Kuromaru was still getting back into the swing of the ANBU HQ, and he couldn't patrol as much as he liked at night--he hated to admit it, but it was possible he was a bit weak--though he could still patrol some.
Which was why he was standing in the lobby at one in the morning, checking the new scent that led down to the basement. He crept down the stairs slowly, silently, following the trail.
Intruder. This wasn't any of his pack, not Inuzuka nor ANBU. It wasn't a new arrival; no room smelled like this. Kuromaru always checked them first, just in case someone had joined while he'd been away. This was something wrong.
The scent stopped at the second subbasement. Kuromaru slipped out, head low. Not even his claws ticked on the hard concrete floor.
The intruder wasn't trying to be silent, though he was very quiet. Kuromaru saw the man as soon as he rounded a corner. Tall, broad, in the shining white and deep black of a hunter uniform. That made him pause. Kept him from attacking. He couldn't savage a teammate. But he doubted this was a teammate. He growled, low and soft.
The man turned. Kuromaru could see the moment when eyes lowered to his level, when the intruder realized there was something in the shadows. The man's scent spiked a bit sweet, and he tensed.
Kuromaru lunged, streaking across the floor in silent threat, prepared to move should the ninja go for a weapon.
Instead, the ninja leaped back into a cell and slammed the door, locking himself inside.
Feet braced, Kuromaru slid to a halt, glancing at the bars. Locked. The seals painted around the doors were meant to hold shinobi. After debating for a long moment, he decided that the man would stay put until he found Tsume and asked her what to do now. With a quiet hurmph, he turned and stalked stiffly down the corridor, secure in the knowledge that he'd done his job.
On my first night as a tattooed spook, a werewolf tried to eat me. ANBU's version of hazing sucks.
Asuma stared at the solid iron bars laced with complex seals, and tried to work through whatever bit of mental strategy had ended with the plan to lock himself in a cell.
Growling, gravelling, gut-tightening rumble from behind him. Check.
Teeth shining in the dark. Check.
Lunging wolf-bear-monster thing. Check.
Locking himself in a cell. Fail.
On the plus side, he hadn't done unspeakable damage to ANBU's basement ghoul, which was probably a good thing. But on the negative side, he'd locked himself in a cell. A cell on a freakin' empty floor, no less. If he starved to death before anyone found him, he would be so annoyed.
And, seeing as he had ration bars, trail mix, and water in his backpack, he'd have a whole lot of days to be annoyed in. That was bad for the blood pressure, dammit.
Slightly disgruntled, and not a little edgy (what with being suddenly trapped on his own), Asuma tipped his ANBU mask up, sprawled out on the solid wooden bench nailed to the floor, and lit a cigarette. Blue smoke coiled up between the bars and drifted down the hallway, spiralling through the weak yellow light.
He propped his head on his backpack, made vague plans to work out a Really Loud Noise Justu in a few minutes, and searched lazily for patterns in the dark.
"I caught a ninja."
Tsume blinked at Kuromaru where he stood above her futon, looking down at her. "Come again?"
He puffed out proudly. "I caught a ninja. He's in the subbasement, in a cell."
"You caught and imprisoned him?" she asked, just to be sure of what she was hearing.
"I did. I didn't want to kill him. He was in Hunter armor, but he didn't smell like any of us."
That was a little more alarming than visions of, say, Genma locked in a cell as a practical joke. She took a breath, then sat up on her futon and pushed to her feet. First, she needed clothes. Then, she needed--well, that was the question. The smart thing to do would be to sound the alarm, but she didn't want to send someone down there until she was sure it really was an intruder. Though not smelling like any of them was rather suspicious. She pulled a man's undershirt on, a ribbed tank top that fit like a second skin, and stepped into slim, black, drawstring pants. She was still wearing her fuzzy socks--those would do well enough for slippers. Her dogtags were on the floor beside the bed; picking them up, she ducked into them as she spoke. "You're sure he's locked in?"
Kuromaru nodded, looking stately. "I made certain the door was locked and the seals were in place." As if he did this sort of thing every day.
Tsume didn't grin at him, just kept her expression solemn. "Good job, Kuromaru."
His head rose even higher.
If the ninja was in the ninja cells, no jutsu would get him out. Any sort of jutsu he tried to throw at her would only sizzle and die, so all she had to worry about was weapons. Those were easy enough to dodge. She picked up a single kunai and held it with the blade flat against her arm, turning to regard her familiar. "All right. Lead on."
Proudly, he trotted out of the room and toward the stairs. Tsume followed.
Halfway through his cancer stick, Asuma abandoned his Loud Noise Jutsu plans in favour of trying a basic translocation. Cigarette clamped tightly between his teeth, he shaped the seals, called on his chakra--
And achieved the world's worst headache. All along the bars, painted symbols lit up and glowed with an oily shimmer, sucking his chakra away.
He threw a one-fingered salute at them and settled back down.
So--no chakra, no helpful nearby people, and no one who'd be looking for him.
Tucking an arm underneath his head, he let it rest between his rucksack and bristling hair still crackling with gel, and settled back. Metal clinked faintly, heavy steel bracelets shifting against (brand new!) armguards. Smoke whisped gently between his teeth.
Is it too early to think I shouldn't have come home?
He had serrated trench knives and a brand new sword. Maybe he could saw through the bars.
Maybe the bear-dog-monster would come back, and he could eat it.
He blew a wide smoke ring, then a smaller one to fill it. Maybe he could just sleep here.
Tsume paused at the open door to the subbasement, listening. Nothing except an exhalation, soft as could be. She stepped inside, listening again. The rustle of cloth as someone shifted.
Her nose wrinkled. The brand was familiar, which didn't mean much. The fact that she'd smelled that brand roughly twelve hours earlier by an out-of-town shinobi who'd just picked up work in Konoha was a little too coincidental. She glanced at Kuromaru, eyebrow raised.
"He wasn't smoking, before," he muttered.
Tsume padded quietly down the corridor.
She stopped at the edge of sight, black bristling hair and the top edge of a mask in view. From there, she could easily duck out of range of any weapon.
"So nice to see you again," she said dryly. "Want to explain what you're doing here? Or should I just summon up T&I?" She probably should just call up T&I, but somehow, she couldn't quite bring herself to do it. At least not before hearing whatever lie Asuma--or the man she suspected was Asuma--might tell.
Asuma lifted his chin, then his eyebrows, and finally plucked his cigarette out, pinching the burning end between his fingertips before he tossed it away. "Oh, y'know, meeting interesting people. Learning new skills." He sat up, one arm draped loosely over a bent knee. "I'm not so sure about the great sex; I'm a little short of options in here."
It was the Inuzuka again. Which probably meant the bear-dog-monster had been Kuromaru.
"Told you I was starting a new job," he said, smiling crookedly. "You decide to change your mind about wishing me luck?"
"Uh huh." She shifted her weight, easing toward the cell without actually stepping forward. The light was dim, but she had great nightsight. The man who lazed on the bench in front of her didn't look anything like the bum she'd seen earlier. She peered at him, caught between wariness and disbelief.
He was clean shaven. Forget that--he was clean. ANBU armor outlined broad muscles, made his shoulders seem wider than they had before, his waist narrower. He had a strong jaw under eyes that were almost black in this light, with heavy brows nearly blending into the shadows cast by his mask, pushed up onto his head. His hair, long and greasy earlier, had been washed and cut short. One shoulder wore a bandage, now, where an ANBU tattoo would go.
She stepped forward, still out of reach. She couldn't smell if he was lying or not under the cigarette smoke. Somehow, she doubted he was. "You have any proof you belong here?"
Are all your soldiers this suspicious?
P.S. Tell Sayomi I really need my dogtags back. I don't care how mad she is.
He planted a hand on chilled wood, now edging closer to body temperature, and slid up to his feet. Fingers tried to catch automatically in pockets his armour didn't have, then fell loosely at his sides, bracelets slipping down to catch at his wrists.
On the other side of the woven metal, half hidden in shadow and gloom, Tsume was a slim streak of wiry muscle and hard bone. Dressed in clothes that fit her, now, she looked like a smaller, softer mirror image of his own reflection; black pants, white, skin-tight sleeveless shirt.
Nice arms, still bandaged. Nicer curves.
Funky looking socks.
He pulled a scroll out of his rucksack and stepped closer, lifting his hands to lace them through the bars. The scroll dangled loosely from his fingers.
"Hokage-signed contract ought to do it, right?" A runner had delivered it mid-way through his tattoo session. "S'got my name on and everything."
His full name, actually. But maybe she wouldn't notice that.
Tsume stepped forward cautiously, holding out her hand when she was still mostly out of reach.
He swung the scroll teasingly.
Tsume wasn't dumb enough to get within grabbing distance. She smiled sweetly. "I'll send T&I in the morning," she said, and moved back into the shadows.
Asuma tossed the scroll. She looked at it, watched it roll to a stop against the opposite wall, then walked over and picked it up. There was a wax seal to keep it closed. She slid a curved nail under it and unrolled the parchment, skimming the contents.
It was an instatement of a new ANBU, signed by the Hokage. The new man's name was neatly printed: Sarutobi Asuma.
She tipped her head sideways to look around the contract, eyeing the man in front of her. She looked back at the contract. Signed by the Hokage, Sarutobi Hizuren. Instating a new ANBU. Sarutobi Asuma.
She tipped her head again to peer at the large man draped over the bars of the cell. The man who'd been 'getting out,' who'd just returned. Who did, now that she focused, look remarkably like the Hokage. "When'd you leave?" she asked conversationally.
Before the fox, she remembered. It had made quite the stir among the clan heads--and she'd been one of them, newly made. Asuma leaving had taken some of the focus off her as the new blood, which had been much appreciated.
He held up one hand, five fingers spread, then let it drop again.
Gone five years. She peered at the scroll, at the names, and once again looked at him. Huh. She stepped forward, wracking her memory for any recall of the young man she was sure she'd seen.
He hadn't looked like this.
He hadn't been trapped in a cell, either. Grinning, she sauntered forward and handed back his scroll, leaning against the bars to one side of him. "This is a memorable start to your new career. You know, ANBU's hungry for good rumors. Getting locked in a cell's pretty unique." Up close, he looked even better.
She'd recognized his name, made the connection, and hadn't let him out. Three bad things in the space of eight seconds was pretty crappy going, even for the most unlucky of ninja.
And Asuma wasn't, generally, unlucky.
He spun the scroll slowly between long, calloused fingers, hiding the glimmer of a scowl. This close to the bars, he could make out all of Tsume's face. Sharply angled in the shadows, jaw and cheekbones more clearly defined. Her eyes looked paler.
The slightly faded crimson swirl on her upper arm stood out like a brand.
"Guess you weren't lying about being twenty-seven-ish," he said, sliding the conversation into new ground. Then back again. "But don't worry about rumours; I think plenty of shinobi have some jail time beneath their belts."
He smiled broadly, teeth white in the semi-dark. "Do I need to pay a toll for getting out of here? Because I might be all out of shiny beads."
She still couldn't get a scent off him under the smoke, but she could see his brief scowl. Her grin widened. "I wasn't worried about the rumors. I was happy to be able to supply some for your poor, rumor-hungry teammates. Kind of you to help with that."
"Does this mean I didn't catch a ninja?" Kuromaru asked grumpily, stuffing his nose through the cell bars right into Asuma's crotch.
Asuma leaned away and reached down, flicking the long muzzle.
Kuromaru pulled back and eyed him. "That was not nice. We should leave him here." Then his ears came up, tail waving slowly. "Or mark his room."
Tsume snickered, letting her head hang for a moment. "I don't think he deserves that."
"He hit me! With chakra!"
"You locked him in a cell."
"Humph." Kuromaru turned, stalking toward the end of the corridor. "I'm going back to bed. You let me know if you want help marking."
"I'll do that, thanks." The door closed. She tipped her head to look up at Asuma. Leaning against the cell door with him standing, she only came to the bottom of his ribcage. Straightening up would make her taller--but not tall enough. She remained leaning.
"I don't think thunking my familiar with chakra is quite the kind of payment you should be considering," she said with a twinkle in her eyes and one fang showing. "However much he deserves it."
Asuma was attractive. He looked good in the ANBU armor, healthy and strong and confident. Even if he smelled like smoke. And he was harmlessly behind bars; even better.
Seeing as he didn't have a room yet, Asuma wasn't too worried about anyone marking it. He tipped his head slightly to one side, catching a glimpse of Kuromaru's retreating tail--then looked down, getting a much better view of the amusement painted all over Tsume's face.
Pretty girl, clingy clothes, weapon in her hands and a smile on her face.
Even behind bars, he was pretty sure some guys would kill to trade places with him. Dumb guys, admittedly, seeing as that side of the bars looked a whole lot friendlier--but still, it could always be worse.
She was playing with him.
He grinned, slow and lazy, and played back.
"If it's rumours you're looking for, you can always take your payment in that." For his teammates. He got a bright belly-level glow, pleased and anxious all at once. "I reckon I can come up with something creative..."
His left hand moved down three bars, fingertips brushing lightly over the delicate muscle and bone of Tsume's shoulder. It was pale innuendo, but touch always explained more.
If she laughed, it was a joke. If she didn't, maybe they'd mark his room in a different way.
Tsume glanced down at his hand, blunt fingers large against her thin bones, then back up at him. "I think I'd rather spread rumors about finding you locked in a cell. No, wait, I'll have to ask Kuromaru how you got in the cell, since you don't seem to have a scratch on you." She grinned. "Get startled by the furball? Most people here think he's pretty warm and fuzzy." She straightened, letting Asuma's hand slide away. Most people thought Kuromaru was warm and fuzzy as long as he wasn't annoyed, but Asuma didn't need to know that.
She glanced around, wondering where they kept the keys. Somewhere locked, most likely. She eyed the cell door, then decided finding keys would be easier than frying her already damaged chakra system on a sealed lock.
"What were you doing down here?" She glanced around as she walked away, peering at the single working light. "It's creepy as a berry-stoned owl. And it's one a.m." In case he hadn't noticed.
"Creepy as a--why would you stone an owl with berries?" He'd heard some strange expressions in the last few years, but that was a new one. Asuma shook his head, flicking two fingers at her retreating back. "Never mind. I don't want to know."
No laugh. No acquiescence, either.
He leaned his chin on a cross-bar, watching Tsume walk away. She wasn't leaving, she was almost... prowling, head casting from side to side--searching for a key, hopefully.
"I was just looking around. Curious, y'know. Then your bundle of warm and fuzzy decided to graduate from steak-giving to a growl-and-tackle." He debated pulling out another cigarette, then decided against it. "I figured putting bars between us was more polite than taking his head off, seeing as we shared a moment an' all."
Distantly, a snort echoed in the damp air.
Asuma craned his neck, trying to see her. "What are you doing down here?"
"Kuromaru didn't want to bite your head off, seeing as you were in uniform. He brought me down to make sure you were a bona fide intruder before he gutted you." She grinned back. "He's graduated from steak to man."
She opened a cabinet on the far wall, peering at rows of empty hooks. She closed it, opened another door, and closed it on paperwork. The third door had a bundle of keys. She pulled them out, rattling them together triumphantly. "You're in luck, pup. I don't have to wake the desk chuunin, which means I don't have to share this rumor, which means it might be enough to get you out." She grinned again. "And if I can handle my bundle of warm 'n fuzzy, surely you can. I mean, you're--" she paused out of reach and looked up at him. "Big."
He let the obvious joke--and its accompanying hip shimmy--slide. "If I'm a pup, what does that make you, girl? An infant?"
Twenty-seven-ish. He still wasn't entirely convinced. Though the slim-line curve between her breasts and hips, showcased by soft, slightly translucent fabric, made a compelling argument. That and the shadows pooling between the cradle of sharply defined collarbones...
The keys dangling from one bandaged, claw-tipped hand were almost enough to divert his attention back to getting out of the goddamned cell. Almost.
He stepped back from the bars, flicked a cigarette out, stuck it between his teeth and refocused. Freedom first. Pretty--if annoying--girl later.
"You waiting for a lap dance, sweetheart? Or just looking for a Hokage handout? Because your chances for one are a whole lot better than the other." He flashed teeth through the smoke, words a little drawling. "Though I warn you, I'm not much into dangling ribbons from my nipples."
Tsume snorted. "Please. If I wanted either, I wouldn't ask you for it." Well, maybe the Hokage handout would be easier with his help, but it wasn't like she didn't have sway of her own. "Besides, I'm not sure ribbons on your nipples would be all that attractive."
She fit one key to the lock, jiggled, and switched to the next. Why couldn't they have one key for all the doors? Didn't that make sense to anyone other than her?
She glanced at him again and remembered--vaguely--the teenager she'd seen once. Maybe twice. "And I'm several years older than you. Bad thing about being well known?" She grinned. "I know how old you are." She tried the third key. "Can't say I blame you for not telling me who you were earlier, though. Not sure I would, either." The fourth key didn't work. The fifth slid in quite nicely. "Hey, you might be in luck." She twisted. It stuck. She twisted harder and added a jiggle. The lock clicked and ground around. Tsume stepped back, and the door swung open.
No sound could be sweeter than those ancient tumblers finally ratcheting into place. Asuma watched the seals flicker and fade, glimmering down to nothing, and grinned around the cherry-red end of his cigarette. Freedom!
He swung back, scooped up his rucksack, shrugged it onto one shoulder, and got the hell out of dodge before Tsume slammed the door on him. She lifted a slender eyebrow.
"So what do you want, miss not-so-young?" He tossed his scroll gently into the air, letting it spin once before he caught it. "Or are you just returning a rescue favour?"
Didn't count, really. It wasn't like he'd set that Inuzuka male on her.
Tsume laughed, a quiet huffing sort of noise from high in her chest, and took another step away. "I suppose I'm just being really nice. Though I am going to keep these rumors. They're too entertaining." She hooked her hands in the back of her pants, mostly to have something to do with them, and looked up at him. The keys swayed gently in the lock.
"You sure you can find your way to your room? Without stopping in anymore cells or running into anymore giant monster canines? I'd hate to have to rescue you again. If only because no one would believe it." She tipped her head, considering, while a smile played around the corners of her mouth. "Or you going to get lost with more looking around?"
It was nothing but a trade-off of teeth with this woman; smile for smile, grin for grin. Asuma ran a hand through the newly short hairs at the nape of his neck, still unused to feeling a breeze there, and tried to decide if it was really worth all this effort to get into one woman's pants.
He looked at her, thought about the last time he'd gotten anything.
A few months, give or take. But that was all civilians, half-night dates whenever he'd been able to get a day off from the Daimyo. Ninja were a different playing field.
Three years for that.
Yup, definitely worth it.
"Keep the rumours," he said, mouth curving. "I can make more." He flicked his cigarette back into the cell; maybe it would confuse some hapless Intel agent a few months down the line. "Reckon I've seen everything there is down here. Want to follow me upstairs? I promise to holler if I have a damsel moment."
Tsume barked a laugh. "Well, we wouldn't want you to do something really tragic, like break a nail. Anything more than that, though, you might have to find a new rescuer." She pulled the keys from the lock, padding over in her socks to hang them back up and close the cabinet. "You want the short form of the tour? Means you have to follow me." Her grin was quick and gone. "I can even suggest who to avoid. The medic, for instance. Knows his stuff. A little bit terrifying." She headed for the door, assuming he'd follow. A glance back proved her right, at least out of the cell block.
It was cold in the subbasements, and she wasn't wearing much. Chakra could have warmed her skin fairly easily, but hers only moved sluggishly and at one a.m. she didn't have the focus to pull it. Still, the stairs were nearby and it was warmer up there. Her stride lengthened out as she hurried toward them.
"The only important things downstairs are the offices--Arakaki's and Shida's, who you mostly want to avoid, anyway." She hit the stairs and broke into a trot, more because movement meant heat than anything else. Standing around on a concrete slab, even with woolly socks on, had chilled her. A coat probably would have been a good idea.
He was still following when they hit the first floor. "How much have you seen?" she asked, hesitating. She'd had her first stint in ANBU before he'd even left the village; she couldn't remember not knowing where things were.
Arakaki he'd already met, and Shida he didn't want to. Asuma leaned against the stairway door, armoured shoulderblade pressed against the jamb, and cast an eye over the darkened foyer--and the the woman standing in it.
What had he seen?
"Sign-up desk, Quartermaster..." He lifted a hand, fingers folding down one by one. "Stairs, cellblock... And you. That's it so far." He dropped his hand, pulled up a wry smile. "I spent most of my day wandering around Konoha. They changed things."
Understatement of the decade.
"Hey, where do people live around here? I got a room assigned. Number--shit, hang on, I wrote it down..." On his hand. He glanced at the elbow-length glove strapped into place by an armoured gauntlet, and decided it was too complicated to take off just yet. "Number three-something. Never mind; I'll get it later. How about we just wander around and you can point out things that look cool?"
Tsume chuckled, heading down the hall. "There's apartments all over, though if you're in three-something you'll be on the third floor." She tossed a grin over her shoulder. "It's a good crowd up there." Then she gestured to the doors at her right. "Offices, mostly for intel. This is the rec room." It was tucked away behind the offices, out of sight unless you ducked around a short wall.
She pushed the door open and stepped inside, slapping at a light as she did so. There was a large television in one corner, another smaller one in the opposite corner. Pool tables, dart boards, skee ball tables, and comfortable couches littered the room. Three large storage rooms stacked with still more equipment and games lurked at the back.
"This is where most of the younger guys hang out," Tsume said, taking in the room with a sweep of her gaze. "Free cable." She grinned and glanced toward Asuma. "I think they all secretly like daytime TV."
It was the first time she'd actually seen him in full light. It shone off his armor, spilled over tanned skin, made his hair blue-black. His eyes weren't actually ebony, but a dark brown, creased at the corners with squint--or smile--lines. She looked away, stepping toward the storage rooms if only to put some distance between them. She'd almost liked him better when he'd looked like a bum. What was with ANBU and all the large, attractive men? It was like Arakaki only wanted the people who looked the best, too.
Grabbing one storage door, she pulled and it swung open grudgingly, showing shelves of video game consoles. "You can take things back to your room, but you have to fill out a form." She fingered one of the clipboards filled with paper, attached to the back of the door. "Pretty good set-up, really. There's movies, too--all the little stuff is in here. If you want other games or tables, you have to get them out of the next storage room yourself."
She shot a quick glance toward the far wall. "Just keep in mind the rec room shares a wall with Arakaki's apartment, so it's best to keep the noise level down after dark."
Free cable, skee ball, video games--Asuma blew out a low impressed wolf whistle. The Daimyo had been a decent man, and a better boss, but his idea of fun had been more along the line of genteel dinner parties, with his Twelve Guardians standing around in full armour to impress the guests.
This was better.
He stepped up behind Tsume's bare shoulder, leaning over to tap two thoughtful fingers against one shiny black console. He didn't have a TV, yet, but he could get one..
"Putting the boss right next to the fun room is novel," he murmured, eyes flicking down to look at tousled brown hair--then down further. She barely came up to his mid-chest. "Which bright spark came up with that idea?"
Tsume pretended to give it some serious thought. "Had to be Shida," she said at last. "He's head of T&I." She grinned and stepped away, out of his shadow to head back toward the door. "Men's and women's showers are just down the hall, and if you circle around the back you'll find storage and utilities, then the first-floor apartments. I haven't met many of these guys, just the swordsman on the other side of the floor. Has allergy problems." Her tone said what she thought of that.
She slapped at the light switch again, darkening the room on the tall ninja. "Coming?" The cafeteria was next to the stairs and elevator, back the way they'd come. The training room was next to that--and there wasn't much else of interest on the first floor. She got halfway there before she realized he wasn't following along.
It made her grin.
She turned and walked back to the rec room. "Having fun?"
"Oh yeah," he said, head shoved deep into the second storage locker. "Tons." For a tiny woman, she sure was pushy. He ignored her oh-so-subtle lightswitch hint and kept looking at movie titles. He hadn't seen a decent movie in months; he was depressingly out of touch.
As soon as he got a room, he was so getting a TV.
"Hey, sweetheart, you have a favourite film?" He glanced over his shoulder at the lean figure silhouetted in the doorway. Light brushed over naked shoulders, highlighted fine-cut muscles, glinted in pale blue irises. "I'm betting not. You strike me as the ridiculously active type."
He swung away from storage locker and strolled back to his tour guide, tweaking a wild brown spike of hair as he passed. "Head of torture over there, right? I vote we go left."
He moved as he talked, suiting actions to words.
She watched him walk down the hall, feeling the echo of the tug on her hair. Sweetheart? She followed, stride long and lazy, eyes boring into his spine. "Yeah, I prefer getting out and doing things, love-nuts. More fun. Straight ahead is the cafeteria. It's open twenty-four hours a day, and Ryouma--you'll meet him--can sweet-talk the head cook into decent food. I'm pretty sure he's trying to poison the rest of us, though. Hungry?" She leaned against the corner and smiled innocently.
Love-nuts? Oh yeah, this one was a keeper. Asuma felt a laugh rumble deep in his chest as he paused, looking back at Tsume. "Trying to get rid of me already, sugar-lips? Or are you hoping I'll do some sweet-talking, too? Because I'm still pretty sanguine from the last meal you bought me..."
He thought about remembering the name Ryouma--and decided if the guy was worth paying attention to, he'd introduce himself sooner or later.
"Anything else down here worth looking at? Because I'm ready to head up and start bothering the neighbours." And get out of his skin-tights. The armour looked damn good, but it sure felt light and breezy. He kept wanting to check just to make sure he still had pants on.
Tsume chuckled. "It's one a.m. Bothering ANBU in the middle of the night might get you locked in the cell block." Her eyes widened in mock-realization. "Oh, wait, you've been there..." She grinned widely, then pointed to the door beside the cafeteria. "Training room. Most people use the fields, unless they've been injured or are just too lazy to go outside." She felt like she knew everyone who chose to work indoors, these days. "But there's weights and mats in there. Pretty basic."
She pushed away from the corner, heading for the stairs and, coincidentally, taking the lead again. "The second and third floors are both set up the same. Lots of apartments, men's and women's showers, not much else. What number did you say you were in?"
"Three-something," he said, resigning himself to taking that glove-and-gauntlet off, and lengthened his stride to draw level with Tsume again. "Have you ever been to Northern Suna? They barely have enough drinking water there, so everyone takes dust baths. Outside." Teeth shone briefly. "It's awesome. And most of Rain don't bother segregating their baths, either. Everyone just piles in and splashes around. S'good fun."
He slipped his left bracelet up to his elbow, fiddled with the gauntlet buckles--they were new enough to be stiff, still--and wrestled the contraption free, holding it in his teeth while he pulled the long glove off. Smudgy writing covered his left hand; mostly things he needed to remember.
"303," he managed around a mouthful of ceramic. "That good?"
Tsume grinned. "It's the better part of the floor." She thought of Ginta and his reluctance to tell her his family name, wary of her reaction if she linked him to his high-powered grandfather. Thought of Sharingan no Kakashi, genius protege of the Fourth. Thought of the women's showers. "You probably couldn't be in a better spot. I even think there's another woman on the floor, now. You'll be practically surrounded."
At the top of the stairs, just inside the door, she stopped and looked at him. "Maybe you can convince her that dual showering is a good idea. You've obviously never been to the Inuzuka compound: my appetite for communal river-bathing has been sated." She grinned and shoved through the door. "There're more guys on the other side other floor. My room," she pointed to the first one on her right, closest to the stairs, the door open. "Ginta's room." Stopping, she peered at an empty door, then at Asuma. "Your room."
Momentarily derailed by the thought of several-dozen women who looked exactly like Tsume leaping into a river (a cold river, please God), Asuma almost missed the next bit.
Your room brought him back to earth.
Under Tsume's amused blue gaze, he lifted his ungloved hand and swept two blunt fingertips across the polished brass numbers. His room, right there.
Lips broke into a smile, lopsided and bittersweet. His last room had been the bottom bunk in a twelve-man garrison, with the leftover bunk used as a communal bag toss. Eleven men, including himself, and one woman--one great woman--who'd thrown all their food out of the storage locker and used it to sleep in.
For half a second, Asume thought about then--before pulling himself back to </i>now</i>. New room, new teammates, new loyalties. And his new key was stuffed into a rucksack pocket; he shoved glove and gauntlet into the fraying pack and pulled it out, unlocking the door.
"Don't have coffee to offer you, but you're welcome to come in." The handle clicked beneath his hand, smooth as butter. "And unless Ginta's the extraordinarily beautiful but unfortunately named other woman you mentioned, I'd be happy to set up a room trade between you."
He pushed the door back and walked inside, moonlight from the broad window falling on the painted face of his brand new mask, still pushed sideways on his head.
Tsume smiled at his obvious pleasure, watching him walk the nearly empty apartment as if it were the most peaceful place he'd found. She leaned against the doorway, one stockinged foot crossing over the other ankle. "I'm sure Ginta would be pretty well interested in late night visits with you. You should probably keep him where he is." Her eyes twinkled. "He likes coffee, too, when you do get some."
Heck, assuming the new woman was straight, she was pretty sure everyone on this side of the floor would be more interested in Asuma than in any female they could find.
She took a single step into the apartment, glancing around. It had the same set-up hers did; single futon, chair, closet, kitchenette. "Do you need anything? The cafeteria stays open all night, like I said, so food's not a problem. I probably have an extra blanket you could borrow..." If only because she could close her window and snuggle with Kuromaru. "You'll have to pay for the food in the cafeteria, but most ninja around here run a tab. You just need some proof that you're enlisted, now."
Asuma made a mental note to keep his back to the wall around Ginta--at least until he found out what "interested" really meant. Then he turned his attention to his new quarters. The apartment wasn't big, but compared to a single bunk it was huge. Bed, closet, cupboards, kitchen. And that door had to lead to a bathroom.
He crossed to the window, uncaring about shod feet on the carpet, and trailed his hand briefly over the slim wooden ledge. Good place for pictures, if he ever got any. And the view...
He paused, stared, then leaned one elbow on the ledge and cupped his chin, long fingers pressed over half a dry smile. The old man's big stone mountain face, outlined against the starry sky--go figure.
His rucksack slid down his shoulder; he caught it before it hit the floor and tossed it onto the bed. Metal clunked as it landed, stirring up the faintest cloud of dust. There was more on the bare kitchen counters; the last occupant had been gone for a while.
Tsume was just past the threshold, offering--blankets. Not really what he needed, but nice anyway. He turned away from the window and its view, and padded back across the carpet. She wasn't giving out many signals, but she was dropping a few, here and there. And she was standing right inside his doorway, wearing nothing but shadows and skimpy clothes.
With a weapon still in her hand, but he was a good dodger.
He reached her and tilted his chin down. Found a smile that was easy and lazy and full of promises, if she decided to say the word.
"Planning to help me break in the place, or do you have somewhere you need to be?"
Tsume stopped admiring him--she appreciated sleek armor and muscles and black hair under the moonlight as much as any other woman--and paid attention. Flashing him a fast grin, she pulled herself a little bit taller. "Sorry. I don't break in futons covered in that much dust. Too much sneezing. Makes everything else a little awkward." Both hands hung at her side, the fingers of one twirling her kunai absently. "Besides, I wouldn't want Kuromaru to worry."
She took half a step back toward the doorway, glancing around once more. "They aren't big apartments, but we've got the whole building. And there's a kitchenette. So if you're settled, and not about to get lost again..." Backing out a step, she gave him another quick once-over. "You look like you have things handled."
Asuma let the comeback for that slide, too, and canted his weight onto one hip. Stepping back, flicking little glances around, chattering just a little too fast--that wasn't even close to a yes.
Ah well, her loss. He'd pick it up another time, when she was less jumpy.
"Yeah, wouldn't want the ginormous puppy to worry," he said, watching as she did her best to slide subtly out the door. She looked younger again, ANBU spiral hidden in shadow. "You might lose a sofa."
Something flickered in pale blue eyes. Asuma winked at her, then turned back to his room, half planning to unpack things. Or maybe just change into some wearable clothes and crash out on his (brand new!) bed.
"Catch ya around, sweetheart. Tell the fuzzball I said not to leap on anymore new guys."
Maybe it's not that bad after all.
Tsume snorted. "Sure thing, love-nuts. Good luck unpacking." Not that it looked like he had much. With a final grin she hooked the handle and pulled it closed, stepping out into the hall. Her own room spilled faint light in a streak across the corridor. She walked through, leaving her door open enough to catch any scents drifting out of the stairwell, and settled on the corner of the futon.
"He get out of the cell?" Kuromaru asked sleepily.
"Yeah. Found the keys."
Her pup didn't look entirely pleased about that. Tsume thought for a moment, then tried to appease him by adding, "But you did great, catching that ninja. He could have been an intruder."
Kuromaru perked up. "That's right. He should know better than to prowl around downstairs at night."
She reached out, scratching his single ear. "Well, he'll think twice about it, now."
Happier, Kuromaru laid his muzzle down on his front paws and sighed. "He was a nice man yesterday. I suppose I still like him." He looked up again. "Do you like him?"
"He's a nice guy," she said warily, remembering their earlier conversation about whether she liked Hayate.
"Do you like him more than Ryouma or Yasuo or Hayate?"
Tsume eyed her familiar. "Kuromaru..."
His gaze flicked toward the window. "Just asking. That's all. I mean, if he's nice and you like him and you both smell good..."
There was a distraction--and maybe even an answer to the question that had been niggling at her. "What did he smell like? I can't get a thing under the smoke."
Kuromaru shrugged, an odd sort of ripple up his back and into his shoulders. "Like a human."
That figured. "Move over, fuzzball. I want some blankets."
Kuromaru yawned and rolled onto his back, legs akimbo. "Our pack is getting bigger."
Tsume buried her head in her pillow, one hand on Kuromaru's chest. "Sure is."
There was silence for a moment. Then Kuromaru spoke once more. "It's kinda nice."
Tsume smiled. "Sure is."