Ryouma's friends at the hospital really hadn't been pleased to see him so soon after his last release. At least, he pointed out, it was a new injury, not his chest peeling off or his knee cracking open; he never made the same mistake twice! The pretty doctor who checked his knife-scored back wasn't amused. His clone was a lousy field-medic, she informed him, and if he was getting injured as often as his hospital records reported, he was probably a lousy ninja, too.
"I'm a real good kisser, though," Ryouma volunteered. "Wanna see?"
He left the hospital with fresh dressings over the painful red hole in his back (so maybe he should have used a little more antibiotic cream when the clone had first stitched him up) and a fresh pink handprint on his cheek (and maybe he shouldn't have gone in for the kill, either, but she was both pretty and annoying, and how else was he supposed to shut her up?). At least she'd given him painkillers, along with meds to kill the infection festering between his shoulder blades before karma took its revenge. Dying of gangrene would be undoubtedly poetic, but the only poetry Ryouma had ever really liked was dirty limericks.
He was working on rhymes for gangrene when he rounded the corner of the third floor showers and saw a lumpy black puddle of fur oozing into the hallway outside his door. The tail thumped briefly against the carpet as he came closer; the single ear pricked.
Ryouma eyed the gristly pelvic bone staining the floor under Kuromaru's paw. The janitors were so going to kill him. He'd spent most of his paycheck having Kakashi's door fixed, two and a half weeks ago, and the check from his last mission hadn't yet come in. Maybe he could shove the cleaning fee off on Tsume...
He dragged his key-and-dogtag chain out from under his shirt and unlocked the door. "Didn't know you missed me so much, pal. That's not anyone I know, is it?"
Kuromaru wagged again, finally rolling slowly up onto his distended stomach. "It's a hamster. I caught it myself. I was gonna give you a lot more of it, but Tsume tried to take the rest away. If you like, I'll show you where I buried it, though." His jaw dropped, tongue lolling out happily.
The hamster was right there. Slowly, he licked the raw meaty bits still attached to the bone. It was torture.
"You were gone a really long time," Kuromaru said, not quite accusingly. "An' if you don't want puppies, I guess Kakashi's a good choice." He sat upright, waiting for the door to open, and added in an undertone, "But you and Tsume would have really cute puppies. And I'd make an excellent helper. I know what to do with them, you know. Both canine ones and human ones."
He continued on before Ryouma could refuse him, tail drifting back and forth. "Also, there's a new ninja who falls out of trees." The door opened, and he picked up the remnants of his meal and started inside.
A leg blocked his path. He looked up.
"That," Ryouma said firmly, "stays outside." He wrinkled his nose at the oozing mess. "And if you're gonna babble about puppies, you stay outside with it."
Puppies weren't the problem, of course. Tsume wasn't really, either. Hell, he'd asked Kuromaru for advice on winning her barely a month ago. But whatever ideas Kuromaru had about Kakashi were clearly so tangled they'd only end in a headache. Where the hell had he got them, anyway? It wasn't like Ryouma'd advertised in the halls that I gave a blowjob to Hatake Kakashi!, or like he even smelled like the man. He'd showered when he got home two days ago, and he was pretty sure all he smelled of now was infection and antiseptic.
Asking would only provoke more questions in return, though, and Ryouma wasn't sure he had the answers. So he folded his arms across his chest, and glared at the shredded chunk of Death Hamster meat instead.
Kuromaru wilted. "Don't know what you've got against puppies..." he mumbled unhappily around his bone, sitting down and looking forlornly upward.
Ryouma didn't budge. He continued to glare.
Kuromaru's ears flopped sideways, and he let his eyes go droopy.
Ryouma still didn't budge.
With a heavy sigh--humans--he set the bone carefully on the floor by the wall. "I'll stop talking about puppies," he promised morosely, and slipped into Ryouma's apartment. "But we'd better leave the door open. In case someone tries to steal it. Raidou lives just down the hall." He glared at the far wall, as if Raidou might appear right through the plaster. "And that Ibiki pup--he never leaves HQ, and we don't like him." He glared in the other direction. "He made Tsume smell bad."
Then, laboriously, he crawled up onto the bed and settled himself amid the blankets. "That was a lot of hamster."
Kuromaru had evidently already forgotten his comments about Kakashi and Tsume and puppies, which was a relief. But there was something else in that rambling news-dump that wasn't nearly so easy to ignore. Ryouma shut the door and leaned carefully against it. "No one's gonna steal your mutant death hamster. Who's this Ibiki punk and what'd he do to Tsume?"
Not another Sadao. He'd be dead twice over if he'd tried anything on Tsume, even without Kuromaru around. Plenty of other things could make Tsume smell bad, anyway, even if Ryouma couldn't think of them right off. Still, it might not hurt to have a friendly little chat with the guy...
He crossed his arms over his chest again. "And how come you're here dribbling hamster-juice on my sheets, and not out there givin' him the smackdown?
Kuromaru straightened up, ear pricking in alarm. "She said not to! She said it was no big deal." His ear slicked back unhappily. "But they put us in different cells so I couldn't see what happened. I think something bad, because afterward she let me drink beer. I said I was going to tell you, and she said not to." He paused there, only just then realizing that perhaps he'd made a mistake.
He thought about it for a long time. "If you were her alpha, I wouldn't get in trouble." His tail thumped on the blankets. "Or maybe if we go rip Ibiki's face off, we won't get in trouble!"
"When I rot peoples' faces off," Ryouma said, very quietly, "I like to know why I'm doing it."
No big deal, Tsume had said. She didn't want him to know. Someone had locked her and Kuromaru in a cell, and she didn't want him to know.
But they were out again, weren't they? And fit enough to go drinking afterward, even if that was another sign of wrongness to Kuromaru. Maybe he just meant that Tsume had warned him not to tell about the beer. No--that kind of sensitive dishonesty wasn't Tsume. She wouldn't spare his feelings over something so small.
So what was she hiding?
"Kuromaru," he said. His voice graveled in its bass depths. "What did Ibiki do?"
Kuromaru's ear folded back, and he squirmed his way off the futon to sit at Ryouma's feet. "I don't know. I wasn't there, and she wouldn't say." He reached up, flicking his tongue over fingertips. "But she smelled very bad. Like--" Like she had once before, but that was a secret. Kuromaru had made her practice lying all the way back to the clan. You didn't tell secrets. They didn't tell this secret.
But she hadn't smelled like that, not really. There hadn't been any blood, and there hadn't been any pain. No sex, either. Just... the rest of that smell.
He rubbed his face on his foreleg as if he would help him explain. "She smelled like omega pups." Solemnly, he looked at Ryouma.
Ryouma was looking confused.
"You know! Like when they get in trouble!"
That didn't seem to help at all.
He wilted, ear flopping. His mind ground to a halt around trying to explain it again. It was omega. And omega was omega.
"You could smell her clothes," he suggested weakly. "They smelled like fear worse than she did. I buried some of them outside..."
Ryouma shook his head. One of his hands slipped down to tousle Kuromaru's ear; the other raked over his own scalp and clenched in his hair. "I don't smell the way you do. Or understand." But he did understand fear, even if he couldn't make sense of the reason.
He could begin to piece it together, though. Kuromaru and Tsume had been hauled in--somewhere, by someone--and separated. A man named Ibiki who never left HQ had scared her, even if she tried to deny it afterward. And of course she'd deny it afterward. Tsume's secret places were so crammed full of pain she had a hard time hiding them anymore.
Where was she hiding, now?
"C'mon," he said, tugging at Kuromaru's ear before he turned and opened the door again. "I don't wanna smell her clothes, but I do wanna see her. What did they do to you, when they took you off alone? And who were they anyway?"
"They were--oh look! No one stole it!--Intel." He scooped up the pelvic bone, carrying it proudly as he trotted beside Ryouma. "An' they didn't do anything with me. They asked us more questions about our mission, and Tsume got angry and threw a chair. Then, instead of leaving, we walked down the hall--but I must have accidentally walked into a cell. They told me they were interrogating Tsume and I'd see her soon, and I told them they should interrogate me and I'd rip their throats out, but they wouldn't do it. Then she came and got me, and that's when she smelled bad and we went and got drinks with Ginta."
It was a long explanation, especially holding his bone. At the end of the corridor, he raced into his and Tsume's apartment and put the kill down, then scampered back out. "That's easier. She's in the gym."
He waited for Ryouma to go through the stairwell door first, then hurried after. "Also, we saw Kakashi today, and she smelled bad and lied when she said she was glad you were mounting him. But she wouldn't admit that she lied." His ear flopped as he continued, "And then she yelled at me. But I have an eyepatch now! And Kakashi--" Here he paused dramatically, "Tried to be the alpha dog."
Ryouma didn't seem as impressed by this information as Kuromaru had hoped.
"Over me!" he added, in case that bit had been misunderstood. "But don't worry! Tsume made him take the wire off my muzzle."
Kakashi being a bossy bastard was nothing new. The rest of it, though... Ryouma rubbed his forehead. "Wait, wait. Kakashi muzzled you? And Tsume didn't try to kill him? And--what the hell's she mean about me mounting him?" He had only the vaguest idea what the word even meant. You mounted horses, he was fairly sure, although he'd never personally done it; walking was good enough for any ninja. But he didn't think Kakashi was a horseman, either, and even without horses in the mix that still made no sense.
With Tsume thrown into a patchwork story, lying about happiness, it made even less.
"Congratulations on the eyepatch," he mumbled at last, as they turned the corner of the second floor landing. "Any reason you're not wearing it?"
Kuromaru paused, looking back up the stairs. "I forgot. I could go get it..." But Ryouma had continued to head down, so he hurried along to catch up. "Kakashi did muzzle me," he said with great relish. Now Kakashi would get in trouble, and he'd know that Kuromaru wasn't a beast to be taken lightly. He was the alpha's friend. "An' Tsume didn't try to kill him. I don't need her help." He angled a look up at Ryouma.
Ryouma made a small noise, glancing down at him. Kuromaru hopped, excited. Ryouma obviously agreed with him. Kuromaru was probably going to be boss over Tsume, too. He bounced a step ahead, came a step behind, and kept talking. "I think by mounting she meant -- you know." He thrust his hips helpfully. "Humping! Kakashi smelled all over like you an' sex, an' Tsume smelled it, too. It was kinda strong, even if it was old. And she was not happy! But she said she was. You can ask her. Maybe she was lying about something else." He wagged furiously for a moment, increasing when he realized Ryouma was laughing. Or choking, he wasn't sure, but it didn't smell painful or scared! He leaped up to lick at Ryouma's ear, then turned and burst through the stairwell doors, racing down the hall even though it was rude--Ryouma didn't stop him--and shoved into the gym.
Tsume stood in the corner, smelling like content exhaustion over strain, pounding at the speed ball hanging from the ceiling.
"Tsume!" He bounded up to her, pausing to lick swiftly before turning to face the door. "I found Ryouma! And don't worry, I told him about Ibiki."
He missed her cringe.
Ryouma didn't. The laughter died in his throat; it hadn't been very funny, anyway. Lies beget lies... If Tsume wasn't interested in him, didn't care about him, then why would she lie about being happy to know he'd hooked up with Kakashi? Why would she care at all?
Not that it mattered, really, compared to the other problem. Relationship soap operas were nothing new. ANBU Intel dragging one of their own agents down to be questioned was. And if she was lying even to Kuromaru about this, what else had happened?
"Kuromaru told me just enough to let me know how much you didn't tell," Ryouma said, shoving his hands in his pockets and leaning against the wall. His back itched; he ignored it.
Tsume's reaction was impossible to ignore. The cringe stiffened into full-body tension, loosened muscles tightening like wires. Her eyes found the door, but Ryouma was in the way.
"Intel," he said. "Interrogation cells." They couldn't have suspected her of anything serious, or she wouldn't have been released. But if it weren't serious, why couldn't she explain even to her partner? What was bad enough to have sent Kuromaru seeking help? "What the hell happened to you? You wouldn't tell Kuromaru, so he came to tell me."
"He shouldn't have," Tsume muttered, giving her familiar a dark look. She'd told him to leave it well enough alone -- by now she figured he'd have forgotten.
He panted happily and wagged his tail. "I told you Ryouma would take care of it."
"There's nothing to take--" She stopped, glaring at the far wall. Arguing with Kuromaru wouldn't help; he was determined his alpha could fix everything, now.
She turned to face Ryouma, gathering her wits for the explanation ahead. She wasn't even sure she wanted to be speaking with him -- not after learning just that morning that he was sleeping with Kakashi.
Slouched against the doorframe, he looked -- well, not quite good. Pale and tired, still. They'd only been home a short time. He smelled like astringent. Maybe he wasn't all right. All in one piece, Kakashi had told her, but if Ryouma smelled like the hospital, there had to be a reason. The urge to find out if he was all right -- if he'd been hurt, if he was hurt now, if she could help -- nearly overwhelmed her.
It wasn't any of her business. They weren't lovers, they weren't clan, they weren't family. Except--he was here asking about Morino. He was asking about her life, so she could ask--
He'd slept with Kakashi. He'd had sex with Kakashi. And she shouldn't care. It didn't matter to her. He and Kakashi had had sex before, anyway.
It was all entirely too confusing. Anger and disappointment -- not at him, but at something she couldn't name -- curled hot in her chest. Answering his question became a lifeline. At least that was something she didn't have to think about.
"It was clan matters. I got set up. Intel thought--" She scowled, shrugging. "We cleared it up, and everything's fine." And why was he asking? As if she should have come to him, as if he were pack, when he was out on missions with Kakashi having sex. Not that she cared. She didn't want any pus-infected sex!
"But you smelled bad," Kuromaru accused.
"It was Intel! It's not like they're going to make me happy!" It was easy to be angry at Kuromaru. Easier than thinking about how she felt about Ryouma.
Kuromaru stiffened. "You smelled bad."
"You-- just--" She didn't even have words for him, anymore. "You're driving me insane! Get out! Out!" Because at least if he were gone, he couldn't blab to Ryouma anymore. Had he only told Ryouma she smelled bad? Bad could mean anything. Bad didn't have to mean everything that had happened.
Kuromaru stood, tail low, ear back. "I'm going to go get my bone," he growled unhappily, and stalked past the man in the door.
Tsume didn't look at Ryouma. "I didn't tell you because it's fine. And you were gone." That last part slipped out unbidden. She winced.
"I was gone," Ryouma agreed. "For two days. I don't see why the hell that matters. If it was nothin', why's Kuromaru so upset about you being upset? And if it was somethin' big enough that there would've been a difference if I'd been here--"
Except that wasn't quite what she'd said. Some Intel punk had been bothering her about her clan; Ryouma couldn't have done anything to help with any of that. He might have offered her coffee and a hug afterward, but he could still do that, if she needed it. Why should it matter so much that he'd left on a mission four days ago, so long as he was back now?
He shoved away from the wall. "You're makin' my head hurt. That's just about typical. Was I supposed to be here for you?"
Tsume's lips tightened, and she turned to re-wrap her knuckles. Not that they needed it. "It doesn't matter. You weren't supposed to be here--I've just heard about nothing except you from Kuromaru for the last two days..." Which wasn't quite true, either. But what was she supposed to tell him? Going on missions is fine, but don't sleep with other people? That was the most tail-bitten thing that had ever even crossed her mind.
She scrubbed a hand through her hair, bracing the other on her hip. "It's just been a really long few days." That, at least, was closer to the truth. Between the Intel mess, Kuromaru's new hospital visits -- even if they were temporary -- trying to keep her pathways from popping chakra stitches, Kuromaru's puppy behavior... And that didn't even count things like Kakashi wiring her familiar's muzzle closed or being unable to go home because she was too weak.
It was unlikely she'd be able to stand up to any challenge. Her chakra was still disabled, and it affected everything. Including being able to snarl at people for things like wiring muzzles closed. Which wouldn't have happened, she'd bet, if Ryouma hadn't been sleeping with Kakashi. That same hot anger curled in her gut. She shoved it away. Took a deep breath and dropped her hands to her sides, summoning up a grim smile for Ryouma. "Kakashi said your mission went all right. Well, actually, he said you were both in one piece, but you smell..." She hesitated, realizing that maybe she shouldn't mention that she could scent astringent. She shrugged; too late now. "You smell like you were hurt."
"The mission sucked," Ryouma said immediately. "I got dragged off to a gay bar, and they wouldn't even give me clothes that fit. I dunno how you can make pants obscenely tight and liable to fall down whenever you breathe at the same time--it's gotta be a jutsu or somethin'. And I had to drink alcohol and chat up drunk gayboys, and then I got groped by our target and Kakashi got kissed and both of us got stabbed. And even after I killed the bastards I couldn't go home and go to bed, 'cause they'd dosed Kakashi with a date-rape drug--and the idiot drank the one that was supposed to be mine--and he was off his head all night. Stay away from that man when he's high."
Although the next afternoon, after the drugs and Kakashi's hangover wore off, had been pretty damn good...
Tsume stared at him. Then she turned and staggered off to a weight bench so she could laugh properly.
Ryouma followed her, grinning. Maybe he couldn't smell good thoughts and bad the way Tsume and Kakashi could, but it was pretty easy to see the tension fading out of her shaking shoulders, the grim smile replaced by hiccuping laughter. He sat down on the bench beside her and waited for her to catch her breath. "I suck at field medicine, especially when I'm doing it on myself, so my back got a bit infected. Just got back from the hospital, so it's good now. And my clone who patched Kakashi up was damn careful, so he should be all right. You should ask him about hangover cures sometime, though, and see if he blushes."
Tsume barked another laugh, wiping tears from under her eyes. "Is that what you guys are calling it?" She slanted Ryouma an amused look, able to speak with only the slightest twinge this time. "And if I asked you about hangover cures, would you blush?" His smug grin was answer enough, and she laughed quietly and shook her head, speaking under her breath. "Of course not. What was I thinking?" She slanted a sidelong look at Ryouma, taking in comfortably baggy jeans, a T-shirt that framed broad shoulders, and the smooth expanse of golden skin over strong arms.
There were small, faint red marks on his throat, and a circular scab on the side of his neck. Tsume narrowed her eyes at it, recognizing it as a bite mark. Deeper than usual at the canines, indicating long eyeteeth. Inuzuka -- or Kakashi. She looked away, staring down at her bare feet. Her toes curled against the mats. "Well, I'm glad you both got home all right, then. If the worst is that Kakashi got kissed..." She looked up, grinning crookedly. "Kuromaru thinks Kakashi's your mate, you know. And now you have a whole Pack of your own making. Though he is quite put out that Kakashi seems to insist on proving his superiority."
"Kakashi's got some sort of complex where he has to prove it to everyone," Ryouma said. "Mostly it makes him bossy. Kuromaru said... He was babbling when we first met up. Talking about puppies. He thought you and me'd have really cute ones." He tried returning her grin; it fell a little flat. She was looking down at her toes again.
He said, slowly, "He told me about another time you smelled like something was wrong, too. Said you ran into Kakashi today and lied when you said you were glad I slept with him. Er, mounted him, or something, which isn't quite accurate, but--" He rescued that train of thought before it devolved any further. If Tsume hadn't been happy to hear of it, she certainly wouldn't be pleased with the details. "It sounds like Intel isn't all that's upsetting you these days. And maybe Intel isn't supposed to make you happy, but I'd hate to think I'd... Is that why it matters I was gone?"
The leap in logic wasn't one he'd thought anyone but one of his less-stable former girlfriends would make. It made a little more sense from the point of view of a jealous girlfriend, but Tsume wasn't either of those. Had insisted she didn't want to be anything like a girlfriend. She'd shot him down too many times to count. Why should she care that he'd turned to someone else?
Tsume stared hard at the mats, glaring where one of them had been torn in some long-ago spar. "It's not--" She stopped, unsure what she was going to say. "It doesn't matter--" She stopped again, chewing on the inside of her lip. "I was just surprised. Kuromaru must have misread my scent."
She looked away, shoulders hunched as she braced her hands on the bench. Ryouma was close enough that she could brush his thigh, if she stretched her fingers out--
Which she didn't do.
She wasn't unhappy that he and Kakashi were having sex. She was sure that Ryouma was still chasing tail all over HQ, and that didn't bother her. It was just -- it wasn't the first time. There was something there, and she wanted it.
She didn't want it. She didn't. Connections meant people started asking things, wanting things, pushing for more -- she didn't want that.
And she wanted it so badly she could taste it.
All her confusion settled. It wasn't Kakashi -- it was the connection. Well. That was easy enough. Very simply, she couldn't have it. From somewhere she found a humorless smile and looked up at Ryouma, purposely relaxing again. "It doesn't matter. It was just a long week, with more surprises than not. I wouldn't have thought that you and Kakashi--mitebite, I wouldn't have thought that Kakashi... And Kuromaru has been going on about puppies." She rolled her eyes. "Spring."
"I still don't think it's quite me and Kakashi, if that helps," Ryouma offered. "I mean, he said he wanted to keep having sex with me, which is pretty freakin' unusual for him. But we're not dating or anything. He doesn't--"
I don't love you, he'd whispered, hand clenched around Ryouma's biceps hard enough to hurt. I'm not going anywhere.
"He's insane even when he's not high," Ryouma groaned. "When you make more sense, that's sayin' something. Especially since I agree with Kuromaru, and you suck at lying."
But pushing on that trigger wouldn't get him anywhere right now, and whatever the deep-buried reason was, he wasn't sure he could deal with it. Pushing somewhere else, maybe... He'd made her laugh, and then he'd wasted his chance to ask when she was relaxed and easy. But maybe he'd distracted her enough that he could get an answer.
"What upset you about your talk with Intel?"
She was about to defend that she didn't suck at lying -- very different than saying she wasn't doing it, though still a lie -- when he followed up with his next question. She linked her hands between her knees, staring at her fingers. "Oh. Well." She tried to shrug and glanced up at him. "It's Intel. What wouldn't upset me about a talk with them, right? Everything they want to know brings up more bad stuff." She waved one hand, taking in the world at large. "It was -- just -- clan issues."
He was still listening, sitting beside her on the weight bench as if he had nowhere else in the world he needed to be. Maybe he didn't. Maybe she was just a way to pass the time, a filler until his next -- whatever he did, when he wasn't on missions or with her. Or Kakashi.
Dark eyes watched her, waiting, and she didn't feel like she was just there to fill the empty space. She tucked her hair back and clasped her hands together again. "One of the other alphas in my clan told Intel I was colluding with one of the councilmembers." Her mouth twisted bitterly. "That I was blackmailing him. That Hana was, if you can believe it, his daughter." Her stomach twisted, and she was glad Kuromaru wasn't there to announce -- again -- that she smelled bad. "Intel takes threats like that rather seriously -- though," she hurried to add, "nothing really happened."
Morino had smelled so--
Goosebumps rose on her arms. Her stomach flipped again. He lived just down the hall, and now it seemed she smelled him everywhere.
"For a bunch of guys who play shogi in their heads on their coffee-breaks, Intel sure are idiots." Ryouma reached sideways, tousling the unruly hair Tsume had just tried to tame. "C'mon, you won't sleep with me. What makes them think you'd sleep with some chubby, balding old guy?" He couldn't even imagine what they supposed she'd been blackmailing the man for. She had money, power, privilege. And she couldn't bluff worth a broken kunai. Tsume as a blackmailer was just ridiculous.
Intel taking the idea seriously wasn't.
"I'm guessing you--or they--already took care of the son of a bitch who lied about you. What about the guy who questioned you? Ibiki, right? Kuromaru said I need to rip his face off, and nothing really happened means somethin' sure as hell did." Her knuckles were white. "Did he hurt you?"
She looked up at him sharply, as if she could read his intentions behind his eyes. And discovered she could.
He watched her, waiting for any sort of reaction, his muscles in the nebulous stage between tense and relaxed. Not waiting for her to make a mistake, to admit to weakness, but waiting to help, to join Kuromaru in face-ripping.
"He--Botan's still being held," she answered, shying away from the last question. She went back to staring at her knees, unable to respond to the offer she could see in Ryouma's expression. He'd offer help to anyone. He was just like that.
"He didn't hurt me," she said finally. "They wouldn't have let--" Except, if there hadn't been proof, if they hadn't believed her, would that have been the next step? She rubbed her face with both hands. "I snapped teeth. They brought us in under false pretenses, and I got frustrated and threw a chair, and the next thing I knew I was in some -- underground interrogation room and Kuromaru was gone and Morino--" She stopped the words. "Ginta says he's Shida's protege." And he was good at what he did. "But they didn't hurt me."
There was a faded bit of denim on the knee of Ryouma's jeans. Tsume reached out, scraping a nail over it lightly before rubbing her thumb across it, feeling the different textures. Feeling the shape of his kneecap, the swell of muscle above it, then back down over the edge of bone. Her words were very quiet. "I was just rattled, s'all."
Ryouma had heard about Shida--mostly from Sumire, before she left, with shreds of whispered rumors from his friends in the mission office. He was a nightmarishly disfigured monster who never left T&I's interrogation cells, a sadist who raped both male and female prisoners, a master torturer who could break a man in less time than he took to brush his teeth. What sort of man would he choose as his apprentice and protege?
A man a lot like him, Ryouma guessed.
"Did he touch you?" he asked fiercely. "Use genjutsu? Threaten you at all? Dammit, Tsume, you pulled me out of hell. You don't have to cover it up for me."
She looked up at him, surprised at his vehemence. "No -- Ryouma, no. The only genjutsu was to get me into the room, and the only time he touched me was to--" She frowned, catching denim under the hook of one nail. "Seat me again." Big hands on her shoulders, and she'd been able to smell his--
"He's just intimidating. He's tall -- taller than you -- and scarred, and he knows how to -- how to loom." Her voice was a mutter, disgusted with herself. "How moon-blind is that, to be a ninja who gets intimidated by looming?" She shook her head. "But he was... polite. Mostly." The silence went unmarked for a full breath. "I think that made it worse. It was just-- He--" Her shoulders rocked up and down again, hand finally coming away from Ryouma's knee to wrap around herself. She rubbed her arms.
"He smelled bad. Like -- he got off on scaring... people. He enjoyed it. And I could smell it. It was-- It was just--" Frightening. "He lives down the hall, and now I smell him all over." She tipped her head toward Ryouma, but didn't look up at him. Somehow, she didn't want to know how he looked. "I was upset when they finally let us out. And Kuromaru reacted badly." A humorless smile twitched across her face. "I don't think he liked knowing that if I'd been hurt, he couldn't have helped."
T&I guys who got off on scaring people weren't, Ryouma suspected, unusual. And he hadn't touched her with intent to hurt, which meant Ryouma didn't have to throw away his career and probably his life avenging her. He dragged in a deep breath he hadn't realized he'd been missing, and carefully slid his arm around her shoulders to hug her close.
She stiffened again, even with his caution, then relaxed. When he tightened his arm, pulling her in, the taut muscles loosened even further. She leaned against him, and her head tipped into his shoulder. Wild brown hair brushed his chin. How long had it been since he'd touched her? Weeks, at least, since Kuromaru had returned from the hospital and she'd moved out. He'd almost forgot how she felt against his side...
"I'll go loom back at him anyway, if you want. I'm good at looming. An' you can teach me how to do that thing where you glare up." He paused. Then, plaintively: "How much taller is he than me?"
Tsume chuckled softly, breathing in his scent, feeling his heartbeat thump under her cheek. How did he do that? She'd been ready to push him aside, to relegate him to someone she cared about but didn't care about. She'd been hurting and standing on her own just fine.
And then he listened and enveloped her in a smell that was nothing about testing or pushing or challenging, and she found herself leaning against his chest, a strong arm around her shoulders, remembering feeling safe and secure in his bed--
Which was where Kakashi was. Maybe that was good. She closed her eyes anyway, taking a breath of sunshine and forest, easy laughter and the edge of danger.
Dangerous to whom, that was the question.
"He's not much taller than you." She relaxed further, as if she could melt into him just for a little while. Muscle corded against her side, over her shoulders, counterpoint to her own. "I think if you just don't get too close you won't even have to look up."
Fur brushed her foot. She slitted one eye and looked down to discover Kuromaru had returned and was lying contentedly by their feet, watching the two of them with utter adoration.
She knew that look. He was never going to stop talking about puppies now.
"I'll go be alpha at him," Ryouma murmured. "I can do that, right, Kuromaru? Growly and everything."
"Definitely," Kuromaru said cheerfully. "I'll help you rip off his face."
Tsume's shoulders shook. After a startled moment, Ryouma realized she was laughing. He grinned, tense muscles loosening, and held her tighter. His chin just rested on the top of her head. She still fit, as if he'd never let her go.
Maybe he shouldn't have.