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A Light That Never Goes Out [2/3] [Kakashi & Ryouma][Jan. 21st, 2012|01:59 pm]

[Follows directly after A Light That Never Goes Out [1/3], the day before Nothing to Fear]

The cheapest jacket Threads had to offer was a plain navy blue hoodie that Ryouma picked up without a second glance and slung on the counter.

Kakashi rolled his eyes, returned it to the rack, and went to the back of the store. It took him a second to find what he was looking for—broad shoulders and a slim waist made a trickier combination when you added height as well—but he knew he’d picked right when Ryouma’s eyes flicked wide.

“This one,” Kakashi said, holding up a heavy leather jacket dyed espresso-dark. He eyed it consideringly. “Looks sturdy enough to turn a blade.”

“That costs as much as half a B-rank,” Ryouma said, slightly strangled.

“Good. Then you know it’s strong enough to put up with all the abuse you’ll give it.” And it had the rock star edge Ryouma coveted, which Kakashi knew looked good on him. He tossed it to Ryouma, who caught it reflexively. “Try it on.”

Ryouma hesitated, fingertips brushing the leather, then set his mouth and shrugged the jacket on with a touch of a dramatic flare, like a man donning armour. He zipped it halfway and flexed his shoulders, twisting at the hip. The jacket was just a little loose, leaving enough room for the muscle Ryouma wanted to put back on, but it moved like water. “Feels good,” he said, a little surprised, a little longing. “Warm. How’s it look?”

Like sex on legs.

Ryouma looked good in ANBU armour, lean and dangerous, a loyal soldier with the mask and brand to prove it, but civilian clothes made him look like himself. Like lethal sin with a playful side, ready to cause trouble and charm pretty women.

Kakashi swallowed, dry-mouthed.

“You might need two,” he said.

Ryouma looked puzzled. "Two? This one should last for years." He checked the tag again and winced, scent collapsing into worryguiltwant. "I should have money coming in, once they get my back-pay straightened out. I'll pay you back."

“Don’t make me throw something at you,” Kakashi said, walking over to him. The teller behind the counter caught his eye and prudently turned away, making a show of checking the shelves behind her. Kakashi tipped his chin up to meet Ryouma’s eyes, and lowered his voice. “For starters, you’re too pretty to brain damage, and secondly I’m not letting Asuma outdo me on a birthday present. Though this isn’t the whole of it.”

Ryouma’s mouth shaped the word pretty as he looked poleaxed and smelled gleeful, then he visibly tripped over his mental feet. “There’s more?

“Check your left pocket,” Kakashi said, both pleased with himself and a little nervous.

Ryouma blinked and dug an automatic hand into his jeans pocket, before he rolled his eyes at himself and went to the leather jacket. He frowned slightly, finding nothing, then dug deeper and pulled out a plain brass key.

“I couldn’t get it etched,” Kakashi said. “But now at least you know you’re welcome.”

Ryouma stared down at the key resting on his scarred palm for several silent heartbeats, lips pressed tight, shoulders pulled in. His scent was clamped; for the first time in memory, Kakashi couldn’t get a read on it.

He was starting to think he’d misjudged things completely when Ryouma curled his fingers closed, blinked hard, and looked up, with a shine in his eyes that pretty much broke Kakashi’s ribcage in two.

“Thanks,” Ryouma said roughly. “I’ll try to keep my clothes off the floor.”

“Liar,” Kakashi said, tense muscles loosening. He rubbed the back of his neck, and couldn’t help asking, very quietly: “So it’s okay?”

Ryouma drew a deep breath, dragged the back of his hand over his eyes, and said forcefully, “Better’n okay. It’s good.”

“Ten points to me,” Kakashi said, reaching for smug and mostly just coming up... happy. He managed to stop himself from shoving Ryouma up against a coat-rack and kissing the stunned delight right out of his mouth, but only just. “Next birthday I’m going to get you a thesaurus.” He considered this. “Then I guess I’ll read it to you.”

Ryouma looked bewildered, but willing. “Bedtime stories!”

The woman behind the counter made a quiet sound of amusement, and Kakashi levelled a sharp glare at the back of her head. “Little more educational than that,” he said, because of course Ryouma had no reason to know what a thesaurus was—he’d never needed one. “Like a dictionary, but with lists of words that mean the same thing, instead of giving definitions.”

Ryouma lifted an eyebrow.

“Never mind,” Kakashi said.

“Are you going to pay for that?” the teller said, glancing backwards over her shoulder. She gave Ryouma an appreciative look that raked him from head to foot. “It certainly suits you.”

Subtlety probably did not include smacking a civilian woman with a mannequin.

Under the sudden attention, Ryouma grinned like a wolf, spine straightening, scent suffused with an extra dose of warmth and happiness. Thought you’d said I was still pretty, he’d said yesterday morning, reproachful and teasing and worried underneath it, as if he’d had doubts himself.

No doubts now, Kakashi thought. And if there were any still lurking, he had plans to burn them out.

He snapped the tag off the back of the collar and flicked it onto the counter. “I’ve got it,” he said.

Something must have bled into his voice, because the woman looked hastily away from Ryouma and rang up the sale. Ryouma leaned sideways on the counter, one elbow braced on the woodwork, and kicked back in a way that would have looked extremely suave if he hadn’t still been grinning widely.

“I have this weird urge to get you a knitted hat, too,” Kakashi told him. “Maybe some mittens.”

"Only if the hat has a bobble on top. And strings between the mittens, so I don't lose 'em,” Ryouma said easily. He reached a hand out and ruffled Kakashi’s hair a little, fingers briefly curving to cup the side of Kakashi’s head. "Asuma asked me today if I was allowed out to play. I think I need to go kill somethin' and eat it, just to prove my manliness."

“You’re wearing half a dead cow,” Kakashi pointed out.

"That somebody else killed and ate. 'Course, my greatest ambition was always to be a kept man..." Ryouma’s voice was teasing, eyes dancing, but Kakashi had to wonder how much truth there was in that sentence.

“I wasn’t planning to give you away,” Kakashi said, leaning slightly closer as he scribbled out a check and signed it with a henohenomoheji. The teller squinted at it, likely struggling to parse his handwriting, but shrugged and accepted it.

"You could sell me. Think what a mint—no, actually, on second thoughts." Ryouma’s eyes dropped to the counter-top, expression darkening. "Guess you're stuck with me."

“Think you’ve been sold enough for one lifetime,” Kakashi agreed quietly, which made the teller blink at them. “I could tattoo my name on your butt if you’re really going for an ownership theme.”

"I still wouldn't be able to read it," Ryouma said practically. "You can come with me when I go see Takumi about getting the dragon fixed, though. Tell him what you want to see." He gave Kakashi a speculative glance. "Maybe get something for yourself, too."

“Like your name on my butt?” Kakashi said, amused. They’d had this conversation once before, months ago, sprawled together on a hotel bed with Ryouma tracing invisible designs over Kakashi’s naked skin and that bitemark bleeding fresh on Ryouma’s throat. Ryouma had talked about getting his dragon redone then, too.

Maybe you should, Kakashi had said, thinking of bright battlefield colours inked across Ryouma’s chest, remaking that ruined namesake back into something proud and deadly. And if you pick a good design for me, I’ll wear it.

Ryouma let out a quick staccato breath, like a cross between a laugh and a snort. Heh. “Same problem,” he said. “I was thinkin' something prettier, but I want to talk to Takumi before I'm sure.” He tipped his head to one side. “Much prettier.”

“No naked girls,” Kakashi said.

Ryouma rolled his eyes. “Fine, you get veto power.” He shoved away from the counter, dropping his hands into his pockets. Something very like nervousness twined through his scent, shifting in restless feet. “We done here? I want to get down to Canal Street before dark.”

It was only mid-afternoon, but Kakashi raised an eyebrow at the teller, who startled.

“Sorry,” she said, and handed him a receipt.

He flicked her a dry little salute. “Glad we could be entertaining.”

She coloured and looked away. Ryouma headed for the door, nervous energy streamlining into movement and purpose. Kakashi fell into step behind him, making a mental note to get everything else they needed for Ryouma later.

“We don’t actually have to do this if you don’t want to,” he said, when they’d passed through a flock of civilians and broken into a side-street, where the noise was less. “Or I can hang back.”

Not that he wanted to let Ryouma out of his sight, but he couldn’t hawk over him twenty-four seven.

Ryouma glanced back, surprised. "What? No. No, I want you to— See where I came from. Meet my kids." His mouth sketched a wry curve. "But you're a nice well-brought-up boy, so Canal Street after dark might be a little too much for your first time. An' I'd rather not have to start maimin' muggers on my third day back."

Kakashi stopped dead. After a moment, he closed his mouth. “Nice?

Ryouma's poker face was perfect, except for the twitch at the corners of his lips and the glint in his eyes. "Well-groomed, polite, payin' for what you buy—I bet you even help old ladies across the road without stealin' their handbags, right?"

“Think I need a handbag now just so I can hit you with it,” Kakashi managed at last, once his brain had returned from a land of strange mental images.

"Tsk! Threatenin' violence on an unarmed man,” Ryouma scolded, sounding disturbingly like a maiden aunt. “What would your etiquette tutor say?"

“That I was fully justif—” Kakashi stopped and frowned. “Why aren’t you armed?”

Ryouma blinked, thrown off-beat. “Left Asuma’s knife with you, an’ I haven’t been issued anything else yet. Besides, I’m not exactly defenseless.” He freed a hand from his pocket and waggled his fingers.

Kakashi pinched the bridge of his nose. “Remind me again what happened the last time you tried a jutsu.”

Ryouma grinned and bumped Kakashi with his shoulder, smelling like flame and sunshine and delight. “I pulled a Water Release jutsu this morning to put out a fire. No nosebleeds or anything. ‘Course, I’m not saying I'd manage more than one shot with the Naizou Tokasu or twenty minutes with the Nikutai Tokasu, but that's more'n enough time for me to hide behind you."

Ryouma was just—Kakashi had to reach for old world literature just to find the right word—incorrigible. Proud of himself, pleased with life, uncrushable.

Which was probably how he’d survived six months trapped inside a prison of his own skin and still come back himself. And Kakashi was nothing but grateful for that.

“You want to look after me?” he said, flicking a kunai from its holder and holding it out. “Stay armed for my peace of mind, jutsu and steel both.”

Ryouma shot him a quick glance, brow furrowing as he took in how serious Kakashi was—then he took the kunai and tucked it away in his jacket. "Thanks. Gotta admit, I'm gonna need some time to get my old reflexes back. I went out unarmed this morning and didn't even feel naked."

“Twice,” Kakashi said. “Maybe I will drag you out on the training fields. You can come hunting in the Forest with me and the dogs if you really want to kill something fluffy.”

"Does the Forest have anything fluffy? I thought it was mostly monster millipedes of death." Ryouma picked up the pace again, grin coming back in full force. "Sure, it's a date."

Kakashi blinked at his back, then smiled slightly, following. “Just don’t expect flowers. We can probably give you a bouquet of giant dead hamster. Or giant dead lion. Giant dead panda, maybe. There’s lots of fluff to choose from.”

"Oh, c'mon, there've gotta be some flowers in there, if you look hard enough. The kind that eat your face, or exude poisoned perfume, or somethin'.” Ryouma turned a blind corner, hit a switchback and led Kakashi through an increasingly tangled series of alleys.

“Because ‘killed by flowers’ is really what you want your headstone to say,” Kakashi said dryly. “That’s right up there with ‘murdered by drapes’, or—”

A twist of half-sized chakra came a second before the scream.

Kakashi startled, pulling automatic chakra into his hands. A small, dark-haired boy burst from cross-alley, screamed a second time, and bolted down a narrow side-street. It took a moment for Kakashi to realize he was bellowing, “RYOUMA’SBACKRYOUMA’SBACK—!”

Half a heartbeat later, there was a tiny flock of children.

Prudently, Kakashi stepped to one side.

It was a skinny blond girl who broke ranks first; she drew a shaking breath and threw herself at Ryouma, who dropped down to his knees and caught her, wrapping both arms around her narrow back.

The girl’s voice came muffled by Ryouma’s shoulder. “They said you weren’t coming back!”

Ryouma dropped his chin down into ragged blond hair. "They didn't know any better, either. What'd I tell you, though? You make it out of Canal Street, you can make it out of anywhere."

The girl kind of laughed, and kind of made a relieved sobbing sound, and definitely whacked Ryouma in the side of the head. “Where did you go?”

Ryouma didn’t get the chance to answer before three other children, two older boys and a middle-sized girl, broke away from the group and leapt on him, too. He vanished under a welter of limbs and questions and scruffy, yelling bodies. There were only six children total: four on Ryouma, plus a teenager who looked like a boy and smelled like a girl standing with her back to the wall, holding tightly onto the hand of the dark-haired boy who’d shouted the alarm.

Ryouma fought his way up through the frenzy, face flushed and eyes bright, and beckoned the girl. “Hanato,” he said, grinning.

Boy’s name, too.

Kakashi drew a mental question mark around that one, and kept his silence as Hanato picked the little dark-haired boy up and went to Ryouma. The noisy dark-haired boy struggled free and dropped into the dogpile. Hanato crossed her arms.

“You vanished,” she said, quiet and low-voiced. “The Inuzuka woman dropped by an’ said you’d never come back.”

Ryouma winced. It was there-and-gone, but Kakashi caught it, and Hanato did too.

“She didn’t know, either,” Ryouma said. “I just got back. Ran into some trouble, an’ it took me a long time to get out of it.”

It was harder to read emotions in an unfamiliar scent, but Hanato was wide open and ripped apart, grief and anger wrapped around fledgling joy, and Kakashi was pretty sure he knew what that felt like.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Kakashi said.

Blue eyes snapped towards him. “Who are you?” Hanato demanded, bristling.

Ryouma forged back to his feet, shedding children who were mostly still holding on to whatever part of him they could reach. The smallest dark-haired boy was held in the crook of one arm; the skinny blond girl had her arms wrapped around Ryouma’s waist. Ryouma took a step towards Kakashi. “This’s Sharingan no Kakashi. C’mon, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten all my stories already!”

Six pairs of wide eyes caught Kakashi in an uncomfortably laser-like focus, and every child except Hanato made a sound very like, “Whoaaaa...”, which made Kakashi want to demand what exactly Ryouma had told them.

One of the younger boys sniffed. “He’s old.”

Ryouma cuffed the back of the boy’s head, but his lips were twitching again.

“Younger than Ryouma,” Kakashi drawled, taking refuge in a casual slouch.

The kids looked at Ryouma, who nodded solemnly. "Nearly three years younger. Which'd make me his senpai, except he's been a shinobi since he was five."

More laser-staring, and another whoaaaa sound from the younger kids, which was halfway flattering and halfway deeply embarrassing, but stepping behind Ryouma would probably lose him all cool points forever.

“That’s impossible,” Hanato said dismissively.

Kakashi shrugged. “If you say so,” he said, netting himself a wary look from the girl wrapped in boy-armour.

Ryouma frowned at the back of Hanato’s head. "The Sannin graduated when they were six. Which means Kakashi's better— Yeah, Saki?" he interrupted himself as the blond girl tugged at his hand.

Kakashi didn’t even need scent to see the pride rolling off the little girl in waves. "I'm gonna be a ninja, too!” she said. “I'm at the Academy now, just like you said!"

Ryouma closed his eyes for a moment, then he dropped down to his knees again and yanked her back into a fierce hug. "Knew you'd do it, Saki. That's my blood-thirsty girl. What'd they say about fees? Now I'm back—"

Hanato cut in. "The Academy said they were paid. That ANBU woman said you did it."

Ryouma glanced fleetingly at Kakashi, who raised both eyebrows at him, then turned back to his kids. "Yeah. I told you I would."

Kakashi was starting to think he’d missed a lot of context. “I thought academy kids were supposed to get a stipend if they weren’t from clans?”

Ryouma looked up again, mouth twisted wry. "That's only for shinobi orphans. Civilian kids pay their own way, if they've got parents. My mom's dogtags got me through. Imagine your dad's name did the same for you."

Something cold tightened in Kakashi’s stomach.

Now it made more sense. The Hokage had made a point about getting war orphans off the streets after the Third War, funneling them into group homes or foster care or the academy, where they could graduate early and make enough money to support themselves. Or die young and relieve the village of the problem. But these six kids were dirty and wary and too thin, running pack-wild in a village where that didn’t happen anymore, which meant—

“You all still have parents,” Kakashi said, quiet.

Most of the kids looked blank, but Ryouma climbed back to his feet, moving with a dulled edge that made him seem tired, like a blunted blade. “Most of ‘em have parents the way I had a granddad. So we look out for each other instead, huh?”

That won him a chorus of sturdy “Yeah!”s and dirty, adoring grins—except from Hanato, whose shoulders were hunched, and two boys who’d started a rolling brawl in the back. Ryouma scruffed them both by the collar and separated them with the fluidity of easy practice.

I think the village is broken, Kakashi had said.

Maybe it was just the people in it.

He raked a hand through his hair and reached for a good thought that appealed to puppies, children, and probably Ryouma on universal basis. “Want to get them lunch? Or dinner, I guess. It’s almost late enough.”

Possibly he should have predicted the feeding frenzy. The kids—minus Hanato—rushed him en masse, grabbing his legs and his jounin vest—and his wallet.

“Hey!” he said, rescuing it from Saki, who gave him a grin of blue-eyed innocence. One of the smallest boys made a decent attempt at scaling him like a tree. Kakashi put his back against the alley wall, trying not to breathe the stench of urine and rotten vegetables that clung to the brickwork, and defended himself very carefully from the flock of anklebiters.

While they scuffled, Ryouma collected Hanato with an arm thrown around the teenager’s raw-boned shoulders, pulling her against his side. The girl-who-wasn’t didn’t exactly go pliant, but she didn’t wrench away, either.

Saki helped herself to a kunai.

“Okay, no weapons for you,” Kakashi said, balancing the monkey-boy with one hand while he disarmed Saki with the other, and trapped a third child against the wall with his leg. That still left two free to leap and clamour, tumbling against him like a battery of half-grown dogs, and he was half-tempted to translocate to safety, but—

The kids were laughing, and when Kakashi looked up, Ryouma was smiling like someone had handed him the sun.


As it turned out, the kids did have names. Saki and Hanato he’d already heard. The dark-haired, noisy, climbing-boy was Jin. The boy who’d called Kakashi old was Makoto, and his brawling partner was a skinny, red-headed rake called Saburo. The middling girl who’d leapt on Ryouma was Orin, and the flecks of unusual yellow in her eyes suggested her parents hailed from somewhere distant.

Ryouma wound up piggy-backing Saki, who wanted to chatter in his ear. They exchanged a rapid-fire roll call of names—Asuka and Dai had also made it into the academy; Shiro had broken his arm last month; Yukomi’s mother had snapped and thrown her out, but Naka-san, the baker on Grove Street, had pulled her in as an early apprentice, so that was okay, especially because Saki sometimes got free cakes now...

Hanato walked at Ryouma’s left side, occasionally interjecting a thought. The crisp, calm way she spoke reminded Kakashi of a lieutenant reporting to a captain. The rest of the kids kept close to Ryouma, flanking around him like a squad as they wound back through the warren of alleys back to the main street.

Except for Jin, who wanted to ride on Kakashi’s shoulders.

He couldn’t have been more than five, and he was a nothing-weight, swinging his legs to thump his heels cheerfully against Kakashi’s flak jacket. Exactly the same way Ryouma had thumped his heels against the kitchen cabinets. Kakashi kept him steady with one hand wrapped around a grubby knee and reflected on the absurdity of his life.

“Hey, ow. No hair-pulling.”

“Can't blame the kid, Kakashi,” Ryouma said, tossing a grin back over his shoulder. “There's so much of it.”

“Saki,” Kakashi said pleasantly, “ask Ryouma what happened to his mullet.”

"Heathen nurses in the hospital chopped it all off," Saki said promptly, but she took a closer look at Ryouma, leaning around his leather-clad shoulder to peer at his face. "How come you're so skinny?"

Ryouma glanced at Kakashi, and hefted Saki up a little higher on his back. “Spent a few months outside Fire Country, an’ my hosts weren’t very good cooks.”

Hanato cut in, flat-voiced. “You were a prisoner?”

Ryouma glanced down at the dark, ruffled head, quiet for a moment. "Yeah. Or I'd've been back here sooner."

Hanato held her silence for a moment, visibly thinking that over. Then, finally, she pressed closer to Ryouma. “Did Kakashi bring you back?”

Jin yelped as Kakashi’s hand tightened too hard around his leg. Immediately, Kakashi released the boy, spilling chakra into his hand to ease the sting from blanched skin. “Sorry,” he said, as Jin made the wobbly sound of a child not quite sure whether to cry or not. Kakashi gave his knee an awkward rub. “Sorry,” he said again.

All the children were staring at him. Kakashi tried not to look visibly stricken.

“I tried,” he said at last. “I couldn’t find him. Ryouma rescued himself.”

Ryouma looked at him, but Kakashi looked away, focusing on the mill of civilians doing their Sunday shopping while Ryouma explained.

“There were thrilling heroics, which all involved me waiting around for the Hokage's ambassador to say enough nice things that they'd be willing to send me home." Ryouma bumped Hanato’s shoulder very gently, which made a streak of quicksilver warmth run through Hanato’s scent. "Ambassadors are the smart guys who fix all the problems the ninja create. We send 'em in where even the ANBU can't go."

Saki’s voice came thin and worried. “They didn’t torture you, did they?”

“Not very much,” Ryouma said, which was only reassuring if you had no concept of what a little torture could look like, but the younger kids relaxed. Hanato didn’t. "Mostly they just locked me in one room and fed me rice porridge, which I guess could totally count as torture after the fifty-third day. Speaking of which, what're we eating?"

“Takoyaki!” Makoto said instantly.

“Dango!” Saburo chimed in, giving his friend a shove.

“Ice cream!” Jin cried, almost falling off Kakashi’s shoulders with enthusiasm.

“Taiyaki would be nice,” said Orin.

“I want custard buns,” Saki said.

Hanato curtailed them all. “Steamed pork buns. Something that’ll last.”

Saki made a sound of abject suffering. “Can we get custard buns after?” she said plaintively.

Ryouma eyed Kakashi again, clearly trying to figure out what the food budget was, then said with confidence: "I think we can probably stretch to pork and custard buns. How's about you kids run ahead to the park an' start warming up to show me your katas, an' Kakashi an' I'll get food? Meet you by the big red maple."

Kakashi swung Jin down and dug in his pocket, pulling three hundred-ryou notes from his wallet. “Here,” he said, holding out the money to Hanato. “Why don’t you get drinks? You know what your friends like.”

Hanato stared at the money, then at Kakashi. “Three hundred just for drinks?”

Ryouma laughed softly, lowering Saki down. "Go ahead and take it, kiddo. The kind of missions he runs, he makes that much money just walking across a room."

Except Kakashi wasn’t anymore, and judging by the sudden chill in storm-weather scent, Ryouma had just had the same thought. A faint crease appeared at the corner of his mouth, marking the edge of an unhappy downturn.

Kakashi sketched a dry smile. “I inherited my family’s entire estate when I was about your age,” he said, glancing at Saki, who looked roughly seven. “And that was before A-ranks. I’m not hurting for money.”

Makoto’s eyes lit up. "You have an estate? Like a house? Like a castle?" he demanded, which brought the entire group’s focus back to Kakashi like a group of alley-cats presented with a mouse wrapped in bacon. Even Ryouma looked curious.

Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck. “More like a compound,” he hedged. “It’s just an old clan ground, not very interesting.”

"Do you live there all alone?” Orin asked, like the thought appealed to her. “What about the rest of your clan?"

Really, he should have known better than to talk about a home in front of kids who hated theirs. Even if it hadn’t been his home in years.

“I’m the last one,” Kakashi said simply. “And I live in an apartment, actually. Do you guys want buns? Because I can stand here answering questions, but it won’t get you fed.”

Jin did an eager little dance on the spot, reminding Kakashi sharply of Shiba, the little butterfly-eared papillion. “Buns!” the boy demanded, and led the charge towards the park Ryouma had pointed out.

Hanato took the money from Kakashi’s hand and jog-trotted up the street, knifing through the crowd towards a convenience store. Kakashi watched her go, thoughtful.

“What pronoun does Hanato use?” he asked, when the teenager was safely out of earshot.

Ryouma gave him a sharp look, then snorted. “Might’ve known you’d pick up on it. Scent, I’m guessin’? Hanato’s been a boy for about six years.”

“Scent,” Kakashi confirmed, correcting his mental map to he instead of she. “You know he walks like you? Same stride.”

“Really?” Ryouma said, pleased and visibly proud. “Huh. Guess it’s not surprising; I’ve been hanging around there off an’ on since he was rollin’ naked in mud puddles. Used to be more of us; he woulda had a whole pack of older brothers, better’n me. But the war wiped out most of us, and the MPs got the rest." He headed towards the nearest bakery, hands tucked into the pockets of his new jacket, thoughtfully kicking up dust. "I should spend more time with ‘em, maybe. Do more for ‘em. Try to see ‘em every week when I’m in the village, but that’s not much. They’re doin’ okay for themselves, though.” He shook his head, smiling faintly as reminiscence poured through his scent like rainwater through pines. “Saki an’ Asuka an’ Dai. Dai’s a surprise, but I never had a doubt about Saki. She’ll be ANBU, someday.”

Kakashi thought of quick little hands slipping into his pockets. Another ten years would have Saki full grown and deadly, breaking necks and—if she was anything like Ryouma—hearts. She wouldn’t be pretty enough for Eros, but ANBU would take a self-made ninja with no family ties in a heartbeat.

And then she’d die.

He bit the inside of his cheek and wrenched his thoughts into a straight line. “Would you want her to be?”

Ryouma hesitated on the doorstep of the bakery, one hand resting on the handle. He released it and turned back, stepping to one side as a woman shouldered past him. Kakashi pulled himself away from the crowd.

“If I can make changes, so it’s not so lonely and crazy and dangerous—why not?” Ryouma said, low but serious. “I can't protect her, or any of 'em. All I can do is teach 'em to protect themselves. And even the way the village is—the way ANBU is—I still think it's better to belong to something than to have nothing.”

Asuma, Kakashi thought, had a lot to answer for.

“I want Saki off the streets and out of that crappy apartment,” Ryouma continued. “I don't want her endin' up like her mom, drowning in drugs and booze, stayin' with men who beat her 'cause she's too lonely without ‘em. There's not much I can teach her, and maybe she'd be better off somewhere else, doing something else, but...I'll do what I can, so she can choose.”

“Not much of a choice,” Kakashi said.

“More’n we ever got,” Ryouma said.

“Like I said,” Kakashi said, the corner of his mouth twisting wry. He found his wallet and flipped it into Ryouma’s hands again. “Stop selling yourself short. You’re a good teacher. Saki almost lifted that twice.”

Getting Ryouma to light up was an easy trick, Kakashi was learning. It only took a compliment.

"Hah, really?" Ryouma said, delighted, before he visibly realized that perhaps he shouldn’t be condoning pickpocketing. "I only taught 'em 'cause it's good practice for seal-work. Keeps your hands limber an' your fingers quick. Told 'em never pick a shinobi's pocket, but they can't resist. Guess I didn't either, at their age. Nearly got me killed a couple times." He grinned, eyes glittering. "Not all jounin like being sneaked up on."

Kakashi recalled the brief cardiac event he’d almost had when Ryouma had grabbed him from behind, and debated how mature he was feeling...

He whacked Ryouma upside the head. “You’re lucky I didn’t drown you in the fountain. I was this close.”

“Oi, I’m a jounin now, too! Totally could’ve drowned you back.” Ryouma tossed the wallet in the air and caught it, unrepentant. “Just for that, I’m buying everyone melon bre
ad, too.”

Kakashi glanced through the plate glass window at the crush inside the bakery, and elected to stay outside. “Have at it. But you’re going to have to rescue your own ass if someone tries to drown you in pastry.” He gave Ryouma an eye-curving smile. “Rookie.”

"Be honest,” Ryouma said, with a broad, knowing grin. “You'd miss my ass."

He darted for the door and vanished inside before Kakashi could even open his mouth.

Fountain,” Kakashi promised direly, leaning his back against the brickwork to wait.


A picnic with a half-dozen children was only mildly traumatizing, as it turned out. Ryouma’s return was distracting enough, but the veritable hamper of food kept the kids entirely focused on everything but Kakashi for the duration of the meal.

Ryouma made good on his threat of melon bread, which caused at least three of the youngest to nearly seizure with delight.

Hanato, after returning with juice, had thawed enough to sit on Ryouma’s right side. He didn’t seem to know what to make of Kakashi, which made two of them.

“Your money,” the teenager said, thrusting out the change he had left to Kakashi with a stubborn chin lift.

Kakashi took it and handed it to Ryouma, who grinned, did a quick little hand-flicker, and stowed it back in Hanato’s pocket. The teenager didn’t catch him at it.

No ninja material there, Kakashi judged. Which was almost a shame — most of these kids were already a far cry tougher than the genin he’d failed, and only half the age. Maybe you did need fractured homes to throw in the corkscrew twists a ninja’s mind needed...

Makato yanked him out of dark thoughts. “How come you don’t eat?”

“What?” Kakashi said, surprised at being addressed.

Jin bounced in Ryouma’s lap. “An’ how come you wear a mask?”

“I have no nose,” Kakashi said, deadpan.

Saki’s brow wrinkled; she was leaning against Ryouma’s left side. “How do you smell?”

Terrible,” Ryouma crowed, and actually slapped his knee.

It took the kids a second to catch on, then they fell about. Even Hanato smiled. Jin actually rolled with mirth, and had to be rescued from falling into the remainder of the custard rolls.

“That joke is so old it creaks,” Kakashi said.

“Old but classic,” Ryouma said, supremely self-satisfied.

Hanato leaned forward, braced on one-drawn up knee, and gave Kakashi a harder look. “Why do you wear a mask?” he asked. “Are you hiding something?”

Ryouma lifted an eyebrow. "Like the disfiguring and memorable scar of the man who killed my favorite uncle? I never shoulda taken you to that movie."

“What uncle?” demanded Jin, which matched Kakashi’s thoughts exactly.

Ryouma tousled Jin’s dirty hair, making the boy yelp and wriggle. “The uncle I don’t have. Silly questions get silly answers.”

“My question wasn’t silly,” Hanato said, short-voiced and hard-eyed, back to bristling, and Kakashi realized what was going on. It was a lieutenant's job to watch his captain’s back, and Ryouma was exactly the kind of man who inspired loyalty, even when he left without word and stayed gone.

Kakashi was an unknown quality, despite whatever stories Ryouma had told about him, which made him a threat.

Orin’s voice came quiet. “Is there something wrong with your face, Kakashi-san?”

Kakashi sighed. “No. I just don’t like how it looks much.”

“Why?” Hanato said sharply.

Kakashi gave him a long, silent look. “Would you like to tell me all your personal secrets?” he asked at last.

Hanato bit his lower lip, scent burning sullen. “No,” he said at last, before blowing up in a burst of defiance: "But I didn't drop in out of nowhere on Ryouma's heels! He didn't even bring that Inuzuka woman—she came hunting him herself."

“Hanato,” Ryouma said, low.

Hanato ignored him. “He said you were the best there was, but you don't even like him! So why're you here now?"

“Hanato,” Ryouma said, voice finding a razor edge. “That's enough."

The teenager fell into glaring, hot-blooded silence. Kakashi watched him thoughtfully. There was almost no chance of the whole village failing to know there was something going on between Kakashi and Ryouma by now, especially if they’d been paying any kind of attention for the last six months—which, really, Kakashi should have considered—but he still didn’t want to advertise...

“Who says I don’t like Ryouma?” he said quietly.

Hanato darted a furious glance at Ryouma, who said, just as quietly, "I did, probably. I don't think I've told 'em Kakashi stories since we...met for coffee that day.”

Apparently one of Ryouma’s few adult-traits was speaking in euphemism, Kakashi noted dryly.

“Mission with Tsume happened too soon afterward,” Ryouma went on. “An' I only managed to make it out to see the kids a couple of times after I got off the crutches and before...before I left again." He smiled faintly. "You gotta admit, you didn't like me all that much back then."

“I didn’t like anyone,” Kakashi pointed out. “Besides, you made me throw up and dropped me in a lake on our first mission.”

Jin’s eyes went wide enough to show the whites entirely around green irises.

“Oh, he told us that,” Saki remarked knowingly.

Kakashi lifted a knee, propping his elbow on it; a deliberate mirror-image to Hanato. “What else did he tell you?”

Ryouma shifted, scent long-twisted into something uneasy, but Saburo piped up. "He told us you rip out hearts!"

"An' got your arm stuck in somebody's chest an' he had to save you!" Makoto added, blood-thirstily delighted.

"An' you can copy any jutsu you see, an' knock people out or drag 'em into a genjutsu just by looking at 'em—"

"An' you have dogs that talk—"

Hakoto said darkly, "And you hate everybody."

“I had good reasons,” Kakashi said mildly. “What’s your excuse?”

Hanato’s scent tasted black, driven beyond endurance. "I don't hate everybody!"

"Just the guy I bring from out of nowhere?” Ryouma said, oddly gentle. “Simmer down, Hanato. Kakashi's not a threat to you. He's important to me, now, but that doesn't mean you stop bein' important. He's not taking your place." A side-eyed glance caught Kakashi, and a fleck of amusement edged Ryouma’s voice. "He's got better things to do than wrestle in back alleys with me."

Kakashi tipped his head back and studied the sky, which was blue and fluffy with clouds, and much safer to look at than anyone’s face.

“Oh, I get it,” Saki said brightly. “Kakashi-san’s a girl!”

Kakashi blinked.

Makoto hooted with laughter. “An’ that’s why he wears the mask!”

“What?” said Kakashi, dropping his chin to stare at them both.

Saki gave the easy shrug of a child who understood far too much. “Wrestling,” she said. “Grown ups do that, too, ‘cept for different reasons. And Ryouma really likes girls.”

Ryouma choked on something alarmingly like a giggle, except deeper. “Kakashi’s not a girl,” he gasped. “He is so not a girl.”

“Some girls are skinny!” Saki said helpfully.

Hanato’s sudden attention was sharp and focused, his eyes raking Kakashi from neck to hip.

“I’m not skinny,” Kakashi protested. “I’m lean. Big difference.”

"I'm skinnier right now,” Ryouma pointed out, in the same ever-so-helpful tone as Saki. “And I'm a guy."

"We've seen you swimming," Saki dismissed him. She leaned forward, studying Kakashi’s face intently, then pronounced: "I think you'd be a pretty girl."

“True,” said Kakashi, because he could either roll with it or get trampled by their enthusiasm. “But I’d look ridiculous in a dress.”

Saki made a sound very like pff. “Girls don’t have to wear dresses. I don’t wear dresses.”

“Ryouma likes girls in dresses,” Orin said quietly, drawn in despite the clear shyness in her body language.

“Ryouma likes girls with tits,” Saki corrected, which made everyone stare at Kakashi’s chest—except for Ryouma, who was biting his fist and making muffled sounds of deep, deep amusement.

Kakashi crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not a girl!”

"All righty, nobody here's a Hyuuga, so let's stop trying to see through flak jackets,” Ryouma said, in an approximate imitation of a grown up. “Let's hear about the Academy instead, Saki. They got you doin' anything interesting yet?"

Saki was easily diverted, along with the rest of the youngsters. They backed her excited chatter about basic taijutsu with stories from the civilian, temple-run schools, where they got to do things like paint and learn math. Civilians stayed in school until they were fourteen, Kakashi learned, before they got shunted into family business or trade apprenticeships. They wouldn’t expect to become journeymen until about eighteen, and masters in their twenties or thirties, depending on the trade.

Civilians had much longer lives.

It took all of four minutes before Saki bounced up to show off her latest moves—a rudimentary set of kata and a frankly vicious elbow lock—and only two more before Ryouma was up and giving her pointers. He was quick but patient, setting her stance properly, making sure she punched upward instead of forward, because she’d likely always be fighting shinobi bigger than her.

Kakashi leaned back and watched the rest of the kids pile in, demanding their fair share of Ryouma’s attention. Only Hanato stayed where he was.

“Why are you here?” asked the teenager, low-voiced enough that Ryouma, in the tumbling pile of screaming kids, couldn’t hear.

The kid was a bulldog.

“Because I want to be,” Kakashi said, glancing at the skinny, dirty mirror-image to what Ryouma must have been, twelve years ago. Except Ryouma hadn’t had an older ninja looking out for him, or a home to go to when the sun went down.

Hanato vented a frustrated breath. “But what do you want?”

“Hanato,” Ryouma said, tossing Makato over one shoulder and tidying Jin away in a careful headlock. “Just because I’m lookin’ the other way doesn’t mean I’m deaf. Get your butt up here and show me your forms.”

Scowling but obedient, Hanato joined the lesson and was instantly flipped onto his back. He rebounded, refocused, and went after Ryouma with his entire attention, which was presumably the point. Ryouma diverted his energy with a quick fight, then led him through a half dozen kata, all of them basic academy level, before making the rest of the pack join in. When they were worked up and red-faced, Ryouma grinned at them.

“Tag,” he said, and bolted.

The kids went berserk. Kakashi watched, eyebrows lifted, as Ryouma led them on a laughing, scrambling dogfight run around the park and down to the river, where he escaped by handspringing across the water’s surface.

“Cheat!” Saki bellowed.

Makato threw a rock after him. “Son of a bitch.”

On the other side of the river there was nothing but shrubbery. Jin stretched up on his toes. “I don’t see him.”

Highly amused, Kakashi counted silently to three.

Ryouma dropped down from the tree behind Hanato and flicked the teenager on the back of the head. “Still tag,” he said cheerfully, and ran for it.

The kids bayed like wolfhounds after blood and charged after him.

[Concludes here.]
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