Kakashi had been on ANBU's furthest training field since an hour before dawn, finding his way back to something like routine.
He was prepared today; a black bag filled with a change of clothes, several bottles of water, and four pre-made meals with Akimichi's Masuru's colour-coded powders already mixed in, sat beneath a tree. After only four days, those powders were already making a difference. Or maybe it was just the strict regimen of actual, wholesome food five times a day that was beginning to put flesh back on his bones. His shirts were starting to fit again; his pants didn't hang quite so dramatically off his hipbones. And when he'd run through the first tentative warm-up exercise, several hours back, he'd found himself moving with an ease that almost mimicked his old grace. Confidence followed in short order. A renewed faith that his body would do what he demanded of it.
Soon, he realized, as he slid seamlessly between kata. I'll be mission-ready soon.
It was a comforting thought.
Provided it was a solo mission, anyway. A return-to-basics assignment, with no complications. No teammates. Or rescues. Or any kind of healing, at least until Genma could be persuaded to go back on his rejection.
A grim smile framed Kakashi's lips as he ducked, somersaulted, and peppered a target with a handful of kunai. Trading insults with Genma couldn't lead to any kind of friendship entanglement--or anything even more complicated.
Not like Ginta. Or Ryouma.
For the moment, Kakashi shelved all thoughts of Ginta. They'd reached some sort of... something in their last conversation-turned-hug-turned-exhausted-sleep. A truce, or an impasse, or perhaps just a backwards kind of understanding. Something mutual, at least, even if it had only been a mutual acknowledgement of just how badly brain-damaged they both were.
Four days after that quiet hospital room, that desperate double-hug, Kakashi still hadn't worked out what he wanted to do about his newly-dubbed friend.
Ryouma was a different story. Kakashi knew exactly what he was going to do to Ryouma, as soon at the man dragged himself home (alive, alive, alive) from whatever half-baked mission he'd charged off on in the middle of the night. And it didn't begin with a friendly greeting.
He was halfway through this thought--and noticing that his aim was getting decidedly off--when the wind shifted, changed, and new scents swirled on the midday breeze. Sweat, sleepy thunder, sun-warmed skin; a charbroiled mix of smoke, old jutsu, and the faintest sour thread of rotten flesh. A dozen other things besides that Kakashi would have been able to recognize blindfolded in the dark, and an undertone of something else entirely.
Kakashi translocated halfway between one step and the next, moving like a whiplash to the nearest living chakra source in the right direction, and almost got his head taken off by a vicious bare-handed punch. He stopped the blow with the flat of his hand, knocking it aside, and realized he had the wrong person.
A woman, for starters, judging by her scent rather than mostly absent curves. Four inches shorter than him, sweat-soaked, and staring wide-eyed -- staring for a moment, anyway, before her expression faded to laconic. She slid slowly out of a defensive crouch, eyebrows lifting.
Sorry, Kakashi opened his mouth to drawl, already gathering painful chakra for another translocation, when his teeth abruptly snapped together. He inhaled again. His visible eye narrowed and sharpened on the too-big t-shirt draping down from lean shoulders, far past narrow hips.
"That's Ryouma's," he said, flat and nothing like a question. "Why're you wearing it?"
Katsuko was in the middle of her second-to-last kata when a snarl of foreign chakra crackled in the air a mere foot away. She reversed direction automatically, hips twisting as her fist snapped out--
Only for her punch be caught and knocked aside.
She sprang away from the intruder, sliding into a guard, before she registered the lack of killing intent. Male, and a good few inches taller than her. After she'd gotten over the initial shock--the guy was fast--the first thing she noticed was his hair. Grey and gravity-defying, even if the man it belonged to looked no older than she was. What she could see of the man, anyways. A mask covered half of his face, while a strip of black cloth obscured one eye. The whole ensemble, combined with his lanky frame, made him look like a particularly irascible scarecrow.
Katsuko raised an eyebrow.
Besides the number the pseudo eye-patch must do on the guy's depth perception, why did all the strange people gravitate towards her? Was there a sign on her back that said, 'Particularly Welcoming of Freaks and Geeks?'
It was utterly baffling.
The stranger's one visible eye narrowed as it tracked down her torso; a palpable chill entered the air. Katsuko resisted the urge to cross her arms over her chest and stared back, challengingly--
"That's Ryouma's," the stranger grated. "Why're you wearing it?"
Like hell her chest was Ryouma's--wait shit what?
There was a long silence as Katsuko looked down at herself and confirmed that, yes, she was wearing one of Ryouma's shirts. Black and form-fitting on Ryouma's frame, it draped like a gown over Katsuko's slighter figure. It still smelled a little bit like him, come to think of it. But only a little. Her sweat was kind of drowning everything out. A vague memory of the run back home from the mission (she'd taken the shirt, she remembered now, because it looked roomy and comfortable and Ryouma still had that baffled look in his eyes when she'd refused to make their one-night stand into a two-night) firmed her lips and straightened her shoulders as she met the man's icy stare with a half-lidded, apathetically curious look.
"Nice to meet you, too," she drawled. "Name's Ueno Katsuko, and how do you know the shirt is Ryouma's?"
"I'm psychic," Kakashi bit out, his voice turned sharp in response to her half-faked nonchalance and his own rising irritation. He strangled the impulse to grab that slim, sweat-beaded neck and shake it until answers fell out. No hurting teammates. Peace. "You smell like him," he explained, short and abrupt.
Looked something like Ryouma, even, in a broken-mirror kind of way. Black hair cut short and ragged in a lack-of-style that fell somewhere between male and female, though longer than Ryouma's mullet had been even before the nurses had sheared it off. Dark eyes, lazy and brown instead of alert and brown-black, but intelligent all the same. Pale skin, a threadwork of scars, a chakra presence that blazed entirely too strong -- unnaturally strong, and not in a way that felt like a bloodline limit. One of Orochimaru's experiments?
Her body was androgynous, to the point that Kakashi thought she probably cultivated that image. Some kunoichi did.
All of this he noticed in an eye-flicker, information caught and kept by a part of his brain devoted to doing just that, while the rest of him pointed out more important facts. Like the weariness clinging to her ginger-candy scent, beneath Ryouma's more familiar smell, and the mission-battered look written into the shadows beneath her eyes. A fresh cut scabbed its way down over her left cheekbone; something deeper and nastier had been bandaged on her throat.
Recently returned from a mission. Smelling of Ryouma. Wearing his shirt.
It was so entirely not what Kakashi had expected, that he struggled for a moment to wrap his brain around the obvious. And then logic clicked back together. After all, if you were going to swing back from gay to straight, androgyny made a nice side-stop along the way.
Kakashi thought of the red hoodie Ryouma had loaned him in the hospital, and the hotel room before that, and felt his stomach ache. Felt something internal gather up and sneer at the weakness.
"Ryouma survived your mission, then?" he said, trying for neutral. It came out arctic-cold and angry. "Did you have fun?"
She smelled like Ryouma?
Keen brown eyes narrowed as pieces began to fall into place. The acid tone, the bitter fury...Katsuko thought she knew what had gotten angry-scarecrow-man so riled up, but she didn't like it any more than he did.
Something that felt uncomfortably like betrayal hit her in the stomach, along with the requisite shock and resignation. Ryouma hadn't seemed like the monogamous type, which she'd known the first time she'd dragged him down into a kiss. Counted on, actually, since he didn't seem to be the type to let unnecessary emotional entanglements interfere with field work. So why was she feeling so cheated now?
Katsuko had, unfortunately, been in this situation before--or at least, Beni had, which by extension meant that his entire chuunin team had. Slept with the hot new mission partner? Check. Returned home and parted ways? Check. Been confronted by jealous girlfriend/ex-girlfriend of said mission partner barely a day later?
Well, if you stuck tits on angry-scarecrow-man and applied some eyeliner, he could vaguely qualify as a person of the female gender.
Hadn't known Ryouma swung both ways, though. Guessed you learned something new every day.
Didn't make her want to punch him in the face any less.
Her hands clenched into fists. "Didn't catch your name. Let's start with introductions first before talking about away missions."
Kakashi's jaw locked. He cracked it sideways, bone popping at the hinge, and re-centred himself. Re-evaluated, grey gaze ticking down to Ueno Katsuko's white knuckles. His nostrils flared at the complex dance of surprise-hurt-anger that rippled through her scent. He'd guessed right, clearly -- and picked a fight with someone undeserving, seeing as she had absolutely no idea who he was. Which was something so rare he'd normally treasure it.
In this instance, not so much. He was torn between an unreasonable desire to bite her throat out, a much more reasonable desire to bite Ryouma's throat out, and the overwhelming urge to take that solo mission right-the-hell-now. Preferably one long enough to forget everything of Ryouma, starting with his gut-familiar scent and ending with his sunset confession in front the Heroes' Stone.
Kakashi raked a hand through his sweaty hair, feeling entirely too much like a jilted lover for his own comfort. He was not supposed to care.
"Hatake Kakashi," he said finally, fingers flicking to the bared tattoo on his left arm. He'd been wearing sleeveless blacks to train in. "ANBU."
Katsuko blinked once, slow.
Kakashi wrestled with himself, then forced out: "Tell me Ryouma's still alive -- and in one piece."
He said his name like she was supposed to know it. Katsuko blinked, once, staring at him in blank incomprehension as she rifled through her mental files.
Hatake Kakashi, jounin at fourteen...and...
The legendary Copy-nin, of the Sharingan and the Chidori.
Holy hells, she'd slept with a man whose boyfriend could Thousand Bird Jutsu her face off.
Katsuko let out a deep, heartfelt sigh and massaged her forehead with one hand, propping the other on her hip. "Yes. I left Tousaki Ryouma at the hospital for unspecified injuries, mostly lightning-jutsu burns and cuts. We had a mission to take down a former Cloud-nin, and you know how those guys are about lightning and thunder. Far as I know he went home after that. I didn't check."
Ryouma, who'd shown her his scars from Lightning Country and who'd asked her if the ones who'd given her her own were dead. Ryouma, who'd been so sympathetic and kind, and who'd smiled like the sun coming out.
She was going to punch that bastard in the face.
Kakashi felt his eyebrow twitch. "You didn't check?" he echoed tightly.
There was a flicker of stillness from the woman. She gave him a look, one fine black eyebrow raising. "I don't like hospitals, and I don't think he wanted me around."
Kakashi closed his teeth on a So what? His rules weren't everyone's rules. Not everyone stayed, even for an injured teammate. Even though they should. Even though it was the right thing to do--
He cut that thought off before it carried his control away with it. Questions took its place, ones he'd never pictured himself wanting to ask. Did you know each other before? Did you instigate it, or did he? Did you leave teethmarks on my--
Ryouma wasn't his anything. No strings, no complications, no early deaths -- that had been the deal, nothing more. Probably much less, now, given the way Ryouma had run so hard. Straight into the arms of a woman.
Well, an almost-woman.
Kakashi raked a grass-stained hand through his hair and eyed Katsuko. She was as sweaty as he was, about as lean, more scarred -- more obviously scarred, anyway; it looked like someone had once taken an acid-whip to both her forearms. She was watching him warily, or just wearily, though half-lidded brown eyes and a messy fall of hair. Waiting for his next move.
It would have been nice, Kakashi reflected, if he knew what the hell his next move was.
She smelled like throttled anger. He thought briefly of dogs, and tearing throats out. Of people, and talking things over. Of Ryouma making a choice, and Kakashi making another, and the liklihood that Katsuko was owed one, too.
I don't think he wanted me around.
"Do you want him?" he asked finally. It wasn't an offer.
"What for?" Katsuko asked, the corner of her mouth crooking up in a jagged little smile. "He won't want me."
Because she'd let her guard down for one night--just one. Because she'd let herself feel human again, and lonely. And because he'd saved her life, and been on the border of Lightning with her all those years ago.
Because they'd shared their scars.
Now she was glad she'd turned down Ryou--Tousaki on the second night. She'd been afraid (How long had it been since she'd let someone in? Since that time a year ago when the special jounin had nearly retched at the sight of her old wounds?) of what would happen. Would he change his mind? Turn away if confronted, again, with the signs of torture marring her body? Would she get attached, even, to a man who seemed to court death as easily as he courted her?
Now Katsuko knew she shouldn't have bothered. Tousaki apparently liked to screw anything on two legs, up to and including angry, male ANBU legends and scarred, androgynous kunoichi.
She shoved her hands into her pockets and leaned her weight on one foot, feeling unaccountably drained. "I was just for one night, Hatake. If you're this serious about it I'm guessing you mean a lot more to him. To each other. Go talk to him about it."
Her lips thinned into a flat line as her eyes hardened. "And when you're done...I'd like a little chat with him, myself."
That look, right there, was the first time she'd looked like a ninja. Looked like his version of a ninja, with her hands hidden and her weight canted and a pale echo of blades and death reflected in the sharp bones of her face. The tight set of her jaw.
Kakashi didn't know precisely what Ryouma had done to make her feel unwanted, but he suspected there would be some substantial regret about it in the very near future.
Not his problem.
Well, mostly not his problem. Unless she planned to do something fatal about it, but he doubted that.
He tipped his head in silent acknowledgment and wondered, just for a moment, what she'd be like on a mission. Her chakra was a beacon, a source of blatant, scar-twisted wrongness, but there was so much of it. A broad, half-restrained forest fire. And he could see precisely how to use that: a weapon, a distraction. A useful diversion. And she had none of the romantic softness that seemed so common with kunoichi--at least, insofar as he could tell from one conversation.
Unless you counted that comment about what he meant to Ryouma, which was none of her business and dead-wrong besides. He'd meant just enough to be worth running from. To be left behind while Ryouma had taken a midnight mission, and gotten himself laid, and come back without a word.
It was the first time in living memory Kakashi had been abandoned by someone still breathing. By someone who'd meant something to him.
Katsuko had gotten that bit right. Kakashi just wished she hadn't.
He cut the thought away with a jerk of his jaw, reaching for a lifetime's practice of not-caring, and yanked up his half-recovered chakra. The not-caring wouldn't come, but he had anger enough to take its place, and a plan to do something about it. Ryouma's room would be a damn good place to start.
He had no goodbye's for Katsuko, but something else occurred.
"If you want a stereo, there's one going free at the hospital. The ANBU ward."
She blinked at him. Kakashi translocated away.
And with another snarl of chakra Kakashi was gone. Katsuko stared blankly at the space where he'd stood moments before, her head pounding in a way that meant either severe tension or low blood sugar.
After a moment she rubbed a hand over her face and sighed again, long and deep. Her shoulders slumped as she turned to survey the empty training field; after that little revelation she and Hatake had come to, there was no more peace to be found here.
It was all right. There were other practice areas, other vacant forest clearings where she could punch and kick at empty air to her heart's content. There was time enough for her to plan what to say, and what to do, to Ryouma when she met him next.
If he was still alive by the time Hatake was done with him. Katsuko sincerely hoped so, because the dead couldn't feel any pain.