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A Light That Never Goes Out [1/3] [Kakashi & Ryouma][Jan. 21st, 2012|01:46 pm]

[Takes place immediately after Stranger in a Strange Land, and the day before Nothing to Fear.]

Somewhere in the warm glow of mid-morning, Kakashi woke up and realized Ryouma wasn't there. His scent was still there, weaving through the air and the sheets like a living ribbon, and relief came in the shape of he’s alive, I’m not crazy, but there was still a hole in the world where Ryouma should have been standing.

He’d had bad dreams. Maybe he was walking them off.

And maybe good things happened to nice people.

Kakashi was up, half dressed and three-quarters panicked when the lock turned against the latch and Ryouma walked through the door.

"Morning!” he said cheerfully, kicking his boots off and hefting a cardboard box that smelled like sugar. “Shirtless is a good look on you. Cake?"

It would have been counter-productive to murder him with a coat-hanger, but for a moment Kakashi was severely tempted. He reached for relief instead, crossing the floor in three strides to grab Ryouma before shouting at him. Ryouma’s arm was cold; he’d gone out in just a tee-shirt and jeans.

“Vanishing is getting to be a habit with you,” Kakashi said, low enough that the words growled a little. “I thought you were supposed to bring back pie.”

Ryouma blinked, lashes making a dark sweep against his skin, and pulled free to stack the two boxes he was holding on the kitchen counter. "I told you I was going out. An' I'm pretty sure I told you it was cake. Chocolate-mocha, I think. Sarutobi Asuma brought it—said it was for home-coming or house-warming or something. You okay?"

“You said you were going to take a shower,” Kakashi said, grateful he’d put on a mask before he’d neglected his shirt, because he could feel the colour blanching out of his face. Sarutobi Asuma was no one he wanted near Ryouma. “Pie was yesterday, before T&I.”

Ryouma had never gotten the chance to get any, between getting his mind wrenched open and Kakashi spilling a childhood’s worth of trauma and bedtime stories in his lap.

"I came back—you must've been more asleep than I thought." Ryouma’s mouth tightened in self-recrimination. He walked back, hesitated, then curled winter-chilled fingers around Kakashi’s naked arm, encircling the defunct ANBU tattoo. "Sorry. I did tell you when I left, but I didn't want to wake you up more'n I already had. Should've thought that through a little more."

“If you thought things through, I wouldn’t recognize you,” Kakashi said distantly, trying to wrap his mind around the idea that Ryouma had spoken to him and he hadn’t woken up. But there were more pressing things to worry about. “I didn’t know you knew Sarutobi.”

"I didn't. He introduced himself at the door. Said he'd brought you home, after you went after me." Ryouma jerked his chin towards the boxes, still holding onto Kakashi’s arm. "Wanted to congratulate me for makin' it back after all. I—figured I owed it to him to let him."

Kakashi frowned. “For a cake?”

Ryouma gave an expressive eyeroll. "No, for digging your bleeding carcass out of the mess I left you in. The cake was the congratulations. And the knife."

“What knife?” Kakashi asked, lost.

My knife.” Ryouma’s fingers skidded up to Kakashi’s shoulder, then reluctantly let go. He snagged the smaller box off the countertop and opened it, withdrawing a sheathed blade that was about the length of his arm from fingertips to elbow. "It's from southern Wind Country. Got Konoha's leaf branded on the scabbard, an' here—" He unsheathed the knife partway, showing off the etching on the blade. "That's the first half of my name, the dragon. So next time I get in a fight I can kill 'em with irony."

Ryouma’s grin was just as sharp as the knife, but wide and happy and sparking, lightning up his face and his scent with the ridiculous joy at his present and the terrible pun that went along with it.

He’d never had a bedtime story. Had he ever had a homecoming gift?

Or a birthday present?

Either way, there was no anger in his voice or bleeding off his skin, which meant Asuma probably hadn’t told him, which meant Kakashi could actually breathe and get over himself and be pleased that Ryouma was pleased.

“It’s a peshkabz,” he said, drawing close to get a better look. Ryouma offered the weapon hilt-first, proud as a wolfhound pup with its first kill.

The balance was perfect. Kakashi flicked the naked blade into the air, tossing it and catching it after one complete turn, testing the weight. The keen edge sang as it sheered the air; the straight-bladed design was purely lethal, tapering down to an armour-piercing point. A killing weapon designed for close quarters, perfect for a man who fought his battles hand-to-hand.

It was very like a tanto, and yet completely different.

He couldn’t help extending his chakra through it, making the edge glow lightning-white. The steel took the charge like it had been designed for it, shaping the energy into a hot crescent. Kakashi had to force himself to take the chakra back.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, and wished he’d been the one to give it. He offered it back. “I bet you could run your rot-jutsu through it if you pushed hard enough: the metal has chakra-affinity. Have you bled on it yet?”

Ryouma looked confused.

“To make it yours,” Kakashi clarified.

Ryouma's expression turned dubious, brows furrowing and a scrunch appearing in his twice-broken nose. "Never heard that one before," he said, taking the knife back. "Is that one of the things you're supposed to pick up just growin' up in a ninja family, like if you see four crows you've gotta kill the fourth, or you'll die before nightfall?"

“That’s just a stupid superstition.” Kakashi reached over and tapped Ryouma on the collarbone. “You had a ninja family, even if you grew up in spite of them. You should know this. Blood makes a blade yours, so it’ll never turn on you.”

“And that’s not a stupid superstition?” Ryouma said dryly, but he ran the blade over the scarred inside of his forearm, near the elbow, and sliced a shallow gash that welled crimson. Copper bloomed in the air. Ryouma dragged the flat of the blade through the blood, then wiped it off on his sleeve and sheathed the knife, casual self-harm and good weapon care in one easy movement. "Do I give it a name, too?” he asked, grinning as red trickled down his arm, completely ignored. “Or is that only in the samurai epics? 'Cause Crimson Deathwind sounds pretty cool..."

Kakashi snorted, but there was laughter beneath it. He wrapped his hand around Ryouma’s wounded arm, stemming the blood, and towed him back to the kitchen. “You’re ridiculous,” he said. “Do I need to make you sit on the counter while I dig bandaids out, or will putting you next to the stove be a safety risk?”

Ryouma jumped up on the counter with something very like glee, like that same wolfhound pup getting furniture privileges. He thumped his socked heels against the cupboard doors. “I actually put out fires today, instead of startin’ ‘em,” he said, watching as Kakashi reached under the kitchen sink for the medkit. “Asuma was showin’ me his favourite jutsu...”

Kakashi went still. Ryouma’s voice faded quiet.

Slowly, Kakashi pulled the kit free and took a shallow breath, bracing himself as he found his feet. Ryouma was toying with his knife, twisting it between his hands in the thoughtless, fidgety sort of gesture that ninja were supposed to train themselves out of.

Ryouma’s jaw firmed around a decision. “He wants to reform ANBU,” he said abruptly. “Teams, or partnerships. Using the leadership skills us jounin are bringin’ in, instead of pegging us as raw recruits like the damn chuunin.”

Kakashi blinked.

“What?” he said.

"Sarutobi Asuma,” Ryouma said patiently, as if Kakashi was being a little slow. Then fervour spilled back into his voice, brightening his eyes as he gestured emphatically. "He’s the Hokage’s son, people’ll listen to him. And he’s saying the same things you were—that the village is breaking us when it doesn’t need to. I spent most of three years commanding a four-man team, keeping ‘em sane and safe as I could, but I got to ANBU and there's nobody to look out for and nobody lookin' out for me.”

He’d looked out for Kakashi just fine, between Sadao and rooftop breakdowns and kicking down Kakashi’s apartment door. And Kakashi had kept Ryouma from bleeding out in the showers, and brought him home alive after the first Lightning mission that had nearly killed him—

Ryouma wasn’t done. “I couldn’t keep you safe—couldn’t even keep myself safe,” he said, bitter and fierce and determined to keep going. “How different would my mission with Tsume have been if there were two more of us, or if we’d trained together more, knew each others’ styles better, knew each other better? Or if I’d had back-up on the way to Yukihana, or you hadn’t been sent out alone after Ginta. Hell, if you’d had a captain watching you after you got back from lookin’ for me, knowin’ you weren't stable, steppin’ in before you got pushed too far—"

He stopped short.

Kakashi drew a fractured breath that tasted of excitement and alarm, of green spring growth and the char of blackened hurts, and carefully and methodically cleaned and bandaged Ryouma’s minor scratch before he let himself speak.

It came out an echo. “Weren’t stable.”

Ryouma flinched almost unnoticeably; if Kakashi hadn’t been standing directly in front of him, he wouldn’t have seen it. "I was going to wait til you told me yourself, but Asuma—” He cut himself off again and took a breath, voice firming. “I asked him what happened,” he said, quiet but more certain, as if he wanted to take responsibility for everything he’d heard. “Why you left ANBU. He'd heard from Ginta."

There was a hole in the left knee of Ryouma’s jeans, Kakashi noted distantly. The cloth wasn’t old; Ryouma had done something violent enough to shred the denim. It was his bad knee, so he’d probably regretted it afterwards.

"I'm sorry,” Ryouma said.

When you don’t know what to do, get more information, Minato had said once.

“For what?” Kakashi said.

Ryouma made a short, aborted movement with one hand, frustration boiling through his scent. "For everything. Asking Asuma, instead of you. Bringing it up. Saying you weren't stable." His voice tightened. "For disappearing. For sending you off with Ginta, getting you hurt, driving a wedge between you. For not being there in the market when that old son of a bitch insulted your dad. Nobody'd've kicked up a fuss if I picked a fight; I'm a thug, they expect it.” He took a hard breath. “I shouldn't have left. I shouldn't have left you alone. I'm sorry."

It took Kakashi three blood-pounding heartbeats to realize that none of that sounded like I’m ashamed to be near you and I’m leaving. In fact, it mostly sounded like Ryouma was blaming himself for Kakashi’s mistakes, and for things both of them had no control over, and insulting himself again

Kakashi didn’t bite him. He looked up instead, meeting Ryouma’s dark, distressed eyes, and caught his tongue between his teeth.

“You came back,” he said, taking Ryouma’s words and turning them around on him, because that was the thing that mattered. Ryouma said nothing, but his eyes were fixed on Kakashi’s masked face, intent as a hunting falcon, almost hungry. His whole body was angled subtly forward.

They’d been up and down this road once already. Ryouma had said I need you and Kakashi had said I want you happy—I want you, but they’d still ended that conversation with Ryouma uncertain about whether he was welcome (I’ve still got that voucher for the hotel...), and maybe Kakashi was the first one who’d ever stayed for him, but they were both bad at believing good things when it happened to them.

Ryouma expected Kakashi to throw him out. To think he was worth nothing. To blame him for everything, including an old man’s words and Ginta’s snapped bones.

Kakashi expected Ryouma to hate him, because he’d broken without torture and hadn’t made up the debt.

He rubbed a hand over his eyes.

“Maybe we should cut ourselves a break,” he muttered. “Nothing you just listed was your fault—and don’t argue with me, because I’m very smart and I know what I’m talking about. I fell apart when you vanished, but that isn’t your guilt to carry. You’re right. I’m not—” He took a deep breath, let it out. “I haven’t been stable for a long time. Ginta just proved it.”

Ryouma dropped his knife onto the counter and slid down, closing the distance between them to nothing. Before Kakashi figured out what he was about, Ryouma wrapped his arms around Kakashi’s shoulders and caught him in a tight hug.

His voice came low and gravel-deep, right in Kakashi’s ear. “Well, I’m back now. And I’ll look after you.”

If this was hate, Kakashi didn’t understand why people made such a fuss about it. Ryouma was lean (too lean) and warm and fully dressed compared to Kakashi’s version of half-naked, tall enough that Kakashi could press his face against the hollow of Ryouma’s throat and laugh, because he was really tired of crying.

“Never been very good at being looked after,” he managed.

Ryouma’s grip tightened. “S’okay. I’m awesome enough to handle it.”

“We’re doomed,” Kakashi pronounced direly, but he slid his arms around Ryouma’s torso and let himself grab back, careful of the hard, hollow ridges of Ryouma’s ribs. It felt strange, and he only realized why when his hand wanted to skid automatically under Ryouma’s shirt. They’d only hugged a handful of times—when Kakashi had woken up from a coma, when Ryouma had come back from the dead, the half-dozen times they’d climbed inside each other’s skin. A bracket for sex or trauma, and in the strange aftermath of last night, when Ryouma had fallen asleep on his chest, but never just because it felt good.

Of course, if he was perfectly honest, things were a little traumatic right now.

He loosened his hold a little, pulling back enough to breathe. “I want to hear your plans for ANBU, and all your plans for looking after me.” He grinned at Ryouma, sharp and hidden, and was rewarded by a quick intake of a breath and a flash of something very interested in Ryouma’s scent. “But don’t you have a lunch date?”

Ryouma blinked, blank-faced, then glanced at the blinking clock on the microwave and yelped. “Reiko! She’ll skin me alive—” He pulled free, skidded on his socked feet to the door and did a little one-footed dance as he scrambled into his boots—then reversed directions, came back, and landed a swift kiss on Kakashi’s surprised mouth. “I’ll be back.”

His grin was fleeting and brilliant—and gone, just like the rest of him.

Kakashi regarded the half-open front door, then rolled his eyes and went to retrieve his wallet from his desk drawer. He made it out onto the concrete walkway that encircled the building before Ryouma had vanished entirely down the street.

“Hey!” he called.

Ryouma swung around. He was still just wearing a tee-shirt. Kakashi pitched the wallet down at him, putting a fleck of chakra into the throw; Ryouma snatched it neatly out of midair, then looked up again. Even at a distance, Kakashi could see his eyebrows lifting.

“She’ll skin you worse if you make her pay,” Kakashi informed him loudly. “And buy yourself a jacket before you freeze, idiot.”

Ryouma saluted with the wallet, then broke into a wider grin. He cupped his hands around his mouth to yell back. “That counts as an insult. Bite yourself! Or you can wait til I get back...”

A passing middle-aged woman gave him a scandalized look, almost tripping off her high heels. Ryouma helpfully steadied her by the elbow, still grinning, and lifted an arm to wave at Kakashi before he bolted off.

Kakashi waited until he was out of sight before he leaned against the door jamb and dissolved into quiet, bone-melting laughter. He felt wild and weird and not quite steady, as if Ryouma had stripped half his secrets out and taken them away with him, but underneath that he felt light. There were still things Ryouma didn’t know—unless Asuma had told him every ugly detail—but he knew enough, and it still hadn’t driven him away.

Well, except for how it had. But Kakashi had survived six months, just about. He could make it through a lunch date.

A flicker of startled chakra pulled his attention sideways sideways. The jounin kunoichi from next door was staring at him through her living room window. She pulled back and vanished; a second later the front door unlocked and she stuck her head out.

“Do you know you’re not wearing a shirt?”

Kakashi looked down at himself. He wasn’t wearing shoes, either. “It’s a breezy fashion statement.”

The kunoichi’s eyes ticked sideways, where the civilian woman was hurrying away. “Boyfriend?” she asked.

Better than that. But Konoha’s rumour mill needed no assistance, and Kakashi didn’t plan to paint a target on Ryouma’s back.

“One-night-stand,” he said easily. “Never caught his name.”

The jounin’s lip curled a little. “Nice bruises,” she said, and retreated back inside her apartment.

Kakashi laughed softly. “Jealous,” he told her door, rubbing the fingerprint bruise decorating his right hipbone: one of ten, and kissing-cousin to the hickey Ryouma had taken great delight in planting on his throat. At least the mask covered that.

He’d get Ryouma back later.


The knife was still on the counter, sheathed in black leather. So was the cake. Ryouma hadn’t opened it.

Kakashi threw on a shirt and took a look.

Chocolate-mocha, Ryouma had said, and it certainly smelled like it. Someone with artistic leanings had taken the time to craft a black cartoon dragon out of frosting; it was holding up a tiny sugary sign that read Hooray! You’re not dead!

Kakashi snorted and put the cake in the fridge.

The knife deserved a second look, but it was Ryouma’s present so Kakashi limited himself to locking it safely in the weapons chest.

Which left him with nothing but time to kill.

He made the bed, ate something vaguely breakfast-shaped and forgettable, shaved, brushed his teeth, neglected his hair, shrugged into his jounin vest and grabbed a scarf before he locked up and headed out.

For the first time in far too long, he actually had good news for Obito.


The journey back took a detour through Konoha’s busier downtown, where the shops were decidedly civilian-aimed and ninja stood out like sharks in a minnow shoal. Kakashi made one stop in a small, dusty shop off the beaten strip, using a book as barter because he’d given Ryouma his money, and then wandered into an actual bookstore.

The bright orange Icha Icha stand was buried in the back, below a tall poster of girls wearing the rough approximation of two sequins and a bootlace. It took all of thirteen seconds for a wizened, grey-haired shop keeper to materialize at his right elbow.

“Can I help you, sir?”

Even with scent, the sex of the owner was impossible to tell. Beige was the only defining characteristic Kakashi could pick out, backed heavily by mothballs. The person seemed to be dressed entirely in sweaters.

“Just browsing,” Kakashi said.

“We have an excellent deal on that particular item right now, sir. The author sent us several signed copies. We’re the only bookstore in Konoha that can make that claim!”

Somehow, Kakashi doubted it.

“Actually, I know the author,” he said.

The wrinkled mouth framed an ‘O’ of astonishment. “Really?” the shop-keeper breathed.

“Mm,” said Kakashi. He measured a hand against his thigh. “Since I was about yea big.”

This provoked a flail of cable-knit sleeves. “You have to tell me, what was he like?”

Kakashi considered. “Tall,” he said eventually.

The shopkeeper made to grab him by the elbow, and looked a little confused when he (or possibly she) came up holding empty air. Kakashi cleared his throat from six feet away. The shopkeeper did another little flail, clutching themself in lieu of Kakashi. “Details! Details! You must tell me what he’s like. He’s a genius of description. I think he must get all his inspiration from real life. Is he wonderfully clever?”

Kakashi scratched the back of his neck.

“That’s one word for it,” he said, recalling the last time he’d seen Jiraiya in the flesh: drunk at Minato’s funeral. “He taught me and my genin team how to play strip poker when we were teenagers. That should tell you everything about him.”

“You’re a ninja,” the shopkeeper said, with an oddly breathy kind of awe.

Kakashi deducted ten points for observation and flicked two fingers against his hitai-ate by way of agreement.

“Oh, I have so many questions. I’m writing a book, you see—”

“It’s all lies,” Kakashi said, tucking his hands comfortably into his pockets.

The shopkeeper gave a myopic blink. “What is?”

“Everything you’ve heard,” Kakashi said, with a smile that arced his visible eye. “Also, if you try to publish something non-fiction, you’ll probably be arrested for treason.”

“No, no, no—it’s a stirring tale of love and betrayal on the front lines. Very dramatic.” The shopkeeper’s eyes were pale blue, glistening with a faint veneer of total crazy. “Star-crossed lovers from two villages—”

“Have you considered potato farmers?” Kakashi said.

“Beg pardon?”

“It’s a noble profession,” Kakashi said. “You could have a dramatic threshing incident.”

“I don’t... think you thresh potatoes,” the shopkeeper said slowly.

“Sheep ranchers, then. You could have knitting-needle duels over sweaters at dawn, unless you wanted to star-cross the sheep.”

“I’m fairly certain there are laws about that kind of thing,” the shopkeeper said.

“Unleash your inner rebel,” Kakashi advised. “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

“With sheep?”

“Everyone has to start somewhere.”

The shop-keeper drew a fortifying breath. “Sir, are you planning to buy a book?”

Kakashi glanced at the neon-coloured stand. “Actually, I already have that one.”

“But do you have a signed copy?” the shopkeeper persisted.

“Dedicated,” Kakashi said, thinking of the little orange book collecting dust on his windowsill. Jiraiya’s first mass-published novel. Kakashi had read the inscription—Sorry about your friend—and thrown it down without looking further. “I haven’t read it yet.”

Maybe he’d pick it back up again, now.

He looked down a full ten inches at the aged little shopkeeper who wanted to carve stories and profit out of lives they knew nothing about, and sighed faintly. Ninja fiction was a corner of the market, half the film industry. Every month there was a new billboard up advertising blockbusters acted by people who’d die in a blink in the real world, and they always ended in blood.

“Star-crossed lovers on the front lines, huh?” he said quietly.

The shopkeeper gave a tremulous, but ever so slightly proud nod.

“You should let them live at the end,” Kakashi said. “Just for the novelty.”

He took his leave before the shopkeeper could say no.


Ryouma was as stealthy as the next ninja, for a given value of stealth, but Kakashi liked to think of himself as observant enough to notice when someone six-foot-three and loud was within arms reach.

Which was why he almost threw Ryouma in a pond on the way home.

“Ha,” said Ryouma softly in his ear, arms wrapping snugly around Kakashi’s waist. “Gotcha.”

It took several moments for Kakashi’s heartbeat to settle back to a dull whine. Then he turned his head to the side. “I almost stabbed you in the brain.”

“I know,” Ryouma said, warm and teasing as he pressed his nose into Kakashi’s hair. “I almost dodged.”

If they hadn’t been visibly in public in the middle of Konoha, Kakashi might have leaned back against Ryouma and enjoyed the solid, living weight of him, but showcasing Ryouma as an easy lever was not the welcome home gift Kakashi wanted to give him.

“Personal space, rookie,” he said, flicking a quick beat of hidden trail-sign against Ryouma’s wrist. Not safe.

“Rookie?” said Ryouma indignantly, but his hold withdrew and he stepped around to Kakashi’s side. “I thought we'd agreed you were gonna call me ‘captain’.”

“In your wildest dreams,” Kakashi said, thankful that years of practice had left him with the ability to sound reflexively curt. “I thought you were supposed to get a jacket?”

Ryouma glanced down at his bare arms, as if surprised to find a jacket had not magically appeared, and looked sheepish. “It got warmer? I had to run to meet Reiko, anyway... Oh, here!” He fished Kakashi’s wallet out of his back pocket and handed it back. “She said thanks for the sushi. And for letting her sleep on your shoulder.”

Kakashi twitched a safely hidden smile. “She’s welcome. Good lunch?”

"Really good. She brought her son—he's nearly two now. Or three? Crap... Cute as hell, anyway. Wouldn't even look at me for ten minutes, and then spent the next hour in my lap." Ryouma’s smile was fond and just a little proud, as if winning over a small child’s affections had been the high point of his day.

“I didn’t know you liked kids,” Kakashi said, with an abrupt memory of the Hokage’s words. If the two of you figure out how to have children, I deeply hope that you pass along all of your jutsu.

Had Ryouma ever thought ahead that far? Made plans to marry a pretty, quick-handed kunoichi and raise a flock of dark-haired children, or had he only ever expected to spend his whole life running until someone faster brought him down?

Humour sparked in Ryouma’s eyes, like a match-flare in the dark. “Never took you down Canal Street, did I?” he said—then he stopped, eyebrows drawing down to frame a face cast in the angles of sudden thought, before his mouth set determined. He pulled a hand from one pocket and caught Kakashi by the arm. “How’d you like to come now?”

As far as Kakashi knew, Canal Street was just part of a warren of twisting back-alleys and dark hidey-holes. A good place to go to ground or stage an ambush, but he didn’t see how it related to childr—


“Jacket first,” he said, slipping carefully out of Ryouma’s hold. “I’m cold and I’m wearing layers.”

“I’m hot?” Ryouma suggested hopefully, which made Kakashi snort. Ryouma glanced around, clearly checking his mental map. “There’s a second-hand shop down on Market Street, on the way.”

“Lovely,” Kakashi said dryly. “Then you can smell like someone else’s skin. What’s wrong with a real store?”

Ryouma looked a little startled, as if the idea just hadn’t occurred to him—which went hand-in-hand with Canal Street and made Kakashi want to stab someone. “Nothing, I guess,” he said.

“Good,” Kakashi said. A quick extension of his senses revealed no one paying any obvious attention to them—they hadn’t had any ANBU-trackers following them since Ryouma’s trial with T&I. He took advantage of the moment by catching Ryouma briefly by the hand, because it always made Ryouma startle when someone deliberately touched his fingers, and tugged him into walking. “We should get you a razor, too.”

“And hair gel. And underwear.” Ryouma let out a soft breath when Kakashi dropped his hand, and shoved the hand back into his pocket. “Deodorant’d be good, too. That scentless stuff of yours makes me feel like I should be heading out on a mission.”

“Not until you look like a gentle breeze wouldn’t blow you over,” Kakashi said, with a crooked smile and steel underneath.

A warm little shiver ran through Ryouma’s scent.

"I've got a meetings with a physical therapist and a nutritionist tomorrow,” he said, grinning easily. "Maybe I should bully you out on the training field, too. Let you show me how you built up all that new muscle."

“How about you learn to walk again before you try to fly?” Kakashi drawled, side-stepping when Ryouma tried to hip-check him. Now it was his turn to be pleased. Muscle for missions was one thing, but it hadn’t occurred to him that Ryouma might like the way it looked, too.

"Hey, I haven't fallen over once today!” Ryouma protested. “That's a one-hundred per cent improvement since yesterday."

“I’d be supremely impressed if you didn’t have a wasting disease air about you,” Kakashi said, flicking his fingers towards his own face, mirroring Ryouma’s knife-sharp cheekbones and dark-shadowed eyes. “Warn me if you feel another attack of the vapours coming on, so I can get a fainting couch ready.”

Ryouma grinned blissfully. "Who needs fainting couches? I was plannin' on just swooning gracefully into your arms."

Kakashi barked a laugh that surprised them both and made Ryouma’s eyes glitter again. “I’d drop you,” he warned. “On your face.”

“Nah,” said Ryouma comfortably. “You’re done dropping me.”

Kakashi said nothing, but his fingers brushed Ryouma’s bare arm like a casual accident, shaping an invisible sign. True.

Ryouma’s agile mouth curved into a softer, warmer smile that would have greatly startled the several-dozen dead ninja who’d been on the wrong side of his feral, fighting grin. He slung an arm around Kakashi’s shoulders, which lost him a point for just not getting the concept of subtlety, and shivered dramatically. “You’re right, it’s cold. Where’s your real store?”

Kakashi resigned himself to being manhandled. He’d just have to viciously massacre the first person who looked at Ryouma sideways, and then the rest of them would learn.

“Not far,” he said, and didn’t throw Ryouma’s arm off.

[Continues here.]
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