Ryouma was in the shower when Kakashi got back from the Heroes’ Stone. Gym clothes scattered around the bathroom door suggested he’d been exercising. An empty coffee mug and plate in the sink, along with a discarded packet of one of Akimichi Masaru’s muscle-rebuilding powders on the counter, suggested he’d even managed to eat breakfast like a sensible human being, instead of just injecting caffeine directly into a vein.
Kakashi’s mouth twitched. He shucked his sandals, unwound the scarf that was almost unnecessary now the sun was squarely up, and was midway through tidying up when someone knocked on the door.
Odds were somewhere between a missions summons—which was unlikely, given that Kakashi was still working only in-village and Ryouma wasn’t certified mission-fit—or yet another person who’d finally caught the news that Ryouma was alive and wanted to see it for themselves.
He answered the door with soapy coffee mug in hand, and blinked.
It was Katsuko, wearing her own clothes.
She looked exactly like she had six months ago: dark-haired, androgynous, standing hipshot in combat boots and dark jeans, wearing the bare edge of a smile. Her creased tee-shirt had a bright yellow smiling face on it, with Xs for eyes. This time she smelled of nothing but herself, and a lot like exhaustion.
“Hello,” said Kakashi, after a long moment.
Katsuko raised one dark eyebrow, a little spike of wariness cutting through her scent. She lifted a hand, shifting the brightly wrapped package tucked into her arm. “‘Sup. Ryouma in? You both need to be here for this.”
That was faintly ominous.
“He’s in the shower,” Kakashi said, which sounded much more claim-staking than he’d actually meant it to, but he didn’t take it back. “Wait here.”
He shut the door on her.
The shower turned itself off before he got to the bathroom door, and Ryouma stepped out with a towel wrapped around his hips, his hair still damply spiked and water beading on his shoulders. Even with only a week to train, he was already building up new muscle. “Hey,” he said, smiling. “You’re back—”
“Katsuko’s here,” Kakashi said, which made Ryouma’s smile do something extremely complicated. “She says she has something for both of us.” A thought struck him. “If she’s pregnant, you’re officially a walking soap opera.”
“Oh gods,” Ryouma said, in pure reflexive horror. “She didn’t— She can’t be, I wore a condom, and I saw her last week and she didn’t— It was six months ago, she’d be showing by now. She’d have said something.”
He was already shedding his towel, scrambling for clothes, nearly tripping as he struggled into his jeans. His shirt clung to his wet shoulders; he pulled it down with so savage a jerk that it nearly tore. “Where is she?”
Kakashi nodded at the door. Ryouma took a deep breath, raked a hand through his hair, and reached for the door-knob.
Katsuko didn’t look pregnant. She was still as lean and flat-bellied as he remembered, almost boyish in her tee-shirt and jeans. She was also holding a bulky package wrapped in colorful confetti-printed paper and tied with curled ribbons.
Ryouma stared down at her for a long moment. Then he backed up, holding the door open, and said quite clearly, “Kakashi. You are a bastard.”
After a moment, Katsuko cleared her throat. “Do I want to—actually, no. I don’t want to know.” She shifted her present to her other arm and marched through the doorway, using her free hand to push Ryouma aside.
He stepped back, glaring over her head. “He said you were pregnant.”
She raised an eyebrow and glanced over at Hatake, who had stiffened a little at her intrusion. The masked man gave Ryouma a dry glance and drawled, “I said if.”
“If I was pregnant, I’d be delighted knowing that my child had a mommy and two daddies to care for it. Cuts down on diaper duty for everyone.” Kicking her boots off, Katsuko ignored Hatake’s incredulous stare and made her way to the kitchen with her head held high.
“If means not, right?” Ryouma asked, taking a deep breath. “Gods. Thanks for the heart attack.” He tugged at his collar, sucking in air, and realized his shirt was on backwards. Katsuko watched with amusement as he stripped the whole thing off to put it back on the right way, shaking her head.
Hatake came in after Ryouma, gaze fixed on Katsuko and her uninvited presence in his kitchen. “Now that you’ve scarred us both for life, what did you want?”
She grinned, turning to Ryouma and offering her present to him with a theatrical flourish. “For you! Go on, open it!”
He looked at her, warily, and then back down at the wrapped package in his hands. Suspicion gave way to delight. “What—” He glanced up at her again, smile wrapping its way around his face. “You didn’t!” He tore at the wrapping paper and pulled out his gift, crowing, “You did!”
The wrestling trophy gleamed a garish gold, its new paint layer catching the light. Katsuko had painted spiky black hair on one of the entwined figures and a mask and lopsided hitai-ate on the other. The whole thing was buffed and polished to a sheen, making it look like new.
Smiling, Katsuko leaned in to tap a fingernail on the bronze plaque affixed to the base. “I promised, didn’t I? It says ‘Cloud’s Number One Pain in the Ass for a Year and Counting’, word for word. And look! Here’s you, and here’s Hatake! I couldn’t figure out who to put on top, so I just played eenie-meenie-miney-mo.”
Kakashi was beginning to get the distinct impression that he’d missed some context.
He crossed to Ryouma’s shoulder, on the opposite side of Katsuko, and raised his eyebrows at the bizarre trophy in Ryouma’s hands. In a charitable light the little figures could have been him and Ryouma, but it looked much more like Katsuko had bastardized a pair of wrestlers into something much more naked.
Ryouma’s shiny double had won the eenie-meanie gamble.
“Is there a reason you’ve been given a sex trophy mocking Cloud?” Kakashi asked finally. “Or is she just insane and you’re easily pleased?”
Katsuko’s attempt at wide-eyed innocence was unconvincing.
Ryouma was still laughing, a little softer now, deep and delighted in a way that reminded Kakashi he’d grown up mostly without presents, surprise or otherwise. “I survived,” he said simply. “So she said I should get a trophy, even if they didn’t give me a medal. Also, for, uh, landing your very fine ass.”
Katsuko abandoned innocence in favour of waggling her eyebrows at Kakashi.
Kakashi choked. “What?”
Ryouma glanced at him, eyes dancing. “Well, it is.”
Katsuko gave Ryouma’s shoulder a hearty slap. “I know I’ve said this before, but nice job.” Her grin was for Kakashi, and contained mostly teeth.
This was possibly Katsuko’s version of giving them her blessing, Kakashi realized, lost somewhere in a sea of deep embarrassment. Or an extremely weird way of messing with him.
“Adjectives are failing me,” he managed at length, before skimming a quick hand through Ryouma’s towel-spiked hair, rumpling it further. “But I think I landed your ass first, seeing as I kissed you first.” A beat later, he added, “Twice, actually. Both times that it counted.”
At the riverbank and the Hokage’s Monument, and really, he sucked at pushing Ryouma away.
Lately, not something he minded.
“Are you staying?” he asked Katsuko. “Or is this just a quick visit to traumatize me forever?”
Ryouma restrained himself—just barely—from pointing out that Katsuko had actually guessed right. For the first time, at least, and a few thereafter. Maybe the children’s counting rhyme hadn’t been such a bad way of choosing.
He glanced back at Katsuko in time to catch the dangerous edge of her brow-raising smirk. “Don’t worry,” she told Kakashi sweetly. “I was on my way out!”
Her stomach rumbled. Katsuko grinned. “Right after I take some of your granola bars for breakfast.”
“We can do better than granola bars,” Ryouma announced, setting the trophy down gently on the kitchen counter. “Kakashi, you haven’t eaten yet either, have you?”
Kakashi shook his head. He was still watching Katsuko as if he expected her to snap at any moment. At least his hands were back in his pockets, though that didn’t actually mean much; Ryouma was fairly sure Kakashi could launch a killing attack without ever actually shifting out of his carefully nonchalant slouch.
Well, he didn’t kill teammates. (Didn’t, even if he’d hurt Ginta; he hadn’t killed.) And he’d insisted that he didn’t care about Ryouma’s involvement with Katsuko. The tension in his shoulders said that might have been a lie, but maybe now he could make a start at turning it true. Katsuko, at least, was doing her part.
(Or maybe, judging from that smirk, she just liked watching. Better not to ask about that.)
“Bacon,” he said firmly, heading for the fridge. “And eggs. I’m supposed to be eating several small meals a day anyway, an’ I’m good at eggs. So long as you like ‘em scrambled.” He straightened, hands full of egg carton and bacon packet, and gazed levelly at Kakashi and Katsuko.
“You two play nice, or you get cayenne in your coffee.”
Katsuko held her hands up, palms open, fingers extended: Look, Ma, no weapons! “Hey man, I’m getting free breakfast. I’ll do a pirouette on the table if you want me to.”
Kakashi glanced askance at her. “Please don’t.” At Ryouma’s stern look he added, a trifle defensively, “I said ‘please.’”
The only table was a low, heavy four-legged thing that lurked under the bed for all but the most formal of meals, anyway. Pirouettes only a foot off the ground probably wouldn’t be worth it. Ryouma waved the bacon packet vaguely in the air. “Try just talkin’, friendly-like. I need to concentrate.”
And he’d never actually cooked for Kakashi before—or for Katsuko, aside from a pair of campfire-roasted brook trout. Not that bacon and eggs and toast were a particularly impressive demonstration of his meagre home-making skills, but he had to start somewhere.
Katsuko eyed Kakashi as Ryouma turned towards the stove, weighing the merits of making her escape against the prospect of free food. “You’re not going to try to Chidori my face off, are you? Because I’m not macking on your boyfriend anymore, and I like my face. It lets me breathe and eat.”
Ryouma stiffened, but didn’t turn around. Katsuko watched as he engaged in one of the slowest, most delicate removals of pans from a cupboard that she had ever seen.
Kakashi glanced at her, retrieving the table from underneath the bed and dragging it into the middle of the floor. It was a scarred, square thing, with the legs folded up neatly under itself. “A Chidori isn’t for face—never mind.”
He set it up quickly, ignoring several close calls that nearly guillotined his fingers off. Katsuko crossed her arms as he seated himself, drumming his fingers against the table’s pitted surface. He looked down at his hand, visible eye unreadable, and forced out, “Look, for what I said before—it wasn't your fault, and I shouldn’t have...said what I did.” He scowled over his shoulder at Ryouma, complaining, “If one of my one-nighters showed up and gave me a present, I wouldn’t expect you to be all ‘friendly-like’.”
“That’s because your one-nighters were nasty sons-of-bitches,” Ryouma pointed out, voice mild. His back was still turned, but Katsuko had the feeling his attention wasn’t fixed on preparing their bacon and eggs.
Katsuko cleared her throat before Kakashi could reply, sitting down across from him and crossing her legs. “I remember there being more growling than actual talking, which, you know, was slightly terrifying. But it’s fine, so long as you don’t mind me and Ryouma hanging out.” Something occurred to her and she shot him a sympathetic grin. “I bet being the Copy-nin makes relationships a bitch, doesn’t it?”
Despite himself, Kakashi gave her a wry smile. “You have no idea.”
Katsuko made an odd aborted motion, as if she’d intended to pat him on the hand and thought better of it. She paused halfway across the table, traded a raised eyebrow with him, and retreated back to her side with a grunt that sounded like sympathy.
Ryouma said nothing.
Kakashi glanced at his back. There was still water in Ryouma’s hair, picking up fractured glints of lights from the morning sun. Despite two attempts, the neck of his shirt was still askew and the hem had rucked up, revealing a strip of skin above the waistband of unbelted jeans. He was barefoot, intent on breakfast, and frustrating...
But Kakashi had him, and Katsuko had lost him.
He couldn’t imagine wanting to be friends afterwards, but she’d brought Ryouma a present just to make him laugh.
Admittedly with a tiny naked Kakashi on top—well, bottom—but he understood that the thought was supposed to count for something.
Somewhere along that train of thought, his tightly clamped, carefully controlled chakra loosened up enough to catch an edge of Katsuko’s, and his head snapped back to her, a startled hiss breaking between his teeth. She’d been a powerhouse before; now she was an inferno. Feverish-hot and barely controlled in a way that reminded him of Tsume’s rot-touched coils, deeply damaged. No wonder she smelled exhausted; the effort of keeping that in check...
“What is going on with your chakra?”
Katsuko had been watching Kakashi make eyes (or maybe an eye) at Ryouma with barely hidden amusement. When his gaze flew back to her, a hiss escaping through the black mask, she flinched. When what he’d snapped at her registered, she made a choking sound.
“You sensed that?” Katsuko shook her head, dragging a hand through the tangled snarl of her hair. “What am I talking about, of course you did. Um.”
Kakashi pushed up his hitai-ate and stared at her, left eye flaring crimson. Katsuko froze as the Sharingan took her in for a long moment, reminding herself to breathe.
At last, Kakashi asked in a slightly incredulous tone, “Doesn’t that hurt?”
Katsuko gave him a tired smile. “Normally I’d say you’d have no idea, but considering who you are...I think you just might.” She jerked her chin at Ryouma’s broad back. “He’s heard this before. Do you want the full story or the two-minute debrief?”
Ryouma shifted, his voice quiet over the sizzle of frying bacon. “Go for the full story.”
Kakashi just tugged his hitai-ate down and looked at her, waiting.
Katsuko stared down at her hands, interlacing her fingers as she willed down the rumbling in her stomach. “I don’t suppose we could wait until after breakfast?” she asked rhetorically, but grimaced and forged ahead. “When I was fifteen...when I was fifteen, my chuunin team was ambushed during a border patrol near Lightning. My sensei was killed and I was brought down underground to an experimental facility. The head scientist took a liking to me because I looked like her dead daughter and,” she stopped, licked her lips, started again, “saved me for the special experiments.”
Ryouma had gone still, leaning against the counter, half-turned to watch her. Kakashi’s eye darkened; he gently tapped the inner side of his elbow, matching the scars she kept covered in layers of bandages. “That’s where this is from?”
“No. Sometimes, she’d just get bored. ” Katsuko scratched her head, shrugged, gaze flicking to a point somewhere over Kakashi’s left shoulder. “One time I woke up to find my entire ribcage opened up, with her poking her fingers around everywhere.” One hand reached up to rub her chest, absently. “I could see my heart beating.”
Wood snapped; one of the cooking chopsticks Ryouma was holding had broken. “You never told me that.”
Kakashi’s face hadn’t changed, although the visible skin of his cheek had lost a little color. “Genjutsu?”
“She didn’t like genjutsu. Wasn’t real enough for her.” Katsuko shook her head. “I’m getting sidetracked. During the last month I was in the labs Kumo started riding Kaminari to develop a long-term seal that increased chakra capacity. I was the subject she tested all her first drafts on before she moved on to a larger experimental pool. The last seal she ever painted on me was here.” Katsuko tapped her stomach, just below her navel. “She’d done a few experiments on my reproductive system a month ago, and I think whatever she found made her key the seal to the chakra node there. It...hurt. And it was the one that worked exactly how she’d wanted it to. Next thing I know, my coils start moving like a pit of angry snakes and I go into a seizure on the lab table. I woke up in my cell with my chakra the way it is now, and that’s how it’s been ever since.”
Ryouma broke the silence first.
“Except it wasn’t like this six months ago,” he said, voice low and intense, with all the weight of leashed horror behind it. “Her chakra went unstable again three months ago, Kakashi. It’s burning her up. Can you see what’s wrong with it?”
“You’ve seen medics,” Kakashi said slowly, looking at Katsuko; it wasn’t a question. “What about the Hyuuga?”
She shrugged one angular shoulder. “About the only thing they can do is help me work on my control.”
Control wouldn’t stem a tide, or stop a dam from breaking. Control was for something controllable. Katsuko felt like she had a force of nature trapped inside her skin, and no safe way to vent it.
“The Hokage?” Kakashi began, then cut himself short. “Busy with Iwa.”
Katsuko’s smile was very dry. “I have an appointment next month.”
Of course she did. Kakashi kept his lip from curling.
He stood and walked to her side of the table, crouching down an arm’s-length away, careful to telegraph his movements. He lifted a hand level with her stomach and glanced at her. “Can I see?”
She gave him a flat look. “I get your share of bacon in return.”
Kakashi snorted. “Deal.” He leaned closer, putting his weight on one knee, and hooked the hem of her tee-shirt up to the thick, bizarrely lurid pink band of her bra strap, baring her stomach and lower ribcage. Lean muscles flexed as she inhaled. Exhaled.
There were six scars.
More than that, really; she was a ninja. But six that caught his attention and kept it. A thin straight line razoring up the middle of her chest, disappearing under her bra; four deeply scored parallel lines raking her ribcage, like scaled down kyuubi claws; a raised, badly healed crescent that curved from hipbone to hipbone, just above the waistband of her low-slung jeans.
If I was pregnant, she’d said
Kakashi hid a wince. Could she even get pregnant?
He slid his hitai-ate up again, opening Obito’s eye, and after a second glance to ensure he still had permission, touched his fingertips gently above that last scar. It was the closest to her navel, where she thought the seal was. The sharingan showed him a double-layered world made almost blind by blazing chakra. Overloaded coils thrummed and shuddered, easily three times the size they should be. It was like looking into the centre of a furnace and trying to make out details. Beneath his touch, her pathways ached.
If there was a seal in there, he couldn’t see it.
“Hold your shirt,” he said distantly, catching Katsuko’s hand and wrapping her fingers around the hem.
“Hatake, you hound dog,” she said, with an edgy little smile. “You didn’t even buy me a drink first.”
“He didn’t buy me a drink ever,” Ryouma murmured, leaning against the wall between the kitchen and the living room, watching intently.
Kakashi ignored them both, going first to his bookcase, where he grabbed a scroll that had once been Minato’s, then to his desk, taking ink and a brush from one of the drawers. When he settled back down by Katsuko, her eyes darted to the things he’d gathered and her face tightened, but she nodded when he looked at her.
“This won’t hurt,” he promised. “I’m not changing anything. I just need to get a better look.”
It was a little telling that she just stared somewhere around the level of his collarbones, and said nothing. The sizzle of cooking bacon was suddenly loud and intrusive.
Kakashi flattened the scroll onto the table, let the sharingan eye memorize the shape of the fourth illustrated seal, and set to work painting it around her navel. Ink glistened on pale, scar-cut skin, blossoming out like a tattoo made of intricate characters. Beneath them, Katsuko’s overwhelming chakra rippled.
She caught her breath.
Kakashi set the brush down. “This next bit might feel a little weird,” he said. “Grab me if you have to. Just don’t break anything.”
He shaped three quick seals and pushed a bare thread of patterned chakra into the design, which turned blood red.
Then it changed.
It felt like the sun had lit underneath her skin. Warmth emanated out from the drying seals on her stomach, making her insides churn with the memory of burning ink and Kaminari’s cold eyes. Katsuko twitched, curling her hands into fists to stop their trembling. “What’s happening?” she asked, throat tight. Her chaka flared, pushing at her bruised pathways, and she clamped down on it with practiced efficiency.
Kakashi glanced at her, voice low and very calm. “My seal is mimicking your seal, to show me what it looks like. Try to stay relaxed."
“‘Relaxed’, he says.” Katsuko rolled her eyes and went back to mentally reciting the sutras. It was bright in the room, and cheery. It smelled like bacon and toast and disorganized male and shouldn’t have reminded her at all about the labs, really. She was a grown woman and a jounin of Konoha, and like hell was she going to back down in front of Ryouma and Sharingan Kakashi.
Even if the feeling of ink on her stomach still made her want to crawl into a hole and never come out.
Ryouma pushed off from the wall and came over behind her, hesitating before resting large hands on her shoulders. Katsuko made an inquisitive noise as he began kneading at the knotted muscles he found there, eyes fluttering closed despite herself.
“You can do relaxed,” he coaxed, his voice a comforting rumble above her head. “I’ve seen you.”
One day, Kakashi was going to figure out how Ryouma did that, and copy it. Except that Ryouma seemed to change tactics at whim and Kakashi had had a standard no-copying rule ever since their first mission together.
Either way, it worked. Under Ryouma’s touch, Katsuko relaxed enough to stop fighting her own chakra, and the ugly seal on her stomach twisted into something completely unrecognizable. Kakashi frowned at it, trying to trace sense in the writhing loops and coils of Kaminari’s experimental jutsu. There was Lightning in there, both the village’s style and the chakra affinity. Something that looked like an inverted fire tri-point feeding the seal’s energy back into itself, making an exponential loop. The rest transcended affinities, tied into the very seat of Katsuko’s chakra. He recognized pieces: part of a gating seal, something that looked like it might have been taken from Aken Shaneo’s earlier theories of energy conversion...
Scrambling up, he went back to his bookshelf and pulled down half a dozen scrolls. Halfway back to Katskuo, he turned around and retrieved three books, dropping the lot in a heap on the table. Katsuko started, eyes flicking open to give him a mildly accusing look.
“Sorry,” he said, and turned away again, going to his weapons chest. He unlocked it and tipped the armour out, scattering shuriken and a wolf-faced mask. At the bottom, nestled between a broken tanto blade and a seal-stamped, hilted kunai, were an old med-kit and a cloth-bound book. He pulled out both and left the rest.
Both Katsuko and Ryouma were staring at him when he returned, looking oddly like mirror images of each other. Lean, badly scarred, dark-haired and dark-eyed, but Katsuko was delicate where Ryouma was rangy, and Ryouma was tanned where Katsuko was pale. Through some quirk of genetics, both of them had absurdly long eyelashes.
Kakashi tipped his head, then refocused, dropping back into a tailor's cross-legged seat. He flipped the med-kit and held it next to Katsuko’s stomach. Stitched into the bottom, Rin’s old good luck charm matched an inner ring of the seal.
He sat back, narrow-eyed, and let out a breath. “That’s insane.”
“Thanks for establishing that,” Katsuko said. “Can I pull my shirt down now? Because I’m starting to feel a breeze, here.”
Kakashi gave her a dry look. Her skin was fever-hot and had been for a while, if he had to guess. The only way she could be cold was in an ice bath, and even then she might steam it.
“The bitch who did it was kind of a homicidal maniac,” Ryouma said. “Is it fixable insane?”
“Give me a minute,” Kakashi said, dropping the kit in trade for another scroll. He pointed at that inner ring. “This bit doesn’t mean anything; it’s just dead space. Half a good luck charm that doesn’t actually do anything, but it’s holding up these two poles—” he pointed to two spiked structures bleeding towards Katsuko’s right hipbone, “—and I think they’re tied into forcing her coils continually open, like jamming a stent into an artery. But that doesn’t explain why she doesn’t run out of chakra...” He looked at Katsuko. “Have you ever had a chakra crash?”
Pale but stone-faced, Katsuko shook her head. “I haven’t needed soldier pills since the seal.”
“What’s the biggest jutsu you can control?”
Katsuko thought for a moment. “Fire and wind combined in a storm about a mile wide.”
Ryouma whistled softly.
If he tried that, Kakashi suspected he wouldn’t move for two days. “And how do you feel after? Tired? Better? More normal?”
Katsuko looked away. "Angrier. Hungrier. Like it's not enough. Like I can do more, if I just let go.”
Until she burned herself up completely.
“You’d probably blow a crater in the earth half the size of Konoha if you tried that,” Kakashi said bluntly.
Ryouma’s hands wrapped around Katsuko’s shoulders, as if he could rub away the unhappy shiver in both their scents. The kitchen air was starting to smell a little more crispy than it was supposed to, but Ryouma made no sign to rise. He did take his hands away from Katsuko long enough to make a pale shadow clone and send it in his place. Katsuko’s mouth twitched.
Kakashi pulled two books into his lap, including the one from his weapons chest—the only one he’d ever bothered to take from the abandoned Hatake estate—and one of the scrolls, spreading them open as he talked.
“I think what’s happening is that the luck charm isn’t the only dead piece, and a rest of this is just stitched together from bits of other seals. You said it was a prototype; I don’t think it was meant to last this long. It hasn’t lasted.” His fingers brushed over three different spokes, where the red ink was almost rust-coloured, frayed at the edges. “These pieces are disintegrating, and it was never stable to start with. If I had to guess, the only reason it’s still functional is because your chakra pathways were growing when it was put in, and they adapted. It’s your control that’s keeping it whole.”
Katsuko looked him in the eye, steeling herself. “And what happens when the seal finally does disintegrate?”
“I don’t know,” Kakashi said honestly. “Nothing good, probably.” He flipped through the cloth-bound book’s yellowed pages, stopping at an entry near the back and turning it to show Katsuko. "These are chakra seals, but I don't know if any of them are strong enough to hold in the amount you have. I could try rebuilding the seal, but the basic structure is flawed. It might buy you time, but it wouldn't hold forever."
Katsuko stared at the spidery, almost illegible scrawl next to the drawings of strange seals, gaze distant and contemplative. “Kaminari and her husband are still out there,” she said, quietly. “Whatever time you can get me will have to be enough.”
“You said something about research data, last week,” Ryouma prompted, squeezing her shoulder. “If you had copies of Kaminari’s notes, Kakashi, could you reverse-engineer a fix?”
“Maybe, but the same seal would have all the same problems.” Kakashi hesitated. "There's another choice, but it's more risky. We could make a new seal, using this as a base. I think it's possible to make one that would last." He rifled through the books and scrolls in his lap, spreading them out and pointing to various drawings. "If I filled in the dead space with something functional—a vent to stop your chakra building up, and a stop-gap to make sure you can't overload—I think Kaori Shin's temple-gate seal would bastardize for that..." He glanced back up. "It wouldn't shrink your coils, but it might give you your control back. If I could make it work."
“Oh,” Katsuko breathed. “Oh.” She swallowed, throat working as she stared down at the drawings. Something very like hope entered her eyes as she looked up at Kakashi, faintly stunned. “You do. You actually think you can do this.”
His eye creased a little at the corners in a definite smile, Sharingan gleaming dully in the light from the windows. “If you’re willing to take the shot.”
Katsuko laughed, a little wildly, turning to Ryouma with a wide grin. “I can honestly say I’m jealous of you right now, Tousaki. Damn, he’s good.” She looked at Kakashi, eyes bright. “Let’s do this.”
Over Katsuko’s shoulder, Ryouma’s grin was just as wide, and his eyes just as bright. They looked like a matched set of perfect faith, and Kakashi suddenly had an idea of what medics must feel like when they said experimental treatment and their patients heard cure.
“It won’t be today,” he said carefully. “I need to do the research, run it past the seals lab, talk to the Hokage if I can. I won’t risk your life until I have something that stands a chance of really working.”
Something a lot like relief flickered across Ryouma’s face, there and gone between heartbeats.
Katsuko nodded, letting out a quick breath that made the scarlet seal on her belly flex like a gutted snake. “Good, because we haven’t had breakfast yet.”
Ryouma bounded to his feet with all the fire of a man who finally had a workable task, “Breakfast I can do,” he said, flashing them both a smile and heading off to take over from his clone. The air smelled like eggs now, and freshly brewed coffee. There was a rapid clang of dishes, then Ryouma was back almost within a minute, carrying plates loaded with toast and eggs and bacon to the table, while the clone dogged his heels with pitcher full of coffee.
The pitcher was a surprise. Kakashi didn’t know he owned one.
Katsuko beamed, as if breakfast was all she needed to put the world to rights again, and held her hands out demandingly to Ryouma, making little grabby motions. “Hand it over here, you big lug.” She shot Kakashi a sidelong glance. “I’m still getting your bacon.”
“All yours.” He leaned over the table to catch the plate that looked like it was meant for him, and slid it in front of Katsuko. She grabbed it along with the plate Ryouma handed her, looking gleeful.
Kakashi got to his feet, scattering books and scrolls.
“Hey,” said Ryouma. “Breakfast wasn’t just for us, y’know.”
Kakashi waved him off distractedly, returning to his desk to fetch fresh paper and more brushes. He brought them back to the table and spread them out, along with half a dozen of the texts he’d shown Katsuko, and got to work drawing an accurate replication of Katsuko’s broken seal while the image was still freshly burned into his sharingan.
Katsuko chewed on her bacon, marveling at the loose, happy feeling in her chest. She looked at Ryouma, then at Kakashi, and surrendered to impulse. “You’re both mine now, I hope you know,” she announced.
Ryouma slung an arm over her shoulder, tugging her close for a second as his eyes flicked over to Kakashi. Kakashi didn’t seem to have registered what she’d said, but after a moment he looked up at them, tipping his head to one side. "Technically, if I save your life, that makes you mine." He seemed ever so slightly amused. "I'm going to need a bigger house."
Katsuko waved a dismissive hand. “No, no, that’s not how this works. You,” she glanced at Ryouma and patted him on the wrist, “were already mine, because of friend things. But you,” she raised an eyebrow at Kakashi, grin tugging at her mouth, “didn’t even like me, and now you’re helping me with something that’s been hanging over my head for the past five years. I’d say that makes you mine, now.”
“Don’t I get to own anyone?” Ryouma asked, mildly.
Katsuko gave him a flat look. “It goes both ways, smart-ass. I just made the claim first.”
Kakashi sat back from his books, getting to his feet and heading towards the bathroom. He came back with damp washcloth, crouching down next to Katsuko to hand it to her. "How about we save you first, then we can decide who gets a collar and leash?" He glanced at Ryouma, with an edge of a smirk. "Which is always you, by the way."
“My boys,” Katsuko said happily, lifting her shirt to scrub the ink stains from her skin. “My boys.”
Ryouma met Kakashi’s eyes again, over Katsuko’s bent head. The Sharingan wasn’t spinning anymore, but its dull black-and-crimson gleam still wasn’t exactly soothing. Neither was the veiled worry narrowing Kakashi’s grey right eye, the subtle pinch of his mouth beneath the mask, the new tension that seeped back into his shoulders as he retreated back to the other side of the table. Katsuko wouldn’t know him well enough to notice. She’d seen his initial unease at her visit, sure—Kakashi had made that clear enough with his dig about one-nighters—but even if she realized that Kakashi used knife-edged humor as a defensive shield, she wouldn’t know why.
If Ryouma was completely honest with himself, he didn’t know either. But he could make a good stab at guessing. Kakashi had never done well with letting people in, into his home or his head or his heart, and Katsuko had just barged as far as she could into all three.
Kind of like Ryouma himself had done, eight months ago.
He left Katsuko with a firm pat on the shoulder and edged around the table to Kakashi’s side. “Thought you already wore the collar,” he murmured, low. “What’d you do with it, anyway?”
Kakashi looked puzzled for a moment. Then his brows lifted, just the tiniest fraction, and Ryouma would have bet half a year’s worth of back-pay that the faintest of blushes was burning under that mask. “Returned it to the Quartermaster with everything else.”
“Pity,” Ryouma said. He braced one hand on the far side of the table, leaned in far enough to solidly block Katsuko’s view, peeled Kakashi’s mask down to his chin, and kissed him.
Then he pulled back, and shoved a piece of toast between Kakashi’s teeth instead. “Eat,” he said. “It helps with saving the day.”
Kakashi’s eyes startled even wider. But he chewed obediently, swallowed, and even managed a quiet, barely shaky laugh. Then he let his breath out on the ghost of a sigh and tipped his forehead against Ryouma’s shoulder. “Okay. But you’re doing the dishes.”
“Deal,” Ryouma said. He tucked his chin down into the wild fluff of grey hair, closed his eyes, and, for just a moment, let himself be silently grateful to whoever might be listening.
He’d always believed family was something that happened to other people. Maybe now it was finally starting to happen to him.