His hair is the color of bleached bones. Dai has never noticed that before. He thought it was silver; it always looked silver, in sunlight and moonlight, under blue and grey and black skies, whenever he walked past Dai without a glance.
No, that's not true. There've been greetings. Nods and gentle smiles even. They'd been in the same academy class, after all. For a whole year before he graduated at the top of the class while Dai was held back the first time.
He was a quiet man, that was Dai's impression of him, honest, loyal, intelligent, sincere.
It is still visible, that grace, in the way he holds his cup of sake, balancing it on the splayed fingers of his right hand as if it was an offering meant for someone other than himself.
Dai has never seen Hatake Sakumo drunk, and even now, in this grimy hole of a bar, halfway between Konoha and Tanzaku, Sakumo doesn't look drunk to him, just dead tired.
"Another, please," Sakumo indicates the small bottle on the bar in front of him. The bartender pauses for a split second, then nods his head and turns to fulfill his customer's wish.
He must not hear that word often, Dai thinks. Please, such a small thing to say, like thank you.
Dai squares his shoulders, pushing those thoughts into the designated corners of his mind. There is a time to think, and there is a time to act. A man on a mission has no time to dawdle – even if he is "only" a genin and his mission is "only" a D-rank.
"Sakumo-san," he says, putting his hand on Sakumo's shoulder, "are you alright?" He can feel the shift in Sakumo as he lifts his head a little and looks back at Dai over his shoulder. Tension that seems to reach down into his bones and body heat that simmers under Dai's fingertips. He hasn't touched Sakumo since childhood, when Sakumo was just gifted, not yet legendary, and Dai was just a drop-out, not yet the Eternal Genin.
"Hm?" The flickering bar lights are reflected in Sakumo's eyes. He blinks so slowly that Dai worries for a second he will fall asleep on him. "…Dai... kun? What are you doing here?"
And what is he supposed to say to that? Sandaime-sama only told him to go look for Sakumo, to try and get him back into the village, to look out for him. I fear for him, the Hokage said, however, do not tell him that.
Thinking hard, Dai scratches the back of his head. "Ahhh, I was just in the area, you know? I saw you and I thought to myself, hey, isn't that Sakumo-san?" He can feel his cheeks heating up as he speaks; his lying skills are right there with his talent for ninjutsu. "You know?" Dai finishes lamely, shuffling his feet.
"Ah." It's not much of a reaction, but Dai has gotten a lot worse in his life. He smiles at Sakumo, wondering if a thumbs-up would be too much.
A fly buzzes through the space between them, a fat, black one.
"Do you want to join me?" Sakumo asks. He turns back to the bar before Dai can answer and reaches for the new bottle the bartender has placed in front of him.
Dai fidgets. This is not going as planned. What if Sakumo doesn't come willingly? He isn't prepared for a fight. Besides, he's pretty certain it wouldn't be what Sandaime-sama had in mind.
"Actually… I think it might be better if we headed back to Konoha, don't you think?" he tries again. "Your son must be waiting…"
"Kakashi's on a mission. I don't see him much …," Sakumo says in a low voice, addressing the slim bottle of sake more than Dai. "He's very busy."
The high-pitched buzzing of the fly is interrupted by the dull sound of it bumping against the dirty windowpane.
Dai swallows the strange feeling threatening to creep up his throat.
"Well, yeah! He's got to be! I've heard a lot about young Kakashi-kun! Seven years old and already a chuunin!" This is it, the perfect moment for a dynamic thumbs-up! He makes the gesture, forcing a grin. "You must be just overflowing with pride!"
"…" Slumped forward, Sakumo fingers the neck of the bottle. On the far wall, his shadow towers over him like a giant.
"Anyway, it's getting late… um… we really should…" He nods toward the window, where the fly is still stubbornly throwing itself headfirst against the glass. What little light seeps into the room is tinged red, fading.
"You were sent to take me back, weren't you?" Sakumo sighs. "You could've just said so."
He's been found out! Indignation comes easy. Dai could have slapped the bar in petulant anger at his own incompetence, but he holds himself in check for once. "It's nothing like that! I mean—"
"Why lie about it?" Sakumo interrupts. "It doesn't matter to me. I'll come with you if that's what you want."
Dai's shoulders slump at the tone, the defeat in Sakumo's voice. There's less life in him than in the insect desperately trying to force its way through impenetrable glass.
Dai just nods at Sakumo, at the fly that will be dead by morning, and turns to the door, expecting his charge to follow.
Some things can suck the youth right out of you, he thinks as he steps into the dusk.
Sakumo turns out to be lot less steady on his feet than Dai thought he would be. He sways with every step as if he's on a tightrope, the black abyss right there under the soles of his sandals. So Dai falls into step next to him and drapes Sakumo's arm over his shoulder unceremoniously. The man doesn't even protest, just sags against Dai's side and exhales sake fumes strong enough for Dai to get tipsy off them.
Dragging Sakumo with him like a sack of bones, it takes Dai an hour to get back to the village gate, where they're greeted by a couple of laughing guards.
They've been pointing since Sakumo and Dai made it into their line of sight, now one of them is holding his sides, doubling over, while the other's mouth twists into a sneer. "Aww, look at the two lovebirds," he says to his colleague then turns to Dai. There's a hard, cruel glint in his eyes like a glass shard's buried somewhere deep inside.
Dai knows that look.
He smiles, waves with his free hand, and pulls Sakumo past as fast as he can.
"Thank you for welcoming us back so cheerfully!"
"Hey, you two failures deserve each other!" The words are thrown after them like a volley of stones. They bounce off Dai's back. His skin is thicker than that. Maito Dai's got the skin of an elephant.
"Why did you say that? They were laughing at us," Sakumo mumbles once they've ducked into an empty alley, "they look down on you and they despise me. "
"Well, what's the point in worrying about that?" Dai replies lightly. Sakumo's breath is warming his neck through the bandana. It still smells like a brewery… or a brewery fire.
Dai walks on because that's the thing to do. He's going to have Sakumo home within the next ten minutes, otherwise he'll run twenty laps around the village with his eyes closed! It's good training, giving yourself a punishment like that. It's got nothing to do with wanting to get rid of the other man, before—
"I understand it now. What it feels like to know your child has to suffer because of you… because of your shortcomings…" A drunken whisper. A stab in his heart.
-this kind of thing happens. Dai can feel his shoulders tense up under his super-elastic bodysuit. Maudlin drunks. He doesn't like them.
But Sakumo isn't finished. He is dead weight hanging off Dai like an ill-fitting shirt. There's no energy in him, just words.
"Not only are you not protecting him, no, you are actively causing him harm. Your mere existence is hurting him, making him a target…"
Dai doesn't turn his head. He won't acknowledge this… self-pity. This has nothing to do with him.
"How can you live like this?" gasps Sakumo, his voice thick and constricted. It reminds Dai of things he'd rather forget, of people who have dismissed and forgotten him.
"How can anyone?" Sakumo chokes on that sentence. It sticks in his throat; it sinks into Dai's chest like a poison claw and makes his heart feel like it's pumping acid through his veins.
Dai's had enough of this now. He shifts his grip on Sakumo with the speed and precision of a taijutsu master, so fast that even if he had been sober, there wouldn't have been much Sakumo could have done to escape him.
Then he bends forward just a little bit and lifts. Gravity does the rest.
"Hey!" Sakumo's protest doesn't come until his chin hits Dai's shoulder. "What are you doing?!"
"Fulfilling my mission. Taking you home!" Dai can already feel the wind in his hair. He slides his hands down the backs of Sakumo's thighs into the hollows of his knees. Sakumo's struggles are so weak, they're barely noticeable. "Hold on tight!"
"This is undignified!"
Dai can't remember the last time he's heard someone sound this aghast. Well, Gai can get like that sometimes. The kid still lacks his papa's energy and determination. He thinks too much about how others might see him.
"Oh? Don't worry! They won't see us; I'm pretty fast!" he calls and then he starts running with Sakumo flailing for a second before giving in and clinging to his back.
Whatever else Sakumo was going to say is carried away by the wind, swallowed by the night.
"I told you no one would see us." Dai slaps Sakumo's shoulders like the good pal he is. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, he thinks. He works up a grin bright enough to light up the night sky like a million stars. "And you have to admit, that was fun!"
"Fun?" Sakumo's still swaying a little. For a second his eyes cross; then he blinks slowly like he's just waking up.
Concerned, Dai cocks his head. Was Sakumo's face this green before? Well, it's a good color on him anyway.
He slaps Sakumo's shoulder again to express camaraderie and support and manages to catch the other man with his left hand before he is knocked to the ground.
"Your house is over there," he says, pointing at the front door helpfully when Sakumo just keeps blinking in confusion. "Do you need me to-?"
"It's fine." With that Sakumo finally turns around and walks, slowly but steadily, towards his home.
Seeing Sakumo fumble with the keys, a thought suddenly crosses Dai's mind.
"Hey," he calls after those slumped shoulders. "About my son." The key clicking inside the lock, Sakumo pauses but doesn't look up. Dai takes a deep breath. "You don't know him," he says. "Gai's pretty strong. Most of the time he doesn't need me to protect him. But if he ever does, I will be there. If he needs me, I will protect him with everything I've got."
Dai listens to his heartbeat thundering in his own chest. When did he clench his fists? He forces himself to relax, flexes his fingers. He's said what he needed to say. The night air is cool on his hot skin. He has nothing to be ashamed of.
Sakumo turns his head, just enough for Dai to see his face in pale profile. Moonlight gives his ashen skin an eerie glow. He dips his head once in acknowledgement of Dai's words. His white hair falls into his eyes, obscuring them.
"I will protect my son as well," Sakumo says softly, "I'm willing to do whatever it takes." With that he pulls the door open and slips away into the darkness beyond the threshold.
Dai spends a few moments looking at the silent house and its black windows. He waits for a light to be switched on, for a sign that there is life inside the structure now.
But the house stays dark and silent. No light to be seen, no noise to be heard, so Dai turns away and goes home.
He doesn't think about Sakumo's words as he walks through the night by himself.
He doesn't think about them the next morning.
He doesn't think about them, not until after.