Hands stuffed loosely in his pockets, Asuma sauntered down Konoha's main street, checking out what had changed. Five years wasn't a whole lot--especially if you looked at it on a cosmic scale--but dumping a demon fox (a demon fox!) on a small town went a long way to changing its architecture.
The south-side corner market was gone. He'd liked those dumplings.
Canal street was still thriving, though. And the Fujoki bakery. (Which still did the best waffles in town.) The river looked about the same. The parks never changed. The monument was about as gloomy as ever...
He glanced up, dark eyes drifting over the weathered faces of past and present rulers, and tossed off an ironic salute to the one with the beard. Morning, ya old bastard.
The wind swept down, flipping his hair into his eyes and blowing travel-dust off his clothes. He'd been home two days already, maybe it was time to think about getting a new shirt--or a haircut.
A snarl, a crash, and a litter of tableware flying across the street interrupted his vague plans. He sidestepped a fleeing civilian, watched a ballistic fork ricochet off a nearby building, and lifted an eyebrow as two howling, scuffling people flailed their way through a street-side diner's patio furniture, upsetting tables and flinging lethal killing intent around. An older male and a teenager, it looked like. Behind them, a dark tangle of flying, snapping fur suggested two dogs were doing their best to either kill each other or build up some truly fantastic foreplay.
Asuma leaned his weight thoughtfully on one hip.
Dogs, street fighting, bright red tattoos--had to be Inuzuka. And that nice cafe owner with the great curves was looking a little upset...
He flashed a broad smile at her, and slapped his hands together. Chakra shimmered briefly between his palms. Then moisture yanked right out of the air, formed itself into a tidy sheet above the scrapping dog-people, and dropped like a rock.
Which accomplished exactly nothing.
Asuma sighed, resigned himself to getting damp, and leapt over the rail before the older male did something stupid--like killing the teenager. He grabbed the bandaged kid by the collar with one hand and hauled him out from under the older male, lobbed a table at the dogs with the other hand, and met the charging Inuzuka missing one earlobe with a warning heel to the chest.
"Dude, be reasonable, you're in the middle of the stre--hey!"
The teenager had bitten him.
Botan lunged for Tsume and, regardless of the hand gripping her collar, she lunged right back.
The hand hadn't let go. She whipped around, digging claws into the nearest meat she could find--there was a lot of it--and attempting to wrench free.
In the half a moment before her feet left the ground and her teeth rattled around in her head as the meat--apparently even larger than she'd distantly realized--shook her, Botan snatched at her throat. When he missed, he whipped away and circled around to try again.
From not too far away, she heard Kuromaru yelp and snarl.
"Let--go," she growled, lashing first at one body and then at another. Her eyes refocused on Botan, just out of range. If she'd been on her feet-- She twisted around to slice again, hands hooked into claws, and missed.
Frustrated, she struck at the man holding her up, instead.
The first cardinal rule of getting involved in dog fights was always don't get involved in dog fights.
But Asuma had never really been a pet person.
"Son of a bitch," he yelped, as claws swiped from the front and teeth from behind. The teenager dangling from his hand--whose voice was really a lot higher than it should have been--kicked around in a furious circle, almost frothing at the mouth.
Asuma snapped a heel backwards, catching the older Inuzuka on the knee when he got too close, and shook the little bastard again, dislodging claws.
"Look, I'm trying to be a nice guy, here--"
The teenager snarled. The older Inuzuka answered in kind and leapt forward, nearly six feet of fast-moving muscle bent on killing something.
This time, Asuma met him with the non-business end of a trench knife, hastily yanked from his belt. The brass-knuckles grip smashed into the Inuzuka's throat, driving a push of chakra into one key pressure point, dropping him with a gurgle.
"Trying to be a nice guy," he repeated, toeing the unconscious man over. "It's hard, y'know."
He hooked up a second table, flung it at the still-battling dogs, and turned his attention to the dangling teenager--
Who had soft curves showing through the wet, clinging fabric of his shirt.
Asuma blinked. Then ducked fast when a swipe of claws tried to take his head off at the neck.
"Y'know," he said, dropping her back down to her feet, "generally people don't thank their rescuers by trying to kill them. I'm just sayin'."
The challenge was out of the air, chakra dying as Baton passed out. It took most of the fight with it, even the other familiar pausing with more important concerns. Whether that was an incoming table or the fact that his human lay unconscious was anyone's guess.
Kuromaru sniffed disdainfully, ruff lowering, and marched stiff-legged toward Tsume.
Tsume, still attached to her "rescuer" by one oversized hand on her shirt, yanked away and glared up. Kuromaru brushed gently against her hip, and three eyes stared at the newcomer.
"Generally, rescuers only come in when someone's called for them," she pointed out, pulling her shirt straight again, mostly for something to do with her hands than anything else. Cloth stuck to her skin, dripping. Bastard. She really wished she knew Raidou's drying jutsu--and had the chakra to use it. Adrenaline was fading rapidly, quicker than it would in any kind of battle, leaving her highly aware of the scratches Baton had left behind.
A practiced gaze swept her "rescuer"--as if she'd needed one--rapidly over. He was tall. Practically a giant. She didn't even come up to his collarbones--he was as tall as Ryouma, and Ryouma was stupidly tall. Appearances to the contrary, he couldn't possibly be a drifter. Too much chakra there, and under torn pants and a loose jacket she could catch glimpses of the way muscles flexed. He had to have Raidou's proportions, except even more muscular because he was even taller. She took another two steps back to keep from getting a crick in her neck, and peered up at his face from under her (wet) hair.
His hair was black, shaggy, disheveled now, and greasy. He hadn't shaved in days from the looks of things, and he was now grinning at her in a way that said he really had no idea how much of a bum he looked.
He smelled like cigarettes and, newly, blood. Tsume wrinkled her nose and pressed the back of her wrist to her face. It smothered tar and nicotine with Baton's red, still lingering under her claws.
The new guy's blood-scent curled up from under her claws, too.
His hips were going to give out really soon. She'd bet money on it. One day he'd be striding along on his stupid long legs, and bam, he'd drop.
"You can stop smiling now," Kuromaru sniffed at her side. "We beat them." His whole tone said that any time the new guy wanted to leave, he was more than welcome to do so. They had it handled.
"If that was your version of a thank you," Asuma said, eyeing the talking dog (ugly talking dog), "it sucked." He leaned back on his heels, re-sheathing his trench knife, and returned the three-eyed once-over.
Seriously ugly dog. Someone had recently decided to gouge an eye out, lop an ear off, and strip away half its facial fur, leaving raw scabs behind. The rest was falling out in great big clumps--where the other dog hadn't torn it away.
And it talked, but Asuma had been around Inuzuka before. He remembered the clan leader's dogs from endlessly boring meetings.
Not that this dog looked like one of those.
The woman--he cocked his head, flicking a second glance over those here-and-gone-again curves--was a little on the prettier side. Not much prettier, what with the bandage at her temple, scratches over her throat, and diamond-blue glare aimed right his way.
Actually, that was a little sexy.
He swept his hair back out of his face (it was past collar level; he really needed to get it cut) and let his grin broaden.
"How about you try again? Let your buddy pick up the tab for the broken furniture--" he nudged the unconscious Inuzuka with a foot, "--and show me a place that's good to eat? Preferably one that'll take..."
He dug through one pocket, pulling out a mess of cross-world currencies.
"Water-country dollars, Suna brass, or... hey, beads on a string." Blue glass dangled from his wrist and glinted in the sun. He had Fire-country cash, what with three years of Daimyo-owed backpay stuffed into his rucksack (not to mention an untapped trust fund lying around somewhere), but getting a laugh might stop him from getting the blow off.
Grateful civilian cafe owner was one thing. Kunoichi were always more interesting.
Tsume eyed the light glinting through pretty blue glass, refracting and dancing and nearly blinding when it hit just right, and snorted. He was a bum. "If we'd needed a rescue," she pointed out dryly, completely ignoring the fact that she'd not exactly been winning, "we've had hollered."
"I never need a rescue," Kuromaru mumbled. "And certainly not from--"
Tsume cut over his growled words. "But if you need a rescue, we might be able to manage something." She flashed a grin that was more teeth than smile, still feeling edgy despite Baton on the ground and Akabenimaru whining by his side. Company wouldn't be unwelcome, and inside would be warmer on her now-wet clothes. "Trade you beads for food." This time, the grin was a little bit friendlier--if still all teeth.
"Deal," he said, bending slightly to catch her hand--avoiding claws--and laying his beads across her palm. They'd cost him a buck in some dusty town on Rain's border; he'd hung onto them for luck, mostly, and knowledge that a pretty bauble in the right place could get you further than a prettier smile.
He straightened, shifted the shoulder strap of his rucksack, and tossed a wave to the scowling cafe owner. "Hey, gorgeous, if you take his ass down to the hospital--" yet another nudge to the fallen Inuzuka's head, "--the clan'll probably pay for the damages."
"They better!" snapped the woman, glaring at the kunoichi by his elbow. "I'm filing a complaint with--with the Hokage."
Asuma smothered an inappropriate laugh, fingering a scratch beneath one wide bracelet. "Okay. Luck with that."
The woman snorted, folded arms pushing up her ample chest, and ducked back inside to deal with more sympathetic civilians.
Asuma turned his attention back to the kunoichi. "Do your rescues come with a name? Or do I just have to wade through all the denial and guess? I'm Asuma, by the way. Nice to meet ya." He crouched down to grin at the dog. "And you."
Unable to decide between annoyance at him announcing her clan would pay for the damages--even if they would--and amusement at how he handled the cafe owner, she tucked the glass beads into a pocket and watched the two males.
Kuromaru's ruff rose again briefly, his head lifting and chest puffing out. "I'm Kuromaru. And this is Tsume."
One of her eyebrows rose. Apparently all the males felt like they were in charge, today. She cleared her throat pointedly, eyeing Kuromaru when he blinked up at her. His innocent face didn't work so well with one raw eyesocket. Medical tape didn't stick to fur, and when the gauze had come off that morning she hadn't had the heart to insist they re-bandage--no matter what Genma had said. "We should head off. Baton'll wake up at some point, and I'd rather not bleed on him more." She glanced at the man, who wasn't much below her eyelevel, even crouched, and quirked a smile. "Besides, we hang around here and that woman'll call the Uchiha."
Kuromaru huffed. "I could take 'em."
"I know," she soothed. "But I'd rather get lunch. And dry clothes. And maybe bandages." Haruichi was going to kill her. Patched up one day and battered the next--this probably didn't count as being careful. Tsume grimaced. "If we head to the other side of the district, we'll pass a pharmacy on the way to--"
The large man--Asuma--rustled around in his russack, pulling out a small medkit.
Tsume barked a quick laugh. "Great. So now we just need food." She took it, striding past him as she did so, planting one hand on the patio railing and vaulting over in a smooth motion.
Kuromaru circled back to get a running start, moving not nearly as gracefully as he should have but still clearing it. Tsume watched Asuma. Granted, the rail was barely hip-high, but his body moved fluidly as he leapt the metal, speaking of enough training that this was effortless.
Most likely a ninja. From memories hazy with challenge, she recalled the feeling of coiled chakra--and no more than was needed. Which meant more than, say, genin, and likely upper chuunin.
And he looked like a bum. Refugee, maybe? She started walking before either male could get ahead, deciding on a place and heading for it. "Thanks," she said, waving the unopened medkit. "Where're you from?"
"Lately?" said Asuma with a wry slashing smile, long legs stretching out to accommodate her swift pace; for a little lady, she moved fast. "Last place I bunked down was West. Before that was North-West. Before that was South. How long've you been brawling in the streets?"
He wasn't quite ready to think about the West yet, letalone share it with a stranger. Mysterious curves or not.
"And you're welcome," he added belatedly, digging a hand in his pocket to pull out a ragged--and now slightly damp--carton of cigarettes. Metal clicked as he flicked steel against flint and won himself a spark.
Tsume took half a step away as smoke bloomed. It obliterated even the lingering scent of blood. West, North-West and South, huh? She eyed him, trying to read body language in the suddenly lack of smell and failing almost completely. She got 'relaxed,' which wasn't hard.
"Years," she said in response to his own question. She grinned briefly. "I think I'm getting pretty good at it."
"When people don't butt in," Kuromaru added, circling around them both to put Tsume in between. "You know, girls don't like it when you stin--"
Tsume stepped into him.
Kuromaru huffed and pointedly looked elsewhere. "And if they're in heat they don't respond like they--"
Tsume stepped into him again. "You grow up around here?" She glanced at Asuma again. Big, broad, moved well--ninja. Had to be. But a ninja here wouldn't be begging lunch off people; it wasn't like they couldn't use every hand they could get, these days. "Or you just here for work?"
Tsume--typical Inuzuka name; Claw, for the very subtle wit--had apparently picked up her interrogation skills along with her street-brawling ones. Everyone knew you didn't give your target a leading answer to run with.
"Work, sleep, food, sightseeing." Dark eyebrows arched as he grinned around his cigarette. "Sex. I'm not discriminating."
The dog made another one of those funny snorting noises, fur rippling up and down like a tidal wave in the breeze. Asuma grinned wider, still filing away that in heat comment.
Tsume gave him a look.
He relented, waving a hand that took in half of Konoha, flashing past the monument, the Hokage's palace, and ANBU's headquarters. "I grew up over there. Left a while back, did some travelling, got home two days ago." He exhaled a stream of blue-tinged smoke, turning his head slightly away from the nasally-sensitive Inuzuka duo. "Should be starting work tonight. Wanna wish me luck?"
He wouldn't need it, really. Any jackass could get a tattoo. But standing up in front of the old man, cementing a new allegiance while the scarlet mark needled down his shoulder--that he'd take some luck for.
Everything after that would be a cakewalk.
"How about you?" He drew a line down one cheek with an index finger, tracing the mirror path of her left cheekbone tattoo. "Gotta be a local gal. Ever gotten out?"
She passed on the luck comment with only a snort. "Never felt like getting out. Plenty to do here." Her tone was a little dry; it wasn't like she hadn't kept herself busy. ANBU was practically a vacation after clan and kids.
She caught Kuromaru's single-eared profile, and revised that. A really lousy vacation.
"Is that where you've been? Busy getting out?" She grinned up at him, measuring him once more. It would make sense, though she couldn't think why a ninja would leave. Maybe he was a crappy ninja. Maybe he'd taken a few too many missions that had gone poorly--though he didn't bear any obvious scars. But he hadn't been surprised at Kuromaru talking, and he obviously recognized her tattoos; he was probably telling the truth about growing up here.
Smelling a lie was impossible with the cigarette smoke clinging to him like a shroud. She stepped closer, stepped away, and eyed him again.
Asuma watched her little two-step, amused, and then mirrored it, scattering ash and finishing with a heel-toe jig. "Your turn again."
This time he got a look from all three eyes, dark gold and icy blue.
He shoved an unembarrassed hand through his hair, sweeping it back from his face (again), and lifted a one-shouldered shrug. "Aren't we dancing? I figure you must be building up to a really fantastic lunch after all these questions. Or d'you just like making your men work hard?"
She was a funny little thing, half-drowning in mens' clothes a few dozen sizes too big for her. With her hair in her face and her body hidden by hanging cloth that only clung occasionally, when the lingering wet stuck it to skin, it was hard to judge an age. Late teens; maybe early twenties at a stretch. Her chakra was even harder to guess. What little he'd felt of it--blistering with unfocused killing intent--had felt a little weird.
Chuunin, probably. Maybe a high-level genin. One who'd just had a really bad mission.
Pretty smart for an Inuzuka, though. From what he remembered--which, granted, wasn't a whole lot--they generally didn't pick up on little clues like getting out.
And even if that had been true, it wasn't the point.
He tapped his temple with an index finger, throwing back a question for a question. "So what happened to you and fuzz-bucket? Decided to go for matching scars?"
Kuromaru's head whipped around, his single ear flattening back, shoulders rounding. Tsume buried a steadying hand in her pup's ruff. "We thought it was attractive. What have you been doing while you were out?" She could verbally dance with the best of them, and if he wanted to distract with questions she was happy to play--and go right back to hers.
The fact that he hadn't answered was interesting. The fact that he'd upset Kuromaru meant all bets were off.
The pub she'd been steering them toward loomed on her right. She led Kuromaru in, marking his no longer wagging tail, and found a booth in the corner.
New scars were a no-go topic: check.
"Meeting interesting people," he said to her retreating back, taking a moment to pause outside and finish his cigarette before flicking the butt away. "Learning new skills. Having great sex."
It was amazing what dropping sex into the conversation could do to throw someone off-balance. People had such interesting hang-ups.
He followed her in, feeling slightly warmer air brush over his skin, and sprawled in the opposite bench-seat from Tsume, careful not to kick Kuromaru's bulk under the table.
Then he ducked down to look at the wolf-hound, gentling his voice just enough to avoid insult. "So why no eyepatch? Still too sore?"
He didn't really do no-go.
Having great sex?
And then Kuromaru was looking up at her, single eye bright. "I could have an eyepatch, couldn't I?"
"Uh." She stared at him, at the raw, wrecked skin across his head, then up at Asuma as if--since he'd suggested it--he'd have an answer.
Asuma shrugged. "Sure. Probably."
She looked back down at Kuromaru. "Sure. We'd have to get one specially made. I doubt a generic one would work." Especially without an ear to hook a strap on. Or maybe the lack of ear would help. She had no idea.
"We could talk to the quartermaster, right?"
She peered at her canine as he crawled up onto the booth seat beside her. "Yeah. We could do that." Carefully, Tsume rolled her sleeves up and set the med kit on the table, checking the scratches on her arms. The one on her shoulder needed bandaging, too, but it'd require stripping; at least her shirt, if not her sports bra. It could wait.
"And we should put a new bandage on me," Kuromaru added, nosing at the kit.
"Okay." She wasn't bleeding (much). They could do that first. The fact that he'd asked...
Kuromaru sat still while she pulled out antibiotic ointment and square bandages, taping them to his fur. Carefully, she covered up the angry flesh twisting over one eye and ear, then dug through his thick coat to find where Baton's familiar had bitten. She was pretty sure she was missing a few punctures, but Kuromaru was too busy talking about eyepatches to tell her what hurt.
When their server arrived to ask them what they wanted, he didn't look impressed at the canine sitting at the table. Tsume really didn't care.
"I will have the special," Kuromaru announced before anyone else could. "Extra rare. In fact, just raw."
Tsume grinned at the look on their server's face. "Me, too. Cooked."
"And an eyepatch."
"We'll get that when we get home."
His tail flopped twice against the seat.
Score one for the nice guy! Maybe even a few bonus points. Asuma debated if suggesting a bandanna would be pushing his luck, then turned his attention to the waiting server.
He opened his mouth, frowned briefly, and closed it.
Damn, his first non-barracks/non-rations meal in the three years, and he couldn't order a steak. That pretty much sucked in any language you'd care to name--and he could name a few.
"You have a non-meat option?" he asked, leaning his elbows on the table. "Preferably one that's as unhealthy as possible."
"Tempura?" the server suggested, with a look that said he was trying very hard not to raise his eyebrows.
"Think you could fry it extra?" Asuma pulled up his best I'm an awesome guy and don't you want to do this one tiny favour for me? grin.
The server's lips twitched. He made a note on his pad. "One special--" he hesitated, glancing at Kuromaru, who now had his front paws on the table. "Raw. One special, cooked. One order--"
"One extra large order of tempura. Extra fried. Drinks?"
Tsume ordered beer. Kuromaru wanted beer, but had to be content with water.
Asuma ordered ramune, got a three-way look of disbelief from both Inuzuka and their server, and called himself content. "What? It's the best soda ever." He leaned his head back against the booth with a lazy smile, focusing on good food and interesting people and everything happening right now. "Hey, Kuro, think you could get something shiny on that eyepatch? You'd drive the ladies mad."
Tsume stared at him a moment, then snorted a laugh and set to work bandaging her arm.
"Of course I could!" Kuromaru announced happily. "I could get--I could get--" His feet padded up and down in place, one nearly slipping off the seat when he took them from the table. "Tsume! What could I get?"
"Gems?" she suggested laughingly. "They'd be expensive, though."
"What's not expensive?"
His jaw fell open and his tongue lolled out. "I could get glitter."
She couldn't even blame Asuma for that, because she'd suggested it. She gave him a wry look, anyway.
"And I could get shiny cloth, too. Like--like shiny silver!"
Tsume chuckled. "You'd look great. I bet Ginta could give you tips."
Kuromaru's ear flicked back. "Wellllllll... maybe. But he's kinda funny, you know. He has light feet."
Tsume glanced at her familiar, swore he was trying to press his knees together, and shook her head. "Maybe he needs heavier shoes."
"That's what I told him!" Kuromaru perked up again, and he turned to watch Asuma. "You don't have light feet, do you?" He stretched across the table to try and sniff, but only pulled back, disappointed.
Tsume glanced up as she taped off an end of a bandage, tugging her sleeve back down. His water jutsu hadn't been so bad; she was starting to dry already. She still couldn't get an accurate scent of the man across from them, nothing other than nicotine. Like an itch she couldn't quite reach, it was beginning to tease at her.
"Light feet?" Asuma echoed, eyebrows winging up as Kuromaru's nose inched across the table towards him, nostrils flaring, before the dog slid back. "Boyo, I reckon' my feet're bigger than your entire head."
The server returned with their drinks just in time to catch that comment. Asuma awarded the man a mental point when he kept his face blank, set down a pint of beer, a bowl of water, and a soda bottle, and skedaddled without a word.
Tsume was packing up his medi-kit already. Asuma leaned forwards, flicking two fingers towards the raw scratches webbing over her throat, still bleeding sluggish red lines down pale skin. "Don't forget those, girl. You'll regret it later if your throat rots off."
Definitely on the pretty side of the scale, but he was really starting to get that slightly too young feel from her, even if she had managed to con the server into giving her a beer. That wasn't exactly a hard trick for a ninja capable of braiding a civillian's eyelids together.
Maybe he should have stayed and talked to the cafe owner, but these two were just too damn entertaining.
He flicked the sealing marble down the neck of his soda bottle, and tried not to be overly thrilled when bubbles hissed over his fingers. Ramune. One swig was enough to make the better parts of his childhood light up and spin a memory dance.
He smiled to himself and looked back at his lunch companions. "So what did your clan-buddy do to you, anyway, that made him deserve a street-thrashing?" He leaned his chin on one palm. "Or did you do something to him?"
Tsume shook herself out of her stillness. Rotting. She put a hand to her neck, feeling pain but not agony, the smear of blood, and realized he didn't actually mean--the rot was gone. "Thanks," she mumbled, opening the kit back up and pulling out ointment and bandages again. If she put her beer right in front of her and stooped, she could make out enough of a reflection to slather the antibiotic gel over her neck and paste a bandage across it.
"We didn't do anything to him," Kuromaru said. "He was just being rude. All staring and everything." He sniffed. "Lowering his head. Just rude."
"Yes, that's it." Tsume chuckled, finishing up and closing the kit. "Rude. Head lowering."
"And he had that look in his eyes," Kuromaru continued. "You know. Like he's so much better than me. Like he could out-fight me. He can't take away my Pack." Somehow, he managed to make lapping up water look disdainful.
Tsume grinned across the table, sipping her beer. "Staring. Very rude." And unless you actually spoke dog, it probably made no sense. "It's an Inuzuka-clan thing. A bit like a genin insulting a chuunin." Her smile twisted humorlessly, and a flicker of her hand gestured toward her face. "'Fraid I'm a bit under the weather to be really straightening kids out. But he'd have figured it out eventually." And the fact that he wasn't a kid, and wouldn't have figured it out today, didn't bear saying.
The server arrived with platters, managing not to cringe at Kuromaru's slab of raw steak and setting the other two down before their respective diners.
Kuromaru leaned toward Tsume, muzzle lifting to her ear as sneakily as he could. "They forgot his meat."
She tipped her head and whispered back. "He didn't order any."
Kuromaru straightened. He peered suspiciously at Asuma's plate, then at Tsume, as if there was a grand joke being played on him. Then he leaned across the table. "They forgot your meat," he whispered loudly.
Asuma choked quietly on a deep-fried piece of zucchini and tried to work out how you explained the concept of Shin Buddhism to a dog. Not that he ever tried to explain it to anyone, but as a mental exercise...
"I'm allergic to cow," he said simply, and watched with great amusement as one gold eye went wide and round. He offered a piece of battered onion dripping with vegetable fat. "Want to try some?"
A long tongue snaked out and licked the tidbit from his hand. Kuromaru crunched for a second, focus turning inwards, then wrinkled his nose and coughed the soggy lump back onto Asuma's plate. Tsume, nose buried in her beer, spluttered a laugh.
"Thanks," said Asuma dryly, and flicked the sorry looking vegetable away. After two years of earning meals whatever way presented itself, and three more surviving on barrack food and ration bars, a bit of dog slobber was not putting him off.
He speared a slice of eggplant, stuffing it happily in his mouth, and thought back to Tsume's comments about her "Inuzuka-clan thing". Old and mostly forgotten lessons on clan dynamics, taught to an unwilling student who really hadn't wanted to be the next Hokage, dammit, percolated in his brain. He scrubbed a hand over his scruffy-bearded chin, watched the pair dive into their steaks--Kuromaru gnawing, Tsume actually using cutlery--and wondered if she was talking about a Beta fight. Because she sure didn't look old enough or good enough to be an Alpha.
Though, hearing her call the other man "kid" was just hilarious.
"Hey, Tsume," he said, around a mouthful of sweet potato. "How old are you? Seventeen?"
She coughed a chunk of meat back onto her plate. "I'm sorry--did you say seven--?" He had. She could tell from the look on his face. She smiled. "Uh huh. And you're, what, eight?"
"Oi! You!" Kuromaru called. The server gave them all a panicky look and edged closer. "This guy needs some chicken. You have chicken, right?"
The server looked up at Asuma, who was trying to oh-so-subtly shake his head. Kuromaru turned to look at him, too. He stopped shaking.
Dogs were not subtle, Asuma reminded himself. And neither, apparently, was Tsume.
"Allergic to chicken, too," he said, weaving the right amount of too bad, so sad into his expression, before cutting right across Kuromaru's ever-so-helpful next suggestion ("Pork, then!"), and straight to Tsume.
"Nineteen?" he guessed next, which earned him a yeah, right eyebrow twitch. Interest re-piqued, he balanced his elbows once more on the table and gave her another once over--at least, the parts of her he could see. "Y'know, this'd be a lot easier if you were wearing clothes for your figure. Like--well, anything else. Twenty-one?"
What was it about giant men that they didn't believe you were older than your height? "These clothes are perfect for my figure." She grinned. "Straight, mostly."
"But pork is tasty," Kuromaru was muttering sadly. "Maybe fish? You have to cook fish, but it's still pretty good... I knew a guy allergic to corn once, but he got over it..."
Tsume glanced at Kuromaru, then back at Asuma. He couldn't really be allergic to beef and chicken both. She peered at him, mirroring his position to lean on the table and get that much closer.
All she could smell was the ever-present cigarette smoke, even this close to him. If she really stretched--which she only did briefly--she could get within six inches. And still smelled nothing. Wrinkling her nose, she sat back again.
There was that sniff thing again. "Nasally-sensitive" was probably an understatement. Torn between amused and annoyed that she still hadn't answered his age question, Asuma put his hands flat against the table and leaned over plates, glasses, and Kuromaru's paws to return the gesture. Just because.
Tsume, something flickering in her light blue eyes, tucked her chin slightly down, protecting her throat, then tilted her head fractionally to one side. With his greater height, he could get close enough to feel the backwash of his own breath curling off her skin. Dog, mostly, with a snap of antiseptic lotion. "Twenty-three?" he asked, voice gravelling into its brassy depths.
She snorted at him.
He pulled back--a lot slower than he would have done a minute ago--and caught the slightly glassy eyes of the hovering server. Kuromaru was still extolling the benefits of seafood in an unsubtle grumble.
"I think we're fine," Asuma told him.
"Excellent," said the server, with a middle-distance stare that was verging on a thousand yards. "The manager begs to inform you that we do not typically serve, ah, dogs in this establishment. And he would take it as a kindness if you were quick in finishing your meals."
The floor was too clean for a dust cloud to follow the man when he fled, but it was a close thing.
"Nice," said Asuma, picking up a deep-fried carrot. "Twenty-five?"
"Nope!" Tsume said, at the same moment that Kuromaru snarled, "I am not a dog!" She put a hand on his shoulders and closed her fingers on fur, just in case he decided to leave. "We'll have a chat with him later on how our village should treat its ninja. Meantime, sit."
Still muttering, Kuromaru settled back down.
Tsume kept grinning. "Did you get a good scent?" she asked Asuma, strangling the urge to see-saw across the table and sniff him back. Again. All she'd gotten was a looming man and more cigarette smoke. That just wasn't fair.
Asuma propped a hand under his chin again, heavy metal bracelet sliding down his arm. "Oh yeah. You're so sweet you might be asked to leave soon; you're making the other women smell bad." He snapped his fingers. "Oh wait, too late."
Across the table, Kuromaru paused in his grumbling to glance at Tsume and make the best quizzical face Asuma had ever seen on a canine.
He pulled his soda over and took another long gulp, immensely pleased with himself. "Twenty-seven?"
For a long moment she could only stare at him. Then, very carefully, she set her beer down and leaned across the table. "That," she said, enunciating, "was possibly the worst line I have ever heard. And I grew up in a clan with people who could honestly use lines like that." But she couldn't keep a straight face, and halfway through her final sentence she began to laugh.
Kuromaru looked at them both, then shook his head and gnawed on his steak some more, eyeing Tsume's as he did so.
"Twenty-seven's close enough," she said with a grin, sitting back and nudging her plate away from her familiar.
"She's not sweet-smelling," Kuromaru mumbled with great confusion. "I think the smoke's dulled his nose."
Tsume snorted and cut into the last of her dinner, tossing Kuromaru the long T-bone while she chewed.
He caught it mid-air, crunching the cooked bones with one large snap of his jaws, and swallowing the two pieces in two quick gulps. Then he turned back to his meat, delicately tearing off a bit of fat and depositing it on the side of his plate. It didn't take long to demolish the raw bone, too, and he nosed his leftovers partway across the table.
"Just in case you change your mind," he said helpfully.
Tsume stared. And then she laughed. Laughed so hard she almost couldn't breathe, and shoved at her familiar until he hopped down off the bench seat and looked at her like she'd lost her mind. She pulled her wallet out of her pants pocket, tossing bills on the table and scooting out. "This has been interesting," she said with a flash of a smile, followed by another chuckle, "but I'll get him home before he orders you crocodile."
"Think he could eat that?" Kuromaru asked hopefully.
It sent Tsume into another fit of laughter. "You can try later," she suggested. "Track him down. It'll be a game." And maybe the guy'd get another meal, if he was still needing one. There were plenty of jobs for ninja, though, if he was so inclined; wherever he'd been getting out to, he was back now and things'd start looking up for him.
"Nice meeting you, Asuma." She grinned. "Good luck rescuing other damsels."
"Not that we needed it," Kuromaru added quickly. "And definitely try crocodile. You probably won't be allergic to it."
For half a second, Asuma faced the dilemma of all men everywhere since the prehistoric era: pretty girl or food?
The pretty girl was interesting, but looked to be a whole lot of effort before he actually got anywhere.
The food was right in front of him. And free. And she'd easily left enough money to get dessert...
There would be other girls--or maybe even this one, if he ran into her again. It wasn't like he couldn't wander by the clan grounds occasionally.
Smile slashing across his face, he spun his fork up into a flickering salute and speared a slice of glistening onion dripping in batter. "Crocodile. You got it." He watched the woman snort, her dog look satisfied, and both Inuzuka backs--one muscled and fur covered, the other hidden by overly baggy clothes--as they headed for the door.
"Hey," he called. Blue and gold irises gleamed at him. "Next time you get stuck, don't drive your only ally away. 'S a damn good way to lose friends you might need."
A huff of air and a deep-chest sniff was all the answer he got before both Inuzuka disappeared out into the sunshine.
Asuma sat back, metal bands heavy on his wrists, and let his smile slip away. Beneath his loose, well-armoured jacket, broad shoulders loosened up and eased down the barest fraction. Free meal achieved, new person met, pretty girl cheered up, twitchy dog settled down, good deed for the day--
Damn, she never had told him her age. That was going to itch at him.
He crunched a bit of miscellaneous root vegetable and turned his mind to more pressing matters. Dessert. Hair cut. New clothes. Head down to the quartermaster to get fitted for his armour. Take a shower whenever he got into his new apartment. (Get an apartment number.) Decide what do with his Guardian Twelve uniform--
Except the sash. He was keeping the sash.
--and show up at midnight to take his new oath and tattoo in front the old man.
Asuma spun his soda bottle between long-fingered hands, considering his very near future, then called the server back to order the stickiest, sweetest dessert they had available.
The future would happen later. Right now he had food.