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Tsundoku

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What, exactly, was it that she was doing wrong?

Her procedure was just as it had been described to her when she’d shown an interest, the very same as what the scrolls depicted, but…

It wasn’t exactly turning out the way it was supposed to, so she was obviously messing something up in the process. Well, either that, or this jutsu really wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be which she doubted, because she'd seen other people use it and have it do exactly what it was supposed to do. Which is what had interested her in it in the first place.

Gah, so frustrating

“Yo.”

At the sound of the unknown gruff, deep, scratchy voice she turned around quickly with a glance to the surrounding area in confusion, pulling herself out of exasperated thoughts. She had been walking down the street thinking about her failure to – yet again – perform a jutsu that she’d been working on, which wasn’t exactly high level, though she’d never particularly used the element before.

Having not sensed anyone approaching, she was a little irritated with herself for being so preoccupied that she was unaware of her surroundings, before looking down to where she heard the soft, somewhat pointed clearing of a throat... and into the face of the cutest pug she had ever seen in her life.

Any feelings of ill will she had, were disappearing like a leaf on the wind. Pun totally not intended, but she appreciated her own thought processes for a pitiful moment before her brain completely became a pile of mush at the sight of so much cute.

Her fingers twitched with the sudden strong urge to rub the tips over his oh-so soft looking floppy little ears, and wrinkly skin, to touch those tiny, tiny paws, but she managed to hold herself back.

Honestly, she needed to control herself better.

Still, he was just adorable.

“Um, yes?” her voice was a tad bit higher than it usually was, due to tension in her body as she restrained herself. “Can I help you with something?”

“Got any water?”

At the question, she took a closer look at the dog, the Summons, she realized after a moment of scrutiny, one with a very distinctive mark on its tiny doggy vest, and saw that he was rather bedraggled, and panting a little.

His squished face was so solemn, dark eyes so doleful that she couldn’t help her internal squeal at the sight of it, as he panted softly, tiny pink tongue stuck out ridiculously from between small, needle sharp fangs. Beige and gray sides heaved beneath the light blue cloth, small black paws that were slightly turned in towards the center of his chest were supporting his less than substantial weight, and that velvety black nose reflected wetly in the sunlight.

Without thought, she popped a bowl – one normally used for rice – out of one of her scrolls and with a snap of her fingers summoned some water from the particles in that air to fill it, and squatted, flat footed down to put it on the ground before him, arms wrapped around her legs to better control her urges. This wasn’t just some dog, she couldn’t reach out and fondle those adorable features, this was an intelligent fellow shinobi of Konohagakure, and she would not – would not – reach out and pull at the rolls on his face, no matter how enticing they were.

“Thanks,” was the gruff reply as he started to lap it up rather quickly.

“Hatake-san working you hard today?” she queried, squeezing her fingers tight into fists as they twitched towards him. “Even with the heat?”

His face was so serious and it was so cute… all those marvelous little wrinkles

“Aa, he’s got brats now, apparently.”

He stared forlornly down at the empty bowl before gazing up at her with wet, dark eyes which caused her left eye and cheek to tick a few times with strain before she managed to snap for more water to refill it.

“Thanks.”

“Well,” she started, after sealing away the empty slobbery bowl to give her hands something to do. Normally, she’d have at least rinsed it out after having someone else use it – even just a dog – but she was too focused on keeping her hands to herself. “Keep up the good work.”

“Hmm,” he nodded at her, dark eyes considering, and oddly solemn. “Go ahead, give me a pet.”

Her hands spasmed at her sides and she bit her lip, eyeing him with consideration, unaware of the girlish hope glimmering in her green eyes.

“…Really?”

“Aa.”

Slowly, so as to keep her composure to some extent, she extended her fingers and smoothed them over his silky skull just behind his forehead protector, gently sliding the tips over his floppy ears, before moving to give him a little scratch behind his ears that he leaned into with a doggy groan, causing an uncharacteristically warm smile to move over her features and her cheeks to pink. It had been a long time since she’d been able to pet any animals, let alone a dog, and the fact that she was doing so was made all the sweeter by the fact that she had been given permission to do so by the animal himself instead of by an owner making the decision. She contemplated going underneath his chin to give that a rub as well, before he sighed and reluctantly pulled away from her hands, doggy face seemingly even more forlorn than before.

“Well, thanks for the water, and the scratch, kunoichi-san.”

“No problem,” none at all. Oh, that had been the perfect cure for stress, an honest relief right there if she’d ever had one. “And it’s Nagisa Asuka, if you ever happen to run into me again,” she couldn’t get rid of the smile that was playing over her features, and she pressed her hands together to keep from reaching out anew to touch those soft, velvety ears. “There’s no need for formalities, ninken-san.”

“Asuka, then. The name’s Pakkun.”

He nodded to her before running off down the road again, and away from the edge of the shopping district he’d caught her at.

“Pakkun,” she muttered to herself with a sigh as she stood again, unnecessarily dusting off the back of her pants to keep her hands occupied, her lips still quirked. “So cute.”

With that, she turned and went back to her search for a place to have a late lunch, that didn’t involve much in the way of cost, considering the fact that the pay for her last mission had yet to be deposited in her account. Hmm, well, there was also the fact that she had needed to restock her knockout and smoke tags, since while she could handle some basic explosive tags with little problem, the other kinds of tags were beyond her. Oh, she should probably get a new set of scrolls as well, since hers were getting dated and would likely wear out before long, and it wouldn’t do to be unable to unseal her supplies because of laziness or procrastination…

“Hmm…” Asuka sighed, tilting her head back to look at the bright blue sky and the few wisps of cloud that fluttered in the high stratosphere. “Well, it looks like it’s yakitori and miso again tonight,” she scowled a little. “I really need to go shopping.”

The amount of time she wasn’t in her apartment was getting expensive when she wasn’t just training and needed to feed herself as well.

~*~

It wasn’t a week later that she ran into the Summoned dog again, and this time on the training grounds.

With sweat dampening her brow behind her bangs, which she pushed back with an errant hand clenched into a fist before stretching to pop her stiff, slightly aching back from strained muscles. The courier mission she’d taken the day before to pay for the afore mentioned tags had ended with one of her teammates getting himself injured and poisoned on an old, forgotten trap that’d been ground laid. Luckily for him, she’d been able to extract it for study and further analyses by the Poison Control Squad, and then treat the most important breaks and seal the wound, even though the idiot had an allergic reaction to the aged toxin. Who did that? It just made everything more irritatingly complicated and used up her chakra. How was he even allowed in the field when he was allergic to a common poison ingredient? Was that some kind of oxymoron, being allergic to poisons? That just made the initial fact that he’d been poisoned that much worse to deal with and him more likely to die in the field. It boggled the mind. Also, because he was almost twice her size, it had been awkward to carry him back to Konoha, making her back ache and burn, the muscles clenching in a way that told of stubborn unhappiness, something that she could honestly agree with.

She sympathized with those who were even smaller than she was who had to deal with those kinds of situations, and she was one of the taller women in the field.

It was always awkward having to carry someone whose body type was so fundamentally different than your own, but the fact that she’d been the only one strong enough to carry him the distance – her other teammate, a man who was similar in size to their injured comrade, was extremely embarrassed at this fact, and rather defensive, though she’d given him little attention once they’d found this out – was still irksome.

So what if they were just chuunin?

Who cares if you didn’t specialize in or utilize any strength based taijutsu?

That didn’t mean that you could slack off on your training just because you’d hit a rank higher than genin! Did the relief of not being sucking into the Genin Corps rot your brain? No! Did that mean that since you weren’t the weakest of the bunch that you could slack off in training? No! Bah, sometimes the others frustrated her to no end.

If you couldn’t carry an injured nin back home to Konoha, back home, you were pretty useless, in her book.

With a sigh, she swiped the back of her hand over her forehead and reached into her kunai pouch for a few pins – which she kept in a little pocket she’d sewn into the flap – to pull her bangs back with, idly thinking that it would be best not to have two differing skin tones due to a tan line on her forehead from her bangs covering everything from eyebrow above.

Yeah, this really wasn’t working out as well as she’d hoped.

“Yo, Asuka,” that same gruff voice called to her, and she glanced over to see the cute pug from the other day – who she hadn’t sensed again, she really needed to work on that, no matter how distracted she was – causing a smile to spread over her slightly sweat dampened features. “Good training?”

Those weren’t exactly the words she would use to describe it.

Honestly, she’d have described it with more frustrated snarls and strangling motions than articulation, anyway.

There were no words.

“Hey, Pakkun,” she returned, before eyeing the slightly misshapen shape to the mound she’d been struggling with miserable disdain. It almost seemed as if she was getting worse at Earth natured jutsu, which she hadn’t thought was possible. “Well, it could be… sort of worse.”

Probably, she thought wryly. Thought I’m not sure how exactly.

“Affinity training?”

“Working on a second, actually,” she stated.

Squatting down as she had before, and automatically pulling out her rice bowl again, sighing at the familiar, comforting – much more natural – action of pulling water from the air before setting the filled bowl down before him.

“Hmm, thanks,” he took a couple of gulps before sitting down and regarding her. “Water type, huh?”

“Yeah,” she nodded, eyeing the dirt mound that was supposed to be a spike ruefully. “If this were my main affinity… well, I’d probably cry.”

Yeah, Earth was… Definitely not her element of choice.

“I’m next closest to Earth, but it doesn’t seem to be working out just yet,” she pinned her bangs back, shaking her head to make sure that they were secure, listening to the sound of her finger length kunai hair ornaments – as ornamental as blades were, anyway – tap lightly against the senbon she had holding her braided buns in place on the back of her skull. “But, it’s not like I’ve been working on it for long. Not even two weeks yet,” she gave a wry smile, cocking her head to the side, chin propped up on her knee. “I try not to judge myself by other people’s standards, since a good few ninja I know start to pick it up quicker, but it does get irritating. I should have started on it when I was younger but, well,” and expansive shrug. “It wasn’t exactly a priority at the time. War and all that, then there were other things to do.”

Looking back at the Summons, she crossed her arms and settled them on her bent knees, pressing her chin into her forearms to stall reaching out to pet him until he maybe once again gave her permission to do so.

“Go ahead,” he stated as if reading her mind.

That smile shot across her face again as she went for his ears and gave him a good scratch, before moving below his chin like she’d thought to do the time before. Careful not to press too hard under his chin, because having a finger jammed up underneath the soft spot beneath the tongue wasn’t fun for any species, she was sure.

“Ah, you’re good at this,” he panted out, melting against her callused hands, giving out a soft woof of content.

“Thanks!”

She laughed softly, petting her hands back over his skull, barely pausing at his hitai-ate before massaging against his back with her fingers through the Henohenomoheji symbol on his blue vest.

“I’ve got ninja fingers,” she playfully fluttered them against his sides to give an example, enjoying the groan he gave at the same time as a cute little wriggle, tiny paws scrabbling against the ground as he did so. “I’m sure you’re used to them.”

“Well, Kakashi doesn’t always have time for rubs,” he sounded despondent, and yet oddly petulant at the same time as he rubbed his wrinkly forehead against her wrist guard lazily. “So, this is nice.”

“Glad to be of service,” her fingers traveled up to his ears and head again as she sighed with regret. “But I’ve got to cut this short. I’ve still got enough chakra to keep at this stupid jutsu for a while, and I can’t excuse not finishing my training,” her lips twisted wryly. “No matter how much I’d rather sit here petting you.”

Despite her words, she continued to do so for several more minutes, before the Summons himself pulled back, glancing behind himself in the direction he’d come from with a sniff, before slumping dejectedly.

So… so cute…

“Looks like they’ve caught up,” he grumbled, standing and shaking his body out of the relaxed state it had been in for a few enjoyable minutes, before dipping his head for a few more drinks from the bowl of water, emptying it and saluting her with a paw. “See ya later, Asuka.”

“Bye-bye!”

Asuka waved as he took off, sealing away the bowl once again and standing, just in time to see three genin come running onto the training ground.

Oh, she tilted her head curiously as she took them in, one brow cocked slightly. This must be Hatake-san’s genin team.

She knew the jinchuuriki right off the bat, and couldn’t help the scowl that settled lightly onto her previously pleased lips. They still hadn’t fixed her regular Laundromat from when he’d done one of his idiotic – though she admitted, it hadn’t been meant to be malicious, the kid wasn’t that kind of person, didn’t have the brains for it, exactly – pranks in the water tanks, the paint he’d dumped in clogging up several pipes, and they couldn’t get the itching powder out of the dryer vents no matter how hard they tried. She’d picked her apartment complex for its closeness to the Laundromat, because when she got home from a mission and had blood and nasty shit all over her clothes, she was either tired or injured, and she didn’t want to have to walk extra when she didn’t have to, and before she had only needed to go right across the street, but after that prank…

So much walking

Well, she didn’t have any real problems with him other than the fact that he’d needlessly complicated her post mission rituals and forced her to take a route she would prefer not to, so she wouldn’t rough him up for it.

Well, that and… the orange was a little… eh…

Asuka may not have been the most fashionable or feminine of kunoichi, but she still wasn’t colorblind.

The Uchiha was obvious as well, and she almost rolled her eyes at the arrogance and petulance that seemed to ooze off of that one. Honestly, the kid should go for a little originality, but there was little she could say about it in his case. It just reminded her in the back of her thoughts just how different Chitose and Haruka had been from the expectations she’d held for them, and the fact that it was rare for a Clan member not to conform to their Elders wishes. This boy was certainly no Uchiha Shisui, or Obito, though, as they were the most outlandish Uchiha she’d ever seen, and whilst both were deceased, she’d found them equally entertaining. Also, Shisui had been a bit of a cutie, even if he’d turned handsome when he’d grown up. Completely adorable in all reality – curly hair on a Clan pretty boy? Fantastic! – especially with how he’d drag his less sociable friend around with him like a particularly beloved toy, more touchy feely with that kid than pretty much anyone else that she’d ever met.

The fact that this boy didn’t seem to be trying to hide how angry and twisted up he was inside seemed to show the fact that he wasn’t nearly emotionally aware or composed as a genin should be, even a newly graduated one.

Politics, huh?

The girl was an unknown, though she may have seen her in the market a time or two, she was sure that pink hair was familiar. Hmm, perhaps in one of the sweet shops? She couldn’t help the slight stiffening of her lips as she caught the scent of perfume on the air drifting towards her and if that wasn’t a beacon shouting ‘Here I am!’ for anyone looking, she didn’t know what was. Honestly, Asuka didn’t even have any sort of heightened senses, and she could probably pinpoint the girl from scent alone, just because it was so strong. She cringed a little inside because it was well known that Hatake Kakashi had some sort of affinity with canines, something that had been passed down in his family, not unlike the Inuzuka, but instead of some sort of obscure bloodline, it had to do with a Summoning contract.

Or at least, she was pretty sure that was it; Asuka was admittedly no expert when it came to most of the Clans.

The poor man must have been weeping himself to sleep at night, or perhaps drowning himself in sake to hold off the inevitable breakdown that being swathed in fabricated scents would bring him too, as it did for several Inuzuka who were around civilians for too long.

They started to act strange, a little deranged because of the chemicals.

While amusing, it was also a bit of a problem.

Having an Inuzuka cackling like mad or either flirting or picking fights with plant life was a more than a little bit of a setback on a mission. She’d once been on a mission that had a civilian born kunoichi who was infiltrating a small group of bandits and an Inuzuka, and watching as the man had gotten strangely close to the ferns where they set up camp had been… well, not quite traumatizing, but it had been up there.

“Hey, Lady!” jeez, did he have to be so loud? “Have you seen a talking dog come running through here?”

Well, he hadn’t run through.

And ‘talking dog’? Seriously? Could the kid not even identify a Summons, or had Hatake Summoned him out of sight?

Was he really that rude?

“No,” she raised her brows, scowl fading into a tight, resigned line.

Well, finally deciding that she was just going to have to put in a D-rank request about the kid fixing the damned Laundromat and be done with it. Even having to fill out the specialized forms for requisition of a genin team, especially a specific one – he needed to learn from his actions, dammit, she just wouldn’t have this happening again – and then deal with the scrutiny of requesting anything dealing with the jinchuuriki would be worth it. Mostly, that is. Perhaps once she reached that stage, she would find ire again, but in those moments, it was just too hot to be irritated.

She still lamented, though.

All the walking

“Naruto!” the girl hollered and Asuka winced at the combined decibels, sticking a finger in her ear to even out her hearing again. “Don’t be so rude!”

Surprisingly, and perhaps a little amusingly, the snarl that had been on the genin girl’s features disappeared as quickly as it had come and features twisting into a sweet smile when the girl turned to face her.

Well, this one was going to be dangerously bipolar, she could already tell, even though she was about as unprofessional as you could get at that moment. Perhaps she would benefit in an infiltration specialization, like a lot of civilian born kunoichi did, where you didn’t need many combat skills?

Depending on what you were infiltrating at least…

“I’m sorry for him, Kunoichi-san, he’s a little bit of an idiot. Are you sure you haven’t seen a dog come through here?”

“Ah, sorry, genin-chan,” she smiled back, turning back towards her mound with a critical eye and a much calmer air to her because that canine therapy session had done wonders on her nerves. “But I can’t help you.”

This is surely some kind of training exercise, and I’m not going to interfere, she felt a tiny smirk shiver over her lips. Especially with the pity I feel for that poor Hatake bastard.

Dealing with this doomed squad must give him ulcers already, and she was sure that the Academy exams hadn’t ended that long ago. It had only been recently that the jounin had been lamenting having to test the new blood, hadn’t it? Hmm, she couldn’t quite remember when the last time she’d run into Asuma was, and she knew that had been when she’d heard about him being assigned a team… As for the Copy-nin, this was the first time she’d heard of him passing any genin, so there must have been something good about them. Well, either that, or the Council had insisted on the Uchiha being passed on to genin, and there really wasn’t anyone else they would trust with the boy, or who could either defend against, or protect the jinchuuriki quite as effectively. Not anyone who was taking on genin teams, or was in the village, anyway.

She was a little sorry for Pakkun, though, getting this shoved off on him. She assumed it was some sort of tracking exercise, though, because considering their sensei, it had to be, right?

Well, either that or some twisted, sadistic way of getting rid of them, but she shouldn’t just believe rumors, should she?

Either way, the poor kids didn’t stand a chance.

Taking a slow breath as she gathered her chakra, she planted her feet firmly, before pushing just enough into the ground that she could feel the earth breath and then

Pushing her hand sharply up and out, she was pleased to note a den of spikes – perhaps not quite as high as she should aim for, or as dense – but certainly better than what she had been managing, before a presence appeared quite suddenly behind her.

Unknown.

Needles of highly pressurized water senbon formed behind her just before she remembered that she did indeed know this chakra signature – if only faintly, with the Konoha regulation chakra broadcast that shifted into perception the moment she felt something like hesitation – as well as the familiar scent of dog washing over her nose, causing her to relax her battle ready muscles, the needles to dissipate once again into the air. And really, she was within the confines of Konoha, so she really shouldn’t be nearly as twitchy as she was, with such hair trigger reactions, but for some reason she just couldn’t seem to help it, feeling a constant strain of unease of late, almost like she had eyes on her all the time. She turned around with a frown on her face, only to be faced with that silly smiling eye sitting above his mask and a closed orange book held against his chest with one hand and the other held up palm out to signal peace.

Right. She was sure he was harmless.

Her shoulders were already slumping and her brows quirking exasperatedly – with only a touch of unease – at that ridiculously unthreatening aura, even though she knew he could rip her limb from limb with both hands behind his back. It was irritating how unassuming this man could seem.

Stupid jounin.

“Ah, how nice to see you again, Nagisa-san,” the cheer in his deep, smooth voice was mildly disturbing. “Lovely weather we’re having.”

From out of the corner of her eye where she stood regarding the taller adult, she could see the gawping jinchuuriki, the shocked girl, and the sullenly trying not to look interested Uchiha staring at her as if she were the most interesting thing they’d ever seen, either that or the most scandalous. Like the Sandaime in the nude or something. Which… that was a disturbing thought. Urgh. Not that she didn’t love the Hokage with all of the fierce burning of the Will of Fire, but that was just… not an image that she was interested in in the least.

Oh, right, she’d done jutsu in front of impressionable genin. Hadn’t she always been interested in cool jutsu when she was their age? She couldn’t quite remember, but she might have been more interested in weapons at the time, or perhaps it was taijutsu… no, no, it was her brief – very, very brief – stint with condensed explosive tags and complex Fuuinjutsu, wasn’t it? Time just flew by.

Like her hand almost had with the tags.

Yes, it had been a very brief interest. Almost nonexistent. Not worth mentioning at all.

Hence why she bought her high grade explosive tags now, instead of made them herself like some nin.

Still was a crater in Training Ground 36 though, and she was always very careful to avoid the bets about where it must have come from, if only because she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep a straight face. Disturbing childhood traumas and all that. Plus, some of the stories that bored off duty ninja could come up with were just marvelously ludicrous, completely and totally ridiculous. It was pretty great.

“Hatake-san.”

Her returned greeting was dowsed with some level of dry exasperation, her brow furrowing as she wondered what exactly it was that the jounin wanted from her.

The man had totally startled her on purpose. Well, either that or he lacked a propensity for spatial awareness – she sincerely doubted that – or he lacked social awareness that startling another ninja while they are training is not okay.

The latter theory was the least hard to believe, if only because his social retardation was a thing of legend. It was likely that regulation was something that he was familiar with, but was ignoring with all the aplomb of an Elite Jounin who really just didn’t have anything to fear from a chuunin of any rank. Still, it was completely outside of the normal for him to have approached her like this.

He wasn’t exactly one for pleasantries from what she’d discerned, and she certainly wouldn’t have felt him if he hadn’t have wanted her to, so clearly something was up. They both knew that he didn’t even have to have shown up seeing as the kids could, and would, have continued on their search like good little genin drones, but it looked like he was interrupting that expected routine. For some reason, she had the momentary, out of the blue and quite sudden thought that perhaps this was going to be some sort of extortion, that perhaps he would try and bully something out of her, and then immediately she shook it off. Even if some jounin were useless pricks – puffed up bastards a good portion of the lower ranks of jounin were – she had never gotten that sort of vibe from the lazy pervert before her, and even the worst of jounin wouldn’t do something that low in front of impressionable – talkative and loud – genin.

“I was wondering –”

“No. Whatever it is, I’d really much rather not.”

Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.

She blanched internally at a sudden, disturbing thought.

It didn’t have anything to do with a challenge from Maito Gai, did it? Oh gods, she sure hoped not. The man was infamously monstrous. She’d rather deal with the infuriating, grating, more than a little awkward personality of the Copy-nin over the highly exuberant, bright and frighteningly dangerous – possibly deranged, no one was quite sure and no one wanted to ask – Green Beast at any time or any place. Heck, she’d rather be obscurely blackmailed within an inch of her life and sanity than have to deal with that frightening eyesore of a man for any length of time. He just didn’t know his strength. She’d seen him accidently shatter a man’s ribs by hugging him when he’d been so very happy for a reason no one could understand and then another time patting a woman on the back he had thrown her spine right out of place and she’d been off duty for a month.

Asuka just didn’t have that kind of padding in her bank account to go without mission pay for that long, or the levels of masochism to be able to deal with that man.

“Ah,” he rubbed the back of his head and put away the Icha Icha before gesturing to the far side of the training grounds, the opposite side that the genin were on. “You kids go on and find Pakkun, alright?”

He waved them away without care and proceeded to ignore them as he herded her away from their hearing, but not before she heard the sound of their grumbling as they continued on their way. After the kids had disappeared into the tree line he turned to her and leaned against a nearby tree trunk, shoulders slightly slumped, eyeing her thoughtfully.

“Hear me out,” he held up a hand to forestall her as she opened her mouth to deny whatever it was that he wanted, before placing it in his pocket as he had the opposing one. “You are a very competent kunoichi, Nagisa-san.”

She blinked at him, her brows drawing together as she stared.

… Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. Actually, there wasn’t much I was expecting, but this is certainly better than anything else I could have come up with.

Better than a challenge from Gai, she had to admit.

Pretty much anything was.

There was a tiny – not so tiny, really, she could admit to herself – part of her that was pleased, and, admittedly, a little embarrassed at the blunt praise. It wasn’t often that she was complimented on her skills as a ninja of Konoha. Actually, it wasn’t often that she was complimented at all. Not in ways that were, you know, complimentary. She would have had to speak to more people for compliments to come into the equation, and she rarely found the need. She found her time was much more practically and usefully spent to train, or read in relaxation, and puzzle over jutsu that she’d never be able to perform. Sometimes she would let Anko drag her to dango every once in a while and let her vent about the horrible crush she had on Ibiki, and how she really wished that Kurenai would just bang Asuma already to get the man to loosen up a little and stop giving the Hokage such a hard time.

She agreed with that last bit, anyway.

Everyone had known since they were children that it was more than likely that Asuma and Kurenai would become an item, but it seemed they were putting of the inevitable.

Plus, he had been holding that grudge for an absolutely ridiculous amount of time.

“Thank you?” she returned after a brief pause.

“There are very few truly competent kunoichi that one would trust with children –” Oh. She could almost see where this was going, and she felt her brows rising incredulously. “– and I have no idea how to make that girl into an able bodied kunoichi, and while I would normally turn towards Kurenai at anything female related, she has her own brats to look after.”

The girl’s scent must have been killing him for him to ask her for help.

It was… a little sad, really.

Poor man.

“You want me to work on the girl,” she deadpanned, rocking back on her heels and setting her hands on her hips, lips pursed with thought. “Make it so that she doesn’t get herself killed.”

Well, it wasn’t like she didn’t want to help the future generation, she’d just never thought of herself as someone who was very good with children at all, and she hadn’t been good with them even when she was one. Hmm, neither had the jounin before her, and he was a sensei even after having been a much worse adolescent than she had been, attitude wise, if she remembered correctly. The rumors of his horribly bratty attitude and icy demeanor had reached even her lesser ears through her gossipy, downright rumormonger, teammates back when she’d been a genin and then a chuunin. Hell, she’d heard more than she’d ever wanted to about him out of Obito more than once back in the day, but back then all she’d really wanted to do was make that doofus smile at her, so she’d kind of zoned out sometimes and made commiserating noises. She’d never met the Hatake until they were older, after all, and that was after the Kyuubi attack. And, well… everyone was a different person after that day.

The girl could certainly do with a stern talking to, she could see that. Any ninja worth their salt could see that the girl wasn’t in any way preparing herself emotionally or physically for the life she’d chosen for herself, and wasn’t taking this line of work seriously at all, not really. She had fangirl written all over her pretty little face, and while being girly wasn’t a bad thing, you could still be kickass and dress well at the same time. It was apparent that this girl had yet to learn this lesson.

Still, she wouldn’t be able to do much in any case, what with having to take her own missions, as well as train –

Wait.

She smiled when the thought struck, unaware of the slight darkening of her eyes as they half lidded, as if in threat, causing the jounin before her to shift a little uncomfortably.

Who better to have helping her when developing a secondary affinity than the Copy-nin? The man who used several – if not all – of the affinities himself? Who had needed to build them up?

“Sure,” she nodded, turning back to him from where she’d looked away in thought. “You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours.”

“Oh?” he raised his own visible brow in question, relaxing slightly, a movement that was imperceptible to her.

With a frustrated wave, she showcased her abysmal earth technique that was already crumbling, somehow having gotten wet on the inside, causing her shoulders to droop a bit. Ah, well, that hadn’t happened before. She rubbed a hand over her face before turning back to the incredulous looking jounin, his visible eye slightly scrunched, as was his brow, as if wondering what in the world she had done to have results such as those.

She wondered this as well.

“Help me with my affinity training on occasion, and I’ll do what I can for the girl when I’ve got time.”

A dark eye considered her for a moment, and then the deteriorating state of the jutsu she’d cast, before shrugging and nodding at the same time, a move that should have looked positively awkward as he stood straight, but didn’t look it in the slightest on his lean frame as she looked up at him. Jounin, she thought amusedly, shaking her head a little with a small smile. They are so ridiculous.

“Sounds good,” as he spoke they both glanced over towards where there was a spike in chakra.

At the same time as the jolt of chakra, there were the echoing cries of several of the same voice and the distinct poof-squeak noise of poorly constructed Shadow Clones being extinguished, before a familiar small form darted out of the woods and to her feet, leaning against her combat flats clad foot comfortably and staring up at his Summoner.

“They suck,” he stated plainly to the pale haired man, causing her to snicker and squat next to him in a position that was beginning to feel familiar, placing her hand on his head after his doleful glance up at her and scratching him softly behind his ear. “The – ah, that’s nice – orange boy has a good sense of smell, but he doesn’t know how to use it, and the cat-boy didn’t even try,” she snorted at the moniker for the Uchiha. Well, several of the Clan were known to use Cat Summons back in the day. “The stinky girl just followed along behind the boys, who were following the crappy directions of the orange boy.”

Asuka sighed.

“Well, looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me,” she muttered, shifting to scratch the Summon beneath the chin again.

She shared a commiserating glance with the pug.

That man sure knew how to shove work off on to others.

The epitome of lazy.

~*~

When his Summon had returned to him smelling of a Konoha kunoichi – one who didn’t even bear the slightest scent of chemicals as most women did, which was a mild relief – he’d thought little of it, even though the pug looked a little more relaxed than usual, as if he’d gotten spoiled with a good pat down and some rubs. It wasn’t unlikely that whoever this mystery woman was – he had taken an idle breath, wondering if the familiarity of it would click, though it didn’t, the scent too faded – she had given in to Pakkun’s dangerous wiles and petted him to his little heart’s content. The fact that his Summon was a bit more effective and pleasant to be around was a bonus, since Kakashi rarely had time to comfort or connect with his pack in between missions for either ANBU, or for the increasingly more common jounin lounge handouts. The time they did manage to scrounge up was usually used for training, and that didn’t exactly lead to too much in the way of bonding, and he fondly remembered the days of relaxation and lying about with his dogs and Sensei before the Kyuubi attack had decimated their ranks.

Days like those were few and far between, and the missing human factions of his pack were an empty chill that shuddered over his soul as he hardened and numbed the heart still stubbornly beating in his chest, dulling the comfort and warmth that his canine pack mates brought with them whenever Summoned. Sometimes he felt the ghost of callused, elegantly ink stained hands shifting through his hair or and leanly muscled arm thrown around his shoulder, other times the warm safe feeling of a soft chest and heated pale skin wrapping him in a hug, a curtain of crimson ghosting over the bared corner of his features… Ghosts, ghosts everywhere.

The fact that they’d given him Sensei’s son was something he didn’t miss, couldn’t have missed if he’d been deaf, dumb and blind, and he knew it was likely that they’d given him to Kakashi because they knew he was the least likely jounin to intentionally ruin him.

It hurt, to look at that kid.

He looked just like them, Minato-sensei and Kushina-san, a perfect blend of them. That golden sunshine bright hair that spiked everywhere without direction or cause, those blue, glimmering eyes were his father’s set into his mother’s softer, rounder features. He was tanner than both of his parents had been, Sensei having been a much paler man with sharper, more defined features though what color he’d had was a soft golden tan, and his eyes had been a tad lighter, less of a deep sea and much more of an icy, all seeing blue that pierced deep within like he knew the very heart of you. There was no point in his memories where he could actually remember seeing the Uzumaki woman with anything like color to her skin other than the red of a flush when she’d either been enraged or when Sensei had done something that had softened the shell she kept around her heart. Kushina’s boisterous attitude had taken over whatever personality traits he may have gotten from his father because of her abrasive personality, as she had done when they were together and alive, taking over the man who was her husband with her liveliness and joy.

Apparently, his looks hadn’t really delved inward, and so he wasn’t all that bright – his parents had been an intellectually inclined battle prodigy and a rather, if raucous, intelligent woman – but he had the horrifying verbal tick that his mother had, only a little altered, and it made Kakashi twitch every time he heard it. He was getting a terrible crick in his neck from tensing every time that ‘dattebayo’ left the boy’s mouth and it made his habitual slump a little more uncomfortable every time he saw those hellish brats. There was also the very real fear that this boy would look at him one day with features that spelled out betrayal – he hadn’t figured out the scene it would be in, not yet – and he knew that if that ever happened, the mixture of two of the most important people in his life’s features unhappy with him in that boy would kill him.

The Uchiha boy was just a big ball of angry hurt – just looking at him made his chest ache with memory – it was plain as day that he had no idea what to do with all of the rage and hate and pain that was wrapped up inside of him, and the Copy-nin was just as clueless, and he felt great fear that he was going to ruin this boy, the way he’d ruined himself as a child. They’d foisted him off on him with the excuse that he had the Sharingan, but it appeared that the boy wasn’t aware enough of his fellow shinobi to even know that – it didn’t really occur to him until later that the Academy curriculum hadn’t exactly been as up to par as it should have been – and the last Hatake was well aware that the Uchiha Clan gave basic training to all of their members even before they activated their Sharingan, and then had them figure it out mostly on their own as a rite of passage. Every Sharingan was different.

Obito had ranted on it enough when arguing that when he got his Sharingan he’d be able to best the Hatake prodigy even if other Uchiha in their age group had not been able to, because his Sharingan would be the best and most powerful. Yes, that he remembered.

Vividly.

The civilian girl was going to give him an aneurism though, and possibly deaden his sense of smell with whatever monstrosity it was that she coated herself with every day, the conflicting scents of her shampoo and whatever skin products and oils she used made him want to vomit or burn out his nostrils. Even his covered eye watered at the combination whenever he had to bite back the urge to sneeze or pinch his nostrils closed just to get a moment or two of relief. He had taken to mouth breathing through his mask whenever he was around his team whilst standing the farthest away from her as he could, and while it wasn’t as bad, the scent clung to the back of his nose and mouth like ash, and there was little he could do but put strong chakra filters on the inside of his mask every day, because otherwise he might go mad. Every day he had to swap out his masks to make sure that none of the stench from the previous day clung to him and drove him up the wall with acid on his face. Dealing with her was a lot like torture really, and it reminded him of his training when he’d first been pulled into ANBU and he’d needed to be able to pass psychological and physical torture regimes fitted for someone with enhanced senses, but well… that had ended, and this hadn’t.

It bothered his instincts to no end that he couldn’t smell her chakra at all beneath that disgusting and powerful concoction that emanated from her form. What made it worse was that he couldn’t tell if that was because she had so little that it barely escaped her skin like a civilian – unlikely, considering the fact that she had graduated after all – she was extremely unhealthy and therefore her chakra was working to keep her alive and so didn’t move outward to conserve – a possibility, he’d rarely seen her eat, and he remember Rin eating almost twice as much as he and Obito when they were growing up – or whatever it was that she wore was just that bad.

With the fact that the three were under his care – like young in a pack, pups he was teaching to hunt and pounce for the first time – he was supposed to ingrain their chakra scents into his psyche so that he could protect them better and be able to find them, to know them as well as he could so as to be able to help them when they were injured or ill. Part of the reason he had avoided having a genin team thrust upon him was the fact that he would automatically take them under his wing, pulling together a patchwork pack of the likes he hadn’t had in years, and he didn’t know what to do with that. He didn’t know if he could do it again, deal with the very real possibility of losing that feeling of wholeness, of not being alone. Again.

If he wasn’t already so broken, he’d shatter.

Before, he had always been a Beta in his packs, the second in command, never an Alpha, never in the lead, never in charge of the others and above all. That wasn’t what he was before, he wasn’t born to lead. Always following, always a follower. He’d never needed to ingrain the scents of his subordinates into his subconscious on such a deep level, never given them the power over him – no matter how abstract – to control his reactions by giving him the need to suss out whatever caused them distress and to destroy it as his Hatake instincts dictated.

Hell, he’d never even taken in Obito’s scent until his dying moments, so even the memory of it was poisonous and tainted with blood and pain, taking in Rin’s after that because he couldn’t stand the thought of forgetting her too.

He regretted that.

He always would.

It was an ingrained action though, taking the lead, and he was mildly gladdened by his family’s particular affinities with canines that made it so that he didn’t have to ask Pakkun for help in sorting out hierarchy in his infantile new pack. The willful pug that was his lifelong companion never would have let him live that down.

Still, with those ingrained needs from ascending to pack Alpha, he needed to know the ins and outs of his new… young.

Guh, even thinking about it was disturbing in new and intensely nauseating ways.

Despite the nerve wracking disconcerting realization that he had pups – sweet kami, just kill him already, he was too young for this – it was still more distressing that he couldn’t tell anything beneath the scents with the girl, and it messed with his instincts like mad.

Half the time he had to stop himself from grabbing her and pressing his face to her skin to try and find her real scent beneath the filth she wore that she apparently thought was attractive, and the other half he had to resist the internal demand that he throw the girl from his new pack because she smelt wrong. Either one of his urges would likely cause a reaction that he had no desire to deal with, and the repercussions of whatever accusations would be thrown at him would be complicated and exhausting in a way that even paperwork wasn’t.

Being a jounin instructor was turning out to be very stressful. And they hadn’t even left the village yet. Kami help him.

His already considerable respect for Sensei grew every day.

Kakashi’s Team 7 wasn’t nearly as bad as his had been.

Well… at least Rin had been a quiet fangirl, and always the professional medic when needed. That may have just been the wartime seriousness though. He’d never really tried to figure it out, or get to know her, because losing her after Kannabi would have hurt that much worse, especially with their little four person pack being all that remained.

Not that he hadn’t ripped open his own chest that same day as he had hers even though he’d tried to be distant without being distant, anyway.

When he’d halfheartedly sent the kids after Pakkun to track him down – he’d firmly ignored the betrayed look on his longtime friend’s canine features – it was with the halfhearted excuse that he was a nin who did a lot of tracking as a specialization… so it was not really a lie. When he had then followed them lackadaisically as they clamored all over Konoha to observe their progress while analyzing their abilities – providing himself some mild entertainment – and to make sure they didn’t somehow kill themselves, he hadn’t expected to run into the kunoichi that his Summon had before.

He solemnly, and perhaps a little hysterically if he was being honest, which was rare, swore that Naruto would lead them into inter village anarchy somehow, he just wasn’t sure how yet, and he added the combined decibels that the blonde and pink haired genin released to another fact he hated about his team, he was mildly concerned about retaliation on the woman’s part but was sure that she wouldn’t physically attack them. Probably. Even if she did, he was more than capable of stopping her despite his rather lengthy distance. Being speedy and agile was something that he had learned from the best, after all, and there was no one in Konoha today that could beat him when it came to battle reactionary reflexes. Not even Gai, though he came close with sheer speed. His ability to perceive and distinguish things at top speed was still not quite up to par with the Copy-nin’s just yet, though Kakashi was sure that he’d have it down in a year or two and then likely be faster than him. Without chakra boosts, anyway.

Even though he’d rarely used them – it made him uncomfortable, made his chest heavy and tight – there were several Hatake tricks he still had up his sleeve that he’d only pull out if he were facing someone where that speed was a necessity.

Like the Raikage.

Which, to be frank, was a rather unlikely situation.

The chuunin his genin team had interrupted so rudely was perfectly within her rights to meet out punishment for the kids for bothering her, especially when she was clearly their superior – the observation course at the Academy was apparently not as demanding as he remembered it – her posture and bearing all but screaming military experience. There was also the fact that while she was practicing jutsu, it was very easy for them as the god awful disaster team to bungle it up with their very presence, just barging into a training field without going through the proper procedure to enter when someone else was using it. It was dangerous to enter when it was unknown what kind of battle or jutsu that could be walked into. Those kids were just asking to get stabbed or fried, really.

He was so young – no matter the cracks that Sensei’s son said about his hair – and he was sure he was beginning to get an ulcer.

There was a reason that people reserved training fields and it was so that when you looked at the roster to find one open or to share it was easier to see if your training would mess with someone else’s who had a prior claim. Since his Summon had chosen to run through her chosen reserved field, it was unlikely that she was one of those hoity toity know it alls like the chuunin that manned the mission desk, but it was never wrong to be safe rather than sorry. A good dose of paranoia in a shinobi was healthy.

More or less.

It was debatable, he had been told.

Even still, he felt a little sympathetic when the kunoichi stuck her finger in her ear to make sure she hadn’t gone deaf. What was her name? Hmm. He knew her name, he did, they’d been on a mission together before, more than one, though not any time recently… Ah, right, Nagisa… um… Nagisa Aiko? Nagisa… Arata? No, no… Nagisa… um… Asuka! Right, Nagisa Asuka. She was easy going and relaxed enough with those less experienced than her so as not to get on their cases for going against protocol, but others wouldn’t be and would take it out of their hides and possibly put in a formal complaint. Depending on how they reacted to his interference, should it be required.

There were two extremes should that occur with other ninja they could have come across. Either ridiculous devotion – and possible trying to schmooze the kids which was actually unlikely to work at all, since they were kind of canny despite being idiots in pretty much everything – or they would despise him and take it out on the kids, making it that much worse for two of his young pack than it already was.

Somehow he was going to have to bring that up to them – the fact that they could get into trouble for those kinds of things now that they were considered adults as genin – and he was really beginning to wonder at the standards of graduating from the Academy even when not in times of war. This was getting ridiculous, the amount of things that they didn’t know or blatantly seemed to ignore.

The look of disbelief and vaguely pinched discomfort on her face was one he knew well.

He wore it under his own mask often enough, although his was tempered with weary, resigned horror a good portion of the time as well.

The thing was, was that he was beginning to worry that his face might get stuck that way, with his luck.

It was such a handsome face too. Such a tragedy to ruin it with the pain of the children that were wrecking his senses of hearing, smell – and by association, taste – and his intestinal tract with their inordinately bad luck and chaotic nonsense.

Sandaime owed him for wasting his youth on these brats.

He’d noted the amusement she regarded his genin with, the mild exasperation and distaste she looked at each of them with equally, felt mildly relieved that she wasn’t glaring at Naruto with hate and disgust the way some did – it pained him to see his comrades look at his Sensei’s son like that, the people he’d… sacrificed for… for them to hate and fear his child like that… it was agony, it was… exhausting – or eyeing the Uchiha boy like a piece of meat. That was a little disturbing thing he’d taken note of in several females – even those up to ten years older than the boy – when he’d been observing the kids and how they interacted with others when they thought they were alone. A number of women, mainly civilians, eyed the orphan as if he were their next meal ticket, their claim to fame. It was more than a little disgusting, and he’d found himself improving on the traps set about the section of the Compound the boy lived in when he found some of them lurking about, even kunoichi around Nagisa’s and his own age. Gold diggers were disturbing in so many ways it wasn’t even a little bit amusing, especially when there was an unhealthy dose of pedophilia thrown into the mix. Not that any dose of pedophilia was not a bad thing.

It didn’t take long before epiphany struck as she was eyeing Sakura with distaste and a little awkward worry like when one was waiting for an accident to happen or witnessing someone as they blithely walked into a trap involving explosive tags or untested poisons. Those were protective instincts that she had no idea what to do with blooming, he was sure, dealing with pups – er, young, no youths… children, sweet kami his brain… – that were unprepared for being weaned or separated from an adults protective shielding. She didn’t seem the type to have a soft spot for children in general – he didn’t know for sure though, he’d never bothered to look into her before – but for the potential future comrades before her, the current liabilities that she’d diagnosed relatively easily in less than five seconds made her uneasy and worried for their survival.

These were future pack mates and she saw that they stood on shaky thin legs and were more fluff than muscle, looking puffed up and smug but with no idea what to do with budding claws and fangs other than to bear them in a way that wasn’t really threatening that they couldn’t even back.

Of course! He thought, even as he watched her perform a rather nice Earth Spike without hand signs once she had dismissed the genin – an action he much preferred when the other options were considered – though there was something odd about the jutsu, and used shunshin to appear behind her. I’m a genius!

When her reflexes and chuunin honed chakra sense caused her to nearly attack him, he’d been mildly impressed with the water needles that had materialized before him, but had taken her blanching at his appearance in good nature, even as she dismissed her jutsu without a thought and eyed him warily.

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t a wise move to appear so suddenly himself, and to be so rude about it as well, without even a flicker of chakra to warn her. Heck, he’d just been mentally reprimanding the kids for not using proper procedure to approach an occupied training field, and he’d tossed it out the window without a second thought himself. Hypocrisy at its finest, really.

The fact that she didn’t look at him with awe or the strangely disturbing trepidation that some of his fellow shinobi did gave something in him reason to relax and he eye smiled at her, the corners creasing just a touch more than usual in regards to his innate genius in idea coming up with these type of things, the features beneath his mask matching the movement.

Really, he was so smart.

He didn’t know what to do with himself some times.

Ah, the burden of genius…

“Ah, how nice to see you again, Nagisa-san,” he stated cheerily, enjoying the way her eyes narrowed suspiciously, and the way the kids off to the side were staring with some rather badly concealed interest. “Lovely weather we’re having.”

With the ease of growing, resigned practice he ignored the hollow pang in his chest as the genin gave him the stink eye, clearly mistrustful of his presence despite the fact that he had in no way threatened them bodily or otherwise since they had passed his exam. It was his job to protect them, and they didn’t trust him to do that, sometimes seeming to find him the biggest threat, and he really had no idea what to do with that because the last thing he wanted to do was harm a member of his pack. He was Alpha, and their innate leeriness of his very presence had his hackles raised because they felt threatened, and it was his duty to get rid of threats, and it wasn’t as if he could get rid of himself. Well, he could, but, that was… not an option. It baffled and twisted him, and while he knew that they just didn’t know him very well – he wasn’t exactly an open book, he would admit – with a part of him being approving of their wariness when encountering a potential threat, most of him didn’t know how to take it because he would never hurt them.

No matter how reluctantly he had taken them on or forcefully they had been shoved onto him.

They were still his, despite the fact that he lacked experience in the role of teacher and protector, despite the fact that the very idea terrified him and made his nights long with nightmares and memories he’d rather forget, pulled forth the strong desire to hide behind a porcelain mask where things were easier, simpler. Sleep was hard to come by, peace when he managed to do so also a precious commodity, making his hours at the Memorial Stone that much sharper and colder, his mind that much more numb and apathetic in thoughts.

It was like they sensed the failure in him.

Saw the stains on his hands.

“Hatake-san,” she returned shortly, still wary, pulling him from his dark, useless thoughts.

Well, this wasn’t going so bad.

“I was wondering –” he started with some optimism which was alarmingly out of character, and seemed to put her off even more.

“No. Whatever it is, I’d really much rather not.”

Ah, there it was.

For some reason, he felt mildly relieved.

He’d remembered her to be somewhat blunt from their few interactions, a personality trait that he could appreciate with the chuunin kunoichi where he was normally confronted with effusive prattling and political knots of subterfuge with most everyone he encountered in the upper echelon of Konoha’s ranks. It didn’t really depend on who you were, with this particular chuunin, though he was sure she was nothing if not polite to the Sandaime though he’d never heard her debrief from a mission, because there wasn’t a member of the active duty roster he could think of that didn’t worship the ground the Professor walked on as a leader if not a person. He’d also noted on their few joint missions that this rather equalizing aspect of her personality was something that some of the other chuunin he’d heard speaking to her had found odd about her, since she didn’t socialize much.

It was rare for a kunoichi to spend so much time training, to hold herself apart from the rest of her comrades as much as she did, as most kunoichi – and shinobi – were social creatures, and it was rather interesting that it appeared she hadn’t adopted the social norms of her station because of this habit, wasn’t doing the usual chuunin act. Most below his own jounin status he came in contact with either tried to butter up to him something awful – frankly, it made him uncomfortable as well as more than a little embarrassed for their fervency and ridiculousness – or felt insulted, snubbed or perhaps disgusted at his very presence, as if he were the reason that they weren’t jounin.

Technically, to some extent, he probably was, but it wasn’t his fault that their ability didn’t match up to his.

Still, he managed to convince her to speak with him, and studied her as she thought about his proposal, her eyes a little distant as she pondered.

Nagisa was one of the more utilitarian kunoichi he’d come across, one of the most competent in her abilities he’d seen below the rank of jounin who had not sacrificed their femininity completely, something that his female student wouldn’t respond to at all. She had a no nonsense kind of air to her, but if the way she treated everyone equally stretched over to his most painfully troublesome child – some nin disliked being around civilian born, and he didn’t know if she was one of those or not – he could definitely take advantage of that.

When her eyes narrowed and darkened into a look that either spoke of extreme desire to cause pain or uncomfortable and dark arousal, he’d felt his nerves spike.

S-sadism…? Ah, no, don’t be ridiculous. This isn’t one of Jiraiya’s books.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea?

No, no, I’m a genius, right? This should be fine, right?

Sometimes, though, he did wonder…

“Sure,” she stated with a nod.

She turned to him as she spoke, her expression relaxing as she turned to him with clear, rather pretty green eyes as the corners of her lips turned up slightly, completely changing her features into something much warmer and open, causing his gaze to catch on a small scar on one side of her mouth. That had to have been an impressive backhand to leave a scar like that, because the look of it had her having had it split right open to the teeth and then sewn back shut. She had rather pleasant features, attractive in a way he could appreciate without much thought when she wasn’t staring blankly or looking at someone like they were the scum of the earth, as if they weren’t good enough to grace the sole of her shoe. Although, to be fair, he thought that those were her factory settings for expressions and he doubted she knew that she had a rather intimidating mien even outside of battle, just because she wasn’t a very open person and her features rarely reflected her thoughts.

To some, he rather thought that it was generally thought that they did and that was what made her fellows avoid her.

“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

“Oh?”

All things considered, he was a little interested in what she would want from him, what it was that a self-sufficient woman like herself couldn’t do or get on her own, and not so small a part of him was waiting for the disappointment that came with people wanting to use his rank for something, or to get in good with the famous Hatake Kakashi.

When she’d indicated with some frustration her previously proper seeming, rather nice Earth jutsu, he found himself gob smacked to note the actual water that was dripping out of the center of a deteriorating spike. He was sure that it had been a perfectly respectable Earth Spike last he’d checked. Was… was that supposed to happen? He had never… No, no, he’d done something similar when he’d first started using different affinities, hadn’t he?

Right, his Lightning had completely destroyed his Earth jutsu, until he’d learned to separate his affinities properly, something that had amused his Sensei to no end.

Don’t even get him started on learning even basic Wind… he could almost hear the hysterical laughter whenever a particularly strong draft passed through wherever he was, the gasping chokes and snorts that the golden haired man had released when he’d nearly blew his hand off with a Gale Palm…

Yes, affinity training could be problematic.

“Sounds good,” he managed, a little relieved that assistance with training was all she asked for.

Training, he could do. At least, with other mature nin.

He had no idea what he was doing with these genin.

Oh gods, he was going to ruin them.

He mourned his fading youth.

~*~

“Wow, you really are here,” the chuunin mused aloud, a little amused at the fact that all three genin were sitting at the training grounds waiting for their jounin-sensei, despite the fact that they must have learned that he wouldn’t show up for at least another three hours. Even the civilians – who could care less, unless they were females of a marriageable age – knew of his terrible habit of tardiness. “I didn’t think you would be.”

“Eh?” a squinty eyed stare from the yellow haired nuisance who made it so that she had to go an extra twenty minutes to get her laundry done after his evil prank. “Who’re you?”

“Baka!” the pink haired girl – Haruno Sakura – smacked a fist into the back of the jinchuuriki’s head. “That’s the kunoichi from the other day, when we were tracking Pakkun-san!”

“Eeeh?” he looked at her with a frown, before the metaphorical light turned on. “Oh, right! Hey, Lady, what are you doing here?”

Lady… ugh. This kid has horrible manners.

“Standing,” she stated dryly, turning to examine her would-be student, dismissing him with a wry smile, entirely missing the shocked, confused look that had suddenly started to cross his mobile features. “Haruno Sakura, right?”

The girl blinked light, jade green eyes at the older female, something like confusion and surprise crossing her features.

“Yes, that’s me.”

At the clarification, Asuka nodded her head as she studied the girl.

“Right, I’m Nagisa Asuka, Hatake-san asked me to work with you for a time,” she gestured towards the opposing side of the training grounds. “Shall we discuss this in private?”

After staring at the chuunin with something like shock for a moment, the girl nodded shyly and tucked a long lock of pink hair behind her ear.

“Of course, kunoichi-san!”

They hadn’t even started to move towards the semi privacy that the other side of the training grounds could bring, when the orange clad genin burst in.

“Eh? Sakura-chan gets extra training? Why does she get extra training?” he scowled at Asuka with surprising ferocity, and she blinked at him in astonishment. “I want to train too!”

Brows furrowed, she glanced at the glowering Uchiha, to see something like disgruntled agreement on his pale, pretty boy features.

Oh, something like sympathy and confused discomfort squirmed in her chest at the odd flinching kind of loneliness and awkwardness in those two pairs of bright and dark eyes set in young features. They just don’t know what to do with themselves, do they?

That’s… familiar.

“Here’s the deal,” she set her hands on her hips, considering the two boys and the flushing girl who stood next to her staring at the ground and playing with her hair nervously. “I only spoke to Hatake-san aboutkunoichi training, and considering the fact that only one of the genin before me is a kunoichi – unless one of you spontaneously loses a piece of your anatomy and sprouts something else – you should speak to your jounin-sensei about any additional training that might be up for grabs, alright? Negotiate it out with him, okay?”

“Oh,” there was something endearing about the sheepish shrug of orange clad shoulders and shuffled feet as the boy rubbed the back of his hand. “Eheh, sorry. Good luck, Sakura-chan! Do your best!”

“Of course!” she shot back, looking pleased nonetheless, even if that expression melted away into dejection at the indifference that had taken over the Uchiha’s features.

That, Asuka thought with absolute certainty. Has to be one of the first things to go, she took a breath and grit her teeth against the urge to sneeze at the overwhelming power of perfume as the direction of the wind changed, pressing her tongue to the roof of her mouth uncomfortably to hold it in. That too.

Once the two females had sat themselves down on the other side of the field, the chuunin found herself quizzing the genin on the basics, and found herself rather pleased and relieved that the girl at least knew theory… well, most of it.

Some of the holes in her knowledge were, quite frankly, alarming.

“You’re dieting, why?” was the first thing that came out of her mouth after the girl had finished speaking.

“Eh?” she flushed a little, playing with her hair. “Well, I want to be thin for…” she snuck a glance over at the surviving Uchiha. “It’s bad to eat too much.”

“Eat too much?” the thought had never occurred to Asuka, not really, not with the basic nutritional outline given after the first year of chakra exercises were introduced in the Academy. “Sakura, dear, do you know how much you should be eating in a day, as a kunoichi, using chakra and doing a lot of physical work, and still growing?”

“Um,” the girls brows furrowed and she looked up with something like confusion on her features. “No? Three meals?”

The chuunin was already shaking her head even as the words came out of the girl’s mouth, kunai and senbon clinking together like chimes in the wind.

“Well, first off, using your chakra takes a lot of your stamina, right?” a nod. “And how do you regain energy?”

“Eating and sleeping.”

“Yes, so, a kunoichi or shinobi should be eating up to – or more than – three times the amount of a civilian, due to growing chakra stores, as well as a good deal of muscle mass.”

At the wide eyed look being directed at her, she found herself much more perturbed. Wasn’t this taught in the Academy? She remembered this course from her own years, and it was definitely something that wouldn’t have been forgotten once taught, but…

“I myself, eat perhaps five or six full meals packed with calories and protein in a day, as well as snacks. Considering I’m a chuunin, with mostly settled physical abilities, this is actually more than I strictly need as I’m not a chakra intensive jutsu heavy kunoichi; the jutsu I do use don’t take a lot of chakra. Those who reach the rank of jounin usually need to take in more nutrients in a day to keep peak efficiency and most also have the ability to regulate their metabolism to use their nutritional intake to the best of their ability. But, you, a growing girl who hasn’t yet settled your hormones or physical capabilities, need a lot, even when you aren’t doing a dangerous mission, which is why even D-ranked missions have considerable pay, to feed the growing coils and bodies of newly minted genin.”

That stare was really bothering her. Did no one ever tell her any of this? Really? Asuka remembered units on nutrition and diet. Like, units and units of study on the subject because the basic action of feeding yourself was doubly important when things like chakra got involved. During wartime, there were even segments in learning what nutrition you can go without when short on rations, which losses will harm you the most in the long run vs. short run. There had been distinct lessons in both her kunoichi and basic classes in the Academy.

Peacetime couldn’t have changed the curriculum that much, could it?

“If not properly fed and cared for, a ninja could collapse their coils by over exerting themselves when out of energy, because, due to dieting or lack of calorie intake, the physical aspect of chakra cannot hold up to the spiritual, can’t support it, causing an overall smaller chakra store. The older you get, the more food you are going to need, and the larger your chakra stores are going to want to grow, which, considering the lack of protein and vitamins you take in a day, could kill you outright, and possibly stunt your growth, or even prevent you from having children, your body sacrificing the unnecessary organs – generally starting with your uterus and ovaries – by cannibalizing your internal chakra stores keeping them healthy to ensure your survival.”

A moment of silence, and something like fearful, shocked sadness trembled through jade green eyes and over wobbling lips.

“Oh,” was the soft whisper, an audible click loud as she swallowed. “You won’t get…” her gaze flickered up to meet the darker, emerald green of the woman before her. “Fat?”

The small, amused, patient smile that crossed her features stayed for a moment before she gestured to her own, toned, athletic physique, decked out in almost zero battle attire as it was, considering she had the day free.

“Do I seem fat to you, Sakura dear?”

“No,” she shook her head as she said it, pink hair flickering around her as she did so. “You don’t at all.”

“No, I don’t.”

With a considering look at the girl before her, Asuka reached into her kunai pouch and brought out a small packet of calorie rich rice crackers designed and created with kunoichi in mind, and handed them to the girl.

“Here, you’re hungry, aren’t you?” the genin flushed, but nodded, taking the bag, but not opening it. Baby steps… “As a kunoichi, you’ll find it hard to gain weight after you hit your physical peak, and very easy to lose it, especially when your life is busy with training and missions, so you always have to make sure that you make time for meals, or carry several snacks around with you. You also must make sure to balance your nutritional plan with how much physical training you do, otherwise you either won’t be eating enough, or you’ll gain muscle too quickly, and possibly hamper your growth. Hatake-san mentioned that you were the top in your class in theoretical testing?” the girl squirmed a little but nodded, her cheeks flushed a little brighter, something like shocked, fragile pleasure alighting in jade eyes. “There are a number of scrolls or books you could either purchase from a ninja geared store or check out from the genin section of the library that contain information to help you calculate your own dietary needs. I’ll give you the list of them that I made for you when we’re done today so that you can work on that.”

When the bag opened with a crinkle, the chuunin felt something like satisfaction settle in her chest.

Baby steps…

“Also,” she considered the girl before her as she ate the cutesy, animal shaped crackers with restrained hunger. The panda shaped ones were Asuka’s favorite, but she’d never say that out loud. “You should perhaps wait until you’ve gained some weight, but consider getting wrist and ankle weights, nothing too heavy, but enough to passively work on strengthening yourself until you can actually have taijutsu training do anything for you. I’d rather you gain at least a solid ten to twenty pounds before doing this, but it is your body, so the decision, ultimately, is yours. I will, however, warn you that doing so too early could damage your ligaments and growth plates. There are a number of texts concerning this that will also be on the list I give you.”

“Hai, sensei.”

It took a moment as the girl stared down at her hands, but the girl looked up from the snacks she’d been eating, something like determination settling into those lightly colored eyes.

Sensei, huh? She raised a mental brow, feeling oddly uncomfortable and almost equally pleased with the title. Well, it’ll do.

“Also,” she frowned severely, taking some satisfaction as she stared into the girl’s eyes that she had riveted on the woman’s resolute, hard expression. “I will have no talking of crushes when you give me an explanation for whatever ineptitude or attitude – be it lacking or superficial – that I find in your training do you understand me? I’m doing this as both a favor to Hatake-san, and to save your life. That boy over there is of no interest to me,” her frown softened at wide, shocked eyes, dark green eyes warming in a way that the pink haired girl blinking and swallowing with sudden emotion. “You are. I’m not here for him, I’m here for you. No matter what Hatake-san might ask in the future regarding those two boys over there, here – now and later – when it is just you and me, you are my priority, do you understand?”

When those lovely jade green eyes trembled and watered, the girl staring down at her bag of snacks, Asuka ran a tender, callused hand over that silky – ridiculously so – pink hair in comfort, pulsing her chakra warmly over the girl to sooth, even as tears dripped onto the plastic of the cracker packaging.

“Do you understand, Sakura?” she asked softly.

“Hai,” she sniffled, quickly rubbing her hands over her face before smiling brightly up at the chuunin, despite her still wet eyes. “I understand, Asuka-sensei.”

“Good.”

She took a breath that was spoiled by an acidic tang and wrinkled her nose a bit in distaste.

“Now, about that perfume…”

~*~

“The Hokage will see you now.”

Looking up at the chuunin at the desk – one of the ones she was unfamiliar with, which meant it likely wasn’t a chuunin, probably some ANBU who had gotten onto the Sandaime’s shit list – when she spoke, Asuka stood and nodded her thanks before entering the office.

“Hokage-sama.”

She bowed at the waist before straightening, taking in the slightly tired looked to those wizened dark eyes as they regarded her from where he smoked on his pipe, leaning back in his seat.

“Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.”

“Asuka-kun, how good to see you,” the warmth and affection she remembered from her youth caused her to smile warmly at the grandfather of Konoha, cheeks warming slightly in something like pointless embarrassment and fondness. “There was something you wished to discuss?”

“Ah, yes sir,” she nodded and shifted to stand in a more comfortable position, features smoothing. “It’s in regards to the Academy curriculum.”

Those dark, tired eyes sharpened as he stared at her, and she realized that perhaps there was more going on there than she had previously realized or considered. She knew that Mizuki had turned traitor, and that he’d been a teacher at the Academy, that he had tried to use an Academy student to steal the Forbidden Scroll, but he certainly hadn’t been situated there for that long, not long enough to affect the curriculum, had he? He hadn’t been a member of the senior staff, so he would have had little effect on things other than giving suggestions to those who were in charge of class arrangements. If he hadn’t, did that mean that there was someone from before that mess who was and had been sabotaging the future nin of Konoha, or had the curriculum switched something out – even something as important as diet and physical health – after having deemed it unnecessary?

She really needed to speak to other ninja more often, if she were missing things like this.

Still, she felt a bit mollified in her dislike of the other chuunin who had been revealed to be a traitor, even if the thought was distasteful.

“Oh?” he extinguished his pipe and set it aside, interlocking his fingers and leaning forward on his desk. “Please, explain.”

So she did.

His expression grew grim as she explained her concern over the complete lack of knowledge in regards to the effect that chakra had on the body of a kunoichi, likely a shinobi as well, and perhaps a complete section regarding physical health having been removed. The fact that stealth training, as well as a regard for other Konoha nin with enhanced senses hadn’t been completely instilled, causing perhaps some dissention in the ranks, as well as animosity towards civilian born nin who didn’t have the ideals taught to them, and caused people like the Inuzuka to not want to work with them. It would certainly explain the lack of civilian graduates in the past years – direct sabotage, and wouldn’t the civilian council just be so thrilled by that? – as well as a drop in kunoichi who were viable for field work – most were civilian born and first generation ninja – making her job that much harder, giving her a heavier load of missions that needed a female presence, but also required battle specialists.

Not that Asuka minded all of the missions that ended up foisted upon her because of her somewhat in demand skillset, but it would be nice to have been able to split it between more than the three other kunoichi who matched the criteria, especially since one of them was a jounin who had other missions to tend to as well.

It was just concerning that there weren't more people with the necessary skill sets to give her and others a break. And if they are injured, well… that's a loss for the village of those kind of contracts.

“Well,” his lips pressed together tightly at the corners, showing his displeasure, and the lines on his face lengthened. “Asuka-kun, please tell my secretary to bring forth all Academy instructors for a meeting as soon as possible.”

“Hai, Hokage-sama,” she bowed as she had when entering and turned to leave.

“Oh, and Asuka-kun?”

“Sir?”

She turned back, her expression inquiring, brows slightly furrowed with discontent.

Something inside her relaxed at the smile he sent her despite the weariness in his dark gaze, and she recognized it as her distress at having caused him unhappiness.

“Thank you for coming to me with this.”

“Of course, Hokage-sama.”

~*~

She snarled as she staggered out of her room.

“Son of a bitch.

Half dressed and ready to tear that little orange loving little bastard a new one as she struggled to bring her half shirt over her head to cover her hastily redone done chest wrap, Asuka was definitely not pleased. Her eyes were blurry from being woken into a battle adrenaline and it being a false alarm, body buzzing unpleasantly, and heavy feeling. Her mouth also tasted like she's licked a cat.

Gross.

“I’m going to kill him.”

He kept pounding away on her door and hollering, and she could hear Sakura scolding him, as well as Hatake half-heartedly trying to get them to calm down in a bored monotone, and a couple of soft snorts from the Uchiha as she threw her leather armor over her front, sticking her arms through the holes and lacing up the back with chakra controlled wires, before double checking that her bandaged ribs were still properly accommodated and that she was wearing her pants the correct way. She’d never had them turn around in her sleep before, but well, there was a first time for everything, and as a ninja she’d learned that strange things happened from time to time.

Quickly securing her wrist guards, she did a small jump up and down, careful of her wounds, to make sure that everything was strapped down the way it should be, and that nothing jingled too outstandingly. Double checking her weapons pouch while stabbing through her left braid and twisting deftly to shift it into a bun with a senbon and approaching the door, she tried not to grimace at the throbbing of the bruise on her cheekbone from her last mission, the stitches that held the edges of the cut in the middle pulling beneath the bandage as the muscles in her face twitched with irritation. While she couldn't put on her usual shin guards with the rather impressive dent that the left one had in it from blocking a rather large piece of shrapnel from hitting Ito in the face, she had some spares in her scroll in her pouch; still, her shin throbbed accusingly at her.

She’d gotten the bruised ribs on this last mission, as well.

With a sniff, she realized that she still smelled slightly burnt, and her nostrils were a little clogged from a light exhaustion fever.

Great.

Finally getting both of her buns into place, she paused for a few seconds to secure the metal shin guards that went beneath her leg wraps before wrapping up her legs quickly, and then she ripped open her door and glared down at the hovering fist of the little beast that had woke her up from her much needed slumber.

“What!” she snapped irately.

Staring at the people in front of her with eyes narrowed and brow furrowed a touch as she gave a slight glare to the loud one, who’s eyes widened as he recoiled comically, before she fixed her tired eyes on the jounin who was standing with his nose in a copy of Icha Icha: Paradise.

“Oh, Asuka-sensei,” there was a gasp that caused the chuunin to look down into the young kunoichi’s eyes. “What happened?”

“Mission,” she stated, rubbing at her eyes carefully, feeling herself softening at the genuine concern in those eyes, before glancing wryly at the jounin and his loud subordinates, expression weary. “That I got home from about two hours ago. Maybe.

“Ah,” the book snapped shut and the silver haired man gave a wince of apology but shrugged a bit, because hey, he hadn’t known. “Well, the boys were bugging me about training, so…” that dark eye looked at her so earnestly that she felt vaguely uncomfortable, but noted that his eye was a sort of deep gray-blue if you looked hard enough. “Please?”

She was tired, she had a headache, her ribs hurt, her face hurt, she was hungry… hmm… well… she was hungry, and he was of a higher pay grade…

And she never said no to free food…

“Fine,” she grumbled, slipping on her shoes and shooting a chakra string behind her from her shoulder to set the AWAY traps before shutting the door so that they could arm. “But you’re getting me breakfast, you smarmy bastard.”

“Maa, that sounds fine,” he eye smiled at her as they set out, and she found herself rolling her eyes and trying to suppress the twitching of her lips as she did so, watching the kids race ahead, the orange one shouting some sort of challenge that the young Uchiha apparently couldn’t back down from, causing him to run forward as well. “You were on the border patrol?”

Her young student ran to catch up, gait much smoother than it had been and she was pleased to note, that even though it hadn’t yet been two weeks since their initial talk, the girl had put on some healthy weight. Kunoichi snacks could do wonders, especially when they were geared towards weight gain. The Akimichi were the best, really they were. Geniuses with food of all kinds for all purposes.

His dark eye glanced over the patch over her right cheek and she sighed.

“Mhmm,” she tried to stretch her arms above her head a little and grimaced at the ache in her ribs as she did so. “Hit and run,” she brushed a hand over her bandaged cheek. “They set a timed explosion for the area we chased them too and then booked it,” she scowled slightly. “What frustrates me is that they had to know that we were heading that way despite route scrambling, and well, the Hokage wasn’t exactly pleased about it either.”

There was very carefully no pattern to the patrol routes, so that no one could predict where the scouts would be to try to sneak past them as the quickest opportunity and that someone had been able to either predict where they would be or had been informed…

Yes, the Hokage was displeased, to say the least.

“No casualties, though?” there was a serious glint in his eye as he regarded her from the corner of it, as she chosen to walk on the side with the exposed one.

“Not yet,” she grimaced on the uninjured side of her face. “But Imori wasn’t looking so good last I heard, he was in surgery, took some shrapnel right in the gut.”

“Hmm,” he returned softly, visible eye dark in thought. “And you couldn’t identify the enemy shinobi?” features dissatisfied, she shook her head, calming slightly at the clinking of her hair weapons. “Dango good?”

“Sure,” she agreed, letting the subject drop with something like relief and a sigh. In all actuality, she’d just have to talk about it more later, anyhow. “But if that’s all for breakfast,” so cheap… “I’m gonna need lunch too, so when you skip out, bring something back for me, yeah?”

He chuckled, as if she had said something amusing, but nodded agreeably anyway, his book hovering comfortably in front of his face.

~*~

“So,” she stood considering the children before her, munching on her current stick of dango, the plate being ever so kindly balanced on the jounin’s free hand, half of it covered in empty skewers. “Show me your stances.”

“Alright!” predictably, the orange loving nuisance-to-her-laundry crowed before settling into… something.

Umm… did he… even go to the Academy?

She’d seen civilians with better stances, and they didn’t know jack shit about taijutsu.

“The hell is that?” she muttered, nibbling on her breakfast carefully, trying not to pull at her stitches again as she stared, brows furrowed, carefully keeping her fingers from getting sticky by holding the skewer delicately with the tips.

It almost looked like he was deliberately making openings in whatever poor excuse for a stance he had. To suck that bad it just had to be deliberate.

This was the sort of thing a master would do to lure in chumps and this kid was far from anything resembling an expert in the art of taijutsu… or anything, for that matter.

The Copy-nin just grunted helplessly from where he was still reading, as well as being a table, leaning against a tree before releasing a prolonged breath that was just loud enough for her to hear the exasperated, longsuffering held within it. Now she saw why he was asking for help, and from a chuunin at that. She was sure, having grown up with a family style, he’d never have had much memory of starting from scratch, and she was equally as sure, that once the kids were settled into a style – a real one – he’d be able to do more for them, considering his experience in taijutsu, and just battle in general, but it looked like they hadn’t exactly been doing much for this kid at the Academy.

Another irritating thing in regards to the curriculum, she was sure.

The Uchiha, when she looked at him, caused her to make a face of half I’m so done and half what.

He was standing in something of a bastardization of the Uchiha Interceptor mixed with the Cat’s Paw, and she really wanted to palm her face, but her hands were both occupied. His feet were way too close together for either of those, though, so she wasn’t quite sure where he’d gotten his footwork, and that made her really uncomfortable. Perhaps he hadn’t thought to adjust it for growing? Or… maybe he’d learned from a scroll.

The thought made her grimace, chest tightening briefly but she swallowed passed the sudden dryness of her throat and sighed, shaking her head slightly.

A wry smile crossed her features as she finished her perusal of the three genin.

While Sakura was the most likely to fall in a taijutsu bout since she was lacking in strength, reflexes, speed and stamina, she also had the most correct stance, and stood in the basic position of the Leaf’s Dragon Balance that was taught at the Academy, something that Asuka hadn’t really done much with since after reaching chuunin and settling into her own style.

Well, it could be worse.

Sort of.

“Alright,” she sighed placing her empty skewer on the empty plate, and sending a wry glance at the seemingly oblivious jounin because last she’d checked there had still been three of the mild sweets left the last time she’d grabbed one, but hey, he had to be hungry too, and he had paid. It wasn’t something to take up arms about. “Starting with the Uchiha.”

His features twisted so that he looked a bit miffed at being addressed like that, and the Uzumaki boy was scowling something fierce as well, but that displeased expression lit up into something like ecstatic joy when all she did was walk over to the pretty-boy and push him over into the dirt. The resistance had been pathetically easy to outmaneuver, and even though she was a seasoned chuunin with a high strength count on her data sheet she should have at least felt more strain than she did for opening a kami-forsaken door but the kid apparently ate like a bird or something.

Well, she’d probably have to take care of that, too, then.

Sweet mother of the Sage of Six Paths, these kids were a mess.

“What –” he looked outraged from his seat on the ground.

“First off,” she held up her hand to forestall him. “Were you trying to stand in Cat’s Paw, or Interceptor? Because whatever that was, was neither of the two.”

His expression was mutinous, but he stood, dusting himself off and answered her query.

“Interceptor,” his lips were tight at the corners with anger.

Still, he wasn’t disregarding her as some of his predecessors would have, and that was good. He wasn’t a complete prick yet… still, perhaps it would hit after puberty did.

Like a punch in the teeth.

Sudden, jarring, and more than a little painful.

“Yeah, so, that wasn’t a very good starting stance,” she gestured at Kakashi, who had magically made the plate disappear altogether, but looked up lazily when she’d waved in his direction. “A demonstration of the Interceptor stance, if you please,” with a sigh, the man closed his book and settled his feet, his left hand still holding the orange volume. “Now,” she placed her hand on his side, ignoring the warning, dangerously aware and armed electric buzz of his chakra beneath the firm heat of coiled, lean muscle shifting with fabric. Hmm, perhaps this wasn’t one of her better decisions. Touching a jounin without their express permission? Hah, well, at least he hadn’t stabbed her yet. “When I push him,” and she did just that, using significantly more force in comparison to shoving at the Uchiha boy when she did so, and he shifted his center of balance perfectly with no sign of strain. “Did he fall over?”

“No,” made it out through gritted teeth, his pale cheeks flushed with either embarrassment or fury, probably a mixture of the two, brows almost meeting in the center they were so tensed, dark eyes glimmering with heat and displeasure and something she couldn’t quite identify.

Children were insurmountably complicated.

“See his feet?” she crouched down into her familiar flatfooted squat, gesturing at the sandaled appendages, and looking up at the Uchiha boy to make sure he was paying attention, and pleased to note, that while sullen, he was still listening and watching. While he wasn’t exactly eager he was still willing to listen to a more skilled ninja to excel his own abilities, even when they weren’t from a Clan or of jounin status. Wait, had she ever mentioned to them that she was a chuunin? Well, whatever, it didn’t particularly matter as long as their sensei didn’t contradict her somewhere down the line. “Look at the way his back foot it planted parallel to the direction he’s facing, and the way his front is angled just slightly out, not pointed straight, to work as a counterbalance from attacks from the side, making it easy to shift his weight accordingly, and his knees are bent to absorb impact and direct the weight away.”

Standing, she grimaced a bit at the pull on her ribs, but turned back to the lesson.

“And his arms, the left hovering a bit lower than shoulder height, bent almost ninety degrees at the elbow, the right echoing that in front of him,” she snapped out a lazy backhand at his front, and he easily, smoothly directed it away and his arm was back in place, she barely noted the interest that all three were having in the demonstration, as well as her in depth explanation. She also didn’t noticed the dark gray-blue eye that blinked at her thoughtfully before returning to a bland expression behind a dark navy mask, position perfect and at ease despite her proximity. “Also, the slight lean forward at the hips, not the waist, keeps his weight proportionally centered.”

She turned back to the Uchiha survivor, surprised, but pleased at the serious expression on his features, as well as the interest that was shown in dark eyes over the anger the perceived insult had garnered her when she’d ‘embarrassed’ him in front of his peers.

“The Interceptor style is aptly named, in saying that you intercept attacks, it is a mainly defensive, reactionary taijutsu, with Cat’s Paw being its aggressive partner. In the Interceptor you should have no need to repurpose your stance, and can defend from both sides, by simply turning your torso,” she heard the shifting of fabric behind her that signaled the jounin doing just that. “And switching the positioning of your arms.”

She waited for the question she could see burning in his eyes as he stared contemplatively at his jounin-sensei’s unfaltering stance, patiently settling her weight carefully onto her right side to relieve some of the pressure on her ribs.

“How do you… know this?” his brow was furrowed, and there was a familiar, heavy dark pain in his eyes.

For a moment, she glanced at the other two genin, only to be inordinately pleased at their own serious expressions as they regarded their taciturn teammate, the two keeping their silence at some nonexistent signal that it was not the time.

“Most of the older generation ninja have worked with Uchiha in the past,” she stated calmly, looking him in the eye despite the pain twinging in her chest. “I was on a genin team with two, and while I could kick Chitose’s ass around the block, Haruka knew was he was doing most of the time, and didn’t mind explaining his taijutsu styles, even if he wouldn’t teach them outright.”

She quirked a sad smile at him, her eyes darkening with memories. Ah… how she missed the twins. They were always good for a laugh, for joy, for… everything. They were always… would always. No matter how… unconventional their relationship had been, she had cared for them deeply. To her it was a given. They had been teammates. Especially after that night twelve years ago when the entire village had wept in grief, they had meant the world to her, had been hers in a way no one else was anymore.

They had been Haruka and Chitose, and she’d loved them.

She still did.

“And, well,” she glanced at the Hatake behind her – pulling her mind from thoughts of those she’d lost – who had returned to a normal standing position, shoulders slumped and hands shoved haphazardly into his pants pockets. “Him knowing is something of a given, considering he is who he is.”

At the mildly confused – who was she kidding, they had completely uncomprehending expressions on, like brick walls – looks on their faces, she shot an incredulous one at the jounin, only to receive a helpless, sheepish shrug in turn.

Did they really not know who their sensei was?

How… did you miss that?

What was the Academy teaching these days?

Oh, whatever.

She didn’t have any reason to start giving history lessons as it were, and she definitely wasn’t going to bring up the Sharingan with that little sourpuss there, not when he still had that hot poker of grief and rage and childish insecurities shoved up his ass.

“Anyway,” she cleared her throat, shaking her head in disbelief. “The Uchiha is going to go over there,” she pointed towards the far side of the training field. “And Hatake-san is going to go over forms with him,” she gave a quelling look at the boy who looked like he was going to speak, only for his teeth to click quietly as his mouth shut quickly. “Forms for both the Interceptor and the Cat’s Paw, while I work on you,” she pointed at the jinchuuriki with a frown, already imagining the headache that this would bring. “And hope for the best.”

Something like a despondent sigh escaped the jounin but he began to walk away, and the Uchiha boy followed after him, once he’d given her something of a searching, uncertain look. He had seemed to find whatever it was he was looking for in her calm visage as she gazed mildly back at him, left brow quirking just a touch as if to tell him to hurry it up, and then he had went on his way.

“Now,” she turned to the orange wearing boy, only to see him situating himself into that mess again. “No, stop, that’s gross,” she grimaced at the bewildered look he sent her, but she waved a hand in front of her face at it, like it was a bad smell. Luckily, the pink haired girl had listened to her advice and no longer had herself drenched in chemicals so there was no real scent wafting eye wateringly in her direction. “What you are doing is not a taijutsu stance.”

“Eh?” he looked confused, before glancing at Sakura, as if she had an answer, but she was watching her jounin-sensei correcting and explaining the stances of her crush on the other side of the field. Honestly, the girl hadn’t even entered puberty. “But, this was what I was taught! I’ve been using this since forever!”

A fierce frown found its way onto her aching features.

“Who taught you this?”

“Um,” he glanced at his feet before looking up at her sulkily, sky blue eyes dark with unhappiness and a smidge of pain. “Mizuki-sen… I mean, Mizuki-teme.”

“Ah,” she breathed in deeply through her nose, eyes closed for a moment. She really hoped he was having such a nice stay in Interrogation… perhaps she would ask Anko to make sure he was comfortable. It was only polite, after all. “Well, it’s wrong no matter how you look at it, but that’s no fault of your own, so, we’re just going to have to start from scratch then, aren’t we? I mean,” when she opened her eyes again, she was greeted with an oddly watery pair of sky blue eyes, and something like helpless wonder on that silly, scruffy whiskered tan face. After a moment, he sniffed, rubbed the back of his arm over his face and then grinned up at her. What had she said? “It’s not like you can’t learn taijutsu, and I’ll drill into your skull what I can so that you have something to work on in the mornings when that asshole over there,” she jerked her thumb towards the jounin, who looked like he was shaking his head at something as the dark haired boy stood in the opening stance of Cat’s Paw. “Decides that he needs more primping time in the morning.”

The silence wasn’t uncomfortable only because Sakura was looking longingly at her crush – Baby steps Asuka, remember the baby steps – while the Uzumaki was staring down at the ground with a conflicted sort of expression, the woman herself was looking at the yellow haired child with slightly furrowed brows and a small frown, eyes half lidded against the sun. From an outsider’s perspective it looked like she was a little sternly disapproving, but up close, when bright blue eyes flickered up to look at her what she conveyed was amused concern through a tilt of her head and a hand on her hip, torso slightly tilted to keep her from worsening her wounds.

“You ready for this, kid?”

“Yeah…”

The boy was inordinately quiet for a moment, before he brightened with determination and a grin.

“Yeah, Nee-chan!”

~*~

There had been something a little familiar about her when he’d first seen her, but he hadn’t remembered until she’d shown up to take his pink haired teammate to teach her about the girly side of being a shinobi and hadn’t ignored him the way other grownups did. That steady gaze, those deep green eyes that seemed to stare right into him, into the core of his sense of self with intent he didn’t understand was what jogged his memory, the burnished way that her hair had burned brightly in light of the sun on the bridge like a new copper coin had cemented the memory into place, and he’d found himself silently contemplative, even as he was hesitant.

She’d helped him once when he was younger, though he didn’t think she remembered it.

Why would she?

It wasn’t like he was worth notice.

He’d been looking into some store window, he couldn’t remember exactly what it was he was looking at, but it had been bright enough to hold his attention for just long enough for one of the villagers to notice him hanging around and get upset. He had still been trying to get on their good side at the time, had tried to be quiet and good for them so that they’d like him, would maybe smile at him like they did the other kids. It was before he’d given up on being what they wanted and had decided to be what he wanted even if it hurt and he cried more on the inside. It was before he felt what it was like to have his heart warmed by the acknowledgement of someone other than Hokage-jiji, to eat with someone and not have the stall owner glaring down at him and giving him subpar orders for extremely overcharged amounts of money.

He really was glad to Teuchi for dealing with him, for giving him a place.

Eating his ramen was like coming home.

Ah! Get out of here, demon brat!” the man had yelled, waving a broom at him threateningly, causing the blonde to stumble back away from the window with wide eyes and hunched shoulders. He didn’t know if the man would actually hit him, but it had happened enough that he was leery of it even then. It didn’t matter how quickly the pain left, it still hurt. “You’ll ruin my business!”

Scampering back, he hadn’t noticed the kunoichi who had paused in her shopping with her two dark haired companions to frown at the shop keeper intensely with green eyes lit by the reflection of sunlight like a shard of bottle glass glittering in the rays, the color eerie in the daylight, the older man flinching and quavering under her gaze, nor did he see the way that the two young men seemed to slump with resignation as she followed after him with nothing but a short word to her companions, handing off bags of groceries to them. All he noticed was the fact that some of the civilian children had spotted him after the man had yelled out about his presence and running towards him until he ran away himself, and then they were chasing after him with taunts and jeers, some were laughing and picking up rocks, throwing them ahead after him, trying to hit him or trip him up, to make him cry, to fall and bloody his knees, to dirty one of the few sets of clothes he had.

Sometimes he hated how clumsy he could be, how sometimes his skin felt too tight and the inside burning energy that kept him awake at all hours of the night much too big – he would later learn that this was chakra and feel awe… and much later fear at what else it was he could have been feeling – for his little body and small limbs, because he tripped and fell, skinning his knees and hands with a muted cry of both resigned pain and despair.

Sometimes… he just hated.

A rock connected with his shoulder and he ducked down into a ball, covering his head against further assault as he’d learned, an ingrained reflex when one of them had managed to get a hit in on his small, thin form. Once one had gotten him, the rest would get more enthusiastic and he’d end up bruised and cut all over. Even if it healed really fast it still hurt – if he gave up he’d give in and he knew that was a bad thing even if he didn’t know why and the ache in his chest would get worse and worse like a pressure trying to crush him from the inside out even after they were done and gone.

Bored of him.

“Hey.”

A young woman’s slightly husky voice had interrupted after a second rock had caught him, this time in the lower back, causing him to release a whimper and wish it was just over already. Wished that they’d get bored soon and wander away because he did nothing to entertain them, only hid his face and stayed as still as he could so as to lose their attention, even though it was lonely being alone. Her voice was surprisingly close, like she was… right behind him. Close. He could almost feel her heat.

“What do you brats think you’re doing?”

“Ah! A ninja!”

“Oh no!”

“Run!”

The footsteps that had been following after him scurried away quickly at the interference, and he hesitantly looked up and around himself, finding none of the kids that had been chasing after him in the area, but there was a pair of legs behind him.

They were kind of long, too.

Much longer than his stubby six-year-old legs.

Following the limbs upwards he found himself faced with a rather pretty young woman who was examining a rock that she had apparently intercepted with something like both detached distaste and rage, though it seemed to him that it wasn’t directed at him like it usually was. Naruto was well practiced in telling when someone was angry at him for existing and when they were upset about something else, and her expression was definitely in the latter area, though he had no idea why she seemed so furious and disgusted about whatever that rock made her think about.

She had pretty bronzy brown hair pulled back in a single bun on the back of her head that was covered in black cloth, the string that held it tight against her hair dangling down with little shimmering beads on the ends, red, white and navy blue little commas. Her large green eyes were very glittery and warm in the light when he looked at them, eyelashes like a bronze haze in the summer light where they bordered those pretty green orbs, before she turned to him with her features clear of blemishes as she studied his slightly dirtied face and his wide blue eyes, lips soft and slightly open as she ran her gaze over him. There was a hitai-ate tied around her forehead, glinting just barely in the light of the sun, the metal a little beaten up and scratched, the material that held it in place looked a little dirty and burnt as well. Really, she actually kind of looked like she’d been in a fight – he imagined something epic with made up explosive jutsu being flung around, he bet she been really cool facing whoever it was she’d been fighting with, probably with the calm, assessing gaze she wore just then – her black and brown ninja clothes all mussed up and there was a little bit of blood on her left arm coming through the bandages she wore on her arms.

For some reason, he got the feeling that whatever fight she’d been in, she’d been really strong. That she’d won.

Naruto had rarely won anything in his life – and never anything that anyone but the old man Hokage had congratulated him on – and he felt awed at the thought of someone who so clearly did had defended him from the bullying village children.

“You alright, kid?” she had asked with an uncharacteristically soft voice, squatting down next to him, still playing with the rock in her hand. “You’re not hurt too bad?”

“F-fine,” he had stammered out, before scowling at her despite the hot burn in his cheeks as she kept steady green eyes focused on him. She was… she was looking at him… at him… “I-I’m… I-I didn’t need your help!”

“Oh?” she tilted her head to the side slightly and studied him curiously, eyes curving faintly to match her lips in a small amused smile with a wry tilt. She was… really pretty. His cheeks burned fiercely, his lip pouted without his knowledge, causing her smile to grow. “Well, then, I’m sorry for getting involved and stealing your thunder. You had a master plan, right? I’m sure those kids would have trembled in fear if they knew what was good for them.”

There was something about her tone that he didn’t understand, so he just looked at her a little confused, and she sighed in something like defeat before he watched her casually crush the rock that was sitting in her palm into small grains and pieces. The shattered fragments glittered and sparkled in the afternoon sunlight, falling to the ground on a lazy breeze that stirred them through the air before they scattered across the packed earth that was the street.

Later he would meet a woman who could vaporize them into dust in her hand, with just a finger, but for a long time this was the most impressive display he’d ever seen outside of awesome showy jutsu.

It didn’t change the fact that it was still one of the most important memories he had.

His eyes were wide with shock as he stared at her hand, even as she was reaching one that had water at her fingertips to his dirty slightly bloodied knees and washed away the grime and studied the tiny already mostly healed cuts. The water tickled and felt nice, and he felt his cheeks flush a little more at the action even though he couldn’t move his gaze away from the ground and the evidence of ninja strength, not resisting as she grabbed his dirty cut hands and cleaned gravel out of his skin, her touch gentle and careful.

Her hands were warm, and not soft in the least, they were hard like the old man’s, but not as hard.

It was… nice.

He’d only ever had one person touch him nicely before.

He kind of liked it. It made his chest tight and warm, his eyes burned a little like he was going to cry but he clenched his teeth to hold back the tears.

“Huh,” her brows rose and she brought that deep green gaze back to his slack features where he was still staring at the pieces of rock, her own gaze having been curiously focused on his slightly raw hands that were visibly healing. “Neat. Well, see you around, kid.”

She had stood and turned to join the two young men he hadn’t seen before but definitely noticed as she walked over to join them. They had the Uchiha crest printed on the shoulder of their slightly scruffy and dirty looking shirts – a much less blatant display of Clan presence than he was used to from the ninja police – and were carrying grocery bags, one was noticeably shorter than the other and the same height as the woman was, the other was almost half a foot taller than his two companions. The dirt, blood and ash that splattered them and the singed areas of their clothes as well told him that whatever fight she’d been in they had probably been in it too, and they didn’t really look like they’d won the way she did, especially not the tall one. She was much so cooler than them, it was obvious.

He noticed the way that she smiled at the two men warmly, the way the taller one slung an arm around her shoulders to pull her into his side familiarly and grinned in an expression he’d never seen an Uchiha make, the action slightly crooked on pale, dirty and bruised handsome features. The shorter one bumped a shoulder against hers on the opposing side of his taller counterpart, his own attractive features twisted by a small, affectionate smile while his cheeks pinked a little in a blush that the blonde boy was half convinced he was hallucinating.

He wanted someone to smile at him the way she smiled at them. He wanted someone to look at him the way they looked at her.

His chest ached.

Even as he thought it, the woman turned halfway back around and those pretty green eyes zeroed in on him. She gave him a slight smile tinged with some of the warmth she’d directed at the two Uchiha and a short wave, before taking the shorter man’s free hand in hers, something that brought a brighter flush to his features as he glanced down towards the ground almost shyly, and they started on their way.

He sat in the dirt for quite some time after they’d gone, wondering if some day he might have friends like her. If he might have had something like that if he’d had a mother or a sister, if when he became a ninja people would respect him the way they had her, if he could crush rocks in his hand without thought the way she had, if he would have friends.

If, if, if.

Six years later, he was finally a ninja, and she was standing before him without her two Uchiha friends – he felt an ache in his chest at the grief he’d seen in her eyes as she’d spoken to his jerk of a teammate about them – and she was teaching him. Her face was a little less expressive, her eyes a little sadder, her voice a touch rougher, but her gaze was still warm and intent, still focused whole heartedly on whoever stood before her, those brilliant green eyes on his face not filled with an ounce of malice, only that kind of longsuffering indulgence and slight annoyance that he’d seen on Iruka-sensei after he’d become important to him.

When he’d told her about Mizuki, she had seemed to know why he was unhappy with it even though he tried really hard not to show how much his stomach and chest felt heavy at the thought of the teacher who had apparently screwed him over in more ways than one. The woman had known that his former sensei had tried to use him, had betrayed the village, and she’d gotten that same exact look of distasteful, slightly bored, distant rage she’d had when he was just a six year old boy running from civilian bullies. He had felt the constant ache in his chest ease in much the same way it had when his favorite sensei had started to treat him like a person rather than like a nuisance that would go away the longer he ignored him, to take care of him like a big brother mixed with a father or an uncle – like family, his mind whispered shyly, something he’d never say out loud – the way he’d felt when he’d been really hungry and mugged by some of the meaner civilian kids so he didn’t have any money and Teuchi had given him free ramen, a safe haven from the other civilian adults. The way he didn’t like to admit it but Sasuke had made it ease when he’d offered to share his lunch with him when he’d been tied to the post as a failure again.

When she was teaching him she was patient, and when he didn’t understand something, she would do that same kind of demonstration she’d done with his jounin-sensei only using Sakura as the dummy this time, the pink haired girl he admired not protesting as much as he’d come to expect at being separated from the Teme. Asuka was amazing.

It was a lot easier to understand than the things that that bastard Mizuki had shoved down his throat, too.

He always did better when he could see and then copy, rather than when he was just being told what to do. He was a genin of action, not a bookworm.

Not that that was a bad thing. Sakura was very smart and a bookworm, but he… wasn’t very smart.

It had taken him a long time to learn how to read and write – and he still had trouble with some words – even when the old man and Teuchi had had the time to help him.

He wasn’t smart, but he knew that something that this woman, this Nagisa Asuka, had done with them that day was different than anything he was used to. The way she had done something before with his female teammate that impressed their sensei but he couldn’t really tell what it was other than the fact that he didn’t want to sneeze as often when she walked close to him, the way that their sensei wasn’t as distant with them as usual. With that, he knew that she had performed a miracle.

Kaka-sensei was talking to them, working with them when the first few weeks he’d just dump them on D-ranks and go on his merry way, as if expecting them to teach themselves.

With the knowledge that those two who she’d looked at with such affection –love? He thought unsurely – had been her teammates – Chitose and Haruka, he reminded himself, determined to remember their names, to carve them into his mind – had given him hope that he might be close with his own someday, even if Sakura didn’t seem to like him at all yet, and the stupid emo bastard didn’t like anybody, he still hoped so.

It would be nice, to have someone to smile at like that.

To be smiled at like that.

~*~

With a harsh groan, she slid down the tree trunk and squinted up at the sky, taking in the positioning of the sun to note that she’d just spent almost an hour and a half schooling the bright eyed idiot in actual taijutsu drills with some cajoled help from Sakura to play dummy after she’d dragged her eyes from the Uchiha. Really, that was probably the most Asuka had ever spoken to someone in such a short period of time in, like, ever and man, she sure was hungry because of it.

The kid was surprisingly attentive when you had something interesting to teach him, something he wanted to learn.

She glanced over at where the Uchiha was slowly moving through forms, switching from offensive to defensive, from Interceptor to Cat’s Paw, trying to remember the feel of it, the smoothness of transitioning at the right moment, trying to ingrain reflexes. The fact that the Uzumaki boy was doing the same, under the careful, watchful, sometimes correcting eye of his female teammate brought a smile to her lips, and even as she reached into her pouch for a ration bar – ugh, man, she really needed to restock her snacks – and some pins for her hair, she felt the slight ruffling of air and scattering of leaves that signaled shunshin.

Well, the common shunshin, anyhow.

Shisui, that little brat…

She’d never stop missing him.

“Lunch?” she queried, hands securing her bangs back whilst looking up at the returned jounin, who held two rather large bento in his hands.

Cool, she could forego choking down a ration bar then. Awesome.

Life was always brighter when one didn’t have to suffer through a small, dry granola bar that was designed not to be tasty but efficient in delivering as many nutrients in as small a form as possible. It was like eating dirt. The most unappetizing of dirt if it could be found, at that.

“Aa. No preferences?”

He plopped down next to her at a respectful distance, his dark eye lazily taking in the progress of his genin students, and was perhaps pleased by their progress if the small, more natural curve to his smiling eye was anything to go by.

“Nah, anything’s fine.”

She nodded her thanks and broke open the cheap chopsticks that came with the takeout bento, making a noise of pleasure at the sight of the slightly sticky rice and steamed vegetables that sat to one side before her. Something else caught her eye over the regular additions to a standard lunch set.

“Ooh, inari sushi! Itadakimasu!” she plucked a piece up and popped it into her mouth, humming in approval as he echoed her opening to the meal, though his tone was rather bored. “Wow, you sure go all out, huh?”

She carefully timed her glance up for when he’d set his chopsticks into her line of sight, so that she wouldn’t make him have to rush his eating – she’d seen him choke once, subtly, when they’d been on a joint mission, and while it was mildly amusing at the time, it also made her feel a little bad for him, as well – and took in the pleased expression on the corner of his face she could see. There had to be a reason that he was always hiding his face, because no matter what some people said, one didn’t just decide that they weren’t going to show their face to the world on a whim, because as far as she knew, he had literally worn a mask since before he’d gone to the Academy. That spoke of purpose, and it was only common courtesy to adjust to his needs like one would with any comrade who had some sort of special circumstances, like never trying to look under the bandages around a Branch Hyuugas forehead, not commenting on the eating habits of the Akimichi, and never treating an Inuzukas canine companion as just another dog.

It was the little things, that made the village go round, and being courteous while this man ate wasn’t a hardship.

“Hm, well, I owed you lunch,” he gestured at his own bento, which was lacking in sushi, as well as sweet pickles, but had beef and radish in its place.

They ate for a bit, and she couldn’t help but tease a little that she thought he should know that she had a preference for yellowtail for the next time he decided to drag her out of bed, and he seemed amused by her words, even if his preferred sushi was regular old fatty tuna. She sighed after she finished, stomach comfortably full for the moment. When she got around to testing for jounin, likely tokubetsu considering her skill set, the first thing she’d do was learn that metabolic jutsu, so that she didn’t have to eat as much when she wasn’t expending chakra. It would certainly help her savings, and she’d get to eat tastier things more often, considering their prices and how much she had to eat normally, that would about even things out if she was only a little less frugal than usual. The jutsu itself was complicated and dangerous enough that it had a rank assignment to it that was casually called double A, because if you fucked it up you could end up in the section of the hospital wards dedicated to Akimichi that had used too many of their food pills, so their body was eating itself.

Not the way that anyone wanted to go, really.

“So,” she started, gaze on the loud, earnest, annoying blonde boy as he fumbled a step, only to receive a whap over the head from his female teammate before she corrected him. Well, you couldn’t expect everything to fall immediately into place. “The loud one is working on some stances from the Academy style, and I’ve started him on the Grab and Go,” the Grab and Go was just a name for putting effective brawling moves together, a choreographed wildness, as it were. “But since I’m not particularly unconventional in my taijutsu, nor do I have the time to dedicate to this, you’re gonna have to finish that out with him.”

“Well, that’s fair,” the sound of wings overhead caused the two to glance up, and Asuka groaned softly at the chuunin signal on the scroll it carried, before standing. “Have fun.”

“Thanks for lunch, Hatake-san,” she called over her shoulder as she walked away before hollering at the genin. “Keep up the good work kids, see ya!”

“Ah! Bye Nee-chan!”

“Bye, Asuka-sensei!”

“Hn.”

These were her simultaneous answers from the children as she was about to abscond from the training grounds. Hesitating for a moment thoughtfully, she threw a considering glance over them and then one back to the jounin who was eyeing her with a single pale brow arched.

“I might do this again,” she said vaguely.

“I might feed you again,” was the equally noncommittal answer.

While the shunshin that she executed in the next moment wasn’t taxing in particular, though her chakra system did throb a little like an overworked muscle, there was a headache building behind her eyes. Hell, her face kind of hurt, and not just from the cut on her cheek either, from all of that talking that she wasn’t used to doing, which meant that her throat got kind of scratchy by the end of the day. Even if she’d only spent a few hours with the kids, going over taijutsu stances, there had still been a level of effort to keeping their attention that she hadn’t noticed until after the fact and she was already tired. Asuka certainly had a newfound respect and sympathy for the even more antisocial than she was Hatake Kakashi, that was for sure.

Kids were exhausting.

~*~

She was… not what he’d expected.

Even though he’d asked her for her assistance – in hindsight, he was surprised that he had actually gone through with it, since it meant willingly socializing to some extent – and she had agreed to give it, he hadn’t really expected much from her. However, he’d been pleasantly surprised when he’d shown up to training the day after she’d taken Sakura aside for the first time, something that the girl had been thinking about the entire day after the woman had left, and been able to breathe. The girl had looked terribly embarrassed when he’d thanked her, with as much emotional sincerity as he could conjure, for toning down on her painful aroma so that he didn’t have to sacrifice his senses. The shampoo she used was still too strong, but they couldn’t have everything at once, and he got to use his nose again, so he was rather glad. She also had crackers that she would snack on when the boys were sparring together, some candied fruits as well, something that he approved of, and when he mentioned this to her, the girl had lit up like he’d told her that she could skip chuunin to go straight to jounin and Sasuke had agreed to marry her.

Of course, his yellow haired and extremely loud genin had not let things lie as they were, since the chuunin had apparently told the kid to stuff it by passing off the ability to ask for extra training from her to him.

In some way, he was sure that he deserved the constant irritation from his two male genin, but he couldn’t help but sulk a little at her backhanded revenge.

When he’d finally given in and told them that yes, they could ask Nagisa for help with training, the genin had dragged him off to her apartment – which it was a little odd that they’d already found out where she lived… it was… he… he had the creepy stalker genin, didn’t he? Hah, why wouldn’t he? There was a team every year… kami hated him, he was sure – and he’d known as soon as he’d felt her chakra spike agitatedly, that they had woken her from an exhausted post mission sleep. The low snarling of words he couldn’t make out could be heard through the door, and the Copy-nin was vaguely glad that he had chakra coating on his eardrums out of habit from being around the loud obnoxious students, because she obviously hadn’t thought to do so when she went to sleep and was cursing them out. Not that he could blame her, because unless confronted by how obnoxious they were, one really didn’t think about how to avoid hearing loss when dealing with genin, and she certainly wasn’t surrounded by the chaos and anarchy that were these children day in and day out. And no, he wasn’t jealous of her for that. Not even a little.

Okay, so denial was something he practiced. Often.

Looking at her after she’d opened the door, her pretty features dark and strained, he belatedly realized that this probably wasn’t a very good time.

Her hair was slightly askew from sleep, features wane with exhaustion, light purple bags standing out against her lightly tanned skin, causing her large green eyes to look even angrier than usual, the high color in pale cheeks suggested something of a fever, too. There was bruising that was snaking out from beneath the bandage that had been slapped over her cheek, likely for whatever abrasion was in the center of her cheek, a tiny dot of blood having seeped through the material to be clear to the eye. He could already tell that she was supporting some form of abdominal injury, just by the way she had situated her body, and was ever so slightly slouched to one side to keep pressure off of the area of impact, her breathing shallow.

She smelled like charred earth, hot metal, blood and the lower key scent of pine and sap.

He didn’t breathe too deeply, it would be impolite to take in her deep chakra scent after they’d only been able to meet twice for training since the initial agreement.

They weren’t close.

He hadn’t done close in a long time.

Not when he wasn’t being forced to take on monster genin, anyway. The Sandaime was so cruel…

He did feel a bit guilty about dragging her out to entertain the brats when she was so obviously exhausted, her reserves a little low, if not to the extremes that he usually managed, but if all she wanted for the inconvenience was food, then he didn’t particularly mind. It was a bit startling to realize in a sudden epiphany that she really didn’t have much interest in impractical things when she wanted something from someone, or likely at all, and she wanted… useful things from him, like food and for him to help her equip herself against stronger opponents. There was something in the back of his mind where his instinct lay that rolled this around in consideration in a way that the rest of him didn’t understand, and he let it be. If it was important it would jump out at him later.

He’d learned to listen to his instincts.

The few times someone had done him a favor – he had never… asked for assistance before – they had always asked for ridiculous things that he had no plans of ever fulfilling, like showing his face or telling them about the Yondaime, occasionally there were the idiots who wanted him to put in a good word with the Council for them when they were trying to get promoted.

Like the Council cared about his opinion enough for that to even make a difference.

It could even have a negative impact, who knew.

The fact that they had been ambushed on home soil was a little unnerving though, as was the inability to identify the nin that had managed to set it up in the first place, and she seemed a lot more irritated with the fact that they had mostly gotten away after harming a member of her team rather than the fact that they had been unidentifiable. It was a sentiment he could get behind at least, he could see the genuine affection and worry when she’d spoken of her injured teammate, and that fit with the picture he was getting of her personality of an abrupt, socially reticent woman who had few people she cared to speak with but held an affection for all of her fellows, even if it wasn’t a personal one. She may not speak to all of the ninja of Konoha, may not find the need to, but she cared for her comrades both on and off the battlefield.

When she basically stared in affected adoration at the large order of dango he got for her, he chuckled openly, well aware of the craving for food when tired, even more so was what he normally dealt with, what with his own much larger chakra stores.

Of course, it was nice to be validated in his distaste for the kids’ taijutsu, even though he had no idea how she had managed to get them to listen to her for so long without shouting or arguing or anything of the sort. All she’d done was given them a placid, calm look and they’d been hung up on her every word. He had to be extremely serious and borderline angry for them to take anything he said to heart, and even then he had to beat it into them, especially the boys. Perhaps she had a teacher’s aptitude? No, if she did, then she’d be teaching at the Academy, even though she was a battle oriented kunoichi, it was a sad truth that the Council preferred having the female side of the shinobi of Konoha firmly within reach, and even if it had lessened its grip due to things like Senju Tsunade becoming a formidable force, they still tried to hold females back. She was lucky that she was so militantly competent, because half of the Council’s argument for women not being in the field had to do with their apparent inability to compartmentalize, a thick, smarmy lie if he’d ever heard one.

Maybe it was because she was female that they listened to her better? Children reacted to women differently than they did to men, didn’t they? Something about most adult females in a position of authority reminding them of their mothers and instinctively listening to her because women ruled the household or something to that affect? Except that couldn’t be true for Naruto, no matter how much the thought burned…

Maa, well, he didn’t know.

It’d never really made sense to him, and well, he’d never met his mother, only vaguely remembered a tone and the smell of earth, ozone and flowers, perhaps a flash of pale mint colored hair dangling down towards his face, but he could have just made a memory up about seeing her hair as an infant after looking at her photos. She had died when he was very young, before he was even a year old at the hands of an assassin that had come to take care of the Hatake Clan Heir while his father was out on the front lines before the lull between wars. His mother – Hatake Isami – had been a high chuunin with a specialization in stealth about to be promoted to jounin before she’d gotten too heavily pregnant with him, and the Council hadn’t wanted to risk the potential Clan Heir on the front lines, so she’d been suspended from active duty much earlier than was common for females while pregnant.

She’d died defending him and he couldn’t remember her face in the flesh of his memory, just warmth, a loving murmur and the tingling scent that meant love and safe and mother. He was lucky that he could remember even that and he was thankful for his prodigious memory in the times when he thought of her in the dead of night, or saw her name etched alone on the Memorial stone when it should have his father’s right next to it, thanked the enhanced sense of smell he’d received from the Hatake family Summoning Contract’s alteration to their physiology.

It was a little odd, having someone touch him casually at all, even during a demonstration, but he found another reason for Pakkun to be so hung up on her. She had very soothing chakra through her hands, the tenketsu there very open and well used.

Perhaps she had some medical training.

He knew the look in her eye though, when she spoke of her former teammates, knew the loss and the tiny spark of pain that she couldn’t quite hide from him, though he was sure that the children hadn’t noticed it. He had his own version of it whenever he looked in the mirror, or saw his reflection in the Memorial Stone. It was strange that she’d had two Uchiha on her genin team, but the Chitose she spoke of was probably close to dead last in his class, and the other Uchiha much higher up the ladder from the way they put it, meaning that she was rather high in the rungs as well. The fact that she’d been close enough with members of the Uchiha Clan that they would demonstrate Clan techniques to her, if not outright teach her said something about both her character and theirs, setting them apart from the rest of their family.

Absently, morbidly, he wondered if they’d fallen in the Massacre.

When they sat down for lunch, he was surprised at how pleasant it was to pass small verbal barbs back and forth, and the woman was even polite enough not to try to peek at his face, carefully timing her own bites against his own so that they could converse easily without any misunderstandings or unnecessary unease on his part. It was rare that she didn’t particularly seem to want to see his features, which he found was a nice change from what he usually found in his comrades and the civilians. He never had been very comfortable with people wanting to look at him when he didn’t want them to, and for this reason he had somehow found himself commiserating on occasion with the woman in the bathhouses who got peeked on by Jiraiya and other perverts. He himself was a pervert, no doubt about it, even if he was repressed, but he was a pervert of seclusion, and in no way did he involve others in his own physical pleasures, nor did he push himself on the people he found attractive or pleasant enough to perhaps pursue. Generally, if someone was interested, and he felt comfortable enough to attempt sleeping with them – outside of missions, of course – he let them make the first move.

It was easier that way.

However, speaking to her seemed more stress-free than he’d expected, especially since they were of differing ranks, and he was technically her superior even though she easily handed out what could be construed as orders to him throughout the training session with the little twerps. He didn’t particularly mind, was amused enough by the children’s reactions to her to not even make an offhand jab about it, and even though they were thoughtless little things that were easily done for the sake of efficiently teaching headstrong genin there were jounin he knew who wouldn’t have been as accepting as he had been, and that made him wonder how she dealt with those people when she ran into them. She was a very self-sufficient woman who had little problem speaking her mind, and she hadn’t asked for anything that he wouldn’t have done anyway under different circumstances, but it wasn’t difficult for him to see the more petty of his peers taking offence at her pointing out holes in their plans or giving her more observant opinion.

Perhaps it had to do with her lack of socializing but she really hadn’t adopted most of the mannerisms that her fellow chuunin had when confronted with jounin, the deferential attitude, but well, in the end, he didn’t particularly care on a personal level other than feeling a vague discomfort at the idea of someone else taking offence. Between them it just made the fact that they were working together much simpler, and easier to deal with because he enjoyed a more relaxed way of handling things, and when someone else was uncomfortable and nervous even in an abstract way, he couldn’t real in his senses and unclench. Staying tense was terribly tiring.

Working with Nagisa was turning out to be easier than he’d hoped.

If something were easier on him, it was better.

At least, he had expected everything to keep with that easygoing feeling – he didn’t know why, he’d never been particularly optimistic – for the smooth sailing to continue for at least a while longer, but fate hated him, and there was something about Team 7 that he was coming to dread.

Stupid luck.

“I hear that you’ve asked a chuunin to help you teach your team,” the Sandaime stated calmly, standing at the window and looking out over Konoha. “It’s rather unusual for you to approach another and include them in your life. Willingly, I might add.”

Of course, he was referring to those emotional, frustratingly unprepared beasts that he’d foisted off onto the jounin.

Really, the Hokage was just lucky that the last Hatake loved and respected him as much as he did, because he was still around, despite the clear risk to his sanity.

“Maa, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” not so much when you’re being a busybody, though.

“You’re a lazy ass, Kakashi-kun,” then don’t make me have to bring it up first, the older man stated with a wry twist to his lip, reaching into his robes for his pipe before stopping himself and moving to sit at his desk instead. “And the fact that you foisted off some of your duties on a lower ranking ninja doesn’t surprise me very much. Probably less than it should, anyway.”

It always kind of made him feel awkward and thankful that the Sarutobi Clan Head remembered about his sensitive nose and didn’t light up in his presence. It wasn’t that the smell was bad so much as it was clinging and it coated his nostrils for a while after he’d left proximity, making him slightly disoriented. Of course, it seemed that he didn’t hold this same regard toward the Inuzuka who came into his office, if the loud and whining complaints he’d heard about the longer meetings with the Professor were anything to go by.

Personally, he thought that the old man got a kick out of torturing the most irritating Clan in his own passive aggressive way that didn’t mess with politics.

Politics were ridiculous. That was why he skipped as many Clan meetings as he could.

“Still,” the man continued as he sorted papers on his desk. “Out of all the chuunin you could have forced into labor you did a magnificent job of picking the one that I most often send out of the village to settle political disputes without wasting my much needed manpower and would actually refuse you if she should not have desired to do what it is that you have asked of her.”

Hah , he preened. The product of genius.

“You are one lucky bastard.”

Or… not?

Had the man ever actually read one of their mission reports? Did he not see the disasters that were the genin under his command?

Lucky? I think not.

“Asuka-kun is a rather strong kunoichi in her own right,” he mused, ignoring as the silver haired man just stared at him with his visible eye slightly narrowed in disbelief. “I’ve yet to convince her to take the Trials, but I believe she’ll wear down soon enough.”

“You’re having trouble with a chuunin not wanting to be promoted?”

That was a first, if he’d ever heard it.

“Yes,” the Hokage shifted to the side, propping his chin on a fist with a wry, humorless smile. “It seems that it’s always the most capable of my chuunin that fight against promotion the longest. Or at all.”

Huh. He did pick well. He’d thought her very capable for a chuunin as well, although he didn’t know much about the middle ranks these days, what with him mostly having high ranking and solo missions since he’d been fourteen. Before that even, especially because he’d been under his Sensei’s command, and if there was one thing that his Sensei had been, it had been high profile enough to only get the most dangerous missions.

“Hmm,” he shrugged, unsure.

He’d not yet seen most of her skills, even if her use of water jutsu was impressive, so he didn’t really have much to say about the matter.

“Anyway, onto a matter that she, out of all my jounin instructors, as a chuunin with no affiliation with instruction at all – which doesn’t particularly please me, Kakashi-kun – brought to my attention more thoroughly than Naruto’s graduation incident had implied.”

Without thought, he straitened, his attention caught.

That ‘graduation incident’ had included an ANBU alarm that he’d had to answer to as well, and the only chuunin in the mission room with a back bone almost losing said back bone. He’d heard that it was only the man’s foreign heritage that had saved him from being permanently crippled by the injury he had sustained in having to protect the blue eyed little devil.

“The Academy has been compromised.”

Well, shit.

“Fuck.”

“Yes, just what I thought as well.”

After the long and arduous meeting that had followed – and the light headache that came with it – he’d found himself walking through the streets without his beloved Icha Icha in front of his face to protect him from the randy civilians and their staring, curious or awed eyes, though his bad humor seemed to be keeping them in check for the moment.

The problem that had been touched on with Mizuki had been much, much worse than he’d been expecting. To hear that the sabotage had been going on for years and that the increase in genin fatality rates dealt into it… well, it wasn’t pleasant, and apparently the only reason it hadn’t been worse was because of a few chuunin instructors who had been teaching outside of the somehow changed curriculum to help their students.

When a disturbance popped up on the road ahead of him he gladly latched onto the distraction, angling his direction towards it, only to raise a brow at the sight of his chuunin… assistant? Did that work? Maa, it didn’t really matter. Anyway, she looked to be having a rather intense staring contest with Yugao for reasons not apparent to the naked eye, and the very haggard and put upon Hayate was standing slumped next to his girlfriend and partner with a beleaguered sort of amusement on his features.

His gaze apparently caught the other jounin’s attention and then the tired and sickly man raised his eyes to the heavens and sighed as if the very world were against him.

“C’mon Yu,” the man said, coughing a little. “We gotta turn in our report.”

“But… she’s right there Hayate!” the woman actually whined for the first time that Kakashi could recall. “So close…”

Nagisa just kept staring intently at the kenjutsu user, a bag of groceries clutched in her left hand and her body angled into a stance that hinted as to why the two women were eyeing each other like pieces of meat and they were starving.

“I know,” the man patted the purple haired woman’s shoulder comfortingly. “I know.”

With a frustrated noise from the purple haired woman, the two leapt to the rooftops and took off quickly towards the tower to give their report.

Some of the civilians looked a bit unnerved, some relieved, but the majority seemed to just take this whole scene in stride, as if it happened often, which was interesting enough, considering the borderline hostility that the two women had been exuding. It hadn’t been Killing Intent, hadn’t even been negative really, but the intensity was somewhat intriguing, he had to admit.

When the chuunin sighed and quirked her lips to the side unhappily he meandered forward before he really thought about it.

“That was interesting,” his mouth said, and he wondered why he was talking.

What was he doing?

Was he socializing?

How… disturbing.

“Oh,” she turned and blinked large green eyes at him, features clearing into something a tad more sheepish as she shifted her grocery bag. “Saw that did you?”

“Does it happen often?” he tilted his head. And he was… still talking. Weird. “You and Yugao looking like you want to rip each other’s heads off.”

“You could say that,” she muttered vaguely before her expression turned curious and slightly thoughtful. “Are you busy at the moment?”

“Hmm, no.”

“Feel like helping me out with something?”

For a mistaken moment he thought she was talking about training, and he rarely said no to that.

“Sure.”

“Want to carry my groceries and look manly?”

Ah, yes, assumption. Everyone knew what it made a person.

… Was he really getting drafted into hard labor? Was he letting himself get drafted into hard labor? After all those D ranks he managed to avoid getting conned into with his genin?

And why was that old woman at the fruit stall looking at him like she’d sucked a lemon and then whispering to her crone friend while pointing at the light brown, sort of bronze colored haired woman who was pleasantly holding the bag in her hand out towards him? He contemplated listening to their conversation, but the younger woman’s delicately raised brow had him reconsidering and taking the bag from her hand, a part of him vaguely relieved that she didn’t brush her skin against his own in the transfer. Now that he was thinking about it – he normally didn’t worry about staring whilst within Konoha, since it either happened or it didn’t – he found that a good portion of civilian women were looking at the chuunin woman as if she were the scum of the earth, and at him with something like distastefully confused incomprehension, dipped in envy, greed and desire. Hmm. Uh, awkward. Some of the men were giving them the side eye as well, and it snapped together suddenly that both he and the woman he was with weren’t exactly known for their talkativeness or sociability, so the two of them just casually chatting by a fruit stand might be considered odd. A number of emotions he picked up were a mixture of anger, jealousy and dislike.

A good portion of those emotions were directed at the green eyed woman, though she easily brushed this aside, blatantly ignoring the staring with an aplomb that spoke of experience.

Considering the fact that he was treated as a commodity to a lot of civilians who dreamed of having a chance at reawakening the Hatake Clan through marriage or sexual manipulation of other kinds with him – and didn’t that make him squirm with awkward disgust and tired resignation – it wasn’t all that hard to guess what those people were assuming. He found that it was equally as easy to understand that the fact that in her youth she’d been flanked by two Uchiha boys, so it wasn’t unlikely that she’d developed something of a thick skin when it came to civilian rumors or staring and rudeness in general, because the Uchiha, even when they’d been plentiful, had been something of a hot article of interest. Of course, the fact that they even thought that they had any reason to start whispering and gossiping like vicious animals gave him pause, but that steady gaze had kept his grip on the bag of what appeared to be vegetables firm when he slowly and steadily reached out to take it from her.

What was he doing?

Was he really doing this?

“Awesome, because their having a sale down at ChiChi’s on rice and I want to stock up while the getting’s good.”

Right.

Of course.

This woman was probably one of the strangest he’d ever met.

Briefly cocking his visible brow at her he released a somewhat beleaguered sigh somewhat reminiscent of the departed Hayate, though he was unaware of it as he decided to push the thoughts of disgruntled and unhappy civilians from his mind. Well, if they were already talking, just helping the woman tote around large bags of rice since she couldn’t very well effectively carry all of them herself even if she did have the physical capacity wouldn’t really do anything further.

They had taken to keeping a healthy, polite foot or two between them at all times, and there was really no way that the stiff, impersonal postures that they portrayed could be mistaken as romantic in any sense of the word. At least to his understanding of the word.

Which, admittedly, was basically theoretical.

But hey, genius!

It wasn’t likely that he was wrong.

Again.

Hmm…

“You were hell on your teammates’ pride, weren’t you.”

It wasn’t a question, and he was both amused by the thought and mildly exasperated. It was great that she spoke to him like a real person, but he couldn’t help the dryness of his tone, though she didn’t seem to mind, was even amused by it.

She was something else, alright, the Hokage had gotten that correct.

“Ahaha! Pride! They didn’t know the meaning of the word!”

“I’m getting that.” for

~*~

She hadn’t known the woman’s name until she’d introduced herself the second time she’d met her in person, but she’d heard about her when she was younger. She hadn’t known she had until the woman had told Sasuke-kun that she’d been on a team with some of his relatives, and when she’d mentioned having had two of them it had clicked inside of the pink haired girl’s memory that this was the woman that the civilians used to whisper about.

Nagisa Asuka was disliked by many a civilian woman for a long time only a few years before. It also appeared to be starting up again for some reason.

When she was younger she hadn’t quite understood why it was considered bad that a woman was on the same team as two members of a prodigious, very important Clan in the village, hadn’t understood the pressure that a lot of civilian women were under to marry into one of the influential Clans. The chuunin was seen as something of a blockade between other females and her teammates, keeping them from the market of eligible marriageable age civilians, of proper ladies getting in good with those that they deserved. There had been a lot of gossip about how her relationship with the Chitose and Haruka of her team had been less than professional, about how they were inseparable and how they even went into mixed bathes together.

A lot of civilians found the idea scandalous.

To be honest, so had Sakura, until the person she had tentatively started to call Asuka-sensei had explained how a ninja’s sensibilities differed from a civilians, how because the lifespan of a shinobi and kunoichi was generally much shorter than that of the average noncombatant they more often than not matured faster and had to find more life experiences to shove into a potentially smaller timeframe. She had explained that sexuality was fluid amongst the ranks, even though it was frowned upon for those under the age of fourteen to fraternize amongst themselves, and genin teams below this age were not allowed to go into the mixed bathes due to both immaturity of mentality and physicality. The woman had even admitted to having her own smattering of lovers that didn’t fit civilian standards of romance or ‘relationships’, that what most nin got the chance to do between missions unless they were very lucky was considered a hookup or a one night stand by the pink haired girl’s parents.

It horrified her that her mother would call her kunoichi sensei a slut and any other number of insulting, degrading names.

To think that the green eyed woman had mentioned that Konoha civilians were some of the most accepting!

She… she wasn’t a bad person.

The light brown haired woman looked at her, only her, when before she had never had someone’s full attention focused on her, dedicated towards just her, the intensity of the woman’s gaze made her feel warm and fluttery and appreciated, like she was important enough to warrant that serious stare.

It was a feeling she was unused to, having the sole attention of someone.

Her mother was very busy with the other women on the street, often going out to dinner parties to gossip with them, she had stopped taking her daughter to them after she’d found out the girl’s interest in becoming a kunoichi, mostly because she hadn’t thought she was interested in them anymore. As for her father, he was always out for work, and while he tried to make time for her, he was always very tired from long meetings and spending all day at work. Still, she was sure that they loved her, they just didn’t know that she was supposed to eat twice as much as a civilian girl her age should, and when she’d told her mother this tentatively, the woman had looked scandalized, looking at her daughter in a strange light, while her father had frowned severely, looking over his daughter’s thin frame as if noticing the fact that she was… boney for the first time.

It was something she hadn’t realized until she’d looked in the mirror the evening after speaking with Asuka-sensei.

She looked… unhealthy.

Looking the way she did… it wasn’t pretty.

Not at all.

She wanted to be stunning, like Asuka-sensei was without even trying.

It… she wanted to not try.

“Well, are you sure, dear?” her mother had asked her, something pinched appearing around her eyes. “Wouldn’t it be unflattering to eat so much at a time? And your weight, Sakura! Aren’t you on a team with that nice Uchiha boy? You wouldn’t want to put him out, would you?”

“I…” she blinked at her mother, who was echoing things she herself had said to the woman who had become her sensei. “If I don’t eat well, it’ll be bad for me, Okaa-san.”

“You do eat well,” the blonde woman had insisted, leaning forward in her emphatic response. “Darling, you eat quite a bit in a sitting already. Certainly more than young Hikari down the street, and she’s a year older than you!”

“Mebuki,” her father interrupted, seeing the taken aback meekness on his daughter’s features, the wideness of jade green eyes. “Let her speak.”

“If… if I don’t eat enough,” she started softly, staring at the floor. “I could lose the ability to have children, Okaa-san.”

Silence reigned for a few moments and the genin could hear her father taking a quick, shocked breath.

“Sakura, dear, that’s ridiculous –” her mother started, but she cut her off, her gaze flickering up with tears in her eyes.

“Okaa-san, I could die!” she snapped out, her hands shaking so she grabbed her opposing elbows, cradling her thin, slightly concave stomach.

Before it hadn’t bothered her, but seeing her kunoichi sensei’s fit, muscular build that still looked slim and compact and shapely – like a woman – had made her feel… inadequate, made her feel small in a bad way. Asuka-sensei was pretty, sometimes it struck her that the woman was beautiful in a rather plain way – though she didn’t really understand it herself – her body full in a way that Sakura’s had yet to reach, and could be out of her reach due to malnutrition if she didn’t take steps to prevent such a fate. The way she’d seen the womaneat… it made her stomach clench in hunger and fear because she had never eaten like that.

Even when she had dearly wanted to, been so very tempted, but she never had, because she still thought like a civilian. She wasn’t though.

Not anymore.

Her kunoichi teacher had drilled that into her over and over again as she explained and taught and assigned self-study.

Sakura couldn’t let herself think like that, like what she had been instead of what she was.

She would be a kunoichi.

A strong one.

“Because I use chakra and do a lot of exercising I could damage my organs, and my body would start trying to conserve resources by first getting rid of nonessential organs like my uterus!” tears trembled over her cheeks but she didn’t brush at them, staring at her parents imploringly, willing them to see how serious this was. “I could… I could…” she choked off and gave in to her tears, wiping at her face, hiccupping and sniffling.

She was so afraid.

“Oh, my Sakura-chan,” her father murmured, standing and moving to wrap her in his arms. “You just tell me how much more you need and I’ll add it to the budget.”

“R-really?” she asked quietly, trembling in his arms.

It had been a long time since her father had last hugged her and she’d forgotten how warm he was. It was comforting and nice, but an aching part of her chest reminded her that her two sensei were more solid, a sharp pain telling her that she felt safer with them than she did in the arms of her own father.

“Of course. You’re my precious daughter.”

“I – I have c-calculations,” she stuttered out through her tears, clenching her fingers in the fabric of her father’s shirt. “There a-are books a-and scrolls that,” she sniffed as she listened to his heartbeat, closing her hot eyes. “That talk about appropriate food items a-and how much someone my size should eat…”

“Can I read them?”

She loved her father, even as she was worried about her mother’s silence.

“S-Some of them… other’s you’re n-not allowed…”

“Alright then.”

In the end, she’d actually had to convince her new sensei to come over and speak to her mother, who while she’d given in to serving her daughter larger portions and getting her snack foods that were directly for ninja in their growing years had still been skeptical on a number of things, including her no longer using scented lotions and shampoos.

Haruno Mebuki had been scandalized by her daughter’s insistence on having shinobi standard unscented lotion and soaps.

It seemed hard for her to compute that Sakura didn’t need to smell like a girly girl.

While she wasn’t exactly happy about it either, she was determined not to be a burden, to hurt people with enhanced senses – even if Kiba was an annoying pain – with negligence or ignorance that she could no longer claim. It had been mortifying to learn that her own jounin-sensei had heightened senses when the woman had brought up the topic, and she had nearly cried in frustration at the understanding as to why the man was so tense when he stood beside her or spoke to her directly, why he tried to stay upwind of them.

There was something odd about seeing her fashionably dressed mother trying to stare down her very obviously a ninja kunoichi sensei who wasn’t dressed to impress in the least, something strange about the way that the older woman who was her mother ended up conceding something to the younger woman with a nod of her head. They were the same height, but for some reason the bronze haired woman seemed… taller. Older. Perhaps it was the confidence with which she situated her body, the smooth, elegant way she carried herself with a surety of grace that many civilians only saw in dancers or in the rich politicians who were either from the large civilian trading businesses or from the Daimyo’s court.

“I am Nagisa Asuka,” her sensei had stated with a slight, respectful bow. “A High-combat class chuunin kunoichi,” she introduced, as was proper when meeting the parents of your student, a greeting for only those civilians of your own village. “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Haruno-san.”

“Ah,” the blonde woman who was her mother seemed somewhat surprised by how polite Asuka-sensei was as she bowed back. “No, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to suit my whims, Nagisa-san.”

If she hadn’t have started learning things with her kunoichi sensei, she likely wouldn’t have understood the need for the classification on anything other than the fact that she was a chuunin.

There was a grading system within the village for anyone higher in the ranks than a genin – there were only High and Low genin, of which she was currently the latter – that gave a quick and succinct definition to the individuals skill set, strength and abilities. High for genin meant a good chance of getting promoted to chuunin, while Low was the opposite, meaning that you sat in your rank for a while to learn, train and gain experience. New genin were often called Low and experienced genin were High.

There were three rank levels of strength for chuunin; High, Mid, and Low.

When one was call High, it meant that they were close to a promotion, that their ability was above their peers, and it was often that if there was a High ranked chuunin amongst a team of Mid or Low’s then they would be the ones in charge unless the classification of the closest in rank was more suited to it. A Mid level was what was usually seen amongst the chuunin ranks and lead most chuunin cells, as once someone hit High they rushed forward to take their Jounin Exams so that it left a gap between Mid chuunin and Low jounin. When one was considered a Low they were usually newly promoted from genin and had yet to receive a classification because they had yet to choose a field to focus on and their aptitude had not been decided or the test was inconclusive.

For each rank there was a description of that level, a classification such as combat, intelligence, medic or specialty.

Combat focused on general skill with weapons and body, with jutsu augmentation thrown in due to battle effectiveness. A frontline shinobi or kunoichi would be call a combat oriented nin, someone who was used to deter attacks and take the heaviest brunt in any assault to cover their weaker less physically able comrades, they were the ones who held the line when retreating or caused distractions during ambushes, drawing attention to themselves to take the brunt of everything. They were commonly thought of as the strongest classification as during war they were the ones who survived the longest on the frontlines and caused the most damages to the enemy, even if they had a high mortality rate. It was extremely rare for a female to reach High-combat as most women didn’t go down the combat route at all, keeping their specifications more suited for their body types because of a generally smaller physique that held less muscle mass and lower stamina.

Intelligence dealt with those who were more prone to planning or categorizing – strategists – to those who became teachers or dealt with internal affairs rather than going outside of the village on missions. Those who worked in the Missions Office were mostly classified as Mid or Low-intelligence, while those who worked at the Academy were either Mid or High-intelligence. Everyone who worked in the T & I department was a High-intelligence ninja. Many having an intelligence class had a secondary classification as well, for when they were on rotation through other stations to get as much use out of those who remained within the village as possible, to use the resources available to the village to the best of their ability, the most efficiently. It wasn’t unheard of for those with especially High-intelligence scores to have two or three other classifications as well, so that they used that well developed intelligence to be as useful as they could by multitasking and helping to fill as many positions as they could.

Those with medic stated as their classification rather spoke for themselves, and most that had it as theirs were either Mid or High just because it was such a sought after skill in the field and out of it, and the ability to use iryō-ninjutsu was rare when one didn’t completely dedicate their career towards it. Most with a medic classification never left the village because they were so rare and such a useful commodity, the training it took to raise them up to an appropriate level of medical knowledge allowing little time for physical training in combat situation, so having a fielded medic was something that was practically a godsend to whoever managed to snag one for their team on missions. There were those who worked in the hospital who had some field qualifications but they were often very weak offensively and need a large escort when leaving the village, so it was usually seen as a better choice just to keep them within the safety of Konoha’s boundaries where they could easily be protected and they could be of use in a moment’s notice.

When one was of the specialty variety of classification, it was usually Clan or family related, due to style, jutsu or kekkai-genkai ability. Sometimes it was used to classify those with an ANBU background or a rather shady skill set such as assassination, seduction, espionage, infiltration or sabotage, things that one wouldn’t speak of openly or want to advertise to the civilian populace. It was very rare for those with a specialty to be out and about in the village and not on missions, as they were usually the busiest because their skill set was a rare one, another thing that was hard to find and needed to be put to the best use for the village.

Jounin had the same classifications, but different ranking systems.

There was Low, Mid, High, Select and Elite.

The first three were the same as for chuunin with the exception of there being no higher rank to move to for chuunin, but Select and Elite were what could be considered a rank of their own in the ranks of jounin. Select were those who had a name for themselves, most of them went into ANBU at some point in their lives – the Sandaime’s son Sarutobi Asuma was an example of a Select as a former member of the Shugonin Jūnishi, the Twelve Guardian Ninja for the Daimyo – but had yet to either exceed a certain amount for their bounty or receive a kill order in the Bingo Book, and Elite were what civilians commonly referred to as Legendary, like the Sannin and the previous Hokages like the Yondaime and Shodaime. The Yondaime was famous for his Flee On Sight order in the Bingo Books of every surrounding country because he was so strong, and it had been because of him that at the time the Council had apparently toyed with creating a new classification that was eventually vetoed.

It was when her kunoichi sensei introduced herself to her mother that she realized that the woman wasn’t a jounin yet.

While embarrassing – Sakura was glad she hadn’t said anything about her kunoichi-sensei’s rank – she waited until the chuunin was done getting her mother to see reason – she did love her daughter, but she was very set in her civilian sensibilities, sensibilities that she had been drilling into her daughter since birth – before they headed off to training to ask her about it.

Haruno Mebuki was not a bad mother, and had promised to follow the dietary instructions that she’d been handed by the younger woman with a new understanding of the female ninja’s body and she apologized to her daughter before stating that if she needed anything else just to let her know. It was a little mind boggling and downright shocking to see her mother seem humbled by someone else, considering the fact that she couldn’t ever remember her mother apologizing for anything before, or backing down without browbeating someone into agreeing to whatever it was she wanted. Her mother was very strong willed, and that her new kunoichi sensei had done the impossible and won an argument with the civilian woman without actually arguing was awe inspiring.

“Um, Asuka-sensei?” she felt very foolish. “You’re… you’re a chuunin?”

“Oh,” the woman blinked lovely dark green eyes at her before laughing softly, patting Sakura on top of her head just behind her hitai-ate. “I forgot I hadn’t told you,” she smiled down at the pink haired girl. “It must have slipped my mind.”

“But…” pink brows furrowed as she took in her sensei. “You’re ranked High, right? And combat on top of that! From what you told me, you should already be a jounin!”

“Ah,” the woman rubbed at the back of her neck a little awkwardly. “Well, I haven’t taken the Trials yet.”

“Eeeh, why not?” she caught herself as she inquired interestedly. “I mean, if you don’t mind my asking.”

A wry smile was quirked at her and the genin flushed a little at the attention as the woman absently slung an arm around her shoulder and pulled her against her side to navigate through the crowd of civilians gathering in the market for early morning shopping in a way that didn’t get the girl trampled or pushed against. The woman was surprisingly affectionate with her when it was just them, and she enjoyed it immensely because her mother had never been one to coddle her after a certain age, and her father rarely gave her hugs, though they did press kisses to her head when they passed her or put her to bed. Still, the easy affection that the chuunin gave out made her warm on the inside, feeling like she was… cared for by someone other than family.

She had no friends really, no one other than Ino, who was more a rival than anything else at that point.

She… missed them. Being best friends.

She missed that.

Sakura missed the girl who’d given her a pretty red ribbon and stood up for her, who’d taught her how to stand up for herself, and she was beginning to realize that you could be rivals and friends at the same time. Naruto and Sasuke-kun were, weren’t they? So why couldn’t Ino and her do it? Why had they had to split apart so that Sakura was practically alone again? The only difference was that this time she could stand up to the bullying of the others, to the ninja raised kids who put her down for being from a civilian background.

It wasn’t fair.

Now that she was learning all of these things about her body, she worried over her old best friend – her only best friend – and whether or not she would be receiving the instruction that she needed, because in the Academy she had always been thinner than Sakura herself had been, and while it had been a point of contention then, it just made her worried now that she knew what could happen. It also made her wonder.

Wouldn’t Clan ninja know this anyway? Sasuke-kun had known it, and had even taken to keeping snacks for her, just like Kakashi-sensei and Naruto had at Asuka’s insistence. They’d been helping her, the way that a team was meant to, and Sakura worried about Ino.

“Hmm, I just don’t think I have what it takes yet,” she mused down towards her student. “I’m not confident in my skill set just yet. Perhaps I’ll take the Trials after another year.”

“I’m sure you could do it now!” the pink haired girl encouraged, practically gluing herself to the woman’s side. “You’re really good! You make Kaka-sensei work hard when you spar, and he’s a jounin!”

“Thank you Sakura,” the small, amused smile she received had her beaming. “I’m glad you think so.”

“I know so!”

“Oh, do you?”

“Yup!”

“Riiiight.”

“I do!”

“Mhmm.”

“Asuka-sensei!”

“Ahahaha!”

It was like having an older sister, she decided with flushed cheeks, joy spreading a large smile over her features.

Walking beside her teacher as she handed her a stick of dango to munch on while they headed out to meet the boys, Sakura was content, happy even. Where the chuunin would run them through drills and throw things at them for a while with a placid look on her face, before she left a little after their jounin-sensei showed up so that she could do missions. Sometimes she would stay and the two adults would both torture the genin together – though it was rare – sometimes snacking idly while they did so, something that drove them up the wall with how at ease they were even when the genin were trying their hardest to attack them when that was what they’d been instructed to do.

She was sure it was the boys’ goal as well to manage to interrupt them while they were having a conversation when the team was trying to land hits. That got irritating. The fact that they were talking about complex jutsu formulae was even more frustrating, because they never even broke stride on whatever difficult topic it was.

They had worked out a system for when she was in the village during the morning where she would meet up with them at the bridge and they’d go to an open training ground to work for a while to make the most out of their day before Kakashi-sensei showed up to run them into the ground. When she couldn’t be there they would do what they could on their own which generally involved a lot of sparring and even more yelling, but they were making progress, even if the young kunoichi had to take frequent breaks and eat a lot in the mornings to keep up with even half the things the boys could do.

Altogether, Sakura could say with some certainty that Nagisa Asuka was good for them.

And she… she had always wanted an older sister.

Her new teacher was very close.

Very.

~*~

Chapter Text

That was loud, and familiar.

What was…

Right.

“– and then, and then, he just said –”

Ah, those were familiar, extremely loud and not exactly dulcet tones. It was an awaiting coincidence, really.

“– but I told that teme that –”

As she sat down on the other side of the orange monstrosity, she wondered what it was that had her running into these kids regularly, even when she wasn’t working with them for food that Kakashi had paid for. Honestly, if she wasn’t aware that these kids had practically zero skill in subterfuge or planning these meetings, she’s say that they were playing against her.

She was, however, quite pleased to note that despite her prior disenchantment, her secondary affinity was coming along nicely under his tutelage, though she didn’t think that it was going to ever be as strong as her water type, since for her water jutsu she didn’t even need to use hand signs. Or really concentrate for any length of time, just used instinct more than anything, and she could sense bodies of water depending on the distance. It was understandable really, especially since she’d spent so long without building on her secondary affinity that it had probably waned some in strength since she was younger and had initially tested for it with her team. Still, it was nice to have options.

Better chances of staying alive with how her missions had been going lately.

She was kind of getting the sneaking suspicion that Hatake was using her to gauge teaching techniques, but considering the fact that she was an adult, with a much more mature and experienced mindset, she didn’t think they’d work so well with the kids.

They likely didn’t have much in the way of experience with other jutsu, or wouldn’t understand advanced chakra theory. Wouldn’t find dark humor when he suddenly felt the need to switch from basic ninjutsu drills, to something a little more dangerous on a whim. Like test out their reflexes whilst they were performing stationary jutsu by flinging sharp things from one side and tiny bits of Killing Intent from the other just to watch her squirm in surprise.

All things that amused him, apparently, the sadistic little shit.

That bastard had certainly improved her reaction time, if nothing else, and she had the sneaking suspicion that he’d only been doing it because he found her speed abysmal, even though she was likely one of the physically strongest kunoichi in the village; it wasn’t easy to be both physically powerful and quick as well, and she only had so much time on her hands. Really, it was as if he expected everyone to have either been taught by the freaking Yellow Flash, be a kami forsaken Lightning user.

Well, or be prodigiously awesome at working out and coming up with dangerously frightful exercises like Maito Gai, his self-proclaimed rival.

Sometimes, she wondered if Maito Gai might have some kind of obscure bloodline that made it so that he didn’t ruin himself with his training exercises, because it certainly seemed like someone should have keeled over from exhaustion just by thinking about it.

Honestly, she was just pleased with how well he had expressed that he thought she was coming along in her Earth affinity, commenting offhand several times that she had a very strong grounding in it, that he had seen others whose main affinity was earth who couldn’t make constructs as steady or solid as she could. Also, for some reason, he found her ability with water techniques fascinating, and sometimes during a pause in whatever they were working on, he would ask her to demonstrate some jutsu, and he seemed inordinately impressed with the fact that some, most, of the techniques she used – like her senbon shaped projectiles – were unnamed, and things that she just did spur of the moment. Instinct. Something that she didn’t have with the secondary affinity, no matter what he was saying about her growing skills in its use.

She was definitely not a ninjutsu specialist in any stretch of the word, but didn’t like the idea of limiting herself knowingly.

Besides, it was useful for more than just combat.

Really, she didn’t know what she’d do if she could sense the very earth she walked on, and if it got as in depth as her sense of water, she’d be sensing specks of dirt all over her apartment.

It’d drive her crazy.

He’d yet to take out the Sharingan to watch her, but she figured with his strong interest in it, it wouldn’t take more than a couple more weeks for it to progress to that point.

Either way, she was positive that most of the things coming out of Naruto’s mouth had never happened.

“What can I get you, Asuka-san?” Ayame asked, a friendly tone in her voice, and Asuka found herself smiling back at her.

“A chicken ramen, if you don’t mind, Ayame-chan.”

“Alright,” she smiled at her childhood playmate. “Extra veggies, right?”

“Yup! Thanks.”

“Ah! Asuka-nee-chan!”

She blinked at her name and turned towards the boy she was sure had been stuck in some faux serious conversation with the Academy instructor Umino Iruka. She liked Umino, he was rather no nonsense a good portion of the time – his mischievous streak was well known in some circles, and it didn’t hurt that he was cute – but he was still pleasant to converse with on the occasion she found the need, if strangely shy. He flushed suspiciously often, and sometimes she wondered how he could teach a room of loudmouthed, ungrateful up and coming ninja without his face burning off. The poor man.

“You like to eat ramen?”

She quirked a brow at him and shared an exasperated look with the suddenly slightly flushed Iruka.

Honestly.

“Well, if I didn’t, then I wouldn’t be eating it, now would I?”

“Eheh,” he rubbed the back of his head, and she found herself eyeing the four empty bowls stacked up next to him with something like trepidation; what would it be like, to have so much chakra that you had to eat that much in one sitting? It boggled the mind. And the bank account. “Yeah, I guess. Anyway, are you going to come to practice again this week? Every time you come, I learn a lot!”

“What and you aren’t with Hatake-san?”

She found that hard to believe, not when he now had a base to work from, and the system they had developed.

“Well,” he pouted a bit, the expression ridiculously exaggerated. “No, no, I learn stuff with Kaka-sensei, but – but still! It’s fun when you come to training!”

“Ah, thank you, Ayame-chan,” she said as her food was set down before her, and she broke her chopsticks apart. “Itadakimasu.”

Quickly grabbing a couple of the veggies, she popped them into her mouth before going for some noodles and swallowing them down with a sigh at the delightful heat. It was a little cooler out than usual that day, and she’d been training over on the waterfall since it calmed her, having that much water near her and easily accessible, and she felt the heat spread throughout her chest and stomach delightfully. Ah, she could almost feel her coils sighing with that same pleasure at the comfort of it. Eating right after intense training wasn’t advisable, not if you didn’t want a stomach cramp, the same with before, but with the nice leisurely way she’d walked back into town and to the food stand had taken almost twenty minutes, and the meal was hitting just the right spot.

“I’m glad you think so,” she managed to say between quick bites. She was hoping to catch Natori for some weapons maintenance before he closed up shop, as it was his early day. “But I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it in the next couple of days, but probably before the week is out,” she chewed on some chicken and stretched back, enjoying the pops of her vertebrae as they aligned after intense muscle strain from flexibility training. “I’m heading out to do some stuff outside the village.”

Her back was her weak point concerning agility since she dedicated so much strength training to her upper body, and she really needed to round that out. Her heavy chest was doing her no favors in that department and she wryly thought of how jealous some kunoichi were of larger breasted women. It was no picnic, she could say that.

“Boo,” he muttered, before some sort of light popped on in his head. “Oh, this is Iruka-sensei!” he gestured wildly beside him, almost smacking the tanned man in the face, but the Academy instructor managed not to get his nose crunched by wheeling to the side in a rather experienced motion. “Iruka-sensei, this is Asuka-nee-chan! I was telling you about her, remember?”

“Of course I remember,” she shook her head with a small smile at the warm affection in his tone, enjoying the clinking of kunai on senbon. “Also, I’m already acquainted with Nagisa-san.”

“Eh?”

The boy turned to her with those wide blue eyes, and she couldn’t restrain the need to reach out and ruffle his sunny locks, enjoying the squawk that he released and very carefully pretending that she didn’t see the beaming, though inordinately shy smile and flush on his features as she smiled at him.

The lonely light in his eyes made her chest ache.

“Well, we are both chuunin.”

“Eh?” he glanced back and forth between the two as she continued to eat, his brows furrowed and eyes narrowed. “Eh? But, Asuka-nee-chan is like, super strong and can do lots of jutsu, and well, Iruka-sensei doesn’t do that.”

Coughing as she swallowed some broth wrong and clamping a hand over her mouth, she used the other to cover the upper half of her face at the embarrassment that no doubt was reflected on both chuunin’s faces, though Umino’s likely bore a healthy dose of mortification. Where was his brain to mouth filter? That kid was just too honest sometimes, and he really needed to learn some tact before he went and said something like that to someone who wouldn’t deal well with that loud blabbermouth’s personality. Well, it was more likely that his sturdy body would be his saving grace, rather than him learning any subtlety.

He wouldn’t know discretion if it bit him on the ass.

“Ah,” her voice was rough as she listened to the Academy instructor sputter in indignation. “Well, Naruto, we have different classifications, so I do the flashy jutsu, and he doesn’t.”

“Oh,” something like understanding passed over his features, before confusion set in. “Classifications? What’s that?”

“Well, Naruto,” there was a dark tint to the man’s voice, even if he was still flushed when she took in his features. “If you’d listened in class, then I would have explained that to you. A classification is sort of like a dedication. I’m a teacher because that’s what I specialize in, what I’m best at is helping others to learn, and Nagisa-san is a front line, combat kunoichi, because she’s best at fighting for Konoha.”

Asuka quirked a half smile at the two males.

As she recalled, last she’d checked he was a High-intelligence class, with a minor note about sabotage. She’d heard talk that he wasn’t a jounin only because he enjoyed teaching children so much and couldn’t stomach the thought of possibly having to harm a child on a mission, which often came with things above B-rank if they were a witness. Or a target. He was too kind hearted for the rigors of being a jounin, his emotions too much towards the surface, too strong to be suppressed or compartmentalized against the things that he would run into on a mission of jounin caliber. Still, he had the skills needed, just not the gut, and she could respect that, as she had the exact opposite problem, as far as she could tell.

“Yeah, you see, I’m more brute strength than Umino-san, and he’s smarter than me, so we do different things,” she looked up into his dark brown eyes, curious about the light flush that suffused his cheeks again, and why he was scratching at the scar that passed across his nose. It couldn’t honestly still bother him, could it? He’d had it for longer than she’d known him, and she’d known him for several years already. “If he cared less about the children of Konoha, and more about kicking butt, he’d be out there with me, taking more active missions, but he likes kids,” she lifted a brow. “Though, with you in his class for so long, I don’t see how he still has any interest in the job.”

“Hey!”

The two chuunin laughed with the two civilians at the Ramen stand, the genin between them sputtering and denying the accusation just making their mirth all the stronger.

So, she didn't know why the kids were suddenly everywhere she went but…

Well, it wasn’t like she minded running into the brats.

They were always entertaining, at the least.

~*~

“Taking a late lunch, Nagisa-san?”

Looking up from where she’d been absently watching the sunlight reflecting off of the river water, she spotted the jounin perched in the tree from which he had spoken out to her, taking in the slightly battered look to his clothing, but seeing no signs of injury and assuming that he’d just gotten back from a mission and was avoiding medical, or he was waiting to be late to a debriefing as was his habit. She’d heard of his boycotting of the hospital – the staff really hated him there from what she could gather and he was a horrible flight risk – and wondered if he suffered through injuries that could easily be taken care of just because he didn’t want to deal with iryō-nin snobs who hadn’t seen a day of actual combat in their lives. She couldn’t see anything too damning or any injuries that bled, so she was sure that he was perfectly alright, but she still wondered if in the past he might have done just that.

As for his ridiculously exasperating propensity for tardiness, she didn’t really understand it, not in the half sympathetic way she did the aversion to the hospital, but with how very deliberate she had begin to realize it was, she was starting to think that it was likely better that she didn’t ponder on his reasons too hard. There was something very carefully constructed about portions of his public persona, namely the ridiculous excuses he used when he was deigning one with his presence after making them wait for two hours feeling like an idiot.

Well, either an idiot or tending towards homicidal inclinations.

The fact that it was very familiar, these carefully tended traits, doubly so kept her from thinking on them too hard.

“Yup,” she absently patted the ground next to her invitingly, the grass springy and a little damp from water splashing up onto it, the ground a little soft from the same. “Want some?”

“Hmm,” he seemed to regard her from her spot on the riverside for an inordinate amount of time with that dark gray-blue eye before shrugging and hopping down from the tree to stroll over casually. “Sure.”

Meandering over, he plopped down comfortably in the grass beside her and reached out easily for one of the onigiri she’d prepared for herself that morning, and she took note of the deep new scrapes on the metal plate on the back of his glove, as well as the dried blood ingrained in them there. From the way it was smeared, it looked like he’d backhanded someone rather successfully, and she pulled water out of the air without thought and washed it off of the metal because it was unhygienic to eat food when you had blood on your hands if you had the choice not to. She was sure that he’d already taken a scraping of it when it was still wet anyway, for analyses by the hospital to put on record and study for any anomalies. He seemed the efficient type when it came to missions and his duty. Leaving it like that was very deliberate, and likely meant to fend off civilians and his fan club.

Luckily, she wasn’t included in either of those factions, and even if he for some unfathomable reason thought of her as such, she still wasn’t going to watch him eat with blood staining his hands. While she was aware of how it likely wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for him, she didn’t want to have anything of the sort associated with her in his mind, subconsciously or not.

She would not remind someone of death just with her presence. She refused to live like that ever again.

“How considerate of you,” he drawled and she rolled her eyes at him with an exasperated sigh.

“Just eat, Hatake-san.”

She didn’t care how weird it made her look washing someone else’s hand – or glove, as it were – before eating when you could potentially ingest someone else’s possibly poisonous blood was gross.

“Hai, hai.”

“Just one is enough.”

“Ah, hai…”

Turning back towards the water she nabbed an onigiri for herself, enjoying the konbu seaweed she’d filled them with, as a change from her usual umeboshi since she’d run out two days before and hadn’t felt like running to the store for just one thing. The breeze was nice as it traveled over the water, carrying the scent of wet earth and cut grass from her previous training, the water reflecting the sunlight that lit the clearing and shimmered over the nearby leaves and tree trunks. She had removed her shoes and calf bandages when she’d sat down for her meal so that her feet were trailing in the water, and she absently lifted a single foot and pointed it, the iridescent blue of nail polish glittered under the water’s magnification as she was holding the water against her skin so that it fit over the appendage like a sock before letting it fall back into the river. The splash brought up several droplets of water that she caught and floated around in the sunlight like shimmery lightning bugs as she fell back to lay on the ground with her eyes closed and reached for another of her onigiri.

“So,” she spoke languidly, keeping her eyes closed but moving the little droplets in shapes and patterns above her, barely having to think about it. “Learn any super cool jutsu while you were out?”

A low chuckle muffled by food greeted her and she smiled a little in enjoyment of his amusement.

It was nice to make people happy since she so rarely got the chance to, and it was likely that he rarely got the chance to be pleased. He was rather somber and serious when he wasn’t being an immature obnoxious bastard just to annoy her and waving porn at the masses so as to ward them off.

“Hmm, well, not one that you would find any use in, I’m sure,” was his mumbled answer. “It’s Fuuton.”

“Ah, boring,” she singsonged with a laugh of her own. “I’m sure you won’t taunt the Hokage’s son with it, of course. Since there are so few Wind jutsu around here.”

“Who? Me?”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

With an amused huff, she burst her chakra inside of the tiny water drops and they briefly exploded and turned into a fine mist that quickly dissipated as it blew away on the wind, before she reached for her canteen blindly and took a drink of the lukewarm tea she’d put inside that morning.

“When do you think you’ll have time to help me with Hidden Mole?”

“Hmm, well, I have some time now,” he said easily with a half shrug, and she opened an eye to look up at him wryly, taking in his post mission self.

“I’ll bet,” was her dry response.

So lazy.

~*~

A couple months after starting to work with Hatake-san and his kids she ran into them while she was out in the Land of Waves. It was the first time she had run into them whilst in the middle of a mission – their D ranks didn’t count – and she could honestly say that she wasn’t pleased with the situation as she found it.

The Sandaime had taken to using her as a courier for passing information in regards to the coming Chuunin Exams, between the villages, seeing as she didn’t really need an escort the way that others who were perhaps more diplomatically qualified would, at least, not at that time, and it was always best to conserve village resources. Considering her Bingo Book entry had her as a low B rank to high C rank risk, her bounty wasn’t all that great or attractive, so it was unlikely that she’d be targeted by Rock or Mist, the only ones that really cared much about bringing in bounties. It meant that she could, in a pinch, be sent out with minimal backup, at most two other nin to escort her, but generally on her own considering she had a better chance of being undetected if she stayed away from larger groups, simply looking like a courier rather than anything else. She’d thought to stop off in Wave for the night, only to sense the fluttery, low chakra of the Copy-nin, and the frazzled, worried auras of their three mutual students, all stationary in an enclosed space with two – no, three – civilian level signatures.

If she hadn’t have been requested by the Hokage to take this mission, it was likely that another chuunin who was unfamiliar with their chakra signatures would have kept on going past despite the obvious distress in the signals in their textbook projections. Even though there was a Konoha signature that hovered about them – one of the first chakra manipulations that were learned in the Academy – if the chuunin in question hadn’t known who they were… and considering it was easy to assume that they were a genin squad, well. Most chuunin are of the opinion that jounin can take care of themselves, even if they have kids to watch out for, and while Asuka herself was well aware that the Copy-nin could most definitely take care of himself and if she hadn’t felt anything she’d have gone on her way. Under any other circumstances she would have continued on, happy to hear about their mission when they got home and could brag or whine about it so that she could put them into drills, but… her senses told her that apparently he’d hit a snag of some kind.

So, she veered off the path she’d been taking through the woods that lead to a little cottage on the border of Wave that held a friend of hers, and came to a nice little house that was just within her rudimentary sensing range. She was sure that Juli-chan would understand when the explanation was given to her next time that the chuunin was in the area, and though her little brat would huff and puff at her, there would be no complaints.

With a frown she jumped down from the trees and after a cursory glance around the area, stretched her senses outward, unusually worried – which she thought was completely logical, considering whatever could put Hatake down, could certainly take her – only to find nothing she could detect, and heading to knock on the front door.

The everyday sounds that had been softly trickling through the wood ceased, and she waited patiently for one of the genin to open the door, and was inordinately pleased to see the unmarked features of the pink haired girl who answered the door.

Jade eyes blinked up at her in surprise and relief, then with pleasure as the girl’s lips curled in surprised happiness.

“Oh, Asuka-sensei!” she cried suddenly, throwing herself at the chuunin with her meager weight, arms wrapped around the woman’s waist, the adult’s hands finding their way to pet her hair and grip shoulder. “I’m so glad that you’re here! Kakashi-sensei is – “

“Sakura,” she interrupted gently, looking down into teary and fearful light green eyes before smiling at her. “It’s good to see you, but perhaps we should take this inside?”

“Ah,” the girl flushed, glancing around the area near the house before moving inside followed by the elder kunoichi. “Gomen, sensei.”

The sight that met her dark green eyes was that of an older man drinking cheap likely watered-down sake at a table covered in paper with scribbled schematics, and what looked like building plans, his black eyes behind small glasses regarding her warily until he noted the leaf forehead protector that was secured around her left thigh and sighed with relief. There was a lovely, tired looking brown haired woman who was standing in the kitchen entryway, her eyes worried, lips slightly pinched on features lean and thin from lack of proper nutrition, the clothing she wore slightly loose on her frame.

She was likely a mother, considering the fact that she hadn’t been eating well, and with Wave in the state it was… there were few signs of that on the man’s features, but he had the air of one who’d recently been traveling, and if the architectural calculations she could see on the table meant anything, he’d probably eaten well whilst away. But the woman… no, she was definitely a mother.

A mother who had been giving her food to the child.

It fit with the smaller, child sized civilian chakra that she could sense inside the house.

“Sakura,” she started once she’d finished her examination. “Introductions?”

“Oh! This is Tsunami-san and Tazuna-san, Tazuna-san is the customer and he paid for a C-rank but it turned into a B-rank when we ran into two chuunin missing nin and suddenly Kaka-sensei called it an A-rank because first there were the Demon Brothers who were really easy to take out for the boys, if scary, and then Momochi Zabuza –“

“Zabuza?” she interrupted a frown creasing her brows and tightening over her lips.

Shiiiiit

That was reason enough to be worried.

“Oh, but Kaka-sensei fought him off and he has the Sharingan! That made Sasuke really upset, but it was so scary, and then there was a Hunter-nin and –“

“Sakura,” she forestalled more word vomit, squatting down to the girl’s level and placing her callused palm on top of her head, feeling the cool metal of her hitai-ate against her palm, pulsing her chakra softly to comfort the girl, whose eyes had gotten rather wide with recollection. “Is Hatake-san injured?”

“Um, we think it’s just chakra exhaustion, but I haven’t let the boys check for anything else because you told me that you shouldn’t approach an unconscious jounin unless properly qualified, especially when he’s injured, because he could hurt you out of instinct.”

Hurt isn’t exactly word I used, she thought with a mental twist of her features. Maim or slaughter was what I said, but well, she likely edited it even as I was saying it. Baby steps, Asuka, baby steps.

Sighing, the chuunin stood, lips tight and pale at the corners.

If the man was deep enough into unconsciousness that he hadn’t sensed her approach…

They didn't know each other well enough that he would implicitly trust her; simply the comradery of fellow Konoha nin.

“Right,” she turned back to the civilians, features a little tight as she gave a short bow. “I am Nagisa Asuka, kunoichi of Konohagakure, sorry for intruding, but I noticed the kids in the area and had to stop by.”

“Ah, no,” the man started, bowing a little in his seat automatically, shaking his head. “It’s not a problem.”

“Do you mind if I intrude further?” she questioned, gaze sliding from the woman to the man and back again. “I’d like to examine my comrade.”

“Go right ahead,” the mother answered, smiling a somewhat strained smile, and the other woman nodded her thanks. “Please be welcome.”

“I thank you for your hospitality. Sakura, lead the way.”

Once they’d entered the room, she found herself having to navigate over genin like they were overeager pets that had awaited the return of their masters after months of separation. Asuka allowed them a few moments, before she finally kicked all of them out to save herself the problems of having them underfoot, especially Naruto, who was steadily getting louder the longer he spoke. If he got much louder, then he was going to set off those dangerously honed instincts and reflexes that his jounin-sensei possessed, and she held no delusions about how well she would work as a meat shield between that man and the genin should he be so far gone that he couldn’t tell friend from foe.

At least it would be a quick death.

Heck, he’d likely regain some of his consciousness as her body hit the floor, so at least the kids would be alive, right?

A little traumatized perhaps, but alive.

She learned of how the boy had used his Shadow Clones to carry the unconscious jounin to the bridge builder’s abode under the direction of her kunoichi protégé, given the proper praise, and then promised to look over the Uchiha’s injuries after she finished with the Copy-nin to get them out. After this, she ordered Naruto to send out clones to patrol. Pretend he was looking out in preparation for a big prank he was doing.

Honestly, children.

They were like puppies tripping over each other at her feet for her attention.

Even the broody one.

Careful not to get within three feet of the man before she’d removed her weapons pouch and had already unsealed her medical supplies should she need them, she examined the pallor of the patch of skin she could see, and grimaced with worry over the small, fluttery feeling of his chakra against her senses.

That Sharingan eye really did a number on the normally ridiculous chakra stores.

She didn’t like not having that towering, thunderstorm feeling chakra crackling under tight control next to her when she looked at the silver haired jounin, and was distinctly uncomfortable with the concern and consternation she felt at his laid out appearance. The ragged edges of his clothing and the slightest scent of copper that permeated the air near him made her muscles twitch under her skin with agitation, and her heart fluttered with worry in her chest. She rather sincerely hoped that none of the blood that stained his dark attire in the few places that she could discern was his.

So, after taking a bracing breath, she knelt at his side, and nonchalantly – careful to not be too slow, and not too fast – placed her hands on his firm chest and gave a small, questioning chakra pulse into his system, to alert him to her intentions. It was standard procedure when dealing with a nin the rank of Mid chuunin or above, doubly so for any that had been active during wartime and had been in enough battle situations to have developed a nicely rounded sense of paranoia. It had always been dangerous to wake up a ninja, but it was especially so when said shinobi or kunoichi was wounded and had experience in wartime; more than one medically trained nin had been lost to their wounded comrades’ moments of disorientation upon waking. Just another thing that the Senju Princess had made for the betterment of Konoha’s forces was the conditioning to associate medical chakra signatures with positive things required by all ninja by the time they started learning chakra manipulation in the Academy, so that they could recognize the presence of a medic from their village even unaware when wounded and unconscious.

There were some cases though, that… well, there was only so much trauma that the human mind could deal with before it rewrote itself and replaced previous conditioning with something it found much more fitting. Because, while convenient and generally a good practice, the standard chakra query that portrayed the intent to help didn’t always work.

After all, chakra fluctuations could be copied.

Apparently Hatake Kakashi was one of those paranoid individuals.

Go figure.

Ah, hmm.

From where she lay on her back after not even a moment of her chakra slipping against the man’s hara, the chuunin pondered the irony of her situation. If only she hadn’t been introduced to this genin team she wouldn’t be in the position. Asked to teach a young kunoichi how to strive and is nearly killed by the one who has asked in the first place.

There was a rather sharp kunai at her throat, her hands were pinned above her head, legs held under the weight of the jounin’s wiry, muscular form, as she found herself struggling not to struggle orfight back against her sudden, not altogether unexpected attacker. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Sharingan up close.

His eyes were dull with exhaustion and a lack of comprehension, the darkness of his original eye a little hazily more gray than blue, the pupil blown just a little more than the crimson counterpart, the red of the doujustu the darker the farther towards the edge of the iris it reached, until it turned into a black ring. She found herself mildly hypnotized by the slow spinning of the tomoe in his red eye, the scar that bisected his eyelid was strangely dark, like a curse against the sallow of his skin, but that small spark of chakra he had left was fizzling over her skin like static electricity, trying to determine her threat level and she had to suppress a shiver at the foreign feeling. The breath that struggled weakly and laboriously from behind the material of his mask against her face was scentless but extremely warm, telling more about his fever than the glazed sheen to his eyes and the shivering of his skin where it pressed against hers even through thick cloth.

“Hatake-san,” she said carefully, but no response was forthcoming and she felt her brows crease more with her worry at the tremble that was beginning in his limbs. “Hatake-san.”

The man’s breathing was getting a little more belabored, ragged, losing even the slight amount of control he’d had over it at first, and she pressed her lips together for a moment before completely relaxing her body and staring up into those mismatched eyes, the only part of his face she could really see.

He has nice eye lashes. Long, dark, curling. Very pretty. I wonder why they aren’t pale like his hair.

“Kakashi-san,” she tried his first name cautiously, her tone was soft, gentle. “I need to tend to your injuries,” she tugged lightly, almost playfully at her pinned wrists, and received a waiver of his grip for her efforts. “Kakashi-san.”

Another, stronger falter in his bruising, painful hand around her wrists – she was that glad she was wearing her bracers, or her bones would be grinding together – and she risked a soft breath to speak again, hoping that her next effort didn’t have the opposite effect she was going for despite how risky it was. Something like confusion slithered over those glazed eyes as he stared down at her, and she knew that she was beginning to get through to him, no matter how… awkward her means.

“Kakashi…”

It was embarrassing to call him without honorifics, a little rude considering he was Elite – despite her failings in social understanding, he was her superior and deserved the respect of the position, especially so the more she got to know him – but it certainly got results.

That hard, blank stare ended once he blinked, the first time he’d done so since pinning her to the floor, and then he squinted at her, left eye flinching shut before his arms and legs seemed to give out, all of the muscles in his body deciding that enough was enough all at once. It was only her own, newly honed, reflexes that saved her from a slit throat – oh shit fuck fuck fuck almost dead – as his full weight fell on her torso, and she was able to shift just enough to be able to catch him to her side, carefully setting the kunai within his reach, but keeping it from his hand for the moment as she set him back onto the futon that had been lain out for him. In the back of her mind, she was vaguely thankful for his being a pain in the ass and increasing her reaction time by almost fifty percent since having started helping her with her affinity, and still doing so, despite her having mostly mastered her secondary affinity.

It was apparent to her that he couldn’t even move his arms he was so weary, so she gently resettled his hitai-ate over his Sharingan eye, frowning at the drag it had had on his already dangerously low chakra reserves, heart settling more calmly in her chest. Now that the worst was over, she managed to maneuver him carefully, as gently as she could, onto the sleeping pallet once again so that he could be as comfortable as possible while she looked him over to make sure that there wasn’t anything more serious than the disturbing state of his chakra stores to deal with.

“… Nagisa?” he managed to wheeze hoarsely, voice sounding painfully dry. He was beginning to burn up with a high fever, and she pressed her lips together with worry and displeasure. “What are you doing here?”

“I was passing through on my way back from a mission,” she returned, gently beginning to remove his jounin vest, folding it carefully and placing it next to his head on the side nearest her, the one with his uncovered eye. “I felt the kids’ chakra signatures, and well,” she grimaced at him. “ You. Feels awful, by the way, Hatake-san.”

The beleaguered sigh he released seemed to remove the remaining tension in his body, and his dark eye regarded her, half lidded and bruised, lines of exhaustion clear as day tugging out from the heavy lid. He looked so aged with his veins showing clearly through his pale skin, the sudden addition of lines at the corners of a normally smooth, finely shaped eye. She didn’t like it.

She didn’t like that she didn’t like it.

Were they becoming… something like friends?

She couldn’t tell.

But. She.

She wanted.

~*~

Nagisa was almost… she… he had almost…

It was painful to swallow, but he did so to try to soften the harsh lump in his throat of almost dread and the pathetic palpitations of his heart as adrenaline dried up in his abused system.

He had never felt so inordinately glad that she had strangely soothing, calming chakra when she focused it through her hands, that she was such a calm and steady presence that matched her outward straightforward personality.

That was likely that the only reason he hadn’t killed her by reflex alone when she gave the standard query into his system, because her soothing chakra had been familiar and also completely non hostile, almost… friendly and warm, no reticence whilst still having human personality and touch to it, not clinical at all. There was also relief in the fact that when he could no longer hold himself up anymore – it was vaguely embarrassing, but he was too exhausted to really care – she managed to keep herself from being sliced open anyway – something that would have given him more things to regret, more people on the stone to remember for his folly – and made sure he didn’t slam his head into the floor. That would have compounded the lovely headache that was already pounding away in his head causing his brain, that felt like mulch in a meat grinder as it was, to shatter into a thousand pieces of slicing glass and possibly ooze out of his skull.

Her speed in reacting was something that was probably of his own doing, to some extent. He got the feeling she wouldn’t scowl at him as much when he decided to surprise attack her during their ninjutsu sessions anymore, though it was likely that she’d never grow to enjoy them as he did, taking some fun from her irritation.

She had called him by his first name, as well, which had shocked him when he could think again, but he didn’t feel displeased by it, nor did he feel insulted with whatever insinuation it could say about them, especially considering the large gap in relative rank. The civilians were already gossiping, so what did it matter? While the woman wasn’t exactly the most personable of people, or exactly overflowing with deference, there was a subtle sort of respect that she regarded him with, namely by not assuming that it was alright to use his first name or disregarding honorifics as some did. It was refreshing as well as familiar, the brisk politeness, and it had both helped create as well as reduce the distance between them comfortably. The way that she had diverted from that comfortable routine to get his attention was a bit shocking, but it had gotten results. To be quite frank, it had apparently soothed and made him relax through his battle readiness and violent urges, likely calling to his subconscious telling him that this was a person who he didn’t want to maim and kill because they were close enough to him to use his name familiarly.

There was some timid, tired pleasure at being correct about her medical training, though.

“Yeah…”

Because it was rather correct, he readily agreed with her assessment of how his chakra exhaustion felt even from an outside perspective.

It took him a moment to realize that he was allowing her to pull off the long sleeved shirt he wore over ANBU grade under armor, glad when she made no move towards removing either that or the mask attached to it via chakra insulated fibers, but instead removed his hip pouch and separate kunai pouch, putting those on top of his vest and shifting down to remove his sandals. Her hands were careful and deliberate, every motion telegraphing exactly what she meant to do before and even as she did it. He watched as she frowned with her slightly furrowed brows at the slight swelling in his ankle from almost turning it too much when he’d set his foot wrong bracing against the weight and power of the Kubikiribōchō and its wielder, and though she was clearly displeased with it she appeared to set it aside for later, though her fingers lit over the bones for a quick moment. The calluses of her trade skimmed over his hypersensitive swollen flesh and felt almost ticklish, and if he’d had anything resembling energy, he would have felt properly insulted and offended at the very fact that his body twitched a little at the touch and had reacted in any way.

He'd thought Kushina had killed those nerve endings when he was a kid.

After she shifted to the rest of him, he watched her lightly tanned features frown and twist with worry as she removed his gloves and took in the impact bruises and blisters from stopping Zabuza’s sword with only a kunai for defense against a rather large legendary blade, even beneath hard callous and scar tissue. The small, oblong shape of the blades on kunai weren’t quite built to endure that kind of force or pressure, and he was sure if it’d been anyone else faced with the might of the missing nin, they’d possibly be nursing broken or strained wrists from the power. Well, either that or they wouldn’t have been able to stop it at all and would have been killed.

Eh.

Despite the fact that neither the missing nin or he had gotten serious – though the Copy-nin had felt the urge towards the end once he’d been released from the Water Prison as he distinctly did not like his genin being in danger and would strive towards never having a repeat performance – the skill that the other man possessed would have been a challenge for most other Konoha jounin to keep up with. Those below perhaps a jounin on the upper side of Mid would have not been able to keep up and would have surely been crushed under the pressure and unable to escape or hope for such, possibly during the first attack.

There was a reason he was considered Elite, the same as there was for Zabuza, though Kiri didn’t call it that if he remembered correctly.

He was just one of the Seven, their highest ranking below Kage.

It was likely that there was a ranking system even amongst the Seven themselves, but he didn’t know it. Also, with each regime change, things were iffy in other villages in how stable the information one knew about a village's systems prior to the change. Often, there were minute changes in ranking that threw off those outside of the village who had had some idea of the system that belonged in the previous regime.

“Anything you can tell me about your condition other than a gross state of chakra exhaustion?”

He watched, faintly surprised as he always was at noting her lack of need for hand signs when using certain jutsu, apparently included in this particular case, she had summoned water to her hand and was using it to channel her yin chakra into healing his hand of contusions.

The sight was both mesmerizing and inordinately pretty, glittering and shimmering the way it was, like a decorative pond in the moonlight, or a many faceted jewel in the sun flickering like a tall candle flame with warm gold and cold blue – eh, hmm.

He apparently really needed to get some sleep because that was just ridiculous.

It was both distracting and calming to look at, like the waterfall and river that she frequented for training more often than not, where they ended up eating lunches fetched for them by his Summon. For some reason, the water medium almost made the iryō-jutsu feel… more effective in a way, closer would be another way to describe it, as if the water was making it easier to touch and regenerate damage. Perhaps it was just because it was another of her strange affinity abilities, but he might suggest this method to other med-nin should he get the chance, or if it was even possible for them to perform the jutsu in the same way. The human body was mostly made up of water, after all, and perhaps using such to channel the chakra made the infiltration and manipulations of the cells easier. Who knew? It was something to think about.

After all, he knew a few jutsu that could mess with the tiny electrical currents running through a body. He'd just never considered using it to heal if it even had medical potential.

It boggled as to why she wasn’t a jounin already now that he’d been witness to a large array of her skills – Sandaime was right damn him – but well, it was half choice entering the Jounin Trials, and she had mentioned not feeling up to the test yet. Still, she didn’t seem to even truly comprehend some of her own skills, and the fact that they were rather above average in all aspects – even had some impressive skill in genjutsu, considering she wasn’t interested in the field only knew few, though having had Uchiha on her team it was explainable – of those of her rank. It wasn’t every day that you met someone – a chuunin at that, even a High – who could perform the majority of their known ninjutsu without hand seals, or with modified one handed seals. If she spent less time training alone, and spoke more with the ninja population, she would know this, but well, she likely wouldn’t have the skill set that she did if she had been more social. He didn’t really have any right to say anything in regards to that, anyways, and he hated being a hypocrite, despite the fact that he was a living contradiction.

He himself found himself often confused when people were in awe of certain skills.

Like his own affinity with Lightning and how it was so strong in a mainly Fire aligned country, how he’d had no secondary affinities and had to develop them from scratch and still mastered them better than most with their main affinity. It seemed to have people dropping jaws with envy and admiration even though it wasn’t a skill exactly, just some strange mix of genetics and chance that had given him a propensity for learning and adapting even before he’d received Obito’s Sharingan.

It was just the way he was, so he could understand her bemusement, but he was starting to see where others had come from in regards to interest in his strong affinity.

Nagisa’s affinity was ridiculous.

And so very fascinating.

“My shoulder,” he didn’t elaborate, settling for closing his eye and concentrating on breathing through the familiar, heavy pain of his body and chakra coils. His head felt so heavy… “Possible sprain in my ankle. Might check my lungs.”

“Hmm, there isn’t any water in them,” she muttered absently without even checking with her jutsu, setting his hands down gently at his sides before shifting foreword and trailing the jutsu covered palm over his already visibly bruising right shoulder, which was only bared because he’d chosen the sleeveless armor on a whim before they’d left Konoha. “And your ankle will need a day of two of rest too, that’s all. But the shoulder…”

The jutsu was soothing on the partially torn ligament, boosting its strength and starting to knit it back together. Normally he hated being healed, but the way she wasn’t babying him or ordering him about made this much more comfortable than it otherwise could have been with another medically trained nin. She wasn’t scolding him, wasn’t making it seem like she knew more than he about his own body like some combat trained medics and all hospital workers. She was just going about her work, doing what she could, and not complaining about how he should know better or be better despite not being a field operative and not knowing what it could be like in the midst of battle. That got old. Fast.

“Jeez, what exactly did you do?”

“Stopped the Kubikiribōchō with a kunai,” he stated with as much dryness as he could. “Y’know, the usual.”

Kakashi could honestly say that he was rather pleased that he hadn’t slurred the words even though his mind was starting to fog into unconsciousness at the relaxing feel of her chakra through his tired muscles.

It was rare that he spent so much time with one person constantly, and he hadn’t done so since his leaving the active ANBU registry. He’d forgotten how relaxing, how warm and relieving it was to have someone you recognized as friendly when you were injured who was strong enough to aid the weaker members of his pack, someone who could be counted as an ally. He had rarely found himself able to fall fully unconscious in hospitals, or on joint missions with those whom he had to lead, and that wasn’t good for his health at all, didn’t speed up the recovery the way proper rest would.

The fact that she was even there to take care of the kids in some capacity while he couldn’t – he shuddered to think of what he might have done, had the genin approached him while he was unconscious, it was the stuff of nightmares – was a huge relief even though a part of him was very unhappy with himself in the fact that he had been unable to remove the threat to the young under his protection. Although she wasn’t as capable as he was in general, her overall strength much less than some Mid jounin, she was leaps and bounds more effective than the genin and still several of his fellow jounin, definitely able to defend against most of what they could be facing. Even if, as he suspected, Zabuza was still alive – which was just great really – she would still definitely be a bonus as backup, if she stayed.

He carefully avoided the thought that he hoped she did.

Pretending ignorance was generally best.

Bliss and all that.

“Ow,” she muttered, lips twisting in distaste, taking a breath. “Alright, I’m going to start a chakra transfer,” he could hear her grimace and echoed it internally. “It might be a little rough, since I have no Lightning affinity to speak of, but please bear with me.”

“Mm,” he just hummed, falling firmly into the darkness.

It was always better to be unconscious during a transfusion.

Experience told him this.

~*~

Once she was sure he was out, she began the transfusion, frowning deeply at the greedy way that his coils pulled on her reserves, finding barely any reluctance on his part to pull in the Water aligned chakra into his system as he gobbled it up. That spoke of a despairing familiarity with having to make do with apposing affinity transfers via something of a regularity, and in the long run, this could damage his ability to produce chakra, or even mess with the strength of his affinity.

Considering his trademark was the freaking Chidori, she was embarrassed to note that she was suddenly taking into consideration the idea of beginning to work on building up a rudimentary Lightning affinity, just in case he needed another transfer at some point in the future.

She was turning into such a sap.

They barely knew one another; when would she need to do this again?

~*~

“So,” she sat back beside the mostly recuperated jounin with a yawn, a little tired and hungry due to the rather large transfer the previous day. Her hands tingled a little with how she’d overworked her coils, though she was glad that it wasn’t the icy pins and needles of using too much yin chakra. That shit was irritating as all get out. “Zabuza’s alive.”

“Yeah,” it was almost a groan as he stared up at the boys as they worked on tree climbing.

Sakura having already finished the exercise – a fact that she was delightedly smug about, though she’d only taunted her teammates a little, which only a little while ago she never would have done – and had headed to the bridge with Tazuna, so it was only the boys that were working on it still.

“Fake death with a senbon, you said?” she asked curiously, causing him to glance over at her. “Where exactly did it hit?”

“Hmm,” he reached out and tapped over her leather armor, just where the meat of her major neck muscles met her shoulder, next to her vertebrae. “About there, I think.”

With a frown, she considered.

“There must have been some other factor,” she wondered aloud. “Just the senbon wouldn’t have done that.”

“Oh?” he looked a little interested.

“How deep would you say it went?” she spread her finger a bit apart. “About this?”

“Little deeper, perhaps, but very close,” he glanced up at the boys when Naruto fell off of the tree again with a yell of discontent, the Uchiha tsking and landing much more gracefully as he did the same.

“Well, you probably know the human body better than I do,” she mused, not noting the wry twist to his visible brow at her words. It was true, to be able to tear apart a body and take a life efficiently, knowledge was a necessity. It was why combat capable medics were so dangerous, because they knew everything about the human body, why the Senju had been so feared even with their propensity for iryō-jutsu. “But there is a nerve there that could cause temporary paralyses, but it wouldn’t stop the heart, temporarily or otherwise. It was either some kind of chakra charge – unlikely, you’d probably have sensed it, no matter how out of it you were, but still possible – or it was some sort of poison.”

She pursed her lips in thought before glancing over at him.

“You didn’t smell anything different?”

“Hmm, no,” he decided after a moment, shaking his head. “Although there are a number of poisons that are relatively scentless.”

“Well,” she released a breath and relaxed back into the tree more, stretching her lightly tingling fingers. “It’ll come out eventually.”

“Mm.”

They sat for a bit, and she pulled a bag of crackers from her kunai pouch, a little put out that she didn’t have more on her person, but didn’t want to stand to go hunt up something to eat. Things were sparse enough in Wave, so they didn’t need her eating their food, as well. Leaning back against the same tree as the recently healed Copy-nin and offered him some of her treat, somewhat pleased when he did take a handful, no matter how cutesy the shape of the crackers were, and even more pleased when he didn’t say a word when she plucked the pandas out of his hand and replaced them with flower and puppy shaped ones. She just really liked the pandas, okay? Those little seaweed wrapped ears and sesame seed eyes… adorable.

So she had a weakness for cute things, so sue her.

Everyone had a vice and hers was relatively harmless.

“I’d say you had a slight case of disturbing narcissism,” he started after they both finished their snack, somewhat amused from behind his orange book. “But your hair isn’t settled quite high enough on your head for that to be the case.”

She nudged him in the side with her elbow, sniffing imperiously. His chakra crackled against hers with a mischievous tint, and she found hers fluttering back at him as if to shoo him away, like one would do with hyperactive children or animals begging for table scraps. Though she flushed a little at the sudden instinctive and thoughtless chakra play, unsure of what it could mean, she continued to bicker with him for the fun of it. He could be delightfully snippy when he got into a mood, and it was rare that she got the chance to exchange barbs with people. Especially witty ones.

“High placed hair causes a stupid amount of wind resistance,” she stated gravely, lips twitching at the corners.

“I’ll be sure to bring this up to many of the kunoichi I know,” was his equally serious answer, his own lips twitching behind his mask though she couldn’t see it from her angle. “I’m sure they’ll take this knowledge in with considerable grace and poise.”

They shared a glance, before both chuckled at the thought of the murderous rage that those women would go into if they were told that their hair styles were unprofessional, and that they detracted from their physical capabilities at all. Especially if they were told by a man. Yeah, that’d definitely be the last thing seen. Enraged herd of kunoichi, what a way to go, right?

Not everyone was as good at surviving beatings from kunoichi as Jiraiya of the Sannin, the sturdy bastard.

Most didn’t have experience with the Senju princess’ fists, either.

“It’ll take Zabuza another couple days until he’s in top shape again,” Kakashi murmured, dark eye completely serious, and she turned her head towards him. “So, do you think that you are going to stick around for that long?”

“Yeah,” she answered simply, pulling a knee up towards her chest and propping her elbow on it, hand dangling at chest height, relaxed. She noted that she had a small impact bruise on the back of her hand that was from a few days previous when sparring with Mai. The girl was getting better. “I’m sure Sandaime-sama will understand the delay,” she cocked her head to the side. “You want me to take the accomplice?”

“I’m going to think on it a bit more, but probably,” that dark eye glanced over at his less than gifted in chakra control students. Those poor trees... “The boys would have to if you weren’t here, and that’s not really something I want to throw at them just yet.”

“Probably for the best,” she agreed.

“Argh!”

Crash.

“… Falling practice sometime after we get back, do you think?”

A heavy sigh.

“Aa.”

~*~

When they did end up at the bridge and the missing nin decided to show up at the same time, she was irritated to note that there were several water clones hidden in the sudden onset of unnatural mist. While she excelled in Water techniques, and could sense water rather well, it was still irritating to be surrounded by the not quite solid state of her element – especially when suffused with another’s hostile chakra – as well as being bombarded by several clones of a man who was apparently much larger than she was. She found herself protecting the bridge builder and the pink haired girl from several water clones at once instead of intercepting the fake Hunter-nin and separating him from the group, which then fell to the Uchiha boy, and she couldn’t withhold a curse from springing from her lips at the thought.

She could hear the clanging of metal, the grate of a large slab meeting a small slice, and winced, sensing the two jounin level shinobi’s positions by the parting of the mist.

She could smell blood.

It was always worse when she could, because she didn’t have the enhanced senses of some of her fellows and that either meant there was a lot of it, or they were really close. Usually too close.

“Asuka,” she heard from only a few feet away. Close then. “The mist.”

“Right,” she muttered.

Breath steady as she pressed her chakra overtop the former Mist shinobi’s and told the particles of water to fall to the ground, to disperse, something that was obeyed immediately.

“Wait, when did you start calling me by my first name?”

That was unexpected, and she felt a little blindsided by the sudden change of both her first name and a lack of honorific, as if they were close.

… Were they?

That would be…

Well.

Though she cleared it quietly, the soft sound out of her throat made her face feel warm with implications.

“Well –”

She heard a faint grunt that pulled her from her bewilderment as the man was interrupted from what he had been going to say, and turned to see that impressively large cleaver pressing down on the silver haired jounin, who held it at bay with a kunai.

A kunai.

An itty bitty little kunai.

Honestly, he could at least bring along a sealed longer blade, the man had used a tanto in his youth. Plus, it was an open secret that he’d been in ANBU, the gear he wore beneath the standard uniform telling enough that even if she hadn’t heard the rumor she would have figured it out – despite whatever he had covering or hiding the tattoo – and it was standard procedure in ANBU to carry a longer blade, which was usually a tanto or a kodachi.

“– You did use mine when I had you pinned to the floor,” he finished after a moment.

Of course he would bring that up.

Bastard.

The faint, offended, no, downright appalled “Sensei!” that came from the genin girl caused the chuunin to roll her eyes towards the heavens before a deadpan expression moved over her features. He had either the most ridiculously good timing abilities or the absolute worst and she couldn’t quite figure out which it was, not yet.

He’d claim the former, she was sure. Because he’s a genius, the whiny little snot.

He did enjoy verbal banter though, and it usually kept the mood from becoming too serious when in battle she had seen often enough, although she found it difficult to initiate on her own. She wasn’t known for her verbal finesse, after all, but if he was leading this dance, well, she could follow well enough, she had found.

“Hmm,” Zabuza’s voice was much deeper than she expected, a little rough, and she watched the corded play of muscles over his arms as he lifted the great cleaver from where he’d been pressuring the Copy-nin, jumping back. Oh, wow, he had to be strong to lug that thing around like it was nothing. “She’s pretty cute, that woman you brought,” he leered at her dangerously, the Killing Intent in the area spiking at her almost playfully, and she frowned at him, brows furrowed. How rude. “Asuka-chan, was it?”

“… You think I’m cute?”

Snorting at her words, the Konoha jounin leapt forward, his hands flashing quickly, before he spat lightning – oh, it was a conundrum how he did that through the mask but chakra – at the taller, broader man, who shifted out of the way of it. The bridge shuddered under her feet at the collision of jutsu with wood, sending a loud crack echoing sharply in the cool morning air, the tang of ozone sharp and immediate, closely followed by the taste of smoke in the back of her throat. As the Demon of the Mist swiftly evaded the jutsu, he brought his blade up in a flash of movement that she could just barely follow. Oh, he really had to be immensely strong to swing that thing around like that, meaning that those muscles weren’t just for show, then. There was an edgy part of her that wanted to fight him and to test her own blade against his, because if there was anything that she could call her folly, it was her desire to fight strong kenjutsu practitioners. Something that she rarely got the chance to do, seeing as there very were few ninja with those interests and skills in Konoha, and the ones they did have were very rarely free around the times that she was in the village.

It was what she specialized in, after all.

Yep, she was Konoha’s very own aspiring kenjutsu mistress.

Well, her and Uzuki Yugao.

She swore she’d pin that woman down someday and get a proper spar out of her, it was always getting interrupted when they managed to find each other.

They both got downright jumpy when they ran into each other on the street, both of them reaching for their weapons so often that people thought they’d explode at each other in the street due to the anticipation that they exuded. It was a common misconception that they didn’t like each other, that they downright hated each other, but that wasn’t true at all. Uzuki and she had an understanding, similar passions and pursuits, and when they couldn’t find each other for a spar they unanimously decided to take their frustrations out on the purple haired woman’s somewhat sickly but extremely gifted significant other Gekkō Hayate who was known as the best swordsmen in the village. While it was good practice and always fun to terrify Gekkō into a spar, it was also frustrating that they never got the time to spar each other the way that they wanted to, because there was something different about going against a woman instead of a man.

“I’m not cute,” she stated firmly to the wide eyed genin standing behind her. “I’m attractive. I’m dangerous. I’m a motherfucking kunoichi. Don’t ever let a man call you cute, Sakura,” she instructed, holding up a finger seriously. “Cute is for small children, civilian men,” she almost heard Tazuna sputter. “And baby animals. You go with pretty at the very bottom of the barrel, and the highest form of compliment you can get is red faced fumbling and speechlessness.”

“A-Asuka-sensei,” the girl looked dumbfounded, but her nerves had quieted. Good. “I don’t… really think that right now is the time.”

“Oh?” she queried, her gaze drifting towards the ice prison on the other side of the bridge. It didn’t seem that anything horrible was happening over there, so she didn’t let her gut sink in dread just yet. “What time would you prefer?”

“W-well…”

“Kakashi,” she called his first name ignoring the tiny flutter in her stomach as she interrupted the poor girl. “What’s the best way to compliment a woman’s appearance?”

“Speechless awe,” he grit out after being forced back by the missing nin, now only ten feet in front of the two kunoichi and the civilian. “And awkward jabbering. Possibly a dead faint, depending on the circumstances.”

The chuunin gestured in satisfaction at the silver haired man’s back, only to go battle ready in half a second, left hand tapping her right palm with a dot of chakra, the specialized tattoo there releasing her sword and she appeared on the other side of the bridge builder, the sound of metal scraping on metal reaching her ears a moment after the pressure exerted against her. Her right hand was bracing the back of the blade of her katana, the left gripping her well used hilt, the familiar grain of black braid beneath her hand a comfort against superior odds and that supreme strength. She was thankful for her muscular training as she didn’t slide back, though she used a little chakra on her feet just in case anyway, even if her arms and back screamed out at the strain while she had to remind herself that she was still wearing her wrist and shin weights. Truly, such a little thing was what made all the difference on her psyche.

Not on the situation, though.

“Ooh,” there was something like interest in those dark eyes as they regarded her above those industrial bandages. She could feel the heat of his breath on her face, and couldn’t help but feel relief at only the smell of herbs and tea reaching her nose. That would have been the icing on the cake, gnarly smelling breath. Odd that scent made it through his bandages but not Kakashi’s mask. Quality of materials, maybe? “Soshu Kitae, very nice,” his eyes drifted over her features, strangely considering, and she worked to push down the pressing urge to flush for something other than exertion. “Very nice.”

Well, that was a… compliment if she’d ever heard one.

Was flirting with the enemy an approved combat instrument?

It wasn’t exactly a tactic that she’d used before…

Without thought, she shifted her balance just enough for him to need to readjust his footing and let up on his pressuring of her, his superior height being used against him as his center of gravity was much higher than hers, and tapped her right hand to her left palm, and from that Seal popped forth a thick, self-stylized knife. The edge was razor sharp and the shape of the blade was a separated length of metal of a size with her forearm, the sharpened edge waved like her element, the tip of which she then slammed the strong point against the thin part of the blade that created the first guillotine curve, pleased at the agonized screech that came from the Kubikiribōchō. Dark eyes widened, and the man jumped back, only to be set upon by the jounin who had been waiting his chance, and with the enemy once again preoccupied, she glanced over towards where the Uchiha was fighting with the ex-Mist jounin’s accomplice, only to swear internally at the newfound information that Naruto was in there as well.

He’d been asleep in exhaustion when they’d left!

Troublesome boy.

She couldn’t tell what exactly it was that was going on in that ice prison, which was apparently a kekkai-genkai, if Zabuza was to be believed, and she frowned at the feeling of water that was just beyond her reach.

Having not been looking at the direction of the two genin boys and the unknown nin after her initial glance, watching and hoping for an opportunity to part the man from his sword, she was shocked at the moment she heard ice shattering like glass and turned her head to see, just before she felt.

– The pressure of the beam crushing against her back, the heat of that monstrous chakra burning in her lungs, her baby sister bleeding out beneath her, metal matte and glimmering faintly where it stuck out of the younger girl’s chest, someone screaming, was she screaming what was happening everything hurt –

Her back burned like rage and anguish. Like grief.

“Naruto!” she and Kakashi cried together.

All it took was simply a single momentary glance for them to switch out – if things went south with what that boy contained, he had a better chance of holding him back – her katana meeting with the stunned, wide eyed Zabuza’s blade and sending the Kubikiribōchō launching twenty feet away to stick out of the bridge.

Ah, she was sure that Tazuna would want to have words about all the damages later.

Well, if he was still alive, anyway.

Which if that were the case he should just be grateful and get over it because a few damages were better than corpses and being dead, in all rights.

“Haku...”

Asuka just barely heard him breathe the name, dark eyes tight at the corners, blood dripping from one rather injured arm, even as he plucked a kunai up to block her blade, only to have to dodge away at a swipe from her dagger.

The drag of resistance meant that she’d caught cloth, and she found herself rather pleased with that. It wasn’t every day that you ripped up the clothes of a talented shinobi, especially one who was a whole rank and skill level above yourself, but she didn’t let it get to her head. It was rather obvious that he was preoccupied with the fact that Kakashi was now within reaching – maiming, killing – distance of his young friend. Who was apparently named Haku.

Could they use that? The emotional attachment he had to the boy? To be honest, that want her style, she disliked manipulation like that, but if it came down to it…

He sent a quick, pressurized spout of water at her, but she subjugated it, and returned it to him in a sharp batch of highly compressed water needles – this was her go-to move, it required little chakra, and even less concentration – and barely noted the furrow of his angular black brows. Or the widening of eyes as he twitched out of the way of the returned attack. There was but a moment before he blurred out of her field of vision, and it was only the change in temperature behind her that had her directing chakra to the metal plates sewn inside of her leather armor, causing them to fuse and harden as they were designed to, that saved her from a set of broken ribs as his fist slammed into her right side, and while she did get tossed a few feet, she was up and standing before him again in a blink.

A quick glance at his fist, showed some damage done to his knuckles and fingers through the arm warmers covering them, and the relief she felt was short lived, because she suddenly felt a disturbance on the water and rolled her eyes with some sort of resignation, lips quirking wryly.

Of course, as soon as things were looking to be – not good, not quite positive – interesting, the backup would arrive.

Man, she rarely got to spread her wings with a new swordsman!

She was a bit confused though, as to why the man was toying with them, why he hadn’t forced Kakashi to get serious, and why he was willing to play with her, when she could just barely keep up with his movements. If it were anyone else, she'd heave thought he was just buying time or teaching her something as the superior swords person. As it was, maybe he was bored…?

Yeah, that didn't sound right to her, either.

The fact that she could hear the “dead” bridge workers groaning as they began to wake up was starting to build on her growing theory as to what was really going on here.

By the twist of his features, she could tell that he was scowling at her from beneath his bandages, even if there was no real heat in it, and he’d since stopped throwing around Killing Intent like candy and flowers and he was an oblivious civilian trying to ask her on a date. They moved simultaneously towards the Kubikiribōchō, and just as he lay his hands on it with his longer reach, she hooked her dagger into the inward facing bladed circle as she leaned her weight on the back of the blade in a manner similar to what Kakashi had done earlier in their bout, and that moment it took for him to recalibrate the strength needed to lift her as well as the blade gave her what she needed. As she flipped over his back mostly propelled by his strength – it was only a little fun to be lifted so easily… no, really – she slapped some quick paper seals that she was glad to have thought to grabbed from Anko’s stash over the broad side of the cleaver with chakra strings since her hands weren’t free, before twisting in the air and swiping out with her katana, slicing a nice gash into the man’s back, before being thrown back by a foot in her gut.

Ow, she thought kneeling with one foot supporting her, and left knee down as she rolled back into an upright position, blades held at the ready. I’m glad that I left the Guard setting of the plates on, otherwise I’d have some majorly punctured internal organs. Son of a – Ow.

Still, that hurt like a bitch, and she struggled to pull air back into her lungs, muscle memory and reflexes the only thing that saved her from being cleaved in half in his anger, as well as getting her to a fair distance when she felt the chakra she’d set into the paper seals sizzle in warning.

Shit.”

The missing nin snarled as he reluctantly tossed the blade away from him so that it exploded with concussive force in the air as opposed to in his hands – honestly, she was extremely impressed with the strength of the blade, as it had nary a scratch on it after the blast – and damaging his “good” arm.

Considering the fact that she hadn’t even seen him use his left since she switched in, she was pretty sure that the slice in the back of his deltoid had caused considerable damage. They both raced towards the weapon again, and she found herself having to dodge kunai that he threw at her with whistling, whining accuracy, and she felt the pain in the front of her thigh as one gouged a gash into the muscle, luckily not piercing any ligaments, but still causing discomfort, and the weight she could then put on that leg was fleeting. The shock of being stabbed made her stumbled a little, but she quickly corrected her balance, never taking her gaze off of the dangerous missing nin that had given her the wound. He managed to grasp the handle of the large, monstrous blade and take the initiative, pushing her back, pressing down on her with an emphasis on her injured side, black eyes staring into her own like a shark in the water with the desire to truly maim her now that he’d caused her to bleed.

What was it with thinking of Kiri nin in shark metaphors?

Shifting her weight, she managed to slide the larger blade down the crest of her katana and flickered away in a hurried, leafless shunshin – a technique that took more chakra control than she’d thought she had in those moments – only to dart back in for a clash of blade on blade.

They parried back and forth, and she felt sweat beading on her brow, her breathing beginning to become labored. His stamina was much greater than her own, and whenever she could, she swiped at his blade with her sword-breaker, the small, dense dagger causing an angry, mournful cry to ring up from the metal every time it struck. She was waning though, and they both knew it, even though the blood that they had to avoid slipping in was mostly his and he himself was slowing and his swings had less strength behind them. The missing nin had a larger mass and therefore had more accumulative blood to lose in the first place, and she had little doubt that she would be the one to fall when he finally tired of playing with her completely.

The cats eventually bored of the mouse, after all, and why turn down a meal?

… She needed to stop thinking about the animal kingdom.

“Zabuza.”

When Kakashi called from the sidelines, and the missing-nin’s attention flickered for just a moment, it gave her the chance to in a flash charge her chakra into the smaller blade and slam it into the spot on the broad face of the blade that she’d been working on since she’d first drawn steel.

The whining screech of steel against steel cut off after a moment, and there was the sound that interrupted the lament, a small, discreet, pop-crack that gave her endless satisfaction, no matter that he switched his grip on the blade used it as a support to kick her back, the back of his sandal connecting with her face and sending her tumbling back. She rolled back to her feet and noted that the dark haired man had stopped in mid motion and was glaring at his silver haired counterpart something fierce, dark eyes extremely unhappy with the Konoha jounin.

It likely had to do with the bound, dark haired boy in his grasp, slung under one arm and unconscious, body limp, face dripping blood, but it could have just been that Kakashi was just very good at being irritating. To be honest, it was a bit of a tossup when considering the Demon of the Mist’s psychopathic tendencies which it was that truly mattered more to him.

Not seeing Naruto, she glanced over, green eyes narrowing at the sight of the orange clad boy kneeling next to the Uchiha, who seemed to be playing pin cushion.

Her heart squeezed in her chest.

The jinchuuriki was alright, but…

She examined all of the entry points for the senbon that littered his body, and decided that none of them, not even put together, would have killed the child, and that he was likely in a state similar to what Zabuza had been put into by that very same fake Hunter-nin. Something told her that there wasn’t any poison coating those needles either, despite every reason for that to be the contrary.

Frowning, she was extremely curious as to why neither of the two missing-nin had gone for a death blow on any of their opponents.

It was common knowledge that Zabuza had been involved in a coup, that he’d risen up against the tyrannical Mizukage, so perhaps…

No, she’d leave those thoughts for later, when there weren’t several boat loads of people coming up to the dock.

“Kakashi,” she muttered.

After tonguing the molars on the right side of her jaw, anyway, tasting the blood from the large cut on her inner cheek she’d had gained from the pressure pushing the skin against her teeth, looking passed the unhappy Mist nin with a frown.

Well, at least her teeth weren’t loose. Or serrated, like his were. Though, they probably had techniques to prevent things like that… hmm, something to ponder on later.

“Aa,” he returned softly, only a couple of feet to her left.

While the dark-haired man was still facing them, she could tell that most of his attention was focused behind him on the rather large group of men that were unloading themselves from boats with little grace.

“Huh,” a rather unremarkable voice scoffed in a tone of superiority. “Looks like the Demon of the Mist is more of a dead fish than anything else!”

Oh, wow, she’d never heard words so stupid leave the mouths of drunkards as the ones that had left the rather frail, unfit civilian man in a business-like attire, who she was assuming was that Gatou guy who was opposing the construction of the bridge to swindle money out of the town. It could perhaps be said that Zabuza didn’t look to be in all that great of shape, left arm dangling uselessly at his side, blood wetting the back of his dark sleeveless shirt and dripping steadily against the wooden flooring of the bridge. The fact that his right hand was bleeding down the grip of the Kubikiribōchō, stature slightly slumped with the strain of lost blood did not detract from the picture that he really was not doing very well.

But still, the thought of insulting a shinobi like that… even one who was injured… it was like asking for the blade.

Irritating little man.

The missing-nin’s expression twitched with annoyance, dark eyes rolling at the weak verbal barb, before –

“Anyone who kills all those silly shinobi, including the useless Zabuza, can have double what I paid that waste,” even as she felt her lips thinning in displeasure, the man continued, jingling a rather weighty coin purse. “And I’ll even add in some extra compensation,” a dirty leer crossed unattractive features. “You get to keep the woman and that pretty boy of Zabuza’s.”

There were about fifty mercenaries who were looking rather interested, whether it was in the money or depravity, she didn’t know, but she was sure that given both her own state, and that of the two jounin, that they would be able to take the filth, even if they wouldn’t get out of the altercation unscathed. For a moment, she didn’t understand why she was mentally hesitating, before she realized that she had grouped the larger man amongst their numbers in the coming confrontation, despite the fact that they had been toying with killing each other not minutes before.

While the dark gaze of the ex-Mist shinobi had been unaffected before, it had chilled considerably at the added incentive for the petty criminals, and she found herself glancing at the boy who Kakashi was laying gently down near Sakura and the bridge builder, his own dark orb – Sharingan once again covered, considering the fight amongst ninja seemed to be on halt for the moment – cold as he did so. That single eye slid over to her for a moment, and she found herself raising her brows to ask what was taking him so long, rolling her head on her shoulders to loosen the tension that had built up in her shoulders and back during her short bout with the broader male.

Ugh, she needed to train more.

Her shoulders burned.

The soft huff of resigned amusement she received from her superior officer – and that was what he was in the field, and as well as in the village, even if Konoha were rather lax about such things when still within its walls – caused a quick smile to quirk over her features for a moment, before the two Konoha nin cast considering eyes towards the Missing-nin.

“Yeah, yeah,” that deep voice grumbled, right shoulder jerking up in a half shrug, his lips beneath the bandages twisting in something like a grimace. “Let’s do this.”

Letting the jounin take point, Asuka pulled some water from the body below the bridge and disposed of the impurities, before securing it with a thought over the gouge in her thigh, eyeing the Missing-nin’s back and arm in thought as she did so, before shrugging and giving a moments consideration into infusing yin chakra into the water to stop the blood flow, before moving forward with the men. Whilst she couldn’t quite work through a great deal of blood loss – even if she hadn’t truly lost all that much, all things considered, and she’d worked through worse – like her higher ranking companions, it wasn’t out of any real physical danger of excessive blood loss, she just didn’t fancy slipping in any additional puddles that may accumulate, like the one she’d stepped out of to join the other ninja.

With a sigh, she resealed her sword breaking dagger and rubbed at her forehead, blowing her bangs up after doing so.

This was turning into an interesting day.

Wading into the fray and switching to her non-dominant hand since the challenging fight was done with, she systematically and rather automatically actually, began to cut down her adversaries with relative ease, mildly interested before being put out when making contact with the blades of a few samurai dropouts. One or two managed to get in a few lucky hits, what with their greater numbers, and she could hear the Copy-nin grumbling to himself on the opposing side of the fracas, as well as a few bored comments from the Demon of the Mist.

“Hey, Asuka-chan.”

The foreign jounin called out to her rather drolly, causing her to send him an irritated look, only to scowl and stiffen a little when one man she’d had heading towards her grabbed at her backside, stinking of sake and cheap alcohol. Honestly.

What Zabuza?”

Her scowl smoothed, brow furrowing as she tilted her head towards him, something niggling at the back of her mind, something in her water sense warning her of a nearby disturbance.

“Do that green water thing for me, too,” the words were concise, like an order, but there was an interested query in those dark eyes.

With a sigh, she glanced over at her fellow Konoha nin, glancing over the stab wound in his own thigh, deeper than her gash, but also smaller in width, as well as a deep wound in the shoulder she’d healed not a week before. Rolling her eyes, she repeated the process of decontaminating the water and infusing her chakra before adhering it to the two male’s wounds, a little disoriented as she usually was by using this jutsu on others when not within touching distance. It was like having an extra eye that didn’t see, but felt, and wasn’t always where she thought it should be.

It was extremely awkward.

“Thanks, Asuka,” the silver haired man called mildly once the jutsu had settled.

“Yeah, yeah,” she grumbled to herself, before finally confirming what it was that her senses had been telling her through the natural mist that had taken up the latter half of the bridge behind them, on the other side of the unconscious Uchiha, the Uzumaki guarding him, their charge, Haku and Sakura. “Incoming from the south, civilian level and,” she paused in her quiet talking to herself, blinking a couple of times in surprise. “Hmm, one familiar presence. That boy. Inari.”

“Eh?” she heard faintly from behind her. “Inari?”

She had a moment where she was a little impressed with the boy’s range of hearing before she felt something invasive tugging at her chakra and smacked the poorly trained almost genin down with a backhand from her metal plated wrist guard. Carelessly, she stabbed him through the heart and turned to parry a blow from a slightly more trained or skilled individual, only to jump out of the scuffle when a large group of townspeople and the angry, petulant boy called Inari charged forward after a small speech about heroes and bravery.

Honestly, she hadn’t been paying that much attention to him at all, his indolent attitude having been off putting, tiring her more than anything else.

It was the self-involved people such as he – only a child, she had to remind herself – that were the ones who caused the most problems, shoving their feelings and thoughts down other people’s throats, especially when they’d been hurt, as the child had. At least most people had the decency to pretend when in the presence of others or grieve quietly. Trying to drag others into your pain and misery was something that she couldn’t abide by, as was telling someone that they couldn’t understand their feelings, that whatever they had been through was worse than anything could have been in the other person’s life.

That just made her so… angry.

Who did they think they were, telling others how to feel?

“Asuka,” Kakashi spoke up beside her, glancing over her form and seemingly displeased with the small wounds that dotted her body, gaze lingering on the water sealed gash in her leg, then back to where he was keeping a careful eye on the civilians that had gone charging in against the mercenaries, Zabuza clearing through the remainder to reach the jabbering mess that Gatou had turned into. Ah, men were such worry warts, she was fine. “Check Sasuke?”

Rolling her eyes lightly at him, she carefully cleaned her blade before sealing it away and turning her back on the melee, trusting the two jounin had everything well in hand, and could prevent the civilians from braining each other or managing to get themselves killed she moved towards the fallen boy. Save her from the protective urges of jounin-sensei. The man should be more concerned about himself, what with the rather low reserves she could feel quite clearly through the liquid medium she had coating the man’s wounds, and even as she walked away, she gathered small beads of the healing water and plastered them over his new wounds. No matter how minor, she didn’t trust the cleanliness of those buffoons’ weapons. They probably serviced them even less often than they bathed, and from the smell, well, that couldn’t have exactly been often.

Kneeling down beside the unconscious boy, she ignored Sakura’s fretting for the moment, keen dark green eyes taking in the damage to her newest patient.

Man, she really shouldn’t have given up the fact that she was trained in some iryō-ninjutsu because by no means was she a doctor, or even anything other than emergency field qualified to use her knowledge.

She had a feeling that she was going to get stuck on nurse duty for the remainder of this mission, and while she was resigned to it, that wasn’t the kind of kunoichi she was. Whoever said that kunoichi were better at iryō-ninjutsu didn’t know what they were talking about, because a good portion of the competent medics that she’d met were males, aside from the Senju princess and a few others. Just because you had good chakra control didn’t mean that you were automatically good at iryō jutsu, you had to have mentality, intelligence, work ethic, and a genuine appreciation and concern for the very life you were working to better or save.

Not everyone cared enough.

And not all of the few kunoichi were in the number who did.

“Nee-chan?” the blonde boy queried when she’d placed a hand on the unconscious boy’s chest, his bright blue eyes worried and tinged a tiny bit purple, oddly enough, his pupil a tiny bit elongated in a disturbing to perceive kind of way. It looked rather uncomfortable, actually. “Are you okay? Is Sasuke gonna be okay? Isn’t that Zabuza a bad guy?”

To forestall his questions, she raised a hand before carefully beginning to remove the senbon from the boy’s skin and muscle tissue, grimacing a little at the twitches that were incited in his limbs as some nerves were brushed. Carefully, she pressed chakra into the Uchiha’s still form, not knowing if the oddly chilled senbon might have some effect on the child’s chakra system, only to be relieved when there was nothing of the sort. She did, however find a tiny, tiny pulse that was twitching larger and larger the more senbon she removed, and she wondered if the ability to cause a death like state was something that came with the Haku boy’s kekkai-genkai.

Soon, all of the senbon had been removed, and other than a small amount of nerve damage which had been easily remedied, she had found nothing truly wrong with him other than a few bruises, and so set tiny dots of water over the entry wounds and charged them with yin chakra, causing those areas to glow like fireflies had landed scattered across his body.

She did, however, take note of the change in his ocular chakra pathways as she was checking his skull for fractures from falling and hitting the bridge.

It looked like he’d awoken his Sharingan, then.

“Nee-chan,” the worry in the jinchuuriki’s voice made her glance up from her examination. “Is he gonna be okay?”

She thought of the awakened Sharingan with a grimace. Well, she was sure that he would be happy about it.

“Yeah, he’ll be fine.”

If the Council didn’t immediately order him to start breeding, he’d be great.

~*~

It was odd, the next day, to be sharing a room with the two jounin.

To say the least.

Tsunami somehow having been convinced by Inari, who had, of all things, taken something of a shine to the gruff, bloodthirsty missing-nin once Naruto had vouched for him upon Gatou’s death, after having been given the chuunin’s simplified explanation as to why they were joining forces, to let the two fugitives stay with them. At least, that was going to be only until Zabuza actually decided to leave to gather anything of value from Gatou’s manor and emptied the man’s bank account to fund some organization that he wouldn’t speak of but both adult Konoha nin new it was likely to help the Mist Rebellion that he had started only a few years prior.

The situation was… not quite clear, and if all of them hadn’t been so damn tired then perhaps the whole thing wouldn’t have come about, but, well…

These genin had the weirdest luck.

Asuka didn’t remember her genin team having weird encounters like this.

While oddly flattering, the way the man was eyeing her with appreciation was also distracting while she worked on his injured arm.

She had noted it after he’d removed his shirt the previous night, showing skin tight under armor similar to Kakashi’s, and no one had felt up to dealing with a lengthy healing session and had all just crashed – her water bandages able to hold even when she was asleep – but the man was actually rather lean without his clothes giving him the illusion of bulk. There was a reason that he was doing mercenary work for money under the command of a civilian and it showed. The fact that Haku showed none of this slightly less than nourished yet not quite mal nourished muscle tone, told much about the man himself, and it hadn’t been a conscious decision, but she’d noted after seeing that, that both she and Kakashi had relaxed despite his presence. If there was one thing that Konoha could understand, it was sacrifice in the name of someone that you cared for.

Protect your comrades was an unofficial but crucial rule of Konoha nin.

The fact that this man was doing something similar to, if not exactly the same, as what the woman downstairs was doing for her son but for his apprentice, was perhaps one of the most telling passive actions that she had ever seen from a foreign nin that she had only been fighting hours previous. Perhaps Tsunami had known this somehow when she’d seen him, and that was really what had made her let him stay in her home after he had been halfheartedly trying to kill her father, and not their assurances that they would keep him under control. A mother’s intuition perhaps? What did Asuka know about such things?

Not a whole heck of a lot, that’s what.

“Your water affinity is probably one of the strongest I’ve ever seen,” the dark-haired man said to her, tones quiet as he watched the glowing green water that she had resting on his arm. That was quite the compliment, coming from a Mist nin, whose village had the largest abundance of Water aligned people after Uzushio had fallen. “I’ve never seen someone use water as a medium for medical jutsu, though.”

“Hmm, thanks.”

She was wearing what she normally wore for sleep on missions that didn’t expect combat action as her initial parameters had been, a regulation long sleeved black shirt with the aforementioned village’s swirl on the shoulders, and an extra pair of pants, the material always comfortable to sleep in, the ends free and hitting her just at mid-calf, and the loose material made a soft shushing noise as she shifted where she had to stand on her knees to reach his shoulder comfortably.

“Well, I’m pretty sure that Mist doesn’t exactly have the best in the medical field. Or really focus on it. At all.”

He gave a rumbling laugh at this, and she noted Kakashi, who was sitting parallel from the taller jounin reading another Icha Icha – how did he have a different one every time she saw him? Did he keep a sealed scroll full of them on his person at all times? – glance up and regard the other man with a lazy rake of his dark eye.

“Well, that’s true enough,” if anything, those black eyes seemed to deepen for a moment. “Yagura has never been very interested in the preservation of life, and everyone knows how attached you Konoha nin get to each other, so the focus speaks for itself.”

Rolling her eyes, she exchanged a slightly amused and knowing look with her compatriot; the wording of that really couldn’t have been any better.

Preserving life.

Keeping it safe.

Like he was doing for his fair faced apprentice and had pretty much done for everyone he’d ‘killed’ on the bridge before they had shown up.

Every civilian that had been on that bridge had been knocked unconscious with that jutsu that Haku had put on the senbon, something that Zabuza had mentioned was actually unintentional the first few times, and the effort that he had to put into having each and every man put under without threat to life or limb was ridiculous.

So, yeah, his tough guy image was a bit ruined.

That was pretty much why she and Kakashi had been eyeing him with a new light in their eyes since he had stripped down with them the night before.

There was potential there, in those dark eyes.

Sparks that were buried in the deep waters of a Mist upbringing during the last war, which was ten times as brutal as its usual nastiness, were more than enough to tell the two Konoha nin what they needed to know. Where they saw the potential for Fire, they brought kindling.

It was what the Sandaime taught all of his ninja, passed down from the Shodaime to the Niidaime, now their generation and beyond.

“Breathe life into the Flames of our future, and they will light your way.”

“Oh yeah,” she muttered dryly. “We peace loving, tree hugging weirdoes are big on free love and keeping everyone alive,” Asuka looked up with a twinkle of fun in her emerald eyes, her braids shifting over her shoulders as she shook her head in amusement, the tips just hitting her waist when free like they were. “What a tragedy.”

“Maa, Asuka,” the dog Summoner added his own two cents, setting down a cup of tea that Tsunami had brought up for them, his mask not seeming to have moved a wink. He appeared to be pleased that neither of the other ninja in the room looked to be considering trying to sneak a peek at his face, but well, one also covered his features, and the other was always conscientious of people’s privacy because she valued her own. “You must be more kind. Remember, Mist drowns the smart ones at birth.”

Snickering, she ignored the indignant grunt that the Demon released, cocking her head as she finished reattaching the ligament, though it would take more to get it up to snuff, he would have a limited range of motion on that side again. She carefully examined the neat slice from the outside, seeing no uneven length of muscle that said she’d reattached something incorrectly, and to be sure, she slid chakra stained fingertips over the back of his deltoid with a little pressure, idly appreciating the smooth warmth of his skin, and the firmness of the muscle even damaged as it was while she was feeling for lumps or divots. Well, everything seemed good for the moment.

Yes, good.

… Wow, she needed to hit a bar or something when she got back, because her hormones were acting up way more than usual.

“Hmm. Zabuza, tell me, how does that feel?”

The man lifted his arm carefully, slowly, and shifted it, fingers moving towards her face as she watched, only to veer away and the tips trailed over her shoulder and down to her elbow, impossibly warm points of contact through cloth as he rotated his limb. There was an audible huff from the Copy-nin where he sat, and she felt her lips twitch as the Missing-nin’s dark eyes crinkled at the corners just a little with amusement.

She wasn’t stupid, nor was she completely dense.

That move had been deliberate.

She also hadn’t moved out of the way, so she just caught the rice cracker – it was a plain cracker, boring – that the pale haired man opposite them had tossed at her with a small, teasing smile. His brow raised and something like disgruntlement on the quarter of his features that she could see, causing her to press the back of her fingers to her lips to hold in a laugh at his expense.

Asuka: 1

Kakashi: 0

He’d have to do better than that and she had the rather thrilling thought that this would continue for a little more than a week, since that was about how long it would take for Tazuna to finish the bridge with the additional repairs, and once the bridge was built the mission was over, whether the threat was gone or not. To her slightly uncomfortable awareness, was an almost embarrassing thought, but this was the most interaction she’d had constantly with someone in several years, and it was with two dangerous jounin and their respective students. The idea of playing tug of war with the oblivious missing-nin was a good one, if baffling with a dash of what-the-fuck, and she let the smile that was resting softly at the edges of her usually smooth lips linger for a few moments, her good mood a soft presence in her expression.

“It’s good,” the man’s lower features twisted into a visible grimace even through the bandages and she popped the cracker into her mouth. “A bit tight. Kinda weak. Sorta… thin.”

“Yeah,” she nodded her head, moving behind him after cocking her head at Kakashi and then looking meaningfully at the bandages that needed to go over the still open wound. She was taking care of the serious injuries first, and you could only use so much yin chakra in once place at a time before it could start to irritate chakra pathways. Her own, especially. She was not a medic. “It’ll be like that for a couple days. I’ll work on it during that time, and then you’ll have to take it easy for about a week after that, but once that’s over it should be fine, just start as slow as you can.”

He grunted in acknowledgement, his gaze suddenly fixated on the Copy-nin’s bare hands as they began to competently wrap bandages around his bicep, watching the play of muscles beneath pale skin, tendons shifting over the back of his slim, long fingered hands. Even as she worked the jutsu over the large man’s impressively muscled, tan back, she found her own gaze drawn to the talented appendages as well and even as she quickly averted her eyes from the strangely… enticing act, despite its normalcy, she found herself intrigued by the small scars that slid like silver script over knuckles and fingertips like a wall scroll, telling a story.

He has lovely hands, too. Honestly, what is it with this man?

When she’d been healing his hands before, she hadn’t exactly taken the time to admire the slim and limber appendages, considering the environment they had found themselves in, what with his dire need for a transfusion and the worry of missing-nin in the area that could take down a jounin. When she was healing someone, she usually fell into a very single-minded focus, a kind of business like tunnel vision that focused her only on her patient and their wounds, not their physique, not matter how impressive. Whenever she was healing someone, it was usually in the field when they were surrounded by either enemy nin or in mixed territory, so tensions were high, therefore it was a little odd to be so relaxed while she was utilizing iryō-ninjutsu and that she had the ability to look around and… admire for lack of a better word, the shinobi specimens before her.

Blinking, the taller man brought his brows together for a moment in consideration before glancing up at the jounin and to Asuka’s eternal amusement, she noted that the man hadn’t even discerned their preoccupation with his ninjutsu nimble fingers and even as she updated the score to 1 and 1 in her mind, she traded a surprisingly familiar look with the Demon of the Mist. It was a consensus that Kakashi was as bewildering as he was terrifying. How someone who was hailed as prodigy and one of the most experienced shinobi of their village, having participated in two different Wars – one before she’d even entered the Academy – she was pretty sure that his observational skills should most assuredly exceed her own, but he appeared to have a bit of a blind spot in regard to himself. The bit of social awkwardness that he bore seemed to be of the mind that he was not obviously physically desirable, that no one would look at him and want to unwrap all of his layers like he was a present, or find strong, talented hands fascinatingly limber and attractive.

Honestly, jounin.

Wincing slightly without thought as she shifted her weight onto her right leg, thigh jumping and pulsing with her heartbeat, she dragged the jutsu along the slight diagonal angle she had carved into his back over his spine feeling a mild amount of amusement remembering the man beginning to stumble later after their fight. She covered all of her weapons with a paralytic, and considering the amount of blood he’d lost, washing out the drug as well, she was a little surprised that it had had any effect at all, but the poleaxed expression he’d sent her when he’d needed to be covertly supported to the house by Haku after the boy had awoken to find that his master had switched sides, had sent her into fits, and Kakashi had needed only the hand sign for poison to get what had gotten into her – or rather, him – and had snickered under his breath.

The genin had just ignored them, though Sakura had looked a little worried about her kunoichi-sensei, as the woman had been keeping her balance whilst laughing by keeping her hand on the girl’s shoulder.

That girl was growing into a good kunoichi, slowly but surely.

Baby steps.

Haku was a sweet boy, and very earnest in the face of his master’s grumpy, gruff embarrassment, insisting once they’d made it into the room, that if he needed anything to make sure to tell him, and that he could gather herbs to help and several other things he went on about for a number of minutes before Zabuza had reached his breaking point and ordered him from the room. While the two other nin hadn’t laughed openly, their amused eyes had followed him around the room as the three figured out how they would be comfortable sleeping in the same room as two other predators, and they’d ended up with both men on either side of the room, with her in the middle, because she was the least likely to try and decapitate someone coming through the door.

Plus, though neither of them mentioned it, she trusted her commanding officer to protect her if shit went down while she was sleeping, as well. The Copy-nin had a protective streak a mile wide, even if he was terribly awkward and dismissive to the point of ignoring this personality trait, she was coming to understand. Of course, she’d slept with her back to Kakashi and a kunai under her pillow, because no matter how amusing the dark-haired man was, he still hadn’t quite proved himself trustworthy. The chuunin hadn’t managed to live this long by being naïve, even if she thought he was cute, because that didn’t mean that she was blinded to the fact that he was more than a little insane – most ninja were, really – and recently their enemy.

Considering the fact that if she left the jounin to themselves they’d likely somehow start a fight, having just enough jackass in both of their personalities to be able to set each other off – she’d had to calm the room more than once when they’d gotten into a fit of glaring and KI – and she couldn’t just leave Sakura to sleep in the same room as the boys alone, she’d set Haku up as the adult supervision, seeing as he was the eldest. That boy had little to no interest in women – especially adolescent girls – and was extremely stuck on his master in a sense that had yet to reach physical attraction but would likely hit that at some point, having no one else worthy in his rather hero-worshipping sights. Or perhaps someone would romance him? An amusing thought.

Plus, no matter how indifferent he tried to appear, Sasuke was very much aware of Sakura when sleeping in the same room as her, and being in the same room as someone who had beaten him in a fight would certainly catch his attention instead.

It was odd, but she’d not thought anything of Naruto during the arrangement, even though he was the boy with the crush on Sakura. Likely, it had something to do with the earnest innocence behind those sometimes sadly dark, old blue eyes, as well as his bashful personality at even a hint of affection or praise, and he’d seemed more focused on Haku as well, for some reason. She’d seen him sending regretful looks at the bruises and cuts that dotted the attractive boy’s features, and she was sure she was going to get that conversation – the “Try not to regret fighting your enemies even though they’re people too” speech – thrust upon her by the Copy-nin.

Lazy bastard.

It would be nice if everyone they fought was evil, if they were the villain, but that just wasn’t true. Sometimes what Konoha did was inherently morally bad by civilian standards, as it was with all ninja, and that was something that every young genin needed to take to heart if they wanted to succeed as a Konoha nin.

Sometimes you were the bad guy in someone else’s story.

“Asuka,” that familiar tenor of her friend pulled her from her thoughts and she glanced up, steadying herself with her right hand on the broad man’s shoulder, the skin warm and smooth beneath her callused fingers. “How’s your leg?”

“Meh.”

Shoulders shrugged a little, lifting off a little more of her weight and balancing off of Zabuza with little thought. Honestly, it would be easier if he lay down flat on his stomach, but well, he didn’t trust them either. And there were more of them, even if she was little more than a fly in the thick of things.

“I’ll take care of it after I’m done with you,” she smirked a little. “By the way, I’ll be done with what I can do today for our friend here in a minute, so take off your pants.”

She took vindictive pleasure at the widening of that single eye, the soft chuckles coming from the man whom was easily bearing her weight – he likely barely noticed, the jerk – despite his injuries caused the other jounin to send him a caustic look before sniffing and looking away.

Honestly, she felt a little overwhelmed, sitting here in this room with two such powerful individuals. Flirting with them.

Oh god, she realized in that instant. I’m flirting with dangerous shinobi. No, no, that wasn’t so bad really, she’d done that dozens of times back home. Oh god, I’m flirting with Hatake Kakashi.

Yeah, that sounded about horrifying enough.

The man practically oozed antisocial awkwardness on a daily basis, she wasn’t really one to talk, but she would never have pegged him as flirtatious, even if he couldn’t quite grasp the physical appreciation his way. It was common knowledge that he disliked much in the way of frivolity and physical contact, despite his open enjoyment of the debauchment of the written word, but little was actually known about his personal life, nothing was really telling about how… dare she say it, cute he was.

Was he – oh, he was – he was pouting beneath his mask, and she could only tell because she caught the tiniest glimpse of his profile as he turned away from the two ninja who were picking on him and she waspicking on the mother effing Copy Cat Ninja. She thought he was adorable.

She sighed.

It was beginning to seem like she really should have just asked another chuunin for help with her affinity training. It would have made her life much simpler, and she wouldn’t be sitting there wondering about how in the world she had gotten herself into this mess, how she had ended up sitting in Wave ogling two Elite jounin. And yet… she also wouldn’t have had the chance to see two terrifyingly lonely and lost boys try to figure out what to do with themselves, to learn what it was to be a shinobi, to learn who they were and who they would be. She wouldn’t have gotten the chance to teach a young girl how to stay alive, wouldn’t have seen jade eyes shine with happiness and pleasure when it was just the two of them, or when Asuka kidnapped her from practice and took her out for mochi or tea and cakes just to chat.

She wouldn’t have known those kids, if she hadn’t of ignored the fact that a chuunin shouldn’t associate with a jounin, if she had remembered the social norms and hierarchy of the village, if she had just been a bit more socially understanding, more in the know.

Really though, she knew that she’d regret not having the man as her friend – they were friends, right? – as well. He was funny, in a quirky, cynical way that she could thoroughly enjoy, and he didn’t mind helping her to improve herself as a fellow ninja of Konoha, despite the fact that as a jounin, he didn’t need to spend so much time with a chuunin. They hung out sometimes – a lot, actually – even outside of training with either the kids or by themselves, just grabbing food and talking about the most ridiculous things – honestly, one of the people he’d gone on missions with only slept underground – and whereas she rarely got to talk in her friendship with Anko, she did a good portion of the talking with the last Hatake, and she never felt pressured or… convenient, as she did for her female friend. Not that Anko was a bad friend, but the other woman knew that Asuka wouldn’t turn her away; knew that too many had.

Perhaps it was because they were both a little socially awkward, straightforward and blunt sometimes, but, well… it didn’t really matter in the long run, did it? They were friends, and there was nothing she could do about that, other than suddenly turn into a gigantic asshole.

He had that pretty much covered though, didn’t he?

That wasn’t her job.

Shaking her head with a rough exhalation of breath, she didn’t notice the twin glances of confusion, and the matching arched brow over covered features as the Copy-nin opened the door at a small scratching sound.

Her hand twitched on Zabuza’s shoulder at the sight of the source of the sound.

“Yo, Pakkun,” the Summoner greeted his canine companion.

Pakkun.

When Kakashi had Summoned him before, she’d still been sleeping – as he had horrible waking up early tendencies despite always being late – and so she’d missed him, but there he was, in all of his adorable glory, mournfully holding a small message scroll from Konoha between his teeth. The silver haired man knelt to grab it, and she felt the wound on his thigh pulse against the water bandage that was still adhered to him, preventing blood loss, but not doing any active healing because she hadn’t had the concentration at the time for that, and it also would have been more chakra consuming. Her priority had been more about it lasting long enough for all of them to get some sleep more than anything else.

Once the scroll had been removed from his needle-sharp fangs, the pug meandered over to her, and rubbed against her good thigh, causing a warm smile to spread over her features, cheeks warming with affection. On normally blanked and unimpressed features, this was a huge change in demeanor, and the Demon of the Mist gave her wide eyes in shock before he narrowed them in contemplation, both expressions unnoticed by the woman who was enamored of the canine.

“Yo, Asuka,” the pug greeted her in his gravelly voice, leaning contently against her good leg, oddly straight tail thumping softly with contentment. “You good?”

Ah, right, he could probably smell her blood even from outside the house, and he’d already been around her that morning whilst she was resting.

“Yes,” she stated, refraining from rolling her eyes. It took too much work and she was getting tired from this chakra use. It was more taxing than people seemed to think, healing others, and her chakra control wasn’t the greatest at the best of times, so she leaked more than professional sensei did. “I’m fine for the moment, thanks for asking, Pakkun.”

But really, like man like dog.

“Well,” the Konoha jounin said, standing again and meandering back over to them, scroll open and in hand. “Sandaime-sama sends his thanks for helping out a shinobi and his brats in need, even if it does detain you past your original mission parameters. He says that while Councilmen Kowaru is saddened that you won’t being going to meet him on what was to be your next mission, he understands duty.”

She grimaced at the name of the man on the Sand Council whom she was supposed to speak with about the coming Exam, distaste and disgust in equal measure in the expression.

That old man was a grade A pervert, a complete and total creep. He was nothing like Jiraiya with his innocuous peeping and his writing porn, no, this was a man who was slimy in both words and hands. If he saw the chance to go for a grab, he went for it, and if he had the chance to make an innuendo, he would. He disliked being told no, and had the nerve to try and cajole, trying to get her to give in to his disgusting desires. Often, she couldn’t get out of meetings with the man until a hawk from Konoha came, or they were interrupted by something urgent the man had to tend to as a Councilman.

Bleh, good riddance.

Honestly, she dealt better with lechers when she could stab them without inciting war with a tentative ally.

“Yes, well,” she patted the missing-nin’s shoulder, suddenly much more pleased to have found herself in this situation. Who cared that she found herself flirting with Kakashi? This was much more fun, anyway, no matter how odd. Better sights to see and all that. “I much prefer my meeting with Zabuza, anyway.”

Both men’s brows rose at the finality of her tone, as well as her slight exhalation of relief, before Kakashi’s lowered with a frown as he examined her features, the other unable to see her face at the angle she was currently at.

After a moment, she sat back on her bare feet, hand falling to the Summon’s head to rub at his fur gently, and scratch behind one of his floppy ears, blowing up at her unrestrained bangs in a breath.

“Alright, Kakashi,” she stated, flexing her hands for a moment as the water dissipated back into the air for the moment before going back to petting the soothing fur of the warm body next to her. “Wrap him up.”

Grunting in acknowledgment, the man started to do just that, completely missing the way that Zabuza’s eyes widened again when the Copy-nin ended up close to his body, arms neatly wrapped around his torso to re-grasp the roll of bandages he was putting over her new water plaster, this one containing no medical chakra, just being used to keep out impurities. She wouldn’t look at this one for a longer time than she would have to look at his arm next, and his arm wasn’t quite as wide a cut, so she hadn’t bothered with a water seal on that wound, a bandage was enough. There was only so much chakra she had to spare, in comparison to the men before her.

Scooting over to sit next to the two, instead of behind the largest occupant of the room, she found some interest in the way that the Mist nin seemed to be very aware of the lean line of his torso as the other man’s arms quickly and efficiently once again bound his wounds. She was mildly impressed with the fact that the pale haired man’s arms had yet to touch flesh, and she wondered how long the dark haired man would be able to deal with the heat without contact, and if Kakashi would be able to finish his work before the man either spoke without thought or leaned in to breathe in the other jounin’s scent, as most ninja did to express intense interest.

Intimacy.

It was difficult to duplicate a shinobi or kunoichi’s scent, due to the chakra that permeated their beings, and leaked out like a personal marker of individuality. Even to those without enhanced senses like the Copy-nin’s, the scent of a comrade, family member, or lover was something that could be deeply ingrained into the minds and instincts of any individual. They were like identification tags that only worked for the living.

Because that scent vanished with death, unlike the metal plates.

When she had crossed her legs as comfortably as possible into the lotus position, she was delighted that the Summon crawled into the bowl of her legs, warm wriggly body a pleasant weight on her bare calves and feet, and she pressed both hands to his silky-smooth fur and even started to scratch him beneath his little vest to thank him. The soft whuff noise he made caused her smile to bloom anew, and she glanced up from where she’d been gazing fondly down at half closed wet dark eyes, to see Zabuza gazing at the Summoner with something like curiosity, his head cocked slightly to the side as the other man secured the bandage in place with deft hands. The Copy-nin’s lazy eye was topped with a single brow that was slightly furrowed in concentration even though his hands were sure and experienced, and she wasn’t the only one who took a careful breath as those pale hands smoothed unthinkingly over his finished work, caressing the Demon’s chest at the same time.

Oh gods, the images just that action produced. Her cheeks flushed with red and she swallowed around the sudden lump in her throat.

She couldn’t help the incredulous glance she sent down to the canine in her lap as the oblivious jounin sat back and took off his long-sleeved shirt – she was sure it was just to spite her tease about his pants that he decided on his shoulder first – only for the dog to give her a commiserating look from those doleful eyes.

“Water, Asuka?” the deep voice of the pug queried sadly.

She pulled a small ball of water from the air and held it hovering above her palm at the level of his face since she had no bowl on hand, her scrolls on the other side of the room. Pakkun made a noise of gratitude and lapped at the ball of water, the drops that would have splashed her catching on her chakra and being pulled back into the construct.

“Honestly,” stated the darker skinned man, side eyeing her once he’d finished taking in his paler counterparts firmly toned torso who’s skin but not muscle definition was concealed beneath the under armor, his form thin and wiry from genetics rather than sparse nutrition. “The strongest water affinity I’ve ever seen.”

Blinking at him a bit, she felt her brows furrow even as Kakashi sat down next to her, and leaned down a bit so that it was easier for her to reach the top of his shoulder because even if he wasn’t quite as tall as the Mist nin, he was still taller than she was by a good chunk, even sitting down as they were.

Still, she was aware that they thought the strength of her affinity was strange… now. They didn’t have to keep saying it though.

“Also, Zabuza,” the Konoha jounin spoke lazily watching as she tossed the ball of water over to her right hand, and affixed her water filtered iryō-jutsu on her left hand, her dominant. “The Hokage wouldn’t mind perhaps working something out with your organization for trade or resources, something like that,” the Demon of the Mist looked taken aback for a moment, before calculation and speculation entered his gaze. “You’re welcome to send your terms or someone to negotiate to the village at some point in the next few weeks, but no later than three.”

Yes, that would interrupt the Chuunin Exams, if a messenger came any later than that.

It wouldn’t do for other villages to get wind of Konoha dealing with a Rebel faction.

It would give them ideas.

“I’ll let you know,” the dark-haired man allowed, rubbing the lightly bandaged hand of his good arm over his messy, constant bed head, his hitai-ate having been removed earlier and sitting with his clothing. She wondered how he kept it on his head so precariously perched, though she would never ask. “But even if it doesn’t pan out with the others, thank him for his consideration, yeah?”

“Mm.”

Once the hand that had held the water ball for the pug was empty, she pulled off the water bandage and examined the murky brown mist that had seeped into the liquid with a purse of her lips, before dissipating it, blood and all, into the air and pressing her jutsu clad hand against the gash. She frowned at the crack in his collar bone and scowled at the jounin, because honestly, this was something that she should have taken care of rather immediately, because he could have damaged he bone further in his sleep. Of course, she didn’t mention this in from of the foreign shinobi, and only raised a brow at the man instead, and he carefully looked away from her to where Zabuza was leaning back on his good hand and examining them with some interest. He looked both terribly amused and curious about something, even as he was running dark eyes over the two of them, focused mainly on where her hand touched against pale skin, and the way Kakashi’s lithe, wiry form curved over a little towards her.

“This is the second time I’ve had to deal with this shoulder on this mission,” she complained a little irritably, sending an acerbic glance at the smiling, devious Demon, before quirking a small, wry grin at the Copy-nin. “You should step up your strength training.”

“Eh?” the bewildered, startled glance that her comrade sent her gave a tickled satisfaction and the swordsmen snorted softly where he sat. “Why?”

“If Zabuza here hadn’t been playing around, he could have cut off your arm,” she was only a little smug, and she was pleased to note the small amount of apprehension in his gaze at her slowly widening smile, though it wasn’t the thought of losing an arm that was making him wary, and she knew it. Ah, it had been so long since she’d properly intimidated a man. She missed Chitose’s fear something awful. His terrified face was a huge confidence booster, quite cute too. “I’m sure your eternal rival would be willing to give you some strengthening tips if I brought it up for you, since you’re so shy.”

“You wouldn’t,” despite his words, the tone was questioning, his dark, seemingly black gray-blue eye wide with horror.

“Well,” she conceded with a small shrug; it would perhaps be rather more than a little unnecessarily cruel. “Not if you start to carry around something sturdier and more useful than a kunai,” she made a small face of disgust. “If a blade is smaller than your hand, it’s not really worth much. Especially when you’re faced with a kenshi.”

“Oi!”

Both she and Zabuza laughed at the indignation in his tone as the kunoichi smoothed her free hand over the shifting, sleeping Pakkun in her lap.

She sealed the crack in his collarbone with a good chunk of her strength and carefully began the process of knitting together the torn muscle tissue, grimacing at the mess he’d made of all her previous work by doing the same thing that he had the time previous, only this time unsuccessfully blocking the impressive bulk of the Kubikiribōchō. Although, considering its placement, he’d shifted its pathway just enough so that he wouldn’t need to removed his under armor as well for her to heal him – actually, it was to avoid an artery, but it still bothered her – and that just bugged her, so she plucked her chakra against his in an irritating manner, causing him to twitch and hunch a little as if chastened. He fizzled at her despondently, and she burbled back in exasperation.

Lazy,” she muttered at him, plucking again before pulling her hand away, carefully laying a water seal against his still torn skin to keep out infection. She made quick work of roping bandages around his shoulder, having him test the resistance before she was satisfied with her work. “Alright you, take off your pants.”

Getting the feeling that he was scowling petulantly a little beneath his mask, she swiped at him idly – with a hand which faltered as her focus shifted – as he smoothly balanced on his elbows and lifted his hips just enough to shove his standard shinobi pants down to his knees in a single, strangely sensuous movement.

Dear gods, the man was trying to kill her, and give Zabuza an aneurism.

“Huh,” Zabuza commented idly, voice very deliberately calm, eyes devouring pale skin on finely muscled legs, pale silver hair basically invisible against his skin. “Briefs. I never would have guessed.”

Smiling distractedly at her superior officer’s mild discomfort, she pulled off the used water and dissipated it as she had the previous bandages and set her jutsu to the deep rent in his thigh, just below where said briefs – gray ones – ended and smooth pale, slightly – rather less than one would expect – scarred skin began. She was pleased to note that the kunai that the swordsman had shoved into the ninjutsu specialist’s leg hadn’t reached bone, had instead been stopped by a strategic clenching of powerful muscles around the wide end of the blade. The contrast of her slightly darker than peachy tan colored skin against his ivory tone was only barely more noticeable on this part of his body that saw even less of the sun than his arms did, and she’d never seen him in short sleeves other than when she was healing him. She bet that showing skin made him uncomfortable like it did some of the more introverted shinobi, and not just the idea of the skin on his face.

Things like that were personal, when your body was the roadmap of all the things you’d managed to live through.

Well, she wasn’t one to talk, really, she rarely showed more than her hands and face on a daily basis, even though she wore more revealing things in the privacy of her apartment, and when she did go out with more skin showing, she generally avoided people, such as when she was going for a swim, or on the rare occasion she went to the bathes, she went to the less used ones and usually at their least busy. Even if she went to ninja specific bathes, she still felt a little… not awkward exactly, but less than comfortable showing strangers the scars that covered her body. That may have just been since she was rather antisocial, because she didn’t exactly mind being undressed around other people, or being undressed in general; perhaps it depended on the people?

She certainly hadn’t minded when it was Chitose and Haruka, or even their sensei, that one time… thought that may have been the circumstances. Perhaps it didn’t matter with teammates? Bah, she didn’t know.

Out of the three of them in that room, Zabuza seemed the one who cared the least about showing off his body – not that he had any reason to be ashamed, he had a nice one – which was a little amusing considering the fact that Mist was much cooler and overcast than Konoha, and he still had more of a tan than both of nin from the warmer climate. Perhaps he was naturally darker than them as well, which wouldn’t be odd if some of his relatives came from one of the small island countries.

People such as this were scattered throughout the countries.

Umino Iruka was an example that came to mind with his cheerful naturally dark features and perpetual flush.

“Alright,” she said once finished, sealing off the significantly shallower wound and covering a yawn with her free hand, her fingers tingling from prolonged use of the jutsu and tossing a roll of bandages at him, which he quickly and efficiently put to use. “You’re done for the day.”

“Mm,” pulling his pants back on in a reversal of the previous smooth movement – she could almost hear Zabuza grinding his teeth – he sat up and stretched his arms above his head a little, slimly muscled frame beneath the highlighting cling of dark fabric flexing and releasing in a despondently carnal way. And he had no idea what he was doing. The bastard. “Thanks, Asuka.”

So oblivious.

Strangely enough, she’d never looked at someone in quite the way that she found herself looking at her jounin companion, found herself looking at him in a sudden surge of new light. As if she had never seen him before, like there had been a filter in her mind that separated him as a person with his being a man. With new eyes, so to speak. It was unusual, but even though she’d looked at him before and been vaguely pleased by the general shape and power in his physique, suddenly he was… attractive. The fact that it was suddenly smacking her in the face after the months they had become something like friends – she was sure now, that they were, because what else could they be? – and having bloomed an affection for his penchant for droll sarcasm and wry witticisms, was startling. Startling, yes, but not altogether bad.

Although, she might just somehow manage to lobotomize herself from the constant whiplashing switching from confusion to exasperation to sheer disbelief so quickly and so often; it wouldn’t surprise her.

“Yeah, yeah,” she waved him off before picking up the Summon gently and cradling him in her arm as she scuttled over to her bedroll on one hand and both knees, ready for a full night’s sleep. “Just don’t undo my work.”

Tucking the sleepy little ball of fur under her blanket so that she could steal his heat and cuddle him once she got in, she slid her own pants off her hips and sat back on the light cushioning that was the bedding of her sleeping pallet in her black boy short underwear – she rarely felt the need for pretty panties, especially on missions because then people gave her awkward looks when she changed in front of them – pants down at her feet, covering another yawn as she plucked her own water seal off and sent it away. Grimacing, she examined the exposed meat of her thigh, unhappy with the fact that she couldn’t feel the deepest point, that part of her leg having gone numb at some point during the day, before sighing and setting the jutsu to her own flesh.

Nerve damage was a bitch and a half, and she was going to need to get looked at when she got back to Konoha.

“I’m gonna get food,” the ex-Mist shinobi suddenly stated, standing and shoving his under armor back on, careful of his arm as he did so. “You guys want anything while I’m at it?”

How kind of him to offer.

The snack tray they’d had set up for them was sadly bereft of crackers and rice, and the thought of food after all of the chakra use she’d done that night made her stomach grumble hungry and soft as she leaned back on her right hand, left trailing over her wound.

Sending the two jounin dark looks as they chuckled at her, her cheeks a little pink, she sniffed imperiously, tossing her twin braids over her shoulders to trail over her bedding as she did so.

“Yes, that would be nice,” she stated primly, ignoring the soft huff from Kakashi at her tone before he sent his positive answer to the taller man as well.

After reconstructing as much of her leg as she could handle at that moment, her tenketsu throbbing in the way that told her she’d used almost too much yin chakra through her hands that day, she sealed her wound with water and flopped back on her borrowed pillow, throwing her arm over her face with a soft groan of sleepiness, not bothering with bandages just yet. She wondered how long it would take for the foreign shinobi to return with some rice and soup, like she was sure he was going for, even at the late hour, he would likely raid the poor woman’s fridge for the remnants of dinner.

It looked like she was going to have to make sure to sneak some money into the kitchen for Tsunami to find once they left, to pay her back.

She listened to her superior officer as he moved around the room for a few minutes until he approached her side and knelt down and tapped her right knee, a few inches below the glowing green liquid bandage, causing her to remove her arm from her eyes and blink up at him owlishly with the change in brightness. He was again dressed in his long sleeved shirt, sitting cross legged at her right side, holding a roll of bandages up for her inspection and she sighed for a moment, giving in and letting him wrap her leg for her, shifting so that her leg was bent at the knee, slipping the rest of the way out of her pants, her foot set next to his thigh and half tucked under for heat, calf touching his pants, warmth sifting from his form into her chilly skin. Using a lot of chakra always made her cold, as it messed with already iffy blood circulation, and feeling vaguely hollowed out, everything about her getting sluggish, so she greedily enjoyed stealing the man’s body heat.

Stretching her arms above her head she let him do as he pleased, blinking sleepily up at the ceiling and not bothering to restrain another yawn as she did so.

This was oddly comfortable.

She was very… relaxed.

How rare.

She’d missed this.

Team. Comfort. Companionship.

Friends.

Her eyes must have closed at some point, because she found the Copy-nin nearly done with her bandages when the ex-Mist nin walked back into the room, the tray refilled with goodies in his good hand, the other one steadying the edge, but not taking any significant weight, as per her instructions.

She was mildly pleased with his obedience.

As he regarded the two Konoha nin, his brows hitched up a bit as Kakashi finished bandaging her thigh and smoothed his hands over the finished product, causing her to glance up at his concentrated features with her own raised brows. The man really didn’t know he was doing that, did he? The soft, humming buzz of his focused and shifting chakra through his hands against her leg was an extremely soothing sensation, and prickled some feeling back into her wound with the electrical impulses it sparked in her nerves, and she found herself burbling back softly, chakra tinged just a touch with amused if tired fondness.

While the dark haired jounin set the tray down before them – ah, she’d been right about the miso – she shifted her leg a bit to feel out the tightness of the bandage, before humming in satisfaction as she sat up slowly and unenthusiastically to pull her pants back on.

The Konoha jounin seemed terribly pleased with the job he’d done, and she smiled in amusement, her chakra bubbling in amusement and he popped back at her smugly.

“Well, you could always leave them off,” Zabuza teased as she reached for her clothing, causing her to send him a wry glance before pulling them on anyway. “Oh well, had to try.”

“Uh-huh. Right.”

~*~

The comradery he shared with Asuka always seemed to come out of left field to smack him in the face when he noticed it, no matter how used to it he convinced himself that he was after some months of association, and it was no different when he suddenly found himself comfortable teasing the Demon of the Mist with her as they sat in the room allotted to them. He’d never teased a foreign shinobi outside of battle before in his life – although was baiting an enemy considered teasing, the same with trading barbs? – and he had certainly never been friendly with one, let himself run considering, lingering looks over the man’s impressive physique before he’d gotten to know the chuunin. It was odd, because when they had been the only ones in the room the tension between them had risen away from the more, ah, fun kind, and had been the violent potential he was used to, and even though they had managed to keep the KI battles within the confines of the room, she had still given them that look like they were naughty genin.

He was glad that he hadn’t been the only one shuffling awkwardly under that direct green gaze.

He hadn’t felt scolded like that for a long time. However, adding her into the mix had somehow automatically shifted that tension into something else, something a little more… palatable, less violent, more charming, and he had no idea how she did it, but he was sure of one thing.

She was a bad influence.

Not, it seemed, that the missing-nin in question minded, particularly open in his small flirtations back with the woman, and more subtly showing his appreciation for the Konoha jounin, something that was rare in and of itself with sincerity, and Kakashi wasn’t exactly sure what to do about it. The fact that his fellow Leaf nin was brushing it off with good humor gave him some form of template to follow, and he was relieved that no one suggested an orgy or something, because then he’d suspect that everyone was drugged with a hallucinogenic, or this was a genjutsu and, well, he just hoped that the sudden urge for seppuku wasn’t a family trait.

It wasn’t until after the fact that he realized that each adult in that room had been half naked at one point, even himself, that he’d touched both of the other nin, and he would choke on the tea he was drinking, causing some concerned glances from his chuunin comrade, and some amused ones from the other jounin, as if the other man thought that choking was a fun trick. He probably did. Fucking Mist nin. It had been a long time since he’d willingly touched another person for any reason – assassination and combat didn’t count – other than carrying the injured or training, and he didn’t quite know what to think of the ease in which he’d come in contact with both of them, especially when he’d so recently been playing with killing one of them.

It kind of hit him that it had been several years since he’d had any sort of intimate contact, physical or otherwise.

Mission related liaisons really didn’t count as real uh, relations .

But still, there was a huge chunk of time where there was nothing and that was… something he hadn’t realized.

Huh.

How low was a guy when, as a pervert, he hadn’t realized that he hadn’t had sex in years?

Physical affection had never been something he’d sought out – not consciously, and not in twelve years at least – but with the kids though, there were small things that were growing in frequency that showcased a growing closeness, a physicality that he hadn’t imagined ever getting again. More than once he’d found himself ending practice and training with one of the genin passed out against his side. Mostly it was Sakura, but on occasion it was Naruto.

There had even been a time or two with Sasuke, though he could hardly believe it.

Unanimously they had all decided never to speak of it, because a scowling, flushed Sasuke brought in the fangirls infringing on whatever training grounds or restaurant they were at, making an already bad mood worse and thus more broody, drawing them in like weird, grumpy Uchiha pheromones.

This thing of having been forced into an Alpha position was growing on him – gods forbid that the Sandaime ever hear that, though, he’d be so smug his face would get stuck that way – the way that the kids were beginning to look up to him as well was something that helped his instincts to settle and eased the burning in his chest. They were starting to act like pack, to feel like pack more than he’d expected them to. Bickering had fallen to something like a minimum, their volume was usually within acceptable levels, and there was even something like comradery or affection that had started to build between the genin themselves, as well as something towards himself that he had never expected. Sure, he had expected them to perhaps look up to him as time went by, for them to maybe like him to an extent, to trust in him to keep them safe – no matter just the thought made him want to break out in hives – but he’d never expected them to actually care for him in any capacity that truly meant they had accepted him. Like true pack.

That was… as awe-inspiring as it was anxiety inducing.

Still, he found himself surprised yet again with her abilities when he found out about her water bandages, something that was supremely useful in the heat of battle, since he didn’t have to stop to wrap up his wounds. Truth be told, he was without a doubt requesting her as back up for the any of the individual missions he might take in the future that she qualified for without the genin, since it was unlikely that he would run into anything too disastrous in the future. Ah, or at least, he hoped not. Those kids were trouble magnets, after all.

Naruto alone was like Minato and Kushina’s bad luck all merged into one being.

It was horrible.

And Sasuke… don’t even get him started on that angsty little shit.

To be honest, Sakura was the one he worried about the least, not since he could smell her chakra even though it was weaker than he’d have liked, and she sort of had someone looking out for her that he himself had appointed. A good chunk of him wanted to label Asuka as something like a Beta in his pack, one who looked out for the pups, the second in command, but a small part of him was hesitant to label her just yet, didn’t want to cement her in the way that he had the children.

He listened to his instincts and held back.

Not just yet.

The ability to form water and hold it solid and immovable for perhaps days on end – even when unconscious – was spectacular and he was starting to realize that she was very awkward with the compliments the two jounin had been giving her on her Water affinity.

He’d come to understand that she was very hesitant to take praise when it came to her skills as a kunoichi. Not, of course, that she didn’t enjoy them, she was just awkward and a little disbelieving of them in general.

Perhaps something to do with her sensei? He didn’t know what her upbringing had been like, but maybe there had been some disparaging of ninja in general? What he’d heard of her teammates had all been positive… well, he didn’t know, and he didn’t ask.

It wasn’t his place.

Still, it was a little odd to note that whatever problem she had with the Sand Councilmen was one serious enough that she openly expressed relief about not having to meet with him, and that the thought that perhaps the man was less than professional with a foreign kunoichi caused him some anger on her behalf. He didn’t really know what to do with the feeling, so he set it aside, letting himself be pulled back into the banter they were throwing around the room, let himself relax into her chakra presence with only a little bit of hesitance at the chakra play that wasn’t uncommon between friends and close companions… and they were friends, weren’t they?

He was feeling just a bit amused by how smitten it seemed Pakkun was with the chuunin, considering the fact that whenever he Summoned him when she was in the area, the first thing he did was find her and buddy up to her. Honestly, was there something in the water he always asked her for? Because his Summon was getting downright perky when she was around.

… Well, what did he know? Maybe there was something in the water she summoned.

Maybe he’d check when they got back to Konoha.

Chapter Text

When she woke, she was still curled around the Summon like he was a fuzzy, warm stuffed animal, and something that smelled really good was wafting beneath the blanket she’d pulled over her head at some point in the night, likely to cut out the light of dawn.

She… couldn’t remember the last time she’d had food brought to her in the morning.

Peeking out from beneath the blanket, she saw a plate with ham, eggs and toast sitting on it, as well as a tall glass of milk, causing her to blink and frown, before sneaking a hand out to snag a slice of ham, even as she wondered where they had gotten it.

“Zabuza went shopping at Gatou’s mansion early this morning,” the furry bundle in her arms informed her, and she looked at him with still heavy eyes, her fingers popping the meat into her mouth quickly before sneaking out for another piece, this one she bit most of it off before giving the small part to the Summon, who snagged it gently in his sharp little teeth and gobbled it down. “You used a lot of chakra yesterday, so you slept in. It’s almost ten now.”

“Oh?” she wondered softly, finally deciding to sit up and stretching her arms over her head, enjoying the pull of her muscles as she did so; she really did feel rather good. The extra sleep must have been just what she needed. “And everyone else?”

“Naruto was complaining about training, so Kakashi hassled Zabuza into helping him teach the pups water walking while they’re at the bridge, and Haku just went to give out some supplies that were salvaged to the townspeople until trade over the bridge starts again, after dropping off food for you.”

“Hmm,” was all she said as she really started in on the food, tearing up a bit to give to the pug every once in a while, something that she could tell he enjoyed.

Having him snuggled against her was nice, and she couldn’t help but run her hands over his soft fur, gratified when he didn’t seem to mind, even leaned into her fingers when she gently massaged his ears.

Once she’d finished with breakfast she stood up, giving a quick full body stretch before pulling off her sleeping attire and leaving it on her bed roll. Walking in her chest wrap and underwear over to her hip pouch and pulling out her clothing scroll and popping out a clean set of leggings – what she normally wore beneath her pants – and a skin tight under armor half shirt with long sleeves and a high collar that stopped just at her jaw line. She slid the shirt on over her head, pulling her slightly frizzy from sleep braids out from beneath the top, which conformed to her, the bottom of the top stopping two inches below her bust line ended on her ribs, and the sleeves trailed to her wrists, but the backs of her hands were covered by an extra length of cloth that was slightly thicker than the rest, with metal mesh sewn into it, a loop hooking over her middle and ring fingers. Pulling the leggings on after checking that the binding on her thigh were still secure, she pondered over whether or not to put on her pants over them and whether or not to put on her leather armor, still sealed into another scroll considering she wasn’t expecting to do much that day, and decided for half, and strapped the open legs of her pants down to her calves before putting her hip pouch on and turning back towards the Summon.

Her brows rose at the sight of her folded laundry and put aside bedroll and she smiled at the dog for it; it was messily done, but the thought was what mattered, when one didn’t have thumbs.

It was impressive in any case.

“Are you going to stick around today or are you going to Unsummon at some point?”

“Might stick around for a while,” the pug indicated, standing and trotting to the door and she followed, after grabbing the emptied tray and gulping down the last of the milk, before pulling open the door and heading downstairs behind the canine. “Could do with some time away from the guys.”

“The rest of Kakashi’s pack?”

“Mm,” the pug grunted at her, waddling down the staircase in front of her. “You haven’t met them yet.”

“You make it sound like I will, though,” she mused, a little startled by the contemplative look she received from canine features. “It doesn’t seem like he just Summons them like he does you, though.”

“You will.”

There was no explanation, but she left him to his obliqueness. Summons had their reasons, even if humans couldn’t understand things in the same way, and it was best not to try anything with them over the withholding of certain information. Chitose used to get his ass kicked by their sensei’s Summons when they were being vague about something, and though she doubted that the pug would attack her, she didn’t want to pry when it was clearly something that Pakkun didn’t wish to speak of.

Tsunami was in the kitchen, looking out the window with a very openly relieved, much more relaxed expression on her features as she held a dirty dish in hand, scrub brush clutched in the other.

“Ah, Tsunami-san?” she queried as she brought her things to the sink. “Would you like some assistance?”

It was only polite to offer, and the woman did still look rather tired. One good meal wouldn’t do much, even if it did seem to ease the lines of stress on attractive features.

“Oh!” the mother turned towards the kunoichi, eyes a little wider with her surprise. “Good morning, Asuka-san. Did you sleep well?”

“Oh, yes,” she nodded, placing her things in the sink and carefully nudging the other woman over with her hip and taking the brush and plate from her hands, which earned her a small smile. “Did you make breakfast? It was wonderful.”

“Ah,” wane cheeks pinked slightly, and Asuka took the time to admire the life it gave to lovely features, the civilian woman glancing away and rubbing her petite hands on her half apron. “Yes, thank you. I’m glad you liked it.”

There was companionable silence as the combat kunoichi finished the dishes and set them in the rack to dry, glancing out at the water towards where the other woman had been staring, and wondered what it was that had happened there that had drawn such fond sadness into those lovely dark brown eyes. It wasn’t the kind of worn age that happened in the midst of war, of someone who had seen the worst of humanity and lost all faith in it. The kind of weariness she saw in Tsunami’s eyes reminded her a bit of Juli, her sad little civilian friend who had the sweetest heart and a soft smile for those in need despite the cruelties that had been dealt to her.

It made Asuka want to help.

Damn, she really had an awful soft spot for damaged people with kindness somehow sequestered deep inside.

After she had done the chore, she turned to see the woman fiddling with her apron a little awkwardly, cheeks still flushed, eyes directed at the ground. This was the kind of nerves of a civilian faced with a nin when she’d never come in contact with them before; Asuka was well used to these kinds of situations, though they could still be baffling.

“Is there something the matter, Tsunami-san?” she questioned, a glance into the other room showed Pakkun passed out on the rug in the middle of the floor.

“Ah, well,” she glanced over at the slightly younger woman’s exposed midriff, and Asuka felt a light click on as those pale cheeks reddened further. “Do… do all kunoichi dress as you do?”

A lopsided grin found its way onto the green eyed woman’s features at the hesitant curiosity in the other woman’s stance rather than judging contempt and discomfort.

“If we’re going to talk about the intricacies of my wardrobe,” the words came slyly, teasing from her lips. “Why don’t we do so over tea?”

Once they sat down to wait for the water to come to a boil, Asuka grabbed her left braid and began to twist and fiddle with it until it had spun into a bun low on the back left of her skull with a slick of chakra. Her free hand pulled her hair senbon out of her hip pouch to secure it with before mirroring this action on the opposing side, allowing the civilian woman to complete her study of her kunoichi counterpart.

It was always odd, to think about how a civilian might see her. How they interpreted the way she held herself, dressed and looked.

They didn’t look at her like a weapon, but as an oddity, a woman doing something that women didn’t do.

Couldn’t do.

So what did this woman think of her? Of hardened, rough Asuka, who was not a traditional civilian beauty but a not so hidden blade that hid in the shadows as she was marked by them?

Asuka wondered a bit what the other woman thought of her light brown hair with golden and red tints, braided down the sides of her head and tipped with small kunai. What she thought of her straight cut across bangs that barely brushed thin, finely arched brows, golden brown eyelashes that framed large vibrant emerald green eyes – her favorite feature was her eyes, just like her mother’s – slightly bruised from sleep. Her nose was soft and small, having only been broken once with a spattering of golden freckles over her bridge and on her smooth, slightly rounded cheeks, a fading scar on one side and a bruise on the other. Her mouth was small with rounded lips, a fine dip in the top one, a small pale scar on the upper left corner, often stern and pinched with concentration. Her chin was a little thin, a little uneven from a broken jaw as a child when she’d tumbled off the Hokage monument, and she had a single significantly darker freckle on her jaw line on the right side.

Did she pause over the defined muscles of her arms and shoulders? Did she think her unattractive or unnatural, for a woman to have such a chiseled body, scarred as it was?

As opposed to most other kunoichi – whom had different specializations and classes – Asuka had visible definition in her abdomen and her back, waist not immediately evident in its thinner proportion due to muscle, the smooth beginning to a muscular V between her hips that was somewhat hidden by the pants that sat low on her hips. Over her abs were a smattering of scars from being stabbed or grazed and even burned, dotted in the center was her belly button ring, as if to draw the eye away from the battle scars with a plane simple bar of dark metal rather than an artistic ornament, though she had some at home that she rarely wore, and never when she was out of the village. Most gifts from Anko, who liked body jewelry.

The largest, angriest scar she had was a mostly faded burn that was suffused with the dull red of the bijuu’s chakra on her back from that night twelve years before when she’d held a burning support beam off of her baby sister as she bled out beneath her during the Kyuubi attack. It was the scar that saddened her the most, even if it could quite possibly be gone in another decade or so, even if the effects never faded, what with the chakra in her body renewing her cells at an extremely accelerated rate. It reminded her of what she had lost. One never knew when the tailed beasts were involved, however, so there was the distinct possibility that it would remain with her even if she lived to an age like that of the Sandaime; the chakra they had was too different from human chakra for any of them to really know.

There was a tattoo the size of her palm in a likeness of the Sharingan’s three tomoe in the middle of a circle between her shoulder blades, unseen, cradled by the fading scar in what had become remembrance of her grief at the passing of her twins rather than the drunken poor decision of her youth.

She’d been inconsolable for weeks when they’d died, feeling dead inside herself, like they’d taken a chunk of her with them into the afterlife. As if there was a hole shaped like them in her mind that had just… left with them.

She’d been just a machine after they’d passed, until the Sandaime had snapped her out of it.

Asuka had been alone, or at least, it had felt like it, until the Hokage had spoken to her after her psychological exam to reenter the field, reminding her that other people needed her and wanted her too. No matter how few.

“To answer your question regarding my state of dress,” she started, placing her hands on the table before her, watching the other woman examine the small scars that littered her callused fingers, nails short and unpainted. “In general, kunoichi wear clothes that you might consider risqué. A good portion of them wear a lot less than what I currently wear,” at the widening of Tsunami’s eyes she smiled again. “Part of that is to distract enemies, and another part is that a lot of kunoichi like to feel desirable, even though they are in a profession that is generally frowned upon by civilian woman as manly or uncouth,” those cheeks flushed once again, and she was oddly reminded of Umino Iruka. “Mostly, it deals with the fact, that if a man takes offense to our way of dress, we are physically able to overpower him or outsmart him if he decides to make an issue out of it,” those dark eyes flickered up to hers again, and she held her gaze. “Have you ever heard of a shinobi assaulting a woman, Tsunami-san? One that was associated with a village and not a missing-nin?”

“I… a claimed shinobi? I don’t think so. No,” dark brown, lightly wavy locks shifted as the woman shook her head negatively, surprise and thoughtfulness shifting over her features. “Never.”

“It’s unlikely that you ever will. A shinobi has a great respect for women instilled in him from the beginning of his training, both as someone with the ability to create life rather than end it, and especially so for the potential kunoichi that make up each generation,” this was also why her superior officer had been so upset by the lame threat of Gatou giving her to his subordinates, despite the fact that it never would have happened. Such disrespect and objectification was just not done amongst shinobi ranks.

At least not in the newer generations; sexism had been a problem that Senju Tsunade had fixed for them.

With her fists.

“A shinobi can’t think of one civilian woman one way and another kunoichi in a different way, because the lines will blur and classification like that can be messy, so he is taught to think of all women as equal. If he were to think of all women in terms of a civilian mindset, he’d likely find himself beaten to death by several kunoichi who took offense to his attitude, or possibly left behind in danger by his compatriots,” brown eyes were wide and a little shocked. “A woman seen from civilian standards is generally weaker than a man, yes? Easily overpowered and used,” a nod of reluctant acknowledgment. “In shinobi culture a woman who becomes a kunoichi is considered just as able bodied as a man, if not more so, depending on to which section they devote themselves, and a number of the highest ranking and most dangerous ninja have been women, which just cements this understanding.”

A few moments of silence.

“And a man who approaches a woman with a shinobi mindset?” the civilian woman asked quietly.

Tsunami sounded curious, thoughtful, and that pleased the chuunin, who had found recently that she liked enlightening others about the factors of what it meant to be a kunoichi. Who knew that getting dragged into training a genin by Hatake Kakashi would show her that she didn’t mind teaching? Well, one on one at least.

The Academy would be a massacre.

“That, my dear, is what we call a gentlemen,” she stated playfully changing the mood as the tea pot whistled its readiness. “The best kind of man is one you can lead him around by the nose and he likes it, will trip all over himself for you. I know several shinobi like this, and most of them will be gobbled up in a few years’ time.”

The civilian woman smiled as she gathered the tea makings and then set down the cups and pot before them on the table.

“Is it…” she bit her lip, cheeks reddening again as she glanced up a little shyly at the younger woman. “Is it true that ninja don’t care about gender?”

“Oh, well, most don’t give much thought to it other than if they are an interested party, but everyone has their preferences,” her expression was calm as she regarded the woman before her, noting something like relief passing over her features. “Why choose one when you can have both? What if you miss out and die on your next mission? Yes, most ninja don’t care at all about gender when it comes to sexual partners, and a number are even in open relationships with several others at once.”

Mostly, nin were just equal opportunist horny bastards who would take what they could get. There were also those who didn’t care for sex at all, preferring just platonic companionship when they sought company or comfort, and it wasn’t unheard of for there to be those who would request that a comrade sleep with them, as in actually sleep to keep nightmares at bay. Asuka’s own Chitose had preferred not to engage in sexual acts, but on occasion he would randomly desire to do so, and the timing was always, let’s just say… inconvenient or shocking.

“Oh,” her face was quite red, and she pressed the backs of her fingers to her cheeks trying to cool them. “And… what they say about shinobi? Is that true?”

The woman looked mortified as the words tumbled in a rush from her lips.

“What do they say?”

This really shouldn’t have been as amusing as it was, but the horror that was etching over the woman’s features was just too cute.

“They… they…” you could have fried an egg on her cheeks they were so red. “S-stamina…”

“Oh, Tsunami-san, you have no idea,” a devilish grin slid over her features and the kunoichi leaned on the table and snagged her tea to take a quick sip before continuing, tone mischievous. For conversations such as this she preferred sake, but tea would do fine. “Let me tell you about shinobi.

The mother’s eyes were wide, but interested, despite the embarrassment that was clear on her features. It was apparent that she didn’t get to gossip often, and while Asuka wasn’t known for it, she usually just let Anko roll out her own gossip monger ways whenever she blew in, she could certainly stand to indulge now and again. Girl talk wasn’t necessarily bad talk, either way. Sometimes it could be downright entertaining.

“Now, really, it depends on the shinobi but, let me say this now, stamina is such a weak word…”

~*~

After sitting for a nice chat with the other woman for a little over an hour, trading horror stories and a few more interesting tales – Kaiza had apparently been a very giving man, much more so than the Tsunami’s first husband had been – they had both gone to do their daily chores, one the laundry and the other her katas.

Slowly moving with each inhale and exhale, she slid her leg around in a pivot, her arms moving smoothly around her in her unarmed kata, and barely aware of the fact that time was passing, as she did so. Pakkun lay in the grass a few feet to her side, and every now and again he would snort and twitch, causing her to smile or chuckle at him as she continued on with her conditioning, carefully examining the burning in her thigh to make sure that she didn’t overdue anything before she had the chance to examine herself again that night. She was lucky that she didn’t use much in the way of aerial combat, since she wasn’t sure how much pressure her leg could deal with, and with the tentative analyses of nerve damage she’d made the night before, she didn’t want to make things horribly worse. Even though she wasn’t averse to hospital stays, she was averse to extended medical leave like what was required for rewiring nerve damage and the physical therapy that could be involved in such.

Bleh.

Downtime. It made all ninja shudder.

Once she’d gone through her unarmed katas for a while, she smoothly shifted into a handstand, feeling the kunai in her hair brush over the back of her neck before sliding further against her buns, and slowly breathed out. Very slowly, she removed one hand and pulled it in against her chest so that she was only balanced on the one arm, feeling the steady burn in her shoulder and elbow as she held herself carefully still, modulating her breathes and counting heartbeats. Several minutes later she switched arms again, careful to maintain her balance as she did so, so that she wouldn’t have to restart the exercise over again, and once she’d finished with her second side, she put both hands down again.

Lowering herself down in an action similar to that of a pushup, keeping her legs and torso in line above her as she did so, she ended up with the top of her skull brushing against her hands and her elbows supporting her on the ground, her deltoids beginning to strain at the position of holding her not insignificant weight up.

These exercises were done without chakra enhancements while she was on mission, because she wanted that ace in the whole if she was attacked, but it made them that much more uncomfortable.

Her sensei had never let them use chakra during basic exercises, the sadist, and it had become habit.

Only a few minutes later, she let her legs fall behind her with a breath and stretched her back until her feet touched down against the ground, slippers gripping at the dirt with patterned soles as she shifted up onto her hands again so that she was in a comfortable bridge position, before clenching her stomach and thigh muscles to pull herself upright once again, taking a breath once she was standing again against the sudden lightheadedness. She stretched her arms for a few moments, before slipping into her right sided splits and picking up her back foot and grabbing it with her arms stretched back, her spine arched, the pull in her uninjured thigh uncomfortable but instructional in how much more flexibility training that she needed.

The Summon snorted and woke whilst she was doing this, giving her a quick glance before looking off down the road with a frown on his doggy face.

Not moving from her position, but turning her head to look down the road as well, she saw something that caused her to make a face.

Ugh.”

“Probably used to work for Gatou,” the pug said drolly, putting his head back down and watching her with those large sad eyes. “They’re drunk and angry.”

“Yeah,” she sighed, letting go of her foot and shifting so that she was in her center splits and carefully cracking a stiff hip as she did so, and exhaling at the release of tension. “They probably know that the boys and the kids are at the bridge, and wanted to see if they could have a go for Tsunami.”

Again. It was lucky that Naruto had been able to do something that time, though.

Even if he’d slept in like a spoiled brat because he hadn’t listened to her and gone to bed when he should have, he’d been there to save Tsunami and Inari from the thugs that Gatou had set after them while he assumed every one of the Konoha squad was at the bridge.

The little imp.

She shifted again, only this time to her left splits, and grimaced at the pull in her injured thigh, not even contemplating pulling that leg up, this was enough until she was finished healing, and she arched her back in the manner of before, arms gracefully treading air to complete the backwards C curve. Once her back started to twinge, she straightened her spine, and then smoothly moved out of the splits to standing, stretching down pressed the backs of her hands to the ground to sooth the tightened muscles.

“Where’s Tsunami?” she asked idly as she stood straight again, rolling her shoulders as she did so.

“Out back behind the house,” Pakkun answered without lifting his head at all from where he lay, and she walked over to his spot and crouched down and rubbed at his side, making his back leg kick. “Hey.”

“That’s good then,” she remarked, continuing to scratch at him as he was giving a low rumble of indignation twined with bliss.

“Yeah.”

She smiled even as she looked up at the four idiots who were now only standing perhaps twenty feet away, eyeing her with familiar, disgusting looks on their faces.

Honestly. Civilians.

“Is there something you boys need?” she queried politely, standing up from where she’d been hassling the pug, who grumbled and went back to his nap effortlessly.

“Yeah,” one of snapped at her, cheeks artificially flushed from bad booze. Oh, gross, it was wafting. “You the bitch who owns this place?”

Brows raised, she decided to humor them; if they didn’t even know what Inari’s mother looked like, this would be pathetically easy.

“And if I were?”

All of their faces gave an ugly twist.

“Your old man ruined us, bitch!”

“Yeah, we had it good with Gatou!”

“We’re gonna fuck you up, then fuck you!”

“Ruin you like you ruined us!”

Her lips tightened as the thought that if she hadn’t slept in that day then it would be likely that Tsunami would have been home alone, and she would have been able to do little against the men who would have still appeared had she been there or not. Frowning, she started to calmly walk towards them, one thought in mind.

Eliminate the threat to her new friend.

One of them seemed a little uneasy the closer she got, and she thought it was because he was staring at the scars on her abdomen, and realizing that something just wasn’t right with the housewife that was supposed to live there. Asuka would have been right, but he was also a little uneasy about the fact that her abs were more defined than his own by several degrees.

She decided that he’d go first.

Stopping right in front of him, she gave them no warning as she turned to side face and snapped a kick straight up and caught him under the chin, snapping his head back and breaking his neck at the same time as she did so. As he fell, she turned to the three remaining, and lazily punched the next in line in the stomach and as he was doubled over retching and wheezing, she gave a sharp chop to the back of his neck, snapping his just as quickly as she had the first one, before jumping and spinning a kick at the thirds head, snapping it forward in a reversed parody of the first’s, breaking his neck next, and landing lightly on her feet as the two fell in simultaneous thuds of sound.

The fourth stared at her as if he couldn’t figure out what had just happened, eyes wide with shock, pupils blown.

“W-what…”

“I’m a ninja, you idiot,” she muttered, mashing her knuckles into his throat and crushing his larynx, and the agony she saw on his features gave her pause enough to kill him swiftly by twisting his head until his neck cracked audibly and his skull was pointed in an unnatural direction. “Hmm.”

She stood with her hands on her hips, pondering on what to do with the wastes of space that were littering the lawn; she was mildly glad that they’d yet to release their bowels, and hadn’t bled so there wouldn’t be much in the way of cleanup. Well, she’d just transport them elsewhere and burn them then, so as not to upset Tsunami by setting the men on fire in her front yard; the woman had been through enough, there was no reason to traumatize her any more than watching her Kaiza being ripped limb from limb had done.

“Guard the fort, will you?” she called idly to the pug and received a grunt of acknowledgment. “Well, then, let’s go boys.”

Bleh, bodies. Gross.

~*~

Haku and Asuka were helping Tsunami fold and put away laundry when the rest of the gang showed up, and the kunoichi was tickled to notice that both male genin were soaked through, but Sakura was primly dry, and seemingly gleeful about the fact. The girl automatically moved to help her kunoichi sensei with the pile of clothes and regaled the two amused women and the older boy with the tale of the ease at which she’d taken to water walking.

“It was harder than tree walking,” she admitted once the boys had moved upstairs to take a bath with scowls and mutters of discontent, Inari trailing behind them like a puppy and the jounin had sat themselves at the table with some tea and snacks, Pakkun having padded over to Kakashi from where he’d been laying at her feet. “But it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.”

“It’s better that you’ve learned it now,” Asuka put in, smoothing out a sheet that she and the Ice Release user were folding. “Before your chakra stores shoot up with your gained weight and muscle. The action will be more natural than if you learned it later. You’ll already know what to do, and the excess would have confused you, made it harder to gauge how much to use, since you’re used to lower reserves.”

“Hai, Asuka-sensei,” the girl singsonged, happy to have pleased her kunoichi-sensei.

They were almost finished with the laundry when the girl spoke again, her tone hesitant, deeply contemplative and serious.

“Neh, Asuka-sensei?”

“Yes, Sakura?”

“About what Gatou said the other day, on the bridge…” she trailed off after a moment, staring at the shirt in her hands. “Weren’t you scared?”

“Scared?”

The woman was a little confused, before she remembered that the man had told his men that they could have their way with her and Haku. Who, from the look on his face, didn’t know exactly what they were talking about, due to his being unconscious at the time, and she doubted that anyone had brought it up to him. Certainly not the overprotective Zabuza. “No, no, I wasn’t scared. Exasperated, more than anything. Perhaps a little irritated.”

“I-irritated?” the girl sounded dumbfounded. “But, he was telling them to – to do that stuff to you!”

The adult kunoichi sighed when Tsunami fumbled with her basket full of folded clothes and gave her a wide eyed stare, and even Haku seemed alarmed at the turn of events.

“Sakura,” she sighed out, shaking her head and kneeling down to the girl’s level. “No man can ever take from me what I don’t give.”

This was a conversation she hadn’t been expecting, at least, not so soon. Considering the events that had occurred so recently, she should have known that the bright young girl before her would remember the civilian fool’s words and ponder on them, over thinking and pulling up shaking and uncertain emotions from within herself. Asuka herself had been only a little older when she’d had her… encounter and needed to take a crash course in making that a part of her past that did not define her, weaken her, or hold her back. She’d use everything she had to get stronger, to empower herself, so all that pain and rage and anguish, that grief, would build her into a better kunoichi.

A better person.

“Eh?” she cocked her head, face pale and confused.

“He can hurt my body, he can even take pleasure in it, but he can never take away my body, can never take away what I do not give,” she reiterated. Unless he’s a puppet master or something, but that’s a story for another time . “If a man were to kill your friends and family, would he be taking them from you?”

“Um, yes?” she said it in that tone that said she knew she was wrong in some way but didn’t know how that Asuka had become use to.

“No,” she shook her head, senbon and kunai clinking together. “He could take their lives. Just because they are dead, does that mean that they are no longer your friends, no longer your family?”

“No...”

“So, with that kind of thought in mind, the only person I would ever give my body to would be whatever child I would have, should I find myself with one,” she smiled at the wonder in those jade green eyes, as if the concept were completely foreign to her, noting that Tsunami was smiling slightly out of the corner of her eye. The soft, familiar ache behind her breastbone was easily ignored with the swiftness of practice and time with the mentions of having children and what she would and would not give. “That child would own a piece of my body, because I would have given it to them.”

She stood again, aware that while the two jounin were conversing lowly, they were still listening to her words, and that Haku’s lovely brown eyes were wide as they regarded her.

“He can give me pain if he tries to take my body, but he won’t own it. The only thing he would take is his own pleasure,” her expression switched from calm and serious to a feral smile in a second. “That is, if he lives long enough to try, anyway.”

Few had.

~*~

He felt strangely comfortable.

When the Copy-nin had woken the morning after the healing, it was in response to the missing-nin waking up himself, and he’d sighed as he sat up, affixing his hitai-ate over his scarred eye before glancing over at the other occupants of the room.

Odd, that he’d managed to get to sleep at all, really. He’d blame that on Asuka too.

Zabuza was stretching his still weakened from injury arm – there was vague pride at how badly he’d managed to wound the man, even when they weren’t actually going at it – carefully while sitting in lotus, rotating it in its socket before popping his back and neck with a soft sigh. The first light of dawn was sliding slowly, gradually over his tanned skin and haloing him in burnished gold, dark hair mussed and glossy in the soft light, dark eyes relaxed and a little unfocused surrounded by sooty lashes that cast soft shadows over cheekbones. He enjoyed the aesthetics of it, the lengths of warm flesh covering powerful, sleek muscles, of the way he glowed in the morning light like caramel or honey, a lovely, dangerous slice of amber in the dawns light with the faintest scent of blood and metal polish trailing in his every movement.

Out of everything, he couldn’t deny that the missing nin was attractive and rather easy on the eyes.

Even if he was irritating.

He really wanted to give into the vague urge of half formed thought to shove his hand through the taller man’s chest, but he was sure that Asuka would be disappointed in him, or nitpick at him in some passive aggressive way for it until he regretted the decision. Make him clean up the blood and then explain to the genin, deal with a hysterical apprentice… all things he’d rather avoid.

The woman was a nightmare.

As the first few rays hit the chuunin, however, she pulled the covers over her head with a soft, rather pathetically hoarse groan so that only the braided ends of her hair were sticking out over her pillow and curled into a tight ball around the lump that was Pakkun. There was a heavy sleepiness in her countenance that came with greater chakra usage, but he hadn’t detected any form of chakra exhaustion in its many flavors, so he let her be to recharge her figurative battery, calmed from any great concern by the steady flow of her low, smooth chakra stores.

He’d mussed his hair even further than it already was and suppressed a yawn when the other man had stood and gave a full body stretch that made the Konoha jounin envious because it looked like it felt ridiculously good.

Well, whatever, he’d be standing soon enough, and then he could get his own kinks out.

Funnily enough, the past week had been partial to some of the best nights of sleep he’d had in quite some time, and he’d had a rather good few nights even with Zabuza in the area previous to his change in loyalty and status, something that was odd in and of itself. He definitely blamed Asuka for her strangely calming influence, since he hadn’t slept so well on a mission – with potential hostiles around – since he’d been leading his ANBU squadron, and even then he’d had periodic watch cycles that interrupted them. Considering the fact that the most dangerous part of the escort mission was on the other side of the room, it was amazing that he’d gotten any sleep at all, let alone two full nights worth and without watch rotations at that.

When his Kage Bunshin popped he got a rather dull report of his patrol watch as well as a rather candid scene from the Icha Icha volume it had read in his place while it stayed up. That was always a rather nice if abrupt wake up call. Contrary to popular belief it wasn’t excruciatingly painful to absorb the memories of a clone, just a little disconcerting if one wasn’t expecting the sudden onset for when the information hit, the chakra in the brain absorbing the impact of the information much like a genjutsu and the pathways interfaced the data with the rest of his mind. Naruto was a one of a kind thick skulled weirdo in that he hadn’t even noticed the download from his admittedly poorly constructed clones – or maybe he was just an idiot instead of a weirdo, it depended on the day, really – and he threw them around like candy at a festival.

He honestly despaired for his Sensei’s son.

The Copy Cat Ninja could rather easily manage the feeling of having all of his clones popped at once, perhaps because of his higher brain capacity, but the longer the clone was in existence the more memories it recorded and the harder it was to integrate them when he had his own to deal with for that timeframe. It was like being in two places at once. It was easier when he’d been asleep and basically his senses had been turned off, since there was no contradicting data to cause a havoc of confusion in his mind, but he was a little bemused by some of the memories he received from his latest Bunshin.

Apparently even the missing nin’s own clones were just as flirtatious as he was.

And the – admittedly somewhat intimidating – chuunin hadn’t been around to chaperone so the Bunshin had had to dodge several less than savory, some just downright ridiculous, come-ons from its dark counterpart. The Demon took an inordinate amount of pleasure from his discomfort, apparently, even when they were just shadows of themselves.

The exasperated glance he sent the taller man received a slightly amused huff and a quirked set of lips beneath bandages.

As Kakashi watched, the other man sighed and pulled on his own version of ANBU grade under armor before shrugging on a shirt and binding down his pants legs.

“Heading out,” the man grunted softly, dark eyes soft and still a little sleepy as he looked over at the Copy-nin. “Gonna go raid Gatou.”

“Aa,” he acknowledged just as quietly, his own dark gray-blue gaze a little fuzzy, pushing off his comforter and settling himself into a cross legged position to do a morning network check; it’d become a habit of his since the introduction of the Sharingan into his system. The few times he hadn’t done it had been the times he’d had problems with it. “Taking Haku?”

“Probably,” broad shoulders shrugged lightly as he hooked the Kubikiribōchō onto the harness catch on his back. “He’ll fuss if I don’t.”

“Hmm,” he chuckled softly, single eye half lidded as he internally meandered over his chakra system, noting the points where the chuunin’s chakra was still hanging about and had yet to disperse, apparently soothing his bruised, abused pathways. “He’s a good kid.”

“Mmph,” was all he got back with a slightly embarrassed hitch to the man’s gate as he quietly left the room.

Once the ex-Mist nin was gone and had picked up his apprentice from the room down the hall, the shinobi let himself fall into a light meditative state to conserve energy as he paid close attention to the raw ache of his ocular pathways. Someday he was going to get around to finding Tsunade and asking her to realign those with a Uchiha template, seeing as there were no Clan Elders to get on his case about it anymore, and he was sure that Sasuke wouldn’t mind helping him out in that regard… most likely. Well, he’d have Asuka bring that up with him. He’d take it better that way, he was sure.

Everyone seemed to like her more.

No, he wasn’t going to pout about it.

He wasn’t.

With properly aligned ocular pathways, the chakra drain wouldn’t be nearly so severe when he uncovered the Sharingan, though it would still be quite a bit more than it would be for a born Uchiha, and when it was covered, the drain would be negligible at best, only a bit more than his regular eye in that regard. Perhaps about the same as a full Uchiha with their eyes active.

After he’d finished his self-examination, he stood and did some of his own stretching, noting that it had been nearly an hour since he’d fallen into himself.

The lump that was his sleeping subordinate didn’t move except softly in signal of slow, deep breathes and he huffed a little in amusement at only being able to see the golden brown of her slightly messy braids sticking out from under the green and white comforter. He idly wondered what she’d done with the small kunai she kept woven in with wires like a fashion accessory.

Once he’d changed his clothes and limbered himself up for the day, he set about folding both his and Zabuza’s futon’s and putting them aside so that they wouldn’t get in the way when the woman awoke, and peeked under the chuunin’s blanket at his Summons, a little off kilter at the realization that the woman hadn’t even shifted at his close proximity. They were friends – he suspected… well, he was pretty sure – but did that mean that she should be this open and relaxed in potentially dangerous territory? Did she trust him that much?

He didn’t know what to think about it, though it was… pleasing, in an abstract way.

“You okay in there?” he murmured with amusement at the dog.

“Aa,” the little pug grunted out, grumbling and burrowing closer to the green eyed woman’s stomach, half tucked under her shirt against her skin like it was his personal blanket.

“Alright then,” Kakashi shook his head as he stood. “I’ll have someone send up breakfast later.”

A rough yet soft snort of acknowledgement was all he got in answer, and he rolled his eye good naturedly before making his way downstairs.

Once the missing-nin had returned with what could be considered a feast, he’d rounded up the genin and stuffed them with breakfast as they grumbled and stumbled around, ready to frog march them with Tazuna down to the bridge.

“Neh, neh, Kaka-sensei!”

His loudest one crowed with unnecessary volume, getting a droll look from the jounin in question and actually winced in reprimand – miracles never ceased – before continuing to speak at a lower tone. He was so glad that he and Asuka had sat them down to speak about those with enhanced senses, though he still didn’t understand how Naruto, with his own senses, could deal with his own volume on a daily basis. It was a wonder that the boy hadn’t deafened himself. Although, there was the Kyuubi’s healing to think about… hmm…

“Are we gonna learn any cool jutsu?!”

A pink head and a black head looked up at him simultaneously with wide, expectant jade and black eyes respectively and he sighed while scratching at a masked cheek, valiantly ignoring the caustically raised brow of his darker counterpart.

“Maa, well, you all did master Tree Walking, didn’t you?” he half asked half stated, and the kids all nodded in answer despite the rhetoric of it. “I guess Water Walking is next, then.”

“Ha!” the ex-Mist nin barked mockingly, causing Naruto to narrow his eyes at him. “Can’t even do that yet, brats?”

“So?! What of it?!” the orange wearing boy stood up in his seat, pulling a sigh from his sensei and a scowl from his female teammate, the Uchiha trying his best to pretend that there was no one else in the room. “I bet I could be Hokage without some stupid Walking on Water no jutsu!”

Without much thought, he reached out and whapped his student in a manner that his chuunin friend usually utilized, causing the boy to teeter back into his chair, blue eyes wide and shocked in the same way they always were whenever the woman did the same.

“Eat your food,” he stated absently, his dark gray-blue almost black eye sitting with consideration on the Demon of the Mist.

“…What?” the man in question asked, dark brows furrowing, half an eye on his apprentice who was puttering around the kitchen with Tsunami.

“Oh, nothing really,” his eye smile bloomed, and he was both amused by and curious of the slight apprehension that morphed onto the dark features of the taller, broader man who was leaning back in his chair a bit, away from his cleared plate. “Just wondering something.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, you are Haku’s teacher, aren’t you?” he felt a genuinely devious smile pull on his lips beneath his mask.

“… Yeah…”

The skepticism in that tone was like music to his ears, and he couldn’t help the low chuckle that left him, a soft rumble in his chest, a tone that his students no doubt couldn’t hear – well, perhaps Naruto, but he hadn’t gotten around to testing the kid’s senses fully just yet – and he didn’t notice the way that dark eyes regarded him with half lidded interest. Leaning back from his own emptied plate and throwing an arm over the back of his chair, right ankle catching on his left knee as he regarded the other man, he found himself thinking that his green eyed companion would no doubt be rolling her eyes at him and calling him lazy as she figured out what he was going for.

“There’s no doubt that your apprentice is very talented,” there was a slight start from the boy in the kitchen, and he could smell the embarrassment and pleasure that the boy exuded at his words, even as his own brats grumbled in affront, but didn’t deny it. “But half of a student’s accomplishments are thanks to the teacher, y’know?”

A moment of silence.

“No,” the dark haired man denied, shaking his head as he did so. “No way.”

“Aww, I have two students who need all the help they can get,” he gestured at his blonde and his dark haired boys where they were still eating, one who scowled at him, the Uchiha glowering at him as well, eyes narrowed. He thought it was hilarious that they knew exactly to whom he had been referring. “The last one practically teaches herself.”

Sakura blushed with pleasure, reaching for a second helping with a renewed vigor at the praise, and he couldn’t help but send her a fond look that she smiled at shyly. Really, she’d gotten much better since Asuka had been working with her to teach her kunoichi knowhow, so he could barely smell the soft flowery scent of her shampoo, and she was using naturally scented lotion when she needed it for chapped hands, elbows, feet and knees. The fact that he could smell her chakra enough to identify it – it was oddly minty, also kind of like damp earth – put him more at ease, though he still didn’t know if the reason he couldn’t smell it before was because of the horrid concoction she would wear or because she had been unhealthy. Likely it was a mixture of the two, and he tried not to dwell on how anxious it had made him.

“No,” was his insistent answer.

“C’mon,” he leaned forward, cajoling, putting his forearms on the table and bracing against them, gloveless fingers linked together loosely. “You know you want to~”

Black eyes were hooked on his hands, and he blinked in a little bit of confusion at the intensity of the dark eyed stare, his fingers shifting a little to rub against each other, thumbs pressing together until the pale half moons of his fingernails whitened out from pressure.

Suddenly, he felt terribly naked.

“… Alright.”

With the taller man’s grumbled reply, he found himself beaming beneath his mask.

Ah, his genius had struck again!

It surprised even him sometimes.

Still, before they left, he put his metal backed fingerless gloves back on, feeling much better for it despite the unnoticed disappointment hovering around the form his missing nin counterpart like a gloomy mist when he glanced at those once uncovered appendages.

When they reached the bridge, he gave a basic outline of the exercise and watched as his female student gingerly took to the water, after testing it for a moment, like she’d been born to it, feeling pride warm his chest as she looked over at him for approval, nodding and complimenting her the way that Asuka had told him that the children needed. Sometimes he forgot that even though he knew that he was pleased with something, his posture and outward appearance didn’t necessarily reflect what he was thinking within. Even though that was kind of the point of his posture and general actions as well as tone – being obscure what he was going for, after all – it wasn’t exactly practical when dealing with inexperienced and sensitive brats who were ridiculously emotionally needy. While this wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily, his chuunin friend had assured him as if she had somehow sensed how this had disturbed him – woman’s intuition? – before she had explained to him that for children it was better that they got verbal and physical cues of approval to build their confidence around, so that they would know when you weren’t happy with them.

It was apparently difficult for most kids to read small physical cues – who knew? He’d never had a problem with it when he was younger, though he’d also had little need for social niceties – as well as hear the whole list of things that weren’t said, and they instead blossomed with verbal praise under his and Asuka’s tutelage.

After that, Sakura spent her time with Tazuna, and he forked Naruto – and Inari who had followed them, trailing after the blonde for some reason or another – off on the taller man with an eye smile that sent the man’s left eye twitching something fierce while he dealt with the much quieter if no less problematic Sasuke.

Asuka would be so pleased with his ability to delegate.

When they returned to the house, it was with two disgruntled and rather wet twelve-year-old boys, an over excited eight-year-old with stars in his eyes, and one rather pleased with herself twelve year old girl who was happily running her fingers through her very dry pink hair.

Not long after they returned, the atmosphere got a tad serious again.

“She’s vicious,” the Mist jounin stated with a pleased air about him, and Kakashi resisted the urge to sigh. He’d basically just called her ‘smoking hot’ in slightly crazy missing nin speak. “Not bad for a Konoha hippy.”

“Yes,” he agreed, his tone amused, even as his Summon lay his warm body down over his left foot comfortably after having reported how the chuunin had dealt with the intruders while they were away. “Asuka is a very competent kunoichi.”

The fact that she had killed the mercenaries didn’t bother him, though he knew that it would still unsettle the genin if they heard, even with all of the death that had happened on the bridge, and he was sure that she would make no mention of it to the kids, especially not with Tsunami around, the woman having been the target in the first place. While it made him vaguely agitated at the idea that civilian men could act like animals towards women, the fact that even if it was because of mild overuse of chakra that had her sleeping in, he was glad that she had been there to defend the sweet, gentle civilian woman who had been delighted to make them breakfast that morning, embarrassed that she hadn’t had the proper ingredients for a fancy one beforehand. In fact, because she had been feeding them the entire time, he felt a bit guilty about having her make their meals at all after they’d gotten provisions from Gatou’s mansion.

He would be sure to leave some money in an inconspicuous place for her to find later, at least for having had to deal with Naruto’s appetite.

The kid was ridiculous.

“That girl’s got some good chakra control,” the missing-nin muttered, rolling and stretching his healing arm idly. “And the amount of chakra that the Uzumaki kid’s got…” Zabuza sighed despondently. “Man, I wish.

“Don’t we all,” he returned with a dry tone, giving a hapless shrug.

If he had chakra reserves like Naruto, he would have no problem whipping out the Sharingan all the time, and he’d be able to use some of the more dangerous jutsu that he knew without worrying about his chakra levels right afterwards. Screw having his pathways adjusted, he wouldn’t need it. He probably wouldn’t need to even keep it covered most of the time, because the draw on his reserves would be basically nothing in comparison to the deep well that he’d have access to. However, the drawback of having almost no money because of having to feed himself would have been terribly trying, since he wouldn’t always be able to buy his Icha Icha when a new one was released. The metabolic jutsu only did so much, after all.

He knew which one he’d choose over the other, besides.

Starving to death was not the way he wanted to go.

The sound of his female genin’s nervous voice had him directing his attention behind him.

“Neh, Asuka-sensei?” the tone was just a tad quailing.

“Yes, Sakura?” was the absent reply.

“About what Gatou said the other day, on the bridge…” Kakashi felt his eye darken in remembrance, and across from him Zabuza shifted agitatedly in his seat. “Weren’t you scared?”

“Scared?” the fact that the woman seemed confused at first, not knowing what her genin was talking about had the Copy-nin lifting a hand to massage at his temple because that woman honestly lacked some basic fears involving her gender in comparison to other kunoichi, and it was mildly disturbing in a way he disliked thinking about. “No, no, I wasn’t scared. Exasperated, more than anything. Perhaps a little irritated.”

“I-irritated? But, he was telling them to – to do that stuff to you!”

Across from him, the other jounin cast a glance at his apprentice and gave a grimace, one that Kakashi could easily discern beneath the bandages. Yes, there had been no mention of that to the gentle soul that was Haku, and he was sure that it was very deliberate on Zabuza’s front, since from what he’d heard the kid had been, well, living it rough was a way to describe it, before the missing nin had picked him up, and looks like those didn’t just pop up overnight. He was sure that the kid had been hassled for or had ended up using those good looks to survive and scrounge up money before he’d struck gold and been taken in by the surprisingly compassionate – amusingly so – coup leader.

“Is she for real?” the disbelief was palpable.

“She lacks in some basic self-awareness, yes,” he told the other man with a deep, weary exhalation of breath. “She probably took more insult at the insinuation that a civilian man thought he could take her on than anything else. Asuka can be a bit tetchy about people doubting her abilities.”

“She’s not even apprehensive,” Zabuza’s brows twisted as he looked back at the other man, a dark, intent thoughtfulness in his gaze.

Oh , the Konoha nin’s brow drew down in thought at what the other man was insinuating. Oh. Does Asuka have that kind of training? Or…

She was a ninja during war time, and even though she was young during that time there was certainly enough need for kunoichi at the time that they would throw whoever they could out to gather information from the enemy or to handle exploits, seducing competition. It wouldn’t be odd for a younger, less hardened and obviously a kunoichi Asuka to have been pulled into that kind of mission, not with the fact that she had a rather unique, pretty qualities to her features even if it wasn’t exactly traditional as one was rarely seen with her coloration, and the grace she moved with was something innate rather than learned, drawing the eye with liquid movement. The thought that perhaps she had, left an uncomfortable squirming in his gut, and he shifted in his seat, because this was his… sort of friend, and the fact that she could have those kinds of experiences was… discomfiting.

“Sakura,” the fond surety in the woman’s tone brought him out of his thoughts. “No man can ever take from me what I don’t give.”

“Eh?”

“He can hurt my body, he can even take pleasure in it, but he can never take away my body, can never take away what I do not give.”

It was a good sentiment for most times, he was sure, but the more experienced nin noted that she left something out. There were a number of jutsu and techniques that took away your physical control of your faculties, but it wouldn’t do to scare the poor girl when it wasn’t necessary. See, he was learning!

“If a man were to kill your friends and family, would he be taking them from you?”

“Um, yes?” there was a puzzled uncertainty in her tone.

For some reason he couldn’t quite identify besides the obvious point of contention Kakashi really wished that the boys were downstairs listening to this too, despite the fact that this was a speech oriented more towards females. In the future they were going to have to bring up assault for the boys as well, because just because they were male didn’t mean that they were safe from the perversions and interrogation of their enemies should they ever be caught. Sasuke especially would draw them in like flies with his pretty face, and considering Naruto’s pedigree, there was no way that he was going to end up with the short end of the stick, because if there was one thing that both Kushina and Minato had been, it was attractive.

Breathtaking, really.

“No,” the faint, soft tinkling sound of her hair ornaments clinking together made something in him relax, a learned reaction to her presence. “He could take their lives. Just because they are dead, does that mean that they are no longer your friends, no longer your family?”

No...”

“So, with that kind of thought in mind, the only person I would ever give my body to would be whatever child I would have, should I ever have one, that child will own a piece of my body, because I will have given it to them.”

“Perhaps it’s desensitization,” the dark haired jounin murmured, gaze deep as he locked with the Copy-nin’s eye, something like displeasure in those eyes. “Or an after the fact rationalization.”

“He can give me pain if he tries to take my body, but he won’t own it. The only thing he would take is his own pleasure,” he could hear the sharp, dark promise in her voice. “That is, if he lives long enough to try, anyway.”

He didn’t like the idea of her having none of the training and going through either, or being caught on a mission and...

It was worse.

Something like that was much, much worse.

He couldn’t… it just made him…

It made him…

Angry.

~*~

The day they were to leave came quicker than expected.

She wasn’t surprised that the boys were sulking at the thought of leaving their new sparring partner – Haku hadn’t been able to say no once they’d asked him for assistance in their training, the poor adorable sweetheart – and the girl was tugging at the end of her red dress, trying to put off saying goodbye to the fair faced teen as well. She had gotten into several discussions about plant life and their uses with the young ice user, as well as some about the boy’s fetching yukata and use of senbon, a weapon that was rather rarely used in Konoha except by a few. There had been some long and rather serious discussions between their dark haired boy and Zabuza’s, and she was sure that the Uchiha was going to be thinking on the older boy’s words for some time if his thoughtful silences were anything to go by. Naruto, the loudmouthed little darling had started to drag the boy whose face he’d bruised out of his shell, the Ice Release user wide eyed and shocked by the affection and honest pleasure in the younger boy whenever he got him to speak or laugh.

She was glad that Zabuza had picked up that boy, if only for the children’s sake.

Asuka, however, was saying goodbye to her newfound friend in the kitchen, because the woman was a little teary at the idea of the house becoming quiet again, without the loud noise that the genin brought with them wherever they went. She also didn’t like the idea of losing her new friend so soon after having gotten her, considering the fact that there were very few people that the older woman could call friend, but there was little that the kunoichi could do about that. It seemed, however, that she had a habit of making friends with civilian women, because outside of the village proper she had a few of them who would let her stay at their places when she was headed to a objective in their general direction.

She really did need to get a message to Juli-chan about missing out on their meeting as had been planned. That girl could fret with the best of them.

“Will you visit?” the woman asked softly, pushing her hair behind an ear with a pale finger.

“When I can,” the younger woman answered fondly, reaching out and taking the other woman’s hand for a moment, enjoying the light flush that moved over her pretty features. Tsunami had a wounded soul and that made her shy at times, but Asuka had seen glimpses of the wit and humor beneath that. “I’ll see about bringing one of the brats to terrorize you and Inari with, as well.”

“Oh, that’ll be fun,” the mother said dryly, her somewhat shaky lips twitching wryly. “Thank you so much.”

She laughed at this, her eyes crinkling a bit as she took in the pleased light in warm brown eyes, gaze moving over slowly filling out features, the lines of stress all but faded after the green eyed woman had given her a yin chakra facial, something that the civilian woman had marveled at in delight, commenting that now she saw the point in having a kunoichi friend.

“Um, Asuka-san?” the older woman’s voice had gone a bit funny, her brows slightly furrowed as she wet her lips and stared at the floor.

“San? Come now Tsunami, I’m sure we’re past that now,” the other said playfully, glad for the smile that took to her friend’s features.

“Ch-chan then?”

“Hmm, I don’t know…”

“Asuka,” she stated with a small smile tinged with amusement, before continuing. “I was wondering,” she started softly, hand gripping back onto the callused one of the kunoichi and trembling just a little. A fine shiver. “If… if you were one of… the ninja who didn’t care for gender?”

Oh. Oh.

Well then.

A warm smile moved over her features and Asuka brought her free hand up to cup the other woman’s cheek, her training roughened thumb smoothing over the soft skin there, before she leaned in for a sweet kiss, enjoying the slight start and widening of brown eyes before the older woman hesitantly returned the pressure, sighing softly. She worked her fingers from the civilian’s face back into thick dark brown hair, switching her angle and tickling chakra from her lips to swish through the other’s underdeveloped chakra system, causing her to gasp. Tangling her fingers with Tsunami’s, she tested touching her tongue to the slightly open seam of the other woman’s lips, getting a tentative return flicker, before slowly delving into the other’s warm mouth, carefully pulsing chakra through her tongue, clicking the small, subtle bar of metal pierced through it against the woman’s teeth.

The older woman’s free hand gripped the material of her shirt at her shoulder, fist tight as she gave a soft moan, body trembling slightly as the kunoichi pulled back to breath softly against the other woman’s face.

Brown eyes slowly opened from where they’d closed, showing blown pupils, irises a hot oaken color, features flushed, lips reddened, dazed as she stared somewhat awestruck at her ninja friend, whose cheeks were slightly pinked, and was running her tongue over her slightly swollen lips, flashing her tongue ring subtly, emerald green eyes dark like the forest at dusk.

“I’ll visit,” Asuka promised, features warm and affectionate as she removed her hand from where it was entangled with the other’s hair to caress over her flushed cheek, trailing callused fingertips over the civilian’s tingling lips.

“Ah, yes,” Tsunami’s breath caught, and she had to swallow against asking the kunoichi to maybe delay perhaps another hour before departing. “Please do.”

A quick grin as she pulled back, letting their connected hands hang between them.

“I’ll even so do alone, on occasion,” the teasing light in her expression caused the older woman to swat her shoulder softly, the kunoichi laughing at the action.

It didn’t stop her from agreeing with the statement, even if she flushed brightly.

“Please do.”

~*~

“Have a nice sendoff?” Zabuza asked slyly.

His dark eyes glanced at her slightly swollen lips from when she met up with the rest of the ninja outside meaningfully, causing her to roll her eyes.

“Better than you’ll get,” she remarked teasingly, licking her lips subtly enough that the bar of metal was unseen but still tauntingly – there was a lingering taste of the rose hip tea that Tsunami favored – making the dark haired man growl in offense, mocking hurt.

That the older woman was interested in a casual dalliance now and then had been a pleasant surprise, and she had no qualms with stopping by Wave when she had the chance to visit the slightly older woman; she would have done even without the extra incentive, but it didn’t hurt. This was a woman who hadn’t felt desirable in a long time, and she was comfortable enough with the chuunin that had befriended her to explore physical intimacies with her, and attracted enough to her for there to be real desire there, though Asuka wasn’t quite sure what it was about herself that seemed to draw women like this in.

While she preferred males, she didn’t mind laying with women – females seemed more inclined towards her in general, so it was easier to find a same gender partner – and it was nice to get the offer from someone who didn’t need some kind of comfort from her, and who found her attractive in spite of her scars, rather than because she was convenient; while nin didn’t particularly care about scarring, it got irritating having it ignored, to be disregarded. She had always wanted to be more to someone than a replacement comfort – just the very idea sent bile bubbling in the back of her throat and a cold chill down her spine – and she had perhaps been spoiled by her teammates in this regard.

Not that she minded being a lay of convenience with her comrades, since a good many of her own liaisons were of this sort but it was nice every once in a while to feel… desirable.

She missed that.

With Tsunami, it was a discovery, the woman tiptoeing outside of her shell into a whole new world.

It wasn’t like Asuka had never helped a woman learn herself the pleasure of another woman’s touch, and the teaching was fun for all involved if it was done the right way.

“Maa, maa,” the Copy-nin mediated, holding up his hands. “Let’s all play nice for now, we can fight the next time we run into each other,” he glanced at the taller man. “And it might be sooner rather than later, if your people agree to talk to Sandaime-sama.”

Zabuza grunted in agreement, but still swiped at her with a hand that she danced around with a laugh at his expense. The consideration in his gaze was nice, as well as the long suffering amusement as she used Kakashi as a body shield, like a child would in a game of tag to hide behind an adult like he was the safe zone. Which, really, that didn’t quite work out, as the man took a swipe at the smaller jounin petulantly as well, and the two Konoha nin dodged away into the trees as was the way of those from their village. Trees were their territory, after all, and the very best place for play. Especially tag. Oh, that was fun.

Hmm, they should play that when they got back…

Still, they didn’t exactly have any more leeway to hang around in Wave after the mission was completed and she was already looking forward to what her horrid workload would be when she returned to the village to make up for the diplomatic mission she’d missed.

Not.

When the dark haired nin tried to follow, he found that he couldn’t pick up his feet, and looked down to see two ropes of water sticking out of the ground, pulled from a nearby small underground water reservoir, and gaped at it for a moment before scowling behind his bandages up at the two other adults. The chuunin merely wiggled her fingers at him with a grin.

“C’mon kids!” she called, enjoying his irritation for the way it lit an attractive burning in his dark eyes and caused his muscled arms to ripple lightly with tension. “You can set up a play date later, it’s time to go!”

“Ah! Okay, Nee-chan!” Naruto hollered, seeing his sensei in the tree line and ready to go, causing him to throw a quick hug around the shocked Haku’s waist before turning to run to catch up. “See you, Haku!”

The other two genin trailed more sedately after giving their own farewells and following after their more excitable teammate.

Once the kids were in the trees with them – after having mastered Tree and Water Walking they had taught them how to travel amongst the former – Asuka turned to the silver haired man with a mischievously raised brow, and he gave a long suffering sigh before pointing a finger at Zabuza.

Even as the spark of electricity shimmered into existence they were off, but they could still hear the delightfully lovely high pitched yelp that the larger man gave as soon as the tiny bolt hit him, causing the kunoichi to break into a fit of giggles, and she could see the jounin’s shoulders shaking with his own mirth, even if she was on his ‘blind’ side, she knew that she’d have seen a genuine eye-smile on the other side. The thought was nice, and she let the smile on her face sit with warm contentment.

“KONOHAAAAAA!” was bellowed from behind them, causing birds to take off madly into the air before disturbed silence fell around them.

As she was releasing the water jutsu that had held him in place, she glanced over to see Naruto with an odd expression on his face.

“Naruto?” she queried with a touch of curiosity, expression still full of mirth. “Is something wrong?”

“Uh, no, not really,” he shook his head and frowned a bit. “It’s just that, whenever I hear someone shouting like that, it’s usually Jiji yelling at me about something.”

A beat of silence, before she was snickering again, her face beginning to hurt a little from the unusually wide grin on her features, and Kakashi was sighing in something like exasperation on the branch next to her before he let himself fall to the back, and she took point easily, since the back was the most likely place to be hit, and the front next. Either of them could cover the side in but a breath if someone decided that they really needed to be crushed in a pincer move.

“I’m sure that the feelings in it are about the same.”

~*~

Sadly, she wasn’t there when Zabuza’s representative from the Mist Rebellion was sent to Konoha, but on the border again where there were worrying numbers of nin from the new Sound village lurking about, trying to be stealthy. It was getting downright exasperating how much they weren’t even trying to hide themselves from the border patrols, as if they wouldn’t notice the several groups that passed in and out of the border frequently, no matter how often they chased them out. It was actually beginning to get insulting, especially when after they’d sent word in on a messenger bird there had been no return orders to address the issue from Konoha, and that left her in charge of the decision making in regards to dealing with them.

While she didn’t hate leading and she wasn’t particularly bad at it, it wasn’t something that she was very interested in, and definitely wasn’t her first choice in a mission.

She did, however, make it back to the village in time for the beginning of the Chuunin Exams and was able to meet the kids with Kakashi after they’d passed the genjutsu concealing the stairs before the opening of the First Exam, something that she had postponed going home to bathe for, even if she was itching to wash her hair and change her clothes, and possibly nap for a week. There had been a number of traps that had been lain on the border by the foreign nin who were running rampant around the patrols – both her group and others – and the mechanisms were similar to the one that she’d run into on the mission that had sent Imori into the hospital and had given her the slowly fading scar on her face. She was coming to the conclusion that perhaps that ‘old’ trap she’d run into those months ago on a three man team mission wasn’t actually an older trap, and had just been staged to look inconspicuous but well… with all of the experience she was getting with diffusing them or setting them off safely, she felt safe enough to assume they were the same.

While not having been terribly injured on her most recent mission, it had been a bit nerve wracking having to keep an eye out for explosive traps whenever they went out to patrol from the border post lodging, and while no one on her team this time had been critically injured there had been a few mishaps that were being taken care of in the hospital. She was also technically supposed to be at the debriefing with the others and then checked over at the hospital as well, but her captain of the mission had let her go to greet her genin and send them off with her luck. Her back and ribs were a little bruised but she only had a handful of scrapes and cuts from debris that were already scabbed over. Besides, she’d already patched those up on the way back from the post after doing some treatment on her teammates so that they would stop whining.

Well, it was alright that they were being unprofessional on the way back, anticipating being home and all. They’d been perfectly fine during the actual mission, so she cut them some slack despite her own tiredness and irritation.

But if she had to hear about Inuzuka Ririka’s bruised ass one more time…

She would not be held accountable for her actions.

Asuka highly doubted even the woman’s canine companion would blame her.

“Yo,” the jounin said to her when she appeared in a hurried, slightly clumsy bout of shunshin, a little out of breath and with dirt and a little blood speckling the white of her leg wraps, a smudge of dust on her chin, the sign of a small bruise blooming beneath it from a dirt clod that had smacked her in the chin and nearly knocked her unconscious. “Just get in?”

“Yeah,” she answered, rubbing the back of her hand over her forehead, ignoring the way that he trailed his eye over her form looking for signs of injury. She slanted a look at him out of the corner of her eye when she saw the thin bridge of his nose scrunch a little behind his mask as he scented for blood that wasn’t immediately visible. “I’m fine, Kakashi, stop mothering me.”

He looked offended for a moment, before catching her small smile of amusement, and then he narrowed his eye at her only to look away huffily, his chakra roiling sulkily. She prodded him amusedly and got a dry look of longsuffering in return, and before she could bother him again she felt KI flicker through the assorted genin that had made it into the Exam, distracting her and causing her to look around. For some reason, it was strangely familiar, but when she spotted the Sand symbols on the hitai-ate that adorned the three at the epicenter of the oddly generic yet also strangely corrosive bursts of KI she had a moment of understanding. Whenever she was in Sand she usually felt like she was playing tag with the one who exuded that lovely, friendly blanket of Intent. Note the Sarcasm.

In fact, she had actually seen the blonde girl a few times before during her longer lasting meetings, observing or dropping off some document or another, and it wasn’t exactly hard to connect the dots with the other two.

“Oh, look, the Sandaime Kazekage’s children are participating,” she observed easily, and the jounin beside her flicked his dark eye towards the children in question lazily. “Such friendly little things, aren’t they?”

“Hmm, the red head in particular,” the man stated, shrugging a shoulder. “His tenant would appear to make him… cuddly.”

Oh, great.

Because of course they decided to send the kid out to Konoha’s Chuunin Exam instead of saving him for their own. It had to be this Exam, that just happened to host their very own jinchuuriki, who happened to be on a genin team that she was rather very attached to.

Politics were stupid.

She hated them.

“That’s just… awesome.”

“Mm.”

“I mean, really… what are the odds?”

“Severely skewed whatever they are, at the very least.”

“Freaking Team Seven…”

Before they could say anything else, three rather familiar chakra signatures reached the top of the staircase from the first floor.

“Kaka-sensei! Asuka-nee-chan!” Naruto cried running forward to meet them, breaking off from whatever he’d been saying to his teammates before, a large grin on his face. “Sasuke got his ass kicked by a guy with really huge eyebrows and then he confessed his love to Sakura-chan!”

Asuka’s brows rose.

That sounded… interesting?

“Wow Sasuke,” she stated drolly, placing a hand on the over eager blonde’s messy head, practically feeling him vibrating in place. “You’ve finally admitted your feeling for her.”

The boy in question flushed at her words before glowering at her, the paleness of his features a great contrast from the pink beneath onyx eyes, hunching when she ran her free hand gently through his soft dark hair, shoving his hands into his pockets sulkily but not moving away from it.

Ah, so cute.

Yeah, he was just like a feral puffed up kitten. He just needed to be cajoled but she almost had him.

It looked like her experience in wrangling Uchiha’s was actually coming in handy. Thank the gods that Haruka had been just as antisocial and crabby as Sasuke was – they both had a core sweetness that made her want to cuddle them – despite the fact that his twin had been rather loud and obnoxious when he wasn’t around people who would look down on him for not being Uchiha stoic. The taller of her twins had been a little like Naruto, now that she thought about it.

Huh.

“Asuka-sensei,” the pink haired girl in question flushed in embarrassment, her gaze flickering to and from the Uchiha boy like crazy. “It wasn’t Sasuke-kun, but some older genin named Rock Lee!” her expression was something of horror, fingers twisted together in front of her as she held them up like when in prayer imploringly. “He wore green spandex and had a bowl cut.”

The emphasis on the hairstyle was more than a little hilarious.

Was that… was that worse than body clinging spandex?

There was something wrong with this girl’s priorities, if she was going to be completely honest.

“Oh.”

Kakashi snickered next to her just low enough that the genin couldn’t hear him at the strangled voice she managed as she tried to keep a straight face, teeth only gritted a little.

Ooh, her jaw ached.

While it was horrendously amusing, she didn’t want to hurt the girl’s growing confidence or feelings by busting a gut in front of her. Plus, it would probably hurt her poor, tired and aching body at this point, muscles strained and bruised enough that a good hard laugh would mess her up.

Hmm… when had she last had a good laugh, anyway? Picking at Zabuza didn’t really count, did it?

“How awful.

The girl nodded miserably, her expression helpless, jade eyes wide and sincere.

“You poor thing,” she mangled out.

Turning her face away, hiding it behind the jounin’s shoulder and covering her face with her hands, trying not to laugh out loud, Asuka wondered about the thought processes of a young kunoichi who had started out as a fangirl. Was it something that came with obsessing over your looks as a child, or was it just something inherent to Sakura herself?

Perhaps she’d never know. But… a bowl cut and spandex…

Ah, she thought, muscles unclenching from the post mission tension that had remained. That was just what I needed.

“Well, good luck brats,” Kakashi took over for her, something she was grateful for. “It’s a good thing all of you came, because you need a three-man cell to enter the Exam.”

Eh?!” was echoed by three different genin as he grabbed her arm in an easy grip and used shunshin to get them out of the room as she broke down into laughter.

Once they were ensconced in the viewing area, she found herself leaning against the wall, carefully pulling in breathes to calm herself down some, rubbing at her eyes and shaking her head at the hilarity that was the youths of today. Jeez, they didn’t even know that they were supposed to enter in a three-man cell? It was common knowledge! Even civilians knew what was going on with the Chuunin Exams! Oh, honestly, those kids would send her to an early grave one way or another, no doubt about it. Wow, her face hurt from all the laughing, oh, ow. This was great. There was no better entertainment than torturing those three genin, she was sure.

Oh, that was a very Kakashi thing to think, wasn’t it?

Dear gods, he was rubbing off on her…

Who knew? Perhaps she’d start carrying around her own porn and being irrefutably an asshole that was late to everything with the worst excuse for excuses in the history of excuses. Well, it wasn’t impossible that she would end up going gray early, at least, not with the kids being the trouble magnets that they were. Not that his hair was gray at all, it was actually a very nice cloudy kind of silver, especially around dawn and dusk, that was much softer than it looked…

Ah, no.

Nevermind.

He had old man hair.

The jounin in question sent her a suspicious and slightly confused but still displeased glance as if hearing her thoughts and she shook her head as she continued to chuckle.

She was not going to think about his hair. Not like that.

… Well, not within the village with the man right next to her, anyway.

Her limited amount of sanity was strained enough as it was already.

“What has brought you such mirth, my good kunoichi?”

Oh, kami damn it all, it had to be him, didn’t it?

Looking up into the face of Maito Gai, shiny hair, large eyebrows, sparkling grin, tight uncomfortable to look upon spandex that made her stomach clench with distaste – there some parts of shinobi she didn’t need to see when she wasn’t going to be intimate with them, and the Green Beast bared them all – Asuka found herself sniggering anew, sides aching from it.

Bowl cut indeed.

“Oh, just Kakashi’s most youthful genin team,” she said offhand, enjoying the widening of the jounin in question’s visible eye, and the way he hunched slightly and hid his masked face behind the sudden reappearance of an Icha Icha.

Despite how silly it was, it was a good evasion tool she’d found out. It was mostly used against the general populous who didn’t want to associate with a pervert, both civilian and shinobi alike. She’d seen him fend off his own fans – sadly, Ayame was included in this, the poor misguided girl – and while she thought it was more than a little amusing that the Legendary Copy-nin needed to hold off the masses from stripping him down and having their way with him in the street, she’d also felt for him a little since he took his privacy very seriously. Too bad for him she didn’t particularly care what his reading material of choice was and he couldn’t make her uncomfortable enough to either flee in embarrassment or to storm off in disgust… though to be honest, to her knowledge she had never actually given him reason for that to be done with her so she likely hadn’t gotten the full brunt of his dislike.

Actually, she was getting extremely curious about exactly how many of those things were printed, since she’d rarely seen him with the same issue twice. Jiraiya was busy, wasn’t he?

She was… she really was turning into Kakashi, wasn’t she?

Curious about porn books… what was the world coming to?

She needed better friends…

“Ah, yes, I have recently met my rival’s fair young team,” he nodded knowledgably, grin terrifying in its intensity. “One was sparring with my most YOUTHFUL student Rock Lee.”

“Hmm,” she managed before shaking her head, throat tight with amusement. “Well, it was nice seeing you Kakashi,” she nodded at Gai as she waved at her antisocial friend halfheartedly, getting a narrow eyed insulted stare in turn. “Maito-san.”

“Good day kunoichi-san!”

~*~

It wasn’t two days later, when she was sitting doing maintenance on her weapons, that Anko appeared in her apartment and stared at her with empty eyes, limbs trembling in some unnamable emotion. Chakra jittery and almost cold feeling where it was coiled tight and almost afraid away from Asuka, hiding.

There was only one person that could do this to Anko.

Orochimaru.

Setting down her weapons without speaking, she stood and moved over to the other kunoichi, sliding her hands beneath the trench coat her friend wore and pushing it off her shoulders so that it fell to the floor to pool at her feet. Her hands then traveled up from her shoulders and into her hair, carefully removing her hair band and massaging her scalp as she did so, before dropping her forehead to meet the other woman’s, fluttering her chakra smoothly over her friend to try and sooth her. She’d had to pull Anko out of enough panic attacks, enough moments of shock to have this be just about routine now, ever since a clusterfuck of a mission when the snake summoner had been a chuunin and the jounin in charge had been a prick.

And she hadn’t been able to get rid of the woman since.

“He… he’s here Asuka,” she breathed harshly, light brown eyes wide as they looked up at her, breath fanning hotly over her features. “He’s here and I don’t know what to do.”

Despite the fact that those words sent a spike of fear through her, the chuunin slid one hand from her friend’s hair and pressed it to the side of her face, caressing her jawline with fingertips for a moment before pulling back and shifting just enough to pull off her shirt, gratified when those trembling eyes grew heated as she stood there in only shorts and a chest band. Hands cunning from interrogation touched her hips, before smoothing up her sides to tickle the edges of the material strapping down her breasts, and Asuka sighed at the contact, gaze never leaving her vulnerable friend’s face.

Anko didn’t respond well to words.

Empty platitudes, she called them. Orochimaru was cunning and his wit and way with words had twisted Anko up inside, so she just… couldn’t quite trust what people say without a coinciding action. It was why the woman was stumbling after Ibiki, a man who rarely spoke when he didn’t need to, why she’d fallen half in love with half the Aburame she’d ever met, had had an off again on again relationship with Hyuuga Misako.

Words were things that wouldn’t help her, not here and now.

Asuka wasn’t particularly good with them, anyway.

“If you don’t know what to do,” she murmured, callused hands trailing down towards her friend’s skirt and plucking at the buckle to undue it, letting it fall to the ground with the coat, slowly shifting her hands to remove the mesh shirt by pulling it over the receptive Anko’s head. “Then do me.”

Nothing that the chuunin said would get to the tokujo right now, and inaction would simply hype Anko up further and make her more likely to make mistakes when confronted with the legendary man who had once been her sensei. Asuka couldn’t use words, wasn’t good with them in the way other people could be.

She was, however, good with her body.

~*~

Anko had never been so speechless in her life.

“Asuka, you – you,” she raked her hand through her bangs, the only part of her hair down the morning after they’d had sex and she’d redressed in something of a daze after a quick shower. “You never told me you were a sex goddess!”

Copper brown brows rose in astonishment, the lightly freckled woman seated before her looking a little taken aback.

“I wasn’t aware that I was,” she commented wryly into her cup of tea, obviously a little confused at her friend’s continuous comments.

Of course, her chakra reserves were larger than Anko’s were by a bit, and more chakra meant more physical stamina, which lead to longer bouts of sex, but that was just par for the course, wasn’t it? As someone who had four or five times more active of a sex life than Asuka did, Anko should definitely not have been shocked by a tumble with her friend.

The tokujo made a noise of frustration as she stared at her half-dressed friend, taking in the rare, messy single braid that was flung over one shoulder, the loose short sleeved shirt and the black boy short underwear that she wore, her legs crossed at the knee. The bronze haired chuunin had a very pleased expression on her face, like one would have after a good massage or a trip to the onsen and Anko just didn’t understand it. They had kept at it for hours the night before, into the early morning, and the chuunin only looked like she’d rolled out of bed after a pleasant night’s sleep. She didn’t feel completely rung out and didn’t have to suppress groans or catches in her breath as her clothes brushed over sensitive nipples, ribs, or hips, didn’t have to stop herself from squirming when a step jarred her crotch. She wasn’t so aware of her skin that she could feel the air tingling over it, felt her heartbeat in hickies and the fine pink trails of dragged fingernails and callus against soft flesh.

She also, much to Anko’s embarrassment and frustration, hadn’t had almost a dozen mind blowing orgasms, either.

So, it was plain to see that the woman was a sexual fiend – which, technically she had known, considering what her relationship with those twins of hers when they’d been alive had been – and that she was clearly holding out on the rest of the ninja community.

“You need to have sex with more people!”

Anko spoke her say with an accusingly pointed finger, the expression on her face twitching and contorting when she said what she wasn’t planning on saying what she had said in quite that manner. But, whatever.

That hadn’t come out the way she wanted it to, but it got her point across.

It would be for the good of Konoha!

“…Uh huh.”

The chuunin wasn’t quite sure that Anko was sane, a good portion of the time, and this was one of those where she was rather more than certain that she wasn’t. She glanced at the clock with idle gaze, taking a sip of her drink calmly. Asuka was just going to ignore this whole thing as an unfortunate trauma induced thing and the stress of Orochimaru being around.

“Don’t you have to work today?”

Once the tokujo glanced at the clock, she paled and shrieked before disappearing in a quick shunshin, leaving leaves scattered across the floor that the green eye kunoichi sighed wearily at the thought of sweeping up. Honestly, couldn’t people at least remember not to leave foliage when disappearing from another person’s home?

At least Shisui had known not to leave a mess behind.

Ah, and now she had a headache.

~*~

That little bastard!

The next time she saw Kakashi, she whapped him hard enough on the back of the head that her palm smarted sharply before he could say anything, causing him to give her his single wide eye stare, the jounin surrounding them giving her equally if not more emphatic looks of shock as well. The hair that had sprung back up from her assault had been surprisingly soft and thick, tickling around her calluses where the softer skin crept, such as between her fingers and the underside of her knuckles, the warmth of his scalp transferring into her hand. It wasn’t every day you saw someone – successfully, that is, there were a number of times when the Green Beast had attempted – assault the Copy-nin, especially so brazenly, where there were a number of people to witness it, with the man giving no sign of retaliation, just standing staring at her in astonishment.

“You are such a dick,” she scowled at him, brows drawn down in displeasure, features slightly pinched with upset.

“Eh?” the Copy-nin looked bewildered, reaching up to rub at the back of his head carefully, never taking his wary eye off of her. “What did I do?”

“Why were you so rude to Iruka-san?” she smacked him in the arm not lifted towards his head, causing him to hunch his shoulders at her scolding. “There was no need for it!”

That dark eye looked wild with lack of social understanding and confusion, and she felt her chest pinch at the idea that perhaps he had never really thought about how his words might sound to someone who didn’t know how to translate asshole. That no one had ever taught him the difference between social courteousness and stating a blunt, perhaps harsh opinion.

It was something that they had in common, but she apparently had a better handle on her temper, as well as her mouth.

Which was ironic, considering which one of them literally covered their mouth all of the time.

“Honestly, did you really ask him what a chuunin would know about a jounin-sensei’s prerogative?”

Frankly, the man could be ridiculously troublesome.

When she’d heard the unhappy mutterings of her fellow chuunin on her way to the stadium to wait the last half hour until the genin were brought forth for the first round of one on one battles, she’d been disbelieving, until she’d seen the ever polite Umino Iruka walk up to the two unhappy gossips with pale clenched lips and unhappiness in his eyes and asked them civilly to stop speaking about him. That expression on the normally kind, warm, open faced chuunin-sensei had sealed the nail on the silver haired jounin’s coffin. When she’d greeted the darker skinned man, he hadn’t even given her his usual blush, only looked faintly mortified, a little devastated, something she was sure was because it was known that she was an acquaintance of Kakashi’s, and his expression had withdrawn at the fact that she’d heard the rumors from such people.

It was…

Okay, so, the steadiness of Umino Iruka was perhaps one of the most unspoken but widely appreciated facts of the Mission Office. He had the balls, heart, and skill to deal with pretty much any post mission nonsense, and he was always willing to lend an ear or shoulder when it was needed. Always a bit of kindness even for those who were rude to him. To those who felt that they didn’t deserve it but would take thankful advantage of his kindness either way, because otherwise it was just… just too difficult to keep going, with everything piling down on you and spilling up like bile from below.

The fact that Kakashi had damaged that certainty was… it was awful, because while Asuka had never taken that offered comfort and companionship, the fact that it was there at all was reassuring. Was soothing.

Iruka had confirmed that the two had had a verbal altercation, but wouldn’t really say more, seeming very tired and more than a little stressed, features unhappily drained. She could fill in the blanks though, and the way her expression had darkened had seemed to alarm the other High chuunin something awful, especially when she lashed out at the two gossiping nameless Low ranks with a very direct bout of Killing Intent – she’d been a little surprised at her precision, but had been ultimately pleased with the outcome – sending them skittering like frightened rats down the hallway. Vermin like that needed to be put in its proverbial place every once in a while. Taking pleasure out of another’s misfortune… despicable.

Even as something grateful had bloomed in large, doe eyed brown orbs where he stood, she was softly stating that she was going to have a very nice talk with the Copy-nin about manners and common decency.

The fact was, that she was a little saddened that she hadn’t gotten to see that amusing blush, and that just made her all the more unhappy, because she liked Iruka. He was cute and kind and intelligent. Someone that was necessary to Konoha.

She was also a little disappointed in her jounin friend.

And perhaps a little… worried.

It… she’d thought him above that kind of thing.

There was… she didn’t… he hadn’t seemed to care for rank, before.

Not with her or…

Was she wrong?

She really hoped not.

If he did she really had no idea what she would do.

Could do.

“Ah,” the man shifted guiltily, dark eye lowering to look at the floor for a moment.

His chakra shifted nervously beneath his skin and her proximity was the only reason she felt the shy awkwardness of his reach and then withdrawal as he sought comfort. She didn’t even think he was aware of it, and that niggled against her resolve.

“Sorry, I forgot.”

She made a sound of frustration and hit his arm again, this time harder, he didn’t seem to know what to do about the situation, so he just continued to stare at her wildly, hunching in on himself a little more in subconscious disquiet.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m a chuunin,” though it takes a weight I’m a little ashamed and embarrassed to have off my chest that he doesn’t think of me like I’m… less. “Though the fact that you forgot does hint as to the state of your brain, you ridiculous man.”

She felt lighter even as she noted the way that several pairs of jounin eyes widened at her, glazed with understanding and then they sent looks of incredulity towards the famous jounin. Argh, so what if he was talking to a chuunin? Gods, jounin could be so frustrating!

“It matters that you humiliated my friend and now no one will leave him alone about it. Do you know how many people are catcalling him in the street about how Sharingan no Kakashi, the famous Copy Cat Ninja, thinks that he’s inadequate? That he doesn’t know what he’s doing as a sensei? Do you have any idea how unruly his class has gotten because his kids are starting to lose respect for him, what with their parents’ gossip because you had a fit of ‘let’s be a huge jackass’?”

As she’d torn him a new one, he slowly hunched more and more in on himself, something dark swimming in his thunderstorm gray-blue eye as he looked back at her with a solemn unhappiness. She almost felt bad about saying things the way she was – she did, there was no almost about it – but she wouldn’t back down.

Not until she’d said her piece.

“Well,” his voice was oddly subdued. “I guess I should apologize.”

“Yes,” she confirmed, nodding once decisively, before settling in next to him to wait with a sigh, shoulders slumping. “You should. Publicly.

She side eyed his forlorn form and drooped a little more, her posture mimicking his without thought in her sudden onset of tiredness, her ire fading from her mind. While she had never relished causing someone emotional turmoil or enjoyed talking someone down when they needed a stern talking to, she felt doubly horrible for making her jounin friend so unhappy and introspective in the way that spoke of darkness and a past she really didn’t know anything about… especially considering the circumstances.

“But it can wait,” her brows furrowed with worry as she looked at his masked face, voice soft, almost inaudible even from the distance of the inch they stood apart, swallowing passed the thickness in her throat. “Do you know how Sasuke is?”

Hearing from Anko that Orochimaru had been after the youngest Uchiha had made her twitchy and angry, but mostly afraid and worried. The angriest little Uchiha was one of her kids, and she’d hate for anything to happen to him because of that pervert wanting a freaking doujustu. Or whatever other freaky weird jutsu he wanted to do that involved a prepubescent boy and a fifty something year old man with a snake fetish.

That single dark eye deepened, his expression turning serious behind his mask as he shook his head negatively even as he stood straighter, something of his usual confidence returning to his lazy slouch, and she found herself pressing her arm against his to feel his heat and to comfort herself. If there was one thing that she could say about the dark eyed man beside her, it was that there was something reassuring about him despite his complete lack of understanding when it came to both interpreting feelings and showing emotion at all. The tight coil of always ready muscle that she could feel radiating heat and a steady, controlled blanket of chakra that just reached passed his skin to where she could feel it, how very immovable he felt, how solid, brought to mind a defense that was truly unnecessary because there was nothing big enough that his offense couldn’t remove.

It gave sweet thoughts, because he didn’t even seem to notice.

The buzzing of his chakra against her own eased some of the tension she’d been carrying around with her since she’d spoken with her T & I friend, and her own bubbled back unconsciously to try and sooth, the whipcord tight muscle in his arm loosening against her own ever-so slightly as the burden halved at the subconscious reminder of not alone.

They waited together in silence for the genin to arrive.

~*~

The grim moment when Sasuke was called first to the floor shattered when Naruto shouted out.

It was to be expected, but she couldn’t help the near silent groan she released and her taller friend merely patted her lightly on the arm in commiserating, encouraging, if amused consolation.

“Ah! Asuka-nee-chan! Kaka-sensei! You came!” there was obvious delight in his words as he ran over to her, throwing his arms around her waist and causing her to stumble slightly, only to be steadied by the form of the boy’s jounin-sensei behind her. Wide blue eyes crinkled a little as he beamed up at them. “Are you going to watch me fight? Are you, are you?!”

“No,” she stated dryly, ruffling his dirty hair with one hand and wrapping her other arm around his shoulders. Guh, she needed to bathe as soon as this was over; icky, icky boy sweat. That was not something she was nostalgic about from her childhood. “I just came to say hi because why in the world would I watch the Chuunin Exams? It’s not like I know anybody competing in them, after all. Such a waste of my time, really. Ridiculous.”

He stared at her in confusion for a moment, and she heard some other genin palm his face before the blonde finally comprehended her sarcasm.

“Hey! Were you picking on me?” he sounded incredulous, as if no one had ever done that to him before, but his expression was delighted and she despaired ever understanding this boy.

She sent over a slightly resigned look to his jounin-sensei over her shoulder, who returned it with a despondent sigh and a slight shrug that shifted her where she leaned against him just a little. Sarcasm was all but lost on this one.

And it was her main conversation tool, too…

“Of course she was!”

The dulcet tones of the angry kunoichi on the team came from behind him, and Asuka found herself automatically running her eyes over the pink haired girl, taking in her injuries with distaste and clear unhappiness. The girl had taken a beating and the chuunin was not happy with that fact, and was put out with the additional condition that she couldn’t even run any iryō-ninjutsu over her until after the genin had competed in this Task.

“Asuka-sensei would come to watch Sasuke-kun and me even if you weren’t here.”

Well, not that they could even compete at all without all three of them…

But well, semantics. Apparently.

It warmed the chuunin’s heart that the young kunoichi made no mention of her crushes involvement in that cutesy, devoted – rather awkward for everyone involved – tone that she had. She’d gotten much better at keeping it under wraps, and the Uchiha survivor had even started to speak to her civilly now that she wasn’t fangirling all over him. It didn’t mean that the horrifyingly exasperating crush of hers wasn’t obvious and constant in the way that breathing was to everyone and possibly venereal diseases were to medics, but it was certainly better.

After meeting her warmed green eyes to signal motion, the jounin who had been standing near her meandered over to his remaining student to speak quietly, the look in Sasuke’s eyes was slightly hunted, more than a little nervous, despite the way that he tried to hide it, and that tense form relaxed just slightly when the man placed his hand on the youth’s shoulder as he spoke, taking some form of comfort from it. Asuka felt her brows draw together in worry despite the fact that she knew the Cursed Seal would be mitigated somewhat after her pretty-boy genin finished with his round and she just hoped he remembered not to use chakra, because she didn’t want him to burn away his personality.

He was only just starting to come into his own…

“Eeeeeeh? Sakura-chan, that’s so mean!”

“Don’t be dumb, Naruto! Of course Asuka-sensei would come to see us! Who do you think she is?”

“Well, yeah, but –”

“And Kaka-sensei? Like he would forget or not come to see us either!”

“Maa, calm down, Sakura.”

“Hai, Asuka-sensei…”

Feeling the gazes of several genin, the green eyed woman looked up from the amusing display with a half lidded unconsciously sharpened by the whole Snake situation gaze, causing several of the kids present to straighten to something like attention as she examined them. After a moment she arched an unimpressed eyebrow without thought, before looking over the other three jounin sensei that she knew the names of, but only really knew the Hokage’s son on a slightly friendly level. She’d been on a couple of missions with the only Wind user with any real skill in Konoha since the terrible sacrifice of the Yondaime, and they got on well enough, since he was a rather laid back guy when it came to things other than the Sandaime and whatever argument they were in. Well, that and Kurenai. They’d been known to have a drink together on occasion after a mission or when they ran into each other, but their conversations never strayed from techniques or stratagem at all in the way it did with those they actually sought out to spend time with.

Asuma looked a little bit like he’d been mule kicked, actually, and that probably had something to do with the sulky, tired looking Nara that stood before him, shoulders hunched much like how Kakashi normally positioned himself, and lips drawn down at the corners, expression distinctly unimpressed or interested. There was Inoichi’s kid yammering on about something to the timid looking Akimichi who was snacking on potato chips like there was no tomorrow looking like he was both content and nervous at the same time. Something fond tickled in Asuka’s belly at the sight of the team made up of the children of some of Konoha’s most influential and powerful shinobi Clans.

While Yamanaka could be irritating when they got obsessive, she’d never really had any problems with any of their Clans people.

She liked Akimichi’s, they were polite and generally thoughtlessly kind. She’d never once seen an Akimichi be discourteous or cruel outside of battle, and even then it was a rare occurrence that depended on the viciousness of the opponent. They were the sweetest Clan she’d ever had the chance to meet, and she was glad that they were in charge of the majority of the restaurants and food related shops in Konoha. Sometimes a friendly face was more filling than even the best tasting foods after a long, tiring mission, and both at the same time? That, that was priceless.

Nara were hilarious, and oddly dense when it came to when someone expressed interest in them.

The other adult kunoichi was quietly conversing with her Hyuuga student, her features gentle and kind whilst the girl was nodding slightly and fiddling with her fingers nervously, shoulders tightly curved with nerves and defensiveness, causing the chuunin to sigh internally. Clan shit, huh. An Inuzuka seemed to be trying to get a rise out of his Aburame teammate, and the boy in question looked far too amused to her trained eye to actually be ignoring him as the other Clan boy seemed to think he was.

He was so playing that kid, and at least the puppy knew it.

She’d had a… liaison of a sorts with an Aburame a few years before and he had been delightfully shy about the whole thing, and terribly nervous about how she would react to his kikaichu and the entrances they had burrowed into his body in random places to reach his chakra network. She hadn’t particularly found them attractive but they hadn’t been repulsive or disturbing either. They were a part of him, a tool of his ninja trade and his family legacy; nothing about that was disgusting. It had been an interesting experience exploring the tiny holes and being greeted by little bugs that would wave tiny antennae at her, some of them crawling out almost as shy as their wielder in touching her skin. They had snacked on her chakra a little, the feeling like kittens licking at her fingertips, and despite the sputtering and red faced stilted apologies from Aki – the Aburame she’d been sleeping with – she wasn’t upset, rather she was more fascinated than anything else.

Hmm, perhaps she should visit him again sometime, just to check up on him. Last she’d seen him for drinks or something had been almost a year ago and he was always a pleasant person to be around, and he was generally good for a spar or two when he had the time when not on missions. He’d been promoted to jounin, hadn’t he? She couldn’t quite remember, but it wouldn’t be remiss to check in with him and see how he was doing.

With Inuzuka though, their loud personalities – the entire freaking Clan was too much – had put her off, no matter how much she loved canines in general she just couldn’t deal with that level of noise or rowdiness for any extended amount of time except for on a mission where she couldn’t avoid it. It wasn’t that she hated them or anything, it was just… she was an introverted person by nature, and all of the exuberance, well.

It was tiring.

The puppy wasn’t nearly as cute as Pakkun, but she found her fingers twitching a little anyway.

Of course, the Green Beast was crying joyously with his – oh, wow, Sakura had been right, he was just a little piece of Gai, wasn’t he? – likeminded student, while the other two strategically pretended that they had no idea who it was they were standing with. Another Hyuuga, and what looked the girl who worked at one of the weapon shops in town, but she couldn’t be sure, since she so rarely gave much attention to anyone but the owners themselves when she went in.

Perhaps rude, but if she tried to remember every face she ran into, she’d go nuts.

A light touch between her shoulder blades brought her out of her brief examination of the other adults and she glanced over and up at the silver haired jounin for a moment, her lips quirking reflexively, before looking to the arena, her lips compressing slightly as she examined the man from Konoha that her genin was supposed to be fighting against. She trailed her eyes across the vaguely familiar form of Akadō Yorui, and felt something niggling in the back of her mind as the combat started, her eyes slowly narrowing as she continued to do so throughout the fight. Without thought, she half leaned on the railing, pressing her shoulder into the man beside hers’ side comfortably as she did so, his elbow falling into the crook between shoulder and breast as he shifted to get more comfortable.

She’d met Yorui, had even led him on missions on occasion, and there was something… off, about him. Mostly, it was the fact that he was using an ability that she’d never seen him utilize in the past, one that he definitely would have taken advantage of before had he known it and would take some time to master to this extent. His taijutsu was also rather different than before, a strangely altered form of the Konoha Basic that she’d never previously seen, and she distinctly remembered there being a –

Yep.

So that was missing.

His shirt shifted just enough for her to catch a glimpse of his shoulder. His noticeably scar free shoulder. She had watched a rogue nin shove a kunai through the meat of that shoulder, and there had definitely been an ugly, angry red scar on his skin there. And even if she hadn’t really seen much of him in perhaps six months since that mission together, she was certain that the scar tissue wouldn’t have dissipated so quickly, seeing as she still had a scar from that same mission, and her own wound had caused a lot less damage.

Not unless he’d had the Slug Princess work on him, which ha.

Not happening.

Now that she thought about it, a number of the other’s who’d been on that mission had had accidents of late; some were forever immortalized on the Memorial Stone. Imori was still in rehabilitation, and Tatsu almost had to have his leg amputated recently from a border trap, causing him to contemplate retiring from the service to be with his family, or to be taken off of active duty. A tough decision all around, to be sure.

She was the only one left who hadn’t been critically injured, and she had the creeping feeling that this fact had something to do with her increasingly frequent companionship with the Copy-nin. It would be hard to cause her damage in his company, and it was becoming common knowledge that they worked with his genin together, something that only a while before had made her a little uncomfortable, but she took some comfort in that moment. If there was one thing she could count on the jounin for, it was if the shit hit the fan, he would help to defend her against whatever was thrown at her, because he was as loyal a Konoha shinobi as they came.

Plus, she liked to think that she was perhaps a little important to him.

Her features felt suddenly pale, skin clammy with realization as to what this could mean. Sasuke was waning, and his opponent – an enemy of Konoha – seemed to be draining his chakra, causing the force of the Cursed Seal to bear down on the poor boy’s mind and will. His body wouldn’t hold out for long, and she knew from Anko that the weaker you became physically the harder it was to resist the Seal’s draw, and that boy didn’t have nearly the willpower or experience that Anko had had, as she’d been older and nearly a chuunin when she’d received the mark. Even then, the woman had lost chunks of herself to the Seal, her personality warped beyond what it had once been by the burden.

Orochimaru had done this.

Infiltrated Konoha.

The prickling of terror that shimmered over her spine was quickly smothered with a deep, careful breath.

“Asuka?” Kakashi murmured softly, questioning, his dark gaze regarding her out of the corner of his eye, their other two genin off arguing with other genin about something. “Is something the matter?”

Yes. There were many things wrong.

“That,” she murmured softly, lips tight, expression grim, muscles tense. “Is not Akadō Yoroi.”

She felt the sudden, subtle sharpening of the attention of the numerous jounin-sensei with which she stood, and her pale haired friend slumped beside her just a bit more, gaze dark.

“It will keep,” she stated suddenly, straitening and rolling her shoulders, suddenly all business, not a sign of her previous tension in anything except for the way she absently reached out to press her hand against the railing, knuckles creaking enough so that she had to consciously relax them. A firm arm pressed against her side easily as the man beside her shifted lazily, a boost in her confidence and the feeling of safety giving her the room she needed to breathe. “For now, we watch.”

It would have to wait.

Chapter Text

It was both harder and easier to wait it out than she’d thought.

Knowing that if she somehow gave a sign that they knew this was an infiltrator kept her in check, despite how worried she was about Sasuke. If things got out of control, she knew that Hayate could handle it, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t feel her anticipation zinging under her skin with tension.

After the match with the definitely not Yorui, Kakashi had taken away the young Uchiha to have the Cursed Seal as Sealed off as possible. Of course, that wasn’t before she got a hug in and enveloped him in her chakra to smother the fear stink that covered him, making tiny tense muscles relax a little. Lightning chakra hung like static in a veil around the two, Kakashi and Sasuke, their shared – though the Uchiha’s wasn’t as strong – affinity making the synchronization enough to almost taste. A quick look at Naruto and Sakura had kept the other two genin from accosting their teammate, but there really wasn’t the time for the kind of dramatics that the kids preferred.

Later, it would come later.

After the Seal was dealt with.

Well, as best they could without a Seal Master around to take care of it – there was no telling the next time that Jiraiya would be in the village – and she’d stayed behind to look after the children as Sakura looked on worriedly. While she wanted to be moving, to do something about the intruders in their midst, she knew that she couldn’t.

Not when it meant leaving the kids undefended.

As the next two matches blew by like a blur before her eyes, with a win for Konoha and one for Sand – she had never worked with Misumi before, but since one member of that team was compromised, she didn’t know what to think – she felt a little tense and off kilter, but held together as best she could for the genin that remained to her.

Then it was suddenly Sakura’s time to compete, going up against Inoichi’s girl, Ino.

Asuka crouched down beside the girl, who turned to her with determined, if slightly uncertain eyes and bit her lip, the Fire in her eyes no dimmer than the chuunin had ever seen it before. She was bruised and battered, something both sharp and soft in her eyes, a blade that wasn’t quite out of the sheath, still a little more silk than steel.

To be honest, the chuunin thought that Sakura had never been prettier, coming into her own as she was.

“You’ll do fine,” she assured, smiling slightly, running one hand over the girl’s shorter hair. Her brow furrowed in contemplation before she cocked a crooked grin at her female genin. “You know, I think I like this short hair.”

“You do?” jade eyes blinked in surprise, attention diverted from whatever nerves were running under her skin. “Really?”

She reached a hand up shyly to touch the cut, and the woman grabbed her hand to squeeze it for a moment in reassurance.

“I do,” she stated firmly, smiling and standing. “It suits you. You look taller, stronger.”

“Yeah?” a tiny, hesitant but pleased smile. “You think so?”

“I know so,” the chuunin’s eyes softened. “Do your best, Sakura.”

“Hai, Asuka-sensei!”

With that, the girl hurried down to the arena Naruto hollering his encouragement after her as she did so.

“Ah, Nagisa-san?” she heard the jounin kunoichi from nearby query as she approached her. “I hear you’ve been taking up time with Kakashi’s genin team?”

The chuunin was mildly surprised at her internal territorial spike of thought, her chakra roiling at some implied, vague insult.

For a moment, her immediate thought had been that the kids were their genin team.

How embarrassing.

“Yes, Yūhi-san,” she returned coolly, brow cocked. “I am working with them.”

She really hoped that the woman wasn’t going to go on one of her judgmental rants about ability and mentality – usually reserved for jounin who slid by with minimal effort – because then she would have to shut her down in front of her genin team, and that would just humiliate the poor woman. Not to mention it would put Asuma on the offensive for harming his poor wilting flower – if there was anything that the female jounin wasn’t, it was a wilting anything, because a genjutsu mistress was nasty, even if she wore ridiculous bandages like a fashion statement – and then Asuka would never hear the end of it, because that Sarutobi man could hold a grudge like nobody’s business. Something that his father could attest to.

The poor Sandaime, his son was still throwing such a hissy fit…

“I understand that you must have the urge to ingratiate yourself to a jounin –” Oh, the chuunin felt herself think faintly, her gaze sharpening, even as she turned away to look back down at the kunoichi she was helping to train. Did she really just say that? Really? Here, now? Ah, and she’s apparently still talking. “– But to bring the children into this! Nagisa-san, are you listening?”

“No,” she stated blankly, grimacing a little as Sakura stumbled after a clash of kunai.

When there was a little girl who needed her attention she definitely wasn’t going to deal with that classist bullshit, especially not in front of their kids, who were so very impressionable.

The two girls were pretty evenly matched, both worryingly starting to gain muscle mass after dieting, but still not up to par in chuunin type skill sets.

Well, she’d just have to find out the girl’s elemental affinity, and if it wasn’t something she could help with, shove her off onto Kakashi – no matter the wide eyed pleading he would subject her to, the horribly lazy bastard – to widen her repertoire. It wasn’t as if she were the difficult child, she picked up chakra exercises and theory like Naruto did cup ramen and Sasuke did cherry tomatoes. Honestly, it was more surprising that the blonde girl, being a Yamanaka didn’t have more in the way of jutsu knowledge, but since the two had been best friends, they likely had a similar mindset and had recently had the fangirl being beaten out of them. It was a little odd that a ninja family hadn’t been taking care of their Clan Head’s daughter in the nutritional sense, but considering their interests were in psychology – almost all of the Yamanaka’s that she knew were in T & I – there was perhaps something more in play there.

The affronted silence behind her lasted long enough for the genin girl to be caught by the Mind Body Switch, and for Naruto to yell out encouragement to his teammate and for the girl to free herself with a strange fluctuation of chakra – odd that it reminded her of Juli-chan – before the two charged at each other and knocked themselves unconscious.

Allowing a small smile to curl onto her lips, she shook her head with fond exasperation.

The girl was going to be moping for weeks about how she’d almost won against her rival in love, and of course it was going to be Asuka’s job to straighten her out and comfort her. Honestly, she’d never met a man who was lazier than the Hatake jounin, not even a Nara.

Not that she knew many Nara that well, though. Well, she'd eyed the Commander’s well toned backside a few times, just like any other red-blooded nin with an interest, but having a few conversations with the man didn't mean that she understood his Clan.

Very rarely was she sent out with a Nara, as they generally took more high profile missions, the demand of higher rank needing that kind of genius touch.

As she was readying herself to leap down and grab her student, the other kunoichi – who had stopped speaking to her with something like affront – took hold of her upper arm, tried to turn her by force. Of course, this was only to find her wine red eyes meeting with flinty, hard, flat emeralds, unable to shift the immobile other woman.

I am not in the mood to deal with your bullshit right now.

Without looking down, it was clear that the jounin still noted the rock hard muscle beneath the black, clinging fabric beneath her hand, the way it shifted minutely with very unhappy, displeased promise. If there was one thing that the chuunin was confident in, it was that she was better at close quarters combat than the genjutsu mistress that was trying to restrain her from going down to retrieve her unconscious student. It was in her nature as a frontline kunoichi to be built like a brick shithouse, to be able to take pretty much anything that was thrown at her and dish it back, and she had only gotten stronger training with a jounin Elite such as Kakashi.

It was hard for Asuka to pull back the instinctive inclination to break the woman’s hand for grabbing her so familiarly and with a rather obvious amount of – hopefully – unintentional Negative Intent involved as well, but she managed it.

The kids had at least helped her grow more patient.

While fighting a jounin would be tricky, and genjutsu specialists were a pain full of psychological trauma and freaking personality ticks, she’d known more Uchiha than most, and trained with them even more than most. And Chitose had been phenomenal at genjutsu.

Even to the last …

Asuma could vaguely be seen in the background with a wincing expression on his normally laid back features, a hand rising towards his face as if to cover his eyes. Apparently he didn’t want to see the wreck that could happen before him in the form of a kunoichi death match.

“Please release me,” the chuunin requested politely, her tone perfectly balanced between order and query.

It wouldn’t do to actually order around someone who was technically of higher rank than she was, especially if the woman ended up listening to her. She did not want to deal with that kind of backlash again, especially when there were more important things to be paying attention to.

Kurenai did so immediately, apparently before she’d even fully processed the words, taking a step back as the chuunin jumped down to easily lift up the pink haired kunoichi in a gentle hold, keeping the girl’s head carefully propped against her shoulder as she jumped back up to the banister to give her an instinctive if unneeded look over with medical jutsu. As the jinchuuriki moved over to his teammate’s side with worry, he gave Kurenai a mistrustful eye, squinting sky blue eyes at her in suspicion and something like dislike as he did so, crowding against the younger woman’s side as she ran a simple diagnostic jutsu over the girl. The boy was hopelessly protective of his teammates, especially after the incident with Haku giving the illusion that Sasuke was dead, and apparently that was beginning to spread out towards his two sensei as well, if the amusing way he was glowering at the other woman was of any indication.

For such a loud idiot, he could be surprisingly endearing.

“Is Sakura-chan going to be okay, Asuka-nee-chan?”

“Yes, yes, she’ll be fine, you don’t need to worry. It’s just a knock to the head and some simple chakra exhaustion,” the boy’s mouth opened, and his eyes widened in something that precluded shouting, so she spoke quickly. “Nothing like the exhaustion that Kakashi experienced during his bout with Zabuza, so don’t worry. It is very rare for someone to experience chakra exhaustion to such extents as he did outside of life or death situations,” which technically, the encounter with the missing-nin could be considered as at the time. Afterwards, well… “After so long in the Forest of Death and getting a bit banged up, she’d just low on chakra and she doesn’t have much to start with. She just needs some sleep and snacks, that’s all.”

“Oh, okay. Just like training then!” he grinned when she ran her suddenly free hands over his head and mussed his already messy golden spikes, before he danced away with slightly pinked cheeks, sticking his tongue out at her. “Stop picking on me, Nee-chan!”

She snorted after arranging the girl into a more comfortable position and standing, giving the boy an amused smirk, just as Kakashi used shunshin to appear before her. Relief slithered from her hara out towards the rest of her limbs and suddenly it was easier to breath than before, her heart not quite so enclosed by her lungs. The jounin gave his female genin a cursory glance before looking to the chuunin and she just waved her hand to show it was nothing serious, even whilst she was reaching out and mussing up the boy’s hair again the man was flicking the boy in the ear and getting a squawk in response.

“Just tired,” she explained, as they shifted over towards the railing again, as something of a unit, the boy a little in front and in the middle, her hand still on his head, the man brushing up against her side casually. “And the angriest little Uchiha?”

“Hmm.”

That dark eye slanted over towards where Kurenai was standing in something like outrage, her genin were giving her odd looks as the jounin woman’s cheeks pinked with indignation, her red eyes still focused the chuunin who had given her insult. Asuma seemed to be trying to stifle a burgeoning headache by pinching the bridge of his nose with one hand and fumbling for a cigarette with the other, his Nara student giving him sympathetic if darkly amused looks.

It was strange, that Yuhi Kurenai, who was normally very polite and interested in equal treatment amongst the ranks, had taken offense to Asuka and her relationship, or lack thereof, with Kakashi and the rest of Team Seven.

But what did she know?

She was only a chuunin after all.

“He’s in the hospital,” the tiniest twitch of his hand out of sight to anyone but her signaled that the boy was under guard, which caused her brows to furrow and lips to pinch for a moment. For him to be under guard so soon… there must have been an altercation – she paled at the thought Orochimaru being anywhere near any of her boys or Sakura – because the only guards available during the Exams would be ANBU. “Asleep.”

Wait, did she just call Kakashi one of her boys?

Oh dear…

“You do the,” she wiggled her fingers around her neck a little ridiculously, causing him to roll his eye heavenwards as if for patience. “ Thing?”

“Yes,” he returned long sufferingly before his fingers twitched again to signal package delivered. “I did the… thing.”

That was why he’d been gone so long, he’d gone to drop off her hastily chakra printed report scroll on Akadō Yoroi’s identity to Intelligence, to let them know that they had been infiltrated. It wasn’t unlikely that as soon as the package had been delivered, the man had been hauled into Interrogation to be milked for everything he had. Well, as least Anko would have someone to vent her frustrations on. She’d put down her suspicions concerning Orochimaru’s involvement as well, but it was only supposition, so there was very little she thought would come of it, even if her gut told her that she was right in her theories.

“Well, Sakura did rather well, I must say,” the woman continued, allowing the boy to wriggle under her arm against her side to watch the next match, one between another set of kunoichi, this time the girl from Sand and one of the Green Beast’s students. “Especially since she’s only been doing light weight training for a few weeks. Her taijutsu has certainly improved, but we should broaden her ninjutsu to oh, I don’t know,” she tapped a finger against her lips and adopted a thoughtful pose before sending him a wry glance. “Maybe a bit more than E-ranked jutsu.”

“Ah,” the light haired man seemed to come to the same realization she had, eye blinking at her as he did so, peripherally watching the match below, which bore an impressive amount of weapon Sealing, and Wind natured chakra. “That’s right.”

“Yeah,” she quirked her own grin at him for his bewildered eye smile. “I forgot that she doesn’t know any as well, what with the boys throwing them around like candy,” she pulled on Naruto’s cheek idly, something he barely seemed to notice, but to squirm his face away and throw her an unseen outraged look while rubbing at it before proceeding to forget it and watch the match. “Even if bright eyes here only knows the one, it still counts. The fact that she’s still managed to keep up is a testament to her mind.”

“The best of the three, it is.”

Wincing at the brutal assault from the Sand kunoichi, Asuka mused that the genin from their own village was rather skilled, she had just had a grotesquely horrible matchup, especially considering the fact that it would appear that no one had taught the girl how to use chakra strings to pull her weapons back to her, a skill that a weapons mistress who only used one tool should know, and doubly important for one who used them as the girl appeared to. Honestly, she should perhaps invest in some explosive tags as well, to mix them in amongst her smattering of weapons – who randomly mixes in a sickle with the rest of your weapons? – just to put her opponent on edge. This, however, didn’t seem to be something that was amongst the taijutsu master of Konoha’s repertoire, seeing as he rarely used chakra based attacks – she’d heard that he’d had some problems with chakra as a kid – and the one member of his genin that did actively use chakra looked like he had a barbed pipe shoved up his prissy Hyuuga ass and likely wouldn’t teach the girl anything she didn’t already know.

Next, she watched the match between the Nara and a girl from Sound – man, she really disliked Sound, what with them basically camping on their border of late – and sent contemplative looks at the jounin she was idly leaning against, calmed by the firm, warm muscle and slightly frizzy chakra that buzzed against her own. There was something comforting about the fact that he didn’t seem to really notice her weight against his side, leaning back against her just enough to even out the proportions and to keep from getting uncomfortable. She still had a hand on the blonde jinchuuriki’s shoulder and she absently put it on top of his head and sifted her fingers through his dirty – but not wet with sweat anymore, thank the gods – hair as she thought, like one would when petting an animal or house pet.

Was there perhaps someone who rivaled Kakashi for pure laziness?

Another glance as the boy gave an explanation – likely for the civilians in the crowd as well as the especially slow chuunin and below, but still, unnecessary despite these being testing conditions – she decided there wasn’t. Kakashi likely wouldn’t have given any words during the match, or would have ended it much quicker, just so that he didn’t have to stay hanging around or deal with people for longer; or to be a contrary little shit, depending on his mood. It didn’t look like the boy had really hit the peak of laziness, as the jounin had.

“Nah,” she muttered. “I’ve got the laziest…”

“What was that?”

“Ah, it’s nothing.”

Once it was announced that it was Naruto’s turn against the Inuzuka boy, she gave him a pat on the back to shove him away, his jounin-sensei waving and giving a faint, rather unbelievable ‘Good Luck’ as the boy jumped over the edge for his fight. Oh, he actually nailed the landing.

Well, that was something, right?

The two who’d been teaching him winced at the first large smack down that the boy was treated to.

Well… sort of.

It seemed that enthusiasm and familiarity with his former classmate had kind of… caused a bit of regression. The Inuzuka was doing alright at reminding himself that he wasn’t just tussling with a friend, which said something about Kurenai’s teaching ability, but Naruto, who wasn’t the best at keeping himself focused normally…

“Can he at least pretend that he has some training?” she wondered dryly, listening in amusement to the Nara boy groaning at the loud protests of her blonde haired genin. “All that hard work thrown out the window like he’s in a schoolyard brawl…”

“Maa, I’m sure he doesn’t mean to be an idiot,” was what she got in return, just as dryly.

As the fight went on, she was impressed and warmed by the boy’s continued stamina and willpower, but when the winning blow came, it was all she could do to remember to breathe through her guffaws, wheezing and hanging off of both the railing and Kakashi, who had his free hand palming at his masked face, eye closed in resignation. She found herself doubled over, one hand fisted in the jounin’s shirt sleeve, the other smacking at her thigh, as her eyes watered in mirth. Really, she didn’t think that she’d ever seen a more ridiculous end for a match in her life.

Oh kami above, flatulence!

“W-well,” she managed once she’d started to get a hold of herself, shifting her weight against the metal railing, wiping the hand that had been gripping the man’s clothing against her humor wetted cheeks to remove the moisture, feeling the grin that was cramping her facial muscles due to its unfamiliarity. Hanging out with Team 7 was really working out her cheek muscles, that was for dang sure, they were such a hoot. “That was certainly… unconventional.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the only word that constantly applies to Naruto,” the man lamented as the cheering genin came running up to them, face glowing with accomplishment, wanting praise. “That and what. Or perhaps why.

“Did you see, Kaka-sensei?! Did you?!”

“Aa…” the jounin looked skyward for a moment. “It was very… original,” the pale haired man twitched for a moment, before the fingers of his left hand flickered quickly through signs she couldn’t see, and then there was a small breeze blowing against the natural one, going towards Naruto rather than towards Kakashi. After he was done the man gave a halfhearted thumb up that made the boy beam at him. “Good, uh, job.”

It seemed that the Copy-nin didn’t appreciate being downwind of his student just then. Considering the fact that if she didn’t force it down his throat – or made the jounin do it – all he would eat was ramen, she didn’t even want to think about how that must have affected the enhanced senses of both Hatake jounin and Inuzuka genin. That poor boy.

She snickered quietly into her hand, eyes crinkled slightly, before glancing over to where her kunoichi genin was wakening.

“Sensei?” the girl queried groggily, rubbing her fists over her eyes.

“Here, Sakura,” she spoke up, causing the girl to glance over at them, taking in Naruto’s scruffy appearance.

“Neh, neh, Sakura-chan! Guess what, guess what! I won against dog breath!”

“Eh?” the girl looked surprised as she moved over to them carefully. “Really?”

“Yeah, yeah, it was super cool! See, I –“

“Perhaps you can tell her later, Naruto,” Asuka broke in, glancing at the board that set up the next fight, her lips twitching down ward into a frown, brows furrowed. “The next match is about to begin.”

She wasn’t going to like this.

A branch kid against a main branch… this wasn’t going to end well.

She hated Clan shit.

~*~

It hit her once again, just how much she appreciated having Team Seven in her life. How these awful little shits, who were more self-absorbed, selfless and contradictory than she’d ever thought a person could be, their sensei as well, was kami damned charming.

She had stopped in with Kakashi to visit Sasuke, and was pleasantly surprised, if not a little saddened by the way that he leaned into the embrace she’d pulled him into, his fingers clutching against the material that covered the back of her shoulders where her armor ended and shirt sleeves began, his forehead pressed against her chest. Smoothing one hand through his hair, and the other over his back before keeping her grip steady, she let him lean on her, taking his slight weight – she still felt like he should eat more – breathing in the scent of smoke and ink that coated him from his use of fire jutsu and the recent Sealing he had undergone. As she pressed her face into his hospital cleaned hair, letting him take comfort from her, she shifted the hand she had in his hair to just over the Cursed Seal, and as she felt him stiffen she hushed him gently, aware of the Copy-nin watching her carefully as she slowly gathered her chakra against the mark.

The moment he took a shaky, hesitant deep breath against her through his nose and gave a shaky sigh, she took in his scent with soft eyes, burning his chakra into her mind.

He was like smoke, light and sweet with the hint of ube that was the Sharingan.

There was a slightly sour smell from the Seal, but from what she could tell, only a shadow behind his natural scent.

It made her grip on him tighten and something like helplessness followed by cold rage flittered over her features quickly before disappearing as her darkened green eyes slid shut and she buried her nose and mouth closer to his skull, nosing at his soft dark hair. She pretended not to hear the soft, wounded noise that left his throat as he trembled ever so softly in her arms, the very presence of the jounin on the opposing side of the room from them seeming to spread broadly, a dangerous arch of power, in response to the note of distress and the way pale features rubbed against her seeking comfort.

Growing up in a shinobi rich environment, his entire Clan having had large chakra stores to an extent even in the civilian sectors, Sasuke would have a greater understanding of what it meant to take in another person’s chakra scent. He would also understand what it was like to never be able to take in that smell again, to lose the one attached to it, as he had with his entire family in one fell swoop. Asuka felt something like pride, affection and sorrow shifting in her chest as she held him gently against her and breathed lightly in his hair, smoothing her free hand over his back as she focused on the hand she had over the mark.

The boy released a noise of surprised respite at the feeling of her chakra pushing back the taint of the Cursed Seal.

“What did you do?” he queried, voice filled with relief, body relaxing against her fully.

“The chakra inside the Seal is full of Negative Intent, something similar to Killing Intent,” she explained softly, her eyes half lidded as she spoke, concentrating on holding back the chunk of Orochimaru’s vile energy. This Seal was stronger than Anko’s was when she had gotten it, and even now, but thankfully had the same basic proportions that made it so that her chakra trick still worked. “What I am releasing here is Positive Intent, my chakra is filled with the exact opposing force, cancelling out its ability to touch your own chakra system by having it conflict with my own instead. It can’t influence you when it’s counteracting an outside source, one that it wasn’t designed to combat.”

“Something like that would take practice,” Kakashi mused behind her before shifting over to the other side of the bed and pulling up his hitai-ate briefly to examine the chakra flow. The banked storm of his presence shifted but held steady, dependable. “It’s also something that you couldn’t do on your own Sasuke, not yet.”

“He’s right,” she added, when she felt the boy in her arms shift, as if suddenly remembering that his jounin-sensei was in the room, and taking offence at the man’s words. “You don’t have fully developed coils yet. The stress of expending chakra with the more complicated forms of Intent could damage your system, especially with the Seal corrupting it. You should wait at least another year before attempting this, and only with supervision.”

He subsided in her arms, and just let himself rest there until he fell asleep, and she settled him back against the hospital bed with a fond look on her face, brushing his bangs back from his pale, exhaustion stained features before standing.

With a glance to the jounin standing behind her, the two adults quietly left the room to speak outside of it.

“You’ve done that before.”

Sighing, she glanced up at the single dark eye regarding her and she nodded.

“Anko and I are friends, of a sort, and I found out about that when we were younger, not long after it happened. It was something we reported to the Hokage, but he asked us to try to keep it to ourselves,” she grimaced and they began to head towards the public wards, since the Uchiha was in the private, guarded wards. “He didn’t want it to somehow get leaked and for Snake-Face to find out about it and tweak the Seal against it.”

A soft snort greeted her nickname for the disgraced Sennin.

“You can do it now, I trust?” she looked at him in askance, positive that he at least had the knowhow, even if he’d yet to put it into practice.

“Hmm,” he concentrated chakra to his hand and pressed it to her shoulder, little sparks jumping around it and fizzling against her chakra network like little playfully nipping teeth before he smoothed them out into almost tasteless soothing heat, like the press of skin on skin, entangled limbs and shared breath. “That it?”

Sweet holy mother of the Sage of Six Paths…

“Yeah.”

Her voice may have been a touch rougher than before, but the man didn’t seem to notice and she certainly wasn’t going to bring it up. That was definitely the sensation that was normally the accompaniment to the chakra trick, so it had to be something intrinsic to how she perceived Kakashi.

Awkward.

It was a moment before she managed to blink away the warm, tingly, ridiculous sensation with a wry grin, ignoring the way that heat was suffusing her cheeks as she shook her head, metal jingling softly, taking a breath to calm herself.

This man was going to kill her, without even trying, at that.

“Geniuses,” she sighed in exasperation.

The man gave a noise of affront as they rounded the end of the hall to the waiting room where their orange student was in a glaring contest with one of the receptionists, his pink haired teammate standing in irritation behind him, tapping her foot, arms folded over her chest, scowl in place. The girl looked like she was about to tear into her loud and rambunctious teammate – well, either that or the decidedly unhelpful looking woman who was manning the front desk – until she spotted the two adults out of the corner of a jade eye, turning to look at them with surprise and worry on her features.

“Ah, Sensei!” she called, causing the boy next to her to look over at them. “Is Sasuke-kun alright?”

“He’s resting at the moment, Sakura,” Asuka assured her. “But he’ll be fine as long he does what he’s told.”

“Oh,” both genin sagged in relief as the girl spoke. “That’s good. I was so worried.”

“I – I wasn’t worried.”

“You so were.”

“Was not!”

A noncommittal hum made its way out of the jounin’s mouth as he regarded the two quietly bickering children that stood before him, and then in a momentary lull, he spoke up about the training for the Final Task.

As soon as the words ‘Don’t have time’ left his lips, and Naruto’s bright eyes flinched, she found herself smacking him resoundingly on the back of the head, scowling at the wide eyed look he gave her as he lifted his hand slowly, disbelievingly up to his head. She easily ignored the frankly disturbing look that the receptionist was giving her for the action – likely another Clan groupie, there was no end to them – and glowered at the man something powerful. Honestly, with how often she smacked him in reprimand, especially lately, he should be used to it by then. Even Chitose and Haruka had learned faster than Kakashi was, and he was a supposed to be the prodigy.

They had been Uchiha, and were still quicker on the uptake of social conditioning.

Brilliant ninja. Brilliant mind. Also, a complete and total moron. Considering the pride of the Uchiha – even her twins – this was something that was a little confounding and more than a little amusing as she mentally began to take a tally of how long he might hold out with the shock.

She was contemplating betting against herself.

Maybe different prizes for different times of desensitization… hmm…

And chocolate was always a good reward…

“Idiot,” she muttered, before turning to the yellow haired genin, looking him calmly in the eye. “What Kakashi meant to say, even though it came out completely wrong in so many ways because he’s an emotionally stunted rodent, is that Sasuke needs to work with his Sharingan, and that the two of them share a very similar fighting styles and physique, so the Uchiha will get more out of training between the two of them –” she hitched a thumb at the silver haired jounin, who was regarding her warily, shoulders a little hunched. “– Than you would with Kakashi,” she affected a sly look, causing interest to hop in those mollified sky blue eyes; got him. He was a prankster at heart, their Naruto, any hint of secrecy or cunning got him interested. “Plus, don’t you think he needs more help than you? Didn’t you see how beat up he was? You’re in much better condition and you still made it to the Final Round.”

Which was only because he had a little guest, but, eh, semantics.

All but beaming, the boy barely threw a hissy fit at the fact that Kakashi had somehow arranged for Ebisu to be the boy’s instructor for the duration of the break between Exams, since she didn’t have the time to dedicate to it, what with her own missions and the like. The fact that the silver haired man hadn’t saw fit to discuss it with her got him a calm, almost serene, glance out of the corner of her eye that had him shifting a little sheepishly in place – though it technically was his right as the jounin-sensei to make decisions about the team alone, it’d become something rote to talk things over together – and she just sighed and shook her head while rubbing at her forehead. The amount of headaches she got just by associating with the dreaded Team Seven would be more worrying if a good soak in a hot bath and some warm sake didn’t take care of them so quickly, and if the latter wasn’t well within her budget thanks to the amount of meals she had purchased for her by her jounin friend. So headaches were easily assuaged before they became migraines, all things considered.

Even so, they were unpleasant.

She’d always had chronic headaches, but still, hanging around Team Seven was exacerbating the condition.

That creeper – it didn’t matter how good of a teacher he supposedly was – gave her the side eye from behind his pompous trying-to-be-Aburame-smooth-but-won’t-ever-be sunglasses whenever she saw him, and she found herself inching behind the jounin, then disappearing only a moment after her impromptu shield did, so that she didn’t have to deal with the pervert’s stare. It wasn’t as if he were on the same level as Kowaru in Sand, but it still made her terribly uncomfortable to be so obviously ogled by a colleague, one whom she had never actually even spoken to, and who when talking affected a holier than thou kind of attitude. It was more than a little tiring to have to deal with such things at home, with those who were her comrades, to have her people look at her as if she wasn’t a person but a slab of meat, as if she didn’t have a mind or a personality of her own, just a body that they wanted.

That they couldn’t have.

Yes, it was exhausting to run into that, not appreciation as a person or a kunoichi, but lust after her body with no inclination to the mind within. So, she avoided it as much as possible.

Even if they never acted on it, the knowledge of how they looked at her was still tiring.

Perhaps what had caught her attention when dealing with Kakashi in the beginning was the fact that he had looked at her, and he had seen her, even behind all of his awkward mannerisms, his lack of people skills that completely outclassed her own deficiency in social graces. She had looked into that dark eye and seen herself reflected back without any sort of motive, without desire or manipulation, and she had thought in some part of her oh, good, thank kami, I’m a person to him even though it was rare for her to run into those people amongst their own who made her so tired. When she considered what kept him associating with her, all she could see was that he enjoyed her mind, her straightforward thinking, the acidity of her tongue and her willingness to deal with being batted around like a cat toy by a jounin who outclassed her so much it wasn’t even funny. Perhaps he liked that she could take criticism, that she tried to better herself and didn’t content herself with the skills that she’d learned to make it to High-chuunin, that she reached forward for more even after she’d hit twenty five, unlike most ninja did, settling in skill wise by the time they were eighteen. She hadn’t plateaued.

Hadn’t allowed herself to.

The regard he had for her was still something of a mystery to her, but what drew her in now, what kept her within the silver haired man and their genin orbit… was his mind, his twisted and convoluted thought process that she could never follow, the dry drawl of his speech, the lazy ease with which he took in her own arguments and ideas and thought about them. Hell, even the way that he batted her around when they sparred and then corrected her or helped her with some things that he’d one upped her with, only to leave others for her to struggle over on her own, even that, it kept her falling into step beside him with a smile and children glued to her sides.

He rarely made her feel tired, and had never made her feel hollowed or less than she was.

It still made her disproportionately pleased that one of the first things he said to her was a compliment on her skills as a kunoichi. That probably colored her regard of him in a positive light, even if it was just subconsciously.

When she reached the rooftop outside and a couple of blocks down, as she fled from the homegrown creeper and Aburame wannabe, she ran into the silver haired man’s arm when he put it out to stop her, the breath being knocked out of her slightly by the iron bar that was his limb across her chest and hooked around her ribs. Oh, sweet kami, she’d run into literal steel pipes that hurt less on her diaphragm than this man’s limbs did. Said man, the owner of the most uncomfortable appendages to be stopped by in mid jump, received a grimacing glower of discomfort with a clear tang of not cool that he seemingly ignored, and was tempered by his words as he spoke.

“Lunch, Asuka?”

It was a little surprising that he’d been the one to invite her, but he’d been doing that more often of late, so she just let the corners of her lips curl upwards slightly at the pleased hum of chakra curling delightedly in her chest.

“Mm, sure,” she could eat. She could always eat. “What do you feel like?”

“Saa… How about barbeque?”

“Sounds good.”

They took seats in a cubicle at the back of the room that had two horizontal exits and one vertical rather easy to access if the need be, and a rather old privacy Seal was slapped onto the wall of the booth that they could activate if they so chose to, a common enough application in ninja catering businesses. Automatically they positioned themselves so that Asuka’s back was to the room and Kakashi had a clear view of their surroundings, his much more hair trigger nature in need of calming after the posturing and bristling he’d been doing at the hospital room with the exhausted Uchiha boy. She herself was a little more wired with tension than usual but left the jumpy, thundering mal-temper to her male counterpart, the flow of her own chakra more calm and smooth but still possessing white caps of regular if small intervals in the flow of it, metaphorical foam building up on the surf.

With a soft yawn that she covered with the backs of her fingers she propped her feet up on the seat beside the man, making sure to keep them inside towards the wall instead of potentially blocking his exit for a quick response. He bumped his knee against her calve companionably and she smiled absently in response while their tea was sat down for them with some agedashi tofu and some mixed tempura appetizers.

Ah, how shinobi speed and jutsu precision could be translated into the kitchen…

It was a beautiful thing. A beautiful, beautiful thing.

“It’s not the sweet sauce, is it?” she asked with a soft wrinkle of her nose as she glanced at the tempura sauce. “It’s house sauce?”

“Mm, yeah,” he hitched his shoulder slightly with an errant sniff and she followed his movement to place her hand on the old inscribed kanji next to his. “Endo knows me well enough to know I prefer savory.”

A chakra fluctuation later they were encased in their booth with sound being able to travel in but not out, unless it was of a certain volume – one that neither of them were prone to, unlike their students and the Inuzuka Clan as a whole – and was the reason that everything was ordered together at the beginning of the meal instead of throughout in places such as these.

“Bleh, good riddance that. I’m a firm believer in not mixing salty and sweet.”

“You don’t seem the type, true.”

“If I want sweet, I’ll buy candies or something, but for a meal it’s got to be savory.”

“Hmm.”

“Are you even listening to me?”

“You make a good point.”

“…”

Ow, don’t kick.”

“Hmph, jerk.”

Still, she nudged him a bit to take away the sting of her foot being shoved with mildly chakra enhanced force into the thick muscle of his thigh.

“Tell me,” she said after a few long minutes of silence and finishing off the appetizers.

Licking the ends of her fingers idly to chase the slightly salted flavor of the tempura sauce and clean them of potential stickiness, she was unaware of the icy and terrifying dark glare that her silver haired friend idly tossed at an ogling, appreciative Mid-jounin across the way as she licked at a half healed cut on her first knuckle of her middle finger. The man quickly paled and stared at his food instead, clearly having lost his appetite as his survival instincts kicked in full blast at the suddenly overwhelming protective violence that had been momentarily directed in his direction. If she had seen, she likely would have been both amused and highly exasperated, as well as a little embarrassedly pleased by the Copy-nin’s overprotective if understated tendencies towards her involving anyone that could be construed as a pervert since the encounter with the bottom feeder in Wave those few weeks before.

That likely also contributed, since there was a little she could do against their own nin in such circumstances other than report them, which generally went nowhere and did nothing.

While she didn’t notice the hostility, brief thought it was, the other nin in the building did, and if she had been aware of it, she’d have sighed at the fresh gossip fuel that would no doubt be halfway across the village by the time they’d finished lunch.

“The guards?” was her idle continuation, pulling her fingers from her mouth and calmly buffering a tiny amount of water over the digits.

That single dark eye shadowed briefly as the man sighed and sat back to rest against the seat back, his gloved hands gripped together loosely on the table in front of him before he splayed out pale knuckled fingers that she could only see half of the appendages, pressing against the table top.

“I had just finished putting the Fūja Hōin on Sasuke when he came in,” the man’s features twisted a little behind his mask. “I have to say that I’m unused to being seen as someone who isn’t threatening these days, so standing there with a Chidori on hand and being basically dismissed…”

She pressed her ankle against his thigh, giving a small fluctuation of her chakra to softly sooth the sparking, grumbling charge of his own.

“He left after the creepy limbless reptile kind of mocking that he seems to favor and some awkwardly disturbing promises. It couldn’t have taken more than five minutes total, but that’s more than enough time,” for pretty much anything to happen, went unsaid between them. “After that lovely encounter, I took Sasuke to the hospital and summoned some ANBU to keep an eye on him while I returned to the Arena to try and stall any suspicions as well as, well, you know.”

“Cheer on our louder children while silently mourning the death of whatever dignity we might have ever possessed?”

“Yeah, that.”

“I really can’t wait until someone stabs that guy, seriously,” she muttered, taking a sip of her tea. “He’s always been creepy and weird, even before he got kicked out of the village.”

“Aa,” the jounin mimed an overly obvious shudder, though there was something genuinely disturbed in his single eye. “He has also always been a bit too interested in young boys, especially prodigies who have the potential to grow up deadly.”

Even the insinuation that the disgraced Sennin had taken any kind of interest in the young Hatake Heir had her jaw clenching, the memory of their dark haired genin trembling softly in her arms and clinging to her for comfort clear and stark in her mind, an echo of the past, his scent still drifting up from her clothing to remind her. She knew that the Uchiha had to have been unconscious with the completion of the Seal overtop the Curse mark, so she was vaguely grateful that he hadn’t seen the snake Summoner again so soon after his initial assault in such a weakened state, if only because of the substantial amount of trauma receiving the Curse had caused, and any more damage to his psyche would be catastrophic at this point. He wasn’t quite built up enough to deal with such strain just yet. More still, she could tell that the technique had done quite a number on the silver haired man’s chakra stores and if he’d faced the member of the Sannin with a charged Chidori – which to be honest, may have been more than a little bit of a frazzled decision considering the heavy chakra drain he’d just gone through – on hand then he’d wasted even more of it and he needed to eat to recuperate as much as he could.

“Are you sure that Ebisu was the right choice of a replacement?”

Though she was unaware of the displeased twist of her lips she did take note of his raised brow and the consideration in his gaze as she changed the subject abruptly.

“He was the only one that Sandaime could spare and would actually try to teach him despite what he is, even if he doesn’t want to,” was the low answer. “We both know that if I could, I would take them both, but I need to monitor the Seal on Sasuke and he’s going to be extremely volatile once it settles in. And despite what we would prefer you make more of a difference on the border than you do teaching one genin for the long haul during Exams when we are the most preoccupied and security might be remiss,” he sighed and grabbed a remaining tempura prawn, causing her to flick her gaze down to the table for a few moments before looking up again to see him setting the crusted tail to the side, mask in place once more. “Which it already has proven to be in several cases, not just the biggest and most obvious example of it at the moment.”

For a moment she felt a little fond because he’d been starting to speak more, which was always nice, before she turned her thoughts around again.

“Ebisu though?” she couldn’t help muttering in malcontent. “Had to be him?”

“You have a problem with Ebisu?” he queried, his tone oh so casual but she knew that he was amused the smug bastard.

The base of shrewd examination and calculation was simmering in his bristled but more settled chakra and lingered in his lazy dark eye, making her a tad bit leery of actually stating what her specific problem with him was. While she wasn’t overly fond of the man, she didn’t want to be the cause of the tokubetsu jounin having been maimed or experiencing a mental breakdown; Kakashi could get downright scary when he wanted to.

“He’s perfectly good at his job.”

“In theory,” was the petulant reply after the man spoke mildly. “Hell, I’m sure that Naruto could beat him up if we’re being perfectly honest.”

“Details, details.”

“… You just want our genin to beat him up, don’t you?”

“Well, it had crossed my mind.”

It was a rather pleasing idea, she had to admit, and she warmed to it.

At that point their meat and table top grill had been prepared and they were throwing on strips of chicken, pork, and beef to cook alongside from fresh, crunchy, crisp vegetables that looked like they had come out of the Yamanaka farmland because they were the best at dealing with plant life in general. After the Senju of course, but they were a sadly declining Clan, down to a few scattered members, all rather old, a new generation something they’d lost hope of during the last Wars. Though, considering the friendship between the three largest Konoha Clans – if not the most ‘powerful’ – it wasn’t unlikely that the produce was from the Yamanaka’s, and she was pleased with the juiciness of a slice of pepper she had hot but still crunchy and held between her chopsticks.

“I love the Akimichi Clan,” she mused as she flipped a few slices of meat. “They sure know how to treat people well and make you feel loved.”

“Mm.”

“Oh, hey, do you have any chakra paper for testing Sakura after the Exams or should I order some while you’re out training with Sasuke?”

Even the thought of doing so made her wallet weep.

That shit was expensive.

“No, I have some. Kusakabe stock, too.”

“Ooh, nice!”

They continued to chat for a while, the meat and vegetables slowly dwindling – she noted that he was more interested in the meat than anything else, as most were and so she ended up with more vegetables than anything, though she didn’t mind – as they did so, and soon the sun was sinking down enough for sake to be rung for. The taste was warm in her throat and on the back of her tongue and the pleasant tang of plum whispered in the soft fumes within her mouth like a gilded flame, and she relaxed back in her seat with a small, easy, completely comfortable smile.

“What did Kurenai do, Asuka?”

Goddamnit, Kakashi.

Wincing as she swallowed wrong at the non-sequitur she quickly cleared her airways with a flick of chakra before she could cough and choke embarrassingly. The technique rarely occurred to her when she did swallow incorrectly, though it was something she’d used often on missions when she had to make sure she was as quiet and unobtrusive as she could manage and choking was definitely a no-no on the inconspicuous trade. Considering her recent – or not so recent, when she really thought about it – company, then she really needed to get back into the habit of clearing her airways, if only so that her said airways didn’t start to hate her with the constant abuse they received from said non-sequiturs.

… What even was her brain these days?

“Uh, it was nothing really,” she grimaced. “I may have overreacted a bit – just a bit – and that’s why Naruto is likely planning her imminent demise. I was… tense, is all.”

“Overreacted? You?” he seemed a tad bit unconvinced, if the tone and quirk of his brow were anything to go by. “To what?”

“It was…”

“Hmm? What?”

You are such a bastard.

The amount of rumors that had been flying around through both civilian and other circles had them fucking six ways from Sunday or at least her giving him sexual favors of some sort, as well as a couple of them that said she had some sort of blackmail on him and was forcing their acquaintance. Hell, there were a number that said that she was pregnant or some other such nonsense from an illicit one night stand and that was why they were tolerating each other considering their prickly and antisocial personalities for the restoration of the Hatake Clan. Which, uh, no, not really. Normally people didn’t approach her about it – and she was the only one going to be approached, obviously, as no one was going to ask Kakashi – so it was a little odd that the jounin genjutsu mistress had done so, especially in public the way that she had, considering what the chuunin had heard about the other woman’s tendency to be very aware of young ears listening to her.

That Hyuuga girl had looked downright scandalized.

While rumors and accusations – some outright discrimination in civilian sectors – were something that she had gotten used to during her tenure as the female third of a Uchiha oriented team, the interim years where she hadn’t had to deal with it seemed to have rubbed some of the verbal callus off. Her skin wasn’t quite as thick as it used to be, it would appear.

Perhaps it had just pinched so much because it was Kakashi, more than anything else.

Chitose and Haruka had been her team, they’d never have abandoned her, no matter what, and hadn’t until death took them from her, but Kakashi? What said that he wouldn’t decide she was more trouble than she was worth, all the badmouthing her presence brought? It was… she knew they were friends, that they’d managed to get along remarkably well so far, but… did that really mean he would put up with the rumors?

Well, whatever.

It wasn’t like she could do anything about it anyway.

Asuka decisively ignored how her chest panged uncomfortably and swallowed a little harder then necessary.

“Just a misconception that she’s under,” she shrugged a shoulder and popped the last piece of chicken into her mouth, a silent victory. “It wasn’t so much of a big deal, but I was a little edgy at the time, is all.”

“… Right.”

With a sigh she gave him a rueful look, fully knowing that he wouldn’t let it lie like that for long even if he didn’t ask her directly about it.

Cracking her back a little she pulled her senbon from her hair so that the braids fell over her shoulders and then unhooked the small kunai from the ends and shoved them into her hip pouch, rolling her head on her neck to relieve some of the tension in her shoulders.

“Children are hard.”

While it was a little abrupt, she agreed with the statement and took a sip out of the cup of sake that’d been warmed and set on the end of the table for them by the waitress, taking note of the matching patterned rims of deep purple petals in comparison to the hodgepodge that others within the establishment had.

They weren’t exactly being subtle, though she doubted that the jounin understood what the waitress’ and staff were trying to do. She appreciated the nice service at least, even if the fact that they were acting like they were catering a date was both uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassing under her exasperation. There was only so much giggling she could stand, that and the significant looks from some of her colleagues who were watching with amusement from around the restaurant, arching brows and lifting cups of their own sake in salute to them that had something like embarrassment swishing in her stomach.

They were most definitely not on a date.

It took two interested parties for something to be a date and this… wasn’t.

Half of an equation does not an answer make.

“We should torture them after Exams are over.”

“Yes, let’s.”

All in all, this was probably one of the more entertaining Chuunin Exams that she’d found herself witnessing, and not just because she had brats to worry about this time.

This one definitely made her more nervous than her own had.

~*~

Nagisa Asuka.

High-combat class Chuunin of Konohagakure.

A woman who only a few months before hadn’t meant anything at all and was now… significant.

When they had run into her on that training field as they were chasing after Kakashi’s Summon, there had been something strangely familiar about her, something he couldn’t quite place but had left him a little off kilter because she had looked at him like he was just a body in the crowd and not that Uchiha boy. There had been a surety in her stance that was vaguely familiar as well, something about her eyes and the tone of her voice, a voice that was a tad bit deeper and harsher than most women’s, but held no dislike, none of the either sickly honey sweet sucking up to him, or the disparaging superior smugness of those who wanted to see him taken down a peg. She had looked at all three of the genin before her with the same expression, had shown no preference for any of them, although it was clear that she knew who both the Uchiha and the blonde haired orange wearing idiot were, but there was no bitter aversion or poorly disguised pity.

She hadn’t dismissed the two less skilled in comparison to the dark haired boy newly graduated genin, but she hadn’t paid any of Team Seven much mind.

He hadn’t known what to think, mostly because he couldn’t quite find that balance inside to figure out why he had the strangest sense of déjà vu when he looked up at her.

He found himself curiously glad when their jounin-sensei had appeared and decided that he wished to speak with her about something, had silently but not quite as sullenly followed his blonde… teammate. The fact that he couldn’t figure out what it was about her that disquieted him was frustrating, was so tiring that he didn’t even find himself annoyed when after they found the Summon and their sensei released them early when there was still time to train. After he went home and did some personal conditioning however, he felt much more like himself and pushed the kunoichi out of his mind since it was unlikely that they would ever run into each other again.

It wasn’t like she mattered in the long run anyway.

His goal was what was most important.

But then, of course, as if to spite the way that he’d managed to force her out of his head along with the uncanny familiarity she exuded, she showed up while they were futilely waiting for Kakashi to show up, offering extra training.

Extra training.

For Sakura.

Sure, he could see that the girl was severely lacking in everything except book smarts and was in no way prepared for the life of a ninja, but this Nagisa had managed to use two jutsu in quick succession – without hand signs – the last time they’d seen her, and it was clear as day to him that there was no way that the pink haired fangirl was worth that kind of attention from a kunoichi who was clearly skilled. Heck, even Naruto would have benefited from tutelage under someone like the Nagisa woman more than the pink haired girl on their team would, because she was just so far behind them in skill level it wasn’t even funny. The fact that he had gotten likely the two most useless people for his team infuriated him to no end, and he just knew that the Council had something to do with it.

They had been butting into his life ever since then and he didn’t like it, he didn’t like the way they were trying to mold him, to control him.

He wasn’t stupid.

He knew what they wanted from him.

As the last of his line who was living on Konoha soil and under their rule, he was a commodity, a resource, and he was sure that they were trying to get him to marry into another one of the Clan’s, to have whatever children he might bear belong to them. When he officially hit puberty, he was sure that the pressure would truly be on then, and he would have little control over whatever decisions they decided to make with his progeny unless he hit sufficient rank and strength enough to thwart them. While, yes, resurrecting his Clan was one of his goals, it didn’t mean that he wanted to just jump into it the second his body was able.

They’d given him a civilian girl with little to no potential who wasn’t taking any of this seriously, who had no idea what she had gotten herself into and ate like a bird with a death wish and the dead last who couldn’t get anything through his thick skull and was inexplicably hated by the majority of Konoha’s inhabitants for no reason?

Hell, even he knew that there had to be more to it than just his ridiculous need to prank people, and he rarely thought about others and their problems at all, too focused on his goal.

He remembered when Naruto had been quiet, had tried to blend in with the surroundings. He remembered when blue eyes had been dark and unhappy, sad and lonely in a reflection of what he saw in the mirror after that day.

People didn’t just change like that, didn’t feel like that or look like that, with no reason.

He knew that they were trying to cripple him by putting him with two of the least likely genin to succeed on a team with him, trying to get him to give in to their whims and do as he was told, but the only people he had cared enough for, respected enough to listen to were all dead.

All of them.

Well, except for Iruka-sensei and the Hokage, obviously.

But the Council had neither of those people on it, so he deemed them unnecessary to his goal.

Still, while he had been upset by the fact that she wasn’t here to train him or at the very least all of them, he was mollified somewhat that she was only going to be training the irritating girl with the kunoichi arts, something that he had no use for in the least. He had silently decided to follow her advice – which had been given in some exasperation, but had still been surprisingly honest in its offer if he was being completely honest – and bothered their ridiculously lazy sensei whenever they saw the man about speaking with her.

It wasn’t that Kakashi was a bad shinobi, he was quite skilled from what Sasuke could tell, but it seemed that the man had no motivation to speak of and likely saw his new genin team as a waste of his time and of resources in general. Not that Sasuke didn’t agree with him on the general principle, but he needed training, he needed to be stronger, so much stronger, if he was to reach his objective, and the only way he was going to do that was with proper instruction. There was only so much his family scrolls could teach him when he didn’t have someone to… explain things to him.

He was smart, he was driven, but there were still some basic concepts that he hadn’t had the time with his family to broach.

While it was disturbing to find himself in agreement with his irritating loudmouth of a teammate, he would take what he could get and he would use it to the best of his advantage for the sake of growing stronger.

The amount that after one session with the woman his pink haired teammate had grown, had changed, was astonishing, and he felt his desire for instruction grow, the desire for knowledge and challenge and understanding pulsed in his chest. He liked learning things, he liked to know things, he liked to be good at things, and he was sure that he could do better, be better if he got to have a one on one session with Nagisa the same as the girl had. He was sure that he would benefit more than the pink haired not a complete menace had under the woman’s instruction.

So he… investigated.

If asked he would never admit to skulking around looking for her apartment, or to planning with the Dobe to find out where she lived so that when Kakashi caved – oh, he would give in, they were sure of it – they could immediately go to her and have her fulfill the promise in her words. He was not stalking her either, not like his… fans did him. It was reconnaissance.

That was all.

He knew post mission fatigue when he saw it on her face, in her posture the day that the man had caved under the pressure and likely intense irritation – when they wanted to be, he and his team could be downright cruel – knew the tired frustration in her eyes, and expected her to tell them that she’d work with them on another day, one on which she wasn’t so obviously exhausted. It was how everyone in his family had acted when they were just returning home from a mission or a particularly trying meeting, they would set aside spending time with him until a later time. The number of times he’d been brushed when training had been promised was something he didn’t even know.

But she had… done the opposite.

The woman was oddly amenable to working with them despite her obvious wish to have been left alone to sleep. She had only just returned from a mission, via her own words, and the other two genin on his team seemed to find this perfectly natural, only he and Kakashi understanding that she was being extremely polite and kind in only demanding food from the jounin for instructing them. He’d never seen someone chat or well, speak with his sensei before, so it was odd to him that the two adults seemed to be having a completely normal conversation and even joking around with each other a little, a foreign sight if he’d ever seen one. That she didn’t go back on her word at all was strange to him, almost completely at odds with every experience he’d ever had with every active duty ninja he’d ever met, and despite himself, he was pleased, his stomach squirming oddly as she calmly walked beside their apathetic instructor towards food, and then the training grounds.

Of course, this changed when they started the teaching.

She had… pushed him down.

Right into the dirt on the packed earth of the training grounds.

The woman didn’t seem to even notice how her shocking amount of strength had easily shoved him to the ground like a… like a child, as she only calmly began to explain her reasoning despite his horrified embarrassment, his horrendous self-loathing at having been remiss in his family style, in honoring their great memory and prowess. The instruction he had received from his Clan had only been in the beginning stages of his taijutsu, the latter stages slowly filled in until his awaked his eyes. Sasuke had mostly learned things from scrolls and from what he could remember of his Clansmen sparring in their family owned training grounds, so he wasn’t exactly surprised that he had some of it wrong or that his understanding of the forms was lacking, but…

It hurt.

The fact that his jounin-sensei apparently knew his style fluently – perhaps with more skill than several of his Clan members had – came out of left field, and he found himself staring in shock even as he absorbed the verbal instruction she gave him. Nagisa’s own intimate knowledge of the Interceptor and Cat’s Paw was frighteningly accurate, and when he watched – almost completely missed – the high speed strike she easily delivered that was just as easily diverted by his sensei, he found his voice.

“How do you… know this?”

Those deep green eyes had focused on him carefully, studying his face for a moment, looking for something even though he couldn’t tell what expression was adorning it. Apparently she found whatever it was she was looking for, because his face felt numb and cold and he couldn’t even dream of controlling whatever lay upon it, so very stiff as he tried to sort through his mind, distantly glad for his teammates’ silence as he stared into her calm features, her eyes slightly sad but still warm with an understanding that on anyone else had enraged him.

“Most of the older generation ninja have worked with Uchiha in the past. I was on a genin team with two,” this was something that was almost unheard of, and Sasuke found his heart squeezing in his chest as he realized where exactly this was going. She had lost them, like he had lost his family. Had it been then that they died? Had it beenhim who killed them? Had he taken more from people even besides him? “And while I could kick Chitose’s ass around the block, Haruka knew what he was doing most of the time, and didn’t mind explaining his taijutsu styles, even if he wouldn’t teach them outright.”

Haruka… he thought dully for a moment. And Chitose.

The names were vaguely familiar.

There were fuzzy faces popping up in his memory, a set of… twins? Something that was as rare in shinobi households as it was in civilian ones if not more so, something to do with chakra dependency and danger to the mothers or something. He remembered tall silhouettes in hazy afternoon sunlight, two men taller than Shisui-nii had been, and in most of his memories, Shisui-nii had been as tall as a mountain but as bright as the sun; he knew that wasn’t accurate, but he couldn’t find it in himself to mind.

One of the two had been much taller than the other, he could just remember, and much louder, though that had been rare as well. They hadn’t been very important at the time, just two new members of his Clan to meet, from amongst hundreds, only interesting in the fact that his best friend had found them important enough to introduce and spend time with.

When he thought harder about it, there had been something about disapproval when the two came up in conversation, hadn’t there been? A hushed sort of distaste, something to do with how even though they’d become chuunin early they hadn’t kept up with promotions, had stayed with their original team or something…

Oh.

Oh.

Ah, so that was why she was strangely familiar.

She had been to the Compound before everything, when it was still strong and proud and beautiful and full of life and people. He wouldn’t say that the Uchiha had been happy – he’d rarely seen anyone over the age of ten laugh or smile, except for Shisui-nii – but they had been whole and alive and there when he would look for them, not ghosts that stained the once lovely wooden floors and scattered across once flourishing grounds and gardens. To those twins she had been… This woman had seen them during that time, had known them during the years that she’d been on the same team as two of the Clan’s own, longer than he’d even been alive, and he felt bile burn at the base of his throat because in a way her family had been taken from her too.

He needed to be stronger, faster.

He needed it to be over.

(Please, just let the nightmare end.)

The way that she spoke of Kakashi’s apparently obvious reasons for knowing the style intimately had thrown him for a loop, because while he had vague memories of people in the Clan mentioning his name in hushed tones as well, they would always become quiet when Clan Head’s youngest was around, as if the subject were taboo. It was a little ridiculous now that he thought about it, that the two people who had been spoken of in hushed, disapproving whispers were the ones who were now instructing him in his family’s taijutsu, and a part of him wanted to cry, and another wanted to laugh uproariously.

Just because he had loved his family, didn’t mean that he didn’t know that they were stuffy and rude, that they were very caught in their ways.

He hadn’t liked most of them, but he had loved them.

A good portion of them had been stuck up and cold, had sneered at him or stared at him as if he were less than he was, less than they were. While it had hurt then, it hurt even worse as the last, alone, because he would never be able to change those expressions, never get to show them that he was worth his salt, that he was more than what they thought of him.

Without them, he would only have himself to show.

It was enough.

It had to be.

A piece of him that was not so small but flatly ignored tried to tell him that his new team would perhaps be proud of him when he grew stronger, that his teachers would look at him with an expression he’d only ever imagined and never actually seen being on his own parents’ faces.

(Shisui-nii had always been free with his praise, mussing his hair when Sasuke hit a target or performed a kata correctly. He’d been there when he couldn’t, and that had been… worth a lot. It was difficult to think about now, so he just… didn’t.)

So he listened as his jounin-sensei finally instructed him, listened as the man talked quietly and concisely with several demonstrations of the words he spoke, as the man answered questions he couldn’t hold back that he’d had for years but never had anyone to ask them of, despite his own reservations.

Iruka-sensei had done what he could, had dug up a few people to talk with him about the little they’d known about his Clan techniques, but the Uchiha had been just like every other major Clan; secretive. He’d appreciated it nonetheless, and the man had often stayed late to supervise Sasuke as he worked through scroll after scroll to make sure that he didn’t strain or hurt himself during his training.

Whenever he had glanced over towards where the woman who knew how some of his pain felt, he would see her calmly and bemusedly teaching his loudmouthed teammate – who was oddly quiet and attentive – the Academy katas that he should have known before, yet had apparently never been taught, as well as later on working on a style he had no idea what it was, but was vaguely similar to the Inuzuka techniques from what he could see.

The fact that their jounin-sensei was actually paying attention to them, was giving them much needed instruction was a little mind blowing, because for the weeks they’d been assigned to him they’d learned next to nothing, and suddenly there was stuff being shoved down their throats.

Even when she wasn’t there the man seemed to be growing more and more comfortable with giving them exercises to complete, in correcting their stances and technique, in challenging their aim, reflexes, teamwork and planning abilities. While the ache and burn of muscles was in no way pleasant – he’d never enjoy exhaustion, he was sure – it was a more solid way of telling how much he was improving, how all of the drills that he and his two teammates were put through actually did something for them, made them stronger. It seemed that when he put his mind to it, Kakashi wasn’t half bad at teaching, but he’d needed motivation of some kind, and it was likely that he’d found some extra unknown, untapped well of energy now that Sakura wasn’t drowning herself in chemicals every morning in an attempt to win his favor.

The girl hadn’t seemed to understand that it had done the exact opposite.

While he admitted – to himself, at least – that he was in no league with those with enhanced senses, he did have a rather high pedigree from a chakra rich family, so he much preferred the natural scents of a person to the fake, processed cesspool she was inclined towards due to a civilian upbringing. It wasn’t only his sensei who had been relieved when she’d had her first meeting with the older kunoichi and had shown up the next day smelling like a person and not a cleaning product from the civilian sector that was out to bleach his eyes and nostrils and blind him altogether. Heck, even Naruto had noticed the difference, though he hadn’t even seemed to be able to tell he’d started to act differently, or that he’d started to breathe through his nose more than he had before her sudden revelation.

Mouth breathing was so… unsightly.

He was thankful that that was over.

While part of him was relieved that she was eating more, another part of him was disturbed by the information that she hadn’t known she was supposed to eat more as a kunoichi than as a civilian, something that in his family had been par to the course. It had even been taught in the first two years of the Academy that once you started to use chakra you needed to increase your diet to coincide with how much your chakra stores were growing, as well as to feed your growing body and muscles. It dawned on him that they had had different instructors until third year when she’d been moved into his class with most of the Clan heirs and it had never occurred to him that perhaps some of the instructors hadn’t been as competent as their Iruka-sensei was, even when he was having to balance out the brownnosing dick Mizuki when he was being a little shit who didn’t want to do anything he didn’t have to.

So he was vaguely glad that Nagisa had corrected that error so that he wouldn’t have to break in a new teammate after his first one starved to death.

Even still though, he honestly would have preferred the Hyuuga girl, to be frank.

Who cared about their Clan’s rivalry?

There wasn’t anything to fight about.

Not anymore.

Sasuke could admit that Hinata was a little… intimidating to face in a taijutsu match and had been one of the only people who could defeat him when they were allowed to use kekka genkai. He still cringed with a phantom ache in his coils from her precision hits to his tenketsu.

The whole Naruto… thing… was a bit of a setback, but that could change, right?

And she was definitely a better kunoichi than Sakura, had better strengths and would have been a definite bonus in the field, especially on recon missions. While he had strongly desired his Sharingan, he could readily admit that at some points the Byakugan was a more useful tool, that it was just as offensively inclined as the Sharingan could be in the right circumstances, and he was sure that if he’d had a doujustu user on his team he would have had an easier time of mastering his own when it activated.

He didn’t even consider that he might not have it.

It would crush him, should he not.

Nearly every week after that first practice, she made time to spend with them and assist Kakashi with demonstrations of the basics, and sometimes they would catch the two of them discussing jutsu theory way over their heads, sending his mind whirling with the implication that this woman was smart. His jounin instructor was a genius if the way he was teaching that woman things – it disturbed him on some level that things that made his head spin so painfully, they actually enjoyed speaking and debating about – was any indication. Some of it the pink haired girl apparently understood, which gave him a grudging respect for her intellectual abilities, but most of it had her just as lost as he and Naruto were, staring dumbly until the two decided that whatever they were talking about could be continued at a later time without helplessly confused genin standing like they’d been concussed before them.

It was… impressive.

He felt… pleased… with his two sensei.

A couple of times it seemed that they’d interrupted a spar, because the man would have some dirt and leaves scattered across him and his book would be put away securely, the landscape would be a bit warped and wet in spaces with kunai scattered about, and the woman would be panting or wheezing, a good portion of the time leaning against something to keep herself upright while sending acidic glares at the jounin wherever he was standing or perched. On the rare occasion his jounin instructor would be damp, sometimes with mud or dirt splattered across him – one memorable time he’d had a neat slice in his jounin vest – and eyeing the bronze haired woman contemplatively while she blatantly ignored him and cuddled Pakkun mindlessly, something that the Summon in question seemed to enjoy immensely.

For some reason he got the implication that every time the pug saw him it was laughing at him.

It was unnerving.

The woman whom he was surprised to discover was still a chuunin – that’d had him terribly confused and horrified until their jounin-sensei had explained to the team that she was holding back on taking the Trials until she felt she was properly prepared – was probably the most affectionate nin he’d ever come across, as well. Shisui didn’t count because Shisui had been abnormal in all ways.

After the first month she had begun to pat shoulders, ruffle hair, sling an arm around them or use one of their heads as an armrest, and on occasion she gave thoughtless embraces that she was too strong and fast in approach and grip for him to escape. To be honest, the most frustrating part was that none of them disliked it or even told her to stop. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever freely been given praise like she gave it, given physical comfort or affection in such a way, and even his jounin-sensei was beginning to give it, albeit awkwardly and usually only verbally. He couldn’t remember a time when anyone other than his mother when he’d been very small – pre-Academy at the very latest – had hugged him to them and softly pulsed their chakra over him to sooth, had looked at him with naked affection and warmth that wasn’t tempered by tired weariness or impatience.

He was… getting an idea of why Haruka and Chitose may not have wanted to part from her.

Had risked the ire of the Clan for her.

Had Chosen her.

“Nagisa-san,” he’d started with her one time, sitting down next to her at the teahouse she’d taken them all to for a middle of practice treat. “May I… ask you a question?”

The woman had turned away from the little cutsie cake she’d been snacking on – she appeared to have a preference for girly looking foods, but he felt it wise to never bring it up... ever – and positioned herself so that she was straddling the bench to face him, a position that should have lacked dignity but she somehow made look focused, despite her absently parrying Kakashi away from her food with her utensil. From what Sasuke could tell the jounin didn’t even like sweets, so it was likely that he was only trying to irritate the woman who had become something like their second sensei, though the dark haired boy was unsure as to why someone would antagonize her for fun.

It was insane.

“Sure,” she answered with a slight, absent but true smile at the corners of her lips. “If you call me Asuka, already.”

“I…”

He scowled slightly, glancing away when the pale haired man on the other side of the table sent him an amused look from behind his detested Icha Icha; he was not blushing. No, nope, definitely not.

The man probably read it just to get to him, enjoyed riling up his Clan sensibilities.

They couldn’t be that interesting, could they?

… Could they?

Expectant green eyes stayed locked on him as Sakura chased Naruto around the store to the amusement of several patrons, and the owner who he recognized as an Akimichi just chuckled along in spite of the way they were shouting and knocking down chairs left and right. He was starting to get the idea that whenever they went somewhere together – at least two of them had to be together so far – that they either ended up with the most unlikely, ridiculously good luck or the more common and frankly bewildering bad luck.

It looked to be a tentatively good day.

He didn’t hold out much in the way of hope, however.

He found it best not to rely on optimism, it had the potential to give him hives.

Despite the fact that her features were usually smoothed of all expression, except for the occasional smile or frown, sometimes a twist of the brow, she was still inordinately good at displaying and implying a number of emotions such as pleasure, humor, affection or unhappiness… pride… and he felt a mix of that swirling in his gut as he looked into her lightly tanned features.

He should have learned already, that he couldn’t beat her. That there wasn’t even a contest, not anymore.

The sad part was that she wasn’t even trying to pull him in.

He’s seen suck ups and swindlers alike, seen women and men who would take advantage of him for their own gain, had had to walk the minefield alone since he was six, but she was none of these. She genuinely wanted nothing from him, except perhaps for his success in whatever he was trying to do as hard as that was to believe, and took pleasure from whenever he himself was pleased with his progress or anything else at all. When he hit a mark he had been aiming for.

Would she be happy for him when he finally did it?

“Asuka-san, then,” he bit out with a slight flush moving into his cheeks despite himself.

“Yes?” was her pleasant reply.

As he opened his mouth, he blinked, before his brow furrowed and his cheeks burned with embarrassment – not again! – a scowl automatically swirling across his features.

“Forgot, huh?” was the unneeded input from the man across the table.

The moment of scowling irritation and almost pure mortification had been interrupted and mitigated by her soft laughter as she set an arm around his shoulders, shifting to sit properly on the bench again, and refused to move it despite him trying to shrug her off and sidle away. He always tried to move away because of the warmth she exuded, as well as the pleasant, steady calm… they always made him feel terribly safe, and that wasn’t going to help him to grow stronger. Being coddled and comfortable wasn’t going to help him grow into the avenger he needed to be. It just reminded him that he was going on a path that no one else could follow, a path that would bath his hands in blood and then this woman would not look at him the same, would not bear a gentle affection for him, or feed him tidbits about her deceased teammates when the pain it brought up was bearable.

Force through it when it wasn’t.

For him.

He had learned that Haruka was shy and sharp, and rather easily embarrassed if you knew the right words and meant anything to him on a personal level. His taijutsu prowess had also been something she’d envied with a burning desire – he had been both enraptured and humbled by the love in her eyes as she spoke of witnessing it – because he had been strong and quick in a way that she had yet to manage. The two of them had always been neck and neck for who was the strongest member of their team, and when he had awoken his Sharingan – she didn’t mention the age he did so, and he felt oddly relieved for that – it had only enflamed her to be better.

That Chitose had had a strong hand at ninjutsu, though he preferred genjutsu despite his large stature denoting physical combat. While he had been loud and boisterous, posing a confident figure, he was also very careful in how he treated others, very concerned and empathetic towards even complete strangers. She told him of how he had been the one to reach out to her when they were first assigned to each other because she hadn’t known what to do with two Clan children, how he had been her best friend above anything else because he hadn’t cared that she was without the prestige of a Clan. He had been the heart of the team, if her words were to be believed.

Two members of his family that he had never had the chance to have known, he was getting to know through this woman.

After a moment where she’d said something that had offended his sensei slightly, he was jolted when his blonde teammate burrowed with unneeded force into the woman’s other side, causing him to give thanks for her sturdy form between them as the other boy continued shouting about how Sakura was going to kill him until the woman covered his mouth with a lethal hand and gave him her small, sweet smile and told him to shut up. If he hadn’t known better, the Uchiha would have sworn that he felt Killing Intent flowing off of that soft smile and those flinty, dulled eyes as she stared down calmly at his suddenly silent and still teammate, who looked like a small animal caught in the thrall of a predator.

Was it just him, or had it gotten colder and darker suddenly?

That was an expression that they were all beginning to be familiar with, since she appeared to have become comfortable enough with them to threaten them on nearly a daily basis with the horrifyingly beatific expression on her face. One time when Naruto had in an inordinately quiet, solemn voice asked about it, Kakashi had explained that once a kunoichi hit a certain age they either learned how to be terrifying in the least threatening and obvious way, or they became violent and loud, screeching like a bird of prey as they came for you to take their reprisal out of your hide. Most didn’t manage to master the first and a good number of kunoichi instead had to do with the second skill, and it was mainly used on their allies or family members when the female in question was displeased with them.

Sasuke had yet to receive the expression, but both Naruto and Kakashi had encountered it more than once while the woman had yet to do it in front of Sakura.

When Sakura reached that age… he really hoped that he wasn’t around for that.

Really truly.

He had the feeling that she’d be the violent type, if her treatment of their blonde teammate was anything to go on and he didn’t have the other boy’s apparent sturdiness.

He couldn’t help the slight smirk that crossed his lips even as they set back into eating their snacks and drinking their tea, her arm never leaving where she had set it across his shoulders, the heat and feel of her chakra against him setting him at ease and relaxing his muscles until he just gave in. There was something about N – Asuka and his sensei that made the heavy weight of their chakra comforting rather than overbearing the way it was in most upper ranked nin, though that may have been because of the way that they wielded it so… carefully over the three genin in their care.

Nagisa Asuka seemed to bring out something in all of them, Kakashi included, that was… soothing. She didn’t have to help them the way that she did, could have fobbed off after the first lesson or denied them, but she’d chosen to aid them.

He thought that that mattered.

Choice.

The Uchiha had always needed to Choose.

The dark haired boy figured that she was just a pleasant woman who happened to be a kunoichi, who was comfortably a chuunin, likely a career one like Iruka-sensei who stayed away from most of the conflict. He could respect that the same way he respected Iruka-sensei’s desire to stay in his position and stay a teacher for the future generations. Sasuke had certainly appreciated the way that Iruka-sensei hadn’t looked at him with pity and had been genuinely dedicated towards helping him in any way he could; and when he thought about it, that he’d also kept him from hurting himself.

Then, he’d seen her in battle.

When facing Zabuza and Haku, he hadn’t had much time to gape at her apparent skill in kenjutsu, hadn’t had much time to marvel at the speed at which she’d moved, but after the fact, listening to Sakura’s quiet stilted explanation of everything that had happened on the bridge – what could have happened – had him inordinately uncomfortable. And dazzled. He was very glad that he’d been unconscious during the confrontation – as if it deserved that title, civilian mockery that they were – with Gatou, because it had been deeply ingrained in the Uchiha family that females were not there for your entertainment no matter if they weren’t a member of the Clan or a civilian. A woman had the ability to create life, where men had no such talent, had no ability, could not hope to copy this skill and had no chance of surviving without women, who, ultimately, could choose whether or not to have a child, especially if they had any form of chakra training.

His mother, while not terribly affectionate, was also scary enough that even Uchiha Fugaku had backed down when he displeased her.

After he’d gotten to know Haku as well, he’d found himself equally disgusted and disturbed at what they would want to do to a boy who while having seen some of the deep darkness of the world still had a pure heart and a sadness in his eyes that spoke of hope. A hope that he had found.

(He wanted that.)

Still, though, the fact that she had seemingly without a care slaughtered dozens of civilian grade mercenaries without batting an eye had something inside of him relaxing, because part of him had been holding her on a pedestal made of ivory that was clean of blood and death. It meant that when he finished killing him she wouldn’t hate him, wouldn’t flinch away or find him disgusting for killing a family member, for kin slaying even if it was just to get revenge for the… for that day.

Wouldn’t turn from him in the way his perhaps too bright genin teammates might, though there was something about Kakashi that understood.

So when he couldn’t push down the terror in his chest from running into Orochimaru in the Forest of Death, of being completely and totally outclassed, he gladly leaned into her to let her support him, took a breath without thought and found the scent of river water, fresh rain, a muddy bank, sharp salt and pine swathing his senses.

It was a good scent, a nice one, comforting.

The action had been reflexive when seeking comfort when he was so vulnerable and for a moment he feared he’d done wrong in reaching out in such an intimate way, until she’d just returned the gesture, her hold on him tightening even as she soothed him with her chakra over the Seal in a way that was both familiar and foreign and horribly relieving. The weight of strain he hadn’t noticed on his chakra system, on his heart that she had lifted had exhaustion and adrenaline encroaching on and receding from his frame as he pressed his face against her, fingers clenched like a child’s in her clothing. Even though he didn’t want to admit it, the steady, strong, powerful presence of his jounin-sensei behind him had helped in easing the tension from his body – the man was like a shield against the evil of the Snake Sannin, an immovable force – until he’d fallen into slumber, breathes soft and even against her.

He didn’t want to admit it. He didn’t. But he did, if only to himself.

He… was thankful for them. So very thankful. His two sensei. Even his teammates.

He was glad.

He wasn’t alone.

He wasn’t cold.

There was warmth.

The Fire had yet to die

Chapter Text

She’d just returned from shopping, not two days after the beginning of the Exam break, when the boy had shown up at her door, knocking against the wood with rather uncharacteristic timidity as if he were unsure of his welcome at her apartment despite his having just barged right in several times before. Despite her recurring distraction, she stilled sensed his incandescent chakra from the base of her building. Huffing a bit, she shoved her heavy loose hair back over her shoulder and straightened from where she’d been bent over shoving rice into the bottom of her pantry, as well as flour and noodles. Asuka could honestly say that she was confounded as to how this kid could sneak so well as to outrun ANBU and career shinobi when he was literally a walking beacon of chakra and cheer, and she rolled her eyes as she huffed out a breath against her slightly too long bangs.

While she liked her long hair, an indulgence the normally utilitarian kunoichi let herself, she also felt the need to cut it soon. It was heavy, and she had enough headaches to deal with.

Including the one knocking on her door.

“Come on in, Naruto!” she called clearly, grabbing a box of snacks to put next to her fridge for easy access when she left in the mornings, or when she decided to fill her scroll again. “It’s unlocked.”

There was the click of the door opening, and then the shuffling of the boy removing his shoes at the door, as she preferred, before he made his way into her kitchen. Some ninja could be weird about keeping shoes on in the home, because it meant always being ready, but Asuka needed that assurance of safety in her own home. That she wasn’t going to need to be battle ready in an instant in the middle of Konoha proper.

If she didn’t have that security, well, she didn’t know what she’d do.

“Eeeeh,” he said softly, causing her to turn towards him and away from where she’d been sorting vegetable to go into the crisping drawer. “Nee-chan, you look really pretty today.”

“Oh?” she smiled, arching a brow as he flushed, rubbing the back of his golden head whilst scuffing a bare foot against the hardwood of her kitchen floor. “And I don’t normally?”

The look in his eyes was wild as his gaze shot up to her in shock, tan features blanching at the insinuation that he’d called her ugly. Hands flailed in front of him in denial, as he squinted his eyes shut and shook his head emphatically.

“No, no, no! I didn’t mean it like that at all!” he looked up at her soft amused hum, and scowled lightly, cheeks flushed, and brows furrowed. “You’re picking on me!” she just grinned at him, before turning to put her vegetables away. “No, but really, Nee-chan, you look really pretty today.”

Laughing softly as she put away the rest of her cold foods, she pulled a couple of packets of fruit snacks from her snack cupboard before taking a seat at the table, gesturing for the genin to do so as well before tossing him a snack packet.

“Yes, well,” she popped a light blue, kunai shaped snack into her mouth, watching the delight crossing the boy’s features with something like affection. “I do have most of the week off, and I was planning on just relaxing today, after I finished my shopping,” she gave a wry smile as she leaned over the table to pinch his lips closed as he chewed, causing him to flush, but eat more carefully and with better manners. “I like to wear my more civilian clothes once in a while, and this is easy enough to take off and put back on after spending some time at an onsen to finish out the day.”

As soon as the word onsen left her mouth, those glittery blue eyes widened, and he shook his head emphatically again, the little dramatic weirdo, struggling to swallow the gummies in his mouth.

“Nee-chan, you really don’t want to go to the onsen right now!”

Blinking, slightly taken aback, her features twisted with confusion.

“Really?” she frowned. “They aren’t under construction right now or anything, are they?”

She hadn’t heard anything… Asuka’s day off was not going the way she’d thought it would.

“No, no it’s not that, it’s that there’s a huge pervert camped out in front of them!” the boy scowled, glaring down at the handful of snacks before him. “He totally messed up Ebisu-hentai and so he should train me, but he says he won’t because I’m not a pretty girl with really big –” something like a light went off in the boy’s head, and then he looked up at the woman before him with a new light, even as she was coming to something of a conclusion herself about that pervert’s identity. “Neh, Nee-chan? Would you mind helping me with something?”

There was that hesitance again.

“That depends,” she returned drolly, already starting to understand where this was going. It was only the absolute innocence in that blue eyed gaze that had her exasperated rather than anything else. “On whether or not you want to be indebted to me.”

The boy just grinned at her, whiskered cheeks stretched wide, sky blue, earnest eyes big and glittering, and she knew she’d lost. They were all starting to learn ways of how to wheedle what they wanted from both her and their jounin-sensei – though the man to a lesser extent – and it was infinitely worse than she’d originally thought it would be.

Puppies, the lot of them.

She had a weakness.

A terrible, terrible weakness.

This one, however, Kakashi couldn’t use against her like he did with cute foods and Pakkun when she was irritated with him.

His own resistance was fading, after all.

~*~

“Hey, hey!” the genin called, a couple of paces ahead of her as she walked in exasperation behind him to the back of the onsen. “Hey, Ero-sennin!”

Covering her smiling lips, she held back a giggle at the epithet, shaking her head lightly, and hearing the soft whooshing of her loose – what a novelty – hair and tiny kunai earrings the size of her pinky nails with the movement. It was always surreal when she had enough downtime to dress like a civilian, her clothing and hair impractical, almost making her feel like a different person who couldn’t cut a platoon in half with a proper chakra conducting blade.

Civilian life wasn’t something she’d ever considered, but it was an amusing dichotomy.

“Eeeeh?” she heard a vaguely familiar man’s voice whine back at the kid. “You again, gaki?”

“Yeah! And it’s not ‘gaki’, it’s Uzumaki Naruto, dattebayo!” she could hear the scowl on his face. “You have to train me, since you beat up Ebisu-hentai!”

“I don’t gotta do nothin’,” the man snorted, turning away just before she came into view, squatted and peeking into a knothole on the bathing wall. “I have much more important work to be doing than playing with some brat,” at his words he released a high pitched, girlish, creepy man-giggle, shoulders shaking. “So shoo, kid. I’ve got, eheh, adult things to do.”

She was happy she’d pretty much smacked that out of Kakashi while the kids were around even if she hadn’t done anything about the man’s explicit porn reading in public because it seemed to be a version of both entertainment and stress relief for the jounin. Everyone had their coping mechanisms, and she wasn’t going to belittle his just because they were weird and a little socially unacceptable. The laugh, though… that was just disturbing. She didn’t want to be involved with the reason for any more of their already traumatic childhood nightmares though, so the creepy giggle had needed to go.

Honestly, the kids barely paid any mind to the literature that their jounin-sensei was interested in, seeing as whenever he was actually teaching them something, he either closed it or put it away in a signal that it was time to get to work. Still, Asuka was getting a bit curious about them, considering the fact that she knew that Anko practically lived and breathed the things, and if someone like Kakashi – who apparently had a surprising amount of interest in rather dry reading material as well, if some of his references were direct from text – was so obsessed with them, they couldn’t exactly be bad… however, she hadn’t quite reached that point just yet.

Gods help her when she gave in.

“Argh!” the boy spun around to face her, frustration clear on his features. “I did what you asked, Nee-chan, and tried to make him on my own, but he doesn’t listen!” the man paused where he was crouched but didn’t turn to look.

“Well, Naruto,” her voice was slightly huskier with her mirth and she chuckled a little as she came to a stop next to him and put her hand on his head. “That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but well… I don’t know why I expected anything different,” she mused, glancing at the sky in a way reminiscent of the boy’s jounin-sensei. “This is Naruto we’re talking about…”

“Nee-chan, are you picking on me again?!”

The boy sounded so aghast at the prospect, that she just sighed.

“Ooh? You brought a lady friend.”

Naruto found himself shoved to the side none too gently as Jiraiya of the Sannin smoothly grabbed up the chuunin’s hand that had been on the boy’s head, and bowed over it dramatically, free hand out strait to the side like a courtier in a silly civilian romance movie, and his lips stopping a hair’s breadth from her skin, expelling air warmly against her knuckles.

“I’m Jiraiya,” he sent a heated look up at her from beneath white brows with his dark gray eyes as he spoke, his thick dark lashes bringing fire to the gaze, causing her to bight back the immediate response to giggle and flush; boy, he really was a lady killer when he tried to be. “It’s so nice to see someone as lovely as you, especially if you are kind enough to give your company to miscreants like this rabble,” he stated before standing, still holding her hand, no doubt taking note of the calluses that covered the majority of her fingers and palm even as she smiled at him indulgently. “A truly gentile lady.”

She’d always gotten a bit of a kick out of the Toad Sage when she heard about his exploits.

There had been a time or two when he’d been spying some hot springs she’d been in, and Chitose and Haruka had freaked out about it, not letting her walk around alone or go to the public bathes for some time, dragging her to the Compound when she wanted to relax, despite the disapproval of their Clan. Although, there had been a few women amongst the Uchiha who had been amused and sympathetic to their woes, even though it had been more exasperating to her than anything else. Heck, if one of the most powerful shinobi in Fire Country just wanted to ogle naked women, women whom he made no motion to touch or actually approach, didn’t even seem to depersonalize at all, who was she to deny him his comforts?

It was kind of flattering.

She’d also noticed that he never peeped when there were girls younger than fifteen, or women who had ever been sexually abused in there, as well.

That said something about the man. And how his intelligence network worked.

Asuka did, however, understand that she thought a little differently than most people did, so she didn’t dismiss their worries or discomfort at the thought of being peeped on by some man that they’d never met before. A powerful shinobi, at that. Personally, she didn’t care too much, but she didn’t begrudge others their feelings as long as they left her to her own and didn’t try to press their own onto her.

That was a pet peeve that she could never deny having. Someone trying to alter or belittle the way that she felt.

“Why, how kind of you to say so, Jiraiya-sama. If I may be so bold as to introduce myself to one of such graces as yourself, you may know that I am Nagisa Asuka,” she murmured back demurely, lips quirked in a smile that she struggled to hold back, not bothering with the amusement in her tone, seeing as it caused the genin still on the ground to sputter in wide eyed indignant horror. “But really, it’s no misfortune at all,” she grinned a little, giving up, flicking a glance to the gawping boy. “Except when he tries to finagle a meal out of me.”

“B-but Iruka-sensei doesn’t mind when I ask him to buy me meals!” the boy protested, standing, not bothering to dust himself off as he argued with the chuunin, brows furrowed in confusion and offense, hands on his hips combatively. “He likes it!”

“That’s because Iruka-san’s a saint, with deep pockets,” was her dry reply. She had the feeling that the Hokage actually reimbursed the other chuunin for spending so much money on his favorite genin, but she had no hard evidence. “As well as a bit better off than I am, since I have to spend most of my money on supplies that he doesn’t need as an Academy Instructor.”

“Tch.”

The pout caused her to roll her eyes before turning back to the Sennin, who was nonchalantly looking over her physique.

From the tips of her civilian sandaled feet, to the top of her golden brown head, he seemed to find no faults despite the many scars that dotted her skin, if his interested gaze was anything to go by, and she preened a bit internally, knowing that he was half looking at her from the standpoint of a legendary shinobi, and the other half as a practiced womanizer.

Hey, she wouldn’t say no to an ego boost from a man that likely assessed everyone’s threat level on sight.

The long, flowing dark blue skirt that tickled at her ankles and the tops of her feet showcased the black leather sandals she wore, a single ring of fabric around her big toe with a connecting line of leather stretching back over to meet up with a thicker band around the bridge of her foot, which was beaded with black, white, and amber beads the glittered softly in the light. Her toes were painted coral pink, for a dash of color; mostly, though, it was because Anko had appeared again the night before, just to hang out, and had wanted to paint nails.

It had been all she could do to opt out of garishly bright colors.

Lime green was just no.

There were some things she wouldn’t wear, no matter Anko’s whining.

She had a small black leather purse pack strapped around her waist with a small leather belt to hang at her hip, holding both her money and some emergency scrolls filled with weapons, the Konoha symbol was sewn on it in white thread in the center of the pack. The shirt she wore was a white, loose, tank with a secondary layer, stopping just before her skirt, leaving a line of skin visible on her chiseled abdomen, and when she shifted the light would occasionally glint off of her belly piercing. Her hair was cascading to just above her hips in waves and curls since she had forgone tying it back that day, enjoying the feel of it playing over her arms since she wasn’t wearing sleeves as she normally did.

“Now,” she brought dark gray eyes up to her face from where they’d been studying her cleavage appreciatively, where it could be seen above the shirt, her comfortable and cute dark blue bra keeping her breasts well in place. “I believe that you owe Naruto a teacher,” the man winced almost imperceptibly before giving her a wounded look, as if it weren’t his fault that Ebisu was such a sanctimonious prick – er, weakling. “Considering the fact that the only reason he isn’t being taught right now with his other teammate – the Uchiha – “ there was a flicker of understanding in those dark eyes, and the man scowled, releasing her hand to cross his arms imperiously, as if she were giving him personal insult by making him own up to his ex-teammates problem causing ways. “Is because of a certain Snake deciding he wanted to retake the Chuunin Exams via subterfuge and get his jollies on by biting a prepubescent boy.”

Even as a grimace crossed the white haired man’s handsome features, she saw the thoughtfulness enter those gray, red lined eyes as he studied her features before glancing down to study the mutinous expression on the blonde’s from where he’d wormed his way beneath her arm and against her side, grasping her hand where the man had released it, as if to keep it out of the Sennin’s grip. It was terribly cute, to her thinking, that he didn’t want to share her with an outsider, and she sent him an indulgent, affectionate glance that wasn’t missed by the Sennin before her, though she didn’t take notice of his momentary quirking of the lips on that thoughtful expression.

“Bah!” the man threw his hands up in the air, glaring skyward. “I’ll give the kid a chance to work with me,” he pointed a finger at her, eyes narrowed slightly. “But if he doesn’t cut it, then he’s on his own.”

“That’s fair,” she answered.

Nodding her head, she enjoyed the coolness of her tiny kunai pressing against her cheeks as she did so – she really had struggled against choosing the pandas that Imori had gotten her as a gag gift once, but she’d have never lived it down if Kakashi had seen her – even if they sent a small shiver down her spine at the temperature change.

“Woohoo! Yatta!” the boy cried, jumping up and down, flinging himself out from her hold and causing her to give him a look of fondness as the man gave a despondent sigh.

Well, at least he would get a tutor for the time he needed it and well, you couldn’t get much better than one of the Sannin.

Especially one who’d taught the Fourth… and she honestly tried not to consciously think about the similarities between her deceased Yondaime and the boy she’d taken a liking to, because she knew that it was something she shouldn’t think about, especially with Kakashi as the boy’s sensei. With the last name of a woman who had been an inspiration to many a kunoichi and a literal beast on the battlefield. It seemed a bit like fate that here she was, giving the Kyuubi jinchuuriki the chance to train with the shinobi who had taught the man who’d Sealed the bijuu within him, the man who was both the hero and tragedy of Konoha. That he was taught by that very man’s own student.

Still, it looked like she’d have to put off that visit to the onsen at least for Naruto’s sanity’s sake.

And she had been so looking forward to it, too.

Maybe Anko would be up to a girls’ night and they could do home treatments? Anything to break the monotony and perhaps keep that woman from going even more around the bend with stress.

~*~

“Retreat!” she called, launching herself backwards away from the explosion that suddenly took out a good portion of the tree she’d just been perched on. “Measure 3!”

As the medic of their party and another combatant like herself carried their two unconscious, wounded teammates away from the scene, she stood alone against the three remaining members of the group that had decided to ambush them on the border. They wore no hitai-ate that could be seen, nothing that signaled village allegiance, but she had the sinking suspicion that they were from Sound, that irritating little village that had decided to camp out on the border before the Chuunin Exams had even been thought about this year, or the decision for hosting had been made. They had similar techniques to the Sound ninja that had taken part in the Exam as well, using wind currents and pitch to their advantage, taking the name Oto to the extreme, and causing her to wish she could vomit safely. Her ears ached.

Even coating her ears in chakra didn't keep the sound out completely.

She had no idea who the Kage of Sound was, but she really hoped that they understood what they were doing.

Declaring War on one of the most powerful Hidden Villages was not a smart move, especially with such an infantile village as Sound was, and considering the allies that Konoha had, it wasn’t likely that Sound would be around for long if they kept up like this.

Mostly, though, her thoughts were on dodging, and covering her ears with protective chakra as air pressure shrieked at her from one of her assailants as they tried to pass her to go after the rest of her team, likely to destroy any evidence that they had perhaps found or carried with them. Pulling her katana out of its Seal, she leapt into the fray, careful to activate the Guard setting on her armor as she did so, and hearing the screech of metal scraping through leather and against the metal plating just after it had fused together to protect her as she battled the three combatants away from the tree line her comrades had disappeared into.

A kunai slid passed her face as she jerked to the side with little thought, reflex pulled her out of the way.

Well, she’d have to thank Kakashi when she got back, seeing as she wasn’t blinded thanks to his training methods. He was going to be so freaking smug…

Right, she thought, lips thinning, taking her stance, water beginning to solidify in the air around her as she readied herself. I have to buy them time to get to a transfer station.

The three before her were male, all of them had the lower half of their faces covered, and wore mostly black, with some white accents, mostly on the arms and legs. General shinobi gear. On the ground lay their two deceased shinobi compatriots, blood pooling beneath their cooling, shattered bodies from where her medic had used a jutsu on them when she was startled, using most of her chakra in doing so. Hopefully the woman had the right blend of chakra pill to be able to do emergency work on their two critical teammates, but at times such as these she always found that the odds were against her, especially of late when those from Sound were involved.

As they moved against her as one, she grit her teeth, eyes narrowed in assessment. This wasn’t going to end well, she was sure.

She really didn’t want to wake up in the hospital.

~*~

Well, she didn’t wake up in the hospital, seeing as she never fell unconscious, despite the ache in her head making her wish she had. As she had many times, she considered going to a medic to ask for something for the pain in her head, but the thought slid away in exasperation.

“I’ve got you onee-san!”

Asuka had enough medical training that she could do it herself, anyway, if she needed to. No need to bother anyone this way with something so little even if it was chronic.

However, she had been ordered not to do any training for a week or more, or she might re-fracture the bone in her thigh if she did, as well as to make sure that she only did light exercises to keep her knew scar tissue malleable and supple. She had been impaled by some kind of strange new kind of metal fashioned into a spike, that had expanded slightly once it had come in contact with her chakra, causing some rather nasty tearing of her small intestine and kidney – which was fixed easily enough, thankfully – and had left a reddish purple nasty starburst on the lower half of her stomach. The scar sat right between her piercing and her hip bone, and out through her lower back as well, blending eerily into the previous damage from the angry red scar of a decade ago.

The fact that she’d been able to pull her chakra away from the affected area was a godsend, really.

Wow, if that had hit her piercing, which doubled as both cute – hey, it was, Asuka was well aware that she was physically fit, alright? And… Anko, as well as Mai, had assured her that it was indeed attractive – and functional as a storage Seal. It was full of emergency supplies that she might need someday if she was ever again in the middle of a warzone unprepared; having that activate would have been… bad. Like, potentially releasing all of her Sealed things inside of her if the piercing was shoving inside her guts while she had activated chakra, kind of bad. It… wasn’t likely to happen, but it could. Just like getting dropped in a warzone was something that could happen and that was the problem with ninja paranoia, it wasn’t if they were actually out to get you, and she’d been straight up sure that someone was trying to kill her since she was a genin. She wasn’t wrong, because someone was always gunning for Konoha, but how personal it was had always made her feel a bit awkward so that she overthought it and brought about another headache.

The most frustrating part was that they had ruined her Seal Network on the metal plating within her now useless leather armor. She should have known that she’d need a secondary set just in case, but, well, it was rather expensive to make, and she’d yet to have anything make it through her armor until that last fight.

Pouting about it did nothing, unfortunately, and even then it wasn’t in her nature, but she couldn’t do much for it that first day once she’d been released from her week-long stay anyway.

On the second day, however, she hunted down a metal worker to put in an order for the specialized chakra channeling metal sheets she would need – her bank account wept – before settling down by the waterfall she usually commandeered for training, with a notebook and pencil in hand to re sketch the Sealing Network that had been destroyed by the ‘unknown’ enemy nin. While the bodies had been recovered, the moment that someone had gone to examine them with chakra, they had immediately destroyed themselves with some sort of excreted toxic acid that melted the flesh from their bones, bones which had then crumbled with disintegration. Since she had no evidence except for their jutsu – which could be copied, all things considered – there was little that the Hokage could do about it, and that left a bad taste in her mouth, as well as a deep furrow of unhappiness in her brow.

“No, no,” she muttered, carefully erasing a slim curve on the paper before her. “That’s not right.”

Frowning down at the shattered and slightly bloodstained remains, of her old armor plating, she followed a line until it was bisected by sharp destruction. Which was not nearly as cool as it sounded, since it was going to cost her a fortune to get this remade since said destruction had made repair nigh on impossible, much to her displeasure. The whole Sealing Array had been mucked up by that chakra metal, whatever properties it had shattering the connectivity.

“Was it…” continuing muttering, she carefully curled a line widely at the very end, careful of thickness and eye balled it for a moment, pursing her lips. “Hmm… closer…”

“You should use the Sheltered Fountain here,” her whole body tensed painfully as a large hand pointed to, and followed her sketched lines with a blunt, tanned fingertip. “It’ll give you more mobility without ruining the density.”

Releasing the moisture that she hadn’t consciously gathered from the atmosphere back into it, she glanced over her shoulder to see the Toad Sage squatting behind her, eyeing her work with some interest, and a little bit of amusement that was no doubt taken from her surprise. She scowled at him reflexively, enormously relieved that it had been him – if there were a list of people that she was relieved not to have sensed, he was on it – and not whoever it was that could potentially be gunning for her as they had been for the team she’d been on with Akadō. Subconsciously, she was still leery due to her run-in on the border where she’d faced enemies without backup even though it had been her who sent her squad mates away, especially since she was still injured and substantially unable to perform a good portion of her physical defenses and taijutsu because of it.

Looking back at her paper, she let her eyes follow the path he’d traveled and cocked her head to the side a bit.

“But wouldn’t that mess with the Grinding Hoard’s locking of the joints?” she queried, studying her work, curious despite herself.

He was a Sealing Master, and she only dabbled where it interested her, like in Sealing Scrolls, her armor, and the wards on her apartment. Which were pretty basic, Asuka could freely admit.

Heck, she rarely used explosive tags, a common enough ninja tool. The wards on her apartment had been the same for years now, something that she, her jounin sensei and her boys had come up with when she moved into the place; her house having been destroyed in the Kyuubi attack, along with –

Well.

By no means did she feel the sudden urge to jump into the field of Sealing – way too much studying and calligraphy for her taste not including the danger – but she wouldn’t deny the urge to see something of what it meant to be a Master.

A little someone would have salivated had she had the chance to pick a Sealing Master’s brain.

She felt him shake his head behind her, long white hair brushing against the back of her large long sleeved standard Konoha shirt, his significantly larger body generating a lot of heat that wafted against her back and settled warmly in her bones, relaxing her muscles the rest of the way. The man exuded Positive Intent mixed in with all that body heat he generated and it was soothing over her tired, sluggish coils and unwinding the tension in her wounded areas so that she released a deep breath, her joints popping a little as she settled back more comfortably. He barely even seemed to notice the fact that he was using a high-level Intent skill as easily as breathing, but well, that was probably part of being a member of the Sannin. He didn’t even register on the scale of normal shinobi anymore.

Still, she was a little grateful for it and his presence, the unease she’d been feeling the whole day fading away with the Konoha nin of greater skill who could act as a defense against anything that might come at them.

Nothing short of a Kage could take down Jiraiya.

“No, not with the Trailing Vine you have here,” he tapped that same finger – there were a few pale scars on his blunt, hardened hands, and mild ink stains around his cuticles, though the nails were well trimmed and cared for – against the paper in another space. “Holding the Hoard in fluidity, but with linkage.”

“Hmm, that’s cool,” she murmured without thought, fingering a flaking, dried blood covered piece of metal thoughtfully. “It’d certainly help for next time. My mobility gets hampered with it activated, even if it’s only a bit.”

“Yeah, I always thought it was pretty neat,” the man admitted, standing and cracking his neck before hollering behind him. “You shouldn’t lose much flexibility with this, but I’d need to look at the rest to really streamline it.”

Without her notice, the corner of her lip crooked up at the sudden glint of interest in the man’s dark eyes as he’d studied the array. It was a little weird, to be around a legend like this so easily. Even Asuka knew that, lowly chuunin that she was, even if her time with Kakashi had desensitized her a bit. Jiraiya was human too, even if he was a ridiculously powerful shinobi.

“How much longer are you going to take, brat?”

“Don’t,” pant, pant. “Call me,” pant, pant wheeze. “Brat!”

Rolling her eyes, she turned enough to see a rather bedraggled Naruto running towards them with, takeout foodstuff in two large bags in either hand held as straight out from his body as he could get it – oh, his shoulders must have been burning – and another bag tied to his back. He was flushed and sweaty and downright unhappy. The kid had asked for it. Like, literally.

Well, she’d never been stupid enough to train under a Sannin, so…

As he reached them, he only had eyes for the older shinobi, apparently not noticing her at all as he set down his load, panting, hands on his knees as he wheezed a little bit.

“Not a brat!” a quick burst of breath. “Uzumaki Naruto!”

With a chuckle of good humor, the man took a seat beside her, idly lifting one of the takeout bags and opening it, hitting her nose with the scent of gyoza, causing her stomach to whine mournfully and the man handed her a box with an amused grin, getting her to smile back with a self-mocking roll of her eyes. Being injured really took it out of her, and even though her mission pay had already gone through, she was waiting until her rent cleared and her armor order was in to go shopping since it was more expensive to go out to eat with a healing appetite.

Man, she was such a mooch lately…

“Thanks,” she said gratefully, opening the box after setting aside her sketch. “Itadakimasu!”

Picking up one of the small steamed savory treats, she watched the orange wearing genin do a double take after looking at her with her initial thanks, blue eyes wide.

“Asuka-nee-chan!” he sounded completely bewildered and delighted at the same time. “What are you doing here?”

Raising her brows as she swallowed the heat of the morsel, she sighed in pleasure at the warmth suffusing her body. Ah, that was the stuff.

“Well, this is normally where I train when I don’t have an appointment with you brats,” she gestured carefully towards the great gouges missing from the earth, and the broken stumps and trees, her muscles twitching and cramping in protest of any larger or faster movements. “But since I’m on medical leave for the time being, I just came for the quiet,” a wry twist of her lips. “Not that I’ll get that now.”

“Medical leave?”

The boy looked so worried and earnest that she had to reach out and muss up his disgustingly sweaty hair with a grimace, wiping the moisture onto his dusty tracksuit, causing him to squawk at her with insult.

“Are you hurt, Nee-chan?”

“Are you going to eat or not?” the Sennin challenged, reaching for the other bags dramatically, causing the boy to jump and hiss like a startled cat, grabbing a bag to himself and sidling away from the adults, mumbling to himself as he did so, giving the white haired man the stink eye.

The shinobi turned and looked at her with a critical eye once the boy was far enough away, eyes lingering on her single straitened leg and her lower torso where she sat, back carefully propped up against a small rock, favoring her left side.

“You were on the border then?”

“Yeah.”

She crinkled her nose at her hand and pulled water out of the air to scrub at it before dismissing the liquid again. It was just unhygienic to touch food with your hands covered in boy sweat, no matter how used to it she was it was still gross.

“Unfortunately,” she searched around the bag that the box had come in with a frown. “Got any sauce in the other bags?”

“Ah, yes,” the man pulled a small cup out for her and she happily dug into the appetizer before her, the man pulling out some wontons for himself as she did so, and chowed down. “Sensei said you thought that it was Sound.”

“Yeah,” mumbling around her mouthful, she swallowed it down, glancing up to meet the older ninja’s eyes. “He tell you how long they’ve been humping the boarder like dogs in heat?”

A sharp bark of laughter rumbled out of his mouth in surprise at her words before he shook his head, amusement curving expressive features and dark eyes.

“Six months,” she scowled, staring at her food with a glare, completely missing the shocked narrowing of his eyes as he regarded her. “At least,” she continued. “Because I started up this rotation of border patrol just under seven ago, and they weren’t as obvious then, but they were there enough that I noticed when I started, but as soon as the rumors about the Chuunin Exam being in Konoha popped up, those little shits were everywhere,” munching on another fried gyoza, she carelessly took the juice bottle the man handed to her with a mumbled thanks. “I mean, first, they were only passing through, and then, the next thing you know, they’re fucking camping on the border, flirting with how much farther inside they can go before I kick them out because apparently no one else has the balls to do it.”

That wasn’t right, not then, but the members of her chuunin squad who would have, were dead or contemplating ending their shinobi careers.

In her frustration and uneasiness, she didn’t notice the darkening of the man’s eyes, nor the contemplation.

“Why wouldn’t he mention this?” was the soft mutter from the Toad Sage as he stared down at his food. “He told me everything about the situation he had but none of this…”

“Everything?” she frowned, putting aside the empty container and eyeing a meal Styrofoam hungrily until the man forked it over. Ooh, yakisoba! “Did he tell you about the mole that was playing as Akadō Yoroi?” a nod. “Did he tell you about how the last people who were on a mission with the real one – excluding me – on the border, have all had unfortunate accidents that are either career ending or rather final?” a shake of the man’s head, furrowed brows. “The fact that I’ve somehow become friends with that loudmouth’s –” she gestured at the silently choking little Naruto off to the side. What in the world…? She really shouldn’t think about what was wrong with that kid. “– Sensei is probably why they haven’t been able to pin me down. I’m pretty sure that all of this was in the reports I’ve been handing in, and while I’ve been expecting a summons from the Hokage, I haven’t yet received one for more than two of my border patrols that have gone south.”

“There’ve been more,” the man stated, rubbing a hand over his eyes.

“A lot more.”

~*~

After they’d finished eating, they’d put that topic aside, deciding instead to talk about the Sealing Network that she was apparently going to improve – “So archaic! How the hell did you work with these things?” “The usual way, I imagine.” “Ooh~, the lady has fangs!” “She also has knives.” “Ah, right, ahem, continuing on…” – with Jiraiya’s help as Naruto practiced Summoning – and boy had that surprised the heck out of her – of all things and she found herself almost reluctantly fascinated. Summoning, like Sealing, was a rather rare art to be used, and was generally only passed from one person to a single other, rather than spread out to the general populous. It was a bit of favoritism and classism that would likely never change, especially since ninja were paranoid, sneaky, guarded bastards, so she didn’t mind too terribly much.

“But with the Bowing Crane – “

“– no, no, the Collapsed River would – “

“– doesn’t that remove the – “

“– you see, the Market Swallow holds the fusion together – “

They continued on this track for perhaps an hour and a half, before the woman found herself nodding off in exhaustion, the chakra enforcement she kept on her wounds pulling her down in the darkness with one last small yawn. She half registered large, warm hands as they guided her to lie down comfortably on the ground rather than awkwardly propped up against a rock so that when she woke she wouldn’t have a crick in her neck or an ache in her back.

When she woke, the sun was threatening to settle behind the trees with dusk, the Uzumaki boy was passed out spread eagled on the ground snoring some feet away, and she herself was covered by the Sennin’s sleeveless red haori, with a traveling pillow placed beneath her head, her legs curled up to her chest comfortably. The scent of road dust, sap, sunshine and wet grass mixed with something almost similar to kerosene oil and ink was hovering around her, her nose buried in the collar of the red cloth that covered her as she sleepily blinked her eyes open, squinting at the hazily familiar garment before she woke fully. She sat up carefully and rubbed her eyes, pulling the warm coat off of her body and folding it, trying not to think about the huge whiff of stale chakra scent she had just taken in, setting it to the side where the man’s large scroll was leaning back against the rock she had been previously as she saw the shinobi start his way over from where he’d been doing something in the tree line.

It appeared that the man had little care for who got a whiff of his chakra scent, no matter how old or detached from his spirit it was, she realized with a soft flush as she worked her way to standing. It was unlikely that he wouldn’t have taken it into account when he’d placed the cloth over her, doubly so when he’d given her his own pillow to use, which was saturated in the scent as well.

“I finished that layout for you,” the man told her quietly.

As she stood, carefully stretching her stiff muscles, she looked at him in surprised pleasure as his hand outstretched with her notebook in his hold, the pencil she’d been using stuck in the metal spiral.

“Really? Thank you,” she acknowledged with a slightly sleepy smile, taking the proffered items from the shinobi. “You didn’t have to.”

“No, it was fun,” the man leered a little. “Plus, it’s not every day I get to do a favor for a pretty lady.”

She chuckled, her cheeks warming a little with the blatant, funny flirtation whilst she was still hazy, flipping through the notes he’d made haphazardly throughout, raising her brow at a couple diagrams she had no clue what they meant. He had really gone to town on this, hadn’t he? If she wasn’t mistaken, some of these outlines had absolutely nothing to do with her armor, and a couple of sections were actually written in offhand code that she wasn’t entirely sure he had realized he was using at the time but she said nothing and just held the notebook.

It’d give Anko something to do the next time her insomnia struck hard. She loved a good mystery, and definitely needed the distraction.

If she came home to that woman organizing her poisons on her kitchen table one more time

Well, she’d just have to apologize to the Sandaime for depriving him of one of his talented T&I specialists because that was a kind of torture that Asuka hadn’t been trained to resist, the constant paranoia that all of her personal food supply had been accidentally sabotaged.

“Well, I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,” she returned amusedly, scratching at her cheek in a manner reminiscent of the Copy-nin, a motion that the man before her noted with amusement and raised brow, but she didn’t catch. “I’m sure that this improved network will serve me well.”

“I should hope so!” the man grinned easily. “Let me see the mold when you get it made, won’t you?”

“Of course,” she glanced up and gauged the time with a sigh, rolled her shoulders and got a crack from her joints in response. “Well, I have to go, but thank you for all your help, Jiraiya-sama.”

The man stopped her as she was turning to leave with a large, warm hand on her shoulder, the restrained feel of his chakra even though he was still producing crazy amounts of Positive Intent had her hesitating and she looked up at him curiously.

“Those Seals,” he looked meaningfully at her hands, and she found herself gripping her notebook a little tighter, pulling them in towards her chest protectively. “They were done by him?”

“Ah,” she felt sadness and pain bloom in her heart, as it did for all of Konoha’s people. “Yes… yes, they were.”

“They’ll need to be reinforced soon,” Jiraiya said softly, his dark eyes soft with his own sadness and tired grief. “They might last a couple years yet, his work was pretty much flawless. Even so, I’d be generous to give them at the most three. I’ll do them then, even if you have to come to me to do it. The old man won’t begrudge me that if I ask for it.”

Swallowing at the thought of losing that tiny bit of chakra from the Yondaime that whispered like a ghost in the Seals, she nodded at him firmly. Sentimentality of that kind could get her killed and… there could be a way to preserve it, and when the time came, she’d ask the Sennin despite how embarrassed she knew that she would feel. It was such a small amount that no one else could feel it anymore, she’d checked, but she had been so proud when the man who had been their Hokage for such a short time had offered to give them to her when he’d come across her in a training field fretting about where she would keep her katana since it was almost as long as she was tall… that it ached to think she could lose the piece of him she had left.

It was selfish, but she didn’t want that.

“Of course, Jiraiya-sama,” she turned and started to walk away.

“Call me Jiraiya, Asuka!” he called after her and she waved behind her in response.

It looked like she was making interesting friends left and right, didn’t it?

Despite the ache in her chest, the thought was a good one.

~*~

Going through her old things was always something of a trial, a bit of heartache that brought tears to her eyes that never quite fell, but this time she had a purpose. As opposed to all those other times where she was panicked at the thought of forgetting what the faces of her parents and sister had looked like. Memories faded into time.

It wasn’t melancholy or a bit of grief that had driven Asuka to look through her family’s old things, and it wasn’t a fading memory that she desperately wanted to have back to the pristine visage it once had. There was no burning ache in her spine or the trembling of her hands that made her question herself and her choices, needing the reaffirmation of people long gone who had set the path that she still walked.

No desperation for comfort had her walking down memory lane this time.

All that talk about the Seals etched into her hands had gotten her thinking about the sword and sword breaker that were held within them, a twitch of chakra away from the surface to allow her deadly access to her weapons. They were of terminal use in the correct hands, and she freely admitted that she knew how to make the most of her blades; she had visceral memories of parting flesh and slicing through bone to great effect. Of limbs falling to the wayside. There was a safety in her blades that the chuunin would never take for granted, attached to her as they were through the generosity of a man over a decade gone, a part of her as much as her breath and eyes were, as intrinsic as the very beating of her heart.

Asuka hadn’t always used a katana.

It hadn’t been her passion as a child, either.

What she knew about her mother’s family was that they’d come from a coastal the water was in the blood the blood was in the water area and been invited in just like everyone else when the village was being founded, and they’d brought with them their techniques and abilities. Nothing too impressive really, no kekkai genkai or fancy Clan jutsu. No glorious minds that could outthink someone by twenty steps and still have room to spare, no talent towards a certain shinobi art over another.

Just the sword.

Something that in that time, was considered more of an eccentricity than anything, considering in the Warring Era few had used kenjutsu outside of the samurai, though Senju Tobirama was certainly known for it.

To be honest, when she was growing up, despite learning the katas at her mother’s and great grandmother’s knees Asuka hadn’t been particularly interested in kenjutsu, and the only people she’d really known in Konoha who used it were her family; which didn’t make it super cool. She’d loved her family, but like most children outside of a Clan, she hadn’t found them terribly interesting. Sure, it had seemed like a good skill to have, a tool that would keep her alive in times of war, but she’d still been a bit of a taijutsu snob at the time. There had been – and still was – something viscerally satisfying about the feel of someone’s face being bashed in by just a fist and relying solely on the power of your body to defend you.

Until her mother had died.

Nagisa Botan had been a slight woman with darker than average skin, pale white blonde hair and green eyes. She’d had a bit of a solemn air about her, seeming almost sad and always a little bit tense, but she’d been gentle with a mischievous streak that had entrapped her father. She’d been lovely in a near eerie way had earned her the name of Ghost Blade, though she’d never been more than a tokujo, never had a particularly high bounty. When Asuka looked into the mirror, she saw little of her mother other than the shape of her cheekbones, her eyes just slightly off in shade, and the way that her expression settled when she wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. Her features had always taken more after her father.

Her sister had always taken after their mother’s looks more, and Asuka had been glad for that.

When Botan had died out on the front lines of the war, it had lit a fire under her ten-year-old self to be better. To end this war with her own two hands if she had to, to keep her family and team safe and alive because losing someone hurt. She’d been out on the front lines too, knew that her mother had died in a way she’d seen her comrades go, despite being older, more powerful, more experienced. Knew that it couldn’t have been a peaceful end. There had been nightmares that her genin team had tried to sooth her through, of her mother bisected on the battlefield, or disemboweled just slowly waiting to die as other fought on around her.

It had been… a trying time.

So, she’d trained harder and taken up the katana.

Not that even as a child Asuka had thought that she could get strong enough to end a war, but… but it had helped with the grief, and now every time her palm gripped her sword she could almost hear her mother talking her through katas. Could almost feel that guiding hand so much larger than her own, and smell the sweet scent of oranges and ink that followed the woman everywhere, the comfort that would enfold her with safety and surety. She remembered the sight of her family seated on the back porch encouraging her while she desperately fended off her mother’s lackadaisical but painfully more skilled strikes as Asuka herself stumbled around like a drunk lemming.

While she dwarfed what her mother had once stood at, half a head taller than she had been and twice as thick besides, there would always be safety in the memory of her.

No, Asuka’s family hadn’t brought much to Konoha, but it’d brought enough.

The name of Nagisa was inherited, yes, but it was also the mark of one who studied the blade under their styles. If Asuka hadn’t learned from her mother, she would have taken her father’s name of Midorinako, as her younger sister had, uninterested in any sort of bladed weapon.

It was a way to adopt someone if not into the direct family, then into the family style.

“Ah, here you are,” she murmured, pulling out the thin scroll, eyes a little sad as she looked down at the battered thing. “It’s a wonder I haven’t tossed you yet.”

Not really, she’d kept everything she’d managed to salvage from the wreckage of her childhood home, viciously hoarding everything that reminded her of a family long gone and still missed; she only had fond memories of her kin. The only tragedy her family had had was that she was the only one left, and the rest had died too quickly.

Even if she didn’t wallow at the loss of her family, she’d never throw away their history.

Her thoughts slid to a little girl who, during her chuunin fight, had done a particularly familiar twisting, shoulder pivoting kickback combo that Asuka had never directly taught her, nearly perfectly, even if she hadn’t the strength needed to really pack a punch. Had only ever used when sparring against Kakashi that she could see, and sparingly at that.

Now, she thought with a twinge of nerves in her chest. Will she say yes?

~*~

Now that she had her here in front of her, Asuka felt something almost like nerves trying to curl uncomfortably in her chest.

When she’d met up with Sakura at the training grounds they liked to use when it was just the two of them, seeing as it was a little closer to the tea shop they liked to frequent, Asuka had given herself time to think by having the genin do her warm ups. It was no small thing, what Asuka was contemplating, no small thing to want to give this to someone outside of her family, outside of her blood – her stomach clenched with grief and wistfulness, making her new scar tissue ache – and she was well aware that the girl would understand that as well. Perhaps not as well as someone who had grown up in a secretive shinobi household, but enough to know that this was special; Sakura was intelligent and intuitive when it mattered.

“Sakura,” Asuka said quietly, feeling an uncharacteristic tension in her chest. “Come here.”

Easily and with a smile the recently short haired girl skipped over towards her kunoichi sensei, open affection and eagerness to learn on her pale face, a little smudge of dust on her cheek from her exercises. Warmth bloomed in the chuunin’s chest in turn and she felt her stiff features soften with her own smile for a moment as she looked down at her student, one of the genin that had been thrust upon her. And… couldn’t find any of the previous exasperation at the time used on these children. This girl.

I… Oh.

I love this girl.

It wasn’t particularly surprising, something in her had known since she’d come upon them in Wave and felt fear burst through her guts at the thought of them facing Zabuza, of what a powerful missing nin could do to fresh genin, and she knew that she would need to care for someone very much to pass on something so precious. It was still… it had been a long time, since she’d let someone new in, and all of them had been adults with the ability to care for themselves outside of her.

When she knelt down in front of her kunoichi genin and pulled out that little, battered scroll, emerald eyes met curious seafoam green and Asuka felt solemnity fall over her features. It felt heavy and too light, whispers of near forgotten chakra slithering through it, familiar and distant as all others who had touched it were in the Pure Lands.

“Sakura,” her voice was low and quiet. “I’m going to ask you something very serious, and I need you to answer me completely truthfully.”

A moment of silence as the girl took in the seriousness of her words before she swallowed and firmed her features, planting her feet as if to brace herself.

“Okay, Asuka-sensei.”

“Why did you become a kunoichi?”

If this had been but a matter of weeks ago, this girl would have stuttered about Sasuke and being a beautiful bride, would have flushed and stuttered about a boy who was a little too broken to be able to deal with the fawning of near practical strangers. Who couldn’t handle other peoples’ emotions being thrust upon him because he could barely manage his own most days and refused to acknowledge them others.

It wasn’t weeks ago, and Sakura took a few minutes to gather her thoughts, staring at her kunoichi-sensei as she considered.

“I wanted to protect my Tou-san,” the girl spoke just as quietly, and with just as much gravitas. “I remember being little and my mother crying because he’d been hurt on a business trip outside of the village, and if it hadn’t been for the ninja he’d hired to protect him, he would have died.”

Pale green eyes blinked rapidly and teeth bit into a pink bottom lip and worried it for a moment.

“One of the ninja was a kunoichi, and she lost an eye while her partner lost some fingers. When we went to thank them, she…” Sakura swallowed. “She laughed and said that it was worth it to know that he got to go home to his family.”

A deep breath.

“I wanted to be able to say that I could send someone home to their family.”

For several long, tense moments, Asuka examined her young charge, taking in the way that her muscles trembled slightly with the strength of her emotions, the way that her lips quivered; but most importantly, the way that her eyes burned with determination even if they looked shiny with emotion.

The Will of Fire.

The desire to protect.

“That’s a good reason,” the chuunin said softly, her lips twitching into an almost smile, ignoring the ache in her side. “Now, I’m going to ask you one more very important question.”

A quick pin of chakra at her fingertip had blood welling up and she slathered it over the Seal, a silk cloth wrapped thin bundle sliding out smoothly to sit in the callused palms of her hands. It felt heavier out of the scroll, emanating a near foreign chakra only millimeters from what was held within.

“Do you want to learn the blade from me?”

And that was how she’d ended up with a pink haired girl she’d come to love struggling against tears and sniffling as she tried to get ahold of herself and give that oh-so important answer that Asuka needed to hear.

Pale green eyes were wide as the girl stood stock still in front of Asuka.

They slowly filled with tears that the chuunin hadn’t quite expected, but they weren’t… altogether a surprise. Sakura was a girl who felt deeply, and her quick mind made it feasible for her to keep the majority of her emotions under control, though she was still young and inexperienced.

“Y-Yes!” the girl choked out, rubbing her fists against her eyes. “I want to learn from Asuka-sensei!”

“You need to be sure,” she cautioned, slowly unwrapping the broken blade in her hands, a remnant of her family’s legacy during the Warring Clan Era and before. “Because once you put your blood and chakra into this blade, you’re bound by oath to learn a bladed art from me. My family styles are important to me, and if you agree now rashly and without thought and do not strive to do your best even if you find it not a skill you can master or wish to use… it will hurt me greatly.”

Rubbing her hands over her face, Sakura took a fortifying breath that shook her whole body, circulating her chakra to help ease the symptoms of her strong reaction just as she’d been taught, before looking down at the broken remnants of the katana.

The hilt wrapped in frayed, near worn through leather, tattered cloth that had paled with age so much that the color couldn’t be guessed at, stains of blood that could never be removed held the strength of her forebears. It wasn’t particularly attractive, but it had survived countless generations of ninja before Hashirama had even been a dream in a Senju’s eye, and hopefully it would last a generation or two more, to pass into the hands of the future. The blade was broken several inches from the guard – which was cracked and made of some obscure stone and worn smooth by time, whatever details there had been gone to the ages – and a few shards of the rest of the blade remained. Most of it had been lost to time, pieces left behind when needs must.

The metal shown red in the light of day, reflecting eerily, no stain upon its surface but colored by the bloodline of those who had wielded it and learned its art.

Looking away from the broken blade of Asuka’s past, determined light green eyes met serious dark green.

That’s my girl, Sakura.

“I, Haruno Sakura, genin of Konohagakure, do truthfully desire the tutelage of Nagisa Asuka, High-combat chuunin of Konohagakure, to teach me the blade and will stand true by my word.”

Her voice shook just a little at the end of her pledge, but it was all that Asuka needed from her.

“Then step forward, and present both blood and chakra to the Shio no Zetsumetsu, pledging your oath to learning the path of the blade in the way of Nagisa.”

Without another moment of hesitation, Haruno Sakura, genin kunoichi of Konohagakure, did just that, sliding a finger along the broken blade in a motion that Asuka had done countless years before seated before her mother.

Asuka was proud and relieved, jittery affection stirring in her chest.

The girl smiled tremulously at her, and then promptly through herself into her teacher’s arms the moment that the woman had put the shattered blade back into its battered scroll, small body thin but growing, and warm, with a weight to it that Asuka was just coming to comprehend. The woman thought about a move copied that had been done near perfectly, thought of the few times she’d seen this girl twist her once long hair into a bun idly, or fall into stretches that weren’t Academy standard, mimicking Asuka.

She thought of her mother’s hands guiding her own… and smiled.

The Nagisa would not die with Asuka.

~*~

Once the tears had calmed down, Asuka had offered that maybe they should go cool down and take some time to equalize their emotions before doing anything like training. Doing physical work when it was unnecessary after some emotional upheaval wasn’t exactly the best course of action, despite what some ninja practiced, and it wasn’t like it was a chore to spend time with the genin girl.

Sakura wasn’t the only emotional one, anyway, even if the chuunin was just better used to waiting until she was alone to express it.

They went to their regular teahouse, waiving at the server familiarly to get their regular orders.

As she listened to Sakura chat away about how infuriating her friend Ino was, she wondered at how the time had seemed to fly by. This girl was already leaps and bounds more mature than she had been only a month prior, and she was still keeping up her training, despite not having someone around to teach her or supervise her without having to ask on her own. She’d apparently been spending time with the Yamanaka girl and sitting in on her practices with her team, as well as with her father, Inoichi, when it was allowed, so that she wasn’t unsupervised whilst doing physical training. Heck, she’d even gone up a training weight size since the last time she’d spoken to the girl, which she was inordinately proud of.

She was growing up.

The little civilian girl was slowly but surely becoming a kunoichi. One to be proud of.

Smiling at the pink haired girl, Asuka couldn’t keep the fondness from expression, absently running a hand over the chattering genin’s smooth, short locks. Sakura beamed at her, not stopping the flow of words sliding from her lips, hands moving dramatically to properly demonstrate her thoughts.

She was a good kid.

“– and then, Ino-buta said that now that I had short hair, Sasuke-kun would never like me,” she looked at the chuunin before her with something like incredulity. “I don’t really think that Sasuke-kun cares much about anyone’s hair, do you?”

With a dry laugh, she shook her head. No, the only hair that boy cared about was his own, she was sure.

“Um, Asuka-sensei?”

The girl queried some time later over dango and tea once they’d found a place to sit, pale green eyes almost hesitant under furrowed, delicate brows.

“Yes, Sakura?”

“You know some iryō-ninjutsu, don’t you?”

“Yes, some.”

The woman blinked and looked up, curious as to where this was leading. Would the genin ask to be taught, she wondered? Another thing to add to the list.

It wouldn’t surprise her, and she certainly had the chakra control for it…

“Well, there’s that boy in the hospital,” she murmured, brows twisted in concern. “Rock Lee, and while I don’t like his eyebrows or know him very well, they say that he may never be able to be a shinobi again and,” she bit her lips, staring down at the empty skewer in her hand. “And that’s horrible,” jade green eyes looked up at her imploringly. “Do you think there’s anything you could do?”

“Oh, Sakura,” she sighed sadly, reaching across the table to run her non-sticky hand through the girl’s short locks. “I’m afraid that if a fully trained iryō-nin could do nothing, there’s nothing that I could do, with only field training.”

“Oh.”

Her voice seemed so small as she stared down at her hands.

“If Tsunade-sama were here, she’d likely be able to do something,” the chuunin found herself continuing. “But without her, there’s little anyone could do.”

“Senju Tsunade?” the girl queried, blinking large eyes up at her kunoichi sensei again. “The woman who’s one of the Sannin, and created the No Flow jutsu?”

The No Flow jutsu was a jutsu that stopped a woman from dropping her eggs whilst she had the jutsu activated, and was only available to those who had had at least one uninterrupted menstrual cycle, before it was introduced to the system. The jutsu could only be removed by the person who had put it on, and generally, the recipient themselves put it on, but sometimes, if you felt you were at risk of torture or something similar that could cause you the mental stress that would make you release it, you would have a close friend or family member – some even used their iryō-nin – cast it for you. The jutsu itself ceased like all jutsu did, at the time of death, when all higher functions ceased. This jutsu also had the side effect of making kunoichi who used it hold eggs longer, giving them a longer time span in which they could potentially have children, and they lacked several of the risks of older women giving birth, considering their active chakra systems and hardier bodies.

It was however required that one month out of every year that it be deactivated, so that the hormones of the body could run their course, and the woman in question was taken off of the more dangerous active duty roster, just in case, because sometimes missions went south.

Really south. Especially for kunoichi.

Asuka herself had Anko in charge of her No Flow for the time being – she switched it up every now and then between the people who stayed within village parameters – and was contemplating asking Imori, no matter how uncomfortable it would make him, considering the fact that he was bedridden for the foreseeable future. Even afterwards, when he was released from constraints, she was sure that he was going to take a desk job so that he could spend time with his grandchildren more often. Hell, he could take a position at the Academy, he had the aptitude as well as the general knowhow, and she was sure that the kids would love him and his gruff growly self.

There were, of course, civilian versions – the civilian council would have thrown a fit if it were ninja specific – since they didn’t have the chakra networks to support the jutsu, but most used the hormonal injections that the Sennin had created, either that or they took herbal remedies which weren’t quite guaranteed to work but were actually cheaper.

Also, there was a male version, because it wasn’t just females who were in danger of things like line theft and the like, which made it so that the spiritual chakra that would give life to the sperm didn’t exit the body with the release. This was also something that was manipulated by the mental coils, regulating the minute amounts of spiritual chakra that men would have otherwise released with their semen when they ejaculated, and it was pretty much dealt with in the same manner as the No Flow jutsu, the female version – the male version was generally called No Go, as in no energy in the sperm of the shinobi – and someone else was the one who cast it and removed it.

They were actually slang, No Flow and No Go, but for the life of her if they had an official name Asuka couldn’t remember it anymore.

“The very one,” she confirmed. “She’s the most talented medical ninja to have ever spawned from any village. She’s created several medical techniques and basically wrote the Konoha medical textbooks, as well as being the reason we have such a large hospital in comparison to other villages, being a more medically involved village due to Tsunade-sama’s influence.”

“Really?” jade eyes looked up. “Do you think she’d do it?”

“Well,” she sidestepped a little. “If she found herself in Konoha,” which wasn’t likely to happen, given the woman’s rumored fear of blood and having disappeared from the village before Sakura was born. “Then she could definitely do it.”

Miracles were known to happen, after all.

“Now, it’s time for a workout, my dear.”

The dull thunk of the girl’s forehead meeting the tabletop was music to her ears, the tortured groan released pulled an amused laugh from her throat. Just because she’d said she’d teach her the blade didn’t mean they’d start before she thought that Sakura was physically able. There was still plenty of gear needed before that could happen, and certainly more strength training was required; as well as building up the girl’s chakra reserves.

Before anything happened, she wanted this girl at peak heath.

“Now, now, don’t be like that.”

“I hate you, Asuka-sensei…”

“Oh, no you don’t.”

She was so happy that Kakashi had asked for her help.

~*~

The girl’s question in regard to the other genin had, however, made the chuunin curious about the young, exuberant clone of the Green Beast and so she found herself making her way through the hospital towards the room she’d been directed to by a rather tired looking member of the hospital staff.

While she didn’t think that she could do anything more than the trained doctors themselves, she didn’t think that it would hurt to look in on him and give her well wishes, all things considered. Even if he couldn’t have visitors, she was sure the exuberant kid would appreciate the well wishes. The fact that they were encouraging him to not try to be a shinobi anymore, that it was unlikely that he would be able to, was really sad, the pink haired girl was right in that regard.

To be honest, Asuka didn't know what she would have done if their situations had been reversed, but she doubted it would have been good.

“Hey, Asuka-senpai!”

Blinking in surprise, she stopped and turned to see Mai running up to her.

Mai was an orphan from the second war of unknown heritage, no last name to indicate who her family had been, though her darker than honey skin tone was rather hinting at some islander in her. In contrast, she had Yamanaka bright blonde hair that framed her lovely brown eyes, but was kept in a short bob, her bangs pulled to the side and held with dark purple clips. She was a singularly pretty young woman, almost six years younger than the green eyed woman, and a Mid-chuunin medic with combat secondary. While most of the chuunin rank avoided the swordswoman because of her lack of social niceties, there was something brazenly friendly and sociable about the younger woman. Once she’d heard that the other was High-combat, she had approached her for help in improving her chances of field work, dogging her like Asuka couldn’t even believe. Field medics were in high demand, but the requirements for acceptance were rather steep for those who didn’t specialize in combat instead of medicine. Losing a fully trained medic was much more detrimental than losing a grunt frontline fighter.

There were few High chuunin in general, and as far as the green eyed woman knew, there were only two other High-combat, both of which were men who were usually out of the village for one reason or another.

Because she hadn’t minded aiding a comrade in bettering herself, she routinely began to beat the shit out of the blonde woman, who took it all with a smile that she would later learn – considering her personality – had to do with how her on again off again partner enjoyed taking care of her battered and bruised self.

Usually, it was the other woman’s partner who inflicted the damage, though she had never heard Mai complain, and generally not in situations that meant danger, either.

Quite the contrary, actually.

There were the rare few wounds that could be explained by training, but usually it was something of a more… intimate matter.

While it made the green-eyed woman a little disturbed on occasion, she was a firm believer in to each their own.

So… if the woman who was approaching her was sporting a rather nasty black bruise across the bridge of her nose and there were butterfly bandages holding cuts on her brow and lips, she had learned not to question it and just go with the flow. It was better than pondering on the rope burns on her wrists or the soft bruising in the shape of canine aligned teeth on her neck and shoulder. Yeah, it was none of her business.

“Run afoul of Hana again, Mai?” she quirked a smile at the shorter woman, taking in the dust and light blood spatters on her pale gray and purple dress over bandaged legs and regulation sandals. She carried her scrubs in a bag over her shoulder, looking as if she were getting ready to go onto shift before she’d called out. “Which dog did you offend this time?”

“Her brother,” she muttered wryly, grinning up at the older woman. “She’ll take me back in a few days and lick at my wounds, as you well know. Kicking my ass on the training field was enough to cool her temper. So what are you doing here?”

She half shrugged, waving a single hand in a habit she had unknowingly picked up.

“Sakura was worried about Rock Lee,” sympathy immediately bled into the younger woman’s playful brown eyes. “So, I thought I’d check in on the boy.”

“Yeah,” the other chuunin grimaced in unhappiness, thin, white blonde brows furrowing expressively as she glanced towards the ground. “That’s a messed-up case. I’m not on that one, but Fujimoto-sensei was really upset about it. They’re keeping him drugged up for now so that he doesn’t have to deal with the pain… well, that and the fact that he keeps trying to train whenever he’s fully coherent.”

“To be so young and lose what you’ve been working so hard for…” her grimace was unhappy. “I’d hate it.”

Probably wouldn't have survived it, at that age, either.

When the other woman opened her mouth to speak, Asuka felt a familiar chakra flare briefly, and her head whipped to the side in the direction it had come from. How had she missed the dazzling sun of that little nuisance for so long?

“Sorry, Mai, I’ll talk to you later!”

With that, she took off down the hall.

Moments later, she was standing in the hospital room she had been headed towards in the first place, her favorite loudmouthed genin and the disinterested Nara boy up for chuunin – if the rumors were to be believed – standing behind her while she calmly locked gazes with the redheaded boy she almost shared an eye color with, though his were more teal than forest. A lovely sea foam green, oddly ironic considering his supposed desert heritage. His short red hair was the kind of crimson she had only ever seen on one other person before, deep and bloody and bold, but his was chopped and messy, as if he had hacked at it with a kunai rather than let someone near enough to cut it properly with scissors.

He was also filtering his quicksilver, glittering and faintly copper scented sand over the broken, unconscious form of the Green Beast’s apprentice.

“That’s enough,” she stated calmly, brushing aside the mildly demonic Killing Intent that the unstable – oddly transfixed on her person foreign jinchuuriki – was releasing, sending out a soft wave of PI to chase away the vestiges, feeling the children behind her relax some, the Nara boy’s breathing carefully controlled but heavy. “Remove the sand or I will remove it for you.”

“N-Nee-chan,” Naruto stammered softly. “He says he’s got a demon in him.”

“Gaara,” she stated as she ignored the boy who had spoken from behind her, but still shifted a hand behind her palm out to signal quiet. “Do not make me repeat myself.”

Something odd reflected over too pale features and bruised, sleepless eyes and the boy from Sand lifted a hand towards his head as if struggling within himself to form coherent thought, the heavy blanket of bloodthirstiness twisting minutely to reveal a more human chakra underneath, writhing in confused agony and rage, the fragile purity of it like a breath of fresh air.

Oh, you poor thing.

“Stop…” she heard snarled softly, an undercurrent of fear and pain in his tone. “Stop looking at me…”

The sand writhed, twisting in almost-agony, and she felt the Nara boy tense as his shadow jutsu struggled to hold the chakra powerhouse across from him.

“I warned you,” she stated calmly. “I will now remove the sand.”

In a flash, every particle of sand that covered the unconscious and in pain genin was waterlogged as she yanked it off of his convalescent form and to the floor at the boy’s feet, those crazed teal eyes wide as they looked at her as his control was usurped of his automatic defense, and she felt just a little sorry for the confused shock, the unchained vulnerability there, but pushed it aside. If he had been a genin of Konoha she would have been much kinder, have tried to ease his discomfort and pain, but as it was, he was from a village that was only an ally, and she was the main ninja delegate between their villages.

She needed to be impartial.

A flash of similar if lighter green eyes filled with tears of joy slithered through her thoughts before she set it aside. This wasn’t one of her kids, and even if she felt sorry for the boy, she was in no position to help him.

“Leave the premises,” she continued in that same calm, even tone she’d been using. “Or I will remove you.”

After a long moment, the boy began to recall his sand, and she pulled the water from it as a courtesy, letting it dissipate before it could even be distinguished from the sand it had been restraining. To everyone in the room it appeared as though she had done nothing to the sand itself, although its darkened appearance at the time of removal was rather telling if one thought about it enough, even if her water manipulation had been subtle.

“What is your name?” the red headed boy asked his breathing slightly labored. “Tell it to me.”

So that I know who to kill, was the underlying statement.

She wasn’t afraid of this not yet trained child, even if he was a jinchuuriki. There were scarier things in the world, more terrifying fates than the simple death a bloodthirsty broken child could give to her.

Mostly, she pitied him.

Without a great deal of Sealing knowledge, even she could tell that whoever had performed the Sealing on the bijuu within him had no great skill in the art, that they had messed with the balance and likely given the boy a direct influential link to the tailed beast within. Linked their spiritual chakra in some mutated fashion that left his humanity frail and malleable to the negative influence of the unhappy prisoner he carried within him. She’d heard horror stories of such, had seen the impact that bad Sealing had during the wars. From his previous comments about his mother, it wasn’t unlikely that the creature was bending his fragile psyche to its whims.

It was a miracle that he wasn’t dead if this was that case, depending on the way that they had Sealed him, that he hadn’t already imploded.

“Nagisa Asuka.”

The boy hissed a little before his features blanked and he turned and left, as if there hadn’t just been a rather distinct confrontation.

When the foreigner had left the room and left her sensory range, she smoothly spun around with an exasperated tilt to her features before kneeling before the two trembling boys. Quite pale and nervous looking boys.

“You have the worst luck,” she muttered, running her eyes over her blonde genin. “Are you well, Nara-kun? How are your chakra stores?”

“Y-Yeah, Nagisa-san,” the pale, with a slight sheen of sweat and suddenly exhausted genin slumped in place. “I’m a little tapped, but I’ll be fine.”

“That’s good,” she sighed and stood, putting a hand on both boys’ shoulders, flushing her chakra through their systems to clear out the KI. “Let’s get you guys something to eat and then I’ll give you over to Asuma, yeah, Nara-kun?”

An hour later the dark haired boy had refilled about a quarter of his chakra stores after they had eaten some calorie rich bento, she had sent a quick report about the incident to the main office, and Naruto was chatting amicably with the boy about stunts that they had pulled in the Academy, having been pried off of her side to sit opposite her with his former classmate, something that the dark eyed, slouched boy was suffering good naturedly.

“There’s something familiar about you,” she mused, studying his features curiously.

He had the characteristic Nara kind of laziness that exuded from his thin, lithe and childish frame, his hair was held up in the almost traditional ponytail, and he had the almost pretty features of his fellows, who held the place as the most androgynous Clan without a bloodline limit.

Something about the eyes and the curve of his brow was…

“My dad’s Jounin Commander,” the boy mumbled into his hand where his chin was propped up on his palm, weight on his elbow on the table. “That’s probably it.”

“Oh,” she took a moment for that to sink in, before she started to chuckle. “Oh. That makes so much sense.”

The boy arched a brow at her seemingly not paying attention to her blathering genin, but she could tell he was by the way he hitched a shoulder every now and then as the boy excitedly kept speaking about something to do with spiders and the shrieking Yamanaka girl.

“If you’re Shikaku’s boy, it really explains a lot,” she stated lightly, a wry twist to her features as she leaned back against the wall behind her. “Especially how Asuma got handed a team when he had been refusing one since he was promoted to jounin years ago.”

“… What do you mean?” there was a slight frown on the corner of the boy’s lip where she could see it.

“Not that Asuma isn’t sensei material, he’s a rather gifted shinobi and he’s rather patient all things considered,” was her continuation. “But he’s a bit of a brat, really. I guess it comes with growing up as the son of the Hokage; he was used to getting what he wanted in-village. People treated him deferentially, and even if he complained about it, he was still used to it, had grown up expecting it.When he ran off to join those Guardians,” she paused. “You know about that, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, good,” she muttered in relief. “Some of the gaps in kids’ educations these days are ridiculous. Anyway, when he ran off in a tiff because daddy didn’t agree with him,” the boy had shifted so that he could sip water from a straw and choked at her words, looking at her with wide eyes. “He was an Adjutant to the Jounin Administration, directly below your father.”

The boy had just managed to clear his airways as she gave him an amused look.

“I’m sure you get the rest.”

“… Dad ended up getting all of his work when he skipped out, didn’t he.”

“Mhmm.”

He sighed, shoulders slumping further as he pressed his forehead to the tabletop as if to get rid of a headache.

“So this, getting Ino-Shika-Cho assigned to Asuma-sensei was a passive aggressive way to get back at him,” was the slightly muffled conclusion.

“Well, I’m sure it was more sending you after him than anything… though that Yamanaka girl likely drives him up the wall just as much, if not more. I have it on good authority that his kunoichi genin teammate was a shrieking harpy with cousins in both Inuzuka and Yamanaka, so the flashbacks must be marvelous. I’ve never met a disagreeable Akimichi, so I can’t say anything for your friend, likely a kindness in the long run, but that’s the gist, yes. It doesn’t make him any less effective or compatible with you three, but I dare say your father was a little bit too pleased with assisting in jounin-sensei assignments when he was called in, just for that reason. If anyone knows how irritating the Ino-Shika-Cho can be, it’s Shikaku.”

“What are you guys talking about?” came the curious query from the blue-eyed menace, his gaze jumping from one to the other with interest. “You have that look like Kaka-sensei, uh, fell into a lake again, Asuka-nee-chan.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, Naruto,” she smiled at him fondly and the memory he had dredged up. Good times. The man should have known better than to spar with her on water, no matter his proficiency with water jutsu, especially after he’d stolen her candy right from her hands. “You should be getting back to that pervert hermit while I take Shikamaru here back to his sensei.”

“… Okay, but you’d tell me if you’d pranked Kaka-sensei again, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course, have to spread the humiliation, don’t I?”

A few minutes later he was heading off to find his wayward ero-sensei and the Nara boy was slung under her arm like a sack of rice, and looking extremely at ease with the situation, as if women toted him around in such a manner all the time.

Considering who his mother was – there was something about Yoshino that was daunting no matter her smaller stature and lower rank – as well as his female teammate, she didn’t put it past him.

It took her less than five minutes to come across the former member of the Twelve and toss the limp boy at the jounin, who was painfully watching his other two genin argue, though it was more the blonde girl rather than the boy who was worriedly eating apples with a hair color rather similar to Asuka’s own. The Akimichi looked a little disheveled, as if he’d rushed to find his sensei for something, but also like he was trying not to be; ah, he’d probably done something he shouldn’t’ve. He caught the boy after a moment of surprise, the Nara looking up at him with a rather put upon and bored expression. The shock on the jounin’s features was nice, especially since said feeling had him holding the boy in his arms like a civilian romance novel’s damsel, and said boy looked like he was settling down for a nap though his features were twisted slightly to say that this was all Asuma’s fault.

In a roundabout way, it was.

“I brought you a gift, Breezy-kun,” she stated amicably, amusement clear on her features as the other members of the genin team jumped in surprise at the sudden incoming of their third teammate. The Akimichi brightened, which was nice. Happy Akimichi were the best Akimichi. “Be sure to treasure it appropriately.”

“… Asuka, do you have to call me that?”

“Yes.”

“… Really? In front of the genin?”

“Yes.”

“Umm, Asu – I mean, Breezy-sensei, are we going to train now that Shikamaru is back?”

Godammit, Asuka...”

“Have fun, Breezy-kun.”

“No – don’t! Get back here, Nagisa!”

“Breezy-sensei, Shikamaru’s asleep!”

“… I’ll kill her.”

Chapter Text

Sadly, when the next half of the exams started, Asuka found herself late coming in, having recently returned from an easy delivery mission that had taken more time than she’d assumed it would when she’d accepted it the night before. Perhaps it was because she was anticipating returning to Konoha more than she had in previous times, for the past few years, that it felt like missions were taking longer than before, though if she thought about it through the slight throbbing of her head, perhaps they had been just as tiresome, it just hadn’t seemed to matter.

There hadn't been any complications, really, but her scar had pulled some, leg aching, and she didn't want to make the damage worse by irritating the injury without due cause and had taken it a bit easy.

Her body must be using more chakra than usual to keep her going, too, since she felt a little lower in reserves than she’d anticipated, as well.

Blowing out a breath that caused her bangs to shiver, she ignored the way the genin she’d appeared next to in a brush of shunshin jumped in shock and gazed down at the arena that everyone was watching with some interest, as if it were an afternoon soap opera. Once she caught up with what the Hyuuga branch boy was blathering on and on about, she winced at the fierce expression on the Kyuubi jinchuuriki’s tanned features, his blue eyes determined as he stared down his pale, effeminate opponent.

The determination on his features peaked when he shouted his will to prove the other boy wrong – it pinched a little in her chest because she knew he was trying to prove it to himself as well, considering the lot life had dealt him so far – and then that burning chakra emanated from his body in challenge. As the match continued, she noted the many ninja who were surprised at the genin’s use of the Kyuubi’s chakra, and she couldn’t help but snort as she took a seat next to her kunoichi student with a faint smile in greeting at the girl.

It was almost as if they expected him to be ignorant of the fact that it existed, even considering the effectiveness of their past jinchuuriki in their ability to mold the bijuu’s chakra.

Honestly.

Uzumaki Kushina had been terrifying.

The woman that pretty much all kunoichi had sighed over.

She found herself proud when he was declared the winner of the match, pleased with the chakra enhanced flip that Kakashi had taught him, and called out to him to tell him as much, clapping ahead of the crowd, amused at the wide eyes that were cast at her, before he beamed at her happily. He’d managed the maneuver without exploding the ground beneath him with the force of his chakra for once, so that was nice, as well as the show of flexibility he’d given; good points in his favor over his improvement. Of course, she was a little irritated when Kakashi didn’t show up with Sasuke on time for his match, but rolled her eyes anyway at the pronouncement that the fight between Sabaku no Gaara – and wasn’t there just Killing Intent oozing from that boy – and Uchiha Sasuke would be postponed for the time being. The fact that if Sasuke hadn’t been a Uchiha the match would have been cancelled all together and it would be counted as a forfeit was acknowledged by the older generation with some irritation, but the genin seemed pleased with the fact that their friend wouldn’t be disqualified before he got the chance to compete.

Well, except for the Nara boy, but he didn’t look like he cared much either way.

Even as the Sand genin forfeited the match, the chuunin felt herself tensing with suspicion. You didn’t make it this far into the Exams for no reason, bad matchup or not, and that little shit looked far too smug and calm – forcibly so – for this to be just a case of nerves or the actual reason stated.

However, she put the thought out of her mind as the Nara made his way down to the stage with a haggard, put upon expression to fight against the female sand ninja, the one who had demolished Maito Gai’s student. Her orange clad student took up a place next to her with exuberance, extolling on the awesome that was his matchup against the Hyuuga genius, and going into detail about how badass he’d been, including sound effects and disparaging belittling of his opponent until she cocked a brow, causing him to give her sheepish eyes and to correct himself a bit. Still, kids would be kids; he wouldn’t be Naruto without his ridiculous embellishments.

The match between the Nara and the kunoichi – again, it was a little funny, considering his verbal dislike of fighting with women – was quite interesting, no matter the grumbling from others in the stands, and she found herself curious as to what the Nara boy would do in an actual battle situation, not one where he was just going through the motions. His Clan was known for their strategists and intellectuals, so it didn’t come as any surprise that the boy was rather intelligent, but his nonchalant use of battle tactics was interesting, and she took some amusement from Asuma’s apparent frustration when the boy forfeited due to a lack of chakra.

That was a lie, but she wasn’t going to call him on it. If the kid could hold a jinchuuriki for full minutes in a chakra heavy shadow jutsu then there was more chakra available than he was projecting at this point in time. He was from a Clan that had been around longer than Asuka could truly fathom, perhaps of a similar timeframe to the Senju and Uchiha; the Nara was older than the Akimichi or the Yamanaka.

Still… it wasn’t like he had to win to be promoted.

She hadn’t.

From what she’d seen so far, though, it was likely that this Nara would be the only one promoted to chuunin when the Exam was over and done with. Maybe the Aburame.

She loved her kids, but they just weren’t chuunin material, not yet.

They’d barely been genin for six months, they had plenty of time, there was no need to rush into things. This wasn’t war and they were allowed to be children for a little while longer as they grew; Kakashi and she would protect them and guide them as they improved. It was more important that they were prepared, mentally and physically, before they moved up in the ranks. Both she and her jounin knew that promoting too quickly just put strain on you, and their kids were already under enough pressure and had enough psychosis that they needed the extra time to work through it.

Plus… promotion could mean separation if they didn’t promote together.

Once the time limit for the match left the Sandaime’s lips, Asuka felt like throttling the jounin-sensei, because no doubt about it, this was his fault. The angriest little Uchiha loathed being late, and he especially would be pissed about being late to his own match, considering the boy’s stupidly competitive nature that was rarely challenged by the genin he normally surrounded himself with, though Naruto was growing into something of an appropriate rival. She longed for Haku for a moment with his serene smile, just to knock the boy down a peg, considering he didn’t actually have a rank that Sasuke could hide behind and Asuka doing so wouldn’t do anything to the boy’s ego at all.

Even if he was more emotionally open, he still had the basic Uchiha arrogance like no other.

Just when she was planning ways to cause the Copy-nin some serious pain, and mumbling them under her breath, unknowingly getting several nervous glances from everyone around her except for her genin, who were used to her threatening their jounin-sensei, as well as carrying out some of her threats, the man showed up in a burst of shunshin with the dark-haired boy in tow.

After the fuss was over, she gave him a quelling glare as he took up a position near her, causing him to laugh nervously and slouch like she’d scolded him.

Of course, she just about did scold him when she saw the Uchiha charging his hand with electricity. Hadn’t he been upset with Gai for teaching his student to open the Gates? Which was, admittedly, downright stupid to teach anyone below High chuunin, let alone to a kid with deformed chakra coils considering it could potentially cripple the kid . And yet, there he was teaching their very own angsty emo Uchiha boy how to produce lightning from his body, which had only recently had his chakra system compromised; that little hypocritical piece of shit.

Really?

He was going to pull that?

“You taught him…?” she shot him an incredulous look, which he gamely met with an infuriating eye-smile, causing her to slump and groan like she was in pain. She wanted to drown him. “I’m going to have to clean up after you again, aren’t I?”

The look he gave her was all ‘Who, me?’

Bastard.

“You do realize,” she continued dryly, returning her eyes to the match, already beginning to plot her revenge. “That when he finally hits puberty, I’m not going to deal with the temper tantrums, right? That is all on you, and I will laugh and laugh at your misfortune.”

Some kind of dawning realization coated the silence that followed her mocking, though she didn’t notice the way his visible dark eye locked onto her with something like shock mixed with awkward appreciation and stilted hope. Though she did feel the sudden whispering rumble and crackle behind her which she paid little mind to except to absently swish back at him as if shoving him playfully, ruefully twitching the corner of her lips up.

Honestly, prodigies.

“And I’m definitely not going to get between the two idiot’s pissing contests,” she gestured to where Naruto was shouting in excitement for his teammate and completely ignoring the adult’s conversation in a way that was an art form the three of them had perfected over time. “Because when they get confused on whether they want to strangle each other or fu–“

“Okay, okay,” the jounin hurriedly interrupted, eye suddenly harried as he stared at the arena with something like fixated fascination. “I’ll fix it.”

“Uh huh.”

“Really, I will.”

Riiiiight.”

“I mean it!”

“Mhmm.”

“Maa, Asuka –“

In the next moment, she was on her feet after an instinctive Kai to dispel the genjutsu that had been layered over her and those surrounding her. As she searched around herself, she saw that a good portion of the stadium was unconscious under the effects of the genjutsu, including several ninja from the Low ranking chuunin to pretty much all of the genin, though Sakura had dispelled it quickly enough, much to the woman’s satisfaction and pride.

The next instances were something of a blur of enemy ninja pouring through the stands and her making sure that the people who were unconscious weren’t impaled on randomly deflected kunai, as well as some frustration at the mixture of both Sound ninja – hah! She’d been right! – and Sand ninja pressured her. The fact that Sand was involved soured her morbid pleasure at being correct in her assessment of the new Hidden Village, though it did give her leave to stab Kowaru the next time she ran into him which was a plus. She’d see how handsy he could be without the limbs in question.

She was half aware of Kakashi giving orders to Sakura to follow after Sasuke – who’d done the fool thing and chased off after boy who was clearly a jinchuuriki, and of a much higher level of training and control – and make sure that he didn’t get himself killed. The fact that the Sandaime was battling against Orochimaru inside of a giant barrier made her both terrified and terribly angry, because if anything were to happen to the Sandaime, then all of Konoha would weep in a way it hadn’t in twelve years, and while she wasn’t one for tears, she didn’t know what would happen without that immovable fixture in her life anymore.

The Sandaime had always been there.

Behind herself, she felt medical chakra charging, and if it hadn’t been for just the faintest taint of Intent that was wrapped up in the chakra, she wouldn’t have dodged away from it, due to the familiarity she had with medical jutsu. She’d never been more grateful for her sensei managing to foist the medical jutsu off on her when they’d been promoted to chuunin, even though he’d been horribly sexist about it, considering the fact that she could have beaten either of her teammates on a good day, and often did defeat Chitose, but he’d said something about the softest teammate becoming the medic and wouldn’t hear about either of the others taking it on.

They’d copied it later anyway, because hey, why only have one medic? It was also a bit of quiet rebellion against Mori-sensei.

Sometimes she wondered if he knew, if he’d done it on purpose, been harder on her than them, because he knew something she didn’t. Because he knew how hard this world was on women, on shinobi in general.

Spinning around to face her attacker, she blinked for a moment at Yakushi Kabuto, the genin who had dropped out in the very beginning of the tournament part of the Exams, and grimaced at the fact that he had also been on the fake Akadō’s team as well. Honestly, why hadn’t anyone thought to pull him in for questioning? Hadn’t she put that in her report? Were they checking out their third member or what?

Did anyone even look at the post mission debriefs anymore?

The government of Konoha seemed to be falling down on the job.

The thought was disturbing, though it wasn’t as surprising as she’d have liked, and she would properly have a mental breakdown at the thought later. Much, much later.

Kami above, her head hurt.

“You have caused Orochimaru-sama some hindrances,” the young man stated in a kind voice, features pleasant as he regarded her, hands held easily at his sides. “You have the horrible habit of staying alive when he would much rather you just be dead.”

Lips thinning, she pulled her katana from storage.

“I’m not sorry to say that I’m enjoying his displeasure.”

“That’s too bad,” that happy smile was disturbing. “It looks like you won’t get to enjoy it for much longer.”

It was best not to fight a medic at close range, after all.

~*~

“Holy shit!” someone exclaimed. “Is that Shukaku?! The fucking One Tail?!”

She took a quick glance over towards the forest and saw a towering figure in the distance, her mouth drying out even as a giant toad Summon appeared across from the creature. Considering the fact that she knew Jiraiya was taking care of two snake Summons that his former teammate had Summoned that could only mean…

Was that… Naruto?

Sweet Mother of the Sage of Six Paths…

“Asuka!” Kakashi called, a line of tension she was sure only those closest to him noticed. “He’s made of sand, could you – “

He was cut off by a Sound ninja, but she understood what he was going for. She had, after all, sent him a missive using Pakkun about the encounter in the hospital and how she'd countered the boy's sand.

“I would if I could – fuck –” she called back, cursing when she felt a severing looseness and jagged pain bloom in the back of her arm. “– God damnable son of atch – but I’m just a tad bit busy.”

Whirling back and away, she sliced across the glasses wearing, disturbingly smiling young man’s torso, blood spraying out at her even as she grimaced, watching his flesh knit back together in record time. Honestly, she couldn’t think of a creepier sight when she’d nearly bisected someone and that was saying something.

Fucking medics.

~*~

She stood on the roof some feet behind the Copy-nin and several other ninja of Konohagakure, and she felt numb, her head fuzzy with shock and denial, despite the slow burning in her veins, staring down into that smiling, peaceful face, the same smile he had granted to all of the children of Konoha, to all those who’d loved him and fought for him throughout the years. Tripping forward slightly on rubber legs, but catching her balance at the last moment, she pulled herself out of her funk and knelt at the man’s side, firing up her iryō-ninjutsu in her functioning arm despite the discomfort, just in case… in case…

There was still a tiny, tiny spark of chakra in his coils, so small and fading so fast that she doubted that she could boost it into that all-encompassing flame again, but… she had to try.

She had to.

Her hand flared with chakra, reflecting an eerie mint green off of the water she had encased over her hand, and was slowly situating and spreading all over the Sandaime’s body for the most intensive transfer she’d ever done, didn’t even know if she could do, but even as she felt his coils respond, a fluttering of joy that caused her breath to hitch, she knew that she didn’t have the chakra.

Not alone.

“I need,” she had to clear her suddenly clogged and sticky throat. “Who –” her voice was rough as she glanced up at the men and women holding their breaths surrounding her, watching her with both dread and hope. Faces both familiar and unknown twisted with the tension and fear that was knotted up in her chest. “Who has chakra to spare?”

The next thing she knew, she was being flooded with chakra from all sides, she could feel Kakashi’s hand on her shoulder, his familiar, sparking chakra soothing along the river of her own until it touched against the Sandaime’s starving coils to be consumed, and others forming chains of chakra transferal that she flooded the empty reservoir of their beloved Sandaime with, and felt a tiny, tiny pulse.

Even as her coils began to burn and twinge with the near overload, as she felt other medics elbow their way through the crowd and kneel on the other side to support her, she felt a smile of such relief flutter over her features, stretching her stiff cheeks at the suddenly steady tempo that greeted her. He still had severe internal damage, bore horrible scars on his chakra coils, but she felt the life inside of him that had been a bare flicker rise into a small, steady flame – like a candle that needed to be shielded from the wind – as she slowly eased out of the entanglement she’d made between her own chakra system and his, slowly pulling the water she’d coated his body in off and disbursing it, gratified to hear the rickety, painfully harsh sounds of his chest rising and falling with air.

When she went to stand, the world darkened around her, causing her to stumble on weak legs before she was caught by familiar hands on her bad side, and unfamiliar ones on her good one.

“Asuka?” Kakashi queried softly, worriedly beside her.

“He’s alive,” she managed to get out hoarsely, sagging in her comrade’s hold, eyes closed against the sharp, nausea inducing pain in her skull. Everything was so bright. “That’s all I could do,” she coughed harshly against her suddenly dry throat, heat like fever spinning through her veins as something hot and wet came out from between her numb lips. That was odd, she couldn’t taste, could she? It seemed a little thick, whatever it was. Perhaps phlegm? “Rest is up to… them…”

“Asuka!”

Darkness wavered in her vision as she collapsed, the world spinning with too much heat and chilly, painful cold.

“– internal bleeding –”

Something heavy on her chest caused her to cough harshly, but the weight just got heavier, causing an ache in her bad arm’s shoulder. It was funny, how Yakushi had severed her tendon in much the same manner as the pale haired jounin had Zabuza those few months ago. Inordinately so, but she couldn’t laugh.

“– clear her airways –”

Unfamiliar chakra tried to invade her system, causing her to strike out blindly against them, only to be soothed and by the familiar, delightful thunderstorm that suddenly restrained her whilst saying her name, calling to her in both words and reaching energy, giving her pause in her assault. Did it want to play? She couldn’t tell. As it was, she didn’t think she was awake enough to play. She was very confused. It was only a moment before another familiar presence joined them where she was wrapped in a comforting cloak of static, this one with the dry heat of a reptile in the desert, caused her to fully relax. Reluctantly, she let the foreign chakra invade her network.

“– toxins in her system –”

A loud whump-whump thundered through her ears as she struggled to breathe, despite the numb ache of her body, the exhaustion in her burning coils dragging her down.

“– lose her –”

Whump-whump.

Whump… whump…

… whump…

And so, she faded into darkness.

… whu... mp...

“Asuka you can’t!”

“Not you!”

~*~

Beep… beep… beep…

Furrowing her brows at the noise was inordinately difficult, and she slowly blinked open heavy eyes, the familiar scents and feel of both hospital garb and the heart monitor had her frowning through the plastic mask that covered her face, a tube having been shoved up her nose and down her airways, likely supporting her lungs in bringing in much needed oxygen.

Just outside of her range of vision, she could hear medic-nin speaking in slightly hushed tones.

“I don’t know what to do about the poison that’s still in her system,” one man was saying, voice both grim and tired. “We don’t have the skill to remove it, and we don’t have enough untainted samples to concoct a proper antidote.”

“We have to do something,” a woman, this time, she sounded rather harried and upset. “She saved Sandaime-sama’s life! We can’t just give up !”

“And did you see Hatake-san?! We have to do something or we’re all dead!”

“I’ve never taken the thought of being fried by electricity lightly and I’m not gonna start now!”

“I know that!” the man spoke up again, voice harsh. “I know that, but it’s attacking her organs, and the only reason she’s not dead now is because she’s reinforcing her body with chakra somehow – probably instinctively, goddamned frontline ninja – against the internal threat.”

Poison, she thought dully, confused for a moment, before remembering her bout with the medical ninja Yakushi Kabuto. Right, he hit me with a senbon before retreating with Orochimaru when the Sandaime fell, saying something about finally getting me out of the way.

So, the senbon was likely lost somewhere amongst the other weapons in the stadium and it wasn’t like she knew what had been coating it anyway. Whatever, that little brat wouldn’t get the satisfaction of winning, of ending her life, not if she had anything to say about it.

This is going to suck SO badly…

A full body purge was never a good idea, least of all when she felt as weak as she did, but she had little choice if she wanted to continue living. Her thoughts were somewhat sluggish, but she knew that ending as she was would be terribly regretful, was something that she didn’t want, that there was something that she had to be there for, though she couldn’t quite tell what it was. Despite how fuzzy her thoughts were, she could tell that the muscle damage and severed tendons in her arm had been repaired, so she didn’t worry so much about the convulsion she was going to go through making the wound too much worse, but she also knew that next time she woke – because she certainly wouldn’t stay conscious through this – that she would be very, very sore.

So, gathering her chakra into her hara, she quickly converted almost everything she had to spiritual chakra to cleanse her system, before sending it charging through her coils and throughout her body, rushing out in a wave that burned like fire.

Pain.

Beepbeepbeepbeep – beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep –

Pain.

Darkness.

“It’ll be okay Asuka.”

“We’ll take care of you.”

ALWAYS.”

~*~

Ugh…”

The chuunin groaned, lifting an inordinately heavy hand towards her eyes as someone flicked on the lights, waking her rather painfully.

She heard a gasp, and then a choked noise before someone flung themselves bodily onto the hospital bed she was laying in, and only the familiarity kept her from striking out.

“Sakura?” she mumbled down at the pink head that was resting on her chest, shaking with what appeared to be sobs, frowning, before looking up after hearing footsteps rushing down the hall, and the two boys ran in, eyes wide and wild as they saw her, both fighting through the doorway, elbowing and pushing out of habit, not taking their frantic eyes off of her. “Boys?”

Blinking at them groggily, she grunted when they threw themselves at her bed as well, and small hands desperately grasping at her arms and hospital gown tightly, slight wiry forms shaking with emotion she was both gratified and regretful to see. She somehow ended up with Sakura on her left, newly healed side, tucked under her arm with her head pillowed on her breast, and Naruto curled around her waist like a limpet, the girl openly crying, and the blonde sniffling loudly into her blanket covered stomach. Sasuke hovered uncertainly beside her for long moments, his pale face twitching and slightly scrunched with his indecisiveness, and she reached out for him tiredly, her small smile warm with affection, and he swallowed hard, before glancing at his teammates as if to make sure they weren’t watching. Ever so slowly he crawled up onto the hospital bed beside her and then curled up on her free side, mirroring Sakura somewhat on the other side with his face tucked against her neck instead of her breast, and the dark-haired boy quietly hid his damp eyes against her throat.

Honestly, like a pile of puppies.

They were so warm

When they each spoke, it was near simultaneously, and each voice was full of both relief and watery pain.

“Asuka-sensei…”

Nee-chan…

A few quiet wet breathes against her throat, a soft gasp.

Asuka-san…”

Pressing her hands into the two children on her sides’ hair, she wrapped the boy on her middle in her chakra to sooth him, despite the immediate angry rather painful fizzling of her coils, and they all tightened their grips on her.

As the dark-haired boy took a careful breath against her neck she sighed heavily, head muzzy and a little out of it. Despite her quickly returning faculties Asuka definitely wasn’t at the top of her game, so she propped her cheek on the top of his head for a moment, rubbing her skin into his soft hair. The girl tucked against her chest was sobbing quietly, the intensity of the motion slowly waning as her strength did, and her soothing smell drifted up towards her, tinged with sorrow and the sour stink of fear, making her weakly pulse her chakra through that hand to try and sooth even more. Their blonde child was like a burning sun on her hara, and meadow flowers drifted to her nose as she sent a soft smile down to him, his tanned features unusually pale with a gray tinge to them, the whisker marks on his cheeks standing out more than usual.

She was a little relieved that someone had thrown her hair into a single braid and that it was lying across her chest, not stuck under a distraught genin, so that it was simple enough to turn her head at the sound of someone settling into the chair that sat by her bed to see Kakashi taking a seat there. No Icha Icha in sight, dark eye slightly relieved, but still serious as tension slowly worked out of his body. There was a tiredness that ringed that single visible stormy eye in a light bruise of strain, sooty lashes casting a deep shadow over exhaustion lines that were peeking out from beneath his trademark mask at the top of finely defined cheekbones. Smiling at him a little helplessly, she ran her slowly strengthening fingers through their kids’ hair, glad when they began to calm, Naruto staring up at her from her stomach as if she were planning on disappearing at any moment, his expressive eyes wide and wet as he watched her, tan features tensed.

Her vision was a little blurry with exhaustion, but she blinked it away, trying to think more clearly.

Kami, everything hurt.

“How –” she coughed lightly, chest and throat spasming, muscles paining her with sharp tension when they clenched with the action of trying to speak at a normal tone, grateful when the Copy-nin put a straw to her lips and she had the chance to wet her throat and mouth with the cool liquid, licking her lips carefully against chapped skin after he pulled the cup away. “How long was I out?”

“This is the third day since the failed invasion,” the jounin stated lowly, dark eye trailing over their three students where it looked like Sakura had fallen asleep, her light features drawn and tired with worry and the other two were unmoving. “As of yet, the Sandaime hasn’t awoken, but, well,” that single eye dropped a bit in sadness and pain, looking at her with just a bit of how lost he felt showing at the edges. “It would seem…”

Poor man, poor Konoha. They were all going to feel lost.

“He likely won’t be able to mold chakra very well anymore, if at all,” she finished tiredly, noting the way that the two boys jolted against her, and the twist of features beneath a mask that spoke of his agreement. “His coils were pretty much shot when I was working on them, and I likely damaged them even more when I was shoving chakra into them.”

“Yeah,” he sighed heavily, breath soft.

After a moment, the man leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees as he regarded her, gaze drifting over her sleepy, weary features softly.

The feeling of his chakra towered protectively in the room, like a reaching shield snarling viciously at anything outside of its shell that kept on checking on her own battered coils to make sure she was where she should be, and she felt her low, damaged reserves shivering back at him as much as they could, trying to take comfort and give it at the same time. It was strange to her in a way that was different than all of his mothering tendencies were, the way he worried over her as if she were going to disappear at any moment was somewhat similar to how Naruto was burying his face against her stomach as his brilliant chakra bristled lightly. The unshakable Hatake Kakashi was looking at her with a tender glint in that storm dark eye, his fingers clutched tightly together so that his nail beds stood out starkly against his moon pale flesh and silver flecks of scarring, a tiny scabbed nick on the back of his left ring finger drawing her attention. She wanted to reach out and sooth him, to have those tensed muscles relax, but she didn’t.

Cuddling the children would have to be enough.

Closing her eyes for a moment, she just basked in the feel of sparking ozone against her skin, the heavy, blanketing feel of base Intent that filled the room like a physical presence, easing her breathing and energizing the beat of her heart in a steady, stronger rhythm.

This man cared for her more than she’d thought, was worried about her more than she would have ever expected, than she would have… dreamed.

She’d missed that feeling of being important to someone, in the years that she’d been by herself.

Drifting.

Teamless.

Alone.

When she was with their kids, with him, all of them together or separate, it was like she got something back that she’d lost.

There was no replacement for her twins, but this… this was close. Still just different enough to be good.

To sometimes be better.

And they were still evolving together, changing into something more.

“I know you were poisoned, they were able to figure out that much,” he said after a moment of contemplating the scene before him, and his tone said clearly that he wasn’t very confident in the hospital’s medical ninja, it was just a little bit more disparaging than was usual. To be fair, he usually sounded a tad like that, but had never been quite so open about it, to her knowledge. Or while within the hospital. Medics could get downright nasty when they wanted toas she was currently attesting to. “But they wouldn’t tell me what it was that happened after they got you into the hospital.”

He quirked his pale brow at her tired, stiff features and the slight weakness in her arms, the appendages she’d had in the kids’ hair moved so that they lay resting on their backs.

Feeling a little warmed by his open concern – it was rare for the Copy-nin to show any emotion to such extents – she took a deep breath, trying to relax her sore muscles and gauge her full physical capabilities and limits in those moments.

“I heard them speaking sometime after I got in, probably not that long after I was admitted, actually,” she shrugged carefully, a light grimace on her features. “They didn’t know how to remove the toxins that Yakushi had shoved into me, and they couldn’t synthesize an antidote without an uncontaminated sample,” she scowled a little at the thought of the man, and shifted slightly under the weight of the children, soothing them when they mumbled and squirmed until they calmed again. “So… I did a fully body purge. And let me tell you,” she wrinkled her nose at him with lips twisted in distaste. “Those are not comfortable.”

“I’ll bet,” he stated dryly, eyeing her carefully. “There was some talk of you almost going into cardiac arrest. Twice.”

She blinked, even as she soothed her hand over the back of the Uchiha and pressed her cheek to his hair anew, as he had tensed like ninja wire about to snap at the words of his jounin-sensei, the jinchuuriki not knowing what they meant but still uneasy, and the girl sleeping the sleep of the truly emotionally weary. There was no doubt in her mind then that the jounin had been snooping about the hospital for news on her, since apparently no one was willing to tell him about her condition, even though he was the famous, Legendary Copy Cat Ninja. It was heartwarming, and a little embarrassing, but, well… she let herself smile at him, enjoying the way he shifted a little with discomfort at the slightly knowing but mostly fond glint in her eyes, but she said nothing about it, instead going over his words.

Despite his discomfort and awkward shifting, the towering force of his bridled chakra did not change in the slightest in its protective positioning over and around them.

Her heart had picked up at the news of her almost demise, but calmed at the steady, flickering lightning bolt that pulsed beside her.

She had lived.

She was alright.

A part of her that she refused to acknowledge in that moment was tired and resigned to this fact, but the majority was relieved and perhaps even gladdened to have succeeded in trumping the medic nin who had turned traitor for the rogue Sennin. For a man who had harmed and traumatized one of their kids.

Who had abandoned Konoha and all that entailed.

“Really?” she asked, a bit surprised at the thought of a cardiac event at her age. “Well, it must have had some metal or something in it, perhaps an iron base that had gotten into my heart, then, through my chakra shielding, for the reaction to have been that bad.”

“About that,” the man continued, single eye traveling idly over her features since she was no longer regarding him openly with emotions that made him uncomfortable. “How did you come up with it? I’ve never seen an internal defense like that, and neither had the Hyuuga who looked at you.”

“I didn’t,” she shook her head, keeping her cheek propped up on the slowly falling asleep Uchiha, the Uzumaki on her waist already nodding off, curled tightly around her. She wasn’t sure how she’d get these limpets off, but she might just go back to sleep when she wanted them off of her and let the lazy jounin deal with it for once. Hah. Revenge. “It was something that my jounin-sensei taught my genin team during the war.”

“Your sensei?”

“Yeah, Mori-sensei’s family was originally from Sand, so they had their own way of defending against poisons that he taught to Haruka, Chitose and I when we were genin,” she quirked a smile at him, though it was melancholy and tired. “I’ve never had reason to use it before, but… I’ve also never encountered a poison that complex before. Usually the normal antibiotics, antidotes and antivenins work, or I can remove it myself through an open wound, but, well…”

“There were no visible wounds, and you were a little preoccupied,” the man sighed, shaking his head a bit and letting it fall between his shoulders to look at the floor, one hand rubbing at the back of his neck, massaging the stiff muscles under his vest and through his ANBU issue under armor. “Well, your Mori-sensei saved your life.”

The words were heavy and filled with grim understanding.

It was the way of the Sensei to save the student.

Even after death.

~*~

Cold burning and agonizingly sharp intensity.

He hadn’t known fear like that in years, not since his Sensei had died to protect the village, not since he’d feared losing those closest to him, the pain had been sharp and indescribable. Sasuke’s encounters with Orochimaru had brought up a rage like nothing else, had chakra he hadn’t felt in over half his life roiling up to the surface to sing for blood under his skin, but he Kakashi hadn’t been afraid.

It was both humbling and alarming that he’d found someone else who could bring out that all-encompassing terror like Asuka had, the protective instinct that had bloomed with Rin after Obito because she was all that was left of their team. The only one he could protect.

Look where that had gotten him.

First, he had been so, so relieved, so amazed that she had somehow kept the Sandaime alive.

Then he had had to press his chakra around her in a cloak so that she didn’t kill the medic-nin trying to save her life.

A familiar if extreme reaction that came about because the other man’s chakra was unknown to her. Felt a jolt as her chakra reached out to him in confusion, brushing deeply against his coils. In the back of his mind at the time he had taken note of the fact that she was impressively violent when convalescent and wounded for future reference, because he had certainly not expected to have to protect one of their medics from her. It got better after Anko showed up and did that soothing chakra Intent based jutsu on her, her eyes wild with something other than crazy for the first time since he’d met the snake Summoning tokujo. The chuunin had been coughing up blood in his arms, the only arm she had that she could apparently move had had the hand clenched in the fabric of his vest like a life line as she was delirious and then fell into unconsciousness. For a few long, dreadful moments after she’d released him he’d thought she was dead, until he saw her chakra focusing inward with his – admittedly not the best idea, all things considered – still bared Sharingan eye.

He had pretty much camped out in her hospital room when the genin had been asleep, watching her breathe, growing more and more agitated the longer she slept. Her scent was subdued and sickly, weak, covered in blood and antiseptic, the smell of death that hung around the hospital like a plague overlapping her natural one. When he’d walked into that room to see her covered in their genin team and softly, wordlessly comforting them with hazy slightly confused eyes, even the taciturn and angry Sasuke, he’d never felt so much relief in his life, not even when he’d woken after the bridge mission to learn that their Sensei had shown up in time to make sure Rin was safe after he’d passed out. Not even when Orochimaru walked away from him and his chidori rather than call his bluff and attack while the young genin who was his charge lay unconscious and weak behind him.

Her easy affectionate, open expression as she looked at him had pierced him, had eased the tension in his tired muscles, and the companionship he’d become accustomed to returned as they spoke easily, despite her exhaustion and the presence of the emotionally distraught children.

That settled it.

She was pack.

Perhaps he still hadn’t settled her into a role in the pack, but she was still a part of it, still one of his to protect and have. She was his not quite Beta, but not quite something else that he had no idea of the label for and he was still refusing to ask Pakkun even though the smug bastard seemed to know what she was turning into in that regard and was tauntingly keeping mum about it.

Seeing his Team – all of his Team – in a tangle of limbs curled up together in a puppy pile atop the chuunin woman who had burrowed into his life like a particularly stubborn vole had eased something in his chest and at the same time had had his aggressive instinct, long repressed, jumping to the fore. The urge to not let anyone into the room was strong, but he managed to rein himself in enough to station one of his previous subordinates from ANBU to the room so that he didn’t have the horrible urge to just camp out in her room like a moron, keeping the children where he could see them at all times. He wanted to keep his pack safe, it was new and fragile, and he was the strongest, something he wasn’t used to in his last pack, his last true pack, and he had to take care of them, had to make sure that they were all safe, especially the trouble magnet puppies that kept tripping he and Asuka as they scampered around feet in their hurry to grow up.

They hadn’t even lost their milk teeth yet, and they were trying to take on the world.

Silly pups.

They had taken on a jinchuuriki, and while he was proud of them, had incidentally been the one to send them after the unstable boy – who Naruto had somehow magicked into a friend like his father could have, had somehow done with a jinchuuriki from Kumo – he was just as terrified and flabbergasted as those aforementioned emotion. These kids were going to give him wrinkles while at the same time swing him into early senility, and the woman was going to just flat kill him.

He was starting to really believe that Team Seven was cursed.

Of course, eventually after she had fallen into slumber again, her features more relaxed than they had been previously, he’d found some well of internal strength and herded the children out of her room and to their own homes – which he had also outfitted with a trusted ANBU guard each, and added his own higher security measures too… he may have been abusing his authority a little, but only just a little – before returning to her hospital room to gaze down at her with a rather weary single eye. He’d already had to turn away many an unknown well-wisher who wanted to give thanks or see the woman – the chuunin – who had saved the Sandaime’s life, including several members of the Council, Danzo included, that cantankerous, manipulative old warmongering bastard. Without her express permission he had decided to allow no one he had not specifically met and learned of her friendship with them into the room while she was wounded and weak, unable to defend herself to the best of her ability. He didn’t want to take any chances with her life.

She had grown on him horribly, like deadly, noxious fungus.

She was black mold in the corner of the shower at a ratty Inn that didn’t go away no matter how much bleach was used.

… The flower that bloomed through the hard packed and rocky earth despite a lack of water and sunlight.

Oh, sweet gods, he was thinking in lyrical prose. Not very good prose, but still…

Never again.

He was not going to turn into a sap like that.

It was disturbing.

Like the smile on his Sensei’s face had been whenever he’d spoken about Kushina.

Nope .

Not. Happening.

It was odd to be experiencing and learning social niceties from a woman who had few uses for them herself – and used them few and far between, from what he had come to understand – especially when it was in regard to her fellow nin. Though she was normally perfectly polite to those who hadn’t expressed some form of idiocy or narrow-mindedness – there was something about Ebisu that rubbed her wrong, but she’d given him a look and wouldn’t explain it – he found himself both amused and unhappy with the strange animosity that had bloomed between the two kunoichi he was closest to.

He liked Kurenai and Asuka was… Asuka.

He had no idea what it was that Kurenai had done to make Asuka put that chillingly polite and dangerous look in her eye that caused the opposing wariness in the female jounin after whatever retaliation had come across from the initial insult, but it certainly didn’t help matters that Naruto had apparently told his two teammates what was going on. While withholding the information from him, the little brat. His genin team was boycotting the woman that Asuma was in love with in the strangest ways like hair dye in her shampoo. Which, really? She’d also ended up smelling like fish for a while. Definitely Naruto’s doing. Still, they were mostly getting back at her by giving the woman unhappy, and distrustful looks, or ignoring her existence in the case of Sasuke. Still, he got the feeling that it had something to do with rank, which all things considered Asuka was actually the stronger kunoichi all around – being of the combat variety – than Kurenai was, so the genjutsu mistress shouldn’t have brought it up at all.

He may have become a tad bit biased, if he was being completely honest.

While he liked Kurenai, considered himself friendlier with her than other kunoichi, he didn’t actually know her that well. There was the distinct chance that he’d cumulatively been around Asuka more than her, even though he’d known the jounin since he was a kid.

Also, he’d thought the red eyed woman was above such things, like pulling rank. It seemed that Asuma as well was a little disappointed and shocked by the woman’s audacity, and had given the chuunin something of an apology of his own – he hadn’t known that they were acquainted and it made him oddly disquieted, though the nickname she used for him was just… that was just great, so perfectly hilarious – which had seemed to amuse and annoy her in equal amounts and while she had accepted it, she had said that she still wasn’t going to listen to the female jounin’s romp. Still, it was rather out of character for the red eyed woman to bring up things like inappropriate jounin-chuunin relations in public – or at all really, unless it was out of worry for a chuunin being taken advantage of – especially around impressionable genin.

Just because he did it, didn’t mean he thought his fellow jounin should.

Ah, he was a high-class hypocrite, alright…

Yes, her scolding about how he’d caused the emotional harassment of Umino Iruka had struck a nerve, and memories of his secondhand slander in the name of his father as a child had come to mind immediately. Before she’d made him frog march up to the chuunin to apologize, he’d observed the polite, kind Academy sensei – if it was to be believed, he was rather close with Naruto, so he felt doubly bad about causing the man trouble – and seen the slightly gray tinge to normally caramel colored skin, as well as the strain around eyes and mouth as his peers whispered to each other rather obviously even when he was in the room. It was just louder when he was out of it, even if the people in question didn’t seem to take into consideration – or care about – the fact that Umino Iruka had perfectly good hearing, perhaps even a bit above average if the stiffening of shoulder and slumping of confidence when he was out of eyeshot was to be believed.

Kakashi had felt sick to his stomach.

This was a disposition that was disturbingly familiar.

It was like his father in the first few weeks after that mission, the one that had condemned him in the eyes of Konoha.

So, he hadn’t protested when his new chuunin friend pulled him into the Mission office before he’d taken Sasuke out to train, had merely given a rather awkward and slightly stilted apology, taking comfort and strength from the silent support of the woman’s slighter form behind him and off to the side. The way that the Academy teacher had brightened instantly and smiled at him warmly with both happiness and relief had tugged inside of his chest and he shuffled a bit in place even as the younger man had accepted his words with little fanfare, same impossibly bright smile plastered on his scarred features as he turned to Asuka and asked her if she’d mind lunch with him. Although the kunoichi had declined and stated that perhaps another time would work better, as she had a mission she had to go on in only a few hours, the pleased flush that had taken over caramel features had intrigued the part of him that noticed how attractive people were, and the part that noted the particulars of strangers’ emotions looking for weaknesses concluded that Umino had a crush on his kunoichi chuunin.

Part of him felt awkwardly aggressive and possessive – he’d only just gotten her, he didn’t want to share his new friend yet – and another part was amused and strangely pleased.

It was good that other people were noticing how skilled and desirable his Asuka was.

… He wasn’t going to go there again.

Ever.

Nope, didn’t happen.

This really just couldn’t be happening. He’d thought that sappy wasn’t contagious!

Then… then she’d saved the Hokage.

There was nothing – nothing – that could be said by any nin of Konoha that could cover how thankful, how relieved they were that she had somehow pulled out a miracle with her special chakra water and kept the man alive from what was supposed to be a suicide jutsu. He himself didn’t know how to describe the feeling that this person who had once been a nameless kunoichi in a sea of shinobi and the other inhabitants of Konoha, this person who on a whim he had decided to associate himself with and befriend, had saved a central piece of their home. He didn’t know what it would have done for him to have lost another person who was so close to him, didn’t know how the village itself could have functioned without The Professor, and he was glad that he didn’t have to find out, not yet.

Her water jutsu had glimmered and sparkled, glowing in the light from the sun and from her yin chakra, reflecting up into her impossibly green eyes that had stared at their Hokage with a single-minded intensity and seemed to be lit from within with the very essence of the Will of Fire… and then the nin from Konoha had joined together to help in the saving of their beloved Sandaime. She had been beautiful, Aflame as she was, burning as brightly as he’d ever seen anyone despite her injuries and the situation, which even then he had been aware of, had taken note of, but had shoved to the side because he’d been answering her call her for chakra, sliding his chakra along hers familiarly.

It kept on playing over and over in his mind.

When she’d stood the water saturated in her chakra had broken apart and shimmered in the sunlight around her, she had been mesmerizing, breathtaking even as tired satisfaction had crossed her too pale features with an unnatural flush, one of her braids had either fallen free of its senbon or she’d ended up using them at some point in the battle, so it slid over her shoulder with the glittering kunai ornament reflective and sharp in the sunlight.

He would never forget the sight of it, burned into his memories through Obito’s eye.

She had done it though, despite all odds, she had done the impossible in a display he was sure would be spoken of in hushed whispers for years to come.

And then she’d fallen into his arms, vomiting and choking up blood, and the seriousness of her injuries had jumped in his mind.

Such terror he’d felt…

Such directionless fury.

The aimless Killing Intent he’d released had sent a number of nin scattering and had caused some of the lower ranks to pass out from the pressure, and later Gai told him that it was a most heartfelt and beautiful display of his feelings for his fallen comrades.

It had mainly been embarrassing to hear about, especially after the fact.

What if someone told her?

That would be awful and so terribly, terribly mortifying.

He’d have to hide.

She would smile at him in that smug way that women got when they knew you cared – or so he assumed, as he was basing this off of admittedly questionable literature and Kushina – and then she’d taunt him with it.

Although, to be fair, a small part of himself was giving her credit for only ever looking smugly at him when she managed to protect her snacks from him, well, that, and when he somehow managed to repeatedly make a fool of himself where it came to Water ninjutsu. How he had managed to continuously underestimate her capabilities where her elemental affinity was concerned he’d never know, but when he thought about it her smug amusement whenever he ended up drenched during a sparring match was actually a bit more than well deserved. Before Asuka, he’d thought he was pretty good at water jutsu, that he had a pretty good grasp of it, but… well, Water Prison and the like aren’t a problem for her.

After a moment of deliberation, he lifted his hitai-ate, just to take in the details of her exhausted, slightly pained features and cement them in his memory next to his most recent memorization of her form surrounded by glowing droplets and streams of water that had slowly faded back into the atmosphere, evaporating unnaturally fast for such large water deposits.

Usually, all he tried to do was forget. He’d seen so many awful things in his life, but…

This time, Kakashi wanted to remember.

He wanted to remember the feelings it brought out in him, wanted to remember how much more human he felt when looking at the reminder of what he could still lose – of what he had gained – before quickly covering the Sharingan eye again to reduce the chakra drain. Her golden brown, almost bronze hair was a little dampened from sweat of the fever she’d been in the day before, and one of the nurses had put the heavy, long bronze locks in a single thick braid to keep it out of the way, and it hung between her hospital gown covered breasts, rising and falling with her every shallow breath. Her features were pale, eyelids bruised and sunken slightly, the sickly white of her skin causing her two facial scars to stand out starkly against her flesh even though they were mostly faded, as well as the golden freckles that were barely noticeable when she had her normal pigmentation filling her features with color and life.

He took note of the ugly pale white scar above her collar bone that he’d never seen before, looking like someone had tried to slit her throat and she’d moved out of the way just enough for it to miss her artery and travel down instead, ending when it hit bone. With how faded it was he could tell that it was already several years old, possibly older than the genin team, but he didn’t know, just knew that he was glad that even with her abysmal reaction time she’d been able to survive long enough for him to meet her.

Taking a seat in the chair he’d sat in for the past three days when visiting hours were over, he reached for her hand without the hesitation he’d expected of himself, glad that his chakra was familiar enough now that she didn’t even twitch at the contact, reminded of the slight relief he had sensed when his chakra had been a buffer between her and the flood of others into her system. Her considerably lower than normal chakra reserves slithered against his pathways like a trickle of a faucet rather than the normal expanse of a cool river that it usually was, focused on recuperating internally so that it was barely focused in her hands. If anything, even in unconsciousness, even when her chakra would do better to be supporting her, it seemed to be reaching out to him in the same way it had taken to lately, brushing against his own much larger reserves as if looking for comfort or reassurance, something that he didn’t know how to portray, and so did nothing, even if she seemed to take it in any case.

He didn’t even deny to himself that the reverse was much the same.

Looking at her he knew that he was already halfheartedly willing her to wake once again, to look at him with sleepy, fond green eyes and smile at him like he was the most exasperating man she’d ever met even when bewildered with exhaustion. The same look she would give him when he’d said something that was apparently just not spoken, or portrayed some of his social awkwardness. To look at him in that way that said that he mattered as more than a shinobi of the village, more than the last Hatake, than Sharingan no Kakashi, the Copy-Cat Ninja. Just a man. Just… Kakashi.

He hadn’t been just Kakashi since his father had killed himself for the village.

When she had been conscious for those few minutes, she had soothed him, all of them, with the gentle, if weak fluctuations of chakra, his own burning agitation and restrained violence melting a little in the face of her calm, warmhearted amusement and genuine affection.

This woman had, only days before, only hours before the invasion, thoughtlessly promised him years of companionship, of friendship, years of staying with him and the genin, of being there – with witnesses – and there she lay, exhausted and hurting after fighting to stay alive, after saving the Sandaime’s life. She had had the choice between certain death, oblivion and possible death, and had chosen the more painful route so that she could stay with them. She had almost killed or crippled herself so that they wouldn’t have to experience her loss, wouldn’t have to know a life without her after they had gotten her. He was no fool, if Asuka hadn’t had anything to live for she would have let herself fade, he saw that in her eyes, knew it even if she didn’t quite know it herself, felt the echo that existed inside himself because even though he loved Konoha fiercely and would die for it, there were few things that he would live for, and the few living members of that list he could just barely count on two hands.

Because of her.

Because of the genin.

Because… he… cared again.

Gripping her hand infinitely gently – like spun glass it felt so fragile, calluses and muscles aside – within both of his, strangely vulnerable to the fact that even just one of his hands covered most of her single and two together completely engulfed her one, he hung his head limply between his shoulders, just feeling the soothing cool balm of her chakra sifting gently against his coils, even as he carefully kept track of how low her reserves were at the same time. Releasing a long, careful, shuddering exhalation at the feel of her unconscious pathways coiling against his as if seeking shelter in a particularly drafty area and he was the only safe harbor within sight, he felt his chest warm and prickle even as his eye fell shut.

Pack.

Yeah, he was definitely upping her reaction timing, because he didn’t know if he could do this again without going crazy. Emotions were so terribly tiring.

Plus, there was the bonus that she’d absolutely loathe it.

It’d be great.

Something to pull his mind away from the sight of what was probably going to haunt him for longer than he’d like, joining his lovely queue of nightmares.

For weeks he’d had a young boy who trusted him curling up closer and closer to his side at night once he allowed the exhaustion to win, and Kakashi had grown accustomed to letting his chakra arch and freely roam over his charge. The little temporary camp they’d made hadn’t had much in the way of amenities for them, though Kakashi had had his little kouhai drop off new scrolls of food every few days so that they didn’t get sick of rations. Even he wasn’t cruel enough to subject his angry little genin to such torture without any truly dire need for sustenance in necessary conditions… and he’d probably never hear the end of it if he’d actually have done that.

If not from Sasuke then from Asuka.

During breaks in training, the Uchiha had sat close to Kakashi, not rebuffing the man when he’d build up the ability to settle his hand on sweaty or soft hair depending on the time of day, cupping a hand over the back of the kid’s neck protectively. At night on the days where the jounin had worked him through chakra exercises, he’d settle his grip gently over the pulsing and slightly inflamed Curse mark and do that Intent trick that Asuka had taught him, making little lungs breathed less labored and tensed features ease while he sat up during the night. When nightmares would break through the boy’s exhaustion he would wordlessly settle the kid into his lap and bury his mask covered nose into the soft dark strands that had been cleaned in a nearby stream. Breathing in deeply of the smoky sweet scent his student gave off and saying nothing when small hands clenched against his flack jacket or sleeves when the twelve-year-old would bury his face in the jounin’s chest.

They hadn’t done much talking other than what Kakashi needed to teach him, but neither of them was particularly chatty, despite Asuka, Naruto and Sakura’s nitpicking and nudging towards conversation. It had felt at the time as if he hadn’t needed to say anything, that his presence had been enough, but now, with Asuka laying out before them and three children who feared losing her and only one who truly knew loss…

Maybe he should try to find the words.

~*~

A familiar presence woke her some time later after everyone had left, and she groggily opened her eyes to see the slim, feminine form of her kenjutsu rival curled up in the chair that had been set up opposite where Kakashi had been sitting before she’d fallen asleep when the kids had been there. His chair was still open and present, but she didn’t put too much thought as to why the other woman wasn’t using that one instead and just focused on her.

“… Yugao?” her voice sounded terrible, but the other woman looked up at her with slightly wet eyes and pale worried features. “Are you alright?”

Before saying anything, the tokubetsu jounin sat forward and helped her take a few sips of water to ease the dryness of her throat.

“Hayate almost died, Asuka,” the woman stated softly, uncharacteristically subdued instead of confident and intense. “He just woke up from a month long medically induced coma.”

Green eyes widened in shock and Asuka tried to sit up, only to have the slim, callused hands of the other woman keep her settled against the bed so that she didn’t make any sharp movements and hurt herself again.

“What? How?” the worry was clear on her features. “A month? Why haven’t I heard before this?”

“It was… he witnessed a meeting between some Sand shinobi and the traitor Yakushi Kabuto before the Finals in the Exam and they struck him down,” gray eyes filled slightly before she blinked the tears away. “If it hadn’t had been for the updated medical kit you gave him a week before after your spar he – he would have bled out before he could make it to a medic. As it was, he passed out and they thought it best to keep him under until he was fully healed so that he didn’t get injured anymore. They kept it secret until the Exams were over. They didn’t tell me. I thought he was on a mission, I thought…”

“Yugao…” she didn’t know what to say. “He’s awake now, though? He’s alright?”

A tight, relieved, pained and still stressed smile. Eyes tired and bright in a less than pleasant way.

“Yes, he’s awake now.”

“Yugao.”

“It’s… He’s not doing so well, there’s… there was so much damage and it caused some rather severe scarring, to his internal organs and spine that… his… his lungs… that our medics aren’t skilled enough to fix…” tears finally won out and slid over pale cheeks and the other woman leaned over her knees with her face in her hands to hide them. “He might… they still don’t know if…”

“Oh, Yu,” she breathed, sitting up enough that she could tug the stiff but trembling form of her rival onto the bed with her so that they could share heat. “I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t – don’t know what to do!” the normally calm woman whispered, staring up at the ceiling with a tortured expression on her face, tears falling freely. “I don’t know how to help him! He’s always been sickly, his lungs already so abused by that stupid disease that the medics can’t fix!” a choked sob. “And now this! Even if he lives he probably won’t be a shinobi anymore and he – he loves what he is, Asuka! Losing it would break him!”

Hands with matching calluses gripped one another tightly and Asuka felt pain spike through her chest at the anguish in her comrade’s voice, at the roiling of fiery, intense chakra.

There was nothing that the chuunin could do either, so all she could do was offer silent support and listen as the other woman vented her worry and frustration.

“He’s already almost given up,” the woman continued in a soft, hoarse voice. “He’s in so much pain, can barely move, they have him hooked up to all of these machines… I just don’t know if he’ll even want to keep living without being a shinobi, in so much pain all the time…”

The long purple haired woman wiped her shaking free hand over her face tiredly, features twisted with love and helplessness and directionless fury tempered with pain.

“What if he decides that he can’t take it?” she breathed quietly, like the very words would make it happen. “What if he decides that it would just be better to die than to fight?”

What if he leaves me? Went unsaid.

“I don’t know,” was all the green-eyed woman could say. “I don’t know.”

They lay in silence for several long minutes and the woman slowly lost her tears to stare at the ceiling with exhaustion that came with heavy emotion, with being so drained that you just couldn’t anymore.

“Can I stay here for a while?” the tokubetsu jounin asked softly after a while. “I feel calmer.”

“Of course, Yugao, of course.”

Later in the evening after consoling her friendly rival and fellow swordswoman, the chuunin woke to her window sliding open and a familiar chakra sidling up to her before curling up at her side wordlessly. It was difficult because she was so tired and her body aching, but Asuka carefully rolled over and slid her hand against her friend’s neck, twisting her chakra just so to release some of the tension in the woman’s frame. Using the technique burned just a little but she could stand it for this, because she had to. Because she had before.

“He almost took you.”

Anko smelled a little bit like sake, but mostly like poison and explosives, the tang of blood lingering beneath that. It was very telling as to her mental state and Asuka briefly wondered if her fellows in T&I had been taking care of her properly and allowing her to decompress the way that she needed to.

Hopefully there wasn’t poison waiting for her at home.

“I know,” the chuunin returned hoarsely. “I’m sorry.”

“He almost took you away! He almost killed the Hokage, caused the death of scores of Konoha shinobi! I hate him!”

When the tokubetsu jounin pressed her hands against her face, the swordswoman tightened her arms around the smaller woman, keeping her hand carefully in place and continuing to fluctuate her chakra. It was awful that such a feared kunoichi was hurting like this – why was everyone falling apart in her arms? – that even one of her friends was in such a way, but two of them? Yugao she could understand a bit, had sat at the bedside of people she loved and tried to will them to get better, to live despite all the odds and the difficulties that could follow them if they managed it. With Anko, however, it was more complicated.

She had such conflicting emotions regarding her former sensei, the man who had practically raised her.

Asuka could still remember the teenager who had collapsed in her arms screaming that she hated him, hated him so much.

Which the chuunin had believed just about as much as she did right then, because she also remembered that same girl crying because he left her behind.

“He left me, Asuka! He didn’t want me anymore! He abandoned me!”

So, she could honestly say that this young woman who was so broken and messed up inside, who had twisted herself up into knots at the perceived abandonment from someone who had meant the world to her, loved Orochimaru more than she hated him. Hate was tiring, absolutely exhausting, but it was easily fueled, easily chained. Love… well, it was painful when you were hurt by your loved ones, but it still felt warm. Even if it was like the ache in a bruise instead of the heat of happiness. Anko still loved her sensei, still fondly thought of their time together, and she honestly wished in her darkest moments that he’d taken her with him.

When she was at her lowest, like now, the snake Summoner still loved him.

And that just made it worse.

~*~

She was out of the hospital late in the evening of the next day; much sooner than expected.

However, considering the great improvement of her condition, even though she wasn’t at 100%, and she had been ordered to try to take it easy... that was unlikely to happen.

With the number of injured ninja in the village, and the genin being ordered to clean up the damage from the failed Invasion, it was up to the chuunin to take the bulk of the missions. Since the jounin were being kept in the village to be a deterrent against a secondary attack on the Village, this wasn’t exactly a surprise. A preventative defense should any of their potential enemies decide now was the time, when they were without a leader. Something similar had been done after the Kyuubi attack had killed the Yondaime and a considerable number of their forces as they protected civilians and aided in evacuations. The weakness of the village at that point, leaderless as they were, hanging in limbo with their Hokage comatose for the moment, was awfully tempting for some of the more power hungry of the Hidden Villages. Such as Cloud and Rock, and they would take any chance they could to overthrow the Village hidden in the Leaves and loot its riches. Sand was worse off than they were, and she didn’t have any updates on Mist, so she didn’t know what was going on there, but another attack was unlikely from that corner.

Jiraiya had stepped in with Shikaku to temporarily lead the village, because otherwise I would have been the Council, and everyone knew that that wasn’t a good idea.

It was luck that had her handed a mission scroll four days after her release, that had been set aside by the Sandaime for either herself or Team Seven to take care of, instead of doing boring courier missions or finding that gods forsaken cat for the Daimyo’s wife.

That thing had to have some nin animal in it, there was no way it didn’t. It had been around when she was a child, and it was way too sadistic to be a normal animal.

Of course, it had been a kitten when she was young, but still.

When she’d read the scroll, she’d nearly broken down into marvelous hysterics in the middle of the Missions Office, the laughter she did release however, unnerved most of the chuunin manning the desks, except for Iruka. Who just looked a little interested, even though his usual flush – which had returned to his face after Kakashi had given him a stilted apology under her scrutinizing eye before he’d taken Sasuke out to train in the middle of nowhere – was just a tad bit deeper than customary.

Sasuke… That poor boy.

She didn’t know how she’d take care of the scarring on his sad little mind. Spending so much time isolated in the woods with Kakashi couldn’t be good for his mental state, fragile as it was.

As she went about gathering the supplies she’d need she found herself randomly chuckling, as well as when going through the contracts and papers that the Sandaime had written up for either her or Team Seven, as the mission was set for just after the Exam was supposed to have ended, but the benefactor hadn’t minded the delay after hearing about the damage Konoha had taken. No, what she really wanted to do before she left was pick on the Copy-nin, and though she really wanted to rub this in Kakashi’s face, she doubted that she’d see him on her way out of the village, what with him having to babysit the paranoid children with her leaving the village.

They had gotten rather clingy since she’d ended up in the hospital, to both her and their jounin-sensei.

Not that she minded, in particular, since it was nice to be warmed with the feeling of children basically climbing her like a particularly favored tree whenever she was spotted. Their eager, happy faces – well, less sullen, in one case – whenever they saw her brought a smile to her own features whenever it was directed towards her or she remembered it. Even that silly jounin was acting friendlier, in the most amusing, heartwarming ways, such as when he randomly showed up at her apartment with takeout the night that she was released, casually mentioning that he thought she might be hungry for real food after hospital crap, even as his chakra stretched towards her, seeking, hesitantly concerned and needy. Once, when he’d obviously been on his way somewhere, he’d stopped her in the street the day before she’d picked up a mission scroll to mention that her favorite sweet shop had a sale, as if the information were off hand, and when she ventured to it, she found that some things – her favorites – had already been purchased and were waiting for her.

That man was so ridiculous. It was adorable.

It was a little embarrassing, but mostly she felt a ball in her chest tightening and loosening with heat that stretched wider than her near perpetual smile.

Still, she chuckled at the thought of those worried, overprotective genin having only one outlet while she was gone.

While she hadn’t gotten to laugh in the man’s masked face, she did chuckle at his misfortune as she left the gates for Otafuku-Gai for her meeting with the Demon of the Mist and his apprentice.

Poor man.

~*~

It had taken her a bit longer than she’d originally anticipated – a few hours, actually, had somehow gotten away from her, and her head ached – to make it to the rather large, bustling city. Asuka grudgingly admitted that she was a bit more winded than usual due to the weakness her several days of inactivity in the hospital recuperating had brought with them, but she eventually made it to the Inn that the man and his apprentice had notated in the mission scroll. With some time to spare, thankfully, even though she wasn’t as early as she would have liked, preferring to scout out the area leisurely, but it didn’t look like she’d get the chance. Not with the way that things were going.

The second she walked through the doorway, she was hit with the smell of grilling beef and chicken, her mouth was watering as she enjoyed the scents as they assaulted her nose with warmth and hunger. Her stomach grumbled hungrily with a low whine, angry at her for not fueling it up properly for most of the week, and she gave in to its rather embarrassedly vocal demands for sustenance and ordered some beef skewers to munch on, with a bowl of plain sticky white rice and some tea, just to settle the beast in her gut. She didn’t exactly have much in the way of funds at the moment, as a good portion of ninja funds were being directed towards fixing damages done to the village during Orochimaru’s failed invasion; of course, they’d be paid back after the village accumulated the amount back, but still, it was tight until that happened.

As she sat eating, she did a mental catalogue of her status, and was a little resigned to note that her coils were still stinging irritatingly, something that the medics had told her to let dissipate completely before using much chakra, or she could cause serious damage to her coils.

They’d been most irritated with the way she’d used it to comfort the kids and Anko.

When she’d been doing that massive transfer to the Hokage, she hadn’t had the proper time to filter the chakra from all of the different nin who were donating through her, so most of them, being of different affinities, and vastly different chakra levels, had stretched her coils uncomfortably close to bursting which would have, well… more than sucked, to say the least. She had been lucky, though, that she’d only been the temporary conduit and not the recipient, because the Sandaime had the ability to use all the affinities to some extent and had still ended up with great scars on his pathways. Whereas she most certainly did not – her Earth affinity really was… more than a little disappointing, to be honest – and wouldn’t have survived such a tumultuous transfer, even though she appeared to be developing a small sympathy to Lightning, due to her continued relationship with the Copy-nin.

The amount that their chakra networks brushed when they were sparring, teaching, eating or just hanging out was ridiculous, and somehow, it was easing her into growing a resistance, if not an outright empathy – which was usually reserved for relatives – to the Hatake’s main affinity. It was strange, since the same hadn’t happened despite longer exposure and a more intimate relationship with her twins back in the day, but they had both had Fire affinities, so perhaps because they had opposing chakra types it had just been as expected. They had cancelled each other out rather than imbued any kind of sympathies in the other. It was different with Kakashi, however, seeing as he had an affinity that when used in tandem with her own was enhanced, as Lightning was strengthened by Water, more affective when a target was dowsed first. Since the jounin also had the stronger chakra network, it was unlikely that her own was rubbing off on him in the same way, but only time would tell, considering that resilience against Water didn’t really do much, except make Water Prison’s negligible from spiritual chakra absorbing the equivalent of oxygen from the water due to sympathy, and perhaps water walking more thoughtless.

Well, thinking about his initial confrontation with Zabuza, it probably would have been a little helpful then, at least.

If at that time the missing-nin had chosen to use the decidedly deadlier version… well, she didn’t think that the Hatake Clan had gills, so that would have been an abrupt end to beginning of their friendship.

And the Clan.

Oh, ouch, she couldn’t even think that without flinching.

Boy, he’d been so angry with the kids after that though, even if he hadn’t told them as much, had only given them a short reprimand. He’d spoken to her about it later once they’d returned to Konoha and gone out to get some drinks to blow off steam and the fact that he’d been stressed enough by it to actually tell her had been huge in and of itself. That man was the most complex mixture of twisted up feelings and awkward hang-ups that she had ever seen, and she had never met a more introverted shinobi.

When they’d disobeyed his orders, he hadn’t known what to do. Kakashi had never been in such a situation before, hadn’t known if he’d be able to get out in time to save them should Zabuza turn his eyes towards them with any kind of seriousness and less ridiculing amusement. A subordinate had never disobeyed him before – oh, he’d had some interpret his orders in interesting ways, but never outright disobey – especially not in such a situation as that, and it was times like that that he rued having accepted a genin team when he was so much more used to working alone or with experienced nin who knew what they were doing. The fact he’d turned to her for advice had warmed her, but all she could say was that while he should really talk to them about it himself – the look of absolute, betrayed horror she had received had been exasperating and more than a little amusing – but she would do so in his stead until he worked up the courage to do so.

His pout was getting downright dangerous.

However, the fear of losing his team had been very real, and when she’d had the chance she’d sat down the kids individually to explain to them following orders; Asuka had honestly never pictured having that conversation before. It just… was.

This conversation took place when the man wasn’t around, of course, because he was an awkward rodent, to at least give him some peace of mind should a situation such as that crop up ever again. Sakura had been properly chastised and had apologized even if she was glad for the result, and had even said so to the jounin himself, who squirmed under her experienced eye enough for a twitch to appear in his visible eye to the notice of even the genin girl. Their most intellectually inclined student probably realized the likelihood of just how they probably wouldn’t get that lucky again if the situation repeated itself in the future. Which was, practically zero.

Sasuke had been a little rebellious about it, had stated that it had gone well, and that he would follow orders when they made sense, only to fall silent under her raised brow, and then mumble an apology of his own to her and promise to be more respectful of his jounin-sensei’s orders. She’d cuddled him as a reward as well as incentive to not be such a little jerk about things that the adults really knew better about.

Naruto… well.

That little bugger made her want to rip her hair out.

There is only so much of his endless optimism that one could take at a time, and his inflated self-importance and veneer of confidence was more difficult to crack than Uchiha pride considering her experience in that matter, but she had managed it with soft tones and a hand on his head until he had understood that he could have gotten himself and his teammates killed. That as the more experienced nin, he should listen to them and actually think about his actions, because in the end it would be them who had to protect him and would get hurt doing so if they couldn’t trust the genin to follow orders. He’d been much more solemn and attentive after that, and had even expressed his regret for worrying his sensei in an awkward mumble that she hadn’t caught all of – he’d said something about Umino, she was sure, but couldn’t quite hear – and that he’d try to do better in situations he had no experience with.

They had matured a lot, but they still thought that they knew best.

Youthful arrogance.

Chewing carefully on a tender but still not Akimichi tasty beef skewer, she took a breath and released it deeply, eyes half lidded and heavier than she’d like.

Oh, she was tired.

Her muscles ached, her scars felt tight, and she had to be careful with her newly reattached tendon, which she had nearly pulled when using the detox jutsu, but otherwise she seemed better, if not quite up to snuff. It was almost as if she were getting over a cold and not an organ liquefying poison and a serious case of chakra deprivation. She’d used all of her moldable chakra on the Sandaime and had been running on other people’s, which was a big no-no. The only chakra she’d had left was that which kept her organs fully functional and kept her chakra network from collapsing in on itself and killing her as surely as starvation or asphyxiation would have.

Chakra dependency like that could have ruined her ability to mold chakra, or even have decreased her ability to produce it, and considering the fact that most kunoichi had lower chakra stores to begin with – she had one of the larger reserves in females, and she didn’t add up to some of the genin she’d met in the past… Naruto didn’t count – that would have really pissed her off, even if she would have learned to make it work. She didn’t know how Kakashi did it, working around the exhaustion and dealing with the fact that you might lose or inhibit your chakra growth or production, it made her horribly jumpy and unhappy.

She felt old.

“Ah, Asuka-san!” the soft, demure voice of the Ice Release using boy caused her to look up from where she’d finished her food and smile at the lovely androgynous boy, his soft dark hair falling loose down around his features as he smiled at her from the bottom of the stairs he’d just descended. “You’ve made it!”

“Haku-chan,” she couldn’t help but give him the affectionate epithet, he just brought out all of her girly instincts. “It’s good to see you! How have you been?”

“I’ve been very well,” that smile warmed at her and the boy walked over to her in his light blue yukata that descended into dark blue with white flowers and birds artistically crafted on the sleeves and hem. It would appear that for the sake of civilians he was using the guise of a female – using Watashi as he was at the moment – because it always seemed to break their minds that a man could want to dress or act in a way considered ‘feminine’. “Are you ready to meet?”

Nodding, she stood, glancing at the waitress to make sure that it was alright to leave her dishes where they were, and heading up the stairs with the shorter nin to the room they had purchased for the duration of their stay.

“Are you alright?” the boy questioned softly, dark brown eyes roving over her features worriedly, taking in the slight pallor to her skin and causing her to smile again. “You look tired…”

“I’m fine, don’t worry,” she returned just as softly. “If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be out of the village.”

Her lips twisted wryly, and she glanced at the large form that was waiting in the doorway down the hall from them, no doubt listening in, leaning against the frame casually, with his well-defined muscles standing out through soft looking tanned flesh on arms nonchalantly crossed over a broad chest.

“Because Konoha is just that soft,” she kept going, tone gone slightly dry. “That we enjoy keeping everyone alive and in peak condition.”

A snort answered her words as they reached the Missing Nin, his half lidded black eyes looking down at her with both amusement and exasperation.

“Say something once,” he muttered, turning back into the room, leaving it to the smaller nin to follow him in.

If she had been nervous about meeting with the Demon of the Mist, the chuunin could honestly say that the banter eliminated that before it set foot inside the door. While she may have been tired and beaten, her home in tatters at the moment, the was still a chuunin of Konohagakure, high-combat and training under the supervision of Hatake Kakashi, the man of a thousand jutsu, the Copy-Cat Ninja.

She didn’t think anything would happen but reminding herself of her strengths would help her in the coming hours and perhaps days.

It was a nice room, all things considered, spacious, with plenty of room for a futon or two on the ground while one person took the bed, and with a half bath that likely promoted the bath house down the lane for use in all of your bathing needs. Not that she was going to complain, it was likely that with things the way they were in Konoha, this would be her only chance to go to the onsen for a while. She eyed the bed for a moment, considered the nice things that were piled on the bedside table – pretty handheld mirror, lacquered comb, and a lovely folded sleeping yukata – and found some amusement at the fact that Zabuza had been giving the comfortable mattress to his young charge, even though the bed was large enough for even a man as tall as he to share it comfortably.

What a softy, the thought was fond, even as she shook her head slightly with amusement. The big bad Demon of the Mist is a huge emotional marshmallow. Other than that whole slaughtering his graduating class thing, he'd fit right in at home.

“Anyway,” she stated as she sat on a cushion across from their current Mist Rebellion contact at the table. “Let’s get down to business, shall we?”

The man grunted in answer as she pulled out her mission scroll, which she’d Sealed her required paperwork into.

This would take a while.

Bleh, politics.

Chapter Text

What had she ever done to the Sandaime that he set aside all of these political bullshit missions for her?

Had she wronged him in a past life? Spurned one of his spawn?

Asuma had never had eyes for anyone other than that assassin tokujo with the nice legs – though that had thankfully been a phase – and Kurenai, but she couldn’t actually remember having met the man’s other children before they had passed. Hadn’t they all been married though? At least one had procreated, she knew that much, from all of the trouble one of the grandchildren caused for the poor paperwork ninja.

She so did not envy them.

“Ugh,” she groaned, head on the table sometime later that night, Haku picking up and organizing the authorized and argued over paperwork, chakra signatures in each ink splotch and stroke. They were going to have to make copies of it in triplicate, and then quadruplicate of those, just in case, because ninja paranoia wasn’t left behind when you entered an office. “I hate bureaucracy.”

Across from her, one hand massaging his temple, the Demon of the Mist grunted in agreement, snatching up his cup of tea and draining it, before pinching at the bridge of his nose against a threatening headache, once which Asuka had already been welcomed by. Headaches she was familiar with, even if this wasn’t the almost sharp ache of her usual ones.

She pulled the senbon out of her hair and laid them on the table, letting her braids fall haphazardly over her shoulders to release some of the tension in the back of her neck and skull, rolling her shoulders after she did so in hopes of forestalling horrible stiffness and then popping her neck. When Haku placed a new cup of hot tea down by her head gently and carefully, she smiled at him gratefully, enjoying the way the boy’s cheeks pinked at her thanks and his eyes lowered demurely. He was so adorable it wasn’t even funny.

Ah, she was getting soft in her old age.

Taking a large, bracing gulp of the hot liquid, shuddering a little as it burned down her throat and settled into her stomach, she felt the heat spread through her bones, causing her to sigh with pleasure before draining the cup and standing, gathering her hair senbon and tucking them in her pouch. Hopefully, she would find a room in this inn that wasn’t occupied, and if not, that there was a hostel near enough that had room and was willing to put her up for the night until she could find something more suitable. While she did have her outdoor gear – never left home without it, like, literally, her apartment – she was in a city, and would much prefer the luxuries that a door and walls provided, namely an indoor bathroom and some sort of warning in case of attack. Always appreciated.

It was easier to hear someone sneaking about if wood flooring was creaking, than if dirt and twigs were shifting. Well, unless she slept in a tree, but that was a Konoha trick that wasn’t necessarily the best to use when conditions allowed otherwise.

She liked creature comforts when she could have them, damnit.

“Well,” she stated tiredly, stretching out one of her shoulders idly, a little careful with her still weakened arm. “I’m out of here. Continue all this tomorrow?”

The man grunted at her again hand now rubbing at the back of his neck.

“Wait, Asuka-san,” the boy called timidly, causing her to turn from where she’d placed her hand on the door handle. “You could stay here, with us.”

“Eh?”

She blinked owlishly at the boy, who was suddenly under the scrutiny of two adults, causing him to flush and stare at the floor, his hand folded in his lap.

“There’s no need to waste your funds,” he continued, despite the uncomfortable lilt of his words and slight hunching of his shoulders. “We’re staying here for free because Zabuza-sama –” yeah, she had to do something about that she idly decided. Honorifics were great and all, but the hero worship was a little too obsessive for her taste. “– knows the owner. So,” he looked up and into her green eyes. “You could stay with us.”

This was leaps and bounds more confident than the boy had been last time they’d met, considering he wasn’t even asking his master what his thoughts were, and the man himself looked poleaxed at the very thought of it. It was this lovely expression that decided it for her. She didn’t mind looking at his covered mug more anyway, especially since he usually slept half naked, as far as she could tell. Eye candy was always nice, especially since it was eye candy that neither minded her perusal of his form, nor expected her to really do anything about it the way some nin got when you sized them up or found something about them that interested you. Even shinobi could have certain expectations.

It just depended on the nin.

She could at least hit other ninja to get the idea across if they were her rank or lower, and they generally didn’t repeat the offense.

“That sounds fine,” even as the words left her mouth, she enjoyed the indignant noise that came out of Zabuza’s bandage covered mouth, her lips twitching. “If you don’t mind sharing the bed, Haku-chan,” he opened his mouth to protest, no doubt to say that he could sleep on the floor, but she beat him to it. “I wouldn’t dream of kicking you out of it, but I won’t submit myself to Zabuza’s questionable intentions,” another strangled sound from the man that caused her to full out grin. “A man who calls you cute when he first meets you…” she clucked her tongue, enjoying the twist to the man’s features out of the corner of her eye. “Well, that is a man who would have his wicked way with you when you least expect it. Remember that, Haku-chan!”

The boy smiled brightly, amusement dancing in his pretty eyes.

“Of course, Asuka-san!”

Asuka!”

Ah, what dulcet tones.

How homey.

~*~

When she woke in the morning, it was to the sound of Zabuza rising.

His broad, bare back was directed towards her from where he had moved to stand at the window, staring out at the sunrise, the Kubikiribōchō leaning on the wall beside him, and as she ran her eyes over the blade, she noted that the crack she’d made was gone as if it had never been. Interesting, and curious, but not exactly surprising. The scar from where she’d cut him during their fight was thinning nicely, a dash of pale on otherwise smooth caramel colored skin where it arched softly down towards his hip from the opposing shoulder. The muscles beneath dark skin rippled as the man turned slightly to meet her eyes, gaze traveling from her sleepy emerald orbs downward to where his apprentice had his head pillowed on her chest. Asuka had her arm was around his slim shoulders comfortably while the boy’s hands were tucked beneath his chin demurely, and his legs curled up in a rather defensive position. The man looked a tad bit skinnier than the last time she’d seen him half naked, and there were definite shadows from the indents of his ribcage under his darker skin, his musculature clear and shifting enough that it distracted from most people’s study.

She had been looking for it, though.

There was the distinct feeling that the man had to have been maintaining a genjutsu or something to keep his apprentice from noticing.

And that apprentice…

As soon as the boy had fallen asleep the night before, he’d curled into the warmth of her, seeking comfort that she’d found it hard to resist giving, what with how often she’d had to comfort children of late, especially Sakura, and the strangely – or not so strange, really – fragile Sasuke. Naruto was just tactile in general, not just when he was seeking abstract comfort. She was certain that this was a product of being denied touch that wasn’t antagonistic for the majority of his life, and now he was just starved for contact that meant he was cared for. Suddenly, after so many years without, having several people that weren’t negative towards him had caused him to explode with hugs, tackles and – so far only but she didn’t think he would hold out on the others much longer – with her, snuggles.

He’d become such a cutie, she was barely irritated with the fact that he’d ruined her Laundromat once upon a time. Hardly at all.

Only on occasion.

Just sometimes.

Well, when she got back from some missions… like the one where she’d been impaled… yeah, she’d been a little ticked.

It still wasn’t fixed! How was the place not out of business yet? Why hadn’t they sold out to someone or something? Why must they taunt her so?!

Lifting her free hand, she gently ran her fingers through loose dark hair, examining his sweet pale features, a little sad that they relaxed from some unnamed tension. Why were all of the talented nin she knew being followed by horrible pasts? Did it have to be this way, that genius was carved from pain, or was their nothing but strength grown from persevering through adversity?

The thought was heartbreaking.

“You were injured recently,” the man murmured to her, his deep voice a velvety rumble that caused her cheeks to heat and her heart to thump once harshly, and she found herself soothing the boy in her arms again as he shifted, sensing the sudden, momentary shift in her mood. “Your chakra is all messed up.”

“Yeah,” she sighed as she rubbed a knuckle against her one of her fuzzy, sleepy eyes, blinking at him with a single eye, expression reminiscent of a certain Copy-Cat Ninja. “It was kind of a problem.”

“Better now,” he stated as he examined her with gaze and senses, dark, seemingly bottomless eyes stared into her own mossy emerald green ones for a moment, before turning to gaze out the window for another few. “You needed rest.”

A little battered, almost broken, but kind; it seemed to be the theme with a lot of powerful jounin.

She hummed softly, smoothing her fingers through those dark, soft locks, smiling softly without thought as one of the boy’s hands gripped into her shirt fabric lightly, his face nuzzling against breast her like a kitten seeking warmth in the dark of night, and she huffed out a soft murmur of wordless comfort, the boy’s minty, cool chakra shivered sleepily against her own. Lying with him next to her with his chilly energy brushing against her own, which was almost warm in comparison – and wasn’t that odd, she’d always had her own called rather cold by others – to his chakra which was like standing on a bank on the verge of frost, or a mountain waiting for snow in a wood of pine.

“How about we take the day off?” she queried softly, fingers still running through the boy’s hair lightly, looking back up at the jounin, where he was silhouetted in warm gold and amber against the sunrise, looking back at her. “I have all week for this mission.”

“Hmm,” the man nodded slightly in agreement, no doubt pleased with the idea of putting off more political bullshit.

It was half why she’d suggested it, really.

The other half was rather obvious.

~*~

“Onsen~!”

She was singsonging happily as she stripped down in the mixed bath, something that catered mostly to ninja as civilians were a bit prudish in this regard, even though they were altogether cheaper, and so the bathes were generally empty when a nin came in to use it, which was pleasant. In towns like this it was actually odd to find onsen that catered a room solely to shinobi and kunoichi, and she was pleased that they did. There were several bath houses in Konoha, and only a few had actual separated bathes, which were nominally used by civilians, but if you felt the strong urge to hang out with only your gender – usually jounin-sensei kept their team members separate until they hit chuunin because of hormones – you went to one of the few separated bath houses.

Finally at the onsen~!”

Nobody wanted to deal with interteam sexcapades and where they could lead you.

At least, not until a certain sexual maturity and responsibility had been beaten into them and they knew how to prevent accidents.

Honestly though, the drama usually just made it not worth it, as far as she’d seen.

“You hit your head during that invasion?” the ex-Mist nin asked dryly, causing her to sniff imperiously from where she’d turned on her showerhead and was getting ready to wash her body in preparation for entering one of the pools. “What’s so great about a bath house?”

“If you must know,” she started, ignoring Haku’s quiet giggles from behind her. “Jiraiya has been about in Konoha, so no bath house was safe from him.”

She didn’t mention the damages to several parts of the village that also barred her.

The jounin let out a bark of laughter that echoed over the tiles, and she rolled her eyes before she ducked her head under the spray.

Wetting her hair for washing, it turned into a dark brown as opposed to her usual bronze, and plastered wet locks against her skull, before she massaged shampoo into it. She took her time enjoying the soft scent of cleanliness and pine that she was allowed as a chuunin who didn’t go on many high-risk infiltration missions, meaning she didn’t have to completely remove her physical scent, if not her spiritual one, her chakra scent. Letting herself take the time to be careful with her hair, she even indulged herself with a small scalp massage with just the tiniest bit of chakra to promote strong strands and growth before she washed out the shampoo and started on the arduous task of conditioning. Years of experience shortened the chore, but it was still lengthy, due to how much hair she had, and once she’d finished and rinsed her hair again, she carefully pinned it up into a high bun with two of her senbon that she’d brought in with her for this very purpose.

She grimaced as she scrubbed over her body carefully, mindful of her more recent and more sensitive scar tissue on her stomach, and only a little careful with that on her thigh since it had mostly lost its ultra-sensitivity and winced at the pull in her bad arm as she tried to use it to scrub at her back.

“Asuka-san?” the boy queried softly from behind her, causing her to turn and blink at him as he stood all pale skin and slender muscle behind her, a modest towel tied around his hips and hair caught up in a similar bun on his head. “Would you like me to get your back?”

“Oh,” she smiled at him gratefully, pleased by his generosity and kindness. “If you wouldn’t mind, Haku-chan.”

“Of course not,” he returned, taking the sponge from her and carefully running it over her back, mindful of the angry scar on her lower left back, politely stating nothing about the smattering of scars that covered her form or the rather blaring tattoo on her upper back.

She idly wondered if he recognized it as a symbol of the Sharingan from his time spent sparring with Sasuke after the original confrontation.

“You injured your arm?” he asked worriedly, no doubt looking for an external scar or wound that didn’t exist.

“In the invasion,” she answered. “A medic got me.”

Sighing as he finished, she shifted to rinse off her back with the extendable showerhead before standing and turning around, noting the embarrassed flush as the boy’s eyes immediately had gone to her breasts, and she rolled her eyes in amusement before pulling a towel off the rack to tie around her chest, falling to end just below her ass. Even if he had no real interest in women – he may one day find them attractive, but it was not that day – it was the way of teenage boys to find themselves drawn towards looking at the physique of a naked female and to be embarrassed by it. After all, they had parts that he didn’t.

“A medic?” the surprise in the deep voice caused her to look over to where Zabuza was already leaning back in a moderately hot pool, pretty much naked as the day he was born, but obscured by water and steam, with his face covered. “You got messed up by a medic?”

Scowling at the man, she took the boy’s hand and entered the same pool after a moment of deliberation as to whether or not she wanted to be coherent – the really hot pools always made her feel like she was melting and put her into a drowsy state pretty quickly – and deciding for coherency. Sadly. Sagging down against the cool tile of the pool with a sigh as she did so, releasing Haku’s hand to let him get comfortable on his own in the water of the pool, though he ended up sitting adjacent to her, with the jounin facing them both, a humorous couple strips of thick bandage covering the man’s face from view.

Every ninja had their quirks, and who was she to talk? Her jounin was just as ridiculous about his face.

“Yeah, well, ever heard of chakra scalpels?” she sent back, closing her eyes briefly. “He did to me without breaking the skin what Kakashi did to you with all the blood.”

“Ouch,” the man muttered with a grimace after a moment, eyeing her. “And the new one on your back? That’s older than a few days.”

“Mm,” she nodded, stretching her legs out in front of her and sighing at the feel of it, letting them float a little, but not to the top of the pool. “Not just on my back though, went straight through me from the front, actually,” she scowled, and shifted her towel enough to show off the entry wound before letting it drop on noting the gasp the boy next to her gave, and she patted his shoulder in consolation. “Fucking Oto was busy.”

It didn’t pass her notice that dark eyes dragged up her bare thigh until he gazed at the entry wound scar, leaving heat in their wake before she shifted the towel back into place for the teenager’s comfort.

Hanging out with missing nin was certainly good for her ego, at least.

“So, it was Sound then? I heard something about Sand, though,” the interest in the Missing Nin’s voice was clear.

She debated for a moment, before deciding it would be fine. The Sandaime hadn’t been fooling around when he declared them as allies, and they’d need to trust each other. Also, it wasn’t like the information wouldn’t get out eventually, anyway. A lot of ninja were horrible gossips.

“Yeah, Otogakure’s Kage is actually Orochimaru,” the man looked taken aback, dark eyes going wide. “I know, right? Anyway, Sand was tricked because Orochimaru posed as their Kage after killing him,” they both grimaced at this, Sand did not look good with this information. “And ordered them to take part in the invasion. So, long story short, Sandaime-sama fucked Orochimaru up,” there was some satisfaction in this, as she’d heard from Anko that the Sandaime had used a jutsu that took away the Snake Sennin’s ability to use chakra in his arms, meaning hand seals were useless. “Almost died, then didn’t die, and bam, here I am.”

She blinked, then smiled slyly.

“Also, the kids took out their jinchuuriki,” she stated proudly, causing small black brows to jump and Haku to blink at her owlishly. “Not as in killing him, because the boy was under orders and isn’t exactly the most stable little thing,” he was kind of cute in his own skittish and slightly homicidal way. A bit like Zabuza really, only without all the muscle and a bit more vulnerable and gentle inside. Also, she wasn’t attracted to Gaara because ew. “But they defeated him in combat despite his general accumulation of experience being higher than theirs. Also, I’m pretty sure that Sand’s boy is not that far away from being able to master his bijuu, all things considered.”

He at least had known about his burden since he was old enough to comprehend. Naruto had only found out just before graduating thanks to that nasty Mizuki business.

She really hoped he was enjoying his stay in T&I.

“Huh,” he seemed rather impressed and surprised by this. “Cool.”

He was amongst the few that knew that Konoha had a jinchuuriki of their own, and he surely knew that the blonde boy had no control over his bijuu as of yet, his skill level clearly still mediocre, and so they’d had to take on the Sand boy with nothing but basic jutsu, well, and gratuitous overuse of Summons, but whatever. She was never more glad that Jiraiya had done the ridiculous and taught that boy how to Summon. If it hadn’t had been for that giant toad, she didn’t know what they would have done, because Kakashi had been forced to send only genin after the second most dangerous threat behind Orochimaru himself, and he’d confided in her the terror he’d felt at perhaps having made the wrong choice. He hadn’t, but they were both aware of just how much worse things could have gone, how many new horrors could have been haunting the both of them in the night.

Three new names on a stone for them to visit could have been in store.

The fracturing of everything they had built.

A slow drift of isolation…

Yes, that could have gone a completely different direction.

“Yeah,” she grinned at him, not bothering to hide her pride and affection as it covered her face. “I know, right?”

The coolest.

~*~

Later, they were sitting in the hotel room, Asuka was running her hairbrush through Haku’s long hair, much to his shy, slightly embarrassed pleasure, and Zabuza was running a cloth over the blade of the Kubikiribōchō, features relaxed as he sat around in the most comfortable position she’d ever seen him in, one leg spread straight out in front of him the other bent at the knee and keeping the cleaver propped up.

The teenage boy had given her a yukata to borrow, and even though it was a little short – it was one of his longer ones – it was still beautiful and comfortable, a rather lovely deep shade of royal purple with silver filigree that denoted vines and flowers. The boy in question was wearing a light green one that slowly changed into dark green the farther down it went, with – funnily enough – white leaves tumbling across the bottom and trailing sleeves. The missing nin, however, wore a sleeveless haori top that he left untied, similar to the red one that the Toad Sage wore, only it was dark gray, and he wore regular standard black cotton pants that ended just below the knees but weren’t strapped down at all.

He wore no shirt underneath, much to her delight – he was so pretty to look at – and they’d shared playful leers when they’d gotten dressed and he’d teased her for looking like an actual woman – the dry look she’d sent him had evened out the horrified expression on his apprentice’s features – and she’d casually told him that if his career ever fell through he could always be a male escort.

As long as he kept his mouth shut.

She noted that he had a thin pale scar up the length of his calf from the top of his foot, almost perfectly straight, and idly wondered what had caused it, but knew that she wouldn’t ask.

There were some scars that were personal, and it was best not to pry.

So, she eyed the large cleaver instead.

“How did you repair the Kubikiribōchō anyway?” she wondered, gaze wandering over it as the boy whose hair she was brushing giggled a little. “It doesn’t even look like I scratched it.”

He grunted a little sulkily at the reminder of her damaging the blade, but seemed altogether amused by her question, glancing at her with curved dark eyes.

“I might tell you,” she huffed at the teasing tone. “But not yet. It’s a secret of the Seven Swordsmen,” he finished a little more seriously. “I can’t just hand it out.”

Despite my circumstances was unsaid.

“Alright,” she said with a longsuffering sigh, setting her brush aside to steadily braid the boy’s hair in a silky, complicated plait, which seemed to catch his interest, if the small mirrors of ice that were strategically placed around his head so that he could see her hands was anything to go by. “I guess I can let it slide,” she pursed her lips consideringly with a sly look and the man rolled his dark eyes at her. “For now.”

“Hmph.”

A part of her was relieved that though Zabuza had taken on Haku as his apprentice, his student, he hadn’t tried to force him into the role of an Apprentice to one of the Seven Swordsman, rather than just an apprentice. Zabuza’s student, rather than the wielder of the Kubikiribōchō’s.

Looking at his sword made her slide her fingertips against her palm and consider her own apprentice back home in Konoha. Sakura was improving day by day, but perhaps it was time to start looking into getting her a bokken to do drills with, to learn the feel and weight of a blade even if she didn’t go for a katana. To be honest, she saw her young student with perhaps a tanto, something with enough reach to matter but could be much easier to imbue into taijutsu, especially the forms she already knew.

Something to look into, but when Yugao was getting too cooped up she was overseeing Sakura’s training. She’d ask her for her opinion when she got back, seeing as the other woman had more in village time at present.

And take her out for drinks to unwind a little before the other woman inevitably returned to the hospital to wait with and try to keep the man she loved alive.

They lazed the day away, with the chuunin teaching the teenager several different braiding styles and hair knots that she knew from her travels as well as kunoichi training, and then letting him practice on her after she gave a live example with a clone that she’d decided she could risk, if only because she hadn’t been doing anything else with her chakra, though it did make her coils terribly itchy when she made it. Heck, she’d even gotten a reprimanding glance from the Demon of the Mist and considering his own recklessness she’d felt mildly sheepish and a more than a little gob smacked but had brushed it off because she’d made the teenager happy with how much attention she was giving him. That was more important than any set of itchy coils.

They fiddled around with hair for a while, picked on Zabuza, who was looking a bit put out – it seemed to both horrify and delight Haku that they could do so without reprimand, reminding her that they still needed to have a talk – and then eventually, the topic drifted towards Haku’s bloodline limit of the Ice Release.

The little mirrors that he’d used throughout the day gave her this sort of pulling sensation when she was near them, as if she were almost touching them, but there was something in the way of it, like a barrier, so she asked him to make one for her so that she could experiment.

Zabuza had gone downstairs to get a tray of snacks and tea – he seemed to be something of an errand boy when it came to food, she was coming to realize – but when he came back up, it was to a wide eyed staring contest between the two smaller nin.

The woman had her hand on the mirror, and it was the strangest sensation she’d ever felt. It was water, yes, but it wasn’t her water, as every other kind she’d ever come into contact with was, didn’t belong to her as all of the other liquid she had come across had.

No, this was Haku’s water, and he stood between her and it.

“How…” the boy was blinking at her oddly. “How strange.

“Yes,” she furrowed her brows, playing her chakra lightly over the cold surface, ignoring the way her coils hissed at her in displeasure. “It’s really rather unusual.”

“Zabuza-sama has tried to manipulate the water in my mirrors before,” the man in question sat down next to them, setting down the tray of snacks and examining the place where her hand was, no doubt noting the odd sheen of the ice beneath her palm, as if it were almost melting but couldn’t become liquid again. “But I’ve never truly felt it.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever come across some form of water that I couldn’t manipulate,” Asuka admitted, pulling her hand away and watching as the ice went back to its normal matte mirror sheen. “It’s as if you are standing between me and its liquid form.”

Pulling water into her palm into a ball, she put it forward.

“Can you freeze this?” she queried, completely flabbergasted with the turn of events, even as she felt the tingling pain in her coils and decided this would be the last use of chakra she’d have that day.

Putting a finger against the globe of water, the apprentice sent his special chakra through it, and both adults noted how something like frost crossed the surface before shimmering once again into liquid nature, before repeating the process again and the boy pulled his hand back with a bewildered expression on his face.

“Hmm… Well, that was weird.”

Zabuza’s brows were furrowed thoughtfully, and his coal colored eyes stayed focused on the water in her hand.

“It was as you said,” Haku concurred, expression slightly amazed. “You stand between me and its frozen form.”

“For now,” she allowed in a musing tone, causing the two males to look at her in surprise as she dissipated the water from her hand and flexed her fingers carefully, massaging her palm distractedly against the pins and needles feeling in her coils. “But you are still growing, and with even that much reaction at your age, it’s likely that you could grow strong enough to overwhelm my chakra entirely and freeze the water I summon. Your stores are already almost on par with my own,” she mused sadly at her lot in life. “So, once you finish growing you’ll be able to win against me strength wise.”

“Hmm,” the jounin interrupted for the first time, gaze considering as he looked at her, curious. “Do you have a kekkai-genkai, Asuka?”

“Me?” she blinked at him, brows furrowed in thought. “No, not that I know of. Both of my parents had no main affinity for Water like I do, even though my mother’s was secondary Water. I have no knowledge of my grandparents, as they were dead before I was born. I think my grandfather or maybe my great grandfather might have had a Water affinity, but I can’t really remember what my mother said about that.”

That and her great grandmother had apparently only cackled when her mother had asked who had fathered her mother.

The water was in the blood the blood was in the water.

Her head throbbed, and she brushed the thoughts aside.

“Huh, maybe you’re a Progenitor.”

She shuddered at the thought of what the Council would make her do if she was the beginning of another bloodline. If they had their way, and if she could, she’d be pregnant before she could say Konoha or deny anything and stuck like that until she couldn’t have kids anymore. She loved her village, but the Elder Council frightened her a good portion of the time, which was why she didn’t like to draw attention to herself with the higher ups, especially since Kakashi had pointed out just how unusual her ability to manipulate water the way she did was.

“Don’t even joke!”

It wasn’t funny in the least!

“Stop laughing!”

Smack.

“Ow!”

“You deserved it.”

“Just a little, Zabuza-sama.”

“Hmph.”

~*~

“Well, it’s been great,” she stated dryly, cracking her back and stretching her arms over her head, feeling oddly refreshed, her coils relaxed and back to normal. “Super awesome.”

Actually, they felt a little… hmm, roomy might be a good way to put it? Like she had more space than usual? Stretched, perhaps? Well, whatever. It was probably just the relief after being in pain for so long and using her chakra when she shouldn’t.

This mission had been pretty much downtime, for her, and for the missing nin too, she was sure. They went to the onsen, drank sake into the night, compared battle tactics, almost gotten into a fist fight in a bar – that had been fun – she’d done Haku’s hair and nails… the bureaucratic bullshit had been the only downside.

Ugh, paperwork.

Iruka could have it.

“Yeah, marvelous,” the tall man grunted back while Haku fussed and wriggled subtly at the thought of his new female friend leaving. “I’m just stoked.

“… You just said stoked.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“You Mist nin with your – “

Asuka.

“Kidding, kidding. Jeez, calm down.”

“Why are you so… peppy? It’s weird.”

“Rude.”

“Seriously, you’re freaking me out.”

“Just because no one’s bleeding doesn’t mean that I’m bored or unhappy, for your information.”

“Konoha ninja are strange.”

“Because open wounds don’t make me giddy like the good drugs?”

“Well… yeah.”

In the end, she had sat Haku down and explained that Zabuza was trying to protect him in his own emotionally stunted way – she didn’t right out say that the man was fascinatingly shy about things like that, emotionally stunted and traumatized by his youth of war and slaughter, but it was heavily implied – and that Haku should just do what he felt best, but in the end, that his master would care for him either way. While initially uncertain, after nearly a week of teasing the ex-Mist nin with the Konoha chuunin, he’d come to sort of begin to have some kind of thoughtful hope in his eyes, and she felt some satisfaction that things would work themselves out eventually. She’d probably have to have Naruto do his sparkling innocence thing at them, like he’d done for the Hyuuga branch kid and apparently the Suna jinchuuriki, but it’d be worth it.

She was pretty sure that it wasn’t just the Hyuuga heiress that was smitten, after all that.

Like father like son.

Oh, no, don’t think it Asuka.

Stop!

Argh, my brain.

But really, she was a little sad to see the kid go, since it appeared she was one of the first females he’d met who hadn’t reacted to his very much more attractive countenance with something between resentment and hostile dislike. Even in their little resistance group, it appeared that most of the women there didn’t particularly like how close he was with Zabuza, seeing as he was something of a figurehead for the movement, and the Yuki Clan member had never even been granted a hitai-ate other than what his master had given him. It appeared that the women who did get along with him were usually not around when he was, and so he was normally subjected to scorn and dislike from the female masses that made up some of the Rebel grunts. Some of the men were like this too, if the cues that the Demon had dropped were anything to go by, and she had to see about having the boy stay in Konoha for a time so that she could chuck genin at him and possibly introduce him to the easy to get along with Iruka and her batshit crazy Anko. Heck, even Imori – the cantankerous old bastard – would soften in the face of Haku’s gentle insecurity when it came to social interaction.

Of course, nothing could happen until the Hokage had awoken.

“We’ll… see you again?”

At the effeminate boy’s soft query as he looked up at her from under his lashes, she couldn’t help but pull him into a tight hug, his face only slightly higher than her leather armor covered breasts as she clutched him to her.

His arms came around her waist hesitantly and she just hummed delightedly at him, causing his grip to tighten just enough to portray his upset. Honestly, her genin were drudging up all kinds of maternal instincts that she’d never encountered before, making it easier for her to coddle them and deal with the spontaneous need for cuddles – Naruto – or finding the best way to comfort them when they needed it – Sasuke – and occasionally chat about boys and clothes – Sakura. Spending time with Haku she’d had to do all three, and she was definitely glad for the practice that her troublesome kids had given her, despite the headaches they caused, because she was pleased with how happy she had been able to make him in just a short time.

Even if she was never able to – if she couldn’t ever… yes, what she could do for these kids, what she felt for them, it was good. She was glad she’d been able to have this.

“Of course!” she returned, delightedly petting the boy’s soft hair in a motion that was becoming rather familiar. “You can count on it!”

It was only a little frustrating that he didn’t use any special product, but that was mostly because he was such a sweetheart that she didn’t think she could stand disliking anything about him for long. Those other women were fools to think anything bad about a boy as sugar soft and gooey on the inside as the Ice Release user, and she tried to soak up and give as much comfort and affection as she could.

“It’ll be likely that either me or Kakashi and the kids will be the ones to come by,” she continued, pulling back from where she’d accosted the boy, who was blushing something fierce from the attention. “Though it won’t likely be the genin anytime soon.”

Because the likelihood of Sasuke being allowed out of Konoha when we don’t even have a Hokage at the moment… to risk Orochimaru getting his hands on the only Uchiha that Konoha has… yeah, those aren’t the best of odds.

She couldn’t see Sakura or Naruto going on a mission without their third in tow either, at least, not without some serious arguing.

“Speaking of Kakashi,” glancing up from the pale boy’s pleased, lightly embarrassed features, green eyes met black, and the intrigue and light heat she saw there made her heart thump painfully once. Boy, foreign shinobi were turning out to be interesting once she got passed the violent enemy phase… “He’s well?”

This was something they had apparently been avoiding speaking of, her jounin superior, but she found herself smiling wryly at the darker skinned man, her expression amused. The little game they’d played together in the Land of Waves had been fun, and she had almost found herself trying to say something to her superior officer several times throughout the course of her stay with the missing nin. It was odd that they’d both noted and completely ignored the Kakashi shaped hole in their banter, but well, it was hard to get around the Copy-nin at the best of times, and they had both silently agreed to hold back.

“He was when I left,” she rolled her eyes as the man hunched just a little – shinobi were so shy, it was adorable – before reaching out to swat his arm playfully as she released the possibly Low jounin level boy and he stepped back. “But you never know with those kids in tow,” she sighed heavily, suddenly weary, brows furrowing in a slightly harried expression. “They pull you into the weirdest shit…”

She couldn’t believe how many of their missions went down the crapper…

How hard was it to find a chunk of art shaped like a bear catching a fish? Why did the random bandit have kekkai-genkai that Kakashi had been unaware of? Then there was that thing with the cheese in the market… and that poor man with his cabbage cart…

What was wrong with those kids?

As the jounin tossed a commiserating glance at his own apprentice, she had the sudden feeling that someone had walked over her grave, a chill moving down her spine and causing her to tense, immediately catching the attention of the dark-haired man before her, who surreptitiously scanned the surroundings for enemies.

“What is it?” he asked quietly, his young apprentice calmly making his way to his side in a familiar, carefully controlled action.

This signature… her eyes were wide, breathe caught in her throat, ice blooming in her chest. Oh, gods, please no.

Uchiha Itachi.

That was bad enough.

But…

Uchiha Itachi is near Naruto. My Naruto.

She hadn’t even noticed the genin until she’d registered the known hostile nin!

That boy –!

She was using shunshin before she knew what she was doing, and she was speeding over the rooftops, barely aware of the Mist shinobi following her until the jounin barked at her in the tone of voice she was used to hearing from her superiors.

“Report!”

The commanding tone broke her from her sheen of terror and she shook her head to clear it, pushing back some of her blind horror. While it wasn’t the best idea to answer to that tone from a shinobi who was technically an opposing force, as a missing-nin, she had little cause to hold back information, and considering the treaty that the Sandaime had drawn up, it wasn’t likely that she would get in trouble for it.

“Uchiha Itachi is in this town not that far away,” she stated lowly, her voice slightly ragged. “And… and so is Naruto.”

A blank silence that lasted several moments before the man next to her swore, Haku completely silent, not fully aware of the implications.

“There’s another signature I can’t identify,” she managed to drag out as they got closer. “But that chakra is… monstrous.

“Yeah,” the jounin sounded resigned and extremely unhappy. “That’s one way of putting it.”

Asuka flickered a glance over at him as they stifled their chakra signatures for stealth, to scope out the situation before busting in.

She was lucky that during the war she’d had to take stealth specialized courses – that her mother had given her a head start in when she’d been alive – for information grabs so that she didn’t get caught and mangled, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to hide from the senses on par with the jounin beside her and his apprentice.

“I’ll handle him if it comes to it,” he continued, returning her look steadily, before an odd expression crossed his features, a kind of what and ew, gross look. “… Did I just…?”

“I think you did,” she returned, a little surprised, her shoulders relaxing some with relief at the message he’d just delivered. “But if it does come to it, I can hold off against the Sharingan long enough for Haku to get Naruto out of there.”

“Then we bale,” the man agreed, nodding as he did so, brushing off his odd declaration of intent from only moments before.

The moment she felt Sasuke barreling down the road she closed her eyes against the feeling of dread that sank into her stomach like a cold stone, her brows furrowed against her will, lips tight with worry.

“This just got worse,” the jounin muttered.

Black eyes fixed on the boy that’d come flying around the corner, his chakra signature wild with emotions, clearly not thinking straight. No, no no no! Not her kids gods damnit!

“Yeah,” was all she managed through the tightness of her throat before the two remaining Uchiha saw each other.

Because hey, why not?

The gods hated her.

Fucking Team Seven was so cursed.

She had no doubt that Itachi had known that his brother was in the area the moment she had, perhaps before if his sensing skills had improved – she had no doubts that they had – and she knew that this wasn’t going to end well, no matter what happened, because she didn’t know what Sasuke would do when faced with his Clan’s killer, and certainly didn’t know what she could do about it.

The moment Sasuke went to strike, his brother’s words infuriating him and cutting deep enough to provoke him, she was moving. The too loud but soft sound of bone snapping and a small body slamming into the wall was pushed to the back of her mind in her swiftness of action and movement.

He cried out.

Sasuke screamed.

Her child was in pain!

I knew he shouldn’t have taught him Chidori! Was all she could think in a panicked frenzy as instinctive combat smothered her emotions back. This is all your fault Kakashi!

She avoided thinking about where said jounin was, though, because with two of their genin there…

Before she could really comprehend it, she was parrying a kunai with her katana and pushing back the older Uchiha, felt the surprised flicker of a chakra signature in front of her as she managed to instinctively catch the prodigy with her water needles, making him bleed. His shoulder and chest were slightly punctured, though the shoulder worse off because he’d turned into it to avoid a critical injury like what he would have received had he been pierced in the chest and straight to the heart because he had hurt her kid. She was in a defensive stance in front of her dark haired genin, the boy crowded between her and the wall of the hostel, and even as she felt the air go heavy around her with her chakra pulling the water particles from the air into a more solid form that was almost mist but not quite, she caught a glance of her surprised looking blonde haired genin.

When she fully looked up, she met Sharingan eyes that were only the slightest bit higher than her own, and unlike many – even other Konoha nin – she didn’t flinch.

There was something familiar about his Sharingan, despite the fact that it was the common three tomoe she remembered him having. She couldn’t quite name it, couldn’t figure out just what it was that niggled at the back of her mind about his eyes just out of her reach, but she pushed it aside for the threat that stood in front of her currently, not some abstract worry that wouldn’t present itself fully when she didn’t have the time to think about it. The ache building at the backs of her eyes, which she hadn’t noticed growing, waned.

The teenaged boy’s eyes widened at her, brow twitching just a bit as he stepped back, blood dripping steadily down his arm as the water that pierced him was still under her control, and slowly drilling against the chakra shield he’d erected under his skin to hold her back. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted the tall man with blue tinged skin and what looked like gills on his cheekbones with a scratched-out Mist hitai-ate wearing a similar cloak of black with red clouds on it, and felt her heart beat harder against her ribcage for it.

Yeah, she was glad that Zabuza was there.

Of course, the man was still hiding on the rooftop they’d been perched on like they had planned on, observing the situation because he could control himself.

Oh god, if Kakashi heard of this she would never, and she meant never live it down.

Well, if she survived anyway.

She could almost hear the dark-haired man face palming from where he was, grumbling about fucking Konoha hippies the Yuki Clan member cutely confused and concerned beside him. The chuunin didn’t blame him; she was more and more concerned for her own sanity every day.

“Oh?” Hoshigake Kisame – oh, gods this team had the worst luck fuck fuck fuck fuck – murmured interestedly, his voice surprisingly light as deep as it was. “Another Konoha nin, how interesting. Wherever do you all come from?”

“We have a village,” she found herself stating dryly, her gaze returning to her main problem, the Uchiha, who was looking at her blankly, features smooth as he assessed her. “It even has a symbol and everything.”

The blue skinned man chuckled at her words, the sound pleasant and even; a tone that spoke of an ease with the situation that she definitely didn’t have.

“Oh, I like this one,” the missing-nin stated, shifting comfortably where he stood. “She’s funny, and she even managed to wound you Itachi-san.”

“Hn.”

Though the young man scoffed drolly, seemingly uninterested in the fact that she was meeting his gaze head on, there was the tiniest pinch behind his eyes as he looked at her, a discomfort that was almost pain.

Still, she could see it through that careful blankness.

She could see the Itachi she had known.

Perhaps his ghost.

What had once been a tortured child was a man unknown before her.

That same curiosity with a hint of shyness that had graced his expression when he’d been a timid eight-year-old with the too heavy responsibilities of his Clan and the sad, aged maturity of a prodigy put into a position he hadn’t asked for. He had followed Shisui around like a chick with its mother, and the child who had been called Shunshin no Shisui in his latter years had followed Haruka around something awful a good portion of the time, a habit that Chitose had complained about to no end. The younger boy would sit down quietly and wait for his louder, older friend to finish whatever argument he would get into – they were both terribly immature a good portion of the time, Chitose and Shisui – with the taller twin, and on occasion she would take up place beside him, sharing her lunch with him, since he didn’t look like he ate nearly enough for a Clan child.

She had been the one to help him discover his favorite onigiri filling. She had been the one to start him on the path of the blade when he’d shown interest. She’d been the one to teach him some iryō-ninjutsu and find his strong affinity for it, mourn with him quietly at the knowledge that he could never be an iryō-nin as the Heir to the Uchiha Clan. Neither his father or the Clan Elders would have ever allowed it; would have punished him for even considering a path other than the one they chose. She had been there, when he had giggled quietly beside her and Haruka while they laughed at Shisui having sneezed a globule of snot into Chitose’s face. She had been there, when he had expressed excitement at his brother starting the Academy to her quieter teammate, sparing her a soft, happy smile filled with quiet affection and a shy hopefulness that had yet to be smothered by his Clan’s expectations. She had been there when he had crawled into her and her twins’ apartment in the middle of the night, Shisui trailing quietly behind him, when he had received the order to join ANBU, had been pressured into becoming an assassin when all he wanted to do was live in peace.

She had been there.

“Onee-san, please, I can’t… please, help me…”

He had stood on her opposing side from his normally loud, boisterous and affectionate best friend when they had added her teammates’ names to the Stone, the courtyard empty but for a few other nin that they had been acquainted with; Shisui and Itachi had been the only Uchiha at the funeral. He had put his small, callused, warm hand into her own and let her hold it while numb grief tried to crack open her heart and bleed her out. He had been there when she had begun to relearn to breath after her short, painful talk with the Sandaime, had sparred with her for what had been her most painfully aware day since they had left her behind, left her alone. Oh, gods she had never felt so alone before, but those boys had stood by her through her pain, silly Shisui and sweet Itachi. No matter the aching pit that had yawned great and terrible in her chest and stomach, hollowed out her bones, it was still better that they’d been together than separated, her twins. Truly, no matter how painful and cold and lonely it was without them she was glad that they’d had each other in the beyond. A tiny hand in her own had cemented that, one of a size with her, her own covering the other, had made it easier to breath.

He had been there.

So when she had found him in the forest near her clearing the day that Shisui’s suicide note had been found, first, she had let him attack her, and fought back just as fiercely and as strongly as she could because she knew that pain, and then held him as he wept afterwards, trying to stay as silent as the empty grave of the person closest to him. For a name that would never grace that stone with her twins, that would likely only grace the shrines of those not of his Clan, who didn’t see him as disgraced. He had been so small in her arms, so terribly young, trembling and clutching to her like she was the last thing in the world that was stable, like he would fall and shatter as glass beneath that great weight that pressed down upon him more surely than gravity if he let go. She had held bruised, scarred, and burned fingers in her own, running chakra filled water over rough and beaten digits as she cradled a child soldier’s hands in her own and tried to sooth the trembling, the shudders of shock and horror and fear and dread and so much loneliness and pain. She had let him sob into her throat, her armor having been ruined and tossed aside after a katon jutsu to the chest, and she had breathed in the scent of onigiri, ink – he had habit of calligraphy to calm himself – ube and the barest hint of plum overtop the hickory of his chakra usage. She had rocked him back and forth as his world ended for the first time, and she had pressed kisses to his hair as tears stained her skin, gasping breathes taking in her chakra scent desperately as if he had thought it would be the only time he would ever be able to breath it in.

That had been the last time they sparred.

And the first time he’d won.

She hadn’t been close to him, not really, not in the way his best friend had been, but she had understood him in an abstract way. Had tried to fill a void for the both of them as someone who cared. She and her twins had tried to lift some of that debilitating pressure that hardened him when he was with them, to give him moments of true childhood. She had fed him and her quieter twin when they would finish speaking about whatever serious topic they would get onto, and then she would silently encourage Shisui’s silliness, since it softened the lines of stress on a young face with too old eyes. She had thought that she knew something of a quiet boy with a dream to heal but with a propensity for death fed by his Clan’s ambitions, had thought that if only for his brother’s sake he would change that Clan, with the help of his dopey older friend – there had been something blooming there, but it had been crushed with the teenager’s death, fracturing what might have been – who had a rather alarming addiction for dango that was almost worse than Anko’s.

Then her boys had died.

She had changed.

And then Shisui – sweet, silly little Shisui – had gone after them.

He had changed.

Everything had changed.

It would appear that, despite what she’d felt, she hadn’t known him as well as she’d thought.

Perhaps that said something about how well she thought she knew herself, as well.

“N-nee-chan?” Naruto wondered, voice a little wavering from where he stood, uncharacteristically quiet. “What are you doing here? Weren’t you on a mission?”

“Naruto,” she said sweetly instead of answering him because now was not the time. “Why are you alone in Otafuku-Gai?”

“I’m not!” he defended immediately, and she could almost see the reeling back he did at her words, even though she never took her eyes from her opponent, waiting. “Ero-sennin is here, but he went off to peek at women!”

Lie, she decided. Or rather, untrue. Jiraiya wouldn’t just leave him. And why is he with Jiraiya anyway?

No, she decided again, that didn’t matter at that moment.

Especially when she felt a cold shaking hand press against her lower back tentatively through her armor, as if making sure that she was real. She pulsed her chakra back at him comfortingly, which caused him to place both hands against her, this time more firmly, to reassure himself. His arm was probably fractured even if shock and adrenaline were keeping him from feeling it; she’d have to do something about that soon.

“Well,” she instead said drolly. “It’s a good thing I went to the bathes earlier this week then.”

Then she felt it.

The moment Jiraiya appeared in a murderous burst of shunshin, everything became action.

As the older Uchiha came at her she agitated the water she’d already saturated with her chakra, causing his eyes to flinch at the sudden influx of information, too much moving chakra too suddenly in the air around him, creating a barrier between her and him. This was a technique that she had never used against him, but had learned when sparring with her twins after they had gotten their Sharingan and had been acting a little smug about it, needing something to knock them down a peg again. While it had taken her a while, she had definitely been happy enough to shut Chitose up from his insurmountable bragging whenever he managed to best her in a spar those first few days.

That boy had been such an insufferable brat.

She missed him.

Itachi didn’t stop, though he couldn’t use his Sharingan until he got used to what he was processing, and she found herself knocking kunai out of the air from where she stood pinned against the wall in defense of her student, her hands in a two-handed grip on the hilt of her katana. Her heart shuddered in her chest because in this position she couldn’t do anything, but she daren’t move out of the way because that would leave the young Uchiha without aid and open to attacks that he wasn’t nearly coherent or skilled enough to defend against.

Chakra built to the side, but she paid it no mind, allowing the Sennin to take care of whatever it was, knowing that if things became dicey, that the Demon of the Mist would step in, though she couldn’t imagine Jiraiya needing assistance.

The Uchiha stepped back from her after a flurry of movement and weapon’s steel, eyes slightly tensed as if in pain or discomfort.

The hand closest to her was trembling just barely, out of sight of everyone else in the room, the fingers trying to curl into a fist, but he forcefully relaxed them.

What was he… what was this?

He was… why was he looking at her like that?

Like lost little Itachi-chan?

This wasn’t the time to wonder about it, however, no matter the confusion slithering up the back of her throat and throbbing in the back of her head.

“Kisame,” he stated calmly, which brought the taller, broader male to his side, sighing a little as he shouldered his beast of a weapon.

“Already?”

“We didn’t come here to start a war,” the missing-nin continued stoically, his gaze traveling away from the chakra stained water that hovered before her over towards the very unhappy looking member of the Sannin, keeping his dark eyes off of the kunoichi before him as she felt her mind roil with confusion. “Let’s go.”

As the two walked passed her, she was infinitely glad that she hadn’t let her guard down, because she just barely caught the behemoth that the blue skinned missing nin called a sword on her katana when he lazily struck out at her. She found herself braced on one knee, heady woozy with sudden inexplicable chakra loss, but her arms stayed steady, even as a blast of Killing Intent so strong she felt her spine quiver in fear and her heart quail washed over the area, focused on the two missing nin, and they disappeared. Gasping at the abrupt release of pressure and the shocking depletion of nearly half her reserves, she lowered her suddenly shaking and weak arms, and leaned on her supporting leg whilst pulling the chakra she had left in the water out of it to refill what she could to lessen the sudden fatigue and shock.

“Oh,” she wheezed out, taking a few careful breathes before Sealing away her katana and moving to stand, wavering more than a little with black dots spotting her vision, only to have two different but familiar hands catch her on both sides and help her to keep standing. “Ow.”

This was getting to be a habit, wasn’t it?

Somehow, she was sure that this was also all Kakashi's fault.

“Ah, Zabuza! Haku!” her loud student called out in delight, even as the Sennin stared down the other man suspiciously, the genin unsurprisingly not sensing the mood. He was good like that. “What’re you doing here?”

“We were here on business, Naruto-kun,” the sweet voice of the older boy stated as he moved over to him. “It’s still good to see you even considering the circumstances.”

“Ehehe~!”

Pulling back a little unsteadily, she turned away from the glaring match that the two men were getting into and towards her pale, shocked Uchiha student, her green eyes soft as she studied him. She couldn’t say that she hated Itachi, couldn’t even say that she really disliked him, but for the haunted, lost look in those young eyes before her she could feel great anger and disappointment. There were no people left in the Clan that she cared for, all having passed before the Massacre, but she was glad for the fact that he had spared his little brother, and she had no delusions about why he had done so.

If there was one thing she was certain of, it was that he held some love for his otouto, out of anyone else in the Clan.

Even if the boy himself couldn’t see it, wouldn’t allow himself to see it.

“Sasuke.”

Dark eyes stared up at her, before traveling down towards one of her legs.

“You… you’re bleeding…” his voice sounded a little shocky, and she glanced down at the wound on her calf that a kunai she half remembered moving into the path of to protect the boy from, had apparently been caught in the muscle.

“Oh, that’s easy enough to fix,” she stated, carefully pulling forth enough chakra for her water bandage and popping the weapon out before sealing the wound shut temporarily. “See?”

Putting her hand out, she grabbed his shoulder and gently drew him into her side with a sigh, sliding chakra water over his awkwardly angled arm to numb the nerves and set the bone in his forearm before he could question it. At the curl of his small frame against her own, she found her entire body beginning to relax from battle adrenaline, even as she glanced over at the poleaxed expression on the orange wearing boy’s face. Her heart was still shuddering in her chest from the intensity of the Sennin’s KI, her body was weak and unsteady from the sudden devouring of her chakra, and she was pretty sure that the older Uchiha had something laced on that kunai because that leg was starting to tingle something fierce, but she could deal with that in a moment. She filtered a little yin chakra to the water bandage anyway, just to be safe, tugging out the majority of the foreign substance that had been making its way into her system. It seemed similar enough to the Konoha Basic Paralytic that anyone who’d gone to the Academy could make with little difficulty, but there were a few differences that she would deal with at a later time.

When she couldn’t feel her heart beating like it was outside of her chest and compressing her lungs. Her coils had already been fucked over by her miraculous unbelievable saving of the Sandaime, and the shock to her system really wasn’t doing her any favors, so wasn’t even going to dream of remote healing herself at the moment.

Didn’t count when it was the kid, obviously. The children were the priority.

“Come here, Naruto,” she told him, and he scrambled over to her with wide eyes, looking at her like he’d never seen her before even as he squirmed under her free arm in a familiar motion and she squeezed him as well to comfort herself. “You’re alright?”

Even as she scanned her eyes over him, he was nodding his head and his teammate seemed to be coming back to himself somewhat, looking up at her with an inscrutable, almost lost look that had her placing her hand over the Curse mark. It took a moment before she was soothing her chakra over it gently, despite the fact that her head ached with the use of it, causing his shoulders to relax and him to lean against her ever so slightly. Oh, she wanted to sleep for a week.

All of that rest and relaxation, gone in the space of a few minutes.

Stupid blue bastard.

With little thought, she dropped to her knees so that they were of a height and tugged the two of them against her shoulders, burying her hands in two different sets of hair colored like night and day, pressing her face first to the dark-haired boy’s hair for a breath of his scent, and then to the slightly shorter Naruto’s. The jinchuuriki was someone she kind of expected to smell like Ramen or salt, possibly dirt, but he had a clean scent littered with sunshine, persimmons and only something that could be described as a summer breeze passing over the tall grass and flowers in a meadow, carrying the scent of sweet nectar. It was comforting and surprising, and he probably had more of a human scent than the blood-stained majority of the ninja of their village, and that saddened her to know that some people would never believe that, no matter what the boy did to prove them wrong.

The paler boy’s hands shook where they gripped her, his right hand caught in the cloth on the back of her left shoulder in an echo of how he’d been positioned after he’d first been Cursed in the hospital, his right fisted against his chest and coincidentally over her heart, so he could feel her heartbeat slowing as she calmed. His face was buried against her, hitai-ate pressed against the meat between neck and shoulder, the chill of the metal not making its way through her leather armor but the soft sound of his taking careful, unconscious breathes of her scent was clear to her. After every breath his body relaxed just a touch more, and she felt something like satisfied relief making its way through her chest.

Exuberant, loud, cheerful Naruto, on the other hand, was more hesitant, as always – even after so long, even when Sasuke had taken longer to open up to her – and took a moment to grip her free shoulder in a mirrored position of his teammate, right hand pressed against her stomach and ridiculous amounts of chakra reaching towards her hara for shy comfort. His cheek was laying against her shoulder with his oddly warm hitai-ate pressed against the part of her under armor that met her leather armor, so she could just feel the odd temperature to it. When he took a breath, it was slow and careful, as if he were afraid she’d jerk away in disgust, or reprimand him for the action, but she just sighed and laid her cheek against his spiky, springy hair for a moment so that he relaxed against her.

So much relief

“Honestly, boys,” she muttered as she held at the two of them against her with weak, jittery feeling limbs. “Why does Kakashi let you out of the village?”

Sasuke stiffened against her side, all of his previous relaxation disappearing as he did so, his eyes widening in consternation as he shifted back a little to look into her face, her arm shifted from where it had been positioned to let her hand dig into his silky hair to lay against his back.

“Kaka-sensei ran into Ita – him in Konoha,” his voice was raw as he at her, dark eyes lost, and she felt a stab of worry in her chest, a cold pain that gripped her heart like a vice. Kakashi… “He’s probably in the hospital now, I…” he glanced away, features twisted, likely feeling the small stutter in her heartbeat against the edge of his fist. “I heard that he was after Naruto and just…” he shrugged helplessly, and she squeezed the arm she had around his back reflexively to comfort him. “I just…”

With a deep breath, she let thoughts of what could possibly be wrong with her jounin fade to the background. It was not the time.

Please, no…

Not the time.

“It’s alright, Sasuke,” she murmured softly, green eyes warm and a little sad. It was the first time she’d ever heard him refer to the jounin with the epithet of ‘Kaka-sensei’ that his teammates preferred rather than just saying Kakashi. He was really shaken, more so than he wanted to admit, or perhaps even knew. “We’ll worry about that when we get back to Konoha.”

Turning her gaze towards the bright blues that were staring at her a little wondrously and soulfully, she sighed just a little as she pulsed her much needed chakra against her still in shock student.

“Might I ask what exactly it is that you’re doing running around with Jiraiya?” she queried instead, gripping the silent dark-haired boy reassuringly, raising a brow at the other genin so that he raised his head and squirmed uncomfortably. “Have you pulled some horrendous prank and are escaping with him until things cool down or what?”

“What? No!”

Naruto looked horribly offended, eyes wide and very blue, but the deadpan look on her face shut him up – she was just so done with today – before causing him to explain really quickly, his words tripping over themselves as he tried to get them out as fast as possible. The hand he had gripping her shirt sleeve trembled a little momentarily, and she let her gaze soften so that he steadied again, he might be loud and boisterous and mostly clueless, but he was also just a kid.

“He’s – he’s training me, and – and we’re going to – to find some old lady with – like – really, really big –”

“Okay!”

Jiraiya interrupted with a single clap of his hands from behind them, shoving the jinchuuriki to the side before taking a hold of her upper left arm and lifting her easily back to her feet and steadying her as she swayed and put a hand on the Uchiha’s shoulder for support.

After she found her feet, he gripped her shoulders and spun her around like a top, causing her to blink up at him as he ended up steadying her once again as little black fuzzies moved into the peripherals of her vision in odd blobs and nonsensical shapes. More than a little bewildered, she just stared up at his rather tanned features framed by shocking white hair, close enough from his tugging her around that her leather covered and bound breasts brushed against his rather well-defined chest with every breath she took, because he… he couldn’t have been talking about who she thought he was, could he…? That was impossible, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

She’d vowed never to return to Konoha!

Oh, her head really, really hurt, and for a multitude of reasons.

“It’s very nice of you to drop in on us, Asuka, my dear, lovely kunoichi, but you should probably take that,” he pointed at Sasuke without moving his dark gray eyes from where they stared into her green ones, the boy in question bristled only slightly in insult, something that was a little shocking considering his pride. Well, he was emotionally drained and possibly a little catatonic. She’d cut him some slack. She was feeling a bit overwhelmed herself. “Back to Konoha for a scolding, and we’ll be on our way, yeah?”

That natural way he exuded PI drifted over her still slightly trembling coils, her still jittery insides along with her hara having felt oddly cold since his frightful use of KI, and she felt a knot of tension in her stomach release, the heat that radiated out from his body warming the sudden cold that coated her shivering skin. Whatever it was that Kisame had done to rip her chakra out of her had done a number on her system, which was still shaky from her unusual transfer to the Sandaime, the coils still feeling loose and stretched like old clothing that had yet to reach that just perfect comfortableness.

As she cast a glance at the grumbling and a little leery Zabuza, and Haku who was ever so kindly aiding Naruto to stand again and speaking to him softly, she decided that was another thing that she would wait to think about at a later time. There was only so much shock she could take in a day, after all.

“Well, uh, okay,” she replied, looking up into her superior’s dark gray eyes, a little disconcerted at how close he was, and at the serious glint in his eyes. “My mission ended today anyway, so I was already planning to head back.”

Oh, his hands were really warm and the way he was exuding that Positive Intent was ridiculous... was it stronger this time? Missing half her chakra was making her unpleasantly cold, and he just had so much it basically felt like through just a little contact it was jumping into her coils… she really wished that she knew how to do reverse transfusions, but that wasn’t something that they taught to field medics. Or people without the utmost clearance in the medical field, really. The ability to steal chakra was not one that would be spread wildly and with no regard for who exactly it was being taught to, and what they might do with it. There were perhaps five people from all of Konoha who had knowledge of the technique, and two of them weren’t within the village.

Well, not yet, apparently.

Oh, no, Asuka stop thinking.

I am so bad at this not thinking about things I shouldn’t think.

Just like when I was thinking about Naruto’s –

Gah!

No!

Just stop it, Asuka!

She was such a horrible person.

Her head ached like a motherfucker.

“Well, that’s good then,” the man coughed a little awkwardly and gave her a little pat on the shoulder with his large heavy hand, stepping back from her – taking his heat with him, the jerk – before picking up Naruto and slinging him under an arm like a sack of goods. “See you around, Asuka!”

The extra glance he sent her told her not to talk about that bit with Tsunade, and also conveyed some slight exasperation with the situation in general, a vague affection in quirked lips that had her blinking and smiling back helplessly. Honestly, she’d have to see it to believe it, and she wasn’t known for spreading false information when she did speak to others. She certainly couldn’t make herself believe it.

“Bye, Jiraiya,” she called after him faintly, still a little dazed, brows furrowed with subdued bewilderment and weariness. “Make sure to eat your vegetables, Naruto!”

“Eeeeeh?!”

With that, they were gone.

Just like that.

Freaking… Sennin?

She needed sleep.

A lot of it.

And alcohol.

Lots of that too.

Catching her eyes with those of the jounin across from her, she found herself inordinately weary.

“So, Kisame’s sword is one if the…” she trailed off, absently setting her arm around her boy at her side’s shoulders and giving him a squeeze.

“Yeah,” he sighed at her, his Kubikiribōchō slung across his back drooping as he did so.

It would have been more amusing if one of the cleaver’s sister swords hadn’t just tried to cripple her for the heck of it, but she was sure she’d take the proper enjoyment from it at a later time, possibly with a certain pale haired jounin –

No.

Ah, jeez, just… she really wished she were unconscious.

“That bastard yanked out basically half of my chakra in one go,” she muttered, rubbing at the back of her neck tiredly with her free hand, blinking tiredly, mind a bit of a haze.

“He does that,” he sighed back before signaling to Haku. “He’s a bit of a dick,” coming from Zabuza, she was sure that meant something, but she couldn’t quite think straight enough to truly appreciate it for all of its comedic gold. “We’re outta here, anyway.”

The Konoha shinobi are really fucking weird and pull you into the weirdest fucking shit and we’re out before they start the next Shinobi War over a smashed flower or something was implied.

She couldn’t argue it, really.

Team Seven was just cursed.

“Alright,” she waved him off and smiled at Haku vaguely, who smiled back a little hesitantly and nodded to the two remaining Konoha nin. “See ya around, Zabuza.”

“Asuka.”

After he ran his gaze over her one more time – men were such mother hens, especially jounin, she was finding – the two disappeared in a burst of shunshin.

After taking a moment to breath, she grabbed her student on the shoulder tighter, wondering if she could ask Iruka to help her with the incident report, and prepared for shunshin – oh, this was going to be uncom fortable – only for his voice to give her pause.

“… You made him bleed,” it was a soft, confused, and stunned breath, and she sighed, eyes heavy.

There was some kind of directionless accusation there, and she didn’t know if it was at her, for doing what Sasuke couldn’t, or at his brother, for being weak enough to be hurt by her.

It was probably a mixture of both.

“So I did.”

It was unlikely that she ever would again.

She couldn’t get the sight of that trembling hand out of her head.

And the familiarity of his eyes…

What was going on?

What was this?

Itachi-chan, what was this?

~*~

It was a little ironic – morbidly so – at least, she thought so, that he was in the exact same hospital room she’d been in only a little over a week prior.

And she was sitting in the exact same seat he had been during her stay in the hospital, her heart a squeezing, choking mess in her throat above her constricted chest.

After she’d finished her mission, dropped Sasuke off at his house after thoroughly chewing him out in the nicest way possible – he’d still given her the wide eyes despite the sweet smile on her features that she’d tried to mellow her words with, go figure – she’d delivered the scroll full of documents into the box for Hokage’s eyes only and gone home to shower. It hadn’t been as purifying and restorative as usual, and she couldn’t find it within herself to relax completely despite her exhaustion from receded adrenaline and chakra loss. She’d gone to bed after that despite her jittery energy, knowing that if she went with a little less than half her reserves to the hospital, they would demand a checkup, especially since she’d been wounded by Itachi whilst protecting her unauthorized genin while out of village bounds. She was going to keep that quiet for as long as possible, that bout of insanity that had driven a boy who knew full well the rules of leaving in the village, to keep the heat off of that silly, emotional boy, at least until his idiot jounin-sensei was well enough to take care of it himself.

Which… yeah.

That was, um, a thing.

One that she was most definitely not thinking about.

On her way back to the village, she’d run into Gai – which had been… interesting to say the least – and the man had quite colorfully lamented missing the member of the Sannin’s departure from the area, as he’d been hoping to have the man ask Tsunade to heal his student. Since he’d found that Sasuke was gone after he had apparently transported his Eternal Rival to the hospital, and thought the boy’s actions most YOUTHFUL in passion, but most UNYOUTHFUL in exploit, she’d asked him to take it up with Kakashi when the numbskull woke up. When they did stupid shit, they were his genin, damnit, and she was cranky enough from the sudden chakra drain destroying her nice vacation recovery. She did not sign up to deal with brats who could get in trouble with the Council, a problem she had absolutely zero ability to help them with. That’s what using an Elite jounin with a Clan – even if it was on the outs – was about; intimidating the Council into backing the fuck off.

She had reassured him that Naruto would likely remember – though she wasn’t quite certain – that he had a comrade who was in need of assistance and would manage to convince the woman to return to Konoha to aide him as well as take up the position of Hokage.

Something told her, that if anyone could pull off that miracle that Sakura was asking for, it was the little blonde genin.

The one who smelled like persimmons and flowers on the breeze.

But at present, she sat in the slightly uncomfortable chair next to her friend, hesitating on whether or not to take his hand, and if it would bother him at all, despite the fact that he was more than thoroughly unconscious – the word coma sifted through her mind in horror – and rather used to her chakra signature. The fact that he was so sickly pale, instead of his usual smooth, moon glow of a velvety ivory complexion threw her off, especially since nearly the entire top half of his features were showing, what with his hitai-ate having been removed. His silver hair hung limply down against his forehead looking both terribly soft and limp, and while it shown cleanly in the afternoon light, it was shadowing his pale features just that much more, looking a little odd since she was used to them being pushed back by his hitai-ate.

He looked… aged.

The scar that bisected his left eye looked angry and red, despite it being older than their genin were – normally it was as cool and silvery as the rest of the stories that patterned his skin map – and she had to refrain from reaching out with her chakra to sooth it, to make discomfort fade. No matter how much closer they had gotten in the past few months, touching that eye when he wasn’t fully conscious, and consenting, was an unsigned suicide note; she wouldn’t put it passed his unconscious ability to maim or kill her. She worried that perhaps he had strained the chakra pathways that were knotted up around his Sharingan implant, and that perhaps the eye itself was damaged from going against a blooded Uchiha’s own eyes, possibly burning them out even more than was usual. The bruises around his eyes were more pronounced with the ashy, wax sheen to his skin, his brows furrowed even in the depths of unconsciousness, dark lashes twitching with the dream, the nightmare that he was caught in.

She dreaded whatever it was that Itachi had forced on him in the Tsukuyomi.

Her tongue felt thick and hot in her mouth, her throat swollen and dry, eyes burning and pinched.

She… she couldn’t help him with this.

It was strange, seeing him lay so still, his body not tensed in the least because his mind couldn’t find a connection, had been separated from conscious thought and ability. He still wore his mask, likely the medics couldn’t remove it via some jutsu or seal, or there was some specification he had in his file that stated that it stayed on even when critically injured. The sleeveless ANBU grade under armor that he wore was identical to the ones she’d seen him wear before, but she knew that there had really been no need to remove his clothing farther than this, because it wasn’t a physical injury that had him laid up like this.

It was mental.

And that… that was so much worse.

A shinobi was trained to endure pain and torture after a certain rank, and during wartime, all ninja received specialized training for if they were captured and tortured, but the worst kind of torture all around was the kind you couldn’t separate your mind from. Genjutsu, an art that if one wasn’t a ninja didn’t seem particularly threatening. Genjutsu. She disliked it herself and so didn’t use it, but it didn’t mean she didn’t understand how effective of a weapon it was, how dangerous it was. Chitose had wielded it like an art form, had done so until his dying breath, and she could never hate a tool no matter what it had done and could do to her comrades. It was a terrible thing in the skilled hands of someone who wished to destroy you, who knew how to tear the human psyche apart piece by piece, who knew you enough to lay you bare and drip acidic compulsion or threats into the very darkness of your thoughts.

If there was one thing that Itachi was, it was skilled.

To hell with it , she decided, taking his left hand in hers, a little alarmed with how cool it was. His hands were normally chilly, yes, having some problems with his circulation as all ninja do to a certain extent, considering how hard they work their bodies, sometimes things just get pinched wrong and body parts got cool, and his being a ninjutsu specialist generally messed up the flow of energy in his body, but this… this was almost… like…

Without thought, she fluttered her chakra over his hand, letting it sooth up his arm and into the rest of his body.

That chill was because almost all of his chakra was focused on trying to fight Itachi’s, where it had been implanted into his coils, into his mind.

Where she could not go.

Aw hell, she thought weakly, letting her forehead fall to press against the back of his cold hand, continuing to circulate her chakra through his system to support the production of heat in his body. His coils responded easily, though in a sluggish manner, and circulated her chakra, though didn’t absorb it, the leftovers returning to her to be circulated again, since he currently had no need for more than what he already had, already at capacity as he was, and she sighed against the bed sheet in front of her face, trying to make the burning in her eyes dissipate. She willed herself not to cry, not to let the scent of her salty tears permeate this room with hopelessness. She didn’t want that to be the first thing he smelled when he woke, didn’t want him to feel that guilt or pain, to pull back from her because she’d shown him emotional weakness before he was comfortable enough to look for it.

She hadn’t hated Itachi before, no matter what had happened with the Massacre, but she felt a little bit of darkness bloom in her heart as she held his hand in hers.

He had hurt her Kakashi.

Gods damnit.

~*~

In the intensive care unit, she walked up behind a woman who was shorter but arguably more dangerous despite her petite frame and delicate features, with long purple hair and stood at her shoulder. Green and gray eyes were focused on the other side of thick, treated glass filled with sterile white and stark black, the faint hissing sound of machinery could be heard outside of the sealed room but nothing else left it.

What she could sense of Hayate’s chakra was… muted and pained. Sharper where it was normally soft and soothing.

“Don’t let him give up hope, Yugao,” even though Asuka’s chest ached with a sympathy and understanding it hadn’t had before, she spoke evenly, quietly. Reassuringly. “Keep him here.”

Her own hopes were reflected in her voice, in the steady confidence that she didn’t quite feel but could portray. Asuka… Asuka didn’t have with Kakashi what Yugao had with Hayate, but she at least knew, well, felt half of what her rival did.

“Asuka?” gray eyes flickered tiredly, but shrewdly up at her. “What’s happened?”

“Just… make him hold on.”

“Asuka.”

“There’s a possibility, that’s all. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” a small hand wrapped around the chuunin’s larger one, callus again callus. “I’ll keep him here.”

The smaller kenjutsu mistress’ eyes went flinty and pained as she stared through the glass at the bed surrounded by machines and medical seals, at her kenjutsu master lover where he lay in the middle, pale and bandaged. Even at that distance, intubated as he was, both women could see the tension to unconscious features, speaking of pain, the shadows on features speaking of illness and exhaustion that was more than just physical.

“Even if he hates me for it.”

It was what people did for the ones that they loved despite their wishes. It was a selfish version of love that they bore as nin who could die at any moment; who knew loss intimately.

Perhaps it was kinder to let them – him – fade, to let the pain end, but they were blade mistresses.

They were made of cold, folded steel. To protect that soft center that they so jealously guarded with razor sharp edges, they would even cut themselves.

It was simply who they were.

Chapter Text

When Anko confirmed the remains of Akadō Yorui amongst the dead faceless nin who had been found along the border, Asuka felt every bone ache. They hadn’t been close really, though she’d been out to drink with the team they’d shared together, hadn’t known each other on any personal level, but…

She was the only one to bring flowers to his grave marker, to smooth her fingertips over the engraving of his name on the stone.

Everyone else he’d associated with had died as well, killed by the same man who had killed him. That, or had betrayed them.

Sometimes, Asuka was just… tired.

Everyone died, but sometimes it was just… worse than others, because sometimes the fact that death could be meaningless just made the world and every mission that much heavier to bear, a burden when normally it was a duty. An honor, to protect and serve their home, the beautiful Konoha.

Was this what it would have been like for Asuka? If she had died before Kakashi had approached her for help? If those silly genin hadn’t run into her training grounds against all of the teachings of the Academy and rules of conduct?

Would she be just another flowerless grave?

“Sensei?”

Looking up at the voice of her pink haired genin from where she was leaned back against a Hashirama tree with dark thoughts circulating, Asuka managed to pull up a smile at the corner of her lips, pleased to see the girl despite the pressure that still sat heavily in her guts. There hadn’t been much time for her to regain her equilibrium between all the things she’d had to do since returning to Konoha, but she hadn’t wanted to cancel her date with the young and budding kunoichi. Even if the chuunin herself was still trying to catch her balance, she didn’t want to leave her little student floundering in the face of her jounin sensei in the hospital and her louder teammate outside of the village with an unknown. The inevitable question of Sasuke, who had practically disappeared after she’d entered the village with him and had his arm treated at the same hospital that housed Kakashi.

Asuka knew that she was going to have to break down and find that kid sooner rather than later, but in her current mindset the chuunin was pretty sure she’d do more harm than good. That, however, was not allowed.

Kid had enough problems, he didn’t need hers piled on top as well.

“Hello, Sakura.”

“Sensei, are you… okay?”

In the face of the innocent, sincere query from the girl who would learn the blade from her, who liked to sit at tea shops and talk about jutsu theory as well as complain about her teammates, the chuunin melted. There was a growing ferocity in jade eyes that was endearing.

“I’m not at my best,” she admitted after a moment with a tired quirk to her lips. “But I do still want to do some work today. That is, if you’re up to it.”

After another moment of worriedly studying the woman’s face the pink haired girl planted her feet and flexed one arm as the opposite hand squeezed her tiny bicep amusingly, face set in determination as Sakura nodded seriously.

“Let’s do this so I can beat up Naruto when he gets back, and Sasuke-kun for leaving me behind! And scare Kaka-sensei when he’s better!”

Asuka barked out a laugh of genuine surprise and enjoyment, feeling that knot in her chest lighten at the fire burning in jade eyes. Sakura beamed at the sound and the woman didn’t even attempt to stop herself from slipping to her knees to hug the girl, who returned the affection eagerly, tucking her face into the woman’s neck with a breath to both give and receive comfort.

Team Seven might drive her up the wall, but Asuka wouldn’t trade them in for the world.

“Alright,” she said, straightening and setting a hand on soft pink hair and a barely scuffed hitai-ate. “Time for some laps; stamina training today. You ready?”

“Hai, Asuka-sensei. You have to work hard to be terrifyingly stunning!”

“That’s my girl!”

She really did love these kids.

At the very least, she knew that there would be flowers on her grave someday.

And that…

That was enough.

~*~

Kaka-sensei was hurt, and Naruto was gone.

It was… scary, how quickly things had changed, how fast worse and worse things were happening to them, when before the scariest thing had been Zabuza and he was definitely not scary anymore because Haku-senpai made him all soft. Well, that, and whatever it was that was going on between Asuka-sensei, Kaka-sensei and him.

Having watched Inari follow the big scary missing nin around had been kind of a mark in the not-so-scary column as well.

It was scary that Sasuke-kun’s brother had managed to hurt their Kaka-sensei like that, that he’d needed to protect two other jounin and that was what had gotten him hurt, having Ino and Hinata’s sensei behind him as a weakness. Since she’d started working with Asuka-sensei, Sakura had taken to browsing the chuunin woman’s Bingo Book during down times after training, when her arms felt like jelly and her legs were leaden weights below her abdomen, which stung whenever she moved.

Hoshigaki Kisame was in the same section as Zabuza was, but his bounty and warning were higher because of his boundless chakra reserves and a sword that apparently ate chakra. Sakura couldn’t imagine what it would be like to face someone with Naruto levels of chakra – well, without that other thing that Sakura suspected, anyway – that could also steal yours away, making even an attempt at endurance nearly impossible. When Asuka-sensei had spoken of him – before Kaka-sensei ran into him – she’d shuddered with a little grimace at the thought of having to cross blades with him, saying that while she was a good kenjutsu mistress, she wasn’t on that kind of level of chakra monster. That she might, emphasis on might, have been able to beat Zabuza in a purely kenjutsu battle, but becoming one of the Seven Swordsman of the Mist wasn’t something that just anyone could do, and Kiri specialized in kenjutsu in a way that Konoha didn’t.

That both of her sensei had face him and been hurt, even if it was Jiraiya-sama that had kept Asuka-sensei from getting really hurt, was horrifying. And enraging.

Sakura wasn’t very good at the katas that she’d been started on for the path of the Nagisa, but she kept practicing them diligently because someday she was going to cut a chunk out of Hoshigaki Kisame for hurting two of her most important people. She didn’t care that he looked kind of cool, she was gonna bust some of his pointy teeth in if it was one of the last things she did.

Of course, this was all to avoid the terrifying elephant in the room.

Even if she’d been little when the Uchiha had been Massacred, she still remembered them. There had been two other Uchiha in her class other than Sasuke-kun when she’d started at the Academy, a Kotoni and Mamoru, who even if she hadn’t really spoken to them before, had been a scary, confusing absence after the fact.

There were scary things in the world; Sakura knew that, now as a genin more than ever. Uchiha Itachi was scary in very different ways than she was used to.

Even if she’d been picked on a lot for her big forehead, which Asuka-sensei said wasn’t even big and she’d grow into it, and for not being pretty enough, for being a slow civilian girl who didn’t know what she was getting into and that had hurt… her family had never hurt her like Itachi had hurt Sasuke-kun. Never deliberately, and certainly never physically, even if sometimes her mother would say things thoughtlessly or her father would have something slip his mind that they’d planned to do together.

When she’d run into the hospital room that held her genin teammate and her once crush – now friend, hopefully – with their chuunin sensei standing at his side as a medic looked over his broken arm it hadn’t been fear that was taking up most of the space in her throat. No, she’d used up most of that laying curled up next to Kaka-sensei while she waited for word from Gai-sensei that Sasuke and Naruto were alright, and while she was still afraid, it was mostly fury that buzzed inside her stomach and twitched at the back of her skull.

How dare they hurt my team!

Kaka-sensei was big and strong and kind of a dork sometimes when it came to whatever it was that was going on between him and Asuka-sensei, but he was also really gentle and caring and taught her all that she wanted to know about jutsu theory and advanced chakra control techniques. While he still got a little stilted when teaching them because he wasn’t quite sure how to dumb things down to genin vocabulary – Sakura was a little proud of the fact that she was the defacto translator for her teammates when it came to complex training – he always made time for them if he wasn’t assigned a random personal mission.

Asuka-sensei was taller than most kunoichi, it was true, but she also had a presence, one that Sakura was learning was subconscious in the same way that Kaka-sensei consciously made himself less noticeable. She was sly and a bit of a joker sometimes, enjoying picking at Naruto because he was easy to animate and liked it when color would crawl up Sasuke-kun’s cheeks because of her gentle teasing. She would braid Sakura’s hair when she was tired after having drilled her into the dirt in stamina training and force-feed her enough to satisfy Chouji when he was having a snack craving because she cared in a more obvious way than Kaka-sensei, who was a jounin, and so apparently emotionally weird.

In a way, it was harder to tell that there was something going on between her two sensei when she just looked at Asuka-sensei’s side of things; the chuunin was much softer with them than he was, and perhaps better at handling her emotions instead of ignoring them. But she knew from her lessons with the woman who she wanted to make proud that it wasn’t common for ninja to be tactile with people outside of their comfort zone, with people that they weren’t emotionally invested in.

They touched each other a lot. Not in any way that would make Sakura’s mother huff and sneer like most civilians would, but just hands on the back or elbow, leaning against one another and sharing food in a way that spoke of easy affection. It was… weirdly pleasing seeing them slowly get closer together as they taught her genin team, like another piece of a puzzle coming together to make a perfect picture made up of them.

Sakura didn’t understand it, but then, learning chakra relationship stuff was hard and embarrassing to talk about.

While she hadn’t thought that she would, she… loved her team.

Not like she’d once thought that she loved Sasuke-kun, though she did love him, if only in a maybe friend sort of sibling kind of way. She’d learned a lot about him since they’d become a team, and there were a lot of things about him that for all of her years of following him around she’d never even thought about.

He never, ever wore anything that showed his calves and shins, he was actually a pretty good cook, had a particular way of taking notes that apparently didn’t make much sense unless you were an Uchiha or had a Sharingan. Something to do with the way that their brains comprehended patterns different than everyone else and Kaka-sensei could look them over with him even when Asuka-sensei couldn’t manage to puzzle something out with her familiarity with Uchiha. Even if he didn’t move when he slept his hair got all weird in the morning and he always had pillow imprints on his cheeks and bags under his eyes. He hated mornings and wouldn’t speak unless he’d been awake for an hour or more.

She’d never thought a boy would care more about the way she folded her laundry than she did, but if he saw either herself or Naruto doing it even a little sloppily he’d take it from them with a sniff and fold it himself; it was shocking the first few times, because it was after they’d been on a team together for a while, but it was also nice. If a little weird.

She wondered if that was a Uchiha thing too, not liking sloppy things like that. Maybe because of that same pattern comprehension or something? His eyesight was really good even before he’d activated his Sharingan, and maybe it was the asymmetry that got to him.

Either way, it was both funny and interesting.

The times she liked best is when she didn’t understand some shinobi culture thing and he’d explain it to her. A little awkwardly, stilted and quiet, but he’d explain it to her.

It was nice.

Admitting to herself that a lot of what she’d thought about Naruto had been wrong had been… difficult. Sure, she was right that he was loud and kind of dumb – not stupid, dumb, there was a difference – but he wasn’t the nuisance that she’d always thought he was; the monster.

Kind of like how she’d realized that people were talking badly about Asuka-sensei, Sakura realized that the civilian population was really mean to Naruto, too.

She didn’t understand it, now that she’d gotten to know him at all. He was loud in the way that Sakura had been unfortunately smelly; out of ignorance because no one had given him a reason why he shouldn’t be. He was a prankster and troublemaker because he was bored of being inside – and lonely, both of the boys were lonely in a way that Sakura couldn’t quite relate to – and didn’t like learning bookwork the usual way and did better when things were on the physical spectrum because reading was difficult for him in the same way that Sasuke-kun forgot he was writing in that Uchiha-style sometimes because it was easier for him to organize.

Sure, he was still loud and could be irritatingly energetic, but that was just because he had so much chakra that when Sakura was feeling for it she sometimes felt a little punch drunk from the bright, fuzzy warmth of it. It was ridiculous and awesome at the same time because Asuka-sensei was trying to get his control high enough that he could do chakra transfers with the rest of the team, and Kaka-sensei had explained that it would be simple for him to have a Shadow Clone do it once he learned how to do it if they ever ended up in an awful situation like with Orochimaru again. He didn’t mind if she slumped against him in exhaustion when he was still ready to go because apparently, he had ridiculous stamina, didn’t mind when she’d passively bask in his aura while she tried to catch her breath. Naruto liked the same kind of shows that she did, well, the romances and dramas, not the documentaries, and he wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed by it the way that other boys would be.

Sasuke was the quick taijutsu specialist who was surprisingly easy to fluster, Naruto was their chakra powerhouse who delighted in any group activity and Sakura was the brains of the outfit that was turning into a hidden blade that didn’t want to be the reason they lost that.

She liked her team.

So if she ever saw Uchiha Itachi when Asuka-sensei let her have a blade, she’d go straight for his damn precious eyes and cut them out of his skull and break his arm.

Sasuke, when he’d seen her enter the room, had been pale and small seeming in a way that she’d never seen before and never wanted to see again, and there had been something tired in her sensei’s pretty green eyes that had made Sakura sad and heavy feeling. He hadn’t even minded when she asked if she could hug him despite nodding, even if he hadn’t hugged her back as Asuka-sensei’s chakra had flowed over them, and she’d only held him until he’d twitched a little at the prolonged contact, chakra frizzing with discomfort.

“Sakura are you ready to head back home?”

Yawning and stretching from where she’d been slumped against her chuunin sensei, the young girl rubbed at her eyes. Even though Asuka-sensei had told her that she wasn’t okay, that it was okay to be angry and frustrated, to worry and be scared, it was still tiring to think of such powerful people being after the dumb ray of sunshine on her team, people that had hurt Sasuke-kun and their teachers as well. They were powerful and infamous in their own ways and Sakura had a long, long way to go to reach her goal.

Getting stronger was hard, especially when you had to recover from malnutrition and grow your chakra stores up to an acceptable level, but Sakura was sure it would be worth it in the end.

“Can we stop by and see Kaka-sensei first?”

Warm lips pressed against the top of her head where she no longer wore her hitai-ate, instead having it around her neck, and her own mouth copied the smile pressed against her bright pink locks as an arm slid around her shoulders.

“Of course we can.”

Sakura was going to get scary enough and deadly enough that no one would have to protect her the way that Kaka-sensei had had to protect Asuma-sensei and the Yuhi woman, she wouldn’t be the reason that her team and the people she cared about got hurt.

Oh, right.

“Next time, can you teach me an iryō-jutsu?”

“Hmm… maybe. If you show me your progress with those chakra control exercises that Kakashi gave you.”

“Okay, Asuka-sensei! I’ve gotten even better.”

The woman laughed softly from above, obviously pleased, and warmth smothered some of the anxiety and restlessness in young chest, and she beamed up at her kunoichi sensei.

“I don’t doubt it in the least, Sakura.”

They protected her, so she’d protect them.

~*~

When he knocked on her door, he wasn’t sure exactly of what he was doing.

He had been in a bit of a shocked daze since they’d run into Ita – that man, and he was unsure of whether or not it was a good time, wasn’t sure what he should do, but couldn’t focus enough to train, was unsure of whether or not he could have even tried.

“Sasuke?”

Her soft voice had him looking up from where he’d begun to contemplate his hand without thought, staring at small, pale appendages. There were slight developing calluses and a few nicks here and there that would not scar in the way that experienced nin’s hands scarred, as those who taught him had scarred and hardened hands.

What could these hands do?

These were a child’s hands.

A child could not defeat that man, meant nothing against him.

What was he going to do, with these weak hands of his?

He had no power.

He needed power.

With her hair unbound and dressed in a large T-shirt and some shorts, her features soft and warm from sleep she looked like a civilian, but her green eyes focused on him with that intensity he had come to expect from her, steadying him a bit where he stood with an internal fortitude that he wanted to rely on. There were some tangles in her ridiculous curtain of hair that would turn into knots if they weren’t taken care of, but the long locks glinted like precious metal turned liquid in the light of the early rising sun, and he realized that as soon as the dawn had started, he had left his home and walked here.

“I…”

He blinked, feeling his cheeks heat as his senses began to return to him.

What had he been thinking coming here?

He shouldn’t be… he should be…

With his preoccupation he didn’t hear her as she sighed, but he did feel her hands as they slid over his own smaller ones, calluses scratching almost soothingly against the still too soft skin on the back of his fingers and the still malleable calluses on his fingertips from shuriken jutsu, closing his too small hands. Her heat pressed in against him as she slipped an arm around his shoulders to herd him into her apartment and he didn’t even have the time to think about arguing before she was shutting the door behind them and pulling him towards what would be her room if the layout of the small apartment was anything to go by.

Oh.

He had never been in there before.

Usually whenever Naruto dragged them to her place when she was on downtime from a mission they all stayed in the main area that was her kitchen and living room at the same time. When he had first entered her apartment, he had been rather confused and disturbed by the lack of space, but he was at least socially aware enough to realize that it wasn’t something to mention in polite conversation. Not that he was much for polite.

Or conversation.

Oddly enough, his jounin-sensei had seemed to understand his slight discomfort, perhaps because as his teacher he had seen the inside of the Compound, seen how spacious it was and connected Sasuke’s strangely confined feeling with being used to much more open space. So instead of wandering around as his teammates had, he had sat himself at the table next to his slouched and relaxed looking instructor because if there was one thing the man was good at it was letting his students be uncomfortable silently unless it was about something important. Though he hated to admit it, there was something extremely reassuring about the silver haired man despite the lackadaisical way that he seemed to regard everything around him, even his genin team, and the dark-haired boy wasn’t as immune as he’d like to pretend to the steady brace of the man’s presence at his side when he felt out of his depth.

While Asuka herself was… comforting – even thinking it made him embarrassed and he wanted to squirm in place – there was just something about Kakashi that made him feel as if he were protected in a way that was both active and passive, if his instincts were to be believed. Looking back on the confrontation with Zabuza, even knowing that they hadn’t been serious at the time, he knew that the rage at the threat to their persons that Kakashi had released had been very real, as had the prior ridiculously calming wave of Positive Intent that had raced over their chakra systems to unfreeze them from the trembling that the missing nin’s KI had instilled in them. Once the dark haired genin had been injured – Asuka had told him that his ribs were cracked, before she had proceeded to heal him – and the jounin had exploded out of the Water Prison, causing what looked like true fear to flash over the swordsman’s countenance, he had come to an understanding.

Hatake Kakashi was their sword and shield.

There was something more to being a sensei for that man than there was to other jounin who had accepted the role, something more to having dependents than the boy was sure he could understand without asking the man outright.

He knew more than many did, coming from a Clan as he did, about the quirks that a shinobi could have in regards to those they let close to themselves, and what they might do about it when one they had accepted into a unit or group was injured or in danger. While he himself had never been on either side such an equation he had heard stories from others in the Clan about how some ninja had individual needs of either violence, isolation, or some kind of consolation when those they’d decided to let close were put in danger. When the chuunin had luckily arrived during that mission that was supposed to be a C-rank but had warped beyond recognition – civilians drove him up a wall sometimes, why hadn’t the man just haggled over rights of trade over the bridge instead of worrying about payment? – and managed to awaken and then take care of the jounin who had wasted a good portion of his chakra psyching out his opponent and nearly killing him, she had sat them down before they could rush in to see him.

While he didn’t like to admit it, he was more worried about the man waking up rather than the fact that he had a Sharingan.

Not that his teammates thought this, of course.

Not that he’d tell them that.

Ever .

The woman had explained that if they wished to see him, they needed to go in individually and she would have to chaperone should he either be unconscious or fall such and basically not to approach him without her, something that was entirely understandable, though Naruto grumbled about it some. She had then prudently stated that it would be Sasuke who would see him first, considering the fact that she needed to take a look at his ribs first and all of her things were situated in the room that they had sequestered the jounin in. The fact that he was the least excitable was also mentioned, and it had only taken a single raised brow to silence his two teammate’s protestations.

He had entered behind her carefully, ribcage aching with sharp pains, following her motions as exactly as he could while they approached the man who was laying situated on the borrowed futon, trying to remain both alert and relaxed, as she had stated he should be the latter and the pain in his abdomen wouldn’t let him lose the former.

So when he stepped wrong a few feet from his sensei and cringed at the pain in his ribs, he just barely caught a flicker of movement towards himself before the woman was between him and the futon the jounin had been laid out on.

The next thing he comprehended was the two adults on the ground, the woman struggling to hold sparking, chakra coated hands away from her throat without actually retaliating, her green eyes were focused and intent, staring up into the single eye bared to her as if bore into her coldly. Without recognition. She was going to die because Sasuke couldn’t control himself! Their combined weight hitting the floor didn’t make a sound, he felt no vibrations shake the wood even though he was sure that the impact had to have been great considering the speed at which they’d moved. Later it would terrify and amaze him, the fact that a weight of well over two hundred pounds, possibly almost three hundred had impacted hard enough to give the woman bruises on her back that he would glimpse but did not even stir the air around them in the least.

Frozen as he was if felt like forever as he stared at what he thought might be his jounin-sensei ripping out the throat of the woman who had accepted all of them, until in the blink of an eye they were separated from each other and giving one another wry looks, as if they had simply been fighting over a snack again. As if there wasn’t anything wrong, that this was just another facet to their day like any other, a squabble that had been started by something inconsequential or ridiculous just like all of their other confrontations that he had ever been witness to.

His heart thudded once painfully in his chest as shock came and went, the entire debacle over in a matter of moments.

These were experienced nin, battle hardened, and war stained.

His teachers.

“Sasuke, come here.”

Her voice had jolted him into moving again after he took a deep breath and swallowed against the knot in his throat and he approached her calmly, a part of him amazed that he wasn’t uneasy with his sensei after the scene he had just witnessed but most of him strangely finding the idea that the man who had bathed them in such thick, relaxing, comforting Positive Intent would ever actually attack him ridiculous and unbelievable.

As she looked over his bruised and aching ribs he found himself locked into something of a staring contest with his jounin-sensei, the man’s weary dark eye seemingly terribly tired and old as it had looked into his much younger black eyes.

“I also had a Uchiha on my team as well, when I was a genin,” the man had stated softly without prompting, which caused the genin to jolt in surprise though the chuunin who held a water covered hand against his side made no reaction. She had probably known already, which he would puzzle at later, but couldn’t really compute in those moments. “There was a mission during the war that went wrong, and… to say the least of it, he decided that he’d rather give something to support Konoha than have it die with him.”

The man pulled his hitai-ate up to bare the black and red of his Sharingan to him, which was spinning so slowly that it made Sasuke want to cringe with the show of weakness. The amount of chakra that was devoured by that eye had to be astronomical, for the rings to spin in such a sluggish manner, the tomoe so uneven and lagged.

“Okay,” he had managed and something like relief flashed in mismatched eyes at the signal that the boy was not upset. It was rare that his opinion mattered. That it actually mattered to an adult. “Alright.”

The worry deep in his gut made him squirm because the doujustu was not supposed to be so sluggish when it span, should not have tomoe moving at different speeds, it signaled that the bearer was sick and unhealthy, and he was glad when the green eyed woman coughed blatantly, never looking up from her work on his torso, and the man covered it again with a slightly exasperated tinge to his tired aura. Whenever he felt the proof of his, for lack of a better word, growing fondness with those that made up this Team, which had somehow come to include the chuunin swordswoman, it made him feel like gasping for air, as if for the first time in forever he could find oxygen again when he’d been slowly suffocating alone. It made him shorter and more awkward verbally than he already was, but he didn’t know how to deal with such emotions, how to – to make it so that he could keep this, especially with the path that he had chosen, because for all of Team Seven’s faults, they were his Team, and that made them important.

They weren’t cannon fodder or placeholders. Weren’t pawns to be used.

Sasuke would deny it if ever asked directly, but he… wasn’t unhappy with them.

Team Seven.

“When…” he cut himself off with a frown, glancing down at his naked, bruised abdomen in surprise as water shimmered over his ribcage to encompass it, but the woman refrained from speaking to sooth his obvious interest with information. He’d ask later. Maybe… Probably not. “When I get mine…”

“I’ll be willing to work with you, obviously,” the man sighed and seemed to slump a little as he sent an acerbic look at the woman sending cool chakra through his skeleton. “Not that I have a choice.”

“Hmph,” was her only response.

After she had finished with his ribs, binding them anyway just to give them the extra support needed to fully heal as well as to keep him from reinjuring them with the training they would no doubt shove down their throats during free time, the jounin had fidgeted slightly in an uncharacteristic manner. He was so used to Kakashi being still and mostly inconspicuous that any unnecessary movement was almost shocking.

The sigh the man released had seemed to be one of odd resignation before a single hand reached out slowly before gripping the genin’s wrist and then in an even slower action began pulling him towards the silver haired man with a light enough grip, still slow enough that Sasuke could have easily pulled away should he have wished to. Because some part of him intrinsically trusted the man who had nearly drained himself dry of chakra to keep him from harm after he had been punted by Momochi Zabuza, he did not resist the pull, only finding himself cautious and curious until the man’s free hand settled on his shoulder tensely and then a masked face was pressed into his hair. A long, powerful breath that pulled in the boy’s scent had the genin’s eyes widening in shock and his heartbeat picking up as his hair shifted beneath the breath of the adult.

Epiphany struck.

They had been Imprinted.

Or rather, something similar to it. With the Uchiha it was difficult to spread your affection from more than one person even in families – most families didn’t even bear affection for one another, something that had hurt more than he could ever describe, because he hadn’t understood, still didn’t – and so Imprinting was usually done with a singular individual, someone that you absolutely could not do without. A Chosen. Most did not risk it and went throughout their lives keeping people at a distance because love of any kind could be a weakness, especially for a Clan that while not affectionate or warm, loved or hated with a fierceness that could be terrifying to behold. The strength of those emotions could lead to madness and obsession, as had been seen in the time of Warring States, whole regions being destroyed or reshaped in the aching, indomitable grief of a Uchiha who had lost their Chosen.

It took inordinate emotional and mental strength to be able to have more than one Imprint, more than one Chosen, to give yourself that many weaknesses, to have enough love in your heart to be able to spread it to more than one focus point. Many who had only Imprinted on a single person lost their sanity when that person was lost, the effects lesser when there were other Imprints to fall back on, disconnected with reality as they knew it and either became irrationally violent or they withdrew into themselves and became quiet and pliable, just dolls that wore the faces of those they used to be.

Sometimes when he was thinking deeply, his heart aching and his mind numb, he wondered if Ita – he had lost it because Shisui-nii had been his Imprint and had died.

Most of the time, he tried not think about it at all because it hurt, didn’t want to rationalize anything, didn’t want anything to make sense about the deaths of his family, his Clan, who he knew had pushed and pushed at both Shisui-nii and him. Even after Shisui-nii had died.

Before the Massacre, he’d thought that it was him, had had no doubts.

Clearly, he had been wrong.

(But privately, in the places where he didn’t dwell except in the night, alone in the Compound with his thoughts, he remembered the way that sometimes he would catch them sitting together. How his brother would look more human, more fallible, in the light of Shisui-nii’s presence, as if he didn’t have to be more with his best friend in the way that he had to be to keep their Father and the Elders happy. In the way he had been to protect Sasuke from the scorn of those who compared the Clan Head’s two sons against one another.

He remembered how when their cousin would appear out of nowhere and place a hand on his brother’s shoulder would relieve a tension that Sasuke, who had been holding his hand, or been riding on his back, had previously not noticed.

Sometimes, he let himself remember being happy with his brother. How the prodigy had been happiest when it was the two shinobi plus an Academy student walking down the road to the teenager’s boisterous voice from above, or sitting in a training field in one of the few times that Itachi had managed to free himself from the Elders and their father, just talking or getting help with his throwing or stances. Yes, sometimes he let himself remember. But not often.

Because it hurt more, if he thought about it.)

So as he sat next to his jounin-sensei, sitting back on his knees with his face basically pressed to the man’s black clothed shoulder, he didn’t think much as his face flushed beet red at having been chosen for such an honor, to be important enough to someone of his sensei’s caliber for him to need the reassurance of his scent after a battle in which he’d been injured. He could literally feel the ambient chakra that hovered placidly over the bits of pale skin that weren’t insulated by the touch of chakra woven cloth being pulled up and into his jounin-sensei’s body with each heavy breath. That said that the man had been worried for him, that he meant enough to him personally – as a person, as Sasuke – that just seeing wasn’t believing, that even watching someone he trusted run medical jutsu over his wounds did not assuage whatever feelings of concern he held. He found that he had to consciously hold his breath so that he didn’t nervously breathe in the man’s own scent without express permission – he’d gotten into trouble many times with his father for doing so, and the punishments he had received left their mark… literally – when seeking comfort.

His reticence had clearly been felt, because carefully restrained chakra suddenly felt like it had exploded out of the jounin in ridiculous amounts.

This was what the man had called average chakra stores?! Really?!

Later he would wonder what Naruto’s chakra unrestrained by his subconscious would feel like up close, and then he would shudder because even restrained as it was it felt like the blonde had twice his own capacity and he held no desire to be sense blinded. He would also be informed that Kakashi had not had his chakra fully restored and what he had felt was somewhere around a third of his full capacity, something that had him staring at the chuunin in shock, the understanding droop to her own shoulders and exasperated, tired quirking of her features the only comfort to his incredulity.

Average.

Right .

Being caught in the thrall of the silver haired man’s chakra blanketing his system he felt like he was standing in a storm head, like the very air around him carried static charge and could light up and tear the heavens asunder at any moment. It was terrifying and exhilarating in equal amounts because… the hand on his shoulder had relaxed and the fingers gripping his wrist were but a loose comfortable link around his strangely thin seeming appendage, something inside of the jounin had been comforted by his scent, had been relieved by the physical evidence of his health. That chakra that rumbled around him like thunder from afar that was slowly but assuredly getting closer, no hurry in its eventuality, was mixed with the deep bass growl of what he imagined two titan gods crashing against one another in battle would sound like, causing his coils to shiver and roil with confusion and nerves, jumping and twisting under the heavy weight that surrounded him with awe and shock.

Still, he found himself taking the reassurance – for that was what it was, a signal that this great thunderous monster was between him and everything else – and letting himself take a soft slow breath against the fabric he had pressed his nose against, feeling the scent of ozone shivering down his spine, mixed with dust, salt, copper and canines, with a surprising dash of lavender of all things. The shoulder beneath his face had been solid with muscle even in relaxation, and he imagined that it would feel like coiled steel when tensed, something that would not have been comfortable to lean against in the least though it was another reassuring factor about his sensei.

While he had known that the pale haired man had taken in their scent when he’d first gotten them, hadn’t been very discreet about doing so, all things considered, he hadn’t known that they were… important enough for any reaffirming such as this.

That he was.

Oh, he knew he was important. He was the last Uchiha after all, but… most people didn’t actually… care. About him.

They only cared about his face, his name, his blood – which were important he knew, they were things that he was proud of, aside from his face because that was just confusing – because he was Uchiha Sasuke, but they did not care for Sasuke, did not know him.

As his fanclub could attest to, they didn't want to know him outside of the image they'd built for themselves.

It was unknown to Sasuke if his teammates had noticed the fact that the man had scented them immediately after having passed them as a team, and he was aware that they didn’t know that the fact that Sakura’s lack of obvious scent had seemed to stress the jounin. The last Uchiha hadn’t been aware of it himself, only noticing when out of the corner of his eye he’d seen some interaction between the chuunin woman and his sensei in regards to the pink haired kunoichi’s training. He himself had never taken in his fellow genin’s scents, didn’t want to be close to them like that, especially when they were so much weaker than he and much more likely to die on a mission than he was, considering his skills in comparison to theirs.

(He feared how he might feel if he did, if it might change him. Sasuke hadn’t been taught how to Choose, he’d been too young.

Now, he doubted that he’d ever know how.)

But blanketed as he was, sitting before the man who was a veritable monster in his own right, he had contemplated the fact that whatever would be able to kill his teammates would have to go through his sensei first, and if it did, then well, they were all fucked either way.

In its own way, it had been strange seeing the man like that, much calmer with fatigue than he usually was at full strength, mostly because he had been without both his sandals and his jounin vest, though strangely enough the unnerving part was his lack of gloves. His hands were large and thin, strong though, with tendons that stood out starkly beneath his pale, scarred skin that he had only noticed with a deep scarlet face as he’d been released from the scenting to sit back on his heels, face twisted to express a tangle of emotions that he didn’t understand.

It was weird seeing his sensei’s skin.

Both of the people who taught him wore a lot of clothing that covered the majority of their flesh, something that was a little odd amongst ninja in general, who seemed to favor the ‘less is more’ adage when it came to attire. Sometimes it was a little ridiculous though, he had to admit. It was, however, his jounin-sensei that obviously covered more of himself, considering his mask and gloves, fingerless though they were. He had never seen the man in anything remotely casual, though he looked more so without the vest than any other time he’d seen him, but he had seen the chuunin in civilian clothes before, though usually it was just her arms that were bared in comparison to be fully covered as her combat outfits centered around.

That was weird enough. Who knew that arms could make someone look completely different?

Come to think of it, he realized, brought back to the present where he was standing in her apartment, she was definitely showing more skin than he had ever seen from her before, and he tensed slightly as color and horror bloomed across his features in equal measurements with his mortified embarrassment. If there was one thing he’d thought of her since the first moment he’d laid eyes on her, it was that she was very pretty in comparison to a lot of the kunoichi he’d seen, much nicer to look at than the girls his age were, with an attitude to match.

Immediately, he scolded himself for even thinking about her in such a fashion – she was not for ogling, for–for anyone! – confusion twisting with stunned anguish as he tried to figure out a way to remove himself from the growing discomfort of his situation while she carefully shoved him gently down to sit on the edge of her bed. Even as she was tugging off his sandals, which should have been left at the door as was polite, and his hip pouch – which he’d put on out of instinct and routine – and setting it to the side he was still struggling within himself with emotions and numb apathy as they warred against each other.

“Sleep, Sasuke,” she murmured.

With gentle hands she pulled him with her as she lay down, her hair blanketing him in her scent, like copper colored satin of the finest quality, like a shield against his thoughts that would not start, nor would they stop, and he felt his eyes close.

As her warmth seeped into him, his mind emptied of static once again and he sighed against the chaos of his thoughts, allowing his hands to grasp the cloth of her shirt and his nose to press into the hollow of her throat as he relaxed in her arms where they both laid on their sides facing each other. Her soothing chakra sifted over him, centering in a calming spiral around the heavy weight that was the Cursed Seal and giving him respite from a pressure he hadn’t even noticed was building, easing the dark burning in his chest and the nonsensical displeasure of his thoughts. It was probably better not to think, he realized. Probably better to let himself just float for a while, to not feel the rage and loss and betrayal of a family torn apart only magnified by that much more by his inability to truly hate the one who had brought it all crashing down around him.

(Why didn’t He kill him too? Why?

Why did He leave him behind?)

When he woke a few hours later around ten in the morning – later than he’d slept in a long time despite his loathing of mornings – it was to well-known, soothing fingers petting through his hair and a soft lilting, slightly husky humming coming from above him and his face pillowed in someone’s lap, the familiar scent that permeated the air and the bedclothes reminding him of just where he was.

Feeling so relaxed… a night without nightmares… it had been so long…

This was the closest to tears he’d been in a long time, and it was because he’d had a peaceful few hours of sleep.

Pathetic.

“Feel better?”

At the woman’s murmur, he tightened the hand he had apparently kept tangled in the material of her shirt, releasing a shuddering breath.

“No…” he breathed, eyes burning so much with shame that he squeezed them shut.

There was still an aching, churning pit of despair in his chest, waiting to grow and swallow him whole if he let it and he was so… tired.

“That’s alright,” she reassured calmly, both hands starting to sift through his dark hair, short nails digging softly against his scalp in a relaxing way. “You don’t have to.”

His heart shuddered in his chest at the words and his throat felt tight.

“I… don’t?”

“No,” she replied surely, bending down in a subtle show of flexibility at the waist to press her forehead to his shoulder. “No, it doesn’t have to get better. It won’t ever be alright,” she continued gently, and he swallowed as he began to tremble. “It won’t ever feel better, but you will get better.”

He felt lost, and he didn’t like it, but there was nothing he could do to push away the heat in his eyes, though he didn’t cry.

“Me?” he heard himself ask distantly, his voice that of a stranger’s unsure whisper.

“You,” she confirmed. “You will get stronger, you will find things to hold you up, new memories to hold back the darkness,” she sat up again and returned to petting his hair, the weight of her chakra holding him aloft. “People to strengthen you. It won’t be easy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.”

He thought of the faces of those he’d loved pale and slack with death, bodies ragged and torn and bloody, and he thought of sad smiles from his favorite person, thought of piggybacks and learning how to throw kunai and shuriken and senbon. Of hands ruffling his hair and boisterous laughter from above.

She was right, he was sure.

It would never get better.

Hopefully, she was also right that he would get better, would be better.

A small part of him hoped that she would be right about people being there to help him.

While he could deal with it, had been dealing with it, he’d prefer not to be alone if there were other options.

It was… cold.

He’d much rather be warm the way he was while he was laying in this woman’s bed with her comforting fingers against his scalp and her smooth humming starting up again to thrum nonsensically but comfortingly through the room that smelled like her, saturated with her scent. Her chakra was soft against his network, a pulse in time with her heart, slow and deep and steady as it held that weight off his mind and heart, letting him lie boneless against her with a head a mess of thoughts and thoughtlessness. He felt weightless, almost. Like he was drifting and floating, the effect of gravity canceled as she held him up. There wasn’t a memory in his mind of his mother ever doing something like this for him, he couldn’t remember a single time when the woman who had raised him had treated him with as much affection and tender care as this chuunin did and that was painful. It hurt.

It was also… nice.

Faintly, there were instances with Shisui-nii and his older brother before that he could recall, but he shoved them away to bask in the now.

Sasuke so rarely got to enjoy nice things, that sometimes he thought he was hallucinating most of his interactions with his teammates and sensei.

“Haruka and Chitose did not die in the Massacre,” she stated suddenly, and he found his eyes opening from where they lay closed and he turned his head to look up at her.

Lightly tanned features were calm and steady where she gazed out into a distance at memories he could not share, eyes sad and soft and full of the grief that came with losing those that you held dear.

“It was perhaps four months before,” she continued softly, and he felt his heart pick up as he realized just what she was saying. She was telling him how she lost them, something she had yet to do. “We were on a mission.”

His fingers tightened on cloth as he stared up at her.

“The mission… it was supposed to be rather cut and dry,” she smiled humorlessly. “It was A-rank, but barely. We were a successful team, so we’d taken a few with no problems,” she paused for a moment. “We were on our way back to the village when we were attacked. They had no markings to distinguish them from any village, wore blank masks, bore no marked jutsu that would cause them to stand out, but they were skilled. They pressed us hard, as it was just the three of us against fifteen unknown nin of varying skill levels with a few nonstandard techniques,” he started at this. Fif teen? That was ridiculous to throw against one team! He considered for a moment. Perhaps not when it was a team with two doujustu holders and a kenjutsu practitioner, but still, he’d never heard of an assault like that. Of course, he’d learned that he didn’t know everything; that was Sakura’s job. “We injured and killed a number of them, but they were well trained and well prepared. Every one of them that fell was a weapon; their bodies were rigged with explosives that detonated upon the stopping of their hearts. Haruka was injured first as a close combat expert.”

She closed her eyes for a moment before looking down at him.

“Chitose pushed me out of the way of an explosion and took the brunt of it himself, and we were both injured. I had minimal functionality in my left side and a fracture in my upper thigh,” licking her lips, she continued petting his hair from where she’d stopped, seeming to take some comfort from the action. “Haruka had sustained a spinal injury and was missing a large chunk of his abdomen and Chitose had severe burns across his body, both of his arms were useless with shattered bones and it was likely that had he tried to move he would have died from shock and pain on the spot. While I had limited mobility, I could still stand. So, I moved to defend us from the remaining four, but Chitose and Haruka acted faster,” the smile she gave was melancholy and warm. “Their ability to do joint genjutsu was envious, a gift from being twins they said, and it saved my life. They could not be moved, for fear of killing them all the quicker, and we had to wait for the remaining enemies to believe me dead and their objective accomplished via the genjutsu before we could think of anything at all.”

She didn’t mention what this objective would have been, and he didn’t ask. To be frank, it was none of his business, and he wasn’t what one could call curious about it either. He could… take a guess, though, considering her teammates had born his bloodline limit.

He had nightmares about having his eyes gouged out sometimes, of-ofOrochimaru pulling them out with his spindly fingers and his tongue –

Without thought, he reached one of his hands up and grasped one of hers, which caused her to startle slightly and she smiled down at him, squeezing back in thanks for the comfort he had subconsciously offered. And needed.

“I could have made it to an outpost with some difficulty, but they would not have survived in the time it would have taken for reinforcements to return with aid,” she closed her eyes. “So, I waited for them to die. I sat with them until they took their last breathes, trying to make them as comfortable as possible because they did not want me to… to… I sat with them. For hours.”

The woman’s eyes were a little wet when she opened them to look down at him, his own features were tight, and his throat stuck with a heavy ball of tension as he stared up at her, beginning to understand what she was saying in the back of his mind. There was something haunted and familiar in her eyes, and Sasuke swallowed the lump in his throat.

“So, I know what it is to lose those most important to you,” she murmured, pressing their joined hands to his cheek. “I know what it is to see a fraction of what you have seen.”

His heart pounded hard in his chest, his tongue felt heavy even as he felt lighter again in a way he was unsure of how to interpret.

“You are not alone, Sasuke.”

He was… was she right?

She had been, before.

So he wasn’t…

Not alone.

His neck burnt harshly, making his chest feel heavy and tight.

“But he almost took Kaka-sensei away too,” he found his raw voice asking with whispers of anguish, not noticing the epithet, and choked terrified fury. His sword and shield had almost been shattered, had almost been obliterated before his very eyes by the same person who had ruined his life. Who ruined everything. “And Kaka-sensei is… while you… he could have taken you away.

(Who had been everything.)

“Ah…”

The soft exhalation of breath had him glancing up with burning dry eyes and furrowed brows towards the woman who was still sifting her fingers through his hair. The sight that greeted him was features that were slightly twisted with helpless unhappiness and pale with both worry and the sort of tiredness that curled low in his gut. Her normally calm green eyes were covered by pale lids and she took a deep breath through her nose as she seemed to center her thoughts before she released it through her mouth slowly and softly as she collected herself, her features smoothed into something similar to her regular, familiar lecture mode.

“To be frank with you, I heard about the entire confrontation from Asuma and the way that it played out would have been very differently had Kakashi not had two basically useless –” the venom in the word was mildly surprising. “– Jounin to protect and that was likely what Itachi was banking on in that situation.”

… What?

“What… what do you mean?”

“While Itachi is indeed a formidable opponent with prodigious talent, he is also a teenager who lacks in experience in comparison to your sensei,” she stated, looking down at him with a single raised brow. “When you also factor in the fact that Kakashi graduated at the age of five – only being kept in the Academy for one year for formalities sake, he already knew everything when he went – and then became a chuunin within a year, also only due to formality and age restrictions,” he felt his dark eyes widen and his mouth dropped open slightly. Had he not been so terribly conflicted with a numb squirming mass in his chest he wouldn’t have shown such an amount of shock at the new information because honestly, he’d had no idea of his jounin-sensei’s history. “The only reason he wasn’t promoted to jounin by the time he was ten was because his body had not caught up with his brain, the same for his chakra network, which even for a Clan child had been rather impressive for his age, if memory serves,” she mused, seemingly taking some amusement from the dumbfounded look on his face.

Clan? His mind uselessly wondered. Hatake is a Clan ? That wasn’t in my studies with Mother!

He’d never heard of another person with the name, either.

“So he was promoted to jounin at thirteen, the bare minimum he could do so – this is all before he received the Sharingan, mind you – and still minimize any health risks to his growing body. His immediate placement was Mid because of his physical limitations, but his intelligence scores alone granted him Select status though he did lack in some practical experience and wasn’t particularly interested in academics in general. By the time he received this promotion he had already participated in two Wars, the second going on at the time of said promotion, and he was immediately taking high priority missions – mostly A-rank or above – and blowing through them at a spectacular rate.”

What?

What?

Kakashi was a prodigy? Intelligence of Select at thirteen ? He had – he was – graduated before he had? Had scored higher than he had?

Bwah…

If he could comprehend he likely would have had a terrible headache.

“I’m pretty sure that by the time he was… fourteen, I think,” she pursed her lips in thought, brows slightly furrowed. “He was ahem,recruited into the Special Forces unit,” his sensei had been ANBU? What else didn’t he know about Hatake Kakashi? “Of course, this was only because Sandaime-sama couldn’t keep him out anymore what with Yondaime-sama being in charge of said Forces, and of course, being Kakashi’s jounin-sensei since he was an itty bitty genin he knew his student’s skills thoroughly enough that he had no worries about Kakashi taking up the duties.”

Though he could tell that his features were twisted with incredulity he didn’t make an effort to change this and rolled onto his back to look up at her with slightly narrowed eyes and a disbelieving tilt to his lips as she situated so that only one hand was in his hair and the other was resting on his chest over his heart.

“What?” he asked, finally voicing something from his tangled confused, rather beaten thoughts. “Seriously, what?”

“I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, Sasuke,” previously mildly amused green eyes turned serious as she looked down at him, hands stilling. “If it had just been Kakashi against Itachi, Itachi would have lost. Badly.”

That didn’t… make sense?

No, it didn’t, it couldn’t. If it made sense then it would mean that his bro – he wasn’t so powerful that he could annihilate their whole Clan in a single night without planning it so that those who could oppose him weren’t in the village or he had somehow blocked the entire Massacre from reaching anyone outside of the Compound. It would mean that it could have been prevented, that all of that could have…

“Sasuke.”

He was drawn out of his confused really not making very much sense thoughts at the sound of his name.

“While Kakashi is strong, ridiculously so, it would seem, he’s not infallible,” he swallowed against his dry throat and swollen feeling tongue, head fuzzy and numb as he couldn’t find the energy to try to think again. “It still would have been a difficult battle for him, but…” she sighed, leaning back against her pillows propped up against the wall. “Look at it this way. Kakashi has had his Sharingan almost as long as Itachi has been alive.”

He really should stop being surprised by these things.

“He got it before Itachi even set foot in the Academy, and he’s been using it since day one. He has twice the amount of experience in using it as Itachi does, and basically three times the battle experience in general. While all of this is a great way of looking at it, there’s also the fact that his Sharingan eye eats up his chakra like Naruto does ramen after a mission out of the village,” he grimaced lightly at the imagery. “The initial implantation was done by a medic whom I hope had no familiarity with the Sharingan ocular pathways – otherwise that is justshameful – and afterwards your Clan wouldn’t allow someone who was familiar with them to realign them to minimize the chakra drain,” yeah, that sounded like them. “No matter how experienced he is, the fact that he only has one Sharingan against two is not a good matchup no matter how you look at it, and there are only so many abilities that you can awaken in your Sharingan without someone to work on them with. There is no defense against the Tsukuyomi that is known outside of your Clan and since he had never experienced it before he had no way of knowing how to find a way to prevent it from catching him… your – Itachi would also have grown skills in his time outside of Konoha that Kakashi would have no way of knowing. With the fact that time constraint would be a big part of a one on one confrontation there would only be a minimal amount of analyses before Kakashi would have been forced to end it or risk losing.”

“… Killed him?”

Killed Itachi?

He didn’t know why his voice shook, didn’t know why it wasn’t a satisfying thought other than he probably wanted to do it himself rather than have his sensei do it for him but he didn’t know for sure because his emotions and thoughts were both stalled and moving a mile in a second.

“Yes.”

When he flinched without thought at her blunt tone she pulsed chakra over him softly before continuing, features soft but grim.

“Itachi is a prodigy, yes,” she twisted her lips sardonically. “But in matters of genius Kakashi is simply better than him.”

B… Better?

“You fought him off,” his mouth moved without his say so and he was vaguely annoyed with it. “You fought him off and you’re not a genius.”

The soft laughter she released was amused and it took him a moment to realize that that could be construed as vaguely insulting, though her reaction said that she was anything but insulted. There was something like pride in the tilt of her eyes as well as a wistful sort of exasperation that told him nothing of her thoughts other than the fact that he’d brought up a good memory, likely of the two family members he could just barely remember.

“In the right conditions, even I could win against Itachi. In a one on one fight, that is,” she grimaced and mussed his hair, causing a scowl to move over his features. “He wasn’t going nearly all out, and if you’re to be believed – which you are, don’t look at me like that – then he didn’t want to risk damaging Naruto. Still,” she mused for a moment. “I also have a lot more experience than he does, and certainly more experience fighting against those who bear the Sharingan than Kakashi does, all things considered…”

A shrug had him shifting in her lap as she seemed to toss that thought aside before she continued.

“If you play your cards right, just about any battle is winnable.”

“Any battle?”

“Mhmm. Just about.”

He closed his eyes as they fell silent, listening to her breath for several minutes until she softly began to hum again, the sound tuneless and absent as she pulled her fingers through his hair and trailed the other hand over his back after he had turned towards her to bury his face against her stomach. Pretending that the rest of the world didn’t exist outside of her bubble of chakra and warmth and peace he let himself enjoy the gentleness of her touch, the firm press of her abdominal muscles against his forehead through her shirt, the pleasant tone of her voice. Right now he was weightless and warm and she was soft and smelled nice, with kind hands and a strength he didn’t have.

There was time to think about battle later.

Just then, wrapped up in her scent and her arms, he would let himself bask.

He really wanted her to be right.

Being alone was…

Cold.

If he won… if he ‘played his cards right’…

He would have this again, even after he reached his goal. She would – they would accept him again.

His neck felt heavy and burned like wildfire.

He needed more cards.

~*~

A week after her return from Otafuku-Gai the Sandaime awoke.

The joy was… indescribable.

She had been doing her semi-routine chakra circulation through Kakashi’s system, Sasuke and Sakura having recently left the room to go train with Gai and the Yamanaka’s respectively, when she’d been summoned to go speak with him by one of the nameless, faceless ANBU.

This one wore a cat mask, and while there was something oddly familiar about him that she found puzzling, she was mostly grateful for his patience in waiting until she’d finished reheating the silver haired jounin’s body and chakra system enough that she felt comfortable leaving for a time; so that she could return to finish the job after her meeting. The fact that there was no extra tenseness in the jounin’s coils during the procedure while the ANBU was in the room, to her, meant that the Copy-nin knew the member of the Hokage’s guard personally, and well enough that he found no threat in their presence. There had been others that when they’d entered the room the man’s coils had twitched and roiled slightly against hers, as if trying to signal a threat was in the area, but unable to respond, though she’d seen his nose crinkle instinctively as if he had taken in an unpleasant scent.

Shimura Danzo was apparently a man that Hatake Kakashi did not get along with.

At all.

She’d almost expected him to jump up from the bed and maul the bandaged too serious man, consciousness be damned, and she couldn’t quite find it within herself to disagree with the action should it have occurred, strangely enough. Asuka herself had never had dealings with the Council member, but something vague in the back of her mind told her that it was best not to get involved with him or question Kakashi’s dislike for him. That she wouldn’t like the outcome.

The throbbing headache that the whole situation gave her did not help in the slightest.

The Neko ANBU member bowed her into the room and she blinked at the oddity of his strangely formal respect, before continuing in to speak with her Hokage.

“Asuka-kun,” the Sandaime spoke fondly, causing her to look up from her automatic bow, and she blinked at him.

He didn’t look much different, all things considered. Exhausted and a bit pale, a little odd outside of his Kage robes, but otherwise he didn’t look at all different, despite being in a hospital bed propped up by several pillows, ANBU shadows in every corner. Still, he had the air to him that he always had had. Fond, strong, and a little bit stern.

He felt no different than he did behind the desk during a mission debriefing or an annual checkup.

Just by looking, you couldn’t tell that he could no longer mold chakra to the marvelous degree he’d once had. She could still feel that towering monster inside of him, and that made her heart hurt.

But still, The Professor’s strongest weapon had always been his mind.

“Hokage-sama,” she greeted, smiling at him a little helplessly, the man who held Konoha together.

“Do come take a seat, won’t you?” he patted the bed next to him in a rather ridiculous manner, and she flushed even as she smiled at him, taking the chair next to his hospital bed instead of a seat on the sheets next to him. Sandaime was getting wicked in his old age and convalescence. “Now, tell me about your meeting with Momochi Zabuza, won’t you? I’m sure it was interesting.”

There was a certain slyness to that smile that had her cheeks burning even brighter.

Surprised at the request she did so, not being able to help grumbling good naturedly a bit at certain parts, causing chuckles and laughter to be released from her Hokage, and she took some pleasure in his happiness. She tentatively spoke of her run in with Jiraiya and the two missing nin, noting the grimace that went over the Sandaime’s features, though he didn’t look surprised, and she was sure that the man had gotten news from Jiraiya via Summons after he’d awoken. There was something sad in the Hokage’s eyes whenever she said the older Uchiha’s name, and she felt something twinging in the back of her heart. She didn’t have any idea what it could feel like to have one of your children betray you in such a way. For that was what the ninja of Konohagakure were for Sarutobi Hiruzen, his children.

To have had two of his trusted leave…

The pain must have been horribly indescribable.

“There was something…” before continuing, her gaze automatically flickered to the corners of the room where the ANBU were stationed.

She didn’t know that she could bring it up, didn’t know that she should, if it was important.

No, she knew it was important, but…

She hadn’t put it into her report because it hadn’t seemed right at the time, her head aching with more than just chakra drain, but to tell it directly to the Hokage was different. Something told her that doing that was safe, as opposed to putting it down on paper. Perhaps it was the normal paranoia she was used to as an active kunoichi, but even though that thought didn’t feel quite right she swept it aside as she looked at her Kage.

“Hmm,” the man hummed thoughtfully, staring at her with dark eyes. “Boar, a silencing screen, if you would.”

“Hai,” was the near silent reply and chakra fluctuated over the room until she felt the barrier fall into place.

That was… cool.

Much more advanced than a restaurant’s privacy Seal, that was for sure. Wait, could Kakashi do that? If he could she was gonna beat it out of him at the earliest convenience because that was something that could come in handy.

Unless it was a forbidden technique; which, boo.

“Now, my dear, I believe you were saying?”

He seemed a tad amused by her wonder, the way she’d not so subtly craned her head to look at the spreading chakra net over the room, but she pushed it aside.

“Ah, hai, Hokage-sama,” her brows furrowed slightly and her hands twitched in her lap. “It’s about Itachi.”

In a near replica of the way his eyes had sharpened on her when she’d come to report on the shortcomings of the Academy, he focused on her and made a vague gesture with his hand and she suddenly felt like they were alone in the room. Not that she could normally sense ANBU, because that was kind of in their job description, to be unseen and unheard, to leave without a trace, but it almost felt like there was more room to breathe.

On second thought…

She… should probably keep track of just what it was that Kakashi trained into her, shouldn’t she.

“Go on.”

The intent in his words was unnerving, but she kept on.

“There was something odd about him,” she stated, feeling a little silly, despite the seriousness of the situation. “He seemed… reluctant, perhaps?” she pressed her lips together. “No, he was upset that I was there, as if he were prepared for Sasuke, but not for myself.”

She blinked at her own words, brow furrowing.

“He wasn’t… expecting me?” she mused suddenly, confused at her own thoughts, tongue tracing the inside of her bottom teeth. “He was surprised.”

He had been waiting… for Sasuke to show up, but she had… been where she wasn’t supposed to be?

How would he have known?

Oh, kami above, were there even more leaks in their damned information network than they had already noticed? It had to be pretty high up the food chain for it to be leaking to the Uchiha pariah that terrified more people than Asuka could honestly comprehend.

“Asuka-kun,” the Sandaime sighed, frowning intently dark eyes alight with interest. “Is there anything else?”

Despite the odd way that the man was acting, the strange intensity to his concentration and the echo of guilt and sadness that layered across his gaze, his order kept her going.

“He had plenty of time to strike,” she continued, heart pounding in her chest like a hammer against an anvil. “It took nearly a full minute for Jiraiya to arrive from wherever they’d drawn him away to, and despite my initial injuring of him, either he or Hoshigake could have easily overpowered me to kill Sasuke and take Naruto, but he –”

The peculiar vulnerability in dark, strangely familiar eyes flashed behind her own, hands that were still slightly smaller than her own even if he was a little taller trembling as he flinched into a fist and then back out. There was something there, something just on the back of her tongue as the back of her eyes began to ache, tension running up her neck to coil in the base of her skull like a spring ready to snap.

What was it?

There was something –

“Sorry Asuka.”

“We’re so sorry.”

“Sorry Asuka-nee, but you gotta forget, y’know.”

– She decided she was making something out of nothing. She was stressed enough she didn’t need to have her ninja paranoia jumping the gun on situations that were way above her paygrade that she wasn’t exactly equipped to handle.

Honestly, she needed to focus better.

“… He stalled, bought just enough time that it wouldn’t look suspicious in Jiraiya’s arrival…” her own words were getting softer and more filled with horror as she spoke, ignoring the pain throbbing in her skull that slowly slowed. “I’ve sparred with Ita-chan,” she didn’t even notice the endearment, but the Hokage grimaced in pain with darkened eyes as he heard it slip past her lips. “And he’s brutal, he doesn’t leave openings like that, doesn’t waste time. He prefers short bouts that are over quickly…” she couldn’t stop now that she’d started. “Prefers to conserve energy for other potential opponents.”

Doesn’t like to draw out someone’s pain and apprehension… His hands don’t shake the way they did…

“Asuka-kun.”

“Hai.”

She jerked to attention in her seat despite the growing horror in her chest, the interruption likely timely before she actually spoke out loud the words that were beginning to cycle through her mind like a broken gear in a clock.

“Asuka-kun,” was stated more gently, and she blinked at her Hokage, who suddenly looked terribly aged. “You must speak of this to no one, do you understand?”

“Hai, Hokage-sama,” she stated automatically, heart pounding against her ribs, mouth dry with unease.

“Uchiha Itachi is a shinobi that you need not concern yourself with,” the order was hard, flat and unbreakable, but his dark eyes were tired, so very tired. “His past actions are what they are, and his current are not to be analyzed by yourself.”

Oh. Oh.

Oh. Oh no.

This was… her heart thumped in her chest, because despite the threat implied by her beloved Hokage’s words, something niggled in the back of her mind like a loose tooth an ache just outside of the pain her head was throbbing with. The information leaks. Maybe… it wasn’t a leak? Was he… was he working for Konoha, in some capacity? Was he being supplied with information on Konoha ninja’s whereabouts to avoid them and confrontation so that he could continue as a free agent on Konoha’s payroll?

After the Massacre? Was her Village the kind to keep someone who had gone so completely mental, had snapped so wholly as to kill his family, if unofficially and secretly? If she was right, and this got out then what would it do to the ranks? To the Clans?

And…

And sweet gods, Sasuke. If he learned of this, no when he learned of this, it would break his fragile hold on himself, would ruin his love for Konoha, and would bleed darkness further into the growing monster fueled by the Curse inside his young heart.

Was she right? Was she –

No. No, don’t think about it. Push it from your mind.

Just like with everything else that she shouldn’t be thinking about, that was above her paygrade. Ignore it.

She was a kunoichi of Konohagakure, and sometimes that meant that she had to push beyond her personal feelings and just not.

“Do you understand, Asuka-kun?”

“Hai,” she managed faintly, taking a bracing breath herself and swallowing against the lump in her throat to steady herself, pushing the thoughts aside for the moment. “I understand, Hokage-sama.”

Her head throbbed harshly before settling into a dull ache at the base of her skull from the sudden stress.

“Now,” another obscure hand gesture, and the barrier field that had been erected in the room was dismantled, signaling the end to that discussion. “Tell me more about your time with the Demon of the Mist and his charming apprentice.”

So she did, glad to have something to push back her own traitorous thoughts for a while as the age slowly receded from his tensed features, as he slowly relaxed his frame enough to smile and laugh as she spoke, to ask for details about her debates on the fine art of metal folding in designing a blade. In discussing the best way to conceal blades in fancy yukata so that they could be easily retrieved but unseen by those who did not already know they were there. It was nice to relax and speak to someone who knew what they were talking about – the Sandaime pretty much knew everything – and she let her mind drift and roll within her memories of Haku and Zabuza and the peaceful time she’d spent with them.

In the back of her mind she felt great relief that knowledge such as he possessed had yet to be snuffed from the world. The pain in her skull eased off to that aching absence of pressure.

“I’m glad you had an entertaining time, my dear,” he sighed wearily, leaning back heavily into his pillows, and she couldn’t suppress her worried frown or shifting as he did so, and he gave her a longsuffering amused look. “I’m not an invalid, Asuka-kun, and I’d thank you not to treat me as such. I get enough of that from my ANBU,” he stated dryly before his expression softened and his lips curved slightly. “And I understand that I have you to thank for that, despite the irritation.”

“Ah.”

The chuunin’s cheeks flushed, even as she felt that cold dread creep into her chest again; she had kind of been hoping that he wouldn’t bring that up.

He had been smiling so peacefully…

“You know,” he began, closing his eyes for a moment. “My son came to see me this morning after I woke.”

She started a bit at this, her gaze locked firmly on the elderly man. Asuma? He’d actually… well, she hadn’t seen him more than twice since the Sandaime had nearly died, so she couldn’t really be sure of how the jounin had been feeling, but to know that he’d given into his emotions other than anger to see his father?

“We seem to have found… armistice,” he looked at her with terribly warm eyes, and she found the tightness in her chest easing. “Something that… I had not hoped for in the end,” he reached out and she automatically took his hand the same way she had been taking her jounin’s these few weeks. “For that, I thank you, Asuka-kun.”

“I… Of course, Hokage-sama, you’re welcome,” there was no way she could say ‘think nothing of it’ because it was important, it was real. “There was nothing else I could do.”

They stayed silent for a few moments, as she studied the way his larger hand encompassed her own smaller hand. The calluses that adorned his skin made it feel hard, like horn, and she wondered if hers would feel as such someday. While not exactly what one would expect of a grandfatherly figure such as Sarutobi Hiruzen, they were… dependable. Steady.

These were hands that had molded generations and shielded the youths of Konoha.

Asuka suddenly felt an ache for her own father, who had died so long ago.

“Hokage-sama,” she found herself saying, looking back up into his face. “Thank you.”

“Oh?” he looked a little bemused. “For what, Asuka-kun?”

“For… helping me to remember myself after Chitose and Haruka after they… after,” she began, her brows furrowed a little in remembered pain and earnestness. “For taking care of and loving all of the people of Konoha,” she kept going sincerely, her voice honest and thoughtful.

She barely noticed the slight widening of the man’s eyes as she continued. This was something that needed to be said, to help remove or ease the dark sadness in his eyes that talk of Itachi had brought with it. It was odd, this new instinct of hers, which had previously been buried under solitude and duty, assigned to those few she had left to care for, that now prompted her to seek the happiness of those she’d needed to aid.

“Thank you, Hokage-sama, for being the Will of Fire. A father of Konoha. Thank you.”

“Ah.”

He closed his eyes once she’d finished, and that same content smile passed over his features, this time softer, warmer, a little less sad.

This was the expression of a man who was going to live.

“For that, I can say nothing in turn,” he chuckled softly and patted the back of her hand in a fond fashion.

Shaking his head, Sarutobi sighed, features relaxed.

“Defeated by my own subordinates…”

~*~

As for when another important man in her life woke up, well, it didn’t start out as pleasantly.

She was walking past the hospital when it happened.

Having just heard about the homecoming of the Slug Sennin to Konoha after she had returned from a mission, she was rather exhausted. Asuka had been going nearly nonstop since the invasion and sneaking away from the two other of the chuunin she’d been out with so that they wouldn’t drag her in to get examined had been a bit harder than expected. It was getting downright creepy how much her comrades, who had been perfectly fine with letting her live her life in peace before, had turned fussy, weirdly attentive and almost deferential in some cases. She was perfectly fine. Honestly, it was only a little bit of blood – she saw more blood on her off No Go month than had come from that wound – and she could take care of it at home, there was no need for a hospital at all.

She’d been in that building more than enough of late and she only wanted to go again if it meant seeing her jounin after having been gone for nearly a freaking week working with those two headache inducing bastards. All she wanted to do in those moments was sleep, not listen to the doctors at the hospital tell her how to do her job, especially after the fuck-load of a mess her latest mission had been, what with how the idiots had been practically useless. How someone could get informationthat wrong she had no idea, and if she had to fight one more fucking jounin upstart who’d run from his village and decided he wanted to try to rule the fucking world and was so sure that he was kami’s gift to women… she was not going to be held accountable for her actions. Not when her backup was a poison user and a close quarters weapon specialist who didn’t know how to work with a swordswoman that specialized in strength and flexibility. An unusual combination for a woman she admitted, but the fact was that she would have been better off on her own than protecting those two mother hens.

Then, of course, she found out that the little fucker was awake.

The hard way.

“You son of a bitch!”

Asuka found herself yelping out the words as a small shock ran over her whole body, pinging off of all the metal she wore to cause her muscles to twitch and spasm.

The familiar tang to the chakra jumping from nerve cluster to nerve cluster made her heart jump in her chest and almost caused her irritation to evaporate behind hopeful elation.

Almost.

Whipping a glare up at the window she was passing she saw a silver head scramble from the edge and back farther into the room, and she felt her chakra roil dangerously even though it was lower than she’d like it and she’d feel like she had a nasty hangover in the morning to accompany the growing ache in her skull. Leaping up to the window she had no idea what her features were doing, but knew that she really, really wanted to violently maim Kakashi in that instant, no matter the aching joy that was bouncing around in her chest like a breath of fresh air after having been choking on gas and fumes while her chest was slowly being compressed. It was like a vice that had been constricting her lungs and heart had suddenly disappeared, and suddenly she didn’t even need to breathe, because she had all of the oxygen she could ever require because of that skinny, adorable bastard.

There he was. Sitting up.

And – oh he was looking at her – his one eye was open and dark with fatigue mixed with a roiling tumultuous flurry of emotions that he didn’t seem to know what to do with as he stared at her, but she could still see the hidden blue and grey even from the distance she was at.

That eye stole the breath it had given her.

Thank the gods…

“Yo,” he laughed nervously from where he was awkwardly situated on the hospital bed, obviously having just returned to it, left eye drooped shut, right open and apprehensive over his mask. “Asuka, funny you’re here – “

“Oh, Kakashi-kun,” her voice was sweet, like steel singing from a sheath, and the man’s laughter and words dried up like an oasis in the desert at high noon. She may have been elated at his return, but she wasn’t the type to let something like this go, and the darkness behind that tired eye encouraged her normalcy. “It’s so nice to return from my mission and see you awake and already channeling chakra against your dear friends,” she stumbled a bit as she stepped down from the windowsill, frowning at the way his hands jerked towards her as she did so. He did not get to mollycoddle her from the freaking hospital bed. That was just… over the top. “Obviously you’ve just been dying to see me again, and that’s why you so rudely made me aware of your presence.”

Her eyes narrowed as he remained silent.

Without taking her gaze from his she still watched thin, scarred pale hands fiddle slightly with the hospital issue blanket in his lap with his nerves, the silence drawing out for several long moments as they stared at each other.

“… How was your mission?” he asked a little pathetically, his single eye both bewildered and nervous and open thank the gods he’s awake.

“I’m going to drown you,” she stated flatly.

“Ahahaha, maa, Asuka that’s – Ah, wait, what –”

“You know, I’ve heard that death by drowning is pretty painful...”

Aaah! Wait, wait, wait!”

Even as she was dissipating the water she’d summoned – the initial action was something that she was actually kind of regretting, considering how tired she felt, her whole body one big ache – she was sitting down into the chair beside the bed and dropping her face into her hands with a groan, propping her elbows on her knees. There was a grating pain in her muscles that deepened farther down into the sharpness of her bones, a tired sort of aching agony that pulsed throughout her entire body, her coils twinging at her unhappily in an echo of her physical symptoms of exhaustion.

“You’re such a dick,” she muttered petulantly, voice a little thick with emotions that she wasn’t going to speak of, and the man sighed deeply, the weight of it especially heavy.

“Sorry, Asuka,” his tone was tired and regretful, and she looked up at him, her features twisted with wry affection.

“Well, you wouldn’t be you if you didn’t have just the right amount of jackass and socially constipated idiot.”

At his slightly offended look she rolled her eyes and sat up straight despite the discomfort in her joints and muscles, skin feeling too tight and dry as she absently situated herself so that she was more comfortable in the plastic with sparse padding hospital chair, the motion automatic and natural.

“Ah, um, hmm…”

At the tone, she opened her eyes from where she’d closed them without noticing and looked at the man in a questioning manner, before following his oddly focused gaze downward to see her hand joined familiarly with his.

Oh gods… really? Really, Asuka? You have got to be kidding me.

“Not a word,” she threatened, her grip tightening unconsciously, cheeks hot and her brows furrowed in irritated embarrassment. “I mean it.”

Despite her mortification, she didn’t let go, didn’t release her gentle but firm grip on him.

Didn’t even think to.

What if I wake up and this was all a dream?

They sat in contented silence for several long minutes, and she took some comfort in the fact that she could feel his chakra strongly through his hand again, even if she had to catch herself a few times to keep from circulating her own throughout his system by reflex. She caught herself more times than she cared for as she started to leak over, weary and a little annoyed because she needed her chakra much more than the jounin did at the moment, if the better tint to his pale skin and pinked scar was anything to go by. Feeling that towering thunderstorm next to her was more than a little relieving, calming her nerves in a way that the sluggish spark of it while he’d been comatose could not, and she bubbled back tiredly, like fish in a somewhat low sitting pond during the dry season.

“Asuka,” his deep, calm tone had her looking up, and she found herself blinking with a little bit of confusion at the seriousness in that dark gray-blue eye.

“Yes?”

“Train with me tomorrow.”

“Eh? Train?” she frowned at him, sitting up straighter, not bothering to hide her winces as she did so. It wasn’t as if he wouldn’t see them anyway, even if she tried to hide them. “Tomorrow?”

She ran her gaze over him with a doubtful expression, her misgivings plain to see on her features.

While the medics had done a pretty good job of keeping him from stiffening up or his muscles from atrophying – she’d done what she could when she was around as well – he’d still lost significant muscle mass, if not definition itself, and she found herself disbelieving the notion that he could be ready to train just yet. No matter the rumored Hatake physical hardiness and stamina that he boasted in having survived the ocular transplant of a Sharingan into his body, something that few had ever managed to do and live to tell the tale, and none other in the past century. He’d have to do some rather intense in-home conditioning first, she was sure, and his appetite was likely going to be enormous for several weeks as his body tried to make up the difference in fat content and fuel the protein needed to build muscles.

“When did you wake up?” she asked with her expression still disapproving. “ Exactly?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he stated calmly, waving his free hand idly, causing her eyes to narrow and lips to drop open slightly as her jaw unhinged. Doesn’t matter? “I’m leaving this hospital bed tomorrow morning one way or another,” she sighed, her expression beleaguered. “And this way, you can keep an eye on me.”

As if that were incentive! The man was just too much.

“Baka, just stay in the hospital.”

“Eeeeeh, so cruel, Asuka.”

“Stop whining at me.”

“Aaaasuka, train with meeee –”

“Oh my god, shut up. I already have a headache!”

“Maa, Asuuuuuukaaaaaa~”

“No, Kakashi.”

“But, but –”

“No, means no.”

“… Please?”

“… I hate you.”

“Thank you.”

God she’d missed him.

… Even if he was a huge dick.

Chapter Text

~*~

He waSN’t okay.

Despite what he’d said, despite how often he lied to himself and was a ritual practitioner of self-deception; Kakashi was well aware of it. He was not okay.

He was anything but okay. The bits of himself that he’d managed to hide away in his mind palace from the genjutsu were bruised, battered and damaged. With the rest… well.

Not nearly as good of condition.

In that warped world, there had been much pain. So much pain he couldn’t truly comprehend it all, couldn’t call upon the memory of it, only getting himself thrown into mind numbing shock and the physical jittery signs of fear and trauma as the nonsensical ramblings of his own mind tried to cross signals to both block out his memories and recall them. It had also been confusing, distorted and out of place, time an unknown, fearful thing that could either ruin or save him. He knew that there had been nightmares and agony and blood, though only imagined and unreal. The technique had been so powerful that he’d barely been able to push the important bits of him self, the key parts of his spiritual chakra, into that mental defense he’d been building since childhood. That special place made for him. He knew that they had felt real, that he had been twisted while inside that world as well, a good portion of his training falling away amidst the chaotic disorder of the inverted monstrosity that he had been confined to. He didn’t know how long – how long was eternity and an instant? – he had been forced within the caprices and shattered edges of his own mind, didn’t know when sensation had shifted from ghosting surreal physicalpain to mental torture and trauma. To reliving the worst moments of his life.

Didn’t know.

Didn’t really want to.

It had been… bad.

Bad bad bad bad bad -

No, it... he needed to stop that.

A world of his worst nightmares come true, pain without flesh, and blood without veins. A world where he knew no hunger but starved, only to be fed his own intangible blood and steel and no no no nonono stop don’tthink –

There were certain fears and terrors that had been his reality once or twice, and he desired not to think of them.

He had become shinobi too young.

So young…

Much too young.

“You know, pup, if this is for me you don’t have to –“

No. Not him.

“I’m already proud of you –“

Stop.

His Sensei had been right about that, that he’d dived in too quickly, like he was about most everything else unless for some reason Kushina had been involved, in which case she was always right rather than the other way around – or somehow everything became her idea – something that he had never been able to understand.

The warped world had preyed on him, on his mind, on his shriveled, blackened and scarred heart.

It had… hurt.

It had hurt him.

Badly.

He didn’t want to remember.

To think.

Please, don’t make Him.

Alone and that was good couldn’t remember why but it was good

Only good if it was just him

No one else

The sky was red theclouds were black withlining was ironic silver color hisblood was white and he couldn’t quite remember if it was supposed to be that color-oh, pain pain pain pain

“Kakashi.”

Kakashi Kakashi Kakashi Kaka shi Kakashi

Such a nice voice the voicealways talking it kept talkingwouldn’t stop but he wouldnot speak back couldn’t talk hadswallowed his tongue already butcouldn’t die even though hewanted to because the voice kept talking and the sky was wrong andhe was wrong and theblood was wrong and but the voice was

Soothing

Wrong wrong wrong wrong no not this voice he didn’t want this voice it wasn’tright it didn’t belong it was wrong it wasn’t supposed to sound like that it was too old too tired to much like his own it had beensmall once why wasn’t it small why why why why

Hurts

Like the all of them pack his first packall gone ahead they’d left he wasalone because he was abad Beta who were that had beengold hair with soft eyes that looked at him saw him with sadness and affection and age something so tired why did he look at him like that what had he done wrong he didn’t want to disappoint he would make it better so please don’t looklike he was out of reach he wasright there so stop he wasthe last but whywasn’t of course he wasn’tenough had ruined everything he had broken them ruined made

Cool blue eyes darkened with sadness and pain andwhy was he so tired he hadjoined the masked people who couldprotect those he with the golden hair loved he would protect gold hair because he was faceless and of the nameless he wasn’t far away always there don’t please he had wanted his happiness bright ice blue glittering with laughter as he stood withcrimson hair who always had a wide grin always full of laughter and joy but fierce and strong thegolden hair had loved her and he had only ever wanted him to be happy didn’t deserve those who had been with him crimson hair who had always cared had fed him she had been so warm she had beensad too much too sad what had he done whenshe looked at him but had still touched ruffled his hair fed him often looked at the one with the golden hair just like his heart and had loved they werehappy she was happy and that made blue eyes light up so bright so bright but never embraced like crimson hair and violet eyes why had he didn’t he touch him never touched him was he bad he was wrong had done something

They were gone

No pack all alone gone not companions he was Omega distant cold so cold everyone was gone he was so lonely why did they leave him they had chosen to go away he had lost the crimson hair with so much love in herheart and the golden hair with the cool blue eyes filled with strength of will and heart that had beenpainful and beautiful to see everyone had loved them had loved them love him loved her they were gone packless he was packless alone

No

No

Not packless

He was

He had

There were

Young

Where were his young youths children pups who could not huntalone they were gone alone away from him where he needed to ProTeCT tHeM

With him he where was hewhere lost can’t find can’t think whatgreen eyes and laughter she hadwarmed and calmed and opened ah it hurt he couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t

Orange tinted goggles blood promises and boulderspain and shame and so much self-hate the words were gone worst present he had ever beengiven he was a curse everyone died he had killed him he was scum trash so sorry had failed golden hair and purple marked cheeks she no no no no

Purple marked cheeks his hand through achest tears and shock andpain shame so much hate he didn’t mean so sorry no no don’t know please stop the eye burned his heartburned why was this the gift was crying he could not breath please stop why why warm blood on his hands soaked in his glove sticky and congealed he couldn’t breathe no no please no not her not pack please stop no whywhywhy he had promised promised promised promised

Liar he was a liar he had lied

Filth scum it hurt he was sorry

Friend killer Ka KAshI

No one to forgive him but he didn’t deserve it even though cool blue eyes had neverblamed him and violet eyes had cried for him when he had lost the ability to because his eye was not his own and his curse had ruined him even more an eye he had never been taught to use taught taught taught

He needed to teach someone

He was a teacher

Sensei

-Kaka-sensei!-

That was him he was

No

He

His eye was needed he needed there were young

He had

There were young

Where he had there were he could not find thehis eye there he was confused anxious pups there were

Where were the pain pain pain

I t hurts why pain pain pain pain

Three crushed children the children his genin the pups the young they were by his hands before his face under his feet made ofwords everywhere blue eyes with a wide grin and whisker marks that he’d had even before the gold hair hadfollowed the crimson hair andleft died gone that would sitbeside him and leanagainst with heat toowarm so young and bright no please no he was so sorry he had failed him golden hair buthe had wanted to protect so very weak he should have taken care should have should should should he had failed next to the pink hair with the soft wide jade eyes and shy smile trailing after the one with green eyes hidden behind a boy losthe was losing had lost what had he done to them why did this happen with pale skin made paler bydark hair and eyes stained by blood and darkness with hunched shoulders so lonely likehim but better somuch better and before them like he should have been but couldn’t because he was weak and had broken them with his own failings and please noprotecting had stood thefire metal hair with green eyes and a soft smile she had those kind hands with sparkling water laughter she was the water he had watched the glitter of light she was Fire had it he had laughed because she was she was there was terror and confusion and dread they were his don’t touch they wereall his every one of them they were belong to him couldn’t no

He wanted to die

“Kakashi.”

He should be first should die first they could be no not please don’t blue eyes they were sad eyes and a fragile heart so guarded by happy grins and laughter to cover what had ones been quiet sobs in the dark alonehe had watched and guardedin the darkness as afaceless nameless didn’t existthat was Naruto how could he pink hair so quiet she thought she was forgotten thought she was less had been ignored never Sakura don’t he wouldn’t forget how could he have forgotten he shouldn’t have pale skin touched by death broken and young and cursed as he had been but could be stronger be better Sasuke don’t get drawn into the abyss that gapes before you he wanted to teach him how to keep feeling to remember to feel that it could be learned again green eyes that were guarded and sad and tired but she had welcomed him had opened to him they were friends pack mates she wasAsuka Asuka Asuka – “Kakashi, you stupid jounin” – he was lostwhere was she the kids what this were his can’t lose them like the gold hair and crimson hair and moonlight hair anddark eyes like his own no no not pack never pack don’t take them please please please no no no

“Kaka-sensei!”

Ah It HuRTs

Pain stabbed and burned and skinned and impaled and he was violated andwrong and he could see but couldn’t see could not taste but could and all he heard was the voice that wrongsoothingwrongstoptalking nomore voice why was there no smell smell scents were gone they hadwhere were they what had happened to them his bones felt like they were shattered and splintering out through muscle and tissue and organ he was falling apart and held together by strings he was a puppet of the voice that danced to the song of his own and agony couldn’t die couldn’t see but kept seeing wanted to stopblood and death andthey were all gone he couldn’t find them couldn’t smell what that was wrong why did it have to

S tOp It HuRts pLe AsE

Did he not did he what were he didn’t couldn’t remember did he have bones

What was where was here what where were they how where they where were they where was he what was here

He felt like he was choking on blood and vomit and tears, though he did not cry he wanted to but he couldn’t even with the gift curse eye so sorry he shouldn’t have

What was he supposed to remember he needed to remember but he couldn’t what was he but pain what was pain pain it was he was pain

Who

Who am I what am I why am I alone am I how am I please help I am please no more they needed him even though he was weak and he couldn’t can’t take can’t can’t can’t can’t can’t can’t

Kakashi.”

Was that him it sounded familiar he was trussed up held uptogether above below within the beside pain likehe as a field of blood surrounding him the crows in his eyes were fed on blood and there was an eye the color of the sky was wrong not seeing it rightbecause he couldn’t remember what couldn’t he remember

Kakashi.”

Was he Kakashi he was he couldn’t who was this what was Kakashi but standing in a field felled by othershe was useless the crows had taken his crop the pupswhere were they his childrenpups the crop of children they werethey with the woman with thegreen eyes or had they followedplease no not againdon’t go with the golden hair andcrimson hair and orange goggles and purple marked cheeks waiting with the man with hair and dark eyes like his own laying in his own blood reflected in the moonlight

He could didn’t no more his mind he was lost can’t think couldn’t smell couldn’t remember the scents whose scents he couldn’t breathe couldn’t remember how didn’t

NO mORe

Oh pain pain pain

He… couldn’t quite seem to stop himself, though.

A drawback of having a mind that works so quickly, it’s hard for me to control it , he had reasoned to himself a little hysterically. Which is just so not fair.

But… there had also been a cool reprieve secreted away behind it, behind the anguish and madness that he had skirted and then fallen into headfirst only to emerge on the other side feeling much too old for the years he had spent trapped in his mind to fall away on his relative physical youth. But that relief had led him gently, tied a rope securely around his waist and tugged on it every so often to give him direction, to give him hope in the whirling havoc that had been his mind laid bare with his guilt and shame, all the memories and nightmares he would never voice. He hadn’t been sure that it was even real, had perhaps thought that he was hallucinating it, but every so once in a while, the burning agony of his mind and his body would be soothed by whatever or whoever had held the other end of that sanity transfixing tether. It was like a comforting scent, slight and unobtrusive in the most extraordinary way, the kind that you never got used to and never grew sick of – the only scent that had existed in the warped world – the kind that was so subtle that half the time you didn’t realize you were smelling it, or looking for it when it wasn’t there.

A nice scent to clean out the smell of blood and fear and pain.

A scent like home.

It made him think of Sensei and Kushina back when he’d still been a kid, of his father before that, who were all closer to the forefront of his thoughts than they had been before, his mind raw and open and perhaps a tad tattered because of it, the madness grating on his memories of them. The scent made him hope that it would fade though, that they would return to the sheen they had once bore in his mind, because a scent that could weasel its way through the clutches of Tsukuyomi could lead him back farther, to remember what peace had been like, what pure happiness of intent had been like. What it had been like…

Before Obito.

Before Rin.

Before… everything.

When he’d awoken at Tsunade’s hands, he’d almost convinced himself that it had been her until he had felt his favorite chuunin’s chakra signature, even though it was much smaller than usual. The several moments it had taken him to remember to think of her as Asuka rather than green eyes, and he’d had to pick on her because it was something normal, something he needed, something he wanted, despite how haggard she looked even from a distance. It wasn’t until she was staggering like a particularly graceful drunk through his window that he smelled her blood – he was so relieved to be able to smell again it was like he had been blinded and now there was a world again – and noted the slightly darker patch of cloth on her hip, though he was sure she’d sealed it with her unique water jutsu. Even as she was threatening him with bodily harm there was a sweet sort of warm, wobbly but affectionately stark relief that was so profound in her green eyes as she took in his awakened form, that he was glad for his mask covering his face, his cheeks heating up lightly as if he were some fresh cut genin and he didn’t know what to do with himself, Obito’s eye burning with the aching happiness of proof that he was appreciated more than his broken mind had convinced itself he was.

He wasn’t completely useless if someone could look at him like that.

After she’d sat and taken his hand in what he noted interestingly, almost cheerfully with his stubborn refusal to think on anything from that wrong place was a very smooth and practiced motion, her chakra reaching out automatically only for her to pull it back a second later. He couldn’t help his reaction, and it was rather gratifying to see her rare bout of embarrassment as she realized what she’d done, only to keep hold of him anyway with her brows furrowed as she sat beside him, cheeks flushed and warm only for a few moments as her eyes fell shut with exhaustion. Affection curled wearily in his chest.

That settled it, he knew.

It had been her.

In hindsight, really, it couldn’t have been anyone else, could it? Her scent saturated this hospital room, was all over the chairs, his sheets, and even him to an extent –sweet kami he had never been so embarrassed to breath before by how pleased this made him – telling of her extended time in his room, likely sitting just as she was then, only allowing her chakra to roll through him like a soothing balm. As they sat in his room in silence for several minutes, he let himself enjoy the feel of her smaller hand encased in his own, feeling the warmth of her skin and the calluses on her fingers, calluses that he had as well, only situated in different places. It was much different than when he’d cradled her smaller hand in his when she’d been hurt what felt like ages before, for some reason this felt much more comfortable, much more personal, than when he’d held her hand when she was unconscious.

Perhaps it was because they were both aware.

She was touching him, skin on skin, and that raw part of him that he couldn’t even pretend to keep carefully boxed away in his state wanted to weep for it.

His hands had softened slightly with inactivity though, just enough for him to have noticed, and it made him unhappy to think of the laborious duty of training, something that he’d not needed to do frequently in some time, even though he did daily calisthenics of varying levels. But it looked like it was going to make up a good portion of his future after this… incident.

Of course, he was also a little warmed by the fact that several of his jounin peers, their genin team – he missed them, had the burning need to see them and scent them and that was why he was staying where he was because he didn’t know if he could control himself yet with the sight of blue eyes pink hair pale skin they were his – and even some of his ANBU colleagues had stopped by several times to check on him – the fact that Tenzou came around the second most was a little cute of him, his silly little kouhai – while he was unconscious, but they hadn’t… hadn’t mingled their scent with his as much as she had. Even if it appeared that Sakura and Sasuke had spent a good portion of their time huddled up at his side or in the chair on the other side of the bed from where Asuka had apparently staked her claim, an action that had the feral part of himself terribly, viciously pleased in a way that soothed a part of him – the Alpha he was Alpha not Beta not Omega – that had been deprived of them in unconscious nightmare. Though the kids’ scents pervaded the room, Naruto’s was recent but not as ingrained, it was nothing like how his and Asuka’s had mixed on such a… personal level, one that alternatively stunned and pleased him in a way that before would have terrified him. It would have had him fleeing as her very presence had become one that both strengthened and eased the pale beast that was caged by his Hatake blood, restraining the dark vague emptiness that was the pain of what the inverted world of the Tsukuyomi had left inside of him. The hurt.

He also learned something new about her.

It was best to weasel your way into her good graces when she wasn’t all the way awake, and being pitiful and bedridden definitely helped.

She would be a fun training buddy, he was sure. Normally it was just him putting her through her paces, because she wasn’t up to his level, but while he was as weak as he was, doing a routine work out with her would be interesting.

He wondered how much speed training he could get her to do…

He was glad of her, though.

Her presence drowned out that soothing, calm voice just softly stating his name.

Over and over again.

Endlessly.

Ka kashi.

Closing his original eye, he leaned back into the slightly stiff and not quite comfortable bedding that the hospital housed, he took slow, deep breathes – carefully filtering the hospital smells – as he enjoyed the feeling of her smaller hand, with fingertips wrapped over the back of his own. The balm of her cool, soothing chakra easing the not-scent of blood in his throat. Every few minutes he felt like he was sinking away into that colorless place, but a deep breath and the shifting of skin against skin would pull him back from the precipice.

The woman said nothing about his riled-up chakra network, nor the way that his own fingers twitched under her hold, pressing back to affirm reality as he swallowed carefully. He couldn’t remember a time before she’d somehow made herself a fixture in his life, not since the night of the Kyuubi attack when he had been touched in such a way, without malice and with real, clear positive context. With – with pleasure and happiness. The sheer amount of – of everything that this ridiculous, incomprehensible woman made him feel, was… terrifying.

He very much wanted his ignorance back, thanks. He missed his compartmentalization and repression were both in complete shambles and he was feeling things he’d been very carefully trying not to since he’d buried the last pieces of his previous pack.

“… I’m glad you’re awake, Kakashi.”

Her voice was a little hoarse, a little wet in a way that made his throat tighten and chest ache with that uncomfortable, horribly pleasant warmth she seemed to bring to him. Despite the urge to babble out every moment of his growing affection for his pack, for her and the kids, Kakashi said nothing, just basked in her soothing presence, fingers twitching in her grip. His mouth didn’t taste like blood but when he swallowed he felt the phantom sensation of it.

“… Me too, Asuka. Me too.”

… It was enough.

Almost more than.

~*~

“Ooooi,” a hand on her shoulder shook her softly. “Aaaaasuuuuukaaaa. Wake up.”

“Mmmmph,”