes and crow’s feet wrinkles. He wore a jounin uniform. She wore civvies, her wrapped shirt loose over the swelling curve of her belly.
She was telling some story, laughing, gesturing with her chopsticks in one hand. Her other hand lay on the table, covering his.
Something hurt. In the genjutsu, he put his hand to his still-flat abdomen—
No, Hatake Sadayo touched her stomach, and he was suddenly sitting apart from her, on the empty stool beside the blonde woman, seeing the momentary pain in Sadayo’s eyes before she tucked it away and smiled and offered Tousaki Miyako a bowl of spinach with sesame paste. “Even if you’re not running missions, you need to keep your iron high.”
“Tsunade’s already cluttered my medicine cabinet with pill bottles, I promise! If I don’t make up for starting this baby on soldier pills, it won’t be for lack of supplements.” But Miyako smiled, and took the bowl, touching Sadayo’s fingers as she did. “Thank you, senpai.”
He remembered her voice. The low alto warmth, the way it vibrated on the edge of a laugh, the way a smile became sound. She’d called him Ryou-chan, and teased them both: I mean little Ryou-chan, not big Ryuu-san!
And his father had said…
“You can store the extra bottles at my place, if you want.” Kondo Ryuu’s voice was lower than Ryouma’s, his chest deeper, his tone quieter. Miyako’s voice could fill a room, but Ryuu spoke as if he meant only her to hear. He dipped a slice of marbled beef in the bubbling broth and laid it in her bowl.
She smiled at him, sideways, sly. “Why, is my lord inviting this unworthy one to share his chambers?”
“Oh my gods,” the blonde woman said. “There’s a back alley if you want to get your kink on, Tousaki—”
“I’d been wondering when you two would take the next step,” Hatake Sakumo said loudly over her. “Congratulations! Let me get the next round—”
“What are you doing,” another, familiar voice said, sharp and cold. “Kai.”
The wave broke. The genjutsu shattered and drained away. Ryouma was sitting at the elegant table in the Konoha embassy suite again, a cup of tea cooling between his hands, and tears running salty down his cheeks.
Sadayo blinked once, the only sign she’d been yanked from her mental trap. She glanced up, expression arctic and annoyed. “I’m not hurting him. You should know bett—”
“He’s crying,” Kakashi snarled.
Ryouma looked— gutted. Ash-white except where his eyes were hollow-dark. He still wasn’t oriented. A fine tremble ran through him. What had she said to him? Kakashi clamped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed — partly to keep his own feet on the ground.
Kakashi knew he was off-balance, still tilted from the infuriating meeting with the Kazekage. Maybe that was why he allowed killing intent to leak past his guard.
His mother’s eyes widened.
Ryouma turned on his cushion, catching Kakashi’s attention. He still looked dazed. He scrubbed a rough hand over his eyes. His voice was a broken hinge. “She remembered my father’s face.”
Context shifted Kakashi’s intervention to an ugly place. He hadn’t interrupted a silent, cruel interrogation. He’d broken up— a memory? Jiraiya had said Sadayo had known Ryouma’s parents, but Kakashi never thought— Why would she—? Why would she now?
A tear broke down Ryouma’s cheek. He didn’t seem to be aware of it.
Oh gods, Kakashi’s timing was terrible.
His fingers tightened on Ryouma’s shoulder. Ryouma flinched slightly. Kakashi snatched his hand away.
“I’m sorry,” he said jerkily. “I shouldn’t have— I’ll go.”
Sadayo just watched him, dark eyes dissecting his mistakes.
“No! No— I came up here for you, I came to see you—” Ryouma lurched up on one knee and caught Kakashi by the wrist, long fingers overlapping bone. “Your dad was there. They were friends.”
Kakashi stopped dead. “What?”
Ryouma blinked up at him, as if seeing both Kakashi and the shadow at his shoulder. “You don’t actually look much like him.”
Kakashi was 100% not prepared to add personal revelations on top of this tarpit of a moment, especially not about his father. Especially not in front of his mother. He closed off the parts of his brain that were yelling, frozen, freefalling, or otherwise having emotions and locked them neatly into a trunk. Then he kicked that trunk under a bed, locked the door to the room, threw the key into the void, and took a slow, shallow breath.
“Excuse us, please,” he said to his mother, with exacting calm, and pulled Ryouma to his feet. Ryouma stumbled a little. Kakashi steadied him with a hand at the precise, necessary point of leverage, and steered Ryouma towards the door.
Sadayo watched them go. He couldn’t interpret whether her expression was thoughtful or disapproving, but he knew there would be a conversation later. He kicked that thought into another trunk.
They bypassed Ono, sitting so still at his little reception desk that he was almost invisible, and cut down the narrow interior hallway to Kakashi’s borrowed room. Kakashi unlocked newly added seals, pushed Ryouma through the door, closed it behind them and relocked everything, including the deadbolt. Ryouma stood in the middle of the floor, looking lost. Kakashi put a hand between his shoulderblades and pushed again, this time towards the bed.
“Sit,” Kakashi said.
Kakashi absolutely did not know what to do next. What was he supposed to say? How’d your dead dad look? How’d my dead dad look? So nice they can be dead and dadly together. Really happy my mom shared that even though she never shares anything with me—
Trunk. Locked door. Breathe.
He knelt down in front of Ryouma and thumbed a shining line of wetness from Ryouma’s cheek. Ryouma’s head tilted trustingly into Kakashi’s hand, and Kakashi’s chest hurt. He shoved that down, too. “Are you okay?”
Ryouma drew a breath, let it out. Came more into focus as he broke out of whatever was on replay inside his head. “Yeah,” he said. His hand lifted; fingertips touched Kakashi’s jaw, light against the edge of bone, then dropped away. “I wasn’t expecting— I was hoping to see you but she was waiting in the entrance hall, and Jiraiya-sama said she knew my mother. I had to ask.” He rubbed the back of his wrist across his cheek, blurring away a half-dried streak that glimmered silver in the shadows. “Sorry for startling you. I really meant to come looking for you first, I just— I couldn’t miss the chance.”
Kakashi frowned. “You don’t need to be sorry.”
Ryouma’s mouth twitched, something closer to a grimace than a smile. He looked at Kakashi and said, “I missed you.”
That should not have made Kakashi warm — it had only been three weeks — but it did. “Yeah?”
Something settled in Ryouma’s expression, steadier ground. “I can prove it,” he said, and there were hands on Kakashi’s face again, bracketing his jaw, tilting his chin up. Ryouma’s thumbs found the edge of Kakashi’s mask and eased it down, making Kakashi’s breath hitch. Kakashi couldn’t imagine the vision of chapped lips and uneven sunmarks was particularly lovely, but Ryouma drank him in like, well, water in the desert. Dark eyes flicked from Kakashi’s cheeks to his nose, down to his mouth, and Ryouma’s smile strengthened, turned real. He nodded decisively. “Yeah. Definitely missed you.”
The kiss still took Kakashi by surprise, but he reacted quickly. Wrapped one hand around the back of Ryouma’s neck; caught the edge of Ryouma’s chestplate with his other hand, anchoring him in place. Pressed up and close and felt himself settle, as if Ryouma had just run a palm down Kakashi’s spine, smoothing hackles back down. Ryouma was warm and tasted like salt, smelled like home.
Kakashi let himself have the moment, the relief, before pulling reluctantly back and finally asking the question: “What are you doing here?”
Right. Ryouma was, in fact, on a mission.
He released Kakashi, straightened his back, tried to rearrange his helpless smile into something a little more professional. “We got the message six days ago. Standard diplomatic courier pouch from our ambassador in Iwa, official communiwhatsits and personal letters. Except one of the letters was addressed to Taichou. From Katsuko. Two pages of really over-the-top apologies for not having written before, and three pages of gossip about people none of us ever heard of. And no drawings at all.”
Kakashi’s eye tightened a little at the corner, the way it always did at the mention of Katsuko. “Ueno’s version of a coded message.”
“It’s so sexy when you’re smart,” Ryouma informed him. “The code was embedded in pieces throughout — Genma says that Kurenai says someone in Crypto had fits puzzling it together — but they finally sorted it about 0300. Like they always do. And sent for us, of course, because it’d come through Raidou in the first place, and because the threat is aimed at you.”
“Me?” Kakashi blinked.
Well, the bewildered version of him was sexy too.
“The Hokage’s presumed heir?” Ryouma prompted. “Konoha’s second-best sealing expert? Sharingan no Kakashi, whose death could probably start a war? Even better if Iwa could seize the opportunity to hit Suna at the same time — say, when you’re doing complicated jutsu intervention with the Kazekage’s kid and a bijuu’s vessel — and then blame the disaster on you. ‘Konoha pretended goodwill but actually sent a saboteur!’ Even if Iwa can’t steal the bijuu, they could break the alliance.”
Kakashi got off his knees. He prowled across the room to the writing desk, scribbled a fast line of seals down a flimsy slip of talisman paper, peeled the self-adhesive paper off its stack, and stalked back to slap the seal across the door. White light flared out in lightning-strike patterns across the door and walls. The distant, ordinary noises of the embassy at work abruptly cut off.
“Did she say how much of a force we’re expecting?” Kakashi sat on the edge of the bed beside Ryouma. “What kind of skillsets?”
“A small force. Stealth infiltration, not brute force — that’s what we’re here for. Katsu didn’t have a lot of other details though. I guess whoever she was eavesdropping on was smart enough not to mention names, at least. Or maybe they hadn’t decided on the strike team yet, before she had to send her letter.” He smiled crookedly at Kakashi. “Yondaime-sama didn’t waste much time deciding on our strike team.”
It had helped, certainly, that Team Six was fit, rested, and in-village on the day the cryptographers broke the code. But so were the heavy combat teams Sixteen and Twenty-Seven, and Minato hadn’t chosen them.
He knew, Ryouma thought, what Kakashi meant to Team Six. How hard they’d fight for him.
Kakashi’s scarred mouth tugged fleetingly, fascinatingly. But he said only: “Are there reinforcements behind you?”
“No.” Ryouma grimaced. “We’re not here to protect Suna. We’ve warned the Kazekage; now it’s his problem to solve. We’re just here to make sure you get out safely, when things go wrong.”
Kakashi tilted his head. The returning smile tugged at the edge of his mouth again and crinkled his eye. “‘When’?”
“You do know what they say about Team Six back home, right? When have things ever not gone wrong for us?” Ryouma shifted his hand on the bed, lacing his fingers through Kakashi’s. “But we’ve always finished the mission and come home alive. This time won’t be any different.”
Kakashi’s free hand darted up and flicked Ryouma between the eyes. “Stop caring so much about what other people say.”
“I don’t— ow— Okay, you can stop—”
They wrestled, sliding a little on the slippery silk coverlet. Kakashi was laughing almost silently, scoring hits with merciless accuracy, careless of his cumbersome and crumpling finery. Ryouma shielded his forehead with an arm-guard and managed to pin Kakashi only by superior mobility and bodyweight. He claimed a breathless kiss as reward.
They were both wearing far too many clothes for comfort. But maybe you could still give a blowjob to a man wearing hakama? Ryouma slid down further, his fingers tangling with ties. “Speaking of what other people say. Why’s the Kazekage so pissed at you?”
Kakashi’s teasing wriggling stilled. Ryouma looked up in time to catch the wrinkle of movement as Kakashi hitched one shoulder. “No idea. I’m not even sure it’s about me — maybe he just hates the thought of being indebted to Konoha.” His mouth twisted. “Or maybe Sakumo killed someone he cared about. He was active in Suna a lot.”
An hour ago, Ryouma might have thought that more reason for animosity against Konoha’s ambassador, Sakumo’s widow. But he’d seen that moment of genjutsu, before Sadayo wiped it away. Spiky silver hair, icy pale skin, dark grey eyes, the color of rain.
Their coloring was more similar than their features. Sakumo’s face was strong-cut, square-chinned, his nose a blunt knife. Kakashi was carved on more delicate lines. But the mask blurred as much as it obscured, and a man who’d known Hatake Sakumo might still be able to see him in his son.
Hate sharpened the memory, sometimes, more than love.
Ryouma propped himself up, elbows bracketing Kakashi’s thighs. “You’d think coming here to save his son — or try, anyway — would win you some points back. The debt to Konoha makes sense. A Kage’s got to hate someone having that much leverage over him, even an ally. If word gets out Suna can’t solve its own problems… I guess that’s another reason Hokage-sama didn’t send teams in force.”
“It’s not like we even want this hole,” Kakashi said, nose wrinkling. “Its only valuable export is its shinobi. They’re not tactically placed compared to any other village, they don’t have natural resources worth fighting for, they can’t grow grain. Half their country is in a drought right now anyway. The Kazekage’s just gripping so tight because he has nothing to hold. And he turned his youngest into a natural disaster. Stupid bastard.”
Ryouma was starting to think he’d picked a bad topic for pre-blowjob conversation. He shifted off one arm to touch Kakashi’s hand, fingertips gentle over the scarred knuckles. “Not sure whether I should ask how bad seeing the bijuu was, or how bad those three days in a cell were. Maybe both.”
“It was fine. It’s not like they hung me up by my toes. It was just boring.” But Kakashi pulled his hand free and flattened it over Ryouma’s chestplate, pushing him back, so apparently he didn’t find this arousing either.
They both sat up. Kakashi adjusted the half-loosened ties of his hakama. “The bijuu… Picture the demon queen from Hayama, but three times the size, and infinitely more chakra. Like that, but worse.”
Ryouma swallowed. “As bad as the Kyuubi?”
Even without the mask, Kakashi’s face could go almost as controlled and expressionless as his mother’s. “No,” he said after a moment. “Not that bad.”
They’d seen only a few damaged or destroyed buildings on their way through the village, so a one-tailed bijuu had less power than a nine-tailed one. Or maybe the jinchuuriki’s decaying seal wasn’t that close to dissolving, and they’d only find out the bijuu’s true power when Kakashi tried to reseal the thing.
Kakashi didn’t need Ryouma’s anxiety on top of his own. He scrambled for the nearest topic change. “At least Iwa doesn’t know we know they’re coming. We think. Katsuko wouldn’t have got her letter out otherwise.” He hesitated. “She seems like she’s doing fine, though. In the uncoded part. Making friends, working things out with her family.”
She hadn’t asked about either of them. Maybe Kakashi’s name would be too suspicious in the surface-level of her letter, or maybe she just wanted a clean break, wanted to focus now on her new role and new teammates. She’d known Raidou for a year, but the rest of them barely a month; by now, she’d had her new team far longer. It made sense.
He wasn’t going to tell that to Kakashi, though. He didn’t want to see that flicker of hurt return.
It came anyway in the faint tightening of Kakashi’s mouth, though the mask might have hidden it otherwise. “That’s good for her,” he said, his voice flat. His fingers drummed on his knee. “What happened with your exam? Did you get the results?”
“I passed.” Ryouma tried to keep his voice easy but didn’t quite bite back the smile. “Field Medic Grade Five, supervised practice only, all the bruises and lacerations and minor chest wounds you ever need healed. Although so far in the last two weeks no one’s even got slightly stabbed.”
A glimmer returned to Kakashi’s eye, a smile teasing at the edge of his mouth. “Pick someone. I’ll stab them for you.”
“Hah! Unless you wanna head back into that jail cell, the officers are our only options, and they—” Ryouma hesitated. “Ah. They… Well, Genma knows about us, now. Or at least suspects. I must’ve done something — I swear I didn’t say anything, though! They’re out getting dinner in the market, but I made up an excuse to stay behind. They’ll be back in an hour or two. You could just lightly stab me, get them off the scent…”
Although given Genma’s warning about concussions, Ryouma showing up with unexplained new injuries after a couple of hours shut in a room with Kakashi might be even more damning evidence.
Kakashi’s head tilted thoughtfully. Then he shrugged. “Okay.” His smile split wider, baring a gleaming sharp canine. “So where’d you rank in your class? First?”
He really didn’t care. Maybe because the captain and lieutenant were already sleeping together, maybe because a month ago he’d offered to tell Minato himself, maybe because he’d missed Ryouma too—
The last bands of anxiety loosened from Ryouma’s ribs. He drew a deep breath, and let himself grin back. “Not quite. But I did clear the top three. They scored the practical portion higher than the written.”
Kakashi glowed. He curled a hand around the back of Ryouma’s neck and pulled him down into a kiss that seared heat like lightning through Ryouma’s bones. His other hand slipped between them, expertly opening Ryouma’s belt.
Giving a blowjob to a man in full ANBU armor was a lot easier than hakama, it turned out. Or maybe Kakashi’s practice was paying off.
Afterward, lying together half-dressed and sweaty on the rumpled futon, with the less comfortable bits of armor and haori tossed carelessly in the corner, Ryouma said: “So how much of a chance d’you think you have with the jinchuuriki?”
All the sated contentment in Kakashi’s face twisted into frustration. “I don’t know. I have theories, but I need information. I need to look at the kid up close.” He rolled over, planted his face into Ryouma’s half-armored chest, and snarled something else that seemed to involve Rasa having the intelligence of plankton.
Ryouma stroked his silk-clad shoulders. “If you got three days in lock-up for just looking at the bijuu on a rampage, we’d probably get a lot worse if they caught us sneaking around searching for the kid… What about the party tonight? Any chance we might be able to talk to somebody who knows something more? Or is at least more willing to talk about what they do know.”
Stiff muscles softened under Ryouma’s touch, but Kakashi grumbled: “Make small talk with Suna dignitaries and see what falls out? I’d rather eat cactus. Rasa as good as said I’d get to see the seal notes — there’s got to be something useful in there.”
Well, maybe Genma would be willing to talk some elderly gossip into saying more than intended. Ryouma resolved to ask him.
“D’you get to do much of anything at this sort of party other than make small talk? I’m guessing we don’t get to play drinking games. And they’d probably throw fits again if we tried pairing off and making out in dark corners.”
Kakashi peeled his cheek off Ryouma’s chest and blinked up at him. “Have you never been to a stupid fancy—” He caught himself. “Right. It’s all small talk and politics. If there’re civilians, they’ll usually ask to see ninja party tricks.”
“…Do you ever agree?” Ryouma couldn’t imagine Kakashi performing on command, like some trained monkey hopping around for coins on a streetcorner, but maybe if Kakashi got to show the really threatening kind of party trick…
Unmasked, Kakashi’s grimace was delightfully apparent. “When I was younger.”
Ryouma revised his mental image from ‘threatening’ back towards ‘adorable’, although a young Kakashi could doubtless be just as threatening as the older version. “I wish I could’ve seen. I wish we’d known each other. Our parents were friends, or close enough— In the genjutsu your mom showed me, they were eating together, laughing. We could’ve grown up friends, too.” Something caught at the back of his throat. He pressed his lips closed and blinked at the ceiling.
Kakashi pushed all the way up. “They— Could you show me?”
His face was too terribly open. Fear, hope, longing, pain— Ryouma almost flinched away from it. Almost wished for the mask again.
But that same agonized hope must’ve shone through Ryouma’s own face when Sadayo offered to perform the genjutsu for him. And she’d done it anyway, with far less cause.
He pushed himself up too, cross-legged on the rumpled futon. “I’m… I’m not nearly as good as she is. I don’t think I can recreate the scene like that.” He’d have to edit it already, leaving out the blonde woman he’d barely glanced at, situating the diners’ table in a foggy emptiness instead of a bustling hotpot restaurant. “And I only got one good look at— at your dad’s face. But I can try.”
He’d always been best at limited-effect genjutsu, tricking the eye for just the moment he needed to gain a more usable advantage. This was far more complicated than a battlefield feint and mattered just as much. He had to build up the layers slowly, rather than relying on quick sketches of sight or sensation.
On one side of the round table, the two faces he’d never again let himself forget: the pregnant woman, the quiet man. Tousaki Miyako. Kondo Ryuu. He could see his own daring grin in the woman’s face, his own long fingers on the man’s scarred hands. He built them, gave them the voices he remembered, and forced himself on.
Sadayo had barely sketched herself, had barely let him glimpse her husband. He filled in the gaps where he could. Hatake Sakumo’s strong features and long, tied-back silver hair had been clear for one moment, but what had he worn? Jounin uniform, probably. Had his hitai-ate held back his hair or vanished under it? Had he worn full gloves, fingerless, bare hands?
Ryouma knew Kakashi’s stiff, coarse hair. Kakashi’s preference for fingerless gloves. He gave them both to Sakumo.
Sadayo’s image came partly from the brief glimpse in the genjutsu, partly from the memory of the twenty-years-older woman who’d poured him tea in the lobby, and partly from the tense, waiting face on the other end of the futon. Black hair in a smooth knot. Clear pale skin, almost translucent over the blue veins of the throat. Dark eyes, veiling pain.
He could think of nothing more.
“There’s mistakes,” he said, sore-throated. “But… here’s what I can give you.”
He cast the genjutsu.
Kakashi let it take over, sheathing the instinctive kai. He’d seen Ryouma’s genjutsu before: knew his tendency toward warm colors, soft edges, details suggested instead of sharp, letting the mind fill in the gaps. It was an acceptable method for a short distraction — good enough to trick the uneducated eye, wrong enough to trip a talented observer. Either way bought valuable seconds — enough to get his hands close, which was all Ryouma needed.
This time was different. Complex, careful, a watercolor built into a breathing image. If he didn’t let his eye stray to the edges, where the restaurant wisped into darkness, he could believe it was real.
Sakumo was smiling.
Kakashi had known what he was asking for, but it still hit like broken ribs. The shock of impact, the empty ache afterwards, before the body remembered how to breathe.
Sakumo’s mouth made an easy curve. His eyes were hooded and kind and crinkled at the corners. His jaw was the strong, square shape Kakashi remembered. He’d be— twenty-two here? Twenty-three? His hand sketched a shape in the air as he said something Kakashi couldn’t hear, and he tipped his head back and laughed. His canines were pointed. He had nine more years before he burned his world down.
Kakashi looked at his mother, even younger, just a year older than Kakashi was now, and had to look away. She wasn’t the same person.
The genjutsu unspooled around him, a snapshot in time. He focused on the other people at the table, who had to be Ryouma’s parents. The man who looked like him everywhere but the expression, because Ryouma’s face was never that still. Even in this happy memory, there was something shuttered in that stranger’s handsome face. The dark-haired woman, Ryouma’s mother, was animated, laughing, defending her hotpot with chopsticks and fierce jabs.
None of them had any idea what was coming.
Kakashi recognized, distantly, that he was having a hard time breathing, but it was very far away.
The genjutsu was getting softer at the edges. Blurring as it grew closer to its natural end. Kakashi wanted to throw his own chakra into it, anchor it like life-support, but it didn’t work that way.
He looked desperately back to Sakumo, holding onto the image. Catching the pieces like he could keep them. The light on long gray hair. The indent at one corner of the smile. The loose-limbed ease of movement. A mind and body working in harmony, instead of fractured and failing. This memory, here, golden and warm, surrounded and supported. Not alone. Not lost. Not drenched red until they’d burned the body gray.
He wanted to hit his father. Wanted to grab him by the throat and shake him and snarl why did you leave us? But Kakashi already knew the answer, and this was just a memory. Sakumo wasn’t really here. Hadn’t been, for a long time.
The genjutsu came apart. There were arms around Kakashi, and someone was making a deeply awful sound. He thought it might be him.
He noticed things in fragments. The hand cradling the back of his head. His face pressed to a solid, half-naked shoulder. The way he wasn’t crying, just making a gods-awful noise, until he realized he was being comforted, and then his eyes burned, overflowed. Both of them, because Obito always, always had something to say. His mouth tasted like blood; somewhere lost in the genjutsu, he’d bitten his tongue.
He’d always been very bad at crying. Under-practiced. He made a mess of it now, trying to stop himself and not quite managing. It had been a mistake to try this right after sex, when he was unguarded and actually letting himself feel his feelings. Now they were all here at once, punching past locks and keys and digging shards out of his chest.
He lost track of time for a little while, in the grinding misery of it all. The old, old ache of missing his dad; the fresh cut of seeing him happy. Of missing his mother, even though she was alive and breathing, because Sakumo’s death had killed pieces of her, too. Burned away everything that wasn’t a steel core of grit and shinobi and service for Konoha, as if she’d wanted to prove how much she didn’t hurt.
He remembered finding her sitting on the stairs after Sakumo’s funeral, with the urn in her hands and her hair loose and wet around her shoulders. She’d been crying and he’d been terrified, because she didn’t cry. Sakumo cried — a little when he was happy, a lot when he was sad, until the end when he hadn’t cried at all. But she’d been crying then. Kakashi had tried sitting down next to her, touching her shoulder tentatively with one hand, like Sakumo had always done, grip big and warm and reassuring. And she’d thrown the urn to the ground.
He remembered it shattering, spilling ash and bones in the hallway. They’d swept them up later. Buried the shards and cremains in the garden, with a marker, because no one wanted Sakumo in the cemetery.
He’d built himself cold after that, because he couldn’t be anything else for her, and she wouldn’t be anything else for him, and moved out as soon as he’d started making enough money from missions.
He told Ryouma a little about it now, when he’d managed to figure out breathing again. Ryouma’s eyes were wet, cheeks salt-scoured, but he listened steadily, and his hold on Kakashi stayed firm. In return, for the first time, he told Kakashi a little about his own parents.
Kakashi knew some. Ryouma had pointed out their names on the Hero’s Stone once, and Jiraiya had said more. Called Miyako a spitfire, and Ryuu the shadow that made her light shine brighter. A man who was trusted, serious, took on difficult missions… and was known by Danzou. A man who’d left on a mission when Ryouma was five, Kakashi learned now, and had just never come back.
“I waited at the gate for weeks. Asking every shinobi who came through if they’d heard his name. Then my mom had to take a new mission — they’d always tried to alternate having someone out and someone home with me, but she couldn’t keep turning down assignments forever — and I threw a screaming tantrum on the floor. Every time, for weeks, when she left and when she got home. ‘Cause she hadn’t found him, either.” Ryouma sighed softly, a wry little twist to the corner of his mouth, as if he was a little embarrassed of his younger self. “She died when I was seven. But at least her teammates brought her dogtags home.”
They were slung around his neck right now, the older shadow to his own. He touched one, rubbing it with a thumb, a habitual gesture.
His parents’ deaths were why he’d gone to his grandfather. A few years and a broken knee later, he’d limped back home to follow in their footsteps, re-enrolling in the academy to finish his avulsed education. It had never occurred to him to do anything else.
It had never occurred to Kakashi, either. They weren’t wired that way.
“Did you ever find out what happened to your father?” Kakashi asked.
Ryouma shook his head. “They must’ve declared him dead eventually. His name’s on the Stone — Hitomi-sensei found it for me, once. I never found out anything more. Which makes sense, I guess, if… Jiraiya-sama said he took ANBU-type missions, but your mo— uh, Sadayo-sama said he wasn’t ANBU. Something else classified, I guess.”
Kakashi’s eye narrowed.
He scrubbed a hand over his face, wiping sweat and salt away, and tried to settle more into his own skin. “Did she say anything else?”
“She said she wanted me to see him — both of them — before she told me more. And then, well.” Ryouma rubbed a hand down Kakashi’s shoulder, warm and forgiving, and changed the subject. “You should have some more water.”
Kakashi had some water. Ryouma had some water.
Then Kakashi said, “Put your clothes back on. We’re going to find out the rest.”
For the first time in perhaps ever, Ryouma got dressed faster than Kakashi did.
ANBU uniform was second nature by now, especially when he was still wearing half of it. Kakashi’s elaborate multi-layered ensemble took much longer, even with a jutsu to steam out some of the wrinkles and Sharingan memory to reconstruct. Ryouma didn’t even know the names of some of those fancy underthings. He was more useful in helping put Kakashi’s hair up, at least.
They left the room looking reasonably similar to how they’d entered. A woman in sharply tailored civilian wear gave them a second glance as she passed them in the narrow corridor, but it seemed more appreciative than suspicious. Well, Kakashi in formalwear certainly looked like the sort of dignitary who’d merit an ANBU guard all on his own, even if he didn’t need one.
The little bureaucrat in the reception area looked positively scandalized. “You can’t wear uniform to Kawase-san’s dinner. The staff have arranged suitable clothing. If you’ll follow me—”
“Later,” Ryouma promised recklessly. “Taichou and Fukuchou aren’t back yet, are they? We’ve still got time.” Fancy dinner parties all happened late anyway. “We wanted to, uh—”
Kakashi said, “Where is she.”
His voice was flat, glacier-cold. It left no room for avoidance.
The receptionist didn’t flinch, but he did flick one betraying look at the second inner door. Kakashi turned toward it without another word.
Wisely, the receptionist didn’t attempt to stop him. The little man just pressed a button on his desk and returned to his paperwork with the air of someone very glad to hand off at least one problem. Kakashi went through the door without knocking, and Ryouma followed.
It was another office, almost as large as the reception area. A desk, filing cabinets, bookcases displaying priceless little porcelains. A sitting area to one side, less formal than the tatami-and-zabutons outside, with a single chair presiding over two facing sofas. The furnishings gleamed in expensive wood and silk upholstery.
Sadayo stood at the open window, beside an empty messenger hawk perch. She had a scrap of rice paper in her fingers, but she wasn’t reading it. She didn’t look round as they entered.
Kakashi stopped halfway across the room. “What else were you going to tell him?” The ice hadn’t left his voice, but it was softer. More dangerous, maybe.
She folded the scrap of paper away and turned to regard her son. “Why is that your business?”
His eye narrowed. “He’s my teammate.”
“And?” She looked faintly puzzled. “When has that ever mattered to you?”
Kakashi stiffened. His chakra was clenched tight as a fist. His knuckles, almost hidden in long sleeves, had gone white.
Ryouma thought of the broken urn in the hallway, ashes and shards on the floor. Kakashi hadn’t said We’re still picking up those shards and cutting each other with them, but Ryouma could see it anyway.
He opened his mouth to say—something, anything, probably something unbelievably stupid but at least then they’d be focused on him instead of each other—
And Kakashi said, “He’s my boyfriend.”
Ryouma swallowed his tongue.
It wasn’t a statement of devotion. Kakashi threw the words out like kunai. Like a challenge. And except for the lack of killing intent this might be a challenge, because Sadayo had gone absolutely still, the same silence-before-storm way that Kakashi did when he was startled.
But where Ryouma had learned to read the subtle flickers of expression in Kakashi’s brows and eyes and the masked line of his lips, Sadayo’s face was marble-carved. Emotionless.
She said at last: “You’re aware that it is illegal here?”
“I truly don’t care,” Kakashi said.
Sadayo’s mouth tightened just a little; that was all. She sighed through her nose, as if he’d disappointed her, and glanced at Ryouma. “I simply advise you to be discreet. Diplomacy with the Kazekage is already difficult enough.”
“Yes,” Ryouma said, dry-mouthed. “I’ve been to Suna before.” Did that sound too dismissive? Did he want to be dismissive?
She’d been kind to him, when it took real effort, and with almost no reason to bother. Why couldn’t she even try for Kakashi?
“Good.” She took two paces to the upholstered chair and sat, perfectly controlled. “Do you wish to finish our conversation?”
He wanted Kakashi to stop looking like he’d taken a knife in the side and was refusing to let anyone know. He didn’t know how to make that happen.
She nodded toward the nearest sofa. “Do you wish Kakashi to be a part of it?”
“Yes, of course I do!” He caught himself on the outright edge of anger. Kakashi hadn’t been there for their first conversation; maybe she thought he wouldn’t be interested. But if she thought Ryouma was going to kick him out—
Kakashi caught Ryouma’s elbow in one hand and shoved him efficiently down onto a sofa. He had Ryouma on his blind side, keeping Sadayo on his sighted. He’d gone unreadable, too.
Ryouma rubbed his hands over his knees. He could control himself. He could say, in a perfectly steady voice: “Kakashi matters to me. Whatever you have to tell me, I want him to know it.”
Sadayo blinked, just once. Her lips parted fractionally. She glanced at Kakashi, then away. The perfect composure iced over her expression again, as if she’d never been interested at all.
“Very well.” She sat back. “Kondo Ryuu was the jounin commanders’ black dog. Their private assassin. When a member of the jounin or chuunin corps had done something that couldn’t be neatly covered up or openly court martialed—when someone needed to disappear quietly without inconveniencing anyone else—they’d be assigned to a mission with Kondo Ryuu. And they wouldn’t come back.”
Difficult missions, Jiraiya had said. Ryouma’d run his share. Murder, cold and calculated, even before Nomiya. But a teammate—
Sadayo glanced at Kakashi again. “Staged suicides were also a specialty, I believe. I… wondered, when Sakumo died. But Kondo had been missing for years by then. And Sakumo could make his own disasters without help.”
“How would that ever work more than twice?” Kakashi demanded. “If the same shinobi kept returning alone, no one would go on missions with him.”
Ryouma could imagine it far too easily. “Assign them in a team. Four or five jounin and chuunin go out, just one doesn’t come back. Accidents happen. Or bad fights where backup doesn’t quite get there in time. Think how Eizo died, on that mission to Mist — Satomi and Kuroda were the only witnesses, and none of us questioned it. And if it’s not every mission, just once or twice a year, nobody’d even notice the pattern.”
And now he couldn’t stop thinking of other missions, other lost teammates — had any of them—?
“There were rumors, eventually,” Sadayo said. She was watching Kakashi again, as if studying him for some other response. “He was bad luck. More experienced shinobi began refusing missions under his command. He was deactivated, returned to the regular service, under that black cloud. The shreds of it still followed him, five or six years later, when he met Miyako. She was warned away from him. Obviously, she didn’t listen.”
“No,” Ryouma said dully. “She wouldn’t have.” He wouldn’t have. Hadn’t.
Not that Sharingan no Kakashi’s reputation was anything like his father’s must have been. Ryouma’s might be closer. The kid who melted faces, who could be as dangerous to his teammates as the enemy…
Not like that. Never like that.
He tried to think of the man Sadayo had shown him, the man he’d shown Kakashi in turn. Handsome, quiet, supportive. A loyal shinobi, who wore the jounin uniform even to a hotpot restaurant, as if he knew nothing else. A man who’d follow orders no matter where they took him.
As Ryouma’d sworn to do, when he took the mask.
His voice wasn’t shaking. He was distantly proud of that. “Do you know anything about what— about why he disappeared?”
“No,” Sadayo said. “It was the middle of a war. He wasn’t the only one to vanish.”
Of course. It made sense. And she’d told him already: they hadn’t kept in touch.
He wondered when she’d learned Kondo Ryuu’s history. Before that remembered, laughter-lit meal? Or afterwards, when the reasons to draw away grew along with Miyako’s pregnancy?
It was understandable. In his childhood memories, no one else had stayed. Now, at least, he knew why.
He bowed his head. “Thank you, Ambassador. For the genjutsu. And— and the rest.”
She inclined her chin gracefully, though her gaze remained sharp on them both. “I suggest you go get ready. Kawase prefers his guests to be tediously punctual.”
Ryouma didn’t give a single damn about Kawase’s opinions on punctuality — was this how Kakashi felt all the time? — but it was an excuse. He was grateful for that, too. He bowed again and got up.
Kakashi didn’t move. He was still staring narrow-eyed at his mother. “Why would you bring all this up now?”
She regarded him back, her expression blank as a mirror. “Because he asked.”
She had warned him, Ryouma thought. Are you sure you want to talk about them now? It was no one’s fault but his own that he’d pressed ahead anyway.
“Kakashi,” he said. “We should… The officers’ll be back soon.”
A muscle flexed in Kakashi’s jaw, beneath the mask. He stood. Slowly, deliberately, he took Ryouma’s hand, lacing their fingers together. He didn’t look back as he tugged Ryouma towards the door, away from his mother. He didn’t say anything more.
Sadayo watched him go in silence.
The door shut behind them. The receptionist bounced up from his chair with a relieved smile, reaching for one of the neatly folded stacks of cloth covering the paperwork on his desk. “Ah, very good. You’ll have just enough time—”
Across the entrance hall, the heavy wooden door swung open. A guard bowed. Raidou and Genma, still masked and armored, stepped through. They’d been talking about something, Raidou’s low voice rumbling in amusement, but they broke off as they saw Ryouma and Kakashi.
Ryouma could feel the weight of those mask-shadowed gazes on their linked hands. He tensed to pull free.
Kakashi’s fingers tightened. His chin lifted. He glared defiance across the hall, refusing to care what anyone thought, refusing to let go.
If he was still willing to stay—
“Welcome back,” Ryouma said, and held on.