Kakashi blinked his right eye awake and thought, Damn.
It was a sharp, crystal thought, slotting neatly into place. Most of his thoughts had clean borders now, after a week of fluff and fuzz and empty black spaces. He could remember yesterday, and parts of the day before. The important things. Raidou’s suspension, everything that followed.
The room smelled like paper and ink and bureaucracy. Intel was finally here.
Be truthful, Genma had said. Captain’s orders.
He tugged the magazine down from his face, and said grouchily, “Can we make this qui—” He paused. “Yuuhi.”
Underneath the library smell was the old, familiar edge of plum blossom and steel. He should have registered that first, but he was looking now. The grey Intel uniform was standard-wear: high-collared jacket, knee-length tapering skirt, no sword. The rest was Kurenai, eking out personality from the gaps between formality with her red, red mouth and the tumbled curtain of dark, wavy hair. Her skin was pale and smooth, the color of milk. Any grey shadows had been hidden behind clever make up.
She looked ever so slightly sad, staring at his hospital bed.
The last time they’d talked in detail, Kakashi recalled, had been about three years ago, when she’d wrapped her arm around Rin’s shoulders and told him to go jump off the Hokage’s monument. Since then, mostly to appease Rin, they’d upgraded to semi-cordial pleasantries.
Kakashi pushed himself stiffly upright and leaned back against the headboard. “Lose a bet?”
“My coworkers refused to run the risk of Sharingan memory insertion again. I figured I might fare better.” The crimson slash of her mouth curved into something wry. “Are you still accepting congratulations on making it into ANBU, or having second thoughts?”
That almost sounded like an olive branch.
"Both," Kakashi said. "But I think I'd miss the exciting weekly opportunities to get massacred if I left now."
“From what your teammates said, I’d thought the massacre was mostly on the other side.” She watched him with dark red eyes, giving nothing away.
An olive twig, maybe.
Kurenai had been a helix-puzzle even before Intel had snapped her up, with a mind full of sharp metal teeth and a particular talent for the slice-and-parry of taking information and leaving none behind. At least, nothing beyond Your teammates have talked and you should, too.
And your stories better match.
Kakashi scratched beneath the elastic strap of his inadequate face mask. “Some massacring,” he said. “Some explosions. Is Intel done with my teammates?”
“Not yet. Tousaki and your lieutenant have been fully debriefed, but Katsuko will have an agent visiting her sometime today for her report. And your captain should be meeting with T&I for an investigation into his blackouts.” Her eyes flicked subtly, watching for his reaction to that last tidbit.
‘Katsuko’, Kakashi noted. Not ‘Ueno’.
The thought folded away, replaced by ‘blackouts’. No one had said that before. They’d said broken port, investigation, uncontained losses. No one had said anything about a mental factor at play, or the lack of one.
If he’d had to guess at a berserker on the team, he would have said Katsuko, easily. Maybe Ryouma in the right circumstances. Not the captain. Raidou moved like a man who always had his feet planted on solid reality.
Kakashi said, “We’re torturing mental health into people now?”
Kurenai gave him a look. “T&I has always provided Konoha’s best mental health experts,” she said quietly. “You know that. Namiashi-taichou told me he suffered memory loss, regarding the events at the harbor. We need to understand what happened, and why it happened, and how to keep him and his team safe.”
Reflecting on Akiyama’s homicidal breakdown at the Trials, Kakashi was starting to have some quiet doubts about ANBU’s screening methods.
Then again, if you put people in a vise long enough and kept cranking the lever, stress fractures were inevitable. (Which did not excuse wrist-slicing psychopathy, but Kakashi could see an excuse for Raidou, maybe, in the right context.)
“I’m telling you this, Kakashi, because I know you,” Kurenai continued, which Kakashi read as, I know you’re a paranoid, judgemental asshole. “Have you observed anything, either on this mission or in the past two months generally, that would give you reason to believe Namiashi-taichou could be a danger to the team or to himself?”
One that was concerning enough to remember, but not important enough to report at the time?
Kakashi didn’t say that because her question wasn’t stupid, even if it felt like it. Hindsight was twenty-twenty, and you never knew what tiny clue you might have overlooked. Instead he sat in silence for a moment, turning memories over.
Boundaries, training, Raidou’s particularly offensive brand of 5 am cheer. No mood swings, no groundless anger, nothing that foreshadowed, Hey, this week I might feel like punching apart a shipping dock.
Sakumo had been pale and distracted in the weeks before his death, bleakly sad. He’d burned rice, forgotten to shave, sat on the porch and stared at nothing while his bare feet turned blue-white in the morning frost. There had been so many signs, all of them missed.
The funeral had been tiny, but Kakashi still remembered one woman saying, Such a surprise. Such a shame. He’d wanted to stab her, but the tanto was still being cleaned.
Raidou had only ever been present and grounded, clear-eyed. Kakashi tried to think of warning signs, but he kept remembering Team Six’s first mission, when they’d camped down for the first night by a stream, and Raidou had offered to spar. They’d wrestled to a mud-covered standstill, panting on the ground.
Kid, if you don’t let me go, this is going to turn into the world’s most awkward hug, and I don’t actually have a backup plan for that.
“No,” Kakashi said at last, and meant it.
Kurenai studied the level grey gaze, the thoughtful crease between straight brow and angling bandage, the shadowed cast of a steady-set jaw beneath the surgical mask, and believed him.
Even as a child, playing in the overgrown gardens of the Hatake estate or surpassing all his classmates at the Academy, Kakashi had been quick to observe, quick to judge. He had a keen eye and a merciless tongue, and he neither forgot nor forgave.
He also complained about everything under the sun that annoyed him, and he didn't seem to have grown out of that habit, either.
But he had nothing bad to say about Namiashi Raidou — not a niggling suspicion, not a creeping doubt. Not even a petty complaint about the new captain who could never live up to the only other man who'd commanded him. That wasn't quite as ringing an endorsement as Shiranui's He's a good captain, or Katsuko's The team and Konoha will always come first for him, but it was commendation enough, in Kakashi's own way.
"Thank you," she said, and uncapped her pen. "Tell me about your encounter with Iebara Shigematsu."
Kakashi's eyebrow twitched upward slightly, as if in quickly muted surprise. He'd clearly expected a deeper interrogation, but he followed her lead readily enough.
"He recognized me." He shrugged one shoulder: Bingo book, what can you do? As if he'd ever been overlooked, even once in his life. Kurenai kept her expression bland.
"We disagreed," Kakashi continued. "I killed him. You already have the lieutenant's report, and Tousaki's, too. Which part do you want in detail?"
"Shiranui and Tousaki didn't observe the bulk of your fight with Iebara." She'd read Riei's notes from Tousaki's debriefing yesterday, while Riei typed up the full report. Tousaki seemed to have an even more fractured view of the clash than Shiranui—not surprising, since he'd spent at least part of it drowning on his own blood. He'd been first on the scene after Kakashi killed Iebara, of course, and he'd offered some details Shiranui didn't, but the picture was still far from whole.
"They both reported that you protected the two of them from Iebara's attacks multiple times, and eventually drew Iebara off altogether. They briefly re-engaged, but were then drawn off in turn by Iebara's teammates. Neither of them witnessed your acquisition of Iebara's jutsu or his death."
She opened her notebook. "What happened that first time, when you protected them with an earthen wall?"
Kakashi was silent for a moment, his gaze drifting unfocused as he sifted through memories. She had a moment to wonder exactly how clear those memories were. He was untethered by IV painkillers, today, but the injection sites were still bruised and new-looking. How much of the mission and its aftermath did he even recall?
But when Kakashi finally spoke, he laid out a clean, stripped-down version of events. Neither emotions nor conjectures made it into the retelling, just one action leading to another as simply as winter into spring.
Annoyance shaded his voice only once, as he described Tousaki and Shiranui's intervention in the jutsu-blasted clearing. Listening to his carefully chosen words, Kurenai translated the professional cadences: Tousaki and Shiranui tried to get themselves shivved, but they did give me an advantage. She couldn't tell whether the annoyance was directed more at his teammates' near-suicidal intervention, or that he'd needed assistance at all. Likely it was both.
"And then he grabbed me," he concluded at last, with a quick gesture to the yellow shadow of healed bruises circling his throat. "Chokehold, from behind. I was out of weapons, but I'd gotten a good look at his jutsu. All it needed was blood, and he was bleeding all over the landscape. So I tried it, and…"
His mouth twitched up, behind the mask. His eye crinkled. "Boom, basically."
Kurenai suppressed a shudder. "Shiranui-fukuchou reported there was very little left. The jutsu seems to have functioned drastically differently for you than for him. A matter of practice and control, or of jutsu compatibility?"
He tipped his head sideways against the headboard, thoughtful. "Both, probably. Medical jutsu isn't my best skill. I'm water-natured, which helped, but there wasn't time for finesse even if I'd wanted it. Iebara could make perfect weapons. I just… got hooks into his blood and pulled." He opened a hand, palm-up on the pale hospital bedsheet. "That's the closest I can describe it."
Water chakra made sense, for a jutsu that ripped the blood from its victims' bodies. Kurenai made a note. "A jutsu that complex almost certainly has a second elemental chakra mixed in. Earth, perhaps, for the iron in blood? That might explain why his weapons achieved both stability and solidity."
Kakashi's eye dropped half-lidded for a moment. He flexed his fingers, then flickered his hands through a series of seals so fast she barely caught them. No chakra, to her senses; his pathways were still likely too scorched for gathering and molding, but his fingers were as fast as they'd ever been.
He paused when he landed on reverse Snake. Standard Snake was a common Earth chakra seal; reverse twisted the chakra in on itself, magnified and redirected it. Kakashi nodded acknowledgment of her theory, and dropped his hands.
"I think so," he said. "Iebara's chakra felt strange in general, though. Almost rancid. Have you ever felt someone use a forbidden jutsu?"
She shook her head.
He frowned. "How about Tousaki's rot jutsu?"
"I've heard of it, but never observed him in action. I only met him two days ago, with Katsuko-chan."
Kakashi's eye flickered at the suffix, but if he wondered at her use of the diminutive, he didn't pursue it. "Okay, then. You've felt medical jutsu, how the caster's chakra feels bright and pure afterwards?"
She thought of Rin's chakra, fresh and clean as mountain springwater, and nodded.
"Tousaki's flesh-melt does the opposite," Kakashi explained. "It feels worse to the chakra-sense than it smells, which is saying something. Iebara's was worse than that. Tousaki's reverses after a while, like his chakra heals itself. Iebara's felt… corrupted."
Kurenai tapped her pen against her chin. "You think his use of the jutsu over time warped his chakra itself? Possible, I suppose, if the molding corroded his pathways to the extent that even newly generated chakra would be susceptible to its influence… Did you notice any effect on your own chakra after your use of the jutsu?" She caught herself immediately. "Of course, you were nearly burnt out. You wouldn't have. And Shiranui said there was barely enough chakra left in your system for him to sense you at all."
His eye crinkled again, with faint amusement. "Something like that. Next question?"
This line of questioning was probably more suitable for the Jutsu Records Office than for Intel. With regret, Kurenai abandoned theories and scanned back over her notes until she caught another line she'd marked for further question.
"You mentioned that steel blades failed to have any effect on Iebara's blood-manipulation jutsu," she said finally, flipping to a new page in her notebook. "Was it the bloodline element of your superheated chakra that succeeded in slicing his blood-blades, or would any sufficiently intense heat have the same effect? Did anyone attempt to use fire jutsu against him?"
“Tousaki did,” Kakashi said, recalling the roaring spear of flame hurled at Iebara’s head. “The blood ate it and kept coming, but it did cook a bit. A hotter standard jutsu might have worked, not even necessarily a bloodline.”
He tapped his fingers on the rumpled sheet, feeling the memory of chakra heat pouring through bone and flesh, sparking into white flame and charred blood.
“Then again, my bloodline is raw chakra, and his jutsu was raw biomass wrapped around chakra, so maybe you need one to cut the other.”
Kurenai’s mouth quirked, framed by a faint line like an archer’s bow. “Difficult to test, unless you’ve mastered simultaneous dual jutsu. In which case many people far more important than me are going to be falling over themselves to question you.”
Which was a very compelling reason not to pick up that particular skill.
Kakashi said, “Or I could teach the jutsu to someone else, once I get out of here. If I can replicate it. And then we can line people up to attack them with fire.”
“At least you won’t find a shortage of fire jutsu specialists in Konoha.” She paused. “Assuming Yondaime-sama authorizes the distribution of Iebara’s jutsu. It’s an effective weapon, certainly, but if its effects are that corrosive to the user’s chakra… Well. Pure speculation, at this point.” She flipped back to an earlier page in her notebook, frowned, closed it, and to accommodate for a lack of knee-space, laid it aside on his bed and checked a page in her manila file folder. “You've got a query from the Bounty Office. Usually they demand some sort of evidence of the kill. I understand from Shiranui that, aside from the stolen jutsu, there was no evidence to bring back?”
“Two corroborating witnesses and a one-armed captain prisoner,” Kakashi suggested. “The lieutenant and Tousaki didn’t have the chance to search for Iebara’s dogtags, but there might still be some scraps left behind.” Probably much picked-over by scavengers at this point. “Or you can test the blood on my uniform.” Wherever that had ended up.
Kurenai made a small moue of distaste. “I’ll pass that on, but I doubt they’ll take you up on it. Too much work to establish a profile when you do have a prisoner.” She glanced at the page again, smoothing it with one white hand. Her nails matched her lips. “The official bounty is currently posted at 40 million ryou. Perhaps they’ll contest the payout after all…”
The Bounty Office was a quasi-neutral operation that maintained itself with the tacit cooperation of several allied villages. At last count, Fire Country, Grass Country, Wind Country, and Frost Country all paid dues, with the understanding that their own people wouldn’t end up on wanted posters. Unallied villages had their own systems. In Mist, you probably got a slap on the back and the option of keeping your enemy’s teeth if you brought a notable head home.
Getting the Bounty Office to pay up hadn’t been anywhere on Kakashi’s radar, but the thought that they wouldn’t was an irritating scratch.
“Maybe I’ll send them a note,” he said.
“Be sure to leave some bloody fingerprints on it.” She slid a form out from her folder and handed it over, stamped at the top with Konoha’s official seal. “You’ll have to wade through quite a bit of paperwork to claim the bounty anyway, but this should get you started. Hyuuga Momoe, in my division, is our liaison with the Bounty Office. You can contact her with any questions.”
“Joy,” Kakashi drawled, but he folded the form and put it safely on his bedside table.
When a follow-up question failed to immediately present itself, he took a slice of initiative and asked bluntly, “How do you know Ueno?”
That earned him not one but two raised eyebrows. “There's one active-duty kunoichi to every three shinobi in Konoha, and I was only one year above her in the Academy. Why wouldn't we know each other? Some people actually make an effort to talk to their classmates, Kakashi-kun.”
He’d forgotten Kurenai’s particular talent for looking at you like you’d monopolized all the stupid in the universe and put it into a sentence.
“I’ll rephrase,” he said. “Do you like Ueno?”
She regarded him for a long, silent moment. In Kurenai’s hands, silence was as effective as an insult, and more worrying.
“I’d never spoken more than half a dozen words to her at one time until two years ago, when she extracted me out of a potentially lethal situation in Tea Country,” she said, calmly and precisely, a woman building a wall of words. “She visited me in the hospital until I healed. Yes: I like her. She’s smart and sweet and funny, and you’re lucky to have her on your team.” She smiled then, mouth tucking up in an impish curl. “Though I imagine she gives you headaches in more ways than one.”
Kakashi wasn’t sure what he thought of Katsuko anymore, but it wasn’t all bad. It hadn’t been for a while.
“Sometimes,” he said, and turned the conversation away from its suddenly thin ice. “Was there anything else you wanted to know about Iebara?”
There was. Kurenai filled another three pages of notes with small details that needed clarification, observations on Mist's fighting style and team structure, pointless speculation about Iebara's motives for the senseless attack. Kakashi had no more idea why Iebara would sabotage a potentially beneficial situation than anyone else on his team did.
There was, of course, the prestige that came from killing Sharingan no Kakashi, the White Fang's son and the Yondaime Hokage's protégé. According to the Water Country Division, Mist's Bingo Book had a small bounty on Kakashi as well. Only a couple of million ryo, surely not enough to tempt a sensible man into danger — but the Phantom Terror of Mist would never have made his own reputation if he'd been a sensible man.
("Bloodthirsty and batshit crazy," Tousaki had opined, recorded verbatim in Riei's notes. Kakashi seemed to agree.)
With little more information of value to glean, Kurenai let the conversation meander. Intel didn't always order in-person debriefings after missions, even ANBU missions. Written reports were standard, except for those missions deemed traumatic enough to merit a review of the agent's mental state in the bloody aftermath. She hadn't had the time, two days ago, for anything more than the most cursory of observations — but Shiranui had already met with Momoe yesterday for a far more thorough interrogation, and Katsuko would have her own encounter with Hide this afternoon.
Namiashi, of course, was slated for expert review.
Maybe they all should have been. But that was a decision far above her paygrade, and T&I didn't have the manpower for thorough psychological assessments of every agent after every mission anyway. They just had to catch what they could, and hope nothing too dangerous slipped through the cracks.
So they talked about the 20 million ryou Kakashi and his teammates had collected from Tsuto Takayoshi's vaults, and the likelihood that Team Six would see even a fraction of that in mission bonus; about the tension in Hikouto, where many of the nobility had retired to their country estate and their own loyal guards, while just as many country nobility had crowded into the city to assure the daimyo of their most loyal support; about the tendency of steel blades to deform under chakra-heat, and the expense and trouble of acquiring custom-made blades with alloys that could withstand or even conduct channeled chakra.
Kakashi didn't ask about Namiashi.
With prompting, though, he reluctantly divulged a little about his other teammates — about Shiranui's steady command of their divided team in Ibaragashi, about Katsuko's bedrock strength in his fragmented memories of the aftermath. "She's worried," he said, "but she's got a handle on it."
Kurenai had seen that worry, and shared it. But there was nothing she could do, other than to hope Hide would be as gentle as duty allowed.
Kakashi's eye tightened when they moved on to Tousaki. "He performed correctly on the mission, and in the fight with Mist," he admitted. "But…" He tapped his fingers on the rumpled bedsheet again, a muffled beat, and frowned down at the last traces of black ink sinking into his skin.
He parceled out concerns, as she probed. How Tousaki didn't seem to have dealt with the grislier aspects of the mission with total calm. How he'd been too quiet in what Kakashi remembered of the aftermath, pulling back from his teammates, sleeping alone. The tension and guilt he'd seemed to carry even after their return to Konoha, and his naked fear when he'd learned about Namiashi's suspension.
Riei's report hadn't mentioned any of that.
Then again, Riei had seen Tousaki almost immediately after his return to Konoha, when he was half-dead of exhaustion and hadn't yet learned he should fear for his captain. Any residual blackness in his mood might have read as simple weariness, to her eyes.
Kurenai made a stark note in her margins—check up on Tousaki—and looked up. "In your judgment, is Tousaki unstable?"
Kakashi's eye darkened. He was quiet for a long moment, fingers curling inwards so that his short nails scraped the sheets. He said finally, "I don't know."
He'd had no doubts about Namiashi.
So did that mean merely that Namiashi, veteran of three years in ANBU and one in command, was better at concealing his stress-lines until they fractured? Or that Tousaki, rookie of two missions and inventor of some of Konoha's most lethal jutsu, was already dangerously close to the edge?
She tried to remember the dark-eyed young man she'd seen two days ago, outside Shiranui's door and supporting Katsuko in front of the elevators. Haggard with exhaustion, worried, wary — but Katsuko had liked him.
Katsuko liked Namiashi, too, and she'd had to punch him back to his senses.
Kurenai laid her pen down flat on her notebook. "Would you trust him on a mission with Rin?"
Kurenai wasn’t the knife, she was the twist.
Kakashi let his right eye go even more half-lidded than usual, a shroud to think behind, and considered the question seriously. Rin was precious to him: known fact. Would he put her life in Ryouma’s hands?
“For a mission with a straight kill, yes, I would,” he decided. “Tousaki can handle clean assassinations. But for something dirtier…”
Missions with complications, like innocent targets, where killing felt like murder.
"Tousaki's kind," Kakashi said, "and I think no one's bothered to tell him. He doesn't know how to put it away, and it bites him afterwards."
Kurenai absorbed that with a nod. “So he assisted in killing the primary target’s teenage daughter, on this last mission, as well as the girl’s mother and the target himself. That’s fodder enough for guilt, if you’re inclined to brooding. Did he turn solely inward, or did he at any time lash out at the team?”
Kakashi shrugged. “Not that I know of, but I was unconscious for three quarters of the aftermath.”
“I suppose you had good reason.” She picked up her pen and made another note — coded shorthand, Kakashi guessed, since he couldn’t read it upside-down. “It’s not unusual for agents to struggle with a mission like this, but we can't overlook the possibility that it may be a symptom of something deeper. I'll see about getting him an appointment for a secondary review.”
A thin thread of relief wove through Kakashi’s ribcage. In all likelihood Intel would sign Ryouma off after a cursory review, since he wasn't attacking his teammates or taking a kunai to his wrists. The definition of a mentally healthy agent was a nebulous one. But as long as someone was taking a second look...
Kakashi didn't think too hard about why that was important to him.
“Good,” he said.
“And how are you coping?” Kurenai asked.
Kakashi gave her a dry glance. “With which part?”
“Should I start a numbered list?” she inquired.
“I can.” He held a hand up, one finger raised. "One, civilian deaths: necessary for Konoha's safety, sanctioned by the Hokage. I have no issues." None that wouldn't resolve with time, anyway. He raised another finger. "Two, attack by Iebara and his team: I defeated an S-class ninja, obtained his unique jutsu, and didn't die. No issues there, either." Another finger. "Three, mission aftermath: mostly a cloud of drugs. No issues I can remember." And none he wanted to dig up. He was fairly certain nothing but embarrassment lay that way. A final finger. "Four, my captain is facing suspension, investigation, and questions about his mental stability, and the rest of my team is upset about it. Depending on the outcome, I'll submit a report if I have complaints."
“And do your best to see all of us suspended from service in return?” she said, desert dry.
Kakashi smiled coldly. “It’s a thought.”
Minato had wanted loyalty from him, Rin wanted friends for him, ANBU relied on cohesion between its teams. A lot of time and effort had gone into getting Kakashi invested, and now he was, and now the team was under threat. If Kurenai really thought he’d stop at a report, she’d forgotten everything about him.
Kurenai’s red gaze was level and steady, a diluted Sharingan without the hypnosis. She regarded him in silence for a long moment, before speaking. “I didn’t think anyone but Yondaime-sama could win that kind of loyalty from you. And Namiashi-taichou already has Katsuko and his new lieutenant advocating for him just as fiercely. He must be a rare kind of leader, to inspire so much passion so quickly.”
“Would ANBU prefer mediocrity?” Kakashi said, layering blandness over a rising urge to be vicious.
Her expression didn’t flicker.
“ANBU takes the best, and demands the most. Too much, sometimes.” There was no particular sympathy in her voice. Kakashi didn’t feel any, either. You knew what you were volunteering for. “It’s not surprising that some agents crack under pressure. I hope Namiashi-taichou hasn’t. I hope T&I will clear him, and that he’ll be back with you soon. Konoha needs that kind of leader. ANBU needs him. And, clearly, you do too. Is there anything else I should know, Kakashi-kun?”
“Agent Hatake,” Kakashi said shortly. “And no, you’ve got everything.”
Her pen tapped against the rich, red curve of her lower lip, a gesture that raised a flag for Kakashi. Replace the pen with a finger, and it would be shhh. People liked to touch their mouths when they were swallowing the urge to say something. In Kurenai’s case, probably a lot of somethings.
She nodded, and acknowledged, “Agent Hatake.” And then, “When do you expect to be discharged?”
“A few days,” Kakashi said. Sooner, if he could steal a doctor’s coat. “Did another government body nearly get assassinated?” was there another mission they wanted to send half a team out on?
Her mouth twisted, unevenly wry. “Hikouto’s quieter than it’s been in years. I don’t believe there will be another round of purges; Director Oita seems fairly confident that we’ve rooted out the snake-heads of the conspiracy. Your team should be able to rest, for a time.”
Snake-heads, Kakashi reflected, was an interesting choice of phrase for an event that, theoretically, had nothing to do with Orochimaru. Was Intel having doubts?
Shibata says there’s no link, and Sagara says it’s not his style, Minato had said, but he’d sounded doubtful, too.
Then again, if Orochimaru had been behind the coup, it probably wouldn’t have failed. Akiyama had, though, at the Third Trial, but Intel had never proven a link between him and Orochimaru…
“Did you do any work on Akiyama Jiro’s case?” Kakashi asked, before he could think of a smart reason not to.
“The traitor at the ANBU trials?” She shook her head. “I wasn’t in the village when the investigation took place. Shiranui-fukuchou mentioned the incident at the Trials in my initial debriefing of him, though, and I looked up the report.”
“What was the final conclusion?”
Kurenai’s expression shuttered for a moment — rummaging through whatever system she used to keep her mental folders organized, deciding what she felt inclined to share — then she sharpened again. “There’s no evidence to prove that Akiyama didn’t act as a solo rogue agent. There are gaps in his record, though. He ran three solo missions in the two months before the Trials. We had multiple field agents investigating, but they found nothing suspicious before the coup forced a reallocation of resources.”
Nearly dead Daimyou trumped actually dead ninja, Kakashi thought darkly.
“What about gaps further back?” he asked. “A year or more. Any solos then?”
“All higher-ranked shinobi take solos. You more than most, I’ve heard.” She tapped her pen on the page, brow furrowing. “His percentage of solos was nearly as high as yours, I think.”
And Kakashi was a stable, personable, village-loving ninja with excellent teamwork skills, as everyone knew.
Solo missions were a different skill set. You had to watch your back, your front, and all cardinal points of the compass at the same time. You needed a personality carved mostly from hollow bastard cynicism: doubt in everything, including yourself, but not so much it kept you from coming home. It was easy to get bitter, alone in the dark.
A solo agent was a tempting target, for the right kind of predator.
It was one of the reasons Kakashi had stopped. Well, that and ANBU was a place to get sharper teeth.
He said, “Interesting.”
Kurenai’s brow winged up, curved like a question, but a sudden rap of knuckles against the door interrupted her before she could ask it. She and Kakashi both stiffened, surprised, as the door slid back and a dark, ruffled head poked through.
“Rise and sober up,” a familiar rough voice said. “I come bearing paperwo—”
Ryouma broke off halfway across the threshold, staring at Kurenai, who gave him a calm and only slightly ironic look in return. Ryouma was recently showered, hair still shiny-damp and rumpled from a towelling; his clothes were clean and civilian, torn jeans that showed the sharp bones of his knees, a dark t-shirt with a colorful design. There was a battered folder jammed underneath one arm, with paperwork already starting to spill out.
He looked significantly less dead than the last time Kakashi remembered seeing him. There was color in his skin again and life in his eyes, and, beneath the citrusy edge of soap, something that smelled a lot like sex.
That was one way to get over a mission.
Kakashi frowned, trying to pin down the faint, almost washed-away scent of someone female and quasi-familiar, before he realized it was better not to know. It wasn't Katsuko.
“I retract my statement. Tousaki’s fine,” he drawled, and said to Ryouma, “If that’s my homework from the lieutenant, you can give it to Yuuhi. She’s better at paperwork.”
"If you bothered to put a modicum of effort into your penmanship," Kurenai told him, "you might improve from poor to marginal. I understand you've actually regressed from your Academy days."
Tousaki's straight dark brows climbed a step up towards his tousled hair. He looked more like the handsome young man in his personnel picture, today; she could begin to see what Riei had been so enthused about. Katsuko must be enjoying herself tremendously on Team Six.
"I spend my time on more interesting things," Kakashi said loftily.
Kurenai glanced idly at the glossy magazine lying forgotten on the side of Kakashi's bed. The front cover promised all the sordid details of the latest celebrity sex scandal, offered one quick work-out for a hot butt by bikini season, and hinted at ten new ways to Please Your Man.
Kakashi'd followed her gaze. "My point exactly," he said, without a sliver of shame. "There's an article about how to go from sleepy to sexy in five minutes flat, if you need tips."
Tousaki made a faint, inquisitive noise.
He didn't look like a rookie ready to break and turn all his sharp edges in on himself, but Kurenai was a field agent and analyst, not a psych expert. Still, she had a duty to observe and report. She cleared her throat. "Come in, Tousaki. What's the homework?"
His brows came down again. He took a short step into the room, but left the door half-open behind him. "Training logs," he said. "Lieutenant sent 'em."
"Shiranui-fukuchou's out of hospital already?" Kurenai had thought his injuries serious enough to require at least another few days' bed-rest.
"Not til tomorrow." Tousaki gave her a guarded, wary look. "You debriefing the whole team?"
Spare me from paranoid ANBU, Kurenai thought, and pinned on one of her gentler smiles. "Not quite. Agent Hatake's scared off my colleagues, though. We're short-handed at the moment, too."
He took another two steps in, to lay the creased folder on Kakashi's bedside table. "You know Kakashi." It wasn't quite a question. "And you knew Katsuko, too. She called you Kurenai-chan."
The belligerence was unexpected but not, perhaps, surprising. If he'd begun pulling back from his teammates after the mission, only to find someone stepping into his place once he returned… She glanced, thoughtfully, at Kakashi.
Surgical mask and bandaged eye weren't much easier to read than shinobi mask and hitai'ate-covered eye, but Kakashi did manage to look extremely dry. "Everyone knows everyone in Konoha, Tousaki. The only way to escape is permanent misanthropy." He paused. "Or death."
"I don't know everyone." Tousaki seemed to take it as a personal insult. "And you didn't know the names of half the rookies in our year, until I introduced you."
"Permanent misanthropy," Kurenai murmured. Kakashi's good eye curved agreement, like a friendly scimitar.
Tousaki's mouth thinned. He shoved his hands in his pockets and slouched against the wall. Kakashi's head tipped up and sideways to watch him for a long, thoughtful moment. Then Kakashi said, "Need me to send her out?"
Tousaki's eyes flicked; his hand bunched in his pocket. He wouldn't say it, Kurenai thought, but he wouldn't be comfortable until she left.
And Kakashi was worried about him.
Kurenai dropped her pen. Both the ANBU flinched at the clatter on the floor tiles; Tousaki's hand came out of his pocket. "Sorry," Kurenai said, stooping swiftly from her chair. She had to crouch, hampered by her pencil skirt. It kept her hands out of sight, under the bed, for nearly three and a half seconds.
More than long enough, for a genjutsu specialist.
Kakashi's Sharingan eye was bound behind bandage, his chakra-sense burnt out close to the root. Tousaki was the danger, here; no one made jounin without being more than competent in sensing and casting genjutsu, and he was paranoid already. Kurenai added her grandmother's special twist to invert the jutsu, masking even the slightest chakra flare, and straightened gracefully.
"Send a message if you think of anything else," she told Kakashi. "I won't turn my report in until early afternoon."
His eye flicked back to her in surprise; he'd been anticipating at least a small fight, she thought, but he wasn't about to object. "Fine," he said. He hitched a hand up to tap his sleeved tattoo. A salute, and a reminder: ANBU.
Kurenai nodded back, adjusting her clipboard in the crook of her arm. "Agent Tousaki," she said, and headed for the door.
She'd worried that Tousaki might try to open it for her, but the good looks didn't come with good manners, apparently; he straightened belatedly, but didn't step away from the wall. The door slid back half-closed in Kurenai's wake. The click of her heels faded away down the hall as the secondary layer of the genjutsu dissolved.
Soundless, scentless, invisible, Kurenai retreated into the far corner of the room, and watched Tousaki's shoulders sag with relief.
"Sorry," he said.
Kurenai blinked. Kakashi did, too, tipping his head back up to peer at Tousaki with his good eye. Tousaki made a rough, unfinished gesture towards the door. "Seemed like you were maybe friends. I didn't mean to break things up. I just— She's the one who debriefed Taichou and the lieutenant and Katsuko, that first night, and…" He trailed off, scowling at the floor.
"That figures." Kakashi drew his legs up, clearing a little room at the foot of the bed. Tousaki folded down like he belonged there, hands dropping gracelessly in his lap.
"Yuuhi mostly dislikes me," Kakashi said. "I hurt a friend of hers once, badly. Did she debrief you?"
Tousaki shook his head. "Brown-eyed girl called Riei." He paused, brow furrowing. "Same shade of lipstick, though." He shook that off. "What happened to the friend?"
Yes, what did happen, Kakashi? Kurenai squashed down that little flare of the old anger. Rin had forgiven him. The war wasn't hers to wage.
The visible slice of Kakashi's face flinched into something extremely complicated, for a moment. "A perspective change," he said at last. "Nothing fatal." He waved it away. "It was a long time ago. What's going on with you?"
Tousaki accepted the evasion as if he was used to that, too. "Caught up on sleep," he said, with a lopsided shrug. "Well, not so much sleep, actually, but— Rest." His mood seemed to lighten a little.
Kakashi looked half-liddedly amused. "Something horizontal."
Tousaki stared at him. "How'd you—?"
"Remember how you always smell like a lady's bedroom?" Kakashi asked, and arched a meaningful brow.
"That was soap." Tousaki cracked his neck, and managed an entirely unsubtle sniff of his shirt collar. "So's this. You need more experience of ladies' bedrooms."
"You have enough for both of us and three more people," Kakashi retorted.
If that blow bruised, Tousaki didn't show it. "Well, somebody has to pick up your slack. Konoha nin have a reputation to keep up." He picked at a loose thread on the torn knee of his jeans. More quietly, he asked, "You heard anything from the captain yet?"
Kakashi sighed softly. "I was just about to ask you."
Tousaki groaned and flopped backward onto the bed, narrowly missing Kakashi's feet. Staring up at the ceiling, he said, "Nothing. I checked in with the lieutenant already — got some instructions for those log-books for you — and he hasn't heard from the captain since Wednesday night. Intel's had a full day. Shouldn't they be done with him by now?"
"Have you ever known Intel to be quick when they didn't have to be?" Kakashi asked. Kurenai frowned at him, but she didn't miss the grimness to his voice, the tension edging his eye. Worry.
"They were quick enough debriefing us the first time. You're the only one who got to sleep." Tousaki scowled. "Lieutenant says he's got house arrest. Raidou, I mean, not Genma. Genma gets out tomorrow, maybe, or the day after."
"House arrest is better than actual arrest," Kakashi said, which was cold comfort if Kurenai'd ever heard it. "Captain's smart enough not to hang himself on any rope they give him. At least, I think he is."
Kurenai hoped so. Remembering Namiashi's numb gaze, the last time she'd seen him in the maze of ANBU HQ, she hoped so fervently.
"Taichou's smart," Tousaki agreed doubtfully. "And Intel's on our side." He sounded even more doubtful about that.
She'd forgotten how hard it could be to just listen — not to ask questions, not to offer reassurance, not to direct the slow current of thoughts. Tousaki folded his arms behind his head and frowned up at the ceiling as if it were the barrier keeping his team from their captain. Kakashi gazed down at him, a faint line crinkling between the grey brow and the bandage. Kurenai fidgeted with her pen, and waited for the words that would make this uneasy spying worth it.
Ryouma’s left sleeve had rucked up when he moved, revealing the lower curve of his ANBU tattoo and the straight, angry welt of Iebara’s blood-draining injury. The wound was healed, but its edges were puckered and strained: the hallmarks of a hasty battlefield fix. It would be an ugly scar.
Apart from that, a few bruises, and the fading burns on his fingertips, he'd made it through the mission almost unscathed. And yet, except for the captain, he was the one Kakashi was most worried about.
Or — he had been.
Stretched out comfortably on the bed, smelling of other people's skin and a night of actual sleep, wearing civilian clothes instead of sour fear, Ryouma looked mostly like himself again, and Kakashi wondered if he'd been too hasty. You needed to backstop your teammates, and Intel was a simple way to do that, but perhaps he should have talked to Ryouma first.
Except that talking was messy and complicated, and Kakashi wasn’t good at it.
He scratched his cheek beneath the strap of the medical mask, and tried, “Are you going to have a breakdown?”
The long stretch of Ryouma’s body went entirely still. Kakashi thought, crap. Then Ryouma laughed roughly.
“Hell,” he said. “I’ve had this conversation with everyone else on the team, might as well go for an all-kill. No. I don’t think so. Talking… helped, actually, and coming back home. Seeing what we did it for.” He pushed himself upright, hands restless. “Seeing Ayane. We got off better than she did. Her whole team’s down. And I was thinking…”
Kakashi kept very still, in case a thoughtless word would kill the conversation. Ryouma pulled at one of the loose threads at his knee, fraying the hole wider.
“Killing Tsuto’s wife and daughter fucked me up pretty bad. But if we’d been where Ayane’s team was, if I had to kill that girl to save your life, I would have done it and not lost a wink of sleep over it.” The thread snapped between his fingers. “And I’m not sure what that means, except we killed them for Konoha, and that’s not too different from killing for your own team…”
“We killed trash,” Kakashi said, in case Ryouma had forgotten. “The daughter might have been blameless, but she wouldn’t have stayed that way, not in Tsuto’s family. They attacked the Daimyou. They targeted our home, Tousaki. If they’d won, they would have replaced the Hokage, and then how many people would they have made us kill?”
Ryouma had turned to face him, eyes fixed intently on Kakashi’s face. His lips parted before he took a breath, showing the edges of his teeth. Finally, he said, “So we did it for that little blond kid. All right. I can hold onto that.”
Some days, the concrete was all you could deal with, when the abstract was too big and distant to get your mind around. Naruto was a good lynch-pin. Kakashi didn’t mind sharing him for that.
“Whatever you need to be okay with it,” he said. He stretched a leg out and kicked Ryouma firmly on the hip. “But you need to get okay with it, soon. I’m not breaking in another teammate.”
“Hey!” Ryouma locked a hand around Kakashi’s ankle to prevent further assault. “I’m not leaving this team unless you kick me off. And I’m not taking any more kicking. Especially not from a guy who can’t even walk.”
His fingers were warm and strong through the thin cotton of the sheets and Kakashi's hospital pyjama pants. Steady and, maybe, capable of staying that way.
I’m better at talking than I thought.
Kakashi leaned back against his pillows, reassured and suddenly tired. “I can walk,” he said. “I just prefer getting waited on. You know they give you three meals a day here and all the IV you could want?”
Ryouma laughed, easier this time, without the worn edge. His thumb rubbed over Kakashi's anklebone. "We did that for you, too. You just don't remember it."
The touch was affectionate, not seductive — at least to Kakashi's limited understanding — but it still made him blink and free his ankle, flustered.
"I remember some of it," he said, like he hadn't spent most of the morning wanting to drag a pillow over his face and hide until the fuzzy, terrible embarrassment went away. "And based on that, I'm choosing to believe the rest was a horrible nightmare and didn't actually happen."
Ryouma’s slow-curling smirk managed, somehow, to be both superior and fond. “You’re awfully cuddly when you’re high.”
Kakashi opened his mouth to argue hotly— and stopped dead when a memory unfurled sepia wings in his mind’s eye. Katsuko on his left, curled close and warm. Ryouma on his right, smelling of soap and death, with his killing-fingers woven loosely through Kakashi’s.
They’d held hands?
“Oh my god,” Kakashi said thinly, and covered his head with both arms. “Kill me now.”
“Not after I put all that effort into saving you!” Ryouma protested. “I nearly put my back out. You’re heavier than you look.”
“Just because I look like an effervescent twig—” Kakashi began, channeling one of Minato’s older complaints, before he realized that didn’t actually help. “No, wait, I take it back, just because you have the muscle tone of melted butter doesn’t mean I can’t die of shame, and also shut up.”
Ryouma leaned back on his hands, eyes glittering with dark amusement under the fluorescent strip-lights, and ever-so-casually flexed his biceps, so the muscles tightened and stood out under his skin. His shirt was close-fitting enough to show the outline of his chest for a moment, cast in sharp relief. “Sure you’re not still on some of those drugs? Usually your insults are better than this.”
It was like watching an alley-cat preen itself.
On the other hand, it was also proof that Ryouma was feeling better. Even his scent had brightened.
"You're a ridiculous human being," Kakashi informed him, lowering his arms. "When you finally sprain your ego, I hope I'm there to take pictures."
Ryouma laughed, rumbling low and pleased with himself. That was the third time, now. “Better keep your camera close. It happens more often than you’d think.”
“I don’t doubt,” Kakashi said. He let his legs stretch out again, until his feet ended up a careful inch away from Ryouma’s hip, and raked a hand through his hair — ragged, though washed, and still crimped in odd ways. Katsuko’s hairdresser aspirations leaving a mark, even after the nurses’ best attempts to undo them. He almost missed the braids. At least they were something else to think about.
“Any word on Ueno?” he asked.
Finally. Kurenai let out a long, slow breath. Not that Kakashi's bizarre turn for less-than-witty banter wasn't amusing—and baffling; he'd supposedly been off morphine for 12 hours by now, but maybe there were still traces of narcotic working through his system. But as their conversation narrowed from the mission to the personal, it became harder and harder to justify listening.
Kakashi'd done her one service, though. She doubted Tousaki would have talked anywhere near so freely to an Intel debriefer or a T&I psych analyst. And no psych officer could have pierced to the core of Tousaki's concerns as efficiently as Kakashi had, offering Tousaki a life-bouy calculated precisely for the weight of the mission and Tousaki's doubts. It took a teammate's understanding of problem and personality to see that clearly—or a friend's.
Maybe they should give team recommendations stronger weight in the psych process, after all.
Tousaki seemed far easier in his skin than he'd been twenty minutes ago. He swung his legs, booted feet scraping the tiled floor, and reported, "Haven't seen Katsuko yet this morning. We split off last night, after we left the hospital. I ran into some friends, and she...headed home. I think." His lips compressed briefly, as if he was second-guessing that judgment. "I'm not even sure where she lives."
"North Sakura Street, above the grocery store," Kakashi supplied promptly. "One of the little civilian places."
Kurenai's brows rose. Tousaki's did, too. "You've visited her?" He sounded almost jealous.
Kakashi looked at him like he'd stepped off the left side of sanity. "No."
"Well—" Tousaki's frown cleared. "You snuck her file, didn't you." You clever bastard, his tone implied. "Did you read the rest of it?" He paused. "Did you read mine?"
"I have no knowledge of any illegal or unethical actions within the village," Kakashi said smoothly. "But Ueno needs to learn to guard her six."
Tousaki's lips shaped around the words—guard her six? Then he snickered. "You followed her home. Y'know, Kakashi, if you're that far gone, you really should say something. She might take you up on it…"
Like hell she will. Kurenai would trigger that exploding tag herself before she let another friend break her heart on Hatake Kakashi.
Fortunately, he seemed disinclined to repeat old mistakes. He snorted. "More likely she'd try to wear my spine like a scarf. Tracking is practice, not romance. You need healthier role models, Tousaki."
"And you need better hobbies." Tousaki hesitated, though, fingers drumming on his knee. "Does that mean you know where the captain's mom lives?"
"Moms, plural," Kakashi said. "He has two. And yes." He left it there, as if he questioned the judgment of giving Tousaki an actual address. Kurenai wasn't sure she blamed him. If Namiashi was under no-contact orders, HQ wouldn't look kindly on Tousaki dropping by.
"Two?" Tousaki sounded more envious than surprised. "Do you know—?" He broke off, shaking his head, as if some questions were too intrusive even for him to ask.
Kurenai could imagine them, though. Konoha was known for its unusual tolerance for diversity of partnerships, but it was still a ninja village with a vested interest in bloodlines and breeding. Same-sex pairings were common; couples who stayed together — or survived — long enough to raise children were less so. She wondered if Namiashi was one of the war orphan-adoptees, or whether his mothers had found a friend willing to sire a child he might not live to raise. Perhaps a rare triad? Surely he'd have siblings, if that were the case.
She thought of Namiashi going home from HQ, weary and heartsick, into a raucous family's warm embrace, and hoped it was true.
"One of them has his coloring," Kakashi told Tousaki, as if he'd guessed at the bitten-down question. He added awkwardly, "They looked like nice people."
"Dunno who'd trust you to assess nice," Tousaki said, but he looked a little cheered at the thought. "It stands to reason Taichou'd have good folks, though. You don't grow up like that on your own." He scuffed at the floor again, and sighed.
Kakashi gazed at him for a quiet moment, head tipped, grey eye contemplative. Not quite gentle, but — almost. His fingers rubbed softly over the pale blanket on his thigh. "What happened to your parents?"
And when, Kurenai thought, deeply unnerved, did you learn compassion?
"They died," Tousaki said flatly, and pushed to his feet. "Where'd they dump your gear? Anything need special cleaning?"
Kakashi hitched one shoulder up and accepted the subject change. "Uniform was shredded. I think the lieutenant took it. I need a new mask from the Quartermaster, if you're feeling brave." He paused. "And a new kodachi."
"I've got Genma's gear." Tousaki touched a scroll wedged deeply into his back pocket. He seemed relieved, though the tension lingered in his broad shoulders. "Forgot we sealed yours up already. No wonder sealing this bunch took so much chakra." He pivoted on his heel, tapping his thumb against his lip. "I've got to brace the QM for new masks anyway, for the lieutenant. And the captain," he added fiercely. "And new armor for pretty much everybody."
"Tell him I want something that protects against ballistic blood-needles next time," Kakashi said.
Tousaki snorted. "Good luck. The lieutenant asked for something that'd keep demons from gutting him, last time, and we got a whole lecture on how Morita-san's armor can't be improved. At least it's better than flak-vests."
He turned another slow circle, as if half the restlessness had drained out of him, but the remnants drove him on. "We're going clubbing with Katsuko when you're better," he announced abruptly.
Kurenai nearly dropped her pen again.
Kakashi blinked just once, in pure bafflement. "Because...this month hasn't been painful enough?"
"Because I promised her on that first mission, when I was all over demon slime and she was still hugging me to keep me warm," Tousaki said. "She told me I could be her wingman. And I owe you dinner, anyway. And you…" He kicked the edge of Kakashi's bed very lightly. "You owe her now, too."
Kakashi looked as if he were still trying to figure out how any of that connected to going clubbing. "What do I wear?"
Tousaki stood still. "You mean you'll—?" He caught himself, cleared his throat, shoved his hands in his pockets. "Nothing too fancy. Clean civvies, just jeans and a good jacket, if you've got 'em. Unless Katsuko wants to go to one of the really glam civilian nightclubs, in which case I guess we both go shopping."
Pillows crinkled. Kakashi's shoulders pressed up against the headboard in alarm. "If anything involves glitter, I'm withdrawing consent right now."
"No glitter," Tousaki agreed. "I'll let her know." He still didn't quite seem ready to believe his luck; he leaned against the bedside table, jigging one foot anxiously against the other. "It'll just be dinner and drinks, really. You don't have to— dance with anybody, if you don't want. We'll keep an eye out for you."
"Oh, this is going to be fun," Kakashi said, in a voice that plastered irony all over glitter-inspired fear. "I'll stand in a corner while you and Ueno glare at everyone. Are you sure you've thought this through?"
Tousaki smiled sweetly at him. "If Katsuko and me are there, what makes you think anyone'll be looking at you?"
Kurenai was starting to look forward to seeing this boy sprain his ego, too.
But he was fascinating to watch: all prickles and anger one moment, all charm and self-satisfaction the next. She hoped he did manage to drag Kakashi out to one of Konoha's watering spots soon. Kakashi might even enjoy it. Katsuko certainly would.
A flicker of challenge sparked in Kakashi's eye. "Idiocy is more noticeable," he drawled.
"So you can enjoy yourself snarking at us," Tousaki countered. "I'll buy you a mocktail. Or a lemonade. You can stay obnoxiously sober and make scathing comments at everybody else."
Kakashi brightened. "Deal."
"Deal," Tousaki confirmed, and looked for a moment as if he meant to spit in his hand and shake on it. He swung around instead, looking at the bare hospital room, the midmorning view out the long window, the cheerful posters tacked up on the opposite wall. His gaze passed without faltering over Kurenai's corner and settled on the battered file over Kakashi's bedside table. "You know what to do with those? Lieutenant read me off a spiel, but they were changing his bandages when I came in, so it got kind of interrupted."
Kakashi tipped his head to look at the folder with his good eye. "If I said no, what would you do?"
"Figure you for a henge and stick a kunai in you," Tousaki said promptly. "You always know what to do." He rifled through the folder, though, and pulled out a set of red notebooks. "Training logs, the lieutenant said. And here's the paperwork for your mission report — though I dunno why you have to do it when you just told everything to Intel…"
"Because Intel likes redundancies and killing trees," Kakashi sighed, and pulled the file over to leaf through the paperwork. Tousaki dropped the logbooks on the table again and leaned hipshot against it, watching.
Out in the hall, far too close, chakra snapped and flared.
A shinobi's polite greeting, warning of approach — except this chakra was unmistakable, sun-bright and summer-warm. Kakashi's head came up. Tousaki looked automatically toward the half-open door.
Spying on Konoha agents, in service of a higher cause, could be excused. Spying on the Hokage very certainly could not. Kurenai gathered her genjutsu around herself and slipped out of the room just before the Yondaime reached for the door.
Not even the edge of her tightly inverted chakra grazed him. He paused all the same, one hand in the door slot, and looked around. The blue eyes touched her where she stood frozen in the hallway, and narrowed.
Kurenai dropped the genjutsu. "Hokage-sama," she said, tight-throated. She kept her voice low enough that no one in the room could hear, but her knuckles whitened on her clipboard all the same.
"When you're moving under an invisibility genjutsu," he said, just as quietly, "don't forget the air currents." His gaze stayed steady, piercing her through. "What were you doing?"
"Shirotani-kakarichou sent me to debrief Agent Hatake. His teammate, Agent Tousaki, arrived as we finished." She hesitated. "Kakashi raised...some concerns about Tousaki's status after the last mission. I stayed to observe their interaction."
"And your conclusions?"
She glanced toward the sliver of the room she could see through the half-open door. Tousaki hadn't moved yet, but he would soon…
And the Yondaime was waiting.
She drew a breath, and let it out. "Tousaki was disturbed by the actions he was required to take. But his team is supporting him. Kakashi talked to him longer — and more freely — than I've ever known him to speak to anyone but Rin. They're both concerned about their captain, but they're holding on."
His gaze pinned her a moment longer. Then he nodded, short and sharp. "Thank you for your work, Yuuhi. I'll see that report on my desk this afternoon."
"Hokage-sama," she managed. She bowed, clutching her clipboard to her chest, and fled.
Minato took a surprisingly long time outside the door. When he came in, he brought a lingering edge of Kurenai’s scent with him — flowers and sharp edges. Had he run into her downstairs?
“I brought you a book,” he said, holding up a small paperback with a bright cover, “but it looks like you’ve got entertainment enough already.”
“I’m the most popular girl in the village,” Kakashi agreed, making a gimme gesture. Minato underhanded the book to him. Kakashi turned it over, skimming eagerly down the blurb on the back. Hisakawa’s latest novel promised a feast of corrupt samurai, hill bandits with hearts of gold, and a pair of young lovers trapped between the two. Kakashi grinned behind his mask.
“I was hoping you hadn't read that one,” Minato said, pulling up the chair Kurenai had vacated earlier and settling in by Kakashi’s bedside. The spot he chose had perfect sightlines to three-quarters of the room and the door, but Minato made its selection look entirely accidental. “The clerk said it only came out last month, so I figured I was safe. Let me know when you finish it, and I'll buy the second trashiest book I can find.”
“Just because it’s not highbrow doesn’t mean it’s trash,” Kakashi said, tucking the book protectively under his pillow, where his tanto and First Mate still lurked. “But feel free to buy me a book any time you want to escape a council meeting.”
Minato’s lopsided smile said, caught.
He looked tired, beneath that. His eyes were still bright, and his clothes were clean and pressed — jounin blues, flak vest, long white hoari with its flame pattern, no sign of the Hokage hat anywhere — but his skin had the faint translucence that came from too many late nights and too little sunlight. A line of gold stubble trailed down one side of his jaw, as if he’d missed the mark shaving. One of his thumbs had a raw, bitten hangnail.
Stress, Kakashi read. Tension. Worry. If Minato was truly skipping the council, he had a much better reason than just boredom, or a sudden desire to visit his errant former student.
On the other side of the room, Ryouma was doing a passable job of standing rigidly to attention, trying to pretend he was invisible.
Minato nodded kindly at him. “Tousaki-san. I understand we have you to thank for Kakashi’s return.”
Ryouma went burning-red to the tips of his ears. “Not me alone, sir. Neither of us would’ve made it back without the rest of the team.”
“He carried me,” Kakashi said brightly, to see if Ryouma would turn more colors. “On his back. For upwards of thirty minutes.”
The flush rolled crimson over Ryouma’s sharp cheekbones. He darted a bewildered glance at Kakashi — are you helping or mocking? — and said, slightly stifled, “That was after he’d burned himself out killing Iebara, sir. Hokage-sama.”
“But not in a reckless or permanently debilitating way that would require anyone to yell at me,” Kakashi said.
Minato had adopted his I’m-fascinated-and-yet-also-entertained posture, elbow on his chair-arm, fist tucked under his chin, blue eyes flicking between Kakashi and Ryouma. He observed, “From the reports I’ve read, you two seem to be trading off who gets burned out and immobilized from one mission to the next. I hope you won’t be making this a habit.”
Even if he could read the cards, Ryouma was never going to make a good poker player. The rising delight on his face, badly concealed, was practically blazing. Kakashi couldn’t decide if it was because Minato was in the same room as him and knew he existed, or, more likely, because Minato had just admitted reading his reports.
“Yessir,” Ryouma said. “I mean, we won’t. Hokage-sama.” His eyes were respectfully lowered, but he kept sneaking glances up between his lashes. “It’s only ‘cause I killed a demon and Kakashi took on an S-class nin alone. We should handle standard missions just fine.”
Alone was unnecessarily specific. But Ryouma’s tone made it sound impressive, not suicidal.
Kakashi added, mouth quirking, “Two missions aren’t statistically significant, either. We’d have to fall over at least twice more before you could count it against us.”
Minato’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Let’s try to keep it from coming to that. We’re running low on able-bodied shinobi as it is, these days.”
“Lower, now that our captain’s been suspended,” Kakashi said pointedly.
Ryouma gave a startled blink, and then threw him a look of tense gratitude. Any lingering humor stripped right out of Minato’s expression.
“I’m aware,” he said, glancing at Ryouma, and then back to Kakashi. He didn’t ask Ryouma to leave. “It’s not ideal for anyone involved. I won’t be engaging in that debate with you until the investigation is done and we have all the facts at hand.” He relented just enough to allow, “Which will be soon, I hope.”
When Minato didn’t want to be moved, he was more unyielding than the Hokage’s mountain. But there was a crack there, splintered between Minato’s fondness for Kakashi and his deep, unwavering pride in his personal soldiers. Minato loved the village, whole and entire, but he’d always carried a special soft spot for underdogs.
He’d been one, once.
Kakashi said, "Don't let the council sell out Namiashi-taichou because repairs are expensive. We can do more missions. It's harder to get more captains."
“Thank you for your counsel,” Minato said, bone-dry. “I can see you’ve been very well briefed on our financial and personnel situations.” He dropped his hand to the chair arm, and tapped his fingers rhythmically just once. “Rest assured, I don’t sell Konoha’s blood lightly.”
But he still would, if he had to.
Kakashi had shot his arrow. He dropped his chin, nodding once, and said, “So why are you dodging the council?”
Minato groaned, slouching back into his chair. “Not you, too. I had a formal dinner yesterday evening to entertain ambassadors from Grass and Rain. Half the Council was there, and most of them tried to buttonhole me afterward to talk over their pet projects. They were just going to spend today’s meeting rehashing everything all over again. I slept four hours last night. Can’t I spare an hour to welcome my student back from the jaws of death?”
Kakashi thought, oh.
Seeing underneath the underneath was only useful when there was an ulterior motive. It tended to trip him flat when Minato was sincere — which was often.
In retrospect, Kakashi thought, he should've learned better by now.
Still rigid against the wall, Ryouma looked sympathetic, more than a little dismayed, and highly uncomfortable. Hero worship didn’t leave much room for a glorious Hokage who got tired and cranky, and actually complained behind closed doors.
“It was really more like the dentures of death,” Kakashi said. “Or one tooth of death. Very survivable death.” He pulled his legs up again, clearing room at the foot of the bed. “Want to sit somewhere more comfortable? Tousaki was, before you made him jump like a cat.”
Minato chuckled wearily. “You sound like Naruto. He asked me yesterday what would happen if we lived in a banana with no chimney. Tousaki, you don’t mind if I take your spot?”
“I don’t, uh— No, sure, go ahead, Hokage-sama.” Ryouma cast a quick, sideways glance at Kakashi. “I should probably be heading out, anyway. Lieutenant left me with a laundry list of errands. Including laundry.”
Kakashi couldn’t resist. “Sure you don’t want to stay?”
The look Ryouma gave him would have poisoned a lesser man. “Have fun with your logbooks. Uh, if you’ll excuse me, Hokage-sama…” Ryouma saluted crisply, and managed an interesting sort of sidle-march to get out of the room without turning his back on Minato. The door clicked closed, very quietly.
Minato waited two full beats, and said, “That wasn’t nice.”
“You were smiling inside,” Kakashi said. “Hop up and teach me your super-power of embarrassing people out of rooms.”
“You seem to be well on the way to mastering it yourself.” Minato levered himself out of the chair, letting his stiffness show, and perched on the edge of the bed. Even with the stiffness, there was a little more ease to him now: he didn’t need to hold himself upright for Kakashi. He added, “Does he turn that red often? I’d expected more braggadocio, less blushing.”
“First time I’ve seen him go that color,” Kakashi said happily. “It was like a magic trick. You should come visit the whole team.”
“I'd like that," Minato said, unexpectedly. "When things clear up with your captain, perhaps. Naruto's been plastering his bedroom wall with scribbles of you all. What did you tell him about Ueno? She's the only one I can reliably pick out. He draws her like a fireball.”
“That’s accurate,” Kakashi said. “What does he draw the rest like?”
“Stick figures, mostly. Scribble hair, eleven fingers to a hand, that sort of thing. Sometimes he remembers your mask. He said he brought you a present?”
Kakashi reached into the heap of pillows, avoiding the hard edge of the hidden tanto — which was an open secret among the nurses now, since they’d changed his sheets twice while he’d been getting chakra treatments and the tanto still remained — and retrieved the soft, slightly crumpled body of First Mate. He offered it to Minato for inspection.
Minato accepted the stuffed seagull gently, and looked delighted when he discovered the flapping wings. “You know how hard it must have been for him not to keep this for himself?” He handed it back. “He loves you.”
Kakashi smoothed his fingers over First Mate’s plush head, resettling the fur, and tucked the toy back into its hiding place. His chest ached a little, but he’d channelled raw lightning to kill a man; there was a good reason.
"I know," he said, and grimaced when that sounded selfish. "I mean—” He hesitated. Minato gave him a speaking look, one that knew all the ways Kakashi was intensely, stupidly awkward, and didn't mind them. Kakashi took a breath and said, "He's really becoming his own little person." I love him, too.
Minato smiled softly. “She’d be proud of him.”
Kakashi stilled, surprised. Minato almost never mentioned Kushina.
No, that wasn't true. She was an open subject around her son — Minato wanted her to be a living presence to Naruto, never forgotten. He spoke about her with Rin, too, who'd loved Kushina like family and cried for weeks after the Fox. With everyone else, he kept his thoughts to himself. He made the anniversary speech to the village once a year, on Naruto’s birthday, but that was a eulogy. It wasn’t the same.
With Kakashi, there was a careful space of wordlessness built between them, where the memory of Kushina's clever hands, sharp tongue, and needless death lived, because Kakashi was terrible at grief, and Minato was smart enough not to bare a bleeding edge to someone who might accidentally stab it.
Carefully, he said, “She’d be proud of you both.”
Minato stared fixedly at the bedside table, clearly not seeing it. His smile had gone. “Maybe. Right now she’d probably chew me out for the shambles we’ve made of things.” He jerked his head up, pulling himself together, and focused on the table for real. “Those don’t look like just mission reports. How’d you get landed with sickbed paperwork detail?”
That was twice Kakashi had stepped on someone’s dead-loved-ones-issues today. If Katsuko visited later maybe he could go three for three and win a set of steak knives.
“My lieutenant’s a sadist,” he answered, embracing the topic change. “He has opinions about using leverage to your advantage in training exercises.”
A golden eyebrow arched. “Opinions about getting caught, I’d say. Good for him.”
Minato tapped his fingers against his thigh. “Your team…” he began. “I’m sorry I can’t talk about them now. I do want to hear about that mission. Congratulate you properly on your first Bingo Book kill.” His smile returned, etched rueful this time. “Maybe by the time you’re out of hospital. We’ll have Rin over for a family dinner, how’s that? The food’s a lot better since Ogata-san came.”
Kakashi was still reserving judgement, but he liked what he’d seen of the one-eyed, no nonsense housekeeper so far. She seemed like she was actually capable of keeping up with Naruto, for starters. She made me a Captain Seaweed bento, niisan!
“If you spring me, I’ll come around tonight,” he said, giving Minato a hopeful look.
Minato returned it with narrow-eyed assessment. “How far can you walk?”
“Made it to the bathroom this morning without falling down,” Kakashi said. “Brushed my own teeth and everything.”
Minato glanced over at the bathroom door, less than fifteen feet away, and patted Kakashi’s blanketed foot kindly. “Maybe tomorrow. Ogata-san will want time to shop. And Naruto’ll want you fit enough for wrestling.”
If Kakashi got pinned by a three-and-a-half year old, he’d never live it down. Especially since Naruto would accuse him of throwing the fight, and it wouldn’t be true.
He sighed. “Fine. But definitely tomorrow.”
“Naruto and I will come by and spring you by 1700,” Minato promised. He gave Kakashi’s foot a final pat and pushed himself up. “We’ll hum a theme song and everything.”
Kakashi snorted again, but relief trickled through his chest. Freedom soon. “Sleep tonight,” he told Minato sternly. “More than four hours.”
Minato paused with his hand on the door. “Bossy as ever,” he said, but his voice was fond. “I’ll do my best, Kakashi-kun.”
Which meant he’d still be awake at 4am, drafting policy and reading meeting notes, worrying over the thousands of lives under his care and borders that felt far too fragile.
There were some days that Kakashi really wanted to throttle Kushina for dying tragically, heroically, and most of all, permanently — she was the only one who’d ever made Minato stop.
The door slid closed.
A few moments later, Minato’s swirling chakra faded from the edge of Kakashi’s returning senses, leaving the world quieter and duller. The traces of his scent lingered a while, tangled with Ryouma’s and Kurenai’s, but eventually those faded too.
Kakashi lay back, staring up at the ceiling, and thought of Kurenai’s delicately controlled anger, Ryouma’s slow progress back to solid ground, and Minato’s tired eyes. He thought about Katsuko, not here, and Genma, still healing. He thought about the captain, and whether that report might help.
He thought, I need to get better.
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