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What Binds Us

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

"Inu?” The question seemed too loud in the stillness of the night air, only the chirping of insects and his own harsh breathing breaking the silence. It was a mark of Tenzō's utter alarm that he hadn’t even used an honorific. In fact, it was only by virtue of extreme practice and the sight of the familiar dog mask that he refrained from using his captain’s real name.

For several long seconds, Kakashi didn’t move. Tenzō's dark eyes flitted across Kakashi’s body, or what he could discern of it in the darkness. He was still wearing his ANBU uniform, but parts of it had been cleaned. There were no longer crimson streaks on his mask or boots and the wound on his shoulder had clearly been rebandaged, white gauze peeking through the gap in the fabric. His shirt, vest, and pants were the same as before, and were the source of the stench of blood that Tenzō had picked up on, and his right glove was still in tatters. Kakashi’s hair looked cleaner than the last time he had seen him, the spikes bone-white in the moonlight rather than caked in dirt and bits of leaves. Tenzō couldn’t fathom why Kakashi would put on the exact same uniform again if he had taken it off to shower. He also couldn’t fathom why Kakashi was at his house in the middle of the night.

Apparently Kakashi was not suffering any of the same confusion, because he came at Tenzō suddenly and with the same insane speed as he had used to meet Tenzō's kunai. The latter wished he had his arm plates on to block with. He was barely able to raise his kunai in time to keep Kakashi’s from slicing into his collarbone. Tenzō was unclear of the actual reason for the fight, but they were engaged in combat now and his hasty “Wait--” did nothing to halt Kakashi’s attack.

Tenzō thrust forward with his blade but Kakashi didn’t leap back this time, matching Tenzō's pressure to keep them at a deadlock as his free left hand shot towards Tenzō's shoulder. The younger man twisted at the same time as he jammed his leg up. He had been aiming to kick Kakashi’s knee, hopefully collapsing it and restricting Kakashi’s mobility, at least momentarily, but he wasn’t used to fighting essentially barefoot and the motion he had used to dodge the attack sent the ball of his foot higher, into Kakashi’s hip instead. It worked almost as well, moving Kakashi’s center of gravity off balance just enough for Tenzō to ram his shoulder into the inside of the elbow that held Kakashi’s kunai.

Unfortunately, that put the side of his torso to Kakashi, who managed to hook his left arm around Tenzō's upper torso, pulling him sharply back into Kakashi’s body. Kakashi must have dropped his own kunai at some point during the move because Tenzō felt Kakashi’s fingers hook under the bolster of his own kunai, wedging between the metal and Tenzō's own knuckles. Tenzō reinforced his grip, but it seemed that Kakashi wasn’t attempting to pry the metal from his hand. He simply held it with a secure grip, the bare palm of his hand pressing partially into the blade as he halted Tenzō's momentum.

Kakashi paused, like a broken record halting before stuttering on to the next verse. The hard, armored plates of Kakashi’s vest dug into Tenzō's back, the only thing separating their bodies as Kakashi’s forearm slipped higher, up around Tenzō's collarbone and just beneath his throat. There was no impediment to his breathing, but Tenzō's left hand came up to desperately claw at Kakashi’s arm anyway, finding no purchase against the guards of his ANBU uniform. He had already lifted a foot, preparing to kick backwards towards Kakashis’ legs (the steel-plated ANBU boots would make stomping on them barefoot far more disastrous for Tenzō than Kakashi) when he realized Kakashi was so still that he couldn’t have even been breathing.

Tenzō had a full second to contemplate whether escaping was even the right course of action. Kakashi remained immobile at his back. He had no idea whether this was a minor altercation fueled by adrenaline (in which case he would be best to give up and show he wasn’t a threat), if Kakashi had been taken over by a foreign operative (in which case he would be risking his life by doing so), if this was some strange transformation jutsu (Kakashi had yet to make a sound), or if Tenzō himself had been trapped inside a genjutsu (which would become more dangerous every second that it continued).

The entire moment would have been utterly surreal if not for the sharp scent of iron invading his lungs and the damp moisture accumulating in the hollow of Tenzō's throat. It occurred to him then that the sensation wasn’t from sweat or condensation, but rather wet fabric pressed against his bare skin, just above the collar of his thin t-shirt. Kakashi’s sleeve was wet. Tenzō hoped it wasn’t with blood.

He barely had time to also hope that it wasn’t Kakashi’s blood when the man in question suddenly jerked back to life. Only his chest moved, an abnormal, shallow inhalation expanding his ribs. Now Tenzō could feel the buckles of Kakashi’s vest digging into his back, and then a shockingly cool something pressed against his ear. That must have been the edge of the ANBU mask. Kakashi whispered something, barely audible above the racing of Tenzō's pulse.

“Fight,” He hissed. Despite the hoarse, tense tone, and the obscuring effect of both cloth and porcelain, it was unmistakably Kakashi’s voice. That assuaged some fear in Tenzō (perhaps irrationally, as voices could easily be faked), although other worries immediately sprung up in its place.

What the hell do you think I’m doing? Tenzō wanted to demand, but his breath was coming in harsh pants.

“Jutsu?” Tenzō whispered in question, his fingers flexing tightly around his kunai and the guard on Kakashi’s arm. The edge of the metal was biting into his fingers and would slice through skin if he gripped much harder, but Tenzō couldn’t bring himself to let go. Not until he knew whether Kakashi was currently fighting against someone else’s control. He had no way to call reinforcements, so it was entirely up to Tenzō to put an end to whatever this was. Some small part of him recognized the irony that only a few days earlier (though it felt like it had been both hours and weeks) he had been grateful for Kakashi’s presence at his back. The situation had been starkly reversed.

There was a short pause, and Tenzō registered again the strangeness of Kakashi’s breathing, the measured, controlled exhales that would have gently puffed against Tenzō's cheek if not for the masks between them. He suddenly felt nude without his own. He didn’t even have his happuri on, so unprepared had he been caught. Not that preparation would have helped much. Not against Hatake Kakashi.

“Yours.” Kakashi murmured, and for a moment Tenzō thought he must have misheard. It didn’t make any sense with his question, or the situation in general. Tenzō was fairly certain that he didn’t have any jutsu that forced his comrades to attack him, and he figured he would have found out about it long ago if Hashirama had. Just as Tenzō was about to ask what the ever-loving hell that meant, Kakashi abruptly let go, his arms disappearing just before something hit Tenzō squarely between the shoulder blades, pushing him forward until he had to catch himself with a palm on the forest floor to keep from face-planting. He spun around quickly, crouching in readiness to spring, chakra slipping down to his feet so he could hold his ground against any attack that came next. But none came.

Kakashi had retreated a few steps again, body poised for action but unmoving. The cold, static expression of the ANBU mask stared back at Tenzō, black holes where Kakashi’s eyes should have been, obscured by the jutsu that protected all Konoha ANBU from revealing recognizable dojutsu. Somehow, Kakashi was far more unnerving now than when he was covered in blood with his hand punched through someone’s chest. At least then, Tenzō knew where he stood. Now, the hard mask gave him no clues.

Taking a moment to catch his breath, though keeping his eyes fixed unblinkingly on Kakashi for signs of a further attack, Tenzō analyzed the situation. Now that he looked more closely, and that his eyes had better adjusted to the moonlight, he saw that Kakashi’s entire uniform was damp, along with his hair, as if he had simply jumped into a lake fully clothed and then run through the woods for a mile. Perhaps he had. There was tension in every line of his body, muscles held taut as cords on a suspension bridge. But it was a posture that Tenzō had seen many times before, the one that Kakashi adopted before he started training. It was one ready to fend off an attack, but not to initiate one. Preparing himself, but not preparing to kill. Tenzō's brows furrowed as he kept his kunai at the ready, arms braced defensively in front of him.

‘Jutsu?’ ‘Yours.’

“You…” Tenzō paused, half-expecting the word to set Kakashi off into another attack, but his captain remained still. Tenzō could feel Kakashi’s eyes on him, even if he couldn’t see them. He licked his lips nervously, tasting the salty sweat that had beaded on them. His heart was still pounding, but he was starting to think he had slightly misinterpreted the situation. “You want to spar?”

Kakashi cocked his head to the side, and Tenzō could almost imagine the dry “you’re stating the obvious” look that Kakashi would be throwing in his direction. That simple motion released all of the floodgates on Tenzō's anger, but it was welcome rather than the fear that had motivated him only seconds before. “You attacked me, in my home, with no warning! You could have--”

This time, Tenzō was ready for it, and he was able to use a quick substitution jutsu just before Kakashi’s hands would have connected with his body. He appeared on the limb of a tree a few yards behind Kakashi, who whipped around to face him. Another impassioned argument was on the tip of Tenzō's tongue, but there was something desperate in Kakashi’s posture--in his haphazard appearance, his single syllable responses, the fact that he had tracked Tenzō down specifically when he hadn’t even thought Kakashi knew where he lived--that caught the words in Tenzō's throat. He sucked a breath in through his teeth and gave a wordless grunt of frustration. He flung the kunai still in his grip to the forest floor, embedding it in the dirt just beside Kakashi’s.

“No weapons.” Tenzō demanded sternly. He waited, refusing to move until Kakashi finally gave a small, nearly imperceptible nod of his head. It was more of a twitch than anything, but it showed cognitive awareness. Tenzō hoped it did, at least. “You want me to use mokuton?” He verified, a bit more hesitantly, because he still couldn’t figure out what exactly was going through Kakashi’s thick head but he was very aware that this was both his superior and someone who could kill him with an unfortunately small amount of effort, particularly if he began to employ any of the ninjutsu for which he was famous.

Another nod and Tenzō was left with a feeling that he quite often had around Kakashi: that he had no clue what was happening, but that it also didn’t matter. He trusted Kakashi, for some possibly insane reason, even in this state. Tenzō knew he would comply, even though he wasn’t certain if he could count on Kakashi having enough frame of mind to completely refrain from using his own jutsu at this point.

He didn’t even know if Kakashi had his sharingan bared, and if he did, that was just a recipe for disaster. For Tenzō, in any case. He already knew he couldn’t take Kakashi in hand-to-hand combat (although their frequent training together had greatly improved his skill since joining Team Kensho), but with the sharingan, Tenzō could be dead before he even blinked. The sharingan would make this less of a spar and more of a massacre.

“Take off your mask, please.”

Tenzō half-expected Kakashi to ignore his request, to simply charge at him once more with all the single-mindedness of a bulldog, but he didn’t. A few charged seconds ticked by, and then Kakashi slowly raised his hand until it hovered just above the visage of the hound. He paused for a heartbeat before closing his grip and pulling the porcelain away, tossing it unceremoniously on the thick roots of the white oak beside him.

Only one eye stared back at him. Tenzō's breath escaped in a soft sigh of relief at the familiar sight of the eyepatch. The Konoha hitai-ate didn’t fit well beneath the ANBU mask so Kakashi had worn an eyepatch under it for as long as Tenzō had known him, and probably long before. Tenzō had seen Kakashi with his ANBU mask off more than any of the other operatives, mostly because Kakashi took no great pains to hide his identity. It was well-known that the Man of a Thousand Jutsus was in the Bingo Book of every great nation and yet hadn’t been on the active duty roster since before the last war. Combined with the silver hair and the utterly unique jutsus that Kakashi employed, anyone who worked with Kakashi for a full mission would easily guess his identity.

Tenzō had never seen beneath Kakashi’s secondary mask, the cloth one that crossed his cheeks and rested on the smooth bridge of his nose, but that was fine. He may have been curious about Kakashi’s true face, may have wondered, late at night, what his captain would look like with no masks, not even the external one of nonchalance that he so often wore... but it wasn’t important. Tenzō knew who Kakashi was, mask or no, and nothing else mattered.

Kakashi’s visible eye was fixed on Tenzō, watching him steadily. The gray iris had nearly swallowed Kakashi’s pupil, mere pinpricks even in the low light, and red rimmed his eyelids. Tenzō would have almost thought Kakashi had been crying, if he hadn’t known that Kakashi had gone the last however many days without sleep and was probably suffering the effects of severe exhaustion. The rest of his skin was abnormally pale, almost as light as his shock of hair, and Tenzō thought he could see a thin sheen of sweat coating his skin under the glow of the half-moon.

His own body was fatigued, muscles aching from the strain they had been under for too long. Tenzō could have happily laid in his own bed and fallen asleep at that moment. Now that he understood what was happening, at least to some degree, his irrational fear for his team leader soothed, Tenzō felt all of the fight leaving him. He wanted to curl up on his firm mattress and sleep for a millenia. Or at least until the Hokage called him to action once more.

But Kakashi was waiting.

Tenzō couldn’t disappoint.

Slamming his palms together, Tenzō started the fight without fanfare. Long, smooth roots rose up and attempted to wrap around the ankles of the ANBU’s boots. Kakashi was too quick, leaping into the air and grabbing the trim that lined Tenzō's roof, hoisting himself up with the ease of a gymnast. Luckily, they were in Tenzō's playground, and every tree around them was a weapon. Roots and vines chased Kakashi, forcing him to retreat towards the center of the roof, attempting to guide him towards a foot hole and immobilize him before he could react. It didn’t quite work, and Kakashi’s notorious speed somehow got him in close quarters with Tenzō before the mokuton could catch up.

Jerking back, Tenzō jumped blindly but slightly modified a tree limb to catch his fall just in time. Kakashi followed, dogged in his pursuit, and Tenzō thought some rather choice swear words that he didn’t have time to say aloud. He didn’t have time for his mokuton to catch up with Kakashi, either, and he was forced to block with his body as Kakashi came at him. It didn’t exactly turn out in his favor. Kakashi’s momentum threw them off the tree limb and they both hit the ground about five feet below, one of Kakashi’s knees digging painfully into his abdomen, combining with a flat rock lodged somewhere in his buttock region. Tenzō had managed to save his head, but the wind was knocked out of him with abrupt force. His eyes watered as he tried to recover his bearings. Fortunately, sight wasn’t really necessary in this position.

Grappling had never been Tenzō's favored method of combat. He was actually broader than Kakashi, with wider shoulders and hips, and he had slightly more muscle than there was on Kakashi’s lean frame, despite the scant height difference. But Kakashi had a quicker reaction time and his taijutsu was second only to experts such as Might Guy. Kakashi might have been famous for his ninjutsu, but Tenzō was well aware that every part of Kakashi was a deadly weapon, honed to pristine sharpness.

It was only by grace of a slight unevenness in the ground not allowing Kakashi to secure his hold properly that Tenzō was able to shift his weight enough to flip Kakashi beneath him. Tenzō's legs pressed against Kakashi’s, his knees no doubt forming bruises just beneath the shinobi’s hips, but Tenzō knew that by the time he managed to get a good enough stranglehold on Kakashi’s wrists, the Copy-nin would have already found some way to gain the upperhand. It would be impossible to keep him down for long, and Tenzō had no reason to believe that Kakashi would stop fighting on a count of three. So Tenzō only pressed him to the ground for a brief moment, just long enough to feel Kakashi’s abdominals tense in preparation to twist and throw Tenzō off, before he leapt backwards, hands deftly forming familiar seals even as he propelled himself through the air. By the time Kakashi had risen to his feet strong vines were already wrapped around his ankles and Tenzō was several yards away, concentrating on manipulating more to wrap around Kakashi’s wrists, pulling them apart so that he couldn’t form seals. He still wasn’t convinced that Kakashi wouldn’t use jutsu, if he was pressed to it.

It worked too well. Tenzō was sure there was some trick, that he had been fooled and captured a shadow clone rather than the man himself, because Kakashi seemed to freeze for a moment even as the smooth wood wrapped around his limbs and spread them apart to reduce his ability to gain momentum or purchase. For a few milliseconds, Tenzō could have sworn that he saw Kakashi’s body relax, his movements stilling as if he were allowing Tenzō to capture him. But that didn’t make sense. Nothing about Kakashi read that he was willing to be subdued, and almost before Tenzō could process what he had seen, Kakashi was moving again.

He pulled against his restraints, hands clenching into fists and biceps tensing as he fought to break the wood. Tenzō could feel the creak in the bonds, knew they were close to snapping, and used all of his remaining chakra to reinforce them. He built up more wood around the first ones until Kakashi’s limbs were restrained by multiple layers that wrapped around his body like lace. If he were a normal man, he would barely be able to twitch a finger. Finally Kakashi was breathing heavily, his chest straining against a strong branch that wrapped around his ribs. Kakashi was well and truly caught.

Tenzō kept his hands in the form of a seal, mentally scanning the forest for more chakra, any sign that he hadn’t caught the real Kakashi and that there was another lurking somewhere. He found none. Hesitantly, he formed a thorn on one of the branches wrapped around Kakashi’s wrist and poked him just hard enough to draw blood. Kakashi made a strange noise, a cross between a growl and a whine at the back of his throat, but he didn’t disappear in a poof of smoke. Not a shadow clone, then. Tenzō almost felt bad for stabbing his team leader, but he had really brought it on himself.

Slowly, Tenzō relaxed his guard, taking a step forward to observe Kakashi more closely. His own heart was still beating rapidly in his chest. The fight felt unfinished, as if there was more to come. Kakashi’s muscles were still tensed and he kept flexing against his restraints, moving the maximum that they would allow and testing each bond for a weak point, panting with the effort. He struggled against them until Tenzō was certain he was causing more bruising by restraining Kakashi than he was saving them both by ending the fight.

“Stop struggling.” Tenzō murmured, his tone certain despite the wavering of his breaths. “The fight’s over, Kakashi-senpai.”

Kakashi stilled. Then he tilted his head back and pulled at all of his restraints once more, with so much force that the wood creaked in protest and Tenzō could see tendons extending on the pale skin of Kakashi’s exposed shoulders and the long line of his throat. Tenzō was sure that, if he had been absolutely determined, Kakashi could have broken free at that point. But the man didn’t attempt one-handed seals, didn’t use the thin trail of blood traveling from his wrist to his thumb as the catalyst to summon his ninken. Kakashi wasn’t trying to break free, wasn’t battling his restraints so much as just… aimlessly struggling.

Waging war against himself.

Finally, something must have given, for he collapsed all at once, the fight leaving him as suddenly as a puppet with cut strings.

Tenzō wanted to leap forward, genuinely concerned Kakashi might have lost consciousness, irrational fears spinning through his mind, but the knowledge of who he was facing kept him from advancing at more than a steady pace. Kakashi’s eye had slipped closed, but it opened slowly as Tenzō approached, shifting up to look in the vague direction of Tenzō's face without truly focusing on him. A single drop of blood trickled from his thumb, staining a speck of the wooden strip below a darker hue.

Kakashi’s breathing started to slow, his chest rising and falling steadily. Tenzō was aware that his mokuton was supporting almost all of Kakashi’s bodyweight in a way that couldn’t have been comfortable, putting too much pressure on his captain’s shoulders. He formed another seal and one more branch wound around Kakashi’s waist, keeping him upright and reducing tension on his upper body without granting him freedom. Kakashi made a barely audible noise, a soft grunt, and blinked lethargically.

“If you wanted to tie me up, Tenzō, you only needed to ask.” Kakashi’s voice was muffled, almost slurring, but his eye had started to focus properly again. His pupil, once Tenzō got close enough to see, was a healthy size instead of constricted to a pin-prick. Tenzō wanted to heave a sigh of relief, even as pique and embarrassment ignited in him like a Uchiha katon, spreading through his chest and reaching his cheeks.

“The--you asked me to mokuton!” Tenzō couldn’t quite form coherent sentences through the heat in his face. “You--” He groaned, dropping his head and rubbing at his temples, feeling bare skin there instead of the normal steel. His feet were hurting from fighting without shoes and he would have been convinced this was a dream if not for the persistent ache in his buttocks from where he had fallen on a stone.

A single gray eye watched him with an expression of vague interest, as if Tenzōu were the one acting peculiar. Only the still-red rims of his eyes and dark circles of exhaustion beneath them kept Tenzōu from exploding at the indignity of it all.

“Are you alright, senpai?” Tenzō asked finally, deciding that was the most important of his questions. Whatever Kakashi had been when he arrived was certainly not alright. He had half a mind to call in a unit to evaluate Kakashi for an enemy jutsu, although the urge was mostly out of a petty desire for vengeance at this point, as well as to ensure that Kakashi would be someone else’s nuisance for the rest of the night. But then there would be questions, and the more Tenzō thought about it, the worse his headache became.

When Tenzō glanced back up, Kakashi was looking at him with a calm, relaxed gaze, the corners of his eye crinkling just slightly as if he found all of this mildly amusing. “Mhm.” Kakashi hummed tolerantly, flexing his fingers and wrists as much as he could against his restraints, but no longer with enough strength to bruise.

“Sorry, I’ll…” Tenzō started to raise his hands, about to dissolve the wood back to its natural form, but Kakashi stopped him with a sharp word.

“Wait.”

Tenzō's heart thudded painfully and his senses went on alert again. For at least the fifth time that night, he threw his senses out to the forest around them, trying to find any danger that might be lurking. When this garnered him no information, Tenzō looked back to Kakashi in search of answers. He had barely opened his mouth when Kakashi jerked his head to the side, his eye sliding over to indicate one of his arms. Tenzō followed his gaze. The wound on Kakashi’s shoulder must have reopened, crimson staining the white gauze hastily taped over it. Tenzō had assumed Kakashi had gotten treatment from the medical team already, but evidently not.

“Mind fixing that for me?” Kakashi asked nonchalantly, as if he were commenting on the lovely buds beginning to develop on the nearby wild plum tree rather than asking his kouhai to patch up his wounds while he was… still… tied up?

What the hell, Tenzō decided after a moment, the situation was bizarre enough already. It wasn’t costing him any chakra to keep Kakashi immobilized, and for once, he was just too exhausted to argue.

Taking a step to the side, Tenzō raised his hands to Kakashi’s wounded shoulder. It had already been well scabbed over by the time they arrived back in Konoha, so he figured it wouldn’t take too much to stay the bleeding again. Tenzō pressed his palms firmly to the injury, applying pressure to urge the blood to clot. Kakashi sighed out a deep breath and rotated his wrist, flexing against the bindings once more. Tenzō sent him a sharp glare. “Can you not hurt yourself while I’m healing you, please? It’s counter-productive.” Kakashi’s shoulders twitched as if he were shrugging, but the wood didn’t allow enough movement for the action to be completed. He ceased his struggles, though, his eye slipping closed while Tenzō mentally counted to one hundred.

Kakashi’s breaths were deep and regular now, practically normal. He gave a slight twitch when Tenzō pulled his palms back, but otherwise, it was almost as if he had fallen asleep. He took the opportunity to wipe away the thin trail of blood that his own puncture had caused, using the edge of his shirt. It wasn’t the first or the last time that Tenzō's clothes would be stained with Kakashi’s blood. That small wound had already stopped bleeding, though, so no treatment was needed.

Tenzō stared at his superior for several long moments, using the time to observe everything he normally couldn’t. Kakashi’s eyelashes were long and the same color as his hair, a pale silver that barely cast a shadow across his cheekbone with his eyelid closed. His clothes had mostly dried, although the creases in his elbows and his vest were still damp from whatever liquid Kakashi had submerged himself in. Tenzō hoped it was water. He gently slid his fingers to Kakashi’s wrist, moving against the smooth skin there until he found a pulse point. Strong, steady, even. The skin was red from struggling against the unforgiving wood, and Tenzō was sure Kakashi would have more bruises around his ankles, and possibly elsewhere. He pressed his lips together, a trickle of guilt seeping through him despite the provocation he had clearly been given.

He glanced back to Kakashi’s face and met Kakashi’s barely open eye. Kakashi was watching him consideringly, eye tracing over Tenzō's face.

“Do you want to come inside, senpai?” Tenzō whispered, more gently than he had intended. Kakashi didn’t respond for several seconds, and then gave a very small nod of acquiescence. Tenzō withdrew his hand and formed the sign to unmake the restraints. They sank back into the ground and Kakashi very nearly fell with them. Tenzō managed to catch him from the back, one arm wrapped around Kakashi’s chest, and keep the man from collapsing. Kakashi stumbled against Tenzō for a second, body warm even through the layers of their clothes, and then righted himself. Tenzō didn’t allow Kakashi to attempt to walk alone, taking Kakashi by the wrist and slinging his arm over his shoulder, supporting part of Kakashi’s weight. He had no idea if Kakashi was physically harmed in any way, but he knew well that fatigue could affect you almost as much.

Together, they made it into the house, and Tenzō didn’t even think twice before directing Kakashi to his bed. Sleeping in the field didn’t allow for much personal space, and they had spent at least one cold winter night each curled around Yūgao for warmth. This wasn’t any different.

Kakashi sank onto Tenzō's mattress without a word, curling up on his side and closing his eyes immediately. His breathing deepened as he started to slip into a slumber. Tenzō would have to change his sheets in the morning, he thought as he pulled the covers up over Kakashi’s shoulders before tossing his debris-covered socks in a corner and sliding under the blankets himself. He laid on his back and stared up at his wooden ceiling, hands resting on his stomach. He could feel Kakashi against his upper arm, moving slightly as he breathed.

Well, Tenzō would figure this all out in the morning. All he was certain of was that Kakashi had come to him for a reason. Kakashi didn’t do anything without a reason, even if he rarely explained them. But he would, tomorrow. Tenzō would make certain of it.

Except that by the time Tenzō awoke the next morning, Kakashi was gone, only a bloodstain on the hem of Tenzō's shirt to prove that he had ever been there at all.

Chapter Text

It took Tenzō a good ten minutes of work the next morning to get the blood stain out of his shirt, and that was after a long soak in cold water. He was almost grateful for the task because it gave him time to process his memories with absolute, tangible evidence that they had actually occurred. Otherwise he might have almost thought the entire thing was a crazy, adrenaline-fueled dream.

Kakashi certainly didn’t give him any clues when they were called for their next mission. It wasn’t as though Tenzō had expected Kakashi to mention it; the second he saw Kakashi had snuck out during the night, he recognized that the man intended to play avoidance. That was Kakashi’s favorite method of conflict resolution, presuming violence was out of the equation. His third most common technique was stating the situation with as much blunt force as possible, Tenzō presumed with the intention that the person would be too intimidated, hurt, or pissed off to question him. Then, if the situation allowed, Kakashi would make a hasty escape through the nearest window.

Escape notwithstanding, this last tactic was one that Kakashi was forced to use relatively often as the leader of an ANBU squad. Tenzō wasn’t bothered by it. When you were in the middle of a time critical mission, obeying commands without question could be the difference between life and death, success and failure. The battlefield wasn’t the optimal place to question strategy or rationale, and Tenzō trusted Kakashi enough that he rarely did so even once the mission was complete. A leader’s job was to make decisions that protected their subordinates' lives—not their feelings.

This was a slightly different situation.

If Kakashi had approached Tenzō like a normal, civilized human and requested a spar to wind down after their mission, Tenzō wouldn’t have thought it particularly unusual. He might have been surprised, seeing as Kakashi had never once approached him outside of something strictly related to ANBU, but it was still within the general realm of reason. Reason took a sharp nosedive when Kakashi came to his home and attacked without warning. It was reckless in a way that the Copy-nin normally wasn’t. Not with the lives of his comrades, in any case.

The other strange piece of the puzzle, one that Tenzō turned over and over in his hands because it didn’t really seem to fit within the grander picture, was that Kakashi had wanted to be captured. Kakashi had purposefully hesitated to ensure it. Not only that, but he had remained in his bonds when he could clearly have either found a way out or immediately ordered Tenzō to dissolve them.

Taking all of these factors into account, Tenzō developed a hypothesis:

Kakashi had felt out of control.

Perhaps his normal method of decompression had been unavailable. Maybe he, like Tenzō, had found it difficult to expel the lingering poison of paranoia that had been so necessary to their survival only hours before. It was possible he had only intended to ensure that Tenzō was safe, like a mother bird counting her eggs after returning to the nest, expecting to just check and leave, but Tenzō's swift exit had startled him into an instinctual reaction. Or perhaps he was looking for a fight from the start and figured Tenzō was the safest person to ambush. He wasn’t wrong. Tenzō's jutsu was uniquely suited to subdue without harming the victim. Someone like Might Guy would have had much more difficulty attempting the same thing without breaking limbs or delivering a hefty concussion.

Ultimately, the circumstances that led to Kakashi arriving in Tenzō's neck of the woods were unknown, but the result was clear; Kakashi had wanted to be stopped, and Tenzō had unwittingly obliged. Really, it was a good thing. A verbal warning would have been preferable, but he would rather Kakashi come to him than risk harming someone else.

That was another interesting thing, and the major factor that led Tenzō to conclude that he was alright with the events that had occurred: Kakashi hadn’t harmed him. Sure, Tenzō had a few bruises in strange places. His ass and shoulder ached for the next day due to the roots and rocks he had fallen on during their tumble. But a typical training session would have resulted in just as much discomfort. In fact, at every point where Kakashi’d had opportunity to harm Tenzō, he had ceased motion entirely rather than doing so.

The whole night was another strange observation to add to Tenzō's ever-growing list of Kakashi Oddities, but it wasn’t a dangerous one. If Kakashi didn’t want to explain himself then that was fine. Tenzō wouldn’t press, not unless he saw the need.

After all, Kakashi had never pressed Tenzō.

 

Children made Tenzō uncomfortable. Perhaps it was because he didn’t have any frame of reference for how to treat them. It seemed simple in concept: simplify, be patient, try for honesty but withhold the unnecessary. Things never turned out to be that easy in reality, and every interaction Tenzō could remember having with a child gave him the feeling that he had messed something up horribly.

The incident during his very first mission with Kakashi, roughly three years before officially joining his team, was no different.

Acting like a civilian wasn’t normally difficult for Tenzō. He had plain features and, with only a small transformation jutsu to his eyes, was generally forgettable. It made him an ideal candidate to play the role of a babysitter’s replacement. The chakra drain for his small glamor would be far less than the nearly full-person metamorphosis the rest of his squad would have to undergo, and it would get Tenzō close enough to slip his tracking seeds into the kid’s food without arousing suspicion. It was perfect.

Except that Tenzō was horrible with children.

The little girl didn’t make it any easier. She was a genuine menace, an oni in human form. It wasn’t as though they’d had much preparation going into this (evidenced by the fact that they hadn’t even given him a codename and he’d been forced to come up with the random name ‘Tenzō’ on the spot), but he thought someone still should have warned him about her horrible personality.

The first thing she did was throw a porcelain doll at him, and the situation devolved from there. Tenzō was supposed to spend eight hours with her, but after only twenty minutes he was about ready to tie her to a chair rather than suffer through another temper tantrum that involved flinging copious amounts of moldable clay at him. After that, Tenzō might have told her a story about what horrible things happened to little kids who misbehaved, and he might have changed the transformation jutsu a bit to more closely reflect his normal eyes (he’d heard them described as soulless, dead, and zombie-like, so he figured they could strike fear in the hearts of children), and she might have started crying and screaming that he was going to eat her.

In a desperate bid to reduce the amount of tears and snot she was producing, Tenzō offered to play a game. Any game. (‘Any’ being the keyword that spelled his demise.) After a few minutes of awkward consolation and misdirection, she sniffled and led him to her playroom… where she proceeded to put bows and braids in Tenzō’s hair for the next two hours.

When his fake shift was done and Tenzō wearily left the house, hoping that all of this bullshit had been worth it, he was greeted by Inu who was shaking with laughter. Nonplussed, Tenzō seriously considered whether a Laughing Jutsu existed and looked around for enemy nin. He tensed when Inu leaned close, too close, and slid a small yellow sunflower from some part of Tenzō’s hair. He must have missed it when cleaning up.

“You’re a natural with children, Tenzō.” Inu chuckled. Tenzō flushed, Inu positively cackled, and for the rest of the mission Inu referred to him as Tenzō rather than his actual codename, Hyō.

Tenzō presumed it was just teasing, but when he was finally assigned to Inu’s team years later, the man still referred to him as Tenzō. Tenzō tried to correct him multiple times, to no avail. At the end of their second mission, when Tenzō was tired and exasperated with what he viewed as childish hazing, he asked Kakashi why he wouldn’t just use Tenzo’s real code name.

Kakashi tilted his head and said, as if it were entirely obvious, “You didn’t choose Hyō, did you?” The man turned back to the kunai he had been sharpening and shrugged. “But you chose Tenzō.”

He was still Hyō to the rest of ANBU, but he stopped trying to correct Kakashi.

For the first time in his life, Tenzō had something to call himself when he wasn’t working. He had an identity behind the mask, separate even from the cells of the First Hokage that had defined his purpose in the village for so long.

And that meant far more than Tenzō could ever put into words

 

Kakashi was the catalyst of another defining moment in Tenzō’s life, one that led to his rejection of Root and alignment with the Third Hokage. That moment occurred long before Tenzō had a name of his own, but it was really the beginning of the person that would later come to be “Tenzō”.

By the time he had been old enough to retain memories, he had been old enough to hold a kunai, and that became his primary use in life. He didn’t have any recollection of Orochimaru, luckily, wasn’t sure if he had even technically been “born” yet when the bastard was run out of the Land of Fire. But he had always known that he had been created, an experiment, though he had no idea who first told him or when his young mind started to grasp the true meaning of it.

His earliest memories were of being in a small set of rooms with other children, ranging from his age to quite a bit older, and throwing countless shuriken until he his the target just right. There were too many adults for Tenzō to remember them individually, and he didn’t recall developing a particularly good relationship with any of them. Tenzō was sure someone must have taken care of him when he was a toddler... bathed him, clothed him, fed him, taught him to walk and talk and use the restroom. Perhaps it had never been any single person, but a hodgepodge of shinobi with no emotional stake in Tenzō at all. That was most likely, considering how often his “code” (different than a codename; his code was merely a syllabic designator randomly assigned by whoever had need to refer to him at the moment, never a true alias) had been changed in those early years. He couldn’t remember most of them. The only thing that remained stable through all of his childhood was the burn of the cursed seal on his tongue.

Tenzō had no concept of family beyond what he was able to glean by observing other children his age. That wasn’t much, considering he was very rarely around anyone who might have been considered “normal”. But in the rare times he could, he liked to watch the Academy or the playground, see the parents and teachers interacting with the kids. It was training, he told himself. One day he might need to go undercover, so gaining knowledge was a necessity. That didn’t quite explain the persistent ache in his chest as he watched, but he shoved that deep down where Danzo and the others would never see it, because they were quite clear about the parts of him that they wanted and what could be left behind.

The concept of loyalty had been engraved in him for as long as he could remember, long before the ANBU left their mark on his skin. Before meeting Sarutobi Hiruzen, loyalty had a different meaning. The Will of Fire didn’t exist. Tenzō was merely following orders, doing what he was told because he wasn’t aware that there were other options. He had no specific moral compass that guided his actions.

Oh, he had empathy. Tenzō had never been a cold-hearted killer, nor had he ever taken pleasure in another’s pain. Doing his job rarely bothered him, though. Logic and emotion were two different ideals that had no way to coexist in Tenzō's mind.

The day Tenzō learned about the Will of Fire, the day he started to doubt his role in the village, and the day he first met Hatake Kakashi, all had the same date: the thirteenth of October, and the Fourth Hokage’s funeral.

Every shinobi in the village assembled that afternoon, or so it seemed. It was the biggest gathering of people that Tenzō had ever laid eyes on. It was held on one of the training grounds near the Memorial Stone because no other location in the village was large enough to hold everyone. As it was, several shinobi had taken to the trees to free up more space on the ground for the injured, young, or elderly. Tenzō was perched near the center of a camphor tree, practicing blending in with the wood around him and remaining unseen. He didn’t know why—he was sure most of the shinobi knew he was there. There were ANBU and Root strewn through the crowd, and so many high-level jounin that Tenzō was sure he couldn’t possibly hide from all of them. But he felt safer, less as though his heart were about to burst through his rib cage, like this. So he crouched in his tree, far from the rest of the crowd, and listened.

It was the first funeral Tenzō had ever attended. It looked different than he thought it would.

It wasn’t a funeral for the Yondaime, as Tenzō had expected. Not him alone, at least. While his picture was the only one that stood on the makeshift altar, the photograph of he and his wife framed in dark mahogany, there were ribbons decorating the trees behind it numbering in the hundreds. Yellows, reds, and blues dangled from every branch, forming delicate bows or sturdy knots, turning the somber visage of the forest into a rainbow. It reminded Tenzō exactly of that; the sort of color that bleeds back into the world after a long, harsh storm. But the storm wasn’t the destruction of the Kyuubi. It was the sea of black, the mourner’s garb that filled the clearing as though darkness itself had descended upon the hearts of the villagers, and it wasn’t over.

Most of the ribbons had the names of those who had died written on them with neat, thin strokes. Tenzō didn’t know if each family who had suffered a loss took a turn placing their loved one’s ribbon or if a few hardworking genin had gone through and done each one. It wasn’t as though Tenzō would have been asked to participate, either way.

Some of the ribbons were blank because there were still unidentified corpses left to sort through, and those who had gone missing but weren’t yet determined dead. Tenzō thought that was wishful thinking. It would have been quicker, easier, to simply label them all deceased. It would happen eventually.

Sarutobi Hiruzen slowly made his way to the front of the crowd, moving in a manner seemed far older than the man himself, as if his joints were rusted from disuse. He stood facing the altar for a moment, hands clasped behind his back. His wrinkled face drew into deep lines as he stared at the photograph of the man who had been both his successor and predecessor. Then he turned, took a single step forward, and addressed the crowd.

Silence didn’t fall because there had never been any sound to begin with other than the early fall wind drifting through the trees. Every single shinobi stood in mute solidarity, and though some cried, their tears fell without noise. Tenzō's eyes were dry as he scanned the assembled faces. He had no one to grieve for, after all. He turned his attention back to the reinstated Hokage when he began to speak.

Tenzō had expected a long, overly political spiel about the Yondaime, his service to their village, and how much the Sandaime regretted his loss. He may have never been to a funeral before, but he had heard sermons. Danzo was evidence that politicians were just snakes in disguise, always looking for an opportunity to sink in their fangs, spread their poison, assert their agenda. Tenzō had no reason to think the Sandaime would be any different.

The words weren’t what he expected.

“None of those who gave their lives did so alone. Not on the night of this most recent tragedy, or any other in the history of this village.” Hiruzen’s voice rang clearly, strong even high in the trees as Tenzō was, carried by the same gentle breeze that fluttered the ends of the ribbons in the backdrop. The ebony of the Sandaime’s robes stood starkly against the bright hues. “Nor did they die for naught. Each one of us here are living because of the protection granted us by those we lost.”

All of the Uchihas stood together at the end of the clearing farthest from the Sandaime. As Tenzō watched, one turned to speak to a neighbor. He caught the flash of red and white on the man’s jacket, the only color that broke the sea of black. So much for the unity of the village, Tenzō thought dryly.

“But our lives and our homes are not the only things saved by their sacrifice. Every man, woman, and child, left us with something far more precious than beating hearts and sturdy walls. They have passed onto us their Will of Fire.” Hiruzen raised his right hand to his heart, squeezing it into a fist and tapping, as if there were something in his chest other than a vulnerable organ.

The Will of Fire. Tenzō hadn’t heard that term before. His eyes slipped to the Uchiha crest once more, a fan stoking the flames.

“Our loved ones have fallen, our families broken. As they have been before, and will surely be again.” The conviction in Hiruzen’s words drew Tenzō’s gaze. He remembered then that the Sandaime had lost his wife in the attack, but there were no tears in the man’s eyes. They burned with something for which Tenzō had no name, and they were never still, flitting easily through the crowd. It seemed as though Hiruzen met the eyes of each individual by turn as he spoke, seeing and greeting each of them as humans rather than an amorphous crowd. Physically impossible, but when had that ever stopped a shinobi?

The Sandaime, for a brief moment, flickered his gaze to meet Tenzō's. Brief, but unmistakable. Something heavy formed in the center of Tenzō’s chest, lodged thickly in his throat.

“Death is part of our world, and while we may grieve for those gone, mourn the time with them that we have lost, we should not regret their passing. They have given us a most precious gift: the gift of love. Konoha is more than a village. We are a family. We fight as one, we bleed as one, and we grieve as one. No person left standing here today is truly alone, not while Konoha still lives. We all feel the pain of this loss, but we should not forget that families are not built on blood and name, but on love itself.

“It is a shinobi’s greatest honor to die in the place of that which they cherish most. Every shinobi remembered here…” Hiruzen looked down at the photograph of the Yondaime and his wife, then the ribbons that decorated the trees. He lifted wizened fingers to a glossy yellow curl hanging from a low branch. It bore no inscription. “And those who have not yet been named…”

Tenzō hung onto every word, his pulse loud in his ears. A small, tender smile graced the Sandaime’s features before he turned back to the crowd. “They will live forever in our spirits, and in those that will inherit Konoha’s future. The bonds that connect us are far greater than those formed only by birth. These bonds are created by our choices—and there are no bonds greater, no brothers closer, no children more cherished, than those who stand and fight beside us. Let us honor the fallen by accepting the Will of Fire that they have left for us, and when the day comes that each of us returns to the Earth… it will be with the knowledge that our family lives on.

“Konoha lives on.”

Ribbons fluttered, tears fell, and not a single sound was made. A boy with a long scar across his face, no older than Tenzō, stood alone beneath Tenzō’s tree, using his sleeve to scrub snot from his nose. Tenzō could see him holding his breath to keep from hiccuping, his shoulders shaking as he withheld sobs.

Tenzō wondered why, if they were all family, no one was comforting the boy. He wished he knew how.

Not that he would. He just… wished he knew.

“Anabuki Fude. Anabuki Goro. Chihaya Eisaku.” Sarutobi Hiruzen recited each and every name of those confirmed dead. Tenzō never once saw him consult a list, even though there were well over a hundred names.

To the Sandaime, they were more than names. They were individuals with lives, histories, beloved memories.

He wondered what the Sandaime might have said if Tenzō had perished that day, or if he would have merely been one of the blank ribbons on the trees. He wondered if Hiruzen might remember even the nameless.

Not a shinobi left until the entire list was complete. Tenzō watched a chuunin school teacher step up beside the boy with the scar, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder as he continued to silently sob. It eased something in Tenzō’s chest, letting him breathe again.

A faint rustling drew Tenzō's attention to a branch about six yards from him and a few feet higher. An ANBU was crouched on it, a red and white dog mask covering his features. His chakra had been so hidden that Tenzō hadn’t even noticed when he arrived. All he could see was a shock of silver hair, pale skin between the armored braces, and the vice grip the young man (teenager?) kept on the trunk of the redwood, as if it was the only thing keeping him afloat.

Tenzō stared. After a moment, the mask turned towards him. The eye sockets were empty, black and concealed by a ninjutsu as always, but Tenzō could swear he could feel the boy’s eyes meeting his own. They remained there for seconds that felt like minutes.

No actual acknowledgement was made, verbal or physical, but Tenzō had the unshakeable feeling that he was being seen in a way that he never was. Recognized. Remembered.

The masked face turned to Hiruzen, the ribboned trees. And then the ANBU was gone before Tenzō could say a word.

It would be many years before Tenzō saw that ANBU again and learned his name, but he never forgot. And he sometimes wondered if, perhaps, the ANBU hadn’t either.

Chapter Text

For the next few weeks Tenzō observed his leader more closely than usual, but he failed to isolate a single way in which Kakashi was acting differently. Four months passed just like that, with no discernible change in their interactions other than Tenzō's tendency to stare with slightly more frequency than usual. Behind the safety of the ANBU mask, he was fairly certain no one had noticed. By that time, Tenzō was convinced that it had only been a temporary insanity, never to occur again, and decided that he was perfectly fine with that. He could do without adding more complicated things in his life, even if curiosity sometimes compelled him to reconsider the event late at night, analyzing every aspect of it but finding no more clues towards Kakashi’s motivation than he had before.

If there had been a purpose for the visit, Kakashi made sure to keep it well hidden.

 

Tenzō had only been back home for about an hour when his internal alarm bells went off. Just long enough to eat, shower, apply a wound salve to a small second-degree burn on his bicep. He was taping a piece of gauze over it when he felt the hairs on his arms raise. A bright spot formed in his consciousness, a sensory awareness that had nothing to do with sight or sound.

Someone had triggered a chakra trap.

 

From the very night he built it, Tenzō had protected his house with seals at every possible point of entry, ones that would release a burst of his own Yang chakra if they were broken. It was a small enough amount to be undetectable by the majority of shinobi, but a sensor type or Tenzō himself, who was very attuned to his own chakra due to practice tracking wood clones in the form of seeds, would feel the sudden flare. After Kakashi’s ambush a few months before, Tenzō had increased his security by adding more on the roof and in the trees around the perimeter, including a few area-of-effect trip wires. Some might have considered it overly paranoid, but it had only taken a day to set up and it gave Tenzō peace of mind. It wasn’t that he was trying to keep Kakashi out—rather that Kakashi’s stealthy approach had pointed out some of the flaws in Tenzō’s previous methods of detection. If he hadn’t been amped up at the point, pacing his cabin and paying an inordinate amount of attention to his surroundings, he might have never noticed Kakashi at all.

Tenzō ripped the paper tape with his teeth, quickly smoothing it on his skin to secure the gauze before standing and grabbing a hidden weapons pouch from under the sink. He pulled the kunai from it’s holster, stuffed a few paper tags in his pocket, and decided to leave the shuriken. He was far too intelligent to put them uncovered into the pocket of his sweats, risking an unintentional stab to the thigh, and he didn’t need both of his hands occupied. If he was seriously under attack, ninjutsu would be a better friend to him than a couple of throwing stars.

Exiting the bathroom, socked feet padding silently across the floor and kunai clutched tightly in his grip, Tenzō made his way in the direction of the broken seal. It was to the side of the house, one of the traps in the trees, which made it even more likely it was a human rather than a harmless woodland creature. Tenzō had made sure the level of chakra needed to break the seals was at least equivalent to a civilian human, and only very large animals or shinobi summons had that level of chakra. An adult black bear had broken one once, but they weren’t known for climbing trees after reaching full grown.

A small part of Tenzō’s brain reminded him that Kakashi was extremely well-known for tree climbing, but he had never come back after that single, weird night, and Tenzō wasn’t going to discount a fellow shinobi as a threat even if it was Kakashi. He was fairly certain his captain wasn’t a danger to him, but he still remembered the adrenaline that had surged through his veins as he fended off that first, unexpected attack.

Rather like the adrenaline that was trickling into his system now, making his heart rate steadily climb as he drew closer to the source of the disruption.

He formed a wood clone and sent it out the window closest to the broken seal, then swiftly made his way to one on the wall perpendicular to it. He had just slid it open when he heard his own voice.

“—mal person?” The clone asked, exasperated. Tenzō sighed, relief and irritation mixing in equal measure. He straightened his posture and gave up stealth mode to greet the intruder. He rounded the corner and saw Kakashi sitting up in a tree, directly on top of the broken seal. He was still mostly in his ANBU garb but it had less wear and tear on it this time, consistent with what Tenzō had seen when they split up at Konoha’s gates less than an hour before. All except that the armored vest and forearm guards were draped over a nearby limb, revealing the thin black shirt underneath. Nothing was damp, which Tenzō supposed was a good sign.

Kakashi’s sword was also hanging with the guards, his kunai holster in place but the weapon safely secured in the scabbard. Another good sign. He stared straight at Tenzō (or so he presumed, from the direction the mask was tilted), ignoring the wood clone who crossed it’s arms in annoyance. Tenzō had to fight the urge to do the same thing.

“You’re looking to spar again?” Tenzō guessed, placing his bare palm on the clone’s shoulder. He absorbed it into himself, taking back a decent portion of the chakra he had used to create it. The conversion rate wasn’t perfect, but it was much more efficient than the shadow clones that Kakashi favored. As it was destroyed, Tenzō also absorbed it’s memories, the “Why can’t you just knock like a normal person?” that his clone had sighed when it saw Kakashi crouched in the tree.

Leaning forward, Kakashi slinked off the branch and landed lightly on the ground below. His posture seemed relaxed at first, but Tenzō could see the undercurrent of tension in his shoulders, the way his right hand hovered close to his thigh (and therefore his weapon) on instinct. Like a jaguar waiting to pounce.

Kakashi’s silence spoke for itself.

Sighing, Tenzō ran his fingers through still damp hair, wishing he’d had time to dry it thoroughly before coming out. It was early spring and winter hadn’t yet fully released it’s grip on the world. To make it worse, he was only wearing a thin, sleeveless tank top that did little towards conserving body heat. He was going to blame Kakashi if he got a cold from this. “Can I put on a sweater and shoes, at least?”

Kakashi tilted his head to the side. Tenzō couldn’t tell what that was supposed to mean, but he was cold enough that he decided to take a chance. He slid his foot back, unwilling to turn around entirely, which turned out to be a reasonable precaution. Within an instant, Kakashi appeared only inches away. Tenzō put up his arms instinctually, holding his kunai at the ready, but Kakashi didn’t attack. He stood still for a long moment, then slowly raised his hand. Tenzō froze, but Kakashi merely tapped a gloved finger on the edge of his bandage.

It took a moment for Tenzō to recognize the action as questioning. He considered lying, curious to see if it would make Kakashi back off, but Tenzō had never been very good at deceiving his captain. “It won’t affect fighting.” Tenzō assured. When Kakashi removed his hand but didn’t immediately surge forward, Tenzō had the presence of mind to lower his arms. He tossed his kunai to the ground and pulled the tags from his pocket, dropping them alongside his kunai. If this was just an informal spar, then he didn’t want to risk them accidentally going off in such a vital area as his pants.

Kakashi was still standing close, too close, but he didn’t seem keen on giving Tenzō any space. “Jutsu?”

“Yours.” Kakashi answered with no hesitation. His voice was tight, laced with tension, but strong. It was at least enough to satisfy Tenzō that Kakashi was in his right mind—as much as he ever was, at least.

“No weapons, no sharingan.” Tenzō clarified. He raised his hands, gradually so as not to provoke Kakashi, and gave the man a light shove on each shoulder, urging him backwards until there were a couple feet of space between them. He took a few steps back himself and shifted so that his rear wasn’t facing the house, allowing him greater mobility. Then Tenzō opened his mouth to say “go”, but Kakashi was already advancing towards him.

For the first several minutes of the fight, Kakashi didn’t give Tenzō an opening to form any seals. He was apparently in the mood for taijutsu. Tenzō thought he should have gone to Might Guy if he wanted that sort of battle. He knew Kakashi wasn’t using his sharingan, but even without it he was a force to be reckoned with and Tenzō had to use all of his concentration to keep up with the flurry of blocks and parries. It almost felt like a dance; Kakashi would attack, going for a punch to the gut or aiming a jab at Tenzō’s kidney, and Tenzō would block it by knocking Kakashi’s arm aside with a well-placed palm, or turning his body just enough that Kakashi’s strike skimmed his waist instead of landing fully. He would have a few bruises, but that was practically nothing in the world of shinobi.

It soon became apparent that, just as in their previous spar, Kakashi wasn’t attempting to actually hit Tenzō. He was just keeping the fight going, prolonging the back-and-forth by keeping Tenzō on the defensive. That knowledge made Tenzō grind his teeth and redouble his efforts, a spark of competitive spirit lighting in his chest. He knew Kakashi was the best of the best, but the difference in their skill levels was palpable now. He didn’t want to dance.

He wanted to force Kakashi to fight back.

The first real blow that landed was Tenzō’s, a solid kick to the ribs that he was sure would burst capillaries. There was no telling crunch, which hopefully meant nothing had fractured. Tenzō wouldn’t have expected any real damage, given that he lacked the solid punch of a steel-toed boot (and wasn’t he grateful Kakashi hadn’t gone for any kicks). It had been difficult enough to hit dead on without crushing his own toes that he was actually surprised when he generated enough force to knock Kakashi off-balance.

That was what he thought, at least. One of Kakashi’s feet lifted off the ground and he tilted backwards as though losing his center of gravity. Tenzō realized it was a feint after he had already fallen for it. Kakashi used the backward motion to disguise bending his knees, lowering Tenzō’s guard enough that he could sweep a leg underneath Tenzō’s, impacting just above his ankle and tearing down Tenzō’s only support. That was the problem with kicks—they always left you open. It took the speed and strength of Might Guy to account for that, and Tenzō unfortunately had neither.

Instinct drove the leg Tenzō had kicked with up, using the momentum of the fall to deliver a blow to Kakashi’s collarbone with the ball of his foot. Once again it wasn’t enough to do damage, especially not when Tenzō was also trying to catch himself before he hit the ground prone, but it kept Kakashi from surging forward to pin Tenzō to the ground, a move which would have been enough to end the battle. Tenzō bought himself exactly enough time to call on earth chakra. It would take too much time and concentration to flip through the seals for mokuton, since it required the complex combination of two chakras natures commanded at once, but he could utilize earth and water with almost no conscious effort. A dirt slab shot up from the ground between himself and Kakashi, roughly eight feet high, twelve feet across, and six inches thick. It wasn’t much, but it would hopefully allow him the moment he needed to rise to his feet, to not get caught landing on his ass.

He managed to get his feet under him and was almost stable when Kakashi descended from the sky (should have made it higher) and slammed Tenzō into the earthen wall, knocking the air from him. Kakashi pinned him with one hand to Tenzō’s right wrist and the other to his forearm, thighs surging forward to keep Tenzō from kicking out.

Damn.

Tenzō had lost.

Their chests touched as both caught their breath. Tenzō expected Kakashi to back off, to call the fight now that he had clearly won, but he stilled. Tenzō could feel his body heat through the layers of their clothes, a warmth that begged him to move closer even though he was the farthest thing from cold right now. Kakashi’s hands squeezed briefly, grip tightening almost to the point of pain.

“You can do better than that.” Kakashi drawled. His tone was even, not mocking or encouraging but rather a simple statement of fact. Tenzō’s face was already flushed from the exertion, but he felt it extend to his neck and ears as his lips tugged down into a scowl. Damn if he didn’t have the sudden urge to punch Kakashi, in a way that wasn’t suitable for friendly sparring and likely stepped right over the line into insubordination.

Kakashi took a few steps back. Though the mask was expressionless, the tilt to his head and the readiness in his body was clearly expectant.

He wasn’t satisfied.

Tenzō was fucking tired. They had just gotten back from a week-long mission and he wanted to sleep, had been happily planning on face-planting into his mattress when Kakashi showed up. He hadn’t asked for this in the first place, had merely been pulled along by Kakashi’s unreasonable demands.

But now Tenzō's gut burned with the need to fight back.

A quieter, smaller part of Tenzō recognized that he wanted to prove himself to the person he admired. It was a desire he had been unable to get rid of no matter how hard he tried. He was always doomed to give in to Kakashi’s whims. It had never bothered him more than now, when he could have told Kakashi to shove it but knew with absolute certainty that he wouldn’t.

Fine,” Tenzō growled, pouring all of his frustration into the single syllable, teeth gritting around it and spitting it out like venom. He flipped through the seals to send the earthen wall into the ground and turned back to Kakashi, jaw and fists set in steely determination.

Their fight started back as if it had never stopped. For too long they were engaged in a furious hand-to-hand rush in which Tenzō knew he only had to buy time, make enough room to jump back and call forth mokuton before Kakashi could reach him, but Kakashi gave him no opening. Tenzō knew his own stamina was normally higher than Kakashi’s, but he saw no signs that the older man was slowing down. He would have to take a risk, go on the offensive, if he wanted even a hope of winning.

Finally, Tenzō found his window. He got an uppercut to Kakashi’s jaw, just behind the rim of the ANBU mask. It might have had a bit more chakra behind it than Tenzō had meant, born of anger and obstinate resolve, but it worked. It stunned Kakashi for just long enough for Tenzō to escape to the roof of his cabin. Before Kakashi could reach him, thick branches were rising like roots from the ground. Tenzō realized as he called them forth that his timing was just a moment too late, that Kakashi surely had time to get out of the way even without the Body Flicker jutsu—but he didn’t. The Copy-nin froze, his entire body stilling for a millisecond, the single instant necessary for the branches to secure his ankles.

Kakashi was letting him win, that fucking bastard. In his indignation, Tenzō didn’t hold back, wrapping the next branches tightly enough around Kakashi’s torso and arms that he was running the risk of cutting off circulation in certain places.

Kakashi didn’t protest. Tenzō crouched on the decorative trim of his roof, cautiously observing as Kakashi tested his bonds. He could hear Kakashi breathe heavily as he struggled against them. But once more, he made no attempt at escape other than pulling at the wooden restraints with enough power to bruise himself.

Tenzō watched, catching his breath, as Kakashi fought against nothing more than himself.

A drop of sweat slid down Kakashi’s shoulder, sliding over the growing red rouge of a forming bruise and illuminated by the plentiful light of a full moon. His muscles were tense in every way imaginable, nearly trembling with whatever effort he was putting himself through. The shape of his body cut a strong line of gray against the dark shadows of the trees. His skin nearly matched his hair, pale as the canine mask, other than the growing marks that pulled blood to the surface like a tender blush.

“Inu.” Tenzō hadn’t meant to speak so quietly, and he had surely meant to say more than one word, but the instant the syllable left his lips, Kakashi stiffened. For a moment, the only sounds were of their harsh breathing. Then, as if Tenzō’s voice had been the sign he was looking for to lay down the sword of the internal battle he was waging, he gave up, sagging like a wilting flower against his bonds. Tenzō waited for a few heartbeats before slipping from his perch to land lightly on the ground.

He brought up his hands to do the release of his jutsu, prepared to catch Kakashi in case he couldn’t stand, but again he was cut off before he could form the seals.

“My jaw hurts.” Kakashi’s low but clear voice made Tenzō freeze.

He blinked. “Ah. I didn’t cause any damage, did I?”

Kakashi twitched, his head tilting up, allowing him to more directly at Tenzō. “Check.” Despite the lack of a ‘please’, it was more of an insouciant request than a command.

This also seemed like something that could have been done after releasing Kakashi, but Tenzō was really beyond caring at this point. His anger was slowly slipping away along with his adrenaline, replaced with a bone-deep weariness that made him want to just curl up on the bare ground if it meant he could sleep. He stepped closer and brought up his hands, gently threading his fingers into Kakashi’s hair (softer than he expected) and finding the thin leather band that kept the ANBU mask attached. He slid two fingers underneath and pulled up, revealing Kakashi’s normal mask and eyepatch, only a scant quarter of his face visible.

For a crazy second, Tenzō considered saying that he needed to remove Kakashi’s second mask to properly assess the damage, but it was only a fleeting thought that he quickly pushed aside. He hung the ANBU facade on a nearby branch and turned back to Kakashi, who watched him with a strangely mild expression. Tenzō swallowed, his throat tight as he probed the curve of Kakashi’s jaw with his fingers. It was a bit hard to tell with the fabric covering it, but the way Kakashi exhaled when Tenzō prodded one particular spot told him he was looking in the right place. The slight knot forming there was an indication, too.

“Not dislocated or broken. I’d offer you something cold to put on it, but then you might as well just take an ice bath.” Tenzō mused. It wasn’t much worse than the other bruises that were already forming on Kakashi’s person. He withdrew his hand and contemplated his captain, who seemed to be perfectly content still bound by the mokuton.

Tenzō didn’t normally question his superiors (not directly, anyway), and after the initial learning curve, Tenzō had learned to trust Kakashi’s decisions. But, at least this time, he was willing to risk a reprimand to say what was really on his mind, what had been bothering him from the moment Kakashi had uttered the phrase “You can do better than that.”

“If you’re testing me, Kakashi-senpai, I would prefer you were upfront about it.” He understood a leader’s need to assess his unit’s strengths and weaknesses, but if that was the case, he didn’t appreciate not being let in on the plan. Despite his irritation, he dissolved the bonds and shifted, ready to support Kakashi, but there was no need.

Kakashi gave a breathy chuckle and rubbed at his collarbone as he leaned against a tree trunk, visible eye curving up into a happy arch. Tenzō doubted it was genuine. “I’m not testing you, Tenzō.” He replied lightly.

Tenzō waited, but no further explanation came. “I also don’t think this is the best method of training my mokuton.” He wondered if Kakashi was truly planning on ignoring the obvious fact that he had let Tenzō capture him, if he was just going to pretend that all ANBU captains ambushed their team members in the middle of the night and challenged them to a fight only to give up part way through. “Not that I’m exactly opposed to giving you a few bruises, but…” He trailed off, eyes lingering on Kakashi’s visible wrist as the man lifted his ANBU mask from the branch where Tenzō had placed it.

“But?” Asked Kakashi, and Tenzō raised his gaze to meet cool gray. Kakashi’s gaze was sober, unreadable, like a thin layer of ice that hid all sight of the waters below.

The thing was, Tenzō wasn’t an idiot. If this wasn’t training or testing (and as much as he knew Hatake Kakashi was a liar, he also knew that he wasn’t in the habit of lying with malicious intent), then it could only be decompression, Kakashi’s method of coping. And it wasn’t the fighting that did it, either. Not fighting Tenzō, at least.

It was only after Kakashi was restrained and harming himself, physically breaking himself down in what he knew wasn’t a way out, that Kakashi seemed to find peace.

Tenzō didn’t get the why or the how, and he was fairly certain it had nothing to do with him at all. He, or rather his jutsu, was just a useful tool. (Like always, since the moment he had been created. Tenzō tried to tamp down on the bitterness that flooded him, because he thought he had long since come to terms with the idea of his place in Konoha.)

If he spun it favorably, perhaps he was someone Kakashi had faith in. Someone he could dare show his vulnerability to without fearing an attack, either physical or emotional. Someone who wouldn’t try to brag that he subdued the Man of a Thousand Jutsu.

Perhaps, in some way, he was someone Kakashi trusted.

Tenzō wanted to be trusted.

“But…” Tenzō turned towards his cabin. A shiver ran through him now that the adrenaline had left and sweat had begun to cool on his skin. His next words felt weighty, like they had the power to shift something more important than Tenzō even knew. It would have been so easy to turn Kakashi away. If only Tenzō were capable of that. “You could let me get a jacket and shoes next time.” He paused at his backdoor, looking over his shoulder to see that Kakashi hadn’t followed him. “And maybe knock instead of breaking my seals. You’re not the one who has to replace them, you know.”

Kakashi’s eye narrowed, flickering between Tenzō’s as if searching for something, perhaps a sign of deception. Tenzō hoped he had read this correctly, gotten his point across.

He was willing to do… whatever this was. The decompression, the games, whatever. If that was what Kakashi needed.

Kakashi’s shoulders fell as he exhaled. He pushed off the tree trunk, slouching in that annoyingly casual manner he preferred to project to the world. “Maa, so many rules. You could make a great bureaucrat someday, you know.” He slipped the ANBU mask back into place, blocking out any information Tenzō might have gleaned from his expression.

“If you keep insulting me like that, you’ll leave with a lot more than bruises next time.” Tenzō warned dryly.

Kakashi hopped up to a tree branch to grab his discarded guards and vest. Holding them, he turned back to Tenzō. Somehow, despite the masks that obscured it, Tenzō had the strong impression that Kakashi winked. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Tenzō.”

Then he was gone in a swirl of leaves.

It was several seconds before Tenzō had the presence of mind to grab his discarded kunai and tags.

He was going to sleep for the next ten hours before contemplating the many ridiculous aspects that made Hatake Kakashi.

Chapter Text

Kakashi came to him twice more after that night. Both times after difficult missions, both times roughly one month apart, and both times he fought until he was bound, and then fought some more.

Fighting against himself.

 

A sharp rap came from Tenzō's kitchen window. He looked up in surprise, tea kettle hovering above the pot. Kakashi, in full ANBU uniform, was leaning against Tenzō’s window sill, carefully not quite touching the area that would set off his alarm seal. Tenzō’s heart gave an unexpected lurch, but he quickly realized that what Kakashi normally came to his house for didn’t make sense. They had been back from their latest mission for several days and it had been a rather routine one, at that. Kakashi gave a jaunty wave and then slipped into hand signals, ones that Tenzō was, unfortunately, extremely familiar with.

'Hokage’s office ASAP. Two-weeks of supplies, leave immediately.'

Tenzō nodded. Kakashi was gone before he even had time to set down the kettle.

It took roughly one minute for Tenzō to dress in full ANBU apparel, then one more before he was out the door. He had a storage scroll prepared, like they all did, so it merely took adding a few additional provisions from his pantry and one extra change of clothes for Tenzō to take to the rooftops, wind rustling through his hair as he raced to Hokage Tower.

Kakashi was already there when he arrived, standing before the Sandaime with his hands folded behind his back in the strict posture that Tenzō only ever saw him adopt when awaiting critical orders. Tenzō stepped up beside him and gave the Hokage a bow before straightening. He expected to have to wait a few more seconds for the rest of their team to arrive, but the Sandaime started speaking immediately.

“Two chuunin are suspected of passing sensitive information to Sunagakure.” Smoke billowed up from his mouth with the words, curling towards the ceiling. His calm tone was belied by the sharp glint in his eyes. “You are both to track Masuda Yua on the solo courier mission she is currently embarking on to the Land of Wind, and assess any risk she may pose.” Hiruzen paused, puffing on his pipe and then releasing his breath in a sigh. “I would prefer she be captured alive and given to Morino Ibiki for interrogation, but should that prove impossible, you may use any means necessary to ensure the security of Konoha.”

“Two chuunin, Hokage-sama?” Kakashi spoke the question that was on Tenzō’s mind.

The Hokage slid two sheets of paper across his desk. Tenzō leaned forward to take them, holding both out for Kakashi to see. His captain slipped a finger behind his mask, no doubt moving the eye patch enough for his sharingan to memorize the contents. Tenzō looked at them himself, scanning the images and basic information on the shinobi in question. “Masuda Yokuto is already being tracked by a Hunter-Nin.”

If Tenzō’d had any doubt about the seriousness of the matter (he didn’t), that would have resolved it. Konoha had precious few Hunter-Nin due to the very low number of deserters. As opposed to a village with multiple regime changes and a history of internal turbulence such as Kirigakure, Konoha had little need for them. The few shinobi who did leave, however, were taken care of quickly and quietly, generally reported as Killed In Action rather than having their treachery made public. Tenzō didn’t know the exact numbers or identities of the Konoha Hunter-Nin (he doubted anyone except the Hokage himself did), but he did know that they would only be sent when guilt was without question. They were assassins in the truest sense of the word.

Masuda Yokuto would be dead within the week, if not the day.

“I am hoping young Yua was involved only unknowingly. Their parents were killed during the Kyuubi attack, but I knew them well. They were loyal shinobi.” The Sandaime paused for a moment before turning a grim stare on the ANBU. “She should be more than an hour past the northern gates. Go with haste.”

Then they were gone, silent as they headed for Konoha’s limits.

There was no need to speak. Yua’s place of residence had been listed on the sheet and they stopped there first, Kakashi breaking in through a window and stealing a small hair comb. Then they set off north.

It was clear why he and Kakashi had been chosen, rather than Kakashi alone or their entire team. Too many people would make them move slowly and decrease their chance for stealth, and the personnel sheet Tenzō had seen listed Yua’s specialty as genjutsu. Kakashi’s sharingan was helpful in countering most visually based genjutsu, but it was far from foolproof, and having a partner to perform a chakra surge to knock someone out of a genjutsu trance could be the difference between life and death. Kakashi and Tenzō were also the strongest trackers in ANBU, with Yūgao and their new medic primarily functioning in combat and support roles. As grateful as Tenzō normally was to have Yūgao at his back, he and Kakashi would be most efficient operating alone.

Kakashi ground to a halt once they were a few minutes out of Konoha proper, pausing on the low branch of a tree. Tenzō came to a stop only one branch ahead, turning back to watch as Kakashi pricked his little finger with a kunai and then pressed it to the wood beneath him. The fine black script of a seal appeared beneath his hand, a small cloud of smoke, and then a mutt with long ears, whiskers, heno-heno-moheji jacket, and Konoha headband popped into existence.

“Hey, Boss. Pakkun’s busy right now.” The dog said, lifting his back paw to scratch at his ear. He tilted his head when he saw Tenzō, audibly sniffing the air between them. His tail wagged a few times. “Oh, you’re the kid!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met.” Tenzō said politely. He was sure he knew most of Kakashi’s pack, but this was either a new addition or one that Kakashi didn’t usually utilize for scent tracking.

“No, but I’ve found you.” The dog replied easily. “You’re th—”

“Guruko,” Kakashi cut him off sharply. He crouched down and held out the hair comb. “If you don’t mind, we have work to do. You can talk later.”

Guruko grumbled, but obediently sniffed the comb. It took about two minutes of circling for Guruko to pick up Yua’s trail, and then they were off once more.

 

 

“My chakra nature is lightning.”

Raindrops hit the ground and leaves of trees outside, barely muffled by the wooden walls Tenzō had hastily constructed around them. Thunder crashed somewhere far too close for comfort.

“Yes.” Tenzō answered when it seemed that Kakashi wasn’t going to continue on his own. Technically he hadn’t known that for certain, as he had seen Kakashi use high level techniques for no less than three different chakra natures, but he had guessed. The level of control needed for Chidori was exceptionally high, and Kakashi had been famous for it at a young enough age that it was most likely his natural type.

“So I can’t have been electrocuted.”

Tenzō closed his eyes and put a palm to his mask, because the alternative was beating some sense into his rather dazed and possibly concussed captain. If he hadn’t known Kakashi was suffering some sort of mental effects from the charge (or the fall from the tree directly after), he would have seriously reconsidered his respect for the man.

“If our situations were reversed, you would never let me live down saying that.” Tenzō resumed rummaging through the pack he’d summoned from his storage scroll, finally finding a hand crank lantern. He turned the dial several times and set it in the corner of the tiny hut, nearly hitting his head on the roof as he tried to straighten. His low chakra levels (sealing a living person into a scroll took a lot more energy than a corpse or inanimate provisions) combined with his desire to not get his captain struck by lightning immediately after suffering a jutsu to that effect had led to him making a much more cramped shelter than he normally chose.

The faint blue light of the lantern illuminated Kakashi where he lay on the floor on top of the blanket Tenzō had spread. He had taken his ANBU mask and sword off of his own volition, which didn’t speak well to his current physical or mental states. Tenzō was surprised he had even managed it, given how severely his entire body was trembling.

“Maa, but you’re nicer than me.” Kakashi tried to shift but was unsuccessful at coordinating his limbs.

Shuffling closer, Tenzō reached for Kakashi’s wrist to take his pulse. The leather of both their gloves didn’t make it easy, forcing him to press firmly to feel the beat. A bit elevated, but Tenzō didn’t think it was at tachycardic levels. Kakashi moved as if to sit up and Tenzō pushed roughly on his shoulder, forcing him back to the floor.

“Ouch.” Kakashi winced as his head hit the ground, not far from the bump already forming from his ten-foot fall. “I take it back. You’re a menace, Tenzō.”

“Stop moving, senpai. You’ll stress yourself.” Tenzō chastised, shuffling on his knees back down towards Kakashi’s feet so he could begin removing one of Kakashi’s boots.

Kakashi muttered something unintelligible but almost certainly recalcitrant. “I’m fine.” He raised his voice to argue, attempting to retract his leg from Tenzō's grip.

“If that had been a direct strike, you’d be dead.”

“So we agree that it wasn’t and I’m fine?”

“We agree that you’ll lay down, without complaining, while I check for burns and nerve damage.” Tenzō was fairly certain the lightning had taken a path up from the sole of Kakashi’s left boot and through his arm, so he would need to check that entire side for injury. If the shock had done any nerve damage then Kakashi might not even be able to feel a burn. Tenzō'd had to half-carry him inside the tiny hut, but hopefully that was due to acute muscle cramping and the shaking of his limbs rather than a deeper seated issue.

The black cloth mask was still covering Kakashi’s lower face, but Tenzō could see the slight twitch of movement in his jaw when he opened his mouth to speak again, his shoulders trying to rise once more. “Kakashi-senpai.” Tenzō leaned forward, placing a gloved palm squarely on Kakashi’s chest and keeping him pinned to the ground, eyes narrowing in annoyance and tone stern. “I will tie you down if you don’t lay still.”

Kakashi’s visible eye widened and his breath caught, a reaction that Tenzō was rather used to seeing when he utilized his patented Scary Face™ (though he dimly recognized he was still wearing his own ANBU mask), so he had already ignored it and started to turn back to Kakashi’s boots when a single word startled him into stillness.

“Yes.”

The sound of rain filled the silence as Tenzō tried to make sense of that. He tilted his head back to see Kakashi, observing as much as he could in the eerie lighting. Kakashi’s eye was still wide and it darted away from Tenzō's, to the hastily constructed wooden wall and back again. His body heat was stifling under Tenzō's hands.

“I mean, the chances of—”

Weighing his options in his mind, Tenzō quickly found that he didn’t have to think about it too hard.

“Ok.” He breathed, interrupting whatever bullshit deflection Kakashi had been part way through. His eye snapped back up to Tenzō's.

“Ok?” He repeated in a croak.

“Just tell me if you—need, uh, space.” Tenzō cleared his throat. He wasn’t entirely sure how to phrase it, was certain Kakashi didn’t want to talk about it, and his own face suddenly felt far too hot beneath his mask. But he was pretty comfortable with the idea of actually doing it. He sat back on his heels and brought his hands together. He didn’t think he had misread the situation, but he performed the seals slowly enough that Kakashi had time to correct him, just in case it was all a terrible misunderstanding.

Kakashi watched in silence.

Wooden tendrils formed from the floorboards, pristine and smooth. They moved more languidly than they did when Tenzō was in combat, graceful in the fluid manner they slid up Kakashi’s body to loosely wrap around his ankles and wrists. Kakashi twitched but made no conscious movement to get away, flexing his wrists as much as he could to check his mobility, trembling though he still was. Tenzō allowed him more freedom of movement than when adrenaline had been a major factor, and these branches were thin enough that, even in his current state, Kakashi could break out with little effort.

He wouldn’t. They both knew that.

Kakashi’s breaths came too quickly, and when Tenzō moved back down to his feet he felt the shinobi’s pulse beating swiftly in his ankles. “Relax.” Tenzō muttered, fingers lightly gliding over the wooden restraints and hooking around the collar of his boot. “This shouldn’t hurt.”

Kakashi gave a weak chuckle. “Not my biggest concern at the moment.” He rasped. Tenzō wondered if it was the lingering effects of lightning making his voice hoarse or something else.

“What is?” Tenzō wanted to keep Kakashi talking to ensure he would notice if the man started going into shock (and that wasn’t a pun), but he was unsurprised when Kakashi didn’t answer. Hokage forbid Hatake Kakashi actually volunteer information about himself.

Tenzō didn’t see any signs of burns on the sole of Kakashi’s foot, and running a finger up the bottom made it arch and curl reflexively. A good sign. Kakashi’s toes were long and his feet slender, almost delicately boned. Tenzō slid the boot back on before starting to pull up the hem of Kakashi’s pant leg.

“You’re too tolerant, you know.” Said Kakashi suddenly, gray eye unfocused and aimed at the ceiling.

“I’m really not.” Tenzō snorted. “You’re constantly complaining that I’m a stickler for the rules.”

“You are.” Kakashi agreed with his past self as Tenzō rolled up the black cloth with deft movements, up past Kakashi’s knee. “It’s both. You’re a contradiction in terms.”

Tenzō had never bothered to visualize Kakashi’s legs before, but somehow he was surprised that the hair on them was as silver as the rest, thin and nearly invisible in the dim lighting. Kakashi was muscular, of course, but lean, his legs built for speed rather than strength, though Tenzō knew he had plenty of both. He ran the back of his fingernail up the center of Kakashi’s shin, provoking no visible reaction. “Do you feel that?”

Kakashi hummed an affirmative. He glanced down at Tenzō with a furrowed brow when Tenzō harshly flicked the bone, so he decided that was good enough. “Why do you say I’m tolerant?” Tenzō could only force Kakashi’s pants leg up to mid-thigh before it became tight, too many layers of rolled up fabric to budge any higher.

Kakashi had a few small scars dotting most of his body, plentiful smooth ones a shade lighter than the rest of his skin, likely several years old. There was also a long, thin mark that stood out diagonally on Kakashi’s inner thigh, fresh enough to be light pink. It was a little thick to be a knife, a little thin to be a burn. Perhaps a whip. Tenzō's mind flashed to recreational activities that could cause that and he was suddenly very glad for the mask covering his face. He doubted what he was imagining was the case, since there was only one strike marring the smooth, creamy skin of Kakashi’s thigh, but it didn’t stop the mental images from flooding Tenzō’s thoughts. It didn’t help that he had been chasing away ideas along that same track for the seven months.

“You put up with me.” Kakashi murmured. It was on the tip of Tenzō’s tongue to say that he didn’t really have a choice in that, that Kakashi was his captain and Tenzō would be charged with insubordination otherwise, but Kakashi continued in a low, quiet voice. “Even when you shouldn’t.”

His eye slid down to meet Tenzō's, serious enough that Tenzō paused. There was weight behind the words, and he knew they were no longer discussing electrocution or team missions. Strangely enough, whatever the hell kind of decompression they’d been engaging in lately was more grave a matter to Kakashi than nearly losing his life.

Even more strangely, Tenzō could relate.

He looked down and poked the outside of Kakashi’s thigh. The muscle jumped in response, so he started rolling the pants leg back down. “I’m not the self-sacrificing type, Kakashi-senpai. I have no problem stabbing anyone if I need to, including you.” He sat back on his heels and prodded Kakashi’s hip. “Can you feel that?”

Another nod, this one a bit hesitant, but Tenzō thought that had more to do with their discussion than any lack of sensation. The conversation lulled for a minute while Tenzō worked on finding and opening the zipper of Kakashi’s vest. He ended up straddling Kakashi’s knees to get his hands in the right position, but then the zipper went down easily.

This silence felt heavier than the last, the air thick with potential energy. Tenzō tried to focus on the clinical aspect of the task at hand. He pulled up the hem of Kakashi’s shirt and tugged the waistband of his pants down with a forefinger to expose his left hip. There was a small burn mark there, possibly where the cloth insulating the metal of the armored vest had worn through and allowed it to meet skin during the strike. Tenzō leaned over to grab his medkit, then sat back on Kakashi’s legs while he pulled at the cap of the wound cleanser. “Tell me if this doesn’t hurt.” He said, opening a sterile package of gauze pads.

“Shouldn’t that be the other—way around?” Kakashi’s words stuttered as the alcohol stung at the burn. The line was neat, the tissue a healthy pink color after Tenzō dabbed at it with the gauze. It would be fine.

Kakashi’s breathing was shallow now, and without his shirt obscuring the view, Tenzō could see his abdominals flexing with the occasional, discreet tug at his bonds.

Tenzō wondered if it was actually hot, or if the humidity of the air combined with his own mask just made it feel that way. More likely it was his stupid, traitorous thoughts.

Tenzō wasn’t an idiot, or naive, or a virgin. (Although his personal experiences in sex and romance were admittedly limited.) He had probably never been truly “innocent”, and he sure as hell wasn’t now. He understood that masochism and sadism could be applied to sex, knew that some people got off on being tied up, or being the one doing the tying. Tenzō had never had any interest in that before, especially after hearing the way Anko and some of the others spoke about it.

Now, with his respected captain immobilized underneath him, he could see the appeal.

But he was pretty sure this wasn’t about sex, at least not on Kakashi’s end. Kakashi was a pervert, granted—anyone could see that, and while Tenzō thought part of the public porn reading was a deliberate act to scare people away, he also believed that Kakashi truly had that awful taste in literature.

Yet Kakashi had never made unsolicited advances towards a person, not that Tenzō knew. There weren’t even many rumors circulating about Kakashi’s sex life between the ANBU’s worst gossips, so he doubted Kakashi was known for coming onto his subordinates. The man had never once given a single indication that he was interested in Tenzō sexually, and even now, with Tenzō basically seated on his lap, he couldn’t see any tell-tale signs that Kakashi was sexually aroused. At the least, there was no visible evidence, and Tenzō had a rather good view. Nor had he given any indication of arousal during their other encounters.

Even if Kakashi was a sexual masochist, or submissive, or any of the terms Tenzō had heard thrown around and wasn’t completely certain on the definition of, Tenzō didn’t think that he was the person Kakashi would choose to engage in such activities with. Not only was Tenzō male (he was aware sexuality wasn’t something one could tell by looking at a person, but it certainly wasn’t gay smut that Kakashi lounged around reading) and about as generic in appearance as one could get, he was Kakashi’s subordinate. If Kakashi were going to pursue a relationship (physical or otherwise) with someone, surely it would have been someone on his own level in regards to skill and rank. Tenzō would have been the last person on his list. He had been aware of that from the very start, and never entertained more than the occasional stray thought regarding his captain because of it.

However, the fact that Kakashi had asked to be bound when they hadn’t just come back from a mission (were still very much in the middle of one, in fact), meant that it wasn’t exactly just decompression, either. It broke the comfortable cycle that Tenzō's thoughts had assumed and made him reconsider, with new data, Kakashi’s motivations.

Perhaps it was purely sensory. The smell or feel of wood, the pressure of restraints around his wrists, or the distraction that physical pain might play against the mental variety… perhaps Tenzō had been chosen, as he had initially assumed, purely because his mokuton happened to align with whatever Kakashi was looking for. It could have been general stress relief, or an odd way of combating anxiety, not that Tenzō had ever noticed signs of that in his captain before.

Tenzō trailed his gloved fingers up Kakashi’s left side, analyzing the complex movements of his abdominals to check for any irregularities. Kakashi shivered, a ripple running through his body. Tenzō didn’t check Kakashi’s expression. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to see reflected there.

He wished he wasn’t wearing gloves, so he could feel the warmth of Kakashi’s skin for himself. Embed it into his memory, just once.

Yeah, sensations were important.

As Tenzō pushed Kakashi’s shirt higher to rest on his collarbone, revealing more and more of the body that Kakashi normally kept well-hidden, he mused over another possibility:

Trust.

Perhaps it had nothing to do with sensations at all. Perhaps Tenzō had been chosen for a different reason altogether, and perhaps Kakashi didn’t care about the physical reality of the restraints binding him. Perhaps, it was purely the vulnerability he allowed himself that prompted him to reach some sort of emotional catharsis.

As Kakashi’s chest rose and fell with shallow breaths underneath him, as Tenzō's eyes skimmed his pale torso, the fine network of scars, the narrow line of his waist, the dusky pink nipple, the way Kakashi’s fingers clenched into fists but made no effort to break his bonds… it dawned on Tenzō, truly sank into his consciousness, how much Kakashi was trusting him, even beyond what he had realized before.

Tenzō had purposefully allowed Kakashi relative freedom of movement this time, but Kakashi wasn’t taking it. And the other times, when Tenzō's mokuton was woven around Kakashi like lace, binding him in the exact way that Tenzō wanted? Well, Tenzō could have done just about anything. He could have hurt Kakashi. He could have walked away. Tenzō could have taken down his mask, and Kakashi would not have been able to stop him in time.

There was some sort of mark fanning on Kakashi’s collarbone, but the shirt wouldn’t push high enough for Tenzō to see if it was old or new. His hand wavered as he pulled Kakashi’s shirt down. The air was stifling now, heavy and yet far too thin in Tenzō's lungs. Warmth suffused his skin and bloomed in his chest, and Tenzō was having difficulty concentrating on his task, because it was striking him exactly how much this all meant.

Kakashi trusted him.

Swallowing thickly and hoping it was inaudible, Tenzō shifted on his knees, rising higher and leaning forward so he could pull the strap of Kakashi’s vest to the side. There was another burn there, thin lines of red that branched from where the strap touched his skin and crossed a few inches onto his bicep, fanning out like the leaves of a juniper shrub, fractal and chaotic. They were faint and Tenzō wasn’t sure if they technically even broke the skin or existed just under it. He picked a fresh gauze pad, poured alcohol on it and dabbed the area. Kakashi’s shoulders tensed briefly before consciously relaxing, indicating there was pain in the region.

“Is there a reason you didn’t tell me you were burned?”

Kakashi’s eye crinkled. “Well, you seemed like you were having fun so I didn’t want to interrupt.”

A hot flush spread to Tenzō's ears and across his chest. “Right, because that’s obviously more important than making sure you don’t die from an infection before we get back.” He tossed the gauze with the little pile of discardables and started unwinding the wrap securing Kakashi’s glove. Kakashi’s arms were still shaking, but the tremors seemed to have lessened. Hopefully the last of the lingering effects would be gone by the time the storm passed.

“So you are having fun.” There was no way to tell if Kakashi was joking. His eye was half-lidded, every inch of him projecting a casual air despite being restrained and half-undressed.

Tenzō's eyes narrowed. He was getting more than a little exasperated with the tightness in his chest, the tension he could feel in his body, how hard he had to work to keep his eyes on Kakashi’s face, his assessment purely clinical. The only place their bodies touched were Tenzō's thighs bracketing Kakashi’s, yet he felt as though this was the closest they had ever been.

His voice reverberated in the limited space between them. He was shooting for dry, but he was fairly certain he missed the mark. “Am I enjoying checking my captain for potentially life-threatening injuries because he was foolish enough to get hit by a simple lightning jutsu? Yeah, this is what I dream about.”

So, maybe he was enjoying it. Just a little. He liked seeing Kakashi, normally so aloof, focused on Tenzō as if he was the only thing that existed. He liked how Kakashi rolled his wrists and ankles against the wood in a way that Tenzō now thought was meant to remind him of the sensation rather than fighting the bonds. He liked the way that Kakashi breathed slowly and deliberately, as if he was trying not to show how much he was affected. He liked the way that Kakashi reacted to the pain but never shied away from it.

Most of all, he liked that Kakashi trusted Tenzō.

Kakashi didn’t look aloof now. In the dim light, his pupil was dilated until it nearly swallowed his iris, his skin flushed, and Tenzō was certain there was a blush riding high on Kakashi’s cheekbones.

“What else do you do to me in your dreams?” Kakashi asked, smooth as silk.

Easy, confident, like he flirted with Tenzō everyday.

He didn’t, and it apparently took him a second to remember that. Then Kakashi’s visible reaction to his own words was surprisingly similar to Tenzō’s: they both froze, eyes widening in shock, faces flaming, and Tenzō really didn’t think Kakashi had the right to look that horrified by his own words.

Just as Tenzō opened his mouth—to say what, he hadn’t decided—Kakashi did it for him.

“Maa, you know,” Kakashi’s expression, what little Tenzō could see of it, could be best described as intensely uncomfortable, nervous like he was expecting a kunai in the gut but knew that he absolutely deserved it. “I think I might have a concussion after all.”

Tenzō took a deep breath, holding it for several seconds while he attempted to reign in the murderous intent that suddenly flared like a wildfire. Kakashi was visibly shrinking. If he hadn’t been restrained, Tenzō was sure he would have been backing away with his hands held out like pacifying a wild animal.

“That’s it, no more talking.” Tenzō decided, setting aside the bandage and starting to work unclipping the brace.

“You see, I mea—”

“Kakashi-senpai.” Tenzō growled, frustration tightening his voice and his grip on Kakashi’s arm, blunt fingernails digging into Kakashi’s tricep. “Do you want me to gag you?”

“Ah, well.” Kakashi paused uncertainly. “Do you want an honest answer?”

Tenzō was going to kill Kakashi himself long before their enemy had a chance.

Chapter Text

It had been a long time since Tenzō bothered with precise measurements. In the beginning, before he really knew what he was doing, he had been strict about it: one part oil and one part mineral spirits, then pure oil for the subsequent coats. It had been part of his routine, filling the mug with perfect precision each time. Now, Tenzō understood the density of the wood, the way porous surfaces affected the distribution of the finish, the wear and tear each piece would incur, and he adjusted his recipe for each project. The strength of the tung oil’s scent, the sheen of the liquid, the consistency of the mixture, all gave him clues that he processed without conscious thought to derive a unique, effective formula.

He stirred the finish now with a pine stick, lifting it into the air to watch the oil drip from it in a test of the viscosity. A bead fell back into the mug, causing slow ripples in the pool of liquid.

The only sounds were Tenzō’s slow breathing, the soothing monotony of oil being stirred and poured, and the buzzing of cicadas just outside the walls of his workroom. It was a calm night, belying the convulsing knot of anxiety that had sunk its teeth into Tenzō from his last mission, refusing to let go even though his body was aching and yearning for sleep.

Solo missions were rough.

It was easy to underestimate the peace of mind a team gave, the relaxation possible when he could take guarding in shifts and know, without question, that someone was watching his back. Even Washi’s upbeat attitude, not yet beaten out of him by the harsh reality of ANBU, was preferable to the constant awareness necessary when operating alone. Tenzō would have happily given up his precious solitude to have Kakashi reading in a tree above him and Yūgao’s strong, solid presence keeping an eye on the perimeter. After so long performing almost entirely team missions in ANBU, Tenzō had started to take his team’s solidarity for granted.

Tenzō had seen Yūgao guarding the Sandaime when he went in for his debrief. He wished he could have asked if Kakashi had returned yet, but he knew his limits. The team hadn’t been disbanded, only temporarily separated due to a combination of their medic landing himself on bed rest and their captain being pulled off for some mission well above Tenzō’s pay grade. He would be informed when the whole unit was ready to step back into the field. Hopefully, Tenzō wouldn’t be sent on another assignment before then.

Washi wasn’t the only one suffering from chakra depletion, but Tenzō was confident he would be operational within a day and fully recovered within three. Stealth had been the name of his game for the last few weeks, which had meant very little in the way of chakra expenditure—until one altercation forced Tenzō to use a regeneration jutsu. He was grateful that the cells of the Shodaime provided him with that option, knew that it was the only reason he had made it back to Konoha at all, but if only Orochimaru had done a slightly better job with his genetic splicing experiment. Tenzō’s regeneration required purposeful activation by a jutsu and consumed more chakra in a single minute than he was able to restore in a full day. When combined with his difficulty in mastering mokuton to even a quarter of the effect the Shodaime was rumored to, he was well aware that he was a poor imitation of the original.

It was something Tenzō had long since realized and rarely bothered him anymore. It was only when his mind was as weary as his body that he allowed his thoughts to drift in that direction.

His bones were heavy under his skin, muscles burning, skull throbbing, and fatigue settling into him like a weighted cloak. Chakra depletion was a bitch, but he’d had worse and would again. He just needed to sleep it off. He already would have if not for the irritating buzz in his mind, the unrest that clogged his pores and made him itch to get his hands dirty with either sweat or blood.

He wasn’t in a physical state conducive to the latter. So, woodworking.

The familiar hum of mindless labor was just starting to set in when he felt a chakra signature approaching his house. The intruder wasn’t trying to hide themselves, or weren’t very good at it if they were, but Tenzō went on instant alert. He didn’t have proper weapons in his workroom but a chisel would do the trick, and the potent chemicals on his table could blind a man. He let his hand drift over towards the chisel, pulse thundering in his ears, when he caught sight of the approaching figure. He reluctantly placed the chisel back in its spot and looked back to the sight of Kakashi leaning against the open windowsill.

“Yo.” His eye curved into a smile and he raised a hand in greeting. A hand whose fingers Tenzō could see, for some reason. If Kakashi was in his jounin uniform rather than ANBU then he wasn’t delivering orders.

Tenzō sighed and gestured for Kakashi to come inside. He did, slipping through the window with graceful ease and deftly avoiding the table set just underneath it.

“You have the worst timing, senpai.” Tenzō muttered as he picked the mug back up. He felt as though he needed to sit down, but he already was. Maybe he needed to lay down? Melt into a pile of mush. His thoughts were disconnected in the wandering sort of way that comes with mental exhaustion. “I won’t provide you much of a challenge tonight.”

Kakashi shook his head, slouching against Tenzō’s desk with his hands in his pockets and looking over the assorted tools littering the station. “I got back a few days ago.”

It took Tenzō a dense moment to realize why that was important. “Oh.” So he had already decompressed. Perhaps Kakashi had found someone else to decompress with. The thought tasted sour on his tongue. “Go well?”

“Mhm, but I really missed the free lodging.” Kakashi was probably smiling under the mask. Tenzō figured that running solo was easier for Kakashi than himself, housing aside. His ninken were always available to be summoned, meaning that even without his unit Kakashi was never short on team members to look out while he slept.

Normally, Tenzō wouldn’t have attributed any emotional response to that realization. It was only due to his exhaustion and overall bad mood that he felt a touch bitter his captain wasn’t anywhere near as affected by Tenzō’s absence as Tenzō was his. “Free for you.”

The words were harsher than they should have been, than they would normally be for his superior or really anyone Tenzō respected. He rubbed an eye with the back of his hand and exhaled, ensuring his emotions were fully under control before continuing in a lighter, suitably apologetic tone. “Sorry. Is there something I can do for you, senpai?”

Kakashi shrugged, apparently ignoring his subordinate’s slip-up. Tenzō wasn’t surprised. While Kakashi was strict in the field and there was never a question about orders being followed, he had told Tenzō more than once to call him “Kakashi” whenever his mask wasn’t on, something that Tenzō had rarely had opportunity to do before the ambushes began. Now it was almost as natural as the man’s codename.

He absentmindedly stirred the concoction. The smell was light, a nutty scent similar to walnuts. Pleasant. Or perhaps that was just because he had grown accustomed to it. Satisfied with the mixture, he looked through his brushes for one the right size.

Kakashi leaned in to take a closer look at the figurine waiting to be finished. “A cat?”

Tenzō grunted a wordless agreement, turning the statue where Kakashi could see it. “Yūgao.” He explained as he dipped the brush and ran it over the cat’s facial features, slick shine highlighting the three stripes on the feline’s face. It sat with its tail curled around its body, one paw raised and sharp claws bared. “I’ve been on an animal kick lately.” The evidence of which was spread throughout the various shelves and bookcases of his cabin. He’d have to start disposing of them soon or he’d be overrun.

“Is it yours?” Kakashi asked, tilting his head like a curious dog. Tenzō was suddenly preoccupied by the realization that he hadn’t added any canines to his collection.

“They’re all mine.” He frowned, mind chugging along at the relative pace of a snail.

“No, I mean—” Kakashi waved a hand. “The wood.”

Ah, that made more sense. “No, this is lacewood. Easy to carve and more complex grain patterns than what I make.” He turned the cat around, some of the oil mixture smearing onto his fingers as he did so. Apparently he was more tired than he thought. He should have used beeswax to cover his hands first, but he was normally mindful enough to avoid such mistakes.

“Do you ever use your own?”

“Rarely. I bet you could see mine.” Tenzō glanced towards Kakashi’s hitai-ate where it was slanted over his sharingan. Not that he expected Kakashi to use it, of course, but anything he created would still have at least a small amount of his chakra infused within it. The entire house glowed with it to some degree, mostly faded over the years.

Kakashi hummed, looking around the various statues in the room. Then, to Tenzō’s surprise, he lifted a hand to his face and pushed his hitai-ate into its proper position.

Tenzō’s breath caught when the red glow of the sharingan was revealed. It seemed strange to not know what it looked like after years of working together, but Kakashi always wore his ANBU mask during situations that would actually require its use. Tenzō had seen Uchiha Itachi use his without a mask once, but the cold dread that had accompanied the sight of it then was entirely disparate from what he felt now.

The spinning tomoe didn’t focus on Tenzō, scanning the room instead. That was good, because it allowed Tenzō a moment to stare without being called out. Not that he was foolish enough to think Kakashi didn’t notice, even if he was looking elsewhere. Sometimes it was hard to remember when his own mask wasn’t there to cover the direction of his gaze. He had spent far too long relying on it to obscure his fascination with his captain.

Thinking of it objectively, not much more of Kakashi’s face was revealed than it usually was. His nose, mouth, and chin were still covered by the black fabric that, for all that Tenzō knew, was fused to his skin. But now Tenzō could see the entirety of the scar that ran down through Kakashi’s eyebrow to disappear under his mask. It was thin, obviously made by a kunai or other sharp blade, and age had made it nearly indistinguishable from his skin tone. It must have been there long before they had met, yet it was entirely new to Tenzō. Another piece of the puzzle revealed.

It only took a moment for Kakashi to find what he was looking for. He strolled to the bookcase in the corner nearest the door. Reaching up, his fingers alighted on a piece set on the next to highest shelf, a clear focus point between the books. It was a small vase made out of a dark, heavily grained wood. Contained within it was no water, but a single wooden flower on a crooked stem.

“Dogwood?” Kakashi murmured, glancing up with eyes of both red and gray.

Tenzō wouldn’t have been able to say why if he was asked, but in that moment, Kakashi was the most beautiful thing Tenzō had ever seen; and he didn’t believe his transfixion had anything to do with the power of the sharingan.

It was just Kakashi. Scars and burdens and brilliant mind that saw far more than the man wanted the world to know.

Or perhaps Tenzō just really, really needed some sleep.

He swallowed, turning back to the cat in his hands, praying that the capillaries in his cheeks were too tired to betray him. “It’s one of the first that I made.” He dipped the coarse bristles in the oil once more, spreading it between the cat’s claws and into the nooks of its fur to ensure perfect coverage. His heart beat too fast, the scent of walnuts and wood swirling hazily in his mind, and he could still feel Kakashi’s eyes on him.

“When was that?” In Tenzō’s periphery, he saw Kakashi gently pluck the flower from the vase. He caressed a smooth petal with his thumb, sharingan trained on it as if he were recording it rather than just examining the chakra. Perhaps he was.

It took Tenzō a moment to recall, and then another to remember why. At least Kakashi had no reason to make the connection. Tenzō’s voice was blessedly neutral when he answered. “About five years ago.”

The contrast between the black of Kakashi’s glove, the pale hue of his fingertips, and the dark finish of the wood composed a picture that Tenzō only wished he were talented enough to paint.

There was a second chair in the room, shoved in a corner because it was Tenzō’s first real foray into furniture and it had turned out far more uncomfortable than he’d expected. Kakashi carefully replaced the flower before he pulled the chair out and flipped it around, sitting on it backwards to face Tenzō. He rested his arms on the back of the chair and, for several long moments that seemed to Tenzō to stretch infinitely, merely watched him work. He could see the glow of red in his periphery, feel a heavy gaze upon him that might as well have been a physical touch for the way Tenzō’s stupid, stupid brain was choosing to interpret it. It was all he could do to keep his hands steady.

After a few moments that, to Tenzō, stretched nearly endlessly, Kakashi lowered the hitai-ate back down over his sharingan. He didn’t stand to leave. Instead, he pulled a well-loved copy of Icha Icha from the void, resting his head on his hand to read it, flipping pages occasionally.

But Tenzō could still feel the weight of his stare. Even several minutes later, after he switched out the brush for a rag, he was illogically certain that Kakashi wasn’t reading. He had long thought that Kakashi’s reading material provided cover for his observational habits, much as Tenzō’s mask did his, but he had never before felt as though that covert attention was focused on him.

Gradually, the scent of the oil and the feel of wood in his hands started to do its job. Even Kakashi began to fade into the background, becoming merely a steady presence in the corner of his mind. The knot in Tenzō’s stomach loosened, strings uncoiling as he slipped into the peaceful tranquility that comes from repetition of a familiar task. He massaged the wood for longer than strictly necessary, losing himself in the monotonous labor while each active facet of his brain finished the descent into serenity. Through it all, Kakashi never moved other than to turn the next page.

When Tenzō was satisfied with the first coat of the finish, he set the cat down and started to wipe off the surface of the desk. Kakashi slid Icha Icha into a pouch on his hip and put the chair back in it’s spot, then paused at the bookcase beside it. His attention apparently turned to the tomes themselves while Tenzō rinsed his brush.

“Maa, Tenzō, are these all the books you own?” He questioned, bending forward to scan the titles near the bottom. Tenzō knew what he would see: texts on architecture, biology, native plants of Konoha, fūinjutsu, and even exotic teas throughout the world. A myriad of subjects, but all academic or practical in nature. “Don’t you ever read for pleasure?”

“Those are for pleasure.” At Kakashi’s soft chuckle, a slight smile tugged at Tenzō’s lips. “Not all of us like to publicly advertise our porn collection, Kakashi-senpai.” He replied, tossing the oil-soaked rag into a small bucket of water on the floor beside him. They were known to spontaneously combust; not a fantastic combination with a wooden house.

“Oh? Where do you keep yours, then?”

Tenzō shut the window and flicked the latch. “In my nightstand, of course.”

Kakashi froze, then hurried to follow Tenzō out of the room when he stepped into the hallway. “Wait, really?”

“Check for yourself.” Tenzō waved a careless hand towards his bedroom, then disappeared into the loo and shut the door behind him before he could see if Kakashi was taking the suggestion. He spaced out while brushing his teeth, the white noise of the running tap almost sending him to sleep while standing. He managed to keep it together long enough to relieve his bladder and make the trip to his bedroom, which was made a more difficult task than usual by his socked feet slipping on the hardwood and nearly sending him tumbling. He tried to shuffle with a bit more coordination after that.

Kakashi was sitting on the edge of his bed when he returned, a worn paperback in his hands. “You tricked me.” He accused.

“Not really.” Tenzō couldn’t quite muster the energy to shrug. “There are sex scenes in it.”

“It was written almost a hundred years ago.” He complained, brandishing the book as if Tenzō hadn’t seen the distinctly blasé cover a million times.

Tenzō rested a hand on his dresser to keep his balance while he stripped the socks from his feet. He had to blink away the drowsy moisture that accumulated in his eyes when he held back a yawn. “Funny, the characters don’t seem to have aged any.” His shirt was next, tugged over his head and thrown, along with the footwear, into the laundry hamper beside his wardrobe.

“You should really—uh—” Kakashi trailed off when Tenzō pushed his sweatpants over his hips to pool at his feet. His next few words were too strangled to understand, but Tenzō caught the last part. “—sleep nude?”

“I’d rather keep my boxers on for now, if you don’t mind.” Tenzō blinked when his sweats caught on the rim of the hamper, but he was unwilling to take the four steps necessary to fix them. As mentioned, his green and yellow tartan-patterned shorts stayed on. As he crawled past Kakashi to get to the other side of the bed (not his usual side, but he wasn’t going to argue with a place to sleep or expend the effort to push Kakashi off), he caught sight of the red flush spreading over the upper edge of Kakashi’s mask. Tenzō didn’t see the big deal—they had certainly seen each other with fewer clothes before, since keeping an eye on teammates in enemy territory was more important than some impractical sense of modesty. He tugged at the blanket until Kakashi stood, allowing Tenzō the slack he needed to slip under the covers.

Kakashi hovered awkwardly while Tenzō bunched his pillow into a more appropriate shape. “Right. I’ll—see you.” He paused for another second before taking a step towards the window.

“Kakashi.”

The man in question turned around. Tenzō couldn’t quite discern his expression with his back to the light coming from the hallway, but he heard when Kakashi ceased breathing. Tenzō gestured with his hand, bidding Kakashi closer. Kakashi obeyed, slowly, pausing when he reached the bed once more. Tenzō leaned forward and grabbed the book from his captain’s grip, tossing it onto the top of his nightstand. “Stop trying to steal my things. Also, you can stay if you want.”

There was a pregnant pause, in which Kakashi seemed to be making a momentous decision about what was, to Tenzō, a rather trivial issue. His eyes had started to drift closed by the time Kakashi finally spoke. The tone of his voice brought Tenzō back to some level of alertness.

“What are you offering?” The question was quiet, but serious. Tenzō’s lethargic cognition took a minute to catch up, to connect and evaluate the words in regards to his own nearly forgotten statement. Then his mind started churning in overtime as his heart gave an extra beat.

That hadn’t been what he meant at all. He had just intended it to be a chaste, friendly offer, the same as after the first night he helped Kakashi decompress. But now that the question was out there, now that Kakashi was waiting for an answer and he could feel that same, intense sensation stare on his skin, Tenzō couldn’t seem to force the truth past his throat. Dangerous hope was surging in his chest, although he knew it could come crashing down at any moment. Kakashi’s words hadn’t held a promise, hadn’t indicated whether he wanted to know the terms of the offer to reject it or accept it. And really, in the state of mind Tenzō was in, he was probably misinterpreting the question entirely. A wise man realizes when he’s beyond rational thought.

He was too damn tired for this. Good thing Tenzō’s answer was exactly the same for any of the ways that could have been meant. Whether Kakashi was asking about sex, romance, or just whether Tenzō was suggesting his couch or his bed, none of it could possibly change his response.

“At the moment? Sleep.” Tenzō fell limply back on the mattress. He stared up at the ceiling so he wouldn’t keep peering into the darkness for an expression he couldn’t see. “Later?” The red glow of his sharingan lingered behind Tenzō’s eyelids as he closed them. “Anything.”

For a long, long moment, Kakashi did nothing. After a good thirty seconds, Tenzō started to wonder if he had silently escaped, but if he focused he could still sense Kakashi’s chakra.

Finally, Kakashi walked to the other side of the bed. There was a too-loud rustling of fabric, a weight dipping the edge of the mattress, and when Tenzō managed to gather his courage to turn his head enough to see Kakashi, he was greeted with both eyes. The mask was still up, but his hitai-ate was gone entirely, the hairline where silver met alabaster just barely visible in the low light. Kakashi’s thoughts were impossible to assess, not with the mask covering so much of him, but Tenzō hoped he had some time to figure it out. At least until morning.

He looked back towards the ceiling and closed his eyes. He could feel Kakashi’s arm brush against his, feel the heat radiating from his body, warming the bed much more quickly than Tenzō did on his own. Despite the uncertainty, it was comfortable. It was exactly what he had missed for the last week and a half.

His heart began to slow, exhaustion crept up on him, and within minutes Tenzō was asleep. The last thought he would remember was the dim, seemingly unimportant realization that he had never figured out why Kakashi had come.

 

It was disappointment, but not surprise, that lodged in Tenzō’s throat when he awoke hours later to an empty house.

Chapter Text

Torture was a two-way street.

People who lived peaceful lives never had to consider it, but torture affected the perpetrator nearly as much as the victim. It was a two-person process. Some truly psychotic bastards enjoyed it, but for the majority of people, shinobi or not, it was as damaging to do as it was to take. It required shutting off emotions, purposefully entering an anesthetized state of unfeeling. Once that was started, it was hard to turn it off. Either everything came back in a fucking flood or it never came back at all.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, there was no reason to do it. Not because of some moral compunction against unnecessary harm (Konoha had an entire department for torture and interrogation, after all, even if it was mostly leaned towards the latter), but because it rarely worked. Oh, interrogation worked relatively often. There were ways to break someone down or give them a reasonable incentive to talk. While some of those methods involved questionable acts that inflicted enough humiliation and mental anguish to basically equate to torture, they didn’t necessarily require an actual torturer. Actual, literal, physical torture? Where the only incentive was pain and the vague concept that it might eventually stop? Unless the information could be verified almost instantly, which was rarely the case in the field, there was almost never a benefit to it. Most people would tell you anything you wanted to hear so that you would end it, completely regardless of whether it was the truth or not. That, or they’d simply never give in, emotionally dying long before their bodies did, accepting there was no way out and refusing to have their last act be one of betrayal. So while Tenzō was certain Konoha’s T&I department engaged in some less than savory acts, the actual field operatives rarely had to even consider it as an option. But the rare times that shinobi were forced to torture, always out of desperation… it killed. Anyone with even a shred of empathy would have trouble going through that.

If it meant potentially saving the lives of the ANBU unit they had been sent as emergency backup for, however, no one on Kakashi’s team had a problem with doing what was needed. At least theoretically.

It was their very first mission back as a team, only a few days after Tenzō’s return from his solo assignment, when he learned Kakashi’s torture style. Or one of them.

He really wished he hadn’t.

Kakashi didn’t act viciously. He didn’t use any of the approaches that Tenzō had learned in his training. He didn’t try to build up the man’s ego to get him to talk, or use humiliation to beat him down. He didn’t jeer, or taunt, or claim he would let the guy go if he talked. They didn’t have time for things like sleep deprivation, temperature fluctuations, or starvation. If they had that sort of time, they wouldn’t have been torturing the man at all. It wasn’t as if they set out with the intention, but circumstances changed in the field and adaptability was necessary.

Kakashi told the man what he wanted to know, with all the auditory emotion of an anvil. Tenzō couldn’t see anything behind Kakashi’s ANBU mask, didn’t know what sort of face he was making, but his posture was absolutely relaxed. Not menacing, not gleeful or sadistic, just… loose. Open. Natural.

Tenzō knew better, but the poor bastard didn’t.

Kakashi didn’t want them to watch, had taken it upon himself to do the deed even though both Yūgao and Tenzō had offered. Tenzō would have expected nothing less, but he hadn’t been disingenuous when he suggested himself for the role. He had done it before. It was hell, but it wasn’t a fresh one. Tenzō knew all the ANBU went through basic training in counter-interrogation, even involving hours under the hand of a Yamanaka with jutsu that could mess with your head far more than any physical pain could. But Tenzō had started in Root, and Danzō had a very different idea of education. Tenzō doubted the ANBU’s had been as comprehensive in that department.

Despite whatever experiences he might have had (or partially because of them), as he listened to what was happening behind him, Tenzō couldn’t help but feel some sick sense of relief that he wasn’t the perpetrator this time. It made his gut cramp with shame and his heart pound in his temples almost loud enough to drown out the noises.

 

The smell was nauseating.

 

The rhythm soon became a familiar backdrop:

A low, calm voice asking a question.

Silence.

Scream.

Whimpers.

Question.

Silence.

Scream.

Whimpers.

Question.

 

Tenzō didn’t know how long the process took, only that it had been too long. He didn’t know the man’s motivations for his silence, if it was loyalty or a fear of something worse than Kakashi, but he hadn’t talked under Kakashi’s initial genjutsu and he was stubborn now, even as his cries became nearly incoherent. They didn’t have time for this. The missing ANBU unit had been off the grid for long enough that, if there was any hope of getting to them alive, it would have to be soon.

At some point, Tenzō saw a silver streak whiz past his ear, and he turned to see Yūgao tossing a senbon into a cluster of nerves in the victim’s shoulder. The unexpected, unearned pain ripped terrified cries from his throat. Tenzō didn’t know if Kakashi had signaled her in some way, if she had grown impatient, or if they had a routine established between them (he shuddered to consider the last), but Kakashi acted as though nothing had happened. He repeated his question, and Tenzō knew it wouldn’t take much longer.

Two more senbon and three more screams. Then he broke.

By that time, Tenzō was shivering, cold sweat drying on his skin despite the heat of the summer air. He heard footsteps behind him and turned to face Kakashi. There were no bloodstains on his uniform.

He was sure Kakashi would feel them anyway.

He repeated the information, because Tenzō hadn’t been able to focus on the words between the cries, and they set off in the direction the man had indicated. Tenzō didn’t look back at the body. He hoped the intel was good, knew it would be too late to chase down their scents if they went in the wrong direction now, but his guilt wouldn’t be changed either way. Just like the fact that the victim had been a scumbag who aligned with slave traders didn’t really matter. It would, in the future, when he justified this to his own conscience. But not now. Not when all he could hear were questions and whimpers and screams.

They had to stop at some point for Washi to wretch into the bushes. It was his second time since the torture had started.

Tenzō hoped Washi had gone through the basic training, hoped he recognized the necessity of it and saw how much it had destroyed Kakashi at every step. He hoped it wouldn’t change the medic’s image of their captain. The whispers of “Cold-Blooded Kakashi” and “Friend Killer Kakashi” had reached even Tenzō’s ears, so they certainly had Washi’s.

If Washi believed them, Tenzō might just kill him.

If Tenzō himself had any doubts as to Kakashi’s character (he didn’t), they would have been assuaged that night. Perhaps it would have seemed ironic to a civilian, but he respected his captain then more than ever. He knew what Kakashi had felt, knew he would relive those cries in waking nightmares, and yet he had taken the responsibility without hesitation. Kakashi’s instinct was always to jump between his team and the biggest threat, and this had been no different, even if it hadn’t been a threat to their lives.

Kakashi had said once that he would never allow a comrade to die. Tenzo knew the words hadn’t been meant literally. Kakashi wasn’t prone to fanciful expectations. But the intent was there, and Tenzo didn’t doubt it for a moment.

 

They made it back to Konoha four days later. Tenzō showered, ate, and made sure to don weather-suitable clothes complete with boots. Then he created a temporary table on his roof and started working, small chisel in one hand and a rectangular piece of mahogany in the opposite, while he waited.

It took longer than he thought. Several hours passed while Tenzō carved grooves into the mahogany, shaping it without much conscious thought. The air remained pleasantly warm even after night fell and the moon rose, bathing the clearing and his cabin in a pale glow. Tenzō still waited, listening to the chirping of insects and the shave of sharp metal against wood, until his muscles started to cramp from inactivity and the stars became bright, vivid points of light in the sky.

Tenzō had been certain Kakashi would come.

He hadn’t expected to feel disappointed when he didn’t.

Eventually his chisel started to grow dull and Tenzō was forced to admit that he was wasting time better spent sleeping. He looked up, scanning the forest one last time. His eyes landed on a dark figure almost entirely concealed by shadow.

Relief eased the rigidity in Tenzō’s body as Kakashi stepped into the light. Once again he was wearing his jounin uniform rather than ANBU, the metal of his hitai-ate gleaming under the moon. His hands were shoved in his pockets and his shoulders slouched casually, but Tenzo had been watching him for too many years to not see the tension that lay underneath. He waited. Eventually Kakashi crossed the tree line, landing easily beside Tenzō’s spot on the roof.

Really, he should have known Kakashi would be late.

“Working on Washi?” Kakashi asked, tilting his chin to indicate the figure in Tenzō’s hand. The words were light, but there was a hard edge to Kakashi’s eye and a pressure in the air. Tenzo was unsurprised. He wouldn’t have been waiting if he hadn’t known tonight would be worse than the rest. It was comforting that Kakashi was even verbal. Tenzō smoothed the dust and shavings from the wood, revealing the details. It was rough and matte without the shine of sandpaper and finish, but Kakashi seemed to recognize it when he held it up. The jounin cocked his head, then sat down next to Tenzō and held out a palm for it. The bare skin of their fingers brushed as Tenzō handed it over. “Ah, is this Pakkun? He’ll be thrilled.”

“Will he?” Tenzō hummed, reclining on his hands and crossing his ankles, looking out at the skyline. “I’ll have to fix the vest before he sees it. It’s hard to carve a heno-heno-moheji with a chisel.”

“You’ll have to make some for the rest of the pack. They get jealous easily, you know.”

“I’ll have to see them again to get the details right.” Tenzō kept looking forward, but he paid attention to Kakashi’s form in his periphery as he said the next words. “I’m not sure I’ve even met them all, but they seem to know me.”

He expected Kakashi to deflect, give some bullshit response that meant nothing and then move on, possibly in the method of attack. He didn’t. Kakashi had no visible reaction at first. He sat cross-legged, looking down at the figure of Pakkun with an intensity normally reserved for missing-nin or Icha Icha Paradise. Silence barely had time to descend before Kakashi broke it, sudden and harsh. “Guruko was right. I’ve had them track you. And I’ve been here before.” His fingers clenched tightly around the base of the statue, pale skin stark against the black of his gloves and the rich red of the wood. “That was just the first time you noticed.”

There was no need to ask where “here” was, but Tenzō had never before wished so strongly for Kakashi to remove his mask. Between the dark fabric, slanted hitai-ate, and the shadows from the trees, Tenzō couldn’t make out anything in Kakashi’s expression. All he had to go on was the flat, monotonous tone of Kakashi’s voice.

There were multiple ways to interpret that. Kakashi could have been acting under orders of the Hokage, though Tenzō had accepted long ago that the Sandaime, for some inexplicable reason, trusted him. Kakashi could have been checking on each of his team members, the way that Tenzō had sometimes had the urge to do. Or, he could have been watching Tenzō for even more personal motivations, something specific to Tenzō himself. Honestly, the only part of it that disturbed Tenzō was that it had apparently taken him a while to realize. “Alright.”

“‘Alright’?” Kakashi echoed. There was a metallic note of skepticism in his voice. “You’re not going to ask me why?”

“I can if you want me to, but I wasn’t planning on it.” Kakashi didn’t speak, but Tenzō could hear the question anyway. He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “You haven’t killed me. If you think I need to know, you’ll tell me. If you don’t then I assume you had good reasons.”

Turning his head, Tenzō met Kakashi’s stare. The one eye he could see was trained on him, tense around the edges and brow furrowed.

Just as abruptly as Kakashi’s words had come, they ended. He stood, setting the carving of Pakkun on one of the wooden slates of the roof and then turning towards the clearing behind Tenzō’s cabin. “If you don’t want to have to replace your roof tonight, we should fight on the ground.” He dropped down and Tenzō followed only a second behind, undoing the mokuton that had created his temporary work space. He had barely put twenty feet between them when Kakashi started his attack.

It was taijutsu night again, and Kakashi came at him hard and fast. He was less concerned with dodging this time, taking risks and leaving spots open in order to get in close enough to strike. Tenzō’s body went on autopilot, blocking and reacting quickly enough that his muscles outran his mind. At least until Kakashi managed to slip past his defences and drive a shoulder into Tenzō’s chest. It forced him back, putting enough space between them for Kakashi to attempt a kick to the gut.

By all rights, Tenzō shouldn’t have been able to catch up, didn’t know why he was able to, but somehow he did. He managed to twist his body at the last moment, Kakashi’s boot hitting his hip instead in a strange parallel of their first fight, roles switched. It was still a painful blow, but it allowed him to keep enough momentum to swing his right arm down, hooking Kakashi’s leg and grasping his ankle tightly. The action upset Kakashi’s balance enough that he was unable to gain purchase to yank himself from Tenzō's grip. Tenzō didn’t relent, tugging towards himself and twisting in a motion that forced Kakashi to follow or risk a dislocated hip. Kakashi’s knee collapsed under him and he fell hard on his back, barely managing to keep his head from hitting the ground with an elbow outstretched behind him.

A jump back, a few hand seals, and Kakashi was caught.

Tenzō expected him to struggle and then yield, as had been their easy routine since that very first night.

He didn’t.

“Again,” He growled, hands clenched into fists at his sides. He hadn’t relaxed, muscles still rigid, breathing harsh and heavy in the quiet night.

Tenzō hesitated, but he couldn’t come up with an excuse to object. He dissolved Kakashi’s bonds and, almost immediately, the man was upon him again.

The fight didn’t take as long this time. Kakashi was sloppy, too aggressive, too focused on getting in close to keep up his guard. This time they fell to the ground together, Tenzō’s hands grasping Kakashi’s shoulders and his full body weight propelling them towards the forest floor. They hit hard, but the dirt was soft and the worst damage incurred was when Kakashi’s nails accidentally bit into the skin of Tenzō's wrist.

That time, Tenzō didn’t even have the time to use his mokuton, pinning Kakashi with purely his own body weight before Kakashi was saying “Again.”

His muscles were taut with adrenaline. Tenzō could feel Kakashi’s chest rising and falling against his, too fast, too ragged. He bit his lip, a cold sliver of unease taking up occupancy in the back of his mind.

He hoped that the next fight would do it, that Kakashi would finally give in and admit defeat, would experience whatever catharsis he was trying to find.

 

It didn’t.

Kakashi’s “Again” was hoarse, like rusty metal gears scraping and trying to work after years out in the rain.

“Kakashi-senpai, I—”

He didn’t get to finish.

Again.”

So they did it again. And again. And again.

The sixth time Kakashi’s back hit the ground, Tenzō’s muscles were aching, his knees protesting the constant movement and a few too many bruises littering his person. It was nothing compared to Kakashi. His hitai-ate had started to slide down, baring a thin slice of white skin at his hair line. There were at least a few leaves in his hair from how often they’d tumbled to the dirt or against a tree, sweat beaded in the space beneath his good eye, and he was breathing so quickly that Tenzō was afraid he would pass out for lack of oxygen.

“Again.” He said, the word clear despite the mask and lack of air to propel it forward.

Tenzō didn’t hesitate, the answer falling from his lips more easily than he had expected. “No.”

It took a second for Kakashi to react, like he was having trouble registering the concept behind the response. Their faces were too close together, Tenzō’s hands holding Kakashi’s wrists beside his head and his thighs pressed intimately against Kakashi’s. He could see the dark flecks in Kakashi’s iris, nearly swallowing the pin-prick of his pupil.

“Tenzō,” It was a warning, but Tenzō didn’t know for what. He held his ground, fingers tightening around Kakashi’s.

“No.”

Kakashi’s eye squeezed closed, brow creasing. Tenzō could feel the muscles in his arms flex and strain. “Tenzō,” Kakashi repeated, and this time it sounded like a plea, desperation threading through his voice like cracks in glass.

Tenzō’s throat constricted, his chest tight, a pain like a kunai lodged in his gut. For an instant, he considered letting go, considered giving in, because there was nothing he wouldn’t do for Kakashi.

But that was exactly it.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Kakashi.” Tenzō whispered through numb lips. Kakashi’s eye flew open. Tenzō met his gaze unwaveringly. It seemed as if a storm was brewing in the colors of Kakashi’s eye, grays and blacks and silvers meshing to form a maelstrom of emotion that Tenzō had no hope of deciphering. “I want to help, not punish you.”

The night was humid, sweat building between their bodies from their combined heat, but Tenzō never swayed, even under Kakashi’s glare.

“Let me up,” He murmured, an unpleasant cross between weary and bitter. When Tenzō sat back, Kakashi followed, propping himself up with one hand and running the other through his hair. Tenzō knew there would be red ringing his wrist below the fingerless glove.

It took Tenzō a few more seconds to force his legs to cooperate, standing stiffly and offering Kakashi a hand. He took it but let go the instant he was standing, turning away so that Tenzō couldn’t see his face.

He needed to say something. He didn’t want Kakashi to think Tenzō had betrayed his trust, needed to explain that he would help Kakashi at any time, with anything—so long as it really was helping. That he would gladly be Kakashi’s escape, or distraction, or lover, or anything else—but not a tool that would break him down instead of building him up. That torturing that man wasn’t his fault, but they both knew that and knew that it didn’t matter. Intellectual knowledge can only remove so much of the self-loathing. The rest has to be done gradually, over time, and it never disappears entirely.

They stood there in silence for several long seconds, cicadas chirping while Tenzō tried to find the words. The sky started to lighten into the cool gray of dawn.

Just as Tenzō opened his mouth to speak, a swirl of fluttering leaves took Kakashi’s place.

 

He tried to be patient. He figured Kakashi needed time.

 

He didn’t have time.

Less than two days later, the Sandaime informed the team.

Kakashi had officially left ANBU.

Chapter Text

Tenzō wanted to be patient. He wanted to believe that Kakashi was perfectly fine and had chosen to leave ANBU for purely valid but non-critical reasons. (The Hokage didn’t provide any answers, other than that Kakashi was ‘needed in the village’.) He wanted to get rid of the dark void in his chest, the nauseous anxiety that started to creep into the corners of his mind. He wanted to stop feeling as though the world was caving in and his only escape route had blithely left him behind. He wanted to not care when he realized that the next time he fought, and the next, and perhaps for the rest of his life—it wouldn’t be Kakashi standing by his side.

Worse were the images of Kakashi as he had been the last time Tenzō saw him: the bitter ache in his expression, the desperate manner in which he fought, the repetition of Tenzō's name, as though he were asking to be stitched back together, the flood of his emotions stemmed with a tourniquet even if it resulted in the loss of limbs.

Like he was breaking.

And Tenzō had failed him.

 

Tenzō spent the next two days on his property, primarily on the roof of his cabin, carving absently and oscillating between anger, guilt, trepidation, and an inescapable sensation of loss.

He tried to complete the last layer of the finish for Pakkun’s figurine, but he could never quite gather the gumption to do it, faltering each time as his fingers refused to obey. Nothing else that he worked on was even worth keeping, vague shapes or objects without purpose. There was nothing in him to use, no desire to create, no vision he yearned to reproduce in tactile form. So he worked on nothing, keeping his hands busy while his mind spun in circles and ovals, weaving complex patterns that always ended in the same place.

Two days.

Then, Tenzō decided that Kakashi wasn’t the only one allowed to ambush people.

 

The first place he checked was Kakashi’s apartment in the jounin complex, because although it had been little used during Kakashi’s stay in ANBU, it would obviously be his primary place of residence now that his bunk and locker at the headquarters were emptied. There was evidence that Kakashi had been there. The curtain was drawn and lights turned off, but Tenzō could see the trap seal on the window had been recently reinforced. He felt no chakra from inside.

The memorial stone was his next stop, because anyone who knew Kakashi by more than reputation understood that he spent the majority of his time there, day or night, sleet or hail. Tenzō had never disturbed him there before, and he didn’t have the intention to now, but he wasn’t above melding with a tree and lying in wait on Kakashi’s path back to the village proper.
There were fresh flowers on the memorial, white hyacinth still imbued with life, but no mourners.

In the end, Tenzō finally found Kakashi in the place he had least expected, had only checked on a whim when all other options (including on the Hokage head and in various well-shielded trees in the village) failed: the Hatake estate.

He surveyed it from the highest branches of an old white oak, blending into the wood to obscure his chakra signature. The complex was modest in size. While the Hatakes had been with Konoha since its founding, they had never been a large clan, and it seemed as though Kakashi had sold all of the land other than that directly surrounding the main house. The sliding rice-paper doors, wood flooring, and rock garden spoke to a traditional style. Tenzō could appreciate the simple elegance of the architecture, but his interest lay within. A single light shone inside the house, casting rectangular shadows upon the lawn.

The first sign of movement occurred just after Tenzō parted from the tree, too late to hide himself properly. Pakkun walked across a high stone fence that surrounded the property, blocking it from prying eyes—civilian ones, at least. His head quickly turned to Tenzō, alerted by either sight or sound, wariness projected in his wrinkled face. Tenzō landed lightly upon the stone wall several yards away, crouching to Pakkun’s level and raising his palms in a universal gesture of peace. Out of his ANBU uniform, he had no idea if the dog would recognize him from sight alone, and he had seen first hand the sort of damage Kakashi’s hounds could inflict.

“Pakkun,” he whispered, as quietly as possible. Pakkun’s ears pricked and he cocked his head to the side in a gesture eerily reminiscent of his master. “It’s Tenzō.”

Pakkun peered at him, taking a few steps forward to catch Tenzō's scent. He sniffed noisily, then sat on his haunches. His tail gave a single, satisfied wag. “Hey, kid. You got a message for the Boss?”

“Sort of.” Tenzō hesitated. He hadn’t expected to find Kakashi with his ninken, though now that he thought about it, it made sense that they would live on the Hatake estate when they weren’t summoned. They seemed to wear their vests and hitai-ate full time, meaning they truly considered themselves aligned with the village rather than wild creatures who had formed an unwilling blood pact with one man. Combined with Hatake Sakumo’s reputation as the ‘White Fang’, the dogs were likely a family tradition. Tenzō just hadn’t expected to have to convince an entire pack of canines before even reaching the man himself. “Could I—”

Pakkun blinked big, watery eyes, and raised a paw to interrupt. “As long as you don’t kill or kidnap him, you can do what you want, kid. He probably deserves it. He’s on the grounds to the west.” Pakkun turned and hopped down, pattering back into the house before Tenzō could do more than whisper his thanks. Hopefully, he was heading to inform the rest of the pack not to bite Tenzō's head off.

Taking the same path as Pakkun, as he was certain it was free of chakra traps, Tenzō dropped to the ground and made his way across the lawn. He jumped to grab a hold of the trim and climbed to the roof, peering over the decorative summit to the lawn below.

Kakashi stood on the wooden porch that surrounded the house, facing the rock garden but staring unseeingly into the forest that lay far beyond. He wore the long-sleeved, masked shirt and pants of his jounin uniform, flak jacket gone. The grid of light emanating from behind the paper doors cast shadows upon his frame, a warm tint that breathed life into the static image. He stood with his hands in his pockets, shoulders loose, without a hint of the tension that seemed to follow his every waking moment.

Kakashi was beautiful.

It was the thousandth time Tenzō had thought those exact words, and yet they never lost their meaning.

He looked content, somehow, even turned with his back to Tenzō. He tilted his face to the moon, and Tenzō saw his chest rise in a deep, slow breath, as if he were taking in fresh air for the first time in years. Like he no longer carried the weight of Konoha on his shoulders.

Good. Hopefully that meant Kakashi wouldn’t kill him.

Tenzō flared his chakra just before diving from his perch, giving Kakashi exactly enough time to turn and cross his arms to block Tenzō’s attack. Their forearms clashed, bones jarring with the force of it, and Tenzō could barely make out Kakashi’s widened eye in the dark.

“Tenzō—” Kakashi tried to start, surprise rather than alarm coloring his tone, but Tenzō gave him no chance to continue. He brought up a knee, forcing Kakashi to jump back before it slammed into his gut. Tenzō rushed forward again immediately, grim determination in every move.

“Look—” Kakashi huffed, losing ground as he skidded backwards, attempting to put space between them to allow for words. Tenzō swallowed that space with his body, aiming a punch for Kakashi’s jaw, which was absolutely a stupid move. Aiming for the face was almost always a bad idea since the person, by very nature of the attack, would always see it coming. The lower body and extremities were harder to protect and took longer to react, making them easy targets.

Then again, Tenzō wasn’t looking to win.

Kakashi managed to grasp Tenzō’s fist, tugging his arm at a diagonal, exposing Tenzō’s back so his other hand could land between Tenzō’s shoulder blades. He thrust forward with his palm in the same motion as he twisted Tenzō's arm, forcing Tenzō against a tree, hand pinned at the small of his back and chest pressing painfully against the rough bark. Tenzō scraped his cheek on the wood and paused the struggle for a moment while he caught his breath.

The knowledge that he wouldn’t be the one coming out on top this time, that he was ultimately fighting a losing battle—it did nothing to cease the trickle of adrenaline running down Tenzō's spine, sinking tendrils into his heart and pumping the urge to fight into every atom of his being. It didn’t feel like a spar, didn’t feel like any of the times he and Kakashi had done this very same dance with the lead reversed. Perhaps this was how Kakashi had felt all along, his body screaming at him to win while his mind anticipated, even welcomed, defeat.

But the battle wasn’t over. Not yet.

Tenzō reared backwards, pushing from the trunk and jamming the elbow of his free arm into Kakashi’s abdomen. It had to hurt, but despite a grunt of pain, Kakashi managed to keep hold of Tenzō’s arm. The force of the hit sent them both stumbling, hitting the ground on their sides, Kakashi’s knees on either side of Tenzō’s left leg and Tenzō's back still tucked against his chest. Kakashi tightened his thighs around Tenzō’s leg, meaning that Tenzō's attempt to shove Kakashi off didn’t end as intended. His grip stayed firm and Tenzō was jerked back before he could do more than push up on his elbows. Kakashi’s forearm wrapped around Tenzō’s chest, applying pressure to Tenzō's shoulder while throwing his weight in the same direction, forcing Tenzō to turn until his back was to the ground. Then Kakashi slammed him down, fingers clutching his biceps and knees digging into his thighs as he pinned Tenzō to the ground.

“Are you done yet?” Kakashi inquired, face inches from Tenzō’s. His visible eye was dark, brow furrowed, exasperation in his tone.

Tenzō headbutted Kakashi, which turned out equally painful for both of them when happuri met hitai-ate. The whine of metal scraping interrupted their harsh breathing and Tenzō’s vision blurred from the concussive force. Kakashi winced, flinching back as much as he could without easing his hands or lower body enough for Tenzō to struggle out.

“Damn it, Tenzō.” Kakashi cursed, sucking a breath in through his teeth, fingers tightening minutely around his former subordinate’s wrists. “Do I have to tie you down?”

It was an evident echo of Tenzō's early threat, levity forced and dissonant in his voice through the strain of keeping Tenzō confined.

“Yes.” He answered, blunt and immediate. His pulse beat quickly in his ears, his body overly warm at every place it touched Kakashi’s, but he commanded his face to remain stoic.

This was exactly the moment for which he had been waiting.

“You…” A strange note of disbelief rang in the humid air. He shook his head minutely, exhaling a sharp breath. “Tenzō.” A warning.

Tenzō paid it no heed. He tugged against the firm grasp Kakashi had on his wrists, testing the strength of his grip. Kakashi gave him almost no mobility, and within seconds Tenzō was breathing harshly not from the effort of his attempt to break free—he wasn’t really trying, knew he wouldn’t be able to without causing serious harm to one or both of them—but with the poignancy of being utterly bound, surrounded on all sides by Kakashi’s weight. Yet he never broke eye contact, waiting patiently, determinedly, for Kakashi to come to realize the depth of his request.

The control he freely chose to give.

He wasn’t afraid, but Kakashi might have been. Conflict flickered in his eye, some internal struggle to which Tenzō was not privy.

“Kakashi,” Tenzō murmured, urging Kakashi to take what was offered. An assurance.

He tugged once more, insistently, and finally something broke.

Kakashi pulled away but, before Tenzō could even consider whether to move his arms, chakra wire wrapped around his wrists, just over the cuffs of his sleeves to avoid cutting into fragile skin. Kakashi wrapped the other end of the cord around his own palm, pulling it above Tenzō's head. His hands were forced to follow, arms straightening above his body. Kakashi didn’t stretch so far for it to become uncomfortable, merely enough to ensure that Tenzō had lost all ability to gain purchase. He was truly bound.

There was a long moment of stalemate, in which Kakashi stared at him as though he were trying to read a novel from his gaze. Tenzō stilled, forcing tense muscles to relax into the soft earth beneath him, trying to project the image that he was at ease even as he was placed at Kakashi’s mercy.

Because he was. Emotionally, at least, although he was developing a throbbing pain in his skull and his legs were starting to go numb from Kakashi’s weight.

Whatever Kakashi saw, it was enough. He flicked the wire with the ease of a master, hooking the end he held around something that Tenzō couldn’t see. Likely a tree root, judging from the hard line that dug into his shoulder blade. Then Kakashi sat back on his heels, apparently confident in the wire’s security, and stared down at him, an unreadable expression guarding his thoughts. Not for the first time, Tenzō wished that he wore no masks at all. When Kakashi spoke, it wasn’t what Tenzō had expected to hear, and yet it didn’t surprise him in the least.

“I didn’t leave the ANBU because of you.”

It wasn’t said severely, neither a cut nor a reassurance. Merely a statement of fact.

“I know.”

“And I’m not going to explain the reasons.”

“I didn’t think you would.”

“If you’re looking for an apology—”

“I’m not.”

Tenzō was sure that, if he could see Kakashi’s lips, he would be frowning. “Then why?” The rest of the question went unspoken, but Tenzō heard the possibilities. ‘Why are you here?’ ‘Why are we doing this?’ ‘Why do you trust me?’

There was a simple answer to that, but it had taken nearly two days for Tenzō to convince himself to say it. He had tried to figure out what was going through Kakashi’s mind, why he would leave ANBU. He wouldn’t lie; for a single, short moment, he had considered that he might be at fault. That he might have driven Kakashi away with the night before he left, or perhaps his ill-considered honesty even before that, the obvious intent behind his promise of ‘anything’. But he was certain, if either of those were the case, Kakashi would have ignored him, or firmly rejected him and never mentioned it again. Those were top in his favorite techniques for conflict resolution, and the simplest given their respective stations.

In the end, Tenzō came up with multiple theories, all of which boiled down to a single reason:

Kakashi didn’t trust himself.

That was what had led him to Tenzō. The desire to reveal the chinks in his armor, his weaknesses, and have them recognized and forgiven, even by someone who didn’t know them each by name. The desire to have someone else pick up the pieces, stitch him back together again, somewhat better than before. The desire to have control taken from his hands, if only for a moment, so that it was no longer himself that he had to trust, but Tenzō.

Tenzō didn’t know what he had done to inspire Kakashi’s confidence. He only knew that he wanted to keep it, cherish it, and deserve it. So it didn’t matter the exact reasons, the sequence of events that had led to this, or Kakashi leaving ANBU, or anything else. Not because Tenzō didn’t care, not because he didn’t yearn to understand every motivation inside that beautiful, crazy, genius mind. But because, just as three nights ago, nothing Kakashi could say would affect Tenzō’s decision.

Tenzō trusted him completely and without exception. Enough to put his own heart, his own beliefs, and his own fears, out on display, without even a mask to disguise them.

The only question was whether Kakashi would accept the offering.

“Because I want to be.”

Kakashi’s breath audibly hitched. It was a tiny inhalation that grew until Kakashi’s chest expanded with the shuddering force of it. His thighs trembled and he squeezed his eye shut as if in pain. His fingernails pressed half-moon crescents into Tenzō’s abdomen through the thin material of his shirt.

“You shouldn’t. I’m not your captain anymore, Tenzō. And I’m not the person you admire.” The words were sharp enough to cut, building an unseen wall of shields and spears between them. But all they lacerated were the ropes of uncertainty and doubt that had held Tenzō back for the last five years.

‘You shouldn’t.’

Not:

‘I don’t.’

Hope surged in Tenzō’s chest.

Dangerous hope.

He understood now why Kakashi constantly tested his bonds, rolling his wrists against the wood despite having no intention of breaking free. He couldn’t explain it, would have to spend long nights considering it to really understand, but the wire around his wrists no longer felt like a restraint. They felt like comfort. As if they held him together rather than tore him apart.

“Kakashi,” Tenzō said again, a soft sound that rode on his breath and filled the space between them.

Kakashi’s jaw flexed under the dark cloth of his mask and he opened his eye, meeting Tenzō’s gaze with hard steel in his own. His thighs were tense around Tenzō's knees, his shoulders held taut as a wire and every inch of his body prepared for fight or flight. Tenzō hoped it would be neither, but he would take the former if given the choice.

“Kakashi, my earliest memories are of being indoctrinated to serve a delusional tyrant.” They had never discussed Tenzō's past, but Kakashi was likely unsurprised. Root wasn’t general knowledge, but Tenzō had never doubted the Sandaime would have informed Kakashi of the basics before assigning them to the same squad. “Not Konoha or the Will of Fire: him. I was told I was created as an abomination, but I could redeem myself by proving my worth. No matter what it took.”

Tenzō faltered for only a moment, swallowing down the bitter taste with which those memories coated his tongue. Kakashi’s nails still pressed into him, and he focused on the sharp sensation of that, the pressure around his wrists, rather than the strange words that had never before left his tongue of his own accord. The only soul alive to whom Tenzō had confessed anything was the Hokage himself, as a trade for the freedom granted by breaking the curse seal.

“When I left, I didn’t expect to live. And not just because of Danzō. The first mission the Sandaime sent me on, I was certain the rest of my squad were given orders to kill me. I didn’t sleep those entire three days, waiting for the attack to come.” He hadn’t decided, even while he was waiting for what he believed to be his death, whether he would fight to survive or just let them end him. The latter would have been simpler. It would have prevented even more good people from dying by his own hand. “It took years to stop expecting my comrades to stab a tanto through my back.”

Tenzō's voice was rough, but his gaze never swayed, and Kakashi paid him the respect of listening without interruption. That was all Tenzō could ask for. “So, I’m not naive, senpai. I’m not gullible, and I’m not here because of some—childish admiration.” Although that was certainly what Tenzō had felt when they were young, those vague ideas of awe and reverence transformed as he learned the ridiculous, brave bastard behind the masks, the lazy, perverted, deliberate leader who would sacrifice everything for his people. Tezou’s early emotions had been fleeting, bright with only the flame of youth and inexperience. They held not a candle to what he knew now.

Tenzō hadn’t struggled in many minutes, but Kakashi made no move to release him, and Tenzō didn’t ask. He had no idea what was going through Kakashi’s mind. His own heart was beating quickly, but not from anything as simple as infatuation. He was anxious, hopeful, resolute, fearful, and all he wanted was to know that he hadn’t lost Kakashi—his friendship or his trust. That meant far more to him than the vague idea of whether Kakashi could possibly return his romantic affections. Tenzō could live without love, had always expected to; but Kakashi himself, with all of his flaws and imperfections, was irreplaceable.

“So why are you here?” Kakashi repeated quietly, barely audible through his mask. Though his hitai-ate was still in place, Tenzō felt as pierced by his stare as he had the spinning tomoe of the sharingan. Kakashi was waiting for something tangible, concrete proof that his vulnerability had not been misplaced.

Tenzō thought it would be difficult to say the words, but they flowed easily. They were engraved in his heart, in the corner of his mind on every mission. They painted his thoughts as he watched Kakashi move with uncanny grace, no doubt in his soul that the glow of the chidori would shatter their enemy’s ribs instead of his own. They were seared behind his eyelids when he tried to sleep, echoing in his ears as he listened for his name, his true name, spoken by the one who had given it to him. They were carved into his fingertips, guiding his every movement as he created beauty and life rather than taking it away.

“Because I trust you.”

Tenzō’s fingers curled into fists, but black eyes held certain as they met wide gray. He was laid prone, exposing himself as thoroughly as he ever had to another human—yet he felt secure. He believed in the truth of his words, the conviction behind them, despite what may come. “And it’s not blind faith or ignorance. I don’t know your past or what experiences have shaped you. But I know who you are now. I want to stand beside you, whether it’s on the battlefield or not.” Tenzō's cheeks burned, but he refused to look away as he admitted to his one, lingering fear. “If you’ll let me.”

If Kakashi truly wanted nothing more to do with him, truly considered their roles in ANBU as the only ties that bound them, then Tenzō would relent. He would. He respected Kakashi too much not to obey his wishes, and he would live his entire life pretending they were nothing more than passing acquaintances, if that was what Kakashi needed.

It would hurt, more than Tenzō could imagine.

He would do it.

But not if Kakashi’s only objection was rooted in misunderstanding, incomplete knowledge of the depth of Tenzō's beliefs.

Cicadas buzzed, humid air fell stagnant, and Tenzō's heart thumped madly as he waited.

Kakashi loosened the bindings. He bent forward, cold fingers deftly unwinding the chakra cord where they wrapped around Tenzō. It didn’t need to be done—Tenzō knew Kakashi had the control, the practice, to retrieve them without more than a single physical nudge, and he could have removed the wire from it’s anchor first. But Kakashi worked in silence, giving the slack slowly, gradually, the bare skin of his knuckles and fingertips brushing in a soothing rhythm against Tenzō's wrists.

His gaze was inscrutable.

Tenzō's shoulders ached once he was released from the position, muscles recovering from the slight strain. Kakashi retreated, resting cross-legged on the grass while Tenzō sat up. Apprehension welled a knot in his chest, but he refused to break the moment, sitting properly with knees beneath him as he waited for a response.

It took a while to come, but it did. Kakashi shook his head, once. Tenzō's stomach lurched, presuming the worst, before Kakashi spoke. “You’re making a horrible mistake, you know.”

Tenzō could best interpret his tone as weary acquiescence.

Acceptance.

The relief was a physical sensation, travelling from the crown of his head through his body until he was nearly vibrating with it. “I know.” He agreed, smile stretching his lips.

Kakashi had been searching Tenzō the entire night, looking for motivations or hidden meanings, his good eye as intent and analytical as the sharingan in battle. Now, his gaze thawed, softly roaming Tenzō's features. He had the unmistakable feeling that Kakashi was no longer withdrawing information, but absorbing the details that formed him. Taking Tenzō in.

Unfortunately, Tenzō was brought back to reality by his own stubborn heart. He sobered, accepting a conclusion he had known was inevitable, but had foolishly hoped to ignore.

While everything Tenzō had said up to that point had been something he had known but left unvoiced for years, a mere verbal reflection of what he felt should have been obvious from the start, he genuinely had no idea of the best words to make this final revelation. Just that it needed to be made. In this moment of honesty, of raw trust evidenced through vulnerability, Tenzō couldn’t justify restraint. If he didn’t say this now, he might never.

So, in his typical straightforward, practical manner, he pushed the words out with as little fanfare as possible. If Tenzō was going to be rejected, he would like it to be clear and blunt, something neither of them had a chance of misinterpreting. “This wasn’t my primary objective, but I’m also interested in you as a sexual and romantic partner. I understand if you can’t reciprocate.”

It was stilted, awkward, overly formal, and his only saving grace was the fact that he was able to say it with a straight expression, despite his throat threatening to close on him at any moment. But Tenzō could truly think of no other way to phrase it. He wanted to be with Kakashi in all aspects of life; partners in the truest sense of the word. Even if they could no longer fight side by side.

There was no reaction for a long second, and then Kakashi’s eye grew wide and Tenzō could have sworn that he stopped breathing entirely.

Tenzō's heart beat so quickly that it was difficult to think, the useless organ supplying insufficient oxygen to properly operate his brain, lungs, and the capillaries in his cheeks. It apparently decided the last was most important, though Tenzō would beg to differ.

Growing with every moment of silence, color bled into Kakashi’s face, performing a hostile takeover of his normal pallor and painting above Kakashi’s mask a vivid flush that rivaled Tenzō's own.

He was about to stand, wondering if it would be out of line to ask the Sandaime for a three-month long trip to the other side of the planet, when Kakashi came back to life, inhaling deeply. “Thank fucking God.” With one swift motion, he tugged down his mask and cupped Tenzō's nape with his palm, drawing him into a firm kiss.

Tenzō didn’t have a plethora of experiences to compare it to, but he was pretty sure the elation singing in his veins and the fluttering in his stomach made up for any technical imperfections that might have been present. Kakashi’s lips were earnest and urgent, pressing against Tenzō with all the relief and desire that had been evident in his words. He led them both with the sort of confidence borne from urgency, and the familiarity bred from daydreams. His lips were warmer than the summer air, slightly chapped, and insistent against Tenzō’s.

Cool leather rested on the nape of his neck, then his waist, and Kakashi scooted forward until his knees bracketed Tenzō's thighs. Tenzō had no idea what to do with his hands, but they naturally landed on Kakashi’s narrow hips and he quickly decided any and all contact was good. So good.

Kakashi wasn’t going for chaste, but deep, burning. His tongue seared like fire as it traced Tenzō's lips, tasting like warm sake and the salt of summer. Stubble scratched Tenzō's chin, and he nearly drew back then because it reminded him that Kakashi’s mask was down, and he needed to know, needed to see what had been hidden from him for so long.

But that could wait, because the movement of Kakashi’s mouth against his, the pressure of his hands against Tenzō's skin, revealed far more than the mask had ever concealed.

And now, Tenzō was certain. They had time.

The only thing that broke them apart was the sharp whine of metal against metal, their headbands scraping together. Tenzō parted from Kakashi until their lips barely brushed, chuckling, the humor of the interruptive sound or perhaps sheer giddy euphoria bubbling on his lips. He couldn’t hear Kakashi’s laugh, but he could feel it pressed as closely as they were, rumbling in Kakashi’s chest and shaking his shoulders. He could feel Kakashi’s quick breaths, puffs against his cheek.

Tenzō opened his eyes to see Kakashi already watching him.

His hand raised of its own accord, resting lightly on Kakashi’s cheek. In part to prove to himself that it wasn’t an illusion, and in part to ensure that Kakashi wouldn’t cover his face again. If Kakashi was going to grant him this secret, he wanted to commit it to memory. His gaze flickered over Kakashi’s face, taking in each feature. Strong, angular chin, short silver stubble that spoke of a few days without a shave; an unexpected beauty mark below the corner of his mouth, and finally, thin pink lips that stretched into a smirk as Tenzō stared.

The sharingan was still covered, but Tenzō was bewitched nonetheless. Kakashi’s face in that moment, pupil dilated, red still high on his cheekbones, painted a picture that Tenzō would give his life to see.

For once, he didn’t have to guess at Kakashi’s expression. Tender affection was written across every feature.

“Maa, I’m not going to give as dramatic a speech as you, but…” Kakashi’s lips quirked into a crooked smile at Tenzō’s glare. He rested his palm over Tenzō's, lacing their fingers and bringing their hands down to rest between their chests. Tenzō could feel Kakashi’s heart beat against the back of his hand, strong and fast. His next words carried the weight of a promise. “There’s no one I would rather have by my side.”

There was no uncertainty, no doubt. For once, Tenzō wasn’t thinking of contingency plans, or backup strategies, or what to do when this all went horribly, violently wrong.

He knew there would be pain. Of course there would. But what mattered wasn’t finding someone who could give him a few hours of empty bliss, or sweet, shallow romance. In Kakashi, he found someone who could share with him not lovely words, but honest actions. Trust. Strength. Pain. Grief. Someone who would stand by his side when the world went to hell, and die fighting beside him even when the only enemies remaining knocked at their hearts rather than their doors.

In Kakashi, Tenzō found his partner.

That was all Tenzō could ever need.