Hatake Kakashi was a deliberate man.
Perhaps that wasn’t exactly the right word, but none of the synonyms Tenzō could find in a thesaurus quite seemed to fit, either. Meticulous, thoughtful, calculating… they all painted a picture very far from the lazy, dawdling, porn-reading bastard that most of Konoha saw. Yet, Tenzō would say that all of those words applied to Hatake Kakashi, as well as several more that he wouldn’t verbalize in polite company. The true essence of the matter was that Kakashi never did anything without consideration, without taking into account the potential consequences. Anyone who served with him in the field could see that. Kakashi’s assessments weren’t always one hundred percent accurate, but there was always reasoning for his insanity. What most shinobi weren’t aware of was that Kakashi’s deliberate nature applied even more so to the man behind the mask of the Copy-nin.
That wasn’t all there was to Hatake Kakashi, of course. He still had an awful sense of humor with a penchant for stupid pranks and ridiculous excuses, and he was still frustratingly casual about the majority of matters. Those simple facts served for no end of annoyances to Tenzō, who generally considered himself a sober, down-to-earth (pun included) sort of person. But it had only taken Tenzō a few days into their first mission to realize that all of those infamous traits were purely surface-level. In reality, Kakashi was a serious, loyal, and deeply introspective person who carried far more weight on his shoulders than purely his own, his conscience no doubt loaded down with corpses a-plenty, as most of the ANBU’s were. It was partially dawning awareness of the man’s constant burden of guilt that made Tenzō see why the Sandaime trusted Kakashi, which was more than he could say about the majority of people he had worked with over the years.
Danzo would always take the dirt throne, the least trustworthy of them all.
Tenzō wasn’t sure why Kakashi portrayed himself so inaccurately, but he felt as though he had seen enough “underneath the underneath” to get a hint of the truth. He knew that, if he looked in the nightstand beside Kakashi’s bed, he would find more cheesy romances than pure pornos. If Tenzō could see under that mask, he would find lips that rarely curved to match the ostensibly happy arch of his visible eye. If he could peek inside of Kakashi’s mind while he was reclining in a tree and reading Icha Icha for the millionth time, he would find a wealth of knowledge that Kakashi was gleaning from the world around him while pretending to be utterly disinterested.
These weren’t contradictions. In fact, Tenzō would make a large wager that Kakashi was one of the most consistent people he knew. It was just that, like any good shinobi, Kakashi didn’t mind lies or half-truths, big or small, so long as they protected people. And, as strange as it was to fathom at first, Kakashi was constantly protecting someone, someone who was incredibly vulnerable: himself.
If the village saw him as a pervert, they wouldn’t speak to him. If he was constantly late, eventually people would stop inviting him. If he pretended not to give a damn about gossip, shoving his cloth-covered nose in a book instead, he would be able to hear far more than if they had known he was listening.
Everything Kakashi did was deliberate, whether it was planning an infiltration of an Earth-nin hideout in the Land of Fire, or making foolish excuses about squirrels and little old ladies to cover for the time he had spent at the memorial stone speaking with the dead. (And that was just another habit of Kakashi’s that surprisingly few people seemed to know about.)
All of these realizations regarding Kakashi’s personality culminated in what Tenzō believed to be a relatively accurate, if incomplete, portrait. Subtle nuances were missing; the shading was flat, the lighting poor enough that Tenzō had to squint to make out crucial details, and the events that had led to each individual brushstroke were mostly unknown to Tenzō. But he could see the bare bones of the image, the architecture of it, the swirling colors and shapes that comprised the foundation of the Man of a Thousand Jutsu.
So, when Kakashi first started ambushing Tenzō after particularly difficult missions, he knew there was a reason. He just wasn’t sure exactly what.
ANBU weren’t the most laid-back bunch in the world. When you spent the majority of your time tracking and assassinating foreign operatives, well, you tended to get a bit paranoid, and even the village itself no longer felt like a safe haven. When you had pushed both your body and mind to their limits, when adrenaline was more important to your survival than water, and sleep was a precious commodity only gained with one eye open, there had to be some way to relax. Some way to release the frustration and fall back into what he had heard one shinobi refer to as the 'civvie mode’; basically, any state of mind in which you wouldn’t accidentally slit the throat of someone trying to brush past you at the market. Most shinobi, Tenzōu included, referred to this gradual return to a non-combative state of mind as decompression.
People decompressed in different ways, and some had an easier time of it than others. Some people fucked, either spouses or fellow ANBU. Some locked themselves in isolation or did mindless, strenuous exercise until they were too tired to fight. Some knitted sweaters or pet puppies, for all Tenzō knew. Personally, he had started a hobby in woodworking. Perhaps it was overly stereotypical, given his mokuton, but Tenzō found wood relaxing. The feel of the grain under his fingertips, the sound of a chisel or plane scraping against timber, the sight of shavings and dust littering his fingers rather than blood or mud... it was soothing. While his creations without the use of his jutsu were less than perfect, he enjoyed seeing the finished projects when he came back home from a mission. It reminded him that there was something more to life than torture and death. Now, after a few years of self-conditioning, just the smell of wood polish had the ability to relax every muscle of Tenzō’s body until he was damn near peaceful, half of his brain in a pleasant, mindless trance while the other half worked to create rather than destroy.
Everyone had different methods.
Kakashi? At first, Tenzō presumed that Kakashi’s technique involved sitting in a tree and reading porn.
Apparently, he was wrong.
Apparently, Kakashi fought.
In and of itself, that wasn’t so unusual. The ANBU had special, isolated training grounds that were heavily guarded and bracketed by the ANBU headquarters in each direction. Watching an ANBU train would give any observer first-hand knowledge of not only techniques employed by Konoha ANBU, but also strong clues to figuring out who exactly was on the roster. There were only so many teenagers with the ability to direct chakra-absorbing insects, after all, and in a village with as many kekkai genkai and clan specialties as Konoha, the protection of ANBU identities was of the utmost importance. So, when ANBU needed to let off some steam after a mission, they normally retreated to their training grounds, where the only people likely to cross their path were those who were, at least theoretically, able to take care of themselves and fend off that unexpected, instinctual jab to the larynx.
Kakashi didn’t use the training grounds, and he didn’t fight fellow ANBU. Not exactly, anyway.
As near as Tenzō could tell, Kakashi fought himself.
The first time it happened was after a two-week long mission to the Land of Rivers. At least, that was the first time Tenzō knew of it happening. He wasn’t about to go asking the rest of his squad (which was currently only Yūgao, anyway) what their leader had been like before he had joined Team Yumiya.
Tenzō had been assigned to the unit for nearly a year by the time the first incident occurred, but he had been in ANBU for much longer than that and was by no means new to the field. Although he wouldn't admit it aloud, Kakashi was his favorite team leader thus far--at least once Tenzō realized the majority of his bullshit was for show.
Most of their missions up to that point had been fairly routine, simple assassinations or scouting that were completed with minimal bloodshed on Konoha’s side, and only one incident that had resulted in a team member’s death. They were an elite tracking unit after all, each member’s skill-set geared towards such, and so large battles and stand-offs weren’t in their standard operating procedures. At least, not for anyone other than Kakashi. That man had enough power in him to defeat a small army.
That mission was the first time Tenzō saw him do exactly that.
It wasn’t the last time.
The mission wasn't assassination. No bloodshed was strictly required. They were to gather information about a suspected Hidden Village of the Sand stronghold in the Land of Rivers and report back to the Hokage with the intel. It wouldn’t have been too hard, if they hadn’t been discovered as soon as they turned back towards home. More precisely, they were ambushed, so a sensor must have been aware of their presence for far longer than Team Yumiya had realized, tracking their movements for possibly the entire duration of the operation. Not only did that make all of the intelligence gathered nigh on useless, but it turned a reconnaissance mission into a fight for their lives. A fight that they just barely won.
Kakashi was beautiful. He always was, in combat. Tenzō had realized that long before he grew to like the man himself. Kakashi was efficient, with an economy of movement that far surpassed the artistic stylings of shinobi who had more pride than brains. Every action had a purpose. Each word that dripped from his tongue like quicksilver was designed to mislead or confuse their enemy, each flick of his eye either a cue for his comrades or a trap into which their adversaries ignorantly fell. Hatake Kakashi may have been famous for a hand-crafted technique that chirped like a thousand birds and lit up the night sky in the very definition of “flashy”, but any notion Tenzō had of the technique being for show was quickly destroyed. Tenzō felt the air stir behind in and swiftly spun, ready for an attack. What he saw was Kakashi punching his fist through two hearts at once. Even in the chaos and beneath the notes of birdsong, Tenzō could hear ribs shattering, a sternum cracking, and the strangled gasps of those caught in the throes of death.
Tenzō’s breath caught in his throat, seizing his heart almost in solidarity with the departed as he watched the bringer of destruction rip his bloody, stained hand from the dead men’s chests. Tenzō took a single surreal, ephemeral moment to appreciate his own good fortune. Kakashi quite literally had his back--and it was only by virtue of parallel tattoos that there wasn’t a brilliant streak of lightning pierced through the very center of it. Unfortunately, Tenzō’s gratitude (to life, the universe, and everything that had placed he and Kakashi in the same homeland) only had a moment to sink in before he was forced to return to the fight by fending off a shuriken hurtling along a direct collision course with his face.
By the end of that battle, Kakashi was nearly soaked in blood. It speckled the white porcelain of his mask, splattered his flak vest, stained a short lock of wild silver hair, and dripped from pale, slender fingers that would have been delicate if not for the way they curled like claws, ready to rip through another human as if their life were no more tangible than tracing paper. The glove of Kakashi’s right hand was merely tattered rags hanging from his wrist. A small chunk of flesh was missing from his left shoulder, just above the symbol of the ANBU, in a gouge that could have been carved by a chisel for its clean lines. The attached arm was hanging loosely from the socket, the skin intact but the joint obviously dislocated. As Tenzō watched, Kakashi took a few steps to a nearby tree and slid his limp arm into the crook of a branch. The shinobi braced himself with his feet and yanked sharply, a low grunt of agony barely audible under his two masks as his arm was popped back into place. Then he turned towards where Tenzō was kneeling over Yūgao, as if nothing had happened.
He was beautiful.
The battle hadn’t stopped there. Tenzō thought he would have to fight Kakashi to be the one to carry Yūgao, whose ankle had been crushed by an Earth jutsu during the attack, but finally his superior relented and they set off in the vague direction of Konoha, travelling as quickly as possible. Their enemies were still on their asses, the dead bodies behind them evidently not having been their only pursuers, and the next few days were spent in an adrenaline-induced fugue. They barely stopped for more than an hour at a time, and Tenzō wasn’t sure Kakashi slept even during those brief respites. He almost certainly didn’t after the second ambush, right before they crossed the border into the Land of Fire. Perhaps some of the information they had gathered was good after all, because Tenzō couldn’t see anyone putting themselves through such a punishing pace to follow them without a damn good reason, and the foreign shinobi were certainly determined to cut them down before they could report what they knew.
Or perhaps they just wanted to capture and interrogate them. That would be far worse than death, and Tenzō knew, with the grim certainty that comes from experience, that he would rather kill himself than be subjected to that again, rather die than put his entire country in jeopardy. He wouldn’t talk, not willing, not even under the worst agony imaginable. But with techniques such as the Yamanaka’s floating around, Tenzō wasn’t under the mistaken impression that his mind was a fortress.
He wasn’t as worried about that as he might have been with a different partner at his side. Kakashi would kill Tenzō himself rather than allow Konoha’s secrets to fall to the enemy.
It was a small comfort.
They were followed even across the border, and they were forced to change course for a few days to ensure they didn’t give away Konoha’s location while they were still being tracked. Those days had a touch more sleep, but they were filled with the paranoid tension of rabbits who knew they were being hunted and were just trying not to lead the foxes back to their kits. Every sound was a potential attack, and every innocent, forest-dwelling creature met a quick death at Kakashi’s hands for fear that they were an enemy’s summons. Well, and for food. Summons or not, Tenzō wouldn’t turn down a fresh dinner, tough and gamey as skunk meat was, especially when cooked with a quick and discrete fire jutsu rather than a steady flame.
By the time they made it home, exhaustion was the least of their worries. Yūgao had started to run a fever and they could no longer dawdle while waiting for one last ambush to strike. They hadn’t seen signs they were being followed in days, but they were still overly cautious as they made the trek to Konoha, their speed impeded by the constant awareness they forced of their surroundings. Kakashi bared his sharingan more than once, for reasons Tenzō wasn’t quite sure, and by the time they arrived within Konoha’s walls they were filled with the lingering chill of adrenaline that had never been spent. They had lost their tail.
Tenzō carted Yūgao to the ANBU headquarters and placed her under care of the medics there. Her fever had reached its peak but Tenzō was confident she would survive, surrounded as she was by grim-faced medics who were accustomed to dealing with far worse injuries. If they had waited another day without getting her care, however… It would have been the third teammate Tenzō had lost in ANBU. He didn’t want to think about the first two.
Kakashi had split off the moment they had reached the gates, no doubt reporting the entire incident to the Sandaime. It was something close to midnight, and Tenzō wandered the roofs of Konoha for nearly an hour, sliding into shadows and looking down at the streets from a bird’s eye view.
He knew what he was looking for: a flash of purple or silver hair, a mask of dog or cat, a glint of a swirling red Sharingan. Intellectually, Tenzō knew his comrades were safe, and certainly wouldn’t be roaming the streets in their conditions. They were within the city walls, surrounded by fellow shinobi who would die to protect them, and the ghosts of those who had. Tenzō could see ANBU lurking in his peripheries, watching Tenzō as he moved across the village, but not stopping him. They would protect Kakashi and Yūgao, wherever they were. He knew this. His body just hadn’t quite gotten the message yet.
Emotionally, Tenzō felt more uneasy now than he had the entire time they had been on the run. It was the first time in two weeks that his team had been out of his sight. He couldn’t stop the unmistakable feeling, the nauseous churning and cramping in his gut, that told him they weren’t safe, that the fight wasn’t over.
He needed them by his side. He needed to protect them.
The moon was high in the sky when Tenzō finally retreated to his cabin at the edge of Konoha proper, where civilization met nature and pines turned into hardwood. This place was supposed to feel like home, Tenzō knew, and normally it did. He had built it himself, each log of which it was comprised formed from his own hands, his own flesh and blood.
But it wasn’t home. Not now. Not without his team.
Tenzō changed out of his uniform, cleaning his mask on autopilot before even turning on the shower. He rinsed himself quickly and efficiently, the electric tension running through his body too great to even relax under the warm spray against his aching muscles. The humid air sat heavily in his lungs and he shut off the water almost before all the soap was washed away, gasping for air that his brain simply refused to believe was making it to his bloodstream. He was suffocating, drowning out of the water. He didn’t even grab a towel as he escaped to his bedroom. There, without the heat, he almost felt as though he could breathe again.
When he was standing nude and dripping wet in front of his dresser, he almost donned his uniform, fingers automatically reaching for one of the many pairs of black pants that comprised the majority of his wardrobe. Tenzō’s hand hovered uncertainly before finally diverting course, opening a different drawer and grabbing a pair of frayed russet sweats instead. His cabin was chilly at this time of night, or perhaps it only felt so because he was shivering from head to toe. Water dripped down the back of his neck as he donned a dark t-shirt and thick wool socks.
Normally, this process relaxed him. He had precious few civilian clothes, and exchanging his armored vest for soft cotton was part of the process that soothed his mind, easing him down from fight mode and reminding him that he was allowed to rest without looking over his shoulder.
This time, it didn’t help.
Tenzō paced his house, wandering from one corner to another and back again. He walked into his study, skimming the titles on his bookshelves, then staring down at the half-completed project on his woodworking desk, the chips and shavings that dusted the surface like a pleasant snow. He reached out to touch the wood, but the pads of his fingers never reached the grain. He swiftly turned on his heel, walking back the way he came.
On his next pass, he managed to pick up a chisel and run his thumb over the end. It needed sharpening. He should do that. Tenzō set it back down and paced again.
On his fifth circuit he managed to sit down for an entire ten seconds, hands rigid against his thighs, before the jittery ache to move was too strong and he was sent walking once more.
His feet padded softly against the smooth flooring, and the occasional drip of water from his hair fell against it only to be soaked in by his socks on his next pass across the room.
The unrestful cycle might have continued indefinitely if not for a strange noise that reached Tenzō as he passed a window. Perhaps it wasn’t a noise at all, but rather vibrations from the glass, or the earth itself. Tenzō could hardly be certain he had noticed anything at all, but the hairs on his arms raised with alarm and every muscle tensed, his hand flying to the kunai in the holster on his right thigh. Funny. He didn’t even remember attaching it, normally didn’t wear it in his civilian clothes, but it was unquestionably there now, the cool metal of the handle meeting his fingers as he reached down. It was soothing, reassuring. Unlike whatever had caught Tenzō’s attention.
He felt it again, the noise or movement, or perhaps a figment of his paranoia. It didn’t matter what. Tenzō’s body was moving on its own now, his thumb catching on the clasp that held the window shut and sliding it open as silently as possible. He wouldn’t use the door. They would be expecting that. Whoever “they” were.
Slipping out the window with all the stealth of the feline for which his mask was painted, Tenzō sniffed the forest air. It was humid but cool, light. He couldn’t be certain whether the moisture that beaded at his temples was condensation or a cold sweat. The musty smell of wood and decaying leaves greeted him, and for a moment, nothing was amiss. Then he caught another scent, one that he was very familiar with, but was unquestionably out of place in his happy little cottage home.
The metallic tang of blood.
Tenzō raised his kunai just as the first attack came. The ring of metal clashing with metal reached his ears before his brain had time to process what he was seeing. Tenzō thrust back blindly, securing his foothold by sliding his heel back until it met the side of the house. It wasn’t fantastic to be cornered, but he would rather have a wall at his back than an assailant, and he had no idea how many people there were. He could only focus on the person before him, who had jumped back with the force of Tenzō’s block, landing deftly several yards away. Tenzō reset his fighting stance, chakra gathering in his palms as he prepared to launch an attack now that his opponent was on the defense.
It never happened.
As soon as Tenzō’s brain caught up with his eyes, he froze, in a reaction that Kakashi would have scolded him for at any other time. After all, dropping his guard near an enemy was unconscionable, stepping beyond foolish and catapulting straight into criminally negligent.
But Kakashi wouldn’t scold him now.
He knew this, because Kakashi was right in front of him, silent, and holding the kunai that had met Tenzō’s.