“Another ten ccs, I think,” the voice said, somewhere on the very edge of his hearing. Something touched his wrist: fingers, pinching at his pulse. He strained against the bindings, but his reactions were sluggish, nerves misfiring, muscles weak as water. Noise clotted in his throat, senseless as an animal’s growls.
“Ten ccs? Are you certain, Haibara-sensei?” someone else asked. “I mean—not that I’m questioning your expertise, but... He’s been given a larger dose over a longer period of time than any of our previous subjects. Are you sure he’ll still be useable, after?”
A laugh, warm, pitying. “Does it matter? We’re only guaranteeing his physical condition. Suna’s been informed of the risks. If they choose to wager on a seventy-five percent chance, that’s their concern. Ten ccs.”
“Ten,” the second voice agreed unhappily, and cold seeped into Ryouma’s vein.
His eyes flicked open.
There was a white ceiling, and a white wall. Sunlight on his face.
Two hours, perhaps, before Suwo-obaasan and Izumi-obaasan came for him, to hoist him out of bed and into a chair, feed him rice porridge and stewed vegetables, wash and shave him and leave him staring out the window. If he was lucky maybe they’d pull him to his feet, let him pace. They worried to each other about his muscle tone. He was fairly sure that letting him walk tight circles around his room wasn’t part of their orders, anymore than the sponge-baths and the regular shaves were, but he was pathetically grateful for it.
If they knew, he’d be back in the cells. And then, eventually, mercifully, dead.
Something stirred beside him. He thought fleetingly, horribly, of rats; he’d been bitten in the cells, before his guards realized he wouldn’t defend himself. He’d never been so terrified, lying alone there in the dark, feeling the claws scrabble over him and the sudden sharp pain. Not daring even to flinch, praying someone would come before he lost a finger...
“Whatever y’thinking,” a voice rumbled against his shoulder, “s’making you smell terrible.” A body moved against his side, rolling over. Hard muscle under soft cotton. An arm flopped over his chest, and a sharp-boned nose and chin shoved against his neck. “Sleep. S’early. S’all safe.”
Breath ghosted warm against his throat.
Ryouma stared at the ceiling.
They hadn’t known about Kakashi. And even if they’d found out—even if someone inside the village was selling rumors and shreds of gossip—they wouldn’t know about his sense of smell. Ryouma hadn’t known about it until their first mission together, and he’d been as ardent a consumer of Sharingan no Kakashi stories as anyone.
Not a genjutsu, then.
He blinked, hard, against the burning in his eyes. Then he peeled himself carefully out of Kakashi’s protesting grasp, eeled his way to the bottom of the bed, and stood up. His muscles obeyed him; his head swam a little, then steadied.
Behind him, Kakashi rolled over again and dragged himself groggily up against the headboard. He peered at Ryouma from under a wild tangle of tousled hair. “You okay?”
“Fine,” Ryouma gritted. “Except I reek. Gonna take a shower. Go back to sleep.”
Kakashi gave him a long look. Then he shoved himself away from the headboard and half-crawled down to kneel upright at the foot of the bed. His one-eyed gaze was already almost clear.
One hand tangled in Ryouma’s shirt-collar, pulling him a little closer. The bed was tall; even on his knees, Kakashi barely had to stretch to tip his cheek against Ryouma’s, mouth brushing Ryouma’s ear. “You’re a grown man,” he said, quietly. “If you say you’re fine, I’ll believe you. If you’re not and you want to deal with it later, I can live with that.”
Ryouma closed his eyes. “Everybody has bad dreams,” he said at last. “I will be fine.”
Kakashi released a soft breath. “I know.” His head dropped to Ryouma’s shoulder; his body sagged abruptly, boneless. “In that case, stay there, because I’m going to fall asleep on you.”
“I meant it about the shower,” Ryouma warned him. “I can smell myself, y’know.” He eased Kakashi back down, a little regretfully. “Go back to sleep on the bed. It’s more comfy, anyway.”
“It’s really not,” Kakashi mumbled. But he rolled on his stomach anyway, half-dragging the blanket over him as he burrowed down into the pillows. His breath was already slowing.
He had his own nightmares; he didn’t need Ryouma’s.
“Sleep well,” Ryouma said softly. He tugged the rest of the blanket up over Kakashi’s shoulder, let his hand drift over Kakashi’s hair as he straightened again. Then he turned resolutely, peeled off his shirt, and headed for the bathroom.
If they had showers in Suna, he’d never seen them.
Hatake Kakashi’s front door was about as friendly as Asuma remembered. Iron-railed steps led up to an open-aired concrete hallway that circled the outside of the building, providing access to a row of apartments. Kakashi’s was 213, right on the end, as far away from the steps as possible. Black door, steel numbers, not a single potted plant. Asuma had seen storage locker doors with more personality.
“Cheery,” he told the cold morning air.
It was edging past nine AM, but the sun was still lukewarm and there was bite in the breeze. The half-smoked cigarette between his teeth didn’t provide much warmth, but it was doing a marvellous job as breakfast.
He rebalanced the be-ribboned cake box and its somber, wood-boxed twin under one arm, and knocked on the door.
There was a quick, half-muffled trade of voices inside. A tired-sounding mutter, and a much more awake: “I’ll get it.”
The door pulled halfway open a moment later, and Asuma raised his eyebrows as he looked down at a scar-crossed, half-tattooed, one-nippled chest still damp from the shower. The man attached to it was wearing a towel low on his hips, and not much else.
Tousaki Ryouma blinked. “Package delivery?”
“Close enough,” Asuma said, with a grin that mostly said you dog, Tousaki. He hefted the boxes. “Home-coming cake and a house-warming present. Which d’you want first?”
“Cake,” said Ryouma instantly, so fast it had to be a reflex. “Who are you, anyway?” He shifted his weight, glancing once behind him. Asuma leaned up to look over Ryouma’s shoulder; he caught a glimpse of a bed, a tangle of blankets, and one sleeveless arm dangling off the edge, before Ryouma shifted to block his view. “D’you need to see Kakashi?”
“Nope,” Asuma said cheerfully. “I like my head still attached. I’m here to see you.” He dropped the cake-box into Ryouma’s arms, freeing up a hand, which he offered. “I’m Asuma. I was on the mission that dragged your boyfriend home. Glad you managed to make it back, too.”
Ryouma’s grip was strong, firm, and blood-warm from his shower, testing Asuma’s a little, but not enough to bring on a finger-crushing competition. “Thanks. I owe you one, for that. Two, maybe.” His grin shaded to wry. “I did the jutsu that pulled the place down on ‘em. Did you have much trouble draggin’ ‘em out?”
“Eh,” said Asuma, see-sawing his hand in the universal gesture of so-so. “Had an exciting moment or two when Hatake tried to throttle my partner, but the guy was an asshole. My partner,” he clarified. “Not your partner. Well, actually, Hatake’s kind of an asshole, too. But I figure he means well.” He held out the second box. “Open your present, man. I’m dying to see your face.”
In the warm twilight of the apartment, Kakashi made a muffled, unhappy noise and rolled over again, dragging a pillow over his face. Ryouma glanced back again and made a quick decision.
“Sorry, man. Pants before presents. Wait a second.” He stacked the be-ribboned cake box back on top of the slim wooden one in Asuma’s hands and dodged inside, shoving the door nearly shut behind him.
He still had a pair of jeans and a few semi-clean shirts in the sports bag Kakashi had kept, now stowed a little more tidily on the floor of Kakashi’s closet. At some point both laundry and shopping were going to be necessary. In the meantime, though, he dragged on jeans and a dark grey Shutdown Assassin tee-shirt with a silk-screened skull-and-flower motif flowing down the side. It was cold out there, but Asuma hadn’t been wearing a sweater. He forwent the red Atomic Sunrise hoodie out of principle and collected his shoes from last night’s haphazard pile.
Kakashi stirred again. Ryouma stepped close and pressed a hand to his shoulder. “I’m goin’ out for a bit. Hold down the fort.”
The vague mumble didn’t quite translate into words, but the reflexive loose grab at Ryouma’s wrist was clear enough. Ryouma hesitated a moment, then set his jaw and eased his hand free. “Someone I owe somethin’, waiting outside. I’ll bring you back cake.”
He headed for the door again. Asuma was still waiting, a little to Ryouma’s surprise, mouth curled around his cigarette in what seemed to be a permanent expression of faint amusement. “He let you out to play?”
“I have to be back for naptime,” Ryouma said, pulling the door closed. “And no peeing in the sandbox.” He checked the angle of the sun; probably three or four hours before he should head to meet Reiko at HQ. Time enough to find out what Asuma wanted, and what amends Ryouma could make for Kakashi’s life. “D’you like hangin’ out on doorsteps, or d’you want to head someplace friendlier?”
“I would kill for a coffee,” Asuma said promptly. “I know this great place near the river with a pretty barista.” His brows arched expressively. “Bet they’ve got some pretty boys, too.”
“What, aren’t you pretty enough for me?” Ryouma pursed his lips and gave the boy a slow, thorough once-over. The height was a surprise; he’d seldom met anyone in Konoha who could match him. Solid, dense musculature of the sort Ryouma would have to work his ass off to acquire again, with a shock of thick black hair and a scruffy, hopeful attempt at a beard. If Asuma’s features hadn’t been so square, broad cheekbones balanced by an assertive nose, they might have passed for brothers. Ryouma smiled at him, soft, warm. “Always did like brunettes.”
Then he threw his head back and laughed.
“You can try kissing me if y’want,” he said, delighted. “But can we wait until Reiko’s around? I kind of promised her.”
Now it was Ryouma’s turn to blink. He shook his head a little, as if trying to banish a sudden mental image. “You promised Reiko you’d kiss me in front of her? Cocky much?”
“You, Hatake, any sexy, rainbow-flavoured guy. I’m open-minded.” He lit a cheerful cigarette, handed Ryouma his presents back, and turned to head down the stairs. “‘Course, she seemed to be of the opinion that Hatake might bite my throat out, but that was before I knew you were interested.”
Ryouma sounded like he was trying not to laugh. "Sorry to say that'll probably make Kakashi even more likely to bite your throat out. He gets possessive." A rustle of paper and a jostling sound suggested he was weighing the boxes. Absently, he added: "You could fight him for me. 'Course, if you hurt him, I'd have to kill you."
Asuma turned to grin over his shoulder. “Guess a threesome is our only option. Hope Hatake’s pretty under that mask.” An answer he knew already, actually, but the one and only time he’d seen Hatake’s face there’d mostly been blood and teeth, and nothing like sexiness anywhere. He sobered just a little. “So you guys are serious, huh?”
“I am,” Ryouma said, quiet and intent, like a sudden switchblade in candyfloss. “And he’s willing to take a chance on me.” He drew level as they reached the bottom of the stairs, and tipped his head at Asuma. “Why the interest? You save a guy’s life, I can understand lookin’ out for him afterwards, but where do I come in?” After a beat, he added: “Aside from bein’ sexy.”
“Modest, too,” Asuma said. He blew a thoughtful stream of smoke. “I heard about you after you went missing, mostly good things. Scary-awesome jutsu, decent to your teammates, nice guy.” He glanced aside at Ryouma’s tee-shirt, and grinned. “Good taste in music. I know Tsume some, and she’s always said you were a great guy. Broke her up a bit when you died. You should drop in and see her when you get the chance. She’s clan head, now.”
The expression on Ryouma’s face had bypassed complicated and landed somewhere in unexplainable.
“But mostly, I think everythin’ that happened to you was wrong. Same for Hatake.” And Ginta, but that was another conversation entirely. “And I ain’t the only one, so I figured you oughta know. Plus, cake. Can’t go wrong with cake.”
“I’d agree about the cake,” Ryouma said, sneaking another peek at the box. It was solid white cardboard, with a gold bakery label on top and a fancy spray of curled ribbon. Impervious to penetrating stares, impossible to open until he had both hands free. He tugged his thoughts back to the meat of Asuma’s comments. “Everything that happened to Kakashi and me?”
Asuma could only know the broad sketches of Ryouma’s story, embroidered by whatever the rumor mill had decided. Maybe there was more to know about Kakashi, about why he’d tried to throttle one of his rescuers, why the Hokage had forced him out of ANBU. All the questions Ryouma had forced himself not to ask...
Not yet. Not until he knew more.
“I got ambushed by bounty-hunters, and Konoha got me home when it could. It sucked, but it’s happened to other guys before. Probably will again. Not sayin’ I wouldn’t be happy to see Kumogakure no Sato goin’ up in flames, but I don’t know any of it’s quite worthy of righteous indignation on my account.” He hefted the boxes. “Especially from strangers. You say you’re ANBU?”
Kakashi had mentioned Hunters digging him and Ginta out, but if Ryouma’d ever run into this guy in ANBU HQ, he was fairly sure he’d have remembered him.
“For seven months and change.” Asuma flicked his fingers at his sleeved left shoulder. “Still haven’t quite got the salute right.”
Ryouma wasn’t sure he’d ever actually done that salute. Seven months explained why he’d never run into Asuma, though. The kid must’ve enlisted sometime in that last whirlwind month of hospital and missions and hospital again, before Ryouma went missing and a raw rookie was sent out to drag his would-be rescuers back.
“Kumo an’ Suna ain’t really the issue,” Asuma continued, nodding to a pretty girl on the corner. “Though I’ve got problems with ‘em keeping you for six months and trading you around like a party favour, but we'd likely do the same. It's ANBU I'm talkin' about."
He flicked ash off his cigarette and shoved his free hand into his pocket, toying idly with a jangle of coins. They passed under a golden ginko tree, leaning over the street from someone’s fenced yard; Asuma kicked through the leaves like a child. His voice was an adult’s bass, though, deep and drawling, darkening with anger.
“Missions stacked on top of missions, agents sent out still injured, no psych help beyond ‘keep your crazy to yourself’. People’re getting burned out that don't need to be, like your boy back there. He was a good agent. Didn't deserve what he got. You shouldn’t’ve been sent around on that double turnaround that got you caught. It’s stupid and it’s wasteful, and it pisses me off.”
I think the village is broken, Kakashi had said.
Ryouma took a deep breath.
“You sound like you’ve done your research. An’ like you think there’s a way things can change.”
“Fleet of counsellors, a barn-full of puppies, and a personal rainbow for every agent,” Asuma said instantly, dry as dust.
Ryouma snorted. “Kakashi could provide the puppies,” he said, before his gaze fell away, something like disappointment tightening his mouth and hunching his shoulders.
Asuma rubbed the back of his neck, hesitating, then threw his cards down.
“I’m a fan of teams,” he said. “Or partnerships, at the very least. Did a couple-year stint with the Guardian Twelve not too long ago, and it was the only thing that kept us all alive and sane.” Until the coup, anyway, and the jutsu he’d organized that’d killed all but one. But that wasn’t something he felt like sharing. “Healthiest people I’ve seen in ANBU are the ones that’ve got someone guarding their backs. Best missions I’ve done are the ones with people I trust. That’s the only way it works. And it’s a damn sight harder to suicide out when you’ve got someone there to keep you in line.”
Ryouma’s eyes were dark and unreadable for a few steps, watching Asuma thoughtfully. "I had a team, up in Lightning Country,” he volunteered finally. “Six-month deployments with three other guys, and we had to keep each other sane. You think that could work for ANBU?”
“Couldn’t hurt,” Asuma said, with a little twist of relief warming his ribcage. Either Ryouma hadn’t heard the stories, or he just didn’t care. Either way, he wasn’t making an issue out of it. “You said your team. You were a captain?”
“For three years, on and off.” Ryouma’s mouth jagged wry; he flicked two fingers towards his forehead, where a hitai-ate would normally sit. Yet another kind of salute, and a different shade of loyalty. "Jounin commander of the Dainichi Nyorai Temple Base, until we had to abandon it. Sorry about the rubble."
“Didn’t fall on my head,” Asuma said. “Concussed the hell out of Hatake, though. But anyway, that’s exactly my point. You were a captain, with three years under your belt. What’d they call you when you started ANBU?”
“Rookie,” said Ryouma quietly.
“Same as a chuunin — who, by the way, shouldn’t be in ANBU. It’s no damn place for ‘em.” Admittedly, Asuma still hadn’t taken his jounin exam, but that didn’t count. He cut a sharp right, taking them off the path and into the park that wrapped around the river and marked out Konoha’s heart. The grass crunched a little underfoot, frosted with cold. “I was a second, back in the day. I don’t mind having to earn my stripes again, prove that I can stand on my own two feet, but this rookie/veteran bullshit is pointless. ANBU’s got leaders, and it’s not using them.”
"It's using 'em up, instead." Ryouma kicked at a pebble, scowling at his feet. "Even Kakashi—" He stopped, took a breath, started again. "He lived by their rules. Gave 'em everything he had and never grudged the asking. And they drained him dry and dropped him. If he'd had a team captain, someone lookin' out for him, someone to haul him in on the short leash when he needed it—" He cut himself short, jaw clenching hard enough to turn the hinges white. Jerked his head, and said more slowly: "He's out, now, at any rate. Says they won't let him back. And he wants me out, too, though Arakaki won't take my resignation until I'm mission-fit again."
“I’ll bet,” Asuma said. “He’s losing more agents than he can afford, and I reckon Hatake shook him up. Golden boy, y’know? It’s like they figured he’d just go forever.”
Ryouma gave him a sharp look, and asked abruptly: “What happened?”
Asuma blinked. “He didn’t tell you?” He shook his head. “Dumb question. You wouldn’t ask, otherwise. You sure you want to hear it from me?”
Ryouma’s cheek hollowed, as if he was biting it on the inside. “That bad?”
“Wasn’t good,” Asuma said. He dropped the dying butt of his cigarette and stamped it into the ground, shoving both hands into his pockets to stay warm. “Hatake attacked a civilian. I don’t know the full story, but rumour has a pretty good picture. He was fresh off a mission, and one of the old bastards with a thing for his dad stopped him in the street. Said something nasty, I guess, ‘cos your boy just snapped. Would’ve been ugly, but Ginta was close enough to step in; almost got himself killed doin’ it, but he kept everyone alive. And a couple of ANBU got involved pretty sharpish.” He shrugged one shoulder. “I know Ginta from growing up together, kind of. Growing up near each other, anyway. Got some of the story from him. Sounded like Hatake blamed him for the bunker thing, and for not finding you. I’m guessing that’s why he went after him when Ginta got involved.”
I was ready to run S-ranks until I beat the odds, Kakashi had said. The Sandaime didn’t let me; he kicked me out of ANBU.
He hadn’t said, I went homicidal in the street.
Kakashi didn’t kill teammates. He’d stopped Ryouma from killing Sadao even after the bastard tried to rape him; he’d bled himself dry, run himself into the ground, bringing Ginta back. No way in hell he’d change his mind about something like that—
But he’d been out of his mind when he broke Ryouma’s knee on the hospital roof. And if you pushed a man far enough, hurt him badly enough, you’d find that everyone had a breaking point. Even Kakashi.
No wonder he hadn’t wanted to answer when Ryouma asked.
And Ryouma couldn’t think about all that meant, now, about Ginta hurt, Kakashi broken. Kakashi was sane now; Ginta had survived to tell Asuma his story. Maybe Ryouma would look him up later, too, when the tight knot of irrational anger in his belly unraveled a little. Maybe he’d ask Kakashi.
Or maybe just figure out how to keep the world from breaking more kids the way it had broken them.
“How d’you plan to get anyone to listen to you?”
Asuma’s eyebrow spiked up, but he accepted the change in topic without protest. “Well,” he hedged, and then squared his shoulders and picked up his pace. “I’m kind of the Hokage’s son, so that might help.”
Ryouma tripped, caught himself, and stared. Asuma grinned uncomfortably. “Mostly I’ve been yelling at people. Probably should put together a smarter attack plan. Stage a protest, maybe. We could make banners.”
He lit another cigarette, cupping his hands for a moment to shelter the lighter from the wind. Ryouma tried to drag his gaze away, but he couldn’t help cataloging Asuma’s half-hidden features again. Was that straight, large nose the Hokage’s? The heavy, expressive eyebrows? Surely not the height. Sandaime barely came up to Ryouma’s shoulder.
“Does your dad listen to you?” he asked at last, awkwardly. “Would he listen to the rest of us? I mean—he was good to me, when I came back. First time I’ve ever really talked to him, and he was...kind, really. Seemed like he cared.”
He’d called Ryouma boy, which no one had in years. Somehow, in the Sandaime Hokage’s mouth, the word sounded like an endearment, not a curse.
He’s good at seeming, Asuma thought, but didn’t say. It was true, but it wasn’t fair.
“He does care,” he said instead. “Cares too much, sometimes. Breaks his own damn heart over orphaned kids and bastard traitors and every single suicidal ANBU that doesn’t make it home—which is a lot of ‘em, after thirty years.”
Ryouma winced faintly. Asuma wondered if his parents were still alive.
“But the village is the thing he’s tryin’ to keep alive, ‘cos we’re one of the biggest and strongest—maybe the strongest, now, with Iwa destabilized and Suna having issues with the Kazekage’s kid—and Fire Country’s relying on us to stay that way, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for change.” He scowled. “Old man’s tired, and hurtin’, and can’t see what he’s doin’ wrong.”
“Village is the people in it,” Ryouma said quietly. “Though I’ve known a lot of folks who don't see it that way. Mostly the clans, the ones all tied up with history an’ honor an’ pride. They’re not hurting the way us loners are, an’ they’ve got a voice on the Council if they do.” He tipped his head back, staring up at the cold, winter-touched sky. “Sandaime’s the only one speaking for the rest of us.”
Except the Sandaime was doing a piss-poor job of it.
Asuma glanced sideways. Ryouma was equal-height to him, but a whole lot thinner right now, wearing clothes that had probably once fit him before he’d gone and gotten himself starved for six months. He was good to me, when I came back. Because a kind word and fleck of caring were water in the desert to someone who’d had none, like most of the Hokage’s ANBU. Clan scions didn’t become spooks-for-hire, except in very rare cases. It was the loners who took the tattoo, wore the mask, threw their lives down for crappy pay and force-fed loyalty. People without families, or hope, or the kind of sanity it took to stay away from that hotbox of screaming, dying crazy.
Ryouma looked tired, and cold, and far too lost for a guy with a cake and a present in his arms, and a sleeping partner back home.
On a whim, Asuma stepped sideways and flung a rough arm around the older man’s shoulders.
“Yeah? Well, now we’re talking for us,” he said firmly. “And we’re going to do a damn better job of it.”
Ryouma flicked a startled look at him, dark-eyed, with surprisingly long lashes for a man. Then a swift, savage grin unsheathed like a crescent blade, turning his whole face into something wolf-like. "I'm good at speechifyin'. And if Arakaki's hurtin' for men that bad, maybe he'll listen to what we've got to say."
Asuma laughed and tightened his grip around sharp-boned shoulders, returning the grin. One ally out of two hundred hunters wasn’t much, but it was a damn sight more than he’d had half an hour ago.
“I will totally take you up on that,” he said, relieved and cheered. “Of course, you realize you just came to my rescue and now we’re back to a kissing place?”
A passing civilian woman with a stroller gave them a scandalized look. Ryouma tipped his head, eyebrows lifting, accidentally presenting his cheek.
Well, why not?
Asuma planted an affectionate, whiskery kiss on that knife-sharp cheekbone, and grinned at the civilian lady, who flushed beet red.
“Defying stereotypes, ma’am,” he told her. “You should try it.”
The lady tightened her grip on her stroller, as if she feared the two unshaven young men might next defy stereotypes by swooping down to steal her baby, and quickened her pace. Ryouma grinned, reckless, and raised his voice. “Should be careful about tellin’ people they rescued you. Last two people I rescued both had sex with me afterwards.”
“Ninja,” the woman muttered, not quite inaudibly enough. She drew to the far side of the path as she passed them, stroller wheels bumping over grass. Ryouma ducked his head in a polite bow.
“Dude,” Asuma complained, “I got you a cake, a present, and an offer for coffee, and I brought your boyfriend back in one piece. You want me to put out as well?”
Ryouma considered this. “Depends how good the present is.”
Asuma’s laugh was as pleasantly bass as his speaking voice, rumbling through his ribs. He unslung his arm from Ryouma’s shoulders to slap him on the back. “Fair point, well made.”
“You didn’t do too badly yourself,” Ryouma said graciously. They were coming to the edge of the park; to one side the grass sloped gently down to the river, carpeted with the scarlet-and-gold of fallen leaves. Ahead, just outside the park, a stone bridge curved gracefully over the water, linking rows of shops. A striped awning on a shop above the other bank of the river announced the coffee shop.
He’d been here before, hadn’t he?
Well, they did have good coffee.
He hefted his armload of boxes and glanced sidelong at Asuma again. “So how’d you end up back here, anyway? Last I’d heard the rumors had you all oiled up as a slave-boy in somebody’s harem in Jungle Country. Were you really just in Fire Country the whole time?”
In the Guardian Twelve, the Daimyo’s elite, hand-picked bodyguard. That had to be a story in itself.
Oiled up slave boy?
Asuma barked a laugh. “That’s a new story. I’ll have to encourage it.” He drew a last breath on his cigarette and flicked the glowing butt into the river, where it hissed and drowned. “I was outta Fire Country for a couple years. Left when I was fifteen, came back when I was eighteen. Saw a pretty good chunk of the world.”
And some nasty pieces. He glanced down at the blue-steel bracelet hanging around his right wrist; plain on the outside, mantra-carved on the inside, pressing a reminder of serenity against his wrist. Om mani padme hum. Draw the benevolent attention of the bodhisattva of compassion.
For the girl in the fire, and ten out of the twelve.
He shook the thought away, hiking up towards the bridge and the promise of coffee.
“So tell me about these people you rescued. I’m guessing your boy’s one of ‘em, unless you really get around.”
Ryouma’s eyes slid away. "Kakashi was one of 'em...” he admitted. “T'other was a girl. We mostly rescued each other, though. Except I liquefied the internal organs of the guy who was about to kick her ribs in, so I got some coolness points.” He looked back, grin sharpening again. “What's your coolest jutsu?"
“Toss up,” Asuma said, swinging with the conversation change. He reached back to free one of the trench-knives he kept tucked in a sheath at the small of his back, and spun the lethal little blade by the brass-knuckles. Extended his chakra through it. A faint corona of blue haloed the edge.
Ryouma frowned slightly, watching the weapon.
Asuma drew level with the bridge and snicked off a neat corner of stone, flicking it up into the air. He caught it when it came down.
“That’s one. Useful in the field; a guy thinks he’s dodged the blade, but still gets caught by the chakra. Not as cool as rot, maybe...” He pulled his chakra back and stowed the knife, then shaped his hands through half a dozen quick seals. “Might wanna step back for the next one.”
Ryouma took a half-pace back.
Asuma grinned at him. “Haisekishou,” he said softly, and exhaled a cloud of bitter-tasting ash. It hung on the air for a moment, black and dense as a bee swarm, then enveloped an undergrown tree. Asuma clicked his teeth.
The ash exploded.
Fireballs were pretty damn impressive. Especially when they could apparently be controlled with pinpoint—well, treepoint—precision. Heat seared Ryouma’s face, as the skeleton of the tree blazed black within a storm of orange and gold. He was beginning to reconsider his foolhardy half-step, but his eyebrows weren’t sizzling yet. He stayed put.
The fireball collapsed on itself just before his skin started blistering, leaving only the tree blazing merrily above the riverbank and a few excited children shouting to each other from a safe distance. A handful of people on the opposite bank had begun to take an interest as well.
“Would you take it personally if I pulled a water jutsu?” Ryouma asked. “Only I’ve just been back two days, an’ the Uchiha are at the far end of the line of people I need to catch up with.”
“Be my guest,” Asuma said. He swiped his tongue around the inside of his teeth, grimaced at the taste, and spat black sludge on the ground. Then he glanced up at Ryouma, narrow-eyed. “You got the chakra for it?”
“You can carry me home if I collapse,” Ryouma informed him. He shifted his boxes again, balancing them at the crook of his elbows and freeing his hands underneath. Boar, Dog, Horse, Tiger. His chakra gathered slowly, but it came. Maybe last night’s translocation had been good practice after all. As long as you ignored the collapse and nosebleed, which he was perfectly capable of doing.
“Suiton,” he murmured. “Suigun Suima no Jutsu.”
Water rose from the river in a tight, spiralling stream, arched like a bow, and crashed down with enough force to smash the burning tree into smoking charcoal splinters.
“Overkilled that a little,” Ryouma decided, and lengthened his stride as he headed onto the bridge. Better not to actually be in the area when the Uchiha MPs showed up. “I’m guessing you’ve got an affinity for Fire chakra, then. How d’you do the chakra-blades? I’ve never managed to stick chakra into anything harder than paper an’ ink.”
Asuma’s knife appeared from its hidden sheath again. He snagged the cake-box by its ribbons and left the knife in its place. The remaining box was thin enough that Ryouma could tuck it under his arm as he toyed with the blade. It was nearly twelve inches long, with a saw-toothed knuckle-guard, leather binding on the inner grip, and a curving, single-edged blade. The blackened steel didn’t even catch a glimmer from the morning sunlight.
“Special alloy in the blade enhances my chakra—which, yeah, Fire. And also Wind.” Asuma reached over to tap a blunt finger-tip against the steel. It rang dully, like a muffled bell. “I could maybe do it with a normal knife, but I’d burn a bunch of chakra up trying.” He grinned suddenly. “You should talk to Hatake if you want to see the real deal. He can do that white-blade trick, right?”
“Saw him turn a sword held to his throat white-hot and melting in the other guy’s hand,” Ryouma said, thoughtfully. “Blistered his throat, did a hell of a lot worse to the other guy.” Not that the bastard had lived long enough to actually appreciate his injury. Ryouma’d made certain of that.
“He told me it was a kekkai genkai, though. Least, I think that was what he was talking about. Free-form chakra, at any rate.” He gave the chakra blade one last longing look and handed it back. “Too many damn bloodline limits running around this village. Glad to see you do your tricks with honest cheating.”
“Everything’s fair when there’re no rules,” Asuma said cheerfully, re-sheathing the blade. “Free-form chakra sounds about right; that was the White Fang’s whole bit. Went with the name. Y’know, I met him once when I was a knee-high niblet. He came to a council meeting. Brought your boy along, too.” Asuma grinned at the memory. “Hatake told me I was a screaming idiot.”
"Which Hatake? Kakashi's good at insults. White Fang was before my time, though." Ryouma’s mouth tightened briefly, turning white at the edges.
“Littlest Hatake,” Asuma clarified. “Your Hatake. White Fang always seemed like a nice guy. Kind of on the quiet side.” He glanced sidelong at Ryouma. “Not something you wanna talk about?”
Ryouma shrugged one shoulder. "I've heard Kakashi mention him all of twice. He killed himself 'cause the village demanded it—'cause he made a choice, an' they thought it was a mistake, an' he wasn't allowed to, y'know, redeem himself by saving more people than he'd gotten killed.” The bitterness in his voice was sharp and personal, as if he was talking about his own father. “He could have, he was better than the Sannin, in his prime—but the village broke him and wasted him, and Kakashi found his body on the living room floor."
Asuma winced. “I didn’t know that bit.”
The White Fang’s story was a cautionary tale for small ninja, a reminder that no one was a smart as they thought they were, and orders were for a reason.
Because the village knew best.
Village is the people in it.
They were at the coffee shop. Asuma shouldered his way through the door, propping it open for Ryouma to follow, and shivered reflexively as the central heating blew the cold off his skin. Stupid to come out just wearing a shirt when the thermometer was already dipping low.
“Grab a table,” he told Ryouma. “What d’you want? Something strong an sugary? S’my treat.”
"Strong an' sugary is right up my alley. First caffeine in six months." Ryouma’s face had gone back to wolfish again, but this time a wolf with a rabbit in biting distance.
“Better make it two, then,” Asuma said. “Or maybe half of one, seein’ as your tolerance’ll be on the floor.” He shook leaves off his boots and went to the counter, smiling at the pretty brunette behind it. “Mornin’, darlin’. What’ve you got that’ll drop my friend into a diabetic coma?”
The woman behind the counter wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes had fixed on Ryouma, wide and brown.
“I know you,” she said abruptly. “You were in here months ago, with Hatake Kakashi. You carried him out.” Her glance flicked to Asuma, looking him over. Whatever she saw didn’t seem to measure up. She turned back to Ryouma, visibly saddened. “Did you break up?”
“No,” said Ryouma quickly. “Sort of just officially got together, actually.” There was warmth in his voice for the first time. Asuma glanced at him, catching the unconscious little smile flicking around the corners of Ryouma’s mouth. “I’ve been out of town. Catchin’ up with friends now.” The smile widened, deliberate and directed at Asuma. “Makin’ new ones.”
Asuma grinned. “Ain’t he adorable?” he told the barista.
The glowing look she gave him reminded him of Reiko. What was it with women and gay men?
“First drink’s on the house,” she told him firmly. “What’ll you have?”
He ordered some winter-themed, cinnamon-spiced chocolate thing for Ryouma with extra syrup and a liberal dollop of whipped cream on top, and stuck to black coffee for himself, doused with enough sugar to balance a spoon in.
“Hey, Ryouma, you eat meat?”
"I eat anything that's not moving." He thought for a beat. "No, scratch that. I've eaten some things that were. Though sometimes starving really was preferable. Why?"
There was a joke in there, but Asuma let it go. “Round of sandwiches for starving guy, then, love,” he said, smiling at the barista. “Throw in anything you like, so long as it’s tasty, and chuck on a few veggie ones for me?”
She dropped the drinks on the counter, collected his money, and whipped into the kitchen like a woman on a mission. Laughing, Asuma returned to the table Ryouma had picked out in the corner, where they could both set their backs to the wall. Smart man.
He set the coffee down at Ryouma’s elbow, and dropped down into his seat.
“So, I’ve been meaning to ask you how Hatake—” he corrected himself. “Kakashi’s been doing. I dropped by to see him a couple months back, but he slammed the door on me. I wanna get the scoop on you, too. But first...” He grinned broadly and scooted his chair in, propping his elbows on the table. “Open your present, man. I’m dying to see your face.”
Ryouma licked whipped cream off his upper lip and reached for the boxes again. “Kakashi’s doin’ better, I think,” he said cautiously, untying the ribbons of the square white cake box. “Gained weight. Looks like he actually sleeps like normal people do.”
He thought of Kakashi hunched over on the bench outside the kimono shop last night, face hidden in his hands, shoulders stiff under Ryouma’s arm. “He’s not happy. They’re trying to get him to take a genin team; he failed ‘em. An’ yesterday he had a fight with the Hokage.”
The rest wasn’t his to tell, even if it sounded like Asuma agreed. He opened the box instead, inhaled sugar and chocolate and mocha and cream. The frosting was a little smudged from its rough journey; he swiped a streak off the inside of the cardboard and sucked it off his finger while he turned his attention to the second box.
This one was long and flat, unfinished pine, with what was presumably the shop’s name stamped in discreet black characters at the bottom of the lid. Ryouma didn’t recognize it. He pried the lid off, distantly aware that he was holding his breath and not caring at all. Even if this was a gag gift—which seemed increasingly likely—it was a present.
The lid came off. Light glimmered on the black leather sheath of the knife lying cushioned in pale wood shavings. The short, notched grip was guardless and nearly as dark as the leather: polished horn, if he was any judge, pitted to provide a firm hold. The fittings on the sheath were blackened steel.
After a moment Ryouma remembered to breathe. He drew the knife out with an unnaturally steady hand, turned the watered steel blade to catch the light. It was perhaps sixteen inches long, with a straight, hollow-ground, single-edged blade, wide at the hilt but tapering dramatically to a needle tip. The back edge was broad for strength, but the thickness below had been ground almost entirely away in a T-section extending almost to the point. On one side of the blade, just beneath the hilt, the smith had etched the character for dragon.
“Elevator pitch for you,” Asuma said, across the table. Ryouma tore his gaze away from the knife to meet a broad, knowing smile. “This is a traditional blade from southern Wind Country; I think it’s called a peshkabz. Supposed to be real good at piercing armor. I was just gonna get you the knife, but the shop owner had a couple cool ideas.”
He tapped his finger on the black leather sheath, just below the steel locket, where a carrying ring would fasten to a belt. “Got Konoha’s symbol burned in here, so it won’t catch the light, but you can still see it up close. And the first kanji of your name etched here.” He touched the blade. “‘Cos the ninja is the weapon, right? So now if you run into any more Suna nin, you can kill ‘em with irony.”
“I’ll be sure to explain the pun,” Ryouma said, dazedly. He tried the blade against the back of his arm; it sliced the hairs as cleanly as a razor. It might have been designed as a thrusting weapon, but the strength of the blade and the edge would clearly hold up to slashing strokes as well.
Every weapon he’d ever owned had been regular service issue, from genin kunai to ANBU katana. Solid, dependable, mass-produced, soulless. This...
This was like a living thing in his hand.
“I should prolly be sayin’ something like Oh, you shouldn’t have,” he said at last, looking up again. His voice was husky, and his throat hurt. “But if you tried to take it away again I think I might have to stab you with it. So I’ll just say thanks. More’n you know.”
Asuma smiled, and lifted his coffee in toast. “Welcome back, man.”
“Yeah,” Ryouma said softly. He looked down at the wave-patterned blade, blinking hard. “Thanks. It’s good to be home.”
Water in the desert, Asuma thought.
The knife was a cool present, granted, but it took more than a piece of lethal pretty to wring tears out of a guy like Ryouma. Of course, six months in enemy hands was likely to leave anyone a little shaky. And unless Asuma missed his guess, Ryouma hadn’t come home to a completely stable, sunny-tempered partner.
Still, he hadn’t wanted to make the man cry.
“Good enough present that I don’t have to put out?” he asked. “‘Cos I’ve gotta save something for the next date.”
Ryouma chuckled, low and hoarse, and dragged the back of his hand across his eyes. A faint rush of colour put some actual health in his cheeks, but he didn’t seem ashamed of the wet on his fingers. “Don’t worry. Your chastity’s safe from me.”
“Prolly a good thing,” Asuma said, swallowing a burning mouthful of coffee. “Reckon I’ve used up my rainbow quota for the month today.”
Dark brows winged up. Ryouma sheathed his knife with careful, reluctant hands and laid it back in its box. "What, you're rationing it? Hate to break it to you, kid, but even straight guys can buy their pals presents." He sipped his drink thoughtfully, licking froth off his teeth. "Although gettin' super nice personally engraved presents for someone you haven't even met yet..." A teasing grin flicked past. "Maybe whatever they put in the water up at HQ is gettin' to you after all."
“Sure got you,” Asuma said, stretching back in his chair and returning the grin. “Or maybe Kakashi’s just that pretty. Bet you could slap some curves on him an’ no-one’d be able to tell the difference.”
The barista chose that moment to arrive with sandwiches. She stumbled, loaded platter almost landing in Ryouma’s lap. Ryouma caught the platter with one hand, steadying her with the other. “You okay?”
The woman made a faintly breathless noise, though whether that was at the surprise or the being caught by a handsome ninja, Asuma couldn’t tell.
“He’s not actually pretty,” Ryouma said, looking back at Asuma. “But he’s the only one.”
Asuma reached across to rescue the sandwiches. “Only one what?”
Ryouma went still for a moment, then re-steadied the barista back on her feet and gave her a bright grin. “Only one worth switching teams for.”
The barista laughed like silver bells. “Don’t switch back,” she said. “Women are crazy.”
“I like women,” Asuma said, just on the off chance.
The barista smiled at him. “So do I.”
“Is anyone in this village straight?” Asuma asked, consoling himself with an—admittedly delicious looking—cheese sandwich.
"Most of my old girlfriends. I used to think I was the only straight guy in ANBU, though." Ryouma threw back another gulp of coffee and helped himself to a sandwich — bacon, the lucky bastard. "I told you, there's somethin' in the water."
Asuma snorted. “Wouldn’t put it past ‘em. That’d be a good way to keep the ANBU crazy outa the breeding pool.” He looked up from his sandwich. “So you told me about Kakashi. What about you? You said you weren’t getting back into ANBU. Planning to teach kids, too?”
“No plans, no clue.” Ryouma finished his sandwich, licked his fingers, and reached for another. He’d mostly learned to stop listening to his body’s demands, in Suna; it was strangely bizarre to find himself hungry again, nearly twenty-four hours after he’d last eaten. “Haven’t really had any chance to think. Just made the decision yesterday mornin’, an’ then T&I spent the afternoon playin’ I Spy inside my brain. So—I dunno.”
He drummed his fingers against the side of his coffee cup for a moment, realized it, and made himself stop. “I’ve never actually done the normal jounin thing. Week after the Fox I got my special jounin vest an’ an assignment up to Lightning Country. Spent most of the next five years on border duty, only a couple months at a time back in Konoha in between deployments. Which I guess isn’t any worse than Kakashi—he joined ANBU right after the Fox. So he’s figurin’ it out from the ground up too.” He shrugged, and took another drink. “I got a lot of work to do before they’ll certify me mission-fit, anyway. So least I’ll have time to think.”
Asuma bit off half his remaining sandwich and chewed reflectively. “Y’ever think about retiring?”
He’d always thought he wouldn’t live that long.
“Gonna be a pirate,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “But I still got both eyes an’ all my limbs and no fancy hat, so I don’t think I’m ready for it yet.”
You needed money to retire, anyway. And six months of back-pay wouldn’t go far. He had no other skills; he couldn’t even make jokes about a career as a male underwear model, anymore. And for all their talk about Konoha’s mistreatment of its people... At least he’d found a purpose in service.
Asuma cracked up laughing. “Ran into some pirates a few months back,” he said, flicking a thumb at a thin silvering scar curving over one cheekbone. “Damn near got my hide flogged off. S’less fun than you’d think.”
“I didn’t think flogging would ever be fun,” Ryouma murmured. “I don’t normally play those kinds of games.”
Asuma grinned around the rest of his sandwich. He tapped the side of his throat, mirroring the broken white circle scarred into Ryouma’s neck. “Looks like you play some kind of game.”
“We’re wildcats in bed,” Ryouma agreed placidly. He drained the rest of his cooling coffee. “So you like girls after all. Anyone in particular?”
“Your topic changes are so subtle,” Asuma said dryly. He helped himself to another sandwich—something with mostly salad this time, and a cheerful sprig of mint on top. “I kinda had my eye on Tsume for a while, but she was more hung up on you, ‘specially after you vanished.” Ryouma winced, something like confusion flicking over his face. Hadn’t he figured out Tsume liked him? “Either way, she’s up to her eyebrows doin’ the whole clan bit, so I’m lucky if I get five minutes of her time.” He scratched his cheek thoughtfully, feeling stubble give way to the groove of that old whip scar. Even if he’d had her time—and she’d gotten past Ryouma—he didn’t think he’d have stood much of a chance with Tsume. Too prickly, too wary, too much like a woman guarding old hurts, and he’d never gotten her to explain why.
“Liked another girl for a while,” he continued. “Natsumi. Gorgeous archer; ANBU agent.” He made an explicit gesture near his chest, grinning. “Amazing tracts of land. Saved my life once an’ everything. But she’s the kind of girl you marry, an’ I ain’t ready to start supplying Konoha with more kids to bleed.”
"Askin' too much or givin' too little. That's women all over," Ryouma said, taking a third sandwich and casting a mournful look at his empty coffee mug. "If you're just looking for fun, though, I know more'n a couple girls who'd be into you. Tall, dark, an' straight bein' in short supply around here." He grinned.
Asuma snorted laughter and coffee, half-asphyxiating himself. “Listening to a bunch of lovestruck woman complaining about Ryouma-kun being off the market doesn’t appeal much, but thanks for the thought.”
Ryouma smirked. “I could teach you my ways, too.”
Briefly, Asuma debated shoving a sandwich down the man’s collar. “Y’could,” he conceded. “But then we’d end up a real awkward place when I ask your love-poodle for crazy wildcat sex, an’ I’m not such a fan of gettin’ my throat chewed on.” He thought a moment. “Well, maybe on special occasions.” He signalled the barista for two refills.
"Love-poodle." Ryouma said, slightly strangled. "Oh man. I need to hear you say that to his face. Love-poodle!"
“Better’n a love-chihuahua,” Asuma said, with an eyebrow dance of innuendo. “Not by much, granted, but I guess that makes you his fluffy rot-guy, or somethin’. Man, you guys get the best pet-names.”
Ryouma’s lip curled slightly. "You might want to think that one over a little more. Unless you like sludgy mouse corpses in your bed."
“Hey, don’t be taking out your intimacy issues on nature. Poor little mice never did anything to you.”
The barista returned to fill Asuma’s mug and swap Ryouma’s empty one for another frothy concoction, piled high with whipped cream. She gave them both a wry look. “You guys need to keep your voices down. You’re scaring off my customers.” With surprising speed for a civilian, she flicked Ryouma on the ear, making him twitch. “And women aren’t the only ones who ask too much and give too little. In fact, I’m pretty sure men started that off.”
Asuma snickered into his coffee. “See? Instant karma.”
"I didn't do it yet,” Ryouma protested. He turned to the girl, eyes darkening. "I'm not denyin' it. Probably a good thing we never dated, or you'd have a much worse opinion of men an' of me. We're all bastards underneath."
Well, there was a shiny piece of self-hatred.
Asuma thumped a booted foot against Ryouma’s shin. “Don’t scare the pretty lady, man.” Ryouma’s head came around, something edged and unhappy tightening his mouth and sharpening the angles of his face, like an ANBU mask under skin. Asuma had the absurd urge to whack him upside the head, give him another hug, and keep him away from pointy objects.
He settled for taking another bite of sandwich and nodding at the barista when she pulled herself away.
“You really as bad as all that?” he asked. “‘Cos everyone I’ve talked to seems to think you’re a nice guy.”
“That’s ‘cause nobody likes speakin’ ill of the dead. If you’d asked around seven months ago, you’d’a heard plenty of bad stuff.” Ryouma contemplated the last few bites of his sandwich and dropped it back on the plate. “Most of my old girlfriends. Probably my old sensei. Definitely an old stick-up-his-ass Uchiha captain. Hell, Kakashi and Ginta both. People only get sainted when they’re not around to annoy you anymore.”
Asuma propped his chin on one hand and curled the other around his coffee, studying Ryouma with a steady dark gaze. “What’d you do?”
“Which time?” Ryouma shrugged. “Ran out on my girlfriends when they asked for commitment. Irritated the hell out of my sensei, especially after I fell in love with her. Broke the Uchiha’s nose when I disagreed with his orders. Kakashi an’ Ginta... I messed up. A lot.”
“So freakin’ what?”
Startled, Ryouma looked up. Asuma met him with a savage grin. “You ain’t living if you ain’t pissing people off, and it sounds like you’re doin’ a bare minimum of both. Take a breath, man. Everyone loves their sensei. Punchin’ Uchihas is what they’re made for. An’ it looked to me like Kakashi didn’t exactly hate you this mornin’.”
There is nothing wrong with you, Kakashi had said, last night.
I’ll want whatever you want to be.
“Maybe not,” Ryouma said, dipping a finger in his melting whipped cream. “He seems pretty willing to put up with me for now.” He sucked his finger clean and decided, “I never wanted to be a nice guy, anyway. Cool an’ dangerous is more my style. The tattoos help. Though I should probably wait to rebuild my pecs before I get a new one.”
“Hard to be cool an’ dangerous when you’re concave,” Asuma agreed. Ryouma bit his tongue on several unwise comments; now was probably not the right time to engage in a debate over the state of his pectoral muscles. Fortunately Asuma moved on anyway, reaching out to tap the jagged black swirl on Ryouma’s left forearm. “This is a piece of pretty. Mean anything?”
“Old loyalties.” Ryouma rubbed a finger over the tail of the tattoo, near his elbow. “It was the symbol of my gang, back before I got into the Academy. Got the tattoo to remember ‘em after the war.” He sipped at his refilled coffee, eyed the abandoned sandwich. “You got any ink, other’n the usual?”
“Used to have Shutdown Assassin tattooed between my shoulderblades, but the whole flogging thing kind of put paid to that.” He shrugged. “It was a lousy tattoo, anyway. Got it when I was fifteen. Always meant to get something better.” He reached out again to shove the sandwich plate under Ryouma’s nose. “Eat, man. Before you go all fainting-damsel on me.”
“If you’re gonna have a band tattoo, Shutdown Assassin’s a good one to get.” Ryouma peeled the bacon out of his half-eaten sandwich and ate that by itself. “I’ll introduce you to my tattoo artist. Shisei Takumi, down by the pawn shop on Fifth Street. He uses a bit of water jutsu, gets colors like you wouldn’t believe. You won’t find anybody better in Konoha. S’a crime ANBU sends its agents to that butcher by the hospital instead.”
He considered the last sandwich, and ate the grease-soaked bread of the bacon one instead. “So what’s the story with the pirates an’ the flogging?”
There was still something unsettled in Ryouma’s eyes, an edge of tension in the set of his shoulders, but he was a big boy and Asuma didn’t plan to hot-step all over the issues of a man who’d only been home for two days.
“Mostly what it sounds like. Classified weapon got stolen from Konoha, ended up in getting second-hand stolen by a bunch of floating jackasses. Konoha freaked the hell out an’ sent me an’ Tsume after it.”
That caught Ryouma’s attention.
“She get hurt, too?”
“Beaten, same as me,” Asuma said, a little more quietly. He thumbed a coffee stain on the table, remembering Tsume’s bare skin in the sun. Her arms yanked high and her feet off the ground, red lines cracking across her back. Her terror at being naked, surrounded by dangerous men. “It was the weapon they’d stolen—some kind of jutsu-artifact that made you blind and deaf if you got too close. We caught up with them on open water, attacked their ship, and ran right into the teeth of it. They took us down in about five minutes flat.”
A faint, muted shiver twitched Ryouma’s shoulders, as if he’d had a thought he didn’t much like. "What about Tsume's nose? 'F it's good enough to smell emotions, does it help in fighting? Not if you're surrounded, I guess..."
Asuma shrugged. “Helped her about as much as my chakra sense helped me. Information’s too vague to work with, an’ things happened too fast. They knocked us out, sank our ship—lost of a lot of civilians to that, poor bastards—and threw us down in their hold. Naked, if you can believe. They were plannin’ to use us for practice, I guess. And for barter later, when they sold the thing. But Tsume scratched their seals apart when we were both in any kind of shape to move again, an’ we escaped.”
Not one of his better translocations.
“Took ‘em about ten minutes to catch us again, then they flogged us half to death. Tsume bitched the whole time. Mange-bald, ball-licking pus-eaters.” His mouth quirked. “Brave as anythin’, that one, even when she’s scared out of her mind.” They’d held a knife to her throat to shut her up, and made him count the lash strokes. “Knocked us both out again. I’d gotten my skull cracked pretty good, so I don’t remember the next bit real well, but Tsume bartered some time with a healer for me. Agreed to let ‘em tie her to the mast while I got pieced back together, and get their kicks from lookin’. Promised to play nice.”
Ryouma’s jaw clenched, a muscle jumping in his cheek. “I hope the bit where you ripped ‘em all apart is coming up soon.”
“Not me.” Asuma’s grin was a sharp, wry thing. “Haven’t you been listening? I spent that whole mission gettin’ my ass handed to me on a plate. I did manage to talk Tsume through a lock-picking jutsu later, after they threw us back down in the hold. An’ lemme tell you, a buck-ten of naked lady balancing on your shoulders when you’ve just had em’ flogged is no kind of fun. We spilled out onto the deck right when the new buyers for that damn weapon showed up. Got caught up in a knock-down, drag-out.”
They’d caught him. Used him as a demonstration. Caught Tsume. Wrenched her naked and open between blood-thirsty men. He remembered the hand skidding down her belly, forcing its way between her legs. The keen rising from her throat. No—no—no—.
He sat back.
“Busted my skull pretty good that third time, but it turns out the Inuzuka have this transformation trick. She did some funny piece of chakra, an’ next thing you know there’s this black-haired, blue-eyed wolf charging around, tearing out throats. She stole the weapon back, got it to me, an’ I turned it on them. Managed to get a bit of my own stabbin’ done, too, which was cathartic. Then we stole the ship, sailed it to the nearest bit of coastline, booked ourselves into a hotel and ran up the room service tab until a rescue team came out to drag us home.”
He pushed his coffee aside, replaced it with a new cigarette and sparking flame of chakra from snapped fingers.
“So, if anyone ever asks you who’s better—it’s ninja, hands down. An’ I’ve got the scars to prove it.”
The blended mix of anger and second-hand appreciation on Ryouma’s face tripped, suddenly, into something else. His eyebrows twitched together. “So... how come Kuro wasn’t there? I didn’t think she’d go anywhere without him. Or—” Alarm spiked in his voice. “When did this all go down?”
Asuma had to think. “Beginning of April? Her dog was getting some kind of chakra-healing treatment. She wouldn’t’ve come out at all, but we needed a fast tracker an’ Kakashi was in hospital.”
Beginning of April. Ryouma had been waiting in Kakashi’s hospital room, and Kuromaru was healed, in his natural shape again; they’d come to play blackjack with him at the end of March. He hadn’t seen them since.
He let out a slow breath. “Guess it was my fault you were down a man. I didn’t know he hadn’t been cleared for duty by then.”
He hadn’t asked. Other questions, intrusive questions, halfway to provoking a fight Tsume wouldn’t take—but that one he hadn’t touched. He’d never quite let himself look at her face, never tried to see what lay beneath the carelessly concealing mop of her hair.
Asuma’s story deserved more of a reaction. Laughter, applause, commiseration maybe; he didn’t know. Couldn’t think.
“Are they—are they okay now? How’s...” He swallowed. Touched his own temple, his ear. “How’s she look?”
Asuma grinned. “Sexy.” He tapped the same spot on his temple, just below his hair. “So that was you, huh? Guess that’s one reason to feel lousy about yourself. Are you why Kuromaru’s missing an eye, too?”
The red-hot kunai, the pop of an eyeballl torn out of its socket, the smell of roasting rotted meat, blood and acid and bile on his tongue...
“You’ve heard about my rot-jutsu. I grazed him with it. Didn’t know it would transfer to Tsume—didn’t know it had, til we got back to Konoha. The medics pulled off miracles, an’ both of ‘em seemed to forgive me for it, but...”
He closed his hands, dropped them into his lap. “How’s she doing now? How come she went back to clan head? I’da thought she was busy enough in ANBU.”
Asuma cocked his head, brows quirking up. “She quit, man.”
It was hard to breathe again. It couldn’t be that bad. She’d gone on—survived!—a mission with Asuma; she was alive (sexy), bossing her clan members around officially now, but... “You know why?”
“Inuzuka had an explosion on the clan grounds back in April—it was nasty. Couple of Academy kids practicin’ jutsu got too close to some underground gas tanks. Blew a quarter of the compound to hell and back, set most of the rest of it on fire.” Asuma’s voice was as desolate as Wind Country desert, his eyes dark, remembering. He rubbed a thumb over the back of his left hand, where a circular scar was still fresh and purple, like a drop of oil on skin.
“They were lucky not to lose more’n they did. Maybe twenty total—old folks and kids, mostly. Tsume didn’t like the way it was bein’ handled afterwards, I guess, ‘cos she kicked the alpha-dog out an’ took over.”
Not his fault. He winced at that treacherous tide of relief, but the needle of guilt wasn’t anything like as piercing as it could have been. The dead were buried now, already mourned. He drew a steady breath at last.
“If you’re still interested in her, you should try to get Kuro on your side. He’s got this theory about alphas needing to mate for the good of the pack or the cute kids or somethin’. I never had any luck, but you might be—”
Safer? Less complicated? More understanding and understood?
“Your luck might be better, anyway.”
What was it with shacked-up guys trying to play matchmaker?
But at least Ryouma didn’t look like he was about to throw up anymore. Asuma took a mouthful of hot coffee, not missing the way Ryouma had his hands tucked safely out of sight under the table.
“Even if my luck was better’n yours—an’ I kind of doubt it would be—I’m not chasing after Tsume anymore,” he said, without any particular rancour. Ryouma looked puzzled. Asuma tried to explain. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the woman, but she’s got edges that could flay a guy, an’ I never got the full story on why. Which is fine; if she doesn’t want to tell, I ain’t gonna push. But I’m not looking to get bits of myself torn off just because I stepped on broken ground an’ didn’t know it.”
Ryouma’s faint smile was bladed and painful, like a man looking down the wrong end of black humour. "I can understand that. Felt kind of like tryin' to snuggle with a sack of shuriken, some days." He sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Course I don't know many ninja who aren't all edges." Dark eyes gave Asuma an appraising look. "Bet you just hide yours. Like a reverse creampuff."
Asuma burned his tongue. “That’s a mental image.” Mostly it was a mental image of an exploded pastry; cream all up the walls and a chunk of crusty dough in the middle, trying to look threatening. “You’ve already seen my edges. I keep ‘em attached to knuckle dusters and hanging off my belt.”
He didn’t ask where Ryouma’s edges were: they were sharp and obvious and turned inward, honed by guilt and bad luck and a village that didn’t look after its damn ninja.
Of course, Hatake Kakashi was one big edge, so maybe Ryouma just liked wrapping himself in razors.
“S’a good idea,” Ryouma said, finally pulling a hand from under the table to touch the hilt of the peshkabz. “I might do that from now on. Least what way you can choose when and who you unsheathe ‘em on.” He took a deep breath, fingers lingering, then reached resolutely for the last sandwich. “So, pirates are out. What about zombie-hunters?”
Asuma barked laughter.
“Yes,” he said, slapping a hand on the table top. “Y’know there’s apparently some kind of jutsu for that? Tsono Studies just released a big film about it. Legend of the Dead, with Onoyan Kiyano.” He gave a beatific grin. “Did you see her in Widow’s Revenge? Blew my hair back, man.”
"Seriously.” Ryouma’s face lit up, eyes bright and lively. “I walked in thinkin' she was just another pretty face, changed my mind ten minutes in, spent the next two hours barely darin' to breathe. If I ever do anything half so cool as that scene with the swordsman, I'll die happy. I didn't know she was makin' another film already, though. S'it showing in Konoha yet?"
“Came out last week,” Asuma said. He grinned. “Feel like going? I was gonna get myself a date, but I guess you’ll do.”
“Shiny presents, coffee, movie-dates—you sure know the way to my heart.” Ryouma swallowed his last bite of sandwich and wiped his fingers on his thigh. His coffee was cooling; he left it alone, and studied Asuma’s face instead.
Ryouma’d never been much of one for professional paranoia. Outside the village you could generally assume that everyone you saw—or didn’t see—was planning to plant a knife in your back, but inside Konoha’s walls it was safe to lay the armor down. No point in life or loyalty, otherwise, if you couldn’t trust the citizens of the village you fought for, the comrades who watched your back on missions and bought you coffee at home.
But no one’d ever been this friendly before. The knife was on the table, sheathed in its box. Where were the strings?
The grin looked real, just broad enough to be disarming without losing that teasing edge. One of Asuma’s eyeteeth was chipped. His dark eyes crinkled under those heavy brows; he’d have laugh-lines someday, if he lived that long.
Hokage’s son. Of course he will.
But the Fourth Hokage hadn’t.
And Asuma didn’t act like a blueblood, anyway. He made plans and swept other people up into them with the blithe, unconscious arrogance of a man born to command, but his voice darkened with passion when he spoke of change. Real change, not some meaningless gesture. He wasn’t just throwing scraps to the dogs in the street. He wanted to save them.
Or said he did, and Ryouma didn’t care, suddenly, whether it was the truth, or why. Asuma’s changes could’ve saved Kakashi, could’ve saved Ryouma, and maybe they still could. Some questions didn’t need to be asked. He would let Kakashi answer, in his own time, why he’d left ANBU and what he’d done to Ginta; he could let Asuma prove himself, friend or leader or both.
“I’ve got a date with Reiko for lunch,” he said. He’d have to head back to Kakashi’s first, of course: he’d promised to bring back cake, and he had a knife to show off. “An’ I’m spending tomorrow at the hospital, with the physical therapists an’ a nutritionist. After that, though, I’m your man.” He grinned crookedly. “You know where to find me.”
“I do.” Asuma beamed. He had a dimple, hidden in one cheek. “Makes a nice change, huh?”
After six months of absence, search parties and death certificates and friends tearing themselves and each other apart...
“Yeah,” Ryouma said. “It does.”